"I don't know," said Grace slowly. "That is a question that no one save Marian can settle. I don't wish to seem hateful, Marian, but to tell you the truth, I wasn't favorably impressed with Mr. Hammond. Besides, he is ever so much older than you are. He must be at least twenty-five years old."
"He is twenty-nine," replied Marian coldly. "And I am glad that he isn't as young and foolish as most of the boys I have met."
"Does your mother know how you happened to meet him?" asked Jessica unthinkingly.
But this was a little too much. Marian rose to her feet, her voice choking with anger. "I don't blame Eleanor Savelli for calling you busy-bodies," she said. "And I shall be infinitely obliged to you if you will in future look to your own affairs and stop criticizing me."
With these words she rushed from the room, seized her wraps and was out on the street before any of the remaining girls had fully comprehended what had happened.
THE JUDGE'S HOUSE PARTY
"There is nothing like congenial company when one travels," remarked Hippy Wingate, favoring his friends with a patronizing smile. "Now, when I came home from college I was obliged to consort with such grouches as David Nesbit and Reddy Brooks, who made me keep quiet when I wished to speak, and speak when I fain would have slept. But, observe the difference, all these fresh and charming damsels—"
"Charming we are, beyond a doubt," interrupted Nora O'Malley, "but fresh—never. The only fresh person aboard is named Wingate."
"If you two are going to disagree we'll bundle you both into the baggage car and let you fight it out," warned David. "Hippy ought to be exiled to that particular spot for having reviled Reddy and me."
"Keep quiet, Nora," said Hippy in a stage whisper. "We are in the hands of desperadoes."
It was a merry party who were speeding along their way to the state capital, for a wonderful visit was to be paid and the Phi Sigma Tau and their friends were to pay it. In short, Judge Putnam had invited them to spend Christmas at his beautiful home in the capital city, and for eight happy days they were to be his guests.
It was in reality Grace's party. The judge had written her, asking her to select as many guests as she chose. She had also received a prettily worded note from his sister, who had chaperoned them the previous summer in the Adirondacks, and who had taken charge of the judge's home in the capital for years.
Grace had at once invited the Phi Sigma Tau, and dispatched special delivery letters to Hippy, David and Reddy, not forgetting Tom Gray and Arnold Evans.
In order to make an even number of boys and girls, Grace had invited James Gardiner, an Oakdale boy, and last of all, very reluctantly, had sent a note to Mr. Henry Hammond.
This she had done solely to appease Marian Barber's wounded pride. For a week after the day that Marian had rushed angrily out of Grace's house, she had refused to go near her sorority. But one afternoon the six girls, headed by Grace, waylaid her as she was leaving the school and after much coaxing Marian allowed herself to be brought to a more reasonable frame of mind.
Then Grace, who honestly regretted having hurt Marian's feelings, had made an extra effort to treat Mr. Hammond cordially when they chanced to meet, and her friends had followed her example.
In spite of their feeling of dislike for him, they were forced to acknowledge that he seemed well-bred, was a young man of apparently good habits and that Oakdale people were rapidly taking him up. Grace privately thought Marian entirely too young to receive the attentions of a man so much older than herself, but Marian's father and mother permitted it, therefore Grace felt that she had no right to judge or object.
The longest journey seems brief when beguiled by gay companions, and the time slipped by like magic. It was with genuine surprise that the little party heard their station called. There was a great scurrying about for their various belongings, and well laden with suit cases and traveling bags the party hustled out of the train and were met on the platform by the judge's chauffeur, who conducted them to two waiting automobiles.
Off they whirled and in an incredibly short time the two machines drew up before the judge's stately home, where lights gleamed from every window. The guests alighted with much laughter and noise, and in a twinkling the massive front door opened and Judge Putnam appeared.
"Welcome, welcome!" he cried. "Now I am sure to have a Merry Christmas. I don't see how your fathers and mothers could spare you, and I owe them a debt of gratitude. Come in, come in. Here, Mary, are your children again."
The judge's sister came forward and greeted the young people warmly, kissing each girl in turn and shaking hands with the boys. Mr. Hammond and James Gardiner were duly presented to the judge and his sister, and then the boys were shown to their rooms by one of the servants, while Miss Putnam herself conducted the girls to theirs.
"We usually dine between seven and seven-thirty, my dears," said Miss Putnam, as they ascended. "I will send my maid, Annette, to you. Will you have separate rooms, or do you wish to do as you did last summer?"
"Oh, let two of us room together," said Grace eagerly. "But still, that isn't fair, for it will leave an odd one. You know we had Mabel with us last summer."
"Dear little Mabel," said Miss Putnam. "I am sure you must miss her greatly. Her finding of her mother was very wonderful. I received a letter from her last week. She says she is very happy, but that she misses her Oakdale friends, particularly Jessica."
"She is coming east for commencement," said Jessica with a wistful smile. "No one knows how much I miss her."
"Let us settle the question of rooms at once," interposed Grace, who knew that whenever the conversation turned to Mabel, Jessica invariably was attacked with the blues. "Who is willing to room alone?"
"I am," replied Miriam Nesbit, "only I stipulate that I be allowed to pay nocturnal visits to the rest of you whenever I get too bored with my own society."
"Very well, then," replied Grace. "How shall we arrange it?"
"You and Anne take one room, then," said Nora rather impatiently, "Jessica and I another and that leaves Marian and Eva together. Do hurry up about it, for I want to get the soot off my face, and the cinders out of my eyes."
The question of roommates being thus settled, the girls trooped into the rooms assigned them and began to dress for dinner. The matter of gowns had been discussed by the girls when the judge's invitation had first arrived. As they were to remain for a week, they would need trunks, but for the first dinner, in case the trunks did not arrive on time, it had been agreed that they each carry one simple gown in their suit cases.
Grace and Anne had both chosen white, Jessica a dainty flowered organdie, and Nora a pale pink dimity. Eva Allen also had selected white. Marian Barber alone refused to give her friends any satisfaction as to what she intended to wear. "Wait and see," she had answered. "I want my gown to be a complete surprise to all of you."
"How funny Marian acted about her gown," remarked Grace to Anne, as she fastened the last button on the latter's waist. The maid sent by Miss Putnam had offered her services, but the girls, wishing to be alone, had not required them.
"Yes," responded Anne. "I don't understand her at all of late. She has changed a great deal, and I believe it is due to the influence of that horrid Henry Hammond. I simply can't like that man."
"Nor I," said Grace. "It requires an effort on my part to be civil to him. I think, too, that the boys are not favorably impressed with him, although they are too polite to say so."
"I believe in first impressions," remarked Anne. "I think that nine times out of ten they are correct. I may be doing the man an injustice, but I can't help it. Every time that I talk with him I feel that he is playing a part, that underneath his polish he has a cruel, relentless nature."
"Are you girls ready!" called Nora's voice just outside their door.
"In a minute," answered Grace, and with a last glance at the mirror she and Anne stepped into the hall, where Nora, Jessica and Eva Allen stood waiting.
"Where's Marian?" asked Grace, noticing her absence.
"Don't ask me," said Eva, in a tone bordering on disgust. "She won't be out for some time."
"Shall we wait for her?" inquired Anne.
"No," replied Eva shortly. "Let us go, and don't ask me anything about her. When she does finally appear you'll understand."
"This sounds very mysterious," said Miriam Nesbit, who in a white dotted Swiss, with a sprig of holly in her black braids, looked particularly handsome. "Come on, girls, shall we go down?"
The six girls descended to the drawing room, looking the very incarnation of youth and charming girlhood, and the judge's eyes brightened at sight of them.
"A rosebud garden of girls," he cried gallantly, "but I seem to miss some one. Where is the seventh rosebud?"
"Marian will be here directly," said Grace, as they gathered about the big fireplace until dinner should be announced.
But ten minutes went by, and Marian still lingered.
"Dinner is served," announced the old butler.
The girls exchanged furtive glances, the judge looked rather uncomfortable, while Mr. Henry Hammond frowned openly.
Then there was another ten minutes' wait, that the girls tried to cover with conversation. Then—a rustle of silken skirts and a figure appeared in the archway that caused those assembled to stare in sheer amazement.
Was this fashionably attired person plain every-day Marian Barber? Her hair was drawn high upon her head, and topped with a huge cluster of false puffs, which made her look several years older than she had appeared in the afternoon, while her gown of blue satin was cut rather too low for a young girl, and had mere excuses in the way of sleeves. To cap the climax, however, it had a real train that persisted in getting in her way every time she attempted to move.
For a full minute no one spoke. Grace had an almost irrepressible desire to laugh aloud, as she caught the varied expressions on the faces of her friends. Mr. Hammond alone appeared unmoved. Grace fancied that she even detected a gleam of approval in his eyes as he glanced toward Marian.
"Shall we dine!" asked the judge, offering his arm to Grace, while Tom Gray escorted Miss Putnam, the other young men following with their friends.
The dinner passed off smoothly, although there was a curious constraint fell upon the young people that nothing could dispel.
Marian's gown had indeed proved a surprise to her young friends, and they could not shake off a certain sense of mortification at her lack of good taste.
"How could Marian Barber be so ridiculous, and why did her mother ever allow her to dress herself like that?" thought Grace as she glanced at Marian, who was simpering at some remark that Mr. Henry Hammond was making to her in a voice too low for the others to hear.
Then Grace suddenly remembered that Marian's mother had left Oakdale three weeks before on a three months' visit to a sister in a distant city.
"That deceitful old Henry Hammond is at the bottom of this," Grace decided. "He has probably put those ideas of dressing up into Marian's head. She needs some one to look after her. I'll ask mother if she can stay with me until her mother returns, that is if I can persuade her to come."
"Come out of your brown study, Grace," called Hippy. "I want you to settle an argument that has arisen between Miss O'Malley and myself. Never before have we had an argument. Timid, gentle creature that she is, she has always deferred to my superior intellect, but now—"
"Yes," retorted Nora scornfully, "now, he has been routed with slaughter, and so he has to call upon other people to rescue him from the fruits of his own folly."
"I am not asking aid," averred Hippy with dignity. "I plead for simple justice."
"Simple, indeed," interrupted David with a twinkle in his eye.
"I see very plainly," announced Hippy, "that I shall have to drop this O'Malley affair and defend myself against later unkind attacks. But first I shall eat my dessert, then I shall have greater strength to renew the fray."
"Then my services as a settler of arguments are not required," laughed Grace.
"Postponed, merely postponed," assured Hippy, and devoted himself assiduously to his dessert, refusing to be beguiled into further conversation.
Dinner over, the entire party repaired once more to the drawing room, where the young people performed for the judge's especial benefit the stunts for which they were already famous.
Much to Grace's annoyance, Henry Hammond attached himself to her, and try as she might she could not entirely rid herself of his attentions without absolute rudeness. Tom Gray looked a trifle surprised at this, and Marian Barber seemed openly displeased. Grace felt thoroughly out of patience, when toward the close of the evening, he approached her as she stood looking at a Japanese curio, and said:
"I wish to thank you, Miss Harlowe, for inviting me to become a member of this house party. I appreciate your invitation more than I can say."
"I hope you will enjoy yourself, Mr. Hammond," replied Grace rather coldly.
"There is little doubt of that," was the ready answer. "How well Marian is looking to-night. I am surprised at the difference a really grown-up gown makes in her."
Grace glanced at Marian, who in her eyes looked anything but well.
"Mr. Hammond," she said slowly, looking straight at him. "I do not in the least agree with you. Marian is not yet eighteen, and to-night she looks like anything but the school-girl that she did this afternoon. If her mother were at home I am sure that she would never allow Marian to have such a gown made, and I cannot fully understand what mischievous influence prompted her to make herself appear so utterly ridiculous to-night."
"Miss Harlowe," said the young man, his face darkening ominously, "your tone is decidedly offensive. Do I understand you to insinuate that I have in any way influenced Miss Barber as to her manner of dress?"
"I insinuate nothing," replied Grace, rather contemptuously. "If the coat fits you wear it."
"Miss Harlowe," answered the young man almost savagely, "I cannot understand why, after having included me in this house party, you deliberately insult me; but I advise you to be more careful in the future as to your remarks or I shall be tempted to forget the courtesy due a young woman, and repay you in your own coin."
"Mr. Hammond," replied Grace with cold scorn, "I acknowledge that my last remark to you was exceedingly rude, but nothing can palliate the offense of your reply. As a matter of interest, let me state that I am not in the least alarmed at your threat, for only a coward would ever attempt to bully a girl."
With these words Grace moved quickly away, leaving Mr. Henry Hammond to digest her answer as best he might.
CHRISTMAS WITH JUDGE
It was Christmas Eve, and the great soft flakes of snow that fell continuously gave every indication of a white Christmas. The north wind howled and blustered through the tree tops, making the judge and his young guests congratulate themselves on being safely sheltered from the storm.
The day had been clear and cold, and the entire party had driven on bob-sleds to the strip of woods just outside the town, where the boys had cut down a Christmas tree, and had brought it triumphantly home, while the girls had piled the sleds with evergreens and ground pine. On the return a stop had been made at the market, and great quantities of holly had been bought. Even the sprig of mistletoe for the chandelier in the hall had not been forgotten.
"We'll hurry up and get everything ready before the judge comes in," planned Grace. "We'll put this mistletoe right here, and Nora, you must see to it that you lead him over until he stands directly under it. Then we will all surround him. Miriam, will you tell Miss Putnam? We want her to be in it, too."
The young folks worked untiringly and a little before five the last trail of ground pine was in place, and the decorators stood back and reviewed their work with pride.
The great hall and drawing room had been transformed into a veritable corner of the forest, and the red holly berries peeping out from the green looked like little flame-colored heralds of Christmas. Here and there a poinsettia made a gorgeous blot of color, while on an old-fashioned mahogany what-not stood an immense bowl of deep-red roses, the joint contribution of the Phi Sigma Tau.
"It looks beautiful," sighed Jessica, "we really ought to feel proud of ourselves."
The entire party was grouped about the big drawing room.
"I am always proud of myself," asserted Hippy. "In the first place there is a great deal of me to be proud of; and in the second place I don't believe in hiding my light under a bushel."
"Now Jessica, you have started him," said David with a groan. "He'll talk about himself for an hour unless Reddy and I lead him out."
"I dare you to lead me out," defied Hippy.
"I never take a dare," replied David calmly, making a lunge for Hippy. "Come on, Reddy."
Reddy sprang forward and Hippy was hustled out, chanting as he went:
"Now children do not blame me, for I have so much to say, That from myself I really cannot tear myself away,"
and remained outside for the space of two minutes, when he suddenly reappeared wearing Grace's coat and Miriam Nesbit's plumed hat and performed a wild dance down the middle of the room that made his friends shriek with laughter.
"Hippy, when will you be good?" inquired Miriam, as she rescued her hat, and smoothed its ruffled plumes.
"Never, I hope," replied Hippy promptly.
"That's the judge's ring," cried Grace as the sound of the bell echoed through the big room, and the guests flocked into the hall to welcome their host.
"This is what I call a warm reception," laughed Judge Putnam, as he stood surrounded by laughing faces.
"I claim the privilege of escorting Judge Putnam down the hall," cried Nora, and she conducted him directly to where the mistletoe hung.
"I must be an object of envy to you young men," chuckled the judge, as he walked unsuspectingly to his fate.
"The mistletoe! The mistletoe! You're standing under the mistletoe!" was the cry and the seven girls and Miss Putnam joined hands and circled around the judge. Then each girl in turn stepped up and imprinted a kiss on the good old judge's cheek.
"Well, I never!" exclaimed the old gentleman, but there were tears in his blue eyes and his voice trembled as he said to his sister, who was the last to salute him, "It takes me back over the years, Mary."
It was a merry party that ran upstairs to dress for dinner that night, and the spirit of Christmas seemed to have settled down upon the judge's borrowed household.
The only thing that had dimmed Grace Harlowe's pleasure in the least was the passage at arms that had occurred between herself and Henry Hammond. Grace's conscience smote her. She felt that she should not have spoken to him as she had, even though she disliked him. To be sure, his remark about Marian's gown had caused her inwardly to accuse him of influencing Marian to make herself ridiculous in the eyes of her friends, but she could not forgive herself for having unthinkingly spoken as she had done.
After due reflection Grace decided that she had acted unwisely, and made up her mind that she would try to make amends for her unkind retort. She decided, however, to see if she could not persuade Marian to go back to her usual style of dress.
Grace hurried through her dressing, and looking very sweet and wholesome in her dainty blue organdie, knocked at the door of the room occupied by Marian and Eva Allen.
"Come in," cried Eva's voice, and Grace entered, to find Eva completely dressed in a pretty white pongee, eyeing with great disfavor the tight-fitting princess gown of black silk that the maid was struggling to hook Marian into.
"Marian!" exclaimed Grace. "What ever made you have a black evening gown? It makes you look years older than you are."
"That's exactly what I told her," said Eva Allen, "but she won't believe it."
Marian looked sulky, then said rather sullenly: "I really can't see what difference it makes to you girls what I wear. I haven't interfered with you in the matter of your gowns, have I?"
"No," replied Grace truthfully, "but Marian, I think the judge likes to see us in the simple evening dresses we have been accustomed to wearing, and as we are his guests we ought to try and please him. Besides, you would look so much better in your white embroidered dress, or your pink silk, that you wore to commencement last year."
"I don't agree with, you at all," replied Marian so stiffly that the maid smiled openly, as she put the final touches to Marian's hair preparatory to adjusting the cluster of puffs that had completed her astonishing coiffure the night before. "Furthermore, I have been assured by persons of extreme good taste that my new gowns give me a distinct individuality I have never before possessed."
"That person of extreme good taste is named Hammond," thought Grace. "That remark about 'individuality' sounds just like him. I'll make one more appeal to her."
Going over to where Marian stood viewing herself with satisfaction in the long mirror, Grace slipped her arm around her old friend.
"Listen, dear," she coaxed, "we mustn't quarrel on Christmas Eve. You know we are all Phi Sigma Taus and it seems so strange to see you looking so stately and grown up. Put on your white dress to-night, just to please me."
But Marian drew away from her, frowning angrily. "Really, Grace," she exclaimed, "you are too provoking for any use, and I wish you would mind your own business and let me wear what I choose."
"Please pardon me, Marian," said Grace, turning toward the door. "I am sorry to have troubled you," and was gone like a flash.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Marian Barber!" burst forth Eva. "The idea of telling Grace to mind her own business! You haven't been a bit like yourself lately, and I know that it's all on account of that Henry Hammond, the old snake."
"You will oblige me greatly, Eva, by referring more respectfully to my friend, Mr. Hammond," said Marian with offended dignity. Then she sailed out of the room, her train dragging half a yard behind her, while Eva turned to the mirror with a contemptuous sniff and powdered her little freckled nose almost savagely before following her irate roommate down stairs.
SANTA CLAUS VISITS THE JUDGE
The moment that dinner was over the judge was hustled into the library by Nora and Miriam, and informed by them that they constituted a committee of two to amuse him until eleven o'clock. He was their prisoner and they dared him to try to escape.
Next to Grace, Nora, with her rosy cheeks and ready Irish wit was perhaps the judge's favorite, while he had a profound admiration for stately Miriam; so he was well satisfied with his captors, who triumphantly conducted him to the drawing room, where Miriam played and Nora sang Irish ballads with a delicious brogue that completely captivated the old gentleman.
At eleven o'clock there was a great jingling of bells and into the room dashed Santa Claus, looking as fat and jolly as a story-book Kris Kringle.
"Merry Christmas," he cried in a high squeaky voice. "It's a little early to wish you Merry Christmas, judge, but I've an engagement in China at midnight so I thought I'd drop in here a trifle early, leave a few toys for you and your little playmates and be gone. I always make it a point to remember good little boys. So hurry up, everybody, and follow me, for I haven't long to stay."
With these words Kris Kringle dashed through the hall followed by the judge who, entering fully into the spirit of the affair, seized Nora and Miriam by the hand and the three raced after their strange visitor at full speed, catching up with him at the door of the dining room which was closed. Here Santa Claus paused and gave three knocks on the oak door.
"Who is there?" demanded a voice, that sounded like David Nesbit's.
"Kris Kringle and three good children."
"Enter into the realm of Christmas," answered the voice, and the door was flung open.
The sight that greeted them was sufficiently brilliant to dazzle their eyes for a moment. In one corner of the dining room stood the great tree, radiant with gilt and silver ornaments. At the top was a huge silver star, while the branches were wound with glittering tinsel, and heavily laden with beribboned bundles of all shapes and sizes, while the space around the base of the tree was completely filled with presents.
At one side of the tree stood a graceful figure clad in a white robe that glittered and sparkled as though covered with diamonds. She wore a gilt crown on her head and carried a scepter, while over her shoulder trailed a long garland of holly fastened with scarlet ribbons. It was Grace Harlowe in a robe made of cotton wadding thickly sprinkled with diamond dust, gotten up to represent the spirit of Christmas.
On the other side of the tree lay old Father Time, apparently fast asleep, his sickle by his side. His long white cotton beard flowed realistically down to his waist, and in his folded hands was a placard bearing these words, "Gone to sleep for the next hundred years," while in the opposite corner his sister and the rest of the guests had grouped themselves, and as the old gentleman stepped over the threshold, a chorus of laughing voices rang out:
"Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!"
Then Grace glided forward and escorted the judge to a sort of double throne that had been improvised from two easy chairs raised to a small platform constructed by the boys, and draped with the piano cover, and a couple of silken curtains, while Santa Claus performed the same office for Miss Putnam.
After they had been established with great pomp and ceremony, Santa Claus awoke Father Time by shaking him vigorously, apologizing to the company between each shake for doing so, and promising to put him to sleep the moment the festivities were over.
Then the fun of distributing the presents began, and for the next hour a great unwrapping and rattling of papers ensued, mingled with constant exclamations of surprise and delight from all present, as they opened and admired their gifts.
The judge was particularly pleased with the little personal gifts that the girls themselves had made for him, and exclaimed with the delight of a schoolboy as he opened each one. At last nothing remained save one rather imposing package.
"This must be something very remarkable," said the judge, as he untied the bow of scarlet ribbon and unwrapped the folds of tissue paper, disclosing a cut glass inkstand, with a heavy silver top, on which were engraved his initials in block letters.
There was a general murmur of admiration from all.
"Very fine, very fine," said the judge, picking up the card which read, "Merry Christmas, from Miss Barber."
"Miss Barber?" he repeated questioningly. Then it dawned upon him that this expensive gift was from one of his guests.
"Pardon me, my dear," he said turning to Marian, who looked half complacent, half embarrassed. "I am an old man and don't always remember names as well as I should. The beauty of your gift quite overcame me. Allow me to thank you and express my appreciation of it."
Marian smiled affectedly at the judge's words, in a manner so foreign to her former, blunt, good-natured self, that the girl chums watched her in silent amazement.
But the judge's inkstand was merely the fore-runner of surprises. A sudden cry from Grace attracted the attention of the others.
"Why, Marian Barber, what made you do it?"
Then other exclamations followed in quick succession as the Phi Sigma Taus rushed over to her in a body, each carrying a jeweler's box.
"You shouldn't have been so generous, Marian," said Grace. "I never dreamed of receiving this beautiful gold chain."
"Just look at my bracelet!" cried Jessica.
"And my lovely ring!" put in Nora.
"Not half so fine as my silver purse," commented Anne.
Miriam Nesbit was the recipient of a cut glass powder box with a silver top, while Eva Allen was in raptures over a gold chatelaine pin, that more than once she had vainly sighed for.
Even the boys had been so well remembered that they felt rather embarrassed when they compared their simple gifts to Marian with those she had given them. As for Mr. Henry Hammond, he had received a complete toilet set mounted in silver that was truly a magnificent affair, while Marian proudly exhibited a gold chain and locket set with small diamonds, which she had received from him.
When the last package had been opened, Santa Claus removed his huge white beard, slipped out of his scarlet bath robe bordered with cotton and stood forth as Hippy Wingate; while Father Time set his sickle carefully up in one corner, divested himself of his flowing beard and locks, took off David's gray dressing gown and appeared as Tom Gray.
It was long after midnight before the guests sought their rooms, their arms piled with gifts.
"Come into my room for an after-gathering," said Miriam to the girls, as they stood in a group at the head of the stairs.
"Wait until we deposit our spoils and get comfy," said Grace.
Fifteen minutes later the Phi Sigma Taus, with the exception of Marian Barber, wrapped in kimonos, were monopolizing the floor space around the big open fireplace in Miriam's room.
"Where's Marian?" asked Grace.
"Gone to bed," answered Eva laconically. "She said she didn't propose to stay up half the night to gossip."
"The very idea!" exclaimed Jessica. "We never do gossip, but I think she has furnished plenty of material so far for a gossiping match."
"And it looks as though we were in a fair way to start one, now," said Anne slyly.
"Anne, you rascal," said Jessica laughing. "I'll acknowledge my sins and change the subject."
"My presents were all beautiful!" said Miriam Nesbit, who, clad in a kimono of cream-colored silk bordered with red poppies, her long black braids hanging far below her waist, looked like a princess of the Orient.
"And mine," echoed Grace. "The chain Marian gave me is a dear."
She stopped abruptly. A sudden silence had fallen upon the group at her words. Grace instantly divined that in the minds of her friends there lurked a secret disapproval of Marian's extravagance in the matter of gifts.
THE MISTLETOE BOUGH
After breakfast the next morning the judge proposed a sleigh ride, and soon the entire party were skimming over the ground in two big old-fashioned sleighs. Though the day was fairly cold, the guests were too warmly wrapped to pay any attention to the weather, and keenly enjoyed every moment of the ride.
After lunch a mysterious council took place in the library, and directly after a visit was made to the attic, Grace having received permission to rummage there. Later Reddy and Tom Gray were seen staggering down the stairs under the weight of a huge cedar chest, and later still the girls hurried down, their arms piled high with costumes of an earlier period.
Christmas dinner was to be a grand affair, and the judge had invited half a dozen friends of his own age to share "his borrowed children."
The girls had saved their prettiest gowns for the occasion, and the boys had put on evening dress. The judge viewed them with unmistakable pride as they stood grouped about the drawing room, awaiting the announcement of dinner. An almost imperceptible frown gathered between his brows, however, as his eyes rested upon Marian Barber, who was wearing a fearfully and wonderfully made gown of gold-colored silk, covered with spangles, that gave her a serpentine effect, and made her look ten years older than the other girls.
On going upstairs to dress, Marian had asked Eva Allen if she objected to dressing with Miriam Nesbit, and Eva had obligingly taken her belongings into Miriam's room after obtaining the latter's permission to do so. Marian had engaged the attention of Miss Putnam's maid for the greater part of an hour, and when she did appear the varied expressions upon the faces of her friends plainly showed that she had succeeded in creating a sensation.
"For goodness sake, what ails Marian!" growled Reddy Brooks in an undertone to David. "Can't the girls make her see that she looks like a fright beside them?"
"Anne told me that Grace and Eva have both talked to her," replied David in guarded tones. "Grace thinks Hammond has put this grown-up idea into her head."
"Humph!" growled Reddy in disgust. "She used to be a mighty pleasant, sensible girl, but lately she acts like a different person. I don't think much of that fellow Hammond. He's too good to be true."
"What have we here?" whispered Hippy to Nora under cover of general conversation. "I never before saw so many spingles and spangles collected in one spot."
"Sh-h-h!" pleaded Nora. "Don't make me laugh, Hippy. Marian is looking this way, and she'll be awfully cross if she thinks we are making sport of her."
"She reminds me of a song I once heard in a show which went something like this," and Hippy naughtily sang under his breath:
"My well-beloved circus queen, My human snake, my Angeline!"
There was a queer choking sound from Nora and she walked quickly down to the other end of the drawing room and earnestly fixed her gaze upon a portrait of one of the judge's ancestors, until she could gain control of her risibles.
The dinner was a memorable one to both the judge and his guests, and it was after nine o'clock before the last toast had been drunk in fruit punch. Then every one repaired again to the drawing room.
Shortly after, Grace, Anne, Nora, Jessica, Eva and Miriam, accompanied by David, Tom, Hippy and Reddy disappeared, closing the massive doors between the drawing room and the wide hall. Half an hour later Arnold Evans announced that all those wishing to attend the pantomime, "The Mistletoe Bough," could obtain front seats in the hall.
There was a general rush for the hall where the spectators found rows of chairs arranged at one end.
Hardly had they seated themselves when the first notes of that quaint old ballad, "The Mistletoe Bough," sounded from the piano in the drawing room, Nora O'Malley appeared in the archway, and in her clear, sweet voice sang the first verse of the song.
As she finished, the strains of a wedding march were heard, and from the room at the opposite side of the hall came a wedding procession.
Anne, as the bride, was attired in an old-time, short-waisted gown of white satin with a long lace veil, yellow with age, while David in a square-cut costume with powdered wig, enacted the part of the bridegroom. Arnold Evans was the clergyman, Grace and Tom the parents of the bride, while Reddy, Jessica, Hippy and Eva were the wedding guests.
All were garbed in the fashion of "ye olden time," the boys in wigs and square cuts, the girls in short-waisted, low-necked gowns, with hair combed high and powdered.
Then the ceremony was performed in pantomime and the bride and groom received the congratulations of their friends. The groom bowed low over the bride's hand and led her to the center of the hall. The other couples formed in line behind them and a stately minuet was danced.
While the minuet was in progress the bride suddenly stopped in the midst of the figure and professing weariness of the dance, ran out of the room, after signifying to her husband and guests that she would hide, and after a brief interval they should seek for her.
Entering into her fun, the young husband and guests smilingly lingered a moment after her departure, and then ran eagerly off to find her. This closed the scene, and Nora again appeared and sang the next verse.
The cedar chest, brought from the attic by the boys, had been set on the broad landing at the turn of the open staircase, and in the next scene Anne appeared, alone, and discovering the chest climbed gleefully into it and drew the lid down.
Then followed the vain search for her and the deep despair of the young husband at the failure to find his bride, with the final departure of the wedding guests, their joy changed to sorrow over the bride's mysterious disappearance.
There was a brief wait until the next scene, during which another verse of the ballad was sung. Then the husband, grown old, appeared and in pantomime reviewed the story of the strange vanishing of his beautiful bride on her wedding night so many years before. In the next scene two servants appeared with orders to clean out and remove the old chest from the landing. Hippy and Jessica, as the two mischievous prying servants, enacted their part to perfection. Hippy carrying a broom and dust pan, did one of the eccentric dances, for which he was famous, while Jessica, armed with a huge duster, tried to drive him to work.
Finally both lay hold of the old chest, the rusted lock broke and the lid flew open. After one look both servants ran away in terror, and beckoned to the forsaken husband who had appeared in the meantime, seating himself on the oak settee in the lower hall. With eager gestures they motioned him to the landing where the old chest stood. The final tableau, depicted the stricken husband on his knees beside the chest with a portion of the wedding veil in his shaking hands, while the servants, ignorant of the story of the lost bride, looked on in wonder.
During the last tableau Nora softly sang the closing verse and the refrain. Even after the last note had died away the spectators sat perfectly still for a moment. Then the applause burst forth and David bowing in acknowledgment, turned and helped Anne out of the chest, where she had lain quietly after hiding.
The chest had been set with the side that opened toward the wall. While planning for the pantomime the boys had arranged the lid so that it did not close, yet the opening was not perceptible to those seated below. Thus there had been no danger of Anne meeting the fate of the ill-starred Ginevra, the heroine of the ballad.
"You clever children," cried the old judge. "How did you ever get up anything like that on such short notice? It was beautifully done. I have always been very fond of 'The Mistletoe Bough.' My sister used to sing it for me."
"Grace thought of it," said Anne. "We found all those costumes up in the garret in the old cedar chest. We knew the story by heart, and we knew the minuet. We danced it at an entertainment in Oakdale last winter. We had a very short rehearsal this afternoon in the garret and that's all."
"Anne arranged the scenes and coached David in his part of the pantomime," said Grace. "She did more than I."
The judge's guests, also, added their tribute of admiration to that of the judge.
"It was all so real. I could scarcely refrain from telling that poor young husband where his bride had hidden herself," laughed one old gentleman.
"Why don't you children have a little dance?" asked the judge. "This hall ought to make a good ball room, and you can take turns at the piano."
"Oh, may we, Judge?" cried Grace in delight. "I am simply dying to have a good waltz on this floor."
"I'll play for you for a while," volunteered Miriam, "then Eva and Jessica can take my place."
Five minutes later the young folks were gliding about the big hall to the strains of a Strauss' waltz, while the judge and his friends looked on, taking an almost melancholy pleasure in the gay scene of youthful enjoyment.
"Will you dance the next waltz with me, Miss Harlowe!" said Henry Hammond to Grace, as she sat resting after a two-step.
After a second's hesitation Grace replied in the affirmative. Despite her resolve to make peace with him, up to that moment Grace had been unable to bring herself to the point of speaking pleasantly to him.
The waltz began, and as they glided around the room she was obliged to acknowledge herself that Henry Hammond's dancing left nothing to be desired.
"Perhaps my impressions of him are unjust, after all," thought Grace. "I suppose I have no right to criticize him so severely, even though he was rude to me the other night. I was rude, too. Perhaps he will turn out—"
But Grace's reflections were cut short by her partner, who had stopped in the center of the hall.
"Miss Harlowe," he said with a disagreeable smile, "you are standing directly under the mistletoe. I suppose you know the penalty."
Grace looked at him with flashing eyes. "Mr. Hammond," she replied, flushing angrily, "you purposely halted under the mistletoe, and if for one minute you think that you can take advantage of a foolish tradition by so doing you are mistaken. When we girls coaxed Judge Putnam under the mistletoe the other night, it was merely with the view of offering a pretty courtesy to an elderly gentleman. None of our boys would think of being so silly, and I want you to distinctly understand that not one of our crowd is given to demonstrations of that sort."
"Miss Harlowe," replied Henry Hammond between his teeth, "you are an insolent, ill-bred young woman, and it is plain to be seen that you are determined to misconstrue my every action and incur my enmity. So be it, but let me warn you that my hatred is no light matter."
"Your friendship or your enmity are a matter of equal indifference to me, Mr. Hammond," answered Grace, and with a cool nod she crossed the room and joined Nora and Hippy, who were sitting on the stairs playing cats' cradle with the long silver chain of Nora's fan.
TOM AND GRACE SCENT TROUBLE
The time passed all too rapidly, and with many expressions of regret on both sides the judge and his youthful guests parted, two days before the New Year.
On account of the house party the Phi Sigma Tau had been obliged to postpone until New Year's Day entertaining as they had done the previous year the stray High School girls who were far from home. Therefore, the moment they arrived in Oakdale they found their hands full.
Mrs. Gray had been in California with her brother since September, and the girls greatly missed the sprightly old lady. It was the first Christmas since they had entered High School that she had not been with them, and they were looking forward with great eagerness to her return in February.
Julia Crosby, who was at Smith College, had accepted an invitation from her roommate to spend the holidays in Boston, much to Grace's disappointment, who had reckoned on Julia as one of the judge's house party.
New Year's Day the Phi Sigma Tau nobly lived up to their reputation as entertainers of those girls who they had originally pledged themselves to look out for, but New Year's Night the four girl chums had reserved for a special gathering which included the "eight originals" only. It was Miriam who had made this possible by inviting Eva Allen, James Gardiner, Arnold Evans, Marian Barber, and much against her will, Henry Hammond, to a dinner.
"Don't feel slighted at being left off my dinner list," she said to Grace, then added slyly, "Why don't the eight originals hold forth at Nora's?"
"You're a positive dear, Miriam," Grace replied. "We have been wanting to have an old-time frolic, but didn't wish to seem selfish and clannish."
"Opportunity is knocking at your gate, get busy," was Miriam's advice, which Grace was not slow to follow.
"At last there are signs of that spread that I was promised at the bazaar," proclaimed Hippy Wingate cheerfully, as attired in a long gingham apron belonging to Nora's elder sister, he energetically stirred fudge in a chafing dish and insisted every other minute that Nora should try it to see if it were done.
"You'll have to stir it a lot, yet," Nora informed him.
"But I'm so tired," protested Hippy. "I think Tom or Reddy might change jobs with me."
"Not so you could notice it," was the united reply from these two young men who sat with a basket of English walnuts between them and did great execution with nut crackers, while Anne and David separated the kernels from their shells.
The eight originals had repaired to the O'Malley kitchen immediately after their arrival, and were deep in the preparation of the spread, long deferred.
Grace stood by the gas range watching the chocolate she was making, while Nora and Jessica sat at a table making tiny sandwiches of white and brown bread with fancy fillings.
"This spread will taste much better because we've all had a hand in it," remarked David, as he handed Nora a dish of nut kernels, which she dropped into the mixture over which Hippy labored.
"I never fully realized my own cleverness until to-night," said Hippy modestly. "My powers as a fudge maker are simply marvelous."
"Humph!" jeered David, "you haven't done anything except stir it, and you tried to quit doing that."
"But no one paid any attention to my complaints, so I turned out successfully without aid," retorted Hippy, waving his spoon in triumph.
"Stop talking," ordered Nora, "and pour that fudge into this pan before it hardens."
"At your service," said Hippy, with a flourish of the chafing dish that almost resulted in sending its contents to the floor, and elicited Nora's stern disapproval.
"How fast the time has gone," remarked David to Anne. "Just to think that it's back to the college for us to-morrow."
"It will seem a long time until Easter," replied Anne rather sadly.
"And still longer to us," was David's answer.
"Oh, I don't know about that," put in Grace, who had heard the conversation. "I think it is always more lonely for those who are left behind. Oakdale will seem awfully dull and sleepy. We can't play basketball any more this year on account of the loss of the gym., and we seniors are going to give a concert instead of a play. So there are no exciting prospects ahead. There will be no class dances as we have no place to dance, unless we hire a hall, and we never have money enough for that."
"How about the five hundred dollars the judge sent?" asked Reddy.
"Oh, we have decided not to touch that. The money we take in at the concert will be added to it," said Nora. "That will be two entertainments for the seniors, and we think that is enough. We want the other classes to have a chance to make some money, too."
"If we only had the bazaar money that was stolen," said Anne regretfully.
"Strange that no trace of the thief was ever found," remarked David. "I know that my wrist was lame for a week from the twist that rascal gave it."
"I have always had a curious conviction that the man who took that money had been traveling around in the hall all evening," said Anne thoughtfully. "Whoever it was, he must have seen Grace deposit the money in the box, and he also knew the exact location of the switch."
"One would imagine the box too heavy to have been spirited away so easily," said Tom Gray. "The weight of all that silver must have been considerable."
"Yes, it did weigh heavily," replied Grace. "Still, we had a great many bills, too. In spite of the weight the thief did make a successful get away, and we owe Judge Putnam a heavy debt of gratitude for making good our loss."
"'Look not mournfully into the past,'" quoted Hippy, "but rather turn your attention to the important matter of refreshing the inner man."
"You fixed your attention on that matter years ago, Hippopotamus," said Reddy, "and since then you've never turned it in any other direction."
"Which proves me to be a person of excellent judgment and unqualified good taste," answered Hippy with a broad grin.
"More taste than judgment, I should say," remarked David.
"This conversation is becoming too personal," complained Hippy. "Excuse me, Nora, use that Irish wit of yours and lay these slanderers low."
"I am neither a life preserver nor a repairer of reputations," replied Nora cruelly. "Fight your own battles."
"All right, here goes," said Hippy. "Now Reddy Brooks and David Nesbit, I said, that what you said, and formerly have said to have said, was said, because you happened to have said something that I formerly was said to have said that never should have been said. What I really said—"
But what Hippy really did say was never revealed, for David and Reddy laid violent hands upon their garrulous friend and, escorting him to the kitchen door, shoved him outside and calmly locking the door, left him to meditate in the back yard, until Nora suddenly remembering that she had set the fudge on the steps to cool, opened the door in a hurry to find Hippy seated upon the lower step, a piece of fudge in either hand, looking the picture of content.
The party broke up at eleven o'clock, and the hard task of saying good-bye began. The boys were to leave early the next morning, so the girls would not see them again until Easter.
"Don't forget to write," called Nora after Hippy, as he hurried down the steps after the others, who had reached the gate.
"You'll hear from me as soon as we hit the knowledge shop," was the reassuring answer.
At the corner the little party separated, Hippy, Reddy and Jessica going in one direction, Anne and David in another, leaving Tom and Grace to pursue their homeward way alone. As they turned into Putnam Square, Grace gave a little exclamation, and seizing Tom by the arm, drew him behind a statue of Israel Putnam at the entrance of the square.
"Marian Barber is coming this way with that horrid Henry Hammond," she whispered. "I don't care to meet them. I have not spoken to him since the house party, and Marian will be so angry if I cut him deliberately when he is with her. I am sure they have not seen us. They were invited to Miriam's to-night. We'll stand here until they pass."
The two young people stood in the shadow quietly waiting, unseen by the approaching couple, who were completely absorbed in conversation.
"I tell you I can't do it," Grace heard Marian say impatiently. "It doesn't belong to me, and I have no right to touch it."
Hammond's reply was inaudible, but it was evident that Marian's remark had angered him, for he grasped her by the arm so savagely that she cried out: "Don't hold my arm so tightly, Henry, you are hurting me. I am not foolish to refuse to give it to you. Suppose you should lose it all—"
They had passed the statue by this time, and Grace and Tom heard no more of their conversation. There was a brief silence between them, then Grace spoke.
"Tom, what do you suppose that means?"
"I don't know, Grace," was the answer. "It didn't sound very promising."
"I should say not," said Grace decidedly. "I feel sure that Henry Hammond is a thoroughly unscrupulous person, and I shall not rest until I find out what the conversation we overheard leads to."
"I believe you are right," said Tom, "and I'm only sorry I can't be here to help ferret the thing out."
"I'll write and keep you posted as to my progress," promised Grace, as she said good-bye to Tom at the Harlowe's door, a little later.
"Good-bye, Tom. Best wishes to Arnold. I'm sorry I didn't see him again."
"Good-night, Grace, and good-bye," said Tom, and with a hearty handshake they parted.
As Grace prepared for bed that night she turned Marian's words over and over in her mind, but could arrive at no logical conclusion, and finally dropped to sleep with the riddle still unsolved.
GRACE AND ANNE PLAN A STUDY CAMPAIGN
With the delights of the past holiday season still fresh in their memories, the pupils of Oakdale High School went back to their studies on the fourth of January, and in the course of a few days everything was again in smooth running order.
Semi-annual examinations were but three weeks away, and that meant a general brushing up in studies on the part of every pupil.
The senior class had, perhaps, less to do in the way of study than the three lower classes. A few of the seniors already had enough credits to insure graduation, although the majority expected the results of the January examinations to place them securely among the number to be graduated.
The members of the Phi Sigma Tau, with the exception of Anne, were among the latter, and had settled down to a three weeks' grind, from which no form of pleasure could beguile them.
As for Anne, she had carried five studies the entire time she had been in High School and had never failed in even one examination. She might have graduated a year earlier had she been so disposed.
Away down in her heart Anne cherished a faint hope that the way for a college career would yet be opened to her. She had made up her mind to try for a scholarship, and she prayed earnestly that before the close of her senior year she might hit upon some plan that would furnish the money for her support during her freshman year in college.
Grace was optimistic in regard to Anne's college career.
"You'll have some opportunity to earn money before the year is out, just see if you don't," she said to Anne one day at recess, when the latter had developed an unusual case of the blues. "If you just keep wishing hard enough for a thing you are pretty sure to get it. That is, if it's something that's good for you to have."
"I've been wishing for the same thing ever since I came to Oakdale, and I haven't got it yet," replied Anne rather mournfully. "I've been unusually short of money this year, too, because Mrs. Gray has been away, and the money I received from her work was a great help."
"Poor little Anne," said Grace sympathetically. "I wish you didn't have to worry over money. However, Mrs. Gray will be home in February, and you'll have her work until June."
"But even so, I can't have the use of it myself," was Anne's response. "I shall have to use it at home. We need every cent of it."
"Oh, dear," sighed Grace. "Why doesn't some one appear all of a sudden and offer you a fine position at about fifty dollars a week."
"Yes," said Anne, laughing in spite of her blues. "That is what really ought to happen, only the day for miracles is past."
"At any rate, I have always felt that you and I were going to college together, and I believe we shall," predicted Grace.
"I hope so, but I doubt it," replied Anne wistfully. "By the way, Grace, do you recite in any of Marian Barber's classes?"
"No," said Grace, "not this term. Why?"
"She is in my section in astronomy," answered Anne, "and lately she fails every day in recitation. You know it's a one-term study, and she will have to try an exam in it before long. I don't believe she'll pass, and she told Nora at the beginning of the year that if she failed in one study this year she wouldn't have enough credits to get through and graduate."
"Oh, she'll pull through, I think," said Grace. "She is really brilliant in mathematics, and always has kept up in other things."
"I know," persisted Anne, "but she has finished her mathematics' group, and her studies this year are things she doesn't care for, and consequently left them until the last. We wouldn't want a Phi Sigma Tau to fail, you know."
"I should say not," was Grace's emphatic response. "What shall we do about it?"
Anne pondered for a little. "We might take turns coaching her. We have all passed in astronomy. I don't know how she is in her other studies," she said. "Do you suppose she'd be angry if we proposed it to her?"
"I don't know," said Grace doubtfully. "She hasn't been to the last two Phi Sigma Tau meetings, and she is awfully cool to me. That's because I don't approve of Henry Hammond. To tell you the truth, I believe he absorbs her attention so completely that she doesn't have time for her studies."
"It's a pity her mother is away just at the time when Marian needs her most," Anne remarked.
"Yes," said Grace. "You know I asked her to come and stay with me, when we came back from the judge's, but she refused rather sharply, and practically told me that she was able to take care of herself."
Just then the gong sounded, and the girls had no further opportunity to discuss the subject until school closed for the day, then while waiting in the locker-room for Nora and Jessica, the talk was again renewed, and after swearing Anne to secrecy, Grace imparted to her the conversation between Marian and Henry Hammond that she and Tom had overheard on New Year's Night.
"I was so uneasy about it that I went all around town the next day to see what I could find out about him. I didn't get much satisfaction, however. He claims to be a real estate agent, and Mr. Furlow in the First National Bank says that he has interested a number of Oakdale citizens in land in the west. He is well liked, and it's surprising the way the business men have taken him up," concluded Grace.
"Perhaps what you heard him say to Marian was nothing of importance after all," said Anne.
But Grace shook her head obstinately. "No, Anne," she answered, "my intuitions never fail me. Henry Hammond is a rascal, and some day I shall prove it. As for Marian we'd better have a meeting of the Phi Sigma Tau to-morrow night and especially request her to be present. Then we'll all turn in and offer to help her get ready for the exams. Here come the girls now."
Nora, Jessica, Miriam and Eva Allen entered the senior locker-room together.
"Where's Marian?" asked Grace.
"You'd never guess if we told you," exclaimed Nora. "I never was more surprised in my life."
"Why? What's the matter?" asked Anne and Grace together.
"Who is the last person you'd expect to see her with?" asked Jessica.
"I don't know," said Grace. "Edna Wright?"
"Worse," was Nora's answer. "She's up in the study hall with Eleanor Savelli."
"Eleanor Savelli?" echoed Grace. "Why she is Marian's pet aversion."
"Past history," said Miriam Nesbit. "They appear to be thicker than thieves."
"I don't at all understand what ails her, but listen, girls, while I tell you my idea," and Grace rapidly narrated her plan of action.
"I foresee trouble, but I'll be on hand," said Miriam.
"We'll all be there!" was the chorus.
"Remember, Eva," were Grace's parting words, "I rely on you to coax Marian over to your house, then we'll surround her and make her accept our services."
"All right," responded Eva. "I'll do my best. Be careful what you say about Henry Hammond, or your mission may be in vain."
THE PHI SIGMA TAUS MEET WITH A LOSS
After considerable coaxing, Eva finally wrung from Marian a promise to visit her that evening. She arrived about eight o'clock, and Eva tactfully producing a box of nut chocolates, a confection of which Marian was very fond, the two girls seated themselves in the Allen's cozy sitting room, with the box on a taboret between them.
Marian became more like her old self again, and the two girls were laughing merrily over the antics of Eva's Angora kitten when the doorbell rang, and Eva, looking rather conscious, went to the door.
At the sound of girlish voices, Marian rose, a look of intense annoyance on her face, which deepened as the Phi Sigma Tau trooped into the room, and laughingly surrounded her.
"How are you, Marian?" they cried. "You wouldn't come to us, so we planned a little surprise."
"So I see," replied Marian stiffly. "I am sorry, but I really must go, Eva. You should have told me that the girls were coming."
"Why, Marian Barber, what are you talking about?" asked Nora O'Malley in pretended surprise. "Why should you run away from the members of your own sorority?"
Marian did not answer, but half tried to free herself from the detaining hands of her friends. For a moment her expression softened, then she tossed her head and said, "Let me go, please."
"Marian," said Grace bluntly, "you have been acting very strangely toward us since we came back from the house party, and we don't understand it. You have stayed away from two sorority meetings and have deliberately avoided all of us, with the exception of Eva. We feel badly over it, because we have always liked you, and because you are a Phi Sigma Tau."
"Yes, Marian," interrupted Jessica, "have you forgotten the solemn initiation rites that were conducted at my house last year?"
"No," Marian admitted, smiling a little.
"Then listen, while Anne, who speaks more impressive English than the rest of us, tells you why we have thus entrapped you and used Eva for a bait. Speechify, Anne, and we will put in the applause at the proper intervals."
"Marian," began Anne, "Grace has already told you how kindly our feeling is for you, and the reason that we tried to see you to-night is because of something that I spoke of to Grace yesterday. I had noticed that you were having trouble in your astronomy recitations, and, of course, we all know that you must pass in all your subjects, both now and in June, in order to graduate; so I suggested that as the other girls have all passed in astronomy, we might take turns in coaching you. An hour or so of review every night from now until the exams, would put you in good condition."
"Yes, Marian," interrupted Nora. "Anne and Jessica did that for me last year in ancient history, and I never should have passed if they hadn't helped me."
Marian stood silently looking from one girl to the other, then she said with a mixture of hurt pride, anger and obstinacy in her voice:
"I don't need your help. In fact, I think the less we see of each other in future the better it will be for us all. The past three months have caused me to have an entirely different opinion than I used to have of you girls. You are all very nice as long as things go your way, but if one happens to make a friend or hold an opinion contrary to your views, then the Phi Sigma Taus feel bound to step in and interfere.
"Here is my sorority pin, and I sincerely hope you will elect another girl to my place. She is welcome to both the pin and your friendship. I am thankful that this is my last year in High School."
"You are a foolish girl, Marian Barber," cried Nora, "and you'll wake up some morning and find yourself awfully sorry for what you've just said. You are the last person I should have suspected of being so ridiculous. Why we've all played together since we were kiddies."
Marian tried to look dignified and unrelenting, but for an instant her lip quivered suspiciously.
Anne seeing that Marian showed signs of wavering, crossed over to her side, and slipping her arm around the obstinate girl, said gently:
"Better think it over before you do any thing rash, dear. We are not trying in the least to interfere in your affairs. You know the primary object of the Phi Sigma Tau is to help one another. We thought that you would be glad to have us coach you in astronomy. You know how thankful Grace was for your help in trigonometry last year."
Marian hesitated as though at loss for an answer to this direct appeal to her common sense. The girls watched her anxiously, hoping that Anne's words had bridged the difficulty.
"Come on, Marian," said Nora O'Malley briskly. "Here's your sorority pin. Put it on and forget that you ever took it off. You are too sensible to nurse an imaginary grievance. Don't behave as Eleanor Savelli did. You know—"
But Nora was not allowed to finish the sentence, for Marian whirled upon her with flashing eyes, her temporary softness disappearing entirely.
"I don't wish to hear one word against Eleanor Savelli," she cried wrathfully. "She is my friend, and I shall stand up for her."
"Your friend?" was the united exclamation.
"Yes, my friend," reiterated Marian stormily, "and she is a true friend, too. Last year she was initiated into your sorority, and then deliberately slighted and left out of all your plans until in justice to herself she resigned.
"This year you are behaving in the same way with me. You began it by criticizing my friend, Henry Hammond, and invited him to the judge's house party for the express purpose of humiliating and insulting him. The boys of your crowd gave him the cold shoulder when he tried to be friendly and Grace was insufferably rude to him on two different occasions.
"Then you criticized my gowns and made fun of me behind my back, when in reality I was the only one of you who was properly dressed. You left Mr. Hammond and I both out of the pantomime, and made us last in everything.
"I tried to forgive and forget it all, and be just the same to you, but the first thing that Nora did when we reached Oakdale was to invite part of the crowd to her house and leave the rest of us out, and I am surprised that neither Miriam nor Eva resented the slight."
Here Grace and Miriam could not refrain from exchanging amused glances, but to Marian, who intercepted their glances, this was the last straw.
Dashing the sorority pin which Nora had previously shoved into her hand to the floor, with a sob of mingled anger and chagrin she exclaimed:
"How dare you ridicule me to my very face! I never want to speak to any of you again, and I shall not stay here to be laughed at."
With these words she fairly ran out of the room, and before any one could expostulate with her, she had for the second time in three months rushed out of the house and away from her real friends.
"She is hopeless," sighed Grace, as they heard the outer door of the hall close noisily.
"Can you blame her?" said Anne earnestly. "She has been influenced all along by that Henry Hammond, and now she has fallen into Eleanor's hands. We know Eleanor's state of mind toward us, but why Henry Hammond should encourage Marian to break with her sorority is harder to understand. Yet he has undoubtedly used his influence against us for some purpose of his own. Marian's accusations are foolish and unjust. You all know that she was so engrossed with that miserable old trouble maker that she repeatedly refused to take part in the different things we planned."
"Of course, we know that," agreed Grace. "I don't even feel hurt at her outburst to-night. I wouldn't think of accepting her resignation from the Phi Sigma Tau, either. We won't try to make up with her, but we'll all keep a starboard eye upon her, and see that she doesn't come to grief."
"I had almost reduced her to reason," remarked Anne, with a rueful smile, "when Nora unfortunately mentioned Eleanor."
"Wasn't I an idiot, though?" asked Nora. "I forgot for the moment about having seen them together."
"I am going to turn detective," announced Grace.
"Are you going to detect or deduct?" asked Nora solemnly.
"Both," replied Grace confidently. "I am going to become a combination of Nick Carter and Sherlock Holmes, and my first efforts will be directed toward finding out who and what Mr. Henry Hammond really is."
THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS
Grace lost no time in putting her resolution into practice, and left no stone unturned regarding the object of her distrust. But her efforts met with no better success than the first time she had instituted inquiry.
"Why are you so bitter against that young man, daughter?" asked her father rather curiously when she interviewed him as to the best means of finding out something of Henry Hammond's past. "He seems to be a good straight-forward young fellow."
"He's a villain, I know he is," asserted Grace, "but he's too sharp for me."
"Nonsense," laughed her father. "Having no basketball this winter you are bound to devote that surplus energy of yours to something. Are you making Hammond your victim?"
"You may tease me if you like," replied Grace with dignity, "but some day you'll acknowledge that I was right."
"All right, girlie," smiled her father. "Shall I say so, now?"
"You're a dear," laughed Grace, rubbing her soft cheek against his. "Only you will tease."
Since the evening that Marian Barber had repudiated her sorority, none of the members had spoken to her. She had studiously avoided going within speaking distance of them and had divided her time after school equally between Eleanor Savelli and Henry Hammond.
Eleanor had kept her word in reference to Edna Wright, and the two girls exchanged only the barest civilities whenever they chanced to meet. Eleanor had, however, gained considerable popularity with a number of the senior class, and wielded a tremendous influence over them. She had dropped her annoying tactics toward the teachers, and her conduct during the year had been irreproachable.
Anne Pierson's assertion that Eleanor would be better off away from Edna had proved true, and unconsciously the spoiled, temperamental girl was receiving great benefit from her High School associations. She stood next to Anne Pierson in her classes, and her aptitude for study and brilliant recitations evoked the admiration of the entire class.
But despite these changes for the better, Eleanor still nursed her grudge against the Phi Sigma Tau, and held to her unrelenting resolve to be revenged upon them, individually or collectively, whenever the opportunity should arise.
In cautioning her friends the previous year against placing themselves in a position liable to put them at a disadvantage with Eleanor, Grace had unwittingly divined the former's intentions.
Now that Marian had strayed away from the Phi Sigma Tau and straight to their common enemy, Grace felt uneasy as to the result.
"I don't know what to think about Marian's sudden intimacy with Eleanor," she confided to Anne, one day at the beginning of the new term.
"So far nothing startling has happened," replied Anne. "Really, Eleanor happened along at a good time for Marian."
"Why did she?" asked Grace quickly.
"Because I understand that she coached Marian in astronomy and just simply made her cut out Henry Hammond for her books. It's due to Eleanor that she passed," answered Anne.
"I hadn't heard that," said Grace. "Isn't Eleanor a wonder in her studies? It's a pleasure to hear her recite."
"I do admire her ability," agreed Anne. "Perhaps she will see through Henry Hammond and persuade Marian to drop him."
"I don't know about that," said Grace dubiously. "I saw him with Eleanor in the run-about the other day. He was at the wheel, and they seemed to be having a very interesting session without Marian."
"He never did give me the impression of being a very constant swain," laughed Anne.
"I'm so glad that mid-year exams are over," sighed Grace. "I'm a sure enough graduate now, unless something serious happens."
"So am I," replied Anne. "If I could get clerical work to do this term I'd recite in the morning only and give my afternoons to earning a little money. It seems as though everything is against me. Did you know that Mrs. Gray has postponed coming home until March?"
"Yes," answered Grace. She understood Anne's growing despair as time went on, and the prospect of earning enough money to defray her college expenses grew less.
"I'm afraid I'll have to give it all up for next year at least, Grace," Anne's voice trembled a little. "But perhaps I can enter the year after. I can't give up the idea of being in the same college with you."
"Don't give up yet, dear," Grace pressed Anne's hand. "Maybe the unexpected will happen."
The girls separated at the corner and went their separate ways, Anne with the conviction that there was no use in wishing for the impossible and Grace deploring the fact that Anne was too proud to accept any help from her friends.
As Grace was about to curl herself up in a big chair before the fire that night with "Richard Carvel" in one hand and a box of peanut brittle in the other, she was startled by a loud ringing of the bell. Going to the door she beheld Anne who was fairly wriggling with excitement. Her cheeks were flushed and her dark eyes were like stars.
"Oh, Grace," she cried. "The unexpected has happened!"
"What are you talking about, Anne?" exclaimed Grace laughing. "Stop dancing up and down out there. Come in and explain yourself. That is if you can stand still long enough to do it."
"I have had the surprise of my life to-night, Grace," said Anne, as she entered the hall, while Grace unfastened her fur collar and pulled the pins from her hat. "I just couldn't wait until to-morrow to tell you about it. It's so wonderful I can't believe that it has happened to insignificant me."
"I know just as much now as I did at first, and perhaps a trifle less," said Grace.
Then taking Anne by the shoulders she marched her into the sitting room, shoved her into the easy-chair opposite her own and said, "Now, begin at the beginning, and don't leave out any details."
"Well," said Anne, drawing a long breath, "when I reached home after leaving you, I found a letter for me postmarked New York City. For an instant I thought it was from my father, but the hand writing was not his. I opened it, and who do you suppose it was from?"
"I don't know, and I'm a poor guesser, so tell me," responded Grace.
"It was from Mr. Everett Southard."
"No! Really?" cried Grace. "How nice of him to write to you."
"But I haven't told you the nicest part," continued Anne. "He wants me to go to New York to play a six-weeks' engagement in his company."
"Anne Pierson, you don't mean it," ejaculated Grace in intense astonishment.
"Grace Harlowe, I do mean it," retorted Anne. "Why it's the very opportunity that I've been yearning for, but never expected to get. Let me read you his letter."
Unfolding the letter that she had been holding in one hand, Anne read:
"MY DEAR MISS PIERSON:
"Remembering your exceptionally fine work as 'Rosalind' in the production of 'As You Like It,' given at your High School last year, I now write to offer you the same part in a six weeks' revival of the same play about to be presented in New York. Your acceptance will be a source of gratification to me, as it is very hard to engage actors who are particularly adapted to Shakespearian roles. The salary will be one hundred dollars per week with all traveling expenses paid.
"My sister extends a cordial invitation to you to make our home yours during your stay in New York, and will write you at once. I have already written Miss Tebbs regarding my offer. Hoping to receive an affirmative answer by return mail, with best wishes, I remain
"Well, I should say the unexpected had happened," said Grace, as Anne finished reading. "One hundred dollars a week for six weeks! Why, Anne, think of it! You will have six hundred dollars for six weeks' work. I had no idea they paid such salaries."
"They pay more than that in companies like Mr. Southard's," replied Anne. "If I had acquired fame I could command twice that sum. I can't imagine why he ever chose me. Suppose I should fail entirely."
"Nonsense," retorted Grace. "You couldn't fail if you tried. The only thing that I am afraid of is that you'll be so carried away with the stage that you'll forget to come back to us again."
"Don't say that, Grace," said Anne quickly. "I never shall. I am wild to play this engagement, because it means that I am sure of at least two years in college, and I think if I can get tutoring to do, I can pull through the whole four. Aside from that, the stage is the last career in the world that I should choose. You know my views on that subject."
"I was only jesting, dear," Grace assured her, seeing the look of anxiety that crept into Anne's eyes. "I know you'll come back. We couldn't graduate without you. When shall you write to Mr. Southard?"
"I have already written," replied Anne gravely. "I knew that nothing could induce me to refuse, so I settled the matter at once."
"Confess, you bad child," said Grace, rising and putting one finger under Anne's chin. "Look me straight in the face and tell the truth. You thought I'd be shocked."
Anne colored, laughed a little and then said frankly, "Yes, I was afraid you wouldn't look at the matter in the same light. Now, I must go, because it is after nine and sister worries if I stay out late."
"Wait, I'll go to the corner with you," said Grace.
Slipping into her coat, and throwing a silk scarf over her head. Grace accompanied Anne into the street.
"Come as far as the next corner," begged Anne, and the two girls walked slowly on.
"Now I must go back," said Grace, as they neared the corner.
Just then Anne exclaimed very softly, "Look, Grace, isn't that Marian and her cavalier?"
"Where!" asked Grace, turning quickly.
"Across the street, coming in this direction. I do believe Marian is crying, too. They are crossing now, and will pass us. I don't think they've seen us yet."
Completely absorbed in their own affairs the approaching couple had not noticed either Grace or Anne.
"How could I have been so foolish!" the two girls heard Marian say tearfully.
"Don't be an idiot," her companion answered in rough tones. "You may win yet. I had inside information that it was safe to put the money on it. You act like a baby." Then he muttered something that was inaudible to the listeners.
"You are very unkind, Henry," wailed Marian.
But in the next instant Henry Hammond had seen the two girls. With a savage "cut it out, can't you! Don't let every one know your business," his scowling expression changed to the polite smiling mask that he habitually wore.
But Grace, who in spite of her former disagreement with him, had for Marian's sake favored him with a cool bow when he happened to cross her path even after Marian had stopped speaking, was up in arms at his display of rudeness to the girl who had cut herself off from her dearest friends to please him.
Marian averted her face as they passed opposite the chums, but her companion, who was preparing to bow, became suddenly disconcerted by the steady, scornful gaze of two pairs of eyes, that looked their full measure of contempt, and hastily turning his attention to Marian passed by without speaking.
"Contemptible coward!" raged Grace. "Did you hear what he said, Anne?"
"I should have cut his acquaintance on the spot."
"There is something queer about all this," mused Grace. "This is the second conversation of the sort that has taken place between those two that I have overheard. I wonder if he has persuaded Marian to put money into his real estate schemes, for I believe they are nothing but schemes."
"But Marian has no money of her own," protested Anne. "Don't you remember how delighted she was when she deposited the judge's check and received her first check book?"
Grace paused. A sudden suspicion entered her mind, that she instantly dismissed.
"You don't believe—" began Anne, but Grace stopped her.
"No, dear," she answered firmly. "We mustn't ever allow ourselves to entertain such a thought. Marian may have foolishly risked money of her own that we know nothing of, but as for anything else—Marian is still a member of our sorority and the honor of the Phi Sigma Tau is above reproach."
ANNE BECOMES FAMOUS
That Anne Pierson was to play a six weeks' engagement in New York under the management of the great Southard was a nine days' matter of wonder in Oakdale.
In spite of the fact that Anne tried to keep the news within her immediate circle of friends, it spread like wildfire.
"You'll just have to let me tell it, Anne," laughed Nora O'Malley. "I can't keep it to myself."
Rather to Anne's surprise, there was little disapproval expressed in regard to her coming engagement. Those who had seen her enact "Rosalind" in the High School production of "As You Like It," fully described in "Grace Harlowe's Junior Year at High School," had been then convinced that her ability was little short of genius. But the interest of the thing deepened when the story crept about that this engagement meant a college career for her, and Anne became the idol of the hour.
"The whole town has gone mad over Anne," replied Jessica. "I expect to see a howling populace at the station when she leaves for New York to-morrow."
The three chums were seated upon the single bed in Anne's little room at the Pierson cottage, while Anne sat on the floor before an open trunk, busily engaged in packing.
"What shall we do without you!" lamented Grace. "Positively I have sorrowfully accompanied departing friends to the station so many times since school began that it's becoming second nature to me."
"Good-bye, forever; good-bye, forever," hummed Nora.
"Stop it instantly, Nora," commanded Grace. "Don't harrow my feelings until the time comes."
"Anne, you must write to us often," stipulated Jessica.
"Of course I shall," replied Anne. "Remember you are all coming down to see me, the very first Saturday that you can. I do hope the boys can make arrangements to be there at the same time."
"How lovely it was of Mrs. Gibson to suggest a theatre party and offer to chaperon us," said Nora.
"Everyone has been too sweet for anything," replied Anne, looking up from her task with a fond smile at the three eager faces of her friends.
"You didn't have the least bit of trouble about getting away from school, did you?" asked Jessica.
"No," replied Anne. "You see, I have enough counts to graduate now. I'm not depending on any of my June exams. I can easily make up the time when I come back."
"I imagine Marian Barber wishes that she hadn't been quite so hasty," said Nora. "She is going to miss an awfully nice trip."
"Perhaps we ought to send her an invitation," suggested Jessica.
"No, Jessica," said Grace gravely. "Marian must be the one to make advances. If she comes back to us, it must be of her own free will. We have done our part."
"Can we do anything to help you, Anne?" asked Grace.
"Yes," replied Anne, looking ruefully at the overflowing trunk. "You can all come over and sit upon this trunk. I never shall get the lid down any other way."
This having been successfully accomplished, the three girls took leave of Anne, who promised to be on hand for a final session that night at Grace's.
Before eight o'clock the next morning Anne departed for New York, laden with flowers, magazines and candy, bestowed upon her by the Phi Sigma Tau, who had risen before daybreak in order to be in time to see her off. She had purposely chosen an early train, as she wished to arrive in New York before the darkness of the winter evening closed in.
Mr. Southard and his sister were to meet her at the Jersey station, but careful little soul that she was, Anne decided that in case anything unforeseen arose to prevent their coming, she would have less difficulty in finding her way about in daylight.
"Take good care of yourself, Anne," commanded Nora, patting Anne on the shoulder.
"You do the same," replied Anne. "Don't forget that theatre party, either."
"We'll be there," Grace assured her, as she followed Anne up the aisle with her suit case. "By the way, Anne, here's my sweater. I thought you might need it during rehearsals. The stage is likely to be draughty."
"Grace Harlowe, you are too good to me," murmured Anne, as she reluctantly took the package that Grace thrust into her unwilling hands.
"All aboard," shouted the brakeman, and with a hasty kiss Grace hurried down the steps to join her friends, who stood on the station platform waving their farewells to the brown-eyed girl who was to separate from them for the first time since the beginning of their High School career.
The days slipped quickly away, and the girl chums heard frequently from Anne, who had arrived at her destination in safety, was met by the Southards and carried off to their comfortable home. She was enjoying every minute of her stay, she wrote them, and every one was very kind to her. Miss Southard was a dear, and she was looking forward to the visit of the Phi Sigma Tau with almost as much enthusiasm as Anne herself.
The boys had been duly informed of Anne's good fortune, and the Saturday of the third week of Anne's engagement had been the date fixed upon for the theatre party. Tom Gray would bring Arnold Evans. Hippy, David and Reddy would join them in New York. Then the five boys would repair to the hotel where the girls were to stop, accompanied by Mrs. Gibson and James Gardiner, who was again invited to make the number even.
Intense excitement prevailed in school when it was learned that the Phi Sigma Tau were to go to New York to see Anne as "Rosalind," and the five girls were carried upon the top wave of popularity.
Marian and Eleanor alone remained aloof, evincing no outward interest in the news, although both thought rather enviously of the good time in New York that awaited the girls they had repudiated.
The eventful Saturday came at last, and the five girls, chaperoned by Mrs. Gibson, with James Gardiner for a bodyguard, boarded the same express that had carried Anne off and were whirled away to the metropolis.
As soon as they arrived in New York they were conveyed by taxicabs to their hotel and on entering the reception room were hailed with delight by the boys, who had arrived only half an hour before. While they were busily engaged in exchanging news, Anne hurried in from a rehearsal, was seized by Grace, then passed from one to the other until, freeing herself, she said, laughing:
"Do let me stand still for a second. I haven't had a really good look at any of you yet."
"What do you mean by becoming a Shakespearian star without consulting me first!" demanded David, with mock severity, although there was a rather wistful look in his eyes as they looked into Anne's. David preferred to keep Anne the little High School girl he had known for the past three years. Theatrical stars were somewhat out of his firmament.
"Don't worry," Anne assured him. "It's only for three more weeks. I'll be back in Oakdale in plenty of time to finish up my senior year with the girls."
"Anne, you haven't any idea of how much we have missed you," cried Nora. "We can't get used to being without you."
"I've missed you, too," responded Anne who stood with Grace's arm around her, smiling lovingly at her little circle of friends.
"Of course I have had a good many rehearsals—one every day, and sometimes two—so the time has fairly raced by; but when the play is over and I am on the way home at night, then I think of all of you, and it seems as though I must take the next train back to Oakdale."
"Do let me talk," interposed Hippy, who had hitherto been devoting his attention to Nora. "No one knows how I long to be back in Oakdale, fair village of my birth, home of the chafing dish and the cheerful chocolate cream. 'Tis there that the friends of my youth flourish, and the grass green banner of O'Malley waves. Take me back; oh, take me—"
"You will be taken away back and set down with a jar in about two seconds if you are seized with another of those spells," promised Tom Gray, turning a withering glance upon Hippy.
"What sort of jar," asked Hippy, with an interested grin. "A cooky jar or merely a glass candy jar? Be sure you make it a full one."
"It will be a full one," replied Tom with emphasis, "and will last you for a long time."
"I don't believe I'll take up with your proposition," said Hippy hastily. "There is something about the tone of your voice that makes my spinal column vibrate with nervous apprehension. I think I had better confine my conversation strictly to Nora. She is sympathetic and also skilled in argument."
With this, he took Nora by the arm and would have marched her out of the group had she not protested so vigorously that he turned from her in disgust and began questioning James Gardiner as to how he managed to survive the journey and what methods he had used to insure good behavior on the part of his charges, much to the embarrassment of that youth, who was anything but a "ladies' man."
"My dear young people," finally said Mrs. Gibson, laughingly, "this impromptu reception is liable to last all night unless it is checked by a stern hand. It is almost five o'clock, and we haven't even seen our rooms yet. Besides, Anne will have to leave before long for the theatre. Let us hurry with our dressing, order an early dinner and keep Anne here for it. Shall you be able to stay?" she asked, turning to Anne.
"I think so," replied Anne. "I do not have to be in the theatre until after seven. But I am not dressed for dinner," she added, looking doubtfully at her street costume. "You see, I came straight from rehearsal."
"Never mind, Anne," interposed Grace, "you are a star, and stars have the privilege of doing as they choose. At least that's what the Sunday papers say. Miriam and I are going to room together. Come up with us."
Mrs. Gibson had engaged rooms ahead for her party, and the girls soon found themselves in very luxurious quarters, with a trim maid on hand to attend to their wants.
The boys had engaged rooms on the floor above that occupied by Mrs. Gibson and the Phi Sigma Tau. James Gardiner heaved a sigh of relief as he deposited his suit case beside Tom's in the room to which they had been assigned.
"Girls are an awful responsibility," he remarked gloomily, with a care-worn expression that made Tom shout with laughter. "I like them all right enough, but not in bunches."
By making a special effort, the party was ready by six o'clock to descend to dinner, which was served to them in a private dining room, Mrs. Gibson having thoughtfully made this arrangement, in order to give the young folks as much time together as possible.