Having completed her work downstairs, Sally Ashton had hurried up to her bedroom where at present she was making little nervous preparations as if intending to go outdoors and anxious not to be observed.
There was no reason why she should feel alarmed. So far as she knew, every member of her household was occupied with the day's work. From the schoolroom below she could hear the voices of the children singing a little French chanson, and now and then one of the older girls either asking a question or reciting. Alice Ashton and Bettina Graham, Marta Clark and Yvonne Fleury were engaged with their pupils.
An hour before Peggy and Vera had driven off in the motor with Mary Gilchrist, since Mary had promised to transport a number of wounded soldiers from a train to a nearby convalescent hospital, and was uncertain whether she would find anyone at the railroad station to help. Therefore she had asked the two girls to accompany her. Peggy also desired to mail a letter to Ralph Marshall which might reach him before he started upon his journey.
Always Aunt Patricia was occupied outdoors from breakfast until lunch time. So in spite of the fact that Sally Ashton showed a degree of suppressed excitement both in her manner and appearance, there would seem to have been no apparent excuse. A certain timorousness once wholly unlike her, lately had appeared in Sally's attitude.
She also had grown thinner and her big golden brown eyes had lost their sleepy expression and acquired an anxious appeal. The lines about her full, rather pouting lips were strained and apprehensive.
Having at the moment pulled a small traveling bag down from a shelf overhead and allowed it to fall on the floor, Sally did not hear the swift opening and closing of her bedroom door. Therefore, when she had secured her bag and was straightening up, she gave an exclamation of surprise on discovering her sister standing within a few feet of her.
Except that she was handsomer, Alice looked very like her mother, the Esther of the first Camp Fire days, yet she and Sally bore no possible resemblance to each other either in disposition or appearance.
Alice was tall and slender, with a grave, severe air. She wore her dark red hair parted and bound about the back of her head in a heavy braid. She was a little angular. There was a suggestion that unless life dealt generously with her, granting her the gifts which make for tenderness and softness in a woman's nature, she might in time have the appearance one is supposed to associate with an old maid. However, old maids are as unlike as the rest of the human species.
Certainly at the present moment her expression was austere, although uneasy and distressed as well.
"What are you doing, Sally?" she inquired, her voice gentle and solicitous, yet observing that a wave of color had swept over Sally's face even before she had spoken.
The next moment Sally flung her bag down on the floor again, answering petulantly:
"What am I doing? Well, really, Alice, I do not see what difference it makes to you, or why you should slip into our room so quietly that you frightened me. As a matter of fact, I got down my traveling bag to—to——" Sally's voice trailed off helplessly for an instant. The next instant, gathering force, she repeated: "I pulled down my bag because I wished to store away some odds and ends which I wish to keep safely."
Then losing her temper in a most suspicious fashion, suddenly Sally stamped her foot as if she were an angry child and at the same time her eyes grew unexpectedly dark and lovely.
"That is not what you came into this room to announce to me, Alice. So please say whatever it is you wish and be through. I am going out for a little walk before lunch." In any event Sally was no coward!
"Then sit down. You do not look very well and I am afraid you won't like what I must say," Alice returned. "Understand, it gives me no pleasure; instead, I am tremendously worried and unhappy. I suppose I should have talked the situation over with Tante before she went away, but I knew it would interfere with her trip and so avoided troubling her."
In answer to her sister's suggestion Sally seated herself upon a tall, old-fashioned wooden chair, so that only her toes were able to reach the ground. All at once she had felt as if she would be more comfortable seated. It was not because of Alice's suggestion that she had agreed, but because of a sudden sensation of weariness, almost of physical weakness, although this last idea seemed absurd.
Yet somehow Sally appeared so like a tired and rebellious child that her sister found it difficult to continue their conversation. However, she must introduce the accusation she had been schooling herself to make before entering the room.
"Is there anything you would like to talk to me about, Sally? Outside our daily life and work here at the farm is there anything which has been interesting you recently and which you have preferred not to mention to anybody?" Alice inquired gently, her voice shaken by her effort to hide her concern, while a fine line appeared between her level brows.
Pretending to be bored rather than affected in any other fashion by her sister's speech, first Sally shrugged her shoulders. Then making a pretence of yawning, she placed her fingers lightly over her lips.
"Really, Alice, what on earth is troubling you in connection with me? Have you had me on your conscience more than usual recently? Can't you ever get over your unattractive habit of treating me as if I were a refractory pupil and you an offended schoolmarm? In spite of being born in New England, there is no reason to affect this pose, as it is unnecessary and I think most unbecoming."
Sally's manner was a little too self-assured, but otherwise she appeared as enigmatic as an accomplished actress. Gazing at her earnestly, there was nothing in her expression at present to suggest any emotion save a natural annoyance at being catechized.
But Alice was not deceived.
"Please don't assume such an air of offended virtue, Sally. You are far too fond of employing it when anyone reproaches you," Alice continued, but really too sincerely disturbed to feel angered by her sister's behavior. "Evidently you do not wish to confide in me, so I suppose there is no use wasting either your time or mine. For the past two weeks—I don't know the exact length of time, although you are aware of it, Sally—you have been disappearing from the farm almost every day. At first I did not notice. You seem to have been careful that neither Aunt Patricia, nor Tante, nor I should know. And you have been clever. But you could not escape everybody's observation and the other Camp Fire girls have seen you and been puzzled and at last worried to guess what you could be doing. You need not ask who the girls were; I shall not tell you. But finally several of them felt compelled to speak to me and to suggest that I ask your confidence. Oh, don't pretend you think you have been spied upon and badly treated. You know, Sally, that unless the girls cared for you they would not have troubled? But we have lived almost as one family and our interests are bound together. Do tell me what you have been doing, dear? What has taken you away from home so many times alone? I have been watching you myself recently. When I came into our room only a few minutes ago you were preparing to slip away."
Sally was biting her lips and had lost her childish look.
"This is not a criminal court, Alice; neither are you the public prosecutor. As a matter of fact, I refuse to answer your questions or to gratify either your curiosity or the curiosity of the Camp Fire girls. What I have been doing has harmed no one; at least I do not think it has, and I have not always been alone. Old Jean has been with me much of the time and has helped in every way. But by the time Tante returns I think I shall be free to tell her everything. Can't you trust me until then?"
Sally's voice and manner had suddenly changed from bravado to pleading, but Alice was too angry and too frightened to be influenced. Moreover, she was suffering from a frequent elderly sister attitude. She felt herself called upon not only to examine Sally in regard to her proceedings but to condemn her without any real evidence.
"Very well, Sally, unless you decide to confide in me immediately I shall be obliged to speak to Aunt Patricia."
At the conclusion of this speech Alice beheld in her sister's face the expression of sheer unrelenting obstinacy in which Sally was an adept. It was a contradiction to her pretty softness, her indolent manner and even to the elusive dimple which recently had vanished.
"I also warn you, Sally, that I intend to watch you and find out your proceedings for myself. In truth, I am frightened about you. If only Tante were here she could influence you, but Aunt Patricia will only become bitterly angry. I confess I don't know what she will say or do when she learns that I have no choice but to tell her."
If Alice Ashton had one characteristic which predominated over all others, it was a fine sense of honor, a high ideal of personal integrity.
As a matter of fact, she had never demanded the same standards from Sally she had asked of herself. It was a family custom to regard her younger sister as a person chiefly to be gratified and adored. Yet it had never occurred to Alice that Sally could fail in any essential thing such as straightforwardness and sincerity.
"I don't like to speak to you, Sally, or even to suggest the idea, but I am afraid a few of the girls may be criticizing what you are doing in a fashion you can scarcely imagine. They do not speak before me, but I can hardly fail to guess what they are thinking from their manner. Sally, can't you realize that we are in a foreign country where the language, the customs, the ideas are not like ours? Even if what you are doing might not be considered wrong at home, can't you see that here in France you may be misunderstood? Please confide in me dear. You promised——"
But Sally's soft shoulders stiffened in resistance.
"Evidently you do not trust me yourself, Alice, and naturally your opinion is more important to me than anyone's else. Yet when one has lived with the same people a long time one does expect a certain amount of faith and understanding. I am sorry, for I cannot tell you what you wish to know at present. I may be able to in a very few days, if you will be good enough to wait and not speak to Aunt Patricia. It is hardly worth while to make a difficulty between us! Personally I am glad Tante is away; at least, I am glad she is away today, since it would have been more difficult to refuse my confidence to her than to any one else. But I shall regret it if I am able to make my confession before her return. She at least would have tried to believe I have not intended to do anything wrong. Now please leave me alone, Alice. You were right, I am going out on an important errand. You need not worry over my going alone this time, because old Jean has promised to go with me as soon as he is free and I shall wait for him."
Then, although Alice lingered for several moments longer, when Sally would neither speak to her, nor look at her, she slowly left the room.
Afterwards when Alice had disappeared Sally's pretence of courage vanished and she sat with her hands clasped tightly together while the tears ran down her face.
All very well to pretend to Alice that she was convinced she had been doing no wrong. But was this true? In the end would she not have to pay dearly in the continuing condemnation and distrust of her friends? When her confession was finally made, would they even then understand and forgive her?
A little more than an hour later Sally and Jean started forth upon their mysterious pilgrimage.
To have been spared the ordeal of this morning's visit to the French chateau Sally would have given a great deal. On other occasions she had been nervous and fearful, but never to the extent to which the recent conversation with her sister had reduced her.
More than once within the hour of waiting before she and Jean could slip away, Sally concluded to abandon her plan and never go near the chateau again, regardless of results. Then she remembered that she had given her word and that upon this visit many things were to be explained and arranged. Having endured so much of struggle, strain and suspicion, one must not fail in the end. And in spite of Sally's apparent indolence and softness, failure had no part in her mental make-up.
Yet in being compelled to spend an hour of watching before daring to make her escape there was a sense of humiliation, almost of degradation. Nevertheless, what else could she do except wait until Alice was again absorbed in her teaching and until there was no one about the farm house or in the yard who would pay any especial attention to her actions?
Sally's final misfortune was in encountering Yvonne as she passed through the hall downstairs.
It may have been her imagination, due to her conversation with her sister. Sally felt almost convinced that Yvonne shrank away from her as she passed, almost as if she were drawing her skirts aside. In return Sally suffered a wave of indignation and the conviction that she would never be able to forgive Yvonne. She even had an impulse some day to avenge the other girl's injustice.
She and Jean did not immediately move off in the direction of the chateau. She and old Jean took an entirely opposite direction, until in a field about half a mile away, altering their course, they walked rapidly toward the chateau. Sally never ceased to gaze behind them every few moments, fearing they might be followed.
Small wonder that with the unaccustomed walks and the burden of a serious responsibility Sally Ashton had altered in the past few weeks!
Indeed, her only solace had been the loyal faith and allegiance which the old French peasant, Jean, had given to her cause and to her.
From the first day, when in halting and broken French she had begged him to accompany her to the chateau to assist in the care of a wounded soldier, he had not asked a question or refused his services.
When it was impossible for him to escape Miss Patricia's vigilance at the hour Sally asked, she always found that he had managed to make the trip sometime later, during the day or night, and accomplished what was necessary. What he may have thought of the situation, what questions he may have asked himself behind the inscrutability of his weather-beaten countenance with its misty, coal-black eyes, Sally never inquired. There were enough problems to meet without this. The important fact was that Jean never failed her and that he made an otherwise impossible task possible.
After discovering the serious illness of the wounded soldier in hiding, Sally Ashton had continued the amazing task of caring for him at the chateau.
She did not come to this decision immediately; indeed, it had grown so slowly that at times it did not appear as a decision at all. Nor did Sally attempt to justify herself. She felt compelled to take a courageous attitude with her sister, but she never had been convinced of her own patriotism or good sense. Even up to the present time she was not sure of the nationality of her patient, although it had been a relief that during his delirium he had spoken occasionally in French.
The truth is that as the days passed on and Sally's responsibility increased her attitude toward the soldier changed. At first she had been annoyed, bored with the entire adventure and with the circumstances resulting from it. But as the young man's illness became more alarming and Sally's anxiety increased, a new characteristic awoke in her. Sally Ashton belonged to the type of girl who is essentially maternal. She would be one of the large group of women who love, marry and bring up a family and are nearly always adored by their husbands, but feel no passionate affection until the coming of their children.
So unconsciously the wounded soldier's dependence upon her for food and attention, for life itself, aroused Sally's motherly instinct, although she did not dream of the fact and would have been angry at the suggestion.
One convincing proof. In the beginning she had been both physically and mentally repelled by the soiled and blood-stained soldier and by his confused confession. She had not surrendered him to justice because she did not feel called upon to appear as the arbiter of any human being's fate and because she had not the dramatic instinct of most girls. But Sally had presumed the soldier would be arrested later and was not particularly concerned with his future one way or the other.
Now her point of view had completely altered. At first her idea was merely that the soldier should recover with no other nursing save that which she and old Jean could bestow upon him. But now that he was recovering, she was equally determined he should be saved from whatever enemy he had feared before being delivered into her hands.
Before parting on the previous afternoon Sally had agreed with her patient that they discuss his situation on her next visit to the chateau.
As the old man and girl crept cautiously inside the opening between the arch of walls, they could see their soldier lying asleep upon his mattress, but between clean sheets and covered with blankets which Sally had managed to secure from the supply at the farm.
The half-dismantled room was cold but fragrant with the odors of the woods and fields. Perhaps the fresh air which had at all times flooded the odd sick-room had been in a measure responsible for the ill man's recovery, having taken the place of other comforts he had been obliged to forego.
He opened his eyes at the approach of his two friends and looked a little wistfully at Sally.
"You have come at last! I was afraid you would not be able to manage. How kind you have been!"
Sally made no reply except to offer him a glass of milk and to stand silently by until he had finished drinking it.
She looked very sweet. Today her walk and the excitement of her morning had tired her so that she was paler than usual; yet her lips were full and crimson and her brown hair had a charming fashion of curling in little brown rings on her forehead as if she were a tiny child.
The soldier no longer wore any look of mental confusion except that his expression was puzzled and questioning.
"You are much better. I am glad," Sally said at last. "You see I do not know how often I can come to the chateau after today, unless you should become very ill again and then I would come in any case."
Sally's direct fashion of speaking had its value amid the complexities of human relations.
Old Jean had disappeared to bring fresh water and to accomplish other tasks so that Sally and the soldier were alone for a little time.
As a matter of fact, Jean's had been the really difficult nursing. Night after night when the soldier's condition had been most critical Jean had made no pretence of going to bed, but had hobbled over at bedtime to remain until dawn by the ill man's side.
"Perhaps you will sit down for a little so that I can ask you a great many questions," the soldier suggested. "Now that I am getting back my senses, you can scarcely imagine what a mystery my present situation is."
Nodding agreement, Sally drew a beautiful French chair across the strange drawing-room and seated herself within a few feet of her patient's bed. It was odd that she had never felt any fear of the old walls tumbling down upon her from the hour she had begun her nursing, although before that time she had believed nothing could force her to trust herself inside the ruins.
"I would like to ask you to begin at the beginning. In what condition and how long ago did you find me here? If I could only guess the time! But I am under the impression I have not been myself for several weeks until these last few days. Yet I have a vague recollection of finding my way to this old house and of seeing you standing one day framed in that open arch. After that I have no memory of anything else until I became conscious of your face and of old Jean's bending over me and then of this extraordinary place. If I have been ill, why have I not been cared for in a hospital?
"I remember escaping from the Germans who had taken me prisoner and then wandering, wandering about in a country where there were no trees, no grass, no houses, nothing but the upturned earth and exploded shells. Afterwards I was not sure I had reached the French country. I know I used to hide in the day time and prowl around at night. I think I must have become ill soon after my escape, because I have an indistinct impression that I was trying to find my old home, the chateau where I lived before the outbreak of the war. I suppose that is one reason why I hid myself in here. But nothing I can remember explains you."
"I do not understand what you are talking about, at least not exactly. I am not even convinced you do. But if you really are a French soldier and managed to escape from the Germans, I am glad. I know you will think me stupid, but still how could I have been expected to understand that you were a French soldier when you seemed so horribly afraid of being discovered? You were in your own country and among your own people! Personally there is very little for me to tell about myself.
"I am an American girl, I don't suppose you consider me French, and I am living at a farm house not far away with some American friends. One day I was taking a walk and just from curiosity slipped over here to look more closely at the chateau. It frightened me when I discovered you were hiding in here. You can never guess how you startled me! At our first meeting you told me some mixed-up story and asked me to bring you some food. I thought you were an escaped prisoner and I did not want to have anything to do with you. But you insisted if you were caught you would be hung. The next day when I arrived with the food you were too ill to recognize me. There is nothing more to tell."
"That is all," the soldier repeated. "But that sounds more like the beginning, does it not? You were not even sure of my nationality and yet you have been coming here every day to care for me. Suppose I had been your enemy?"
By this time the soldier was sitting up and intently studying the face of the girl before him. He was wearing a faded dark blue shirt which Jean had generously bestowed upon him the day before, this being the first occasion for which he had made an effort to dress himself.
"Strange human beings, women! I wonder if we men will ever understand you? I have no doubt you would blow up the united armies of the Central Empires if it were possible without a qualm and yet you would make any sacrifice to save the life of one prisoner."
"But I was never convinced about you," Sally apologized. "Then after you became so seriously ill I never thought. But I am sure I beg your pardon. As you are a Frenchman of course you would have been infinitely better cared for in a hospital. If anything had happened to you it would have been my fault. But really I did not know what was done to prisoners who ran away from their captors and you suggested such an uncomfortable fate for yourself.
"Now you are better I don't think I will come back to the chateau again. You see you made me promise not to tell anyone that you were hiding here, and my sister and friends think it strange because I have been spending so much time away from the farm recently. I don't suppose I shall ever be able to make anyone understand. It is hard, isn't it, to be blamed for things and then find they have been of no use? Jean will do whatever is necessary for you until you are entirely well. He can bring me news of you and he will take a message to anyone you care to see if you do not feel strong enough to be moved to a hospital immediately."
Sally rose as if she meant to leave at once, then something in her companion's expression made her sink down into her chair.
"No, you must not come to see me again," he answered, "although I shall wish to see no one else. Perhaps it will not be long before I am able to call upon your friends if you will allow me. I am stronger than you realize; but you have not told me what you are doing in this neighborhood."
Unexpectedly Sally had a remarkable sensation. It was as if suddenly her position and the soldier's changed and as if he had begun to think of her welfare rather than to have her devote herself to his.
"Oh, we are doing reclamation work," Sally returned; "that is, my sister and friends are. I have not accomplished anything that is important. I told you I was stupid."
All at once Sally's soldier broke into a peal of clear boyish laughter which was of more benefit to him than either of them appreciated.
"No, you have done nothing except save my life. It is not kind of you under the circumstances to announce you consider it unimportant. Some day when I am able to rejoin my regiment perhaps I may be able to prove your work worth while. Thanks to you, perhaps I shall again serve France as I have never served her before! The enemy has taken from me everything else, my mother, my sister, my little brother and my home. I made up my mind that they should not hold me a prisoner whatever might befall me. If I had to give up my life I meant to die in the open."
Then more excited and exhausted than either he or Sally had appreciated, the soldier lay down again, closing his eyes.
It was a part of Sally's recent training which made her continue sitting quietly beside him for the next few moments without speaking or moving.
In the interval she studied the soldier's face.
For the first time he was appearing to her as a man. Up until now he had simply been a human being who must be cared for, allowed to suffer as little as possible and at last be restored to health.
In considering him at present Sally did not particularly admire his appearance. She thought his nose was rather too large and his lips too thin and in spite of Jean's devotion, his services as a barber left a good deal to be desired.
"Your arm is nearly well, still I think I should like to bandage it once more before I go," Sally suggested. "You do not realize it, of course, but I have learned a great deal about nursing since I began to look after you. I don't like sick people, else I suppose I could become a Red Cross nurse after more training if I wished. But I don't think I should like the work."
As Sally talked she was accomplishing her task, certainly with a good deal more skill than she had shown several weeks before.
However, her patient was not conscious of the fact. At present he was not thinking of his wound but of his nurse.
There was something about her so deliciously frank and ingenuous. At least she seemed ingenuous to him, although it was difficult always to be sure concerning Sally.
When she had finished the young Frenchman took one of her hands and touched it lightly with his lips.
"Will you tell me your name, please, and where to find you before you say farewell? I am Lieutenant Robert Fleury of the French-cuirassiers."
Ten minutes later Sally was walking back home alone to the farm house, having left Jean to continue to care for their patient.
She was not to go back to the chateau again and she was to tell her friends exactly what had taken place in the past few weeks. She seemed to have promised this to her patient.
Yet Sally was not sure when she would tell her story. She had no desire to make a confession to Alice, and Aunt Patricia was not to be considered. If only she might arrange to wait until Mrs. Burton's return from her journey into southern France.
AN UNEXPECTED SHELTER
It was after the hour for their midday dinner when Sally finally arrived at the farmhouse; however, she was able to reach her own room without any questions being asked concerning her delay.
Undressing slowly with the idea of lying down for a little while before facing her friends, Sally was interrupted for the second time that day by the unexpected appearance of her sister. On this occasion Alice's expression made any further discussion not only unnecessary but impossible.
"Will you come with me, please, to Aunt Patricia's room?" she began at once. "I have been talking to Aunt Patricia and she says it is only fair that we should hear your explanation before passing judgment. I have spoken to no one else, although I suppose it will be impossible to hide the facts from the other girls. In reality, I believe they already have guessed a great deal and have been trying to keep the truth from me."
At the moment of her sister's entrance Sally had been slipping into a little blue dressing gown which had been her mother's final gift the day before their parting. The dressing gown did not have a utilitarian appearance, since it was made of a soft blue, light woolen material with little clusters of yellow roses scattered over the design and with blue ribbons and lace about the throat and sleeves.
In response to her sister's speech Sally gathered about her the dressing gown, which she had not yet fastened, and immediately started to leave the room.
"I shall be very glad indeed to talk to Aunt Patricia, but not to you, Alice, nor do I ever intend to forgive you. I suppose you followed old Jean and me to the chateau and have drawn your own inference from what you observed. Do you know, Alice, I have often wondered why the puritanical conscience is always so suspicious of other people?" And in this last speech of Sally's there was more of truth that she could fully appreciate.
But if in this final analysis she were speaking the truth, the first part of her remark had been a complete falsehood. At the present time there was nothing she desired so little as being forced into making her confession to Miss Patricia Lord, a severe spinster with no consideration for human folly. Would any one else on earth be more difficult or more unrelenting?
In the past hour or more, following her conversation at the chateau, Sally had been facing one of the hardest experiences of life.
Her weeks of self-sacrifice and devotion had been not only unnecessary, they had been absurd. If only she could have enjoyed the inward satisfaction of considering herself a heroine or a martyr! But she had risked her own reputation and the young French officer's life to what end?
As the two girls entered Miss Patricia's room, Sally, accompanied by her sister, whose existence on earth she refused to recognize, considered that Miss Patricia appeared as implacable as a stone image. Yet one could scarcely compare her to the Sphinx. That ancient stone figure with the head of a woman and the body of a lioness looks as if she had devoted the many centuries since her creation to solving the riddles of human life.
Miss Patricia would consider anything but plain speaking a sheer waste of energy and truth. There were no riddles in Miss Patricia's mental category.
Nevertheless, Miss Patricia's voice did not sound unkind when she suggested that Sally occupy the solitary chair in her bedroom, although undoubtedly this would leave the elderly woman standing as well as Alice. But then Sally did not realize how appealing her appearance was at this moment even to so harsh a critic of human nature.
Sally indolent, Sally dreaming her own small and rather selfish dreams, or a Sally self-assured and self-content were not unfamiliar figures to her world. But Sally confused and tired, hurt and bewildered, not by her own actions or any one's else, but by a web of circumstance, was a new study.
"No, I would prefer not to sit down, Miss Patricia, and in any case I would not have you stand," Sally answered, still with an innate sense of her own dignity and value which at no time in her life was she ever wholly to lose. "Alice seems to have told you some disagreeable story about me. So I think it just as well for me to tell you the exact truth. I hope I can make you understand. I suppose I should have confided in some one before, but until a few hours ago I did not feel that I had the privilege."
Sally's golden brown eyes with the heavy upcurling lashes, which gave to her face the expression of unusual softness, were now gazing upward into Miss Patricia's. The latter's eyes were gallant also and steadfast, nor did Sally find them so distrustful as she had anticipated.
"Very well, my dear, go on with your story. I thought Alice was too much excited," Miss Patricia returned, seating herself in her upright chair, as Sally seemed to prefer her to be seated.
Then with her little dressing gown wrapped about her as if it had been a Roman toga, Sally told the history of the past weeks, her unexpected discovery of the wounded soldier amid the ruins of the old French chateau, her belief that he was a runaway prisoner and notwithstanding this, her effort, with Jean's assistance, to restore him to health.
Sally's explanation was less confused than her conversation with the French soldier a short time before. However, since that hour many things had become clearer in her own mind. She did not break down until her story was completed and only then when she turned toward her sister.
"I don't know, Alice, what you and the other Camp Fire girls have been thinking of me, and I don't believe I care to guess. I know you have not been generous. But since I don't wish to discuss the subject with any one save Aunt Patricia, and with Tante of course when she returns, I wish you would offer the other girls any interpretation of my behavior you care to give."
At this Sally's voice broke in spite of her efforts at self-control. When Alice made a step toward her with her arms outstretched to ask forgiveness, Sally stepped back only to find herself enfolded by Miss Patricia and to hear Miss Patricia declare:
"I think it would be wiser, Alice, for you to leave Sally and me alone for a little time; she is tired and unstrung. If you and the other girls have been unfair, you will have an opportunity to apologize later. Then Sally herself will feel more inclined to be reasonable."
Afterwards, when Alice had reluctantly disappeared, unexpectedly Sally found herself seated as if she were a child in Aunt Patricia's lap and listening to a very wise and tender conversation, one she was never to forget, from a woman of deep and broad experience.
When she grew less disturbed Aunt Patricia made no effort not to scold Sally for her unwisdom and her lack of reliance upon older judgment than her own. But the great fact was that Aunt Patricia was never unfair, that she had no sentimental suspicions and made no accusations with which Sally could not fairly agree.
In their half hour together Sally Ashton learned to appreciate for the rest of her life Aunt Patricia's value, learned to understand why Mrs. Burton cared for her so devotedly and considered her a tower of strength in adversity. In this uncertain world in which we live there are fair weather and foul weather friends. Miss Patricia belonged to the number who not only fail to strike other people when they are down, but who spend all their energy and strength in the effort to lift them up again.
Later on the other Camp Fire girls were also to form a new estimate of Miss Patricia's character, but simply by force of circumstance Sally was the first one of them to be admitted inside the stern citadel with which the elderly spinster surrounded her great heart.
"In the morning, Sally, when you have rested, and if I were you, child, I would spend this afternoon in bed, why I intend to walk over with you to your chateau and make the acquaintance of your soldier. If he is a gentleman my dear, or even if he is a real man, I mean to bring him here to the farm house to remain as our guest until he has completely recovered. Now, don't argue with me, Sally. Mrs. Burton will tell you that I am a hopeless old woman with whom to have an argument. I simply never do any one's way except my own. I do not wish to discuss this side of the situation with you to any extent, but don't you see, my dear, that it is better for you that we have your soldier here? No one shall think your friends have not understood and approved of your care of this young Frenchman."
Sally murmured her acquiescence and her gratitude. Yet suddenly she felt that she wished never again to see the young officer who for the past few weeks had been her constant thought and care.
He had recovered sufficiently no longer to need her services and although he was not wilfully responsible, nevertheless he had given her a great deal of care and trouble.
"Of course you must do what you think best, Aunt Patricia," Sally added a moment later, as she was preparing to start to her own room. "But don't you think we had best wait until Tante's return?"
Aunt Patricia shook her head.
"What Polly Burton may think or desire in the matter will not have the slightest influence with me. She cheerfully surrendered you girls into my charge in order to make this trip, of which she knew I thoroughly disapproved. However, in spite of the fact that I am very angry with her, I do not wish any one else to feel uneasy, although I shall not have a happy moment until she returns."
A week later two young officers were guests at the farm house on the Aisne, one of them an American aerial lieutenant, the other a lieutenant in the French cavalry.
Following his telegram within a few days, Lieutenant Ralph Marshall had arrived to spend a short furlough, ostensibly with the entire group of American Camp Fire girls, although in reality his visit was to Peggy Webster. Notwithstanding the fact that he and Peggy were not supposed to be engaged, chiefly because of Peggy's youth, they shared a different conviction from their families.
The other young officer was none other than "Sally's soldier." Absurd as the title appeared, particularly to Sally herself, nevertheless under this name he was discussed secretly and at length in the Camp Fire household.
Toward late afternoon on the day after Sally's enforced confession, accompanied only by Old Jean, Miss Patricia Lord had tramped across the fields to the French chateau and had there interviewed its inmate with a directness and a searchlight quality worthy of a public prosecutor.
As a result she had received more valuable information than Sally Ashton had acquired in the hour of their mutual and confused avowal. Among other things Miss Patricia had learned that the wounded officer's extraordinary outfit was due to the fact that he believed it would make his escape more feasible.
But whatever the details of his story, he was able to inspire Miss Patricia with sufficient interest and faith to admit him as a temporary guest at the farm house in spite of the absence of Mrs. Burton.
However, although undoubtedly a guest, he was a guest according to rules and restrictions laid down and adhered to by Miss Patricia and her household.
In the first place, until he had completely recovered he was to remain in his room at the farm house, cared for only by old Jean with occasional visits from Miss Patricia. Under no circumstances was he to see or meet for the present a single one of the Camp Fire girls. This rule was particularly to be observed with regard to Sally Ashton.
Miss Patricia made no effort to conceal her intention of making a thorough investigation of the account of his life the French officer had imparted to her. She knew it would not be so difficult to verify his statements. It was possible to communicate with the commander of his regiment and also his friends, as he claimed to have lived in the French country not many miles away from their neighborhood in the valley of the Aisne. After his recovery doubtless he would be able to find a number of his former acquaintances by returning to his old home.
It was in his favor that the French officer entirely agreed with Miss Patricia's attitude in every particular save one. But he was wise enough not to argue with her concerning this. In truth, thirty-six hours after his installation at the farm house, the young Frenchman and Miss Patricia had become surprisingly intimate friends. One could explain this by stating that the officer had a delightful sense of humor and a valuable appreciation of character. Miss Patricia announced that no friendship could have been possible between them if Lieutenant Fleury's mother had not had the good sense to have him taught English by an English governess when he was a small boy. His accent Miss Patricia considered as peculiar as her own French one, nevertheless they were able to understand each other amazingly well.
One brilliant morning Miss Patricia entered the French officer's room bearing a cup of bouillon to find him staring out a window which he had just opened in order to let in the air and for another purpose which Miss Patricia instantly suspected.
"Breaking parole," she commented tersely.
The young officer had not heard her entrance. In return he swung round and laughed.
"Is that fair, Miss Lord? A cat may look at a king, comme ca why not at a number of queens? Besides, don't you realize it is a miracle for a French soldier to be able to dream that these devastated fields of France are soon to become green and fruitful again? Having lost everything in the early days of the German invasion, my family, home, my small fortune, nevertheless I rejoice that for other French soldiers there may be a happier future when they return to their former homes, thanks to the great hearts of the American people!"
The young officer's deep feeling and his quiet self-contained manner caused a lump to rise in Miss Patricia's throat and a mist before her eyes. Therefore her manner became more belligerent than ever.
"Here, sit down and drink this," she commanded. "I suppose you consider that you have entirely recovered your strength and that I am the veriest old termagant not to permit you to enjoy your convalescence with a group of more or less charming American girls. But as a matter of fact I am really protecting you as well as the girls. We have lived without masculine society, unless you wish to count old Jean, ever since our arrival at the farm house. So whatever your impression, I am afraid you would soon be overpowered with attention once I allowed you to leave this room."
Lieutenant Fleury finished his bouillon with a proper degree of gratitude and enthusiasm before replying.
Afterwards he gazed at Miss Patricia for several moments in silence as if carefully considering a number of important matters.
The young French officer was of more than medium height, had dark eyes and hair, and except when he was talking, his expression was grave and sad. His arm remained bandaged.
"Miss Patricia, I do not wish to meet all your Camp Fire girls. I agree with you I am not strong enough to make myself agreeable to them. But I do wish to see one of them again. You are aware that I mean Miss Ashton. If ever a man had cause to be grateful to a girl——-"
"Nonsense!" Miss Patricia interrupted, picking up the empty cup as if she were intending to leave the room immediately. "Sally was a goose and ran the risk of being the death of you instead of saving your life as you like to think. Besides, she has not the slightest desire to see you; she told me this herself. She feels now that she was ridiculous. She should never have paid any attention to the disjointed tale of an ill man, or to the promise which you seem to have exacted of the poor child in your original interview. As for being grateful to Sally, that is also a waste of energy when you have none too much to spare. The one dream of every girl in the world these days is to be allowed the privilege of caring for a good-looking soldier. Sally had her opportunity under particularly romantic and nonsensical circumstances. Besides, men will always be grateful to Sally Ashton for something or other as long as she lives, grateful because she is pretty and soft and selfish and, dear me, I suppose she is what one calls essentially feminine! I confess I have rather a tender feeling toward the child myself."
And without further answer to his request Miss Patricia hurriedly departed.
Outdoors at the same time Sally was occupied in the garden digging in a desultory fashion. As soon as there was no further danger of the ground freezing the Camp Fire girls were planning to plant a garden.
Sally was alone at her task and alone because she preferred solitude.
After her fantastic escapade had been disclosed to the other Camp Fire girls, those of them who had been particularly annoyed by her mysterious behavior were frankly regretful of their condemnation. They did not whole-heartedly approve of what she had done, but no one doubted Sally's good intention or the unselfishness of her motive. Aside from Yvonne, whose attitude continued puzzled and distrustful, each girl individually had approached Sally with a carefully veiled apology. However, Sally, who was not in a friendly state of mind toward the world at present, received their advances coldly.
The only two persons whose opinion she really valued were Aunt Patricia's and Mrs. Burton's. Aunt Patricia had been kinder and more understanding than any human being could have dreamed possible. Mrs. Burton had not yet returned from her journey into southern France. Indeed, no word had been heard from her in a number of days, so that not alone did Aunt Patricia suffer from uneasiness. The great German drive so long expected was fanning the long line of the French battlefront into fiercer and more terrorizing flames. At any hour the greatest struggle in human history would once more burst upon the world.
An hour later Sally Ashton knocked shyly upon Lieutenant Fleury's closed door. She did not do this in accordance with her own wishes, but because of an urgent appeal made by Miss Patricia.
As a matter of fact, for some days Miss Patricia had been haunted by the story of his life, since the outbreak of the war, which the young French officer had recounted to her. He was not conscious of asking for sympathy, nor did he consider his story unusual. Nevertheless it occurred to Miss Patricia this morning that she was unwilling to add loneliness to the difficulties which he must face during the hours of his return to health. Up to the present time he had been too engaged with his soldiering to allow much opportunity for reflection.
Miss Patricia was also convinced of the truth of what Lieutenant Fleury had told her of himself, although she had no thought of not adding the necessary proof to her instinctive conviction. But in the meantime if he really earnestly desired to see and talk to Sally Ashton and to express his gratitude, what possible harm could come of allowing them an interview? Their acquaintance had been achieved under such remarkable circumstances, to meet in a more ordinary and formal fashion would doubtless be best for them both. Afterwards they would not develop fantastic and untruthful ideas concerning each other.
At the moment of Sally's arrival Lieutenant Fleury was despondent. It was true he had managed to escape from the Germans and could congratulate himself that he was not a prisoner and might hope within a reasonable length of time to return to his own regiment. Nevertheless what an extraordinarily stupid adventure he had stumbled into in his sub-conscious effort to seek the neighborhood of his former home!
He had come out of the experience a thousand times better than he had any right to hope, yet had he not involved an American girl in what must have been an extremely disagreeable and ungrateful task?
At this moment of her entrance into the invalid's room Sally Ashton did not appear to have been seriously affected by her experience.
Her hour of working in the garden in the warm late winter sun had given her cheeks the color they frequently lacked, or else it was her embarrassment at meeting the young officer. Sally's hair was also curling in the delicious and irresponsible fashion it often assumed, breaking into small rings on her forehead and at the back of her neck in the fashion of which she at least pretended to disapprove.
"Miss Patricia said you wished to speak to me. I am glad you are so much better," she began in a reserved and ceremonious fashion as if she and the lieutenant had met on but one previous occasion before today.
In truth it seemed impossible to Sally that the French officer whom she was facing at present had been the ill and disheveled boy she had found in hiding at the chateau and nursed back to comparative health.
In announcing that Sally did not desire to see the young French officer again, Miss Patricia had been correct. Sally considered that she had made a grave and foolish mistake and preferred, as most of us do, that her mistake be ignored and forgotten.
Yet Lieutenant Fleury had no idea either of ignoring or forgetting Sally's effort in his behalf.
Immediately in reply to her knock he had risen. His serious expression had now changed to one of boyish gratitude and good humor.
"Yes, I did wish to speak to you; you are kind to have come," he returned, although in reality surprised by Sally's extremely youthful appearance. He had only a confused memory of her face bending above him during his delirium. They had enjoyed but one conversation when he was entirely himself. On that occasion he had supposed his rescuer a young woman of some years and dignity, and Sally at present looked like a school girl. Indeed, she was a school girl when at home in her own part of the world if one can count college and school as one and the same thing.
After coming in from the garden this morning she had hastily changed her everyday Camp Fire dress for a white flannel of which she was especially fond, and without observing that the skirt had shrunk until it was extremely short.
"I wished to tell you once again how more than grateful I am to you for your great kindness," the officer continued, smiling in spite of his serious state of mind at the unexpectedness of Sally's appearance. Looking at her now, it was hard to believe that she had ever assumed the arduous burden of nursing a wounded soldier under more than trying conditions. Yet if Sally had not been immature, she would have never have shouldered such a responsibility!
She was smiling now and dimpling in an irresistible fashion.
"Will you make me a promise?" she demanded. "It is the one thing I ask of you. If you are really under the impression that I was good to you when I was merely risking your life, then promise never to refer to what I did for you as long as you live and never mention the story to anybody who could have the faintest chance of knowing me. You see," Sally continued, her manner becoming more confidential, "I realize now that from every point of view I was foolish. It is kind of you to have turned out to be some one whom Miss Patricia and all of us are able to know, for you might have been a most impossible person."
The young French officer laughed. As he recalled their last meeting and this one his benefactress struck him as a person who had the gift of provoking laughter.
"I think this a good deal to require of me," he returned. "I will do what you ask only on condition that you——-"
"That I promise to allow you to do a favor for me some day?" Sally completed the unfinished sentence. "I suppose that is what you were about to say, wasn't it? Of course you can do whatever kindness you like if you have the chance. But it does not seem probable. After you go away from the farm I can't imagine any reason why we should ever see each other again. Besides, you would do whatever you could for me whether I gave you permission or not." Here Sally smiled a second time.
For an instant the French officer stared, nonplussed.
But he was not the first person whom Sally had puzzled. She was so matter of fact and so sure of herself one could not tell whether she was extremely simple or correspondingly subtle.
Since her companion regarded her as a child, he could have but one impression.
When finally he held out his hand, Sally hesitated an instant before placing her own inside his. His exhibition of French courtesy and gratitude at their last meeting had been slightly embarrassing. But this time the lieutenant only held her hand gravely.
"You are right, Miss Ashton, whatever was possible to show my gratitude to you I should do, with or without your permission. If I am spared when the war is over I may even create the opportunity which you seem to doubt my ever having. When the war began I had a sister who was, I think perhaps only a few years older than you. If you can ever make up your mind to regard me as she would have done, it would mean a great real to me."
Sally was beginning to feel bored. She thought her companion was very conventional and a little stupid.
She had not the faintest desire to adopt an unknown young man as a brother. Sally knew herself sufficiently well to realize that the sisterly attitude would make but little appeal to her as long as she lived. And she hoped that her interview with the rescued officer might be entertaining. Life was dull now at the farm with Mrs. Burton away and her own occupation, which had been exciting even if fatiguing, withdrawn.
"What happened to your sister?" Sally inquired politely, although intending to make her escape as soon as possible should their conversation continue on such sentimental lines.
"She was killed in the retreat when the Germans conquered this part of France at the outbreak of the war. I had gone to the front to join my regiment, so Yvonne and my mother were alone except for my little brother and a few women servants. Our chateau was destroyed."
The French officer paused because Sally was looking at him with a curious expression as if an idea which she may have had in her mind for some time was now slowly crystalizing into a fact.
"Your sister's name was Yvonne Fleury and your chateau was not far from here, was it not?" Sally demanded.
The young officer nodded. He did not care to discuss his past history with Sally or with any one else in the world. There was nothing to be gained by recalling the inevitable tragedies of the war.
Sally did not appear seriously distressed. Unless she happened to be an actual witness to suffering it did not touch her deeply. Besides, at the present time she was smiling oddly, as if she were pleased and displeased at the same time.
"I don't think that you need adopt me as your sister," she remarked.
Until this moment they had both continued standing.
Now Sally made a little motion toward the invalid's chair which Miss Patricia had removed from their sitting-room to bestow upon her patient.
"Suppose we both sit down," she suggested, taking the only other chair at the same instant.
"There is something else I wish to talk to you about if you feel you are strong enough to hear. It may prove to be good news. I suppose it seems a strange coincidence, although some people would call it an act of Providence, but I am sure I don't understand such things. It is just barely possible your sister Yvonne Fleury was not killed. When we were crossing to France from the United States we met a girl on shipboard named Yvonne Fleury, whose home, the Chateau Yvonne, had been destroyed in the early part of the war. As she believed her brother had been killed at the front, she had gone to New York City, where she had been living with some friends for several years. She told the entire family tragedy to our chaperon, Mrs. Burton, who afterwards told the story to us, hoping we might be especially kind to Yvonne because of her unhappiness. The other girls have been, but Yvonne and I do not like each other and she has been very disagreeable to me. Still, if she turns out to be your sister, it does not matter. Under the circumstances I suppose I ought to say nothing against her.
"I have been thinking of this for some time, ever since you told me your name, but of course there may be nothing in it. I only thought if you might like to meet this Yvonne Fleury—you see she came here to the farm and is living with us—I will speak first to Aunt Patricia and together you can decide."
In reality Sally was not so unsympathetic or so childish as at present her words and manner suggested. During her long speech she had been watching the young officer narrowly. She had arrived at her present conclusion by putting certain facts together in a practical and commonsense fashion. There was more than a possibility that she might be wrong, so there was no reason for working oneself up into a state of hysteria or of heroics. Moreover, Sally had been entirely frank. She understood that the French officer would be overjoyed if Yvonne should prove to be his sister, but Sally herself would have felt no enthusiasm over the same discovery. As a matter of fact, she had no particular interest in Yvonne's opportunity for happiness through her aid.
She was worried, however, because her former patient suddenly appeared so white and shaken by her words, when only a few moments before he had looked so remarkably well.
Sally moved slowly backwards toward the door.
"I'll go and find Aunt Patricia; perhaps I should have spoken to her first of my idea. Then after you have talked with her if you would like me to find Yvonne and ask her to come to you——"
With these words, having managed to reach the half closed door, Sally disappeared.
THE EXPECTED HAPPENS
Miss Patricia Lord was on her way to the French village only a few miles from their farm house. Unless the call were urgent, rarely did Miss Patricia bestow her activities outside the environments of the farm, which of course included the house, garden, barns, fields, really a sufficient large sphere of activity even for her.
It is true she had been an extremely practical benefactress to the entire neighborhood, yet her gifts had been made largely through other persons; Mrs. Burton or one of the Camp Fire girls reporting a special need among their neighbors, as promptly as possible Miss Patricia had seen that need supplied.
So, as she took her walk on this summer afternoon, had she liked she might have given a good deal of credit to herself for the change in the appearance of the countryside which the past two months had wrought.
A number of the peasants' huts near the road had been either entirely or partly rebuilt. But more important than the actual physical shelter, Miss Patricia's tractor had plowed its way over many acres which otherwise must have remained unproductive until, as far as the eye could see, the fields were now being made ready for planting. Even if German guns were thundering along the battle line, nevertheless behind that line the French peasants toiled on with their patience and their eternal industry.
Today Miss Patricia was thinking of life's contrasts, of the peaceful scenes through which she was passing which only a few years before had been an altar of the world's carnage and which might soon be so sacrificed again.
For it would seem as if the last gigantic struggle of the present war were now about to take place. Surely humanity would never pass through this universal Calvary again!
Not yet had Mrs. Burton returned from her journey into southern France!
A few days before, a letter stating that, having accomplished a portion of their mission, she, Mrs. Bishop and Monsieur Duval were preparing to start on their homeward way, had arrived for Miss Patricia, although the letter had been delayed for a week.
A more important witness of their mission had been the actual return to the French village of a number of the refugees in whose welfare Mrs. Burton had been especially interested. Among them was the French girl, Elise.
At this moment Miss Patricia was intending to pay a call to offer her congratulations to Elise and her grandmother and also to learn if Elise had seen Mrs. Burton or heard any definite information concerning her. The visit was not one to which she looked forward with pleasure, but was due to the fact that Mrs. Burton had asked it of her as a favor. Miss Patricia's use of the French tongue was so impossible that all conversation between her and her French neighbors was an agony. Moreover, her unconsciously fierce manner seemed always to disconcert the courteous peasants.
Nevertheless, the old men and women and children whom she met on the road into the village and later upon the village streets bowed to her with more than ordinary friendliness. If they could not comprehend her words or her manner, the value of her kindness they could understand.
A child ran out of one of the houses and unexpectedly presented Miss Patricia with a little battered image of St. Joseph, and although St. Joseph is one of the patron saints of marriage, Miss Patricia accepted her gift with warm appreciation.
An hour later, when she received the first intimation of what had occurred, Miss Patricia was standing in the little yard in front of their hut with Grand'mere and Elise.
There was no restraint about Grand'mere's conversation now that her granddaughter was restored to her; indeed, she was pouring forth such a flood of rapid speech that Miss Patricia had the sensation of drowning in a sea of words of which she could understand about one in fifty.
Nevertheless, it was pleasant to glance now and then toward Elise, who was as charmingly pretty as her neighbors and friends had described her. From her weeks of enforced imprisonment and something nearly approaching starvation, the young French girl was thin and haggard. Yet as nothing more terrible had happened, she was too rejoiced over her return not to show delight and gratitude in every expression of her vivid face. Moreover, after being allowed to cross the borderland from Germany into France, she really had a meeting of a few moments with Mrs. Burton, who had given her the money and the information necessary for her homecoming.
At the moment when one of Elise's friends ran into the yard from an unexpected direction, Miss Patricia's first sensation was that of relief. At least she could enjoy a short respite from her position of exclusive audience to Grand'mere. The woman appeared so excited and so full of some story she undoubtedly had come to tell, that immediately she became the center of attention. Moreover, a dozen other persons soon followed her until in a few seconds the little yard was crowded with gesticulating figures.
Miss Patricia was about to withdraw when a single word arrested her attention. The word was of course pronounced in French fashion, yet in the past few weeks Aunt Patricia had learned to recognize its peculiar French intonation. The word was Mrs. Burton's name.
Through guessing, through intuition and also through the united efforts of her new friends, soon after Miss Patricia learned as much of the woman's tale as it was desirable for her to hear at the present time.
This story had spread through the village. A French ambulance bearing the sign of the croix de rouge had just driven through the town en route to the farm house on the Aisne, the present home of the Camp Fire girls. Returning from her work in southern France, Mrs. Burton had been injured and rather than be cared for in a hospital had begged to be brought directly to the farm.
As a matter of fact, Miss Patricia arrived at the farm house exactly two minutes before the Red Cross ambulance drew up before the front door. How she managed this one could only discover from Miss Patricia. The village owned a single motor car used in transporting supplies and Miss Patricia saw that it traveled faster on this occasion than ever before in its history.
Besides, Mrs. Burton, who was so swathed in bandages one could scarcely recognize her, the ambulance contained Monsieur Duval, the French senator, Mrs. Bishop and a Red Cross nurse.
Ignoring them all, Aunt Patricia lifted Mrs. Burton in her arms and carried her upstairs to her room, placing her upon the bed.
An hour later, when the farm house had grown strangely quiet and everybody had been sent outdoors except the nurse and a doctor who had been hastily summoned, Aunt Patricia stalked down the steps into the drawing-room. Here she found Monsieur Duval and Mrs. Bishop waiting to explain the situation to her.
They had been motoring toward home and several miles back of the French line, when without any reason for such a catastrophe, a shell had dropped from a German aeroplane and exploded near their car.
Aside from Mrs. Burton, no member of the party had been hurt, but a piece of the shell had imbedded itself inside her chest and was supposed to be too near her lungs for an operation.
"Do you mean that Polly Burton has a chance to live without an operation?" Miss Patricia demanded in grim tones when her two companions had finished their unsatisfying explanation of what had taken place.
Mrs. Bishop shook her head.
"I am afraid not; that is why we took the risk of bringing her home to you when she wished so much to come."
"Is there a chance for her to recover through an operation?" Miss Patricia next asked without a perceptible change either in her expression or manner.
This time, as Mrs. Bishop appeared unable to speak, Monsieur Duval answered instead.
"There is one in a hundred, but we dared not accept the responsibility without first coming to you."
"Then telegraph at once for the best surgeon in Paris who can be spared and also for Captain Richard Burton. I will give you his address. In the meantime, if you can find hospitality elsewhere than at our farm I shall be grateful. We shall have but little opportunity to make visitors comfortable for the next few days."
With this Miss Patricia withdrew.
THE FIELD OF HONOR
Some little time afterwards, late on a March afternoon, the yard in front of the farm house on the Aisne, chosen by the Camp Fire girls for their temporary home in France, was occupied by a number of persons. They had separated into groups and were either walking about the place or else were seated in informal attitudes.
On the wooden steps leading directly down from the house two girls moved aside to allow a woman and a man to pass them.
The woman was Miss Patricia, who appeared taller and more painfully gaunt than ever, and moreover, was laying down the law upon some subject in her usual didatic fashion. Yet the man whose arm was slipped through hers was regarding her with devoted and amused affection. According to Captain Richard Burton and in the opinion of a number of other persons, Miss Patricia's good sense and devotion in the past few weeks had saved his wife's life.
Miss Patricia was discussing with him the question of increasing the number of cows upon the farm until a dairy could be run upon really scientific principles. She desired a dairy sufficiently large to supply milk to the nearby hospitals as well as to the babies in the villages. Up to the present time she had been largely interested in preserving the health of the young children who came within her sphere of effort. But realizing that milk at present was one of the greatest needs in France for the proper feeding of the wounded soldiers and of the convalescents, Miss Patricia was arranging for the shipment of a herd of a hundred cows from the United States. As a matter of fact, she was supposed to be asking Captain Burton's advice upon the subject, though Miss Patricia's method of asking advice was merely to announce what she intended doing.
After watching the two older persons disappear toward the barn, which had been restored until it presented a very comfortable aspect, Peggy Webster glanced up from her knitting to look earnestly at her companion.
"How long do you intend remaining in France to continue with the reconstruction work, Vera?" she inquired.
Vera Lagerloff was sewing upon a dress for one of the children in the neighborhood, since few of them had clothing enough to keep them warm and comfortable in spite of all that was being done for them in the reclamation districts by an increasing force of American women and girls.
Vera's eyes followed the direction Miss Patricia's tall figure had just taken.
"I intend to stay on indefinitely until the war is over and afterwards if I feel I can be of more use here than anywhere else. A few days ago Miss Patricia told me that she would be very glad to pay my expenses, as she believed I was 'a laborer worthy of my hire.' What an extraordinary woman she is and how much she seems to get out of life, if not for herself, then certainly for other people! I shall never forget our first meeting and the way in which she then took hold of the situation. I think none of us will forget her recent devotion to Mrs. Burton. Any one of us would have been willing to do what she did, only no one would have had the courage or the intelligence."
Peggy nodded. "I have written mother pretty much the same thing you have just said. Certainly no one of our family can ever pay our debt to Aunt Patricia. Not that I should dare make the attempt!" Peggy added, smiling and looking a little anxiously at the sock she was about to finish. "But I wonder if I am envious of you, Vera, I mean of your planning to remain over here so long? Mother and father have written they would like me to come home as soon as I feel I am not especially needed and Tante has entirely recovered. They wish her to return as well, but I am by no means sure she will. There are moments of course when I am homesick and feel it my duty to be with my own people, now that Billy is gone and Dan has at last been permitted to volunteer. Then on the other hand, I naturally want to be in France while Ralph is here fighting. Have I told you that after Ralph's visit to us at the farm my family has consented to our engagement. We have promised not to consider marrying until the war is over. I am not speaking of this to any of the other Camp Fire girls, Vera, only to you and Bettina. But I shall always think of you, even if the future should separate us for a long time, as if you were almost my sister. I suppose if Billy had lived you would have been my sister."
In response Vera shook her head with its heavy mass of dark hair.
"I don't know, Peggy. I am not at all sure. I don't believe Billy's friendship and mine were like that. Perhaps when he grew older he would have wished to marry a prettier and more romantic girl, but always he would have come back to me for criticism and praise. Yet I should never have wished to marry any one else and now I shall never marry any one."
As there is no real answer to a speech of this character, Peggy Webster made no reply. What Vera's future held in store for her was, according to an ancient pagan expression, "in the lap of the gods."
But Peggy wrinkled her brows at this moment, making a little motion with her hand to attract Vera's attention to the figure of a girl who was standing alone about a dozen yards beyond them.
"Sally looks pretty, does she not, with her dark hair and white dress? But of course nothing would induce her to confess that there is any especial reason why she wishes to look particularly attractive this afternoon. She is a funny child," Peggy concluded with the superior manner of an engaged person.
This afternoon the Camp Fire girls were enjoying a half holiday and the unusual celebration of afternoon tea in honor of Mrs. Burton's recovery and also the arrival of the two guests whom they were now waiting out of doors to greet.
Almost immediately after the reunion of Yvonne Fleury and her brother they left the farm together, returning to the neighborhood of their own chateau. Mrs. Burton's dangerous condition had made them feel it wiser to add no more responsibility to the household. They also desired to look up the old friends whom they might be able to find still living near their former home.
Until this afternoon neither one of them had returned to the farm house even for a brief visit, although of course many letters had been exchanged between Yvonne and the other girls. Now Mary Gilchrist had motored over to the nearest railroad station to meet them and Yvonne and her brother, Lieutenant Fleury, were expected at any moment.
Ten minutes later, when the motor containing the two guests finally arrived, Sally Ashton was the only one of the group of friends who did not go forward to welcome the newcomers.
She did not believe that she particularly liked either of them and there would be time enough to do her duty later.
As a matter of fact, Sally was about to slip around the side of the house toward the kitchen to assist in the preparation of their simple tea when Lieutenant Fleury followed her and as he called her by name she felt obliged to stop and speak to him.
He looked extremely well as if he had entirely recovered from his illness and was better looking than Sally would have dreamed possible.
"You do not seem enthusiastic about seeing me again?" Lieutenant Fleury began, smiling at Sally.
"I am very glad to find you so well," Sally announced as she shook hands. It was difficult to confuse Sally. She had a great deal of poise of her own kind and a little superior air of detachment which was oddly amusing.
"Yes, I am very well, thanks to you. Still I insist upon knowing why you are not pleased to see me? I remember you snubbed me for suggesting that we might develop a sisterly and brotherly affection for each other, but now I have discovered Yvonne, won't you be friends? It is hard upon me if you refuse to consent because my burden of gratitude to you must then be all the heavier. I am going back to join my regiment in a few days. Today I also came to warn Miss Lord and Captain Burton that there will be danger later this spring if you insist upon remaining here at your farm house. I cannot speak plainly, but I have reason to believe the German drive will not be long delayed. The Allied line will hold; they shall never break through, yet it might be wiser if you were out of the range of any possible danger."
Without discussion of the question and disregarding the delightful possibility of tea, Sally and Lieutenant Fleury were walking side by side away from the farm house yard and toward the old chateau.
"You are very kind, Lieutenant Fleury," Sally answered, speaking more gravely and with less childishness than one might have imagined, "but I do not believe we will consent to leave our farm house and to give up our work unless the war comes almost to our very door. Even then you know food might be useful to the soldiers and I am an extremely good cook."
Sally's seriousness had disappeared and she was more her accustomed self.
"Yet you have not answered my question or promised to be my friend," Lieutenant Fleury argued, looking at his companion with an amused frown. Undoubtedly it was difficult to understand any human being who could be such a complete child at one moment and so wise the next; but perhaps Sally embodied the Biblical idea that true wisdom is only found among childish spirits.
As a matter of fact, Sally answered simply, "Why, of course I am your friend, Lieutenant Fleury. Now when I am beginning to understand more of what soldiers must endure, I feel as if I were a friend to every man in our allied armies, although they probably are not aware of the honor," and again Sally dimpled in irresistible fashion.
Moreover, with this general acceptance of his friendship, Lieutenant Fleury was obliged to appear content, since Sally would give him no more satisfactory reply.
A few weeks later the long-heralded German drive burst with renewed fury along a long line in France. How the group of American Camp Fire girls met the unexpected dangers and demands upon their courage and resources will be the subject of the next Camp Fire book.