Why, among all these girls there must be some who would be friendly! This thought helped Nancy a great deal. She entered the building and joined the beginning of the line at the breakfast-room door, much encouraged.
"Look at these hungry young ones," exclaimed Corinne Pevay, coming down the broad stair from the West Side, like a queen descending to give audience to her subjects.
"Morning, Corinne! Morning, Miss Pevay!" were the cries of greeting.
"'Good morning, little myrtle-blossoms! Let me tell you mommer's plan!'" sing-songed the older girl. "'Do some good to all the folkses'—Hullo, Carrie!"
"'Good-morn-ing-Car-rie!'" sang the crowd of girls at the dining-room door as the captain of the East Side of the Hall appeared—Carrie Littlefield.
There was a burst of laughter, and Corinne held up her hand admonishingly.
"Not so much racket, children!" she said. "There! the gate is opened, and you can all go in to pasture. Little lambkins!"
Nancy was carried on by the line to the open door. The pleasant-faced woman who had stood in the doorway of the lodge the evening before, was here, and she tapped Nancy on the shoulder.
"Go to the lower tables, my dear. You are a new girl, and all your class will be down there. What is your name?"
"Yes, indeed. Your trunk and bag are here. Between eight and nine you may come to the trunk room in the basement and show me which of your possessions you wish carried to your room. Where is your room?"
"Number 30," replied Nancy.
"East or West?"
"I am Jessie Pease," said the good woman, smiling kindly on the orphan. "If you need anything, my dear, come to Jessie; she's the big sister of all you girls," and she patted Nancy on the head as the girl, her heart warmed suddenly, went to her place at the end of the room.
The girls of her class—the incoming class of new girls, or freshmen—took places at the table as they chose. There were no more than a score as yet. Some had already formed groups of acquaintanceship. Some few, like Nancy, were alone; but Nancy did not feel that she could force her company on any one of these other lonesome souls. She must wait for them to speak first to her.
The sophomores filled their tables nearby, chattering and laughing. They looked with much amusement at the freshmen, but some of the teachers were in the room now and the second-year girls thought it best not to "rig" their juniors openly.
Nancy, however, saw several of the girls who had ridden in the 'bus with her from the station the night before. Last to arrive in the soph. group was the fat girl—Belle Macdonald. She was a pretty girl, but she was yawning still and her hair had been given only "a lick and a promise," while her frock was not neat.
In the middle of breakfast Carrie Littlefield, the captain of the East Side, walked slowly along the soph. tables and stopped behind Belle. Some of the girls began to giggle; the fat one looked a little scared, and for the moment seemed to lose a very hearty appetite.
Carrie wrote something on a pad, tore off the paper, and thrust it into Belle's hand. Then she went along the row gravely, plainly eyeing those girls who belonged to her own half of the school.
"Nasty thing!" Nancy heard somebody whispering shrilly. "I bet she gave Belle all morning in her room—and lessons don't begin until to-morrow."
This was Cora Rathmore. Nancy's roommate had come in at the very last minute and taken a seat not far from her. Cora, having been a month and a half at Pinewood in the spring, knew about the running of the school.
The two captains—"monitors" they might be called—made it one of their duties to see that the girls came to table in the morning in neat array. Later they took a trip through the rooms to see that beds were properly stripped, windows open for airing, nightclothes hung away, and everything neat and tidy.
Of course, the maids made beds, swept and dusted dormitories, and all that; but each girl was supposed to attend to her own personal belongings; slovenliness was frowned upon throughout the school.
Nancy learned much that first forenoon at Pinewood. She did not talk much with any of the girls—either of her own class or older. But she heard a good deal, and kept her eyes and ears open.
She remembered what the lodgekeeper's wife had told her, and she found her way to Jessie Pease's room in the basement. There was a crowd of girls there already. They were laughing, and joking, and teasing the good woman, who seemed, as she said, to be a "big sister" to them all. Nobody called her "Mrs. Pease;" she insisted upon their treating her as though she really were their older sister.
Yet there was a way with Jessie Pease that kept even the rudest girl within bounds. They did not seek to take advantage of her—at least, if any of them tried to do so, they did not succeed.
"Now, you know very well, Elsie Spear," the good woman was saying, shaking her head, "that you cannot wear such things here at Pinewood. Your mother, I am sure, would not have allowed you to put a bun like that in your trunk had she known it!"
"Well, my hats won't stay on without it," complained Elsie. "And anyway, mother's maid packed my trunk."
"Your mother's maid evidently does not know the rules of Pinewood Hall," said Jessie Pease, severely. "If your hats do not stay on without all that fluff, I'll find you a cap to wear," and she laughed.
There were other contraband things, too. Each girl had to give up her keys and allow the woman to unpack her trunks. Such clothing and other possessions as were allowable, or necessary, were placed to one side for transportation to the owner's dormitory.
Some girls had whole trays full of gay banners, pictures, photographs, and the other "litter" that delight the heart of a boarding-school miss when she can decorate her dressing-case and wall. Of course, the freshies only had their home pictures and little silver or glass keepsakes and toilet sets.
"Now, my plump little pigeon," said Jessie Pease to Nancy, as she laid out the school dresses which Miss Prentice had bought for her with the money Mr. Gordon had supplied, "you seem nicely fixed for wearing apparel—and such plain, serviceable things, too. Not many of my girls come here so very sensibly supplied.
"And now, where are the pretty things—in your bag?"
"My old clothes are in the bag, please," replied Nancy, bashfully.
"Oh! but where are the pictures of the folks at home? And the little knicknacks they gave you when you came away?" said Jessie Pease, her fair face all one big smile.
"There—there aren't any folks, please," stammered Nancy.
"What, dear?" gasped the woman, sitting straighter on her knees and staring at her.
"I am an orphan, and I have no friends, ma'am," stammered Nancy, in so low a voice that nobody else could hear.
"You poor girl!" cried the woman, her smile fading, but love and welcome still shining in her big, brown eyes.
She stretched forth her arms and—somehow—Nancy found herself in the tight circle, with her head down in the curve of Jessie Pease's motherly neck.
"How long ago did you lose them, dear?" asked the good woman.
"Oh, a very long, long time ago," sobbed Nancy. "I was too little to remember—much."
"And you've missed 'em ever since—you've just been honin' for a mother, I know," said the woman, crooningly, and patting Nancy's shoulder.
"There, there, child! It'll all be strange to you here for a while; but when you can't stand it any more—when it does seem as though you'd got to be mothered—you come down to the lodge to Jessie Pease. Remember, now! You will surely come?"
"I will," promised Nancy.
"Now wipe your eyes and laugh!" commanded Jessie Pease. "Why, Pinewood Hall is the finest place in the world for girls—especially for those that are like you. Here's a great, big family of sisters and cousins ready waiting for you. Get acquainted!"
But that seemed easier said than done. Nancy was not by nature gloomy nor reticent; but it was unfortunate that she had been paired with Cora Rathmore.
From the very first day the black-eyed girl tried to make it as unpleasant as possible for Nancy. Cora had plenty of acquaintances. They were always running into the room. But Cora never introduced any to her roommate.
Cora was one of those girls who have many, many decorations for her room. Her dressing-case was stacked with photographs and all around and above it the wall was decorated with banners, and funny or pretty pictures, school pennants and the like.
On the other side of the room Nancy's wall and bureau were bare of any adornment. Her toilet set had been selected by Miss Prentice and was more useful than decorative. Nothing Nancy wore was frivolous. The other girls therefore set her down as "odd."
"Why, she hasn't a single picture on her bureau," said one girl who was visiting Cora. "Don't you suppose she has any folks?"
"Maybe they're so ugly they're afraid of breaking the camera if they pose for a picture," giggled another light-minded girl.
"Well," drawled Belle Macdonald, who was one of Cora's sophomore friends, "even an orphan usually has pictures of the folks she's lost. And this Nelson girl hasn't told anything about herself; has she?"
"She hasn't told me, that's sure," snapped Cora. "She's a nobody, I believe. I don't believe she belongs in this school with decent girls."
"Oh, Cora! what do you mean?" gasped one of her hearers.
"Well, Pinewood is supposed to be a school for well-connected girls. I know my mother would never have let me come had she supposed I was to be paired with a little Miss Nobody."
"We ought to have our choice," sighed another of the girls.
"And Grace and I were going to have such fun this half," declared Cora.
One of the others giggled. "That's why you weren't allowed to be with Montgomery," she remarked. "I heard Corinne talking about it."
"Oh, that Canuck! I hate her," said Cora, speaking thus disrespectfully about the West Side captain.
"Well, if any of us was in her place, I reckon we'd be strict, too. It means something to be captain of a side at Pinewood Hall," said Belle, who, having been at the school longer than the others, had imbibed some of that loyalty which is bound to impregnate the atmosphere of a boarding school.
"A fine chance Montgomery, or Cora, would have to be captain," giggled another.
"Yes! and who is going to be leader of the freshman class?" demanded Cora. "The big girls have got something to say about that, I suppose?"
"Some of the teachers will have," laughed Belle. "You'll find that out. Who are you rooting for, Cora?"
"Grace, of course! Why, her father's a senator, and she's got lots of money. She's influential. She ought to be class president."
"All right; but the election isn't allowed until just before Christmas. It will be the most popular girl then, you'll find. And she'll have to be popular with the teachers as well as with you girls."
This conversation in Number 30, West Side, occurred something like a fortnight after school had opened. The girls were all at work by that time—those who would work, at least.
Because she was so much alone, perhaps, Nancy Nelson's record was all the better. But she did not sulk in her room.
Indeed, Cora had so much company—girls who usually ignored Nancy altogether—that the orphan was glad to get out when they appeared. And her refuge was the gym. There she became acquainted with the more athletic girls of the school.
They found—even the sophs and juniors—that Nancy could play tennis and other games. She swam like a fish, too, and was eager to learn to row. The captain of the crew, the coach of the basketball team, and others of the older girls, began to pay some attention to Nancy.
But with her own class she had not become popular. Nancy really had little more than a speaking acquaintance with any other freshman.
Not being included in the group of girls who so often came to see Cora Rathmore in Number 30, Nancy was debarred from other groups, too. Nobody came to see her in the room, and she was invited nowhere—perhaps because the other girls thought she must be "in" with the clique to which Cora belonged.
At the head of this party of freshmen was the very proud girl named Grace Montgomery, whom Cora indefatigably aped. Girls who were proud of their parents' money, or who catered to such girls because they were so much better off than their mates, for the most part made up this clique.
There was not more than a score of them; but they clung together and were an influence in the class, although altogether there were nearly a hundred freshmen.
As the days went by the lessons became harder and the teachers more strict. Nancy found that it was very hard to be put out of her own room in study time because of the chattering of other girls, many of whom, it seemed, did not care how they stood in their classes.
"Really, I cannot hear myself think!" Nancy gasped one day when she had sat with her elbows on her desk, her hands clasped over her ears, trying to give all her attention to the text-book before her.
For half an hour there had been noise enough in Number 30 to drive a deaf and dumb person distracted.
"Well, if you don't like it, you can get out!" snapped Cora, when Nancy complained. "You're not wanted here, anyway."
"But I have as much right here as you have—and a better right than your friends," said Nancy, for once aroused.
"I don't think a girl like you has any business in the school at all," cried Cora, angrily. "Who knows anything about you? Goodness me! you're a perfect Miss Nobody—I can't find a living soul that knows anything about you. I don't even know if your folks are respectable. I've written home to my folks about it—that's what I have done," pursued the angry girl. "I'm going to find out if we girls who come from nice families have got to mix up with mere nobodies!"
ON CLINTON RIVER
This was not the only unpleasant discussion Nancy Nelson had with her ill-tempered roommate. But it was one of those that hurt Nancy the most.
Whenever Cora hinted at the other girl's lack of friends and relatives—at the mystery which seemed to surround her private life—Nancy could no longer talk. Sometimes she cried; but not often where her roommate could see her.
There was a scrub crew for the eight-oared shell. Nancy made that, and Carrie Littlefield, who was the captain of the school crew, praised her work.
The athletic instructor, Miss Etching, praised Nancy for her swimming and general athletic work. There wasn't a freshie or soph who could stand against her on the tennis court. She had learned to play basketball, and played it well. The coach had her eye on Nancy for one of the best teams in the school.
On the other hand the girl from Higbee School stood well in her classes, and she had no black marks against her. No teacher had been forced to admonish Nancy, and Corinne Pevay had a cheerful word for her and a smile whenever Nancy crossed her path.
And yet the girl could not be happy. Her own mates—the freshmen—seemed afraid of her. Or, at least, some of them did. And if Nancy was to have chums she must find them, of course, in her own class.
For the first few weeks of a school year the new girls gradually get settled—both in their studies and in their friendships. Had Nancy by good chance been paired with a different girl—with a girl who had not already formed her own associates—matters might have gone along much more smoothly.
But Cora disliked her from the start. And the black-eyed girl was sharp enough to see that accusing Nancy of being "a nobody" for some reason hurt her roommate more than anything else.
Therefore, being of a malicious disposition, Cora continued to harp upon this, until she had spread through the school the suspicion that Nancy had come to Pinewood Hall under unusual circumstances. Nobody knew where she had come from. She never spoke of her people, nor of where she had lived.
And, of course, this was quite true. Nancy did not want to tell about her life at Higbee School. Fortunately no girl from Higbee had ever come to Pinewood Hall before, and the girl thought that her secret was safe.
Cora and her friends might suspect, but they really knew nothing about Nancy's past life. Already some of the girls had received boxes from home—those delightful surprise boxes that give such a zest to boarding-school life. Nancy never received a letter, even.
So, Nancy could not be very happy at Pinewood Hall.
Other girls went around in recreation hours with their arms about each other's waists, chattering with all the cheerfulness of blackbirds. They had "secrets" together and whispered about them in corners. There were little, harmless gatherings in the dormitories, sometimes after curfew; but Nancy had no part in these girlish dissipations.
Perhaps it was her own fault. But the girl, who felt herself ostracized, feared a rebuff. As Madame Schakael had said to Corinne, Nancy was one of the sensitive ones. And the sensitive girl at boarding school is bound to have a hard time unless she very quickly makes a lasting friendship, or becomes a popular member of some group of her schoolfellows right at the start.
When she felt very lonely in Number 30, or when Cora's friends made it impossible for her to study, Nancy sought comfort—such as it was—in the gym., or in taking long walks by the river.
The Pinewood estate was a large one and she did not have to go out of bounds to get plenty of walking exercise. Furthermore, as soon as the frost came, all the athletic girls were anxious about the ice.
Clinton River was a quiet, if broad, stream and before the last of October the edges and the quiet pools inshore were skimmed over. Nancy, who loved skating, and had bought a beautiful pair of skates the year before with her own pocket-money, watched the forming ice almost daily.
"Great times on the river when it once freezes over," she heard one girl say. "And I bet the boys at the Academy are watching just as closely as we are."
Clinton Academy, Nancy had learned, was only a mile away. She had even seen its towers, from a distance. And some of Dr. Dudley's boys had passed the lodge one day when Nancy was down there visiting Jessie Pease.
For the girl had occasionally taken advantage of the invitation the lodgekeeper's wife had extended to her, and had visited her in the neat little cottage. Mrs. Pease frequently got some of the younger girls together in her kitchen on rainy days, and let them pull taffy and pop corn, and otherwise enjoy themselves.
Yet, once away from the presence of the kind-hearted matron, Nancy found herself no closer to her schoolmates than before.
November brought dark nights and black frost. Clintondale was well up toward the Great Lakes and sometimes the winter arrives early in that part of the country.
It did so this year—the first of Nancy Nelson's sojourn at Pinewood Hall. One morning Nancy got up while it was still dark, slipping out to the bathroom as noiselessly as a little gray ghost—her robe was of that modest color. There she swiftly made her toilet and then as quietly dressed in Number 30.
She had learned to do all this without rousing Cora, for her roommate was very unpleasant indeed if she woke up in the morning and found Nancy stirring about the room. No matter if the rising bell had rung, Cora always accused Nancy, on these occasions, of deliberately spoiling her morning nap. Cora was a sleepy-head in the morning, and always appeared to "get out of bed on the wrong side."
However, Nancy left Number 30 without disturbing her roommate on this morning and, well wrapped up against the biting cold, slipped downstairs and out of one of the rear doors. The front door of Pinewood Hall had not been unchained at that hour.
She was the first girl out and it was an hour yet to breakfast time. She ran straight through the pine woods at the back, passing the gymnasium and frozen courts, and so down to the river.
A pale moon still hung low on the horizon. The river seemed as black as ink and not a ripple appeared upon its surface.
"Oh, dear! it's not frozen at all," was Nancy's, first thought.
And then she saw the sheen of the moonlight across the black surface.
"That never is water in the world!" she gasped, and half running, half sliding, descended the steep bank to the verge of the river.
The wide expanse of the stream proved to be sheathed entirely in black, new ice.
Nancy uttered a cry of delight and touched it with one strongly-shod foot, and then the other. It rang under her heel—there was not a single crack of protest. It bore her weight as firmly as a rock.
Breathlessly Nancy tried it farther out. The keen frost of a single night had chained the river firmly. She slid a little way. Then she ran for momentum, and slid smoothly, well balanced from her hips, with her feet wide spread. Her red lips opened with a sigh of delight. Her eyes sparkled and the hair was tossed back from under her woolen cap.
"Great! Great!" she cried aloud, when she came to a stop.
She went back down the slide. Her boots rang on the ice as though it were steel. Again and again she slid until there was a well-defined path upon the ice—a path at least ten yards long.
But the horizon grew rosy-red and the dropping moon paled into insignificance. This warned her that the breakfast call would soon sound and she left the ice reluctantly and ran back to the hall.
Before she reached the kitchens the sun popped up and she ran in the path made by its glowing rays across the frozen fields.
It was so cold that the early rising girls were hugging the radiators in the big hall when Nancy came in from the rear, all in a delightful glow. Some of them nodded to her. One girl even said:
"You've got pluck to go out for your constitutional a morning like this, Miss Nelson."
But to Nancy's ear it seemed as though the girl said it in a patronizing way. She was a junior. Nobody else spoke to the freshman. So Nancy had the secret of the frozen river to herself. She meant to go skating that day if she could.
Every morning the girls of Pinewood Hall took their places after breakfast—class by class—in the hall which balanced the dining room in the other wing of the big house. A brief service of a devotional character always began the real work of the day. Usually Madame Schakael presided at these exercises. And sometimes she had that to say before dismissing the girls that showed them that she had a keen oversight of the school's manners and morals.
"I know," she said, on this morning, standing upon the footstool which was always kept behind the desk-pulpit for her; "I know that many of you have been watching and waiting, with great eagerness, for the skating season to set in. Jack Frost, young ladies, seldom disappoints us here at Pinewood Hall. The river is frozen over."
Here her remarks were punctuated by applause, and some suppressed "Oh, goodies!" The Madame smiled indulgently at this enthusiasm.
"Our rules regarding the sport are pretty well understood, I believe. No skating save during certain designated hours, and never unless Mr. Pease, or the under gardener, is at the boathouse. Bounds extend from the railroad bridge up the river toward town, to the Big Bend half a mile below our boathouse. The girl who skates out of bounds—they are plain enough—will not skate again for a month. Don't forget that, girls.
"And now, for the rule that has always been in force at Pinewood," pursued the Madame, more earnestly, "and the one to which I must demand perfect obedience.
"No girl is to try the ice by herself. No venturesome one must go down there and try the ice without Mr. Pease, or Samuel, being on hand. Remember!
"And," said Madame Schakael, slowly, "I hear that there has already been somebody on the ice this morning. Whether it was one of you girls, or not, we do not know. But when Mr. Pease came to report to me that the ice was safe for skating he informed me that somebody had been sliding down there, early as it was when he reached the river.
"If any girl has broken our ironclad rule on this point, I want to know it. I expect to see that girl at once after prayers. Of course, if nobody here is guilty we must believe that some passer-by ventured down upon the river while crossing Pinewood estate.
"Now, young ladies, I need say nothing more on this subject, I believe. After recitations to-day, those who wish may enjoy the pleasure and exercise of ice-skating. The boathouse will be warmed. Samuel will be there to sharpen skates for those who wish. And he can supply you with extra straps or other appliances. You understand that he makes a little extra money that way, and I approve of it."
Then she touched the rising bell, and instantly the girls arose and a bustle of low converse and the rustle of dresses and clack of shoes on the polished floor made up the usual confusion of sounds as the girls separated for their classrooms. Nearly four hundred girls manage to make considerable noise.
Nancy went immediately to the Madame's office. It was the first time she had ever been called there; it was the first time, indeed, that she had ever been accused of any kind of a fault since arriving at the school.
So she did not feel very happy. She had not known of the rule which Madame Schakael had said was so well understood. She had not meant to break the law.
But she could see very clearly that the rule was a just one. She had no business to venture on the ice without asking permission. And her heart throbbed and her face flushed and paled by turns as she waited for the principal to appear.
But when Madame Schakael entered the anteroom she was not alone. Nancy, from within, heard another voice—a shrill and unpleasant voice which she very well knew.
"Well, I don't care what you say, Madame, it was her. There's no other girl in the whole school who gets up so early and disturbs us other girls—so now! She's stirring around half the night, I declare! And she was the only girl out of doors this morning so early."
"And she is your roommate; is she, Miss Rathmore?" interrupted the Madame's smooth, low voice.
"Well! I never wanted her! I wrote home and told my mother she was a nobody——"
"Your mother was kind enough to write to me on the subject," said the principal of Pinewood Hall. "But I could not allow any change in the dormitory arrangements for the inconsequential reasons given. Nancy Nelson is quite the same as any other girl at the Hall. I wish to hear nothing more on that topic, Cora.
"But this other matter, of course, is different. If a rule has been broken of course I must take cognizance of it. And I feel sure that if your roommate was the person on the ice this morning, she will report the fact to me herself——"
She pushed the office door wide open. Nancy had listened to this conversation perforce. There had been no escape for her.
"Ah! As I expected," said the doll-like little woman, smiling calmly at Nancy. "You see how mistaken one may be, Cora? Nancy is here ahead of us."
Cora Rathmore shrank back from the door with a very red face. Nancy's eyes flashed as she looked at her ill-natured roommate. She realized well enough that Cora had deliberately—and without sufficient evidence herself—tried to get her into trouble with the principal.
Cora was not easily embarrassed, however. In a moment she shot the other girl a scornful glance and, without a word to Madame Schakael, walked out of the office. It really did seem as though it was Nancy who had done the wrong, instead of her roommate.
"You are here to see me, Miss Nelson?" asked the Madame, briskly, ignoring the other girl and her report.
"Because of what I said at prayers?"
"You are a new girl. Did you not know of the rule that all girls must keep off the river until it is pronounced safe by Mr. Pease?"
"I did not know of the rule. And I did not think that I was doing wrong when I went on the ice this morning," returned Nancy, quietly.
"I believe you, Miss Nelson. You are excused. Don't do it again. I can't afford to have any of my girls drowned—especially one who stands as well as you do in the weekly reports," and the little woman patted her on her cheek and smiled.
"You may go skating this afternoon, if you wish, and if you are perfect in your recitations, as I suppose you will be," continued Madame Schakael. "Wait, my dear! Here are two letters for you. They are both from Mr. Henry Gordon's office, and I presume they are from him. I make it a rule never to open letters from the parents or guardians of my girls; other letters, you understand, must be scrutinized unless the correspondence has already been arranged for."
She passed the wondering Nancy two businesslike looking envelopes with the card printed in the corner of "Ambrose, Necker & Boles."
"Thank you, Madame," said the girl, and hurried away to her first class with the letters fairly burning a hole in her pocket.
There would be no opportunity before the first intermission—at 10:30 o'clock—to look at their contents.
THE FIRST ADVANCE
Madame Schakael had prophesied that Nancy would be perfect in her recitations that day, and so there would be no doubt of her being able to go skating on the river. But with the unexpected letters from Mr. Gordon's office unopened, it seemed hardly probable that Nancy would pull through the day without a reprimand.
"What is the matter with you, Miss Nelson?" demanded one of the teachers sharply, when Nancy had made an unusually brainless answer to a very simple question.
Nancy came out of her haze with a sharp shock.
"Why—why, Miss Maybrick, I know very much better than that," she admitted.
"Where is your mind, then, Miss?"
Nancy was usually frankness personified, and she blurted it out now:
"I'm wondering what is in the two letters I have in my pocket, Miss Maybrick."
"Where did you get them?" demanded the suspicious teacher.
"Madame Schakael gave them to me. I suppose they are from my guar——" No! she could not claim Henry Gordon as her guardian. "From the gentleman who pays my bills here," she added, in a lower voice.
"Well, for mercy's sake go to your seat and read them," said the instructor, but more mildly. "They may be important. And having mastered their contents, please try to master the lesson."
Nancy did as she was bid. With trembling fingers she opened one of the envelopes. They both were typewritten as to address; but one seemed addressed by an amateur in the art of typewriting. Nancy opened the other first.
The enclosure was a slip of paper on which was written in a hurried scrawl:
"You may need something extra. This is for your own use. —H. Gordon."
And wrapped in this paper was a crisp twenty-dollar bill!
Nancy had scarcely spent a penny of her carefully hoarded pocket money since coming to Pinewood Hall. Indeed, she had found no opportunity for using it.
There had been plenty of secret "spreads" and "fudge orgies" in other rooms. Cora had been to a lot of them, and had always slipped back into Number 30 without being caught by any prowling teacher.
But of course Nancy had been invited to contribute to none of these, and she was a particularly healthy girl with a particularly healthy appetite: so she did not crave "sponge cake and pickles," or other combinations of forbidden fruits supposed to be the boarding-school misses' extreme delight.
Mr. Gordon had sent the banknote to her without any more feeling, seemingly, than he would have had in throwing a bone to a dog. Yet, it might be his way of showing her sympathy. Nancy slipped it back in the envelope and picked up the second letter.
And before she opened this she believed she knew what it contained. She had not forgotten "Scorch" O'Brien. Scorch had promised to watch "Old Gordon" and write to her. He had used one of the office envelopes and had stolen a minute when some typewriter was not in use.
Madame Schakael thought both letters were from Mr. Gordon. Nancy was too curious as to what Scorch had written to deny herself the reading of the contraband epistle.
It was much blotted and the scrawl characteristic of an office boy's chirography proved that his terms at public school had not done Scorch much good. This was the letter:
I guess you haven't forgotten Scorch O'Brien. That's me. I said I'd rite if I got a line on Old Gordon, that he was doing you queer. I bet he is, but I don't know nothing for sure yet. I put a twist on him this morning and I see a letter now in the male-basket for you, so I says to myself, 'Scorch, what you said took like vaccination.' Ouch! me arm hurts yet!
Well, I says to Old G., says I, 'What's come of the girl what blew me to lunch at the Arrandale? She was some swell little dame, she was.'
Says he, 'Mind your own business, Scorch. That's a good motto for you to paste up over your desk.'
'Nix,' says I. 'If I didn't mind everybody else's biz in this office the whole joint would go to grass.' And that's right. 'That girl's just the same as in jail at that boarding-school,' says I. 'Have you forgotten her?'
'How'd I remember?' says he, looking sort of queer.
'Come across with a piece of change for her,' says me—I'm practerkal, I be. Money always comes in handy; now, don't it? Write an' tell me if he took my tip. And no more now, from,
"Yours respectfully, "Scorch O'Brien."
It was Scorch all over—that letter! Nancy Nelson came near laughing right out in the classroom; but she could cram both letters into her pocket and go on with her studies with a more composed mind.
Scorch was evidently her friend. And eminently practical, as he declared. Nothing could be more practical than that twenty-dollar bill. And the red-haired Irish boy had put it into Mr. Gordon's mind to send her this substantial tip.
She took the twenty-dollar bill out and looked at it again. It was very real.
Cora Rathmore sat behind her in this class. Nancy happened to turn about as she slipped the banknote out of sight again, and she saw that her roommate was looking hard at her. Nancy turned away herself. She was angrier with Cora than she had ever been before since the opening of Pinewood Hall.
Jennie Bruce, one of the girls of her class whom Nancy admired the most, leaned over and whispered to her:
"Goodness me! but you are the wealthy girl. Was that real money, or just stage money?"
Jennie was a thin, snappy girl, with dancing eyes, a continual smile, and as elusive as a drop of mercury. She just couldn't keep still, and she was always getting minor marks in deportment because her sense of fun was sure to bubble over at inopportune times.
"I—I guess it's real money," whispered Nancy, although talking during lessons was frowned on by all the instructors.
But Nancy was only too glad when Jennie Bruce spoke to her. She was just a little afraid of Jennie's sharp tongue; and yet she had never been the butt of any of the harum-scarum's jokes. Perhaps Jennie had spared Nancy because the latter was so much alone. The fun-loving one was not cruel.
"Twen-ty-dol-lars," whispered Jennie, with big eyes. "You certainly are rich. What a lot of pickles that would buy!" and she grinned.
Nancy smiled. She knew that Jennie was only in fun when she suggested such an expenditure. But the thought smote the lonely girl's mind that by the spending of this money in "treating" she might gain a certain popularity among the other girls.
Really, that was what made Grace Montgomery so popular. She had more money to spend than almost any other girl in the school—in the freshman class, at least. Nancy asked herself seriously if she should strive to make friendships through such a channel.
Young as she was, the girl had serious thoughts at times, and this was one of the times. She hid the money in the bosom of her dress and at recess said nothing about it, although she saw several of the girls whispering and pointing her out.
But the most surprising thing that happened was Cora coming to her almost as soon as they were released from the classrooms for a short run in the basement recreation room.
"I suppose you think I'm a mean thing," said the black-eyed girl, glancing at Nancy askance.
"I'll leave it for you to say," returned Nancy. "If I had run to Madame Schakael with a story about you——"
"How do you know I went to her?" snapped Cora. "She asked me where you were. You slipped into her office so quick that she thought you were trying to get out of it, of course. She knew all the time that you were the girl who had been on the ice."
Now, Nancy did not believe this at all; but she said nothing to show Cora that she distrusted her first friendly (?) advance.
"Anyway," said the black-eyed one, "she did ask me about you, and if you were out early, as usual. Oh! you can't fool the Madame."
"I shouldn't want to try," observed Nancy, quietly.
"Well! if you didn't act so offish we girls would like to be friends with you," said Cora, tucking her arm into Nancy's. "Going skating this afternoon?"
This was the first time any girl at Pinewood Hall had ever walked in a "chummy" manner with Nancy. But to tell the truth, Nancy was not sure whether this overture towards peace on the part of her roommate really meant anything or not.
There were lots of the girls whom she thought she would like better than Cora—or her friends. There was the lively Jennie Bruce, for instance. Nancy often watched her flitting back and forth, from group to group, being "hail-fellow-well-met" with them all. Jennie made friends without putting forth any effort, it seemed.
"Oh, I wish I had Jennie for a roommate," thought Nancy Nelson. "I really would be happy then, I do believe."
But this day seemed not to be a bad one for Nancy, after all. Cora waited for her, with her skates, after recitations were over, and they joined a party of Cora's chums on the way to the river.
Grace Montgomery was not among these; Grace never had a word for Nancy, so the younger girl kept away from the senator's daughter.
But the river was broad, and the ice was like glass, and in the exhilaration of the sport Nancy forgot snubs and back-biting, and all the ill-natured slights under which she had suffered since becoming a dweller in Number 30, West Side, Pinewood Hall.
She noted one thing that afternoon. Few of the girls skated toward the railroad bridge; but most of them to the school bounds in the other direction. The reason for skating down the river instead of up Nancy did not at first understand. Then she heard some of Cora's friends talking and laughing about it.
"Guess the old doctor has a grouch again. Isn't that mean? There isn't a boy in sight."
"Isn't it horrid of him?" cried another.
"I'll wager the old doctor has a channel sawed through the ice at the bend here before he lets the boys out," declared a third.
"I did want so to see Bob Endress," Grace Montgomery complained. "I want him to bring a lot of nice boys home from the Academy at the holidays, so as to have them at my party."
It struck Nancy that she had heard this Bob Endress spoken of before; but she had no idea that there was any reason why she should be interested in him.
The girls came in from the ice half an hour before supper, cold, tired, but merry. Nancy ran up to tidy her hair and wash. She found two of Cora's chief chums in Number 30; but Cora herself chanced to be out.
These girls did not even notice Nancy when she came in. But that was not strange. Often a dozen would come and go at Number 30 without once speaking to the quiet little girl who occupied one-half of the dormitory.
"Well, you take it from me," one was saying to the other while Nancy brushed her hair, "she's got to do her share. It looks to me as though she was sponging."
"Oh, do you think so?"
"Everybody else has put up for a fudge party, or something of the kind, while she hasn't done a thing."
"Maybe she hasn't the money?"
"Then she shouldn't be in on all the other girls' good times. And she wouldn't be if she didn't toady so to Grace."
"That's right. Lou would have left her out of the pound party last week, only of course Grace demanded to look over the list of invited guests."
"Well! I do think Grace takes too much upon herself sometimes."
"She's going to be class president. Voting comes just before the Christmas holidays, and when we come back we'll know who gets the chair. Madame doesn't allow the freshies to organize until then. Well! Cora's got to do different."
"Mamie Beasley says she isn't going to invite her to her tea on Friday. And, you know, the teachers approve of afternoon teas. It makes for sociability, they say."
"Hush-up!" commanded another. "Want everybody to hear you?" and she motioned toward Nancy. The latter saw her in the glass.
So the two went out. Nancy wondered if Cora was so popular, after all. If it was Cora of whom the two were speaking.
She noted, however, that for a day or two Cora remained in her room, and few of her friends visited her. This suited Nancy very well, even if she did not like her roommate. The dormitory was quieter and one could study.
"My mother's just as mean as she can be!" blurted out Cora one day when she and Nancy were alone. "She won't give me another cent of pocket-money until the week we go home for Christmas. And I spent all my allowance right away when school opened. Did you, Nancy?"
"Did I what?" asked Nancy, looking up from her book.
"Have you spent all your allowance?"
"No-o," said Nancy slowly, not quite sure that she had an allowance, Mr. Gordon gave her money so irregularly.
"Lucky girl! And I promised I'd give the crowd a big blow-out here next week. I sent to mother for the money, and told her about it, and she won't even send me another box of goodies."
"That is too bad," observed Nancy, with a faint smile.
"Isn't it?" exclaimed Cora. "And they'll all say Number 30 is so mean! I hate to have our room get that name."
This was the first time that Nancy had supposed Cora cared anything for the reputation of the room. Certainly, she had never before appeared to consider that Nancy and she had anything in common.
"You see, we're just freshmen, and the sophs criticise us so. I got acquainted with Belle Macdonald and some of those other girls away back last spring. They expect us freshies to treat them if we want their friendship."
"I don't think that friendships bought in that way last; do you?" asked Nancy.
"Say! how do you expect to get popular in a school like this?" demanded Cora, in disgust.
"I—I don't know," sighed Nancy.
"How is it Grace is so popular?" cried Cora Rathmore. "Why, she's always doing something to get the other girls interested. She's going to be our class president."
Nancy said nothing. She wondered if Grace Montgomery, after all, was quite as popular as Cora thought.
"I tell you what," said the black-eyed girl, suddenly, "let's have a party in here, anyway?"
"Why, I—I don't know anything about giving a party," confessed Nancy. "And I'm afraid the girls wouldn't come."
"Sure they will—in a minute!" declared Cora, confidently. "All I've got to do is to tell 'em. You see, I've been making friends in Pinewood Hall, while you've been 'boning.' Some of them think you are too stiff."
"I don't mean to be," protested Nancy, shaking her head.
"Well, here's a chance for you to show 'em. You say you've got some money left?"
"How much?" asked Cora, bluntly.
"Well—I've got more than twenty dollars," confessed Nancy.
"Crickey-me!" gasped Cora. "Twenty dollars? Why, we'd give the dandiest kind of a spread—salad, and ice cream, and cakes—Oh, crickey-me! that would be great."
"But what would Corinne say?" blurted out Nancy.
"Hah! those big girls have after-lights-out spreads, too. That Canuck won't dare say a word."
"But some of the teachers——"
"You needn't borrow trouble," said Cora. "Of course, if you don't want to do it——"
"Sure, you understand that I'll pay my half," went on Cora, eagerly. "All you got to do is to lend me the money until Christmas time."
"Oh, that's not it!" cried Nancy, who was naturally a generous-hearted girl.
"Then you're in for it?"
"If—if you think the other girls will like it?"
"Sure they will!" cried Cora. "Hurrah! Now, you leave it to me. I'll tell Grace first of all, and we'll pick out a nice crowd. Why, with twenty dollars we can have at least twenty girls."
Nancy began to enthuse a little herself. She longed so to be friendly with her own class, especially. There was Jennie Bruce, the fun-loving girl, and several others whom she particularly liked. Of course, they would all have to be domiciled in the West Side. No girl could cross from one side of the Hall to the other after curfew without being observed.
And the spread which Cora planned was not to begin until all the lights were out and the teacher, whose turn it was to be on that night, had gone her rounds to see that all the dormitories were quiet.
"We'll take a night when Maybrick is on, if we can," said Cora. "She goes to bed to sleep! No prowling around for her after she has once decided that all the chickens are on the roost."
And Nancy, with a suspicion deep in her mind that it was all wrong, and yet willing to suffer much for the sake of gaining "popularity," so-called, allowed Cora to go ahead with the preparations for the coming surreptitious feast.
IT PROVES DISASTROUS
Nancy might have given too much thought and time to the coming "midnight spread," and neglected her lessons a bit had Cora Rathmore not taken the entire arrangements for the affair into her own hands. Cora did not seem to mind getting only "fair" marked on her weekly reports. She just shrugged her shoulders and said:
"I should worry!"
But before Nancy plucked up the courage to say anything about who was to be invited she found that Cora had already seen to that—Cora and Grace Montgomery.
"I'd like to have Jennie Bruce come," Nancy suggested timidly one day.
"Goodness! why didn't you say so before?" snapped Cora.
"Why? Won't there be room for her?"
"We've made up the whole list, and the girls have been invited. We couldn't squeeze in another girl."
"Why—why, who made up the list?"
"Grace and I. Here it is," and Cora snapped a paper upon Nancy's desk.
Nancy read it over without comment. There wasn't a girl invited to the party at Number 30, West Side, whom Nancy liked any better than she did Cora herself! She began to doubt if the coming entertainment was going to be a success—as far as she was concerned—after all.
The girls ran in to see Cora again. Even Grace appeared in Number 30. But none of them spoke more than perfunctorily to Nancy, and the lonely girl felt herself as much "out of it" as ever.
But she had one enjoyment now that made up for many previous lonely hours at the school. She could skate!
Clinton River remained frozen over; the ice grew thicker and the lodgekeeper and Samuel reported each morning that it was perfectly safe.
The boys from the Academy, too, appeared. Nancy was not much interested in them—only curious. Even the girls of her own class seemed to be very desirous of making acquaintances among the Academy boys.
"You see," Jennie Bruce told her, "after the holidays we have entertainments at the Hall, and Dr. Dudley lets his boys give a minstrel show. We each have a dance during the winter—one at the Academy and one at the Hall; and if you know some of the boys beforehand it's lots easier to get partners at the dance."
"I'd just as lief dance with another girl, I think," said Nancy, timidly.
"Pshaw! that's no fun," returned Jennie.
"I never did dance with a boy," admitted Nancy. "Where—where I lived only the girls danced together."
"Where was that?" demanded Jennie.
"At school," said Nancy, blushing, and sorry she had said so much now.
"Oh! a 'kid' school?" laughed Jennie.
"Where was it?"
"It—it was a long way from here," responded Nancy, slowly.
She couldn't bear to tell even Jennie—with whom she so desired to be friends—where Higbee School was located. Of course, Jennie noticed this point of mystery, and she looked at Nancy curiously. The latter couldn't find another word to say.
She skated off by herself. The ringing ice was delightful. Nancy skated as well as any boy, while she was naturally—being a girl—more graceful in her motions.
She sped like a dart across the river, came around in a great curve, like a bird tacking against a stiff breeze, and then started back "on the roll."
Hands in her jersey pockets, her skates tapping the ice firmly as she bore her weight first on one, then on the other foot, Nancy seemed fairly to float over the frozen river.
She saw a group of girls and boys standing about where the Hall boundary was; but she did not recognize any of them until she was rolling past. Then she heard Grace Montgomery's shrill voice:
"Oh, she's only showing off. Her name's Nelson. Cora knows all about her."
"No, I don't," snapped Cora Rathmore's voice. "But she's chummed on me."
Nancy heard no more. She didn't want to. She realized that, after all, behind her back these girls were speaking just as unkindly of her as ever.
Suddenly she realized that the group had broken up. At least, one of the boys had darted out of it and was racing down toward her.
"What's the matter with you, Bob?" she heard Grace call after the boy.
"Say! I know that girl," a cheerful voice declared, and the next moment the speaker, bending low, and racing like a dart, reached Nancy's side.
"Hold on! Don't you remember me?" he exclaimed.
Nancy looked at him, startled. His plump, rosy, smiling face instantly reflected an image in her memory.
"I'm Bob Endress," he said. "But if it hadn't been for you I wouldn't have had any name at all—or anything else in life. Don't you remember?"
It was the boy who had been saved from the millrace that August afternoon. Of course Nancy couldn't have forgotten him. But she was so confused she did not know what to say for the moment.
"You haven't forgotten throwing that tire to me?" he cried. "Why! that was the smartest thing! The chauffeur would never have thought of it. And Grace and those other girls would have been about as much use as so many mice. You were as good as a boy, you were. I'd have been drowned."
"I—I'm glad you weren't," she gasped.
"Then you remember me?"
"Oh, yes. I couldn't forget your face."
"Well!" he cried, "I never did expect to see you around this part of the country. But I told father I wanted to go back there to Malden next summer and see if I couldn't come across you. And my mother wrote to a friend there about you, too. We all wanted to know who you were."
"I—I am Nancy Nelson," said the girl, timidly.
"Sure! Grace, or somebody, was just speaking of you," said the boy. "You see, I was motoring through that country on the way to Chicago, in Senator Montgomery's car. That was a pretty spot at that old mill and the girls saw the lilies. So I had to wade in for them—like a chump," and he laughed.
"It was dangerous, I suppose," confessed Nancy. "But I often longed to wade in myself for them."
"And you got them anyway!" he cried, bursting into another laugh. "Grace and the others were sore about it. They had to wait until we got to the next town before we found any more lilies. Then I got a boat and went after them."
Nancy had stopped skating, and she and the boy stood side by side, talking. What the Montgomery girl and her friends would think about this Nancy did not at the time imagine.
"But it's funny Grace didn't recognize you," said Bob, suddenly.
"No. In the confusion they wouldn't have noticed me very closely," Nancy replied.
"Well! I don't see how Grace could have missed knowing such a jolly girl as you."
His boyish, outspoken opinion amused Nancy. Although Bob was at least three years her senior she soon became self-possessed. Girls are that way—usually.
"You're a dandy skater," said Bob. "Will you skate with me?"
"Oh, yes; if you want me to," replied Nancy.
She had never skated with a boy before. They crossed hands and started off on the long roll. Nancy was just as sturdy on her skates as the boy. It was delightful to cross the ice so easily, yet swiftly, and feel that one's partner was perfectly secure, too.
And Bob Endress was such a nice boy. Nancy decided that her first good opinion of him, formed when she had seen him wading in the millpond after water-lilies, was correct. He was gentlemanly, frank, and as jolly as could be.
She remembered very well now that she had heard various other girls at Pinewood Hall talk of Bob Endress. He was some distant connection of the haughty Grace Montgomery.
And he had left Grace and all those other girls in a minute to renew his odd acquaintance with Nancy.
The latter could not fail to feel a glow all through her at this thought. She had all the aspirations of other girls. She wanted to be liked by people—even by boys. And Bob was evidently a great favorite with her schoolmates.
Round and round the course they skated. It seemed to Nancy as though she never would tire with such a partner. And she forgot that the girls Bob had deserted might be offended with her. For once—a tiny, short hour—Nancy Nelson was perfectly happy.
Until the distant chime in the tower of Pinewood Hall warned the girls that they must go in, Nancy and Bob skimmed over the ice to the envy of less accomplished skaters. Nancy came back to the boathouse all in a glow, after promising to meet Bob the next afternoon on the river.
There were Grace Montgomery and Cora, and Belle Macdonald, and the others of their clique, taking off their skates. Nancy felt so happy that she would have made friends, just then, with almost anyone.
She flung off her skates and smiled at the other girls. She smiled at Samuel when she asked him, to sharpen them against the next afternoon, and tipped him for his trouble.
But whereas the under gardener smiled in return and praised her skating, the girls stared at her as though she were a complete stranger. Grace turned her back contemptuously. Cora scowled blackly.
And when she was back in Number 30, West Side, making ready for supper, her roommate came in noisily, tossed her skates on the floor, and burst out with:
"Well! you're a nice girl, you are!"
"What's the matter now?" asked Nancy, with more courage than usual.
"I should think you'd ask!"
"I do ask," said Nancy.
"Well, you've just about spoiled my—our—party."
"You know well enough," snapped Cora.
"I do not," declared Nancy. "I have done nothing."
"Oh, no! Just walking off with Bob Endress and keeping him all the afternoon. Why, Grace is his cousin—and she'll never forgive you."
It was on the tip of Nancy's tongue to say she didn't care; but instead she remained silent.
"I had the hardest work to coax her to come to-night," went on Cora.
This was the evening marked for the spread in Number 30.
"I do not see that I have done anything to you girls," said Nancy, with some warmth. "I happened to know Bob Endress——"
"How did you come to know Bob? He never said anything about it," snapped Cora.
"Well, I can assure you we were acquainted."
"It's certainly very strange," said the other girl, suspiciously.
"I don't see that it is anybody's business but our own," Nancy Nelson returned, with growing confidence. "And I did not mean to offend either you or Miss Montgomery."
"It's very strange."
"Not at all."
"Well, I don't know how you will explain it to Grace."
"I don't have to," said Nancy, and now she was getting angry.
"Let me tell you, Miss, you will have to," cried Cora, more snappishly than ever.
"I do not see why."
"Let me tell you Grace Montgomery is the most influential and popular girl in our class. You'll find that out if you continue to offend her."
"I don't see how I have offended her; nor do I see how I can pacify her if she is angry with me," returned Nancy, doggedly.
"You'd better let Bob Endress alone, then," cried Cora.
"Why! how meanly you talk," said Nancy, fairly white now with anger.
"Well! there's something very strange about how you took him right away from us——"
"If you don't stop talking like that," Nancy answered, her eyes blazing, "I shall not speak to you at all."
"Well, you've got to explain to Grace, then."
"I will explain nothing to her."
"Then you mean to spoil our party to-night?"
"No. It isn't my party, that is evident. I'll go into some other room while you are holding it, if that's what you want."
Cora looked at her askance. Nancy had never shown any temper before since the term had opened. Cora did not really know whether her roommate would do as she said, or not.
"Oh, we're not dying to have you in here. You can go to Number 38. You know both of the girls from there will be here."
"That's what I'll do, then," answered Nancy, firmly.
"I'll tell Grace," said Cora, rather uncertainly. "Then she'll be sure and come. Oh, she is mad."
"I hope she will remain mad with me as long as we are both at Pinewood!" cried Nancy, desperately, and then she ran out of the room to hide the tears of anger and disappointment which she could no longer keep back.
HEAPS OF TROUBLE
Nancy wept as she had never wept since coming to Pinewood Hall. But she was weeping as much for rage as for sorrow. Cora's insulting words, and her cruelty, had lashed Nancy's indignation to the boiling point.
She could spoil all their fun on this evening. She knew where all the goodies were hidden. Most of them were in her closet, and in Cora's. And her money had paid for every scrap that had been smuggled in from the Clintondale caterer's and from the delicatessen store and grocery.
She could not only stop the girls from having the spread in Number 30; but she could stop their having it at all.
However, the heat of her passion was soon over. She bathed her eyes and flushed face and went down to supper without seeing Cora again.
She did not sit near the Montgomery clique at table, anyway; but she heard them talking and laughing during the meal, and afterward some of them passed where Nancy sat and looked at her oddly.
None of them spoke to her. All of a sudden they had dropped her again and she was just as friendless as she had been before Cora Rathmore suggested the secret supper.
When she went back to Number 30, however, Cora followed her.
"Now, I want to know just what you mean to do, Miss?" she said, standing inside the door and scowling at Nancy.
"About the supper to-night."
"You certainly don't need me at the supper," observed Nancy, quietly.
"I should hope not! But we don't propose to have you run to the teachers and give our secrets away."
Nancy started up from her chair and advanced a step toward her tormentor. She really had it in her mind to box Cora's ears—and the black-eyed girl knew it.
"Don't you dare touch me!" she cried, shrinking back.
"Then don't you dare suggest that I'd be a telltale," warned Nancy. "I leave that to you."
"Oh, you do!"
Nancy was silent, and Cora calmed down.
"Then you'll go out for the evening?" she asked, at last.
"Gladly," said Nancy.
"Mabel and Hilary say you can stay in 38."
"And of course you are not going to be mean about your share of the goodies?" asked Cora, slily.
Nancy wanted to say that it seemed to her all the goodies were hers. But she only tossed Cora the key of her closet.
"I hope you'll have a good time," she said, in a low voice. "But if I were you, Cora, and had treated anybody as meanly as you have me, I could never have a good time."
"Pooh!" replied Cora, insolently. Such considerations made no impression on her. She only thought that Nancy was "too easy for anything," and laughed and joked about her to Grace Montgomery.
Nancy would not cry before her roommate. She spent the evening as usual in apparently close application to the lessons for the next day; scarcely a word was said in Number 30 until curfew at nine. The other girls kept entirely away from the room that evening. Going back and forth might have drawn the suspicion of Miss Maybrick to that particular dormitory.
At bedtime the two girls occupying Number 30 undressed and got into bed as usual. The electric lights went out on that floor. The corridors were lighted only by caged gas jets, turned low. In each room was a candle in an ample stick. The girls had to use these if they needed to move about in the night, and all the after-hour spreads were illuminated by candles, each girl participating bringing her own taper to the feast.
The hour between nine and ten dragged by drearily enough. Especially was this so for Nancy. She lay wide awake, with swollen, feverish eyes, and waited for the ten o'clock gong.
At that hour the lights on the upper floors were out and, a little later, Miss Maybrick's soft footfall sounded in the corridor. Occasionally the teacher turned a knob and looked into a study. The draperies between studies and bedrooms had to be left open so that the teacher could cast the ray of her electric hand-lamp right in upon the pillows of the two beds.
And if there was not the proper number of heads on those pillows, an investigation was sure to follow!
Miss Maybrick was known to be a sound sleeper, however. It was pretty safe for the girls to have their "orgies" on the nights this particular instructor was on duty.
Miss Maybrick went past and, in a moment, Cora slipped out of bed and to the door. In the moonlight Nancy saw her crouched beside the door, reach up and turn the knob, open the portal a little way, and listen.
The rustle of the teacher's skirts was lost in the distance. She had already been upon the upper floors; and now her inspection was over. The soft closing of her own door, which was right at the head of the stairway, came to the ears of the listening girls.
Almost immediately there was a rustling and whispering in the corridor. Cora threw the door of Number 30 open. Somebody giggled.
"Come on!" whispered Cora, sharply.
Nancy, feeling that it was all wrong and that no good would come of it, slid out of bed, sought her slippers with her bare toes, wriggled her feet into them, and seized her gray robe.
She darted out of Number 30 before any of the visitors arrived, and went to the nearest bathroom. There she waited until she was pretty sure the twenty girls had gathered to enjoy their stolen fun.
Number 38 was just across in the other short corridor. Nancy ran there, sobbing quietly to herself. Just before she opened the door somebody grabbed her arm.
Oh! how frightened she was for the moment. She was sure a lurking teacher had found her out of her room.
"Hush! don't be a dunce! It's only me," said a kind, if sharp, voice.
"Of course it is. Who did you think I was—your grandmother's ghost?" giggled Jennie, pinching her.
"Oh, oh!" panted Nancy.
"You're scared to death. What's the matter?"
"You were going into Number 38?"
"Yes," admitted Nancy.
"Well, come into my room. It's Number 40. I'm chummed with a girl who has gone to that party."
"You—you know about it, then?" stammered Nancy.
"I should say I did."
"And your roommate was invited—and not you?"
"Grace and her crowd aren't in love with me," remarked Jennie.
"And I reckon they are not overpoweringly fond of you?" suggested Jennie.
Nancy could not speak then. Jennie put her arm over her shoulder.
"Come on into my bed, Nancy," she said. "Sally will wake us up when she comes back from the spread. I think Cora and that Montgomery girl have treated you just as meanly as they could."
Nancy still sobbed. Jennie opened the door of Number 40 and drew her inside.
"Don't you let them see that you care," commanded Jennie.
"I—I don't care a—about them," sobbed Nancy. "It's—it's because I haven't a friend in the world."
"Oh, don't say that, honey," urged the other girl, still holding Nancy in her arms after they had discarded their robes and crept between the sheets.
"It—it is so," sobbed Nancy.
"You mean you haven't made friends here at Pinewood?"
"I haven't made friends anywhere," said Nancy.
"Why—why—Surely you have some folks—some relatives——?"
Nancy's naturally frank nature overpowered her caution here. Jennie Bruce was the first girl who had ever seemed to care about Nancy's troubles. She did not seem curious—only kind. The lonely girl did the very thing which her caution all the time had warned her would be disastrous.
She opened her heart to Jennie Bruce.
"Do you know who I am?" she demanded of the surprised Jennie.
"Why—what do you mean? Of course you are Nancy Nelson."
"I don't even know if I have a right to that name."
"It's the only name I know. It seems to be the only name anybody who knows about me, knows."
"Then it's yours."
"How do I know that?" queried Nancy, bitterly. "I'm just a little Miss Nobody."
"Goodness me! but that does sound romantic," whispered Jennie.
"Romantic!" cried Nancy, with scorn. "It's nothing of the kind. You're as bad as Scorch."
"As bad as who?"
"Scorch O'Brien," replied Nancy.
"Well, for goodness sake! if that doesn't sound interesting," cried Jenny. "Who is Scorch O'Brien? What a perfectly ridiculous name! Why 'Scorch?'"
"He's red-headed," explained Nancy, doubtful now. She saw that she had got herself to a point where she must tell it all—every bit of her story—if she wished to keep Jennie's friendship.
"Bully! Scorch O'Brien is fine," laughed Jennie. "Let's hear all about you, Nancy Nelson. I bet you've got lots of the queerest friends, only you don't know it. I—I've got nothing but brothers, and sisters, and cousins, and all that sort of trash. The Bruces hold most all the political offices in the town where I come from. You couldn't throw a stone anywhere in Hollyburg without hitting one of the family.
"But just think! You've got no folks to bother you. There are no teasing cousins. You haven't got to 'be nice' to relatives that you fairly can't help hating!
"Oh, I believe you've got it good, Nancy Nelson; only you don't know it!"
So, thus encouraged, and lying in Jennie's warm embrace, Nancy whispered the full and particular account of the little, unknown girl who had been brought to Higbee School, far away in Malden, nearly ten years before.
She told Jennie about Miss Prentice and about the long, tedious vacations with Miss Trigg, even down to the last one when she had helped save Bob Endress—then a perfect stranger to her—from the millpond.
"And he knew you right away on the ice to-day? I saw him! Good for you! He's the most popular boy in Clinton Academy," declared Jennie with conviction.
"But I don't care anything about that," said Nancy, honestly. "I want the girls to like me. And I know if they learn that I am just a nobody——"
"What nonsense! You may be a great heiress. Why! maybe you belong to royalty——"
"In America!" ejaculated Nancy, the practical.
"Well! they could have brought you over the ocean."
"I haven't heard of any of the royal families of Europe advertising for a lost princess," Nancy said, in better humor now. "And I know I don't look like the Turks, or the Chinese, or Hindoos, or anything like that. I guess I'm an American, all right."
"But you must have somebody very rich belonging to you," cried Jennie.
"I don't know."
"Then that Mr. Gordon must know more about you than he will tell."
"I—I am almost tempted to believe so," admitted Nancy.
"I believe it!"
"Scorch says so."
"That boy is all right," declared Jennie. "I'd like to know him."
"But I don't see how Mr. Gordon is to be made to tell what he knows—if he does know more than he has admitted about me," sighed Nancy.
"Neither do I—yet," said Jennie. "But we'll think about it. Maybe that Scorch will find out something."
"But—really—Mr. Gordon is very kind to me. See how much money he gives me."
"And perhaps that is only a tithe of what he steals from you."
"You're as bad as Scorch," declared Nancy.
"Well—of course—maybe he is telling the truth, too," said Jennie. "And twenty dollars at one clip I—Whew!"
Nancy did not tell her that the twenty dollars had paid for the supper Grace and Cora and their friends were enjoying in Number 30 at that very moment.
"But I tell you what," said Jennie, after a bit, and speaking reflectively.
"Just give Bob Endress the tip to say nothing to the other girls about how he first met you."
"Don't you see? If Cora and Grace find out where you lived before you came to Pinewood Hall, they'll maybe learn all about you. And perhaps, that would be bad," said Jennie, slowly.
"Then you see it too?" asked Nancy, sadly. "They'll be very sure I am a nobody then."
"It's a shame how girls will talk," admitted Jennie Bruce. "Especially that kind of girls."
"I wish I had you for a friend, Jennie," said Nancy, in a whisper.
"Why! you have!" cried the other. "I've always wanted to know you better. But the girls think you are offish."
"I don't mean to be."
"No, I see," returned Jennie. "But I understand you now. I wish you were in this room instead of Sally."
"And if you only were in Number 30, instead of Cora," spoke Nancy, out loud.
And upon the very echo of these words, a clear voice demanded:
"And will you tell me, Miss Nelson, how it is that you are not in Number 30—your proper dormitory—at this hour of the night?"
Both girls sat up in bed as though worked with the same spring. They could not speak. Madame Schakael stood in the doorway.
A GREAT DEAL HAPPENS
The Madame's doll-like figure has been mentioned before in these chronicles. But to Nancy Nelson's excited imagination the principal of Pinewood Hall at this juncture seemed to swell—expand—develop—and actually fill the doorway of Number 40, West Side, with her unexpected presence!
Nancy couldn't speak for the moment. Even the lively Jennie Bruce's gayety was stifled in her throat.
"I hope you are not stricken dumb, Nancy," suggested the Madame, in the same low voice.
"Oh, Madame! forgive me!" gasped the culprit at last, and slipped out of bed.
"Where are your robe and slippers?"
"Right here, Madame," answered the frightened freshman, getting into them in a hurry.
"Well! stand there. Tell me why you are in the wrong room?"
"Oh, it isn't Jennie's fault—'deed it isn't, Madame!" gasped Nancy.
"I am not going to eat you, child," said the principal of the school, with some exasperation. "Having broken a rule, please stand up properly and answer my questions.
"How came you here, Nancy Nelson?"
"Jennie—Jennie found me crying in the hall."
"I—I felt bad."
"You were ill?"
"Oh, no, ma'am," Nancy hastened to say. "I was not ill at all. Only I was—was lonely—and—and sorry—and——"
"Not altogether clear, Nancy," said the Madame; but her voice was lower and softer. "Tell me why you were crying in the hall?"
But now Nancy had begun to get a grip upon herself. She realized the position she was in. If she obeyed Madame Schakael's order she must "tell on" the girls then holding their orgie in Number 30.
"Do you hear me, Nancy?" asked Madame Schakael, firmly.
"Yes, Madame," whispered the girl.
"Can't you answer me?"
Nancy was silent for fully a minute, the Madame waiting without a sign of irritation.
"That—that, too, I cannot answer," said the miserable girl, at last.
"Do you realize what such a refusal means, Nancy?"
"You—you will have to punish me."
"Yes, Madame; seriously."
"And your record to date has been quite the best of any girl of your class."
Nancy locked her hands together and gazed at the principal. But she could say nothing.
"You say Jennie Bruce is not to blame?" asked Madame Schakael, after another minute of silence.
"Oh, no, Madame!"
"Oh, dear me!" cried the other girl, "You just don't understand, Madame——"
Nancy made a pleading gesture to stop her newly-made friend. Madame held up her hand, too.
"I believe what Nancy Nelson says, Miss Bruce," she observed, gravely. "You shall not be punished."
"I don't care for that!" cried the impulsive Jennie. "But Nancy ought not to be punished, either."
"Will you let me be the judge of that, Jennie?" asked the Madame, softly.
Jennie was abashed.
"Nancy is out of her room out of hours. That is a fault—a serious fault. You both know that?"
"Yes, Madame," said the stiff-lipped Nancy, while Jennie began to sob.
"I notice that Jennie's roommate is not here. When she returns, Nancy, you may go back to your own room. And I shall deal out the same sort of punishment to Sally that I do to you, Nancy.
"And that is," pursued Madame Schakael, slowly, "that you will be denied recreation, save that which is a part of the school curriculum, until the Christmas recess."
Nancy said nothing. But she fully understood what it meant. No outdoor runs alone, no skating, nothing save the exercises prescribed by the physical instructor.
"You may wait for Sally's return. And you are both forbidden to speak of this visit," the principal said, and withdrew from the room as softly as she had entered it.
"Oh, dear me!" gasped Nancy, "she will catch them all in Number 30."
"And serve 'em right," said Jennie.
They waited, expecting to see Jennie's roommate coming back in a hurry. But there was no disturbance. The clock at the foot of the main staircases had long since struck eleven. Now it tolled midnight.
Soon there were creaking of doors, faint rustlings in the corridors, giggling half-suppressed, and then the door of Number 40 opened again softly.
"Oh, gee!" exclaimed Sally. "Is she here?"
"Yes, she is," replied Jenny, tartly. "What have you got to say against it?"
"Oh, you needn't be so short, Jennie Bruce," said Sally.
She slipped out of her wrapper and into her bed. Nancy got up, kissed Jennie warmly, and left the room silently. When she got back to Number 30 Cora was alone. All traces of the spread were hidden.
Cora said never a word; neither did Nancy. But she wondered much. Madame Schakael, she believed, had not hunted out the mystery of her being with Jennie Bruce. Would she and Sally be the only ones punished for this affair?
Morning came and with it the usual assembly in the hall for prayers after breakfast. From the platform Madame Schakael read, without a word of explanation, the names of every girl who had attended Cora's spread—save Cora herself—and ordered that they be deprived of recreation, as had Nancy, "for being out of their dormitories after hours." The blow fell like a thunderclap upon the culprits.
When they filed out of the hall to go to first recitation not one of the girls who had been at Number 30 the night before but scowled deadly hatred at poor Nancy.
It would have been useless for Nancy to point out that she, too, had received the same punishment. Circumstances were against the girl who had practically been turned out of her own room while the party was having a glorious time eating salad, macaroons, ice cream, and various other indigestible combinations of "sweeties."
Cora Rathmore had escaped. How? Her mates did not stop to investigate that mystery.
If Cora could have explained she did not set about it. Instead, in first recitation, where she sat behind Nancy, she poked her in the back with a needle-like forefinger and hissed:
"You're a nice one; aren't you?"
Nancy merely gave her a look, but made no reply.
"Don't play the innocent. We all know that you went to the Madame and so got square with us."
"I—did—not!" declared Nancy, sternly.
"Miss Nelson!" exclaimed Miss Maybrick, suddenly.
Nancy whirled around, "eyes front."
"Demerit—talking in class," said the teacher.
That was the first time such a thing had happened to Nancy. It did seem as though everything bad was tumbling on top of her at once. She would not look around again when Cora poked her, but kept at her books—or appeared to!
What little joy she had had in school heretofore was all gone now. Lessons dragged; she thought the instructors all looked at her suspiciously.
Just the recreation room in the basement between lessons, or a demure walk with Miss Etching, the physical instructor, over the snowy lawns and wood paths about Pinewood. Extra gym work was denied her, and when the other girls ran with their skates to the river after release from studies, she could only go to Number 30 and mope.
Nancy could not see Bob Endress again. That was something beside a mere provocation of spirit. The girl felt that it was serious.
As Jennie had suggested, she wished to warn Bob to say nothing about where he had met her before. Of course, Grace Montgomery could not see the boy, either. But Cora was free to pump Bob, and Nancy was sure her roommate would worm out of him the whole story of how he had first met Nancy.
"He's been looking for you," whispered Jennie to Nancy at supper, the first night following the imposition of the punishment. "I saw him skating with Corinne and some of the other big girls. I don't know whether he saw Cora, or not."
"Oh, dear, Jennie!" cried Nancy. "I wish you would warn him."
"I?" exclaimed the other. "I never was introduced to him."
"But that wouldn't make any difference," declared the fun-loving girl, with a smile. "I'm not afraid of boys; they don't bite."
"He's a real nice boy, I believe," said Nancy.
"So they all say."
"And he'd understand, I am sure," continued Nancy. "If he was only warned what harm his telling might do me——"
"Leave it to me!" cried Jennie. "I'll skate with him to-morrow—if he's on the ice."
Nancy's life in the school was made far more miserable now by Cora Rathmore and her friends. All these girls, who had enjoyed the spread bought with Nancy's money, but who had been punished by the principal, were determined to look upon Nancy as guilty of "telling on them."
Nor did they give her any chance to answer the charge. Cora would not even speak to her in their room. If any of the other girls came in, Cora said:
"Oh, come over to your room. We can't talk here, where there is a telltale around."
This was said at Nancy; but none of them actually addressed her. Besides, Cora began to hint that she knew something against Nancy that she was keeping in reserve.
"Oh, yes! she holds her head up awful proud," Cora observed in Nancy's hearing. "But you just wait!"
"Wait for what, Cora?" asked one of the girls.
"Wait till I get a letter. I'll know all about Miss Telltale soon."
And after that Nancy's worst fears were realized by the news that Jennie Bruce brought her. Jennie had managed to see and have a private interview with Bob Endress.
"And of course, he's managed to do it," grumbled Jennie.
"Done what? Oh! done what?" cried Nancy, clasping her hands.
"Well, Cora wormed something out of him. He told her how you were the girl who saved him from drowning last summer."
"Then it'll all come out!" groaned Nancy.
"That's according. Cora knows where you lived before you came to Pinewood to school."
"And she'll write to Malden. I believe she has done so."
"But perhaps whoever she knows there won't know you."
"But they'll learn about Higbee School, and then they can trace me to it. I know if anybody wrote to Miss Prentice she'd tell all about me. She'd think it her duty."
"Mean old thing!" declared Jennie.
"Oh, Jennie! it's going to be awful hard," said poor Nancy. "You'd better not be too friendly with me. The girls are all bound to look down on me."
"Don't be so foolish! Of course they won't."
But Nancy shook her head. She had been all through the same trouble so many times before. With every incoming class of new girls at Higbee School it had been the same. She had been "the girl of mystery."
"If you could only make that old lawyer tell the truth about you, Nance!" exclaimed Jennie.
"But perhaps he is telling the truth."
"Not much, he isn't."
"Why, you're as bad as Scorch O'Brien," declared Nancy, with half a smile.
"That boy's got some brains, all right," observed Jennie, quickly. "It does not sound reasonable that, during all these years, Mr. Gordon would not have probed into the matter and learned something about your real antecedents."
Nancy shook her head, slowly. "It may all be true. Maybe it is just kind-heartedness that has kept him acting as intermediary between the persons who furnish money for my education, and myself."
"And why does he tip you so generously?"
"Oh—er—Well, I don't know."
"Is that out of his own pocket, do you think?" asked the shrewd Jennie.
"Does this 'Old Gordon,' as your friend Scorch calls him, really seem like a man given to outbursts of charity, Nance?"
"Why—why, I never saw him but once," replied Nancy.
"But did he impress you as being of a philanthropic nature?" urged her friend.
"I thought not," observed Jennie. "Just because Scorch reminded him of your existence wasn't likely to make him send you money. I bet he handles plenty more belonging to you that you never see."
"But see to what an expensive school he has sent me!" cried Nancy.
"Maybe he was obliged to do so. Perhaps he only does just what he is told to do, after all. There may be somebody behind Mr. Gordon, who is watching both him and you."
"My goodness! You make it all more mysterious than it was before," sighed Nancy. "Just the same, if these girls learn all about me they'll spread it around that I'm just a foundling, and that nobody knows anything about me. It is going to be dreadfully hard."
"Now, you pluck up your spirit, Nance Nelson!" commanded Jennie Bruce. "Don't be so milk-and-watery. You're just as good as they are."
"I don't know. At least, my folks may not have been as good as their folks."
"Well, I'd never let 'em guess it," cried Jennie. "You're scared before you are hurt, Nance; that's what is the matter with you."
IT COMES TO A HEAD
Jennie Bruce was just as full of good humor as she could be. She may have lacked reverence for teachers, precedent, the dignity of the seniors, and honored custom; but nobody with a normal mind could really be angry with her.
Her deportment marks were dreadfully low; but she was quick at her studies and was really too kind-hearted to mean to bother the teachers.
She managed to get in and out of a dozen scrapes a day. Yet the rollicking good-nature of the girl, and her frank honesty did much to save her from serious punishment.
Jennie went on her care-free way, assured in her own mind that certain of the rules of Pinewood Hall were only made to be broken. If a thought came to her in class, or a desire to communicate with another scholar, she could no more resist the temptation than she could fly.
"Miss Bruce! half an hour this afternoon on grammar rules for talking!"
"Oh, Miss Maybrick! I'm so sorry. I didn't think."
"Learn to think, then."
"Jennie, if you must make such faces, please do so out of the view of your classmates, I beg." This from gentle Miss Meader.
"I—I was just trying how it felt to be strangled with a cord. It says here the Thuggee did it in India as a religious practice."
"That's enough, Jennie!" as a giggle arose from the roomful of girls. "Your excuses are worse than your sins."
And her thirst for knowledge! Of course, it was a desire for information that was by no possibility of any value to either herself or the class.
"Is this sentence good English, Miss Halliday?" asked Jennie, after scribbling industriously for some minutes, and then reading from her paper: "'A girl was criticised by her teacher for the use of the word "that," but it was proved that that "that" that that girl used was that "that" that that girl should have used.' Is that right?"
"That is perfectly correct, Jennie," said the English teacher, grimly, when the class had come to order, "but you are altogether wrong. You may show me that sentence written plainly forty times when you come to the class to-morrow."
"Zowie!" murmured Jennie in Nancy's ear as they were excused. "I bet she thought that hurt."
But the ingenious Jennie had recourse to a typewriter in one of the offices which the girls could use if they wished. She put in forty slips of tissue paper, with carbon sheets between each two, and wrote the troublesome sentence on all forty slips at once!
"You know very well this was not what I meant when I gave you the task, Jennie," commented Miss Halliday, yet having hard work not to smile.
"You particularly said to write it plainly," returned the demure Jennie. "And what could be plainer than typewriting?"
These jokes, and their like, made her beloved by a certain number of the girls, amused the others, and sometimes bothered her teachers a good deal.
But there was not a girl in all Pinewood Hall who would have been of such help to Nancy Nelson at this juncture as Jennie Bruce.
When Jennie was out of the building in recreation time, Nancy either kept close in Number 30, or crept away to some empty office and conned her lesson books industriously.
When Jennie was at hand Nancy began to see that she need fear little trouble from the Montgomery clique. They were all afraid of Jennie's sharp tongue. And after Cora had tried to be nasty to Nancy before a crowd a couple of times, and Jennie had turned the laugh against her, Nancy's enemies learned better.
But one noon Grace Montgomery received a letter which, after reading, she passed around among her particular friends. It was eagerly read, especially by Cora Rathmore.
That young lady immediately walked over to Nancy, who was sitting alone reading, and she shook the letter in the surprised girl's face.
"Now I've got you, Miss!" she fairly hissed.
Nancy looked up, startled, but could not speak.
"Now we know where you came from, and what and who you are, Nancy Nelson!" pursued Cora. "A girl like you—a nobody—a foundling—Oh! I'll see if I have got to associate with such scum!"
She wheeled sharply away, and had Nancy recovered her powers of speech she would have had no time to reply to this tirade.
But Nancy could not have spoken just then to save her life! The blow had fallen at last. All she had feared since coming to Pinewood Hall was now about to be realized.
In some way Grace Montgomery had learned the particulars of her early life at Higbee School, though Cora might not have found it out, and Grace had put the letter into the hands of Nancy's roommate.
What Cora would first do poor Nancy did not know. There would be some terrible "blowup" the girl was sure. The story would spread all over the school. All the girls must know that she was a mere nobody, apparently dependent upon charity for her education and even for her food.
Oh! if she could only escape from it all—run away from Pinewood—go somewhere so far, or so hidden, that none of these proud girls coming from rich families could ever find and taunt her with her own miserable story.
Yes, Nancy thought earnestly that afternoon of running away. Any existence, it seemed to her then, would be better than suffering the unkind looks and the doubtful whispers of her school companions.
Nancy was not afraid of ordinary things. The possibility of hunger and cold did not daunt her. She knew that, if she left the school secretly, and ran away and found a place to work, she might often be in need. But if she could only go where people would not ask questions!
She was quite as old as Scorch O'Brien, she thought. And see how independent that flame-haired youngster was! Nancy knew she could take care of herself alone in the city as well as Scorch. She had enough money left to get her to Cincinnati, and something over.
How she got through her lessons after dinner she never knew; but she did, somehow. Then she crept up to her dormitory and to her delight found it empty. She gathered together a few of her simplest possessions and crammed them into her handbag. She took only those things that would not be at once missed. She touched nothing on her bureau.
When she had locked the bag she opened the window and peered out. It was already growing dark; but far away, on the frozen river, she could hear the ring of skates and the silvery shouts of laughter from the girls.
Nobody stirred in the pinewood, nor in the shrubbery closer to the Hall. Nancy waited for a minute to see if she was observed, and then she tossed the bag into the middle of a clump of bushes not far from her window.
She believed nobody had seen her. She closed the sash and picked up her cap and coat. She rolled these into as small and compact a bundle as possible and then left the room quietly.
Corinne Pevay was coming through the corridor.
"Hullo, Nancy Nelson!" she said, cheerfully, putting her hand upon the younger girl's shoulder. "What did you want to be such a perfect little brick for?"
"I—I don't know what you mean?" quoth Nancy, shrinking under the senior's touch.
"Why, if you'd told Madame Schakael all about it the other night when she caught you in Number 40, do you suppose she would have punished you so harshly?"
"I—I couldn't tell on them," murmured Nancy, trying to hide her bundle.
"No. But what good did it do to try and save girls like Montgomery? They blame you, just the same."
Nancy nodded, but said nothing.
"But I know that you didn't tell on them; and so does Jennie Bruce. Madame Schakael learned the names of the culprits by going from door to door and finding out who were absent from their rooms. She did not have to go to Number 30 at all. And you got no thanks for trying to shield them."
Nancy continued silent.
"And one of them told me," said Corinne, pointedly, "that you paid for all those goodies they gorged themselves on; yet they froze you out of the party. Is that right?"
"Oh, I—I'd rather not say, Miss Pevay," stammered Nancy.
"Humph! Well, you're a funny kid," said the senior, leaving her. "You'll never get along in this girls' menagerie if you let 'em walk all over you."
Nancy had been afraid that Corinne would go to the lower floor with her. But when the bigger girl left her, she slipped down the stairs like a streak and ran for the rear door of the West Side.
She saw nobody. The lower corridors seemed empty. She reached the unlocked door and had her hand upon the knob. Indeed, she turned the knob and pulled the door toward her.
The cold evening air blew in upon her face. It was the Breath of the Wide World—that world that lay before her if she left the shelter of Pinewood Hall and the bitterness of her life here.
And then, for the first time, a thought struck her. She had been forbidden to leave the building, save at stated times with the physical instructor, until the Christmas holidays, which were three weeks away.
Madame Schakael had bound her, on her honor, to remain a prisoner in the Hall until the ban of displeasure should be lifted. She had tacitly promised to obey, and therefore the Madame had set no spy upon Nancy's footsteps. There was no watching of the girls suffering under punishment. That was not the system of Pinewood Hall and its mistress.
How could Nancy break her word to Madame Schakael? Never had the Madame spoken otherwise than kindly to her. Even when she meted out punishment to her, Nancy knew that the punishment was just. The Madame could have done no less.
The principal had not even urged Nancy to report her schoolmates on the night of the party at Number 30, West Side. She had accepted her statement, as far as it went, as perfectly honest, too. She had not punished Jennie Bruce.
"Why, I can't run away and make Madame Schakael trouble!" gasped Nancy, closing the door again softly and crouching there in the dark hallway. "Mr. Gordon might make her trouble. Besides—I've promised."
The girl was much shaken by her fear of what cruelty Cora Rathmore and Grace Montgomery would mete out to her. Yet she could not play what seemed to her mind a "mean trick" upon the doll-like principal who had been so kind to her.
"Oh, dear me! I can't go—I can't go!" moaned Nancy Nelson. "It wouldn't be right. Madame Schakael said I wasn't to go out——"
And then she remembered the bag she had tossed out of the window. She must have that bag back, if she wasn't going away. If it remained there over night perhaps Mr. Pease, or Samuel, would find it.
And then the story would all come out, and her position in the school would be worse!
But Nancy knew that she had no right to leave the building at this particular time. That was the plain understanding, that recreation hours should be spent within the Hall, unless Miss Etching invited her to join a walking party.
The physical instructor was now down on the ice with the girls. Nancy might have asked one of the other teachers for permission to step out for just a minute; but that would entail much explanation.
The brush clump into which she had thrown her bag was around the farther corner of the wing. And just then she heard laughing and talking as the first group from the river approached the Hall.
Ah! there was Jennie. Nancy identified her jolly laugh and chatter immediately. She could trust Jennie. Jennie would slip around the house and bring in the fatal bag secretly, and keep still about it.
So Nancy kept back in the dark hall and let the troop of laughing girls pass her without saying a word. Jennie came last and Nancy seized her arm.
"Goodness to gracious and eight hands around!" gasped Jennie. "How you startled me. Is it you, Nancy?"
"Well, what's the matter? Whose old cat is dead now?" demanded Jennie, in an equally low voice.
"I—I threw my bag out of the window, Jennie. Will you get it?" whispered the excited girl.
"What under the sun did you do it for?"
"I—I can't tell you here," whispered Nancy.
"What have you got there?" demanded Jennie, suddenly, pulling at the bundle under the other girl's arm.
"And your hat?"
"Oh, you little chump! You are starting to run away!"
"No, I'm not."
"But you thought of it?"
"Oh, Jennie! I don't see how I can stay here. Cora and Grace know everything."
"I know it—nasty cats! But I'd face 'em. There's nothing to be ashamed of," declared Jennie. But she said it a little weakly. She knew that many of the girls would be just foolish enough to follow the lead of the Montgomery girl and Cora Rathmore.
"I—I've got to face 'em, I suppose," murmured Nancy. "I just thought that I couldn't run away."
"Huh! why not?" asked her friend, curiously.
"Because Madame Schakael put me on my honor not to leave the Hall in recreation hours without permission."
"Oh! goodness!" gasped Jennie. Then she burst out laughing, rocking herself to and fro, doubled up in the darkness of the hallway.
"What a delightful kid you are, Nance!" she cried, at last. "And you threw your handbag, all packed, out of the window?"
"Well, I'll go get it. But you certainly will be the death of me!" cried Jennie, and opened the door again.
"Oh! I'll thank you so much," whispered Nancy.
"Go on upstairs and put that coat and hat away," ordered Jennie, with sudden gruffness. "You're no more fit to roam this wild desert of boarding-school life alone than a baby in long clothes! Run, now!" and Jennie darted out of the door.
But it was easier to say than to do! When Nancy stole back into the main hall there were a dozen girls, at least, gathered there waiting for the supper gong. And among them were some of those who had, all the time, treated Nancy with the least consideration.
Nancy dropped her gaze, so as not to see their unpleasant looks, and stole toward the stairway with her bundle. But suddenly Cora's sharp voice halted her. She had not seen Cora at first.
"Yes! there she goes up to our room. That's the girl I have to room with. But I'm going to tell Madame Schakael right now that I sha'n't do so any longer."
Nancy's head came up and she flushed and paled. The lash of Cora's words roused her temper as it had been roused once before. Yet all she said in reply to the cruel speech was:
"Why can't you let me alone, Cora Rathmore?"
"I'll let you alone!" repeated Cora, with a shrill laugh. "I guess I will. And every other nice girl will let you alone, Miss Nelson. Don't be afraid that you'll be worried by friends here. We all know what you are now."
Nancy had reached the foot of the stairs and was starting up. She whirled suddenly to face her tormentor. The coat and cap fell from her grasp. She clenched her hands tightly and cried:
"Then what am I, Cora? What have I done that makes me so bad in your eyes? What have you got against me?"
"You're a nobody. You came from a charity school. The woman who is principal doesn't know where you came from. Your parents may be in jail for all anybody knows," returned Cora.
"You haven't any people, and you stayed in that Higbee School at Maiden all the year round—vacations and all. The girls didn't like you there any more than they do here.