THE OUTDOOR GIRLS AT THE HOSTESS HOUSE
Or, Doing Their Best for the Soldiers
LAURA LEE HOPE
Author of The Outdoor Girls of Deepdale, The Moving Picture Girls, The Bobbsey Twins, Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue, Six Little Bunkers at Grandma Bell's, etc.
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers
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BOOKS FOR GIRLS
BY LAURA LEE HOPE
12mo. Cloth. Illustrated.
THE OUTDOOR GIRLS SERIES
THE OUTDOOR GIRLS OF DEEPDALE THE OUTDOOR GIRLS AT RAINBOW LAKE THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN A MOTOR CAR THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN A WINTER CAMP THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN FLORIDA THE OUTDOOR GIRLS AT OCEAN VIEW THE OUTDOOR GIRLS ON PINE ISLAND THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN ARMY SERVICE THE OUTDOOR GIRLS AT THE HOSTESS HOUSE
THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS SERIES
THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS AT OAK FARM THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS SNOWBOUND THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS UNDER THE PALMS THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS AT ROCKY RANCH THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS AT SEA THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS IN WAR PLAYS
THE BOBBSEY TWINS SERIES (Twelve Titles)
THE BUNNY BROWN SERIES (Eight Titles)
SIX LITTLE BUNKERS SERIES (Five Titles)
Grosset & Dunlap, Publishers, New York
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THE OUTDOOR GIRLS AT THE HOSTESS HOUSE
CHAPTER I HERO WORSHIP II THE ACCIDENT III THE SHADOW OF MYSTERY IV MRS. SANDERSON'S STORY V FUN AND SOLDIERS VI PLANNING CAPTURE VII A LARK IN THE OPEN VIII ENTER SERGEANT MULLINS IX THE BAYONET DRILL X ALARMING SYMPTOMS XI POLITE KIDNAPPERS XII WHERE LOVE IS DEAF XIII THE COPPERHEAD XIV THE REINS TIGHTEN XV THE FATEFUL DAY XVI SPARRING FOR TIME XVII TEARS AND PATRIOTISM XVIII AFTER THE BOYS LEFT XIX REAL TRAGEDY XX THE MOTORCYCLIST AGAIN XXI THE CHASE XXII STARTLING DEVELOPMENTS XXIII THE MIRACLE XXIV MYSTERY EXPLAINED XXV TO "CARRY ON"
"Oh, Mollie, please be careful!"
The big car skidded perilously around a sharp curve and chug-chugged merrily down the road.
"Goodness, I've been careful so long I'm afraid it will grow on me," Mollie Billette, sometimes known as "Billy," retorted, a determined set to her pretty chin. "Someway, I've got to get it out of my system."
The automobile, a big seven-passenger car, belonged to Mollie, and the four Outdoor Girls, having secured a half-holiday from their work at the Hostess House, were out for recreation.
As may have been gathered, Mollie was driving. Amy Blackwell, fearful of an accident, was in the seat beside her, while Grace Ford and Betty Nelson, their beloved Little Captain, occupied the tonneau and amused themselves by laughing at Amy's fears.
"Well, but you needn't take it out on us," Amy said in reply to Mollie's assertion. "If you're going to take many more of those two-wheel turns, I'm going to get out and walk. Oh, Mol-lie!" The speech ended in a wail, as Mollie wickedly rounded another curve, jolting Amy half out of her seat.
"I don't know but what I agree with Amy," drawled Grace, from the tonneau, helping herself to a chocolate, upon which Betty's eye had just rested longingly. "I've been bumped around so much I can't tell whether I'm a girl or a scrambled egg. Now, look what you did!" A sudden lurch of the big car had sent the box of chocolates to the floor, where its contents rolled about aggravatingly at their feet. "Come back here, Mollie Billette, and pick them up. That's the least—"
The rest of the sentence was never uttered, for Mollie brought the car to so sudden a stop that Grace and Betty both lurched forward and narrowly escaped bumping their noses on the back of the seat in front of them.
"Sure," said the reckless driver, turning her bright black eyes expectantly upon them. "Will you promise to give me all I pick up?"
"All you—" Grace was beginning, striving desperately to recover her breath and her dignity at the same time, the accomplishment of which feat was decidedly retarded by growing indignation. "Goodness, I never heard such a—"
"Very well," returned Mollie, and, without deigning to parley further, turned determinedly to the wheel. "That's all I wanted to know—"
"Just a minute, Mollie, dearest," Betty's laughing voice broke in. "You know I'm not worrying about the chocolates at all, but I'm not particularly anxious to spoil my perfectly good shoes with crushed chocolate or, on the other hand, frump my perfectly good nose in a vain attempt to pick them—"
"Which, candy or shoes?" Mollie broke in impishly.
"Candy," answered Betty soberly. "As I was saying, neither of these alternatives appeal to me, so, with your kind permission, I would beg you to hold your horses—"
"As the vulgar herd would say," again murmured Mollie.
"Exactly—as the vulgar herd would say," agreed Betty, dimpling adorably, "—until we have a chance to collect the scattered sweets."
"You win," Mollie capitulated, speaking in a tone reserved for the "Little Captain." "Only please make Grace hurry or the afternoon will be over before she begins."
"Goodness, listen to it—" Grace was beginning, straightening indignantly from her stooping posture and preparing once more to enter the fray. "When it's all her fault, anyway—" But Betty upset both speech and dignity by unceremoniously pulling her down again.
"Come on! Hurry, Gracie!" she commanded. "And don't overlook any, because there's nothing so messy as a chocolate—"
"As if there were any chance of Grace's overlooking a chocolate!" scoffed Mollie. "Why, all she has to do is whistle to 'em and they come rolling up obediently."
"Goodness, who'd want them anyway, after they've rolled around and picked up all the dust and millions of germs from the bottom of the car?" grumbled Grace, cross at having to exert herself to even so small an extent. Grace, as my old readers doubtless remember, had been born with an ease-loving disposition that not even close association with the other Outdoor Girls had served to change. Perhaps, as Mollie had once remarked, that was why the girls were so fond of her—because she was "so different."
"Well, if you don't want 'em," Mollie replied practically, "why didn't you agree to my proposition? I promised to eat them for you, germs and all, and all I got for my sacrifice was one withering glance—"
"At that you're lucky," Grace retorted, straightening up from a spirited chase of the last elusive chocolate, red of face and fierce of eye. "Some time I'll come to the end of my patience, and then, Mollie Billette, you'd better look out."
"My!" chuckled Betty, "isn't she fierce? Never mind, honey, Roy will give you another box, if you ask him very prettily."
"Goodness, if he can't do it without being asked," retorted Grace crossly, "he can keep his old candies."
"If I thought you meant that, I'd say you ought to be ashamed of yourself," put in Amy, with unaccustomed spirit, as Mollie threw in the clutch and the big car started off again. "Anybody that had been as good to you as Roy has been—"
"Well, I don't know that you've been particularly neglected," retorted Grace, meaningly, while Amy reddened. "I never thought that Will could be such a perfect Romeo."
"Oh, dear," murmured Betty protestingly. "Can't we have just one good time, without bringing the boys into it?"
"Now, see who's talking," chuckled Mollie delightedly, changing into high and driving with wild, care-free recklessness along the smooth road. "Oh, Betty darling, much as I love you, there do come times when you make me laugh."
"Well, it's good to know I'm bringing happiness into some dark life," retorted Betty good-naturedly. "At least I have not lived in vain."
"And they were just mad," Mollie continued, as though talking to herself, "when they found we were going off this afternoon without them."
"Yes, and isn't it funny?" agreed Grace lazily. "They think they're so important."
"Well, they are," announced Amy suddenly, and even Mollie turned an amazed eye upon her.
"I think they're the most important people in the world," Amy continued stoutly. "I guess if we were going to give up our lives for somebody else we might think we were important, too."
"Oh, I didn't mean that way," Mollie returned, her eyes once more turning to the ribbon of road ahead while the girls' bright faces sobered thoughtfully. "Because when it comes to a thing like giving up their lives—well, I think they're the bravest—" Her voice broke, and in an effort to hide her emotion she nearly sent the car over the side of the road and into a six-foot ditch.
"Brave," repeated Betty, turning her eyes to the far horizon to hide the mist that suddenly gathered in them. "I don't think that's any word for our boys at all—"
"They don't seem to realize what they're going into," Amy broke in eagerly. "Or, if they do, they won't talk about it, or let any one else—"
"Oh, I guess it isn't that they don't realize it," Grace interrupted thoughtfully. "You know my father always used to say that a man who never knew what it was to be afraid wasn't really brave at all. He said it was the man who was scared to death in his heart, that gritted his teeth and went ahead and faced things anyway, that deserves all the credit."
"I presume that's right," said the Little Captain, leaning forward earnestly. "I don't suppose there is any one in the world who really enjoys the thought of losing an arm or a leg, or being broken in health for the rest of his life. I think what our boys are doing is just to take the fear of that with a smile and go ahead gayly to face whatever may come. Brave—" Her voice trailed off, and for a long time there was silence while the big car hummed rhythmically along the road and the miles swept by uncounted.
"Of course, there are lots of people," Betty resumed after a while, "who say the boys just enlisted for the love of adventure, the love of a good fight, and I suppose that had something to do with it."
"Of course it had," Mollie agreed. "And that's one thing that makes it harder for us who have to stay at home and can't have any of the thrill and excitement that helps to carry the boys through. But it's only one of a dozen reasons, after all."
"I wish we knew when they were going," said Grace, irrelevantly. "The suspense is worse than anything else. It's like cutting a dog's tail off an inch at a time."
"Goodness, isn't she complimentary?" flung back Mollie, laughing. "You can compare yourself to a four-footed dog, Grace, but please leave me out of it."
"Did you ever hear of a two-footed dog?" Grace retorted.
"To change the subject," Betty interposed hastily, seeking to avoid a storm. "Don't you think it's almost time to be turning back? We've gone farther than—Oh, Mollie! Girls! Look!"
They had rounded a curve in the road at their usual breakneck speed, and Mollie stopped the car with a jolt that very nearly sent its occupants flying into the roadway.
Before them, not twenty yards away, a little figure in black lay huddled in the road while the motorcyclist who had caused the accident, sped by the girls, exhaust open and head lowered.
Dazedly they gazed after machine and rider for a minute till they disappeared round a turn in the road. Then, with a cry of dismay, Betty tumbled out of the car, followed by the other girls.
The prostrate figure in the road lay very, very still.
"Betty, is she dead?"
"Oh, I hope not," said Betty, white-faced and pitying, as she bent over the little old woman. "That man ought to be hung! I'll loosen her collar. And, Grace, see if you can find some water. Hurry, dear."
And while the girls are ministering to the poor little victim of the accident, the opportunity will be taken to tell new readers something about the Outdoor Girls and their activities and adventures in other volumes of this series.
Betty Nelson, gay and fun-loving, possessed the natural gift of leadership which had earned for her the title of "Little Captain." The girls adored her and followed her unquestioningly wherever she led.
Grace Ford was a graceful, tall, pretty girl with a decided and insatiable fondness for chocolate candy. At the outbreak of the war, or rather, at the time of America's entry into the war, her brother Will had caused her great unhappiness by his failure to enlist with the other boys of her acquaintance. The mystery had been satisfactorily explained later, however, and when this story opens, Will was on his way to make a splendid soldier in America's army of democracy.
There was a bit of French blood in Mollie Billette, or "Billy," as the girls sometimes called her. Bright black eyes which could, upon occasion, snap fire and a rather unruly temper attested to this French ancestry.
The last one of the quartette was Amy Blackford, quiet and retiring, but given to occasional outbursts which never failed to surprise and delight the girls. The mystery which at one time had surrounded her origin had been cleared up some years before by the finding of Henry Blackford, her long-lost brother.
How the girls formed a camping and tramp club and the fun they had on their interesting and adventurous tour, has been told in the first volume of the series, entitled "The Outdoor Girls of Deepdale."
After this the girls had many adventures, first at Rainbow Lake, to which they went on another tour, this time in an automobile. From there they went to a winter camp where they had many varied and exciting experiences on skates and iceboats. Then followed a glorious trip to Florida, where the girls braved many dangers and took thrilling trips into the wilds of the interior.
Their next adventure took them to Ocean View and centered about a mysterious box they found in the sand.
Then followed that glorious trip to Pine Island. An aunt of Mollie Billette had turned her bungalow over to the Outdoor Girls for the summer. During their strenuous adventures the girls had made many friends among the boys and young men of Deepdale, and four of these had asked and been granted permission by the girls to accompany them to Pine Island and pitch their camp in the woods near by.
One of the young men was Allen Washburn, a rising young lawyer and a great admirer of Betty. Another was Will Ford, Grace's brother, and a third was his high school chum, Frank Haley. The fourth, Roy Anderson, had been drawn into the circle chiefly through his admiration for Grace.
During that eventful summer on Pine Island the young people had accidentally discovered a gypsy cave, concealed by underbrush, and had succeeded not only in rounding up the band of gypsies but in recovering several valuable articles that had been stolen from the girls.
Their last adventure, related in the volume directly preceding this one, and entitled "Outdoor Girls in Army Service," found the girls and boys again at Pine Island, but under very much altered conditions. America had entered the great World War and all the boys but Will Ford had volunteered. Later, the boys were called to Camp Liberty, some distance from Deepdale, and the girls conceived the plan of opening a Hostess House for the benefit of the relatives and friends of the boys. The plan worked out very satisfactorily.
While still at Pine Island the girls and boys had come upon a suspicious looking man in the woods. Upon finding himself discovered the man had made his escape, but in his hurry had dropped a letter which the girls found to their disgust was written in code. They decided that the man must have been a German spy.
At Camp Liberty the girls succeeded in rounding up the spy, and found, to their surprise, that Will Ford, who was in the Secret Service, had been engaged all that time in tracking him to earth. Will, having accomplished his mission, immediately enlisted.
Now, at the time this story opens, the girls were still at the Hostess House and looking forward apprehensively to the time, now imminent, when the boys would be ordered across the sea to fight for the country they loved.
"I'll go with Grace," volunteered Amy, in answer to Betty's request for water. "I don't suppose we can find any, but we'll try."
The two girls hurried off, leaving Mollie and Betty to loosen the woman's collar and rub her cold hands.
"Betty, Betty, is she dead?" Mollie was crying for perhaps the hundredth time, when the woman herself answered the question by opening her eyes and looking vacantly about her.
"Who—are—you?" she queried faintly, struggling to rise.
"Oh, please don't try to get up just yet," Betty pleaded, looking very sweet and charming in her solicitude. "I don't think you're strong enough—"
But the woman seemed of a different mind, and made such a desperate effort to raise herself that Betty had no alternative but to help her to her feet.
The girls supported the unsteady little figure while the dim old eyes roved questioningly about.
"I—got—hurt!" she gasped, and then quite suddenly fainted again.
"Oh, Betty!" moaned Mollie, her face white with pity. "She's hurt worse, much worse, than we thought she was! Oh, what shall we do?"
"There's only one thing to do," replied Betty, trying to hide the tremor in her voice. "We'll have to get her to the hospital, and in a hurry."
"But Grace and Amy!" gasped Mollie. "We can't go without them."
"We can at least get her into the car," Betty said, indicating the limp little figure in the roadway. "You take her feet, Mollie, and I'll take her head. We haven't spent all our lives outdoors for nothing."
Between them they succeeded in carrying their burden to the car and settled her gently in the tonneau.
"Oh, if Grace and Amy would only come!" Mollie was crying distractedly when the girls themselves burst through the underbrush, crying despairingly that they had not been able to find water, that there was not a house anywhere for miles around.
But Betty cut their lamentations short and hurried them into the car.
"But where do I come in?" gasped Grace, as Betty dropped into the back seat beside the little old woman and took the poor unconscious head in her arms.
"Oh, anywhere," answered Betty indifferently, her mind on one object only. "On the floor or on the roof or anywhere, only hurry. Now, Mollie dear, drive as you never drove before."
Mollie obediently threw in the clutch, and the heavy car shot forward, throwing Grace to a seat on the floor where she fell with more haste than dignity.
Nobody noticed her, however, and even a growing bump on her forehead received scant attention. All were too intent upon the matter at hand.
At this spot the road was very narrow and on each side sloped down sharply about ten or twelve feet to the level of the fields. It seemed almost an impossibility to turn the car in that narrow space without precipitating it down either one or the other of the steep banks.
After many fruitless attempts and barely escaped tragedies, however, Mollie finally succeeded, and the car was sent flying down the white stretch of road that led to Camp Liberty and the hospital.
"Oh, I hope we'll get there in time," Amy murmured over and over again, and kept looking at the pathetic little victim. "Is she still breathing, Betty? Are you sure?"
To this Betty always nodded in the affirmative, her little mouth grimly set, her eyes fixed steadily ahead, as though she would draw their destination nearer to them by the very force of her desire.
"I wonder," Mollie flung back at them from between clenched teeth, "what that motorcyclist looked like. I'd like to meet him again—with a firing squad."
"Why I saw him," came Grace's muffled voice from the floor of the car.
"So did I," added Amy.
"So you would recognize him again?" Mollie demanded eagerly, swerving the car perilously near the edge of the road.
"Are you sure?" added Betty, taking her eyes from the far horizon and regarding Grace intently.
Both girls nodded vigorously.
"His head was down, of course," Amy continued, "but I'd know his face in a minute if I saw it again. Eyes close together, long nose—"
"And a little mustache," Grace finished eagerly. "The kind Percy Falconer used to wear and we girls called an eyebrow on his lip."
"He must have been a thing of beauty," commented Mollie.
"He had the meanest kind of face," said Amy, with a little shudder. "The kind you wouldn't like to meet on a dark night."
"I should have judged as much from your description," said Betty dryly. "There's one good thing about him—we ought to be able to recognize him easily."
"You talk as though you expected to meet him again," said Amy, looking at her curiously.
"I do," answered Betty determinedly. "Some time we're going to find that fellow and make him pay for what he's done. Think of it!" she added, turning upon them suddenly while her eyes flashed fire. "To run down a helpless old woman in the road and then not even stop to find out whether you've killed her or not! We'll find him if we have to search the country for fifty miles around!"
THE SHADOW OF MYSTERY
The girls never forgot that mad ride to Camp Liberty. Mile after mile sped by on wings, and it was not till they were on the outskirts of the town itself that the victim of the accident showed signs of returning consciousness.
Then she sighed, moved her head a little restlessly on Betty's shoulder, and opened her eyes.
"Oh, dear," she said, faintly but so abruptly that Betty and Grace started. "I knew I'd have—to do it—some day!"
When the girls came to know her better they no longer wondered at her quaint and unexpected sayings. But at the moment this queer statement, coming as it did from one who they thought must be hovering at death's door, rather startled them.
"Wh—what?" stammered Betty, bewildered, while the others stared with wide eyes. "What did you say?"
"I said," replied the surprising old woman, in a stronger voice, trying unsteadily to straighten herself in the seat and raising trembling hands to her rather dilapidated old hat, "that I was sure to come to it some day. There's a fate in such things."
The girls looked at each other uncertainly, and into the minds of each flashed the startled suspicion that perhaps the poor old soul was mentally defective. Or, maybe, the accident—
The woman seemed to sense something of their bewilderment, and into her eyes, still bright in spite of her age and what she had just gone through, there came a twinkle—yes, a real twinkle.
"No, I'm not crazy," she assured them, regaining her strength with amazing quickness. "You see, it seemed kind o' funny to me after all these years o' swearin' that I'd never ride in one o' these gasoline cars to find myself in one after all,—and at my time o' life."
The girls gasped with relief, but still had the strange feeling of one who has been speeding over the water with all sails set and suddenly finds herself in the midst of a dead calm.
"B-but," stammered Amy, voicing the general sentiment, "we thought—were afraid—you were hurt badly—"
"Guess maybe I'd have thought so, too, if I'd had the chance," responded the surprising old lady ruefully. "Pretty well mussed up, I guess, and stunned. Shouldn't wonder if I found a heap o' bruises around me somewhere—but no bones broke. You see," she added, as though imparting a great secret, "the Sandersons' bones jest never was made to break. Now, there was our cousins—the Petersons—they was different. One o' that family wouldn't dare waggle his finger too hard for fear it would bust on him. You see, they was just naturally made that way. My son, Willie," here the brave voice lowered a trifle and tears rose to the bright old eyes, "he used to call them in fun—always jokin', that boy was—the Break-bone Petersons."
"But are you sure you aren't hurt?" Betty insisted, still with that curious feeling of having the wind taken out of her sails. "You see," she added hastily, as the twinkle returned to the old woman's eyes, "we were going to take you to the hospital, but if you are really sure there are no bones broken, I think you would like the Hostess House better."
"Hostess House?" repeated the old woman, her eyes widening with interest. "Yes, I've heard a lot about those places. That's where the sweethearts and mothers and wives of the soldier boys go, isn't it—to meet them—?"
"Yes," Betty responded eagerly. "You see, that's what we are doing, helping to make them feel at home. That's why we want you to come with us now and stay there until you feel better."
"But I'm not a mother, or a wife, or a sweetheart of any of those boys," objected the little old woman, while the same cloud swept over her face, leaving it wrinkled and old. "I—I might have been—if—if—Willie—"
"But that doesn't make any difference," Grace assured her, speaking for the first time and laying a white, soft hand over the knotted, wrinkled one. "We want you to stay with us and rest while we try to find the man who ran you down."
"Oh, him!" cried the old woman scornfully, all the time patting Grace's hand with gentle fingers. "There's no use wastin' time lookin' for him. He'll make pretty sure that he won't be seen round these parts again—not for some time, anyway. But you're dear, sweet little ladies," she added, looking from Betty, whose arm still rested about her shoulders to Grace's hand in hers and from them to the two girls in front. "You're awfully sweet little ladies," she repeated, while the quick tears rose to her eyes. "I don't see why you're bein' so kind to me—"
"But we just love to do anything we can," broke in Betty quickly, for the Outdoor Girls never liked to be thanked. "And we'd like so much to have you see our Hostess House. That is, if you'd care to," she added, suddenly remembering that the old woman might not be so helpless and alone as she had seemed—might have made some other plans. But the latter quickly reassured her.
"Oh, I would like to, more than anything else in the world," she replied eagerly, then, realizing that her fervor might astonish the girls, added with a little forced laugh. "You see, it's a weakness o' mine. Maybe it's because I'm getting old—but, the soldier boys—I can't seem to see enough o' them—"
"I don't think it's got anything to do with getting old," Mollie broke in irrepressibly, "because I feel just that way about it myself. The more I see, the more I want to see."
The woman's eyes twinkled again. She was about to make some sort of comment, but at that moment Mollie swung the car into the street leading to the Hostess House, and the girls gave a little surprised exclamation at finding themselves so nearly there.
A few minutes later they were ushering their shabby little guest into the comfortable alcove off the main reception room and settling her solicitously in one of the cushion-filled window seats.
It was astonishing to see how quickly their patient had recovered from the accident. She seemed a little weak and unsteady as they helped her from the car, but going up the steps to the Hostess House she resolutely refused all assistance and mounted the porch alone.
"Isn't she a darling?" Mollie had whispered to Grace as they brought up the rear. "Did you ever see anybody of her age so full of life and independence?"
And it was that same sturdy independence and humor that endeared her to the girls in the days that followed and made them willing to do anything in their power to help her.
There was some discussion at first as to where they could put their unexpected guest, for all the rooms were full and a couple of unused emergency cots seemed to be all the extra accommodations they could find.
"I have it," cried Betty at last, with one of her inspirations. "Grace and I will give up our room and bunk in with Amy and Mollie. That's where the two extra cots will come in good."
The idea was applauded enthusiastically, and it took only a short time of scurrying about to put it into action.
"But one thing we must remember," Betty cautioned the others, as they surveyed their work with satisfaction. "We mustn't let our old lady guess a word of what we've been doing."
"Oh, no, we mustn't," agreed Amy in alarm. "She'd be just as apt as anything to put on her hat and leave us without a word."
"You know, it is going to be rather close quarters," sighed Grace, as they turned to leave the room. "We won't be able to move without falling over somebody's feet."
"You needn't look at mine," Mollie retorted with spirit. "Why is it that whenever you make a disparaging remark you never fail to look at me?"
"That's easy," Grace returned with a twinkle. "All you have to do is to look in your mirror—"
"Oh dear, and I suggested it," mourned Betty, as they descended the stairs arm in arm. "We'll have to give them the cots, Amy; it would be murderous to let those two sleep together."
"Ah, 'tis a deep, dark plot," cried Mollie, staggering dramatically and almost falling downstairs. "I see it all—they get the bed while we, poor wretches that we are, toss our uneasy bones upon the cot—"
Amy screamed and Grace covered her ears.
"Goodness, what do you think this is—a ghost's retreat?" demanded the latter, while Betty chuckled joyfully. "'Toss our uneasy bones,' indeed!"
"Does sound kind of grizzly, doesn't it?" Mollie admitted. "Just the same, I wager that's what Betty intended."
"Mollie, you wrong me!" cried Betty in dismay. "I was simply trying to avoid a tragedy. But, if you're going to toss bones, anyway, you might as well do it in comfort; so—"
"Oh, you goose," cried Mollie affectionately, and in this manner they entered the den where Mrs. Watson was entertaining, or being entertained by, the little old woman.
The girls immediately took possession of the latter and joyfully escorted her to the upper floor to look over her new quarters.
"My, isn't this fine!" exclaimed the guest, her face lighting up happily. "A beautiful big bed and three fine windows to see the soldier boys from. Are you sure," she added, glancing from one to the other of the four eager faces suspiciously, "that I'm not putting you out? Because, if I am—"
"Why of course you're not," Betty fibbed stoutly, adding, with a swift change of subject: "But I'm sure now that you would like to rest. Look," she added, with quick solicitude, as she saw how white the old lady had become, "your hands are trembling—"
"No, no, no," disclaimed the little old woman impatiently, as she gazed with set face out of the window that faced upon the parade. "I'm a little cold. And—that boy—" She pointed with quivering finger at a sturdy, khaki-clad figure, swinging happily over the parade in the direction of the mess-hall, "He—he reminded me—"
"Yes," they cried, crowding about her solicitously, while Betty pushed a chair toward the window and gently forced her into it.
"He—he was—just like—" The slight form was shaking and the words forced themselves from between her chattering teeth, "what my Willie boy would have been now—if he hadn't—run away. My little son! My baby!"
MRS. SANDERSON'S STORY
Tears were not only in her eyes now, but running down her wrinkled old face, and the girls, with the tears of real pity in their own eyes, crowded closer about her.
"Would it help," Betty suggested gently, "if you told us about it?"
The old lady drew her gaze from the window and let it rest on the sweet, sympathetic young face, and she nodded slowly.
"I guess maybe it would," she agreed, taking a handkerchief from the pocket in her dress and wiping her eyes. "You see, I never have told anybody for years and years, and if it hadn't been for this war I suppose I should have gone right on not telling anybody for the rest of my life. Of course the Yates and Baldwins and all the folks that lived around us knew it, so there was no use telling them—" Her voice trailed off and her eyes sought the window with its vista of parade ground and low, roughly built barracks buildings.
The girls looked at her. Never in their lives, they thought, had they been so thoroughly interested in anything as they were in the secret sorrow of this gentle old lady, the sorrow that brought that strange cloud of unhappiness every time she mentioned this son of hers who had run away.
"He must have been a pretty ungrateful sort," thought Mollie resentfully, "to have run away from a mother who loved him like that."
Once more the old lady drew her eyes from the window and fixed them on the circle of eager young faces.
"I suppose young things like you couldn't be expected to understand," she went on, "and yet perhaps you'll be interested more than other folks, 'count of your having met so many young boys."
"Oh, we are interested," they cried in chorus, at which the old woman's face lighted up and she went on with more cheerfulness.
"Well, to begin with," she said, "we lived way at t'other end o' the world. Danestown, it was called, and my husband—better man never breathed—died when my little boy was only four years old. I wasn't so young any more, for Willie was the youngest—the others had all died when they was babies—and Willie's pa and me was getting along in years when he come to us—the dearest, sweetest, prettiest baby you ever set your eyes on.
"Well, we had managed to save some little money, though 'twasn't over much at best, and with me workin' on the farm week days and Sundays, we managed to get along pretty well. An' I was savin' pennies—" Here the old voice trembled and nearly broke, so that it was some minutes before the speaker could go on.
The girls tried hard to think of something to say, but as everything that came to them sounded flat and inappropriate, they kept a sympathetic silence—which was perhaps the best they could have done, after all.
"As I was sayin'," the old voice continued after a while, "I was squeezin' every little penny I could from the bare necessities to lay aside for the boy. You see, it had been his father's wish that Willie should be given the chance neither of us had ever had to get some schoolin' and have his chance in the world. I was hopin' that by the time the boy grew up I might maybe have enough to send him to college.
"Of course," she added, with an air of apologizing for a weakness that went straight to the girls' hearts, "they was only dreams. But I don't see as there was any harm in them, seein's I always kept them to myself an' never told anybody 'bout them—leastways, no one but Willie.
"Sometimes, on a winter night when the snow was fallin' outside an' the wind was howlin' round the house, I used to draw Willie up to the big, open fireplace we had in the kitchen and tell him 'bout his pa an' how he had always wished for Willie to be a fine, big man.
"An' Willie, he'd listen with those big, earnest eyes o' his—such beautiful eyes my Willie had—" Again the voice broke and trailed off into silence while the girls sat and waited as before, only with a stronger pity in their hearts for this faithful little old woman who had loved so well—and lost.
"An' then," the voice continued, more softly and dreamily than before, my little boy would reach up and pat my cheek, just like his father used to do, and seems like I can hear his voice now, just as plain as I did all those long, long years ago.
"'Maw,' he'd say, drawlin' a little in his cunnin' way, 'just don't you worry. I'll do all those things, jest like pa said, an' then we'll go an' live in a big house an' you won't have to work so hard any more—jest be happy.'
"An' then he'd take my hand that was coarse an' rough from workin' in the field and rub his soft little cheek against it an' look up at me, an' just smile—"
There was a little sob from the spot where Amy was sitting cross-legged on the floor, while the other girls were frankly and openly crying and not even noticing it.
"He—he must have been a darling!" cried Betty, unsteadily.
"He was," answered the old lady simply. "It wasn't very long after that he ran away, and I suppose"—again her eyes sought the parade ground—"if I was to meet him now I maybe wouldn't know him. You see, I'd still be lookin' for my little brown-eyed, yellow-haired Willie boy."
"But what made him run away?" asked Mollie, rubbing her eyes furiously with her handkerchief. "I shouldn't have thought—"
"Neither would I," the strange little woman interrupted abruptly. "If he hadn't had such a high spirit he never would. But—well, seem like I'm gettin' ahead of my story.
"You see, some o' the neighbors' children was a pretty wild lot an' they always had a grudge against my boy 'cause he wouldn't join them in all their escapades.
"You see, Willie took a lot after his father. He used to just like to sit and dream and read books you'd thought a little fellow like him couldn't understand at all—he was just twelve when he ran away.
"An' o' course these other boys, they didn't like him 'cause he was different, an' they was always layin' the blame for all their pranks on him.
"But my Willie, it didn't bother him much. He used to tell me that as long as he knew he didn't do it and I knew it, what other folks thought wasn't worth worryin' 'bout—just his pa all over.
"Only, I remember one time," the bent old form straightened up proudly and the bright old eyes gleamed, "when the other boys started pushin' things too far an' begun callin' my boy names—no names that a boy with any pride in him would stand for—I heard them—they was jest around the back o' the house, an' I came to the door with my mad up to the boilin' point, but what I saw made me stop right short an' wait for what I knew was goin' to happen.
"Willie, he was sittin' on a log by the barn, jest wrapped up in a new book he'd found, an' it was some time before just what those ragamuffins was sayin' seeped in. When it did was when I came to the door, boilin' with rage.
"Very quiet, but with a sort o' bulldog set to that chin o' his, just like his pa, he closed his book an' laid it down beside him.
"'I'll be askin' you,' he said, drawlin' very marked and facin' the bully o' the crowd that was at least two or three years older than he was—'I'll be askin' you to say what you been sayin' all over again.'
"The bully did, with trimmin's, an' Willie listened without turnin' a hair till he got all through.
"'Now,' he says, more quiet than ever—I can see him now, with his big eyes blazin' black out o' his white face and his little hands that seemed to me scarce more'n a baby's clenched tight at his side—'Now, I guess, I got to lick you!'
"An' he did!"
"He beat him?" cried Mollie excitedly. "Oh, weren't you proud?"
"I guess I was!" answered the little old woman, her eyes snapping with the memory. "That was the day my boy showed what was in him, an' after that the other boys never called him any more names.
"But, o' course," she added, while the old cloud erased the glow from her face, "that didn't keep the boys from wantin' to get even.
"Well, then came the awful day when Abner Conway's barn burned an' Abner himself came over to accuse my Willie of havin' started the fire, bringin' with him two or three o' the boys who had tried to call Willie names to swear they'd seen him do it.
"O' course Willie denied it an' I backed him up by sayin'—an' there never was truer word spoken—that Willie was with me before an' at the time the barn took fire.
"But it didn't do any good. Abner was ragin' because it meant considerable loss to him, an' so much blame had been laid at Willie's door by the other boys that he declared this time he was goin' to have him punished.
"'I'll have the law on him!' he shouted, rampagin' round my kitchen like a wild animal. I'll show that boy o' yours if he can go round settin' folks' barns on fire an' not get come up with! I'll give him a taste o' what it feels like to be behind bars. It's time somethin' was done, an', by Jerry, I'm the one to do it!'
"An' without another word he slammed out with those grinnin' imps that was makin' all the trouble followin' at his heels. Well, there isn't very much more to tell."
Here she paused, the animation left her face and she looked pityfully old and weary. Betty reached over and patted her hand, and finally she resumed her story.
"Abner kept his word and brought the sheriff around that same afternoon, but they couldn't find Willie—he was gone. He'd left a note for me—full o' love—but sayin' that he couldn't bear to bring disgrace on me an' so he'd gone away. When he'd done what his pa wanted him to, he said, he'd come back an' then we could live in the big house an' be happy.
"An' from that day to this, I've never heard a word from my little boy."
"Oh," cried Betty, pityingly, "what a terrible thing! I should think he could have written. But maybe he did, and his letters never reached you."
"That old Abner must have been a beast," cried Mollie, clenching her hands belligerently. "And those boys! Wouldn't I like to put them behind the bars?"
"You see," the old lady went on tonelessly, "it was only a little while after Willie ran away that they found out that tramps started the fire. Of course Abner was sorry then, but it was too late. My boy was gone."
"But you'll find him yet," cried Betty hopefully, springing to her feet. "I'm quite sure you will."
But the old lady shook her head sadly.
"I don't think so, my dear," she said slowly. "If my Willie boy had been alive I'm sure he would have come to me. He's—he's—almost certain—to be—dead."
The girls tried to comfort the little old woman for a few minutes more, then had to hurry away to various duties about the Hostess House—Mollie to help a young Polish boy who had been drafted into the army and who was struggling valiantly and conscientiously to learn English, Grace to write a letter for a Southern mountain boy who had never learned to read and write, and Amy and Betty to help a timid and somewhat helpless mother through the long hours of waiting before she could have a brief visit with her son during his time of relief from duty.
FUN AND SOLDIERS
"I wish we could do something for Mrs. Sanderson," Betty remarked with a sigh. "I haven't slept a wink for two nights just trying to think out some way of finding that boy of hers."
"He must have been a darling," Grace added thoughtfully. "I can't understand how a boy like that could run away from home and stay away for years without even trying to get in touch with his mother."
"Maybe that charge changed his character," Mollie suggested dramatically. "I've heard of such things."
"I've read of 'em," sniffed Grace. "But I must say I never believed it. Give a boy the right sort of character to start with—"
"I don't see where you get that," Mollie interrupted hotly. "Why, half the criminals in the world are made up of boys who were good enough to start with, but because of some temptation, or their environment, went wrong—"
"But Mrs. Sanderson's Willie wasn't a criminal," suggested Amy mildly.
"But he was accused of being one and threatened with jail," retorted Mollie. "And how do you know that wasn't just what he needed to start him on the downward path—"
"Heavens, how melodramatic," drawled Grace. "Here, Mollie dear, have a candy and try to cheer up."
"Then I'd have indigestion and never cheer up," retorted Mollie crossly. "Sometimes you make me feel as if I were on a little island completely surrounded by chocolates, Grace, and whenever anything bothered me I'd only have to eat one—a chocolate, I mean, not the island—to forget all my troubles."
"Oh, bliss," sighed Grace ecstatically. "If you have discovered any such wonderful island, Mollie darling, lead me to it, and I will spend all the rest of my life worshipping you."
"When you're not too busy gobbling the chocolates," Mollie returned with a twinkle in her eyes.
"Which reminds me," broke in Betty, shaking off the thoughtful mood that had taken possession of her, "that this is the day of our picnic, and if we don't get back to the Hostess House pretty soon the boys will be there before we have even made a sandwich."
"Goodness," cried Mollie in consternation, "all this talk about criminals put the boys entirely out of my head."
"I should hope so," twinkled Betty. "Our boys are as little apt to remind us of criminals as anybody I know. But seriously," she added, a little of the thoughtfulness returning, "I think we're making a mistake in thinking that Willie Sanderson has become a criminal. I think there is probably some satisfactory explanation of why he stayed away from home; and perhaps with the help of the people we know we may be able to solve the mystery. Anyway, I don't believe that a boy like that and with a mother like this dear old soul could turn out very badly."
"But suppose he's dead!" Mollie put in.
"Well, then our days of detectivities will be over as far as he's concerned," put in Grace before Betty could reply. "Here, Mollie, take another chocolate and don't ask foolish questions."
"Goodness, I think you're going to die, Gracie," said Mollie, looking her friend over anxiously. "This is the first time since the fateful day of our meeting that I can remember your offering, actually offering, me two chocolates in succession."
"It isn't the first time you've taken them, though," suggested Grace dryly. "It just occurred to me that since you will take them anyway, I might as well get the credit of offering them."
"Ah, I guessed it, villainness," cried Mollie darkly. "I have long suspected that that lovely face hid a soul of venom—I should say, a venomous soul—"
The girls chuckled and Grace answered lightly:
"Well, as long as you admit my beauty I don't care what you say about the rest."
"Ah, heartless one—" Mollie was beginning, when with a laugh Betty hooked an arm through hers and hustled the dramatic one in very undramatic fashion, up the steps into the Hostess House.
"Oh, Betty, you are so impulsive," sighed Mollie, as she was finally permitted a chair in the kitchen. "If you don't stop rushing around so you'll have me worn to skin and bones—"
"Goodness, have you got those things, too?" asked Betty, as she hurried busily from table to pantry and back again. "Please don't be so lazy, Mollie dear. The boys will be here before we're half ready, and we don't want to lose a minute of this perfect day."
Harder heart than Mollie's must have softened at this appeal, and she set to work with a will preparing delicacies for this picnic with the boys—perhaps the thought was accompanied by a strange, panicky sinking of the heart—the very last picnic they would have together, at least until after the war.
"Did Allen have any more news for you, yesterday?" Mollie asked suddenly, following up this train of thought.
"No, nothing definite," the Little Captain responded, deftly slipping currant jelly into layers of buttered biscuit. "Of course, he said there were all sorts of rumors, but since they all came from equally good sources and no two of them pointed the same way, he wasn't listening to any of them. All they really know is that the regiment is all ready and equipped and will surely be on its way very soon."
"I'm not even thinking of it," said Mollie, slamming down the cover of the bread box by way of emphasis, as Amy and Grace came upon the scene. "I don't dare to let myself think," she repeated.
"That's right, dear, I wouldn't either," approved Grace, patting her encouragingly on the back as she passed on her way to the pantry. "You want to get your mind used to it by degrees, otherwise the shock might be too great. What's that, Betty—the sugar? Surely. Anything to be agreeable!" The last hamper had just been done up, filled to the brim with good things, when the boys arrived.
"Heavens, I'm a fright," cried Grace, viewing herself in the kitchen mirror—a mirror, by the way, which brought out all a person's bad points with Puritan honesty.
"Go in and keep the boys quiet, Amy, that's a dear," she begged, then, seeing refusal in Amy's eyes, added cajolingly: "You always look as if you came out of a bandbox yourself, you know. Please, dear—"
But Amy was already half way up the backstairs and paused to make a face at her.
"Taffy!" she cried succinctly.
Five minutes later the three girls, in various attitudes of impatience, were waiting for Grace while she still primped before the mirror.
"Just one minute more I give you," stated Mollie, regarding her wrist watch frowningly.
"Oh, Mollie, if you only wouldn't talk so much," sighed Grace, turning with an air of resignation from the mirror. "As soon as you begin to talk everything goes wrong. My gloves walk under the bed, and my hair stands on end—"
"Goodness," cried Mollie, looking injured, "anybody'd think I was a ghost. I'll stand for being called lots of things, but a phantom—Ouch! Now what's the idea?" For Grace's thumb and forefinger had come together in the fleshy part of her arm.
"I was just trying to reassure you," explained Grace innocently, as Mollie stared indignantly. "There's nothing the least bit ethereal—"
But Mollie waited to hear no more, and sped down the stairs after Betty to bounce unceremoniously in upon the boys.
"Beware!" she cried. "A lunatic is about to descend upon us!"
"I should say one had already," grinned Allen, at which Mollie surrendered.
"Everybody's against me," she sighed. "When one whom I have always called my friend, turns agin me—Never mind," she added diplomatically, "I made the layer cake, Allen Washburn—"
"Oh, Mollie, let me carry your pocketbook," begged Allen in alarm.
"How do I know you're honest?" she retorted with a twinkle, and peace was once more restored.
The young folks paired off as usual, and Allen drew Betty a little behind the others. The two formed so handsome a couple that many a passer-by stopped and looked back after them with an admiring smile.
The camp training had improved Allen wonderfully. Always splendidly athletic, he carried himself with a poise and moved with a swing that spoke of perfectly trained muscles, while his handsome face had been tanned to the color of an Indian's.
No wonder that when Allen bent toward her and spoke in a certain tone reserved for her alone, Betty found it hard to look at this tall, bronzed soldier who had been her faithful cavalier for—oh, she could not remember how long.
"I haven't seen you for ages," he murmured, and she glanced sideways at him, dimpling.
"Not for twenty-four whole hours," she agreed soberly. "Wasn't it this time yesterday—"
"What has yesterday to do with it?" he interrupted ardently. "I tell you when a fellow's to be parted from the thing he wants most in the world every twenty-four hours count—"
"Allen!" she cried, turning upon him in swift alarm, "is it settled then? Have you learned anything definite?"
He shook his head, while his laughing eyes said things that made her turn her own away.
"Then why," she asked, with a little pout, "do you have to scare me so?"
"Because," he answered happily, "there's nothing I like better than to see you scared—about that," he added quickly, as she turned an indignant glance upon him.
For a moment it seemed as if anger were there to stay, but it was impossible to be very angry with Allen—when he looked at one like that. At least Betty thought so.
"You'd better be careful," she said with a soft little laugh. "If you try that too much, I may not believe you when the real time comes."
"Betty," he cried fervently, "I won't ever do it again—I promise you. At least," he added, straightening up, while in his eyes grew a great resolve, "not until—that real time comes!
"But what have you girls been doing this morning?" he went on, after a pause.
The girl gave an amused but sympathetic laugh before she answered. Then she said:
"Mollie and I have been trying to keep the hearts of three of those recruits that came in yesterday from breaking outright. Poor boys, they're awfully young—I believe they fibbed about their ages—and look like cherubs. None of them has ever been away from home before, and they are pathetically homesick. But they have told us about their homes and their mothers and fathers and the little brothers and sisters, and Mollie has joked with them and—Well, anyway, Allen, I believe we have made them feel that they are not wholly friendless."
"I'm sure you have, Betty dear."
"Poor boys," went on Betty. "I presume it will get easier as they get used to it."
"Grace has been writing letters for some of the boys who find it hard to do that. Grace is awfully good at that. And Amy, I believe, has been showing some girls who came down to see their brother, about the place and trying to keep them interested during the long waits between the times they can see the boy, who, like his sisters, is almost too timid to look out for himself."
Admiration shone in Allen Washburn's eyes as he looked at the Little Captain and remarked:
"What lucky people those Y.W.C.A. officials were to get you girls down here for this Hostess House! But come, Betty, the others are beckoning to us."
The spot they had chosen for the picnic was quite a distance away from Camp Liberty, and by the time the party finally reached it, both boys and girls were wondering if the generous contents of the hampers would serve even to take the edge off their appetites.
"I don't see why we didn't take your car, Mollie," Grace complained, as they covered the last stretch of dusty road. "We would have been on the picnic grounds and had our lunch eaten by this time."
"But just think what's in store for us," Betty reminded her cheerily. "We need a good appetite to eat up all this lunch."
"Well, I don't know," Grace grumbled back. "It seems to me I had a good enough appetite for two lunches, each twice as big as this, when we started."
"Heavens!" cried Frank Haley, who was walking in front with Mollie, "I see my chances of a square meal dwindling."
"I'm beginning to agree with Grace," grinned Roy Anderson, "that we made a big mistake in not taking the car."
"Oh, you're all just lazy," was Mollie's accusation. "We haven't been walking more than an hour and there's the spot, just around that turn in the road."
"Say," and Will, who had not yet spoken, turned suddenly to Betty, "isn't this the road where the accident happened that introduced that nice little old woman—what's her name—"
"Mrs. Sanderson," Betty supplied.
"Yes, that's it. Isn't this about the place where you found her?"
"Goodness, no," put in Amy. "It was on this road, but we were miles out of town."
"Will, I'd love you all the rest of my life if you'd only find that motorcyclist and have him punished," said Betty fervently. "It makes me wild when I think how easily he got away from us—"
"Never mind that," interrupted Will, his eyes twinkling. "All I want is to have you repeat the first part of your speech. What was that about loving me all the rest of my life?"
"Say, what's the idea?" demanded Allen suddenly, having been engrossed in a little dream all his own. "What kind of rash promises are you asking Betty to make?"
"Well, I would," contended Betty stoutly, adding with a twinkle: "Like a sister."
"Oh," said Will, turning disappointedly away. "If that's all you have to offer me—"
"But I've got lots more than that," Betty assured him quickly. "Why, Will, if you're real good, I may even give you an extra piece of cake."
"Well, now, that's different again," cried Will, his interest rekindling.
"Will," remonstrated Grace plaintively, "I'm surprised at you. You are really getting shockingly material."
"Getting!" interjected Frank, with a grin.
"Go on, Betty, never mind this vulgar rabble—with apologies to you, sweet sister," as Grace shot an indignant glance at him. "You were saying that if I found this motorcyclist you'd give me an extra piece of cake, or words to that effect. Am I right?"
"Perfectly," laughed Betty, then added, seriously: "But, really, I think something ought to be done."
"So do I," Amy backed her up stoutly. "We ought to let those old motorcyclists know they can't run over poor old ladies whenever they feel like it—"
"Favorite outdoor sports," murmured Roy.
"It was the most heartless thing I ever saw," said Mollie, entering into the discussion with a will. "He never even stopped to find out what damage had been done. He might have killed her—"
"But what wouldst thee, sweet damsel?" asked Will patiently. "We can hardly go out on the broad highway and hold up every motorcyclist that comes along—"
"Well, I know what you could do," said Grace, with unusual animation. "You could take one of us along to point out the suspicious characters."
"Yes, we got a fine view of him," added Amy eagerly. "He had small eyes close together—"
"Regular villain type," murmured Frank, but Amy refused to be side-tracked.
"They all have those," interrupted Roy.
"And a tiny little mustache that looked as if it had got there by mistake."
"Probably false," suggested Will. "One of the kind you stick on with molasses—like feathers—"
"Oh, do be sensible," cried Mollie impatiently. "Of course you can't go holding him up at the point of a gun, but there ought to be something—"
"Give us time, give us time," Allen interrupted. "Wasn't it Antony who had time and conquered, or something like that—"
"Goodness, anybody'd know you'd been out of school a long time," drawled Grace scathingly. "Mark Antony, indeed!"
"Well, it was one of those guys, anyway," maintained Allen, with admirable impartiality. "And you have to admit the sentiment was fine. All we ask is time—"
"And a little grub," supplemented Will hungrily. "It seems to me I remember somebody saying a couple of hours ago that we were even then approaching our destination, and we seem to be getting no nearer rapidly—"
"Oh, do try to be sensible," cried Mollie, for the second time. "If you would only have some patience—"
"Never heard the word," declared Will with a grin, and Mollie made a face at him—a very disrespectful face.
"Well, but when—" Will was insisting plaintively when Betty interrupted him with a cry of delight.
"Look, people," she said, breaking away from them and running up the rather steep bank lightly.
"This isn't the spot we picked out, but it's twice as pretty. Big rocks for tables—and everything."
"Especially everything," commented Allen, his eyes twinkling.
"Oh, boy!" cried Roy ecstatically, setting down the hamper that had been his share and beginning to examine its contents without further delay. "Chicken! Ham sandwiches! Biscuits! Jelly—"
"Say, get out of that!" cried Frank, snatching the hamper away with a vigor born of fear. "What kind of manners do you call that?"
"They're as good as yours," retorted the outraged Roy hotly. "Besides, there's another hamper, isn't there?"
"Goodness, they seem to think they can have a whole basket apiece," cried Amy Blackford in dismay.
"Well, I guess they've got another think coming," said Allen, inelegantly, placing himself with outstretched arms before the two precious hampers as though he were guarding a gold mine. "Now let him come who dares. Only over my dead body—"
"Oh, what's the use of spoiling our perfectly good party," complained Grace. "Can't we ever begin to enjoy ourselves but what somebody starts taking all the joy out of life by talking about killing somebody, or something—"
"Never mind, Gracie," Frank soothed her, nibbling a chicken bone with great relish. "You'll get over it. It may take time—"
"Silence," commanded Mollie, raising a pickle fork threateningly. "Else in a twinkling I will split thee to the heart—"
"Goodness, she's got it, too," sighed Grace drawlingly.
"What?" asked Mollie briskly, "I'm always interested in my symptoms—"
"It isn't a disease, you goose," drawled Grace. "Unless," she added, as a second thought, "you can call insanity a disease—"
"Well, you ought to know," retorted Mollie, as she proceeded to use the pickle fork to advantage. "What does your doctor say?"
"Now who's bringing war into the party, I'd like to know?" asked Will, helping himself to his ninth biscuit.
"Goodness, that's just the usual thing," Betty explained, looking prettier, so Allen thought, than ever before with the background of lacy green to set off her bright coloring. "If they don't behave like that we know they're sick or something. Do have another biscuit, Roy. Goodness," and she stared round-eyed down into the empty space where the biscuits had been, "they're every one gone! Who did eat them all?"
"Well, you needn't look at me," said Frank in an aggrieved tone. "Will's the fellow you've got to watch."
Will was about to utter some scathing retort when Grace, who had gotten up to shake the crumbs from her dress and had walked down toward the road, suddenly called to them. It was such an excited, urgent call that they left everything and came running.
"What—" began Betty.
"It was the motorcyclist!" cried Grace, her face flaming. "I couldn't have been mistaken, because I caught a good view of his face."
"But what was he doing back here?" demanded Amy, while the rest stared at Grace excitedly. "That's only a rutty old wagon road, and—"
"Well, he was bumping and bouncing like everything, and when he caught sight of me he sent his machine ahead so fast I thought surely he'd have a smash-up."
"Wish he had," said gentle Amy, and at the unusually vindictive expression on her face the others had to laugh.
"Well, there's nothing more we can do now," said Frank practically. "Let's go back and finish our lunch. Probably," he added, as they thoughtfully retraced their steps, "he took the wagon road for fear of running into one of you girls."
"Big coward!" cried Betty, with clenched hands. "I wish I had been with you, Grace, we might have stopped him."
The boys shouted.
"Such a chance!" crowed Roy, but Betty turned on them with flashing eyes.
"Well, we might at least have tried," she cried hotly. "That is more than you boys would have done. You don't seem to be even interested," she continued indignantly. "If I were a man in uniform I'd show that coward that he can't knock old helpless women down and then run away. I'd show him that in insulting an old woman he was insulting the whole United States army—"
"Hurrah!" cried Will irrepressibly, jumping to his feet. "Now you're talking, Betty. How about it, fellows? Shall we do as she says?"
"You bet we will!" they cried, and at the ring in their voices, even Betty's ardent little heart was satisfied.
A LARK IN THE OPEN
"Well, where do we go from here, boys?" asked Allen, lazily stretching out on the grass with a convenient, raised bank of moss for a pillow, while the girls repacked the depleted hampers. "It's such a wonderful day, and camp was never like this."
"Tell us something we don't know," Frank retorted. "Gee, it's been a fine experience and all, but, believe me, I'll be glad when the call comes for action."
"They're off again," said Grace plaintively.
"I must say you're not awfully complimentary," added Mollie, busily folding napkins.
"In what way, sweet maid, do we offend?" Will inquired.
"Oh, always talking about how glad you'll be to get away from us," she explained. "Here we thought we'd been entertaining you so beautifully—"
"Gee, you have!" cried Roy, propping himself on his elbow and speaking with unaccustomed solemnity. "It's been just great, having you girls here."
"It certainly has," added Frank. "I guess we'd have gone clean crazy because of homesickness if you hadn't come along just when you did."
"Now you're saying something," added Allen warmly, while the girls stopped packing and looked on happily. "Do you remember what we were talking about that day when we almost—"
"Ran into what we were talking about?" finished Frank with a grin. "You bet I do."
"Well, what was it?" drawled Grace, after they had waited patiently for the boys to continue and the latter had smiled aggravatingly to themselves over their thoughts.
"If it's bad," added Mollie briskly, "we don't want to hear it, for, as the old lady said that used to come to see Mother regularly once a year, 'I don't care what terrible things people say or think about me, if they don't tell me about it,' But if it's good—we might stand it."
"Oh, it was good all right," Frank assured her, still smiling over his thoughts. "We were saying that if we didn't get a furlough so we could go back to Deepdale—"
"For a certain purpose," suggested Will.
"For a certain purpose," Frank repeated solemnly—"we were afraid we might have to desert."
"Yes, that would have been sensible," scoffed Mollie. "Get half a dozen years in prison for yourselves and I'd like to know where your furloughs would be then."
"And you haven't really told us a single nice thing about ourselves," added Betty plaintively. "All the time we've just been holding our breath to listen—"
"We've been doing our best to tell you those nice things, every minute of every day since then," said Allen in a low voice. "If you haven't heard, it's because you wouldn't listen."
Betty colored adorably—to quote Allen again—and resumed her packing with great fervor.
"All of which," Frank finished his self-justification, "shows that we're far from anxious to leave you girls when we say we're eager for action. I guess," he added, thoughtfully, "it's just because we're so crazy to be with you that we're eager to go across."
"That sounds rather—" began Grace, but Frank would not let her finish.
"I know it does," he admitted. "Sounds like a contradiction. But I think you know what I'm trying to get at, just the same."
"Why, sure," Will backed him up eagerly.
"Frank means that we've got a confounded, disagreeable job to do before we can settle down and be happy on good old United States soil again—"
"And the sooner we get it done, the better," finished Roy.
"I guess that's about the size of it," he said. "The sooner we get there, the sooner we'll be coming home again. And, say, fellows, what a home coming!"
At the wistfulness in his voice the girls felt the tears rise to their eyes, and to save them from a breakdown Betty crisply changed the subject.
"I hope you boys can get over to the Hostess House Thursday night to see the entertainment we are helping get up among those new fellows who came week before last," she cried.
"Working yourselves to death over it, are you?" inquired Allen.
"Never!" returned Grace, with sudden emphasis.
"But it's lots of fun," chuckled Mollie. "We have found out by judicious inquiry—Amy, here, soon worms out the heart secrets of these boys by her quiet, sympathetic way—that a number of those boys have parlor tricks of one sort or another, and—"
"That orchestra fellow really is good," interrupted Amy. "Boys, you should hear him play! He has a guitar hung over his shoulder, a harmonica strapped to his head, a piano near by to which he makes sudden dashes, and all the while he dances the most marvelous dance!"
For once Amy was aroused to enthusiasm. The boys, however, were less interested, and Roy wanted to know what the girls themselves had to do in the coming entertainment.
"Oh," laughed Betty, "we are stage managers, scenic artists, stage hands, costumers, modern mutation of the Greek chorus, stays and props for the weak and timid, brakes for the overbold—in fact, we are around to do any work that nobody else wants to do.
"But we haven't decided," she reminded them suddenly, "just how we're going to spend the rest of the afternoon. Of course we can always take a walk—"
"Not after that lunch," declared Allen, striving to sit up, and sinking down again with a moan, "I'm ten pounds heavier than when I came."
"Well, you ought to be ashamed to admit it," retorted Mollie. "I thought in the army you had to be able to hike fifteen miles without winking."
"Sure. But this is our day off," objected Roy. "What do you suppose we get leave for—just to do what we can do every day of our lives?"
"Well, then, for goodness sake, suggest something," cried Mollie impatiently.
"I have an idea," cried Allen, so suddenly that they all started.
"Well, you needn't be so proud of it."
"Do you remember that pond we came across the day we went prospecting alone, Frank?" he continued, not noticing the interruption.
"Yes," Frank answered, catching the idea and looking interested. "Seems to me it ought to be somewhere in this neighborhood. Going to catch some fish?"
"Why, of course," put in Roy scornfully. "We're so attractive all we have to do is to whistle to the little animals to have them squabbling for the best place on the hook."
"My, isn't he the sarcastic boy," grinned Allen. "That little trick might work with you, Roy, but we're more modest."
"Well, have you got any fishing tackle?" queried Roy patiently.
"Sure," it was Frank's turn to be sarcastic. "Don't you know that's a part of every dough boy's outfit—so he can go fishing for the Huns?"
"Peace, peace, my children," entreated Betty plaintively. "Can't we ever talk about anything without getting into an argument?"
"But this isn't an argument; it's a suggestion," said Allen. "Though I expect the scorn and ridicule of an unthinking populace. Perhaps you have heard of the old-fashioned, but sometimes effective, string and bent pin?"
The boys shouted, and Allen bent upon them a pitying glance.
"It is even as I expected," he said sorrowfully. "Well, I have done my best—"
"I say old man," Roy interrupted suddenly, proving an unexpected ally, "I'm for you. Of course we won't get anything, but it will be an adventure. And gee, some fresh fish would taste good!"
So they went to work, eager as children on a lark. The girls managed to furnish enough pins for the hooks, and when the available string gave out, the boys made use of stout, withy vines as substitutes.
And, strange as it may seem, they actually were successful. The little stream proved to be full to overflowing with fish, small to be sure, but still eatable.
"Gee, I never saw anything like it!" cried Roy as he excitedly pulled out one fish after another. "They seem to be eager to be caught. And to think that we actually scoffed at the idea."
"That's what genius always has to bear," put in Allen, resignedly, while Betty gave him a side-wise glance from under her long lashes.
"Oh, don't we hate ourself," she chided softly, as she handed him more bait. "You really shouldn't, Allen—"
"What! Hate myself?" he demanded, letting a fish slip back into the water in his preoccupation. "I'd just as soon—as long as you don't!"
Betty laughed happily. It was so good to be there, unbelievably catching fish, with Allen beside her saying delightful—and foolish—things.
Then she thought of the parting that must inevitably come and her bright face clouded. Allen saw the shadow and leaned toward her anxiously.
"What is it, dear?" he whispered softly. "Have I done anything?"
"No," she answered with a little smile, half-whimsical, half-wistful. "You haven't done anything. It's what you're going to do that hurts."
ENTER SERGEANT MULLINS
"Mollie, you've been crying."
"I have not!" snapped Mollie, turning so the light would not fall on her face.
"Well, what are your eyes and nose all red for then?" asked Amy reasonably.
"Ask them," retorted Mollie. "Probably just did it to make me mad."
Several days had gone by, and the entertainment into which the girls had thrown themselves with so much enthusiasm had been given and pronounced a great success by the soldiers stationed at Camp Liberty. Since then the days had been given largely to the routine work of the Hostess House—afternoon teas, evening coffee served to those who wished it, writing letters for the boys, entertaining others, looking after wives and mothers and sisters who were visiting near the camp, suggesting books for some who seemed to be of uncertain taste. Now, on this day, something unusual had plainly happened.
"Oh, girls, I've got a wonderful plan—something new for the soldier boys!" cried Betty, breaking in upon her two friends merrily. Then, seeing that she had interrupted something, paused and looked uncertainly from Amy to Mollie and back again.
"Why, Mollie," she cried anxiously, "what is the matter?"
"Oh, can't you find something original to say?" snapped Mollie irascibly. "Seems to me that's all I hear from morning to night. 'Oh, Mollie, what's the matter—what's the matter, Mollie?' till I could scream."
"Oh, please excuse me," said Betty, with a little freezing quality in her voice. "I thought I might help; but if that's the way you feel about it—"
Quick as a flash Mollie had run to her and, repentant, thrown her arms about the Little Captain's neck.
"Please forgive me, Betty," she cried. "I'm perfectly horrid, and I know I don't deserve a friend like you. But—well, I'm just a beast, that's all," she finished lamely.
Betty laughed and patted her shoulder comfortingly.
"I guess we all are once in a while," she said, adding with a return of her old cheeriness, "Now, prove your repentance by 'fessing up. It's sure to make you feel better."
"Well, it wasn't anything much," Mollie replied, her face clouding again. "Only—I had a quarrel with—with—somebody—"
"How very explicit," drawled Grace, who had entered the room in time to hear the last part of the sentence.
Mollie stiffened, and Betty sent Grace a warning glance.
"Go on, Mollie dear, I'm awfully interested," Betty hurriedly interposed. "Because, you see," she added ruefully, "I just had a quarrel myself."
"You did," cried the three at once, and crowded around her eagerly.
"Oh, Betty, who with?" asked Amy, too excited to bother about grammar. Betty quarreled so seldom with anybody that when she did the girls considered it an event.
"I'll tell you about it after Mollie has 'fessed up," evaded Betty, seeming a trifle sorry for her confidence.
"Oh, did Mollie have one, too?" cried Grace delightedly, while Mollie sent her a hostile glance.
"Well, you needn't be so glad about it," she retorted glumly. "Maybe it wouldn't seem quite so interesting if it were you and Roy."
"Well, how do you know it wasn't?"
The three girls stared.
"What was that you said?" demanded Betty weakly. "I don't think I quite—"
"I said," returned Grace calmly, and pronouncing each word with exaggerated distinctness, "that Roy and I have had a quarrel, which probably would make yours look like nothing at all."
"Grace!" they cried in chorus, "do you mean it?"
For answer Grace turned to the mirror and began to arrange her hair.
"Ask Roy," she flung at them over her shoulder.
Behind her the girls looked at each other dumbly, struggling with a wild desire to laugh and cry at the same instant.
"But how?" Amy was beginning dazedly when once more Betty came to the rescue.
"All this would be funny if it weren't so impossible," she said. "Suppose we begin at the beginning and tell our experiences, since we're all in the same boat. It ought to be interesting—if not instructive."
Grace turned from the mirror and seated herself expectantly on the arm of a chair.
"Well, who's first?" she demanded.
"I am," volunteered Mollie unexpectedly, her eyes glittering. "It was all so utterly absurd, and it made me so m-mad that I had to c-cry—"
"So we see," murmured Grace impatiently, but once more Betty sent her a warning glance.
"And then—" she suggested.
"Well, Frank and I were taking a little walk when all of a sudden I happened to think of the bayonet drill Sergeant Mullins had invited us to."
Betty and Grace started and leaned forward eagerly in their chairs.
"Yes?" they breathed.
"Well," continued Mollie, her color rising, "I don't know whatever got into Frank—he never used to be like that. He just sort of froze up and wouldn't answer my questions or anything until I got so angry I told him that if he didn't tell me what the matter was I'd say good-by to him right there and wouldn't ever speak to him again."
"Yes?" breathed the girls again.
"Then what did he say?" asked Grace.
"Why, he just got red in the face," replied Mollie, "and said all right then, he'd tell me what the matter was. And then he said"—she laughed a little hysterically—"that he just couldn't stand the thought of my seeing so much of Sergeant Mullins—think of it—me, who have never said two words alone to the man in my life!"
"Well, I never!" Betty exploded, while the usually placid Grace seemed hardly able to keep her seat. "That's almost exactly what Allen said!"
"And Roy, too!" cried Grace dazedly. "Girls, what does it mean?"
"It seems to mean," put in Amy dryly, "that one or all of us are ready for the insane asylum."
"Allen said," Betty contributed, wide-eyed, "that it made him mad to see the way that Sergeant Mullins hung around the Hostess House all the time. He made it quite plain that there was no doubt but what I was the main attraction."
"And Roy thinks it's me," said Grace, her own grammar suffering from excitement. "Goodness! does he think the poor boy is after all of us?"
"Thinks he's going to start a harem, maybe," cried Mollie hysterically. "Oh, dear, isn't it too ridiculous?"
"I suppose," said Amy thoughtfully, "it's because Sergeant Mullins is so awfully good-looking."
"And, of course, he does come around a good deal," added Mollie.
"I know. But that's because he's so lonesome," put in Betty. "And, of course, we have all tried to be nice to him. I think it's horrid," she added, flaring up, "for the boys to act so ridiculously just because he happens to be good-looking and awfully attractive!"
"Oh, Betty, Betty," chided Mollie, wiping a tear—this time of merriment—from her eyes. "If Allen could only hear you now!"
"Nonsense!" retorted Betty, almost snappishly. "There are dozens of boys who come here to tell us their troubles, and I don't see why they have to—"
"Pick on him," finished Grace. "Only you must remember," she added with a twinkle, "that he is much more attractive than most—"
"And he never tells us any troubles either," added Mollie, with a chuckle. "Maybe the boys think that's suspicious."
"Well," said Amy, with a sigh, "I seem to be the only one left out. Nobody thinks it's worth while to quarrel romantically about me."
The girls laughed, and Grace added with a grimace:
"Goodness, you needn't feel bad about it. It was just your luck that you didn't meet Will this morning and tell him the awful news, that's all. I suppose he'd have acted as silly as the rest of them."
"Maybe it's a plant anyway," suggested Mollie dolefully.
"A plant?" queried Betty. "What kind—a flower or a T.N.T. factory?"
"A plot was what I meant," explained Mollie patiently, while the others chuckled.
"A plot!" repeated Grace, with a return of her drawl. "Heavens, Mollie, if there is anything in signs you ought to be a great author some day from the way you're always seeing a plot in everything."
"Thank you, I hope so," said Mollie.
"Well, for goodness' sake get to the point," urged Grace impatiently, glancing at the clock. "We'll have to dress pretty soon, to go down to serve the regular afternoon tea to the soldier boys and their friends."
"Oh, it just occurred to me," Mollie explained, "that perhaps the boys had met some girls in town they liked better than they like us and had gotten up a conspiracy—to—to—quarrel with us—"
"What a brilliant idea!" scoffed Grace. "Especially as the boys have been following us around like Mary's little lamb, and have scared all the other boys away."
"And without being conceited at all," added Amy, with a chuckle, "the girls I've seen around the town really aren't calculated to steal their hearts away."
"In that case, haven't we still got Sergeant Mullins?" chuckled Betty.
They laughed, and Mollie added, as they started to dress for the afternoon:
"I wonder if the boys really expected that we wouldn't go to this special bayonet drill to-morrow—especially when we've been longing to see one for ages—just because Sergeant Mullins invited us?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said Betty carelessly. "But it really doesn't matter since we're going anyway!"
THE BAYONET DRILL
It was a beautiful sunshiny day, and the girls felt their spirits soaring happily as they ran down the steps of the Hostess House and started across the parade.
Also the, what appeared to them, foolish objections of the boys to their attending the bayonet drill lent spice to the adventure, and they hurried on gaily over the parade.
Sergeant Mullins, who had unwittingly caused all the excitement, was, as the girls had said, a tall, splendidly built fellow, good looking to an unusual degree, but very silent and reserved.
He had seemed immensely attracted from the first by the girls from the Hostess House, and had made overtures in a half-shy, half-humorous manner that the girls themselves had found very attractive.
But to them he had been only one of many interesting soldier boys who had come and gone and whose meetings and partings with dear ones they had watched with swelling throats and tears in their own eyes.
But Sergeant Mullins was an expert with the bayonet and had been attached to Camp Liberty for the purpose of giving the boys special drills in that work.
He had proved so wonderfully successful that, much to his secret chagrin—for Sergeant Mullins, like all the rest of our brave boys, had dreamed of the great things he would do "over there"—the Government had decided to keep him at Camp Liberty indefinitely.
Then, one day, he had invited the girls, in return for the many little kindnesses they had done him, to attend one of his special, exhibition drills.
They had accepted eagerly, little dreaming of the storm their acceptance would evoke. And it is very doubtful whether, even if they had known, it would have made any difference, for they had long desired just this thing and knew that in years to come they would look back upon it as one of the biggest experiences in their lives.
"What time is it, Amy?" Betty inquired a little anxiously. "I'm afraid we stopped to talk too long to those women who came out to see their nephew, and I don't want to be late."
"We have just a minute to spare," returned Amy, and they quickened their pace.
"Wouldn't it be fun," said Mollie, her eyes sparkling, "if we could only meet the boys? I'd just like to pay them back for being so silly!"
"Maybe they'll be in the drill," drawled Grace hopefully.
"That would be adding insult to injury," Betty chuckled. "Then they never would forgive us."
"I just hate jealous people, anyway," added Grace, diving into her pocket and bringing forth a luscious bonbon which Mollie eyed covetously. "I think it's so ridiculous and narrow, don't you?"
"I think it's a good deal more ridiculous and narrow," grumbled Mollie, still hungrily eyeing the rapidly disappearing chocolate, "to keep all the candies to yourself."