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Grace Harlowe's Problem
by Jessie Graham Flower
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She presented Grace to the other woman, who did not offer to take the hand Grace extended, but bowed rather distantly. The color stung Grace's cheeks at the slight. Still she forced herself to try to say honestly, "I am glad to know you, Miss Wharton."

"Thank you," was the cold response, "You are much younger than I was led to believe. It is rather difficult to imagine you as the head of a campus house. You give one the impression of being a student."

Grace's eyes were fixed on the new dean with grave regard. Was this salutary speech purely impersonal or did a spice of malicious meaning lurk within it? Not since those far-off days when Miss Leece, a disagreeable teacher of mathematics at Oakdale High School, had made her algebra path a thorny one had she encountered any instructor that reminded her in the least of the one teacher she had thoroughly despised. Yet, as she strove to fight back her growing dislike and reply impersonally, she was seized with the conviction that even as she and Miss Leece had been wholly opposed to each other, so surely would she and Miss Wharton find nothing in common. After what seemed an hour, but was in reality a minute, Grace forced herself to smile and say with quiet courtesy, "This is my second year as house mother at Harlowe House. I am frequently taken for a student. I really feel no older than my girls, and I hope I shall always feel so."

"It isn't years that count with Miss Harlowe," smiled Miss Wilder, coming to Grace's defense. "It is the ability to keep things moving successfully, and Miss Harlowe has shown that ability in a marked degree," she added.

"Has she, indeed?" returned Miss Wharton, with what Grace felt to be forced politeness. "I shall be interested in visiting Harlowe House and learning Miss Harlowe's successful methods of management." Then she turned to Miss Wilder and began a conversation from which it appeared as though she deliberately sought to exclude Grace.

"I must go, Miss Wilder," said Grace, rising almost immediately. She decided that she could not and would not endure Miss Wharton's rudeness.

Miss Wilder looked distressed. She could not understand Miss Wharton's attitude, therefore there was nothing to do save ignore it.

"Very well, my dear. Run in and see me to-morrow. I shall be here from two o'clock until four in the afternoon." She took one of Grace's soft hands in both of hers. The brown eyes met the gray questioning ones with a look of love and trust. Grace's resentment died out. She said a formal good-bye to Miss Wharton and hurried from the room. She would go to see Miss Wilder the next day as she had requested. Perhaps Miss Wharton's rude reception of her was due merely to a brusque trait of character. Perhaps she belonged to the old school who believed that youth and responsibility could not go hand in hand. At any rate she would try hard not to judge. Although she usually found her first impressions to be correct, still there were always exceptions. Miss Wharton might prove to be the exception.

On her way home she stopped at Wayne Hall. To her it was a house of tender memories, and she never entered its hospitable doors without half expecting to see the dear, familiar faces of the girls long gone from there to the busy paths of the outside world.

"Why, how do you do, Miss Harlowe?" was Mrs. Elwood's delighted greeting. "It certainly is good to see you. I think you might run over oftener when you're so near, but I s'pose you have your hands full with all those thirty-four girls. Did you come to see Miss West and Miss Eliot? If you did, they're both at home, for a wonder. Miss West doesn't have a recitation at this hour, and Miss Eliot's sick."

"Sick!" Grace sprang to her feet. "Oh, I must run up and see her at once. To tell you the truth, Mrs. Elwood, I came to see you. I hadn't the least idea that either of the girls were in, but if you'll forgive me this time I'll run upstairs to see Patience and make you a special visit some other day."

"Oh, I'll forgive you, all right," laughed Mrs. Elwood. "I'm glad to see your bright face, if it's only for five minutes, Miss Harlowe."

"You're a dear." Grace dropped a soft kiss on Mrs. Elwood's cheek, then hurried up the stairs, two at a time. Pausing at the old familiar door at the end of the hall, she knocked. There was a quick, light step. The door opened and Kathleen West fairly pounced upon her.

"Look who's here! Look who's here!" she chanted triumphantly. The tall, fair girl in the lavender silk kimono, who reclined in the Morris chair, turned her head languidly, then gave a cry of delight.

"You poor girl!" Grace embraced Patience affectionately. "Whatever is the matter?"

"Oh, just a cold," croaked Patience. "In the words of J. Elfreda, 'I'm a little horse.'" Her blue eyes twinkled. "It's worth being sick to have you here, Grace."

"I've been intending to come over every night this week, but I'm so busy," sighed Grace. "The Service Bureau keeps me hustling."

"What a progressive lot of people you Harlowites are," praised Kathleen. "Did you know that Mary is doing a story about you and your family for our paper. Of course there are no names mentioned. I saw to that." Kathleen flushed. She recalled a time when she had used Grace's name without permission.

"Yes, I know about it," smiled Grace, "and I know that no names are mentioned."

Kathleen's color heightened. Then she remarked: "By the way, that Miss Brent must have realized a nice sum of money from her sale. When did she have it, Grace? We didn't hear a word of it. It must have been a very select affair. I'm sorry I didn't know of it, for I wanted to buy an evening dress. Rita Harris bought a beauty. Tell us about this latest acquisition to Harlowe House. How does she happen to have such wonderful clothes, and why didn't she go to work for the Service Bureau instead of selling them? I'm fairly buzzing with curiosity."

Grace viewed Kathleen in amazement. "I don't understand you, Kathleen," she said, in a perplexed tone. "I have heard nothing of a sale."

"But Miss Brent held it at Harlowe House a week ago last Saturday," persisted Kathleen. "It is evident she didn't wish you to know it or you would have been there, too."

Grace's amazed expression changed to one of vexed concern. She now understood. "One week ago last Saturday I was in New York City," she said soberly. "Until this moment I knew nothing of any such sale. In fact I had objected to the plan when Miss Brent proposed it to me. If she had wished to dispose of certain of her personal belongings to any one girl I should have said unhesitatingly that it was her own affair, but a general sale is a different matter. The eyes of the college are, to a great extent, directed toward Harlowe House. It's position among the other campus houses is unique. That the girls who live there are given a home free of charge makes them doubly liable to criticism. They must be worthy of their privileges."

Kathleen nodded in emphatic agreement. "Of course they must. I understand fully your position in regard to them, Grace."

"You mean the girl we met that day at Vinton's, don't you?" inquired Patience. "She had been robbed of her money in the train."

"Yes; she is the very girl."

"How do you reconcile her lack of means to pay her college expenses with this wonderful wardrobe that Kathleen has just told us of?"

"I don't reconcile them. I can't. That is just the trouble." Grace looked worried. "Speaking in strict confidence, I have really taken Miss Brent on trust. I have asked her to explain certain things to me, and she has refused to do so. On the other hand she is warmly championed by the principal of one of the most select preparatory schools in the country. Then, too, she assures me that at some future day she will explain everything. Emma calls her the Riddle. It's an appropriate name, too." Grace made a little despairing gesture.

"You are the greatest advocate of the motto, 'Live and let live' that I have ever run across, Grace," smiled Patience, "but," her face grew serious, "I believe you ought to insist on Miss Brent's full explanation of her mysterious ways. If the news of this sale happens to reach faculty ears you are likely to be criticized for allowing it."

"But I didn't allow it," protested Grace. "I refused my consent to it."

"Yet you are the last one to defend yourself at another's expense," reminded Kathleen. "You'd rather be misjudged than to see this girl, who hasn't even trusted you, placed in an unpleasant position."

Grace's color deepened. "I promised to trust her," she said at last. "At first I felt just as you do about this. Then I talked with her. She seemed honest and sincere. I decided that perhaps it would be better not to force her confidence. Young girls are often likely to make mountains of mole-hills. Still, Emma thinks just as you do," she added. "She didn't at first, but she does now. I'm sure she knows nothing of the sale. She would have told me."

"I just happened to remember," began Kathleen, her straight brows drawn together in a scowl, "that Evelyn Ward rooms with Miss Brent. Evelyn must have known of the sale. Do you mind, if I ask her about it?"

"Ask her if you like." Grace spoke wearily. Everything was surely going wrong to-day. She had intended to tell Patience and Kathleen about her trip to New York. She had visited Anne and the Southards and spent two delightful days. After what she had heard she felt that there was nothing to say. "I must go," she announced abruptly. "I'll come again to-morrow to see you, Patience. A speedy recovery to you. Come and see me, both of you, whenever you can. By the way, I met Miss Wharton, the new dean, this morning."

"What is she like?" asked Kathleen.

"I can hardly tell you. She is different from Miss Wilder. I saw her only for a moment. She seems distant. Still one can't judge by first appearances. I must go. Good-bye, girls."

Grace left her friends rather hurriedly. She was ready to cry. The revelations of the morning had been almost too much for her. It was hard indeed to be snubbed, but it was harder still to be deceived. "It's all in the day's work," she whispered, over and over again, as she crossed the campus. "I must be brave and accept what comes. It's all in the day's work."



CHAPTER IX

WHAT EVELYN HEARD ON THE CAMPUS

"Ha! Whom have we here?" declaimed Emma Dean, pointing dramatically, as Grace opened the door and stepped into their room. One look at Grace's sensitive face was sufficient. Emma had lived close to her friend too long not to know the signs of dejection in the features that usually shone with hope and cheerfulness. "Advance and show your countersign," she commanded.

"I haven't any," returned Grace soberly.

"Spoken like a brigadier general who doesn't need one," retorted Emma. "You are just in time to hear my terrible tale.

"Oh, a terrible tale I have to tell Of the terrible fate that once befell A teacher of English who once resided In the same recitation room that I did,"

she rendered tunefully.

The shadow disappeared like magic from Grace's face. "Now what have you done, you funny girl?" she asked, her sad face breaking into smiles. Emma was irresistible.

"It is not what I have done, but what I might have done. What was it Whittier said in 'Maud Muller'?"

"There's really no one under the sun Can blame you for what you might have done,"

paraphrased Emma briskly.

Grace giggled outright. "Poor Whittier," she sympathized.

"Don't pity him," objected Emma. "Pity me for what nearly happened to me. The illustrious name of Dean came within a little of traveling about Overton attached to a funny story, which I will now relate for your sole edification. You remember that pile of themes I brought home on Tuesday?"

Grace nodded.

"Well, I finished them last night and wrapped them up ready to take back to the classroom to-day. They made a good-sized bundle, because I had collected them from all my classes. This morning I was in a hurry, so I picked up my bundle and ran. I always like to be in my classroom in good season. But fate was against me, for I met Miss Dutton, that new assistant in Greek, and she stopped me to ask me numerous questions, as she is fain to do unless one sees her first, and from afar off enough to suddenly change one's course and miss her. Consequently I marched into my room to find my class assembled. I assumed a dignity which I didn't feel, for I hate being late, and laid my bundle of themes on my desk. Every eye was fixed reprovingly upon me. I had said so much against straggling into class late, yet here I had committed that very crime. I untied my bundle and was just going to open it when that black-eyed Miss Atherton asked me a question. I answered the question, my eyes on her, my fingers folding back the paper. I reached for my themes and my hand closed over cloth instead of paper. A positive chill went up and down my spine. I gave one horrified glance at the supposed theme and poked it out of sight in a hurry. Another second and I would have offered some one my white linen skirt in full view of my class. Instead of themes I had brought my clean laundry to English IV."

"Oh, Emma!" gasped Grace mirthfully.

"You're not a bit sympathetic," declared Emma with pretended severity.

How Elfreda would love that tale. She would revel in the vision of Emma Dean solemnly proffering her linen skirt to an unsuspecting class. "I declare, Emma, you have driven away the blues."

"Have I?" inquired Emma with guileful innocence. It was precisely what she had intended to do. "What is troubling you, Gracious?"

"I can't endure the thought of losing Miss Wilder. I went to see her this morning and met Miss Wharton. I——"

"Don't like her," finished Emma calmly.

"No, I don't," returned Grace, with sudden vigor, "but how did you know it?"

"Because I don't like her, either. I was introduced to her yesterday afternoon in Miss Wilder's office. I didn't tell you, because I wished you to form your own impression of her, first hand."

"She was positively rude to me, Emma. She made me feel like a little girl. She said I looked more like a student than a person in charge of a campus house."

"I agree with her," was Emma's bland reply. "You might easily be taken for a freshman."

"But she didn't mean it in the nice way that you do," said Grace. "I hope she never comes to inspect Harlowe House. She will be sure to find fault."

"She'll have to make a sharp search," predicted Emma. "We won't worry about it until she comes, will we? Now, what else is on your mind?"

"The Riddle," admitted Grace. She related what she had heard from Kathleen regarding the sale.

"H-m-m!" was Emma's dry response. "They took good care that I shouldn't hear of it."

"I'm so sorry Evelyn lent herself to something she knew would displease me," mourned Grace.

"Perhaps she didn't. I know for a certainty that she wasn't in the house Saturday afternoon, for I met her on the campus and she told me that she was going to take luncheon and spend the afternoon with Althea Parker."

"She must have known about it."

"I am afraid the news of this sale will travel rapidly," prophesied Emma. "Not only will Miss Brent be talked over, but you also will be criticized. You know I advised you, not long ago, to insist that Miss Brent make a full explanation of things. Take my advice and see her at once."

"I will," decided Grace. "I'll have a talk with her after dinner to-night."

Grace was not the only one, however, to whom the news of the sale came as a shock. Strangely enough Evelyn learned of it during the afternoon of the same day in which it had come to Grace's ears. Her attention had been attracted to a smart black and white check coat which Edna Correll, a very plain freshman who tried to make up in extreme dressing what she lacked in beauty, was wearing. In crossing the campus on her way to Harlowe House she had encountered Edna in company with another freshman. For an instant she had wondered why the sight of the black and white coat which Edna wore seemed so strangely familiar. Then it had dawned upon her that it was identical with a coat belonging to Jean.

"How do you like my new coat?" had been Edna's salutation, and Evelyn had replied. "It's wonderfully smart. Miss Brent has one very much like it."

"She had one, you mean," Edna had corrected. "Why, weren't you at the sale last Saturday! I suppose you selected what you wanted beforehand. That is where you had the advantage."

"What sale?" Evelyn had asked, completely mystified. Then explanations had followed. White with suppressed anger, Evelyn had bade Edna a hasty good-bye and sped across the campus toward Harlowe House. Without a word she brushed by the maid who answered the bell, and rushed upstairs as fast as she could run. The temper which she had tried so hard to control was now at a high pitch. How dared Jean deliberately place her in such an unpleasant position when she was trying so hard to be worthy of Miss Harlowe's confidence? She flung open the door of her room. Then her eyes sought and found Jean standing before the wardrobe, her back to the door, a pair of black satin slippers in her hand.

"How could you do it?" burst forth Evelyn. "You know Miss Harlowe forbade it. Now she will think that I knew all about it. Just when I am trying to merit her confidence."

Jean Brent whirled about. Her blue eyes flashed. One of the slippers she held in her hand swished through the air and landed with a thud against the opposite wall. The wave of anger with which she faced Evelyn was like the sudden sweep of a gale of wind out of a clear sky. The other slipper followed the first one. Then the doors of the wardrobe were slammed shut with a force that caused it to shake. To Evelyn it was as though a strong current of air had blown upon her. Here, indeed was a temper that outranked her own.

"What right have you to speak to me in such a tone?" raged Jean. "You have nothing to say as to what I shall or shall not do. I won't pretend I don't know what you mean. I do know. I don't in the least care what you think about it, either. My clothes are mine to do with just whatever I please. If Miss Harlowe imagines I am going to be a servant to half the girls at Overton for the sake of earning my fees she is mistaken. Why should she or any one else object to my selling my things, if I like? I don't see how you found it out. The girls promised to keep the whole affair to themselves. I don't understand why you should be so concerned, or what it has to do with Miss Harlowe's opinion of you. From what you say I might almost assume that there had been a time when you were not to be trusted."

Evelyn's beautiful face was crimson with anger and humiliation. She longed to answer Jean's arraignment with a flood of words as bitter as her own, but her determined effort of months to rule her spirit now bore fruit.

"I'm sorry I spoke so abruptly," she said coldly. "I just heard about the sale from Miss Correll. You were quite right in what you said. There was a time when I could not be trusted. My trouble was about clothes, too. Miss Harlowe helped me find my self-respect again, and this year I am trying very hard to be an Overton girl in the truest sense of the word. I am telling you this in confidence because I wish you to understand why Miss Harlowe's good opinion is so dear to me."

"You can go and tell her that you knew nothing about the sale," muttered Jean sullenly. Something in Evelyn's frank confession had made her feel a trifle ashamed of herself.

Evelyn's violet eyes grew scornful. "How can you suggest such a thing?" she asked.

It was Jean's turn to blush. "Forgive me," she said penitently. "I know you aren't a tell-tale. If she asks me about the sale, be sure I'll exonerate you."

Evelyn shook her head. "I wish you'd go to her, Jean, and tell her what you have done. Sooner or later she is sure to find it out."

But Jean Brent was in no mood for this advice. It caused her anger to blaze afresh. "There you go again," she blustered, "with your goody-goody advice to me about running to Miss Harlowe with every little thing I do. I hope I'm not such a baby. If Miss Harlowe sends for me, don't think for a minute that I'll be afraid to face her, but until she does send for me I am not going to concern myself about it, and I would advise you not to trouble yourself, either."

With this succinct advice Jean made a fresh onslaught on the unoffending wardrobe. Opening it she seized her hat and coat. With a last reverberating slam of its long-suffering doors she turned her back on it and Evelyn, and switched defiantly out of the room and on out of the house.



CHAPTER X

LAYING THE CORNERSTONE OF A HOUSE OF TROUBLE

Jean did not return to Harlowe House for dinner that night. Instead she turned her steps toward Holland House, where Althea Parker lived, assured that in Althea she would find sympathy. In spite of the fact that Jean lived at Harlowe House, a plain acknowledgment of her lack of means, Althea shrewdly suspected that the mysterious freshman had come from a home of wealth, and was posing as a poor girl for some reason best known to herself. Jean's remarkable wardrobe had impressed her deeply, while Jean herself carried out the impression of having been brought up in luxury. She was self-willed, extravagant, careless of the future, and her flippant opinion, delivered to Althea, of the Service Bureau and work in general, was all that was needed to convince the shrewd junior of Jean's true position in life. Then, too, Jean was extremely likable, although Althea stood a little in awe of her remarkable poise and a certain imperiousness that occasionally crept into the girl's manner.

Jean rang the bell at Holland House with mingled feelings of resentment and defiance. Resentment against Evelyn for daring to take her to task; defiance of Grace and her commands.

"Is Miss Parker in?" she inquired of the maid who opened the door.

"She just came in, miss."

"Very well. I'll go on upstairs. She won't mind me."

Jean knocked on Althea's door. Althea called an indifferent "Come in," and she entered to find her engaged in reading a letter that had come by the afternoon mail.

"Oh, hello, Jean," she drawled at sight of the other girl. "You must have come in right behind me. What are you glowering about?"

"Evelyn is angry with me because I had the sale," began Jean. "That's what I came to tell you. I'm sorry I told her that Miss Harlowe had forbidden me to have it. Now she thinks I ought to go to Miss Harlowe and tell her that I disobeyed her before she hears of it from some other source."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Althea. "Don't be so silly. Ten chances to one she'll never hear of it. If ever she does, it will probably be as ancient history. I'll caution the girls again to keep still. Who told Evelyn?"

"That Miss Correll. Evelyn saw her wearing my black and white check coat and recognized it," returned Jean gloomily. "She came rushing into my room like a young tornado with the plea that Miss Harlowe would blame her for my misdeeds." Jean was tempted to add that which Evelyn had told her in confidence. Then her better nature stirred, and she was silent.

"Evelyn isn't nearly as good company this year as she was last," complained Althea. "Ever since the latter part of her freshman year, she's been so different. I've always had an idea," Althea lowered her voice, "that last spring she broke some rule of the college and ran away. One night, just before college closed—it was long after ten o'clock, too—Miss Harlowe telephoned me and asked if Evelyn were with me. I found out afterward that she had gone to New York all by herself. She'd never been there but once before when she spent a week-end with me, and she didn't know a soul. I never could find out anything else, though. Evelyn went to her classes on Monday, and not one word did she ever say about it. I didn't find out about the New York part of it until this fall, though. A Willston man whom we both know saw her in New York with that clever Miss West, who wrote 'Loyalheart.'"

Jean listened with attentive gravity. She guessed that Althea had perhaps hit upon the truth. Evelyn had confessed to her that there had been that in her freshman year of which she was ashamed. She had said it was about clothes, yet what had clothes to do with breaking the rules of Overton and running away to New York? Whatever it was, it should remain Evelyn's secret. She would tell Althea nothing.

"Let's go to Vinton's for dinner," she proposed, with an abrupt change of subject. "I've plenty of money now—while it lasts."

"All right," agreed Althea, "only I mustn't stay out late. I've a frightful lesson in physics to study for to-morrow."

Jean did not particularly enjoy her dinner. In spite of her defiant manner she had begun to feel slightly conscience-stricken. She almost wished she had not gone on with the sale. Still she could have obtained the necessary money in no other way. Now that the mischief was done she could hope only that Miss Harlowe would hear nothing of it—not for a long time, at any rate.

As she crossed the campus and ran lightly up the steps of Harlowe House she resolved to shake off her recent fear of the discovery, on Grace's part, of her disobedience and act as though nothing had happened.

Her resolution was destined to receive an unexpected jolt. "Miss Harlowe wants to see you, Miss Brent," were the words with which the maid greeted her as she stepped into the hall.

Jean's heart sank. So it had come already. She stopped for a moment in the hall to gather her forces. Her feeling of penitence vanished. She threw up her head with a defiant jerk and walked boldly into the little office where Grace sat making up her expense account for November.

"You wished to see me, Miss Harlowe?" Her tone was coldly interrogative, her eyes hostile, as she stared steadily at Grace.

Grace looked up from her work and calmly studied the pretty, belligerent girl standing before her. In that glance she realized what a difficult task lay before her.

"Yes, Miss Brent, I wished to talk with you," she answered. "Sit down, please."

Jean slid reluctantly into the chair opposite Grace, surveying her with an expression which said plainly, "Well, why don't you begin?"

"Did you have a sale of your clothes in your room one week ago last Saturday?"

The directness of Grace's question astonished Jean. She found herself answering, "Yes," with equal promptness.

"Why did you disobey me?" asked Grace.

"Because I needed the money," declared Jean boldly, "and I couldn't earn it, Miss Harlowe; I just couldn't."

Grace gazed reflectively at the flushed face opposite her own. "Miss Brent," she began, "when first you came to Harlowe House I believed that it was not necessary for me to know certain things which you did not wish to divulge. I might still be of that opinion if you had not disobeyed me. It is most peculiar for a girl to come to Overton utterly without funds, yet possessing quantities of the most expensive clothes. I have always felt assured of your right to be an Overton and a Harlowe House girl, yet others might not regard you so leniently. That is why I refused to allow you to have the sale. I feared you would bring down undue criticism upon you, and upon me as well. Once you became a subject for criticism you might be obliged to explain to the dean or the president of the Overton College what you have refused to explain to me. It was to protect you that I refused your request. Since you have seen fit to disregard my authority I can do but one thing. I must insist that you will tell me fully what you have, so far, kept a secret. In order to protect you I must know everything. I can no longer go on in the dark."

Jean stood staring at Grace. A look of stubborn resolve crept into her face. Grace, watching her intently, knew what the answer would be. The strange girl opened her lips to speak. Then, obeying her natural impulse to give the other person the greatest possible chance, Grace raised a protesting hand.

"Don't say you won't do as I ask, Miss Brent. Take a little time to think over the matter. I am going to give you until after Thanksgiving to decide whether or not you will trust me. Remember my sole desire is to help you."

For the first time Grace's sweet earnestness seemed to awaken a responsive chord in the heart of the obstinate freshman. The ready color dyed her cheeks crimson. The hard, defiant light left her eyes.

"If only she would tell me now and have it over with," thought Grace, noting the signs of softening on Jean's part. The girl appeared to be considering Grace's proposal in the spirit in which it had been made. Then, all in an instant, she changed. It was as though she had suddenly recalled something disagreeable.

"There is really no use in waiting until after Thanksgiving for my answer. I can't tell you. I suppose you will send me away because I won't tell you, but if I did tell you, you would send me away just the same. So you see it doesn't really make much difference. It was silly in me to come here. I might have known better," she ended with a mirthless smile.

Grace regarded Jean with growing annoyance. She had been offered a chance to explain herself and she had refused it. True, Grace could also refuse to allow her to remain a member of Harlowe House, but this she did not wish to do. Her pride whispered to her that among the girls who were enrolled as members of the household, made possible by Mrs. Gray's generosity, there had been no failures. Jean Brent should not be the first. She would bear with her a little longer.

"I repeat, Miss Brent," she said, "that I do not wish you to answer me until after Thanksgiving. Then, if you decide, as I hope you will, to be frank with me, I promise you that I will do my utmost to protect you."

Jean's only response was, "Good night, Miss Harlowe." Then she turned and left the office.

Grace sat poking holes in an unoffending sheet of paper with her lead pencil. She wondered what Jean Brent's secret could possibly be, and how she could best reach this stubborn, self-centered freshman. And in her wholehearted effort to be of service to the girl, who apparently needed her help, she did not dream that she was laying the cornerstone of a house of trouble for herself.



CHAPTER XI

THANKSGIVING WITH THE NESBITS

"I am sure I never before had so much to be thankful for!" was Grace Harlowe's fervent declaration as she viewed with loving eyes the little circle of friends of which she was the center.

It was Thanksgiving eve, and the Nesbits had gathered under their hospitable roof a most congenial company to help them commemorate America's first holiday. Mr. and Mrs. Harlowe, in company with Mrs. Gray, had come from Oakdale. J. Elfreda Briggs had won a reluctant consent from her family, who invariably spent their Thanksgivings at Fairview, to make one of Miriam's house party. Anne, who was playing an extended engagement in New York City, was transplanted from the Southards' to Miriam's home for a week's stay. There were, of course, many loved faces missing, but this only made those who had assembled for a brief sojourn together more keenly alive to the joy of reunion.

"This is the first Thanksgiving since my senior year in high school that I've been given the chance to sit between Father and Mother and count my blessings," Grace continued, looking fondly from one to the other of her parents. She was occupying a low stool between them, her favorite seat at home when the day was done, and the devoted little family gathered in the living room to talk over its events.

"We are counting our blessings, too," smiled Mr. Harlowe. "One of them is very lively, and runs away almost as soon as it arrives." He pinched Grace's soft cheek.

"But it always runs back again," reminded Grace, "and it's always yours for the asking. I'd leave my work, everything, and come home on wings if you needed me."

"I used to hate Thanksgiving when I was a youngster," broke in J. Elfreda. "We always had a lot of company and I always behaved like a savage and spent Thanksgiving evening in solitary confinement. I'd wail like a disappointed coyote and make night generally hideous for the company. I've improved a lot since those days," she grinned boyishly at her friends. "I can see now that it was a pretty good thing the Pilgrim Fathers set aside a day for counting their blessings. If they thought they were lucky, I wonder what we are."

Elfreda had unconsciously gone from the comic to the serious.

"We are favored beyond understanding," Mrs. Harlowe said solemnly. "When one thinks of the poor and unfortunate, to whom Thanksgiving can bring nothing but sorrow and bitterness, it seems little short of marvelous that we should be so happy."

"I don't wish to be selfish and forget life's unfortunates, but I'd rather not think about them now," was Miriam's candid comment. "We mustn't be sad to-night. Grace must sparkle, and Elfreda be funny, and Anne must recite for us, and I'll play and David must sing. I've discovered that he has a really good tenor voice. We've been practising songs together this fall."

"Really?" asked Grace, with interest. "And all these years we never knew it. David, you can surely keep a secret."

"Oh, I can't sing," protested David, coloring. "Miriam only thinks I can. Our real singers are among the missing to-night."

"You mean Hippy and Nora?"

"Yes," nodded David. "Isn't it strange we didn't hear from them. I wrote Tom, Hippy and Reddy to come on here for Thanksgiving if they could. Reddy and Jessica couldn't make it. They are coming home for Christmas, though. Tom Gray is away up in the Michigan woods. Still he sent a telegram that he couldn't come. But Hippy didn't answer. This morning I sent him a telegram, and so far there's no answer to that, either."

"I hope neither of them is ill." Mrs. Gray's face took on a look of concern. "It is not like Hippy to neglect his friends."

"Nora is usually the soul of promptness, too," reminded Anne.

"If I don't hear anything to-night, I'll telegraph Hippy again to-morrow," announced David.

There was a pleasant silence in the room. Every one's thoughts were on the piquant-faced Irish girl, whose sprightly manner and charming personality made her a favorite, and her plump, loquacious husband, whose ready flow of funny sayings never seemed to diminish.

"There aren't any wishing rings nowadays," sighed Grace, "so there's no use in saying, 'I wish Nora and Hippy were here.' Come on, David, and sing for us. Miriam says you can, and you know it wouldn't be nice in you to contradict your sister."

"You can sing, 'Ah, Moon of My Delight,'" suggested Miriam to her brother. "It is Omar Khayyam set to music, you know"—she turned to Grace—"from the song cycle, 'In a Persian Garden.'"

"I love it," commented Anne, her eyes dreamy. "Do sing it, David."

As Miriam went to the piano the whirr of the electric bell came to their ears.

Grace glanced interrogatively at David. "Perhaps it's a telegram," she commented.

David, who had just risen from his chair to go to the piano, stopped short and listened. "False alarm. Must be the doctor. One of the maids is sick." He crossed to the piano where Miriam already stood, turning over a pile of music. Having found the song for which she was searching, she took her place before the piano and began the quatrain's throbbing accompaniment.

David's voice rang out tunefully. He sang with considerable feeling and expression. He had reached the exquisite line, "Through this same Garden—and for One in Vain!" when a clear high voice from the doorway took up the song with him.

With a startled cry of "Nora!" Grace ran to the door.

The song came to an abrupt end. Miriam whirled on the piano stool. One glance and she had joined the group that now surrounded a slender figure with a rosy, laughing face and a saucy turned-up nose.

"Nora O'Malley! You dear thing! No wonder David didn't hear from Hippy. But where is he? Not far away, I hope."

"Ah!" called a voice from behind the thin silk curtain of a small alcove at one end of the hall, and Hippy emerged, the picture of offended dignity. "Missed at last," was his sweeping rebuke. "I had begun to think I was doomed to languish behind that green silk curtain for life. It's all Nora's fault. If I had been immured there forever and always, it would be her fault just the same. She proposed that I should hide. 'Make them think I came alone. They will be so disappointed,' was her deceitful counsel. And I believed her and wrapped myself in the curtain to wait for you to be disappointed. I see it all now. It was merely a scheme to attract attention to herself. She is jealous of my popularity."

"Oh, hush, you wicked thing," giggled Nora. "You didn't give any one time even to ask for you."

"That sounds well," was Hippy's lofty retort, "but remember, all that prattles is not truth."

"Squabbling as usual," groaned David, shaking Hippy's hand with an energy that belied the groan.

"Just as usual," smirked Hippy. "Neither of us will ever outgrow it. You see we once lived in a town called Oakdale and associated daily with a number of very quarrelsome people. I wouldn't like to mention their names, but if some day you should happen to go to Oakdale just ask any one if David Nesbit and Reddy Brooks ever reformed. They'll understand what you mean."

"Your Oakdale friends will have cause to inquire what awful fate has overtaken you if you don't reform speedily," warned David. "I'm obliged to stand your insults because you are company. Just wait until the newness of seeing you again wears off, and then see what happens."

"You don't have to show me," flung back Hippy hastily. "I'll take your word for it. I believe in words, not deeds. You know I used to be so fond of quoting that immortal stanza about doing noble deeds instead of dreaming them all day long. Well, I've altered that to fit any little occasion that might arise. I find it much more comforting to say it this way:

"Be wise, dear Hippy, from all violence sever, Say noble words, then do folks all day long. Avoid rash deeds, by sweet words e'er endeavor To prove your friends are wrong."

A ripple of laughter followed Hippy's sadly altered quotation of the famous lines.

"That's a most ignoble sentiment, Hippy," criticized Miriam. "I can't believe that you would practice it."

"I didn't say I would practice it," responded Hippy, with a wide grin. "I merely stated that it was comforting to have around. Must I repeat that I believe in words, and lots of them."

"We all knew that years ago," jeered David. "I believe in words, too. Sensible words from Nora explaining how you and she happened to drift in here at the eleventh hour. You haven't a sensible word in your vocabulary."

"I have," protested Hippy. "Nora, as your husband, I command you, don't give David Nesbit any information."

Nora dimpled. "I won't tell David," she capitulated. "I'll tell Miriam and Anne and Grace." The five Originals were still grouped together in the hall. "When David's letter came we were just wondering how we would spend Thanksgiving with not one of the old crowd at home. Hippy handed me the letter. It came while we were at luncheon. 'Let's go,' we both said at once. So we locked little fingers, wished and said 'Thumbs.' I said 'salt, pepper, vinegar,' but Hippy went on indefinitely with such pleasant reminders as 'death, famine, pestilence, murder.' He believes in words, you know." She shot a roguish glance at her broadly-smiling spouse. "Finally I reduced him to reason and we planned to surprise you. This morning found two lonely Originals hurrying to catch up with their pals." Nora surveyed her friends with a loving loyalty that brought her extra embracing from Grace, Anne and Miriam.

"We mustn't be selfish," reminded Grace. "The folks in the living room are anxious to welcome you."

Hippy and Nora were escorted into the living room by a fond bodyguard, and were soon exchanging affectionate greetings with the older members of the house party. J. Elfreda Briggs had not gone into the hall on the arrival of Hippy and Nora. She could never be induced to intrude upon the more intimate moments of the Originals.

Hippy, with understanding tact, at once proceeded to draw her into the charmed circle. "Well, well!" he exclaimed. "Whom do I see? J. Elfreda, and in the clutches of the law, so I am told."

J. Elfreda's fear of intruding vanished at this sally. Her own sense of humor caused her to claim kinship with Hippy and his pranks and she answered him in kind.

"What I don't see is how you ever escaped those same clutches," put in David. "Don't you have a hard time, usually, to convince the jury that you are not the defendant?"

"Not in the least," responded Hippy, with dignity. "The jury knows me for what I am. Just let me tell you that if I were to have you arrested for slander there wouldn't be the slightest chance of my being mistaken for the defendant."

Even David was obliged to join in the laugh against himself.

"All right, old man. We'll cry quits. I'll bring my law cases to you if ever I have any."

"And now that you are a broker I'll bring anything I want broken to you," promised Hippy glibly. "So far I've left all those little business details to the maid. She has successfully broken a number of our wedding presents, and we look for still greater results. She knows more about 'brokerage' or, rather 'breakerage,' than would fill a book."

"What a blessed thing it is to find you the same ridiculous Hippy we've always known," smiled Mrs. Gray, as Hippy seated himself beside her for a few minutes' sensible conversation. "You and Nora will never be staid and serious. I'm so glad of it."

She sighed. She was thinking of Tom Gray, her nephew, and of how grave, almost moody, he had become during the last year. Long ago she had deplored the fact that no engagement existed between Tom and Grace. Tom had grown strangely unlike his old cheery self, and in his changed bearing she read refusal of his love on Grace's part. It saddened her. Her heart ached for Tom. She had always looked forward to the day when Grace would give her life into Tom's keeping.

She had never approached Grace on the subject of Tom and his love, but to-night, as she watched Hippy and Nora, serene in their mutual love and comradeship, and marked, too, the quiet devotion of Anne and David, who were to be married in Oakdale on New Year's night, her heart went out to her gray-eyed boy, far away in the great North woods, and she determined to say a word for him to Grace.

It was late in the evening before she found her opportunity. With the arrival of Hippy and Nora the interest soon centered about the piano. Grace, while not a performer, was an ardent lover of music, and her delight in Nora's singing was so patent that Mrs. Gray would not disturb her.

It was during the serving of a dainty little repast that Mrs. Gray called to Grace, "Come here, Grace, and sit by me."

Grace obeyed with alacrity, drawing her chair close to that of her old friend.

"I thought I would ask you, my dear—what do you hear from Tom?" began the dainty old lady with apparent innocence.

Grace felt the color mount even to her forehead.

"I haven't heard from him lately," she confessed. "I—that is—I owe him a letter."

"I wish you would write to him. Poor boy. He is very lonely, away up there in the woods."

Grace did not answer for a moment. Then she said in a constrained voice, "I will write to him, Mrs. Gray. I know he is lonely."

There was an awkward pause in the conversation; then came the abrupt question, "Grace, do you love my boy?"

"No, Fairy Godmother," replied Grace in a low tone. "I'm sorry, but I don't. That is, not in the way he wishes me to love him."

"I am sorry, too, Grace. I feel almost as though I were responsible for his sorrow. For to him it is a deep sorrow. If I had not given Harlowe House to Overton College, you might have found that your work lay in being Tom's wife. He has never reproached me, but I wonder if he ever thinks that."

"I am sure he doesn't," Grace's clear eyes met sorrowfully the kind blue ones. "Please don't think that Harlowe House has anything to do with my not marrying Tom. It is only because I do not love him that I am firm in refusing him. My heart is bound up in my work. Really, dear Fairy Godmother, I am almost sure I shall never marry. For your sake and his, I'd rather marry Tom than any other man in the world, if I felt that marriage was best for me. But I don't. I glory in my work and freedom and I couldn't give them up. I've wanted to say this to you for a long time, but I didn't know just how to begin. Now that I have said it, I hope it hasn't wounded you."

"My dear Grace," Mrs. Gray's voice was not quite steady, "I would give much to welcome you as my niece, but not unless you love Tom with the tenderness of a truly great love. If that love ever comes to you, I shall indeed be happy. But my dear boy is worthy of the highest affection. If you cannot give him that affection, then it is far better that you two should spend your lives apart."



CHAPTER XII

MISSING—A FRIEND

Four days, spent in the society of those one loves best, pass almost with the rapidity of lightning. Unlike most of her visits to New York City, Grace gave little of her time to attending the theatres and seeing the metropolis. By common consent the members of the house party spent the greater share of their holiday together in the large, luxurious living room. Only one evening found them away from this temporary home. That was on Thanksgiving night, when Miriam gave a theatre party in honor of her guests to see Everett Southard and Anne in "King Lear," and after the play Mr. and Miss Southard entertained their friends at supper in one of New York's most exclusive restaurants. Thanksgiving morning they spent in the church of which Eric Burroughs the actor-minister was pastor, and in the afternoon they motored through Central Park and far out Riverside Drive. Aside from this, the rest of their stay found the thoroughly congenial household gathered about their borrowed fireside, treasuring the precious moments that flitted by all too fast.

There was but one drawback to Grace's pleasure. The thought that she had brought even a breath of sadness to her old friend, Mrs. Gray. There were moments, too, when she experienced a faint resentment against Tom. Must her reunions with her friends be forever haunted by the knowledge that she had made one of the Eight Originals unhappy? The approaching marriage of Anne to David meant, that of the four girls she, only, had chosen to walk alone. She knew that Anne, Nora and Jessica would hail joyfully the news of her engagement to Tom. Living in the tender atmosphere of requited love, their sympathies went out to the lover.

It was not until Sunday morning, after she had accompanied her father, mother and Mrs. Gray to the railway station and was driving back to the Nesbits' in David's car, that Anne ventured to broach the subject of Tom to Grace. Elfreda, Hippy, Miriam and Nora were in the automobile just ahead. Mr. and Mrs. Harlowe and Mrs. Gray had driven to the station in David's car, so, on the return, Grace and Anne had the tonneau of the automobile quite to themselves.

Both girls were unusually quiet, and David, fully occupied in driving his car through the crowded streets, said little.

"Anne," it was Grace who broke the silence, "if David insisted upon your giving up the stage entirely, would you marry him?"

"Yes," came Anne's unhesitating answer. "I love him so much that I could do even that. Only he hasn't asked me to make the sacrifice. He understands what my art means to me, and is willing to compromise. I am not going on any more road tours. I may play an occasional engagement in the large cities, but I have promised, so far as is possible, to remain in New York."

"But when you were at Overton he was opposed to your stage career," reminded Grace. "What made him change his mind?"

"Living in New York and being influenced by Mr. Southard, I think. You see the Southards knew all about me and my affairs. Long ago Mr. Southard began educating David to his point of view in regard to the stage. David is neither narrow-minded nor obstinate, so it has all come right for me," she ended happily. Then she added, as her hand found Grace's. "I wish you loved Tom, Grace."

"And you, too, Anne!" Grace's tones quivered with vexation. "Am I never to be free from that shadow?"

"Why, Grace!" Anne looked hurt. "I didn't dream you felt so strongly about poor Tom. I'm sorry I said anything to you of him."

"Forgive me, dear, for being so cross." Grace was instantly penitent. "But it seems as though the whole world, my world, I mean, was determined to marry me to Tom. You are all on his side—every one of you. It's the old case of all the world loving a lover. I know you think I'm hard-hearted. None of you stop to consider my side of it. Oh, yes; there is one person who does. Mother understands. She doesn't think I ought to marry Tom, just to please him. She realizes that my work means more to me than marriage." Grace's tone had again become unconsciously petulant.

Anne regarded her in silence. Hitherto she had not realized how remote were Tom's chances of winning Grace's love. It was quite evident, too, that she had made a mistake in broaching the subject to Grace. It appeared as though too much had already been said on that score. Anne resolved to trespass no further. "Please forget what I said, Grace. I'm sure I understand. I'll never mention the subject to you again."

Grace eyed Anne quizzically. "I ought to be grateful to my friends for having my welfare at heart," she admitted, "and I do appreciate their solicitude. Don't think I've turned against Tom because they have tried to plead his cause. So far, it hasn't made any difference. I can't help the way I feel toward him. Still, I'd rather not talk about him. It doesn't help matters, and I am beginning to get cross over it."

"You couldn't be cross if you tried," laughed Anne.

"Oh, yes I could," contradicted Grace. "I could be quite formidable."

At this juncture their talk ended. Their automobile had drawn up before the Nesbits' home and David stood at the open door of the car to help them out. During the few short hours that remained to Grace before time for her train to Overton she and Anne had no further opportunity for confidences.

* * * * *

It was twenty minutes past eleven o'clock that night when the train reached Overton, and Grace was not sorry to end her long ride. It had been an unusually lonely journey. For the first time in her experience she had made it alone, and without speaking to a person on the train. Then, too, the regret of parting with those she loved still weighed heavily upon her. "I do hope Emma is awake" was her first thought as she crossed the station yard and hailed the solitary taxicab that always met the late New York train, lamenting inwardly that the lateness of the hour and the weight of her luggage prevented her from walking home through the crisp, frosty night, under the stars.

The vestibule light of Harlowe House shone out like a beacon across the still white campus. Grace thrilled with an excess of love and pride at sight of her beloved college home. How much it meant to her, and how sweet it was to feel that her business of life consisted in being of help to others. If she married Tom that meant selfish happiness for they two alone, but as house mother she was of use to seventeen times two persons. "The greatest good to the greatest number," she whispered, as she slid her latchkey into the lock.

The living room was dark. The girls had long since gone to their rooms. Grace's feet made no sound on the soft velvet carpet as she hurried up the stairs. A gleam of yellow light from under her door showed that Emma was indeed keeping vigil for her.

"Hooray, Gracious!" greeted Emma as the door closed behind her roommate. She flung her long arms affectionately about Grace and kissed her. "Is it four days or four weeks since I saw you off to New York and returned to my humble cot to wrestle with the job of managing that worthy aggregation known as the Harlowites?"

"I should say it was four hours," corrected Grace. "Not that I didn't miss you, dear old comrade. We all missed you. Every last person wished you had come with me, and sent you their best wishes. It was splendid to spend Thanksgiving with Father and Mother, and to see Mrs. Gray and the others. Did you receive my postcard? I wrote you that Hippy and Nora were with us. They gave us a complete surprise." Grace related further details of her visit, walking about the room and putting away her personal effects as she talked.

As usual Emma had made chocolate and arranged on the center table a tempting little midnight luncheon for the traveler. It was not long until Grace had donned a pretty pale blue negligee and the two friends were seated opposite each other enjoying the spread.

"Now I've told you all my news, what about yours?" asked Grace at last.

"I've only one tale to tell," responded Emma dryly, "and that is not a pleasant one. The news of Miss Brent's sale has traveled about the campus like wildfire. We've had a perfect stream of girls coming here. They have conceived the fond idea that Harlowe House is a headquarters for second-hand clothing. I have labored with them to convince them that such is not the case, but still they yearn for the Brent finery. Judging from what I hear, it must have been 'some' wardrobe. Pardon my lapse into slang, O, Overton. A number of the teachers have commented on the affair. I've been asked several pointed questions."

"How dreadful!" broke in Grace, her face clouding. "Still I was almost sure something would come of it. That was the reason I forbade Miss Brent to hold a sale when first she proposed it to me. Do you think that Miss Wilder and—Miss Wharton know it?" Grace hesitated before pronouncing the latter's name.

"Miss Wilder doesn't know, because she left for California last Saturday."

A cry of surprise and disappointment broke from Grace. "Miss Wilder gone, and I didn't say good-bye to her! Why did she leave so suddenly, Emma? She expected to be at Overton for another week, at least."

"Some friends of hers were going to the Pacific Coast in their private car, and knowing that she was ordered west for her health, they wrote and invited her to join them. They had arranged to leave New York City this morning, so she left Overton for New York yesterday morning. I am sure she wrote you. One of the letters that came for you while you were gone is addressed in her handwriting."

Emma reached down, opened the drawer of the table at which they were sitting, and drew out a pile of letters. "Here's your mail, Gracious. Go ahead and read it while I clear up the ghastly remains of the spread."

"All right, I will." Grace went rapidly over the pile of envelopes which bore various postmarks. The majority of the letters were from friends scattered far and wide over the country. The thick white envelope, Miss Wilder's own particular stationery, lay almost at the bottom of the pile. Grace tore it open with eager fingers and read:

"MY DEAR GRACE:

"Just a line to let you know how much I regret leaving Overton without seeing you again. There were several matters of which I was anxious to speak with you at greater length. I had not contemplated leaving here for at least another week, but I cannot resist the invitation which a dear friend of mine has extended to me, to travel west in her private car, so I shall join her in New York City on Saturday evening, as she wishes to start on her tour at once.

"As soon as I reach my destination I will forward you my permanent address. I wish you to write me, Grace. I shall be anxious to know what is happening at Harlowe House and throughout the college. Remember distance can make no difference in my interest and affection for you. You have been, and always will be, a girl after my own heart. With my best wishes for your continued welfare and success.

"Your sincere friend, "KATHERINE WILDER."

Grace laid the letter down with a sigh and sat staring moodily at it, her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands.

Emma, who had finished clearing the table, regarded her with affectionate solicitude. Stepping over to her, she slid her arm over Grace's shoulders. Grace raised her head. Her eyes met Emma's. Then she pushed the letter into Emma's hand. "Read it," she commanded.

"Do you think she understood?" was Emma's question as she handed back the letter.

"About Miss Wharton not liking me?" counter-questioned Grace.

Emma nodded.

"I am afraid she didn't." Grace's gray eyes were full of sad concern. "And the most unfortunate thing about it is that I must never trouble her with Miss Wharton's shortcomings. It would worry her, and that would retard her recovery. If the year brings me battles to fight, I must fight them alone."



CHAPTER XIII

A DISTURBING CONFIDENCE

Grace awoke the next morning with the weight of a disagreeable duty hanging over her. She had given Jean Brent until after Thanksgiving to decide upon her course of action. Jean's disregard for her wishes had already placed the freshman in an unenviable prominence in college. Conscientious to a fault, Grace believed herself to be partly to blame for what had occurred during her week-end absence from Harlowe House. She should have insisted, in the beginning, on absolute frankness on the part of Jean. She had respected the girl's secret and invested her with an honor which she did not possess. It now looked as though she, as well as Jean, might already be in a position to reap the folly of such a course.

With Miss Wilder as dean, Grace knew that Jean's indiscretion would be treated with leniency, but she was by no means sure of what Miss Wharton's attitude might be should the story reach her ears. Grace hoped devoutly that it would not. But whatever happened Jean Brent must impart to her what she had hitherto kept a secret. Grace was resolved upon that much, at least. She could not decide as to the wisest course to pursue until she had heard Jean's story. She decided to wait until the girls were at luncheon, then ask Jean to come to her office that afternoon before dinner. At luncheon, however, greatly to her surprise, Jean walked directly up to her table and said in a low tone, "I have decided to tell you my secret, Miss Harlowe. When may I talk with you?"

"I shall be in my office when you come from your classes this afternoon, or I can wait for you in my room, if you prefer." A great wave of relief swept over Grace as she answered the girl. She had feared that Jean would prove stubborn in her determination to keep her secret.

"Thank you. I will come to your office." Jean turned away abruptly.

Emma Dean had noted Jean's unusually meek manner. She had endeavored not to hear what was not intended for her ears, but low as were Jean's tones, the words reached her. She made no comment, after Jean had taken her place at one of the other tables, until Grace remarked, "Emma, you could hardly help hearing what Miss Brent said to me."

"Yes, I heard what she said," responded Emma unemotionally.

"I am so glad she has decided to trust me."

"It might be better for all concerned if she had trusted you in the beginning," was Emma's dry retort. "I can't help feeling a trifle out of patience with that girl, Grace. She had no business to commit an act, no matter how trivial, that would lay you open to criticism."

"Have you heard any one in particular criticizing me?" asked Grace with quick anxiety.

Emma did not answer for a moment. Grace watched her, her gray eyes troubled.

"I'll tell you precisely what I heard this morning. Before I left Overton Hall to come here for luncheon I stopped for a moment to see Miss Duncan. Miss Arthur, that new teacher of oratory, was with her. I walked into the room just in time to hear Miss Duncan say 'I can scarcely credit it. I am surprised that Miss Harlowe—' then she saw me, turned red and stopped short. Miss Arthur looked rather sheepishly at me. I pretended that I had heard nothing, asked the question I intended to ask, and went on my way, much perturbed in spirit. I can't bear to hear you criticized in the smallest degree, Grace," was Emma's vehement cry. "I am sure it was about this sale they were talking. It's all very well for Miss Brent to take the stand that she has the privilege of doing as she pleases with her own clothing, but there is something about the very idea of a sale of wearing apparel that quite upsets Overton traditions and causes Harlowe House to lose dignity. One can't imagine an enterprising clothes merchant living at Holland or Morton House or even at Wayne Hall. The students should have had the good taste to discourage it, but, from what I hear, Miss Palmer had expatiated on the glories of Miss Brent's wardrobe to the clique of girls she chums with, and they gathered like flies about a honey pot. You'll usually find the girls with the largest allowances are always eager to obtain much for the smallest possible outlay. I think, too, that Miss Palmer's influence is not wholesome. It led to Evelyn Ward's folly last year. Evelyn hasn't been unduly friendly with her so far this year. I've noticed that."

"I can't believe Evelyn had anything to do with this sale," asserted Grace. "She may have known of it, but she never sanctioned it."

"At least she didn't attend it," commented Emma, "but, come to think of it, neither did Althea Parker. Don't you remember, I mentioned to you that I met Evelyn on the campus that fateful Saturday and she said she was going to spend the afternoon with Miss Parker?"

"Then if Miss Parker was ringleader in the affair, why didn't she have the courage to attend the sale?" was Grace's quick question.

"For further information inquire of Miss Brent," advised Emma, shrugging her shoulders.

"I will," sighed Grace. "I seem fated to puzzle over hard questions, don't I?"

It was half-past four o'clock when Jean Brent entered the office where Grace sat idly turning the leaves of a magazine.

"Sit down, Miss Brent," invited Grace. Then in her usual direct fashion, "I am ready to listen to anything you wish to say."

Jean Brent flushed, then the color receded from her fair skin, leaving her very pale. In a low tone she began a recital that caused Grace Harlowe's eyes to become riveted on her in intense surprise, mingled with consternation. An expression of lively sympathy sprang into her face, however, as the story proceeded, and when Jean had finished with a half sob, Grace stretched out her hands impulsively with, "You poor little girl."

Jean clasped the outstretched hands and murmured, "You don't blame me so much, then, do you, Miss Harlowe?"

"No, I can't," Grace made honest answer, "but I am so sorry that you did not come to me with this in the beginning. I could have helped you arrange your affairs nicely. You could have borrowed money from the Semper Fidelis Fund and later, if you were desirous of selling your wardrobe you could have disposed of it in New York City for fully as much as you have received for it here. A dear friend of mine in New York who is an actress has often told me that the women of the various theatrical companies who play minor parts are only too glad to purchase attractive wearing apparel which society women sell after one wearing."

"I didn't know. I am sorry I didn't tell you long ago." Jean was thoroughly penitent. "Will it make so very much difference now?"

"I hope not. It is hard to say. Unfortunately the news of the sale has reached the ears of several members of the faculty. Not only you, but I, as well, have been criticized. We can do nothing except wait for the gossip about it to die a natural death." Grace's quiet acceptance of the unpleasantness which Jean's rash act had forced upon her stung the freshman far more sharply than reproof.

"I can go to the dean and tell her what I have told you," faltered Jean.

Grace shook her head. "No, I should not advise it. This affair belongs entirely to Harlowe House and should be settled here. I will write to Miss Lipton to-night. If Miss Wilder were here I should not hesitate to place matters before her, but I am not so sure of Miss Wharton, the woman who is filling Miss Wilder's position. For the present, at least, silence will be best. If Miss Wharton hears of it and sends for you, then you had better be frank and conceal nothing."

"Do you mean that you intend to keep my secret, Miss Harlowe; that you will let me stay on at Harlowe House and finish my freshman year?"

"Yes; not only the freshman year, but your sophomore, junior and senior years as well, provided Miss Lipton approves and advises it. I shall write to her exactly what has occurred. She is nearest to you and therefore to her belongs the decision. But, while I am endeavoring to work for your interest I wish you to work for it, too. I would like to see you more self-reliant. You have been brought up in luxury, but you must forget that. As matters now stand you will one day be obliged to earn your own living. You must build your foundation for a useful life during your freshman year."

Grace's voice vibrated with an earnestness that visibly moved her listener.

"I will try. I will try," she declared fervently. "It is wonderful in you to care so much about me, when I have been so troublesome."

"We won't think of that any longer," smiled Grace. "However, there is one question which I must ask you. Did Miss Ward know of the sale?"

"No," admitted Jean, looking ashamed. "I kept it a secret from her. Miss Parker purposely invited her to luncheon that afternoon. She picked out the things she wanted to buy beforehand and took them out afterward. Evelyn was very angry. We quarreled, and have not spoken to each other since. It was my fault."

"Then, to please me, will you try to be friends with Miss Ward again?"

"Yes."

"You must tell no one else what you have told me," stipulated Grace further. "It must be a secret between us."

"I will tell no one," promised Jean.

The ringing of the door bell and the entrance of the maid with a card, brought the confidential talk to an end. Grace rose and held out her hand. "I must go," she said. "I will talk with you again when I hear from Miss Lipton."

"Thank you over and over again, Miss Harlowe." Jean's eyes were lit with a strength of purpose rarely seen in them. As she left the office and thoughtfully climbed the stairs to her room she resolved anew to be worthy of Grace Harlowe's approval and respect.



CHAPTER XIV

THE RETURN OF THE CHRISTMAS CHILDREN

"Holy night, peaceful and blest," rose Nora Wingate's clear voice, high and sweet on the still winter air. A chorus of fresh young voices took up the second line of the beautiful hymn, filling the calm of the snowy night with exquisite harmony.

A little old lady, with hair as white as the snow itself, her cheeks bright with color, her eyes very tender, appeared in the library window as the song ended. She had concealed herself in the folds of the curtain while the singing went on, fearing it might come to a sudden stop should she reveal herself.

Her appearance, however, inspired the singers to fresh effort, for, immediately they spied her, led by Nora, they burst into the old English carol, "God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen." They sang it with their rosy, eager faces raised to her, a world of fellowship in every note, while she stood motionless and listened, a smile of supreme love and content making her delicate features radiant.

As they ended this second carol she raised the window. "Come in, this minute, every one of you blessed children. You can't possibly know how happy you have made me this Christmas Eve."

"Coming right in the window," declared Hippy, as he made an ineffectual spring and failed to land on the wide sill.

"Just as I expected," jeered Reddy Brooks, dragging him back. "You might know Hippy would spoil everything. We all start out, on our best behavior, to sing carols to our fairy godmother. Then at the most effective moment, when we are feeling almost inspired, he ruins the whole effect by trying to jump in the window."

"He might as well try to jump through a ten-inch hoop," seconded David. "He'd be just as successful."

"They are slandering me, Nora," whimpered Hippy, "and I am the sweetest carol singer of them all. Protect me, Nora. Tell Reddy Brooks it was his singing that nearly ruined that last carol. Tell him his voice is as loud and obnoxious as his hair. And tell David Nesbit that—" Hippy gave a sudden agile bound out of reach of Reddy's avenging hands, and tore across the lawn and around the corner of the house, shrieking a wild, "Good-bye, Nora. Remember I've always been a good, kind husband to you. Don't forget me, Nora."



"I'll pay him yet for that remark about my obnoxious hair," grinned Reddy, as the carol singers trooped across the lawn and into the house.

Mrs. Gray met her Christmas children with welcoming arms. "I am going to kiss every one of you," she announced.

"We are willing," assured David, and she was passed from one pair of arms to another, emerging from this wholesale embrace, flushed and laughing.

"You didn't kiss me," observed a plaintive voice from behind the portieres that divided the library from the hall. Hippy's round face was thrust engagingly into view. He had slipped in the side door, unobserved.

"There he is, Reddy. How did he get in so quietly?" David took a vengeful step forward. The face disappeared.

"Just wait until I hang up my overcoat," threatened Reddy.

"Don't let him hang it up, Nora. If you value the safety of your husband, make him stand and hold it," pleaded the plaintive voice.

"Here, Reddy, give me your hat and coat," ordered Nora cruelly.

"Ha! I defy you." Hippy suddenly bounced from behind the curtain into the midst of the group in the hall. "I would defy forty David Nesbits and fifty Reddy Brooks for a kiss from my fair lady." He bowed before Mrs. Gray.

"Bless you, Hippy," she said, as she kissed his fat cheek, "that was nicely said."

"I am always saying nice things," assured Hippy airily. "Better still they are always true things. There are some persons, though, who can't stand the white light of truth. May I rely upon you for protection, Mrs. Gray? Alas, I am now alone in the world. The person who is supposed to have my welfare at heart is hob-nobbing with my traducers. Miriam Nesbit used to be a fairly good protector, but she hasn't done much along that line lately."

"Come on, Hippy. I'll take care of you. I'm sorry I've neglected you." Miriam held out her hand. Hippy hung his head and simpered. Then with his Cheshire cat grin he seized Miriam's hand and toddled beside her into the library. The others followed, laughing at the ridiculous spectacle he presented.

"Both our fairy godmother and I are disgusted with you," taunted Nora as she directed a glance of withering scorn at Hippy, now calmly seated beside Miriam on the big leather davenport, the picture of triumph. "You asked her to protect you; then you deserted her and deliberately went over to Miriam for help."

"Wasn't that awful?" deplored Hippy. "Such inconstancy makes me blush."

"You couldn't blush if your life depended upon it," was David Nesbit's scathing comment.

"There are others," retorted Hippy.

David glared ferociously at the grinning Hippy.

"There are others," went on Hippy blandly, "who, I might venture to say, have even greater trouble in producing that much lauded rarity, a blush. But what does blushing mean? It means turning very red. It isn't always confined to one's face, either. I once knew a man, a rare creature, whose very hair blushed. That is, it turned red when he was an infant and blushed more deeply every year. In fact it never quit blushing."

"I once knew a person, a senseless creature, who didn't know when he was well off," began Reddy, in an ominous voice. "From the time he learned to talk he made ill-natured remarks about his friends. But at last he came to a terrible end. He——"

"I never knew him," interrupted Hippy. "I'm not interested in persons I don't know. I'd rather talk to Grace. I've known her for a long time, and we've always been on friendly terms. Come and sit beside me, Grace."

"Jilted," declared Miriam tragically, as Grace accepted the invitation and seated herself on Hippy's other side.

"Not a bit of it. I believe in preparedness. The constant-reinforcements-arriving-every-minute idea appeals to me. You are both bulwarks of defense."

"I'm surprised that anything except eats appeals to you." This from Reddy.

"'Eats' did you say? What are eats? Or, better, where are eats?" demanded Hippy, beaming hopefully at Mrs. Gray.

"They will appear very soon, Hippy," assured Mrs. Gray. "I sent a dispatch to the kitchen the moment you finished singing."

"For goodness' sake, Grace and Miriam, keep Hippy quiet for a while. No one else has had a chance to say a word," complained David. "I'd like to hear a few remarks on 'Life in Chicago' by our estimable pals, Jessica and Reddy."

"Life in Chicago can't compare with life in dear old Oakdale," said Jessica. "In spite of the theatres, concerts and all the pleasures that a big city offers one, Reddy and I are always a little lonely."

"That is because you and Reddy miss me," observed Hippy with positive modesty.

"You're right, old man. We do miss you," agreed Reddy, with unmistakable sincerity. For once Hippy forgot to be funny. "You aren't the only ones who miss the old guard," he answered seriously; then he added in his usual humorous strain, "I hope some day the Eight Originals Plus Two and all their friends will emigrate to a happy island and colonize it. Then there won't be any missed faces or any letter writing to do, for that matter. David and Reddy can run the business of the colony and see that we aren't cheated when we trade glass beads and other little trinkets with the savages. Of course there will be a few moth-eaten old cannibals. Tom can classify the trees of the forest and make the obstreperous beasts and reptiles behave. I will represent the law. I will settle all disputes and administer justice. I'll be a regular old Father William, like the one in 'Through the Looking Glass,' I always did love that poem, especially this verse:

"'In my youth,' said his father, 'I took to the law, And argued each case with my wife. And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw, Has lasted me all of my life.'"

Nora pretended to pay no attention to Hippy, who waited for her to protest, an expansive smile wreathing his fat face. "She didn't understand," he said sadly, after beaming at Nora in vain. "There's no use in trying to explain. I suppose I'll have to give her an appointment of some kind on my island. Nora, you may have charge of me. Isn't that a noble mission? Still she doesn't answer. Oh, well, never mind, I'll go right on appointing."

"Mrs. Gray, you will be the queen, and Grace can be prime minister. Anne can have charge of the amusements, and Miriam can help her. Miriam has a decided leaning toward the drama."

The color in Miriam's cheeks suddenly deepened at this apparently innocent remark. "I don't think I like your island idea very well," she said lightly. "I'd much rather have the Originals live right here in Oakdale." She rose and strolled across the room to where Jessica sat.

"It's not the island idea. It's the dramatic idea that Miriam objects to discussing," confided Hippy in a low tone to Grace.

"How did you find it out?" asked Grace.

"First of all by observation, my child. Second, through David. He knows it, too. Southard told him. They have seen a good deal of each other since the Nesbits have lived in New York. David thinks him worthy of Miriam."

"I knew he cared. I wonder if Miriam does? She never mentions Mr. Southard. I hope she loves him. It is so hard when one cares and the other doesn't." Grace's gray eyes grew sad. Conversation languished between Hippy and Grace for a little. Then with a half sigh Grace rose, "I am going to ask Nora to sing," she said.

Before she had time to carry out her intention John appeared pushing a small table on wheels ahead of him. Its shelves were laden with sandwiches, olives, salted nuts and delicious fancy cakes, while a maid followed him with a chocolate service.

Mrs. Gray poured the chocolate, and Anne, always her right-hand man, assisted her in serving it. Grace, with her ever-present youthfulness of spirit, found trundling the table about the room a most pleasing diversion. They were a very merry little company, entering into the joy of being together with all their hearts, and deeply thankful for the opportunity to gather once more in the same spirit of friendly affection that had characterized all their meetings.

It was well toward midnight when the party broke up.

"Mayn't I take you home in my car, Grace," pleaded Tom. Grace stood for the moment, a little detached from the others, arranging the veil over her hat.

"Oh, no, Tom," she made quick answer. "It is late. You mustn't go to that trouble. David is going to take Anne and I in his car. Hippy, Nora, Reddy and Jessica are going home in Hippy's machine."

Tom's face fell. "May I come to see you to-morrow afternoon, then?"

"Yes, do. Miriam and David are coming over for a while," returned wily Grace. Her one idea was to avoid being alone with Tom. His sole idea was to be alone with her. His pride, however, would allow him to go no further. He had been rebuffed twice in rapid succession.

"Thank you. I'll drop in on you then," he said, trying to summon an indifference he did not feel.

After his aunt's guests had departed with much merriment and laughter, Tom turned to go upstairs. He was sure Grace did not intend to be unkind. It was not her fault if she did not love him. He had determined, however, to plead with her once more. Then, if she still remained obdurate, as he feared she might, he would give up all hope of her, forever, and go his lonely way in the world.



CHAPTER XV

THE NEW YEAR'S WEDDING

It was New Year's, and Anne Pierson's wedding night. At half-past seven the ceremony linking her life forever to that of her school-day friend, David Nesbit, was to be performed in the beautiful old stone church on Chapel Hill which, in company with her chums, she had faithfully attended during her years spent in Oakdale.

Anne had, at first, steadily refused to countenance the idea of a church wedding. She was a quiet, demure little soul, who, aside from her work, detested publicity. It was Mrs. Gray's wish, however, to see the girl she had befriended married in the church which bore the memorial window to the other Anne, her daughter, who had died in her girlhood. So Anne had yielded to that wish.

Although Grace was Anne's dearest friend, she had insisted that Miriam should be her maid of honor. Privately she had said, "I'd rather be a bridesmaid with Nora and Jessica. You know there were only four of us in the beginning." It had also been decided that in spite of the fact that Jessica and Nora were really eligible to the position of matrons of honor, that phase of wedding etiquette should, for once, be disregarded, and the three friends who had welcomed Anne as a fourth to their little fold should serve as bridesmaids and be dressed precisely alike. "It was," declared Anne, who heartily despised form, "as though they were still three girls together, with husbands in the dim and distant future."

It was to be a yellow and white wedding, therefore the gowns they had chosen were of white silk net over pale yellow satin, and very youthful in effect. Miriam's gown was a wonderful gold tissue, which made her appear like the princess in some old fairy tale, while Anne, contrary to tradition, had not chosen white satin. Her wedding dress was of soft, exquisite white silk, clouded with white chiffon, and was much better suited to her quiet type of loveliness than satin could possibly have been.

Mrs. Gray, who was to give the bride away, wore a gown of her favorite lavender satin, and bustled cheerfully about the Piersons' living room, in which the feminine half of the bridal party had gathered until time to drive to the church, where Anne was to play the leading part in a new and infinitely wonderful drama. Anne's mother had insisted that it should be Mrs. Gray, rather than herself, who gave Anne into David Nesbit's keeping. Always a shy, retiring woman, she had shrunk from the idea of appearing prominently before a church full of persons, many of whom were strangers to her. Dearly as she loved her talented daughter, she preferred to sit quietly beside Mary, her older daughter, in the place of honor reserved for the members of the families of the bridal party. She and Mrs. Gray had discussed the matter at length, and she had been so insistent that the former, as Anne's friend and benefactor, should give away the bride that Mrs. Gray, secretly delighted, had consented to her request.

"Anne makes a darling bride, doesn't she?" praised Nora, lifting a fold of the veil of exquisite lace, Mrs. Gray's wedding veil, by the way, and peering lovingly into her friend's faintly flushed face.

Anne smiled and reached out a slim little hand to Nora. She was occupying the center of the living room while her four friends, Mrs. Gray, her mother, Miss Southard and Mary Pierson hovered solicitously about her.

"How dear you all are to me." She held out her arms as though to clasp her friends in one loving embrace. "I am so glad now that I am going to have a real church wedding. I thought at first it would be nicer to be quietly married and slip away without fuss and feathers, but now I know that it is my sacred duty to my friends and to David to play my new part, as I've always played my other parts, in public."

"I always knew that Anne and David would be married some day," declared Grace wisely. "I believe David fell in love with Anne the very first time he saw her. Don't you remember Anne, we met him outside the high school, and he asked us to come to his aeroplane exhibition?"

"I remember it as well as though it happened yesterday," Anne's musical voice vibrated with a tenderness called forth by the memory of that girlhood meeting with the man of men.

"Those days seem very far away to me now," remarked Miriam Nesbit. "I feel as though I'd been grown up for ages."

"I don't feel a bit grown up. It seems only yesterday since I ran races and tore about our garden with Captain, our good old collie," laughed Grace. "I'm like Peter Pan. I don't want to, and can't, grow up. And I shall never marry." She glanced about her circle of friends with an almost challenging air. She looked so radiantly young and pretty in her dainty frock that simultaneously the thought occurred to them all, "Poor Tom." Yet in their hearts, even to Mrs. Gray, they could find no fault with Grace's straightforward words. If she were almost cruelly indifferent to Tom as a lover, she had the virtue at least of being absolutely honest. Even Mrs. Gray admired and respected her candor.

"Did you ever see anything more beautiful than Anne's and Miriam's bouquets?" broke in Miss Southard, with the intent of leading away from a not wholly happy subject.

Miriam held her bouquet at arm's length and eyed it with admiration. It was composed of pale yellow orchids and lilies of the valley, while Anne's was a shower of orange blossoms and the same delicate lilies.

"If you are determined never to marry, Grace, you won't try to catch Anne's bouquet," smiled Mrs. Gray.

"Oh, yes, I shall," nodded Grace. "I must do it because it's hers. I always try to catch the bouquets at weddings. It's good sport. So far, however, I've never secured one."

"I shall throw this one directly at you," promised Anne.

"Anne, child, the carriages are here," broke in her mother's gentle voice.

Anne laid her bouquet on the centre table. "Come and kiss Anne Pierson for the last time, girls." She opened her arms. One by one they folded her in the embrace of friendship. Her sister and mother came last. As the arms that had held her in babyhood closed about her, Anne drew nearer to her mother in this, her hour of supreme happiness, than ever before, if that were possible.

It was not a long drive to the church. On the way there they stopped to pick up the two flower girls, Anna May and Elizabeth Angerell, two pretty and interesting children who lived next door to Grace, and of whom she and Anne had always been very fond. The little flower maidens were dressed in white embroidered chiffon frocks with pale yellow satin sashes and hair ribbons. They wore white silk stockings and white kid slippers and carried overflowing baskets of yellow and white roses.

"Oh, Miss Harlowe," cried Anna May, when she and Elizabeth were safely settled in the carriage, one of them on the seat beside Grace, the other on the opposite side with Anne, "this is about the happiest day Elizabeth and I ever had. I do hope I won't be scared. Just think, we have to walk into that great big church, the very first ones, with all those people looking at us."

"I'm not the least bit scared," was Elizabeth's bold declaration. "Nobody is going to hurt us. Why, all the people are Miss Anne's friends! I'm going to think that when I walk up the aisle, and I shan't be a bit scared. I know I shan't."

"Well, I'm not exactly scared," asserted Anna May, greatly impressed with Elizabeth's valiant declaration. "I guess I'll think that, too."

"Oh, Miss Anne, you look too sweet for anything." Elizabeth clasped her small hands in rapture. "When I grow up I shall certainly be married, and have a dress like yours, and just the same kind of a bouquet, and be married in the church where every one can see me."

"You can't get married unless some one asks you," informed Anna May wisely.

"Some one will," predicted Elizabeth. "Won't they, Miss Harlowe?"

"I haven't the least doubt of it," was Grace's laughing assurance. "Still I wouldn't worry about it for a good many years yet, if I were you. It's just as nice to be a little girl and play games and dress dolls."

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