Betty knew nothing about Eleanor's plans, beyond what she had been able to gather from chance remarks of the other girls; and that was not much, for every time the subject came up she hastened to change it, lest some one should discover that Eleanor had told her nothing, and had scarcely spoken to her indeed for weeks. When Eleanor finally went off, without a sign or a word of good-bye, Betty discovered that she was dreadfully disappointed. She had never thought of the estrangement between them as anything but a temporary affair, that would blow over when Eleanor's mortification over the debate was forgotten. She had felt sure that long before the term ended there would come a chance for a reconciliation, and she had meant to take the chance at any sacrifice of her pride. She was still fond of Eleanor in spite of everything, and she was sorry for her too, for her quick eyes detected signs of growing unhappiness under Eleanor's ready smiles. Besides, she hated "schoolgirl fusses." She wanted to be on good terms with every girl in 19—. She wanted to come back to a spring term unclouded by the necessity for any of the evasions and subterfuges that concealment of the quarrel with Eleanor and Jean Eastman's strange behavior had brought upon her. And now Eleanor was gone; the last chance until after vacation had slipped through her fingers.
At home she told Nan all about her troubles, first exacting a solemn pledge of secrecy. "Hateful thing!" said Nan promptly. "Drop her. Don't think about her another minute."
"Then you don't think I was to blame?" asked Betty anxiously.
"To blame? No, certainly not. To be sure," Nan added truthfully, "you were a little tactless. You knew she didn't know that you were in the secret of her having to resign, and you didn't intend to tell her, so it would have been better for you to let some one else help Miss Eastman out."
"But I thought I was helping Eleanor out."
"In a way you were. But you see it wouldn't seem so to her. It would look as though you disapproved of her appointment."
"But Nan, she knows now that I knew."
"Then I suppose she concludes that you took advantage of knowing. You say that it made you quite prominent for a while. You see, dear, when a person isn't quite on the square herself——"
But Betty had burst into a storm of tears. "I am to blame," she sobbed. "I am to blame! I knew it, only I couldn't quite see how. Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?"
"Don't cry, dear," said Nan in distress, at the unprecedented sight of Betty in tears. "I tell you, you were not to blame. You were a little unwise perhaps at first, but Miss Watson has refused your apologies and explanations and only laughs at you when you try to talk to her about it. I should drop her at once and forever; but, if you are bound to bring her around, the only way I can think of is to look out for some chance to serve her and so prove your real friendship—though what sort of friend she can be I can't imagine."
"Nan, she's just like the girl in the rhyme," said Betty seriously.
"'When she was good she was very, very good, And when she was bad she was horrid.'
"Eleanor is a perfect dear most of the time. And Nan, there's something queer about her mother. She never speaks of her, and she's been at boarding school for eight years now, though she's not seventeen till May. Think of that!"
"It certainly makes her excusable for a good deal," said Nan. "How is my friend Helen Chase Adams coming on?"
"Why Nan, she's quite blossomed out. She's really lots of fun now. But I had an awful time with her for a while," and she related the story of Helen's winter of discontent. "I suppose that was my fault too," she finished. "I seem to be a regular blunderer."
"You're a dear little sister, all the same," declared Nan.
"I say girls, come and play ping-pong," called Will from the hall below, and the interview ended summarily.
But the memory of Eleanor Watson seemed fated to pursue Betty through her vacation. A few days later an old friend of Mrs. Wales, who had gone to Denver to live some years before and was east on a round of visits, came in to call. The moment she heard that Betty was at Harding, she inquired for Eleanor. "I'm so glad you know her," she said. "She's quite a protege of mine and she needs nice friends like you if ever a girl did. Don't mention it about college, Betty, but she's had a very sad life. Her mother was a strange woman—but there's no use going into that. She died when Eleanor was a tiny girl, and Eleanor and her brother Jim have been at boarding schools ever since. In the summers, though, they were always with their father in Denver. They worshiped him, particularly Eleanor, and he has always promised her that when she was through school he would open the old Watson mansion and she should keep house for him and Jim. Then last year a pretty little society girl, only four or five years older than Eleanor, set her cap for the judge and married him. Jim liked her, but Eleanor was heart-broken, and the judge, seeing storms ahead, I suppose, and hoping that Eleanor would get interested and want to finish the course, made her promise to go to Harding for a year. Now don't betray my confidence, Betty, and do make allowances for Eleanor. I hope she'll be willing to stay on at college. It's just what she needs. Besides, she'd be very unhappy at home, and her aunt in New York isn't at all the sort of person for her to live with."
So it came about that Betty returned to college more than ever determined to get back upon the old footing with Eleanor, and behold, Eleanor was not there! The Chapin house was much excited over her absence, for tales of the registrar's unprecedented hardness of heart had gone abroad, and almost nobody else had dared to risk the mysterious but awful possibilities that a late return promised. As Betty was still supposed by most of the house to be in Eleanor's confidence, she had to parry question after question as to her whereabouts. To, "Did she tell you that she was coming back late?" she could truthfully answer "No." But the girls only laughed when she insisted that Eleanor must be ill.
"She boasts that she's never been ill in her life," said Mary Brooks.
And Adelaide Rich always added with great positiveness, "It's exactly like her to stay away on purpose, just to see what will happen."
Unfortunately Betty could not deny this, and she was glad enough to drop the argument. She had too many pleasant things to do to care to waste time in profitless discussion. For it was spring term. Nobody but a Harding girl knows exactly what that means. The freshman is very likely to consider the much heralded event only a pretty myth, until having started from home on a cold, bleak day that is springtime only by the calendar, she arrives at Harding to find herself confronted by the genuine article. The sheltered situation of the town undoubtedly has something to do with its early springs, but the attitude of the Harding girl has far more. She knows that spring term is the beautiful crown of the college year, and she is bound that it shall be as long as possible. So she throws caution and her furs to the winds and dons a muslin gown, plans drives and picnics despite April showers, and takes twilight strolls regardless of lurking germs of pneumonia. The grass grows green perforce and the buds swell to meet her wishes, while the sun, finding a creature after his brave, warm heart, does his gallant best for her.
"Do what little studying you intend to right away," Mary Brooks advised her freshmen. "Before you know it, it will be too warm to work."
"But at present it's too lovely," objected Roberta.
"Then join the Athletic Association and trust to luck, but above all join the Athletic Association. I'm on the membership committee."
"Can I get into the golf club section this time?" asked Betty, who had been kept on the waiting list all through the fall.
"Yes, you just squeeze in, and Christy Mason wants you to play round the course with her to-morrow."
"I'm for tennis," said Katherine. "Miss Lawrence and I are going to play as soon as the courts are marked out. By the way, when do the forget-me-nots blossom?"
"Has Laurie roped you into that?" asked Mary Brooks scornfully.
"Don't jump at conclusions," retorted Katherine.
"I didn't have to jump. The wild ones blossom about the middle of May. You'll have to think of something else if you want to make an immediate conquest of your angel. And speaking of angels," added Mary, who was sitting by a window, "Eleanor Watson is coming up the walk."
The girls trooped out into the hall to greet Eleanor, who met them all with the carefully restrained cordiality that she had used toward them ever since the break with Betty. Yes, Bermuda had been charming, such skies and seas. Yes, she was just a week late—exactly. No, she had not seen the registrar yet, but she had heard last term that excuses weren't being given away by the dozen.
"I met a friend of yours during vacation," began Betty timidly in the first pause.
Eleanor turned to her unsmilingly. "Oh yes, Mrs. Payne," she said. "I believe she mentioned it. I saw her last night in New York." Then she picked up her bag and walked toward her room with the remark that late comers mustn't waste time.
The next day at luncheon some one inquired again about her excuse. Eleanor shrugged her shoulders. "Oh, that's all right; you needn't be at all anxious. The interview wasn't even amusing. The week is to be counted as unexcused absence—which as far as I can see means nothing whatever."
"You may find out differently in June," suggested Mary, nettled by Eleanor's superior air.
"Oh, June!" said Eleanor with another shrug. "I'm leaving in June, thank the fates!"
"Perhaps you'll change your mind after spring term. Everybody says it's so much nicer," chirped Helen.
"Possibly," said Eleanor curtly, "but I really can't give you much encouragement, Miss Adams." Whereat poor Helen subsided meekly, scarcely raising her eyes from her plate through the rest of the meal.
"Better caution your friend Eleanor not to air those sentiments of hers about unexcused absences too widely, or she'll get into trouble," said Mary Brooks to Betty on the way up-stairs; but Betty, intent on persuading Roberta to come down-town for an ice, paid no particular attention to the remark, and it was three weeks before she thought of it again.
She found Eleanor more unapproachable than ever this term, but remembering Nan's suggestion she resolved to bide her time. Meanwhile there was no reason for not enjoying life to the utmost. Golf, boating, walking, tennis—there were ten ways to spend every spare minute. But golf usually triumphed. Betty played very well, and having made an excellent record in her first game with Christy, she immediately found herself reckoned among the enthusiasts and expected to get into trim for the June tournament. Some three weeks after the beginning of the term she went up to the club house in the late afternoon, intending to practice putting, which was her weak point and come home with Christy and Nita Reese, another golf fiend, who had spent the whole afternoon on the course.
But on the club house piazza she found Dorothy King. Dorothy played golf exceedingly well, as she did everything else; but as she explained to Betty, "By junior year all this athletic business gets pretty much crowded out." She still kept her membership in the club, however, and played occasionally, "just to keep her hand in for the summer." She had done six holes this afternoon, all alone, and now she was resting a few moments before going home. She greeted Betty warmly. "I looked for you out on the course," she said, "but your little pals thought you weren't coming up to-day. How's your game?"
"Better, thank you," said Betty, "except my putting, and I'm going to practice on that now. Did you know that Christy had asked me to play with her in the inter-class foursomes?"
"That's good," said Dorothy cordially. "Do you see much of Eleanor Watson these days?" she added irrelevantly.
"Why—no-t much," stammered Betty, blushing in spite of herself. "I see her at meals of course."
"I thought you told me once that you were very fond of her."
"Yes, I did—I am," said Betty quickly, wondering what in the world Dorothy was driving at.
"She was down at the house last night," Dorothy went on, "blustering around about having come back late, saying that she'd shown what a bluff the whole excuse business is, and that now, after she has proved that it's perfectly easy to cut over at the end of a vacation, perhaps some of us timid little creatures will dare to follow her lead. But perhaps you've heard her talking about it."
"I heard her say a little about it," admitted Betty, suddenly remembering Mary Brooks's remark. Had the "trouble" that Mary had foreseen anything to do with Dorothy's questions?
"She's said a great deal about it in the last two weeks," went on Dorothy. "Last night after she left, her senior friend, Annette Cramer, and I had a long talk about it. We both agreed that somebody ought to speak to her, but I hardly know her, and Annette says that she's tried to talk to her about other things and finds she hasn't a particle of influence with her." Dorothy paused as if expecting some sort of comment or reply, but Betty was silent. "We both thought," said Dorothy at last, "that perhaps if you'd tell her she was acting very silly and doing herself no end of harm she might believe you and stop."
"Oh, Miss King, I couldn't," said Betty in consternation. "She wouldn't let me—indeed she wouldn't!"
"She told Annette once that she admired you more than any girl in college," urged Dorothy quietly, "so your opinion ought to have some weight with her."
"She said that!" gasped Betty in pleased amazement. Then her face fell. "I'm sorry, Miss King, but I'm quite sure she's changed her mind. I couldn't speak to her; but would you tell me please just why any one should—why you care?"
"Why, of course, it's not exactly my business," said Dorothy, "except that I'm on the Students' Commission, and so anything that is going wrong is my business. Miss Watson is certainly having a bad influence on the girls she knows in college, and besides, if that sort of talk gets to the ears of the authorities, as it's perfectly certain to do if she keeps on, she will be very severely reprimanded, and possibly asked to leave, as an insubordinate and revolutionary character. The Students' Commission aims to avoid all that sort of thing, when a quiet hint will do it. But Miss Watson seems to be unusually difficult to approach; I'm afraid if you can't help us out, Betty, we shall have to let the matter rest." She gathered up her caddy-bag. "I must get the next car. Don't do it unless you think best. Or if you like ask some one else. Annette and I couldn't think of any one, but you know better who her friends are." She was off across the green meadow.
Betty half rose to follow, then sank back into her chair. Dorothy had not asked for an answer; she had dropped the matter, had left it in her hands to manage as she thought fit, appealing to her as a friend of Eleanor's, a girl whom Eleanor admired. "Whom she used to admire," amended Betty with a sigh. But what could she do? A personal appeal was out of the question; it would effect nothing but a widening of the breach between them. Could Kate Denise help? She never came to see Eleanor now. Neither did Jean Eastman—why almost nobody did; all her really intimate friends seemed to have dropped away from her. And yet she must think of some one, for was not this the opportunity she had so coveted? It might be the very last one too, thought Betty. "If anything happened to hurt Eleanor's feelings again, she wouldn't wait till June. She'd go now." She considered girl after girl, but rejected them all for various reasons. "She wouldn't take it from any girl," she decided, and with that decision came an inspiration. Why not ask Ethel Hale? Ethel had tried to help Eleanor before, was interested in her, and understood something of her moody, many-sided temperament. She had put Eleanor in her debt too; she could urge her suggestion on the ground of a return favor.
In an instant Betty's mind was made up. She looked ruefully at her dusty shoes and mussed shirt-waist. "I can't go to see Ethel in these," she decided, "but if I hurry home now I can dress and go right up there after dinner, before she gets off anywhere." The putting must wait. With one regretful glance out over the green, breezy course Betty started resolutely off toward the dusty highway and the noisy trolleys.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
"I wish I could do it, Betty, but I'm sure it wouldn't be the least use for me to try. I thought I had a little hold on her for a while, but I'm afraid I was too sure of her. She avoids me now—goes around corners and into recitation rooms when she sees me coming. You see—I wonder if she told you about our trip to New York?"
Betty nodded, wishing she dared explain the full extent of her information.
"I thought so from your coming up here to-night. Well, as you've just said, she's very reserved, strangely so for a young girl; when she lets out anything about herself she wishes that she hadn't the next minute."
"Yes, I've noticed that," admitted Betty grudgingly.
"And so, having once let me get a glimpse of her better self, and then having decided as usual that she wished she hadn't, she needed a proof from me that I was worthy of her confidence. But I didn't give it; I was busy and let the matter drop, and now I am the last person who could go to her. I'm very sorry."
"Oh, dear!" said Betty forlornly.
"But isn't it so? Don't you agree with me?"
"I'm afraid I do."
"Then go back and speak to her yourself, dear. She's very fond of you, and I'm sure a little friendly hint from you is all that she needs."
"No, I can't speak to her either, Ethel. You wouldn't suggest it if you knew how things are between us. But I see that you can't. Thank you just as much. No, I mustn't stop to-night."
Betty walked down the elm-shaded street lost in thought. Eleanor had declaimed upon the foolishness of coming back on time after vacations through most of the dinner hour, and Betty understood as she had not that afternoon what Dorothy meant. But now her one hope had failed her; Ethel had shown good cause why she should not act as Eleanor's adviser and Betty had no idea what to do next.
"Hello, Betty Wales! Christy and I thought we saw you up at the golf club this afternoon." Nita Reese's room overlooked the street and she was hanging out her front window.
"I was up there," said Betty soberly, "but I had to come right back. I didn't play at all."
"Then I should say it was a waste of good time to go up," declared Nita amiably. "You'd better be on hand to-morrow. The juniors are going to be awfully hard to beat."
"I'll try," said Betty unsmilingly, and Nita withdrew her head from the window, wondering what could be the matter with her usually cheerful friend.
At the corner of Meriden Place Betty hesitated. Then, noticing that Mrs. Chapin's piazza was full of girls, she crossed Main Street and turned into the campus, following the winding path that led away from the dwelling-houses through the apple orchard. There were seats along this path. Betty chose one on the crest of the hill, screened in by a clump of bushes and looking off toward Paradise and the hills beyond. There she sat down in the warm spring dusk to consider possibilities. And yet what was the use of bothering her head again when she had thought it all over in the afternoon? Arguments that she might have made to Ethel occurred to her now that it was too late to use them, but nothing else. She would go back to Dorothy, explain why she could not speak to Eleanor herself, and beg her to take back the responsibility which she had unwittingly shifted to the wrong shoulders. She would go straight off too. She had found an invitation to a spread at the Belden house scrawled on her blotting pad at dinner time, and she might as well be over there enjoying herself as here worrying about things she could not possibly help.
As she got up from her seat she glanced at the hill that sloped off below her. It was the dust-pan coasting ground. How different it looked now in its spring greenery! Betty smiled at the memory of her mishap. How nice Eleanor had been to her then. And Miss Ferris! If only Miss Ferris would speak to Eleanor. "Why, perhaps she will," thought Betty, suddenly remembering Miss Ferris's note. "I could ask her to, anyway. But—she's a faculty. Well, Ethel is too, though I never thought of it." And Dorothy had wanted Betty's help in keeping the matter out of the hands of the authorities. "But this is different," Betty decided at last. "I'm asking them not as officials, but just as awfully nice people, who know what to say better than we girls do. Miss King would think that was all right."
Without giving herself time to reconsider, Betty sped toward the Hilton house. All sorts of direful suppositions occurred to her while she waited for a maid to answer her ring. What if Miss Ferris had forgotten about writing the note, or had meant it for what Nan called "a polite nothing"? Perhaps it would be childish to speak of it anyway. Perhaps Miss Ferris would have other callers. If not, how should she tell her story?
"I ought to have taken time to think," reflected Betty, as she followed the maid down the hall to Miss Ferris's rooms.
Miss Ferris was alone; nevertheless Betty fidgeted dreadfully during the preliminary small-talk. Somebody would be sure to come in before she could get started, and she should never, never dare to come again. At the first suggestion of a pause she plunged into her business.
"Miss Ferris, I want to ask you something, but I hated to do it, so I came right along as soon as I decided that I'd better, and now I don't know how to begin."
"Just begin," advised Miss Ferris, laughing.
"That is what they say to you in theme classes," said Betty, "but it never helped me so very much, somehow. Well, I might begin by telling you why I thought I could come to you."
"Unless you really want to tell that you might skip it," said Miss Ferris, "because I don't need to be reminded that I shall always be glad to do anything I can for my good friend Betty Wales."
"Oh, thank you! That helps a lot," said Betty gratefully, and went on with her story.
Miss Ferris listened attentively. "Miss Watson is the girl with the wonderful gray eyes and the lovely dark hair. I remember. She comes down here a great deal to see Miss Cramer, I think. It's a pity, isn't it, that she hasn't great good sense to match her beauty? So you want me to speak to her about her very foolish attitude toward our college life. Suppose I shouldn't succeed in changing her mind?"
"Oh, you would succeed," said Betty eagerly. "Mary Brooks says you can argue a person into anything."
Miss Ferris laughed again. "I'm glad Miss Brooks approves of my argumentative ability, but are you sure that Miss Watson is the sort of person with whom argument is likely to count for anything? Did you ever know her to change her mind on a subject of this sort, because her friends disapproved of her?"
Betty hesitated. "Yes—yes, I have. Excuse me for not going into particulars, Miss Ferris, but there was a thing she did when she came here that she never does now, because she found how others felt about it. Indeed, I think there are several things."
Miss Ferris nodded silently. "Then why not appeal to the same people who influenced her before?"
It was the question that Betty had been dreading, but she met it unflinchingly. "One of them thinks she has lost her influence, Miss Ferris, and another one who helped a little bit before, can't, because—I'm that one, Miss Ferris. I unintentionally did something last term that made Eleanor angry with me. It made her more dissatisfied and unhappy here too; so when I heard about this I felt as if I was a little to blame for it, and then I wanted to make up for the other time too. But of course it is a good deal to ask of you." Betty slid forward on to the edge of her chair ready to accept a hasty dismissal.
Miss Ferris waited a moment. "I shall be very glad to do it," she said at last. "I wanted to be sure that I understood the situation and that I could run a chance of helping Miss Watson. I think I can, but you must forgive me if I make a bad matter worse. I'll ask her to have tea with me to-morrow. May I send a note by you?"
"Of course you won't tell her that I spoke to you?" asked Betty anxiously, when Miss Ferris handed her the note. Miss Ferris promised and Betty danced out into the night. Half-way home she laughed merrily all to herself.
"What's the joke?" said a girl suddenly appearing around the corner of the Main Building.
"It was on me," laughed Betty, "so you can't expect me to tell you what it was."
It had just occurred to her that, as there was no possibility of Eleanor's finding out her part in Miss Ferris's intervention, a reconciliation was as far away as ever. "She wouldn't like it if she should find out," thought Betty, "and perhaps it was just another tactless interference. Well, I'm glad I didn't think of all these things sooner, for I believe it was the right thing to do, and it was a lot easier doing it while I hoped it might bring us together, as Nan said. I wonder what kind of things Nan meant."
She dropped the note on the hall table and slipped softly up-stairs. As she sat down at her desk she looked at the clock and hesitated. It was not so late as she had thought, only quarter of nine. There was still time to go back to the Belden. But after a moment's wavering Betty began getting out of her dress and into a kimono. Since the day of the basket-ball game she had honestly tried not to let the little things interfere with the big, nor the mere "interruptions" that were fun and very little more loom too large in her scale of living. "Livy to-night and golf to-morrow," she told the green lizard, as she sat down again and went resolutely to work.
When Eleanor came in to dinner the next evening Betty could hardly conceal her excitement. Would she say anything? If she said nothing what would it mean? The interview had apparently not been a stormy one. Eleanor looked tired, but not in the least disturbed or defiant. She ate her dinner almost in silence, answering questions politely but briefly and making none of her usual effort to control and direct the conversation. But just as the girls were ready to leave the table she broke her silence. "Wait a minute," she said. "I want to ask you please to forget all the foolish things I said last night at dinner. I've said them a good many times, and I can't contradict them to every one, but I can here—and I want to. I've thought more about it since yesterday, and I see that I hadn't at all the right idea of the situation. The students at a college are supposed to be old enough to do the right thing about vacations without the attaching of any childish penalty to the wrong thing. But we all of us get careless; then a public sentiment must be created against the wrong things, like cutting over. That was what the registrar was trying to do. Anybody who stays over as I did makes it less possible to do without rules and regulations and penalties—in other words hurts the tone of the college, just as a man who likes to live in a town where there are churches but never goes to them himself, unfairly throws the responsibility of church-going on to the rest of the community. I hadn't thought of it in that way; I didn't mean to be a shirk, but I was one."
A profound silence greeted Eleanor's argument. Mary Rich, who had been loud in her championship of Eleanor's sentiments the night before, looked angry at this sudden desertion; and Mary Brooks tried rather unsuccessfully not to smile. The rest were merely astonished at so sudden a change of mind. Finally Betty gave a little nervous cough and in sheer desperation began to talk. "That's a good enough argument to change any one's mind," she said. "Isn't it queer how many different views of a subject there are?"
"Of some subjects," said Eleanor pointedly.
It was exactly what Betty should have expected, but she couldn't help being a little disappointed. Eleanor had just shown herself so fine and downright, so willing to make all the reparation in her power for a course whose inconsistency had been proved to her. It was very disheartening to find that she cherished the old, reasonless grudge as warmly as ever. But if Betty had accomplished nothing for herself, she had done all that she hoped for Eleanor, and she tried to feel perfectly satisfied.
"I think too much about myself, anyway," she told the green lizard, who was the recipient of many confidences about this time.
The rest of the month sped by like the wind. As Betty thought it over afterward, it seemed to have been mostly golf practice and bird club. Roberta organized the bird club. Its object, according to her, was to assist Mary Brooks with her zoology by finding bird haunts and conveying Mary to them; its ultimate development almost wrought Mary's ruin. Mary had elected a certain one year course in zoology on the supposition that one year, general courses are usually "snaps," and the further theory that every well conducted student will have one "snap" on her schedule. These propositions worked well together until the spring term, when zoology 1a resolved itself into a bird-study class. Mary, who was near-sighted, detested bird-study, and hardly knew a crow from a kinglet, found life a burden, until Roberta, who loved birds and was only too glad to get a companion on her walks in search of them, organized what she picturesquely named "the Mary-bird club." Rachel and Adelaide immediately applied for admission, and about the time that Mary appropriated the forget-me-nots that Katherine had gathered for Marion Lawrence and wore them to a dance on the plea that they exactly matched her evening dress, and also decoyed Betty into betraying her connection with the freshman grind-book, Katherine and Betty joined. They seldom accompanied the club on its official walks, preferring to stroll off by themselves and come back with descriptions of the birds they had seen for Mary and Roberta to identify. Occasionally they met a friendly bird student who helped them with their identifications on the spot, and then, when Roberta was busy, they would take Mary out in search of "their birds," as they called them. Oddly enough they always found these rare species a second time, though Mary, because of her near-sightedness, had to be content with a casual glance at them.
"But what you've seen, you've seen," she said. "I've got to see fifty birds before June 1st; that doesn't necessarily mean see them so you'll know them again. Now I shouldn't know the nestle or the shelcuff, but I can put them down, can't I?"
"Of course," assented Katherine, "a few rare birds like those will make your list look like something."
The pink-headed euthuma, which came to light on the very last day of May, interested Mary so much that she told Roberta about it immediately and Roberta questioned the discoverers. Their accounts were perfectly consistent.
"Way out on Paradise path, almost to the end, we met a man dashing around as if he were crazy," explained Betty. "We should have thought he was an escaped lunatic if we hadn't seen others like him."
"Yes," continued Katherine. "But he acted too much like you to take us in. So we said we were interested in birds too, and he danced around some more and said we had come upon a rare specimen. Then he pointed to the top of an enormous pine-tree——"
"Those rare birds are always in the very tops of trees," put in Mary eagerly.
"Of course; that's one reason they're rare," went on Betty. "But that minute it flew into the top of a poplar, and we three pursued it. It was a beauty."
"And then you came back after me, and it was still there. Tell her how it was marked," suggested Mary. "Perhaps she knows it under some other name."
"It had a pink head, of course," said Katherine, "and blue wings."
"Goodness!" exclaimed Roberta suspiciously.
"Don't you mean black wings, Katherine?" asked Betty hastily.
"Did I say blue? I meant black of course. Mary thought they looked blue and that confused me. And its breast was white with brown marks on it."
"What size was it?" asked Roberta.
Katherine looked doubtful. "What should you say, Mary?"
"Well, it was quite small—about the size of a sparrow or a robin, I thought."
"They're quite different sizes," said Roberta wearily. "Your old man must have been color-blind. It couldn't have had a pink head. Who ever heard of a pink-headed bird?"
"We three are not color-blind," Katherine reminded her. "And then there's the name." Roberta sighed deeply. The new members of the Mary-bird club were very unmanageable.
Meanwhile Mary was industriously counting the names on her list, which must be handed in the next day. "I think I'd better put the euthuma down, Roberta," she said finally. "We saw it all right. They won't look the list over very carefully, but they will notice how many birds are on it, and even with the pink-headed euthuma I haven't but forty-five. I rather wish now that I'd bought a text-book, but I thought it was a waste of money when you knew all about the birds, and it would certainly be a waste of money now."
"Oh, yes," said Roberta. "If only the library hadn't wanted its copy back quite so soon!"
"It was disagreeable of them, wasn't it?" said Mary cheerfully, copying away on her list. "You were going to look up the nestle too. Girls, did we hear the nestle sing?"
"It whistled like a blue jay," said Katherine promptly.
"It couldn't," protested Roberta. "You said it was only six inches long."
"On the plan of a blue jay's call, but smaller, Roberta," explained Betty pacifically.
"Well, it's funny that you can never find any of these birds when I'm with you," said Roberta.
Katherine looked scornful. "We were mighty lucky to see them even twice, I think," she retorted.
Next day Mary came home from zoology 1a, which to add to its other unpleasant features met in the afternoon, wearing the air of a martyr to circumstance. Roberta, Katherine and Betty happened to be sitting on the piazza translating Livy together. "Girls," she demanded, as she came up the steps, "if I get you the box of Huyler's that Mr. Burgess sent me will you tell me the truth about those birds?"
"She had the lists read in class!" shouted Katherine.
"I knew it!" said Roberta in tragic tones.
"Did you tell her about the shelcuff's neck?" inquired Betty.
Mary sat down on the piazza railing with her feet cushioned on a lexicon. "I told her all about the shelcuff," she said, "likewise the euthuma and the nestle. What is more, the head of the zoology department was visiting the class, so I also told him, and when I stayed to explain he stayed too, and—oh, you little wretches!"
"Not at all," said Katherine. "We waited until you'd made a reputation for cleverness and been taken into a society. I think we were considerateness itself."
Roberta was gazing sadly at Mary. "Why did you try all those queer ones?" she asked. "You knew I wasn't sure of them."
"I had to, my dear. She asked us for the rare names on our lists. I was the third one she came to, and the others had floundered around and told about birds I'd never heard of. I didn't really know which of mine were rare, because I'd never seen any of them but once, you know, and I was afraid I should strike something that was a good deal commoner than a robin, and then it would be all up with me. So I boldly read off these three, because I was sure they were rare. You should have seen her face when I got to the pink-headed one," said Mary, beginning suddenly to appreciate the humor of the situation. "Did you invent them?"
"Only the names," said Betty, "and the stories about finding them. I thought of nestle, and Katherine made up the others. Aren't they lovely names, Roberta?"
"Yes," said Roberta, "but think of the fix Mary is in."
Mary smiled serenely. "Don't worry, Roberta," she said. "The names were so lovely and the shelcuff's neck and the note of the nestle and all, and I am honestly so near-sighted, that I don't think Miss Carter will have the heart to condition me. But girls, where did you get the descriptions? Professor Lawrence particularly wanted to know."
Betty looked at Katherine and the two burst into peals of laughter. "Mary Brooks, you invented most of those yourself," explained Katherine, when she could speak. "We just showed you the first bird we happened to see and told you its new name and you'd say, 'Why it has a green crest and yellow wings!' or 'How funny its neck is! It must have a pouch.' All we had to do was to encourage you a little."
"And suppress you a little when you put colors like pink and blue into the same bird," continued Betty, "so Roberta wouldn't get too suspicious."
"Then those birds were just common, ordinary ones that I'd seen before?"
"Exactly. The nestle was a blue jay, and the euthuma was a sparrow. We couldn't see what the shelcuff was ourselves, the tree was so tall.
"'The primrose by a river's brim, A yellow primrose was to him, And it was nothing more.'"
quoted Mary blithely. "You can never put that on my tombstone."
"Better tell your friend Dr. Hinsdale about your vivid ornithological imagination," suggested Katherine. "It might interest him."
"Oh, I shall," said Mary easily. "But to-night, young ladies, you will be pleased to learn that I am invited up to Professor Lawrence's to dinner, so that I can see his bird skins. Incidentally I shall meet his fascinating brother. In about ten minutes I shall want to be hooked up, Roberta."
"She's one too many for us, isn't she?" said Katherine, as Mary went gaily off, followed by the devoted Roberta, declaring in loud tones that the Mary-bird club was dissolved.
"I wish things that go wrong didn't bother me any more than they do her," said Betty wistfully.
"Cheer up," urged Katherine, giving her a bearish hug. "You'll win in the golf again to-morrow, and everything will come out all right in the end."
"Everything? What do you mean?" inquired Betty sharply.
"Why, singles and doubles—twosomes and foursomes you call them, don't you? They'll all come out right."
A moment later Katherine burst in upon her long-suffering roommate with a vehemence that made every cup on the tea-table rattle. "I almost let her know what we thought," she said, "but I guess I smoothed it over. Do you suppose Eleanor Watson isn't going to make up with her at all?"
INTO PARADISE—AND OUT
It was a glorious summer twilight. The air was sweet with the odor of lilacs and honeysuckle. One by one the stars shone softly out in the velvet sky, across which troops of swallows swooped and darted, twittering softly on the wing. Near the western horizon the golden glow of sunset still lingered. It was a night for poets to sing of, a night to revel in and to remember; but it was assuredly not a night for study. Gaslight heated one's room to the boiling point. Closed windows meant suffocation; open ones—since there are no screens in the Harding boarding house—let in troops of fluttering moths and burly June-bugs.
"And the moral of that is, work while it is yet light," proclaimed Mary Brooks, ringing her bicycle bell suggestively.
There was a sudden commotion on the piazza and then Betty's clear voice rose above the tumult. "We won it, one up! Isn't that fine? Oh no, not the singles; we go on with them to-morrow, but I can't possibly win. Oh, I'm so hot!"
Eleanor Watson smiled grimly as these speeches floated up to her from below. She had been lounging all the breathless afternoon, trying vainly to get rid of a headache; and the next day's lessons were still to be learned.
"Ouch, how I hate June-bugs," she muttered, stopping for the fifth time in as many minutes to drive out a buzzing intruder. She had just gotten one out when another flew straight at her unperceived and tangled himself in her hair. That was the limit of endurance. With one swift movement Eleanor turned off the gas, with another she pulled down her hair and released the prisoned beetle. Then she twisted up the soft coil again in the dark and went out into the sweet spring dusk.
At the next corner she gave an angry little exclamation and turned back toward the house. The girls had deserted the piazza before she came down, and now the only light seemed to be in Betty's room. Every window there was shut, so it was no use to call. Eleanor climbed the stairs and knocked. Katherine and Betty were just starting for a trolley ride, to cool off the champion, Katherine explained; but Helen was going to be in all the evening.
"I pity you from the bottom of my heart," said Eleanor, "but if you are really going to be here would you tell Lil Day when she comes that I have an awful headache and have gone off—that I'll see her to-morrow. I could go down there, but if she's in, her room will be fuller of June-bugs than mine. Hear them slam against that glass!" She turned to Betty stiffly. "I congratulate you on your victory," she said.
"Oh thank you!" answered Betty eagerly. "Christy did most of it. Would—won't you come out with us?"
"No, thank you. I feel like being all alone. I'm going down for a twilight row on Paradise."
"You'll get malaria," said Katherine.
"You'll catch cold, too, in that thin dress," added Helen.
"I don't mind, if only I don't see any June-bugs," answered Eleanor, "or any girls," she added under her breath, when she had gained the lower hall.
The quickest way to Paradise was through the campus, but Eleanor chose an unfrequented back street, too ugly to attract the parties of girls who swarmed over the college grounds, looking like huge white moths as they flitted about under the trees. She walked rapidly, trying to escape thought in activity; but the thoughts ill-naturedly kept pace with her. As everybody who came in contact with Eleanor Watson was sure to remark, she was a girl brimful of strong possibilities both for good and evil; and to-night these were all awake and warring. Her year of bondage at college was nearly over. Only the day before she had received a letter from Judge Watson, coldly courteous, like all his epistles to his rebellious daughter, inquiring if it was her wish to return to Harding another year, and in the same mail had come an invitation from her aunt, asking her to spend the following winter in New York. Eleanor shrewdly guessed that in spite of her father's disapproval of his sister's careless frivolity, he would allow her to accept this invitation, for the obvious relief it would bring to himself and the second Mrs. Watson. He was fond of her, that she did not for a moment question, and he honestly wished her best good; but he did not want her in his house in her present mood.
"For which I don't in the least blame him," thought Eleanor.
She had started to answer his letter immediately, as he had wished, and then had hesitated and delayed, so that the decision involved in her reply was still before her. And yet why should she hesitate? She did not like Harding college; she had kept the letter of her agreement to stay there for one year; surely she was free now to do as she pleased—indeed, her father had said as much. But what did she please—that was a point that, unaccountably, she could not settle. Lately something had changed her attitude toward the life at Harding. Perhaps it was the afternoon with Miss Ferris, with the perception it had brought of aims and ideals as foreign to the ambitious schemes with which she had begun the year as to the angry indifference in which she was finishing it. Perhaps, as poor Helen had suggested, it was the melting loveliness of spring term. At any rate, as she heard the girls making their plans for the next year, squabbling amiably over the merits of the various campus houses, choosing roommates, bargaining for furniture, even securing partners for the commencement festivities still three years off, an unexplainable longing to stay on and finish the four years' drama with the rest had seized upon Eleanor. But each time it came she had stifled it, reminding herself sternly that for her the four years held no pleasant possibilities; she had thrown away her chance—had neglected her work, alienated her friends, disappointed every one, and most of all herself. There was nothing left for her now but to go away beaten—not outwardly, for she still flattered herself that she had proved both to students and faculty her ability to make a very brilliant record at Harding had she been so inclined, and even her superiority to the drudgery of the routine work and the childish recreations. But in her heart of hearts Eleanor knew that this very disinclination to make the most of her opportunities, this fancied superiority to requirements that jarred on her undisciplined, haphazard training, was failure far more absolute and inexcusable than if dulness or any other sort of real inability to meet the requirements of the college life had been at the bottom of it. Her father would know it too, if the matter ever came to his notice; and her brother Jim, who was making such a splendid record at Cornell—he would know that, as Betty Wales had said once, quoting her sister's friend, "Every nice girl likes college, though each has a different reason." Well, Jim had thought for two years that she was a failure. Eleanor gulped hard to keep back the tears; she had meant to be everything to Jim, and she was only an annoyance.
It was almost dark by the time she reached the landing. A noisy crowd of girls, who had evidently been out with their supper, were just coming in. They exclaimed in astonishment when her canoe shot out from the boat-house.
"It's awfully hard to see your way," called one officious damsel.
"I can see in the dark like an owl," sang back Eleanor, her good-humor restored the instant her paddle touched water,—for boating was her one passion.
Ah, but it was lovely on the river! She glided around the point of an island and was alone at last, with the stars, the soft, grape-scented breezes, and the dark water. She pulled up the stream with long, swift strokes, and then, where the trees hung low over the still water, she dropped the paddle, and slipping into the bottom of the canoe, leaned back against a cushioned seat and drank in the beauty of the darkness and solitude. She had never been out on Paradise River at night. "And I shall never come again except at night," she resolved, breathing deep of the damp, soft air. Malaria—who cared for that? And when she was cold she could paddle a little and be warm again in a moment.
Suddenly she heard voices and saw two shapes moving slowly along the path on the bank.
"Oh, do hurry, Margaret," said one. "I told her I'd be there by eight. Besides, it's awfully dark and creepy here."
"I tell you I can't hurry, Lil," returned the other. "I turned my ankle terribly back there, and I must sit down and rest, creeps or no creeps."
"Oh, very well," agreed the other voice grudgingly, and the shapes sank down on a knoll close to the water's edge.
Eleanor had recognized them instantly; they were her sophomore friend, Lilian Day, and Margaret Payson, a junior whom Eleanor greatly admired. Her first impulse was to call out and offer to take the girls back in her canoe. Then she remembered that the little craft would hold only two with safety, that the girls would perhaps be startled if she spoke to them, and also that she had come down to Paradise largely to escape Lil's importunate demands that she spend a month of her vacation at the Day camp in the Adirondacks. So, certain that they would never notice her in the darkness and the thick shadows, she lay still in the bottom of her boat and waited for them to go on.
"It's a pity about her, isn't it?" said Miss Payson, after she had rubbed her ankle for a while in silence.
"About whom?" inquired Lilian crossly.
"Why, Eleanor Watson; you just spoke of having an engagement with her. She seems to have been a general failure here."
Eleanor started at the sound of her own name, then lay tense and rigid, waiting for Lilian's answer. She knew it was not honorable to listen, and she certainly did not care to do so; but if she cried out now, after having kept silent so long, Lilian, who was absurdly nervous in the dark, might be seriously frightened. Perhaps she would disagree and change the subject. But no——
"Yes, a complete failure," repeated Lilian distinctly. "Isn't it queer? She's really very clever, you know, and awfully amusing, besides being so amazingly beautiful. But there is a little footless streak of contrariness in her—we noticed it at boarding-school,—and it seems to have completely spoiled her."
"It is queer, if she is all that you say. Perhaps next year she'll be——"
"Oh, she isn't coming back next year," broke in Lilian. "She hates it here, you know, and she sees that she's made a mess of it, too, though she wouldn't admit it in a torture chamber. She thinks she has shown that college is beneath her talents, I suppose."
"Little goose! Is she so talented?"
"Yes, indeed. She sings beautifully and plays the guitar rather well—she'd surely have made one of the musical clubs next year—and she can act, and write clever little stories. Oh, she'd have walked into everything going all right, if she hadn't been such a goose—muddled her work and been generally offish and horrid."
"Too bad," said Miss Payson, rising with a groan. "Who do you think are the bright and shining stars among the freshmen, Lil?"
"Why Marion Lustig for literary ability, of course, and Emily Davis for stunts and Christy Mason for general all-around fineness, and socially—oh, let me think—the B's, I should say, and—I forget her name—the little girl that Dottie King is so fond of. Here, take my arm, Margaret. You've got to get home some way, you know."
Their voices trailed off into murmurs that grew fainter and fainter until the silence of the river and the wood was again unbroken. Eleanor sat up stiffly and stretched her arms above her head in sheer physical relief after the strain of utter stillness. Then, with a little sobbing cry, she leaned forward, bowing her head in her hands. Paradise—had they named it so because one ate there of the fruit of the tree of knowledge?
"A little footless streak!"
"An utter failure!"
What did it matter? She had known it all before. She had said those very words herself. But she had thought—she had been sure that other people did not understand it that way. Well, perhaps most people did not. No, that was nonsense. Lilian Day had achieved a position of prominence in her class purely through a remarkable alertness to public sentiment. Margaret Payson, a girl of a very different and much finer type, stood for the best of that sentiment. Eleanor had often admired her for her clear-sightedness and good judgment. They had said unhesitatingly that she was a failure; then the college thought so. Well, it was Jean Eastman's fault then, and Caroline's, and Betty Wales's. Nonsense! it was her own. Should she go off in June and leave her name spelling failure behind her? Or should she come back and somehow change the failure to success? Could she?
She had no idea how long she sat there, turning the matter over in her mind, viewing it this way and that, considering what she could do if she came back, veering between a desire to go away and forget it all in the gay bustle of a New York winter, and the fierce revolt of the famous Watson pride, that found any amount of effort preferable to open and acknowledged defeat. But it must have been a long time, for when she pulled herself on to her seat and caught up the paddle, she was shivering with cold and her thin dress was dripping wet with the mist that lay thick over the river. Slowly she felt her way down-stream, pushing through the bank of fog, often running in shore in spite of her caution, and fearful every moment of striking a hidden rock or snag. Soft rustlings in the wood, strange plashings in the stream startled her. Lower down was the bewildering net-work of islands. Surely there were never so many before. Was the boat-house straight across from the last island, or a little down-stream? Which was straight across? And where was the last island? She had missed it somehow in the mist. She was below it, out in the wide mill-pond. Somewhere on the other side was the boat-house, and further down was a dam. Down-stream must be straight to the left. All at once the roar of the descending water sounded in Eleanor's ears, and to her horror it did not come from the left. But when she tried to tell from which direction it did come, she could not decide; it seemed to reverberate from all sides at once; it was perilously near and it grew louder and more terrible every moment.
Suddenly a fierce, unreasoning fear took possession of Eleanor. She told herself sternly that there was no danger; the current in Paradise River was not so strong but that a good paddler could stem it with ease. In a moment the mist would lift and she could see the outline of one shore or the other. But the mist did not lift; instead it grew denser and more stifling, and although she turned her canoe this way and that and paddled with all her strength, the roar from the dam grew steadily to an ominous thunder. Then she remembered a gruesome legend that hung about the dam and the foaming pool in the shadow of the old mill far below, and dropped her paddle in an agony of fear. She might hurry herself over the dam in striving to escape it!
And still the deafening torrent pounded in her ears. If only she could get away from it—somewhere—anywhere just to be quiet. Would it be quiet in the pool by the mill? Eleanor slipped unsteadily into the bottom of her boat and tried to peer through the darkness at the black water, and to feel about with her hands for the current. As she did so, a bell rang up on the campus. It must be twenty minutes to ten. Eleanor gave a harsh, mirthless laugh. How stupid she had been! She would call, of course. If she could hear their bell, they could hear her voice and come for her. There would be an awkward moment of explanation, but what of that?
"Hallo! Hallo—o-o!" she called. Only the boom of the water answered.
Again the boom of the water swallowed her cry and drowned it.
It was no use to call,—only a waste of strength.
Eleanor caught up her paddle and began to back water with all her might. That was what she should have done from the first, of course. She was cold all at once and very tired, but she would not give up yet.
She had quite forgotten that only a little while before it had not seemed to matter much what became of her. "But if I can't keep at it all night——" she said to the mist and the river.
A LAST CHANCE
Helen's choice of closed windows in preference to invading companies of moths and June-bugs had made the room so insufferably warm that between heat and excitement Betty could not get to sleep. Instead she tossed restlessly about on her narrow couch, listening to the banging of the trolleys at the next corner and wishing she were still sitting on the breezy front seat, as the car dashed down the long hill toward the station. At length she slipped softly out of bed and opened the door. Perhaps the breeze would come in better then. As she stood for a moment testing the result of her experiment, she noticed with surprise that Eleanor's door was likewise open. This simple fact astonished her, because she remembered that on the hottest nights last fall Eleanor had persisted in shutting and locking her door. She had acquired the habit from living so much in hotels, she said; she could never go to sleep at all so long as her door was unfastened. "Perhaps it's all right," thought Betty, "but it looks queer. I believe I'll just see if she's in bed." So she crept softly across the hall and looked into Eleanor's room. It was empty, and the couch was in its daytime dress, covered with an oriental spread and piled high with pillows. "I suppose she stopped on the campus and got belated," was Betty's first idea. "But no, she couldn't stay down there all night, and it's long after ten. It must be half past eleven. I'll—I'd better consult—Katherine."
She chose Katherine instead of Rachel, because she had heard Eleanor speak about going to Paradise, and so could best help to decide whether it was reasonable to suppose that she was still there. Rachel was steadier and more dependable, but Katherine was resourceful and quick-witted. Besides, she was not a bit afraid of the dark.
She was sound asleep, but Betty managed to wake her and get her into the hall without disturbing any one else.
"Goodness!" exclaimed Katherine, when she heard the news. "You don't think——"
"I think she's lost in Paradise. It must have been pitch dark down there under the trees even before she got started, and you know she hasn't any sense of direction. Don't you remember her laughing about getting turned around every time she went to New York?"
"Yes, but it doesn't seem possible to get lost on that little pond."
"It's bigger than it looks," said Betty, "and there is the mist, too, to confuse her."
"I hadn't thought of that. Does she know how to manage a boat?"
"Yes, capitally," said Betty in so frightened a voice that Katherine dropped the subject.
"She's lost up stream somewhere and afraid to move for fear of hitting a rock," she said easily. "Or perhaps she's right out in the pond by the boat-house and doesn't dare to cross because she might go too far down toward the dam. We can find her all right, I guess."
"Then you'll come?" said Betty eagerly.
"Why, of course. You weren't thinking of going alone, were you?"
"I thought maybe you'd think it was silly for any one to go. I suppose she might be at one of the campus houses."
"She might, but I doubt it," said Katherine. "She was painfully intent on solitude when she left here. Now don't fuss too long about dressing."
Without a word Betty sped off to her room. She was just pulling a rain-coat over a very meagre toilet when Katherine put her head in at the door. "Bring matches," she said in a sepulchral whisper. Betty emptied the contents of her match-box into her ulster pocket, threw a cape over her arm for Eleanor, and followed Katherine cat-footed down the stairs. In the lower hall they stopped for a brief consultation.
"Ought we to tell Mrs. Chapin?" asked Betty doubtfully.
"Eleanor will hate us forever if we do," said Katherine, "and I don't see any special advantage in it. If we don't find her, Mrs. Chapin can't. We might tell Rachel though, in case we were missed."
"Or we might leave a note where she would find it," suggested Betty. "Then if we weren't missed no one need know."
"All right. You can go more quietly; I'll wait here." Katherine sank down on the lowest stair, while Betty flew back to scribble a note which she laid on Rachel's pillow. Then the relief expedition started.
It was very strange being out so late. Before ten o'clock a girl may go anywhere in Harding, but after ten the streets are deserted and dreadful. Betty shivered and clung close to Katherine, who marched boldly along, declaring that it was much nicer outdoors than in, and that midnight was certainly the top of the evening for a walk.
"And if we find her way up the river we can all camp out for the night," she suggested jovially.
"But if we don't find her?"
Katherine, who had noticed Betty's growing nervousness, refused to entertain the possibility.
"We shall," she said.
"But if we don't?" persisted Betty.
"Then I suppose we shall have to tell somebody who—who could—why, hunt for her more thoroughly," stammered Katherine. "Or possibly we'd better wait till morning and make sure that she didn't stay all night with Miss Day. But if we don't find her, there will be plenty of time to discuss that."
At the campus gateway the girls hesitated.
"Suppose we should meet the night-watchman?" said Betty anxiously. "Would he arrest us?"
Katherine laughed at her fears. "I was only wondering if we hadn't better take the path through the orchard. If we go down by the dwelling-houses we might meet him, of course, and it would be awkward getting rid of him if he has an ordinary amount of curiosity."
"But that path is spooky dark," objected Betty.
"Not so dark as the street behind the campus," said Katherine decidedly, "and that's the only alternative. Come on."
When they had almost reached the back limit of the campus Katherine halted suddenly. Betty clutched her in terror. "Do you see any one?" she whispered. Katherine put an arm around her frightened little comrade. "Not a person," she said reassuringly, "not even the ghost of my grandmother. I was just wondering, Betty, if you'd care to go ahead down to the landing and call, while I waited up by the road. Eleanor is such a proud thing; she'll hate dreadfully to be caught in this fix, and I know she'd rather have you come to find her than me or both of us. But perhaps you'd rather not go ahead. It is pretty dark down there."
Betty lifted her face from Katherine's shoulder and looked at the black darkness that was the road and the river bank, and below it to the pond that glistened here and there where the starlight fell on its cloak of mist.
"Of course," said Katherine after a moment's silence, "we can keep together just as well as not, as far as I am concerned. I only thought that perhaps, since this was your plan and you are so fond of Eleanor—oh well, I just thought you might like to have the fun of rescuing her," finished Katherine desperately.
"Do you mean for me to go ahead and call, and if Eleanor answers not to say anything to her about your having come?"
"Then how would you get home?"
"Oh, walk along behind you, just out of sight."
"Wouldn't you be afraid?"
"But I should be taking the credit for something I hadn't done."
"And Eleanor would be the happier thereby and none of the rest of the world would be affected either way."
Betty looked at the pond again and then gave Katherine a soft little hug. "Katherine Kittredge, you're an old dear," she said, "and if you really don't mind, I'll go ahead; but if she asks me how I dared to come alone or says anything about how I got here, I shall tell her that you were with me."
"All right, but I fancy she won't be thinking about that. The matches are so she can see her way to you. It's awfully hard to follow a sound across the water, but if you light one match after another she can get to you before the supply gives out, if she's anywhere near. Don't light any till she answers. If she doesn't answer, I'll come down to you and we'll walk on up the river a little way and find her there."
"Yes," said Betty. "Where shall you stay?"
"Oh, right under this tree, I guess," answered Katherine carelessly.
When Betty had fairly gone, doubts began to assail Katherine, as they have a habit of assailing impulsive people, after it is too late to pay heed to them. It occurred to her that she was cooperating in what might easily turn out to be a desperate adventure, and that it would have been the part of wisdom to enlist the services of more competent and better equipped searchers at once, without risking delay on the slender chance of finding Eleanor near the wharf. "Eleanor would have hated the publicity, but if she wants to come up here in the dark and frighten us all into hysteria she must take the consequences. And I'd have let her too, if it hadn't been for Betty."
An owl hooted, and Katherine jumped as nervously as Betty would have done. Poor Betty! She must be almost at the landing by this time. At that very moment a little quavering voice rang out over the water.
"Eleanor! Eleanor Watson! Eleanor! Oh, Eleanor, where are you?"
For a long moment there was silence. Then the owl hooted again. That was too much. Katherine jumped up with a bound and started down the bank toward Betty. She did not stop to find the path, and at the second step caught her foot and fell headlong. Apparently Betty did not hear her. She had not yet given up hope, for she was calling again, pausing each time to listen for the answer that did not come.
"Oh, Eleanor, Eleanor, aren't you there?" she cried and stopped, even the courage of despair gone at last. Katherine, nursing a bruised knee on the hill above, had opened her mouth to call encouragement, when a low "Who is it?" floated across the water.
"Eleanor, is that you? It's I—Betty Wales!" shrieked Betty.
Katherine nodded her head in silent token of "I told you so," and slid back among the bushes to recuperate and await developments.
For the end was not yet. Eleanor was evidently far down toward the dam, close to the opposite bank. It was hard for her to hear Betty, and still harder for Betty to hear her. Her voice sounded faint and far off, and she seemed to be paralyzed with fear and quite incapable of further effort. When Betty begged her to paddle right across and began lighting matches in reckless profusion to show her the way, Eleanor simply repeated, "I can't, I can't," in dull, dispirited monotone.
"Shall—I—come—for—you?" shouted Betty.
"You can't," returned Eleanor again.
"Non—sense!" shrieked Betty and then stood still on the wharf, apparently weighing Eleanor's last opinion.
"Go ahead," called Katherine in muffled tones from above.
Betty did not answer.
"Thinks I'm another owl, I suppose," muttered Katherine, and limped down the bank to the wharf, frightening the nervous, overwrought Betty almost out of her wits at first, and then vastly relieving her by taking the entire direction of affairs into her own competent hands.
"You go right ahead. It's the only way, and it's perfectly easy in a heavy boat. That canoe might possibly go down with the current, but a big boat wouldn't. Rachel and I tried it last week, when the river was higher. Now cross straight over and feel along the bank until you get to her. Then beach the canoe and come back the same way. Give me some matches. I'll manage that part of it and then retire,—unless you'd rather be the one to wait here."
"No, I'll go," answered Betty eagerly, vanishing into the boat-house after a pair of oars.
"She must be hanging on to something on shore," went on Katherine, when Betty reappeared, "and she's lost her nerve and doesn't dare to let go. If you can't get her into your boat, I'll come; but somebody really ought to stay here. I had no idea the fog was so thick. Hurry now and cross straight over. You're sure you're not afraid?"
"Quite sure." Betty was off, splashing her oars nervously through the still water, wrapped in the mist, whispering over and over Katherine's last words, "Hurry and go straight. Hurry, hurry, go straight across."
When she reached the other shore she called again to Eleanor, and the sobbing cry of relief that answered her made all the strain and effort seem as nothing. Cautiously creeping along the bank where the river was comparatively quiet, backing water now and then to test her strength with the current, she finally reached Eleanor, who had happened quite by chance to run near the bank and now sat in the frail canoe hanging by both hands to a branch that swept low over the water, exactly as Katherine had guessed.
"Why didn't you beach the canoe, and stay on shore?" asked Betty, who had tied her own boat just above and was now up to her knees in the water, pulling Eleanor in.
"I tried to, but I lost my paddle, and so I was afraid to let go the tree again, and the water looked so deep. Oh, Betty, Betty!"
Eleanor sank down on the bank, sobbing as if her heart would break. Betty patted her arm in silence, and in a few moments she stood up, quieted. "You're going to take me back?" she asked.
"Of course," said Betty, cheerfully, leading the way to her boat.
"Please wait a minute," commanded Eleanor.
Betty trembled. "She's going to say she won't go back with me," she thought. "Please let me do it, Eleanor," she begged.
"Yes," said Eleanor, quickly, "but first I want to say something. I've been a hateful, horrid thing, Betty. I've believed unkind stories and done no end of mean things, and I deserve all that I've had to-night, except your coming after me. I've been ashamed of myself for months, only I wouldn't say so. I know you can never want me for a friend again, after all my meanness; but Betty, say that you won't let it hurt you—that you'll try to forget all about it."
Betty put a wet arm around Eleanor's neck and kissed her cheek softly. "You weren't to blame," she said. "It was all a mistake and my horrid carelessness. Of course I want you for a friend. I want it more than anything else. And now don't say another word about it, but just get into the boat and come home."
They hardly spoke during the return passage; Eleanor was worn out with all she had gone through, and Betty was busy rowing and watching for Katherine's matches, which made tiny, glimmering dots of light in the gloom. Eleanor did not seem to notice them, nor the shadowy figure that vanished around the boat-house just before they reached the wharf.
From her appointed station under the pine-tree Katherine heard the grinding of the boat on the gravel, the rattle of oars thrown down on the wharf, and then a low murmur of conversation that did not start up the hill toward her, as she had expected.
"Innocents!" sighed Katherine. "They're actually stopping to talk it out down there in the wet. I'm glad they've made it up, and I'd do anything in reason for Betty Wales, but I certainly am sleepy," and she yawned so loud that a blue jay that was roosting in the tree above her head fluttered up to a higher branch, screaming angrily.
"The note of the nestle," laughed Katherine, and yawned again.
Down on the wharf Betty and Eleanor were curled up close together in an indiscriminate, happy tangle of rain-coat, golf-cape, and very drabbled muslin, holding a conversation that neither would ever forget. Yet it was perfectly commonplace; Harding girls are not given to the expression of their deeper emotions, though it must not therefore be inferred that they do not have any to express.
"Oh, Betty, you can't imagine how dreadful it was out there!" Eleanor was saying. "And I thought I should have to stay all night, of course. How did you know I hadn't come in?"
"I don't see why you bothered," said Eleanor. "I'm sure I shouldn't have, for any one as horrid as I've been. Oh, Betty, will you truly forgive me?"
"Don't say that. I've wanted to do something that would make you forgive me."
"Oh, I know you have," broke in Eleanor quickly. "Miss Ferris told me."
"She did!" interrupted Betty in her turn. "Why, she promised not to."
"Yes, but I asked her. It seemed to me queer that she should have taken such an interest in me, and all of a sudden it flashed over me, as I sat talking to her, that you were at the bottom of it. So I said, 'Miss Ferris, Betty Wales asked you to say this to me,' and she said, 'Yes, but she also asked me not to mention her having done so.' I was ashamed enough then, for she'd made me see pretty plainly how badly I needed looking after, but I was bound I wouldn't give in. Oh, Betty, haven't I been silly!"
"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings by what I said at that class meeting, Eleanor," said Betty shyly.
"You didn't hurt them. I was just cross at things in general—at myself, I suppose that means,—and angry at you because I'd made you despise me, which certainly wasn't your fault."
"Eleanor, what nonsense! I despise you?"
A rustling on the bank reminded Betty that Katherine was waiting. "We must go home," she said. "It's after midnight."
"So it is," agreed Eleanor, getting up stiffly. "Oh, Betty, I am glad I'm not out there hanging on to that branch and shivering and wondering how soon I should have to let go and end it all. Oh, I shall never forget the feel of that stifling mist."
They walked home almost in silence. Katherine, missing the murmur of conversation, wondered if this last effort at reconciliation had failed after all; but near Mrs. Chapin's the talk began again.
"I'm only sorry there isn't more of spring term left to have a good time in. Why, Eleanor, there's only two weeks."
"But there's all next year," answered Eleanor.
"I thought you weren't coming back."
"I wasn't, but I am now. I've got to—I can't go off letting people think that I'm only a miserable failure. The Watson pride won't let me, Betty."
"Oh, people don't think anything of that kind," objected Betty consolingly.
"I know one person who does," said Eleanor with decision, "and her name is Eleanor Watson. I decided while I was out there waiting for you that one's honest opinion of herself is about as important as any outsider's. Don't you think so?"
"Perhaps," said Betty gaily. "But the thing that interests me is that you're coming back next year. Why, it's just grand! Shall you go on the campus?"
Betty Wales had to leave her trunk half packed and her room in indescribable confusion in order to obey a sudden summons from the registrar. She had secured a room on the campus at last, so the brief note said; but the registrar wished her to report at the office and decide which of two possible assignments she preferred.
"It's funny," said Betty to Helen, as she extracted her hat from behind the bookcase, where she had stored it for safe keeping, "because I put in my application for the Hilton house way back last fall."
"Perhaps she means two different rooms."
"No, Mary says they never give you a choice about rooms, unless you're an invalid and can't be on the fourth floor or something of that kind."
"Well, it's nice that you're on," said Helen wistfully. "I don't suppose I have the least chance for next year."
"Oh, there's all summer," said Betty hopefully. "Lots of people drop out at the last minute. Which house did you choose?"
"I didn't choose any because Miss Stuart told me I would probably have to wait till junior year, and I thought I might change my mind before then."
"It's too bad," said Betty, picking her way between trunk trays and piles of miscellaneous debris to the door. "I think I shall stop on my way home and get a man to move my furniture right over to the Hilton."
"Oh, wouldn't it be lovely if I'd got into the Hilton house too!" said Helen with a sigh of resignation. "Then perhaps we could room together."
"Yes," said Betty politely, closing the door after her. Under the circumstances it was not necessary to explain that Alice Waite and she had other plans for the next year.
It was a relief to stop trying to circumvent the laws of nature by forcing two objects into the space that one will fill—which is the cardinal principle of the college girl's June packing—and Betty strolled slowly along under the elm-trees, in no haste to finish her errand. On Main Street, Emily Davis, carrying an ungainly bundle, overtook her.
"I was afraid I wasn't going to see you to say good-bye," she said. "Everybody wants skirt braids put on just now, and between that and examinations I've been very busy."
"Are those skirts?" asked Betty.
"Yes, two of Babbie's and one of Babe's. I was going up to the campus, so I thought I'd bring them along and save the girls trouble, since they're my best patrons, as well as being my good friends."
"It's nice to have them both."
"Only you hate to take money for doing things for your friends."
"Where are you going to be this summer?" inquired Betty. "You never told me where you live."
"I live up in northern New York, but I'm not going home this summer. I'm going to Rockport——"
"Why, so am I!" exclaimed Betty. "We're going to stay at The Breakers."
"Oh, dear!" said Emily sadly, "I was hoping that none of my particular friends would be there. I'm going to have charge of the linen-room at The Breakers, Betty."
"What difference does that make?" demanded Betty eagerly. "You have hours off, don't you? We'll have the gayest sort of a time. Can you swim?"
"No, I've never seen the ocean."
"Well, Will and Nan will teach you. They're going to teach me."
Emily shook her head. "Now, Betty, you must not expect your family to see me in the same light that you do. Here those things don't make any difference, but outside they do; and it's perfectly right that they should, too."
"Nonsense! My family has some sense, I hope," said Betty gaily, stopping at the entrance to the Main Building. "Then I'll see you next week."
"Yes, but remember you are not to bother your family with me. Good-bye."
"Good-bye. You just wait and see!" called Betty, climbing the steps. Half-way up she frowned. Nan and mother would understand, but Will was an awful snob. "He'll have to get used to it," she decided, "and he will, too, after he's heard her do 'the temperance lecture by a female from Boston.' But it will certainly seem funny to him at first. Why, I guess it would have seemed funny to me last year."
The registrar looked up wearily from the litter on her desk, as Betty entered. "Good-afternoon, Miss Wales. I sent for you because I was sure that, however busy you might be you had more time than I, and I can talk to you much quicker than I could write. As I wrote you, I have reached your name on the list of the campus applicants, and you can go into the Hilton if you choose. But owing to an unlooked-for falling out of names just below yours, Miss Helen C. Adams comes next to you on the list. You hadn't mentioned the matter of roommates, and noticing that you two girls live in the same house, I thought I would ask you if you preferred a room in the Belden house with Miss Adams. There are two vacancies there, and she will get one of them in any case."
"Oh!" said Betty.
"I shall be very glad to know your decision to-night if possible, so that I can make the other assignment in the morning, before the next applicant leaves town."
"Yes," said Betty.
"You will probably wish to consult Miss Adams," went on the registrar. "I ought to have sent for her too—I don't know why I was so stupid."
"Oh, that's all right," said Betty hastily. "I will come back in about an hour, Miss Stuart. I suppose there isn't any hope that we could both go into the Hilton."
"No, I'm afraid not. Any time before six o'clock will do. I shan't be here much longer, but you can leave the message with my assistant. And you understand of course that it was purely on your account that I spoke to you. I thought that under the circumstances——" The registrar was deep in her letters again.
But as Betty was opening the door, she looked up to say with a merry twinkle in her keen gray eyes, "Give my regards to your father, Miss Wales, and tell him he underrates his daughter's ability to take care of herself."
"Oh, Miss Stuart, I hoped you didn't know I was that girl," cried Betty blushing prettily.
Miss Stuart shook her head. "I couldn't come to meet you, but I didn't forget. I've kept an eye on you."
"I hope you haven't seen anything very dreadful," laughed Betty.
"I'll let you know when I do," said Miss Stuart. "Good-bye."
Betty went out on to the campus, where the shadows were beginning to grow long on the freshly mown turf, and took her favorite path back to the edge of the hill, where she sat down on her favorite seat to consider this new problem. On the slope below her a bed of rhododendrons that had been quite hidden under the snow in winter, and inconspicuous through the spring, had burst into a sudden glory of rainbow blossoms—pink and white and purple and flaming orange.
"Every day is different here," thought Betty, "and the horrid things and the lovely ones always come together."
Helen would be pleased, of course; as she had hinted to the registrar, there was really no need of consulting Helen; the only person to be considered was Betty Wales. If only Miss Stuart had assigned her to the Hilton house and said nothing!
From her seat Betty could look over to Dorothy King's windows. It would have been such fun to be in the house with Dorothy. Clara Madison was going to leave the campus and go to a place where they would make her bed and bring her hot water in the morning. Alice's room was a lovely big one on the same floor as Dorothy's, and she had delayed making arrangements to share it with a freshman who was already in the house, until she was sure that Betty did not get her assignment. Eleanor had applied for an extra-priced single there, too, to be near Betty.
Helen was a dear little thing and a very considerate roommate, but she was "different." She didn't fit in somehow, and it was a bother always to be planning to have her have a good time. She would be lonely in the Belden; she loved college and was very happy now, but she needed to have somebody who understood her and could appreciate her efforts, to encourage her and keep her in touch with the lighter side of college life. She didn't know a soul in the Belden—but then neither did lots of other freshmen when they moved on to the campus. She need never hear anything about the registrar's plan, and she could come over to the Hilton as much as she liked.
Nita Reese would be at the Belden, and Marion Lawrence; and Mary Brooks was going there if she could get an assignment. It was a splendid house, the next best to the Hilton. But those girls were not Dorothy King, and Miss Andrews was not Miss Ferris. It would have been lovely to be in the house with Miss Ferris.
Would have been! Betty caught herself suddenly. It wasn't settled yet. Then she got up from her seat with quick determination. "I'll stop in and see Miss Ferris for just a minute, and then I shall go back and tell Miss Stuart right off, for I must finish packing to-night, whatever happens."
Miss Ferris was in, and she and her darkened, flower-scented room wore an air of coolness and settled repose that was a poignant relief after the glaring sunshine outside and the confusion of "last days."
"So you go to-morrow," said Miss Ferris pleasantly. "I don't get off till next week, of course. Are you satisfied?"
"Satisfied?" repeated Betty. She had heard of Miss Ferris's habit of flashing irrelevant questions at her puzzled auditors, but this was her first experience of it.