"There, there, Leslie, don't get up in the air," she soothed, "I'll explain all about it if you'll just turn around and go up that road back there. It won't take you much longer, and we'll be back in plenty of time. The fact is, I had a little plan in the back of my head when I came out this afternoon; and I want you to help me out. Now be a good girl and let Fred run the car a little while. He won't do it any harm, and your brother will never know a thing about it."
Leslie's eyes were flashing, and her head was held haughtily; but she kept her hands firmly on the wheel.
"Your friends will have to get out, Myrtle," she said coldly. "I can't help you out in any scheme I don't understand. You'll have to go to some one else for that kind of help."
"I must say I don't think you're very nice, Leslie Cloud, speaking in that way before my friends; but of course you don't understand; I'll have to tell you. Bart Laws and I are engaged, and we're going to a town down in the next State to get married. Bart has the license and the minister, and it's all arranged nicely. His aunt will be there for a chaperon. If you behave yourself and do as we tell you, the whole thing will go off quietly and no one will know the difference. You and I will go back home before dark, and everything will be lovely. You see, dear, I've been engaged all this time; only I couldn't tell you, because my guardians don't approve of my getting married until I'm through college. You didn't understand why I had so much to do with Rich Price, but he was just a go-between for Bart and me. Now, do you understand why I wanted you to go this afternoon?"
Myrtle's voice was very soft and insinuating. She had tears always near the surface for ready use. "You never have been in love, Leslie; you don't know what it is to be separated from the one who is all the world to you. Come, now, Leslie; I'll do anything in the world for you if you'll only help me out now."
"And if I won't?" asked Leslie calmly, deliberately, as if she were really weighing the question.
"Well, if you won't," put in the person called Fred Hicks, "why, Bart and I will just fix you up perfectly harmlessly in the back seat there, where you can't do any damage"—and he put his hand in his pocket, and brought out the end of an ugly-looking rope—"and then we'll take charge of this expedition and go on our way. You can take it or leave it as you please. Shut up there, Myrt; we haven't any more time to waste. We're behind schedule now."
Leslie's mouth shut in a pretty little tight line, and her eyes got like two blue sparks, but her voice was cool and steady.
"Well, I won't!" she said tensely; and with a sudden motion she grabbed the switch-key and, springing to her feet, flung it far out across the road, across a little scuttled canoe that lay at the bank, and plunk into the water, before the other occupants of the car could realize what she was doing.
Fred Hicks saw just an instant too late, and sprang for her arm to stop it, then arose in his seat with curses on his lips, watching the exact location of the splash and calling to his mate to go out and fish for it.
Leslie sank back in her seat, tense and white, and both young men sprang out and rushed to the shore of the little lake, leaving a stream of unspeakable language behind them. Myrtle began to berate her friend.
"You little fool!" she said. "You think you've stopped us, don't you? But you'll suffer for this! If you make us late, I'll see that you don't get back to your blessed home for a whole week; and, when you do, you won't have such a pretty reputation to go on as you have now! It won't do a bit of good, either, for those two men can find that switch-key; or, if they can't, Fred knows how to start a car without one. You've only made a lot of trouble for yourself, and that's all the good it will do you. You thought you were smart, but you're nothing but an ignorant little kid!"
But the ignorant little kid was not listening. With trembling fingers she was pulling off the wrappings from a small package, and suddenly a warning whir cut short Myrtle's harangue. She lurched forward, and tried to pull Leslie's hands away from the wheel.
"Bart! Come quick! She's got another! Hurry, boys!"
The two young men had shoved the old canoe up on the bank, turned it over, emptied it, and put it back in the water. Fred Hicks was holding it at arm's length now in the water; and the would-be bridegroom had crawled out to the extreme end, and with rolled-up sleeves was pawing about in the water, which did not appear to be very deep. At the cry they turned; and Fred Hicks, forgetting the other man's plight, let go the boat, and dashed back to the road. Young Laws, arising too hastily, rolled into the water completely, and came splashing up the bank in a frothy state of mind. But suddenly, as they came, while Myrtle's best efforts were put forth to hinder Leslie's movements, something cold and gleaming flashed in her face that sent her crouching back in the corner of her seat and screaming. Leslie had slipped her hand into the little secret pocket of the car door and brought out her revolver, hoping fervently that it was still loaded, and that Allison had not chosen to shoot at a mark or anything with it the last time he was out.
"You'd better sit down and keep quiet," she said coolly. "I'm a good shot."
Then she put her foot on the clutch, and the car started just as Fred Hicks lit on the running-board.
Leslie's little revolver came promptly around to meet him, and he dropped away with a gasp of surprise as suddenly as he had lit. Suddenly Leslie became aware of the other young man dripping and breathless, but with a dangerous look in his eye, bearing down upon her from the lake side of the road; and she flashed around and sent a shot ringing out into the road, the bullet ploughing into the dust at his very feet. The car leaped forward to obey her touch, and in a second more they had left the two young men safely behind them.
Myrtle was crouched in the back seat, weeping; and Leslie, cool and brave in the front seat, was trembling from head to foot. This was a new road to her; at least, she had never been more than two or three miles on it, and she did not know where she would bring up. She began to wonder how long her gasoline would hold out, for she had been in such a hurry to get away with Myrtle before Allison should come home that she had forgotten to look to see if everything was all right; and she now remembered that Allison had had the car out late the night before. Everything seemed to be falling in chaos about her. The earth rose and fell in front of her excited gaze; the sun was going down; and the road ahead seemed endless, without a turning as far as she could see.
A great burying-ground stretched for what seemed like miles along one side of the road. The polished marble gleamed red and bleak in the setting sun. The sky had suddenly gone lead-color, and there was a chill in the air. Leslie longed for nothing so much as to hide her head in Julia Cloud's lap and weep. Yet she must go on and on and on till this awful road came to an end. Would it ever come to an end? Oh, it must somewhere! A great tower of bricks loomed ahead with a wide paved driveway leading to it through an arched gateway, and over the arch some words. Leslie got only one of them, "CREMATORY." She shuddered, and put on speed. It seemed that she had come to the place of death and desolation. It was lonely everywhere, and not a soul in sight. What horror if her gasoline should give out in a place like this, and they have to spend the night here, she and that poor, weak creature sobbing behind! What contempt she felt for her former friend! What contempt she felt for herself! Oh, she was well punished for her wilfulness! To think she should have presumed to hope she could help her to better ways, she, a little innocent, who never dreamed of such depths of duplicity as had been shown her that afternoon! Oh, to think of that loathsome Hicks person daring to touch her! To try to take her car away from her! and to smile at her in that disgusting way!
On and on went the car, and the road wound away into the dusk up a high hill and down again, up another, past an old farmhouse with one dim light in the back window and a great dog howling like one in some old classic tale she had read; on and on, till at last a cross-road came, and she knew not which way to take, to right or to left. There was a sign-board; but it was too dark to read, and she dared not get out and leave Myrtle. There was no telling but she might try to run off with the car. It was at the crematory that she began to pray, and, when she reached the crossing, her heart put up a second plea for guidance. "O God, if You will just help me home, I will try, try, TRY to be what You want me to be! Please, please, please!" It was the old vow of a heart bowed down and brought to the limit. It was the first time Leslie had ever realized that there could be a situation in which Leslie Cloud would not find some way out. It was the first time, too, perhaps, when she realized herself as being a sinner in the sense of having a will against God and having exercised it for her own pleasure rather than for His glory.
Down the road to the left the car sped, and after a mile and a half of growing darkness, with woods and scattered farmhouses, the lights of a village began to appear. But it was no village that Leslie knew, and nothing anywhere gave her a clew. A trolley line appeared, however; and after a little a car came along with a name that showed it was going cityward. Leslie decided to follow the trolley track.
In the meantime the girl in the back seat roused up, and began to look about her, evidently recognizing something familiar in the streets or town.
"You can put me out here, Leslie; I'm done with you," she said haughtily. "I don't care to go any farther with you. I'll go back on the train."
"No!" said Leslie sharply. "You'll go home with me. I took you away without knowing what you intended, but I mean to put you back where you were before I'm done. Then my responsibility for you will be over. I was a fool to let you deceive me that way, but I'm not a fool any longer."
"Well, I won't go home with you, so! and that's flat, Leslie Cloud. You needn't think you can frighten me into going, either. We're in a village now, and my aunt lives here. If you get out that revolver again, I'll scream and have you arrested, and tell them you're trying to murder me; so there!"
For answer Leslie turned sharply into a cross-road that led away from the settled portion of the town, and put on all speed, tearing away into the dusk like a wild creature. Myrtle screamed and stormed behind her, all to no purpose. Leslie Cloud had her mettle up, and meant to take her prisoner home. Out of the town she turned into another road that ran parallel to the trolley track, from which she could see the lights of the trolleys passing now and again, as it grew darker; and by and by when they came to another cross-road, Leslie got back to the trolley track, and followed it; but whenever they came into a town she kept to its outskirts.
Leslie had a pretty good general sense of direction, and she knew just where the sun went down. If it had not been for a river and some hills that turned up and bewildered her, she would have made a pretty direct course home; but, as it was, she went far out of her way, and was long delayed and much distressed besides, being continually harassed by the angry girl in the back seat. The gasoline was holding out. It was evident that Allison had looked after it. Blessed Allison, who always did everything when he ought to do it, and never put off things until the next day! How cross she had been with him for the last six weeks, and how good and kind he always was to her! How she had deceived dear Cloudy and troubled her by going off this afternoon! Oh, what would they think? Would they ever forgive her, and take her back into their hearts, and trust her again? The tears were blurring her eyes now as she stared ahead at the road. It seemed as if she had been tearing on through the night for hours like this. Her arms ached with the nervous strain; her back ached; her head ached. Perhaps they were going around the world, and would only stop when the gasoline gave out!
They swept around a curve. Could it be that those were the lights of the college ahead on the hill? Oh, joy at last! They were! Up this hill, over across two blocks, and the little pink-and-white house would be nestled among the hemlocks; and rest and home at last! But there was something to be done first. She turned toward the back seat, where sat her victim silent and angry.
"Well, you can let me out now, Leslie Cloud," said Myrtle scornfully. "I suppose you won't dare lord it over me any longer, and I'll take good care that the rest of the town understands what a dangerous little spitfire you are. You ought to be arrested for this night's work! That's all I've got to say."
"Well, I have one more thing to say," said Leslie slowly, as she swerved into her own street and her eyes hungrily sought for the lights of Cloudy Villa. "You're coming into the house with me first, before you go anywhere else, and you're going to tell this whole story to my Aunt Jewel. After that—I should worry!"
"Well, I rather guess I am not going into your old house and tell your old aunt anything! I'm going to get right out here this minute; and you're good and going to let me out, too, or I'll scream bloody murder, and tell it all over this town how you went out there to meet those boys. You haven't got any witnesses, and I have, remember!" said Myrtle, suddenly feeling courageous now that she was back among familiar streets.
But Leslie turned sharply into the little drive, and brought up the car in a flood of light at the end of the terrace.
"Now, get out!" she ordered, swinging the door open and flashing her little revolver about again at the angry girl.
"O Leslie!" pleaded the victim, quickly quelled by the sight of the cold steel, and thrilled with the memory of that shot whistling by her into the road a few hours before.
"Get out!" said Leslie coolly as the front door was flung open and Julia Cloud peered through the brightness of the porch light into the darkness.
"Get out!" Leslie held the cold steel nearer to Myrtle's face, and the girl shuddered, and got out.
"Now go into the house!" she ordered; and shuddering, shivering, with a frightened glance behind her and a fearful glance ahead, she walked straight into the wondering, shocked presence of Julia Cloud, who threw the door open wide and stepped aside to let them in. Leslie, with the revolver still raised, and pointed toward the other girl, came close behind Myrtle, who sidled hastily around to get behind Miss Cloud.
"Why, Leslie! What is the matter?" gasped Julia Cloud.
"Tell her!" ordered Leslie, the revolver still pointed straight at Myrtle.
"What shall I tell?" gasped the other girl, turning a white, miserable face toward Miss Cloud as if to appeal to her leniency. But there was a severity in Julia Cloud's face now after her long hours of anxiety that boded no good for the cause of all her alarm.
"Tell her the whole story!" ordered the fierce young voice of Leslie.
"Why, we went out to take a ride," began Myrtle, looking up with her old braggadocio. There had seldom been a time when Myrtle had not been able to get out of a situation by use of her wily tongue.
"Tell it all," said Leslie, looking across the barrel of her weapon. "Tell who wanted to go on that ride."
"Why, yes, I asked Leslie to take me. I—we—well, that is—I wanted to meet a friend."
"Tell it straight!" ordered Leslie.
"Why, of course I didn't tell Leslie I expected to meet them—him. I wasn't just sure he could make the arrangements. I meant to tell her when we got out. And when we met him—and my cousin—it was my cousin I was to meet—you see I'm—we—he——"
Myrtle was getting all tangled up with her glib tongue under the clear gaze of Julia Cloud's truth-compelling eyes. She looked up and down, and twisted the fringe on her sash, and turned red and white by turns, and seemed for the first time a very young, very silly child. But Leslie had suffered, and just now Leslie had no mercy. This girl had been a kind of idol to whom she had sacrificed much, and now that her idol had fallen she wanted to make the idol pay. Or no, was that it? Leslie afterwards searched her heart, and felt that she could truly say that her strongest motive in compelling this confession had been to get the burden of the knowledge of it off her own shrinking soul.
"Tell the rest!" came the relentless voice of Leslie, and Myrtle struggled on.
"Well, I'm engaged to Mr. Bartram Laws; and my guardian won't let us get married till I'm through college, and we fixed it up to get married to-day quietly. I knew it would be all right after he found out he couldn't help himself, and so——"
"Tell how you asked the boys to get in the car!" ordered the fierce voice again; and Myrtle, recalled from another attempt to pass it all off pleasantly, went step by step through the whole shameful story until it was complete.
Then Leslie with a sudden motion of finality flung the little weapon down upon the mahogany table, and dashed into Julia Cloud's arms in a storm of tears. "O Cloudy, I'll never, never do any such thing again! And I hate her! I hate her! I'll never forgive her! Can you ever forgive me?"
No one had heard a sudden, startled exclamation from the porch room as Leslie and Myrtle came into the house; but now Myrtle suddenly looked up, thinking the time had come for her to steal away unseen; and there in the two doorways that opened on either side of the fireplace stood, on one side Allison Cloud and the dean of the college, and on the other side two members of the student executive body, all looking straight at her! Moreover, she read it in their eyes that they had heard every word of her confession. Without a word she dropped white and stricken into a chair, and covered her face with her hands. For once her brazen wiles were gone.
It happened that Miss Myrtle Villers had not confined her affections to Mr. Bartram Laws. She had been seen wandering about the campus with other youths at odd hours of the evening when young-lady students were supposed to be safely within college halls or properly chaperoned at some public gathering. The "student exec" had had her in tow for several weeks, and she had already received a number of reproofs and warnings. A daring escapade the evening before had brought matters to a head, and it was very possibly because of some suspicion that they might have found her out that Myrtle had made her plans to be absent on that afternoon. However that was, when the executive body in consultation with the dean sent for her, they traced her to the Clouds' house. At least, they came there about seven o'clock to inquire and hoping to take her unaware. They had found Allison in a great state of excitement, telephoning hither and yon to try to get some clew to his sister's whereabouts. They had remained to advise and suggest, greatly worried at the whole situation, the more so because it involved Leslie Cloud, whose bright presence had taken great hold upon everybody.
And now, without knowing it, Leslie Cloud had taken the one way to put the whole matter into the right hands and to exonerate herself. If she had known that any member of the faculty was in that room listening, if she had dreamed that even her brother was there, she would not have thought it right or honorable to put even an enemy in such a position, either for her own sake or for the girl's. She had only wanted some wise, true adviser to know the truth, so that the girl might learn what was right and have the responsibility taken from her own shoulders. She thought, too, that she had a right to be exonerated before her aunt. So now, while she wept out her contrition in Julia Cloud's arms, retribution was coming swiftly to Myrtle Villers; and her career in that college was sealed with finality. It was only too plain that such a girl was a menace to the other students, and needed to be removed.
Presently Leslie, feeling something strange in the atmosphere, lifted frightened, tear-filled eyes, and saw the grave faces of the dean and his companions! She held her breath with suspense. How terrible! How public and unseemly! She had brought all this upon herself and her family by her persistent friendship with this silly girl! And she fell to trembling and shuddering, all her fine, sweet nerve gone now that the strain was over.
Julia Cloud drew her down upon the couch, and soothed her, covering her with an afghan and trying to comfort her. Then the dean stepped over to the couch and spoke to Leslie.
"Miss Cloud, you must not feel so bad," he said gently, as if she had been his own child. "You have acted nobly, and no one will blame you. You have perhaps saved Miss Villers from great shame and sorrow, and you certainly have been brave and true. Don't worry, child," and he patted Leslie's heaving shoulder kindly.
Presently the dean and his committee were gone, taking the cowering Myrtle with them, and Leslie lay snuggled up on the couch, with Allison building up the fire and Cherry bringing a tray with a nice supper. Julia Cloud fixed a hot-water bag to warm the chilled hands and feet. It was so good to be at home! The tears rushed into her eyes again, and her throat filled with sobs.
"O Cloudy!" She caught her aunt's hands. "I'll never, never do anything again you don't want me to!" she sobbed out, and then burst into another paroxysm of tears.
"There! Now, kid! Don't cry any more!" pleaded Allison, springing to her side and kneeling by her, smoothing her hair roughly. "You were a little winner! You had every bit of your nerve with you. Why, you did a great thing, kid! Outwitting those two brutes and bringing that girl back in spite of herself. But the greatest thing of all was your making her confess. Now they've got something to go on. If you hadn't done that, it would have been her word against yours; and I imagine she's always managed to keep things where she could get around people with her wiles. Now she's got to face facts; and believe me, kid, it'll be better for her in the end. She was headed straight for a bad end, and no mistake. All the fellows knew it, and the faculty suspected it; and it was making no end of trouble. But now the girl may be saved, for that dean never lets a student go to destruction, they say, if he can help it. Oh, of course he'll fire her. She isn't fit to be around here. But he'll keep an eye on her, and he'll fire her in such a way that she'll have another chance to make good if she's willing to take it. Don't you worry about spoiling her life. She'd set out to spoil it in the first place, and the best thing that could possibly happen to her was to get stopped before she went too far. From all you say I shouldn't think a marriage with that fellow would have been any advantage to her."
"Oh, he was awful, Allison!" shuddered Leslie. "He smelled of liquor; and he had great, coarse lips and eyes; and he put his arms around her, and kissed her right there before us all; and they acted perfectly disgusting! I'm almost sure from things I heard them say that she hadn't been engaged to him at all, she hadn't even known him till last week. She met him in town—just picked him up on the street! And that Fred Hicks! I don't believe now he was her cousin at all."
"Probably not. But leave that all to the dean. He'll ferret it out. He went in there to the telephone before he left, and from what I heard I imagine he's got detectives out after those two guys, and they may sleep in the lockup to-night. They certainly deserve to. And I shall have a hand in settling with them, too. I can't have my sister treated that way and let it go easily. They've got to answer to me. There, kid!"
He stooped down, and kissed her gently on her hot, wet forehead; and Leslie caught his hand and nestled her own in it.
"O Allison! It's so good to be home!" she murmured, squeezing his hand appreciatively. "I'll never, never, never go with a girl again that you don't like. I'm just going to stick to Jane. She's the only one up there I really love, anyway."
Allison seemed quite satisfied with these sentiments, and they had a beautiful time eating their supper before the fire, for no one had had any appetite before; and Cherry was as pleased to have the anxiety over and wait upon them all as if Leslie had been her own sister.
Into the midst of their little family group broke a hurried, excited knock on the door, and there stood Howard Letchworth with anxious face.
"I heard that your sister and one of the college girls had gone off in a car and got lost. Is it true? I came right around to see if I could help."
Leslie sat up with her teary eyes bright and eager, and her cheeks rosy with pleasure, all her pretty hair in a tumble about her face and the firelight playing over her features in a most charming way.
"Oh, it's awfully good of you," she called eagerly. "But I'm perfectly all right and safe."
He came over to the couch, and took her offered hand most eagerly, expressing his delight, and saying he had been almost sure it was some town gossip, but he could not rest satisfied until he was positive.
But Allison would not let it go at that.
"I'm going to tell him, Leslie," he said. "He won't let any one be the wiser; and, if people are saying anything like that, he can help stop their mouths." So Allison told the whole story. When it came to the part about Fred Hicks and Bartram Laws, Howard's face grew dark, and he flashed a look that boded no good to the two young ruffians.
"I know who that Laws fellow is," he said gravely. "He's rotten! And I shouldn't wonder if I could locate his friend. I get around quite a bit on my motor-cycle. May I use your 'phone a minute? I have a friend who is a detective. They ought to be rounded up. Miss Leslie, would you tell me carefully just what roads you took, as nearly as you know?"
So Leslie told in detail of the wild ride once more. Julia Cloud watched the young man's face as he listened, and knew that Leslie had a faithful friend and champion, knew also that here was one whose friendship was well worth cultivating, a clean, fine, strong young soul, and was glad for her little girl. Something stirred in her memory as she watched his look, and she went back to her childish days and the boy friend who had kissed her when he went away never to return. There was the same look in Howard Letchworth's eyes when he looked at Leslie, the age-old beauty of a man's clean devotion to a sweet, pure woman soul.
Of course Leslie was a mere child yet, and was not thinking of such things; but there need be no fear that that fine, strong young man would be unwise enough to let the child in her be frightened away prematurely. They were friends now, beautiful friends; and that would be enough for them both for a long time. She was content.
She watched them all the evening, and listened to their talk about the Christian Endeavor Society. How beautiful it was that Leslie had been able to bring the boy to a degree of interest in that! Of course it was for her sake, but he was man enough to be interested on his own account now; and from their talk she could see that he had gone heart and soul with Allison into the plans for the winter work. He had a fine voice, and was to sing a solo at the next meeting. Presently Leslie so far recovered her nerves as to smooth out her hair and go to the piano to practise with him.
"O Jesus, Thou art standing Outside the fast-closed door,"
rang out the rich, sweet notes; and the tender, sympathetic voice brought out each word with an appeal. The boy could not sing like that and not feel it himself sometime. Julia Cloud found herself praying; praying, as if she whispered to a dear Companion sitting close beside her at the hearthside: "Dear Christ, show this boy. Teach him what Thou art. Make him Thy true disciple."
Suddenly the young fellow turned to Allison with a smile.
"I like the way you take your religion with you into college, Cloud. It makes it seem real. I haven't met many fellows that had any before, or perhaps I shouldn't have been such a heathen as I am. But I say, why don't you try to get some of your frat brothers to come down to the meeting? They ought to be willing to do that for you, and it would be great to have them sing. You've got a lot of the glee club in your crowd."
"That's so!" said Allison. "I don't know but I'll try it. I'd like to have them come the night you sing. Guess I'll have to hunt around and get a speaker. No, I won't either. Just the meeting itself is good enough now for anybody. They're a pretty good little bunch down there. They've been working like beavers. Jane Bristol gets the girls together, and coaches them for every meeting. She's some girl, do you know it?"
Howard Letchworth agreed that she was, but he cast a side glance down at the bright head of the girl, who was playing his accompaniment as if he felt there were others. Julia Cloud was watching her darling girl, wondering, hoping, praying that she might always stay so sweet and unspoiled.
But when the young man was gone home, and Leslie came back to the couch again, she suddenly drooped.
"Cloudy Jewel," she said wearily, "it isn't right. I don't deserve people to be so nice to me, the dean, and you all, and Howard and everybody. It was a lot my fault that all this happened. I thought I could make that girl over if I just stuck to her. She had promised me she would come to Christian Endeavor, and join; and I wanted to show you all what a power I had over her. I was just conceited; that was all there was about it. Now I see that she was only fooling me. I couldn't have done anything at all alone. I needed God. I didn't ask Him to help. You've talked a lot about that in our Sunday meetings, but it never went down into my heart until I was driving past that old crematory, and I felt as if I was all alone and Death all in black trailing robes was going along fast beside me. Then I knew God was the only one who could help, and I began to pray. I hope maybe I've learned my lesson, and I'll not be so swelled-headed next time. But you oughtn't to forgive me, Cloudy, not so easy. Cloudy, you're just like God!"
It was several days before Leslie recovered fully from the nervous strain she had been under. She slept long the next day, and Julia Cloud would not waken her. For a week there were dark circles under the bright eyes, and the rose of her cheek was pale. She went about meekly with downcast eyes, and the bright fervor of her spirit seemed dimmed. It was not until one afternoon when Allison suggested that they get Jane Bristol and Howard Letchworth and go for bittersweet-berry vines and hemlock-branches to decorate for the Christian Endeavor social that her spirits seemed to return, and the unwholesome experience was put away in the past at last.
Howard Letchworth had been most thoughtful about the matter in the village, and had managed so that the tragic had been taken out of the story that had started to roll about, and Leslie could go around and not feel that all eyes were upon her wondering about her escapade. Gradually the remembrance of it died out of her thoughts, although the wholesome lesson she had learned never faded.
More and more popular in the college grew the gatherings down at Cloudy Villa. Sometimes Leslie brought home three or four girls for Friday and Saturday, not often any on Sunday, unless it was Jane; for Sundays were their very own day for the little family, and they dreaded any who might seem like intruders.
"It is our time when we catch up in our loving for all the week," Leslie explained with a quaint smile to one girl who broadly hinted that she would not mind being asked for over Sunday. "And, besides, you mightn't like the way we keep Sunday. Everybody who comes has to go to church and Christian Endeavor with us, and enjoy our Bible-reading, singing hour around the fire; and I didn't think you would."
"Well, I like your nerve!" answered the girl; but she sat studying Leslie afterwards with a thoughtful gaze, and began to wonder whether, after all, a Sunday spent in that way might not be really interesting.
"She's a kind of a nut, isn't she?" she remarked to another friend of Leslie's.
"She's a pretty nice kind of a nut, then, Esther," was the response. "If that's a nut, we better grow a whole tree of them. I'm going down there all I can. I like 'em!"
Julia Cloud seemed to have a fertile brain for all kinds of lovely ways to while away a holiday. As the cold weather came on, winter picnics became the glory of the hour. Long walks with heavy shoes and warm sweaters and mittens were inaugurated. A kettle of hot soup straight from the fire, wrapped in a blanket and carried in a big basket, was a feature of the lunch. When the party reached a camping-spot, a fire would be built and the soup-kettle hung over an improvised crane to put on its finishing touches, while the rest of the eatables were set forth in paper plates, each portion neatly wrapped in waxed paper ready for easy handling. Sometimes big mince pies came along, and were stood on edge near the fire to get thawed out. Bean soup, corned-beef sandwiches, and hot mince pie made a hearty meal for people who had tramped ten or fifteen miles since breakfast.
Oh, how those college-fed boys and girls enjoyed these picnics, with Julia Cloud as a kind of hovering angel to minister with word or smile or in some more practical way, wherever there was need! They all called her "Cloudy Jewel" now whenever they dared, and envied those who got closest to her and told her their troubles. Many a lad or lassie brought her his or her perplexities; and often as they sat around the winter camp, perhaps on a rock brushed free from snow, she gave them sage advice wrapped up in pleasant stories that were brought in ever so incidentally. There was nothing ever like preaching about Julia Cloud; she did not feel that she knew enough to preach. And sometimes, as they walked homeward through the twilight of a long, happy afternoon, and the streaks of crimson were beginning to glow in the gray of the horizon, some one or two would lag behind and ask her deep, sweet questions about life and its meaning and its hereafter. Often they showed her their hearts as they had never shown them even to their own people, and often a word with her sent some student back to work harder and fight stronger against some subtle temptation. She became a wholesome antidote to the spirit of doubt and atheism that had crept stealthily into the college and was attacking so many and undermining what little faith in religion they had when they came there.
It came to be a great delight to many of the young college people to spend an evening around the hearth at Cloudy Villa. There never had been any trouble about that question of dancing, because they just did not do it; and there was always something else going on, some lively games, sometimes almost a "rough-house," as the boys called it, but never anything really unpleasant. Julia Cloud was "a good sport," the boys said; and the girls delighted in her. The evenings were filled with impromptu programmes thought out carefully by Julia Cloud, but proposed and exploited in the most casual manner.
"Allison, why wouldn't it be a good idea for you to act out that story we were reading the other day the next time you have some of the young people down? You and Leslie and Jane with the help of one or two others could do it, and there wouldn't be much to learn. If you all read it over once or twice more, you'd have it so you could easily extemporize. Do you know, I think there's a hidden lesson in that story that would do some of those boys and girls good if they could see it lived out, and perhaps set them to reading the book?"
Again they would be asked suddenly, soon after their arrival, each one to represent his favorite character in Shakespeare, or to reproduce some great public man so that they all could recognize him; and they would be sent up-stairs to select from a great pile of shawls, wraps, and all sorts of garments any which they needed for an improvised costume.
Another evening there would be brought forth a new game which nobody had seen, and which absorbed them all for perhaps two hours until some delicious and unique refreshments would be produced to conclude the festivities. At another time the round dining-table would be stretched to take in all its leaves, and the entire company would gather around it with uplifted thumbs and eager faces unroariously playing "up Jenkins" for an hour or two. Any little old game went well under that roof, though Julia Cloud kept a controlling mind on things, and always managed to change the game before anybody was weary of it.
Also there was much music in the little house. Allison played the violin well; two or three others who played a little at stringed and wind instruments were discovered; and often the whole company would break loose into song until people on the street halted and walked back and forth in front of the house to listen to the wild, sweet harmonies of the fresh young voices.
At the close of such an evening it was not an uncommon happening for a crowd of the frat boys to gather in a knot in front of the house and give the college yell, with a tiger at the end, and then "CLOUD! CLOUD! CLOUD!" The people living on that street got used to it, and opened their windows to listen, with eyes tender and thoughtful as they pondered on how easily this little family had caught the hearts of those college people, and were helping them to have a good time. Perhaps it entered into their minds that other people might do the same thing if they would only half try.
In return for all her kindness a number of the young people would often respond to Julia Cloud's wistful invitation to go to church, and more and more they were being drawn by twos and threes to come to the Christian Endeavor meetings in the village. It seemed as if they had but just discovered that there was such a thing, to the equal amazement of themselves and the original members of the Christian Endeavor Society, who had always responded to any such suggestions on the part of their pastor or elders with a hopeless "Oh, you can't get those college guys to do anything! They think they're it!" The feeling was gradually melting away, and a new brotherhood and sisterhood was springing up between them. It was not infrequent now for a college maiden to greet some village girl with a frank, pleasant smile, and accept invitations to lunch and dinner. And college boys were friendly and chummy with the village boys who were not fellow-students, and often took them up to their frat rooms to visit. So the two elements of the locality were coming nearer to each other, and their bond was the village Christian Endeavor Society.
So passed the first winter and spring in the little pink-and-white house. And with the first week of vacation there came visitors.
"Guardy Lud" was the first visitor, just for a night and a day. He had come East for a flying business trip, and could not pass by his beloved wards without at least a glimpse. He dropped down into their midst quite unexpectedly the night before college closed, and found them with a bevy of young people at the supper-table, who opened their ranks right heartily, and took him in. He sat on the terrace in the moonlight with them afterwards, joking, telling them stories, and eating chocolates with the rest. When they gathered about the piano for a sing, he joined in with a good old tenor, surprising them all by knowing a lot of the songs they sang.
After the young people were gone he lingered, wiping his eyes, and saying, "Bless my soul!" thoughtfully. He told Julia Cloud over and over again how more than pleased he was with what she had done for his children, and insisted that her salary should be twice as large. He told her she was a big success, and should have more money at her command to do with as she pleased, and that he wanted the children to have a larger allowance during the coming year. Allison had spoken of his work among the young people of the church, and he felt that it would have been the wish of their father and mother both that the young people should give liberally toward church-work. He would see that a sum was set aside in the bank for their use in any such plans as they might have for their Christian Endeavor work.
They talked far into the night, for he had to hear all the stories of all their doings, and every minute or two one or the other of the children would break in to tell something about the other or to praise their dear Cloudy Jewel for her part in everything.
The next day they took him everywhere and showed him everything about the college and the place, introduced him to their favorite professors, at least those who were not already gone on their vacations, and took him for a long drive past their favorite haunts. Then he had to meet Jane Bristol and Howard Letchworth. Julia Cloud was greatly relieved and delighted when he set his approval upon both these young people as suitable friends for the children.
"They are both poor and earning their own living," said Julia Cloud, feeling that in view of the future and what it might contain she wanted to be entirely honest, that the weight of responsibility should not rest too heavily upon her.
"All the better for that, no doubt," said Guardy Lud thoughtfully, watching Jane Bristol's sweet smile as she talked over some committee plans with Allison. "I should say they were about as wholesome a couple of young people as could be found to match your two. Just keep 'em to that kind for a year or two more, and they'll choose that kind for life. I'm entirely satisfied with the work you're doing, Miss Cloud. I couldn't have found a better mother for 'em if I'd searched heaven, I'm sure."
And so Julia Cloud was well content to go on with her beloved work as home-maker.
But the day after Guardy Lud left, just as the three were sitting together over a great State map of roads, perfecting their plans for a wonderful vacation, which was to include a brief visit to Ellen Robinson at Sterling, a noisy Ford drew up at the door, and there was Ellen Robinson herself, with the entire family done up in linen dust-coats and peering curiously, half contemptuously, at the strange pink-and-white architecture of the many-windowed "villa."
Allison arose and went down the terrace to do the honors, showing his uncle where to drive in and put his car in the little garage, helping his aunt and the little cousins to alight.
"For mercy's sake, Julia, what a queer house you've got!" said Ellen the minute she arrived, gazing disapprovingly at the many windows and the brick terrace. "I should think 'twould take all your time to keep clean. What's the idea in making a sidewalk of your front porch? Looks as if some crazy person had built it. Couldn't you find anything better than this in the town? I saw some real pretty frame houses with gardens as we came through."
"We like this very well," said Julia Cloud with her old patient smile and the hurt flush that always accompanied her answers to her sister's contempt. "Cherry doesn't seem to mind washing windows. She likes to keep them bright. We find it very comfortable and light and airy. Come inside, and see how pretty it is."
Once inside, Ellen Robinson was somewhat awed with the strangeness of the rooms and the beauty of the furnishings, but all she said after a prolonged survey was: "Um! No paper on the wall! That's queer, isn't it? And the chimney right in the room! It looks as though they didn't have plaster enough to go around."
Leslie took the children up-stairs to wash their faces and freshen up, and Julia Cloud led her sister to the lovely guest-room that was always in perfect order.
"Well, you certainly have things well fixed," said Ellen grudgingly. "What easy little stairs! It's like child's play going up. I suppose that's one consolation for having such a little playhouse affair to live in; you don't have to climb up far. Well, we've come to stay two days if you want us. Herbert said he could spare that much time off, and we're going to stop in Thayerville on the way back and see his folks a couple of days; and that'll be a week. Now, if you don't want us, say so, and we'll go on to-night. It isn't as if we couldn't go when we like, you know."
But Julia Cloud was genuinely glad to see her sister, and said so heartily enough to satisfy even so jealous a nature as Ellen's; and so presently they were walking about the pretty rooms together, and Ellen was taking in all the beauties of the home.
"And this is your bedroom!" she paused in the middle of the rose-and-gray room, and looked about her, taking in every little detail with an eye that would put it away for remembrance long afterwards. "Well, they certainly have feathered your nest well!" she declared as her eyes rested on the luxury everywhere. "Though I don't like that painted furniture much myself," she said as she glanced at the French gray enamel of the bed; "but I suppose it's all right if that's the kind of thing you like. Was it some of their old furniture from California?"
"Oh, no," said Julia Cloud quickly, the pretty flush coming in her cheeks. "Everything was bought new except a few little bits of mahogany down-stairs. We had such fun choosing it, too. Don't you like my furniture? I love it. I hovered around it again and again; but I didn't dream of having it in my room, it was so expensive. It's real French enamel, you know, and happens to be a craze of fashion at present. I thought it was ridiculous to buy it, but Leslie insisted that it was the only thing for my room; and those crazy, extravagant children went and bought it when I had my head turned."
"You don't say!" said Ellen Robinson, putting a hard, investigating finger on the foot-board. "Well, it does seem sort of smooth. But I never thought my cane-seat chairs were much. Guess I'll have to get 'em out and varnish 'em. What's that out there, a porch?"
Julia Cloud led her out to the upper porch with its rush rugs, willow chairs, and table, and its stone wall crowned with blooming plants and trailing vines. She showed her the bird's nest in the tree overhead.
"Well," said Ellen half sourly, "I suppose there's no chance of your getting sick of it all and coming back, and I must say I don't blame you. It certainly is a contrast from the way you've lived up to now. But these children will grow up and get married, and then where will you be? I suppose you have chances here of getting married, haven't you?"
The color flamed into Julia Cloud's cheeks in good earnest now.
"I'm not looking for such chances, Ellen," she said decidedly. "I don't intend ever to marry. I'm happier as I am."
"Yes, but after these children are married what'll you do? Who'll support you?"
"Don't let that worry you, Ellen, There are other children, and I love to mother them. But as far as support is concerned I'm putting away money in the bank constantly, more than I ever expected to have all together in life; and I shall not trouble anybody for support. However, I hope to be able to work for a good many years yet, and what I'm doing now I love. Shall we go down-stairs?"
"Have Allison and Leslie got any sweethearts yet?" she asked pryingly as she followed her sister down the stairs. "I suppose they have by this time."
"They have a great many young friends, and we have beautiful times together. But you won't see many of them now. College closed last week."
For two long days Allison and Leslie devoted themselves religiously to their relatives, taking them here and there in the car, showing them over the college and the town, and trying in all the ways they knew to make them have a good time; but when at last the two days and two nights were over, and the Robinsons had piled into their car and started away with grudging thanks for the efforts in their behalf, Leslie sat on the terrace musingly; and at last quite shyly she said:
"Cloudy, dear, what makes such a difference in people? Why are some so much harder to make have a good time than others? Why, I feel as if I'd lived years since day before yesterday, and I don't feel as if they'd half enjoyed anything. I really wanted to make them happy, for I felt as if we'd taken so much from them when we took you; but I just seemed to fail, everything I did."
Julia Cloud smiled.
"I don't know what it is, dear, unless it is that some people have different ideals and standards from other people, and they can't find their pleasure the same way. Your Aunt Ellen always wanted to have a lot of people around, and liked to go to tea-parties and dress a great deal; and she never cared for reading or study or music. But I think you're mistaken about their not having had a good time. They appreciated your trying to do things for them, I know, for Aunt Ellen said to me that you were a very thoughtful girl. And the children enjoyed the victrola, especially the funny records. Herbert liked it that Allison let him drive his car when they went out. They enjoyed the eating, too, I know, even though Ellen did say she shouldn't care to have her meals cooked by a servant; she should want to be sure they were clean."
"Did she truly say that, Cloudy?" twinkled Leslie. "Isn't she funny?" They both broke down and laughed.
"But I'm glad they came, Cloudy. I truly am. It was nice to play with the children, and nice to have a home to show our relatives, and nicest of all to have them see you—how beautiful you are at the head of the house."
"Dear, flattering child!" said Julia Cloud lovingly. "It is so good to know you feel that way! But now here comes Allison, and we must finish up our plans for the trip and get ready to close the house for the summer."
They had a wonderful trip to mountains and lakes and seaside, staying as long as they pleased wherever they liked, and everywhere making friends and having good times; but toward the end of their trip the children began to get restless for the little pink-and-white cottage and home.
"We really ought to get back and see how the Christian Endeavor Society is getting along," said Allison one day as they glided through a little village that reminded them of home. "I don't see any place as nice as our town, do you, Cloudy? And I don't feel quite right anywhere but home on Sunday, do you? For, really, all the Christian Endeavor societies I've been to this summer acted as if their members were all away on vacations and they didn't care whether school kept or not."
And so they went home to begin another happy winter. But the very first day there came a rift in their happiness in the shape of the new professor of chemistry, a man about Julia Cloud's age, whom Ellen Robinson had met on her visit to Thayerville, and told about her sister. Ellen had suggested that maybe he could get her sister to take him to board!
To this day Julia Cloud has never decided whether Ellen really thought Julia would take a professor from the college to board, or whether she just sent him there as a joke. There was a third solution, which Julia Cloud kept in the back of her mind and only took out occasionally with an angry, troubled look when she was very much annoyed. It was that Ellen was still anxious to have her sister get married, and she had taken this way to get her acquainted with a man whom she thought a "good match". If Julia had been sure that this idea had entered into her sister's thoughts, she might have slammed the door in Professor Armitage's face that night when he had the audacity to come and ask to be taken into Cloudy Villa as a boarder.
"Why, the very idea!" said Leslie with snapping eyes. "As if we wanted a man always around! No, indeed! Horrors! Wouldn't that be awful?"
But Professor Armitage, like everybody else who came once to Cloudy Villa, liked it, and begged a thousand pardons for presuming, but came again and again, until even the children began to like him in a way, and did not in the least mind having him around.
But the day came at last, about the middle of the winter, or nearer to the spring, when Leslie and Allison began to realize that Professor Armitage came to see their Cloudy Jewel, and they met in solemn conclave to talk it over.
It was out on a lonely road in the car that they had chosen to go for their conference, where there was no chance of their being interrupted; and they whirled away through the town and out to the long stretch of whiteness in glum silence, the tears welling to overflow in Leslie's eyes.
At last they were past the bounds where they were likely to meet acquaintances, and Leslie broke forth.
"Do you really think it's true that we've got to give her up? Are you sure it has come to that, Allison? It seems perfectly preposterous!"
"Well, you know if she cares for him," said Allison gravely, "we've no right to hold on to her and spoil her life. You know it was different when it was old Pill Bowman. This is a real man."
"Care for him! How could she possibly care for him?" snapped Leslie. "Why, he has a wart on his nose, and he snuffs! I never thought of it before till last night, but he does; he snuffs every little while! Ugh!"
"Why, I thought you liked him, Leslie!"
"So I did until I thought he wanted Cloudy, but I can't see that! I hate him. I always thought he was about the nicest man in the faculty except the dean, and he's married; but since I got onto the idea that he wants Cloudy I can't bear the sight of him. I went way round the block to-day to keep from meeting him. He isn't nice enough for Cloudy, Allison."
"What's the matter with him? Warts and snuffing don't count if you love a person. I like him. I like him ever so much, and I think he's lonesome. He'd appreciate a home like ours. You know what a wonderful wife Cloudy would make."
Leslie fairly screamed.
"O Allison! To think you have come to it that you're willing to give up our lovely home, and have Cloudy go off, and we go the dear knows where, and have to board at the college or something."
"Some day we'll be getting married, too, I suppose," said Allison speculatively.
His sister flashed a wise, curious look up at him, and studied his face a minute. Then a shade came over her own once more.
"Yes, I s'pose you will, pretty soon. You're almost done college. But poor me! I'll have to board for two whole years more, and I'm not sure I'll ever get married. The man I like might not like me. And you may be very sure I'm not going to live on any sister-in-law, no matter how much I love her, so there!"
Allison smiled, and put his arm protectingly around his sister.
"There, kid, you needn't get excited yet awhile. It's me and thee always, no matter how many wives I have; and you won't ever have to board. But, kid, I'm not willing to give up our house and Cloudy and all; I'm just thinking that maybe we ought to, you know. I guess we're not pigs, are we? Cloudy has had a mighty hard life, and missed a lot of things out of it."
"Well, isn't she having 'em now, I'd like to know? I think Cloudy likes us, and wants to stay with us. I think she's just loved the house and everything about it."
"Yes, I think so, too; but this is something bigger than anything else in the world if she really cares. Don't you think we ought to give her the chance?"
"I s'pose so, if she really wants it; but how can we find out?"
"That's it; just give her the chance. When Armitage comes in, just sneak out and stay away, and let her have a little time alone with him. It isn't right, us kids always sticking around. We ought to go out or up-stairs or something."
Leslie was still for a long time; and then she heaved a big sigh, and said, "All right!" in a very small voice. As they sped on their way toward home, there was hardly a word more between them.
It was after supper that very night that Leslie, having almost frightened Julia Cloud out of her happy calm by refusing to eat much supper, went off to bed with a headache as soon as the professor came in. Allison, too, said he had to go up to the college for a book he had forgotten; and for the first time since his advent the professor had a clear evening ahead of him with Julia Cloud, without anybody else by.
But Julia Cloud was distraught, and gave him little attention at first, with an attitude of listening directed toward the floor above. Finally she gently excused herself for a moment, and hurried up to Leslie's room, where she found a very damp and tearful Leslie attempting to appear wonderfully calm.
"What is it, dear child? Has something happened?" she begged. "I know you must be sick, or you wouldn't have gone to bed so early. Please tell me what is the matter. I shall send for the doctor at once if you don't."
Then Leslie, knowing that her brother would blame her if she spoiled the test, sat up bravely, and tried to laugh, assuring her aunt that she was only tired from studying and a little stiff from playing hockey too long, and she thought it would be better to rest to-night so she could be all right in the morning.
Julia Cloud, only half reassured by this unprecedented carefulness for her health on the part of the usually careless Leslie, went down abstractedly to her professor, and wished he would go home. He was well into the midst of a most heartfelt and touching proposal of marriage before she realized what was coming.
His voice was low and pleading; and Leslie, lying breathless above, not deigning to try to listen, yet painfully aware of the change of tones, was in tortures. Then Julia Cloud's pained, gentle tones, firmly replying, and more entreaty, with brief, simple answers. Most unexpectedly, before an hour passed Leslie heard the front door open and the professor go out and pass slowly down the walk. Her heart was in her throat, beating painfully. What had happened? A quick intuition presented a possible solution. Cloudy would not leave them while they were in college, and had bid him wait, or perhaps turned him down altogether! How dear of her! And yet with quick revulsion of spirit she began to pity the poor, lonely man who could not have Cloudy when he loved her.
A moment later Julia Cloud came softly up the stairs and tiptoed into her own room, and, horror of horrors! Leslie could hear her catch her breath like soft sobbing! Did Cloudy care, then, and had she turned down a man she loved in order to stick to them and keep her promise to their guardian?
Quick as a flash she was out of bed and pattering barefoot into Julia Cloud's room.
"Cloudy! Cloudy! You are crying! What is the matter? Quick! Tell me, please!"
Julia Cloud drew the girl down beside her on the bed, and nestled her lovingly and close.
"It's nothing, dear. It's only that I had to hurt a good man. It always makes me sorry to have to hurt any one."
Leslie nestled closer, smoothed her aunt's hair, and tried to think what to say; but nothing came. She felt shy about it. Finally she put her lips up, and touched her aunt's cheek, and whispered, "Don't cry, Cloudy dear!" and just then she heard Allison's key in the lock. She sprang up, drew her bath-robe about her, and ran down to whisper to him on the stairs what had happened.
"Well, it's plain she cares," whispered Allison sadly, gravely, turning his face away from the light. "I say, Les, we ought to do something. We ought to tell her it's all right for her to go ahead."
"I can't, Allison; I'd break down and cry, I know I would. I tried up there just now, but the words wouldn't come."
"Well, then, let's write her a letter! And we'll both sign it."
"All right. You write it," choked Leslie. "I'll sign it."
They slipped over to the desk in the porch room, and Leslie cuddled into a big willow cushioned chair, and shivered and sniffed while Allison scratched away at a sheet of paper for a few minutes. Then he handed it to her to read and sign. This was what he had written:
"DEAR CLOUDY: We see just how it is, and we want you to know that we are willing. Of course it'll be awfully hard to lose you; but it's right, and we wouldn't be happy not to have you be happy; and we want you to go ahead and not think of us. We'll manage all right somehow, and we love you and want to see you happy."
Leslie dropped a great tear on the page when she signed it; but she took the soft, embroidered sleeve of her nightgown, and dabbled it dry, so that it didn't blur the writing; and then together they slipped up-stairs. Leslie went into her aunt's room in the dark, and in a queer little voice said, "Cloudy, dear, here's a note for you." Laying it in her hand, Leslie hurried into her own room, shut her door softly, and hid in the closet so that Julia Cloud would not hear her sob.
A moment later Julia Cloud came into the hall with a dear, glad ring in her voice, and called: "Children! Where are you? Come here quick, you darlings!" and they flocked into her arms like lost ducklings.
"You blessed darlings!" she said, laughing and crying at the same time. "Did you think I wanted to get married and go away from you forever? Well, you're all wrong. I'll never do that. You may get married and go away from me; but I'll never go away from you till you send me, and I won't ever get married to any one on this earth at any time! Do you understand? I don't want to get married, ever!"
They all went into Julia Cloud's room then, and sat down with her on her couch, one on either side of her.
"Do you really mean it, Cloudy Jewel?" asked Leslie happily. "You don't want to get married, not even to that nice Professor Armitage?"
"Look here! Leslie, you said he had a wart!" put in her brother.
"Now keep still, Allison. He was nice all the time; only I didn't like him to want our Cloudy. He didn't seem to be quite nice enough for her. He didn't quite fit her. But if she wanted him——"
"But I don't, Leslie," cried Julia Cloud in distress. "I never did!"
"Are you really true, Cloudy, dear? You're such a dear, unselfish Cloudy. How shall we ever quite be sure she isn't giving him up just for us, Allison?"
"Children, listen!" said Julia Cloud, suddenly putting a quieting hand on each young hand in her lap. "I'll tell you something I never told to a living soul."
There was that in her voice that thrilled them into silence. It was as if she suddenly opened the door of her soul and let them look in on her real self as only God saw her. Their fingers tightened in sympathy as she went on.
"A long time ago—a great many years ago—perhaps you would laugh and think me foolish if you knew how many——"
"Oh, no, Cloudy, never!" said Leslie softly; and Allison growled a dissenting note.
"Well—there was some one whom I loved—who died. That is all; only—I never could love anybody that way again. Marriage without a love like that is a desecration."
"O Cloudy! We never knew——" murmured Leslie.
"No one ever knew, dear. He was very young. We were both scarcely more than children. I was only fourteen——"
"O Cloudy! How beautiful! And you have kept it all these years! Won't you—tell us just a little about it? I think it is wonderful; don't you, Allison?"
"Yes, wonderful!" said Allison in that deep, full tone of his that revealed a man's soul growing in the boy's heart.
"There is very little to tell, dear. He was a neighbor's son. We went to school together, and sometimes took walks on Saturdays. He rode me on his sled, and helped me fasten on my skates, and carried my books; and we played together when we had time to play. Then his people moved away out West; and he kissed me good-by, and told me he was coming back for me some day. That was all there was to it except a few little letters. Then they stopped, and one day his grandmother wrote that he had been drowned saving the life of a little child. Can you understand why I want to wait and be ready for him over there where he is gone? I keep feeling God will let him come for me when my life down here is over."
There was a long silence during which the young hands gripped hers closely, and the young thoughts grew strangely wise with insight into human life and all its joys and sorrows. They were thinking out in detail just what their aunt had missed, the sweet things that every woman hopes for, and thinks about alone with God; of love, strong care, little children, and a home. She had missed it all; and yet she had its image in her heart, and had been true to her first thought of it all the years. Now, when it was offered her again, she would not give up the old love for a new, would not take what was left of life. She would wait till the morning broke and her boy met her on the other shore.
Suddenly, as they thought, strong young arms encircled her, and held her close in a dear embrace.
"Then you're ours, Cloudy, all ours, for the rest of down here, aren't you?" half whispered Leslie.
"Yes, dear, as long as you need me—want me," she finished.
"We shall want you always, Cloudy!" said Allison in a clear man's voice of decision. "Put that down forever, Cloudy Jewel. You are our mother from now on and we want you always."
"That is dear," said Julia Cloud; "but"—a resignation in her voice—"some day you will marry, and then you will not need me any more and I shall find something to do somewhere."
Two fierce young things rose up in arms at once.
"Put that right out of your head, Cloudy Jewel!" cried Leslie. "You shan't say it again! If I thought any man could be mean enough not to feel as I do about you, I would never marry him; so there! I would never marry anybody!"
"My wife will love you as much as I do!" said Allison with conviction. "I shall never love anybody that doesn't. You'll see!"
And so with loving arms about her and tender words of fierce assertion they convinced her at last, and the bond that held them was only strengthened by the little tension it had sustained.
Professor Armitage came no more to the little pink-and-white house; but Julia Cloud was happy with her children, and they were content together. The happy days moved on.
"I don't see how you get time for that Christian Endeavor Society of yours, Cloud," said one of the professors to Allison. "I hear you're the moving spirit in it; yet you never fall down on your class work. How do you manage it? I'd like to put some of my other students onto your ways of planning."
"Well, there's all of Sunday, you know, professor," answered Allison promptly. "I don't give so very much more time, except a half-hour here and there to a committee meeting, or now and then a social on Friday night, when I'd otherwise be fooling, anyway. My sister and I cut out the dances, and put these social parties in their place."
"But don't you have to study on Sundays?"
"Never do!" was the quick reply. "Made it a rule when I started in here at this college, and haven't broken it once, not even for examinations. I find I'm fresher for my work Monday morning when I make the Sabbath real."
The professor eyed him curiously.
"Well, that certainly is interesting," he said. "I'll have to try it. Though I don't see how I'd quite manage it. I usually have to spend the whole Sunday correcting papers."
"Save 'em up till early Monday morning, and come over to our Christian Endeavor meeting. See if it isn't worth while, and then see how much more you can do Monday morning at five o'clock, when you're really rested, than you could all day Sunday hacking at the same old job you've had all the week. I'll look for you next Sunday night. So-long!" And with a courteous wave he was off with a lacrosse stick, gliding down the campus like a wild thing. The professor stood and watched him a moment, and then turned thoughtfully up the asphalt path, pondering.
"They are a power in the college and in the community, that sister and brother," he said. "I wonder why."
Down at the church they wondered also as they came in crowds to the live Christian Endeavor meetings, and listened to the clear, ringing words of the young man who had been president before him; as they praises sounded by his admiring friends, especially the young man who had been president before him; as they saw the earnest spirit that went out to save, and had no social distinctions or classes to hinder the fraternal interest. The pastor wondered most of all, and thanked God, and told his wife that that Endeavor Society was making his church all over. He didn't know but it had converted him again, too. The session wondered as it listened to the earnest, simple gospel sermons that the pastor now preached, and saw his zeal for bringing men to the service of Christ.
Oh, they pointed out the four young people, the Clouds, Jane Bristol, and Howard Letchworth, as the moving spirits in the work; and they admitted, some of them, that prayer had made the transformation, for there were not many of the original bunch of young people who by this time had not been fully trained to understand that if you wanted anything in the spiritual world you must take time and give energy to getting acquainted with God. But, if they could have gone with some spirit guide to find out the true secret of all the wonderful spiritual growth and power of that young people's society, they must have looked in about Julia Cloud's fireplace on Sabbath afternoon, and seen the four earnest young people with their Bibles, and Julia Cloud in the midst, spending the long, beautiful hours in actual spiritual study of God's word, and then kneeling and communing with God for a little while, all of them on intimate terms with God. They were actually learning to delight themselves in the Lord. It was no wonder that other people, even outside the church and the Christian Endeavor Society, were beginning to notice the difference in the four, just as they noticed the shining of Moses's face when he came down from the mountain after communing with God.
Julia Cloud stood at the window of her rose-and-gray room one Sabbath evening after such an afternoon, watching the four children walk out into the sunset to their Christian Endeavor meeting, and smiled with a tender light in her eyes. She had come to call them her four children in her heart now, for they all seemed to love and need her alike; and for many a month, though they seemed not yet openly aware of it, they had been growing more and more all in all to one another; and she was glad.
She watched them as they walked. Allison ahead with Jane, earnestly discussing something. Jane's sweet, serious eyes looking up so trustfully to Allison, and he so tall and fine beside her; Leslie tripping along like a bird behind with Howard, and pointing out the colors in the sunset, which he watched only as they were reflected in her eyes.
Howard Letchworth settled himself comfortably by an open window in the 5.12 express and spread out the evening paper, turning, like any true college man, first to the sporting page. He was anxious to know how his team had come out in the season's greatest contest with another larger college. He had hoped to be there to witness the game himself, and in fact the Clouds had invited him to go with them in their car, but unfortunately at the last minute a telegram came from a firm with whom he expected to be located during the summer, saying that their representative would be in the city that afternoon and would like to see him. Howard had been obliged to give up the day's pleasure and see his friends start off without him. Now, his business over, he was returning to college and having his first minute of leisure to see how the game came out.
The train was crowded, for it was just at closing time and every one was in a rush to get home. Engrossed in his paper, he noticed none of them until someone dropped, or rather sprawled, in the seat beside him, taking far more room than was really necessary, and making a lot of fuss pulling up his trousers and getting his patent leather feet adjusted to suit him around a very handsome sole-leather suitcase which he crowded unceremoniously over to Howard's side of the floor.
The intruder next addressed himself to the arrangement of a rich and striking necktie, and seemed to have no compunctions about annoying his neighbor during the process. Howard glanced up in surprise as a more strenuous knock than before jarred his paper out of focus. He saw a young fellow of about his own age with a face that would have been strikingly handsome if it had not also been bold and conceited. He had large dark eyes set off by long curling black lashes, black hair that crinkled close to his head in satiny sleek sheen, well-chiselled features, all save a loose-hung, insolent lip that gave the impression of great self-indulgence and selfishness. He was dressed with a careful regard to the fashion and with evidently no regard whatever for cost. He bore the mark at once of wealth and snobbishness. Howard, in spite of his newly-acquired desire to look upon all men as brothers, found himself disliking him with a vehemence that was out of all proportion to the occasion.
"Don't they have any pahlah cars on this road?"
The question was addressed to him in a calm, insolent tone as if he were a paid servitor of the road. He looked up amusedly and eyed the stranger pitingly:
"Not so as you'd notice it," he remarked crushingly as he turned back to his paper. "People on this road too busy to use 'em."
But the stranger did not crush easily:
"Live far out?" he asked, turning his big, bold eyes on his seatmate and calmly examining him from the toe of a well-worn shoe to the crown of a dusty old hat that Howard was trying to make last till the end of the season. When he had finished the survey his eyes travelled complacently back to his own immaculate attire, and his well-polished shoes fresh from the hands of the city station bootblack. With a well-manicured thumb and finger he flecked an imaginary bit of dust from the knee of his trousers.
Howard named the college town brusquely.
"Ah, indeed!" Another survey brief and significant this time. "I don't suppose you know any people at the college." It was scarcely a question, more like a statement of a deplorable fact. Howard was suddenly amused.
"Oh, a few," he said briefly. (He was just finishing his senior year rather brilliantly and his professors were more than proud of him.)
Another glance seemed to say: "In what capacity?" but the elegant youth finally decided to voice another question:
"Don't happen to know a fellah by the name of Cloud, I suppose? Al Cloud?"
"I've met him," said Howard with his eyes still on his paper.
"He's from my State!" announced the youth with a puff of importance. "We live next door in California. He's a regular guy, he is. Got all kinds of money coming to him. He'll be of age in a month or two now, and then you'll see him start something! He's some spender, he is."
Howard made no comment, but something in him revolted at the idea of talking over his friend in such company.
"I've got to hunt him up," went on the young man, not noticing that his auditor appeared uninterested. "I'm to stay with him to-night. I was to send a telegram, but didn't think of it till it was almost train time. Guess it won't make much difference. The Clouds always used to keep open house. I suppose they have a swell place out here?"
"Oh, it's quite comfortable, I believe," Howard turned over a page of the paper and fell to reading an article on the high price of sugar and the prospect of a fall.
"You ought to see their dump out in Cally. It's some mansion, believe me! There wasn't anything else in that part of the State to compare with it for miles around. And cahs! They had cahs to burn! The old man was just lousy with gold, you know; struck a rich mine years ago. His wife had a pile, too. Her father was all kinds of a millionaire and left every bit to her; and Al and his sister'll get everything. Seen anything of her? She ought to be a winner pretty soon. She was a peach when she was little. She's some speedy kid! We used to play together, you know, and our folks sorta fixed it up we were just made for each other and all that sorta thing, you know—but I don't know—I'm not going to be bound by any such nonsense, of course, unless I like. One doesn't want one's wife to be such an awfully good shot, fer instance, you know——!"
A great anger surged up in Howard's soul, and his jaw set with a fierce line that those who knew him well had learned to understand meant self-control under deep provocation. He would have liked nothing better than to surprise the insolent young snob with a well-directed blow in his pretty face that would have sent him sprawling in the aisle. His hands fairly twitched to give him the lesson that he needed, but he only replied with a slight inscrutable smile in one corner of his mouth:
"It might be inconvenient for some people." There an aloofness in his tone that did not encourage further remarks, but the young stranger was evidently not thin-skinned, or else he loved to hear himself babbling.
"I'm coming on heah, you know, to look this college ovah——!" he drawled. "If it suits me, I may come heah next yeah. Got fired from three institutions out West for larking, and father thought I better go East awhile. Any fun doing out this way?"
"I suppose those that go to college looking for it can find it," answered Howard noncommittally.
"Well—that's what I'm looking for. That's about all anybody goes to college for anyway, that and making a lot of friends. Believe me, it would be a beastly bore if it wasn't for that. Al Cloud used to be a lively one. I'll wager he's into everything. See much of the college people down in town—do you?" He eyed his companion patronizingly. "S'pose you get in on some of the spoahts now and then?"
"Oh, occasionally," said Howard with a twinkle in his eye. He was captain of the football team and forward in basket-ball, but it didn't seem to be necessary to mention it.
"Any fellows with any pep in them out here? I suppose there must be or Al wouldn't stay unless he's changed. He used to keep things pretty lively. That's one reason why I told dad I'd come out here. I like a place with plenty of ginger. It gets my goat to be among a lot of grinds and sissies! This is a co-ed college, isn't it? That suits me all right if the girls have any pep and aren't too straitlaced. Any place around here where you can go off and take a girl for a good dinner and a dash of life? I couldn't stand for any good-little-boy stuff. Know any place around here where you can get a drink of the real thing now and then, some place near enough to go joy-riding to, you know? I shall bring my cah of course——! One can get away with a lot more stuff if they have their own cah, you know—especially where there's girls. You can't pull off any devilment if you have to depend on hired cahs. You might get caught. I suppose they have some pretty spicy times down at the frat rooms, don't they? I understood the frats were mostly located down in the town."
Howard suddenly folded his paper, looking squarely in the limpid eyes of his seatmate for the first time, with a cold, searching, subduing gaze.
"I really couldn't say," he answered coldly.
"Oh, I s'pose you're not interested in that sort of thing, not being in college," said the other insolently. "But Al Cloud'll put me wise. He's no grind, I'll wager. He's always in for a good time, and he's such a good bluff he never gets found out. Now I, somehow, always get caught, even when I'm not the guilty one."
The boy laughed unroariously as if it were a good joke, and his weak chin seemed to grow weaker in the process.
Howard was growing angry and haughty, but it was his way to be calm when excited. He did not laugh with the stranger. Instead, he waited until the joke had lost its amusement and then he turned soberly to the youth with as patronizing an air as ever the other had worn:
"Son, you've got another guess coming to you about Allison Cloud. You'll have the surprise of your young life when you see him, I imagine. Why, he's been an A student ever since he came to this college, and he has the highest average this last semester of any man in his class. As for bluff, he's as clear as crystal, and a prince of a fellow; and if you're looking for a spot where you can bluff your way through college you better seek elsewhere. Bluff doesn't go down in our college. We have student government, and I happen to be chairman of the student exec. just now. You better change your tactics if you expect to remain here. Excuse me, I see a friend up at the front of the car!"
With which remarks Howard Letchworth strode across the sprawling legs of his fellow-traveller and departed up the aisle, leaving the elegant stranger to enjoy the whole seat and his own company.
Thus did Clive Terrence introduce himself to Howard Letchworth and bring dismay into the little clique of four young people who had been enjoying a most unusually perfect friendship. Howard Letchworth, as he stood the rest of the ride on the front platform of the car conversing with apparent interest with a fraternity brother, was nevertheless filled with a growing dismay. Now and then he glanced back and glared down the aisle at the elegant sprawling youth and wondered how it was that a being as insignificant as that could so upset his equilibrium. But the assured drawl of the stranger as he spoke of Leslie and called her a "speedy kid" had made him boil with rage. He carried the mood back to college with him, and sat gloomily at the table thinking the whole incident over, while the banter and chaffing went on about him unnoticed. Underneath it all there was a deep uneasiness that would not be set aside. The young man had said that the Clouds were very wealthy. That Leslie was especially so. That when she was of age she would have a vast inheritance. There had been no sign of great wealth or ostentation in their living but if that were so then there was an insuperable wall between him and her.
It was strange that the question of wealth had never come up between them. Howard had known that they were comfortably off, of course. They had a beautiful car and wore good clothes, and were always free with their entertaining, but they lived in a modest house, and never made any pretences. It had not occurred to him that they were any better off than he might be some day if he worked hard. They never talked about their circumstances. Of course, now he came to think about it, there were fine mahogany pieces of furniture in the little house and wonderful rugs and things, but they all fitted in so harmoniously with their surroundings that it never occurred to him that they might have cost a mint of money. They never cried out their price to those who saw them, they were simply the fitting thing in the fitting place, doing their service as all right-minded things both animate and inanimate in this world should do. It was the first serpent in the Eden of this wonderful friendship at Cloudy Villa and it stung the proud-spirited young man to the soul.
Alone in his room that night he finally gave up all pretence at study and faced the truth. He had been drifting in a delightful dream during the last two years, with only a vague and alluring idea of the future before him, a future in which there was no question but that Allison Cloud AND his sister Leslie should figure intimately. Now he was suddenly and roughly awakened to ask himself whether he had any right to count on all this. If these young people belonged to the favored few of the world who were rolling in wealth, wasn't it altogether likely that when they finished college they would pass out of this comradely atmosphere into a world of their own, with a new set of laws whereby to judge and choose their friends and life companions? He could not quite imagine Allison and Leslie as anything but the frank, friendly, enthusiastic comrades they had been since he had known them—and yet—he knew the world, knew what the love of money could do to a human soul, for he had seen it many times before in people he had come to love and trust who had grown selfish and forgetful as soon as money and power were put into their hands. He had to confess that it was possible. Also, his own pride forbade him to wish to force himself into a crowd where he could not hold his own and pay his part. They would simply not be in his class, at least not for many years to come, and his heart sank with desolation. It was then, and not till then, that the heart of the trouble came out and looked him in the face. It was not that he could not be in their class, that he could not keep pace with Allison Cloud and come and go in his company as freely as he had done; it was that he loved the bright-haired Leslie, the sweet-faced, eager, earnest, wonderful girl. She held his future happiness in her little rosy hand, and if she really were a rich girl he couldn't of course tell her now that he loved her, because he was a poor man. He didn't expect to stay poor always, of course, but it would be a great many years before he could ever hope to compete with anything like wealth, and during those years who might not take her from him? Was it conceivable that such a cad as that youth who had boasted himself a playmate of her childhood could possibly win her?
Howard went out and sat on the campus under a great shadowing tree. He watched a silver thread of a moon slip down between the branches and dip behind the hill, and while he sat there he went through all the desolation of a lonely life; the bitterness of having Leslie taken from him by one who was unworthy!—He persuaded himself that he loved her enough to be willing to step aside and give her up to a man who was better than himself—but this little whiffet—ugh!
The chimes on the library pealed out nine o'clock, reminding him of his work half done, yet the shadow of engulfing sorrow and loss hung over him. With a jerk he drew himself up and tried to grasp at common sense. How ridiculous of him to get up all this nightmare out of a few minutes' talk with a fellow who used to be the Clouds' old neighbor. He might not have been telling the truth. And anyhow it was a libel on friendship to distrust them all this way, as though riches were some kind of a disease like leprosy that set people apart. It wasn't his night to go down to the village, but just to dispel this nonsense and bring back his normal state of mind he would go and drop in on the Clouds for a few minutes. A sight of them all would reassure him and clear his brain for the work he must do before midnight. Leslie Cloud was very young yet, and much can happen in a year or two. He might even be in a fair way to make a fortune himself somewhere, who knew? And as for that little cad, it was nonsense to suppose he was anything to fear. Besides, it wasn't time yet to think about being married when he wasn't even out of college. He would forget it and work the harder. Of course he could never quite go back and forget that he had admitted to himself that he was in love with Leslie, but he would keep it like a precious jewel hid far in his heart, so carefully locked that not even for his own delight would he take it out to look at now at this time.
Having thus resolved, a weight seemed to have rolled from his shoulders and he sprang up and walked with a quick tread down to the village. There was a cheerful clang of victrolas, player-pianos and twanging guitars as he passed the fraternity rooms, and he went whistling on his way toward Cloudy Villa.
But as he neared the tall arched hedge, and looked eagerly for the welcome light, he saw that the big living-room windows were only lit by a soft play of firelight. Did that mean they were all sitting in the firelight around the hearth? A fearful thought of the stranger intruded just here upon his fine resolves, and to dispel it he knocked noisily on the little brass knocker.
It was very still inside, but a quick electric light responded to his knock and in a moment he could hear someone coming down-stairs to the door. His heart leaped. Could it be Leslie? Ah! He must not—yet how wonderful it was going to be to look at her this first time after really knowing his own heart in plain language. Could he keep the joy of her out of his eyes, and the wonder of her from his voice? Then the door opened and there stood Cherry in negligee of flaring rosy cotton crepe embroidered with gorgeous peacocks, and her pigtails in eclipse behind an arrangement of cheap lace and pink ribbons.