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Bessie Bradford's Prize
by Joanna H. Mathews
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Indeed one boy had remarked:

"You seem to be short of breath, Flaggy; you're purring like a steam-engine. What ails you?"

"Can't a fellow take a run around the house without anything being the matter with him?" asked Lewis, sharply, but with a little nervous trepidation in his tone and manner; but the subject was now dropped, and he had more than recovered his composure and was taking an apparently interested part in the renewed discussion over Percy's loss, when the enraged Seabrooke entered the room.

"You scoundrel!" he ejaculated between his set teeth, and with his eyes actually blazing, "you stole this, did you?"—flourishing the note before the now terrified Lewis, who, taken thus by surprise, had no time to collect his wits and assume an appearance of unconcern and innocence. "You stole this, and to make it appear that I was the thief—the thief!—you put it in my trunk. Don't deny it," as Lewis endeavored to speak, "don't dare to deny it.—You were seen to do it!"

No other thought entered the head of the terrified Lewis than that Seabrooke himself had seen him at his shameful work, and that he had chosen to confront and convict him with it here in the presence of the rest of the school. He would have denied it could he have found words in which to do it, had he had time to frame a denial, but he was so entirely off his guard, so confounded by Seabrooke's sudden accusation and this evidence of the dastardly deed he had performed that he was utterly overwhelmed, and stood speechless, and the picture of detected guilt.

The doctor happened to be in one of the adjoining recitation rooms in conference with some of the other teachers over this very matter, and the raised tones—so very unusual—of Seabrooke's angry voice arrested his attention and called him into the main schoolroom.

To him Seabrooke, without waiting to be questioned, made known his complaint, and again displayed the note in proof thereof, accusing Lewis Flagg of stealing it and then placing it in his trunk for the purpose of criminating him, hoping that it might be found there before school broke up.

In this he did Flagg some partial injustice. Lewis had searched for and taken the money with the object of playing an annoying trick upon Seabrooke and Percy, but proposing, after giving both "a good fright," to put it back where he had found it, or in some other place in Seabrooke's alcove where he might be supposed to have mislaid it.

But once in his possession, the note excited his cupidity and a strong desire to keep it. If it were but his, he could easily clear off sundry debts which he had contracted, especially the remainder of that to Rice, which he had only partially satisfied. On his return to school after the Easter holidays it might well appear that he had an unusual amount of funds; a boy's relations were apt to be generous at such times, and no one need ever know the extent of his riches.

So reasoned this unprincipled boy, and he had actually made up his mind to make no attempt to restore the money to a place where it might be found, but to retain it for himself, when the doctor's address and a dread that his crime might after all be detected, decided him to return to his first intentions.

There was little time to be lost now. Seizing the first opportunity of slipping away from his schoolmates, he rushed upstairs to the dormitory with the design of throwing the note under Seabrooke's bed or bureau, where it might be supposed to have fallen; but seeing the trunk standing there ready packed, the impulse had taken him to put it in that, and without reflecting—perhaps hardly caring—that this would place Seabrooke in a still more embarrassing position, he thrust the note within, as Charlie Henderson saw, and fled from the room. He was rid of it in any event, and he cared little what the consequences might be to any one else, especially Seabrooke.

And now he was confronted with the evidence of his misdeeds, and even when he began to recover himself a little, knew not what to say, what excuse to make. And here was Dr. Leacraft awaiting his answer to Seabrooke's accusations, and regarding him with stern and questioning eyes.

The doctor was a just man, however, and would condemn no culprit unheard, and he had no proof that Lewis Flagg was the culprit in the present case, other than Seabrooke's asseverations and the boy's own guilty appearance. As the latter stood hesitating for words which would not plunge him deeper, Dr. Leacraft turned to Seabrooke.

"Who saw Flagg do this thing?" he questioned. "Did you, Seabrooke?"

"No, sir," answered Seabrooke, who was becoming more calm; "I did not see him myself, but he was seen to do it."

"By whom?" persisted the doctor.

Seabrooke hesitated. He was beginning to realize that he was placing Charlie Henderson in rather an unpleasant position: that young involuntary detective might be scouted at by the boys for the part he had taken in bringing Flagg to justice, for "telling." He knew that there were those among the older scholars who would make the child's school-life a misery to him if they heard that he had informed, and he would not betray him to them.

"Could I see you a moment alone, sir?" he asked the doctor.

Dr. Leacraft assented, and retired with Seabrooke to one of the adjoining class-rooms, bidding every boy remain where he was till their return.

Alone with the doctor, Seabrooke told his story and besought him not to let it be known that Charlie had been the unsuspected observer of Flagg's actions.

"The boy is as honest as the day, doctor," said Seabrooke.

"I know it; above suspicion. A most honest and loyal little fellow," said the doctor. "His secret shall be kept, if possible."

Then he went up to see Charlie, and received from him the fullest confirmation of all that Seabrooke had told; and he assured the boy that his knowledge of the transaction should not be betrayed to the others.

Charlie himself had taken such precautions against "being found out" as he was able to do; he would not even drink his coffee until he had persuaded Mrs. Moffat to let him go to his own dormitory, lest any of the "big fellows" should find him in their quarters. He told Mrs. Moffat enough to let her understand that he had unwittingly seen something he was not intended to see, and she, knowing enough of boys in general and of that senior class in particular, to be sure that Charlie would not go scot free, if the truth were known, hastened to comply with his request. Charlie had faith enough in Seabrooke to believe that he would not betray him if it were possible not to do so, and as no boy save he and Flagg had been into the dormitory, he hoped that it would not be discovered that he had been there.

And it was so; when the boys came up to make the final preparations for leaving, Charlie was in his own room, all tokens of his presence in that of the senior class removed by Mrs. Moffat's willing hands, and no one suspected that the boy had slept off his headache in any other than his usual place.

During the doctor's absence, and when he had time to collect his thoughts a little, Lewis had made up his mind as to the course he would pursue. He was in a bad position, there was no doubt of that; but he resolved to brave it out and to treat the whole affair as a huge joke. He might be punished; there was little doubt but that he would be, and probably his misconduct would be reported at home, but he would make the best he could out of a bad business. As he did not know who it was that had seen him in the dormitory, he did not dare to deny having been there; his suspicions turned toward Mrs. Moffat, and as she was an old and trusted member of the household, he knew very well that her word would be taken at any time against his own, which had not too much credit with either teacher or scholars.

He broke forth into a hoarse, forced laugh, looking around him with defiance and an assured contempt upon the circle of his schoolmates, who were, one and all, regarding him with suspicion and unconcealed scorn. The most careless and reckless among them were shocked at the enormity of the offence with which he stood charged, a theft of such magnitude, and then the scoundrelly attempt to make it appear that another had been guilty of it.

"What a row about a small matter!" he exclaimed. "The whole thing was a joke; but I never thought it would be so successful as this, putting the whole school in a fever. See here; I did take that bank-note, of course. I wanted to see Seabrooke and Neville in a war over it, and then I was going to put it in some place here it would be found. I was going to throw it under Seabrooke's bed or somewhere; but I saw his trunk standing there, and the chance was too good to be lost. I knew he would find it there, and send it to Percy as soon as he reached home. If it hadn't been for old Moffat it would all have worked right."

Utter silence met this tissue of impudence, defiance, truth and falsehood, and he saw plainly enough that he was believed to have committed the theft of Percy's money for theft itself, pure and simple, and that fear of detection only had induced him to make the effort at restoration.

"I say, Neville," he continued, "you know I did not mean to keep the money, don't you?"

But Percy only turned contemptuously away without any reply in words. None were needed. Lewis was answered.

"I'm going to do my best not to be sent back here," said Lewis, striving to continue his bravado, although his heart was sinking as he began to realize more and more in what a predicament he had placed himself. "Such a set of muffs, teachers and scholars, I never met. No one can take a joke, or even see it."

"I think it likely your efforts will be crowned with success," said Raymond Stewart, himself a boy of not too much principle, but who, in common with the rest of the school, had been inexpressibly shocked and revolted by Lewis' conduct.

"You are dismissed," said Mr. Merton, appearing at the door. "Lewis Flagg, you are to go to the doctor in his study."

What sentence was meted out to Lewis in that interview with the doctor the boys did not know until their return to school after the holidays, when he did not appear among them, and they were told on inquiry that he would not do so.

He endeavored to brazen it out with Dr. Leacraft as he had with the boys, insisting that the whole affair, the abstraction of the money and the placing it in Seabrooke's trunk, was "only a joke;" but the doctor altogether refused to look upon it in any other light than that of an unmitigated theft and an atrocious attempt to fasten it upon another when he feared detection for himself.

No protestations to the contrary served Lewis' turn, and from this day forth his evil influence was happily lost to the school.

And this was the story which Percy had to pour into the ears of his innocent young sister on his return home.

On the first opportunity which presented itself the morning after his arrival at his uncle's he told her all, extenuating nothing of his own misconduct and weakness in the beginning, and acknowledging that he had almost wilfully suffered himself to be led into disobedience and wrong, and richly deserved all the shame and trouble which had fallen upon him.

Lena was inexpressibly shocked by the account of this last wickedness of Flagg's, for she, in common with Dr. Leacraft and every one else who heard the tale, gave him credit only for the deliberate theft of Percy's money and then of the effort to throw it upon Seabrooke, either as an act of revenge or else because he feared that it would be found in his possession.

He returned to her the hundred-dollar note which had such a story attached to it, and in his turn had to hear from Lena her belief that the second sum sent for his relief had come from Hannah, and that the old nurse had sacrificed the gold which she had destined for her own glorification to his rescue from his predicament.

She reproached him for having appealed to Hannah, a servant in his father's house, for aid; and in her turn had to hear his reproaches for believing that he would condescend to such a thing, and received an emphatic and solemn denial that he had been guilty of this, or that he had ever let Hannah know of the straits he was in. He had never, he asseverated, spoken or written to any one concerning this, save herself; if he had done so it would have been to his indulgent uncle, Colonel Rush, to whom he would have applied.

How then had Hannah become possessed of his secret, was the question which the brother and sister now asked of each other and of themselves. Here was a mystery, indeed; for that it had been Hannah who sent that second hundred dollars could not be doubted after Miss Trevor's revelations. And why should she have sent the money unless she had known that Percy was in sore need?

"Did you tell Hannah anything about it?" he asked.

"No!" answered Lena, indignantly. "How could I tell her such a thing? And you know how you told me I must never, never tell."

"And you did not show her my letter?" asked the puzzled Percy, who was by no means pleased, as may be imagined, by the knowledge that one other, at least, must share the secret.

"No," repeated Lena, still more vexed that he should suppose her to be capable of such an evasion, which to her sense of uprightness would have been as bad as speaking a falsehood by word of mouth; "no, of course I did not, that would have been telling her, would it not? One can do a falsehood as well as tell it," and although she had intended no reflection upon her brother, no thrust at him, Percy was ashamed as he remembered how often, during the last few months, he had done this very thing; how he had shuffled and evaded, and thought it no great harm as long as he did not put his falsehood into actual words.

"Well, no one knows how thankful I am to you, Lena, dear," he said. "What can I ever do for you?"

"Tell Uncle Horace. I wish, oh, I do wish you would tell him," said his sister.

"Tell Uncle Horace; no, never!" exclaimed Percy. "I couldn't. Think of that look in his eyes when he hears of anything he thinks shabby or—well—dishonorable. He'd be ready to put me out of his house if he heard about that letter, even though we didn't know what was in it. I couldn't, Lena; I couldn't."

"I think it would be better for you," said his sister, "for Aunt May knew about Hannah and Miss Trevor, and she is sure to have told him. They have said nothing about it to me; but I know Uncle Horace will ask you, and then you must confess. It will be best to tell him without waiting till you must; he will not think so badly of you."

But Percy could not be persuaded to do this; he lacked the moral courage to follow his sister's advice and to confess all to his uncle before he should be obliged to do so, hoping that after all she might be mistaken and that he should still escape that humiliation. Since Colonel Rush had not spoken at once upon the subject, Percy believed that he would not do so at all, either because he had no knowledge of these money transactions or because he thought the matter of no importance.

"Why should Uncle Horace worry himself about Hannah's money?" he said to his sister. "She is nothing to him, and what she chooses to do with it is no business of his. She is not his servant."

"No," said the sensible and more far-sighted Lena; "but she is in his house. And you are his nephew and under his care, and he must think it strange that a servant would send you so much money and in such a secret way, and he must know that something is wrong; he must suspect that you are in some very bad scrape."

But Percy was still immovable. Easily swayed as he was in general, he was not to be influenced in the only right direction now, and all Lena's arguments were thrown away.

"But I say, Lena," he said, with a sudden change of subject and with his usual, easy-going facility for putting aside for the time being anything which troubled him, "I say, isn't it queer that the girl you are all trying to win this prize for should be the sister of Seabrooke? How things do come around, to be sure. I can tell you he's as uppish as the Grand Panjandrum himself about it, too; says his sister is not an object of charity, and her father and brother are able to look after her."

"Oh, did you tell him? How could you, Percy?" exclaimed Lena. "And now he'll tell her, and we meant it to be a surprise to her if any one gained it for her. What will the girls say, Maggie and Bessie, and the others who are trying for her!"

"I let it out without intending to," said Percy. "I was so taken by surprise myself when Seabrooke told me what he intended to do with that money, that I just let it out without thinking. But afterwards I told him it was a secret, and he said he wouldn't say anything about it. But he was awfully high and mighty, I can tell you. You won't make the thing go down with him. But who is likely to win it,—you won't, of course, whatever your chances may have been in the beginning—any one of your chums? Maggie Bradford or Bessie, or those?"

"I don't know," answered Lena. "Maggie would, of course, if it were for the best composition written by the class; but it is not for that, you know, but for the greatest general improvement in composition. But so many of the girls are interested about Gladys Seabrooke that I think almost any of our class would give it to her. But it somehow seems as if Maggie or Bessie ought to have the pleasure because we are the ones who found her out. The girls are all going to Miss Ashton's on Saturday morning, when they will be told; and if any one gains the prize who will give it to Gladys Seabrooke, it will be sent to her as an Easter present."



CHAPTER XIV.

WHO WINS.

A damper had been thrown upon Lena's satisfaction in the belief that Gladys Seabrooke would probably be the recipient of the gift of Mr. Ashton's trust, by the assurance of her brother Percy that Seabrooke would be high and mighty and oppose the acceptance of it. She did not reflect that, having a father and mother, it was not at all likely that her brother's fiat would decide the matter for Gladys either one way or the other.

Her first thought and wish was to confide this doubt to Maggie and Bessie when she should next see them; but she presently felt that she could not well do this without in some measure, at least, betraying the heedless Percy. She did not dare to speak of his connection with Seabrooke, lest she should draw suspicion upon him after her confidences to Bessie. So she must needs keep this little fretting worry to herself, too.

There was the question about Hannah, also: how the money was to be returned to her, in the uncertainty as to how much she knew, and how she had acquired any knowledge of Percy's predicament; for that she knew something of it Lena was convinced; and yet the child was equally sure that that letter had never been out of her own keeping. Percy had at once put into her hand the hundred-dollar note, telling her that she must find means of conveying it to the old nurse. Oh, what a puzzle and a tangle it all was!

Poor little Lena! Truly she was having a hard time with all the perplexities and anxieties which Percy's worse than folly had brought upon her.

But one source of worry, in fact two, were to be lifted before long.

Colonel Rush, having waited for what he considered a sufficient length of time for Percy to make a confession had he been disposed to do so, resolved to bring him to it whether he would or no. That Percy had been in some serious difficulty, that he was in some way heavily involved, was very evident; likewise that Hannah knew of this and had sacrificed her much prized savings to rescue him.

At present he—the colonel—stood in the relation of parent to Percy and master to Hannah; he therefore felt that it was both his right and his duty to make inquiries and put matters straight, so far as he could.

On Saturday morning, therefore, he called the boy into his library and asked him if there were anything which he would like to tell him, and receive his counsel and perhaps help. He made no accusation; did not tell Percy that he knew he had been involved in some trouble which had brought about the necessity—real or fancied—for him to free himself by the payment of this—for a boy—large sum. He put his question and offer kindly and freely, but in a way which showed his nephew he was not to be trifled with.

And, indeed, his uncle was the last man in the world with whom Percy would have chosen to trifle. Not his father, not Dr. Leacraft, had half the influence over him that this hero-uncle had, the brave, distinguished soldier whose very name was a synonym for all that was honorable and daring. There was no one in the world whose good opinion could have influenced him so much; no one whose scorn and disapprobation he so dreaded, or from whose reproof he would have shrunk. He had shown this when he had pleaded with Lena not to betray him to their uncle, of all people. He would really rather have borne some severe punishment at the hands of his parents or teacher than he would one contemptuous word or look from him who was regarded by all his young relations and friends as a chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. No prevarication, no shuffling would do here; if he said anything, if he answered at all, it must be the truth and nothing but the truth.

He hesitated for a moment, not from any intention of refusing to give his uncle his confidence, or denying that he had been in trouble, but from a desire to frame his confession in the best manner possible; but nothing came to his aid other than the plain, unvarnished truth; nothing else, he felt, would serve his turn here with that steady, searching eye upon him; and in a moment he had taken his resolve, and the whole shameful tale was poured into Colonel Rush's ears.

Bad as it was, it was not as bad as Colonel Rush had feared. Rebellion against lawful authority, rank disobedience and deception were to be laid at Percy's door, not to speak of the pitiable weakness which had suffered him to be led into this wrong, and the enormity of his at least passive acquiescence when Flagg had stolen Seabrooke's letter; still worse his own destruction of it, almost involuntary though it was. What he had apprehended the colonel would hardly have confessed even to himself; but the truth was that he had suspected Percy of nothing less than the appropriation of some sum which he was compelled to replace or to face open disgrace.

And yet Colonel Rush was not a suspicious man or one ready to believe evil of others, but circumstances had looked very dark for Percy, and there had seemed but one interpretation to place upon them.

And now, by Percy's confession, one part of the mystery was solved; but there still remained that of Hannah's presumed knowledge that he was in trouble and had been in sore need of money. Assuredly, Hannah, devoted as she was to the interests of her nurslings, especially Percy, would never have thought of making this sacrifice had she not felt that there was some pressing necessity; but how in the world had the old nurse acquired this knowledge. The nephew was as much puzzled as the uncle, and denied, with an indignation which seemed rather out of place in the light of past occurrences, any imputation that he had asked her to assist him.

But now, Percy inquired, could the colonel have the hundred-dollar note exchanged for gold so that it might be restored to faithful Hannah in the form in which she had always kept it. It was easy enough to do this, the colonel said; but the trouble would be to make Hannah confess that she had sent it, still more so why she had sent it. Colonel Rush would not say so to the children, seeing that no such idea had occurred to them, but it was his own opinion that Hannah had in some way obtained unlawful possession of Percy's letter to Lena, had mastered its contents, and then taken steps for his relief which she believed could not be discovered.

Of the kindly advice and admonition given to Percy by his uncle there is no need to speak further; but it resulted in making Percy feel that he would do anything rather than again run the risk of forfeiting the good opinion which he now valued more than ever.

Meanwhile, during the time that Percy was closeted with his uncle in the library, that portion of the members of the "Cheeryble Sisters' Club" which constituted the choice band of "Inseparables," namely Maggie and Bessie Bradford, Belle Powers, Lily Norris, and Fanny Leroy, having joined forces on their way to Miss Ashton's, had called in to see Lena. This had been done at the suggestion of the ever considerate Maggie, who, although naturally heedless about the little everyday business of life, never forgot to do "nice things" for others. When she was much younger, extreme carelessness had been her besetting fault, and, as is the manner of this "little fox," had created much trouble for herself and for others; but having become convinced that it was her duty to cure herself of this, she had set to work to do it in such earnest that that which had been a burden and a care to her was fast becoming a settled habit, and it was but seldom now that any act or word of heedlessness could be laid to her charge, while her ever obliging disposition and loving heart prompted many a deed of kindness which she never failed to carry out if it were in her power to do so.

"But we have to stop as we come back, to tell her that you have the prize," said Bessie.

"We will stop again and tell her who has gained it as we come back," answered Maggie. "But I think she will like it if we stop now, so that she will know we are thinking about her and are so sorry that she cannot be with us. But, Bessie, I think you are quite mistaken in believing so surely that I will have the prize. I know quite well that there are two or three who have improved in composition more than I have."

Bessie made no reply in words, but shook her head as if unconvinced. With Lena Neville and Gracie Howard out of the lists, she found it quite impossible to believe that any one but her own Maggie could be the successful competitor.

But all agreed that it would be well to call in and see Lena for a moment and let her be sure that she was not forgotten.

"And," said Maggie, "there is the doctor's carriage at the door. We will wait till he comes downstairs and ask him how soon Lena will be able to go about and have a little excitement, so that we can arrange about the fair. It is just a good chance for us. Then we will tell Lena what he says if he is encouraging."

Maggie and Bessie were almost as much at home in Colonel Rush's house as they were in their own, and had they chosen to go in and out twenty times a day, they would always have been welcome; and the young friends who accompanied them were about as much at their ease, although not one among the quintette would ever have been obtrusive or troublesome.

The doctor, who knew each one of them, being, as it happened, family physician to their respective households, was just about taking leave and was standing in the hall talking to Mrs. Rush.

"Hallo!" he said, his kindly face beaming upon the smiling flock who trooped in when Starr opened the door for them. "Hallo! what a bevy of birdlings! But how comes it that you are not at Miss Ashton's? I have just left my Laura there, and she is in a state of frantic expectation over this composition prize the finest authoress among you is to gain this morning. Are none of you interested?"

"Oh, yes, sir, all of us," answered Lily Norris, always ready to be spokeswoman; "we are going to Miss Ashton's in a few moments. But we are not to be there until twelve o'clock, and it is not that yet. And if the finest authoress is to have the prize, it will be Maggie's."

"So Laura seems to think," said Dr. Middleton, and shy Maggie, not caring to put forth in his presence any further disclaimer to the still undecided honors which her sister and friends seemed determined to put upon her head, smiled doubtfully.

"Doctor," she said, "would you mind telling me how soon you think Lena will be able to bear a little excitement?"

The doctor looked grave.

"My child," he said, "I fear Lena is under more excitement now than is good for her." Then turning to Mrs. Rush, he added, "There is little use in expecting her to make rapid progress while she is fretting herself, as she is evidently doing, over some real or imaginary evil. Do you think it possible," an idea occurring to him, "that she is troubled about losing the chance to win this prize?"

"I scarcely think so," said Mrs. Rush. "She was even more than anxious for it at one time; but the principal object for which she wanted it is gained now, and she is not the child to fret herself over a disappointed ambition."

"Well," said the doctor, "find out the trouble if you can. You cure the mental ill and I will answer for the physical. But what is this excitement you are speaking of, Maggie?"

"We are going to have a fair, Doctor," answered Maggie. "We wanted to have it at Easter, but put it off because Lena is so lame and not strong enough, and we would like to know how soon she will be well enough."

The doctor thought a moment.

"Perhaps," he said, presently, "if she were interested in this fair it might do her good and take her mind from whatever is troubling her. Try it, Maggie; set the time for your fair at no distant date, and see what it will do for her. Good-morning, Mrs. Rush. Good-by, my Cheerybles." And the busy physician departed on his rounds.

"I believe it is the prize," said Lily, as the whole flock, bidden to do so by Mrs. Rush, mounted the stairs to Lena's room. "I know that Lena was perfectly crazy to have that prize so she could spite her father and mother—and I would be, too, if I were she—and I am sure she feels very badly about it."

"Why, Lily!" said Maggie.

"Well," said Lily, "I'm sure it's perfectly natural if she does—such a father and mother—specially mother. She's the kind that always think they're right, and she turned up her nose at Miss Ashton, and then she had to find out what a splendid teacher she is, and Lena improved so much in composition and everything else before she was burned that I expect she could have taken the prize even before Maggie. She just wanted her mother to know that she couldn't do a better thing than to leave her with Miss Ashton to the end of her days. And if you mean, Maggie, that I am not respectful in my speaking of Mrs. Neville, I know I am not, and I don't mean to be. Such an unmothery mother don't deserve any respect, and I'm not going to give it to her."

"Hush!" said Maggie, as they reached the door of Lena's room.

Lily's strong impression that Lena was unhappy because of her inability to compete for the prize was strengthened when she saw her, and the other children were inclined to agree with her, for Lena seemed so little disposed to talk upon the subject that they were all convinced that it was a disagreeable one to her. The only voluntary allusion she made to it was when Maggie bade her good-by with the promise of a return after the matter had been decided; then she drew her down to her and whispered, "I hope you will have it, Maggie, I hope you will."

Maggie smoothed her cheek, smiled, and said:

"Thank you, dear; but I would rather have you well so that we may have our fair. The doctor says he thinks you will soon be well enough to come to it, and we are only waiting for that now."

Then the little party left with a renewed promise to return and let her know how the day had turned, and took their way to Miss Ashton's.

All the "Cheeryble Sisters," save Lena Neville and Gracie Howard, were present, each one full of eager expectancy, although there was scarcely a doubt in any mind who would be the winner.

It had been impossible to induce Gracie to take any part or to show any interest in the competition, and she had resolutely refused to come with the rest of her classmates this morning, and there was no obligation upon her to do so, as it was now holiday time and this was something outside of the regular school duties.

Mr. Ashton, fond as he was of giving prizes and of stimulating the emulation of his niece's pupils, was content to bring matters to a speedy conclusion when the time arrived, and never detained the little girls long or kept them in suspense by tiresome speeches.

So now in a few words he praised them for their earnest and faithful efforts; said that he had been treated to a perusal of many of the compositions written during the last term in order that he might himself have an opportunity of judging whether Miss Ashton's verdict were just, and that he had been both surprised and gratified to observe the improvement made by almost every member of the class.

"But," he said in conclusion, "in comparing the compositions written at the commencement of the term of trial and those last submitted to Miss Ashton, I had, from my own unbiassed judgment, and before I had learned the choice of your teacher, decided that the one best entitled to the prize and the bestowal of this art education is Miss Bessie Bradford."

"Excuse me, sir; you mean Maggie Bradford," said Bessie, in her own quiet, demure little way, still unable to shake off her conviction that Maggie and no one but Maggie must be the winner, and believing that Mr. Ashton had merely mistaken the name of the sisters.

"No," said Mr. Ashton, smiling at her, "while giving all due credit to your sister Maggie's compositions, which I have read with much pleasure, I still repeat that no little girl in the class has made such manifest improvement as yourself, and to you both your teacher and myself award the prize."

"Thank you, sir," said Bessie, simply, but with a sparkle in her eye and a flush of pleased surprise rising to her cheek, "thank you very much. But, Miss Ashton"—turning to her teacher, "do you not think that if Lena had been able to try with the rest of us all the time, she would have been the one to gain this prize?"

Miss Ashton smiled kindly at her.

"Well, yes, Bessie," she said, with some seeming reluctance; "since you ask me so plainly, I must say that had Lena been able to continue in competition with the rest, I think she would have distanced every one. I never saw such rapid improvement as she was making; her whole heart seemed to be in it. My uncle was astonished at her progress in that short time."

"Then," said Bessie, rising, "I think she ought to have the prize. Please excuse me, sir,"—quaintly—"for saying ought to you and Miss Ashton, but it was not Lena's fault that she could not go on trying with the rest of us, but only because she was so very brave and unselfish in the fire. And if she improved so much in that time, she would have improved a great deal more; and I think the prize ought to be given to her. I am very glad you liked my compositions, sir, but it would be a great deal more prize for me if Lena had it. Please let her, Mr. Ashton. She has a very good and excellent reason, too, for wanting it so much; it is so that her father and mother will think Miss Ashton the best teacher that ever was, and let her stay with her a very long time."

In her earnestness to carry her point she had forgotten that she was saying so much; and she now stood looking from Mr. Ashton to his niece, quite unembarrassed, but evidently set in this purpose.

Mr. Ashton looked at her, then turned to his niece; there was a moment's whispered conversation between them, and then the gentleman addressed himself to the class.

"What do you all say?" he asked. "Do you all agree that since Lena Neville has been providentially prevented from continuing her efforts, and since she made so much improvement while she was able to enter the lists, that Bessie shall be permitted to resign this reward to her, and that she shall be the one to name the candidate for my trust?"

"Yes, sir; yes, sir," came without one dissenting voice from the young group.

"Then you shall have the pleasure of telling this to Lena, Bessie," said Mr. Ashton. "You have certainly fairly earned that right."

"And," said Bessie, looking round upon her classmates, "if everybody will be so kind as not to tell Lena that she was not chosen first. It would be quite true, would it not, to say that she had done so well at the first that we all thought it fair for her to have it?"

"It shall be as you say," said Mr. Ashton; then continued, "we all bind ourselves, do we not, to do as Bessie wishes and to keep this little transaction a secret among ourselves, making no mention to Lena Neville that the prize was not awarded to her in the first instance?"

"Unless she asks any questions; but I do not think she will," said conscientious Bessie.

Miss Ashton came over to her with her eyes very suspiciously shining, and stooping down kissed Bessie, saying, "You blessed child!" while Maggie, always readily moved to tears or smiles, as befitted the occasion, put her arms about Bessie's neck, and grasping her teacher's skirts with the other hand and laying her head against her, began to cry softly.

But sentiment and Lily Norris could not long exist in the same atmosphere, and she now exclaimed:

"How I wish we were all boys just for ten minutes, so we could give three cheers and a tiger for Bessie and three more for Lena. I suppose it wouldn't do, would it, Miss Ashton?"

"Hardly for little girls," said Miss Ashton, although she herself looked very much as if she were ready to lead a round of applause.

"Well, we can clap, anyway," said Lily, "that's girly enough," and she forthwith set the example, which was speedily followed by the rest, Mr. Ashton himself joining in from his post at his niece's desk.

"I'd like to give thirty-three groans for Mrs. Neville," said Lily, in an undertone, "but I suppose we couldn't."

There was little doubt that the whole class were even better pleased to have the decision given in favor of Lena than they had been for Bessie, favorite though she was, so strongly had their sympathies been aroused for the former.

Imagine the surprise and delight of Lena when the news was brought to her by her jubilant little friends. She could hardly believe it, hardly believe that in spite of her enforced absence from school, in spite of her inability to hand in her compositions for so many weeks, she had been the one to receive this much coveted opportunity, and that she was not only free to bestow it upon her own little country-woman, but that her own credit would redound to that of Miss Ashton.

Of how Gladys received the gift—for her parents set aside all Harley's objections to her doing so—of how she became warm friends with nearly all of our "Cheeryble Sisters," and of what came of that may be read later on in "Maggie Bradford's Fair."

THE END

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