Chapter XII. Honor Flags
 

"Yes, yes, this is Betty.--Oh, Allen!--When?--To-morrow morning! Oh, isn't that terribly short notice?--Oh, I can't, I can't believe it!-- Roy and Frank, too?--No, I didn't hear about it--Listen, Allen.--No, I'm not crying.--What's that?--Well, I'm trying not to!--Please listen to me.--Bring the boys around here to-night, will you? I'll get the girls and we'll have a p-party.--No, I'm not crying.-- G-good-bye!"

With a little jerk Betty hung up the receiver, and sat staring out of the window with the tears streaming down her cheeks. She brushed them away impatiently and felt feverishly for her pocket handkerchief.

"Oh, I h-hate the old Kaiser, and I hate the old war, and I h-hate everything!" she wailed, rolling the handkerchief up into a miserable little ball. "Wh-what will we do when the b-boys are gone and we haven't anything to do, but just think of the time they'll be sent over to France to get k-killed? Oh, Betty, don't act so f-foolish," she scolded, putting away the handkerchief with an air of decision. "You know you wouldn't have had them do anything else anyway----

"Oh, there's that old telephone again.

"Yes, hello, Mollie.--Isn't it terrible?--Oh, do come around--and stay for supper.--I--can't bear to be left alone.--Good-bye."

"Well, what are we going to do?"

The four girls had gathered once more on Betty's porch and were regarding each other mournfully.

"Do?" echoed Grace. "Why, we can't do anything, of course, but let them go."

"But it won't seem at all like Deepdale!" mourned Amy.

"Well, the only thing I can see that we can do," sighed Mollie, "is to become Red Cross nurses and go across with them."

"That probably wouldn't do any good, either," objected Betty, "as far as being with the boys is concerned, because we'd probably be sent to another part of the field entirely, and probably wouldn't see them from the beginning of the war to the end of it. No, I guess we'll just have to keep on knitting for them."

"They're going to write to us, anyway," said Mollie. "And we must write to them a good deal, too. They say the boys are just crazy for letters when they're away from home."

"Yes, and sometimes girls and women correspond with boys they never saw and never expect to see," added Amy, "just because they haven't any relatives, and it makes it less lonesome for them."

"I imagine we'll have all we want to do just to keep up our correspondence with the boys we know," said Betty, knitting steadily. "I think it's wonderful the way practically all of Deepdale has volunteered. It makes you proud to live here."

"Yes, and they all seem to be leaving about the same time, too," said Mollie. "Service flags are springing up all over town."

"It's terrible," said Amy, with another sigh. "I can't walk along the street and see those flags in the houses of people we've grown up with, without having a funny lump rise in my throat, and I have to hurry past to keep myself from acting foolishly."

"I guess none of us really knew we were at war until all the boys we know began to be called away," said Grace seriously. "And I know you girls must all think it's strange--" she paused for a moment as if uncertain just how to proceed, and the girls looked at her in surprise.

"I--I'm so worried about Will," Grace continued, not raising her eyes from her knitting. "He hasn't been himself for a month--you girls must have noticed that--and he won't give me any satisfaction at all when I ask him what's the matter. We--he and I--used to be such good friends----" her voice broke and the girls' hearts ached for her, "and now he acts just like a stranger--only asks to be left alone. And he's so moody and queer and silent----" Her voice trailed off and for a long time no one spoke.

The girls were troubled, and they longed to give her sympathy. It was hard to know just what to say, for Will had puzzled them all sorely.

"I wouldn't worry too much, Gracie, dear," said Betty, at last, going over and sitting down beside her friend. "Will has some problem that he's trying to work out all by himself. We know that he's true blue all the way through, and when he's ready to confide in us, he'll do it. Until then, we've just got to trust him, that's all, and help him all we can by our good faith."

Grace's head had dropped on Betty's shoulder and she was crying softly.

"B-Betty, you're such a comfort," she murmured as Betty gently stroked her hair. "That was j-just what I w-wanted you to say. I've been so m-miserable."

That was more than the girls could stand, for they remembered how gallantly Grace had striven to hide her trouble during all these weeks, and they gathered around her, whispering little words of endearment and comfort, till she started to laugh and cry together, calling herself an "old goose" and clinging to them desperately.

It was some time before they grew calm and could speak coherently. Then Amy sighed and said:

"Oh, dear, it's a quarter past six and I promised to be home by six sharp. Now what shall I do?"

"Telephone your brother that you're staying here," said the Little Captain decidedly. "The boys are coming to-night, you know, and you can all help me with the spread. No, you needn't waste time arguing-- you're going to stay."

And when Betty spoke in that tone, no one dared dispute with her.

It was half past eight before the boys came, and the girls were getting so nervous and impatient they could hardly sit still.

"Do you suppose they could have forgotten?" Amy was beginning, when the sound of masculine voices in excited conversation floated to them on the breeze, and she stopped short to listen.

"They're coming," cried Mollie. "There's no mistaking Frank's raucous tones, or Roy's either, for that matter. What do you suppose they're so excited about?"

A few moments later the boys themselves ran up the steps, greeted the girls cheerily, and ranged themselves in various attitudes upon the railing of the porch.

"Say, did you hear the latest news?" asked Roy eagerly, before the greetings were half over. "Another American ship has been sunk by those beastly Huns, and quite a number of passengers are reported missing. Gee, I wish instead of going to a training camp we were going right across. It seems a crime to be wasting time on this side when we might be getting at them."

"Another ship!" cried Betty, while the boys eagerly poured forth the details. "Oh, if I were only a man," she added, clenching her hands as the recital finished, "I'd fight until there wasn't one German left on the face of the earth."

"You just leave that to us," said Frank, his eyes gleaming. "We may not be able to exterminate the whole German nation, but we'll drag the old Kaiser to his knees and make him kiss the Stars and Stripes before we get through. Gee, but I'm aching to get right into the thick of it all!"

"What's this?" asked Betty, as Allen handed her several sheets of paper, rolled together and fastened with a rubber band.

"Music," explained Allen, who had not taken his eyes from her face since he had come upon the porch. "A reporter I know handed them to me. They're all the popular war songs, and I thought perhaps we might run them over tonight"

They went into the living-room, where Betty's treasured grand piano was. Betty played and the others sang until they came to "Keep the Home Fires Burning," when Allen interfered.

"If nobody minds," he said seriously, "I'd like to hear Betty sing that--alone."

And Betty, who knew the song and had always liked it, started to sing. But she did not get far. Something swelled and swelled in her throat and every time she came to the lines:

  "Though our lads are far away
  They think of home--"

tears blinded her eyes, her voice quivered, and she had to stop.

Three times she tried it, then with a little sob, dropped her head on her arm and sat still. The girls ran to her, while the boys turned away to hide their own emotion.

"Never mind, Betty dear," whispered Mollie, wiping a tear from the end of her nose and patting Betty's hand tenderly. "We--we all feel the same way about it."

Betty raised her head and smiled a little April smile upon them.

"I'll always keep the home fires b-burning," she said unsteadily, "but I c-can't sing about it."