Chapter I. A Grand Surprise
 

"Girls, I've got the grandest surprise for you!"

Betty Nelson crossed the velvety green lawn, and crowded into the hammock, slung between two apple trees, which were laden with green fruit. First she had motioned for Grace Ford to make room for her, and then sank beside her chum with a sigh of relief.

"Oh, it was so warm walking over!" she breathed. "And I did come too fast, I guess." She fanned herself with a filmy handkerchief.

"But the surprise?" Mollie Billette reminded Betty.

"I'm coming to it, my dear, but just let me get my breath. I didn't know I hurried so. Swing, Grace."

With a daintily shod foot-- a foot slender and in keeping with her figure-- Grace gave rather a languid push, and set the hammock to swaying in wider arcs.

Amy Stonington, who had not joined in the talk since the somewhat hurried arrival of Betty, strolled over to the hammock and began peering about in it-- that is, in as much of it as the fluffy skirts of the two occupants would allow to be seen.

"I don't see it," she said in gentle tones-- everything Amy did was gentle, and her disposition was always spoken of as "sweet" by her chums, though why such an inapt word is generally selected to describe what might better be designated as "natural" is beyond comprehension. "I don't see it," murmured Amy.

"What?" asked Grace, quickly.

"I guess she means that box of chocolates," murmured Mollie. "It's no use, Amy, for Grace finished the last of them long before Betty blew in on us-- or should I say drifted? Really, it's too warm to do more than drift to-day."

"You finished the last of the candy yourself!" exclaimed Grace, with spirit. If Grace had one failing, or a weakness, it was for chocolates.

"I did not!" snapped Mollie. Her own failing was an occasional burst of temper. She had French blood in her veins-- and not of French lilac shade, either, as Betty used to say. It was of no uncertain color-- was Mollie's temper-- at times.

"Yes, you did!" insisted Grace. "Don't you remember? It was one with a cherry inside, and we both wanted it, and---- "

"You got it!" declared Mollie. "If you say I took it---- "

"That's right, Grace, you did have it," said gentle Amy. "Don't you recall, you held it in one hand behind your back and told Billy to choose?" Billy was Mollie's "chummy" name.

"That's so," admitted Grace. "And Mollie didn't guess right. I beg your pardon, Mollie. It's so warm, and the prickly heat bothers me so that I can hardly think of anything but that I'm going in and get some talcum powder. I've got some of the loveliest scent-- the Yamma-yamma flower from Japan."

"It sounds nice," murmured Betty. "But, girls---- "

"Excuse me," murmured Grace, making a struggle to arise from the hammock-- never a graceful feat for girl or woman.

"Don't! You'll spill me!" screamed Betty, clutching at the yielding sides of the net. "Grace! There!"

There would have been a "spill" except that Amy caught the swaying hammock and held it until Grace managed, more or less "gracelessly," to get out.

"There's the empty box," she remarked, as it was disclosed where it had lain hidden between herself and Betty. "Not a crumb left, Amy, my dear. But I fancy I have a fresh box in the house, if Will hasn't found them. He's always-- snooping, if you'll pardon my slang."

"I wasn't looking for candy," replied Amy. "It's my handkerchief-- that new lace one; I fancied I left it in the hammock."

"Wait, I'll get up," said Betty. "Don't you dare let go, Amy. I don't see why I'm so foolish as to wear this tight skirt. We didn't bother with such style when we were off on our walking tour."

"Oh, blessed tour!" sighed Mollie. "I wish we could go on another one-- to the North Pole," and she vigorously fanned herself with a magazine cover.

Betty rose, and Amy found what she was looking for. Grace walked slowly over the shaded lawn toward her house, at which the three chums had gathered this beautiful-- if too warm-- July day. Betty, Amy, and Mollie made a simultaneous dive for the hammock, and managed, all three, to squeeze into it, with Betty in the middle.

"Oh, dear!" she cried. "This is too much! Let me out, and you girls can have it to yourselves. Besides, I want to talk, and I can't do it sitting down very well."

"You used to," observed Amy, smoothing out her rather crumpled dress, and making dabs at her warm face with the newly discovered handkerchief.

"The kind of talking I'm going to do now calls for action-- 'business,' as the stage people call it," explained Betty. "I want to walk around and swing my arms. Besides, I can't properly do justice to the subject sitting down. Oh, girls, I've got the grandest surprise for you!" Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks glowed; she seemed electrified with some piece of news.

"That's what you said when you first came," spoke Mollie, "but we seemed to get off the track. Start over, Betty, that's a dear, and tell us all about it. Take that willow chair," and Billy pointed to an artistic green one that harmonized delightfully with the grass, and the gray bark of an apple tree against which it was drawn.

"No, I'm going to stand up," went on Betty. "Anyhow, I don't want to start until Grace comes back. I detest telling a thing over twice."

"If Grace can't find that box of chocolates she'll most likely run down to the store for another," said Amy.

"And that means we won't hear the surprise for ever so long," said Mollie. "Go on, Bet, tell us, and we'll retell it to Grace when she comes. That will get rid of your objection," and Mollie tucked back several locks of her pretty hair that had strayed loose when the vigorous hammock-action took place.

"No, I'd rather tell it to you all together," insisted Betty, with a shake of her head. "It wouldn't be fair to Grace to tell it to you two first. We'll wait."

"I'll go in and ask her to hurry," ventured Amy. She was always willing to do what she could to promote peace, harmony, and general good feeling. If ever anyone wanted anything done, Amy was generally the first to volunteer.

"There's no great hurry," said Betty, "though from the way I rushed over here you might think so. But really, it is the grandest thing! Oh, girls, such a time as may be ahead of us this summer!" and she pretended to hug herself in delight.

"Betty Nelson, you've just got to tell us!" insisted Mollie. "Look out, Amy, I'm going to get up."

Getting up from a hammock-- or doing anything vigorous, for that matter-- was always a serious business with quick Mollie. She generally warned her friends not to "stand too close."

"Never mind, here comes Grace," interrupted Amy. "Do sit still, Mollie; it's too warm to juggle-- or is it jiggle?-- around so."

"Make it wiggle," suggested Betty.

"Do hurry, Grace," called Mollie "We can't hear about the grand surprise until you get here, and we're both just dying to know what it is."

"I couldn't find my chocolates," said Grace, as she strolled gracefully up, making the most of her slender figure. "I just know Will took them. Isn't he horrid!"

"Never mind, did you bring the talcum?" asked Amy. "We can sprinkle it on green apples and pretend it's fruit juice."

"Don't you dare suggest such a thing when my little twins come along, as they're sure to do, sooner or later," spoke Mollie, referring to her brother and sister-- Paul and Dora-- or more often "Dodo," aged four.

They were "regular tykes," whatever that is. Mollie said so, and she ought to know. "If you gave them that idea," she went on, "we'd have them both in the hospital. However, they're not likely to come to-day."

"Why not?" asked Betty, for the twins had a habit of appearing most unexpectedly, and in the most out-of-the-way places.

"They're over at Aunt Kittie's for the day, and I told mamma I shouldn't mind if she kept them a week."

"Oh, the dears!" murmured Amy.

"You wouldn't say so if you saw how they upset my room yesterday. I like a little peace and quietness," exclaimed Mollie. "I love Paul and Dodo, but-- and she shrugged her shoulders effectively, as only the French can.

"Here's the talcum," spoke Grace. "I'm sorry about the chocolates. Wait until I see Will," and she shook an imaginary brother.

"Never mind, dear, it's too hot for candies, anyhow," consoled Betty. "Pass the talcum," and she reached for the box that Mollie was then using. "It has the most delightful odor, Grace. Where did you get it?"

"It's a new sample lot Harrison's pharmacy got in. Mr. Harrison gave me a box to try, and said---- "

"He wanted you to recommend it to your friends, I've no doubt," remarked Mollie.

"He didn't say so, but I haven't any hesitation in doing so. I just love it."

"It is nice," said Amy. "I'm going to get some the next time I go down-town."

The spicy scent of the perfumed talcum powder mingled with the odor of the grass, the trees, and the flowers, over which the bees were humming.

"Come, come, Betty!" exclaimed Mollie, vigorously, when shining noses had been rendered immune from the effects of the sun, "when do we hear that wonderful secret of yours?"

"Right away! Make yourselves comfortable. I'm going to walk about, and get the proper action to go with the words. Now, what did I do with that letter?" and she looked in her belt, up her sleeve, and in the folds of her waist.

"Gracious, I hope I haven't lost it!" she exclaimed, glancing about, anxiously.

"Was it only a letter?" asked Mollie, something of disappointment manifesting itself in her tones.

"Only a letter!" repeated Betty, with proper emphasis. "Well, I like the way you say that! It isn't a common letter, by any means."

"Is it from that queer Mr. Blackford, whose five hundred dollar bill we found when we were on our walking trip?" asked Amy, with strange recollections of that queer occurrence.

"No, it was from my uncle, Amos Marlin, a former sea captain," was the answer "A most quaint and delightful character, as you'll all say when you meet him."

"Then we are going to meet him?" interjected Grace, questioningly.

"Yes, he's coming to pay me a visit."

"Was that the grand surprise?" Amy wanted to know.

"Indeed not. Oh, there's the letter," and Betty caught up a piece of paper from underneath the hammock. "I'll read it to you. It's quite funny, and in it he says he's going to give me the grandest surprise that ever a girl had. It---- "

"But what is the surprise itself?" inquired Mollie.

"Oh, he didn't say exactly," spoke Betty, smoothing out the letter. "But I know, from the way he writes, that it will be quite wonderful. Everything Uncle Amos does is wonderful. He's quite rich, and---- "

"Hark!" exclaimed Amy.

A voice was calling:

"Miss Ford! Miss Ford!"

"Yes, Nellie, what is it?" asked Grace, as she saw a maid coming towards her, beckoning.

"Your brother wants you on the telephone, Miss Ford," answered the maid, "he says it's quite important, and he wants you to please hurry."

"Excuse me," flung back Grace, as she hurried off. "I'll be back in a minute. I hope he's going to confess where he put those chocolates."