After bending over and listening to her instructions, he stepped forward nearer the footlights. There in the center of the room was a bowl of water in which he placed the feather and the scale.
"Wish for thyself anything thou desirest, fortune, greatness, wit, power," murmurs the old woman. "But embrace me first, as I feel that I am dying."
But Grazioso did not approach either to embrace or ask the old woman's blessing.
"I wish my grandmother to live forever!" he cried. "Appear, Fairy of the Woods. Appear, Fairy of the Water!"
And now in perfect silence Polly O'Neill made her entrance. She moved very slowly forward, so slim and young and tall, with such big, dark-blue eyes, and such slender, elfish grace that she did not look like a real flesh-and-blood girl.
The audience stirred, and a little breath of appreciation moved through it, which Polly was almost learning to expect.
She wore her own black hair unbound and hanging loose below her shoulders. It was made blacker by the wreath of leaves that encircled her head. She was dressed in an olive-green gown of some soft, clinging material and a scarf of snake's skin was fastened over her shoulder.
The Fairy of the Water followed Polly. Her gown was white with a blue scarf, and she was small and blonde. She was a pretty girl, but somehow there was no suggestion of the fairy about her. One could see the same type of girl any time, standing behind a counter in a shop, or dancing at a party of young people.
Polly's grace and her ardent, unconventional temperament made it easy to understand why the attention should be focused upon her during this single scene. Besides, she had one long speech to deliver.
This was the moment when the girl felt her only real nervousness. For always there was the uncertainty as to whether her voice would be strong and full enough to be heard throughout the theater. Tonight and for the first time she hesitated for a second. Yet no one noticed it, except the actors near her and Esther, who had crept forth, for a closer view in spite of the stage regulations.
"Have you forgotten your lines, child?" the leading man whispered so quietly that no one could overhear.
But Polly only smiled, with a faint shake of her graceful head.
"Here we are, my child," she began the next instant, speaking in clear, girlish tones that showed nothing of indecision or embarrassment.
"We have heard what you said and your wish does you credit. We can prolong your grandmother's life for some time. But to make her live forever you must find The Castle of Life."
"Madam," replied Grazioso, "I will start at once."
"It is four long days' journey from here," the Fairy of the Woods continued. "If you can accomplish each of these four days' journey without turning out of your road and if, on arriving at the castle, you can answer the three questions that an invisible voice will ask you, you will receive there all that you desire. For there the fountain of immortality will be found."
Then slowly the great stage curtain descended. And this was the end of Polly's part in the performance, though one more ordeal was to follow. And though she welcomed this, Polly also dreaded it more than anything else. Always a curtain call came at the close of this scene, when she and the Fairy of the Water, each holding a hand of Grazioso's, must step forth to the footlights and for an instant face the audience, smiling their thanks for the applause.
But Polly had never been able to summon a smile, for at this moment she had always become self-conscious. The glamour and the excitement of the theater suddenly deserted her and she felt not like a fairy or anything fantastic, but only like Polly O'Neill, a very untrained and frightened girl who was deceiving her family and friends to have this first taste of stage life, and who might suffer almost any kind of consequences: imprisonment in some boarding school, Polly feared, where she might never again be allowed any liberty or an equal imprisonment in Woodford, with no mention of the theater made in her presence as long as she lived. For Polly could not determine to what lengths her mother's anger and disapproval of her conduct might lead her. And she did mean to make her confession and face the results as soon as her two weeks' engagement was over.
Therefore tonight she kept an even tighter clasp on Grazioso's hand than usual, her knees were shaking so absurdly. And all the faces in the audience were swimming before her, as though they had no features but eyes. Then suddenly the girl grew rigid with surprise, uncertainty and fear.
In the second row just under the footlights she had discovered a face that was strangely familiar. And yet could it be possible that this person of all others should be here in New York City and in the theater tonight, instead of in the village of Woodford?
Esther was not waiting in the accustomed place where Polly had previously found her when she came off the stage. On her way to the dressing room she shivered a little, missing the coat that her friend was in the habit of wrapping about her shoulders. The night was extremely cold and the back of a theater is nearly always breezy.
Polly hurried faster than usual to her room—a small dark one at the end of a passage-way. But even here there was no sign of Esther. What could have become of her? She was not apt to be talking with any of the members of the company; for both girls had decided that it was wiser to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.
Well, she must do her best to get out of her fairy costume and back into sensible garments by her own efforts. Esther would be coming along in a few moments. She could not stand idle with her teeth fairly chattering and those ridiculous little chills chasing themselves all over her. Wouldn't it be too absurd to take cold at this particular time and so make a failure of her adventure? For she would thus heap all the family disapproval and punishment upon her own head and incur the righteous indignation of everybody in the company by having to resign her part.
Would any one ever have imagined that a garment could be so difficult to unfasten as this one she was now incased in? For of course the stiffness and shakiness of Polly's fingers came from the zero temperature in her dressing room and not in the least from the momentary fright she had received from her supposed recognition of a face in the audience. Undoubtedly she had been mistaken. Yet why should she have chosen to believe that she saw about the most unlikely person of her acquaintance? A guilty conscience should have conjured up some ghost who had more right to be present.
Polly finally did succeed in getting into her street clothes without assistance; and though five, ten minutes passed, Esther did not appear in the dressing room. Nor was she anywhere in the hall, since Polly had several times thrust her head out the door to look for her.
Polly was a little uneasy, though assuredly nothing serious could have happened to Esther. Esther had been very good to her during these past days, so staunch and loyal, never reproaching her or arguing once she had become convinced that Polly's mind was made up, and taking such wonderful care of her, guarding her so closely! If ever there came a time when her mother, or Mollie, or Betty should attempt to blame Esther for her part in this escapade, Polly had determined that they should understand the situation in its true light. And some day she might be able to return Esther's allegiance and devotion. For always the opportunity to serve a friend will come if one is sufficiently on the lookout for it.
The moment that she left her dressing room Polly ran directly into Esther, who was hurrying toward her.
"Oh, Polly dear," she said, "I hope you haven't been worried, though I have been uneasy enough about you. Do come back into your room for a moment. There is something I want to tell you that no one else must hear."
Esther looked so excited and nervous that Polly slipped an arm comfortingly about her. "Don't mind if anybody has said anything rude or been horrid, please," she whispered. "You know we promised each other not to take the disagreeable things seriously."
"Oh no, it is nothing like that. It is about you," the older girl explained.
Polly smiled. "The disagreeable things usually are about me." She looked so absurdly young and wilful and charming that Esther felt herself suddenly willing to champion her cause against any opposition. Of course Polly had done wrong, but the mistake had been made and to frustrate her ambition now could do no possible good.
"I don't think you understand, Polly; you can't of course. But Billy Webster was in the audience just now and recognized you. He says that Mollie was afraid there was something the matter and——"
"Billy Webster's opinions are not of the least interest to me. Do let's hurry home, Esther. It is almost ten o'clock and though we can take the street car straight to your door, we have never been out this late before."
"But Billy says he must see you. He is waiting outside. He says he means to tell your mother and Mollie what you are doing unless you promise to return home tomorrow. He says that if you won't promise he may telegraph them tonight, so your mother can come and get you tomorrow. I think you had better see him."
Suddenly Polly flung her arms about her friend's neck and began crying like a disappointed child. One never could count on Polly's doing what might be expected of her. She had had the boldness of defy opposition and to act successfully for a week on the professional stage; yet now when she most needed her nerve she was breaking down completely.
"I always have hated that Billy Webster," she sobbed, "from the first moment I saw him. What possible reason or right can he have to come spying on me in this fashion? If he tells mother what I am doing now and does not give me a chance to confess, she will never forgive me. Neither will Mollie nor Betty nor any of the people I care about. Rose and Miss McMurtry will never speak to me. I shall be turned out of our Camp Fire Club. Of course I know I deserve it. But that Billy Webster should be the person to bring about my punishment is too much! Besides, I can't give up my part now. Surely, Esther, you can see that. Acting a week longer won't hurt me any more and——"
"I think we had better see Mr. Webster, anyhow, dear," Esther insisted quietly. "Perhaps we can persuade him not to tell, or else to give you the first opportunity."
Hastily Polly dried her eyes. She looked very white and frail as they went out of the room together.
In a secluded corner not far from the stage door they found Billy Webster waiting for them. His face was pale under his country tan. His blue eyes, that sometimes were charmingly humorous, showed no sign of humor now. If ever there was so youthful a figure of a stern and upright judge, he might well have stood for the model.
Polly struggled bravely to maintain her dignity.
"What is your decision, Miss O'Neill?" he inquired, without wasting any time by an enforced greeting. "I presume Miss Crippen has told you what I have made up my mind to do."
Amiability was one of Esther's dominant traits of character; yet she would have liked to shake Billy Webster until his teeth chattered or suppress him in almost any way. After all, what right had he to take this lofty tone with Polly? He was not a member of her family, not even her friend. Just because he had known all of them in their Camp Fire days in the woods and was devoted to Mrs. Wharton and to Mollie was not a sufficient excuse.
Therefore Polly's unexpected meekness of manner and tone was the more surprising—and dangerous.
"How did you happen to come to New York and to the theater, Billy?" she queried, ignoring his use of the "Miss." Frequently in times past they had called each other by their first names, when good feeling happened to be existing between them.
Instantly Billy looked a little more on the defensive. "I—I had to come to New York on business," he explained sullenly. "And Mollie had been telling me that she was kind of uneasy about you and that she felt there must be some reason you wouldn't give why you did not wish to come home for the holidays."
"So you undertook to play detective and find out?" Polly announced in the cool, even tones that made Billy hot with anger and a sense of injustice.
He was perfectly sure that he was right in his attitude toward her. She had been disobedient and audacious beyond his wildest conception, even of her. And yet she had a skilful fashion of making the other fellow appear in the wrong.
"I told Mollie that I would call on you and Esther," he returned, relapsing into his old-time familiarity. "You see, I told her that I was sure things were quite all right, but I wanted to convince her too. I didn't think you would mind seeing me. I thought you might even be glad to hear about your Woodford friends. So as Mollie gave me your address, I went out to your house at about eight o'clock. The maid told me that you had gone to the theater, told me which one. Of course I just supposed that you had gone to see a show. And that was pretty bad for two young girls! But when I got here and the curtain went up and you came out!—why, Polly, I just couldn't believe it at first, and then I got to thinking of how your mother and Mollie would feel and what might happen!" And Billy's voice shook in a very human and attractive fashion.
Instantly Polly's hand was laid coaxingly on the young man's coat sleeve. "But, Billy, seeing as now I have been and gone and done it already, why, think of me in any way that you please. Only don't tell on me for another week. The play is to last only through the holidays. And I promise on my word of honor to come home as soon as it is over and to tell mother every single thing."
"Word of honor?" Billy repeated slightingly. And of course, though Polly deserved her punishment his inflection was both rude and cruel.
Up to this moment the little party of three persons had been entirely uninterrupted. Now Esther heard some one coming quickly toward them. And turning instantly she understood the impression that this scene might make. The man was the leading actor of the company, Richard Hunt, who in a quiet way had shown an interest and an attitude of protection toward Polly. Now observing a strange young man, and Polly's evident agitation, it was but natural that he should suppose that some one was trying to annoy her.
Esther flung herself into the breach. Not for anything must a scene be permitted to take place! And she could guess at Billy Webster's scornful disregard of a man who was an actor. Billy was a country fellow with little experience of life, and broad-mindedness was not a conspicuous trait of his character.
Esther never knew just exactly how she managed it, but in another moment she had confided the entire story of Polly's audacity to Mr. Hunt, Billy Webster's place in it, and his present intention of bringing retribution upon them. She knew there was but little time for her story; for Mr. Hunt might be compelled to leave them on receiving his curtain call at any moment. In a very surprising and good-humored fashion however he seemed to understand the situation at once.
"I had an idea that Miss O'Neill was new to this business," he said; "or you would both have realized that it is not wise for a girl so young as she is to come to the theater without her mother or some much older woman to look after her. But I believe I can appreciate everybody's point of view in this matter. So why wouldn't it be well to have Miss O'Neill telegraph her mother herself and ask that she come down to New York tomorrow. She could say there was nothing serious, so as not to frighten her. And then of course they could talk things over together and decide what was best without any interference."
But before any answer could follow his suggestion a bell sounded and the older man was obliged to hurry away.
Esther breathed a sigh of relief.
"Dear me, why had not one of us thought of this way out?" she asked. "Surely, Billy, you can't object to allowing Mrs. Wharton to be the judge in this matter?"
Billy nodded. "Of course that is the best plan."
"And you, Polly?"
Polly had begun to cry again. "I want to see my mother right this minute," she confessed. And then, slipping out of the stage door, she left Esther and Billy to follow immediately after her and in silence to escort her safely home.
SUNRISE CABIN AGAIN
It was New Year's night. Sunrise Cabin was no longer an empty and deserted place, but golden lights shone through the windows, making a circle of brightness outside the door.
From the inside came the sound of voices and laughter and music and the clatter of dishes.
Slowly a figure approached the door. It was after seven o'clock and a sharply cold evening with a heavy snow on the ground, so there could be small comfort in loitering. Yet when the figure reached its evident destination, instead of knocking or making an effort to enter, it hesitated, stopped, turned and walked away for a few steps and then came back again. The second time, however, summoning a sudden courage, the arm shot forth, and there was a single rap on the door. The rap was so imperative that in spite of the rival noises inside, the door opened quickly. Then the newcomer entered and for another moment stood hesitating in even greater bewilderment.
The great room seemed to be twinkling with a hundred bayberry candles, sending forth a delicious woodland fragrance. The walls were covered with pine branches and the big fireplace was piled as high with burning fagots and pine cones as safety permitted. A long table standing in the center of the room was beautifully and yet oddly decorated, and upon it dinner was just about to be served.
Resting in the middle of its uncovered surface were three short and slender pine logs of the same general height and size and crossed at the top, while swinging from this trident was a brightly polished copper kettle, piled high tonight with every kind of fruit and with giant clusters of white and purple grapes suspended over its sides. Encircling the centerpiece, made not of real wood of course but of paper bonbons, were three groups of logs representing the insignia of the three orders of the Camp Fire, the wood-gatherer's logs having no flame, the fire-maker's a small one, while the torch-bearer's flame of twisted colored paper seemed to glow as though it were in truth of fire. The mats on the table were embroidered in various Camp Fire emblems—a bundle of seven fagots, a single pine tree, or a disk representing the sun. And at either end of the long table three candles had lately been lighted, while standing up around it at their appointed places were about twenty guests, the girls dressed in their ceremonial costumes, the young men as Boy Scouts.
The effect of the entire scene was so brilliant and so unusual that there was small wonder that the latest comer was overwhelmed. He fumbled awkwardly with his hat, cleared his throat, his face so crimsoning with embarrassment that actual tears were forced out of his eyes. And then just as the young man was praying that the earth might open and swallow him up, a girl came forward from the indeterminate mass of persons, who appeared to be swimming in a mist before him, and held out her hand.
"I am so glad to see you, Mr. Graham. Nan and I were beginning to be afraid you would not be able to come," she said cordially. "But you are just in time, as we are only sitting down to the table this very minute."
And Meg Everett then led her final guest down what seemed to him a mile's length of table, placing him between two persons, whom at the moment he did not suppose that he had ever seen. And before he could quite recover his senses there was an unexpected burst of music and then a cheer that filled every inch of the cabin space.
"Wo-he-lo for aye, Wo-he-lo for aye, Wo-he-lo, Wo-he-lo, Wo-he-lo for aye! Wo-he-lo for work, Wo-he-lo for health, Wo-he-lo, Wo-he-lo, Wo-he-lo for Love."
And then with laughter Meg Everett's New Year dinner guests took their places at the table and in the pause Anthony Graham had a chance to pull himself together. To his relief he found that Miss McMurtry was seated on his left side, and at least they were acquaintances. For Miss McMurtry had also come to live in the old Ashton house and often passed the young man on the stairs, nodding good-night or good-morning. Then he had put up some book-shelves for her in her room and moved the furniture to her satisfaction. So, perhaps the Camp Fire party might not be so wretchedly uncomfortable with one person near with whom he might exchange an occasional word.
For just what the young man's emotions were this evening, no one except a person placed in a similar position could understand. Perfectly well did he appreciate that Meg had asked him to her dinner only because of her loyalty and affection for his sister, Nan, as a member of her same Camp Fire Club. The brothers of the other girls had been invited, Jim Meade, Frank Wharton and, of course, John Everett, besides others of his friends. So to have left him out might have been to hurt Nan's feelings. His sister was both proud and sensitive over his efforts to make a better position for himself in the village. Yet should he have taken advantage of Meg's kindness and accepted her invitation? Anthony was by no means certain. This same question had been keeping him awake for several nights and even after having written his hostess that she might expect him to appear he had delayed his approach until the last minute.
Assuredly the other young men would not enjoy his presence. They might be coldly polite, but nothing more could be expected. For no one could be more conscious than Anthony was at this time in his life of the difference between him and other men of his age, who had the advantages of birth and education. Actually he could feel the grime of his own hands as he clutched them nervously together under the table. Not all the scrubbing of the past hour could altogether rid them of the soot and dust that came of making fires and sweeping office floors. And his clothes, although brushed until they were spotless, were worn almost threadbare in places. The very shirt that Nan had washed and ironed for him, had had to have the frayed ends trimmed away from the wrist-bands.
Anthony glanced across the table. There were Nan's dark eyes smiling at him bravely. She did not look in the least ashamed of him. And as for Nan herself why, she was as pretty a Camp Fire girl as any one at the table. Wearing their Council Fire costumes, each girl decorated only with the honor beads which she had won by her own efforts, the poorer maids and the rich ones were equally attractive. For there were none of the differences in toilet which any other kind of entertainment might have revealed.
But Nan was not only smiling at her brother, she was nodding at him and trying to attract his attention. Evidently she wished him to glance away from Miss McMurtry to his companion on the other side. And Anthony finally did manage to turn shyly half way around.
Then with a sudden feeling almost of happiness he discovered that Betty Ashton was on his right. She did not happen to be looking toward him at the moment, but was talking to John Everett with more animation than he had ever before seen her show.
Betty had no knowledge of Anthony's having been invited to Meg's Camp Fire dinner. His invitation had not come so soon perhaps as the others had received theirs, and afterwards for several days he had had no opportunity for conversation with her. For of course living in Betty's house gave him no right to any pretense of friendship with her.
Yet the moments were passing and she must by this time have become conscious of his presence. Miss McMurtry had called him by name several times and no human being could be entirely oblivious of a person so near, unless under some peculiar stress of emotion.
Anthony felt his former nervousness leaving him. He was no longer blushing; his face had become white and a little stern. So that when Betty finally turned to speak to the young man she had a curious impression that his face was unfamiliar, it wore so different an expression from any that she had ever seen on it before. Betty had been conscious of Anthony's presence from the instant of his taking his place beside her and in failing to recognize him had not deliberately intended being rude or unkind. At first she had been amazed and a little chagrined by his presence, for after what she had said to Meg she had not dreamed of the young man's being included among the guests. Yet this was Meg's entertainment and not hers, and of course she had no right to feel or show offense. Only she and John Everett happened to be having such an interesting talk at the moment of Anthony's appearance, and assuredly John shared her conviction about the newcomer! One could be kind to the young fellow of course, without admitting him within the intimate circle of friendship. And Betty Ashton, although she would never have confessed it, had always been greatly influenced by John Everett's opinions and personality. He was such a big blond giant, older and handsomer and more a man of the world than any other college fellow in Woodford. She was flattered, too, because he had never failed on his return for holidays to show her more attention than any other girl in the village. He might have other friendships outside of his own home; of this she could know nothing, but at the present time this thought only made him the more agreeable. Therefore it was annoying that she might be expected to waste a part of her evening on a young fellow for whom she felt no personal interest, only good will. Betty herself was not conscious of the condescension in her attitude, but why did she find it so difficult to begin a conversation with the newcomer or even to greet him?
Anthony should at least understand that it was exceedingly ill mannered of him to keep staring down into his plate when he must have become aware that she was now ready to talk with him. But what should she say first? Having failed to notice a person's existence for some time makes an ordinary "Good evening" appear a bit ridiculous.
"How do you do, Mr. Graham?" Betty began half shyly, putting more cordiality into her manner than usual in an effort to atone for her former lack of courtesy.
Then for the briefest space Anthony glanced up at her quietly, his grave eyes studying hers, until Betty felt her own eyelids flutter and was grateful for the length of her dark lashes which swept like a cloud before her vision. For actually she was blushing in the most absurd and guilty fashion, as though she had done something for which she should feel ashamed.
"Good evening," Anthony returned, and during the rest of the dinner party he never voluntarily addressed a single remark to her.
Betty need not have been afraid that he might interfere with her opportunity for conversation with John Everett. For although Anthony answered politely any questions that she put to him and listened to whatever she wished to say, the greater part of his time he devoted to talking with Miss McMurtry and to pursuing his own train of thought.
For if the young man had originally been doubtful as to whether it was wise for him to accept Meg Everett's invitation, he was glad now with all his heart. Just what this evening was giving him he had needed. Glancing up and down the table, his own resolution was thereby strengthened. If there had been moments when he had wavered, when it had seemed easier to slip back into his old way of life and to enjoy the companions who were always ready to join hands, he could hereafter recall this experience and Betty's treatment of him, as well as the sight of the other young men guests.
Some day there should be another reckoning. These fellows were largely what their fathers had made them; they had birth, schooling, the influences of cultured homes. But out in the big world a man's own grit and will and ability to keep on working in the face of every difficulty counted in the long run. Anthony clenched his teeth, feeling his backbone actually stiffen with the strength of his resolution. Then he had the humor and good sense to laugh at himself and to begin taking more pleasure in his surroundings.
Here were all the Camp Fire girls whom his sister had talked and written so much about, excepting the two whose absence the others were lamenting, Polly and Esther. Here also was the German professor, who had lately moved into the Ashton house, sitting on the further side of Miss McMurtry and certainly absorbing all of her attention that he possibly dared. But Anthony did not mind; he had a kind of fellow feeling for Herr Crippen, who was poor and evidently not of much interest or importance in the Lady Betty's estimation. There at the farther end of the table must be Miss Rose Dyer, the Camp Fire Guardian whom Nan cared for so deeply, and she certainly was quite as pretty as his sister had said. So why should young Dr. Barton be staring at her so severely? Miss Dyer was only laughing and talking idly with Frank Wharton; and every now and then she turned to smile and speak to the little girl who sat close beside her. This must be Faith, the youngest of the Sunrise girls, whose mother had lately died and who was now living with Miss Dyer.
Anthony smiled unexpectedly, so that Betty, who happened to be glancing toward him at the moment, was vexed over his ability to amuse himself. He had only just guessed why Dr. Barton found it necessary to regard Miss Dyer so sternly. Anthony felt that he would like to make friends with this young men. He was evidently somewhat narrow and puritanical, but already had offered to assist him with any of his studies should he need help. And Anthony meant to take advantage of his offer and to interest him if he could; for Dr. Barton was just the kind of a friend he would like to know intimately in these early days of his struggle.
Dinner was finally over, and, stupidly enough, as the guests began leaving the table Anthony Graham felt his own shyness and awkwardness returning. They were intending to dance for the rest of the evening, and dancing was another of the graces that had been left out of his education. However, he could find himself an inconspicuous corner somewhere, and it would be good enough fun to look on.
"LIFE'S LITTLE IRONIES"
"Mollie O'Neill, if you don't tell me what you and Billy Webster have been whispering about all evening and why you look so worried, I don't think I can bear it a moment longer," Betty Ashton insisted, having at last found her friend alone for a moment, while the other girls and men were clearing the living room for the dance.
"There isn't anything to tell. At least there really is, but I have not been told just what," Mollie sighed in return.
"Then of course it's Polly?"
Mollie nodded. "Early this morning before any of us were awake a telegram arrived from Polly begging mother to come to New York at once. Polly said she wasn't ill and there was nothing for us to worry over, but just the same Sylvia and I have been worried nearly to death all day. For mother got off within a few hours. Then late this evening Billy Webster appears in Woodford after his visit in New York. And though he tells me that he saw Polly and Esther and has confessed that he knows why Polly telegraphed for mother, he won't give me the least satisfaction about anything. Can you make any suggestion, Betty dear? What difficulty do you suppose Polly has gotten into this time? For certainly it is Polly and not Esther; Esther would never be absurd."
Mollie lowered her voice as several of their friends were approaching.
"Please don't speak of this, Betty. Mother left word that we were not to mention it outside the family until she learned exactly what was the matter. But of course she said that I might tell you."
Before Betty could reply John Everett had invited her to dance.
But slowly she shook her head. "I can't, John. I know you will think it foolish; perhaps it is. Of course I have come to Meg's party and enjoyed it very much. And yet, well, somehow I don't feel quite like dancing. You understand, don't you?"
John acquiesced. He was disappointed, and yet felt himself able to understand almost anything that Betty wished him to, when she looked at him with that appealing light in her gray eyes and that rose flush in her cheeks.
"Never mind," he returned; "I'll find seats for us somewhere, where we can manage to talk and yet watch the others."
Betty smiled. It was agreeable to be so sought after, and yet under the circumstances quite out of the question.
"You will please find me a place where I can watch, but not with you. This is your party, remember. Meg will expect you and every man to do his duty," she replied.
So after a little further discussion Betty found herself seated upon a kind of miniature throne, which John had made for her by piling some sofa cushions upon an old divan. Behind her was a background of cedar and pine branches decorating the walls and just above her head flickered the lights of candles from a pair of brass sconces.
Betty wore her red brown hair parted in the middle and in two heavy braids, one falling over each shoulder, while around her forehead was a blue and silver band with the three white feathers, the insignia of her title of "Princess" in their Camp Fire Club. Her dress was cut a little low in the throat and about it were strung seven chains of honor beads.
For a little while at least she might have found interest in watching the others dance had she not been worried about Polly. She was uneasy and it was stupid to have been given this opportunity to think; for thinking could do no possible good. Whatever mischief Polly had gotten into was sure to be beyond one's wildest imagination. It would be much more agreeable if she might have some one to talk with her and so distract her attention.
And there was one other guest beside herself who was not dancing. Betty flushed uncomfortably. It must appear strange to the others to see Anthony sitting only a short distance away from her and yet paying no more attention to her presence than if they were upon opposite sides of the world.
Once or twice Betty looked graciously toward the young man, intending to smile an invitation to him to sit near her, should he show the inclination. For possibly he was too much embarrassed to make the first move. She must remember that he had had no one to teach him good manners and that he was always both shy and awkward in her presence.
However, at present he seemed totally unaware of her existence and not in the least requiring entertainment. For he was watching the dancers with such profound concentration that apparently his entire attention was absorbed by them.
The girl had an unusually good opportunity for studying the young man's face. She had not noticed until tonight how thin he was and how clear and finely cut his features. There was no trace of his Italian mother left, save in his black hair and in the curious glow which his skin showed underneath its pallor. His nose was big—too big, Betty thought—and his lips closed and firm. He had a kind of hungry look. Hungry for what? the girl wondered. Then she had a sudden feeling of compunction. Anthony might sometimes even be hungry for food, he worked so hard, made so little money and was so busy by day and night. Before tonight she might have helped him without his knowing or even caring, if he had guessed her purpose. But after tonight? Well, Betty felt reasonably sure that she and Anthony could never be upon exactly the same footing again. For somehow she had hurt him more than she had intended, not realizing that any one could be at once so humble and so proud. And as she had made one of those mistakes that one can never apologize for, there was no point in dwelling on it any longer. Only she did regret by this time that deep down in her heart there must still linger her old narrow attitude toward money and good birth. She was poor enough herself now, and yet in her case, as in so many others, had it not made her feel all the more pride in the distinction of her family? Assuredly she had often whispered to herself that poverty did not matter when one bore a distinguished name.
Betty smothered a sigh and a yawn. It was tiresome to be sitting there thinking and reproaching herself when the others were having such a good time. How splendidly Billy Webster and Mollie danced together! He was so strong and dictatorial, so certain of his own judgment and opinions. And Mollie so gentle and yielding! She smiled over her foolish romancing, and yet there was no use pretending that they would not make a suitable match should things turn out that way. Mollie and Polly might possibly never be exactly what they had been to each other in the past, and Mrs. Wharton had re-married, and Sylvia would soon be going away to study nursing.
But some one was passing close by and trying to attract her attention. Betty waved her hand, but when she had gone frowned a little anxiously.
Edith Norton was dancing with the friend whom she had persuaded Meg to ask to her Camp Fire dinner, although none of the rest of the girls liked him. He was a good deal older than their other young men acquaintances and a stranger to most of them, having only come to Woodford in the past six months and opened a drug store. But he had been entirely devoted to Edith since, and of course as she was nearly twenty she should know her own mind. Notwithstanding, Betty felt uneasy and uncomfortable. They had been hearing things not to Frederick Howard's credit in the village, and Edith had always been unlike the rest of their Sunrise Camp Fire girls. She was vainer and more frivolous and dreadfully tired of working in a millinery shop in Woodford. This much she had confided to Betty after coming to live in the Ashton house. And both Rose Dyer and Miss McMurtry were afraid that Edith might for this reason accept the first opportunity that apparently offered to make life easier for her. So they had asked Betty to use her influence whenever it was possible. Betty it was who had first brought Edith into their club, and Edith had always cared for her and admired her more than any other of her associates.
Betty stirred restlessly. Would she never be able to get away from serious thoughts tonight? But the next instant she had jumped to her feet with a quickly smothered cry and stood with her hands clasped tightly over her eyes. For all around her, in her hair falling down upon her shoulders and about her face were glittering sparks of heat and light. They were scorching her; already she could smell the odor of her burning hair. One movement the girl made to protect her head, then in a flash her hands were covering her eyes again. She wanted to run, and yet some subconscious idea restrained her. Running would only make the flames leap faster and higher. And surely in an instant some one must come to her assistance; for her own low cry had been echoed by a dozen other voices.
Then Betty felt herself roughly seized and dragged stumbling away from her former position, while a sudden, smothering darkness destroyed her breath and vision; and none too tender hands seemed to be pressing down the top of her head.
Another moment and she was pulling feebly at the scorched coat enveloping her.
"Please take it off. I am all right now. The fire must be out, and I'm stifling," she pleaded.
But about her there followed another firm closing in of the heavy material. And then the darkness lifted, showing Anthony Graham standing close beside her in his shabby shirt sleeves, holding his ruined coat in his hands. In a terrified group near by was every other human being in the room, excepting Jim Meade and Frank Wharton, who were pulling down the burning pine and cedar branches from the wall and stamping out the last sparks of fire caused by the overturning of one of the candles.
"What happened to me? Am I much burned?" Betty asked, trying to smile and yet feeling her lips quiver tremulously. "Won't somebody please take me home?" Now she dared not put up her hands toward her pretty hair, for it was enough to try and bear the pain that seemed to be covering her head and shoulders like a blanket of fire.
Surely the faces before her must look whiter and more terror-stricken than her own. Mollie and Faith were both crying. Betty wondered just why. And Anthony Graham was staring at her with such a strange expression. She wanted to thank him, to say that she was sorry and grateful at the same time, but could not recall exactly what had happened. Then that funny Herr Crippen was shaking all over and saying "Mein liebes Kind," just as though it were Esther who had been hurt. At last, however, Rose Dyer and Dr. Barton, each with an arm about her, were leading her across the length of that interminable and now pitch-black room with a floor that seemed to be rising before her eyes like the waves of the sea. And afterwards, she did not know just when, the cold night air brought back to her a returning consciousness, but with the consciousness came an even greater sense of pain.
Never in after years could Betty Ashton wholly forget the drive home that followed. Rose Dyer and Miss McMurtry sat on either side of her, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet, and now and then gently touching her bandaged hands. Occasionally Dr. Barton asked her a question, to which she replied as calmly and intelligently as possible. Otherwise she made no movement that she could help and no sound. Anthony Graham drove silently and grimly forward at the utmost speed that the two livery-stable horses could attain. And although to Betty the journey seemed to last half a lifetime, in reality it had seldom been accomplished in so short a time.
Sylvia Wharton wearing a trained nurse's costume tiptoed into a darkened room.
Instantly the figure upon the bed turned and sighed.
"I don't see why she does not come to me, if she is no worse than you say she is," the voice said. "Really, Sylvia, I think it would be better for you or some one to tell me the truth."
Sylvia hesitated. "She isn't so well, Betty dear. Perhaps Dr. Barton may be angry with me, as he distinctly said that you were not to be worried. But as you are worrying anyhow, possibly talking things over with me may make you feel better. It has all been most unfortunate, Polly's being ill here in your house when you were enduring so much yourself. But it all comes of mother's and everybody's yielding to whatever Polly O'Neill wishes."
Sylvia sat down upon the side of the bed, taking one of Betty's hands in hers. Ten days had passed since the accident at the cabin and the burns on Betty's hands had almost entirely healed, but over her eyes and the upper part of her face was a linen covering, so that it was still impossible to guess the extent of her injury. She was apt to be quieter, however, Sylvia had found out, when she could feel some one touching her. And now the news of Polly for the time being kept her interested.
"You see, mother's first mistake was in not bringing Polly straight back home as soon as she found out what she was doing in New York. Polly had a slight cold then and it kept getting worse each night. But of course Polly pretended that it amounted to nothing and that the stars would fall unless she finished her engagement. So finish it she did, and then hearing of your accident toward the last, as mother and Esther had kept the news a secret from her for some time, why come here she would instead of immediately going home. She wanted to help nurse and amuse you and you had said that you wanted her with you. And then of course Polly was embarrassed over meeting father and Frank. And father was angry at her disobedience and her frightening mother and Mollie. However, that cold of hers has kept on getting worse and she will have to stay in bed now for a few days anyhow. For I won't let Polly O'Neill have her own way this time."
A faint smile showed itself on Betty's lips which Sylvia stooped low enough to see. And then in spite of her own stolid and supposedly cold temperament, the younger girl's expression changed. For it meant a good deal for any one to have succeeded in making Betty Ashton smile in these last few days.
"But you're fonder of Polly than you are of the rest of us, even Mollie, Sylvia, and you let her lead you around," Betty argued.
Sylvia's flaxen head was resolutely shaken. She no longer wore her hair in two tight pigtails, but in almost as closely bound braids wound in a circle about her face. Her complexion was still colorless and her eyes nondescript, but Sylvia's square chin and her resolute expression often made persons take a second look at her. It was seldom that one saw so much character in so young a girl.
"Yes, I am fond of Polly," she agreed, "but you are mistaken if you think I let her influence me. Some one has to take Polly O'Neill sensibly for her own sake." And Sylvia just in time stifled a sigh. For of course her stepsister was in a more serious condition than she had confessed to the other girl. It was well enough to call the illness a bad cold—it was that, but possibly something worse, bronchitis, pneumonia—Dr. Barton had not yet given it a name. She was only to be kept quiet and watched. Later on he would know better what to say. Her constitution was not strong.
Some telepathic message, however, must have passed from one friend to the other, for at this instant Betty sat up suddenly with more energy than she had yet shown.
"If anything dreadful happens to Polly, I shall never forgive Esther as long as I live. It is all very well for Polly and your mother to insist that Esther was not in any possible way responsible. Mollie and I both feel differently. Esther should have told——"
By the fashion in which Sylvia Wharton arose and walked away from the bed, Betty realized how intensely their opinions disagreed, although the younger girl moved quietly, with no anger or flurry and made no reply.
"Here are some more roses, Betty, that John Everett sent you. Shall I put them near enough your bed to have you enjoy their fragrance?" Sylvia asked. "John seems to be buying up all the flowers near Dartmouth. I told Meg that you would rather he did not send so many. But she says she can't stop him. For somehow John feels kind of responsible for your getting hurt, as he arranged for you to sit under those particular candles. Then he did not notice when you first called for help and let Anthony Graham rescue you. Meg is downstairs now with your mother. Would you like to see her?"
Betty shook her head. "Please don't let Meg know, but I don't feel like talking, somehow. The girls are so sweet and sympathetic. And I try to be brave, but until I know——"
With magically quick footsteps the younger girl had again crossed the room and her firm arms were soon about her friend's shoulders.
"You are going to be all right, dear. Dr. Barton is almost sure of it and I am quite. There won't be any scars that will last and your eyes—why, you protected them marvelously, and they only need resting. You are too beautiful, Betty dear, to have anything happen that could in any way mar you. I can't, I won't believe it."
And somehow Sylvia was one of those people in whose judgment and faith one must always find healing. Betty said nothing more, only put out her hand with an appealing gesture and caught hold of Sylvia's dress.
"I don't want to talk or to see people, and I'm tired of being read to. What is there for me to do, Sylvia child, to make the hours pass?"
Rather desperately the younger girl looked about the great, sunshiny room. It was not Betty's old blue room, but the room once used as a store-room and afterwards occupied by Esther, into which Betty had moved a short while before her accident. Imagination was not Sylvia Wharton's strong point. She was an excellent nurse, quiet, firm and patient and always to be relied upon. But what to do to make Betty Ashton stop thinking of what might await her at the end of her weeks of suffering must have taxed a far more fertile brain than Sylvia's. However, the suggestion did not have to come from her; for at this instant there was a knock at the door, so gentle that it was difficult to be sure that it really was a knock.
Outside stood the German professor with his violin under his arm. And he looked so utterly wretched and uneasy that Sylvia wondered how he could feel so great an emotion over Betty, although the entire village seemed to be worrying as though in reality she had been their own "Princess." No one could talk of anything else until her condition became finally known; but Herr Crippen was a newcomer and Betty had never cared for him.
"Would the little Fraeulein like it that I should play for her?" he now asked gently.
And Sylvia turned to the girl on the bed.
At first Betty had shaken her head, but now she evidently changed her mind.
"You are very kind. I think I should enjoy it," she answered. And a few moments afterwards Sylvia stole away.
So there was no one in the room to notice how frequently Herr Crippen had to wipe his glasses as he looked down upon the girl of whose face he could see nothing now save the delicately rounded chin and full red lips.
Then without worrying her he began to play: in the beginning not Beethoven nor Mozart, nor any of the classic music he most loved, but the Camp Fire songs, which he had lately arranged for the violin because of his interest in the Sunrise Hill Camp Fire girls, and which he was playing for the first time before an audience.
And Betty listened silently, not voicing her surprise. The song of "The Soul's Desire," what memories it brought back of Esther and their first meeting in this room! No wonder that Esther had so great talent with such a queer, gifted father. Betty wondered idly what the mother could have been like. She was an American and beautiful, so much she remembered having been told.
Then ceasing to think of Esther she began thinking of herself. Could she ever again even try to follow the Law of the Camp Fire, which had meant so much to her in the past few years, if this dreadful tragedy which hovered over her, sleeping or waking, should be not just a terrible fear, but a living fact. Should she be scarred from her accident, or worse fear, should her eyes be affected by the scorching heat of the flames?
Softly under her breath, even while listening with all her soul to the music, Betty repeated the Camp Fire Law.
"Seek Beauty?" Could she find it, having lost her own? Then she remembered that the beauty which the Camp Fire taught was not only a physical beauty, but the greater kind which is of the spirit as well as of the flesh.
"Give Service?" Well, perhaps some day in ways she could not now imagine, she might be able to return a small measure of the service that her friends had been so generously bestowing upon her.
"Pursue Knowledge, Be Trustworthy." No misfortune need separate a girl from these ideals.
"Hold on to Health." This might mean a harder fight than she had ever yet had to make before, but Betty felt a new courage faintly struggling within her.
"Glorify Work." That was not an impossible demand of her as a Torch Bearer among her group of Camp Fire girls. It was the last of the seven points of their great law that she dreaded to face at this moment, here in the darkness alone.
"Be Happy." Could she ever again be happy even for a day or an hour? And yet the law said: "If we have pain, to hide it, if others have sorrow, be quick to relieve it."
But what the rest of the law read she could not now recall. For Herr Crippen was beginning to play one of the most exquisite pieces of music that can ever be rendered on the violin, Schubert's Serenade.
"Last night the nightingale woke me, Last night when all was still It sang in the golden moonlight"
Betty wondered why the music should sound so strangely far away, as though she were dreaming and it were coming to her somewhere out of the land of dreams.
Another moment and Betty was sound asleep. Nevertheless the Professor, with his eyes still upon her, played softly on, played until Mrs. Ashton noiselessly entered the room.
Then he ceased and the man and woman, standing one on either side of Betty's bed, looked at each other with expressions it would be difficult to translate. For each face held a certain amount of pleading and of defiance.
"She is like her mother; nicht wahr?" the Professor murmured, and then withdrew.
Afterwards for several moments Mrs. Ashton's eyes never ceased regarding the curls of Betty's red brown hair, that lay outside on her pillow. Her long braids had been cut off and latterly she had been wearing a little blue silk cap, which had now slipped off on account of her restlessness.
Mrs. Ashton, glancing in a mirror at her own faded flaxen hair, sighed. Then, seating herself in a chair near by she waited in absolute patience and quietness, until suddenly from a movement upon the bed she guessed that Betty was waking.
And actually her child's lips were smiling upon her not only bravely but cheerfully, as though her sleep had brought both comfort and faith.
"Sit close by me, mother," Betty said, "and don't let any one else come in for a long time. You know I have been trying to get you to tell me the history of this old room for ages and now this is such a splendid comfy chance. I am just exactly in the mood for hearing a long, thrilling story."
"WHICH COMES LIKE A BENEDICTION"
"Tell me exactly what you think, Dr. Barton, please, and don't try to deceive me," Betty Ashton pleaded. "I want to be told the truth at once before mother or any one else joins us. Always I shall be grateful to Rose for suggesting that you come here to me alone and when no one was expecting you, so that there need be no unnecessary suspense."
Betty Ashton was seated in a low rocking chair one morning a few days later, with Dr. Barton standing near and carefully unwrapping the bandages from about her head. The room was not brightly lighted, neither was it dark, for a single blind had been drawn up at the window on the opposite side of the room.
Dr. Barton's face showed lines of anxiety and sympathy. Indeed, Rose Dyer could hardly have been persuaded to believe how nervous and shaken he appeared and how, instead of his usual look of hardness and austerity, he was now as tender and gentle as a woman.
"But my dear Betty," he returned in a more cheerful voice than his expression indicated, "what I say to you about yourself is by no means the last word. My opinion, you must remember, is of blessedly little importance. If there are any scars left by my treatment of your burns, there are hundreds of wonderful big doctors who can perform miracles for you. And then time is the eternal healer."
"Yes, I know," the girl answered, "but just the same, please hurry and let me know what you yourself honestly think. At least, I shall be able to tell myself whether my eyes are injured, as soon as you let me try them in a bright light."
For a fraction of a moment Dr. Barton delayed his work. "Won't you allow me to call your mother, or Miss Dyer or Miss McMurtry? Miss Dyer is in the house. I happen to have seen her. And it may be better, in case you do not feel yourself, to have some one else here to care for you. There is Sylvia. Actually I believe she has been of as much use to you and Polly O'Neill as your professional nurses."
At this instant, although she had set her lips so close together that only a pale line showed, Betty's chin quivered, and although her hands gripped the sides of her chair so hard that her arms ached, her shoulders shook.
If only Dr. Barton would cease his perfectly futile efforts to distract her attention. Could any human being think of another subject or person at a time like this?
And Dr. Barton did recognize the clumsiness of his own efforts, only his conversation was partly intended to conceal his own anxiety.
"Don't I hear some one coming along the hall? Are you sure you locked the door?" Betty queried uneasily.
Dr. Barton did not reply. At this instant, although the linen covering still concealed his patient's eyes, he had removed the upper bandages, so that now her forehead was plainly revealed to his view.
And Betty Ashton's forehead had always been singularly beautiful in the past, low and broad with the hair growing in a soft fringe about it and coming down into a peak in the center. Now, however, across her forehead there showed a long crimson line, almost like the mark from the blow of a whip. Dr. Barton examined it closely, touched it gently with the tips of his fingers and then cleared his throat and attempted to speak. But apparently the needed words would not come. On either side the ugly scar the girl's skin was white and fine as delicate silk and on top of her head, which had been protected by her heavy hair, the burns had almost completely healed.
"It is all right, Miss Betty," Dr. Barton said in a curiously husky voice. "You are better than I even dared hope. There is a scar now, but I can promise you that it will be only a faint line in the future, or else will disappear altogether. The very fact that the trouble has concentrated into the one scar shows that the healing has taken place all about it."
Betty's own hands slipped the final covering from about her eyes. Then for a moment her heart seemed absolutely to have stopped beating. For the room swam around her in a kind of disordered dimness. She could see nothing clearly. In a panic she sprang to her feet, when Dr. Barton took a firm hold on her shaking shoulders.
"Be quiet, child. Pull yourself together for just a minute. You are frightened now, you know. In another moment things will clear up and grow more distinct."
And even before he had finished speaking Betty realized this to be the blessed truth.
There in the far end of the big room stood her bed and, on a table near, a bunch of John's pink roses. She could even see their bright color vividly. In another direction was her dressing table and about it hung the photographs of Rose, of Miss McMurtry, of the eleven Camp Fire girls.
Dropping back into her chair Betty, covering her face with her hands, began to sob. And she cried on without any effort at self-control until she was limp and exhausted, although all the while her heart was saying its own special hymn of thanksgiving. And young Dr. Barton kept patting her upon the shoulder and urging her not to cry, because now there was nothing to cry about, until Betty would like to have laughed if the tears had not been bringing her a greater relief. How like a man not to understand that she could now permit herself the indulgence of tears, when for the past two weeks she had not dared, fearing that once having given way there would be no end.
"Would you mind leaving me for a few minutes and trying to find mother?" Betty at last managed to ask.
She wanted to be alone. But a few seconds after the doctor's disappearance, Betty got up and with trembling knees managed to cross her room, feeling dreadfully weak and exhausted from the long suspense. For she wished to look into a mirror with no one watching. And as Betty Ashton got the first glimpse of herself, although vanity had never been one of her weaknesses, she honestly believed that she never had seen any one look so tragically ugly before in her entire life. She hardly recognized herself. Her face was white and thin, almost bloodless except for the scar upon her forehead. Then her hair had been cut off, and though in some places the curls still remained heavy and thick, in others she looked like a badly shorn lamb.
And this time the tears crowding Betty's eyes were not of relief but of wounded vanity.
"I never saw any one so hideous in my life," she remarked aloud. "And I am truly sorry for the people who must have the misfortune of looking at me."
Betty was wearing an Empire blue dressing gown and slippers and stockings of the same color. Her eyes were dark gray and misty with shadows under them. She looked ill, of course, and unlike her usual self, and yet it would be difficult for any misfortune to have made Betty Ashton actually ugly. For beauty is one of the most difficult things in the world to define and one of the easiest to see—a possession that is at once tangible and intangible. And Betty possessed the gift in a remarkable degree.
Therefore she did not look unattractive to the eyes of the young man who was now staring at her in astonishment, fear and delight, from her own open doorway, which Dr. Barton, on leaving the room, had neglected to close.
"I am sorry. Oh, I am so glad!"
Anthony Graham murmured. "I was passing your room; I didn't mean to intrude. But nothing matters now you are well again and looking like yourself. It's so wonderful, so splendid, so——" And the young man, who was ordinarily quiet and reserved, fairly stammered with the rush of his own words.
Betty walked shyly toward him with her eyes still filled with tears.
"Oh, I am dreadful to look at, but I must not complain," she answered wistfully. "A Camp Fire girl ought to have learned some lessons in bravery and endurance. Please let's don't talk about me. I want to thank you, for if it had not been for you, I might have—I can't bear to think even now what might have happened to me."
"Then don't," the young man returned brusquely, but Betty did not this time misunderstand his manner. "I did not do anything. I ought to have gotten to you sooner. I have been hating myself ever since for the time I took to reach you. After all you had done for me in the past!"
The next moment the girl put her hand into the boy's hard, work-roughened one. "Ask Nan to tell the others for me. And remember that no matter what has happened or may happen in the future, I shall always feel myself in your debt, not you in mine."
It was sundown. The big Ashton house, although so filled with people, was oddly quiet. Betty Ashton slipped out of her own room into the hall and hurried along the empty corridor. Once only she stopped and smiled, partly from amusement and partly from satisfaction. Herr Crippen's door was half open and so was Miss McMurtry's and the Professor was playing on his violin. Such sentimental love ditties! The air throbbed with German love songs.
And Betty had a mischievous desire to stick her head into Miss McMurtry's room and see if she was engaged in some maiden-like occupation, such as marking school papers or reading the Woodford Gazette. Or was she sitting, as she should be, with her hands idly folded in her lap and her heart and mind absorbed in the music? Never had Betty given up her idea that a romance was in the making between their first Camp Fire guardian and Esther's father. And often since their coming to live in her house had she not seen slight but convincing evidences? Why should Donna so often appear with a single white rose pinned to her dress or take to playing the same tunes on the piano that the Professor played on his violin, particularly when she was an exceedingly poor pianist?
Nevertheless it was not awe of her teacher and guardian that kept Betty from investigating the state of her emotions at this moment; neither was it any fear of antagonism between them, for since Esther's departure to study in New York, Miss McMurtry apparently felt more affection for Betty than for any of the other Camp Fire girls. No, it was simply because she had a very definite purpose which she wished to accomplish without interruption or opposition.
The next instant and she had paused outside a closed door and stood listening tensely. There were no noises inside, no voices, nor the stir of any person moving about. Betty put her hand on the knob and opened it silently.
Instantly there was a little cry and Betty and Polly O'Neill were in each other's arms.
"Betty, you darling," Polly gasped, "turn on every light in this room and let me stare and stare at you. There isn't anything in the world the matter with you. You are as lovely as you ever were. Oh, I have been so frightened! I have not believed what anybody told me, and it seemed it must be a part of my punishment that you had been injured. It is absurd of me, I suppose, but I have had a kind of feeling that perhaps if I had been at Meg's party I should have been with you at the time so that it couldn't have happened."
"Foolish Polly! But when was Polly anything but foolish?" the other girl returned, taking off her cap and pushing back her hair. "You see I am a sight, dear, but it does not matter a great deal. I am kind of getting used to myself these last few days. So I didn't see any reason why, since you are better and I am perfectly well, we could not be together. Even if it does give you a kind of a shock to look at me, you'll get over it, won't you?"
In reply Polly had one of her rather rare outbursts of affection. She was never so demonstrative as the other girls. Her devotions had ways of expressing themselves in an occasional compliment tendered perhaps in some whimsical, back-handed fashion, or in a fleeting caress, which came and was gone like the touch of a butterfly's wing.
Now, however, she took her friend's face between her two hands and kissed her quietly, almost solemnly upon the line of her injury.
"Never say a thing like that to me again as long as you live, Betty Ashton. Perhaps I haven't as much affection as other people. Mother and Mollie are both insisting it lately. Still I know that——but how silly we are to talk of it! You are not changed. Of course I am sorry that your hair had to be cut off, but it will grow out again and the scar will disappear. I wish I could get rid of my"—Polly hesitated—"blemishes so easily," she finished.
Betty looked puzzled. "What do you mean? Sylvia says you are very much better and that there is no reason why you should not get up. She declares that it is only that you won't and that she does not intend nursing you or letting any one else take care of you after a few days, unless you do what Dr. Barton tells you. Sylvia is a dreadfully firm person. She was quite angry with me when I said that I did not believe you were well and that I was quite strong enough now to take care of you and you should not get out of bed until you had entirely recovered."
"But I have entirely recovered and I am well and somehow I can't manage to deceive Sylvia Wharton no matter how hard I try," Polly announced in a half-amused and half-annoyed manner.
"Then why are you trying to?" Betty naturally queried. Of course one never actually expected to understand Polly O'Neill's whims, but now and then one of them appeared a trifle more mysterious than the others. "If you are still tired and feel you prefer to remain in bed, that is a sure sign you are not strong enough to get up, and Dr. Barton and Sylvia ought to realize it," she continued, still on the defensive.
But Polly only smiled at her. "But, dear, I don't prefer to remain in bed. I am so deadly bored with it that as soon as I am left alone I get up and dance in the middle of the floor just to have a little relief. Can't you and mother and Mollie understand (I don't believe any one does except Sylvia) that I don't want to get up because I don't want to have to face the music?"
Still the other girl looked puzzled.
"Can't you see that as long as I have been able to be sick nobody has dared to say very much to me about my escapade in New York? Oh, of course I know what they think and mother did manage to say a good deal before we came home; still, there is a great deal more retribution awaiting me. In the first place, I shall have to go home to the Wharton house. I realize it has been dreadful, my being sick here, but I am everlastingly grateful to you and your mother. Mr. Wharton won't say anything much; he really is very kind to me; but naturally I know what he thinks. And then when Frank Wharton is there it will be so much worse. You see, Frank and I quarreled once, because I thought he was rude to mother. And of course he considers my disobedience worse than his rudeness. And as he is perfectly right, I can't imagine how I shall answer him back the next time we argue."
As Polly talked she had risen into a sitting posture in bed and was now leaning her chin on her hand in a characteristic attitude and quite unconscious of the amusing side to her argument until Betty laughed.
Polly had on a scarlet flannel dressing sacque and her hair was tied with scarlet ribbons. And indeed her cheeks were almost equally vivid in color.
"But there isn't anything funny about my punishment, Betty dear. And the worst of it is that I know I deserve all of it and more and shan't ever have the right to complain. Mother declares that she does not expect to allow me to leave Woodford again until I am twenty-one, since she has no more faith in me. And then, and then—" Polly's entire face now changed expression—"has any one told you that my behavior is to be openly discussed at the next meeting of our Camp Fire Club? Perhaps I won't be allowed to be a member any longer."
Instantly Betty jumped up from her kneeling position by the bed and commenced walking up and down the length of the room, saying nothing at first, but with her lips set in obstinate lines.
"But it isn't the custom of Camp Fire clubs to act as both judge and jury, is it, Polly?" she inquired. "At least, I have never heard of any other club's undertaking such a task. We are allowed, I know, to be fairly free in what we do in our individual clubs, but somehow this action seems unkind and dangerous. For if once we begin criticising one another's faults or mistakes, after a while there won't be any club. Right now Edith Norton is behaving very foolishly, I think, but I wouldn't dream of even discussing her with you or any one of the girls. I——" Betty paused to get her breath, her indignation and opposition to Polly's information overwhelming her.
But Polly held out both hands, entreating her to sit beside her again.
"You are mistaken. I did not explain the circumstances to you as I should have. It is all my idea and my plan to have the girls consider my misconduct and find out how they feel about me," Polly explained quietly. "I spoke of it first to Rose and then to Miss McMurtry and at first they thought in a measure as you do. But I don't agree with you. You remember that our honor beads come to us for obedience and service to our Camp Fire laws. Why should not disobedience make us unworthy to wear them? In the old days if an Indian offended against the laws of his tribe he was made to suffer the penalty. And I don't want you girls to keep me in our club just because you are sorry for me and are too kind to be just. Mollie has told me how horrified Meg and Eleanor and Nan are, and of course Rose and Donna have not pretended to hide their disapproval, even during their consolation visits to me as an invalid. But you will forgive me, won't you, Betty?" Polly ended with more penitence than she had yet shown to any one save her mother.
"Of course I forgive you. But if you had not gotten well I should never have forgiven Esther," the other girl answered.
Two fingers were laid quickly across Betty Ashton's lips.
"Don't be unfair and absurd," Polly protested; "for some day you may be sorry if you don't understand just how big and generous Esther Crippen is. It isn't only that she would sacrifice her own desires for other people's, but that she actually has. I would not be surprised if Esther did not have some secret or other." And Polly stopped suddenly, biting her tongue. Not for worlds would she even in the slightest fashion betray a suspicion or inference of her own concerning the friend who had been so loyal and devoted to her.
Fortunately Betty was too intent upon her own thoughts to have heard her.
"I have to go back to my own room now, but you are not to worry, Polly mine, not about anything. In the first place, you are not to go home very soon. I have talked to your mother and mine and persuaded them that I need to have you stay on here with me. I do need you, Polly. It is queer, but I want you to come and sleep in the old back room with me. I have gotten nervous being in there by myself. There is a mystery about the room greater than I have dreamed. I have only been joking half the time when I have spoken of it. But the other day I got mother to the point where there was no possible excuse for her not explaining the entire reason for her attitude and Dick's toward the place, when suddenly she broke down and left me. We might amuse ourselves while we are invalids discovering whether or not it is haunted. Only I don't exactly wish to make the discovery alone."
THE LAW OF THE FIRE
Mollie O'Neill walked slowly toward the Ashton house one afternoon not long afterwards at about four o'clock, looking unusually serious and uncomfortable. She was wearing a long coat buttoned up to her chin and coming down to the bottom of her dress, and was carrying a big book.
"Mollie, there isn't anything the matter? Neither Betty nor Polly is worse again?" Billy Webster inquired, unexpectedly striding across from the opposite side of the street and not stopping to offer his greeting before beginning his questioning.
Mollie shook her head, although her face still retained so solemn an expression that the young man was plainly alarmed. Ordinarily Mollie's blue eyes were as untroubled as blue lakes and her forehead and mouth as free from the lines of care or even annoyance.
Billy Webster put the book under his arm and continued walking along beside her.
"If there is anything that troubles you, Mollie, and you believe that I can help you, please don't ever fail to call on me," he suggested in the gentle tones that he seemed ever to reserve for this girl alone. "I know that Polly is dreadfully angry over my interference in New York, but so long as you and your mother thought I did right and were grateful to me, I don't care how Polly feels—at least, I don't care a great deal. And I believe I should behave in exactly the same way if I had it all to do over again."
Shyly and yet with an admiration that she did not attempt to conceal Mollie glanced up at her companion. Billy was always so determined, so sure of his own ideas of right and wrong, that once having made a decision or taken a step, he never appeared to regret it afterwards. And this attitude under the present circumstances was a consolation to Mollie. For oftentimes since Polly's return and while enduring her reproaches, she had experienced twinges of conscience for having concerned an outsider in their family affairs, though somehow Billy did not seem like an outsider. Polly had insisted that she had been most unwise in asking him to look up Esther and herself immediately upon his arrival in New York. How much better had she waited and let Polly make her confession to their mother later, thus saving all of them excitement and strain! However, since Billy was still convinced that he would do the same thing over again in a similar position, Mollie felt her own uncertainty vanish.
"No, there isn't anything you can help about this afternoon," she replied. "I am only going to a monthly meeting of our Council Fire. The girls told me that if I liked I need not come, yet it seems almost cowardly to stay away. For you see Polly has insisted that we talk over her conduct and decide whether or not we wish her to remain a member of our club. Or at least whether some of her honor beads should be taken from her and her rank reduced. There is a good deal of difference of opinion. For some of the girls are convinced that once our honor beads are lawfully won, nothing and no one has the right to take them from us; while others feel that breaking the law of the Camp Fire should render one unworthy of a high position in the Council and that even though one is not asked to resign, at least one should be relegated to the ranks again. But of course all this is a secret and must never be spoken of except in our club."
"Like an officer stripped of his epaulettes," Billy murmured. And afterwards: "See here, Mollie, if this is a club secret then you ought not to have told me and I ought not to have listened. For it is pretty rough on Polly. But I promise not to mention it and will try to forget. We must not make her any more down upon me than she is already."
The young man and girl had now come to the Ashton front gate, and as they stopped, Billy gave the book to Mollie and could not forbear patting her encouragingly upon the coat sleeve. She looked so gentle and worried. Polly always seemed to be getting her into hot water without really intending that Mollie should be made to suffer.
"It will turn out all right, I am sure," he insisted in a convincing tone. "Your sister will always have too many friends to let things go much against her in this world."
Mollie found that the other girls had already assembled in the Ashton drawing room and, as she was late, the camp fire had been laid and lighted, following the same ceremony as if it had taken place outdoors.
The members were all present excepting Polly, who had declined coming down to make her own defense, and Esther, who was still at work in New York. The two Field girls, Juliet and Beatrice, completed the original number, as they were both in Woodford for the winter attending the High School. Rose Dyer, with Faith's hand tight in hers, appeared uneasy and distressed. In her role of Camp Fire Guardian she was not assured of the wisdom of their proceedings and could find no precedent for it among other Camp Fire clubs. However, Miss McMurtry had consented to join their meeting and, as she had been the original and was now the head Guardian of all the clubs in Woodford, the responsibility might honestly be shared with her.
For the first time since her accident Betty Ashton was able to attend a gathering of the Council Fire; and although she was the center of the greater part of the attention and affection in the room, Betty appeared as nervous and worried as Mollie O'Neill.
To both of the girls this open discussion of one of their club member's misdeeds was abhorrent. And that the accused should be their adored but often misguided Polly made the situation the more tragic and distasteful.
Although she was not yet in a position to be positive, Betty felt reasonably convinced that Edith Norton was at the bottom of this formal judgment of Polly. So skilfully and quietly had the older girl gone to work that both Rose Dyer and Miss McMurtry were under the impression that the original suggestion had come from the culprit herself.
Yet the truth was that Edith Norton had a smaller nature than any other member of the Sunrise Hill Camp Fire Club and she and Polly had never been real friends since the night long ago of the Indian "Maiden's Feast," when Edith thinking to fix the guilt of a theft upon Nan Graham, had wakened Polly to a sudden sense of her own responsibility. And it was following a visit of condolence to Polly's sick room by Edith that swift as a flash Polly had announced herself as willing and ready to have her conduct considered by the club council. For it afterwards appeared that Edith had casually mentioned that the other girls had been talking among themselves of this question of Polly's fitness or unfitness to continue a "Torch Bearer" in the club. So with her usual recklessness and impulsiveness she had insisted that her offense be openly considered and that she receive whatever punishment might be considered just. Never had she planned denying her misdeed nor taking refuge behind her friends' affection.
Therefore both Betty and Mollie had been entreated, even ordered, to listen quietly to whatever might be said of her behavior and without protest. And Mollie had agreed. Betty had reserved the right to use her own discretion and had no intention of not making herself felt when the moment arrived.
After the regular business of the meeting had been concluded a marked silence followed, the girls hardly daring even to glance toward one another.
Rose Dyer coughed nervously, yet as she had been chosen to set Polly's case plainly before the other girls and to ask for their frank opinions of what action, if any, the Sunrise Hill Club desired to take, her responsibility must not be evaded. Of course all of the girls had previously heard the entire story, but perhaps in a more or less highly colored fashion. And particularly Polly O'Neill insisted that Esther Crippen's part in her action be explained. For Esther must not be held in any way accountable, as both Betty and Mollie had been inclined to feel.
When Rose had finished a simple statement of the facts of the case and had asked to hear from the other club members, no one answered. Betty kept her eyes severely fastened upon Edith Norton's face. Surely Edith must be aware of her knowledge of certain facts that were as much to her discredit as Polly's disobedience. Of course nothing could induce her to make capital of this knowledge, since Betty Ashton's interpretation of Camp Fire loyalty was of a different kind from Edith Norton's, as the older girl was one day to find out. Nevertheless there was nothing to prevent Betty from using her influence with the hope that Edith might be discouraged from making any suggestion that would start the tide of feeling rolling against the culprit.
This Council Meeting might be a greater test of the entire Camp Fire organization than any one of the girls realized. Possibly it had been a mistake to allow the fitness or unfitness of a fellow member to be openly discussed; especially when the girl was Polly O'Neill, for Polly was a powerful influence always and the club might easily split upon a criticism of her. Whatever should happen, however, Betty Ashton intended using every effort to keep the Sunrise Hill Camp together, saving Polly also if she could.
In spite of her friend's restraining glance, Edith apparently failed to regard her, for instead she glanced insinuatingly toward Eleanor Meade and Meg Everett. Both these girls had expressed themselves as deeply shocked and grieved over Polly's behavior, though neither of them appeared to be ready to make any statement of their views on this occasion. It was one thing to express an informal opinion of another girl's action, but quite another to make a formal accusation against her in the club where they had lived and worked and grown together in bonds almost closer than family ones.
Next Edith studied Sylvia Wharton's expression. Day and night had Sylvia nursed Polly with infinite patience, and yet she had made no effort to conceal her disapproval of her stepsister's conduct and Sylvia might always be relied upon for an honest and straightforward statement of her opinion. Yet Sylvia's face at the present moment was as empty as though she had never had an idea in her life.
Just why this continuing silence should make the original Sunrise Hill Camp Fire guardian smile, no one understood. However, the Lady of the Hill knew very well why and was feeling strangely relieved. For had she not permitted a dangerous test of the Camp Fire spirit to be tried and were the girls not responding just as she had hoped and believed they would? Surely during these past two years they had been developing a real understanding of comradeship, the ability to stick together, to keep step. And girls and women had for so many centuries been accused of the inability to do this.
"I think that no one of us holds Esther Crippen in any way responsible for Polly O'Neill's action or for continuing to keep her family in ignorance of what she was doing," Edith finally began in a rather weak voice, seeing that no one else showed any sign of speaking. "It is one of the things that I think she is most to be blamed for, since it is hardly fair to bring another club member into a difficulty on account of her feeling of personal loyalty."
Betty frowned. There was so much of truth in Edith's speech that it could hardly fail to carry a certain amount of conviction.
But before any one could reply, Sylvia Wharton got up from the floor, where she had been sitting in Camp Fire fashion, and crossing the room, stood before the flames, facing the circle of girls with her hands clasped in front of her and her lips shut tight together. Her usually sallow skin was a good deal flushed.
"I am going to make a motion to this club," she announced, "but before I do I want to say something, and everybody knows how hard it is for me to talk. I can do things sometimes, but I can't say them. Just now Edith Norton used the word, 'loyalty.' I am glad she did, because it is just what I want to speak of—because it seems to me that loyalty is the very foundation stone of all our Camp Fires. Of course Polly has broken a part of our law. She has failed to be trustworthy, but I am not going into that, since each one of you can have your own opinion of her behavior and would have it anyway no matter what I said. But the whole point is, won't every single girl in the Sunrise Hill Camp Fire Club possibly break some of the rules some day? As we are only human, I think we are pretty sure to. So I move that we say nothing more about Polly. Perhaps others of us have done things nearly as bad or will do them. But more important and what I would so much like to persuade you to feel about as I feel is this:"—and Sylvia's plain face worked with the strength of an emotion which few people had ever seen her display before—"I want us to promise ourselves and one another that no matter what any fellow member of the Sunrise Hill Camp Fire Club ever does, or what mistake she may make, or even what sin she may commit, that no one of us will ever turn her back upon her or fail to do anything and everything in our power to help her and to make things happy and comfortable again. I wish I could talk like Betty and Polly, but you do understand what I mean," Sylvia concluded with tears compounded of embarrassment and earnestness standing in her light blue eyes.
"Hear, hear!" whispered Miss McMurtry a little uncertainly.
Rose Dyer clapped her hands softly together. The sound gave the necessary suggestion to the other girls, and poor Sylvia crept back to her place in the circle in a storm of applause. It was the simplest method by which the girls could reveal their deeper emotions. A few moments afterward Sylvia's proposal was put into the form of a regular motion and carried without a dissenting voice.
A FIGURE IN THE NIGHT
"Polly," a muffled voice murmured in so low a tone that the sound was scarcely audible. Then a cold hand was slid beneath the bed clothes, clasping a warm, relaxed one and pressing it with sudden intensity.
"Betty, did you call me?" Polly O'Neill inquired, turning over sleepily and trying to pierce the darkness so as to get a view of her companion. Now that she was coming to her senses, she could feel Betty's body straining close up against her own and her lips almost touching her ear.
It was between two and three o'clock in the morning and the two friends had been sleeping together in Betty Ashton's old-fashioned four-post bed, hung with blue curtains that opened only for a space of several feet in the center of the two sides. The room was dark and cold, for there was no light burning and the sky outside held the blackness that often precedes the dawn. A window was open, letting in sudden gusts of freezing air.
"You aren't ill, are you?" Polly was about to ask when the other girl's fingers closed over her mouth.
"Don't speak and don't stir," Betty whispered, still in almost noiseless tones. "Just listen for a moment. Try and not be frightened, but do you think you can hear any one moving about in this room?"
For the first instant Polly felt a decided inclination to laugh. What an absurd suggestion Betty was making! She must have been asleep and dreamed something that had frightened her. It was rather to be expected, however, after the shock of her accident at the cabin. Therefore it would be best to gratify her fancy; and Polly set herself to listening dutifully.
Then Polly herself started, only to feel once more the other girl's restraining clasp. But the sound she had heard was only the banging of the blind against the window. Nevertheless with the quick Irish sensitiveness to impressions, to subtle suggestions, she was beginning to have a terrifying consciousness of some other person in their bedroom than herself and Betty. And yet she had so far heard nothing, seen nothing.
"Look through the opening in the curtain toward the farthest end of the room—there by the big closet door," Betty whispered. "Be perfectly still, for I am quite sure that the figure has passed entirely around the room twice as though it were groping for something. I can't see, I can only hear it, and once I felt sure that a hand touched our bed."
Shadowy, terrifyingly silent, an indistinct outline was discernible along the opposite wall and a hand moving slowly up and down it as if searching for something. Could it be for the door of the closet only a few feet away?