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The Camp Fire Girls in the Outside World
by Margaret Vandercook
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Both girls for the moment were too frightened or too surprised to stir or to call out. The idea of jumping suddenly from the bed and running toward the intruder had occurred to Betty, who was the more widely awake, although she had confessed to herself that she was neither brave nor foolish enough to do it. For the figure was too mysterious, too uncertain, and whether man or woman, boy or girl, she had no conception. Why, it was only the fact of the hand which proved that it was even human!

Then both girls lay rigid once more, with not a muscle moving, scarcely believing that they breathed. For the form was again flitting down the length of the room, possibly toward their bed. The next second and it had passed through Betty's evidently unlatched door and vanished noiselessly into the hall.

Polly was sleeping on the outside of the bed, so it was she who first leaped upon the floor, turning on the electric light until the room was brilliantly illuminated.

"You are not to stir until I can go along with you," Betty protested, following her immediately. And then both girls lost a moment of time in putting on their dressing gowns, for the night was bitterly cold.

"Shall we call somebody first?" Polly inquired, all at once in the lighted room feeling uncertain as to whether the experience through which they had lately passed had been a real one. Nothing in their room was changed in the least since their going to bed. There were Betty's clothes on one chair and her own upon another. There was the book she had been reading left open upon the desk, and Betty's unfinished letter to Esther. Had they both gone suddenly mad?

But Betty had lighted a candle; so Polly followed until they were able to light the gas in the second story hall.

There was no one about. All the other bedroom doors were safely closed and the Professor was apparently snoring hoarsely.

"Shall we call your mother or wake up anybody?" Polly questioned. But Betty shook her head. She looked pale, and her eyes were uncomfortably mystified. Otherwise she appeared perfectly self-controlled.

"No, let us not call anybody and not mention our alarm until morning. If our visitor was a burglar, he knows that we are aware of his presence and so won't try any more performances tonight. And if it wasn't a burglar, but a ghost, why, there is no use frightening mother to death and we will only get laughed at by the others. It seems queer to me for either a ghost or a burglar to come into a house so filled with people. If you don't mind, Polly, let us just go on back to bed and leave the light burning for our consolation. We had both better try to sleep."

Sleep, however, after their few moments of terror and in the face of the enigma of their unexplained visitor, was impossible. Also the light in the bedroom did not induce slumber, although both girls found it agreeable. Their door leading out into the corridor was now securely latched, notwithstanding that Betty was not in the habit of locking it.

"Betty," Polly asked after a few moments of silence, when the two friends were back again in bed with their arms clasped close about each other, "the closet there at the end of your room—is it one where either you or your mother keep your clothes?"

"No," the other girl repeated thoughtfully. "I had not thought of that. But it only makes things queerer than ever. For the closet is a particularly large one and has always been stored with rubbish. It has an old trunk in it and some pictures and boxes. I don't think there is anything of value, though I don't know exactly what is in the trunk, or the boxes either for that matter. I have often meant to clear the place out, but I have never needed the space and mother pokes around in it sometimes. It is ridiculous to suppose that a burglar would take an interest in old trash, when there are so many other valuable things about. Besides, suppose there should happen to be a few treasures in one of the boxes or the trunk, nobody could know about it when I don't. Oh dear, I wish it were morning!"

Betty sighed deeply, tumbling about restlessly in a fashion that made her a very undesirable bed companion. And yet Polly, who was ordinarily nervous from the slightest movement, made no protest. And she said nothing more for some time, although it was self-evident that she was not growing sleepy. Her rather oddly shaped blue eyes had a far-away, almost uncanny light in them, that somehow added to Betty's discomfort.

"Look here, Polly O'Neill," she protested, giving her arm an affectionate squeeze, "please don't be wishing a ghost upon us. I know you have always believed in Irish fairies and elves and hobgoblins and the like, and used to fuss with poor Mollie and me outrageously because we couldn't or wouldn't see them. But tonight—Oh, well, even Irish ghosts don't come strolling into one's bedroom. They at least have the courtesy to stay in churchyards and in haunted ruins."

"Yes, but isn't this the haunted room of this house, Betty?" Polly inquired in a faintly teasing voice, which yet held a note of serious questioning in it.

And immediately Betty's face grew white and frightened, far more so than at any moment before during their adventure, so that the other girl was instantly regretful of her speech.

"Polly O'Neill," two firm hands next took hold on Polly's thin shoulders, turning her deliberately over in bed so that she was forced to face her questioner, "ever since I can remember there has been some mystery or other connected with this old room. Of course it is not haunted. I suppose sensible people don't believe in ghosts, though I don't see why not believing makes them fail to exist. But the room may have had a tragedy of some kind take place in it, something that both mother and Dick find it painful to mention or recall. I told you that mother would not explain her feeling to me when I insisted upon knowing. However, I don't think my family has the right to keep a secret from me. I am nearly grown now and no longer the kind of girl I used to be. So see here, Polly. Look me directly in the eyes. Oftentimes outsiders hear things first. Have you ever heard of a sorrow or accident, or even something worse, that may have occurred in this house or even in this room when I was too little a girl to understand or remember it? You must tell me the truth."

Polly shook her head, devoutly thankful at the moment for her own lack of information. With Betty's beautiful, honest gray eyes searching her own, with her lips trembling and her cheeks flushed with the fervor of her desire, her friend would have found deceiving her extremely difficult. Yet it was more agreeable to change the subject of their talk, even though it continued upon dangerous grounds.

"No, Betty, I was not thinking of ghosts nor of the fact that you have always been absurdly curious about the mystery of this room. I was thinking of something altogether different—of a thief, in fact—and I was wondering whether you would be angry or hurt or both if I mention something to you?" Polly returned.

Betty kissed her friend's thin cheek, wishing at the same instant that it would grow more rounded, now that Polly was presumably well. "You don't usually mind making me angry, dear," she smiled. "And I don't see why if you have a possible theory of a burglar that I should be hurt. Do you think the figure we saw was a man's or a woman's?"

"I don't know," the other girl replied. "What I have been wondering is just this: Has any one in this house ever come into this room with your mother when she was rummaging in that old closet, to help her move the furniture or lift things about?"

For a moment Betty frowned and then her face flamed crimson.

"You are not fair, Polly. You never have approved of his living here or my being kind to him. And you have said half a dozen times that there was no special point in my being particularly grateful to him, since any one of our friends would have done just what he did, had they been equally near me. But then of course that does not alter the fact. Now just because he has been in here to assist mother does not prove anything, does not even make it fair to be suspicious."

Polly shrugged her shoulders. "I knew you would be angry, so I am sorry I spoke. But you see our first meeting in the woods with the young man when your safety box was almost stolen from you was a little unfortunate. But I don't say that I suspect any one, either, and I have no intention of not being fair. However, I do intend to keep on the lookout. Now kiss me good morning, for I am going to turn out the light. The gray dawn seems at last to be breaking and perhaps we may both get a little sleep before breakfast time."



CHAPTER XVIII

UNCERTAINTY

In spite of their own entire conviction the story told the next day by Polly and Betty to the various members of the Ashton household was received with little credulity. Even Mrs. Ashton was inclined to be skeptical after finding that nothing in the big house had been stolen or even disarranged. There was no window that had been pried open and no door left unlocked. Then why, even if the robber had entered the house by some mysterious process of his own, had he gone away again empty-handed? There were many pieces of valuable silver in the lower part of the establishment, pictures, even single ornaments that could be sold for fair sums of money. Therefore why climb to the second story and enter the girls' room first?

Although Betty and Polly were too deeply offended by the suggestion to allow it to be freely discussed, Miss McMurtry's idea that they had had a kind of sympathetic nightmare, or at least a mutual hallucination, was the most commonly accepted theory. It was an extremely annoying point of view to both the girls, of course, but as they had nothing to disprove it, they were obliged after several futile arguments to let the matter rest. Naturally their Camp Fire friends were delightfully thrilled by the anecdote, but as it was always received either with open or carefully concealed disbelief, after a few days neither Polly nor Betty cared to speak of it except to each other.

There was one person, however, who, whether or not he believed the truth of their story, at least accepted it with extreme seriousness. And it was to him that Polly O'Neill made a determined effort to be the first narrator of their experience.

Anthony Graham was in the habit of getting up earlier than any one else in the Ashton house and had of course disappeared hours before either of the girls awakened the morning after their nearly sleepless night. However, he was accustomed to returning to his small room in the third story at about half-past five o'clock every afternoon, when his work for the day was over, in order to change his clothes for the evening. So at about this time Polly found it convenient to be in the hallway leading to his room and to be there alone.

As he walked toward her unconscious of her presence, in spite of her prejudice against him she could not fail to see how much the young man had improved. He was hardly recognizable as the boy with whom they had had the encounter in the woods a little more than a year before. He was shabby enough and as lean as a young animal that has had too much exercise and too little food. His face was serious, almost sad; nevertheless Polly had no intention of not pursuing her investigation.

She had seated herself on a narrow window ledge and was presumably peering out at the trees in the garden.

As he caught sight of her the young man started with a perfectly natural surprise. For although Polly had been in the same house with him now for a number of weeks, they had not seen each other more than half a dozen times and had only talked together once when Betty had made a point of introducing them as though they had never met before.

Perhaps some recollection of their original coming together was in Anthony's memory, for he blushed a kind of dull brick red, when Polly, turning deliberately from her window seat, said: "Mr. Graham, I wonder if you would mind giving me a minute of your time. There is something I wish to tell you."

"Certainly," he answered and then stood fingering his hat in the same awkward fashion that he had employed in his Thanksgiving visit to Betty, yet regarding the girl herself with a totally different sensation.

For instinctively Anthony Graham recognized that Polly O'Neill was or might become his enemy. Not that she would do him any wrong, but that if ever he was able to set out to accomplish the desire of his heart, the weight of her influence and feeling would be against him. And he did not underestimate the compelling power of a nature like Polly's. She was wayward, high tempered, sometimes appearing unreliable and almost unloving. Yet this last fact was never true of her. It was only that her personality was of the kind that can want but one thing at a time with all the passion and force of which it is capable. And pursuing this desire, she might seem to forget her other impulses. Polly, however, never did put aside her few really vital affections. She and Betty Ashton might quarrel, might continue to disagree as they had so often done in the past; yet Betty's welfare and happiness would always be of intense concern to her friend. More because of the quality of her imagination than from any single witnessed fact, Polly had lately suspected that Anthony might learn to care more for her friend than would be comfortable for anybody concerned in the affair. And undoubtedly the young man had once been a thief if intention counted. Therefore he might be a thief again, and in any case probably needed to be forewarned of a number of things.

"There was a burglar in our room last night," Polly began, wasting no time in preliminaries, but keeping her blue eyes fixed so directly upon Anthony's that they were like blue flames.

Even before he could reply the young man wondered how there could be people who thought this girl beautiful or even pretty. It was true that at times her eyes were strangely magnetic, that her hair was always black with that peculiar almost dead luster, and her lips like two fine scarlet lines. Yet she was always too thin, her chin too pointed and her cheekbones too high to touch any of his ideals of beauty.

"I—I am sorry. That is—what do you mean?" the young fellow stammered stupidly. And all at once the scowl gathered upon his face that Betty Ashton had once misunderstood. It was a black, ugly look, and in this case certainly was inspired by the impression that because of his former misdeed, Polly might now be suspecting him of another.

And she left him no room for doubt.

"Oh, I am not exactly accusing you," she remarked coolly, "for I presume that would hardly be fair. But I am not going to pretend that I feel as much confidence in you as I do in the people against whom I know nothing. I can't. Perhaps I may some day when you have made good, but it is a little too soon to expect it of me, as I am not an idealist like some girls. So last night, though we did not have any reason to suspect that the person who entered our room and then stole out again without our ever really seeing him or her had anything to do with you, I must confess I did think of you. Because, though it is just as well not to talk about it, there is no question but that the intruder was already living in this house. No one came in from the outside. So you see it is like this: I don't begin to say that it was you, but I am going to be on the watch and it is just as fair to warn you openly as to suspect you in secret. Then there is another thing. Personally I don't believe we had a ghostly visitant, as Betty is inclined to think because of the mystery of that particular room. So suppose we take it for granted that you had nothing to do with our experience, then will you help Betty and me to find out who or what it was? We do not want to create too much disturbance over it."

Just how many varying emotions had passed through Anthony Graham's mind during Polly's amazing speech, it would be difficult to express. He was bitterly angry of course, deeply wounded and resentful, and yet he could not but have a certain respect for the girl's outspokenness, for her kind of brutal courage. Certainly he was given notice not to repeat his offense, if offense he had committed. And as proof of his own innocence it might be as wise for him to discover the real offender.

Anthony kept a hold on himself by a fine effort of self-control. The truth was that he and Polly O'Neill were not altogether unlike in disposition, and he had a temper and a will to match with hers. Notwithstanding, he appreciated that this was not the occasion for revealing weakness.

Therefore he merely bowed with such quiet courtesy that Polly was secretly astonished.

"You are unfair in suspecting me of having violated Mrs. Ashton's confidence simply because I once tried to commit a theft. Though of course I know that most people would feel just as you do. Does Betty—does Miss Ashton——" he inquired.

Polly frowned. "No," she responded curtly.

"Then will you tell her, please, that you have confided what has happened to me and that I will do my best to ferret out the mystery."

And Anthony walked past and into his own room, closing the door noiselessly behind him.

With a shrug of her thin shoulders Polly stood for another moment regarding the shut door. "I am sorry to say it, but he has behaved a great deal better than I expected," she thought to herself with a smile at her own expense.



CHAPTER XIX

AN UNSPOKEN POSSIBILITY

The two friends were walking home from school together about ten days later. They had both stayed until almost dusk engaged in different pursuits.

Betty was doing some extra studying with Miss McMurtry, as she had missed so much time and science was always her weakest point; while Polly had been having an hour's quiet talk with her former elocution teacher, Miss Adams. Probably she was the one person in Woodford, excepting Betty, who sympathized in the least with Polly in her escapade. Or if she did not exactly sympathize with her, she was sorry for the retribution that she had brought upon herself. For Mrs. Wharton had decreed that her daughter was not to leave Woodford again and was not even to be permitted to study anything in the village with the view of its being useful to her later in a stage career. The subject was to be entirely tabooed until Polly reached twenty-one, when if she were of the same mind, she might choose her own future. Of course to an impatient nature three years and a few months over seemed like an eternity, and except for Betty's sympathy and her frequent talks with Miss Adams and the latter's accounts of her great cousin, Margaret Adams, Polly believed existence would have been unendurable.

She was in such a state of excitement now over something which Miss Adams had been recently telling her, that at first she hardly heard what Betty was trying to say.

"I have her permission to tell you, Polly dear, because she wishes to have your advice, as you have more imagination about getting out of difficulties than the rest of us; but you have to promise first never to mention it to anybody, not to a single other member of the Camp Fire Club or to Rose or even Donna."

Polly laughed, putting her arm lightly across Betty Ashton's shoulder.

"What are you talking about, child?" she demanded. "I don't particularly like that suggestion of my talent for getting out of scrapes; but if the scrape has anything to do with Betty Ashton, then all my talent is at her disposal, of course."

"But it has nothing to do with me, at least not in the way you mean," the other girl replied, too much in earnest to be amused even for the moment. "It has to do with a girl whom you have never liked very much and she has never liked you. But she has been my friend and I do care for her. And moreover she is a member of our Sunrise Hill Camp Fire Club and we promised to live up to Sylvia's motion."

"Edith Norton?" Polly queried. "She must be in trouble if she is willing to confide in me."

But Betty's expression suddenly silenced her. Always Betty Ashton had been the most popular among her special group of Camp Fire girls. At first chiefly for her beauty, her wealth, the prominent position of her family and for her own generosity and charm. More recently, however, since the girl had met her own disasters so courageously, a new element had come into her influence and the affection she inspired. It was a quality that Polly with all her cleverness would never create, one of steadfastness under fire. Perhaps it was one of the last characteristics that one might have looked for in the early days of the Princess. And yet it will always be found in truly aristocratic natures. When life is flowing smoothly, when the days go by with no special demands made upon them, these persons may have many little weaknesses. Yet when the special occasion arises theirs is the faithfulness and fortitude. So while Betty had neither the sound judgment of Sylvia Wharton nor the brilliant fancy of Polly, it was to her that the other girls usually made their first appeal in any dilemma or distress.

At this moment if they had not been together on the street Polly would have liked to embrace her. The cold air had brought Betty's color back; she still wore the little lace cap under her old fur hat, but the edging made a lovely frame for her face, and her hair was already growing so that the curls showed underneath, like a baby's.

"Yes, it is Edith," Betty answered seriously. "And she is in a difficulty that you could never have imagined of one of our Camp Fire girls. You know she has been going a good deal with that man whom none of us like until she thinks she is really in love with him. And it seems that Edith believes that he does not care a great deal about her. So she, poor thing, has been trying her best to make him care. She has bought herself a lot of clothes that she cannot afford, for you know she gets such a small salary at the shop where she works."

"Is that all?" Polly demanded. "It is awfully foolish of her, of course, to be so extravagant, but it isn't such a dreadful crime. And as I suppose she has charged what she got, she can just save up and pay back her bills by degrees."

Betty shook her head. "Don't be a goose, dear. Edith can't charge things in Woodford. She hasn't any credit in the shops like your mother and mine have. She is only a poor girl working for her own support, with her family not living here and with no position when they were. No, you see she borrowed the money from the woman she was working for without telling her. She meant to pay it back of course, only, only——"

"You mean she stole it from her?" Polly exclaimed in a hushed tone. This was a good deal worse than anything which she had anticipated. She had always considered Edith Norton foolish and vain; but then surely the Camp Fire had helped her, had given her the ideals and the training that she had never learned at home. Betty was crying so bitterly and so openly that Polly felt she must comfort her friend first before criticising or attempting to suggest a solution to the other girl's problem.

"But, dear, if you wish Edith's trouble kept a secret, you must not weep over her, just as you get home," she protested. "Don't you know that everybody in the house will be demanding to know what the matter is at once, and the Professor can hardly be kept from weeping with you? I can't think of anything to suggest to Edith except that she confess what she has done and ask Madame to let her return the money by working for it."

"I told her that, but she did not believe that she would be forgiven," Betty explained. "Oh, if I only had just a little of the money I used to throw away! I don't mind being poor so much myself, Polly; it is when I so want to do for other people."

"You don't have to tell me that, Princess," her friend replied quietly. "But, dear, this time I am glad you have not the money. Because you know it would not be right for you just to give Edith the money and have her give it back without any one's knowing. At least, I don't quite think so. And yet I am awfully sorry that Edith and I should both in our different ways have broken our Camp Fire law. And I will do anything I can think of to help her. Do you know, dear, how long she has been in this difficulty?

"Oh, I think about two weeks," Betty answered. "But she only confided in me yesterday. It seems that she has tried several ways of getting the money and has attempted to borrow it. She thought maybe I could lend it to her, and I may be able to later on, only I would have to tell mother some reason why I needed twenty-five dollars all of a sudden from our small supply."

"No, you must not. Maybe I may be able to help. Or we may persuade Edith to confess. I believe she will when she thinks more about our old Camp Fire teachings. Anyhow, as we are at home now, let us wait and talk it all over again tonight after we get to bed. It is then, of course, that I do my most brilliant thinking."

So with this in mind, obliterating all other thoughts at their hour of retiring, for the first evening since their fright ten days before, neither Polly nor Betty remembered the locking of their outside door upon getting into bed.

And this time it was Polly O'Neill who was aroused first a short while after midnight by the slow turning of their doorknob and then the sense of an almost noiseless figure entering their bedroom.

Immediately she awoke Betty by suddenly calling her name aloud, and at the same instant sprang out of bed, again touching the electric button and flooding the room with revealing light.



CHAPTER XX

THE BEGINNING OF LIGHT

"Why, why!" exclaimed Polly in surprise and consternation, standing perfectly still with her hand upraised toward the light, too puzzled to let it drop down at her side.

But with a little, warning cry Betty had called to her and almost at the same moment was across the room, with her arms about a tall, slight figure.

"Mother, mother," she whispered quietly, "wake up. You have gotten up out of your bed and wandered into Polly's and my room. And you have frightened us nearly to death! Dear me, you have not walked in your sleep for years, have you?"

At Betty's first words following the stream of light, Mrs. Ashton had opened her eyes with returning consciousness until now she appeared almost entirely wide awake. And an expression both of fear and annoyance crossed her face.

"You poor children, so I am your ghost and your burglar," she declared, "and I believed it was you who were having nightmares! I am awfully sorry. Betty knows I used to have this unfortunate habit of strolling about the house in my sleep long ago. But I am quite sure that I have not done it for several years now. The truth is I have not yet gotten over the nervous shock of Betty's being brought home to me and my not knowing how seriously she was injured for such a time; it seemed an eternity."

Betty had thrown a shawl over her mother's shoulders, as she was clad only in her night-dress, and she and Polly slipped into their dressing gowns.

"Wasn't it odd, though, mother, your coming in here both times? I wonder if you had me on your mind and wanted to see how I was. But you did not seem to. You kept groping your way toward that old closet as though you wished to rummage about in it. But do come and let me take you back to bed now, and I will stay with you so you will behave yourself and give Polly a chance to rest."

For quite five minutes after the two had gone, Polly lay awake. There were really so many things to consider, because, of course, when one has too active an imagination it is apt to lead one into trouble. First, she must apologize to Anthony Graham for her totally unfounded suspicion of him. And then, thank Heaven, she had not breathed the suggestion aloud! Yet just for a moment she had wondered if Edith Norton could have—but it was not true and of course never could have been.

Then a third idea. What could be hidden away in that old closet of so great value or interest that Mrs. Ashton turned toward it in her sleeping hours, when her subconscious mind must be directing her footsteps? No wonder that Betty was puzzled and annoyed over the secrets of the old room. Naturally as a visitor in the Ashton home it would be exceedingly bad manners, if nothing worse, for her to try to find out anything that her hostess wished to keep concealed. Yet just as Polly lost her train of thought she remembered wishing that Betty might make the discovery for herself, since most certainly then she would confide in her.

The next day being Friday, Polly went to her own home to spend the week-end. And quite by accident she and Mollie came in together for a few moments on Sunday afternoon and went directly to Betty's room without letting her know of their approach.

As they knocked and had no answer, Polly, feeling entirely at home, pushed the door open.

"Betty, child, don't you want to see us?" she demanded. "I know I promised to give you a rest until Monday, but Mollie and I could not bear to spend a whole Sunday afternoon without you."

And at this, Betty Ashton appeared from the darkness of the big closet at the farthest end of her bedroom. She wore a lavender cashmere frock with a broad velvet belt and a lace cap with lavender ribbons. But the cap was much awry, so that her hair was tumbled carelessly over her forehead, even showing the slight scar underneath, which usually she was so careful to hide, and her cheeks were a good deal flushed. There was no doubt that she was greatly interested or excited over something.

"Mollie and Polly, I am glad," she avowed. "I was just needing some one to talk to and to ask questions of most dreadfully. Mother has gone out driving this afternoon, and as I was alone it occurred to me it might be fun to rummage about in this old closet and see whether it really concealed any treasures. After our belief that a burglar was trying to enter it, I thought it might be just as well for me to find out what it contained."

"Does your mother know?" Polly inquired, and could hardly have explained to herself just why she asked the question.

"No. I did not think of investigating it before she left. But of course she won't care. Why should she? The boxes have nothing in them but old books and rubbish. But this trunk—I can't quite understand about some of the things I have found in it. Maybe you can help me guess."

And before either of the other girls knew what she intended doing, Betty was dragging the shaky trunk out of the closet into the greater brightness of the room, Mollie rushing to her assistance as soon as possible. Yet for some reason unknown to herself, Polly hesitated. She did not even move forward when Betty and Mollie dropped down on their knees before it, although she did observe that the trunk was locked, but that the hinges at the back had rusted and fallen off, so that Betty had gotten into it in that way.

Evidently the things at the top had already been taken out inside the closet, for Betty was now reaching down toward the bottom and bringing out what looked like a trousseau of baby clothes—her own or Dick's, they could not yet tell which.

The little dresses were yellow and fragile with age; the long blue coat had faded; most of the little shoes and flannels had been worn.

"I wish you would not look through those things until your mother gets back, Betty," Polly said rather irritably.

But both her sister and friend glanced up at her in surprise.

"What is the possible harm? Mother couldn't mind. There is certainly no reason why I should not look at my own clothes or at Dick's. It's queer I never happen to have seen them before."

"Did your mother never have any other children, Betty?" Mollie inquired, and the other girl shook her head.

Polly had come over now and was standing near them by the edge of the trunk and looking down inside it.

Of course what Betty was doing must seem to her perfectly right or else she would never have thought of doing it; yet Polly could not help feeling a certain distaste for the whole proceeding. Old possessions were always kind of uncanny and uncomfortable to her temperament; they held too poignant a suggestion of death, of the passing of time and of almost forgotten memories.

Betty and Mollie had a differently romantic point of view. And to both of them, being essentially feminine, the delicate, exquisite baby apparel made a strongly sentimental appeal.

Suddenly, with a little cry of surprise and amusement, Betty picked up a small frock which must have been made for a child of about a year old, that was curiously different from the others. While they had been of sheer lawns and expensive laces, this was a perfectly straight-up-and-down garment of coarse check gingham of the cheapest kind and attached to it were a pair of rough little shoes.

"I wonder how in the world these ever got in here or why mother has preserved them so carefully. She has a perfect horror of cheap things," Betty began in a half-puzzled and half-humorous fashion, holding the poor little baby dress up to the light and giving it a shake.

Stooping, Mollie picked up something that must have fallen from one of the shoes. It was an old tintype picture of a comparatively young man with a baby in his arms and a little girl pressing close up against his knee.

Mollie was looking at it with a slightly bewildered expression when Polly came up and glanced over her shoulder. And instantly Polly's face grew white; however, it was a trick of hers when anything surprised or annoyed her. And at the moment she had a strong impulse to take the picture from Mollie's hands and tear it into a hundred pieces before Betty Ashton should have a chance to see it.

Notwithstanding, Betty had already joined them and was apparently as much perplexed as Mollie. She took the photograph nearer to the window.

"I declare this looks like Esther when she was a little girl and Professor Crippen. I believe he did tell me there was another child that somebody had adopted and who did not know he was her father. I suppose Esther must have asked mother to take care of these things for her. It is queer that she never thought of speaking of them to me. I must write her I have seen them, for I should not wish her to feel I had been prying," Betty finished, going back to the trunk and putting the little things carefully away.

The weight that had gathered pressingly in the neighborhood of Polly's heart in the past thirty seconds now lifted.

"Yes, and do close up that tiresome trunk at once Betty Ashton, or I am going home," Polly scolded. "It bores me dreadfully to have you and Mollie poking in there when we might be talking."

But Betty paid no heed to her, for she had found another photograph of a different character. It was a picture of another baby, a beautiful miniature so delicately tinted that the colors were almost like life. And the child's face was very like Mrs. Ashton's, the same flaxen hair and light blue eyes. And it bore no possible resemblance either to Richard Ashton or to Betty. However, there was no reason to consider its being either one of them, for it was plainly marked on the back, "Phyllis Ashton," and then had the date of the birth.

Betty offered no comment and expressed no wonder, although she let both her friends look at the picture, still holding it in her own hands.

"But I thought you said your mother had only two children, you and Dick," Mollie declared, and Polly would have liked to shake her.

"Yes, I did think so until now," the third girl replied. And placing her picture back in the trunk, she closed the lid, still leaving the trunk in the center of the room, in spite of the fact that both her friends insisted on helping her with it into the closet.

Then Betty began making tea on her alcohol lamp and talking of other things; only Polly could see that her mind was not in the least upon what she was saying, but that she was thinking of something else every possible second.

Whether to go or to stay with her friend was Polly's present indecision. However, she and Molly remained until Mrs. Ashton had returned from her drive and Betty went into her mother's room to assist in taking off her wraps.



CHAPTER XXI

BETTY FINDS OUT

It was Monday afternoon and the March weather held an alluring suggestion of spring.

Running along the street with her red coat scarcely fastened and her hat at a totally wrong angle upon her head, Polly O'Neill showed no concern for exterior conditions.

Finding the Ashton front door unlocked she entered without stopping to ring the bell, and made straight, not for Betty's, but for Mrs. Ashton's bedroom. She found her lying upon the bed, though at her visitor's entrance she sat up, appearing quite ill.

"O Mrs. Ashton, why didn't Betty come to school today? Where is she? Has anything happened? I was dreadfully worried when I found she was not at any of her classes, and then when I asked Miss McMurtry whether anything was the matter, she was so queer and mysterious. And when I said I was going to leave school and come here at once, she said that I had better not, that Betty had specially asked to be alone and that even you had not seen her this morning. Donna behaved just as though she knew something about my beloved Betty that I don't. And it is not fair. I am sure Betty would wish me to know. Where is she?"

"Sit down, Polly," Mrs. Ashton returned, getting up from the bed and taking a seat opposite. "I don't know where Betty is just now and I am very uneasy and very unhappy about her. The poor child has had so many things happen in the past year, after being spoiled in every possible way up till then. She was in her own room most of the morning, but about two hours ago sent word to me that she was going out and that I was not to be alarmed if she did not return for some little time. I might as well tell you our secret, dear. I suppose there is no way now to keep people from knowing it eventually and perhaps we have been unkind and unwise in concealing it from Betty so long. I wonder if you have ever dreamed that Betty is Esther Crippen's sister?"

Polly gasped. No, she had not dreamed it. If the suspicion had ever entered her mind, she had put it from her as a self-evident absurdity. Her beautiful, exquisite Princess and Esther and Herr Crippen! It was an impossible association of ideas and of people.

"But it can't be true, Mrs. Ashton," she argued almost angrily, feeling that the room was whirling about and that she was almost ill from the surprise and shock. And if this was her sensation, what could Betty's have been! "Think how lovely Betty is and how utterly unlike either of them. Besides, why have we never known and how did you happen to do it?" Polly dropped her face in her two hands. She so very seldom cried that the effort always hurt her.

"It is a tragic story, dear, and one we have never liked to talk about for all our sakes," Mrs. Ashton replied, showing more self-control than Polly had ever seen her display before.

"Very many years ago I had a baby named Phyllis. Betty tells me that you too saw her picture in the old trunk. Well, Dick was a little boy of about seven, and by some dreadful accident found a loaded pistol in his father's desk and came running into the big back room with it, which in those days was the baby's nursery. You can imagine what happened without my telling you. Dick was a child, and yet the horror of it has altered his entire nature and life. He has always been serious and over-conscientious, always anxious to devote his life to the service of other people as a reparation for a tragedy which was never in the least his fault. It was therefore as much for Dick's sake as for mine that Mr. Ashton persuaded us to adopt a baby in Phyllis' place. So we drove out to the asylum together one day, with our minds not made up and there—there we found our adored Betty. Herr Crippen had just left his two children to be cared for, and Betty was only a baby. But she was the most exquisite little thing you can imagine, the same lovely auburn hair and big serious gray eyes. Dick adored her from the moment that she put her arms about his neck and would not let go when the time came for us to return home. We have always loved her since, Polly, as well as if she had been our own baby—better I almost think. You know what she is, so there is little use for me to say it—'Our Princess', dear. I have always loved your name and the other girls' for her."

"But Herr Crippen and Esther—they are so plain, and except for their gifts, why, compared to Betty they seem so—so ordinary," Polly protested.

"But you must remember that there was a mother, too, and that Herr Crippen has said she was an American and very lovely. I believe her family would have nothing more to do with her because she married a German musician. And then, you see, child, Betty has had many advantages that Esther has not had. It was because Dick and I began slowly to realize that perhaps we had been cruel to Esther in depriving her of her little sister that we finally asked her to come here and live as a kind of companion to Betty. It was a long-delayed kindness and yet Esther has very nobly repaid us; for it seems that when Herr Crippen returned and claimed Esther as his daughter, Esther learned then of Betty's relation to them and it was she who insisted that her father make no sign, realizing how entirely Betty's devotion was given to Dick and Mr. Ashton and to me, even to this old home, which has been her pride for so long."

"Poor, poor little Princess! It will almost break her heart," Polly murmured.

But although Mrs. Ashton wiped a few tears from her eyes, she shook her head.

"Some day you will find out that hearts are harder to break than you now believe. I would almost have given my life to have spared Betty this knowledge, and yet some day she must realize that we love her as we have always done and that love is the only thing that greatly counts, after all. There is no reason why Betty should feel any shame in her relation to Herr Crippen; he has been unfortunate, but there is nothing else against him. And Esther is a remarkable girl."

"Yes, I know. But what made Betty suspect? How did she find all this out?" Polly queried.

"Betty told me of her discoveries in the old trunk and asked me a number of questions. I was confused; I am not in the least sure how I answered them. Anyhow, she became suspicious and went to Herr Crippen and then to Miss McMurtry, who, it seems, was in Esther's and her father's confidence. They gave the child no satisfaction, but only made her the more uneasy and distressed, until finally Betty remembered the sealed envelope which Mr. Ashton had always made her keep in her box of valuable papers. Possibly she has told you that the envelope was only to be opened when she should come to some crisis in her life and need advice or information. Betty opened the envelope and it contained the papers proving her legal adoption by us and her right in the equal division of whatever property either Mr. Ashton or I might have. Now, Polly, that is all," Mrs. Ashton concluded. "But I feel that if Betty does not soon come to me and put her arms about me and call me 'mother' as she always has, that I shan't be able to bear things either. Won't you find her and bring her here to me?"

And Polly, glad to be away to battle with her own emotions, kissed her older friend and vanished. But Betty was not in her room, and as there seemed to be no clue to work upon, it was difficult to decide just where she should begin the search.



CHAPTER XXII

SUNRISE CABIN

Betty was not with any one of their acquaintances, for Polly telephoned everybody they knew before leaving the Ashton house.

Then a possibility suddenly dawning upon her, she hurried forth, feeling that anything was better than remaining longer indoors.

All of the Sunrise Hill Camp Fire girls were in the habit of taking frequent walks to their forsaken log cabin. And as Betty wished to be alone and especially needed the strength and consolation that its happy memories could give her, probably she had gone out there. Under most circumstances Polly would have respected her friend's desire for solitude, but Betty must already have been at the cabin for some time by herself and the dusk would soon come down upon her and she would be hurt and lonely, with all her familiar world fallen about her feet.

No one else must learn of her pilgrimage, since Betty might forgive her presence and yet could not rally to meet the astonishment and sympathy of any other of her friends. So Polly told several impatient fibs to the persons who insisted upon learning where she intended going, before she was able to get outside of Woodford and into the blessed solitude of the country lanes.

The air was colder by this time and light flurries of snow kept blinding her eyes as she hurried along. However, she had not so forgotten her training in woodcraft as not to recognize signs of Betty's having preceded her along almost the same route; for here and there, where the earth had thawed in the midday warmth, there were impressions of the Princess' shoes. And she even picked up a small crushed handkerchief which had been dropped by the way.

Therefore in spite of her depression over Mrs. Ashton's information, Polly was beginning to get a kind of hold upon herself. For it was her place, if she possibly could manage it, to persuade Betty that, after all, life was not so utterly changed by yesterday's discovery. If Mrs. Ashton and Dick were not her own mother and brother, they themselves knew no difference. And there would be no change in her friends' affections. Then, she had gained Esther as a sister, Esther who was so big in her nature, so unselfish and fine. No wonder she had always seemed to care for Betty with a devotion no one of them could explain. And how hard it must have been loving her as she did to have made no claim upon her.

"Hello, Miss Polly," an unexpected voice cried out, and to Polly's utter vexation she beheld Billy Webster coming toward her from the path that led through his father's woods.

She bowed coldly, hoping that her coldness might be her salvation, since she did not wish to waste time in conversation with him, nor to explain why she was in such a hurry to go on with her walk. But Billy was apparently not influenced by Polly's present attitude, being too accustomed to her moods.

"May I walk along with you?" he inquired politely enough. "I was just out for exercise, with no special place in mind where I wished to go, and I should ever so much rather have you as a companion."

It was on the tip of Polly's tongue to exclaim, "But I would so much rather not have you!" However, she suddenly recalled having promised Mollie to be as polite to Billy as she could and not to bear malice any longer. So she merely shook her head. "I am sorry, but I am in a great hurry," she explained. "For you see I came out with a very special place in mind to which I wish to go immediately."

Billy laughed, rather a big, splendid, open-hearted laugh. Polly was amusing, in no matter what temper she might happen to be.

"But I won't interfere with your destination and I certainly can manage to walk as fast as you can," he announced calmly, keeping close to the girl's side, although her rapid walking had developed almost into a run, and she was nearly out of breath.



Well, if she could not outwalk him and could not manage to get rid of him in any other way, Polly decided that she would at least keep perfectly silent until he had the sense to go away of his own accord. It was still some distance before she could reach the cabin.

However, as Billy was doing a great deal of talking, he appeared not to be aware of her unusual silence.

"Look here, Miss Polly, I have been thinking of something for a long time—several months, in fact," he declared. "And I have about come to the conclusion that maybe I was pretty domineering in the way in which I behaved to you in New York. Of course I still consider that acting business a dreadful thing for you to have done which might have brought consequences that you could not imagine. But I ought to have tried to persuade you to stop or to write your mother, and not to have bullied you. I want you to believe, though, that it was because I like you so much that I went all to pieces over the idea of anything happening to you—your getting ill or somebody being rude to you. Great Scott! but I am glad that you have given up that foolish idea of going upon the stage and have settled down quietly in Woodford!"

Polly turned a pair of astonished blue eyes upon her companion, who happened at the moment to be gazing up toward the sky where the snow clouds were growing heavier.

"You are very kind to be interested in my welfare, I am sure," she replied, trying her best not to let sarcastic tones creep into her voice. "And of course I realized that your friendship for Mollie and mother made you feel that you had the right to express your opinion very frankly to me. But you are mistaken if you believe that I have given up my foolish notion of going upon the stage. Of course I appreciate now that I was wrong in betraying mother's trust and in trying that experiment in acting without her consent. So I have accepted my punishment and made my bargain. But just the same, when I am twenty-one, I mean to try again with all my strength and power and to keep on trying until I ultimately succeed."

Billy Webster closed his lips with a look of peculiar obstinacy.

"Three years is a long time," he answered, "and you might as well know that though I am fond of Mollie and always will be, it is you I really care about. Oh yes, I realize that there are hours when I almost hate you, but that is because you dislike me and because I can't get you to do what I wish. Still, you might as well understand that I intend doing everything in my power for the next three years to make you stay in Woodford when the time is up and to make you stay because you love me."

And then before Polly was able to get her breath or to stamp her foot or in any possible way to relieve her feelings, the young man had marched away through an opening at one side of the path, without even stopping once to glance back at her.

It was out of the question then for Polly to decide whether she was the more angry, astonished or amused. Of course it was absurd for Billy Webster to conceive of having any emotion for her except one of disapproval. He was simply so obstinate and so sure of himself that he wanted to make her like him, because he knew that she almost hated him. And if it had not been for Mollie, she would have suffered no "almost" in her dislike.

Really the confusion and protest that the young man's words had awakened in her mind, coming on top of the disclosure about Betty, made Polly feel as if she had suddenly taken leave of her senses. And as it is a rather good scheme when one is unable to think clearly, to give up thinking at all for the time being, the girl started running in the direction of the cabin, so fast that she had opportunity for no other impulse or impression except forcing herself to keep up the desired speed.

By a camp fire, which Betty had built for herself, Polly discovered her friend sitting on a stool with her elbow in her lap and her head resting on her hand. She did not seem astonished or annoyed by her friend's entrance. When Polly came forward and kissed her she merely said, "I am glad you know, Polly. I hope you did not have a very cold walk. It was not snowing when I came out." Then she began piling more logs on her fire.

Later the two girls had an intimate talk.

"It is odd, Polly, but I don't feel as wretched as I should have expected I would," Betty explained, speaking as much to herself as to her companion. "I think perhaps it is intended for me to have my illusions shattered earlier in life than other people have them—I think possibly because I have been vainer and more foolish. At first I presume I used to have a kind of unconscious satisfaction in our having more money than other people and in being able to do almost anything for my friends that I wished. Then when the money went away I thought, well, perhaps money does not make so much difference if one has an old family and a name of which one may be proud. But in these last few hours, sitting here by myself I have begun to appreciate more fully what our Camp Fire organization is trying so hard to teach us. It is that all we girls are alike in the essential things, only that some of us have been given better opportunities and more friends. There is only one thing that really counts, I suppose, and that is not so much what other people do for us, as what we are able to do for ourselves, what kind of women we are able to grow into. So you see that though I believe I was struggling to save the old Ashton house because all my distinguished ancestors had been living there for generation after generation and I wanted to have babies of my own to inherit it some day, now I am even happier because perhaps I have saved it for Dick and mother by my plan and maybe it will repay them a little for all they have done for me."

"I don't think the debt is on your side, dear," Polly returned loyally.

But already Betty had risen from her stool and was looking around for her cloak and cap.

"Let us hurry home now; we shall have a glorious walk!" she exclaimed. "I have been away from mother long enough and I do want to write to Esther. She has got to come to see me for a few days, or else I am going to her. Don't worry; I shall not forget the seven points of our Camp Fire star."



CHAPTER XXIII

FAREWELLS

One morning in May two months later two girls were in the much-discussed back bedroom overlooking the Ashton garden. It was very much the same kind of cheerless day outdoors that it had been when they had first met each other after a lapse of many years. And then of course neither one knew of the closeness of the tie between them. However, at the present moment they were busily engaged in packing two steamer trunks that were standing open before them.

"I never shall get all this stuff in if you don't come and help me, Esther," Betty protested in the spoiled fashion of an earlier time. And since Esther never would cease to believe that the whole world should be grateful to Betty for the honor of her presence in it, it is doubtful whether her methods of spoiling "The Princess" ever would be entirely given up.

"Sit down, dear, or else run and see Polly and Mollie and Mrs. Wharton for a few moments. You are tired and I can finish putting the things in for you without any trouble. Poor Polly is kind of pathetic these days, I think; she is so desperate over our going away and leaving her behind, and then, though she tries her best not to show it, she is jealous of our being so much together. I am sorry for her, because it is pretty much the same way that I used to feel toward her. And of course I have tried to show her that no one can take her place with you; but she is so low-spirited and so unlike herself that there is no convincing her of anything agreeable."

Betty had sunk into a low chair and was rocking thoughtfully back and forward knitting her brows.

"Mother and I both consider that Mrs. Wharton is making a mistake in not allowing Polly to leave Woodford for three years; for she will probably grow so tired of it by that time that she will never want to come home again—that is, if she goes on the stage. When it was decided that we were to go abroad mother suggested to Mrs. Wharton that she let Polly come over and join us later. She thought it would be very much more apt to distract her attention than if she stayed on here with nothing else to dream about."

"And what did Mrs. Wharton answer?" Esther queried, turning from her own trunk and beginning to straighten out the confusion in her sister's.

"Oh, she wouldn't hear of it," Betty returned. "So sometimes I feel pretty selfish at being so happy over our sailing. But just think, we are going straight to Germany and dear old Dick! It seems a hundred years since he went away. How strangely things have turned out! Here are Miss McMurtry and my new father getting married, when I have been predicting that they would, with no one believing me, ever since that evening at the cabin. So they will be able to look after the house and let the people stay on in it just as if mother and I were here, and send us a check for the rent each month so that we will have enough to live upon. But better than anything, Esther dear, is the wonderful chance you will have for your music. You are going to study under one of the greatest teachers in the world and not because of what your own family believe about your talent, but because of what your teacher in New York wrote the Professor." It was not often that Betty was able to speak of Herr Crippen as father; Mr. Ashton had been her father too long, and she had cared for him too much to be willing to give the title to any one else. So "the Professor" and "Donna" were the names she ordinarily bestowed upon her new parents.

"You must not expect too much of my singing, Betty," Esther replied in her same shy, nervous fashion. "And, for goodness sake! don't write your brother Dick that my voice has improved, or he will be disappointed."

Betty laughed teasingly. "Oh, I have told him already that you were greater than Melba and Farrar rolled into one. But never mind, Esther, he will soon find out the real truth for himself. Isn't it too splendid how happy mother is over our plans! She has not been so like herself since father's death. And somehow instead of acting as if she had given me up to the Professor as a daughter, she behaves far more as if he had just presented her with you as well. I believe she feels it helps to make up to you, Esther, for the years of loneliness—her being able now to chaperon you, when you so much need to have your big chance."

Esther was kneeling on the floor; but she turned her light blue eyes appealingly upon her sister and her lips quivered, revealing her one beautiful feature in the mobility of the lines of her mouth and in the whiteness of her teeth.

"You must not expect too much of me, little sister, will you?" she pleaded. "You know I have only consented to father's making this big sacrifice for me so that we may all be abroad together, and you and Mrs. Ashton have the rest and change you so much need. And then, of course, I may be able to learn to sing well enough some day to earn the money to buy you a Paris frock and hat," she ended with an attempt at lightness.

However, Betty was not deceived, and getting up from her rocking chair, she deliberately pushed Esther aside.

"For goodness sake! let me finish packing my own trunk, Esther Crippen," she commanded. "Here I have been carefully trying to cultivate an angelic character ever since I became a Camp Fire girl, and in a few weeks of your spoiling you do away with the labor of years."

Betty therefore was not looking up when some one tiptoed quietly into the room, and, before she became conscious of her presence, dropped a bunch of May blossoms under her eyes.

"There are two automobiles waiting before your door at the present moment, children," Polly announced. "And John Everett suggested that I tell you to get into your coats and hats at once. He came home for the day; I've an idea he may have desired to say farewell to 'My Lady Betty,' but I was given no such information. What I was told to say was that he and Meg were giving an automobile ride in your honor and that we were to end up by having our lunch at the cabin. They have asked all the Camp Fire Club and some of John's friends, Billy Webster," and Polly's face expressed her chagrin. "John has even invited Anthony Graham, and the poor fellow has fixed himself up until he is positively shining with cleanliness, though I am afraid he will be cold in that shabby overcoat of his."

While Polly was chattering, she was assisting Betty to slip into her new violet dress which had been made for the steamer crossing and happily was lying ready and spread out upon the bed. And the next instant she had pinned Esther's new blue crepe de chine blouse down in the back, hurried them both into their heavy coats and hats, and was ushering them out to their friends, who were impatiently awaiting their coming.

No one of the little party forgot their May day together in the woods and at the Sunrise Hill cabin for a long time to come. And among the many kind things that were said to her in farewell, it was curious that the speech made by Anthony Graham should make the deepest impression upon Betty Ashton's mind.

He had asked her come away from her other friends for a few moments, and they had walked to the edge of the group of pines not far from the foot of Sunrise Hill. It was almost sunset, for no one had thought of going home after the late luncheon was over.

Betty glanced about her rather wistfully. This particular bit of country was dearer to her than any place in the world except her old home and yet she was leaving it for an unknown land, to be away she could not tell how long.

"Miss Ashton," Anthony began, "there will probably be a good many changes in people and things before you come home again. And I am hoping with all my strength that of the greatest changes will have taken place in me. I mean that by that time you need not be ashamed of having befriended me. It is pretty hard sometimes to climb a hill along with other people when you have started so much nearer the bottom than they have. But I feel now that I have made at least a fair start. Judge Maynard told me yesterday that he believed I meant business and that he would teach me all the law he knew and that he would see that I wasn't far behind the fellows at the law schools when the time came for my examinations."

Betty's face glowed with interest and enthusiasm and she gave her two hands to the young man with the same friendliness which she had used in his first call upon her.

"I am so glad, so glad!" she answered. "But please don't speak of my feeling ashamed of you ever again. I know I was rather horrid to you once and that afterwards you saved my life, or what perhaps means more than one's life. Suppose we promise to repay our debts to each other in some entirely new way when we meet after my return." Betty made her idle speech with no special meaning attached to it. And although Anthony agreed in much the same manner, it was possibly fortunate that Betty did not observe his expression as he turned away and walked a few paces ahead of her, gazing up toward the summit of Sunrise Hill. The golden disk of the sun was at this instant resting upon it like the crown of the world. And to Anthony it seemed none too beautiful or too magnificent a gift to have laid at the feet of a gray-eyed Princess.

Voices were heard calling to them from the cabin, and a short while after good-nights were said and Sunrise Cabin was once more left to solitude and memories.

* * * * * *

The next volume of the Camp Fire Girls' Series will be known as "The Camp Fire Girls Across the Seas." Several years will have intervened between it and the previous book and the girls will be introduced under very different influences and circumstances. Just how many of them will have crossed the seas and for what purposes, and how the old Camp Fire influence will still follow them, it is the plan of this story to reveal.

THE END

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