"Sh-sh! You silly child!" Harriet protested. "Here comes Mrs. Wilson. You can't go to tell Madame Louise you have changed your mind before so many people. And what is the use of worrying over such a small debt? The dress was a wonderful bargain. You would be a goose not to buy it."
Now, because Harriet was older than Mollie, and Mollie thought her very beautiful and well trained in all the graces of society, foolish little Mollie allowed herself to be silenced, and so made endless trouble for herself and for the people who loved her.
"Don't tell Barbara about my buying the frock, Harriet," Mollie pleaded, as the two girls went up the steps of the Hamlin home, a short time before luncheon. "I would rather tell Bab about it myself, when I get a chance."
"Oh, I won't tell. You may count on me," promised Harriet, in sympathetic tones. "Will Bab be very cross!"
"Oh, not exactly that," Mollie hesitated. "But I am afraid she will be worried. I am glad we are at home. I want to lie down, I feel so tired."
Not long after Harriet and Mollie had started off on their shopping expedition, Bab came across from her room into Ruth's.
"Ruth, do you think I could telephone Mr. Dillon?" she asked. "I picked up a piece of paper that he dropped in the garden yesterday, and I forgot to return it to him."
"Give it to me, child. I told you yesterday that I did not wish you to grow to be an intimate friend of that man. But I am writing him a note to thank him for his kindness to us last night. I can just put your paper in my letter and explain matters to him."
Bab carelessly tossed the sheet of paper on Ruth's desk. It opened, and Ruth cried out in astonishment. "Oh, Bab, how queer! This note is written in Chinese characters. What do you suppose Peter Dillon is doing with a letter written in Chinese?"
"I don't know I am sure, Ruth," Bab demurred. "It is none of our business."
"Did you get the yellow ribbon, Mollie?" Barbara asked her sister, two hours later, when Mollie and Harriet came in from their shopping. "I have been fixing up your dress all morning. It is awfully pretty. Now I want to make the sash."
"I did not get any ribbons, Bab." Mollie answered peevishly. "I told you I would not wear that old yellow dress."
AT THE WHITE HOUSE
Mollie Thurston was not well the next day. She stayed in bed and explained that her head ached. And Harriet Hamlin behaved very strangely. She was shut up in the room with Mollie for a long time; when she came out Mollie's eyes were red, and Harriet looked white as a sheet. But neither of the girls would say what was the matter.
Just before the hour for starting to the White House reception, Mollie got out of bed and insisted on dressing.
"I am afraid you are not well enough to go out to-night, Mollie," Bab protested. "I hope you won't be too disappointed. Shall I stay at home with you?"
Mollie shook her head obstinately. "I am quite well now," she insisted. "Bab, would you mind leaving me alone while I dress? I do feel nervous, and I know Ruth and Grace won't care if you go into their room."
"All right, Mollie," Barbara agreed cheerfully, wondering what had come over her little sister. "Call me when you wish me to button your gown. I have put the yellow one out on the lounge, if you should decide to wear it."
When Mollie was left alone two large tears rolled down her cheeks. Once she started to crawl back into bed and to give up the reception altogether. But, after a while, she walked over to her closet and drew out a great box. With trembling fingers Mollie opened it and gazed in upon the exquisite blue frock that had already caused her so much embarrassment and regret.
Should she wear the frock that night? Mollie Thurston asked herself. And what would Bab say when she saw it? For Mollie had not yet mustered up the courage to make her confession. Well, come what might, Mollie decided to wear her new frock this one time. She had risked everything to own it, so she might as well have this poor pleasure.
When Mollie joined Mr. Hamlin and the other girls downstairs a long party cape completely concealed her gown.
Mr. Hamlin did not keep a private carriage; so, as long as Ruth's automobile was in Washington, he decided to take his party to the White House in Ruth's car.
The girls were ready early, for Mr. Hamlin explained to them that they would have to take their position in the line of carriages that slowly approached the White House door, and that sometimes this procession was nearly a mile in length.
"I suppose you girls won't mind the waiting as much as we older people do, because you always have so much to say to each other. And perhaps this is my best chance to learn to know you better. I have been so busy that I have seen little of you during your visit to Harriet."
But Mollie and Harriet were strangely silent, and Bab felt absolutely tongue-tied before Mr. Hamlin. Fortunately, Grace and Ruth sat on each side of him.
"Mr. Hamlin," Grace asked timidly, "would you mind telling me what are the duties of the Secretary of State? Washington is like a new, strange world to us. I have learned the titles of the different members of the President's Cabinet, but I have not the faintest idea what they do. Mollie and I looked over the cards of the guests who came to your reception. Some of the cards just read: 'The Speaker,' 'The Chief of Staff,' 'L'Ambassadeur de France,' without any personal names at all."
Mr. Hamlin seemed pleased. The stern, half-embarrassed expression, that he usually wore before the girls relaxed a little at Grace's eager questioning.
"I am glad, Miss Carter, to find you take an interest in Washington affairs," he answered. "It is most unusual in a young girl. I wish Harriet cared more about them, but she seems devoted only to society." Mr. Hamlin sighed under his breath. "Yes; it is the custom for the officials in Washington to put only the titles of their office on their visiting cards. You are sure you wish to know the duties of the Secretary of State? I don't want to bore you, my child."
Grace nodded her head eagerly.
"Well, let me see if I can make it plain to you. The Secretary of State has charge of all the correspondence between the foreign countries and their representatives in the United States," Mr. Hamlin continued. "Do you understand?"
"I think I do," Grace answered hesitatingly, while Bab leaned over from the next seat to see if she could understand what Mr. Hamlin was explaining.
"The Secretary of State also receives all kinds of information from the consuls and diplomatic officers, who represent the United States abroad," Mr. Hamlin went on. "Sometimes this information is very important and very secret. It might bring on serious trouble, perhaps start a war with another country, if some of these secrets were discovered. The Secretary of State has other duties; he keeps the Great Seal of the United States. But my chief business as Assistant Secretary is just to look after the important private correspondence with all the other countries."
"Father," exclaimed Harriet, "why are you boring the girls to death with so much information? They don't understand what you mean. I have been living in Washington for four years, and I have not half an idea of what your duties are. But thank goodness, we have arrived at the White House at last!"
Their motor car had finally drawn up before the entrance to the Executive Mansion at the extremity of the eastern wing. The house was a blaze of lights; the Marine Band was playing a national air.
Harriet, who was familiar with all the rules that govern the President's receptions, quickly marshaled her guests into the lobby, where they had to take off their coats and hats.
Bab was so overcome at the enormous number of people about her, that she did not see Mollie remove her cape.
Mollie slipped quietly into a corner, and was waiting by Harriet's side, when Harriet called the other girls to hurry up the broad stairs to the vestibule above, where the guests were forming in line to enter the reception room.
Barbara, Ruth and Grace gave little gasps of astonishment when they first beheld Mollie. If little Mollie Thurston's heart was heavy within her on this brilliant occasion, she held her pretty head very high. The worry and excitement had given her a slight fever; her cheeks were a deep carmine and her eyes glittered brightly.
"Why, Mollie! What a vision you are!" exclaimed Ruth and Grace together. "Where did you get that wonderful gown? You have been saving it to surprise us to-night, haven't you?"
But Bab did not say a single word. She only looked at Mollie, her face paling a little with surprise and curiosity. How had Mollie come by a gown that was more beautiful than anything Bab had ever seen her sister wear? Barbara knew Mollie had not had the gown when they left home together, for she had packed her sister's trunk for her. But this was not the time to ask questions. Bab's mind was divided between the wonder and delight she felt at the scene before her, and amazement at Mollie's secret. "I do hope," she thought, as she followed Mr. Hamlin up the steps, "that Mollie has not borrowed that gown of Harriet. But no; it fits her much too well. Some one must have given it to her as a present and she has kept the secret until to-night to surprise me."
The "Automobile Girls" stood behind Mr. Hamlin and Harriet in the great vestibule just outside the famous Blue Room of the White House, where the President and his wife were waiting to receive their guests. The line was moving forward so slowly that the girls had a chance to look about them. Never had any one of them beheld such a beautiful spectacle. Of course the "Automobile Girls" had been present at a number of receptions during their brief social careers, but for the first time to-night they saw men in other than ordinary evening dress. The diplomats from other countries wore their superb court costumes with the insignia of their rank. The American Army and Navy officers had on their bright full dress uniforms.
Bab thought the Russian Ambassador the most superb looking man she had ever seen, and Mollie blushed when Lieutenant Elmer Wilson bowed gallantly to her across the length of the hall.
When the girls first took up their positions in the line, they believed they would never grow weary of looking about them. But by and by, as they waited and the number of people ahead of them only slowly decreased, they grew tired.
A girl passed by Barbara and smiled. It was Marjorie Moore. She was not going to try to shake hands with the President. She had a note book and a pencil in her hand and was evidently bent on business. Barbara also caught a glimpse of Peter Dillon, but he did not come up to speak to them.
Mr. Hamlin's charges at last entered the Blue Room. The President and his receiving party stood by a pair of great windows hung with heavy silk portieres.
It was now almost time for the "Automobile Girls" to shake hands with the President. They were overcome with nervousness.
Harriet was next to her father; Bab stood just behind Harriet, followed by Ruth, Grace and Mollie.
"You are just supposed to shake hands with the President, not to talk to him," Harriet whispered. "Then the President's wife is next and you may greet the other women in the receiving line as you pass along. The Vice-President's wife stands next to the President's wife and the ladies of the Cabinet just after her."
Bab watched Harriet very carefully. She was determined to make no false moves.
Finally, Barbara heard her name announced by the Master of Ceremonies. She felt her heart stop beating for a moment, and the color mount to her cheeks. The next moment her hand was clasped in that of the President of the United States.
Barbara said a little prayer of thankfulness when she had finished speaking to all the receiving ladies. She felt glad, indeed, when Mr. Hamlin drew her behind a thick blue silk cord, where the President's special guests were talking in groups together. Bab then watched Ruth, Grace and Mollie go through the same formality.
Now nobody had ever warned Mollie that it was not good form to speak to the President before he spoke to her. She thought it was polite to make some kind of a remark when she was introduced to him. So all the way up the line she had been wondering what she ought to say.
As the President took Mollie's little hand he bent over slightly. For a very small voice said, "I like Washington very much, Mr. President."
The President smiled. "I am glad you do," he answered.
A little later, Mr. Hamlin took the girls through all the state apartments of the White House. One of these rooms was less crowded than the others. Groups of Mr. Hamlin's friends were standing about laughing and talking together. Barbara was next Mr. Hamlin when she happened to glance toward a far corner of the room. There she saw her newspaper friend. The girl made a mysterious sign to Barbara to come over to her and to come alone. But Bab shook her head.
Still she felt the girl's eyes on her. Each time she turned, Marjorie Moore again made her strange signal. Once she pointed significantly toward a group of people. But Bab only saw the broad back of the little Chinese Minister and the stately form of the Russian Ambassador. The two men were talking to a number of Washington officials whose names Barbara did not even know. Of course, Marjorie Moore's peculiar actions could not refer to them. But to save her life Bab could not find any one else nearby.
Womanlike, Barbara's curiosity was aroused. What could the girl want with her? Evidently, her news was a secret, for Miss Moore did not come near Mr. Hamlin's party and Bab simply could not get away without offering some explanation to them.
Barbara was growing tired of the reception. She had been introduced to so many people that her brain was fairly spinning in an effort to remember their names. Again Bab looked across at Miss Moore. This time the newspaper girl pointed with her pencil through a small open door, near which she was standing. Her actions said as plainly as any words could speak: "Follow me when you have a chance. There is something I must tell you!" The next instant Marjorie Moore vanished through this door and was lost to sight.
A few minutes later Bab managed to slip over to that side of the room. She intended merely to peep out the open door to see whether Miss Moore were waiting for her in the hall. Bab carefully watched her opportunity. Mr. Hamlin and the girls were not looking. Now was her chance. She was just at the door, when some one intercepted her.
"Ah! Good evening, Miss Thurston," said a suave voice.
Barbara turned, blushing again to confront the Chinese Minister looking more magnificent than ever in his Imperial robes of state.
The young girl paused and greeted the official. Still the Chinese Minister regarded her gravely with his inscrutable Oriental eyes that seemed to look her through and through. He seemed always about to ask her some question.
Of course, Barbara was obliged to give up her effort to follow Marjorie Moore, though she was still devoured with curiosity to know what the girl had wished to say to her. The next ten minutes, wherever Bab went, she felt the Chinese Minister's gaze follow her.
It was not until Barbara Thurston discovered that the Oriental gentleman had himself withdrawn from the reception room that she mustered up a sufficient courage to try her venture the second time.
"Miss Moore, of course, is not expecting me now," Barbara thought. "But as I have a chance, I will see what has become of her."
Bab peeped cautiously out through the still open door. She saw only an empty corridor with a servant standing idly in the hall. Should she go forward? No; Barbara did not, of course, dare to wander through the White House halls alone. She was too likely to find herself in some place to which visitors were not admitted.
The servant who waited in the hall saw Barbara hesitate, then turn back. He leaned over and whispered mysteriously: "You are to come to the door at the west side, which opens on the lawn. The young woman left a message that she would wait for you there."
"But I don't know the west side," Bab faltered hesitatingly, feeling that she ought to turn back, yet anxious to go on.
"The young woman said it was most important for her to see you; I can show you the way to the west door," the man went on.
Barbara now quickly made up her mind. Marjorie Moore was only a girl like herself. If she needed her or if she wanted to confide in her, Bab meant to answer the summons.
Bab found the portico deserted. There was no one in sight.
Down on the lawn, some distance ahead, she thought she saw a figure moving. Barbara drew her chiffon scarf more closely over her shoulders and ran quickly out into the garden without thinking. It was, of course, Marjorie Moore ahead of her. But Bab had not gone far, when the figure disappeared, and she realized her own foolishness. She must get back into the White House in a hurry before any one found out what she had done.
It was exceedingly dark out on the lawn in contrast with the brilliant illumination of the house, and Barbara was running swiftly. She had begun to wonder what explanation she could make if Harriet or Mr. Hamlin asked where she had been. As usual, Barbara was repenting a rash impulse too late. She ran obliquely across the yard in order to return in a greater hurry. Between a clump of bushes set at some distance apart her feet struck against something soft and heavy and Bab pitched forward across the object.
Then Barbara Thurston's heart turned sick with horror. She recognized, in the same instant, that she had fallen over a human body. In getting back on her own feet, Bab was obliged to touch the figure over which she had fallen. She shuddered with fright. It could not be possible that any one had been murdered in the grounds of the White House, while a great ball was being given on the inside. Had Marjorie Moore expected foul play and called on Bab to help her guard some one from harm?
Barbara did not know what to do—to go on with her search for the newspaper girl, or go back to the White House and raise an alarm.
Bab was standing up, but she dared not look at the figure at her feet. She was now more accustomed to the darkness and she did not know what one glance might reveal.
"What a coward I am!" Bab thought. Trembling, she put out her hand and touched the body. It was warm, but the figure had fallen forward on its face. As Bab's hand slipped along over the object that lay so still on the hard ground, an even greater horror seized her. Her hand had come in contact with a skirt. The figure was that of a woman!
Barbara dropped on her knees beside the figure. She gently turned the body over until it was face upward. One long stare at the face was enough. The woman who lay there was the young newspaper girl who had summoned Bab to follow her but a short time before. She still had on her shabby evening dress. The pad and pencil with which she took down her society items lay at her side. But Marjorie Moore's face was pale as death.
Bab's tears dropped down on the girl's face. "My dear Miss Moore, what has happened? Can't you hear me?" Bab faltered. "It is Barbara Thurston! I tried to come to help you, but I could not get here until now."
The figure lay apparently lifeless, but Bab knew now that the girl was still alive. Bab did not like to leave her, for what dreadful person might not stumble over the poor, unconscious girl? Yet how else could Bab get help?
At this moment Bab looked up and saw a number of lighted cigars in the garden near the White House. Evidently a group of men had come out on the lawn to smoke. As Bab ran forward she saw one of the men move away from the others. He was whistling softly, "Kathleen Mavourneen, the bright stars are shining."
"Oh, Mr. Dillon!" cried Bab. "Poor Miss Moore has been dreadfully hurt and is lying unconscious out here on the grass. Won't you please find Mr. Hamlin, or some one, to come to her aid?"
"Miss Moore!" exclaimed Peter Dillon in a shocked tone. "I wonder whom the girl could have been spying upon to have gotten herself into such trouble? But, Miss Thurston, you ought not to be out here. Come back with me to the reception rooms. I will get some one to look after Miss Moore at once. It is best to keep this affair as quiet as possible."
"I can't leave the poor girl alone," Bab demurred. "So please find Mr. Hamlin as soon as you can. I will ask two of these other men to take Miss Moore up on a side porch, out of the way of the guests."
The rest of the group of men now came forward; their uniforms showed they were young Army and Navy officers. One of them was Lieutenant Elmer Wilson.
"What a dreadful thing!" he exclaimed, as he and another officer, under Bab's directions, picked up Marjorie Moore's limp form and carried it into the light. "Some one has struck Miss Moore over the temple with a stick. She has a nasty bruise just there. But she is only stunned. She will come to herself presently."
Mr. Hamlin now hurried out with Peter Dillon, followed by Ruth and Harriet.
"Find our automobile; have it brought as near as possible. We must put the poor girl into it," Mr. Hamlin declared authoritatively. "Mr. Dillon is right. This affair must be kept an entire secret. It is incredible! Above all things, the newspapers must not get hold of it. It would be a nine days' wonder! Mr. Dillon, will you go to Miss Moore's paper? Say you feel sure the President himself would not wish this story to be published. Then you can find out where Miss Moore's mother lives, and see that she is told. The girl is not seriously injured, but she must be seen by a physician."
"But you are not going to take Marjorie Moore to our house, Father," Harriet protested. "She is so—" Harriet checked herself just in time. She realized it would not be well to express her feeling toward the injured girl before so large a group of listeners.
"I most certainly do intend to take Miss Moore to our house," interrupted Mr. Hamlin sternly. "Her father was an old friend of mine whom changes in politics made poor just before his death. His daughter is a brave girl. I have a great respect for her."
In the excitement of helping their wounded visitor to bed, Barbara forgot all about Mollie's wonderful gown, and the questions she intended asking her. Bab and Ruth undressed Marjorie Moore, and stayed with her until the doctor and a nurse arrived. Then Bab went quickly to her own room and undressed by a dim light, so as not to disturb her sister. Mollie's face was turned toward the wall and she seemed to be fast asleep. There was no sign of the blue gown about to reawaken Bab's curiosity. Barbara was too weary from the many impressions of the evening and the fright that succeeded them, and hurriedly undressing she crept quietly to bed and was soon fast asleep.
It was almost dawn when Barbara began to dream that she heard low, suppressed sobs. No; she must be wrong, she was not dreaming. The sounds were too real. The sobs were close beside her, and Bab felt Mollie's shoulders heaving in an effort to hold them back.
"Why, little sister," cried Bab in a frightened tone, putting out her hand and taking hold of Mollie, "what is the matter with you! Are you ill?"
"No," sobbed Mollie. "There is nothing the matter. Please go to sleep again, Bab, dear. I did not mean to wake you up."
"You would not cry, Mollie, if there was nothing the matter. Tell me at once what troubles you," pleaded Barbara, who was now wide awake. "If you are not ill, then something pretty serious is worrying you and you must tell me what it is."
Mollie only buried her head in her pillow and sobbed harder than ever.
"Tell me," Bab commanded.
"It's the blue gown!" whispered Mollie under her breath.
"The gown?" queried Barbara, suddenly recalling Mollie's wonderful costume at the President's reception. "Oh, yes. I have not had an opportunity to ask you where you got such a beautiful frock and how you happened not to tell me about it."
"I was ashamed," Mollie sobbed.
Barbara did not understand what Mollie meant, but she knew her sister would tell her everything now.
"I bought the frock," Mollie confessed after a moment's hesitation. "That is I did not exactly buy it, for I did not have the money to pay for it. But Harriet was to pay for it and I was to give her back the money when I could."
"How much did the gown cost, Mollie?" Bab inquired quietly, although her heart felt as heavy as lead.
"It cost fifty dollars!" Mollie returned in a tired, frightened voice.
"Oh, Mollie!" Bab exclaimed just at first. Then she repented. "Never mind, Molliekins; it can't be helped now. The dress is a beauty, and I suppose Harriet won't mind how long we take to pay her back. We must just save up and do some kind of work when we go home. I can coach some of the girls at school. So please don't cry your pretty eyes out. There is an old story about not crying over spilt milk, kitten. Go to sleep. Perhaps some one will have left us a fortune by morning."
Barbara felt more wretched about her sister's confession than she was willing to let Mollie know. She thought if Mollie could once get to sleep, she could then puzzle out some method by which they could meet this debt. For fifty dollars did look like an immense sum to the two poor Thurston girls.
"But, Bab dear, I have not told you the worst," Mollie added in tones of despair.
"Mollie, what do you mean?" poor Bab asked, really frightened this time.
"Harriet can't let me owe the money to her. Something perfectly awful has happened to Harriet, too. Promise me you will never tell, not even Ruth! Well, Harriet thought she could lend me the money. But, the day after we got home from the dressmaker's, that deceitful Madame Louise wrote poor Harriet the most awful note. She said that Harriet owed her such a dreadfully big bill, that she simply would not wait for her money any longer. She declared if Harriet did not pay her at once she would take her bill straight to Mr. Hamlin and demand the money. Now Harriet is almost frightened to death. She says her father will never forgive her, if he finds out how deeply in debt she is, and that he would not let her go out into society again this winter. Of course, Harriet went to see Madame Louise. She begged her for a little more time, and the dressmaker consented to let us have a week. But she says that at the end of that time she must have the money from me and from Harriet. Harriet is dreadfully distressed. She simply can't advance the money to me for, even if the dividend she expects comes in time, she will have to pay the money on her own account. Oh, Bab, what can we do? I just can't have Mr. Hamlin find out what I have done! He is so stern; he would just send me home in disgrace, and then what would Mother and Aunt Sallie and Mr. Stuart say? I shall just die of shame!"
"Mr. Hamlin must not know," Barbara answered, when she could find her breath. Somehow her own voice sounded unfamiliar, it was so hoarse and strained. Yet Bab knew she must save Mollie. How was she to do it?
"Do you think, Bab," Mollie asked, "that we could ask Ruth to lend us the money? I should be horribly ashamed to tell her what I have done. But Ruth is so sweet, and she could lend us the money without any trouble."
"I have thought of that, Mollie," Barbara answered. "But, oh, we could not ask Ruth for the money! It is because she has been so awfully good to us, that I can't ask her. She has already done so much for us and she would be so pleased to help us now that somehow I would rather do most anything than ask her. Don't you feel the same way, Mollie?"
"Yes, I do," Mollie agreed. "Only I just can't think what else we can do, Bab. I have worried and worried until I am nearly desperate. We have only one week in which to get hold of the money, Bab."
"Yes, I know. But go to sleep now, Mollie. You are too tired to try to think any more. I will find some way out of the difficulty. Don't worry any more about it now." Bab kissed her sister's burning cheeks, whereat Mollie could only throw her arms about Barbara and cry: "Oh, Bab, I am so sorry and so ashamed! I shall never forget this as long as I live."
Bab never closed her eyes again that night. A little while later she saw the gray dawn change into rose color, and the rose to the blue of the day-time sky. She heard several families of sparrows discussing their affairs while they made their morning toilets on the bare branches of the trees.
At last an idea came to Barbara. She could pawn her jewelry and so raise the money they needed. She had the old-fashioned corals her mother had given to her on her first trip to Newport. There was also the beautiful ruby, which had been Mr. Presby's gift to her from the rich stores of his buried treasure. And the Princess Sophia had made Bab a present of a beautiful gold star when they were at Palm Beach. Barbara's other jewelry was marked with her initials.
Now Bab had very little knowledge of the real value of her jewelry, and she had an equally dim notion of what a pawn shop was. But she did know that at pawn shops people were able to borrow money at a high rate of interest on their valuable possessions, and this seemed to be the only way out of their embarrassment.
But how was Barbara to locate a pawn shop in Washington? And how was she to find her way there, without being found out either by Mr. Hamlin or any one of the girls?
Bab was still puzzling over these difficulties when she went down to breakfast.
"Miss Moore says she would like to see you, Barbara," Harriet Hamlin explained, when Bab had forced down a cup of coffee and eaten a small piece of toast. "Miss Moore is much better this morning, and a carriage is to take her home in a few hours. I have just been up to inquire about her. Father," continued Harriet, turning to Mr. Hamlin, "Miss Moore wants me to thank you for your kindness in bringing her here, and to say she hopes to be able to repay you some day. Marjorie Moore seems to think you discovered her out on the White House lawn, Barbara. However did you do it? I suppose you were out there walking with Peter Dillon. But it is against the rules."
"Does Miss Moore happen to know how she was hurt, Daughter?" Mr. Hamlin queried. "Lieutenant Wilson declares the girl was struck a glancing blow on the head with the end of a loaded cane. And the doctor seemed to have the same idea last night."
"Miss Moore does not understand just what did happen to her," Harriet replied. "Or at least she won't tell me. She declares she was out in the grounds looking for some one, when she was knocked down from behind. She never saw who struck her. How perfectly ridiculous for her to be running about the White House park alone at night! I wonder the guards permitted it. What do you suppose she was doing?"
"Attending to her business, perhaps, Daughter," Mr. Hamlin returned dryly. "Miss Moore works exceedingly hard. It cannot always be pleasant for a refined young woman to do the work she is sometimes required to do. I hope you will be kind to her, Harriet, and help her when it is within your power."
But Harriet only shrugged her shoulders and looked obstinate. "I should think Miss Moore would find the society news for her paper inside the reception rooms, rather than outside in the dark. It looks to me as though she went out into the grounds either to meet some one, or to find out what some one else was doing."
None of the "Automobile Girls" or Mr. Hamlin made response to Harriet's unkind remark and they were all glad when breakfast was over and the discussion ended.
Barbara at once went upstairs to the room that had been allotted to their wounded guest the night before. She found Marjorie Moore dressed in a shabby serge suit, lying on the bed looking pale and weak. A refined, middle-aged woman, with a sad face, sat by her daughter holding her hand. She was Marjorie's mother. The two women were waiting for the carriage to take them home.
"I want to thank you, Miss Thurston," Marjorie Moore spoke weakly. "I believe it was you who found me. I ought not to have asked you to come out into the yard, but I did not dream there would be any danger to either one of us. I want you to believe that I did have a real reason for persuading you to join me, a reason that I thought important to your happiness, not to mine. But I cannot tell you what it was, now; perhaps because I may have made a mistake. I must have been struck by a tramp, who had managed to hide in the White House grounds. I have no other explanation of what happened to me. But—" Miss Moore stopped and hesitated. "I have an explanation of the reason I wanted to talk to you alone. Yet I cannot tell you what I mean to-day. I want to ask you to trust me if ever you need a friend in Washington."
Bab thought the only friend she was likely to need was some one who could lend her fifty dollars. And Marjorie Moore was too poor to do that. She would have liked to ask the newspaper girl where she could find a pawn shop, but was ashamed to make her strange request before that gentle, sad-eyed woman, Marjorie Moore's mother.
So Barbara only pressed the other girl's hand affectionately, and said she was glad to know she was better, and that she appreciated her friendship.
IN MR. HAMLIN'S STUDY
All morning Barbara pondered on how she could find a pawn shop in Washington, without asking questions and without being discovered. Her cheeks burned with humiliation and disgust at the very name pawn shop! Still Mollie must never know how much she dreaded her errand, and her mother must be spared the knowledge of their debt at any cost.
About noon the Hamlin house was perfectly quiet. Grace and Ruth had gone out sight-seeing and Harriet and Mollie were both in their rooms. Mr. Hamlin was over at his office in the State Department.
Bab had taken a book and gone downstairs to the library, pretending she meant to read, but really only desiring to think. She was feeling almost desperate. A week seemed such a little time in which to raise fifty dollars. Bab wished to try the pawn shop venture at once, so that in case it failed her, she would have time to turn somewhere else to secure the sum of money she needed.
Barbara was idly turning over the pages of her book, staring straight ahead of her at nothing in particular, when she unexpectedly leaped to her feet. Her face flushed, but her lips took on a more determined curve.
When Barbara Thurston undertook to accomplish a thing she usually found a way. Only weak people are deterred by obstacles.
Bab had remembered that she had heard Mr. Hamlin say that he kept a Washington directory in his private study. She knew that by searching diligently through this book she could find the address of a pawn shop.
Now was the time, of all others, to accomplish her purpose. With Bab, to think, was to do.
Barbara knew that no one was expected to enter Mr. Hamlin's study. She did not dream, however, that she would be doing any harm just to slip quietly into it, find the directory and slip quickly out again, without touching a single other thing in the room.
As has already been explained, Mr. Hamlin's study was a small room adjoining the drawing-room, and separated from it by a pair of heavy curtains and folding doors, which were occasionally left open, when Mr. Hamlin was not in the house, so that the room could be aired and at the same time shut it off from public view.
Bab went straight through the hall and entered Mr. Hamlin's study through a small back door.
The room was dark, and Bab thought empty when she entered it. The inside blinds were closed, but there was sufficient light through the openings for Barbara to see her way about perfectly. She was bent upon business and went straight to her task without pausing to open the window, for she wished to take no liberties with Mr. Hamlin's apartment.
The four walls of the study were lined with books, reports from Congress; everything pertaining to the business of the government at Washington. Certainly finding that old-time needle in a haystack was an easy duty compared with locating the city directory in such a wilderness of books.
First on her hands and knees, then on tip-toe, Bab thoroughly searched through every shelf. No directory could be found.
"I can hardly see," Bab decided at last. "It will not do any harm for me to turn on an electric light."
Bab was so intent on her occupation that, even after she had turned on the light, which hung immediately over Mr. Hamlin's private desk, she still thought she was alone in the room.
Lying under a heap of magazines and pages of manuscript on Mr. Hamlin's desk, was a large book, which looked very much as though it might be the desired directory.
Still Bab wavered. She knew no one was ever allowed to lay a hand on Mr. Hamlin's desk. Even Harriet herself never dared to touch it. But what harm could it do Mr. Hamlin for Barbara to pick up the book she desired? She would not disarrange a single paper.
Bab reached out, intending to secure what she wished. But immediately she felt her arm seized and held in a tight grip.
A low contralto voice said distinctly: "What do you mean by stealing in here to search among Mr. Hamlin's papers?" The vise-like hold on Bab's arm continued. The fingers were slender, but strong as steel, and the grip hurt Barbara so, she wanted to cry out from the pain.
"Answer me," the soft voice repeated. "What are you doing, prying among Mr. Hamlin's papers, when he is out of the house? You know he never allows any one to touch them."
"I am not prying," cried Bab indignantly. "I only came in here to look for the city directory. I thought it might be on Mr. Hamlin's desk."
"A likely story," interrupted Bab's accuser scornfully. "If you wished the directory, why did you not ask Mr. Hamlin to lend it to you? You wanted something else! What was it? Tell me?" The hold on Barbara's arm tightened.
"Let go my arm, Mrs. Wilson," returned Barbara firmly. "I am telling you the truth. How absurd for you to think anything else! What could I wish in here? But I needed to look into the directory at once—for a—for a special purpose," Barbara finished lamely.
Then her eyes flashed indignantly. "I am a guest in Mr. Hamlin's house," she said, coldly. "How do you know, Mrs. Wilson, that I have not received his permission to enter this room? But you! Will you be good enough to explain to me why you were hiding behind the curtains in Mr. Hamlin's study when I came in? You, too, knew Mr. Hamlin was not at home. Besides, Harriet receives her guests in the drawing-room, not in here."
"I came to see Mr. Hamlin on private business," Mrs. Wilson replied haughtily. "He is an old and intimate friend of mine, so I took the liberty of coming in here to wait for his return. But seeing you enter, and suspecting you of mischief, I did conceal myself behind the curtains. I shall be very glad, however, to remain here with you until Mr. Hamlin returns from his office. I can readily explain my intrusion and you will have an equal opportunity to tell Mr. Hamlin what you were doing in here."
Now Barbara, who had slept very little the night before, and had worried dreadfully all morning, did a very foolish thing. She blushed crimson at Mrs. Wilson's request. She might very readily have agreed to stay, and could simply have explained later to Mr. Hamlin that she had come into his private room because she needed to see the directory. But would Mr. Hamlin have inquired of Barbara her reason for desiring the directory? This is, of course, what Barbara feared, and it caused her to behave most unwisely. She trembled and fixed on Mrs. Wilson two pleading brown eyes.
"Please do not ask me to wait here until Mr. Hamlin returns," she entreated. "And, if you don't mind, you will not mention to Mr. Hamlin that I came into his study without asking his permission. Truly I only wanted to look at the directory, and I will tell Harriet that I have been in here."
Mrs. Wilson eyed Bab, with evident suspicion. "Why are you so anxious to see the directory?" she inquired. "If you wish to know a particular address why do you not ask your friends, the Hamlins, about it?"
"That is something that I cannot explain to you, Mrs. Wilson," said Barbara, a look of fear leaping into her eyes that was not lost on her companion.
"Very well, if you cannot explain yourself, I shall lay the whole matter before Mr. Hamlin the instant he comes home," returned Mrs. Wilson cruelly. "It looks very suspicious, to say the least, when a guest takes advantage of his absence to prowl among his private papers."
Tears of humiliation sprang to Barbara's eyes. It was bad enough to have Mrs. Wilson doubt her integrity, but it would be infinitely worse if stern Mr. Hamlin were told of her visit to his study. Bab felt that he would be sure to believe that she was deliberately meddling with matters that did not concern her. She looked at Mrs. Wilson. The forbidding expression on her face left no doubt in Bab's mind that the older woman would carry out her threat. Suddenly it flashed across the young girl that perhaps if Mrs. Wilson really knew the truth she would agree to drop the affair without saying anything to Mr. Hamlin.
"Perhaps it will be better after all for me to tell you my reason for being here," Bab said with a gentle dignity that caused Mrs. Wilson's stern expression to soften. "What I am about to say, however, is in strictest confidence, as it involves another person besides myself. I shall expect you to respect my confidence, Mrs. Wilson," she added firmly.
Mrs. Wilson made a jesture of acquiescence. Then Barbara poured forth the story of Mollie's extravagance and her subsequent remorse over the difficulties into which her love of dress had plunged both of the Thurston girls. "It is just this way, Mrs. Wilson," Bab concluded. "We have very little money of our own and we simply can't ask Mother to pay this debt. I won't ask Ruth to lend it to us because we are too deeply indebted to her already. I have some jewelry that is valuable; a ring, a pin and several trinkets, and I intend to take them to a pawn shop and borrow enough money on them to free Mollie of this debt. Then we will save our allowance money and redeem the things. I have never been in a pawn shop and don't know anything about them, so I thought I would find the address of a pawn broker in the directory and go there this afternoon. That is why I wanted the directory and why I came into Mr. Hamlin's study. Now that I have told you, perhaps you will feel differently about saying anything to Mr. Hamlin. He is so stern and cold that he would never forgive me if he knew of all this, although I am doing nothing wrong. It is very humiliating to be placed in this position, but now that the mischief has been done we shall have to pay for the gown and set it all down under the head of bitter experience."
Mrs. Wilson regarded Barbara steadily while she was speaking. There was a look of admiration in the older woman's eyes when Barbara had finished. "You are a very brave girl, Miss Thurston, to take your sister's trouble on your own shoulders. I am very glad that you saw fit to tell me what you have. I hope you will forgive me for my seeming cruelty, but I simply cannot endure anything dishonorable or underhanded. To show you that I believe what you have told me, and to prove to you that your confidence in me is well founded, I propose to help you out of your difficulty."
"You?" queried Bab in surprise. "I—I don't understand."
"I will lend you the money to pay the modiste," exclaimed Mrs. Wilson. "Then you shall pay it back whenever it is convenient for you to do so, and no one will ever be the wiser. We need tell no one that we met here in the study this afternoon."
"But—I—can't," protested Barbara rather weakly. "It wouldn't be right. It would be asking entirely too much of you and—"
Mrs. Wilson held up her hand authoritatively. "My dear little girl," she said quickly. "I insist on lending you this money. I am a mother, and if my son were in any little difficulty and needed help, I should like to feel that perhaps some one would be ready to do for him the little I am going to do for you. Come to my house this afternoon and I will have the money ready for you. Will you do this, Barbara?" she asked extending her hand to the young girl.
Barbara hesitated for a second, then she placed her hand in that of Mrs. Wilson's. "I will take the money," she said slowly, "and I thank you for your kindness. I hope I shall be able to do something for you in return to show my appreciation."
"Perhaps you may have the opportunity," replied Mrs. Wilson meaningly. "Who knows. I think I won't wait any longer for Mr. Hamlin. Come to my house at half past four o'clock this afternoon. I shall expect you. Good-bye, my dear."
"Good-bye," replied Bab mechanically, as she accompanied Mrs. Wilson to the vestibule door. "I'll be there at half past four."
BARBARA'S SECRET ERRAND
After the older woman had departed, Bab remained in a brown study. Had she been wise in accepting Mrs. Wilson's offer? Would it have been better after all to ask Ruth for the loan of the money? Bab sighed heavily. She had been so happy and so interested in Washington, and now Mollie's ill-advised purchase had changed everything. For a moment Barbara felt a little resentment toward Mollie, then she shook off the feeling as unworthy. Mollie had experienced bitter remorse for her folly, and Bab knew that her little sister had learned a lesson she would never forget. As for the money, it should be paid back at the earliest opportunity.
Barbara turned and went slowly upstairs to prepare for luncheon. She found Mollie sitting by the window in their room. Her pretty mouth drooped at the corners and her eyes were red with weeping.
"Cheer up, Molliekins!" exclaimed Bab. "I've found a way out of the difficulty."
"Oh, Bab," said Mollie in a shamed voice. "Did you have to tell Ruth?"
"No, dear," responded Bab. "Ruth knows nothing about it. Bathe your face at once. It is almost time to go down to luncheon, and your eyes are awfully red. While you are fixing up I'll tell you about it."
"Oh, Bab!" Mollie said contritely when her sister had finished her account of what had happened in the study. "You're the best sister a girl ever had. I don't believe I'll ever be so silly about my clothes again. This has cured me. I'm so sorry."
"Of course you are, little Sister," soothed Bab. "Don't say another word. Here comes Ruth and Grace."
The two girls entered the room at that moment and a little later the four descended to luncheon.
"I am going to do some shopping this afternoon," announced Ruth. "Would you girls like to do the stores with me?"
"I'll go," replied Grace. "I want to buy a pair of white gloves and I need a number of small things."
"I have an engagement this afternoon," said Harriet enigmatically. "I must ask you to excuse me, Ruth."
"Certainly, Harriet," returned Ruth. "How about you and Mollie, Bab?"
"Mollie can go with you," answered Bab, coloring slightly. "But would you be disappointed if I do not go? I have something else that I am obliged to see to this afternoon."
"Of course, I'd love to have you with me, Bab, but you know your own business best."
Suspecting that Bab wished to spend the afternoon in going over her own and Mollie's rather limited wardrobe, Ruth made no attempt to persuade Bab to make one of the shopping party, and when a little later A. Bubble carried the three girls away, she went directly upstairs to prepare for her call on Mrs. Wilson. It was a beautiful afternoon, and Bab decided that she would walk to her destination. As she swung along through the crisp December air the feeling of depression that had clung to her ever since Mollie had made her tearful confession vanished, and Bab became almost cheerful. She would save every penny, she reflected hopefully, and when she and Mollie received their next month's pocket money, she would send that to Mrs. Wilson. It would take some time to pay back the fifty dollars, but Mrs. Wilson had assured her that she could return it at her own convenience. Bab felt that her vague distrust of this whole-souled, generous woman had been groundless, and in her impulsive, girlish fashion she was ready to do everything in her power to make amends for even doubting this fascinating stranger who had so nobly come to her rescue.
By following carefully the directions given her by Mrs. Wilson for finding her house, Bab arrived at her destination with very little confusion. She looked at her watch as she ascended the steps and saw that it was just half past four o'clock. "I'm on time at any rate," she murmured as she rang the bell.
"Is Mrs. Wilson here?" she inquired of the maid who answered the bell.
"Come this way, please," said the maid, and Bab followed her across the square hall and through a door hung with heavy portieres. She found herself in what appeared to be half library, half living room, and seemed especially designed for comfort. A bright fire burned in the open fire place at one side of the room, and before the fire stood a young man, who turned abruptly as Bab entered.
"How do you do, Miss Thurston," said Peter Dillon, coming forward and taking her hand.
"Why—I thought—" stammered Barbara, a look of keen disappointment leaping into her brown eyes, "that Mrs. Wilson—was—"
"To be here," finished Peter Dillon, smiling almost tantalizingly at her evident embarrassment. "So she was, but she received a telephone message half an hour ago and was obliged to go out for a little while. I happened to be here when the message came and she told me that she expected you to call at half past four o'clock and asked me if I would wait and receive you. She left a note for you in my care. Here it is."
Peter Dillon handed Bab an envelope addressed to "Miss Barbara Thurston," looking at her searchingly as he did so. Bab colored hotly under his almost impertinent scrutiny as she reached out her hand for the envelope. She had an uncomfortable feeling at that moment that perhaps Peter Dillon knew as much about the contents of the envelope as she did.
"Thank you, Mr. Dillon," she said in a low voice. "I think I won't wait for Mrs. Wilson. Please tell her that I thank her and that I'll write."
"Very well," replied the young man. "I will deliver your message." He held the heavy portieres back for Bab as she stepped into the hall and accompanied her to the vestibule door. "Good-bye, Miss Thurston," he said with a peculiar, meaning flash of his blue eyes that completed Bab's discomfiture. "I shall hope to see you in a day or two."
Bab hurried down the steps and into the street. The shadows were beginning to fall and in another hour it would be dark. When she reached the corner she looked about her in bewilderment, then with a little impatient exclamation she wheeled and retraced her steps. She had been going in the wrong direction. She had passed Mrs. Wilson's house, when a murmur of familiar voices caused her to start and look back at it in amazement. Stepping off the walk and behind the trunk of a great tree, Barbara stared from her place of concealment, hardly able to believe the evidence of her own eyes. Peter Dillon was standing just outside the vestibule door, his hat in his hand and just inside stood Mrs. Wilson. The two were deep in conversation and Bab heard the young man's musical laugh ring out as though something had greatly amused him. Filled with a sickening apprehension that she was the cause of his laughter, Bab stepped from behind the tree unobserved by the two on the step above and walked on down the street assailed by the disquieting suspicion that Mrs. Wilson had had a motive far from disinterested in lending her the fifty dollars. She glanced down at the envelope in her hand. She felt positive that it contained the money, and her woman's intuition told her that Peter Dillon's presence in the house had not been a matter of chance. She experienced a strong desire to run back to the house and return the envelope unopened, and at the same time ask Mrs. Wilson why Peter had untruthfully declared that she was not at home. Bab paused irresolutely. Then a vision of Mollie's tearful face rose before her, and squaring her shoulders, she marched along through the gathering twilight, determined to use the borrowed money to pay Mollie's debt and face the consequences whatever they might be.
When Bab reached home she found that Harriet had come in and gone to her room, while the other girls had not yet returned. Barbara was glad that no one had discovered her absence, and divesting herself of her hat and coat she hurried up to her room. Closing and locking the door, she sat down and tore open the envelope and with hands that trembled, drew out a folded paper. Inside the folded paper was a crisp fifty dollar bill. Mrs. Wilson had kept her word.
While she sat fingering the bill, she heard voices downstairs and a moment later Mollie tried the door, then knocked. Bab rose and unlocked the door for her sister.
"Did you get it, Bab?" asked Mollie eagerly, a deep flush rising to her face.
"Yes, Molliekins, here it is," answered Barbara quietly, holding up the money. "To-morrow you and I will go to Madame Louise and pay the bill."
"Oh, Bab," said Mollie, her lips quivering. "I'm so sorry. I've been so much trouble, but I'll save every cent of my pocket money and pay Mrs. Wilson as soon as I can. It was so good of her to lend us the money wasn't it?"
Barbara merely nodded. Her early gratitude toward Mrs. Wilson had vanished, in spite of her efforts to believe in Mrs. Wilson, her first feeling of distrust had returned. She thought gloomily, as she listened to Mollie's praise of Mrs. Wilson's generosity, that perhaps after all it would have been better to pay a visit to the pawn broker.
A FOOLISH GIRL
In the meantime Harriet Hamlin was equally as unhappy as Bab and Mollie. For, instead of owing Madame Louise a mere fifty dollars, she owed her almost five hundred and she dared not ask her father for the money to pay the bill. The dividend, with which she had tempted Mollie to make her ill-advised purchase, amounted to only twenty-five dollars. It had seemed a sufficient sum to Harriet to pay down on her friend's investment, but she knew the amount was not large enough to stay the wrath of her dressmaker, as far as her own account was concerned.
Now, Harriet had never intended to let her bill mount up to such a dreadful sum. She was horrified when she found out how large it really was. Yet month by month Harriet had been tempted to add to her stock of pretty clothes, without inquiring about prices, and she now found herself in this painful predicament.
Harriet, also, thought of every possible scheme by which she might raise the money she needed. On one thing she was determined. Her father should never learn of her indebtedness. She would take any desperate measure before this should happen; for Harriet stood very much in awe of her father, and knew that he had a special horror of debt.
Since Charlie Meyers had behaved so rudely to Barbara, on the night of their automobile ride to Mt. Vernon, Harriet had had nothing to do with him. But now, in her anxiety, she decided to appeal to him. She could think of no other plan. Charlie Meyers was immensely rich and a very old friend. Five hundred dollars could mean very little to him, and Harriet could, of course, pay him back later on. She fully intended to live within her allowance in the future and save her money until she had paid every dollar that she owed.
But how was Harriet to see Charlie Meyers? After all she had said about him to the "Automobile Girls," she was really ashamed to invite him to her house. So Harriet dispatched a note to the young man, making an appointment with him to meet her on a corner some distance from the house on the same afternoon that Bab made her uncomfortable visit to Mrs. Wilson.
Charlie Meyers was highly elated when he read Harriet Hamlin's note. He had known her since she was a little girl in short frocks and was very fond of her. He had been deeply hurt by her coldness to him since their automobile party, but he was such an ill-bred fellow that he simply had not understood how badly he had behaved. He did know that Mr. Hamlin disliked him and did not enjoy his attentions to his daughter; so he hated Mr. Hamlin in consequence.
When Harriet's note arrived, he interpreted it to mean that she was sorry she had treated him unkindly, and that she did care for him in spite of her father's opposition. So he drove down to the designated corner in his car, feeling very well pleased with himself.
Harriet, however, started out to meet the young man feeling ashamed of herself. She knew that she was behaving very indiscreetly, but she believed that Charlie Meyers would be ready to help her and that she could make him do anything she wished. She accepted his invitation to take a ride, but she put off the evil moment of voicing her request as long as possible, and as they glided along in Meyers' car, she made herself as agreeable to her escort as she knew how to be.
After they had driven some distance out from Washington in the direction of Arlington, the old home of General Robert E. Lee, Charlie Meyers said bluntly to Harriet:
"Now, Harriet, what's the matter? You said in your note that you wanted to see me about something important. What is it?"
Harriet stopped abruptly and looked rather timidly at Meyers. She had been trying in vain to lead up to the point of asking her favor, and here her companion had given her the very opportunity she required.
Yet Harriet hesitated, and the laughter died away on her lips. She knew she was doing a very wrong thing in asking this young man to lend her money. But Harriet had been spoiled by too much admiration and she had had no mother's influence in the four years of her life when she most needed it. She was determined not to ask her father's help, and she knew of no one else to whom she could appeal.
"I am not feeling very well, Charlie," Harriet answered queerly, turning a little pale and trying to summon her courage.
"You've been entertaining too much company!" Charlie Meyers exclaimed. "I don't think much of that set of 'Automobile Girls' you have staying with you. They are good-looking enough, but they are kind of standoffish and superior."
"No, indeed; I am not having too much company," Harriet returned indignantly, forgetting she must not let herself grow angry with her ill-bred friend. "I am perfectly devoted to every one of the 'Automobile Girls,' and Ruth Stuart is my first cousin."
Harriet and Charlie were both silent for a little while after this unfortunate beginning to their conversation, for Harriet did not know exactly how to go on.
"I am worried," she began again, after a slight pause in which she counted the trees along the road to see how fast their car was running. "I am worried because I am in a great deal of trouble."
"You haven't been getting engaged, have you, Harriet?" asked the young man anxiously. "If you want to break it off, just leave matters to me."
Harriet laughed in spite of herself. It seemed so perfectly absurd to her to be expected to leave a matter as important to her happiness as her engagement to a person like Charlie Meyers to settle.
Charlie Meyers was twenty-two years of age. He had refused to go to college and had never even finished high school. His father had died when he was a child, leaving him to the care of a stepmother who had little affection for him. At the age of twenty-one the boy came into control of his immense fortune. So it was not remarkable that Charlie Meyers, who had almost no education, no home influence and a vast sum of money at his disposal, thought himself of tremendous importance without making any effort to prove himself so.
"No, I am not engaged, Charlie," Harriet answered frankly. "But I do want you to do me a favor, and I wonder if you will do it?"
The young man flushed. His red face grew redder still. What was Harriet going to ask him? He began to feel suspicious.
Now this rich young man had a peculiarity of which Harriet had not dreamed, or she would never have dared to ask him for a loan. He was very stingy, and he had an abnormal fear that people were going to try to make use of him.
Harriet had started with her request, so she went bravely on:
"I'll just tell you the whole story, Charlie," she declared, "so you will see what an awful predicament I am in. I know you won't tell Father, and you may be able to help me out. I owe Madame Louise, my dressmaker, five hundred dollars! She has threatened to bring suit against me at the end of a week unless I pay her what I owe before that time. Would you lend me the money, Charlie? I am awfully ashamed to ask you. But I could pay you back in a little while."
Harriet's voice dropped almost to a whisper, she was so embarrassed. Her companion must have heard her, for he was sitting beside her in the automobile, but he made no answer.
Poor Harriet sat very still for a moment overcome with humiliation. She had trampled upon her pride and self-respect in making her request, and she had begun to realize more fully how very unwise she had been in asking such a favor of this young man. Yet it had really never dawned on the girl that Charlie Meyers could refuse her request. When he did not answer, she began to feel afraid. Harriet could not have spoken again for the world. Her usually haughty head was bent low, and her lids dropped over her eyes in which the tears of humiliation were beginning to gather.
"Look here, Harriet," protested the young man at last. "Five hundred dollars is a good deal of money even for me to lend. What arrangements do you want to make about paying it back?"
"Why, Charlie!" Harriet exclaimed. "You can have the interest on the money, if you like. I never thought of that."
"You can pay me back the interest if you wish," Charlie replied sullenly. "But you know, Harriet, that I like you an awful lot, and for a long time I've been wanting you to marry me. But you've always refused me. Now if you'll promise to marry me, I'll let you have the money. But if you won't, why you can't have it—that's all! I am not going to lend my good money to you, and then have you go your way and perhaps not have anything more to do with me for weeks. I tell you, Harriet, I like you an awful lot and you know it; but I am not going to be made a fool of, and you might as well find it out right now."
Harriet was so angry she simply could not speak for a few minutes. The enormity of her mistake swept over her. But silence was her best weapon, for Charlie Meyers began to feel ashamed. He was dimly aware that he had insulted Harriet, and he really did care for her as much as he was capable of caring for any one.
"I didn't mean to make you angry, Harriet," he apologized in a half frightened voice. "I don't see why you can't care for me anyhow. I've asked you to marry me over and over again. And I can just tell you, you won't have to worry over debts to dressmakers ever again, if you marry me. I've got an awful lot of money."
"I am very glad you have, Mr. Meyers," Harriet answered coldly, with a slight catch in her voice. "But I am certainly sorry I asked you to lend any of it to me. Will you never refer to this conversation again, and take me home as soon as you can? I don't think it is worth while for me even to refuse your offer. But please remember that my affection is something that mere money cannot buy." Harriet's tone was so scornful that the young man winced. He could think of nothing to reply, and turned his car around in shame-faced silence.
Harriet too was very quiet. She would have liked to tell her companion what she truly thought of him, how coarse and ill-bred he was, but she set her lips and remained silent. She did not wish to make an enemy of Charlie Meyers. After that day's experience, she would simply drop him from her list of acquaintances and have nothing more to do with him.
Stupid though he was, the discomfited young man felt Harriet's silent contempt. He wanted to apologize to her, to explain, to say a thousand things. But he was too dense to know just what he should say. It was better for him that he did wait to make his apology until a later day, when Harriet's anger had in a measure cooled and she was even more miserable and confused than she was at that time.
"I am awfully sorry, Harriet," Charlie Meyers stumbled over his words as he helped her out of his machine. "You know I didn't exactly mean to refuse your request. I'll be awfully glad to—"
But Harriet's curt good-bye checked his apologetic speech, and he turned and drove swiftly away.
"GRANT NO FAVORS!"
"Mrs. Wilson's tea is at four o'clock, girls, remember," Harriet announced a day or so later, looking up from the note she was writing. "Are you actually going sight-seeing again to-day before the reception? Truly, I never imagined such energy!"
"Oh, come, Harriet Hamlin, don't be sarcastic," Ruth rejoined. "If you had not lived so long in Washington you would be just as much interested in everything as the 'Automobile Girls' are. But Bab and I are the only ones to go sight-seeing to-day. Mollie isn't feeling well, and Grace is staying to console her. We shall be back in plenty of time. Why don't you lie down for a while! You look so tired."
"Oh, I am all right," Harriet answered gently. "Good-bye, children. Be good and remember you have promised not to be late."
Ruth and Bab were highly anxious for a walk and talk together, and they had a special enterprise on hand for this afternoon. Bab had received a mysterious summons from her newspaper friend, Marjorie Moore. The note had asked Bab to bring Ruth, and to come to the Visitors' Gallery in the Senate Chamber at an appointed time. Marjorie Moore chose this strange meeting place because she had a "special story" of the Senate to write for her paper and was obliged to be in the gallery.
Barbara was not particularly surprised at the request. She knew that Marjorie Moore had been wishing to make her a confidant ever since the reception at the White House. And she knew that the girl could not come to Mr. Hamlin's house because of Harriet's hostile attitude toward her.
So Bab confided the whole story to Ruth, and feeling much mystified and excited, the two girls set out for the Capitol.
During the long walk Barbara thought of her own secret, which she longed to confide to Ruth, but she dared not tell Ruth of the borrowed money for fear Ruth would at once insist on paying her debt. The money had to be paid, of course, and Bab hoped to pay it back at an early date, but she had not yet come to the point where she could bear to ask Ruth for it.
When Ruth and Bab finally reached the Capitol building, and made their way to the Visitors' Gallery in the Senate Chamber, Marjorie Moore was not there. She had failed to keep her appointment.
"I am not so very sorry Miss Moore has not come," Barbara remarked to Ruth. "She seems to be such a mysterious kind of person, always suggesting something and never really telling you what it is."
Ruth laughed. "The 'Automobile Girls' hate mysteries, don't they, Bab? But goodness knows, we are always being involved in them!"
The two visitors sat down to listen to the speeches of United States Senators. There was some excitement in the Chamber, Bab decided, but neither she nor Ruth could exactly understand what was going on. Both girls listened and watched the proceedings below them with such intensity that they forgot all about Marjorie Moore and her strange request.
A few moments later she dropped down into the vacant seat next to Barbara. She looked more hurried and agitated than ever. Her hat was on one side, and her coat collar was half doubled under. She was a little paler from her trying experience of a few nights before, and an ugly bruise showed over her temple. But she made no reference to her accident.
"I am sorry I am late," she whispered. "But come back here in the far corner of the gallery with me. I want to talk with you just half a minute. I am so busy I can't stay with you any longer. I just felt I must see you, Miss Thurston, before you go to tea with Mrs. Wilson this afternoon."
"Tea with Mrs. Wilson!" Bab ejaculated. "How did you know we were going to Mrs. Wilson's tea? And has that anything to do with your message to me?" Barbara did not speak in her usual friendly tones. She was getting decidedly cross. It seemed to her that she had been under some one's supervision ever since her arrival in Washington.
"Yes, it has, Miss Thurston," the newspaper girl replied quickly. "I want to ask you something. Promise me you will grant no one a favor, no matter who asks it of you to-day?"
Barbara flushed. "Why how absurd, Miss Moore. I really cannot make you any such promise. It is too foolish."
"Foolish or not, you must promise me," Marjorie Moore insisted. Then she turned earnestly to Ruth. "I know you have a great deal of influence with your friend. If she will not agree to what I ask her, won't you make her promise you this: She is not to consent to do a favor for any one this afternoon, no matter how simple the favor seems to be. Do you understand?"
Ruth looked at Marjorie Moore blankly, but something in the newspaper girl's earnest expression arrested her attention.
"I don't see why you won't make Miss Moore the promise she begs of you, Bab," Ruth argued. "It seems a simple thing she has asked you. And I don't think it is very nice of you, dear, to refuse her, even though her request does seem a little absurd to you."
"But won't you tell me why you ask me to be so exceedingly unaccommodating, Miss Moore?" Bab retorted.
Marjorie Moore shook her head. "That's just the trouble. Again I can't tell you why I ask this of you. But I want to assure you of one thing. It would mean a great deal more to me, personally, to have you agree to do the favor that may or may not be asked of you this afternoon. I am the only outside person in Washington who knows of a certain game that is to be played. It would mean a big scoop for my paper and a lot of money for me if I would just let things drift. But I like you too well to hold my tongue, though I am not going to tell you anything more. And I certainly won't beg you to do what I ask of you. Of course you may do just as you please. Good-bye; I am too busy to talk any more to-day." Before Barbara could make up her mind what to answer, the newspaper woman hurried away.
Ruth looked decidedly worried after Marjorie Moore's departure. But Barbara was still incredulous and a little bored at being kept so completely in the dark.
"Look here, Bab," Ruth advised, as the two girls walked slowly home together, "you did not promise Miss Moore to do what she asked of you. But you must promise me. Oh, I know it seems absurd! And I am not exactly blaming you for refusing to make that promise to Miss Moore. But, Bab, we cannot always judge the importance of little things. So I, at least, shall be much happier at this particular tea if you will promise me not to do a single thing that any one asks you to do."
Both girls laughed gayly at Ruth's request.
"Won't I be an agreeable guest, Ruth?" Bab mimicked. "If any one asks me to sit down, I must say, 'No; I insist on standing up. Because I have promised my friend Miss Stuart not to do a single thing I am requested to do all afternoon.' I wish I did not have to go to Mrs. Wilson's tea to-day."
"You need not joke, Bab," Ruth persisted. "And you need not pretend you would have to behave so foolishly. I only ask you to promise me what you would not agree to, when Marjorie Moore asked it of you: 'Don't do any favor for any one, no matter who asks it of you this afternoon!'"
Bab gave up. "All right, Ruth, dear; I promise," she conceded. "You know very well that I can't refuse you anything, though I do think you and Miss Moore are asking me to be ridiculous. I do hereby solemnly swear to be, for the rest of this day, the most unaccommodating young person in the whole world. But beware, Ruth Stuart! The boomerang may return and strike you. Don't dare request me to do you a favor until after the bells chime midnight, when I shall be released from my present idiotic vow."
Mrs. Wilson's afternoon teas were not like any others in Washington. They were not crowded affairs, where no one had a chance to talk, but small companies of guests especially selected by Mrs. Wilson for their congeniality. So Mrs. Wilson was regarded as one of the most popular hostesses at the Capital and distinguished people came to her entertainments who could not be persuaded to go anywhere else.
Harriet and the four "Automobile Girls" were delighted to see a number of service uniforms when they entered the charming French drawing-room of their hostess, which was decorated in old rose draperies against ivory tinted walls.
Lieutenant Elmer Wilson's friends, young Army and Navy officers, were out in full force. They were among the most agreeable young men in Washington society. Lieutenant Elmer at once attached himself to Mollie; and his attentions might have turned the head of that young woman if she had not been feeling unusually sobered by her recent experience with debt.
Barbara soon recognized the two young men who had helped her carry Marjorie Moore from the lawn to the White House veranda. But neither one of them referred to the incident while there were other people surrounding them. Finally an opportunity came to one of the two men to speak to Barbara. He leaned over and whispered softly: "How is the young woman we rescued the other night? I almost thought she had been killed. We have been sworn to secrecy. But one of my friends has an idea that he saw the man who may have attacked Miss Moore. He was out on a porch before the rest of us joined him, and he swears he saw two figures at some distance across the lawn."
Bab shuddered. "I was on the lawn. Perhaps he saw me."
"No," her companion argued, unconvinced. "My friend is sure he saw two men; one of them was rather heavily built—"
Peter Dillon's approach cut short the conversation and the young Army officer turned away, as Peter joined Bab.
Barbara hardly turned around to greet the newcomer. She did not like Peter Dillon and she was very anxious to hear what her previous companion had to say. So Bab only gave Mr. Dillon her haughtiest bow. Peter did not appear discouraged; he stood for a moment smiling at Bab good humoredly, the boyish look shining in his near-sighted dark blue eyes.
Barbara was forced to speak to him. "How do you do, Mr. Dillon?" she asked at last.
"Very well indeed," replied the young man cheerfully. "Did you arrive home safely the other day?"
Barbara colored hotly. She felt certain now that despite her promise of secrecy Mrs. Wilson had betrayed her confidence and told Peter Dillon about the borrowed money. Why she had done so was a mystery and why he had lied to Bab in saying Mrs. Wilson was out was also a problem Bab could not solve.
While all this was passing through her mind Peter stood regarding her with a quizzical smile. Then he said smoothly: "Miss Thurston, will you do me a favor?"
Bab flashed a peculiar glance at him. "No," she replied abruptly.
The young man looked surprised. "I am sorry," he declared. "I was only going to ask you to go in the other room to look at a picture with me."
A little later in the afternoon, Harriet managed to get the four "Automobile Girls" together. "Mrs. Wilson wishes us to stay to dinner with her," Harriet explained. "She has asked eight or ten other people and Father has telephoned that he will come in after dinner to take us home."
BAB REFUSES TO GRANT A FAVOR
The dinner party was delightful. The "Automobile Girls" had not had such a good time since their arrival in Washington. Mrs. Wilson was a charming hostess. She was particularly gracious to Bab, and the young girl decided to forget the disquieting suspicions she had harbored against this fascinating woman and enjoy herself.
It was almost ten o'clock. Mr. Hamlin had not yet arrived at Mrs. Wilson's. Bab was sitting in one corner of the drawing-room talking gayly with a young Annapolis graduate, who was telling her all about his first cruise, when Elmer Wilson interrupted them.
"I am terribly sorry to break into your conversation like this, Miss Thurston," he apologized. "But Mother wishes to have a little talk with you in the library before you leave here. I am sure I don't know what she wishes to see you about; she told me to give you her message and ask no questions. May I show you the way to her!"
Bab's gay laughter died on her lips. She rose at once and signified her willingness to accompany Elmer to the library, but both young men noticed that her face had grown grave and she seemed almost embarrassed.
Elmer Wilson wondered why Miss Thurston had taken his mother's simple message so seriously. He was almost as embarrassed as Bab appeared to be.
When Barbara entered the room where she had received the envelope from Peter Dillon the room was but dimly lighted. Two rose-colored shades covered the low lamps, and great bunches of pink roses ornamented the mantel.
Mrs. Wilson wore a black and white chiffon gown over white silk and had a little band of black velvet about her throat from which hung a small diamond star. Her beautiful white hair looked like a silver crown on her head. She was leaning back in her chair with closed eyes when Bab entered the room, and she did not open them at once. She let the young girl stand and look at her, expecting her unusual beauty to influence Bab, as it had many other older people. Mrs. Wilson looked tired and in a softened mood. Her head rested against a pile of dark silken cushions. Her hands were folded, in her lap.
She opened her dark eyes finally and smiled at Barbara. "Come here, Barbara," she commanded, pointing to a chair opposite her.
Bab looked at her beautiful hostess timidly, but her brown eyes were honest and clear. "You sent for me?" Bab queried, sitting down very stiff and straight among the soft cushions.
"Of course I did," Mrs. Wilson smiled. "And I should have done so before, only you and I have both been too busy. I am so glad you came to my tea to-day." Mrs. Wilson reached out her slender white hand and took hold of Barbara's firm brown one. "I want to make you a very humble apology," she continued. "I am very sorry that I was obliged to be away the other day when you called. I left the envelope with Mr. Dillon. I received your note yesterday, so I know that it was delivered into your hands. I did not return until after seven o'clock the other night, so it was just as well you didn't wait for me. I knew I could trust Mr. Dillon to give it to you."
The girl made no reply. She did not dare raise her eyes to the other woman's face for fear Mrs. Wilson would divine from their expression that Bab knew she had lied. At the same time a thrill of consternation swept over her. What had been Mrs. Wilson's object in lending her the money? Bab was now sure that the loan had not been made disinterestedly. But what had Peter Dillon to do with it? It looked very much as though Mrs. Wilson and the attache were playing a game, and were seeking to draw her into it. She resolved at that moment that she would write to her mother for the money, or ask Ruth for it. She would do anything rather than remain in Mrs. Wilson's debt. There was something about the intent way in which her hostess looked at her that aroused fresh suspicion in her mind. Bab braced herself to hear what she knew instinctively was to follow.
"I am so glad I was able to help you," Mrs. Wilson purred, continuing to watch the young girl intently. "I know that you meant what you said when you declared that you hoped to some day be able to do some favor for me. I did not think then that I should ever wish to take you at your word, but strange as it may seem, you are the very person I have been looking for to help me with a joke that I wish to play upon Mr. Hamlin. You know, Mr. Hamlin is a very methodical man. Well, I wagered him a dozen pairs of gloves, the other day, that he would misplace one of his beloved papers. And I hope to win the wager. What I wish you to do is to secure a certain paper from his desk and give it to me. He will never know how I obtained it. Of course I shall return it to him in a day or so, after he acknowledges his defeat and pays his wager."
Barbara shook her head. "I don't think I can take any part in any such joke, Mrs. Wilson," she said, looking appealingly at her hostess. "You don't really mean that you wish me to take one of Mr. Hamlin's papers without his knowledge, and then give the paper to you?"
"Certainly, child, I do mean just that thing," Mrs. Wilson said, laughing lightly. "You need not take my request so seriously. Mr. Hamlin will appreciate the joke more than any one else when I have explained it to him. Won't you keep your word and grant me this favor?"
"I can't do what you ask, Mrs. Wilson," Bab said slowly. "I'm awfully sorry, but it wouldn't be honorable."
Mrs. Wilson turned away her head, so that Barbara could not see the expression of her face. "Very well, Miss Thurston," she said sharply. "Don't trouble about it, if you think you will be committing one of the cardinal sins in doing me this favor. But don't you think you are rather ungrateful? You were perfectly willing to accept my offer the other day when you were in need of money to pay your sister's debt, but now you are in no hurry to cancel your obligation. I consider you an extremely disobliging young woman."
Barbara sat silent and ashamed. Yet she made no effort to propitiate her angry hostess.
The butler came to the library door to announce the arrival of Mr. Hamlin.
Barbara rose quickly. "I am so sorry not to be able to do you the favor you asked of me, Mrs. Wilson," she said in a low tone.
Mrs. Wilson did not reply. Then in a flash Barbara Thurston remembered something! It was the promise Marjorie Moore had asked of her, and which Ruth Stuart had insisted upon her making. Without recalling that promise at the time, Bab had still kept her word. She had been asked to do some one a favor—and she had refused. But of course Marjorie Moore must have had some other thing in mind when she made her curious demand. Now that Barbara thought again of her vow, she determined to be wary for the rest of the evening and to keep as far away from Peter Dillon as possible.
"I am going to play chaperon at your house in the near future, Harriet," Mrs. Wilson announced, as her guests were saying good night. "Your father says he is to be out of town on business and that I may look after you."
"We shall be delighted to have you, Mrs. Wilson," Harriet returned politely, though she wondered why her father had suddenly requested Mrs. Wilson to act as chaperon. Harriet had often stayed at home alone with only their faithful old servants to look after her, when her father went away for a short time. And now that she had the four "Automobile Girls" as her guests, she did not feel in need of a chaperon.
Peter Dillon had not spoken to Bab again during the evening, but had studiously avoided her, and Bab was exceedingly glad that he had kept his distance. But as she put on her coat to go home, she heard the rustle of a small piece of paper.
Barbara glanced down at it, of course, and found that some one had pinned a folded square of paper to the inner lining of her coat.
She blushed furiously, for fear one of the other guests would discover what had happened. Bab hated sentimentality and secrecy more than anything in the world. Inside the folded square of paper she found the tiny faded rose-bud, Peter Dillon had placed in his pocket that day when he had picked the two buds in the old Washington garden at Mt. Vernon.
On the way downstairs, Barbara still kept the flower in her hand. But when she found Peter's eyes were upon her she deliberately crushed the little rose-bud, then defiantly tossed it away.
BARBABA'S UNEXPECTED GOOD LUCK
It was the second day after Mrs. Wilson's dinner when Barbara made up her mind to tell Ruth of her debt to Mrs. Wilson and to ask her friend to lend her the money to relieve her of her obligation. Bab could endure the situation no longer. She simply determined to tell Ruth everything, except the part that poor Mollie had played in the original difficulty. She meant to explain to Ruth that she had needed fifty dollars, that she had intended going to a pawn shop to secure the money, her interview with Mrs. Wilson and her acceptance of the loan offered by the beautiful woman. She would not tell Ruth, however, why she had suddenly required this sum of money. Now, Bab knew Ruth would ask her no questions and would grant her request without a moment's hesitation or loss of faith. The sympathy between Ruth and Barbara was very deep and real.
It was one thing for Barbara Thurston to decide to appeal to Ruth's ever-ready generosity, but another thing actually to make her demand.
The two girls lay on Ruth's bed, resting. They had been to a dance at the British Embassy the night before. Mollie and Grace were together in the next room and Harriet was alone.
"Barbara!" exclaimed Ruth suddenly. "If you could have one wish, that would surely be granted, what would you wish?"
"I would like to have some money in a hurry," flashed through Bab's mind, but she was ashamed to make such a speech to Ruth, so she said rather soberly. "I have so many wishes its hard to single out one."
"Well what are some of them?" persisted Ruth. "Do you wish to be rich, or famous, or to write a great book or a play?"
"Oh, yes; I wish all those things, Ruth," Bab agreed. "But you were not thinking of such big things. What little private wish of your own did you have in your mind? Please don't wish for things that will take you far away from me," Bab entreated.
Ruth's blue eyes were misty when she replied: "Oh, no, Bab! I was just going to wish that something would happen so that you and I need never be separated again. I love you just as though you were my sister, and I am so lonely at home without you and Mollie. Yet, as soon as our visit to Harriet is over, you must go back to school in Kingsbridge and I have to go home to Chicago. Who knows when we shall see each other again? I don't suppose that our motor trips can go on happening forever."
Bab pressed Ruth's hand silently, her own thoughts flying toward the future, when she would perhaps be working her way through college, and teaching school later on, and Ruth would be in society, a beauty and a belle in her Western home.
"Why don't you say something, Bab?" queried Ruth, feeling slightly offended at Bab's silence. "Can't you say you wish the same thing that I do, and that you believe our motor trips will last forever?"
A knock at the door interrupted Bab's answer. When she went to open it a maid handed her three letters. Two of them were for Ruth and one for Barbara.
Ruth opened her letters quickly. The handwriting on one of them was her Aunt Sallie's. The other was from Ruth's father.
The postmark on Bab's letter was unfamiliar, however, so she did not trouble to open it, until she heard what Ruth had to say.
"Oh, I am so sorry!" Ruth ejaculated. "See here, Bab, Aunt Sallie writes us that she cannot come on to Washington. She has rheumatism, or something, in her shoulder and does not want to make the long trip. She says I had better come home in a week or ten days, and that Father will probably come for me. Of course, Aunt Sallie sends love and kisses all around to her 'Automobile Girls.' She ends by declaring I must bring you home with me."
Bab gave a deep sigh. "I do wish Miss Sallie had been here with us," she murmured.
Ruth looked reflective. "Have you any special reason for needing Aunt Sallie, Bab? I have an idea you have something on your mind. Won't I do for your confidant!"
"Yes, you will, Ruth!" Bab said slowly, turning her face to hide her painful embarrassment. "Ruth will you—"
Bab had picked up her own letter. More to gain time than for any other reason, she opened it idly. A piece of paper fluttered out on the bed, which Ruth picked up.
"Why, Bab!" she cried. "Look! Here is a check for fifty dollars! And there is some strange name on it that I never heard of before."
But Ruth could not speak again, for Bab had thrown her arms about her and was embracing her excitedly.
"Oh, Ruth, I am so glad, I am so glad!" Bab exclaimed, half laughing, half crying. "Just think of it—fifty dollars! And just now of all times. I never dreamed of such luck coming to me. It is just too wonderful!"
"Barbara Thurston, will you be quiet and tell me what has happened to you?" Ruth insisted. "You haven't lost your wits, have you, child?"
"No, I have found them," Bab declared. "More wits than I ever dreamed I had. Now, Ruth, don't be cross with me because I never confided this to you before. But I have not told a single person until to-day, not even Mother or Mollie. Months before I came to Washington, just before school commenced, I saw a notice in a newspaper, saying that a prize would be given for a short story written by a schoolgirl between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. So, up in the little attic at Laurel Cottage, I wrote a story. I worked on it for days and days, and then I sent it off to the publisher. I was ashamed to tell any one that I had written it, and never dreamed I should hear of it again. But now I have won the prize of fifty dollars,"