So on this day that was to mark the opening of the Lincoln School at Highacres, Jerry stood in line with the others and, though each young person was faultlessly ready for this first day of school, Mrs. Westley laughingly pulled Graham's ears, smiled reminiscently at Isobel's primness, smoothed with a loving hand Gyp's rebellious black locks and thought, as she looked at Jerry, of what Uncle Johnny had said about her eyes reflecting golden dreams from within. And when she called Tibby "littlest one" none of them could know that, as she looked at them and realized that another year was beginning, it stirred a little heartache deep within her.
"Aren't mothers funny?" reflected Gyp as she and Jerry swung down the street. They had preferred to walk.
"Oh——" Jerry had to control her voice. "I think they're grand!"
"I mean—they're so fussy. When I have children I'm just going to leave them plumb alone. I don't care what they'll look like."
"You will, though," laughed Jerry. "Because you'll love them. If our mothers didn't love us so much I suppose they'd leave us alone. That would be dreadful!"
Jerry had slept very little the night before for anticipation. And now that the great moment was approaching close she was obsessed by the fear that she "wouldn't know what to do." The fear grew very acute when she was swept by Gyp into a crowd of noisy girls, all rushing for space in the dressing-rooms. Then, at the ringing of a bell, she was hurried with the others up the wide stairway. She caught a glimpse of Gyp ahead, surrounded by chums, all trying to exchange in a brief moment the entire summer's experiences. She looked wildly around for a familiar face. She caught one little glimpse of Ginny Cox, who smiled at her across a dozen heads, then rushed away with the others.
In the Assembly room a spirit of gaiety prevailed. The eager faces of the boys and girls smiled at the faculty, sitting in prim rows on the stage; the faculty smiled back. There was stirring music until the last pupil had found her place. Then, just as Dr. Caton, the dignified principal, rose to his feet, a boy whom Jerry from her corner recognized as Dana King, leaped to the front, threw both arms wildly in the air with a gesture that plainly commanded: "Come on, fellows," and the beamed ceiling rang with a lusty cheer.
Dr. Caton greeted the students with a few pleasant words. There were more cheers, then everyone sang. Jerry thought it all very jolly. She wondered if "assembly" was always like this. She recalled suddenly how agitated poor Miss Sarah always became if there was the slightest noise in that stuffy schoolroom, back at the Notch.
"Look—there's the new gym. teacher—on the end—Barbara Lee," whispered Jerry's neighbor, excitedly.
Jerry looked with interest. In the entire faculty she had not found anyone who resembled, even ever so slightly, poor Miss Sarah. Miller's Notch, of course, had no gymnasium, therefore it had not needed any gymnasium assistant. Jerry had imagined that a gym. teacher must, necessarily, be a sort of young Amazon, with a strong, hard face. Miss Lee was slender and looked like one of the schoolgirls.
It had always been the custom at Lincoln School, on the opening day, to assign the new pupils to the care of the Seniors. These assignments were posted on the bulletin boards. Jerry did not know this: she did not know that Isobel Westley had been appointed her "guardian." Before assembly, Isobel had read her name on the lists and had promptly declared: "I just won't! Let her get along the best way she can." So, when assembly was over, Jerry found herself drifting helplessly, forlornly elbowed here and there, too shy to ask questions, valiantly trying to beat down the desire to run away. She envied the assurance with which the others, even the new girls, seemed to know just where they ought to go. She had not laid eyes on Gyp after that one fleeting glimpse on the stairs.
Suddenly a hand touched her arm and, turning, she found Barbara Lee beside her. The kind smile on Miss Lee's face brought a little involuntary quiver to her lips.
"Lost, my dear?"
"I—I don't know—where——"
"You are a new girl? What is your name?"
"Oh—yes. Where is your guardian?" As she spoke Miss Lee stepped to the bulletin board that hung in the corridor. She read Isobel's name.
"You were assigned to Isobel Westley. It is strange that she has left you alone. Come to the library with me, Jerauld."
Jerry realized now why it had been so easy for all the other "new girls" to find their places—they had had guardians. She tried to smother a little feeling of hurt because Isobel had deserted her.
The library, gloriously sunlit on this golden morning, was empty. Miss Lee pulled two chairs toward a long table.
"Sit here, Jerauld. Now tell me all about your other school—so we can place you." And she patted Jerry's hand in a jolly encouraging way.
It was very easy for Jerry to talk to Miss Lee. She told of the work she had covered back at the Notch. Miss Lee listened with interest and, knowing nothing of Jerry's home life and Jerry's mother, some amazement.
"I believe you could go straight into the Junior class though you're——"
"Oh, can't I be in Gyp's room?" cried Jerry in dismay. "Gyp Westley, I mean. You see she's the only girl I know real well."
Barbara Lee, for all that she was trying to look very grown-up and dignified, as a teacher should, could remember well how much it meant in school life to be near one's "chum." So she laughed, a laugh that warmed Jerry's heart.
"I think—perhaps—that can be arranged," she said in a tone that indicated that she would help. "We will go to see Dr. Caton."
Even after the long consultation with Dr. Caton, Miss Lee did not desert Jerry. As they walked away from the office, she whispered assuringly to Jerry: "Dr. Caton thinks you had better go into the Third Form room—for a term, at least." Accordingly she led her into one of the smaller study rooms. And there was Gyp smiling and beckoning her to an empty desk beside her. But Miss Lee took Jerry to her classrooms; she introduced her to Miss Briggs, the geometry teacher, then to Miss Gray of the English department, and on to the French room and to the Ancient History classroom. Bewildered, Jerry answered countless questions and registered her name over and over.
"There, my dear, you're settled for this term, at least," declared Miss Lee as they left the last classroom, "Now go back to your study-room and take that desk that Gyp Westley's saving for you."
Assigned to classes and with a desk of her own—and with Gyp close at hand—Jerry felt like a real Lincolnite and her unhappy shyness vanished as though by magic. During the long recess that followed, the bad half-hour forgotten, with a budding confidence born of her sense of "belonging," she sought the other "new" girls. Among them was Patricia Everett, who came directly to Jerry.
"I know you're Jerry Travis. I'm Aunt Pen Everett Allan's niece. I'm crazy to go and visit Cobble Mountain. That's very near your home, isn't it?" So sincere was her interest that Jerry felt as though she was suddenly surrounded by a wealth of friendship. Patricia seemed to know everyone else—they were nearly all Girl Scouts in her troop; she introduced Jerry to so many girls that poor Jerry could not remember a single name.
Ginny Cox, spying Jerry from across the room, bolted to her.
"You're going to sign up for basketball, aren't you? Of course you are. Wait right here—I'll call Mary Starr." She rushed away and before Jerry could catch her breath she returned with a tall, pleasant-faced girl who carried a small leather-bound notebook in her hand.
She wrote Jerry's name in it and went away.
"Miss Travis, will you sign up for hockey?" Jerry, on familiar ground, eagerly assented to this. Her name went into another book. Another girl waylaid her. She signed for swimming. She noticed that the others around her were doing the same thing. Patricia brought a girl to her whom she introduced as Peggy Lee. Peggy carried a notebook, too.
"Will you sign up for the debating club, Miss Travis?" she asked with a dignity that was belied by her roguish eyes.
Jerry was quite breathless; she had never debated in her life—but then she had never played basketball either.
"Oh, do sign. We're all joining and it's awfully exciting," pleaded Patricia. So Jerry signed for the debates.
"Whenever will I find time to study Latin and geometry? I know I'm going to be dumb in that," cried Jerry, that evening, to the Westley family. She spoke with such real conviction that everyone laughed.
Uncle Johnny had "dropped in." He was as eager as though he was a schoolboy, himself, to hear the children's experiences of the day. Though they all talked at once, he managed to understand nearly all that they were telling.
"And you, Jerry-girl, what did you think of it all?"
Because she had felt like one little drop in a very big puddle, Jerry simply couldn't tell. But her eyes were shining. Gyp broke in. "Jerry could be a Junior if she wanted to, but she's going to stay in my study-room for awhile. And they've signed her up for every single thing!"
Jerry, ignorant of Lincoln traditions, did not know that this was a tribute.
Then she had wondered when, with everything else, she would find time for her Cicero and geometry.
"Who you got? Speck-eyes?"
"Graham——" cried Mrs. Westley. "I will not have you speaking in that way of your teachers!"
Graham colored; he knew that this was a point upon which his mother had always been very firm.
"Oh, Miss Briggs is all right—I like her, but all the fellows call her that."
"Do you suppose they'll nickname Miss Lee?"
To Jerry it seemed that that would be sacrilege—she was too dear! Uncle John had, then, to hear all about her. He was much interested, he had not realized that she was grown-up enough to teach.
"But she really doesn't seem a bit so," Gyp explained.
Then quite suddenly Graham asked Jerry: "Say, Jerry, who was your guardian?"
Jerry's face turned very red. She caught a defiant look from Isobel. She did not want to answer; even the ethics of the little school at Miller's Notch had had no tolerance for a telltale.
"A—a Senior. She couldn't find me."
Poor Jerry—Graham's careless inquiry had dimmed her enthusiasm. Why hadn't Isobel found her? With the friendliness of spirit that was such a part of the very atmosphere of Lincoln, why had Isobel, alone, stood aloof? She looked at Isobel—she was so pretty now as she talked, with animation, to Uncle Johnny. Jerry thought, as she watched her, that she'd rather have Isobel love her than any of those other nice girls she had met at Highacres—Patricia Everett, Ginny Cox, Peggy Lee, Keineth Randolph——
"I'll just make her," she vowed, gathering up her shiny new school-books. And that solemn vow was to help Jerry over many a rough spot in the schooldays to come.
THE SECRET DOOR
The routine of Jerry's new life shaped into pleasant ways. She felt more like Jerry Travis and less like a dream-creature living in a golden world she had brought around her by wishing on a wishing-rock. She could not have found a moment in which to be homesick; twice a week she wrote back to Sweetheart and Little-Dad long scrawly letters that would have disgraced her in the eyes of Miss Gray of the English department, but expressed such utter happiness and contentment that Mrs. Travis, with a little regret, dismissed the fear that Jerry would be lonely away from her and Sunnyside.
After the first week of school the girls and boys settled down to what Graham called "digging." Geometry looked less formidable to Jerry, Cicero was like a beautiful old friend, Gyp was with her in English and history, Ginny Cox was in one of her classes, too, and Jerry liked her better each day. Patricia Everett was teaching her to play tennis until basketball practice began.
There were the pleasant walks to and from school through the city streets, whose teeming life never failed to fascinate Jerry; the jolly recess, breaking the school session, when the girls gathered around the long tables and ate their lunch; and then the afternoon's play on the athletic field at Highacres.
Had old Peter Westley ever pictured, as he sat alone in his great empty house, how Highacres would look after scores of young feet had trampled over its velvety stretches? Perhaps he had liked that picture; perhaps, to him, his halls were echoing even then to the hum of young voices; perhaps he had felt that these young lives that would pass over the threshold of the house he had built out into the world of men and women would belong, in some way, to him who had never had a boy or girl.
One afternoon Gyp and Jerry lingered in the school building to prepare a history lesson from references they had to find in the library. Gyp hated to study; the drowsy stillness of the room was broken by the pleasant shouting from the playground outside. She threw down her pencil and stretched her long arms.
"Oh, goodness, Jerry—let's stop. We can ask mother all these things."
Jerry was quite willing to be tempted. She, too, had found it hard to hold her attention to the Thirty-one Dynasties.
Gyp leaned toward her. "I'll tell you—let's go exploring. There are all the rooms in the back we've never seen."
During the past six months workmen had been rebuilding the rear wing of Highacres into laboratories. The changes had not been completed. Gyp and Jerry climbed over materials and tools and little piles of rubbish, poking inquisitive noses into every corner. Now and then Gyp stopped to ask a workman a few questions. They stumbled around in the basement where in a few weeks there would be a very complete machine-shop and carpentry room. Then they found a stairway that led to the upper floors and scampered up it.
"Oh, Jerry Travis, I wish you could see yourself," laughed Gyp as they paused on the third floor.
"Your face is dirty, too," Jerry retorted.
"Isn't this fun? It doesn't seem a bit like school, does it? I wonder if they're ever going to use these rooms. Let's play hide-and-seek. I'll blind and count twenty and you hide and we mustn't make a sound!" which, you know, is a very hard thing to do when one is playing hide-and-seek.
Gyp's charm—and there was much charm in this lanky girl—lay in her irrepressible spirits. Gyp was certain—and every boy and girl of her acquaintance knew it—to find an opportunity for "fun" in the most unpromising circumstances. No one but Gyp could have known what fun it would be to play hide-and-seek in the halls and rooms of the third floor of Highacres—especially when one had to step very softly and bite one's lips to keep back any sound!
It was Jerry's turn to blind. She leaned her arm against the narrow frame of a panel painting of George Washington that was set in the wall at a turn in the corridor. As she rested her face against her arm she felt the picture move ever so slightly under her pressure. Startled, she stepped back. Slowly, as though pushed by an invisible hand, the panel swung out into the corridor.
"Gyp——" cried Jerry so sharply that Gyp appeared from her hiding-place in a twinkling. "Look—what I did!" Jerry felt as though the entire building might slowly and sedately collapse around her.
"For goodness' sake," cried Gyp, staring. She swung the panel out. "It's a door! Jerry Travis, it's a secret door!" She put her head through the narrow opening. "Jerry——" she reached back an eager hand. "Look—it's a stairway—a secret stairway!"
Jerry put her head in. Enough light filtered through a crack above so that the girls could make out the narrow winding steps. They were very steep and only broad enough for one person to squeeze through.
"Come on, Jerry, let's——"
"Gyp, you don't know where it'll take you——" Jerry suddenly remembered their poor princess in her dungeon.
"Silly—nothing could hurt us! Come on. Close the panel—there, like that. I'll go first." She led the way, Jerry tiptoeing gingerly behind her.
The door at the top gave under Gyp's push and to their amazement the girls found themselves in the tower room.
It was a square room with a sloping ceiling and narrow windows; there was nothing in the least unusual about it. Gyp and Jerry looked about them, vaguely disappointed. It might have been, with its litter of old furniture, chests of books, piles of magazines and papers, an attic room in any house. The October sunshine filtered in thin bars through the dust-stained windows, cobwebs festooned themselves fantastically overhead. The opening that led to the secret stairway appeared, on the inside of the room, to be a built-in bookcase on the shelves of which were now piled an assortment of hideous bric-a-brac which Mrs. Robert Westley had refused to take into her own home.
"Well, it's fun, anyway, just having the secret stairway," decided Gyp, scowling at what she mentally called the "junk" about her. "Why do you suppose Uncle Peter had it built in?"
Jerry could offer no explanation.
"Hadn't we ought to tell someone?"
Gyp scorned the thought—part with their precious secret—let everybody know that that imposing portrait of George Washington hid a secret door? Why, even mother and Uncle Johnny couldn't know it—it was their very own secret!
"I should say not. At least——" she added, "not for awhile. I guess I'm a Westley and I have a right to come up here." Which argument sounded very convincing to Jerry.
"Oh, I have the grandest idea," Gyp dragged Jerry to the faded window-seat and plumped down upon it so hard that it sent a little cloud of dust about them. "Let's get up a secret society—like the horrid old Sphinxes."
Fraternities and sororities were not allowed in Lincoln School, but from time to time there had sprung up secret bands of boys and girls, that held together by irrevealable ties for a little while, then passed into school history. One of these was the Sphinxes. They were annoyingly mysterious and dark rumors were current that their antics, if known, would not meet, in the least, the approval of the Lincoln faculty. Isobel was a Sphinx, most faithful to her vows, so that all the teasing and bribing that Graham's and Gyp's fertile brains could contrive, failed to drag one tiny truth from her.
Of course Jerry had been at Lincoln long enough to know all about the Sphinxes. And she knew, too, that Gyp meant to suggest a society that would be like the Sphinxes only in that it was secret. She could not be one of that Third Form study-room without sharing the general scorn of the Sophomores for the Senior Sphinxes.
"We can meet up here, you see—once a week. And let's have it a secret society that'll stand ready to serve Lincoln with their very lives—like those secret bands of men in the South—after the Civil War."
Jerry declared, of course, that Gyp's suggestion was "wonderful."
"We'll have a real initiation when we'll all swear our allegiance to Lincoln School forever and ever and we'll have spreads and it'll be such fun making every one wonder where we meet. And we'll have terribly funny signs."
"What'll we call it?" asked Jerry, ashamed that she could offer nothing to the plan.
"Let's call it the Ravens and Serpents—that sounds so awful and we won't be at all. And a crawly snake is such a dreadful symbol and it's easy to draw." Gyp's brain worked at lightning pace in its initiative.
"What girls shall we ask?"
Gyp rattled off a number of names. They were all girls who were in the Third Form study-room.
"Can't we ask Ginny Cox?"
Gyp considered. "No," she answered decidedly. "She'd be fun but she's too chummy with Mary Starr and Mary Starr's a Sphinx. We can't ask her."
Gyp was right, of course, Jerry thought, but she wished Ginny Cox might be invited to join.
"Let's go down now. Oh, won't it be fun? Swear, Jerauld Travis, that burning irons won't drag our secret from you!"
"Nothing will make me tell," promised Jerry. They stole down the stairway, moved George Washington carefully back into place, tiptoed to the main floor and out into the sunshine.
Thus did the secret order of the "Ravens and Serpents" have its birth. Gyp assembled various symbols, impressive in their terribleness, that, during the study hours of the next day, conveyed, with the help of whispered explanations and a violent exchange of notes, invitations to six other girls to join the new order. And after the close of school eight pupils elected to remain indoors, ostensibly to study; eight heads bent diligently over the long oak table in the library until a safe passage into the deserted halls above was assured. Then Gyp and Jerry led the new Ravens to the secret door where, in a sepulchral whisper, Gyp extracted a solemn promise from each that she would not divulge the secret of the hidden stairway. One by one, quite breathless with excitement, they climbed to the tower room where Gyp with ridiculous solemnity called "to order" the first assembly of the Ravens and Serpents of Lincoln School.
All the Ravens agreed with Gyp that their secret society must pledge itself to protect and serve the spirit of Lincoln; then, having disposed of that they fell, eagerly, to discussing plans for "spreads."
"Let's take turns bringing eats."
"How often shall we meet?"
"Let's meet every Wednesday. Melodia always makes tarts on Tuesday and maybe I can coax her to make some extra ones," offered Patricia Everett.
"And the dancing class is in the gym. then and no one will notice us."
"We ought to have knives and forks and things like a regular club!"
"And a president and a secretary."
"I ought to be president." Gyp's tone was final.
The other Ravens assented amicably. "Of course you ought to be. And Jerry can be secretary because she helped find this spliffy room."
"Girls, at the next meeting let's each bring a knife, fork, spoon, plate and cup."
"Oh, won't it be fun?" A Raven pirouetted on her toes in a most unparliamentary and unbird-like fashion.
"Pat and I'll bring the eats next Wednesday," declared Peggy. "Some one has to start."
"If we've decided everything we have to decide this meeting's adjourned," and without further formal procedure Gyp summarily brought to an end the first meeting of the Ravens. After a merry half-hour they tiptoed down the secret stairway, George Washington went back into his place on the wall and the eight girls scattered, each to her own home, with hearts that were fairly bursting with excitement.
That evening at the dinner table Gyp, very obviously, made a secret sign to Jerry. She brought one hand, with a little downward, spiral movement, to rest upon the other hand, the first two fingers of each interlocked.
"Oh! Oh! That's a secret sign you made," cried Tibby.
"Well, maybe it is," answered Gyp, putting her spoon in her soup with assumed indifference.
"Some silly girls' society, I'll bet," put in Graham with a tormenting grin.
Gyp had passed beyond the age when Graham's teasing could disturb her. She smiled to show how little she minded his words.
"You'll know, my dear brother, sometime, whether we're silly or not," she answered with beautiful dignity. "We're not a society that's organized just for fun!" Which was, of course, a slap at the Sphinxes. Isobel roused suddenly to an active interest in the discussion.
"You're just copy-cats," she declared, with a withering scorn that brought Graham to Gyp's defence.
No wonder Jerry never found a moment in the Westley home dull!
"You needn't think," he shot across the table at Isobel, "that 'cause you have waves in your hair you're the whole ocean!"
"Funny little boy," Isobel retorted, trying hard to hold back her anger. "Mother, I should think you'd make Graham stop using his horrid slang!"
"That's not slang—that's idiotmatic English," added Graham, smiling mischievously at his mother. He chuckled. "You should have heard Don Blacke in geom. class to-day. He got up and said: 'Two triangles are equal if two sides and the included angle of one are equal respectfully to two sides,' and when we all laughed he got sore as a cat!"
"Gyp—what do you think has happened?" Jerry frantically clutched Gyp's arm as they met outside of the study-room door. Jerry did not wait for Gyp to "think." "My name's been drawn for the debate—this Friday night! Miss Gray just told me. I'm taking Susan Martin's place."
Jerry had wanted sympathy. "Not fun at all! I am scared to death."
A bell rang and Gyp scampered off to her classroom, leaving Jerry to go to her desk, sit down and contemplate with a heavy heart the task that lay before her. She had never so much as spoken a "piece" in her life; since coming to Highacres she had listened, with fascination, to the weekly discussion of current topics, envying the ease with which the boys and girls of the room contributed to it. She had wondered whether she could ever grow so accustomed to large groups of people as to be able to talk before them. Now Miss Gray, waving in her face the little pink slip that had done all the damage, was driving her to the test.
However, there had been a great deal in Jerry's simple childhood, spent on the trails of Kettle Mountain, that had given to her an indomitable courage for any challenge. Real fear—that horrible funk that turns the staunchest heart cowardly, Jerry had never known—what she had sometimes called fear had been only the little heartquake of expectation.
Once, when she was twelve years old, she had ventured to climb Rocky Point, alone, in search of the first arbutus of the year. Spring had come to the lower slopes of the mountain but its soft hand was just breaking the upper crusts of ice and snow. As she climbed up the trail a deep rumble warned her that a snowslide was approaching. She had only the briefest moment to decide what to do—if she retraced her steps she must surely be overtaken! Near her was a tall crag of rock that jutted out from the wooded slope of the trail; on this she might be safe. With desperate haste she climbed it and, as she clung to its rough surface, tons of ice and snow thundered past her, shaking her stronghold, uprooting the smaller trees, piling in fantastic shapes against the sturdier. As Jerry watched it had been fascination, not terror, that had caught the breath in her throat; she had not recognized the threat of Death; she had glimpsed only the picture of her beloved Kettle angrily shaking old Winter from his mighty shoulders.
So, as Jerry sat there in the study-room, her frowning eyes focussed on a spot straight ahead of her, her spirit slowly rose to meet the challenge of the debate. These others had all had to live through their "first," ease had come to them only with practice, she reminded herself.
It was pleasantly exciting, too, to be surrounded, after school, by a group of interested schoolmates, each with a suggestion.
"Just keep your hands tight behind your back," offered one.
"I 'most choked to death in one debate," recalled Peggy Lee, laughing. "I had a cough-drop in my mouth to make my voice smooth and when it came my turn I was so scared I couldn't swallow it and there I had to talk with that thing in my cheek, and every minute or two it'd get out and 'most strangle me! Oh, it was dreadful. I don't believe that story about Demosthenes and the pebble."
"I'd get some famous orator's speeches and practice 'em. It makes what you say sound grand!"
"Don't look at anybody—just keep your eyes way up," declared Pat Everett, whose experience went no farther than reciting four French verses before a room full of fond parents, at Miss Prindle's boarding-school.
All of this advice Jerry took solemnly to heart. Gyp volunteered to help her. Gyp was far more concerned that she should practice the arts of oratory than that she should build up convincing arguments for her side of the question. From the Westley library Gyp dug out a volume of "Famous Speeches by Famous Men." Curled in the deep rocker in Jerry's room she searched its pages.
"Listen, Jerry—isn't this grand? 'Let us pause, friends, let us feel the fluttering of the heart that preceded the battle, let us hear the order to advance, let us behold the wild charge, the glistening bayonets, the rushing horses, the blinding——'"
"But, Gyp, that's nothing about the Philippine Islands!"
"Of course not—at least all that about the horses and the bayonets—but you could say, 'Let us pause——' and wave your hand—like this! Here, he's used it again," her finger traced another line, "it sounds splendid; so—so sort of—calm."
Jerry pounced upon anything that might sound "calm." So, after she had compiled arguments that must convince her listeners that the Philippine Islands should be given their independence, she tried them out behind carefully-closed doors, with Gyp as a stern and relentless critic.
"Wave your hand out when you say: 'Let us pause and consider——' Oh, that's splendid! Try it again Jerry—slower. You're going to be great!" Gyp's loyal enthusiasm strengthened Jerry's confidence.
There was for her, too, an added inspiration in the fact that Uncle Johnny was to be one of the judges. She wanted to do her "very best" for him. As the school weeks had flown by, each full of joys that Jerry could realize more than any of the other girls and boys, her gratitude toward John Westley had grown to such proportions that she ached for some splendid opportunity to serve him. She had told Gyp, one day, that she wished she might save his life in some way (preferably, of course, with the sacrifice of her own), but as Uncle Johnny seemed extraordinarily careful in front of automobiles and street cars, as the Westley home was too fireproof to admit of any great fire and there could not be, in November, any likelihood of a flood, poor Jerry pined vainly for her great opportunity. Once, when she had tried to tell Uncle Johnny, shyly, something of how she felt, he had drawn her affectionately to him.
"Jerry-girl, you're doing enough right here for my girls to pay me back for anything I have done." Which Jerry could not understand at all. She could not know that only the evening before Mrs. Westley had told Uncle Johnny how Gyp and Tibby had both moved their desks into Jerry's room, and had added:
"Gyp and Tibby never quarrel since Jerry came. She has a way of smoothing everything over—it's her sunniness, I think. Gyp is less hasty and headstrong and Tibby isn't the cry-baby she was."
The day before the debate Isobel asked Jerry to show her the arguments she had prepared.
"Perhaps I can add some notes that will help you," she explained condescendingly.
Poor Jerry went into a flutter of joy over Isobel's apparent interest. She ran to her room and took from her desk the sheets of paper upon which were neatly written each step of her argument. She hoped Isobel would think them good.
"May I look over them in school?" Isobel asked as she took them.
Jerry would have consented to anything! All through that day her heart warmed at the thought of Isobel's friendliness. Like a small cloud across the happiness of her life at the Westleys had been the consciousness that Isobel disliked her; Gyp was her shadow, Tibby her adoring slave, between her and Graham was the knowledge that they two shared Pepper's loyalty, Mrs. Westley gave her exactly the same mothering she gave her own girls, but Isobel, through all the weeks, had maintained a covert indifference and coldness that hurt more than sharp words. Now—Jerry told herself—Isobel must like her a little bit!
Jerry discovered, when Friday night came, that the Lincoln debates were popular events in the school life. Every girl and boy of Lincoln attended; on the platform the faculty made an imposing background for the three judges. Six empty chairs were placed, three on each side, for the debaters who were to come up upon the stage at the finish of the violin solo that opened the program.
In the back of the room Cora Stanton, a Senior, stood with Jerry and the boy who made up the affirmative side of the debate. Cora was prettily dressed in blue taffeta, with a yellow rose carelessly fastened in her belt. Her hair had been crimped and Jerry caught a whiff of perfume. Then she glimpsed a trim little foot thrust out the better to show a patent leather pump and a blue silk stocking. For the first time since she had come to Highacres, Jerry grew conscious of her own appearance. Over her, in a hot wave of mortification, swept the realization of what a ridiculous figure she would present, walking up before everybody in her brown poplin that she knew now was different from any other dress she had seen at school. And Jerry could not get that shiny pump out of her mind! Her own feet, in their sturdy black, square-toed shoes, commenced to assume such elephantine proportions that, when the signal came for the debaters to go forward, she could scarcely drag them along!
How much more weighty could her arguments be if she only had on a pretty dress—like Cora Stanton's; if she could only sit there in her chair smiling—like Cora Stanton—down at the girls she knew instead of crossing and uncrossing her dreadful feet!
After an interval that seemed endless to Jerry, Cora Stanton rose and made a graceful little bow, first to the judges, then to the audience. The speakers had agreed among themselves how much ground in the argument each should cover; Cora Stanton was to outline the conditions in the Philippine Islands before the United States had taken them over, Jerry was to show what the United States had done and how qualified the Islands were, now, to govern themselves, and Stephen Curtiss was to conclude the argument for the affirmative by proving that, in order to maintain a safe balance of power among the eastern nations of the world it was necessary that the Philippine Islands should be self-governing.
A hush followed the burst of applause that greeted Cora. Jerry settled back in her chair with something like relief—the thing had begun. She caught a little smile from Uncle Johnny that gave her courage. She must listen carefully to what Cora said.
But as Cora, prettily at ease, began speaking, in a clear voice, Jerry grew rigid, paralyzed by the storm of amazement, unbelief and anger that surged over her. For Cora Stanton was presenting, word for word, the arguments she had prepared and written on those sheets of paper!
And in the very front row sat Isobel, with Amy Mathers, their handkerchiefs wadded to their lips to keep back their laughter.
It was very easy for poor Jerry to recognize the treachery. She was too angry to feel hurt. And, more than anything, she was too confused—for, when it came her turn, what was she going to say?
Wildly she searched her mind for something clear and coherent on the hideous subject and all that would come was Gyp's "let us pause—let us feel the fluttering of the heart that preceded the battle, let us hear the order to advance—the wild charge——"
She did not hear one word that the first speaker on the negative side uttered, but the clapping that followed brought her to a pitiful consciousness.
She rose to her feet, somehow—those feet of hers still twice their size—and stepped out toward the edge of the platform. A thousand spots of black and white that were eyes and noses and hats danced before her; she heard a suppressed titter from the front row. Then, out of it all came Gyp's strained face. Gyp was leaning a little forward, anxiously.
Jerry gulped convulsively. From somewhere a voice, not in the least like her own, began: "You have been shown what the United States has done—" (no, no—Cora Stanton had said that!) "I mean we must go back (that was quite new) to—I mean—the ideals of America have been transplanted to——" (oh, Cora Stanton had said that)! Jerry choked. Out of the horror strained Gyp's agonized face. She lifted her chin, she must say something——
"Let us pause (ah, familiar ground at last)—let us pause——" There was a dreadful silence. "Let us pause and—and—let us pause——"
With the last word all power of speech died in Jerry's throat! With a convulsive movement she rushed back to her seat. If they'd only laugh—that crowd out there in the room. But that silence——
Then, before anyone could stir, Dana King, the second speaker on the negative side, leaped to his feet with a burst of oratory that was obviously for the sole purpose of distracting attention from poor Jerry. And something in the good nature of his act, in his reckless wandering from the subject of the debate to gain his end, won everyone's admiration. As one wakes from a consuming nightmare so poor Jerry roused from her stupor of ignominy; she forgot Isobel, in the front row, and clapped with the others when Dana King finished.
Then came a determination to redeem herself in the rebuttal! She had caught something of the fire of Dana King's tone. She was conscious, now, of only two persons in the room, Gyp and Uncle Johnny. She turned, as she rose again to speak, so that she might look squarely at Uncle Johnny. Now she had no clamor of words jingling in her brain; very simply she set against the arguments of her opponent the full weight of those she had herself prepared—Cora Stanton, who had learned them at the last moment, parrot-fashion, had found herself, in rebuttal, left floundering quite helplessly.
Dana King, speaking again, referred to the "convincing way Miss Travis had cleverly upset the arguments of the negative side, leaving him only one premise to fall back upon"—and Jerry had decided then, with something akin to worship, that he was the very nicest boy she had ever, ever known.
There was tumultuous applause when the judges announced that the affirmative had won. And there was a little grumbling that Dana King had "sold" his side.
Jerry, wanting to hide her ignominy, contrived to get away without seeing Uncle Johnny. She could not, of course, escape Gyp, who declared valiantly and defiantly that she had been "splendid."
Gyp had not closely followed Cora Stanton's address, so she had not guessed the truth, and Jerry could not tell her—Jerry could not tell anyone. For, if she did, it must be traced to Isobel, and Isobel was Uncle Johnny's niece. At that very moment Uncle Johnny was talking, down in the front of the Assembly room, to Isobel and Amy Mathers, and he stood with one arm thrown over Isobel's shoulder.
But, alone in her own room, the pent-up passion that had been searing poor Jerry's soul burst; with furious fingers she tore off the brown poplin dress and threw it into a corner.
"Ugly—horrid—hideous—old—thing! I hate it!" It was not, of course, the brown poplin alone she hated! The offending shoes followed the brown dress. "I hate everything about me! I wish—I wish—to-morrow would never come! I wish——" Jerry threw herself face downward upon her bed. "I wish I—was—home!"
"A letter from Aunt Maria," announced Graham, appearing at the door of his mother's little sitting room, a large, square lavender envelope in his hand. He carried it gingerly between a thumb and finger, and as far as he could from his upturned nose, "I'd suggest, mother, that you put on my gas-mask before you open it!"
Gyp and Tibby laughed uproariously at his wit. Mrs. Westley reached for the envelope.
"Poor Aunt Maria, she must be so glad that the war is over and she can get her favorite French sachet."
Isobel perched herself upon the arm of her mother's chair.
"Hurry, read it, mother."
"I'll bet she's coming to visit us," groaned Gyp.
"Don't expect us to throw away money, sis! She never writes 'cept when she is coming. Break the news, mum; is it to be a little stay of a year or more?"
Mrs. Westley lifted laughing eyes from the open letter.
"She says she will come next Wednesday to spend a few days with us. She is very sorry that that must be all—she is on her way to New York to consult a famous nerve specialist. She sends love to 'the beautiful children.'"
Jerry was very curious—no one had ever mentioned an Aunt Maria! So Gyp and Graham hastened to explain that Aunt Maria wasn't a real aunt but was "only" Isobel's godmother and something of a nuisance—to the younger Westleys.
"She doesn't give us presents," Graham concluded.
"She's forgotten all the things she 'did promise and vow' when Isobel was baptized. She had a fad, then, for godchildren; she used to go around picking out the girl babies who had blue eyes. She was a friend of Grandmother Duncan's and mother couldn't refuse her. She has nine altogether and always gives them the same things."
"And every time you see her she has a new fad," added Graham. "Once she was a suffragist but she switched because the suffs didn't serve tea at their meetings and the antis did. One time she was building a home for Friendless Females and another time she was organizing the poor underpaid shop girls, and the next——"
"Mother, listen," broke in Isobel. She had taken the letter from her mother and had been re-reading it. "She says she's going to France next spring and she's thinking about taking one of her godchildren with her. She's studying French and she wants us to talk French to her while she is here——"
"Well, I guess not! I'll eat in the kitchen," vowed Graham.
Gyp commenced to chuckle. "Let's say a whole lot of funny things in French—like when Sue Perkins translated 'the false teeth of the young man' and Mademoiselle sent her out of class."
"Mother!" Isobel's brain was working rapidly. "I ought to be the goddaughter she picks out." She did not consider it necessary to explain to her family the process of reasoning by which the other eight were eliminated. "Wouldn't it be wonderful?" But her beautiful vision was threatened by the mischief written in every line of Gyp's and Graham's faces. "Mother, won't you make the children promise to behave?"
"Children——" snorted Graham.
"——if they act dreadful the way they always do when Aunt Maria's here, they'll spoil all my chances!" Isobel was sincerely distressed.
"My dear," her mother laughed. "Don't build your castles in Spain—or France—quite so fast. I am not sure I would let you go over with Aunt Maria. But Gyp and Graham must promise to be very nice to Aunt Maria because she is an old lady——"
"But, mother, she's not exactly old; she's just—funny!"
"Anyway, Gyp, she will be our guest."
"Make them promise, mother——"
"Oh, you're just thinking of yourself——" declared Graham.
"Children, let's not spoil this Saturday by worrying over Aunt Maria. Even though, sometimes, she is very trying, I know each one of you will help make her visit pleasant and we'll overlook her little oddities. Who wants to drive down to the market with me?"
Gyp and Jerry begged eagerly to go; Tibby had to take a swimming lesson; Graham was going out to Highacres to practice football; Isobel said she preferred to stay home; "one of the girls" had promised to call up, she explained, a little evasively.
Mrs. Westley smothered the tiniest of sighs behind a smile; Isobel was living so apart from the rest of the family, she never seemed, now, to want to share the activities of the others. Her mother had always enjoyed, so much, taking her biggest girl everywhere with her; she had not believed that the time could come when Isobel would refuse to go.
Driving through the city with Jerry and Gyp beside her, Mrs. Westley, still thinking of Isobel, turned suddenly to Jerry.
"How your mother must miss you, dear," she said. Jerry was startled.
"Oh, do you think so?" she answered, anxiously.
"I mean—I was just thinking—mother love is such a hungry love, dear."
"Well——" Jerry, very thoughtful, tried to recall the exact words her mother had once used. "When I was little, mother used to tell me a story. She said that her heart was a little garden with a very high wall built of love and that I lived there, as happy as could be, for the sun was always shining and everything was bright and the wall kept away all the horrid things. But there was a gate in the wall with a latch-way high up; I had to grow big before I could lift the latch and go through the wall—and she made lovely flowers grow over the little gate, too, so that perhaps I might not find it! I always liked the story, but once I asked mother what she'd do if I found the gate and went out of the garden for just a little while and she answered me that the garden would be very quiet, but the sun would go on shining because our love was there. Now I'm older I think I understand the story, and maybe coming here was like going through the gate. But if it is like the story, then mother knows how much I love her, so she won't be dreadfully lonely—only a little bit, maybe."
"What a beautiful story," Mrs. Westley's eyes glistened. "I would like to hear her tell it! Some day I want to know your mother, Jerry."
That was such a pleasant thought—her dear mother meeting Mrs. Westley, who was almost as nice as her mother—that Jerry's face grew bright again. She answered the pressure of Mrs. Westley's fingers with an affectionate squeeze.
Except for the first dreadful ordeal of facing her schoolmates and the hurt of Isobel's unkindness, Jerry had suffered little from the ignominy of the debate. And she had found that the girls, instead of laughing at her, envied her because Dana King had so gallantly come to her rescue!
"You should have seen Isobel Westley's face—she was furious," Ginny Cox had confided to her. And Jerry would not have been human if she had not felt a momentary thrill of satisfied revenge.
The attention of the younger Westleys was centered, during the intervening days, on Aunt Maria's approaching visit. Isobel was much disturbed over the dire hints which Gyp and Graham dropped at different times. One of Graham's friends had a pet snake and Graham had asked to borrow it "just over Wednesday."
"It'll strengthen her nerves better'n any old doctor," Graham declared, loftily.
"Mother, do you hear them——" appealed Isobel, almost in tears.
Isobel had been building for herself a rosy dream; she had even, casually, told a few of the girls at school that "in June I'm going abroad with my godmother, Mrs. Cornelius Drinkwater—you know her mother was a second cousin to the Marquis of Balencourt and the family has a beautiful chateau near Nice. Of course we'll stay there part of the time——" A very little fib like that, Isobel had decided, could hurt no one! She had lain awake at night, staring into the half-darkness of her room, picturing herself sauntering beside Aunt Maria through long hotel corridors, to the Opera, to the little French shops, driving beside Aunt Maria through the Bois de Boulogne and walking on the Champs Elysees, admired everywhere, envied, too. And perhaps, through Aunt Maria's relatives (it was very easy in the dark to pretend that there was a Marquis of Balencourt) she might meet a handsome, dashing young Frenchman who would go quite crazy about her, and it would be such fun writing home to the girls——
"Graham," and Mrs. Westley made her voice very stern. "You must not play a single trick on Aunt Maria!"
"But, mother, she may stay on and on——"
"If you'll be very good," Mrs. Westley blushed a little, for she knew she was "buying" her children, "while Aunt Maria's here I'll take you all to see 'The Land o'Dreams.'"
"We promise! We promise!" came in an eager assent.
"I'll tell Joe I don't want his snake," said Graham.
"I won't laugh all the while she's here," declared Gyp.
"We'll be angelic, mother," they chorused, and they really meant it.
Aunt Maria's arrival, an hour before dinner, was nothing short of majestic. The taxi-driver (by a slight effort of the imagination easily transformed into a uniformed lackey) unloaded a half-dozen bags and boxes; next there alighted from the taxi a trim little maid in black with a rug over her arm, a hamper in one hand, a square leather box, books and magazines in the other. Then, by degrees, Aunt Maria emerged, first a purple hat, covered with nodding purple plumes, then a very red face, turned haughtily away from the driver, whom she was calling "robber"; yards and yards of purple velvet hung and swished about her, while a wide ermine mantle, set about her shoulders, added the royal touch without which the picture would have been spoiled!
"Isn't she gor-ge-ous?" whispered Gyp to Jerry as they peeped over Mrs. Westley's shoulder.
Jerry thought Aunt Maria very grand—she was like the picture of the Duchess in her old Alice in Wonderland, only much more regal. It seemed to her that the entire Westley family should bow their heads to the floor—instead Mrs. Westley was embracing the purple and ermine in the most informal sort of a way!
"——such a train—a disgrace to the government, but then the government is going all to pieces, I believe! And that miserable robber of a taxi man! Mon Dieu!" She suddenly remembered her French, "Ma chere amie Beaux Infants!" She sputtered her newly-acquired phrases with little guttural accents. She beamed upon them all, graciousness (as became a duchess) in every nod of the purple plumes. With the tips of her fat, jeweled fingers she touched Isobel's cheek. "Plus jolie que jamais, ma chere!"
"Nous sommes si heureux de vous avoir ici, chere Aunt Maria," answered Isobel, falteringly.
"Aunt Marie, my dear. I have forsaken the good name that was given to me in baptism. One must keep apace with the times, and though Maria might be good enough for my greatgrandmother, my parents did not foresee that it was scarcely suitable for me!" The purple folds swelled visibly. "Peregrine, carry my bags upstairs."
That was plainly more than one Peregrine could do. It was the welcome signal for a general movement—none too soon; one glance at Gyp and Graham told that a moment more must have broken their pretty manner!
Peregrine took one bag, Graham seized two, Gyp and Jerry tugged one between them. The procession marched up the stairway to the guest-room. Gyp and Jerry heard Aunt Maria, behind them, explaining that Peregrine's name was really Sarah!
"I changed it—Peregrine is so much more 'chic.' I'm teaching her French myself; in a little while she'll pass as a French maid and she will have all the plain common-sense of her Hoosier bringing-up which those fly-by-night French maids don't. A very good arrangement—I think."
Thereafter, Peregrine, to the girls, was always Peregrine-Sarah.
Mrs. Westley, at dinner, looking down the table at the prim, sober faces of her youngsters, had an irresistible desire to laugh. Graham's solemn eyes were glued to his plate, Gyp, spotlessly groomed, spoke only in hoarse whispers, Jerry looked a little frightened—what would she do if the Duchess should speak to her. (Not that there was much danger; Aunt Maria, except for a "from the wilds of our mountains, how interesting," had scarcely noticed her.) Isobel sat next to Aunt Maria and was nervously attentive.
Aunt Maria was more "duchessy" than ever in her dinner dress. Jewels shone in the great puff of snowy hair that lay like a crown about her head. (Graham had always wanted to poke his finger into this marvel to see if it would burst and flatten like a toy balloon.) Jewels shone in the laces of her dress and on her fingers. She sat very straight, as even a make-believe duchess should, and led the conversation. To do so was very easy, for everyone agreed with everything she said, remarked Isobel with pathetic enthusiasm. Behind her smile Mrs. Westley was thinking that Maria Drinkwater was a very silly woman!
Aunt Maria spent most of her time berating the "government." That was why, she explained, she was going to France. The officials in Washington were just sitting there letting everything go to the dogs! "Look at the prices! We're being robbed by Labor—actually robbed, every moment of our lives!" She clasped her hands and rolled her eyes tragically upward. "A crepe de chine chemise—hardly good enough for Peregrine—fifteen dollars! And Congress just talking about the League of Nations! Ah, mon Dieu!"
Graham, catching a fleeting glint of laughter in his mother's eyes, slowly and solemnly winked, then dropped his glance back to his plate.
"Let's say we have to study," whispered Gyp to Jerry, when the family moved toward the library. Even Graham welcomed the suggestion. As they approached Aunt Maria to say good-night, she poked each in the cheek.
"Not going to wait to have coffee with us? So sensible—it hurts the complexion! Nice children! Bon soir, Editha. Bon soir, Elizabeth. What's your name, child? Jerauld? A nice name. Bon soir, Graham!"
"She's the only creature in the whole world that calls me Editha and Tibby Elizabeth," cried Gyp disgustedly. "That's why I just can't endure her!"
Safe in Jerry's room, Gyp cast off her "company" manner by a series of somersaults on the pink-and-white bed.
"Hurray, Jerry, we needn't see her again until to-morrow night! That Peregrine-Sarah will take her breakfast up on a tray. Wasn't Isobel funny, trying to be a nice little goddaughter? For goodness' sake, what's that?"
For there was a wild rush through the hall, then sharp shrieks from the library!
Out of consideration for Aunt Maria, Pepperpot had been shut on the third floor. He would have found the separation from his beloved master and mistress most irksome if he had not discovered, on Graham's table, the box of white mice which Graham had brought from the garage during the afternoon. To pass the time Pepper amused himself by tormenting the imprisoned mice. When Graham startled him at his pleasant occupation he jumped so hurriedly from the table that he sent the box tumbling to the floor. The fall broke the box; the poor mice, mad to escape from their persecutor, went scampering down the stairs and through the hall, Pepper in pursuit and Graham frantically trying to catch them all. Of course the chase led straight to the library!
Aunt Maria, at the startling interruption, dropped a precious vase she had been examining to the floor, where it lay in a hundred pieces. With a shriek and an amazing agility she climbed to the safety of the davenport. The mice circled the room and fled through another door, Pepper and Graham after them. In the pantry Graham caught Pepper; Mrs. Hicks, aided by her broom, succeeded in capturing two of the mice, but the third escaped. Gyp and Jerry listening from the banisters, their hands clapped over their mouths to suppress their laughter, heard Isobel and Mrs. Westley in the library, trying to quiet poor Aunt Maria!
"We didn't promise we'd make Pep behave," grumbled Graham as they shut Pepperpot, for punishment—and protection—in Jerry's clothes closet.
An hour later Jerry heard Isobel, outside of the guest-room door, bidding Aunt Maria good-night. Jerry thought that she did not blame Isobel for wanting to go abroad with Aunt Maria; it would be very wonderful to travel with such a fine lady and with Peregrine! She hoped Pepper had not spoiled everything!
Quiet settled over the Westley home. A door opened and shut and uncertain footsteps came down the hall. Jerry, half asleep, thought it must be the faithful and sensible Peregrine-Sarah, groping her way to the third floor after having put the Duchess to bed. Then, across the quiet pierced the wildest shrieking—a shrieking that brought back a frightened Peregrine-Sarah, Graham, leaping in two bounds down the stairway, Isobel, Mrs. Westley, Gyp and Jerry to the guest-room door!
In the middle of the room, her hands clasped tragically over her heart, her mouth open for another shriek, stood Aunt Maria, trembling. Stripped of her regal trappings she made an abject picture; the snowy puff lay on her bureau and from under a nightcap, now sadly awry, straggled wisps of yellow-gray hair. Her round body was warmly clad in a humble flannelette nightdress, high-necked and long-sleeved. And, strangest of all, her face was covered with squares and strips of courtplaster!
"Sarah!" (It was not Peregrine now.) "Stupid—standing there like an idiot—my smelling salts! Won't anyone call a doctor? My heart——" She shrieked again. "This miserable place! These—brats!"
"Maria Drinkwater, will you calm yourself enough to tell us what has happened?" Mrs. Westley shook ever so slightly the flanneletted shoulders.
"Happened——" snapped Aunt Maria. "Is it not enough to have my digestion spoiled by dogs and mice and boys but—oh, my poor heart, to find a mouse under my pillow——"
If the children had not been struck quite dumb by Aunt Maria's grotesque face, with its wrinkles, they must surely have shouted aloud! The third little mouse had sought refuge in Aunt Maria's bed!
Peregrine-Sarah and Mrs. Westley spent most of the night ministering vainly to Aunt Maria's nerves. The next day, unforgiving, she departed, bag and baggage.
Poor Isobel, thus burst the pretty bubble of her dreams! "I don't care, they've spoiled my whole life," she wailed, tears reddening her eyes.
"Who spoiled it—who did anything?" laughed Graham.
"What's this all about?" asked Uncle Johnny coming in at that moment.
Gyp told him what had happened. She talked too fast to permit of any interruption; her story was Gyp-like.
"You say, Uncle Johnny, did we break our promise just 'cause a poor little mouse hid under her pillow?"
"If it hadn't been for that miserable dog——" Isobel saw an opportunity for sweet revenge. "Mother, why don't you send it away? You made Graham give back that Airedale puppy Mr. Saunders sent him; I don't think it's fair to keep this horrid old mongrel!"
Jerry's face darkened. Graham came hotly to Pepper's rescue.
"He's not a mongrel—he's better'n any old Airedale! He's got more sense in his tail than Aunt Maria's got in her whole body! If he goes I'll—I'll—go, too!"
"Children," protested Mrs. Westley, giving way to the laughter that had been consuming her from the first moment of Aunt Maria's arrival. "Let's all feel grateful to Pepper. She's a poor, silly, selfish, vain old woman, and if she ever comes here again I'm afraid that I won't promise to be good myself! Isobel Westley, dry your eyes—do you think I'd let any girl of mine go to France with her? She can take her eight other goddaughters, if they want to stand her quarreling with every single person in authority—I won't let her have my girl. Why," she turned to John Westley and her face was very earnest, "she's such a waste—of human energy, of brains—of just breath! How terrible to grow old and be like—that."
Gyp was furtively feeling of her firm cheeks. "I'd rather be ugly, mother, than wear those funny things. Look, mummy," she ran to her mother's chair and touched her cheek. "You've got a wrinkle! But—I love it." With passionate tenderness she kissed the spot.
"I'll take you to France myself some day," laughed Uncle Johnny, patting Isobel's hand.
"And can we go to see the 'Land o' Dreams'?" asked Graham, anxiously.
"Indeed we will—as a celebration," assented his mother.
The Christmas holidays brought a welcome respite from the steady grind of school work. And there was every indication, in the Westley home, that they were going to be very merry! Mrs. Westley had one fixed rule for her youngsters: "Work while you work and play while you play." So she and Uncle Johnny, behind carefully closed doors, planned all sorts of jolly surprises for the holiday week.
But Jerry had a little secret, too, all of her own. She had written to her mother begging to be allowed to go home "just for Christmas." She had had to write two letters; the first, with its burst of longing, had sounded so ungrateful that she had torn it up and had written another. Then she waited eagerly, hopefully, for the answer.
It came a few days before Christmas, and with it a huge pasteboard box. Something told Jerry, before she opened the envelope, what her mother had written. Her lips quivered.
"...It will be hard for us both, dear child, not to be together on Christmas, but it seems unwise for you to go to the trouble and expense of coming home for such a short stay. We are snowed in and you would not have the relaxation that you need after your long weeks of study. Then, darling, it would be all the harder to let you go again. I want you to have the jolliest sort of a holiday and I shall be happy thinking each day what my little girl is doing. I have had such nice letters from Mrs. Westley and Mr. John telling all about you—they have been a great comfort to me. We are sending the box with a breath of Kettle in it. The bitter-sweet we have been saving for you since last fall...."
When Jerry opened the box the room filled with the fragrant odor of pine. In an ecstasy she leaned her face close to the branches and sniffed delightedly; she wanted to cry and she wanted to laugh—it was as though she suddenly had a bit of home right there with her. Her disappointment was forgotten. She lifted out the pine and bitter-sweet to put it in every corner of her room, then another thought seized her. Except for Gyp, practicing in a half-hearted way downstairs, the house was empty. On tiptoe she stole to the different rooms, leaving in each a bit of her pine and a gay cluster of the bitter-sweet.
The postman's ring brought Gyp's practice, with one awful discord, to an abrupt finish. In a moment she came bounding up the stairs, two little white envelopes in her hand.
"Jerry—we're invited to a real party—Pat Everett's." She tossed one of the small squares into Jerry's lap. "Hope to die invitations, just like Isobel gets!"
Jerry stared at the bit of pasteboard. Gyp's delight was principally because it was the first "real" evening party to which she had been invited; it was a milestone in her life—it meant that she was very grown-up.
"Jerauld Travis—you don't act a bit excited! It will be heaps of fun for Pat's father and mother are the jolliest people—and there'll be dancing and boys—and spliffy eats."
"I never went to a party—like that." Jerry, with something like awe, lifted the card.
"Oh, a party's a party, anywhere," declared Gyp loftily, speaking from the wisdom of her newly-acquired dignity.
"And—I haven't anything to wear," added Jerry, putting the card down on her desk with the tiniest sigh.
Gyp's face clouded; that was too true to be disputed. Her own clothes would not fit Jerry but Isobel's——
"We'll ask Isobel to let you——"
"No—no!" cried Jerry vehemently. Her face flushed. "Don't you dare!"
Gyp looked aggrieved. "I don't see why not, but if you feel like that—only, it'll spoil the whole party. Oh——" she suddenly sniffed. "What's that woodsy smell? Where did you get it?"
And the pine and the berries made Gyp and Jerry forget, for the moment, the Everett party.
The holiday frolics began with the appropriate ceremony of consigning all the school books to the depths of a great, carved chest in the library, turning the curious old key in the lock and handing it over to Mrs. Westley. Jerry had demurred, but she recognized, behind all the fun, a real firmness. "Every book, my dear! Not one of you children must peep inside of the cover of even a—story, until I give back the key." Mrs. Westley pinched Jerry's cheek. "I want to see red rosies again, my dear girl."
Christmas eve brought a glad surprise to the family in the unexpected arrival of Robert Westley. Jerry had wondered a little about Gyp's father; it was very nice to find him so much like Uncle Johnny that one liked him at the very first moment. He had, it seemed, resorted to all sorts of expedients to get from Valparaiso to his own fireside in time for Christmas, but everyone's delight had made it very worth while.
"That's one thing that makes up for father being away so much," explained Gyp. "He 'most always just walks in and surprises us and brings the jolliest things from queer places."
On Christmas morning Jerry opened sleepy eyes to find soft flurries of snow beating against her windows, a piney odor in her nostrils and Gyp in a red dressing-gown by the side of her bed.
"Merry Christmas!" In her arms Gyp carried some of the contents of her own Christmas stocking. "Wake up and see what Santa has brought you!"
On the bedpost hung a bulging stocking; queer-shaped packages, tied with red ribbon, were piled close to it, and across the foot of Jerry's bed lay a huge box.
"Open this first. What is it? I don't know." Gyp was as excited as though the box was for her. Jerry untied the cord and lifted the cover. Within, beneath the folds of tissue paper, lay two pretty dresses, a blue serge school dress and a fluffy, shimmery party frock; beneath them a gay sweater and tam o'shanter. Upon a card, enclosed, had been written, plainly in Uncle Johnny's handwriting: "From Santa Claus."
Jerry did not know that ever since the eventful debate there had been much secret planning between Uncle Johnny and Mrs. Westley over her wardrobe. He had realized that night, for the first time, that Jerry, in her queer, country-made clothes, was at a disadvantage among the city girls and boys. It was all very well to argue that fine feathers did not make fine birds—Uncle Johnny knew the heart of a girl well enough to realize how much a pretty ribbon or a neat new dress could help one hold one's own! He had wanted to buy out almost an entire store, but Mrs. Westley had held him in restraint. "You may offend her and spoil your gift if you make it seem too much," she had warned him.
Jerry knew too little of the price of the materials that made up her precious dresses to be distressed with the gift. In rapture she kissed the shimmering blue folds. And Gyp executed a mad dance in the middle of the room.
"Now you've just got to go to the Everett party."
On Christmas afternoon Mrs. Allan walked into the Westley home. She and her husband had come to the Everetts for the holidays. She brought a little gift to Jerry from her mother. It was a daintily embroidered set of collar and cuffs. Jerry pictured her mother in the lamplight of the dear living-room at Sunnyside, working the shining needle in and out and loving every stitch! Oh, it was much nicer than the grandest gift the stores could offer.
Christmas past, Gyp and Jerry thought of nothing but the Everett party. Isobel, flitting here and there like a pretty butterfly, divided her enthusiasm. She indulged in a patronizing attitude—she would go, of course, to the Everetts', though it was a kids' party and she'd probably be bored to death.
But within a few hours of the Great Event a horrible realization overtook Gyp's and Jerry's golden anticipation. Santa Claus had forgotten to put any dancing shoes in the Christmas box!
The two girls shook their heads dolefully over Jerry's three pairs of square-toed shoes.
"I just can't wear one of them," cried Jerry.
Gyp would not be disappointed. "Then you'll have to squeeze your feet into my last summer's pumps. They won't hurt very much, and anyway, when the party begins you'll forget them!"
Jerry wanted so much to wear the new blue dress that she was persuaded. Gyp helped her get them on and Jerry stumped about in them—"to get used to them!"
"Now, do they hurt awfully?" Gyp asked, in a tone that said, "Of course they don't," and Jerry, fascinated by the strange girl she saw in the mirror, answered absently: "Oh, they just feel queer!"
Anyway, going to a "real" party was too exciting to permit of thinking of one's feet. Jerry moved as though in a dream. Like Gyp, she felt delightfully grown-up. The spacious, old-fashioned Everett home was gay with holiday greens, in one corner an orchestra played, Patricia with her mother and her older sister greeted each guest in such a jolly way that one felt in a moment that one was going to have the best sort of a time.
For awhile, very happily, Jerry trailed Gyp among the young people, exchanging merry greetings. Then suddenly dreadful pains began to cut sharply through her feet; they climbed higher and higher until they quivered up and down her spine. Poor Jerry found it hard to keep the tears from her eyes. She limped to a half-hidden corner near the orchestra, and slipped off the offending pumps.
Isobel spied her in her hiding-place. Isobel did not know about the pumps—she thought Jerry had retreated there from shyness. A disdainful smile curled her pretty lips. She had had moments, since the debate, when her conscience had bothered her, the more so because Jerry had not told what had happened; but, as is sometimes the way, after such moments, she had hardened her heart all the more toward Jerry. She was savagely jealous, too, over Uncle Johnny's Christmas box to Jerry; she had figured that the dresses had cost a great deal more than the bracelet he had given her! So into her head flashed a plan that should have found no place there, for Isobel was indisputably the prettiest girl in the room and the most-sought-for dancing partner.
She beckoned gaily to Dana King. She would kill two birds with one stone, she thought—though not in just those words; she would have the pleasant satisfaction of seeing Jerry make a ridiculous figure of herself trying to dance (for Jerry had told her she only knew the "old-fashioned" dances) and she would see Dana King embarrassed before all the others! Isobel had never forgiven him for championing Jerry the night of the debate.
"Will you do me a favor, Dana?" she asked sweetly. "Dance with that poor Jerry Travis over there. She's perfectly miserable."
Dana hastened, politely, to do what Isobel asked. He had never exchanged a word with Jerry; however, after the debate, no introduction seemed necessary. When Jerry saw him approach a flood of color dyed her cheeks—not from shyness, but because she did not know what to do with her unshod feet!
"Will you dance this, Miss Travis?"
Jerry lifted eyes dark with laughter. She did not look in the least "perfectly miserable." "I—I—can't!" She put out the tips of her unstockinged toes. Then she told him how she had had to wear Gyp's pumps. "And they hurt so dreadfully that I slipped them off and now nothing'll get them back on. I guess I've got to stay here the rest of my life."
There was something so refreshing in Jerry's frankness and unaffectedness that Dana King sat down eagerly beside her.
"Let me sit here and talk, then. Say, what on earth was the matter with you the night of the debate? Was it your shoes—then? You could have talked—I know!"
He spoke with such conviction that Jerry's eyes shone.
"No, it wasn't—entirely—my shoes. Something did happen—but I can't tell. Isn't this the jolliest party? I never went to one before—like this. There aren't this many people in all Miller's Notch."
Isobel, watching Jerry's corner, grew very angry when she saw that Dana King lingered with Jerry. She wondered what on earth Jerry could be saying that made him laugh so heartily; they were acting as though they had known one another all their lives.
Just as Dana King was asking Jerry what she would do if the midnight hour struck and found her slipperless, Mrs. Allan discovered them. She had to hear about the pumps, too.
"You blessed child, I'll get a pair of Pat's—they'd fit anything!" She returned in a few moments, two shiny, patent-leather toes protruding from the folds of her spangled scarf. Pat's pumps slipped easily over Jerry's poor swollen feet.
"There, now, Cinderella, let's go and get some ice cream." And Dana King led Jerry through the dancers, past Isobel and a fat boy whose curly red head only reached to her shoulder, to the dining-room where, around small tables, boys and girls were devouring all sorts of goodies.
The party was spoiled for Isobel; not so for Gyp who, besides having had the jolliest sort of a time herself, was bursting with satisfaction because Jerry had "captured" the most popular boy in the room.
"He sat out six dances with you—I counted! He took you to supper I heard him ask you, Jerry Travis, if you were going out to the school Frolic. And why did he call you Cinderella?" asked Gyp as the young people rode homeward.
Jerry had no intention of telling Isobel of the ignominy of the pumps, so she answered evasively: "Because it was my first party, I guess," then, with a long, happy sigh, she cuddled back against Gyp's shoulder and watched the street lamps flash past. Oh, surely the Wishing-rock had opened a wonderful new world to little Jerry!
"Did you tell him it was your first party?"
"Oh—nothing. I wouldn't have been honest 'nough to—I'd have pretended I'd gone to lots."
"I'm not going to the Frolic," Isobel broke in. "I'm too old for such things."
Gyp straightened indignantly.
"Too old to coast? Well, I hope I never grow as old as that!" she cried.
"You never will!" was Isobel's withering answer.
"Jerry—it's perfect! Come and look." Gyp, shivering in her pajamas, was standing with her small nose flattened against Jerry's cold window. Downstairs a clock had just chimed seven.
Jerry sprang from her bed with one bound. She peeped over Gyp's shoulder. A thaw the day before had made the girls very anxious, but now a sparkling crust covered the snow and the early sun struck coldly across the housetops.
This was the day of the Lincoln Midwinter Frolic.
"Bring your clothes into my room and we'll dress in front of the fire. Uh-h-h, isn't it cold? But won't it be fun? Don't you wish it was ten o'clock now? It's going to be the very best part of the whole holiday!"
Jerry thought so, too, when, a few hours later, she and Gyp joined a large group of the Lincoln girls and boys at the trolley station. A special car, attached to the regular interurban trolley, was to take them and their sleds and skis—and lunch—out to Haskin's Hill where the Midwinter School Frolic was always held.
Jerry had not caught a glimpse of the country since arriving with Uncle Johnny at the Westley home. As the car sped along she sat quiet amid the merry uproar of her companions, but her eyes were very bright; these wide, open stretches of fields, with the little clusters of buildings and the hills just beyond, made her think of home.
The founders of Lincoln School had wanted to thoroughly establish the principle of co-education. "These young people," one of them had said, "will have to live and work and play in a world made up of both men and women; let them learn, now, to work and play together." The records of the school showed that they worked well together and one had only to give the briefest glance at the merry horde that swarmed over Haskin's Hill on that holiday morning to know that they played well together, too.
"It's most like Kettle," cried Jerry, excitedly, for at Haskin's station, where the picnickers left the trolley, the hills pressed about so close that they, indeed, seemed to Jerry like her beloved mountains. "But how horrid to call a lovely place like this Haskin's!"
"It's named after a funny little hermit who lived for years and years—they say he was 'most one hundred and fifty when he died—in the little cabin at the foot of the hill where we coast. He used to write poetry about the wind and the trees and he'd wander around and sit in his door playing a violin and singing the verses he'd written."
"Then his name could be any old thing," declared Jerry, delighted at the picture Gyp had drawn, "if he did such lovely things! Let's us call it the Singing Hill."
The scent of pine on the frosty air and the knowledge that her new sweater and tam-o'shanter were quite as pretty as the prettiest there, transformed Jerry into a new Jerry. She felt, too, that out here in the open she was in her element; a familiarity with these sports that had been her winter pastime since she was a tiny youngster gave her an assurance that added to her gay spirits.
Thanks to long hours of play with Jimmy Chubb she could steer the bob-sled with a steadier hand than any of the others; Barbara Lee, looking more like a schoolgirl than ever in a jaunty red scarf and cap, declared she'd trust her precious bones to no one but Jerry!
The morning passed on swift wings; only the pangs of hunger persuaded the girls and boys to leave their fun. They gathered in front of the picturesque old cabin about a great bonfire over which two of the older boys were grilling beefsteak for sandwiches. And from a huge steaming kettle came a delicious odor of soup.
"Imagine Isobel saying she's too old for all this fun," exclaimed Gyp as she stood in the "chow line" with her mess tin ready in her hand. "Why, a lot of these girls and boys are older than she is! The trouble with Isobel is"—and her voice was edged with scornful pity—"she's afraid of mussing her hair!"
Skiing was a comparatively new sport among the Lincoln boys and girls. Only a few of the boys had become even fairly skillful at it, yet there had been much talk of forming a team to defeat Lincoln's arch-enemy—the South High. While the young people ate their lunch their conversation turned to this.
"We haven't anyone that can touch Eric Hansen, though—he learned how to ski, I guess, in the cradle," declared Dana King, frowning thoughtfully at the long hill that stretched upward from where they were grouped.
During the morning Ginny Cox had borrowed Graham Westley's skis and had, after many tumbles, succeeded in one thrilling descent. She declared now to the others, between huge mouthfuls of sandwich, that it was the most exciting thing she'd ever done—and Ginny, they all knew, had done many! Jerry, next to her, had agreed, quietly, that skiing was—very exciting. Ginny's head was a bit turned by that one moment of victory when she had stood flushed—and upright—at the foot of the hill, trying to appear indifferent as the boys showered laughing congratulations upon her for her feat, so, now, she turned amused eyes upon Jerry.
"Can you ski?" There was a ring of derision in her voice. Jerry nodded. "Then I dare you to try it from the very top!"
The face of Haskin's Hill was divided by a road that wound across it. Because of the steep descent of the upper part and because the level stretch of the road made a jump too high for anyone's liking, only one or two of the boys had attempted to ski from the very top, and they had met with humiliating disaster.
Jerry looked up to the top of the hill. Ginny's tone fired her. She was conscious, too, that Ginny's dare had been followed by a hush—the others were waiting for her answer.
"If someone will lend me their skis——" She tried to make her tone careless.
"Jerry Travis, you never would!"
"Take Dana King's skis. They're the best."
"The very top——" commanded Ginny.
"May I use your skis, Dana?"
"Let her use your skis, King."
"Jerry, don't——" implored Gyp.
Jerry put down her plate and cup. Miss Lee was in the little cabin, so she did not know what was happening. The girls and boys pressed about Jerry, watching her with laughing eyes. Not one of them believed that she had the nerve to accept Ginny Cox's "dare."
But when, very calmly, she shouldered Dana King's skis and started off up the hill alone, their amusement changed to wonder and again to alarm. Jerry looked very small as she climbed on past the level made by the road.
"Oh, she'll fall before she even gets to the jump—that part's awfully steep," consoled one boy, speaking the fear that was in each heart.
"If she kills herself you'll be her murderer," cried Gyp passionately to Ginny Cox.
Ginny was wishing very much that she hadn't made that silly, boastful dare—trying to make someone else do what she was afraid to try herself! She was very fond of Jerry. The red faded from her face; she clenched her hands tightly together.
Tibby commenced to cry hysterically. One of the older girls declared they ought to call Jerry back. The boys shouted, but Jerry, catching the sound faintly, only waved her hand in answer.
At the top of the hill Jerry turned and looked down the long stretch. She had skied over many of the trails of Kettle, but none of them had had "jumps" as difficult as this. Quite undaunted, however, she told herself that she needed only to "keep her head." She adjusted her skis, then tried the weight of her pole, carefully, to learn its balance. She began to move forward slowly, her eyes fixed on the narrow tracks before her, her knees bent ever so little, her slim body tilted forward. Only for one fleeting moment did she see the group below, standing immovable, transfixed by their concern—then their faces blurred. The sharp wind against her face, the lightning speed sent a thrill through every fibre of Jerry's being; her mind was intensely alert to only one thing—that moment when she must make the jump! It came—instinctively she balanced herself for the leap, her back straightened, her arms lifted, her head went up—as though she was a bird in flight she curved twenty feet through the air ... her skis struck the snow-crusted tracks, her body doubled, tilted forward ... then, amid the unforgettable shouts of the boys and girls she slid easily, gracefully, on down the trail.
Ginny Cox was the first to reach her. She threw her arms about her and almost strangled her in a passionate hug.
"You wonder! Oh, if anything had happened to you——"
The boys were loud and generous in their praise.
"Now we've found someone that can put it all over Hansen," shouted one of them. "Let's challenge South High right off!"
"Who'd ever believe a little kid like you could do it," exclaimed Dana King with laughable frankness, but he stared at Jerry with such open admiration that any sting was quite taken from his words.
Jerry could not know, of course, that, all in a moment, she had become a "person" in Lincoln School. Uncle Johnny, that afternoon in the Westley library, had said very truly that it was usually some unexpected little thing that set a style or made a leader. He had not, of course, foreseen this episode of Haskin's Hill, but he had known that Jerry had determination with her sunniness and a faith in herself that could never be daunted.
"Come on, fellows, let's us try it. We can't let little Miss Travis beat us," challenged one of the boys.
There was general assent to this. Half a dozen picked up their skis. But Jerry lifted an authoritative hand—Jerry, who, until this moment, had been like a little mouse among them all!
"Oh, boys, don't try it. Unless you can ski very well, a jump like that's awfully dangerous. I've skied all my life and I've jumped, too, but never any jump as high as that and—and I was a little scared—too!" And, because Jerry was a "person" now, they listened. She had spoken with appealing modesty, too, not at all with the arrogance that comes often with success and can never be tolerated by fellow-students.
"Miss Travis is right, fellows," broke in Dana King. "Let's learn to ski a little better before we try that jump. This very minute we'll begin practice for the everlasting defeat of South High! You can use my skis, Jerry. Come on, Ginny—the All-Lincoln Ski Team!" He led the way up the hill followed by a number of the boys and Ginny Cox and Jerry—Jerry with a glow on her cheeks that did not come entirely from the wintry air; she "belonged" now, she was not just a humble student, struggling along the obscure paths—she was one of those elected ones, like Ginny and Dana King, to whom is given the precious privilege of guarding the laurels of the school at Highacres!
"Good-morning, Mr. Westley!"
Barbara Lee's demure voice halted John Westley in a headlong rush through the school corridor.
"Oh—good-morning, Miss Lee." If a stray sunbeam had not slanted at just that moment across Miss Lee's upturned face, turning the curly ends of her fair hair to threads of sheen, John Westley might have passed right on. Instead, he stopped abruptly and stared at Miss Lee.
"I declare—it's hard to believe you're grown-up! And a teacher! Why, I could almost chuck you under the chin—the way I used to do. I suppose I'd get into no end of trouble if I ever tried it——"
"Well," her face dimpled roguishly, "I don't think it's ever been done to anyone in the faculty. I don't know what the punishment is. Anyway, I'm trying so hard to always remember that I am very much grown-up that it is unkind of you to even hint that I am failing at it—dismally."
"I think—from what my girls say—that you're succeeding rather tremendously, here at Highacres."
"That is nice in you—and them! I wonder if I can live up to what they think I am." Miss Lee's face was very serious; she was really grown-up now.