Chapter XX. Very Much Alive
 

That is complimentary, I must say," grinned Will, getting up from his seat on the porch and going over to join Roy on the railing. "After being away for months we are told the minute we get back that we've 'spoiled everything.' "

"'Tis rather hard lines," said Mollie with an answering grin. "But one must tell the truth, you know."

"By the way," put in Grace curiously, "I know Betty promised that we wouldn't ask questions, but there is just one thing I want to know."

"Speak, fair damsel," Roy replied, thinking meanwhile how much prettier Grace had grown. "We will promise to answer faithfully anything that is not connected with war."

"When did you get in?" asked Grace, "and how did you get here?"

"We came in yesterday," answered Roy, helping himself to another sandwich. "And of course we beat it for headquarters right away."

"Yes'm, and I'll tell you we were a disappointed lot when we found that you girls had flown," added Frank ruefully. "We were all set for a jolly reunion----"

"But we wrote you about spending the summer here," Betty interrupted. "And we were mourning because you couldn't be at the lodge with us."

"We missed your letters, I guess," said Will. "We sailed very suddenly, and there is probably a stack of them piled up there at the old service station."

"We found out where you were all rightie, though," Roy continued. "So we took the first train out this morning, debarked at the nearest station south of here, and proceeded to walk the rest of the way. It was thus that you came upon us."

"You came upon us, you mean," Amy corrected. "We ought to know well enough, because you nearly gave us heart failure."

Will looked at her as if he wanted to say something but did not quite dare in public. However, she intercepted the look and with a little panicky feeling turned her eyes away.

"I imagine," said Grace softly, looking up at Will, "that mother wasn't glad to see you or anything."

"Not at all," returned Will, a soft light in his eyes as he remembered the greeting between him and his parents. "I was a little afraid," he added soberly, "that mother and dad wouldn't like my skipping off like this the day after I'd got home. But they seemed to understand all right."

"Gee, but this is great," said Frank, stretching contentedly and looking about the group with happy eyes. "I wonder how many times we've seen this all in our dreams, fellows. Only we couldn't have imagined it half as perfect as this."

"It sure is like old times," agreed Roy, adding with a smile as he turned to their chaperon, who had been quietly enjoying herself: "We even have Mrs. Irving with us. Gee, it's just like that summer at Pine Island! All the old crowd together----"

"Except Allen," put in Will, frowning a little. "Gosh, it didn't seem right at all to leave the old fellow behind. You wouldn't know him," he added, his face flushing enthusiastically, "I've never seen a fellow change the way Allen has-- for the better."

"Was there so much room for improvement?" asked Betty demurely, and they looked at her laughingly.

"Nobody would expect you to think so," Will replied, his eyes twinkling, then added seriously:

"Of course we all know that Allen was the finest kind even before the war, but, gosh! I wish you could just see how all the fellows love him and how even his superior officers consult him and seem to value his judgment. I tell you, I'm glad to have him call me his friend."

"You bet!" exclaimed Frank, nodding soberly.

"Allen sure has come out strong," Roy agreed; and at this glowing praise of the only absent one Betty felt her heart swell with pride and she wanted to hug the boys for being so loyal to her Allen. Also, deep down in her heart, she began to feel a little trepidation about the homecoming of this hero. Who was she, Betty Nelson, to call this glorious Lieutenant Allen Washburn, her Allen?

So engrossed was she in these and other absorbing thoughts that it was some time before she noticed that the conversation had taken another turn. Also that the boys and girls were becoming rather excited.

"I didn't say it was a ghost," Mollie was declaring hotly. "In fact I have always thought of a ghost as wearing a sheet and pillow case sort of garb. And this thing certainly wore nothing of the sort."

"Tell us all about it," said Frank, leaning forward.

"Yes, it sounds as if it might prove interesting," added Roy.

So the girls told them all about it from that first night when they had been so badly frightened by the "Thing" that had hidden in the shadows of the porch. The boys listened with scarcely an interruption till they were through.

"Gosh, I don't like the sound of that at all," said Will, when they had finished. "It isn't a pleasant thing to have a lunatic roaming the woods while you girls are all alone here in this place. Could you possibly put us up for the night?" he asked, turning abruptly to Mrs. Irving.

"Why, there isn't any room," said the latter slowly, frowning a little as she tried to think up ways and means. "There aren't any extra beds, but there is a large settee in the living room and a couple of you can sleep on that. I found plenty of blankets stowed away."

"Fine!" cried Will enthusiastically. "Just the very thing! One of us can take turns sleeping on the floor. It won't be the first time we've slept on harder things."

"Goodness, any one would think they were going to stay a month," said Mollie in dismay.

"No, we won't stay a month," Will went on. "But we are going to stay until we find out what it is that has been bothering you girls. Do you suppose we would leave you unprotected here? I should say not!" Grace noticed that when he said this his glance was first for Amy, and, afterward, for her.

So it was settled. Mrs. Irving went inside to see about getting lunch. "Though how the boys can find any room for lunch after eating all those sandwiches, I don't know," Amy had commented wonderingly.

Mrs. Irving had refused absolutely to let any of the girls even so much as help with this lunch, saying they must stay outside and visit with the boys on this momentous occasion.

"Since you are convinced that this thing is not a ghost," Will went on, while appetizing odors began to waft toward them from the open kitchen windows, "we will take it for granted that it is a man, and a man who has, presumably, lost his mind."

"A crazy man," murmured Betty. "Worse and worse-- and more of it."

"Girls," cried Amy, jumping suddenly to her feet, "I have an idea."

"Impossible!" drawled Grace.

"Why," went on Amy, unheeding Grace's remark and growing visibly more excited as she talked, "you know, Professor Dempsey went crazy-- or at least we supposed he did-- and ran away into the woods. Now since Will thinks this man is crazy too, why, they may be one and the same

"Amy!" cried Mollie, her eyes beginning to shine as she realized the possibility of what the girl had said. "You are a wonder, child! Why didn't any of us think of that before?"

"Because it is rather far-fetched and absurd, I suppose," said Grace, the suggestion of a sneer in her voice bringing a quick flush to Amy's face.

"I don't see that it is so far-fetched-- or absurd either," Betty broke in quietly. "Remember, we are only a little over fifty miles from the place where Professor Dempsey had his cottage, and it would be easy for him to wander this far."

Here Frank broke in on behalf of the very much mystified boys.

"Before you stage the hair-pulling contest," he said, "would you mind telling us poor benighted males what it is all about?"

So the girls told them all about Professor Dempsey, and while they talked the boys became more and more excited. Finally Will could keep quiet no longer.

"Say," he asked, leaning forward, "did the two sons of the cracked old professor happen to bear the names of James and Arnold?"

The girls gaped at him, "Yes," they breathed. "How did you know?"

"Because," said Will, "those very same fellows were in our regiment. In fact, I was beside Arnold when he was wounded in that last engagement. Strange thing that James was wounded at the same time."

"Wounded?" repeated Betty, who like all the girls was feeling rather dazed at this new development. "Then they weren't killed?"

"Not a bit of it," Will replied vehemently. "Why, even their wounds weren't serious enough to lay them up for long. The last I heard of them they were coming over on a hospital ship and expected to be here almost as soon as we were. For all I know, they may have landed by this time."

"Oh," said Amy, still too dazed to take it all in. "Then all this time we have thought of them as dead, they were alive--"

"Very much so," said Will, with a grin, "and probably kicking too-- just like us!"