Chapter X. Magic Lanterns
 

Two weeks of constant hustle, excitement and preparation passed by until at last came--the big night!

It was seven o'clock and Betty had started to dress. Mechanically, with fingers that shook a little from excitement, she went through the early stages of the process, until it was time to slip into the pretty filmy lace dress she was to wear for the first part of the evening.

Then her eyes met the reflected ones in the mirror, and she stopped short, wondering "if this were really I." She was very sure that that very pretty girl in the mirror, with the flushed cheeks and brilliant eyes, could never be the Betty Nelson she had grown up with--it could not be! And yet she thrilled with a strange new happiness. It was so good to be pretty.

Then she drew a deep breath, and turned away with a little rippling laugh at herself.

"Betty Nelson," she scolded, slipping the pretty dress over her head, and keeping her eyes severely away from the mirror, "you'll be getting conceited next; and if there's anything I hate, it's a conceited person."

At a quarter of eight there came a ring at the door bell, and Betty's heart missed a beat. It proved to be only Allen, however--but, strange as it may seem, that fact did not seem to improve the behavior of her heart in the least.

As for Allen, he simply stood and stared, as a transformed Betty ran down the stairs toward him.

"Oh, Allen, I'm so glad it was only you," she said, holding out her hands to him--which he seemed by no means reluctant to take. "I was so hoping you'd get here before the rest. There are one or two things I want to talk over with you."

"Betty," he whispered, his voice sounding strange, even to himself, "you're so pretty, I can't think of anything else, or look at anything else, while you're around. I always did have trouble that way, but to-night----"

"I--I'm--just the same to-night as I always am," she stammered, not daring to look at him. "Allen, dear--I----"

"What did you call me?" he shouted, turning her about so she had to look at him. "Betty, Betty, say it again. I, oh, I--"

"I--I didn't mean it," gasped Betty, joyfully afraid, wanting to run away, yet wanting desperately not to. "I don't know what made me----"

"Don't you?" he cried, that same wild thrill in his voice. "Then I'll tell you, Betty. You said it because----"

"Good evening, Allen." It was Mrs. Nelson's voice as she came unsuspectingly upon them from the dining-room. "I didn't even know you were here. Betty and I were hoping you would get here early. The footlights don't work just as they should----" and Allen's golden hour was gone, for the moment, at least.

He gazed pleadingly toward Betty, but she had put an arm about her mother--Allen noticed with joy that it trembled a little--and was leading the way toward the rear of the house, and out upon the lawn, where the big tent had been erected.

It took Allen, who, besides being a very able and rising young lawyer, was also something of an electrician, about two minutes to find the flaw in the wiring and remedy it. Soon after that the first guests began to arrive.

The rest of the evening was one brilliant panorama, that the girls never forgot. Until nine o'clock, the time set for the concert and sketch in the big tent, the guests, about two hundred in number, wandered happily about the lawn, watching "Denton's trained animals," which consisted of a little French poodle, an aristocratic yellow cat, and a gifted parrot, with an immense and varied vocabulary, perform.

The animals were the undisputed property of this young Denton, who had grown up in Deepdale, and who, being a lover of animals, had untiringly trained his pets, until their fame had spread all over the town. He had a booth all to himself, and was having more fun than the spectators--and that was saying a good deal, judging from the merry laughter and jests issuing from the tent.

There were several other attractions, the favorite, after "Denton's trained animals," being the fortune-telling booth. This was presided over by Jessie Johnson--one of the jolliest and wittiest of the Deepdale girls. She was made up to resemble an old crone, and her fortune-telling kept her victims in gales of laughter.

"Isn't it great?" cried Mollie, hugging Betty rapturously, as they met behind the scenes in the big tent about nine o'clock. "I knew it would be a success, but this is better even than I expected."

"Mollie," returned Betty, and there was a strange new thrill in her voice, that made her friend look at her quickly, "I'm happy, happy, happy! I thought I knew what it was to be happy before, but I never did. I just feel like shouting aloud and hugging everybody I see. Oh, I never dreamed we'd make such a success of it!"

"It isn't over yet, though," said Mollie, beginning to feel a little panicky. "We've got to speak our little piece yet, and I never did feel quite sure of that last line."

"Oh, goodness, don't begin to worry now," cried Betty. "Our last rehearsal was perfect, and we've never fallen down in anything we've tried to do yet."

"Well, there has to be a beginning to everything, hasn't there?" argued Mollie pessimistically. "I'm perfectly sure I'm going to forget that last line. I feel it coming on."

"Well, then you deserve to lose it," said Betty, knowing very well how best to handle Mollie. "You'll do just whatever you think you're going to do, and if you think you're going to fail, you'll fail!"

"I'm not going to fail any more than you are, Betty Nelson," cried Mollie, her eyes blazing. "I've never seen anything yet I couldn't do as well as you."

"Goodness, what's this?" cried gentle Amy, aghast, coming upon the two suddenly. "You're not quarreling, are you?"

"What did it sound like--talk about the weather?" asked Mollie sarcastically. "You just wait and see what I'll do, Betty Nelson!" and she marched out with her nose in the air.

"Oh, dear," sighed Amy; "and I thought everything was going so beautifully."

"It is," chuckled Betty, and hustled the bewildered Amy out another door of the tent.

Then came Allen, dressed as a herald of olden times, and blew in golden notes, a message to the people scattered about the lawn, that the real attraction of the evening was about to begin.

The girls had worried a little for fear the big tent would not be able to accommodate all the guests, so great had been their response to the call of patriotism, but it was found to their intense relief that, although a few had to stand at the back, all could be admitted.

The first part of the program consisted of music, recitations and some very cleverly arranged tableaux. Everything was remarkably good, as the hearty applause testified, and behind the scenes everywhere, was jubilation.

"Now if we only do as well," said Grace, as the improvised curtain dropped, signaling the intermission, "we'll not have anything to worry about."

"We will," said Betty confidently. "Jean, you did wonderfully," she added, to the girl who had been the elocutionist of the evening. "I thought it was wonderful at the last rehearsal, but you outdid yourself to-night. And you, too, Larry. Oh, it's such a success!"

They fairly danced with impatience during the intermission, and were ready with their costumes and stage settings before the ten minutes was up.

"Oh, I'm so frightened, I can hardly stand up," chattered Amy as she and Betty stood together, waiting for the endless last minute to drag past. "Betty, if this is stage fright, it's a lot worse than I thought. I can't think of a line I have to say."

"Well, you'd better not keep that up too long," returned Betty grimly. "It might be serious. There, that's Allen's cue."

Local talent had even produced an orchestra for the sketch, and although once in a while, the cornetist forgot to toot, or the first violin became excited and left the rest of his flock behind to follow him as best it might, still the music was pretty good and added considerably to the general effect.

And the play was the crowning glory of the evening! The stage fright which had threatened to overwhelm the actors, magically disappeared when they found themselves put upon their mettle, and they frolicked through the play, with an ease and naive enjoyment that delighted their audience and brought storms of applause.

The play was called, "A Day in Court." It was a professional production which had been almost completely rewritten by Allen and Betty. The judge was a woman, and the various characters brought before her, were all more or less funny. One character had originally been a German servant girl, suing her mistress for wages, but this character, on account of the war, was changed to Irish, and was impersonated by Amy with marked success.

Betty was the woman judge, and the way she laid down the law was most marvelous, and brought forth many peals of laughter.

Will, in a most ridiculous costume, performed the offices of court clerk.

Mollie impersonated a French flower girl, who had failed to receive pay for bouquets sold to a local dude, a part played by Roy Anderson, and it developed during the court scene, that the dude was engaged to two girls at once, impersonated by Grace and another girl.

There was an irate uncle of one of the girls, none other than Frank Haley, and Alien as the brother of the other girl, who also demanded satisfaction, and the mix-up in the courtroom was most realistic.

"About the funniest thing I ever saw in my life," was Mr. Nelson's comment.

"They are certainly doing remarkably well," answered Mrs. Billette, who chanced to sit near by.

"If those youngsters keep on doing as well as that, they'll all want to go on the professional stage," remarked Mr. Ford.

All during the ice cream and cake part of the entertainment the young performers were fêted and congratulated, till they began, as Roy expressed it, "to feel themselves some punkins."

It was late before the last guest had departed, still laughingly bandying jests back and forth, and the Little Captain and the group of her particular chums and followers were left alone.' Then--

"I wish it were beginning all over again," said Amy, leaning her head against a pillar of the porch and gazing dreamily up at the stars. "I never had such a good time in my life."

"It seems to me I'm always saying that," sighed Betty, sinking into the hammock, and laughing up at Alien, as he stood before her. "It's wonderful when life is just a succession of good times."

"Betty," he answered, sitting down beside her, and finding her hand under cover of the darkness, "that's my one ambition--to make life for you just a 'succession of good times.'"

"But I guess that never happens to anybody," she said, trying to speak lightly. "And I don't know that just having good times is a very big ambition. No--I--didn't mean that, Allen," she added quickly, seeing she had hurt him. "You've always been altogether too good to me. I--I guess I don't deserve it."

"There's nothing half good enough for you," said Allen fervently. "Betty," he added, after a slight pause, "I--I may have to go away pretty soon, and before I go I want you to know----"

"Say, Allen, are you going home like a respectable citizen, or shall we have to use force?" It was Roy who accosted him, and Allen muttered something under his breath.

"I'm going home when I get good and ready," he was beginning, when Betty herself jumped to her feet and held out a hand to him.

"It is getting late," she said, "and we're all going to meet to-morrow, anyway, so we won't even say good-bye. Au revoir, everybody. It's been such a night!"

As she stood on the porch waving her hand to them, Allen hesitated a moment, started forward, then ran back again.

"There will come a night," he whispered, close in her ear, "when you won't get rid of me so easily."

And Betty, left alone, smiled a new smile at the stars.