THE CAMP FIRE GIRLS AT SUNRISE HILL
By Margaret Vandercook
First of a series
Betty Ashton sighed until the leaves of the book she held in her hand quivered, then she flung it face downward on the floor.
"Oh dear, I do wish some one would invent something new for girls!" she exclaimed, although there was no one in the room to hear her. "It seems to me that all girls do nowadays is to imitate boys. We play their games, read their old books and even do their work, when all the time girls are really wanting girl things. I agree with King Solomon: 'The thing that hath been, it is that which, shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun.' At least not for girls!"
Then with a laugh at her own pessimism, Betty, like Hamlet, having found relief in soliloquy, jumped up from her chair and crossing her room pressed the electric button near the fireplace until the noise of its ringing reverberated through the big, quiet house.
"There, that ought to bring some one to me at last," she announced. "Three times have I rung that bell and yet no one has answered. Do the maids in this house actually expect me to build my own fire? I suppose I could do it if I tried."
She glanced at the pile of kindling inside her wood box and then at the sweet smelling pine logs standing nearby, but the thought of actually doing something for herself must have struck her as impossible, for the next moment she turned with a shiver to stare through the glass of her closed window, first up toward the sullen May sky and then down into her own garden.
Outside the gray clouds were slowly pursuing one another against a darker background and in the garden the lilacs having just opened their white and purple blossoms were now looking pale and discouraged as though born too soon into a world that was failing to appreciate them.
In spite of her petulance Betty laughed. She was wearing a blue dressing gown and her red-brown hair was caught back with a velvet ribbon of the same shade. Her room was in blue, "Betty's Blue" as her friends used to call it, the color that is neither light nor dark, but has soft shadows in it.
Betty herself was between fifteen and sixteen. She had gray eyes, a short, straight nose and her head, which was oddly square, conveyed an effect of refinement that was almost disdain. Her mouth was a little discontented and somehow she gave one the impression that, though she had most of the things other girls wish for, she was still seeking for something.
"The outdoors is as dismal as I am, no wonder we used to be sun worshipers," she said after a few more minutes of waiting; "but since Prometheus stole the fire from heaven some ages ago, I really don't see why I should have to freeze because the sun won't shine."
Frowning and gathering her dressing gown more closely about her with another impatient gesture, Betty swept out into the hall.
The house was strangely silent for the middle of a week-day afternoon; not a sound came either from below stairs or above, not the rattle of a window blind nor the echo of a single pair of footsteps.
At some time has a sudden silence ever fallen upon you with a sense of foreboding like the hour before a storm or the moment preceding some unexpected news or change in your life?
Betty hurried toward the back-stairs. She was leaning over the banisters and had called once for one of the maids, when she ceased abruptly, and stood still for several moments with her head tilted back and her body tense with surprise.
So long as Betty could recall, there had been a vacant room in the rear of the old Ashton homestead, which had stood for more than a hundred years at the comer of Elm Street in Woodford, New Hampshire. She was stupider than other people about remembering the events of her childhood and yet she was sure that this room had never been used for any purpose save as a storehouse for old pieces of furniture, for discarded pictures, for any odds and ends that found no other resting place about the great house. It was curious because the room was a particularly attractive one, with big windows overlooking the back garden, but then there was some story or other connected with it (old houses have old memories) and this must have made it unpopular. Betty did not know what the story was and yet she had grown up with a queer, childish dread of this room and rarely went into it unless she felt compelled.
Now, though she was not a coward, it did give her an uncanny sensation to hear a low, humming sound proceeding from this supposedly empty room.
Cautiously Betty stole toward its closed door and quietly turned the knob without making the least noise. Then she looked in.
What transformation had taken place! The room was a store place no longer, for most of the old furniture and all the other rubbish had been cleared away and what was left was arranged in a comfortable, living fashion. An old rug was spread out on the floor, a white iron bed stood in one corner with an empty bookshelf above it. There was a vase on a table holding a branch of blossoming pussy willow, and seated before one of the big, open windows was a strange girl whom Betty Ashton never remembered to have seen before in her life.
The girl was sewing, but this was not what kept Betty silent. She was also singing a new and strangely beautiful song.
"Lay me to sleep in sheltering flame, O Master of the Hidden Fire; Wash pure my heart, and cleanse for me My soul's desire."
Unconscious of the intruder and forgetful of everything else the singer's voice rose clearer and sweeter with the second verse.
"In flame of sunrise bathe my mind, O Master of the Hidden Fire, That when I wake, clear-eyed may be My soul's desire."
Then in silence, as she leaned closer to the window to get a better light on her sewing, an unexpected ray of sunshine managing at this moment to break through the clouds fell directly on her bowed head. Her hair was not auburn, like Betty's, but bright, undeniable red.
"That is a charming song and you have lovely voice, but would you mind telling me who you are, where you have come from and how you happen to be so at home in a room in our house?" Betty Ashton inquired, coolly, still keeping her position just outside the opened door.
The stranger jumped instantly to her feet, letting fall some brown embroidery silk and a number of bright-colored beads, then she stood with her eyes fixed anxiously on the apparition before her, nervously twisting her big, rather coarse-looking hands. She was a year older than Betty Ashton and at the first glance it would have been difficult to imagine two persons more unlike. Betty was slender but perfectly proportioned and had an air of unusual beauty and refinement, which her friends believed must come of her long line of distinguished ancestors, while the new girl was thin and angular, with hands and feet that seemed too big for her, and a pale, freckled skin. She too had gray eyes, but while Betty's brows and lashes were the color of her hair, this girl's were so light that they failed to give the needful shadows to her eyes.
In order to gain time and courage the newcomer walked slowly across the room, but when she spoke the beauty of her voice gave her unexpected charm and dignity.
"Hasn't your mother told you of my coming? didn't she ask you if you wanted me to come?" she questioned slowly. "I am sorry; my name is Esther Clark, but my name can mean nothing to you. Your mother has asked me here to live, to take care of your clothes, to read to you, to take walks when there is no one else—"
"Oh, you mean you are to be my maid," Betty finished, coming now into the center of the room and studying the other girl critically, her eyes suddenly dark with displeasure and her lips closed into a firm red line.
"I must say it is strange no one has thought to mention your coming to me, and as I am not a child, I think I might have been consulted as to whether I wished to be bothered with you." Betty bit her lips, for she did not mean to be unkind; only she was extremely provoked and was unaccustomed not to having her wishes consulted.
The older girl's face was no longer pale but had suddenly grown crimson. "No, I am not to be your maid," she returned. "At least Mrs. Ashton said I was to be a kind of companion; though I am to be useful to you in any way you like, I am still to go to school and to have time for studying. Of course the holidays are nearly here now, but later on I hope to graduate. If you don't wish me to stay you will please explain it to your mother, only—" Esther tried to speak naturally, but her voice faltered, "I hope you will be willing to let me stay at least until I can find some other place. I am too old to go back to the asylum."
"Asylum!" Betty stepped back in such genuine that her companion laughed, showing her white, even teeth and the softer curve to her mouth that relieved her face of some of its former plainness.
"Oh, I only meant the orphan asylum, so please don't be frightened," she explained. "I have lived there, it is just at the edge of town, ever since I was a little girl, because when my mother and father died, there was nothing else to do with me. But you need not feel specially sorry, because I have never been ill-treated in the fashion you read about in books. Most of the people in charge have been very kind and I have been going to school for years. Only when your mother came last week and said she wanted me to come here to live, why it did seem kind of wonderful to find out what a beautiful home was like, and then most of all I wanted to know you. You will think it strange of me, but I have been seeing you with your mother or nurse ever since you were a little girl of three or four and I a little older, and I have always been interested in you."
Betty smiled, showing a dimple which sometimes appeared after an exhibition of temper of which she felt ashamed. "Oh, you will be sorry enough to know what I am really like," she answered, "and will probably think I am dreadfully spoiled. But do please stay for a while if you wish, at least until we find how we get on together."
Since Betty's first speech at the door had startled her, Esther had never for a moment taken her eyes from her face. Never in all her life, even when she had seen and learned far more of the ways of the world, could this girl learn not to speak the truth. So now she slowly shook her head. "Your mother did say you were spoiled; it was one reason why she wished me to come here to live," she replied. "You see, she said that you had been too much alone and had too much done for you and that your brother was so much older that he only helped to spoil you. But," Esther was hardly conscious of her listener and seemed only to be thinking aloud, "I shall not mind if you are spoiled, for how can you help being when you are so pretty and fortunate and have all the things that other girls have just to dream of possessing."
It was odd, perhaps, but the new girl's speech was made so simply and sincerely that Betty Ashton instead of feeling angry or complimented was instead a little ashamed. Had fortune been kinder to her than to other girls, kinder than to the awkward girl in front of her in her plain gray linen dress?
Betty now backed toward the door which she had so lately opened. "I am sorry to have disturbed you, but usually this room isn't occupied and I was curious to know who could be in here. I should have knocked. Some day you must sing that lovely song to me, again, for I think I would like very much to know just what my soul's desire is. The worst of life is not knowing just what you want."
Esther had followed Betty toward the hall. "How funny that sounds to me," she returned shyly, "because I think the hard part of life is not having what you want. I know very well. But can't I do something for you now? Your mother said you were not well and perhaps would not wish to see me this afternoon, but I could read to you or—"
Betty's irritability returned. "Thank you very much," she returned coldly, "but I can think of nothing in the world that would amuse me at present. I simply wish not to freeze, and to save my life I can't get one of our tiresome maids to answer my bell."
Betty's grand manner had returned, but in spite of her haughtiness the newcomer persisted. "Do let me make the fire for you. I am only a wood- gatherer at present, but pretty soon I shall be a real fire-maker, for I have already been working for two months."
"A wood-gatherer and fire-maker; what extraordinary things a girl was forced to become at an orphan asylum!" Betty's sympathies were immediately aroused and her cheeks burned with resentment at the sudden vision of this girl at her side trudging through the woods, her back bent under heavy burdens. No wonder her shoulders stooped and her hands were coarse. Betty slipped her arm through the stranger's.
"No, I won't trouble you to make my fire, but do come into my room and let us just talk. None of my friends have been in to see me this afternoon, not even the faithless Polly! They are too busy getting ready for the end of school to think about poor, ill me." And Betty laughed gayly at the untruthfulness of this picture of herself.
Once inside the blue room, without asking permission, Esther knelt straightway down before the brass andirons and with deft fingers placed a roll of twisted paper under a lattice-like pile of kindling, arranging three small pine logs in a triangle above it. But before setting a match to the paper she turned toward the other girl hovering about her like a butterfly.
"I wonder if you would like me to recite the fire-maker's song?" she asked. "I haven't the right to say it yet, but it is so lovely that I would like you to hear it."
Betty stared and laughed. "Do fire-makers have songs?" she demanded. "How queer that sounds! Perhaps the Indians used to have fire songs long ago when a fire really meant so much. But I can't imagine a maid's chanting a song before one's fire in the morning and I don't think I should like being wakened up by it."
"You would like this one," the other girl persisted.
Little yellow spurts of flame were now creeping forth from between the sticks, some leaping away into nothingness, others curling and enfolding them. The paper in the grate crackled noisily as the cold May wind swept down the chimney with a defiant roar and both girls silently watched the newly kindled fire with the fascination that is eternal.
Betty had also dropped down on her knees. "What is your song?" she asked curiously an instant later, raising her hands before her face to let the firelight shine through.
Esther's head was bent so that her face could not be seen, but the beauty of her speech was reflected in the other girl's changing expression.
"As fuel is brought to the fire, So I purpose to bring My strength, my ambition, My heart's desire, My joy And my sorrow To the fire Of humankind."
Purposely Esther's voice dropped with these last words, and she did not continue until a hand was placed gently on her shoulder and a voice urged: "Please go on; what is the 'fire of humankind'?"
"For I will tend As my fathers have tended And my fathers' fathers Since time began, The fire that is called The love of man for man, The love of man for God."
At the end, Esther glancing around at the girl beside her was surprised to see a kind of mist over her gray eyes.
But Betty laughed as she got up to her feet and going over to her table stooped to pick up the book she had thrown on the floor half an hour before.
"I might have made my own fire if I had known that song," she said, switching on the electric light under the rose-colored shade. For the clouds outside had broken at last, the rain was pouring and the blue room save for the firelight would have been in darkness.
Betty sat down, putting her feet under her and resting her chin on her hands. "I wonder what it feels like to be useful?" she asked, evidently questioning herself, for afterwards she turned toward her companion. "You must have learned a great many things by being brought up at an orphan asylum, how to care for, other people and all that, but I never would have dreamed that poetry would have played any part in your education."
Esther had turned and was about to leave the room, but now at Betty's words, she looked at her strangely.
Her face had reddened again and because of the intensity of her feelings her big hands were once more pressed nervously together.
"Why, no, I never learned anything at the asylum but work," she answered slowly, "just dull, hateful, routine work; doing the same things over again every day in the same way, cooking and washing dishes and scrubbing. I suppose I was being useful, but there isn't much fun in being useful when nobody cares or seems to be helped by what you do. I know I am ugly and not clever, but I love beautiful people and, beautiful things."
Unconsciously her glance traveled from her listener's face to the small piano in the corner of the room. "And it never seemed to me that things, were divided quite fairly in this world, but now that I know about the Camp Fire Girls I am ever so much happier."
"Camp Fire Girls?" Betty queried. "Do sit down, child, I don't wish you to leave me, and please don't say horrid things about yourself, for it isn't polite and you never can tell how things are going to turn out. But who are the Camp Fire Girls; what are the Camp Fire Girls; are they Indians or Esquimaux or the fire-maidens in 'The Nibelungen'? Perhaps, after all, something new has been invented for girls, and a little while ago I felt as discouraged as King Solomon and believed there was nothing new and nothing worth while under the sun."
Betty's eyes were dancing with fun and anticipation, her bored look had entirely disappeared, but the other girl evidently took her question seriously. She had seated herself in a small desk chair and kept her eyes fixed on the fire. "It seems very queer to me that you don't know about the 'Camp Fire Girls'," she answered slowly, "and it may take me a long time to tell you even the little bit I know, but I think it the most splendid thing that has ever happened."
"METHINKS YOU ARE MY GLASS"
Just across the street from the old Ashton place was another house equally old and yet wholly unlike it, for instead of being a stately, well-kept-up mansion with great rooms and broad halls and half an acre of garden about it, this was a cottage of the earliest New England type. It was low and rambling, covering a good deal of ground and yet without any porch and very little yard, because as the village closed about it and Elm Street became a fashionable quarter the land had been gradually sold until now its white picket fence was only a dozen feet from the front door and passers-by could easily have looked inside its parlor windows save for the tall bushes that served as a shield. By immemorial custom the cottage had always been painted white and green, but for a good many years it had not been troubled by any paint at all, "but had lived," as Polly said, "on its past, and like a good many persons in Woodford had gotten considerably run down by the process."
Now there were no lights at any of the front windows, although it was eight o'clock in the evening, but as the warm steady glow of a lamp shone from the rear of the house, it was plainly occupied.
There was no doubt of this in the mind of the girl who stood knocking noisily at the closed door, saying in an imploring voice:
"Oh, do please hurry, Polly dear, you know it is only me and that I can't bear to be kept waiting."
At this moment a candle was evidently being borne down the hall, for the door opened so quickly afterwards that two girls, one on either side the door, fell into, one another's arms.
"Dear me, it's 'The Princess' and she is no more ill than I am, though we were told she couldn't possibly be at school to-day on account of her ill health," the girl on the inside spoke first, recovering her breath. "I suppose royal persons may lie abed and nurse their dispositions, while poor ones have to keep on washing dishes. But come on into the kitchen, Betty, we are in there to-night and I haven't yet finished my chores."
She led the way with the candle down the shabby hall until both girls entered the lighted room. There, with a little cry of surprise, Betty ran over and dropped down on her knees by the side of a lounge.
The woman on the lounge was not so large as the girl, although her brown hair showed a good deal of gray and her face looked tired and worn. She had been holding a magazine in her hands, but evidently had not been reading, for her eyes had turned from the girl, who stood only a few feet away from her drying some cups and saucers, to the two others who had just come in, without an instant's delay.
"I am quite all right, dear," she answered the newcomer, "only the kitchen seemed so warm and cozy after the wet day and I was tired."
Betty was too familiar with the lovely, old-fashioned kitchen of her dearest friends even to think about it, but to-night she did look about her for a moment.
The room was the largest in the cottage; the walls were of oak so dark a brown from age that they were almost black; there were heavy rafters across the ceiling and swinging from them bunches of dried, sweet- smelling herbs. The windows had broad sills filled with pots of red geraniums and ground ivy, and as they were wide open the odor of the wet, spring earth outside mingled with the aromatic fragrance of the flowers.
An old stove was set deep into the farthest wall with a Dutch oven at one side and above it a high, severely plain mantel holding a number of venerable pots and pans of pewter and copper and two tall, copper candlesticks. The candles were lighted, as the room was too large for the single light of the lamp on the table near the lounge.
Polly O'Neill had gone straight to her sister and putting both hands on her shoulders had pushed her steadily back inch by inch until she forced her into a large armchair.
"Mollie Mavourneen, you know I hate washing dishes like an owl does the day light, but I am not going to let you do my work and to-night you know the agreeable task of cleaning up belongs to me. I asked you to leave things alone when I went to the door and I don't think you play fair." Polly seized a cup with such vehemence that it slipped from her hand and crashed onto the floor, but neither her mother nor Mollie showed the least sign of surprise and only Betty's eyes widened with understanding.
Strangers always insisted that there were never twin sisters in the world so exactly alike as Mollie and Polly O'Neill (not that their names had ever been intended to rhyme in this absurd fashion, for they had started quite sensibly, as Mary and Pauline), but to the friends who knew them both well this idea was absurd. It was true they were of the same height and their hair and eyes of the same color, their noses and mouths of somewhat the same shape, but with these superficial likenesses the resemblance ended. Anybody should have been able to see that in each detail Polly was the more intense; her hair was blacker and longer, her eyes bluer, her cheek bones a little higher with brighter color and her chin and delicate nose a trifle longer and more pointed. Of the two girls, however, Mollie was the prettier because her features were more regular and her expression more serene; but once under the spell of her sister, one never thought much of her appearance.
Polly had a temperament and she was having an attack of it to-night; the room was fairly electric with it. From some far off Irish ancestor she must have inherited it, for though her father had been an Irishman and had spent forty out of the fifty years of his life in Ireland, he had quite a different disposition and had been as amazed by Polly in her babyhood as the rest of her family.
Captain O'Neill had resigned from the English army eighteen years before and crossed the ocean to spend a few years in the neighborhood of the White Mountains on account of his health; he had no more money than most Irish gentlemen, but had charming manners, was extremely handsome and had soon fallen in love and married a girl twenty years younger than himself. Mary Poindexter had been the girl most loved in Woodford, one of its belles and heiresses, but her money had not amounted to much and soon disappeared after her marriage, until now she had only the cottage in which she and her daughters lived and the income earned by her work as private secretary to Mr. Edward Wharton of "The Wharton Granite Co." Captain O'Neill had lived only until his twin daughters were eight years old and since then the girls and their mother had kept up their small home together.
"You are dead tired and Polly is cross as two sticks and poor Mollie does not know what to do with you. Would you rather I should go away? I only came to tell you something wonderful," Betty whispered in Mrs. O'Neill's ear.
The older woman shook her head. "No, you have come just at the right time. I am not very tired, only my daughters chose to think so and wouldn't let me help with dinner and so, as I am an obedient, well brought-up mother, I am doing as I am told. And Polly is not in a bad humor, at least I hope—"
The girl, who had been picking up the bits of broken china from the kitchen floor, now straightened up and for the first time Betty discovered that she must have been crying a short while before.
"Oh, yes, I am anything you may like to call me," Polly announced indifferently, "and I am not in the least ashamed to have 'The Princess' know it. If Betty had to stand all the things I have stood to-day, she would be in a far worse humor. She and I are not angels like Mary and Mollie, so I suppose that is the reason why we love one another part of the time and hate one another the rest. I am sure I never pretend not to being dreadfully envious of 'The Princess'."
Polly came over and sat down cross-legged on the old rug near her mother and best friend, and though she smiled a little to remove the sting from her words, something in her expression kept Betty from answering at once. In the meantime Mollie joined the group, taking her place at the foot of the lounge.
The three girls were nearly the same age and the closest friends, and Betty probably spent nearly as much of her waking time, at the cottage as she did in her own home, for whenever she was lonely or bored, or, tired perhaps of having too much done for her, she had been used to run across the street to play or work with her friends from the time they were children. Mrs. O'Neill had never seemed very much older than her daughters and had always been called "Mary" by the three girls.
Now Betty reached over and laid one and lightly on Polly. "Don't say we hate no another just because we quarrel now and then and both have bad tempers. I never hate Polly, do I Mary?"
But before Mrs. O'Neill could answer, Polly suddenly faced fiercely about. "I hate you to-night, Betty," she insisted, and then to make her words entirely unlike her actions, slipped one arm around her friend. "Oh, you know that I don't really mean I hate you, I only mean that I am horribly envious and jealous of your having all the money you want and being able to do things without worry, not just things for yourself, but things for other people." And Polly bit her lips and ceased speaking, both because of the note of warning in her mother's face and because the brightness had died away from Betty's.
"I wish you would understand, Polly, that just having things does not necessarily make one happy; I often think it must be nicer to be poor and to have to help like you and Mollie do. This afternoon I was feeling quite forlorn myself, as I had a kind of headache and no one came to see me, and then just like magic from out our haunted chamber there appeared well, I can hardly call her a good fairy, she was too homely, but at least a girl who told me of something so delightful that it sounds almost like a fairy tale. I talked of it to father at dinner and then rushed over to tell you, as I thought you might be interested, but perhaps I had better wait—"
From the foot of the lounge Mollie O'Neill now interrupted. Utterly unlike either her sister or friend in her disposition, her influence often held them together.
"We do want to hear what you have to tell us, Betty, most dreadfully. Just because we happen to be specially worried about something to-night is no reason why Polly should be so mysterious. I vote we tell you what our trouble is and then you tell us your secret."
Polly got up from the floor. She was always curiously intense, not deliberately, but perhaps as a part of her inheritance. Now she made a little bow to Betty. "I am sorry I was rude to you, Princess," she said gently, "but tell you the reason for my special tirade against poverty to-night, I will not and Mollie shall not tell either."
Without replying Betty turned to pick up her blue cloak which had dropped from her shoulders as she knelt by the lounge. It had a cap attached with a blue silk lining and this she slipped over her head.
"It isn't worth while for me to talk of my plan to-night, then," she returned, "for if Polly won't be interested, you and, I could never make a go of it by ourselves, Mollie. Good-night; I promised not to stay very long." Passing by the lounge Mrs. O'Neill reached out, slipping her hand in Betty's and drew her to a place beside her. Usually a girl with the three other girls there was now and then a note in Mrs. O'Neill's voice which they seldom failed to recognize.
"Mollie is right, as Betty is almost one of our family, it is only fair to tell her what has put Polly in her present mood. The truth is, dear, the doctor thinks I am not very well and am needing a rest, so I am being made to lie down every evening after my work, by my daughters, and I am sure when warm weather comes I shall be all right again."
"You won't," Polly interrupted, "and if that is all you mean to tell Betty, why I shall certainly tell her everything now you have started."
Polly went on quickly, with two bright spots of color in her cheeks: "Resting in the evenings is not going to help mother; Dr. Hawkes says she needs months and months of rest and unless she has it she will soon be having a nervous breakdown or something else; that working for nearly eight years in an office supporting herself and two daughters is enough to tire any woman out. Then to-day a wonderful invitation came from my father's relatives, who have never paid the least attention to us before, asking mother to spend the summer with them in Ireland, and—"
Betty's hands were clapped eagerly together as she concluded, "So you are going to accept and Polly's blue at the thought of being separated from you, but really I can't see any reason why I should not have been told of this."
Instead of replying, Polly frowned and Mrs. O'Neill shook her head, so the explanation fell to Mollie. "No, mother is not going to accept; that is what the trouble is and that is why Polly and I sometimes feel cross with you, Betty, because rich people never seem to be able to understand about poor ones. You do what you like without thinking of the money, and we can't do anything we like without thinking of it. Mother feels she can't afford to go."
Looking almost as depressed as her two friends, Betty now turned her back deliberately on both girls to whisper in the older woman's ear.
"Oh, Mary, won't you, can't you; you know how happy it would make us." But she knew her answer even before it was given and also understood that Polly's pride would never have agreed to let her mother accept any favor through her. Indeed, never in all the long years of their friendship had Betty ever dared do half the things she longed to do for her two friends, and indeed Mrs. Ashton often said that Betty accepted far more than she was able to return, since she spent so much of her time in Mrs. O'Neill's home.
"You are awfully foolish, Mary," Betty argued, "because if you should really get ill—"
"That is just what I have been saying, Betty dear, for the past two hours," Polly protested, forgetting the difference between herself and her friend and edging close enough to the lounge to lay her head in, the other girl's lap. "And the worst of it is, Mr. Wharton says mother can have the holiday, he will pay her salary while she is away, and she only won't go because she says she can't leave Mollie and me alone and can't afford to pay any one to look after us. It is so foolish, when we are old enough to be taking care of her! I suppose she wouldn't be afraid to leave Mollie, it is just me! Sometimes it does not seem quite fair to be born a twin, because see how things are put into Mollie divided, all the good got and all the bad into me; so I suppose mother thinks I would set the house on fire or run away and go on the stage as I sometimes threaten, so soon as her back was turned. Oh, Mavourneen darling of the world, the very name of Lake Killarney, where our cousins live, would make you well."
But again Polly stopped talking because Betty had seized her by both shoulders, giving her a decided shake. "Say it again to me quickly. Is it just because Mary does not know what to do with you and Mollie that she won't go away?"
And both sisters nodded silently.
With a cry of what sounded like delight, Betty rose hurriedly to her feet, letting the blue cloak slip away from her for the second time.
Then dancing across the kitchen she seized the two tall candlesticks from the mantelpiece and setting them down in the center of the floor afterwards added the third, with which Polly had lighted their way through the hall. Above them she made a mystic sign by flattening the fingers of her right hand against those of her left, while slowly she revolved about them chanting: "Wohelo, Wohelo, Wohelo, in you lies the answer to all our difficulties," to the entire amazement of her small audience.
"WORK, HEALTH AND LOVE"
"Much learning hath made her mad," sighed Polly mournfully, Betty being a notoriously poor student.
Mollie was staring thoughtfully at their visitor. "That is an Indian folk dance; perhaps Betty is pretending to be Pocahontas," she suggested, with such an evident attempt to explain away her friend's eccentricities that Betty stopped in her dance to laugh, and Polly and Mrs. O'Neill followed suit.
"I am not mad and I am not playing at being Pocahontas, but as usual Mollie is nearer right than her sister Polly because there is a good deal about the Indians in what I want to tell you." Betty sat down before the three shining candles and taking a little stick from the pile of wood near by she pointed it at her third candle. "You are to guess what my strange word, 'Wohelo' means. No, it is not an Indian, word, although it sounds like it. Mary, you begin by taking the last syllable first. What is the greatest thing in the world?"
Mrs. O'Neill, some minutes before, had risen half way up from her lounge and was leaning her head on her arm, while she watched Betty's curious proceedings. "The greatest thing in the world?" she repeated softly. "Far wiser persons than I found the answer to that question many years ago. The greatest thing in the world is love."
Betty nodded. "Now, Polly, you may have the next guess, though you are sure to say the wrong thing. What is the next greatest thing to love?"
Polly shrugged her thin shoulders, her face still moody in spite of her recently awakened interest. "Oh, I told you the answer to that question when you first came into this room, Betty Ashton, though none of you chose to believe me. It is plain as a pipe-stem to me that wealth is the next best thing to love and sometimes it is better when you happen to love the wrong thing—or person."
"It rhymes with wealth but begins with the letter 'h'," the questioner returned hastily, too much in earnest to waste further time in argument. "Now, Mollie, you have the third turn, remember you are to decide what the first syllable stands for, 'Wo'."
For a few seconds the third girl hesitated, her cheeks flushing uncomfortably. Not so quick or clever with her tongue as Polly and Betty she was far more gifted with her fingers. "I am sure I don't know what you mean," she replied. "'Wo' is the beginning of the word 'woman', but you can't mean woman. I know you and Polly think books of plays and novels the greatest things in the world, but I don't and besides I can't find the right word for them. You know what I really like best is just cooking and cleaning up and putting flowers on the table, stupid household things that can't have anything to do with your wonderful word." And Mollie looked so apologetic for her own domestic tastes that her mother took both her hands and held them tight.
"For goodness' sake, Mollie dear, even in these days of the advanced female it is still something to be proud of, to have real womanly tastes. Because some women go out into the world is no reason why they should lose their womanly instincts. What we are all working for, both men and women, is really just the making of a home, a big or a little one. I don't know myself what word Betty is searching for, but I do believe these very things that you like best come very close to my own guess. For if love is the greatest thing in the world, the making of a home to shelter it is most important. I have an idea that love would come to a tragic end if, when it returned home to dinner, Polly should meet it in the character of Ophelia, with wild flowers in her hair, offering it rosemary and rue for dinner instead of meat and vegetables."
Again the audience laughed because of Polly's well-known devotion to the drama and because if she were left alone to look after the cooking, her mother and Mollie often returned to find her poring over her recitations with the dinner burning on the stove.
"If mother is going to preach a sermon with me for a text, Betty's candles will sputter and die out before ever she explains her word," Polly suggested.
"Oh, the word is 'work'; Mollie wasn't so far wrong, though work may mean different things to different people. Wohelo means 'Work, Health and Love'," Betty explained quickly, still keeping her eyes on the candle flames.
But Polly rising from her place slipped over and took Betty by both shoulders.
"Elizabeth Ashton, more commonly known as 'The Princess,' Bettina or Betty, will you kindly explain yourself? No doubt those are three estimable things you are recommending to us, but please tell me how Work, Health and Love are going to solve our present difficulties and help mother get the rest she needs. It seems to me she has given us too much of the first and last of your watchword already and has too little of the middle thing left in consequence."
Betty's long lashes swept her cheeks in a tantalizing fashion and her color deepened as, clasping her hands over her knees, she began slowly swaying back and forth, her eyes fastened on Polly.
"I am dreadfully long in coming to my point," she confessed, "but it is such fun to keep you guessing and I do so want you to be interested. You see, I suppose you know about the Camp Fire Girls, everybody seems to have heard except me, but now 'That light which has been given to me, I desire to pass undimmed to others.' Will you, won't you, will you, won't you be a Camp Fire Girl?" Her manner, which had been a queer combination of fun and seriousness, now at last appeared entirely grave. "Mollie and Polly," she continued quietly, "You know how often we have talked lately of being dissatisfied, of feeling that here we are growing older and older every day and yet not learning half the things we ought to learn nor having half the fun we ought to have. Of course we read novels all the time, because it is the only way for nice girls to learn about romance or adventure, but we would like really to live the things we think about just the same as boys do. They don't dream and scold about the things they want to do; they go ahead and do them, teaching one another by working things out together. They belong to things and don't just have to have things belong to them' to make them happy like girls do."
"Hear, hear!" cried Polly, not exactly seeing what Betty was driving at and desiring to tease her into greater confusion.
But as Mrs. O'Neill shook her head encouragingly, Betty would not deign to consider her tormentor.
"Oh, it is foolish for me to try to explain all the Camp Fire idea means," she added simply. "I couldn't if I tried, for Esther Clark, the strange girl who has been living at the asylum and has just come to our house, only told me what she knew this afternoon. But I want to find out by living the Camp Fire idea, I want to see what we could get out of forming a Camp Fire Club, the first one here in Woodford. Just take Polly and Mollie and me, for example, Mary dear," she continued coaxingly. "I am longing to know the things Mollie does about cooking and housekeeping and all the rest and I can't learn at home. Think what it means to go messing about in our kitchen with, cook and half a dozen servants laughing at you! Then Mollie really would like to know what Polly and I find so fascinating in books and in prowling about together in the woods and Polly—well, I don't know that she wishes to learn anything from Mollie or me or anybody else who joins our club, but if she doesn't, that is just what she ought to learn."
Polly held up both hands. "For goodness sake, Betty, stop talking, I will join your Camp Fire Club and be made an example of at any time, also I will use my noble influence to persuade any girls you wish to join. All the same I don't see what your wretched club has to do with helping us solve our problem about mother, and that is all I care about at present."
"Has to do,—why everything," Betty repeated slowly. But before she was able to finish her sentence there was a sudden loud ringing of the front door bell and the three girls jumped to their feet. In another moment Polly had disappeared into the hall, returning with her expression changed again to its original look of gloom.
"It's that granite man, mother, Mr. Wharton, with his entire family, son and daughter. I wonder why they can't leave you alone after business hours? I had to ask them in the parlor, since we can't entertain any one in the kitchen except 'The Princess,' but we simply can't join you until we hear what she has to say."
Polly sighed as her mother rose without replying and left the room, and Betty did he her best to hide her smiles, for everybody in Woodford believed that Mrs. O'Neill's employer had more than a friendly interest in her, and though Polly constantly railed at their poverty and Mr. Wharton was the richest man in the village, the very sound of his name used often to irritate her.
The candles had at last burned down to their sockets and softly Betty blew out the last flickering flames. With a nod of understanding Mollie turned down the lighted lamp and after a fashion of many years the three girls drew three little old fashioned rockers in a semicircle up before the kitchen fire.
"My plan is to form our Camp Fire Club of just the right girls and to have just the right guardian and then to spend our whole summer camping in the woods," Betty explained quickly at last. "You see I don't want to go to Europe with mother and father this summer one bit, I am dead tired of hotels and sights. So at dinner to-night I talked over the Camp Fire plan with father and though mother wasn't enthusiastic I could see father didn't think it in the least a bad idea, so I am sure he will give us the camping outfit if I beg very hard and we can all share expenses afterwards. Can't you understand that if Mary lets you spend your summer in camp she can go away and rest and think no more about you and we can have such a wonderful time."
In the half darkness Polly danced a shadow dance and then flung her arms about her friend. "Oh, Princess, I might have known you were as clever as 'Sentimental Tommy' and would surely 'find a wa'. I am sure mother will think it a beautiful plan for us. Just to live among the trees and the stars and hear the birds sing, and tell stories about our own camp fire and to sing."
"Yes, and to do our own cooking and cleaning and wood gathering and a thousand other practical things," laughed Betty, to stop Polly's rhapsodizing. "But the truly important part of our scheme is to find congenial girls for our club and the right guardian."
"There are four of us already," Mollie suggested.
Betty appeared surprised. "Just you and Polly and me; what fourth girl do you mean?"
As Mollie did not answer at once, a low whistle came from between Polly's closed lips. "Do you mean, Princess, that you do not intend to invite the girl who told you about the Camp Fire Club, Esther Clark? I know her by sight at school."
Betty frowned. "Certainly I had not meant to include her; she does not belong to our set. I don't mean to be rude, but she has been raised in an orphan asylum and nobody knows who she is. I suppose she comes of some very common family."
"Common families sometimes produce very uncommon characters," Polly returned dryly. "And s-n-o-b spells snob, but not Betty, I hope. I wish you wouldn't think so much about 'family', Princess; I do believe we ought to judge people by what they are themselves and not by what their ancestors have been."
With a quick movement Betty half overturned her chair. "Good-night," she said, "we can talk things over to-morrow. I promised not to be too late to-night. It isn't that I really mind having Esther in our club, only we don't know her very well and it seems most important that we should all be congenial."
But Betty could not move toward the door because her skirts were held fast. "If you go now I shall cry my eyes out all night," Polly protested in a tone that was almost convincing. "It was horrid of me, darling, to tell you the truth and me Irish and believin' in the blarney stone," she apologized in her Pollyesque fashion. "Please never, never tell me the truth about myself and have anybody in your club you like. Only if you expect to have twelve girls who exactly agree you will have to leave both you and me out to start with."
Betty laughed, only half appeased, but Mollie was speaking quietly and because she talked less frequently than the other two girls they usually paused to listen to her.
"I think the more unlike we girls are the more fun we will have and the more we will help one another," she suggested. "But, Betty, do you know who has started this Camp Fire idea in Woodford and who knows just what we ought to do?"
Betty groaned. "Who else could it be, my dear, but my arch-enemy, the person I like least and who likes me even less in all this village. Ah, is anything ever perfect in this life? Martha McMurtry, the science teacher at the high school, who will certainly cause me to remain in the sophomore class another year unless I learn something more than what H2O means, is the only woman Esther could suggest."
The sisters laughed, since Betty's battles with this teacher had kept things lively.
"You poor dear, we can't have her for our guardian," Polly insisted sympathetically. "Can you imagine such a prim, scientific old maid ever understanding anything of the beauty and romance of life in the woods? I would like Titania, Queen of the Fairies, to be our only chaperon."
Before the other girls could dispute the absurdity of Polly's final suggestion, the kitchen door opened and Mrs. O'Neill returned looking unusually cross. "Why didn't you join me, you wicked children?" she said reproachfully. "Mr. Wharton came to ask me, since I was not going away, to look after his little girl this summer. He has to leave on some business trip and as Frank is to camp in the woods, there was nothing for the poor man to do with Sylvia. I hope you won't mind very much, for I have promised to take care of her."
"Sylvia!" The three voices made a dismal chorus.
"That stupid, ill-mannered child! I am sorry, dear, but you are not going to look after anything or anybody this summer but yourself. You see you are sailing for Ireland in a few weeks and we are going to live in the woods and be taken care of by our old mother earth and our father, the sun," Polly replied dramatically.
"You are talking nonsense, Polly; please don't be tiresome any more to-night," Mrs. O'Neill urged, lying down on the sofa again, as though she were too weary to be up another minute. "I can't discuss the matter with you, but Mr. Wharton has been too kind for me to refuse him this request."
Betty found her blue cloak again and softly slipped over to kiss the older woman good-night. "Don't worry, what Polly told you is true, but Sylvia shall be looked after just the same."
She slipped away, Polly following to watch her safely across the street as she always did. Outdoors the girls stood silent for a moment looking up at the beauty of the night. The stars were shining and the warmth the day had failed to bring to the earth had been followed by some unseen messenger of the night.
"You are going to include that hateful child in your Camp Fire Club after what I said to you, Betty?" Polly whispered. "Oh, if only her name wasn't Sylvia and she didn't have a snub nose and wear goggles I could forgive her. But think how absurd the combination is! Anyhow you are a dear, and it must be because I am Irish that I am always in the wrong."
Thump, thump, thump came the sound of a heavy object rolling slowly step by step down a long stairway and then after an interval of ten seconds a prolonged, ear-piercing roar.
Immediately a girl darted out of a room on the second floor of a pretty brick house, colliding with a young man several years older, who came forth at the same time from his own room across the hall.
"Great Scott, Meg, what are you doing only half-dressed at this hour of the day?" he demanded with brotherly contempt.
"We will discuss my costume or lack of it later," she returned, holding her short flannel dressing sacque together and laughing over her shoulder where one long blond plait hung neatly braided, the rest of her hair falling loose. "Methinks that was Horace Virgil Everett trying to break up the furniture somewhere! Was there ever such an infant born into this suffering world? I simply never turn my back without his getting into fresh trouble."
While she was talking she was also running downstairs, followed in a more leisurely manner by her brother. Both of them glanced into the empty library and untidy dining-room as they passed and finally arrived in a dark passageway at the end of the back stairs.
A small object lay on the floor with its arms and legs outspread, showing not the slightest inclination to pick itself up, and on Meg's bending over it the wails broke out afresh.
"Oh, do shut up, 'Bumps'," Jack Everett said good-naturedly. "You haven't killed yourself and you're much too big for Meg to carry."
But the small boy clung desperately to his sister, his fat arms about her neck and his legs about her waist until with difficulty she was able to get him upstairs and into her own room.
He was probably about three feet high and almost as broad, between three and four years old, with brown hair that would stand up in a pompadour simply because it was too stiff to lie down, a perfectly insignificant nose, a Cupid's bow of a mouth and two large grave blue eyes, as innocent of mischief as any lamb's.
At the present moment, however, his eyes were simply raining tears, as though they had their source in a cloudburst, and over one of them a bump appeared as large as an egg. Indeed, Horace Virgil, named for his Professor father's favorite Latin poets, had been rechristened 'Bumps' by his older brother and was more commonly known by that title.
Meg kept glancing at the clock as she dampened her small brother's forehead with witch hazel. "I am afraid I can't go," she said in a disappointed tone, "and I am dreadfully sorry because I promised. But if I leave Horace with the servants now he will howl himself ill. I don't suppose you were going to stay in for a few hours. Oh, of course not!" she concluded, seeing that her older brother was wearing his khaki service uniform and held a big, broad-brimmed hat in his hand. "Heigh- ho, don't I wish I were a boy," she sighed whimsically, turning at last toward her mirror, decorated with college flags, and beginning to braid the second half of her hair.
John Everett, frowned and fidgeted. "I am sorry, Meg," he replied after a moment. "I would stay at home, only there is a meeting of my brigade and when a fellow belongs to a thing why he owes it some of his time. I don't see why you have to stay at home so much. Of course it is a good deal for a girl to have to look after, a house and father and the kid and me, but you have two maids and if you only were a better manager. Why you don't seem even to take time to dress like other girls, you are always kind of flying apart with a button off your waist or the braid torn on your skirt, and I do love a spick and span girl. Why don't you look like Betty Ashton, she's always up to the limit?"
Margaret Everett coiled her yellow plaits about her head, keeping her back turned to hide the trembling of her lips until she was able to answer cheerfully. "Why yes, I should like to look like 'The Princess' and wear clothes like she does, but in the first place I am not so good looking as Betty, I haven't a maid to see after my clothes and fifty dollars a month to dress on—and I haven't a mother."
Jack Everett flushed. He was a splendid looking fellow, big and brown, with light hair of almost the same coppery tones as his sister's, and although but eighteen was nearly six feet tall. It was his last year at the Male High School of which his father was President, and already he had passed with high honors his entrance examinations for Dartmouth College.
"Oh, I say, Meg, don't pile it on," he protested. "You are handsome enough all right, and it was only on your own account that I was wishing you could run things better."
Meg had evidently given up the idea of her engagement by this time, for she had seated herself in a big chair with her small brother on her lap and was rocking him slowly back and forth, his head resting on her shoulder.
"You are right, Jack, I am not offended," she answered. "I know I am a poor manager, but somehow I don't just take to housekeeping and mothering naturally. Men always think girls know such things by instinct. They don't understand that we have to learn them just as boys learn bookkeeping or office work and I have never had any one to teach me."
"The late Miss Everett," a new voice called unexpectedly, apparently coming from about midway up the front steps. "Meg, may I come on upstairs, the front door was half open and I knew full well that you would never keep your promise to me unless I came and got you."
Meg put down her small burden hastily and John unconsciously stiffened his broad shoulders until his appearance was more than ever military.
"Come on up, Betty dear, I am sorry I am such a sight, but the baby has just gotten hurt and I have to give up the club meeting," Meg called back.
The next instant Betty Ashton appeared at the open bedroom door, wearing a light woolen motor coat, a blue hat with a red-brown wing in it fitting close over her hair which was tucked up out of sight in a very grown-up fashion. She had a great deal of color and her eyes were bright with desire.
"Oh, you can't disappoint me, Meg; I shall never forgive you," she protested, and then came to a sudden stop seeing that John Everett was also in her friend's room. But as he bowed low to her it was impossible for him to have observed her slight blush.
"Do take Meg with you by force, Miss Ashton," he urged. (It was always quite thrilling to Betty at fifteen to be called "Miss Ashton," and no other boy of her acquaintance seemed to realize that one could grow out of being addressed as "Betty".) "She spoils the small boy and all the rest of us far too much. 'Bumps' has just taken another tumble." Jack Everett then backed out of the room in soldierly fashion and at the instant of his disappearance Betty tucked her arms about the small Horace, critically surveying his injured eye.
"Do hurry and get dressed, Meg, that's a dear. You know we simply can't get on without you this afternoon. I will button you up in a jiffy and we can take this bumptious little person along with us. He will probably escape and fall down somewhere while we are having our meeting, but we can both keep our eyes on him."
"He would be too much trouble," Meg demurred, but already she was surveying her only clean shirt waists, a blue and a white one, to see which was in the better state of repair. The blue was faded but whole, so she slipped into it, letting Betty button it up the back, and then with her brother's words still rankling in her mind carefully adjusted her skirt at, the belt. "You are awfully good to let me come this afternoon, Betty, because I told you it would be just impossible for me to spend the summer with you girls as it would be for me to take a trip to the moon. John is going camping and father is to have a summer lecture course in Boston and—"
"Oh yes, and you are to stay at home and take care of this house and baby! I don't think it is fair, or that your father or brother in the least realize what you do for them. But see here, dear, if what I thinks is true, as my old nurse used to say, and you come to be a Camp Fire girl this summer, why you will learn an awful lot about keeping house and being first aid to broken babies and everything you need to know. Never mind, don't let's argue about the question now, just come along, for the motor is waiting at the gate. Nearly all the girls I have asked must be at home by this time, but I have to collect two more people, Martha McMurtry—you know how I love her—and yet she carries the information in her brain of the right way to organize a Camp Fire club. Also there is Eleanor Meade; being a genius, you know Eleanor can't be expected to remember anything, should a wave of inspiration happen to flow over her."
THEIR FIRST MEETING
The drawing-room at the Ashton homestead ran the whole length of one side of the house and on this particular May afternoon was so filled with sunshine and light that even the old portraits on the walls appeared to change their severe Puritanical expressions and to look down, from out their heavy gold frames, with something almost approaching friendliness, on the strange girl now alone in the room, although nothing in her appearance or manner suggested the birth and breeding partly responsible for their New England pride.
The girl was also humbly engaged in placing fresh flowers on the tables and mantel and in rearranging the chairs and ornaments in the room to their best advantage. Finally, after a lingering glance out the front window, she picked up her last vase of flowers, a single branch of apple blossoms in a tall, green jar, and, crossing over to the grand piano so placed it that the sunlight shone full upon it. Then she stood for a moment looking thoughtfully at the open keyboard, which had a small sheet of music spread before it. Esther Clark next sat down at the piano and lightly ran her fingers over the keys so that it could scarcely have been possible for any one farther away than the adjoining hall to have heard her playing. The refrain was simple and repeated itself, yet had dramatic force and lingered in one's memory, the musical call of the watchword for the Camp Fire Girls.
Only that morning Betty had asked Esther to try to teach this call to her friends when they came together at her home that afternoon to form their club, and though Esther was painfully shy she felt obliged to do her best. Some few of Betty's friends were known to her through their acquaintance at school, but into not one of their homes had she ever been invited socially.
The door of the drawing-room farthest from the piano opened quietly.
"Betty," a young man's voice inquired reproachfully, "aren't you even glad enough to see me to say hello? When before did I ever know you so devoted to practicing that you wouldn't stop for any excuse, and yet here I have come all the way home from Portsmouth on your account!"
Richard Ashton ceased talking abruptly, for instead of the pretty figure of his sister, Betty, he now beheld rising from the piano stool a tall girl with bright red hair, looking as though she had been frightened speechless.
"Great Caesar's ghost, what a homely girl!" was his first thought, but not a change in his expression revealed what was in the young man's mind as he stretched forth his hand.
"I am sorry to have interrupted you," he said quickly, "but I am Richard Ashton, Betty's brother."
Of course he expected that the strange girl would then answer him, at least tell him who she was or give some explanation of her presence, but instead Esther stood silently looking down at the floor and twisting her hands together in a wholly unnecessary state of embarrassment.
Richard Ashton was of medium height, slenderly built, but with broad shoulders, and at this time of life twenty-three years old. His hair and eyes were light brown; he bore no resemblance to Betty and had a curiously serious expression for so young and fortunate a fellow. Although not handsome, Dick had a look of purpose and distinction and always had unconsciously served as the ideal for Betty's girl friends. He was a Princeton graduate, but was now studying medicine in Portsmouth and expected later to continue his studies in Germany. Perhaps it was his own seriousness and settled purpose that had made him assist in spoiling his small sister almost from her babyhood, yet lately seeing Betty's restlessness and discontent he had begun to wonder if he and his father and mother had been as kind to her as they had meant to be. Betty was growing up and it might be she too needed to have something asked of her, that she too wished to give as well as to receive.
"I am not your sister's friend (the girl near the piano had finally made up her mind to speak), I am only a kind of companion, to help her with her studying or to do whatever she desires."
Dick Ashton laughed, his face immediately losing its look of gravity. "Well, that is no particular reason why you should not be her friend as well, is it? At least I hope Betty won't make the task too hard for you, but as to doing all the things she desires, I am afraid that will keep you pretty busy. I believe I remember now, my mother did write me about asking you to come here to stay; you have lived before—" The young man hesitated. But Esther had now come nearer and really she seemed almost too plain even to serve his pretty sister, Betty, the contrast might be too hard for the homely girl.
"You were playing something when I came in, won't you go on," Dick continued hastily, fearing that the strange girl, with her pale eyes fixed on his, might be able to read his inmost thoughts and not desiring to hurt her feelings. However she had started, edging toward the door. "I would much rather not; your sister is to have some friends here this afternoon and wishes me to teach them a few lines of music. I hope your mother won't mind my touching this splendid piano."
"What on earth is the girl afraid of? I have no desire to eat her," Richard thought to himself, continuing to observe Esther's frightened expression and nervous manner, but only answering good-naturedly: "Certainly she won't mind. Please use the piano whenever you like, for Betty hates practicing and I don't care much for a man musician, especially a poor one, though I love music."
Just for a moment the newcomer's timidity vanished and her smile of pleasure, showing her big, strong mouth with its white teeth, relieved her face of its entire plainness. "I should love it more than anything in the world; would you mind asking your mother if I may? I am afraid to ask her."
"But not afraid of asking me?" Richard laughed; he had made his suggestion without any special thought, but the girl might as well be allowed to bang at their piano if she liked. Should she get it out of order why it could soon be straightened out again. And then kindness to persons less fortunate than himself was second nature with Richard Ashton.
"Here is the mater coming, I will ask her at once," he returned, and then seeing Esther's unspoken look of entreaty, as he went forward to open the door for his mother, he silently agreed to postpone his request.
Mrs. Ashton was a tall, blonde, handsomely dressed woman, who rarely showed affection for anyone save her husband and children and whose leisure time was largely devoted to playing bridge. Neither Betty nor her son looked like her. Richard resembled his father, while Betty must have inherited her appearance from some more remote ancestor. In one comer of the parlor hung an oil painting of one of Mr. Ashton's great- aunts, a young English girl in a white muslin dress and picture hat, whom Betty always insisted she resembled.
Mrs. Ashton was frowning anxiously.
"Hasn't Betty returned, Dick?" she inquired. "It is an hour since luncheon and her friends may arrive at any moment. The child was not at all well yesterday and, I do wonder if her science teacher can be keeping her in, Miss McMurtry is so inconsiderate. I really don't know what to do about Betty this summer, she is so opposed to going to Europe with us again and wants to form a club or a camp, something perfectly extraordinary, so as to spend her summer in the woods. She almost talked your father into the idea last evening, but I do hope, dear Richard, that you will oppose her. You have such influence with Betty."
Dick and his mother were standing together by the window now on the lookout, for the truant. "Don't be such a weakling, mother," the young man replied teasingly. "If you really wish Betty to go to Europe with you and father say so and let that settle the matter, but I am not so sure this new scheme of hers is a bad one. Betty sent me a night telegram at bedtime last night (telephoned it, I suppose, when you thought she was in bed) asking me to come home for the day and help her get her own way. Living out of doors all summer, mother, and learning to look after herself and to rub up against other girls may be the best thing in the world for Betty. I am afraid she has been growing up to be more ornamental than useful."
"There is no reason why Betty should be anything but ornamental," Mrs. Ashton argued, although plainly thinking over her son's words.
Dick Ashton shook his head. "No, mother, the modern world has no place in it but for useful people nowadays. And somehow it seems to me that even more is going to be asked of women than has been asked of men. They have got to do their own housekeeping and some of the world's too, pretty soon."
Before the young fellow finished speaking he and his mother were both smiling and waving their hands toward Mollie and Polly O'Neill, who were at this moment crossing the street with several other girl friends. Before they entered the house, however, Betty's automobile, driven by herself, dashed into sight, containing five other passengers: Margaret Everett and her small brother; Miss McMurtry, the science teacher at the high school; a tall girl with a clever face and a far-away expression in her near-sighted blue eyes; and a fifth girl, an entire stranger both to Mrs. Ashton and Dick and until a short while before an equal stranger to Betty.
Almost before the car stopped Betty was out of her seat and ushering her visitors into their big, sweet-smelling drawing-room. There Esther stood close against the wall, trying her best to shrink out of sight even while she reproached herself for her unnecessary awkwardness and fear. Suppose she had had no home and no social training like the greater number of these other girls, yet did she not mean to follow forever the law of the Camp Fire and would it not teach her in time to gain the knowledge necessary to happiness?
THE LAW OF THE CAMP FIRE
"Esther, won't you repeat the Law of the Camp Fire for the girls?" Miss McMurtry asked, fifteen minutes later, when Betty's guests were seated in a close circle about the drawing-room, their faces eager with curiosity.
Esther alone sat at some distance from the others, so that Betty was compelled to draw her forward toward the center of their group. How she longed to refuse to recite, for instead of a dozen pairs of eyes fastened upon her she felt there must be at least a hundred! Yet catching an expression of amused sympathy on Dick Ashton's face somehow she felt encouraged to go on.
"Esther and I have been studying the plan of the Camp Fire organization for the past two months and it is really very simple," Miss McMurtry continued. "One must just follow certain general rules and then add whatever seems appropriate to give one's special camp originality and character. I had been hoping to form a club in the village this summer, but of course if we can carry out Betty's idea and spend our summer together in the woods, why we will learn in a few months what it might have taken us years to find out in weekly meetings in town." The young woman stopped, turning toward Esther, and the girl then felt obliged to speak. Esther's voice was low, but had that rare quality given to but a few voices of being heard at even a great distance without being raised.
"Seek beauty. Give service. Pursue knowledge. Be trustworthy. Hold on to health. Glorify work. Be happy."
With each line, feeling the sympathy of her small audience increase, Esther gained courage until at last she was able to finish her verse with fervor and conviction.
After her conclusion most of the faces near her were unusually thoughtful until Polly O'Neill, seated next Mrs. Ashton, gave a characteristic laugh followed by a sigh.
"My dear children, if we ever learn to live up to that law of the Camp Fire, then shall we be angels and not girls!" she exclaimed.
And she might have added more had not an imploring frown from Betty silenced her. Of course some of the girls would understand that Polly rarely meant what she said, but there we're other members of the little company with whom Betty wished to take no risks. Besides, Polly's laugh could sometimes dampen even her own enthusiasm! And had she not placed her friend next her mother in order that she might interest Mrs. Ashton in their plan, for Polly was a great favorite with the older woman and never afraid of using her pretty blarney stone with her.
However, except for a laugh no one seemed in the least influenced by Polly's skepticism.
"We can at least try to live up to the law," Mollie replied quietly, answering from her chair a few feet away.
In a few moments, however, Betty no longer feared the effect of her friend's attitude. Perhaps to some of the girls the idea of a summer camp seemed too beautiful to be possible, yet plainly the ideals of the Camp Fire organization, as Miss McMurtry explained them more fully, had fired their imaginations, filling them with new hopes and enthusiasm.
Meg had been listening to what had been said with glowing cheeks, meaning to become a Camp Fire girl even though it was entirely impossible for her to join the summer camp. She was holding her small brother tight in her arms, trying to distract his attention with objects to be seen out the front window, and so entirely oblivious of the fact that the hastily adjusted hairpins had been slipping out of her hair, until one yellow braid now dangled over her pink ear.
Mollie O'Neill's cheeks were also flushed, but she sat perfectly still, keeping her hands clasped tight together in a fashion she had when desiring a thing greatly and not feeling sure she would receive it.
Eleanor Meade had even forgiven Betty for dragging her away from her unfinished painting of the May, sky (a painting which Meg and Betty had assured her resembled soap suds), so enthralled had she become with the summer plan. If her parents could be persuaded to allow her to stay in camp with the girls during the summer, why then surely she need not be bothered with having to take exercise and help with the housework, as her mother insisted, she could simply give up all her time to her drawing and painting. You see Eleanor, like a good many other girls, did not at once grasp the meaning of the Camp Fire idea.
Apparently only one person in Mrs. Ashton's drawing-room up to this time seemed to have gotten nothing at all out of Miss McMurtry's explanations and the girls' discussion of a Camp Fire club. But then how could she, for Sylvia Wharton apparently had not listened and certainly had never taken her eyes from Polly's face? She appeared a stupid child, short and stout and, although fourteen, hardly seemed more than twelve. Her clothes were expensive but always inappropriate, indeed they were far too handsome for such a plain little girl. However, they were in accord with her father's taste, and although Mr. Wharton was now a wealthy man, he had begun life as a stone-cutter and could hardly be expected to know much about the proper way to dress a small, motherless daughter.
Several times in the past half hour Polly had almost yielded to the inclination to implore Sylvia to take her eyes off her, for the little girl did not look sensitive and her eyes were so large and expressionless they made one uncomfortable, but then Polly forbore, until, as her own interest in their meeting proceeded, she forgot all about her inquisitor.
It must have been about five o'clock when Betty at last arose and holding a curiously wrought silver ring, a bracelet and a pin in her hand, started to walk slowly about among the circle of her guests.
"If you wish to join our Camp Fire club this afternoon," she invited coaxingly, "you are simply to repeat the lines Esther has just recited for us. Then Miss McMurtry says you may each receive a woodgatherers' ring. Afterwards, when we have acquired sufficient honors in the seven crafts, 'Health Craft, Home Craft, Nature Lore, Camp Craft, Business and Patriotism'," (Betty repeated the list slowly as though not quite certain of herself), "why then we may attain next to the rank of Fire- Makers and wear their bracelets. The highest honor of all, which I for one shall probably never attain, is to become a Torch Bearer and receive the Torch Bearer's pin. It is all right for me to give the girls the rings, isn't it, Miss McMurtry, after they have repeated the law to you?" Betty asked, "since you have been appointed official guardian by the headquarters in New York? Later on I suppose the girls will tell us when they will wish to come into camp."
Miss McMurtry laughed. Never until this afternoon had she had any liking for Betty Ashton. They were such utterly different types of woman and girl! Yet, now Betty's habit of expecting to have her own way, which her teacher so disliked, was assuredly making their Camp Fire plans go ahead with a rush.
"Yes, I am a properly appointed guardian," Miss McMurtry answered slowly, "and Esther and I have been studying the Camp Fire program until she is almost ready to become a Fire-Maker, but I wonder if, you girls wish me to be your guardian in camp this summer? Perhaps I am not suited to it!" She turned to look at Betty, but failing to catch her eye, looked toward Polly. For the same reason both girls kept their heads bowed, until Betty was finally able to reply with as much enthusiasm as she could muster:
"Oh, of course we wish you, and we shall try to give as little trouble as possible." Really in her present enthusiasm Betty believed that she and her science teacher would be able to put away all past differences and live in perfect accord under the influence of their new ideals.
Miss McMurtry now turned again to Esther; there were special reasons for her unusual interest in this girl, although even Esther herself was unaware of them.
"You are wearing your bead chains, aren't you?" the new guardian asked, slipping two narrow strips of leather, one strung with orange and the other with bright red beads, from about Esther's throat. "You see each one of these beads represents some honor a girl has attained in the Camp Fire," she explained, "so the girl who finally arrives at the rank of Torch Bearer, really an assistant to the guardian, may own seven different chains of bead, one color for each of the seven crafts."
"My honors so far have been won in health and home craft because of what I was taught at the orphan asylum," Esther added frankly and then blushed uncomfortably, for several of Betty's friends were staring at her curiously. What had inspired Mrs. Ashton and Betty, supposed to be the most exclusive persons in Woodford, to introduce this unknown girl into their home as though she were a member of their family?
Moreover, Betty must have suffered another change of heart for she was now engaged in almost forcing a Wood-Gatherer's ring upon the stranger whom she had lately brought home in the automobile with her.
Mrs. Ashton lifted her lorgnettes to gaze at the visitor. "Tell me, Polly dear," she whispered, "who is that girl with whom Betty is now talking? She is not one of her school friends and yet I feel I have seen her somewhere before, though I am not able to place her."
Polly smiled, shaking her head. "You have seen her, I know I have many times, although she is not a friend or even an acquaintance of mine. But I don't know what has happened to 'The Princess', so I would rather you would put your question to her after we go away."
Mrs. Ashton kept hold of Polly's hand. Two maids had just come into the drawing-room at this moment and were passing plates of cake and cups of hot chocolate about among the guests. The greater number of the girls were crowding around Miss McMurtry and Betty, so only Dick Ashton happened to notice that no one, not even a maid, had come near Esther. Securing chocolate and cake for her himself, he sat down next her, talking but asking no questions, since he feared to embarrass her as he had earlier in the afternoon.
"Do you think, Polly, that this is really a good plan of Betty's?" Mrs. Ashton inquired thoughtfully. "She has seemed so restless and dissatisfied lately. Of course I don't understand all this Camp Fire idea seems to mean to her, I suppose I would have to be a girl again to understand thoroughly, but there may be possibilities in it. Even a conventional society woman longs sometimes to get away from her monotonous life, and surely you will find romance and adventure awaiting you in the woods. I have decided I shall not stand in Betty's way, I shall go away this summer and leave you girls to work things out together, then when I return I may be able to discover what miracles have been wrought in you."
"Oh, you will find us entirely reformed," Polly answered carelessly, not realizing that she of all the girls in the room would be the one to bear the ordeal of fire, the symbol that cleanses and purifies.
But both the girl and woman suddenly became silent, for Dick Ashton had persuaded Esther Clark to the piano and now the entire group of guests closed in about her.
Once again she was singing the morning and evening hymn of the Camp Fire Girls' "My Soul's Desire."
Mrs. Ashton sat listening intently with an odd expression of something almost like relief crossing her face. "Polly dear," she whispered unexpectedly at the close of Esther's song, "perhaps life does even things up more justly than we know, for this strange girl, Esther Clark, has a truly remarkable voice."
"White clouds, whose shadows haunt the deep, Light mists, whose soft embraces keep The sunshine on the bills asleep."
The sun was just rising above the crests of a group of the White Mountains called long ago by the indians "Waumbek" because of their snowy foreheads. But this morning, instead of shining like crystal, the snow at their summits was opal tinted rose, yellow and violet from the early rays of the June sun.
Sunrise Hill, standing in the foreground, seemed to catch an even stronger reflection from the sky, for the colors drained down its sides until they emptied into a small, wooded lake at its base.
On either side this hill the sloping lands were a soft green and the meadows beyond golden with the new summer grain, but only fifty yards away a grove of pine trees made a deep mass of shade, and with the birds in their branches singing their daily matins, suggested an old cathedral choir.
The singers were evidently indifferent to intruders, for, close by, four white tents were pitched in a square as though a caravan had halted on its travels. But the caravaneers must have been in the place for some days and showed no intention of moving on, for their arrangements had been made with the idea of permanent comfort.
Around each tent a narrow trench several inches deep had been dug to prevent flooding in case of rain, farther off two large bins held all rubbish until such time as it could be conveniently burned. The camp ground was also beautifully clean, not a scrap of paper nor a tin can could be seen anywhere, and even the grass itself had been swept with a novel, but at the same time, a very old-fashioned broom, for a stake tightly bound with a few sprigs of birch rested against one of the tents, plainly—from the evidences about it—the kitchen tent. At a safe distance a camp fire was smoldering, a fire built according to the best scout methods. Two stout stakes driven slantwise in the ground with three logs cut the same length, one on top the other, resting against these stakes. On either side this elevation two logs lay on the ground like fire logs, with a third crossing them in front, and inside this enclosure a bed of ashes still glowed, carefully covered over for the night. On the lake two birch bark canoes were moored to willow stakes, and hanging on a line stretching from a tree to a pole a number of girls' bathing suits flapped and danced in the air, but no human being was yet in sight.
Suddenly there came a ripple of music from one of the pine trees, "Whee- you, whee-you," a small bird with a spotted breast and a cream-buff coat sang to itself and then began a whistling, ringing monotone that for a moment silenced the other bird chorus.
A girl in a dark red dressing gown quietly opened a tent flap.
"There, the morning has come at last, for that is the voice of 'Oopehanka', the thrush. So after a week in the woods I really am beginning to recognize some of the birds and the Indian names for them." She clapped her hands softly together.
"Oh, Princess, do wake up and let us have a swim before any one else wakens," she whispered imploringly.
Then disappearing inside her tent, she knelt by a bed of hemlock branches covered with soft blue blankets. "Princess," she whispered again.
A sleepy voice answered. "Polly child, please go back to bed, it must be the middle of the night and I ache all over from carrying water and digging trenches. Who could have supposed camping would be such a lot of work!"
"Or such a lot of joy!" Polly laughed. "Ah, Betty, I thought you were yearning to be useful; think of the honor beads you mean to earn! But come now and be useful to me; do let us have a swim together."
Betty was never proof against her friend's pleading. "All right," she agreed, searching about near her bed for her sandals while Polly wrapped a light woolen gown about her, "I don't know whether Miss McMurtry will like our going off by ourselves, but I don't remember her having said we should not, though Camp Fire life does mean doing things together."
The two girls had been talking in the lowest possible tones and were now tiptoeing softly out of their tent, when another voice from another bed interrupted them.