Chapter IV. The Powder Mill
 

"Who's game for a paddle?"

"I am!"

"And I!"

"Oh, it's the most wonderful night in the world for canoeing!"

"And there's going to be a moon, too!"

"Nobody seems to be eager or anything like that," remarked Frank, strolling out on the veranda, and regarding the enthusiastic group with a smile on his lips. "Why didn't you suggest something they might agree to, Allen?"

Allen, who had indeed made the suggestion, rose lazily to his feet, and stretched out a hand to Betty.

"I never make any suggestions that aren't good," he replied. "Come along, Betty. It's a crime to waste a minute of this wonderful night."

"May we, Mrs. Irving?" queried Betty, smiling up at their chaperon, who was the same who had shared their adventures, during that other eventful summer on Pine Island. "You know you love canoeing as much as the rest of us."

"Of course we'll all go," Mrs. Irving assented readily. "Only we've had a long day, and mustn't stay out too late."

"I speak for Mrs. Irving in my canoe!" called out Betty.

"No, mine!" "Ours!" were other cries.

Merrily the girls ran into the house to pick up the wraps which were always necessary on the water at night, and in another minute they had rejoined the boys.

"Are you glad I enlisted, Betty?" queried Allen, laying a hand on Betty's arm, and holding her back.

"Glad?" answered Betty, looking up at him with eyes that shone in the starlight. "Yes, I'm glad that you knew the only right thing to do, and I'm glad that you did it so promptly. But, Allen--"

"Yes?" he queried, finding her little hand and holding it tight.

"I--I'm like George Washington, I guess," she evaded, looking up at him with a crooked little smile.

"I don't want you to tell a lie," he countered very softly. "I want the truth, little Betty. What were you going to say?"

Betty's eyes drooped, and they walked along in silence for a minute.

"Well?" he queried at last, studying her averted profile. "You're not afraid to tell me, Betty?"

"N-no," she answered, still with her head turned away. "I was only going to say, that while I'm glad--oh, very glad in one way, I--I'm not so very glad in another."

"What other?" he asked, leaning over her. "Betty, Betty, tell me, dear."

Betty hesitated for another moment, then threw up her head defiantly.

"Well," she said, "if you must know--I don't want you to go. I--I'll be--lonesome--"

"Betty," he cried imploringly, his heart beating like a trip-hammer, "Betty--wait--"

But she had slipped from him, and had run ahead to join the others, so that he had no other course but to follow her. His head was in the clouds--his feet scarcely seemed to touch the ground.

"Well, it's about time you realized you were with us," Mollie remarked as Betty, breathless with the run and the beating of her heart, joined them. "We began to think you had eloped for fair this time."

Betty laughed happily.

"I'm sure I don't know where we'd elope to," she remarked, stepping one dainty foot exactly in the center of the unstable craft. "We'd either have to swim or wait for the ferry, and I don't exactly know which would be the more uncomfortable."

"I'd prefer the swim," said Roy, arranging the pillows carefully behind Mollie's straight little back. To quote the latter: She would much rather do things for herself--boys were so clumsy--but they always looked so funny and downhearted when she told them about it, that, just in the interest of ordinary kindness, she had to humor them!

"Well," said Allen, as he dipped his paddle into the still water, guiding the light craft from the shore, "where shall we go?"

"'Where do we go from here, boys, where do we go from here?'" sang Roy.

"'Anywhere from Harlem to a Jersey City pier,'" finished Frank, wickedly splashing some drops of water on Grace's immaculate white dress.

"That's sensible, isn't it?" retorted the latter, favoring the offender with a look of cold disdain. "Since we don't happen to be any more than sixty miles from Harlem or Jersey City, I'm sure Allen appreciated your suggestion."

"Oof!" said Frank. "I can't open my mouth without putting my foot in it."

"That's no compliment to your mouth," returned Grace. "Frank, if you don't stop splashing me with that horrid water, I'm going to get out and walk."

"That would be jumping from, the frying pan into the fire," returned Frank with a grin, while Mollie, who was in the next canoe, chuckled audibly.

"Goodness," said Betty, as Allen shortened his stroke to bring the canoes abreast. "It's almost impossible to think of there being a war on a night like this. Everything is so calm and peaceful."

"Yes, we haven't even been touched by it yet," said Allen, his mood sobering. "The Englishman to-day was telling us that nobody in England began to realize they were at war, until the boys began to come back wounded and disabled."

"Oh, I can't bear to think of it," cried Amy, who, in the canoe with Will, still silent and aloof, had scarcely spoken a word till now. "It seems as if there ought to be some other way of settling disputes these days."

"That's what every nation thinks, except Germany and her allies," returned Frank. "As it is, we've got to fight her as we'd fight a mad dog--wipe the whole German nation off the map, or at least, bring it to its knees."

"That reminds me of something one of the recruiting officers told me the other day," put in Allen, with a whimsical smile. "He said he had talked to hundreds of American enlisted men, and the great majority of them were eager to learn German."

"I don't admire their taste," put in Mollie, with spirit. "I hate the very sound of it."

"Well, the soldier's idea is," explained Alien, "that if he learns the language he'll be able to flirt with the frauleins when he gets to Berlin.'

"Again I don't admire their taste," remarked Mollie spitefully. "Almost all the German girls I've ever seen are too stout to suit me.'

"Goodness, I had a German ancestor away back somewhere," remarked Amy anxiously. "Maybe that's why I'm beginning to gain flesh so fast. You've got me worried."

The boys laughed, but the girls answered reassuringly.

"It isn't your remote German ancestor that's giving you flesh, Amy," said Grace condescendingly. "It's eating three hearty meals a day, and the sitting still knitting from morning to night. We girls are used to being on the go all the time."

"What's that you said?" asked Frank, bringing his eyes down from the stars to the lazy figure in the white dress. "I've never seen you when you weren't taking life easy."

"What!" said Grace, sitting up straight, the picture of indignation. "How about our walking tour--didn't I walk just as far, and as much as the other girls then? And how about swimming?"

"Take it back! take it back!" cried Frank. "If going down on my knees will help any--"

"Don't be a goose," responded Grace shortly, settling herself once more in a comfortable position. "Just a little bit of going down on your knees, and we'll be in the water. Have a chocolate?"

"No, thanks," said Frank absently. His eye had caught a sudden flare of light, that had flickered for a moment and then disappeared.

"Hey, Allen," he yelled. "Did you see that light--over there, to the right?"

"Yes," said Allen, looking puzzled. "And I don't remember ever seeing signs of life over in that direction."

"Isn't that about where the old powder mill stands?" asked Betty, and Allen turned to her quickly.

"Betty," he said, his eyes shining, "you've got it. The government has bought that property, and started the old mill to working. By George, this promises to be interesting."

"There it is again!" cried Frank, while Grace strained her eyes eagerly toward the point. "What do you say to paddling over there and having a look?"

"It's up to the girls," replied Allen, watching Betty's face eagerly. "What they say goes."

"And they say 'go,'" smiled Betty whimsically. "Do you suppose we'd go back without solving the mystery? Lead on, Macduff--we follow."

So Allen and Frank paddled hard toward the bend in the lake, the other two canoes, which had fallen somewhat behind, quickening the stroke to catch up with them, sensing that something unusual was afoot.

As the canoes in the lead rounded the bend, those in them saw that indeed the old mill had been renovated, but that the flame they had seen had come, not from the old mill, but from a small bonfire started farther in the woods.

And that was not all. What made them catch their breath and signal for silence, was the figure of a man bent close to the flickering fire, intent upon deciphering the writing on a long piece of paper, that looked suspiciously like an official document.

So silent had been their approach that the man had not even changed his position. Luckily the canoes were screened by heavy, overhanging branches of trees, so that the occupants could observe without being observed.

Silently the other two canoes joined them, and noiselessly, scarcely daring to breathe, the young folks watched.