“Why, that, – ” Marjorie began.
“Is why there was a crowd at my heels all the time,” finished Leslie rather excitedly. She and Marjorie both laughed.
Even Leila’s austerity of feature relaxed into an amused smile. “I must have come into the gym when you were preparing to leave it for I caught not even a glimpse of such a costume as you had. Now a rumor is drifting merrily about the campus that I was the funny mask, but that I changed to an Irish peasant costume to puzzle the freshies.”
“How utterly providential!” Marjorie’s opinion was cordially hearty. “I am afraid I shall be too busy from now on to enlighten the campus dwellers concerning their fond delusion.”
“I have plenty to do myself,” was Leila’s vague inference.
Leslie’s eyes traveled from one to the other of the pair of amused faces. Were these the two Hamilton girls she had hated so unreasonably when a student in college with them? She now dejectedly wondered why she had hated them.
“There’s something I must say to you,” she persisted to Marjorie. “I used to hate you. That is, I thought I hated you. After I found out who you were I knew I could never hate you any more. You took with you all my weapons of offense. Why should I ever have hated you? The answer goes back to myself. You ought to hate me. But I know you don’t. That makes me double hate myself.” Leslie made an impatient movement of the head, indicating her distaste for herself.
“I never hated you, Miss Cairns. I’ve felt dreadfully exasperated with you at times,” Marjorie honestly admitted. “I haven’t felt that way toward you for a long time,” she added with her winsome smile.
“That’s good news.” Leslie faintly answered the smile. Her hands began to tighten on the wheel. “Oh, yes, I almost forgot. Miss Monroe had nothing to do with my campus lark. I planned it myself. She knew of it, but it wouldn’t be fair to censure her for what I would have done anyway. Will you stand by her if – if any gossip should start about the affair?” Leslie looked almost appealingly from one to the other of the two Travelers.
“You need have no fears in that respect,” Marjorie promised staunchly.
“There will be little or nothing said,” was Leila’s dryly authoritative prediction.
“Thank you both. That’s all, I believe, except – I’m sorry. I’m saying it, though about five years too late,” Leslie declared bitterly.
Marjorie made no verbal reply. She bent upon Leslie a glance brimming with toleration. Its frank kindness made Leslie feel like bursting into tears. Pride alone kept her from it.
After a moment Marjorie said: “We have something to thank you for, Miss Cairns; the hundred dollar note you dropped into the money box the evening of the Romp. We understand and appreciate the spirit that prompted the gift. When I say we, I mean the Travelers.”
Marjorie made the assumption boldly, hoping thus to take Leslie unawares. She succeeded. Leslie colored hotly.
“Can that be Leslie Cairns?” marveled Leila. “You will now kindly tell me a great many facts about her recent history which I have somehow missed. You intended to tell me about them, did you not?” She regarded Marjorie with laughing suspicion.
“I had not intended to tell you or anyone else that she attended the Romp,” Marjorie said emphatically. “I never even mentioned it to Jerry. You see what a good secret keeper I am. Since you have heard a part of the story from the heroine herself, I may as well tell you the rest.”
“Leslie Cairns’s wits are as ready as Jerry’s when it come to giving out names,” was Leila’s comment after Marjorie had informed her of the set of circumstance at the Romp in which Leslie had so prominently figured. “Jerry and Muriel named Miss Peyton the Prime Minister. That was appropriate enough last fall when she tried so earnestly to dictate a policy of her own to we poor timid P. G.’s. It seems she has practiced screeching as well as dictating. And she looks like an owl!” Leila’s intonation was full of false enthusiasm.
“I made up my mind not to tell Miss Cairns about Miss Peyton and Jane Everest. It wasn’t necessary. She is worried now for fear Miss Monroe may be blamed. It seems odd, Leila, that Leslie Cairns should have shown consideration for another. I say it candidly; not spitefully. She ought to be protected if only for that change toward growth.” Marjorie was very earnest in her conviction regarding Leslie.
“It is a nine days’ wonder to me.” Leila was impressed in spite of her earlier impulse to be skeptical. “If nothing is brought up against Leslie Cairns now on the campus, nothing will be later. The time of interest for a rumor is just before, at the time, or just after something supposedly happens. The Romp is now almost a memory. Soon along will come something new and amusing to crowd that memory out.”
“There is still the other side of it, Leila.” Marjorie grew grave. “It was against good taste in Leslie Cairns to step into the social side of Hamilton College under cover of a mask. She had forfeited the right to do so when she left Hamilton two years ago.”
“Still it is the most harmless piece of mischief that she ever carried out. And she dragged no one else into it,” Leila said thoughtfully.
“Precisely the point, Leila. I’ve felt so about it ever since I went to the door of the gym with her that night.” Marjorie spoke her mind forcefully. “I couldn’t regard her lark as anything but a lark. Her costume was so funny and she behaved in such a funny, original way. She was more like a child than a young woman. It was as if she had slipped through the gate of a high fence, and into a forbidden yard. She acted as if she were having a fine time playing. Perhaps she went over a rustic road to childhood that night, and when she came back found herself changed?” Marjorie made fanciful suggestion.
“It may be so. All the fairy tales are not hatched in the Emerald Isle.” Leila cast a sly smile toward her fanciful chum. “More’s the pity that I instead of she should be given credit for her costume. For that I shall see to it that she gains in another direction. Ah-h-h!” Leila gave the wheel an inspired jerk which sent the car bumping into a rut. “I have just thought of a plan to keep the Screech Owl from screeching on the campus.”
“Have you? I’m glad to hear it.” There was a hint of grim enthusiasm in the reply. “What will you do?”
“I shall have to try it out on her first and tell you my method afterward. It is only the ghost of a plan yet.” Leila made evasive answer.
Marjorie did not inquire further into Leila’s “ghost” of a plan. “All right. Keep it to yourself. I only hope it will be effective. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that we should be planning now to protect Leslie Cairns? When one stops to remember that she – ”
“Never did anything but harass and torment us,” supplied Leila, “it is that amazin’.” Her accent became strongly Hibernian.
“That’s not quite what I meant to say, but it’s true. We can afford to be generous to her, Leila.”
“Ah, yes. It is more becoming to old age,” sighed Leila, then chuckled. “As ancient, tottering P. G.’s we are so merciful!”
“That’s one explanation. It will do as well as another,” laughed Marjorie.
“We have an old Irish saw that runs: ‘What is the gain in beating a knave after the hangman has him?’” Leila lightly quoted the quaint Celtic inquiry.
“What is the use? That is exactly the question,” Marjorie smiled in sympathy with the pertinent old query. “Leslie Cairns has made things far harder for herself than for us.”
The two girls fell silent after Marjorie’s remark. Both were thinking of the past five years in which Leslie Cairns had figured so unpleasantly. Neither cared to continue the conversation with Leslie as the chief topic. The lure of Spring had chained them both to dreamy admiration of her budding beauty.
The automobile had swung into the last lap of the road to Orchard Inn which wound in and out like a pale brown ribbon among orchard belts of fragrant pink and white bloom. Orchard Inn itself to which they would presently come, was a staunch brick relic of colony days, set down in the midst of thick-trunked, gnarled apple trees. Just then they were burgeoning in rose and snow, scented with Spring’s own perfume.
Marjorie had always been a devoted worshipper at the shrine of Spring. The glorious resurrection each year of earth, which had lain stark and drear under winter’s death-like cloak, seemed to her the mystery of mysteries. Today the very sight of brown fields turning to emerald, apple, pear and cherry trees rioting in ravishing bloom, the twitter of nesting birds, busy putting the last touches to their tiny homes, filled her with retrospection. Sight of a peach tree, a luxuriant bouquet of vivid pink gave her a sensation of unutterable sadness.
She understood dimly that her mood of wistful sadness was born of more than her ardent love of Spring. She was still gripped by the supreme tragedy of Brooke Hamilton’s love story. She almost wished she had not read it. She was sure that she could never bear to read it over again. In the next breath she made sturdy resolve that she would. She would not allow herself to be affected to such an extent even by a story as sad as was Brooke Hamilton’s.
Then, without invitation, Hal invaded her thoughts. She was no nearer being in love with him than she had ever been, she reflected with an almost naughty satisfaction. Nevertheless, the moment she began to think about love, he appeared, a blue-eyed image of her mind, always regarding her in the same sorrowful way, in which she had caught him viewing the portrait of the “Violet Girl.”
Marjorie had no suspicion that she had changed a great deal in mind since the evening at Severn Beach when she and Hal had walked together with their friends along the moonlit sands and Constance had sung “Across the Years.” She had listened to the sadly beautiful song, which had breathed of blighted hopes and love’s misunderstandings without either sentimentality or sentiment of mind. Hal had characterized her faithfully when he had told her that she had not yet grown up.
Neither he nor she knew that the growing-up miracle had begun when she had laid her childishly curly head on the study table and cried out her heart over Brooke Hamilton’s tragic love affair.
While Marjorie and Leila rode on through fragrant spring bloom to Orchard Inn, Leslie Cairns drove slowly toward the town of Hamilton. She was filled with many emotions, but the chief one was that of surprise at the way in which she had been received by “Bean” and Leila Harper. She had always stood a trifle in awe of Leila and her cleverness when the two had been classmates though she had affected to despise the gifted Irish girl. Marjorie she had hated from the first meeting. Or thus she had narrowly believed until she had come into the knowledge that “little friend ruffles” and Marjorie were one and the same. She had also come into a knowledge of Marjorie which she could not ever again overlook.
A friendly act on Marjorie’s part, the prompting of a broad tolerant spirit had been the magic which had worked a well-nigh unbelievable change in Leslie. It is often the small, seemingly unimportant happenings in life which frequently are instrumental in working the most amazing transformations.
While Marjorie was going through one process of growing up Leslie was going through another widely different phase of the same process. Leslie had begun to learn that: “He who breaks, pays.” Until her garage failure she had been childishly stubborn in her belief that she could successfully “get away with” whatever she undertook to accomplish. She had suffered untold mortification of spirit over the ignominious end her father had put to her business venture. She had read and re-read the letter which her father had at that time written her until she knew every scathing word of it by heart. This in itself had produced a beneficial effect upon Leslie’s wayward character. In time to come she would regard that particular letter as the turning point in her life.
The downfall of her business hopes had furnished her with gloomy retrospection for long days after she had returned to New York. With all the fancied grudges she had against Marjorie she was obliged to admit to herself that “Bean” had certainly not been responsible for her father’s unexpected visit to Hamilton. Neither was she to know until years afterward that a “Bean-inspired” advocate of justice in the person of Signor Guiseppe Baretti had proven her business Waterloo.
Sullenly obeying her father’s stern command to renew her intimacy with Natalie Weyman, Leslie had reluctantly got into touch again with Natalie. Natalie, however, was betrothed to a young English baronet. She was consequently interested in nothing but herself, her fianc? and an elaborate trousseau of which she was imperiously directing the preparation.
Leslie felt utterly “out of it” at Nat’s playhouse. She lounged in and out of the Weyman’s imposing Long Island palace with the enthusiasm of a wooden Indian. She listened in morose silence to Natalie’s fulsome eulogies upon her fianc?, Lord Kenneth Hawtrey, the Hawtrey ancestral tree, her own trousseau and the two-million dollar settlement her father proposed to make over to her as a bridal gift. Leslie mentally tabulated each of these fond topics upon her bored brain and learned to know by the signs just when each of them would be complacently brought forward by her former college chum.
When she could stand the strain no longer she had announced to Mrs. Gaylord that her father had gone to Europe and that she intended to buy a new roadster and drive to Hamilton. “You can stay here or go along, Gaylord. Suit yourself. My advice to you is to stick to me. Peter the Great will approve of such devotion on your part. He knows I’d go, even if you were to try to squash the expedition. Your part is ‘Never desert Leslie,’” was the succinct counsel she gave her chaperon.
While Leslie was engaged in driving slowly toward Hamilton wrapped in her own half sad, half relieved mixture of thoughts, a tall man in a leather motor coat and cap ran down the steps of the Hamilton House and sprang into a rakish-looking racing car parked in front of the hotel. His heavy dark brows were corrugated in a frown. His lips though firmly set harbored a grim smile.
He had driven through the sunny streets of sedate Hamilton that afternoon as one who knew the place but had been long away from it. This was his second call at the hotel. On both occasions he had seen and talked with Mrs. Gaylord. His business, beyond a few, dry unreproving sentences, was with Leslie Cairns. As Leslie confidently believed him to be in Europe she was scheduled to receive a decided shock.
Peter Cairns, for the man in the racer was he, was soon speeding over Hamilton Pike, through Hamilton estates and on past the college wall toward a squat stone building which had the appearance of an old-time inn. In front of it he parked the racer again and strode up the long stone walk toward the quaint low door with its swinging wrought iron lamp.
Within the restaurant Signor Guiseppe Baretti was in earnest consultation with his manager. He glanced up at the newcomer, who, instead of choosing a table and making for it, headed directly for him. That the little, shrewd-eyed proprietor of the restaurant and the broad-shouldered financier had a bond in common was plainly evident from the way in which they shook hands at the close of the financier’s short call.
“What you think? What you think?” the Italian excitedly demanded, catching his manager’s arm as the door closed behind his caller. “This is the father the girl we write the letter about. When he comes here, just now, a little while, he says to me: ‘How’r you? You don’t know me. I am Peter Car-rins.’ I think this mebbe where I get the hard beat, cause I have tol’ this man what trouble his daughter make Miss Page, Miss Dean. But this is what say: ‘I am to thank you for your letter. I have not the time today talk much with you. Before long I come here again. Then I tell you som’thin’ su’prise you verra much.’
“I say then to him I think he come to give me the good beat for my letter. He laugh. He say: ‘No, no.’ Put up his hand like that.” Baretti illustrated. “‘I un’erstand you verra well. I have been much in Italy. I know the Italiano.’ Then he speak me good Italiano. Now that is the father Miss Car-rins. What you think? She is here in Hamilton again. Mebbe her father don’ know it. I believ’ he don’. Mebbe she don’ know he is here. When both find out, then oo-oo, much fuss I guess. Mebbe Miss Car-rins get a good beat,” he predicted with a hard-hearted chuckle.
If he had walked to the door after Peter Cairns instead of lingering to acquaint his faithful little countryman with the identity of the stranger, he would have seen something interesting. He would have seen a trim-lined black roadster slow down to a sudden stop as the result of a peremptory hail from a racing car which had drawn up alongside. In short, Baretti would have seen Leslie Cairns and Peter Cairns meet precisely in front of the east-end gates of the campus.
“Run your car off to one side where it won’t interfere with the traffic.” The financier ordered Leslie about precisely as he might have ordered one of his men. His tones reached her, coldly concise, entirely devoid of affection. “There, that will do.” He skillfully manipulated the racer to a point parallel with her car, but out of the way of passing automobiles.
“What do you want?” Leslie inquired with sulky coolness.
“What are you doing here?” sternly countered her father.
“Nothing. You took away my job.”
“A good thing I did. I ordered you to stay in New York. Why are you not there? Why didn’t you obey me? You’re courting business college, it would seem.”
“Things are not always what they seem,” Leslie came back laconically.
The financier set his lips anew. It was either that or smile. Leslie was regarding him with the curiously unafraid expression which had most amused him in her as a child.
“Why can’t you behave properly?” he demanded with vexed displeasure.
“I don’t know. I have been trying to find that out for myself lately. It’s a hard job, Peter.” She purposely called him Peter. It had been another of her laughable childish mannerisms.
It brought a smile, reluctant and fleeting to his face. An odd light burned in his eyes for an instant. He turned his head to avoid her penetrating gaze. He had never before heard Leslie make an allusion to self-analysis. The knowledge that she had begun to try to fathom her forward motives was encouraging.
“What mischief have you done since you came up here?” he next asked. “Why could not you have cultivated Natalie instead of racing over the country up here in a car?”
“Nat is going to be married to a monocle and an English title. She is hopeless. I couldn’t stand her. I fled to the country, Peter. I knew you wouldn’t wish to have me die of being bored. Don’t rag Gaylord for it. I made her come here. She’s a good, ladylike sport, who knows how to stick to me and yet mind her own affairs. You may think you picked her for me. No, no; I saw her first. That gives me a prior claim to bossing her. I’m glad I met you, if only to settle that little point in your mind.” Leslie’s hands busied themselves with the wheel. “I think I’ll go on,” she declared tranquilly. “Don’t worry, Peter, I won’t do anything more to disgrace you. I’m going to lead a noble life from now on.”
She was fighting desperately to maintain humorous indifference. It was the side of her character which Peter Cairns most appreciated. She was now fighting to regain the proud interest he had once taken in her ready wit and irresistible humor. Her reprehensible behavior had amounted to stupidity. Peter Cairns most hated stupidity in man or woman.
Peter Cairns repressed an audible chuckle at this latest news from his lawless daughter. “This is not the place to discuss ethics,” he said dryly. “Run your car into town and meet me in the hotel lounge.”
“Race you in; cross town, or any old way?” Leslie proposed on impulse. She eyed her father doubtfully.
For a long moment the two stared into each other’s faces, as though each were endeavoring to determine the strength or weakness of the other.
“I’ll go you.” Peter Cairns spoke with a finality which set Leslie’s heart to pounding violently.
“My car was built for speed and I know how to get the speed out of it without arousing the natives. Look out, and don’t get pinched.” Leslie brought her car up on an exact line with the racer. “One, two, three, go to it,” she called animatedly. Then she was off over the pike on not only a go-as-you please race to Hamilton. She was on the first lap of what she hoped would be the quick road back to her father’s heart.