"Ha! Miss Nobody from No-place-at-all! that's what you are!" sneered Nancy's roommate. "How do you expect the nice girls here at Pinewood Hall will want to associate with you?
"And let me tell you, Miss, that I refuse to room with you another day. I shall tell Madame Schakael so right now!" concluded Cora, her face very red and her black eyes flashing angrily.
A RIFT IN THE CLOUDS
None of the other girls had taken part in this discussion; but they all chanced to be members of the party that had partaken of the famous spread in Number 30 when Nancy's money paid for the goodies out of the enjoyment of which she had been crowded.
They were all, save Cora, paying the price, like Nancy, of being found out of their rooms after curfew by the principal of Pinewood Hall. All had suffered alike. Cora had been the only one to escape.
As it chanced, Cora had not been out of her room. The girls were not punished for eating ice cream and macaroons in secret, and none of them had been questioned about the incident save Nancy herself.
They had all, however, urged by Cora and Grace Montgomery, been sure that Nancy had "got even" by reporting them to the teachers. Maybe, if Cora had not so urged this—had not been so confident of Nancy's crime, in fact—the other girls might have stopped to think that she was being punished equally with themselves, and that only Cora had escaped.
Just the same, some of them might on this evening have taken Nancy's part had not Cora Rathmore made so much of the report upon Nancy's character that Grace Montgomery had received from a friend in Malden.
Nobody had seen the letter (which came under cover for Grace from her sister at home, and was therefore not examined by Madame Schakael) save Grace herself and Cora. The latter had flown into a passion immediately, and had declared that she would no longer remain in the same room with a "charity foundling."
Without stopping to think, these other girls were carried away by Cora's eloquence. When Nancy turned to face them from the lower stair of the flight leading up to the West Side dormitories, she was like a sheep cornered by a pack of dogs.
The shrill voice of the angry Cora carried much farther than she had intended, however. Suddenly, at the top of the flight, appeared Corinne Pevay, captain of the West Side.
"What is the trouble, mes enfants?" she demanded. "Why all the outburst of variegated sounds, Cora? Is it a convention of the Freshman Calliope Society; or merely a discussion of the question: Votes for Women?"
Cora had become silent instantly. Nancy was winking back her tears, and would not turn around. The other girls did not feel called upon to speak.
"'Silence was her answer; Low she bowed her head!'" chanted Corinne, in a sing-song tone. "It sounded like a washerwomen's convention, and now it has suddenly changed to a Quaker meeting. Come! what's the trouble?" and she spoke more sharply as she began to descend the stairs.
"None of your business, Miss!" snapped the black-eyed girl, made even angrier at this interruption.
"Wrong Cora—wrong. It is my business. Somebody will call me to account for it if you West Side infants raise ructions in the main hall. You know that. So, out with the difficulty."
Cora still remained scornfully silent.
"It is about Nancy, here, again, I suppose," said Corinne, finally reaching Nancy's side, and resting one hand lightly on the latter's shoulders. "You girls seem unable to annoy anybody else but Nancy Nelson. And if I were she"—she was coolly looking around the group and soon identified them as the party that had been punished with Nancy over Number 30's spread,—"I never would stand it.
"She is too easy.... That is what is the matter with her. When Madame Schakael found her in Jennie's room that night she ought to have told just how she had been crowded out of her own room—and after paying for all the goodies you girls stuffed yourselves with, too!
"Why, I'd be ashamed! She took her punishment and never said a word. Jennie can prove that. And all you little fools have laid your punishment to her. And after eating her spread——"
"That isn't so!" snapped Cora, in a rage.
"What isn't so?"
"She knows she's going to be paid back for what she spent on the supper," declared Cora.
"Good! I hope she will be paid back. But you can't pay her back for the mean way you have treated her," declared the senior, with some warmth.
"I don't want to! I don't want to!" almost screamed Cora. "Do you think I am going to have anything to do with a girl who doesn't even know who she is?"
"What do you mean, Cora?" asked Corinne, quickly.
"That girl," cried Cora, pointing a quivering finger at the silent Nancy, "was just found by somebody when she was a baby and was sent to a charity school—the Higbee Endowment School in Maiden, it's called.
"She's a foundling. Her parents deserted her—or they were sent to jail—and other people sent this girl to school. She knows it's so! She daren't say it isn't!" continued the enraged Cora.
"She's just a little Miss Nobody. If such girls as she, without family or friends, are going to come to Pinewood Hall, I am sure my mother won't want me to stay here. And one thing I am very sure of," pursued Cora. "I will not remain in Number 30 with this—this nameless girl that no one knows anything about."
"Quite so, Miss Rathmore," observed a quiet voice behind the excited Cora. "What you say is emphatic, at least; and it really seems to be in earnest. Therefore, it shall have my respectful consideration."
A horrified silence fell upon the group of girls at the foot of the stairs.
"Miss Pevay," said the Madame, calmly, "bring Nancy Nelson and Cora Rathmore to my office at once. What is that on the floor?"
The little lady pointed to Nancy's coat and cap. Nancy, with dry lips, told her.
"Have you been out without permission at this hour, Nancy?" asked the Madame.
"Bring the coat and cap. At once!" commanded the Madame, and led the way into her own suite of offices.
Like three prisoners bound for the stake, the three girls followed. Even Corinne felt that she had done wrong in allowing this squabble to continue in the public hall.
The other girls did not even dare whisper at first after the Madame and the three girls were behind the closed door of the Madame's anteroom. It was seldom that the principal of Pinewood Hall took the punishment, or interrogation, of offenders into her own hands. When she did it was a solemn moment for all concerned.
And the girls gathered at the bottom of the West Side stairway felt this solemnity. They whispered together fearfully until suddenly Jennie Bruce burst in from outdoors.
"Hullo, girls! what's gone wrong?" she demanded, swinging a small bag in her hand.
"You may well say 'What's gone wrong?'" declared Judy Craig, Belle Macdonald's chum. "The Madame caught poor Cora in an awful stew——"
"Huh!" grunted Jennie. "Only Cora? Well! she can stand it, I guess."
"Well, I don't know but she's right," wheezed Belle, who was also of the party. "They ought not to let such girls into a school like Pinewood Hall."
"Hul-lo!" exclaimed Jennie, suddenly interested. "Who's been treading on your tootsies, Belle?"
"Why, it's that Nelson girl," snapped Judy.
"And what's Nancy been doing?"
"Well, it's what she is," exclaimed another, eagerly. "You are pretty thick with her, Jen. Do you know who she is?"
"I know just as much about her as she knows about herself," declared Jennie, with gravity.
"And that's just nothing," cried Judy, with a little laugh. "That's what Cora says."
"And who told Cora?" asked Jennie.
"Grace. And Grace knows!"
"And who told Chicken-Little-Ducky-Lucky-Goosy-Poosy-Montgomery that the sky had fallen?" demanded the sarcastic Jennie.
"Did you know that Nancy Nelson came here from a charity school, and that she has no folks?" asked Belle Macdonald, with considerable bitterness.
"Yes," said Jennie, nodding.
"Well! what do you suppose your mother would say if she knew you were familiar with such a girl?"
Jennie suddenly became grave. "She'd say," declared the fun-loving girl, her voice shaking a little, "she'd say: 'That's a good girl, Jennie. She's an orphan—be kind to her.'"
"Oh, rats!" cried Judy. "She doesn't even know she's an orphan. Cora says she believes Nancy's parents are in jail."
"Maybe Cora has a wider acquaintance among jails than the rest of us," said Jennie airily, preparing to go upstairs.
"And what was Nancy doing with her hat and coat at this hour?" put in another girl, craftily. "The Madame noticed that right away."
"The Madame!" gasped Jennie, stopping instantly.
"Oh, they've all gone into the office," said Belle, eagerly.
"Corinne and Cora and Nancy."
"They've caught Nancy because she was going to run away?" cried Jennie.
"Run away?" repeated the other girls in chorus.
The angry Jennie shook the bag in their faces.
"Do you know what this is?" she demanded. "Do you know what you girls by your meanness almost drove Nancy Nelson to?
"I'll tell you! She knows you all dislike her—hate her, in fact. She is so unhappy here that she was going to run away from Pinewood Hall and get work somewhere—that is what she was going to do.
"She packed this bag and tossed it out of the window, and then she ran down to the door intending to slip away. But she remembered that she had been forbidden to leave the building at this time of day, and that Madame Schakael had trusted her.
"So Nance wouldn't break her word, and I found her crying in the back hall there, and told her I would bring back her bag. That's the truth! You girls have driven her to all that.
"And now," continued the wrathful Jennie, "I'm going in there to tell Madame Schakael all about it. You girls don't want to associate with Nancy because she is an orphan and has no home? Well, I don't want to associate with you because you are all too mean to bother with! There now!"
And the excited Jennie came down the steps, strode across the hall and entered the anteroom of the principal's office, closing the door with a bang.
It was seldom that Madame Schakael seemed so stern as on this occasion. She perched herself upon her cushioned chair behind the desk table in her inner office, while the three girls—the senior and the two freshmen—lined up before her.
"Now, Corinne, tell me all about it," was her command to the older girl.
"I am not sure that I can tell you all, Madame," said Corinne, slowly. "For I did not hear it all."
But the black-eyed Cora was getting back her courage now, and she suddenly burst out:
"I can tell you, Madame!"
"Perhaps—as it was your voice which I first heard—you had better tell me your side of it, Miss Rathmore," agreed the principal.
"There's only one side to it, Madame!" exclaimed Cora. "I was just telling those girls—and Miss Pevay, who interfered——"
"Corinne is the captain of the West Side. You belong on the West Side. By no possibility could your captain have interfered if you chose the public hall for any discussion," said the Madame, with sudden sharpness. "I want all you freshmen to understand that: The school captains must be respected and obeyed."
"Well—I—I didn't mean to be disrespectful," murmured Cora, suddenly abashed.
"Perhaps not. But, Miss Rathmore, I fancy you will have to watch yourself closely to correct a tendency in that direction," observed the Madame, drily. "Now, you may continue your statement."
Cora was quite put out for the moment. She had taken her first plunge into the matter, had been brought up short, and now scarcely knew how to carry on the attack on Nancy which had seemed so easy the minute before.
"Why do you stammer so, Miss Rathmore?" asked the principal. "Is it a fact that that which seemed so desirable to say just now appears to you in another light when you have taken time to think it over?"
Stung by this suggestion Cora threw all caution to the winds. Her black eyes flashed once more. She even stamped her foot as she pointed her finger at Nancy.
"I tell you what it is, Madame Schakael!" she cried. "I won't stay in the same dormitory with that girl another day. If you make me I'll write home to my mother."
"And your reasons?" asked Madame Schakael, quite calmly.
"She is a perfect nobody!" gasped Cora. "She came here from a charity school. She's never lived anywhere else but at that school. She doesn't know a living thing about herself—who she is, what her folks were, why they abandoned her——"
Possibly Madame Schakael said something. But, if so, neither of the three heard what it was. Yet Cora suddenly stopped in her tirade—stricken dumb by the expression on the principal's countenance.
The little lady's face was ablaze with emotion. She raised a warning hand and it seemed as though, for a moment, she could not herself speak.
"Girl! Who has dared tell you such perfectly ridiculous things? What is the meaning of this wrangle in Pinewood Hall? I am amazed—perfectly amazed—that a girl under my charge should express herself so cruelly and rudely, as well as in so nonsensical a manner.
"To put you right, first of all, Miss Rathmore, Miss Nelson's position in life is entirely different from what you seem to suspect. She is an orphan. I understand; but Mr. Henry Gordon has a careful oversight of her welfare, and he pays for her education out of funds in his hands for that purpose, and I am instructed to let her want for nothing. She is not at all the friendless object of charity that you have evidently been led to believe.
"The Higbee Endowment School in which Miss Nelson has been educated is by no means a charitable institution. It is a much better school than the one in which you were taught previous to coming to Pinewood, Miss Rathmore; I can accept pupils from Higbee into my freshman classes without any special preparation.
"I had no idea that girls under my charge would be so cruel as you seem to be toward Nancy Nelson. Corinne! what does it mean?"
"I'm afraid I have let it go too far, Madame," responded the senior, gravely. "But you know, these freshmen have got to learn to fight their own battles. I had to when I came."
"Yes, yes; that is all right," said the principal, waving her hand. "But remember, Corinne, I mentioned to you when Nancy Nelson came that she was one of the sensitive kind."
"And for that very reason the sensitive girls are hard to shake into their places," declared the captain of the West Side. "And then, she roomed with Cora, here, and I thought she was one of that crowd."
"I guess my crowd is just as good as yours!" ejaculated Cora, plucking up the remnants of her courage.
"In my opinion, Madame Schakael," continued Corinne, ignoring Cora, "I'd give this Rathmore girl another roommate. It would be a kindness to Nancy."
At the moment Jennie Bruce entered with more abruptness than good manners. But Jennie was excited.
"Oh, Madame Schakael! don't punish her any more!" she cried, running to Nancy and throwing her arms about her.
Necessarily she dropped the bag. The Madame pointed to it.
"What is this, Miss Bruce?" she demanded.
"Let me tell you!" cried Jennie. "That's what I came in for, Madame. These horrid girls—Rathmore and her tribe—have just hounded Nancy so that she wanted to run away."
"Run away?" gasped the principal. "From Pinewood?"
"Yes, Madame! But then she remembered she was on honor to stay indoors; so even after throwing her bag out of the window, she gave up the intention. And let me tell you," added Jennie, storming with anger, "if this stuck-up, silly Cora Rathmore doesn't want to room with Nancy, I do!"
The excited girl turned to the sobbing Nancy and took her in her arms again.
"Don't you mind what the others say to you, Nance!" she cried. "I'll stick to you, you bet! And maybe some time we can solve the mystery," she added, in a whisper, "and find out who you are. Then we'll make 'em all sorry they treated you so," for it seemed to be a foregone conclusion with Jennie that Nancy would prove to be a very great person indeed if her identity were once discovered.
"Dear, dear me!" exclaimed Madame Schakael, softly. But she really smiled upon the excited Jennie. "I shall have to write to your mother, Miss Bruce, after all, that you seem hopeless. You never will be able to restrain those over-abundant spirits of yours.
"But, my dear, I shall never have to tell that you are unkind. You have solved this little problem, I believe. It would be undeserved punishment to keep Miss Nelson in the room with Miss Rathmore any longer. In fact, I believe that the punishment meted out to Miss Nelson already, and by myself, has been too heavy.
"Two things shall be changed; Nancy Nelson is released from the order to remain indoors in recreation hours. Furthermore, she shall have a new roommate."
She turned suddenly to the sullen Cora.
"Miss Rathmore! You have revealed yourself to us all in a light which, to say the least, is not a happy one. I will remove you from Number 30, West Side. Indeed, it would be an imposition upon Miss Nelson to keep you there. How do you suppose your present chum in Number 40 would welcome Miss Rathmore, Jennie?" she added.
"Oh, I don't know," replied Jennie, her eyes twinkling. "Sally is one of Cora's crowd; but I haven't anything against Sally, so I wouldn't wish Cora on her."
"That will do! that will do, Jennie! I did not ask you to be quite so frank," said the Madame, quickly. "What do you say, Corinne?"
"It's a good idea, Madame," returned the captain, with a sigh.
"Very well, then; because Miss Nelson deserves a more pleasant and agreeable roommate, you may change places with Jennie Bruce, Miss Rathmore."
"I don't care how you put it, Madame!" exclaimed Cora, with a toss of her head. "I am glad to get out of Number 30. And, however you may put it, Nancy Nelson is a nobody——"
"You will lose your recreation hours until the Christmas holiday, Miss Rathmore," declared the Madame, rapping on her desk with a pencil. "And don't let me hear any more of this back-biting and unkindness in the freshman class. Understand? You are all four excused."
They obeyed the little woman who—by turns—could be so stern and yet so kind. Cora Rathmore flashed out in the lead and, crying with shame and anger, ran upstairs without speaking to her chums at the foot of the flight.
Corinne came out of the anteroom with an arm around the waist of each of the smaller girls. Quite a number of the West Side girls were either coming down the stairs, or had already gathered to wait for the doors to open into the dining room.
"I want you girlies to know," said the captain, cheerfully, "that we've got two perfect little bricks in this class of greenies at Pinewood Hall. And one of 'em's named Jennie Bruce and the other's named Nancy Nelson.
"I prophesy, too," pursued the beauty of the school, "that Jennie and Nancy are going to be the most notorious female Damon-and-Pythias combination we have ever had at Pinewood.
"Now, run along, you two children," she added, giving Jennie and Nancy a little shove each, "and get your eyes cooled off and wash your dirty little hands for supper. Hurry up!"
And did Nancy and Jennie care what the girls said to them now? Not a bit of it!
They went up the stairs and through the long corridor with their arms around each other. And Jennie insisted upon taking Nancy to her room to fix up for supper.
"We'll only run across Cora in Number 30—and I don't want to have to slap her face!" declared the still wrathful Jennie.
"Then I'll help you pack up your things to bring to Number 30," said Nancy.
"Oh, not before supper, Nance!" cried Jennie, in horror. "I could go out and bite a piece off the stone step, and swallow it right down, I'm so hungry."
For the first time since she had come to Pinewood Hall, Nancy Nelson went down to supper with her arm around another girl's waist, and another girl's arm around hers.
Jennie Bruce boldly sat beside her, too, although she belonged at another table. And they whispered together, and giggled, and were even reproved by one of the teachers—which was likewise a new experience for Nancy, and perhaps did her no particular harm.
"Ah-ha, Miss Mousie!" said Corinne, pausing by the new chums as she made her tour of inspection, and pinching Nancy's ear; "I see now I shall have both you and Bruce to watch. But don't you two go too far."
Really, a brand new existence had opened for Nancy. Jennie's ready championship of her did much to influence the opinion of the other girls; and the story Grace Montgomery and Cora Rathmore spread regarding Nancy fell rather flat.
The Montgomery clique, after all, embraced only a very few of the freshman class and some half dozen or more sophs. The latter had no influence at all in Nancy's class for, naturally, it was "war to the knife" between the freshies and the class immediately above them in the school.
Corinne, too, after the grand explosion in which the Madame herself had taken part, saw to it more particularly that the Montgomery crowd did not "pick on" Nancy. If Jennie was about, however, that was sufficient. Jennie Bruce would fight for her friend at the least provocation.
Yet, after all, Nancy was not entirely easy in her mind. That the story of her being a "mere nobody" had failed to make her ostracised by the better class of Pinewood Hall girls, was a delightful fact.
Yet the story was true. Nancy was nobody; as the Montgomery and Cora said, her parents might be people of no morals nor breeding. There might be some great shame connected with herself and her family.
The mystery of it all made Nancy very unhappy at times; but not so unhappy as before. Now she had a close friend with whom she could discuss the secret; and Jennie Bruce was just as deeply interested in Nancy's affairs as was Nancy herself.
"Some day it will come all right, Nance," the former assured her roommate. "Maybe you and I will find out the truth. Perhaps that O'Brien boy will help. I have great faith in Scorch, and I want to meet him."
"Oh! do you suppose you and I could go to Cincinnati together!" gasped Nancy.
"Goody! It would be great!"
"And then you could see Scorch."
"And I want to see that Mr. Gordon. I bet that lawyer knows more about you than he is willing to tell."
"But perhaps he is doing his best for me, after all," concluded Nancy, with a sigh.
Number 30, West Side, began to get a new reputation after Jennie came to it. In the first place, Jennie was one of those girls who bring from home to boarding school countless mementoes of their home life and of their family and friends.
Jennie's photographs and funny pictures, and pennants, and all the other "litter" that a schoolgirl loves spilled over from her own bureau to Nancy's, and not only was Jennie's side of the den decorated, but there was plenty to decorate Nancy's side.
No longer was Nancy's dressing-case the most plainly furnished in the school. There were bows of ribbon, and bright calendar pictures, and photo-frames, and numberless other little keepsakes tacked to the wall on Nancy's side.
Jessie Pease put her head into Number 30 a day or two after Jennie's arrival, and exclaimed with delight:
"Ah-ha! now the dear bairn's got a homey looking room, thanks be! It's made my heart ache to see how barren the walls were. You're a good girl, Janie Bruce, if you do make me a world of trouble."
"Trouble! Trouble!" shouted Jennie. "How dare you say such a thing?" and then she danced around the good soul, clapping her hands and singing:
"Pease Porridge hot—pease porridge cold— Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old! Some like it hot—some like it cold— But Jessie Pease of Pinewood never will be old!"
"Bless ye, Janie," said the good Scotchwoman, "I hope I'll never be any older than the youngest bairn who comes here to school."
"Sure! you're a regular kid!" declared Jennie, hugging her.
"My usefulness here will be all forbye when I can't be a lassie wi' other lassies," declared the lodgekeeper's wife, kissing both Jennie and Nancy and then going her way.
The pleasure of having Jennie Bruce in Number 30 instead of Cora Rathmore was no small thing to Nancy. In Jennie's society she began to expand. She became, indeed, quite a different creature from the quiet, almost speechless girl who had heretofore crept about Pinewood Hall.
Girls of her own class, who had scarcely noticed Nancy before, suddenly found that she was a bright and cheerful body when once she was included in a group of her mates.
She had made a splendid mark in classes, and stood equally high in such athletics as Miss Etching encouraged. And on the ice she had shown herself to be the equal of many of the older girls.
Now, with the ban lifted from her recreation hours, Nancy could go on the river again. And skating was one of her favorite sports.
The weather had remained cold all this time and, when it snowed at all, there had been a high wind which blew the snow (for the most part) off the ice and so did not put a veto on skating.
Clinton River was frozen nearly a foot in depth. The ice harvest had begun, and it was not yet Christmas. But where the men cut for the huge icebarns was beyond Dr. Dudley's Academy, and so did not trouble the girls of Pinewood Hall who desired to skate. Nor did it trouble the boys from the Academy, either; they were all glad to move up river for their ice sports.
Hockey was a favorite game of the boys, and Nancy one afternoon watched a match game between the crack team of the Academy and one made up of lads from Clintondale. Bob Endress captained the school team and, Nancy thought, covered himself with glory.
To Nancy's secret disappointment Bob only bowed to her. He never skated with her again, although she saw him with Grace Montgomery and her friends.
Nancy wasn't particularly enamored of boys; Jennie liked them better than Nancy did, and was frank to say so, for Jennie was somewhat of a tomboy and always played with her brothers and their friends when she was at home.
Bob Endress, however, had seemed to Nancy to be a particularly nice boy. And they had had a secret understanding together before Grace and Cora had found out about Higbee School.
Nancy said nothing to Jennie about it; but she wondered if Bob felt as the Montgomery clique did about her—that she was a mere nobody and was really beneath his notice.
Of course, Nancy was only a young girl—in her first year at Pinewood Hall; and Bob Endress was quite three years her senior. Even Corinne Pevay and Carrie Littlefield showed interest in Bob, although he was only a junior at Dr. Dudley's school.
The girls had so many interests among themselves on the ice, however, that they did not seek the boys' society. Besides, this was not altogether approved. Miss Etching was usually with the girls in the afternoon, while one of the instructors from the Academy skated with the boys.
Grace Montgomery made a great matter of Bob's being her cousin. It was known to Miss Etching that the Senator and his wife approved of the intimacy of their daughter with the boy. Naturally Grace's friends attracted Bob's friends—and there you have it!
The many girls of Pinewood Hall, however, who found delight in skating for the sake of the sport itself, welcomed Nancy as one of their own. They found she could skate splendidly with a partner, that she could cut figure eights, could do the "long roll," and otherwise give a good account of herself on the ice.
So when it was suggested that there should be a skating contest on the river one evening just previous to the Christmas holidays, Nancy was urged to participate. Of course, the older girls expected to carry off the palm. Corinne Pevay came from Canada, and one or two other girls lived well up toward the line. So their winters were long and they were proficient in every winter sport before they came to Pinewood.
But Jennie urged Nancy to do her best in the long races.
"That's where you will have 'em, Nance," she declared. "Half of these big girls lose their breath after a little run."
So Nancy entered for the two-mile race, which was the "big number" on the hastily-made-up program. The boys had helped them set stakes, the distance being ten laps around the course.
Although the moon was small, the stars were brilliant and on the ice everything was as plain as day. Miss Maybrick and Miss Meader helped the physical instructor; and those girls who did not take part in the "ice carnival," as they laughingly called it, came down to the river to see the races.
Each class rooted for their own champions. Corinne and Carrie were of course favorites of the seniors; but the juniors were sure they had a champion in one of their number, and even the sophs shouted for Judy Craig and were willing to back her even against the Canadian senior who had, as Jennie Bruce declared, "been born on skates."
"But just the same," said Nancy's roommate, "you stand a good chance in the straightaway races and in the two-mile. Don't you lose courage, Nance. I've watched you and I say that the freshies can afford to cheer for you, just as the sophs are rooting for Judy."
So Nancy went down to the ice that evening very much encouraged—and more excited than she had ever been since coming to Pinewood Hall.
The straightaway races came first. Corinne, in her cherry-colored sweater and black cap and black, short skirt, looked startlingly pretty. And how she could skate—for a little way!
Between posts the Canadian senior carried off all honors—beating every other girl easily.
And she could do fancy "stunts" like a boy—whirling on one skate after a running start, cutting the double-eight, spinning like a top—oh, a whole lot of things that Nancy, or any other younger girl, had never attempted.
Yet when they lined up for the second race—one lap around the course—Nancy, who chanced to stand next to Corinne, knew that the captain of the West Side was breathing too heavily for a girl just entering a trial of speed.
"She's not going to win this time," thought Nancy, and looked down the line of contestants. Cora Rathmore was near the far end. "I hope she won't be the lucky one," thought Nancy.
Nancy was scarcely ready at the start. She "got off" badly. But to her surprise she found herself keeping well up with the bigger girls. And she did not have to exert herself much, either.
Corinne began to laugh, and Nancy passed her.
"Go on, Nancy, for the honor of our side!" gasped the Canadian. "I'm out of this race."
Spurred by her words Nancy "let out a link," as Jennie Bruce would have said. She found that there were other contestants that she could easily pass. When they turned the stake only Cora, Carrie Littlefield, Judy Craig, and one or two others were ahead.
To skate rapidly one should not use a "rolling" stroke; and Nancy saw that Carrie, the biggest girl ahead, was striking out too widely. She dashed from side to side of the course, taking up more than her just share, indeed, and covering more ice than was necessary.
Nancy took short, quick strokes. Her method was a bit jerky, perhaps, and lacked grace; but she was going straight down the stretch to the "home" stake, and before they had covered half the distance Nancy passed Carrie, and then Judy Craig.
But there was Cora Rathmore, her oldtime roommate and enemy, right ahead. Cora seemed to deliberately block her way, for occasionally she threw a glance behind her, and changed her course as Nancy tried to slip by.
The race was not between Cora and Nancy. There were two older girls ahead and it would have been hardly possible, at this stage of the contest, for either of the freshmen to overtake the leaders.
But it was evident that the Rathmore girl did not intend to let Nancy pass her. Once again the latter tried to turn out; and then, seeing that Cora flung herself that way, Nancy struck into a wide curve that should have taken her completely around Cora.
But as Nancy struck her left skate upon the ice again, something clashed with it, checked her course abruptly and, if she had not flung herself sideways upon the ice, and slid, she might have wrenched her foot badly.
"Oh! oh!" shrieked Jennie. "Nancy's been thrown!"
But her friend picked herself up at once, and with a laugh skated on after the other contestants. One of the first-class girls won.
"How did you come to fall?" demanded Jennie, with lively interest.
"Oh, it must have been a twig sticking up in the ice," declared Cora, before Nancy could reply. "You can't see them at night."
"Was that it, Nance?" demanded Jennie, suspiciously.
"It—it must have been," admitted Nancy. But in her heart of hearts Nancy knew that she had stumbled over the toe of Cora Rathmore's skate. The girl had deliberately thrown her.
It made no difference in the result of the race. Nancy could not have won, she knew. But it warned her to look out for Cora Rathmore if she raced again with her.
Nancy rested after that, refusing to enter any of the minor contests until the long race—the piece de resistance of the evening—was called.
This was the endurance test that Miss Etching was anxious to have go off well. The physical instructor of Pinewood Hall had an object in putting her girls against a two-mile skate. More than Jennie Bruce had noted the fact that many of the best skaters among the juniors and seniors lacked "wind."
It was hard for the instructor to watch all the girls closely enough to be sure that they dressed properly even in the gym work. She had warned them to dress loosely under their warm sweaters for the ice, too; for in skating every muscle in the body needs free play.
But certain girls, like Grace Montgomery among the freshmen, and the dressier girls of the older classes, gabbled a deal more than was good for them about their "figures," and studied the fashion-plates too much.
But there were the warm dressing rooms in the boathouse for the girls to change in, and those who entered for the ten-lap race took advantage of these rooms to lay aside any garment that trammeled their movements. They all realized that it was an endurance test.
Thirty-eight girls were called by Miss Etching to line up for the long race. Some of them, of course, didn't have a ghost of a show for honors in the trial of speed and endurance; but they wanted to show what they could do.
Jennie Bruce herself was one of the contestants; but, as she told Nancy, she didn't expect to go half the distance. Some of the seniors who were in earnest remarked that they didn't see the use in letting the "greenies" clutter up the ice. But Miss Etching had announced it as a free-for-all race and the big girls could not freeze out the contestants from the younger classes.
Indeed, the classes were each backing their own champions. The seniors were strongly for Corinne Pevay, who had recovered her breath and promised to bring home the prize. Carrie Littlefield was a favorite with the class that would graduate the next June from Pinewood Hall, too.
The juniors had half a dozen girls who all believed they could bear off the palm. Judy Craig was being "rooted" for by the sophomores. Of course, none of the three upper classes believed that a freshman had a chance; but Grace Montgomery had reserved herself all the evening for this contest, and now her friends were noisily declaring that she could win "if she tried."
"She'd better try, then," observed Jennie, with a laugh. "And try mighty hard, too. Some of those big girls have raced before and they have trained several terms under Miss Etching."
"You're not loyal to the class," declared Cora Rathmore, sharply.
"I should worry! I'd like to see a freshman win; but Grace hasn't a chance."
"She'll show you," cried Sally, Jennie's former roommate. "Grace Montgomery is a splendid skater. And you've never seen her really let herself out."
"Say! she 'lets herself out' every time she speaks," growled Jennie. "We all know what she is—bluff and bluster!"
"Is that so, Miss Smartie!" exclaimed Cora Rathmore, standing up for the girl she toadied to. "Let me tell you that Grace is the most popular girl in our class. Wait till we have election for class president."
"I'm waiting," remarked Jennie, calmly. "But what will that have to do with Grace Montgomery?"
"You'll find out then how popular she is."
"I will, and so will she," chuckled Jennie, suddenly all a-smile.
"You don't believe she will have the most votes?"
"Not, unless she puts them all in herself," laughed Jennie. "Why! if Grace had a chance to be class president I'd go into sackcloth and ashes during the rest of the year."
"You wait and see!" snapped Cora.
In her heart Jennie believed that the only girl among the freshmen entries who had the least chance to win the long race was Nancy. But she knew that this wasn't the time to begin "rooting" for her friend.
Indeed, the best way to do was to cheer for all the freshies entered until they showed—within the first few laps—what they could do. And to this method Jennie,—a leader among the younger girls,—clung.
At the starting shot—for Miss Etching was not afraid of a pistol and used it to start the race—the thirty-eight girls got away from the line without much confusion. The best skaters were quickly in the lead, so that there was little entanglement at the first stake. By that time the girls were strung out for some yards.
Rounding the home stake for the first time, the seniors and juniors, with Judy Craig and—to Jennie's surprise—Grace Montgomery and Cora, were in the lead. Nancy was trailing them easily, but it worried Jennie.
The latter lost her head and did all her best work—put out every bit of strength she had—in the second lap. She passed Nancy and many of the other girls belonging to the freshies and sophs; but she could not reach Grace and Cora. Judy Craig fell back, however.
At the beginning of the third lap more than half the girls dropped out. The leaders were so far ahead it was useless for them to continue. And their dropping out cleared the course for the real contestants.
Jennie fell back in that third lap, and Nancy passed her, still skating easily, and about half a lap behind the leaders.
"Oh, dear, Nance! Do hurry up and beat them," gasped Jennie. "I'd hate to see Grace—or Cora—carry off the glory for our class."
Nancy did not speak; she only smiled. She saved her breath—as Jennie might better have done.
For, at the beginning of the fourth lap, both of the girls who called themselves leaders of the freshmen class began to fall back, although they still struggled. The race was not half over and only ten girls remained in it. Jennie fairly fell to the ice, and sat there, panting. But she cheered Nancy when her chum passed her on the next—the fifth—round.
"Go it, old 'slow but sure!'" she cried. "You're going to make your mark, I see."
It was only a few minutes later that Nancy, without increasing her speed, was right on the heels of Grace and Cora.
Ahead of these two freshmen were only two seniors, four juniors, and one soph. The leading girls—three of them—were more than half a lap ahead of Nancy; the others were strung out along the course.
Grace and Cora saw Nancy creeping up on them. They were losing ground steadily, and there was no "spurt" in them. Cora, indeed, was crying with vexation and nervousness.
"She's going to pass us, Grace—the nasty thing!" she panted.
"Keep up, Cora!" begged her friend, and deliberately crossed in front of Nancy at the post, to keep her back.
Nancy lost stroke a little. They came down the course toward the home stake on this—the fifth—lap. Miss Etching skated slowly forward to eye the line of struggling girls. She had personally taken several of the younger contestants out of the race because she saw that they were doing too much.
Nancy tried to shoot ahead of her two classmates again. Grace and Cora almost collided in their attempt to balk Nancy.
But the physical instructor saw them.
"Miss Montgomery! Miss Rathmore! Out of the race!" she commanded, in a tone that was heard by most of the spectators gathered near.
"And just as I was getting my second wind!" cried Grace, angrily, as she came down to her waiting friends.
"I put you out for fouling," declared Miss Etching, firmly. "Miss Rathmore, too. You are traitors to your class. Miss Nelson has a chance to make a record for you and you deliberately tried to keep her back. She is the freshest girl on the ice at this moment," declared the teacher, with enthusiasm.
But Nancy did not hear this. She had rounded the stake in the wake of the older girls, and kept "plugging along" as though tireless. She was doing her part as usual—faithfully but not brilliantly—and had no idea that she was in danger of making a record for the freshman class.
THE FRESHMAN ELECTION
The night was cold, but delightful. Nancy Nelson had never felt so sure upon her skates, or so able to keep up her steady stroke for a long distance, as she did now.
The struggle earlier in the evening had seemed to put the right temper into her muscles. Having been relieved by Miss Etching of the two girls—her own classmates—who had attempted to retard her progress, Nancy kept on and on, seeing the distance between herself and the leaders in the race diminishing—by no effort of her own, it seemed—and just enjoying herself.
She skated past Judy Craig, and saw that that eager sophomore was sobbing for breath, and could hardly stand. Nancy felt little weariness and still enjoyed the pace. She had not spurted in the beginning and waited for that wonderful "second wind" that is the help of all long-distance racers, before increasing her first easy pace.
Now she increased her stroke for a second time, and almost at once flashed past two of the older girls. One of them was a senior.
The crowd began to shout for her when Nancy came around the home stake now. Jennie Bruce led the freshmen rooters, and the volume of sound they made showed that there were few "dyed-in-the-wool" Montgomeryites, after all.
Nancy Nelson, the single remaining freshman on the ice, was the hope of the class. Corinne and Carrie and one of the juniors were still struggling far ahead; but the school as a whole soon began to be more deeply interested in the progress of Nancy than in the struggle of the leading girls.
"That little Nelson is making them all look sick," declared the stout soph, Belle Macdonald. "I hated to see our Judy drop out; but I'd rather see a freshman win over those juniors and seniors, if a sophomore can't do it."
"Pah!" exclaimed Cora Rathmore, "Nelson hasn't a chance with that Canuck. None of us had."
"Nancy is skating easier than all of them," observed one of the other girls.
"Wouldn't it be odd if a freshman should win?" cried Sally.
"It wouldn't be funny at all if that Nancy Nelson won," snapped Cora. "That nobody!"
"There'd be no living with her at all, then," added Grace Montgomery.
"Hurrah for Nance!" shouted Jennie Bruce, when the contestants swung past the home stake again. "She's going to win!"
The racers began their eighth lap. Not until now had Jennie really believed her own statement—that Nancy had a chance to win. But it actually began to look so.
They came around again. Carrie had dropped far behind Corinne and the junior. Nancy was swinging along, hands clasped behind her back, taking each stroke firmly—rolling just a little, indeed—and seemingly almost as fresh as when she began.
"Bully for you, Nancy Nelson!" many of the freshies cried. "Show 'em what you can do! Don't give up, Nancy!"
But Nancy had no intention of giving up. She believed she could keep on to the end, and without reducing speed. And on the ninth lap she passed Carrie.
Only two were ahead of her now. As she swung down the home-stretch behind the senior and junior, Nancy's mates began to shout like mad girls:
"Come on! Come on! Don't let 'em freeze you out, Nancy Nelson!"
"You're going to beat, Nance!" cried Jennie Bruce, fairly jumping up and down. "Show 'em what you can do!"
There was only one more lap—one-fifth of a mile. Nancy drew in a long breath as she rounded the stake, and looked ahead. Corinne and her nearest antagonist had spurted a little; but Nancy put her head down, and darted up the course at a speed which equalled what the other girls had done at their best.
It was really wonderful how swiftly the freshman overtook her older rivals. Nancy skated more swiftly than she had in that first dash of the evening.
There was nobody to shut her off now. Cora was not here to foil or trip her. Corinne and the junior played fair.
Before the older girls reached the rounding stake, Nancy flashed past them. The junior spurted, came even with Nancy for a moment at and turn, and then dropped back, to become a bad third in the race. She could never recover after that spurt.
But the French-Canadian girl held on grimly. Slowly she crept up on the freshman. The seniors shouted for their champion; but the rest of the school was calling Nancy home!
"Oh, Nancy! Oh, Nancy! Come on!"
Nancy heard Jennie Bruce's voice above all the turmoil ahead. Her eyes had begun to water, and the white, badly cut-up ice of the straight course seemed to waver before her.
At her ear she could hear Corinne's labored breathing. The ring of her rival's skates rasped upon the younger girl's nerves, too.
She was under a great strain now. Another full lap would have been more than she could have skated without a breakdown. It was being pressed so close and hard that was wearing Nancy down. She was not used to such contests.
But her roommate's cracked voice, shouting again and again for her, kept Nancy to the mark. Corinne should not pass her!
She flung herself forward against the wind and worked with teeth that sank into her lip and drew the blood! On—on—on——
She felt something against her hands—against her breast—she was tangled up in it! Something had fouled her, and she had failed, for Corinne swept by at that moment.
And then the girls caught her—Jennie and many of her own class, as well as some of the older girls. They were cheering her, and praising her work—for it was the tape she had run against.
The race was finished and Nancy had won!
Three-quarters of the school were on the ice. Something like three hundred girls can make a lot of noise!
And there was only a tiny group that broke away from the main body and went home in the sulks because Nancy had won the race. Of course this was the Montgomery clique.
"I can tell you right now who won't be president of our class," whispered Jennie to Cora Rathmore before the latter got away in Grace Montgomery's train.
"I suppose you think Nancy Nelson will!" snapped Cora.
It was the first time the idea had come into Jennie's mind.
It was only three days before the breaking up for the holidays. Everybody was so enthusiastic about Nancy, that Jennie's work was half done for her.
To see the quietest girl in the school, yet the one who stood highest in her own class, praised and feted by the seniors, made Nancy's fellow-classmates consider her of more importance than ever before.
So Jennie's work was easy. She went among the freshies and whispered—first to one alone, then to two together, then to little groups. And the burden of her tale was always the same:
"The Madame will stand for her—you see! She's the best little sport there is in the class. She's scarcely had a mark against her, yet she's no goody-goody.
"See how she stood for those other girls who treated her so meanly—and never opened her mouth. Why, the Madame could have burned her at the stake and Nance would never have said a word to incriminate that Montgomery crowd.
"And there won't be a teacher to object. She's on all their good books. Me? Of course I've an axe to grind," and Jennie laughed. "She's my roommate, and if she gets the 'high hat' I'll hope to bask in her reflected glory."
Jennie Bruce was an excellent politician. Had it lain with the girls alone, lively Jennie might have been president of the freshman class herself. But the girls knew that the Madame would never allow it. Jennie's record for the weeks she had been a student at Pinewood Hall precluded such an honor.
The day before the break-up the members of the freshman class voted for president. Each girl sealed her vote in an envelope and the numbered envelopes were passed into the Madame's office.
At supper that night, at the time when the school captains marched around the room "to inspect the girls' hair-ribbons," as Jennie said, Corinne brought a high, old-fashioned, much dented beaver hat in her hand.
That didn't tell the eager freshmen anything, for both the principal candidates for president of the class had been from the girls rooming on the West Side, and therefore were under Corinne's jurisdiction.
Grace Montgomery's friends began to cheer for her. The friends of the other candidates—and there were several—kept still.
"Wait!" advised Jennie, in a stage whisper. "We can afford to yell all the louder a little later—maybe."
But Corinne tantalized the smaller girls by walking all around the tables the first time without putting the tall hat on any girl's head. Once or twice she hesitated behind a girl's chair; but that only made the others laugh, for they knew that those particular girls had had no chance of election anyway.
"Come on!" shouted Cora. "You might as well bring it over here where it belongs," and she put an arm over the blushing Grace's shoulders.
But Grace did her blushing for nothing. Corinne crossed the room swiftly, came straight to the corner where Jennie sat, and——
Drew the hat firmly down over Nancy Nelson's ears!
Nancy could scarcely believe it. She—Miss Nobody from Nowhere—the most popular girl in her class? It was like a dream—only, as she admitted to Jennie, laughing, it was a dreadfully noisy dream!
Corinne could scarcely command silence long enough to read the result of the balloting. Nancy had received nearly one-half of the freshman vote. Grace Montgomery had mustered only eight ballots, while the remainder were scattered among half a dozen other candidates.
The disappointed girls, all but Grace, cheered Nancy, too—and hugged her, and made her march ahead of the class, all around the big dining room, and then into the hall, which was given up to the use of the freshman class for that particular evening.
There the complete organization of the class was arranged, and Nancy presided with pretty dignity, and even Grace Montgomery and her friends had to acknowledge the leadership of the girl whom they had so ill-treated for the past weeks.
Many of the girls went home the next day for the ten days' vacation. Those who lived at a distance, however, remained at Pinewood. So Nancy was not alone over the short vacation as she wont to be at Higbee School.
Jennie lived not far from Cincinnati, and she couldn't remain away from home at Christmas.
"I wish you were going with me, you dear old thing!" she said to Nancy, hugging her. "You wait till I tell mother about you! You shall go home with me at Easter—if that Old Gordon will let you; and if you like it at my home we'll have you part of the long vacation, too.
"And I'm going to get my big brother, John, to take me into the city while I'm home, and I'm going to see Scorch. Just think! Maybe we can find out all about what Mr. Gordon is hiding from you."
"If he is hiding anything, Jennie," said Nancy, shaking her head.
And yet, after all the wonderful things that had happened to her of late, Nancy could almost believe that even the mystery of her identity might in time be solved.
But Jennie Bruce came back to Pinewood Hall after the holidays with no news of importance for her roommate and chum.
"I saw that red-headed boy," she said. "My goodness me, Nance! what a freak he is," and Jennie burst into laughter at the remembrance of Scorch O'Brien. "John and I took him to luncheon and John couldn't eat for laughing at him."
"I think Scorch is real nice," said Nancy, smiling reflectively.
"Oh, he's strong for you, all right," admitted Jennie, nodding. "He thinks you are about the only girl who ever came into his sweet young life——"
"What nonsense!" said Nancy, blushing, but smiling, too.
"All right. He's willing to go to desperate lengths to help you, just the same," and Jennie smiled in remembrance of the red-haired youth's enthusiasm.
"I guess it's mostly talk. Scorch dearly loves to talk," said Nancy.
"He wanted John to help him rob 'Old Gordon's' private safe," laughed Jennie. "He says he believes there are papers in that safe that would explain all about you. He wanted John to stay over that night and stand watch while he, Scorch, opened the safe with something he called a jimmy!"
"The ridiculous boy!" said Nancy.
"But I tell you!" exclaimed Jennie, "John works for a man who knows your Mr. Gordon. John is going to get Mr. Pennywell to find out—if he can—from Mr. Gordon if he really knows more about your folks than he is willing to tell you. Mr. Pennywell is a client—and a good client—of your Mr. Gordon. Hateful old thing!"
"But perhaps he isn't hateful," Nancy objected, shaking her head.
"I bet he is. Scorch says he is hiding something. That boy is bright."
"Really brilliant—when it comes to his hair," suggested Nancy, laughing.
But there were so many other things to take up the thoughts of the two chums after this brief separation, that the mystery about Nancy figured little in their activities for a time.
Nancy's new dignity as president of the class bore heavily upon her at first, for she feared that she would not discharge her duty to the other freshmen in a proper way.
The Montgomery clique was of course a continual thorn in her side. It never numbered, however, more than eight or ten girls of that class. Grace made many of her friends in the sophomore class.
The teachers, however, were decidedly in favor of Nancy. She gained the head of her classes in most studies, and did not slight lessons to join in the fun of the other girls. Yet she was no prig—no matter what Grace and Cora said.
A rather solemn thought had come to the girl on the night of that day when she had started to run away from Pinewood Hall. Suppose she should, suddenly and without warning, be thrown upon her own resources?
Most girls of Nancy's age do not think of such unpleasant things. Nor, in many cases, could such an unhappy turn of circumstances affect them.
Yet it might happen at any time to Nancy. That was the way she felt about it.
Suppose the mysterious fountain from which, through the channel of Mr. Gordon, flowed the money to support her, suddenly should dry up?
She could be pretty sure that Mr. Gordon would not go on supporting her and paying for her schooling, and all. No, indeed! He had not struck Nancy in her single interview with him as being that sort of a man.
So with this thought hovering in the background Nancy made the most of her opportunities as the days passed. She was determined to learn everything Pinewood Hall and its mistress and instructors had to teach her.
She learned to be an expert typewriter before Easter, and improved her spelling immensely. Other girls had the same opportunity, if they cared to exercise it; for there were plenty of machines they could learn on as Nancy did. But few of the girls at Pinewood Hall cared to take "extras." Most of their parents were very well-to-do, and why should they exert themselves to merely practical things?
Nancy took up stenography with gentle Miss Meader, too. The latter acted as the Madame's secretary, so she had practical use for shorthand. She and Nancy corresponded daily in the "pothooks," as Jennie Bruce called the stenographic signs.
Nevertheless, Nancy managed to cram into her waking hours an immense amount of fun as well as lessons. The Madame did not believe that all work was good for Jill, any more than it is good for Jack.
When the snow came there was sleigh-riding, class parties being made up while the moon was big, the girls going off in great "barges," which would hold from forty to sixty of them, and stopping at a certain country tavern, of which Madame Schakael approved, where hot oyster stews were served.
Then, before Lent, there was the big dance of the year, when the girls of Pinewood Hall and the boys of the Clinton Academy mingled under the shrewd eyes of their respective heads.
Dr. Dudley was a solemn, long-faced, stiff-looking old gentleman, with a great mop of sandy hair brushed off his high brow, who never looked really dressed unless he had on a tall hat and a frock coat. In dancing pumps and a white waistcoat and tail coat he looked rather ridiculous.
And when he led out Madame Schakael—who looked like a sweet-faced French doll—for the grand march, they really did look funny together.
But it was no stiff and formal ball after the "heads" of the two schools were off the floor. The boys and girls had a most delightful time—even Nancy enjoyed it, although she, like most of the freshmen, played wallflower a good part of the time.
Nancy saw Bob Endress, but merely to bow to. He seemed always to have his "hands full" with the older girls, or with Grace Montgomery and her satellites. But Nancy's mind lingered upon boys very little. She danced with other girls and had quite as good a time, she was sure, as she should have had had Bob Endress danced every number with her.
So passed the winter and the spring, and the Easter holidays came. Nancy had received a very prettily-worded invitation from Jennie's mother to spend these with them.
It was the first invitation of the kind Nancy Nelson had ever received, so you can imagine how overjoyed she was. Madame Schakael approved. Then it was necessary to get Mr. Gordon's permission.
Nancy had thanked Mr. Gordon for the twenty-dollar bill he had sent her, but had not heard personally from him in reply. She had broken an understood rule, too, to write twice to Scorch O'Brien—just little notes thanking him for remembering her.
By the way, the twenty dollars that had been lent to Cora Rathmore to pay for the famous supper in Number 30 when Nancy had been frozen out, had never been returned, either completely, or in part. Cora Rathmore seemed to have forgotten her debt to Nancy when she returned from her holiday at Christmas time.
Corinne suspected that Nancy had not been repaid; but nobody else really knew anything about it—not even Jennie. Nancy would not talk about it when some of the girls became curious.
She had not needed the money for anything. At New Year's Mr. Gordon had sent her a ten-dollar note, but through Madame Schakael. When she asked him if she could go home with Jennie Bruce over Easter, he sent her at once another twenty dollars and his permission—the latter just as short as it could be written.
Scorch evidently watched the mail basket on Mr. Gordon's desk with the eye of an eagle. A second letter with the card of the law firm upon it was put into Nancy's hand almost in the same mail with Mr. Gordon's letter. Such letters passed through the Madame's hands without being opened. It was a secret that troubled Nancy sometimes; yet she could not "give Scorch away." This was Scorch's letter:
"Dear Miss Nancy:
"I see Old Gordon has risked another perfectly good yellow-back in the mail. He'll ruin the morals of the mail clerks (I rote that word 'mail' wrong before) if he keeps on. Know how I seen the yellow-back in the letter? I punched a hole with a pin in the crease of the envelope at each end. Squeeze the sides of the envelope together a little and then squint through from one hole to the other. That's an old one.
I want you to know I'm on the job. That Jennie girl you sent to me is some peach; but she ain't in your class for looks, just the same. Her brother is a pretty good feller, too; but we couldn't get together on any scheme for jolting what you want to know out of Old Gordon. The time will come, just the same. When it does, I'm little Johnny On-the-Spot—don't forget that.
So no more at present, from
"Yours very respectfully, "Scorch O'Brien."
There was not time to answer Scorch at once; but when Nancy was at Jennie's home the girls wrote to the office boy of Ambrose, Necker & Boles and invited him to come out to see them. But Scorch was bashful and did not come; so Nancy returned to Pinewood without seeing her champion.
A great many things happened after that spring vacation—the last half of Nancy's freshman term—which might be told about; but we may only relate a few of them.
Her record was splendid. Her government of her class satisfied everybody but the Montgomery faction. Grace and Cora did all they safely could throughout the term to trouble Nancy. Sometimes they succeeded; but she had learned not to "carry her heart on her sleeve."
Corinne, Carrie, and the rest of the seniors were all in a flutter because of approaching graduation. The other girls—junior, sophomore, and freshman—often discussed eagerly what the summer vacation had in store for them.
For the first time in her young life, Nancy Nelson looked forward, too, to the summer with delight. She was going home with Jennie just as soon as school closed—that is, unless Mr. Gordon should object. And it was not believed that he would.
Jennie's parents and brothers and sisters were just as well pleased with the quiet little orphan as Jennie herself had been. They were glad to have her in their big house between terms.
So June approached, and the yearly exams, and other finishing work, loomed ahead.
Pinewood Hall was a beautiful place now. The park was in its very best condition. Mr. Pease and Samuel, and their helpers, made every path straight and clean, raked the groves of all rubbish, and the two horse mowers and the roller were at work on the lawns, making them like velvet carpets.
Nancy came out of Jessie Pease's cottage one day to see a handsome man in a gray suit, with gray spats, and gray hair, and even a gray silk shirt, walking slowly up the drive toward the Hall. In the shade of the trees (it was a hot day) he removed his gray, broad-brimmed hat. And out of that hat fell his handkerchief.
When Nancy, hastening, picked up this article, she found that it was silk, with a gray border, too, and an initial in one corner. The initial was "M."
"You dropped this, sir, I think," she said, timidly, coming abreast of the stranger.
He turned to look at her. He had heavy, smoothly-shaven jowls and not a very healthy complexion. His eyes were little, and green. Nancy had expected to see a very handsome, noble-looking old gentleman. Instead, she saw a very sly-looking man, with something mean and furtive in his manner, despite his fine build and immaculate dress.
"Ah! thank you, thank you, my pretty miss," he said, accepting the handkerchief. "It is a very warm day."
"Yes, sir," responded Nancy, politely.
"And you, I suppose, go to school here at Pinewood?"
"A beautiful place! A very beautiful place," said the stranger. "You may be acquainted with a girl named Montgomery, now?"
"Yes, sir," said Nancy, with gravity.
"Now, where might she be found at this hour?"
Nancy chanced to have seen Grace and some of her satellites sitting in a pergola on a mound not far away. She pointed out the path to the stranger.
"Thank you—thank you, my dear," said the gray man, and insisted upon shaking hands with her.
Indeed, he looked curiously after her as she passed on. Then, as he turned to follow the path pointed out to him, he shook his head, saying, under his breath:
"Strange! Familiar, somehow. Looks familiar——"
A cry warned him that he was seen. Flying down from the pergola came Grace, with Cora close behind her.
"Oh, Father! you dear! I'm so glad to see you!" exclaimed Grace.
"So unexpected, dear Senator Montgomery," said Cora, in quite a grown-up way.
The Senator welcomed them; but he looked again after the retreating Nancy.
"Who is that pretty girl, Grace?" he asked, pointing out the object of his interest.
"Pretty girl, indeed!" ejaculated Cora, under her breath.
"Why it's nobody but that Nelson—Nancy Nelson. A mere nobody."
"What name did you say?" demanded the senator, his green eyes very bright for a moment, and a little color coming into his face.
"Who is she?"
"That's what we all ask," remarked his daughter, with an unpleasant laugh.
"Why do you say that, Grace?"
"Why, she's a nobody. She's got no friends, and no home—it's a disgrace to have her here at Pinewood. I wish you'd say something to the Madame about her."
"They tried to make me room with her," said Cora Rathmore, boldly; "but I wouldn't stand for that long."
The Senator looked grave. "Come, tell me all about Nancy Nelson," he enjoined them, and sat down on a neighboring bench to listen.
Grace and Cora told their highly-colored version of the story circulated about Nancy during the first few weeks of her sojourn at Pinewood Hall.
"And do tell Madame Schakael what you think of her letting such a girl into the school," begged Grace, as the Senator arose and started towards the Hall again.
He did not say that he would. But to himself the Senator muttered, with puckered brow and half-shut eyes:
"Who would have thought it! That girl here—right where I sent Grace! I—I certainly shall have to see Gordon about this. Hang his impudence! What does he mean by sending that girl to a place like this?"
IS IT A CLUE?
The most beautiful sight she had ever seen! That was what Nancy Nelson enthusiastically called it when, from the end of the long line of girls, walking two by two, she saw the flower-crowned seniors winding from the Hall, through the sun-spattered grounds, to the old brick church on the highway, beyond the estate, where the baccalaureate sermon was always preached.
No girl, she was sure, could ever be disloyal to Pinewood Hall, after having once seen the graduation procession. And then, the graduating girls themselves! Why, they were all ready for college!
How much they must know! Nancy sighed with envy, and hoped heartily that she would be able to remain at Pinewood long enough to be a chief figure in a similar spectacle.
Corinne Pevay looked like an angel. And Carrie Littlefield read the valedictory. To the mind of the girl just finishing her freshman year, these great girls—real young ladies, now!—were so far above her that it almost made her blink to look at them.
At Higbee School class after class had been graduated above Nancy, and she had seen the day approach—even her own graduation—without much excitement. But this was an entirely different occasion.
She had something to look forward to this summer. At the break-up for the long vacation she was going to have just as much part in the bustle as anyone.
Jessie Pease had already looked over her wardrobe, and there were several new summer dresses, including swimming and boating costumes. Mr. Gordon had sent the extra money needed without comment or objection.
And now Nancy's trunk was packed, and her bag, and with Jennie Bruce she was ready to take the first 'bus that left for the Clintondale station in the morning.
How different from her coming to the school in September!
She was at the head of her class. The freshmen had given her an overwhelming vote for class president for the soph. year. And Corinne had prophesied that she would yet be captain of the West Side—when she grew to be a senior.
Girls ran to kiss her before she got into the 'bus, and stood and waved their hands after her as it rolled away. And when she had arrived at the Hall, she stood on the porch in the rain without a soul to speak to her. Ah! this change was enough to turn the head of even a sensible girl.
However, Nancy was much too affectionate by nature and tender of other people's feelings to be made haughty or vain by her schoolmates' kindness to her. It continued to be a wonder to her how a "mere nobody" had managed to gain such popularity.
And she was welcomed in Jennie's home as though she really was one of the family.
Jennie's home was a lovely, rambling old house, standing well back from the High Street in its own grounds, and affording ample space for the young folk to have fun in innumerable ways.
There was a lake not far away; and Mr. Bruce owned a pair of ponies that even the younger children could drive. There was a trip almost every day to the swimming place; then there were picnics, and visiting back and forth with other girls whom Jennie and her sisters knew. And nowhere did Nancy hear a word about her not being "just as good" as her comrades.
The mystery of her identity, however, was seldom buried very deep under other thoughts. And Jennie retained her interest in the puzzle, too.
Nancy had written to Scorch O'Brien to arrange for a meeting; as the red-headed youth seemed too bashful to come out to Jennie's house, the girls planned to meet him in the city. They got a most mysterious note in reply:
"Dear Miss Nancy:
"You and your friend meet me at 307 Payne Street on Saturday afternoon. You can whistle outside; I'll hear you. Can't see you at Old Gordon's office for fear of spies. Did you ever see the Gray Man? He and Old G. has had a fight about you. It was a peach! They says when thieves fall out honest folks gets what's coming to them. Mebbe you'll get yours.
"Most respectfully yours, "Scorch O'Brien."
Jennie's big brother John, who had already taken some interest in Nancy's mystery, took the girls to town with him. His employer, who knew Mr. Gordon, had never been able to get the lawyer to talk about Nancy Nelson, although he had started the subject with him several times.
The girls did a little shopping for themselves, and some errands for Mrs. Bruce, and then had a nice luncheon. It was past noon then and they were sure that Scorch would be at home—for it was evidently his home address that he had given to them.
They asked a policeman how to find Payne Street and he kindly put them on a car which took the two girls to the corner of that thoroughfare. It was a street of small cottages, and empty lots, and goats, and many, many dirty-faced children. Some of these last ran after Nancy and Jennie and made faces at them as they sought out Number 307.
"But as long as the goats don't run after us and make faces, I don't care," declared Jennie.
Just then one nanny looked over a fence and said "Ba-a-a-a!" in a very loud tone, and Jennie almost jumped into the middle of the street.
"Come out! Come on!" she cried, urging her friend onward. "Goats are always butting in."
A derisive chorus of "ba's" followed them as they hurried along the street.
"There's 307!" cried Nancy, pointing.
The cottage in question was a rather neater-looking place than its neighbors. There was a fence which really was strong enough, and had pickets enough (if some of them were barrel-staves) to keep wandering goats out of the yard. There was a garden at the back, and a bit of grass in front, with a path bordered by half bricks painted with whitewash a dazzling white.
The porch and steps were scrubbed clean, too; it might have been a sign of Mrs. O'Brien's trade, that porch.
There were ducks, and geese, and poultry, too; but all fenced off with wire from the front and from the garden. And the girls heard the hungry grunting of a pig in its sty.
There was a good deal of noise within the house, too. The girls could hear childish voices in a great hullabaloo, a good-natured, but broadly Irish voice chiming in with them, and likewise a scampering across the floor which must have made the cottage rock again.
"He'd never hear us whistle in the world!" giggled Jennie.
"How funny we'd look standing here on the street and whistling, anyway!" replied Nancy.
"And then, I never could whistle," confessed Jennie. "Somehow I can't get my lips to pucker right."
"Why! neither can I!" cried Nancy. "I didn't think of that. We couldn't signal to Scorch by whistling, anyway."
"Unless we borrowed a policeman's whistle—or a postman's," said Jennie. "What'll we do?"
"Come on and knock," said Nancy. "We can make them hear somehow."
Which proved to be true. The girls made those inside hear at their first summons. Silence fell upon the O'Brien cottage on the instant.
There might have been some whisperings and soft commands; but then, in a moment, a good-looking, black-haired girl, in a clean apron and with her sleeves rolled up over her dimpled elbows, opened the front door.
"You're Norah O'Brien, I know," said Nancy, putting out her hand.
"You're a good guesser, Miss," returned the girl, who might have been sixteen or seventeen. "And who might you be—and the other pretty lady?"
"Why—didn't Scorch tell you——"
"Sarsfield, do ye mane?" asked Norah, her eyes twinkling.
"I mean Scorch O'Brien," declared Nancy.
"Patrick Sarsfield is his name," declared Scorch's big sister. "Here! P. Sarsfield O'Brien!" she shouted into the house. "It's coompany ye've got."
"Gee!" drawled the voice of the red-haired youth. "What did they come to the door for?" and he made his appearance, looking very sheepish.
"How could you expect us to whistle, Scorch?" demanded Nancy, while Jennie bubbled over with laughter. "Girls can't whistle."
"I never thought," admitted Scorch, shaking hands awkwardly with both visitors.
"Bring thim inter the house, P. Sarsfield," said Norah. "Have ye no manners?"
"There's too many kids," said the tousled Scorch, who had evidently been playing with the younger children, too.
"I'll shoo 'em out into the yard," promised Norah, and went away upon this errand while Scorch ushered his visitors into the tiny front room, which was evidently kept shut up save when the priest came, or some special visitor.
The girls sat down on the stiffly-placed chairs and looked about at the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien when they were first married—he very straight and stern-looking in his policeman's uniform, with very yellow buttons, and Mrs. O'Brien with very red cheeks and much yellow jewelry painted into the picture by the artist at the bride's request. Mrs. O'Brien had never owned any trinket of more value than her wedding ring!
There was a wreath of everlastings in a glass case, which had lain on the good man's coffin. And there was a framed "In Memoriam" card on the wall, together with a "Rock of Ages" worked on cardboard in red worsted by Norah herself, no doubt.
Everything was as clean as could be, however. And Nancy, on her part, was much more interested in the change she saw in Scorch, than in anything else.
"Why, Scorch! how you've grown!" she exclaimed.
"That's in spite of the way they overwork me at the office," he replied, grinning.
"And you've had that tooth put in!"
"Yep. Ye see, missing that tooth, when I bit into anything it seemed like I was tryin' to make a sandwich look like a Swiss cheese. It troubled my aesthetic taste. So I let the tooth carpenter build me another."
"And your hair stays lots flatter than it did," declared Nancy.
"Yep. Sweet oil. It works all right."
"Nonsense, Scorch! You talk just as slangily as ever."
"But he writes a lot better than he did," said Jennie, suddenly. "Did you notice in his last letter?"
"You're practising, Scorch," said Nancy.
"I'm goin' to night school, Miss Nancy," admitted the boy, with a grin.
"That's a good boy!" exclaimed Nancy.
"Well, learning is all right—even if a feller's goin' to be a detective," declared Scorch, earnestly.
"And I expect you're learnin' a lot yourself, Miss Nancy?"
"Some," returned his friend.
"She's at the top of her class," Jennie declared, proudly. "Oh, she has us all beaten, Scorch."
"Sure," he agreed. "I knowed how 'twould be. There ain't nobody going to get the best of Miss Nancy."
"Unless it's that horrid Mr. Gordon," suggested Jennie, bringing the conversation around to the subject uppermost in all their minds.
"Ha!" exclaimed Scorch, looking mysterious at once, and hitching his chair nearer to the girls. "Were you on to what I said in my letter?"
"About the gray man? Yes!" cried Jennie.
"Did you ever see him?" asked Scorch.
"I—I don't know that I have," said Nancy, slowly.
"He ain't been snooping around that school?"
"Why, I haven't noticed anybody like that."
"A big man all in gray. He's some nobby dresser! I thought he was the President—or Secretary of State at least—when he came into the office and asked for Old Gordon. I takes him in at once.
"Now, they knowed each other well, those two did. Old Gordon was startled and he tried to heave up out of his chair. But you know how he is," added Scorch, with scorn. "Takes him ten minutes to work his way out from between the arms when he wants to get up. Don't know what he would do if there was a fire any time."
"Why, Scorch!" admonished Nancy.
"Well," said the boy, "he tries to heave up, and can't, and sings out:
"'Hello, Hen,' says the man in gray.
"I hadn't shut the door—quite. Sometimes I don't," admitted the boy, with a wink. "I hears the gray feller say:
"'I just got back from Clintondale, Hen. What did you send that girl up there for, I want to know?'
"'What girl?' asks Old Gordon.
"'Nancy Nelson,' says the gray man
"'Sh!' sputters Gordon. 'Shut the door, Jim, if you're here to talk about her.'
"But before the other feller shut the door I heard him say:
"'Wouldn't no other school but Pinewood Hall do for her?' and Old Gordon snaps right back at him:
"'Nothing's too good for her, Jim, and you know it.'
"Well!" continued Scorch. "I could have bit off the doorknob; I was so mad when they shut the door on me. I couldn't hear another thing.
"The gray man was in there a long time. When he come out he looked mad, too. I didn't hear Old Gordon's buzzer for a long time, and so I slipped down to his door and tried it.
"When I peeked in, what do you think?" asked Scorch, mysteriously.
"What was it?" gasped Nancy.
"I never could guess!" exclaimed the eager Jennie.
"The old man had his head down on the desk, and his shoulders was heavin' like he was cryin'. Now, what do you know about that?" demanded the boy, with the air of one throwing a bomb.
The girls were speechless with surprise.
BACK TO SCHOOL AGAIN
"That's the strangest thing I ever heard," Jennie Bruce said, the first to break the silence. "Do you really suppose he was crying, Scorch—or was he laughing?"
"Say!" returned the red-haired youth, "Old Gordon never laughed in his life!"
"But why should he cry?" asked Nancy, much disturbed.
"Ask me an easier one," answered Scorch. "It struck me all of a heap. I backed out and waited for him to show up. When he went out to lunch he looked no different from other times."
"And I don't see that what you've told us is a bit of good!" exclaimed Jennie, suddenly. "We don't know who the gray man is."
"You ain't never seen him, Miss Nancy?" asked the boy, anxiously.
"Not that I know of," replied the girl.
"Well! I tried to find out who he was, and nobody around the office seemed to know. He'd never been there before. But if he comes again I'm goin' to get on his trail," declared Scorch, nodding emphatically.
"How'll you do that?" asked Jennie, quickly.
"I don't know. But I'll follow him out if I have to," said Scorch. "And he'll have to be pretty smart to lose me."
"Don't you do anything, Scorch, to get yourself into trouble," admonished Nancy.
"Shucks!" ejaculated Scorch. "I won't get into trouble. Don't you fear. But that gray man won't get away from me again."
The girls remained a while longer, getting better acquainted with Norah, and with the brood of younger O'Briens. There was the livestock in the back yard to look over, too; and Norah made tea and cut a cake, doing the honors of the house because Mrs. O'Brien was not at home.
"She does her scrubbin' at the offices Saturday afternoon instead of at night. Then we have her home Saturday evenings," said Norah, proudly. "And Patrick Sarsfield does not go to school Saturday evenings."
"Oh, say!" ejaculated the red-haired boy. "Call me 'Scorch.' 'Patrick Sarsfield' makes me feel top-heavy. I'd soon get round-shouldered carrying that around."
John Bruce met the girls at the station, to which Scorch escorted them in time for the afternoon train. Nancy shook hands with her champion warmly before they separated.
"You be a good boy and keep out of trouble," she advised him. "Maybe Mr. Gordon isn't as bad as—as you think. He never refuses me anything, and I feel ashamed to doubt him so."
"Say! what did he ever give you but money?" demanded Scorch.
"But that, you once told me," said Nancy, laughing, "was about the best thing in the world."
"It's good to have, just the same," quoth Scorch. "But perhaps havin' folks is better. And if Old Gordon has hidden you away from your folks, Miss Nancy, he'd oughter be made to give you up to them."
"That's a new idea, Scorch," returned Nancy, reflectively. "Do you suppose that I might have been stolen from my people for some reason?"
"Maybe you were stolen by Gypsies!" cried Jennie.
"Old Gordon doesn't look like a Gypsy," said Scorch, slowly, "nor yet the gray man I was telling you about."
"Come on and get aboard," said John Bruce, smiling. "I wouldn't worry my head about such things, if I were you, Nancy. We all like you quite as well as we should if you had a family as big as the Bruces'."
That was not the only time the girls saw Scorch O'Brien that summer; and on one occasion the entire O'Brien family—from the fat, ruddy-faced Mother O'Brien, down to Aloysius Adolphus O'Brien, the baby—came clear out to Hollyburg on the train, where they were met by the Bruces' man, and Nancy and Jennie, with a two-horse beach-wagon and transported to the lake for a picnic.
But Scorch—greatly to his disappointment—had nothing of moment to communicate to Nancy on that occasion, or on any other that summer. The "gray man" did not again appear at the offices and all he could say was that Mr. Gordon went on in his usual way.
"He lives in an old-fashioned hotel over on the West Side," said Scorch, "and I've been in his rooms two or three times. But it don't look to me as though he could hide the papers there anywhere."
"Hide what papers?" demanded Nancy.
"Why, there's always papers hidden away that would tell the heiress all she wants to know—if she could get at 'em," declared Scorch, nodding.
"You ridiculous boy! You've got your head full of paper-covered story books!" exclaimed Nancy. "Did you ever hear his like, Jennie?"
"Maybe he's right, just the same," observed her chum, slowly. "Mr. Gordon isn't likely to tell you anything himself. If you ever find out about your folks it will be in some such way as Scorch says."
Bye and bye it was time to go back to Pinewood Hall again. Nancy had remained the whole summer with the Bruces, and she had enjoyed every day of that time. Yet she was glad, too, to go back to her studies.
"And so would I be, if I had a chance of standing anywhere near you in classes," agreed Jennie. "But I'm always falling down just when I think I'm perfect in a recitation."
But there was much more dignity in the bearing of both Nancy and Jennie when they approached Pinewood Hall on this occasion. They were full-fledged sophomores, and they could not help looking down with amused tolerance on the "greenies" who were timidly coming to the school for the first time.
It was "great," as Jennie confessed, to be able to tell "those children" where to go, and what to do, and to order them about, as was the soph. privilege.
But when Nancy found that certain of her class were hazing the new-comers in a serious way, she took the class to task for it. She called a meeting and reminded them that it would displease both the new captains of the school—Mary Miggs on the West Side and Polly Hyams on the East—as well as Madame Schakael herself, if hazing of the new girls continued.
"Let's do unto others as we would have been glad to have others do to us when we came a year ago," said Nancy.
"Well, the sophs. drilled us, all right!" cried Jennie, who was a bit obstreperous on this point, for she liked to play practical jokes on the younger girls.
"And so," said Nancy, gravely, "we know how mean it was of them. This class wants to have a better record than the class above it—eh?"
"Talk for yourself, Miss Nancy!" snapped Cora Rathmore. "You're taking too much upon yourself."
"As usual, too," agreed Grace Montgomery, with scorn. "Just because you happen to be class president——"
"And quite by a fluke," interjected Cora.
"You needn't suppose that you can boss us in every single particular. If I want to make one of these greenies 'fag' for me, I'm going to do it."
"We have always agreed to be governed by the majority, you know," observed Nancy, softly. "Let us put it to vote. If the bulk of the class believe it better and kinder to help these younger girls instead of making them miserable for the first few weeks they are at Pinewood, let us all agree to be governed accordingly."
"Well, that's fair," said Jennie Bruce.
"Oh, she knows she's got the majority with her," snapped Cora, shrugging her shoulders. "The minority have no rights at all in this class."
"I am glad—or would be so—if I believed I was so popular," Nancy said, with some warmth. "But I believe with the majority of us girls my suggestion is popular. It isn't I."
Then she put the question and the Montgomeryites were in a very small minority.
Nevertheless, outside of class matters, Grace Montgomery was still something of a leader. She and Cora paid more attention to dress than other girls in the school. They spent more money on "orgies," too, and had hampers arrive from home more frequently. They were even more popular among the juniors than they were in their own class.
And soon a certain number of the new girls at Pinewood Hall began to ape the manners and quote the sayings of Grace Montgomery. The present class of seniors paid little attention to Grace and her growing clique; but Nancy and Jennie often spoke of the possibility of her having a large following before she was through her senior year.
"Unless she does something for which to be shown up before them all, the time will come when Grace Montgomery will divide the school. She'll never have much influence in her own class," said Jennie; "but in the school as a whole she will be a power if she can."
In athletics that fall, however, neither Grace nor Cora cut much of a figure. Cora tried hard for the school crew, but Miss Etching turned her back to the second boat for another year.
To make Cora all the angrier, Nancy "made" Number 6 in the eight-oared shell. It was something for the sophomore class as a whole to be proud of; for it was seldom that one of their number got into the "varsity" crew.
But Cora did all she could to belittle Nancy's triumph. She stood on the landing and sneered at the work of the crew, and especially at "Number 6" until one evening Jennie Bruce came up behind her, caught her by both elbows, and thrust her suddenly toward the edge of the float.
"Ouch! Don't! You mean little thing!" cried Cora.
"Mean?" said Jennie, sharply. "If I was as mean as you are, Cora Rathmore, I'd be afraid to go to sleep without a light in the room. Just think of being left alone in the dark with anybody as mean as you are!"
"Think you're smart! Ouch! Let go of me!"
"You quit ragging Nance Nelson, or I'll pitch you right into the river—now you see if I don't!" threatened Jennie.
"I'll tell Miss Etching on you!" threatened Cora, still struggling.
"Go ahead. And I'll tell her the things you've said down here every time the school crew is out. You have a funny kind of loyalty; haven't you, Cora? Pah!"
"Mind your own business!" snapped Cora, but rubbing her elbows where Jennie had held them like a vise.
She was a little afraid of Jennie's muscles, as well as of her sharp tongue. Jennie was not a heavy girl, but she was wiry and strong.
This fall rowing was a particular fad of the Pinewood Hall girls. In the long evenings after dinner all but the freshman class were allowed to go out on the river until Mr. Pease blew the big horn at the boathouse to call the stragglers in.
Some of the girls owned their own boats, too, for of course they could not use the racing boats except in practice hours. Others, who did not own boats, hired them of a boatman below the estate, near the railroad bridge.
Jennie and Nancy pooled their pocket money and bought a light skiff—a flat-bottomed affair which was just the thing for them to paddle about in shallow water, and was "seaworthy." No ordinary amount of rocking could turn the skiff over.
They often pulled into the still pools, or meadow ponds, opening into the river, and plucked water-lilies. Nancy never did this without remembering her adventures before she came to Pinewood Hall—the occasion when she had helped save Bob Endress from drowning.
Bob was now a lordly senior at Dr. Dudley's Academy. Nancy had only seen him flashing past the girls' boathouse in the Academy eight. Bob was stroke of his school's first crew. Nancy often wondered if he had learned to swim yet.
One evening when the two chums from Number 30, West Side (they had held their old room for another term, as sophs often did at Pinewood Hall), arrived at the little dock where the private boats were kept, they saw that their own skiff was in the water.
"Hullo!" exclaimed Jennie. "Some of the girls have been using the Beauty. What do you know about that?"
They began to run. One girl popped up out of the boat, saw them, and immediately climbed out upon the dock. It was Grace Montgomery.
"Well, will you look who's here!" ejaculated Jennie. "Who invited you to play in our yard, Miss?"
"Oh, never mind, Jennie!" begged Nancy, pulling at her chum's sweater.
"I'm not going to have anybody take our boat without permission. Who is that other one? Why, it's Cora, of course! Get out of that!" commanded Jennie, much more harshly than Nancy had ever heard her speak before.
"Dear me! I didn't know it was your boat, Jennie," said Grace, airily.
"Nor I," chimed in Cora. "You can be sure I wouldn't have got into the sloppy old thing, if I had."
"Go 'long, chile!" spoke Jennie, scornfully. "It wouldn't matter to you whose boat it was. Your appreciation of personal property is warped."
"Nasty thing!" snapped Cora.
"Just so," returned Jennie. "Come on, Nance. We'll get a padlock for our boat-chain to-morrow."
When they had pushed off and were out of hearing of the girls on the dock, Nancy said, admonishingly:
"Why say things to stir them up? It does no good."
"Oh, fudge! What does it matter? Do you suppose that I care if Grace or Cora 'have a mad on' at me? Much!" and Jennie snapped her fingers.
They were pulling out into the river. The sun was already below the hills; but the light was lingering long in the sky and on the water. The chums had an objective point in a little cove across the river, where splendid lilies grew.
The evening boat from Clintondale down the river came in sight and the girls rested on their oars to let it pass. The little waves the small steamer threw off rocked their skiff gently.
"Goodness!" exclaimed Jennie, suddenly. "This skiff is all wet. My feet are soaked."
"Why, what's the matter?" asked Nancy. "The water is over my shoes, too."
"I bet those girls slopped some into the boat when they launched her," declared Jennie, angrily.
"Wish we had a bailer. Why, Jennie! the boat's leaking!"
But Jennie had already found that out. And she found where it was leaking.
"The plug's been pulled, Nance!" she exclaimed. "See that bunch of rags floating? That's what Cora Rathmore stuffed into the hole when she pulled out the plug. She knew the water would soon work them out."
"But where's the plug?" asked Nancy.
"They took it away with them. It's a mean trick!" gasped her chum. "Why, Nancy! The water is gaining fast. Here we are in the middle of the river and the skiff will sink under us before we can row to shore!"
THE THANKSGIVING MASQUE
Of course, both Jennie and Nancy could swim; but swimming with one's clothes on, from the middle of Clinton River to the shore, would be no small feat.
And there wasn't time to throw off much of their clothing, for the skiff was sinking under them. Once the bunch of rags had been forced out of the hole where the plug had been, the water spurted in like a miniature fountain.
The boat began to swing in the current, too. They had both drawn their oars inboard and the craft drifted at the mercy of the river.
"What shall we do?" gasped Jennie, again. "We're go-ing-right-do-own!"
"Not yet!" cried her chum, tearing off the little coat she wore.
In a moment Nancy doubled up the sleeve and thrust it into the hole in the bottom of the boat. She forced it in tightly, and as it became wet and more plastic, she rammed it home hard.