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CHAPTER II THE “GREAT FAVOR”
“Take my word for it, you’ll never be able to get yourself invited to that wonderful reunion,” was Jeanette Hayes’ dampening assertion.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Blanche Shirly crested her auburn head with an air of supreme confidence in her own ability to work miracles. “Once I’ve won Ruth Garnier over to the point where she feels that it’s her duty to invite me to the reunion, the others will have to give in, too. I’ve thought of a way to do it. Of course, my scheme may not work. Still, I’m going to try it.”

“What are you going to do?” queried Jeanette eagerly.

“Wait and see. If it works, I’ll tell you all about it. If it doesn’t, I won’t.”

“It’s hateful in you not to tell me,” pouted Jeanette. “I hope I can keep a secret.”

“I hope so,” came the aggravating retort. Blanche prudently refrained from adding that she did not propose to become a subject for Jeanette’s ridicule should her plan miss fire. To confide in her beforehand, and then fail, would mean the supplying of Jeanette with a fund of caustic darts to be used against herself in future quarrels. Though sworn allies and roommates, Blanche and Jeanette led the proverbial cat and dog life. It was on this very account that Blanche now forebore revealing her true reason for secrecy. Kept in ignorance of it, Jeanette would merely pout. Informed of it, an exchange of angry words would follow. For the present, at least, Blanche was not anxious to roil her touchy chum.

With intent to placate, she patted her sulking roommate’s plump shoulder. “Don’t be cross, Jean,” she cooed. “I know you can keep a secret. Just think of all the confidential things I’ve told you. It’s only because I hate to brag and then, perhaps, be disappointed, that I’d rather not say anything just yet. If my scheme works, you’ll be the first and only one to hear about it.”

“Whatever you’re going to do, you’ll have to hurry. This is the last week of school,” reminded Jeanette, her frowning face gradually clearing.

“Leave that to me,” shrugged the plotter. “Now come on. We’ll both be late for chapel. Then Miss Belaire will have a spasm. I promised her not to be late again and I’ve broken my word twice since then. It will be a joyful day for me when I see the last of Hillside—pokey old place.”

Filled, for once, with the laudable determination to be on time, the two girls made a hurried exit from the house and set off across the campus toward the chapel on the run. During the services, however, Blanche’s mind strayed far afield. She was deep in the consideration of how and when she could manage to see Ruth Garnier alone. To go boldly to Ruth’s room after classes were over for the day was out of the question. She would be almost sure to encounter Emmeline Cerrito there, who was decidedly not included in her program of action. With Emmy on the scene, she would stand small chance of gaining her point.

By the time the brief morning service was over, however, Blanche had arrived at a definite decision. Without appearing to do so, she managed to draw near to Ruth, keeping a little behind her as the lines of students filed out of the chapel. Once outside, Fortune favored her. She saw Ruth pause for an instant at the foot of the stone walk to exchange a few words with Betty Wyndham and Emmy, then nod farewell and swing briskly across the campus.

Noting that in one hand Ruth held several letters, Blanche instantly guessed that she was heading for the mail-box at the extreme north end of the campus. It was too good an opportunity to be lost. Promptly seizing it, Blanche followed her at a leisurely walk, glancing frequently over her shoulder to see if she had been observed. So far as she could notice, no one was paying the slightest attention to her. The major portion of the girls had already turned their faces toward the main building, there to report for the first recitations of the morning. Luckily for her, Jeanette was among them. Blanche had not confided to her roommate her intention to trail Ruth, but had managed to slip stealthily away the instant the morning exercises were over. She was congratulating herself on the success of her plan.

Halfway back from the mailbox, pursuer and pursued met.

“Good morning, Blanche,” greeted Ruth pleasantly. “On your way to the mail box? I’ve just been there. Night before last I wrote three letters, then forgot to post them. Last night the Council Fire made me forget them again. They’re on their way at last, thank goodness.” Ruth sighed her relief.

“It’s you I was looking for; not the mailbox,” Blanche made abrupt beginning. “I—that is—I’ve a great favor to ask of you, Ruth. I can’t tell you about it now. It would take too long. It’s something very important. I wonder if you would mind coming to my room this afternoon, when recitations are over. No one will be there but just you and I. And—that is—please don’t say to the girls that I’ve asked you.”

A bright flush rose to Ruth’s smooth cheeks as Blanche added this somewhat lame and wholly unnecessary caution. “Certainly I won’t mention it to the girls.” There was a hint of offense in the reply. “Have you any reason to think I would?”

“Oh, no. Please don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t mean—I meant—” stammered Blanche. “Of course, I know you wouldn’t. Will you come?” The question held a note of suppressed eagerness.

“Let me see. What have I to do after classes?” Ruth knitted reflective brows. “Yes, I’ll be there.”

“You’re a dear.” Blanche beamed patronizing thanks. Conversing as they walked, the two had now reached the main building of the Academy which contained the recitation rooms as well as the students’ dormitory. “I’ll leave you here,” she continued as they entered. “I’m going to my room. I have no first hour recitation, you know.”

“Good-bye.” Mechanically, Ruth uttered the words. Her mind had suddenly reverted to Emmy’s warning of the previous evening. “Blanche has an axe to grind,” rang in her ears. Almost gloomily she stood watching the auburn-haired solicitor of mysterious favors, as she mounted the broad staircase and disappeared down the hallway.

“What can she possibly want me to do for her?” soliloquized Ruth, half aloud. Intent on trying to guess the nature of the “great favor” which Blanche had emphasized as being “very important,” Ruth meandered aimlessly down the long corridor, and covered herself with confusion by opening the wrong door and calmly strolling into the French classroom where the recitation had begun. Apologizing, she hastily withdrew her obtrusive presence, giggling softly to herself as she closed the door. Having once trespassed, she paid strict heed to her wandering feet and made port in Physics II without further mishap.

In honor bound not to mention Blanche’s strange request to anyone, it was a matter of satisfaction to her when her last afternoon recitation was over. She was anxious to hold the interview with Blanche and dismiss it from her mind. During the day it had troubled her not a little. The more she thought of it, the less she could make of it. The very contemplation of it filled her with a vague discomfort, which she could not shake off.

“Come in,” drawled a languid voice when, at a few minutes past four, she knocked on Blanche’s door.

Obeying the call, Ruth entered, closing the door behind her. “I’m strictly on time,” she remarked with a gaiety she was far from feeling.

“So I see. Do sit in that comfy chair, Ruth.” Blanche was the acme of cordiality. Drawing a chair opposite to Ruth’s she sat down, staring pensively at her visitor. “I hardly know how to begin,” she sighed, with an artful assumption of diffidence warranted to deceive her straightforward caller. “It’s just like this. I’ve met with a dreadful disappointment. I expected to go to Cape May for the summer, but Mamma has been feeling so wretched of late, she has written me that her physician has ordered her to a sanatorium. Papa is going West on a long business trip, and it’s out of the question for me to go with him. I simply can’t stand the idea of spending my whole vacation at that horrible sanatorium. Besides, Mamma doesn’t wish me to be with her there. She says I make her so nervous, and that I’ll have to stay at home with our housekeeper and a stupid companion she intends to engage to look after me. I’d make Jean take me home with her, but she is going to Canada to visit her aunt, so she can’t entertain me.”

Blanche paused, her pale-blue eyes searching Ruth’s open features, as though to discover the precise amount of sympathy her dolorous tale had aroused. Her vis-a-vis appeared interested, and she thought the frank brown eyes expressed concern.

“I am sorry to hear of your mother’s illness,” Ruth said gravely. She was still cogitating as to what relation this news bore to the “great favor.” She was also reflecting that Mrs. Shirly’s attitude toward her daughter was rather unfeeling. She experienced a sudden excess of pity toward the undesired Blanche.

“I knew you would be,” returned Blanche with a deep positiveness intended to be flattering. “You are so—so—sympathetic. I really feel free to confide in you. I wouldn’t think of asking a favor of any of the other girls. Somehow, you are so different.”

A tiny pucker of impatience appeared between Ruth’s brows. Was Blanche really sincere, or was she bent on making positive refusal of her request a difficult matter? “Please tell me what you wish me to do for you, Blanche,” she returned almost brusquely. This beating about the bush was annoying, to say the least.

“I don’t like to ask you—you’ll think me presuming, I’m afraid, but—well, I heard that you and a number of the Hillside Camp Fire Girls were going to get together during August, and I wondered if you would mind letting me join you. I know I belong to the Drexal group, but as long as it is to be a Camp Fire affair I thought you wouldn’t object to my making one of the crowd. I am really crazy about this Camp Fire movement. I can’t see why I didn’t take it up last year. But now I’m going to do my best to make up for lost time. It would help me so much to be with the Hillside group and live outdoors and—and—commune with Nature.” Blanche’s ideas on Nature communion were decidedly hazy. She rather liked the sound of the phrase, however.

Ruth struggled to preserve an outward show of serenity, as she listened to this amazing request. For the instant she was totally bereft of reply. Having taken the sacred pledge of the Torch Bearer, it became her duty to respond to Blanche’s appeal for help. Still, she could not see her way clear to do so. Blanche had undoubtedly been misinformed. In some inexplicable fashion she had been led to believe that the reunion which the Equitable Eight were to hold at Ruth’s home during the month of August, was to be a Camp Fire affair. Personally, Ruth felt that, rather than refuse Blanche’s plea, she would be willing to invite her to the reunion. There were others besides herself to be considered, however. She was positive that her chums would raise strenuous objections to any such arrangement on her part. Although she disliked to shatter Blanche’s forlorn hope, all that remained to be done was frankly to inform her of her mistake.

“Blanche,” she began, with brave gentleness, “I would like you to feel always that I am ready to help you in any way I can. I hope you won’t be hurt by what I am going to say, but—somehow—you’ve received a wrong impression about this Camp Fire affair. It isn’t the Hillside group that are to be together during August. It is only the eight girls who were at Betty’s cottage last summer. I mean that is the only thing planned that I know of. I haven’t heard that the Hillside Camp Fire has made any such summer plan. If they had, surely I would have been told of it before now.

“The Equitable Eight, as we call ourselves, are to be at my home during August. So far as I am concerned, I’d be willing to invite you, too.” Ruth could not honestly say that she would be glad to do so. “As we are a sort of informal organization, I couldn’t do it unless the others were willing that you should join us. You see, it is—”

“Oh, dear, that settles it! I’m so sorry! I didn’t understand.” With a doleful wail, Blanche’s auburn head went down on her arms. “Those—girls—wouldn’t—have me!” she sobbed out brokenly. “Emmeline Cerrito—hates—me. She—hardly—notices—me. How—could I—have—made—such a mistake? It’s humiliating.” The last word trailed off into a disconsolate gulp.

“Don’t cry, Blanche.” Springing to her feet Ruth laid a sympathetic hand on the elaborately-coiffed head, bowed so forlornly forward. Tender-hearted to a degree, she was touched by the other girl’s noisy distress. Regardless of the fact that she was in no sense to blame for Blanche’s mistake, nevertheless she was resolved to do her best to salve the weeper’s wounded pride. “Don’t take it so to heart,” she comforted. “I think it was fine in you to wish to join a Camp Fire party. You only misunderstood. That’s all. Now brace up and listen to me. I am going to have a talk with the girls to-night. We are to have a meeting in Betty’s and Jane’s room. I shall tell them that I wish you to be my guest during August. I hope you won’t mind if I explain things. It wouldn’t be quite fair to them not to. If they don’t see things as I do, then will you accept an invitation to spend July with me? That would help some, wouldn’t it?”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” mumbled Blanche, half raising her head. “I’ll have to be with Mamma until she goes to the sanatorium. She isn’t going there until the last of July, after Papa leaves for the West.” Blanche straightened up with a jerk as she delivered this dampening information. She had not anticipated Ruth’s proposed method of thus solving her difficulty, and it did not coincide with her views.

Her sudden ascent from the depths of woe caused a swift, unbidden suspicion to flit across Ruth’s brain. What if Emmy were right in her conviction? Immediately she discarded the thought as unworthy. Still, she could not help wishing that Blanche had brought pride to her aid and declined to allow her to lay the matter before her chums. On the other hand, she could not forget that Blanche’s own mother was, to all appearances, uninterested in her daughter’s welfare.

“Of course, Ruth, if you’d rather not—” Blanche broke off with an ominous quaver in her voice. Reaching for her handkerchief she brought it into pathetic play.

“I’ll speak to the girls this evening,” promised Ruth without enthusiasm, “provided you will let me explain everything.” She was firm on this one point, and intended to make sure of it before tackling a task which she did not in the least relish.

“Tell them whatever you please,” agreed Blanche with a readiness that was not wholly pleasing to Ruth. Her eyes meeting the latter’s searching gaze, she hastily amended: “I mean, I wish you to tell them everything.”

“Very well, I will. Now I must go. If I don’t do my studying before dinner, it won’t be done at all.” Ruth was halfway to the door as she spoke. She had no desire to prolong her call. Already she was nervously imagining the dire effect of the verbal bombshell she was preparing to drop in the camp of the Equitable Eight.

“When will you let me know about it?” was Blanche’s eager question, as Ruth opened the door.

“As soon as I can,” Ruth replied briefly and was gone.

Left to herself, Blanche strolled to her dressing table, complacently viewing herself in the oval mirror. “I ought to go on the stage,” she confided to her smiling reflection. “I can act all around that snippy Betty Wyndham. Ruth Garnier is a simpleton. She believed everything I said. She’ll have a lovely time making those girls believe it, though. Still, I’m not afraid she can’t do it. Miss Shirly, you may consider yourself as already invited to that wonderful reunion!”


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