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Title: Nancy of Paradise Cottage
Author: Watkins, Shirley
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Nancy of Paradise Cottage" ***

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Nancy

_of_

Paradise Cottage


_by_

SHIRLEY WATKINS



THE GOLDSMITH PUBLISHING COMPANY

CHICAGO



COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY

GEORGE W. JACOBS & COMPANY


_All rights reserved_

Printed in U. S. A.



CONTENTS


CHAPTER

    I  THE HEROINE GOES TO MARKET
   II  INSIDE THE COTTAGE
  III  A MODERN CINDERELLA
   IV  LADIES OF FASHION
    V  A RETICENT GENTLEMAN--AND MISS BANCROFT
   VI  MISS BANCROFT BEARDS THE OGRE
  VII  A MAN OF "PRINCIPLES"
 VIII  THE FIRST NIGHT AT SCHOOL
   IX  A QUARREL
    X  THE OGRE REAPPEARS
   XI  ALMA MAKES COMPLICATIONS
  XII  ALMA IN A SCRAPE
 XIII  NANCY HAS A GREAT ADVENTURE
  XIV  PARADISE COTTAGE
   XV  THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE MR. PRESCOTT



Nancy of Paradise Cottage


CHAPTER I

THE HEROINE GOES TO MARKET

"Let's see--bacon, eggs, bread, sugar, two cans of corn, and jam.  Have
I gotten everything, Alma?"  Nancy, checking off the items in her
marketing list, looked over toward her sister, who had wandered to the
door and stood gazing out into the street where a gentle September rain
was falling.  Alma did not answer, seeming to have gone into a dream,
and the grocer waited patiently, his pencil poised over his pad.

"Alma, do wake up!  Have I forgotten anything?  I'm sure there was
something else," said Nancy, frowning, and studying her list, with her
under lip thrust forward.  "I regularly go and forget something every
Saturday night, when there's no Hannah to concoct something out of
nothing for Sunday luncheon."

"You said you were going to bake a cake--a chocolate layer cake,"
suggested Alma, turning, and viewing the proceeding disinterestedly
with her hands in her pockets.

"That's it.  I have to get flour, and some cooking chocolate, and
vanilla.  Alma, you've got to help me carry these things.  I'm not
Goliath."

"Mercy, Nancy, we don't have to take all that home with us, do we?
Can't you send them, Mr. Simpson?"

The grocer shrugged apologetically.

"It's Saturday, Miss Prescott, and the last delivery went out at
three--all my boys have gone home now or I'd try to accommodate you."

"I do hate to go about looking like an old market woman, with my arms
full of brown paper parcels," murmured Alma, _sotto voce_ to her sister.

"Goodness, I don't imagine there'll be a grand stand along the way,
with thousands watching us through opera glasses," laughed Nancy.
"Would you mind telling me whom you expect to meet who'd faint with
genteel horror because we take home our Sunday dinner?  I don't intend
to starve to spare anybody's feelings."

"Last week I was dragging along a bag of potatoes--and--and I met Frank
Barrows.  And the bag split while I was talking to him, and those
hateful potatoes went bumping around all over the pavement.  I never
was so mortified in my life," said Alma, sulkily.

Nancy shot a keen glance at her sister's pretty face, and her eyes
twinkled.  Alma's shortage of the American commodity called humor was a
source of continual quiet joy to Nancy, who was the only member of the
Prescott family with the full-sized endowment of that gift.

"Dear me, whatever did Frank do?  Scream and cover his eyes from the
awful sight?  Had he never seen a raw potato in all his sheltered young
life?"

Alma shrugged her shoulders--a slight gesture with which she and her
mother were wont to express their hopeless realization of Nancy's lack
of finer feelings.

"I don't suppose you would have minded it.  But _I_ hate to look
ridiculous, particularly before anyone like Frank Barrows."

"But, Alma, you funny girl, don't you see that you look a thousand
times more ridiculous when you act as if a few potatoes bouncing about
were something serious?  Don't tell me you stood there gazing off
haughtily into the blue distance while Frank gathered up your silly old
potatoes?  Or did you disown them?  Or did you play St. Elizabeth, and
expect a miracle to turn them into roses so that they would be less
offensive to Frank's aristocratic eyes?  Come on now, help me shoulder
our provisions.  We're members of the Swiss Family Robinson, going back
to our hut with our spoils.  Pretend we're savages, and this is a
desert island, and not respectable Melbrook at all.  Next time we go
marketing you can disguise yourself with a beard and blue goggles."

Alma laughed unwillingly.  She was a dainty and singularly pretty
girl--a little bit foolish, and a good bit of a snob, but Nancy adored
her, though she enjoyed making good-natured digs at Alma's weak spots.

They took up their bundles, said good-night to Mr. Simpson, and went
out.

It was a walk of three miles from the village--or, as it preferred to
be called--the town of Melbrook to the Prescotts' house, which lay in
the country beyond, a modest little nest enough, where the two girls
had grown up almost isolated by their poverty from the gay life of the
younger Melbrookians.  Alma chafed unhappily against this isolation,
chafed against every reminder of their poverty, and, like her mother,
once a beauty and a belle, craved the excitement of admiration, luxury
and fine things.  She was ashamed of the little house, which was
shabby, it is true, ashamed of having to wear old clothes, and made
herself wretched by envying the richer girls of the neighborhood their
beautiful houses, their horses and their endless round of gay times.
As Nancy once told her mother, in affectionate reproof, they were
always trying to "play rich"--Mrs. Prescott and Alma.  She had tried to
teach Alma her own secret of finding life pleasant; but Alma did not
love books, nor long solitary walks through the summer woods; and
Nancy's ambition of fitting herself to meet the world and make her own
living seemed to both Alma and her mother dreary and unfeminine.
Somewhere, in the back of her pretty head, Mrs. Prescott cherished the
hope and the belief that the two girls would find some way of coming
into what she called "their own"--not by Nancy's independent plan of
action, but through some easier, pleasanter course.  She shuddered at
the idea of their making their own living, and opposed Nancy's wish to
go to college on the ground that no men liked blue-stocking women, and
that therefore Nancy would be an old maid.

"But, Mother darling, we can't just sit back and wait for some young
millionaire to come and carry us off?" Nancy would plead, shaking her
head.  Time was flying, and Nancy was seventeen, and eager to begin her
own life.  "Let me go--I can work my way through, and Alma can stay at
home with you."

"I need you to help me with Alma," was Mrs. Prescott's answer.  Nancy
felt helpless.  Her father, before her, had to his sorrow recognized
the hopelessness of driving any common-sense views into Mrs. Prescott's
pretty, silly little head.  She had never realized that the decline of
the family's fortune had been, in no small measure, due to her.  She
accounted for it on the grounds of old Mr. Thomas Prescott's inhuman
stubbornness and selfishness.

The two girls, leaving the village behind them, were walking briskly
through the rain, down the main road, bordered by the imposing country
estates of people who had gradually settled on the pretty countryside.
Nancy could remember when the hill, where now stood a staring white
stone mansion, surrounded by close-clipped lawns and trim gardens, had
been a wild, lovely swell of meadow, dotted with clusters of oaks and
elms; when in place of the smug little bungalow, with its artificial
pond and waterfall, and ornate stone fences, there had been a wooded
copse, where squirrels scuttled about among branches of trees, since
fallen in the path of a moneyed civilization.  Other of the houses, of
haughty Mansard architecture, had stood there before she had been born,
and it had often seemed to her that the huge, solemn, beautiful old
place of Mr. Thomas Prescott had been there since the Creation.  As
they passed it, they slackened their pace, and despite the weight of
bundles which grew heavier every minute, stopped and peered through the
bars of the great, wrought-iron gates.

A broad drive, meticulously raked and weeded, wound away from them
under magnificent arching trees, to the portals--Nancy said it would
have been impossible to consider Uncle Thomas's door anything but a
portal--which were just visible under the low-hanging branches.  The
rest of the old stone house was screened from the rude gaze of prying
eyes, like the face of a faded dowager of the harem; save for the upper
half of a massive Norman tower, which thrust itself up out of the nest
of green leaves, like the neck of some inquisitive, prehistoric bird.

"I don't believe Uncle Thomas has passed through these gates in fifteen
years," said Nancy.  "One could almost believe that he had really died
and had had himself buried on the grounds, like the eccentric old
recluse he is."

"Well, they would have had to have done something with all his money,"
replied Alma, pressing her forehead against the iron bars; "unless he
left everything to his butler, and had the will read in secret.  It
would be just like him.  Oh, Nancy, why are there such selfish old
misers in the world?  Just think--if he'd just give us the least little
bit of all his money.  Just enough to get a horse and carriage, and buy
some nice clothes, and--and get a pretty house.  It wouldn't be
anything to him.  Mamma says she is sure that he will relent some day."

Nancy shrugged her shoulders.  To her mind, it was foolish of her
mother to put any hopes on the whims of an old eccentric.  Mrs.
Prescott was one of those poor optimists who believe earnestly in the
miracles of chance, always forgetting that chance works its miracles as
a rule only when the way has been prepared for them by the plodding
labor of common sense.

"We mustn't count on that, Alma," she said soberly.  "There is no use
in living on the possibility that Uncle Thomas will relent, and make us
rich.  It isn't just for the pure love of money that he has been so
stingy toward us, I believe.  He was never a miser toward Father, you
know.  I--I think he would have given us everything in the world
if--if----"  She hesitated, unwilling to state her private opinion to
Alma.

"If what?"

"Well, you see, I think the trouble was this.  Come along, we mustn't
wait here, or you'll catch cold."

"What do you think the trouble was?" prompted Alma, padding after her
sister, and sloshing placidly through the puddles, in all the
nonchalant confidence of sound rubbers.

"Well, Alma, you mustn't misunderstand me.  I'm afraid you will.  You
know how I adore Mother.  She's so pretty, and--and childlike, and
funny that nobody on earth could ever blame her----"

"Blame her?  For what?" cried Alma, with sudden fire.

"Nothing.  Only, Alma, we must realize that sometimes Mother makes
little mistakes, and I believe that she has had to pay more heavily for
them than she deserves.  We've got to try to protect her against them,
by looking at life squarely, and wisely, Alma----"

"Are you going to preach a sermon?  What were you going to say about
Uncle Thomas?"

"Just this.  You know Uncle Thomas was a very clever man.  He made
every bit of his money himself.  Father told me long ago that when
Uncle Thomas began in life he did not have a cent in the world; he
started out as a plain mill-hand, and then he became a mechanic, and he
worked his way up from one rung to another, until through his own
talent and pluck he became very, very rich.  Well, it's only natural
that a man like that should give money its full value--when he's toiled
for years at so many cents an hour, he knows just exactly how many
cents there are in a dollar.  Perhaps he puts too great a value upon
it, but certainly we aren't judges of that.  You know that Uncle Thomas
never married, and when Grandfather died, Uncle Thomas became Daddy's
guardian.  I believe he loved Father better than anyone in the world.
Who could help it?"  Nancy's voice trembled slightly, and she winked
back the tears which rose to her eyes at the memory of her father's
handsome merry face, which had grown so unaccountably saddened and worn
before his early death.

"He gave Father everything he wanted, when he was a boy--you know how
Daddy used to tell us how Uncle Thomas would tiptoe up to his room at
night and slip gold pieces into his stocking, so that he could find
them in the morning, and then when Daddy asked him about it, he would
shrug his shoulders, and his eyes would twinkle, and he'd say, 'It must
have been Brownies.'"

"I can't imagine how a man who used to be like that could ever have
grown so hard and bitter," said Alma.

"Well--then, you see, when Father grew up, Uncle wanted him to be
successful for himself.  And he was terribly proud of Father when Daddy
first came back and told him that he had made five thousand dollars in
his first year at business.  Then Father told him that he was going to
be married.  Uncle didn't want him to--not until he had definitely
settled himself in life.  And then, Father was very young, and Mother
only a girl of seventeen--think of it, just my age.  But when Uncle saw
Mother, he adored her, of course."  Nancy paused, and seemed to have
forgotten the rest of her story, but Alma prompted her curiously.  She
had never heard this tale before, for Nancy had gleaned it bit by bit
from her father, when they used to take long walks together through the
country, and, putting two and two together, she had been able to get
rather close to the real truth of things.

"I know Uncle adored Mother," said Alma, kicking through a pile of wet
leaves.  "He gave her those lovely Italian earrings, which I'm to have
when I'm eighteen.  And all that wonderful Venetian lace, which the
first one of us to be married is going to have for her wedding gown."

"Yes.  Well, then--then after Father and Mother were married things
didn't go so very well.  Mother was just a girl--just my age, you know,
only she was pretty, like you, and, I suppose, a little extravagant.
At least, they weren't able to make ends meet very well, although Daddy
made a good income--and, anyhow, Uncle Thomas would have thought her
extravagant.  He didn't see why it was necessary for her to send for
her clothes to Paris, and why Father was always worried about bills,
when he should have been able to live well within his income.  Anyway,
Father wasn't able to save a cent, and one day Uncle Thomas came to him
and said that he had a very good opportunity for him to invest his
savings, so that they would draw a much better income than what they
were giving.  The only trouble was that Father didn't have any savings.
Then Uncle became furious; he asked Father and Mother what kind of
future they thought they were laying up for us, and he scolded Mother
terribly for not helping Father.  He quoted the Bible about women being
the helpmeet of their husbands, and about the parents eating sour
grapes and setting the children's teeth on edge.  He said that they
were taking the path to ruin, and that Father could expect no help from
him unless he and Mother economized.  But you see, poor Mother always
considered Paris dresses and jewellery and expensive dainties the
necessities and not just the luxuries of life.  I don't suppose she
really understood how to economize at all.  And anyway, things got
worse instead of better.  Then, one year, Daddy lost an awful lot of
money trying to make some quickly so that he could get his debts
cleared up, and start fresh.  Instead, he only got in deeper.  And--and
then he fell ill.  And you remember, Alma, when poor Father was dying,
Uncle came.  And he cried and cried.  But when Mother came into the
room, he got up and went out, and shut the door behind him.  Then he
shut the gates of his house against us, too.  I think he feels that
we--we girls must learn to look at life seriously, to work out our own
futures--so that poverty will teach us to be wiser than--than poor,
darling little Mother----"  Nancy's voice had sunk, as if she were
talking to herself, so that Alma barely heard the last words.  She was
thinking of Alma, wondering how she could teach her luxury-loving
little sister to see life practically, without taking away the joy of
it from her.

"We mustn't rely on Uncle Thomas, Alma," she said presently.  "We
mustn't count on anything but what we can do for ourselves.  Remember
that, dear.  We've got to realize that our lives must run a different
course from those of richer girls--we can never do the things they
do--but surely they will be richer lives, and happier lives, if--if we
rely on no one, ask nothing from anyone, but what we earn"--her head
went up--"never struggle for, or want the things that lie beyond our
means, but make always the opportunities that lie within our grasp, or
_the ones that we can make for ourselves_, serve as stepping stones."

Alma glanced at her sister's sober, handsome face.  There were times
when Nancy looked to her like some brave, gallant, sturdy lad, and
there were times when she agreed with Nancy in spite of herself, and
against her own inclinations.

"Here we are--home again.  And if it isn't the snuggest, cosiest, most
cheerful burrow between here and Melbrook, why"--Nancy strode gaily up
the little brick walk with her long, boyish strides, and breaking into
a laugh, finished, "I'll beard the Prescott himself--tower, donjon-keep
and all!"



CHAPTER II

INSIDE THE COTTAGE

It was what Nancy called the pluperfect hour of the day; that is, of a
rainy day.  The curtains of the living-room were drawn over the
windows, the mellow lamplight dealing kindly with their faded folds.
The rain, which had brought with it an early autumn chill, beat
rhythmically against the panes, and gurgled contentedly from a water
spout, as if it were revelling in the fact that it had had the whole
countryside to itself for four-and-twenty hours.

Alma had washed her yellow hair, and had built a fire to dry it by.
Nancy, in her dressing-gown and slippers, with her own brown mane
braided into a short, thick club, was icing the chocolate cake, helping
herself generously to the scrapings in the earthenware bowl.  Mrs.
Prescott was embroidering.  This was her greatest accomplishment,
learned in a French convent.  Knitting bored her to death, and darning
drove her crazy, but she could sit by the hour stitching infinitesimal
petals on microscopic flowers, and turning out cake mats, tea-cloths
and fancy collars by the score.  Faded only slightly by her forty-odd
years, she was still an exquisitely pretty woman, with a Dresden-china
face, marred ever so little by the fine lines which drooped from the
corners of her delicate nose to the corners of her childish mouth.  Her
golden hair was barely silvered, her skin as fresh and rosy as Alma's,
and her round little wrists, and pink-tipped fingers, Alma might have
envied.  The lacy dressing-gown she wore, which, at the slightest
motion, shook out a faint little whiff of some expensive French
perfume, struck an odd note in the shabby room, where the couch sadly
displayed a broken spring, and not the most careful placing of
furniture that Nancy could devise entirely concealed the holes in the
faded carpet.

"We ought to put a glass cover over Mother, the way some people cover
French clocks," Nancy said laughingly.  "You're much too valuable to
get any of the dust of every-day life on you, Mamma."

"I'm getting old, my dear.  I only think of my daughters now," said
Mrs. Prescott, with a little sigh and pushing a curly wisp of hair back
from her face.  "I shall be putting on spectacles soon."

"Catch you!  You'd go blind as a bat before you'd do any such violence
to your beauty.  You're like Alma.  I had to argue for half an hour
to-day to make Alma wear her raincoat.  It wasn't becoming, and she'd
far rather die of pneumonia than look like a----"

"A hippopotamus," said Alma.  "That's what I look like in the old
thing.  The sleeves dangle over my hands like a fire hose."

"Nancy, I've come to a definite conclusion in regard to you and Alma,
for this winter," said Mrs. Prescott, laying down her embroidery and
trying to look practical and decided.

"How much will it cost?" Nancy's eyes twinkled.

"It's not a question of money."

"Nothing ever is--with Mamma and Alma," Nancy thought, but she was
silent, and continued to lick the chocolate off her spoon composedly.

"I have thought the whole thing over very carefully, and I am quite
sure that the matter of money must not be weighed against the value
which it would have for you girls."

"It's not a trip to Europe, is it, Mamma?" asked Alma, quite as if she
expected that this might be the case.  Indeed, a trip to Europe would
have been no more incredible to Nancy than her mother's plan, which
Mrs. Prescott proceeded to unfold.

"You see, my dears, living as we do, you girls are absolutely cut off
from the opportunities which are so essential to every girl's success
in life.  This has been a great worry to me.  You are growing older,
and you are forming no acquaintances that will be of value to you.  For
this reason I have decided that the expense of sending you both--for a
last year, you understand--to a good school, a smart school, a school
where Alma can meet girls who will count for something in social
life--is an expense that must be met."

"But--heavens, we've had all the ordinary schooling we need," exclaimed
Nancy in amazement.  "If--if I could just have a few months' tutoring
so that I could take my college exams in the spring--I could work my
way through college easily----"

"I don't want you to go to college, Nancy," said Mrs. Prescott
irritably.  "What in the world is the use of a whole lot of ologies and
isms--and ruining your looks over a lot of senseless analyzing and
dissecting and everything----"

"I won't be studying anything useless, Mother dearest.  But don't you
see that it will be ever so much easier for me to get a position as a
teacher if I can show a Bachelor's degree instead of just a smattering
of French, or a thimbleful of ancient history?"

"There's no reason why you should think of becoming a teacher,"
answered Mrs. Prescott.  "And I wish you wouldn't talk about it--it's
so dreadfully drab and gloomy."

"But I want to make my living in some way."

"If you and Alma marry well, there won't be any reason why you should
make your living."

"But, Mother, we can't count on chance, like that.  Suppose Alma and I
never met a rich man whom we could love--we'd be helpless."

"A year at Miss Leland's will give both of you plenty of opportunities.
You'll meet girls there whom you ought to know, girls who will invite
you to their houses, through whom you'll meet eligible young men----"

"The expense of paying for board and tuition at Miss Leland's would be
the least of the digging we'd have to do into the family purse.  We'd
be under obligations to people, which we would never be in a position
to repay--we'd be no better than plain, ordinary sponges.  I--I
couldn't bear it.  Besides, the fees at Miss Leland's are terribly
high.  I could go to college for almost two years on what I'd pay for
one year at Miss Leland's--and all that we'd get at that school would
be a little French, a smattering of history, dancing and fudge parties."

"And extremely desirable acquaintances."

"But, Mother, we'd never be able to keep up with them on their own
scale of living," pleaded Nancy, with a hopeless conviction in her
heart that she was talking to the winds.  "Girls like Elise
Porterbridge and Jane Whiteright have an allowance of a hundred a
month, and anything else they want, when they've spent it."

"You've got money on the brain, Nancy," said Alma, shaking her curls
off her face.  "You are a regular old miser."

"Well, you're right, perhaps.  I--I hate to, heaven knows, but we do
have to think about it, Alma.  It's the poor gamblers who are always
counting on a lucky chance that are ruined.  I want to be prepared for
the worst--and then if something nice turns up, why, wouldn't that be
ten times better than if, when we had been counting on the best, the
worst should happen?"

"You see, dears," Mrs. Prescott had entirely missed the point of
Nancy's last remark, "Uncle Thomas is very old, and I am sure--I am
_quite_ sure that he will relent."

"Oh, Mother!"  Poor Nancy flung up both hands in despair.

"I have entered you both at Miss Leland's, so, really, there is no use
in arguing about it any more.  And I've already sent the check for the
first term.  Everything is decided.  I didn't tell you until to-night,
just because I was afraid that this hard-headed old Nancy of mine would
try to argue me out of it; when I _know_ that it's the best and wisest
thing to do.  Nancy, darling, please don't scowl like that.  You aren't
angry with Mother, are you?"  A soft little hand was laid on Nancy's
muscular brown one, and in spite of herself the girl relented, with a
whimsical smile and a sigh.

"I'd like to see anyone who could be angry with you for two minutes,"
she said, burrowing her brown head in the lace on her mother's shoulder.

"That nasty old Uncle Thomas has been angry with me for ten years, very
nearly.  Isn't he a dreadful old man?" laughed Mrs. Prescott, tweaking
Nancy's ear.

"We'll have to get a lot of new clothes if we are going to boarding
school."  Alma, having spread the towel on the floor, reclined full
length in front of the fire, and meditated with satisfaction on the
delightful prospect.

"Mamma, if I could just once have a hat with a feather on it--a genuine
_plume_, I'd be happy for the rest of my days."

"Wouldn't Alma be lovely?" cried Mrs. Prescott delightedly.  "Oh, you
don't know how I long to give my daughters everything--everything.  One
thing you must have, Alma, is a black velvet dress--made very simply,
of course.  They are so serviceable," she flung this sop to Nancy, who,
with her head thrown back, was good-humoredly tracing phantom figures
in the air with her forefinger.

"In for a penny, in for a pound," she observed, agreeably.  "Oh,
darling Uncle Thomas, kindly lend us a million.  We need it, oh, we
need it--every hour we need it!"

"Let's set one day aside for shopping," was Alma's bright suggestion;
she felt that this would be her element.  "We'll go into the city in
the morning, get everything done by noon, lunch at Mailliard's and then
go to a matinée.  I haven't seen a play since Papa took us to see
Humpty Dumpty, when Nance and I were little things."

"I've got eighty-three cents," said Nancy.  "I'd like to see the color
of _your_ money, ma'am, before we do any gallivanting."

"Well,--I'm not going to sit here gazing at that cake another
minute,--_please_ give me a slice, Nancy, sugar-pie, lambkin,--just a
wee little scrooch of it," begged Alma, snuffing the handsome chocolate
masterpiece of Nancy's culinary skill.  Nancy took off a crumb and gave
it to her, which elicited a wail of indignation from Alma.

"Well, here you are.  And it'll give you a nice tummy-ache, too,"
predicted Nancy, cutting off a generous slice.  "Good heavens--there's
the door-bell, Mother!" She stopped, knife in hand and listened,
petrified.  "Who on earth can be coming here at this time of night, and
all of us in our dressing-gowns.  Alma, you're the most nearly dressed
of all of us.  Here, pin up your hair.  There it goes again.  Fly!"

Alma seized a handful of hairpins, and thrusting them into her hair as
she went, ran out of the room.

Nancy and her mother listened with eyebrows raised.

"Must be a letter or something," Nancy surmised.  "You don't
suppose--it couldn't be----"

Alma forestalled her conjectures, whatever they might have been, by
entering the room with her face shining and an opened letter in her
hand.

"It's an _invitation_, Nancy," she beamed.  "Isn't that exciting?
Elise Porterbridge wants us to come to a 'little dance she's giving
next Friday night.'  And the chauffeur is waiting for an answer."

"Funny she was in such a hurry," remarked Nancy.  "I suppose someone
fell out, and she's trying to get her list made up.  What do you think,
Mother?"

"Why, it's delightful.  I want you to know Elise better anyway.  You
know her aunt married the Prince Brognelotti, and she will probably do
everything for that girl when she makes her début."  Mrs. Prescott
rustled over to the writing-table and despatched a note in her flowing,
pointed hand.

"Hush, Mamma, the chauffeur will hear you," cautioned Nancy with a
slight frown.  It always pricked her when Alma or her mother said
snobbish little things, and roused her democratic pride--the stiffest
pride in the world.

"A dance," carolled Alma, when the door had slammed again behind the
emissary of the Porterbridge heiress.  "A real, sure enough dance!"
She seized Nancy by the waist and whirled her about; then suddenly she
stopped so abruptly that Nancy bumped hard against the table.  Alma's
face was sober, as the great feminine wail rose to her lips:

"I haven't a thing to wear!"

"You must get something, then," said Mrs. Prescott, positively, as if
it were the simplest thing in the world.  "I want you to look lovely,
Alma.  It's dreadful to think of a girl with your beauty not being able
to appear at your best all the time."  Mrs. Prescott had a habit of
speaking to Alma as if she were a petted débutante of nineteen, instead
of just a pretty, care-free youngster of sixteen.  She looked at Nancy,
who was the treasurer of the family, much as an impecunious queen might
look at her first Lord of the Exchequer while asking him for funds to
buy a new crown.

"Why can't you wear your blue crepe," was Nancy's unfeeling answer.
"It's very becoming, and you've hardly worn it."

"If you call that an evening dress," Alma cried, on the verge of tears,
"you've a vivid imagination--that's all I've got to say.  I just won't
go if I have to look dowdy and home-made.  I wouldn't have any kind of
a time--you know that----"

"You could cut out the neck and sleeves, and get a new girdle.  I'm
going to do that to my yellow, and with a few flowers--there'll be some
lovely cosmos in the garden--it'll look very nice.  And you're sure to
have a good time, no matter what you wear, Alma."

"Oh, she can't go if her clothes aren't just right, Nancy--that's all
there is to it," said Mrs. Prescott.

"Clothes," declared Alma, her voice quavering between tears and
indignation, "are the most important things in the world.  It doesn't
matter _how_ pretty a girl is--if her dress is dowdy, no one will
notice her."

"And you must remember, Nancy, that she will be compared with girls who
will be sure to be wearing the freshest, smartest and daintiest
things," added Mrs. Prescott.  Nancy began to laugh.  They argued with
her as if she were some stingy old master of the house instead of a
slip of a girl of seventeen.  But there was some truth in what Alma had
said, and Nancy knew what agonies would torment her if she felt that
she fell a whit below any girl at the dance in point of dress.  Nancy
could sympathize with her there--only it was quite out of the question
that _both_ she and Alma should have new dresses.  She thought hard a
moment.  There was not very much left in the family budget to carry
them through the remainder of the month--but then she might let the
grocer's and butcher's bills run over, or, better still, she might
charge at one of the city department stores where the Prescotts still
kept an account.  It would be too bad if Alma's first dance should be
spoiled, even if the couch did go in its shabby plush for another month
or so.  Five yards of silk would come to about fifteen dollars--new
slippers not less than seven, silk stockings, two--that made
twenty-four dollars--thirty to give a margin for odds and ends like
lining and trimming.  Alma would need a pretty evening dress when she
went off to school, and she might as well have it now.

"Well, listen, you poor old darling," she said slowly.  "To-day's
Saturday.  If we trot in town on Monday and get the material, we could
easily make up a pretty dress for you to wear on Friday night.  Let's
see----"

"She could have a pale blue taffeta," Mrs. Prescott suggested, who was
in her element when the subject turned to the matter of clothes, "made
perfectly plain--with a broad girdle--or you could have a girdle and
shoulder-knots of silver ribbon--and wear silver slippers with it.  It
would be dear with a round neck, and tiny little sleeves, and a short,
bouffant skirt.  You could wear my old rose-colored evening wrap,--it's
still in perfect condition."

"That would be _scrumptious_!" shrieked Alma, flinging her arms about
them both.  "You two are angelic _dumplings_, that's what you are."

"Monday morning, then," said Nancy.  "We'd better take an early train."

When her mother and sister had gone to bed, she took out her little
account book and began to figure, then all at once she flung the pencil
down in disgust at herself.

"Alma's right.  I'm turning into a regular old miser.  I'm not going to
bother--I'm not going to bother.  But--but somebody's _got_ to."  She
frowned, staring at the small old-fashioned picture of her father,
which smiled gaily at her from the top of the desk.  "You left that
little job to me, didn't you?" she said aloud, and the memory of some
words her father had once spoken to her laughingly came back to her
mind--"You're my eldest son, Nancy--mind you take care of the women."

"Only I'm jolly well sick of being a boy, Daddy," she said, as she
jumped into bed.  "I'll let the first person who steps forward take the
job."



CHAPTER III

A MODERN CINDERELLA

"Let's take a cab to the station.  The roads are awfully wet still, and
I'll ruin my shoes," suggested Alma.  The little family were at
breakfast, Nancy and Alma hastily swallowing their coffee so that they
could hurry off to the station.  After the fit of autumn wind and rain,
another summer day had come, with a glistening sunlight which was doing
its best to cheer up the drooping flowers in the tiny garden.

"We don't need a cab.  What are you talking about?" replied Nancy,
glancing out of the window.  "It's a wonderful day, and we don't have
to make for all the puddles on the way to the station like ducks.  By
the way, don't let me forget to stop at the bank.  I dare say I ought
to take some money with me in case we can't get just what we want at
Frelinghuysen's.  How much do you think we should have, Mother?"

"Seventy-five dollars ought to be enough," said Mrs. Prescott vaguely,
after a moment's calculation.  Nancy whooped.

"Seventy-five!  Good gracious--why, if I spend a cent over forty, we'll
have to live on bread and water for the rest of the month!"

"Well, just as you think, dear--you know best, of course," Mrs.
Prescott answered absently.  "You two had better be starting.  I wish
you would get Alma a new hat while you're in town, Nancy.  I don't
quite like that one she has--it doesn't go with her suit."

Nancy pushed her chair back from the table.

"I'll trot out and see Hannah a moment.  We have about thirty-five
minutes, Alma."

It took them twenty minutes to walk to the station.  Alma was in high
spirits, Nancy still thoughtful.  But the wind was up and out, tossing
the trees, rippling the puddles, which reflected a clear, sparkling
sky, and the riotous, care-free mood of the morning was infectious.

As the train sped through the open country, passing stretches of
yellowing fields, clusters of woodland and busy little villages, Alma
chattered joyously:

"Aren't you awfully glad about the party, Nancy?  Don't you think we
can go to a matinée--it's such a deliciously idle, luxurious sort of
thing to do!  I'm going to have chicken patties for luncheon, and lots
of that scrumptious chocolate icecream that's almost black.  Don't you
love restaurant food, Nancy?  It's such fun to sit and watch the
people, and wonder what they are going to do after luncheon, and what
they are saying to each other, and where they live.  When I'm married I
shall certainly live in town, and I'll have a box at the opera, and
I'll carry a pair of those eye-glasses on jewelled
sticks--what-do-you-call-'ems--and every morning I'll go down-town in
my car and shop, and then I'll meet my husband for luncheon at Sherry's
or the Plaza."

"Of course you'll have a country-place on Long Island," suggested
Nancy, with good-natured irony, which Alma took quite seriously.

"Oh, yes.  With terraces and Italian gardens.  I _would_ love to be
seen standing in a beautiful garden, with broad marble steps, and rows
of poplar trees, and a sun-dial----"

"For whose benefit?"

"Oh, my own."

"We're feeling rich to-day, aren't we?"

"Well, I don't know anything that feels better than to be going to buy
a new dress.  Shall we get the hat too, Nancy?"

"What do you think?"

Alma hesitated.

"Well, I suppose we'd better wait.  It's funny how when you start
spending money at all you want to get everything under the sun.  Of
course, girls like Elise or Jane _do_ get everything they want----"

"Exactly.  And when you're with them you feel that you must let go,
too.  And if you can't afford it----"  Nancy shrugged her shoulders,
and Alma finished for her:

"It makes you miserable."

"Or else," said Nancy, with a curl of the lip, "or else, if you aren't
bothered with any too much pride, you'll do what that Margot Cunningham
does.  She simply camps on the Porterbridges.  Elise is so good-natured
that she lets Margot buy everything she likes and charge it to her, and
Margot finds life so comfy there that she can't tear herself away.  I'd
rather work my fingers to the bone than take so much as a pair of
gloves given to me out of good-natured charity!"  Nancy's eyes
sparkled.  Alma was silent.  There were times when Nancy's fierce,
stubborn pride frightened her--sometimes the way her sister's lips
folded together, and her small, cleft chin was lifted, made her fancy
that there might be a resemblance between Nancy and old Mr. Prescott.
Alma was the butterfly, and Nancy the bee; the butterfly no doubt
wonders why the bee so busily stores away the honey won by thrift and
industry, and, in all probability, the bee reads many a lesson to the
gay-winged idler who clings to the sunny flower.  But to-day the bee
relented.

"Now, ma'am, consider yourself the owner of unlimited wealth," said
Nancy, as they swung briskly into the concourse of the Grand Central
Station.  "You're a regular Cinderella, and _I'm_ your godmother, who
is going to perform the stupendously brilliant, mystifying act of
turning twenty rolls of sitting-room wall-paper, and three coats of
brown paint into--five yards of superb silk, two silver slippers, two
silk stockings, and three yards of silver ribbon; or, one simple
country maiden into a fashionable miss of entrancing beauty."

"Nancy, you're the most angelic person!" squealed Alma.  "But aren't
you going to get yourself something, too?  It makes me feel awfully
mean to get new things when you have to wear that dowdy old yellow
thing."

"Dowdy, indeed.  It's grand.  'Miss Nancy Prescott was charming in a
simple gown of mousseline-de-soie, which hung in the straight lines now
so much in vogue.  Her only ornaments were a bouquet of rare flowers,
contrasting exquisitely with the shade of her frock,--a toilette of
unusual chic.  Miss Alma Prescott, Melbrook's noted beauty, was superb
in a lavish creation'--You're going to be awfully lavish, and quite the
belle of the ball."

"You ought to have some new slippers, Nancy--a pair of gold ones would
absolutely _make_ your dress."

"My black ones are all right.  I'll put fresh bows on them," said
Nancy, firm as a Trojan outwardly, though within her resolution
wavered.  Dared she take another seven dollars?  She began to feel
reckless.

"Are you waited on, madam?"  The smooth voice of a saleswoman roused
her from her calculations.

"We want to see some blue taffeta--not awfully expensive."

"Step this way.  We have something exquisite--five dollars a yard."

"Oh, haven't you anything less than that?" stammered Nancy in dismay.
Alma glanced at her reprovingly.

"For heaven's sake, don't sound as if you hadn't a dollar to your name,
or she'll just right-about-face and walk off," she whispered.  "We'll
_look_ at the expensive silk, and then work around to the
cheaper--explain that it's more what we want, and so on."

"Yes, and the cheaper silk will look so impossible after we've seen the
other that we'll be taking it," returned Nancy.  "_I_ know their wiles."

"Here is a beautiful material--quite new," lured the saleswoman.  "A
wonderful shade.  It will be impossible to duplicate.  See how it
falls--as softly and gracefully as satin, but with more body to it.
The other is much stiffer."

"How--how much is it?" asked Nancy feebly.

"Five-ninety-eight.  It's special, of course.  Later on the regular
price will be six-fifty."

"Isn't it _lovely_?" breathed Alma, touching the gleaming stuff with
careful fingers.

"Have--have you anything for about three dollars a yard?" asked Nancy,
wishing that Alma would do the haggling sometimes.

The saleswoman listlessly unrolled a yard or two from another bolt and
held it up.

"Is it for yourself, madam?  Or for the other young lady?"

"It's for my sister.  Let me hold this against your hair, Alma."

"It's not nearly so nice as the other, of course," observed Alma, in a
casual tone.  "It's awfully stiff, and the color's sort of washed out.
I really think----"

"Oh, of course, this paler shade is not nearly so effective at night,"
agreed the saleswoman, pouncing keenly upon her prey.  "See how
beautifully this deeper color brings out the gold in the young lady's
hair.  Would you like to take it to the mirror, miss?"

"Oh, don't, Alma!" begged Nancy, in comical despair.  "Of course there
isn't any comparison."  She felt herself weakening.  "I--I suppose this
would really wear better too."

"Of course it would," said Alma, quickly.  "That other stuff is so
stiff it would split in no time."

Five times five-ninety-eight--thirty dollars.  Nancy wrinkled her
forehead, but she knew that she had succumbed even before she announced
her surrender.  The saleswoman, watching her, lynx-eyed, smiled.  Alma
preened herself in front of the long mirror, frankly admiring herself,
with the soft, silken stuff draped around her shoulders.

"All right," said Nancy.  "Give me five yards."

"Charged?" purred the saleswoman.  But Nancy had no mind to have the
gray ghost of her extravagance revisit her on the first of the month.

"No, no!  I'll pay for it, and take it with me."  She counted out her
little roll of bills, trying not to notice the pitiable way in which
her purse shrank in, like the cheeks of a hungry man.

"Is there nothing you would like for yourself, madam?" murmured the
voice of the temptress.  "Here is some ravishing charmeuse--the true
ashes-of-roses.  With your dark hair and eyes----"

"Oh, no--no, thanks."  Nancy clutched Alma, and turned her head away
from the shimmering, pearl-tinted fabric.  For all her stiff
level-headedness, she was only human, and a girl with a healthy, ardent
longing for beautiful finery; prudent she was, but prudence soon
reaches its limits when the pressure of feminine vanity and exquisite
luxury is brought to bear upon it.  There was only one course of
resistance.  Nancy fled.

"Now, slippers."  Alma skipped along beside her, hugging her precious
bundles, with shining eyes, and cheeks aglow.  "I think I love slippers
better than anything in the world.  Nancy, you're a perfect _lamb_."

They tried on slippers.  Certainly Alma's tiny foot and slender ankle
was a delightful object to contemplate as she turned it this way and
that before the little mirror.

"If you had a little buckle, miss--we have some very new rhinestone
ornaments--I'd like to show you one--a butterfly set in a fan of silver
lace.  Just a moment."

Before Nancy could stop her the saleswoman had gone.

"We won't get the buckles, you dear old thing," Alma said consolingly,
bending the sole of her foot.  "We'll just look at them."

Nancy smiled wryly.

"I'd _like_ to get you everything in the shop--I hate to be stingy with
you, dear; it's just this old thing," and she held up the shabby purse.

"_Isn't_ that perfectly gorgeous?" shrieked Alma, as the saleswoman
held a little jewelled dragon-fly, poised on a spray of silver lace,
against her instep.

"Gorgeous," echoed Nancy.

"It's a very chic trimming--of course we use it only on the handsomer
slippers," chanted the saleswoman.  "Now, we could put that on for you
in five minutes, and really the expense would be small, considering
that nothing more would be needed as an ornament, and it would be the
smartest thing to wear--no trimming on the dress whatever."

"How much would it be?" asked Alma.  "I--I can't take it now, but
later----"

"The buckles are five dollars, and with the lace fan it would come to
seven.  I would advise you--the prices will go up in another month----"

"Well, Alma----"  Nancy hesitated, made one last frantic grasp at her
fleeting prudence and surrendered.  "Fourteen dollars.  All right.  You
can take the buckles as a Christmas present from me.  I'll pay for
those, and we'll be back for them after we've got some other things."

"Nancy, you angel!  You lamb!  You duck!  You angelic dumpling!" crowed
Alma.  "I never felt so absolutely luxurious in all my life."

"I don't imagine you ever did," remarked Nancy; she was aghast at her
own extravagance.  She judged herself harshly as the victim of the
failing which she had so long combatted in her mother and sister.
Every atom of the prudence with which she had armed herself seemed to
be melting away like wax before a furnace.  She had already spent
forty-four dollars, and there was still the silver ribbon to be bought,
which would bring the sum up to forty-five at the very least.  She had
originally intended to buy one or two small items with which to freshen
up her own dress for the dance, but she stubbornly put aside the idea.

"Nancy, darling, aren't you going to get yourself some slippers?"

"No--I don't need them.  The ones I have are quite good."

"I feel so mean, Nancy.  Do you think I'm horribly selfish?"

"Selfish!  You aren't the least bit selfish, dear.  I can understand
perfectly how you hate to go among all those rich girls without looking
as well-dressed as any of them, when you're a thousand times prettier
than the nicest looking one of them.  Besides, just this once----"  She
paused, realizing that it was not a case of "just this once" at all.
Pretty, new clothes and pocket money would be the barest necessities
when they should be at Miss Leland's.  Why didn't her mother see the
folly of sending them to a place where they would learn to want things,
actually to need things, far beyond the reach of their little bank
account, and where Alma, chumming with girls who had everything that
feminine fancy could desire, would either be made miserable, or--she
tried to rout her own practical thoughts.  Why was it that she was so
unwilling to trust in rosy chance?  Why was it always she who had to
bring the wet blanket of harsh common sense to dampen her mother's and
sister's debonair trust in a smiling Providence?  Was she wrong after
all?  She considered the lilies of the field, but somehow she could not
believe that their example was the wisest one for impecunious human
beings to follow.  Lilies could live on sun and dew, and they had
nothing to do but wave in the wind.

"Oh, look, Nancy--aren't those feather fans exquisite----"

"Alma, don't you dare to peep at another showcase in this store, or
I'll tie my handkerchief over your eyes and lead you out blindfolded
like a horse out of a fire."

"But _do_ look at those darling little bottles of perfume.  They're
straight from Paris.  I can tell from those adorable boxes with the
orange silk tassels.  Wouldn't you give anything on earth to have one?
When I'm rich I'm going to have dozens of bottles--those slender
crystal ones with enamel tops; and they'll stand in a row across the
top of a Louis XVI dressing-table."  Nancy smiled at Alma's
ever-recurring phrase, "When I'm rich."  She wondered if her butterfly
sister had formed any clear notions of how that beatific state was to
be realized.

"Alma Prescott, there's the door, and thank heaven for it.  Have the
goodness, ma'am, to go directly through it.  The street is immediately
beyond, and that is the safest place for us two little wanderers at
present."

Forty-five dollars for just one evening's fun.

Gold slippers would have been just the thing to wear with her yellow
dress; but--well----



CHAPTER IV

LADIES OF FASHION

The little bedroom which Alma and Nancy shared together wore a gaily
topsy-turvy appearance on that memorable night--quite as if it had
succumbed to the mood of flighty joy which was in the air.  The
dresser, usually a very model of good order--except when Alma had been
rummaging about it unchecked--was strewn with hairpins, manicuring
implements, snips of ribbon and the stems of fresh flowers; all the
drawers were partly open, projecting at unequal distances, and giving
glimpses of the girls' simple underwear, which had been ruthlessly
overturned in frantic scramblings for such finery as they possessed.  A
fresh, slightly scented haze of powder drifted up as Nancy briskly
dusted her arms and shoulders, and then earnestly performed the same
attentions for Alma.  Mrs. Prescott sat on the edge of the bed, alive
with interest in the primping, and taking as keen a delight in her
daughters' ball-going as she had done in her own preparations for
conquest twenty years before.  As critical as a Parisian modiste, she
cocked her pretty head on one side and surveyed the girls with an
expression of alertness mingled with satisfaction--such as you might
see on the face of a clever business man who watches the promising
development of a smart plan, with elation, though not without an eye
ready to detect the slightest hitch.

Unquestionably she was justified in pinning the highest hopes on Alma's
eventual success in life--if sheer exquisite prettiness can be a safe
guarantee for such.  Alma, who had plainly fallen in love with herself,
minced this way and that before the glass, blissfully conscious of her
mother's and sister's unveiled delight in her beauty.  Her yellow hair,
bright as gold itself spun into an aura of hazy filaments, was piled up
on top of her head, so that curls escaped against the white, baby-like
nape of her neck.  Her dress was truly a masterpiece, and if there had
been a tinge of envy in Nancy's nature she might have regretted the
skill with which she herself had succeeded in setting off Alma's
prettiness, until her own good looks were pale, almost insignificant,
beside it.  But Nancy was almost singularly devoid of envy and could
look with the bright, impersonal eyes of a beauty-lover at Alma's
distracting pink and white cheeks, at her blue eyes, which looked black
in the gas-light, and at her round white neck and arms--the dress left
arms and shoulders bare except for the impudent, short puffed sleeves
which dropped low on the shoulder like those of an early Victorian
beauty; anything but Victorian, however, was the brief, bouffant skirt,
which showed the slim ankles and the little, arched feet, in their
handsome slippers.

"You're perfectly--gorgeous, Alma.  You've a legitimate right to be
charmed with yourself," said Nancy, sitting down on the bed beside her
mother to enjoy Alma's frank struttings and posings.

"I am nice," agreed Alma naïvely, trying to suppress a smile of
self-approval which, nevertheless, quirked the corners of her lips.
"_You_ did it, though, Nancy darling.  I don't forget that, even if I
do seem to be a conceited little thing."  She danced over and kissed
Nancy's cheek lightly, her frock enchanting her with its crisp
rustlings as she did so.  "Nancy, you _will_ get something nice,
too,--the next time?"

"You should have made up a new dress for to-night, anyhow, Nancy," said
Mrs. Prescott, turning to inspect Nancy's appearance from the top of
her head to the toes of her freshly ribboned slippers.  Nancy colored
slightly.  It had not been a very easy task to overcome the temptation
to "blow herself," as Alma would have debonairly expressed a foolish
extravagance; and it was not particularly soothing to have that feat of
economy found fault with.

"If--if you think I look too dowdy, I--I'll stay at home, Mother," she
said, in a quiet tone that betrayed a touch of hurt pride.  "You know
it was out of the question for me to get another dress, and if you feel
sensitive about my going to people like the Porterbridges in what I've
got, why, it's absurd to attempt it at all."

Mrs. Prescott was abashed; then in her quick, sweet, impulsive way--so
like that of a thoughtless, lovable little girl--she put her arms
around Nancy's straight young shoulders.

"Don't be cross with me, darling.  I only said that because it hurts me
to think that you have to deny yourself anything in the world.  You are
so sweet, and so strong, and--and I love you so, my dear, that I cannot
bear to think of your having to deny yourself the pretty things that
are given to the daughters of so many other women."

Instantly Nancy unbent, and, turning her head so that she could kiss
her mother's soft hair, she whispered, with a tender little laugh:

"Before you begin pitying us, dearest, you can--can just remember that
other women's daughters haven't been given--a mother like you."  And
then, because, just like a boy, she felt embarrassed at her own
emotion, and the tears that had gathered in her eyes, she said briskly:

"If anyone should ask me my candid opinion, I'd say that I'm rather
pleased with myself--only some inner voice tells me that I'm not
completely hooked.  Here, Mother----"  By means of an excruciating
contortion she managed to indicate a small gap in the back of her dress
just between the shoulder blades.

"You do look awfully nice, Nancy," commented Alma; she paused
reflectively a moment, and then added, "You know, I suppose that at
first glance most people would say I was--was the prettier, you
know--because I'm sort of doll-baby-looking, and pink and white, like a
French bonbon; but an artist would think that you were really
beautiful--I hit people in the eye, like a magazine cover, but you grow
on them slowly like a--a Rembrandt or something."

"Whew!  We've certainly been throwing each other bouquets broadcast
to-night," laughed Nancy, who was tremendously pleased, nevertheless.
"You'd better put your cloak on, Alma, and stop turning my head around
backwards with your unblushing flattery.  Isn't that our coach now?"

The sound of wheels on the wet gravel and the shambling cloppity-clop
of horses' hoofs, had indeed announced the arrival of the "coach."

"Darn it, that idiotic Peterson has sent us the most decrepit old nag
in his stable," remarked Alma, looking out of the window as she slid
her bare arms into the satin-lined sleeves of her wrap.  "I think he
calls her 'Dorothea,' which means the 'Gift of God.'"

"She looks like an X-ray picture of a baby dinosaur.  I hope to heaven
she won't fall to pieces before we get within walking distance of the
Porterbridges'," said Nancy.  "I think that so-called carriage she has
attached to her must be the original chariot Pharaoh used when he drove
after the Israelites."

In a gay mood, the two sisters climbed into the ancient coupé, which
smelt strongly of damp hay, and jounced away behind the erratic
Dorothea, who started off at a mad gallop and then settled abruptly
into her characteristic amble.

A light, gentle, steady rain pattered against the windows, which
chattered like the teeth of an old beggar on a wintry day.  The two
girls, deliciously nervous, would burst into irrepressible giggles each
time when, as they passed a street lamp, the ridiculously elongated
shadow of Dorothea and the chariot scurried noiselessly ahead of them
and was swallowed up in a stretch of darkness.

"My dear, I'm scared _pink_!" breathed Alma, pinching Nancy's arm in a
nervous spasm.  "My tummy feels just as if I were going down in an
awfully quick elevator."

"I don't see what _you_ are scared about," replied Nancy.  "_I_ almost
wish this regal conveyance of ours _would_ break down."

"It feels as if one of the wheels were coming off."

"I guess they are all coming off; but it's been like that since the
dark ages already, and I dare say it will last another century or so."

"Look!  There's Uncle Thomas' house, now.  Doesn't it look exactly like
something that Poe would write about?  That one light burning in the
tower window, with all the rest of the house just a huge black shape,
is positively gruesome."

The two girls peered through the dirty little mica oval behind them at
the strange old mansion, the bizarre turrets of which were silhouetted
against the sky, where the edges of the dark clouds had parted, and the
horizon shone with a paler, sickly light.

"It is eerie looking.  I suppose old Uncle T. is up in that room poring
away over his books, and the last thing he'd be thinking of is his two
charming nieces bouncing off to an evening of giddy pleasure in this
antique mail-cart, or whatever it is."

"Oh, my dear!" Alma squealed faintly.  "We're getting there!  Oh, look
at all the automobiles.  We can't go in in this dreadful looking thing."

"All right.  You can get out and walk.  I say, do your hands feel like
damp putty?"

"_Do_ they!  I feel as if I were getting the measles.  Oh, here we are,
Nancy!"  Alma's tone would have suggested that they had reached the
steps of the guillotine.  Dorothea, alone, was unmoved, and almost
unmoving.  With her poor old head dangling between her knees, she
crawled slowly along the broad, well-lighted driveway of a very new and
very imposing house, beset fore and aft by a train of honking and
rumbling motors.  Nancy burst into a little breathy quaver of
hysterical laughter.

"We must try to be more like Dorothea," she giggled.  "Her beautiful
composure is due either to an aristocratic pedigree or to her knowledge
that she is going to die soon, and all this is the vanity of a world
which passes."

In spite of their inner agony of shyness, however, the two girls
descended from the absurd old carriage at the broad steps, and reached
the door, under the footmen's umbrellas, with every outward appearance
of well-bred _sang-froid_.

"I'm so glad you could come, Nancy.  Alma, how lovely you look.  Don't
you want to go upstairs and take off your wraps?"  Elise Porterbridge,
a tall, fat girl, dressed in vivid green, greeted them; and, with all
the dexterity of a matronly hostess, passed them on into the chattering
mob of youths and girls which crowded the wide, brightly lighted hail.
Alma clutched Nancy's arm frantically as they squeezed their way
through to the stairs.

"Did you see a living soul that you knew besides Elise?" whispered Alma
as they slipped off their wraps into the hands of the little maid.
"Oh, it would be too awful to be a wall-flower after I've gone and
gotten these lovely slippers and everything."

"Don't be a goose.  This is a good time--don't you know one when you
see it?  Here, pinch your cheeks a little, and stop looking as if you
were going to have a chill.  You're the prettiest girl here, and that
ought to give you some courage."

While Nancy poked her dress and tucked in a stray wisp of hair, Alma
stood eyeing the modish, self-assured young ladies who primped and
chattered before the long mirrors around them, with the round solemn
gaze of a hostile baby.  How could they be so cool, so absolutely
self-contained?

"Come on,--you look all right," said Nancy aloud, and Alma marvelled at
the skill with which her sister imitated that very coolness and
indifference.  If she had known it, Nancy was inwardly quaking with the
nervous dread that attacks every young girl at her first big party like
a violent stage fright.

They made their way slowly down the broad stairs, passing still more
pretty, chattering debonair girls who were calling laughing, friendly
greeting to the young men below.

From one of the other rooms a small orchestra throbbed beneath the hum
of voices; the scent of half a dozen French perfumes mingled and rose
on the hot air; and the brilliant colors of girls' dresses stirred and
wove in and out like the changing bits of glass in a kaleidoscope.

"Er--I say--good-evening, Miss Prescott.  I got to you first, so I've a
right to the first dance."  It was Frank Barrows, the hero of Alma's
potato adventure, who claimed Alma before her little silver foot had
reached the last step.  A lean young man, with sleek, blond hair, a
weak chin, and the free-and-easy, all-conquering manner of a youth who
has been spoiled by girls ever since he put on long trousers and
learned to run his own car, he looked at Alma with that look of
startled admiration which to a young girl is a sweeter flattery than
any that words can frame.  She looked up at Nancy with a glance of
joyous, innocent triumph, and then, putting her plump little hand on
her partner's arm, and instantly meeting his gallantry with the pretty,
utterly unconscious coquetry of a born flirt, she moved off.

Nancy, still standing at the foot of the stairs, watched the yellow
head as it passed among the heads of the other dancers.  That quick,
happy glance of Alma's had said, "Forgive me for being so pretty.  You
are better, and finer, and more beautiful--but they haven't found it
out yet."

She stood alone, terribly shy, her smooth cheeks flushing scarlet, and
her bright eyes searching timidly for some friendly corner where she
could run and hide herself away for the rest of the evening.  Without
Alma beside her to be petted and protected, she looked almost
pathetically just what she was--a modest young girl, who was peculiarly
lovely and appealing, as she stood waiting with a beating heart to
catch a friendly eye in all that terrible, gay, selfish throng of
pleasure-seekers.



CHAPTER V

A RETICENT GENTLEMAN--AND MISS BANCROFT

With only the one aim of getting to harbor by hook or crook, Nancy, her
cheeks burning with shyness, edged her way along the wall.  She would
not have felt half so much alone if she had been dropped into the
middle of the Sahara desert, and, while her little feet tingled with
the rhythm of the music, she surrendered herself to the unhappy
conviction that she was doomed to be a wall-flower.

She did not know these people; she felt as if she could never know
them.  Everything in their manner, their speech and their dress
suggested a foreignness to her own nature that could never be bridged,
unless she herself changed and became another being.  It was something
that she could not define, this difference; it was simply something
that grew out of a different way of thinking and feeling about life.
All these people seemed to make pleasure their business, the most
important purpose of their existence, and this attitude, expressed in
the very way that the girls carried themselves, in the tones of their
voices, in their light scraps of inconsequential and not very clever
talk, made her feel strange beyond description.

She stood near a group of palms under the arch of the staircase,
watching the faces all about her, longing one minute to be at home,
curled up with a book on her shabby, comfortable window-seat, and the
next, that she might be drawn into the centre of all that bubbling,
companionable enjoyment.  Now she caught a glimpse of Alma, who was
standing near the door of the dancing-room, bantering and coquetting
with a little cluster of youths who had gathered about her, heaven
knows where from or how, like flies about a jar of new honey; it was
plainly Alma's natural environment, in which she revelled like a joyous
young fish in a sunny pool.

"So that pretty little creature is George Prescott's daughter?"  The
question, spoken in a rather deep and penetrating voice, carried
clearly to Nancy's ears, and she turned.  At a little distance from
her, seated on a small couch, sat Mrs. Porterbridge, a lean woman with
a tight-lipped, aquiline face, and painfully thin neck and arms, and
the old lady who had put the question.  A quite remarkable-looking old
lady, Nancy thought, enormously fat, dressed in purple velvet, her
huge, dimpled arms and shoulders billowing, out of it, like the whipped
cream on top of some titanic confection.  Two small, plump, tapering
hands clasped a handsome feather fan against her almost perpendicular
lap.  Two generous chins completely obliterated any outward evidences
of neck, so that her head seemed to have been set upon her shoulders
with the naïve simplicity of a dough-man's; yet for all this, one
glance at her keen, intelligent face, with its sleepy, twinkling eyes
and humorous, witty mouth, was enough to assure one that, whoever she
might be, she was not an ordinary old lady by any means.  One guessed
at once that she had seen much of the world in her sixty-five or
seventy years, that she had enjoyed every moment of the entertainment,
and that while she probably required everyone else to respect public
opinion, she felt comfortably privileged to disregard it herself
whenever she pleased.  She had been busily discussing everyone who
attracted her attention, disdaining to lower her sonorous voice or to
conceal in any way the fact that she was gossiping briskly.  Young and
old alike hastened up to her to pay their respects, and it was evident
from their manner of eager deference that she was a rather important
old person, whose keen and fearless tongue made her good opinion worth
gaining.

At present she had centred her lively interest upon Alma, and Nancy
could not resist the temptation of listening to her remarks, especially
since the old lady was obviously perfectly willing to let anyone and
everyone hear her who might have reason to listen.

"That is little Alma Prescott," Mrs. Porterbridge was replying.  "She
is charmingly pretty, isn't she?"

"The image of her mother.  Tell me something about them.  It's
ridiculous, isn't it, how we can live for years within a stone's throw
of our neighbors without ever knowing whether their Sunday clothes are
made of silk or calico.  George Prescott used to be my particular
favorite, when he was a youngster.  I remember when he married that
empty-pated little beauty--I gave him tons of my choicest advice--was
absolutely prodigal of my finest gems of wisdom; but when I saw
her--well, I knew very well that there would be ups and downs--she
should have married an Indian nabob--but, thought I, I might as well
shout to the north wind to be placid as to tell him to give her up and
find himself some sensible, excellent creature, who could mend his
socks and turn his old suits for him.  He would rather have lived on
burnt potatoes and bacon, with that charming little spendthrift, than
have enjoyed all the blessings of good housekeeping at the hands of the
most estimable creature we could have found for him.  I do like that
spirit in a young man, however much my excellent common sense may
disapprove of it.

"I saw nothing of George after his marriage.  I was too fond of him to
stand around offering advice, when he couldn't possibly make any use of
it.  I should probably have lost my temper just as Tom Prescott
did--and I cannot endure to be in such a ridiculous position.  I had a
notion that Lallie Prescott didn't live here any more."

"I believe that the family suffers rather keen financial difficulties,"
said Mrs. Porterbridge.  "The girls go out very little--are quite
isolated, in fact."

"You mean that they are hard up--don't use those genteel euphemisms, my
dear,--I can't understand 'em.

"I'm sorry.  It was inevitable, of course, but I'm one of the few
beings that sincerely regret seeing other people reaping what they've
sown.  I've always avoided my own deserts so successfully."  Her big,
jolly laugh rang out at this.  "There are two girls, I remember.  Both
pretty?"

"Yes, indeed," replied Mrs. Porterbridge, in the unenthusiastic tone
with which the mother of a rather plain daughter will praise the beauty
of another woman's daughter.

"Hum.  Well, that's distinctly _something_.  I really couldn't work up
any heartfelt interest in them if they were ugly--though, of course, I
understand that beauty is only skin deep, and handsome is as handsome
does, and all that--whoever invented those saws must have been
unbearably ugly--I've always suspected that it was some plain, jealous
old wife of King Solomon who got very philosophical in her old age.
Now, I'd really like to know what little Lallie Prescott is going to do
with them."

Mrs. Porterbridge gave a dry, affected little laugh, looking at Alma,
who was waltzing again with the obviously infatuated Frank Barrows.

"Well, I imagine that she is going to do all that she can to marry them
off as advantageously as possible, and I dare say that both of them----"

"Now, don't say anything cattish, my dear," interrupted the old lady,
quite sharply, a sudden coldness routing the twinkle in her merry eyes.
"I always know when you are going to say something that will annoy me,
and nothing annoys me more than to hear an older woman say anything
unkind about a young girl.  I tell you this because I'm sure that you
don't want to make me angry.  If you are trying to tell me that Lallie
Prescott is a schemer in regard to the future of her two daughters,
why, I should be very much surprised to learn anything else.  We are
all schemers for our children--and just as in love and war, we consider
everything fair so long as it works for their advantage.  But----"

Nancy, her cheeks burning, heard no more.  In a last desperate effort
at escape, she turned and fled unseen through the nearest doorway.

At first she did not realize where she was; then she discovered that
she had chanced upon a veritable haven of refuge, a large, quiet room,
cosily lighted by a reading-lamp, furnished with huge, paternal-looking
armchairs and divans, and lined on three of its walls from floor to
ceiling with whole regiments of books.  The fourth wall was monopolized
by a great stone fireplace, where three or four tree-trunks smouldered
softly, popping every now and then into small explosions of ruddy
sparks.  The smell of leather, of wood smoke, and even the delicate
musty smell of the rich, yellowed paper of old books mingled with the
hazy fragrance of a Turkish cigarette.  Nancy was too much concerned
with her own thoughts to wonder where the source of that comfortable
aroma o£ tobacco lay--it was to her just a part of the atmosphere of
books and quiet and leather chairs which she always associated with her
memories of her father.  Revelling in the sensation of being alone, as
she blissfully fancied herself to be, she wandered about looking at the
titles of the books, now and again taking down a volume and turning the
leaves.  Here she chanced upon a delightful old edition of "Pickwick
Papers," bound in worn leather, there a copy of the "Vicar of
Wakefield," with yellowed pages, and quaint, old-fashioned print, and
the sight of these old friends, associated as they were with the
happiest and most tranquil hours of her life, soothed to a certain
extent her feelings which had been cruelly wounded by the conversation
she had overheard.

But she was still sore and angry.  Still holding the "Vicar of
Wakefield" in her hand, she stood, staring absently into the fire.

"So that's what people will be saying about us--that we are pushing and
scheming, and--and trying to make friends just to use them for our
advantage," she thought bitterly, recalling Mrs. Porterbridge's
unfriendly little insinuation.

Sensitive and proud as she was, that unfinished remark, made in the
cold, hard tone of a woman who, judging the whole world by herself,
credited everyone alike with self-interested and worldly motives, had
inflicted a wound that would be long in healing.  It was not indeed on
her own account that she resented it so bitterly, but because of her
mother and Alma, whose actions, she knew, could be so misinterpreted
and ascribed to quite false motives.  She knew, too, less by experience
than by instinct, that beneath all the pleasures and gaiety which Alma
craved so eagerly, would flow that bitter undercurrent of cynical
comment made by people who had so long been self-seeking that they
could not believe in the artlessness of a young girl's simple thirst
for enjoyment.

Busy with these thoughts, a little strange and mature perhaps for her
age, she was quite unconscious of two interesting facts.  First, that
from an armchair just beyond the radius of the lamplight, the source of
the cigarette smoke was regarding her with mingled astonishment and
approval, and, second, that she herself was making a very charming
picture as she stood in the deep, mellow glow of the firelight.

A small man, with a kind, whimsical, clever face, was looking at her
with a pair of singularly bright brown eyes--eyes which had the direct,
unwavering, gentle gaze of a person who has the gift of reading the
meaning of faces and expressions to which others are blind.  Indeed, so
clearly had he guessed the trend of the thoughts which underlay the
seriousness of Nancy's sensitive face, that he felt almost like an
eavesdropper.  Suddenly she jerked her head and saw him.  He stood up.

"I--I beg your pardon," he apologized, still with the sensation of
having heard something that had not been meant for his ears.  "You
didn't know I was here, and I was rather at a loss as to how I should
break it to you."

Nancy had flushed to the edge of her hair.

"That--that's all right," she stammered.  "I--I mean, I should
apologize to you.  You were reading."  She began to move away toward
the door again, but he stopped her hastily.

"You mustn't go, and you mustn't for a moment think you've disturbed
me.  I haven't any business to be in here anyway, because I think I was
invited to entertain and be entertained like any respectable guest.  I
don't know what they do to unmannerly, unsociable creatures who sneak
off for a book and a smoke from the scenes of revelry, but I'm guilty,
and deserve to die the death, or whatever it is."

Nancy laughed.  When he talked he had a droll way of wrinkling up his
forehead, and then suddenly breaking into a beaming, mischievous grin,
like a schoolboy.

"I'm guilty, too."

"Yes,--and really ever so much more so than I am; because you're
deliberately robbing at least ninety-nine per cent. of the guests of a
part of their evening's pleasure, whereas, my absence is of so little
importance one way or the other that, although I've been in here the
better part of an hour already, there hasn't been even a whimper of
protest.  It's been decidedly injurious to my _amour-propre_.  I had
hoped, when you came in, that you had been sent by the unanimous vote
of all present to request my immediate return to the regions of
festivity.  I was prepared to be coy--but not adamantine.  Imagine my
chagrin and dismay when it gradually dawned on me not only that you
hadn't come for any such flattering purpose, but even that you hadn't
the smallest notion I was here.  As far as you were concerned I was of
less significance than a cockroach."

"But that's not bad--a cockroach would be of awful significance to me,"
said Nancy, with a laugh.

"We have caught each other red-handed in an overwhelming breach of
manners," continued he, severely.  "But then, look at it this way--here
we are, each having a good time in our own way.  Now it seems to me
that a hostess could ask no more of a guest than that he find his own
entertainment--if he seeks it by ambling out into the garden to weed up
wild onions, why, well and good----"

"You are only trying to dazzle me with a false argument in
self-defense," said Nancy.

"You should be grateful to me for furnishing such a good one, since
you've need of one yourself, ma'am.  But if you don't like it, why then
I shall change my mind.  As a matter of fact, the idea of dancing has
suddenly appealed to me very strongly--since Providence has at last
provided me with a--well, with a more delightful partner than I should
have dared to hope for.  And they are playing a very charming waltz.
Will you dance with me?"

He made a graceful little old-fashioned bow, and offered her his arm.
Then he smiled.

"I--I haven't introduced myself yet.  Do you mind?  I should have done
it in the beginning, but I couldn't think of any graceful way of
hinting at my name, and it's so horribly clumsy just to say pointblank,
'My name's George Arnold.  What's yours?'"

"But there isn't any other way," answered Nancy, a little shyly, but
laughing, too, "unless we both go to Mrs. Porterbridge and ask her to
introduce us.  My name is Nancy--Anne Prescott."

"There now--it's perfectly simple, isn't it?  I never could understand
why there should be any formal to-do about telling two people each
other's names.  Do you know, the very minute you came in--perhaps it
was from the way you looked at those dear old books--I felt as
if--well, as if we ought to be friends.  You are fond of them, aren't
you--of books--really fond of them?"

"I love those old, shabby ones.  They--they looked so very friendly."

He stole a keen glance at her face, and smiled gently at what it told
him.  Then, as she clung to his arm, he guided her dexterously through
the crowd to the dancing floor.

After that first dance the whole evening changed for Nancy.  She had
half doubted that her companion would be a good dancer, but in two
moments that doubt was routed.  Gliding smoothly, weightlessly as if to
the gentle rhythm of a wave, they circled through the moving swarm of
dancers; Nancy's cheeks flushing like two poppies and her eyes
glistening with the exhilaration of the music.  Her timidity had left
her; she felt warm, vivacious and attractive, and it seemed perfectly
natural that after that first waltz she had partners for every dance.

Mr. Arnold danced with no one else.  When other partners claimed her,
he retired to the doorway, and stood with his arms folded, surveying
the scene with his whimsical, absent-minded smile; but evidently he
regarded it as his right to have each waltz with her.

"My aunt has ordered me to present you to her," he said, when he had at
length led her into a corner for an ice, and a moment's chat.  "For
some reason she has evidently taken a great fancy to you at sight, and
she is giving me no peace.  She is a very peremptory and badly spoiled
old lady, but it's impossible to resist her.  I told her that she might
frighten you to death, and that then you'd blame me."

"You _didn't_!" cried Nancy, horrified.

"Indeed I did.  I've had the experience before--and I told her that I'd
be hanged if I assumed the responsibility of surrendering any
unsuspecting person into her clutches without giving them fair warning.
But, seriously, she is a very dear lady,--though an eccentric one--and
she has been saying extremely nice things about you.  Besides--she
asked me to tell you that she knew your father, and that _she_ loved
him long before _you_ were born."

Something in his softened, gentle tone went to Nancy's heart.  She put
down her ice.

"Will you take me now?  I think I know--I mean I've seen your aunt
already."

"She is a very remarkable person.  She can be more terrifying--and more
tender, than any woman in the world.  Utterly fearless, something of a
tyrant--possibly because she has never been denied anything she wanted
in her life.  She simply doesn't accept denials.  If she had been a man
she might have been a Pitt, or a Napoleon.  As she is, she is a mixture
of Queen Elizabeth--and Queen Victoria."

The amazing individual, described by this brief biographical preface,
who was still enthroned on the coquettish little French couch, and who
was now consuming a pink ice with naïve relish, was indeed the old lady
in purple--otherwise, Miss Elizabeth Bancroft, of Lowry House (for some
reason she had always been given this somewhat English style of
designation; possibly because she was the last of her name to be
identified with the magnificent collections for which Lowry House, the
American roof-tree of aristocratic English colonists, had been famous
for more than a hundred years).

As Nancy stood before her, she looked up at the girl keenly, her little
blue eyes diminished in size by the thick lenses of her pince-nez.
Then she handed her ice to Mr. Arnold without even glancing at him, and
held out both her plump white hands to Nancy.  Her whole face softened,
with the dimpling, comfortable smile of a motherly old nurse.

"Oh, my dear child--if you were only a boy I could believe you were
George again--my George, your father--not this young rascal.  Come, sit
down beside me.  I shan't keep you long.  Have you been having a good
time, my dear?"

She was not a terrible old lady at all.  On the contrary, with
wonderful skill, with cosy, affectionate little ways, with her jolly
laugh, and her droll stories, she had succeeded in less time than it
takes to tell in completely winning Nancy to her.  And somehow,
although she appeared to be doing all the talking herself, although she
touched so lightly and so adroitly that she hardly seemed to touch at
all on any topic that was delicately personal to the girl, she had
managed within a brief five minutes to glean a hundred little facts,
which, by piecing together in her keen old mind, gave her more
knowledge concerning the Prescotts than another person could have come
by in a week's diligent pumping.


"George, my dear----"

"Yes, Aunt Eliza."

"Oh, nothing.  I wish to goodness you were a woman.  It just occurred
to me that you can't possibly understand what I was going to say to
you, so never mind about listening to me.  Smoke, if you want to, and
let me think in peace."

"Very well."  From Mr. Arnold's docile submissiveness it might be
surmised that he, too, wanted to think in peace.  Miss Bancroft's
lumbering, impressive coupé rumbled along over the wet roads toward
Lowry House; its two occupants buried in that mood of silence which
only two very sympathetic beings know how to respect.  Presently Miss
Bancroft burst out:

"The child is quite charming.  I shall give Tom a good sound piece of
my mind.  To-morrow."

George Arnold grunted.

"It's only fair sportsmanship to give him twelve hours' warning."

"Poor Lallie Prescott.  Like most silly women, she's going to try to
beat Providence by pushing them forward into premature rivalry with
girls who have every financial advantage over them, ruin their
contentment, so that they will be ready to fling away their happiness
on the first little whippersnapper who looks as if he could give them a
trip to Paris and a season in Cannes every year.  I admire her fighting
spirit, but it's hopelessly misdirected."

"Am I meant to understand you, Aunt Eliza?"

"No.  Don't even listen to me.  Nancy has too much sense for a girl of
her age, and that exquisite little Alma has none.  Tut-tut.  I find
that I must interfere."



CHAPTER VI

MISS BANCROFT BEARDS THE OGRE

Miss Bancroft had not made her solemn declaration lightly.  She never
made any announcements of her intentions without weighty consideration;
consequently she was a woman who meant what she said, and meant it
thoroughly.  Moreover, she never procrastinated; she thought in a
straight line, and she acted in a straight line.

Like most women, she took a healthy human delight in "interfering";
but, unlike the majority of her sex, she indulged very rarely.  When,
however, she had made up her mind on the point of allowing herself to
concern herself in other people's business, she experienced the
exquisite relish of a strictly self-controlled gamester, who allows
himself to play only rarely so that he may enjoy his sport with that
peculiar zest which only long abstinence can whet.

On a sunny, warm September day, mellow with the promise of an Indian
summer, Miss Bancroft, smart, though rotund, in lavender linen, set out
on her pilgrimage to the house of Thomas Prescott.

"I see that you aren't above the traditional wiles of your sex, Aunt,"
commented George Arnold, looking up from his book, and surveying her
with twinkling eyes, from the long wicker porch chair, where he had
been dozing in the sun.  "You've rigged yourself out in full panoply.
That's a jaunty little parasol you have."

Miss Bancroft, standing on the broad steps, put up her parasol at this,
to shade the fine texture of her gaily beflowered straw hat from the
sun, and then glanced around at her nephew with a demure smile.

"I make a point of looking my best always when I'm going to see Tom
Prescott.  Of course he thinks me a sensible woman, a remarkably
reasonable woman, and all that nonsense; but I like to leave him with
at least a half-formed notion that I'm surprisingly well preserved,
even if I have rather lost my waist-line.  There was a time, you
know----" the demure smile quirked the corners of her big, mobile
mouth, and sparkled impishly in her eyes; then with a little wag of her
head, she ran down the steps like a fat, jolly schoolgirl.

George Arnold, leaning back against a chintz cushion, watched the
portly, festive figure that moved away under the trees of the long
drive.  Miss Bancroft usually seemed to roll slowly, but efficiently,
along on wheels as ponderous and impressive as an old-fashioned
stage-coach.  He caught a last glimpse of lavender and white through
the shrubs that bordered the end of the lawn.  He felt a good deal of
interest in this pilgrimage of his aunt's, although he had no very
clear idea of the purpose of it.  It had something to do with two very
pretty young girls whom he had seen at an otherwise stupid dance the
night before.  One of the girls looked like a Dresden doll, the other
had dark eyes, and a direct, shy, almost boyish smile.  Her name was
Anne--Nancy.  Nancy suited her much better.  He had thought about her
several times.  For no particular reason--she was hardly eighteen, and
he was, well, he was thirty-three, though that was neither here nor
there.  It was simply that he liked her rather better than one likes
most girls of that age.  She had a way of listening to a man without
that stupid, flustered expression, as though she was only wondering
what in the world she should say when it should be her turn to talk.
She liked books.  He wondered if she knew that he wrote them.  Of
course he wasn't world-famous, but it might interest her to know that
he was the George Arnold whose collections of exquisitely delicate
children's stories had already been translated into six foreign
languages, "including the Scandinavian."

He smiled to himself at the naïve vanity which had prompted this
thought; and chastised it by telling himself that it was only too
likely that her ignorance or knowledge of what he did or was were
matters of like indifference to her.

Meantime, Miss Bancroft, puffing a little under the combined
difficulties of avoirdupois and a beaming September sun, was looking
with an almost pathetic anticipation at the rich cool shadows beneath
which slept the rambling mansion of Thomas Prescott.

"I shall order some tea.  A man is always so much more amenable to
reason over a tea-table--and for my part, I'll not survive half an hour
without a little light refreshment.  I suppose I'll have to listen to a
long discourse on the origin of the Slavic races or the religious
customs of the Aztecs, until I can get him down to argue with me on his
duty toward his fellow creatures.  I hope to Heaven that his principles
are drowsy to-day.  I can't bear it if I have to combat a lot of
principles.  It's absolutely heathenish to have principles in warm
weather anyway.  Of course they are the proper things to have, but,
dear me, they _are_ such nuisances.  It's all right to have them about
yourself, I suppose, but to have them about other people is priggish,
and quite useless, so far as I can see.  My observation has taught me
that if you like a person it makes no difference whether their
principles coincide with your own or not, or even if they have none at
all; and if you don't like a person, it's downright irritating to have
to approve of them."  Miss Bancroft's mental grammar, like much of her
spoken grammar, was inaccurate, of course; as in other matters, she
held rule to scorn, when the rule interfered with her personal
conception of what she was trying to make clear to other people or to
herself.

Under the vigorous thrust of her plump, direct forefinger, the
door-bell pealed clearly in the cool remote regions of the house.
Standing under the arch of the Norman doorway, she surveyed the broad,
shade-flecked lawns with interest and a sort of irritable appreciation.
Somewhere under the trees a gardener was raking the drive and burning
neat piles of warm, brown leaves, from which the pungent smoke ascended
in sinuous blue spirals, like languorously dancing phantoms of the dead
leaves; and the pleasant, rhythmic sound of the rake on the gravel
intensified the sober peaceful silence peculiar to that bachelor's
domain.

The door was opened.

"Tell Mr. Prescott that it's Miss Bancroft.  Nonsense, I shan't sit
down in the drawing-room at all--it makes me feel like a member of the
Ladies' Aid come to petition a subscription for a new church carpet or
something.  Tell Mr. Prescott that I'll be out on the porch."

"Will you come through this way, then, madam?" suggested the old
butler, meekly.

Miss Bancroft followed him, sighing a little with relief as the
coolness of the great hall, with its smell of old, polished wood and
waxed floors, closed about her.

"And, William," she called pathetically after the retreating butler,
"do put the kettle on!"

On her way through the house she passed a stately succession of large
rooms.  A handsome drawing-room, with a polished parquetry floor, fit
for the dainty crimson heels of a laced and furbelowed French coquette;
its great glass chandelier shrouded in white tarlatan; the dining-room,
with high-wainscoted walls, on which hung three or four astonishingly
valuable and even beautiful pictures by masters of the eighteenth
century English school.  For all its impressive grandeur, the long
table, covered with a rare piece of Italian brocade, was, with the
single carved chair set at the distant end, a barren table, indeed, for
a man whom Miss Bancroft knew to be possessed of one of the warmest,
tenderest and most affection-craving hearts in the whole world.

"Principles--fiddlesticks!" she observed aloud.  "Tst!"

A living-room, in which no one ever lived, a writing-room, in which no
one ever wrote, and long halls, wainscoted in dark oak and quiet as
those of a college library, whose silence was never broken by the light
staccato footsteps of gay feet, or the murmur of roguish voices.  But
the air of pathos which all these things wore seemed to rise from the
fact that they had been planned and secured not for the enjoyment of a
lonely old man, but for some happy purpose that had never been
realized.  They seemed to wear an expression of disappointment, even of
apology for existing so uselessly.

"Tut!  How can anyone be patient with a man of principles," again
commented Miss Bancroft; but her face had grown a little sad.

She was rocking gently back and forth in the shade of the cool stone
porch, when the sound of footsteps at last reached her ears, and she
looked up with the warm smile of a guest who knows she is always
welcome.

"Elizabeth!  This is a very great pleasure.  I thought you had
forgotten me!"

"You deserve to be forgotten, my dear friend.  Ah, now you've disarmed
me, though.  I've just conscience enough to have to tell you that I've
come this time with ulterior motives."

"I can find fault with no motives of yours, so long as they prompt you
to visit me.  I look forward to my little chats with you as a child
looks forward to his Saturday treats."

"My dear Tom, your gift of saying delightful things is one of the
wonders of the age.  Here you never see a woman from one year's end to
the other, and yet you can turn a compliment as charmingly as though
you practised on the fairest in the land every evening of your life."

"'In my youth, said the Father----'" quoted the old gentleman with a
twinkle.  "However, let's hear your ulterior motives first, my dear
Elizabeth, so that afterwards we can chat with unburdened minds."

"No--no, I refuse to beard you until we have some tea.  Thank goodness,
here's William bringing it now.  I took the liberty of ordering it,
Tom."

"You took no liberties at all--you merely assumed your privileges.
Tut-tut!  Tea.  You women, with all your notions and your injurious
habits--how very delightful it is to be near you!"

"To hear you talk, Tom, how could _anyone_ suspect that you were a man
of principles!" cried Miss Bancroft.  "How could anyone dream that you
were hard, and austere and--and unimaginative!"  He looked at her in
mild astonishment.

He was a small old man, rather delicate in build, with the blunt broad
hands of a worker, and a high, smooth, massive forehead, from which his
perfectly white hair fell back, long and almost childishly soft and
fine.  His eyes, set deep under the sharply defined bone of his
projecting brow, wore the gentle, far-away expression noticeable in
many near-sighted people; but his chin contradicted their softness, and
there was a hint of obstinacy in his close-set mouth and rather long
upper lip.  He was dressed negligently, and indeed almost shabbily, and
he made no apologies for his appearance; since he never gave a thought
to it himself, he could not consider what other people might think of
it.  His greatest hobby, lingering with him from earlier years, was
chemistry, and he spent virtually all his time in the laboratory which
he had fitted up in one of the odd towers that decorated his house.
His coat and trousers would have given a far less observant person than
Sherlock Holmes a clue to this favorite occupation of his, stained and
burned as they were with acids.

"Do you eat your _dinner_ in those clothes?" demanded Miss Bancroft.

"Why?  What's the matter with them?  Why not eat dinner in 'em?  My
dear Elizabeth, surely at this late date you haven't taken it into your
head to reform my habits?"

"I don't know but that I have," replied Miss Bancroft with a touch of
grimness.

"Is that your ulterior motive?  I suspected it.  Tell me what you meant
when you accused me just now of being hard and austere and
unimaginative.  Why unimaginative?"

"No really intelligent woman would ever try to explain anything so
subtle to a man.  I mean that you are unimaginative because you allow
yourself to be rigid----"

"Rigid?  Rigid about what?"

"About your principles.  I like you, Tom--you know how much.  I admire
you more than any man I have ever known, and I have known a good many
remarkable men.  But one thing I cannot forgive you is your principles."

"My principles?  When did I ever offend you with principles?"

Miss Bancroft poured herself another cup of tea, and laid a second
piece of bread-and-butter neatly on the side of her saucer.

"Come," said Mr. Prescott, with a keen glance at her.  "Come, it's not
like you, Elizabeth, to beat about the bush.  What can this matter be
which you find so difficult to broach in plain English?"

Miss Bancroft hesitated a moment.  It touched her vanity to be accused
of beating about the bush, since she took an especial pride in her
reputation of being a woman who never minced matters, and who always
made a direct and fearless attack.

Then she said, simply:

"I came to talk to you about--George's daughters, Tom."

There was a short silence.

"It's not like you, Elizabeth, to--to touch upon a matter so very
delicate," remarked Mr. Prescott, quietly, his lips tightening
slightly.  "Of course I can understand how my attitude in regard to
them must appear to you, but I fancied that there existed between you
and me a silent agreement that this was one subject which was never to
be mentioned."

"My dear Tom, you know that under ordinary circumstances I am not an
interfering woman; therefore you must realize that I should never have
spoken of this to you without the best of reasons for doing so.  But I
feel that you are allowing certain principles, excellent no doubt in
themselves, but wrong in your particular application to them, to thwart
your own happiness; to say nothing of depriving others of the
advantages which it is in your power to bestow."  Miss Bancroft was
very serious now.  As she spoke she leaned over and laid her fat little
hand earnestly on the old man's shabby sleeve.  He said nothing, and
she continued:

"There are two young girls, charming--beautiful, indeed--the daughters
of a man you loved far more even than most fathers love their
first-born sons----"

"Don't!" exclaimed Mr. Prescott, sharply, almost fiercely.  "Don't
speak to me of that, Elizabeth.  Can't you realize that just to mention
my--George recalls all my old rancor against that little, heartless
spendthrift who ruined him--_killed_ him----" his voice rose hoarsely,
then making an effort to control himself, he went on in a quieter tone:

"It's very difficult for me to discuss this with you, Elizabeth."

"I'm sorry, Tom.  But you have no right to--it's a matter of your own
happiness as much as theirs--and I would be no friend of yours if I
were not willing and anxious to risk your anger for the sake of
righting this mistake you are making."

"My nieces are not in want.  And familiarity with a certain degree of
poverty is the source of a wisdom that safeguards men and women from
follies that lead to many of the greatest miseries on earth."

"Want, my dear Tom, is a purely relative condition," said Miss
Bancroft.  "There are needs, which to certain natures are more
intolerable than physical hunger.  To deprive a young girl of simple,
innocent delights--companionship of her own kind, dainty clothes,
harmless enjoyments--is like robbing a plant of sun and rain."

"Do you mean to tell me that poverty need deprive any girl of such
things?  Nonsense, Elizabeth!  I have seen girls who had but two
dresses to their name, who worked and struggled and economized, and who
nevertheless had as much pleasure--indeed more, I'll wager--than the
most petted heiress in the land.  And what's more, they made better
wives and better mothers and better citizens.  They knew how many cents
make a dollar, and how many dollars their men could make in a week by
the sweat of their brow, working not eight hours a day, but ten and
twelve.  One never heard this sickly whine from them--this talk that
women must be coddled and pampered, and that men can eat their hearts
out to provide the 'sun' in which they bask like pet lizards!  They
didn't ask for 'sunlight'--they asked only that they might work and
save with their husbands--that they could be fit partners, and they
found their joy, not in 'dainty clothes' and 'harmless enjoyments' but
in giving their strength and their courage for their husbands and their
children!"  Mr. Prescott had risen to his feet in the vehemence of his
feeling, and was walking back and forth, his hands locked behind his
back, and his head lowered and thrust forward between his hunched-up
shoulders.

"Good heavens, I've got him roused for fair," thought Miss Bancroft,
with a mixture of amusement and dismay.  "And of course, theoretically
he's dead right.  Now why is it that so many things which,
theoretically, are dead right, practically, are all wrong?  That's what
I've got to prove to him--and I don't know whether I shall succeed
after all.  I must take care not to be sentimental--that rouses him
dreadfully."

Aloud she said, in a quiet voice:

"Listen, Tom--under ordinary circumstances I should agree with you
absolutely.  But a short time ago I spoke of want being relative.  You
said that your nieces are not in want.  You meant, of course, that they
had food and clothes and shelter.  If they were girls who lived in an
absolutely different plane of life that would be sufficient for their
happiness.  They could have pleasure with their two dresses and their
one best bonnet, because everyone else of their class would have no
more.  But take one of them out of that class; put her where her only
companions would have to be sought for among men and women who lived on
a scale of comparative wealth, where, to make friends, she would have
to appear well, and so on--then, what in the first case was at least a
sufficiency, now becomes tragically inadequate.  There is no cure but
for that girl to recede from the class to which by birth, breeding and
instinct she belongs.

"You have built up a great fortune.  You yourself are what you boast of
being--a self-made man--a man originally of the people.  But you made
your nephew a gentleman--understand that I am using the word in the
commonest sense.  Consequently his children belong to a class in which
needs must be measured by a different scale from that used for working
women.  They live--as you do, and most likely because you do--in a very
rich community.  They suffer from wants that girls of a different class
would never know.  They are deprived of things which your working girl
would not be deprived of.  They are poorer on their two thousand a
year, or whatever it is, than a peasant woman would be on two hundred,
because their particular needs are more expensive."

"They will be very rich--after I die," said Mr. Prescott in a low
voice, after a short pause.  "But I won't let them even suspect it.
That little wife of George's--I never want to see her again--she is a
great little gambler.  If she felt sure that in a few years her
daughters were coming into a fortune of several millions, Heaven only
knows but that she'd have the last cent of it spent in advance.  You
seem to have gleaned an immense amount of information concerning my
nieces--perhaps you know what her plans for them are."

"You know, Tom, that I was as much opposed--indeed more opposed,
perhaps, than you were to George's marrying Lallie.  But that is
neither here nor there now.  I am afraid that she is--well, attempting
things for her girls that lie beyond her income.  You must not blame
her.  She isn't a wise woman, but I am sure that she is one who suffers
more for her mistakes than she causes others to suffer.  Of course I am
no judge of that.

"She is a little gambler, no doubt, as you said--but a gallant one.
She is playing against rather desperate odds--and she cannot be blamed
if she plays foolishly.  As I understand it, I believe that her object
is to give her girls, by hook or crook, advantages that lie beyond her
means, the goal being that one of them or both will marry--well.  If
she wins--well and good----"

"Well and good--fiddlesticks!  Nonsense!  Good Heavens!" shouted Mr.
Prescott.  "Whatever are you driving at, Elizabeth?  I can't make head
or tail of all this talking.  You come to me, telling me that my nieces
are in want of some kind or other, that that mother of theirs is living
beyond her means in her attempt to put them on a footing with the
daughters of millionaires, so that they can marry some mother's son
whom they fancy can stand their extravagance, and as far as I can make
out, you want me to defray their expenses, so that the business of
ruining some other man's boy as mine was ruined will be less difficult
for them.  Have you gone clean daft?"

"I see I haven't made myself perfectly clear," said Miss Bancroft,
patiently.  "I should have told you that I saw both of your nieces last
night.  It was because of the older one that I came here to-day--Nancy.
She looks enough like George to make your heart ache.  And she is
facing poor George's problem.  She is a very remarkable young girl--I
don't cotton to the average young miss very readily, as you know, but
there was something in that bright, eager young face that went to my
heart.  She was at the Porterbridges'.  They came in an old hack that
they were ashamed of.  Do you like to think of George's daughters doing
that?

"She is a girl who deserves a fair chance, and she's not getting it.
But she isn't the sort that whimpers.  She struck me as being full of a
fine courage--and an independence of spirit that made one member of the
family the very troublesome person he is.  She is a girl who has her
teeth set against circumstance, and her own cool, sober views of life.
But she is very young--too young to have to cope with the difficulties
that face her, and far too proud to accept any help with strings tied
to it.  Remember that.  And in my opinion, it is a sin and a shame that
you, who could give her the help she needs, and who could get a great
deal of happiness in return--you won't even see her.  I'm not asking
anything but that you see and talk to Nancy sometime."  Miss Bancroft
rose, and shook out her skirt.

Mr. Prescott stood, looking straight ahead of him, with his under lip
thrust forward, a characteristic trick of that same grand-niece Nancy,
if he but knew it.

Presently he turned, and held out his hand with a queer, almost shy
smile.

"Do forgive me, Elizabeth, for bellowing at you as I have.  You know,
my dear girl--and you have often agreed with me--that, while at my
death my nieces will become very rich, it has been my purpose to allow
them to know poverty, with all its sorrows and harassments, so that
they can use my fortune wisely for their own happiness and for the
happiness of the families that they will have in time.  My theory is
right--but circumstances alter cases.  I shall think over what you have
said--but I shall promise nothing."

Miss Bancroft accepted his hand and pressed it affectionately.

"Well, then, good-bye.  No, don't bother to open the door for me; I'll
go this way."

He smiled at her again as she went down the steps.

"I always feel lonely when you have gone, even when we have been
quarrelling," he remarked, with a wistful look.

"Of course you feel lonely.  You roll around in that huge house of
yours like a hazelnut in a shoe," returned Miss Bancroft, quickly.  He
caught her meaning, and as quickly replied:

"Nonsense--I like plenty of room.  Never could bear to have a lot of
people hanging around.  No man can accomplish anything with an army of
women and things hanging to his coat-tails!"

"Tst!" observed Miss Bancroft, and because there was no answer to that,
she could retire with the satisfaction of having had the last word.



CHAPTER VII

A MAN OF "PRINCIPLES"

"One dozen stockings--six woolen and six silk--imagine owning six pairs
of silk stockings---six nighties--don't they look luxurious, all
beribboned and fluffy?  One thick sweater, one pair of stout boots--I
hope these boots are stout enough; they look as if they could kick a
hole through the side of a battle-ship.  One mackintosh--now where
under the sun can I put this mackintosh?"

"Oh, just roll it up in a bundle and slam it in that corner near your
shoes.  It'll keep 'em from bumping around.  My dear, you look as if
you'd been in a tornado."

"_In_ a tornado!  I _am_ a tornado."  Nancy lifted a flushed face, and
gazed at Alma through a haze of tumbled hair.  Then she sat back on her
heels in front of the open trunk, and seizing her locks near the
temples, pulled them frenziedly.  "Alma Prescott, if you sit there
another moment looking calm, I'll throw this shoe-horn at you.  Do
anything, scream, run around in circles, pant, anything, but _don't_
look calm.  Every minute I'm forgetting something vital.  Let me see,
nail-brush, tooth-brush, cold-cream----"

"If you go over that formula again, I'll be a mopping, mowing idiot,"
observed Alma serenely, from the window-seat.  "I wonder how one mops
and mows--it sounds awfully idiotic, doesn't it?  I saw you put the
nail-brush _and_ the tooth-brush _and_ the cold-cream in the tray
there--left-hand corner.  Now, for goodness' sake, forget about
them--it's just little things like that that unhinge the greatest
minds.  You're horribly bad company while you're packing a trunk."

"Well, anyhow, it's nearly done now--and yours is ready."

"You're a lamb for doing mine for me--I haven't been a bit of help, I
know.  Oh, you _know_ it's going to be glorious fun--at boarding
school.  I've always longed to go to boarding school.  And it isn't
awfully strict at Miss Leland's, Elise Porterbridge says.  They have
midnight feasts, and all sorts of things--and then, you know, Frank
Barrows is at Harvard, and he asked me up there for some dance near
Christmas.  Don't you think Frank is very nice, Nancy?"  This was what
Alma had been leading around to, and Nancy knew it.  Personally she
thought Frank rather an affected youth, but she had sense enough not to
air this opinion before Alma just then.

"Why, yes, he seems very nice," she replied, with very mild interest.

"I think he has sort of more to him than most men of his age," pursued
Alma, affecting a judicial air.

"Probably he has."

"He dances beautifully.  Goodness, I had a wonderful time the other
night.  I know that you probably think it's wrong of me, but I'd like
nothing more than to go to a party like that every night in the week."

"_I_ don't think it's wrong at all--only I think you'd probably get
awfully sick of it in a little while.  And--and the chief trouble as
far as we are concerned is that it's so dreadfully expensive.  I know
you think I'm always harping on the same string--but do you remember
the motto of Mr. Micawber--'Income one pound--expenditure nineteen
shillings and sixpence--product, happiness; income one pound,
expenditure one pound and sixpence, product, misery----'"

"Well, I know that's very sensible, but there's lots of sense to 'eat,
drink, and be merry, for to-morrow we die,'" returned Alma, with a gay
laugh.  "You're thinking about my dress and slippers--I could have
killed that person who spilt their fruit punch all over my skirt, but
there was nothing to do about it, and besides I'm sure I can hide the
stain with a sash or something.  I don't believe in worrying."  With
this, Madame Optimist turned and, pressing her short nose against the
window pane, drummed with her little pink nails against the wet glass.
The rain was falling again in a monotonous drenching downpour,
stripping the trees of the few, brown, shivering leaves that clung to
the dripping branches.  The promise of Indian summer seemed to have
been definitely broken for reasons of Dame Nature's own, and the
weather was having a tantrum about it.  But inside, the little bedroom
was all the cosier in contrast to the woebegone gloom of the early
dusk.  The chintz window curtains of Nancy's making were faded by many
washings, it is true, and the two white iron bedsteads might have
looked sprucer for a coat of paint, but with a fire glowing in the
grate, and sending out an almost affectionate glint upon all the
familiar objects, the little room had an air of motherly cheerfulness
and comfort.  A shabby but inviting armchair stood in front of the
hearth.  In a corner, a white bookcase harbored a family of well-worn
volumes, ranging from "Grimm's Fairy Tales," and "Stepping Stones to
English Literature" to "The Three Musketeers" and "Jane Eyre," all
tattered and thumbed, and seeming to wear the happy, weary expression
of a rag doll that has been "loved to death."

"Well," Nancy was saying, in reply to Alma's observation, "I don't
believe in worrying, but I do believe in having an umbrella if you live
in a rainy climate.  Then you don't have to worry about the--rain.
_Comprenez-vous_?"

"I comprenez--you are talking in symbols, aren't you?  Where's Mother?"

"Here I am, darling," replied Mrs. Prescott from the doorway.  "Dear
me, the trunks are all packed, aren't they?  Nancy, what a wonderful
child you are.  Oh, whatever am I going to do without my daughters!"

"This time to-morrow night we'll all be dying of the blues.  Thank
goodness, here's Hannah with some tea--I'm starving," said Nancy,
springing up to take the tray from the hands of the fat old woman, who
had just made her appearance, her full, solemn red face looming behind
the teapot.

They all gathered around the fire, Nancy and Alma settling cross-legged
on the floor, and immediately opening a disastrous attack on the plate
of chocolate cake--Hannah's prize contribution to this farewell feast.

"This time to-morrow night we'll probably be regaling ourselves on
baked beans and cold rice-pudding," added Alma, cramming chocolate cake
into her mouth like a greedy child.  "That's an awful thought."

"Now, miss, ye don't suppose they'll be feedin' ye bad," exclaimed
Hannah in great concern.  The old woman had taken her stand
respectfully near the doorway, loath to lose the last few glimpses of
her adored young mistresses.  "If ye think that now, I can send ye a
box of jellies and the like any time ye say."

"Well, they'll probably give us something more than bread and
water--but not much," replied Nancy, seriously.  "They don't believe in
giving students much to eat, because it hampers their brains."

"Is that so, now?" marvelled Hannah.

"It is indeed--it's a scientific fact, Hannah.  When we come back for
the Christmas holidays, we'll probably be so pale and wan that we won't
even cast a shadow.  But goodness, how clever we'll be."

"I'm a great believer in good feedin'," commented Hannah dubiously.
"And I don't cotton much to scientifics, if you'll pardon me, miss.
Lord, what an empty house 'twill be without ye."

"I hope you aren't insinuating that we take up much room," laughed
Nancy; she was teasing Hannah to cover up her own growing sensation of
homesickness and uneasiness.  "Take good care of Mother, Hannah, and
don't let her go out without her rubbers on, and--and make her write to
us every single day.  It's ridiculous, I suppose, to talk as if we were
going twelve hundred instead of twelve miles, but we've never been even
twelve miles away from home before."

"Yes, and there's nothing like seeing something of the world to broaden
a person," observed Alma, sagely.  "When I'm grown up, I shall
certainly travel.  I intend to make a tour of the world.  Egypt
especially--goodness, I'd like to go to Egypt.  That Edith Palliser was
a lucky girl--her guardian took her to Paris and Rome and Cairo and
even to Algiers, and she met all kinds of interesting people--a Spanish
prince and a Russian count, and loads of artists and writers and
things.  I'm afraid that we must be terribly provincial."

"Ah, now, don't say that," remonstrated Hannah, who had no idea what
"provincial" meant, and was consequently convinced that it must mean
something very bad indeed.  "Bless my soul!  There's the bell--now who
could be comin' here on a day like this?"

The door-bell had indeed been rung fiercely, and a second ring followed
impatiently upon the first.  Hannah vanished.

"Who in the world----" wondered Nancy.

"Sh!  It's some man."

Alma sprang up, and running out into the hall leaned curiously over the
bannister.  In a moment she returned, looking as if she had seen a
ghost, her mouth open, and her eyes popping.

"Nancy!  Mother!  I think it's _Uncle Thomas_!"

"Nonsense!"  But Nancy too scrambled to her feet and stood listening
with suspended breath.  "Mother----!"

"No, my dear--it--it _couldn't_ be!"  Mrs. Prescott had turned quite
pale.  "It must be just some tradesman.  See--there's Hannah now."

But Hannah's face confirmed the dazing suspicion.  Without even
announcing the stupifying news, she leaned weakly against the doorway,
and pressed her hand to her ample bosom, signifying an overwhelming
agitation.

"Who is it, Hannah?"

"The saints protect us, miss--ma'am!  Sure, it's the old gentleman
himself--as large as life, indeed.  'Is the missis home?' says he, and
before I can draw breath--'Tell her Mr. Prescott is waitin' on her, and
would like to see the young ladies,' says he.  And he sticks his
soakin' umbrella in the corner, and without takin' off his overshoes,
stalks into the livin'-room.  'Humph!' says he, seein' the hole in the
carpet, 'that's dangerous.  I like to have broken me neck.  Be good
enough to hurry, ma'am,' says he, 'an' don't stand gawpin' at me like a
simpleton.'  'Will ye have a seat, sir?' says I.  'I will, when I want
one,' says he, short-like, and there he stands standin' and starin'
around him, and suckin' at his lips, and kinda talkin' to hisself.
What shall I be tellin' him, ma'am?"

This bomb seemed to have paralyzed the little family.

"I--I--tell him----" stammered Mrs. Prescott, looking piteously at
Nancy for help.

"You'd better go right down, Mother.  Why, you look frightened to
death, dear."

"I am.  He frightens me dreadfully.  I can't bear sarcastic people.  Do
go down alone, Nancy,--tell him I have a headache."

"No, no!  That wouldn't be wise.  What can he say?  He may want to be
very nice," said Nancy, reassuringly.  "Come along--don't keep him
waiting.  Here, just tuck up your hair a bit.  Come on, Alma."

Inwardly quaking, but outwardly preserving a dignified composure, the
three descended the staircase, with the calmness of people going to
some inevitable fate.

"He can't bite you, dear," whispered Nancy to her mother, with a
nervous little giggle.

Mr. Prescott was standing perfectly still, with his back toward the
door, staring with an evidently absorbed interest at the wall in front
of him.  He turned slowly, as Mrs. Prescott entered the room, and for a
moment surveyed her and the two girls without speaking.  Then he said,
casually:

"Good-afternoon, Lallie."

Alma shot a glance at Nancy.

"Good-afternoon, Uncle Thomas," said Mrs. Prescott, in a rather faint
voice, and flushing crimson with nervousness.  "It--it is very kind of
you----"

"Not at all," he interrupted, brusquely, "not at all.  May we have a
light--it is rather dark."

Nancy quickly lit the gas, and as the light from the jet shone down on
her upturned face the old man scrutinized her keenly.  A queer,
half-tender, but repressed expression changed the lines in his stern
old face for a moment, then he looked at Alma, who was regarding him
with perfectly unconcealed terror and awe.

"How do you do?" he said to her, holding out his hand.  "How do you do?
You're my niece Alma, eh?  Anne is the one who looks like--like my
nephew, and Alma is the one who resembles her mother."  He said this as
if he were repeating some directions to himself.  "I haven't seen you
since you were children."  He shook Alma's hand formally, and sat down
at Mrs. Prescott's timid invitation, The short silence which ensued,
while it seemed like an age of discomfort to the Prescotts, apparently
was unobserved by him.

"It has been a very long time since--since I have seen you, Uncle
Thomas," said Mrs. Prescott in desperation, quite aware that this
remark, like any one she should make just then, was a very awkward one.

"Yes.  I never go out, madam.  So this is Anne--Nancy, eh?"  He turned
abruptly to the girl and met her clear, steady eyes sharply.  "You were
a child--a very little girl when I saw you last.  You resemble my
nephew very much,--my--my dear.

"No doubt, madam, you are wondering at the reason of this visit," he
said, all at once plunging into the heart of matters with an air of
impatience at any "beating about the bush."  "I've no doubt it was the
last thing in the world you expected, eh?"

"It was indeed a surprise," murmured Mrs. Prescott.

"I realized that my grandnieces are growing up, and I had a curiosity
to see them.  There is the kernel of the matter.  They are handsome
girls.  I suppose everyone knows that they have a rich uncle--and
prospects, eh?"

"Neither my daughters nor anyone else has been deluded in that
respect," answered Mrs. Prescott, with a touch of spirit.

"Hum.  Well, that's good, I should say.  Nothing puts anyone in such a
false position as to be generally regarded as having--prospects.  It's
ruinous, especially for girls."

"My daughters have been taught that they must rely entirely on
themselves.  You need not have come to repeat the lesson to them, Uncle
Thomas," returned Mrs. Prescott, trying to conceal her temper.  Mr.
Prescott affected not to notice her rising annoyance, which was a
natural enough reaction from her earlier nervousness.  Instead he next
addressed himself directly to Alma.

"So you think I'm a regular old ogre, don't you, my dear?"  His eyes
suddenly twinkled at her palpable terror and distress, but only Nancy
caught the twinkle.  "You think I'm a queer, crotchety old fellow, eh?
Well, don't let's talk about me.  I want to know what you are planning
to do with yourselves--an old man's curiosity.  Your face is your
fortune, my dear--though a pretty face is not infrequently a
misfortune, so the wiseacres say.  I understand that you two young
ladies are going now to a fashionable school,--to learn how to be
fashionable, no doubt.  That's a folly--it would be better if you
stayed at home and learned how to cook and darn."

"We _can_ cook and darn," said Nancy, demurely.

"So?  Good.  Now tell me why are you going to this school?  It's no
place for poor girls.  I suppose it's some woman's notion of yours,
ma'am?" pursued the old gentleman, turning to Mrs. Prescott.

"My plans for my daughters can concern you so little, Uncle Thomas----"
began Mrs. Prescott, throwing her usual diplomacy to the winds.

"That it behooves me to mind my own business, eh?"  Mr. Prescott
finished for her with perfect good-humor.  "You are quite right,
madam."  He seemed really pleased at Mrs. Prescott's spirit, and went
on, "You do right to tell me so.  I have acted in a most unkinsmanly
way toward my nieces, and consequently it's none of my business what
they do or what they don't do.  Well, if you had allowed me to
interfere in this matter, I should have imagined that you were doing so
simply because you wanted to get into my good graces, and so forth,
which would have been quite useless in as far as it would have changed
my plans in regard to them.  It's a very silly thing you are doing with
them, in my opinion, but I'm glad you have spirit enough to stick to
your own mind.  Now, my dear, don't be angry with me.  Understand that
I have come to interfere in your plans in no way at all.  It's not my
purpose to use your poverty and your need for my money as a force by
which to tyrannize over you.  I had these thoughts in mind when I came
here to-day--on an old man's whimsical impulse: I wished, first of all,
to put a period to the unfriendliness that has existed between us all
these years; I wished to see my nieces, and I wished, at the same
time--and in order to avoid any false attitude on your part or on my
own--to have it clearly understood that you must not expect any
financial assistance from me.  Live out your own lives--think out your
own problems--make your mistakes, fearlessly--do not, I beg you,
humiliate yourselves by trying to conciliate an old man, who chooses to
do what he will with the money he made with his own wits and labor.
There, that is particularly what I wanted to say to you.  Don't try to
'work' me.  Don't expect anything from me.  Thus, if we are friends, it
will be a disinterested friendship.  Otherwise, if I felt that we were
on good terms, I should be thinking to myself--'It is only because I am
the rich uncle.'  If you were amiable with me, I'd think, 'That's
because they are afraid of angering me.'  Now--let us be friends.  I
think I can be very fond of my nieces--but don't expect anything from
me.  Is that clear?  Will you make friends with an old man on those
terms?"  He looked first into Mrs. Prescott's eyes, and saw that she
was still hostile; at Alma, and read her bewilderment in her face, and
then at Nancy.  Again his eyes softened, almost touchingly, and with
quick instinct she understood the appeal that lay beneath his brusque
language.  She remembered her father's stories of his tenderness, and
somehow she understood that what the old man longed for was the simple
affection of which for so long his life had been empty.  And she
understood, too, his dread of gaining that affection by holding out
hopes of payment for it.  His reiterated "Don't expect anything of me,"
was more of a plea than a curt warning.  He wanted their good-will for
himself, and not for his money--that was what he was trying to say in
his brusque, almost crude, way.  Her eyes were bright with this
understanding of his heart, and she held out her hand with a smile; for
he seemed to have turned directly to her for his answer.  He grasped
her hand eagerly.

"There!" he exclaimed, with an almost child-like pleasure.  "There is
George's daughter, every inch.  We understand each other, eh?  Good
girl.  We shall be friends, eh?  I'm a friend--not a rich old uncle,
who'll give you what you want, if you manage him right.  That's it, you
understand?  Now, this is pleasant--this is honest.  Be independent, my
dear.  Don't expect anything of me.  I tell you--if I thought that it
was only thoughts of my money that bought your good-will, I'd give the
last cent of it away to-morrow."

He got up, evidently well satisfied, and still retaining Nancy's hand
in his.  The other he held out to Mrs. Prescott, who took it, with a
constrained smile; and then, in high good-humor he pinched Alma's
dimpled chin playfully.

"Good-day!  Good-day!  I'm glad I came.  We'll know each other better
after a while.  We understand each other, eh?  The hatchet is buried,
eh?  Good.  It's a piece of business I've been putting off for a long
while.  Tut-tut!  Where's my umbrella?"

The three Prescotts stood at the window, staring with varying feelings
at the stooped, but surprisingly agile old figure that walked off
through the rain and fog, head down, the worn velvet collar of his old
coat hunched around his neck--and with never a look behind.  Then, all
at once, both Alma and Nancy broke out laughing.

"You seemed to get along with him beautifully," chuckled Alma.
"Goodness, he scared me out of my five wits--so that I couldn't
understand a word he was saying.  I couldn't tell you for the life of
me what he was talking about.  I think he must be crazy.  But he
doesn't seem so bad at all.  At times he even looked rather nice."

"Why, I believe he _is_ nice," said Nancy.  "He's a funny, eccentric
old man, but I'm sure that he'd be rather a dear, if he doesn't think
that we are trying to 'manage' him as he says."

Mrs. Prescott was silent, her pretty face frowning a little.  Nancy
looked at her a moment, and then putting her arms around her, rubbed
her own ruddy cheek against her mother's pink one.

"Put yourself in his place, Mother," she said gently.  "He's very
lonely--he wants to be friendly--he was thinking of Father all the
time, you know.  But he has a horror of our being affectionate with him
just for the sake of his money.  Imagine what it would be to be a
lonely old man, always troubled by the thought that the only reason
people would be nice to him was because they were hoping to profit by
it."

"He made it very clear that he has no intention of--of helping us in
that way," said Mrs. Prescott.

"And I'm glad of it.  I'm glad of it!" cried Nancy.  "I don't want to
act and think and live to conciliate a rich relative.  I think that
must be the most hateful position in the world.  I want to forget that
Uncle Thomas is very rich and very old--just as he wants us to forget
it.  I want to make my own life, and have no one to thank or to blame
for whatever I accomplish but myself."

"What an independent lassie!  You are right, dear," said Mrs. Prescott,
touching the little curls around Nancy's flushed face affectionately.
"You are right.  You are like a boy, aren't you?  I was never that way
myself--and that was the trouble.  You have such good sense, my dear.
Whatever am I going to do without you?"



CHAPTER VIII

THE FIRST NIGHT AT SCHOOL

Miss Leland's school wore that sober title with a somewhat frivolous
air.  It seemed to be saying, "Oh, call me a school if you want to--but
don't take me seriously."  It was like a pretty girl, who puts on a
pair of bone-rimmed spectacles in fun and assumes a studious
expression, while the dimples lurk in her cheeks.

It was a low, rambling, white building, with a stately colonial
portico, and broad porches at each wing.  In front, an immaculate lawn
swept to the trim hedges that bordered the road; in the back, this lawn
sloped downward to a grove of trees, which were now almost bare.  Under
them stood several picturesque stone benches, while just beyond lay a
wide, terrace-garden with a sun-dial in the centre.  Altogether, it
resembled a pleasant country place, dedicated to merriment and good
cheer.

Through the dusk of a rather bleak autumn night, its friendly lights
shone out comfortably as the two Prescotts jogged up to the door in the
station wagon.

The trip up from the Broadmore Station had not, however, been a lively
one, despite the fact that two other girls besides the Prescotts had
taken the hack with them; the first spasm of homesickness having
evidently seized them all simultaneously.  One of the girls, a little,
sallow-faced creature, sat like a mouse in her corner, and by
occasional dismal sniffles, gave notice that she was weeping and did
not want to be disturbed.  The other, a plump miss with scarlet cheeks
and perfectly round eyes, had bravely essayed a conversation.

"Are you going to Miss Leland's?"

"Yes."

"Is this your first year?"

"Yes."

"What's your names?"

The Prescotts gave her the information, and she told them in exchange
that her name was Maizie Forrest, that she was from Pittsburgh, that
she had a brother at Yale, and another at Pomfret, and that she thought
it no end of fun that they, the Prescotts, were going to Miss Leland's.
After this flow of confidence, conversation languished and expired in
the silence of dismal thoughts.

The hack drove up to the door, and deposited the four girls on the
steps.  Then they entered the hall, from which was issuing a perfect
babel of feminine squeaks and chattering.

As Nancy and Alma stood together, frankly clinging hand to hand, a
husky damsel rushed past them and precipitated herself on the neck and
shoulders of the conversational Maizie.

"Maizie, darling!"

"Jane, dearest!  When did you get here?"

"Been here hours.  My dear, we're going to room together!  Isn't that
scrumptious?"

"Perfectly divine.  Where's Alice?"

"Hasn't come yet.  Come on, let's go see M'amzelle."

The small, weepy girl stood still gazing mournfully at the rapturous
meetings about her.

Nancy looked at her sympathetically, but she felt much too blue and
strange herself to try to urge anyone else to be cheerful.

"I don't know where we go, or what we're supposed to do, do you?" she
whispered to Alma.

"No.  I hope to goodness it's near supper time.  There, I think that's
Miss Leland."

A tall, very thin, very erect lady, wearing nose-glasses attached to a
long gold chain, and with sparkling, fluffy white hair that made her
face look quite brown in contrast, was descending the stairs.  Several
of the girls rushed to her, and she kissed them peckishly.  Evidently
they were old pupils.  Nancy and Alma heard her asking them about their
dear mothers and their charming fathers, and where they had been during
the summer, and if (playfully) they were going to work very, very hard.
And the girls were saying:

"_Dear_ Miss Leland, it's so _nice_ to be back again!"

Nancy and Alma approached her a little uncertainly.  The other girls
drew back and frankly stared at them.  "New girls," they heard
whispered, and for some reason the appellation made them both feel
terribly "out of it."

"Miss Leland," began Nancy, coloring, "I--I'm Anne Prescott--I--this is
my sister Alma--I--er----"

"Why, yes.  I'm so glad you got here safely," said Miss Leland, quite
cordially, taking Nancy's hand and Alma's at the same time.  "Of course
you want to know where your room is.  You two are going to room
together to-night, anyway.  Later you will probably have different
roommates.  Now, let me see--Mildred, this is Anne Prescott, and this
is Alma.  They are new girls, so I'm going to count on you to help them
find themselves a little.  They are going to be next door to you
to-night, so will you take them up-stairs?"

A very handsome, very haughty-looking girl, with gray eyes and a Roman
nose, shook hands with them briefly.  The sisters followed her in a
subdued silence.  She was the sort of girl plainly destined to become
one of the most frigid and formidable of dowagers; it was impossible to
look at her profile, her fur coat, or to meet her cold, critical glance
without immediately picturing her with a lorgnon, crisply marcelled
gray hair, and the wintry smile with which the typical, unapproachable
matron can freeze out the slightest attempt at an unwelcome
friendliness on the part of an inconsequential person.  Her last name
was weighty with importance, since she was the daughter of Marshall
Lloyd, the well-known railroad magnate.

"I shan't like _her_," Nancy remarked to Alma, when this young lady had
indicated their room to them, and left them with a curt announcement
that they should go down-stairs in fifteen minutes.

"She is sort of snob-looking," agreed Alma, throwing her hat on her
narrow white bed.  "But there's no sense in being prejudiced against a
person right away.  Goodness, this room is chilly.  I wish we knew
somebody here.  I hate being a new girl.  Everyone else sounds as if
they are having such a good time.  I feel dreadfully out of it, don't
you?  And all the girls look at you as if they were wondering who in
the world you are."

"Well, it's only natural that we feel that way now," said Nancy, trying
to sound cheerful.  "Come on, we've got to hurry."

From the line of rooms along the corridor issued the unceasing chatter
of gay voices; there was a continual scampering back and forth, bursts
of tumultuous greetings, giggles, shrieks.  Alma, comb in hand, stood
at the doorway, listening with a wistful droop to her lips.  Two doors
down, four girls were perched up on a trunk, kicking it with their
patent-leather heels, and gabbling like magpies.  In the room opposite,
five girls, curled up on the two beds, were gossiping blithely, while a
sixth, a pretty, red-haired girl, was gaily unpacking her trunk,
flinging her lingerie with great skill across the room into the open
drawers of the bureau, which caught stockings and petticoats very much
as a dog will catch a bone in his mouth.  They were all having such a
good time--and they all seemed to have a lengthy history of gay
summer's doings to relate.  Each one jabbered away, apparently
perfectly regardless of what the others were saying.

"Oh, my dear, I _did_ have the most marvellous time----"

"Dick told me----"

"Are you going to come out next winter----"

"Margie's wedding was perfectly gorgeous--and _I_ caught the
bouquet----"

"Tom is coming down for the midwinter dance----"

"Who _is_ that frump who's rooming with Sara----"

"Dozens of new girls.  Hope some of 'em are human, anyway----"

"Come on, Alma.  Hurry!  You haven't even washed yet," said Nancy,
impatiently.  "We've got to go down-stairs----"

"Yes, and stand around gaping like ninnies," added Alma, morosely,
coming back to the mirror, and beginning to brush out her thick, yellow
hair.

"It'll be ever so much nicer when we come back here after the Christmas
holidays," said Nancy, busily polishing her nails, to hide the mist
that would creep over her eyes.  "To-morrow we can fix up this room a
bit--if we can put up some chintz curtains, and get a few books and
cushions around, it'll be as good as home, almost."

"But--but Mother won't be here, and neither will Hannah--boo-hoo!"  And
here Alma quite suddenly burst out crying, wrinkling up her pretty face
like a child of two.  With the tears dripping off her chin, she
continued to brush her hair vigorously, sobbing and sniffling
pathetically.  Nancy looked up, and, unable any longer to control her
own tears, while at the same time she was almost hysterically amused by
Alma's ridiculously droll expression of grief, began to sob and giggle
alternately.  Alma, still clutching the brush, promptly threw herself
into Nancy's arms, and there they sat, clinging together, and frankly
wailing like a pair of lost children, in full view of the corridor.

"I--I want to--g-go h-home----" sniffled Alma.

"I--I don't like that girl with th-the n-nose----" wailed Nancy.  "D-Do
f-fix your hair, Alma.  I-If you're l-late for d-dinner w-we'll be
expelled.  Here----" she tried to twist up Alma's unruly mane, hardly
realizing what she _was_ trying to do, while Alma tenderly mopped
Nancy's wet cheeks with her own little, soaking handkerchief.

"I--I say!  You two aren't _howling_, are you?" inquired a drawling,
utterly amazed voice from the doorway.  The two girls looked up, their
hostile expressions plainly asking whose business it was if they _were_
howling--but promptly their hostility vanished.

A very tall, astonishingly lank girl was standing in the doorway, feet
apart, and hands clasped behind her back, regarding them amiably
through a pair of enormous, bone-rimmed goggles.  Every now and again,
she would blink her eyes, and screw up her face comically, while she
continued to smile, showing a set of teeth as large and white as
pebbles.

"You were saying something about being expelled.  Are you expelled
already?  _Ex plus pello, pellere pulsi pulsum_--meaning to push out,
or, as we say in the vernacular, to kick out, fire, bounce.  Miss
Drinkwater likes us to note the Latin derivations of all our English
words, and I've got the habit.  You two seem to be lachrymosus, or
blue--by which I take it that you are new girls.  I sympathize with
you, although I am an ancient.  Two years ago this very night, I wept
so hard that I nearly gave my roommate pneumonia from the dampness.
How-do-you-do?"  With this unconventional preliminary, accompanied by
one of the friendliest and most disarming grins imaginable, the
newcomer marched over to the bed and shook hands vigorously.

"My name is Charlotte Lucretia Adela Spencer.  Really it is.  You must
take my word for it.  But I only use the 'Charlotte.'  The others I
keep in case of emergency.  I room next door, with Mildred Lloyd--who,
incidentally, is a perfect lady, while _I_ am not.  I was born in the
year 1903, in the city of Denver, Colorado--but of that, more anon.
It's tremendously interesting, but if _you_--is your name Alma?--if you
don't get your coiffure coifed, you'll miss out on our evening repast.
Wiggle, my dear, wiggle!"

Thus urged, Alma "wiggled" accordingly; and while she carefully washed
her tear-stained face, and put up her hair, their visitor, sprawling
across the bed, kept up a running fire of ridiculous remarks, all
uttered in her peculiar, dry, drawling voice, and punctuated with the
oddest facial contortions.  Yet, in spite of her nonsense, there was
very evidently a good deal of real sense, and the kindest feeling
behind it, and her singular face, too unusual to be called either plain
or pretty, beamed with satisfaction when she had won a genuine peal of
laughter from the two dejected Prescotts.

"We'd better go down now.  To-night of course everything is more or
less topsy-turvy.  My trunk, I think, must be still out in Kokomo,
Indiana, or some such place.  I don't even expect to see it for another
month or so.  But _I_ don't mind.  I'm a regular child of nature
anyway--it's just Amelia who's pernickety about our appearing in full
regalia every night for dinner.  Amelia is Leland, of course.  She's
tremendously keen on preserving a refining influence about the school,
and I think she looks on me as a rather demoralizing factor.  There
goes the gong."

The three went down-stairs together, Charlotte linking herself between
Nancy and Alma.

As if by magic, the din of a few moments before had been lulled.  The
fifty or sixty girls had gathered in the large reception room, where a
wood-fire was blazing up a huge stone chimney, and where Miss Leland,
wearing a dignified black evening dress, was seated in a pontifical
chair, chatting with eight or ten of her charges, with the air of a
gracious hostess.  All the voices had sunk to a lower key.

"Is everyone here?"  She looked about her, and closing the book she had
been toying with led the way into the dining-room beyond, where the ten
or twelve small tables, with their snowy covers, and softly shaded
candles gave the room more the appearance of a quiet restaurant than
the ordinary school refectory.

Charlotte Spencer sat with Nancy at a table near Miss Leland's; while
Alma found herself separated from her sister, and relegated to another
table where she was completely marooned among five strange girls.

Charlotte introduced Nancy to a sallow maiden with prominent front
teeth, named Allison Maitland, to a statuesque brunette named Katherine
Leonard----

"The school beauty," was her brief comment.  "And this is Denise Lloyd,
sister of Mildred, my roommate.  Hope we have soup."

"Are you any relation to Lawrence Prescott, who goes to Williams?"
asked the beautiful Katherine, turning to Nancy with a slightly
patronizing air.  Nancy vaguely disclaimed a kinship that might have
won her Miss Leonard's interest, and thereby quickly lost some of it.

"No, she's not, she says," said Charlotte.  "Is he a beau of yours?
'Yes,' replied the girl, a soft blush mantling her damask cheek.
'Naturally he's a beau of mine.  Who isn't?' and with this keen retort,
she again lost herself in her maiden meditations.  But I'll tell you
who she is a relation of--she's the thirty-second cousin once removed
of 'Prescott's Conquest of Peru'--aren't you, Nancy?"

"Charlotte, you're a scream," said Katherine, with an affected laugh,
and turning to Nancy, she went on, speaking in a mincing voice, and
always placing her lips as if she were continually guarding against
spoiling the symmetry of their perfect cupid's bow.  "You know, we
always expect Charlotte to say funny things."

"I'm the school buffoon, in other words," commented Charlotte,
dryly--evidently not much liking to be marked as a professional
humorist.  "I'm supposed to be '_so_ amusin', doncherknow'--and
consequently, everyone is expected to haw-haw whenever I open my mouth.
But if you listen carefully, you'll be surprised to hear that at times
I talk sense.  Now, Allison here is the school genius.  You'd never
suspect it, but she is.  I wish to goodness that new waitress would
bring me some more bread.  It isn't considered stylish around here to
have the bread on the table, but I do wish they'd consider my appetite."

"Is that perfectly sweet-looking girl over there your sister?" asked
Katherine, indicating Alma, her slightly patronizing air still more
pronounced.

"Your new rival for the golden apple, Kate," remarked Charlotte, with a
grin.  "And a blonde, too."

Katherine flushed, and tried to laugh off her annoyance at Charlotte's
impish teasing.

"I think she's perfectly lovely."

"Oh, handsome is as handsome does, so they say.  The question is has
she a beautiful soul.  Now, my soul is something wonderful--if it would
only show through a bit," murmured Charlotte.  "I'm plain, but good, as
they say of calico.  There's a rumor to the effect that Cleopatra was
very ugly; hope it's so.  There are two alternatives for an ugly
woman--either to be tremendously good and noble, or to be very, very
wicked--I can't make up my mind which career to choose.  It's an awful
problem."

"I'm going to take muthick lethons thith year, Tharlotte--with Mithter
Conthtantini," lisped Denise Lloyd.  "Don't you think he'th jutht
wonderful?"  Denise did not resemble her sister in the least.  She was
a plump, roly-poly girl of sixteen, still at the giggly, gushing stage
of her life--but much more likable than the haughty Mildred.

She turned to Nancy, with the polite desire of including the new girl
in the conversation, and went on with a blush, "Mithter Conthtantini is
jutht _wonderful_.  Are you going to take muthick lethons?  You'd jutht
_love_ him!  And bethides, if you take muthick, you can drop thience."

"I don't think I could get very far with the piano in one year," said
Nancy with a smile.

"Oh, he doethn't teach piano.  He teacheth violin."

"And of course, the violin is so much simpler," remarked Charlotte.
"Mr. Constantini has a rolling black eye, and an artistic
temperament--inclined to have fits, _I_ think----"

"Fitth, Tharlotte!" cried Denise, in bitter reproach.  "Why, he'th
jutht _lovely_!  He doethn't have fitth at _all_!"

"Well, it sounds as if _somebody_ were having fits, to hear all the
awful squeaks and groans that come out of the music room, while one of
our rising Paganinis is having her lesson.  I always imagined that it
was poor Mr. Constantini," replied Charlotte, mildly.  "Anyway, the
point is, that Constantini is a beautiful creature, and consequently a
year of violin is considered infinitely more improving than a year of
science.  Personally, I think that the study of the violin ought to be
forbidden under penalty of the law, except in cases of the most acute
genius.  I think that the playing of one wrong note on the violin ought
to be punishable by a heavy fine, and playing two, by imprisonment for
life, or longer.  There are times when I feel that hanging is far too
good for Dolly Parker.  She ought to be boiled in oil, until tender----"

Nancy laughed.

"So you take the year of science?  That's where I belong, too, I
suppose."

"Tharlotte plays the piano jutht beautifully," said Denise.  "She
compotheth----"

"My brother calls it decomposition," said Charlotte, reddening, as she
always did when any of her talents were lauded, and trying to turn it
off with a joke.

Miss Leland rose, and the room became silent, since she appeared to be
about to make an announcement.

"To-night, girls, there is, of course, no study-hour, and special
privileges are extended to you all," she said, in her clear,
well-trained voice.  "You have an hour for recreation after dinner, and
I hope that all the old girls will make a point of helping our new
girls to forget that they are not at home.  Prayers will be at nine, as
usual, and you will not be required to be in your rooms before
nine-forty-five.  No doubt you all have a great deal to talk about, so
I am going to be lenient with you to-night.  To-morrow, the regular
school regime will be resumed."

"Hooray!  Nancy, you and Alma are herewith cordially invited to my room
to a negligee party at nine-twenty sharp.  I had the good sense to
bring a few delicacies with me, leaving my trunk to the tender mercies
of the express company."  Charlotte rose, and taking Nancy's arm, filed
out of the dining-room with the other girls, behind Miss Leland.  But
in the living-room, a small band of girls fell upon Charlotte.

"Come along, old dear.  Some dance-music now.  Come on."  And they bore
her off to the piano, deposited her almost bodily upon the bench, and
opened the keyboard.  Three others rolled back the rugs from the
polished floor, and in a moment a dozen couples were spinning around as
gaily as if they were at a ball.

Nancy, a prey to her usual shyness in the midst of strangers, clung
close to the piano, where Charlotte, without pausing in her
astonishingly clever playing, reached up, and drew her down on the
piano bench, from where she could watch Alma.

Alma's prettiness and natural gaiety was having its usual success.  The
younger girls crowded around her, the older girls petted her.  Even the
frigid Mildred made her dance with her.  Her cheeks were flushed, her
eyes bright again.  By some indescribable charm she had walked into
instant popularity.

Without a shadow of envy, Nancy watched her, proudly.  Alma was easily
the prettiest girl in the school--everyone must like her, everything
must go smoothly and gaily for her.  There were people like that in the
world--people who didn't have to be wise or prudent--some kindly
providence seemed always to protect them from the consequences of their
lack of common sense, just as kindly nature protects the butterflies.

The dancers stopped one by one.  Some gathered in groups about, the
fire, others clustered in the window-seats--one or two practical souls
had gone to their rooms to put away some of their things.

Charlotte's nimble fingers began to wander idly among the keys.  Nancy
watched her curiously, listening in some surprise to the change in the
music.  She felt an instinctive fondness for this big, whimsical,
friendly girl, and knew very well that underneath her nonsense lay a
streak of some fine quality that would make an unshakeable foundation
for a genuine friendship.  She would have liked to talk to Charlotte by
herself; but Charlotte was already talking in her own way.  She seemed
to have quite forgotten Nancy and everyone else in the room, and with
her head bent over the keys, she was playing for herself.  Little by
little, the other girls stopped talking.  She did not notice that at
all.  Nancy listened to her playing in astonishment.  It was far beyond
anything like ordinary schoolgirl facility.  It was full of genuine
talent and poetry, now smooth and lyrical, and again as capricious and
impish as some of her own moods.

She raised her head, and looked at Nancy with an absent-minded smile.

"Like music?"  Nancy nodded.

"I believe you really do.  You aren't just saying so, are you?  Well, I
like you--ever so much.  Listen, don't get the idea that everything I
say is meant to be funny--sometimes--I'm very serious--you wouldn't
believe it, would you?"



CHAPTER IX

A QUARREL

You had your choice, at Miss Leland's, between studying, and doing what
the large majority of the girls did; namely, making friends, reading
novels during your study periods, and leaving it to Providence to
decide whether you passed your examinations or not.  The teachers were
lenient souls, with the exception of Miss Drinkwater, the Latin
teacher, who was unreasonably irritable when her pupils came to class
armed with the seraphic smiles of ignorance, and a number of convincing
excuses, which invariably failed to convince Miss Drinkwater.  In
consequence, very few of the girls pursued their studies in that
classic tongue longer than the first month.  "What point was there in
doing so?" they argued coolly; none of them had any aspirations toward
college, and nearly all of them harbored a dread of learning anything
that might show on the surface, and thereby discourage the attentions
of the college youths which were of infinitely more importance in their
eyes, as indeed, in the eyes of their fond mothers, likewise, than the
attainment of the scholarly graces.

Miss Leland's was one of those schools instituted primarily to meet the
necessity of our young plutocrats for mingling with their own peculiar
kind--"forming advantageous connections," it is called--the question of
education was secondary if not quite negligible.  The daughters of
steel magnates came from Pittsburgh to meet the daughters of railroad
magnates from New York, and incidentally to meet one another's
brothers, at the small social functions which Miss Leland gave
ostensibly for the purpose of developing in her charges an easy poise
and the most correct drawing-room manners.

The girls, for the most part, regarded lessons as a wholly unnecessary
adjunct to their school duties, and treated them as such.  And this was
all very well indeed, so far as they were concerned.  From school they
would plunge into the whirl of their débutante season, and from that
into marriage--it was all clearly mapped out for them, and the shadow
of any serious doubt as to the course of their careers never fell
across their serenely trustful indolence.

There is something peculiarly vitiating in such an atmosphere.
Pleasure was regarded not merely as an embroidery on the sober fustian
of life, but as the very warp and woof of it; where the most sober
consideration was that of winning popularity and the opportunity of
social advantages, where the clothes to be bought and the parties to be
given during the holidays were already the subject of endless absorbing
discussions.

The effect of all this on each of the Prescotts was diametrically
opposed.  Alma had adapted herself to it as easily as to a new cloak.
Not having any stubborn notions of her own, she was as malleable to
such an environment as a piece of modelling clay in warm water.
Pretty, good-humored, easily led, she swam into a rather meaningless
popularity inside of four days.  This Nancy was glad of, but her
satisfaction was not unmixed.  She saw Alma gradually undergoing a
change that threatened to damage her own steadying influence over her
sister, and to divide their sympathies.  Alma was only too ready, and
too well suited temperamentally, to lose sight of the difference
between her own circumstances, and those of the girls with whom she was
now associated.  Indeed the very fact that she could do so, while Nancy
could not, lay at the root of the problem that had begun to worry
Nancy.  Aside from minor changes in Alma, such as, for instance, a new
little affectedness of manner, unconsciously borrowed from Mildred
Lloyd, and her use of Mildred's particular slang phrases, Nancy had
noticed in her sister at times a tinge of impatience, and a little air
of superiority, with which Alma unwillingly listened to her when she
tried to talk to her seriously.  Nancy began to feel, unhappily, that
Alma was coming to resent her efforts to guide her and advise her in
regard to various small matters, and worst of all, that Alma was
privately beginning to look upon her as rather unnecessarily serious,
and even old-maidish.

It was impossible for Nancy to lose the feeling that she had that her
mother had made a mistake in sending them to Miss Leland's, which gave
them little or nothing that they could use, and was very likely to
affect even her own steady vision of their circumstances and
opportunities.  She was continually trying to counteract the
consequences of this mistake; but Alma was less than willing to take
her point of view.

Nancy still clung to her plan of getting herself ready for college;
never for a moment could she lose sight of the fact that in all
probability she would have to make her own living, which Alma, like her
mother, was very ready to forget, counting always as they did on happy
chance, to smooth out the future for them into a sunny vista.  It was
not that Nancy was a pessimist.  She simply believed that good luck was
something more or less of one's own making.  She was full of eagerness
and enthusiasm for life, as ardent as an ambitious boy, and restive to
make a trial of her own capabilities.  She knew that there was a
possibility of her uncle's providing for them, after all, in spite of
his own very clear hints to the contrary; but on the other hand, there
remained the fact that he was an eccentric old fellow, more than
equally likely to bequeath his entire fortune to some freakish project,
or obscure charity organization.

It was not a very easy task to study seriously at Miss Leland's.  An
earnest student was immediately dubbed, vividly enough, if inelegantly,
a "greasy grind"--and was left more or less to her own devices; but if
Nancy was not as popular as Alma, she was regarded with a good deal of
respect and genuine admiration by the other girls, and in Charlotte
Spencer she had found a really devoted friend.

Underneath her apparent rattle-patedness, Charlotte concealed from the
view of those for whom she had no especial regard a stratum of rather
unusual common sense, mingled with an idealism and a youthful ardor
which few would have suspected in her nature.  Opinions concerning her
varied widely.  Mildred Lloyd considered her crude, for example; most
of the girls thought her simply amusing and odd, and hardly knew how to
account for some of her queer, serious moods.  In one way or another,
without apparently studying at all, she managed always to take the
highest marks in the school.

She was the only daughter of a very rich Western mine-owner, a widower,
who found the problem of managing this child of his more difficult than
any commercial nut he had ever had to crack.  He had only the vaguest
notions as to what was necessary for a girl's career, and imagined that
by sending his daughter to a fashionable Eastern school, he was getting
at the heart of the solution.  Charlotte wanted to study music, "not
like a boarding-school miss," she told Nancy.  "I want to make it the
real thing.  I tell you I don't know anything about it--but I'm going
to, yet."  Old Mr. Spencer, while he had no objections to one of the
arts as a ladylike accomplishment, felt that it was not exactly
respectable for a girl to go into it seriously, just why, he would have
been at a loss to say.  "You know," Charlotte had explained, with her
humorous smile, "there is a notion that it's all right for a 'lady' to
dabble in anything, painting, music, or embroidery and so on, so long
as she doesn't attempt to make a profession of it, or think of making
money by it.  Of course this idea is changing now a bit, but people
like Mildred Lloyd, for instance, and all her kind, still think it's
not perfectly '_nice_' as she puts it."  It was not in the least that
Mr. Spencer had even a grain of snobbishness in his rough, vigorous
makeup, so far as either himself or his three sons were concerned; his
very love for his "Charlie," as he called her, made him stubborn in his
ideas concerning what was best for her.  He wanted her to have
everything that he could give her, and he gave her what he imagined her
mother would have wanted him to give.  It was because Charlotte
understood that his stubbornness grew out of his adoration of her, that
she good-naturedly gave in to his wishes.

"In good time, I'll do what I want, of course," she said with serene
self-confidence.  "But the least I can do for darling old Dad is to
make him believe that all the time I'm doing what _he_ wants.  He _is_
such a lamb, you know."

The warm friendship that grew up between the two girls had a strong
bond in the similarity of their position at Miss Leland's, and in the
circumstances of their being there, as well as in their mutual sympathy
with each other's ideas.

It was a Saturday afternoon, late in October, when the days were
rapidly shortening into wintry dusks, and there was even the hint of an
early snow in the slate-colored skies, against which the bare, stiff
branches of the trees shivered in a nipping wind.  Nancy, all ruddy,
and breezy from a brisk walk with Charlotte, had come up to her room to
finish an English paper.  Across the hall a group of girls had gathered
around Katherine Leonard's chafing dish, from which the tantalizing
smell of thick, hot fudge was beginning to pervade the corridors, and
distract the thoughts of the more studious from their unsocial but
conscientious labors.

"Come on in, Nance," called Alma, waving a sticky spoon invitingly.
"Surely you aren't going to work now, are you?"

Nancy hesitated, her hand on the door-knob.  They all looked so jolly,
the room so cosy, and the warm, chocolaty smell of the fudge was almost
irresistible.  Nancy's nose twitched at the delicious odor, and she
smiled uncertainly.

"I've got to finish my English," she began.

"Oh, bother your English," cried Dolly Parker, "None of us have even
looked at ours yet.  Don't be a 'grind'--come on."

"You're such a shark at it, Miss Garnett wouldn't bother you if you
loafed for a month," added Maizie Forrest.  This was quite true--and
that was the trouble.  It was just because Miss Garnett was so lenient
that Nancy felt the responsibility of keeping up in her work resting
heavily on herself.  Nearly all the girls loafed shamelessly, and Nancy
had to guard against the temptation to imitate them.  She knew that she
would have to pass a stiff examination in English to enter college, and
that it mattered nothing to Miss Garnett whether she passed or not.

"Well, the point is that I've got so little to do on it that I might as
well finish it up and feel free," she said, finally.  "I'll come in a
little while, so don't, for goodness' sake, eat all the fudge."

"Oh, Nancy, you make me tired," pouted Alma.  "If you're going to be
such an old poke, you don't deserve any fudge."

Nancy only laughed in reply, and calmly went in to her room, and shut
the door.  She flung her sweater on her bed, sent her scarlet
tam-o'-shanter after it, and then stood for a moment, her hands in the
pockets of her skirt, looking about her.  The Prescotts' room was
certainly not the cosiest and most inviting in the school, and she had
listened long to Alma's petitions for an easy chair, and a new lamp to
take the place of the green-shaded student's lamp which by its hard,
sharp light intensified the severe bareness of the little place.
Besides the two beds, there were the two desks, two stiff desk-chairs,
and the two small bureaus.  Nothing had been added to soften the chilly
aspect except a pair of cheap, chintz curtains at the window, and a few
small cushions on the window-seat.  They had no pictures or
photographs, no rugs, no tea service--none of the hundred and one
little knickknacks with which the other girls managed to turn their
bedrooms into luxurious little dens.  Consequently, they were never
besieged by bands of hilarious callers, and Alma herself was never in
her room any more than she could help.  At night she preferred a
dressing-gown chat in Mildred's room, or in Kay Leonard's; even when
she studied, which occupied, indeed, little enough of her time, she
sought a more congenial atmosphere, and Nancy, except for Charlotte's
company, was a good deal by herself.  But there was nothing to be done
about it.  She could not go to the expense of a new rug and an easy
chair and a new lamp, and that was all there was to it.  Alma felt
ashamed of the mute confession of a narrow purse, expressed by the
chill simplicity of the room; losing her memory of their straitened
means amid the easy affluence of the other girls, she became more and
more sulky against Nancy for her rigid economy.  She contended that she
saw no reason for it--that Nancy was carrying it to unnecessary
extremes.

With a shrug of her shoulders, Nancy began to rummage in her desk for
her half-finished English paper, and then sat down to it, grimly
determined to concentrate on it, and to drive away all distracting
thoughts.  She forgot about the fudge-party, and an hour went by before
she looked up with a sigh, and carefully glancing over her finished
pages folded them neatly inside her copy of "Burke's Speeches."  All
her work was finished, and she could look forward to Sunday with a
comfortable anticipation of unhampered freedom.  It was still half an
hour before the dressing bell would ring, so she put on her kimono and,
her sociable mood having passed, tucked herself up on the window-seat
with a book.

In a little while the door opened, and Alma came in to change her
frock.  Nancy glanced up, and saw in an instant that Alma was annoyed.
She felt troubled.  It seemed as if every day they were growing farther
apart.  They no longer had those happy chats together which had bound
them close by affection and sympathy.  Alma no longer sought her as her
confidant, and seemed to resent her advice rather than to seek it.
Instead, the younger girl had, as it were, transferred her affection
and her admiration to the headstrong and annoyingly self-assured
Mildred Lloyd.  Mildred had deigned to pronounce Alma pretty, and
"interesting," and had "taken her up" as the phrase is, thereby
completely turning poor Alma's head so that she was gradually merging
even her personality into a pale imitation of Mildred's blasé
expressions and mannerisms.  Alma was not left ignorant of the fact
that Mildred's friendship, like her fancy, was extremely variable, and
that she was quite likely to turn a cold shoulder to her new chum,
without deigning to provide any reason for doing so.  But Alma
preferred to believe that in her case Mildred's interest would not
wane, just as she preferred to forget her early prejudice of their
first meeting with Mildred.

An uncomfortable little silence reigned, which Nancy pretended to be
unaware of, by giving a great deal of attention to her book, although
the light from the window was so faint that no human eye could have
spelt out the words on the page.  But when, at length, she was forced
by the lateness of the hour to begin dressing, it was impossible to
preserve the wretched silence any longer, or to speak as if nothing
were the matter.

"You--you seem worried, Alma," she began hesitatingly.  "Is there
something on your mind?"

"I'm not worried a bit," returned Alma coldly.

"Well--are you angry about something?"

There was a silence.  Alma flung her hair over her shoulder and began
to brush the ends vigorously, while Nancy watched the operation with an
intentness that showed her mind to be on other things.  Presently Alma
said in a grave voice:

"I know that it's none of my business, of course, but I _do_ think,
Nancy, that you are making a mistake."

"A mistake," repeated Nancy, in amazement.  "How?  How do you mean?"

"Well, it seems to me that as far as you are concerned, it has been
simply money wasted to send you here."

"Why, what on earth are you talking about, Alma?" exclaimed Nancy, her
temper beginning to rise in spite of her amusement at the fluffy Alma's
gravely judicial air.  Inasmuch as she studied harder and more
seriously than any girl in the school, and rivalled Charlotte in
brilliant marks, it was interesting as well as irritating to learn that
Alma considered her unsuccessful.

"Well, you know as well as I do that Mother's purpose in sending us
here was for us to make friends.  There isn't a girl in the school that
you show the least interest in, except Charlotte, and
Charlotte--well----"  Alma shrugged her shoulders, expressing thereby
what she hesitated to put into words.  Instantly Nancy flared up.
Usually the most even tempered and controlled of girls, she could not
keep down her anger when it was roused by Alma's periodic fits of
snobbishness.

"What about Charlotte?  Why do you shrug your shoulders like that?
Because Charlotte isn't considered perfectly 'nice' by Mildred?
Because Mildred thinks Charlotte 'rather ordinary--a bit crude,
don'tcherknow?'  She's the _realest_ girl in the school, and everyone
of them knows it, too!  She's the only one whose mind isn't forever
running on beaux and dances and other girls' faults.  She's the only
one of them who has brains and a heart--she's the only real aristocrat
of the whole lot!  She's the only one of them whose friendship I'd give
tuppence-ha'penny for----"

Alma quailed a little under Nancy's indignation--she was indeed a bit
ashamed of her snobbish remark; but she did not lower her flag.

"That's no reason why you should let all the other girls know it.  We
need all the friends we can get, and we can't _afford_ to lose this
opportunity of making advantageous connections."

This last bit was rather an unfortunate choice of words, smacking as it
did just a bit too strongly of Mildred to soothe Nancy's irate ear at
just that moment.

"_I_ didn't come here to make friends simply for what they could give
me--regardless of whether I liked them or not.  And I think it's the
most _contemptible_ thing in the world to toady to girls simply because
they are rich or fashionable, and may invite you to parties and things
that you can never repay.  And it's just that snobbish
selfishness--that complete loss of self-respect for the sake of
self-interest that makes so many poor people contemptible.  I'd rather
die before I'd play the role of little sister to the rich."  Her voice
began to quiver, and she had a wretched feeling that she was very near
tears--tears not of anger so much as of genuine unhappiness.  She felt
as if every word she uttered was doing more damage, and her heart ached
because she was quarrelling with Alma, and because Alma was changing
more every day.  She longed to throw her arms around her sister, and
kiss away the memory of every word she had uttered, but stubborn pride,
as much a fault with Nancy as a virtue, held her back.

"Do you mean that I'm toadying?" asked Alma, her eyes growing wide.  "I
know now what you think of me--and I know that you're simply jealous of
my fondness for Mildred," she went on passionately.  "I don't know what
has come over you anyway, Nancy--you don't approve of a single thing I
do----"

"Oh, Alma--darling!  How _can_ you say such things?"  The tears began
to roll down Nancy's cheeks.  "Whatever put such thoughts into your
head, when you _know_ how much I love you.  It's not me, but you who
have changed.  Can't you see that I can't let my work go just to play
around with a lot of girls who don't care a rap for me, myself?  Life
isn't a song and a dance for _us_, Alma--and we can't waste our time
just for a little popularity with girls who'd forget us to-morrow.
Mildred----"

"Oh, go ahead, and say a lot of mean things about Mildred," interrupted
Alma bitterly.  "You never liked her.  You took a prejudice to her at
first sight.  You never even tried to know her.  I never heard of
anything so unjust in my life!  You don't think that anyone is capable
of a real friendship but you and Charlotte.  Mildred is every bit as
good a friend.  Just because she's rich you think that she must be
selfish--you're the most narrow-minded girl I ever knew.  It's the same
way with all my friends--you think Frank Barrows is just an idler--a
conceited little----"

"What on earth did I ever say against Frank Barrows?" Nancy defended
herself weakly.

"Oh, you never _say_ anything.  You just look--and I know perfectly
well what you think.  It seems as if we can never agree about anything,
any more.  Now, this afternoon you might have been just a little bit
sociable--instead of that you shut yourself up, as if you thought all
those girls were simply a lot of sillies; but you were able to spend an
hour and a half with Charlotte."

"I had to finish my English paper, and that's all there was to it,"
retorted Nancy.  "In any other school under the sun work has to come
before play.  Neither one of us can afford to take advantage of the
leniency of the teachers here--if I did only what they required I
wouldn't get to college in ten years.  And I've got to get to college,
no matter what _Mildred_ thinks of me.  I'm sorry she doesn't approve
of my behavior, but it can't be helped."  In her hurt anger, she had
lost her head a little bit, or she would not have thrown that last
stone at Alma's chosen friend.  For the time being at least, it was
impossible to repair the breach that the two wounded, indignant girls
had made between each other.

Too sick at heart for tears, too despairingly conscious of the
uselessness of any attempt at reconciliation, Nancy began to dress in a
miserable silence.

During dinner Nancy made a pretense at eating, but she could not join
in the chatter with the other girls.  Once or twice Charlotte glanced
at her, but with her instinctive gentle tact appeared not to notice
Nancy's blues.

At her table, Alma was feverishly gay; as a matter of fact she was on
the point of tears.  Never before had they had such a quarrel, never
before had she seen Nancy so heedlessly angry, never before had they
deliberately tried to say things to hurt each other.  Waves of
desperate homesickness assailed her, and with the memory of happy
nights when they had gossiped together in their room at the little
brown house, a lump ached in her throat.  She wanted Nancy more than
anyone else in the world.  What was it they had said to each other that
had caused such a dreadful coldness between them?  She tried to tell
herself that Nancy had misjudged her, that Nancy was wrong, and that
she was right in maintaining her ground; but listening to the banter
that went on around her, struggling to keep up her own end of it
bravely, she felt that not one girl in the room, nor any pleasure in
the world was of the slightest value to her so long as she did not have
Nancy as her confidant and dearest friend.

With these thoughts battering at the foolish pride in their hearts it
would have taken only a whispered word to send the sisters into one
another's embrace, but the reconciliation for which they were both
longing so piteously was postponed by an incident which threatened to
make their quarrel even more serious.  It was simply the outcome of an
unfortunate chance.  For some time both the girls had known that Miss
Leland had planned to give them different roommates, since she thought
it a good idea for sisters to be separated so that they could make
closer friendships with other girls.

After dinner she spoke of this again, not to Nancy but to Alma, leaving
it to the younger girl to announce the change to Nancy.  She had, of
course, no knowledge of their quarrel, nor could she have possibly
gauged the unfortunate timing of the change.

Nancy went up to her room directly after dinner, not waiting for the
usual hour of music and dancing, and giving as her excuse the pretense
that she had some mending to do.

She did, indeed, get out her work-basket as a sort of defense against
unwelcome intrusion, but with a stocking drawn over her hand, she sat
with her back to the door, and gave herself up to the sad consolation
of tears.  In a little while the door opened.  Someone came in.  Nancy
bent over her stocking, and began to run a threadless needle through a
"Jacob's-ladder"; from the corner of her eye she saw Alma busily
engaged in taking some of her things out of the bureau-drawers.  Alma
was as painstaking in keeping her own face concealed as Nancy, though
she tried to hum a tune under her breath.  The silence became
intolerable, but diffidence weighted their tongues.  Each one of them
longed to throw her pride to the winds and sue for a reconciliation;
but the fear of having her overtures met with coldness held her back.
At length Alma said in a voice which she vainly tried to make natural
and casual:

"Miss Leland has changed us.  Charlotte Spencer is going to be your
roommate from now on--and--and I'm going in with--with Mildred."

"That's--a--a good idea," replied Nancy; sarcasm was a thousand miles
from her mind, and she spoke really only for the sake of sounding as if
all differences had been forgotten; but a more ill-chosen sentence
could not have fallen from her lips.

"I suppose--you--you're glad to be rid of me," said Alma, her lips
quivering.  "Anyway, you'll have Charlotte, and she's ever so much more
congenial with you than I am."

Nancy did not answer.  If Alma had not made that last reference to
Charlotte she would have had Nancy back in a moment, but there is a
little devil who takes a delight in twisting people's tongues when they
most need to be inspired with the right thing to say.

With her night-gown and dressing-gown over her arm, and her sponge-bag
in her hand, Alma walked in silence to the door.  There she paused, and
like Lot's wife flung back at Nancy one piteous parting look, which,
alas, met only the back of Nancy's down-bent head.  The door closed.

Nancy sprang up, and crossed the room, running, while the spools from
her overturned basket rolled off placidly under the bed.  Then she
paused; pride conquered the tenderness in her heart at that moment,
bringing in its trail a sequence of unhappy days.

"No---it won't do to admit I'm wrong.  I'm not, and I'll just let her
find it out."

And having voiced this stern resolution, she flung herself down on the
bed and, burying her face in the pillows, cried herself into a doze;
while, separated from her by a thin partition of lath and plaster, Alma
made up her new bed, and bedewed it with her doleful tears.



CHAPTER X

THE OGRE REAPPEARS

"Hope you haven't forgotten that you've bound yourself in an engagement
with me for the theatre to-morrow, Nannie, old dear," called Charlotte
from her customary location during leisure hours--namely the piano
bench.  "I've reserved seats for 'The Countess Betsey'--nice, light,
loads of good Viennese tunes--nothing lofty about it.  Miss Drinkwater
had a cute little plan for us--wanted us to go to hear--or see--I don't
know just what the right word is--some production of Euripides in the
original.  I said 'No'--very politely.  Too politely perhaps--I had to
repeat it three separate and distinct times.  I explained to her that
while I just adored Euripides, and loved nothing better than Greek as
she is spoke, my constitution craved something a bit gayer than
'Medea'--in the original.  I hinted modestly that I'd been overworking
a bit lately--and that my mighty brain needed something that it didn't
have to chew eighty-five times before swallowing.  Aren't you going to
thank me?"

"Oh, I do--thanks _horribly_," laughed Nancy.  "Can't you see us
sitting through a merry little Greek play, trying to weep in the right
places, and not to laugh when everyone but the villainess had been
stabbed or poisoned or fed to the lions?"

"Gee--but couldn't we be lofty when we got back?" said Charlotte.  "I'd
say, 'How sublime were those lines in Act II, Scene 4, where, in a
voice thrilling with sublime hate, the frenzied woman shrieks "Logos
Nike anthropos Socrates!"'  And you would glow with fervor, and say
'_Zoue mou sas agapo_.'  I tell you what, when it comes to dead
languages----"

"It's too late, I hope, for you to get enthusiastic about the idea
now," interrupted Nancy, firmly.  "It wouldn't be a bit unlike you to
get so carried away with it, that you'd suddenly change your mind about
not going--and I'll tell you right now, that if you do I am
emphatically _not_ with you.  I don't like to improve my mind when I'm
on a holiday--and Saturdays come only once a week."

"You should thirst for every opportunity to improve your
understanding," reproved Charlotte, who could chatter away like a
magpie, while her nimble fingers never lost a note, or stumbled in the
rhythm of the lively dance tune she was playing.

"Don't forget _our_ little party, Alma," said Mildred Lloyd.
"Mademoiselle is going to chaperone us--I asked her yesterday.  We're
going in on the eleven-fifty-four, and the boys are going to meet us at
Delmonico's at one."

Charlotte cast a sidelong glance at Nancy; she understood that Alma
possessed all this information already, and that Mildred was making the
announcement simply to excite the other girls' curiosity.

Since their quarrel Alma and Nancy, chiefly for the sake of outward
appearances, had called an armistice.  But while Nancy had not confided
the first hint of the quarrel to Charlotte, poor Alma, who could never
smother anything in her own heart, had unbosomed herself completely to
Mildred.  Needless to say, Mildred, who had disliked Nancy from the
beginning, was not warmed toward her by any of the details in Alma's
narrative that concerned herself.  She knew that Alma had not told
Nancy about their arrangements to go to the theatre, meeting two boys
in town, of whom Frank Barrows was to be Alma's cavalier; and
consequently, she surmised, quite correctly, that Nancy would be hurt
when she spoke about the plan.

Alma shot a quick, uncertain look at her sister, and blushed; but Nancy
only smiled, and asked, casually:

"What are you going to see?"

Alma's expression changed to one of relief.

"'Oh, Trixie!'  Aren't we, Mildred?"

"Uh-huh.  Everyone says it's a scream, and the music is perfect.  I
wanted to go to a regular play, but then I thought the boys would like
a musical comedy better.  By the way, Alma, I think I'll ask Miss
Leland to let us go in on the ten-fourteen--I want to do some shopping.
It'll get us in at eleven, and we'll have two hours.  I promised Madame
Lepage that I'd come in to talk over a dress I want for the
holidays--and then I've simply got to get a new hat."

The following morning, after the first study period, which closed the
labors of the day at nine-thirty, Nancy heard a timid knock at the
door.  It was Alma, gloved and bonneted in her "Sunday-best," but with
an agitated expression that was ill-suited to her festive appearance.
It was the first time that she had seen Nancy alone since the night of
their quarrel.

"Oh, Charlotte's not here, is she?" she said, evidently much relieved.

"No, she walked up to the village to post a letter.  We aren't going in
until the eleven-fifty-four.  Did you want to see her?"

"No, oh, no.  You see, I--I----" Alma stammered, turning scarlet, and
fidgeting nervously with the button on her glove.  "You see, I wondered
if you could lend me--lend me just a little bit of money.  I--I'll pay
it right back.  You see, I don't want Mildred--I mean this is a sort of
Dutch treat----"

"Why, of course," laughed Nancy, touched and a little bit hurt by
Alma's embarrassment.  Heretofore they had borrowed and lent to each
other without the thought of explaining why they needed the money, and
her sister's constraint marked with painful clearness her sense of the
coldness between them.  "How much do you want?"

"Could you lend me--ten dollars?  Or seven would do.  I won't use it
all, of course, but--but it's better to have it."

Ten dollars was a good bit more than either of the girls had spent on
any pleasure before the Porterbridges' dance; but Nancy said nothing,
and going to her top bureau drawer, took out her pocketbook and gave
Alma the bill without a second glance into the purse.

"Oh, _thank_ you--oh, Nancy!"  Alma looked into her sister's face, and
the tears came suddenly to her eyes.

"Goodness, you don't have to thank me like that," said Nancy, flushing.
"You know that it's no more my money than yours, dear----"

"You're--you're so good to me, Nancy---oh--I didn't mean----" and all
at once Alma, who could restrain her sweet impulses no more easily than
her weak ones, flung her arms around Nancy, and burst out crying.  "Oh,
darling Nancy, don't be angry with me any more.  I can't bear it!"

"Alma, dearest---I'm _not_ angry--oh, I'm so glad--so glad!" cried
Nancy, in tears, too; they clung together fiercely, every hard word
forgotten in the joy of "making up."

"There, darling, you'll miss your train.  There now, it's all just as
it was.  Oh, see, your hat's all over your eye"--they began to laugh
tremulously.  "You'd better put a little cold water on your face,
sweetheart--and dust a little powder over it."

They hugged each other again, and, as Alma ran down the hall, Nancy
stood at the door watching her, with brighter eyes than she had had for
a week.  But when Alma had disappeared below the landing of the stairs,
she walked back into the room with a sober expression.

A quarter of an hour later she went again to the top bureau drawer to
get out her gloves, and then thinking for the first time of the amount
of money she had left herself, realized that she could have barely
sufficient, if that, to defray her expenses of her own day in town.
Each of the girls had taken fifteen dollars to last them as pocket
money up until Thanksgiving--a little she had already spent on
shoe-laces, ribbons and so on, and she had given Alma ten.  A glance
into her purse showed her to her dismay that she had left herself
exactly fifty-four cents.  She knew, of course, that she could easily
borrow from Charlotte, but this she was absolutely unwilling to do,
first because she did not want to have to write to her mother for more
money, and secondly because she did not want to do anything that she
would not have Alma do.  To borrow from Charlotte was one thing, but to
have Alma follow her precedent was unwise; for in the first place, Alma
would borrow from Mildred Lloyd or Kay Leonard, and in the second
place, Alma might not know just where to set her limits.  Nancy dropped
the purse, and shut the drawer quietly.  After all, she told herself,
she had not deprived herself of so much pleasure that she should pity
herself.  It was a beautiful day, clear and sparkling, and she would
enjoy herself just as much on a walk across country as at the "Countess
Betsey."  Nancy had the happy faculty of banishing any regrets for a
pleasure which she could not reasonably take, and finding a substitute
for it with perfect cheerfulness.  The prospect of a free day, which
she could spend as she liked, was as full of attraction for her as her
original plan for the matinée had been, and when Charlotte strolled in
upon her, she was whistling softly as she pulled on her scarlet
tam-o'-shanter.

"Listen, Charlotte--don't kill me--but I'm afraid I've got to stay here
after all.  Do you mind awfully?"  Naturally she could not give the
reasons for her default on the theatre party; and because she had
forgotten to think up a plausible excuse she flushed slightly.

"Oh, come now!" howled Charlotte in dismay.  "You can't do anything
like that.  There's not an earthly reason why you should stay here, and
you know it."  Then quickly her singularly delicate tact warned her not
to press Nancy.  The very fact that her friend had not given a reason
for breaking their engagement was enough for Charlotte to know that she
should not ask for one.  The two girls understood each other so well
that they knew instinctively when to respect one another's silences.

"Well, if you can't, you can't, I suppose," she said quietly.  "I'm
awfully sorry; but we can go in next Saturday.  If you have anything to
do, however, there's no point in my staying around out here.  I'll go
on in anyway.  Do you want me to get anything for you?"

"Not a thing," replied Nancy, feeling an intense gratitude toward
Charlotte for not disputing her decision with her.  "I'm glad you are
going."

"Well, sit down and talk to me while I'm dressing.  Alma's gone, hasn't
she?"

"Yes.  Oh, wear your brown hat, Charlotte--the one with the little
feather on it."

"My dear, what does it matter--Drinkwater won't appreciate it."

"Doesn't matter.  You'll be a thing of beauty whether she knows it or
not, and that's reason enough for wearing it."

"Want me to bring out a pound of those scrumptious soft chocolates from
Mailliards?  Then we can have a regular festival on 'em to-night, if
you're a good girl while I'm gone."

When Charlotte had taken her departure, Nancy, who had walked over to
the station with her, struck out through the village for a good walk
before luncheon.  The country beyond Broadmore was picturesque, and
Nancy loved nothing better than to swing along without plan or purpose,
cutting across a field here, or turning into a bit of glowing woodland
there, as her fancy prompted.  In her short full skirt, her small feet
laced into sturdy low-heeled boots, she could negotiate fences and
brooks with the freedom of a boy, revelling in a feeling of
adventurousness and liberty.  The sun had melted the frost of the early
morning, the ground was soft, and the air mild though bracing.  In the
wide puddles which had gathered in the depressions of the country
roads, a sky mottled with huge, lazy clouds was reflected.  A cock
crowed on some distant haystack.  Now and then a mischievous wind rose,
bending the long brown grass as it swept along, and making Nancy catch
her breath in a sort of jubilant excitement, as it blew into her face,
and spun out wisps of her hair behind her.

She had turned after about two miles of walking, and was approaching
the pike on the school side of the railroad station, when she heard
behind her the patient creaking of the old hack, and the familiar
clucking of the driver to his lean and melancholy steed.  As it came
beside her, she glanced up curiously; then her eyes grew round, and she
stared in incredulous amazement.  For, bolt upright on the decrepit
back seat, his head erect under its wide-brimmed black felt hat, his
thin hands folded on the crook of his cane, sat--her Uncle Thomas.  She
lacked breath to speak to him; but just then he turned his eyes and saw
her.  For a moment he merely gazed at her without a glimmer of
recognition and she had half persuaded herself that his brief visit to
the cottage had not been long enough to have fixed her features in his
mind, when his face suddenly broke into an almost boyish smile.

"Hey, driver--stop!  Whoa!  Why, my dear child--bless me, this is very
fortunate!"  With one foot on the step, he leaned out and clasped her
hand.  "Get in, get in, my dear--I was on my way to see you.  And I
nearly missed you, eh?"  Nancy clambered up beside him, and the driver,
not receiving any orders to the contrary, clucked to his steed, which
continued on its interrupted way.

"Were you really going to visit us, Uncle?" asked Nancy.  "It's a pity
that Alma isn't here.  She went in to the city--and it was just luck
that I didn't go, too."  She smiled to herself, wondering if, after
all, Providence had had some hand in the events of the morning which
had kept her where she was.

"Luck?  Well, I should say so.  I'd have been badly disappointed if my
surprise had fallen through," chuckled Uncle Thomas, who was evidently
in the best of spirits.  "Well, well--you're as ruddy as a ripe
pomegranate, my dear."

"I've just walked four miles," said Nancy.

"Walked?  By yourself?  Now, that's a taste you've inherited from me.
Fond of walking, aren't you?  Now, tell me how you are getting
along--at school, I mean.  Like it, eh?"  He looked at her keenly, a
twinkle hiding just under the surface of his gray eyes.

"Yes, I like it.  I'm working awfully hard--I have to, or I wouldn't
get anywhere, because it would be awfully easy to loaf at Miss
Leland's," laughed Nancy; she had a feeling that he was waiting to get
her opinion of the school, and she was afraid of sounding priggish, or
as if she were trying to impress him with an idea of her industry.  So
she chatted away about the girls, telling him about Charlotte
particularly, describing the teachers, giving him an account of the
routine, and so on, to all of which he listened as intently as if he
were her father.

"So you're swimming along.  Good.  And how is my other niece?  Is she
working very hard?  Has she made lots of friends, eh?"  Again Nancy
felt that he was pumping her, but she told him casually about Alma,
taking care to say nothing that might sound as if she said it for
effect, and he listened, nodding his head, and smiling.

"Well, now--even if we can't have Alma with us, what do you say to
giving up a holiday to an old gentleman?  Is that too much to ask?  The
whim took me to run over here to-day and kidnap my two nieces; but if I
can only have one, I'll take her, if she'll let me.  Will your
'schoolma'am' let you come away with me?  I'd like to have you until
to-morrow, and I'll get you back safe and sound."

Nancy laughed.  Six months before, if anyone had told her that she
would be going to visit her Uncle Thomas on that particular day, she
would have thought the prophet quite mad; as it was she could hardly
believe her ears.

"I'd _love_ to do it.  Here's the school now--it won't take me a minute
to get ready.  You speak to Miss Leland, Uncle Thomas.  I'm quite sure
that I can go."

A little more than an hour later Nancy found herself turning in the
very old gate through the unfriendly bars of which she and Alma had
peered on that distant rainy afternoon, feeling that they were gazing
into a forbidden country.  Yet now nothing, it seemed, could be more
natural than that she should be sitting beside her uncle, chatting away
with him unconstrainedly.  Only the fact that he never mentioned her
mother, nor suggested that she should even peep into the little brown
house, made her feel uncomfortable.  Furthermore, he showed the same
coldness on the subject of Alma, so that, in a way, Nancy felt that
somehow she had almost unfairly won his affection for herself alone,
and that she was enjoying a pleasure in which her mother and sister
should have had an equal share.  On the other hand, she decided, at
length, to say nothing either to Alma or to Mrs. Prescott about her
visit; only because she was afraid that the knowledge of it might again
lead them to false hopes, and to follies stimulated by those hopes.
She felt sure that her uncle had come to see her, only because he had
taken her at her word; that is to say, that he counted on her not in
any way misunderstanding the purpose of his visit, or fancying that it
gave promise of his relenting in his long-standing determination not to
solve their financial problems for them.

Aside from the fact that, although within a mile of the little brown
cottage, she might have been a league away, and that she experienced
several bad qualms of homesickness, Nancy thoroughly enjoyed that day.
She lunched with her uncle in the big dining-room, sitting at the head
of his table, while he placed himself at the foot.  And afterwards he
showed her about the huge old house, taking her to his laboratory,
explaining a great deal about scientific experiments which she did not
understand, showing her his books and his curios.  As they passed along
the corridor on the second floor, he paused a moment outside a room
which was closed.  Then as if on a sudden impulse, he took a key out of
his pocket, and opened the door, without saying anything.  It was a
small room, rather bare, furnished with an almost Spartan simplicity;
the sunlight beamed in, striking its full, red rays on the faded wall
above the narrow, white iron bed, over which hung a picture of a
lion-hunt, evidently cut out of some book or magazine--just such a
picture as would strike the imagination of a lad of twelve.  The rest
of the wall was mottled with other pictures, many of them unframed,
clipped out of colored newspapers, and fixed to the wall-paper with
pins; pictures of horses and steeple-chases, and Greek athletes, and
American heroes; one, the largest, was a vivid representation of the
Battle of Trafalgar, showing a perfect inferno of red and yellow flames
and bursting bombs, and splintered ships, and drowning sailors clinging
to planks and spars.  On the table between the windows stood a row of
books, a few ill-treated looking lesson books hobnobbing like poor
relations with other more self-confident works on "Woodcraft" and
"Adventure."  The mantelpiece was burdened with a heterogeneous
collection of boyish knickknacks, such as a sling, a bird's-nest, a
rusty bowie-knife, and a decrepit old horse-pistol.

For a moment Nancy looked about her in astonishment, then, as she
understood, the tears came to her eyes, and she looked up at her uncle.
The room had not been changed since her father had left it for
boarding-school, twenty, thirty years before.  Mr. Prescott said
nothing; but after a moment closed the door, locked it again, and
walked away.

"I'm going to have visitors for tea," he remarked, to turn the subject.
"It's quite an eventful day for me; I rarely see anyone, as you know.
But I thought that it might be pleasant for you to renew an
acquaintance with a lady who seems to have taken a great fancy to you,
and who, incidentally, is the only woman I know who has a full-sized
allowance of common sense.  Though at times she is very unreasonable
and quite as inconsistent as any of her sex."

Nancy looked at him inquiringly, and he explained:

"Miss Elizabeth Bancroft."  Whether he considered Miss Bancroft in the
plural, as being a lady of many parts, or whether he had used the word
"visitors" because she would be accompanied or followed by others, and
if so how many others he expected he did not trouble himself to make
clear; but the matter explained itself, when toward five o'clock, the
sound of carriage wheels rattled out on the gravel drive, and in due
time, Miss Bancroft laboriously descended from her equipage, assisted
by her nephew, George Arnold.

"My dear child, how delightful this is!  I'm so really glad to see
you," exclaimed Miss Bancroft, taking Nancy's hands in both her own, as
if she had known her all her life.  Her frank cordial manner sent a
glow of pleasure to Nancy's cheeks.  "I hope you remember that you met
my nephew--for his sake.  The idea that you might possibly have
forgotten him has been troubling his vanity for a good eight hours."

Nancy laughingly murmuring that she did remember Mr. Arnold, and
blushing with shyness, shook hands with him.  She noticed, without
dreaming of connecting the fact with herself, that he seemed to be in
remarkably good spirits, and that they quite overflowed when he told
her how nice it was to see her again, and what a jolly, funny sort of
party the whole thing was anyway.

"I wasn't going to bring George," observed Miss Bancroft.  "He's
usually so tiresomely lazy about tearing himself away from his books or
his own company, that I thought I wouldn't bother him to-day.  Then lo,
and behold, he gets into an unbearable fit of sulks, complains that I'm
always ready enough to drag him around with people who bore him to
death, and leave him alone whenever anyone interesting turns up--in a
word goes into a tantrum, and all but weeps with rage, so I had to
bring him."  With that she indulged in a chuckle of mischievous
laughter, and patted Nancy's cheek.

A big wood-fire crackled noisily inside the huge stone chimney place in
the living-room, and around it they all gathered in that comfortable,
sociable spirit which is the characteristic mood for tea-time; everyone
felt that they had really known everyone else rather longer than they
had, and while Miss Bancroft poured out their tea, and chattered away
with Uncle Thomas, who stood upright on the hearth-rug, drinking his
tea from the mantelpiece, Nancy and Mr. Arnold chatted away as if it
were impossible to say everything they wanted to in the course of one
short hour or so.  As a rule Nancy had a very hard time overcoming her
shyness when she had to talk to a young man.  She always felt that she
might say something that they wouldn't understand, or which they might
think affected or priggish--which were the two last sins in the world
which she would have wished to be accused of, or with which anyone
could accuse her.  But with Mr. Arnold, she lost every atom of
self-consciousness.  He had travelled a great deal, and he had seen the
world through a prism of mingled humor and sensitiveness, which gave
his conversation the charm of a very original viewpoint on everything.
He told her droll stories about his school days in England and
Switzerland; recounted innumerable anecdotes about the various people
he had seen, many of whom were celebrated for their brains or their
follies; and altogether managed to make an hour shorter than many a
minute.  And in some way, while he talked, he had a way of flattering
the shy young girl not by words, but by a hundred indescribable little
attentions, paid unconsciously, no doubt, and simply because he was
thoroughly delighted to see her again.

"My dear, you mustn't fail to pay me a visit during the holidays," Miss
Bancroft urged.  "Remember that your father was a very great favorite
of mine--and I should like to be a favorite of yours, if Uncle Thomas
doesn't supplant me, quite."

The old lady bent and kissed Nancy warmly as she prepared to take her
departure.

When the carriage had driven away Nancy and her uncle sat before the
fire for a long time.  To remember that afternoon was always a delight
to Nancy; and she particularly liked to recall the memory of sitting
there, as the dusk grew deeper in the room and the daylight faded away
into pale tints, and then into a deep, quiet blue, while they sat and
watched the fire.  The flames had died down, but the long logs were
wrapped in a hot, red glow, and every now and then they would pop
softly and a spark would drop down into the ruddy embers.

When dinner was over they sat by that fireside until bedtime, chatting
away with a thoroughly delightful sense of camaraderie.

Absolutely forgetting her mother and sister's ground of interest in
Uncle Thomas, Nancy talked to him quite freely about her ambitions
without the slightest feeling of constraint, impressing him
unconsciously more than she could have done by the most fervid
protestations with her sincerely eager wish to make her life for
herself and by herself.  And he liked her earnest, youthful spirit of
independence, perfectly innocent of any pose of
"strong-mindedness"--which to a man like Mr. Prescott would have
constituted one of the most unforgivable of feminine failings, ranking
equally with the other extreme, of which poor, pretty, helpless Mrs.
Prescott was an example.

"So you want to work your way through college?  What's the idea?" he
asked a bit gruffly.  "A pretty girl like you, I should think, would
only be planning to marry and settle down in a home of her own."

Nancy colored.

"That would be awfully nice, but one can't make it a business, Uncle
Thomas, or all the niceness would go out of it.  I think one ought to
plan out all the difficult things, and leave all the--the dreadfully
nice things to Chance, or Providence,--or--well, just let them happen
where they belong."

"You're a little Madame Solomon, aren't you, eh?" said Uncle Thomas
with a short chuckle.  "And how are you going to work your way through
college?  I shouldn't think that Miss Leland's would be exactly the
place for a young lady with your ideas."

"It wouldn't be, if I aired them all over the place--but I've learned
to keep my ideas to myself," said Nancy, thinking how Mildred Lloyd
would scoff at her "highbrow" ambitions.  Uncle Thomas shot a quick,
keen glance at her from under his bushy brows.

"Well, you are a wise young lady.  Now, who in the world taught you
that--to keep your ideas to yourself?  Eh?"

"Why, there's nothing very wise in that," said Nancy, surprised at his
tone of warm approval.  "I know what I want, and if I'm with people who
think it's a foolish thing to want, why, I don't talk about it--that's
all."

"Well, my dear, permit me to say that I think that in time you are
going to have even more sense than my good Elizabeth."

"You--you aren't laughing at me, Uncle Thomas?  Do you think I'm trying
to show off?" asked Nancy timidly, unwilling to believe his sincere
praise; and she looked anxiously and shyly into his face to detect a
smile if there was one.  But there wasn't.

"Laughing at you?  My dear child--what nonsense!  Bless my soul, but
you are certainly my boy's daughter!"

Then, after a short silence, and just as Nancy was on the point of
telling him an amusing little incident about Charlotte, he interrupted
her abruptly and irrelevantly:

"I say,--you like that young man, eh?"

"What young man?" gasped Nancy, turning scarlet.

"_That_ young man," repeated Uncle Thomas, pettishly.  "Elizabeth's
boy--Arnold--that author-person."

"Author?"

"Yes.  Bless me, didn't he tell you how famous he is?  Do you like him,
I say?"  Uncle Thomas was quite fierce.

"Why, yes.  I think he's awfully nice.  I--I don't know him very well,"
said Nancy, in astonishment.

"Hum.  Well, he's a nice fellow.  Clever chap.  Elizabeth dotes on him,
but he doesn't let her think for him.  But he's not good enough for
you.  You go along to college.  If you won't get any silly notions
about marrying and all that nonsense, I--I'll--well, maybe I'll give
you a lift here and there, though it's strictly against my principles."
After which involved and very cryptic remark Uncle Thomas stiffly
offered her his cheek to kiss, and sent her to bed.



CHAPTER XI

ALMA MAKES COMPLICATIONS

Charlotte was sitting in the easy chair which she had imported to her
new lodging with the rest of her belongings, munching peanuts.  Her
bushy brown hair was pinned up into a droll little "nubbin" on top of
her head, her goggles had slipped down almost to the tip of her nose,
and altogether her attitude, when Nancy burst in upon her late on
Sunday afternoon, gave evidence that she was in a thoughtful mood.  She
had often said that peanuts always disposed her to meditation.  With
her feet on the window-seat she gazed out upon a rather dreary scene of
fog and rain, hardly blinking her big, heavy-lidded eyes, and devouring
peanuts like an automaton.  But the unchanging gravity of her face, as
she turned around to greet her prodigal roommate, told Nancy that there
was really some serious matter on her friend's mind.

"Hello!  Have a good time?" was her only greeting.

"Very.  Did you like the play yesterday?  I--I hope you understood why
I--I mean after I had told you that I had to stay here----"

"Nancy, you know you don't have to explain anything to me.  If you
couldn't go with me, don't you suppose that I knew that you had your
own reasons for not going?" interrupted Charlotte warmly.  "My idea of
real 'bosom friends,' as they call 'em, is of two people who know when
not to bother each other with questions.

"The reason why most of these ardent school-girl friendships come to
violent deaths is because they _will_ insist on telling each other
everything, and demanding an explanation for every why and wherefore.
And that's that.  Take off your things and have a peanut--or even two,
if you like."

Nancy tossed her hat on the bed and began to take off her heavy clothes.

"You seemed sort of grave, Charlotte, when I came in.  Has anything
happened?" she asked, as she slipped into her dressing-gown and shook
down her hair.

"Well, in a way, yes," replied Charlotte.  "Nothing to worry you
really, and it's really not my affair, except that it concerns you and
Alma.  It's only that I'm afraid that that donkey Mildred Lloyd got
Alma into rather a scrape yesterday.  Oh, don't look so scared--it's
all fixed up.  Only, if I were you, I'd have a good talk with Alma
about Mildred."

"But what happened?" cried Nancy, who had turned quite pale, in spite
of Charlotte's hasty reassurances.

"Well, the chief trouble was that they overstayed their time in town
yesterday.  Ten o'clock is the very latest that any of us can come in
on a holiday, As you know, and as they knew, and as that little
pinhead, Mademoiselle, knew.  It seems that one of the boys persuaded
them to stay in for dinner and to go to the theatre again afterwards.
So they didn't get in until after twelve.  Well, as you can imagine,
Amelia went on a regular rampage.  And I've a notion that she was a
good deal harder on poor Alma than she was on Mildred.  Amelia is more
afraid of angering Mildred than Mildred is of angering her.  Mildred
always takes Mademoiselle as her chaperone because she is quite sure of
being able to make that little poodle do anything she wants.  And
Mildred, being the daughter of Marshall Lloyd, is _persona grata_ here,
and can wriggle out of any scrape.  I know Mildred down to the ground.
I've roomed with her for a year.  For some reason or other she never
tried to coax me into any rule breaking--probably because we were never
intimate at all, and because she knew that I don't think there's any
fun or sense in that sort of thing.  It doesn't take any great
cleverness to break a rule, and you don't get anything much by doing
so.  If you want my opinion, I think that Mildred is a very unsafe sort
of friend for a girl like Alma.  I don't believe that Alma honestly
likes her--Mildred is more than inclined to be a bully, and extremely
capricious--but somehow a lot of girls feel flattered when Mildred
'takes them up,' and will do anything she tells them to, without using
their own common sense for a minute.  I'm saying all this to you,
Nancy, when I wouldn't say it to anyone else.  I don't like the idea of
picking to pieces a girl whom you roomed with for a year, but I think
that both of us ought to try to make Alma open her eyes before Mildred
gets her into any more mischief."

Nancy sat silent for a time, staring out of the window, and biting her
finger thoughtfully.  She longed to ask Charlotte's advice, but she
hesitated to discuss her own sister even with this very close and
sincere friend.  She hated to admit Alma's weaknesses even to herself,
and she could not bring herself to speak of them to anyone else.  But
she felt very uncertain as to how she was going to approach Alma on the
subject of her friendship with Mildred; for in spite of their
reconciliation, she knew that Alma was not ready to take any warnings,
without flying up with a lot of notions about the nobility of
friendship and so on; true and idealistic notions in themselves, but so
unwisely applied that she stood in danger of losing them altogether
through disillusionment.

"I think Alma's alone now.  Have you seen her?" said Charlotte.  "The
poor little creature has been awfully unhappy about the scolding Miss
Leland gave her--Mildred wasn't at all cast down and goes around
looking as if she had done something very smart.  The very fact that
Alma is feeling so blue about it all, while Mildred is perfectly
unconcerned, shows the difference in the sort of stuff they are made
of.  And we must take care that Alma doesn't change under Mildred's
influence so that she, too, will think it very smart to get into silly
scrapes just for the fun of getting out of them."

Nancy sprang up, and without a word left the room.

There was no light in her sister's room, but in the gray twilight that
shone in forlornly she made out a pathetic little heap on the bed.  She
felt a lump of pity and motherly tenderness rise in her throat; not a
particle of blame was in her heart--only a desire to cuddle and comfort
her thoughtless little sister.

"Alma," she called softly.  A tousled head was lifted from the pillow,
and even in the dim light she could see how Alma's rosy, childlike face
was stained and swollen with tears.

"Oh, Nancy!  I _am_ so glad you're back!  Oh, don't be angry with me.
You aren't angry, are you?" sobbed Alma.

"Angry!" echoed Nancy, laughing tremulously.  "Oh, you poor little
darling--don't be so unhappy about it all."  She hugged Alma tightly
and kissed her hot cheek, feeling the tears on it.

"Then you _do_ know about it.  It wasn't my fault, Nancy--that is, it
wasn't Milly's, either.  Don't think I'm trying to shift the blame.
Oh, I have been so _miserable_."

"Why, dearest, it wasn't anything very bad--it was only foolish.  Cheer
up!"

"You see,--you see--Frank was there, and another boy--and they hated to
go back to Cambridge--and it all seemed perfectly harmless--and Milly
said it was perfectly all right, and that Miss Leland wouldn't care a
bit--and that she had often done it.  I hadn't any idea--until I
thought about you, and I knew you wouldn't like it.  But I didn't think
about that until we were coming home.  But Milly just laughed."

"What did Miss Leland say to you?"

"She--she was furious.  She said that she was ashamed of me, and that
she was going to write to Mother--and that it was a cheap, common thing
to do."

Nancy's eyes blazed.  For a moment she sat perfectly still, breathing
sharply, evidently trying to conquer her temper.  Then she said in a
quiet tone:

"She had no business to say that to you.  I'm going to speak to her
after dinner."

"Oh, don't, Nancy," implored Alma, timidly.  "It's all right now.  I--I
don't want you to say anything to Miss Leland."

"Well, she should have been ashamed of herself to say that to you.  She
is nothing but a horrid old snob--I'll wager she thought twice over
everything she said to Mildred."  Nancy's eyes were still fiery.  She
was beginning to taste the humiliation of having to submit to the
tyranny of snobs.  If she went to Miss Leland it would end most likely
by their having, for the sake of their pride, to pack up and go home.
And she felt that she had no right to do anything that would so wound
her mother.

"Alma, dearest, I want to say something to you--please don't you be
angry with me now.  Please, dearest.  You know that I haven't a single
thought that isn't for your interest--and that I wouldn't for anything
on earth try to take away from you anything that was really for your
good."  She paused, waiting for Alma to say something, but her sister
was silent, and the room was too dim now for her to read the expression
on Alma's face.

"I think that you have already seen for yourself that there is danger
in a friendship where one person lacks a--well, a very keen sense of
honor, and the other lacks judgment.  I know you don't want to make any
more mistakes--you have been very unhappy over a small one, and unless
you are wise, big ones may follow."

"You mean--you want me to--to not be friends with Mildred?"

"I want you only to be independent, dear, so that you won't be afraid
to do what you know is right and wise, even if she laughs at you and
coaxes you.  I don't like to criticize Mildred to you if you are very
fond of her; but you know that I have never trusted her, and this
affair ought to show you, too, that she isn't to be trusted.  She has
always had her own way, and she isn't a wise girl.  She hasn't been a
very good influence for you, as you must have seen.  Partly because of
her influence we quarrelled, you know.  She has laughed you out of
doing many things that you know well you should have done.  I am not
blaming you, Alma.  It is only because I know that in time Mildred
would make you very, very unhappy that I'm telling you not to make her
your closest friend."

"She--she--I mean that in many ways she should be a very _good_ friend
to have," began Alma, in a low voice.

"Oh, Alma darling, you mustn't think that simply because a girl has
money and position and influence that she is, on the face of that, a
valuable friend.  A girl like Mildred is very fickle, anyway.  To-day
she may want to do everything in the world for you, and to-morrow she
may hardly speak to you.  So long as you follow her blindly, she may
show a great fancy for you, but if you were to follow your own ideas,
contrary to her, she would quarrel with you in a minute."

"I don't believe that of Mildred," exclaimed Alma, with sudden
defiance.  "You have no idea how generous she is, and--and how
broad-minded.  I'm sure that you are prejudiced against her, Nancy.  I
know that she often appears to be rather a snob, but in reality she
isn't one at all.  Yesterday was no more her fault than it was mine.  I
was just as wrong as she was."

"Yes, but you were unhappy because you had done it, and Mildred isn't
unhappy about it at all--as a matter of fact, she thinks that it was
quite a clever thing to do."

Alma was silent.  Then she said, presently:

"I can't quarrel with her."

"You don't have to quarrel with her.  I never asked you to do that.  I
said only to think and act as you know to be right.  Certainly, then,
if she grows cool with you, she will respect you more.  I--I hate to
see my sister so absolutely a--a--I mean I hate to see you doing
blindly everything Mildred does.  Because she thinks it silly and
'high-brow' to study hard, you don't study.  I hate to see you so
afraid to lose a friend that you will go against your own conscience
and judgment just to keep her good-will.  It's just--snobbery,
Alma--and it's worse than even Mildred's snobbery, because it's
cowardly, while hers is just--impudent."

"I won't let you say such things, Nancy," cried Alma, shaking off her
sister's hand.  "I--I couldn't go on rooming with Mildred if I believed
what you say of her, and I won't listen to you."

"Oh, Alma--don't, _don't_ let us quarrel again," pleaded Nancy.  "Why
can't you believe that it's almost unbearably hard for me to say these
things to you?  I am a coward, too, because I'm so afraid of losing one
little jot of your affection, that I would rather a thousand times hold
my tongue than say anything to make you angry.  But I can't be silent."

"You've made me more unhappy now than I was before," said Alma,
sullenly.  "Do you want me to be a hypocrite, and pretend to be fond of
Mildred still, while I'm believing what you want me to believe of her?"

Nancy got up, feeling quite desperate about the failure of her attempts
to show Alma her danger.  While she was thinking of something to say
she walked over to the door and switched on the light.  Just as she
turned, she saw Alma make a quick movement--but Alma was not quick
enough to grasp a handsome fur neck-piece off the chair and whisk it
behind the pillow before Nancy saw her.  Alma blushed crimson.  If it
had not been for that swift action and the guilty blush, Nancy would
not even have noticed the scarf--or, if she had, she would simply have
thought that it was one of Mildred's.  For some reason she flushed
herself, and Stood staring blankly at Alma, curiously ashamed of Alma's
own guilty expression.  Then Alma slowly drew the scarf from its
hiding-place, and tried to laugh.

"You're going to scold me for my extravagance now, Nancy.  I--I got
this to-day.  I was hiding it, because I didn't--I mean I was afraid
you might read me a lecture."  She attempted an air of playful
penitence, but it was rather a failure.  It was a very expensive fur,
long and fluffy, and beautifully lined with frilled chiffon.

"But--Alma," remonstrated Nancy, weakly, "how did you get it?  It must
have cost at least a hundred dollars.  Why----"  She broke off quite
dazed and frightened at the thought of such a sum, and stared at her
sister as if she thought that Alma had taken leave of her senses.

"Well, you see--don't worry, Nancy," stammered Alma, evidently finding
the greatest difficulty in explaining.  "You see--it was this way.
Milly--oh, Nancy,"--she stopped and looked at her sister
beseechingly,--"Milly wanted me to get it.  And she offered to lend me
the money--she begged me to let her lend it to me, and I can pay her
back whenever I please; she said she didn't care whether I paid her
back at all.  And I felt so shabby in that old suit of mine, and I
hated to look badly when Frank was going to be there--he knows ever so
much about girls' clothes, and I _did_ look positively poor beside
Mildred.  I knew Mother wouldn't mind--in fact, I knew that it would
hurt her pride dreadfully if I didn't look respectable with those sort
of people--and the fur made everything else look just right.  Oh,
Nancy, if you only knew how it _hurts_ me to be with girls who have
everything, who look so much nicer than I do just because they have
prettier clothes.  I know it was wrong of me, but _I couldn't resist
it_!  I just simply couldn't."

Nancy bit her lip.  It seemed as if she were always being thrust into a
position where she must needs be forever preaching to Alma.  It made
her feel old, and uncomfortably burdened.  With Alma she always felt
somewhat as a staid and wise old duenna must feel with a pretty and
charmingly unpractical and mischievous charge.  For a moment she was on
the point of shrugging her shoulders and determining to let Alma go
ahead as she pleased.  She had no desire to blame Alma; she understood
too well the force of the temptations that surrounded a girl like Alma
in such an environment as Miss Leland's school; and she was touched by
Alma's, "If you knew how it _hurts_ me!"  She had foreseen just that
when she had urged her mother not to send them to Miss Leland's.  She
herself had felt that very same sharp flick of wounded feminine pride
when she compared her own small possessions with those of the other
girls and realized that in spite of the neatness of her clothes they
must often appear plain to the point of poorness in comparison with
Mildred's or Kay's.  Somehow with Charlotte, in spite of Charlotte's
pretty things, she had not been so conscious of the contrast.

"I--I wish you hadn't tried to hide it from me, Alma," she said gently.
"Are you _afraid_ of me?  Am I always scolding you?"

"Nancy!  Of course not," cried Alma, in distress.  "I didn't mean to
hide it--that was horribly cowardly--I _knew_ that it was weak of me to
get it, and that I had no right to borrow the money from Mildred; and
you have a perfect right to blame me awfully."

"But, dear, however are we going to manage to pay her back?  How much
was it?"

Alma looked uncomfortable.

"It really was a bargain, Nancy.  A--a hundred and ten, marked down
from a hundred and forty.  It'll last me forever."

"A hundred and ten!" Nancy gasped, and then tried to compose her
features so as not to scare Alma with her own breathless dismay.

"I--I don't have to pay her until I get ready," murmured Alma.  "I know
Milly won't even think of it again."

"You can't possibly accept it as a present, Alma," said Nancy sternly.
"We must manage to pay Mildred back somehow--soon.  She is the last
person in the world whom I'd want to owe anything to.  I mean to say,
that people in our position _can't_ put themselves under obligations to
a girl like Mildred Lloyd.  It's different if you can return it in some
other way.  For instance, it would be all right for Kay Leonard to
accept an expensive present from Mildred, because she could so easily
return it, but for one of us to is like accepting a charity."

Alma looked at her repentantly out of two large, grave blue eyes.

"I--I'm afraid I rather made a mess of everything yesterday, Nancy,"
she said, hanging her head and picking at the soft fur, which somehow
had lost a good deal of its charm for her; then, all at once, evidently
touched by the droll naïveté of the sad remark, Nancy burst out
laughing.

"You poor, funny lamb!  I'm always worrying you to death," she said.
"Don't bother any more, Alma.  I'm sick of bothering, myself.  We'll
manage to solve the problem somehow.  Only, dearest," she grew sober
again, "please--please don't--I don't want to say it again,--but think
over what I said to you.  I'm sure that you will see that I'm very
nearly right.  Come, now--you'd better tidy yourself.  I'm going to
dress."  She bent over Alma and kissed her lightly.  As she went toward
the door Mildred met her.  They looked at each other coolly, Mildred
barely giving her a nonchalant nod, and then ignoring her altogether.

"Hello, honey-pie.  Don't tell me you've been weeping briny tears all
afternoon over what Leland said to you," she cried gaily to Alma.
"Goodness, what a penitent!  What's the point in having a good time if
you're going to regret it like that?  I have the right idea--I make it
a point never to regret anything."

Nancy walked slowly back to her own room, and dressed for dinner in
silence.  It seemed to her that she might indeed be "sick of
bothering," but that did not prevent there being a good deal for her to
bother about.



CHAPTER XII

ALMA IN A SCRAPE

It was the custom of Miss Leland's school to hold the mid-year
examinations before the Christmas holidays, early in December, so that
the teachers and the girls might enjoy their holidays without the
shadow of that depressing necessity hanging over them, and so that they
might apply themselves to the preparation for them while they were
still in the habit of studying.  Miss Leland held the opinion that
after the gay indolence of the holiday season, and when the girls were
still in the state of homesickness and lassitude following their return
to school, they were much less interested in making good marks, and
much less capable of applying themselves.

Thus, the first week of a snowy December found the entire school in
that state of tension which seizes any body of young people when a
hostile body of older people is bent upon finding out how much they
know.

"History from nine to twelve to-morrow," groaned Charlotte.  "I've
reread the whole volume.  I've crammed dates until I don't know whether
Columbus discovered America in 1492 or 1776.  I've 'rastled' with Free
Silver, and I haven't the faintest notion what the trouble was about.
A long, long time ago I knew whether Maryland was a Charter colony or
not, but now I never expect to know again.  I could write everything I
know about this great and glorious country in two minutes, and it would
be quite wrong at that, and the thought that we are expected to know
enough to require three solid hours for writing it out is driving me
rapidly into a state of chronic melancholia."

"What happened in 1812, Charlotte?" demanded Nancy in a dazed voice.
"Something happened then, but I don't know what."

"Why, that was the year that Washington said 'Beyond the Alps lies
Italy.'  Which was quite true.  And even if he didn't say it then, it
would have been true, so you can't go far wrong there," replied
Charlotte.  "Nancy, kindly fold up your book.  I am going to flunk, and
I won't have you pass.  If you try to study any more I'm going to sing
the Marseillaise at the top of my voice."

"I think I _will_ stop.  I really do know my history, but I'm
forgetting it the more I try to study."

After dinner that night, the living-room was empty during the usual
hour for recreation, nearly all the girls having gone to their room
either to study, or simply as a matter of form, since it was considered
highly undiplomatic, to say the least, to appear as if you were so sure
of the outcome of your examinations that you felt privileged to take
life easily.

What they did, once they were in the privacy of their own rooms, was,
of course, strictly their own business.  Two or three, who believed
that rest was essential, had solemnly gone to bed.  A dozen or even
more of the seriously inclined had hung "Busy" signs on the panel of
their doors, through the transoms of which the greenish illumination of
the students' lamps burning within told their own story.  The others,
philosophically believing that if they were going to pass they would,
and if they were destined to flunk they would do so in spite of the
best-intentioned efforts at study, were cheerfully whiling away the two
hours of grace in subdued revelry.

Alma, who had every reason to doubt that she would shine in her
examinations unless she made a superhuman effort at cramming, and who,
at the same time, was unable to comfort herself with Mildred's
philosophical indifference, was curled up on her bed, her fingers in
her ears, struggling to make the lines she read convey some sense to
her weary brain.

"I say, Milly, will you ask me some questions?" she suggested at
length, lifting a weary face from her book.  "I don't know _what_ I
know."

"Oh, bother!  Don't study any more.  What does it matter even if you
don't pass?" said Mildred.  "For goodness' sake don't you turn into a
grind like Nancy.  One thing I refuse to do is to room with anyone
who's studious."

"But I'll flunk, as sure as fate," objected Alma, "and--and I don't
want to, Milly."

"You're a bit late finding that out.  It's not going to do you a bit of
good to stuff now."

"Don't your father and mother mind if you don't pass?"

"Oh, Mother doesn't care a bit.  She is always worrying herself to
death for fear I'm overstudying.  Dad sometimes rows at me about my bad
marks, but Mother always takes my part.  Besides this is my last year
of school, and what earthly good will Latin or Algebra do me when I
come out?"

"I suppose they really aren't much use," agreed Alma, finding this a
very comforting notion.  "Of course, it's different with Nancy; she
wants to go to college."

"Well, of course if one wants to be a school teacher," said Mildred
with a very faint sneer.  "But that's a ridiculous idea for anyone
who's as pretty as you are."

Alma hesitated; she felt the slight cast on Nancy in Mildred's remark,
but she was afraid to resent it, and told herself that she would not be
justified in doing so.  She was silent for a moment, wondering why she
liked Mildred, when Mildred did not like Nancy.  Perhaps,--she was
unwilling to admit this supposition, but it formed itself hazily in her
mind--perhaps she herself did not _really_ like Mildred.  Perhaps way
down inside of her she shared her sister's distrust of the girl.  But
why didn't she admit it?  Because she was flattered with being the
chosen friend of the most important girl in the school?  Because she
had accepted favors from Mildred?  She blushed involuntarily as these
thoughts glided through her mind.

She did not want to quarrel with Mildred, even when she knew that she
was right and her roommate in the wrong, because she hoped that Mildred
would invite her to visit her, and that through Mildred she might have
some good times.  She wished that Mildred wouldn't make mean little
remarks about Nancy, because she felt ashamed of herself for not openly
resenting them.

At length, however, she threw aside her book, and lent her rapt
attention to Mildred's chatter about the coming holidays.  In a little
while other girls joined them, and the next hour of gossip drove away
her uneasiness for the coming day, and her uncomfortable reflections.

The last examination which was in Latin ended on Friday at noon.  On
the Wednesday of the following week the reports had been posted on the
bulletin-board, and at the eleven o'clock recess some twenty girls were
clustered around them struggling to get near enough to read their
marks.  Those who were closest called out the percentages to the others
who pelted them with agitated questions.

"You got seventy-six in French, Denise.  Good enough.  Good heavens,
Nancy Prescott, you made _ninety-two_ in history, and Charlotte Spencer
_ninety-four_.  Ye gods and little fishes, I passed my
Algebra--sixty-eight!  Catch me, somebody; I'm going to faint."

"Kay Leonard flunked everything but her French," whispered another.
"Well, it won't disturb her at all.  What did I make in Latin?"

"Eighty-eight.  Good for you.  Drinkwater doesn't make anyone a present
of her marks.  I just scraped through.  I say, Alma!  Alma Prescott,
what happened to you on your Latin?"

"Why?" asked Alma, peering over Allison's shoulder, and turning a
little pale.  "Did--did I flunk very badly?"

"Why, it just says 'Cancelled' after your name.  Didn't you take your
exam?"

"Of course I took it!"

"Well, there--you can see for yourself.  It just has 'Cancelled.'"

A queer silence fell upon the chattering group of girls and for several
dreadful moments every eye was turned on Alma, who, white as a sheet,
was staring blankly at the uncompromising word written after her name.

"I--I can't understand," she said presently, in a scared, voice.  "I
_did_ take the examination--and I thought I really got through.  I
can't understand.  Why should it be cancelled?"  She turned her big,
frightened eyes to Nancy, who, as pale as she was, only stared back at
her.

"Why should my examination be cancelled?" repeated Alma, dazedly.  "Was
anyone else's cancelled too?"

"No.  One, two, six girls flunked--and--for goodness' _sake_--Mildred
Lloyd made the highest mark, Ninety-three!  Mildred Lloyd, come here,
and get your medal!  Congratulations!"

Mildred strolled up nonchalantly, glanced at the board and turned away;
only Nancy followed her curiously with her eyes.  Then she turned to
Alma.

"Haven't you any idea why your examination was cancelled?" she asked,
in an odd voice that sounded as if her throat was dry.  Alma shook her
head.

"It's very strange.  Come and let's ask Miss Drinkwater.  Maybe it's
only that your paper was lost or something like that."  She tried to
sound comforting, but she had no faith in her suggestion.  Just then,
however, the bell rang, and the girls had to go to their desks.  Miss
Leland took her place at one end of the room and stood waiting for
silence.  Everyone felt that she was there to make some important
announcement and her grave, cold expression led all of them to suspect
that it was not an entirely pleasant one.

She waited a moment after the room was silent.  Alma looked piteously
at Nancy, with a glance that said, "She's going to say something about
me."  Nancy kept her eyes fixedly on Miss Leland.  Her lips were
pressed together tightly, and her hands had grown as cold and damp as
though she had just taken them out of ice-water.  Her heart was beating
so heavily that the frill on her shirt-waist trembled.

Miss Leland took a step forward, straightened a book on the big desk,
and then looked up.

"Girls, for the first time in the history of this school, I am
compelled to make an announcement that is as great a humiliation to me
as it must be to you," she said, in a quiet, even voice.

"Ever since this school was founded there has never until now been any
occasion when I have been forced to doubt the honor of one of my
pupils."  She made another pause, and in that silence an electric
thrill seemed to pass through each one of the girls; some of them
flushed scarlet and others went white, as though each one felt in a
hazy way some share in the guilt of the unnamed culprit.

"For the first time in eighteen years one of my teachers has had to
bring to my attention the fact that a pupil of this school attempted to
_cheat_ in an examination.  That examination has, of course, been
cancelled, so that that girl's attempt to win a high mark,
_dishonestly_, availed her nothing.

"I do not need, I am sure, to incite in you feelings of disgust and
shame for that girl's action.  Your own sense of honor makes any
warnings on my part superfluous and insulting to you.

"Fortunately, the imposition was discovered, because that girl most
unwisely left the interlinear translation of Virgil's Æneid, which she
had used to assist her in the examination, on her desk, where it was
found, and brought to me.

"I do not choose to announce the name of that girl, much as she merits
the public disgrace.  I shall speak to her privately, and if she can
offer, which is not likely, any defense of her action, I may soften her
punishment.  Otherwise, I have no choice left to me than to expel her
from a school which she has disgraced.  Now, you may go to your
class-rooms."

The girls rose in silence, and hardly knowing what they were doing,
began feverishly to collect their books and papers.  But neither Alma
nor Nancy moved.  In a few moments the assembly hall was empty, save
for the two sisters, neither of whom seemed to have been conscious of
the curious glances cast at them by the other girls as they went out.

When they were alone, Nancy got up and went over to Alma, who sat as if
she had been turned to stone, with a face as white as chalk.

"Alma, of course I know you didn't do it," said Nancy, laying her hand
on her sister's, and speaking in a gentle, trembling voice.

"Oh, Nancy, it's so horrible--it's so horrible," moaned Alma.  "I don't
know how all this could have happened.  What shall I do, Nancy?  What
in the world shall I do?"

"Come, dearest, let's go up-stairs," coaxed Nancy.  "It'll come out all
right.  Come, dear."

"Of course, now everyone knows that Miss Leland meant me," said Alma,
dully.  "Am I going to be expelled; Nancy?  I can't stand it--I won't
stand it.  Come on, Nancy, let's get our things and go home."

"Alma, darling, you _didn't_ do it?" cried Nancy, the very shadow of
such a doubt making her feel faint and ill.  Alma lifted a wan face and
smiled.

"I don't _know_ that I didn't do it," she said, drearily.  "If they
found a trot on my desk--and it must have been my desk, because mine
was the only examination that was cancelled--why, how can I prove that
I wasn't using it?"

"But you don't even own such a thing!  You wouldn't dream of having
one.  In some schools girls are allowed to use interlinear translations
for their daily work, but it's not permitted here, and it wouldn't have
entered your mind to get one.  Come, we'll go to Miss Leland at once.
She's alone in her office now."

Alma let herself be guided up to the principal's cosy little sanctum,
where Miss Leland was seated at her desk writing.  A wood-fire
smoldered with friendly warmth on the brightly burnished andirons, and
a clear, wintry sunlight fell in through the curtained windows, where a
perfect garden of indoor plants bloomed gaily.  But all these pleasant,
homelike things seemed to share the chill hostility of Miss Leland's
level glance, as the two sisters stood looking at her timidly from the
threshold of the open door.

"You may come in," she said, with a curt nod.  "No doubt, Alma, you
wish to offer some explanation.  Be seated."

"My sister wanted to say that there was a mistake.  The book you
referred to was never in her possession, and she did not use it at her
examination," said Nancy, speaking rapidly, and almost harshly, in her
endeavor to keep from breaking into a fit of hysterical tears.  Alma
was quite incapable of saying a word for herself.

"Then I am sorry that it happened to be found on her desk just after
she had left the examination-room," replied Miss Leland dryly, her tone
expressing her complete lack of belief in Nancy's words.

"Alma, did you have that book?" asked Nancy, turning sharply to her
sister.  Miss Leland opened a drawer of her writing-table and took out
a small volume, bound in green cloth, which she handed over to Alma.
Alma had already opened her lips to utter a frantic denial to Nancy's
question, when her eyes fell upon the book.  She shut her mouth with a
sudden gasp, and without taking it, simply stared at the inoffensive
little volume with a fixed, horrified gaze.

"Is that an interlinear?" she exclaimed breathlessly.  "Is that the
book that was found on my desk?"

"So you _have_ seen it before," remarked Miss Leland.  "Alma, this is a
very serious matter.  There can be no excuse for a girl's making use of
any text-book whatever at an examination.  A failure is to be deplored,
but it is not a disgrace--and it is to be very much regretted that you
did not choose rather to run the risk of an honorable failure than to
attempt to steal a good mark, I have no choice in the matter.  I am
very sorry that I had to speak of it before the school, but I had to
make a public example of the girl who could stoop to such an act.  You
understand, of course, that it will be impossible for you to continue
as a pupil in this school."

For some reason Alma had grown quite calm, and when Miss Leland had
finished speaking, instead of appearing to be overcome by the grim
meaning in the last words, she rose quietly.

"Of course, if you cannot take my word for it that I never looked
inside that book or anything like it in my whole life, why there is no
use in my saying anything more," she said, with the utmost
self-possession.  "I don't know how it came to be on my desk----"

"Alma, I am anxious to believe a girl is innocent until she is proved
guilty," said Miss Leland, impressed by Alma's coolness, "only--you
_have_ seen this volume before?"  She looked at the girl with a still
doubtful and puzzled expression.

Alma hesitated a moment before she admitted slowly:

"Yes, I have seen it, Miss Leland.  But I never knew what it was."

"You have seen it in the possession of some girl in this school?"

"That I can't answer," replied Alma, with a firmness that Nancy had
never seen in her before.  "I--I don't think you have a right to ask me
any more questions, Miss Leland.  If--if you just let the whole
business go, I'm perfectly willing to--to bear the blame.  Please don't
ask me any more questions.  Let it be as it is.  Just as long as Nancy
is satisfied that I never did that hateful thing, why, I don't mind,
you know."

The two sisters looked at each other happily, each of them sincerely
indifferent as to whether anyone else in the school believed Alma
innocent or guilty.

"Come on, Nancy," said Alma, almost gaily.  They had started to leave
the room, when Miss Leland called them back.

"I am very anxious to believe in you, Alma.  If there has been a
mistake, be assured that it will be set right.  I will tell the other
girls at luncheon that--well, I must see.  I am in a difficult
position.  You may both go now.  I would advise you to go directly to
your classes."

Nancy was curiously absent-minded as they made their way down-stairs,
hand in hand.  Then all at once she drew in her breath sharply,
catching her under lip between her teeth.  On the bottom step she
stopped short and, putting her hands on Alma's shoulder, swung her
about so that she could look into her eyes.  Her own were very bright.

"What is it?" asked Alma; then, for some reason, she colored and turned
her eyes away.

"I know now where I saw that book myself, Alma," said Nancy.

"Nancy!"  Alma's blue eyes now suddenly filled with tears.  "Oh,
Nancy--you won't say anything.  No, no, you didn't see it.  Please
don't believe that of her."

"Two Sundays ago when I was talking to you--I noticed it in the
bookcase in your room.  I kept reading the titles on the books when
I--you know the way you do when you're worried.  It stood between a
copy of 'Bryce's Commonwealth' and a French grammar----"

"Nancy, you mustn't say anything, do you hear?" insisted Alma,
beseechingly.

"I won't say anything.  But--but I'm going to--you go on to class.  I
tell you, I won't say anything.  Oh, Alma, you darling!  Go on to
class, I say."

"Nancy, what are you going to do?" demanded Alma, as Nancy broke away
from her and ran up the stairs again.  "You aren't going to Miss
Leland?"

"No, I'm not.  There, isn't that the postman?  You might as well see if
there's anything for us before you go to French."

Alma walked down the hall toward the front door, where the maid was
taking the noon mail from the postman.  Nancy stood waiting, half-way
up the stairs, evidently lost in thoughts which were not very pleasant,
for her brown eyes sparkled with suppressed indignation and contempt,
and once or twice she pressed her lips together tightly, as she always
did when she was trying to make herself look calmer than she felt.

"Here's a letter from Mother," said Alma, coming back with an envelope
in her hand.  "I can't read it now, so you take it and save it for me."
Nancy leaned over and took it from her.

"I--I may not see you until to-night," she said, slipping the letter
into the pocket of her skirt.  "You know you can trust me to hold my
tongue, well--quite as well as she can, and she holds hers very well
indeed.  Do you mind being stared at and whispered about?"

Alma only smiled, then, with a little toss of her head, made a right
about face, marched off, chin up, to brave the battery of glancing eyes
and whispering tongues alone.



CHAPTER XIII

NANCY HAS A GREAT ADVENTURE

There was no doubt whatever in Nancy's mind that it was Mildred who had
cheated in the examination.  But whether Mildred had deliberately left
the book on Alma's desk, or whether she had simply forgotten it, she
did not know.  The fact remained, however, that so far Mildred had made
no effort to clear Alma of the suspicion, and knowing Mildred's nature
as she did, Nancy was not inclined to think that Mildred would ever do
so of her own accord.  Nancy was willing to give her the benefit of the
doubt so far as believing that she had not intentionally thrown Alma
into such a damaging position.  In the first place, she had no motive
for injuring Alma, and in the second place, she ran a very great risk
of discovery herself.  Leaving the whys and wherefores, Nancy regarded
the simple fact; that having thus injured Alma, Mildred was not going
to try to clear her, and pay the penalty herself.  The thought that
most wounded Nancy was that Alma was under obligations to the girl who
had treated her so badly.  The handsome fur neck-piece Mildred had
"lent" her, was not yet paid for, and Nancy shrank from the idea of her
sister's owing money to her.  She had, of course, not mentioned this to
Alma, although it had been the first thought that sprang into her own
head, when she first became certain that Mildred was the culprit.  It
would have troubled Alma, who was already troubled enough, and she
could have done nothing about it.

"I've got to get that money somehow," Nancy said to herself grimly.  "I
can write to Mother for part of it--about half, perhaps, but the other
half I've got to get myself."  Naturally, her first idea was to pocket
her pride, and to ask her Uncle Thomas for the money.  Not even that
would hurt her so much as the thought of owing it to Mildred; but then
she dismissed this plan from her mind.  It was impossible; it would be
a breach of their terms of friendship, for one thing, and for another,
she felt that to explain to him her reasons for wanting it would be
unjust to Alma.

While she was turning one plan after another over in her mind, she
absently took her mother's letter from her pocket, and slit the
envelope open with a hairpin.  She glanced almost carelessly at the
lines, written in Mrs. Prescott's pointed, flourishing hand, then all
at once the meaning of the first sentence fixed her wandering attention.


"MY DARLING, DARLING LITTLE DAUGHTERS:

"I can hardly bring myself to write this letter.  You don't know how
hard it is for me--but I deserve the pain and humiliation.  I am a very
foolish woman, but, oh, my dears, I have made my mistakes only in
trying to help you both.  And now, what _have_ I done to you?  There
was no one to advise me, and I know nothing whatever about business,
but it seemed so perfectly practical, so absolutely _sure_."


All this was perfect Greek to Nancy, and she saw that her poor mother
had evidently written the letter in an almost desperate state of mind.
After two pages of self-reproach, it was gradually made clear to Nancy
that Mrs. Prescott had made an unfortunate investment of her little
capital, though the extent of the loss Mrs. Prescott did not explain.
In an effort to increase their meagre income, she had taken all her
money, or part of it, and bought stock in some oil interest in Texas.
A Western promoter had assured her that it was the opportunity of a
lifetime, he himself being either an unconscionable fraud or a
self-deceiving optimist.  Nancy had not the remotest idea when her
mother had made the investment, but evidently the news of its complete
failure had just reached her, and it was equally evident that it had
been a total loss.

Utter bewilderment confused Nancy's thoughts, so that at first she
could hardly realize all that the misfortune might mean; she felt no
terror; only a wave of pity and tenderness for her mother, whose misery
was so pitifully expressed in the letter.  Then she thought of Alma.
Misfortune of that kind would hit both of them harder than herself,
because they had a greater need for luxury and pleasure than she.
There was nothing terrible to her in the thought of work, and of
difficulties to be overcome, because, in her quiet way, she had a great
wealth of self-confidence, the ardent ambition of youth, and that zest
for struggle which is characteristic of strong natures.  Alma and her
mother, on the other hand, saw nothing but the wretchedness of thwarted
hopes in such an existence of poverty and work.  They were created for
ease and luxury, just as the hollyhock is made to bloom against the
sunny garden wall.  Poor Mrs. Prescott, who had dreamed such happy
fairy tales for her daughters, and who, with her own hands, as it were,
had so innocently destroyed the little they possessed; and Alma, so
thirsty for pleasure and beauty,--it was only on their account that
Nancy suffered.  She understood that it would be impossible for herself
and Alma to come back to school for the next term; but that would have
been impossible anyway, Nancy thought, even with Alma cleared of the
dreadful suspicion that rested on her; for Nancy's stiff pride could
not brook the thought of living among people who had doubted her
sister, even though the circumstantial evidence against Alma had been
very strong.

"However shall I get all the money to pay Alma's debt now?" she
thought, dazedly.  "I can't get even half of it from Mother, because
she would certainly deny herself the very necessities of life to send
it.  I _cannot_ ask Uncle Thomas for it."  She knew that in all
probability she could influence Mr. Prescott, through his increasing
affection for her, to help her mother out of their present difficulty,
but the thought of doing so was utterly repugnant to her, and, it
seemed to her, intolerably humiliating both for Mrs. Prescott and Alma.
She was afraid that Mrs. Prescott, learning that Uncle Thomas had shown
a favoritism for her, might urge her to this course, and she could not
decide whether she should swallow her pride for her mother's sake and
for Alma's, or whether she should insist that they fight their way
courageously out of the difficulty.  So far as she herself was
concerned, there would have been no question; there was nothing that
she would not endure rather than ask her uncle for a cent.

Her hands were trembling as she folded the letter up, and put it in her
bureau drawer under her handkerchief case.

"How am I going to tell Alma?"  Well, she would break the news
to-night.  First of all, she must solve the problem of the debt to
Mildred, Only one course was possible.  There was her father's ring,
which she always kept, and which was her very dearest, possession.  It
was of the heaviest gold, and set with a large seal stone of
lapiz-lazuli.  She might raise perhaps thirty-five or forty dollars on
it--which left about seventy still to be found by hook or crook.  Never
had any sum appeared so gigantic to Nancy.  She could see no other
possible means of getting it than by borrowing it temporarily from
Charlotte, and paying it back by one way or another during the
holidays.  She knew that Charlotte would be glad to lend it to her, but
she shrank from the thought of putting their friendship to such a use.
However, there was no help for it.  In Alma's pocketbook she found
enough money to pay her way into the city.  Her mother would certainly
be sending them a little more in a day or two for their return home.
She took the money--two or three dollars, left from the ten which Alma
had borrowed from her,--and began to change into her suit, thinking,
meanwhile, with a smile of incredulity, of the imprudence of sending
herself and Alma to one of the very schools where their poverty would
be contrasted with the abundance of Mildred Lloyds and Katherine
Leonards.

When she was ready for town, she went to Miss Leland's office, and told
her simply that she had just received a letter from her mother which
made it necessary to go to the city without delay.  Miss Leland gave
the consent, which Nancy, in her excited state of mind, was ready to go
with or without.  She caught the next train to New York, and by
one-thirty was in the Grand Central Station, wondering where on earth,
now that she was there, she would be able to get the money on the ring.
She had a vague idea that the only possible place would be some
pawn-shop, and she had read in Nicholas Nickleby that one can tell a
pawn-shop by three golden balls hanging in front of it, and also that
one would be likely to find it only in a squalid section of the
business district.  The dealer would certainly be Jewish, and he would
in all probability not give her a tenth of what the ring was worth.
None of these thoughts were likely to raise her spirits at all, and,
when at length she found herself outside a dirty little shop on lower
Sixth Avenue, gazing in upon a window display of dusty violins and
guitars, travelling bags and tawdry jewelry, while above her the
traditional golden balls creaked in a sharp wind, her courage all but
failed her.  She was frankly terrified by the sordid strangeness of her
environment, by the dirty, sodden loafers that shuffled past her, and
by the thought of haggling for money over the counter of that dingy and
even sinister-looking little shop.  At length, however, she plucked up
courage and, with her heart in her throat, entered.

The front part of the shop was empty and very dark.  At the back was a
swinging door, leading into another room, from which issued the sound
of voices of two men.  The little bell over the front door had rung as
Nancy entered, to apprise the shopkeeper of a customer, and under the
swinging door she saw a pair of shuffling feet moving toward it.  The
shopkeeper emerged, followed by the other man, who was evidently a
customer come to make a purchase of some antique piece; for the
pawnbroker seemed to deal in old bric-à-brac and what not, besides his
regular historic business of money-lending.

"I vill gif you dat box for vun hundert dollars,--mit dat it iss a
gift," the shopkeeper was saying doggedly, as he came toward Nancy, and
the other man, following him, laughed.

"Well, you certainly give awfully expensive presents," he remarked.  "A
hundred dollars, you old rascal--no one on earth would give that for a
little box."

"Vell, only try to duplicate it--you vill not find such a handsome
piece dis side de ocean," returned the shopkeeper with a shrug.  "Vot
can I do for you, young lady?"

But Nancy had temporarily lost all power of speech.  She was not sure,
indeed, that she wasn't dreaming--it was all so utterly strange, and
whimsical, and impossible, that surely it could be so only in a dream.
For the young man who had followed the pawnbroker out of the inner room
was George Arnold!  She was standing with her back to the door, but the
light that came through the dirty glass shone squarely on his face, so
that if she had not already recognized his voice she would have
recognized his features beyond the shadow of a doubt.  Her first
impulse was to turn and fly, or to conceal herself hastily in one of
the odd little sentry boxes, which were evidently designed to preserve
the incognito of the pawnbroker's indigent customers.  But already Mr.
Arnold had cast a second curious glance at the unusual sight of a
well-dressed, well-bred young girl in such surroundings, and with that
second glance he had recognized her.  His mouth opened slightly in a
repressed gasp of astonishment.  Probably, with a moment's thought, he
might have pretended that he had not recognized her, in order to spare
her any embarrassment, but he had already exclaimed, involuntarily:

"Why, Miss Prescott!" and had taken a step toward her.  Nancy turned
scarlet, and could only gaze at him helplessly.

"How can I serve you, young lady?" repeated the shopkeeper.  Nancy
hesitated, in a perfect agony of embarrassment, while Mr. Arnold
continued to look at her, evidently very much at a loss.  On the one
hand, he disliked to discomfit her by being present while she
transacted her business with old Zeigler, the pawnbroker, and on the
other, he was equally unwilling to leave her to be swindled, as she
very probably would be.  Furthermore, while he realized that he had no
business to inquire into her affairs, and that, to say the least, it
would be the height of bad taste to do so, nevertheless he felt that
she was in some difficulty and needed advice.  The squalid little shop
was an odd place in which to find the niece of old Thomas Prescott; for
it was not likely that she had come there as he had, to browse around
in a dilettante search for curios.

Nancy read the question, "What are you here for?" in his face, and
guessed his indecision.  On her part she wished fervently that he would
go, and was racking her brains for some excuse to leave the shop and to
come back later.  But her frantic efforts at evolving some plan of
escape within the space of fifteen seconds were fruitless.  Zeigler for
the third time repeated his question to her with a touch of impatience.
Then Mr. Arnold desperately took the bull by the horns, and with a
touch of pretended gaiety asked with a laugh:

"Are you in search of adventure?  You aren't running away from school,
are you?"

"No--that is----" stammered Nancy; then, driven to take him into her
confidence to some extent, and trying to put her situation in the light
of a prank, she laughed mischievously, and added with an air of candor,
"You've caught me."

"What are you up to, young lady?  Selling the family plate?" inquired
Mr. Arnold boldly, and speaking to her as if she were a mischievous
youngster, though his eyes were grave and puzzled.  Nancy put up her
chin, as if she were being scolded, and answered with a touch of
childish defiance: "Don't tell on me."

"Well, I won't--though you deserve it, ma'am," replied Mr. Arnold.  "I
won't--on one condition,--that you come with me, and 'fess up to all
your misdemeanors, and let me give you the sage advice of a hardened
sinner before you do anything rash.  I realize that I'm taking a
liberty, Miss Prescott, in concerning myself in what is strictly your
own affair," he added seriously, "but isn't our friendship firmly
enough established to allow me that privilege?  What time is it?"  He
glanced at his watch.  "Ten minutes past two, and I've had no luncheon.
Have you?"  Nancy admitted that she hadn't.

"Good.  I can't begin to tell you how awfully lucky I consider myself
in having met you, Miss Prescott.  I wish you would come with me to
some nice little restaurant where we can decide the affairs of the
nations.  Are you in a great hurry?"

Nancy said that she wasn't.  To tell the truth she was very glad that
Mr. Arnold _had_ concerned himself in her affairs, which she had begun
to believe she was not managing any too well.  They had talked in low
voices so that the shopkeeper could only have heard fragments of their
conversation, and then left the shop, without even a word of
explanation to the irritated old money-lender.

Mr. Arnold hailed a taxi-cab, and they rolled off in state.  Mr. Arnold
had given the driver the address of a little French restaurant on West
Forty-fifth Street.

"It'll be fairly empty now, and we can find just the table we want.
_I_ shall order your luncheon for you, because I know just exactly what
things are peculiar to this place--their special tid-bits, and I feel
like ordering a regular knock-out of a feast as a sort of celebration.
Really, you've no idea how delighted I am to have discovered you."  His
frank, boyish pleasure in this freak of chance was so plainly written
on his beaming face, that Nancy colored with a schoolgirl's naïve
delight in such sincere flattery.  The dreaded undertaking of her trip
to the city was turning into a very charming little surprise party.  In
some way, she felt that she had known Mr. Arnold for a very long time,
and that really there was not the slightest need for concealing
anything from him.  His odd, attractive face was so friendly, his
bright brown eyes so full of eager sympathetic interest, that almost
before she had given a second thought as to whether she should or she
shouldn't, she had begun to tell him the reason for her appearance at
the pawnbroker's.

They had found a little table in a corner of the restaurant, and Mr.
Arnold had insisted upon ordering almost everything on the menu that
attracted his fancy.

"And above all things, you must try the hot chocolate, Miss Prescott.
I suppose it's not manly, but I have the most juvenile fondness for hot
chocolate, with great big blobs of whipped cream."

So hot chocolate they had, and innumerable rolls, hot and fresh from
the oven, and various and sundry other delicacies, calculated to
cripple a weak digestion for a month at the very least.

Drawn out by her growing confidence in him, and by her craving to talk
out her troubles to some one whose advice would be sound and based on
genuine sympathy, Nancy told him about her necessity for getting some
money.  The explanation involved a good many complications, and Nancy
was as a rule unusually reserved.  But Mr. Arnold was one of those
rather rare people who can understand a great deal more than is said in
just so many words, and she did not have to go into details as to why,
for example, she hesitated to ask her uncle for the money, or why it
was impossible to write to her mother for it.  She told him simply that
there was a girl at school to whom her sister was indebted, and who had
played Alma a very shabby trick; and that, therefore, she felt that it
was absolutely imperative to clear Alma of the obligation to her.  He
listened attentively, interposing occasionally in the friendly tone
such as an older man might use to a young one, so that she felt no
embarrassment in making the whole affair clear to him.  Nor did he seem
to think that there was anything very awful in her trying to raise the
money for herself with the ring as a security.

"Only you should have gotten someone's advice, Miss Prescott.  A man
like Zeigler would swindle you outrageously, and there are plenty of
reputable places which make loans on jewelry as a security.  How large
is the debt?"  Nancy told him.

"A hundred and ten dollars?  You are unwilling to ask your uncle?"
Then seeing a look of distress in her face, he went on hastily: "Well,
I think I can understand.  I admire your independence, Miss Prescott.
I say," he asked suddenly, with a touch of shyness, "would you mind if
I should call you Nancy?  It sounds so much more friendly."

"I---I'd like you to," replied Nancy, simply.  "It makes me feel sort
of old to be called Miss Prescott."

"Very well, and it makes me feel quite antique to be called Mr. Arnold.
I wish you'd flatter me into believing myself young once more by
calling me George."

"Oh, goodness, I don't believe I could!  I--I mean that sounds so
dreadfully cheeky!" exclaimed Nancy.

"I suppose I must seem actually prehistoric to you," he said with a
laugh that sounded just a little bit forced.  "But if you practised a
bit, you'd probably find that it would get easier for you, and it would
please me very much.  To return to business--I think that if you will
let me have the ring, I can get the money on it for you this afternoon.
I know the best place to go, where you will get something really
proportionate to its value, and on the best terms."

Nancy could have hugged him in her relief and gratitude.  She protested
a little feebly against his putting himself to any trouble, but he
waved her words aside, and she took the ring from her bag, and gave it
to him.  He looked at it curiously; inside the broad finger band was
inscribed in characters almost obliterated by wear, the words, "To
George, on his 21st birthday, 1891."'

"It was Father's.  Uncle Thomas gave it to him," explained Nancy,
simply, and at the same moment both of them were thinking of the
eccentric old gentleman, whose gift to a beloved nephew was now being
used to assist that nephew's daughter in a difficulty in which _his_
help was denied her.

"Now, how would you like to spend your time for three-quarters of an
hour or so?" asked Mr. Arnold, as they walked out of the restaurant.
"I am going off with this ring and I'll be back with the money as soon
as I possibly can.  You pick some place for me to meet you."

Nancy glanced up and down the street, trying to find some spot where
she could amuse herself.

"I think I'd like to look around some book-shop--is there one near
here?"

"I'm an authority on the subject.  I know every book-shop in New York,
and if you'll follow me I'll show you my favorite haunt.  Then I can be
sure that you won't wander away--my only trouble will be in getting you
out of the place, and if I were wise I wouldn't let you go there under
any circumstances.  But my generosity was always very much greater than
my wisdom."

He conducted Nancy, accordingly, to this paradise, and rather
lingeringly withdrew on his errand, leaving her in the quaint little
shop, where perfect tidal waves of books rose on all sides of her,
distracting her with alluring, familiar titles, with the sight of
hundreds upon hundreds of rare old volumes, and with that peculiar
smell of leather and paper and ink and mustiness which is to the
nostrils of the book-lover as the scent of earth and trees is to the
wanderer.

On one of the shelves her eyes caught a glimpse of a name on the back
of three or four delicately bound volumes, and she quickly took one of
them down to inspect it, suddenly remembering her uncle's remark about
that "author-person."  The name on the back of the book was "George
Arnold."  It was a volume of stories, finely bound, and illustrated
with pen drawings by a very famous artist and designer; and was
prefaced by a foreword from the pen of one of the most celebrated of
the present-day English critics.

Nancy promptly climbed up on a high stool that stood near the shelf,
and with her heels hooked on the second rung and the book spread open
on her lap began to read.  She had time to glance only here and there;
and it was with surprise and pleasure that she saw a sentence in the
preface which spoke of the "writings of Mr. Arnold" as being "an
example of the most delicate artistry.  A talent so rare, so peculiarly
sensitive, so rich in a wholly inimitable poetry, and waywardness of
fancy, that one hardly hesitates to pronounce it actual genius."  And
it was this "genius," this "prophet in his own country," who at the
present moment was hurrying off in _her_ service.  Nancy felt a
positive thrill of dismay, mingled with something else that was wholly
pleasant and exciting.  But how in the world could she ever call him
"George."  Imagine calling a famous writer by his first name--it seemed
impertinent, to say the least.

To tell the truth, she spent a good deal more of her time thinking
about this simple, friendly gentleman than in browsing over the
book-shelves which, under ordinary circumstance, would have been so
fascinating to her.  Why was he so very nice to _her_--insignificant
her?  How could she possibly be interesting to a man who had probably
been intimate with many of the most celebrated men and women of the
day?  But, of course, it was very likely that he wasn't particularly
interested in her, and was only that he had a generous disposition.  He
was ever so much older than she was--thirty-four anyway--and probably
he thought she was a nice child.

She was pondering thus, the book still open on her lap, and her back to
the door, when he returned, flushed with satisfaction, and also with
haste.

"I say, I've done a marvellous stroke of business," he announced, as he
came up behind her.  "You seem to have found a very absorbing book,
Nancy--aren't you at all interested in learning what my amazing talent
for high finance has accomplished?"

"I can't tell you how good you have been to me," began Nancy,
gratefully and shyly.

"I haven't been good to you a bit.  It's you who have been good to
_let_ me help you," he said, smiling down into her eyes.  "I take it as
a very high compliment that you were frank enough with me to tell me
how I could serve you; because there is nothing, you know, that I would
rather do.  That sounds rather flowery, doesn't it?  But it's quite
true.  Now listen--I have brought you the sum of one hundred and fifty
American dollars.  That's more than you expected to get on the ring,
isn't it?"

"A hundred and fifty!"

"Here it is, in beautiful clean notes.  I'll explain it all to you
presently.  Did you find anything nice?  What book have you got there?"
He glanced at the volume she held, and seeing what it was, laughed, and
took it away from her.

"How did you ever find _that_?" he asked, in a deprecating voice,
though, at that, genuinely modest as he was, he was not ill-pleased.
"I thought you would have found something better.  I'm not posing as
the modest author, and all that sort of thing, but there are some
wonderful books in here that you shouldn't have missed."

"I--I didn't know you were--I mean----"

"You mean you didn't know that I was all that that critic chap says I
am?  Well, I'm not.  He's just gotten into the amiable habit of saying
kind things in his old age--so that he can get into Heaven when he
dies, in spite of all the damage he did in his youth.  Come
along--unless you want to look about you some more."

"I'll be ready in a moment," said Nancy, slipping off the stool.
"I--there's something being wrapped for me that I want to get."  With
that she went off to the back of the store and had the little volume
tied up, and paid for it with the last cent in her pocketbook.  Then
she returned.

"All right now?  Here is your money."  He took a fat envelope out of
his pocket and gave it to her, and they left the shop.

As they walked across to Fifth Avenue, he explained to her rather
vaguely the proceeding by which he had raised the money for her; but
while she quite failed to understand it all she rested upon her faith
in his superior intelligence in business matters.

"When I want to get the ring back again, what do I do? and don't I have
to pay interest?"

"Oh, no, you don't have to pay interest, that's the wonderful part of
it.  And when you want it back, you just tell me.  I'll have to get it
for you, but you won't mind that, will you?"

"Oh, no--oh, you _have_ been so kind, Mr. Arnold, I mean, G-George.
Only you won't say anything to Uncle Thomas--of course you won't, but
I'm just mentioning that."

"I won't breathe a word to any living thing on land or sea.  This is
our own private conspiracy, and no one shall have any part in it," he
assured her, gaily.  "Only please promise me that, if you should need
any help again, you'll ask me.  I--it disturbed me very much to find
you at old Zeigler's, though of course it was my good fortune."

There was an abundance of time before Nancy's train left, so they
strolled at an easy pace down Fifth Avenue, stopping to look in at the
shop windows whenever they saw anything that caught their fancy, and
chatting together as if they had known each other all their lives.  At
the corner of Forty-fourth Street, Mr. Arnold suddenly dove into a huge
florist's shop on the corner, and in a moment returned bearing a bunch
of Parma violets, tied with a silken cord and tassel.

"I say, will you wear these?" he asked, bluntly.  "You know, I always
wanted to give a bouquet to a young lady, but I never could find the
young lady to whom I wanted to give them.  The flowers were plentiful,
but I began to think that the lady didn't exist."  Nancy colored at the
compliment with which he proffered her the flowers, and dimpled as only
a rosy girl can dimple.  His attentions were very flattering, and his
half-shy, boyish manner made them doubly so.

"Now do tell me what book you have there?" he asked, as they turned
east on Forty-second Street.  "Is it something very learned or very
frivolous?"

With a little laugh, Nancy handed him the package.

"You can open it, if you promise to tie it up again," she said,
watching his face out of the corners of her eyes, as he untied the
string.  He glanced from the book to her face, trying to look
disapproving, though he could not quite conceal his look of naïve
pleasure.

"_Very_ frivolous.  I see that I shall have to direct your book-buying
as well as your business.  Why didn't you let me get it for you if you
wanted it?"

"Because I wanted to get it for myself--you probably wouldn't have let
me get it."

"Well, if I had given it to you, I could have written something in it,
and that's something I always wanted to do, you know, something about
'the compliments of the author' in a flowing script."

"Well, why don't you write something in it anyway?"

"May I?"

"Only not 'the compliments of the author.'"

He took her to the train, and then standing beside her seat, took out
his fountain pen, and scribbled on the fly-leaf of the little volume.

"There," he said, handing it back to her.  "Now, good-bye.  I am going
to see you again in the holidays, am I not?  I have enjoyed two or
three hours to-day more than I have enjoyed anything in years."  He
took her hand and shook it warmly, and then as the train gave a warning
jerk, he hurried off.

With the great fragrant bunch of violets at her waist, with money in
her pocket to set her mind at rest, and with the memory of a singularly
pleasant episode, Nancy saw the wintry landscape, over which a fresh
snow was beginning to fall, through rosy spectacles.  Somehow, not even
the thought of the latest and greatest trouble loomed so very black and
terrifying in her mind.  She glanced down at the little book in her
lap, and then opened it at the fly-leaf.  He had written, "To
commemorate To-day," and had signed it simply, "George."  It had been a
day of unusual unhappiness and unusual pleasure--not even he had
understood what the mingling had been for Nancy, but the memory of the
pleasure outweighed the memory of trouble; as if ashamed of herself she
tried to fix her thoughts on plans for helping and advising her mother
and Alma; but at length she gave it up, to review the little,
delightful trivial memories of "To-day," putting off the recollection
of trouble until To-morrow.



CHAPTER XIV

PARADISE COTTAGE

The twenty-second of December, a red letter date, indeed, for some
fifty excited, bustling girls, dawned without bringing much of a thrill
to the two Prescotts.  Neither of them could enter with genuine
enthusiasm into the gay holiday anticipations of the others, finding in
them too depressing a contrast to their own expectations of a not very
happy Christmas tide.

Nancy had shown Alma their mother's letter, and had had several long
and serious talks with the poor child, who had been almost overcome
with despair.  Neither of them even thought of the matter of the
examination, that trouble having been completely wiped out by the newer
and heavier one, nor did they draw any particular satisfaction from the
fact that Alma's Latin examination had been credited, and her name
cleared of suspicion, while the identity of the actual culprit remained
their own secret.  The debt to Mildred had been paid, Alma evidently
believing that the money had been sent by Providence, and asking Nancy
no questions.

So far as the matter of the examination was concerned, Miss Leland had
allowed the subject to drop, simply announcing her gratification at the
fact that there had unquestionably been a mistake, and that Miss
Drinkwater was satisfied on this point.  A coldness that reached the
condition of an almost habitual silence sprang up between Alma and
Mildred, and the fact that Mildred asked for no explanations gave
further circumstantial proof of her own guilt.

The incident of her trip to New York with the ring and her meeting with
Mr. Arnold Nancy did not mention; feeling a peculiar shyness about it,
and a wholesome dread of being teased.  Her violets had been smuggled
up to her room so that they would not lead to questions and jokes, and
had faded away slowly in an inconspicuous corner, diffusing their
fragrance extravagantly as they drooped and wilted over the edges of a
tooth-brush mug.  But two of them had been chosen to immortalize their
memory, and had been carefully pressed between the pages of the little
volume of stories.

After a first outburst of despair and tears, Alma had taken the bad
news from home with a quiet pluck that surprised and touched Nancy.
Her old-time unquestioning faith in Nancy was revived again, and she
felt that if Nancy could take a cheerful view of the outlook, why, it
could not be so very bad.

They left for home again, on the early afternoon train, with ten or
fifteen of the other girls, all of whom were, of course, in the highest
spirits.  Only Charlotte knew that they would not return to Miss
Leland's after the holidays, and her sorrow at parting with Nancy was
touchingly apparent in her effort to seem cheerful.

It was after four o'clock when the two girls, trudging up from the
Melbrook station, through the snow, at length came in sight of the
little brown house.  The long red rays of the sinking sun threw the
shadows of the bare trees across the unbroken white surface of the
lawn; and the cottage, with its gabled roof, was silhouetted against
the ruddy, western sky, so that it looked as if the light were
radiating from it.

"Oh, Nancy!"  Alma turned a shining face to her sister.  "I don't much
care what happens--it's home, and nothing can change that!  Mother and
Hannah's inside, and there's a fire, and it's all so snug, and safe,
and _loving_!"

Nancy, who was gazing at the beloved little place with bright, dreamy
eyes, and that tender smile on her mouth that always gave her face a
singularly winning sweetness, answered:

"It makes me think of a picture I saw once--it was called the 'House at
Paradise'--I don't know why.  It was just the picture of a quaint
little house, that seemed to be glowing from something inside of
it--and perhaps because the house in the picture made me think of our
home, I've always thought of this as 'Paradise Cottage.'  Oh, my dear,
let's run!"

It was not until after supper, when they had gathered around the
fireside just as they used to, in dressing-gowns and slippers, that
they opened the council of war.

"Oh, my dears, what can you do?" sighed Mrs. Prescott.  "I had hoped
for so much.  It will kill me to feel that my daughters are forced to
work for their living by my fault."

"I really do think that I'd sort of like to make some money," added
Alma.  "Of course I'm not fitted for anything in particular, but, do
you know, I was just wondering why I couldn't get some position like
that girl in Mr. Dixon's office.--Do you know what, she said that after
the first of the year she expected to get a position in New York, and
I'll bet my hat that I could get that very place!"

Inspired by this sudden idea, Alma sat bolt upright on the shabby sofa,
and pursing up her lips, with self-satisfaction looked from her mother
to Nancy, who promptly applauded.

"Brilliant!  I remember her saying that, too.  Let's go over and see
Mr. Dixon to-morrow," said Nancy.  "I don't see why _I_ couldn't give
lessons, you know, tutor children--like the two little Porterbridge
girls, for example.  Margaret doesn't go to school because she's so
delicate, and I know that last winter Mrs. Porterbridge kept Dorothy at
home with her.  I might even be able to get up a little class.  I don't
look so awfully young, and lots of girls my age have done it.  Miss
Drinkwater at school told me that she had begun to help her father with
his pupils when she was less than seventeen, and I'll be eighteen in
March.  I'd love it, too."

Soon they were all chatting and laughing like schoolgirls, the three of
them.

"I used to think I wanted ever so many things," observed Alma, with a
pretty little air of earnest thought fulness.  "But do you know what,
I've discovered that I never really wanted anything more than what I've
already got--you and Nancy, Mother."



CHAPTER XV

THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE MR. PRESCOTT

A little after five o'clock on a dull January afternoon the two sisters
met on the road that ran from Melbrook to the cottage.  It had been
just a week since they had actually started in "working."  Alma had
just spoken in time to get the position that had been opened in the
young village lawyer's office, guided by a kindly Providence.

"I don't see how you are clever enough to teach, Nancy," said Alma,
looking at her sister's rather tired face with admiration.  "I'd be
throwing books and things inside of five minutes.  But isn't it
wonderful to think that we are really and truly making money?  Did you
ever believe that we could do it?  I just hope that Uncle Thomas hears
what we are doing--that'll just show him that we don't want anything
from _him_.  I wonder what Mildred would say to us--wouldn't she be
shocked, though?"

Inside the little house, Alma banged the door behind her, while Nancy
shouted gaily to her mother up-stairs.

"Well, well, well, what is all this noise for?" inquired a calm,
masculine voice from the sitting-room.  The two girls stopped still,
thunderstruck; for the voice, unfamiliar in its genial accents, was
nevertheless unmistakably the voice of Mr. Prescott!  Alma stared at
Nancy, Nancy stared back at Alma, neither of them knowing whether to
stay where they were or to go forward.

"I shan't bite," remarked Mr. Prescott, mildly.  Nancy boldly advanced,
being on more familiar terms with the "Ogre" than the frankly terrified
Alma, and to Alma's amazement he proceeded to kiss them both, and then,
as if embarrassed, cleared his throat, and said "How-do-you-do" in a
dry, formal tone.

In a few moments Mrs. Prescott came downstairs.  She looked older and
sadder than she had the last time he had seen her, and, because she had
denied herself any new clothes since she had lost the money, she now
wore an old gown which she had had for years.  It was not a pose with
her, for she no longer pitied herself, or bemoaned her limited means,
but rather a sincere half-childlike desire to punish herself for
having, as she believed, deprived her daughters of what she considered
the best things in life.  Nevertheless, her natural instinct for
daintiness had asserted itself in the little touches of lace at the
neck and wrists--and she looked pretty and dignified as she greeted Mr.
Prescott.

It was not long before the first feeling of constraint wore off.  As
Alma said afterwards, it was impossible to believe that they had been
laughing and chatting with the "Ogre" "just as if he were a nice old
man."  He called Mrs. Prescott "Lallie," and paid her two compliments.
He gave them a very long discourse on the value of a scientific
education for everybody, and from that veered off into a heated tirade
against the uselessness of modern education, anyway.

"Am I to understand that you two young ladies are--earning money?"
inquired Mr. Prescott.  Amusement, chagrin, curiosity, and admiration
were mingled in his changing expressions.

"Indeed we are," replied Alma, quite beaming with self-satisfaction.
"_Ever_ so much.  Of course, Nancy makes more than I, now--Nance is
much cleverer than I, but Nancy's work is more the intellectual kind,
you know, and Nancy will probably be famous, and I'll be rich."

"Bless my soul!" gasped the "Ogre," then suddenly he threw back his
head, and laughed and laughed, nor could Nancy and Mrs. Prescott keep
from joining in.  The more Alma proclaimed her enthusiasm for business,
the more patent her utterly delightful inaptitude for it became.

Then he grew grave, and turning to Mrs. Prescott said, in a gentle,
friendly voice:

"Lallie, I wish you would tell me--everything that has happened.  I
would be very dull, indeed, if I could not guess that you and my nieces
have had a new misfortune.  I blame myself.  I--I have made mistakes,
and--well, life is very short."

Mrs. Prescott was silent for a moment, and sat up stiffly, as if
uncertain whether she should listen to the dictates of her pride or of
her hopes.  Then presently, speaking in a quiet, monotonous voice, she
told him about her bad investment, and why she had made it.

When Mrs. Prescott had finished speaking, everyone was silent for a
little while.  Then Mr. Prescott said, abruptly:

"You have been only vain, Lallie."  Then, bluntly but not unkindly,
turning to Mrs. Prescott.  "Very vain, very foolish.  And now that
we've talked business, I'm going to ask if I may stay to supper?"

Of course he stayed.  And Hannah, as she saw the last of her delicacies
vanishing silently down the "Ogre's" lean, old throat, indulged in a
bright vision of his eventual surrender.

But, having stuck to his principles for thirteen years, Mr. Prescott
was not a man to change them in a moment of impulse.  After that
evening at his niece's he made no further reference to their affairs,
and seemed quite oblivious of their difficulties.  Some very narrow
straits lay ahead of the Prescotts, and they had to deny themselves
things that once their little income had allowed them.

Winter wore away into spring, and the girls went on doggedly with their
tasks.  Miss Bancroft had gone away for a month or so.  They had been
to see her several times during the winter, and she had dropped in to
see Mrs. Prescott fairly often.  There had been something very
delightful in those few afternoons spent with her; for she was one of
those charming old ladies who remain perennially girlish, and her
interest and sympathy in their talk had won from them a very warm
affection.  Mr. Arnold had not appeared on the scenes during the entire
winter and spring; having gone to England, Miss Bancroft had casually
explained, for an indefinite stay.  This intelligence had depressed
Nancy unaccountably, but she explained her depression to herself on the
grounds that she was worried about reclaiming the ring, which she
valued so dearly.

As the days grew longer, they had their tea out in the little garden,
which Nancy zealously tended.  And these pleasant evenings made the
whole day seem quite cheerful--if it had not been for the incessant
worry about the future.

One afternoon in the middle of the month, they were sitting out in the
little arbor, where the vines, covered with a veil of delicate, sticky
little leaves, already offered a light shade from the beams of the
western sun.  As Nancy turned her head to say something joking to Alma,
she noticed for the first time how very quiet her sister had been while
they had been talking.  Alma was lying full length on the little bench,
with her arm across her eyes.  Evidently feeling that her mother and
sister were wondering what was the matter, she took away her arm,
revealing a feverishly flushed face and heavy eyelids.  "I just have a
beastly old headache," she explained drowsily.  "It isn't anything but
spring fever."

"You poor little kid!" cried Nancy, going to her in concern and
throwing her arm around her.

"It isn't anything," said Alma, feebly.  "I had it yesterday, too, but
it wasn't so bad."

"Well, I'm going to see if you have any fever, anyway," Nancy said
quietly, not liking the look of Alma's hot cheeks and crimson lips.

They got Alma to bed, and in a few moments after her head had sunk into
the cool pillow, she had dozed off into a heavy sleep.  Nancy tried to
conceal her uneasiness, but Alma had a fever of a hundred and one,
which is not common to a simple headache.

But the visit from Dr. Bevan, cheerful as he was, did anything but set
their fears at rest.

Nancy could only stare from him to her mother in speechless
consternation, when it developed next day that Alma had the measles
beyond a doubt.  In the morning Mr. Dixon and the Porterbridges were
notified that the Prescotts could not be at their work.  The situation
was indeed a pretty serious crisis in their career; for their income
was reduced at once by something over a hundred dollars a month.  This
worry, however, was completely dwarfed when, on the third day after
Alma had fallen ill, Dr. Bevan announced that he thought it best to
send a trained nurse.

Nancy had had about all that she could bear, and without saying another
word, rushed off, to bury her face in the sofa cushions, and smother
her frantic sobs from her mother's ears.  It seemed to her absolutely
certain that Alma was going to die, and her mind filled with little
forgotten memories, each of which stabbed her with an agonizing pang of
misery.

The nurse, a very tall, strong, rosy woman named Miss Tracy, arrived
about noon-time and, quickly changing into her stiff white uniform,
ordered Mrs. Prescott off to lie down, telling Nancy that there was no
need for either of them to worry.  Her presence, her brisk, thorough,
confident manner, lifted a hundred pounds from their hearts, and for
the first time in three days they drew a breath of relief.  Mrs.
Prescott, who sadly needed sleep, lay down in her own room, and Nancy,
who had not been out of the house since Alma had fallen ill, took a
book and went out onto the porch to free her mind of worries that
seemed to have dulled her thoughts.  Everything had become so
complicated, it was so utterly impossible to know what was to be done,
that she felt as if it were no use worrying, as if something unforeseen
would have to happen to solve difficulties that were absolutely beyond
their power to solve.  And so she merely wondered idly how the nurse's
bills and the doctor's bills were to be paid.  And finally, the warm
air and the whirr of the lawn-mower, and the sleepy hum in the vines,
made her drowsy; her eyelids fell, opened, and then closed again.

"Oh, yes, I'm a very great man.  I know the King of England
intimately," someone who did not look at all _like_ Mr. Arnold, a fat,
pompous-looking man with mutton-chop whiskers, who, however, was Mr.
Arnold, kept repeating to her; and she kept wondering, "Why did I think
he was so nice?  Why did I think he was good-looking?"

Then all at once she heard someone coming up the wooden steps of the
porch.  She sat bolt upright, putting hasty hands to her tumbled, curly
hair, and with dazed, sleepy eyes stared at the newcomer with a
positively unintelligent expression of amazement.  At length she
articulated, in an almost reproachful tone:

"I thought you were in Europe.  You _were_ in Europe."

"Yes.  But one doesn't have to stay in Europe, you know, unless they
put you in jail over there, and I always try to avoid that," returned
Mr. Arnold pleasantly.

"But you've been there for months," said Nancy, quite aware that she
wasn't talking perfectly good sense.  And then they both burst out
laughing.

"Alma is ill," Nancy told him.  "She has measles, and we are in
quarantine, so you ought to go away."

He looked at her tired face, where the strain of fear and trouble
showed in her pale cheeks and heavy eyes, and then he smiled in his
warm, understanding way, and said gently:

"You've been worried to death about something, haven't you, Nancy?
Well, I'm not going to ask you any questions now, only, whenever you
feel that you want to, remember that you can tell me anything.  Would
you rather I went away now and came back later on, when you are less
troubled?  Is there anything I can do?"

"Oh, don't go away--I mean, it's very nice to see you.  Alma has a
nurse now, and I think she is going to be better soon--and it's so
_cheerful_ to see you!"

"Does Mr. Prescott know of Alma's illness?" he asked, after a moment's
hesitation.  "I don't think my aunt does.  She has just come back.  I
landed the day before yesterday, and came down here last night.  I--I
asked her about you all, and she said nothing about Alma's being ill."

"No, I don't suppose Uncle Thomas does know," answered Nancy.  "He
comes over to see us every now and then, but then again he'll shut
himself up for quite a long while, and I don't think he knows what we
are doing any more than we know what he's doing."

"You know I'm buying a house here in Melbrook," said Mr. Arnold, rather
irrelevantly.  "A very nice house--do you know that yellow one, with
the white columns and the porte-cochère over on Tindale Road?"

"I do know the one you mean," cried Nancy.  "It's a beauty.  There's
the loveliest old-fashioned garden----"

"That's it--that's the one.  I--you're sure you like it?"

For some reason or other Nancy turned pink at this simple question, and
tried to stammer a casual reply.  Then he went on serenely:

"I expect to have it in pretty good shape in a week or two, and when
your sister is better, I'd love to have you and your mother and Alma
come over and have tea with me.  Aunt Eliza is directing the furnishing
and all that--she's quite in her element, but I'd love to have your
expert advice too.  Heavens, _I_ don't know anything about chintz, and
scrim, and all that sort of foolishness."

He chatted along, telling her about his trip, recounting amusing little
incidents of the things that had happened on the boat, and completely
carrying her thoughts away from her own personal affairs.  But after a
little while she began to notice that he was really not thinking about
what he was saying, that he seemed to have something on his mind, which
he was always on the point of saying, and then veered off to something
else.  All at once he got up and remarked abruptly:

"What the dickens do I care personally for chintzes and scrim?  I don't
know which is which."  Nancy stared at him, thinking that he had taken
leave of his senses.  He rammed his long, brown hands fiercely into the
pockets of his gray trousers, took them out again, and thrust them into
the pockets of his coat; then, as if he had taken a deep breath, and
was holding it, he said:

"Will you marry me, Nancy?"

She could not have uttered a word.  She simply sat and stared at him.
Then, without being conscious of a single idea in her head, she jumped
up and made a dive for the door.  He caught her hand and made her turn
around and face him.  He had begun to smile, slightly, and it was that
gentle, wonderfully sweet smile, half-amused and half-tender, that made
her blush from the yoke of her gingham dress up to the edge of her hair.

"Well--will you?"

"I--I don't know," stammered Nancy; with that she promptly turned and
fled into the house.

Mr. Arnold stood regarding the screen-door with a blank expression;
then, after a moment or two, he walked away slowly.  It was not until
he had reached the gate that he remembered he had left his hat on one
of the porch chairs.

      *      *      *      *      *

Alma was sitting up.  Wrapped in a pink blanket, with her yellow curls
pinned on top of her head, where they nodded like the heads of
daffodils, surrounded by her admiring family, including Hannah and the
trained nurse, and a perfect garden of spring flowers, which had been
arriving daily since the appearance of Mr. Arnold, she was convalescing
visibly.

"I didn't know that Mr. Arnold was back," said Alma, burying her small
nose in a huge bouquet of white lilacs.  "Isn't it perfectly dear of
him to send these things, when I only met him once in my life?"  Upon
which guileless remark Nancy turned a lively and hopelessly noticeable
scarlet.  To make her embarrassment quite complete, Alma looked
directly into her eyes and grinned deliberately.

"I wonder why he takes such a tremendous interest in us?" she went on,
mercilessly.  "I feel it in my bones.  I feel as if something perfectly
scrumptious were going to happen."  Mrs. Prescott laughed and kissed
her.

"Now, Nancy, come on, and 'fess up," was the bomb which Alma hurled
without a word of warning.  "I know perfectly well that you've got
something on your conscience, and I've got a suspicion already that
it's Mr. Arnold."

If she was desirous of creating a sensation, she should have been amply
satisfied with the result of her remarks.  Mrs. Prescott, as if she had
been suddenly aroused from sleep, opened her pretty mouth and stared at
her elder daughter for a moment and then exclaimed:

"I must have been dreaming!"  Nancy squirmed.  She looked reproachfully
at Alma, then at her mother, and at length said simply:

"He--he asked me to marry him."  And then she followed with the whole
story.  She told them of her visit to her uncle, where she had seen Mr.
Arnold for the second time, and then went on to give a full account of
her memorable trip to the pawnbrokers' with the ring.

"I--I would have told you everything long ago, but I didn't want you to
think that Uncle Thomas was 'relenting' because he asked me to visit
him--and about the other time----"  Alma stopped her by leaning over
and kissing her.

"You were paying for _my_ experience," Alma said bravely.  "I
learned--I don't know what exactly, except that people like Mildred,
whom I always thought as being important to know, weren't worth one
teeny little ounce of trouble.  I learned to be honest with myself, and
that it's a whole lot better to work with your two hands than to be a
toady, for the sake of making things easier,--and lots else.  And I'm
going to work hard, Nancy----"

"Stuff and nonsense!" declared an angry voice from the doorway.  From a
gargantuan bouquet of hyacinths, lilacs, and daffodils, issued the
voice of the "Ogre."  Evidently, finding the front door open, and the
lower floor deserted, and hearing the sound of voices from above, the
old gentleman had borne his offering aloft, without a word of
announcement.  Snorting with some inward indignation, he testily tossed
his head to get rid of an impudent lilac which was tickling his nose,
and glared over the bouquet.

"This idea of working is pure foolishness.  I never heard of such
women's nonsense before in my life.  Here, where in the name of common
sense can I put these flowers, and why wasn't I informed of my niece's
illness?"  When Nancy, stifling her unseemly laughter, had relieved him
of his offering, he grew calmer.

"Why wasn't I told that you were ill, my dear?" he asked, sitting down
and taking Alma's hand in his.

"We--we hardly thought of anything until she began to be better,"
answered Mrs. Prescott.  He looked at her sternly a moment, and then
his whole face softened, almost to a look of humility and
shame-facedness.

"Once you told me that you were a foolish woman, Lallie," he said, "and
I must confess that for a very long time I was blind enough, and
selfish enough, to think it of you.  Now it's only fair that I should
be as brave as you and admit that I have been a very foolish man.  I
have been about the biggest fool that ever escaped the badge of long
ears.  All I did was to deprive myself of a lot of happiness, and to
deprive some other very dear people of happiness that it was my
privilege to bestow.

"Now, the truth is, that while my 'principles' were excellent,--they
wouldn't work.  They didn't do _me_ any good.  Hang it all!  Here I was
trying to make good, thrifty wives out of you two girls, for some young
rascal--and depriving myself of the sweetest pleasure in life for that
same impudent young husband who shan't have you, anyway!

"They were excellent principles, too, their only fault being that
they--wouldn't work.

"And now, ladies, I herewith adopt you.  I shall establish my legal
right to you all.  I--I feel--well, I hope I have made it quite clear,
that anything, everything--on this green earth, that I can give you, is
yours.  And if you want to make me very happy, you'll demand it
instantly."

For a little time no one said anything, then, heaving a great sigh,
Alma burst out:

"Uncle Thomas, I'll expire if I don't hug you!"

And when she _had_ hugged him, until there was more likelihood of _his_
demise than her own, he said:

"I'm afraid I'm breaking up a brilliant business career for you, ma'am.
The little that I can offer you is a mere nothing compared to the
dazzling prospects which were opening before you----"

"You needn't be jocose, Uncle," interrupted Alma, severely.  "Many a
millionaire started on only five cents, and _I_ started on fifteen
dollars!"

"I hear that young Arnold is buying a house here," remarked Mr.
Prescott.  "Now, what in the world is he doing that for?"

"Why, indeed?" murmured Alma, wickedly.  "The truth is, Uncle Thomas
that he is madly in love with me.  He sent me all these flowers, and,
measles or no measles, he has been serenading me every night; hasn't
he, Miss Tracy?"

"Alma!  You ridiculous creature," cried Mrs. Prescott, joining in the
laugh at this nonsense.  Uncle Thomas looked amused but puzzled, hardly
certain whether to believe there was an element of truth in this
rigmarole or not.  He glanced from Mrs. Prescott to Alma, to Nancy, and
there he paused.  He was a good enough reader of faces to know now
where the wind lay, and his eyes grew sober.

"Well, my dear little niece, you're pretty young," he said gently, "but
one is never too young to be happy.  What do you think, Lallie?"

Mrs. Prescott smiled, although there were tears in her eyes, and said:

"Ask Nancy, Uncle Thomas."

"Well, Nancy?"

Nancy tried to laugh, as she took her mother's hand and Alma's, and
faltered again:

"I--I don't know."

But here we, who can see into the minds of all these people, have no
hesitation about saying in just so many words, that she did know very
well; only she didn't know that she knew.

      *      *      *      *      *

The "Ogre" had sent a note to his nieces, asking them for dinner on a
certain June evening.  And strange to relate it was Nancy who delayed
the proceedings.  When she finally joined her admiring family she was
deliciously conscious that a dress of pale gold-colored organdie, and a
broad-brimmed hat trimmed with delicate blue flowers, were about the
most becoming things she could possibly wear.  And she was not entirely
ignorant of the fact that she could be very, very pretty when she
wanted to.  It was pleasant to register this interesting fact on other
people also, Miss Bancroft and the Ogre, and--well, George Arnold, for
instance.

It was partly on account of the gathering darkness, no doubt, or partly
because Alma wanted to look at the summer-house while Nancy and George
wanted to continue to look at the roses, but however it was--well,
there they were--Mr. Arnold and Miss Prescott, absorbedly looking at
the roses.  Or perhaps they weren't even looking at the roses.

"Now, look here, Nancy, if you'll be a good girl, and say what I tell
you to, I'll give you something nice.  It's not a candy, either."

"Wh-what do you want me to say?" gasped Nancy, suddenly feeling quite
terrified.

"First of all, put your hand in mine, so," he took her hand gently, and
then lifted it to his lips.  "And now say--'I love you, George!'"

"Oh--I c-can't!" whispered Nancy, feebly.

"Yes, you can.  Try it, dear."

"Well, don't you, Nancy?"  For the first time he sounded very grave,
and his eyes looked anxious.  Then somehow Nancy felt quite calm and
happy and brave, she answered him, honestly:

"Yes, I do.  I love you, George."

She felt him take her left hand and single out the third finger.  Then
she felt something cool slipped on it.  She gasped.  The first diamond
she had ever owned caught and flashed back a moonbeam.

"Oh--I didn't know it was that!" she stammered.  "I would have said
what--what you wanted me to, anyway, George.  I mean, _I_ wanted to,
awfully."

He promptly kissed her.





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