Chapter XVIII. The Evening Gun
 

"But wh-what?" stammered Allen, while Mrs. Watson looked on in amazement. "Wh-why didn't you let a fellow know?"

"We wanted to surprise you," said Betty gleefully, noting with pride how splendid he looked in his uniform. "You don't seem at all glad to see us. Mrs. Watson," remembering her manners in the nick of time, "this is a friend of ours from Deepdale--Allen Washburn. He didn't know we were coming."

"So I see," smiled Mrs. Watson, shaking hands warmly with Allen. "I'm very glad to know you, Mr. Washburn, and I hope we shall see you often at the Hostess House."

"It's very good of you," said Allen, still very much in the dark, and totally unable to keep his eyes from Betty's face. "Did you say the Hostess House?"

"Yes. That's what we came down for," said Mollie, who had been quiet just about as long as she could. "To help run it, you know--and everything."

"Especially 'everything,'" drawled Grace.

"Say, that's great!" cried Allen, beginning to see light. "You mean you're going to stay here--maybe for weeks--and see that everybody has a good time--us included? Gee, what luck!"

"I'm glad you think so," said Betty demurely, while Allen wished desperately to have her alone. "What were you in such a hurry about, when you nearly ran into us?" she asked, with interest.

"I was going to look up Frank and Roy, to tell them we'd been granted our five-day furlough. We were going to make a bee line home to Deepdale. Now," he added, eyes still on Betty's averted face, "we won't have to!"

Mrs. Watson smiled sympathetically, and, being an ardent matchmaker, looked forward to having even more of an interesting season than she had expected.

"And it's the greatest luck ever," Alien continued enthusiastically, as they walked slowly across the parade ground, "that we happened to get our furlough just now. What are you girls doing this afternoon?"

"Seeing the sights," said Mollie. "We're taking a half-holiday."

"Gee!" cried Alien, fairly capering in his delight. "This is altogether too good to be true. Wait till I tell the fellows."

"Oh, but we want to surprise them," said Grace, stopping short and looking abused. "When we've come all this distance to do it, it isn't fair for you to have all the fun."

"All right, you stay here then," said Allen, conducting them around the corner of one of the low wooden buildings, which the girls afterward learned was the mess hall. "I'll look up the fellows, and lead the poor unsuspecting----"

"Goodness, you'd think we were going to murder them," broke in Mollie impatiently. "I wish you'd do something and not talk so much."

"Anything to oblige--see you later." Allen saluted smartly and went off briskly in search of the other boys.

Betty's eyes almost unconsciously followed the fine, stalwart figure till it disappeared around the corner of one of the buildings, and Mollie, who had been watching her closely, suddenly put an arm about her in a little impulsive hug.

"He is splendid, dear," she whispered, and once more Betty flushed to the roots of her pretty hair.

They had only a few minutes to wait before Allen came striding back to them, with two other khaki-clad figures. The girls shrank farther back into the shadows of the building. Not until they were almost upon them did the boys catch sight of them. Then Roy and Frank just stood still and gaped, as Allen had done.

"Great jumping jerushaphat!" cried Roy, at last finding his tongue. "If it isn't the very people we wanted most to see in this world. Welcome, little strangers! Oh, gee, but you're welcome!"

Then Frank added some equally incoherent phrases, and for a few moments confusion reigned, while they shook hands over and over again, all talked at once to nobody in particular, and generally enjoyed themselves.

"And the best part of it is," said Roy enthusiastically, "that we can be free to show you girls about the place. And I tell you, it's something to see!"

Before the girls had been half shown about the place, they more than agreed with him. It was wonderfully inspiring, to see those hundreds of boys, with their splendidly trained young bodies and their determined young faces, knowing they were devoting their lives freely and cheerfully to the greatest cause in all history.

The girls peeped into the long, low buildings that were the sleeping quarters of the men, with their cots all in a row and clothes hung neatly along the wall. They saw the guardhouse, where unruly soldiers were confined and forced to a state of reasonableness.

They regarded it with awe, and Amy even backed away from it a little.

"I don't like barred windows," she said. "It always makes me shiver."

"Humph," said Mollie, the irrepressible. "You'd better get used to them, Amy, dear. Some day we'll be feeding the boys peanuts through the bars."

"Gee, isn't she complimentary?" said Roy, as they walked on. "You don't know what models of deportment we've been since we came here."

"Yes," put in Grace sweetly, "they say military training does work miracles!"

"It's too bad you missed guard mount this morning," said Allen, while the rest laughed at Roy's discomfiture. "That's when they change the guard, isn't it?" asked Betty.

"Yes, and they're very formal about it," Allen continued. "It's really very impressive, and the band is a joy forever. You must get up bright and early in the morning."

"As if we didn't always," said Betty indignantly.

"Oh, listen to the music," cried Amy, her head on one side like a bird. "Isn't it great? I simply can't keep my feet still."

"It's over at the other end of the parade," said Frank, taking Grace's arm and leading her in the direction of the stirring strains. "Every nice afternoon they have a concert from three to four. It's mighty fine, too."

"Oh, I'm so glad I came," cried Betty, to whom music was like the wine of life.

"So am I," said Allen, drawing her away from the party and speaking softly. "I've seen your face so often in my dreams, Betty, that when you suddenly appeared before me I thought for a minute it was just another of them--more real and vivid, but still a dream. And you are a dream, Betty, the most wonderful dream in all the world!"

"Hush, Allen," she begged, though her heart was beating suffocatingly and she hardly dared to look at him. "Everybody is staring at us."

"At you, you mean." Allen looked about fiercely at his comrades, who indeed seemed very much attracted by his pretty companion. "I see where I'll have to lick the whole camp."

Betty's laugh rippled out merrily, and Allen looked more belligerent than ever.

"Don't think I could do it, I suppose," he was beginning, when they came suddenly upon the other members of the party, who were waiting for them.

"Betty, isn't it wonderful?" cried Mollie, lips parted, eyes shining as she slipped an arm through Betty's. "Now I want more than ever to be a soldier."

They enjoyed every minute of that hour's concert, and then felt abused because they could not have more. After that they visited the Y. M. C. A. hut, saw the officers' quarters from the outside, and otherwise amused themselves till the boys declared there was nothing more to be seen.

Then, just as the sun was sinking, the clear notes of the bugle broke in upon the evening stillness, and the girls glanced inquiringly at their escorts.

"That's retreat," Alien explained. "If you stand here, you can watch it at close quarters. Here come all the fellows. They have to stand at parade rest, left knee bent, weight on the right foot, guns held in front of them, till the old gun goes off."

"Gun?" Amy repeated questioningly, while the girls watched the ceremony with beating hearts.

"Yes. At reveille the morning gun goes off; and at retreat, the evening," Alien explained. "When you hear the gun to-night, just click your heels and stand at attention like all the rest of us."

Boom! The girls jumped but retained presence of mind enough to stand at attention as Allen had cautioned them. The boys were standing stiff and straight as ramrods, hands at salute, their young faces grave and tense.

The band played the "Star-Spangled Banner," and never had it thrilled the girls as it thrilled them now. It brought tears to their eyes, yet they wanted to shout with pride and patriotism. Their star- spangled banner, oh, long might it wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

"Allen, Allen!" cried Betty when it was all over and they had turned away, "I'm proud, so proud, just to be--an American!"