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CHAPTER VI A SUDDEN CHANGE OF PROGRAMME
Promptly at eight o’clock that evening, Ruth was admitted to the dormitory devoted to the members of the faculty. A frequent caller on Miss Drexal, she steered a straight course toward the registrar’s room and knocked lightly on the door.

“Good evening, Ruth. Prompt to the minute, I notice.” Miss Drexal nodded smilingly to her caller, as she ushered her into the room and motioned her to a particularly inviting arm chair. “I suppose you haven’t the slightest notion of why you are here,” she continued. Drawing up a willow rocker, she seated herself opposite the young girl, her blue eyes twinkling.

“I thought it might be for Camp Fire reasons,” returned Ruth. “I couldn’t believe that I was due to hear a lecture,” she added, laughing.

“Hardly,” was the reassuring response. “You are partly in the right in your guess, though. It does concern the Camp Fire movement, or rather several girls belonging to it.”

Ruth looked slightly mystified, but allowed Miss Drexal to continue without interruption.

“My home, as you know, is in Duluth,” pursued the registrar, “but my sister and I also own a cottage on Lake Superior not far from Duluth. This property was willed to us by an uncle. When it first became ours, we decided to sell it. After we had looked it over, we were so pleased with it that we agreed to keep it and spend our vacation there. We had the cottage repaired, refurnished, and it is now our summer home. Last year we entertained three of our woman friends there and enjoyed ourselves immensely. That was, as you know, my reason for not attending Betty’s house party in the Catskills.

“This year my sister wishes to spend the summer with a woman friend in Idaho, but does not like to leave me alone at the cottage with only Martha, an old servant of ours, for company. So I am going to ask the Equitable Eight to help us both. If I give a house party, it will solve the problem. I would rather have you and your friends with me than any others whom I know. Do you think the Equitable Eight could arrange to be my guests during August and the early part of September? Would you like it?”

Ruth drew a long rapturous breath. “Would we like it?” she cried out impulsively. “It would be simply gorgeous!” Swept off her feet by the glorious prospect outlined by Miss Drexal, for the moment she gave herself up completely to it. Followed a swift rush of dismaying recollection. “Oh, dear,” she wailed. “I forgot the reunion. I’ve invited the Equitable Eight to spend August with me. I—that’s too bad. I mean—” Ruth paused, divided between regret and embarrassment.

“I hardly know what to say,” she went on slowly. “We should all love to visit you. But as I have already asked the girls to visit me, I don’t know—Why couldn’t you come to our reunion at my home, Miss Drexal?”

“Why not compromise?” smiled Miss Drexal. “Couldn’t you girls arrange to come to me for at least August? Then I might agree to spend the early part of September with you. That is a fair proposal, isn’t it?”

“Splendid.” Ruth grew radiant as the beauty of the compromise dawned upon her. “It will give us both a chance to be hostess, and we’ll all have six weeks together instead of four.”

“I intend, of course, to call the girls together and invite them. I thought I should like to speak to you beforehand. I had no idea that you had already made your plans for a reunion in August. Suppose you ask the girls to come to my room to-morrow evening to talk matters over. I will write Marian, inviting her to my house party. She is such a delightful girl. We had several interesting talks together when she visited you last Thanksgiving.”

Mention of writing to her cousin caused Ruth to catch her breath in consternation. It recalled her own letter to Marian and why she had written it. It was all very well for Miss Drexal to wish to entertain the Equitable Eight at her cottage, but what of Blanche Shirly? That the registrar strongly disapproved of Blanche, Ruth knew only too well. Neither did Blanche like Miss Drexal. During her two years at Miss Belaire’s, she had been as a thorn in the registrar’s flesh. Twice she had skirted dismissal by over-staying a holiday leave of absence. On numerous other occasions she had lawlessly defied Miss Drexal, and when called to account, had made light of reproof. Ruth’s dreams of long, blissful hours spent on the sunlit shore of blue Lake Superior merged into a disagreeable reality, wherein Blanche Shirly loomed a central figure. What would Miss Drexal think of her if she immediately asked permission to include Blanche in the invitation? Why was it that she seemed continually fated to face such embarrassing situations?

Last year she had been obliged to write Betty Wyndham about Marian. Of course that had been quite different. She had not expected that Betty would invite Marian to her house party. She would never have dreamed of asking Betty to do so. Betty had acted of her own volition. If she explained matters, Miss Drexal would be willing to invite Blanche. She was sure of that. But was it fair to ask the registrar to entertain a girl of whom she so thoroughly disapproved? Still the Equitable Eight had pledged themselves to Blanche’s cause. Wherever they gathered during August, Blanche must perforce be there also. If they were to refuse Miss Drexal’s invitation on that account, then she would be disappointed. Neither could they refuse it without explaining why. All this passed with lightning speed through Ruth’s troubled brain.

“When you spoke of Marian it made me remember something I’d forgotten for a minute,” she said, flushing. “I—you see—we have invited Blanche Shirly to attend our reunion. Her mother is sick and has to go to a sanatorium for the summer and so—she—we asked her to be our guest.” Ruth stammered forth her explanation, magnanimously careful to remove all shadow of opprobrium from Blanche.

Miss Drexal stared harder than ever at Ruth, as though endeavoring to divine what lay behind the halting explanation. Only too thoroughly acquainted with Blanche’s high-handed methods of obtaining whatever she set out to gain, she had a shrewd suspicion as to the manner in which this peculiar state of affairs had come about. She also read in the brown eyes, so earnestly fixed on hers, a distinct appeal against too close questioning.

“I think I understand your position, Ruth,” she said quietly. “We won’t go into a discussion of it. Please ask Blanche to come here to-morrow night with the others.” Affectionately she added, “You are beginning well as a Torch Bearer, my dear.”

“Thank you, Miss Drexal.” Ruth spoke almost humbly. “I knew you’d understand. I’ll see that the girls are here in good season to-morrow evening. I won’t speak to them about it to-night, though. If I did, it would surely be a case of ‘unprepared’ all round to-morrow. I must go. I have a lot of studying to do.” Lingering for a few moments further chat with Miss Drexal, Ruth took her leave, athrill with a pleasant flutter of excitement. Mischievously, she decided not to go into detail regarding the invitation to Miss Drexal’s room. She would merely deliver it to the girls and leave them to guess its import.

The next morning before breakfast she went from door to door, tantalizingly announcing the meeting to take place that evening in Miss Drexal’s apartment. To curious inquiries, “What for?” and “Why does she want us to come?” she laughingly replied, “Wait and see.”

Blanche Shirly, in particular, was avidly concerned to learn the whys and wherefores of the summons: “Are you sure it hasn’t anything more to do with me than the others?” she quizzed. “Miss Drexal can’t bear me, you know. It would be just like her to invite me there and then say something that would make me feel foolish before all those girls.”

“How can you say such a thing?” Ruth lost momentary hold on her patience. “If you only knew—”

“But I don’t, and it doesn’t look as though I should,” retorted Blanche with an asperity which brought a flush to Ruth’s cheeks.

“All I can say to you is just what I’ve said to the others,” Ruth returned stiffly, and turned away, too vexed for further speech.

Blanche was not to be thus easily balked in her pursuit of knowledge. Before the day was over she had managed to waylay the elect and make inquiry among them; an inquiry which bore no fruit. No one of the six girls knew why Miss Drexal wished to see them.

Believing that their professed ignorance had been assumed merely to thwart her, Blanche became frankly sulky and went about all day looking like a young thundercloud—a fact of which Jane Pellew took immediate notice, causing her to remark wickedly to Sarah that Blanche was only giving them a sample of the way she intended to behave at the reunion.

Not daring to quarrel openly with her long-suffering benefactors-to-be, Blanche poured forth her grievances into the ever-ready ear of her one confidante, Jeanette Hayes. “Ruth Garnier’s silly, mysterious airs make me tired,” she grumbled when she had finished regaling Jeanette with the little she knew concerning Miss Drexal’s summons. “I am sorry I ever got myself invited to that tiresome reunion. You can imagine what a delightful time I shall have among those babies. Thank goodness, I won’t have to depend on them for amusement. Once I am far enough away from home to do as I please, I shan’t let them interfere with me much. This reunion is only the lesser of two evils.”

“You’ll have to be very careful,” cautioned Jeanette. “You’ll find you can’t have your own way as easily as you think.”

“Just leave that to me,” boasted Blanche. “I can manage them.”

Although there was nothing especially amusing about this statement, both girls went into fits of laughter over it.

“Clever little Blanche,” commended Jeanette. “I wish I were going with you.”

“I wish you were.” Blanche looked briefly regretful. With all her faults, Jeanette was a decided improvement on the girls upon whom she had thrust herself. “I’ll tell you all about to-night as soon as I come back from the great seance,” was the gracious promise.

“I shall love to hear it.” Jeanette grew correspondingly affable. By reason of certain confidences which Blanche had lately imparted to her, the two had been on exceedingly amiable terms for several days.

“Oh, I dare say it is nothing wonderful after all.” Blanche’s shapely shoulders went into contemptuous play. “Some new Camp Fire stunt, perhaps. We’ll probably have to listen to a lecture on what to do if the sky should fall in, or how to find oneself when lost in the woods, or some other idiotic babble.” The two giggled in unison at this witticism.

“Let’s go down to Wyman’s for dinner,” proposed Jeanette. “It’s after five o’clock now. I’m simply perishing for something good to eat. We’ll have an extra gorgeous dessert to make up for the stupid rice puddings, canned peaches and various other nursery treats we’ve had this week.”

“All right. I’ve a great mind not to go near Miss Drexal,” pouted Blanche.

“You might be sorry if you didn’t,” counseled Jeanette. “You can’t afford to tear down what you’ve had such hard work to build up. You must go on playing your part. Well, you know why.”

“Yes, that’s so.” Blanche sighed. Her frowning face took on an expression which a mere onlooker might have construed as “ridiculously sentimental.” Quite the contrary, Jeanette gazed at her with respectful admiration. She alone was privileged to read it aright, or so she fatuously believed.

Arm in arm, their heads together, the congenial duo left the house, proceeding in leisurely fashion across the campus and onto the main highway that led past Wyman’s hospitable doors. Situated half way between Miss Belaire’s Academy and the staid old town of Hillside, the smart little restaurant was the Mecca toward which the academy girls invariably gravitated when their monthly allowance checks arrived and burned in their pockets. Within a reasonable distance of almost every institution of learning for girls, there is sure to be one tea room or confectioner’s shop in particular which flourishes by reason of the united approval of its youthful patrons. Once they have set their seal upon it, it becomes in time traditional. To the Hillside girls, Wyman’s was in the nature of a necessity. They would hardly have known how to do without it.

But while Blanche and Jeanette were cosily ensconced at a favorite alcove table in the dainty gray and white tea-room, Ruth Garnier was taking uneasy stock of their absence from the academy dining room. She guessed naturally that Blanche was with Jeanette. Their dual absence went to prove as much. Where they had gone, and when they would return, was another matter. Blanche had given her no assurance that she would attend the meeting in Miss Drexal’s room. It would be too provoking, Ruth reflected, if Blanche were to stay away after all she had done in her behalf.

When, at a quarter to eight o’clock, the seven girls made ready to go to their appointment in a body, Blanche was still among the missing.

“Go on ahead,” Ruth directed. “I’ll stay and wait for Blanche. If she is not here by a quarter past eight, I’ll not wait longer. It’s just possible that you may find her at Miss Drexal’s when you arrive there. If she is, don’t bother to telephone, for I shan’t be long behind you at any rate.”

Accepting this decree, the sextette left the house to the tune of energetic sputterings on Jane’s part relative to the absent Blanche. Ruth’s vigil turned out to be short. From a window of the reception room she saw her friends start off across the campus just in time to miss encountering the dilatory object of her watch as she and Jeanette rapidly traversed the wide stretch of green from an opposite direction. Leaving her post at the window, she stepped into the hall and opened the front door.

“I saw you coming across the campus. The girls have gone on ahead. I stopped to wait for you, Blanche. Are you going to Miss Drexal’s?” Ruth’s even tones held no hint of reproach. They contained a businesslike quality, however, which admitted of no trifling.

“Of course I’m going. The girls needn’t have been in such a hurry. It’s only five minutes to eight.” Blanche coolly consulted her wrist watch. “So long, Jean, I’ll see you later. Sorry I kept you waiting.” This last again to Ruth.

“I haven’t waited long,” responded Ruth good-naturedly enough. She did not intend to show Blanche that she had been in the least annoyed. During the short walk to the dormitory which housed the registrar, she talked in her usual cheerful strain, purposely keeping well off the subject which actuated their call on Miss Drexal.

It was the first time that Blanche Shirly had been honored with an invitation to the registrar’s cozy apartment. If she felt any embarrassment over the fact, she did not show it, although she was well aware that something unusual must have occurred to call forth this miracle. Whereas she and Jeanette had done their utmost to lessen all possibility of friendship with the kindly woman, they laid the blame at her door, privately nicknaming her “Stoneface,” and accusing her of favoritism.

As it was, Blanche received the surprise of her life when Miss Drexal took the floor and acquainted her interested listeners with the hospitable proposal which Ruth had already heard. Needless to relate, six of them received it with the same heartiness in which it was offered. Youth has that lovely quality of flexibility which permits it to adjust itself easily to change of programme, provided that programme be equally pleasant to contemplate. As it stood, the Equitable Eight were merely adding two weeks to their holiday together. Ruth’s sturdy assertion that she didn’t mind postponing the honor of being hostess if her friends didn’t, set all doubts on that score at rest. All seven declared confidently that they were sure of the consent of their parents regarding this important change of plan.

Blanche Shirly alone did not join in the discussion. She was wildly speculating as to how she could successfully readjust her affairs to meet this new situation. It had woefully upset certain of her pet plans, known only to Jeanette. She was now wishing heartily that Miss Drexal had minded her own affairs and let the Equitable Eight alone. Realizing that for the present at least she must pretend pleasure, she forced herself to smile and remark that she knew “Mamma would love to have her visit Miss Drexal.”

Shortly afterward she made unstudied lessons an excuse for her departure, leaving her companions engrossed in jubilant discussion of the coming house party. It was an irate Blanche, however, who, fifteen minutes later, poured forth her woes to the sympathetic Jeanette. Long and earnest was their talk, during which Blanche wept copious tears of rage and disappointment. Following it, she bathed her reddened eyelids and settled herself to the writing of a lengthy letter. But that long letter was not addressed to her mother.


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