"Gyp!" Isobel called. There was no answer. Someone was moving in the nursery; it was Jerry, then, not Gyp.
"Jerry!" Still there was no answer. Jerry was too busy turning the contents of her bureau drawer to hear. She found the bathing-cap for which she was hunting and started down the hall. A sudden, pitiful, choky sob halted her flight.
When she peeped into Isobel's room Isobel was lying with her face buried in her pillow.
"Isobel——" Jerry advanced quickly to the side of the bed. "Is anything wrong? What is the matter?"
"I—I wish I—were dead!"
"So would you if you had to lie here day in and day out a—a helpless cripple and left all alone——"
Jerry looked around the quiet room. There was something very lonely about it—and that patter of the rain——
"Isn't Mrs. Hicks——"
"Oh—Hicks. She's just a crosspatch! You all leave me to servants because I can't move. Nobody loves me the least little bit. I—I wish I were dead."
To Jerry there was something very dreadful in Isobel's words. What if her wish came true, then and there? What if the breath suddenly stopped—and it would be too late to take back the wish——
"Oh, don't say that again, Isobel. Can't I stay with you?"
Isobel turned such a grateful face from her pillow that Jerry's heart was touched. Of course poor Isobel was lonely and she and Gyp had selfishly neglected her. Even though Isobel did not care very much for her, she would doubtless be better company than—no one. She slipped the bathing-cap in her pocket and slowly drew off her coat and hat.
"Do you mind staying?" Isobel asked in a very pleading voice.
Jerry might reasonably have answered: "I do mind. I cannot stay; this is the afternoon of the great inter-school swimming meet and I am late, now, because I came home for my cap," but she was so thrilled by the simple fact of Isobel's wanting her—her, that everything else was forgotten.
"Of course I don't. It's horrid and stupid for you to lie here all day long. Shall I read?"
"Oh, no—after that dreadful tutor goes I don't want to see a book!"
"Let's think of something jolly—and different. Would you like to play travel? It's a game my mother and Little-Dad and I made up. It's lots of fun. We pick out a certain place and we say we're going there. We get time-tables for trains and boats and we decide just what we'll pack—all pretend, of course. Then we look up in the travel books all 'bout the place and we have the grandest time—most as good as though we really went. Last winter we traveled through Scotland. It made the long evenings when we were shut in at Sunnyside pass like magic. Little-Dad has a perfect passion for time-tables and he never really goes anywhere in his life—except in the game."
"What fun," cried Isobel, sitting up against her pillows. A few weeks before Isobel would have scorned such a "babyish" suggestion from anyone. "Where shall we go?"
"I've always wanted to go to Venice. We got as far as Naples and then 'Liza Sloane's grandson got scarlet fever and Little-Dad went down and stayed with him. I'd love to live in a palace and go everywhere in little boats."
"Then we'll go to Venice and we'll travel by way of Milan and Florence. Jerry, down in father's desk there are a whole lot of time-tables and folders he collected the spring he planned to go abroad. And you can get one of Stoddart's books in the library—and a Baedeker, too. We ought to have a whole lot of clothes—it's warm in Italy. Bring that catalogue from Altman's that's on mother's sewing table and we'll pick out some new dresses. What fun!"
Jerry went eagerly after all they needed for their "game." She sat on the other side of Isobel's bed and spread the books out around her. First, they had to select from the colored catalogue suitable dresses and warm wraps for shipboard; then they had to fuss over sailing dates and cabin reservations. In the atlas Jerry traced from town to town their route of travel, reading slowly from Baedeker just what they must see in each town. She had a way of reading the guidebook, too, that made Isobel see the things. It was delightful to linger in Florence; Jerry had just suggested that they postpone going on to Venice for a few days, and Isobel had decided to send back to America for that pale blue dotted swiss, because it would blend so wonderfully with the Italian sky and the pastel colors of the old, old Florentine buildings, when they were interrupted by Gyp and Uncle Johnny.
Gyp was a veritable whirlwind of fury, her eyes were blazing, her cheeks glowed red under her dusky skin, every tangled black hair on her head bristled. She confronted Jerry accusingly.
"So here's where you are!" Her words rang shrilly. "Here—fooling 'round with Isobel and you let the South High beat us by two points! You know you were the only girl we had who could beat Nina Sharpe in the breast stroke. They put in Mary Reed and she was like a rock. And you swam thirty-eight strokes under water the other day. I saw you—I counted. And—and the South High girl only got up to twenty! That's all you cared."
Jerry turned, a little frightened. She had hated missing the swimming meet—contests were such new things in her life that they held a wonderful fascination for her—but she had not dreamed that, through her failure to appear, Lincoln might be beaten! She faced Gyp very humbly.
"Isobel was alone——"
Gyp turned on her sister.
"You're the very selfishest girl that ever lived, Isobel Westley, and you're getting worse and worse. You never think of anyone in this whole world but yourself! You never would have hurt your knee so badly only you wanted to save your precious old dress, and you wouldn't give in and let Peggy Lee take your part! Maybe you are lonely and get tired lying here and everyone's sorry 'bout that, but that's not any reason for your keeping Jerry here when we needed her so badly—and she missed all the fun, too!"
Isobel drew herself back into her pillows. She was no match for her indignant sister. And she was aghast at the enormity of her selfish thoughtlessness.
"I didn't know—honestly, Gyp. I thought the match was on Thursday——"
"It was. This is Thursday," scornfully.
"Oh, it's Wednesday. Isn't it Wednesday? Mrs. Hicks said cook was out and——"
"As if the calendar ran by the cook! Cook's sister's niece's sister was married to-day and she changed her day out. If you'd think of someone else——"
Jerry took command of the situation.
"It's my fault, Gyp. I could have told Isobel but—I didn't. I sort of realized how I'd feel if I had to lie there in bed day after day when everyone else was having such a good time and—well, the swimming match didn't seem half as important as making Isobel happy and—I don't believe it was!" There was triumphant conviction in Jerry's voice, born of the grateful little smile Isobel flashed to her.
Gyp turned disgustedly on her heel. From the doorway where Uncle Johnny had been taking in the little scene came a chuckle. As Gyp walked haughtily out of the room he came forward and laid his hand on Jerry's shoulder.
"Right-o, Jerry-girl. There's more than one kind of a victory, isn't there? Now run along and make peace with Miss Gypsy and let me get acquainted with my Bonnie—four whole days since I've seen you." There was a suspicious crackling of tissue-paper in his pocket. One hand slowly drew forth a small, blue velvet box which he laid in Isobel's fingers.
"Oh, Uncle Johnny!" For, within, lay a dainty bracelet set with small turquoise. Quite unexpectedly Isobel's eyes filled with tears.
"What is it, kitten?"
"It's lovely only—only—everybody's too good to me for—I guess—I'm—what Gyp said I was!"
There was everything in Isobel's past experience to warrant her expecting that Uncle Johnny would vehemently protest the truth of her outburst and assure her that no one could do enough for her. She wanted him to do so. But, alas, she read in his face that he, too, thought what Gyp had said was very true.
"Isobel, dear—I think I ought to try and make you see something—for your own good. Have you ever pictured the fight that's going on in the human blood all the time—the tiny warriors struggling constantly, one kind to kill and the other to keep alive? The same sort of fight's going on in our natures, too. Every one of us is born with a whole lot of good things; they're our heritage and it's our own fault when we don't keep 'em. I don't mean outward things, dear—like your golden hair and those sky-blue eyes of yours—I mean the inside things, the things that grow and make our lives. But they've got to fight to live. If vanity and selfishness get the upper hand—where do they lead you? Well," he laughed, "I can't make you understand any more clearly what I mean than just to point to poor old Aunt Maria!"
Isobel had turned her face away; he could not see how she was taking his clumsy little lecture.
"She's just a pathetic waste of God's good clay—moulded once as He wants His children, but what has she done? She's lived—no one knows how many years—only to feed her own body and glorify her own nest; she's grown in instead of out; she's never given an honest thought to making this world or anyone in it one bit better for her having lived in it. She's stealing from God. And what's done it—vanity, that years ago mastered all the good things in her. Poor old soul—she was once a young, pretty girl, like you——"
Isobel jerked her head petulantly. The blue velvet box lay neglected on the counterpane.
"I think you're horrid to lecture me, Uncle Johnny. Mother and father——"
Uncle Johnny smiled whimsically at the childish face.
"Mothers and fathers sometimes don't see things as clearly as mere uncles—because they're so close. And Bonnie, dear, it's because we all want so much of you! Let me tell you something else—this isn't a lecture, either. It's a little thing that happened when you were a baby and I've never forgotten it. I didn't see you until you were a year old—I was abroad, studying, when you were born. When I went up to your nursery that first time, and looked at you, I thought you were the most wonderful thing God ever made. You lay there in your little white crib and stared at me with your round, blue eyes, and then you smiled and thrust out the tiniest scrap of a hand. I didn't dare breathe. And everything around you was so perfect—white enamel, blue and yellow and pink birds and squirrels and dogs and things painted on your walls, the last word in baby furniture and toilet things. That very day a friend of mine asked me to help drive the orphans of the city on their annual outing. I was glad to do something for someone—you see, having a new niece made me feel as though I was walking on air. They loaded up my car with kids of all sizes and then the last moment someone snuggled a bit of humanity into the front seat between two older youngsters—a poor little mite with big, round, blue eyes like yours and the lower part of her face all twisted with a great scar where she'd been burned. I couldn't see anything on the whole ride but that little face—and always, back in my mind were your two blue eyes and your dimpled smile. I wanted to get through with the whole trip and hurry back to your nursery to see if you were all right. But I stopped long enough at the orphanage to ask about the poor baby. She'd been found in a filthy cellar where she'd been abandoned—that's all they knew. How's that for a heritage? Stripped of everything—except the soul of her—to fight through life with, and horribly disfigured in the bargain. I asked what they did for such children and they told me that they'd keep her until she was fourteen—then they'd have taught her some sort of work—probably domestic—and she could make her own way. God help her—fourteen, a little younger than our Gyp! I went back to your mother's. She was out and I rushed up to your nursery. Your very professional nurse thought I was mad. I sent her out. I took you in my arms. I had to hold you to feel that you were safe and sound and had all the arms and legs you needed and your face not half scarred away. And sitting there I sort of talked to God—I begged Him to let you keep the blessings you had at that moment and to make you worthy of them. You're a beautiful girl, Isobel, and you have every advantage that love and thought and money can give you, but—so was Aunt Maria beautiful at your age, before vanity and selfishness——"
"Uncle Johnny, I've known for a long time—that you didn't love me! That's why I've been so nasty to Jerry. You love her——"
"Bonnie!" Uncle Johnny's arm was around her now. He half shook her. "Foolish girl! I love you now just the way I loved that mite of a baby. I've always been fonder of you than any of the others and I'm mighty fond of them. But you were the first—the most wonderful one."
"But you'd like to have me—like Jerry?"
"Yes," he answered, very decidedly. "I'd like to have you—that kind of a girl, who walks straight with her head up—and sees big visions—and grows toward them."
"I hate goody-goody girls," sighed poor Isobel.
"So do I!" laughed Uncle Johnny. "But you couldn't hate a girl who would rather make someone else happy than win in a swimming match?"
"N-no, and I wouldn't blame Jerry if she'd just enjoy seeing me miserable—I've been so nasty to her. And she isn't goody-goody, either! She's just——"
"A very normal, unspoiled, happy girl who's always been so busy thinking of everything else that she's never had a moment to think of herself. Now to show that you forgive my two-a-penny lectures, will you let me eat dinner with you off your tray? And what are you doing with these books? And did you know Dr. Bowerman's going to let you try crutches on Sunday?"
Two hours later, when Jerry, a little shyly, tiptoed into Isobel's room to say good-night, Isobel impulsively pulled her head down to the level of her own and kissed her. She wanted to tell Jerry what Uncle Johnny had made her feel and see but she could not find the right words, and Jerry wanted to tell her that she wouldn't for the world trade the jolly afternoon they had had together for any swimming match, but she couldn't find the right words, so each just kissed the other, wondering why she was so happy!
"I'm going to walk on crutches Sunday, Jerry."
"Oh, great! It will only be a little while before you're back in school, Isobel."
THE THIRD VIOLINIST
"Hello! Is that you, Gyp? I want Centre 2115, please. Is this Mr. Westley's house? Is that you, Gyp?.... This is Pat Everett. Listen——" came excitedly over the wire, though Gyp was listening as hard as she could. "Peg and I've found the black-and-white man!"
Gyp declared, afterwards, that the announcement had made her tingle to her toes! Immediately she corralled Jerry, whom she found translating Latin with a dictionary on her lap and a terrible frown on her brow, and together they hurried to Pat's house. It was a soft May evening—the air was filled with the throaty twitter of robins, the trees arched feathery green against the twilight sky. Pat and Peggy sat bareheaded on the steps of the Everett house, waiting for them. A great fragrant flowering honeysuckle brushed their shoulders. A more perfect setting could not have been found for the finish of their conspiracy.
Pat plunged straight into her story.
"Peg and I were coming back from Dalton's book store and we ran bang into the man—he'd taken his hat off 'cause it was so warm and was fanning himself with it. We both saw it at exactly the same moment and we just turned and clutched each other and almost yelled."
"And then, what? Why didn't you grab him?"
"As if we could lay our hands on a perfect stranger! Anyway, we've got to be tactful. But I'm sure it's the one—there was a white streak that ran right back from the front of his face. And he was very handsome, too—at least we decided he would be if we were as old as Miss Gray. I thought he was a little—oh, biggish."
"And to think how we've hunted for him and he was right here——" Then Gyp realized that Pat did not have the gentleman in her pocket.
"But how will we find him again?"
"We followed him—and he went into the Morse Building and got into the elevator and we were going right in after him when who pops out but Dr. Caton, and he looked so surprised to see us that we hesitated, and the old elevator boy shut the door in our faces. But we asked a man who was standing there in a uniform, like a head janitor or something, if that gentleman in a black coat and hat and lavender tie had an office in the building, and he said, "Yes, seventh floor, 796." He leered at us, but we looked real dignified, and Peg wrote it down on a piece of paper and we walked away. So now all we've got to do is to just go and see him," and Pat hugged her slim knees in an ecstasy of satisfaction.
The girls stared meditatively at a fat robin pecking into the grass in search of a late dinner. To "just go and see him" was not as simple to the conspirators as it sounded, slipping from Pat's lips.
"Who'll go?" Gyp put the question that was in each mind.
"Perhaps it would be too many if all four of us went—so let's draw lots which two——"
"Oh, no!" cried Jerry, aghast.
The others laughed. "It'd be fairest to leave Jerry out of the draw."
"I'll go," cried Gyp grandly, "if Pat or Peggy will go with me and do the talking."
"What'll we say?" Now that the Ravens faced the fulfillment of their plans they felt a little nervous.
"I know——" Gyp's puzzled frown cleared magically. "Mother has five tickets for the Philadelphia Symphony to-morrow night—I'll ask her to let us go and invite Miss Gray to chaperone us. Then we'll write a note and tell this man that if he'll go to the concert and look at the third box on the left side he'll see the lady of his heart who has been faithful to him for years in spite of her many other suitors—we'll put that in to make him appreciate what he's getting. It'll be much easier writing it than saying it."
"Gyp—you're a wonder," cried the others, inspired to action. "Let's go in and write the note now."
The Ravens, who met now at Pat Everett's house, had neglected Miss Gray of late. Carnations had succeeded the violets, then a single rose. Pat had even experimented with a nosegay of everlastings which she had found in one of the department stores. It had been weeks since they had sent anything. For that reason a little feeling of remorse added enthusiasm now to their plotting.
Mrs. Westley was delighted at Gyp's desire to hear the concert and to include Miss Gray in the party. And Miss Gray's face had flushed with genuine pleasure when Gyp invited her.
"Everything's all ready," Gyp tapped across to Pat Everett, and Pat, nodding mysteriously, pulled from her pocket the corner of a pale blue envelope.
Directly after the close of school Gyp and Pat, with Jerry and Peggy Lee close at their heels, to bolster their courage, walked briskly downtown to the Morse Building. If any doubts as to the propriety of their action crept into any one of the four minds, they were quickly dispelled—for the sake of sentiment. It, of course, would not be pleasant, facing this stranger, but any momentary discomfort was as nothing, considering that their act might mean many years of happiness for poor, starved, little Miss Gray!
To avoid the leering elevator man the two girls climbed the six flights to the seventh floor. Pat carried the letter. Gyp agreed to go in first.
"746—748——" read Pat.
"It's the other corridor." They retraced their steps to the other side of the building. "784-788-792——" Gyp repeated the office numbers aloud. "7-9-6! Wilbur Stratman, Undertaker!"
"Pat Everett!" Gyp clutched her chum's arm. "A—undertaker! I won't go in—for all the Miss Grays in the world!"
Pat was seized with such a fit of giggling that she had difficulty in speaking, even in a whisper. "Isn't that funny? We've got to go in. The girls are waiting—we'd never hear the last of it! He can't bury us alive. Oh, d-dear——" She wadded her handkerchief to her lips and leaned against the wall.
"If Miss Gray wants an undertaker she can have him! For my part I should think she'd rather have a policeman or—or the iceman! Come on——" Gyp's face was comical in its disgust. She turned the knob of the door.
A thin, sad-faced woman told them that Mr. Stratman was in his office. She eyed them curiously as, with a jerk of her head, she motioned them through a little gate. As Gyp with trembling fingers opened the door of the inner office, a man with a noticeable white streak in his hair pulled his feet down from his desk, dropped a cigar on his pen tray and reached for a coat that lay across another chair.
"Is—is this Mr. Stratman?" asked Gyp, wishing her tongue would not cling to the roof of her mouth.
He nodded and waited. These young girls were not like his usual customers, probably they had some sort of a subscription blank with them. He watched warily.
"Our errand is—is private," stumbled Gyp, who could see that Pat was beyond the power of speech. "It's—it's personal. We've come, in fact, of—our own accord—she doesn't know a thing about it——"
"Miss—Miss Gray." Gyp glanced wildly around. Oh, she was making a dreadful mess of it! Why didn't Pat produce the letter instead of standing there like a wooden image?
Being an undertaker, Mr. Wilbur Stratman met a great many women whom he never remembered. "H-m, Miss Gray—of course," he nodded. Encouraged, Gyp plunged on, with the one desire of getting the ordeal over with.
"She's dreadfully unhappy. She's been faithful to you all these years and she's lived in a little boarding house and worked and worked and wouldn't marry anyone else and——"
With an instinct of self-defense Mr. Stratman rose to his feet and edged ever so little toward the door. Plainly these two very young women were stark mad!
"I am very sorry for Miss Gray but—what can I do?"
"Oh, can't you marry her now? She's still very pretty——" Gyp was trembling but undaunted. The precipice was there—she had to make the leap!
The undertaker paused in his contemplated flight to stare—then he laughed, a loud, hoarse laugh that sent the hot blood tingling to Gyp's face.
"Who ever heard the beat of it! A proposal by proxy! Ha! ha! My business is burying and not marrying! Ha! Ha! Pretty good! I don't know your Miss Gray. Even if I did I can't get away with a husky wife and six children at home!"
Pat pulled furiously at Gyp's sleeve. A chill that felt like a cold stream of water ran down Gyp's spine.
"I don't get on to what you're after, Miss what-ever-your name is, but you're in the wrong pew. I never knew a Miss Gray that I can remember and I guess somebody's been kidding you."
Pat suddenly found her tongue—in the nick of time, too, for a paralysis of fright had finished poor Gyp.
"We must have made a mistake, Mr. Stratman. We are very sorry to have bothered you. We are in search of a certain—party that—that has—a white streak—in his hair."
"O-ho," the undertaker clapped his hand to his head. "So that's the ticket, hey? Well, I've always said I couldn't get away from much with that thing always there to identify me—but I never calculated it'd expose me to any proposals!" He laughed again—doubling up in what Pat thought a disgustingly ungraceful way. She held her head high and pushed Gyp toward the door. "We will say good-by," she concluded haughtily.
"Say, kids, who are you, anyway?" His tone was quite unprofessional.
"It is not necessary to divulge our identity," and with Gyp's arm firmly in her grasp Pat beat a hasty retreat. Safe outside in the corridor they fell into one another's arms, torn between tears and laughter.
With mingled disgust and disappointment the Ravens decided then and there to let love follow its own blind, mistaken course.
"Miss Gray can die an old maid before I'll ever face another creature like that!" vowed Gyp, and Pat echoed her words.
"No one ever gets any thanks for meddling in other people's affairs, anyway," Peggy Lee offered.
"Nice time to tell us that," was Gyp's irritable retort.
That evening Miss Gray, charming in a soft lavender georgette dress, which her clever fingers had made and remade, wondered why her four young charges were so glum. There was nothing in the world she loved so much as a symphony orchestra. She sat back in her chair, close to the edge of the box, with a happy sigh, and studied her program. Everything that she liked best, Chopin, Saint-Saens, and Wagner—Siegfried's Death. Gyp, eyeing her chaperon's happy anticipation, indulged in a whispered regret.
"Doesn't she look pretty to-night? If that horrible creature only hadn't been——" The setting would have been so perfect for the denouement. She sprawled back, resignedly, in her chair, smothering a yawn. A flutter of applause marked the coming in of the orchestra. There was the usual scraping of chairs and whining of strings. Then suddenly Miss Gray leaned out over the box-rail, exclaiming incoherently, her hands clasping and unclasping in a wild, helpless way.
An opening crash of the cymbals covered her confusion. The four girls were staring at her, round-eyed. They had not believed Miss Gray capable of such agitation! What ever had happened——
"An old friend," she whispered, her face alternately paling and flushing. "A very dear—old—friend! The—the third—violin——" She leaned weakly against the box-rail. The girls looked down at the orchestra. There—under the leader's arm—sat the third violinist—and a white streak ran from his forehead straight back through his coal black hair!
As though an electric shock flashed through them the four girls straightened and stiffened. A glance, charged with meaning, passed from one to another. Gyp, remembering the moment of confidence between her and Miss Gray, slipped her hand into Miss Gray's and squeezed it encouragingly.
Not one of them heard a note of the wonderful music; each was steadying herself for that moment when the program should end. Their box was very near the little door that led behind the stage. Gyp almost pushed Miss Gray toward it.
"Of course you're going to see him! Hurry. You look so nice——" Gyp was so excited that she did not know quite what she was saying. "Oh—hurry! You may never see him again."
Then they, precipitously and on tiptoe, followed little Miss Gray. Though it did not happen as each in her romantic soul had planned, it was none the less satisfying! In a chilly, bare anteroom off the stage, at a queer sound behind him resembling in a small way his name, the third violinist turned from the job of putting his violin into its box.
"Milly," he cried, his face flaming red with a pleased surprise.
"George——" Miss Gray held back, twisting her fingers in a helpless flutter. "I—I thought—when you sent—the—flowers—and the verses—that maybe, you—you still cared!"
Just for a moment a puzzled look clouded the man's face—then a vision in the doorway of four wildly-warning hands made him exclaim quickly:
"Care—didn't I tell you, Milly, that I'd never care for anyone else?"
"He took her right in his arms," four tongues explained at once, when, the next day, the self-appointed committee on romance reported back to the other Ravens. "Of course, he didn't know we were peeking. He isn't exactly the type I'd go crazy over, but he's so much better than that undertaker! And going home Miss Gray told us all about it. It would make the grandest movie! She had to support her mother and he didn't earn enough to take care of them both, and she wouldn't let him wait all that time; she told him to find someone else. But you see he didn't. Isn't love funny? And then when her mother finally died she was too proud to send him word, and I guess she didn't know where he was, anyway, or maybe she thought he had gone and done what she told him to do and married some one else. And she believed all the time that he sent her those flowers—I s'pose by that say-it-with-flowers-by-telegraph-from-any-part-of-the-country method. Oh, I hope she'll wear a veil and let us be bridesmaids!"
But little Miss Gray did not; some weeks later, in a spick-and-span blue serge traveling suit, with a little bunch of pink roses fastened in her belt, she slipped away from her dreary boarding house and met her third violinist in the shabby, unromantic front parlor of an out-of-the-way parsonage; the parson's stout wife was her bridesmaid—so much for gratitude!
"Oh, dear—how dreadfully fast time passes. It seems only a little while ago we were planning for the winter and now here comes Mrs. Hicks about new summer covers for the furniture, and Joe Laney wants to know if there's going to be any painting done and I haven't thought of any summer clothes—and with those two great growing girls! I suppose if we're going to the seashore we ought to make some reservations, too——" and Mrs. Westley concluded her plaint with a sigh that came from her very toes.
John Westley, from the depths of the great armed chair where he stretched, laughed at her serious face. But the expression of his own reflected the truth of what she had said.
"It's the rush we live in, Mary. Why don't you cut out the seashore and find a quiet place—out of this torrent? Something—like Kettle." The mention of Kettle brought him suddenly to a thought of Jerry.
"Well, my Jerry-girl's year of school is almost up. What next?"
Mrs. Westley laid down her knitting. "Yes—what next?" she asked.
"Somehow, I can't picture Jerry going back to Miller's Notch and—staying there——"
"That's it—I've thought of it often. Have we been doing the girl a kindness? After all, John, contentment is the greatest thing in this world, and perhaps we've hurt the dear child by bringing her here and letting her have a taste of—this sort of thing."
John Westley regarded his sister-in-law's plump, kindly face with amusement. She had the best heart in the world and the biggest, but she had not the discernment to know that there were treasures even in Miller's Notch and Sunnyside, and, anyway——
"Isn't contentment, Mary, a thing that depends on something inside of us, rather than our surroundings?"
She nodded, speculatively.
"And I rather think my girl from Kettle will be contented anywhere. She's gone ahead fast here. I was talking to Dr. Caton about her. He says she is amazingly intense in her work. I suppose that has come from her way of living there at Sunnyside. But what can the school there at Miller's Notch give her now?
"And what is there for a girl, living in a small place like that, after school? Contentment does depend upon our state of mind, I grant, but one's surroundings affect that state of mind—so there you are! How is a girl going to be happy if she knows that she is far superior mentally to everything that makes up her life? Jerry will grow to womanhood in her little mountain village—marry some native and——"
Uncle Johnny ignored the picture.
"We can trip ourselves up at almost every turn, Mary. Aren't places really big or small as we ticket them in our own minds? If you think of Miller's Notch and Kettle by figures of the census, they are small—but, maybe, reckoning them from real angles they're big—very big, and it's our cities that are small. To go back to Jerry—when I think of her I always think of something I said to Barbara Lee—that nothing on earth could chain a spirit like that anywhere—she was one of the world's crusaders. Oh—youth! If nothing spoils my Jerry, she'll always go forward with her head up! But that's what has made me worry, more than once, during my "experiment." Have we risked the girl to the danger of being spoiled? Will our little superficialities, so ingrained that we don't realize them, taint her splendid unaffectedness? I don't know—I can't tell until I see her back at Kettle—in that environment the like of which I've never found anywhere else. If she isn't the same shining-eyed Jerry plus considerable wisdom gleaned from her books and her school friends, I'll have it on my conscience—if she's the same, well, the winter's been worth a great deal to all of us! When I see her and watch her back there—I'll know. And that leads me to what I really came here to tell you." John Westley drew a letter from his pocket. "I had word from Trimmer—the Boston attorney. He's found traces of a Craig Winton who was a graduate of Boston Tech. He lived in obscure lodgings in a poorer part of Boston and yet he seemed to have quite a circle of friends of an intellectual sort. Some of them have given enough facts to be pieced together so as to prove, I think conclusively, that this chap is the one we're looking for. He was an inventor and of a very brilliant turn of mind, but unpractical—the old story—and desperately poor. He married the only daughter of a chemist who lived in Cambridge. His health broke down and he took his wife and went off to the country somewhere—his Boston friends lost track of him after that. Later one received a letter telling of the birth of a son."
"How interesting! Robert will be home in two weeks and then we can make the settlement."
"But, Mary—the search hasn't ended. He left Boston for the 'country'—that is very vague. And I don't like the tone of Trimmer's communication. He advises dropping the whole matter. He says that sufficient effort has been made to meet the spirit of the letter left by the late Peter Westley——"
"You will not drop it, will you?"
"Indeed not. I wired him to put all the men he could find on the case. And I am going to do some work on my own account."
"Yes—I have a clue all of my own." He laughed, folding the letter and putting it away.
"Yes—a foolish sort of a clue—I can scarcely tell it to a man like Trimmer. It's only a pair of eyes——"
"I suppose if you're like all other sleuths you will not tell me anything more," said Mrs. Westley, wondering if he was really in earnest. "When and where will your personal search begin?"
"I'd like to start this moment, but I happened to think I could drive Jerry home, and then I can make the test of my experiment."
"Drive Jerry home——" his words reached the ears of the young people, coming into the hall. It was Friday evening and they had been at the moving-pictures.
"Who's going to drive Jerry home? You, Uncle Johnny? Can't I go, too? Oh, please, please——" Gyp fell upon him, pleadingly.
"Oh, I wish the girls could go," added Jerry.
"Why not?" Uncle Johnny turned to Mrs. Westley. "Then you wouldn't have to worry your head over clothes and hotel space at the seashore! And Mrs. Allan's up there across at Cobble with a house big enough for a dozen——"
"But they must stay at Sunnyside," protested Jerry, her face glowing.
Always, now, at the back of her head, were persistent thoughts of home. She had counted the days off on her little calendar; she saw, in the bright loveliness with which the springtime had dressed the city, only a proud vision of what her beloved Kettle must be like; she hunted violets on the slopes of Highacres and dreamed of the blossoming hepaticas in the Witches' Glade and the dear sun-shadowed corners where the bloodroot grew and the soft budding beauty of the birches that lined the trail up Kettle. She longed with a longing that hurt for her little garden—for the smell of the freshly-turned soil, for the first strawberries, for the fragrance of the lilacs that grew under her small window, for the clean, cool, grass-scented valley wind. And yet her heart was torn with the thought that those very days she had counted on her calendar marked the coming separation from Gyp and the schoolmates at Highacres—Highacres itself. She must go away from them all and all that they were doing and they would in time forget her, because they would know nothing of Sunnyside. And now, quite suddenly, a new and wonderful possibility unfolded—to have Gyp at home with mother and Little-Dad, sleeping in the tiny room under the gable, climbing the trails with her, working in the garden, playing with Bigboy, sharing all the precious joys of Kettle, meant a link; after that, there could be no real separation.
And she wanted Isobel, too. Between the two girls had sprung a wonderful understanding. Isobel was grateful that Jerry had not humiliated her by mentioning the debate, or the many other little meannesses of which she had been guilty; Jerry was glad that Isobel had not raked them up—it was so much nicer to just know that Isobel liked her now. Isobel was a very different girl since her accident—perhaps Uncle Johnny, alone, knew why. She had decided very suddenly that she did want to go to college. The week before she had "squeezed through" the college entrance exams—luck she did not deserve, she had declared with surprising frankness. And after college she planned to study interior decorating.
Everyone wondered why they had not thought before of such wonderful summer plans. Mrs. Westley would go with Tibby to Cousin Marcia's at Ocean Point in Maine—"quiet enough there"; Graham was going to a boys' camp in Vermont, and Isobel and Gyp could divide their time between Sunnyside and Cobble.
"We are not consulting Mrs. Travis," laughed Mrs. Westley.
"Oh, she'd love them to be there," cried Jerry with conviction.
"And anyway, if she frowns, we'll move on to Wayside, and we know the trail in between, don't we, Jerry?"
"Say, Jerry," Graham thought it the psychological moment to spring a request he had been entertaining in his heart for some time. "Will you let me take Pepper to camp? Lots of the boys have dogs but none of them are as smart as Pep."
Jerry could not answer for a moment. In her picture of her homegoing, Pepper had had his part; but—it would be another link——
"Of course you may take him. He'll love—being with you." Long ago she had reconciled herself to sharing Pepper's devotion with Graham.
"Oh, I think that's the wonderfulest plan ever made," exclaimed Gyp rapturously—Gyp, who with her mother had visited some of the most fashionable summer and winter resorts. "I want to sleep up on—where is it, Jerry—and see the sunrise. How will we ever exist until school's over!"
"Examinations will help us do that," laughed Isobel.
"And Class-day and Commencement. And who's going to win the Lincoln Award?"
THE LINCOLN AWARD
"Who's going to win the Lincoln Award?"
That question was on every tongue at Highacres. That interest rivaled even the excitement of Class-day and its honors; of the Senior reception, Commencement itself. It shadowed the accustomed interval of alarm that always followed examinations. Everyone knew that the contest was close; no one could conjecture as to whom the honor would fall, for, though one student be a wizard in trigonometry, he might have failed dismally in the simple requirement of setting-up exercises or drinking milk.
"I've eaten spinach until I feel just like a cow out at pasture," declared Pat Everett disgustedly, "and what good has it done! For I was only eighty-five in English!"
"But think of all the iron in your system," comforted Peggy Lee. "I hope Jerry wins the prize, but I'm afraid it is going to Ginny Cox. She was ninety-nine in Cicero. I wish I had her brains——"
"And her luck! Ginny says herself that it is luck—half the time."
"Look how she got out of that scrape last winter——" spoke up another girl.
The Ravens, who were in the group, suddenly looked at one another.
"It won't be fair if Ginny wins the Award," was the thought they flashed.
The records for the contest were posted the day before Class-day—the last day of the examinations. A large group of boys and girls, eagerly awaiting them, pressed and elbowed about the bulletin board in the corridor while Barbara Lee nailed them to the wall. Gyp's inquisitive nose was fairly against the white sheet.
"Vir-gin-i-a Cox!" she read shrilly. "Jerauld Travis only two points behind! And Dana King third——"
An uncontrollable lump rose in Jerry's throat. She had hoped—she had dared think that she was going to win! She was glad of the babble under which she could cover her moment's confusion; she struggled bravely to keep the disappointment from her face as she turned with the others to congratulate Ginny.
The plaudits of the boys and girls were warm and whole-hearted. If any surprise was felt that it had been Ginny Cox and not Jerry Travis who had won the Award it was carefully concealed.
"We might have known no one could beat you, Coxie."
"It was that ninety-nine in old Cicero."
"Hurrah for Ginny!"
Dana King trooped up a yell. "Lincoln—Cox! Lincoln—Cox!"
Through it all Ginny Cox stood very still, a flush on her face but a distressed look in her eyes. The Ginny Cox whom her schoolmates had known for years would have accepted the hearty congratulations with a laughing, careless, why-are-you-surprised manner; the Ginny Cox whom Jerry had glimpsed that winter afternoon preceding the basketball game was honestly embarrassed by the turn of events. She had not dreamed she could win—it had been that ninety-nine in Cicero.
"Ginny Cox, you don't look a bit glad," accused one clear-sighted schoolmate.
Alas, Ginny was not brave enough to clean her troubled soul with confession then and there; she tried to silence the small voice of her conscience; she made a desperate effort to be her own old self, evoking the homage of her schoolmates as she had done time and time again. She answered, uneasily, with a smile that took in Jerry and Dana King:
"I hate to beat anyone like Jerry and Dana. It's so close——"
Whereupon the excited young people yelled again for "Travis" and again for "King." The crowd gradually dispersed; little groups, arm-in-arm, excitedly talking, passed out through the big door into the spring sunshine. A buoyance in the very air proclaimed that school days were over.
In one of these groups were Ginny Cox, Gyp, Jerry, Pat Everett, Peggy Lee and Isobel. Among them had fallen a constraint. Isobel broke it.
"Ginny Cox, you haven't any more right to that Award than I have! You know you built the snowman and Jerry took the blame so's you could play basketball. She's the winner!"
Each turned, surprised, at Isobel's defence of Jerry's right, marveling at the earnestness in her face.
"Oh—don't," implored Jerry. "I'm glad Ginny won it."
Ginny stamped her foot. "I'm not—I wish I hadn't. I never dreamed I would—honest. What a mess! I wish I'd just turned and told them all about it, but I didn't have the nerve! I'm just yellow." That—from Ginny Cox, the invincible forward! Breathless, the girls paused where they were on the grassy slope near the entrance of Highacres. A great elm spread over them and through its shimmering green a sunbeam shot across Ginny Cox's face, adding to the fire of its sternness.
"Girls——" she spread out her hands commandingly, "I don't know what you think—but I think Jerry Travis is the best ever at Lincoln! She's made me show up like a bad old copper penny 'longside of her. A year ago I could have taken this old Award without a flicker of my littlest eyelash, but just knowing her makes it—impossible! Now—what shall we do?"
Jerry's remonstrance—a little quivery, because she was deeply moved by Ginny's unexpected tribute—was drowned out in a general assent and a clamorous approval of Ginny's words.
"I know——" declared Isobel, feeling that, because she was a Senior, she must straighten out this tangle. "Let's tell Uncle Johnny all about it." Uncle Johnny—to whom had been carried every hurt, every problem since baby days.
The others agreed—"He's a trustee, anyway," Gyp explained—though just how much a trustee had to do with these complicated questions of school honor none of them knew.
And, as though Uncle Johnny always sprang up from the earth at the very instant his girls needed him, he came up the winding drive in his red roadster. They hailed him. He brought the car to a quick stop.
"Uncle Johnny, we want you to decide something for us! Please get out and come over here."
He stared at the serious faces. What tragedy had shadowed the customary gladness of the last day of school? He let them lead him to the old elm.
"If you'll please sit down and—and pretend you're not—our uncle but sort of a—a judge—and listen, we'll tell you."
"Dear me," Uncle Johnny murmured weakly, sitting down on the slope. "This is bad for rheumatism and gray trousers but—I'll listen."
Isobel began the story with the building of the snowman; Gyp took it up. Dramatically, with an eloquence reminiscent of that meeting of the Ravens when the ill-fated lot had fallen to Jerry, she explained how "for the honor of the school" Jerry had shouldered Ginny's punishment. Peggy Lee interrupted to say that she thought Miss Gray had made an awful fuss about nothing, but Ginny hushed her quickly. Then the story came to the winning of the Award.
"Two points—Jerry only needed two points. And she lost ten as a punishment about the snowman. Don't you see—she's really the winner?"
Uncle Johnny had listened to the story with careful gravity; inwardly he was tortured with the desire to laugh. But he could not affront these girls so seriously bent on keeping unsullied that pure white thing they called honor. "Oh, youth—youth!" he thought, loving them the more for their precious earnestness.
"And—it's such a mix-up, we don't know what to do. If I knew who had given the prize I'd go straight to him," exclaimed Ginny bravely.
Uncle Johnny straightened his immaculately gray-trousered legs and laid his straw hat down on the grass.
"If that'll help things any—I'm he," he explained with a little embarrassment.
"You? You? Really—Uncle Johnny?" came in an excited chorus.
"Yes, me," with a fine scorn for grammar. "I'm the one who's to blame for all the carrots," pinching Gyp's cheek. "But you have sort of mixed things up."
"But we had to win that basketball game," cried Gyp, "and we couldn't unless Ginny played."
"Yes—you had to win the basketball game," he nodded with a judicious appreciation.
"You see, Lincoln got the cup for the series."
"And Jerry paid the price—yes."
"For the honor of the school!"
"Then—I'm afraid this is the last payment. You see, girlies, everything we do—no matter what it is—is fraught with consequences. If I were to go over to yonder lake and throw in a pebble—what would we see? Little ripples circling wider and wider—further and further. That's like life—our everyday actions are so many pebbles—we have to accept the ripples. It's sometimes hard—but I guess Jerry sees the truth."
There was no doubt from the expression of Jerry's face but that she saw the truth—Uncle Johnny's homely simile had made it very clear.
"But I won't take it—that wouldn't be fair." It was the new Ginny who spoke. "So it'll go to Dana King."
"Yes, it will go to Dana King." Uncle Johnny was serious now. "Ginny should not have accepted Jerry's sacrifice. Girls, there's a simple little thing called 'right' that we find in our hearts if we search that's finer than even the precious honor of your school—and Gyp, you speak very truly when you say that that is something you must valiantly always uphold. Now if you'll let me tell this story of yours to the committee I think it can all be straightened out—and we'll feel better all around."
"And I'm glad it's Dana King," exclaimed Peggy Lee. "Garrett said he had had to give up his plans to go to college next fall and he was terribly disappointed and now maybe he won't have to——"
Jerry and Ginny linked arms as they walked away with the others behind Uncle Johnny. The shadow dispelled—in youth the sun is always so happily close behind all the little clouds—the girls' spirits went forth, joyously, to meet the interests of the moment, the class oration, the class gift, the class song, Isobel's graduating dress, the Senior bouquets—the hundred and one exciting things about the proud class of girls and boys who were, in a few days, to pass forever from the school life—graduates.
Uncle Johnny watched his girls join others and troop away, with light step, heads high. He chuckled, though behind it was a little sigh.
"Doc, my boy, you were right—it has made me ten years younger to mix up with these youngsters."
As he turned to go into the building he met Barbara Lee coming out. He suddenly remembered that the business of the Award had to do with Barbara Lee—somehow, he almost always had, nowadays, to consult her about something! Very sweetly she went back with him to her office. He told her what the girls had told him. She listened with triumph in her face.
"I knew Jerry Travis did not do that. But, oh, aren't they funny?" However, her tone said that these "funny" girls were very dear to her. "It will take something very real out of my life when I leave Lincoln."
"What do you mean?" John Westley's voice rang abruptly.
"Of course—you haven't heard. I have had a wonderful offer from a big export house in San Francisco. It's the same firm to which I expected to go last summer—before I came here. You see the road I chose to climb to the stars wasn't entirely along—physical training. My last year in college I specialized in export work. There was a fascination in it to me—it's such a growing thing, such a challenging work, and it carries one into new and untried fields. There's an element of adventure in it——" her eyes glistened. "I shall spend a year at the main office, then they're going to send me into China—because I can speak the Chinese language."
John Westley stared at her—she seemed like such a slip of a girl.
"And mother is so much better now that there is no reason why I cannot go."
Though they had yet to straighten out the matter of the Award she quite involuntarily held out her hand as she spoke, and John Westley took it in both of his.
"I hope this—is the road to the stars." That did not sound properly congratulatory, so he added, lamely: "I'm glad—if you want to go. But what will we do without you here?"
"Commencements——" declared Gyp, wise with her fifteen years, "are like weddings—all sort of weepy."
"What do you know of weddings, little one?" from Graham.
"I guess I've been to five, Graham Westley! And some one is always crying at them. Why, when Cousin Alicia Stowe was married she cried herself!"
"Did you cry, mother?" asked Tibby curiously.
Mrs. Westley laughed. "I did—really. And I cried at my Commencement. There were only twelve of us graduated that spring from Miss Oliver's Academy and none of us went to college, so you see it really was the end of our school days. I was very happy until it was all over—then, I remember, as I walked down the aisle in my organdie dress—we wore organdie then, too, girls—with a big bouquet of pink roses on my arm and everyone smiling and nodding at all of us, it came over me with a rush that my school days were all over and that they'd never come back. So I cried—for a very weepy half-hour I wanted more than anything else to be a little girl again with all childhood before me. I was afraid—to look ahead into life——"
"But there was father—you knew him then, didn't you?"
A pretty color suffused Mrs. Westley's cheeks. "Yes—there was father. I said I only cried for half an hour. Two years afterward I was married—and I cried again. Of course I was very, very happy—but I knew I was going away forever from my girlhood."
"Mother——" protested Isobel. "You make me feel dreadfully sad. I wanted to cry yesterday when Sheila Quinn spoke at the Class-day exercises. Wasn't she wonderful when she said how Lincoln School had given us our shield and our armor and that always we must live to be worthy of her trust! I thrilled to my toes. But if it makes one cry to be married——"
"Darling"—and Mrs. Westley took Isobel's hand in hers—"we leave our childhood and again our girlhood with a few tears, perhaps, but always there is the wonder of the bigger life ahead. I think even in dying there must be the same joy. And though we do shed tears over the youth we tenderly lay aside, they are happy tears—tears that sweeten and strengthen the spirit, too."
"Well, I'm glad I have two more years at Highacres," cried Gyp, looking with pity at Isobel's thoughtful face.
"And I'm glad," Isobel added, slowly, "that I decided to go to college. It must be dreadful to know that school is all over. I wouldn't be Amy Mathers for anything. It sounds so silly to hear her talk of all she's going to do next winter—such empty things!" Isobel, in her scorn, had forgotten that only a few weeks back she had wanted to do just what Amy Mathers was planning to do!
"Well,"—Graham stretched his arms—"school's all right but I'm mighty glad vacation has come."
Through their talk Jerry had sat very still. To her the Class-day exercises of the school had opened a great well of sentiment. All through her life, she thought, she would strive to repay by worthiness the great debt of inspiration she owed to the school. She had not thought of it in just that grand way until she had heard Sheila Quinn, until Dana King had given the class prophecy, until Ginny had read the school poem, until Peggy Lee had presented the class gift to the school. A young alumna of the preceding class had welcomed the proud graduates. Dr. Caton had presented the Lincoln Award—to Dana King. A murmur had swept the room when he announced that, through a mistake in the records, the Award went to Dana King instead of either Miss Cox or Miss Travis. Jerry sat next to Ginny and, as Dr. Caton spoke, she squeezed Ginny's hand in a way that said plainly, "If I had it all to do over again I'd do the same thing!" Afterward Dana King had shaken her hand warmly and had declared that he "couldn't understand such good fortune and it meant a lot to him—for it made college possible."
It seemed to Jerry as though they were all standing on a great shining hill from which paths diverged—attractive paths that beckoned; that precious word college—Isobel, Dana King, Peggy Lee were going along that path; Sheila Quinn was going to study to be a nurse. Amy Mather's had chosen a more flowery way. Would her happiness be more lasting than the pretty flowers that lured her? Jerry's own path was a steep, narrow, little path, and led straight away from Highacres—but it led to Sunnyside! So with the little ache that gripped her when she thought that she must very soon leave Highacres forever, was a great joy that in a few days now she would see her precious Sweetheart—and Gyp and Isobel would be with her.
The whole family was in a flutter over the Commencement. Graham's class was to usher; the undergraduates were to march in by classes, the girls in white, carrying sweet-peas, the boys wearing white posies in the lapels of their coats.
Mrs. Westley inspected her young people with shining eyes.
"You look like the most beautiful flowers that ever grew," she cried in the choky way that mothers have at such moments. "I wish I could hug you all—but it would muss you dreadfully."
"Thank goodness, mammy, that you don't find any dirt on me," exclaimed Graham, whose ruddy face shone from an extra "party" scrubbing.
"Am I all right, mother?" begged Isobel, pirouetting in her fluffy white.
Uncle Johnny rushed in. He was very dapper in a new tailcoat and a flower in his buttonhole. He was very nervous, too, for he was to give the address of the day. He pulled a small box from his pocket.
"A little graduating gift for my Bonnie." It was a circlet pin of sapphires. He fastened it against the soft, white folds of her dress. "You know what a ring is symbolic of, Isobel? Things eternal—everlasting—never ending. That's like my faith in you." He lifted the pretty, flushed, happy face and kissed it. "Come on, now—everybody ready?"
If they had not all been so excited over the Commencement they must have noticed that there was something very different in Uncle Johnny's manner—a certain breathless exaltation such as one feels when one has girded one's self for a great deed.
He had made up his mind to something. The day before, while he had been preparing the Commencement address, all kinds of thoughts had haunted him—thoughts concerning Barbara Lee. That half-hour with her in her little office, when she had told him she was going away, had opened his eyes. He had cried out: "What will we do without you?" He had really meant, "What will I do without you?"
Absurd—he tried to reason the whole thing calmly—absurd that this slip of a girl, who knew Chinese, had become necessary to his happiness! How in thunder had it happened? But there is no answer to that—and he was in no state of mind to reason; she was going away—and he could not let her go away.
So all the while he was dashing off splendid things about loyalty (John Westley had won several oratorical contests at college) his brain was asking humbly, "Will she laugh at an old bachelor like me—if I tell her?" He had hated the face he saw in the mirror, edged above his ears with closely-clipped gray hair. Thirty-six years old; he had not thought that so very old until now; contrasted with Barbara Lee's splendid youth it seemed like ninety.
"I'll tell her—just the same," was his final determination; she was on her way to the "stars," but he wanted her to know that he loved her with a strength and constancy the greater for his thirty-six years.
From the platform he stared out over the sea of serious young faces—and saw only the one. He stood before them all, speaking with an earnestness and a beauty of thought that was inspired—not by the detached group of graduates, listening with shining eyes, but by Barbara Lee, sitting with a rapt expression that seemed to separate herself and him from the others and bring them very close.
"Loyalty" was his theme; "loyalty to God, loyalty to one's highest ideals, loyalty to one's country, to one's fellowmen."
After he had finished there was the stir which always marks, in a gathering of people, a high pitch of feeling. Then someone sang, clear, soprano notes that drifted through the room and mingled with the spring gladness. The air was fragrant with the sweetness of the blossoms which decked the big room; through the long windows came the freshness of the June world outside. It was a day, an hour, sacred to the rites of youth. More than one man and woman, worn a little with living, sat there with reverence in their hearts for these young people who, strong with the promise of their day, stood at the start——
Then the school sang their Alma Mater—the undergraduates singing the first two verses, the graduates singing the last. The dear, familiar notes rang with a truer, braver cadence—one voice, clearer than the others, broke suddenly with feeling.
"Wasn't it all perfectly beautiful?" cried Gyp as the audience moved slowly after the files of graduates. "You couldn't tell which was best of the program and it was sad, wasn't it? Wasn't Uncle Johnny splendid? And didn't the girls look fine? You know Sheila Quinn was just sick over her dress—it was so plain—and she looked as lovely as any of the others. Oh, goodness, think how you'd feel if we were graduating. But I hope our Commencement will be just as nice! There's Barbara Lee, let's hug her—think how dreadful to have her go away. And Dana King's just waiting for you, Jerry——" Gyp ended her outburst by rushing to Miss Lee and throwing her long arms about her shoulders.
John Westley advanced upon them—with the strange new look still in his eyes.
"Gyp—you're wrinkling Miss Lee's pinkness." He tried to make his tone light. "Will you come into the library for a moment, Miss Lee? There's a book I want you to find for me." His eyes pleaded. Wondering a little, Barbara Lee walked away with him.
"Well, I never——" declared Gyp, disgusted. Then, in the stress of saying good-by to some of her schoolmates, she forgot Uncle Johnny and Barbara Lee.
John Westley had felt that the library would be quite deserted. Standing in the embrasure of the window through which the June light streamed, he told Barbara Lee in awkward, earnest words all that was in his heart. There was a humility in his voice, as he offered her his love, that brought a tender smile to the corners of her lips.
"I wanted you to know," he finished, simply. "I don't suppose—what I can offer—can find any place in your heart alongside of your splendid dreams—but, I wanted you to know that you have——"
"There's more than one way to the stars——" she interrupted, lifting glowing eyes to his.
Gyp had said good-by to everyone she could lay a finger on. Then she remembered Uncle Johnny.
"Do you s'pose they're in the library yet?"
She and Jerry tiptoed along the corridor and peeped in the door. To their embarrassed amazement Uncle Johnny and Barbara Lee were standing looking out of the window—with their hands clasped.
Gyp coughed—a cough that was really a funny sputter.
"Did—did you find your book, Uncle Johnny?"
Uncle Johnny turned—without a blush.
"Hello, Gyp!" (As though he'd never seen her before!) "I didn't find the book—because I wasn't really after a book. But I did find what I wanted. What would you say, Gyp and Jerry, if I told you that your Barbara Lee is not going away?"
"Ka-a-a-a-a-a-a" echoed through the wooded slopes of Kettle. Startled, birds winged away from the treetops, little wild creatures skurried through the undergrowth, yet in the care-free, silvery tinkle of those merry voices there was no note to alarm.
Jerry was leading Isobel and Gyp down the trail from Rocky Top. Baskets, swinging from their shoulders, told of the jolly day's outing. Isobel and Gyp were dressed in khaki middies and short skirts; Isobel's hair was drawn back simply from her face and bound with a bright red ribbon; Gyp's cheeks were tanned a ruddy brown, against which her lips shone scarlet. Jerry wore the boyish outfit in which John Westley had found her. Three happier, merrier girls could not have been found the world over.
A week—a week of hourly wonders, had passed since the girls had arrived at Sunnyside with Uncle Johnny. To Jerry the homecoming was even sweeter than she had dreamed. And to find her precious mother "exactly" the same, she whispered in the privacy of a close hug, dispelled a little fear that had tormented her.
"Why, darling, did you think I'd be different?"
"I don't know——" Jerry had colored, but tightened the clasp of her arms. "It's been so dreadfully long! I thought maybe—I'd forgotten——"
And Little-Dad had not changed a bit, nor the house, nor the garden, nor Bigboy—not a thing, Jerry had found on an excited round. The old lilac bushes were in full leaf, the syringas were in blossom, there were still daffodils in the corner near the fir-tree gate; glossy, spiky leaves marked a row of onions just where her onions had always grown—Little-Dad had put in her seed; the sun slanted in gold-brown bars across the bare floor of the familiar, low-ceilinged living-room, softening to a ruddy glow the bindings of the familiar books everywhere. Her own little room was just as she had left it. Oh, the wonder, the joy of coming back! How different it would have been if there had been any change. What if Sweetheart—she rushed headlong to hug her mother again.
Then there was the fun of taking Gyp and Isobel everywhere. They were genuinely enraptured with all her favorite haunts; the magic of Kettle caught them just as it had caught Uncle Johnny that day he ran away from his guide. Every morning they were up with the birds and off over the trail to return laden with the treasures of Kettle, wild strawberries, lingering trillium, wild currant blossoms, moist baby ferns. Together these girls brought to quiet Sunnyside a gaiety it had not known before. To Mrs. Westley, after her lonely winter, it was as though a radiant summer sun had flooded suddenly through a gray mist.
And Jerry had to tell her mother everything that had happened all through the winter. She saved it all for such moments as she and her mother stole to wander off together; it was easier to talk to mother alone, and then there were so many things she wanted only mother to know—concerning most of them she had written, to be sure, but she liked to think it all over again, herself—those first days of school, the classes, the teachers, the Ravens, basketball and hockey and that never-to-be-forgotten day at Haskin's Hill, the Everett party, the two "real plays," the great vaulted church where music floated from hidden pipes—only concerning the debate and that stormy evening when she had discarded her "charity" clothes did she keep silent. School, school, school; Mrs. Westley, listening intently, smiling wistfully at her big girl, in spirit lived with her through each experience, happy or trying, rejoicing that she had had them. And yet in her eyes there lingered a furtive questioning. Jerry, reveling in her own happiness, did not realize that her mother was watching her every expression with the anguishing fear that her Jerry might have changed. And she had changed; she had grown, though she was still as straight as one of Kettle's young fir trees; her winter's experience had left its mark on her sunny face in a new firmness of the lips, a thoughtfulness behind the shining eyes.
"Will these new friends, Jerry, these fine times you have had make you love Sunnyside less—or be discontented here?" Her mother had interrupted her flood of confidences to say.
Jerry stared in such astonishment that her mother laughed, a shaky laugh, and kissed her.
"Because, my dear, remember you are only Jerauld Travis of Kettle Mountain, and your life must lie just here. Oh, my precious, I thank God I have you back!" she added with an intensity of emotion that startled and puzzled Jerry.
"Why, mother, honest truly there's never been a moment when I wasn't glad I was only Jerauld Travis, and I wouldn't trade places with a soul, only——" and Jerry could not finish, for she did not know just what she wanted to say. She was oddly disturbed. Did her mother begrudge her those happy weeks at Highacres? Had she been afraid of something? And was she the same Jerry who had wished on the Wishing-rock to just see the world which lay beyond her mountain? Didn't she want to go away again—sometime, to college? And what would her mother say if she told her that?
Jerry managed to lock away these tormenting thoughts while she and the girls were roaming Kettle. Certainly there was not a shadow in the face she lifted now to the caress of the mountain breeze nor in the voice that caroled its "Ka-a-a-a-a" and laughed as the echoes answered.
From the Witches' Glade where the trail sloped down between white birches, the girls ran fleetly, leaped the little gate through the fringe of fir trees and, laughing and panting, tumbled upon the veranda of the bungalow straight into Uncle Johnny's arms!
Uncle Johnny had only stopped at Kettle long enough to unload his girls and their baggage, then he had hurried on to Boston to consult the lawyers who were tracing Craig Winton. He had not expected to return for three or four weeks. "Not until I have this thing off my mind," he had explained to Isobel and Gyp.
Isobel, though she now looked at it from another angle, still thought it very foolish to pursue the search for this Craig Winton. The Boston men had reported that their search had led them to a blank wall and that there was little use spending more money on it. But in spite of this, Uncle Johnny had persisted in going ahead on some clue of his own and wasting precious time away from Barbara Lee. Both Isobel and Gyp, from thinking that no woman in the world was good enough for Uncle Johnny, had now veered around to the happy conviction that heaven had patterned Barbara Lee especially for Uncle Johnny's pleasure. They beamed upon the engagement with such approval that even Uncle Johnny, head over heels in love as he was, grew a little embarrassed by their enthusiasm. Gyp also became reconciled to the school library as a setting for the proposal and declared that, thereafter, the library at Highacres would be enshrined in her heart as something other than a room to "make one's head ache." But both girls were disgusted that Uncle Johnny could cheerfully leave the lady of his choice and go off on a search that appeared so useless! It was contrary to all their rules of romance.
Something in Uncle Johnny's face and his unexpected appearance drew an exclamation from each of the girls. Almost in the same voice, with no more greeting than to vigorously grasp him by shoulder and arm, they cried: "Did you find her? Have you come to stay?"
He hesitated just a moment and glanced questioningly at Mrs. Travis. Then for the first time the girls noticed that Mrs. Travis was very pale, that her eyes burned dark against the whiteness of her skin as though she had been racked by a great agitation and her hands clasped tightly the back of a chair. She nodded to John Westley.
"Yes, my search is ended. You see I had the right clue—though it was only the mention of a pair of eyes. Do you remember in Uncle Peter's letter about Craig Winton's eyes? 'They were glowing like they were lighted within.' Well, have you ever seen a pair of eyes like that? I have—only where Craig Winton's were sad with disappointment, these others glow from the pure joy of being alive——"
"Jerry?" interrupted Gyp, in a queer, tangled voice.
The girls stared at Jerry and Jerry stared at John Westley. Was he just joking? How could it be? She turned to her mother. Her mother nodded again.
"Yes, dear, you are Jerauld Winton. But—we gave you your stepfather's name—he was so good to us!"
In that moment of unutterable surprise Jerry's loyal little heart went out quickly to Little-Dad.
"Oh, even if he is a stepfather I love him just the same!" she exclaimed, wishing he was there that she might hug him.
"You see, beginning at this end made my search quicker. It was hindered a little, though, because the county courthouse at Waytown, where the records of Jerry's birth and Craig Winton's death were filed, burned a few years ago with everything in it. But I stumbled on an old codger who used to be postmaster at Waytown and he told me more in a few moments than all the Boston detectives had found in months. I went on to Boston to interview those old friends the lawyers there had found and then came back."
There was a puzzled look on each face. Hesitatingly, Jerry put the question that was in each mind.
"But, mother, why didn't you ever tell? Were you—ashamed?"
Her mother's face flared with color. She stepped forward and laid an entreating hand on Jerry's. "Oh, no—no!" she cried. "You must not think that—no one must. He—your father—was the finest man that ever lived. But he made me promise, when you were a wee, wee baby, that I would try to protect you from the bitterness of the world that had—broken his heart. Oh, he died of a broken heart, a broken spirit. He lived in his dreams, his inventions were a part of him—like his right arm! When they failed he suffered cruelly. Then he had one that he knew was good. But——" she stopped abruptly, remembering that these people were Westleys. "But he could never have been happy. He was not practical or—or sensible. His brain wore out his body—it was always, always working along one line. And before he—died, he seemed to have the fear that you might grow up to be like him—'a puppet for the thieves to fleece and feed upon,' he used to say. After he—died, we stayed on in Dr. Travis' cabin, where he had sheltered and cared for your father. He moved down into the village but, oh, he was so good to us! When, two years later I married him and we built this home, I vowed that I would keep only the blessed peace of Sunnyside for you. So I never told you of your own father and those dreadful years of poverty. But I was not ashamed!"
Jerry, not knowing exactly why, put one arm around her mother's shoulder in a protecting manner. "Poor, brave Sweetheart," she whispered, laying her cheek against her mother's arm.
Isobel and Gyp were held silent by a disturbing sense of embarrassment. That it should have been Jerry's father whom their Uncle Peter had "fleeced"—the horrible word which had slipped reminiscently from Mrs. Travis' lips burned in their ears! But a sudden delight finally broke loose Gyp's tongue.
"Oh, Jerry, isn't it exciting to think we've been hunting everywhere and all the time it's you! I'm glad—'cause it sort of makes you a relation." And her logic was so extremely stretched that everyone laughed.
"I'd rather you got the money than anyone in the world," added Isobel.
The money—Jerry had not thought of that! Her face flushed scarlet, then paled.
"Oh, I don't want it," she cried. "You've done so much for me."
"My dear," Uncle Johnny's voice was very business-like. "It is something you have not the right to decline, because it was given by a dying man to purchase a peace of mind for his last moment on earth. And now let me look you over, Jerry-girl." He tilted her chin and studied her face. Then he glanced approvingly down her slim length, smiling at her boyish garments. "I guess my experiment hasn't hurt you," he said, though no one there knew what he meant.
The evening was very exciting—why would it not be when Jerry had found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow right in her very own lap? Uncle Johnny stayed on overnight; some repairs to a tire were necessary before he started homeward.
"Do you remember what you said once, Jerry, when I asked you what you would do if you had a lot of money?" Gyp had asked as they sat out on the veranda watching the stars. "And you said you'd go to school as long as ever you could and then——"
Jerry had raised suddenly to an upright position from the step where she was curled.
"Oh"—she cried, her voice deep with delight—"now I can go back to Highacres——"
Then, at the very moment of her ecstasy, she was strangely disturbed by the quick touch of her mother's hand laid on her shoulder.
HER MOTHER'S STORY
Sometime after she had gone to sleep, Jerry wakened suddenly with the disturbing conviction that someone needed her. At the same moment her ear caught a sound that made her slip her bare feet quickly to the floor and stand, listening. It had been a soft step beneath her window—a little sigh.
In a flash Jerry sped down the narrow stairway, past the open door of the room where Little-Dad lay snoring, and out across the veranda. In the dim light of the moon that hung low in the arc of the blue-black sky, Jerry made out the figure of her mother, standing near the rough bench that overlooked the valley.
"Jerry, child, and in your bare feet!"
"I heard you out here. Isn't it dreadfully late? Can't you sleep? Mother, look at me," for Mrs. Westley had kept her face averted. "Mother, darling, why do you look so—sort of—sad?" Jerry's voice was reproachful. "We're so happy now that we are together, aren't we? And it will be nice to have lots of things and Little-Dad won't ever have to worry and——"
Mrs. Travis lifted her hand suddenly and laid it across Jerry's lips. "Child, I am not sad. I have been out here fighting away forever the foolish fears that have stalked by my side since you were a very little girl. Some day, when you're a mother, you'll know how I've felt—how I've dreaded facing this moment! How often I've sat with you and watched the baby robins make their first flight from the nest and have laughed at the fussy mother robin scolding and worrying up in a nearby branch——"
"But, mamsey, you've always told me how the mother robin pushes the little ones out of the nest to make them know that they can fly!"
Mrs. Travis accepted the rebuke in silence. Jerry slipped her hand into her mother's. Her mother held it close.
"Jerry, dear, I've never told you much about myself because I could not do that without telling you of your own father. I was a very lonely little girl; I had no brothers or sisters—no near relatives. My mother died when I was eight years old, and a housekeeper—good soul—brought me up. My father was a professor of chemistry in Harvard, as you know, and he was a queer man and his friends were peculiar, too—not the sort that was much company for a young girl. But I was very fond of my father and I was very content with my simple life until I met Craig Winton. He was so different from anyone else who had ever crossed our threshold that I fell in love with him at once. My father died suddenly and Craig Winton asked me to marry him. It was the maddest folly—he had nothing except his inventive genius and he should never have tied himself to domestic responsibilities; they were always—such as they were—like a dreadful yoke to his spirit. But we were happy, oh, we were happy in a wonderful, unreal way. Sometimes we didn't have enough to eat, but he always had so much faith in what he was going to do that that somehow, kept us going. But when his faith began to die—it was dreadful. It was as though some hidden poison was killing him, right before my eyes."
"What made his faith die?" asked Jerry, curiously.
"Because he grew to distrust his fellowmen. That second visit to Peter Westley——" Mrs. Travis spoke quickly to hide her bitterness. "He was so sure that what he had made was good—an inventor has always, my dear, an irrational love for the thing he has created—and to have it spurned! He was supersensitive, super—everything. Then my own health went to pieces. I suppose I simply was not getting enough to eat to give me the strength to meet the mental strain under which I had to live—and you were coming. From his last visit to Peter Westley he returned with a little money, but he was as a crushed, broken man—his bitterness had unbalanced his mind. He said that it was for my health that he came away with me, but I knew that it was to get away from the world that he hated—and to hide his failure! Your Little-Dad took us in. He knew at once that your father was a very sick man and he brought him to his cabin here on Kettle. But even here your father suffered, and after you were born he feared for you. He was obsessed with the thought that you had all life to face——"
"How dreadfully sorry you must have felt for him," whispered Jerry, shyly, trying to make it all seem true.
"I felt sorry for him, child, not that he had been so disappointed but because he had not the strength to rally from it. I don't believe God made him that way; I think he sacrificed too much of himself to his genius. This world we live in demands so much of us—such different things, that, if we are to meet everything squarely, we cannot develop one side of our minds and let the other side go. I am telling you all this, Jerry, that you may understand how I have felt—about you. The months after your father died were sort of a blank to me—I lived on here because I had nowhere else to go. Gradually my gratitude to John Travis turned to real affection—not like what I had given your father, but something quite as deep. And the years I have lived with him here have been very happy—as though my poor little ship had found the still waters of an inland stream after having been tossed on a stormy sea. And I've tried to make myself think that in these still waters I could keep you always, that you would grow up here and—perhaps—marry someone——" she laughed. "Mothers always dream way ahead, darling. But as you grew older I could see that that was not going to be easy. You've so quickly outgrown everything I can give you—or that anyone—here—can; you have grown so curious, your mind is always reaching out. What is here, what is there, what is this, where is that—questions like these always on your tongue! And you are like your father—very."
Jerry shivered the least little bit, perhaps from the night air, warm as it was, perhaps from the thought that she was like poor, poor Craig Winton, who did not seem at all like a real father.
In a moment her mother had wrapped her in the soft shawl she carried. Something in the loving touch of her hands broke the spell of unreality that had held Jerry.
"I don't understand, mamsey," she whispered, cuddling close, "if you felt like—that—and worried, why did you let me go away?"
"Because, my child," there was something triumphant in her mother's voice, "some inner sense made me believe that though you look like your father and act like him in many ways, you have a nature and a character quite of your own. I tried to put away the fears I had had which I told myself were foolish and morbid. John Westley's arguments helped me. I knew immediately that he was related to the Peter Westley who had crushed your father, but I felt certain he knew nothing of it—and I was glad; to bury the past entirely was the only way to bury forever the bitterness that had killed your father. And when John Westley made the offer to give you a year of school, I thought it was only justice! I had known school life in a big city where I had many schoolmates and I lived for several years in the shadow of a great university, though the life in it only touched me indirectly, and when the opportunity opened, I wanted you to have the same experience; I felt it might solve the problem that confronted me. And I told myself that I was sure of you that you could go away to school, go anywhere, and come back again and be my same girl! Jerry, these people have been very, very good to you; out of pure generosity they have given you a great deal, do you now—now that you know the truth—feel any bitterness toward them?"
Never had Jerry associated Uncle Johnny and Mrs. Westley, nor the younger Westleys, nor the charming, hospitable home, with the Peter Westley she had pictured from Gyp's vivid descriptions. And, too, remembering the pathetic loneliness of the old man's last days, she felt nothing but pity.
"Oh, no," she answered, softly, decidedly. "Anyway, he made up for everything he'd done when he gave beautiful Highacres to Lincoln School," she added, loyally.
Then Jerry fell silent. "I was sure of you," her mother's words echoed. Had she not glimpsed more, in those months at Highacres, than her mother dreamed? A promise of what college might hold for her—new worlds to conquer?
"Mother, am—am I the—same girl?" She put the question slowly.
"No, Jerry—and that's what I've been fighting out here—all by myself. For I realize that it was only selfishness made me dread finding a change! A mother's selfishness! That you should grow and go on and forward, even though you leave me behind, darling, I know must be my dearest wish. But oh, my dear, I understand how the poor mother robin feels just before she shoves her babies out of the nest! For don't you think she hates an empty nest as much as any human mother? Do you remember the little story I used to tell you when you were small enough to cuddle your whole self on my lap? How yours and my love was a beautiful, sunny garden where you dwelt and that the garden had a very high wall around it?"
"I love that story, mamsey. I told it once to Mrs. Westley and she loved it, too. And you used to say that there was a gate in the wall with a latch but the latch was quite high so that when I was little I could not find it!"