Life still had its moments and she was in the midst of one of the worst of them now. If you have ever stood in a kitchen where little gray kittens of dust rollicked under the chairs and all the dinner kettles and pans were piled on the table, unscraped and unwashed, and you saw ahead of you more things that you had planned to do than you could possibly get through before supper, and one girl was crying in the attic and another was crying in the china-closet, and your own heart was in your boots, you know how Elliott Cameron felt at this minute. Everything had gone wrong, since the time she got up half an hour late in the morning; but the most wrong thing of all was the letter from Laura.
It had come just as they were finishing dinner, for the postman was late. Father Bob had cut it open, while every one looked eager and hopeful. Mother Jess had written the day before that the doctors thought Sidney was better; there had been a telegram to that effect, too. Father Bob read Laura's letter quite through before he opened his lips. It wasn't a long letter. Then he said: "The boy's not so well, to-day.—Bruce, we must finish the ensilage. Come out as soon as you're through, boys. Tom, I want you to get in the tomatoes before night. We're due for a freeze, unless signs fail." Not another word about Sidney. And he went right out of the room.
"What does she say?" whispered Gertrude, dropping her fork so that it rattled against her plate. Gertrude was always dropping things, but this time she didn't flush, as she usually did, at her own awkwardness.
Elliott picked up the letter Father Bob had left beside her plate. She dreaded to unfold the single sheet, but what else could she do, with all those pairs of anxious eyes fixed on her? She steadied her voice and read slowly and without a trace of expression:
"Sidney had a bad time in the night, but is resting more easily this morning. Mother never leaves him. Every one is so good to us here. His officers seem to think a lot of Sid. So do the men of his company, as far as we have seen them. I don't know what to write you, Father. The doctor says, 'While there's life there's hope, and that our coming is the only thing that has saved Sid so far. He says that he has seen the sickest of boys pull through with their mothers here. We will telegraph when there is any change. Love to all of you, dear ones, and tell Elliott I shall never forget what she has done for me.
The room was very still for a minute. Elliott kept her eyes on the letter, to hide the tears that filled them. Sidney was going to die; she knew it.
Slowly, silently, one after another, they all got up from the table. The boys filed out into the kitchen, washed their hands at the sink, and still without a word went about their work. Gertrude and Priscilla began mechanically to clear the table. A plate crashed to the floor from Gertrude's hands and shattered to fragments. She stared at the pieces stupidly, as though wondering how they had come there, took a step in the direction of the dust-pan, and, suddenly bursting into tears, turned and ran out of the room. Elliott could hear her feet pounding up-stairs, on, on, till they reached the attic. A door slammed and all was quiet.
Down in the kitchen Elliott and Priscilla faced each other. Great round drops were running down Priscilla's cheeks, but she looked up at Elliott trustfully. And then Elliott failed her. She knew herself that she was failing. But it seemed as though she just couldn't keep from crying. "Oh, dear!" she sighed. "Oh, dear, isn't everything just awful!" Then she did cry.
And over Priscilla's sober little face—Elliott wasn't so blinded by her tears that she failed to see it—came the queerest expression of stupefaction and woe and utter forlornness. It was after that that Elliott heard Priscilla sobbing in the china-closet.
Her first impulse was to go to the closet and pull the child out. Her second was to let her stay. "She may as well have her cry out," thought the girl, unhappily. "I couldn't do anything to comfort her!"—which shows how very, very, very miserable Elliott was, herself.
The world was topsyturvy and would never get right again.
Instead of going for Priscilla she went for a dust-pan and brush and collected the fragments of broken china. Then she began to pile up the dishes, but, after a few futile movements, sat down in a chair and cried again. It didn't seem worth while to do anything else. So now there were three girls crying all at once in that house and every one of them in a different place. When at last Elliott did look in the closet Priscilla wasn't there.
The appearance of that usually spotless kitchen had a queer effect on Elliott. She saw so many things needing to be done at once that she didn't do any of them. She simply stood and stared hopelessly at the wreck of comfort and cleanliness and good cheer.
"Hello!" said Bruce at the door. "Want an extra hand for an hour?"
"I thought you were cutting ensilage," said Elliott. It was good to see Bruce; the courage in his voice lifted her spirits in spite of her.
"I've left a substitute." The boy glanced into the stove and started for the wood-box.
"Oh, dear! I forgot that fire. Has it gone out?"
"Not quite. I'll have it going again in a jiff."
He came back with a broom in his hands.
"Let me do that," said the girl.
"Oh, all right." He relinquished the broom and brought out the dish-pan. "Hi-yi, Stan, lend a hand here!"
The boy in the doorway gave one glance at Elliott's tear-stained face and came quietly into the room. "Sure," he said, picking up a dish-cloth and gingerly reaching for a tumbler. "Which end do you take 'em by, top or bottom?"
Stannard wiping dishes, and with Bruce Fearing! The sight was so strange that Elliott's broom stopped moving. The two boys at the dish-pan chaffed each other good-naturedly; their jokes might have seemed a little forced, had you examined them carefully, but the effect was normal and cheering. Now and then they threw a word to the girl and the pile of clean dishes grew under their hands.
Elliott's broom began to move again. Something warm stirred at her heart. She felt sober and humble and ashamed and—yes, happy—all at once. How nice boys were when they were nice!
Then she remembered something.
"Oh, Stan, wasn't it to-day you were going home?"
"Nix," Stannard replied. "Guess I'll stay on a bit. School hasn't begun. I want to go nutting before I hit the trail for home."
It was a different-looking kitchen the boys left half an hour later and a different-looking girl.
Bruce lingered a minute behind Stannard. "We haven't had any telegram," he said. "Remember that. And as for things in here, I wouldn't let 'em bother me, if I were you! You can't do everything, you know. Keep cool, feed us the stuff folks send in, and let some things slide."
"Mother Jess doesn't let things slide."
"Mother Jess has been at it a good many years, but I'll bet she would now and then if things got too thick and she couldn't keep both ends up. There's more to Mother Jess's job than what they call housekeeping."
"Oh, yes," sighed Elliott, "I know that. But just what do you mean, Bruce, that I could do?"
He hesitated a minute. "Well, call it morale. That suggests the thing."
Elliott thought hard for a minute after the door closed on Bruce. Perhaps, after all, seeing that the family had three meals a day and lived in a decently clean house and slept warm at night, necessary as such oversight was, wasn't the most imperative business in hand. Somehow or other those things weren't at all what came into her mind when she thought of Aunt Jessica—no, indeed, though Aunt Jessica made such perfectly delicious things to eat. What came into her mind was far different—like the way Aunt Jessica had sat on Elliott's bed and kissed her, that homesick first night; Aunt Jessica's face at meal-time, with Uncle Bob across the table and all her boys and girls filling the space between; Aunt Jessica comforting Priscilla when the child had met with some mishap. Priscilla seldom cried when she hurt herself; "Mother kisses the place and makes it well." The words linked themselves with Bruce's in Elliott's thought. Was that what he had meant by morale? She couldn't have put into words what she understood just then. For a minute a door in her brain seemed to swing open and she saw straight into the heart of things. Then it clicked together and left her saying, "I guess I fell down on that part of my job, Mother Jess."
Elliott hung up her apron and mounted the stairs. She didn't stop with the second floor and her own little room, but kept right on to the attic. There was a door at the head of the attic stairs. Elliott pushed it open. On a broken-backed horsehair sofa Gertrude lay, face down, her nose buried in a faded pillow. In a wabbly rocker, at imminent risk of a breakdown, Priscilla jerked back and forth. Gertrude's hair was tousled and Priscilla's face was tear-stained and swollen.
"Don't you think," Elliott suggested, "it is time we girls washed our faces and made ourselves pretty?"
"I left you all the dishes to do." Gertrude's voice was muffled by the pillow. "I—I just couldn't help it."
"That's all right. They're done now. I didn't do them, either. Let's go down-stairs and wash up."
"I don't want to be pretty," Priscilla objected, continuing to rock. Gertrude neither moved nor spoke again.
What should Elliott do? She remembered Bruce.
"We haven't had any telegram, you know," she said. Nobody spoke. "Well, then, we were three little geese, weren't we? Not having had a telegram means a lot just now." Priscilla stopped rocking.
"I'm going to believe Sidney will get well," Elliott continued. It was hard work to talk to such unresponsive ears, but she kept right on. "And now I am going down-stairs to put on one of my prettiest dresses, so as to look cheerful for supper. You may try whether you can get into that blue dress of mine you like so much, Trudy. I'm going to let Priscilla wear my coral beads."
"The pink ones?" asked Priscilla.
"The pink ones. They will be just a match for your pink dress."
"I don't feel like dressing up," said Gertrude.
Elliott felt like clapping her hands. She had roused Trudy to speech.
"Then wear something of your own," she said stanchly. "It doesn't matter what we wear, so long as we look nice."
Mercurial Priscilla was already feeling the new note in the air. Elliott wouldn't talk so, would she, if Sidney really were not going to get well? And yet there was Gertrude, who didn't seem to feel cheered up a bit. Pris's little heart was torn.
Elliott tried one last argument. "I think Mother Jess would like to have us do it for Father Bob and the boys' sake—to help keep up their courage."
Priscilla bounced out of the rocker. "Will it help keep up their courage for us to wear our pretty clothes?"
"I had a notion it might."
"Let's do it, Trudy. I—I think I feel better already."
Gertrude sat up on the horsehair sofa. "Maybe Mother would like us to."
"I'm sure she'd like us to keep on hoping," said Elliott earnestly. "And it doesn't matter what we do, so long as we do something to show that's the way we've made up our minds to feel. If you can think of any better way to show it than by dressing up, Trudy—"
"No," said Gertrude. "But I think I'll wear my own clothes to-day, Elliott. Thank you, just the same. Some day, if Sid—I mean some day I'll love to try on your blue dress, if you will let me."
Three girls, as pretty and chic and trim as nature and the contents of their closets could make them, sat down to supper that night. It was not a jolly meal, but the girls set the pace, and every one did his best to be cheerful and brave.
Half-way through supper Stannard laid down his fork to ask a question. "What's happened to your hair, Trudy?"
"Elliott did it for me. Do you like it?"
Stannard nodded. "Good work!"
Father Bob, his attention aroused, inspected the three with new interest in his sober eyes. He said nothing then, but after supper his hand fell on Elliott's shoulder approvingly.
"Well done, little girl! That's the right way. Face the music with your chin up."
Elliott felt exactly as though some one had stiffened her spine. The least little doubt had been creeping into her mind lest what she had done had been heartless. Father Bob's words put that qualm at rest. And, of course, good news would come from Sidney in the morning.
But courage has a way of ebbing in spite of one. It was dark and very cold when a forlorn little figure appeared beside Elliott's bed.
"I can't go to sleep. Trudy's asleep. I can hear her. I think I am going to cry again."
Elliott sat up. What should she do? What would Aunt Jessica do?
"Come in here and cry on me."
Priscilla climbed in between the sheets and Elliott put both arms around the little girl. Priscilla snuggled close.
"I tried to think—the way you said, but I can't. Is Sidney—" sniffle—"going to die—" sniffle—"like Ted Gordon?"
"No," said Elliott, who a minute ago had been afraid of the very same thing. "No, I am perfectly positive he is going to get well."
Just saying the words seemed to help, somehow.
Priscilla snuggled closer. "You're awful comforting. A person gets scared at night."
"A person does, indeed."
"Not so much when you've got company," said Priscilla.
The warmth of the little body in her arms struck through to Elliott's own shivering heart. "Not half so much when you've got company," she acknowledged.
Sure enough, in the morning came better news. Father Bob's face, when he turned around from the telephone, told that, even before he opened his lips.
"Sidney is holding his own," he said.
You may think that wasn't much better news, but it meant a great deal to the Camerons. "Sidney is holding his own," they told every one who inquired, and their faces were hopeful. If Father Bob had any fears, he kept them to himself. The rest of the Camerons were young and it didn't seem possible to them that Sidney could do anything but get well. Last night had been a bad dream, that was all.
The next morning's message had the word "better" in it. "Little" stood before "better," but nobody, not even Father Bob, paid much attention to "little." Sidney was better. It was a week before Mother Jess wrote that the doctors pronounced him out of danger and that she and Laura would soon be home. Meanwhile, many things had happened.
You might have thought that Sidney's illness was enough trouble to come to the Camerons at one time, but as Bruce quoted with a twist in his smile, "It never rains but it pours." This time Bruce himself got the message which came from the War Department and read:
You are informed that Lieutenant Peter Fearing has been reported missing since September fifteenth. Letter follows.
The Camerons felt as badly as though Peter Fearing had been their own brother.
"The telegram doesn't say that he's dead," Trudy declared, over and over again.
"Maybe he's a prisoner," Tom suggested.
"Perhaps he had to come down in a wood somewhere," Henry speculated, "and will get back to our lines."
"The government makes mistakes sometimes," Stannard said. "There was a woman in Upton—" He went on with a long story about a woman whose son was reported killed in France on the very day the boy had been in his mother's house on furlough from a cantonment. There were a great many interesting and ingenious details to the story, but nobody paid much attention to them. "So you never can tell," Stannard wound up.
"No, you never can tell," Bruce agreed, but he didn't look convinced. Something, he was quite sure, was wrong with Pete.
"Don't anybody write Mother Jess," he said. "She and Laura have enough to worry about with Sid."
"What if they see it in the papers?" Elliott asked.
"They're busy. Ten to one they won't see it, since it isn't head-lined on the front page. Wait till we get the letter."
"How soon do you suppose the letter will come?" Gertrude wished to know.
"'Letter follows,'" Henry read from the yellow slip which the postman delivered from the telegraph office. "That means right away, I should say."
"Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't," said Tom and then he had a story to tell. It didn't take Tom long, for he was a boy of fewer words than Stannard.
Morning, noon, and night the Camerons speculated about that telegram. They combed its words with a fine-toothed comb, but they couldn't make anything out of them except the bald fact that Pete was missing.
If you think they let it go at that, you are very much mistaken. Where the fact stopped the Cameron imaginations began, and imaginations never know where to stop. The less actual information an imagination has to work on, the busier it is. The Camerons hadn't any more imagination than most people, but what they had grew very busy. It fairly amazed them with its activity. If you think that this was silly and that they ought to have chained up their imaginations until the promised letter arrived, it only shows that you have never received any such telegram.
After all, the letter, when it came, didn't tell them much. The letter said that Lieutenant Peter Fearing had gone out with his squadron on a bombing-expedition well within the enemy lines. The formation had successfully accomplished its raid and was returning when it was taken by surprise and surrounded by a greatly superior force of enemy planes, which gave the Americans a running fight of thirty-nine minutes to their lines. Lieutenant Fearing's was one of two planes which failed to return to the aerodrome. When last seen, his machine was in combat with four Hun planes over enemy territory.
"What did I tell you?" interrupted Tom. "He's a prisoner."
An airplane had been reported as falling in flames near this spot, but whether it was Lieutenant Fearing's machine or another, no data was as yet at hand to prove. The writer begged to remain, etc.
No, that letter only opened up fresh fields for Cameron imaginations to torment Cameron hearts. Nobody had happened to think before of Pete's machine catching fire.
"Gee!" said Henry, "if that plane was his—"
"There's no certainty that it was," said Bruce, quickly.
All the Camerons, you see, knew perfectly well what happens to an aviator whose machine catches fire.
"If that machine was Pete's," Father Bob mused, "Hun aviators may drop word of him within our lines. They have done that kind of thing before."
"Wouldn't Bob cable, if he knew anything more than this letter says?" Gertrude questioned.
"I expect Bob's waiting to find out something certain before he cables," said Father Bob. "Doubtless he has written. We shall just have to wait for his letter."
"Wait! Gee!" whispered Henry.
"Both the boys' letters were so awfully late, in the summer!" sighed Gertrude. "However can we wait for a letter from Bob?"
Elliott said nothing at all. Her heart was aching with sympathy for Bruce. When a person could do something, she thought, it helped tremendously. Mother Jess and Laura had gone to Sidney and she had had a chance to make Laura's going possible, but there didn't seem to be anything she could do for Bruce. And she wished to do something for Bruce; she found that she wished to tremendously. Thinking about Mother Jess and Laura reminded her to look up and ask, "What are we going to write them at Camp Devens?"
Then she discovered that she and Bruce were alone in the room. He was sitting at Mother Jess's desk, in as deep a brown study as she had been. The girl's voice roused him.
"The kind of thing we've been writing—home news. Time enough to tell them about Pete when they get here. By that time, perhaps, there will be something definite to tell." He hesitated a minute. "Laura is going to feel pretty well cut up over this."
Elliott looked up quickly. "Especially cut up?"
"I think so. Oh, there wasn't anything definite between her and Pete—nothing, at least, that they told the rest of us. But a fellow who had eyes—" He left the sentence unfinished and walked over to Elliott's chair. "You know, I told you," he said, "that I shouldn't go into this war unless I was called. Of course I'm registered now, but whether or not they call me—if Pete is out of it—and I can possibly manage it, I'm going in."
A queer little pain contracted Elliott's heart. And then that odd heart of hers began to swell and swell until she thought it would burst. She looked at the boy, with proud eyes. It didn't occur to her to wonder what she was proud of. Bruce Fearing was no kin of hers, you know.
"I knew you would." Somehow it seemed to the girl that she could always tell what Bruce Fearing was going to do, and that there was nothing strange in such knowledge. How strong he was! how splendid and understanding and fine! "Oh," she cried, "I wish, how I wish I could help you!"
"You do help me," he said.
"I?" Her eyes lifted in real surprise. "How can I?"
"By being you."
His hand had only to move an inch to touch hers, but it lay motionless. His eyes, gray and steady and clear, held the girl's. She gave him back look for look.
"I am glad," she said softly and her face was like a flower.
Bruce was out of the house before Elliott thought of the thing she could do for him.
"Mercy me!" she cried. "You're the slowest person I've ever seen in my life, Elliott Cameron!" She ran to the kitchen door, but the boy was nowhere in sight. "He must be out at the barn," she said and took a step in that direction, only to take it back. "No, I won't. I'll just go by myself and do it."
Whatever it was, it put her in a great hurry. As fast as she had dashed to the kitchen she now ran to the front hall, but the third step of the stairs halted her.
"Elliott Cameron," she declared earnestly, "I do believe you have lost your mind! Haven't you any sense at all? And you a responsible housekeeper!"
Perhaps it wasn't the first time a whirlwind had ever struck the Cameron farmhouse. Elliott hadn't a notion that she could work so fast. Her feet fairly flew. Bed-covers whisked into place; dusting-cloths raced over furniture; even milk-pans moved with unwonted celerity. But she left them clean, clean and shining.
"There!" said the girl, "now we shall do well enough till dinner-time. I'm going into the village. Anybody want to come?"
Priscilla jumped up. "I do, unless Trudy wants to more."
Gertrude shook her head. "I'm going to put up tomatoes," she said, "the rest of the ripe ones."
"Don't you want help?"
"Not a bit. Tomatoes are no work, at all."
Elliott dashed up-stairs. In a whirl of excitement she pinned on her hat and counted her money. No matter how much it cost, she meant to say all that she wanted to.
Her cheeks were pink and her dimples hard at work playing hide-and-seek with their own shadows, when she cranked the little car. Everything would come right now; it couldn't fail to come right. Priscilla hopped into the seat beside her and they sped away.
"I have cabled Father," Elliott announced at dinner, with the prettiest imaginable little air of importance and confidence, "I have cabled Father to find out all he can about Pete and to let us know at once. Perhaps we shall hear something to-morrow."
But the next day passed, and the next, and the day after that, and still no cable from Father.
It was very bewildering. At first Elliott jumped every time the telephone rang, and took down the receiver with quickened pulses. No matter what her brain said, her heart told her Father would send good news. She couldn't associate him with thoughts of ill news. Of course, her brain said there was no logic in that kind of argument, and that facts were facts; and in a case like Pete's, fathers couldn't make or mar them. Her heart kept right on expecting good tidings.
But when long days and longer nights dragged themselves by and no word at all came from overseas, the girl found out what a big empty place the world may become, even while it is chuck-full of people, and what three thousand miles of water really means. She thought she had known before, but she hadn't. So long as letters traveled back and forth, irregularly timed it might be, but continuously, she still kept the familiar sense of Father—out of sight, but there, as he had always been, most dependably there. Now, for the first time in her life, she had called to him and he had not answered. There might be—there probably were, she reminded herself—reasons why he hadn't answered; good, reassuring reasons, if one only knew them. He might be temporarily in a region out of touch with cables; the service might have dropped a link somewhere. One could imagine possible explanations. But it was easier to imagine other things. And the fact remained that, since he didn't answer, she couldn't get away from a horrible, paralyzing sense that he wasn't there.
It didn't do any good to try to run from that sensation; there was nowhere to run. It blocked every avenue of thought, a sinister shape of dread. The only help was in keeping very, very busy. And even then one couldn't stop one's thoughts traveling, traveling, traveling along those fearful paths.
At last Elliott knew how the others felt about Pete. She had thought she understood that and felt it, too, but now she found that she hadn't. It makes all the difference in the world, she discovered, whether one stands inside or outside a trouble. The heart that had ached so sympathetically for Bruce knew its first stab of loss and recoiled. The others recognized the difference; or was it only that Elliott herself had eyes to see what she had been blind to before? No one said anything. In little unconscious, lovable ways they made it quite clear that now she was one with them.
"Perhaps we would better send for them to come home from Camp Devens," Father Bob suggested one day. He threw out his remark at the supper-table, which would seem to address it to the family at large, but he looked straight at Elliott.
"Oh, no," she cried, "don't send for them!" But she couldn't keep a flash of joy out of her eyes.
"Sure you're not getting tired?"
It disappointed her the least little bit that Uncle Bob let the suggestion drop so readily. And she was disappointed at her own disappointment. "Can't you 'carry on' at all?" she demanded of herself, scornfully. "It was all your own doing, you know." But how she did long at times for Aunt Jessica!
Of course, Elliott couldn't cry, however much she might wish to, with the family all taking their cues from her mood. She said so fiercely to every lump that rose in her throat. She couldn't indulge herself at all adequately in the luxury of being miserable; she couldn't even let herself feel half as scared as she wished to, because, if she did, just once, she couldn't keep control of herself, and if she lost control of herself there was no telling where she might end—certainly in no state that would be of any use to the family. No, for their sake, she must sit tight on the lid of her grief and fear and anxiety.
But there were hours when the cover lifted a little. No girl, not the bravest, could avoid such altogether. Elliott didn't think herself brave, not a bit. She knew merely that the thing she had to do couldn't be done if there were many such hours.
One day Bruce heard somebody sobbing up in the hay-loft. The sound didn't carry far; it was controlled, suppressed; but Bruce had gone up the ladder for something or other, I forget just what, and, thinking Priscilla was in trouble, he kept on. The girl crying, face down in the hay, wasn't Priscilla. Very softly Bruce started to tiptoe away, but the rustling of the hay under his feet betrayed him.
"I didn't mean—any one to—find me."
"Shall I go away?"
She shook her head. "I can't stand it!" she wailed. "I simply can't stand it!" And she sobbed as though her heart would break.
Bruce sat down beside the girl on the hay and patted the hand nearest him. He didn't know anything else to do. Her fingers closed on his convulsively.
"I'm an awful old cry-baby," she choked at last. "I'll behave myself, in a minute."
"No, cry away," said Bruce. "A girl has to cry sometimes."
After a while the racking sobs spent themselves. "There!" she said, sitting up. "I never thought I'd let a boy see me cry. Now I must go in and help Trudy get supper."
She dabbed at her eyes with a wet little wad of linen. Bruce plucked a clean handkerchief from his pocket and tucked it into her fingers.
"Yours doesn't seem quite big enough for the job," he said.
She took it gratefully. She had never thought of a boy as a very comforting person, but Bruce was. "Oh, Bruce, you know!"
"Yes, I know."
"It's so—so lonely. Dad's all I've got, of my really own, in the world."
He nodded. "You're gritty, all right."
"Why, Bruce Fearing! how can you say that after the way I've acted?"
"That's why I say it."
"But I'm scared all the time. If I did what I wanted to, I'd be a perpetual fountain."
"And you're not."
She stared at him. "Is being scared and trying to cover it up what you call grit?"
"The grittiest kind of grit."
For a sophisticated girl she was singularly naive, at times. He watched her digest the idea, sitting up on the hay, her chin cupped in her two hands, straws in her hair. Her eyes were swollen and her nose red, and his handkerchief was now almost as wet as her own. "I thought I was an awful coward," she said.
A smile curved his firm lips, but the steady gray eyes were tender. "I shouldn't call you a coward."
She shook herself and stood up. "Bruce, you're a darling. Now, will you please go and see if the coast is clear, so I can slide up-stairs without being seen? I must wash up before supper."
"I'd get supper," he said, "if I didn't have to milk to-night. Promised Henry."
She shook her head positively. "I'll let you do lots of things, Bruce, but I won't let you get supper for me—not with all the other things you have to do."
"Oh, all right! I dare you to jump off the hay."
"Down there? Take you!" she cried, and with the word sprang into the air.
Beside her the boy leaped, too. They landed lightly on the fragrant mass in the bay of the barn.
"Oh," she cried, "it's like flying, isn't it! Why wasn't I brought up on a farm?"
There was a little choke still left in her voice, and her smile was a trifle unsteady, but her words were ready enough. In the doorway she turned and waved to the boy and then went on, her head held high, slender and straight and gallant, into the house.
Mother Jess and Laura were coming home. Perhaps Father Bob had dropped a hint that their presence was needed in the white house at the end of the road; perhaps, on the other hand, they were just ready to come. Elliott never knew for certain.
Father Bob met the train, while all the Cameron boys and girls flew around, making ready at home. The plan had developed on the tacit understanding that since they all wished to, it was fairer for none of them to go to the station.
Priscilla and Prince were out watching. "They're coming!" she squealed, skipping back into the house. "Trudy, Elliott, everybody, they're coming!" And she was out again, darting in long swallow-like swoops down the hill. From every direction came Camerons, running; from house, barn, garden, young heads moved swiftly toward the little car chug-chugging up the hill.
They swarmed over it, not giving it time to stop, jumping on the running-board, riding on the hood, almost embracing the car itself in the joy of their welcome. Elliott hung back. The others had the first right. After their turns—
Without a word Aunt Jessica took the girl into her arms and held her tight. In that strong, tender clasp all the stinging ache went out of Elliott's hurt. She wasn't frightened any longer or bewildered or bitter; she didn't know why she wasn't, but she wasn't. She felt just as if, somehow or other, things were going to be right.
She had this feeling so strongly that she forgot all about dreading to meet Laura—for she had dreaded to meet Laura, she was so sorry for her—and kissed her quite naturally. Laura kissed Elliott in return and said, "Wait till I get you up-stairs," as though she meant business, and smiled just as usual. Her face was a trifle pale, but her eyes were bright, and the clear, steady glow in them reminded Elliott for the first time of the light in Aunt Jessica's eyes. She hadn't remembered ever seeing Laura's eyes look just like that. How much did Laura know, Elliott wondered? She wouldn't look so, would she, if she had heard about Pete? But, strangely enough, Elliott didn't fear her finding out or feel nervous lest she might have to tell her.
And after all, as soon as they got up-stairs, it came out that Laura did know about Pete, for she said: "I'm glad, oh, so glad, that wherever Pete is now, he got across and had a chance really to do something in this fight. If you had seen what I have seen this last week, Elliott—"
The shining look in Laura's face fascinated Elliott.
All at once she felt her own words come as simply and easily as Laura's. "But will that be enough, Laura—always?"
"No," said Laura, "not always. But I shall always be proud and glad, even if I do have to miss him all my life. And, of course, I can't help feeling that we may hear good news yet. Now—oh, you blessed, blessed girl!"
And the two clung together in a long close embrace that said many things to both of them, but not a word aloud.
How good it seemed to have Mother Jess and Laura in the house! Every one went about with a hopeful face, though, after all, not an inch had the veil of silence lifted that hung between the Cameron farm and the world overseas. Every one, Elliott suspected, shared the feeling she had known, the certainty that all would be well now Mother Jess was home. It wasn't anything in particular that Mother Jess said or did that contributed to this impression. Just to see her face in a room, to touch her hand now and then, to hear her voice, merely to know she was in the house, seemed enough to give it.
They all had so much to say to one another. The returned travelers must tell of Sidney, and the Camerons who had stayed at home had tales of how they had "carried on" in the others' absence. Tongues were very busy, but no one forgot those who weren't there—not for a minute. The sense of them lived underneath all the confidences. There were confidences en masse, so to speak, and confidences a deux. Priscilla chattered away into her mother's ear without once stopping to catch breath, and Bruce had his own quiet report to make. Perhaps Bruce and Priscilla and the rest said more than Elliott heard, for when Aunt Jessica bade her good-night she rested a hand lightly on the girl's shoulder.
"You dear, brave little woman!" she said. "All the soldiers aren't in camp or over the seas."
Elliott put the words away in her memory. They made her feel like a man who has just been decorated by his general.
She felt so comforted and quiet, so free from nervousness, that not even the telephone bell could make her jump. It tinkled pretty continuously, too. That was because all the next day the neighbors who didn't come in person were calling up to inquire for the returned travelers. Elliott quite lost the expectation that every time the telephone buzzed it meant a possible message for her.
She had lost it so completely that when, as they were on the point of sitting down at supper, Laura said, "There's the telephone again, and my hands are full," Elliott remarked, "I'll see who it is," and took down the receiver without a thought of a cable.
"This is Elliott Cameron speaking.... Yes—yes. Elliott Cameron. All ready." A tremor crept into the girl's voice. "I didn't get that.... Just received my message? Yes, go on.... Repeat, please.... Wait a minute till I call some one."
She wheeled from the instrument, her face alight. "Where's Bruce? Please, somebody, call—oh, here you are!" She thrust the receiver into his hands. "Make them repeat the message to you. It's from Father. Pete was a prisoner. He's escaped and got back to our lines."
Then she slipped into Aunt Jessica's waiting arms.
Supper? Who cared about supper? The Camerons forgot it. When they remembered, the steaming-hot creamed potato was cold and the salad was wilted, but that made no difference. They were too excited to know what they were eating.
To make assurance trebly sure there were more messages. Bob cabled of Pete's escape through the Hun lines and the government wired from Washington. The Camerons' happiness spilled over into blithe exuberance. They laughed and danced and sang for very joy. Priscilla jigged all over the house like an excited brown leaf in a breeze. None of them, except Father Bob, Mother Jess, and Laura, could keep still. Laura went about like a person in a trance, with a strange, happy quietness in her ordinarily energetic movements and a brightness in her face that dazzled. There was no boisterousness in any one's rejoicing, only a gentleness of gaiety that was very wonderful to see and feel.
As for Elliott, she felt as though she had come out from underneath a great dark cloud, into a place where she could never again be anything but good and happy. She had been coming out ever since Aunt Jessica reached home, but she hadn't come out the same as she went in. The Elliott Aunt Jessica and Laura had left in charge when they went to Camp Devens seemed very, very far away from the Elliott whose joy was like wings that fairly lifted her feet off the ground. Smiles chased one another among her dimples in ceaseless procession across her face. She didn't try to discover why she felt so different. She didn't care. The dimples, of course, were the very same dimples she had always had, and at the moment the girl was entirely unconscious of their existence, though as a matter of fact those dimples had never been busier and more bewitching in all Elliott Cameron's life.
"I suppose," Mother Jess said at last, "we shall have to go to bed, if we are to get Stannard off in the morning."
Going to bed isn't a very exciting thing to do when you are so happy you feel as though you might burst with joy, but by that time the Camerons had managed to work out of the most dangerous stage, and inasmuch as Stannard's was an early train, going to bed was the only sensible thing to do. So they did it.
What was more remarkable, the last sleepy Cameron straggled down to the breakfast-table before the little car ran up to the door to take Stannard away. They were really sorry to see him go and he acted as though he were just as sorry to go, which would seem to indicate that Stannard, too, had changed in the course of the summer. He looked much like the long, lazy Stannard who had rebelled against a vacation on a farm, but his carriage was better and his figure sturdier, and his hands weren't half so white and gentlemanlike. Underneath his lazy ease was a hint of something to depend on in an emergency. Perhaps even his laziness wasn't so ingrained as it used to be.
They all went out on the veranda to say good-by and waved as long as the car was in sight.
"Sorry you're not going, too?" Bruce asked Elliott.
"Oh, no! I wouldn't go for anything."
"For a girl who didn't want to come up here at all," he said softly, "you're doing pretty well. Decided to make the best of us, didn't you?"
She looked at him indignantly. "Indeed, I didn't! I wouldn't do such a thing. Why, I just love it here!" Then she saw the twinkle in his eye. "You tease!"
"I'm going away, myself, next week, S. A. T. C. I can't get any nearer France than that, it seems, just yet. Father Bob says he can manage all right this winter and he has a notion of something new that may turn up next spring. He says, 'Go,' and so does Mother Jess. So—I'm going."
Elliott stole a quick glance at the firm, clear-cut face, chiseled already in lines of purpose and power.
"I'm glad," she said, "but we shall—miss you."
"Shall you miss me?"
"I'd hate to think that you wouldn't."
Elliott always remembered the morning, three days later, when Bruce went away. How blue the sky was, how clear the sunshine, how glorious the autumn pageant of the hills! Beside the gate a young maple burned like a shaft of flame. True, Bruce was only going to school now, but there was France in the background, a beckoning possibility with all that it meant of triumph and heroism and pain. That idea of France, and the fiery splendor of the hills, seemed to invest Bruce's strong young figure with a kind of glory that tightened the girl's throat as she waved good-by from the veranda. She was glad Bruce was going, even if her throat did ache. Aches like that seemed far less important than they used to. She waved with a thrill coursing up her spine and a shy, eager sense of how big and wonderful and happy a thing it was to be a girl.
With a last wave to Bruce turning the curve of the road Mother Jess stepped back into the house.
"Come, girls," she said. "I feel like getting very busy, don't you?"
Elliott followed her contentedly. Others might go, but she didn't wish to, not while Father was on the other side of the ocean. It made her laugh to think that she had ever wished to. That laugh of pure mirth and happiness proved the completeness of Elliott Cameron's evacuation.
"What is the joke?" Laura asked, smiling at the radiant charm of the dainty figure enveloping itself in a blue apron.
"Oh," said Elliott lightly, "I was thinking that I used to be a queer girl."