Chapter XIX. Like Old Times
 

It was a long time before the boys and girls woke up to the fact that they were still standing in the center of the road and that they might be ever so much more comfortable on the porch of the lodge, if any one had had sense enough to think that far.

Mrs. Irving, who had been keeping herself rather in the background during the first rapturous greetings, now came in for her share of salutations and boyish greetings. The young soldiers crowded about her, patting her hands and her shoulders and telling her how awfully fine she looked and how glad they were to find her here until the lady actually blushed with pleasure and begged them to stop their nonsense. In fact, it was she who finally suggested that they go up to the lodge again.

"I don't see why we didn't think of that before," said Mollie, joyfully slipping an arm into Frank's and turning him right-about-face. "We are due to talk all day anyway, so we might as well do it in comfort. Don't forget the lunch basket, Betty," she called back to her chum.

Betty would have forgotten the basket and left it where it stood just as she had dropped it at the side of the road-- and small wonder if she had-- but as she stooped to pick it up, Will's strong brown hand whipped out in front of her nose and seized the handle firmly.

"That's the idea," said Grace approvingly, adding with a sisterly pat on his shoulder: "You run along with Amy and Mrs. Irving. I want to talk to Betty."

So Will, being a well-trained brother, did as he was told, and Grace drew Betty behind the others.

"What about Allen, honey?" she asked, her blue eyes honestly worried. "We all missed him so, but we didn't like to say too much for fear-- for fear----"

"He's all right," said Betty, her heart glowing again at thought of the little note hidden away in her pocket. "He has only been delayed a little, that's all. Will says he will probably be over on the next transport."

"Oh, I am relieved," said Grace with such fervor that Betty looked at her quickly. Could it be, she wondered, that what she had half sensed before could be really true? Was Grace fond of Allen? But because the idea made her unhappy, she decided that she was just trying to think up trouble and dismissed it from her mind. All the girls loved Allen of course-- who could help it?-- but they couldn't any of them, she told herself fiercely, care for him the way she did.

"Well, what are you thinking about? You needn't look so fierce," she heard Grace saying, and she forced a smile to her face.

"I'm not looking fierce," Betty answered gayly. "Don't you know that that is just my natural expression, Gracie dear? That's the way I make little girls like you afraid of me."

"Well, I'm not afraid of you, not one little bit," asserted Grace, squeezing Betty's arm fondly. "Oh, Betty dear, isn't it wonderful having the boys back and don't they look fine-- especially Will?"

"Don't they? Especially Will," agreed Betty with a sly little glance. "If you don't look out you will give the impression that you're rather fond of that worthless old brother of yours, honey."

"I love him awfully," replied Grace, adding with a little puckering of her forehead: "But I am going to tell you something, Betty, that I wouldn't tell to any one else for the world. I'm jealous, actually jealous! of Amy."

Betty gave a merry little laugh and slipped an arm about her chum.

"Gracie dear, we never would have known that if you hadn't told us," she said dryly, "Don't, you know," as Grace looked at her reproachfully, "that we have all been perfectly well aware of that ever since Will first began to make eyes at Amy?"

"I can't help it," Grace retorted, while sudden tears sprang to her eyes. "I've known him longer than she has, and we've loved each other ever since he was two and I was two weeks! Did you see the way he looked at her?" she finished dolefully.

"Yes. But of course you couldn't see the way he looked at you," said Betty quickly. "And I did."

"Oh, did he look glad to see me? Did he?" demanded Grace with pathetic eagerness.

"Of course he did, you little goose," said Betty, adding with a chuckle: "You've been spoiled, that's all. You've been so used to being the only pebble on the beach, dear, that you can't be content with being just one of two."

By this time they had reached the lodge and were greeted noisily by the others, who had already seated themselves on the porch as though they intended to stay all day.

"Hello," called Frank. His handsome face, though somewhat thinner than the girls remembered, was better looking than ever and he had developed a trick of flinging the hair back from his forehead that the girls thought immensely attractive,

Roy, who had seated himself on the railing of the porch and was swinging his feet, looked more unchanged than either of the boys, though the girls were soon to find out that he had changed the most.

Will, who had settled Amy in a chair and was sitting cross-legged on the floor at her feet, was gazing up at the girl with his heart in his eyes. As for Amy-- well, the girls had never known she could look so radiant.

"Have a seat," invited Roy, rising lazily to the dignity of his six feet as Betty and Grace came up on the porch. "It would seem like old times to see you girls perched on the railing."

"I'll have you know, sir," said Betty very demurely, as she pulled Grace down beside her on the top step of the porch, "that we have quite grown up since you have been away. We will sit here where we can get a good view of you all."

"And we want to hear about everything you have done over there," broke in Amy eagerly. "Please, everything-- right from the beginning."

The boys fidgeted, looked dismayed, and Roy burst forth in protest.

"Oh, I say!" he cried. "We'll do anything else for you, but please don't ask us to do that."

"We don't want to talk about ourselves or the war," muttered Frank, almost as if to himself. "We want to forget about it-- if we can."

"You see," Will explained, and there was a stern note in his young voice, "we worked and we sweated and we fought. We lived under conditions week after week and month after month that it makes us shudder even to think of now. For months we lived in a perfect inferno-- and do you know what our idea of heaven was then?"

They said nothing and he went on in a lighter tone.

"It was just to get back alive and, well, to God's country and you girls-- to sit for hours, days if we could, where we could look at you and listen to you and not do a thing but just be happy. I wonder if you can understand that?"

"Of course, we can, Will!" cried Betty, impulsively reaching over and laying a hand on the boy's arm. "You have earned the right to sit and be amused, and we'll do it till you cry aloud for mercy. And you needn't tell us a single word about yourselves until you get good and ready."

"You're a brick, Betty," said Will warmly, laying his hand over her little one. "I might have known we could count on you."

"By the way," Roy broke in suddenly, his eye on the basket of eatables that the girls had prepared for their adventure, "what's in that hamper, anyway? If it's anything to eat, let's have it."

Betty pulled the basket over to her, lifted the cover and passed it over to the ravenous one.

"Eat while there is anything left," she commanded, adding with a chuckle: "Our adventure seems to be over for to-day, at least."

"Adventure?" repeated Frank inquiringly, as he reached for a sandwich.

"Yes," said Mollie, adding with a sigh: "And you boys had to come along just in time to spoil it all."