"No, sir, Mister Howard, dey ain't none ob 'em heah! Dey got cumpney—some young fellah fum back to Californy way. Dey done tuk him out to see de town."
Howard's heart sank and he turned his heavy footsteps back to college. The worst fear had come to pass. Of course reason asserted itself, and he told himself that he was a fool, a perfect fool. Of course they had to be polite to an old neighbor whether they liked him or not. And what was he to presume to judge a stranger from a five-minute conversation, and turn him down so completely that he wasn't willing to have his old friends even like him? Well, he was worse than he had thought himself and something would have to be done about it.
What he did about it was to stay away from Cloudy Villa for almost a week, and when Leslie at last, after repeated efforts to get hold of him by telephone, called him up to say there was an important committee meeting at the church which he ought to attend, he excused his long absence by telling how busy he had been. Of course he had been busy, but Leslie knew that he had always been busy, and yet had found time to come in often. She was inclined to be hurt and just the least bit stand-offish. Of course if he didn't want to come he needn't! And she took Clive Terrence driving in the car and showed him all the wonders of the surrounding neighborhood with much more cordiality than she really felt. It was her way of bearing her hurt. At last she got Allison by himself and asked him quite casually why Howard hadn't been down. But Allison, in haste to keep an appointment with Jane, and knowing that Howard enjoyed being down as much as they wanted him, hadn't even noticed the absence yet.
"Oh, he's up to his eyes in work," responded Allison. "He's likely busy as a one-armed paper-hanger with fleas! He's a senior, you know. Wait till next year and you'll see me in the same boat!" and he hurried away whistling.
Clive Terrence hung around. He calmly took it for granted that the Clouds wanted him as long as he condescended to stay. In fact, it wouldn't have troubled him whether they wanted him or not if he wanted to stay. He had discovered that Leslie was the very same kind of a "peach" which her younger days had promised her to be, and there was plenty of good fun, so he stayed. He said he wanted to see what the college was like before he made his decision, and day after day went by with apparently no plans whatever for leaving in the near future.
Julia Cloud didn't like him. She admitted that much to herself the very first evening, and for that reason she was twice as cordial to him as she might have been if she had liked him better. She reasoned that it was unfair to take a sudden dislike that way, and perhaps it was only a sign he needed a bit of their home all the more. So she made him welcome and treated him as she did any other boys who came. But more and more as the days slipped by she did not like him. At first she was a bit worried about his influence on Allison, till she saw that he merely annoyed Allison. Then she began to be annoyed by his constant attendance on Leslie. And finally she grew exceedingly restless and anxious as day succeeded day and Howard came no more. Finally, one evening just before dinner, she went to the 'phone and called up the college. It happened that she caught Howard just as he was going down to dinner. She told him they were homesick for him and there was roast lamb and green peas and strawberry shortcake for dinner, wouldn't he come? He came. Who could refuse Julia Cloud?
But the face of Clive Terrence was a study when, unannounced, Howard entered the living-room. Julia Cloud had seen him coming and quietly opened the door. Such a storm of delighted welcome as met him warmed his heart and dispelled the evil spirits that had haunted him during the week.
In the chatter of talk while they were being seated at the dinner table the visitor was almost forgotten, and he sat watching them glumly while Allison and Leslie eagerly discussed plans for some society in which they seemed to be interested. At last he grew weary of being ignored and in the first pause he languidly drawled:
"Leslie, I think you and I'll take the cah and go in town to a show this evening. I'm bored to death."
Leslie looked at him with flashing eyes and then extinguished him with her cool tone:
"Do you? Well, think again! I'm having a lovely time"—and went on talking to Howard about the senior play that was to come off the next week. It did not suit Clive in the least to be ignored, so he started in to tell about other senior plays in other colleges where he had been and quite made himself the centre of the stage, laughing at his own jokes and addressing all his remarks to Leslie until her cheeks grew hot with annoyance. She wanted so to hear what Howard and Allison were talking about in low, grave tones. She watched the strong, fine face of Howard Letchworth, and it suddenly came over her that he seemed very far away from her, like a friend who used to be, but had moved away. Something in her throat hurt, and a sinking feeling came in her heart. Like a flash it came to her that Howard Letchworth would be graduated in three more weeks, and perhaps would go away then and they would see him no more. She caught a word or two now and then as he talked to Allison that indicated that he was seriously contemplating such a possibility. Yet he had not said a word to her about it! And they had been such good friends! A grieved look began to grow around her expressive little cupid's bow of a mouth, and her big eyes grew sorrowful as she watched the two. She was not listening to Clive, who drawled on unaware of her inattention.
Suddenly Leslie became aware that Clive had risen and was standing over her with something in his hand which he had taken from his vest, something small and shining, and he was saying:
"Want to wear it, Les? Here, I'll put it on you, then everybody will think we are engaged——!"
It was his fraternity pin he was holding out with smiling assurance and the significance of his words came over her as a sentence read without comprehension will suddenly recall itself and pierce into the realization. With a stifled cry she sprang away from him.
"Mercy, no, Clive! I didn't know you were so silly. I never wear boys' fraternity pins. I think such things are too sacred to be trifled with!"
This was what she said, but she was miserably aware that Howard had turned away and picked up his hat just as Clive had leaned over her with the pin, and almost immediately he left. He had been so engrossed with his talk with Allison that he had not seemed to see her repulsion of Clive, and his manner toward her as he bade her good-night was cool and distant. All the pleasant intimacy of all the months together seemed suddenly wiped out, and Howard a grown-up stranger. She felt herself a miserably unhappy little girl.
Julia Cloud, from the advantage of the dining-room where she was doing little things, for the next day, watched the drama with a heavy heart. What had come between her children, and what could she do about it? The only comforting thing about it seemed to be that each was as unhappy as the other. Could it be that Howard Letchworth was jealous of this small-souled, spoiled son of fortune who was visiting them? Surely not. Yet what made him act in this ridiculous fashion? She felt like shaking him even while she pitied him. She half-meditated calling him back and trying to find out what was the matter, but gave it up. After all, what could she do?
Leslie, as the door closed behind Howard, turned with one dagger look at Clive, and dashed up-stairs to her room, where she locked herself in and cried till her eyes were too swollen for study; but she only told Julia Cloud, when she came up gently to inquire, that she had a bad headache and wanted to go to bed.
Julia Cloud, kneeling beside her gray couch a little later, laying all her troubles on the One who was her strength, found it hard not to emphasize her dislike even in prayer toward the useless little excuse for a young man who was lolling down-stairs reading a novel and smoking innumerable cigarettes in spite of her expressed wish to the contrary.
The first Sunday after young Terrence's arrival it rained and was very dismal and cold for spring. Howard had been asked to go to a nearby Reform School for the afternoon and speak to the boys, and Jane was caring for a little child whose mother was ill in the hospital. Leslie was unhappy and restless, wandering from window to window looking out. Their guest had chosen to remain in bed that morning, so relieving them from the necessity of trying to get him to go to church, but he was on hand for lunch in immaculate attire, apparently ready for a holiday. There was a cozy fire on the hearth, and he lolled luxuriously in an arm-chair seemingly well pleased with himself and all the world. Julia Cloud wondered just what she would better do about the afternoon hour with this uncongenial guest on hand, but Leslie and Allison, after a hasty whispered consultation in the dining-room with numerous dubious glances toward the guest, ending in wry faces, came and settled down with their Bibles as usual. There was a loyalty in the quiet act that almost brought the tears to Julia Cloud's eyes, and she rewarded them with a loving, understanding smile.
But when the guest was asked to join the little circle he only stared in amazement. He had no idea of trying to conform to their habits.
"Thanks! No! I hate reading aloud. Books always bore me anyway. The Bible! Oh Heck! NO! Count me out!" And he swung one leg over the arm of his chair, and picked up the Sunday illustrated supplement which he had gone out and purchased, and which was now strewn all about the floor. He continued for sometime to rattle the paper and whistle in a low tone rudely while the reading went on, then he threw down his paper and lighted a cigarette. But that did not seem to soothe his nerves sufficiently, so he strolled over to the piano and began to drum bits of popular airs and sing in a high nasal tone that he was pleased to call "whiskey tenor." Julia Cloud, with a despairing glance at him, finally closed her book and suggested that they had read enough for that day, and the little audience drifted away unhappily to their rooms. Leslie did not come down again all the afternoon until just time for Christian Endeavor. Young Terrence by this time was reduced to almost affability, and looked up hopefully. He was about to propose a game of cards, but when he saw Leslie attired in raincoat and hat he stared:
"Great Scott! You don't have to go up to college to-night, do you? It's raining cats and dogs!"
"Allison and I are going to Christian Endeavor," answered Leslie quietly. "Would you like to go?" She had been trying to school herself to give this invitation because she thought she ought to, but she hoped sincerely it would not be accepted. It seemed as if she could not bear to have the whole day spoiled.
For answer young Terrence laughed extravagantly:
"Christian Endeavor! What's the little old idea?"
"Better come and find out," said Allison, coming down-stairs just then. "Ready, Leslie? We'll have to hustle. It's getting late."
In alarm at the idea of spending any more time alone the young man arose most unexpectedly.
"Oh, sure! I'll go! Anything for a little fun!" and he joined them in a moment more, clad in rubber coat and storm hat.
Leslie could scarcely keep back the tears as she walked beside him through the dark street, not listening to his boasting about riding the waves in Hawaii. Suppose Howard was at meeting! He would think—what would he think?
And of course Howard was at the meeting that night, for he happened to be the leader. Leslie's cheeks burned as she sat down and saw that Clive had manoeuvred to sit beside her. She tried to catch Howard's eyes and fling a greeting to him, but he seemed not to see his old friends and to be utterly absorbed in hunting up hymns.
The first song had scarcely died away before Clive began a conversation with a low growl, making remarks of what he apparently considered a comic nature about everything and everybody in the room, with a distinctness that made them entirely audible to those seated around them. Leslie's cheeks flamed and her eyes flashed angrily, but he only seemed to enjoy it the more, and kept on with his running commentary.
"For pity's sake, Clive, keep still, can't you?" whispered Leslie anxiously. "They will think you never had any bringing up!"
"I should worry!" shrugged the amiable Clive comically with a motion of his handsome shoulders that sent two susceptible young things near him into a series of poorly suppressed giggles. Clive looked up and gravely winked at them, and the two bent down their heads in sudden hopeless mirth. Clive was delighted. He was having a grand time. He could see that the leader was annoyed and disgusted. This was balm to his bored soul. He made more remarks under cover of a bowed head during the prayer, and stole glances at the two giggling neighbors. Then he nudged Leslie and endeavored to get her to join in the mirth. Poor Leslie with her burning cheeks, her brimming eyes, and her angry heart! Her last vision of the leader as she bowed her head had been a haughty, annoyed glance in their direction as he said: "Let us pray." She felt that she could not stand another minute of this torture. Almost she felt she must get up and go out, and she made a hasty little movement to carry out the impulse, and then suddenly it came to her that if she went Clive would follow her, and it would look to Howard as if she had created the disturbance and they had gone off together to have a good time. So she settled down to endure the rest of the meeting, lifting miserable eyes of appeal to Allison as soon as the prayer was ended. If only there had been a seat vacant up front somewhere, a single seat with no other near it, where her tormentor could not follow, she would have gone to it swiftly, but the seats were all filled and there was nothing to do but sit still and frown her disapproval. Perhaps Allison might have done something to quiet the guest if he had noticed, but Allison was, at the moment of Leslie's appeal, deeply wrapped in setting down a few items which must be announced, and he almost immediately arose and went forward with his slip of paper and held a whispered converse with Howard Letchworth during the hymn that followed, afterwards taking a chair down from the platform and placing it beside the chairman of an important committee that he might consult with him about something. During this sudden move on the part of Allison, Clive Terrence did have his attention turned aside somewhat from his mischief-making, for he was watching Allison with an amazed expression. Not anything that he had seen since coming to the town had so astonished him as to see this young man of wealth and position and undoubted strength of will and purpose, get up in a church and go forward as if he had some business in the affair. He sat up, with his loose, handsome under lip half-dropped in surprise, and watched Allison, with a curious startled expression, and when a moment later the leader said quietly: "Our president has a message for us" and Allison arose and faced the crowded room with an eager, spirited, interested look on his face, and began to talk earnestly, outlining a plan for a deeper spiritual life among the members, his expression was one of utter bewilderment, as if he suddenly saw trees walking about the streets or inanimate objects beginning to show signs of intellect. He was thinking that Allison Cloud certainly had changed, and was wondering what on earth had brought it about. It couldn't be any line that his guardian had on him, for he was a thousand miles away. Was it that little, quiet, insipid mouse of an aunt that had done it? She must be rich or something, the way the brother and sister seemed to be tied to her apron-string. Where did Al Cloud get that line of talk he was handing out, anyway? Why, he talked about God as if He were an intimate friend of his, and spoke of prayer and Bible reading in the way common, ordinary people talked of going to breakfast or eating candy, as if they were necessary and pleasurable acts. Why, it was inconceivable! What was he doing it for? There must be a reason.
For fully five minutes he sat quiet in puzzled thought, watching this strange gathering, gradually taking it in that they were all taking part in the proceedings and that they seemed interested and eager. Why, even those two giggling girls who had "fallen" so readily for his nonsense had sobered down and one read a verse from the Bible while the other repeated a verse of poetry! He turned and blinked at them in wonder. What had so influenced them that they all fell in line and performed their part as if it were being rehearsed for his benefit? What was the motive power? The query interested him to the point of good behavior all through the remainder of the meeting, and while he was standing waiting for Allison and Leslie at the close. It seemed that somehow there was a real interest, for they lingered as if there were vital matters to discuss, and Leslie was the centre of a group of quite common-looking girls. It must be some sort of social settlement work or other connected with the church and someone had induced these two who were to his thinking of a higher order of being by right of wealth and social position, to take an interest and "run" this society or whatever it was. He could not make it out at all. He was much disgusted that the young people insisted on staying to church and had a bad hour living through it, although he was surprised to find it as interesting as it was. The minister seemed quite human and they had a great deal of singing. Still it was all a bore, of course. He found a great many things in life to bore him.
As soon as he and Allison were out on the street he broached the subject:
"What's the little old idea, old man? Are you a sort of grand mogul or high priest or something to this mob? And what do you get out of it?"
Allison turned and looked solemnly at him through the dark, and answered with a kind of glow in his voice that seemed to lighten his face and puzzled the questioner more than all that had gone before:
"I'm just one of them, son, and it happens to be my turn just now to be presiding officer; but I get out of it more than I ever got out of anything in life before."
"Oh!" said Clive inanely, quite at a loss to know what he meant.
"I never knew before that people could know God personally, be His pal sort of, you know, and work with Him, and it's been GREAT!" added Allison.
"Oh!" said Clive once more, quite weakly, not knowing what else to say, and they walked on for almost a block without speaking another word. Clive was thinking that certainly Allison had changed, as that unmannerly chump on the train had said. Changed most perplexingly and peculiarly. But Allison had forgotten almost that Clive was there. He was thinking over some good news he had to tell Jane about a protege of hers who had taken a shy part in the meeting, and wondering if he could get away for a few minutes to run up and tell her or if it would be better to call her up on the 'phone.
Howard Letchworth had not come home with them. He had whispered a hurried excuse to Allison about someone he had to see up at college before they left for the city, and hurried away at the close of the meeting, and Leslie with a choking feeling in her throat and burning tears held back from her eyes by mighty effort, announced to Allison that she wasn't coming home just now, she was going to stay for a little after prayer meeting the Lookout Committee were having. She would walk home with the Martins, who went right by their door. For Leslie was done with Clive Terrence and she wanted him to understand it. So Clive was landed at home with Julia Cloud for companion, who had not gone to church on account of staying to nurse Cherry, who had taken a bad cold and needed medicine. Allison hurried away to give Jane her message, and there was nothing for Clive to do but to go to bed and resolve never to spend another Sunday in such boredom. For he "couldn't see" hobnobbing with an "old woman," as he called Julia Cloud, the way the others seemed entirely willing to do. What was she anyway but some poor relation likely who was acting as housekeeper? But at least for once in his life Clive Terrence realized that there was such a thing in the world as a live religion and a few people who held to it and loved it and enjoyed it. He couldn't understand it, but he had to admit it, although he was convinced that behind it all there must be some ulterior motive or those people would never bother themselves to that extent.
But Leslie came home from the church with a heavy heart and crept up to her room with bravely cheerful smiles to deceive Julia Cloud; and then cried herself to sleep; while Julia Cloud, wise-eyed, kept her own counsel and carried her perplexities to the throne of God.
During the next three days there were stirring times, and Leslie, even with a heavy heart, was kept busy. Clive Terrence was ignored as utterly as if he had been a fly on the ceiling, and Leslie managed to keep every minute full. Moreover, her mind was so much occupied with other things that she had not time to realize how fully she was cutting their guest out of sight of her, nor how utterly amazed it made him. He was not accustomed to being ignored by young ladies, even though they were both beautiful and rich. He felt that he was quite ornamental himself, and had plenty of money, too, and he could not brook any such treatment. So he set himself to procure revenge by going hot-foot after the Freshman "vamp"—who, to tell the truth, was much more in his style than Leslie and quite, quite willing—though Leslie, dear child, was too absorbed to know it.
She came home at lunchtime a bit late and called Allison from the table to give him an excited account in a low tone of something that had happened that morning. Julia Cloud, from her vantage point at the head of the table, could see the flash in her eye and the brilliant flush of the soft cheeks as she talked and wondered what new trouble had come to the dear child. Then she noted the sudden stern set of Allison's jaw and the squaring of shoulder as he listened and questioned. Meanwhile she passed Clive Terrence the muffins and jam, and urged more iced-tea and a hot, stuffed potato, and kept up a pleasant hum of talk so that the excited words should not be heard in the dining-room.
"Jane's had a perfectly terrible time!" had been Leslie's opening sentence, "and we've got to do something about it! Those little cats in the AOU have done the meanest thing you can think of. Jane looked just crushed! They've hauled up that old stuff about her father being a forger and urged it as a reason that she shouldn't be made treasurer in place of Anne Dallas—who is leaving on account of the death of her father and she has to go home and take care of her little sisters—and JANE HEARD THEM!"
A low growl of indignation reached Julia Cloud's ears from Allison, who squared his shoulders into position for immediate action.
"They said——" went on Leslie in excited whisper. "They said that since we had such a large sum to look out for now that the subscriptions for the sorority house were coming in, we should put in a treasurer of tried and true integrity. Yes, they used just those words, tried and true integrity! Think of it! And OUR JANE! The idea! The catty little snobs! The jealous little—cats! No, it wasn't Eugenia Frazer who said it, it was Eunice Brice—but I'm certain she was at the bottom of it, for she sat with her nice smug little painted face as sweet and complacent as an angel, all the time it was going on, and she seconded the motion! Just like that! With a SMILE, too! She said she fully agreed with what Miss Brice had said. Agreed! H'm! As if every one didn't know she had started it, and got it all fixed up with enough girls to carry the motion before the rest of us got down from an exam. Yes, they had it thought out as carefully as that! They knew all the sophomore girls would be up in that exam. till almost twelve o'clock, for it's always as long as the moral law, anything with Professor Crabbs—and they counted up and had just enough to a name to carry their motion. They even got Marian Hobbs to cut a class to get there. They hadn't counted on my getting in in time to hear, I guess, or else they didn't care. Perhaps they wanted me to hear it all; I'm sure I don't know. I suppose that must have been it. They thought perhaps I'd tell you and that would stop you from going with Jane. You know Eugenia and Eunice are both crazy about you, especially Eugenia——!"
An impatient exclamation from Allison reached the dining-room thunderously:
"Where was Jane?" Julia Cloud caught that anxious question, and then Clive, who had evidently heard also, roused himself to ask a question:
"Who is this Jane person they talk so much about? I don't seem to have seen her! Where is she?"
"She is Miss Bristol," said Julia Cloud, stiffening just a little at the young fellow's tone of insolence. "She is in college and very busy, but has been unusually busy since you have been here because she is caring for a little child whose mother has been very ill."
"Oh!—You mean she's a sort of sehvant?"—He drawled the question most offensively, and Julia Cloud had a sudden ridiculous impulse to seize his sleek shoulder and shake him. Instead she only smiled and quoted a Bible verse: "I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth."
Clive eyed her with a puzzled expression:
"I don't getcha!" he answered finally, but Julia Cloud made no further comment than to pass him a second cup of coffee. She could hear the soft excited whispers still going on in the living-room and she longed to fly in there and leave this ill-bred guest to his own devices, for she knew something must have happened to trouble her children, and that if this intruder were not present she would be at once taken into their confidence. Still she had to sit and smile and keep him from hearing them.
Leslie was talking more softly now, with cautious looks toward the dining-room.
"Jane had finished her exam. and hurried down because she thought there would be a lot of business and she wanted Emily Reeder to be put in treasurer and was trying to work it, and hadn't an idea Alice and I were working it to put her in. We didn't think she would get there and meant to have it all finished before she came, but someone turned around and gave a queer little cough just as Eunice finished her nasty speech, and we all turned quickly and there in the open door stood Jane, as white as a sheet, with her great, big blue eyes looking black as coals and such suffering I never saw in a human face—and she just stood and looked at them all, a hurt, loving, searching look, as if she was reading their souls, and no one spoke nor moved, only Eunice, who got very red, and Eugenia, who straightened up and got haughty and hateful, looking as if she was glad Jane heard it all. She had a kind of glitter in her eyes, like triumph—and it was very still for a whole minute, and then Jane put out her hands in a little, quick, pleading motion and turned away quickly and was gone——"
"And what did you do?" Allison's tone had hope, threat, condemnation and praise all held in abeyance on her answer.
Leslie drew herself up eagerly, her eyes shining.
"I——? Oh—I wanted to run after her and comfort her, but I had something else to do. I jumped up and offered my resignation to the AOU, and said I wished to withdraw my subscription to the Sorority House, that I couldn't have anything to do with a bunch of girls that would stand for a thing as contemptible and mean as that."
"Of course!" said Allison with a proud look at his sister.
"And Phoebe Kemp jumped up and withdrew hers until they all apologized to Jane, and then Alice Lowe said she'd have to withdraw hers, too—she's given the highest amount subscribed, you know; she has slews of money all in her own right, because she's of age, you know—and then the girls began to get scared and Elsie Dare got right up and said she thought there had been some kind of a mistake—a blunder—they mustn't get excited—they must begin all over, and somebody must go after Jane and bring her back and explain—as if there was any way to explain a bold, bare insult like that!—and they sent a committee after her. They wanted me to go, but I declined to go in their name. I said I had handed in my resignation and I wasn't one of them any more, and they might send somebody who would better represent them, and they said they hadn't accepted my resignation and a lot of stuff, but they sent off a committee to find Jane, and they tried to think up something quickly to say to her, and they got Eunice Brice to crying and made Eugenia real mad so the powder came off her nose from rubbing it so much, and I came away. I've been hunting for Jane for half an hour, but I can't find her in any of the places she always is, and I thought I better come and tell you——"
"That's right. I'll find her——" Allison made one step to the hat-rack and took his hat, then raising his voice: "Cloudy, I've been called away on business suddenly. Don't bother keeping anything for me, I've had all I want——" and he was gone.
Julia Cloud gave a glance at Allison's plate and saw that he had scarcely touched his lunch, and she sighed as she heard Leslie run quickly up the stairs and shut the door of her own room. Was Leslie going to spend the afternoon in weeping?
But Leslie was down again in a moment and standing in the doorway, her curls tumbled, her eyes bright and anxious, an indignant little set of lips and chin giving her a worried expression.
"Jewel, dear, I've got to go; there's something important on—I'll tell you about it all when I get back. No, please, I couldn't eat now. You get Cherry to save me some strawberry shortcake." And she was off like a breeze and out of sight.
"Wait a minute, Leslie, I'll go up with you," called Clive with his mouth full of shortcake and cream, but Leslie was already whirling down the street like the wind. Allison had taken the car, so there was nothing left for Clive to do but finish his shortcake and think up some form of amusement with the Freshman vamp for the afternoon.
Allison, meantime, had made a straight dash for the college and sent a message up to Jane that he must see her at once on very important business. After what seemed to him an endless wait, word came down that Jane was not in her room and her roommate knew nothing of her whereabouts. Allison made a wild dive for his car and drove to every one of the places where Jane sometimes went to help out with the children when their mothers were particularly busy, but no Jane materialized. He drove madly back to the college, forgetting his usual cool philosophy of life and fancying all sorts of terrible things that might have happened to Jane. He swept past Eugenia Frazer without even seeing her and brought up in front of the office once more, intending to send up and see if Jane had yet returned, but on the steps stood Leslie waiting for him.
"She's gone to the woods up above the old quarry!" she said anxiously. "I've just found out. Benny, the kitchen boy, told me. He says he saw her go out between Chemistry Hall and the Boys' Gym. about an hour ago. She must have gone right after she left the meeting. Nobody seems to have seen her since. Nobody but Benny knows anything about her going to the woods and I gave him some money and told him not to say anything about it if anyone asked. I was just going to hunt her——"
"That's all right, kid! You take the car and follow up the road. I'll go through the woods and look for her——!" said Allison, springing out.
"You will be careful, won't you? You know that quarry is terribly deep——"
"I know!" said Allison, his tone showing his own anxiety. "And Jane hasn't scrambled around here as much as we have; she hasn't had the time. And there is so much undergrowth close up to the edge, one could come on it unaware—especially if one was excited, and not paying attention——! I better beat it! Jump in and drive me around college and I'll get off at the gym."
Leslie sprang in and Allison stood on the running-board. His sister cast a wistful glance at him as she started the car.
"Allison—I think maybe you needn't worry——" she said softly. "You know Jane is—REAL! She isn't weak like some people. She won't go all to pieces like—well, like I would. God means something to her, you know."
"I know!" said Allison gravely, gently. "Thank you, kid! Well. I get off here. Meet me at the top of the second hill in half an hour, and hang around there for a bit. I may whistle, see? So long."
He dashed off between the buildings and disappeared between the trees in the edge of the woods. Leslie whirled off down the drive to the street. As she passed the big stone gateway, ivy garlanded and sweet with climbing roses, three seniors turned into the drive, and the foremost of the three was Howard Letchworth. Her heart leaped up with joy that here was someone who would understand and sympathize, and she put her foot to the brake to slow down with a light of welcome in her eyes, but before she could stop he had lifted his hat and passed on with the others as if he were just anyone. Of course he had not seen her intention, did not realize that she wanted to speak with him, yet it hurt her. A week or two before she would have called after him, or even backed the car to catch him, but now something froze within her and with her heart beating wildly, and tears scorching her eyes, she put on speed and whirled away up the hill. It seemed to her that all her lovely world was breaking into pieces under her feet. If it had not been that she was worried about Jane, she would have been tempted to abandon everything and rush off in some wild way by herself, anywhere to be alone and face the ache in her heart. It was such a torrent of deep-mingled feelings, hurt pride and anger, humiliation, and pain—all these words rushed through her mind, but there was something else besides, something that ought to have been beautiful and wonderful, and was only shame and pain, and she had not yet come to the point where she was willing to call that something by name. She knew that soon she must face the truth and have it out with herself, and so her cheeks flamed and paled, and the tears scorched and hurt in her eyes and throat, and she tried to put it all away and think about Jane, poor hurt Jane. Jane gone into the woods to have it but with herself. But Jane was strong and Jane trusted in God. Her God was strong, too! Jane would come through only the sweeter. But what would become of her—little, fiery, tempestuous Leslie, who always did the wrong thing first and was sorry afterwards, and who forgot God when she needed Him most? These thoughts flitted like visions through her brain while she put on all speed and tore away up the hill at a much faster rate than she had any business to do. But the road was clear ahead of her and there was some relief in flying along through space this way. It seemed to clear the mists from her brain, and cool down her throbbing pulses. Yet just when she would think she had control of her thoughts, that stern, distant expression on Howard's face would come between her and the afternoon brightness, and back would roll the trouble with renewed vigor. What a world this was anyway and why did people have to live? Just trouble, trouble, trouble, everywhere! And who would have thought there would come trouble between her and Howard, such good friends as they had been now almost two years—two wonderful years! And again her weary brain would beat over the question, what had been the matter? What made Howard act that way? Surely nothing she could have done.
Meantime Allison was dashing over fallen trees, climbing rocks, and pushing his way between tangled vines and close-grown laurel, up and up through the college woods, and across country in the direction of the quarry, a still, wonderful place like a cathedral, with a deep, dark pool at the bottom of the massive stone walls. There were over-arching pines, hemlocks, and oaks for vaulted roof with the fresco of sky and flying cloud between. It was a wonderful place. Once when they had climbed there together and stood for a long time in silence watching the shadows on the deep pool below, looking up to the arching green, and listening to the praisings of a song sparrow up above in some hidden choir, Jane had said that this was a place to come and worship—or to come when one was in trouble! A place where one might meet God! He had looked down at her sweet face upturned searching for the little thrilling singer, and had thought how sweet and wonderful she was, and how he wanted to tell her so, and would some day, but must not just yet. He hadn't thought much about what she was saying—but now it came back—and he knew that she must have gone here with her trouble.
He need not have worried about the quarry and the deep, dark pool. He kept telling himself all the way up that he need not, but when he reached the top and came in sight of her he knew it. Knew also that he had been sure of it all along.
She was sitting on a great fallen log, quietly, calmly, with her back against an old gnarled branch that rose in a convenient way, and her head was thrown back and up as if she were seeing wonderful visions somewhere among the green, and the blue and white above. It was as if she had reached a higher plane where earthly annoyances do not come, and felt it good to be there. There was almost a smile on her beautiful lips, a strong, sweet, wistful smile. She had not been looking down at the deep, treacherous pool at all. She had been looking up and her strength had come upon her so. For one long instant the young man paused and lifted his hat, watching her in a kind of awe. Her face almost seemed to shine as if she had been talking with God. He remembered dimly the story of Moses on the Mount talking with God. He hesitated almost to intrude upon a solitude so fine and wonderful. Then in relief and eagerness he spoke her name:
She turned and looked at him and her face lit up with joy:
"Oh! It is you! Why—how did you happen——?"
"I came to find you, Jane. Leslie told me everything and I have hunted everywhere. But when you were not at college I somehow knew you would be here. I wanted to find you—and—enfold you, Jane—wrap you around somehow with my love and care if you will let me, so that nothing like that can ever hurt you again. I love you, Jane. I suppose I'm a little previous and all that, being only a kid, as it were, and neither of us out of college yet, but I shan't change, and I'll be hanged if I see why it isn't all right for me to have the right to protect you against such annoyances as this——"
He was beside her on the log now, his face burning eagerly with deep feeling, one arm protectingly behind her, the other hand laid strongly, possessively over the small folded hands in her lap.
"Perhaps I'm taking a whole lot for granted," he said humbly. "Perhaps you don't love me—can't even like me the way I hoped you do. Oh, Jane, speak quick, and tell me! Darling, can you ever love me enough? You haven't drawn your hands away! Look up and let me read your eyes, please——"
No, she had not drawn her hands away, and she did not shrink from his supporting arm—and she was the kind of girl who would not have allowed such familiarities unless—Ah! She had lifted her eyes and there was something blindingly beautiful in them, and tears—great wonderful tears, so sweet and misty that they made him glad with a thrill of beautiful pain! Her lips were trembling. He longed to kiss her, yet knew he must wait until he had her permission——
"Allison! Listen! You are dear—wonderful—but you don't know a thing about me!"
"I know all I want to know, and that is a great deal, you darling, you!" And now he did kiss her, and drew her close into his arms and would not let her go even when she struggled gently.
"Allison, listen. Listen—please! I must tell you! Wait——!"
She put her hands against his breast and pushed herself back away from him where she could look in his face.
"Please, you must let me go and listen to what I have to say!"
"I'll let you go when you tell me yes or no, Jane. Do you, can you love me? I must know that first. Then you shall have your way."
Jane's eyes did not falter. She looked at him, "You promised, you know——!"
"Yes, Allison—I love you—but—NO! You must not kiss me again. You must let me go, and listen—You promised, you know——!"
Allison's arms dropped away from her, but his eyes held her in a long look of joy.
"All right, darling, go to it"—he said with a joyous sound in his voice—"I can stand anything now, I know. It seems too good to be true and it's enough for me. But hurry! A fellow can't wait forever."
"No, Allison, you must sit back and be serious. It isn't really happy, you know—what I have to tell you——!"
Allison became grave at once.
"All right, Jane, only I can't imagine anything terrible enough to stop this happiness of mine unless you're already married—and have been concealing it from us all this time——!"
In spite of herself Jane laughed at that, and Allison breathed more freely now the tenseness was gone out of her voice. His hands went out and grasped hers.
"At least I can do this," he pleaded, and Jane lifted her eyes, now serious again, and smiled tenderly, letting her hands stay in his passively.
"Listen, Allison—my father!"
"I know, Jane, dear—I heard it long ago. Your father was a forger! What do you suppose I care? He probably had some overpowering temptation and yielded, never dreaming but he would be able to make it right. You can't make me believe that any parent of yours was actually bad! And besides, if he was, it wouldn't be you——"
"Allison! Listen!" broke in Jane gravely, stopping the torrent of words with which he was attempting to silence her. "It isn't what you think at all. My father wasn't a forger! He was a good man!"
"He wasn't!" exclaimed Allison joyously. "Then what in thunder? Why didn't you tell 'em so, Jane?" He tried to draw her to him, but she still resisted.
"That's just it, Allison, I can't. I never can——"
"Well, then I will! You shan't have a thing like that hanging over you——!"
"But that is just what you must not do. And you can't do it, either, if I don't tell you about it, for you wouldn't have a thing to say, nor any way to prove it. And I won't tell you, Allison, ever, unless you will promise——!"
Allison was sobered in an instant.
"Jane, don't you know me well enough to be sure I would not betray any confidence you put in me?"
"I thought so——" said Jane, smiling through her tears.
"Dear!" said Allison in a tone that was a caress, full of longing and sympathy.
Jane sat up bravely and began her story.
"When I was twelve years old my mother died. That left father and me alone, and we became very close comrades indeed. He was a wonderful father!"
Allison's fingers answered with a warm pressure of sympathy and interest.
"He was father and mother both to me. And more and more we grew to confide in one another. I was interested in all his business, and used to amuse myself asking him about things at the office when he came home, the way mother used to do when she was with us. He used to talk over all my school friends and interests and we had beautiful times together. My father had a friend—a man who had grown up with him, lived next door and went to school with him when he was a boy. He was younger than father, and—well, not so serious. Father didn't always approve of what he did and used to urge him to do differently. He lived in the same suburb with us, and his wife had been a friend of mother's. She was a sweet little child-like woman, very pretty, and an invalid. They had one daughter, a girl about my age, and when we were children we used to play together, but as we grew older mother didn't care for us to be together much. She thought—it was better for us not to—and as the years went by we didn't have much to do with one another. Her father was the only one who kept up the acquaintance, and sometimes I used to think he worried my father every time he came to the house. One day when I was about fourteen he came in the afternoon just after I got home from school and said he wanted to see father as soon as he came home. Couldn't I telephone father and ask him to come home at once, that there was someone there wanting to see him on important business? He finally called him up himself and when father got there they went into a room by themselves and talked until late into the night. When at last Mr.—that is—the man, went away, father did not go to bed but walked up and down the floor in his study all night long. Toward morning I could not stand it any longer. I knew my father was in trouble. So I went down to him, and when I saw him I was terribly frightened. His face was white and drawn and his eyes burned like coals of fire. He looked at me with a look that I never shall forget. He took me in his arms and lifted up my face, a way he often had when he was in earnest, and he seemed to be looking down into my very soul. 'Little girl,' he said, 'we're in deep trouble. I don't know whether I've done right or not.' There was something in his voice that made me tremble all over, and he saw I was frightened and tried to be calm himself. 'Janie,' he said—he always called me Janie when he was deeply moved—'Janie, it may hit hardest on you, and oh, I meant your life to be so safe and happy!'
"I tried to tell him it didn't matter about me, and for him not to be troubled, but he went on telling about it. It seems the father of this man had once done a great deal for my father when he was in a very trying situation, and father always felt an obligation to look after the son. Indeed, he had promised when the old man was dying that he would be a brother to him no matter what happened. And now the son had been speculating and got deep into debt. He had formed some kind of stock company, something to do with Western land and mines. I never fully understood it all, but there had been a lot of fraudulent dealing, although father only suspected that at the time, but anyway, everything was going to fall through and the man was going to be brought up in disgrace before the world if somebody didn't help him out. And father felt obliged to stand by him. Of course, he did not know how bad it was, because the man had not told him all the truth, but father had taken over the obligations of the whole thing. He thought he might be able to pull the thing out of trouble by putting a good deal of his own money into it, and make it a fair and square proposition for all the stockholders without their ever finding out that everything had been on the verge of going to pieces. You see the man had put it up to father very eloquently that his wife was very ill in the hospital and, if anything should happen to him and he were arrested it could not be kept from her and she would die. It's true she was very critically ill, had just been through a severe operation, and was very frail indeed. Father felt it was up to him to shoulder the whole responsibility, although, of course, he felt that the man richly deserved the law to the full. Nevertheless, because of his promise he stood by him.
"That night the man was killed in an automobile accident soon after leaving our house, and when it developed that the business was built on a rotten foundation, and that father was in partnership—you see the man had been very wily and had his papers all fixed up so that it looked as if father had been a silent partner from the beginning—everything came back on father, and he found there were overwhelming debts that he had not been told about, although he supposed he had sifted the business to the foundation and understood it all before he made the agreement to help him. Perhaps if the man had lived he would have been able to carry his crooked dealings through and save the whole thing, with what help father had given him, and neither father nor the world would ever have found out—I don't know.—But anyway, his dying just then made the whole thing fall in ruins, and right on top of father. But even that we could have stood. We didn't care so much about money. Father was well off, and he found that if he put in everything he could satisfy the creditors, and pay off everything, and he had courage enough to be planning to start all over again. But suddenly it turned out that there had been a check forged for a large amount and it all looked as if father had done it. I can't go into the details now, but we were suddenly face to face with the fact that there was no evidence to prove that he had not been a hypocrite all these years except his own life. We thought for a few days that of course that would put him beyond suspicion—but do you know, the world is very hard. One of father's best friends—one he thought was a friend—came to him and offered to go bail for him for my sake if he would just tell him the whole truth and own up. There was only one way and that was to go to the man's wife and try to get certain papers which father knew were in existence because he had seen them, and which he had supposed were left in his own safe the night the man talked with him, but which could not be found. As the wife had just been brought back from the hospital and was still in a very critical condition, father would not do more than ask if he might go through the house and search. And that woman sent back a very indignant refusal, charging father with having been at the bottom of her husband's failure, and even the cause of his death, and telling him he had pauperized her and her little helpless daughter. And the daughter began treating me as a stranger whenever we chanced to meet——"
Allison's face darkened and his eyes looked stern and hard. He said something under his breath angrily. Jane couldn't catch the words, but he drew her close in his arms and held her tenderly:
"And were those papers never found, dear?" he asked after a moment:
"Yes," said Jane wearily, resting her head back against his shoulder, "I found them, after father died."
"You found them?"
"Yes, I found them slipped down behind the chest in the hall. It was a heavy oak chest, a great carved affair that had belonged in the family a long time, and it was seldom moved. It stood below the hat-rack in the alcove in the hall, and I figured it out that the man must have meant to keep those papers himself, so there would be no incriminating evidence in father's hands, and that he must have picked them up without father's noticing and started to carry them home; but that when he was going away, putting on his overcoat, he had somehow dropped some of them behind that chest without knowing it. Because they were not all there—two of them were missing. Father had described them to me, and three—the most important ones with the empty envelope—were found. The other two were probably larger, and looked like the whole bundle, which explains how he came to think he had them all. But the two he had and must have had about him when he was killed would not in themselves have been any evidence against him. So, my father was arrested——!"
The tears choked Jane's voice and suddenly rained into her sweet eyes as she struggled to recall the whole sorrowful experience.
"Oh, my darling!" cried Allison, tenderly holding her close.
"Father was very brave. He said it was sure to come out all right, but he wouldn't accept bail, though it was offered him by several loyal friends. He saw that they suspected him, and the papers all came out with big headlines, 'CHURCH ELDER ARRESTED.'"
Allison's voice was deep with loving sympathy as his lips swept her forehead softly and he murmured, "My poor little girl!" but Jane went bravely on.
"That was a hard time," she said with trembling lips, "but God was good; he didn't let it last long. There came an old friend back from abroad who had known father ever since he was a boy, and who happened to have been associated with him in business long enough to give certain proofs that cleared the whole thing up. In a week the case was dismissed so far as father was concerned, and he was back at home again, and restored to the full confidence of his business associates—that is, those who knew intimately about the matter. If father had lived I have no doubt everything would have been all right, and he would have been able to live down the whole thing, but the trouble had struck him hard, he was so terribly worried for my sake, you know. Then he took a little cold which we didn't think anything about, and suddenly, before we realized it, he was down with double pneumonia from which he never rallied. His vitality seemed to be gone. After he died, the papers said beautiful things about his bravery and courage and Christianity, and people tried to be nice, but when it was all over there were still people who looked at me curiously when I passed, and whispered noticeably together; and that man's wife and daughter openly called me a forger's daughter and said that my father had stolen their income, when all the time they were living on what he had given up to save them from disgrace. The daughter made it so unpleasant for me that I decided to go away where I was not known, although I had several dear beautiful homes opened to me if I had chosen to stay, where I might have been a daughter and treated as one of the other children. But I thought it was better to go away and make my own life——"
"But you had evidence. Did you never go and tell those two how wrong they were and how it was their father, not yours, who was the forger?"
"No, not exactly," said Jane, lifting clear untroubled eyes to his face. "You see that was part of father's obligation; it was a point of honor not to give that man's shame away to his wife—he had promised—and then, the man, was dead—he could not be brought to justice; what good would it do?"
"It would have done the good that those two women wouldn't have gone around snubbing you and telling lies about you——"
"Oh, well, after all, that didn't really hurt me——"
"And that brazen girl wouldn't have dared come here to the same college and make it hot for you——!"
"Allison! How did you know?" Jane sat up and looked into his eyes, startled.
"I knew from the first mention that it must have been Eugenia Frazer. No girl in her senses would have taken the trouble to do what she did to-day without some grievance——! Oh, that girl! She is beyond words! Think of anybody ever falling in love with her! I'd like the pleasure of informing her what her father was. Of course, though, it wasn't her fault. She couldn't help her father being what he was, but she could help what she is herself. I should certainly like to see her get what's coming to her——!"
"Don't Allison—please! It isn't the right spirit for us to have. Perhaps I'd be just like her if I were in her place——"
"I see you being like her—you angel!" And Allison leaned over again to look into the eyes of his beloved.
"Well, dear, we'll get the right spirit about it somehow, and forget her, but I mean she shall understand right where she gets off before this thing goes any farther. No, you needn't protest. I'm not going to give away your confidence. But I'm going to settle that girl where she won't dare to make any more trouble for you ever again. And the first thing we're going to do is to announce our engagement. I feel like going up to the college bulletin board right this minute and writing it out in great big letters!"
"Allison!" Jane sat up with shining eyes and her cheeks very red. Then they both broke down and laughed, Jane's merriment ending in a serious look.
"Allison, you really want me, now you know what people may think about my father?"
"Jane, I've known all that since I first saw you. Our beloved pastor kindly informed me of it the night he introduced us, so you see how little weight it had with any of us. I had no knowledge but that it was all true, although I couldn't for the life of me see how a man who was unworthy of you could have possibly been your father; but it was you, and not your father, I fell in love with the first night I saw you. I'm mighty glad for your sake that he wasn't that kind of man, because I know how you would feel about it, but as for what other people think about it, I should worry! And Jane, make up your mind right here and now that we're going to be married the day we both graduate, see? I won't wait a day longer to have the right to protect you——"
The tall trees whispered above their heads, and the birds looked down and dropped wonderful melodies about them, and Leslie stormily drove her car back and forth on the pike and sounded her klaxon loud and long, but it was almost an hour later that it suddenly occurred to Allison that Leslie was waiting for them, and still later before the two with blissful lingering finally wended their way out to the road and were taken up by the subdued and weary Leslie, who greeted them with relief and fell upon her new sister with eager enthusiasm and genuine delight.
An hour later Allison, after committing his future bride to the tender ministries of Julia Cloud, who had received her as a daughter, took his way collegeward. He sent up his card to Miss Frazer and Miss Brice and requested that he might see them both as soon as possible, and in a flutter of expectancy the two presently entered the reception-room. They were hoping he had come to take them out in his car, although each was disappointed to find that she was not the only one summoned.
Allison in that few minutes of waiting for them, seemed to have lost his care-free boyish air and have grown to man's estate. He greeted the two young women with utmost courtesy and gravity and proceeded at once to business:
"I have come to inform you," he said with a bow that might almost be called stately, so much had the tall, slender figure lost its boyishness, "that Miss Bristol is my fiancee, and as such it is my business to protect her. I must ask you both to publicly apologize before your sorority for what happened this morning."
Eunice Brice grew white and frightened, but Eugenia Frazer's face flamed angrily.
"Indeed, Allison Cloud, I'll do nothing of the kind. What in the world did you suppose I had to do with what happened this morning?"
"You had all to do with it. Miss Frazer, I happen to know all about the matter."
"Well, you certainly don't," flamed Eugenia, "or you wouldn't be engaged to that little Bristol hypocrite. Her father was a common——"
Allison took a step toward her, his face stern but controlled.
"Her father was not a forger, Miss Frazer, and I have reason to believe that you know that the report you are spreading about college is not true. But however that may be, Miss Frazer, if I should say that your father was a forger would that change you any? I have asked Miss Bristol to marry me because of what she is herself, and not because of what her father was. But there is ample evidence that her father was a noble and an upright man and so recognized by the law and by his fellow-townsmen, and I demand that you take back your words publicly, both of you, and that you, Miss Frazer, take upon yourself publicly the responsibility for starting this whole trouble. I fancy it may be rather unpleasant for you to remain in this college longer unless this matter is adjusted satisfactorily."
"Well, I certainly do not intend to be bullied into any such thing!" said Eugenia angrily. "I'll leave college first!"
Eunice Brice began to cry. She was the protegee of a rich woman and could not afford to be disgraced.
"I shall tell them all that you asked me to make that motion for you and promised to give me your pink evening dress if I did," reproached Eunice tearfully.
"Tell what you like," returned Eugenia grandly, "it will only prove you what you are, a little fool! I'm going up to pack. You needn't think you can hush me up, Allison Cloud, if you are rich. Money won't cover up the truth——"
"No," said Allison looking at her steadily, controlledly, with a memory of his promise to Jane. "No, but Christianity will—sometimes."
"Oh, yes, everybody knows you're a fanatic!" sneered Eugenia, and swept herself out of the room with high head, knowing that the wisest thing she could do was to depart while the going was good.
When Allison reached home a few minutes later Julia Cloud put into his hand a letter which his guardian had written her soon after his first visit, in which he stated that he had made it a point to look up both the young people with whom his wards were intimate, and he found their records and their family irreproachable. He especially went into details concerning Jane's father and the noble way in which he had acted, and the completeness with which his name had been cleared. He uncovered one or two facts which Jane apparently did not know, and which proved that time had revealed the true criminal to those most concerned and that only pity for his family, and the expressed wish of the man who had borne for a time his shame, had caused the matter to be hushed up.
Allison, after he had read it, went to find Jane and drew her into the little sun-parlor to read it with him, and together they rejoiced quietly.
Jane lifted a shining face to Allison after the reading.
"Then I'm glad we never said anything to Eugenia! Poor Eugenia! She is greatly to be pitied!"
Allison, a little shamefacedly, agreed, and then owned up that he had "fired" Eugenia, as he expressed it, from the college.
"O, Allison!" said Jane, half troubled, though laughing in spite of herself at the vision of Eugenia trying to be lofty in the face of the facts. "You ought not to have done it, dear. I have stood it so long, it didn't matter! Only for your sake—and Leslie's——!"
"For our sakes, nothing!" said Allison. "That girl needed somebody to tell her where to get off, and only a man could do it. She'll be more polite to people hereafter, I'm thinking. It won't do her any harm. Now, Jane darling, forget it, and let's be happy!"
"Be careful, Allison, some one is coming. I think it's that Mr. Terrence."
"Dog-gone his fool hide!" muttered Allison. "I wish he'd take himself home! I certainly would like to tell him where to get off. Leslie's as sick of him as I am, and as for Cloudy, she's about reached the limit."
"Why, Allison, isn't Leslie interested in him? He told Howard that they were as good as engaged."
"Leslie interested in that little cad? I should say not. If she was I'd disown her. You say he told Howard they were engaged! What a lie! So that's what's the matter with the old boy, is it? I thought something must be the matter that he got so busy all of a sudden. Well, I'll soon fix that! Come on up to Cloudy's porch, quick, while he's in his room. Cloudy won't mind. We'll be by ourselves there till dinner is ready!"
But matters came to a climax with Howard Letchworth before Allison had any opportunity to do any "fixing."
The next afternoon was Class Day and there were big doings at the college. Howard kept out of the way, for it was a day on which he had counted much, and during the winter once or twice he and Leslie had talked of it as a matter of course that they would be around together. His Class Day had seemed then to be of so much importance to her—and now—now she was going to attend it in Clive Terrence's company! Terrence had told him so, and there seemed no reason to doubt his word. She went everywhere with him, and he was their guest; why shouldn't she? So Howard went glumly about his duties, keeping as much as possible out of everyone's way. If he had not been a part of the order of exercises, and a moving spirit of the day, as it were, he would certainly have made up an excuse to absent himself. As it was, he meditated trying to get some one else to take his place, and was on his way to arrange it, just before the hour for the afternoon exercises to begin, when suddenly he saw, coming up the wide asphalt walk of the campus, young Terrence, and the girl who had come to be known among them as the "Freshman Vamp." His eyes hastily scanned the groups about, and searched the walk as far as he could see it, but nowhere could he discover Leslie.
With a sudden impulse he dashed over to Julia Cloud, and forgetful of his late estrangement spoke with much of his old eagerness; albeit trying his best to appear careless and matter-of-fact:
"Isn't Leslie hereabouts somewhere, Miss Cloud? I believe I promised to show her the ivy that our class is to plant."
It was the first excuse he could think of. But Julia Cloud was full of sympathy and understanding, and only too glad to hear the old ring of friendliness in his voice. She lowered her tone and spoke confidentially:
"She wouldn't come, Howard: I don't just know what has taken her. She said she would rather stay at home——"
"Is she down there now?"
Julia Cloud nodded.
"I will!" he said, and was off like a flash. On his way down the campus he thrust some papers into a classmate's hands.
"If I don't get back in time, give those to Halsted and tell him to look out for things. I'm called away."
Never in all his running days had he run as he did that day. He made the station in four minutes where it usually took him six, and was at the Cloud Villa in two more, all out of breath but radiant. Something jubilant had been let loose in his heart by the smile in Julia Cloud's eyes, utterly unreasonable, of course, but still it had come, and he was entertaining it royally. It was rather disheartening to find the front door locked and only Cherry to respond to his knock.
"Isn't Miss Leslie here?" he asked, a blank look coming into his eyes as Cherry appeared.
"Miss Leslie done jes' skittered acrost de back yahd wid a paddle in her han'. I reckum she's gone to de crick. Miss Jewel, she'll be powerful upset ef she comes back an' finds out. She don't like Miss Leslie go down to them canoes all by her lonesome."
"That's all right, Cherry," said Howard, cheering up; "I'll go down and find her. Got an extra paddle anywhere, or did she take them both?"
"No, sir, she only took de one. Here's t'other. I reckum she'll be right glad to see yeh, Mas'r Howard. We-all hes missed you mighty powerful lot. That there little fish-eyed lady-man wot is visitin' us ain't no kind of substoote 'tall fer you——"
Howard beamed on her silently and was off like a shot, forgetful of the chimes on the clock of the college, which were now striking the hour at which he was to have led the procession down the ivy walk to the scene of festivities.
Over two fences, across lots, down a steep, rocky hill, and he was at the little landing where the Cloud canoe usually anchored. But Leslie and her boat were gone. No glimpse of bright hair either up or down stream gave hint of which she had taken, no ripple in the water even to show where she had passed. But he knew pretty well her favorite haunts up-stream where the hemlocks bowed and bent to the water, and made dark shadows under which to slip. The silence and the beauty called her as they had always called him. He was sure he would find her there rather than down-stream where the crowds of inn people played around, and the tennis courts overflowed into canoes and dawdled about with ukeleles and cameras. He looked about for a means of transport. There was only one canoe, well-chained to its rest. He examined the padlock for a moment, then put forth his strong young arm and jerked up the rest from its firm setting in the earth. It was the work of a second to shoot the boat into the water, fling the chains, boat-rest and all into the bow, and spring after. Long, strong, steady strokes, and he shot out into the stream and away up beyond the willows; around the turn where the chestnut grove bloomed in good promise for the autumn; beyond the railroad bridge and the rocks; past the first dipping hemlocks; around the curve; below the old camp where they had had so many delightful picnics and watched the sunset from the rocks; and on, up above the rapids. The current was swift to-day. He wondered if Leslie had been able to pass them all alone, yet somehow he felt she had and he would find her up in the quiet haven where few ever came and where she would be undisturbed. Paddling "Indian" he came around the curve silently and was almost upon her, but was unprepared for the little huddled figure down in the bottom of the boat, one hand grasping the paddle which was wedged between some stones in the shallow stream bed to anchor the frail bark, the other arm curved about as a pillow for the face which was hidden, with only the bright hair gleaming in the stray rays of sunshine that crept through the young leaves overhead.
"Leslie, little girl—my darling—what is the matter?"
He scarcely knew what he was saying, so anxiously he watched her. Was she hurt or in trouble, and if so, what was the trouble? Did the vapid little guest and the Freshman Vamp have anything to do with it? Somehow he forgot all about himself now and his own grievance—he only wanted to comfort her whom he loved, and it never entered his head that just at that moment the anxious Halsted was inquiring of everyone: "Haven't you seen Letchworth? Class Day'll be a mess without him! Something must have happened to him!"
Leslie lifted a tear-stained face in startled amaze. His voice! Those precious words! Leslie heard them even if he took no cognizance of them himself.
"I—you—WELL, YOU ought to know——!" burst forth Leslie and then down went the bright head once more and the slender shoulders shook with long-suppressed sobs.
It certainly was a good thing that the creek was shallow at that point and the canoes quite used to all sorts of conditions. Howard Letchworth waited for no invitation. He arose and stepped into Leslie's boat, pinioned his own with a dextrous paddle, and gave attention to comforting the princess. It somehow needed no words for awhile, until at last Leslie lifted a woebegone face that already looked half-appeased and inquired sobbily:
"What made you act so perfectly horrid all this time?"
"Why—I——" began Howard lamely, wondering now just why he had——! "Why, you see, Leslie, you had company and——"
"Company! That! Now, Howard, you weren't jealous of that little excuse for a man, were you?"
Howard colored guiltily:
"Why, you see, Leslie, you are so far above me——"
"Oh, I was, was I? Well, if I was above you, where did you think that other ridiculous little simp belonged, I should like to know? Not with me, I hope?"
"But you see, Leslie——" somehow the great question that had loomed between them these weeks dwarfed and shrivelled when he tried to explain it to Leslie——
"Well, I've just found out you are very rich——"
"Well, I'm POOR."
"But I thought you just said you loved me!" flashed Leslie indignantly. "If you do, I don't see what rich and poor matter. It'll all belong to us both, won't it?"
"I should hope not," said the young man, drawing himself up as much as was consistent with life in a canoe. "I would never let my wife support me."
"Well, perhaps you might be able to make enough to support yourself," twinkled Leslie with mischief in a dimple near her mouth.
"Leslie, now you're making fun! I mean this!"
"Well, what do you want me to do about it, give away my money?"
"Of course not. I was a cad and all that, but somehow it seemed as though I hadn't any business to be coming around you when you were so young and with plenty of chances of men worth more than I——"
"More what? More money?"
"Leslie, this is a serious matter with me——"
"Well, it is with me, too," said Leslie, suddenly grave. "You certainly have made me most unhappy for about three weeks. But I'm beginning to think you don't love me after all. What is money between people who love each other? Only something that they can have a good time spending for others, isn't it? And suppose I should say I wouldn't let you support me? I guess after all if you think so much of money you don't really care!"
"Leslie!" Their eyes met and his suddenly fell before her steady, beautiful gaze:
"Well, then, Howard Letchworth, if you are so awfully proud that you have to be the richest, I'll throw away or give away all my money and be a pauper, so there! Then will you be satisfied? What's money without the one you love, anyway?"
"I see, Leslie! I was a fool. You darling, wonderful princess. No, keep your money and I'll try to make some more and we'll have a wonderful time helping others with it. I suppose I knew I was a fool all the time, only I wanted to be told so, because you see that fellow told me you and he had been set apart for each other by your parents——!"
A sudden lurch of the canoe roused him to look at Leslie's face:
"Oh, that little—liar! Yes, he is! He is the meanest, conceitedest, most disagreeable little snob——!"
"There, there! We'll spare him——" laughed Howard. "I see I was wrong again, only, Leslie, little princess, there's one thing you must own is true, you're very young yet and you may change——"
"Now, I like that!" cried Leslie. "You don't even think I have the stability to be true to you. Well, if I'm as weak-looking as that you better go and find someone else——"
But he stopped her words with his face against her lips, and his arms about her, and at last she nestled against his shoulder and was at peace.
Chiming out above the notes of the wood-robin and the thrush there came the faint and distant notes of the quarter hour striking on the college library. It was Leslie who heard it. Howard was still too far upon the heights to think of earthly duties yet awhile.
"Howard! Isn't this your Class Day? And haven't you a part in the exercises? Why aren't you there?"
He turned with startled eyes, and rising color.
"I couldn't stay, Leslie. I was too miserable! I had to come after you. You promised to be with me to-day, you know——"
"But your Class Poem, Howard! Quick! It must be almost time to read it——!"
He took out his watch.
"Great Scott! I didn't know the time had gone like that!"
Leslie's fingers were already at work with the other canoe, tying its chain to the seat of her own.
"Now!" she turned and picked up her paddle swiftly, handing Howard the other one. "Go! For all your worth! You mustn't fail on this day anyway! Beat it with all your might!"
"It's too late!" said the man reluctantly, taking the paddle and moving to his right position.
"It's not too late. It shan't be too late! Paddle, I say, now, ONE—and—TWO—and——!"
And they settled to a rhythmic stroke.
"It was so wonderful back there, Leslie," said Howard wistfully. "We oughtn't to let anything interfere with this first hour together."
"This isn't interfering," said Leslie practically, "it's just duty, and that never interferes. Here, we'll land over there and you beat it up the hill! I'll padlock the boats by that old tree and follow, but don't you dare wait for me! I'll be there to hear the first word and they'll have waited for you, I know. A little to the right, there—now—step out and beat it!"
He obeyed her, and presently came panting to the audience room, with a fine color, and a great light in his eyes, just as Halsted was slipping down to inquire of Allison:
"Where in thunder is Letchworth? Seen him anywhere?"
"Heavens, man! Hasn't he showed up yet?" cried Allison startled. "Where could he be?"
Julia Cloud beside him leaned over and quietly drew their attention to the figure hastening up the aisle. Halsted hurried back to the platform, and Allison, relieved, settled once more in his seat. But Julia Cloud rested not in satisfaction until another figure breathlessly slipped in with eyes for none but the speaker.
Then into the eyes of Julia Cloud there came a vision as comes to one who watching the glorious setting of the sun sees not the regretful close of the day that is past, but the golden promise of the day that is to come.