Chapter XXIII. Just Friends
 

"Here comes the sun," cried Betty, "the sun, the sun, the beautiful sun."

"Well, I should say it was just about time," said Grace, carefully arranging her hat before the mirror. "If it hadn't cleared up pretty soon, I'd have stopped hoping. Are the other girls nearly ready?"

"Oh, we've been ready and waiting for hours," came Mollie's voice, slightly bored, from the other room. "And we took our time, too, because we knew how long you are getting dressed----"

"Oh, is that so?" Grace was beginning, when Betty interrupted peaceably.

"Well, we're all ready now. In the words of the army--'let's go.'"

"Oh, it is lovely out!" cried Mollie, drawing in deep breaths of the invigorating air, as they stood on the steps looking down the street. "I feel like walking miles and miles and miles."

As the four girls walked down to the main gate of the cantonment, they nodded and smiled continually to the khaki-clad, respectfully- saluting boys they passed; for the fame of the girls at the Hostess House had spread all over the barracks, and the boys always looked forward to catching a smile or two or a merry word as they passed.

Many there were who had been sentimentally inclined, but the Deepdale boys had well nigh monopolized the girls from their home town and by their actions had warned off all would-be intruders almost as plainly as though they had put out a sign.

There were some hardy souls, however, who refused to recognize any prior claim, and these had caused much grumbling among the Deepdale boys.

"I wonder what will happen when we have to go across," Frank had said once. "I suppose then those chaps will think they have it all their own way."

And the bright faces of the girls had clouded so suddenly and they had looked so distressed that poor Frank never dared repeat the offense.

But stopping every few minutes to speak to some one you know, necessarily makes progress slow, and it was some time before the girls succeeded in reaching the gate and turning their steps toward the country.

"It doesn't seem possible that Thanksgiving can be so near," said Amy thoughtfully. "I never knew time to run away so."

"Yes, it makes me feel dizzy sometimes," said Mollie, with a little perplexed frown. "I feel as if I wanted to get hold of him by the forelock and hold him back. He's in altogether too much of a hurry."

"If we can only see that each one of the boys who can't go home for Thanksgiving gets a regular, old-fashioned home-cooked dinner," said Betty earnestly, "I'll feel as if we'd done some good in the world."

"Well, more than half the boys will be able to get home for it," said Grace, "and I'm sure we'll find enough good-hearted families to account for the rest."

"Yes, the people around here have certainly helped us more than we dared to hope," said Betty enthusiastically. "We've hardly found one so far who wasn't willing to open his house--and his heart, too, for that matter--to the soldier boys. I love them all for being so generous. It's done more than anything else to keep up the boys' spirits and send them away happy and healthy and confident."

"Where are we going first?" queried Mollie, for Betty had made out a list of the houses they were to canvass.

"The Shroths come first," she answered, consulting her list. "Then the Atwaters and the Clarks. After that we'll just go up one street and down the other till supper time."

"Sounds simple," said Amy plaintively, "but, oh, our poor feet!"

"We have walked a good deal, lately," laughed Betty. "But it's nothing to what we have done. Champion hikers like us shouldn't complain about ordinary walking. Here we are at the Shroths. Now look your prettiest and smile your sweetest for the sake of the soldier boys!"

Mrs. Shroth, a sweet-faced, elderly woman, opened the door to them herself and smilingly ushered them into the handsome library.

"I saw you coming, my dears," she said, settling down comfortably in an enveloping armchair, "and I'm almost sure I know what you have come to ask me. And you needn't even ask," she added, raising her hand as Betty started to speak, "for the request was granted two weeks ago. My whole house is at your disposal--to do with as you please."

"Oh, you're lovely," Betty cried impulsively, and Mrs. Shroth gently covered the eager young hand on the chair arm with her own, smiling down into the flushed face.

"The admiration is mutual," she said, and then Betty's heart went out to her entirely. "I've watched you girls for a long time, and the work you've done for the boys has been simply splendid. I've tried to help all I could---"

"You have," broke in Mollie enthusiastically. "And we've been so grateful to you."

"And I've been grateful to you," Mrs. Shroth added, in her sweet voice, "for showing me how best I could serve the boys and my country. Now, how many do you think I could accommodate for Thanksgiving dinner--or rather, how many would you like me to accommodate?"

Betty was a little at a loss.

"Why, I hardly know," she said, hesitating. "We didn't expect you to take in more than two, perhaps three at the outside----"

"Oh, nonsense," said Mrs. Shroth, brushing the suggestion aside. "Two or three boys would be lost in this big house, even counting all my relatives who usually spend Thanksgiving day with me. No, I can take half a dozen, at least."

The girls looked at her a moment, delighted, but incredulous. Then they told Mrs. Shroth what they thought of such generosity until she found herself blushing with pleasure.

"It's such a little thing," she said, as she stood on the porch to say good-bye to them, "that I feel almost guilty to take thanks for it. Good luck." The girls went on down the street with singing hearts and a warm sense of friendliness and love for all their fellow beings.

They found the same spirit in every house they visited, and when they at last started for home after walking "miles and miles" they were too happy to feel tired.

"Oh, every one's so kind and dear and anxious to help," cried Mollie, skipping a little in her delight, "that your heart just feels too big to stay inside. Seems as if it ought to come out in the open where everybody can see how hard it's beating."

"Well, I have heard of people wearing their hearts on their sleeves," said Betty, twinkling. "But I've never tried it myself."

"It's wonderful," said Amy softly, "what a comfortable, warm feeling it gives you to find people--some of them you never knew before--who are really working side by side with you for the same thing, ready to hold out a helping hand when you need it."

"Yes," agreed Betty, her eyes fixed dreamily on the horizon, "it makes you feel as if there weren't any strangers in the world, as if we were all just friends, working for the common good of everybody."

"Betty, how pretty," cried Grace, and there was a thrill in her voice as she repeated softly; "all just friends, working for the common good of everybody."

"I'll never forget one thing that happened to me," said Amy, and they looked at her lovingly. Amy was such a dear--but then everybody was that to-night! "It was only a little thing, and yet it made me think."

"Then it couldn't have been very little," Mollie, the irrepressible, murmured.

"You know," Amy went on, so deep in her own thoughts, she scarcely noticed the interruption, "I never did talk much--I always felt as if people were cold and unfriendly--and so kept to myself, except for my really good friends, of course. Then, one morning, I saw that it was all my own fault.

"I just happened to be walking along the street, not noticing anybody particularly, when an old woman dropped her nickel car fare and it rolled out into the middle of the street. I ran after it and gave it back to her, and she smiled at me. Somehow, that smile changed everything for me."

"How, dear?" asked Betty, putting a sympathetic arm about her.

"Why," said Amy, blushing in her enthusiasm, "it just made me feel as if everybody was ready to smile if you only gave them half a chance. And I've found out it was true," she finished decidedly. "Because I've tried it ever so many times since, and it's never once failed!"

"Yes," concluded Mollie. "I guess everybody's just plain nice and human, after all!"