Chapter XIX. Flames
 

For the girls during the happy, work-filled, pleasure-filled days that followed, only one cloud darkened the horizon. That was the continued strange behavior of Will Ford.

About a week after their arrival, Grace had received a letter from him, saying that he was coming on for an indefinite stay. Betty found her friend with the letter clenched tight in one hand, while the other crushed a handkerchief into a hard little ball.

"Why, Grace, what is the matter?" Betty sat down beside her and slipped a sympathetic arm about her shoulders. "Tell me, have you had bad news?"

"No, I suppose you couldn't exactly call it that," said Grace wearily, folding up the letter and replacing it carefully in its envelope. "As a rule I'd think it was mighty good news. Will is coming to Camp Liberty."

"Oh, has he enlisted, after all?" cried Betty impulsively, and the next minute could have bitten her tongue out for her thoughtlessness.

The tears had risen to Grace's eyes and she had turned away.

"No," she said, very softly. "He hasn't enlisted."

Betty's brow puckered in bewilderment.

"Did he say why he was coming on?" she asked, not knowing just what to say.

"He said he was coming on business," Grace replied listlessly, then added, with a sudden fierce outburst of emotion: "I wish he'd stay in Deep-dale. I wish, if he can't be honorable and live up to his ideals like the other boys, he wouldn't come where they are. If he is my brother, I'm ashamed----"

"Hush, Grace, hush," cried Betty soothingly, putting a firm hand over her friend's mouth. "You're all excited and worked up now or you wouldn't say such things. Didn't I tell you before that Will has his reasons? Are you going to let a friend have more faith in him than his own sister?"

"Betty Nelson," Grace began angrily, then broke down and began to sob weakly. "I can't help it," she said, as Betty tried to comfort her. "I've always loved Will so, and been so proud of him. He's been such a good brother, too! I simply can't understand it!"

"Never mind," went on Betty soothingly, trying desperately to think of something really comforting to say. "Maybe after Will gets here he'll explain things. Till then, as my mother says, we'll just be 'canty wi' thinkin' aboot it.'"

But when the conversation was reported to the other girls, it troubled them a good deal, and they longed to solve the mystery. And when Will came he refused to be of any help whatever, keeping almost entirely to himself, and answering questions put to him vaguely, if at all. His actions became more and more mysterious, and it was absolutely impossible to make him out.

"Just leave him alone," was Allen's advice, and the girls were reluctantly obliged to follow it.

"But I wish I knew!" sighed Betty.

"Yes," was all Allen answered.

Then something happened that for a time drove the mystery from their minds. It was after a particularly long and hard day, when the girls had been entertaining at the Hostess House all morning and part of the afternoon.

Then about three or four o'clock in the afternoon, they had gone downtown to do some very necessary shopping, and had been unable to get back to dinner till seven o'clock; and that evening the boys had arranged to take them to the theater.

By the time it was all over, and the boys had left them at the Hostess House, they were very, very tired and very, very happy.

"I never felt so sleepy in my life," said Grace, sitting down on the edge of the bed and stretching her arms above her head. "And yet we've had such a good time. If somebody doesn't give me another chocolate I won't be able to stay awake long enough to get undressed. Thanks, Amy, you always were a friend of mine."

"Well, I never laughed so much in my life," declared Mollie, pulling off her slipper and wiggling her toes contentedly. "I think it's perfectly wonderful to go out with the boys in uniform. They look so splendid and we feel so very important."

"Goodness, don't you think they feel important, too?" yawned Grace. "I know that Teddy Challenger does."

Teddy Challenger was a new-made friend of the boys, whom Allen had brought along for Amy, Will having refused to make one of the party on the plea of having important business to attend to.

"Oh, I don't know," said Betty, thoughtfully running the comb through her hair. "He seems like a mighty nice fellow to me and the boys all like him."

"Well, Allen won't, if Teddy doesn't mind his P's and Q's," said Mollie, with a wickedly significant glance at Betty, which caused that young person to flush prettily.

"I don't even know what you mean," she announced demurely, and they all laughed at her.

"I wish you people would stop talking," Grace broke in plaintively. "I've simply got to get some sleep!"

And they slept the hearty sleep of tired girlhood till about four o'clock in the morning. Then Amy, in the room next to Betty and Mollie, rubbed her eyes, coughed a little, then sat up with a cry of alarm.

Smoke was curling thickly in around the crack in the door and the air was hot and suffocating. Somewhere the sound of crackling, snapping wood, the lurid flare of flames----

"Fire! fire!" she gasped, struggling to her feet and feeling blindly for her clothes. "Grace, Grace, wake up! Grace----" her voice rose to a scream as she saw that Grace was sleeping on.

"Oh, please, please wake up," she moaned, seizing Grace by the shoulders and shaking her wildly. "You must, you must! Grace, the house is on fire!"

Slowly the heavy eyelids opened, then Grace struggled to a sitting posture, supported by Amy's quivering arm, and gazed wildly about her. Then she sprang to her feet, swaying dizzily, and with Amy's arm still about her, they felt blindly for the door.

They found the knob at last and, after a nightmare moment when the flames roared louder, and the smoke clutched viciously at their throats, flung the door open and staggered into the hall.

A blast of heat and smoke sent them reeling back into the room. Amy closed the door with a little moan.

"The other stairs!" gasped Grace, fairly dragging her friend forward. "Maybe--it hasn't reached--them--yet----"

"There's--Mollie and--Betty," cried Amy, clutching at her throat and coughing spasmodically. In the frantic terror of the moment they had forgotten everything but their own great danger.

"We must--get--them--out!" gasped Grace, rushing into their chums' room and frantically shaking Betty, while Amy vainly tried to waken Mollie. The girls still slept on in the semblance of ordinary, healthy slumber.

"What can we do?" cried Amy hysterically. "We can't leave them here, and we can't----"

"Come on! We've got to--get some--help!" Grace fumbled for the knob and finally succeeded in getting the door opened.

As they had hoped, the stairway at the rear of the house was still intact, although the smoke was so dense they had to feel every inch of the way.

Oh, the nightmare of it! Long years afterward the girls would live it over again in their dreams, and wake up drenched in perspiration, quivering and shaking with terror.

When they finally reached the outer air they were smoke begrimed, wild-eyed and the tears were rolling down their faces unnoticed and unchecked.

The fire, which had started inside, and had gained a good foothold before any trace of it could be seen from the outside, had been discovered by one of the guards, who had immediately sent in an alarm. Already the shriek of the fire engine could be heard, soldiers were being hurried out from the barracks to help in the rescue work, and all was noise and confusion.

A group of women who had escaped from the house before the girls, and who stood huddled together in a terrified group, rushed forward at sight of them, and gathered about them eagerly.

But Grace was not to be detained. She pushed ruthlessly past the women, and ran to intercept a group of firemen who were rushing down upon them.

"Two girls," she gasped, catching one of them by the arm and holding on desperately. "At the head of the stairs--unconscious--get them----"

And then Grace, who had done her gallant best, tumbled down in a little heap, having fainted.