The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Merriweather Girls and the Mystery of the Queen's Fan, by Lizette M. Edholm This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.net Title: The Merriweather Girls and the Mystery of the Queen's Fan Author: Lizette M. Edholm Release Date: October 31, 2009 [EBook #30378] Language: English Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1 *** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK MERRIWEATHER GIRLS--QUEEN'S FAN *** Produced by Al Haines
[Transcriber's note: Extensive research found no evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
|III||The Merriweather Manor|
|IV||The Queen's Fan|
|V||Across the Hudson|
|VII||Lady Betty's Adventure|
|VIII||The Thorn in the Flesh|
|XI||The First Customer|
|XII||A Merry Christmas|
|XIV||The Lost Fan|
|XVIII||Colonel Baxter Returns|
The broad Hudson shimmered gaily in the sunshine of late summer, tiny rippling splashes of white dotted its surface and some of the joy of the day was reflected in the faces of the three girls who sat on the hillside far above the river bank, each intent on her own thoughts.
For a long time no one had spoken. Bet Baxter was watching a seagull rising, wheeling, soaring and settling again on the water, her blue eyes glowing as she followed the long sweeping lines of its flight and the tilt of its wings.
Joy Evans watched the gull with a different feeling. The thrill of its motion set every nerve in her body tingling with a desire to dance and skip or shout or laugh, while the quiet Shirley Williams did not see it at this moment; she was gazing into the finder of her camera as she pointed it toward the distant view of the Palisades.
The girls were often to be found here under the big elm tree. It was their favorite spot in all that wide expanse of lawn and woodland that made up the Merriweather Estate, the home of Colonel Baxter. And here it was that they always brought their picnic feast, and today the basket reposed near by filled with surprises that Auntie Gibbs, the Baxter housekeeper loved to prepare for Bet and her friends.
These girls had the run of the grounds, for Uncle Nat, the old gardener was as indulgent with this motherless girl as her easy-going father. What Bet wanted, she usually got, for no one could quite resist the charm of her smile, least of all her two chums, Shirley Williams and Joy Evans.
They made a lovely picture as they sat there with the sunlight pouring down upon them. Bet's golden hair was rumpled by the wind—but then Bet's hair was mostly rumpled for one reason or another. Her face was flushed, her eyes bright—just because she was happy and enjoyed life.
Shirley's head was bent over her camera. She was the serious one of the group. Shirley could enter into the good times as well as the others, but her smile came less quickly. And there were days, like the present, when her face would wrinkle with a frown as she tried to work out some problem in photography. Picture-taking was her hobby, and when the other girls skipped and danced about, Shirley would often trudge along burdened with a camera and tripod.
Joy was all sunshine. It was just as impossible for her to keep still as it would be for a dancing sunbeam to become motionless. Now, as she watched the gull, she suddenly jumped to her feet, and poising on tiptoe, swayed her slender body in rhythm with the flight of the gull.
Abruptly, a rustling sound, the breaking of a twig, disturbed the quiet and Bet sat erect with a gasp of surprise. She caught Joy by the arm. "S-sh! Keep quiet!"
For a tall girl, slightly older than the three, had appeared on top of the stone wall that enclosed the estate and with a quick jump had straddled it. Whipping off her cap she twirled it around her head. "Whoopee!" she shouted, and her curly black locks bobbed in the breeze. Then beating her cap against the wall at her side she cried: "Go it Powder! Let's race! Faster! Faster! Good old pony!"
Bet and her friends might have laughed at this strange sight if the play had continued a moment longer, but in the next second the girl had thrown herself flat on the wall and had burst into tears.
Bet reached her first, "What's the matter, dear?" she called. "Are you hurt? Let us help you!"
But the stranger had disappeared on the other side of the wall, or partly disappeared, for her heavy skirt had caught on a barbed wire that ran along the fence and held her suspended, head down.
With a spring Bet was on the wall. Letting herself drop to the other side, she caught the stranger's head in her arms and eased the fall, as the dress ripped and gave way.
The young girl's tears had vanished by the time she was once more in a standing position. Her face was red with embarrassment.
"I'm so sorry.—I'm terribly ashamed.—I didn't know anyone was around here. I thought I was miles in the country." She hesitated a second then added: "Did you see my exciting horseback ride?"
"Yes, we saw it!" laughed Bet, but it was such a hearty, friendly laugh that the stranger could not be hurt by it. In fact she had to laugh herself and was warmly drawn toward the girls as they pressed about her, brushing the dust off her dress, rescuing her cap, and even pinning the torn skirt.
Then the newcomer started to explain things, hesitated and grew confused, but Bet exclaimed: "Who are you and where did you come from? I thought I knew everybody in Lynnwood."
"I only came yesterday. I'm from Arizona and my name is Kit Patten."
"Oh, you're the girl Mrs. Stacey phoned me about. I told her I would be over to see you when you came. But this is a much better way of getting acquainted, isn't it?"
"I didn't know how far away this place was from Arizona or I don't believe I would ever have had the courage to come. I'm just plain homesick!" and another burst of tears threatened to overflow.
"You won't have a chance to be lonesome here," exclaimed Bet impulsively. "Will she, girls?"
"I should say not!" chirruped Joy. "But did you say you came from Arizona? Oh I'd just love to live in Arizona, and I don't blame you one bit for being lonesome. Arizona must be simply grand. I think cowboys are swell! I saw one in the movies the other night, and oh, he was handsome. Are all cowboys handsome?"
"Well no, not exactly!" laughed Kit. "—That is, I don't think so, I don't believe I ever saw a real handsome cowboy."
"You should go to the movies then. The one I saw the other day had the loveliest voice. Oh, I'd love to go to Arizona."
"And do people go around shooting all the time?" asked Bet. "Do tell us about it."
"Of course they don't shoot all the time. But there's nothing a cowboy likes better than to hear the noise of a gun, I do believe."
"And are you a cowgirl?" asked Joy. "I'd love to be a cowgirl and swing a rope around my head. Kit, won't you teach me how to throw a rope?"
Kit laughed in some confusion. The tears were not very far away. As she looked around her she said suddenly, "Well perhaps in time I'll get used to this."
"Used to what?" asked Bet puzzled.
"The houses and stores and no place big enough to stretch in! It's horrible!"
The girls looked at each other in surprise. They did not know what she was trying to say. Evidently Lynnwood did not please her. Indignation was not far away from Bet, who thought her home town was the best place in all the world.
Feeling that some explanation was necessary, Kit said: "I thought I'd choke down there with all those houses around, then I came up here where I could breathe, and I bumped into that "Private Property" sign—and, oh, I'll never get used to it. Never! I want to go home."
Bet's arm was around her. "Don't you mind, honey! You have us, and we'll make up to you for a lot of things, ponies and everything."
"Aw come on, cheer up!" sang Joy Evans. "It isn't so bad here as you may think. As long as Bet and Shirley and I are around and take you under our wings, you'll never miss what you left behind, because I'll tell you right now, we're a lively bunch."
"Oh I know," agreed Kit. "It's just because I'm disappointed in the place. Mrs. Stacey, who is a girlhood friend of mother's, wrote that she had a lovely big yard for me to play in. And it is the biggest yard on that street, but after the desert and the mountains that go on for miles and miles, why this is just nothing at all, and I feel as if I were a wild bronco put out on a hobble."
At which everybody laughed heartily and the ice was forever broken.
"Come over on the other side of the wall," invited Bet, and seeing the girl hesitate with a glance at the sign she added: "Oh don't mind that sign. That's only for tramps. This is my home, I'm Bet Baxter and these are my two chums, Shirley Williams and Joy Evans."
Kit hesitated once more. "Were you having a picnic or something? Perhaps I'm not wanted."
"It's a picnic and you are wanted," cried Bet. "We all want her, don't we girls? All right, give her the welcome!"
Instantly the girls raised a chorus:
"Do we want her!
Do we want her!
Yes, we do, do, do!"
This cheering call echoed through the woods and it filled the heart of the little mountain girl with happiness.
It seemed to be Kit's unlucky day, for as she climbed down the wall her skirt caught once more on the wire and completed its destruction.
"Now that dress is done for! What a clumsy colt I am! You'd think I'd never been broken to saddle!" exclaimed Kit as her brown eyes snapped. "Don't I look a sight?"
The three girls were fascinated by the stranger. She walked with long swinging strides that she had learned in climbing hills from babyhood. Even the way she expressed herself was different from the girls in the village.
"What a pity you've spoiled your dress," said Bet. "I'll have that wire taken off immediately!" she exclaimed in indignation. "That's for tramps too, but I've told Dad more than once that the wire must go. Now I'll just have to insist."
It was Kit's turn to stare in amazement, for Bet's face was stern and reproving as she spoke of her father, much as if he were a small boy who had to be punished.
"Now where I come from, fathers say what's what, and not daughters," laughed Kit. Dad Patten was a pleasant man, quiet and given to few words, but he was the one who ruled, and no one else gave orders.
"Bet is a lucky girl, Kit. She's an only child and I'll tell you a secret, she's frightfully spoiled. She does just as she pleases all the time." This was from Shirley, who had scarcely spoken before. She was not less friendly than the others but found it harder to express herself freely.
"Don't believe her, Kit," laughed Bet Baxter. "There are lots of things I'm not allowed to do. Dad is one of the best and most understanding Dads but I always do exactly as he tells me."
"That's the joke," laughed Shirley. "Her father never tells her to do anything!"
"Let's eat!" exclaimed Joy. "I'm almost starved!" She was twirling on tiptoe on the top of a flat stone. "Do let's unpack the basket!"
"And I must go. I told Mrs. Stacey I'd be back soon. If you'll just tell me which way to start out. I'm lost!" laughed Kit.
"Oh you can't get lost in Lynnwood if you'd try. All roads lead to Main Street," declared Bet.
"Or away from Main Street, as I've found out this morning!"
"Oh but you must stay for the picnic; we wouldn't enjoy it now without you," urged Joy.
"But Mrs. Stacey might worry. No, I won't start in by causing her trouble. That wouldn't be right."
"I'll tell you what I'll do," exclaimed Bet. "You girls arrange the lunch under that tree and I'll run home and telephone Mrs. Stacey. She'll say yes, I know she will."
Without waiting for Kit's assent, Bet raced up the path, her hair flying in disorder, then she disappeared in the shrubbery. In a short time she returned with the good news that Kit was to spend the afternoon and evening with the girls. Mrs. Stacey was more than delighted that her young charge had found so congenial a group of friends. Not having children of her own, she hardly knew what to do with Kit. And when Bet promised to look after her, she was greatly relieved, for everyone in Lynnwood knew the bright little daughter of Colonel Baxter and trusted her.
When Bet returned with the good news, the lunch was already spread.
"Why this isn't a lunch at all!" exclaimed Joy with enthusiasm. "It's a banquet. And one of Auntie Gibbs' special ones. Isn't she a dear! She remembered that I liked devilled eggs."
"How you flatter yourself! Don't imagine for a minute that she made those for you. They were for her own little angel, Bet," said Shirley with a quiet laugh.
"An angel is the last thing she'd call me, Shirley. I know I've been frightfully contrary lately and I'm not in Auntie Gibbs' good graces. She said the other day she wished I had come a boy; that boys were lots nicer."
"The very idea!" cried the girls together. "Boys better than girls! That's silly!"
"Well if it's boys she likes, you certainly do your best to make her happy, for you look like a boy—and act like one most of the time," teased Joy.
"Thanks for the flattery!" Bet tossed her head with a pretended air of superiority. "I'd love to be a boy!"
"What would you do?" asked Joy.
"I'd run away to sea!"
"Old stuff! Take a big jump and get up to date!" Joy came back at her with a snap.
"Why be so old fashioned?" laughed Shirley. "Do something modern!"
"Maybe I'd stow away on an airplane then, going to China."
"That's more like you, Bet Baxter. That sea stuff never appealed to me. They always were made to work. And there isn't much work on an airplane," said Joy helping herself to another devilled egg.
"Do unwrap that package there," cried Shirley. "Let's see what Auntie Gibbs made for me. Chicken sandwiches, oh boy! And Auntie Gibbs' chicken sandwiches are the best ever, aren't they?"
"We ought to know," laughed Bet. "We've eaten about a ton of them. —Here Kit, do help yourself. Have another egg."
Kit had never tasted such a lunch. And it was all put up in such an appetizing way, it seemed a pity to disturb it. Everything was wrapped in wax paper or put up in small jars. There was actually a dish of crisp salad. There were stuffed olives and Bet grasped the jar with a little cry:
"Let's see if it is Auntie Gibbs' special. Oh girls, it is, it is! Auntie Gibbs' stuffed olives!"
"Well she has outdone herself!" Joy was munching an olive as she showered praise on the old housekeeper at the Manor.
"You know, Kit," explained Bet, "these stuffed olives are Auntie Gibbs' own invention and what goes into the filling of them, no one knows but herself. It's her secret!"
"And it's a secret to the death!" laughed Shirley. "She says she'll never tell and when she dies she will bequeath the recipe to her best friend. Won't that sound funny in a will?"
Kit laughed heartily at these new friends and Bet continued: "Oh yes, Auntie Gibbs makes a sort of religion out of her cooking. And when she hits upon something especially good, she guards the recipe as if it were a treasure and freezes up hard if anyone asks her how she made it."
"I wonder why?" ventured Kit.
"She says if everybody makes the same thing, it's no treat."
"This is very different from an Arizona picnic, girls," exclaimed Kit suddenly.
"Do tell us about it, Kit. What did you eat?"
"We mostly had Arizona strawberries and mountain trout," chuckled Kit and was pleased to see Bet's face express disbelief.
"Why, I didn't know you had strawberries in Arizona."
"And where do you get trout in that hot desert country, when the streams all go dry half the time?" asked Shirley.
Kit laughed with all her might. "There I knew I'd get caught at that old joke. Well you see it's this way. Arizona strawberries are the little red Mexican beans, which we pretty nearly live on out there. And the mountain trout are the strips of bacon that are fried to go with them."
"Oh you mean thing, trying to fool us like that!" shouted Joy, who had been sitting still so long that she had grown tired. Now she danced away down the path with a sandwich held above her head.
"What else would you have for a lunch?" asked Shirley.
"Oh like as not we'd take a Dutch oven along and bake biscuit—and make coffee. They are great on coffee in the desert. Sometimes we have great big picnics when people for miles around come."
"And are there lots of cowboys there?" asked Joy. "Now I'm getting interested. Imagine a picnic with lots of handsome cowboys. Oh, Kit you should have seen the show the other night. It was simply grand!"
"Oh, Joy, do keep quiet! Kit was telling us about the big picnic. What do they have at that?" Bet was interested in the description of the country that was unknown to her.
"That's when they have a barbecue."
"What in the world is that?" demanded Joy.
"The men dig great holes in the ground, and make a fire in it, and when there is a good bed of coals they hang a whole steer in it until it is roasted."
"I don't see how they can do it," said Bet.
"Of course the men have to dig the big trench and get the fire going the night before in order to get the bed of coals. Then they put in the sides of beef on iron rods, and cover it all over with green boughs. —And when that meat is roasted, you never tasted anything so good."
"It must be nice to live out there," mused Joy.
"I'd like to go and take pictures sometime," said Shirley.
"Maybe you can someday. Wouldn't I love to show you my mountains and desert!"
"And would you let me ride Powder?" asked Bet.
"Yes, that is if you wanted to after you'd see him buck. That horse is a rascal. And how he bucks! Even I have to hold on for dear life."
The picnic lunch ended with iced orangeade and little tarts filled with raspberries.
"Those must have been cooked for you, Kit, for we've never had any of them before," laughed Bet. "And one thing sure, if Auntie Gibbs had known that there was to be a new girl with us, she would have made her something special. She's a dear!"
"This lunch was simply perfect, Bet. I've eaten too much, as usual. I'm a little piggy. But oh how happy I am!" sang Joy.
Shirley had finished some time before and was setting the camera in place for a picture, arranging the attachment that enabled her to be in the group.
"What's she doing?" asked Kit as Shirley announced that everything was ready.
"It's this way," replied the girl. "I'm the only one who knows how to take a decent picture, so I have always had to be left out. I got tired of it and bought an attachment so I can snap the thing and be in it at the same time."
"That's clever! I've read about it, but I've never seen it worked."
Joy, who had been dancing around on one foot, suddenly came to a stop, munched the last of a raspberry tart and exclaimed: "Girls, I've got an idea!"
"Hooray!" cried Bet. "Joy has an idea, the first one today! Speak, child!"
"Wait a minute, girls,—now keep still just a second! There, okay! The picture is taken!" announced Shirley.
"Now for that idea, Joy. Let's hear it." The girls selected a shady spot and seated themselves while Joy continued:
"Wouldn't it be nice to form a club of some sort and meet every Saturday?"
"And as many times during the week as possible," readily agreed Bet. "What fun we can have!"
"But if we are a club, we should have a serious purpose. All clubs do," said Shirley.
"We might even do things for other people, like the Camp Fire Girls or the Girl Scouts," suggested Kit.
"Of course we wouldn't want to be selfish and think only of ourselves. We must stand for something. Honor, Loyalty and Friendship!" prompted Shirley again.
"Oh isn't that a good idea!" exclaimed Bet. "Let's do it."
"And we must have a name for our club," said Joy. "Bet, you think of something nice."
Bet buried her face in her two hands to shut out all the disturbing things about her, the trees, the blue sky and the big dark cloud in the distance. Usually she had ideas at the tip of her tongue, but it was the quiet Shirley who had an inspiration.
"Let's call ourselves the Merriweather Girls! I do love the name of Colonel Baxter's estate. Merriweather Manor!"
"How lovely!" exclaimed Kit. "Merriweather, what a pretty name! I'd love to be called a Merriweather Girl. —And wouldn't Mother be proud!"
"And we can take as our ideal the lovely Lady Betty Merriweather, the Lady of the Manor," said Bet thoughtfully.
"Oh tell me about her!" begged Kit.
"It's too long a story, Kit. When Bet gets talking about Lady Betty of the Manor, she keeps it up for the whole afternoon. Some rainy day when we have to stay in, she'll tell you the story," replied Shirley.
"Anyway now, we want to get this club started properly," cried Joy. "Come on and join hands!" The girls formed a circle, pressed their hands in a warm clasp and thus their club was formed and plans begun for helpfulness, friendship and fun.
They had hardly more than finished their lunch when the first cloud came over their friendship, but as it was a cloud laden with rain, appearing just over the top of the Palisades, it did not hurt the girls. With merry laughter they packed the basket, scattering crumbs and crusts over the grassy bank for the birds and squirrels.
"We'll have to hurry and get home, it's going to rain!" urged Bet. "We'll continue the first meeting of our club in my room."
"Oh I don't want to go to the Manor today, girls. My dress isn't presentable! I'll come some other time."
"Indeed you won't; you'll come now. We'll fix you up with another dress, so don't worry!" promised Bet.
Bet gave a loud, shrill whistle and stood waiting. Kit wondered what was coming now. Bet seemed to be waiting like a magician. Having whistled, it was time for the trick to appear.
Something did come with a rush. A big brown animal, as big as a mountain lion, leaped through the woods and rushed toward them. Although Kit was used to life in the open, she gasped for a moment, expecting to see the big creature spring upon them.
It was Bet's big collie dog. She threw both arms around his neck as he ran to her. "Come on Smiley Jim! You're a good boy! You did it just right that time, Smiley!" Then she turned to Kit and continued: "You can't imagine what a time I've had trying to teach that pup to obey."
"He seems to be well trained now. I never saw an order obeyed any quicker than that," laughed Kit.
"Smiley Jim, listen to me. This is our new chum, Kit Patten. I want you to be nice to her and welcome her in your best style!"
As if the dog understood what his mistress was saying, he gave a bound toward Kit, almost upsetting her, as he jumped with extended tongue. His lips were drawn back over his teeth in a broad grin.
"Shake hands, Smiley Jim," called Bet.
The dog put up his paw and Kit took it in her hand.
"Well, that's the first time I ever saw a dog smile," she exclaimed in astonishment. "Our mountain dogs are nothing much to look at. Dad calls them curs, but I like any kind of a dog. And this one is a beauty, I love him already!"
Smiley Jim felt that he had been given charge of Kit, for he stayed near her and pawed at her dress, demanding attention.
Shirley and Joy now finished the packing of the basket and were covering it as if it were to be sent on a long journey, but the reason was soon apparent when Smiley Jim started toward it, and took the handle in his mouth. He dropped it suddenly and gave several loud barks, making sure that everyone had seen his deed of helpfulness, then started toward the Manor.
"You see," laughed Shirley. "Even Smiley Jim wants to join our club and help others."
"And he wants the whole world to know that he's doing something noble. —But I don't blame him for that," bubbled Joy.
"That dog is strong for flattery," laughed Bet. "He just eats it up. Scold him and he'll pout like a wee child; praise him and he thrills."
"He's exactly like a human being, isn't he Bet?" remarked Shirley with a smile.
"Half the time I pretend he is human. I tell him all my secrets and all my happy surprises and even my troubles. And when I'm blue, he does my howling for me. Truly he does. He can't bear to see me sad."
"He's a wise dog. No one should be sad. I'm glad I'm alive! Right now I want to dance and shout, I'm so happy!"
"Go to it, Joy!" laughed Bet. "No one will stop you!"
The girl worked off her enthusiasm with a few well executed handsprings and cartwheels. "I'd better get rid of some of this energy or I may wreck the Manor!"
As they came in sight of the Manor, Auntie Gibbs, the housekeeper, was looking anxiously from the kitchen door, for the cloud that had been threatening, now opened with a deluge of rain and peal after peal of thunder sent the girls scurrying toward the side entrance.
Smiley Jim was already on the veranda, having deposited his burden, he was now barking excitedly, demanding the attention that he felt he merited.
Merriweather Manor dominated the hill, it occupied the very highest point of the estate and from its walls the ground sloped away, at one side, straight down to the high bank above the river. Century-old elms overshadowed the house and half hid the fine lines of the famous Colonial structure.
The Manor had been built by Lord Cecil Merriweather before the Revolution and had been kept up without being remodelled. It almost seemed as if its old timbers had retained the gay atmosphere that Lord Cecil and his lady had bequeathed it.
The front of the house stood out boldly with its great pillars. Along the side, double verandas ran the length of the house. These were the delight of Bet, for they had been her playground since babyhood.
The interior was no less attractive. Colonel Baxter was a collector of Colonial antiques and knick-knacks and the house was furnished with genuine old furniture that delighted his heart and kept the spirit of Colonial times in the mansion.
If Bet had been given her way she might have chosen for her own suite of rooms, something more modern, but even she had never dared to mention such a thing to the Colonel.
But if Colonel Baxter leaned toward the old fashions in his furnishing of a home, his methods in training a daughter were modern to an extreme. Auntie Gibbs declared it was without "rhyme or reason." "Letting a girl do as she pleases isn't bringing up at all. That child should have a strong hand to guide her. Every child should. And me, who could do it, ain't allowed no say-so."
"Well, Bet's all right, isn't she?" replied Uncle Nat to his wife's complaints. "She's a wise little thing and never goes far wrong." Uncle Nat had been gardener on the estate before Bet was born. He and his wife had known and loved the young wife of Colonel Baxter, and after her death had taken charge of the household, caring for and loving the motherless little girl as if she were their own.
"You're always taking her part," exclaimed Auntie Gibbs. "It isn't his training that makes Bet do the right thing. It's just because she's so much like her father. As I've told him lots of times, with any other girl it would be all wrong."
"So as it doesn't change Bet, I have nothing to say." The old man rubbed his hands together over the kitchen stove. Although autumn had hardly begun, there was a hint of chill in the air.
"Now, what are you doing, Nat Gibbs? Making a fire at this time of year! You aren't cold, are you? Lots of time to shiver and shake over a fire when the first snow comes."
"I'm just burning a few papers and trash to get them out of the way," said Uncle Nat quietly, with an elaborate wink at the ceiling.
Auntie Gibbs was a manager by nature, and to rule over a house and yet not have the final word in everything was very trying to her soul. She began to scold again:
"And now she's brought a new girl home with her today. And heaven only knows who or what she is!"
"She looks all right," said Nat.
"Looks are very deceiving, as you ought to know at your time of life. Bet says she comes from Arizona, one of them half-civilized places like they have in the movies. She doesn't like houses and yards and towns. Who ever heard of such a thing? Bet found her crying because she didn't have room enough to breathe. Mark my words, she's not very bright. Something very queer about a girl who thinks like that. 'Tisn't natural. I really shouldn't allow her to stay and associate with Bet."
"We'll leave that to Colonel Baxter, he'll know what to do."
"Him? He'll shake hands with that girl as if she were the Queen of Sheba or that Mary Antynetty he talks about. And after that she can have the run of the house."
"That's so, that's so!" agreed Nat Gibbs from long habit of agreeing with his wife. But while Auntie Gibbs stormed, and at times, raged over the way the Colonel was training his daughter, she never did try to take matters into her own hands, as she often threatened to do.
"'Tain't his system that's working, let me tell you. It just happens."
Then after having had her say, the old woman dropped the subject to bustle about her kitchen and prepare a special supper for Bet and her chums, a thing she loved to do.
When Kit was led into the great entrance hall, she could only stare in amazement. It was as grand as she had imagined the palace of a king might be. The stained-glass windows that usually sent shafts of colored light across the floor, now gave a somber effect as of a dimly-lighted cathedral. A broad, winding stairway led to the floor above.
Kit stood in the center of the hall transfixed by what she saw. It was not the statue of Youth that held her attention. From a golden frame on the wall a face smiled down upon her and it was hard for the girl to believe that it was only a portrait. A fleeting smile seemed to play about the mouth, the delicately curved lips almost quivered and the brown eyes sparkled with joy.
Kit's hands instinctively went out toward the beautiful woman. She stood there smiling up at the portrait, and forgot the girls as they chattered about her.
Bet, who had been watching her closely, ran impulsively to her and threw both arms around the girl's neck.
"Oh you dear, darling thing! I knew you would! You love her already just the same as Shirley and Joy and I do."
"Who is she?" Kit's voice was hardly more than a whisper, she acted as if she had suddenly been brought back to earth after a flight in the clouds.
"It's our Lady of the Manor, Lady Betty Merriweather!"
"O—oh!" gasped Kit, without taking her eyes from the smiling eyes in the picture.
"Come along upstairs, Kit," called Joy as she took the steps two at a time. But the stranger felt that she was on sacred ground and could not have romped as Joy did. She lingered, looking up into the beautiful face.
"I feel just as if she wanted to say something to me," Kit said, as she reluctantly followed Bet.
"I think she does, probably. I know she tells me things sometimes," replied Bet seriously. "I love to lie on that divan in the hall and watch her. And she tells me all about the good times they used to have in these very rooms." Bet had dreamed so often beneath the vivacious, smiling face that she had come to believe that Lady Betty really did talk to her.
"It almost seems wicked to live in these rooms after her," murmured Kit, as the two girls went up the stairs slowly, their arms around each others' waists.
"I used to think that, too, until she laughed at me and said, 'Don't be silly, Bet.'"
Shirley and Joy's laughter floated down the stairway. "She really believes all that, Kit. She thinks that Lady Betty comes alive and talks to her."
"Well, I used to think that when I was a little, little girl," laughed Bet.
"And do you remember the day you told me she had called you Betty, and you didn't know whether to be angry or not?" asked Joy.
Bet turned to Kit. "You see I don't like to be called Betty. That name doesn't suit me at all. It's a lovely name for her, but for me it's ridiculous."
"And you'd better remember that, Kit Patten, for she gets angry if anyone calls her that," said the quiet Shirley.
"There's one girl who does it, and she's no friend of Bet's," laughed Joy.
"Oh, that Edith Whalen! She's always horrid, I wish she wouldn't call me anything. I get angry—so angry that I——"
"Ssh! I'll tell you what she does," whispered Joy. "She scratches!"
"I really don't, but I'd like to."
When the new friend was introduced to Auntie Gibbs she made such a good impression that the old lady's heart opened at once and took her in. But she wouldn't have told Uncle Nat or Bet that for the world.
"Can't we help?" asked Kit.
Bet was about to object but the old woman spoke up quickly. "Of course you can all help. Bet, you and your new friend set the table. And I'll find something for Shirley and Joy to do." Auntie Gibbs was never so happy as she was at times when she had several people to keep busy.
Kit was afraid to touch the exquisite glassware and silver and beautiful dishes that Bet handled with unconcern.
"Aren't you afraid you'll break them, Bet?" asked the girl.
"I used to be terribly afraid, but now I am used to them and I'm very careful. I just keep my mind on them until I get them on the table. Dad doesn't like to have anything broken, for all this table stuff is very old."
"Aren't the lights beautiful?" exclaimed Kit gazing up at the old candelabra.
"These lights are the pride of Dad's heart. I have never seen a more beautiful specimen."
"Are they very old?" asked Kit.
"As old as this house and then some, I guess. You see they used to have candles in them for lighting and Dad had electric lights made to look like the candles. I love them. Look at the ones on the walls. Those are old sconces. They match the chandelier."
Kit looked at the wall brackets as Bet switched on the lights.
"Oh, Bet, I've never seen anything so beautiful. See how that little light is reflected in the mirror behind it."
Bet suddenly rushed to the door. "Oh, Auntie Gibbs," she called. "Has Dad telephoned today?"
"No, not a word."
"Good! That means he'll come home to dinner. I just can't wait another week to have him see Kit."
"And I was mean enough to wish that he would be detained in the city. My dress looks so badly, I don't like to meet anyone."
"Now never you mind, Kit, my Dad wouldn't care at all," asserted Bet.
"Isn't there a dress of yours she can wear?" asked Auntie Gibbs.
"No, we've tried everything, she's about an inch broader than I am, and she can't get into anything except my bathrobe. Her own dress will look better than that, especially as Dad doesn't like to see girls sitting around in bath robes."
"Oh that Dad of yours! If he had his way, women would always be dressed up in those crazy Colonial things he has."
"That's a good idea! Kit, we're going to give you a gown from a hundred years ago and Dad will think you're marvelous." Bet ran to a large closet under the stairs and from an old chest brought out an armful of dresses of antique pattern. "Come on, girls, help me get Kit fixed up before Dad comes."
Kit's face was full of perplexity as the girls dragged her up the stairs and got her into a costume of pale yellow satin that set off her dark hair. It trailed behind her in a long sweeping train.
"You look as if you had just stepped out of a picture frame, Kit Patten!" exclaimed Joy with a curtsey.
"I've never seen anything as lovely as this!" gasped Kit as she fingered the heavy silk.
"Pooh! That's just one of the common dresses," laughed Shirley. "You should see some of his real elaborate costumes in the attic. One day he showed them to us. They're wonderful!"
"What does he do with all of them?" asked the puzzled Kit.
"Oh, Dad's a collector. Didn't you ever collect anything, Kit?"
"Oh, sure. I have a lot of birds' eggs and arrowheads and Indian baskets. I have heaps of baskets at home."
"Well, Dad collects Colonial dresses and everything else from that period. Some of the gowns came from Europe at about that time and are of gold cloth."
"Are they very valuable?" asked Kit.
"Some are, and then others are not so costly. This one isn't. He told us we could sometimes play with it. Probably it belonged to an ordinary person.
"How can he tell whether they are valuable or not, is what I'd like to know," said Shirley. "If I were going to buy anything, I'm sure I'd get cheated."
"Well the best of them get fooled once in a while. Daddy bought an imitation once. Can you imagine that? But only once, for my Dad is pretty smart."
When Kit was arrayed in the satin gown she looked quite stately and the girls escorted her down the winding stairs to the drawing room with great ceremony. By this time Kit was in a daze from all the unusual and extravagant things about her. She scarcely saw the furniture in the drawing room, for at that moment Colonel Baxter arrived and was being greeted by the girls.
Kit's eyes rested on the man who had just opened the door. Bet's father! He was tall and slender, with hair that had just begun to turn gray. His large hazel eyes were gentle and intense in their interest.
There was something very boyish in the face that lit up with pleasure at sight of Bet and her chums, and his quick glance around seemed to take in everything.
Kit saw the look of amused surprise on his face as he beheld her, but in a moment the amusement had been replaced by a very formal smile of welcome as Bet introduced her new friend. The stately bow as he kissed her finger tips quite startled Kit and made her flush with embarrassment. But this quickly passed as the girls laughed heartily and gathered about him, treating him as if he were their own age.
"Oh, what do you think, Dad! Kit has come all the way from Arizona. —And she has a cowpony."
"And oh, Colonel Baxter, just think," exclaimed Joy. "She knows a lot of cowboys and she can rope a wild steer just like they do in the movies! Don't you think she's wonderful!"
"Well that is wonderful, Miss Kit. When I saw you I thought you had come straight from the 18th Century, and here you are quite modern and thrilling."
The Colonel led the way again into the drawing room, placed a chair for Kit and in a few moments her embarrassment was gone and she was talking to him about her home in Arizona as if she had always known him. He seemed interested in every detail of her life in the mountains and would exclaim with pleasure over some of the commonplace things that she related, just as Bet and her chums had done.
The three girls had left her alone with Colonel Baxter while they went to help Auntie Gibbs, for the Manor was not over supplied with servants. Auntie Gibbs found it hard to get along with anyone and preferred to do most of the work herself, having extra help come in as needed.
At dinner Kit would have felt out of place if Bet's father had not kept her talking about her life in Arizona. Kit's home had been one of makeshifts and to be seated at a table where the stateliness and formality of the old Colonial days was being retained, made her uneasy and anxious for fear she might make some blunder.
But Bet and her father took her attention away from such details.
"Are there any Indians left in your part of the country, Miss Kit?" the Colonel asked graciously.
"Not very many. They have died out pretty fast in the last fifty years. They are mostly on reservations."
"What is the tribe called?" questioned Bet.
"The Apaches live up in the hills and then down nearer the towns there are Papagos. The latter have always been peaceful Indians and lived by farming."
"Ugh! I'd be frightened of an Indian. Aren't you, Kit?" asked Joy.
"No, not a bit. They are perfectly friendly. Most of them are too easy-going to do any harm."
"But I thought all Apaches were cruel."
"Indeed they're not!" exclaimed Kit indignantly. "My father has had old Apache Joe working for him ever since I can remember. He and his squaw, Mary, pretty nearly brought me up. I love them both, and Indian Mary is the kindest old thing in the world. Why Pa and Ma couldn't get along without them!"
"Are there any other Indians near them?" asked Shirley.
"No. They have company from the Reservation sometimes, but they seem perfectly happy with us."
Kit could not help but notice how different this dinner was from her hastily-eaten meals in Arizona. Here there was no hurry, the dessert had been finished for some time, yet the Colonel lingered and chatted. In her own home, as soon as the last bite had been swallowed, they all arose and began to clear away. Kit liked the leisurely way in which things were done; it gave a peaceful atmosphere to the meal.
At last the Colonel rose, and Bet and her chums followed him to the drawing room.
As Colonel Baxter led the way to the drawing room, he said: "Now girls, have you been real good, today?"
"Of course we have!" the girls exclaimed together.
"We're always good!" said Joy.
"All right then, I'll show you something nice."
"What is it?" cried Bet clapping her hands. "Don't tell me it's an old musket or sword or anything warlike. I'm fed up on guns!"
"No, I think this treasure will bring a response from your hearts, if you are as feminine as I think you are."
"It must be a ring!" exclaimed Joy.
"Something far more exciting!" laughed Colonel Baxter.
"Another gown!" suggested Shirley.
"Never. He has too many of them already. It must be something very special, for Dad's so excited. Has it jewels and everything?" laughed Bet.
"Jewelled slippers?" said Kit.
"That's old stuff. He has three pair of those already. I know Dad wouldn't enthuse over slippers."
"What can it be? I'll guess that it's a necklace."
"No, Kit, it's still more interesting than a necklace," answered the Colonel.
"Oh, I know," suddenly cried Shirley. "A musical snuff box!"
"He had several of those once, I know he wouldn't make a fuss over them, they're not so valuable."
"Then what is it? Tell us quickly," pleaded Joy who never did like to play the game of guessing.
"Do you give up?"
"No, no, not yet!" pleaded Bet. "One more try."
"All right, but only one more, remember," laughed the Colonel.
"I'll guess that it's one of those crystal flasks for smelling salts."
"What were smelling salts for?" asked Kit.
"Well, you see in those days it was the fashion for young ladies to be frail and delicate and the least noise was apt to startle them and make them faint."
"Oh ho, I see," shouted Kit, "so they carried their restoratives around with them. Some idea!"
"Think of it," said Bet contemptuously. "Wanting to faint in order to look interesting."
"And is it a crystal flask?" asked Kit.
"No. Come on upstairs and I'll show you what it is."
They followed, laughing and chatting as they went. Kit had some difficulty in handling her long skirts. Bet watched her with amusement.
"Those gowns may be beautiful to look at, but for comfort, give me my short dress with no flounces or trains."
"That's what I say, too, Bet, but what can you expect from ladies who liked to faint?" laughed Kit.
"Did you ever think about it, Kit, how lucky we are to be born in this age? Girls have such a good time."
Their conversation was interrupted by Colonel Baxter calling, "Come along, girls!"
As they entered the room he sat at his desk holding a small package in his hand.
"This is something I bought a few months ago, and I took it out of the vault to have a photograph made of it. I am not quite sure that it is worth a lot of money, but I think it is. Here we are."
The Colonel unfolded a piece of silk and placed the treasure on it.
"A fan!" exclaimed Bet. "Oh, Daddy, what a beauty!" She held out her hand as if to take it, then hesitated. It seemed too pretty to touch.
The sticks and guards of the fan were of ivory, elaborately carved and pierced. The raised figures and designs were gilded. The mount of the fan was of parchment, painted with a scene of the Luxembourg gardens in which a fête was taking place. Young lovers in the dim sunlight under the trees, paid court to their ladies. There was flirting and teasing and romping play. Though gaiety and frivolity were expressed yet there was a certain wistfulness as well, a little heart-throb of haunting regret.
"It seems as if the artist had told a whole story in that tiny picture," said Kit quietly.
"That's it, exactly," exclaimed Colonel Baxter, bestowing a smile on Kit. This young girl had caught the idea of the painting at a glance.
"How can you tell whether it is valuable or not?" asked Shirley.
"We know it is worth a lot of money, for Watteau, a famous painter of the 18th Century did this work. But there is another detail to be decided before we can say how valuable it is."
The four girls, sensing a romance, looked on with interest and pleasure. Colonel Baxter fingered the fan with the touch of one who loved beautiful things. His hand caressed the carved ivory.
"Whose was it, Dad?" begged Bet. "It couldn't have been an ordinary person's fan."
"Of course it wasn't!" said Kit emphatically.
"Did it belong to Martha Washington?" asked Bet suddenly.
"We seem to be doing a lot of guessing today."
"No, it did not belong to Martha Washington. A lot more interesting than that!"
"Lady Betty Merriweather! I'm sure it was hers," exclaimed Kit.
"Wrong again! No, the fan once belonged to a queen, a beautiful, light-hearted queen of France, who came to a tragic end."
"Marie Antoinette!" gasped Bet. "Oh, Daddy, think of it!"
"Yes. When she first came to France as the bride of the Dauphin, Louis XV admired her for her great beauty and showered her with gifts. And we believe this fan was given to her by the king. As soon as I hear from an expert who is working on the case, I will know for sure."
"A queen's fan!" exclaimed Kit. "Doesn't it sound romantic?"
"And she would use it like this!" And Bet took the fan from her father, flourished it back and forth coquettishly with a flippant smile, half hidden by the fan.
A chorus of laughter greeted Bet's imitation of a flirt.
"Where did my daughter learn all those arts?" asked her father.
"She didn't have to learn them. They came natural," sang Joy, as she danced out of the room.
"Ladies used their fans to send messages to the lovers they preferred and to tease them with arch glances at other suitors," explained Bet. "It was a gay life at Court!"
"And I can imagine that Marie Antoinette knew how to flirt with her fan. She was so gay and lighthearted," mused Kit.
"Poor Marie Antoinette! I've always pitied her, even if she was thoughtless and spoiled. She didn't deserve to be punished as she was!" Shirley said pensively.
"I always like to think of her at Little Trianon, where she used to play at being a farm girl and churn, and feed the chickens. She was just a child. —I do hope the fan was hers," said Kit.
"And I hope so for many reasons," smiled Colonel Baxter. "It will be worth three times as much money if she owned it."
"Wouldn't old Peter Gruff open his eyes wide if he could see it?" exclaimed Bet. "How that man loves antiques!"
Peter Gruff was a second-hand dealer in Lynnwood whose hobby was picking up antiques at a ridiculously low price and selling them at fabulous sums. In a trade, he could stand watching.
As the Colonel folded up the fan carefully and put it away, Bet exclaimed: "Come on, girls, there's something in my room that I'd like to show you."
"Wait a minute, Shirley," called the Colonel. "Do you want to take a picture of the queen's fan for me?"
"Oh, Colonel Baxter, do you suppose I can do it?"
"Certainly, there's no trick about it. Bring your camera the next time you come up."
"That will be on Monday morning."
"Good! I'll be home until noon."
Half an hour later the toot of an auto horn sounded from the driveway.
"Aw, that's Bob coming to take me home," pouted Joy. "Wish he'd wait until I telephone. He always comes before I'm half ready."
The Colonel was at the door before the young man could ring the bell. Bob Evans and Phil Gordon were two boys that the Colonel admired and was always glad to welcome to the Manor.
Like his sister, Bob was light-hearted. Yet he could be serious at times, and it is well that that was the case, for Joy's mother was a gay, frivolous young woman, who loved to go to parties and there were times when Joy might have been neglected had it not been for her brother's care.
He was a slightly built boy with a head of curly blond locks that were the envy of Joy, for her hair was neither blond nor dark and had no sign of curl.
Phil was the opposite. He was almost as dark as Kit, a tall, handsome fellow whose dark eyes were sombre and gave the impression that he was brooding.
Bob seemed to bring the breeze from outside in with him as he smiled and held out his hand to Colonel Baxter.
"Joy would never come home if I didn't drag her away, Colonel."
"That's because we are never quite willing to give up our little sprite," replied the Colonel with Old World courtesy. "We couldn't get along without Joy's laughter."
"Giggles, you mean," answered her brother playfully.
"Sounds just like a brother!" laughed Joy, looking up at the pleasant-faced boy beside her.
Bob and Phil were introduced to Kit and were quite startled at the vision of the Colonial maid.
"Having a masquerade?" asked Phil.
"Nothing like that," answered Bet. "Lady Betty Merriweather decided to come out of her frame, and here she is."
"She's much better looking than Lady Betty, if you ask me," exclaimed Bob, but if Kit liked the compliment she didn't show it. Lady Betty was perfect and no one could outdo her in anything.
"Come on, Joy, hurry up. Let's get started!" said Bob suddenly.
"But we'll have to wait for Kit to get out of that dress and change to her own."
"So Lady Merriweather isn't going to step back into the frame? Too bad!" laughed Phil. "It was very becoming!"
The girl who appeared a few moments later in torn skirt was no less attractive than the Colonial maid. To the eyes of the modern young people, she seemed far more human and companionable.
As the automobile carried them away. Bet turned to her father:
"Did you ever see anyone who could choose such good friends as I can?"
"Never in this world, Bet!" laughed the Colonel as he pinched her cheek.
Before saying goodnight to her chums, Bet had made a plan for them to come back early on Monday for another picnic.
"When we get to studying, we just drop swimming and everything else."
"I'll be most afraid to swim in a big river like the Hudson," said Kit with a shiver. "I learned to swim in a water hole in Indian Creek, and it wasn't much more than just deep enough to cover me."
"You'll love the Hudson!" declared Joy. "At high tide it's great!"
"I didn't know that a river had a tide."
"Close to the sea they do. The Hudson has, as you'll soon learn. It has a tide and even a good strong undertow in places. —Well, you just have to know the Hudson to appreciate all its fine points," Bet exclaimed with enthusiasm.
"Be sure and bring your camera, Miss Fixit, and take that picture of the queen's fan. I'll be home all morning." Because Shirley was always tinkering with her camera, the Colonel had playfully given her the name of Miss Fixit.
So the girls had agreed to come early and have a long day at the beach that belonged to the Merriweather estate.
"I don't hear any invitations for us to come along. Don't you think boys enjoy picnics as well as girls?" protested Bob Evans.
"Boys spoil all the fun," said Joy contemptuously, but with mischief in her eyes.
"No, they don't, Joy!" Bet disagreed. "Sometimes they are very useful. —To build picnic fires and keep them going."
"Oh, yes, you're always glad to make use of us. But you never invite us to any of your good times. Never!"
"If big brothers wouldn't tease so much, they might get invited once in a while," laughed Joy as she looked up at her tall brother, who had always been her protector and hero as long as she could remember.
"Do come," shouted Bet as they got into the car. "Even if we didn't think to invite you, we'll be mighty glad to see you when you get there." As she turned and linked her arm in her father's, she little dreamed that her last remark would be remembered by all four girls as a strange prophecy.
The girls saw each other only for a moment at church the next day. Bet left immediately after the service, as the Colonel was expecting guests for dinner. She gave her friends a smile, a wave of the hand and a funny pantomime which they understood. They were to be at the Manor the next morning, early.
And early it was. Bet had been up for hours but Colonel Baxter had not finished his breakfast when the girls came in like shafts of sunlight through shutters.
Shirley was loaded down with two cameras and a tripod, her face glowing with the pleasure she felt in being able to do a favor for Bet's father.
Shirley was the only one of the group whose parents were not well off financially. She was the oldest of four children and lived in a small house on the main street of the village. She had done all sorts of odd jobs in order to earn her longed-for cameras, and had studied them well.
Sometimes when the girls talked of the future when they would go to college, Shirley's face became clouded, for her father's poor health made it impossible for him to be steadily employed. Shirley's chances of college seemed very slim. The Colonel often called upon Shirley to take pictures of Bet on the grounds of the estate, as an excuse to give the girl a chance to earn a few dollars.
"Do hurry, Dad, and finish your breakfast! We're anxious to be off. Couldn't the pictures wait?"
"No, Bet, I want to take them now," replied Shirley. "You can go along if you want to and I'll come later."
"We'll wait," answered Bet cheerfully.
The Colonel rose and saluted, "I am at your service!"
Shirley arranged the lighting like an expert and took several poses of the little fan against a background of black velvet, placing it in different degrees of light. The other girls were not particularly interested. Shirley's hobby was all right, when she took pictures of them, but just now they were impatient to be off.
Then Shirley had to waste more time showing the Colonel about the latest self-photography attachment that she had recently bought.
"I got tired always being left out of the group. And the other girls can't take pictures to suit me."
"Is this the same idea that is used in photographing wild animals?" asked Colonel Baxter.
"It's the same principle, but a little wire or spring is touched by the animal and this releases the shutter and for night pictures sets off a flash powder as well. I'm going to get one of those attachments by winter time, as the camera company has offered a prize for wild animal pictures."
"Aw, come on, Shirley," called Joy. "You're an old slow poke. You finished that picture long ago."
But Shirley delayed still longer to put her large camera carefully away. The small one she tucked under her arm to take with her to the river.
It was Kit's first trip to the little beach belonging to Bet's father. The bath house with its tiny dressing rooms pleased her immensely. "Imagine," she exclaimed, "building a house to dress and undress in. A clump of mesquite bushes always served my purpose."
Kit could not pretend to be other than she was. Fearing that these girls, whose homes were so elegant, might look down upon her, she had planned to keep her affairs to herself, but whenever anything unusual came up, she was startled by the contrast and blurted out the queer makeshifts that they had in her crude home in the desert.
She had no need to fear. The girls were as interested in Kit's description of her home life as they were in the exploits of the cowboys that she loved to talk about.
"I'd just love to eat out under a cotton-wood tree by the stream. That must be a lovely way to live," exclaimed Bet.
"I don't think you'd enjoy it for long, after what you're used to. You'd want to get back to all that lovely glassware and beautiful dishes. You'd miss your Manor."
"Of course I'd miss the Manor if I was away from it, but I'd love the other, too, I know I would."
They had just come in sight of the broad Hudson and Kit stopped short to gaze upon that wide flow of water.
"And oh, look at that lovely boat out there! Whose is it?"
"That's Dad's motor boat. I'm not allowed to run it, although I know I could just as well as not. Dad seems to think I'm still a baby and a girl baby at that."
They had reached the beach and Bet was opening the door of the boat house as she spoke and when Kit saw the little green canoe, she was speechless. She looked at it with glowing eyes.
"Isn't it a dear? It's mine!" said Bet.
"Can you go out with it whenever you want to?"
"Yes, any time."
"I've never been in a boat in my life!" Kit's breath came in excited little gasps. "Could we go out in it today?"
"Never had a boat ride!" exclaimed Joy. "How funny! What did you do with yourself?"
"Well, mostly I rode Powder, my cowpony. That was fun. Horseback riding is great sport!"
"You're the lucky one! I've never had a horseback ride in my life."
"What!" cried Kit. "Never had a horseback ride? How funny!"
And everybody laughed, for what was a common-place happening for one was in the nature of an adventure for the other.
"After lunch we'll go out in the canoe!" declared Bet. "I'll be mighty proud to give you your first boat ride."
Kit looked at the brightly-painted little canoe many times before the lunch was finished and Bet declared herself ready to go.
The egg sandwiches and stuffed olives were eaten without much thought by Kit. Apple turnovers and fudge slipped down as if she were in a dream, for Kit's mind was racing ahead to the thrill of getting out on the Hudson in a boat.
The girls helped Bet to drag the canoe out of the boat house and to the edge of the water. Joy and Shirley decided not to go. Shirley was trying to get some good pictures of the gulls today and Joy wasn't in the mood.
"Anyway," laughed Joy, "in a canoe, two is company, three's a crowd. Trot along and enjoy yourselves."
Kit took her place in the boat and Bet shoved it off the sandy beach with her paddle, and in a moment Kit felt it bobbing on the water. Living up to its name, "The Arrow," it shot gracefully out to the stream, guided by Bet's capable hands.
Kit held on to both sides of the boat at first. She felt quivery and half frightened.
Bet was using the paddle vigorously. She wore no hat and her blond hair was tousled as usual. It seemed impossible for Bet to keep her unruly locks in order at any time, but now as the breeze ruffled it, she looked like some half-wild elfin creature.
She was tall for her age but slender and her pink and white coloring gave her an appearance of frailty, but when she used her paddle, Kit was fascinated to watch the swelling of the muscles of her arms. She seemed made of springs as she plied the paddle first at one side then the other, with quick, sure, strokes.
"Have you ever been across the Hudson?" asked Kit. "Across the Hudson! Doesn't that sound romantic? It's a long way, isn't it?"
"Only about a mile, I think."
"And have you ever paddled over there?"
"Heaps of times! We've been everywhere on this river. We used to go out and get in the wash of the river steamers. That was lots of fun. Once we almost got upset and Dad made me promise I'd never do that again."
"Well, if you don't mind, Bet, you can dispense with all the extra thrills today. For this is giving me heart trouble as it is."
"Why, what's the matter? You're not frightened, are you?"
"Of course I'm frightened. Scared stiff!"
Bet stopped paddling to laugh at her friend. "Kit Patten, you're the funniest girl I've ever seen."
Then with long sweeping strokes, The Arrow shot out into the channel, sending sparkling drops into the air as it cut its way through the current.
Kit's brown eyes were shining with excitement and the sense of danger that she imagined was there. "Why, Bet Baxter, this is the most thrilling thing I've ever done in my life. It's more fun than horseback riding. It's a perfect day. It was good of you to take me."
The canoe was now headed toward the beach, having reached the quieter waters of the farther shore, and as soon as the boat touched the sand, Bet sprang out and with practised hand drew the bow up on the beach.
"Here you are, Kit. Now you've been across the Hudson. It's not often a person has a chance to have her wishes granted so quickly."
"Isn't it wonderful!" gasped Kit. "I've never had such a gorgeous time in my life."
The girls stretched themselves out on the sand for a few minutes.
"Doesn't Lynnwood look beautiful over there? And just see how very romantic the Manor is from here."
"I think we'd better start back at once," exclaimed Bet suddenly. "It's getting cloudy over that way again, and as we've had a thunder storm every day for a week, we may have another this afternoon."
They lost no time in getting into the boat, for already there was a distant peal of thunder. It was miles and miles away, but Bet didn't intend to take chances. Her hand worked in a steady rhythm that sent the boat ahead like a flat stone skimming the water.
But as they reached the middle of the river, the wind struck them suddenly and with violence. It seemed to the girls as if the canoe had been lifted and turned over. Kit gave a little cry of terror, but Bet's look of reproach was sufficient. At a signal from Bet, the girl slid to the bottom of the boat, and remained still.
The storm was upon them. A fierce wind shook the little craft as if a hand had clutched it.
Bet kept the bow of the boat head-on to the heavy rollers that threatened to capsize it. The quiet river had suddenly become a regular sea, choppy and vicious, and Bet strained at the paddle, her face white and tense.
Kit crouched in the bottom of the boat. She was anxious to help but did not know what to do. During a little lull she cried: "Oh, Bet, can't I help? You must be tired. Let me try to paddle, I think I can."
"No," screamed Bet to make herself heard. "Just keep still and don't even speak to me. I need every breath to work with."
The boat tossed and plunged. "It acts like a bucking horse when they put on a saddle for the first time," thought Kit. The bow of the canoe was lifted straight up and then lowered on a wave. For a second it rested only to meet another swell.
Sometimes Bet raised her eyes and looked anxiously down the river. The squall was coming straight toward them; travelling with the wind, it was racing over the water.
The little boat rolled and plunged as the blinding sheet of rain enveloped it, shutting out for a moment the shore on both sides of the river.
Spray broke over the sides and soaked the girls to the skin.
"There's a can there, Kit. Try to keep the water baled out." It was all she could do to make Kit hear, even when she screamed with all her might.
Bet's arms were aching, her eyes strained with the nerve tension and the strength that she was giving out to keep the boat from being engulfed.
While Kit would have gladly relieved her, she had never handled a paddle in her life and now was not the time to experiment.
"It can't be far now," muttered Bet between her clenched teeth. It seemed to the girl that she had been paddling for hours.
Bet spoke again: "Scream for help, Kit! Someone may hear, but it's not likely. Scream anyway!"
And Kit shouted until she was hoarse but the wind stopped the sound. Even Bet, close beside her, could hardly hear and made a sign for her to stop.
"If I can only get across the channel," thought Bet, as she struggled to keep the canoe balanced.
But all her efforts seemed not to send the canoe ahead even a foot. Buffeted by the angry waves, it was all she could do to keep it afloat.
"Hold on to it, Bet! That's it! Keep it up!" cried Kit. "I think I see a boat coming!"
For a brief moment darkness settled down upon Bet. Her head swam. Her strength was about gone.
There was a violent jar on the canoe that brought her back to her senses. If they were to be saved, she must keep on.
Another wave dashed over them, and Kit's arm was kept busy scooping up the water and throwing it back to the river. Never had she worked so desperately in her life.
At intervals she glanced up at Bet, but the girl's white face was no comfort to her.
Her eyes searched the river again. "It is a boat, Bet! Help is coming!" and as another dash of water struck them she screamed: "Hold it, Bet! Don't let go!"
After the canoe had started on its voyage that was to prove so terrifying to the girls, Joy had stretched herself at full length in the sand preparing for a lazy afternoon. She was content just to let the sand sift through her fingers. Mostly she liked to dance or sing, but today she was too indolent. Shirley busied herself as usual, directing her camera this time toward some gulls that flew above her head.
"Now I'm going to fix the camera ready to get a good snap of the girls in the canoe. Kit wants one to send to her mother."
"I do believe they've gone clear over to the other side, haven't they, Shirley?" said Joy jumping to her feet.
"There they are, they look like a little speck over there."
But as soon as they saw the first sign of a storm, they grew restless. "I do wish those girls would get back! It's not safe to be out in a canoe in any kind of a storm."
The cloud grew bigger and bigger and was turning black and menacing. A storm was coming. "I know what I'm going to do," declared Joy. "That rain isn't far off. I'm going for help before it's needed."
Just what she intended to do, she hardly knew. She had made no plan. She would go to the Manor and tell Uncle Nat.
A few rods up the path she met Bob Evans and Phil Gordon.
"Here we are!" Bob shouted. "We've come without an invitation from you, Joy Evans. Where's the eats? We're starved."
"Bet said she'd be glad to see us," laughed Phil, pretending displeasure with Joy.
"Oh Bob, quick!" cried Joy. "Do something! Bet and Kit are out in the canoe, just started back from the other side. It looks terribly mean, I think there is going to be a bad storm."
"Oh you needn't worry if Bet is paddling. You can trust her. She can paddle a canoe better than any man. I wouldn't be afraid for her even in a storm," said Phil unconcernedly. "Anyway I don't think it will amount to anything!"
"You're wrong, Phil," exclaimed Bob as they neared the beach. "That cloud certainly looks like a storm." The first gust of wind struck them.
"It's coming, all right!" Phil looked anxiously toward the canoe. "And when it comes it's going to be a hum-dinger!"
"Let's get the motor boat into action," cried Bob. "If it blows up a nasty squall, Kit may get panicky. You can trust Bet in a tight place, but Kit is a new-comer."
"Can Kit swim?" asked Phil.
"A little," answered Shirley, "But I know she could never get along in rough water."
"Do hurry boys, we're terribly worried," urged Joy.
The boys were wearing bathing suits under their clothes and it only took a moment for them to strip.
To add to the distress of the girls, Smiley Jim had arrived and was racing up and down the sand barking in a long-drawn-out, mournful howl toward the river. Shirley caught him by the collar.
"That's no way to do, Smiley. You can't help Bet that way! Quiet down!" The dog was trembling in every limb. He'd ceased his howling when the boys started out into the water.
With long-reaching arm strokes they cut the waves and sped toward the launch that was moored a short distance from the shore.
It took only a few minutes to start the motor and as it headed toward the channel, Phil said, "There they are, they're all right."
Then the rain came up the river as if it were a great grey curtain shutting out the river and shore.
"Hurry Bob!" shouted Phil. "They're gone."
A moment later, he called again: "No, there they are. Go down stream a little Bob, the current is running so strong that Bet can't keep it on a straight course."
"We'll never get them in this storm!" groaned Bob, as the rain again shut out the sight of the canoe. Drifting downward with the current, they worked outward toward the middle of the river.
A flash of lightning pierced the grey sheet.
"I see them, Bob! Straight ahead!"
The canoe rose on a huge wave, seemed to stand on end, then disappeared.
"They're gone!" Phil closed his eyes to shut out the sight that he feared he might have to see, two struggling figures in the water.
And at that same moment Bet thought that the canoe would never right itself. Yet she held on, stubbornly. Her arms ached and every move was agony. At times she thought that all her strength was gone and that she would have to give up.
Help was coming! But would she be able to hold out until that boat came? She was doing things mechanically now, without thought, and instinct seemed to guide her to do the right thing.
"I think I see some one, Bet. Hold on for dear life! We'll win yet!—There they are. Someone is coming, Bet!"
Bet did not raise her eyes from her work. She heard Kit's assurance that help was near and for a second she felt faint again and giddy.
Even when she could hear the chug-chug of the motor, she realized that it was not going to be an easy job to be transferred from the canoe. There was still greater danger ahead than anything they had yet experienced. The approach of the launch in the rough sea would almost surely upset the canoe. The boys realized that too. They slowed up and circled the boat, gradually coming closer. It took all of Bet's strength to hold it.
Phil knew that to try to swim toward them would be foolish in the storm. Then an idea came to him. He spoke to Bob and he brought the launch near the canoe again.
Kit was bailing water for all she was worth, but keeping her eyes on the motor boat at the same time. Then as the boat came near she saw something flung toward her, something that the mountain girl understood and knew how to handle. A rope! With quick practiced reach, she caught it.
"Put it around your waist, Kit. They can never tow us in this storm." Bet's teeth were chattering now.
Kit quickly made a loop and fastened it around Bet's waist. "Now Bet, you're safe," she cried. "And I'll hold on to you."
The motor boat had drifted away from them but again Bob brought it alongside. Another rope was flung toward them, but the wind sent it flying backward.
"If I could only have jumped for it!" thought Kit, but she knew that any movement might mean destruction.
Four times Phil threw the rope before Kit caught it and fastened it about herself.
Bet, knowing that they were safe, may have relaxed her efforts, or perhaps the very end of her strength had been reached. The canoe took a wave side-on and turned completely over.
Kit struggled, gulped and swallowed as the cold water covered her and she felt herself being drawn toward the boat. But Bet did not remember anything of the plunge.
They were still in danger, for it needed Bob and Phil to raise the two girls over the side of the launch, and it looked at times as if the motorboat would be swallowed up. The little canoe was left, to be tossed about on the waves.
When the motor again purred and the boat had headed toward the shore, the two girls were in the bottom of the launch. Bet lay there deathly white and showed no sign of life. Kit was sobbing and shaking and was no possible help to the boy, who was trying to revive the still figure of the plucky girl.
The wind subsided as quickly as it had come and by the time the motor reached the dock, the storm was over. Phil lifted Bet in his arms and carried her to the sand. Uncle Nat and Auntie Gibbs had been called and were there to help.
"Get her to the house at once," exclaimed Uncle Nat, as he half carried Kit ashore. She was trembling so violently that she could not stand. "I telephoned Dr. Snow what was happening and he said he would come at once."
Auntie Gibbs stood there wringing her hands and calling on Bet to speak to her. Smiley Jim snuggled up to the still form of Bet and howled furiously when she did not call to him.
Phil and Bob carried Bet up the hill to the Manor. At the door they met Dr. Snow, who without a word began working over the unconscious girl.
"She'll be all right!" He finally spoke to Auntie Gibbs who was almost beside herself with fear. "I don't think she's swallowed much water. It's probably exhaustion more than anything else. Better get her to bed."
A stimulant injected in Bet's arm soon brought her back to life, and when Auntie Gibbs had wrapped her in blankets and given her a hot drink, the blood began to circulate once more and she smiled up at the old housekeeper.
"Don't worry, Auntie Gibbs, I'm tough!"
And strange to say it was Kit and not Bet who was the more seriously affected by the accident.
As Doctor Snow relaxed his efforts over Bet, Shirley touched him on the arm. "Come and see Kit, Doctor. She's sick. Terribly sick, I'm afraid. She wouldn't let me come any sooner until she knew that Bet was better."
The doctor hastened after Shirley and found Kit shaking with chills.
"Get a bed ready in a hurry," commanded the doctor and as Auntie Gibbs flew up stairs, he said:
"Help me here, Phil. We'll carry her right up."
Kit tried to speak but her voice was only a wheezing rasp and ended in a groan.
When Mrs. Stacey arrived, having been called by Shirley, she was anxious to get Kit to the hospital, but the doctor refused to have her moved. "Everything depends on keeping her quiet and warm during the next few hours."
At six o'clock when Colonel Baxter arrived, he rushed into the house like a man whose reason had left him. He had heard of the accident and had been told that Bet was dying, if not already dead.
"Bet! Oh Bet!" he moaned. His face was deadly white. "Bet! Where is she?"
Shirley was at his side in a moment. "Bet is all right, Colonel Baxter. She's sound asleep now and seems comfortable. It's Kit we're worried about."
Colonel Baxter's face looked relieved for a second, then he realized that if anything happened to Kit some other father would feel as he felt on that ride from the station.
He slipped into Bet's room and looked at her for a moment as if to assure himself that she was safe, then went to Kit. The doctor was alone at the bedside.
"Will she live, Doctor?" he asked, his voice trembling with emotion.
"It will be a hard pull tonight to keep this from developing into pneumonia. She's strong and ought to pull through—but one never can tell. She's a sick girl."
Mrs. Stacey spoke:
"I do not see how I can impose on you in this way, Colonel Baxter. I feel as if we should get the child to the hospital."
"Please don't say that, Mrs. Stacey. Consider the Manor your home and Kit's until she is perfectly well again. Get the best nurse you know of, Doctor."
"She will need watching every hour tonight if we are to prevent a serious illness. I will remain here, and I've already called up a good nurse."
In the morning Kit was resting quietly. The terrible wheezing had ceased and the fever was coming down.
In her delirium, Kit had cried, "Help, help!" until Bet, awakened by her cries, wrapped herself up and crept into the room.
"Go back to bed," ordered the doctor. "You'll be sick next."
"No, I won't, Doctor Snow. Kit needs me, I must help her. Please let me speak to her. I'm sure I can quiet her."
Bet knelt by the bed and clasped Kit's hand. "Listen Kit," she said quietly but firmly. "This is Bet; I'm all right. We're both safe at home."
Kit started up, "No, no. Bet is drowned! I saw her so white."
"Kit dear, listen to me. This is Bet. I'm right here beside you!" Bet repeated the sentence over and over until at last the sick brain seemed to grasp the idea and the girl quieted down, and even slept for a few minutes.
"She'll be all right now," the doctor announced to Colonel Baxter, who had come in to inquire how Kit was. "And you'd better get your daughter back to bed. She's been under a strain and needs rest."
The Colonel lifted Bet tenderly in his arms and carried her to her room.
"Sit by me, Dad, I'm frightened," she sighed. "It's so comfortable to have you. I want to hold on to you, then I don't think about that storm."
The Colonel took the little hand in his and held it until she finally relaxed and fell asleep. Not until the lines of strain had left her face, to be replaced by a peaceful expression, did he go back to his own room.
Even then he could not sleep. The details of the storm were pictured in his mind and kept him awake. Adding horror upon horror, he tossed from side to side.
"What if Bet had been drowned!"
Again and again he arose and tiptoed into Bet's room to make sure that she was resting, and that he still had her! Without Bet, life would be unbearable!
It was a week before Kit was allowed to see all her friends. Bet was given permission to slip in once in a while, just to reassure the sick girl that she was all right. Kit kept worrying and would wake up terrified, believing that Bet had been drowned.
Shirley and Joy made daily visits to the Manor. They helped Auntie Gibbs in the kitchen; they did everything they could for the nurse and even helped Mrs. Stacey so she could come and sit with Kit.
Bet was not allowed to get up, as the exposure and strain had made her heart play strange tricks.
"She's just tired, that's all," said the doctor. "Nothing to worry about," he assured Colonel Baxter, who was anxious as he looked at the pale face of his daughter.
"Tired and half frightened to death," laughed Bet as she pressed her father's hand. "It's good to be near you, Dad."
At first the doctor had forbidden anyone to mention the accident to Kit, but as she seemed to be worrying over something he finally told Bet to go and talk the matter over with her.
"Oh Bet, what do you think of me? It was all my fault!" exclaimed the sick girl, as she raised herself on her elbow.
"That's all nonsense. It was every bit mine. Dad says so and he ought to know."
"But I coaxed you to go across the river," moaned Kit. "I'll never forgive myself!"
"Of course you coaxed me to go across the river, but I should have known what to expect with a sky like that. I just didn't think. Dad says that's no excuse at all."
"Bet, dear, it was terrible sitting there in the bottom of the boat and being too stupid to help any." Kit shuddered at the remembrance.
"Why, Kit Patten! You think you didn't do anything! In the first place you kept the boat baled out as well as anyone could. If you hadn't, we'd have been swamped."
"That wasn't anything, Bet."
"If it hadn't been for you we would both have been drowned. If you had been paddling, you couldn't have caught the rope and tied the loops. And I wouldn't have known how to tie a loop so it would hold. You saved our lives! Dad and I will never forget it."
"Bet, you're silly! You know Bob and Phil came."
"They couldn't have done anything. If they had come any nearer, the canoe would have capsized."
"Did I really do my part? I've been worried about it."
"And then some!" laughed Bet. "You're the heroine of the occasion. Now let's forget it!"
It seemed as if Kit had only been waiting to get the burden off her mind before recovering completely. Within a few days she was sitting up, receiving her friends and was planning on going back to Mrs. Stacey's.
Colonel Baxter wanted to keep her with them for a while, promising her all sorts of good times to make up for the unhappiness she had had, but Mrs. Stacey thought it wiser to take her home.
"Never mind, Kit, we'll have that good time before long. We'll have a big party and ask all our friends," comforted Bet.
"That sounds splendid," exclaimed the Colonel. "We'll do it as soon as you get acquainted and find out what young people you like."
"But I don't want you to go home tomorrow," pleaded Bet. "Coax Mrs. Stacey to leave you another day."
Kit laughed: "Well you know we've coaxed for one more day and then one more day and got them. No, I think we'd better not say a word. Anyway I do rather want to get back there."
"I know how you feel, of course. Home is home."
"I tell you what I'd like to do this last afternoon, Bet. I'd like to go down in the big hall so I can see Lady Betty Merriweather. Let's spend my last afternoon with her."
Helped by Bet, Kit descended the winding stairway and lay on the couch where she could see the portrait that she loved. The sun was shining brightly now and shafts of colored lights, from the stained glass, made beautiful patterns on the rug. It seemed to give the room just the romantic setting that belonged to Lady Betty.
The girls liked to imagine sometimes that they had really known the lady.
"She used to be so gay and happy that everyone loved her," Bet's voice was dreamy and seemed to come from far away. "And in these very rooms she held parties that were the talk of the Colonies, for all the great people here knew her and felt proud to be her guest."
"I should think she must have been the most popular woman in America at that time."
"I'm sure of it. And she was hardly more than a girl. Only twenty-two when Lord Cecil brought her here as a bride, to be mistress of the Manor."
"He must have been terribly proud of her!"
"I read a story about her once, how when the Revolution started, she felt that it was something that did not concern her at all. She wouldn't consent to have Lord Cecil mix into the trouble at all, for they had so many friends on both sides."
"I know just how she felt, don't you, Bet?"
"Of course! Lady Betty didn't want to think about wars and fighting. She wanted to have parties and make people happy. But of course the estate and everything they had, was from the English Crown, for his services here."
"I should think she would rather have given it up than get into the quarrel."
"And that's exactly how she felt about it," exclaimed Bet. "And while they made up their minds not to take sides, it wasn't easy to do. All their friends had made a decision, some on the English side and some on the American. And after a while, Lord Cecil and Lady Betty got into it, too."
"And I know which side they chose," cried Kit excitedly. "They decided to fight for America."
"Yes, think of it!" cried Bet. "At that time Washington's forces were being defeated all around here, and it must have seemed to them that they were giving up their lovely home."
"And did Lord Cecil go to the war and fight?" asked Kit.
"Yes. And Lady Betty smiled as he rode away. That is until he was out of sight."
"She must have been very unhappy without her husband," whispered Kit.
"Then after Lord Cecil had been fighting for about two months, Lady Betty received a message from him, telling her to get to the American lines, down near King's Bridge, just as soon as possible. The English were advancing and if they found her at the Manor they would make her answer all kinds of questions and perhaps keep her a prisoner, hoping to get information." Bet paused for a moment and gazed up at the portrait.
"Go on Bet! What did she do?"
"She left an old servant in charge at the Manor and started out on horseback with just a small colored boy to carry her portmanteau. And just imagine, Lady Betty had never before been out after nightfall without an escort. She must have been terribly frightened."
"But that wouldn't stop her, I know!"
"No. She galloped along the Post Road.—And Kit, doesn't it give you a little thrill to know it's the very same road that runs past the house now?—And pretty soon she saw some riders coming toward her in the distance. So she turned off on another road that was not used much. It would lead her to King's Bridge but was a longer way there. But they hadn't gone far when she again saw a rider, this time ahead of them. The man looked as if he couldn't sit straight in his saddle. He seemed to sway.
"Then Lady Betty recognized the horse. It was Monarch, Lord Cecil's own mount. 'Hurry Sam!' she cried fearfully, 'It's Monarch!'"
"And was it Lord Cecil?"
"Yes, he had been wounded but had escaped from his enemies. And it is a good thing he did, for he was carrying a message to his own army. But when he saw Lady Betty, he almost fell from his horse, and would have, if she had not supported him."
"Oh the poor man!" murmured Kit.
"But just in a minute Lord Cecil recovered himself. 'I've got to get through,' he whispered. 'They are depending on me!' But he had lost so much blood from the wound in his leg that he was too weak. And then a wonderful thing happened. Lady Betty supported him until they came to an old hut where Martha Sikes lived. She was an aged servant of the Manor and was pensioned by Lord Cecil.
"And here Lady Betty, after assuring herself that the wound was not dangerous, left her husband in the care of Sam and the old woman and rode away with the message. Lord Cecil was too weak and tired to object."
"My! That was a brave thing to do! I don't believe I would have had the courage to do it."
"Not many of us would, but Lady Betty Merriweather never hesitated. She started out all alone, when every shadow of the night terrified her. And she rode furiously with no thought of the accidents that might occur on the rough road. She kept right on and delivered the message into the hands of the General in charge. And the paper she carried was a warning that the enemy would attack that night."
"Think of it!" mused Kit. "Wasn't that wonderful. She saved the army, I'm sure."
"Yes. The General wanted to send an escort back with her but Lady Betty refused, saying that he would need all his men for the battle that would be sure to come.
"Once on her return trip she saw riders coming and quickly drew her pony to the side of the road and hid behind a clump of bushes. And although her horse was fiery and never stood quietly before, now it was perfectly still. Wasn't that wonderful!"
"I think," said Kit with a slight quiver in her voice, "that horses know everything that is going on."
"That one must have, for it stood motionless. And Lady Betty scarcely breathed. She heard the two riders talking! And she heard her husband's name! And until that minute she thought perhaps they were her friends.
"'Lord Cecil is a traitor! He deserves to be hung!' exclaimed one voice in angry, excited tones. 'And he will be before many days go by. I've never yet missed a man I've been sent out to get.'
"'And if we capture him alive, we'll get double pay, is that it?' asked the second voice.
"'And not only that but I am to have his estate. I'll be the next Lord of the Manor!'"
"Poor Lady Betty! It's a wonder she didn't scream!" exclaimed Kit.
"She was too wise to do that. Everything depended on her being brave and not losing her head. At this very moment someone might be at old Martha's cabin to take away Lord Cecil. If a price was on his head, he was not safe for a second."
"And then what?" asked Kit excitedly. "What did she do then?"
"She waited until the riders were out of sight again and then went on. Then at a turn in the road, she came face to face with another man on horseback. Lady Betty was sure now that it was the end. She would be imprisoned or held and not allowed to warn her husband. But her horse whinnied and trotted beside the other horse and she saw the face of the man. It was Denby, her old servant, whom she had left in charge at the Manor."
"And what was he doing there?" exclaimed Kit impatiently. "I thought she told him to guard the Manor."
"No, Denby was true. He noticed after she left that in her excitement she had forgotten her bag of money, and he was on his way to King's Bridge with it. So he turned and rode back with her toward Old Martha's cabin."
"It was good he came, wasn't it?"
"Yes, for a few minutes after that, the old servant touched her sleeve. 'I hear distant riders, it must be soldiers! Let us take to the woods here until they pass.'
"It seemed almost impossible, they thought, that the soldiers did not see them, for they had not been concealed when the British troop rode by on the way to the attack at King's Bridge. Lady Betty was trembling with fright, as the officer in command called, 'Halt!'"
"O—ooh!" exclaimed Kit. "I would have died of fright, I know I would!"
"But Lady Betty didn't. She held on to the bridle with a firm grasp and hardly breathed. You see she had to save not only her husband but the Manor as well. Everything depended on her. Every moment she expected to see the troops following them and the call to fire, but after a short rest, the order to march was given and Lady Betty drew a sigh of relief.
"They kept to the fields from then on, and in an hour saw the little cabin dark, gloomy and poverty-stricken, in front of them.
"At the first sound of horses stopping, old Martha came to the door, ready to put up a fight if need be, but when she recognized Lady Betty she shouted with joy, 'Sam, brisk up that fire a bit, it's your mistress returned.'"
"I know Lady Betty went straight to her wounded husband," said Kit triumphantly.
"Of course," exclaimed Bet. "She wouldn't wait a second. He was tossing about on the bed, anxious about the safety of his wife. And when he saw her coming into the room, he held out his hands to her, and there were tears in his eyes. After he had held her in his arms to assure himself that she was safe, he said, 'Betty, the message?' She hastened to reply: 'I delivered it right into General Brock's hands. Do not worry, the message went through.'
"Lord Cecil didn't get well quickly. The wound in his leg was worse than they thought at first. And he was weak from loss of blood. The little cabin afforded so few of the comforts of life that she decided to get Lord Cecil back to the Manor as soon as possible."
"But wasn't there greater danger there?"
"No, that is Lady Betty didn't think so. At the Manor were stores of food hidden away, and here they were half starved. That's why she got word to the old servant, to come and help her take the master home. And when they got him home, they hid him away."
"Oh Bet, where did they hide him?" asked Kit.
"In that long tunnel, in the arched room."
"The one you showed me the other day, is that it?"
"Yes, that's the one. Lady Betty moved down all the comfortable things he needed, and she stayed there with him, living in the tunnel."
"And did people guess it, the enemy I mean?"
"No, they had good luck that way. The old servant took charge of the house and cooked the food for them. They were not disturbed often, but they could never be sure when a company of soldiers might come by and stay for the night.
"And once the very men who were looking for Lord Cecil, stayed a day and a half. Old Denby had a hard time keeping his temper, for they ransacked the house. Only the fact that one of the men hoped someday to be in possession of the estate, kept them from destroying the place.
"Lady Betty used to go back and forth through the Manor, always listening for footsteps outside. And one night she got caught. She came face to face with an officer of the British army, Colonel Webb. The man was an intimate friend of Lord Cecil's and had been entertained in the Manor many times."
"O—oh Bet! What happened?"
"Lady Betty gave a little gasp of dismay. 'Arthur Webb! You here!' she exclaimed.
"'Yes, Betty, but do not fear, I will not harm you or give away your secret. I thought you were miles from here.' You know, Kit, I always like to think that Colonel Webb was half in love with her, for he came and kissed her hand over and over again. Wasn't that lovely?"
The girls gave themselves up to their dreams for
little while, then Kit said, "And did Colonel Webb
find out that Lord Cecil was there, too?"
"He suspected it after a while, for he knew that Lord Cecil had been wounded and was ill. So he begged her to let him see his friend. But it was only after much pleading that she finally allowed him to descend the steps that led to the tunnel. Colonel Webb waited until late in the night to be sure that his men were asleep.
"The three friends spent the rest of the night talking of the happiness they had had together, and the sorrow and tragedy that the war had brought to all of them. Lady Betty must have been glad that she had allowed Colonel Webb to come and spend those hours with them, for later on he was killed in an engagement and they never saw him again."
"How sad they must have felt," whispered Kit.
"Yes. Lady Betty was never as gay again. You couldn't expect her to be: she had seen and heard of so much suffering and disappointments."
"And did Lord Cecil ever go back to the war?"
"He was in the last campaign that meant victory for the Americans. By the time the war was over, Lord Cecil was a poor man. He had the Manor, of course, but there was little money and they had few luxuries."
"But I'm sure Lady Betty didn't care about that! She still had Lord Cecil!"
"You know, Kit, I don't believe people have a chance now-a-days to show so much courage. In those stirring times, one had to do daring things."
"If Lady Betty were alive now, I think she'd do something wonderful. It was her nature."
"I think she'd be pleased if she knew about our club, don't you? The Merriweather Girls! I half fancy her smile is sweeter since we thought of it," smiled Bet. "She's the dearest thing, isn't she?"
"It's the most beautiful picture I've ever seen, Bet. Where did it come from. Was it in the Manor when your father bought the place?"
"No, the picture was painted by Gilbert Stuart, the artist who made so many pictures of Washington, and it was handed down by several people and finally sold at auction."
"Think of anyone who owned it being willing to sell it at auction!"
"I'm glad they did, because that was how Dad got it. A number of people wanted it. That's the time Peter Gruff bid against Dad and finally had to give up, as Dad ran the price up too high for him. He stormed and raved. But my mother had said she would like to have it for her reception hall and after that, Dad insisted on having it. And you know he usually gets what he wants. Don't you think he's wonderful, Kit?"
"Indeed he is, Bet. Your father has been so good to me that I'd be a very ungrateful girl if I didn't think he's the best ever."
There was a scratching at the door and Bet ran to open it. "Well here's old Smiley Jim, come to see Kit! Nice old Smiley!"
The dog came in with a bound, switching his bushy tail about and smiling up at his friends. Then after he had received their petting, he went as he always did, directly under the portrait of Lady Betty and, raising his head, barked three short, joyous barks.
"He always does that, Kit, always, just as if he knew her and had to greet her."
"I think it's the finest thing I've ever seen a dog do."
"I really believe he thinks she's alive, for he's done that ever since he was a tiny pup."
That afternoon Joy and Shirley came. "Hurry up and come back to school, it's frightfully lonely without you," exclaimed Shirley. "Half the life is gone from the class."
"For which the teachers consider themselves lucky."
"Maybe so," laughed Joy. "Oh dear, I've only been back for a few days and I've been in trouble twice."
"What did you do?" laughed Bet. "Tell me about it."
"It wasn't much. Miss Owens sent me to the board with half a dozen others and I was working the problem all right, but I forgot and began to twirl on my toes. Just a few innocent dance steps, you know it makes me think better."
"I was wondering how she ever kept still in school," said Kit, drawing the girl to her.
"She doesn't," whispered Bet. "Between Joy's dancing and my dreaming, those poor teachers have a time of it. We've been telling each other all summer, that we were going to turn over a new leaf."
"And I've broken all my resolutions already."
"We'll have to remember that we are the Merriweather Girls and have something to live up to. That's the trouble with having a club with ambitions and aims and all the rest of it. We have to make good." It was Shirley's quiet counsel.
"Lady Betty would never have danced in school, I'm sure of it!" Joy kissed her finger tips to the portrait.
Bet and Kit both glanced up at the smiling face on the wall and it almost seemed as if the lips twitched with amusement.
"I'm not so sure about that, Joy. Anyone with as much gaiety and spirit as she had must have gotten into plenty of trouble in school," laughed Bet.
"Then I'm sure she tried not to," smiled Shirley, trying to encourage Joy in her resolution. She was always unhappy when any of the girls got into trouble.
"Is Miss Elder as sweet as she was last year?" asked Bet.
"Oh, she's sweeter than ever," exclaimed Joy.
"Oh that girl is always with us, to keep us from enjoying life too much. Why don't they send her away to Boarding School or something? She has already gotten two people into trouble by tattling."
"That girl's a pest!" Bet frowned with indignation.
"Lady Betty Merriweather would have won her friendship and changed her whole character," said Kit, gazing into the smiling eyes.
Joy laughed. "You wait until you know Edith Whalen. Then you will see if there is anything that can change her character."
"I must say I feel a little discouraged myself," said Bet, shaking her head.
School had been in session for two weeks before Bet and Kit were allowed to go. Although Kit was a year and a half older than her friends, she was in the same grade. The little mountain school which she had attended in Arizona, had not been of the best. Her friendship for her chums made up to her for the fact that she was taller than any other girl in the class and for that reason had to bear many taunts from spiteful and thoughtless schoolmates. Kit became a favorite with most of the class, her quaint sayings amused them. But Edith Whalen took a violent dislike to her, as she was apt to do when she saw another girl made much of.
"Isn't she terribly crude!" exclaimed Edith with curled lips. "I don't see why she had to be in our class. I know mother wouldn't want me to associate with her."
"Bet Baxter seems to like her," said Vivian Long, who was always to be seen at Edith's heels.
"Well her taste isn't to be imitated. I think she's horrid."
"Why Edith Whalen, how can you say a thing like that? We all think Kit is so pretty and sweet. And she's very clever!" exclaimed Shirley Williams, coming to the defense of her chum.
"But who is she? The daughter of a cowboy or a miner! She's just common white trash!"
Bet was coming toward Edith, her eyes blazing. "Why Edith Whalen you are nothing but a horrid snob. I hate you!"
This was what Miss Elder heard as she came quietly into the class room.
"Bet!" Miss Elder's voice was stern. "I'll see you after school tonight. I'm surprised to hear you talk like that to anyone."
Bet was overcome with shame and anger. She went to her place at once and bent over her books, knowing that Edith was preening herself over her success in getting others into trouble. It seemed as if Edith could always do something mean and get away with it.
"And if I so much as,—well lose my temper a wee little bit like I did this morning—I get punished." Bet was receiving the sympathy of her chums at noon.
From a distance Bet heard Edith talking to a group of girls about her, "Miss Elder will make her apologize to me, and I hope it will be before the whole school. Bet thinks she can say anything, just because Colonel Baxter is rich and popular."
Bet had started toward the corner of the room where Edith was standing, but Shirley laid her hand on her shoulder.
"Come on, Bet," coaxed Shirley. "Don't listen to her. You'll only get into more trouble."
"I don't care, I'm going to tell her what I think of her."
"Aw forget it, Bet!" exclaimed Joy. "What's the matter with you today, anyway? Usually you can laugh at anything mean Edith has a mind to say to you."
"If it were about me, I could stand it. But I'll fight to the death for Kit!"
Luckily the bell rang at that moment and Bet was restrained from further quarreling.
Bet was not asked to make a public apology, as Edith had hoped. Miss Elder in her kindly way talked to the girl and made her see that to lose her temper and say unkind things was not living up to the best that was in her.
"And why did you get angry? What did Edith do?"
"Miss Elder, don't ask me to tell on her. I've never told on anyone in my life. I'll take all the punishment."
"I'm not going to punish you, Bet. I think by the looks of your unhappy face this afternoon that you have been punished enough."
"I always get sick when I get angry," said Bet shamefacedly.
"Then my advice to you is, don't get angry any more." Miss Elder had her arm about the girl and was half laughing at the serious face of the child. "Now run along home, Bet, and don't let me ever hear of you getting angry again. Promise!"
"Oh Miss Elder, I couldn't promise that. You know I get cross over the slightest thing. Dad says so! But I'll promise to try hard. Will that do? Besides I'll never be able to keep good natured when Edith is around."
"Dear girl, you must get over your habit of becoming so tense over unimportant matters. If you can't learn to like Edith, learn to be indifferent."
"I'll try ever so hard, Miss Elder but just now she's a thorn in my flesh, and oh, how she hurts!"
And Bet did try in the weeks that followed to be indifferent to Edith, but it seemed to her as if Edith went out of her way to say and do unkind things.
"It's no use," Bet often said to herself. "I'm as indifferent as I can be, but oh! how I despise that girl!"
Antagonism against Kit Patten grew daily in the heart of Edith Whalen. That Kit could come into Lynnwood and immediately get into the set that she would like to be in, was sufficient reason for Edith's enmity.
Kit was liked by all the girls and boys. Her ready smile, a knack of getting a quick and appropriate answer back when they tried to tease her, made her a popular girl. In the class club she was appointed on committees and soon was taking an active part in the organization. And what Kit did, she did well and her natural charm made new friends for her daily.
Then when Kit suddenly pushed ahead in her studies and became a leader, this seemed the spur that made Edith display her enmity toward the girl. For Edith was so self-centered that any charm she might have possessed was being smothered and her sly and treacherous ways, kept her acquaintances either indifferent to her or decidedly against her.
Kit seemed to have a natural talent for languages. From the first she excelled in Latin. Her translations were being held up as examples in class work and she was receiving praise from Miss Owens, the Latin teacher, and even from the principal.
"Oh Bet, think of me leading in anything! I don't know half as much as the rest of you girls!"
"Why shouldn't you lead? We know you're just as clever as you can be."
"No, it's not that, Bet. It's just because I have mastered one language besides my own. I've spoken Spanish ever since I can remember, first with the little Mexican children around the ranch, and later I learned it properly with a teacher who wanted to pick it up. And I think it makes it easier now in Latin."
"Which shows you're clever just the same," laughed Shirley. "Imagine being able to speak in Spanish and knowing some of the Indian dialects as well."
"Huh! I'd call that smart," exclaimed Joy. "I'll never be able to do anything in languages. Why can't they have dancing and give scholarships for that?"
"Never mind, Joy," soothed Bet. "Maybe they'll invent a way to study Latin on tiptoe, then you'll be at the head of the class."
"Those examinations next week give me heart trouble," shivered Joy. "I just hate exams!"
The dreaded quarterly examinations came, however. The Latin test was hard: most of the pupils sighed, bit their pencils and the ones who were unprepared, gave up in despair.
But Kit turned in a paper that afterwards proved to be almost perfect. Just at the close of the test when Miss Owens was picking up the test papers, she passed Kit's seat and saw a book protruding from her desk.
The order had been that all books were to be turned in and anyone found possessing a book would be given zero in the test.
Miss Owens stopped short. "Why Kit Patten!" she exclaimed in amazement. "Give me the book that you have in your desk!"
Kit started in surprise looking in her desk and handed the book to the teacher, her face white.
"Where did you get that book?" exclaimed Miss Owens. Raising the book above her head she announced to the class. "This book is a Latin Key. I'm surprised Kit Patten, that a girl like you could do such a thing."
Kit sprang to her feet. "Miss Owens, I never saw that book before." Her voice was clear and strong, no sign of guilt or embarrassment. "There must be some mistake."
"Come with me!" ordered Miss Owens, hastily picking up the rest of the test papers, and led the way to the office.
Miss Owens blurted out the story to Principal Sills. She was too outraged to be just to anyone at the moment and even the principal felt no inclination to be lenient.
"You know," said Mr. Sills, facing the girl, "that this is a serious thing you have done. It means only one thing, that is expulsion from the school. No pupil is allowed to have a key."
It was some time before Bet had a chance to state her case. Then she said quietly, "Mr. Sills, I have heard of key books but I have never seen one."
"Then how did the book get into your desk! Don't make matters worse by trying to lie out of it. Make a full confession and take the punishment. Since you are away from your parents, we will make an exception in your case and not expel you if you say you did it."
"Mr. Sills, I cannot make a confession of something that I never did. I tell you I never saw that book until Miss Owens took it from my desk."
"Let me see her test paper, Miss Owens. Then you may go back and dismiss your class, but come here again."
The principal took the test paper in his hand and commenced to go through it. He did not look surprised when he came across sentences that usually proved stumbling blocks to the pupils, to find them perfectly translated by Kit. He tapped the paper as if he were saying to himself, "I told you so!"
"Have you ever studied Latin before?" he asked her just as Miss Owens returned.
"No sir, this is my first year."
"Then I do not believe that you could have turned in such a good paper without help. It has never been done before and we do not expect anyone to answer more than half of the questions. Your mistakes are so slight that the paper may be counted perfect. That seems to me evidence enough of your guilt."
Kit did not answer for a moment, but her eyes were blazing. "You accuse me of copying without real proof! How dare you!"
The principal flushed. "Don't you think the fact that you had a key book in your desk during examination period is proof enough?"
"I know it looks bad, Mr. Sills, but it isn't proof. It can't be proof because I never saw the book before."
"Yet where the name is erased, it looks strangely like your initials."
Mr. Sills passed the book to Kit. The tracings of the first letter although dim, certainly looked like a "K."
"It doesn't make any difference. Even if my name was written in full on that page, I still tell you I never saw the book before."
And through all the questioning, Kit remained firm. Every moment Miss Owens became more excited and indignant against Kit. She felt that the good papers the girl had passed in daily, had been copied, and she disliked the idea of having had such a thing put over in the class.
Kit stood the grilling with patience for a long time, then suddenly she jumped to her feet:
"I have a right to have a friendly person to defend me," she exclaimed. "I want Miss Elder to come in!"
"We are both your friends," said Principal Sills.
Miss Owens' face flushed at the criticism. "And you know Kit, I have always been friendly."
"You are not being friendly now and you are not being just, that is certain. I need someone who will believe me in spite of this, and will help to straighten it out."
Miss Elder was sent for and came in, her eyes smouldering with sympathy for the girl. And right behind her came Bet. The three girls had gone to Miss Elder as soon as class was dismissed, Joy and Shirley in tears, but Bet, stamping up and down the room in a rage.
"Let me go to Mr. Sills!" she cried. "I'll tell him something. Why Kit wouldn't cheat. She just couldn't!"
"Now Bet, keep calm. If you want to help Kit, you must."
So when the call came from the office, Bet begged to be allowed to accompany Miss Elder.
Kit smiled when she saw Bet's troubled face. Stepping forward, she grasped the hand of her friend. "Don't you worry, Bet. I didn't do it and just as long as you and Miss Elder believe in me, I'll win out."
Mr. Sills handed the test paper to Miss Elder. "I have marked the few trifling errors on the margin. Do you think it possible that a girl who has studied Latin only a few months could write such a paper? Do either of you believe it?" he asked, looking toward Bet.
Bet was about to deliver a speech in defense of her friend, but Kit frowned and put her finger to her lips and Bet kept quiet.
Miss Elder spoke: "I have taken a particular interest in Kit Patten and I do not believe it possible that she would cheat in any way!"
Bet's eyes were shining: "Why not give her another chance? Keep her right here in the office and let her do another exam. Then you can watch her every second."
Mr. Sills went quietly toward a filing cabinet and selected an old examination paper. "Here is one that is almost as difficult. Sit over there and begin."
Miss Elder looked her sympathy. "Do you think it quite fair? After a hard day at the examinations and then all this emotional strain of the last hour, how can she do her best now?"
"Oh please, Miss Elder, don't stop me," cried Kit. "I feel sure I can do it. Yes, I can do it better than the other, for now I'm fighting for my very life."
"Dear old Kit! You show them!" said Bet with a smile of encouragement.
In a few moments Kit had a place at the long library table and was writing for all she was worth. Miss Owens and Mr. Sills never left the room while Kit's pen flew over the paper. Spurred on by the excitement, the girl never seemed to hesitate even for a word.
Miss Elder and Bet met the girls outside. "Oh I think Miss Owens is terrible!" exclaimed Joy.
"Why no, Joy. Miss Owens looks heart-broken. She is harder hit than any of us. She had taken such pride in Kit's work. Then to find the key in her desk! You know that's a terrible shock." Miss Elder tried to soothe the girls.
"But just the same she ought to know that Kit couldn't do it," protested Shirley.
"Whose book is it, anyway? Who put it in Kit's desk?" asked Joy.
"No one seems to know or if they do, they won't tell," said Bet. "But it's up to the Merriweather Girls to find out."
"Let's go into the club meeting, we almost forgot it!" Shirley led the way.
The three girls arrived just in time to hear a discussion regarding Kit Patten's behavior. Vivian Long, Edith Whalen's friend, was talking.
"I think after such a disgraceful thing, Kit Patten should be asked to resign from the club."
"Don't you think she should be allowed to defend herself?" asked Shirley, not waiting to be seated.
At a nudge from Edith, Vivian was again on her feet. "If we are to keep up the standards of our class club, we should not overlook this for a minute. The book was found in Kit's desk and that is enough."
Bet somehow got to the middle of the room, her face red and her hair tousled.
She frowned on Vivian, and the girl dropped to her seat without another word.
"That must not be put to a motion. Nothing has been proved and I do not believe Kit did anything wrong. Mr. Sills is giving her a new test now and I'm sure she'll prove that she didn't get any help anywhere."
"But if a girl had such a book in her possession! You don't want us to let a thing like that go by without notice. The club is for questions of this kind."
Bet's quick glance seemed to take in everything. She knew just the attitude that each girl was taking. Some were against Kit, and others were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Bet caught a look of triumph on Edith's face and in a burst of temper exclaimed: "Someone planted that book there to get Kit into trouble. I have my suspicions as to who did it."
"Then you had better speak out," exclaimed Vivian Long after a nudge from Edith.
"I will accuse no one—that is at present," answered Bet.
"You are accusing someone, and unless you give names, you have no right to make that statement. Now you are accusing everyone about us, after what you just said." It was Edith's sneering voice.
"Then Edith, for the present I apologize." She looked the girl straight in the eyes. "But you will hear from me later.—And what's more, if I am mistaken about it and have made this accusation falsely, then I'll send in my resignation as well."
Even Joy and Shirley had to laugh at Bet's apology. One minute she took back her accusation and the next made it stronger than ever.
The result of Kit's test in the office was even better than the other one had been. Mr. Sills put out his hand and said, "At least you have proven that you did not need a key to do your work." He hesitated a second: "But we will have to find out who put the book there before you are entirely free from suspicion with the class."
Miss Owens threw her arms about the girl. "Forgive me for doubting you for a moment. I know you didn't do it."
And when Kit heard of the loyalty of her chums in the club she was happy. "But you shouldn't have done it, Bet, you'll only get yourself in bad."
"Right-O!" cried Joy. "If you're in bad, Kit, then all the Merriweather Girls are in bad. We stick together."
"In sunshine and storm! Isn't that right, Shirley!" exclaimed Bet impulsively.
Shirley answered by putting her arm around Kit.
And when Bob and Phil heard of the trouble they were indignant. "There's only one girl in that class mean enough to do it," said Bob. "I wonder if she would!"
"I'm not only wondering, but I'm going to find out!" snapped Bet vindictively.
"We're on her trail!" laughed Joy.
"And remember if there is anything we can do, let us know. We believe in Kit!" declared Phil.
The next morning Miss Owens made a point of meeting Kit outside the door and bringing her into the room. After the class had assembled, Miss Owens said simply: "I want you all to know that Kit Patten has proved to me and to Mr. Sills that she did not use a key in her examinations. Just how the book got into her desk, we do not know, but we are making every effort to find out."
"The idea!" whispered Edith Whalen to the girl ahead of her. "How beautifully they shield her!"
"They would!" agreed Vivian Long. "It does seem as if Bet Baxter and her crowd can do anything they like."
"I never did believe Kit did it," said little Annie Randall, a meek timid child who rarely took a stand in anything.
"What do you know about it?" asked Edith contemptuously. And Annie Randall was subdued.
Although most of the class received Kit back with kindly thoughts, still the girl felt the humiliation of being doubted by others. Rather pointed jokes were flung out in her hearing occasionally. Kit was even-tempered and therefore able to endure it, but to Bet it was like a lighted match to tinder. Sparks flew and sputtered while Bet told the annoyers that Kit was worth a dozen of them, which only urged them on to further annoyance.
But Bet's heart ached for Kit, who felt these slights more than she would own. In the club, although someone would propose her name for committee work, there was always a protest, until Kit begged her friends to cease their efforts, for it only embarrassed her and kept the subject before the class all the time.
"If we could only find the one who did it!" It was on Bet's mind continually and finally she went to Principal Sills and talked the matter over with him. What she suggested was a trap to catch the one who had played such a mean trick on her friend.
"Whoever owns that book wants it back worst way or she would never have bought it. If we put it on Miss Owens' desk, sooner or later the guilty one will try to get it. No one else will want to touch it."
Mr. Sills was rather skeptical about the success of the plan.
"We can try it, anyway. I'm always here until after the school is locked at night."
Miss Owens was taken into the secret between Mr. Sills and Bet, but no one else was told about it.
"I can't even tell you Merriweather Girls," confided Bet. "But I'm sure I'll be able to tell the whole story before long, and you'll all be glad."
And the girls feeling sure that it had something to do with Kit's trouble, did not urge her to confide in them.
Bet, in a quiet way, saw to it that everyone in the class knew that the key book was on Miss Owens' desk.
And her three chums found Bet a very unsatisfactory companion for the next few days. Every night after school she excused herself by saying that she had to see Mr. Sills. If they could have seen her hiding away in one of the lower grade rooms where she could see the only unlocked door of the building they would have wondered what she was up to.
On the third afternoon she was rewarded. Just as she was about to give up and go home, she saw a figure dart around the building and come in the door.
It was Edith Whalen.
Bet wanted to go herself and confront the girl, but thought better of it and kept to the plan she and Mr. Sills had made. She ran to the office and called the principal.
Edith had tiptoed into the classroom, selected the book she wanted and turned to go. At the door she met Mr. Sills.
"I would like to see you in the office, Edith," he said quietly.
Edith clutched the book and quickly hid it under her coat, wishing she could find a place to drop it when Mr. Sills was not looking. But there was no chance to get rid of it.
When they reached the office, the principal said quietly, "Edith, give me the book you have there."
The girl hesitated. He extended his hand.
"It's the Latin key from Miss Owens' desk. I want it." Then as Edith hesitated still, he demanded: "Pass it over at once."
"Now sit down here and tell me the whole story. Why did you put that book in Kit Patten's desk?"
Edith started to deny that she had done so, then decided to be perfectly silent.
Finally after an hour, during which time the principal made threats of expulsion, the girl finally broke down and confessed.
In the meantime Bet had gone to the phone and called Miss Owens and Kit, according to the understanding with Mr. Sills.
It was Kit who begged for Edith. "Don't expel her, Mr. Sills. I'm sure she won't do such a thing again." Kit even objected to a class apology for the girl but Mr. Sills was firm in this.
And when school opened the next day Edith had to face the class and say that she had put the book into Kit's desk in order to get her into trouble.
Kit was thankful that the suspicion against her was gone, but she pitied Edith.
"I don't understand her!" exclaimed the girl to her friends later. "I'm anxious to be friends and she won't let me."
Several days later when she met Edith face to face in the dressing room, Edith exclaimed: "Get out of my sight, I hate you!"
Although Kit made every effort to be friendly with Edith Whalen, she had to acknowledge herself beaten. As Merriweather Girls, the four chums felt that they should be able to win her, but Edith refused to notice any advances made by the girls and while she was not aggressively unpleasant, they felt her smoldering dislike.
"We'll just have to give up and let her alone," advised Bet. "If we appear too anxious, she may break out again and do something else. One can never be sure of Edith."
"It does seem a shame," sighed Kit. "I'd truly love to be friends in spite of what she did. I want everybody to like me."
"And she probably would have liked you, too, if you hadn't been a friend of mine. She has always disliked me."
"Well girls, let us console ourselves with some of Auntie Gibbs' fudge. She just made it on purpose for us," cried Joy, dancing into the big entrance hall where Shirley, Bet and Kit were curled up on the divan. Shirley had brought a box of prints that she had promised to show Kit, and today was a rainy Saturday afternoon and just the time to do it.
The Merriweather Girls were having their weekly meeting at the Manor.
A little later Colonel Baxter joined them and demanded the right to be included in the club.
"Here you are having a good time, and I'm out of it."
"But Dad, you can't be a Merriweather Girl, you know that."
"Well I might be Legal Advisor or something of the sort. Give me a fancy title and I'll be happy."
"All right," exclaimed Kit, clapping her hands. "Legal Advisor it is, and we'll ask your advice right this minute on a very important problem. How do you make people like you? Turn hatred into love or something like that?"
"One way is to shut your eyes to the hatred, forget it's there and everything will come out all right in the end."
"And that's that," said Bet. "Dad knows."
"All right Shirley, he's given us his first valuable legal advice. Now he might be permitted to have some fudge and also look at your snapshots. He's getting impatient," pleaded Kit, as she and Bet wandered away into the drawing room and Joy danced out to the kitchen for more fudge.
The Colonel was always interested in the progress Shirley was making in photography. She seemed to have a decided talent for taking pictures. Every print was looked at carefully and praised and sometimes criticized by the Colonel as they talked of the methods of taking, the style of finish and all the other details of the work.
"Some of these days you'll be having a gallery of your own and hanging out your sign." The Colonel smiled and patted the little hand of Shirley. His daughter's chums were very dear to him.
"I'm afraid I'm not clever enough for that. There is a lot to learn about taking pictures. I've always been glad I had some training with Mr. Colby before he retired. You know I just love photography, I could take pictures from morning till night and never be tired."
"What's that one in the envelope over there? You didn't show me that one."
Shirley flushed. "Well that's an experiment. I had the nerve to try an art print. I wanted to see what I could do."
Colonel Baxter gave a low whistle when Shirley held up the print. "Now you have done something, Miss Fixit. That's very good." He held it at arm's length. "I should say it's very good! And these others are fine, too."
"Now you're teasing me. I know you are."
"No of course I'm not teasing. They're lovely. I don't know which I like best, the gulls, or the Palisades and that tree with the river in the background. They are all very pretty."
Shirley had taken six different views and the Colonel now advised her to make some prints of each and he would send them to an art shop in New York where he was acquainted. "We'll fix them up in a narrow gilt frame and they'll make a very nice gift."
"Oh, do you really think so? Why I'll be so proud just to have them exhibited I'll pretty nearly blow up even if I don't sell any at all."
"I've an idea, Shirley. You are always anxious to earn money and do things, why don't you start a shop of your own?"
"You're funny, Colonel Baxter. How would I start a shop? Bet, come here and listen to your father."
"What's he planning now, Shirley," exclaimed Bet as she threw her arm around her father's neck. "Don't oppose my Dad in anything he wants to do. I found that out years and years ago when I was young. Whatever he says, do it."
"But this is impossible!"
"Not if Dad says it's possible," she laughed. "Oh Dad, you are a most wonderful man!"
"And you are a most wonderful daughter, Bet!"
"And here comes old Smiley Jim for his share," exclaimed Bet patting the dog's head. "Yes Smiley Jim, you are a most wonderful dog!"
"It's a wonderful family!" announced Joy with a dance.
"And if no one else believes it, we do!" said the Colonel. "But come now Merriweather Girls, call a council or a pow-wow or what ever you call it! Blow your horn and get the clan together."
"Toot—toot—t-o-o-o-o-o-t!" Joy blew on an imaginary bugle and at that moment Kit came into the room from the kitchen where she had gone to ask Auntie Gibbs a question.
"Auntie Gibbs says——" Kit started to tell something.
But Bet interrupted: "We don't want to hear what Auntie Gibbs says. The Merriweather Girls are in council. Grave matters are about to be discussed. The Legal Advisor is present and all members are called for an immediate consultation."
Kit dropped into a chair laughing. "Proceed!" she announced.
"The Legal Advisor has the chair!" laughed Shirley.
"The question under consideration," began the Colonel, "is one of very great importance. It is that Shirley Williams should open an art and photographic shop right here in Lynnwood!"
"Whoopee!" shouted Kit, swinging her arm around her head as if she were waving a sombrero.
"Why of course," said Bet. "I'm surprised that we didn't think of that ourselves. I move that the shop be opened at once, immediately! Where is it to be?"
"Well I was thinking," said the Colonel.
"But listen. To run a shop a person must have money and must know how to sell things and I don't know how or anything." The prospect was alluring to Shirley, but the difficulties seemed too great.
"She has to go to school," Joy reminded them.
"You leave it to Dad. He's thinking of something, I can see that."'
"Yes, I have a plan and we will want to talk it over with Shirley's mother before we do anything. Now if you girls will keep quiet, I'll tell you my plan."
"Do let us hear it," cried Joy.
"Hurry, Dad, we can't wait! Please don't be so slow, say it right this minute!"
"Suppose you keep quiet long enough for your father to say a word," suggested Kit. "Let the poor man have a chance!"
"What I was trying to say is that I have that little corner store next to old Peter Gruff's place. Supposing I give that to Shirley for a year and let her open a Saturday Shop; that means that it would only be open on Saturdays."
"Dad, you're a wonder! I'm proud of you!"
Colonel Baxter shook his head at his daughter.
"No interruptions!" Then he continued: "With the Christmas season ahead, I'm sure that Shirley could sell plenty of these art prints alone to make it worth while. I'll get her the frames in New York at a wholesale place where I've dealt for years."
"But Colonel, I haven't any money to start things."
Again the man put up his hand for silence. "Now I believe this is going to be a good business proposition for anyone who goes into it, so I am going to back you. It will not take much money. For furnishings for the shop I would refer you to our attic. Auntie Gibbs hates to throw anything away, or give it away for that matter, and you will find chairs and tables and that sort of thing. You girls can decorate the place to suit yourselves. Now what do you think about it? Don't all speak at once."
For a moment no one spoke. The prospect that spread out before them, leading them on into future joys, left the girls quite overcome. Even the lighthearted Joy, who usually had a song or dance for every occasion, was silent and thoughtful.
"It's too good to be true!" laughed Kit. "I can see all sorts of wonderful adventures in Shirley's Shop." Kit's eyes were sparkling as she thought of all the fun ahead.
"And that's a good name for it," cried Bet. "We'll paint a sign for the window:
MARVELOUS PICTURES AT A BIG PRICE.'"
"Oh no, Bet, that won't do! That would frighten people away," exclaimed Shirley.
"Well, we'd get rid of the people who want a picture for two cents, anyway."
The Colonel laughed heartily at his young friends. "Miss Fixit has the right idea. You're developing a real business head already."
"Couldn't we go down and look at the shop this afternoon so we could make plans and have something to dream about next week?"
"I think we might. Let's stop in and see if Mrs. Williams won't come with us. We'll need her advice on lots of things." And thus did Colonel Baxter enlist the co-operation of Shirley's mother.
"The possibilities of this place are simply uncountable," cried Bet enthusiastically.
"And say, Shirley, any time you want a little exhibition dancing for your afternoon callers, I'm at your service," and Joy Evans made a few fancy spins on the tips of her toes, in the center of the room.
"Not a bad idea! Keep that in the back of your heads," advised the Colonel. "In fact, never throw an idea away. Keep it in storage where you can bring it out if needed."
The store contained two rooms. The large one in the rear started a plan in Shirley's head. "Wouldn't this make a dandy place for a photographic studio. And here is a lovely big closet which will be a good dark room. And there is running water in that corner. Why everything is complete."
"It's just made to order, Shirley," exclaimed Kit. "Really you are a lucky girl!"
"There you are, young lady! Appointments made every Saturday morning!"
"The first thing to do is to decide on the color scheme for the shop," said Mrs. Williams who was noted as a good manager.
"Let's have plenty of orange. Gold always means success, doesn't it?"
"Maybe so," laughed the woman, enjoying the enthusiasm of the girls. The years seemed to slip away when Shirley brought her friends near.
A large bay window covered almost all the front of the store.
"That's a good show window you have there," observed Colonel Baxter. "Already I can see Shirley's photographs on display?"
"And those blue and gold drapes in the attic will just be fine for a back curtain," suggested Bet.
"That is, if they are not dropping apart from age," replied the Colonel.
"They'll probably do us for a while until we make our fortune."
"Our fortune! Since when do you own the shop, Bet Baxter?" teased Joy. "Is this Shirley and company?"
"Of course not. It's Shirley's. But we're all going to help her to get started," promised Bet.
"What is Shirley's good luck is ours. We're all Merriweather Girls," said Kit quietly.
Shirley was in a happy daze and hardly heard her mother's plans. "You can bring down that large blue rug in your room, Shirley, and I'll put something else in there."
"That's just the thing, it has lots of orange in it," exclaimed Bet.
"And as a name for the shop, I'll suggest 'Fixit's Factory,'" teased Colonel Baxter.
"Oh no! That wouldn't sound nice. I don't like factories." Shirley looked troubled.
"Of course it wouldn't and Daddy knows it, too. He's just a big tease!"
Shirley laughed now with the others. She was inclined to be serious and never quite knew when the Colonel was in fun.
"'Shirley's Shop' sounds much nicer. It's aristocratic!"
Suddenly Kit saw two boys coming down the street and she had the door open in a flash: "Come right in, Bob and Phil. The Merriweather Girls are in council and having decided some very important matters, they want your approval."
"Flattery, you mean! You girls just feed on flattery, and you expect us to supply it like boxes of candy."
"Candy makes me think that we might have homemade candy here. Joy could do that and Kit and I will paint some boxes for it! That's the first idea supplied by the Consulting Advisers, Bob and Phil!"
"And where does the boss come in, and what is left for her to do?" laughed Shirley.
"Oh you are to supply the art. We will do the things that appeal to the common people."
"Say, Colonel, what's the matter with these girls? Are they crazy?"
"Not any more than usual I think."
"Why Daddy Baxter, if you talk like that you just won't be allowed to take part in our plans at all. We'll discharge you as Legal Adviser."
"Oh then I'll be good! I'll be good! I could never stand that."
"So it's secrets and things!" suggested Phil.
"Just the opposite of that! It's something we want you to shout from the house tops."
Bob gave a bound to the seat of an old chair and flapping his arms up and down wildly he crowed, "Cock-a-doodle-doo! Don't know what I'm crowing about, but I'm crowing!"
"And that's what we want you to do. The Merriweather Girls are starting in business!" announced Kit.
"You don't say so!"
"It's to be known as Shirley's Shop!" Kit exclaimed.
"Oh you mean Shirley is going into business. That sounds more sane. Shirley has some sense," laughed Bob.
"Out you go, Bob Evans!" and without giving him time to catch his breath the girls shoved him outside the door.
"When you promise to be good, you may come back, Bob, and not until," threatened Joy.
Finally after many promises to be good, they opened the door and let Bob come in. The boys got a somewhat jumbled account of the business venture of the Merriweather Girls and they approved to such an extent that they rolled up their sleeves and wanted to get to work at once.
"Where's a broom and we'll sweep the place out for you," suggested Phil.
Shirley objected, saying that the following Saturday morning would be time enough, then if they wanted to, the girls would be glad of their help.
"And they'll want flattery before they start the work and flattery after it's done just the way Smiley Jim does," said Kit with a laugh.
"Why Kit Patten!" exclaimed Bob. "And we thought you were our friend!"
"Meow, meow! What a kitten to scratch!" teased Phil.
"Deny it, if you can," said Bet.
Colonel Baxter looked from one young face to the other, enjoying the friendly bickering and feeling happy that he was no dampener to their fun, for they accepted him as one of themselves. Mrs. Williams' hearty laugh urged them on to further efforts at cleverness.
"Wish we had a broom, I'd really like to see this place swept out!" Bet was impatient to see results.
"Why not go over and borrow one from your neighbor, Peter Gruff? He's so friendly he'll give you the shop."
As old Peter Gruff was notoriously stingy, everybody laughed at the joke.
"We'll do better than that," exclaimed Bet. "Come on Kit, let's go over and buy a broom. We'll need it!"
In a few minutes Bet and Kit came running back, each with a large broom.
"And here's where we are supposed to shine!" laughed Phil, as each captured a broom and started right in where they were standing.
"Not that way!" shouted Kit, for a cloud of dust rose about their heads.
"This way!" suggested Shirley and the boys stopped and paid attention to her, as they usually did. "Stand on those old chairs and sweep off the ceilings and walls and in that show window while the brooms are nice and clean; then you can do the floors."
"That tan shade of the walls isn't bad at all. I think we can make that do, don't you, Shirley?" asked Bet.
"Yes. We don't want to do any more than we have to," Shirley answered.
"I don't like those high walls," pouted Bet.
"We'll have them lowered," teased Bob.
"If I may be allowed to suggest, Miss Fixit," said Colonel Baxter, addressing Shirley with great ceremony, "I would say that a band of contrasting color could be painted around the walls just about at the height of your head. That will give the effect of a lower ceiling at once."
"Oh yes, Dad, the way you had it done in your den! And that room always looks so cozy."
"After a while when the shop begins to pay, you could buy burlap and run that around under your border. That would make a backing for displaying your pictures."
Everybody liked that idea.
The girls felt at home in Shirley's Shop even before it was cleaned up. And they closed it reluctantly until Friday afternoon when they were to meet and clean the windows and wood work.
It was hard for the girls to keep their minds on their school work during the next week. Visions of the shop, as it was to look some day, filled their thoughts to the exclusion of history dates and right angle triangles.
Shirley had to be industrious. After her home work was finished she donned her old smock and made her art prints, enough for the gift shop in New York and for her own place as well.
Her mother remonstrated at the late hours, but Shirley said, "Oh Mother, it won't be this way often. And I do want to get started soon."
"It may develop into something worth while," said her mother. "Who knows but this may be the open door that leads to college?"
"Oh, if only it is! How I wish it! I'll be willing to work hard if only I can help you and Dad, and get a good education at the same time."
"The future can always be bright with our hopes and plans for success," replied the mother as she clasped Shirley's hand understandingly.
"Thump, thump, thump!" a thunderous rap at the door of Shirley's shop brought the four girls on the run from the back room, where they had been doing the last of the window cleaning.
"It's Bob and Phil! Good for them!" shouted Bet. "Let them in, you're nearest, Kit!"
The two boys entered the doorway in a very supplicating manner, their hats held humbly in their hands.
"We want work, ladies! Can we get something to eat?" begged Bob without a smile.
"You would, Bob Evans! Thinking of food the first thing!" scolded Joy.
"Been out of a job for two months," added Phil.
"Then I suppose you want something to eat, too?"
"Yes ma'am, I'd like nothing better than a handout."
"You'll earn it first, you lazy things," exclaimed Kit.
"Always taking the joy out of life, isn't she?" Bob pretended to be sad.
"Now what do you boys want to do?" Bet was in her snappiest form, business-like and full of energy. "You can paint that strip around the wall where we've marked it, or you can paint the window, or you can paint chairs or tables. Now just take your choice of work, I don't care what you do, as long as you paint."
"But I wanted to do basketry or clay figures," teased Bob. "Didn't you, Phil?"
"No indeed. I wanted to paint. I'm a noble soul. I'm just dying to paint, in fact I must paint!"
"Then get to work!" cried Kit. "And don't waste so much time! This is our busy day. No parking here!"
"Slave drivers! No hand-out, and not a minute to collect our thoughts!"
"You don't need to worry, Bob, it won't take you that long to collect your thoughts! One second will be enough," retorted Joy.
"And we don't get anything to eat?" asked Phil.
But while the merry nonsense went on the two boys were preparing the paint and getting ready to work. Phil took a step ladder and began on the outside of the store, painting the frame of the window in bright orange.
"There now that stands out, all right," he exclaimed as he finished the job. "You can see that a mile off."
Bob finished the frame on the inside, about the same time and together they started on the broad strip that was marked off around the walls.
"Say lady, it's eleven o'clock. Can't we have that hand-out?" cried Bob Evans.
"Not yet. Why you've only been working an hour!" exclaimed Bet indignantly. "Who ever heard of such a thing!"
"Let's strike!" Phil dropped his paint brush and settled himself in an easy chair. "No hand-out, no more work!"
"That's right!" agreed Bob, capturing another chair.
"Oh you terrible boys! We might as well do it ourselves if we've got to stop every hour and feed you. There's nothing ready yet anyway." Bet frowned on her friends.
But just at that moment Uncle Nat appeared with two very large hampers and Bob and Phil each secured a basket.
"Now who's to say when?" laughed Bob. "Who's boss now, answer me that?"
"We are in the power of two tyrants who won't work!" said Kit dramatically.
"Take that back, Kit Patten, or you'll not get a bite of lunch. Say you're sorry!" teased Phil.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'll take it back!" laughed Kit.
"I'll tell you what, boys." It was Shirley's voice from the rear room, where she was cleaning out the big closet for a dark room. "We do want that strip painted before lunch. It won't take you more than ten minutes. While we are fixing up this table and unpacking the baskets, you finish that."
"Right-O, Shirley!" The boys were on their feet instantly and they went to work without another word.
"Oh girls, doesn't it look perfectly wonderful!" exclaimed Bet, coming into the room just as the two boys laid aside their brushes. "Now you shall eat!"
"A crust of bread and a glass of water, I suppose!"
"You suppose nothing of the sort. You know Auntie Gibbs put it up and therefore it has to be good!" exclaimed Kit. "But you boys won't get a bite to eat until you've washed your faces."
"Now we rebel! This is the limit. The worm turns at last. We're going to eat this way." And they did.
Auntie Gibbs had outdone herself on the lunch. There was fried chicken and apple fritters, still piping hot. There was jelly and hot biscuits. The table was loaded.
"Here Kit, open up that box of marshmallows. And put one in each cup of cocoa."
"One! Why you stingy thing. I'll not drink it unless I have three!" exclaimed Bob.
"All right, give the child what he wants!" Bet agreed.
"Auntie Gibbs must have thought we were going to feed all of Lynnwood. Sending down a lunch this size!" laughed Shirley.
"But that's so much better than not having enough. Wait until we've finished it, there won't be much left. I know what kind of an appetite I have, and when Bob gets to work he'll eat about half of what's here."
"Aren't you going to wash that orange streak off your face, Phil?" asked Bet.
"No. It's a beauty mark."
While the young people were making merry over their lunch, the door of the shop opened and shuffling feet were heard outside in the front room.
Bet jumped up excitedly, "Maybe it's a customer! Oh girls!"
"Oh, I hope it isn't!" exclaimed Shirley. "We haven't got anything for sale yet."
"Oh, how do you do, Mr. Gruff," Bet's voice was heard from the back room. "You are our first visitor."
"What you doing here?" Peter asked abruptly.
"Listen to the old grouch," whispered Joy to Shirley. "One would think he owned this store."
"Ssh! Keep quiet, Joy. Let's hear what he's saying."
Bet answered the old man in her sweetest manner. "We're opening an art shop. We'll be your next door neighbor, Mr. Gruff."
"What are you going to sell? Antiques?"
"Not just at present. Perhaps later we may," answered Bet.
"Don't do it. There's no money in antiques! Not a penny. Of course if you want them, I'll be able to get them for you. I go to all the auctions. I went away out to Connecticut the other day to get some old lamps."
"And did you get them? What were they like?" questioned Bet.
"I didn't get them. They went too high. That's the reason I say there's no money in antiques. It used to be one could pick up things for almost nothing."
"Yes people learned to value their old things."
"Are you Colonel Baxter's girl? I thought so! Now there's a man who knows antiques. Can't get ahead of him on a buy. He knows just what a thing should sell for and half the time he can tell me to a penny what I paid for it."
Bet laughed heartily at this, for she remembered her father telling her how old Peter had tried to sell him some candlesticks at an exorbitant price.
"Seein' as it's you, Colonel Baxter," he had said, "You can have this pair of candlesticks for fifteen dollars."
"Too much, Mr. Gruff," the Colonel answered emphatically.
"Ten dollars then, Colonel Baxter. I won't be making a penny on them, not one."
"No, Peter, I'll be going to an auction myself soon, and I can pick up candlesticks anytime."
"Now Colonel Baxter, bein' as it's you, I don't mind losing a little money on those sticks. Ain't they beauties now? You can have the pair of them for seven dollars. Will you take them with you or shall I send them up to the Manor?"
"That's too much, Peter. You know you got those candlesticks thrown in when you bought that highboy and the gate-leg table."
Peter Gruff had been so thunderstruck at the Colonel's correct guess that he had stood open-mouthed, staring, and without a word he had placed the candlesticks on the shelf and began rubbing his hands together in great agitation.
The old furniture dealer was tricky, and Bet wondered now what he was prying around the shop for.
"You won't need that back room, will you? Maybe you'll let me store some things here." He started toward the rear.
"Oh, we are going to use all the rooms. Shirley Williams is going to have a photographic shop in the back room. Maybe you'll want your picture taken when we open for business."
The old man started and a look of fear came into his eyes. "What would I want a picture for?" he snarled, watching Bet anxiously, for the last time that Peter Gruff had been photographed was by the police, and that episode he wished forgotten.
"Come in and have a cup of cocoa with us, Mr. Gruff," invited Shirley.
"Oh yes," insisted Bet. "Here take this chair!" The girls had led him into the back room, where the young people greeted the old man joyously.
He took the proffered cup, accepted sandwiches and a good helping of chicken and didn't stop until he had eaten greedily all that was passed him, smacking his lips at each bite.
Joy and Kit got to laughing at the shocking table manners of the old man and had to leave the room.
When he was finally satisfied he began, "Don't think of handling antiques. No money in them. Once upon a time," the old man started again, "one could buy a wagon load of them for a dollar and sell maybe one old chair for fifty dollars. Then it was worth while to handle antiques. Why many a time I've started out with my wagon full of pots and pans and dishes, and exchanged a new platter that cost me twenty-five cents for a dish that I finally sold for twenty-five dollars."
No one spoke for a moment. They felt shocked at the old man's method of working. But he did not notice and went on.
"All the old farmers' wives wanted things up to date and so they just gave away the old things that had been in the family for a hundred years and got some shiny new stuff."
Joy and Kit interrupted the conversation by exclaiming: "Oh Bet I think that paint is dry enough so we can put the covering in the show window. Come and see!"
And old Peter Gruff rose with the others, after helping himself to three more sandwiches which he put in his pocket.
Bet and Shirley decided to frame some of the prints in the narrow gilt frames that Colonel Baxter had purchased for them. And in a few minutes they had them in the window.
"Let's go outside and see what it looks like!" exclaimed Bet excitedly.
The girls walked up and down in front of the store.
"Let's pretend we're just walking by on our way down town. Would it attract your eye?" asked Shirley, seriously.
"Not exactly attract," laughed Bet. "I should say it hits the eye. You can't pass up that orange window."
The girls placed their window display very carefully, putting only a few prints in so that they would show up.
"What we should have is a pretty vase or a vanity box or something of that sort to put in with these prints."
It looked to the girls as if old Peter had come to stay. As Shirley was going through her prints, he noticed the picture of the queen's fan and became quite excited. "That's an antique, isn't it?" he asked.
"Yes, it is a fan that belongs to my father," answered Bet, annoyed at the old man for interrupting their work.
"Let's see the fan," he begged, as if the girls had refused.
"We haven't got it here; it belongs to Colonel Baxter," Shirley answered.
But the old man didn't seem to believe them, for he poked his way into every corner of the shop, and in the dark-room he made a careful search, much to the amusement of the girls.
Then he sat down near Shirley and Bet as they framed more art prints.
"Now what's them for?" he asked. "Them pictures of birds?"
"Oh we expect to sell them to someone. Don't you think they're pretty?"
"Maybe," said old Pete. "That is somebody might like them. It's funny what people will buy."
But Peter Gruff was restless. He had hoped to find the fan and as he saw another print he picked it up and studied it carefully.
"Where did Colonel Baxter get the fan?" he asked.
"I don't know," answered Bet. "He has it, that's all I know."
Old Peter arose and once more started in a search of the rooms, unwilling to believe that the fan was not hidden in the shop. Wherever the girls wanted to work they stumbled into him.
At last Kit had an idea. "See this lovely picture, Mr. Gruff. It's only five dollars. Don't you think you'd like to buy it?"
The old man stammered, "No, no!" but Kit interrupted:
"And even if you don't want it for yourself, it would make a splendid Christmas present for some of your friends."
"Pay five dollars for a picture! Why there ain't a soul in the world that I care five dollars for!"
Peter Gruff left in a hurry. "Five dollars for one little picture!" he muttered to himself. "And such a skimpy frame. Why it's not worth fifty cents. Such prices! Such robbery!" The old man disappeared into the depths of his musty shop muttering:
"Just because I went in to see what they were up to and ate a little morsel of their lunch, they thought I was going to buy one of their pictures for five dollars! —And me with my shop full of the finest colored pictures, handpainted too!" And in his excitement he actually dusted off the top of a table.
"That was a mean trick, Kit Patten, to scare the poor fellow like that. How would you like it?" exclaimed Bob Evans with a serious face.
"Well I tried to be polite at first. I told him it was our busy day and he didn't pay any attention. And he wouldn't move: just kept on talking."
"You've broken his heart," exclaimed Phil dramatically. "His head is bowed with grief."
"And it ought to be!" stormed Kit, her eyes snapping, her cheeks scarlet. "He's wasted a full hour of my time."
The boys shouted with laughter. It was not often that they could succeed in getting Kit nettled. She was so even-tempered that they had almost given up teasing her. Bet, on the contrary was an easy prey, for her temper flared up at a second's notice.
But just now she was cool and composed: "Oh come on, Kit don't be silly. There's enough to do, goodness knows, without you staging a temper fit."
"Guess you're right, Bet. I'll be good." Kit was all smiles in a minute as she grabbed a dust mop to give the floor another cleaning before the rug was put down.
"I'm tired out completely!" Bob cried suddenly and dropped into the nearest chair.
"Bob Evans," screamed Joy. "There you've gone and ruined my chair. And it took me a good hour to paint it!"
Bob jumped to his feet, "Oh I'm so sorry, Sis. I didn't see it!"
But even the provoked Joy could not keep from laughing as Bob turned around. His trousers were streaked with paint.
"Oh turn around, Bob! Let's see you. You look like a winter sunset!" shouted Phil.
"Let us have those pants to frame," Bet laughed.
"And say Bob, you could go outside and strut up and down the sidewalk and be a walking advertisement for Shirley's Shop."
"Now you've broken my heart, too!" moaned Bob.
"Then take my advice and go over and weep on Peter's shoulder, and I, for one, won't miss you. Making me do all that work over again!"
"Here boys, get to work, you're only getting into mischief by standing around. Help me with this rug, it isn't straight." And the boys jumped to attention at Bet's order and arranged the rug to suit her.
"There now, isn't that cozy?" exclaimed Kit. And they all stood back and admired the work that had transformed the old store into a cozy room.
"I think it's just lovely," said Bet, with a sigh of happiness.
Joy hadn't quite recovered from her disappointment over her spoiled chair. She was working away with a frown as she repaired the damage. At a suggestion from Bob that she finish the job she had started on him, Joy gave a dab with her brush and left a long streak across his cheek.
"Now go away and leave me alone, Bob Evans."
"Get to work! Get to work!" shouted Bet. "Here help me with this table, Phil."
They lifted the heavy library table that the Colonel had given them from one corner of the room to the other. At the fifth move, Bet was satisfied but that brought it back to exactly the spot where she had started.
"Why don't you two go into the moving business? Bet has a talent in that direction," teased Bob.
"Now I'm just too happy today to get angry at you for anything, Bob, so you might as well give up. I'm having the time of my life!"
And Bet looked happy as she arranged the large easy chairs about the room, while Shirley got out the portfolios of prints for the table.
"There now, the work's all done, isn't it?" asked Phil.
"Why the idea!" laughed Bet. "There are millions of things to do yet."
"It will take weeks to have things the way we want it," agreed Kit.
The girls now got out needles and some orange silk and started on the fancy shade for the lights. A floor lamp was to give the main lighting for the room and a number of wall brackets would add to the artistic effect.
"It's kind of you to say that there is nothing else we can do," laughed Phil with a deep bow.
"And thanks for the eats. Ask us to come to your next party, that is if there is no work to do."
"Why you lazy things! There'll always be work at Shirley's Shop," said Bet.
"Bye-bye," waved Bob as he and Phil departed.
The girls hurried on with their different tasks. Kit and Bet were making the lamp shades, chattering of their plans for the future.
Shirley putting some prints away noticed the fan.
"Say, Bet, why was old Peter Gruff so excited about the fan?"
"That's just his way. He's simply crazy about antiques. He'll be offering Dad a dollar and a half for it some of these days."
"We can see right down into his basement from our rear window," said Joy. "Did you ever see such a disorderly place? Isn't it a wonder that he ever sells anything?"
The boys had not been gone long when two women walked past the shop, then turned and stopped at the window with an exclamation of surprise.
"When did this place open? Isn't it attractive? Let's go in and see who it is and what they have."
Kit grabbed Joy by the arm. "Let's get out and leave things to Bet and Shirley. Four saleswomen in this shop at present are a few too many." The girls slipped into the room in the rear and waited breathlessly to see what would happen.
Bet recognized the two women. They were newcomers to the town. Mrs. Lester had a charming home in Crestwood, a new suburb of the village, and Mrs. Carey lived only a few streets away.
"We noticed your pretty shop and thought we would look in and see what you have," said Mrs. Lester.
Bet turned to Shirley but now that she was faced with a possible customer, the girl was panic stricken. She bent her head over her work and left Bet to do the talking.
Bet did not find any difficulty in this, however. She rose quite naturally and invited the women to be seated. Mrs. Carey started toward a bright orange chair, and Bet cried, "Oh not there, Mrs. Carey. That one is just painted!" and as the woman turned toward another one, she grabbed her by the arm just in time. "That chair is being repaired and would have let you down."
Everybody was laughing by this time and Shirley was on her feet, offering the women the chairs that were usable.
"How long has your shop been open?" asked Mrs. Carey. "I never noticed it before."
"It isn't open yet—that is we planned on opening it next Saturday, for the paint on the outside isn't dry, and as you see, the chairs are still wet and rickety." And Bet went on to tell of their plans for a Saturday Shop.
As she stopped, Mrs. Lester exclaimed: "That's a splendid idea! I call that clever of you!"
"Oh, I'm not clever. It's Shirley here. She's the one who makes those pretty prints that you see in the window."
"They are lovely. I noticed them."
"They will make nice Christmas presents, don't you think so?" suggested Bet. "Of course it's a little early to think of buying presents, but it's a good idea to have them on hand."
Mrs. Lester smiled at the girl's eagerness and her charming manner.
"I saw one in the window that pleased me very much, but you have everything so nicely arranged I hate to disturb it."
"You needn't worry about that. We'd just love to sell it to you," and Bet looked toward Shirley, who had dropped her work and was already getting the print.
Then Shirley opened her portfolio and the two women looked over the pictures.
"That view of the Hudson is very pretty but I think the print of the gulls suits me better. Yes, that's the one I will take."
Mrs. Carey chose a landscape. Shirley called it "At Dawn."
"This scene is right around here, isn't it?" she asked.
"Yes, it's right down there by Ritter's pond."
"I love it!" exclaimed the woman. "You've made it prettier than the real scene."
"I'm not so sure about that, Mrs. Carey. You should see it just at sunrise or on a misty morning. It's perfect!"
"That's one nice thing about Shirley. Her pictures are an improvement on nature," laughed Bet.
Kit and Joy, who had been whispering for some time in the back room now appeared with a tray and teapot.
Bet gave them a ravishing smile of approval, and over tea and cakes the girls amused their callers with a recital of their doings.
"Will every customer get a cup of tea?" laughed Mrs. Lester.
"We haven't quite decided that yet. We want to have it cozy and homey as well as business-like."
"I'm sure after this reception we will always want to drop in when we are down town," said Mrs. Lester. "It's the coziest shop I've ever seen."
So well did their first customers get acquainted with the girls that they knew their plans pretty well and Shirley had been asked to bring her camera to Mrs. Lester's home and get a series of pictures of her two small children.
"I planned on having a man come out from New York, but I'm very sure you can do as well. The children are apt to be shy with grown ups."
An appointment was made and as the door closed behind them the four chums dropped into their chairs and stared at each other without speaking. Then Joy came to life with a dance. "Come on Kit, I just have to dance. If I don't I'll explode into a million pieces."
But Shirley was holding the two five-dollar bills in her hand looking at them as if she had never seen such a thing before.
"Girls, you've all been so good in helping. Let's divide this equally between us."
"Why the idea, Shirley Williams!" exclaimed Bet. "Who made those prints? Who sat up until two o'clock one morning? Did we? —We did not. That money belongs to you and no one else."
"Say girls, that was a good idea about the tea. What made you think of it?" Shirley asked a little later.
"We wanted a share in Shirley's first sale and that was the only way we could think of getting into it," smiled Kit.
"It was a good day's work, young lady!" approved Bet. "For if they hadn't been drinking tea they wouldn't have known anything about Shirley's picture-taking ability and now she has an order."
The door rattled again and the girls stood up, expecting another customer. But it was better than that. It was Colonel Baxter with a big package in his arms. He had just returned from New York, bringing with him some purchases for the shop.
As soon as he appeared, the girls met him, all talking at once, and drew him to a chair.
"Sit down, Colonel Baxter. I'll have a cup of tea for you in a minute," shouted Kit and she and Joy ran to the little electric plate in the back room. "The water is almost hot. It will be ready in less than no time."
While the two girls were busy preparing the tea, Bet and Shirley told of the doings of the day and Shirley proudly waved the ten dollars in her hand.
"And just see, Colonel Baxter, the first sales in Shirley's Shop!"
"And I was planning on having that honor myself. I didn't think you would have anything ready until next week. You've done wonders with this old store."
Colonel Baxter laughed heartily over the description of the boys demanding a handout.
"And here's another hungry man," he said. "I hope that tea will soon be ready."
"We're coming just in a minute, Colonel Baxter," called Joy. Then to Kit she said: "I bet he didn't have a bite of lunch. Let's fix up some cold chicken and apple fritters for him."
"Now that's my idea of afternoon tea," exclaimed the Colonel, as he settled himself comfortably in an easy chair and seized upon the chicken. "Did you feed your two customers as well?"
"Oh no," said Kit with great disdain. "With them we were exceedingly polite. We made those little sandwiches, the two for a penny kind, and gave them only tea and cakes besides. That's all they got."
"Then it's all right. I was afraid you might be treating them better than you treated me and I was getting jealous."
The girls cast many searching glances at the package and finally Bet burst out: "Dad dear, I just can't wait a minute longer to see what you bought for Shirley's Shop."
"Then go and see!" But as all the girls made a rush, he exclaimed, "No, no, not all together. Something will be smashed, sure. Let the boss attend to it."
Everybody else stood back, but Bet grabbed the package.
"Well, since when are you boss of Shirley's Shop?" laughed the Colonel. "You forget, you're only boss of Merriweather Manor."
Shirley laughed and undid the strong cord and covering of the box, which was filled with excelsior.
"I don't believe there's a thing in it," said Bet. "He's putting something over on you, Shirley."
But just then the girl's fingers touched something and she drew it forth.
"Oh Daddy, how did you know that's just what we want for our window display?" cried Bet as Shirley held up an exquisite vase and Bet dug her hand into the box and brought forth some vanity cases and other bright objects that the Colonel had chosen.
"How did you ever think of all these lovely things?" said Bet, looking at her father with pride and satisfaction.
"Well, when I went around to the gift shop where I left Shirley's pictures, I just kept my eyes open."
"And did you buy them right there?" asked Bet.
"Of course he didn't! And pay top prices! Colonel Baxter is too good a business man for that and he has the interest of Shirley and Company too much at heart," protested Shirley.
"Oh, I didn't think of that," replied Bet. "One does have to make a profit!"
"Now here you are, Miss Fixit! Here is the bill. I backed you for it and you have two months to pay it."
"That's a debt of thirty dollars, and I've taken in one-third of that this first afternoon and got an order for maybe fifty dollars worth of photographs. When I once get started I can make a lot of money, taking pictures of children in their homes."
"Mrs. Lester would make a striking portrait, herself, Shirley," suggested Bet.
"Don't think I missed seeing a thing like that. I've already posed her in a dozen ways in my mind," answered Shirley.
"Get it on paper, kid!" laughed Kit.
"You've never seen me let any grass grow under my feet, have you?" laughed Shirley.
"No, I haven't. You don't talk much, but you do plenty."
"I'll need to do plenty, if I'm to make Shirley's Shop a success," the girl answered with a happy smile that was full of hope and enthusiasm.
A tap at the door, and another visitor announced himself. He extended his hand at once Co Colonel Baxter.
"How do you do, Mr. Doran," said Colonel Baxter cordially. "Let me introduce you to Shirley Williams, the proprietor of this shop, and her three friends, Bet Baxter, Joy Evans and Kit Patten."
Charles Doran bowed with great ceremony to the young girls and then announced his business.
"I am representing a camera company and I'm anxious to have you put in a line of good cameras."
"Why Shirley, that's not a bad idea," exclaimed Bet. "Days when prints are not selling, cameras may. Who knows?"
"But I'm not sure whether we can or not, Mr. Doran. You see we are just starting and we haven't made any money yet."
"That's all right," replied Mr. Doran. "We've heard of this shop opening and we consider it an A-1 opportunity for us, and it will give us a great deal of pleasure to put in some cameras for you on very satisfactory terms."
Shirley looked toward Colonel Baxter who was enjoying himself, watching the interest of the girls as business details unfolded.
"Sit down, Doran, and have a cup of tea."
Kit made a dive for the rear room to prepare tea.
"Remember this, girls. If you want to get the best of a bargain, always feed your victim." This from Colonel Baxter.
Mr. Doran smiled and an hour later when he left, Shirley had consented to put in a display of cameras to be sold on a generous commission.
Shirley's Shop was progressing and the girls were getting valuable experience as they watched it grow.
Regretfully they bade it good-bye until the following Friday afternoon, when they planned to meet there after school to admire their work and make plans.
Shirley's Shop was a success. The four girls had made it so. All their friends, who heard of their efforts, came to buy gifts.
"Aren't we lucky!" exclaimed Bet. "Everybody has been so good!"
"I didn't know I had so many friends in the world," said Shirley with moisture in her eyes. "I wish I could pass it on to others."
"How can that be done?" asked Joy.
"Well, there are so many men out of work this year that I'm sure we could find lots of people to help. I hate to think of children being disappointed at Christmas."
"Why can't we have a tree, right here in the shop and have all the children come and get their presents?"
"That idea's not a total loss, for a wonder, Joy. It shows a good heart but very little head-work," answered Bet.
"Why, Bet Baxter, what's the matter now? Why all the kitty-cat stuff! Take it back!"
"Well, I just hate that kind of a Christmas tree. Showing up the poor little things as being too poor to have one of their own."
"What's your idea, then?" challenged Joy.
"I want the little kiddies to wake up on Christmas morning and find a tree at home and their stockings filled to overflowing."
"Yes, and to know that their eyes will get bigger and bigger, and they'll even peep under the bed to make sure that Santa isn't hiding there," Shirley added.
"That would be a real Christmas," agreed Kit.
"But where will our fun come in? Don't we see their eyes getting big and bigger, or anything? I think that will spoil it all. I want to see them get their toys, put them right into their hands," pouted Joy.
"That's all right, Joy Evans. But what about their faith in Santa Claus? If Santa Claus doesn't come when their Dad is out of work, what will they think of a saint like that, I'd like to know?" exclaimed Bet.
"So we've got to save the reputation of Santa Claus, is that it?" asked Joy.
"That's one way of saying it. Although I would rather put it, that we are playing Santa Claus."
"Right-O!" cried Kit. "What's the first thing to do, General?" Kit stood at salute before Bet.
"We'll go down to the Chamber of Commerce and find out from Mrs. Keith what needy families there are and what ones we will supply. —By the way, Shirley, can we use the back room for the toys we collect?"
"Why certainly, girls, you know you don't have to ask. And you can count on Mrs. Lester giving us a lot of things for very small children. She said the other day that the nursery was full and she wished she knew some children who needed things."
"I'll dress four dolls," promised Kit. "In that way I can indulge my passion for dolls and not be laughed at."
"Why Kit Patten, would you play with dolls? I've always hated them, used to crack their heads against a stone to see their eyes jump out," confessed Joy.
"Why you cruel monster!" cried Shirley. "I always loved dolls, but I had my baby sisters to take care of so I never had much time."
"Now I'll confess!" laughed Bet. "I have a doll trunk under my bed where it can't be seen, and sometimes when I am all alone, I still play with them."
"Aren't you girls funny!" teased Joy. "And you in the first year of high school!"
"Kit," suddenly asked Bet, "will you act as secretary for the Merriweather Girls Helpful Aid Society and keep track of what we all must do?"
"I'm so busy, girls; will you let me buy trees and ornaments, for my share?" asked Shirley.
"Oh, that's fine. All right, put it down, Kit. And I will be on the committee to beg old toys. And we'll all get to work and make repairs. —I have a dandy scooter bike, but it needs paint."
A few days later they had a list of needy ones. "Oh, here's a nice big family for us," cried Bet. "It's Mrs. Ryan down by the tracks. She has nine children, and listen to the names: Emmelina, Francis Drake—oh, girls, isn't it a scream! Next comes Orlando, then Amarylis, Ronald, Marcel, Babette, Ernestine and Vivienne."
"Heaven help us! And do we have to get gifts to live up to those names? Why diamonds and pearls would be too common for such people." Joy threw both hands in the air as a sign of distress.
"Never mind, Joy. I think the little Ryans will deign to accept a stocking full of sweets and things like jumping jacks. Dad thinks we ought to give out some of the repair work to men who are out of jobs. He says he'll help pay for it as his share. Dad has a good bicycle which I'm sure a man can fix up."
"Let's put a sign in the window, 'Man wanted for repair work on toys,'" said the quiet Shirley.
"Might be better to put 'for odd job'," laughed Kit.
Bet took a piece of drawing paper and pencilled the sign at once. It read:
"Man wanted for repair work on toys. Apply Saturday morning at 11 o'clock."
The sign was put in the window on Friday after school, and before the girls were well inside their shop on Saturday the first applicant arrived.
"I see you want a man to work!"
"Oh, but you weren't to call before eleven o'clock."
"Sure, I know that, but what chance would a fellow have to wait that long? Everybody wants work."
"All right, take a look at that bicycle and see if you can find out what's the matter with it." Bet led the way to the rear room.
"It looks like a pretty good bicycle, Miss. But it's hard to say whether it can be fixed or not. A blacksmith might tell you!"
Just then the door of the shop opened and another man entered.
"I see the ad. in the window; I want to talk to the boss."
Shirley ran for Bet who was still interviewing the first comer, and shoved her toward the door. "You talk to him, Bet."
"Good morning, sir," said Bet.
"I want to talk to the boss."
"I'm the boss."
The man glared at her with an angry look. She saw that he did not believe her and imagined that she was making fun of him.
"When I want to see the boss, that's who I want to see!" he muttered.
A third man appeared and the second turned on him. "Say, can't you read? That sign says eleven o'clock! Now git out!"
"I'll not get out. Where's the boss?"
By this time the girls were frightened at the threatening attitude of the men. Joy was almost hysterical with fear.
"I'm the only boss there is here," said the second visitor, doubling up his fists as if prepared to fight.
Bet came toward the two men. "I don't want either of you men to work for me. Will you please go away?"
A small crowd of men was collecting outside the door and Bet was afraid. She went toward the back room, hoping to be able to enlist the help of the one she had been talking to. Just as she did so, the door was thrust open, and Bet, shoving the other girls in front of her, exclaimed in a whisper, "What will we do?"
But as she turned at the door, she saw a tall figure, who grabbed the ruffian by the collar and invited him outside.
"Oh it's Phil!" exclaimed Bet hysterically. "Now we're all right!"
After Phil had persuaded the men in the crowd to leave, he returned to the room to find the first caller making ready to go. "I don't know anything about bicycles. Anyway it's steady work I want. There's no money in odd jobs."
"What under the sun is it all about?" demanded Phil anxiously as more men began to collect.
"We put a sign in the window asking for a man to help on the repair work!" said Bet.
"Then get it out as quick as you can. You'll have a line here soon."
"How are we going to get someone to help, then? Dad thought it would be a good idea to hire men who are out of work."
"He probably expected you to call up the Chamber of Commerce and get a man. They know everybody who needs work."
"Oh dear, what a lot of things one has to learn when they go into business!" mused Kit. "I thought we were doing just right."
That afternoon the bicycle was being repaired by old Bill Colby, a fine old man who lived with his invalid wife in a small shack on the back street. He took such pride in his work that the bicycle looked like new when he finished it. And the pay warmed his heart. The girls were generous.
During the next two weeks, the back room of Shirley's Shop looked as if there had been a revolution in toyland. Dolls without heads, others without arms or legs, eyeless ones, big and little were strewn about the room, while doll carriages minus wheels, kiddie cars, battered and streaked, awaited the skillful hand of the old man.
One afternoon shortly before Christmas as he was leaving Bet said, "We will have a Christmas package to send down to Mrs. Colby."
The old man's face flushed with pleasure. "Mother is bedfast with rheumatism," he said, "and it would do her a power of good if you would run in and see her sometime. She'll like the present too, but she gets very lonely."
"There Joy, there's your chance to do personal work. You can go and call on Ma Colby and see her eyes shine."
"I'll just do that. I want to be Lady Bountiful but I also want to get some thrill out of giving," laughed Joy.
"All right, there's your chance."
The report that they were going to give out toys soon got around, and the day before Christmas Mrs. Ryan appeared leading four of her children. "I just came in to say that Emmelina needs a new dress, worst way, and Orlando must have shoes."
"I'm very sorry," replied Bet. "You see we are giving out only toys. You should go down to the Chamber of Commerce, they are attending to the clothing."
Mrs. Ryan looked disappointed. "Lots of people pretend they need help when they don't. The Nestors next door to me, they don't need it at all. They have plenty.—And I'm a worthy object. Mr. Ryan has been out of work considerable this year."
The girls looked their sympathy but could do nothing. "You go down to the Chamber of Commerce," they advised.
In a few minutes after she had left, another woman called. "I just come in to see if you could get my little Mike an overcoat. He needs one terrible. He gets that cold!"
Again Bet referred the woman to the Chamber of Commerce, and as she left, she whispered, "There are some people who apply for help who don't need it at all. There's Mrs. Ryan next door to me. She gets plenty.—And my Mike needs a coat."
The girls laughed long and merrily over the two women. They called Mrs. Keith at the Chamber of Commerce and had a further laugh over the recital of the efforts of the two women to see who would get the most.
At last everything was ready and the girls waited patiently for the Shop to close. Phil and Bob arrived with two cars to take the things to the different houses.
As they stopped the car a little way down the street from Mrs. Ryan's and approached the gate with their arms full, they heard the loud voice of that woman calling over the back fence, "I've got two Christmas trees already, I'll sell you one cheap. You can have it for fifty cents."
"Indeed and I'll not give you fifty cents for it, Mrs. Ryan, I'll not give you twenty-five cents for it."
"I know where I can sell it for sixty cents, Mrs. Nestor."
"Then that's where you should sell it."
"Being as it's you, Mrs. Nestor, I'll give you the tree for fifteen cents."
"Does that mean ornaments, too?"
"Ornaments," cried Mrs. Ryan. "I haven't any ornaments to spare. Oranges and apples are plenty good for you."
"Then I'll only give you ten cents for it. Take it or leave it."
"Ten cents! Why I'm ashamed of you, Mrs. Nestor, for being so close-fisted!"
"You took two trees! I'd like to know who's close-fisted! Ten cents it is, Mrs. Ryan or nothing."
"All right, Mrs. Nestor, but I must say I'm disappointed In you. I allus thought you were a good, kind neighbor."
"Give me the tree! And here's your ten cents! I have some ornaments left over from last year."
"If she had only waited a little longer, she might have saved ten cents and got some ornaments as well," laughed Phil, as Bet signalled him to put the tree back.
"It's a good thing," sighed Kit as they got into the car again, "that not all cases are like that. There was Mrs. Delaney, and how grateful she was for every little thing. By the way, they didn't get a tree. This will just round out their Christmas in style."
"I'm so glad that Hal Delaney got that bicycle of your father's, Bet. He will put it to good use in delivering his papers."
When the girls went to bed that night they felt they had earned their rest.
Shirley's Shop had done remarkably well during the Christmas rush and all the girls were delighted. To Shirley it meant that she saw hope ahead of being able to finish High School and perhaps go on to college. She went to sleep that night dreaming of the rosy future that she painted for herself.
"And I'll make it come true!" she declared, as she opened her eyes the next morning and found that the Shop and the bank account was not all a dream.
When Bet awoke the next morning she gave a little cry of delight as she looked out on the white world. The trees were heavy with snow and everything had been changed to a magic garden.
"If I'd had any idea that we were going to have snow, I'd have had a coasting party tomorrow night."
After the thrill the girls had experienced in their Christmas giving, they now looked forward to their own pleasures. Even Christmas day seemed to be insignificant when compared to the prospect of the party.
Although Bet's father had made arrangements for the party, it was not with his usual enthusiasm, and Bet watched him carefully, thinking he was ill. But the Colonel laughed her fears away. And from then on he tried to hide from his little daughter the fact that he was worried.
Business investments had all gone wrong. In fact everything he had touched for the last year had been a disappointment. Now it seemed as if the only way to save what he had was to get a large sum of money, and in these uncertain tunes, that was impossible.—Unless he sold the Manor.
It was this problem that was worrying him. He could not bear to give up his home. It was here that he had brought his young wife and for two years had lived in a Paradise. Her early death had crushed him for a time, and it was only in the Manor where the dear memories of her happy spirit filled each room, that he was content.
It was the fear that he might have to give up his home, that made Colonel Baxter worry, and Bet watched him with troubled eyes.
He had put forth an extra effort to appear happy during the Christmas season, and he tried to throw himself into the plans for the party with his usual enthusiasm.
Bet saw the difference, but wisely said nothing.
At the Colonel's suggestion, they decided on a costume party. That would give the girls a chance to wear some of the lovely old dresses that he had collected.
Bet was terribly disappointed when her father came hurrying in at noon before the party with the announcement that he had a business call to Chicago, and would not be able to attend the party.
"Then we'll put it off, Daddy. A party wouldn't be any fun without you."
"No, I wouldn't do that, Bet. Think of the many who would be disappointed if you postpone it. Then too, I may not be back for two weeks. It is a business matter that I must attend to. It's important."
Reluctantly Bet went on with her plans. There were a few tears when she told the bad news to her chums in the afternoon.
"That's the worst of having a father who plays with you," said Joy. "I never expect my mother and father to care about my good times."
"I just can't make it a real success without Dad," exclaimed Bet tearfully.
"You can, if you try, Bet Baxter. So brace up and stop your sniffling!"
"I wasn't sniffling, Joy Evans," exploded Bet.
"What do you call it, then?" laughed Joy.
"Just a few regretful tears."
Even Shirley, the serious one laughed heartily at Bet. And in a few minutes they were busy with their plans.
"Say Bet, what possessed you to ask Edith Whalen? I've tried to be glad but it isn't in me to be," said Joy.
"I'm not glad, myself, but what's the use of being a Merriweather Girl unless you live up to the heroine of the Manor? Lady Betty would have asked her, I'm sure," replied Bet.
"Then she must have been an angel!" exclaimed Kit, who had so much joy taken out of her school life by the unpleasant remarks of Edith and her friend Vivian Long, that she did not welcome the thought of meeting her at the party.
"Lady Betty was an angel!" cried Bet, tossing a kiss to the smiling face above her.
"Then why did we take her as an ideal? Who can live up to an angel? I can't," said Kit sadly.
"None of us can, but Dad says it's a good thing to have a star to aim at. Course it's away above our heads but we can aim, just the same. She's our star. Each of us can have our own pet ones. I have my lovely mother, who is another angel. She's for myself, but Lady Betty is a company affair."
"Did you think all that out, Bet?" asked Shirley.
"Dad helped me. It troubled me to have Lady Betty for our club ideal! It seemed like putting her before my mother, then Dad explained that I could hardly share mother! And that makes it all right."
"I think Lady Betty is pleased, don't you. She smiles so sweetly," whispered Kit.
"She always smiled sweetly, even when she was having terrible troubles. She didn't cry just over a disappointment. She was brave!" Bet straightened up and brushed a tear away.
"We'll have to be like her," laughed Kit as she added: "And believe me, it takes bravery to meet Edith."
"Therefore Kit Patten, I'm going to give you full charge of Edith tonight. See that she has a good time," commanded Bet.
"Hold on there, Bet Baxter. I'm a bucking bronco and you can't trust me to drive in harness. I'll disgrace you! Like as not when Edith puts on that superior air, I'll take her by the arm and escort her out of doors."
"No, you won't. I know you!" Bet patted her friend lovingly.
"Just the same, I hope her mother will keep her at home on account of the snow storm."
Kit did better than she thought she could. The fact that the four Merriweather Girls were the hostesses and received the guests as they came in, gave Kit prestige that Edith dared not ignore.
Some of the guests in gay and weird costumes had arrived when the phone rang. Laura Sands' voice was husky with crying. "Oh Bet, I can't come. I've ruined my costume and I won't go without one."
"You come right along up here, Laura. I have lot of costumes and you can take your pick."
Laura arrived in ordinary clothes and Bet and Kit conducted her to the attic to choose a Colonial gown.
When the door to the narrow stairway was opened, Bet heard a queer scraping sound as if one of the old trunks had been moved.
"What's that?" asked Kit. "Do you suppose it's rats?"
"No, don't worry! It isn't anything!" But as Bet switched on the light and reached the top step she was just in time to see a figure in bright clothes go out the window. She heard the sound of a thud on the veranda of the second floor and running feet along the corridor.
"Somebody was in here!" exclaimed Bet.
"Don't be silly, Bet! I thought you were too big to be frightened in the dark."
"Well look at that window, Kit Patten! Did we leave it open? We certainly didn't. And look how the costumes are all tumbled out of the chests! A man has been in here, anyway. I saw him slide out that window."
"And look at the footprints!" exclaimed Kit.
"Nothing to worry about. This is a costume party and someone is playing a trick on us," decided Kit.
"Maybe so," assented Bet. "But if so, why didn't they play their tricks instead of just mussing things up and then running away?"
Grabbing a gown of gold cloth, Bet exclaimed, "Come on, girls, let's get out of here. It's spooky!"
"Lock the window first, Bet. Then if anyone is prowling around they can't get back this way," Kit suggested.
"Who could it have been?" puzzled Bob Evans when they reported the episode to the guests. "I know all the boys, and none of them would do a thing like that."
Phil and Bob rushed out to the veranda but saw no one on the grounds. Uncle Nat's sharp eyes soon picked up the footprints in the snow and followed them to the road where they were lost. On his return, he let Smiley Jim out of the basement, and the dog ran around the house, quite excited, with so many people around.
The young people decided that it might be one of the guests trying to fool the others.
"But I don't believe it," said Bet emphatically.
The gown chosen for Laura Sands was an old French costume and when the girls dressed her she looked like a queen.
"Why girls, she looks exactly like a picture of Marie Antoinette, don't you think so, Bet?" called Kit.
"And I know just the thing to make it perfect."
"The fan! She must carry the queen's fan!"
"Oh Bet, I wouldn't do that! You know your father prizes that fan so much."
"He won't care. Anyway, Laura will be careful."
Bet ran up stairs to her father's den, rummaged in the drawers and found the fan.
"Here, Laura, you may carry this, but be very careful for it's one of my father's treasures. He loves that fan."
"Oh I'll be careful. Isn't it beautiful!"
"If I were you, Laura, I'd take a few turns around the rooms, show off the fan and then put it away. It's an antique and I know it's valuable."
It was Phil Gordon who spoke, as he examined the fan and returned it to her.
But Laura did not seem to realize that the fan had any great value. Phil picked it up several times when she had left it carelessly on chairs or tables, and after it had been lost and found several times, he refused to give it back to her.
In the midst of the gaiety, Joy ran into the room, pale with fright. "I don't think it's fair," she complained. "One of the boys was hiding in the hall, and frightened me."
"Who was it?" demanded Bet indignantly.
"I don't know," replied Joy. "He ran down the hall as fast as he could go."
"Let's find him," exclaimed Phil Gordon.
"And if it's one of the boys we'll send him home," said Bob.
"I wish you would." Bet was troubled. With her father away, she felt that the young people should not take advantage in that way.
But they could not find anyone in the rooms.
"Maybe you just imagined it, Joy," said brother.
"No, I don't think she did. I heard a noise a little while ago when I put the fan away. I thought at the time it was Smiley Jim."
"When was that?" asked Bet.
"About fifteen minutes ago, I left the fan on top of your father's desk, Bet."
"All right, Phil. But I'd certainly like to know who is prowling around."
"It's probably one of the boys from the village who didn't get an invitation. They do that sometimes," suggested Phil. "They are probably trying to break up the party, and we're letting them do it."'
"That's right!" exclaimed the young people. "Aren't we silly! Let's get back to the games."
The scare was soon forgotten as the boys and girls became engrossed in their play and Smiley was brought in to do tricks.
But after the last guest had gone and Bet and her three chums, who were to spend the night with her, were tucked into bed. Bet thought she heard noise in her father's room.
She was out of bed in a second. "Oh I do believe Daddy came back after all," she whispered a ran into the den.
As she switched on the light, she imagined she saw a shadow at the window. Then she took herself in hand. "Bet Baxter, you're being silly! Just because you saw someone going out the attic window you imagine you see it again! Go back to bed!"
As she was returning to her room, she had an idea and slipped down to the basement quietly so she wouldn't waken Uncle Nat. She opened the door and Smiley Jim bounded into the garden with a growl.
As Bet went up stairs again, she heard the dog running about and smiled to herself. "He's had so much excitement, he's nervous too."
Reaching her room she saw her father's photograph on her desk. She picked it up, "Dear old Dad, I wonder what was worrying you when you went away today. You looked so sad. I'm so silly I never want to see anything but joy on your dear face. Goodnight Daddy boy!" And Bet slipped into bed and was soon fast asleep.
The morning was half gone when the four chums finally awoke and felt the need of breakfast.
"Come on girls, let's get up," called Kit, as she sprang out of bed and ran from room to room to make sure that the girls were rising. "I'm going to be dressed first and go down and help Auntie Gibbs make the toast."
But when Kit arrived in the kitchen she found the old lady singing at her work, and therefore in a happy mood. Her party had been a success and she felt a personal triumph. Breakfast was ready.
While the girls were eating, the door bell rang three times.
"There's the mail! Oh Uncle Nat, is there a letter for me?"
"Of course, you know that without asking. Your Dad always writes and if he thinks a letter may not reach you, he sends a telegram."
"Sure. Give it to me!" And Bet tore open the letter eagerly and read it.
"Oh Auntie Gibbs, come here this minute until I tell you something wonderful. Just think! Dad says the queen's fan is worth a fortune. Somebody wants to buy it for a lot of money!"
"Oh, oh!" exclaimed the girls in one voice.
"You don't say so! Isn't that fine, now? Where is this queen and her fan?" asked Auntie Gibbs.
"It's one of Dad's antiques. I showed it to you."
"Oh that!—And you say it's worth a fortune? Well, some folks spend money for foolishness, if you ask me."
Bet paid no attention to Auntie Gibbs' remarks. "Listen girls," she said. "I'm to go down at once and put it in the safety deposit box. Dad's got a cash offer for it. And he says it will save the estate."
"What does he mean by that?" asked Kit. "Save the estate?"
"I hardly know. I'm really puzzled about that."
"I didn't know your father was having any business troubles, Bet, though I had noticed that he'd lost his appetite lately," said Auntie Gibbs.
"I knew something was bothering him," mused Bet, "but I never guessed it was about money or the estate. Poor Dad, and I wasn't any comfort to him at all."
"You're always a comfort to your father, Bet," protested the old lady.
"He dotes on you!" exclaimed Shirley.
"Oh, of course, I know that. Now I'm going to go right down to the bank and put that fan away."
Bet hurried up stairs followed by the girls. "Get your hats and coats on and I'll get the fan."
Bet ran into her father's room. She looked in the drawer where the fan should have been. She rummaged through the contents of the desk and fear seized her as she became certain the fan was missing.
"Are you almost ready, Bet? We're waiting!" called Joy.
"We'll all escort the queen's fan to the bank," laughed Kit.
"No, I'm not ready yet," Bet replied with a strained voice. "Oh Auntie Gibbs, come here," she called from the head of the stairs. "Did you see the fan? Phil left it on the desk."
The old lady came hurriedly up stairs. "Why did Phil have it? I haven't seen a thing of it."
"Oh, I was terrible! I took the fan from the drawer and loaned it to Laura Sands to wear with her French costume."
"What made you do such a thing, Bet? I'm surprised at you!"
"I just didn't think. And oh dear, Dad won't take that as any excuse! We must find it, Auntie Gibbs. We must!"
Everyone joined in the hunt with growing excitement, and the house was searched, even the attic. But the fan was gone.
"Maybe Phil didn't put it on the desk, at all. He probably has it in his pocket and forgot all about it. Let's call him on the phone and see what he says," exclaimed Kit.
But Bet stopped suddenly: "Oh Auntie Gibbs, perhaps that was a robber that I thought I saw going out the window. Maybe he stole the fan!"
"Nonsense child, you are still nervous. Now quiet down and we'll find the fan somewhere. We'll call Phil, now," soothed Auntie Gibbs.
Anxiously Bet called, but the boy was not home and Mrs. Gordon said casually that she would tell Phil to give them a ring when he came in. She had no idea that a lost fan was important.
Bet was quite indignant for a moment. "To hear her talk you'd think that it would be all right if he called next week."
"But Mrs. Gordon doesn't know anything about how valuable it is, Bet," explained Kit. "You mustn't blame her."
"I know, of course, but I'm terribly worried."
"I think the best thing to do is to telegraph your father at once," suggested Uncle Nat.
"And that's just what I can't do. Dad has gone on a trip and he says he won't have an address until the first of the week."
"I'm going down to the village to find Phil and talk it over with him," announced Kit decisively. "Let's all go!"
The four girls walked all through the town but, though they hunted everywhere, they did not find Phil. Shirley and Joy went into Shirley's Shop and sat there for an hour, hoping he might pass. But evening came and still Phil had not been home.
Bet was at supper when Phil Gordon called her at last. She was trembling as she said, "I must see you at once, Phil. Can you come up?"
Phil caught the note of worry in her voice and answered, "I'll be there in an hour, Bet. Is that O.K.?"
"I wonder what's the matter, son. Bet has called several times today," said his mother.
"I can't imagine what it is. I'll get ready and go right away. If there is anything I can do for Bet, I'll be glad to help. She's one of the finest girls I know. She's never silly, just out and out, and treats you as if she were another boy. I like that!"
Phil wasted no time on his supper. Even his mother urged him to hurry.
"I do hope nothing is wrong with Colonel Baxter, that would make Bet worry," Mrs. Gordon said as Phil left her.
When Bet opened the door for Phil, he saw at once that something unusual was troubling her.
"Phil, I just had to see you. I can't find that fan we had the other night. Do tell me just where you put it!"
"Why Bet, I put it right on your father's desk, back toward the wall, so no one would knock it off.—You know Laura was being so careless with it that I got worried and took it from her."
"Are you positive you put it there, Phil?"
"Yes, Bet, of course I am."
"Father sent me word to get it into the safety deposit at once. He's had an offer for it. It's worth a lot of money, and he needs money badly just now."
"Why Bet, have you any idea what could have happened to it? Would anyone around here know about it and try to steal it when your father is away?"
"I don't know. Dad seemed so anxious in his letter and instructed me so carefully about putting it away, that I think he must have been afraid of thieves. He said: 'Get it into the safety deposit box at once. It's important! I trust you!' And now I can't find it. What shall I do?"
"You say you thought you heard someone in your father's room after the party that night. Is there anyone who would know about the fan and come prowling around to get it?"
"I wish I knew that, Phil. Just now I can't imagine what has happened to it."
"I know what I'm going to do, Bet. I'm going to go down to the police office and talk to Chief Baldwin, tell him the whole story and ask his advice. I'll do that at once. Enough time has been wasted."
Phil was away before Bet could stop him, even if she had tried. And when Chief Baldwin heard only part of the story, he decided to hear the rest on the spot and returned to the Manor with Phil.
Chief Baldwin went over the whole house with Bet and Phil. In the attic he saw the footprints still on the floor, in the dust, and Uncle Nat told him of following the same marks in the snow, to the main road.
"Why didn't you get me on the job, then, I'd like to know? Why did you delay?"
"We all thought it was one of the village boys who was not invited, and decided he'd try to break up the party."
"Still, with Colonel Baxter away, you should have let me know at once. I sort of feel responsible and if anything happened to Bet when he was away I'm sure he'd blame me."
In spite of her anxiety, Bet had to laugh. "You're as bad as Auntie Gibbs. Her responsibility weighs heavily on her, and when Dad is out of town, she almost sets me crazy."
"You see, Bet, we all think so highly of your father that we do not take any chances in displeasing him. Now about this fan! Who was the last person to have it?"
"I was," answered Phil without hesitation. "I took it from Laura Sands because she was being careless, and I put it on Colonel Baxter's desk in the den."
"Have you asked Laura Sands about it?" inquired the Chief.
"Yes, and she says that Phil took it away from her."
The Chief insisted on going over the rooms again carefully, but still the fan was not found.
"The best thing to do," said Chief Baldwin, as he saw Bet's troubled face, "is to put a good detective on the job. And we'll find the queen's fan, I promise you that."
"When can you find it? Before Monday? Dad may be back on Monday."
Everybody laughed. "Well Bet, that's asking a little too much, even of the Chief, just when the fan will be found. But I give you my word, it will be recovered."
Bet felt somewhat better after the optimistic talk with Chief Baldwin and for that night, at least, she laid aside her worries.
But Phil was not at all reassured by Chief Baldwin's promise. He was unhappy and despondent as he told his mother the whole story from beginning to end.
"I'm terribly uncomfortable, because I was the last to handle it, Mother," confided the boy. "Would anyone have imagined that such a thing could happen?"
"Are you sure you did return it? Perhaps it is in the pocket of your overcoat. I'm going to see," and his mother left the room.
But Phil knew the fan was not there. And that night he was disturbed even in his dreams and woke at intervals with the feeling that all the troubles of the universe weighed him down.
The next morning he was again with Chief Baldwin and Amos Longworth, the detective, a tight-lipped stranger with narrow eyes, who had been chosen to look into the matter. Together they went to the Manor and looked over the rooms as before. Longworth examined the footprints in the dust and in the snow outside. "That's some foot! I should think you'd be able to trace a man by that foot. It's a whale!"
"And that's why we thought it was someone masquerading. No one in our crowd has a foot that size."
But if Phil was nervous and depressed over what had happened up to this time, he had reason to be still more concerned when the detective accompanied him home and began to question him privately. Before an hour had passed, Longworth had made him confess that he and his mother were very poor and that he might have to leave school to work. Also that he realized the fan was very valuable.
"Yes, I knew the fan was worth a lot of money. Colonel Baxter told us so. It's painted by a famous French artist and was at one time the property of Marie Antoinette. It was given to her by Louis XV. That's enough to make it very valuable."
"You know all about it, I see. So you put it in your pocket?"
"No. I took it to the Colonel's den, and put it on his desk."
"Are you sure?"
"Didn't you feel any temptation to take it and sell it to get money?"
"No, sir, I did not! Such a thought never entered my head. It belonged to Colonel Baxter. He is my friend and I would not hurt him in any way—or Bet either."
Mrs. Gordon came in and was introduced and while she spoke of the theft of the fan and her unhappiness at Phil's part in the matter, the detective did not again take an aggressive tone. Yet his narrow eyes showed suspicion.
Not being able to get word to her father, Bet brooded over the loss of the fan and it took all the ingenuity of her three friends to keep her cheerful. For the first time they found Bet inclined to be irritable.
"Now please don't mind me, girls! I'm just worried almost sick. If Dad hadn't added that last line about saving the estate, I wouldn't feel so badly about it. I'm afraid he's had some serious business trouble, and if anything happens to the fan through my carelessness, what shall I do?"
"Well, everything is being done that can be done, as far as I see," said Joy, who was in no mood for dancing now that Bet was unhappy.
"But it's such slow work! And being just a girl, I have to sit here twiddling my thumbs, not doing a single thing to find the fan," exclaimed Bet indignantly.
"There ought to be some way in which we could help. Let's try to think of something." It was the quiet Shirley who spoke, and, coming from her, the suggestion seemed possible, for Shirley was always so well balanced in all her thoughts that the girls often looked to her when they had perplexities to overcome.
"There's one thing sure, that fan didn't just up and walk out by itself. Somebody took it out!" exclaimed Kit.
"And another thing that's sure, is that it was on the desk, for Phil said he put it there," said Bet emphatically.
"Maybe he just thought he did!" sighed Joy.
"No, we've gone into all that, Chief Baldwin, Mr. Longworth, Uncle Nat and everybody. There isn't any question about it," declared Bet. "Phil put the fan on the desk, I know he did!"
"Then, who took it?" demanded Shirley. "Who would know that it was valuable? And who would want it?"
"Say Shirley, if you ever get tired of photography and want a new job, you'd better be a detective," laughed Kit. "Go on, ask some more questions and maybe we'll hit on the right solution to the mystery."
The girls laughed, but Kit added: "No fooling, girls! I know a woman in Arizona who trapped a cattle rustler all by herself, and if she did that, why can't we find the fan?"
"That's right. The Merriweather Girls should be able to find a clue. I'm sure Lady Betty would have done so in less than no time," remarked Joy.
"Perhaps she would. I wonder," said Bet sadly.
Bet Baxter insisted that Phil Gordon was not mistaken when he said he had put the ivory fan on her father's desk. But the detective shook his head and later in a talk to Chief Baldwin said:
"It looks bad for that young man, Chief. He was the last to have it. He acknowledges he's hard up, and he knew its value."
"You're barking up the wrong tree, Longworth. Everybody knows Phil Gordon and would trust him anywhere."
"All the more reason why he can act so brazen and innocent in the matter. It looks bad," Detective Longworth announced. "I've seen so many cases just like it. I'll keep my eye on that young fellow and I bet I'll get the goods on him."
The detective's suspicions travelled at a lively rate around the village and before twenty-four hours it came to the ears of the Merriweather Girls. It was Edith Whalen and her shadow, Vivian Long, who passed on the gossip to Joy Evans.
"Now what do you think of your friend Phil Gordon?" asked Edith. "I guess Bet didn't know she was associating with a thief. I saw him with that fan at the party and he was acting in a suspicious way. Lots of folks are sure he stole it."
"Who says Phil took the fan?" demanded Joy.
"Everybody's saying it! And the detective seems to think he has the clue pretty well run down and expects to arrest Phil any time now." Edith asserted with venom in her voice.
"I don't believe a word of it!" snapped Joy.
Indignation was at its highest pitch when Joy told Bet and her chums what Edith had said.
"Now we've just got to do something!" exclaimed Shirley. "We must clear Phil and that's all there is about it!"
"All right, what will we do first?" Kit jumped to her feet, ready for action.
"Who would have any interest in the fan, besides your father?" Shirley questioned Bet.
"Another antique dealer might, but no one would know he had it," Bet's eyes were bright and intense with anxiety.
"What about Peter Gruff?" cried Kit. "I never trusted that old man! And he was interested in that picture of the fan."
"But he's interested in all old things, and you heard him say that it was a common type and had no particular value," said Shirley. "No, I don't believe old Peter would want it that badly."
"I'm not so sure. I wasn't impressed with Peter Gruff, as you know. I'm going to prowl around his shop and see what I can see," laughed Kit as she grabbed her hat and coat.
"Wait a minute and we'll go down to Shirley's Shop," cried Bet. "I can't believe such a thing of old Peter but we won't leave anything undone."
And as soon as the girls reached the shop, Kit went over to Peter Gruff's store. She asked to see samplers. "We'd like to have a few for our shop," she remarked to the old man.
"No samplers!" muttered Peter. "I don't keep any. No money in samplers."
"Let me see some pewter pitchers, then." Kit was enjoying the musty old store with its strange collection of odds and ends, piled everyway about the dust-laden store.
Peter Gruff didn't have any pewter pitchers.
"Then, do you happen to have any fans?" exclaimed Kit suddenly, hoping to surprise the old man into looking guilty.
"No money in fans. I don't sell fans."
And Kit had to acknowledge that there was not the slightest change of expression in his hard blue eyes.
But as she poked her way about the place she saw a glass case and inside among bottles, books, old china and other objects, she saw several fans. She edged closer to the case and glanced through the assortment, but the fan she wanted was not there.
Of course she hardly expected to find it. If Peter had taken the fan, he would hide it away for a while at least.
"But there is something suspicious about him. Saying he didn't have any fans, when they were right there all the time," Kit confided to the chums when she returned to the shop.
"It does look suspicious!" Joy cried. "Girls, I do believe we are hot on the trail."
"I wish I could believe it!" Bet was not optimistic. "I don't believe he did it. He's heard of the theft of the fan and acts a little embarrassed. I do wish Dad were here!"
"I don't. I want to find that fan before he returns," announced Shirley with quiet decision.
"I hope we do!" said Bet.
"We're Merriweather Girls and we must find a way out of this difficulty. Lady Betty saved the Manor in her day, now we will do the same!" Kit said decidedly.
"Yes, but how?" groaned Bet. "I've thought and thought about it until my head whirls."
The more the girls puzzled over the mystery, the less light appeared. Kit made daily visits to the antique shop, hoping to find something suspicious. She made friends with Jacques, the freckled-faced little French boy who worked for Peter. He was shy at first, but Kit soon put him at ease with her kindly smile. He gazed up at her with big, dark eyes that expressed his devotion. Kit had won his heart, and the girls saw him often staring up from the basement window, hoping to get a glimpse of her.
One day when Kit was looking over the assortment in the glass case of Peter's shop, she was surprised to find that the fans had been removed. She was about to ask Jacques where they were when Old Peter Gruff returned.
"You know, Mr. Gruff, I just love your shop! I hope you don't mind me prowling around and looking at things."
She got only a curt grunt in reply, but Kit didn't mind. She went on: "That's awfully kind of you! I'm going to come often."
Kit always returned from her visits with new suspicions. Although she had found no clue, she insisted that the old man was guilty.
"Kit, I'm surprised at you!" declared the gentle Shirley. "He's a harmless old man, and I don't believe he would steal from Colonel Baxter."
"Maybe he wouldn't," Kit returned with a frown, "but I still have my doubts. I wish I had his shop to myself for half a day, then I'd make sure the fan was not hidden there.—Or I'd find it."
"Why couldn't you send him up to the Manor to fix a chair or something?" exclaimed Joy.
"He'd probably see through it. Peter Gruff is foxy," replied Bet. "Anyway I had orders long ago never to let the old man in the house when Dad was away."
"So your father didn't trust him?" cried Kit exultantly.
"Well Dad just thought it would be better not to put temptation in his way. He's crazy about old bric-a-brac, you know. And Dad didn't know what he might be up to."
Kit got her chance to have the shop to herself the next day. Old Peter Gruff left early in the morning, and Jacques was alone.
"It's luck, Kit," shouted Bet. "Come right away!"
Jacques smiled and bowed as the girls filed in. And when Kit asked him to see pewter, brass, crystal, one right after the other, the boy raced around furiously to please her.
"I want to go down stairs," said Kit with a smile.
"Mr. Gruff doesn't want people down stairs," began the boy, but before he had finished his sentence, Kit was already on the lowest step.
But the store room was so packed with things that it was impossible to move about. Two dim lights gave only enough glow to cast heavy shadows about the vault-like cellar. There was something sinister about the gloom.
"Let's get out of here while the getting's good!" whispered Joy. "I feel as if someone might jump up any minute from behind these old bureaus. I believe the place is haunted."
"No, don't go yet," pleaded Kit. "I haven't seen half enough. Who cares for ghosts, anyway? Say Jacques, what does Mr. Gruff keep in that old cabinet there?"
"Just some old china and fans and things."
"Let's see the fans," Kit demanded.
"Funny how everybody wants to see fans lately," said Jacques. "A big tall man, then a young man, then you girls."
Kit started violently. "Who was the tall man?" she asked abruptly.
"I dunno!" replied Jacques. "Phil Gordon came and asked Peter questions, and the old man got mad and said, 'Git out!'"
While he was talking Jacques had brought out the fans at Kit's request, but they were cheap and not any particular value.
"I wonder what Phil found out," mused Bet.
But whatever Phil's object was in going to the antique shop, it strengthened the suspicion against him. The detective, who had been watching him for days, was now assured that the boy was trying to dispose of the fan and on questioning Peter Gruff, he believed that his suspicions were correct.
Phil had asked the old man if he ever bought fans. Mr. Longworth reported this to Bet Baxter and the next day when she met Phil on the street, he hurried by as if anxious to avoid a talk with her.
Bet was wild with anxiety. Phil had looked at her in such a guilty way. She hurried home and, once inside the house, she burst into tears. "What's the matter with Phil Gordon, anyway? He couldn't have taken that fan. Then why does he act like a thief?"
That afternoon Bet was moping about the house when her three chums arrived. Vacation would soon be over and they were making the most of those two short weeks. But Bet was not in a mood for merry-making. Another letter had come from her father regarding the fan. It read:
"I know you have been prompt in looking after the fan as I told you to do. It is the greatest satisfaction that in matters of this sort I can trust you implicitly. I am rejoicing that the money I will receive from the fan will meet the demands of my creditors and that I'll not have to sell the Manor. The lucky little fan has saved us!"
"Girls, what am I going to do?" Bet sobbed as she finished reading the letter to them.
"I know one thing, Bet Baxter. A Merriweather Girl doesn't waste time and energy in tears! Lady Betty scorned tears!" declared Shirley.
"She looks as if she had never had a trouble in the world," sighed Bet, looking up at the picture.
"Laugh and the world laughs with you!" hummed Joy. "Cheer up, the worst is yet to come!"
"Keep quiet, Joy Evans. Those are about the silliest speeches a human being can make. I wish you'd go home—oh no, Joy, I don't mean that, I'm just worried."
"Of course you are, old dear. We all know it and want to help you, if we can. Come on out and have a snowball match."
It was a glorious day, sharp and sparkling and the snow crunched under their feet as they walked.
"This is the sort of weather when I long to go on a hike," said Shirley. "If it wasn't for this trouble we're having I'd suggest it."
"Let's go tomorrow anyway!" exclaimed Bet impulsively. "That is, unless something very important comes up. We're not accomplishing anything by hanging around the house and brooding."
"Right you are, Bet!" shouted Joy, as she threw a snowball at Kit. "If we take a brisk hike through the woods maybe the wind will blow the cobwebs out of our brains and we'll be able to think of some way to find that fan."
"The detective is on the job. I'm sure he'll find a clue," remarked Shirley quietly.
They returned to the house and found Uncle Nat disturbed over a visit from Amos Longworth. "Why that man was quizzing me up just as if he thought I stole the fan!"
"That detective is loco," laughed Kit, using a term from her beloved mountains.
"What does loco mean, Kit?" asked Joy.
"It means he's crazy! The horses get crazy in the mountains from eating a weed by that name. That's the way with Mr. Longworth; he's been eating loco weed."
"I'll say he has," Joy agreed merrily.
When the girls separated for the night they had made their plans to start the next day at eleven o'clock for a hike. That would give them plenty of time to hear anything that the detective might find out.
That evening Bet received a message from Mrs. Gordon. During the talk she told Bet that Phil was worrying himself sick over the theft of the fan.
"I know Phil wouldn't do it, Bet," his mother exclaimed.
"Of course he wouldn't. We girls have never blamed him, not even for a second. It's that silly detective! Don't worry about it. We'll find it, somehow!"
Bob Evans had gone away the day after the party and when he came back and heard the accusation against Phil, he was ready to fight.
"The very first person I met when I got off the train told me that Phil had stolen the fan belong to Colonel Baxter," he told Joy.
"Who said it?" cried Joy.
"A great friend of yours."
"No friend of mine would accuse Phil. The whole thing is ridiculous!"
"Why Edith Whalen said he was going to arrested within twenty-four hours!"
"Lots she knows about it! But if that detective had his way, he might be. I can't imagine anyone paying a man to be so stupid. We girls have told him again and again that Phil had nothing to do with it."
"Has Phil been asked up to the Manor since that happened?" asked Bob.
"No, I don't think so. He's been up several times but it has been with the detective or Chief Baldwin."
"Then you girls ought to ask him to go with you, just to show him and everybody else chat you don't believe a word of all this gossip! Phil wouldn't steal! I'd trust him with anything!"
But while Bob stormed and determined to clear his friend in some way, his efforts were not successful. He made it a point to have Phil with him wherever he went, but that did not clear the boy of suspicion.
The girls, as well as Bob, were anxious to do something for their friend, but as the fan had disappeared and there was no evidence left, they seemed to be getting nowhere. Bet and her chums were desperate.
The girls looked forward to the hike in the snow as a diversion that would rest their tired nerves and help them to see more clearly on their return.
The next morning the girls found Bet with a tired, worried frown on her face. "Girls, I just can't go!" she said.
"Bet dear, don't give up the hike. You're brooding too much over the lost fan. Come on!" pleaded Shirley.
"Yes, Bet dear, don't back out! It will do you worlds of good!" And Kit put both arms about her tenderly. "You're making yourself sick with all this worry!"
"No. I almost feel as if I were leaving something undone!"
"But I've often noticed that when you go at something else, the thing you are worrying about completely clears up. Come on, get your hat and coat." Joy added her persuasion. "You've been worrying too much to think straight, otherwise you'd have solved the problem long ago or found a clue."
Bet finally gave in, but not quite willingly. School would begin on Monday and after that the girls would not have so much time to work on the problem. Bet wondered how she could ever put her mind on algebra and history when the mystery of the lost fan still hung over her.
Shirley had brought along her photographic outfit and said, "Please don't back out, Bet, for then none of them will go without you, and I do want to set my camera for a wild animal. I'm almost sure we'll see deer tracks. Wouldn't I be happy if I could get a picture of a deer for that wild animal picture contest?"
"And I suppose we'll be expected to stand around on one foot while you tinker with all those attachments and shutters and other crazy things," fussed Joy.
"I won't ask you to stand on one foot. You can use both and I won't charge you a cent more," replied Shirley with the slightest note of annoyance in her voice. Shirley was quiet and even-tempered and was always the peace-maker when the atmosphere between the chums became charged with strife.
"All right, Shirley. It's your affair, only don't ask me to carry one of those boxes. I'll have enough with this lunch, knowing we will soon make it lighter."
"Yes, you would fuss about everything except your lunch, Joy Evans," snapped Shirley, now thoroughly cross. "Come on, girls, let's go!" and Shirley hastened out the door in advance of others.
"Let her go, Bet. She'll cool off in the frosty air," said Joy.
"I think everybody is getting nervous and I'm sure it's my fault, I've been so irritable to everyone," replied Bet.
But as they stepped outside the door their joyous spirits revived and they started away with a song. Auntie Gibbs watched them as they tramped up over the hill, and when they disappeared, she turned back to her work.
"She's a spoiled child, that Bet! Girls didn't act like that when I was young! They didn't go gallivanting around: they stayed home and did their knitting!" the old lady scolded, but as she lacked an audience her temper soon cooled and she went about her work thinking only of her one great interest in life, Colonel Baxter and his daughter, Bet.
"Bless the child, she's the most provoking thing I've ever seen, but she's so kind to me, too. The way she bathed my head yesterday when it ached, was like a grown woman. The Colonel has a right to be proud of her."
And these conflicting emotions were enough make the old lady's head ache a second time.
While she puttered about the kitchen, planning a special cake to surprise Bet and her chums when they would return, the girls were headed toward Cruger Lake.
"We should have brought skiis!" called Joy. "Why didn't we think of it?"
"Are we on a hike or not?" Bet stopped short in the path and confronted Joy. "This is a hike, and a hike means walking."
"It suits me all right," announced Kit suddenly, "but I can't help wishing I had Powder along. He'd enjoy making this crusty snow fly."
"Well, there's a stone wall over there, Kit. You might pretend," laughed Bet, but seeing a shadow pass over her friend's face, she immediately added: "I'm sorry dear, I promised never to tease you about that."
"Don't Bet, some things just touch the heart too close to joke about! And you'll never understand that until you love a horse the way I do Powder."
"I think I do understand, Kit. I'm sure I'd be just as sentimental over Smiley Jim. Poor old fellow! I've neglected him lately. Today I locked him in the basement, and he begged so to come along!"
"Why didn't you bring him?" asked Kit.
"Auntie Gibbs wanted him to stay there. She's getting a little nervous since the loss of the fan and thinks the dog will protect her."
Shirley was in the lead, her eyes on the ground, watching eagerly for signs of animal footprints.
"Here's a deer track!" called Bet with a laugh and Shirley ran back at top speed.
"Well, maybe it's only a rabbit's," teased Bet.
"And I thought you were my friend, Bet Baxter!" Shirley answered, as she took the lead once more.
It was stinging cold. Every few minutes the girls had to stop and clap their hands together and stamp their feet to restore circulation. They pulled their wool caps well down over their ears and faced the sharp wind. They had crossed the main highway and struck into the woods on the other side, hoping to reach Cruger Lake by lunch time.
They walked and walked till long after the time set for lunch, but saw no sign of the lake.
"Let's build our fire in the woods, girls, and we'll go on to the lake afterwards. I didn't know it was so far." Bet slung her pack to the ground, and the others followed her lead.
"What's for lunch?" asked Joy Evans. "I'm starved!"
Outdoor cooking was a hobby with the girls and they soon had a fire started. And when a bed of coals was ready, a big steak with onions sizzled merrily.
Everybody was hungry from the long walk, and steak and sandwiches disappeared before the onslaught of four ravenous girls.
"And here's the dessert!" Bet held up a handful of dough.
"I wouldn't call that much of a dessert," Joy shrugged with disgust.
"Wait and see! You take a little piece of it and pull it out like this," and Bet stretched the dough into a long, narrow ribbon. "Now please hand me those sticks I was whittling!" After rubbing the end of the twigs in flour, Bet wound the ribbon around the end in a spiral.
"And now what?" asked Kit, as Bet passed each of them a stick with the twisted dough on the point.
"Put them over the coals but be careful not to burn them," she cautioned.
The girls kept the sticks turning so that the dough would cook evenly. Suddenly Bet held hers up; "I do believe mine is done, and this is the way you find out. If it slips off without sticking then it is done." Bet gave the twist a little turn and it came off.
"Now that's a bread twist!" she smiled with satisfaction, as the girls all took theirs off successfully. "Here, fill them up with jelly, and then tell me what you think of them."
"No words can describe this!" replied Joy. "I could just live on bread twists."
"And now let's be on our way!" Bet shouldered her pack. "It can't be far to the lake now."
After an hour's walk they realized that something was wrong, they should have been at the lake long ago.
"I know what we must have done," exclaimed Bet impatiently. "We took the wrong trail away back by the road. Here's Hermit's Hut in front of us."
"Aw, what a nuisance. I did want to go to the lake!" Joy stopped short. "Can't we turn back and go yet?"
"No, it's too late today. It would be dark before we'd get there," said Shirley.
"What's Hermit's Hut? That sounds interesting. Makes me think of the hermit's caves in Arizona," cried Kit, a joyous note in her voice.
"It's just an old hut, that's all. They say a queer old man stayed there at one time and lived on just what he could shoot or trap in the woods, and when he died and his body was found, there was a bag of gold coins hidden in the wall of the hut. I don't know whether the story is true or not, but the closet in the wall is there and might have held treasure," explained Bet.
"Some say he starved to death with all that money right there!" said Joy contemptuously. "Wasn't he crazy?"
"There's no sign of treasure there now," declared Bet. "They have ripped up the floors and the walls and dug all around the hut to see if he didn't bury some money as well."
"That's not likely!" Kit took Bet's arm. "Come on up there, I want to see the hut."
"There isn't much to see," returned her chum, as they climbed the small hill to the old cabin.
The wind was getting stronger and when the girls reached the Hermit's Hut, a tumble-down shack half hidden in the brush, they gladly took shelter there from the wind.
"Now bring on your treasure closet," exclaimed Kit. "Where's your show?"
Bet pointed to the wall. "That's funny," she exclaimed, "that closet used to be right there. Someone has nailed it up." And Bet tapped the wall with her hard little knuckles.
"It sounds hollow! Maybe some other hermit has fastened it up again," suggested the quiet Shirley.
"Hidden treasure!" exclaimed Joy.
"You can have all the treasure you find," laughed Shirley. "I'm off to find deer tracks."
"Usually I'm not a curious person," began Kit.
"You don't say so! Do tell us more about yourself!" Joy was always teasing and the girls were used to her ways. Kit leaned over the door sill, grabbed a handful of snow, aimed it at Joy, then continued her sentence:
"This interests me, and I'm going to investigate. Perhaps some one has hidden away another fortune in the wall."
"I think this hermit must have had a repair-man's mania, the way this board is nailed on! Get your hatchet Kit, and we'll investigate." Bet held out her hand toward the pack.
No one paid any attention to Shirley, who had found a treasure of her own, some deer tracks in the snow outside the hut. "Here's where I'll put my camera," she said to herself. "Oh I do hope I get a good picture!"
"She's raving again, girls, don't cross her!" called Joy from the doorway.
"I'm not listening!" said Shirley, with a toss of her head. She placed the camera, cleverly concealed it with evergreen boughs, and put into position the device that set off the flash powder and released the shutter. A wire extended out into the snow at some distance so that the animal would be almost sure to come in contact with it.
"There! That's done!" announced Shirley. "Now, Mr. Deer, you can come just as soon as you want to. I'm ready!"
Bet was using all her strength to pry off the board from the wall.
"Here, give it to me, Bet! I'm a wild and woolly westerner and big nails are nothing in my life."
With a screeching, protesting sound the huge nails were pulled out and the board came loose. The girls peered into the opening but did not see anything at first.
"Nothing there!" said Kit with disgust, as she turned away.
"There's something white in here!" exclaimed Bet as she slipped her hand into the closet. She grasped the object in a tight grip and brought it forth.
"Oh look! We've found hidden treasure!" shouted Joy, laughing. "Let's see it.—No, it's just a dusty cloth tied around a stick."
But Bet was trembling with excitement. She exclaimed: "Girls, it's the fan! The queen's fan!" She unwrapped the cloth and showed the precious object, then burst into tears.
But the girls cried out excitedly: "Found! What wonderful luck!"
"How did it get here?"
"This must be a thieve's [Transcriber's note: thief's?] hiding place! Oh, maybe the thief is around here!"
"What shall we do!"
"Do? I'll say grab it and get out of this place as soon as we can.—And keep running until we reach the bus line. Don't wait a minute, girls! I'll just lay suspicion by nailing this board back again!" And Kit gave some good swinging strokes with the hatchet.
The girls ran in terror, for they expected the thief to be in pursuit. They glanced back anxiously with little squeals. But Bet hugged the fan to her breast and did not speak.
The four girls waited for the bus at the deserted corner of the woods. It was already dusk. Bet looked anxiously about, fearing to hear a long whistle, a signal of the thieves. So many things had happened recently the girls did not feel safe. They might be held up, even yet. It seemed hours before they saw the bus.
Shirley hailed it and the girls climbed on trying compose themselves and not look self-conscious.
Suddenly Shirley jumped to her feet. "My camera! I shouldn't have left it there! I never want to see that place again!"
"Ssh! Don't talk so loud, Shirley!" Bet whispered. "And don't worry. We'll ask Bob and Phil to come up with us and get it. We'll tell them to bring a shot gun! And who knows, maybe in the meantime you'll get your picture of a deer."
The bus had never seemed to go so slowly. It stopped at every street corner, or so it appeared to Bet Baxter. At the corner where they alighted, Smiley Jim came bounding over the hard snow, barking his welcome. "Smiley Jim, I'm glad you're here, I've never been so happy to see you, in all my life!" Bet exclaimed.
As if the dog knew that Bet needed him, he walked by her side, and growled as he always did when strangers came to the Manor.
"I believe he knows!" said Bet softly as she patted the dog's head.
But when she stumbled into the kitchen a few minutes later, she fell into Auntie Gibbs' arms and sobbed hysterically.
"Now, what's the matter child? Have you had more bad luck? Your father can't get home too soon to suit me!"
At last Bet got her breath:
"Auntie Gibbs! Uncle Nat! We've found the fan!"
Bet was still clutching the precious fan in a tight grip that had not relaxed for a second since she found it in the Hermit's Hut.
"I just knew you'd find it, Bet," said Auntie Gibbs. "I told you so over and over again!"
Even Bet, whose nerves were at the snapping point, had to smile at the old lady who was always in the right and sure to exclaim: "Didn't I tell you so!"
"Now let's have a look at that queen's fan. I never rightly noticed it, before it was stolen." The old man held out his hand.
"Here it is, Uncle Nat," said Bet proudly, as she unwrapped the treasure from the dusty handkerchief. Then she gave a little gasp which was immediately smothered in a cough, as she stuffed the handkerchief into her sweater pocket.
"What's the matter now, Bet?" Kit cried excitedly.
"Nothing at all. Must have taken a cold. My throat seems raw." Bet took the fan, opened it and held it out to Uncle Nat.
"Well, well, well!" exclaimed the old man. "So that's the queen's fan! Are you quite sure it's the one, Bet? Doesn't seem fancy enough to be worth all that money."
"All I can say is that it ain't much to look at," sputtered Auntie Gibbs. "It's a nice enough fan, but I wouldn't give a dollar for it. If I were a queen I'd want one with ostrich plumes and lots of gold on it."
"Queens are funny like that!" Uncle Nat shook his head. "But I can't understand how anyone would want it at a price like that. I wonder if Colonel Baxter isn't joking with you about it?"
"You know Daddy wouldn't do a thing like that. His letters have been so full of joy at the prospect of a sale."
"And, Bet dear, isn't it good that we found it before he got back? It has saved him a lot of worry. I do think we are the luckiest girls in the world," cried Shirley Williams.
"The lucky Merriweather Girls! We're living up to the ideals of our club, and Lady Betty!" Joy kissed the tips of her fingers toward the portrait, then whirled about on her toes.
Bet rushed up to her room and taking her father's picture from her desk, whispered, "Oh Daddy, you can trust me!" She looked at it a long time, then kissed it as she replaced it on the desk.
"So far, so good!" exclaimed Kit as she joined Bet. "We've found the fan but we haven't found the thief, and until that is done we won't be able to clear the suspicion against Phil. Everybody in town is blaming him." Kit's voice showed her indignation.
"Let's phone him! He'll sleep better tonight if he knows the fan has been found," suggested Joy as she and Shirley came into the room.
"Girls, do me a favor, don't tell anyone tonight. If it gets around town that we have the fan, the thief may come and try to get it again. Until it is in the safety deposit box at the bank, I've not kept faith with Dad. And tomorrow is Sunday. I have to guard the fan for two nights instead of one."
"That's true. Someone might try to steal it again. Wish we were staying all night with you, Bet," said Kit.
"Please do, girls. I don't want to be left alone, I'll phone and ask!" and Bet ran to the telephone.
Bet needed their presence to keep her from brooding over something that she could not talk about with them, for the handkerchief that had been wrapped around the fan, bore the initials P.S.G. in one corner. She recognized it as one of Phil's handkerchiefs. There was no doubt about it.
Now that the fan was in her possession she was so relieved that she did not care to lay the blame on him, but with the proof in her pocket, she felt weighed down as if she were the guilty one.
"'How could Phil do such a thing!" she thought. "No wonder he didn't stop to talk to me! I should think he would slink by without hardly speaking!" Bet's indignation was at fever heat. At this moment she wished he were there to make him face the evidence she had against him.
The three girls had no difficulty in getting permission to stay with Bet. Mrs. Stacey laughingly suggested that Kit be adopted by the Baxters and then she would never have to come home.
"Now girls, we will take turns in guarding the fan. Two at a time through the night," said Bet. "But if you think I'm going to let the fan out of my possession, you're mistaken. Right now, I'm going to fasten it around my neck! And what's more, I'm going to sleep with it on."
"But a thief may come and carry you away, fan and all!" exclaimed Joy.
"Not if we are guarding her!" Shirley assured them. "Where will we sleep?"
"Shirley and Joy must have the room across the hall, and Kit will sleep with me. Two of us must always be together. I have the feeling if one of you girls had been with me the other night, the fan might not have been stolen at all."
"Let me have the first watch, then," said Shirley. "I'm such a night owl anyway, that I won't mind staying awake. Joy and I can watch until two o'clock, then we'll waken you."
The girls caught the thrill of the night watch and almost hoped a thief might come so they could capture him.
"Someone may try to kidnap Bet, if he thinks she has the fan on her," suggested Kit.
"If he does, Bet, he'll have to kidnap all four girls, for we'll stand by you!" Joy put her arms protectingly around Bet.
"I'd love to catch the thief, lock him up in a closet, send for Chief Baldwin and have him arrested. That would end the mystery of the queen's fan."
"And that's what I call romantic bunkum," laughed Auntie Gibbs. "You'll all go to bed tonight and get your rest! Uncle Nat will hide the fan so no one will get it."
At which there was a loud protest from all the girls. They had no intention of being cheated out of any of the thrilling romance of the fan.
Bet was tucked into bed with all the tenderness that one bestows on a small child and was made to promise, hand on heart, that she would not step outside her room for any reason whatever, unless one of the girls was with her.
Shirley had no difficulty in keeping awake until two o'clock but she did have trouble in keeping Joy's eyes open.
"I'd let you sleep, honey, only I gave Bet my solemn promise that we'd both stay awake."
"It's all right, Shirley. Just give me a dig if I nod. I won't mind. We've got to help Bet!" Joy yawned and stretched.
But it did seem a long time to Joy before Shirley said, "Time's up!" and together they crossed the hall to waken Bet and Kit. They had been sitting just inside the door of their room where they could watch up and down the hall. Nothing disturbing had happened.
"Time to get up? Why it just seems as if we'd been asleep a second!" laughed Kit.
"That's your bad luck, then," exclaimed Joy, "for my watch says it's after two."
Bet and Kit jumped out of bed, and Bet put her hand on the fan and patted it.
"It's still safe, girls! I don't think we'll be disturbed tonight."
"Listen to her, Shirley!" yawned Joy. "She's going to say that we can all go to sleep now that it's her turn to guard the fan."
"Indeed I'm not! I have no intention of leaving the fan unguarded. You forget that I'm on my honor to get this into the safety box on Monday!"
"Next watch is from half past two to half past six! Run along and get to sleep!" ordered Kit. "We'll guard the treasure with our lives."
Shirley and Joy made a dash for their own room, but gave a shriek as they reached the door. A figure clad in ghostly white was gliding down the long hallway.
Bet leaped into action at once. "Here girls, stand by me! Now remember, if they kidnap me, they will have to take all four."
They peered cautiously into the hall and Bet snapped on the light, and let out a scream of laughter.
"It's just Auntie Gibbs! I forgot that she takes her daily exercise at this hour. She's always prowling around to see if the doors and windows are locked."
"What are you children doing?" demanded Auntie Gibbs. "Get into bed this minute or you'll get your death! I'll tell Colonel Baxter when he comes home."
This was the daily threat that the old woman made to Bet, who, not having any fear of her father, smiled serenely. All went to their rooms. Shirley and Joy cuddled down under the covers and were soon asleep. And when Auntie Gibbs was in her own room, Kit and Bet began their watch.
At dawn they awakened Shirley and Joy.
"Bet Baxter, you're cheating!" came Joy's sleepy voice from the blankets.
"I just this minute closed my eyes," exclaimed Shirley.
"Waking us up the minute we fell asleep! A trick like that isn't funny. You just think it is!" pouted Joy.
The three girls commenced to giggle and soon Joy was wide awake and enjoying the joke at her expense.
Bet and Kit slept until breakfast time.
"What are we going to do today?" asked Joy as they went down to the dining room. "Let's think up something specially nice, for school begins on Monday. This two weeks' vacation just flew by!"
"Whatever it is that we plan, it will have to be something we can do right here at home. I do not intend to go out of the house today."
"That's all right. We've had lots of good times here in the Manor. Maybe we can manage to have one more," Shirley laughed happily.
"You know what I'd like to do, Bet?" said Joy, clapping her hands. "I'd just love to call Bob and Phil. They'll be so glad that the fan is found."
For a moment Bet was about to object, then fearing to arouse the suspicion of the girls toward Phil she agreed.
What would Phil do when he learned that the fan had been recovered? Would he try to pass it off and appear innocent in the matter? Just how could he face the Merriweather Girls, knowing what they stood for: honor, loyalty and friendship?
But Bet kept these thoughts to herself. Her chums must not know anything about it. She would be loyal to that extent.
Joy called up her brother and then impulsively said, "Just a minute, Bob! Bet wants to tell you the news!"
"Hello, Bet," came Bob's voice over the phone.
And Bet tried to make herself speak naturally, "We found the fan, Bob! Isn't it great!"
"By Jimminy! Hurrah for the Merriweather Girls! Where was it? Who took it?"
"We'll give you the whole story later. It's too long to telephone."
"It sounds mysterious, I can hardly wait!"
"Tell Phil, will you, Bob? But don't mention to anyone else just at present. I'll explain when I see you!"
Within an hour the girls heard the familiar tooting of an auto horn in the yard and a loud shout that they recognized as Bob's, followed by Phil's more subdued call.
"Those dear boys!" exclaimed Kit. "You know girls, they haven't been around much lately and I've been ever and ever so lonesome. I—I like boys!"
"You didn't have to tell us that, Kit Patten. Just as if we couldn't see that you're boy crazy!"
"I am not, Joy Evans! I like boys, but I'm not silly over them. I like them the way I do my kid brother at home and the way I like Powder, my pony."
"Oh ho, ho! Wait until I tell Bob and Phil. Kit likes them the same as she does Powder, her pony!"
"Oh Joy, please keep still or they'll hear!" Kit shook the laughing girl but it was too good a joke to keep. As soon as Bet had opened the door, Joy shouted it as a greeting.
"Come on in, boys! Kit says you're most as nice as her pony. Prance right up and get your lump of sugar and your measure of oats!" teased Joy.
Bob and Phil were so relieved that the fan had been found they entered into the fun. Linking arms they went through a pantomime of fiery steeds being held in check with a tight rein.
Bet laughed with the others, but her heart was heavy over Phil's insincerity. Auntie Gibbs, who just naturally liked boys better than girls, was doubled over with laughter at their antics. She buzzed around them, took their hats and coats and hung them up.
"Look at that," pouted Joy. "Why don't you wait on us hand and foot? Aren't we as good as the boys?"
"That's as may be! But girls ought to wait on themselves. That's what!"
"You're perfectly right, Auntie Gibbs!" nodded Bob.
"I'd like to know why? Maybe you think we don't want some attention now and then, even if we are girls," said Kit.
"Go on with your nonsense! I know you're only trying to make fun of me. The boys wouldn't do that!"
"Indeed we wouldn't, Auntie Gibbs! You are perfectly right," assented Phil, with a triumphant smile at Kit.
Bet was silent. She watched Phil with a heavy heart. How could he pretend innocence like that?
Just then the jingle of the telephone brought the nonsense to an end. Bet answered it.
"Who? What? Oh Daddy! Daddy! Are you so near, really? —Company? Of course, the girls are here and Bob and Phil. —Oh thank you, Daddy, you're a dear. Goodbye!"
Bet left the phone and sank into the depths of a roomy chair. "Dad will be here in a few hours. He telephoned from Albany. —Oh, how glad I am that we found the queen's fan!"
"Come on girls, let's go right away. Bet will want her father to herself and he won't want a lot of hoodlums around!" exclaimed Bob.
"We like that, Bob Evans! In the first place we are all friends of Colonel Baxter and chums of his daughter, Bet. Therefore we are not hoodlums!" exclaimed Kit Patten.
"And Dad says to keep you here to celebrate his return. The boys too. He's bringing a business friend, but that need not bother us."
After Bet's announcement, Auntie Gibbs flew to the kitchen and was already at work with mixing bowl and measuring cups. She was quite in her element at the prospect of company, and she took command like a general. Even the boys were put to work. One of the lights in the chandelier was not working, and Bob and Phil took off their coats, mounted a ladder and repaired the damage.
The girls were sent up stairs, to dust and air and arrange the guest chamber.
Uncle Nat was lying down with a headache. "Isn't he the most provoking man," declared the old lady. "I said this morning that like as not I'd need him to-day when he's laid up."
"Oh let him rest, Auntie Gibbs," said Bob. "Phil and I will take his place. We'll be sort of Uncle Nat twins!"
And the old lady commanded them energetically. "Here Phil, you take these bones to Smiley Jim and let him out! That poor dog has been neglected badly. The girls have been so busy lately!"
"Yes, busy and worried like the rest of us. Isn't it great that they found the fan? It means a lot to me, for I had it last. And then Amos Longworth has been dogging my steps like a stage detective. I couldn't move without being watched."
"Yes, and that man came here and questioned Uncle Nat and me. Showed he even suspicioned us! What do you know about that?" exclaimed Auntie Gibbs indignantly.
"I'm wondering where he is to-day! We're apt to see him peering in one of the windows," laughed Phil.
"We haven't notified Chief Baldwin. Bet wants to get the fan into her father's hands before anyone else knows about it, and I don't blame her."
Long before train time the house was in perfect order, the table gleamed with crystal and silver. Everything of the best was displayed to welcome home the "Lord of the Manor" as Bet called him.
"I'm going to meet your Dad, Bet!" announced Bob. "Want to come along?"
"I'd like to go but I can't. I'll meet him here." In an aside to Kit she added: "There might be an accident or a hold-up. Anything is apt to happen! I feel fairly safe when I'm here in the house with you girls around me."
So while Phil finished up some odd jobs for Uncle Nat, and the girls fluttered here and there at Auntie Gibbs' command Colonel Baxter arrived.
Bet noticed the difference in her father's face at once. The look of strain was gone. And his eyes were not sad or preoccupied as they had been for the past months. The offer for the fan must have relieved him from worry.
With a joyous cry, Bet was in his arms. "Oh Daddy, I'm so glad you're home!" She was trembling with excitement.
"Why, what's the matter here? This is no way to greet your father—with big tears in your eyes!"
Colonel Baxter shook hands ceremoniously with Auntie Gibbs, introduced the stranger, Mr. Provost, the curator of an art museum in the west, and had a cheery word for each of the young people. The Colonel seemed happy that Bet's friends were there to receive him, and his old carefree manner made the girls rejoice that they did not have to cause him worry.
Before dinner he made a trip to Uncle Nat's room to shake the old man's hand.
"Auntie Gibbs, I do believe you are trying to spoil me," declared the Colonel as he partook of all the delicacies that she had provided for his benefit.
"It can't be done again, Colonel, I spoiled you long ago," she answered.
After dinner was over and the men started toward the drawing room, Bet said, "Will you girls help Auntie Gibbs? I must give the fan to Dad at once."
The Bet who presented herself to her father had scarlet cheeks and her hands were trembling with nervous strain.
"Daddy, may I see you alone for a few minutes? It's a matter of great importance." The girl's manner was so formal and grown-up that Colonel Baxter had to smile as he turned to his guest.
"Will you pardon me, Provost, for a few minutes?"
Father and daughter slipped into a small room adjoining and after Bet had closed the door she said:
"Daddy, I have to make a confession."
"What have you done now, broken a window?"
"No, no, Daddy, be serious. I've had an awful time." She unfastened something from her neck and to her father's surprise put the fan in his hand.
"Why Bet, I told you to put the fan away."
"Listen Dad. When your message came the fan was gone! Isn't that terrible? It was stolen and we got it back only yesterday. It was after the bank closed. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be disobedient."
"Who stole it?"
"No one knows yet."
Suddenly the Colonel jumped to his feet. "Well, one bit of good luck has come out of this. After a while I'll hear the whole story. Now I must see Provost. You're a brave little girl."
After the Colonel had talked with his guest for a moment Bet heard the man saying: "That's what I call luck, Colonel Baxter! I can take the fan with me, give you the check right now, and get home in time to meet that important business appointment."
A brief inspection was enough for the expert. He made out a check, put the fan carefully in his bag and asked: "When does that train leave here for Chicago?"
"In fifteen minutes exactly."
"Can we make it?"
"Bob, can you get us to the station in fifteen minutes to catch the express?"
"Certainly, let's go!" said Bob.
Bet accompanied them to the station. She sat between her father and Mr. Provost and answered their questions when she could.
"I won't feel safe until you are on the train, Mr. Provost, and even then I won't be sure that something dreadful won't happen."
"But who do you suppose stole it? It's not likely that anyone will bother me."
Bet sighed with relief as the train pulled out of the station. "Oh, I do hope he gets to the museum safely!" she whispered as she snuggled close to her father.
At Bob's suggestion, Colonel Baxter notified Chief Baldwin that the fan had been found.
"Do you know who stole it?" he asked.
"No. I have only been home a few hours, and I have had no way of finding out."
"Well, Longworth and I have a certain party in mind. Maybe we'll get a confession out of him."
"We'll discuss that later," replied the Colonel.
Making an appointment for an interview the next morning, Colonel Baxter bade goodbye to the Chief.
"Oh Daddy, what a relief it is to have you around to attend to things!" cried Bet when they were alone.
The party broke up very soon after they reached the Manor. The girls were tired from the excitement of the last week and ready to go to sleep. And when the door closed after his young guests, Colonel Baxter said, "Now Bet you look as if you'd had a hard week. Get into bed and call when you're ready and I'll sit with you a while."
It was good to have her father here, to feel his hand clasping hers with a firm grip that assured her of protection and love. She had hardly said good-night when her hand relaxed and sleep overcame her tired eyelids.
Bet was having her first untroubled sleep for over a week, and her pale face showed the effects of the strain. Her father mused: "It's been a big problem for my little girl, but she handled it well, even to guarding the fan last night! She's a great girl! I'm glad she's mine!"
Colonel Baxter slept in the guest room instead of going to his own chamber. He had promised Bet to stay near her. She waked him early the next morning.
"I'm going to school after all, Dad! I've had a good night's rest and feel fine," she announced.
"That sounds like my Bet!"
"And Dad, I forgot to tell you. On Saturday just before we found the fan in Hermit's Hut, Shirley set her camera for a wild animal picture. You see we planned on going back there Sunday and getting it. It's still there."
"I'll get it today. I have an idea that Chief Baldwin and I will take a trip out there and look over the ground. I'll get the camera."
Bet spoke earnestly: "Don't try to find out who stole the fan, Daddy! Let the matter drop."
"Daddy, it might be someone we liked and trusted and if it was, we'd—we'd—well life wouldn't be so good after that. Let's drop it! Say yes!"
Bet's father straightened up in bed and took the face of his daughter between his two hands.
"I see that you are still troubled. There is someone you fear has been false. Is that it? Some friend?"
"But that's all the more reason why we should investigate and make sure about it."
"Don't, Dad, please. I can't bear it."
"Bet, dear, can you trust your father? I've never failed you, have I?"
"No, no, never!"
"Then listen to me. Rid yourself of all your suspicions, if that's what they are, and I'll try to untangle things. Do you think if I take Chief Baldwin out to the hut that he might see something that would pin the blame on your friend?"
"No, Daddy, I don't think so. The truth is, I have the evidence with me."
"Might it not be well to trust an older head, Bet?"
"Yes. But somehow I feel that it is not being loyal." Bet left the room and returned with the handkerchief. "I found the fan wrapped in Phil's handkerchief. See his initials, P.S.G."
"Phil! And he was the last one to have the fan? It does look bad for the boy. —I must have a talk with him."
"No, no! Phil couldn't have done it. He just couldn't!" repeated Bet. Sobs shook her body. "There's the evidence but still I can't believe it."
"Where is my little Lady Betty Merriweather, I'd like to know?"
"Of course she didn't cry over her troubles. She just kept a stiff upper lip and went on, but somehow it does me worlds of good to cry, now that you are at home."
"Now Bet, I'll tell you what I'm going to do. If we find out that this terrible suspicion is correct, I'll have a serious talk with Phil. In the meantime I am going to have Chief Baldwin go over the ground with me. We'll visit the hut together. Now just where is Shirley's camera?"
"It's at the right of the hut. You'll see it without any trouble. Try to bring it without disturbing it for Shirley does want a picture for that contest this spring. —And Dad, could you and Chief Baldwin go alone? Don't take that detective!"
"He'd find out something against Phil, I'm sure he would. Then he'd want to put him in jail. He didn't try to shadow anyone else. That boy has had a terrible time."
The Colonel laughed at the inconsistency of his small daughter but remarked: "Be loyal to your friend. That's right. But will you give me a free hand to find the thief? I think you'll be glad you trusted me. And I'll tell you right now, I don't believe a boy who looked me straight in the eye as he did when we met, ever stole a penny from anyone."
"Thanks, Dad, you're so comforting. I'm proud of you. You will make everything come out all right."
The breakfast bell rang and Bet and her father had to hurry, for Auntie Gibbs didn't like to have them late to a meal.
"We're coming Auntie Gibbs," cried the girl. And a few minutes later the two best chums in the world, danced down the long stairway to the breakfast room, arm in arm, like carefree children.
Colonel Baxter was not very sure that they would ever be able to prove who stole the fan. He confided that much to Bet at lunch time, when he returned from Hermit's Hut.
The girl looked relieved. "I almost wish you wouldn't. Let's drop it. Did you get Shirley's camera, Dad? Oh I do hope she got a wild animal picture!"
"Tell Shirley that the trap was sprung, and the flash powder had gone off, and it is almost certain to have been a deer. Ask her to come to the shop right after school and I'll bring the camera down."
"Won't she be happy!" Bet squealed with delight.
The school room clock had never ticked off its minutes so slowly as it did that afternoon; each minute seemed like an hour to the excited girls whose minds were centered on Shirley's luck. Deer got all mixed up with their history lessons and Miss Elder cast reproving glances more than once at the Merriweather Girls who were finding it so hard to settle to work.
In her heart she didn't blame them. Vacation was such a glorious time for fun and she knew the girls' capacity for getting the most joy out of everything in life.
She thought: "The darlings! And I have to be the one to order them back to their books!"
At five minutes to three, Bet bent her head over her book, declaring that she would not look at the clock again until it was three. Then, when she was certain that the minute hand must be pointing to twelve, she looked up and gave a gasp. Only one minute had gone by! How the time dragged!
But at last the welcome sound of dismissal bell did come and the girls were free. They ran all the way to the shop.
"It's a good thing I carry my key with me, or we would have lost about ten minutes," said Shirley and she unlocked the door and let the girls in.
Shirley made a dive toward the dark room.
"What are you going to do now?" asked Joy.
"I'll get everything ready in here to develop the plate; just as soon as Colonel Baxter comes."
At exactly quarter past three Bet's father arrived, bearing Shirley's camera as if it were the queen's fan itself.
"Here's your deer, Shirley. Put him in the bath and let's have a look at him. I'm first!"
"You've earned that right," Shirley answered.
"All right! No one must come near until I call." He and Shirley disappeared behind the curtained doorway and silence settled over the group as Shirley developed the negative.
After much waiting and eager straining of ears, the girls caught a startled cry from Shirley. They crowded into the dark room, as Shirley said impatiently:
"Oh Colonel Baxter, it isn't a deer at all! Isn't that mean? Look here! Oh, I won't go on with it, I'll smash the old thing!" and Shirley made as if to throw the plate into the discard.
Colonel Baxter caught her arm in time to save it. "Hold on there, Shirley. That plate may be worth more to you than the prize contest would bring. Finish developing it."
"What is it?" cried Bet. "Do let us see!" and the three girls crowded closer.
"What's all the excitement about? What are the Merriweather Girls doing now?" asked Bob Evans as he and Phil Gordon came into Shirley's Shop and followed the girls to the dark room.
"Ssh! Bob! We think Shirley's got a picture of a deer or some other wild animal. Keep quiet."
"Yes, keep quiet Phil!" laughed Bob. "The wild animal might get excited and run."
Everything in the dark room was quiet as Shirley developed the plate. Colonel Baxter and the girls pressed closer together to let the boys crowd in.
"Why Dad, it isn't a deer at all, it's a man!" exclaimed Bet as she stood looking over Shirley's shoulder.
"I suspected as much, but we want to know who the man is."
"Oh Dad...." Bet left the sentence unfinished. She edged close to her father and held his hand. Her own felt cold and clammy while her face burned. She did not dare to turn toward Phil, whose face showed dimly in the red glow.
"I'm so disappointed!" exclaimed Shirley. "I could just weep!"
"Who is it?" asked Phil.
The Colonel answered quietly: "If I am not mistaken, it's the man who stole the fan."
"Then let me nearer. I think I have first right, don't you, Colonel?"
"You have, Phil!" Colonel Baxter made room for the boy to pass.
"Why I see!" cried Shirley. "It's somebody sneaking into Hermit's Hut."
"Who is it? Tell me Shirley!" exclaimed Kit.
"It—it looks like old Peter Gruff! It is! No mistake!"
"There, didn't I tell you all along there was something suspicious about that old man!" Kit was jubilant. "He's slinking back to find the fan."
"Well that clears you, Phil. Not even Edith Whalen can cast slurring remarks at you now," said Bob.
"I'm glad to be free of this suspicion, but I'm sorry for that old rascal, too."
"I wouldn't waste any sympathy on him," remarked Joy Evans vindictively. "He let people believe you had done it and helped along the suspicion by saying that you had tried to sell him a fan. I hope he goes to jail!"
Colonel Baxter spoke: "Now come on out and let Shirley finish it up. Could you get a good print by this evening? The plate would do, but we'd like to have a clear print to show the old fellow. I'll go down and see Chief Baldwin now."
"I'll have it ready at eight o'clock!" answered Shirley from the dark room.
It was in the back room of Shirley's Shop where Chief Baldwin brought old Peter Gruff, confronted him with the picture and accused him of stealing the fan.
"I steal Colonel Baxter's fan!" he exclaimed violently. "Why should I take the fan when I have enough of my own?"
"That is the question I am asking you. Now, Peter, confess and get it over with. If you do not tell us everything, I'll send this picture to the New York police and get your record. Maybe there is another picture of you in the Rogues Gallery!"
The old man started excitedly. "No, no, don't do that!" he cried. Then feeling that he had given himself away, added, "I don't like policemen; they ask too many questions. I have done nothing. I'm an old man and don't want to be disturbed."
"All right, Peter, out with the story! If you say you stole the fan, we'll go easy with you. —That is, if you confess. The girls have asked me not to be too hard on you."
"Those girls!" exclaimed Peter Gruff, throwing his hands up in dismay. "They come and they come and they look into every corner of the shop! They are a nuisance!"
The Chief laughed heartily. "All right Peter, now why did you take the fan?"
"I wouldn't steal the fan," began Peter Gruff, but Chief Baldwin rose.
"All right, we'll get the city police on the job and it will likely mean a long term in prison for you."
At the word "prison," Peter Gruff jumped to his feet. "No, no, Chief, not that! I'll tell." And with the helpful questioning of the Chief, the old man blurted out his story. It began with the night of the party. He had looked for the fan in the attic. It was his footprints in the dust and the snow.
"How could that be?" laughed Chief Baldwin, looking at the tiny foot of the old man. "Those feet were big."
Peter hesitated a moment then continued: "I put on big shoes so they'd think a big man did it."
He owned that he had slipped back into the house and had been seen by some of the young people. Finally he had hidden away in a closet and waited until the party was over. When he thought everyone was asleep he had crept into Colonel Baxter's study and stolen the fan, and later he had hidden it in Hermit's Hut.
"But why did you hide it away out there?" asked the Chief.
"I didn't think anybody would go out there in the winter. Nobody ever does. But those girls! They go everywhere! I thought I would leave the fan there until people had forgotten it. It was a good hiding place."
"But as usual when a man does something wrong, he gets found out! The girls were too smart for you!" answered the Chief. "Why did you want the fan? Tell me that."
"I had a big offer from a dealer in Paris. That dealer told me it was owned by someone in Lynnwood, he didn't know who. But I knew that Colonel Baxter would be the only person who could have it. So I got it."
"If I had my way," said Chief Baldwin sternly, "I'd put you in jail and keep you there a long time. But Colonel Baxter is kind and is willing to give you another chance. So let this be a lesson to you to go straight."
The old man seemed to have shrunk to half his size as he rose and followed the Chief out of the door. In the outside room he met Colonel Baxter. "I'm sorry," he said and was gone, but whether he was sorry he had done wrong or sorry he had been caught was doubtful.
"So that solves the Mystery of the Queen's Fan," said Colonel Baxter as the young people came into the shop a few moments later. "Old Peter has confessed."
"Colonel Baxter, you don't know what a relief it is," cried Phil. "I got so nervous, being shadowed all the time, that sometimes I wondered if I had stolen it." Phil laughed in a strained manner. "It's a great relief. You know, half the time, I think the girls believed I was guilty."
"Why Phil Gordon! What an idea!" exclaimed Kit Patten. "We all stood by you to a man! Every single moment you were backed by the Merriweather Girls! And you know it!"
"Yes, I guess I do. You are friends worth having, but it all looked so bad for me that I wouldn't have blamed you in the least."
"We didn't doubt you for a single minute!" exclaimed Shirley.
"You should have heard Bet defending you to that dumb detective, Amos Longworth!" cried Joy.
Bet could laugh now as she recalled the conversation. Her relief was great, especially as Colonel Baxter had plead for Peter Gruff and he was to go free, on the promise that he would leave the village and never come back.
As the group left the shop, Bet caught Phil by the arm.
"Phil, I must talk to you alone."
"All right. Let the others go on," suggested the boy. "We'll walk slowly."
Colonel Baxter turned and saw his daughter and knew that she was making a clean breast of her suspicions against her friend. He smiled and spoke to the other girls. "Come on Kit, we'll take you home first. You're the nearest!"
When a short distance was between them, Bet suddenly caught Phil's arm. "Phil, I must tell you that, since Saturday when I found the fan, I thought you had taken it."
Phil stopped short. The color had left his face. "Bet! How could you!" There was a real hurt in his voice. "I thought you knew me better than that."
"I did, Phil. When I finally showed Dad the evidence against you I made him promise not to believe that you did it, even when things looked bad."
"But what was the evidence against me, Bet? I don't understand."
"The fan was wrapped in your handkerchief!"
"Of course it was. I forgot that until this minute. I was afraid the fan would get dirty so I wrapped it in my handkerchief."
"And Phil, I'd have known it was that way, if I hadn't been so terribly worried."
"How did the other girls feel about it when you told them?"
"Oh I wouldn't tell them. I hid the handkerchief. No one knows about it except me and Dad."
"Bet, you're a sport! I like you! Now, forget that you ever blamed me, and don't feel badly about it."
They hurried ahead to catch up with the others and all met at Kit's gate.
"Isn't it a wonderful night!" Bet exclaimed suddenly, looking up into the sky. "Why, I never saw so many stars before! They fairly sing!"
"The singing is in the heart of the Merriweather Girls who have saved the Manor from being sold and have also saved the reputation of their good friend," suggested Colonel Baxter.
"It's good to be alive!" cried Phil.
Then the Colonel hesitated a moment. "You know I am going to reward the Merriweather girls for finding the queen's fan."
"Hooray!" shouted Bet. "What's the reward?"
"We don't need any reward! We're glad we got the fan and found the thief," said Shirley, and Kit and Joy agreed with her.
"I was thinking I'd like to send Bet and her chums to a mountain camp for the summer. What is that place I investigated last year, that sounded so attractive? What was the name of it?"
"Do you mean, Campers' Trail? Oh Dad, do you mean it?"
"Yes! I'll invite all of you to go to that camp for the summer."
"The Merriweather Girls on Campers' Trail," laughed Bet heartily. "Doesn't that sound like a jolly story!"
"We can have fun there and ride horses over the hills!" Bet shouted happily.
"We'll fill it full of adventure!" exclaimed Joy.
"And love, loyalty and helpfulness!" said Shirley quietly.
"Then yo-ho-ho for Campers' Trail!" they chanted in a gay chorus.
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