Chapter XXV. The Old Crowd Again
 

Mrs. Irving, who had been worried by their prolonged absence, met the girls at the door as they stumbled with the almost exhausted old man up the steps of the porch.

At sight of the latter she grew deathly pale, and leaned against the door for support. She felt that all the world was growing black----

"Oh, please, please don't faint!" she heard Betty's young voice calling to her desperately as it seemed from a long distance. "We've depended upon you to help us."

With a great effort she fought off the dizziness and drew herself away from Betty's supporting arm.

"It's all right," she said dazedly, "The shock, I guess. Betty what-- who-- is that----"

"Oh, please don't ask any questions now," Betty begged feverishly. "Just help us, and we will tell you all about it later. This is Professor Dempsey," she added, turning to the broken old man who stood staring at them uncomprehendingly. "He can have Mollie's and my room, can't he, Mrs. Irving? and we will bunk somewhere else."

Mrs. Irving nodded automatically, still too dazed by the suddenness of the thing even to think, and they helped the old man into Betty's room and laid him on the bed. The tired, ragged, unkempt old head had hardly touched the pillow before its owner had sunk into a heavy sleep.

For a moment the girls were startled, for it almost seemed as though he were dead, but Betty put her hand on the ragged old shirt above the heart and found that the action was strong and regular.

"Perhaps it is the very best thing that could happen to him," she said softly, and, laying a light cover over him, tip-toed from the room, followed quietly by Mrs. Irving and the other girls.

Once in the other room, with the need for action over, the girls felt weak and spent, and it was only then that they realized that they had been through a terrible ordeal.

In broken sentences they told Mrs. Irving all that had happened and as she listened she grew more and more appalled at the risk they had run and the danger they had gone through.

"Girls, girls," she cried when they had finished, "I was half wild about you as it was. But if I had known the truth I think I should have gone crazy. Just the same," she added and her eyes shone with pride in them, "it was a glorious thing for you to do-- an unselfish, wonderfully courageous thing. I'm proud of you!"

In spite of the fact that they were tired out, the girls insisted upon standing watch and watch that night. They felt that some one should be with Professor Dempsey all the time in case he should wake in the night with his old madness upon him.

It was the longest night any of them had ever spent, and the morning dawned upon a hollow-eyed, worn-out set of Outdoor Girls.

"I never," said Betty, looking around at her white-faced chums wearily, "spent such a terrible night in my life. How is the patient?" she added, taking up the subject that had not left their minds for a minute. "Who was in there last?"

"I," said Grace, brushing out her hair, listlessly. "He is still asleep."

That report continued good all morning, and it was almost noon before the ragged, unbelievably unkempt old man on the bed opened his eyes.

The girls had been looking forward to, yet dreading, this minute. It had been decided that only one of them should be in the room with him when he awoke, but the rest were hovering close to the door ready to give assistance if it should become necessary.

But they need not have worried. The magic of his long sleep, together with the glad news he had heard the night before, seemed to have transformed the man overnight to his old gentle self.

To be sure, he was amazed at his strange surroundings, and looked uncomprehendingly into Betty's face is she bent compassionately over him. But all he said was:

"I declare, this is all very strange, young lady-- very strange. Would you mind-- er-- telling me where I am?"

At the tone, even more than the words, the girls felt a wild desire to shout aloud their relief. For the tone was the same, gentle, polite one that they remembered hearing that day when the little man had entertained them in his cabin in the woods.

Then Betty, as gently as she knew how, told him a little of what had happened to him, and the girls could see by the surprise on his face that he had no recollection whatever of the matters of which she was speaking.

"I declare it is most strange-- most strange," he declared when she had finished, adding as he looked down and plucked distastefully at his tattered shirt: "And this is the result of my-- er-- temporary aberration, is it? Ah, but I remember," he sat up suddenly, a gleam of fear in his eyes. "It was when I read of the death of my boys. Something snapped in my brain, I think. You say"-- he turned to Betty, grasping her hand imploringly-- "you say that my sons are well-- that they are coming to me?"

"Yes," said Betty soothingly, pressing him back upon the pillow. "They are well and safe and will be with you soon-- in a few days, perhaps."

"Ah," said the little man, submitting to Betty's touch, a happy smile on his lips, "that is good. That is very-- very-- good--" and with a sigh like a tired child's, he fell asleep again!

"Did you hear what he said?" whispered Betty, her eyes shining as she tip-toed from the room, closed the door softly behind her and faced her awed and incredulous chums. "He's well, girls. He's completely sane again."

"It's a miracle," said Mollie breathlessly.

And so it came to pass that some little time later four good-looking young fellows, recently in the service of the greatest country on the earth, and one of them still wearing his regimentals, saw a rather unexpected sight as they swung down the path toward Wild Rose Lodge.

On the porch sat an elderly, contented looking man, clad in garments that would easily have accommodated two men of his size-- garments belonging to Mollie's Uncle John, and seated about him in attitudes of lazy comfort were four young girls.

These young girls who were, at least from the standpoint of the four young men, exceedingly good to look upon, were engaged in doing some sort of fancy work. All but one of them, that is; for the fourth, a girl with wavy brown hair and bright brown eyes, pink cheeks, and a dream of a mouth, was reading to the elderly man who sat in the chair of state.

"Gee, Allen," whispered one of the tall youths to the one who still wore the uniform of his country's service, "I feel as though we were crabbing your act. Can't we fellows do the disappearing act----"

But just at the moment the girl with the brown eyes and the pink cheeks looked up, gave one little startled cry, and dropped the book to the porch.

The other girls looked up and then followed a scene that very nearly made the temporarily forgotten and neglected old man on the porch drop out of his chair in surprise.

"Allen!" screamed the girls, all except the brown-haired, pink-cheeked one, who, for some unaccountable reason hung back behind the others. "You perfect angel!"

"Why didn't you let us know you were coming so that we could have been prepared?"

"Oh, isn't your uniform lovely!"

"And look at the dressed-up leggings!"

These and various other exclamations like them, coupled to the fact that all the girls, except the one that he wanted to most, had kissed him, rather overwhelmed young Lieutenant Washburn and took his breath away.

His three companions, however, finding themselves neglected and out in the cold, interfered at this point and saved his life.

"Betty, what are you hiding away back there for?" cried Mollie to the Little Captain, whose cheeks were pinker than ever and whose eyes were shining very brightly with a sort of mixture of joy and fright. "Don't you know Allen in his uniform?"

"Aren't you going to kiss him?" chimed in Grace wickedly.

"We all did," added Amy.

But Betty had no intention of kissing Allen, although he begged her to with his laughing eyes and she continued backing into the doorway, until Mrs. Irving, coming up behind her, caught her up and pushed her out upon the porch again.

However, the chaperon monopolized Allen for a few minutes and gave Betty time to catch her breath. She found Mollie introducing Professor Dempsey to the astonished boys. These young soldiers wanted to ask a hundred questions, but, catching a warning look from Betty, decided to wait till later, when the little man himself was not present.

Frank, who was perhaps more glad than any of them to see the father of his chums alive and well, settled himself near the man and began to pour into his starved and eager ears news of his sons and tales of adventures in which they had figured.

And while Betty was still smiling in sympathy with the look of absolute happiness on Professor Dempsey's face, Allen dragged himself away from the group of his admirers and came over to her.

Boldly he pulled her hand through his arm and led her past the laughing boys and girls, down the steps, and along the path that led into the woods.

"Be back in time for supper," Will called after them. "Something tells me we are going to have some feed."

"Oh, don't bother them," they heard Mollie's voice in laughing reproof. "Remember, you were young yourself, once!"

"And now," said Allen, when they had gone just far enough for the trees and bushes to screen them from the view of the people on the porch, "I want you to look at me, Betty. You haven't yet, you know."

"I c-can't," said Betty in a muffled voice. "I guess--" she added whimsically, "I guess I'm a little afraid of you, Lieutenant Allen Washburn."

With a glad laugh Allen put his strong young arms about her.

"Do you think you can keep on all your life being afraid of me-- like that?" he asked. "Little Betty?"

And Betty, with the radiant joy of all youth in her heart, slowly nodded.

                               _______

And what glorious days followed! The young folks never tired of their tramps through the woods and walks in the vicinity of Moonlight Falls. They gave themselves up to a good time and had it in full measure.

"Gee, what an improvement over the trenches in France!" remarked Will one day. "No more wars for me!"

"So say we all of us!" sang out Frank.

When they had to return to Deepdale the boys took Professor Dempsey with them and Frank saw to it that the old man was made comfortable until his wounded sons returned to him. Both of the hurt soldiers were recovering, and the reunion of father and sons was most affecting.

"Now for a final swim below the falls!" cried Mollie one day, when the outing was coming to an end,

"We ought to have a good time-- now there is no ghost to disturb us," put in Amy.

"A chocolate for the first one to enter the water!" exclaimed Grace, waving her ever-present candy box in the air.

"That settles it-- I'm off!" burst out Betty; and then all made a wild dash for the swimming pool. And here let us say good-bye to the Outdoor Girls.

THE END