Chapter I. "I've Volunteered!"
 

"Well, who is going to read the paper?"

Amy Blackford stopped knitting for a moment, the half-finished sweater suspended inquiringly in the air, while she asked her question and gazed about impatiently at her busy group of friends.

"It's your turn, anyhow, Mollie," she added, fingers flying and head bent as she resumed her work. "You haven't read to us for five days."

"Oh, don't bother me," snapped the one addressed as Mollie. She was black-haired and black-eyed, was Mollie Billette, with a little touch of French blood in her veins that accounted for her restless vivacity and sometimes peppery temper. "You've made me drop a stitch, Amy Blackford, and if anybody else speaks to me for the next five minutes, I'll eat 'em."

"Well, as long as you don't eat any more of my chocolates, I don't care," remarked Grace Ford, lazily helping herself to one of the threatened candies. "I had a full box this morning, and now look at them."

"Haven't time to look at anything," returned Mollie crossly, fishing in vain for the lost stitch. "If the poor soldiers depended upon the sweaters you made, Grace, I'd feel sorry for them, I would indeed!"

"Oh, dear, girls, now what's the matter?"

Framed in the doorway of the cottage stood Betty Nelson, their adored "Little Captain," fresh and sweet as the morning itself, smiling around at them inquiringly.

"What is the matter?" she repeated as they moved up to make room for her on the veranda steps. "I'm more afraid than ever to leave you alone these days when every dropped stitch means a quarrel. Give it to me, Mollie, I'll pick it up for you."

With a sigh, Mollie relinquished the tiresome sweater and Betty went to work at it with a skill born of long practice.

"There you are," she announced triumphantly, after an interval during which the girls had watched with eager eyes and bated breath. "That was a mean one. Thought it was going to make me rip out the whole row--but I showed it! Now, please, don't anybody drop any more. I must finish that pair of socks to-day."

"Oh, dear," sighed Amy resignedly. "Then our last hope is gone."

"Goodness, that sounds doleful," chuckled Betty, stretching her arms above her head and reveling in the brilliant sunshine. "What particular thing seems to be the matter now, Amy? Has Will been misbehaving?"

Amy flushed vividly and bent closer over her work.

"How could he be when he's been in town for over a week?" she retorted with unusual spirit "It's just that nobody will read the paper, and I'm just dying to hear the news. I want to keep up with the times."

"Well, if that's all," said the Little Captain, sitting up with alacrity, "I'm always willing to oblige. Mollie, you're sitting on it!"

"Knit one, purl two," chanted Mollie. "Wait till I get this needle off and I'll give it to you. I can't stop now!"

"All right, then I'm going to get my knitting."

Betty made as though to rise but Amy held her down and turned despairingly to Mollie.

"Mollie," she pleaded, "be reasonable. You know very well that if Betty ever gets started with her knitting then nobody'll read the news."

"Knit one, purl two, knit one, purl two," sang Mollie imperturbably. "There, now, isn't that beautiful?"

She sprang from the seat and whirled around upon them, holding up the almost-finished sweater for their inspection.

"Isn't it beautiful?" she repeated enthusiastically.

"Of course," said Grace, dryly, while Betty deftly grabbed the paper. "It's the most beautiful and most curious thing I ever laid eyes on. It isn't as though," she added, with biting sarcasm, "I had seen hundreds just like it within the last month or two--"

"Oh, you can't make me mad," said Mollie, settling down with energy to the final finishing. "You're just jealous, that's all, and the more you turn up your nose, the more you show your real feelings."

"Oh, is that so?" retorted Grace, reaching out for the candy box for the twentieth time that morning. "Well, as my kind of nose has never, under any circumstances whatsoever, been known to turn up--"

"Oh, do stop chattering," Mollie interrupted heartlessly. "Who cares what kind of noses we've got? Go ahead, Betty, you'd better get started before Grace gets to quarreling on the subject of eyelashes or something."

"I never quarreled with my eyelashes," said Grace haughtily. "I leave that to other people."

"My, isn't she conceited!" chuckled Betty. "Now I'm going to read," she added, letting her eyes rest upon the glaring headlines of the first page. "If you want to listen, all right; and if you want to talk about sweaters and eyelashes--"

"Oh, Betty, do go on," sighed Amy. "We've been waiting so long."

"All right," said Betty obligingly; then, as the full sense of what she read was borne in upon her, her face clouded and she bit her lip and shook her head.

"Girls," she began, and something in her tone made them drop their knitting for a moment and gather anxiously about her. "Those, those-- Germans--"

"Huns, you mean," interrupted Mollie fiercely, as she read over the Little Captain's shoulder.

"Have sunk another of our ships," said Betty, her lips set in a straight line. "And--and they think the loss will be heavy. Oh, girls, I can't read it--it's too horrible!"

She flung down the paper, but Mollie snatched it almost before it reached the step. Then with eyebrows drawn together, and twin spots of red flaming in either cheek, she read the account of the disaster from beginning to end.

"There," she said at last, flinging down the paper and glaring about her as though the girls themselves were at fault. "Now you see what we're knitting sweaters for, and--and--everything! Oh, if I could just put on a uniform, and take up a gun and--and--go after those-- those awful Huns!"

"Goodness, if you looked like that," commented Grace, "you wouldn't have to fire a shot. They'd all drop dead just from fright."

"So much the better," said Mollie, beginning to knit again ferociously. "It would be a shame to waste good ammunition on them."

"I wonder," said Betty thoughtfully, her eyes on the far-off horizon, "what the boys are going to do. They've seemed so mysterious lately, and the minute you begin to question them about enlisting, they change the subject."

"Yes, and it's made me desperate," cried Mollie, the tempestuous, flinging down the unfortunate sweater once more. "I know what I'd do if I were a man, and Betty and all the rest of us girls! But either they didn't know or they wouldn't tell. Do you suppose--"

"They've decided to wait for the draft?" finished Grace, settling her cushions more comfortably. "That's a funny thing to say, Mollie-- about our boys."

"I know," said Mollie, knitting more furiously than ever. "But just the same, I can't understand why they have been so terribly secretive about it."

"I guess we needn't worry about that," said Betty, although there was a little worried line between her brows that belied her words. "Allen wouldn't--" here she stammered, stopped and flushed, while the girls turned laughing eyes upon her.

"Of course," she added hastily, "I mean that none of the boys would hesitate, when it's a question of serving his country."

"That's all right, but you said Allen," teased Mollie, unconvinced. "And oh, Betty, how you blushed!"

"Nonsense!" returned Betty, blushing more than ever. "It's just sunburn, that's all. Now do you want me to read the rest of the news, or don't you? Because I have to finish those socks--"

"Yes, yes, go on," cried Amy. "We won't say another word, Betty." Which was funny, coming from quiet Amy, who usually spoke one word to the other girls' ten.

So Betty read the news from one end of the paper to the other, until even those insatiable young people were content, then ran into the cottage to get her knitting.

"Now," she said, returning and seating herself with businesslike alertness on the very edge of the step, "you'll see some real speed."

"Oh, Betty, have you come to the heel?" cried Mollie, running over to the Little Captain, and regarding the flying needles with a sort of awe. "Please show me how. They say the Red Cross needs socks for the boys more than they need anything else. And I know I'll never learn to do them."

"Oh, it's easy," returned Betty, obligingly slowing down for their benefit, while they gathered about her, eager and bright-eyed, for the lesson.

They formed a pretty picture, this group of outdoor girls, with the morning sunlight falling upon graceful figures and bent heads, ardent little patriots, every one of them, whole-heartedly eager to give their all for the service of their country.

They were still engrossed in watching Betty's nimble fingers, when the shrill and familiar whistle of the little ferryboat caught their attention.

"Oh, I didn't know it was time," Amy was beginning, when Mollie interrupted her.

"It's stopping here," she cried. "And somebody's getting off."

"It's the boys!" cried Betty, springing to her feet, the bright color again flooding her face. "They never told us they'd be back to-day. There's Allen. Oh, tell me, what is it he is shouting?"

The little ferryboat had steamed away, and four figures were racing toward them.

"Betty," yelled the foremost of these. "I've volunteered--I've volunteered!"