E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE CAMP FIRE GIRLS IN THE OUTSIDE WORLD
Author of "The Ranch Girls" Series, "The Red Cross Girls" Series, etc.
[Frontispiece: "Esther Crippen, that is the loveliest song in the world!"]
Philadelphia The John C. Winston Co. Publishers
Copyright 1914, by The John C. Winston Company
I. "DO YOU REMEMBER ME?" II. BETTY'S KNIGHT III. HER PENSION IV. TEMPTATION V. THE WAY OF THE WILFUL VI. ESTHER'S ROOM VII. THE THREAT VIII. PREPARATIONS FOB THE HOLIDAYS IX. THE CASTLE OF LIFE X. THE RECOGNITION XI. SUNRISE CABIN AGAIN XII. "LIFE'S LITTLE IRONIES" XIII. THE INVALIDS XIV. "WHICH COMES LIKE A BENEDICTION" XV. SECRETS XVI. THE LAW OF THE FIRE XVII. A FIGURE IN THE NIGHT XVIII. UNCERTAINTY XIX. AN UNSPOKEN POSSIBILITY XX. THE BEGINNING OF LIGHT XXI. BETTY FINDS OUT XXII. SUNRISE CABIN XXIII. FAREWELLS
"ESTHER CRIPPEN, THAT IS THE LOVELIEST SONG IN THE WORLD!" . . . . . . Frontispiece
"THERE ISN'T ANYTHING MUCH TO TELL"
THE PROFESSOR HAD TO WIPE HIS GLASSES
"I WON'T INTERFERE WITH YOUR DESTINATION"
The Camp Fire Girls in the Outside World
"DO YOU REMEMBER ME?"
Walking slowly down a broad stairway, a girl carried three old silver candlesticks in her hands. And although the hallway was in semi-darkness, the candles had not yet been lighted. It was a cold November afternoon and the great house was chill and silent.
Entering the drawing room, she placed the candles upon the mantelpiece. Her breath was like a small gray cloud before her; and her dress, too, was the color of the mist and soft and clinging.
"Work, health and love," she murmured quietly, striking a match and watching the candles flicker and flare until finally they burned with a steady glow. "If one has these three things in life as I have, what else is worth worrying over?" Then the sigh that came in answer to her own question almost extinguished the candle flames.
"There are bills and boarders of course—too many of the first and at present none of the second," she added with a kind of whimsical smile. "But, oh dear, what a trying Thanksgiving day this has been, when even the Camp Fire ideals won't comfort me! Dick 'way off in Germany, Polly and Esther studying in New York and me face to face with my failure to save the old house. It is not worth while pretending; the house must be sold and mother and I shall have to find some other place to live. In the morning I will go and tell Judge Maynard that I give up."
Sadly Betty Ashton glanced about the familiar room. The portraits of her New England ancestors appeared to gaze coldly and reproachfully down upon her. They had not been of the stuff of which failures are made. Her grand piano was closed and dusty, the window blinds were partly pulled down, and although a fire was laid in the grate, it was not burning. Dust, cold and an unaccustomed atmosphere of neglect enveloped everything.
With a lifting of her head and a tightening of her lips that gave her face a new expression, the girl suddenly pulled open a table drawer and began fiercely to polish the top of the piano while she talked.
"There is no reason why I should allow this place to look so dismal just because things have gone wrong with my efforts to keep boarders and continue my work at school. As no one is coming to see me I can't afford a fire, but I'll open the piano and place Esther's song, 'The Soul's Desire,' on the music rack, just as though she were at home to sing it for me. Dick's dull old books shall lie here on the table where he used to leave them, near this red rose that John Everett brought me this morning. Somehow the rose makes me think of Polly. It is so radiant. How curious that certain persons suggest certain colors! Now Polly is often pale as a ghost, and yet red always makes me recall her."
A few moments afterwards and Betty moved toward the front window and stood there staring out into the street, too deep in thought to be actually conscious of what she was doing.
She had changed in the past six months of struggle with poverty and work beyond her strength. There were shadows under her gray eyes and worried lines about the corners of her mouth. Instead of being slim as formerly, she was undeniably so thin that even the folds of her delicate crepe dress could not wholly disguise it.
It was not that Mrs. Ashton and Betty had spent this lonely day in their old home, because their former friends had neglected them. Indeed, they had had invitations to Thanksgiving dinners from half a dozen sources. But Mrs. Ashton had not been well in several months and was today too ill for her daughter to leave her. The two women were now entirely alone in the house. One by one their boarders had deserted them, and the previous week they had even felt compelled to give up the old cook, who had been in the service of the Ashton family for twenty years.
At first Betty saw nothing to attract her attention in the street outside—not a single passer-by. It was odd how quiet and cold the world seemed with her mother asleep in one of the far-away rooms upstairs and other persons evidently too much interested in indoor amusements to care for wandering through the dull town.
In another instant, however, the girl's attention was caught by the appearance of a figure which seemed to spring up suddenly out of nowhere and to stand gazing intently toward the Ashton house. It was almost dark, and yet Betty could distinguish a young man, roughly dressed, wearing no overcoat, with his coat collar turned up and a cap pulled down over his eyes. Without being frightened, she was curious and interested. Why should the man behave so queerly? He now walked past the house and then turned and came back, not once but several times. Evidently he had not observed the girl at the window. At last however he gave up, and Betty believed that she saw him disappear behind the closed cottage of the O'Neills. No longer entertained, she prepared to leave the drawing room. It was too chilly to remain there any longer. Moreover, studying the familiar objects she had loved so long only made the thought of their surrender more painful. Betty once more faced her three candles.
"Be strong as the fagots are sturdy; Be pure in your deepest desire; Be true to the truth that is in you;"
"And—follow the law of the fire," she repeated with a catch in her breath. Then with greater strength and resolution in her face she blew out two of the candles, and picking up the third, started on her way upstairs.
The next moment there came a quick, muffled ring at the front door bell.
The girl hesitated; yet there was no one else in the house to answer the bell, and only a friend, she thought, could come at this hour. Shading her light from the wind with one hand she pulled open the door with the other, already smiling with pleasure at the idea of thus ending her loneliness.
Close against the door she discovered the young man whom she had seen only a few moments before in the street.
He did not speak nor move immediately.
"What do you wish?" Betty demanded a trifle impatiently. The fellow had both fists rammed deep into his pockets and had not the courtesy to remove his hat. With a slight sense of uneasiness, Betty thought of closing the door. The unexpected visitor kept edging closer toward her and was apparently fumbling for something in his coat.
"Please tell me what it is you want at once," the girl repeated almost angrily. "This is Mrs. Ashton's house if you are looking for it. My mother and I are entirely alone." Having made this speech Betty instantly recognized its stupidity and regretted it.
However the young man had at last succeeded in removing a small oblong package from his pocket, which he silently thrust toward her. On the wrapper in big letters, such as a child might have written, the girl was able to decipher her own name. But while she was puzzling over it, and before she could thank the messenger, he had hurried off.
Betty set her candle down on the lowest of the front steps and kneeling before it rapidly undid her parcel. Inside the paper she discovered a crudely hand-carved wooden box, and opening the lid, a blank sheet of folded white paper.
She shook the paper. Had some one sent her a Thanksgiving present or was she being made the victim of a joke? But from between the blank sheets something slowly fluttered to her feet. And picking it up with a little cry of surprise Betty saw a crisp new ten dollar bill.
Immediately her cheeks turned scarlet and her eyes filled with indignant tears. Only by an effort of will could the tears be kept from falling. Did any one of her friends consider her so poverty-stricken that it was necessary to send her money in this anonymous fashion?
Scarcely waiting to think, Betty rushed out of the house and down the old paved brick walk out into the street. For there might be a bare chance that the messenger was not yet out of sight. Sure enough, there he was still loitering on the corner about half a block away. Bareheaded, and in her thin dress, with the money in her hand, the girl ran forward. And actually as she reached the young man, she caught him fast by the sleeve.
"Please, you must tell me who sent me this money or else take it back at once and say that though I am very much obliged I cannot receive a gift delivered in this secret fashion."
The two young people were standing near an electric light so that they could now see each other plainly. Betty observed a tall, overgrown boy with thin, straight features and clear hazel eyes, and now that his hat was removed, a mass of curly dark hair, which had been vainly smoothed down.
"I can't take the money back, since it belongs to you," the young man answered awkwardly.
Inside her Betty heard a small voice whispering: "If it only really did!" For the ten dollars would buy Christmas presents for her mother, for Polly and Esther and others of her friends. Nevertheless she shook her head.
"The money cannot be mine and so you must return it." Then finding that her insistence was failing to have any effect, she dropped the money on the ground at the young fellow's feet and walked away.
"But, Miss Ashton," the stranger's voice argued, "please believe me when I say that this money is yours. Oh, of course I don't mean this special ten dollar bill; for yours was spent nearly a year ago. But at least the money represents the same amount."
Betty paused and again faced the speaker. There was sincerity in his tone—a determined appeal. But what on earth could he be talking about? He looked perfectly rational, although his statement was so extraordinary.
"You don't recognize me and I am truly glad," the young man went on. "But can't you recall once having befriended a fellow when instead you ought to have sent him to jail? He did not deserve your kindness then. He was actually trying to steal from you the money which you afterwards gave him of your own free will. But he has tried since to be honest."
He ceased abruptly. For Betty's eyes were shining and she was thrusting her little cold hand into his big one.
"You're not!" she exclaimed.
"Yes I am," the boy returned.
"Anthony Graham, Nan's brother?" Betty laughed happily. "Then please give me back the money I refused. I did not understand that you were returning the loan. Of course I understand how you feel about it. And do come back and into the house with me. I so want you to tell me all about yourself. I hope you have had splendid luck."
The young man's shabby appearance did not suggest sudden riches. Nevertheless he smiled.
For more than ever did Betty Ashton appear to him like the Princess of his dreams. Only once before had he met her face to face. And yet the vision had never left him. He could still see the picture of a girl moving toward him, her face filled with shame—for him—and her eyes downcast; and thrusting into his clenched fist, which had so lately been raised to injure her, the money which had given him the desired opportunity for getting away from his old associations and beginning again.
Enter her home and tell her of his struggle! Anthony felt far more like kneeling in the dust at her feet. Yet being a boy he could only blush and stammer without words to voice his gratitude.
Betty was beginning to shiver. "Please come, I am so lonely," she urged. "I have had the horridest kind of a Thanksgiving day. Only a little while ago I was having a hard time trying to remember the things that I have to be thankful for."
The drawing room fire was soon crackling. "It is so nice to feel I have the privilege of lighting it; I have been dying to for the past hour, but didn't think I could afford it without company," Betty confided, blowing at the flames. "Do please get some chairs and let us draw up quite close. It is so much pleasanter to talk that way."
Yet Anthony Graham only stared without moving. To think of a Princess speaking of not being able to afford so inexpensive a luxury as a fire. Suddenly the young man longed to be able immediately to chop down an entire forest of trees and lay it as a thank offering before her. Of course his sister Nan had written him of Mr. Ashton's death and of the change in the family fortunes, but to associate real poverty with his conception of Betty was impossible. Glancing uneasily about the great room it was good to see how beautiful it still looked, how perfect a setting for its young mistress. So at least they were able to keep their handsome home.
To the young man Betty Ashton now appeared more beautiful than his former impression of her. For on the day of their original meeting she had worn a fur coat and a cap covering her hair and a portion of her face. But now the three Camp Fire candles were once more burning, forming a kind of shining background for the girl's figure. Her hair was a deep red brown, with bronze tones, the colors in the autumn woods. There was no longer any sign of pallor or weariness in her cheeks, for pleasure and excitement had reawakened the old Betty.
"Do sit down," she urged again. "I want to hear all about you."
Then, coming to his senses, Anthony managed to drag two comfortable chairs before the blaze.
"There isn't anything much to tell," he began shyly. "Only after you gave me that money I just started walking farther and farther away from Woodford. Why, it seemed to me that I didn't ever want to stop, for that would give me a chance to realize what I had done. And I didn't stop, either, until I was too dead tired to go on. But by that time I had come to another town and it must have been pretty late, because the main street was empty. I was passing along close to the wall of a building when I saw that an office door had been left open. It was pretty cold, so I peeped in. The room was dark and there was nobody about, so creeping inside I lay down on the floor and went to sleep." The boy stopped, but his listener was leaning forward with her hands clasped and her lips parted with eagerness.
"Do go on and tell me every detail. It sounds just like a story," she entreated.
"When I woke up it was daylight and I found that I had landed in a dusty, untidy place, littered with old books and papers," he continued. "A small stove in the corner was choked up with ashes. I can't tell exactly why, but the first thing I did that morning was to scrape out those ashes, and then I found some sticks and coals and built a fresh fire." Anthony flashed a glance at Betty out of his shy, almost frightened blue eyes. "I guess I was feeling kind of well disposed toward fires just then, camp fires anyhow. Then I was thinking that I would like to pay for my night's lodging in some way. I fell to brushing out the room, so that when the young man came down later he would find his office cleaned up. Seemed like all of a sudden, after what had happened between you and me, that I wanted to work and pay my own way. I had never before been anything but a loafer."
"But you couldn't have known that the office belonged to a young man unless you waited there until after he came in!" Betty exclaimed.
Anthony laughed. "Oh, yes, I waited all right and I have been in that same office more or less ever since, until I came home to Woodford the day before yesterday. Of course I meant to clear out as soon as I had finished, but while I was working I heard a quiet chuckle behind me, and swinging around, there stood Mr. Andrews!"
"But who was or is this Mr. Andrews?" Betty asked impatiently, too interested to be particularly polite.
"My next best friend, after you," the young fellow answered. "Why, I think I can remember even now his very first words to me: 'Hello,' he said, 'why are you doing me such a good turn?' 'Because you have just done me one. I slept all night in your office,' I answered. He didn't seem surprised and I thought that rather funny. But afterwards I learned that he had been a poor boy himself and had slept in all sorts of queer places. He is still poor enough, goodness knows, but he has graduated in law and set up an office. He will succeed some day, sure as faith. You can bet on him."
Betty bit her lips, her eyes dancing with amusement and curiosity. Actually her visitor was becoming so much in earnest over his friend that he was forgetting to be afraid of her.
"But what about you and your success?" she demanded.
The young man flushed, moving uncomfortably in his chair, as though yearning to get away from his questioner, and yet not knowing exactly how.
"Success, my success? I haven't yet used that word in connection with myself. I have just managed to keep on working, that's about all. Mr. Andrews let me continue sleeping in his office after I told him my story and cleaning it to pay for my lodging. Then by getting up early enough I arranged to take care of a few others for money and to run errands now and then. I read in between times."
"Read? Read what?" Betty inquired inexorably, half smiling and half frowning at her own persistence. For somehow in their half hour's talk together she had seen something in Anthony Graham that made her guess that the young man had worked harder and dreamed better in this past year than he was willing to acknowledge to her.
But Anthony got up from his chair and began deliberately backing toward the door. He seemed suddenly to have became more awkward and self-conscious. "I read the law books, as there wasn't anything else to read. And I was determined to get more education so that in the future Nan need not be ashamed of me. Afterwards I went to night school and——"
"So you have made up your mind to be a lawyer yourself some day." Betty sighed with satisfaction. How very like a book his confession sounded! She wanted to get more information from her visitor and yet at the same time longed to rush upstairs and commence a letter to Polly O'Neill at once. Wouldn't Polly be interested? For she had predicted on the day of their first meeting that the young man would either turn out to be absolutely no good, or else (and here Betty blushed, recalling the prophecy) "Remain your faithful knight to the end of the chapter."
"But why did you come back to Woodford if this Mr. Andrews was befriending you and giving you a chance?" she inquired, fearing that her illusion might now be shattered.
The young man did not reply at once.
And he scowled until Betty had an uncomfortable recollection of the expression which she had seen on his face the day of his attack upon Polly and her.
Then after moving a few steps nearer the fire so that he and the girl were once more facing each other, Betty could see that his scowl had been due to embarrassment and not anger.
"You are awfully good to be willing to listen to so long a tale of a ne'er-do-well," he returned. "I came back to Woodford because I was determined to make good in my own town. A fellow that can't trust himself in the face of temptations isn't worth being trusted. I'm going back to Mr. Andrews later, perhaps, but this winter I am to stick right here in Woodford and live down my bad name if I can. Judge Maynard says he will give me the same kind of a chance that Mr. Andrews did, if I am worth it. And I shall be able to see Nan and the others now and then. It didn't seem fair for me to be leaving all the family troubles to a girl."
Involuntarily Betty clapped her hands. She had not intended to express her emotion openly, but so pleased was she with Anthony's reply that she couldn't help it. The next moment she felt a little ashamed of her enthusiasm.
"Oh, Nan is equal to almost anything; we consider her the greatest success in our Camp Fire club," Betty protested. "Nan is studying domestic science at the High School and intends teaching it some day, so she will make you awfully comfortable at home."
The young man put out his hand. "Good-bye," he said. "I never dreamed I would be brave enough to ask you to shake hands with me for a good many years yet. But since you have been kind enough——"
"To ask you ten thousand questions," Betty laughed, rising and putting out both hands with a friendly gesture, and then moving toward the door with her caller.
"I am not going to be able to live at home, however," Anthony concluded. "It is too far to our little place to get into town early enough for my work and to be here in the evenings for the night school. I've got to find a room somewhere. I oughtn't to kick because nobody seems crazy to let me stay in their house. I did leave a pretty poor reputation behind me around here and I've got to show people first that I mean to behave differently. I guess I'll strike better luck later."
Although Betty was extremely sympathetic, she did not answer at once. For a sudden surprising understanding had come to her. How difficult it must be for any one to have to go about telling his acquaintances of his reformation before having the chance to prove it. Then an almost appealing expression crept into her face, making her cheeks flush hotly and her lashes droop. Her old friends would have recognized the look. For it was the one that she most often wore when she desired to do another person a kindness and feared she might not be allowed.
"Couldn't you, won't you come here and have a room with us?" she asked unexpectedly. "We have such heaps of rooms in this old house and now mother and I are here alone, we really would like to have you for protection. And if you don't like to accept with just my invitation, will you come in again tomorrow or next day? I am sure mother will wish to ask you too."
Anthony Graham had had rather a rough time always. He had a peculiar disposition, and all his life probably liked only a few people very deeply. His wasted youth—nearly twenty years of idling rather than study or work—and his mixed parentage—the Italian peasant mother and his New England father—would make his struggle in the world a long and an uphill one even if he should finally succeed. Among the first things he meant to learn was not to show his emotions too easily, to hide his feelings whenever he could, so that he might learn to take without apparent flinching the hard knocks that life was sure to send. He had been preparing himself for the unkindnesses. Now at Betty's words he felt a lump forming in his throat and had a terrified moment of believing that he was about to cry like a girl. For could it be possible that any human being could so forgive one's sins as almost to forget them? Yet here was Betty Ashton asking him to stay in her home to protect her mother and herself when his only other meeting had been his effort to rob her.
Anthony set his teeth. "I can't live in so grand a house as this. I couldn't afford it," he replied huskily.
It was on the tip of Betty's tongue to protest that she had never dreamed of Anthony's paying anything. For Betty Ashton, whatever the degree of her poverty, could never fail in generosity, since generosity is a matter not of the pocketbook but of the spirit. However, all of a sudden she appreciated that the young man had quite as much right to his self-respect as she had to hers.
"Even the little will be a help to mother and me," she returned more humbly than any one else had ever before heard her speak.
"But perhaps I could be useful. Maybe you haven't so many servants as you once had——"
Anthony stopped, for Betty's expression had changed so completely. Of course she had already repented of her offer.
"We have no servants and you could help a great deal," she answered. And then without any pretense of concealing them, she let two tears slide down her face. "It is only that I had forgotten for the moment that we are not going to be able to stay in our house much longer. We can't afford to keep it for ourselves and I haven't been a success with having boarders. Still it may be some time before we can rent or sell it, and if you will stay here until then——"
Betty winced, for her visitor had this time clasped her hand until the pressure of its hard surface hurt.
"You know it would be the greatest thing that ever happened for me to be allowed to stay here a week," he added.
And Betty laughed. "Then stay."
As she opened the front door another visitor stood waiting on the outside. He was almost as unexpected as Anthony Graham. For it was Herr Crippen, the German music professor and Esther's father.
"What on earth could he want?" Betty thought irritably. She was beginning to feel anxious to get upstairs to her mother again. For in spite of the fact that she now believed that she had a real affection for Esther, she had never been able to recover from her first prejudice for this shabby, hesitating man. Then his manner toward her was always so apologetic. Why on earth should it be? She was always perfectly polite to him. What a queer combination of Thanksgiving visitors she was having!
"Gnaediges Fraeulein," he began. And Betty ushered him into the drawing room. For perhaps he was bringing her news of Esther.
"Good luck never rains but it pours, as well as bad luck, mother," Betty Ashton said one morning nearly a week later. She had just put down a big tray of breakfast on a small table before Mrs. Ashton and now seated herself on the opposite side.
Mrs. Ashton sighed. "If your good luck storm has any reference to us, Betty dear, I am sure I don't get your point of view. For if anything but misfortune has followed our footsteps since your father's death I am sure I should like to hear what it is." And Mrs. Ashton shivered, drawing her light woolen shawl closer about her shoulders.
There are some persons in this world whom troubles brace. After the first shock of a sorrow or calamity has passed they stand reinforced with new strength and new courage. These are the world's successful people. For after a while, ill luck, finding that it can never down a really valiant spirit, grows weary and leaves it alone. Then the good things have their turn—health, better and more admiring friends, fame, money, love. Whatever the struggle has been made for, if it has been sufficiently brave and persistent, the reward is sure. But there are other men and women, or girls and boys, for age makes no difference, who go down like wilted flowers in the teeth of the first storm. And on them life is apt to trample, misfortunes to pile up.
Mrs. Ashton was one of these women. She had made things doubly hard for Betty and Dick. Indeed, except for his sister, Richard Ashton would never have had the strength of purpose to sail for Germany to complete his medical studies. He would simply have surrendered and commenced his practice of medicine in Woodford without being properly equipped for perhaps the greatest of all the professions—the struggle to conquer disease. Yet somehow Betty had had a clearer vision than can be expected of most girls of her age. In a vague way she had understood that it is oftentimes wiser to make a present sacrifice for some greater future gain. So she had persuaded Dick to use the little money that he had for his work, assuring him that she and her mother could get on perfectly well together at home. And with half a dozen summer boarders at the time of his leaving, it did look to Dick as though her confidence was not misplaced.
Now in answer to her mother's speech Betty said nothing at first. So that several tears sliding down Mrs. Ashton's cheeks watered her hot buttered toast.
"I am sure I never expected to live to see this day, my dear, when you would have to cook your own breakfast and mine before you could leave for school," she murmured. "Why, I never thought that you would have to turn over your hand even to look after yourself. Until you developed that Camp Fire enthusiasm you had not been taught a single useful thing. After all, perhaps it might have been better for you if I had never been your mother, if——"
Betty laughed teasingly. "My dear Mrs. Ashton, you talk as if you could have avoided that affliction! You could not very well have helped being my mother, could you? You did not deliberately choose me out from a lot of girls. Because if you did, I should have very little respect for your good judgment. Think, if you might have selected either Polly or Esther! Why, then you would be sure to be rich again some day. For one of them would act so marvelously that she would be able to cast laurels at your feet, while the other would sing you back to fortune. But as it is, you will just have to put up with poor me until Dick gets his chance. Now do eat your breakfast while I relate the details of our good luck storm. In the first place, we are not going to have to give up our beloved house. At least not yet, and perhaps never if our German-American Pension plan turns out satisfactorily."
Betty drank a swallow of coffee, hardly appreciating what she was doing, so deep was her absorption in their affairs.
"Honestly, mother, I should never have dreamed of being so interested in this plan of Rose's and Miss McMurtry's for us, if it had not been for Dick's letters. But if German ladies can keep successful pensions, why not Americans? Remember what a funny lot of people Dick has described—the fat widow with the two musical daughters. I hope one of them won't set her cap for Dick, he loves music so dearly. Then you know the young boy student who was nearly starving when Dick rescued him, and the old Baron who wears a wig, and the half dozen others? But no matter how queer and funny they may be, they can be no more so than our pensioners. There is Miss McMurtry herself and Anthony Graham, and Dr. Barton moving into town to have an office in our old library. I wonder sometimes if he and Rose are still friends. They had a disagreement once out at the cabin and she just speaks to him since."
Then Betty Ashton hesitated and devoted herself to finishing her breakfast.
"I am sure I don't understand why you fail to mention Herr Crippen, child, who is to have a room here with us and teach his pupils in our big drawing room. I am glad he has been so successful with his music pupils that he is able to give Esther the advantage of studying in New York. I wish you did not have such a ridiculous prejudice against him. Indeed, my dear, I have a very strong reason for insisting that you be kind to him. He is Esther's father and——"
Mrs. Ashton spoke more firmly than was usual with her.
But Betty shrugged her shoulders imperceptibly. "Oh, of course I am glad enough to have the Professor here and I have never said I did not like him. But I am specially happy that Edith Norton's family has moved away so she is to have a room with us. I am kind of lonely without Polly and Esther, and somehow Edith,"——Betty broke off abruptly. Not even to her mother did she feel like mentioning the fact that Edith did not seem to be turning out quite so well as the other Sunrise Camp Fire girls.
With a hurried movement she next picked up the breakfast tray, exclaiming:
"Thank heavens we are not going to have to give our lodgers anything but their rooms and that Martha is coming back to do our cooking and the cleaning. Good old soul to offer to do it without pay. She said that she could not bear living anywhere except with us and that she had enough of father's money stored away in bank not to need any more. But we could not have had her work without pay." Betty kissed her mother lightly on the forehead. "If any one else turns up today and wishes a room, just refer them to me. I'm afraid I won't leave us a bed to sleep in. I am getting so anxious to surprise Dick by really earning a lot of money."
"Well, don't rent the back room that Esther used to have, Betty. You may move into it yourself some day if you like, but I would rather not have a stranger occupy it. I——"
"What on earth is queer about that room?" Betty interrupted. "I have not time to listen now, but you must tell me. You talk as though it were a kind of Bluebeard's Chamber of Horrors. Yet I don't suppose you would put me in it if I were likely to have my head cut off in consequence. Good-bye, dear." And Betty fled out into the hall, realizing that it must be almost school time.
The door of Esther's old room happened by accident to be standing open, and still holding on to her tray, Betty paused before it for a few moments. She was not thinking of a possible mystery or secret in connection with the room, only wondering if Esther and Polly were to be at home for the Christmas holidays. They both wanted to come, she thought. But Esther was not sure of being able to afford it and Polly was uncertain of whether she wished to stay in her stepfather's house at a time when her stepbrother, Frank Wharton, whom she disliked so much, should also be at home for his holidays. The girl's face was a little wistful. She so longed to see both her friends. Without them and without Dick, this first Christmas under such changed conditions at home might be rather trying.
"Oh!" Betty exclaimed a trifle indignantly, with her arm shaking so that the dishes in her hands rattled dangerously. "What in the world are you doing in the house at this hour, Anthony Graham? You frightened me nearly to death, turning up at my elbow in such an unexpected fashion. I thought you had been gone hours!"
Anthony put down his coal scuttle and took hold of Betty's tray. "I have been away, but I came back for a moment because your mother wished me to do something for her as soon as I had the spare time." His tone was so surly that Betty smiled. Anthony had been brought up with such a different class of people that he was unable to understand sarcasm or pretense of any kind. Whatever one said he accepted in exactly the words in which it was spoken. And Betty and her friends had always been accustomed to joking with one another, to saying one thing, often meaning another. Anthony should have had the sense to realize that she was not really cross, that her indignation was partly assumed. Therefore she did not intend taking the trouble to set him right in the present instance.
"I'll carry the dishes down myself. I have plenty of time," she protested coldly.
But Anthony only held the more firmly to the tray, with his face crimsoning.
The truth was that he had been appreciating in the past few days a truth of which the girl herself was as yet unconscious. Betty's manner toward him had noticeably changed. In the excitement of their Thanksgiving day meeting and his romantic return of the money which she had completely forgotten, she had shown far more interest and friendliness than she now did. On that occasion Betty had overlooked the young fellow's roughness, his lack of education and family advantages. Really Anthony had never been taught even the common civilities of life and had to trust to a kind of instinct, even in knowing when to take off his hat, when to shake hands, how to enter or leave a room. And he understood keenly enough his own limitations. Yet the change in Betty's attitude had hurt him, even though he acknowledged to himself his failure to deserve even her original kindness. She was still kind enough of course in the things which she thought counted. She was cordial about his having his room in the house with her mother and herself and most careful of thanking him for any assistance which he rendered them. Yet the difference was there. For neither in heart nor mind had Betty yet grown big enough to feel real comradeship with a boy so beneath her in social position and opportunities.
Nevertheless she did not mean to be ungracious and something in the carriage of the young man's head as he moved off down the hall suggested that he was either hurt or angry, although exactly why Betty could not understand.
"Don't go for a second, Anthony," she called after him. "I wanted to tell you that you are living in a house with a haunted chamber. At least I don't know whether this room is exactly haunted, but there is something queer about it that my mother and brother have never confided to me. Perhaps I shall move in and find out for myself what it is. I will if there is a chance of my friends, Esther Crippen and Polly O'Neill, coming home for the holidays. For it is so big that we could stay in it together. And perhaps Mrs. O'Neill will let Polly come here and visit me for a little while. Both the girls are doing wonderful things in New York City. And I am afraid if they don't come home pretty soon they will both have outgrown me. It is so horrid to be a perfectly ordinary person."
As Betty moved off, the expression on her companion's face did not suggest that he thought of her as entirely ordinary.
"You are perfectly absurd and I haven't the faintest intention of confiding in any one of you." And Polly O'Neill, with her cheeks flaming, rushed away from a group of girls and into her own bedroom, closing the door and locking it behind her.
This winter at boarding school in New York City had not been in the least what she had anticipated. Perhaps the character of the school she and her mother had chosen had been unfortunate. Yet they had selected it with the greatest care and it was expensive beyond Polly's wildest dreams. For, apart from her own small inheritance, her stepfather, Mr. Wharton, had insisted on being allowed to contribute to her support, and not to appear too ungracious both to her mother and to him, his offer had been accepted. Yet Polly did not consider herself any greater success in thus masquerading as a rich girl than she had been as a poor one. Was she never to be satisfied? Her school companions were all wealthy and few of them had any ideas beyond clothes and society. To them Polly had seemed a kind of curiosity. She was so impetuous, so brilliant, so full of a thousand moods. Betty Ashton had once said that to know Polly O'Neill was a liberal education, and yet in order to know her one ought to have had a liberal education beforehand.
Today during the recreation hour at "Miss Elkins' Finishing School," which was Polly's present abode, there had been a sudden discussion of plans for the future. And Polly, partly because she was in a contradictory mood and partly because she really wished it to be known, had boldly announced herself as poor as a church mouse with no chance of not starving to death in the future unless she could learn to make her own living.
And this had started the onslaught of questions from which she had just torn herself away.
For Polly had absolutely determined not to confide in any one of her new companions her ambition to go upon the stage. They would not understand and would only be stupid and inquisitive. Why, had they not worried her nearly to death simply because of her acquaintance with Miss Margaret Adams? For one day the great actress had driven up to the school and taken Polly for a drive. And ever afterwards the other girls were determined to find out how and when she had met her and what she was like in every smallest particular, until Polly was nearly frantic.
Now in her own room, which was a small one, but belonged to her alone, the girl dashed cold water on her face until she began to feel her temper cooling down. Then with a book in her lap she planted herself in a low chair. The book was a collection of Camp Fire songs which Sylvia Wharton had given her. And although Polly could not sing, the poetry and inspiration of them was so lovely that she felt they might be a consoling influence.
Nevertheless Polly did not commence reading at once. Instead, her thin shoulders drooped forward pathetically, and putting one elbow on her knee she rested her pointed chin in her hand.
For she was unhappy without any real reason in the world. Polly O'Neill was one of the sensitive and emotional persons who must always be more or less miserable in the wrong environment. She did not like being at boarding school and yet she did not wish to return to Woodford to live in her stepfather's house in circumstances so different from those of her old life. Besides, had not Miss Adams advised that she spend several years away from Woodford in order to see more of the outside world and its myriad types of men and women? She could not ask to be allowed to come back home now, after the fight she had made to leave. Moreover, she was learning many things that might be useful to her as an actress. Miss Adams herself had said so. There was no fault with the opportunities for study at Miss Elkins', only with the interest of the girls. She herself was working hard at French and German and physical culture and was having some special private teaching in elocution by a master recommended by Miss Adams.
No, Polly did not intend to give up. Only she was trying to decide whether or not to return to Woodford for the Christmas holidays. She was longing to see her mother and Mollie and Betty Ashton. Yet Frank Wharton would be at home and she and Frank had quarreled all the time that they had been in the house together during the past summer. And her mother and Mollie were so wrapped up in one another and in the splendid new home and in Mr. Wharton! Polly felt herself almost an outsider when she thought of the days when they had lived in their own little cottage just opposite the Princess.
Then, at the thought of Betty Ashton, the slightly hard look in Polly's Irish blue eyes faded. Of the Princess' understanding and affection she could always feel sure. And what a brave fight she was making! Every letter from her mother or Mollie or from any one of their old Camp Fire circle had something admiring to say of her. And yet she and Mollie had always thought of their Princess as only a spoiled darling, beautiful and meant only for cherishing. Ah well, the Princess was really an aristocrat in the old meaning of the word. She had never been in the least like these New York girls, caring for money for its own sake and feeling superior to other people just because of her money. Betty had birth and beauty and brains.
Suddenly Polly dashed the tears from her eyes and with a smile jumped to her feet, dropping her Camp Fire book. There was no use sitting there and thinking of all the virtues that her Princess possessed that began with "b." This was Friday afternoon and she was free to do what she liked. Esther was living in a boarding house not far away, and she had not seen her in two weeks. And in all the world there was nothing Esther liked to talk about so much as Betty. Besides, if Esther were going home for the holidays, why, Polly felt that she would rather like to have some one persuade her into making her own decision.
Is it good or evil fortune that makes one so readily influenced by outside conditions? The December afternoon was cold and brilliant; and in few places is the climate of early winter so stimulating as in New York City. Esther was not at home, and for a few minutes her visitor felt disappointed. But the streets were so beautiful and alluring and there were so many people out! It was true that Polly had received permission only to call upon her friend, but what wrong could there be in her taking a walk? She had only to keep straight along Broadway and there could be no possible chance of getting lost. Polly was not in the least timid or unable to take care of herself. She was a girl from a small town, and yet no one could have imagined that she had not been a New Yorker all her life, except for her quick and eager interest in the sights about her.
No one noticed or molested Polly in the least. It was only that in her usual unthinking fashion she flung herself into the way of temptation. Farther down Broadway than she had ever been before, Polly stopped for a moment to look more closely at a group of girls. Most of them were several years older than herself. They were standing close together near a closed door, and yet only occasionally did one of them make a remark to the other; for apparently they were strangers to one another.
At first the girls themselves attracted Polly's attention because the larger number appeared so nervous and anxious. More than half of them had their faces rouged and powdered and were fashionably dressed, yet even when they smiled their expressions were uneasy.
They interested the country girl immensely. In order not to seem rude or inquisitive she pretended to wish to gaze into a shop window near them. Then, as they continued waiting and showed no sign of what they were waiting for, Polly O'Neill's curiosity overcame her good manners. Another girl had separated herself from the group and was standing within two feet of Polly, also pretending to stare into the same window.
Polly edged closer to her. The young woman must have been nearly twenty-five. She had been pretty once, yet already her face was haggard and she had circles under her big brown eyes. Unexpectedly Polly smiled at her, and there was always something almost irresistible in Polly's smile.
"Could you, would you mind telling me why so many girls are standing here in this one particular spot?" she inquired. "It is a cold day when one is still. And yet I have been here almost ten minutes and no one has even started to move away."
"We are waiting to try to get jobs," the older girl answered listlessly. "And we have come sooner than we were told because each one of us hoped to get ahead of the other."
"Jobs?" Polly repeated stupidly. "What kind of work is it that you are looking for?"
"Oh, theatrical jobs," the young woman explained. "It's coming on to be Christmas time and the managers are putting on extras for the holidays."
She turned away from her questioner, believing that she had heard a faint noise at the door near which they were lingering. A quick tug at her coat attracted her attention again.
"Can any one apply for a position who wants it?" Polly queried. Her eyes were shining, her cheeks were crimson and her breath coming in kind of broken gasps as though she were frightened.
But the magic door had opened at last and the older woman had no time to waste. "Oh, yes, any one can apply," she returned with a kind of hardness. And then she failed to observe that the girl she had been talking with was following close behind her.
Polly herself hardly realized what she was doing. Once more she had yielded to that old wretched habit of hers, of acting first and then thinking afterwards. Like a flash of lightning it had but this instant occurred to her that more than anything she would like to see inside a theatrical manager's office. It would be like placing the tips of one's toes on the promised land. Of course, Polly knew perfectly well that she was being reckless, only she would not allow herself time to consider this point of view. She would simply slip in with these other girls and pretend that she would like a position should she be forced into it. As she had had no experience, there could be no possibility of her getting an engagement. Ten minutes afterwards she would slip out again and return to school.
With a dozen or more other girls, Polly was the next moment ushered into a room that was quite dark and had only a few chairs in it. There they were told to wait until the manager could be free to speak to them. So Polly crowded herself into the farthest, darkest corner and immediately her heart began to thump and her knees to shake, while she wished herself a thousand miles away.
What would her mother say to this latest of her escapades; and Mollie and Betty? What would Miss Adams, for that matter, think of her? She was an actress herself; but of course Polly never imagined that she had started her career in any such humble fashion.
Coming partially to her senses, Polly started hurriedly toward the closed door. There was no reason in the world for her remaining in this room unless she wished it. But just as she turned the knob the manager entered from the hall. And Polly's curiosity got the better of her again. She would stay just half a minute longer and see what happened.
THE WAY OF THE WILFUL
When Polly O'Neill came out into the street again, she did not know whether she was walking on the sidewalk, in the air, or at the bottom of the sea. But because of a certain thrilling excitement she felt that she must have wings and because of a heavy weight inside her that she must be in the depth of the sea.
For Polly had just signed an engagement to act for two weeks in a Christmas pantomime.
It sounds incredible. And it was possibly as unwise and headstrong a thing as a girl could well do. And yet Polly had originally no actual intention or desire to do wrong. Simply she had yielded to a sudden impulse, to an intense curiosity. But now things were different; for Polly was realizing her wilfulness completely, and instead of repenting and turning back to confess her folly, was every moment trying to plan by what method her purpose could be accomplished.
Not for anything in the world would her mother give her consent to her experiment. And that in itself should have been a sufficient argument against it. Yet Polly explained to herself that, after all, there could not be any great harm in doing what she so much wished, provided that she made confession afterwards. She was almost eighteen, and thousands of girls in New York City were earning their living, who were years younger than she. Perhaps it might even do her good to find out what this stage life really was like—whether it was as fascinating as she dreamed, or all tinsel as most grown people were so fond of telling her.
No, the question that was uppermost with Polly O'Neill was not in connection with her decision. It was how her decision might best be carried out.
Fortunately she had been writing that she did not believe that she would come home for the Christmas holidays. She did wish to see her mother and Mollie and Betty, of course, and had almost given way to this longing only an hour before. But now, had not fate itself intervened, flinging her into the path of her desire? And Polly was Irish and had always declared that she believed in the leadings of fate, even when her mother and sister had insisted that fate and her own wish were too often confused in her mind.
Had she not hidden herself in the corner when the theatrical manager entered the room, with every intention of running away as soon as she could escape unobserved? And then had he not suddenly swooped down upon her, selecting her from the dozens of other applicants? Polly was not exactly sure of what had happened, except that the man had said that she looked the part of the character he was after. The fact that she had confessed having had no stage experience had not even deterred him. The new play was to be chiefly for young people and the manager particularly required youthful actors and actresses.
The play to be produced was the dramatization of a wonderful old Bohemian fairy story, which Polly remembered to have read years before, called "The Castle of Life." The story is that of a little boy, Grazioso, brought up by his grandmother, whom he loves better than all else in the world. Then one day he sees that the grandmother is growing old and fears that she must soon leave him. And so he sets out to find "The Castle of Life" in order once more to bring back youth to the old woman. The play follows his adventures on the road to the castle, and includes his meeting with two fairies—the Fairy of the Woods and the Fairy of the Water. Polly was to impersonate the wood spirit.
Her appearance did suggest the character, though naturally she could not appreciate this fact. But there was always something a bit eerie and fantastic about her, something not exactly of the everyday world—her high cheekbones and thin, emotional face with its scarlet lips and intense expression faintly foreshadowing an unusual future.
But Polly at the present moment was not feeling in the least unusual, only rather more self-willed and more calculating. Never could she recall having deliberately deceived any one before in her entire life. And yet to accomplish her present purpose there was no other way than the way of deception. No one in Woodford must guess at her reason for remaining in New York during the holidays, nor must Miss Elkins have any possible cause for suspicion. Of course she could not stay on at boarding school. That idea was utterly ridiculous. She would never be allowed to go out for a single evening alone. Already her right to liberty had been considerably overreached by this walk of hers down town. And what she had done during the walk! The offender smiled rather wickedly at the thought of the consternation and excitement that the discovery of her act would create. Home she would go to Woodford then to stay indefinitely!
But Polly did not mean to be found out, She meant to have her little taste of emancipation and then go back into routine again, until she was old enough for a larger freedom. So for this reason, although she should have returned to school an hour before, she continued walking slowly, devising and rejecting a dozen plans. It was going to be tremendously difficult to accomplish her purpose. But this she had foreseen five minutes after she had promised to accept the theatrical manager's offer. However she would "find a way." She remembered how often the Princess had said that she had more talent than "Sentimental Tommy" in this particular direction.
She reached Miss Elkins' school and received five minutes' scolding from that lady, in the meekest spirit, still without having any idea of what she could possibly do to accomplish her design.
All evening she talked so little and her attention was so concentrated upon the lesson which she appeared to be studying, that her school companions left her entirely alone. Polly's passion for studying had always been regarded as an eccentricity. But now since she had announced on that afternoon that she had her own living to make there was possibly some excuse for her industry. Nevertheless the girls felt more convinced than ever that she was not in the least like any of the rest of them and, although rather fascinating and unusual, not a person whom one would care to know intimately.
The difference in her manner and expression that night attracted the attention of one of the teachers—the girl's face was so tense and white, her blue eyes showed such dark shadows beneath them. It was owing to this teacher's advice that Polly was allowed to leave the study hall an hour earlier than usual and go to her own room and to bed.
She was not feeling particularly well. Her head did ache and her conscience troubled her the least little bit, notwithstanding she had not the faintest intention of surrender. With hot cheeks and cold hands she lay still for a long time until the noises of the other girls retiring had quieted down and the big house was silent. Then Polly suddenly sat up in bed. A moment later she had crawled out on the floor and lighted a candle by her writing desk. The electric lights had been turned off for the night. But even in the pitch darkness Polly would still have composed her letter. For an idea had at last come to her. And if only she could get just one person to accede to it her way would be plain. The one person might be difficult. Polly was perfectly aware of this, but then she had great faith in her own powers of persuasion.
Just above the small alcohol lamp the teakettle was beginning to sing. On a table near-by were teacups and saucers, with one plate of sandwiches covered over with a small napkin, and another of cookies.
Several times a tall girl glanced at the clock and then walked across the room to take the kettle off the stove, only to place it back again the next instant.
Then at last she seated herself by an open piano. There was very little furniture in the room except the piano, a small cot and the table. Yet it had an atmosphere of home and comfort, such as some persons are able to give to a tent in a desert. And standing in a row at the back of the same tea table were three candles in ten-cent-store glass candlesticks, waiting to be lighted. The afternoon was a dismal one, with occasional flurries of snow; so that when the proper time came for the candle-lighting, the flames would not be ungrateful.
But in order to make the waiting seem less long the girl was evidently trying to distract her attention by practicing her music. Several times she sang over the scales. And then, dissatisfied with her own work, repeated them until finally her voice rose with unusual resonance and power. Then, after another slight pause, she drifted almost unconsciously into the words of a song:
"Burn, fire, burn! Flicker, flicker, flame! Whose hand above this blaze is lifted Shall be with magic touch engifted, To warm the hearts of lonely mortals Who stand without their open portals. The torch shall draw them to the fire Higher, higher By desire. Whoso shall stand by this hearthstone, Flame-fanned, Shall never, never stand alone; Whose house is dark and bare and cold, Whose house is cold, This is his own. Flicker, flicker, flicker, flame; Burn, fire burn!"
She had not heard the door open softly nor even noticed the figure that crept softly into the small room.
But now a pair of gloved hands were clasped eagerly together and an enthusiastic voice said:
"Esther Crippen, that is the loveliest song in all the world and you are the loveliest singer of it! How glad I am to have arrived at just this moment! Why, your little room makes me feel that it is a real refuge from all that is dark and bare and cold. And you surely are with the 'magic touch engifted to warm the hearts of lonely mortals' with that beautiful voice of yours."
And Polly O'Neill, putting one hand on each of Esther's cheeks, kissed her with unexpected ardor.
It made Esther flush and tremble slightly as she rose to greet her long-desired guest. Any compliment made Esther shy and one from Polly more than from another person. For although each girl admired the other's talents and character, they had never understood each other especially well. Esther always seemed to Polly far too sober and almost too unselfish and self-effacing, while Polly to the quieter girl had all the brilliance and unreliability of a will-o'-the-wisp. Before coming to New York for the winter their intimacy had been due largely to their mutual devotion to Betty; but now, both lonely and both in a new environment, they had been greatly drawn together. Polly's occasional visits had been one of Esther's few sources of pleasure outside her work.
"How charming you are looking, Polly," Esther began, taking off her guest's dark coat and hat, and seeing her emerge in a crimson woolen dress, which made a bright spot of color in the shabby room. Polly, you must remember, was only pretty on occasions; but this afternoon was certainly one of her good-looking days. The cold had made her pale cheeks flame and given a softer glow to her eyes.
"I am simply ravenous, Esther, and dying for your delicious tea," Polly next remarked, following her hostess to the tea table and taking her seat, while Esther poured out the boiling water. "It is a kind of a homesick day and I have been wishing that we were going to have a meeting of our old Sunrise Hill Camp Fire circle. What wouldn't you give for a glimpse of the Princess this afternoon?"
Esther's lips twitched as she lighted her three candles.
"Almost anything I possess," she returned.
"But you are going to see her pretty soon? You are going back to Woodford for Christmas?" Polly tried to hide her own nervousness in putting this simple question. With her eyes shining over the edge of her cup she continued slowly drinking her tea, so that the rest of her face could not be seen.
But Esther was not paying her any special attention. Quietly she shook her head. "No, Polly, I am not going home. I am so sorry, for I wanted to dreadfully. But my music lessons are so expensive that father does not feel he can afford to let me come. I haven't yet had the courage to write and break the news to the Princess. She is fond of me, don't you think so, Polly? She will be sorry that I can't be with her for the holidays? Of course I know she does not care for me as she does for you. I shall never expect that. But it does mean so much to me to feel sure of her affection."
Polly frowned in a slightly puzzled fashion. Esther's adoration even of her beloved Betty seemed a little unnatural. Why should one girl care so much about the attitude of another one? She loved Betty herself, of course, and Betty loved her. Yet she doubted very much if either one worried over the emotions of the other.
"Oh, yes, Esther," Polly returned a trifle impatiently. "Of course Betty is devoted to you. Why shouldn't she be? Really, I do think you would let her almost trample upon you if she liked. Only Betty never would like to hurt any one, thank heaven! But I am glad to hear you are not going home for the Christmas holidays, because I am not going either."
There was nothing so remarkable in this statement that it should make Polly turn white and then red again. But fortunately the three Camp Fire candles, "Work, Health and Love," were now flickering so that the elder girl could not get a clear vision of the other's face.
But instead of appearing pleased over this news Esther seemed disappointed. "I am so sorry, for Betty's sake," she returned. "She wouldn't mind my not being with her so much if she only might have you."
Polly shrugged her thin shoulders in a fashion she had when vexed.
"O Esther, I think you might have been polite enough to say that you would be glad to have me in town if you were to be here—particularly when I came to ask you if I might spend the holidays with you."
"Spend the holidays with me?" Esther repeated in rather a stupid fashion. Naturally she was puzzled as to just why a girl in Polly's position should elect to spend her Christmas vacation in a cheap New York boarding house with another girl for whom she had no special sentiment.
"Why in the world do you want to remain in the city with me?" she asked again, too honest to pretend that pleasure was her first sentiment until she got a more definite understanding of the situation.
But Polly was now making no effort to devote her attention either to eating or drinking. Instead she had rested both elbows on the table and was looking at her companion with the half-pleading, half-commanding expression that both Mollie and Betty knew so well.
"Promise not to say anything until I have finished?" she began coaxingly. "For you see it is to explain why I want to stay with you that made me write to ask you to make this engagement with me for this afternoon."
"Then you refuse to help me or to keep my secret?" Polly O'Neill protested indignantly. "Really, Esther, I never knew any one with such a gift for considering herself her sister's keeper. We belong to the same Camp Fire Club. And if that means anything I thought it was loyalty and service toward one another.
"'As fagots are brought from the forest Firmly held by the sinews which bind them, So cleave to these others, your sisters, Wherever, whenever you find them.'"
Esther had walked across the room and had her back turned during this recitation. But now she moved around, facing her visitor until it was Polly's eyes that dropped before her own. The older girl had always the dignity that comes from truth and sincerity.
"Don't be absurd, Polly," she said, speaking quietly, but with no lack of decision. "You know as well as I do that loyalty has nothing to do with aiding one another to do what one does not believe to be right. I don't want to preach. Yet don't you think perhaps you are breaking a part of our Camp Fire law? 'Be Trustworthy. This law teaches us not to undertake enterprises rashly.'"
"Oh, please hush, Esther," Polly insisted. "There is no use in our quarreling, and we are sure to if you go on preaching like that. I told you what I have made up my mind to do. If you don't wish to help me, that of course is your affair. All I have the right to demand is, that what I told you in the strictest confidence you repeat to no one else."
She picked up her coat and began slowly buttoning it, waiting for Esther's reply, which did not come at once.
"I don't know whether I can promise you even that," the older girl answered finally. Her face was white and she moved her hands in the old nervous fashion that Betty had almost broken her of. "I don't suppose you can understand, Polly, what an almost dangerous thing you are about to undertake. And without your mother knowing it! O Polly, please don't! Why, if anything should happen to you what would she say to me or Molly and Betty, if knowing your intention I did not warn them?"
Polly was like a hot flame in her anger. In her life Esther scarcely remembered ever having seen any one in such intense yet quiet passion. All the blue seemed to have gone out of her visitor's eyes until they were almost black. Her lips were drawn and although she tried to control her voice, it quivered like a too-tightly-drawn violin string.
"Esther," she said, "I shall not leave this room until I have your solemn promise. Perhaps you don't know anything about the standards of conduct between people of birth and breeding. You were brought up in an orphan asylum and had no mother. Whether you disapprove of me or not makes no difference. I am not objecting to your disapproval. I can perfectly understand that. But what I absolutely will not endure is for you to tell my secret because it happens to strike your conscience that that is the right thing to do. My secret belongs to me as absolutely as my clothes or any of my other possessions do. And because you chance not to approve of it or of them is no reason why you should steal them from me and give them away to other people."
Again Esther was silent and her eyes filled with tears. What was the use of arguing with Polly when she was in this mood? Yet there were so many things that she could honestly say. And one of them, that if she had had the good fortune to have a mother, she at least would not have tried to deceive her as Polly was doing.
However Esther was not sure that the latter part of her companion's argument was not true. Had she the right to betray Polly's confidence, even though she might consider it for her good? For Polly had begun her revelation by insisting that what she told be kept in the strictest secrecy, and she had listened with that understanding.
Unfortunately Esther's failure to reply did not strike her visitor as indicating a change in her point of view. Polly flung herself angrily down into a chair, as though intent upon beginning a siege. She was trying in a measure to control her temper, realizing how ashamed she usually felt after the flare of it was past. Still she did honorably consider that Esther's attitude in the present situation was the wrong one. Perhaps she was being disobedient, wilful, wicked even. Yet she had made up her mind to take the consequences (at least the consequences that she was now able to foresee). And she had no idea of being frustrated in her purpose by an outside person, whose assistance she had been foolish enough to ask. No, some way must be devised that would force Esther into silence.
Polly glanced desperately about the small room. There was a big photograph of the Princess, smiling at her from the wall, the Princess at her loveliest, with her exquisitely refined features, her delicate, high-bred air. She turned away from it rather quickly to look again at her companion. Goodness, what a contrast there still was between the two girls! They had believed that Esther was improving a little in her appearance. Yet just now worry and uncertainty made her seem plainer even than usual. And she had on an ugly but thoroughly useful chocolate-colored dress that Betty would have made her throw into the fire at once.
"Betty, it was always Betty with Esther Crippen!" If only she could reach Esther in some way through their friend. This was an ugly thought of Polly's. She was ashamed of it and yet felt herself driven to using almost any means toward attaining her end.
"Look here, Esther Crippen," she began, breaking the silence first. "I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that you may some day have a secret in your life (or you may have one already for all that I know), which you want more than anything to keep hidden from people. Say you particularly wished Betty never to find it out. Well, suppose I discovered your secret, suppose I knew about it right now, would you want me to tell Betty everything that I had found out just because I decided that it would be the right thing to do?"
Polly happened to be staring into her own lap as she delivered this speech, feeling none too proud of it and having to trust to her imagination as she went along. Now, however, she glanced up into the face of the other girl, who was standing near her.
Then with an exclamation of regret, almost of fear, Polly jumped to her feet.
"Good heavens! Esther, what is the matter with you? Are you ill, do you feel like you were going to faint? If you are sick why on earth haven't you told me before? We could talk over this business of mine any time."
And Polly, forgetting her anger, put her arm reassuringly about her former friend, fairly leading her to a chair. Esther continued staring at her, with a deathly white face, evidently trying to speak, but not able. Then suddenly the girl collapsed and dropping her head on her arm began to cry. She was ordinarily self-restrained; and being brought up in an orphan asylum among people who took no interest in her emotions she had learned unusual self-control. Probably only three or four persons had ever seen her give way like this before in her life. So she did not cry easily, but in a kind of shaken, broken fashion that brought a remorseful Polly on the floor at her feet.
"What on earth have I said that has hurt you so, Esther?" she begged. "I know I am a wretched little beast who does or say 'most anything sometimes in order to get my own way. But of course I don't know any secret of yours and if I did I should never tell. I only like to threaten things because I'm cross. You see I don't believe in telling secrets."
This was a Polly-like way of apologizing and yet driving in her own claim at the same time. If only at this moment Esther had had the Princess' understanding of Polly O'Neill's character, most certainly she would have laughed. But Esther could not pull herself together so quickly. A few moments later, however, she put her hands on Polly's shoulders and in the face of all that had just happened, kissed her.
"No, Polly," she said, "I know that if ever you should make up your mind that there was something, which I thought best should never be known, you would never tell it, even if I betray your secret now. Perhaps we don't agree about some things. But you could never be revengeful. I am sure I don't know what I ought to do. Of course you have the right to choose for yourself. I—I wish you wouldn't do what you have decided upon. But if I don't tell and yet don't let you stay here with me, what on earth would you do about this theatrical scheme?"
"Why, go to some other boarding house for two weeks," Polly replied calmly. "I am sure that is exactly what you are doing, boarding in New York and going on with your work. Of course your work happens to be studying music at present, but you have already sung at two church concerts and——"
This time Esther did laugh. "Well, church concerts are hardly to be compared with the stage, Polly. And please look in your mirror and remember that I am I and you are you. But of course you realize that if you will go on with this whim of yours, I am not going to let you live in any place by yourself. You would be sure to get ill or something dreadful might happen. No, I shall beg you every minute till the time comes, not to do what you must know would worry your mother. But if you still persist, why, you are coming right here to stay with me and I shall be your shadow every moment until you go back to school."
Polly jumped up hastily. "What an impolite suggestion for a hostess!" she murmured, pretending that the seriousness of the situation was now entirely past. "Go back to school? Dear me, that is what I must do this very minute! Good-bye." And kissing Esther hastily on the hair, Polly seized her hat and fled out the door.
Yet halfway down the long stairs the girl hesitated and stopped for an instant as if intending to return.
"Perhaps I ought to give up and be good for once," she whispered to herself. "It won't be fair, and mother and Mollie and Betty may be angry with Esther for not telling. Even if I have the right to get into trouble myself, I haven't the right to drag in other people. But, oh dear! what fun it will be! And with Esther for my duenna, things are sure to turn out all right."
On the lowest steps Polly passed a small boy hobbling up toward Esther's room. He was evidently a boy from the streets, as he was shabbily dressed and carried half a dozen papers under his arm. But there was a hungry, eager look in his face that Polly remembered having seen sometimes in Esther's in those early days of her first coming to Mrs. Ashton's home. So straightway she guessed that the boy was some child, whom Esther had discovered, with a talent and love for music and that she was giving him lessons in her leisure moments.
PREPARATIONS FOR THE HOLIDAYS
"But if you won't come, Betty dear, I shan't wish to give the party," Meg Everett announced in a disappointed fashion. "With Polly and Esther not to be here, there are so few of our old Camp Fire circle anyhow. And you see I only wanted to have our club and a few of John's young men friends. The idea is that we girls are to cook the entire dinner and then just talk or dance or play games afterwards. It is not to be anything like a real party."
Betty smiled. She and Meg and Mollie O'Neill were taking a winter tramp through the woods in the direction of the Sunrise Cabin, which had been closed for the past six months.
"I should dearly love to come, Meg," Betty confessed. "There is no use in my pretending that I shouldn't feel desperately lonely with the thought of your having such a good time without me. But mother——"
Mollie gave her arm an affectionate squeeze. "There, Betty Ashton, that is just exactly what I knew you would say. So I talked the whole matter over with your mother myself first. And she declares that there isn't any reason why you should not accept Meg's invitation. She is quite sure that your father would never have wished you not to be as happy as possible. You have had trouble enough, goodness knows! And then the extra disappointment of Polly's and Esther's remaining in New York! I am glad enough Meg is going to give a party, and I hope there will be dozens of delightful things that Polly O'Neill will miss. What on earth do you suppose has possessed her to want to stay on with Esther?"
And Mollie sighed. The three months without her sister may have passed by in greater peacefulness than with her, but then Polly always added a zest and flavor to existence. And this was the longest time that the two girls had ever been separated.
"Oh, I don't know. She must have had some very good reason," Betty returned. "Polly wrote me that she had, and now we must not believe that she did not love us as much as ever. She wasn't able to explain the particulars just at present; but if we only trust her and forgive her some day we will understand."
Mollie frowned. With a much quieter and more amiable temperament than her twin, yet nearly eighteen years of intimate living with her had given her a pretty clear comprehension of her sister's character. Privately Mollie was puzzled over Polly's behavior and a good deal worried. It was not like Polly to have conceived so sudden a devotion to Esther as to be unwilling to leave her for two weeks. And her claim that she might not be particularly happy at home because of her stepbrother's presence was not convincing. For Betty Ashton had invited Polly to be her guest. No, Polly certainly had some special design in staying on in New York. Of this Mollie was completely convinced. But what the purpose was, neither from her own imaginings nor from any hint dropped by her sister's letters, could she get the slightest clue.
The three girls had come to a narrow path through the woods, and for a little while were compelled to walk in single file. For a few moments they were silent, each one busy with her own thoughts, Mollie happening to be in the middle.
"I believe I'll ask Billy what he thinks," she remarked suddenly aloud. And then she bit her lips, blushing until the very tips of her ears grew warm. For Meg and Betty were both laughing in the most ridiculous way.
"Is it as bad as that, Mollie?" Meg teased.
"Ask Billy what he thinks on one or all subjects, dear?" Betty queried.
To both of which questions Mollie naturally deigned no reply.
She and Billy Webster were extremely good friends. Indeed, they seemed always to have been since the day of their first meeting, when she had bound up his injured head. And this winter, with Polly away and Betty so busy and Meg wrapped up in keeping house and Sylvia spending all her spare hours in studying with Dr. Barton when not at school, she had enjoyed the walks and talks with the young man perhaps more than usual. But it was not because of their intimacy that she had considered putting this problem of Polly's failure to return home before him. Her reason was that in their long conversations about her sister, Billy had always seemed not only to be interested in Polly but able to understand her disposition peculiarly well. So it was stupid for her two friends to have taken her foolish exclamation as meaning anything personal.
The next ten minutes Betty and Meg had rather a difficult time in making peace; for Mollie had not a strong sense of humor—a fact which both girls should have remembered. But because she was always so gentle and kind herself, no one of her friends could bear the idea of hurting her feelings under any circumstances.
However while Betty was in the midst of apologizing, Billy Webster himself came swinging along the same path from the opposite direction. He had his gun over his shoulder and half a dozen birds in his hand.
"Who is it taking my name in vain?" he demanded of Betty.
And Mollie had a dreadful moment of fearing that Betty might betray what they had been talking about. However, as nothing of the kind happened, ten minutes later Meg and Betty were walking ahead deep in conversation about the party, while Mollie and Billy strolled after them only a few feet behind.
The young man had been on his way into Woodford to divide the product of his day's hunting between Mrs. Ashton and Mrs. O'Neill. Now, hearing that the girls were on a pilgrimage to Sunrise Cabin, he had been invited to accompany them.
"No, it won't be like a meeting of our Camp Fire Club, Meg," Betty argued thoughtfully, after having satisfied herself by a glance over her shoulder that Mollie and Billy were too absorbed in each other to take any notice of them. "I have been coming to our Camp Fire Club meetings all winter and because I am in mourning made no difference. But with John inviting his friends to your entertainment, why, I can't make up my mind yet, dear, whether I have the courage to come."
Betty spoke bravely, but Meg slipped her arm across her friend's shoulder, holding her fast. The two girls were closer friends now that Polly and Esther were both away and Meg understood that sometimes Betty did not feel so cheerful as she pretended.
"John won't ask more than just one other fellow to keep him company, if we can have you with us in no other way," Meg conceded. "You see, Betty, John is only to be at home for a few days. As this is his senior year at college he wants to so some special work during the holidays. But he likes you so much better than any of the other girls in Woodford, that I am quite sure——"
But Betty had stuffed her fingers in her ears and was refusing to listen. "It is bad enough to have you girls spoil me because I am in trouble, but when it comes to telling fibs I won't hear you. Of course you know, Meg Everett, that I am not going to let you spoil everybody's pleasure on my account," she answered.
Feeling the victory already won, Meg laughed. "John is only to invite Billy Webster and Frank Wharton and Ralph Bowles and three or four of his Boy Scout camp. By the way, Betty, one of the things I particularly wished to talk to you about is this: Shall we ask Anthony Graham? He seems rather uncouth and the other fellows won't have anything to do with him. But he is Nan's brother and she is so splendid I should hate to hurt her feelings."
Betty shook her head. "Anthony isn't the kind of person to invite though, Meg," she replied without a moment's hesitation. "Of course he is trying to pull up and keep straight and I feel that we should do all we can to help him. But inviting him to our parties and treating him as if he were exactly our equal!" Betty's chin went up in the air and her face betrayed such a delicate, high-bred disdain that apparently Anthony's fate was immediately settled.
The little party had now reached the familiar pine woods and there, only a few yards ahead, stood their deserted cabin. The totem pole raised its gaunt head to greet them, still decorated with the history of their year in the woods together. But the doors and windows of the cabin were barred with heavy planks. Nowhere was there a sign of life.
"Let's go back home at once, please, now that we have seen that everything is all right," Mollie begged a moment later. "It always gives me the blues dreadfully to see Sunrise Cabin closed up and to know that perhaps no one of us shall ever live there again. I never dreamed when we said good-bye to it last spring that we would not come out here often for club meetings and parties."
"Parties?" Meg repeated. Then she continued standing perfectly still and silent for several moments, although the others were moving about laughing and talking.
"Parties!" she exclaimed again, speaking in such a loud tone that her companions turned to stare at her in surprise.
"Betty Ashton, Mollie O'Neill and Billy Webster, if you and some of the others will help us, why can't we have our dinner party here at the cabin? We are not planning to have it until New Year, so there will be plenty of time to make arrangements."
However, Meg could get no further with her suggestion, for Betty and Mollie had both flung their arms about her and Betty exclaimed:
"It will almost make me have a happy holiday time, Meg dearest, and I can never bear to refuse your invitation if we are to be together at Sunrise Cabin once again."
THE CASTLE OF LIFE
It seemed to Esther Crippen that she had been sitting in the wings of the theater every evening for half her lifetime, although it had been only a week since Polly's initial appearance as the Fairy of the Woods in the dramatization of the ancient legend "The Castle of Life."
At first she had spent every moment after Polly's departure from the dressing room in peering out from some inconspicuous corner at whatever action was taking place upon the stage. Now, however, the play and even the actors themselves had become a comparatively old story. Her interest centered itself chiefly in Polly—in Polly and the odd human characters that she saw everywhere about her. Indeed, except for her nervousness and care of her friend, this week had been almost as absorbing to Esther Crippen as to the other girl. For after the first two nights she had lost her fear that Polly might make an absolute failure of her part, and also the impression that either of them might be insulted or unkindly treated by the men and women about them. People had been rough perhaps, but thoroughly business-like. And if Polly were told to hurry, or to move on, or corrected for some mistake in her work, it was all done in so impersonal a fashion that both girls had learned valuable lessons from the experience. Esther had been amazed at the spirit in which Polly had accepted the discipline and hard work. Perhaps, after all, she had been making a mountain out of a mole hill and this disobedience on Polly's part, wrong though it certainly was, might not result in anything so disastrous as she had at first feared.
And there was no doubt that Polly was achieving a real success, one that surprised her and every one else. Her part was only a small one, with but few words to speak; otherwise she could never have managed it with no previous experience and so little time for rehearsing. Nevertheless she had made one of those sudden yet conspicuous triumphs that are so frequent in stage life. Sometimes it may happen with a girl playing the part of a maid, sometimes with a man who has not half a dozen sentences to recite. It is the quality in the acting that counts. And the manager in choosing Polly for the special role he had desired had chosen wisely. For it was not so much the girl's method of playing that had won sympathy and applause, as her manner and appearance.
And curiously enough, though Polly was frightened the first night of the performance, she was not so much so as on that evening of the Camp Fire play the previous year, before an audience of friends.
Polly felt herself at the heart of her first great adventure. The play itself, the other actors and actresses, the strangeness of her surroundings, all occupied her to the forgetting of her own individuality. It seemed as though she were only living out a kind of dream. Nothing was real, nothing was actual about her. The audience did not terrify her, nor the lights, nor the darkness, nor the queer smell of dust and paint and artificiality, that is a necessary part of the background of stage life.
Perhaps the girl had found her element. For there is for each one of us a place in this world, some niche into which one really fits. And though this place may seem crowded, or ugly, or undesirable to other people, if it should be our own, it holds a feeling of comfort and of possession that no other spot can.
But Polly had not been thinking of niches or elements or anything of the kind either tonight or during the week past. All of her being was too deeply absorbed in the interest of the play and the actors and her own little part.
At the present moment she was in hiding behind a piece of scenery, eagerly awaiting the cue for her own entrance; yet she was as keenly intent upon each detail of the acting taking place upon the stage as if tonight it were a first experience.
The players happened to be the two persons who had been kindest and most helpful to her in the company. And one of them one was the brown-eyed girl whose lead she had followed on the day of her own engagement. Polly had been glad to make the discovery later that this same girl had been engaged to play the part of Grazioso's grandmother in "The Castle of Life." The other actor was the star, a young man of about twenty-six or seven, who was impersonating Grazioso, the hero of the fairy story.
The stage was in semi-darkness, while the grandmother related to the boy the tale of her first meeting with the fairies. A small, shabby room revealed a low fire burning in the grate. In an armchair sat the old woman, while her grandson lay on the floor at her feet with his head resting upon his hand.
"There are two fairies," said the grandmother, "two great fairies—the Fairy of the Water and the Fairy of the Woods. Ten years ago I had gone out at daybreak to catch the crabs asleep in the sand, when I saw a halcyon flying gently towards the shore. The halcyon is a sacred bird, so I never stirred for fear I should scare it away. And at the same time from a cleft in the mountain I saw a beautiful green adder appear and come gliding along the sands toward the bird. When they were near each other the adder twined itself around the neck of the halcyon as if it were embracing it tenderly. Then I saw a great black cat, who could be nothing else than a magician, hiding itself behind a rock close to me. And scarcely had the halcyon and adder embraced than the cat sprang on the innocent pair. This was my time to act. I seized him in spite of his struggles and with the knife I used for opening oysters I cut off the monster's head, paws and tail. And as soon as I had thrown the creature's body into the sea, before me stood two beautiful ladies, one with a crown of white feathers and the other with a scarf made of snake's skins. They were, as I have told you, the Fairy of the Water and the Fairy of the Woods."
With these words, Polly moved a few steps nearer the place set for her entrance. On the opposite side she could see the other girl who impersonated the water fairy, also ready to make her entrance. Tonight was New Year's eve and the house was unusually crowded.
But the grandmother was continuing her speech.
"Enchanted by a wicked Jinn, they were obliged to remain bird and snake until some hand should restore them to liberty. To me they owed freedom and power. 'Ask what thou wilt,' they said, 'and thy wishes shall be fulfilled."
"I thought how I was old and had too hard a life to wish for it over again. But the day would come when nothing would be too good for thee, my child." The old woman leaned over, stroking her grandson's dark hair. "The Fairy of the Woods gave me a scale from the snake's skin and the Fairy of the Water a small white feather from her crown. They are hidden in a box under some rags. Open the box and thou wilt find the scale and the feather."
The boy then crossed the stage and a moment later handed the box to the old woman, who appeared too ill to leave her chair.