THE CAMERONS OF HIGHBORO
BETH B. GILCHRIST
Author of "Cinderella's Granddaughter," etc.
ILLUSTRATED BY PHILLIPPS WARD
THE CENTURY CO.
Copyright, 1919, by The Century Co.
Published, September, 1919
I ELLIOTT PLANS AND FATE DISPOSES 1 II THE END OF A JOURNEY 23 III CAMERON FARM 37 IV IN UNTRODDEN FIELDS 63 V A SLACKER UNPERCEIVED 91 VI FLIERS 120 VII PICNICKING 146 VIII A BEE STING 171 IX ELLIOTT ACTS ON AN IDEA 197 X WHAT'S IN A DRESS? 223 XI MISSING 244 XII HOME-LOVING HEARTS 265
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
How good bacon tasted when you broiled it yourself on a forked stick Frontispiece Laura took the new cousin up to her room 26 Cutting the wiry brown stems in the fern-filled glade. 140 "I'm getting dinner all by myself" 199
THE CAMERONS OF HIGHBORO
THE CAMERONS OF HIGHBORO
ELLIOTT PLANS AND FATE DISPOSES
Now and then the accustomed world turns a somersault; one day it faces you with familiar features, the next it wears a quite unrecognizable countenance. The experience is, of course, nothing new, though it is to be doubted whether it was ever staged so dramatically and on so vast a scale as during the past four years. And no one to whom it happens is ever the same afterward.
Elliott Cameron was not a refugee. She did not trudge Flemish roads with the pitiful salvage of her fortunes on her back, nor was she turned out of a cottage in Poland with only a sackful of her household treasures. Nevertheless, American girl though she was, she had to be evacuated from her house of life, the house she had been building through sixteen petted, autocratic years. This is the story of that evacuation.
It was made, for all the world, like any Pole's or Serbian's or Belgian's; material valuables she let pass with glorious carelessness, as they left the silver spoons in order to salvage some sentimental trifle like a baby-shoe or old love-letters. Elliott took the closing of her home as she had taken the disposal of the big car, cheerfully enough, but she could not leave behind some absurd little tricks of thought that she had always indulged in. She was as strange to the road as any Picardy peasant and as bewildered, with—shall I say it?—considerably less pluck and spirit than some of them, when the landmarks she had lived by were swept away. But they, you see, had a dim notion of what was happening to them. Elliott had none. She didn't even know that she was being evacuated. She knew only that ways which had always worked before had mysteriously ceased working, that prejudices and preoccupations and habits of mind and action, which she had spent her life in accumulating, she must now say good-by to, and that the war, instead of being across the sea, a thing one's friends and cousins sailed away to, had unaccountably got right into America itself and was interfering to an unreasonable extent in affairs that were none of its business.
Father came home one night from a week's absence and said, as he unfolded his napkin, "Well, chicken, I'm going to France."
They were alone at dinner. Miss Reynolds, the housekeeper, was dining out with friends, as she sometimes did; nights that, though they both liked Miss Reynolds, father and daughter checked with a red mark.
"To France?" A little thrill pricked the girl's spine as she questioned. "Is it Red Cross?"
"Not this time. An investigation for the government. It may, probably will, take months. The government wants a thorough job done. Uncle Samuel thinks your ancient parent competent to hold up one end of the thing."
"Stop!" Elliott's soft order commandeered all her dimples.
"I won't have you maligning my father, you naughty man! Ancient parent, indeed! That's splendid, isn't it?"
"I rather like it. I was hoping it would strike you the same way."
"When do you go?"
"As soon as I can get my affairs in shape—I could leave to-morrow, if I had to. Probably I shall be off in a week or ten days."
"I suppose the government didn't say anything about my investigating something, too?"
"Now you mention it, I do not recollect that the subject came up."
She shook her head reprovingly, "That was an omission! However, I think I'll go as your secretary."
Mr. Cameron smiled across the table. How pretty she was, how daintily arch in her sweetness! "That arrangement would be entirely satisfactory to me, my dear, but I am not taking a secretary. I shall get one over there, when I need one."
"But what can I go as?" pursued the girl. "I'd like to go as something."
Heavens! she looked as though she meant it! "I'm afraid you can't go, Lot, this time."
She lifted cajoling eyes. "But I want to. Oh, I know! I can go to school in Paris."
Her little air of having settled the matter left him smiling but serious. "France has mouths enough to feed without one extra school-girl's, chicken."
"I don't eat much. Are you afraid of submarines?"
"For you, yes."
"I'm not. Daddies dear, mayn't I go? I'd love to be near you."
"Positively, my love, you may not."
She drew down the corners of her mouth and went through a bewitching imitation of wiping tears out of her eyes. But she wasn't really disappointed. She had been fairly certain in advance of what the verdict would be. There had been a bare chance, of something different—that was all, and it didn't pay to let chances, even the barest, go by default. So she crumbled her warbread and remarked thoughtfully, "I suppose I can stay at home, but it won't be very exciting."
Her father seemed to find his next words hard to say. "I had a notion we might close the house. It is rather expensive to keep up; not much point in doing so just for one, is there? In going to France I shall give my services."
"Of course. But the house—" The delicate brows lifted. "What were you thinking of doing with me?"
"Dumping you on the corner. What else?" The two laughed together as at a good joke. But there was a tightening in the man's throat. He wondered how soon, after next week, he would again be sitting at table opposite that vivacious young face.
"Seriously, Lot, I met Bob in Washington. He was there on conservation business. When he heard what I was contemplating, he asked you up to Highboro. Said Jessica and he would be delighted to have you visit them for a year. They're generous souls. It struck me as a good plan. Your uncle is a fine man, and I have always admired his wife. I've never seen as much of her as I'd have liked. What do you say to the idea?"
"Um-m-m." Elliott did not commit herself. "Uncle Bob and Aunt Jessica are very nice, but I don't know them."
"House full of boys and girls. You won't be lonely."
The piquant nose wrinkled mischievously. "That would never do. I like my own way too well."
He laughed. "And you generally manage to get it by hook or by crook!"
"I? You malign me. You give it to me because you like me."
How adorably pretty she looked!
He laughed again. "You've got your old dad there, all right. Yes, yes, you've got him there!"
"Didn't I tell you just now that you mustn't call my father old?"
"So you did! So you did! Well, well, the truth will out now and then, you know. Could you inveigle Jane into giving us more butter?—By the way, here's a letter from Jessica. I found it in the stack on my desk to-night. Better read it before you say no."
"Oh, I will," Elliott received the letter without enthusiasm. "Very good of her, I'm sure. I'll write and thank her to-morrow; but I think I'll go to Aunt Nell's."
"Just as you say. You know Elinor better. But I rather incline to Bob and Jess. There is something to be said for variety, Lot."
"Yes, but a year is so long. Why, Father Cameron, a year is three hundred and sixty-five whole days long and I don't know how many hours and minutes and—and seconds. The seconds are awful! Daddles darling, I never could support life away from you in a perfectly strange family for all those interminable seconds!"
"Your own cousins, chicken; and they wouldn't seem strange long. I've a notion they'd help make time hustle. Better read the letter. It's a good letter."
"I will—when I don't have you to talk to. What's the matter?"
"Bless me, I forgot to tell Miss Reynolds! Nell's coming to-night. Wired half an hour ago."
"Aunt Nell? Oh, jolly!" The slender hands clapped in joyful pantomime. "But don't worry about Miss Reynolds. I will tell Anna to make a room ready. Now we can settle things talking. It's so much more satisfactory than writing."
The man laughed. "Can't say no, so easily, eh, chicken?"
She joined in his laugh. "There is something in that, of course, but it isn't very polite of you to insinuate that any one would wish to say no to me."
"I stand corrected of an error in tact. No, I can't quite see Elinor turning you down."
That was the joy of these two; they were such boon companions, like brother and sister together instead of father and daughter.
But now Elliott, too, remembered something. "Oh, Father! Quincy has scarlet fever!"
"Scarlet fever? When did he come down?"
"Just to-day. They suspected it yesterday, and Stannard came over to Phil Tracy's. To-day the doctor made sure. So Maude and Grace are going right on from the wedding to that Western ranch where they were invited. All their outfits are in the house here, but they will get new ones in New York."
"Uncle James went to the hotel, and Aunt Margaret, of course, is quarantined. Quincy isn't very sick. They've postponed all their house-parties for two months."
"H'm. Where do they think the boy caught it?"
"Not an idea. He came home from school Thursday."
"Well, Cedarville will be minus Camerons for a while, won't it?"
"It certainly will. Both houses closed—or Uncle James's virtually so. Do you know what Aunt Nell is coming for?"
"Not the ghost of a notion. Perhaps she is going to adopt a dozen young Belgians and wants me to draw up the papers."
"Mercy! I hope not a whole dozen, if I am to stay at Clover Hill with her. Half a dozen would be enough."
"Want you at Clover Hill?" said Aunt Elinor, when the first greetings were over and she had heard the news. "Why, you dear child, of course I do! Or rather I should, if I were to be there myself. But I'm going to France, too."
"Red Cross," with an enthusiastic nod of the perfectly dressed head. "Lou Emery and I are going over. That's what I stopped off to tell you people. Ran down to New York to see about my papers. It's all settled. We sail next week. Now I'm hurrying back to shut up Clover Hill. Then for something worth while! Do you know," the fine eyes turned from contemplation of a great mass of pink roses on the table, "I feel as though I were on the point of beginning to live at last. All my days I have spent dashing about madly in search of a good time. Now—well, now I shall go where I'm sent, live for weeks, maybe, without a bath, sleep in my clothes in any old place, when I sleep at all; but I'm crazy, simply crazy to get over there and begin."
It was then that Elliott began dimly to sense a predicament. Even then she didn't recognize it for an impasse. Such things didn't happen to Elliott Cameron. But she did wish that Quincy had selected another time for isolating her Uncle James's house. Not that she particularly desired to spend a year, or a fraction of a year, with the James Camerons, but they were preferable to her Uncle Robert's family, on the principle that ills you know and understand make a safer venture than a jump in the dark. Nothing radical was wrong with the Robert Camerons except that they were dark horses. They lived farther away than the other Camerons, which wouldn't have mattered—geography seldom bothered a Cameron—if they hadn't chosen to let it. On second thoughts, perhaps that, however, was exactly what did matter. Elliott understood that the Robert Camerons were poor. More than once she had heard her father say he feared "Bob was hard up." But Bob was as proud as he was hard up; Elliott knew that Father had never succeeded in lending him any money.
She let these things pass through her mind as she reviewed the situation. Proud and independent and poor—those were worthy qualities, but they did not make any family interesting. They were more apt, Elliott thought, to make it uninteresting. No, the Robert Camerons were out of the question, kindly though they might be. If she must spend a year outside her own home, away from her father-comrade, she preferred to spend it with her own sort.
There is this to be said for Elliott Cameron; she had no mother, had had no mother since she could remember. The mother Elliott could not remember had been a very lovely person, and as broad-minded as she was charming. Elliott had her mother's charm, a personal magnetism that twined people around her little finger, but she was essentially narrow-minded. With Elliott it was a matter of upbringing, of coming-up rather, since within somewhat wide limits her upbringing had, after all, been largely in her own hands. Henry Cameron had had neither the heart nor the will to thwart his only child.
Before she went to bed, Elliott, curled up on her window-seat, read Aunt Jessica's letter. It was a good letter, a delightful letter, and more than that. If she had been older, she might, just from reading it, have seen why her father wanted her to go to Highboro. As it was, something tugged at her heartstrings for a moment, but only for a moment. Then she swung her foot over the edge of the window-seat and disposed of the situation, as she had always disposed of situations, to her liking. She had no notion that the Fates this time were against her.
The next day her cousin Stannard Cameron came over. Stannard was a long, lazy youth, with a notion that what he did or didn't do was a matter of some importance to the universe. All the Camerons were inclined to that supposition, all but the Robert Camerons; and we don't know about them yet.
"So they're going to ship me up into the wilds of Vermont to Uncle Bob's," he ended his tale of woe. "They'll be long on the soil, and all that rot. Have a farm, haven't they?"
"I was invited up there, too," said Elliott.
"You!" An instant change became visible in the melancholy countenance. "Going?"
"No, I think not."
"Oh, come on! Be a sport. We'd have fun together."
"I'll be a sport, but not that kind."
"Guess again, Elliott. You and I could paint the place red, whatever kind of a shack it is they've got."
"Stannard," said the girl, "you're terribly young. If you think I'd go anywhere with you and put up any kind of a game on our cousins—cousins, Stan—"
"There are cousins and cousins."
She shook her head. "No wilds in mine. When do you start?"
"To-morrow, worse luck! What are you going to do?"
She smiled tantalizingly. "I have made plans." True, she had made plans. The fact that the second party to the transaction was not yet aware of their existence did not alter the fact that she had made them. Then she devoted herself to the despondent Stannard, and sent him away cheered almost to the point of thinking, when he left the house, that Vermont was not quite off the map.
Not so Elizabeth Royce. Bess knew precisely what was on the map, and had Vermont been there, she would have noticed it. There was not much, Miss Royce secretly flattered herself, that escaped her. She had heard of Mr. Robert Cameron; but whether he resided in Kamchatka or Timbuctoo she could not have told you. Mr. Robert Cameron, she had adduced with an acumen beyond her years, was the unsuccessful member of a highly successful family. And now Elliott, adorable Elliott, was to be marooned in this uncharted district for a whole year. It was unthinkable!
"But, Elliott darling, you'd die in Vermont!"
"Oh, no!" said Elliott; "I don't think I should find it pleasant, but I shouldn't die."
"Pleasant!" sniffed Miss Royce. "I should say not."
"It is rather far away from everybody. Think of not seeing you for a year, Bess!"
"I don't want to think of it. What's the matter with your Uncle James's house when the quarantine's lifted?"
"Nothing. But it has only just been put on."
"And the tournament next week. You can't miss that! Oh, Elliott!"
"I think," remarked Elliott pensively, "there ought to be a home opened for girls whose fathers are in France."
"Why," asked Bess, gripped by a great idea, "why shouldn't you come to us while your uncle's house is quarantined?"
Why not, indeed? Elliott thought Bess a little slow in arriving at so obvious and satisfactory a solution of the whole difficulty, but she was properly reluctant about accepting in haste. "Wouldn't that be too much trouble? Of course, it would be perfectly lovely for me, but what would your mother say?"
"Mother will love to have you!" Miss Royce spoke with conviction.
They spent the rest of the afternoon making plans and Elizabeth went home walking on air.
But Mother, alas! proved a stumbling-block. "That would be very nice," she said, "very nice indeed; but Elliott Cameron has plenty of relatives. They will make some arrangement among them. I should hardly feel at liberty to interfere with their plans."
"But her Aunt Elinor is going to France, and you know the James Camerons' house is in quarantine. That leaves only the Vermont Camerons—"
"Oh, yes. I remember, now, there was a third brother. They have their plans, probably."
And that was absolutely all Bess could get her mother to say.
"But, Mother," she almost sobbed at last, "I—I asked her!"
"Then I am afraid you will have to un-ask her," said Mrs. Royce. "We really can't get another person into the house this summer, with your Aunt Grace and her family coming in July."
Then it was that Elliott discovered the impasse. Try as she would, she could find no way out, and she lost a good deal of sleep in the attempt. To have to do something that she didn't wish to do was intolerable. You may think this very silly; if you do, it shows that you have not always had your own way. Elliott had never had anything but her own way. That it had been in the main a sweet and likable way did not change the fact. And how Stannard would gloat over her! He had had to do the thing himself, but secretly she had looked down on him for it, just as she had always despised girls who lamented their obligation to go to places where they did not wish to go. There was always, she had held, a way out, if you used your brains. Altogether, it was a disconcerted, bewildered, and thoroughly put-out young lady who, a week later, found herself taking the train for Highboro. The world—her familiar, complacent, agreeable world—had lost its equilibrium.
THE END OF A JOURNEY
Hours later, from a red-plush, Pullmanless train, Elliott Cameron stepped down to three people—a tall, dark, surprisingly pretty girl a little older than herself, a chunky girl of twelve, and a middle-sized, freckle-faced boy. The boy took her bag and asked for her trunk-checks quite as well as any of her other cousins could have done and the tall girl kissed her and said how glad they were to have the chance to know her.
"I am Laura," she said, "and here is Gertrude; and Henry will bring up your trunks to-morrow, unless you need them to-night. Mother sent you her love. Oh, we're so glad to have you come!"
Then it is to be feared that Elliott perjured herself. Her all-day journey had not in the least reconciled her to the situation; if anything, she was feeling more bewildered and put out than when she started. But surprise and dismay had not routed her desire to please. She smiled prettily as her glance swept the welcoming faces, and kissed the girls and handed the boy two bits of pasteboard, and said—Oh, Elliott!—how delighted she was to see them at last. You would never have dreamed from Elliott's lips that she was not overjoyed at the chance to come to Highboro and become acquainted with cousins that she had never known.
But Laura, who was wiser than she looked, noticed that the new-comer's eyes were not half so happy as her tongue. Poor dear, thought Laura, how pretty she was and how daintily patrician and charming! But her father was on his way to France! And though he went in civilian capacity and wasn't in the least likely to get hurt, when they were seated in the car Laura leaned over and kissed her new cousin again, with the recollection warm on her lips of empty, anxious days when she too had waited for the release of the cards announcing safe arrivals overseas.
Elliott, who was every minute realizing more fully the inexorableness of the fact that she was where she was and not where she wasn't, kissed back without much thought. It was her nature to kiss back, however she might feel underneath, and the surprising suddenness of the whole affair had left her numb. She really hadn't much curiosity about the life into which she was going. What did it matter, since she didn't intend to stay in it? Just as soon as the quarantine was lifted from Uncle James's house she meant to go back to Cedarville. But she did notice that the little car was not new, that on their way through the town every one they met bowed and smiled, that Henry had amazingly good manners for a country boy, that Laura looked very strong, that Gertrude was all hands and elbows and feet and eyes, and that the car was continually either climbing up or sliding down hills. It slid out of the village down a hill, and it was climbing a hill when it met squarely in the road a long, low, white house, canopied by four big elms set at the four corners, and gave up the ascent altogether with a despairing honk-honk of its horn.
A lady rose from the wide veranda of the white house, laid something gray on a table, and came smilingly down the steps. A little girl of eight followed her, two dogs dashed out, and a kitten. The road ran into the yard and stopped; but behind the house the hill kept on going up. Elliott understood that she had arrived at the Robert Camerons'.
The lady, who was tall and dark-haired, like Laura, but with lines of gray threading the black, put her arms around the girl and kissed her. Even in her preoccupation, Elliott was dimly aware that the quality of this embrace was subtly different from any that she had ever received before, though the lady's words were not unlike Laura's. "Dear child," she said, "we are so glad to know you." And the big dark eyes smiled into Elliott's with a look that was quite new to that young person's experience. She didn't know why she felt a queer thrill run up her spine, but the thrill was there, just for a minute. Then it was gone and the girl only thought that Aunt Jessica had the most fascinating eyes that she had ever seen; whenever she chose, it seemed that she could turn on a great steady light to shine through their velvety blackness.
Laura took the new cousin up to her room. The house through which they passed seemed rather a barren affair, but somehow pleasant in spite of its dark painted floors and rag rugs and unmistakably shabby furniture. Flowers were everywhere, doors stood open, and breezes blew in at the windows, billowing the straight scrim curtains. The guest's room was small and slant-ceilinged. One picture, an unframed photograph of a big tree leaning over a brook, was tacked to the wall; a braided rug lay on the floor; on a small table were flowers and a book; over the queer old chest of drawers hung a small mirror; there was no pier-glass at all. Very spotless and neat, but bare—hopelessly bare, unless one liked that sort of thing.
There was one bit of civilization, however, that these people appreciated—one's need of warm water. As Elliott bathed and dressed, her spirits lightened a little. It did rather freshen a person's outlook, on a hot day, to get clean. She even opened the book to discover its name. "Lorna Doone." Was that the kind of thing they read at the farm? She had always meant to read "Lorna Doone," when she had time enough. It looked so interminably long. But there wouldn't be much else to do up here, she reflected. Then she surveyed what she could of herself in the dim little mirror—probably Laura would wish to copy her style of hair-dressing—and descended, very slender and chic, to supper.
It was a big circle which sat down at that supper-table. There was Uncle Robert, short and jolly and full of jokes, who wished to hear all about everybody and plied Elliott with questions. There was another new cousin, a wiry boy called Tom, and a boy older than Henry, who certainly wasn't a cousin, but who seemed very much one of the family and who was introduced as Bruce Fearing. And there was Stannard. Stannard had returned in high feather from Upton and intercourse with a classmate whom he would doubtless have termed his kind. Stannard was inclined for a minute or two to indulge in code talk with Elliott. She did not encourage him and it amused her to observe how speedily the conversation became general again, though in quite what way it was accomplished she could not detect.
But if these new cousins' manners were above reproach, their supper-table was far from sophisticated. No maid appeared, and Gertrude and Tom and eight-year-old Priscilla changed the plates. Laura and Aunt Jessica, Elliott noticed, had entered from the kitchen. It was no secret that all the girls had been berrying in the forenoon. Henry seemed to have had a hand in making the ice-cream, judging by the compliments he received. So that was the way they lived, thought the new guest! It was, however, a surprisingly good supper. Elliott was astonished at herself for eating so much salad, so many berries and muffins, and for passing her plate twice for ice-cream.
After supper every one seemed to feel it the natural thing to set to work and "do" the dishes, or something else equally pressing; at least every one for a short time grew amazingly busy. Even Elliott asked for an apron—it was Elliott's code when in Rome to do as the Romans do—though she was relieved when her uncle tucked her arm in his and said she must come and talk to him on the porch. As they left the kitchen, the boy Bruce was skilfully whirling a string mop in a pan full of hot suds.
Under cover of animated chatter with her uncle Elliott viewed the prospect dolefully. Dish-washing came three times a day, didn't it? The thing was evidently a family rite in this household. The girl understood her respite could be only temporary; self-respect would see to that. But didn't she catch a glimpse of Stannard nonchalantly sauntering around a corner of the house with the air of one who hopes his back will not be noticed?
Presently she discovered another household custom—to go up to the top of the hill to watch the sunset. Up between flowering borders and through a grassy orchard the path climbed, thence to wind through thickets of sweet fern and scramble around boulders over a wild, fragrant pasture slope. It was beautiful up there on the hilltop, with its few big sheltering trees, its welter of green crests on every side, and its line of far blue peaks behind which the sun went down—beautiful but depressing. Depressing because every one, except Stannard, seemed to enjoy it so. Elliott couldn't help seeing that they were having a thoroughly good time. There was something engaging about these cousins that Elliott had never seen among her cousins at home, a good-fellowship that gave one in their presence a sense of being closely knit together; of something solid, dependable and secure, for all its lightness and variety. But, oh, dear! she knew that she wasn't going to care for the things that they cared for, or enjoy doing the things that they did! And there must be at least six weeks of this—dish-washing and climbing hills, with good frocks on. Six weeks, not a day longer. But she exclaimed in pretty enthusiasm over Laura's disclosure of a bed of maidenhair fern, tasted approvingly Tom's spring water, recited perfectly, after only one hearing, Henry's tale of the peaks in view, and let Bruce Fearing give her a geography lesson from the southernmost point of the hilltop.
It was only when at last she was in bed in the slant-ceilinged room, with her candle blown out and a big moon looking in at the window, that Elliott quite realized how forlorn she felt and how very, very far three thousand miles from Father was actually going to seem.
The world up here in Vermont was so very still. There were no lights except the stars, and for a person accustomed to an electrically illuminated street only a few rods from her window, stars and a moon merely added to the strangeness. Soft noises came from the other rooms, sounds of people moving about, but not a sound from outside, nothing except at intervals the cry of a mournful bird. After a while the noises inside ceased. Elliott lay quiet, staring at the moonlit room, and feeling more utterly miserable than she had ever felt before in her life. Homesick? It must be that this was homesickness. And she had been wont to laugh, actually laugh, at girls who said they were homesick! She hadn't known that it felt like this! She hadn't known that anything in all the world could feel as hideous as this. She knew that in a minute she was going to cry—she couldn't help herself; actually, Elliott Cameron was going to cry.
A gentle tap came at the door. "Are you asleep?" whispered a voice. "May I come in?"
Laura entered, a tall white shape that looked even taller in the moonlight.
"Are you sleepy?" she whispered.
"Not in the least," said Elliott.
Laura settled softly on the foot of the bed. "I hoped you weren't. Let's talk. Doesn't it seem a shame to waste time sleeping on a night like this?"
Elliott tossed her a pillow. It was comforting to have Laura there, to hear a voice saying something, no matter what it was talking about. And Laura's voice was very pleasant and what she said was pleasant, too.
Soon another shape appeared at the door Laura had left half-open. "It is too fine a night to sleep, isn't it, girls?" Aunt Jessica crossed the strip of moonlight and dropped down beside Laura.
"Are you all in here?" presently inquired a third voice. "I could hear you talking and, anyway, I couldn't sleep."
"Come in," said Elliott.
Gertrude burrowed comfortably down on the other side of her mother.
Elliott, watching the three on the foot of her bed, thought they looked very happy. Her aunt's hair hung in two thick braids, like a girl's, over her shoulders, and her face, seen in the moonlight, made Elliott feel things that she couldn't fit words to. She didn't know what it was she felt, exactly, but the forlornness inside her began to grow less and less, until at last, when her aunt bent down and kissed her and a braid touched the pillow on each side of Elliott's face, it was quite gone.
"Good night, little girl," said Aunt Jessica, "and happy dreams."
Elliot opened her eyes to bright sunshine. For a minute she couldn't think where she was. Then the strangeness came back with a stab, not so poignant as on the night before but none the less actual.
"Oh," said a small, eager voice, "do you think you're going to stay waked up now?"
Elliott's eyes opened again, opened to see Priscilla's round, apple-cheeked face at the door.
"It isn't nice to peek, I know, but I'm going to get your breakfast, and how could I tell when to start it unless I watched to see when you waked up?"
"You are going to get my breakfast?" Elliott rose on one elbow in astonishment. "All alone?"
"Oh, yes!" said Priscilla. "Mother and Laura are making jelly, and shelling peas in between—to put up, you know—and Trudy is pitching hay, so they can't. Will you have one egg or two? And do you like 'em hard-boiled or soft; or would you rather have 'em dropped on toast? And how long does it take you to dress?"
"One—soft-boiled, please. I'll be down in half an hour."
"Half an hour will give me lots of time." The small face disappeared and the door closed softly.
Elliott rose breathlessly and looked at her watch. Half an hour! She must hurry. Priscilla would expect her. Priscilla had the look of expecting people to do what they said they would. And hereafter, of course, she must get up to breakfast. She wondered how Priscilla's breakfast would taste. Heavens, how these people worked!
As a matter of fact, Priscilla's breakfast tasted delicious. The toast was done to a turn; the egg was of just the right softness; a saucer of fresh raspberries waited beside a pot of cream, and the whole was served on a little table in a corner of the veranda.
"Laura said you'd like it out here," Priscilla announced anxiously. "Do you?"
"Very much indeed."
"That's all right, then. I'm going to have some berries and milk right opposite you. I always get hungry about this time in the forenoon."
"When do you have breakfast, regular breakfast, I mean?"
"At six o'clock in summer, when there's so much to do."
Six o'clock! Elliott turned her gasp of astonishment into a cough.
"I sometimes choke," said Priscilla, "when I'm awfully hungry."
"Does Stannard eat breakfast at six?" Elliott felt she must get to the bed-rock of facts.
"What is he doing now?"
Priscilla wrinkled her small brow. "Father and Bruce and Henry are haying, and Tom's hoeing carrots. I think Stan's hoeing carrots, too. One day last week he hoed up two whole rows of beets; he thought they were weeds. Oh!" A small hand was clapped over the round red mouth. "I didn't mean to tell you that. Mother said I mustn't ever speak of it, 'cause he'd feel bad. Don't you think you could forget it, quick?"
"I've forgotten it now."
"That's all right, then. After breakfast I'm going to show you my chickens and my calf. Did you know, I've a whole calf all to myself?—a black-and-whitey one. There are some cunning pigs, too. Maybe you'd like to see them. And then I 'spect you'll want to go out to the hay-field, or maybe make jelly."
"Oh, yes," said Elliott, "I can't see any of it too soon." But she was ashamed of her double meaning, with those round, eager eyes upon her. And her heart went down quite into her boots.
But the chickens, she had to confess, were rather amusing. Priscilla had them all named and was quite sure some of them, at least, answered to their names and not merely to the sound of her voice. She appealed to Elliott for corroboration on this point and Elliott grew almost interested trying to decide whether or not Chanticleer knew he was "Chanticleer" and not "Sunflower." There were also "Fluff" and "Scratch" and "Lady Gay" and "Ruby Crown" and "Marshal Haig" and "General Petain" and many more, besides "Brevity," so named because, as Priscilla solicitously explained, she never seemed to grow. They all, with the exception of Brevity, looked as like as peas to Elliott, but Priscilla seemed to have no difficulty in distinguishing them.
Priscilla's enthusiasm was contagious; or, to be more exact, it was so big and warm and generous that it covered any deficiency of enthusiasm in another. Elliott found herself trailing Priscilla through the barns and even out to see the pigs, meeting Ferdinand Foch, the very new colt, and Kitchener of Khartoum, who had been a new colt three years before, and almost holding hands with the "black-and-whitey" calf, which Priscilla had very nearly decided to call General Pershing. And didn't Elliott think that would be a nice name, with "J.J." for short? Elliott had barely delivered herself of a somewhat amused affirmative (though the amusement she knew enough to conceal), when the small tongue tripped into the pigs' roster. Every animal on the farm seemed to have a name and a personality. Priscilla detailed characteristics quite as though their possessors were human.
It was an enlightened but somewhat surfeited cousin whom Priscilla blissfully escorted into the summer kitchen, a big latticed space filled with the pleasant odors of currant jelly. On the broad table stood trays of ruby-filled glasses.
"We've seen all the creatures," Priscilla announced jubilantly "and she loves 'em. Oh, the jelly's done, isn't it? Mumsie, may we scrape the kettle?"
Aunt Jessica laughed. "Elliott may not care to scrape kettles."
Priscilla opened her eyes wide at the absurdity of the suggestion. "You do, don't you? You must! Everybody does. Just wait a minute till I get spoons."
"I don't think I quite know how to do it," said Elliott.
The next minute a teaspoon was thrust into her hand. "Didn't you ever?" Priscilla's voice was both aghast and pitying. "It wastes a lot, not scraping kettles. Good as candy, too. Here, you begin." She pushed a preserving-kettle forward hospitably.
"I'll show you." The small hand shot in, scraped vigorously for a minute, and withdrew, the spoon heaped with ruddy jelly. "There! Mother didn't leave as much as usual, though. I 'spect it's 'cause sugar's so scarce. She thought she must put it all into the glasses. But there's always something you can scrape up."
"It is delicious," said Elliott, graciously; "and what a lovely color!"
Priscilla beamed. "You may have two scrapes to my one, because you have so much time to make up."
"You generous little soul! I couldn't think of doing that. We will take our 'scrapes' together."
Priscilla teetered a little on her toes. "I like you," she said. "I like you a whole lot. I'd hug you if my hands weren't sticky. Scraping kettles makes you awful sticky. You make me think of a princess, too. You're so bee-yeautiful to look at. Maybe that isn't polite to say. Mother says it isn't always nice to speak right out all you think."
The dimples twinkled in Elliott's cheeks. "When you think things like that, it is polite enough." In the direct rays of Priscilla's shining admiration she began to feel like her normal, petted self once more. Complacently she followed the little girl into the main kitchen. It was a long, low, sunny room with a group of three windows at each end, through which the morning breeze pushed coolly. Between the windows opened many doors. At one side stood a range, all shining nickel and cleanly black. Opposite the range, at a gleaming white sink, Aunt Jessica was busying herself with many pans. At an immaculately scoured table Laura was pouring peas into glass jars. On the walls was a blue-and-white paper; even the woodwork was white.
"I didn't know a kitchen," Elliott spoke impulsively, "could be so pretty."
"This is our work-room," said her aunt. "We think the place where we work ought to be the prettiest room in the house. White paint requires more frequent scrubbing than colored paint; but the girls say they don't mind, since it keeps our spirits smiling. Would you like to help dry these pans? You will find towels on that line behind the stove."
Elliott brought the dish-towels, and proceeded to forget her own surprise at the request in the interest of Aunt Jessica's talk. Mrs. Cameron had a lovely voice; the girl did not remember ever having heard a more beautiful voice, and it was used with a cultured ease that suddenly reminded Elliott of an almost forgotten remark once made in her hearing by Stannard's mother. "It is a sin and shame," Aunt Margaret had said, "to bury a woman like Jessica Cameron on a farm. What possessed her to let Robert take her there in the first place is beyond my comprehension. Granting that first mistake, why she has let him stay all these years is another enigma. Robert is all very well, but Jessica! I would defy any one to produce the situation anywhere that Jessica wouldn't be equal to."
That had been a good deal for Aunt Margaret to say. Elliott had realized it at the time and wondered a little; now she understood the words, or thought she did. Why, even drying milk-pans took on a certain distinction when it was done in Aunt Jessica's presence!
Then Aunt Jessica said something that really did surprise her young guest. She had been watching the girl closely, quite without Elliott's knowledge.
"Perhaps you would like this for your own special part of the work," she said pleasantly. "We each have our little chores, you know. I couldn't let every girl attempt the milk things, but you are so careful and thorough that I haven't the least hesitation about giving them to you. Now I am going to wash the separator. Watch me, and then you will know just what to do."
The words left Elliott gasping. Wash the separator, all by herself, every day—or was it twice a day?—for as long as she stayed here! And pans—all these pans? What was a separator, anyway? She wished flatly to refuse, but the words stuck in her throat. There was something about Aunt Jessica that you couldn't say no to. Aunt Jessica so palpably expected you to be delighted. She was discriminating, too. She had recognized at once that Elliott was not an ordinary girl. But—but—
It was all so disconcerting that self-possessed Elliott stammered. She stammered from pure surprise and chagrin and a confusing mixture of emotions, but what she stammered was in answer to Aunt Jessica's tone and extracted from her by the force of Aunt Jessica's personality. The words came out in spite of herself.
"Oh—oh, thank you," she said, a bit blankly. Then she blushed with confusion. How awkward she had been. Oughtn't Aunt Jessica to have thanked her?
If Aunt Jessica noticed either the confusion or the blankness, she gave no sign.
"That will be fine!" she said heartily. "I saw by the way you handled those pans that I could depend on you."
Insensibly Elliott's chin lifted. She regarded the pans with new interest. "Of course," she assented, "one has to be particular."
"Very particular," said Aunt Jessica, and her dark eyes smiled on the girl.
The words, as she spoke them, sounded like a compliment. It mightn't be so bad, Elliott reflected, to wash milk-pans every morning. And in Rome you do as the Romans do. She watched closely while Aunt Jessica washed the separator. She could easily do that, she was sure. It did not seem to require any unusual skill or strength or brain-power.
"It is not hard work," said Aunt Jessica, pleasantly. "But so many girls aren't dependable. I couldn't count on them to make everything clean. Sometimes I think just plain dependableness is the most delightful trait in the world. It's so rare, you know."
Elliott opened her eyes wide. She had been accustomed to hear charm and wit and vivacity spoken of in those terms, but dependableness? It had always seemed such a homely, commonplace thing, not worth mentioning. And here was Aunt Jessica talking of it as of a crown jewel! Right down in her heart at that minute Elliott vowed that the separator should always be clean.
The separator, however, must not commit her indiscriminately, she saw that clearly. Perhaps in fact, it would save her. Hadn't Aunt Jessica said each had her own tasks? Ergo, you let others alone. But she had an uncomfortable feeling that this reasoning might prove false in practice; in this household a good many tasks seemed to be pooled. How about them?
And then Laura looked up from her jars and said the oddest thing yet in all this morning of odd sayings: "Oh, Mother, mayn't we take our dinner out? It is such a perfectly beautiful day!" As though a beautiful day had anything to do with where you ate your dinner!
But Aunt Jessica, without the least surprise in her voice, responded promptly: "Why, yes! We have three hours free now, and it seems a crime to stay in the house."
What in the world did they mean?
Priscilla seemed to have no difficulty in understanding. She jumped up and down and cried: "Oh, goody! goody! We're going to take our dinner out! We're going to take our dinner out! Isn't it jolly?"
She was standing in front of Elliott as she spoke, and the girl felt that some reply was expected of her. "Why, can we? Where do we go?" she asked, exactly as though she expected to see a hotel spring up out of the ground before her eyes.
"Lots of days we do," said Priscilla. "We'll find a nice place. Oh, I'm glad it takes peas three whole hours to can themselves. I think they're kind of slow, though, don't you?"
Laura noticed the bewilderment on Elliott's face. "Priscilla means that we are going to eat our dinner out-of-doors while the peas cook in the hot-water bath," she explained. "Don't you want to pack up the cookies? You will find them in that stone crock on the first shelf in the pantry, right behind the door. There's a pasteboard box in there, too, that will do to put them in."
"How many shall I put up?" questioned Elliott.
"Oh, as many as you think we'll eat. And I warn you we have good appetites."
Those were the vaguest directions, Elliott thought, that she had ever heard; but she found the box and the stone pot of cookies and stood a minute, counting the people who were to eat them. Four right here in the kitchen and five—no, six—out-of-doors. Would two dozen cookies be enough for ten people? She put her head into the kitchen to ask, but there was no one in sight, so she had to decide the point by herself. After nibbling a crumb she thought not, and added another dozen. And then there was still so much room left that she just filled up the box, regardless. Afterward she was very glad of it. She wouldn't have supposed it possible for ten people to eat as many cookies as those ten people ate after all the other things they had eaten.
By the time she had finished her calculations with the cookies, Aunt Jessica and Laura and Priscilla were ready. When Elliott emerged from the pantry, the little car was at the kitchen door, with a hamper and two pails of water in it, and on the back seat a long, queer-looking box that Laura told Elliott was a fireless cooker.
"Home-made," said Laura, "you'd know that to look at it, but it works just as well. It's the grandest thing, especially when we want to eat out-of-doors. Saves lots of trouble."
Elliott gasped. "You mean you carry it along to cook the dinner in?"
"Why, the dinner's cooking in it now! Hop on, everybody. Mother, you take the wheel. Elliott and I will ride on the steps."
Away they sped, bumpity-bump, to the hay-field, picking up the carrot-hoers as they went. It is astonishing how many people can cling to one little car, when those people are neither very wide nor, some of them, very tall. From the hay-field they nosed their way into a little dell, all ferns and cool white birches, and far above, a canopy of leaf-traceried blue sky. In the next few minutes it became very plain to the new cousin that the Camerons were used to doing this kind of thing. Every one seemed to know exactly what to do. The pails of water were swung to one side; the fireless cooker took up its position on a flat gray rock. The hamper yielded loaves of bread—light and dark, that one cut for oneself on a smooth white board—and a basket stocked with plates and cups and knives and forks and spoons. Potted meat and potatoes and two kinds of vegetables, as they were wanted, came from the fireless cooker, all deliciously tender and piping hot. It was like a cafeteria in the open, thought Elliott, except that one had no tray.
And every one laughed and joked and had a good time. Even Elliott had a fairly good time, though she thought it was thoroughly queer. You see, it had never occurred to her that people could pick up their dinner and run out-of-doors into any lovely spot that they came to, to eat it. She wasn't at all sure she cared for that way of doing things. But she liked the beauty of the little dell, the ferny smell of it, and the sunshine and cheerfulness. The occasional darning-needles, and small green worms, and black or other colored bugs, she enjoyed less. She hadn't been accustomed to associate such things with her dinner. But nobody else seemed to mind; perhaps the others were used to taking bugs and worms with their meals. If one appeared, they threw him away and went on eating as though nothing had happened.
And of course it was rather clever of them, the girl reflected, to take a picnic when they could get it. If they hadn't done so, she didn't quite see, judging by the portion of a day she had so far observed, how they could have got any picnics at all. The method utilized scraps of time, left-overs and between-times, that were good for little else. It was a rather arresting discovery, to find out that people could divert themselves without giving up their whole time to it. But, after all, it wasn't a method for her. She was positive on that point. It seemed the least little bit common, too—such whole-hearted absorption as the Camerons showed in pursuits that were just plain work.
"Stan," she demanded, late that afternoon, "is there any tennis here?"
"Not so you'd notice it. What are you thinking of, in war-time, Elliott? Uncle Samuel expects every farmer to do his duty. All the men and older boys around here have either volunteered or been drafted. So we're all farmers, especially the girls. Quod erat demonstrandum. Savvy?"
"Meals, Lot, plain meals."
Stannard threw up his hands. "Never heard of 'em!"
"No water big enough."
"I suppose nobody here thinks of motoring for pleasure."
"Never. Too busy."
"Or gets an invitation for a spin?"
"You're behind the times."
"So I see."
"Harry told me that this summer is extra strenuous," Stannard explained; "but they've always rather gone in for the useful, I take it. Had to, most likely. They'd be all right, too, if they didn't live so. They're a good sort, an awfully good sort. But, ginger, how a fellow'd have to hump to keep up with 'em! I don't try. I do a little, and then sit back and call it done."
If Elliott hadn't been so miserable, she would have laughed. Stannard had hit himself off very well, she thought. He had his good points, too. Not once had he reminded her that she hadn't intended to spend her summer on a farm. But she was too unhappy to tease him as she might have done at another time. She was still bewildered and inclined to resent the trick life had played her. The prospect didn't look any better on close inspection than it had at first; rather worse, if anything. Imagine her, Elliott Cameron pitching hay! Not that any one had asked her to. But how could a person live for six weeks with these people and not do what they did? Such was Elliott's code. Delightful people, too. But she didn't wish to pitch hay and she loathed washing dishes. There was something so messy about dish-washing, ordinary dish-washing; milk-pans were different.
Then suddenly Elliott Cameron did a strange thing. By this time she had shaken off Stannard and had betaken herself and her disgust to the edge of the woods. She was so very miserable that she didn't know herself and she knew herself less than ever in this next act. Alone in the woods, as she thought, with only moss underfoot and high green boughs overhead, Elliott lifted her foot and deliberately and with vehemence stamped it. "I don't like things!" she whispered, a little shocked at her own words. "I don't like things!"
Then she looked up and met the amused eyes of Bruce Fearing.
For a minute the hot color flooded the girl's face. But she seized the bull by the horns. "I am cross," she said, "frightfully cross!" And she looked so engagingly pretty as she said it that Bruce thought he had never seen so attractive a girl.
"Anything in particular gone wrong with the universe?"
"Everything, with my part of it." What possessed her, she wondered afterward, to say what she said next? "I never wanted to come here."
"That so? We've been thinking it rather nice."
In spite of herself, she was mollified. "It isn't quite that, either," she explained. "I've only just discovered the real trouble, myself. What makes me so mad isn't altogether the fact that I didn't want to come up here. It's that I hadn't any choice. I had to come."
The boy's eyes twinkled. "So that's what's bothering you, is it? Cheer up! You had the choice of how you'd come, didn't you?"
"Yes. Sometimes I think that's all the choice they give us in this world. It's all I've had, anyway—how I'd do a thing."
"You mean, gracefully or—"
"Hello!" said Stannard's voice. "What are you two chinning about before the cows come home?"
IN UNTRODDEN FIELDS
"You don't want to have much to do with that fellow," said Stannard, when Bruce Fearing had gone on about whatever business he had in hand.
"Why not?" Elliott's tone was short. She had wanted to hear what Bruce was going to say.
"Oh, he is all right, enough, I guess, but nobody knows where he came from. He and that Pete brother of his are no relations of ours, or of Aunt Jessica's either."
"How does he happen to be living here, then?"
"Search me. Some kind of a pick-up, I gathered. Nobody talks much about it. They take him as a matter of course. All right enough for them, if they want to, but they really ought to warn strangers. A fellow would think he was—er—all right, you know."
Stannard's words made Elliott very uncomfortable. She thought the reason they disquieted her was that she had rather liked Bruce Fearing, and now to have him turn out a person whom she couldn't be as friendly with as she wished was disconcerting. It was only another point in her indictment of life on the Cameron farm; one couldn't tell whom one was knowing. But she determined to sound Laura, which would be easy enough, and Stannard's charge might prove unfounded.
But sounding Laura was not easy, chiefly for the reason Stannard had shrewdly deduced, that the Robert Camerons took Peter and Bruce Fearing in quite as matter-of-fact a way as they took themselves. Laura even failed to discover that she was being sounded.
"Who is this 'Pete' you're always talking about?" Elliott asked.
"Bruce's older brother—I almost said ours." The two girls were skimming currants, Laura with the swift skill of accustomed fingers, Elliott more slowly. "He is perfectly fine. I wish you could know him."
"I gathered he was Bruce's brother."
"He's not a bit like Bruce. Pete is short and dark and as quick as a flash. You'd know he would make a splendid aviator. There was a letter in the 'Upton News' last night from an Upton doctor who is over there, attached now to our boys' camp; did you see it? He says Bob and Pete are 'the acknowledged aces' of their squadron. That shows we must have missed some of their letters. The last one from Bob was written just after he had finished his training."
"This—Pete went from here?"
"He and Bob were in Tech together, juniors. They enlisted in Boston, and they've kept pretty close tabs on each other ever since. They had their training over here in the same camps. In France, Pete got into spirals first, 'by a fluke,' as he put it; Bob was unlucky with his landings. But, some way or other, Bob seems to have beaten him to the actual fighting. Now they're in it together." And Laura smiled and then sighed, and the nimble fingers stopped work for a minute, only to speed faster than ever.
"I haven't read you any of their letters, have I? Or Sid's either? (Sidney is my twin, you know. He is at Devens.) But I will. If anything, Pete's are funnier than Bob's. Both the boys have an eye to the jolly side of things. Sometimes you wouldn't think there was anything to flying but a huge lark, by the way they write. But there was one letter of Pete's (it was to Mother), written from their first training-camp in France after one of the boys' best friends had been killed. Pete was evidently feeling sober, but oh, so different from the way any one would have felt about such a thing before the war began! There was plenty of fun in the letter, too, but toward the end, Pete told about this Jim Stone's death, and he said: 'It has made us all pretty serious, but nobody's blue. Jim was a splendid fellow, and a chap can't think he has stopped as quick as all that. Mother Jess, do you remember my talking to you one Sunday after church, freshman vacation, about the things I didn't believe in? Why didn't you tell me I was a fool? You knew it then, and I know it now.' That's Pete all over. It made Mother and me very happy."
Elliott felt rather ashamed to continue her probing. "Have they always lived with you," she asked, "the Fearings?"
"Oh, yes, ever since I can remember. Isn't Bruce splendid? I don't know how we could have got on at all this summer without Bruce."
Then Elliott gave up. If a mystery existed, either Laura didn't know of it, or she had forgotten it, or else she considered it too negligible to mention.
The girl found that for some reason she did not care to ask Stannard the source of his information. Would Bruce himself prove communicative? There could be no harm in finding out. Besides, it would tease Stannard to see her talking with "that fellow," and Elliott rather enjoyed teasing Stannard. And didn't she owe him something for a dictatorial interruption?
The thing would require manoeuvering. You couldn't talk to Bruce Fearing, or to any one else up here, whenever you felt like it; he was far too busy. But on the hill at sunset Elliott found her chance.
"I think Aunt Jessica," she remarked, "is the most wonderful woman I've ever seen."
A glow lit up Bruce's quiet gray eyes. "Mother Jess," he said, "is a miracle."
"She is so terrifically busy, and yet she never seems to hurry; and she always has time to talk to you and she never acts tired."
"She is, though."
"I suppose she must be, sometimes. I like that name for her, 'Mother Jess.' Your—aunt, is she?"
"Oh, no," said Bruce, simply. "I've no Cameron or Fordyce blood in me, or any other pedigreed variety. My corpuscles are unregistered. She and Father Bob took Pete and me in when I was a baby and Pete was a mere toddler. I was born in the hotel down in the town there,—Am I boring you?"
"No, indeed!" Elliott had the grace to blush at the ease with which she was carrying on her investigation.
He wondered why she flushed, but went on quietly. "Our own mother died there in the hotel when I was a week old and we didn't seem to have any kin. At least, they never showed up. Mother was evidently a widow; Mother Jess got that from her belongings. She stopped overnight at Highboro, and I was born there. She hadn't told any one in the hotel where she was going. Registered from Boston, but nobody could be found in Boston who knew of her. The authorities were going to send Pete and me to some kind of a capitalized Home, when Mother Jess stepped in. She hadn't enough boys, so she said. Bob and Laura and Sid were on deck. Henry and Tom came along later. Fordyce was the one that died; he'd just slipped out. Mother Jess was feeling lonely, I guess. Anyway, she took us two; said she thought we'd be better off on the farm than in a Home and she needed us—bless her! Do you wonder Pete and I swear by the Camerons?"
"No," said Elliott. "Indeed I don't." She had what she had been angling for, in good measure, but she rather wished she hadn't got it, after all. "Haven't you had any clue in all these years as to who your people were?"
"Not the slightest. I'm willing to let things rest as they are."
"Yes, of course," thought Elliott, "but—" She let it go at "but." Oughtn't somebody, as Stannard said, to have warned her? These boys' people might have been very common persons, not at all like Camerons. The fact that no relatives appeared proved that, didn't it? Every one who was any one at all had a family. Bruce did not look common: his gray eyes and his broad forehead and his keen, thin face were almost distinguished, and his manners were above criticism. But one never could tell. And hadn't he been brought up by Camerons? The very openness with which he had told his story had something fine about it. He, like Laura, seemed to see nothing in it to conceal.
Well, was there? Elliott could quite clearly imagine what Aunt Margaret, Stannard's mother, would say to that question. She had never especially cared for Aunt Margaret. As Elliott looked at Bruce Fearing, one of the pillars of her familiar world began to totter. Actually, she could think of no particularly good reason why, when she had heard his story, she should proceed to shun him. His history simply didn't seem to matter, except to make her sorry for him; and yet she couldn't be really sorry for a boy who had been brought up by Aunt Jessica.
Perhaps the Cameron Farm atmosphere was already beginning to work.
"I think you and your brother had luck," she said.
"I know we did," answered Bruce.
Elliott turned the conversation. "I wish you could tell me what you were going to say, when we were interrupted yesterday, about a person's having no choice except how he will do things—you having had only that kind of choice."
"I remember," said Bruce. "Well, for one thing, I suppose I could get grouchy, if I chose, over not knowing who my people were."
"They may have been very splendid," said Elliott.
Bruce smiled. "It's not likely."
"In that case," she countered, "you have the satisfaction of not knowing who they were."
"Exactly. But that's rather a crawl, isn't it? Of course, a fellow would like to know."
The boy bent forward, and, with painstaking care, selected a blade from a tuft of grass growing between his feet. He nibbled a minute before he spoke again.
"See here, I'm going to tell you something I haven't told a soul. I'm crazy to go to the war. Sometimes it seems as though I couldn't stay home. When Pete's letters come I have to go away somewhere quick and chop wood! Anything to get busy for a while."
"Aren't you too young? Would they take you?"
"Take me? You bet they'd take me! I'm eighteen. Don't I look twenty?"
The girl's eye ran critically over the strong young body, with its long, supple, sinewy lines. "Yes," she nodded. "I think you do."
"They'd take me in a minute, in aviation or anything else."
"Then why don't you?"
"Who'd help Father Bob through the farm stunts? Young Bob's gone, and Pete and Sidney. They were always here for the summer work. Henry's a fine lad, but a boy still. Tom's nothing but a boy, though he does his bit. As for the Women's Land Army, it's got up into these parts, but not in force. Father Bob can't hire help: it's not to be had. That's why Mother Jess and the girls are going in so for farm work. They never did it before this year, except in sport. We have more land under cultivation this summer than ever before, and fewer hands to harvest it with. But Mother and the girls sha'n't have to work harder than they're doing now, if I can help it. Could I go off and leave them, after all they've done for me? But that's not it, either—gratitude. They're mine, Father Bob and Mother Jess are, and the rest; they're my folks. You're not exactly grateful to your own folks, you know. They belong to you. And you don't leave what belongs to you in the lurch."
"No," said Elliott. With awakened eyes she was watching Bruce. No boy had ever talked of such things to her before. "So you're not going?"
"Not of my own will. Of course, if the war lasts and I'm drafted, or the help problem lightens up, it will be different. Pete's gone. It was Pete's right to go. He's the elder."
"But you are choosing," Elliott cried earnestly. "Don't you see? You're choosing to stay at home and—" words came swiftly into her memory—"'fight it out on these lines all summer.'"
Bruce's smile showed that he recognized her quotation, but he shook his head. "Choosing? I haven't any choice—except being decent about it. Don't you see I can't go? I can only try to keep from thinking about not going."
"You being you," said the girl, and she spoke as simply and soberly as Bruce himself, though her own warmth surprised her, "I see you can't go. But was that all you meant"—her voice grew ludicrously disappointed—"by a person's having a choice only of how he will do a thing? There's nothing to that but making the best of things!"
Bruce Fearing threw back his head and laughed heartily.
"You're the funniest girl I've ever seen."
"Then you can't have seen many. But is there?"
"Perhaps not. Stupid, isn't it?"
"Yes," she nodded, "I'm afraid it is. And frightfully old. I was hoping you were going to tell me something new and exciting."
The boy chuckled again. "Nothing so good as that. Besides, I've a hunch the exciting things aren't very new, after all."
Elliott went to sleep that night, if not any happier, at least more interested. She had looked deep into the heart of a boy, different, it appeared, from any boy that she had ever known; and something loyal and sturdy and tender she had seen there had stirred her. It was odd how well acquainted she felt with him; odd, too, how curious she was to know him better, even though he hadn't the least idea who his grandfather had been. "Bother his grandfather!" Elliott chuckled to realize how such a sentiment would horrify Aunt Margaret. Grandfathers were very important to Aunt Margaret and Aunt Margaret's children. Grandfathers had always seemed fairly important to Elliott herself until now. Was it their relative unimportance in the Robert Camerons' estimation, or a pair of steady gray eyes, that had altered her valuation? The girl didn't know and she was keen enough to know that she didn't; keen enough, too, to perceive that the change in her estimation of grandfathers applied to a single case only and might be merely temporary.
However that might be, she was not ready yet to do anything so inherently distasteful as make the best of what she didn't like, especially when nobody but herself and two boys would know it. When one makes the best of things, one likes to do it to crowded galleries, that perceive what is going on and applaud. The Robert Camerons, Elliott was quite sure, wouldn't applaud. They would take it as a matter of course, just as they took her as a matter of course. They were quite charming about it, as delightful hosts as one could wish—if only they lived differently!—but Elliott wasn't used to being taken for granted. She might have been these new cousins' own sort, for any difference she could detect in their actions. They didn't seem to begin to understand her importance. Perhaps she wasn't so important, after all. The doubt had never before entered her mind.
The fact was, of course, that among these busy, efficient people she was feeling quite useless; and she didn't like to appear incompetent when she knew herself to be, in her own line, a thoroughly able person. But it irked her to think that she had been forced into a position where in self-defense she must either acquire a kind of efficiency she didn't want or do without. At the same time it troubled her lest this reluctance become apparent. For they were all loves and she wouldn't hurt their feelings for worlds. And she did wish them to admire her. But she had a feeling that they didn't altogether, not even Priscilla and Bruce.
Nevertheless, the next day when Laura asked whether she would take her book out to the hay-field or stay where she was on the porch, Elliott looked up from "Lorna Doone" and said, with the prettiest little coaxing air, "If I go, will you let me pitch hay?" And Laura answered as lightly, "Certainly." "I don't believe you," said Elliott. "You may ride on the hay-load," smiled Laura. "That won't do at all," Elliott shook her head. "If I can't pitch hay, I'll stay here." Laura laughed and said: "You certainly will be more comfortable here. I can't quite see you pitching hay." And Elliott retorted: "You don't know what I could do, if I tried. But since you won't let me try—"
It was all smiling and gay, but it was a crawl, and Elliott knew it and knew that Laura knew it, and she felt ashamed. Wasn't Stannard's frank shirking better than her camouflaged variety? But hadn't she picked berries all the morning in a stuffy sunbonnet under a broiling sun, until she felt as red as a berry and much less fresh and sweet?
"It's a shame," said Laura, "that this is just our busy season; but you know you have to make hay while the sun shines. Father thinks we can finish the lower meadows to-day. Then to-morrow we begin cutting on the hill. It's really fun to ride the hay-rake. I mostly drive the rake, though now and then I pitch for variety."
She looked so strong and brown and merry, as she talked, that Elliott, comfortably established with "Lorna Doone," felt almost like flinging her book into the next chair, slipping her arm through Laura's, and crying, "Lead on!" But she remembered just in time that, as she hadn't wished to come to the Cameron Farm, it would ill become her to have a good time there. Which may seem like a childish way of looking at the thing, but isn't really confined to children at all.
So the hay-makers tramped away down the road, their laughter floating cheerfully back over their shoulders; and Elliott sat on the big shady veranda and read her book.
She might have enjoyed it less had she heard Henry's frank summary at the turn of the lane, when his father inquired the whereabouts of Stannard.
"Beau Brummell hiked over to Upton half an hour ago. I offered him the other Henry, but he doesn't seem to care to drive anything short of a Pierce-Arrow. Twins, aren't they?" and Henry nodded in the direction of the veranda.
"Sh-h!" reproved Laura. "They're our guests."
"Guests is just it. Yes, they're guests, all right."
"Mother says they don't know how to work," Priscilla observed.
"That's another true word, too."
Mother turned gaily in the road ahead. "Who is talking about me?" she called.
Priscilla frisked on to join her, and Henry fell back to a confidential exchange with Laura. "Beau wouldn't be so bad if he could forget for a minute that he owned the earth and had a mortgage on the solar system. But when he tries to snub Bruce—gee, that gets me!"
"Aren't you twanging the G string rather often lately, Hal?—Stannard can't snub Bruce. Bruce isn't the kind of fellow to be snubbed."
"Just the same, it makes me sick to think anybody's a cousin to me that would try it."
Laura switched back to the main subject. "We didn't ask them up here as extra farm hands, you know."
"Bull's-eye," said Henry, and grinned.
What she did not know failed to trouble Elliott. She read on in lonely peace through the afternoon. At a most exciting point the telephone rang. Four, that was the Cameron call. Elliott went into the house and took down the receiver.
"Mr. Robert Cameron's," she said pleasantly.
"S-say!" stuttered a high, sharp voice, "my little b-b-boys have let your c-c-cows out o' the p-p-pasture. I'll g-give 'em a t-t-trouncin', but 't won't git your c-c-cows back. They let 'em out the G-G-Garrett Road, and your medder gate's open. Jim B-B-Blake saw it this mornin'! Why the man didn't shut it, I d-d-dunno. You'll have to hurry to save your medder."
"But," gasped Elliott, "I don't understand! You say the cows—"
"Are comin' down G-Garrett Road," snapped the stuttering voice, "the whole kit an' b-b-bilin' of 'em. They'll be inter your upper m-medder in five m-m-minutes."
Over the wire came the click of a receiver snapping back on its hook. Elliott hung up and started toward the door. The cows had been let out. Just why this incident was so disastrous she did not quite comprehend, but she must go and tell her uncle. Before her feet touched the veranda, however, she stopped. Five minutes? Why, there wouldn't be time to go to the lower meadow, to say nothing of any one's doing anything about the situation.
And then, with breath-taking suddenness, the thing burst on her. She was alone in the house; even Aunt Jessica and Priscilla had gone to the hay-field. The situation, whatever it was, was up to her.
For a minute the girl leaned weakly against the wall. Cows—there were thirty in the herd—and she loathed cows! She was afraid of cows. She knew nothing about cows. She was never in the slightest degree sure of what the creatures might take it into their heads to do. For a minute she stood irresolute. Then something stirred in the girl, something self-reliant and strong. Never in her life had Elliott Cameron had to do alone anything that she didn't already know how to do. Now for the first time she faced an emergency on none but her own resources, an emergency that was quite out of her line.
Her brain worked swiftly as her feet moved to the door. In reality, she had wavered only a second. When Tom went for the cows, didn't he take old Prince? There was just a chance that Prince wasn't in the hay-field. She ran down the steps calling, "Prince! Prince!" The old dog rose deliberately from his place on the shady side of the barn and trotted toward her, wagging his tail. "Come, Prince!" cried Elliott, and ran out of the yard.
Luckily, berrying had that very morning taken her by a short cut to the vicinity of the upper meadow. She knew the way. But what was likely to happen? Town-bred girl that she was, she had no idea. A recollection of the smooth, upstanding expanse of the upper meadow gave her a clue. If the cows got into that even erectness— She began to run, Prince bounding beside her, his brown tail a waving plume.
She could see the meadow now, a smooth green sea ruffled by nothing heavier than the light feet of the summer breeze. She could see the great gate invitingly open to the road and oh!—her heart stopped beating, then pounded on at a suffocating pace—she could see the cows! There they came, down the hill, quite filling the narrow roadway with their horrid bulk, making it look like a moving river of broad backs and tossing heads. What could she do, the girl wondered; what could she do against so many? She tried to run faster. Somehow she must reach the gate first. There was nothing even then, so far as she knew, to prevent their trampling her down and rushing over her into the waving greenness, unless she could slam the gate in their faces. You can see that she really did not know much about cows.
But Prince knew them. Prince understood now why his master's guest had summoned him to this hot run in the sunshine. The prospect did not daunt Prince. He ran barking to the meadow side of the road. The foremost cow which, grazing the dusty grass, had strayed toward the gate, turned back into the ruts again. Elliott pulled the gate shut, in her haste leaving herself outside. There, too spent to climb over, she flattened her slender form against the gray boards, while, driven by Prince, the whole herd, horns tossing, tails switching, flanks heaving, thudded its way past.
And there, three minutes later, Bruce, dashing over the hill in response to a message relayed by telephone and boy to the lower meadow, found her.
"The cows have gone down," Elliott told him. "Prince has them. He will take them home, won't he?"
"Prince? Good enough! He'll get the cows home all right. But what are you doing in this mix-up?"
"A woman telephoned the house," said Elliott. "I was afraid I couldn't reach any of you in time, so I came over myself."
"You like cows?" The question shot at her like a bullet.
The piquant nose wrinkled entrancingly. "Scared to death of 'em."
"I guessed as much." The boy nodded. "Gee whiz, but you've got good stuff in you!"
And though her shoes were dusty and her hair tousled, and though her knees hadn't stopped shaking even yet, Elliott Cameron felt a sudden sense of satisfaction and pride. She turned and looked over the fence at the meadow. In its unmarred beauty it seemed to belong to her.
A SLACKER UNPERCEIVED
"I think," remarked Elliott, the next morning, "that I will walk up and watch the haying for a while."
She had finished washing the separator and the milk-pans. It had taken a full hour the first morning; growing expertness had already reduced the hour to three-quarters, and she had hopes of further reductions. She still held firmly to the opinion that the process was uninteresting, but an innate sense of fairness told her that the milk-pans were no more than her share. Of course, she couldn't spend six weeks in a household whose component members were as busy as were this household's members, and do nothing at all. That was the disadvantage in coming to the place. She was bound to dissemble her feelings and wash milk-pans. But if she had to wash them, she might as well do it well. There was no question about that. If the actual process still bored the girl, the results did not. Elliott was proud of her pans, with a pride in which there was no atom of indifference. She scoured them until they shone, not because, as she told herself, she liked to scour, but because she liked to see the pans shine.
Aunt Jessica liked to see them shine, too. She paused on her way through the kitchen. "What beautiful pans! I can see my face in every one of them."
A glow of elation struck through Elliott. Aunt Jessica was loving and sweet, but she did not lavish commendation in quarters where it was not due. Elliott knew her pans were beautiful, but Aunt Jessica's praise made them doubly so.
It was then, as she hung up her towels, that she made the remark about walking up to the hill meadow. She had a notion she would like to see the knives put into that unbroken expanse of tall grass for which she continued to feel a curious responsibility. A mere appearance at the field could not commit her to anything.
"If you are going up," said Aunt Jessica, "perhaps you will take some of these cookies I have just baked. Gertrude has made lemonade."
That was one of the delightful things about Aunt Jessica, Elliott thought: she never probed beneath the surface of one's words, she never even looked curiosity, and she gave one immediately a reason for doing what one wished to do. Lemonade and cookies made an appearance in the hay-field the most natural thing in the world.
The upper meadow proved a surprise. Not its business—Elliott had expected business, but its odd mingling of jollity with activity. They all seemed to be having such a good time about their work. And yet the jollity did not in the least interfere with the business, which appeared to be going forward in a systematic and efficient way that even an untrained girl could not fail to notice. Elliott's advent would have occasioned little disturbance, she suspected, had it not been for the cookies. She was used by now to having no fuss made over her. Laura waved a hand from her seat behind the horses; the boys swung their hats; Priscilla darted over to display a ground-sparrow's nest that the scythes had disclosed.
It was Priscilla who discovered the cookies and sent a squeal of delight across the meadow. But even then the workers did not pause. Priscilla had to dance out across the mown grass and squeal again and wave both hands, a cooky in one, a cup in the other, and add a shrill little yelp, "Come on! Come on, peoples! You don't know what we've got here," before they straggled over to what Henry called "the refreshment booth."
Then they were ready enough to notice Elliott. Uncle Robert and the boys cracked jokes, the girls chattered and laughed, and every one called on her to applaud the amount of work they had already accomplished, exactly as though she understood about such things.
And Elliott did applaud, reinforcing her words with a whole battery of dimples, all the while privately resolving that no contagion of enthusiasm should inoculate her with the haymaking germ. There were factors that made it all a bit hard to withstand; the sky was so blue, the breeze was so jolly, the mown grass smelled so delicious, and the mountain air had such zest in it. But, on the other hand, the sun was hot and downright and freckling; Priscilla's tip-tilted little nose was already liberally besprinkled. If Laura hadn't such a wonderful skin, she would have been a sight long ago, despite the wide brim of her big straw hat. A mere farm hat, and Laura looked like a mere husky farm girl, as she guided her horses skilfully around the field. How strong her arms must be! But how could a girl with Laura's intelligence and high spirit and charm enjoy putting all this time into haying? With Priscilla, of course, matters stood differently. Children never discriminate.
"No, I sha'n't do that kind of thing," said Elliott, firmly. But she would investigate the haymaking game, investigate it coolly and dispassionately, to find out exactly what it amounted to—aside, of course, from an accumulation of dried grass in barns. To this end, she invaded the upper meadow a good many times, during the next few days, took a turn on the hay-rake, now and then helped load and unload, riding down to the barn on a mound of high-piled fragrance, and came to the conclusion that, as an activity, haymaking wasn't to be compared with knocking a ball back and forth across a net. To try one's hand at it might do well enough, now and then, to spice an otherwise luxurious life, but as a steady diet the thing was too unrelenting. One was driven by wind and sun; even the clouds took a hand in cudgeling one on. A person must keep at it whether she cared to or not—in actual practice this point never troubled Elliott, who always stopped when she wished to—there were no spectators, and, heaviest demerit of all, it was undeniably hard work.
But she was curious to discover what Laura found in it, and you know Elliott Cameron well enough by this time to understand that she was not a girl who hesitated to ask for information.
The last load had dashed into the big red barn two minutes before a thunder-shower, and Laura, freshly tubbed and laundered, was winding her long black braids around her shapely little head. Elliott sat on the bed and watched her.
"Aren't you glad it's done?" she asked.
"The haying? Oh, yes, I'm always glad when we have it safely in. But I love it."
"Really? It isn't work for girls."
"No? Then once a year I'll take a vacation from being a girl. But that doesn't hold now, you know. Everything is work for girls that girls can do, to help win this war."
"To help win the war?" echoed Elliott, and blankly and suddenly shut her mouth. Why, she supposed it did help, after all! But it was their work, the kind of thing they had always done, up here at the Cameron Farm; only, as Bruce had assured her, the girls hadn't done much of it. Was that what Bruce had meant, too?
"Why did you suppose we put so much more land under cultivation this year than we ever had before, with less help in sight?" Laura questioned. "Just for fun, or for the money we could get out of it?"
"I hadn't thought much about it," said Elliott. She was thinking now. Had she been a bit of a slacker? She loathed slackers.
"I never thought of it as war work," she said. "Stupid, wasn't I?"
Laura put the last hair-pin in place. "Just thought of it as our job, did you? So it is, of course. But when your job happens to be war work too—well, you just buckle down to it extra hard. I've never been so thankful as this year and last that we have the farm. It gives every one of us such a splendid chance to feel we're really counting in this fight—the boys over there and in camp, the rest of us here." Laura's dark eyes were beginning to shine. "Oh, I wouldn't be anywhere but on a farm for anything in the wide world, unless, perhaps, somewhere in France!"
She stopped suddenly, put down the hand-mirror with which she was surveying her back hair, and blushed. "There!" she said, "I forgot all about the fact that you weren't born on a farm, too. But then, you can share ours for a year, so I'm not going to apologize for a word I've said, even if I have been bragging because I'm so lucky."
Bragging because she was lucky! And Laura meant it. There was not the ghost of a pose in her frank, downright young pride. Her cousin felt like a person who has been walking down-stairs and tries to step off a tread that isn't there. Elliott's own cheeks reddened as she thought of the patronizing pity she had felt. Luckily, Laura hadn't seemed to notice it. And Laura was quick to see things, too. Elliott realized, with a little stab of chagrin, that Laura wouldn't understand why her cousin had pitied her, even if some one should be at pains to explain the fact to her.
But Elliott couldn't let herself pass as an intentional slacker.
"We girls did canteening at home; surgical dressings and knitting, too, of course, but canteening was the most fun."
"That must have been fine." Laura was interested at once.
Elliott's spirit revived. After all, Laura was a country girl. "Do you have a canteen here?"
"Oh, no, Highboro isn't big enough. No trains stop here for more than a minute. We're not on the direct line to any of the camps, either."
"Ours was a regular canteen," said Elliott. "They would telephone us when soldiers were going through, and we would go down, with Mrs. Royce or Aunt Margaret or some other chaperon, and distribute post-cards and cigarettes and sweet chocolate; and ice-cream cones, if the weather was hot. It was such fun to talk to the men!"
"Ice-cream and cigarettes!" laughed Laura. "I should think they'd have liked something nourishing."
"Oh, they got the nourishing things, if it was time. The Government had an arrangement with a restaurant just around the corner to serve soldiers' meals. We didn't have to do that."
"You supplied the frills."
"Yes." Somehow Elliott did not quite like the words.
Laura was quick to notice her discomfiture. "I imagine they needed the frills and the jollying, poor lonesome boys! They're so young, many of them, and not used to being away from home; and the life is strange, however well they may like it."
"Yes," said Elliott. "More than one bunch told us they hadn't seen anything to equal what we did for them this side of New York. Our uniforms were so becoming, too; even a plain girl looked cute in those caps. Why, Laura, you might have a uniform, mightn't you, if it's war work?"
"What should I want of a uniform?"
"People who saw you would know what you're doing."
"They know now, if they open their eyes."
"They'd know why, I mean—that it's war work."
"Mercy! Nobody around here needs to be told why a person hoes potatoes these days. They're all doing it."
"Do you hoe potatoes?" Elliott had no notion how comically her consternation sat on her pretty features.
Laura laughed at the amazed face of her cousin. "Of course I do, when potatoes need hoeing."
"But do you like it?"
"Oh, yes, in a way. Hoeing potatoes isn't half bad."
Elliott opened her lips to say that it wasn't girls' work, remembered that she had made that remark once before, and changed to, "It is hard work, and it isn't a bit interesting."
Then Laura asked two questions that left Elliott gasping. "Don't you like to do anything except what is easy? Though I don't know that it is any harder to hoe potatoes for an hour than to play tennis that length of time. And anything is interesting, don't you think, that has to be done?"
"Goodness, no!" ejaculated Elliott, when she found her voice. "I don't think that at all! Do you, really?"
"Why, yes!" Laura laughed a trifle deprecatingly. "I'm not bluffing. I never thought I'd care to spray potatoes, but one day it had to be done, and Father and the boys were needed for something else. It wasn't any harder to do than churning, and I found it rather fun to watch the potato-bugs drop off. I calculated, too, how many Belgians the potatoes in those hills would feed, either directly or by setting wheat free, you know. I forget now how many I made it. I know I felt quite exhilarated when I was through. Trudy helped."
"Goodness!" murmured Elliott faintly. For a minute she could find no other words. Then she managed to remark: "Of course every one gardens at home. They have lots at the country club, and raise potatoes and things, and you hear them talking everywhere about bugs and blight and cold pack. I never paid much attention. It didn't seem to be meant for girls. The men and boys raise the things and the wives and mothers can them. That's the way we do at home."
"Traditional," nodded Laura. "We divide on those lines here to a certain extent, too; but we're rather Jacks of all trades on this farm. The boys know how to can and we girls to make hay."
"The boys can?"
"Tom put up all our string-beans last summer quite by himself. What does it matter who does a thing, so it's done?"
Laura was dressed now, from the crown of her smooth black head to the tip of her white canvas shoes, and a very satisfactory operation she had made of it. Elliott dismissed Laura's last remark, which had not sounded very sensible to her—of course it mattered who did things; why, that sometimes was all that did matter!—and reflected that, country bred though she was, her cousin Laura had an air that many a town girl might have envied. An ability to find hard manual work interesting did not seem to preclude the knowledge of how to put on one's clothes.
But Laura's hands were not all that hands should be, by Elliott's standard; they were well cared for, and as white as soap and water could make them, but there are some things that soap and water cannot do when it is pitted against sun and wind and contact with soil and berries and fruits. Elliott hadn't meant to look so fixedly at Laura's hands as to make her thought visible, and the color rose in her cheeks when Laura said, exactly as though she were a mind-reader, "If you prefer lily-white fingers to stirring around doing things, why, you have to sit in a corner and keep them lily-white. I like to stick mine into too many pies ever to have them look well."
"They're a lovely shape," said Elliott, seriously.
And then, to her amazement, Laura laughed and leaned over and hugged her. "And you're a dear thing, even if you do think my hands are no lady's!"
Of course Elliott protested; but as that was just what she did think, her protestations were not very convincing.
"You can't have everything," said Laura, quite as though she didn't mind in the least what her hands looked like. The strangest part of it all was that Elliott believed Laura actually didn't mind.
But she didn't know how to answer her, Laura's words had raised the dust on all those comfortable cushiony notions Elliott had had sitting about in her mind for so long that she supposed they were her very own opinions. Until the dust settled she couldn't tell what she thought, whether they belonged to her or had simply been dumped on her by other people. She couldn't remember ever having been in such a position before.
Yes, Elliott found a good deal to think of. One had to draw the line somewhere; she had told herself comfortably; but lines seemed to be very queerly jumbled up in this war. If a person couldn't canteen or help at a hostess house or do surgical dressings or any of the other things that had always stood in her mind for girl's war work, she had to do what she could, hadn't she? And if it wasn't necessary to be tagged, why, it wasn't. Laura in blouse and short skirt, or even in overalls, seemed to accomplish as much as any possible Laura in a pantaloon suit or puttees or any other land uniform. There really didn't seem any way out, now that Elliott understood the matter. Perhaps she had been rather dense not to understand it before.
"What would you like me to do this morning, Uncle?" she asked the next day at the breakfast-table. "I think it is time I went to work."
"Going to join the farmerettes?"
"Thinking of it." She could feel, without seeing, Stannard's stare of astonishment. No one else gave signs of surprise. Stannard, thought the girl, really hadn't as good manners as his cousins.
Uncle Bob surveyed the trim figure, arrayed in its dark smock and the shortest of all Elliott's short skirts. If he felt other than wholly serious he concealed the fact well.
"The corn needs hoeing, both field-corn and garden-corn. How about joining that squad?"
"It suits me."
Corn—didn't Hoover urge people to eat corn? In helping the corn crop, she too might feel herself feeding the Belgians.
Gertrude linked her arm in her slender cousin's as they left the table. "I'll show you where the tools are," she said. "Harry runs the cultivator in the field, but we use hand-hoes in the garden."
"You will have to show me more than that," said Elliott. "What does hoeing do to corn, anyhow?"
"Keeps down the weeds that eat up the nourishment in the soil," recited Gertrude glibly, "and by stirring up the ground keeps in the moisture. You like to know the reason for things, too, don't you? I'm glad. I always do."
It wasn't half bad, with a hoe over her shoulder, in company with other boys and girls, to swing through the dewy morning to the garden. Priscilla had joined the squad when she heard Elliott was to be in it, and with Stannard and Tom the three girls made a little procession. It proved a simple enough matter to wield a hoe. Elliott watched the others for a few minutes, and if her hills did not take on as workmanlike an appearance as Tom's and Gertrude's, or even as Priscilla's, they all assured her practice would mend the fault.