Early that morning Nan Graham had been made to explain more fully the information bestowed on Polly the day before. It seemed that her father had been engaged to do odd jobs at the camp of the Scouts several miles away from Sunrise Hill and had overheard the plan of the young men to test the mettle of the Camp Fire girls. Take them by surprise, bear down upon them without warning, that was the way to discover whether the girls were lolling about reading novels and eating sweets as they suspected, or attending to the sterner duties of camp life. Subject them to the trial of preparing an impromptu meal for hungry guests, in short, see whether the effort of the girls to effect an organization similar in many respects to the Boy Scouts wasn't sheer bluff.
Nothing had been said, because of course it must have been so easy to surmise the amount of criticism and discussion that arose in Woodford when the village learned of the decision of the first Camp Fire girls' club to spend the summer together in the woods. And sternest of all critics were the brothers, boy cousins and friends, most of whom belonged to the Boy Scout brigades, spending most of their spare time and money in them. For of course the thing that was good for a boy was for that very reason bad for a girl, an age old argument, beginning with the question of educating women at all and extending now to their right to the vote.
Curiously John Everett, Margaret's brother, was at first more bitterly opposed to the Camp Fire idea than any one else in Woodford. Meg's place was at home, every girl's was, even though there was no one at home with her. It was hard lines that his father had to be in Boston the greater part of the summer and that he would be in camp, but he was not going to have Meg getting drowned or burned up or worn out without masculine protection—away from home. Should any one of these misfortunes overtake her at home—why somehow it would be different.
But fortunately for Meg's summer happiness, her Professor father did not share in his son's opinions and after John had a long talk with Betty Ashton he became well, not convinced, but at least more open to conviction. Usually Betty did have this effect upon him, which was perhaps fortunate for them both.
So John Everett might certainly be expected as one of the surprise party and probably Jim Meade, Eleanor's brother Frank Wharton, and Ralph and Hugh Bowles, who belonged to the same group of friends, besides, well, it was the entire uncertainty in regard to the actual number of their visitors which was keeping the Camp Fire girls so extraordinarily busy, their idea being to have everything prepared and hidden away and then produced as though they were in the habit of having just such a magnificent supply of rations always on hand.
Eleanor and Meg had made an Irish stew of half their week's supply of meat and vegetables; Esther, assisted by Juliet Field, had baked enough beans for feeding half Beacon Street; while Miss McMurtry herself had presided over the giant loaves of brown bread, which can be easily boiled in closed tins and make specially superior camp food.
Upon Beatrice, Sylvia and the unwelcome newcomer, Nan Graham, had devolved the cleaning up of the camp grounds and their work had been most thoroughly done, but indeed no one could be accused, of anything approaching sloth this morning when so much of their future reputation was at stake. Only Edith Norton had been unable to help because of her work in town, but she hoped to be able to return to camp by noon so as not to miss the good times.
At eleven o'clock every bit of the work, of preparation had been accomplished and Nan's report had said that the Scouts expected to appear just about the noon luncheon hour. The food was hidden away in the kitchen tent and the girls rearranged their costumes, then after posting Nan, Beatrice and Sylvia as sentinels to give warning of the first approach of their guests, the other girls settled themselves to whatever occupations they considered might make the best impression.
Eleanor got out the Camp Fire log book, whose cover she had previously decorated with a wonderful sunrise appearing above the summit of a purple hill, and now began to illustrate some of the inside pages with scenes recalling the events of the past ten days. Mollie's tastes were too domestic for any deception, so she went on with her pretty basket weaving, while Esther sat near her studying the Indian song received the day before. However, the really impressive occupation was conceived and engineered by Polly's dramatic sense, for she engaged Miss McMurtry and the rest of the girls in the mysteries of knot tying, one of the difficult feats of camp craft, since there are a good many more varieties of knots than one has fingers. For example, there is the square knot, bowline, alpine, kite string, half hitch, clove hitch for tying two ends together, and as many more for making knots at the end of a rope, and yet, unless one happens to be a Camp Fire girl, these comparatively simple accomplishments are entirely closed arts.
Now everybody at Sunrise Camp is accounted for excepting its solitary masculine member—Little Brother. During all the morning preparations he had been a very difficult problem, but finally washed and arrayed in a stiff white Russian blouse, Meg conceived the brilliant idea of attaching him to the camp totem pole. The pole was simply a tree cleared of its branches at the present time, which the girls hoped later on to develop into a real Indian totem pole, but standing just a few yards in front of the group of tents it formed a center for all eyes and therefore seemed the best possible place for keeping a little boy always in sight. Little Brother was at first very happy because he had with him the things he loved best: a discarded bathing shoe, a bottle of hard brown beans and an old cream whipper, that made the most delectable noises as one turned it about. Indeed, so soothing did its noises become that, on returning for the sixth time from her game to see that the small boy was safe, Meg discovered him fast asleep in a patch of sunshine on the grass.
Five minutes before noon Sylvia Wharton came running breathless with excitement from her sentry post. Dust was rising at some distance off in the curve of the lane where a path led across the fields to Sunrise Camp. Harder and faster the girls continued at their work, of course appearing superbly unconscious of possible interruption and yet ten minutes later, when Edith Norton returned from the village on her bicycle along the way of Sylvia's warning, there was a sort of general let-down feeling though no one confessed to it.
Then half an hour passed, noon was in the background of the day and hunger was laying fierce hold on the camp members. Their practice of knot tying abruptly ceased, Eleanor put her book and paints aside with a sense of relief, Mollie and Esther arose sighing.
"We have got to have our own lunch, girls, we simply can't wait any longer," Miss McMurtry insisted, and no one seemed sufficiently inspirited to discuss the question, when unexpectedly a cry from Meg brought everybody to life.
Little Brother had disappeared! In spite of the professional knot-tying he had managed to slip away, leaving his moorings still attached to the pole. Ten seconds afterwards as many girls were searching for him, only Esther remaining behind with Miss McMurtry. As his small footprints led directly to the grove of pines, his favorite playing ground, the entire party sought him there, and after running about for an eighth of a mile searching and calling, they came across the young man throned high on the shoulders of a six-foot Scout, clothed in khaki and leather boots but wearing a perfectly absurd Indian head-dress and false-face. He was followed by ten other youths, gotten up in equally absurd fashions for the complete bewilderment of the Camp Fire girls.
"Do take those ridiculous things off at once, John Everett," Betty demanded first, as she happened to be in advance of the other girls, and on John's immediately complying with her request, his companions followed his example. Then gaily the entire procession made for camp, but as Miss McMurtry and Esther heard them coming when some distance off, they did not seem particularly surprised at their advance. Indeed, the ridiculous fact was that the Scouts failed altogether to mention that their intention had been to steal into Sunrise Camp unperceived, and the girls were equally negligent in not expressing more profound amazement at their wholly unlooked-for visit.
Only there was one special bit of surprise for Betty Ashton and possibly for Esther as well. Richard Ashton had come down from Portsmouth to find out how Betty was getting on, and on hearing of the scouting expedition had joined their party. Of course he only spoke to Esther in the same fashion that he did to his sister's other friends, nevertheless she felt more at her ease, perhaps because he was her one acquaintance in the group of young men.
And Polly also had a surprise, though not so pleasant a one, for the youth whom she had tried to slay, like David did Goliath, was one of their Boy Scout guests and Polly wondered if it were her duty to inquire in regard to his wounded feelings or to pretend that to-day's more formal meeting was in reality their first?
But the girl did not have to decide the problem, for the young man solved it for her.
They were in the midst of luncheon, which was spread out on a vast table-cloth covering ten or fifteen square feet of ground, when he arose solemnly and bearing his plate in his hand came over and sat down on the grass alongside of Polly. In his khaki uniform, with his hair, skin and clothes so much the same color, he was far less countrified, indeed, almost good looking the girl conceded to herself, while waiting for him to speak first, giving her the clue to his attitude toward her.
"You were awfully kind the other day and, I am much obliged to you," he said a trifle awkwardly, but with gracious intention. "I am afraid I should have had rather an uncomfortable time of it but for you."
Polly cast her eyes demurely toward her lap, turning her head slightly to one side, "I am afraid you did have an uncomfortable time anyhow. I was very sorry." She had flushed the least little bit, but her lips were twitching with amusement.
The young fellow smiled. "Oh, don't you be sorry," he protested, "leave that to the guilty person, or I am afraid she may keep you being sorry for her sins all the days of your life."
"I will not!" Polly snapped, in such evident irritation that the young man leaned deliberately over her shoulder staring into her face. Then he actually laughed. "I am sorry myself now," he apologized, "but I thought you were the pretty one."
"Well I am not and that is a horrid way to get even!"
Again the young man laughed. "I beg your pardon, I mean I thought you were the nice one!" And this time Polly happening to catch his eye, which had some of her own sense of humor in it, laughed to herself and then swung round to talk to him more directly.
"No, I am neither the pretty one nor the nice one," she avowed. "There is Mollie sitting between Ralph Bowles and Frank Wharton and you can go talk to her in a moment. But just the same I am sorry that I happened to hit you the other day and I was just as much surprised at its having happened as you could possibly have been."
Her companion nodded as though to dismiss the subject. "If Mollie is the nice one and the pretty one, would you mind telling me your name, then perhaps next time I may be able to tell you apart without your giving me such strenuous examples of your differences in character."
The girl shrugged her shoulders pretending to be entirely indifferent and yet a little piqued at the suggestion in the last sentence. The difference between herself and Mollie, all in her opinion in her sister's favor, was a sensitive subject.
"I was christened Pauline in baptism but I am usually known as Polly. However, my sister and I both recognize ourselves when called Miss O'Neill." This was such an evident attempt on Polly's part to put her questioner in his proper place that he could not rise entirely superior to it, even though her intention to hit back was so transparent.
"May I tell you my name now?" he asked in a more humble tone, as though wishful to make peace.
"You don't have to tell me your name for I am very sure I know it already," the girl answered in a provoking manner, for which she had a peculiar talent. "You see our guardian told us that you were the son of the Mr. Webster who owns the land on which we are camping, and I am convinced that there is no young man in New Hampshire boasting the last name, Webster, whose first name isn't Daniel! Do you think we would so fail to commemorate our greatest statesman? It must be rather dreary to be named for so great a person that you know whatever you may achieve yourself you must always sound like an anti-climax."
This time it was surely Polly who had struck home, for the young man colored and applied himself to the food on his plate for at least a moment before he replied: "You are right, my name is Daniel and I have felt about it a little as you say, but then I am also called William, which is a better name for a farmer."
"Farmer?" Polly forgot that she and her companion had been sparring and let a genuine interest creep into her tone. "Do you really mean that you are going to be content to be a farmer all the days of your life, to stay right on here and never see anything or be anything else? It sounds so strange to me—for a man to have no ambition!" Almost she forgot her companion and sat frowning with her eyes more serious than usual and her thin face with its sensitive features and high cheek bones turned upward toward the peak of Sunrise Hill. "I am a girl, but I am going all over the world and I am going to be an actress and do ten thousand delightful things just as fast as I can before I have a chance to get old."
Gazing at her more intently than ever before in their conversation, the young fellow shook his head. "No you won't,"' he said bluntly, "you will never be strong enough and you had better stay here in the hills and let some one look after you, your sister or—some one. Yet you need not talk as though being a farmer was a thing to look down upon. I am sure our great men all used to be farmers, George Washington and the rest of 'em. You must know their names better than I do. So please bear in mind that I intend to do my best to make things grow—hayseed!" he laughed good humouredly, guessing Polly's secret scorn of him, "but at the same time I expect to see something and if I'm lucky to be something, though if I'm a first-class farmer it isn't so worse. Do give me your plate, you have eaten very little and the rest of the crowd is getting dreadfully ahead of us."
But Polly, jumping up hastily and the young man following her, led him over and introduced him to Mollie, with whom he spent the greater part of the afternoon.
From two o'clock till sundown the hours at Sunrise, Camp were fairly strenuous ones since the Camp Fire girls insisted on comparative tests of skill with their Boy Scout guests. Of course the young men agreed, although they were pleasantly scornful, until possibly owing to their morning's contest the girls actually won out in the knot-tying contest, which was supposed to be a peculiarly masculine accomplishment. In running, jumping and feats of marksmanship the girls of course were easily outclassed by their opponents; however, Beatrice Field, who was so light and so small that no one considered her in the race, did come in second in a short thirty-yard dash. Then Miss McMurtry held a kind of impromptu examination in questions of patriotism and nature lore, the girls and men managing to about equally divide the honors. But the really extraordinary feature of the afternoon was that dull little Sylvia Wharton, the youngest member of the company, was easily first in half a dozen observation games most important in the training of Camp Fire girls and Boy Scouts. For instance, in a Quick-sight experiment, the girls and boys walking rapidly from the camping ground to the shores of the lake, Sylvia had seen eight small objects more than any one else and she was so quiet and looked so stolid while doing it that Polly wanted to laugh, and began to doubt her stupidity.
At six o'clock it still appeared as though the Boy Scouts intended remaining for the evening meal and camp fire; however, Miss McMurtry kindly but firmly bade them farewell. The girls were tired and it was a long tramp back to the Scout camp. There had been no suggestion from any one that the surprise visit had been made in any spirit of criticism and yet John Everett made a half-hearted apology to Betty and his sister.
When the farewells were being said all round, he called the two girls aside:
"I say," he murmured boyishly, in spite of his years and six feet, "I have got to confess that I never saw you girls looking so well, so kind of up to the limit before, and I thought by this time you would surely be fagged out, or bored, or sick of trying things out together. Now I don't say I approve of this Camp Fire business, I won't go so far as that, but it does not seem to have done either of you any harm yet."
And then laughing at his grudging attitude the three of them rejoined their friends, who were waiting to end their day together by singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." And they were waiting because Esther Clark was needed for leading the song and in the last few moments she had disappeared with Richard Ashton, who had been watching the proceedings all day with an expression that was sometimes amused but the greater part of the time grave. He had no opportunity for speaking to Betty or to any one else alone and only to Esther because he had just made a deliberate effort. As they came slowly back from the pine grove together, Betty felt cross at Dick's choice of a companion when any one of her other friends would have been pleased by his attention.
Then, too, Esther looked as serious as her brother and Betty hated unnecessary seriousness, besides Dick needed some one to make him gay, not an awkward, uninteresting acquaintance like Esther. But there was no use in arguing with Dick, for he would always be kind to the people who were left out of things and seemed most to require kindness. Sorry to have seen so little of her brother during his short visit, Betty now slipped her hand into his and held it tight while Esther, standing some distance apart from them, started the air for their parting hymn. The girl was not thinking of herself and so was unconscious that the others, even while singing, were also listening with surprise and pleasure to the clear, rounded tones of her beautiful mezzo-soprano voice. In reality Esther Clark was thinking only of Betty and the news that Dick Ashton had just told her. Mr. Ashton, his father, had been taken ill in Italy and, though there was no immediate danger, might never be well again. For the present it was thought best that he remain indefinitely in Europe, so the family had not decided whether or not to tell the facts to Betty. She could do no good; even Dick was not going to him, and it was always best to keep every possible sorrow from Betty. But really, because Dick Ashton could not make up his mind just what was the wisest course, he confided his secret to Esther, asking her to think matters over and write him her judgment. You see there was no question of Esther's unusual devotion to Betty and readiness to sacrifice everything for her, though there seemed to be no reason, and surely Betty was entirely careless of it.
Before the twilight of the long afternoon had entirely faded into night, every Camp Fire girl, including Nan Graham, who was not a member, had vanished into bed. The child was too tired to be sent home to-night and word would be taken to her parents by one of the boys. Miss McMurtry herself was asleep as soon as her girls. And indeed Polly entirely forgot that Betty had suggested she put the question of Nan's remaining in camp with them to her again during the evening.
How many hours Polly had been asleep outside her tent with the newcomer by her side she did not know, but suddenly she was awakened by a sound that was like a sob. Sitting up quickly she saw Nan kneeling on the ground and looking up at the sky.
Polly waited in silence until the girl, feeling her wakefulness, came slowly back to her own bed and somehow Polly could see that her face had lost its sharp, old look and was like a child's.
"I was praying you'd keep me in camp with you long enough to give me a try," she explained.
Like a flash Betty's suggestion that she might change her opinion after thinking things over came back to Polly's mind. Of course the day had not been conducive to reflection, but perhaps it might be just as well not to give Betty too much time to think.
Half an hour afterwards Polly crawled under the blue blankets and putting her arms about her friend whispered her request. And just at first Betty was too sleepy to know what was being asked of her and later on was possibly too tired to resist, for she yawned an agreement.
"Oh yes, I will do my best to persuade the girls to let her stay on if you want her and Miss Martha consents. But if there is trouble, Polly—" and she was almost asleep again.
Polly gave her another gentle shake. "Promise to keep your money hidden and not put temptation in her way. Esther says she found your pocketbook stuffed with money in the middle of the tent floor."
"I promise," Betty ended hardly knowing what she said.
LEARNING TO KEEP STEP
Six weeks had passed by and it was now early August in the New Hampshire hills. Six wonderful weeks for the Camp Fire girls at Sunrise Hill, moving so swiftly that it seemed almost incredible so much time could have gone by. Everybody had kept well, nothing had ruffled their harmonies, except occasional differences of opinion which were easily adjusted, and yet Nan Graham had continued a member of the camp.
By this time the new influences in many ways showed their effect upon her. At first she was inclined to use language that shocked and annoyed both the girls and their guardian. She was not lazy and yet regular hours for work seemed irksome to her; she wanted to work when it was play time and play when work should be accomplished, and then her personal habits were not pleasant; but this was because she had never been taught better, for very soon she grew to be as neat as any of her companions and though her clothes were worn and shabby they were carefully washed twice a week by her own hands because she had fewer possessions than the other girls. In the beginning Betty had given her several blouses and some underclothes and would have done far more except that Miss McMurtry advised her to cease. For it was not fair that Nan should not also learn a spirit of independence and the desire to earn her own way. Miss McMurtry hoped that the Camp Fire might teach the girls this as one of its best lessons. Always we have believed that the American boy can make his own place in the world, given an education and a healthy body, then why not the American girl as well, now that she is to have almost the same opportunity and encouragement?
Notwithstanding that, there was one serious, indeed most serious, fault that the new Camp Fire member had not yet man aged to overcome: she was not always truthful. The stories she told did not appear to be malicious or very important, they merely explained why she was late when her hour came for work, how she had gained certain elective honors when no one was by to witness them, and yet they caused a general feeling of distrust when evidence upon a question depended solely on Nan's word. Miss McMurtry had talked to her many times and always she had promised never to offend again and yet a habit of untruthfulness is not so easily conquered. In reality, Polly O'Neill had more influence with the girl whose cause she had championed than anyone else in camp, so that once or twice Miss Martha had been tempted to ask Polly to talk to her and then had given up the idea, thinking that perhaps it was hardly fair for one girl to be told to lecture another.
However, it was surprising to see how kind and sympathetic the little group of Camp Fire members tried to be to their least fortunate member and up to the present time Miss McMurtry felt glad that she had yielded her first judgment in the matter and allowed Nan to stay on with them. Even Betty, although unable to be intimate with a girl whose family connections and manners so tried her aristocratic soul, was always considerate and certainly at the end of each week it had been Betty who had quietly paid Nan's share of their expenses without a word. That there had ever been a question of any one else's doing it, no one except Betty, Polly and Mollie knew. And just what Polly had suffered at the end of each week when she had failed to fulfill her contract no one except a girl with exactly her disposition can understand. For the money which she had spoken of so mysteriously to her sister and friend had up till now failed to materialize. Nevertheless Polly had not lost hope, but several times had assured Betty that she would pay her the entire amount advanced for Nan almost any day, and the very fact that Betty begged her not to think of this made her the more insistent.
Thirteen was Polly O'Neill's lucky number. Possibly because it was regarded as an unlucky figure by other people Polly had selected and cherished it for her own, and with the Irish ability to prove things, because one wishes them to be true, she could give a long list of happy events in her past history all taking place on the thirteenth day of the mouth. Besides, had she and Molly not been born on the thirteenth, naturally fitting the date to her star?
So on the thirteenth of August (although no one else in camp happened to have thought of that day of the month) Polly begged leave of their guardian to go alone into Woodford on a most important errand. The girls were not in the habit of going into town alone; perhaps because the walk was a long one no one had ever wished before to go without company. However, there was no conspicuous objection since the way led through the Webster farm and then on to the high road into the village, and, moreover, Polly insisted that her reason for wishing to go unaccompanied was a highly important one.
Nevertheless, with a slight feeling of discomfort, Miss McMurtry saw her start off after lunch. Though the subject was not discussed she realized that Polly O'Neill was physically less strong than most girls and that her high spirits and nervous energy often gave a wrong impression.
To-day, however, Polly seemed particularly well and curiously eager, so that the other girls teased her all through luncheon endeavoring to find out the cause of her mysterious errand, without gaining the least clue. Betty and Mollie were both offended by her secrecy in spite of her promise to tell them everything should matters turn out as she expected.
Polly believed in destiny, or at least in her own destiny as we all should, but now and then, fear taking possession, her faith was less secure.
There had been a few of these hours in the past six weeks while she had prayed, hoped and willed one thing, but almost always she had believed in it with her whole heart. Waking at daylight on this morning of the thirteenth of August and seeing a particularly wonderful sunrise, a curious wave of conviction had swept over her. To-day she would see her desire fulfilled!
Truly the day was a beautiful one, a day for all lovely dreams to come true, and as Polly walked through the fields, heavy and golden with the ripened grain, the Irish buoyancy of her temperament asserting itself, made each object appear an omen of good luck—the sight of a bluebird meant happiness of course, the flight of a carrier pigeon the arrival of a longed-for message. Weary finally of thinking delightful things Polly fell to reciting poetry aloud. As a small girl and in spite of her mother's and sister's protests she had made up her mind to be an actress and had devoted all her spare hours to the memorizing of poetry and plays. Therefore there were many hours when she loved dearly to be alone just in order to repeat some of the lines over and over, trying to read into them their deeper meaning, without an audience to be either bored or amused.
Particularly had she loved and learned the strange, musical Irish poetry of William Butler Yeats. Perhaps because the Irish believed in fairies Polly did too, although she called her fairies by other names.
Now all alone in the yellow fields she recited the closing lines of "The Land of Heart's Desire," doing her level best to put into it some little portion of its mystical beauty. She was not altogether successful because she was only a girl without any training or knowledge of her art, but perhaps because of her youth she was less afraid and filled with a sincerer enthusiasm.
"The wind blows out of the gates of the day, The wind blows over the lonely of heart, And the lonely of heart is withered away While the faeries dance in a place apart, Shaking their milk-white feet in a ring, Tossing their milk-white arms in the air; For they hear the wind laugh and murmur and sing Of a land where even the old are fair, And even the wise are merry of tongue; But I heard a reed of Coolaney say, When the wind has laughed and murmured and sung, The lonely of heart is withered away."
And then, after having repeated her verse three times and feeling that she was no nearer than at first to expressing its beauty, Polly found herself through the fields and after passing by a small stretch of woodlands would be out on the high road and therefore no longer alone.
And here, just at the entrance to the woodland, Polly's foot struck against something, and stooping over she picked up from the ground the answer to her desire, not the expected answer but one that would do as well in its stead.
Naturally she forgot to be reasonable or sensible, forgot everything save the good luck that seemed to come as an answer to prayer.
At the village post-office she did not even think to ask for her mail, although stopping long enough to write a short letter to her mother, enclosing a portion of her discovery and asking that it be used to purchase a present for the new English cousin about whom her mother had lately written so much.
Neither was there a confession made either to Mollie or Betty or any one else at camp that evening, since it was far pleasanter to appear cloaked in mystery; but Polly secured peace for herself by bringing back with her a large basket of peaches to glorify their supper party, and then later that evening quietly presented Betty with the amount in full advanced for Nan Graham's expenses. She said nothing about the way in which the money had been obtained and although Betty was curious to know, good taste forbade her asking questions.
Miss McMurtry and Betty had been alone together in one of the tents for the past half hour. Not that this was in any way remarkable or at first excited any suspicion, for the young woman and girl had become good friends in the past weeks, often consulting with one another concerning questions of camp life. Indeed Betty had been chiefly responsible for bestowing on their guardian her pretty new title, although the name had really developed from the suggestion first made by Mollie O'Neill and later turned into a jest by her sister.
"Our Lady of the Hill" was now Miss McMurtry's title as guardian of the Sunrise Camp. But because the expression was too long a one for ordinary conversation, "Donna," the soft Italian word for "lady," was more often substituted.
"I don't think I can be mistaken, Donna," Betty now returned seriously, her face flushed and her gray eyes unusually grave. "I don't want you to think I would make trouble in camp for all the world, as it is all probably my fault, but Esther was with me and has the same impression I have. She thought I ought to speak to you as a kind of warning to the other girls. I wish you would let me call Esther."
Miss McMurtry agreed, frowning uncomfortably and resting her head on one hand. Since outdoor life gives one whatever help is needed, she had grown far less thin with her months of fresh air, her figure was less angular, her expression less learned and her whole manner more like a girl's than an old maid's. Possibly the gracious dignity of her new title was also worth living up to.
"I must not be in too much of a hurry or too severe," she afterwards murmured to herself, "but from the first I have been dreadfully afraid of something like this."
Esther was discovered sitting with the other girls in a group surrounding Polly, who had been reading aloud an old folk tale while the others worked at their various hand crafts. Betty apologized for the interruption in leaning over to whisper to Esther, but half guessed at Polly's irritation as they hurried off together. However, if it could be prevented, Polly was to hear of their trouble last of all!
And Polly, although not acknowledging it, was annoyed, for lately Betty and Esther had seemed more intimate than she could ever have dreamed they might be. Not that Betty appeared to feel any affection for the older girl, but having heard through her of her father's illness they had been drawn together by Esther's constant sympathy and devotion, and although Mr. Ashton was now better Betty had not yet forgotten. Of course Polly was not jealous, that would be too small minded and absurd, only it was curious for her dearest friend to be sharing her secrets with other persons than herself.
Inside the tent with their guardian, Esther was being more explicit in her explanation than Betty had been.
"You see," she said, "I understand better about temptations of that kind than Betty, because I have been brought up so differently, so when the letter came I begged her to be particularly careful, and we hid it together in a small lock-box in our tent. The strange thing is that the letter is still there and the outside envelope, but the envelope in which the package was enclosed I found crumpled up near Nan's cot when I was cleaning this morning."
Miss McMurtry shook her head more cheerfully. "That isn't enough evidence, children, to use against any human being! And just because this poor Nan has one story against her, don't you think we ought to be especially careful about adding another?"
Instead of replying at once Betty looked more miserable instead of less, and then biting her lips for an instant answered steadily:
"Yes, you are quite right, Donna, and we won't say another word about the loss. I am sorry and I confess a little disappointed, for father wished us to have a party in honor of his being better, but the party couldn't make us nearly as happy as this story would make us unhappy once we allowed it to be told."
Miss McMurtry caught Betty's hand and kissed it unexpectedly. Betty was spoiled, accepting love and good fortune too much as a matter of course, but when it came to a question either of generosity or good breeding Betty Ashton could always be counted upon.
However, Esther Clark was not so persuaded. "I am afraid Betty may be angry with me and that you will be more uncomfortable, Miss McMurtry," she added after a moment's hesitation. "But this is not all the evidence we have. You see Mollie told us yesterday that just the next day after we girls made our trip to town and returned with the mail, she came across Nan in our tent with Betty's bunch of keys in her hand. It is true that Betty had left her keys out on the table, but I don't see what Nan could have wanted with them?"
"She told Mollie that she wanted to peep in my trunk to look at a dress I have because she wanted some day to make herself one like it and did not know just how," Betty interposed, using no effort to hide the tears that had been gathering in her gray eyes and were now coursing down her cheeks. "Oh dear me, I do wish I had not brought the wretched money into camp, for I promised Polly I would not put temptation in Nan's way and she will be dreadfully cross with me if she hears!"
"I don't think you should blame yourself, dear," Miss McMurtry interrupted, drawing Betty closer to her and looking almost ready to cry herself as they both turned toward Esther for advice. For somehow Esther might have a shy and awkward personality and not seem of much importance when things were going happily, yet in sorrow or difficulty, insensibly her gravity and unselfishness counted.
"Don't you think we had better send for Nan and let her offer us some explanation," Esther unhesitatingly suggested, "perhaps she will be able to make everything clear?"
Miss McMurtry and, Betty were both silent and Betty moved quietly toward the opening of the tent. "You really will have to let me go away," she pleaded, "for I can't stand up and accuse one of our own Camp Fire girls of having—" Her sentence remained unfinished, but Miss McMurtry was able to catch hold of her skirt. "You can't leave us in the lurch, Betty, child, though I do understand your feelings, you must stand by to help Esther and me out. Certainly we shall not accuse poor Nan of anything, merely ask her a question. Esther, will you find her for us?"
Betty smiled tearfully as Esther went away on the errand, wondering if this time Miss Martha feared to trust her.
Ten minutes passed and then fifteen and yet neither Esther nor Nan appeared. Finally, however, Esther returned looking unusually angry and crestfallen. "Nan says she won't come until Polly has finished the story she is reading, and that probably may take another half hour," she reported. "I told her that you wished her particularly, Miss McMurtry, and waited as long as I could, but she showed no sign of obeying."
"That isn't true, or at least it is only half true, which is as bad," a voice declared at this instant at Esther's elbow, and Nan Graham pushed her way saucily into the tent, rather pleased at making serious Esther flush with displeasure. But at the sight of Betty, whom she always admired, and their guardian, whom she a little feared, her expression became less bold and, indeed, before any one spoke the girl's face had a strange look of guilt. Why else should she toss her head and bridle so unnecessarily, why stare into Miss McMurtry's eyes with her own hard and defiant, even while her lips trembled with nervousness?
"I haven't done anything; what do you want with me?" she asked quickly.
"No, Nan, we only want to ask you a question," Miss McMurtry answered, speaking as gently as she knew how. "Would you mind telling us what you were doing with Betty Ashton's keys the other afternoon and how you happened to get hold of them?"
"I didn't have her keys, that's a lie," Nan returned fiercely, taken off her guard and using a word she had always been accustomed to hear in her home.
To save the situation Betty came quickly forward. "Please don't say that, Nan," she begged, "for Mollie has already told us you merely wanted to look at my blue dress and that was quite all right. But if you deny it, why—"
"Why what?" Nan demanded sullenly, her black eyes on the ground and her face, which had turned a healthier color with her weeks in the woods, now white and drawn.
"Why we might not believe you when asking a more important question," Miss McMurtry said sternly, angered in spite of herself by the girl's disagreeable manner. "How many times have I told you that when people are untruthful about little things one does not believe them in large. The fact is that Betty has lost a large sum of money and—"
"And you believe I stole it!" Nan burst into such a violent storm of weeping at this suggestion that Betty for the first time in their acquaintance actually put her arm about her.
"No, we don't believe you took it just because it has vanished," she whispered comfortingly, casting appealing glances at her guardian and Esther, "only we want to ask you to try to help us find out about it. I wouldn't be in the least surprised if it should turn up again!"
Neither Miss McMurtry nor Esther spoke, but Nan was not to be so appeased.
"I am sure you are very kind to give me this opportunity to put your old money back," she answered bitterly, "but as I did not take it I should find that pretty difficult. I didn't even know you had any money, although I confess I did look into your trunk when perhaps I ought to have asked permission and I did take out an old blouse, but I was sorry the next minute and put it back again. But I expect I might as well have kept it and anything else I could lay my hands on. It is the old story, if a girl does a wrong thing once no one ever believes in her when she tries to be straight again. I suppose you will be telling your suspicion to Polly O'Neill and the other girls so they won't let me stay any longer in camp. I don't care, I am innocent!" Nan's voice rose to a shrill cry of protest, but in spite of this there was a note of sincerity in it that almost convinced Betty, although unfortunately the effect was not the same upon Miss McMurtry and Esther.
"No one shall say anything against you, Nan, nor spread this story in any possible way until more is found out," Miss McMurtry now remarked, briefly dismissing them.
ONE WAY TO FIND OUT
Nevertheless within a few days the story had been circulated about the camp. Not a word, however, had been spoken concerning it by Betty, Esther or Miss McMurtry, but poor Nan Graham had betrayed herself. For in her effort to gain sympathizers, unfortunately a wider suspicion was aroused.
Sore and unhappy over what she insisted was a totally unjust supposition, it was but natural that she should turn to another girl for consolation. Not to Polly, however; Nan said not a word to her, for Polly had given no evidence of having heard of her ill-timed visit to Betty's trunk, having been on her way to the village at the time the offence was committed, and above everything Nan desired to remain fixed in Polly's good graces. No, she confided the account of her interview first to Beatrice Field, making so tragic a tale of it that Bee, who was quite young and only a mischievous tomboy in her disposition and never having heard anything of Nan's past mistakes, was deeply indignant.
"A Camp Fire girl accused of stealing, well not exactly accused but suspected!" Honestly Bee had never conceived of anything so dreadful, and so straightway put the whole case before her sister, Juliet. Then to her surprise Juliet, who was a far more worldly wise person, did not accept the story from the same point of view, indeed Juliet became immediately indignant for Betty's sake, declaring that she was being a martyr in not spreading the news of her loss abroad and at least endeavoring to recover her lost property.
Something of Juliet's impression must have crept into Bee, for in her next conversation with Nan there was a certain cooling off in sympathy that made Nan feel the need of another partisan. This time she was more unwise in selecting Edith Norton, for Edith had always particularly disliked Nan's presence in the Sunrise Camp and, even while hearing her side of the story, had unhesitatingly revealed not only a want of pity for her but a plain lack of faith.
Nan had forgotten to require at the beginning of their conversation that Edith keep her confidence a secret and so the older girl made no pretence of doing so. In her bitterness Nan had not hesitated to say hard things of Betty, Esther and even of their guardian in speaking of the injustice of their attitude toward her, and these remarks Edith felt free to add to her own account. Not that she really meant to be cruel or unfair, but honestly feeling it best that Nan stay no longer in their camp she started a campaign toward that end. Perhaps because Edith was poor and self-supporting herself, unconsciously she resented the presence of another girl whose poverty was of so much less honorable a kind, for it is more difficult to be fair to persons almost in our own state of life than to those in far different ones.
Not long did Edith remain alone in her conviction, for the layer of real faith and affection for poor little Nan in camp was so thin that the first effort broke through it. In point of fact no one had actually wanted her at Sunrise Camp and had only been persuaded into it by Polly and Betty and by Miss McMurtry's approval, and really these three persons were still the only three who continued her champions.
Betty would not hear for an instant of Nan's being sent away, threatened to leave herself rather than be responsible for such an act of injustice. Miss McMurtry was equally firm, although she added that Nan was not to be condemned until further proof was secured against her. Meanwhile Polly O'Neill was really unaware for some time of the actual circumstances of the case. In the first place Betty had begged that the story be kept from Polly as Nan was her especial protegee, and seeing what a storm had been aroused in camp she herself felt more than sorry ever to have mentioned her loss. Of course Polly heard vaguely that Betty had lost something or other about camp, but she did not know exactly what, but then Betty had so many possessions that she was always losing something. Also she began to suspect, dimly at first, that the girls were in some kind of quandary, but as no one mentioned the cause to her, she felt rather too proud to inquire, besides having a problem of her own on her mind which taxed most of her waking hours, although she too kept her own counsel.
But now a sufficient time had gone by, until the date of the meeting of the August Council Fire had arrived when the original number of Camp Fire members were to be promoted to the rank of Fire-Makers and Esther was to be first of the Sunrise Hill girls to be given the highest Camp Fire title—Torch Bearer.
One of Miss McMurtry's plans for her camp was to leave to three girls each month the arrangements for the original features of their Council Fire and in August, the month of the Red or Green Corn Moon, it so happened that Mollie, Eleanor and Edith Norton formed the special committee. Just what their plans were no one knew until the morning before their meeting, not even the camp guardian, or Miss McMurtry might possibly have interfered, although I hardly believe it.
Shortly after breakfast, even before the other girls had a chance to disperse for their morning's work, Eleanor, Mollie and Edith Norton disappeared inside their tents.
Edith had been chosen to help at this meeting rather than any other because she was now having her two weeks' August vacation. Ten minutes later the girls came out again into the open air, arrayed in their ceremonial costumes and carrying three Indian baskets which were solemnly passed about from one girl to the other. And these baskets contained invitations to the evening Council Fire painted on bits of birch bark in crimson lettering by Eleanor Meade.
At the top of the scroll were the three words "The Maidens' Feast." Then below, the invitation read: "Sinopa the Little Sister, Apoi-a-kimi, the Light Hair, and Eleanor, the Painter of Sunrises, invite all the maidens of all the tribes to come and partake of their feast this evening at the close of the regular Council Fire ceremonies. It will be in the Sunrise Camp before the moon reaches the middle sky. All pure maidens are invited."
The August moon had never been more radiant, indeed it flooded the Sunrise Camp grounds with a brightness that made it appear almost like day. And now the regular Council Fire proceedings were over and the Indian custom of "The Maidens' Feast" about to begin.
In a circle about a cone-shaped rock, which had been brought with infinite difficulty to its position in the camp grounds, Miss McMurtry and the maidens were seated, each person bearing in her lap a round wooden bowl, while from the smoldering ashes of the Council Fire arose a delicious odor of roasting ears of corn.
But before the feast could be eaten a ceremony of as grave importance to the Camp Fire girls as to the Indian maidens of long ago must take place. Each girl was to take the oath of purity and honor, and then the maidens' song would be sung and four times they would dance around the altar.
No one of the group of Camp Fire members and no more their guardian really knew at first whether in this plan of Eleanor's, Mollie's and Edith's there was any deeper motive than the entertainment of their friends and the revival of an old Indian custom seemingly appropriate and beautiful. But as the details unfolded themselves the suspicion in the minds of most of them grew almost into certainty. Once or twice Miss McMurtry had thought of stopping the proceedings altogether, but then she did not feel satisfied that this method of the three girls for testing the innocence or guilt of their companions was not an admirable one. More than she would have acknowledged, since worry is not permitted in Camp Fire rules, had Miss McMurtry puzzled over what should be done in their present dilemma. Betty's money had certainly disappeared and some one must have stolen it; if not Nan, then who else? For they had had no guests since Esther and Betty returned with the money from the village post-office.
So by the time Edith Norton, with her light hair hanging loose about her shoulders and a circle of red about her head, stepped forth into the center of the circle, looking unusually white and nervous, there was not but one member of her audience who did not at least partially guess at what was about to take place. And this was of course Polly O'Neill! For not only did she fail to understand Betty's actual money loss and the suspicion against Nan, but so deeply had she been involved in her own perplexity that she had hardly been aware of anything that had taken place that evening. Now, however, having at last made up her mind to take Miss McMurtry into her confidence when the girls had gone to bed, she did look up with interest at the picturesque figure of Edith.
Near the cone-shaped rock two arrows had been lightly stuck into the ground, this forming a sort of altar to which each maiden must come, touching first the stone and then the arrows as she declares her purity.
As she stood by the side of this altar Edith's voice trembled so that it was with difficulty her first words could be understood. The girls who knew pretty well what to expect understood her immediately, however, but not Polly!
"Sorrow and much uneasiness have lately crept into our midst, my maidens," she announced, trying to preserve a certain likeness to the Indian speech in the form of her words, "and many of us there are who go about heavy of heart because the sin of one of us must be the burden of us all, until guilt is established and the innocent cleared. Some days ago there vanished from the possession of one of us fifty dollars in bank notes enclosed in an envelope containing no address. This money has not been found, but the envelope has been recognized as crumpled up and thrown away a few feet from the tent of its rightful owner. Now no member of the Sunrise Camp can feel it possible that any one of its members has been guilty of this sin and yet no visitor has stepped foot within our camp limits within the time when the deed must have occurred. Therefore have we three maidens, after deep thought, appointed this evening wherein the innocent may declare her innocence and the wrong- doer confess her sin. For only in confession and by the return of the money can she ever hope to be at peace with herself. Moreover, we believe that no Camp Fire girl will take this oath of purity without telling the entire truth. Betty Ashton will you come forward first."
Betty jumped up quickly. During Edith's long harangue her group of listeners had been supremely uncomfortable, so that no one of them dared do more than barely glance at Nan, who sat with her knees up to her chin, her eyes cast upon the ground and her black hair covering her face like a veil. If she felt, and of course she did, that Edith's speech was directed toward her rather than toward any other girl, neither by a sound nor a movement did she betray it. Not even when Betty, having finished with her part in the ceremony, deliberately forsaking her former place in the circle came back and sitting down next her deliberately laid her arm across Nan's bowed shoulders. There was nothing to do or say, she would only make things worse by any protest now, and yet Betty was bitterly grieved and offended. If Nan had done wrong this public method of making her either confess or perjure herself she felt to be wholly unkind.
So as Nan was in everybody's thoughts during this time no one happened to glance toward Polly O'Neill or, seeing her, to observe anything unusual in her manner or appearance, for Polly also neither moved nor spoke during Edith's recital, although her face turned suddenly white.
Fifty dollars in an envelope, the money in bank notes and the envelope crumpled up and thrown away near their tent! Her discovery in the woods that day had been just this and she herself had thrown away that same envelope. Betty of course had lost the enclosure out of her letter in bringing it home from the post office and, hiding the letter away afterwards, believed the money still there.
Why did not Polly get up and make this announcement at once? It would have been very simple except for one thing, she had spent the money, and in the first moment of surprised horror had no idea how she would ever be able to return it.
Like a good many impetuous people Polly O'Neill sometimes had the misfortune to do her thinking when it was too late. Finding the money in the woods, when she felt she needed it so much, had seemed to her like a miracle, so that it never occurred to her, either that afternoon or evening, that she should have tried to find out to whom the money rightfully belonged before using it, although she had been thinking of little else since then. That this money should have been Betty's of all people, and that it was now her duty to stand up and confess her mistake before her friends.
Polly set her teeth, the circle of girls revolved before her eyes, she had been worrying too much to be either reasonable or well. And at any moment Edith Norton might demand that she step forward and take the oath which was meant to proclaim that she had had nothing to do with the loss of Betty's money. Truly she did not understand that the charge had been directed against poor Nan, so watching her opportunity Polly slipped away without being noticed.
When Nan Graham's name was called from the center of the circle the silence was oppressive. But the girl rose up quietly, pushing her coarse black hair from her face, and as quietly walked forward to the cone-shaped rock where the two arrows were still standing fixed in the ground. Before laying her hand on these objects, however, she stood perfectly still for a moment, letting her accusing eyes sweep from the face of one of her girl judges to the other and then, touching the stone and the arrows, came back quickly to her old place. Not till then did she betray how deeply the atmosphere of distrust and unfaith had hurt her, but when Betty's arm came round her for the second time, she burst into weeping, hiding her face on Betty's shoulder, and hearing her whisper comfortingly: "I believe with all my heart that you know nothing of my wretched money, Nan, and I beg your pardon if I even made you think I suspected you."
Just before the time for Polly to take the oath her absence was discovered, but not until the feast of the corn had actually begun did Mollie and Betty go back to their tent to look for her and they did not return for so long a time that Miss McMurtry, fearing Polly might be ill, rose up to follow them. However, she had only gone a few steps before the two girls joined her.
"We can't find Polly anywhere, Donna," Mollie said in an extremely annoyed tone. "We have looked in all the tents and called and even gone down to the pine grove. What silly mood do you suppose has overtaken her? For the one thing mother most objects to is for Polly to wander off alone at night. She did it once when she was a very little girl."
"Don't worry, Mollie, she is sure to be back in half a minute when she remembers," the older woman replied.
But Polly did not come back within the hour or indeed all night. Naturally there was little sleep among the Camp Fire girls or their guardian who imagined all possible tragedies. Miss McMurtry wondered if Polly could have gone down to the lake and in the darkness fallen into the water, but then the moon was shining brilliantly and she could swim with perfect ease. This idea was only brought on by fear. What had probably happened was that she had wandered off for a walk, lost her way and decided that it was far wiser to spend the night quietly in the woods rather than wear herself out with tramping. When the sunrise came she would return.
With this idea Miss McMurtry comforted and encouraged the girls, for it was impossible that they should do more than search for their companion in the near-by woods and fields. It is true that Betty wanted to attempt to climb Sunrise Hill, taking lanterns with her, fearing that Polly had attempted a short walk and managed to sprain her ankle, and that Esther and Sylvia Wharton were more than anxious to go with her, but Miss McMurtry would not hear of it, having a vision of four lost girls instead of one. There was nothing to do but wait the few hours now until daybreak and then if Polly did not return, properly organize searching parties to seek for her. If the Camp Fire girls had learned anything of scouting methods, this would be their opportunity.
Mollie O'Neill was of course the person who required the tenderest care during the night. She and Polly were closer than other sisters, so unlike in temperament and yet one another's shadows. If only she could have imagined some explanation for her sister's disappearance, for of course everybody knew of Polly's sudden vagaries and yet it was unlike her to be so inconsiderate without cause.
Although Betty Ashton probably understood her friend even better than her sister did, as she sat quietly by Mollie's side for several hours insisting that there was really nothing alarming in Polly's flight and that she would doubtless be both vexed and ashamed of herself in the morning, she too was equally puzzled. For naturally she was not so confident as she pretended, although not until her hour came for rest and after she had actually tumbled into bed did she break down. Then Esther and Sylvia Wharton, who in some strange, quiet fashion seemed a comfort to everyone to-night, had insisted that they relieve Betty's watch with Mollie.
Dropping on her couch, not to sleep but to gain strength for the next day's quest, quite by accident Betty's hand slipped under her pillow. With a low exclamation, overheard by the other three girls in the tent, she drew out folded square of paper. Her name was on the outside, apparently hurriedly addressed in Polly's handwriting. It read:
Your money was stolen, at least not in the way you think it was, but perhaps in another almost as bad. For I found it in the woods on the day when I went into the village alone and I made no effort to find out to whom it belonged. You must have dropped it out of your letter on your way back to camp, for there was no mark on the envelope in which I found it. But I do not mean this as an excuse, I do not think it one. If I had not felt like a thief perhaps I would not have been ashamed to confess my fault before the other girls as I should have done before our altar fire to-night. I tried but I did not have the courage, so I am going away from camp. Please tell Miss McMurtry, Mollie and the other girls and do not ask me to come back, for it is impossible. If I could return your money, Betty, I should not feel so bitterly humiliated, but as I cannot at present I would rather not see you until I can. Of course we are no longer friends, for you cannot wish it, and always it has seemed to me that your wealth and my poverty makes the gulf between us. I can only say that I am truly sorry.
Having finished this ungracious note of apology Betty handed it without comment to Esther and then buried her own head in the pillow. If Polly could feel toward her in this manner because of a mistake which they had both made, then nothing she could do or say would make any difference. For to insist to Polly that she had a perfect right to use the money found by accident would not be altogether true and would not change her point of view, while to declare that the return of the money to its rightful owner was a matter of indifference would only deepen the misunderstanding.
Less accustomed to Polly's writing Esther read the note aloud slowly and then it was that Mollie's and Betty's positions were changed, and Mollie became instead of the comforted—the comforter.
"That is exactly like Polly O'Neill," she announced indignantly, "here she has done something she ought not to do without thinking, like spending that money without trying to find its owner, and now because she is so sorry she goes ahead and makes things worse for everybody instead of better." Mollie slid off her own hemlock bed and crossing the tent sat down by Betty. "Don't you worry, dear, or feel in the least responsible," she whispered, "you know Polly is hateful sometimes just because she is so ashamed and miserable she does not know how to be anything else. She does care for you more than anyone and you know that she will do almost anything to make peace with you as soon as she comes to her senses. Of course, Betty, I understand you don't care for the money part, why you would give either of us ten times that amount if you could and we would accept it, but you won't mind my writing mother to make things all right."
Then after a few words of explanation to their guardian the Camp Fire girls slept quietly until daylight, but even after they had eaten a hurried breakfast together the wanderer had not returned.
So immediately afterwards three parties set out, leaving Edith Norton and Juliet Field behind to protect the camp and to announce by the ringing of a bell if Polly should return or if they were in any need.
Betty, Sylvia and Esther went off in one direction, Miss McMurtry and the two younger girls, Nan and Beatrice, in another, while Mollie, Meg and Eleanor took the interior of the Webster farm. The chief obstacle in their search being that it was apparently impossible to discover the direction of Polly's footprints on first leaving camp, the grass in the neighborhood being so constantly trodden down by the feet of so many girls.
Billy Webster, as he preferred to be called, was in a wheat field with his reaper just about to start to work, when a Camp Fire girl, whether Mollie or Polly he could not tell at first, came running toward him in apparent distress. So as not to make another mistake he let the girl speak first, only smiling at her in a sufficiently friendly fashion to make it very simple.
Mollie's first words were luminous. "Have you seen anything of Polly? She is lost or gone away or at least we can't find her!"
Therefore until lunch time Billy kept up the search over the farm with the three girls. And though they were not successful in making any discovery it was surprising what a comfort the girls found him, particularly Mollie, who seemed to depend on him as though he had been an old friend.
"I am sure there isn't the least reason to be seriously alarmed," he assured her half a dozen times with a curious understanding of Polly's character; "you see your sister has got a funny streak in her that makes her mighty interesting and mighty uncertain." (How angry Polly would have been could she have heard him!) "She has got a lot to learn before she settles down."
By noon, finding his three companions nearly exhausted, the young man persuaded them to go up to the big, comfortable farmhouse, see his mother, have their luncheon and rest. And straightway on meeting her, Mrs. Webster took a liking to Mollie that was to last all the rest of her life.
During this time Betty, Esther and Sylvia were going slowly along the main path that led through the fields and finally on to the high road into the village. Miss McMurtry and her assistants were climbing Sunrise Hill.
But Sylvia Wharton was so tediously slow. About every five minutes she would stop and kneel down in the dirt, attempting to fit an old shoe of Polly's into any fresh track she happened to observe. The other two girls wandered off into bits of woods or meadows near by, calling and hunting, but Sylvia never went with them.
"There is no use," she explained, "Polly has gone straight into Woodford and because it was night had to take the regular path instead of going through the fields as she usually does."
Claiming to have exactly traced her footsteps Esther and Betty were still not convinced. "It is such a stupid idea, Sylvia," Betty argued, "for there isn't anybody in town now to whom Polly would go in the middle of the night, and besides she would be ashamed to let people know she had run away from camp."
Nevertheless Sylvia kept stolidly on and because her companions had nothing better to suggest they followed after her.
On the high road Sylvia, who would still creep like a tortoise, suddenly stooped down. The August dust was very thick along the way and wagons had already been traveling into town, and yet she picked up a string of red, white and blue beads, which surely were Polly's, since patriotism had been one of her chief studies during the summer.
It was also Sylvia's suggestion that led the little party of friends straight to Mrs. O'Neill's closed cottage. The doors and windows in front of the house were sealed, but Betty found the door of the old kitchen halfway open. And there inside on her mother's lounge lay Polly! She seemed to be almost asleep when the girls entered, but awakened immediately and in a wholly different frame of mind.
Realizing in the last few hours, when it was too late, how great an anxiety her disappearance must have caused, she wanted to go back to camp, to confess her fault and at least to persuade Betty to forgive her. Yet she dared not trust herself to go alone, for Polly's head was aching furiously, her face was hot and flushed and any attempt to walk made her sick and dizzy.
While Betty and Esther were discussing what had best be done, Polly having trusted herself wholly to their hands, neither of them noticed Sylvia Wharton's withdrawal.
When they did there was hardly time to comment upon it before she reappeared at the back door with her round face covered with dust and looking more freckled and homelier than ever.
"A carriage will be here in five minutes to take us to camp; I have ordered it," she announced.
THE END OF THE SUMMER CAMP
Good-by to summer, good-by, good-by, Good-by to summer
Esther's plaintive song ceased abruptly, for Betty Ashton leaning over suddenly put her hand to her lips. And at the same moment Meg Everett holding fast to Little Brother dropped down on the ground by the girls with one arm full of early goldenrod and Michaelmas daisies.
"No use to make Esther stop singing, it won't help matters, Betty, dear, the summer has gone," she exclaimed. "Little Brother and I have just seen quail whirring about in the underbrush. See I lay our autumn bouquet at your feet," and she tossed her flowers over to Betty. "Where is Miss McMurtry?"
Betty made a wry face. "Gone into town, if you please, to see about some books—school books. Oh, it wasn't because I didn't agree with Esther's song that I made her stop singing, it was because it was so dreadfully true that I felt at the moment I couldn't bear it. You are sorry too, aren't you, Nan?" she queried, turning to the girl on the other side of her who was sewing industriously on a soft blue cashmere frock, almost similar in color and texture to the one Betty had at this moment inside her trunk. The gown represented the complete restoration of peace between Nan and Betty. At first there had been some difficulty in persuading Nan to accept it, but after all Betty had been kinder than most of the other girls! Moreover, there had been many other expressions of apology in words and deeds that Nan had accepted and stored away in her heart.
"I just can't bear to think of it either," she replied slowly, letting her hands rest idly in her lap for a moment. "I guess you other girls can't ever know what these weeks in camp have been to me and what a lot I've learned. I hope I ain't going to forget it ever and Miss Martha says she is going to try to get them to let me come back to the High School. It will be all right if any one will trust me enough to give me work to do afternoons."
Before replying Esther Clark put several pine logs and a great bundle of pine cones on the fire around which she and her friends were seated, and the girls were quiet for a moment watching them sparkle and blaze.
"I expect I know, Nan, at least better than any one else," Esther answered finally, "for you see this is the first summer of my whole life that I haven't spent at the asylum scrubbing and cooking and nobody caring anything about my work except that I got it done. Work this summer has seemed like play, hasn't it? And I wouldn't be here, except for The Princess. I wonder if I shall ever be able to repay her?"
"Oh, wonder something else, Esther," Betty returned ungraciously, for references of this kind always made her uncomfortable. "Here comes Polly and Mollie and, of course Sylvia. Bee, will you go find Eleanor and Juliet and let us have tea here by the camp fire. Donna and Edith will probably be here before we finish. Suppose each one of us places a stick on the fire and while it burns make a good wish for the Sunrise Camp. Hello, Polly, yes Sylvia is perfectly right, you must not sit down on the ground without something under you, yes, and you must let her put that wrap over your shoulders, the sun will be going down pretty soon and then it will be quite cool."
Polly submitted to Sylvia's attentions none too graciously, but a moment later turned toward the younger girl. "You are a trump, Sylvia," she murmured. "I am sure I don't know what I should have done without you these past two weeks while I will have been ill. It is funny how you should happen to know just what to do for people who are sick when you are so young!"
Sylvia sat stolidly down next the speaker. "I am going to be a trained nurse when I am old enough, that's why," she answered calmly, apparently not even observing the surprise of her companions. "You see if I thought I had sense enough I would try to be a doctor, but as I haven't I shall just take care of sick people. I have already learned a good many things this summer."
Polly whistled and several of the girls laughed. "I don't doubt it for a moment, Sylvia Wharton!" Polly exclaimed, "for heaven alone can tell what you do know! But it is absurd to talk about your being a nurse, when you will be the richest one of us, child, perhaps even richer than 'The Princess'."
There was no reply from Sylvia, only her lips shut tight and her chin looked oddly square and determined for a young girl. But then Sylvia looked like her father, who, one must remember, was a self-made man. And sometimes the daughter also inherits the traits of character that have made the father a success.
Eleanor and Juliet at this moment appearing with the tea things, the kettle was hung above the fire on an arrangement of three pronged sticks and not until tea was over did the girls or Betty remember her suggestion. Then she handed Polly a pine knot first. "Thrust this into the fire, Polly, dear, and make a parting wish for Sunrise Camp," Betty explained, "for a few days more you know, and we must fold our tents and say farewell to our summer."
Polly quickly thrust her torch into the hottest blaze. "I wish," she said at once, her cheeks hot from the closeness of the flames and from her own thoughts, "that everybody in Sunrise Camp would promise to forgive me for my foolish behavior two weeks ago and all the anxiety and trouble I caused. The camp has given me a new motto this summer that I shall at least try to live up to. It reads: 'Think first!"
"Yes, and if you had only thought second and asked for your mail at the post office that day after finding Betty's money, Polly, you would have had your own fifty dollar prize for the best essay on 'A Summer Camp Fire in the Woods'," Mollie added in her usual practical fashion, and then she gave a little sigh of relief that the money had been paid back to Betty without troubling the mother still so far away.
"I wonder if Polly is going to be our genius as well as Eleanor," Esther next suggested quietly, "every Camp Fire club is sure to turn out at least one extraordinary person and of course ours will have two or three." Then she blushed hotly in her old embarrassed, fashion, clasping her big hands closely together as Betty, half laughing at her own suggestion, whispered something in her ear.
Juliet Field wished the Sunrise Camp long life, and Meg that they might keep up their work together in town during the coming winter, Eleanor that they might spend the next summer together, and then Betty, happening quite by chance to observe a wistful expression on Nan's face, passed the fifth pine stick to her.
"Tell us what you are thinking of, Nan," she said, speaking with special friendliness to the one girl who had not had entirely fair treatment at their hands. "I have an idea you have something special on your mind."
Nan shook her head, although she did what was asked of her. "Oh no," she explained, "or at least I am afraid you will think my wish very silly. I was just wishing that we were not going back to the village but were going to spend our winter together amid the snows."
Nan's suggestion was so surprising that everybody stared at her for one, almost two minutes before Betty spoke.
"Very well, Nan, let's stay," she returned, as though making a perfectly ordinary remark. "I can't bear for Esther and me to have to go back alone to our great, empty house with mother and father away and no knowing when they may come back." (There was a catch in Betty's voice that her friends understood, for Mr. Ashton was again seriously ill and there was no hope of his returning to America at present.) "We can't live in our tents of course, but I don't know why we can't build a log cabin and somehow manage to get back and forth to school. When the snow comes we can use our big sled."
"You are quite mad, Betty Ashton; Esther, please tie a handkerchief around her lips before she makes us all equally so," Polly requested, "for there is no hope of our doing anything so impossible, as she suggests." And then because she caught an expression almost of agreement on her sister Mollie's face, Polly paused, almost overcome with surprise. Mollie, the sensible; Mollie, the practical—it was incredible.
"I don't see that Betty's idea is so foolish, for at least some of us might be able to live in camp this winter," Mollie thinking aloud as she talked. "For you see, the doctor has said that Polly must be out of doors as much as possible for the next year, and mother writes she would rather not come home at present if we can possibly get on without her, for there is something or other going on in Ireland that she has not explained to us, but she says if she can stay a few months longer it may make a difference in all our futures. I believe she would be glad to let us remain in Sunrise Camp for the winter if your mother and father are willing and we can make things comfortable, Betty," she concluded.
The mental conception of a group of girls living together in a winter's camp in the woods was evidently too surprising to be grasped all at once, for no one else at the moment had anything to say, and then Esther, glancing off across the fields where a soft September haze suggested the approach of the twilight, exclaimed. "See, there are Miss McMurtry and Edith returning from town. Let us give them our Camp Fire call to welcome them home."
"Wohelo for work, Wohelo for health, Wohelo for love!"
The ten voices carried the refrain far across the country and somehow the echo returning to them from Sunrise Hill brought with it the suggestion of even happier days to come.
The second volume in the Camp Fire Girls' Series will be called "The Camp Fire Girls Amid the Snows." In this book the history of the girls will be revealed under very different conditions. More than ever will their life be built around the fire which has always been the center of the home. Various important changes will take place in the circumstances of the leading characters and mysteries merely suggested in the first story will be developed in the second.