Anne smiled faintly. Grace was again unconsciously voicing her views on the marriage question.
The two little flower girls kept up a lively conversation during the ride. They were divided between the fear of facing a church full of people and the rapture of being really, truly flower girls at the wedding of such a wonderful person as their Miss Anne.
It was precisely half-past seven o'clock when two tiny flower maidens, their childish faces grave with the importance of their office, walked sedately down the broad church aisle toward the flower-wreathed altar. Following them came a dazzling vision in gold tissue that caused at least one's man's heart to beat faster. To Everett Southard Miriam was indeed the fabled fairy-tale princess. Then came the bride, feeling strangely humble and diffident in this new part she had essayed to play, while behind her, single file, in faithful attendance, walked the three girls who had kept perfect step with her through the eventful years of her school life.
Mrs. Gray, who had preceded the wedding party to the altar, was waiting there with the bridegroom and his best man, Tom Gray. There was a buzz of admiration went the round of the church at the beautiful spectacle the bridal party presented. Then followed an intense hush as the voice of the minister took up the solemn words of God's most holy ordinance.
Perhaps no one person present at that impressive ceremony realized as did Tom Gray what the winning of Anne, for his wife, meant to David. On that June night, almost two years previous, when Hippy and Reddy had, in turn, made announcement of their betrothal to Nora and Jessica in the presence of Mrs. Gray and her Christmas children, David's fate as a lover had been uncertain. Now David had joined the ranks of happy benedicts. Tom alone was left.
As the minister's voice rang out deeply, thrillingly, "I pronounce you man and wife," involuntarily Tom's glance rested on Grace, who was watching Anne with the rapt eyes of friendship. The words held no significance for her beyond the fact that two of her dearest friends had joined their lives. Her changeful face bore no sign of sentiment. As usual, her interest in love and marriage was purely impersonal.
The reception following the wedding was held at Anne's home, and long before it was over Anne and David had slipped away to take the night train for New York City. Anne's honeymoon was to be limited to one week which they had decided to spend at Old Point Comfort. Anne and Mr. Southard were to open a newly built New York theatre in Shakespearian repetoire the following week. Their real honeymoon was to be deferred until the theatrical season closed in the spring, and was to comprise an extended western trip.
True to her promise, Anne had aimed accurately, and Grace had received the bridal bouquet full in the face. It dropped to the floor. She picked it up and commented on her lack of skill in catching it. Tom's face had brightened as he saw the girl he loved holding the fragrant token to her breast. It was a good omen.
"I'm going to take you home in my car, Grace," he said masterfully, as the guests were leaving that night.
"All right," returned Grace calmly. "We can take Anna May and Elizabeth with us. It's awfully late for them. I promised Mrs. Angerell I'd take good care of them. They absolutely refused to go when Father and Mother went."
Tom could not help looking his disappointment. Nevertheless the two little girls were favorites of his, so he forgave them for being the innocent means of frustrating his intention of having Grace to himself.
"I'm going back to Washington to-morrow night, Grace," he said, as he took her hand for a moment in parting. "May I come to see you to-morrow afternoon?"
"Yes, of course, Tom." Grace could not refuse the plea of his gray eyes.
"All right. I'll drop in about four o'clock."
"Very well. Good night, Tom." Grace could not repress a little impatient sigh. "He's going to ask me again," was her reflection, "but there is only one answer that I can ever give him."
THE LAST WORD
While Anne Pierson's wedding day had dawned with a light snow on the ground, the weather underwent a considerable change during the night, and the next morning broke, gray and threatening. Heavy, sullen clouds dropped low in the sky, and by four o'clock that afternoon a raw, dispiriting winter rain had set in, accompanied by a moaning wind that made the day seem doubly dreary. Promptly at four o'clock Grace saw Tom swing up the walk without an umbrella. His black raincoat, buttoned up to his chin, was infinitely becoming to his fair Saxon type of good looks, and Grace could not repress a tiny thrill of satisfaction that this strong, handsome man cared for her. The next second she dismissed the thought as unworthy. She welcomed Tom, however, with a gentle friendliness, partly due to his good looks, that caused his eyes to flash with new hope. Perhaps Grace cared a little after all. He had rarely seen her so kind since their carefree days of boy and girl friendship, when there had been no barrier of unrequited love between them.
"Come and sit by the fire, Tom," invited Grace. "I love an open fire on a dark, rainy day like this." She motioned him to a chair opposite her own at the other side of the fireplace. Tom seated himself, and the two began to talk of the wedding, Oakdale, their friends, everything in fact that led away from the thoughts that lay nearest the young man's heart. Grace skilfully kept the conversation on impersonal topics. By doing so she hoped to make Tom understand that she did not wish to discuss what had long been a sore subject between them. So the two young people talked on and on, while outside the rain fell in torrents, and the dark day began to merge into an early twilight.
With the coming of the dusk Grace began to feel the strain. Tom's pale face had taken on a set look in the fitful glow of the fire. Suddenly he leaned far forward in his chair. "It's no use, Grace. I know you've tried to keep me from saying what I came here to-day to say, but I'm going to tell you again. I love you, Grace, and I need you in my life. Why can't you love me as I love you?"
Grace's clean-cut profile was turned directly toward Tom. She reached forward for the poker and began nervously prodding the fire. Tom caught the hand that held the poker. Unclasping her limp fingers from about it, he set it impatiently in place. "Look at me, Grace, not at the fire," he commanded.
Grace raised sorrowful eyes to him. Then she made a little gesture of appeal. "Why must we talk of this again, Tom? Why can't we be friends just as we used to be, back in our high-school days?"
"Because it's not in the nature of things," returned Tom, his eyes full of pain. "I am a man now, with a man's devoted love for you. The whole trouble lies in the sad fact that you are just a dreaming child, without the faintest idea of what life really means."
"You are mistaken, Tom." There was a hint of offended dignity in Grace's tones. "I do understand the meaning of life, only it doesn't mean love to me. It means work. The highest pleasure I have in life is my work."
"You think so now, but you won't always think so. There will come a time in your life when you'll realize how great a power for happiness love is. All our dearest friends have looked forward to seeing you my wife. Your parents wish it. Aunt Rose loves you already as a dear niece. Even Anne, your chum, thinks you are making a mistake in choosing work instead of love. Of course I know that what your friends think can make no difference in what you think. Still I believe if you would once put the idea away of being self-supporting you'd see matters in a different light. You aren't obliged to work for your living. Why not give Harlowe House into the care of some one who is, and marry me?"
"But you don't understand me in the least, Tom." A petulant note crept into Grace's voice. "It's just because I'm not obliged to support myself that I'm happy in doing so. I feel so free and independent. It's my freedom I love. I don't love you. There are times when I'm sorry that I don't, and then again there are times when I'm glad. I shall always be fond of you, but my feeling toward you is just the same as it is for Hippy or David or Reddy. There! I've hurt you. Forgive me. Must we say anything more about it? Please, please don't look so hurt, Tom."
Grace's eyes were fastened on Tom with the sorrowing air of one who has inadvertently hurt a child. Usually so delicate in her respect for the feelings of others, she seemed fated continually to wound this loyal friend, whose only fault lay in the fact that his boyish affection for her had ripened into a man's love. Saddest of all, an unrequited love.
"Of course I forgive you, Grace." Tom rose. He looked long and searchingly into the face of the girl who had just hurt him so cruelly. "I—I think I'd better go now. I hope you'll find all the happiness in your work that you expect to find. I'm only sorry it had to come first. I don't know when I'll see you again. Not until next summer, I suppose. I can't come to Oakdale for Easter this year. I wish you'd write to me—that is, if you feel you'd like to. Remember, I am always your old friend Tom."
"I will write to you, Tom." Grace's gray eyes were heavy with unshed tears. She winked desperately to keep them back. She would not cry. Luckily the dim light of the room prevented Tom from seeing how near she was to breaking down. It was all so sad. She had never before realized how much it hurt her to hurt Tom. She followed him into the hall and to the door in silence.
"Good-bye, Grace," he said again, holding out his hand.
"Good-bye, Tom," she faltered. He turned abruptly and hurried down the steps into the winter darkness. He did not look back.
Grace stood in the open door until the echo of his footsteps died out. Then she rushed into the living room and, throwing herself down on the big leather sofa, burst into bitter tears.
"There are Deans and deans," observed Emma Dean with savage emphasis, "but the Deans, of whom I am which, are, in my humble opinion, infinitely superior to the dean person stalking about the halls of dear old Overton."
"What do you mean, Emma?" asked Grace. The dry bitterness of her friend's outburst regarding deans in general was too significant to be allowed to pass unquestioned.
It was the evening of Grace Harlowe's return from the Christmas holiday she had spent with her dear ones at Oakdale. Grace and Emma were in their room. Despite the one sad memory which time alone could efface, Grace was experiencing a peace and comfort which always hovered about her for many days after her visits home. Next to home, however, Overton was, to her, the place of places, and she had returned to her work with fresh energy and enthusiasm. She believed that she had definitely put behind her forever all that unhappy part of her life regarding Tom Gray. It had been hard indeed, and had brought tears to the eyes so unaccustomed to weeping. Still Grace was glad that she had faced the inevitable and seen clearly. Tom would, in time, forget her and perhaps marry some one else. She wished with all her heart that he might be happy, and her one regret was that she had caused him pain.
In reality Grace had exhibited toward her old friend a hardness of purpose quite at variance with her usually sweet nature. She wondered a little that she could have been so inexorable in her decision, yet she believed herself to be wholly justified in the course she had taken. Already she was beginning to commend herself inwardly for her loyalty to her work, and Emma's blunt arraignment of the dean of Overton College acted like a dash of cold water upon her half-fledged self-content.
"All day I've been tempted to tell you a few things, Gracious," began Emma, "but I hated to disturb you. I know just how you feel when you come back from that blessed little town of yours. So I've been keeping still while you told me all about Anne's wedding and the good times you had. It was one glorious succession of good times, wasn't it?"
"Yes." Grace was silent for a brief space of time. Then she said gravely, "There was only one flaw, Emma. I refused again, and for the last time, to marry Tom Gray. I was sorry, but I couldn't help it. I don't love him."
"I'm sorry, too, that you couldn't find it in your heart to care for him. I liked him best of those four young men."
"Every one likes him. My friends all hoped that we would marry." Grace sighed. "Still one's friends can't decide such matters for one. One must solve that particular problem alone."
"Just so," agreed Emma. "Although no one ever asked my hand in holy matrimony except a callow youth whom I tutored in algebra last summer. He had failed in his June examination and had to pass in September or be forever labeled a dunce by his fond family. Now you see why I can understand the psychology of saying 'no' to a proposal. This stripling, who was at least five years my junior, proposed to me out of sheer gratitude. I actually succeeded in drumming quadratic equations into his stupid head, and he offered me his hand by the way of reward."
Grace's sad expression had by this time vanished. She was regarding Emma with a smiling face. "Really and truly, Emma, did that happen to you?"
"It did, indeed," averred Emma solemnly. "You aren't half so amazed as I was. I felt as though one of my Sunday-school class of little boys had suddenly exhibited signs of the tender passion. I labored long and earnestly to convince him that I was not his fate, and in due season he passed his examination and promptly forgot me. I did not weep and wail at being forgotten, either. Still there was a grain of satisfaction in being sought. If I go down to my grave in single blessedness I shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing that some one yearned for my life-long society." She beamed owlishly at Grace, and laughter routed the sorrowful face she had turned to Emma only a moment before.
But Emma was only trying to prepare Grace for unpleasant news. Now that she had put her in a lighter frame of mind, she said: "I might as well tell you about Miss Wharton, Grace."
Grace's eyes were immediately fixed on her in mute question.
"The news of the sale traveled to Miss Wharton, as I was afraid it would," began Emma. "Miss Brent wasn't here when first the dean heard of it. She had gone home with Miss Parker for Christmas. Evelyn Ward wasn't here, either. She and Kathleen West and Mary Reynolds went to New York. Mary and Kathleen to work on the paper, and Evelyn to work for two weeks in that stock company of Mr. Forrest's. You knew about that, of course. It was the day after Christmas that Miss Wharton heard about the sale. She sent for Miss Brent and was greatly displeased to find her gone. However, she had had permission from the registrar, a fact that Miss Wharton couldn't overlook. Then Miss Wharton sent for me. She said the sale was a disgrace to Overton, and that she was amazed to think you allowed such a proceeding. I explained to her that you knew nothing of it, that you were away at the time it took place, and she said you had acted most unwisely in placing your responsibilities on the shoulders of others even for a day. Your place was at Harlowe House every day of the college year. You had no business to assume such a responsible position if you did not intend to live up to it.
"That's about the extent of all she said. I was so angry I could scarcely control myself, but I managed to say quietly that President Morton and Miss Wilder had never questioned your absences from Harlowe House, and that I was sure you would lose no time in taking up the matter with her when you returned. Now you know what you may expect. I don't know whether she has sent for Miss Brent since she came from New York. If she hasn't, then mark my words, the summons will come to-morrow."
Emma proved to be a true prophet. The nine o'clock mail next morning brought two letters written on the stationery used by the Overton faculty. One was addressed to Grace, the other to Jean Brent. If the two young women had compared them they would have discovered that each one contained the same curt summons to the dean's office. Both appointments were for half-past four o'clock that afternoon.
Grace stopped at Jean's table at luncheon that day and said softly. "Will you come to my office after you have finished your luncheon, Miss Brent?"
Jean turned very pale. She bowed her acquiescence, and Grace went on to her own place.
"I have been requested to call on Miss Wharton at half-past four o'clock this afternoon, Miss Brent," informed Grace as, later, Jean stood before her. "I noted that you also received a letter written on the business stationery of Overton. Am I right in guessing that you have received the same summons?"
For answer Jean opened the book she held under her arm and took from it an envelope. In silence she drew from it a letter, spread it open and handed it to Grace.
"Just as I thought." Grace returned the letter. "Miss Wharton has learned of your sale, Miss Brent. She is very indignant. Are you prepared to tell her what you confided to me?" Grace eyed the girl squarely.
"Why should I, Miss Harlowe?" burst forth Jean. "No; I will tell Miss Wharton nothing."
"Nor will I," was Grace's quiet rejoinder. "Whatever she learns must come from you. I wrote to Miss Lipton and received a letter from her assuring me that you are not at fault in the matter that made your advent into Overton College a mystery to me. I need no further assurance. Miss Lipton's school is known to the public as being one of the finest preparatory schools in the United States. If it were Miss Wilder instead of Miss Wharton I should advise you to tell her all. I am so sorry you did not tell us in the beginning. You must do whatever your conscience dictates. If necessary I will show Miss Wharton my letter from Miss Lipton, but I shall not betray your confidence unless you sanction my speaking."
"Please don't tell her," begged Jean.
"It shall be as you ask," returned Grace, but she was secretly disappointed at what might be either Jean's selfishness or her pure inability to see the unpleasantness of the position in which she was placing the young woman who had befriended her.
When Grace entered the familiar office and saw Miss Wharton's dumpy figure occupying her dear Miss Wilder's place she felt a distinct sinking of the heart. The dean surveyed her out of cold blue eyes, that seemed to Grace to contain a spark of deliberate malice.
"Good afternoon, Miss Harlowe," she said stiffly. As she spoke the door opened and Jean Brent walked calmly in. She bowed to Miss Wharton in a manner as chilly as her own and took a seat at one side of the room. The dean waved Grace to a chair. "Now, young women," she began in a severe tone, "I wish a full explanation of this disgraceful sale that recently took place at Harlowe House. I will first ask you, Miss Brent if you had Miss Harlowe's permission to conduct it?"
"No. She refused to permit it. I held it in her absence," answered Jean, defiance blazing in her blue eyes.
"I see; a clear case of disobedience. What was your object in holding it?"
"I needed money. I lost the greater part of my money on the train when I came to Overton."
"Why did you need money?" Miss Wharton exhibited a lawyer-like persistency.
"To pay my college fees," Jean made prompt answer.
"But how could a girl with a wardrobe as complete and expensive as yours—I have been informed that it was remarkable—be in need of money to pay her expenses, or obliged to live in a charitable institution, as I believe Harlowe House is?"
"You are mistaken. Harlowe House is not a charitable institution!" Grace Harlowe's voice vibrated with indignation. "I beg your pardon," she apologized in the next instant.
Miss Wharton glared angrily at her for fully a minute. Then, ignoring the interruption and the protest, turned again to Jean.
"I cannot answer your question," Jean spoke with quiet composure.
"You mean you will not answer it," retorted the dean.
"I have nothing to say that you would care to hear." Jean's lips set in the stubborn line that signified no yielding.
Miss Wharton turned to Grace. "You have heard what this young woman says. Can you answer the question I asked Miss Brent?"
"The answer to the question must come from Miss Brent," replied Grace with gentle evasion.
"Miss Harlowe, you have not answered me." Miss Wharton was growing angrier. "I insist upon knowing the details of this affair from beginning to end. Miss Brent's conduct has been contrary to all the traditions of Overton."
"That is perfectly true," admitted Grace.
"Then if you know it to be true, why do you evade my question? It will be infinitely better for you to be frank with me. I am greatly displeased with you and the reports I hear of Harlowe House. I assured Miss Wilder, when first I met you, that I doubted President Morton's and her judgment in allowing you to hold a position of such great responsibility. You are too young, too frivolous. I am informed that Harlowe House is almost Bohemian in its character."
"Then you have been misinformed." Cut to the heart, Grace spoke with a dignity that was not to be denied. "Harlowe House is conducted on the strictest principles of law and order. We try to be a well-regulated household, upholding the high standard of Overton. If it had not been for two of my friends and I, Mrs. Gray would never have given it to the college, and thirty-four girls would have missed obtaining a college education. Miss Wilder believed in me. She trusted me. I regret that you do not. Regarding Miss Brent, I have received ample assurance of her honesty of purpose from Miss Lipton, the head of the Lipton Preparatory School for Girls. Miss Lipton and I are in possession of certain facts concerning Miss Brent which enable us to understand her peculiar position here. I regret, beyond all words, that Miss Brent did not confide in me before having the sale of her clothing. I do not condone her fault, but I am sure that in her anxiety to do what was best for herself she did not intend deliberately to defy me. Here is a letter from Miss Lipton which I wish you to read."
In her vexation Miss Wharton almost snatched the letter from Grace's hand. There was a tense stillness in the room while she read it. Jean kept her gaze steadily turned from Grace. At last the dean looked up from the letter. "This letter is, by no means, an explanation, although I am well aware of the excellent reputation Miss Lipton's school bears. What I am determined to have are the facts of this affair. If I can prevail upon neither of you to speak them I shall place the matter before President Morton and the Board of Trustees of Overton College."
Her threat met with no response from either young woman.
"Before taking the matter up with President Morton, however, I shall give both of you an opportunity to reflect upon the folly of your present course. Within a few days I shall send for you again. If then you still continue to defy me I will take measures to have you, Miss Harlowe, removed from your charge of Harlowe House as being unfit for the responsibility, while you, Miss Brent, will be expelled from Overton College for disobedience and insubordination. That will do for this morning." Miss Wharton dismissed them with a peremptory gesture.
The two young women passed out of the room in silence. Once outside Overton Hall, Jean turned impulsively to Grace: "I am sorry, Miss Harlowe, but I couldn't tell that horrid woman what I told you. She would neither understand me nor sympathize with me. I know you think I should have explained everything."
Grace could not trust herself to answer. Humiliated to the last degree by Miss Wharton's bald injustice, she felt as though she wished never to see or hear of Jean Brent again. It was not until they were half way across the campus that she found her voice. She was dimly surprised at the resentment in her tones. "You chose your own course, Miss Brent, regardless of what I thought. That course has not only involved you in serious difficulty, but me as well. If you had obeyed me in the beginning, I would not be leaving Miss Wharton's office this afternoon, under a cloud. I quite agree with you, however, that to tell Miss Wharton your secret now would not help matters. I must leave you here. I am going on to Wayne Hall."
With a curt inclination of her head, Grace walked away, leaving Jean standing in the middle of the campus, looking moodily after her.
THE BLOTTED ESCUTCHEON
But Grace was destined to receive another shock before the long day was done. The shadows of early twilight were beginning to blot out the short winter day when she let herself into Harlowe House. Stepping into her office she reached eagerly for the pile of mail lying on the sliding shelf of her desk. The handwriting on the first letter of the pile was Tom's. Grace eyed it gloomily. It was not warranted to lighten her present unhappy mood. She opened it slowly, almost hesitatingly. Unlike Tom's long, newsy letters, there was but one sheet of paper. Then she strained her eyes in the rapidly failing daylight and read:
"When you receive this letter I shall be out at sea and on my way to South America. I have resigned my position with the Forestry Department to go on an expedition up the Amazon River with Burton Graham, the naturalist. He is the man who collected so many rare specimens of birds and mammals for the Smithsonian Institute while in Africa, two years ago. It is hard to say when I shall return, and, as it takes almost a month for a letter to reach the United States, you are not likely to hear often from me.
"Aunt Rose is deeply grieved at my going. Still she understands that, for me, it is best. When last I saw you in Oakdale I had no idea of leaving civilization for tropical wildernesses. Mr. Graham's invitation to join his expedition was wholly unexpected, and I was not slow to take advantage of it.
"I would ask you to write me, but, unfortunately, I can give you no forwarding address. Mr. Graham's plans as to location are a little uncertain. Perhaps, until I can bring myself to think of you in the way you wish me to think, silence between us will be happiest for us both. God bless you, Grace, and give you the greatest possible success in your work. With best wishes,
"Your friend, "TOM."
Grace stared at the sheet of paper before her, with tear-blurred eyes. She hastily wiped her tears away, but they only fell the faster. Miss Wharton's injustice, Jean Brent's selfishness, together with the sudden shock of Tom's departure out of the country and out of her life, were too much for her high-strung, sensitive nature. Dropping into the chair before her desk, she bowed her head on the slide and wept unrestrainedly.
Her overflow of feelings was brief, however. Given little to tears, after her first outburst she exerted all her will power to control herself. The girls were dropping in by ones and twos from their classes, the maid would soon come into the living room to turn on the lights, and at almost any moment some one might ask for her. She would not care to be discovered in tears.
Grace picked up the rest of her mail, lying still unopened, and went upstairs to her room with the proud determination to cry no more. She was quite sure she would not have cried over Tom's letter had all else been well. It was her interview with Miss Wharton that had hurt her so cruelly. Yet, with the reading of Tom's farewell message, deep down in her heart lurked a curiously uncomfortable sense of loss. It was as though for the first time in her life she had actually began to miss Tom. She had not expected fate to cut him off so sharply from her. She knew that her refusal to marry him had been the primary cause of his going away. Mrs. Gray would perhaps blame her. These expeditions were dangerous to say the least. More than one naturalist had died of fever or snakebite, or had been killed by savages. Suppose Tom were never to come back. Grace shuddered at the bare idea of such a calamity. And he did not intend to write to her, so she could only wonder as the days, weeks and months went by what had befallen him. She would never know.
While she was sadly ruminating over Tom's unexpected exit from her little world, Emma Dean's brisk step sounded outside. The door swung open. Emma gave a soft exclamation as she saw the room in darkness. Pressing the button at the side of the door, she flooded the room with light, only to behold Grace standing in the middle of the floor, still wearing her outdoor wraps, an open letter in her hand.
"Good gracious, Gracious, how you startled me! What is going on? Tell your worthless dog of a servant, what means this studied pose in the middle of the room in the dark? Not to mention posing in your hat and coat. And, yes," Emma drew nearer and peered into her friend's face with her kind, near-sighted eyes, "you've been crying. This will never do. Tell me the base varlet that hath caused these tears," she rumbled in a deep voice, "and be he lord of fifty realms I'll have his blood. 'Sdeath! Odds bodkins! Let me smite the villain. I could slay and slay, and be a teacher still. Provided the faculty didn't object, and I wasn't arrested," she ended practically.
Grace's woe-be-gone face brightened at Emma's nonsense. "You always succeed in making me smile when I am the bluest of the blue," she said fondly.
"I can't see why such strongly dramatic language as I used should make you laugh. It was really quite Shakespearian. You see I have 'the bard' on the brain. We have been taking up Elizabethan English in one of my classes, and once I become thoroughly saturated with Shakespearian verse I am likely to quote it on all occasions. Don't be surprised if I burst forth into blank verse at the table or any other public place. But here I've been running along like a talking machine when you are 'full fathom five' in the blues. Can't you tell your aged and estimable friend, Emma, what is troubling you?"
"You were right, Emma. The summons came." Grace's voice was husky. "I've just had a session with Miss Wharton."
"About Miss Brent?"
"Yes. She sent for both of us. She asked Miss Brent to explain certain things which she could, but would not, explain. I was in Miss Brent's confidence. As you know, she told me about herself after I came back from the Thanksgiving holiday. It entirely changed my opinion of her. I wish I could tell you everything, but I can't. I gave her my word of honor that I would keep her secret. But, to-day, when she saw how unjustly Miss Wharton reprimanded me I thought she might have strained a point and told Miss Wharton her story. Still I don't know that it would have helped much." Grace sighed wearily. "Miss Wharton is not Miss Wilder. She is a hard, narrow-minded, cruel woman," Grace's dispirited tones gathered sudden vehemence, "and she would misjudge Miss Brent just as she misjudged me. She is going to send for us again in a few days, and she declares that, if I do not tell her everything, she will take measures to have me removed from my position here." Grace turned tragic eyes to her friend.
"The idea!" rang out Emma's indignant cry. "Just as though she could. Why, Harlowe House was named for you. If Mrs. Gray knew she even hinted such thing she'd be so angry. I believe she'd turn Indian giver and take back her gift to Overton."
"Oh, no, she wouldn't do quite that, Emma." Heartsick though she was, Grace smiled faintly. "She would be angry, though. She must never know it. It made her so happy to give Harlowe House to Overton. She would be so hurt, for my sake, that she would never again take a particle of pleasure in it. When Miss Wharton sends for me I shall ask her point-blank if she really intends to try to have me removed from my position by the Board. If she says 'yes,' I'll resign, then and there."
"Grace Harlowe, you don't mean it? You've always fought valiantly for other girls' rights, why won't you fight for your own? The whole affair is ridiculous and unjust. If worse comes to worst you can go before the Board and defend yourself. The members will believe you."
Grace shook her head sadly, but positively. "I'd never do that, Emma. If it comes to a point where I must fight to be house mother here, then I'd much rather resign. I couldn't bear to have the story creep about the college that I had even been criticized by the Board. I've loved my work so dearly, and I've tried so hard to do it wisely that I'd rather give it up and go quietly away, feeling in my heart that I have done my best, than to fight and win at last nothing but a blotted escutcheon. You understand how it is with me, dear old comrade."
"Grace, it breaks my heart to hear you say such things! You mustn't talk of going away." Emma sprang from the chair into which she had dropped and drew Grace into her protecting embrace. Grace's head was bowed for a moment on Emma's shoulder.
"Don't cry, dear," soothed Emma.
"I'm not crying, Emma. See, I haven't shed a tear. I did all my crying a while ago." Grace raised her head and regarded Emma with two dry eyes that were wells of pain. "I have had another shock, too, since I came home. Tom Gray has resigned his position with the Forestry Department at Washington, and has sailed for South America. I—never—thought—he'd—go—away. He isn't even going to write to me, Emma, and I don't know when he will come back. Perhaps never. You know how dangerous those South American expeditions are?"
"Poor Gracious," comforted Emma, "you have had enough sorrows for one day. You need a little cheering up. You and I are not going to eat dinner at Harlowe House to-night. We are going to let Louise Sampson look after things while we go gallivanting down to Vinton's for a high tea. I'm going to telephone Kathleen and Patience. There will be just four of us, and no more of us to the tea party. They will have to come, engagements or no engagements."
"I don't care to see any one to-night, Emma," pleaded Grace.
"You only think you don't. Seeing the girls will do you good. If you stay here you'll brood and grieve all evening."
"All right, I'll go; just to please you. I must see Louise and tell her we are going."
"You stay here. I'll do all the seeing. Take off your hat and bathe your face. You'll feel better." Emma hurried out of the room and up the next flight of stairs to Louise Sampson's room, thinking only of Grace and how she might best comfort her. She was more aroused than she cared to let Grace see over Miss Wharton's harsh edict. She made a secret vow that if Grace would not fight for her rights she, Emma Dean, would. Then she remembered Grace's words, "I'd rather give it up and go quietly away, feeling in my heart that I have done my best, than to fight and, at last, win nothing but a blotted escutcheon." No, she could not take upon herself Grace's wrongs, unless Grace bade her do so, and that would never happen.
Fortunately Kathleen and Patience were both at home. Better still, neither had an engagement for that evening, and at half-past six o'clock the four faithful friends were seated at their favorite mission alcove table at Vinton's, ordering their dinner, while Grace tried earnestly to put away her sorrow and be her usual sunny self.
But while Grace had been passing through the Valley of Humiliation, there was another person under the same roof who was equally unhappy. That person was Jean Brent. On leaving Grace she had gone directly to Harlowe House. Ascending the stairs to her room with a dispirited step, she had tossed aside her wraps and seated herself before the window. She sat staring out with unseeing eyes, remorseful and sick at heart. Grace's bitter words, "If you had obeyed me I would not be leaving Miss Wharton's office this afternoon, under a cloud," still rang in her ears. How basely she had repaid Miss Harlowe, was her conscience-stricken thought. Miss Harlowe had advised and helped her in every possible way. She had taken her into Harlowe House on trust. She had sympathized with her when Jean had told her her secret, and she had brought upon herself the dean's disapproval, would perhaps leave Harlowe House, rather than betray the girl who had confided in her. Jean's conscience lashed her sharply for her stubbornness and selfish ingratitude. If only she had been frank in the beginning. Miss Harlowe would have explained all to Miss Wilder, and Miss Wilder would have been satisfied. Then she would have had no sale of her wardrobe, and Miss Harlowe would have been spared all this miserable trouble.
What a failure she had made of her freshman year? She had made few friends except Althea and her chums. They were shallow and selfish to a fault. She had held herself aloof from the Harlowe House girls, who, notwithstanding their good nature, showed a slight resentment of her proud attitude toward them and her absolute refusal to join in the work of the club. Since the day when Evelyn had taken her to task for disobeying Grace the two girls had exchanged no words other than those which necessity forced them to exchange. Evelyn had not forgiven Jean for her passionate advice to her to mind her own affairs. Jean, knowing Evelyn's resentment to be just, cloaked herself in defiance and ignored her roommate. Little by little, however, the cloak dropped away and Jean began to long for Evelyn's companionship. The yellow crepe gown and the beautiful evening coat still lay in the bottom of Jean's trunk. In her own mind she knew that she had begun to hope for the time when she and Evelyn would settle their differences. She would then give Evelyn the belated Christmas gift. She grew daily more unhappy over their estrangement, and heartily wished for a reconciliation. Yet she was still too proud to make the first advances.
It was hardly likely that Evelyn would make the first sign. Her pride was equal to, if not greater, than Jean's. She, who abhorred prying and inquisitiveness, had been accused by Jean of meddling in her affairs. Evelyn vowed inwardly never to forgive Jean. So these two young girls, each stiff-necked and implacable, dressed, studied and slept in the same room in stony silence, passing in and out like two offended shadows. Gradually this strained attitude became so intolerable to Jean that she longed for some pretext on which to make peace. As she sat at the window wondering what she could do to atone for her fault the door opened and Evelyn entered the room. A swift impulse seized Jean to lift the veil of resentment that hung between them. She half rose from her chair as though to address Evelyn. The latter turned her head in Jean's direction. Her blue eyes rested upon the other girl with the cold, impersonal gaze of a stranger. Beneath that maddening, ignoring glance Jean's good intentions curled up and withered like leaves that are touched by frost, and her aching desire for reconciliation was once more driven out of her heart by her pride.
THE SWORD OF SUSPENSE
When Miss Wharton sent Jean Brent and Grace Harlowe from her office with the threat of dismissal hanging over them she fully intended to keep her word. From the moment she had first beheld Grace Harlowe she had conceived for her a rooted dislike such as only persons of strong prejudices can entertain. Her whole life had been lived narrowly, and with repression, therefore she was not in sympathy with youth or its enthusiasm. According to her belief no young woman of Grace's age and appearance was competent to assume the responsibility of managing an establishment like Harlowe House. She had again delivered this opinion most forcefully in Miss Wilder's presence after Grace had left the office on the afternoon of their first meeting, and Miss Wilder's earnest assurances to the contrary served only to deepen Miss Wharton's disapproval of the bright-faced, clear-eyed girl whose quiet self-possession indicated a capability of managing her own affairs that was a distinct affront to the woman who hoped to discover in her such faults as would triumphantly bear out her unkind criticism.
Miss Wharton had held the position of dean in an unimportant western college, and it was at the solicitation of a cousin, a member of the Board of Trustees, that she had applied for the office of dean at Overton, and had been appointed to it with the distinct understanding that it was to be for the present college year only. Should Miss Wilder be unable to resume her duties the following October, Miss Wharton would then be reappointed for the entire year. The importance of being the dean of Overton College, coupled with the generous salary attached to the office, were the motives which caused Miss Wharton to resign her more humble position, assured as it was, for an indefinite period of years, for the one of greater glory but uncertain length.
Possessed of a hard, unsympathetic nature, she secretly cherished the hope that Miss Wilder would not return to Overton the following year. She also resolved to prove her own worth above that of the kindly, efficient dean whom the Overton girls idolized, and began her campaign by criticizing and finding fault with Miss Wilder's methods whenever the slightest opportunity presented itself. At first her unfair tactics bade fair to meet with success. The various members of the Board, and even Dr. Morton, wondered vaguely if, after all, too much confidence had been reposed in Miss Wilder.
Wholly intent on establishing herself as a fixture at Overton College, Miss Wharton allowed the matter concerning Jean Brent and Grace to rest while she attended to what she considered vastly more important affairs. The thought that she was keeping both young women in the most cruel suspense did not trouble her in the least. On the contrary she decided that they deserved to be kept in a state of uncertainty as to what she intended to do with them, and deliberately put over their case until such time as suited her convenience.
Both Jean and Grace went about, however, with the feeling that a sword was suspended over their heads and likely to descend at any moment. Grace expected, daily, to be summoned to Miss Wharton's office, there to refuse to divulge Jean Brent's secret and then ask the pertinent question, "Do you intend to lay this matter before the Board?" If she received an affirmative answer, then she planned to return to Harlowe House, write her formal resignation as manager of it and mail it to President Morton. But day followed day, and week followed week, and still the dread summons did not come. Grace discussed frequently the possible cause of Miss Wharton's negligence in the matter with Emma, her one confidante. Emma was of the opinion that, in trying to fill Miss Wilder's position, Miss Wharton had her hands full. Although Emma was apt to clothe the most serious happenings in the cloak of humor, she was a shrewd judge of human nature.
"Just let me tell you one thing, Gracious," she remarked one blustering March evening as the two young women fought their way across the campus against a howling wind. They were returning from an evening spent with Kathleen West and Patience Eliot. "Miss Wharton is no more fitted for the position of dean at Overton College than I am for the presidency of the United States. She may have been successful in some little, out-of-the-way academy in a jerkwater town, but she's sadly out of place here. She has about as much tact as a rhinoceros, and possesses the aesthetic perceptions of a coal shoveler. I'm just waiting for these simple truths to dawn upon the intellects of our august Board. I understand that cadaverous-looking man with the wall eyes and the spade-shaped, beard, who walks about as though he cherished a grudge against the human race, and rejoices in the euphonious name of Darius Dutton, is responsible for this crime against Overton. He recommended her appointment to the Board. It seems that he is Miss Wharton's cousin. Thank goodness he isn't mine, or Miss Wharton either."
Grace laughed at Emma's sweeping denunciation of Miss Wharton and the offending Daniel Dutton. Then her face grew sober. "You mustn't allow my grievances to imbitter you, Emma, toward any member of the Board."
"Oh, my only grudge against Darius D. so far is his having such detestable relatives and foisting them upon an innocent, trusting college," retorted Emma with spirit, "but my grudge against Miss Wharton is a very different matter. It's an active, lively grudge. I'd like to write to Miss Wilder and Mrs. Gray, and interview Dr. Morton, and then see what happened. It would not be Grace Harlowe who resigned; but it might be a certain hateful person whose name begins with W. I won't say her name outright. Possibly you'll be able to guess it."
Grace's hand found Emma's in the dark as they came to the steps of Harlowe House. The two girls paused for an instant. Their hands clung loyally. "Remember, Emma, you've promised to let me have my own way in this," reminded Grace wistfully.
"I'll keep my promise," answered Emma, but her voice sounded husky.
"I know," continued Grace, "that Miss Wharton's attitude toward me is one of personal prejudice. From the moment she saw me she disliked me. I know of only one other similar case. When Anne Pierson and I were freshmen in Oakdale High School we recited algebra to a teacher named Miss Leece, who behaved toward Anne in precisely the same way that Miss Wharton has behaved toward me, simply because she disliked her. But come on, old comrade, we mustn't stand out here all night with the wind howling in our ears. Let us try and forget our troubles. What is to be, will be. I am nothing, if not a fatalist." Grace forced herself to smile with her usual brightness, and the two girls entered the house arm in arm, each endeavoring, for the sake of the other to stifle her unhappiness.
It was not yet ten o'clock and the lights were still burning in the living room. Gathered about the library table were six girls, deep in conversation. One of them glanced toward the hall at the sound of the opening door.
"Oh, Miss Harlowe," she called, "You are the very person we have been wishing for." It was Cecil Ferris who spoke. Nettie Weyburn, Louise Sampson, Mary Reynolds, Evelyn Ward and Hilda Moore made up the rest of the sextette. "We are wondering if it wouldn't be a good plan to give our grand revue directly after the Easter vacation. It will be our last entertainment this year, because after Easter the weather begins to grow warm and the girls like to be outdoors. If you would help us plan it, then those of us who live here, and are going to take part in it, can be studying and rehearsing during the vacation. Of course, Evelyn won't be with us, but she will help us before she goes to New York. When she comes back she can give us the finishing touches. Here is the programme as far as we have planned it. We are awfully short of features."
Cecil handed Grace a sheet of paper on which were jotted several items. There was a sketch written by Mary Reynolds, "The Freshman on the Top Floor," a pathetic little story of a lonely freshman. Gertrude Earle, a demure, dreamy-eyed girl, the daughter of a musician, was down for a piano solo. There was to be a sextette, a chorus and a troupe of dancing girls. Kathleen West had written a clever little playlet "In the Days of Shakespeare," and Hilda Moore, who could do all sorts of queer folk dances, was to busy her light feet in a series of quick change costume dances, while Amy Devery was to give an imitation of a funny motion-picture comedian who had made the whole country laugh at his antics.
"How would you like some imitations and baby songs?" asked Grace, forgetting for the moment the shadow that hung over her. "I have two friends who would be delighted to help you."
"How lovely!" cried Louise Sampson. "Now if only we had some one who could sing serious songs exceptionally well."
"Miss Brent has a wonderful voice," said Evelyn rather reluctantly.
"Then we must ask her to sing," decided Louise. "You ask her to-night, Evelyn."
But Evelyn shook her head. "I'd rather you would ask her, Louise. Won't you, please?"
"All right, I will," said Louise good-naturedly, who had no idea of the strained relations existing between the two girls, and consequently thought nothing of Evelyn's request.
"Much as I regret tearing myself away from this representative company of beauty and brains, I have themes that cry out to be corrected," declared Emma Dean, who had been listening in interested silence to the plans for the coming revue.
"You can't hear them cry out clear down here, can you?" asked Mary Reynolds flippantly.
A general giggle went the round of the sextette.
"Not with my everyday ordinary ears, my child," answered Emma, quite undisturbed. "It is that inner voice of duty that is making all the commotion. I would much rather bask in the light of your collected countenances than listen to those frenzied shrieks. But what of my trusting classes, who delight in writing themes and passing them on to me to be corrected?"
"Oh, yes; we all delight in writing themes," jeered Nettie Weyburn, to whom theme writing was an irksome task. "My inner voice of duty is screaming at me this very minute to go and write one, but I'm so deaf I can't hear it."
"If you can't hear it, how do you know it is screaming?" questioned Emma very solemnly.
"My intuition tells me," retorted Nettie with triumphant promptness.
"Then I wish all my pupils in English had such marvelous intuitions," sighed Emma.
"My inner voice of duty is wailing at me to go upstairs and finish my letter to my mother," interposed Grace, rising. Her face had regained its usual brightness. She could not be sad in the presence of these light-hearted, capable girls, whose sturdy efforts to help themselves made them all so inexpressibly dear to her. She would help them all she could with their entertainment. She would write Arline and Elfreda to come to Overton for a few days and take part in the revue.
It was not until she had finished her letter to her mother and begun one to Elfreda that the sinister recollection again darkened her thoughts. She was living in the shadow of dismissal. Would it be wise to invite Arline and Elfreda to Harlowe House for a visit while she was so uncertain of what the immediate future held in store for her? If she tendered her resignation she intended it should take effect without delay. Once she had surrendered her precious charge she could not and would not remain at Harlowe House. Still she had promised her girls that she would help them. She had volunteered Arline's and Elfreda's services, knowing they would willingly leave their own affairs to journey back to Overton.
Grace laid down her pen. Resting her elbows on the table she cradled her chin in her hands, her vivid, changeful face overcast with moody thought. At last she raised her head with the air of one who has come to a decision, and, picking up her pen, went on with her letter to J. Elfreda Briggs. If worse came to worst and she resigned before the girls' entertainment she would courageously put aside her own feelings and remain, at least, until afterward. It should be her last act of devotion to Harlowe House and her work.
The sword which hung over poor Grace's head still dangled threateningly above her when she left Overton for Oakdale, on her Easter vacation. Miss Wharton had made no sign. Whether she had, for the time being, forgotten her words of that unhappy morning of several weeks past, or was coolly taking her own time in the matter, well aware of the discomfort of her victims, Grace could not know. She determined to lay aside all bitterness of spirit and lend herself to commemorate the anniversary of the first Easter with a reverent and open mind. But there was one ghost which she could not lay, and that was the the memory of Tom Gray's face as he said good-bye to her on that memorable rainy afternoon. Just when it began to haunt her Grace could scarcely tell. She knew only that Tom's farewell letter had awakened in her mind a curious sense of loss that made her wish he had not cut himself off from her so completely. When on their last afternoon together he had pleaded so earnestly for her love Grace had been proudly triumphant in the successful accomplishment of what she believed to be her life work. From the lofty pinnacle of achievement she had looked down on Tom pityingly, but with no adequate realization of what she had caused him to suffer.
It was not until she herself had been called upon to prepare to give up that which meant most to her in life that she began to appreciate dimly what it must have cost Tom Gray to put aside his hopes of years and go away to forget. A belated sympathy for her girlhood friend sprang to life in her heart, and in the weeks of suspense that preceded her return to Oakdale for Easter she found herself thinking of him frequently. She wondered if he were well, and tried to imagine him in his new and dangerous environment. She began to cherish a secret hope that, despite his belief that silence between them was best, he would write to her.
Her holiday promised to be a little lonely as far as her friends were concerned. Mrs. Gray had gone to New York City to spend Easter with the Nesbits. Nora and Hippy had gone to visit Jessica and Reddy in their Chicago home. Anne and David were in New York. Eleanor Savelli was in Italy. Even Marian Barber, Eva Allen and Julia Crosby had married and gone their separate ways. Of the Eight Originals Plus Two, and of their old sorority, the Phi Sigma Tau, she was the only one left in Oakdale. To be sure she had plenty of invitations to spend Easter with her chums and her many friends, but it was a sacred obligation with her always to be at home during the Easter holidays. She was quite content to do this, and yet even her father's and mother's love could not quite still the longing for the gay voices of those dear ones with whom she had kept pace for so long.
There was one source of consolation, however, which during the first days at home she had quite overlooked, and that source was none other than Anna May and Elizabeth Angerell. The two little girls had by no means overlooked the fact that their Miss Harlowe was "the very nicest person in the whole world except papa and mamma," and proceeded to monopolize her whenever the opportunity offered itself.
Grace went for long walks with them. She helped them dress their dolls, and ran races and played games with them in their big sunny garden. She initiated them into the mysteries of making fudge and penuchi, while they obligingly taught her the ten different ways they knew of skipping the rope, and how to make raffia baskets. They followed her about like two adoring, persistent little shadows, until imbued with their carefree spirit of childhood, Grace, in a measure, forgot her woes and joined in their innocent fun with hearty good will.
"Really, Grace, I hardly know which is older, you or Anna May," smiled her mother one afternoon as Grace came bounding into the living room with, "Mother, do you know where my blue sweater is? Anna May and Elizabeth and I are going for a walk as far as the old Omnibus House."
"It is hanging in that closet off the sewing room," returned her mother.
"Thank you." Dropping a hasty kiss on her mother's cheek, Grace was off.
Mrs. Harlowe watched her go down the walk, holding a hand of each little girl, with wistful eyes. Grace had not been at home three days before her mother divined that all was not well with her beloved daughter. Yet to ask questions was not her way. Whatever Grace's cross might be, she knew that, in time, Grace would confide in her.
On the way to the Omnibus House Grace was as gay and buoyant as her two little friends. It was not until they had reached there and Anna May and Elizabeth had run off to the nearest tree to watch a pair of birds which were building a nest and keeping up a great chirping meanwhile, that a frightful feeling of loneliness swept over Grace. She sat down on the worn stone steps sadly thinking of Tom Gray and the good times the Eight Originals had had at this favorite haunt.
But why did the memory of Tom Gray continue to haunt her? Grace gave her shoulders an impatient twitch. How foolish she was to allow herself to grow retrospective over Tom. She had deliberately sent him away because she did not, nor never could, love him. Still she wished that the memory of him would not intrude upon her thoughts so constantly. "It's only because he's associated with the good times the Eight Originals have had," she tried to tell herself, but deep in her heart was born a strange fear that she fought against naming or recognizing.
After having watched the noisy, but successful, builders to their hearts' content, the children ran over to where Grace sat and challenged her to a game of tag. But she was in no mood for play, and suggested they had better be starting home. She felt that she could not endure for another instant this house of memories. She tried to assume the joyous air with which she had started out, but even the two little girls were not slow to perceive that their dear Miss Harlowe didn't look as happy as when they had begun their walk.
"I think we'd better go and see her to-morrow morning and take her a present," decided Anna May, after Grace had left them at their own gate. "She laughed like everything when we started on our walk, but she looked pretty sad when we were coming back and didn't say hardly a thing. I'm going to give her my bottle of grape juice that Mother made specially for me."
"I guess I'll give her that pen wiper I made. It's ever so pretty." Elizabeth was not to be outdone in generosity.
"We'll take Snowball's new white puppy to show her," planned Anna May. "She hasn't seen it yet. And a real French poodle puppy is too cute for anything."
"And we'll sing that new verse we learned in school for her," added Elizabeth.
True to their word, the next morning the two little girls marched up to the Harlowes' front door laden with their gifts. Anna May bore with proud carefulness the cherished bottle of grape juice while Elizabeth cuddled a fat white ball in her arms, the pen wiper lying like a little blanket on the puppy's back.
"We came to call as soon as we could this morning, because we thought you looked sad yesterday," was Anna May's salutation as Grace opened the door. "Here's a bottle of grape juice. Mother made it specially for me, but I want you to have it," the child said. Grace ushered her guests into the living room.
"I hope you'll like this pen wiper, too. I cut it out and sewed it and everything," burst forth Elizabeth, holding out her offering. "I hope you'll always use it when you write letters."
"Thank you, girls. You are both very good to me," smiled Grace, "and I'm so glad to see you this morning."
"We thought you would be," returned Anna May calmly. "We brought Snowball's puppy to show you. We named him this morning for a perfectly splendid person that we know. You know him, too. The puppy's name is Thomas."
"That's Mr. Gray's real name, isn't it?" put in Elizabeth anxiously. "Every one calls him Tom, but Thomas sounds nicer. Don't you think it does?"
"We like Mr. Gray better than any grown-up man we know," confided Anna May enthusiastically. "He's the handsomest, nicest person ever was. Do you think he'd be pleased to have us name our puppy for him?"
"I'm sure he would." Grace stifled her desire to laugh as she took the fluffy white ball in her arms and stroked the tiny head. Then the amused look left her eyes. Perhaps Tom would never know of his little white namesake. He might never come back from South America. Suppose she were never to hear of him again. In the past she had, during moments of vexation toward him, almost wished it, but of a sudden it dawned upon her that she would give much to look into his honest gray eyes again and feel the clasp of his strong, friendly hand.
"Miss Harlowe, shall we sing for you?" Anna May wisely noted that Miss Harlowe had begun to look "sad" again.
"We learned such a pretty new song in school," put in Elizabeth. "Anna May can play it on the piano, too. Would you like us to sing it, Miss Harlowe?"
"Yes, do sing it," urged Grace, but her thoughts were far from her obliging visitors.
The children trotted over to the piano, and after a false start or two, Anna May played the opening bars of the song. Then the two childish voices rang out:
"The year's at the spring And day's at the morn: Morning's at seven; The hillside's dew-pearled; The lark's on the wing; The snail's on the thorn: God's in his heaven— All's right with the world!"
Grace listened with a sinking heart. The joy of Browning's exquisite lines from "Pippa Passes" cut into her very soul. All was not right with her world. Everything had gone wrong. She had chosen work instead of love, and what it brought her? She had believed that in rejecting Tom's love for her work she had definitely and forever solved her problem. Now it confronted her afresh. She understood too well the meaning of that strange fear which had obsessed her ever since her return home. Now she knew why the memory of Tom had so persistently haunted her, and why her friendly interest in his welfare had grown to be a heavy anxiety as to whether all was well with him. Wholly against her will she had done that which she had insisted she could never do. She had fallen in love with Tom. But her awakening had come too late. Tom had gone away to forget her. He would never know that she loved him, for she could never, never tell him. On the night of Jessica's wedding, when they had strolled up the walk to the house in the moonlight, he had said with an air of conviction, which then made her smile, that there would come a time when even work could not crowd out love. His prophecy had come true, but it meant nothing to either she or Tom now, for it had come true too late.
KATHLEEN WEST MAKES A PROMISE
On Grace's return to Overton and Harlowe House from her Easter vacation she plunged into her work with feverish energy. She wished, if possible, to free herself of this strange, unbidden love for Tom which seemed to grow and deepen with every passing day, and which made her utterly miserable. Then, too, she did not know when the dreaded summons might come from Miss Wharton, and she longed to do as much as she could for her girls while the opportunity was yet hers. It was with this spirit that she entered into the plans for their revue, which was to be given in Greek Hall, and from the number of tickets already sold promised to be a sweeping success.
Arline and Elfreda had accepted their invitations with alacrity, promising to come to Overton several days beforehand for the purpose of making Grace a visit. The girls who were to take part in the revue were using every spare moment to perfect themselves in their parts and specialties, and every night the living room was the scene of much rehearsing.
According to information received from Emma, Miss Wharton was not filling Miss Wilder's place with signal success. She had shown herself to be not only extremely narrow-minded, but quarrelsome as well. She had antagonized more than one member of the faculty by either tactlessly criticising their methods of instruction, or seeking to force them into open dispute. Being only human, those whom she sought to humble retaliated by taking advantage of her recent assumption of the duties of dean to make her college path as thorny as circumstances would admit, and Miss Wharton was obliged to put aside all else, including the judgment she intended to pass upon Grace, in a powerful contention for supremacy over those who had worsted her in sundry college matters.
Grace did not flatter herself that this state of affairs could last; she was certain that, sooner or later, the blow would fall, but she wisely resolved to put the whole unhappy business from her mind and make hay while her brief college sun still shone.
The arrival of Elfreda Briggs and Arline Thayer three days before the date set for the entertainment made things seem like old times.
"It certainly does you a world of good to have Elfreda and Arline here, Gracious," observed Emma Dean as she stopped in the doorway of Grace's little office on her way to her room from her morning recitations.
"I can't bear to think of their leaving me," smiled Grace, looking up from the account book on her desk. Her face had partially regained its former light and sparkle. "They are coming here to luncheon to-day. Did you know it?"
"Yes, I saw J. Elfreda on my way across the campus this morning. They ought to be here soon now."
A ring of the bell, answered by the maid, and the sound of Arline's clear tones, mingled with Elfreda's deeper ones, proclaimed the arrival of the two Sempers. The luncheon bell rang almost directly afterward, so the four friends had time only to exchange salutations before going to the table.
"Do you know, girls, I can't get used to Overton without Miss Wilder," declared Arline Thayer as they seated themselves at Grace's table, which had been set for four. "I keep looking about me, expecting to meet her at any minute. You must miss her dreadfully, Grace."
"I do miss her more than I can say," replied Grace briefly. The haunting shadow lurked for an instant in her gray eyes, then she began to talk with forced vivacity of the coming revue.
But one pair of keen eyes had seen that shadow, and that pair of eyes belonged to J. Elfreda Briggs. "I wonder what ails Grace?" was her thought, "It's something about Miss Wilder's not being here, I'm pretty certain." She resolved to make inquiries concerning the new dean and made an excuse to accompany Emma across the campus after luncheon, leaving Arline and Grace together.
"What's the matter with Grace?" was her abrupt question the instant they had left Harlowe House behind them. "I could see that she wasn't quite her old self at luncheon to-day."
"I believe you 'could see' in the dark or with your eyes shut or even if you had no eyes," teased Emma.
"Then there is something bothering her," said Elfreda triumphantly. "I knew it."
"Yes, there is. I wish I might tell you," returned Emma slowly, "but I am in Grace's confidence. It wouldn't be a bad idea for you to ask her, though. If she would tell you, you might be able to suggest something helpful. I'll just say this much. It's very serious."
"All right, I'll ask her. If she tells me, I'll talk things over with you afterward. If she doesn't, then forget that I asked you about it."
It was not until late that afternoon that she found her opportunity to question Grace. Arline had left her to make a call upon Myra Stone, now a senior, and Elfreda and Grace sat side by side on Grace's favorite bench that stood under the giant elm at one end of the campus.
"Grace," Elfreda's matter-of-fact tones broke a brief silence that had fallen upon the two young women. "What has happened to hurt you?"
Grace started slightly. Her color receded, leaving her very pale. Then she said simply, "I suppose you 'could see,' Elfreda."
"Yes; I've been 'seeing' ever since I came. I wish you would tell me about it. Perhaps I can help you."
Grace shook her head. "No one can help me. I'll just say this. Don't be surprised at anything you may hear a little later. But please remember one thing, Elfreda. Whatever I have done since I became the manager of Harlowe House I have done always with the highest interests of my girls at heart."
"I guess we all know that," retorted Elfreda. "I'll remember what you say, though. I'm sorry I can't help you. You didn't mind my asking, did you?"
"You know I didn't. It was affection that prompted the question." Grace reached out to pat her friend's hand. J. Elfreda caught Grace's hand in hers.
Again silence reigned. They sat gazing across the campus, their hands still joined. Grace was thinking that she could not endure telling even Elfreda of the cloud that hung over her, while J. Elfreda Briggs was registering a vow to find some means of helping Grace in spite of herself.
"I must go, Elfreda," said Grace at last, rising from the seat. "I am anxious to have dinner over a little earlier to-night on account of the dress rehearsal in Greek Hall. Let me see, who is the person to be favored with your company at dinner?"
"I'm going to take dinner at Wayne Hall with Kathleen. We'll meet at the dress rehearsal." Elfreda rose, and the two sauntered across the campus to the point where their paths diverged.
After stopping for a little chat with Mrs. Elwood, Elfreda climbed the stairs to the room at the end of the hall, where she received a most vociferous welcome from Kathleen and Patience. But the moment they settled down to conversation Elfreda said solemnly, "Girls, something is breaking Grace Harlowe's proud heart. Emma knows, but she is Grace's only confidante. I asked Grace point blank, this afternoon, to tell me, but she wouldn't. It has something to do with that Miss Wharton, the new dean. Whatever it is, you know, as well as I, that Grace isn't likely to be in the wrong. If I were going to stay here at Overton, a little longer, I'd find out all about it."
"You could see," murmured Patience.
"Yes, I could," declared Elfreda with a good-natured grin. "But so long as I can't be here to see, I'm going to pass the job along to you, Kathleen. I'm sure that if any one can find out the cause of poor Grace's woes it will be you. Go after it and run it down just as you would a big story, and if you can find and kill the wicked monster and make the princess happy again, well, there isn't anything that J. Elfreda Briggs won't do for you."
"I'll do it," vowed Kathleen, setting her sharp little chin at a resolute angle.
"You can't lose much time, either. College closes the second week in June," reminded Elfreda.
"Trust me to find out before that time."
Having disposed of this important matter, J. Elfreda's gravity vanished and she became her usual funny self again. The three girls had a merry time together and set off for the dress rehearsal in high spirits.
When they reached Greek Hall they found that Grace and Arline had already arrived and were sitting far back in the hall watching a sextette of girls in smart white linen skirts, blue serge coats and straw hats, banded with blue ribbon, who were down on the programme for a song entitled "Our Fraternity Friends," the number ending with a gay little dance taught them by Hilda Moore.
"Aren't they clever?" asked Grace eagerly, turning to Kathleen. The three young women had made their way to where she was seated. "They only began practicing that dance last week. Miss Moore taught them. She dances beautifully."
The rehearsal proceeded without a hitch. Arline and Elfreda, being sure of themselves, did not take part in it. Kathleen West's clever one-act play, "In the Days of Shakespeare," was worthy of her genius. It presented the scene from the "Taming of the Shrew," where Petruchio ridicules Katherine's gown and berates the tailor. This scene was enacted in accordance with the Elizabethan age, when the nobility were permitted to take seats on the stage with the actors, the latter being obliged to step around and over that part of the audience in order to make their entrances and exits. These favored nobles had also the privilege of expressing freely their opinions of the merits of the long-suffering mummers, which they usually did in a loud voice. Kathleen had made a careful study of the conditions prevailing in the theatre at that period, and the little play was most mirth provoking from beginning to end.
Mary Reynolds had also scored in the pathetic playlet, "The Freshman on the Top Floor," depicting a lonely little girl whose poverty and diffidence kept her out of the carefree college life that went on in the house where she lived. Cecil Ferris essayed the role of the freshman.
The last number on the programme was Jean Brent's solo. After considerable coaxing Louise had persuaded her to sing, and Gertrude Earle accompanied her on the piano. Grace felt her brief resentment against the girl vanish as she listened to her glorious voice which had a suspicion of tragedy in it.
There was a certain amount of lingering on the part of the performers to talk over the success of the dress rehearsal, but at last they all trooped across the campus to Harlowe House.
By curious chance Evelyn Ward found herself walking directly behind Jean Brent. She had been greatly affected by her singing. Obeying a sudden impulse, she leaned forward and touched Jean's arm. "Can't we be friends again, Jean," she said wistfully. "I—I love your voice, and I care so much for you. There isn't much of the year left and——"
Jean's blue eyes grew strangely soft. "It was all my fault," she said huskily. "Let's begin over again, Evelyn." And under the stars they made a new and truer covenant.
FIGHTING LOYALHEART'S BATTLE
The revue was an unqualified success. Greek Hall was filled to overflowing, and the money fairly poured into the box office for the Harlowe House fund. There was a general rejoicing the next day among the performers, and the same night a social session was held in the living room at Harlowe House. To Grace it seemed as though she had been wafted back once more to the dear dead days when the Sempers had held forth. The presence of Arline and Elfreda was the last touch needed to complete the illusion, and she went about her work feeling happier than she had for a long time. Even the shadow cast upon her heart by Tom's absence seemed less gloomy.
But on the heels of her brief elation trod disaster. Miss Wharton had chosen to become highly incensed because she had not been consulted in regard to the holding of the entertainment, and the long-suspended sword fell. The revue had been given on Wednesday evening, and on Friday morning Jean had received a note summoning her to Miss Wharton's office. This time Miss Wharton intended to interview the two young women separately. She believed that Jean would reveal what she had hitherto kept a secret if Grace were not present. With unreasonable prejudice she chose to place the brunt of Jean's refusal to speak upon Grace's shoulders.
Jean obeyed the summons and came away from Overton Hall with a white, set face. Almost the first person she encountered on the campus was Evelyn, who was hurrying to one of her classes, and in her anguish of mind she poured forth the whole bitter story to her roommate.
"Oh, Jean, why didn't you tell me this before," cried Evelyn. "I never knew until the night of the dress rehearsal that things were not going smoothly for Miss Harlowe. Kathleen West told me in confidence that something was wrong, and asked me to find out anything I could concerning it and let her know. We must go straight to her and tell her everything. She can help us if any one can. Just for once I'll cut my English recitation. Come on. Oh, I do hope Kathleen is at home."
But Kathleen was not at Wayne Hall, and after some parleying the two girls concluded to wait until she returned from her classes to her luncheon. It was ten o'clock when they rang the bell of the college house where Grace had spent four happy years, and for the next hour and a half they waited in an agony of suspense. When Kathleen arrived they hurried her off to her room and proceeded to acquaint her with all the facts in their possession concerning the misfortune so soon to overtake Grace.
Kathleen listened to them without comment. When they had finished talking she asked one sharp question, "Do you know Miss Wilder's address?"
Neither girl knew it, but Evelyn was seized with a bright idea. "Hilda Moore knows it. I am sure she does."
"Then hurry to Overton Hall and get it from her," ordered Kathleen. "I'm going to send a telegram. Are you sure Miss Wharton hasn't sent for Grace yet?"
"Yes, yes. She said she intended to send for Miss Harlowe to-morrow morning. Evidently she has a reason of her own for not sending for her to-day," was Jean's eager response. "But she is going to report us to President Morton and the Board within the next day or so."
"Good-bye. I'll be back directly." Evelyn dashed out of the room and down the stairs on her errand.
Twenty minutes later she returned. "Here it is," she handed it to the newspaper girl.
Kathleen had not taken off her hat since her arrival at Wayne Hall. "Come on, girls," she said. "You must go home and have your luncheon. Just leave everything to me. I think I can promise Miss Wharton a surprise."
"What did she say to you, Jean?" asked Evelyn as they left Kathleen at the corner, headed for the telegraph office, and went on to Harlowe House.
"What didn't she say. She is going to send me away if she can. I told her everything, but it only made matters worse. I said over and over again that Miss Harlowe was not to blame, but she grew harder every minute. How I despise her." Jean shuddered with disgust. "All this is merely an excuse to oust Miss Harlowe. Why she doesn't like her, goodness knows. What is Miss West going to do, I wonder?"
"Telegraph Miss Wilder for one thing. Still, she can't write or come here in time to save Miss Harlowe," declared Evelyn. "Hilda knows about it. She said Miss Wharton dictated a perfectly horrid letter to Mrs. Gray, too, about Miss Harlowe this morning."
"Oh, dear," half sobbed Jean. "It's dreadful, and it's all my fault."
Evelyn did not answer. She could not help feeling that Jean deserved this bitter moment.
"Shall you tell Miss Harlowe?" asked Evelyn as they hurriedly ascended the steps.
When they entered the dining room, for luncheon they learned to their utter consternation that Grace had gone for the day to visit a classmate in Westbrook and would not return until after dinner that night. In the meantime Kathleen West had hurried to the telegraph office and despatched the following message to Miss Wilder. "Wire President Morton, delay action, charges made by Miss Wharton against Grace Harlowe, until word from you. Letter will follow. Answer. Kathleen West."
"There," she chuckled when she heard the tap of the operator's machine, "that will help a little. Never mind the expense."
She was late to luncheon, and therefore missed Patience, but toward the close of the afternoon they met, and Kathleen took her into her confidence. All evening the two girls remained in the living room listening intently for the ring of the bell that might mean an answer to Kathleen's urgent message. At ten minutes to nine Kathleen said wearily. "It's too late to hear to-night. The telegraph office closes at nine o'clock. The answer will come in the morning. Even as she spoke, the door bell rang loudly. Pale and trembling with suspense, she herself answered the door. Hastily signing the messenger boy's book she closed the door on his retreating back and returned to the living room, nervously tearing open the envelope as she walked. Then she cried out in surprise.
"What is it?" questioned Patience in alarm.
Kathleen held out to her the disquieting bit of yellow paper. "Don't be frightened. It's good news. See." Patience read over her shoulder. "Start east to-day. Recovered. Don't write. Reach Overton Friday week. Keep secret. Telegraphed president. Katherine Wilder."
"Hurrah, we've saved the day," rejoiced Kathleen.
"And Kathleen West and Evelyn Ward have left milestones worth leaving along College Lane," reminded Patience with a smile that was very near to tears.
* * * * *
Grace returned to Harlowe House from Westbrook at a little after eight o'clock in the evening. She found Jean Brent anxiously awaiting her arrival, and at Jean's request they went at once to her room, where Jean acquainted her with the bad news.
Grace listened with compressed lips, saying nothing.
Jean wound up her narration with, "I know it is all my fault, Miss Harlowe, but truly I tried to make things come right for you. I told Miss Wharton all about myself and tried to make her understand that you weren't in the least to blame for my misdeeds. But I only made matters worse. She is contemptible." Jean's voice vibrated with bitter scorn.
"I thank you for defending me." Grace spoke unemotionally. "I hope that President Morton will overlook the charge against you. I must go now. I wish to be alone. I must decide what I am to do. Good night." She had remained standing near the door during Jean's recital, now she opened it and walked slowly down the hall to her own door.
She entered her pretty room as one might enter a chamber of death. So the end had come. Well, she would meet it with a stout heart and a clear conscience. But she would not wait for Miss Wharton to charge her with being unfit for the trust Mrs. Gray had reposed in her. She stepped to the library table and, opening a drawer, took out a sheet of her own monogrammed stationery and an envelope. Seating herself at the table, she took her pen from its rack. After a little thought she began writing in the clear, strong hand that characterized her. Her letter consisted of not more than a dozen lines. When she had finished she sealed, stamped, and addressed it to President Morton with a firm, unfaltering hand.
Wrapping a light scarf about her shoulders, she stole softly downstairs and outdoors without being observed by the knot of girls in the living room. Crossing the campus, she dropped her letter into the post box at the farther side, nearest the street. Then she walked slowly back, stopping at her favorite bench under the giant elm. The moon, almost at the full, flooded the wide green stretch with her pale radiance. The fringed arms of the old elm waved her a gentle welcome.
Grace sank upon the rustic seat racked with many emotions. How often she had sat there and dreamed of what her work was to be, and now, just as she had begun to reap the glory of it, it was to be snatched from her.
The soft beauty of the spring night coupled with the ordeal through which she had just passed filled her with an unspeakable sadness. She bowed her head upon her hands, but her thoughts lay too deep for tears. Yet even while she sat for the last time in the spot she loved so dearly, Kathleen West and Patience Eliot were standing side by side reading the telegram that was to bring light out of darkness.
GRACE SOLVES HER PROBLEM
Grace waited impatiently for an answer to her letter of resignation. She expected hourly a summons to President Morton's office, but it did not come. It was now six days since Jean Brent's interview with Miss Wharton. Surely the dean had long since executed her threat to humiliate and depose Grace from the position of which she had been so proud. Then why did not President Morton take action at once and end this torturing suspense? Grace could not answer this question. She could only wonder and wait.
But while she wondered and waited Kathleen West was leaving no stone unturned. In the championing of Grace's rights she did nothing by halves. The very next morning after receiving Miss Wilder's telegram she marched boldly into President Morton's office for a private interview with that dignified gentleman. Her newspaper experience had taught her how to gain an audience with the most difficult persons. She had little trouble in obtaining admittance to the president's private office. It was a long interview, lasting, at least, a half hour, and when Kathleen rose to go President Morton shook her hand and bowed her out in his most amiable manner.
From Overton Hall she went directly to the telegraph office and sent another telegram. This time it was addressed to Mrs. Rose Gray, Oakdale, N.Y., and read: "Come to Overton, but fix arrival Friday. Grace needs you. Serious. Wire train. Meet you. Kathleen West."
By five o'clock that afternoon she had received this answer: "Arrive Friday, 9.20 P.M. Arrange for me, Tourraine. Rose Gray," and was triumphantly showing it to Patience Eliot and planning her work of vindication in Grace's behalf.
But while her friends were busying themselves in her cause Grace was engaged in packing her two trunks and arranging her affairs at Harlowe House. So far as she knew, Emma Dean and Jean Brent, alone, were aware of what was about to happen. Jean, whose fate still hung in the balance, went about looking pale and forlorn. Being in Kathleen's confidence, Evelyn had not informed her roommate of the secret work that was being done in behalf of Grace. She understood that Jean was suffering acutely, and longed to tell her that all promised well for Grace, but not for worlds would she have betrayed Kathleen's confidence.
Emma Dean had learned of the mailing of Grace's resignation from Grace herself when she had returned to Harlowe House late that same evening. For once her flow of cheer had failed her, and she had broken down and cried disconsolately. For the next two days she had been unconsolable. Her bitterness against Miss Wharton was so great that it distressed Grace, who sought in vain to comfort her. But on Monday afternoon she returned from her classes in a lighter, more cheerful frame of mind. In fact as the week progressed she appeared to have thrown off her sorrow and was as funny as ever.
Grace tried to be honestly glad that Emma's sorrow had been so short-lived, but she could not help feeling a little hurt to think that Emma, of all persons, should forget so quickly. Once or twice Emma caught the half reproachful gaze of her gray eyes, and had hard work to refrain from telling Grace that the hateful shadow was soon to be lifted. For Emma and Kathleen West had had a private confab, during which both girls had laughed and cried and laughed again in a most irrational manner.
So the week wore away, and Friday came and went, leaving Grace still waiting and dreading. If she had happened to pass the Hotel Tourraine at twenty-five minutes to ten on Friday evening she would have seen a taxicab drive up to the entrance and a sprightly, little old lady step out of it, assisted by a keen-faced, black-eyed young woman, who took her by the arm and hurried her into the hotel. And if she had been on the station platform when the 11.40 train from the west pulled in she would have eagerly welcomed the stately dark-eyed woman who signaled a taxicab and drove off up College Avenue.
Saturday morning dawned, clear and radiant. The glad light of early summer streamed in upon Grace. For a brief space she forgot her sorrows as she knelt at the open window and drank in the pure morning air. Then one by one they came back. She wondered whether the same sun were shining on Tom, far away in the jungle, and if he were well, and sometimes thought of her. How happy she might have made him and herself if only she had not been so blind. Through the bitterness of being found wanting she had come to realize what a wonderful thing it was to be truly loved. Never had the love of her parents and friends for her seemed so sacred. And how beautiful, how steadfast, Tom's affection for her had been! With a sigh she turned her thoughts away from that lost happiness. Now came the old torturing question, "Would the summons come to-day?"
She was still brooding over it when she went downstairs to breakfast. Stopping in her office, she hastily went over her mail. It was with a sense of desperate relief that she separated an envelope, bearing the letter head of Overton College from the little pile of letters on the slide of her desk, and opened it. It was from President Morton, and merely stated that he wished her to call at his office at eleven o'clock that morning.