THE AUTOMOBILE GIRLS AT WASHINGTON
or, Checkmating the Plots of Foreign Spies
LAURA DENT CRANE
Author of The Automobile Girls at Newport, The Automobile Girls in the Berkshires, The Automobile Girls Along the Hudson, The Automobile Girls at Chicago, The Automobile Girls at Palm Beach, etc.
I. A Chance Meeting II. Cabinet Day in Washington III. Mr. Tu Fang Wu IV. At the Chinese Embassy V. Sub Rosa VI. The Arrest VII. Mollie's Temptation VIII. At the White House IX. Bab's Discovery X. The Confession XI. In Mr. Hamlin's Study XII. Barbara's Secret Errand XIII. A Foolish Girl XIV. "Grant No Favors!" XV. Bab Refuses to Grant a Favor XVI. Barbara's Unexpected Good Luck XVII. The White Veil XVIII. A Tangled Web or Circumstance XIX. Harriet in Danger XX. Foiled! XXI. The Discovery XXII. Oil on the Troubled Waters XXIII. Suspense and the Reward XXIV. Home at Laurel Cottage
A CHANCE MEETING
Barbara Thurston stood at the window of a large old-fashioned house, looking out into Connecticut Avenue. It was almost dark. An occasional light twinkled outside in the street, but the room in which Barbara was stationed was still shrouded in twilight.
Suddenly she heard a curtain at the farther end of the drawing-room rustle faintly.
Bab turned and saw a young man standing between the curtains, peering into the shadows with a pair of near-sighted eyes.
Barbara started. The stranger had entered the room through a small study that adjoined it. He seemed totally unaware of any other presence, for he was whistling softly: "Kathleen Mavourneen."
"I beg your pardon," Bab began impulsively, "but are you looking for some one?"
The newcomer flashed a charming smile at Barbara. He did not seem in the least surprised at her appearance.
"No," he declared cheerfully, "I was not looking for any one or anything. The butler told me Mr. Hamlin and Harriet were both out. But, I say, don't you think I am fortunate to have found you quite by accident! I came in here to loaf a few minutes."
Barbara frowned slightly. The young man's manner was surprisingly familiar, and she had never seen him before in her life.
"I hope I am not disturbing you," he went on gayly. "I am an attache of the Russian legation, and a friend of Miss Hamlin's. I came with a message for Mr. Hamlin. I was wondering if it were worth while to wait for him. But I can go away if I am troublesome."
"Oh, no, you are not disturbing me in the least," Barbara returned. "I expect Miss Hamlin and my friends soon. We arrived in Washington last night, and the other girls have gone out to a reception. I had a headache and stayed at home. Won't you be seated while I ring for the butler to turn on the lights?"
The newcomer sat down, gravely watching Barbara.
"Would you like me to guess who you are?" he asked, after half a minute's silence.
Bab laughed. "I am sure you will give me the first chance to tell you your name. I did not recognize you at first. But I believe Harriet told us about you last night. She described several of her Washington friends to us. You are Peter Dillon, aren't you?"
"At your service," declared the young attache, who looked almost boyish. "But now give me my opportunity. I do not know your name, but I have guessed this much. You are an 'Automobile Girl!' Permit me to bid you welcome to Washington."
Barbara nodded her head decidedly. "Yes, I am Barbara Thurston, one of the 'Automobile Girls.' There are four of us. Harriet has probably explained to you. My sister, Mollie Thurston, Grace Carter, Ruth Stuart and I form the quartet. Mr. William Hamlin is Ruth's uncle. So we are going to spend a few weeks here with Harriet and see the Capital. I have never been in Washington before."
"Then you have a new world before you, Miss Thurston," said the young man, his manner changing. "Washington is like no other city in the world, I think. I have been here for four years. Before that time I had lived in Dublin, in Paris, in St. Petersburg."
"Then you are not an American!" exclaimed Bab, regarding the young man with interest.
"I am a man without a country, Miss Thurston." Bab's visitor laughed carelessly. "Or, perhaps, I had better say I am a man of several countries. My father was an Irishman and a soldier of fortune. My mother was a Russian. Therefore, I am a member of the Russian legation in Washington in spite of my half-Irish name. Have you ever been abroad?"
"Oh, no," Bab returned, shaking her head. "For the past two years, since I have known Ruth Stuart, the 'Automobile Girls' have traveled about in this country a good deal. But we are only school girls still. We have never really made our debut in society, although we mean to forget this while we are in Washington, and to see as much of the world as we can. I do wish I knew something about politics. It would make our visit in Washington so much more interesting."
"It is the most interesting game in the world," declared Barbara's companion, dropping for an instant his expression of indifference. His blue eyes flashed. Then he said quickly: "Perhaps you will let me teach you something of the political game at Washington. I am sure you will be quick to learn and to enjoy it."
"Thank you," Bab answered shyly. "But I am much too stupid ever to understand."
"I don't quite believe that. You know, you will, of course, hear a great deal about politics while you are the guests of the Assistant Secretary of State. Mr. Hamlin is one of the cleverest men in Washington. I am sure you will be instructing me in diplomacy by the end of a week. But good-bye; I must not keep you any longer. Will you tell Mr. Hamlin that I left the bundle of papers he desired on his study table? And please tell Harriet that I shall hope to be invited very often to see the 'Automobile Girls.'"
The young man looked intently at Barbara, as though trying to read her very thoughts while she returned his scrutiny with steady eyes. Then with a courteous bow, he left the room.
When Barbara found herself alone she returned to the window.
"I do wish the girls would come," she murmured to herself. "I am just dying to know what Mollie and Grace think of their first reception in Washington. Of course, Ruth has visited Harriet before, so the experience is not new to her. I am sorry I did not go with the girls, in spite of my headache. I wonder if some one is coming in here again! I seem to be giving a reception here myself."
By this time the room was lighted, and Barbara saw a young woman of about twenty-five years of age walk into the drawing-room and drop into a big arm chair with a little tired sigh.
"You are Miss Thurston, aren't you?" she asked briskly as Bab came forward to speak to her, wondering how on earth this newcomer knew her name and what could be the reason for this unexpected call.
"Yes," Barbara returned in a puzzled tone, "I am Miss Thurston."
"Oh, don't be surprised at my knowing your name," Bab's latest caller went on. "It is my business to know everybody. I met Mr. Dillon on the corner. He told me Harriet Hamlin was not at home and that I had better not come here this afternoon. I did not believe him; still I am not sorry Miss Hamlin is out, I would ever so much rather see you. Harriet Hamlin is dreadfully proud, and she is not a bit sympathetic. Do you think so?"
Bab was lost in wonder. What on earth could this talkative young woman wish of her? Did her visitor believe Bab would confide her opinion of Harriet to a complete stranger? But the young woman did not wait for an answer.
"I want to see you about something awfully important," she went on. "Please promise me you will do what I ask you before I tell you what it is."
Bab laughed. "Don't ask me that. Why you may be an anarchist, for all I know."
The new girl shook her head, smiling. She looked less tired now. She was pretty and fragile, with fair hair and blue eyes. She was very pale and was rather shabbily and carelessly dressed.
"No; I am not an anarchist," she said slowly. "I am a newspaper woman, which is almost as bad in some people's eyes, I suppose, considering the way society people fight against giving me news of themselves and their doings. I came to ask you if you would give me the pictures of the 'Automobile Girls' for my paper? Oh, you need not look so surprised. We have all heard of the 'Automobile Girls.' Everybody in Washington of importance has heard of you. Couldn't you let me write a sketch about you and your adventures, and put your photographs on the society page of our Sunday edition? It would be such a favor to me."
Barbara looked distressed. She was beginning to like her visitor. Though Barbara had been associated mainly with wealthy people in the last two years of the "Automobile Girls'" adventures, she could not help feeling interested in a girl who was evidently trying to make her own way in the world.
"I am awfully sorry," Bab declared almost regretfully, but before she finished speaking the drawing-room door opened and Ruth Stuart and Harriet Hamlin entered the room together.
"How is your head, Bab, dear?" Ruth cried, before she espied their caller.
Harriet Hamlin bowed coldly to the newspaper woman in the big arm chair. The young woman had flushed, looked uncomfortable at sight of Harriet and said almost humbly:
"I am sorry to interrupt you, Miss Hamlin, but my paper sent me to ask you for the pictures of your guests. May I have them?"
"Most certainly not, Miss Moore," Harriet answered scornfully. "My friends would not dream of allowing you to publish their pictures. And my father would not consent to it either. Just because he is Assistant Secretary of State I do not see why my visitors should be annoyed in this way. I hope you don't mind, Ruth and Barbara." Harriet's voice changed when she turned to address her cousin and friend. "Forgive my refusing Miss Moore for you. But it is out of the question."
Ruth and Bab both silently agreed with Harriet. But Barbara could not help feeling sorry for the other girl, who flushed painfully at Harriet's tone and turned to go without another word.
Bab followed the girl out into the hall.
"I am so sorry not to give you our photographs," Barbara declared. "But, of course, we cannot let you have them if Mr. Hamlin would object. And, to tell you the honest truth, the 'Automobile Girls' would not like it either." Barbara smiled in such a frank friendly way that no one could have been vexed with her.
The older girl's eyes were full of tears, which she bravely winked out of sight.
"Everyone has his picture published in the papers nowadays," she replied. "I am sure I intended no discourtesy to you or to Miss Hamlin."
Then the girl's self-control gave way. She was very tired, and Bab's sympathy unnerved her. "I hate Harriet Hamlin," she whispered, passionately. "I am as well bred as she is. Because I am poor, and have to support my mother, is no reason why she should treat me as though I were dust under her feet. I shall have a chance to get even with her, some day, just as certainly as I live. Then, won't I take my revenge!"
Barbara did not know what to reply, so she went on talking quietly. "I am sure your asking us for our pictures was a very great compliment to us. Only important people and beauties and belles have their pictures in the society papers. It is just because the 'Automobile Girls' are too insignificant to be shown such an honor that we can't consent. But please don't be angry with us. I am sure Harriet did not intend to wound your feelings, and I hope I shall see you soon again."
Marjorie Moore shook Barbara's hand impulsively before she went out into the gathering darkness. "I like you," she said warmly. "I wish we might be friends. Good-night."
"Where are Mollie and Grace?" was Bab's first question when she rejoined Ruth and Harriet.
"They would not come away from the reception," Harriet returned, smiling. She was quite unconscious of having treated Marjorie Moore unkindly. "Ruth and I were worried about your headache, so we did not wish to leave you alone any longer. Strange to relate, Father offered to stay until Mollie and Grace were ready to come home. That is a great concession on his part, as he usually runs away from a reception at the first opportunity that offers itself. Mrs. Wilson, a friend of Father's is helping him to look after Mollie and Grace this afternoon. Bab, did some boxes come for me this afternoon? I left orders at the shop to send them when Father would surely be out. Come on upstairs, children, and see my new finery."
"Why, Harriet, are you getting more clothes?" Ruth exclaimed. "You are like 'Miss Flora McFlimsey, of Madison Square, who never had anything good enough to wear.'"
"I am no such thing, Ruth Stuart," returned her cousin, a little peevishly. "You don't understand. Does she, Barbara? Ruth has so much money she simply cannot realize what it means to try to make a good appearance on a small allowance, especially here in Washington where one goes out so much."
"I was only joking, Harriet," Ruth apologized as she and Barbara obediently followed their hostess upstairs. Bab, however, secretly wondered how she and Mollie were to manage in Washington, with their simple wardrobes, if their young hostess thought that clothes were the all-important thing in Washington society.
Harriet Hamlin was twenty years of age, but she seemed much older to Bab and Ruth. In the first place, Harriet was an entirely different type of girl. She had been mistress of her father's house in Washington since she was sixteen. She had received her father's guests and entertained his friends; and at eighteen she had made her debut into Washington society, and had taken her position as one of the women of the Cabinet. Harriet's mother, Ruth's aunt, had died a few months before Mr. Hamlin had received his appointment as Assistant Secretary of State. Since that time Harriet had borne the responsibilities of a grown woman, and being an only child she had to a certain extent done as she pleased, although she was secretly afraid of her cold, dignified father.
Mr. William Hamlin was one of the ablest men in Washington. He was a quiet, stern, reserved man, and although he was proud of his daughter, of her beauty and accomplishments, he was also very strict with her. He was a poor man, and it was hard work for Harriet to keep up the appearance necessary to her father's position on his salary as Assistant Secretary of State. Harriet, however, never dared tell her father of this, and Mr. Hamlin never offered Harriet either sympathy or advice.
Barbara and Ruth could only watch with admiring eyes and little exclamations of delight the exquisite garments that Harriet now lifted out of three big, pasteboard boxes; a beautiful yellow crepe frock, a pale green satin evening gown and a gray broadcloth tailor-made suit. Harriet was tall and dark, with very black hair and large dark eyes. She was considered one of the beauties of the "younger set" in Washington society. Ruth had not seen her cousin for several years, until she received the invitation to bring the "Automobile Girls" to Washington.
Ruth Stuart and Barbara Thurston had changed very little since their last outing together at Palm Beach. Barbara was now nearly eighteen. At the close of the school year she was to be graduated from the Kingsbridge High School. And she hoped to be able to enter Vassar College the following fall. Yet the fact that she was in Washington early in December requires an explanation.
Two weeks before Bab had walked slowly home to Laurel Cottage at about three o'clock one November afternoon with a great pile of books under her arm.
On the front porch of their little cottage she found her mother and Mollie, greatly excited. A telegram had just come from Ruth Stuart. The "Automobile Girls" were invited to visit Ruth's cousin in Washington, D.C. Ruth wished them to start at the end of the week.
Bab's face flushed with pleasure at the news. She had not been with her beloved Ruth since the Easter before. Then the color died out of her face and her cheeks showed an unaccustomed pallor.
"I am so sorry, Mother," Bab responded. "I would give anything in the world to see Ruth. But I simply can't stop school just now, or I shall lose the scholarship. Mollie, you can accept Ruth's invitation. You and Grace Carter can go to Washington together. You won't mind going without me."
"I shall not stir a single step without you," blue-eyed Mollie returned firmly. "And Mother thinks you can go!"
Mollie and Mrs. Thurston, aided by Bab's teachers, at last persuaded Barbara to take a few weeks' holiday. Bab could study to make up for lost time during the Christmas holidays. For no one, except the young woman herself, doubted Barbara's ability to win the desired Vassar scholarship.
And so it was arranged that Bab and Mollie should go with Ruth to Washington. Bab had grown taller and more slender in the past few months. Her brown braids are now always coiled about her graceful head. Her hair was parted in the middle, although a few little curls still escaped in the old, careless fashion.
Ruth Stuart, too, was looking sweeter and fresher than ever, and was the same ingenuous, unspoiled girl, whose sunny disposition no amount of wealth and fashion could change.
Readers of the first volume in the "Automobile Girls Series," entitled "The Automobile Girls At Newport," will recall how, nearly two years ago, Ruth Stuart, with her father and her aunt, Miss Sallie Stuart, came from their home in far away Chicago to spend the summer in Kingsbridge, New Jersey. The day that Barbara Thurston stopped a pair of runaway horses and saved Ruth Stuart from death she did not dream that she had turned the first page in the history of the "Automobile Girls." A warm friendship sprang up between Ruth and Bab, and a little later Ruth Stuart invited Barbara, her younger sister, Mollie Thurston, and their friend, Grace Carter, to take a trip to Newport in her own, red automobile with Ruth herself as chauffeur and her aunt, Miss Sallie Stuart, as chaperon.
Exciting days at Newport followed, and the four girls brought to bay the "Boy Raffles," the cracksman, who had puzzled the fashionable world! There were many thrilling adventures connected with the discovery of this "society thief," and the "Automobile Girls" proved themselves capable of meeting whatever emergencies sprang up in their path.
In "The Automobile Girls in the Berkshires," the second volume of the "Automobile Girls Series," the scene is laid in a little log cabin on top of one of the highest peaks in the Berkshire hills, where the four girls and Miss Sallie spent a happy period of time "roughing it." There it was that they discovered an Indian Princess and laid the "Ghost of Lost Man's Trail."
In the third volume of the series, "The Automobile Girls Along the Hudson," the quartet of youthful travelers, accompanied by Miss Sallie Stuart, motored through the beautiful Sleepy Hollow country, spending several weeks at the home of Major Ted Eyck, an old friend of the Stuarts. There many diverting experiences fell to their lot, and before leaving the hospitable major's home they were instrumental in saving it from destruction by forest fires.
The fourth volume of the series, "The Automobile Girls at Chicago," relates the adventures of the four friends during the Christmas holidays, which Mollie, Grace and Bab spent with Ruth at Chicago and at "Treasureholme," the country estate of the Presbys, who were cousins of the Stuart family. While there, principally through the cleverness of Barbara Thurston, the hiding place of a rich treasure buried by one of The ancestors of the Presbys was discovered in time to prevent the financial ruin of both Richard Presby and Robert Stuart, who had become deeply involved through speculation in wheat.
Before Mollie, Grace and Barbara returned to Kingsbridge, Mr. Stuart had promised that they should see Ruth again in March at Palm Beach, where he had planned a happy reunion for the "Automobile Girls." There it was that they had, through a series of happenings, formed the acquaintance of a mysterious countess and become involved in the net of circumstances that was woven about her. How they continued to be her friend in spite of dark rumors afloat to the effect that she was an impostor and how she afterwards turned out to be a princess, is fully set forth in "The Automobile Girls at Palm Beach."
"Really, Bab," said Ruth, as the two girls went upstairs to their rooms to dress for dinner, "I have not had a chance to talk to you, alone, since we arrived in Washington. How is your mother?"
"As well as can be," Bab answered. "How is darling Aunt Sallie? I am so sorry she did not come to Washington with you to chaperon us. There is no telling what mischief we may get into without her."
Ruth laughed. "I have special instructions for the 'Automobile Girls' from Aunt Sallie. We are to be particularly careful to mind our 'P's' and 'Q's' on this visit, for Aunt Sallie wishes us to make a good impression in Washington."
Barbara sighed. "I'll try, Ruth," she declared, "but you know what remarkable talent I have for getting into mischief."
"Then you are to be specially par-tic-u-lar, Mistress Bab!" Ruth said teasingly. "For Aunt Sallie's last words to me were: 'Tell Barbara she is to look before she leaps.'"
Barbara shook her brown head vigorously. "I am not the impetuous Bab of other automobile days. But, just the same, I wish Aunt Sallie had come along with you."
"Oh, she may join us later," Ruth returned. "To tell you the truth, Bab, Aunt Sallie is not fond of Harriet. She thinks Harriet is clever and pretty, but vain and spoiled. Here come Mollie and Grace. Home from that reception at last!"
The other two girls burst into Ruth's room at this moment.
"Whom do you think we have seen?" called out Miss Mollie rapturously. "Oh, Washington is the greatest fun! I feel just like a girl in a book, we have been presented to so many noted people. I tell you, Barbara Thurston, we are country girls no longer! Now we have been traveling about the country so much with Ruth and Mr. Stuart, that we know people everywhere. Just guess whom we know in Washington?"
"I can guess," Ruth rejoined, clapping her hands. "You have seen Mrs. Post and Hugh. Surely, you had not forgotten that they live in Washington. Hugh has finished college and has a position in the Forestry Department. I had a note from him this morning."
"And didn't tell! Oh, Ruth!" teased Grace Carter. "But, Bab, what about our Lenox friends, who spend their winters in Washington?"
"You mean Dorothy and Gwendolin Morton, the British Ambassador's daughters, and funny little Franz Haller, the German secretary, I hope we shall see them. But do hurry, children. Please don't keep the Assistant Secretary of State waiting for his dinner. That would surely be a bad beginning for our Washington visit. No, Mollie Thurston; don't you put on your very best dress for dinner to-night. I have just gotten out your white muslin."
"But Harriet wears such lovely clothes all the time, Bab," Mollie pleaded, when she and Barbara were alone.
"Never mind, child. Harriet Hamlin is not Mollie Thurston," Barbara concluded wisely.
CABINET DAY IN WASHINGTON
It was Harriet Hamlin's reception day. There are certain times appointed in Washington when the members of the President's Cabinet hold receptions.
The "Automobile Girls" had come to Washington in time for one of these special entertainments. For, as Harriet explained, they could see everyone worth seeing at once. Not only would the diplomats, the senators and congressmen call with their wives, but the Army and Navy officers, all official Washington would appear to pay their respects to Mr. William Hamlin and his lovely daughter.
"Then there will be a crowd of unimportant people besides," Harriet had continued. "People who are never asked to any small parties come to this reception just because they can get in. So you girls will have to entertain yourselves this morning. I have a thousand things to do. Why not take the girls to look at the White House, Ruth? That is the first thing to do in Washington. I am sorry I can't go with you. But you just walk straight down Connecticut Avenue and you can't miss it."
It was a perfect day. Although it was early in December, the atmosphere was like Indian summer. Washington shone sparkling white through a dim veil of haze. The "Automobile Girls" walked briskly along toward the White House, chatting every step of the way.
"Where are the poplar trees planted along this avenue by Thomas Jefferson, Ruth?" Grace Carter demanded. "I read somewhere that Jefferson meant to make this avenue look like the famous street called 'Unter den Linden' in Berlin."
"He did, child, but most of the poplar trees died," Ruth rejoined, "and some one else planted these oaks and elms. Why are you so silent, Barbara? Are you tired?"
"I think Washington is the most beautiful city in the whole world," Bab answered with sudden enthusiasm.
"Wait until you have seen it," Ruth teased. "Uncle William wants to take us through the Capitol. But I suppose there is no harm in our looking at the outside of the White House. Later on, when we go to one of the President's receptions, we can see the inside of it."
"Shall we ever see the President?" Mollie asked breathlessly. "Won't it be wonderful? I never dreamed that even Mr. Hamlin could take us to the President's home."
"Here we are at the White House," said Ruth.
The "Automobile Girls" stood silent for a moment, looking in through the autumn foliage at the simple colonial mansion, which is the historic "White House."
"I am glad our White House looks like that," Bab said, after half a moment's pause. "I was so afraid it would be pretentious. But it is just big and simple and dignified as our President's home ought to be. It makes me feel so glad to be an American," Barbara ended with a flush. She was afraid the other girls were laughing at her.
"I think so too, Bab," Ruth agreed. "I don't see why girls cannot be as patriotic as boys. We may be able to serve our country in some way, some day. I hope we shall have the chance."
The "Automobile Girls" had entered the White House grounds and were strolling along through the park.
Bab and Ruth were talking of the beauties of Washington. But no such thoughts were engrossing pretty Mollie's attention. Mollie's mind was dwelling on the society pleasures the "Automobile Girls" expected to enjoy at the Capital City. Grace Carter was listening to Barbara's and Ruth's animated conversation.
From the very first days at Newport, Mollie Thurston had cared more for society than had her sister and two friends. Her dainty beauty and pretty manners made her a favorite wherever she went. Mollie's friends had spoiled her, and since her arrival in Washington the old story had repeated itself. Harriet Hamlin had already taken Mollie under her special protection. And Mollie was wildly excited with the thought of the social experiences ahead of her.
The four girls spent some time strolling about the White House grounds. Then Ruth proposed that they take a car and visit the Congressional Library.
"I think it is the most beautiful building in Washington, and, in fact, one of the finest in the world," she said enthusiastically, and later when the "Automobile Girls" were fairly inside the famous library, they fully agreed with her. It was particularly hard to tear Barbara away from what seemed to her the most fascinating place she was ever in, and she announced her intention of visiting it again at the first opportunity.
The sightseers arrived home in time for luncheon and at four o'clock that afternoon they stood in a row, beside Harriet Hamlin and her father, helping to receive the guests who crowded in to the reception. Some of the women wore beautiful gowns, others looked as though they had come from small towns where the residents knew nothing of fashionable society.
Mollie and Bab wore the white chiffon frocks Mr. Prescott had presented them with in Chicago. But Grace and Ruth wore gowns that had been ordered for this particular occasion. Bab thought their white frocks, which looked as though they were new, as pretty as any of the gowns worn there. But little Mollie was not satisfied. She hated old clothes, no matter how well they looked. And Harriet Hamlin was rarely beautiful in an imported gown of pale, yellow crepe.
After receiving for an hour, Bab slipped quietly into a chair near a window. She wished to examine the guests at her leisure. Mollie and Ruth were deep in conversation with Mrs. Post and Hugh. Grace was talking to Dorothy and Gwendolin Morton.
Barbara's eyes wandered eagerly over the throng of people. Suddenly some one touched her on the shoulder.
"You do not remember me, do you?"
Bab turned and saw a young woman.
"I am Marjorie Moore," said the newcomer. "I am the girl who came to ask you for your pictures. Perhaps you think it is strange for me to come to Harriet Hamlin's reception when she was so rude to me last night. But I am not a guest. Besides, newspaper people are not expected to have any feelings. My newspaper sent me to find out what people were here this afternoon. So here I am! I know everybody in Washington. Would you like me to point out some of the celebrities to you? See that stunning woman just coming in at the door? She has the reputation of being the most popular woman in Washington. But nobody knows just where she comes from, or who she is, or how she gets her money. But I must not talk Washington gossip. You'll meet her soon yourself."
"How do you do, Miss Moore?" broke in a charming contralto voice. "You are the very person I wish to see. I can give you some news for your paper. It is not very important, but I thought you might like to have it."
"You are awfully good, Mrs. Wilson," Marjorie Moore replied gratefully. "I have just been talking to Miss Thurston about you. May I introduce her? She has just arrived in Washington, and I told her, only half a second ago, that you were the nicest woman in this town."
Mrs. Wilson laughed quietly. "I know Miss Thurston's sister and her friend, Miss Carter. Mr. Hamlin let me help chaperon them at a reception yesterday afternoon. But Miss Moore has been flattering me dreadfully. I am a very unimportant person, though I happen to have the good fortune to be a friend of Mr. Hamlin's and Harriet's. I am keeping house in Washington at present. Some day you must come to see me."
Bab thanked her new acquaintance. She thought she had never seen a more unusual looking woman. It was impossible to guess her age. Mrs. Wilson's hair was snow-white, but her face was as young as a girl's and her eyes were fascinatingly dark under her narrow penciled brows. She was gowned in a pale blue broadcloth dress, and wore on her head a large black hat trimmed with a magnificent black plume.
"The top of the afternoon to you!" declared a new arrival in Bab's sheltered corner. "How is a man to find you if you will hide behind curtains?" This time Bab recognized Peter Dillon, her acquaintance of the afternoon before.
Mrs. Wilson, whose manner suggested a charming frankness and innocence, took Peter by the arm. "Which of the three Graces do you mean to devote yourself to this afternoon, Peter? You shall not flatter us all at once."
"I flatter?" protested Peter, in aggrieved tones. "Why truthfulness is my strong point."
Marjorie Moore gave a jarring laugh. "Is it, Mr. Dillon?" she returned, not too politely. "Please count me out of Mr. Dillon's flatteries. He does not include a woman who works in them." Marjorie Moore hurried away.
"Whew-w!" ejaculated Peter. "Miss Moore does not love me, does she? I came up only to say a few words. Miss Hamlin is keeping me busy this afternoon. Come and have some coffee, Miss Thurston. I am sure you look tired."
"I would rather not," Barbara protested. "I am going to run away upstairs for a minute, if you will excuse me."
Before Barbara could make her escape from the drawing-room she saw that Peter Dillon and Mrs. Wilson had both lost their frivolous manner and were deep in earnest conversation.
MR. TU FANG WU
Bab knew that at the rear of this floor of Mr. Hamlin's house there was a small room that was seldom used. She hoped to find refuge in it for a few minutes, and then to return to her friends.
The room was empty. Bab sank down into a great arm chair and closed her eyes.
A few moments later she opened them though she heard no sound. A fat little Chinese gentleman stood regarding her with an expression of amusement on his face.
Barbara jumped hastily to her feet. Where was she? She felt frightened. Although the man before her was yellow and foreign, and wore strange Chinese clothes, he was evidently a person of importance. Had Barbara awakened at the Court of Pekin? Her companion wore a loose, black satin coat, heavily embroidered in flowers and dragons and a round, close fitting silk cap with a button on top of it.
"I beg your pardon," Bab exclaimed in confusion. "Whom did you wish to see? There is no one in here."
The Chinese gentleman made Bab a stately bow. "No one," he protested. "This is the first time, since my residence in America, that I have heard an American girl speak of herself as no one. Miss United States is always some one in her own country. But may I therefore present myself to little 'Miss No One'? I am Dr. Tu Fang Wu, His Imperial Chinese Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States."
"I am very proud to meet you, Mr. Minister," Barbara returned, wondering if "Mr. Minister" was the proper way to address a foreign ambassador. She thought Mr. Hamlin had told her so, only the night before.
Bab did not know in the least what she should do or say to such a distinguished Oriental. She might make a mistake at any minute. For Bab had been learning, every hour since her arrival in Washington, that in no place is social etiquette more important than in the Capital City.
"May I find Mr. Hamlin for you?" Bab suggested, hoping to make her escape.
The Chinese Minister shook his head slowly. "Mr. Hamlin is engaged with his other guests."
"Then won't you be seated?" Bab asked in desperation. Really she and this strange yellow gentleman could not stand staring at each other the whole afternoon. It made Bab feel creepy to have a Chinaman regard her so steadfastly and without the slightest change of expression, even if he were a foreign minister.
Bab felt this meeting to be one of the strangest experiences of her whole life. She had never seen a Chinaman before, except on the street carrying a basket of laundry. But here she was forced into a tete-a-tete with one in the highest social position.
"Have you any daughters?" Barbara asked in her effort to break the awful silence.
Mr. Tu Fang Wu again bowed gravely. "I have one daughter and one small son. My daughter is not here with me this afternoon. Chinese girls do not go to entertainments where there are young men. My daughter has been brought up according to the customs of our country. But she has been in Washington for several years. I fear she, too, would like to be emancipated, like the American girl. It is not possible, although she enjoys many privileges she will not have when she returns to China. My daughter is betrothed to a nobleman in her own country. Perhaps you would like to meet my daughter, Wee Tu? She is fifteen years old. I shall ask Miss Hamlin to bring you to luncheon at the Embassy."
To Barbara's relief Mr. William Hamlin now appeared at the door.
The Chinese minister again bowed profoundly to Barbara. "I was looking for your smoking-room," he laughed, "but I found this young woman instead."
As the two men went out of the room, Bab had difficulty in making sure that she had not been dreaming of this fat, yellow gentleman.
"Barbara Thurston, what do you mean by running away by yourself?" exclaimed Grace Carter, a moment later. "We have been looking for you for ten minutes."
Hugh Post, Mollie and a strange young man were close behind Grace.
"I want to present my friend, Lieutenant Elmer Wilson," Hugh announced. "He is a very important person in Washington."
"Not a bit of it," laughed the young man. "I am one of the President's aides. I try to make myself generally useful."
"Your work must be very interesting," Barbara said quickly. "Do you—"
Just then a soft contralto voice interrupted her. "Are you ready to go with me, Elmer?" it said.
Barbara recognized the voice as belonging to the Mrs. Wilson whom she had met in the drawing room not an hour before. Could it be that this young and lovely looking woman was the mother of Elmer Wilson? Surely the young man was at least twenty-two years old.
"Coming in a moment, Mother," Elmer replied. "Have you said good-bye to Harriet?"
"Harriet is not in the reception room now. Nearly all her guests have gone," Mrs. Wilson murmured softly. "Mr. Hamlin is angry. But poor Harriet ought to have a chance to talk for a few minutes to the richest young man in Washington. I will leave you, Elmer. If you see Harriet, you may tell her I did not think it fair to disturb her."
Barbara went back to the drawing-room to search for Ruth. She found Ruth standing next her uncle, Mr. Hamlin, saying the adieux in Harriet's place. A few moments later the last visitor had withdrawn and Mr. Hamlin quickly left Ruth and Bab alone.
Mr. Hamlin was a small man, with iron gray hair, a square jaw and thin, tightly closed lips. He seldom talked, and the "Automobile Girls" felt secretly afraid of him.
"Uncle is dreadfully angry with Harriet," Ruth explained to Bab, after Mr. Hamlin was out of hearing. "But he is awfully strict and I do not think he is exactly fair. He does not give Harriet credit for what she does, but he gets awfully cross if she makes any mistakes. Harriet is upstairs, in her own sitting-room, talking to a great friend of hers. He is a man Uncle hates, although he has known Charlie Meyers since childhood. He is immensely rich, but he is very ill-bred, and that is why Uncle dislikes him. I don't think Harriet cares a bit more for this young man than she does for half a dozen others. But if Uncle doesn't look out Harriet will marry him for spite. Harriet hates being poor. She is not poor, really. But I am afraid she is terribly extravagant. Promise not to laugh when you see Charlie Meyers. He looks a little like a pig, he is so pink and fat."
"Girls!" called Harriet's voice. "Are you still in here? Mr. Meyers has just gone, and I wanted you to meet him. He is going to have a motor party and take you to see Mount Vernon. We can drive along the Potomac and have our supper somewhere in the country."
"I'm going to drive Mr. A. Bubble, Harriet," Ruth replied. "As long as I brought my car to Washington I must use it. But I suppose we can get up guests enough to fill two automobiles, can't we?"
"Where's Father?" Harriet inquired, trying to conceal a tremor in her voice. "Did he know I was upstairs?"
"I am afraid he did, Harriet," Ruth replied.
"Well, I don't care," declared Harriet defiantly. "I will select my own friends. Charlie Meyers is stupid and ill-bred, but he is good natured, and I am tired of position and poverty."
"You are no such thing, Harriet," protested Ruth, taking her cousin by the hand and leading her to a long mirror. "There, look at yourself in your yellow gown. You look like a queen. Please don't be silly."
"It's clothes that make the woman, Ruth," Harriet replied, kissing Ruth unexpectedly. "And this yellow gown is just one of the things that troubles me. Dear me, I am glad the reception is over!"
AT THE CHINESE EMBASSY
"Shall we eat our luncheon with chopsticks to-day?" Mollie Thurston asked Harriet Hamlin an hour before the "Automobile Girls" and their hostess were to start for the Chinese Embassy.
Harriet laughed good-humoredly at Mollie's question. "You absurd child, don't you know the Chinese minister is one of the most cultivated men in Washington! When he is in America he does what the Americans do. But his wife, Lady Tu, is delightfully Chinese. She paints her face in the Chinese fashion and wears beautiful Chinese clothes in her own home. And the little Chinese daughter is a darling. Really, Mollie, you will feel as though you had been on a trip to the Orient when you meet dainty little Wee Tu."
"Oh, I don't believe a Chinese girl can be attractive," Mollie argued, her eyes fixed on the pile of pretty gowns which Harriet was laying out on her bed.
"Do wear the rose-colored gown to-day, Harriet!" Mollie pleaded. "It is such a love of a frock and so becoming to you with your white skin and dark hair. Dear me, it must be nice to have such lovely clothes!" Mollie paused for a minute.
Harriet turned around to find her little friend blushing.
"I do hope," Mollie went on, "that you are not going to feel ashamed of Bab and me while we are your guests in Washington. You can see for yourself that we are poor, and have only a few gowns. Of course it is different with Grace and Ruth. But our father is dead, and—" Mollie stopped. She did not know how to go on with her explanation. Somehow she did not feel that Barbara or her mother would approve of her apologizing to Harriet for their simple wardrobes.
"Mollie!" Harriet exclaimed reproachfully. "You know I think you and Barbara are so pretty and clever that it does not matter what your clothes are like. Besides, if you should ever want anything special to wear while you are here, why, I have a host of gowns."
Mollie shook her head. Of course she could not borrow Harriet's gowns. And, though Harriet was trying to comfort her, her tone showed very plainly that she had noticed the slimness of the Thurston girls' preparations in the matter of wardrobe for several weeks of gayety in Washington.
At a little before one o'clock the "Automobile Girls" and Harriet were ushered into the reception room of the Chinese Embassy by a grave Chinese servant clad in immaculate white and wearing his long pig-tail curled on top of his head.
The minister and his wife came forward. Lady Tu wore a dress of heavy Chinese embroidery with a long skirt and a short full coat. Her hair was inky black and built out on each side of her head. She had a band of gold across it and golden flowers set with jewels hung above each ear. Her face was enameled in white and a small patch of crimson was painted just under her lip.
Bab could hardly restrain an exclamation of delight at the beauty of the reception room. The walls were covered with Chinese silk and heavy panels of embroidery. A Chinese banner, with a great dragon on it, hung over the mantel-piece. The furniture was elaborately carved teakwood.
The girls at once glanced around for the Chinese minister's daughter. But she was no where to be seen. Instead, Peter Dillon, Bab's first chance acquaintance in Washington, was smiling a welcome. Mrs. Wilson and her son were also present. The two or three other visitors were unknown to the "Automobile Girls." Even when luncheon was served the little Chinese girl did not make her appearance. The four girls were beginning to feel rather disappointed. They had come to the Embassy chiefly to see Wee Tu, and they were evidently not going to be granted that pleasure.
Just as they were about to go back to the reception room, Mr. Tu Fang Wu suggested courteously to his girl guests: "If it pleases you, will you now go up to my daughter's apartments? She does not eat her meals with us when we entertain young men guests. It is not the custom of our country." The Chinese minister touched a bell and another Chinese servant appeared, his slippered feet making no noise. At the top of the stairs a Chinese woman met the "Automobile Girls" and conducted them to the apartment of Wee Tu, the minister's daughter.
Wee Tu bowed her head to the floor when the "Automobile Girls" entered. But when she raised her face her little black eyes were glowing, and a faint pink showed under her smooth, yellow skin. Think what it meant to this little Chinese maid, with her shut-in life, to meet four American girls like Barbara, Ruth, Grace and Mollie! Harriet had lingered behind for a few moments.
"Your most honorable presence does my miserable self much honor," stated Wee Tu automatically.
Bab laughed. She simply could not help it. Wee Tu's greeting seemed so absurd to her ears, though she knew it was the Chinese manner of speaking. But Bab's merry laugh saved the situation, as it often had done before, for the little Chinese maid laughed in return, and the five girls sat giggling in the most intimate fashion.
The servant passed around preserved Chinese fruits, nuts and dried melon seed.
"Is Miss Hamlin not with you?" the Chinese minister's daughter asked finally, in broken English.
At this moment Harriet's voice was heard in the corridor. She was talking gayly to Peter Dillon. The Chinese girl caught the sound of the young man's charming laugh. Bab was gazing straight at Wee Tu. Wee Tu looked like a beautiful Chinese doll, not a bit like a human being.
At the entrance to Wee Tu's apartment Peter bowed gracefully. He waited until Harriet entered.
"Your most honorable ladyship," he inquired. "Have I your permission to enter your divine apartment? Your most noble father has waived ceremony in my favor and says I may be allowed to see you in company with your other guests. You are to pretend you are an American girl to-day."
Wee Tu again made a low bow, almost touching the soft Chinese rug with her crown of black hair. Her mantle was of blue silk crepe embroidered in lotus flowers, and she wore artificial lotus blossoms drooping on either side of her head.
After Peter's entrance, Wee Tu did not speak nor smile. She sat with her slender yellow hands clasped together, her nails so long they were tipped with gold to prevent their breaking. Her tiny feet in their embroidered slippers looked much too small for walking.
Peter made himself agreeable to all the girls. He chatted with Harriet, joked with Bab and Ruth. Now and then he spoke to the Chinese girl in some simple gentle fashion that she could understand.
"Peter Dillon is awfully attractive," Bab thought. "I wonder why I was prejudiced against him at first because of what that newspaper girl said."
Peter walked with Barbara back to Mr. Hamlin's house.
"Would you mind my asking you a question?" Bab demanded when they were fairly on the way.
Peter laughed. "It's a woman's privilege, isn't it?"
"Well, how do you happen to be so intimate at the Chinese minister's?" was Barbara's direct question. "They seemed so formal and then all of a sudden Mr. Tu Fang Wu let you come up to see his daughter."
"I know them very well," Peter returned simply. "I often dine at the Chinese minister's with his family. So I have met his daughter several times before. I have made myself useful to Mr. Tu Fang Wu once or twice, and my legation likes me to keep in touch with the people in authority."
"Oh," exclaimed Barbara. She remembered that Peter was equally intimate at Mr. Hamlin's, and she wondered how he managed to keep up such a variety of acquaintances.
"I wonder if you would do a fellow a favor some day?" Peter asked. "I'll bet you have lots of nerve. Harriet is apt to get frightened at the critical minute."
"It would all depend on what you asked me to do," Bab returned puzzled by Peter's remark.
"Oh, I won't ask you until I have managed to do something for you first. It is only that I think you can see a joke and I have a good one that I mean to try some day," Peter replied.
The next morning, Peter Dillon was lounging in Mrs. Wilson's library, chatting with her on apparently easy terms.
"I think it is a special dispensation of Providence that sent the 'Automobile Girls' to Washington to visit Harriet Hamlin just at this particular time, Mrs. Wilson," declared Peter Dillon.
Mrs. Wilson walked back and forth across her drawing room floor several times before she answered. She looked older in the early morning light. But her restlessness did not disturb Peter, who was reclining gracefully in a chair, smoking a cigarette.
"I am not sure you have reason to bless Providence, Peter Dillon," Mrs. Wilson protested. "What a man you are! You simply cannot judge all girls by the same standard. Some day you are going to meet a girl who is cleverer than you are. And then, where will you be?"
"Oh, I'll go slowly," Peter argued. "I know I am taking chances in making friends with the clever one. But she has more nerve and courage than the others. I am sure it will be much better to leave Harriet out of the whole business, if possible."
"All right, Peter," Mrs. Wilson agreed. "Manage your own affairs, since this happens to be your own special joke. But you had much better have left the whole matter to me."
"And spoil my good time with five charming girls?" Peter protested, smiling. "No, Mrs. Wilson; that is too much to ask of me. If I can't carry the thing off successfully, you will come to the rescue and help me. You've promised that. We have had our little jokes together before. But this strikes me as being about the best of the whole lot. We will have everybody in Washington laughing up his sleeve pretty soon. There will be a few people who won't laugh, but so long as we keep quiet we need not worry about them. Has Elmer gone to work? I know I have made you a dreadfully early visit. It is very charming of you to be up in time to see me."
"Don't flatter me, Peter; it is not worth while," Mrs. Wilson said angrily. Then she smiled. "Never mind, Peter; you can no more help flattering than you can help breathing, whether your reason is a good or a bad one. I suppose it is because you are an Irishman. By the way, Elmer admires one of these charming 'Automobile Girls.' He has talked of no one else except Mollie Thurston since Harriet's tea. Be careful what you say or do before him."
"I shall be careful," Peter returned easily. "My attentions are directed toward the other sister. How have you managed to keep that big boy of yours so much in the dark about—oh, a number of things?" finished Peter.
"It is because Elmer has perfect faith in me, Peter," Mrs. Wilson answered, passing her hand over her eyes to hide their expression.
"As all other men have had before him, my lady," Peter avowed. "Is it true that Mr. William Hamlin is now a worshiper at your shrine?"
"Absurd!" protested Mrs. Wilson. "Here comes Elmer."
"Why, Peter Dillon, this is a surprise!" exclaimed the young lieutenant, walking into the room in search of his mother. "I never knew Mother to get up so early before. I have just been inquiring of your maid, Mother, to know what had become of you. Harriet Hamlin wants you to chaperon us on an automobile ride out to Mt. Vernon and along the Potomac River. Charlie Meyers is giving the party, and Harriet thinks her father won't object if you will go along to look after us. That Charlie Meyers is an awful bounder! But Harriet wants to show her little Yankee visitors the sights. Do come along with us, Mother. For I have a fancy I should like to stroll through the old Washington garden with 'sweet sixteen.'"
"I will chaperon you with pleasure, Elmer," Mrs. Wilson agreed. "But what about you, Peter? Are you not invited?"
Peter looked chagrined.
"No; I am not invited, and I call it unkind of Harriet. She knows I am dreadfully impressed with the 'Automobile Girls.'"
Mrs. Wilson and Elmer both laughed provokingly. "That is just what's the trouble with you, Peter. Harriet is accustomed to your devotion to her. Now that you have turned your thoughts in another direction, she may look upon you as a faithless swain," Mrs. Wilson teased.
"Don't undertake more than you can manage, Peter," teased Elmer Wilson.
"That is good advice for Peter. Remember, Peter, I have warned you. Some day you will run across a girl who is cleverer than you are. Then look out, young man," Mrs. Wilson repeated.
But Peter only laughed cheerfully. "What girl isn't cleverer than a man?" he protested. "Au revoir. I shall do my best to persuade Harriet to let me go along with her party this afternoon. I suppose we shall be starting soon after luncheon, as it is Saturday."
"Mother, can you let me have some money?" Elmer asked, as soon as Peter was out of hearing. "I am ashamed to ask you for it. But going out in society does cost a fellow an awful lot."
Mrs. Wilson shook her head. "I am sorry, Boy; I can't let you have anything just now. I am short of money myself at present. But I expect to have some money coming in, say in about two weeks, or even ten days. Then I can let you have what you like."
* * * * *
"How shall we divide our party for the motor ride, Ruth?" asked Harriet Hamlin about two o'clock on the afternoon of the same day.
Ruth's red car was standing in front of Mr. Hamlin's door with another larger one belonging to Harriet's friend, Charlie Meyers, waiting behind it.
The automobile party stood out on the side walk and Peter Dillon had somehow managed to be one of them.
"Suppose, Barbara, Grace and Hugh Post go along with me, Harriet?" Ruth proposed. "Mr. Meyers' car is larger than mine. He can take the rest of the party."
"What a division!" protested Peter Dillon, as he climbed into Ruth's automobile and took his seat next Bab. "Do you suppose, for one instant, that we are going to see Hugh Post drive off, the only man among three girls? Not if I can help it!"
The two automobiles traveled swiftly through Washington allowing the four "Automobile Girls" only tantalizing glimpses of the executive buildings which they passed on the way.
In about an hour the cars covered the sixteen miles that lay between the Capital City and the home of its first President.
Such a deep and abiding tranquillity pervaded the atmosphere of Mt. Vernon that the noisy chatter of the young people was, for an instant, hushed into silence, as they drove through the great iron gates at the entrance to Mt. Vernon, and on up the elm-shaded lawn to the house.
Although it was December, the fall had been unusually warm and the trees were not yet bare of their autumn foliage; the grass still looked smooth and green under foot.
The "Automobile Girls" held their breath as their eyes rested on the most famous historic home in America.
"Oh, Ruth!" exclaimed Bab. But when she saw Peter's eyes smiling at her enthusiasm she stopped and would not say another word.
Of course, Mt. Vernon was an old story to Mrs. Wilson, to Harriet, and indeed to the entire party, except the four girls. But they wished to see every detail of the Washington house. They went into the wide hall and there beheld the key to the Bastile presented by Lafayette to General Washington. They examined the music room, with its queer, old-fashioned musical instruments; went up to Martha Washington's bedroom and even looked upon the white-canopied bed where George Washington died. Indeed, they wandered from garret to cellar in the old house. But it was a beautiful afternoon and the outdoors called them at last.
And, after all, it is the outdoors at Mt. Vernon that is most beautiful. The house is a simple country home with a wide, old-fashioned portico and gallery built of frame and painted to look like stone.
But there is no palace on the Rhine, no castle in Spain, that has a more beautiful natural situation than Mt. Vernon. It stands on a piece of gently swelling land that slopes gradually down to the Potomac, and commands a view of many miles of the broad and noble river.
Bab and Ruth managed to get away from the rest of their party and to slip out on the wide colonnaded veranda.
"How peaceful and beautiful it is out here," Ruth exclaimed, with her arm around her friend's waist. "It seems to me that, if I lived in Washington, I would just run out here whenever anything uncomfortable happened to me. I am sure, if I spent the day at Mt. Vernon, I should not feel trouble any more."
Barbara stood silent. A vague premonition of some possible trouble overtook her.
"Ruth," Bab asked suddenly, "do you like Harriet's friend, Peter Dillon? Every now and then he talks to me in the most mysterious fashion. I don't understand what he means."
Ruth looked unusually grave. Then she answered Bab in a very curious tone. "I know you have lots of common sense, Bab, dear," Ruth began. "But promise me you won't put any special faith in Peter Dillon. He is not one bit like Hugh, or Ralph Ewing, or the boys we met at the Major's house party. When I meet any one who is such a favorite with everyone I always wonder whether he has any real feelings or whether he is trying to accomplish some end. I suppose Peter Dillon can't help striving to be agreeable to everyone."
Bab laughed a little. "Why, Ruth," she protested, "that idea does not sound a bit like you. You are sweet to everyone yourself, dear, and everyone loves you. But I do know what you mean about Peter Dillon. I—"
"Hello," cried Mollie's sweet voice. She waved a long blue scarf toward Ruth and Bab. Mollie and Elmer Wilson were standing on the lawn, examining the motto on the sun dial. It read, "I record none but sunny hours."
"Let me write down that motto for you, Miss Thurston," Elmer Wilson suggested. "I hope you may follow the old sun dial's example and record none but sunny hours yourself."
"Ruth!" called Hugh, coming around from the other side of the porch with Peter Dillon. "Well, here you are, at last! It is not fair for you two girls to run off together like this. Harriet has disappeared, and Mrs. Wilson is hiding somewhere. Do you remember, Ruth, you promised to go with me to see the old Washington deer park. It has just been restocked with deer. Won't you come, too, Bab?"
Barbara shook her head as Hugh and Ruth walked off together. Bab felt sure that Hugh would like to have a chance to talk with Ruth alone, for they had never ceased to be intimate friends since the early days at Newport.
Peter Dillon stood looking out at the river, whistling softly, "Kathleen Mavourneen." It was the song Barbara had first heard him whistle in the drawing-room of Mr. Hamlin's house. The young man said nothing, for a few moments, even when he and Bab were alone. But when Bab came over toward him, Peter smiled. He had his hat off and he had run his hands through his dark auburn hair.
"I say, Miss Thurston, why can't you make up your mind to like me?" he questioned. "Surely you don't suspect me of dark designs, do you? You American people are so strange. Just because I am half a Russian you think I have some sinister purpose in my mind. I am not an anarchist, and I don't want to go about trampling on the poor. I wish you could meet the Russian ambassador. He is about the most splendid-looking man you ever saw. I know him, well, you see, because my mother was a distant cousin of his."
Barbara laughed good-humoredly. "You seem to be a kind of connecting link between three or four nations—Russia, America, China. What are your real duties at your legation?"
Barbara looked at her companion with a real question in her brown eyes—a question she truly desired to have answered. She was interested to know what duties an attache performed for his embassy. Peter, in spite of his frivolities, claimed to be a hard worker.
"You have not seen the loveliest part of Mt. Vernon yet, Miss Thurston," Peter Dillon interposed just at this instant. "I want to show you the old garden, and we must hurry before the gates are closed. Yes; I know I did not answer your question. An attache just makes himself generally useful to his chief. But if you really want to know what my ambition is, and how I work to achieve it, why some day I will tell you." Peter looked at Bab so seriously that she answered quickly:
"Yes, I should dearly love to see the garden."
Bab and Peter Dillon wandered together through the paths formed by the box hedges planted in Martha Washington's garden more than a century ago.
Neither seemed to feel like talking. The young man had seen the gardener as they entered the enclosure, and had persuaded him to allow them to go through the lovely spot alone.
Bab's vivid imagination brought to life the old colonial ladies who had once wandered in this famous garden. She saw their white wigs, their powder and patches and full skirts. So Bab forgot all about her companion.
Suddenly she heard Peter give a slight exclamation. They had both come to the end of the garden walk. There before them stood a great rose tree. Blooming in the unusually warm sunshine were two rose-buds, gently tipped with frost.
"Ah, Miss Thurston, how glad I am we found the garden first!" Peter cried. "This is the famous Mary Washington rose, which Washington planted here in his garden, and named in honor of his mother. Wait here until I find the gardener. I am going to make him let us have these two tiny rose-buds."
"How nice Peter Dillon really is," Bab thought. "Ruth was mistaken in warning me against him. Of course, he does not show on the surface what he actually feels. But perhaps I shall find out he is a finer fellow than we think he is. Mr. Hamlin says Harriet is wrong in believing Peter is never in earnest about anything."
"It's all right, Miss Thurston," called Peter, returning in a few minutes with his eyes shining. "The gardener says we may have the roses." The young fellow dropped down on his knees before the rose bush without a bit of affectation or self-consciousness. He skilfully cut the two half faded rose-buds from the stalk and handed one to Barbara.
"Keep this, Miss Thurston," he said earnestly. "And if ever you should wish me to do you a favor, just send the flower to me and I shall perform whatever task you set me to do to the best of my skill." Peter looked at his own rose. "May I keep my rose-bud for the same purpose?" he begged quietly. "Perhaps I shall send my flower to you some day and ask you to do me a service. Will you do it for me?"
"Yes, Mr. Dillon, I will do you any favor that I can," Bab returned steadily. "But I don't make rash promises in the dark. And I have very little opportunity to do people favors. You make me think of the newspaper girl, Marjorie Moore. She tried to force me into a promise without letting me know what she wanted, the first day I saw her. Does everyone try to get some one to do something for him in Washington?"
At the mention of Marjorie Moore's name the change in Peter Dillon's face was so startling that Barbara was startled. Just now he did not look in the least like an Irishman. His lips tightened into a fine, cruel line, his eyes grew almost black and had a queer, Chinese slant to them. It suddenly dawned on Barbara, that Russians have Asiatic blood in their veins and are often more like Oriental people than they are like those of the western world.
But Peter only said carelessly, after he had regained control of his face: "Miss Moore doesn't like me; and frankly, I don't like her. She told you she did society work for her newspaper. She does a great deal more. She is constantly watching at the legations to see if she can spy on any of their secret information. It is not good form to warn one girl against another. But if I were you, Miss Thurston, I would take with a grain of salt any information that Miss Moore might give you."
Barbara answered quietly: "Oh, I don't suppose Miss Moore will tell me any of her secrets. She does not come to Mr. Hamlin's except on business. Harriet does not like her."
"Good for Harriet!" Peter muttered to himself. "It may be Harriet, after all!"
"Barbara Thurston, you and Peter come along this minute," Harriet ordered unexpectedly. "Don't you know we shall be locked up in Mt. Vernon if we stay here much longer. Ruth's automobile is already filled and she is waiting to start. You and Peter are to get into Mr. Meyers' car with me. We have another hour before sunset. We are going to motor along the river and have our supper at an inn a few miles from here."
As Peter Dillon ran ahead to join Harriet Hamlin, a small piece of paper fell out of his pocket. Barbara picked it up and slipped it inside her coat, intending to hand it back to Mr. Dillon as soon as she had an opportunity. But there were other things that seemed of more importance to absorb her attention for the rest of the evening. And Barbara was not to remember the paper until some time later.
After eating supper, and spending the evening at an old-fashioned Southern Inn on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, the two automobile parties started back to Washington.
Barbara and Peter Dillon occupied seats in the car with Harriet and Mr. Meyers, Mrs. Wilson, and two Washington girls who had been members of their party.
As Ruth did not know the roads it was decided that she keep to the rear and follow the car in front of her.
It was a clear moonlight night, and, though the roads were not good, no member of the party dreamed of trouble.
Bab sat next to Charlie Meyers, and her host was in a decidedly sulky temper. For Harriet had grown tired of his devotion, after several hours of it during the afternoon, and was amusing herself with Peter.
No sooner had the two cars sped away from the peaceful shadows of Mt. Vernon, than Peter began to play Prince Charming to Harriet.
Charlie Meyers did not know what to do. He was a stupid fellow, who expected his money to carry him through everything. He would hardly listen to Barbara's conversation or take the slightest interest in anything she tried to say.
Every time Harriet's gay laugh rang out from the next seat Charlie Meyers would drive his car faster than ever, until it fairly bounded over the rough places in the road.
Several times Mrs. Wilson remonstrated with him. "You are going too fast, Mr. Meyers. It is dark, and I am afraid we shall have an accident if you are not more careful. Please go slower."
For an instant, Mr. Meyers would obey Mrs. Wilson's request to lessen the speed of his car. Then he would dash ahead as though the very furies were after him.
As for Ruth, she had to follow the automobile in front in order to find her way, so it was necessary for her to run her car at the same high speed. Neither Ruth nor her companions knew the pitfalls along the road. Hugh did not keep his automobile in Washington, and, though he had a general idea of the direction they should take, he had never driven along the particular course selected by Mr. Meyers for their return trip.
Ruth felt her face flush with temper as her car shook and plunged along the road. In order to keep within a reasonable distance of the heavier car, she had to put on full power and forge blindly ahead.
Once or twice Ruth called out: "Won't you go a little slower in front, please? I can't find my way along this road at such a swift pace."
But Ruth's voice floated back on the winds and the leading car paid no heed to her.
Then Elmer and Hugh took up the refrain, shouting with all their lung power. They merely wasted their breath. Charlie Meyers either did not hear them or pretended not to do so. He never once turned his head, or asked if those back of him were making a safe journey.
Barbara was furious. She fully realized Ruth's predicament, although she was not in her chum's car. "Please don't get out of sight of Ruth's car, Mr. Meyers," Bab urged her companion. But he paid not the slightest attention to her request.
Bab looked anxiously back over the road. Now and then she could see Mr. A. Bubble's lamps; more often Ruth's car was out of sight. Patience was not Barbara's strong point.
"Harriet," she protested, "Won't you ask Mr. Meyers to slow down so that Ruth can follow him. He will not pay the least attention to me."
"What is your hurry, Charlie!" asked Harriet, in a most provoking tone. She knew the young fellow was not a gentleman, and that he was showing his anger against her by making them all uncomfortable. But Harriet was in a wicked humor herself, and she would not try to appease their cross host. She was having an extremely pleasant time with Peter Dillon, and really did not realize Ruth's difficulties.
The front car slowed imperceptibly, then hurried on again.
At about half past ten o'clock, Mr. Meyers turned into one of the narrow old-fashioned streets of the town of Alexandria, which is just south-west of Washington. The town was only dimly lighted and the roads made winding turns, so that it was impossible to see any great distance ahead.
Ruth had managed to keep her car going, though she had long since lost her sweet temper, and the others of her party were very angry.
"It serves us right," Hugh Post declared to Ruth. "We ought never to have accepted this fellow's invitation. I knew he wasn't a gentleman, and I know Mr. Hamlin does not wish Harriet to have anything to do with him. Yet, just because the fellow is enormously rich and gives automobile parties, here we have been spending the evening as his guests. Look here, Ruth, do you think I can forget I have enjoyed his hospitality, and punch his head for him when we get back to Washington, for leading you on a chase like this?"
Ruth smiled and shook her head. She was seldom nervous about her automobile after all her experiences as chauffeur. Yet this wild ride at night through towns of which she knew little or nothing, was not exactly her idea of sport.
Mr. Bubble was again outdistanced. As the streets were deserted, Ruth decided to make one more violent spurt in an effort to catch up with the front car. Poor Mr. A. Bubble who had traveled so far with his carload of happy girls was shaking from side to side. But Ruth did not think of danger. Alexandria is a sleepy old Southern town and nearly all its inhabitants were in bed.
"Aren't there any speed regulations in this part of the world, Hugh?" Ruth suddenly inquired.
But she was too late. At this instant everyone in her car heard a loud shout.
"Hold up there! Stop!" A figure on a bicycle darted out of a dark alley in hot pursuit of them.
"Go it, Ruth!" Hugh whispered. But Ruth shook her head.
"No," she answered. "We must face the music." Ruth put on her stop brake and her car slowed down.
"What do you mean," cried a wrathful voice, "tearing through a peaceful town like this, lickitty-split, as though there were no folks on earth but you. You just come along to the station with me! You'll find out, pretty quick, what twenty-five miles an hour means in this here town."
"Let me explain matters to you," Hugh protested. "It is all a mistake."
"I ain't never arrested anybody for speeding yet that they ain't told me it was just a mistake," fumed the policeman. "But you will git a chance to tell your story to the chief of police. You're just wasting good time talkin' to me. I ain't got a mite of patience with crazy automobilists."
"Don't take us all to the station house, officer!" Hugh pleaded. "Just take me along, and let the rest of the party go on back to Washington. It's awfully late. You surely wouldn't keep these young ladies."
"It's the lady that's a-runnin' the car, ain't it? She's the one that is under arrest," said the policeman obstinately.
Ruth had not spoken since her automobile was stopped.
She had a lump in her throat, caused partly by anger and partly by embarrassment and fright. Then, too, Ruth was wondering what her father would say. In the years she had been running her automobile, over all the thousands of miles she had traveled, Ruth had never before been stopped for breaking the speed laws. She had always promised Mr. Stuart to be careful. And one cannot have followed the fortunes of Ruth Stuart and her friends in their adventures without realizing Ruth's high and fine regard for her word. Yet here were Ruth and her friends about to be taken to jail for breaking the laws of the little Virginia city.
It was small wonder that Ruth found it difficult to speak.
"I will go with the policeman," she assented. "Perhaps he will let you take Mollie and Grace on home."
Of course no one paid the slightest attention to Ruth's ridiculous suggestion. Her friends were not very likely to leave her alone to argue her case before the justice of the peace.
"I say, man, do be reasonable," Hugh urged. He would not give up. "You can hold me in jail all night if you will just let the others go."
"Please don't argue with the policeman, Hugh," Ruth begged. "He is only doing his duty. I am so sorry, Mollie darling, for you and Grace. But I know you won't leave me."
"Oh, we don't mind," the two girls protested. "I suppose we can pay the fine and they will let us go at once."
Hugh said nothing, for he knew that he had only a few dollars in his pocket.
When Ruth's car finally reached the station house it was almost eleven o'clock.
The policeman took the automobile party inside the station. It was bitter cold in the room, for the winter chill had fallen with the close of the December day. The fire had died out in the air-tight iron stove in the room, and Mollie, Ruth and Grace could hardly keep from shivering.
"Well, where is the justice of the peace or whatever man we ought to see about this wretched business?" Hugh demanded.
At last the policeman looked a little apologetic. "I'll get some one to make up a fire for you," he answered. "I have got to go out and wake up the justice to look after your case. It's bed-time and he's home asleep."
"Do you expect us to sit here in this freezing dirty old room half the night while you go around looking up a magistrate?" Hugh demanded, wrathfully.
"I told you I would have the fire built up," the policeman answered sullenly. "But it ain't my fault you got into this trouble. You ought not to have broken the law. We have had about as much trouble with automobilists in this here town as we are willing to stand for. And I might as well tell you, right now, the court will make it pretty hot for you. It may be I can't get the justice to hear your case until to-morrow, and you'll have to stay here all night."
"Stay here all night!" cried the five young people, as they sank down into five hard wooden chairs in utter despair.
"Harriet, have you seen Ruth's automobile?" Bab asked, as Charlie Meyers' car got safely out of Alexandria and started on the road toward Washington.
Harriet and Peter both looked around and strained their eyes in the darkness. But there was no sign of Ruth or her party.
"Don't you think we had better go back a little, Charlie?" Harriet now suggested. "I am afraid you have gotten too far ahead of Ruth for her to follow you."
"What has Miss Stuart got Hugh Post and Elmer Wilson with her for, if they can't show her the way to town?" argued the impolite host of the automobile parties.
"I think Charlie is right, Harriet. I would not worry," interposed Mrs. Wilson, in her soft tones. "Elmer may not have known the road during the early part of our trip, but neither one of the boys is very apt to lose his way between Alexandria and Washington." Mrs. Wilson laughed at the very absurdity of the idea.
Harriet said nothing more, and, although Bab was by no means satisfied, she felt compelled to hold her peace.
"Will you leave me at my house, Charlie?" Mrs. Wilson demanded, as soon as their automobile reached Washington. "I know Harriet expects to make a Welsh rarebit for you at her home, but I am going to ask you to excuse me. I am a good deal older than you children, and I am tired."
When Barbara reached the Hamlin house she hoped ardently to see the familiar lights of her old friend, A. Bubble waiting outside the door. But the street was bare of automobiles.
There was nothing to do but to follow the other young people into the house and take off her hat and coat. But Bab had not the heart to join Harriet in the dining-room where the preparations for making the rarebit were now going on. She lingered forlornly in the hall. Every now and then she would peer anxiously out into the darkness. Still there was no sign of Ruth or any member of her party! Barbara was wretched. She was now convinced that some accident had befallen them.
"Come in, Barbara," called Harriet cheerfully. "The Welsh rarebit is done and it has to be eaten on the instant. I will make another for Ruth's crowd when they get in. They are certainly awfully slow in arriving."
"Harriet!" Barbara's white face appeared at the dining-room door. "I hate to be a nuisance, but I am dreadfully worried about the other girls. I know they would have gotten home by this time if nothing had happened to them."
Poor Barbara had to make a dreadful effort to swallow her pride, for Charlie Meyers had been dreadfully rude to her all afternoon. "Mr. Meyers," she pleaded, "won't you take me back in your car to look for my friends? I simply can't bear the suspense any longer." Barbara's eyes were full of tears.
"Oh, Bab, you are foolish to worry," Harriet protested. "It would not be worth while for you and Mr. Meyers to go back now. You would only pass Ruth on the road. It is nearly midnight."
"I know it is," Bab agreed. "And that is why I am so frightened. Don't you think you could take me to look for them? Please do, Mr. Meyers."
The ill-bred fellow shrugged his shoulders. "What do you take me for, Miss Thurston? I am not going to let my rarebit get cold. There is nothing the matter with your friends. They are likely to be along at any minute."
Barbara did not know what to do. Mr. Hamlin had not yet come in. Yet she must find out what had happened to Ruth, Mollie and Grace. Bab once thought of starting out alone and on foot, back up the long country road, but she gave up the idea as sheer foolishness.
At that moment the grandfather's clock in the hall chimed midnight. Almost two hours had passed since the two automobiles had entered Alexandria, and the little town was only eight miles from Washington.
Bab felt she was going to cry before Harriet's guests. She slipped her hand in her pocket to find her handkerchief. As she silently pressed her handkerchief against her trembling lips she smelt a delicate perfume. Something fresh and cool and aromatic touched her face. It was the tiny rose-bud Peter Dillon had presented to her in the garden!
Now Bab had determined never to ask Peter to do her a favor. She felt that, once she returned his pledge to him, he had the same right to ask a favor of her. But what could Barbara do? Her beloved sister and friends had certainly come to grief somewhere. And Bab was helpless to find them alone.
"Mr. Dillon," Bab spoke under her breath, just showing her handkerchief to him with the rose-bud crushed between its damp folds, "won't you help me to find Ruth?" Bab only glanced at the flower with a shy smile. But Peter saw it.
He jumped to his feet, his face flushing.
"Put the flower back, Miss Thurston," he said quietly to Barbara. "You do not need to ask me to help you look for your friends as a favor to you. I am ashamed of myself to have waited until you asked me. Harriet, I am going back to look for your guests."
Harriet, who was also feeling uneasy without being willing to confess it, cheerfully agreed.
"I am going to take your car, Meyers," declared Peter Dillon without saying so much as by your leave.
Bab and Peter Dillon hurried out to the waiting automobile. Both stopped only to take coats and caps from the rack in the hall.
If Peter Dillon wished to make a friend of Barbara Thurston, his prompt response to her plea for help came nearer accomplishing it than anything else in the world. When Peter refused Bab's proffered rose-bud she then determined to do him any favor that she could whenever he might desire to ask it of her.
The next morning the "Automobile Girls" were sitting in the library of Mr. Hamlin's home. Ruth, Mollie and Grace were there, for Peter and Bab had secured their release from the Alexandria jail.
"But how do you think he ever accomplished it?" Mollie inquired.
Harriet laughed and flushed. "Oh, Peter accomplished it in the same way he does everything else—by making friends with people," she declared. "Girls, I hope you realize how ashamed I am of last night's proceedings. I never dreamed that anything had happened to you, or I should have certainly forced Charlie Meyers to turn back. But I think I have learned a lesson. Charlie Meyers was horribly rude to you, Bab, and I told him what we thought of him after you left. I don't want to see him again. So Father, at least, will be glad. Though how I am to get on in this world without a husband with money, I don't know." And Harriet sighed.
"Still I would like to have my questions answered," Mollie repeated. "How did Peter Dillon get us away from that wretched jail in such a short time when we thought we might have to stay there all night?"
"Why, he just found the justice of the peace, arranged about Ruth's fine, mentioned Mr. Hamlin's name and did a few more things," Bab laughed. "So, at last, you were permitted to come home."
"Poor Hugh and Elmer were so mortified at not having enough money with them to pay the fine. It was just an accident. Yet it was truly my fault," Ruth argued. "Father has always insisted that I take my pocket-book whenever I go out of the house. But, of course, I forgot it yesterday."
"Will Uncle Robert be very angry with you, Ruth, for being arrested?" Harriet asked. "He need never find out anything about it. Your fine wasn't so very large, and you always have money enough to pay for anything."
Ruth laughed. "Oh, I always tell Father every thing! I don't think he will be very angry with me, when he hears how we happened to get into trouble."
"Do you really tell your father everything?" Harriet asked, in a surprised tone.
"Why, yes; why not?" Ruth questioned.
Harriet shook her head. "Well, I do not tell my father all my affairs. Oh, dear me, no!"
"I suppose I shall have to go back to Alexandria to-day, and appear at court," Ruth lamented. "I just dread it."
"Oh, no you won't," Bab explained. "Mr. Dillon said he would talk matters over with Mr. Hamlin, and that he had some influential friends over there. You will have to pay your fine, Ruth, but you probably will not have to appear at the trial. They will settle it privately."
"Girls," exclaimed Harriet, "I forgot to tell you something. There is a big reception at the White House to-morrow evening, and Father says he wishes to take the 'Automobile Girls' to present them to the President."
"How exciting!" exclaimed Grace Carter. "To think that the 'Automobile Girls' are going to meet the President, and yet you speak of it as calmly, Harriet Hamlin, as though it were an everyday affair."
"Oh, nonsense, Grace," Harriet begged. "It will be fun to go to the White House with you. You girls are so interested in everything. But a White House reception is an old story to me, and I am afraid there will be a frightful crowd. But which one of you will go shopping with me this morning?"
"I will," cried Mollie. "I'd dearly love to see the shops. We don't have any big stores in Kingsbridge."
"Is there anything I can get for you, girls?" Harriet asked.
Ruth called her cousin over in the corner. "Will you please order flowers for us to-morrow night!" Ruth requested. "Father told me to be sure to get flowers whenever we wanted them."
"Lucky Ruth!" sighed Harriet. "I wish I had such a rich and generous father as you have!"
"What can we wear to the President's reception to-morrow, Bab?" Mollie whispered in her sister's ear, while Harriet and Ruth were having their conference.
Bab thought for a moment. "You can wear the corn-colored frock you wore to dinner with the Princess Sophia at Palm Beach. It is awfully pretty, and you have never worn it since."
"That old thing!" cried Mollie, pouting.
"Suppose you get some pale yellow ribbons, Mollie, and I will make you a new sash and a bow for your hair," Bab suggested.
Pretty Mollie frowned. "All right," she agreed.
Harriet and Mollie did not go at once to the shops. They drove first to Harriet's dressmaker, the most fashionable in Washington.
"I must try on a little frock," Harriet explained. "We can do our shopping afterwards. I want you to see a beautiful coat I am having made, from a Chinese crepe shawl the Chinese Minister's wife gave me."
Madame Louise, the head of the dressmaking establishment, came in to attend to Harriet. The new coat was in a wonderful shade of apricot, lined with satin and embroidered in nearly every color of silk.
"Oh, Harriet, how lovely!" Mollie exclaimed.
"Yes, isn't it?" Harriet agreed. "But I really ought not to have had this coat made up. It has cost almost as much as though I had bought it outright. And I don't need it. I hope you have not made my dress very expensive, Madame. I told you to get me up a simple frock."
"Ah, but Miss Hamlin, the simple frocks cost as much as the fancy ones," argued the dressmaker. "This little gown is made of the best satin and lace. But how charming is the effect."
Mollie echoed the dressmaker's verdict as she gazed at Harriet with admiring eyes. Harriet's gown was white satin. Her black hair and great dusky eyes looked darker from the contrast and her skin even more startlingly fair.
Harriet could not help a little smile of vanity as she saw herself in the long mirror in the fitting room.
"Be sure to send these things home by to-morrow, Madame Louise," she demanded. "Father and I are going to take our guests to one of the President's receptions and I want to wear this gown."
Mollie gave a little impatient sigh.
"What is the matter, Mollie?" inquired Harriet, seeing that her little friend looked tired and unhappy. "I am awfully sorry to have kept you waiting like this. It is a bore to watch other people try on their clothes. I will come with you directly."
"Oh, I am not tired watching you, Harriet," pretty Mollie answered truthfully. "I was only wishing I had such a beautiful frock to wear to the reception to-morrow."
Madame Louise clapped her hands. "Wait a minute, young ladies. I have something to show you. You must wait, for it is most beautiful." The dressmaker turned and whispered to one of her girl assistants. The girl went out and came back in a few minutes with another frock over her arm.
Mollie gave a deep sigh of admiration.
"How exquisite!" Harriet exclaimed. "Whose dress is that, Madame? It looks like clouds or sea foam, or anything else that is delicately beautiful."
Madame shook out a delicate pale blue silk, covered with an even lighter tint of blue chiffon, which shaded gently into white.
"This dress was an order, Miss Hamlin," Madame Louise explained. "I sent to Paris for it. Of course it was some time before it arrived in Washington. In the meanwhile a death occurred in the family of the young woman who had ordered the dress. She is now in mourning, and she left the dress with me to sell for her. She is willing to let it go at a great bargain. The little frock would just about fit your young friend. Would she not be beautiful in it, with her pale yellow hair and her blue eyes? Ah, the frock looks as though it had been created for her! Do you think she would allow me to try it on her?"
"Do slip the frock on, Mollie," Harriet urged. "It will not take much time. And I would dearly love to see you in such a gown. It is the sweetest thing I ever saw."
Mollie shook her head. "It is not worth while for me to put it on, Harriet. Madame must understand that I cannot possibly buy it."
"But the frock is such a bargain, Mademoiselle," the dressmaker continued. "I will sell it to you for a mere song."
"But I haven't the song to pay for it, Madame," Mollie laughed. "Come on, Harriet. We must be going."
"Of course you can't buy the dress, Mollie," Harriet interposed. "But Madame will not mind your just slipping into it. Try it on, just for my sake. I know you will look like a perfect dream."
Mollie could not refuse Harriet's request.
"Shut your eyes, Mollie, while Madame dresses you up," Harriet proposed.
Mollie shut her eyes tightly.
Madame Louise slipped on the gown. "It fits to perfection," she whispered to Harriet. Then the dressmaker, who was really an artist in her line, picked up Mollie's bunch of soft yellow curls and knotted them carelessly on top of Mollie's dainty head. She twisted a piece of the pale blue shaded chiffon into a bandeau around her gold hair.
"Now, look at yourself, Mademoiselle," she cried in triumph.
"Mollie, Mollie, you are the prettiest thing in the world!" Harriet exclaimed.
Mollie gave a little gasp of astonishment when she beheld herself in the mirror. Certainly she looked like Cinderella after the latter had been touched with the fairy wand. She stood regarding herself with wide open eyes of astonishment, and cheeks in which the rose flush deepened.
"The dress must belong to Mademoiselle! I could not have made such a fit if I had tried," repeated the dressmaker.
"How much is the dress worth, Madame?" Harriet queried.
"Worth? It is worth one hundred and fifty dollars! But I will give the little frock away for fifty," the dressmaker answered.
"Can't you possibly buy it, child?" Harriet pleaded with Mollie. "It is a perfectly wonderful bargain, and you are too lovely in it. I just can't bear to have you refuse it."
"I am sorry, Harriet," Mollie returned firmly. "But I have not the money. Won't you please take the gown off me, Madame!"
"Your friend can take the frock from me now and pay me later. It does not matter," said the dressmaker. "She can write home for the money."
For one foolish moment Mollie did dream that she might write to her mother for the price of this darling blue frock. Mollie was sure she had never desired anything so keenly in her life. But in a moment Mollie came to her senses. Where would her mother get such a large sum of money to send her? It had been hard work for Mrs. Thurston to allow Barbara and Mollie the slight expenses of their trip to Washington. No; the pretty gown was impossible!
"Do unbutton the gown for me, please, Harriet," Mollie entreated. "I really can't buy it." Mollie felt deeply embarrassed, and was sorry she had allowed herself to be persuaded into trying on the gown.
"Mollie!" exclaimed Harriet suddenly. "Don't you have a monthly allowance?"
Mollie nodded her head. Silly Mollie hoped Harriet would not ask her just what her allowance was. For Mrs. Thurston could give her daughters only five dollars a month apiece for their pin money.
"Then I know just what to do," Harriet declared. "You must just buy this frock, Mollie dear. I expect to have a dividend from some stock I own, and when it comes in, I shall pay Madame for the dress, and you can pay me back as it suits you. Do please consent, Mollie. Just look at yourself in the glass once more and I know you can't resist my plan."
Mollie did take one more peep at herself in the mirror. But if she had only had more time to think, and Harriet and the dressmaker had not argued the point with her, she would never have fallen before her temptation.
"You are sure you won't mind how long I take to pay you back, Harriet?" Mollie inquired weakly.
"Sure!" Harriet answered.
"All right then; I will take it," Mollie agreed in a sudden rush of recklessness, feeling dreadfully excited. For little Mollie Thurston had never owned a gown in her life that had cost more than fifteen dollars, except the two or three frocks which had been given to her on different occasions.
"Madame, you will send Miss Thurston's gown with mine, so she can wear it to the White House reception," Harriet insisted.
"Certainly; I shall send the frocks this evening," the dressmaker agreed, suavely. "But are you sure you will be in? I want you to be at home when the frocks arrive."
Several other customers had entered Madame Louise's establishment.
Harriet Hamlin flushed at the dressmaker's question. But she replied carelessly: "Oh, yes; I shall be in all the afternoon. You can send them at any time you like."
Before Mollie and Harriet had gotten out into the street, Mollie clutched Harriet's arm in swift remorse. "Oh, Harriet, dear, I have done a perfectly awful thing! I must go back and tell Madame that I cannot take that gown. I don't see how I could have said I would take it. Why, it will take me ages to pay you so much money!" Mollie's eyes were big and frightened. Her lips were trembling.