Chapter XXV. The Mystery Explained
 

After dinner in the living-room of the Hostess House, a snapping, dancing, crackling fire in the grate, and the girls gathered in an expectant semicircle about it.

They were nervous, too, for every once in a while one of them would get up, look out the window, throw an extra log upon the fire and sit down again with a "why-don't-they-come?" look of impatience upon her face.

A ring at the door bell!

"I'll answer it," cried Betty, jumping up and nearly overturning a chair in her eagerness. When she returned a couple of minutes later, her face held a look of unutterable disgust.

"Only one of the guests," she said, as the girls looked up eagerly. "I was sure that must be the boys."

"They're terribly late," grumbled Mollie, kicking an overturned edge of the rug into place, as if even that small vent to her feelings was a relief. "They'll be all talked out before they get here."

Another ring at the door bell!

This time there was no mistake. A chorus of excited voices greeted Betty as she opened the door for them and a moment later the boys burst into the living-room, fairly exhaling importance. The girls welcomed them eagerly and drew up more chairs before the fire.

"Gee, but we've had some time," cried Allen, fairly panting from exertion and excitement. "If you girls were heroines before, you're more than ever so, now."

"But where's Will?" asked Grace, with that old, anxious look. "I thought he was coming with you."

"He is," Frank answered her. "But he was summoned to a very important conference with the colonel----"

"The colonel!" they cried incredulously, while Grace stamped her foot with impatience.

"What do you mean?" she demanded.

"Just that," he answered, enjoying their mystification too much to enlighten them at once. "When he received the order he told us fellows to come on over and he'd join us as soon as he could break away."

"Oh, Allen, please tell me what it all means." Grace was fairly crying with excitement and eagerness. "Please don't keep me waiting any longer!"

"I'm sorry, Grace--I didn't think," said Allen, in quick compunction. "It means," he added, with a ring of pride in his voice, "that Will is what we always believed him to be--one of the finest fellows that ever lived. I'm proud to be called his friend!"

"Oh, Allen!" Grace felt blindly for a handkerchief and Betty slipped it into her hand. "Oh, Allen,----"

"But what did he do?" demanded Mollie impatiently. "You haven't gotten to the point yet."

"Well," Allen continued, while Betty put a sympathetic arm about her friend and snuggled close, "all the time we were wondering down in our hearts why Will didn't enlist--although we never doubted he had good reasons," he added hastily, "he was really working harder, spending more time and energy for the government than we ever thought of spending. There's one important thing we forgot--that Will was a secret service man!"

"Oh!" cried Betty, her eyes gleaming in the firelight, "now, I know I guessed right!"

"What did you guess?" asked Allen, remembering to marvel, even in that moment of excitement, how very becoming firelight was to Betty! "Out with it." "Why," said Betty, leaning forward eagerly, "after Amy told us that she had met Will and the soldiers half way to the spot where we found the spy, I seemed to see the whole thing as plainly as if some one had told it to me.

"I remembered Will's special interest in the spy the first time we met Adolph Hensler on Pine Island--then how, soon after we saw him here again, Will wrote Grace that he was coming on. That would seem as though he were hot on his trail--"

"He was," said Alien, while the others hung on every word.

"Well, the rest is simple," said Betty. "I suppose that Will kept on shadowing him till he got what he wanted. He was on his way to capture the spy, while we were hanging on to the door, praying for help. Oh, it all fits together like parts of a puzzle!"

"You're a wonder, Betty!" said Alien, while the others drew a deep breath, trying to take it all in. "But there was one little bit, or rather, I should say, big bit, of cleverness on Will's part that neither you nor anybody else could guess at. You remember the code letter we picked up that night on Pine Island?"

"Yes," they cried eagerly.

"Well, Will had the code deciphered and found out who wrote the document. It proved, by the way, that Adolph Hensler is one of the most dangerous and most wanted German spies in this country."

"And what else?" cried Mollie, who could never wait for the end of a story.

"The clever part of it," Allen continued, leaning forward, very handsome and eager in the firelight, "was Will's copying of the handwriting on the envelope."

"Sure," chuckled Roy. "I told him I wouldn't be surprised to see him start a life of crime any time now."

"Surely no experienced forger could have done it better," Alien agreed whimsically, while the girls waited with unconcealed impatience. "Anyway, he wrote a short note--a decoy--to Adolph in this handwriting, requesting an interview at the very spot where you girls came upon him."

"Oh!" cried Betty, in dismay. "Then it would have been better if we'd left him alone. We took a chance of spoiling all Will's well-laid plans."

"How could it have been better?" asked Allen. "Will started out to capture him and found you girls had beat him to it, that's all."

"Yes and they might have had a good deal more trouble rounding him up than you did," put in Frank. "From what Will tells us, you girls sure did do a neat job."

The girls flushed with pleasure, but Mollie, being truthful to a fault, put an arm about Betty and told where most of the credit was actually due.

"Why, it was Betty who thought of cutting him off," she said, while Betty vainly tried to stop her. "No, I'm going to tell the truth! And it was Betty that really captured him. She saw him go in the door, followed him, and was holding on for dear life when we came upon her."

"Yes, and how long would I have been able to hold on, I'd like to know," protested the Little Captain vigorously, "if you girls hadn't come along just then. No, sir, if there's any credit at all, it's got to be divided equally among us!"

"You'll be surprised to see how much credit everybody's giving you," chuckled Roy. "When you make your next debut into society, I wouldn't be surprised if they greeted you with brass bands."

"Goodness, I wish they would," cried Mollie eagerly. "For the first time in my life, I'd have a chance to feel like a regular soldier!"

"But Will is the real hero," said Betty quietly. "To go on working for your county, taking a chance on having people think things of you that you don't deserve, that sort of thing is the real heroism."

"And I'm so glad and happy," added Grace, who had been seeing happy visions in the firelight, "to think that all his friends had faith in him when he most needed it."

"You bet we did," said Allen heartily. "There wasn't one of us who doubted him for a minute."

"I wonder when he'll get here," said Amy, rising slowly and strolling over to the window. "I hope the colonel lets him out before twelve o'clock."

"Oh, he'll be here almost any minute now," said Allen reassuringly. "Meanwhile, suppose you play something for us, Betty--something soft and sweet to match the firelight--and you," this last so softly that none but Betty heard.

Smiling a little, Betty rose and walked over to the piano. Allen followed her.

"What shall I play?" she asked, looking up at him with a sweet seriousness, that made him want desperately to gather her in his arms and tell her--oh, so many things! Instead, he said:

"Play 'Keep the Home Fires Burning.' It's the most appropriate thing to-night. And Betty, sing it--sing it--to me----"

"If I can," she murmured. "You know what happened when I tried to sing it before--and it's apt to be harder to-night."

"Try, anyway," he urged; and so she began, in the sweetest voice in the world, or so Allen thought, to sing one of the most beautiful songs ever composed.

And how she sang it! Before she had half finished it, the girls were feeling for their handkerchiefs and the boys were staring hard into the fire.

She sang it again--more softly than before, and when the last sweet note had died away, there was not a dry eye in the room.

"Betty, oh, Betty!" cried Allen, leaning across the piano toward her, thrilling her with the new earnestness in his voice, "will you keep the home fires burning for me--so that when I come back--Betty, when I come back----"

She nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and held out a trembling hand to him.

"There will always be one--waiting for you," she whispered softly.

"Hello, folks!"

They turned suddenly and found Will standing in the doorway. Then, such a welcome as they gave him! It made up to him for all these months when he had seemed to stand on the outside, looking in.

"Come over to the fire and tell us all about it," Betty commanded. "Allen told us something, but we want to know the whole story--every little bit of a detail."

Will fairly beamed and entered into the story with the greatest enthusiasm.

"I really didn't do anything much," he finished modestly. "And at the end it was you girls that did all the work. I was just an 'also ran.'"

"But, isn't there something you left out?" drawled Frank, pretending to yawn and gazing into the fire. "It seems to me----"

"Gee," said Will, surprised at himself, "if I didn't really forget the most important part----"

"Now what are you talking about?" cried Mollie, while the girls pricked up their ears and began to scent a new mystery. "What did you forget?"

"Well," said Will, his eyes twinkling, and speaking with exasperating slowness, "do you happen to remember an eventful night on Pine Island, when Roy went to sleep----"

"Aw, cut it out," grumbled Roy. "I guess I'll never be able to live that down."

"Well, what about it?" cried Betty, at the limit of her patience, while the other girls looked threatening. "Please, Will----"

"Do you happen to remember," drawled Will, "that on that same night you lost some jewelry?"

"Oh, you found it!" they cried, fixing him with four pairs of bright, incredulous eyes. "Will, where is it?"

"Some of it's here," he went on, pulling a small bag from his pocket and opening it carefully while they crowded around him, fairly smothering him in their eagerness, "and the rest of it's in the pawn shop. We found the tickets on him, though--"

"My watch!"

"My necklace!"

"My lavallière!"

"My pearl brooch!"

These and other exclamations like them made such a babel of sound that the boys clapped their hands over their ears and looked at one another in comic dismay. This lasted so long that the boys had to pick up their caps and start for the door, before the girls consented to notice them.

"Where are you going?" asked Betty, while the other three stopped talking long enough to look surprised.

"We didn't think you'd miss us," said Roy plaintively. "So we were going away from here--that's all."

"Now, who's a flock of geese, I'd like to know," laughed Betty, as they coaxed their neglected swains back to the fire. "We couldn't very well help being excited, could we?"

"And to think," said Grace, beaming, "that we not only helped to catch a wanted spy, but helped to recover our own jewelry at the same time!"

"No wonder we had to pat ourselves on the back," chuckled Mollie, "Just wait till we tell the folks at home about it."

"Pretty good day's work," Roy admitted indulgently. "Couldn't have done much better myself."

They fell silent after that, each one busy with his own thoughts, each one seeing, in the fantastic, ever-changing heart of the fire, a little of his or her own future. And they were very happy.

Suddenly Grace broke the silence.

"And now," she said, glancing with love and pride at Will, who smiled fondly back at her, "what do you expect to do, dear?"

"Enlist," cried Will, jumping to his feet. "Thank heaven I can do it now with a clear conscience. I'm going to get into the big game quick and help give Fritz some of his own medicine. Gee, fellows, are we going to do it--are we?"

"I should smile!" they cried, their eyes gleaming with anticipation. "All we want is the chance!"

Quick as a flash Betty ran to the piano and began to play the "Star- Spangled Banner." Instantly the others were on their feet and singing with all the pent-up fervor of the last six months, emotions almost too big to master finding expression in the stirring melody.

"And we're all in it together," cried Betty, eyes bright and cheeks flaming, "for our dear country--for America!"

And, at the greatest moment of their lives, fired by patriotism, confident of victory, we once more, slowly, reluctantly, with many backward glances, take leave of our Outdoor Girls.

THE END