Suddenly realising what she was saying, Olga stopped short. Sadie's eyes saw the change in her face, and Sadie's sharp voice demanded instantly, "What's the matter?"
Olga answered with a frankness that surprised herself, no less than the younger girl, "Sadie, it just came to me that you and I are in the same box. I've not been trying to make others happy any more than you have——"
"No," Sadie broke in, "I was going to tell you that soon as I got a chance."
Olga's lips twisted in a wry smile as she went on, "—so you see you and I both have something to do in ourselves. Maybe we can help each other? What do you say? Shall we watch and help each other? I'll remind you when you snap and snarl, and you——"
"I'll remind you when you sulk and glower," Sadie retorted in impish glee. "Maybe we can work it that way."
"All right, it's a bargain then?" Olga held out her hand and Sadie's thin nervous fingers clasped it promptly. The child's cheeks were flushed and her small black eyes were shining.
"I can learn fast if I want to," she boasted. "I'm going to make me a silver bracelet like Miss Laura's and a pin; and I'll have lovely embroidery on my Camp Fire dress. I love pretty things like those—don't you?"
Olga shook her head. "No, I don't care for them," she returned; but as she spoke there flashed into her mind some words Mrs. Royall had spoken at one of the Council meetings—"Seek beauty in everything—appreciate it, create it, for yourself and for others." Sadie was seeking beauty, even though for her it meant as yet merely personal adornment, and she—Olga—deep down in her heart had been cherishing a scorn for all such beauty. She put the thought aside for future consideration as she said, "Then, Sadie, you and Elizabeth will be at Miss Laura's next Saturday?"
"I rather guess we will!" Sadie answered emphatically.
"You don't have to ask your mother about it?"
Sadie gave a scornful little flirt. "Mother! She always does what I want. We'll be there." And then, with a burst of generosity, she added, "You can see Elizabeth, for a minute, if you want to—now."
But again Olga shook her head. "Tell her I'll stop for her and you Saturday," she said. "Good-bye, Sadie."
"Good-bye," Sadie echoed, turning towards her own door; but the next minute she was clutching eagerly at Olga's sleeve. "Say—tell Miss Laura to be sure and have my silver ring ready for me as soon's I join," she cried. "You won't forget, Olga?"
"I won't forget," Olga assured her.
BOYS AND OLD LADIES
The change into a home atmosphere and the loving care with which he was surrounded, worked wonders in Jim, and when the judge decided that he should remain where he was, and not be sent to any other home, the boy grew stronger by the hour. Then Laura had her hands full to keep him happily occupied; for after a while, in spite of auto rides and visits to the Zoo—in spite of books and games and picture puzzles—sometimes she thought he seemed not quite happy, and she puzzled over the problem, wondering what she had left undone. When one day she found him watching some boys playing in a vacant lot, the wistful longing in his eyes was a revelation to her.
"Of course, it is boys he is longing for—boys and out-of-door fun. I ought to have known," she said to herself, and at once she called Elsie Harding on the telephone.
"Will you ask your brother Jack if he will come here Saturday morning and see Jim? Tell him it is a chance for his 'one kindness,' a kindness that will mean a great deal to my boy."
"I'll tell him," Elsie promised. "I know he'll be glad to go if he can."
Laura said nothing to Jim, but when Jack Harding appeared, she took him upstairs at once. Jim was standing at the window, watching two boys and a puppy in a neighbouring yard. He glanced listlessly over his shoulder as the door opened, but at sight of a boy in Scout uniform, he hurried across to him, crying out,
"My! But it's good to see a boy!" Then he glanced at Laura, the colour flaming in his face. Would she mind? But she was smiling at him, and looking almost as happy as he felt.
"This is Jack Harding, Elsie's brother," she said, "and, Jack, this is my boy Jim. I hope he can persuade you to stay to lunch with him." Then she shut the door and left the two together.
When she went back at noon, she found the boys deep in the mysteries of knots. Jim looked up, his homely little face full of pride.
"Jack is learning me to tie all the different knots," he cried, "and he's going to learn me ['teach,' corrected Jack softly]—yes, teach me everything I'll have to know before I can be a Scout. Jack's a second class Scout—see his badge? We've had a bully time, haven't we, Jack?"
Suddenly his head went down and his heels flew into the air as he turned a somersault. Coming right end upwards again, he looked at Laura with a doubtful grin. "I—I didn't mean to do that," he stammered. "It—just did itself—like——"
Jack's quick laugh rang out then. "I know. You had to get it out of your system, didn't you?" he said with full understanding.
That was a red-letter day to Jim. He kept his visitor until the last possible moment, and stood at the window looking after him till the straight little figure in khaki swung around a corner and was gone. Then with a long happy breath he turned to Laura and said, half apologetically, half appealingly, "You see a fellow gets kind o' hungry for boys, sometimes. You don't mind, do you, Miss Laura?"
"No, indeed, Jim. I get hungry for girls the same way—it's all right," she assured him. But she made up her mind that Jim should not get so hungry for boys again—she would see to that.
After a moment he asked thoughtfully, "Why can't boys be Scouts till they're twelve, Miss Laura?"
"I think because younger boys could not go on the long tramps."
"Oh!" Jim thought that over and finally admitted, "Yes, I guess that's it." A little later he asked anxiously, "Do you s'pose they'd let a fellow join when he's twelve even if he is just a little lame?"
"O, I hope so, Jim," Laura answered quickly.
"But you ain't sure. Jack wasn't sure, but he guessed they would." Jim pondered a while in silence, then he broke out again, "Seems to me the only way is for me to get this leg cured. I can't be shut out of things always just 'cause of that, can I now, Miss Laura?"
"Nothing can shut you out of the best things, Jim."
The boy looked up at her, tipping his round head till he reminded her of an uncommonly wise sparrow. "I don't quite know what you mean," he said in a doubtful tone.
"You like stories of men who have done splendid brave things, don't you?" Laura asked.
Jim nodded, his eyes searching her face.
"But some of the bravest men have never been able to fight or do the things you love to hear about."
"How did they be brave then?" Jim demanded.
"They were brave because they endured very, very hard things and never whimpered."
"To whimper is to cry or complain—or be sorry for yourself."
Jim studied over that; then coming close to Laura, he looked straight into her eyes. "You mean that I mustn't talk about that?" He touched his lame leg.
"It would be better not, if you can help it," she said very gently.
"I got to help it then, 'cause, of course, I've got to be brave. And mebbe if I get strong as—as anything, they'll let me join the Scouts when I'm twelve even—even if I ain't quite such a good walker as the rest of 'em. Don't you think they might, Miss Laura?"
"Yes, Jim, I think they might," she agreed hastily. Who could say "No" to such pleading eyes?
Jim had been teasing to go to school, and when at the next Camp Fire meeting, Lena Barton told him that Jo had been sent to an outdoor school, Jim wanted to go there too.
"Take him to the doctor and see what he thinks about it," the judge advised, and to Jim's delight the doctor said that it was just the place for him.
"Let him sleep out of doors too for a year," the doctor added. "It will do him a world of good."
So the next day Miss Laura went with him to the school, Jim limping gaily along at her side, and chuckling to himself as he thought how "s'prised" Jo would be to see him there.
Jo undoubtedly was surprised. He was a thin little chap, freckled and red-haired like his sister, and he welcomed his old comrade with a wide friendly grin.
Jim thought it a very queer-looking school, with teacher and pupils all wearing warm coats, mittens, and hoods or caps, and all with their feet hidden in big woolen bags. There was no fire, of course, and all the windows were wide open.
"But what a happy-looking crowd it is!" Laura said, and the teacher answered,
"They are the happiest children I ever taught, and they learn so easily! They get on much faster than most of the children in other schools of the same grade. We give them luncheon here—plain nourishing things which the doctor orders—and," she lowered her voice, "that means a deal to some who come from poor homes where there is not too much to eat."
"We shall gladly pay for Jim," Laura said quickly, "enough for him and some of the others too."
So Jim's outdoor life began. There was a covered porch adjoining the old nursery, and the judge had the end boarded up to protect the boy's cot from snow or rain; and there, in a warm sleeping-bag, with a wool cap over his ears, and a little fox terrier cuddled down beside him for company, Jim slept through all the winter weather.
He and the judge were great chums now. It would be hard to say which most enjoyed the half-hour they spent together before Laura carried the boy off to bed. And as for Laura—she often wondered how she had ever gotten on without Jim. He filled the big house with life, and she didn't at all mind the noise and disorder that he brought into it. He whistled now from morning till night, and his pockets were perfect catch-alls. Sometimes they were stuck together with chewing-gum or molasses candy, and sometimes they were soaked with wet sponges, and his hands—she counted one Saturday, thirteen times that she sent him to wash them between getting up and bedtime.
The girls always wanted Jim at their Camp Fire meetings, for a part of the time at least. As "Miss Laura's boy" they felt that in a way he belonged to them too, and Jim was very proud and happy to make one of the company.
"I'm going to be a Camp Fire boy until I'm big enough to be a Scout, if you'll all let me," he told the girls one night, and they all gave him the most cordial of welcomes.
He was sitting between Olga and Elizabeth, when the girls were talking about some of the babies they had found.
"We never find one that is just right," Rose Parsons complained. "Or if the baby is what we would like, there is always some one that wants to keep it."
"I'm glad of it," Lena Barton flung out. "It was silly of us to think of taking a baby, anyhow. We better just help out somewhere—maybe with some older kid." Her red-brown eyes flashed a glance at Jim.
It was then that Frances Chapin broke in earnestly, "O girls, I do so wish you'd take one of the old ladies at the Home! They need our help quite as much as the babies—more, I sometimes think, for they are so old and tired, and they've such a little time to—to have things done for them. The babies have chances, but the chances of these old ladies are almost over. There's one—Mrs. Barlow—I'm sure you couldn't help loving her—she is so gentle and patient and uncomplaining, although she cannot see to sew or read, and cannot go out alone. She has her board and room at the Home of course, but clothes are not provided, and she hasn't any money at all. Just think of never having a dollar to buy anything with! And the money we could give would buy so many of the things she needs, and it would make her so happy to have us run in and see her now and then. There are so many of us that no one would have to go often, and she loves girls. She had two of her own once, but they both died in one year, and her husband was killed in an accident. She did fine sewing and embroidery as long as she could see; then an old friend got her into the Home. I took this picture of her to show you."
She handed the picture to Laura, who passed it on with the comment, "It is a sweet face."
The girls all agreed that it was a sweet face, and Mary Hastings, stirred by Frances' earnest pleading, moved that what money they could spare should be given to Frances for Mrs. Barlow, but Frances interposed quickly, "She needs the money, but she needs people almost more. She is so happy when Elsie or I go in to see her even just for a minute! I shall be delighted if we take her for our Camp Fire 'service,' but please, girls, if we do, give her a little of yourselves—not just your money alone," she pleaded.
"How would I know what to say to an old woman?" Lena Barton grumbled. "I shouldn't have an idea how to talk to her."
"You wouldn't need to have—she has ideas of her own a-plenty. Girls, if you'll only once go and see her, you won't need to be coaxed to go again, I'm sure," Frances urged.
"I'm in favour of having Frances' old lady for our 'Camp Fire baby,'" laughed Louise Johnson. "I second Mary's motion."
But Lena Barton's high-pitched voice cut in, "Before we vote on that I'd like to say a word. I've no doubt that Mrs. Barlow is an angel minus the wings, but before we decide to adopt her I'd like to see some of the other old ladies. I've wanted for a long time to get into one of those Homes with a big H. How about it, Frances—would they let me in or are working girls ruled out?"
"O no, any one can go there," Frances replied, but her face and her voice betrayed her disappointment. When Louise spoke, Frances had thought her cause was won.
"All right—I'll go then to-morrow, and maybe I'll find some old lady I'll like better than your white-haired angel," Lena flung out, her red-brown eyes gleaming with sly malice and mischief.
Quite unconsciously, and certainly without intention, the three High School girls held themselves a little apart from Lena and her "crowd," and Lena was quite sharp enough to detect and resent this. She chuckled as she watched Frances' clouded face.
"O never mind, Frances," Elsie Harding whispered under cover of a brisk discussion on old ladies, that Lena's words had started, "Lena's just talking for effect. She won't take the trouble to go to the Home."
But that was where Elsie was mistaken. Lena did go the very next afternoon, and dragged the reluctant Eva with her. The girls, proposing to join the Sunday promenade on the Avenue later, were in their Sunday best when they presented themselves at the big, old-fashioned frame house on Capitol Hill.
"Who you goin' to ask for?" Eva questioned as Lena, lifting the old brass knocker, dropped it sharply.
"The Barlow angel, I s'pose. We don't know the name of anybody else here," Lena returned with a grin.
The maid who answered their summons told them to go right upstairs. They would find Mrs. Barlow in Room 10 on the second floor. So they went up, Lena's eyes, as always, keen and alert, Eva scowling, and wishing herself "out of it."
"Here's No. 6—it must be that second door beyond," Lena said in a low tone; but low as it was, somebody heard, for the next door—No. 8—flew open instantly, and a woman stepped briskly out and faced the girls.
"Come right in—come right in," she said with an imperative gesture. "My! But I'm glad to see ye!"
So compelling was her action that, with a laugh, Lena yielded and Eva followed her as a matter of course.
The woman closed the door quickly, and pulled forward three chairs, planting herself in the third.
"My land, but it's good to see ye sittin' there," she began. "What's yer names? Mine's Nancy Rextrew."
Lena gave their names, and the woman repeated them lingeringly, as if the syllables were sweet on her tongue. Then she tipped her head, pursed her lips, and gave a little cackling laugh.
"I s'pose ye was bound fer her room—Mis' Barlow's, eh?" she questioned.
"Yes," Lena admitted, "but——"
"I don't care nothin' about it if you was!" Nancy Rextrew broke in hastily, her little black eyes snapping and her wrinkled face all alive with eager excitement. "I don't care a mite if you was. Mis' Barlow has somebody a-comin' to see her nigh about every day, an' I've stood it jest as long as I can. Yesterday when the Chapin girl an' the Harding girl stayed along of her half the afternoon I made up my mind that the next girl that came through this corridor was a-comin' in here—be she who she might. I was right sure some girl or other'd come on a pretty Sunday like this, to read the Bible or suthin' to her, an' I says to myself, 'I'll kidnap the next one—I don't care if it's the daughter of the president in the White House.' An' I've done it, an' I'm glad!" she added triumphantly, her eyes meeting Lena's with a flash that drew an answering flash from the girl's.
"Well, now that you've kidnapped us, what next?" Lena demanded with a laugh.
"I do' know an' I don't care what next," the woman flung out with a gleeful reckless gesture. "Of course I can't keep ye if ye want to go in there," with a nod towards No. 10, "but you don't somehow look like the pious sort. Be ye?"
Lena shook her head. "I guess I'm your sort," she said. She had never before met an old woman at all like this one, and her heart went out to her. In spite of wrinkles and gray hairs, the spirit of youth nodded to her from Nancy Rextrew's little black eyes, and something in Lena answered as if in spite of herself.
Nancy hitched her chair closer, and with her elbows on her knees, rested her shrivelled chin on her old hands, wrinkled and swollen at the joints. "Now tell me," she commanded, "all about yourself. You ain't no High School girl, I'm thinkin'."
"You're right—I never got above the seventh grade—I had to go to work when I was thirteen. Eva and I both work in Wood and Lanson's."
"What d'ye do there?" Nancy snapped out the question, fairly hugging herself in her delight.
"I'm a wrapper in the hosiery department. Eva's in the hardware."
"I know—I know," Nancy breathed fast as one who must accomplish much in little time, "I've been all over that store. My! But I'd like to see ye both there—'specially you!" Her crooked finger pointed at Lena. "I bet you're a good one. You could make a cow buy stockings if you took a notion to."
Lena broke into a shout of laughter at the vision of a cow coming in to be fitted with stockings. "I'm afraid," she gurgled, "that we'd have to make 'em to order—for a cow!" and all three joined in the laughter.
But Nancy could not spare time for much merriment. She poured out eager questions and listened to the answers of the girls with an interest that drew forth ever more details. At last, with a furtive sidelong glance at the clock, she said, "I s'pose now if I should go there to the store you'd be too busy to speak to me—or mebbe you wouldn't want to be seen talkin' to an old thing like me, an' I wouldn't blame ye, neither."
"Stuff!" retorted Lena promptly. "You come to my place next time you're down town and I'll show you. We wouldn't be shoddy enough to turn down a friend, would we, Eva?"
"I guess no," Eva agreed, but without enthusiasm.
"A friend!" As Nancy repeated the word a curious quiver swept over her old lined face. "You don't have to call me a friend," she said. "Old women like me don't expect to be called friend—didn't ye know that?"
"I said friend, and I meant what I said," repeated Lena stoutly, and the old woman swallowed once or twice before she spoke again.
"You've told me about your work, now tell me the rest of it—the fun part," she begged.
"O that!" said Lena. "The fun is moving pictures and roller skating and dances and the Avenue parade—with the boys along sometimes."
"I bet ye there's boys along where you be!" Nancy flashed an admiring glance at the girl. "I always did admire bright hair like yours, an' a pinch o' freckles is more takin' than a dimple—if you ask me."
Had Nancy been the shrewdest of mortals she could have said nothing that would have pleased Lena more. She had been called "Carrots" and "Redhead" all her life, and from the bottom of her soul she loathed her fiery locks and her freckles, though never yet had she acknowledged this to any living creature—and here was one who liked freckles and red hair! Lena could have hugged the little old woman beaming at her with such honest admiration. A wave of hot colour swept up to her forehead. But Nancy's thoughts had taken another turn.
"Movin' pictures. That's the new kind of show, ain't it? I've heard about 'em, but I've never seen any."
"You can go for a nickel," said Eva.
"A nickel?" echoed Nancy, flashing a swift glance at her. "But nickels don't grow on gooseberry bushes, an' if they did, there ain't any gooseberry bushes around here," she retorted.
"Say——" Lena was leaning forward, her eyes full of interest, "we'll take you to see the movies any time you'll go, won't we, Eva?"
"Er—yes, I guess so," Eva conceded reluctantly; but Nancy paid no attention now to Eva. Her eyes, widened with incredulous joy, were fixed on Lena's vivid face.
"Do you mean it? You ain't foolin'?" she faltered.
"Fooling? Well, I guess you don't know me. When I invite a friend anywhere I mean it. When can you go?"
"When? Now—this minute!" Nancy cried, starting eagerly to her feet. Then recollecting herself, she sat down again with a shamefaced little laugh. "For the land's sake, if I wasn't forgettin' all about it's bein' Sunday!" she cried under her breath.
"I guess you wouldn't want to go Sunday," Lena said. "But how about to-morrow evening?"
Old Nancy drew a long breath. "I s'pose mebbe I can live through the time till then," she returned. Then with a quick, questioning glance—"But s'posing some of your friends should be there? I guess mebbe—you wouldn't care for 'em to see you with an old woman like me in such a place."
"Don't you fret yourself about that," Lena replied. "You just meet us at the corner of Tenth and the Avenue. I'll be there at half-past seven, if I can. Anyhow, you wait there till I come."
When the girls went away Nancy Rextrew walked with them down to the front door and stood there watching as long as she could see them, her sharp old face full of pride and joy and hope that had long been strangers there.
"O my Lord!" she said under her breath as she went back to her room—and again "O my Lord!"
"That old woman's going to have the time of her life to-morrow night," Lena said, as the two girls walked towards the Avenue.
"I don't suppose she's got a decent thing to wear," Eva grumbled.
Lena turned on her like a flash. "I don't care if she's got nothing but a nightgown to wear, she shall have a good time for once if I can make her!" she stormed. "Talk about your Mrs. Barlow!" And Eva subsided into cowed silence.
At quarter of eight the next evening, the two girls saw Nancy Rextrew standing on the corner of Tenth Street and the Avenue, peering anxiously first one way and then the other.
"Oh!" groaned Eva. "Lena Barton, look at the shawl she's got on. I bet it's a hundred years old—and that bonnet!"
"If it's a hundred years old it's an antique and worth good money!" retorted Lena. "Hurry up!"
But Eva hung back. "I'd be ashamed forever if any of the boys should see me with her," she half whimpered.
Lena stopped short and stamped her foot, heedless of interested passers-by. "Then go back!" she cried. "And you needn't hang around me any more. Go back, I say!" Without another glance at Eva she hurried on, and Eva sulkily followed.
Rapturous relief swept the anxiety from old Nancy's little triangle of a face as she caught sight of the two girls.
"'Fraid you've been waitin' an age," Lena greeted her breezily. "I couldn't get off as early as I meant to. Come on now—we won't lose any more time," and slipping her arm under Nancy's, she swept her, breathless and beaming, towards the brilliantly-lighted show-place.
"Two," she slapped a dime down before the ticket-taker, quite ignoring Eva, who silently laid a nickel beside the dime.
The place was one of the best of its kind, well ventilated and spaced and, though the lights were turned down, it was by no means dark within. Lena guided the old woman into a seat and sat down beside her, and Eva, after a quick searching glance that revealed none of her acquaintances present, took the next seat.
For the hour that followed Nancy Rextrew was in Fairyland. With breathless interest, her eyes glued to the pictures, her mouth half open, she followed the quick-moving figures through scenes pathetic or ludicrous with an absorbed attention that would not miss the smallest detail. When that popular idol—the Imp—was performing her antics, the old woman's quick cackling laugh made Eva drop her head that her big hat might hide her face. When the "Drunkard's Family" were passing through their harrowing experiences, tears rolled unheeded down old Nancy's wrinkled cheeks as she sat with her knobby fingers tight clasped.
When, at last, Lena whispered in her ear, "I guess we'll go now," Nancy exclaimed,
"Oh! Is it over? I thought it had just begun. But it was beautiful—beautiful! I'll never——"
A loud sharp explosion cut through her sentence and instantly the whole place was in an uproar. Suffocating fumes filled the room with smoke as the lights went out. Then somebody screamed, "Fire! Fire!" and pandemonium reigned. Women shrieked, children wailed, and men and boys fought savagely to get to the doors. Lena was swept on by the first mad rush of the crowd, crazy with fear, but catching at a seat, she tried to slip into it and climb back to Nancy and Eva. Before she could reach them, she saw Eva thrown down in the aisle by a big woman frantic with terror, who tried to walk over her prostrate body, but a pair of bony hands grabbed the woman's hair and yanked her back, holding her, it seemed, by sheer force of will, for the few precious seconds that gave Lena a chance to pull Eva up and out of the aisle.
"You fools!" The old woman's voice, shrill and cracked, but steady and unafraid, cut through the babel of shrieks and cries, "You fools, there ain't no fire! If you'll stop yellin' an' pushin' and go quiet you'll all get out in a minute. It's jest a step to the doors."
She was only a little old woman—a figure of fun, if they could have seen her clearly, with her old bonnet tilted rakishly over one ear and her shawl trailing behind her—but through the smoke, in that tumult of fear and dread, the dauntless spirit of her loomed large, and dominated the lesser souls craven with terror.
A draught of air thinned the smoke for a moment, and as those in front rushed out, the pressure in the main aisle lessened. Climbing over the back of a seat, Lena caught the old woman's arm.
"Come," she shouted in her ear, "we can get through to the side aisle now—that's almost clear. Come, Eva, buck up—buck up, I say, or we'll never get out of this!" for Eva, terrified, bruised, and half fainting, was now hanging limp and nerveless to Lena's arm.
"Don't you worry 'bout me. Go ahead an' I'll follow," Nancy Rextrew said, and grabbing Eva's other arm, the two half pushed and half carried her between them. Once outside, her blind terror suddenly left her, and she declared herself all right.
"Well, then, let's get out of this," and Lena's sharp elbows forced a passage through the crowd that was increasing every minute, as the rumour of fire spread. She turned to old Nancy. "We'll get you on a car—My goodness, Eva, catch hold of her quick! We must get her into the drug store there on the corner," she ended as she saw the old woman's face.
They got her into the drug store somehow, and then for the first time in her life Nancy Rextrew fainted; and great was her mortification when she came to herself and realised what had happened.
"My soul and body!" she muttered. "I always did despise women that didn't know no better than to faint, an' now I'm one of 'em. Gi' me my Injy shawl an' let me get away. Yes, I be well enough to go home, too!" She struggled to her feet, and snatching her bonnet from Eva, crammed it on her head anyhow, fumbling with the strings while she swayed dizzily.
"Here, let me tie them," Eva said gently. "You sit down so I can reach." She tied the strings very slowly, pulled the old bonnet straight and drew the India shawl over the thin shoulders, taking as much time as she could, to give the old woman a chance to pull herself together.
"I'll take her home," Lena said.
"No, you won't—that's my job!" Eva spoke with unusual decision, and Lena promptly yielded.
"Well—I guess you're right. I guess if it hadn't been for her——"
"Yes," said Eva, and her look made further words unnecessary.
The three walked out to the car a few minutes later. The fire in the picture theatre had been quickly put out, and already the crowd in the street was melting away. Nancy looked up and down the wide avenue brilliant with its many electric lights; then as she saw the car coming she turned to Lena, her pale face crinkling into sudden laughter.
"I don't care—it was worth it!" she declared. "I've lived more to-night than I have in twenty years before. I loved every minute of it—the pictures an' the fire an' everything. But see here—" she leaned down and whispered in the girl's ear,—"don't you let any feller put his arm round you like the man did round that girl that set in front of us—don't you do it!"
"I guess not!" retorted the girl sharply. "I ain't that kind."
"That's right, that's right! An'—an' do come an' see me again some time—do, dearie!" the old woman added over her shoulder as the conductor pulled her up the high step of the car.
Eva followed her. "I'm going to see she gets home all right," she said, and Lena waved her hand as the car passed on.
"An' to think her sharp old eyes saw that!" Lena thought with a chuckle as she turned away. "An' me all the time thinkin' she didn't see anything but the pictures. Well, you never can tell. But she's a duck, an' it's her gets my nickels—angel or no angel. And to think how she kidnapped us—the old dear," and Lena went on laughing to herself.
At the next Camp Fire meeting, Lena, with a mischievous spark in her eyes, called out to Frances Chapin, "Say, Frances, Eva and I took one of your old ladies to the picture show the other night."
Frances looked distinctly disapproving. "I think you might have made a better use of your money," she returned.
"I don't, then!" retorted Lena, and thereupon she told the story of Nancy's Sunday kidnapping, and of what had happened at the picture show. Her graphic wording held the girls breathless with interest.
"Well!" commented Louise Johnson, "I'd like to see that old lady of yours, Lena."
"She's worth seeing." This from Eva.
A week later Louise announced that she had seen Lena's old lady. "Saw her at the Home yesterday. I like her. She sure is a peach."
"Isn't she just?" Lena responded, her face lighting up. "And did you see Frances' angel-all-but-the-wings old lady too?"
"Yes, and she's a peach also, but a different variety," Louise answered with a laugh. "I gave your Miss Rextrew some mint gum and she popped it into her mouth as handily as if she'd chewed gum all her life."
Lena nodded. "She wanted to try it. She wants to try everything that is going. She's a live wire, that's what she is—good old Nancy!"
"We went the rounds—Annie Pearson and I," Louise continued. "Saw all the old ladies except one that doesn't want any visitors. Most of 'em do, though; and say, girlies—" Louise's sweeping glance included all in the room—"I reckon it won't hurt any of us to run up there once a month or so when it means such a lot to those old shut-ins to have us."
There was a swift exchange of amazed glances at this, from Louise Johnson, and then a murmur of assent from several voices, before Mary Hastings in her business-like way suggested, "Why not each of us set a date for going? Then we won't forget—or maybe all go on the same day."
"All right, Molly—you make out the list an' we'll all sign it," Lena said, "and, say—make it a nickel fine for any girl that forgets her date or fails to keep it. Does that go, girls?"
"Unless for some good and sufficient reason that she will give at our next meeting," Laura amended.
Then began a new era for the old ladies at the Home. Always on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and often on other evenings, light footsteps and young voices were heard in the corridors and rooms of the old mansion. Not only gentle Mrs. Barlow and eager old Nancy Rextrew, but all the women who had drifted into this backwater of life found their dull days wonderfully brightened by contact with these young lives. Nancy Rextrew looked years younger than on that Sunday when she had turned kidnapper. Naturally she was still the prime favourite with Lena and Eva, and gloried in that fact. But there were girls "enough to go around" in more senses than one, and most of them were faithful to their agreement, and seldom allowed anything to keep them from the Home on the date assigned to them.
A CAMP FIRE CHRISTMAS
For over a year Olga had been working in the evening classes of the Arts and Crafts school, and she was now doing excellent work in silver. Her designs were so bold and original and her execution so good, that she received from patrons of the school many orders for Christmas gifts—so many that she gave up her other work in order to devote all her time to this. She had now two rooms, a small bedroom and a larger room which served as kitchen, living-room, and workroom. None of the girls had ever been invited to these rooms, nor even Miss Laura. Elizabeth, Olga would have welcomed there; but it was quite useless to ask her before Sadie joined the Camp Fire. Then Olga saw her opportunity, but it was an opportunity hampered by a very unpleasant condition, and the condition was Sadie. Could she admit Sadie even for the sake of having Elizabeth? Olga pondered long over that while she was teaching the girl to work with the beads and the raffia. Sadie was an apt pupil. Those bony little fingers of hers were deft and quick. Within a month she had made her Camp Fire dress and her headband, and was eagerly at work over the requirements for a Fire Maker. But, as Mary Hastings said to Rose Anderson one day,
"She's sharp as nails—that Sadie! I believe she can learn anything she sets her mind on; but she's such a selfish little pig! I can't endure her."
"I wish I had her memory," Rose answered. "How she did reel off the Fire Ode and the Fire Maker's desire the other night! I haven't learned that Ode yet so that I can say it without stumbling."
"O, Sadie can reel it off without a mistake, but she's as blind to the meaning of it as this sidewalk. There's no heart to Sadie Page. She can thank Elizabeth that we ever voted her in."
"Elizabeth—and Olga," Rose amended.
"O, Olga—well, that was for Elizabeth too. Olga did it just for her—got Sadie in, I mean."
"She's—different—lately, don't you think, Molly?"
"Yes, she's getting more human. She's opened her heart to Elizabeth and she can't quite shut it against the rest of us—not quite—though she opens it only the tiniest crack."
"But I think it's lovely the way she is to Sadie. You know she must hate that kind of a girl as much as we do, or more—and yet she endures and helps her in every way just to give Elizabeth her chance. Miss Laura says Olga is doing lovely silver work. I'd like to see some of it, but I don't dare ask her to let me."
"You'd better not," laughed Mary, "unless you are ready to be snubbed. Nobody but Elizabeth will ever be privileged to that extent."
"Well, possibly, but not if Olga can help it."
Yet it was Sadie and not Elizabeth who was the first of the Camp Fire Girls to be admitted to Olga's rooms. Sadie was wild to take up the silver work. She wanted to make herself a complete set—bracelet, ring, pin, and hatpin, after a design she had seen. Again and again she brought the matter up, for, once she got an idea in her head, she clung to it with the tenacity of a limpet to a rock.
"I think you might teach me!" she cried out impatiently one day, meeting Olga in the street. "You said you'd teach me all you know—you did, Olga Priest—and now you won't."
"I've taught you basket work and beadwork and embroidery, and the knots, and the Red-Cross things, and I'm helping you to win your honours," Olga reminded her.
"O, I know—but I want to make the silver set just awfully. I can do it—I know I can—and you promised, Olga Priest, you promised!" Sadie repeated, half crying in her eager impatience.
"Well," Olga said with a reluctance she did not try to conceal, "if you hold me to that promise——"
"I do then!" Sadie declared, her black eyes watching Olga's lips as if she would snatch the words from them before they were spoken.
"Then I suppose I must," Olga went on slowly. "But listen, Sadie. You don't seem to realise what you are asking of me. I've been nearly two years learning this work, and I paid for my lessons—a good big price, too—yet you expect me to teach you for nothing."
"Well, you know I've no money to pay for lessons," Sadie retorted sulkily.
"I know—but you see you don't have to learn the silver work. There are plenty of other things for you to learn in handcraft."
Sadie's narrow sharp face flushed and she stamped her foot angrily. "But I don't want the other things, and I do want this. I—I've just got to have that silver set, Olga Priest."
Olga set her lips firmly. She must draw the line somewhere, for there seemed no limit to Sadie's demands. Then a thought occurred to her and she said slowly, "I don't feel, Sadie, that you have any right to ask this of me. It is different from the other things. The silver work is my trade—the way I earn my living. But I will teach you to make your set on one condition."
"It's something about Elizabeth, I know," Sadie flung out with an angry flirt.
"No, not this time. Sadie, have you ever given any one a Christmas present?"
"No, of course not. I don't have any money to buy 'em."
"Well, this is my condition. I'll teach you to make the silver set for yourself if you will first make something for——"
"Elizabeth!" broke in Sadie. "I said so."
"No, not for Elizabeth—for your mother."
Sadie stood staring, her mouth open, her eyes full of amazement.
"What you want me to do that for?" she demanded.
"No matter why. Will you do it?"
Sadie wriggled her shoulders and scowled. "I want to make my set first—then I will."
But Olga shook her head. "No," she replied firmly, "for your mother first, or else I'll not teach you at all."
"But I'll have to wait so long then for mine." Sadie was half crying now.
"That's my offer—you can take it or leave it," Olga said. "I must go on now. Think it over and tell me Saturday what you decide."
"O—if I must, I must, I s'pose," Sadie yielded ungraciously. "How long will it take me to make mother's?"
"Depends on how quickly you learn."
"O, I'll learn quick enough!" Sadie tossed her head as one conscious of her powers. "When can I begin?"
"Monday. Can you come right after school?"
"Uh, huh," and with a brief good-bye Sadie was gone.
Olga had no easy task with her over the making of her mother's gift. It was to be a brass stamp box, and her only thought was to get it out of the way so that she could begin on her own jewelry; but Olga was firm.
"If you don't make a good job of this your lessons will end right here," she declared, and Sadie had learned that when Olga spoke in that tone, she must be obeyed. She gloomed and pouted, but seeing no other way to get what she wanted she set to work in earnest. And as the work grew under her hands, her interest in it grew. When, finally, the box was done, it was really a creditable bit of work for the first attempt of a girl barely fourteen, and Sadie was inordinately proud of it.
It was December now and Christmas was the absorbing interest of the Camp Fire Girls. They were to have a tree in the Camp Fire room, but Laura told them to make their gifts very simple and inexpensive.
"We must not spoil the Great Day by giving what we cannot afford," she said. "The loving thought is the heart of Christmas giving—not the money value. I'll get our tree, but you can help me string popcorn and cranberries to trim it, and put up the greenery."
"Me too—O Miss Laura, can't I help too?" Jim cried anxiously.
"Why, of course. We couldn't get along without you, Jim," half a dozen voices assured him before Laura could answer.
"I wish our old ladies could come to our tree," Elsie Harding said to Alice Reynolds.
"They couldn't. Most of them can't go out evenings, you know. But we might put gifts for them on the tree they have at the Home."
"Or have them hang up stockings," suggested Louise Johnson. "Just imagine forty long black stockings strung around those parlour walls. Wouldn't it be a sight?" she giggled.
"Nancy Rextrew wouldn't have her stocking hung on any parlour wall. It would be in her own room or nowhere," put in Lena.
"Why not get some of those red Christmas stockings from the five cent store, and fill one for each old lady?" Mary Hastings proposed. "We could go late, after they'd all gone to their rooms, and hang the stockings, full, on their doorknobs."
"Or get the superintendent to hang them early in the morning," was Laura's suggestion.
"Yes, we can get the stockings and the 'fillings,'" Mary Hastings went on, "and have all sent to the superintendent's room. Then we can go there and fill them. It won't take long if we all go."
"And not have any tree for them?" Myra asked in a disappointed tone.
"O, they always have a tree with candles and trimmings—the Board ladies furnish that," Frances explained.
The girls lingered late that night talking over Christmas plans. The air was heavy with secrets, there were whispered conferences in corners, and somebody was always drawing Laura aside to ask advice or help. Only Elizabeth had no part in these mysterious whisperings. She had blossomed into happy friendliness with all the girls now that she came regularly to the meetings, but the old sad silence crept over her again in these December days. It was Olga who guessed her trouble and went with it to Sadie, drawing her away from a group of girls who were busy over crochet work.
"Look at Elizabeth," she began.
Sadie stared at her sister sitting apart from the others, listlessly gazing into the fire. "Well, what of her? What's eating her?" Sadie demanded in her most aggravating manner.
Olga frowned. Sadie's slang was a trial to her.
"Elizabeth says she is not coming to the Christmas tree here."
"Well, she don't have to, if she don't want to," Sadie retorted, but she cast an uneasy glance at the silent figure by the fire.
"She does want to, Sadie Page—you know she does."
"Well, then—what's the answer?" demanded Sadie.
"Would you come if you couldn't give a single thing to any one?" Olga asked quietly.
"Why don't she make things then—same's I do?" Sadie's tone was sullen now.
"You know why. Your mother gives you a little money——"
"Mighty little," Sadie interrupted. "I'm going to work when I'm sixteen. Then I'll have my own money to spend."
"And Elizabeth is nearly eighteen and can't work for herself because she spends all her time working for the rest of you at home," said Olga.
A startled look flashed into the sharp black eyes. Sadie had actually never before thought of that.
Olga went on, "I guess you'd miss Elizabeth at home if she should go away to work, but she ought to do it as soon as she is eighteen. And if she should, you'd have to do some of the kitchen work, wouldn't you? And maybe then you wouldn't have a chance to go away and earn money for yourself."
"Is she going to do that—go off to work when she's eighteen?" Sadie demanded, plainly disturbed at the suggestion.
"Everybody would say she had a right to. Most girls would have gone long ago—you know it, Sadie. You'd better make things easier for her at home if you want to keep her there."
"How?" Sadie's voice was despondent now. "Father gets so little pay—we're pinched all the time."
"Yet you have good clothes and money for your silver work——"
"Well, I have to just tease it out of mother. You don't know how I have to tease."
Olga could imagine. "Well," she said, "the girls all guess how it is about Elizabeth, and, if you come to the tree and she doesn't, I shan't envy you, that's all. You are smart enough to think up some way to help Elizabeth out."
"I d'know how!" grumbled Sadie. "I think you're real mean, Olga Priest—always saying things to spoil my fun, so there!" and she whirled around and went back to the other girls.
"All the same," said Olga to herself, "I've set her to thinking."
The next afternoon Sadie burst tumultuously into Olga's room crying out, "I've thought what Elizabeth can do! She can make some cakes—she made some for us last Christmas—awful nice ones, with nuts an' citron an' raisins in 'em. She can put white icing over 'em an' little blobs of red sugar for holly berries, you know, with citron leaves. I thought that up myself, about the icing. Won't they be dandy?"
"Fine! Good for you, Sadie!"
Sadie accepted the approval as her due, and went on breathlessly, "I thought it all out in school to-day. An' say, Olga—I can make baskets of green and white crepe paper to hold three or four of the cakes, an' stick a bit of holly in each basket. Then they can be from me an' 'Lizabeth both—how's that?"
"Couldn't be better," Olga declared.
"Uh huh, you see little Sadie has a head on her all right!" Sadie exulted. But Olga could overlook her conceit since, for once, she had taken thought for Elizabeth too.
Laura wondered if, amid all the bustle and excitement of Christmas planning and doing, Jim would forget about the Christmas for the Children's Hospital, but he did not forget; and when she told him that she was depending upon him to tell her what the boys there would like, Jim had no trouble at all in deciding. So one Saturday Miss Laura took him down town early before the stores were crowded and they had a delightful time selecting books and toys.
"My-ee!" Jim cried, as they were speeding up Connecticut Avenue, the car piled with packages, "won't this be a splendid Christmas! Ours first at home, and the hospital Christmas and the Camp Fire one and the old ladies' one—it'll be four Christmases all in one year, won't it, Miss Laura?" he exulted.
"Besides a tree and a gift for each one in your outdoor school," Laura added.
Jim stared at her wide-eyed. "O, who's going to give them?" he cried. "You?"
"You and I and the judge, Jim. That is our thank-offering for all that the school is doing for you—and for Jo."
Jim moved close and hid his face for a long moment on Laura's shoulder. She knew that he was afraid he might cry, but this time they would have been tears of pure joy. He explained presently, when he was sure that his eyes were all right.
"That will be the best Christmas of all, 'cause some of the out-doorers wouldn't have a teeny bit of Christmas at home. Jo wouldn't. He says they never hang up stockings or anything like that at his house. He said he didn't care, but I know he did."
That evening Miss Laura asked, "How would you like to put something on our tree for Jo?"
"The Camp Fire tree—and have him come?" Jim cried eagerly.
It took three somersaults to get that out of Jim's system. When he came up, flushed and joyful, Laura said, "I'm going to tell you a Christmas secret, Jim. I am going to have each Camp Fire Girl invite her mother, or any one else she likes, to come to our tree. We can't have presents for them all, of course, but there will be ice cream and cake enough for everybody."
"O, Miss Laura!" Jim cried. "It's going to be the best Christmas that ever was in this world!"
And Jim was not the only one who thought so before the Great Day was over. The tree at the outdoor school, the day before, was a splendid surprise to every one there except the teacher and Jim, and all the little "out-doorers," as Jim called them, went home with their hands full. At the hospital the celebration was very quiet, but in spite of pain and weariness, the boys in the first ward enjoyed their gifts as much as Jim had hoped they would. And the Christmas stocking, full and running over, that each old lady at the Home found hanging to her doorknob, made those old children as happy as the young ones.
Jim's stocking could not hold half his treasures, and words failed him utterly before he had opened the last package. But the Camp Fire celebration was the great success. The tree was a blaze of light and colour, and the gifts which the girls had made for each other were many and varied. Some of the beadwork and basket work was really beautiful, and there were pretty bits of crochet and some knitted slippers—all the work of the girls themselves. Miss Laura had begged them to give her no gift, and hers to each of them was only a little water-colour sketch with "Love is the joy of service," beautifully lettered, beneath it.
Sadie's baskets of crepe paper were really very pretty, and these filled with Elizabeth's holly cakes were one of the "successes" of the evening. They were praised so highly that Elizabeth was quite, quite happy and Sadie "almost too proud to live," as she confided to Olga in an excited whisper.
But the best of all was the pleasure of the guests of the evening—Jack Harding and Jo Barton and David Chapin, who all came as Jim's guests—Louise Johnson's brother, a big awkward boy of sixteen—Eva Bicknell's mother, with her bent shoulders and rough hands, and other mothers more or less like her. The four boys helped when the cake and ice cream were served, and Jim whispered to Jo that he could have just as many helpings as he wanted—Miss Laura said so—and Jo wanted several. It was by no means a quiet occasion—there was plenty of noise and laughter, and fun, and Laura was in the heart of it all. They closed the evening with ten minutes of Christmas carols in which everybody joined, and then while the girls were getting on their wraps, the mothers crowded about Laura, and the things some of them said filled her heart with a great joy, for they told her how much the Camp Fire was doing for their girls—making them kinder and more helpful at home, keeping them off the streets, teaching them so many useful and pretty sorts of work.
"My girl is so much happier, and more contented than she used to be," one said.
"Mine, too," another added. "I can't be glad enough for the Camp Fire. Johnny's a Scout an' that's a mighty good thing, too, but for girls there's nothing like the Camp Fire."
"Eva used to hate housework, but now she does it thinkin' about the beads she's getting, and she don't hardly ever fret over it," Mrs. Bicknell confided.
"These things you are saying are the very best Christmas gift I could possibly have," Laura told them, with shining eyes.
And the girls themselves, as they bade her good-night said words that added yet more to the full cup of her Christmas joy.
"O, it pays, father—this work with my girls," she said, when all had gone, and they two sat together before the fire. "It has been such a beautiful, beautiful Christmas!"
The last night of December brought a heavy storm of sleety rain, with a bitter north wind. Laura, reading beside the fire, heard the doorbell ring, and presently Olga Priest appeared. The biting wind had whipped a fresh colour into her cheeks, and her eyes were clear and shining under her heavy brows.
"You aren't afraid of bad weather, Olga," Laura said as she greeted the girl.
"All weather is the same to me," Olga returned indifferently, but as she sat down Laura cried out,
"Why, child, your feet are soaking wet! Surely you did not come without rubbers in such a storm!"
"I forgot them. It's no matter," Olga said, drawing her wet feet under her skirts.
"I'll be back in a moment," Laura replied, and left the room, returning with dry stockings and slippers.
"Take off those wet things and heat your feet thoroughly—then put these on," she ordered in a tone that admitted of no refusal.
With a frown, Olga obeyed. "But it's nonsense—I never mind wet feet," she grumbled.
"You ought to mind them. Your health is a gift. You have no right to throw it away—no right, Olga. It is yours—only to use—like everything else you have."
Olga paused, one slipper in her hand, pondering that.
"Don't you see, Olga," Laura urged gently, "we are only stewards. Everything we have—health, time, money, intellect—all are ours only to use the little while we are in this world, and not to use for ourselves alone."
"It makes life harder if you believe that," Olga flung back defiantly. "I want my things for myself."
"O no, it makes life easier, and O, so big and beautiful!" Laura leaned forward, speaking earnestly. "When we really accept this idea of service, then 'self is forgotten.' We give as freely as we have received." Olga shook her head with a gesture that put all that aside.
"You said Saturday that you wanted my help——" she began.
"Yes, I do want your help. I'll tell you how presently. Sadie Page is doing very well in the craft work, isn't she?"
"Yes. She can copy anything—designing is her weak point—but she is doing very well."
"She is improving in other ways."
"There's room for improvement still," Olga retorted in her grimmest voice. Then her conscience forced her to add, "But she is more endurable. She treats Elizabeth some better than she did."
"Yes, Elizabeth seems so happy now."
Laura went on thoughtfully, "You are a Fire Maker. Olga, I want you for a Torch Bearer."
Olga stared in blank amazement, then her face darkened. "But I don't want to be a Torch Bearer," she cried. "A Torch Bearer is a leader. I don't want to be a leader."
"But I need your help, and some of the girls need you. You can be a splendid leader, if you will. Have you any right to refuse?"
"I don't see why not."
"If in our Camp Fire there are girls whom you might hold back from what will harm them, or whom you could help to higher and happier living, don't you owe it to them to do this?"
"Why? They do nothing for me. I don't ask them to do anything for me."
"But that is pure selfishness. That attitude is unworthy of you, Olga."
The girl stirred restlessly. "I don't want to be responsible for other girls," she impatiently cried out.
"Have you any choice—you or I? We have promised to keep the law."
"The law of love and service—have you forgotten?" Miss Laura repeated softly, "'I purpose to bring my strength, my ambition, my heart's desire, my joy, and my sorrow, to the fire of humankind. The fire that is called the love of man for man—the love of man for God.'"
Then for many minutes in the room there was silence broken only by the crackling of the fire, and the voices of the storm without. Olga sat motionless, the old sombre shadow brooding in her eyes. At last she stirred impatiently, and spoke.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Have you noticed Lizette Stone lately?" Miss Laura asked.
"No. I never notice her."
"Poor girl, I'm afraid most of you feel that way about her," Laura said, with infinite pity in her voice. "She never looks happy, but lately there is something in her face that troubles me. She looks as if she had lost hope and courage, and were simply drifting. I've tried to win her confidence, but she will not talk with me about herself. I thought—at least, I hoped—that you might be able to find out what is the trouble."
"Why I, rather than any other girl?"
"I don't know why I feel so sure that you might succeed, but I do feel so, Olga. She may be in great trouble. If you could find out what it is, I might be able to help her. Will you try, Olga?"
The girl shook her head. "I can't promise, Miss Laura. I'll think about it," was all she would concede.
"She works in Silverstein's," Laura added, "and I think she has no relatives in the city."
The talk drifted then to other matters, and when Olga glanced at the clock, Miss Laura touched a bell, and in a few minutes a maid brought up a cup of hot clam bouillon. "You must take it, Olga, before you go out again in this storm," Laura said, and reluctantly the girl obeyed.
When she went away, Laura went to the door with her. The car stood there, and before she fairly realised that it was waiting for her Olga was inside, and the chauffeur was tucking the fur rug around her. As, leaning back against the cushions, shielded from wet and cold, she was borne swiftly through the storm, something hard and cold and bitter in the girl's heart was suddenly swept away in a strong tide of feeling quite new to her, and strangely mingled of sweet and bitter. It was Miss Laura she was thinking of—Miss Laura who had furnished the beautiful Camp Fire room for the girls and made them all so warmly welcome there—who so plainly carried them all in her heart and made their joys and sorrows, their cares and troubles, her own—as she was making Lizette Stone's now. How good she had been to Elizabeth, how patient and gentle with that provoking Sadie, and with careless slangy Lena Barton and Eva! And to her—Olga thought of the dry stockings and slippers, the hot broth, and now—the car ordered out on such a night just for her. The girl's throat swelled, her eyes burned, and the last vestige of bitterness was washed out of her heart in a rain of hot tears.
"If she can do so much for all of us I can't be mean enough to shirk any longer. I'll see Lizette to-morrow," she vowed, as the car stopped at her door. She stood for a moment on the steps looking after it before she went in. It had been only "common humanity" to send the girl home in the car on that stormy night, so Miss Laura would have said. She did not guess what it would mean to Olga and through her to other girls—many others—before all was done.
Silverstein's was a large department store on Seventh Street. Lizette Stone, listlessly putting away goods the next day, stopped in surprise at sight of Olga Priest coming towards her.
"Almost closing time, isn't it?" Olga said, and added, as Lizette nodded silently, "I want to speak to you—I'll wait outside."
In five minutes Lizette joined her. "Do you walk home?" Olga asked.
"Yes, it isn't far—Ninth Street near T."
"We're neighbours then. I live on Eleventh."
"I know. Saw you going in there once," Lizette replied.
There was little talk between them as they walked. Lizette was waiting—Olga wondering what she should say to this girl.
"Well, here's where I hang out." In Lizette's voice there was a reckless and bitter tone.
"O—here!" Olga's quick glance took in the ugly house-front with its soiled "Kensington" curtains—its door ajar showing worn oilcloth in the hall.
"Cheerful place—eh?" Lizette said. "Want to see the inside, or is the outside enough?"
"I want you to come home to supper with me—will you?" Olga said, half against her will.
"Do you mean it?" Lizette's hard blue eyes searched her face. "Take it back in a hurry if you don't, for I'd accept an invitation from—anybody to-night, rather than spend the evening here."
"Of course, I mean it. Please come." Olga laid a compelling hand on the other girl's arm and they went on down the street.
"Now you are to rest while I get supper," Olga said as she threw open her own door. "Here—give me your things." She took Lizette's hat and coat. "Now you lie down in there until I call you."
Without a word Lizette obeyed.
Olga creamed some chipped beef, toasted bread, and made tea, adding a few cakes that she had bought on the way home. When all was ready, she stood a moment, frowning at the table. The cloth was fresh and clean, but the dishes were cheap and ugly. She had never cared before. Now, for this other girl, she wanted some touch of beauty. But Lizette found nothing lacking.
"Everything tastes so good," she said. "You sure do know how to cook, Olga."
"Just a few simple things. I never care much what I eat."
"You'd care if you had to eat at Miss Rankin's table," Lizette declared.
With a question now and then, Olga drew her on to tell of her life at Miss Rankin's, and her work at the store. After a little she talked freely, glad to pour the tale of her troubles into a sympathetic ear.
"I hate it all—that boarding-house, where nothing and nobody is really clean, and the store where only the pretty girls or the extra smart ones ever get on. The pretty girls always have chances, but me—I'm homely as sin, and I know it; and I'm not smart, and I know that, too. I shall get my walking ticket the first dull spell, and then——"
"Then, what, Lizette?"
"The Lord knows. It's a hard world for girls, Olga."
"You've no relatives?"
"Only some cousins. They're all as poor as poverty too, and they don't care a pin for me."
"Is there any kind of work you would really like if you could do it?"
"What's the use of talking—I can't do it."
"But tell me," Olga urged.
"You'll think I'm a fool."
"No, I will not," Olga promised.
"It seems ridiculous——" Lizette hesitated, the colour rising in her sallow cheeks, "but I'd just love to make beautiful white things—lingerie, you know, like what I sell at the store. It would be next best to having them to wear myself. I don't care so much about the outside things—gowns and hats—but I think it would be just heavenly to have all the underneath things white and lacey, and lovely—don't you think so?"
"I never thought of it. You see I don't care about clothes," Olga returned. "Can you sew, Lizette?"
Lizette hesitated, then, with a look half shamefaced and half proud, she drew from her bag a bit of linen.
"It was a damaged handkerchief. I got it for five cents, at a sale," she explained. "It will make a jabot."
"And you did this?" Olga asked.
Lizette nodded. "I know it isn't good work, but if I had time I could learn——"
"Yes, you could—if you had the time and a few lessons. Are your eyes strong?"
The other nodded again. "Strong as they are ugly," she flung out.
"Leave this with me for a day or two, will you, Lizette?"
"Uh-huh," Lizette returned indifferently. "Give it to you, if you'll take it."
"Oh no—it's too pretty. Lizette, you hate it so at Miss Rankin's—why don't you rent a room and get your own meals as I do?"
"Couldn't. I'm so dead tired most nights that I'd rather go hungry than get my own supper. Some girls don't seem to mind being on their feet from eight to six, but I can't stand it. Sometimes I get so tired it seems as if I'd rather die than drag through another day of it! And besides—I don't much like the other boarders at Rankin's, but they're better than nobody. To go back at night to an empty room and sit there till bedtime with not a soul to speak to—O, I couldn't stand it. I'd get in a blue funk and end it all some night. I'm tempted to, as it is, sometimes." She added, with a miserable laugh that was half a sob, "Nobody'd care," and Olga heard her own voice saying earnestly,
"I'd care, Lizette. You must never, never think a thing like that again!"
Lizette searched the other's face with eyes in which sharp suspicion gradually changed into half incredulous joy. "Well," she said slowly, "if one living soul cares even a little bit what happens to me, I'll try to pull through somehow. The Camp Fire's the only thing that has made life endurable to me this past year, and I haven't enjoyed that so awfully much, for nobody there seems to really care—I just hang on to the edges."
"Miss Laura cares."
"O, in a way, because I belong to her Camp Fire—that's all," returned Lizette moodily.
"No, she cares—really," Olga persisted, but Lizette answered only by an incredulous lift of her thin, sandy brows.
"I must go now," she said, rising, and with her hands on Olga's shoulders she added, "You don't know what this evening here has meant to me. I—was about at the end of my rope."
"I'm glad you came," Olga spoke heartily, "and you are coming again Thursday. Maybe I'll have something then to tell you, but if I don't, anyhow, we'll have supper together and a talk after it."
To that Lizette answered nothing, but the look in her eyes sent a little thrill of happiness through Olga's heart.
Olga carried the bit of linen to Laura the next evening, and told her what she had learned of Lizette's hard life.
"Poor child!" Miss Laura said. "I imagined something like this. We must find other work for her. Perhaps I can get her into Miss Bayly's Art Store. She would not have to be on her feet so much there, and would have a chance to learn embroidery if she really has any aptitude for it. I know Miss Bayly very well, and I think I can arrange it to have Lizette work there for six months. That would be long enough to give her a chance."
"Would she get any pay?" Olga asked.
"Of course—the same she gets now," Laura returned, but Olga was sure that the pay would not come out of Miss Bayly's purse.
Laura went on thoughtfully, "The other matter is not so easily arranged. Even if we get her a better boarding place, she might be just as lonely as at Miss Rankin's. Evidently she does not make friends easily."
"No, she is plain and unattractive and so painfully conscious of it that she thinks nobody can want to be her friend, so she draws into herself and—and pushes everybody away," Olga was speaking her thought aloud—one of her thoughts—the other that had been in her heart since her talk with Lizette, she refused to consider. But it insisted upon being considered when she went away. It was with her in her own room where Lizette's hopeless words seemed to echo and re-echo. Finally, in desperation she faced it.
"I can't have her come here!" she cried aloud. "It would mean that I'd never be sure of an hour alone. She'd be forever running in and out and I'd feel I must be forever bracing her up—pumping hope and courage into her. It's too much to ask of me. I'm alone in the world as she is, but I'm not whining. I stand on my own feet and other people can stand on theirs. I can't have that girl here and I won't—and that ends it!" But it didn't end it. Lizette's hopeless eyes, Lizette's reckless voice, would not be banished from her memory, and when Thursday evening the girl herself came, Olga knew that she must yield—there was no other way.
Lizette paused on the threshold. "You can still back out," she said, longing and pride mingling in her eyes. "I can get back to Rankin's in time for my share of liver and prunes."
Olga drew her in and shut the door. "Your days at Miss Rankin's are numbered," she said, "that is if you will come here. There's a little room across the hall you can have if you want it."
Lizette dropped into a chair, the colour slowly ebbing from her sallow cheeks. "Don't fool with me, Olga," she cried, "I'm—not up to it."
"I'm not fooling."
"But—I don't understand." The girl's lips were quivering.
Olga went on, "And your days at Silverstein's are numbered too. I showed your embroidery to Miss Laura, and she has found you a place at Bayly's Art Store. You can go there as soon as you can leave Silverstein's," she ended. To her utter dismay Lizette dropped her head on the table and began to cry. Olga sat looking at her in silence. She did not know what to do. But presently Lizette lifted her blurred and tear-stained face and smiled through her tears.
"You must excuse me this once," she cried. "I'm not tear-y as a general thing, but—but, I hadn't dared to hope—for anything—and it bowled me over. I'll promise not to do so again; but O, Olga Priest, I'll never, never forget what you've done, as long as I live!"
"It's not I, it's Miss Laura. I couldn't have got you the place."
"I know, and I'm grateful to Miss Laura, but that isn't half as much as your letting me come here. I—I won't be a bother, truly I won't. But O, it will be so heavenly good to be in reach of somebody who cares even a little bit. You shall not be sorry, Olga—I promise you that."
"I'm not sorry. I'm glad," Olga said. "Come now and see the room."
It was a small room—the one across the hall—and rather shabby, with its matting soiled and torn, its cheap iron bedstead and painted washstand and chairs. Lizette however was quite content with it.
"It's lots better than the one I have at Rankin's," she declared.
But the next day Laura came and saw the room, and then sent word to all the girls except Lizette to come on Wednesday evening to the Camp Fire room and bring their thimbles. And when they came she had some soft curtain material to be hemmed, and some cream linen to be hemstitched. Many fingers made light work, and all was finished that evening, and an appointment made with two of the High School girls for the next Monday afternoon. Then two hours of steady work transformed the bare little room. There was fresh white matting on the floor with a new rag rug before the white enamelled bedstead with its clean new mattress, a chiffonier and washstand of oak, with two chairs, and a tiny round table that could be folded to save room. The soft cream curtains that the girls had hemmed shaded the window, and the linen covers were on the chiffonier and washstand.
"Doesn't it look fresh and pretty!" Alice Reynolds cried, as she looked around, when all was done.
"I'm sure she'll like it," Elsie Harding added.
"Like it?" Olga spoke from the doorway. "You can't begin to know what it will mean to her. You'd have to see her room at Rankin's to understand. But that isn't all. Lizette will believe now that somebody cares."
"O!" Elsie's eyes filled with tears. "Did she think that—that nobody cared?"
"She said she was 'most at the end of her rope' the first time she came to see me."
"She shall never again feel that nobody cares," Laura said softly.
"Indeed, no!" echoed Alice, and added, "I'm going to bring down a few books to put on that table."
"I'll make a hanging shelf to hold them. That will be better than having them on the table," Elsie said.
"And I'll bring some growing plants for the window-sill," Laura promised.
"O, I hope she'll just love this room," Elsie cried, when reluctantly they turned away.
"She will—you needn't be afraid," Olga assured her.
But Olga was the only one privileged to see Lizette when she had her first glimpse of the room. She stopped short inside the door and looked around her, missing no single detail. Then she turned to Olga a face stirred with emotion too deep for words. When she did speak it was in a whisper. "For me? Olga, who did it?"
"Miss Laura, Elsie, and Alice—and we all helped on the curtains and covers."
"I just can't believe it. I—I must be dreaming. Don't let me wake up till I enjoy it a little first," she pleaded. After a moment she added, "And this all came through the Camp Fire, and my place at Miss Bayly's too. Olga Priest, I'm a Camp Fire Girl heart and soul and body from now on. I've been only the shell of one before, but now—now, I've got to pass this on somehow. I must do things for other girls that have no one and nothing—as they've done this for me."
And through Olga's mind floated like a glad refrain, "'Love is the joy of service so deep that self is forgotten.'"
Olga was glad—glad with all her heart—for Lizette, and yet that first evening she sat in her own room dreading to hear the tap on her door which she expected every moment. At nine o'clock, however, it had not come, and then she went across and did the knocking herself.
"Come in, come in," Lizette cried, as she opened her door.
"I've been expecting you over all the evening," Olga said, "and when you didn't come I was afraid you were sick—or something."
Lizette looked at her with a queer little smile. "I know. You sat there thinking that you'd never have any peace now with me so near; but you needn't worry. I'm not going to haunt you. I've got a home corner here all my own, and I know that you are there just across the hall, and that's enough. It's going to be enough."
"But I don't want you to feel that way," Olga protested. "I want you to come."
"You want to want me, you mean. O, I'm sharp enough, Olga, if I'm not smart. I know—and I don't mean that you shall ever be sorry that you brought me here. If I get way down in the doleful dumps some night I'll knock at your door—perhaps. Anyhow, you're there, and that means a lot to me."
Almost every evening after that Olga heard light footsteps and voices in the hall, and taps on Lizette's door. Elsie and Alice were determined she should no longer feel that "nobody cared," so they were her first callers, but others followed. Lizette welcomed them all with shining eyes, and once she cried earnestly, "I just love every one of you girls now! And I wish I could do something for you as lovely as what you have done for me."
"And that's Lizette Stone!" Lena said to Eva after they left. "Who would ever have thought she'd say a thing like that?"
For more than a week Olga, alone in her room, listened to the merry voices across the hall. Then one night, she put aside her work, and went across again.
"I've found out that I'm lonesome," she said as Lizette opened the door. "May I come in?"
"Well, I guess!" and Lizette drew her in and motioned to the bed. "You shall have a reserved seat there with Bessie and Myra," she cried, "and we're gladder than glad to have you."
For a moment sheer surprise held the others silent till Olga exclaimed, "Don't let me be a wet blanket. If you do I shall run straight back."
The tongues were loosened then and though Olga said little, the girls felt the difference in her attitude. She lingered a moment after the others left, to say, "Lizette, you mustn't stay away any more. I really want you to come to my room."
Lizette's sharp eyes studied her face before she answered, "Yes, I see you do now, and I'll come. I'll love to."
Back in her own room Olga turned up the gas and stood for some minutes looking about. Clean it was, and in immaculate order, but bare, with no touch of beauty anywhere. The contrast with the simple beauty of Lizette's room made her see her own in a new light. The words of the Wood Gatherer's "Desire" came into her mind—"Seek beauty." She had not done that. "Give service." She had given it, grudgingly at first to Elizabeth, grudgingly all this time to Sadie, grudgingly to Lizette, and not at all to any one else. Only one part of her promise had she kept faithfully—to "Glorify work." She had done that, after a fashion. She drew in her breath sharply. "Lizette is a long way ahead of me. She is trying to be an all-around Camp Fire Girl. If I'm going to keep up with her, I must get busy," she said to herself. "Before I can be Miss Laura's Torch Bearer I've a lot to make up. Here I've been calling Sadie Page a selfish little beast and all the time I've been as bad as she in a different way. Well—we'll see."
She went shopping the next morning. Her purchases did not cost much, but they transformed the bare room. Cheesecloth curtains at the windows, a green crex rug on the dull stained floor, two red geraniums, and on the mantelpiece three brass candlesticks holding red candles. These and a few pretty dishes were all, but she was amazed at the difference they made. At six o'clock she set her door ajar, and when Lizette came, called her in.
"You are to have supper with me to-night," she said.
"But I've had my supper. I——" Lizette began—then stopped short with a little cry, "O, how pretty! Why, your room is lovely now, Olga."
"You see the influence of example," replied Olga. "Yours is so pretty that I couldn't stand the bareness of mine any longer."
"I'm glad." Lizette spoke earnestly. "Isn't it splendid—the way the Camp Fire ideas grow and spread? They are making me over, Olga."
Olga nodded. "Take off your things. I'll have supper ready in two minutes. Did you get yours at the Cafeteria?"
"Yes, I'm getting all my meals there—ten cents apiece."
"Ten cents. I know you don't get enough—for that, Lizette Stone."
Lizette laughed. "It's all I can afford," she said "out of six dollars a week. When I earn more——"
"You can't cook for yourself as I do—you haven't room. Lizette, why can't we co-operate?"
"What do you mean?" breathlessly Lizette questioned.
"I mean, take our meals together and share the expense. It won't cost you more than thirty cents a day, and you'll have enough then."
"But I can't cook—I don't know how," Lizette objected.
"I'll teach you. And you've got to learn before you can be a Fire Maker, you know."
"Yes—I know," said Lizette slowly, "and I'd like it, but you—Olga, you'd get sick of it. You're used to being alone. You wouldn't want any one around every day—you know you wouldn't."
"It would be better for me than eating alone, and better for you than the Cafeteria. Come, Lizette, say 'yes.'"
"Yes, then," Lizette answered. "At least—I'll try it for a month, if you'll promise to tell me frankly at the end of the month if you'd rather not keep on."
"Agreed," said Olga.
"My! But it will be good to have a change from the Cafeteria!" Lizette admitted.
And now, having opened her heart to the sunshine of love, Olga began to find many pleasant things springing up there. She no longer held Miss Laura and the girls at arm's length. They were all friends, even Lena Barton and Eva Bicknell, whom until now she had regarded with scornful indifference, and Sadie Page, whom she had barely tolerated for Elizabeth's sake—even these she counted now as friends; and Laura, noting the growing comradeship—seeing week by week the strengthening of the bond between the girls, said to herself, joyfully,
"It was in Olga's heart that the fire of love burst into flame, and it has leaped from heart to heart until now I believe in all my girls it is burning—'The love of man to man—the love of man to God.'"
AN OPEN DOOR FOR ELIZABETH
Sadie Page burst tumultuously into Olga's room one afternoon and hardly waited to get inside the door before she cried out, "I've thought of something Elizabeth can do—something splendid."
"Well," said Olga drily, "if it is something splendid for Elizabeth, I'll excuse you for coming in without knocking."
"All right, please excuse me, I forgot," Sadie responded with unusual good nature, "I was in such a hurry to tell you. It's a way Elizabeth can earn money at home——Now, Olga Priest, I think you're real mean to look so!" she ended with a scowl.
"Look how?" Olga laughed.
"You know. As if—as if I was just thinking of keeping Elizabeth at home."
"But weren't you?"
"No, I wasn't!" Sadie retorted. "At any rate—I was thinking of Elizabeth too. I was, honest, Olga."
"Well, tell me," said Olga.
"Why, you know those Christmas cakes she made?"
"Well, she can make them and other kinds to sell in one of the big groceries. I saw some homemade cakes in Council's to-day that didn't look half as nice as Elizabeth's and they charged a lot for them."
Olga nodded thoughtfully. "I shouldn't wonder if you'd hit upon a good plan, Sadie. But if she does that, you'll have to help her with the work at home, for she has all she can do now."
Sadie scowled. She hated housework. "Guess I have plenty to do myself," she grumbled, "with school and my silver work and all."
"But your silver work is just for yourself," Olga reminded her, "and Elizabeth has no time to do anything for herself."
"Well, anyhow, if she makes lots of cakes she'll have money for herself."
"And she's got to have money for herself," Olga said decidedly. "I've been thinking about that." Sadie wriggled uneasily. She had been thinking about it too, and that Elizabeth would be eighteen soon, and free to go out and earn her own living, if she chose.
"Well, I must go and tell her," she said and left abruptly.
Elizabeth listened in silence to Sadie's eager plans, but the colour came and went in her face and her blue eyes were full of longing.
"O, if I could only do it—if I only could!" she breathed. "But I—I couldn't go around to the stores and ask them to sell for me. I never could do that!"
"Well, you don't have to. I'd do that for you. I wouldn't mind it," Sadie declared. "You just make up some of those spicy Christmas cakes and some others, a few, you know, just for samples, and I'll take 'em out for you. I know they'll sell."
"I—I'm not so sure," Elizabeth faltered.
Sadie's brows met in a black frown. "You're a regular 'fraid-cat, 'Lizabeth Page!" she exclaimed, stamping her foot. "How do you ever expect to do anything if you're scared to try! To-morrow's Sat'-day. Can't you get up early an' make some?"
It was settled that she should. There was little sleep for Elizabeth that night, so eager and excited was she, and very early in the morning she crept down to the kitchen and set to work. Before her usual rising time, Sadie ran downstairs, buttoning her dress as she went.
"Have you made 'em?" she demanded, her black eyes snapping.
"Yes," Elizabeth glanced at the clock, "I'm just going to take them out." She opened the oven door, then she gasped and her face whitened as she drew out the pans.
"My goodness!" cried Sadie. "Elizabeth Page—what ails 'em?"
"O—O!" wailed Elizabeth, "I must have left out the baking powder—and I never did before in all my life!"
"Well!" Sadie exploded. "If this is the way you're going to——" Then the misery in Elizabeth's face was too much for her. She stopped short, biting her tongue to keep back the bitter words.
Elizabeth crouched beside the oven, her tears dropping on the cakes.
"O, come now—no need to cry all over 'em—they're flat enough without any extra wetting," Sadie exclaimed after a moment's silence. "You just fling them out an' make some more after breakfast. I bet you'll never leave out the baking powder again."
"I never, never could again," sobbed Elizabeth.
"O, forget it, an' come on in to breakfast," Sadie said with more sympathy in her heart than in her words.
"I don't want any—I couldn't eat a mouthful. You take in the coffee, Sadie—everything else is on the table."
"Well, you just make more cakes then. They'll be all right—the next ones—I know they will," and coffee-pot in hand, Sadie whisked into the dining-room.
And the next cakes were all right. Sadie gloated over them as Elizabeth spread the icing, and added the fancy touches with pink sugar and citron.
When she had gone away with the cakes Elizabeth cooked and cleaned, washed dishes, and swept, but all the time her thoughts followed Sadie. She dared not let herself hope, and yet the time seemed endless. But at last the front door slammed, there were flying feet in the hall, and Sadie burst into the kitchen, flushed and triumphant.
"O—O Sadie—did you—will they——?" Elizabeth stumbled over the words, her breath catching in her throat.