Chapter I. A Fluttering Paper.
 

Four girls were walking down an elm-shaded street. Four girls, walking two by two, their arms waist-encircling, their voices mingling in rapid talk, punctuated with rippling laughter--and, now and then, as their happy spirits fairly bubbled and overflowed, breaking into a few waltz steps to the melody of a dreamy song hummed by one of their number. The sun, shining through the trees, cast patches of golden light on the stone sidewalk, and, as the girls passed from sunshine to shadow, they made a bright, and sometimes a dimmer, picture on the street, whereon were other groups of maidens. For school was out.

"Betty Nelson, the idea is perfectly splendid!" exclaimed the tallest of the quartette; a stately, fair girl with wonderful braids of hair on which the sunshine seemed to like to linger.

"And it will be such a relief from the ordinary way of doing things," added the companion of the one who thus paid a compliment to her chum just in advance of her. "I detest monotony!"

"If only too many things don't happen to us!" This somewhat timid observation came from the quietest of the four--she who was walking with the one addressed as Betty.

"Why, Amy Stonington!" cried the girl who had first spoken, as she tossed her head to get a rebellious lock of hair out of her dark eyes. "The very idea! We want things to happen; don't we, Betty?" and she caught the arm of one who seemed to be the leader, and whirled her about to look into her face. "Answer me!" she commanded. "Don't we?"

Betty smiled slightly, revealing her white, even teeth. Then she said laughingly, and the laugh seemed to illuminate her countenance:

"I guess Grace meant certain kinds of happenings; didn't you, Grace?"

"Of course," and the rather willowy creature, whose style of dress artistically accentuated her figure, caught a pencil that was slipping from a book, and thrust it into the mass of light hair that was like a crown to her beauty.

"Oh, that's all right, then," and Amy, who had interposed the objection, looked relieved. She was a rather quiet girl, of the character called "sweet" by her intimates; and truly she had the disposition that merited the word.

"When can we start?" asked Grace Ford. Then, before an answer could be given, she added: "Don't let's go so fast. We aren't out to make a walking record to-day. Let's stop here in the shade a moment."

The four came to a halt beneath a great horsechestnut tree, that gave welcome relief from the sun, which, though it was only May, still had much of the advance hint of summer in it. There was a carriage block near the curb, and Grace "draped herself artistically about it," as Mollie Billette expressed it.

"If you're tired now, what will you be if we walk five or six miles a day?" asked Betty with a smile. "Or even more, perhaps."

"Oh, I can if I have to--but I don't have to now. Come, Betty, tell us when we are to start."

"Why, we can't decide now. Are you so anxious all of a sudden?" and Betty pulled down and straightened the blue middy blouse that had been rumpled by her energetic chums.

"Of course. I detest waiting--for trains or anything else. I'm just dying to go, and I've got the cutest little traveling case. It--"

"Has a special compartment for chocolates; hasn't it, Grace?" asked Mollie Billette, whose dark and flashing eyes, and black hair, with just a shade of steely-blue in it, betrayed the French blood in her veins.

"Oh, Grace couldn't get along without candy!" declared Betty, with a smile.

"Now that's mean!" exclaimed Grace, whose tall and slender figure, and face of peculiar, winsome beauty had gained her the not overdrawn characterization of "Gibson girl." "I don't see why Billy wants to always be saying such horrid things about me!"

"I didn't say anything mean!" snapped Mollie, whose pseudonym was more often "Billy" than anything else. "And I don't want you to say that I do!" Her eyes flashed, and gave a hint of the hidden fire of temper which was not always controlled. The other girls looked at her a bit apprehensively.

"If you don't like the things I say," she went on, "there are those who do. And what's more--"

"Billy," spoke Betty, softly. "I'm sure Grace didn't mean--"

"Oh, I know it!" exclaimed Mollie, contritely. "It was horrid of me to flare up that way. But sometimes I can't seem to help it. I beg your pardon, Grace. Eat as many chocolates as you like. I'll help you. Isn't that generous?"

She clasped her arms about the "Gibson-girl," and held her cheek close to the other's blushing one.

"Don't mind me!" she cried, impulsively. Mollie was often this way--in a little whirlwind of temper one moment, and sweetly sorry for it the next, albeit her little spasms of rage were never serious, and seldom lasted long.

"Forgiven," murmured Grace. "But I am really anxious to know when we can start our Camping and Tramping Club. I think the idea is perfectly splendid! How did you come to think of it, Betty?"

"I got the idea from a book--it isn't original by any means. But then I always have been fond of walking--out in the country especially. Only it isn't so much fun going alone. So it occurred to me that you girls would like to join. We can take a nice long tramp the first opportunity we get."

"Just us four?" asked Grace.

"No, not necessarily. We can have as many members as we like."

"I think four is a nice number," spoke Amy. She was rather shy, and not given to making new friends.

"We four--no more!" declaimed Mollie. "Suppose we do limit it to four, Betty?"

"Well, we can talk of that later. And I do so want to talk of it. I thought we'd never get out of school," and the four who had just been released from the Deepdale High School continued their stroll down the main street of the town, talking over the new plan that had been proposed that morning by Betty Nelson--the "Little Captain," as she was often called by her chums, for she always assumed the leadership in their fun and frolics.

"Will we just walk--walk all the while?" asked Grace. "I'm afraid I shan't be able to keep up to you girls in that case," and she swung about on the sidewalk in a few steps of a mazy waltz with Amy.

"Of course we won't walk all the while," explained Betty. "I haven't all the details arranged yet, but we can set a certain number of miles to cover each day. At night we'll stop somewhere and rest."

"That's good," sighed Grace, with a glance at her small and daintily shod feet.

"Oh, here comes your brother Will!" Betty called to her.

"And that horrid Percy Falconer is with him," went on Mollie. "I--I can't bear him!"

"He's seen Betty--that's why he's hurrying so," spoke Grace. "Probably he's bought a new cane he wants to show her."

"Stop it!" commanded Betty, with a blush. "You know I can't bear him any more than you girls can."

"You can't make Percy believe that--my word!" and Mollie imitated the mannerism perfectly. For young Falconer, be it known, was partial to good clothes of a rather flashy type, and much given to showing them off. He had very little good sense--in fact, what little he had, some of his enemies used to say, he displayed when he showed a preference for pretty Betty Nelson. But she would have none of his company.

"I don't see why Will wants to bring him along," remarked his sister Grace, in a petulant tone. "He knows we don't like him."

"Perhaps Will couldn't help it," suggested Amy.

"That's nice of you to say, Amy," commented Grace. "I'll tell Will--some time when I get a chance."

"Don't you dare! If you do I'll never speak to you again!" and the pink surged to a deeper red in Amy's cheeks.

"Betty'd much rather have Will pick up Allen Washburn," remarked Mollie, in decisive tones. "Wouldn't you, Bet?"

"Oh, please don't say such things!" besought Betty. "I don't see why you always--"

"Hush, they'll hear you," cautioned Grace. "Let's pretend we don't see them. Hurry up! I've got a quarter, and I'll treat you to sodas. Come on in Pierson's drug store."

"Too late!" moaned Billy, in mock-tragic tones. "They are waving to us--we can't be too rude."

Will Ford, the brother of Grace, accompanied by a rather overdressed youth slightly older, had now come up to the group of girls.

"Good afternoon!" greeted Percy Falconer, raising his hat with an elaborate gesture. "Charming weather we're having--my word!" Percy rather inclined to English mannerisms--or what he thought were such.

"Hello, Sis--and the rest of you!" said Will, with a more hearty, and certainly a more natural, air. "What's doing?"

"Grace was going to treat," said Amy slowly; "she is so good about that--only--"

"Oh, girls! This is on me!" exclaimed Percy. "I shall be delighted. May I have the honor?" and again he took off his hat with an elaborate bow.

"Shall we?" Betty telegraphed this question to her friends with her eyes.

"Take the goods the gods provide," murmured Grace. "I can save my quarter for another time."

With a rather resigned air Betty followed her chums into the drug store and presently all were lined up before the marble-topped counter.

"The soda's delicious to-day," murmured Grace. "I've a good notion to get some fudge," and she began toying with a little silver purse.

"Save your money for our club," advised Mollie. "Did you hear of our expedition?" she asked Will.

"No, what's that? Are you going to try for the East or West pole?--seeing that the North and South ones have been captured," and he laughed, thereby getting some of the soda down his "wrong throat."

"Serves you right," murmured his sister, as he coughed.

"Betty is going to form a Camping and Tramping Club," went on Amy.

"Fine!" exclaimed Percy. "Are you going to take gentlemen? If so, consider my application."

"Oh, we really mean to walk!" exclaimed Grace, with a glance at the too-small patent leather shoes the overdressed youth thrust out ostentatiously. If he understood the allusion he gave no sign of so doing.

"What's the game, Sis?" asked Will, quizzically.

"Why, it isn't anything very elaborate," explained Betty, as she finished her soda. "It occurred to me that, as school closes exceptionally early this year, some of us girls could go for a two weeks' tramping tour before our regular summer vacation."

"And we're all in love with the idea," declared Amy.

"Twenty miles a day is our limit," added Mollie, smiling behind the youth's back.

"Twenty miles!" faltered Percy. "You never can do it--never!"

"Oh, yes, we can," said Betty, assuredly.

"Now do you still wish to join?" asked Grace, pointedly, glancing at Percy.

"You never can do twenty miles!" affirmed Percy. "Let's have some more soda!" he added quickly, to change the subject.

To the credit of Grace Ford, who was really very fond of sweets, be it said that she refused, and that with the mocking eyes of all the girls fastened on her.

"I've had enough," spoke Betty. "You walk with me," she whispered to Amy. "I don't want Percy to bore me. Stay near me, do!"

"I will," promised Amy.

Balked of his design to stroll beside Betty, Percy was forced to be content with Mollie, and she, with malice aforethought, talked at him in a way he could not understand, but which, the other girls overhearing, sent them into silent spasms of laughter.

"Don't you find it troublesome to carry a cane all the while?" Mollie asked him, sweetly ignorant.

"Oh, I don't have to carry it," he said quickly.

"Don't you? I thought on account of not being able to walk--"

"Why, Mollie--I can walk all right."

"Oh, I misunderstood you. You said twenty miles was too much."

"I meant for girls."

"Oh, then you carry the cane for dogs."

"No, indeed. I'm not afraid of dogs."

"He doesn't know she's 'spoofing' him--I believe that is the proper English word; isn't it?" whispered Grace, who was with her brother.

"Correct, Sis."

"Whatever did you want to bring him along for?"

"Couldn't help it. He fastened to me when I came out of school, and I couldn't shake him off. Is Bet mad?"

"You know she doesn't like him."

"Well, tell her it wasn't my fault, when you get the chance; will you? I don't want to get on her bad books."

"I'll tell her."

"I say, Sis, lend me a quarter; won't you? I'm broke."

"You had the same allowance that I did."

"I know, but I need just that much to get a catching glove. Go on--be a sport."

"I--"

"Don't say you haven't got it. Weren't you going to treat the crowd when I brought Percy along and let you sting him?"

"Such horrid slang!"

"Go on, be a sport! Lend me the quarter!"

Grace produced it from her purse. There were several other coins in it.

"Say, you're loaded with wealth! Where'd you get it?"

"I just didn't spend it."

"Go on! And you with a two-pound box of chocolates--or what's left of 'em--under your bed!"

"Will Ford, did you dare go snooping in my room?" and she grasped his arm, apprehensively.

"I couldn't help seeing 'em. I was looking for my ball, that rolled in there."

"Did you--did you eat them all?" she faltered.

"Only a few. There's Allen Washburn, I want to speak to him," and Will ran off uncermoniously, to join a tall, good-looking young man who was on the other side of the street. The latter, seeing the girls, raised his hat, but his glance rested longest on Betty, who, it might have been observed, blushed slightly under the scrutiny.

"Allen always has a book with him," murmured Amy.

"Yes, he's studying law, you know," spoke Betty.

Some other girls joined the four then, and Percy, seeing that he was rather ignored, had the sense to leave, making an elaborate departure, after what he considered the correct English style.

"Thank goodness!" murmured Mollie. "Puppies are all right, but I like better-trained ones!" and her dark eyes flashed.

"Billy!" exclaimed Grace, reproachfully, shaking an accusing finger at her friend.

"Well, you don't like him any more than--than Betty does!"

"Hush!" warned the Little Captain. "He'll hear you."

"I don't care if he does," was the retort.

Gradually the main part of the town had been left as the girls walked slowly on. Houses were fewer now, and the trees not so large, nor well cared for. The sun seemed to increase in warmth as it approached the west, wherein was a bank of fluffy clouds that soon would be turned into masses of golden, purple and olive.

"Oh, girls, I simply must rest again!" exclaimed Grace, as, with a wry face, she made for a smooth stump, which was all that was left of a great oak that had recently been cut down, as it had died, and was in danger of falling.

"What! Again?" cried Mollie. "Say, Grace, my dear, you never will be able to keep up with us on the tramp, if you give out so easily now. What is the matter?"

"Matter? Look at her shoes!" cried Amy. "Such heels!"

"They're not so awful high!" and Grace sought to defend her footwear from the three pairs of accusing eyes.

"It's a very pretty boot," remarked Betty. "But hardly practical, my dear."

"I suppose not," sighed Grace. "But I just simply could not resist the temptation to take them when the sales-girl tried them on me. I saw them in Robertson's window, and they were such a bargain--a sample shoe she said--that's why they're so narrow."

"You can wear a narrow size," spoke Mollie with a sigh. "I wish I could."

"Oh, I think your shoes are a lovely shape," spoke Grace. "I wish I had your high instep."

"Move over," begged Amy. "There's room for two on that stump, Grace."

Grace obligingly moved, and her friend sat beside her, idly swinging a couple of books by a long strap. Betty and Mollie supported themselves by draping their arms about each other's waists.

"'Patience on a monument,'" quoted Betty, looking at the two on the stump.

"Which one?" asked Mollie with a laugh.

"We'll divide the virtues between us; won't we, Amy?" exclaimed Grace, putting her head on the other's shoulder. "Now I'm--"

"The sleeping beauty!" supplied Betty, "Do come on!" and after a little argument, in which Grace insisted that she had not had more than a minute's respite, the four started off again. They were approaching the outskirts of the town in the vicinity of which they all lived.

"If this weather keeps up we can't start off on our tramping and camping trip any too soon," remarked Grace.

"When can we arrange for it?" asked Amy. "I think it is the nicest idea I ever heard of."

"You can all come over to my house to-night," suggested Betty. "We can make some plans then, perhaps."

"Let's, then!" cried impulsive Mollie. "But do you really intend to do any camping, Betty?"

"Yes, if we can. Of course not for any length of time--say a night or two. There are one or two places where camps are open the year around, and all you have to do is to go there and board, just as you would at a hotel."

"Only it must be much nicer," said Amy.

"It is--lots."

They had reached a place where the highway ran under a railroad line, that crossed on a high bridge. As the girls came under the structure a fluttering bit of paper on the ground caught the eyes of Betty. Rather idly she picked it up, and the next moment she uttered a cry that brought her chums to her side in some alarm.

"Look!" she exclaimed. "A five hundred dollar bill is pinned to this paper! A five hundred dollar bill, girls!"