Chapter XV. More Surprises
 

The next few weeks were filled with such excitement, that the girls even forgot to miss the boys. In the letters they received from the latter--and they were many--they never failed to find comments upon this strange fact. The boys seemed to feel a little aggrieved that the girls did not weep a few more tears in the absence of their devoted swains.

"Of course I want you to be happy, Betty," Allen had written once upon this theme, "but I'd like to feel that you missed me, a little anyway. It makes a fellow feel as though it wouldn't make any difference if he disappeared off the face of the earth. If you missed me one-tenth as much as I miss you--" etc., etc., until Betty's laugh bubbled over and she patted the letter consolingly.

"Never mind, Allen, dear," she said, putting the letter away carefully in the rapidly increasing pile, tied with the blue ribbon. "If you only knew what I know, you wouldn't have time to miss me so much either. But I am glad," she added, all to herself, flushed of face and shy-eyed, "oh, so very glad, Allen, to have you miss me!"

So the days went on, drawing rapidly nearer to the date of their departure, while the excitement and good spirits of the girls rose proportionately.

About a week before the great day, they gave another of the affairs which had grown so rapidly in popularity. This time it was to raise funds for the Hostess House, and the girls gave heart and soul and all their time to make it a success.

They were to have some very elaborate tableaux with dancing afterward, and all Deepdale was on tiptoe with anticipation long before the night arrived. And how they all enjoyed it!

It spoke well for the patriotism of the young men of Deepdale that there were very few within the age of enlistment, who had not already gone to the various training camps, scattered all over the country. So there were very few at the dance, giving, as Betty's father jokingly said, a chance for the "young old men" to show their accomplishments.

And the "young old men," did so well that there had never, in all the history of Deepdale, been a merrier party. Being an age when everybody danced, up to the grandfathers of ninety, the girls had no lack of partners, and were oftentimes amazed at the skill and dexterity and lightness shown by men who were old enough to be their fathers twice over.

Of course some of them were stiff and a little "creaky in the joints," but this only added to the general hilarity, and at one o'clock the fun was still fast and furious.

"Oh, I never had such a good time," cried Mollie, sinking down beside Betty on one of the roughly improvised benches, weak from laughing. "I was just dancing with old Doctor Riley, and he kept me in stitches. Half the time he had almost to carry me around, I was laughing so."

Betty nodded and dimpled bewitchingly as Mr. Bailey, father of ten children, gallantly asked for the next dance.

"You're taking a chance, Miss Betty," he said, the corners of his eyes crinkling into a million wrinkles as he laughed down at her. "I used to be considered a fairly good dancer in the old days, but I haven't danced in the last ten years. I watched the young folks so much, though, I thought I'd take a chance if you were willing. If I step on your toes too much we can go over and get some ice cream and cake."

"You're doing wonderfully," said Betty heartily, amazed to find how much she was really enjoying the dance. "I'm going to write to the boys, and say we don't need them any more," she added whimsically. "I'll tell them we're just beginning to appreciate their fathers!"

When it was over, their proceeds amounted to over a hundred dollars; and that was not counting an uproarious good time, that none of the young or middle-aged folk of Deepdale would ever stop talking about.

Then at last came the dawning of the great day--the day the girls had looked forward to for weeks. They woke with a strange, thrilly sensation running up and down their spines, and hearts that refused to beat normally.

In four separate houses, four separate girls dressed with trembling fingers and eyes on the clock; and four separate girls kept saying over and over again: "What will they say? What will they say?"

They met at Mollie's as usual--a tense-faced, excited little group-- with parents and relatives who were going to the train to see them off.

"Have we plenty of time?" asked Amy, who for two days and nights had lived in the fear of losing that train. "I guess maybe we'd better hurry."

"Oh, there is oceans of time," Mrs. Ross assured them, who seemed, for some unaccountable reason, bent on delaying them. "The train isn't due for ten minutes yet, and then it's more than likely to be late. Besides, there are a few last words I'd like to say to you girls that can be said better here than on the station platform."

Then she started to give them some minute instructions, to which they tried hard to listen respectfully, although the mere effort to sit still was torture, and Mollie afterward said she "wanted to scream."

However, the harangue lasted at the most, two minutes--although it seemed to the girls two ages--and they were at last on their way to the station. It was not till they turned the corner that brought the familiar platform in view, that they received their first surprise.

The station was fairly thronged with people!

"Wh-what is it?" stammered Betty, rubbing her eyes to make sure she was not dreaming.

"Is everybody in Deepdale going away?" added Mollie, her eyes big with wonder.

"I've never seen so many people at the station at one time," added Grace, bewildered.

"Do you know what it is, Mrs. Ross?" asked Amy.

But Mrs. Ross made no answer--she did not have to. The crowd at the station caught sight of the four girls, and a great shout went up.

"Hurray," cried a masculine voice. "Hurray for the Outdoor Girls. Give 'em three cheers and a tiger."

The girls stood still, amazed, bewildered, until suddenly, out of a maze of tangled thoughts, light dawned.

"They're cheering us, Mollie," whispered Betty, squeezing Mollie's hand until it hurt--at least it would have if Mollie had noticed it. "All these people have turned out early just to see us off."

"I--I'm afraid I'm going to cry," said Mollie unsteadily.

When the shouts had died down, Doctor Riley made a speech full of true Irish wit and humor, and pathos, too, telling the girls how deeply Deepdale had appreciated the active and patriotic work they had done for their country in the time of its bitterest need and how very sorry they all were to see them go.

He went on to tell something of what the country was doing and had done, cracking a few jokes based on camp life, that almost sent the girls into hysterics--so finely balanced were they between laughter and tears. Then he ended with another eulogy of the Outdoor Girls and the hope that health and good fortune would follow them wherever they went.

He stepped down from the box on which he had been making his address just as the sharp toot of the whistle gave warning of the train's approach. Some one handed him four little corsage bouquets of carnations, which he handed in turn to each one of the tremulous girls, with an appropriate little speech to each.

With a grinding of breaks the train came to a standstill, and the crowd gave way to let them pass. Clutching the little bouquets tight and hoping desperately that they would not cry, the girls started for the train.

At the bottom of the steps Betty turned and faced them.

"You dear people," she began, but choked and had to try again. "I-- we--want to thank you----" Then, as two tears forced their way through and rolled unchecked down her face, she turned and ran up the car steps.

"All we can say," she added, smiling unsteadily down at them as the train began to move, "is, just that we--we--love you all!"