Chapter X. Hurrah for Allen
 

The young man stared for a moment longer. Then the humor of the situation seemed to strike him too, and he smiled pleasantly.

"It surely is a pleasure to be as welcome as all that," he said pleasantly, and the girls noticed that he was a well set up young fellow and that he wore his uniform easily, as if he had been used to wearing it for a long, long time. "I am Wesley Travers," he went on. "I live in a cottage down the road and I came over this way to see if the old professor had come back yet. I saw the door open-- came in-- and found you."

He smiled again pleasantly and looked as though he considered that he had fallen into rather good luck. But at his mention of the professor Betty had sobered instantly.

"Oh, then you know something about Professor Dempsey?" she questioned eagerly.

"Please tell us what happened to him," added Amy breathlessly.

"Did he do this?" asked Mollie, with a comprehensive sweep of her hand about the cluttered room.

"I'm afraid he did," answered the young fellow, sobering instantly. "You see, I just returned from overseas about a week ago and a couple of days later my dad read in the paper about the death of this queer old man's two sons. The pater had always been interested in the lonely old boy, so he sent me over to see if I could do anything for him. I found the place like this and-- the bird had flown. Went dopy I suppose about the bad news and tore things up a bit."

Though the boy's words were slangy, there was real sympathy in his tone and the girls liked him the better for it.

"And you haven't heard anything from him since?" asked Betty softly.

"Not a word or a sign," answered the boy, with a shake of his head. "Just clean cleared out, that's all. Pretty hard luck, I call it. Just at the end of things too-- when he had a right to expect the fellows home. Pretty tough luck. I wish I could find the poor old duffer and do something for him."

The girls heartily echoed the wish. Before leaving the place for good, they looked about the rooms once more for some sign or message that might give them a clue to the whereabouts of the professor. They found nothing, however, and finally were forced to give up the search.

As the young people stepped outside once more and closed the door after them upon the desolate house a great wave of pity swept over Betty. Somehow it did not seem right to go off like this as though they were abandoning the old man to his fate. Yet what could they do more than they had done?

"Girls," she said, a little quiver in her voice, "I would give almost everything I own to find the poor old professor and help him back to happiness. If I only could," she added after a pause.

"Well," said Wesley Travers, as he looked admiringly at Betty's flushed, sympathetic little face, "I imagine if any one could find him and bring him happiness, you would be that one."

The young soldier accompanied them back to the road. After thanking him for the information he had given them, the girls climbed into their cars and headed toward home, leaving Wesley Travers still standing in the road and looking after them thoughtfully.

"A mighty nice bunch of girls," thought the latter. "Especially the little brown-haired one. They seemed rather interested in that dotty old professor too. Lucky fellow to have four girls like that interested in him!" After this remark he started off toward home.

Luckily for the girls, the next few days were so crowded with preparations for the trip to Wild Rose Lodge that they had not much time to dwell on the poor old professor and his misfortunes.

Only at night would they sometimes dream queer dreams in which wild-eyed men went around smashing everything in sight and a little cottage stood lonely and desolate and ghostlike amid a silent forest of trees.

After a night like this the girls were always glad to awake and find the sunshine streaming cheerfully in their windows. And they would throw themselves with more than usual energy into the activities of the day. Yet try as they would, they could never quite blot the tragedy from their minds.

On the afternoon of the day before they were to start for Moonlight Falls, the girls were gathered in Betty's garage at the back of the house, where the Little Captain was giving her car one last overhauling to make sure that it was in perfect condition for the trip. Mollie suddenly espied the postman coming down the street.

Now the postman was a very popular man with the girls, for the reason that he brought almost daily some message from the boys on the other side. He sympathized with the chums so fully in their desire for letters with the red triangle in one corner that he actually confessed to a guilty feeling when he had no missive of the sort for them.

So now, as Mollie ran toward him with outstretched hand, he held up to her delighted gaze not only one letter, but four.

"One for each of you," he said beamingly, as Mollie reached him. "I thought that probably I would find all four of you at one place, so I kept the letters together."

"Oh, thanks, it is awfully good of you," said Mollie absent-mindedly, as she took the welcome letters and hurried with them back to the garage. "One for each of us, just think of that!" she cried to the questioning girls. "It looks as if the boys had all written at the same time. Put down your duster, Betty, for goodness' sake, and read what Allen has to say. Maybe," she added hopefully, as she ripped her envelope open, "they will tell us something definite about coming home."

So down the girls sat in the midst of dust cloths and more or less dirt to find what the boys had written. For a moment only the crackling of paper broke the silence. Then Grace gave a little joyful cry.

"Will says he is almost sure to be home soon----"

"And he has been made a sergeant," Amy interrupted, or rather added, her eyes shining with pride. "Just think of that-- Will, a sergeant!"

"I was just going to tell them that if you had waited a minute," said Grace, rather crossly. There was quite a little jealousy between Grace and Amy over Will. Grace had declared more than once that whereas she had known her brother all her life, Amy had only known him for a couple of years-- or-- or more. Grace loved her brother devotedly and once in a while she resented Amy's place in his affections.

So now to change the subject and avert a possible quarrel, Mollie jumped into the breach.

"Listen to this," she said. "Roy and Frank have been made corporals and Allen-- oh, look at Betty blush!" She looked gleefully across at the Little Captain and Amy and Grace followed her glance.

Betty was not blushing, but she felt as uncomfortable as though she had been.

"Tell us what Allen says," Mollie dared her wickedly. "Come on, honey-- dare you to."

"You can go on daring all you like," said Betty defiantly. This time she was blushing-- from the fact that she knew she could not, or would not, tell the girls what Allen had said in his letter. Not for anything in this world!

"I don't mean what you mean," said Mollie, enjoying her confusion immensely, while Grace and Amy looked on laughingly. "I just thought that maybe you would like to be the one to tell us about his promotion."

"His promotion!" cried Amy and Grace together, and Betty looked quite as bewildered as any of them.

"Mollie, for goodness' sake tell us what you mean," she demanded.

"But didn't he tell you about it, Betty?" Mollie insisted.

"Wait a minute," said the Little Captain as she hastily scanned the pages of her long letter. Then, down near the end of the last page she found it, just a little paragraph, put in as though it had been an afterthought. "Why," cried Betty, her eyes beginning to shine with excitement, "girls, listen to this. Allen has been promoted. He's an officer now-- a lieutenant! Think of it-- leather leggings and all!"

It was too much for the girls. They laughed and cried and hugged each other and tried to imagine Allen in his new uniform to their hearts' content, for the young new-made officer was a favorite with them all.

"Goodness," said Amy happily, "I suppose when he gets home he will be altogether too high-toned to notice common folk like us."

"Oh, I don't know," said Grace happily, adding with a sly little glance at Betty, "I imagine he will make an exception of one of us at least."

"I wonder," drawled Mollie as she picked up her unfinished letter, "which one of us you can mean."