Chapter VI. The Leaky Boat.
 

There was a moment of silence, and then the relieved voice of Betty was heard to say:

"Oh, it's Grace. I'm so glad. I thought--"

"What are you doing here?" asked the newcomer. It was evident from her rather mumbled words--which mumbling I have been unable to reproduce in cold type--that Grace was eating candy.

"Have some chocolate?" she went on, holding out a bag.

"Oh, Grace! Chocolate at such a time as this!" rebuked Betty, her mind filled with the story she had just heard.

"Why, what's the matter with the time?"

"Amy is in there," and she motioned to the private room.

"Gracious! Has she fainted again?"

"No; where is Mollie?"

"Coming. There she is. We were looking everywhere for you. Alice Jallow said--"

"The horrid thing!" burst out Betty. "Why, whatever can have happened? You look quite tragic!"

"I am. Come in here!"

Grace advanced, and not even the prospect of hearing what she guessed was going to be some sort of a strange secret could stop her from taking another helping of candy. Betty saw and murmured:

"You are hopeless."

"What's up?" asked Mollie, gliding into the room, her dark hair straying rather rebelliously from beneath her hat.

"Come in," invited Betty, and soon the four were sitting together, while in a sort of dialogue Betty and Amy told the pathetic little story.

"And that's how it stands," finished Betty. "I wanted to do something--or say something--to make Alice Jallow feel--"

"She should be punished--we should all cut her--she ought to be put out of school!" burst out the impulsive Mollie. "I shall go to Miss Greene--"

"You'll do nothing of the sort, Billy!" exclaimed Betty, as she detained the girl, who had already started from the room. "Amy doesn't wish it. Besides, I think Alice will be sorry enough later for what she has done."

"I had rather you wouldn't go to her," spoke Amy, quietly.

"Oh, well, of course--" began Mollie. "I do wish I had better control of myself," she added, rather sadly. "I start to do such rash things--"

"Indeed you do, my dear," spoke Grace. "But we know you don't mean it. Here--help yourself," and she extended the candy bag.

"I couldn't--I don't feel like it. I--I feel all choked up in here!" exclaimed Mollie, placing her hand on her firm, white throat. "I--I want to do something to--to that--cat!" Her eyes filled with tears.

"That's what I called her!" said Betty. "But we mustn't let her know that she has annoyed us. Sometimes I feel real sorry for Alice. She seems rather lonesome."

"I suppose the story will be all over school soon," went on Grace.

"I shan't mind," spoke Amy, softly.

"Well, I'm glad you don't, my dear," remarked Betty. "It's more romantic than anything else--after you get over the sad part of it."

"And I am trying to do that," said Amy, bravely.

Together the four girls came out of the school. Most of the other pupils had gone home, for vacation days were near, and study hours were shortened on account of examinations.

"There she is now," said Mollie, as they turned a corner.

"Who?" questioned Betty.

"That Jallow girl and her familiar--Kittie. Her name is too good for her."

"Don't notice her," suggested Betty, "and don't, for goodness sake, speak to them. We don't want a scene. Perhaps Alice only did it impulsively--and did not really mean it."

If the reputed author of the anonymous letter, and her close friend, hoped for any demonstration on the part of those they had hoped to wound, they were disappointed.

In calm unconsciousness of the twain, the quartette passed on, talking gaily--though it was a bit forced--of their coming trip. And I must do Alice the justice to say that later she was truly sorry for what she had done.

"There's Will!" exclaimed Grace, as she caught sight of her brother. "And Frank Haley is with him. Here, girls, take what's left of these chocolates, or Will won't leave one."

"Does he know you have them?" asked Amy, accepting a few.

"Yes, he saw me buying them. Oh, bother! There comes that Percy Falconer, and he has a new suit. Vanity of vanities!"

The course of Will and his chum, as well as that of the "faultless dresser," as he hoped he appeared, brought them toward the girls. There was no escape, and the little throng walked onward. Betty kept close to Amy, for she knew just how she must feel after the disclosure.

"Ah, good afternoon, ladies!" greeted Percy. "Wonderful weather we're having. My word!"

"Beastly beautiful!" mocked the irrepressible Mollie. "Horribly lovely, isn't it, what?"

"Oh, I say now," began Percy. "I--really--"

"Where'd you get the clothes?" broke in Will.

"They're a London importation."

"London importation, my eye!" exclaimed Frank. "Why, Cohen's Emporium, on Main street, has the same thing in the window marked thirteen ninety-eight--regular fourteen dollars."

"Oh, I say now! Quit your spoofing!"

"Give us some candy, Sis!" begged Will. "Come on, now, I know you've got it!"

"I had it, we have it--they had it--thou hast it--not!" quoted Grace, with a laugh. "Nothing doing this time, little brother of mine."

"And you ate all those chocolates?" This in semi-horrified tones.

"We--not I," corrected his sister.

Percy Falconer, after vainly trying to get in place to walk beside Betty, who frustrated him by keeping Amy close to her, drifted off to find new sartorial worlds to conquer.

The others walked on, the boys joining in the talk and laughter. Amy seemed to have recovered her spirits, and the girls made no reference to the little tragedy which they knew would soon become public property.

"So you are really determined to go off on that walking trip?" asked Will, who had floated back to join Mollie.

"We certainly are. Why, don't you think we can do it?"

"Perhaps. But I think you'll run at the sight of the first tramp--or cow; and as for a storm--good night!"

"Thank you--for nothing!" and Mollie's dark eyes had little of fun in them as they looked into those of Will Ford.

Eventually Will and Frank left them, and the girls continued on until they reached Mollie's house.

"Come in," she invited. "I know they baked to-day, and we'll have a cup of tea and some cake. It will refresh us."

"I ought to be going--home," said Amy, with a little hesitating pause at the word "home."

"Oh, do come in!" begged the French girl.

As they entered the yard the twins, hand in hand and solemn-eyed, came down the walk to meet them.

"Oh, the dears!" gushed Grace.

"Isn't she too sweet," whispered Betty, as she caught up Dodo.

"And in need of soap and water, as usual," commented Mollie, drily. "But Nanette can do nothing with them. They are clean one minute--voila! like little Arabs the next! What would you have?" and she threw herself into a tragic gesture, in imitation of the imported French maid, at which her chums laughed.

"Have you a kiss for me, Paul?" demanded Grace, of the little fellow, when she had replaced his sister on the walk.

"Dot any tandy?" came the diplomatic inquiry.

"Listen to the mercenary little wretch!" cried his older sister. "Paul, ma cherie, where are your manners?"

"Has oo dot any tandy?" came in inflexible accents.

"I might find--just a morsel--if you'd kiss me first," stipulated Grace.

"Tandy fust," was the imperturbable retort. "I like tandy--Dodo like tandy--we bofe like tandy!"

"The sum total of childish happiness!" laughed Betty "Do, Grace, if you have any left, relieve this suspense."

Some candy was forthcoming, and then, with more of it spread on their faces than had entered their chubby mouths, the twins toddled off content.

"Girls, what do you say to a little row on the river?" asked Mollie, when they had been refreshed by cakes and tea. "My boat will hold us all, and we can float down and talk of our coming trip."

"Float down--and--row back," remarked Grace, with emphasis.

"The exercise will do you good. We must get in--training, I believe the proper word is--in training for our hike."

"Hike?" queried Betty.

"Suffragist lingo for walk," explained Mollie. "Come on."

The Argono river ran but a short distance from Mollie's home, and soon the four girls were in an old-fashioned, but safely constructed, barge, half drifting and half rowing down the picturesque stream.

The afternoon sun was waning behind a bank of clouds, screened from the girls by a fringe of trees. And as they floated on they talked at intervals of Amy's secret, and of the coming fun they expected to have.

"Let's get farther out in the middle," suggested Betty, when they came to a wide part of the river. "It's more pleasant there, and the air is fresher. It is very warm."

"Yes, I think we will have another storm," agreed Grace. "If it rains now it isn't so likely to when we start."

She was pulling on one pair of oars and Mollie on a second, the others relieving them occasionally. Soon the boat was in the middle of the stream. They had gone on for perhaps half a mile, when Betty, who was sitting comfortably in the stern, toying with the rudder ropes, uttered an exclamation.

"Oh!" she cried. "My feet are wet! Mollie, the boat is leaking!"

"Leaking?"

"Yes! See, the water is fairly pouring in!"

Mollie made a hasty examination under the bottom boards of her craft.

"Girls!" she cried, in tragic tones, "there's a hole in the boat!"

"Don't say that!" begged Amy, standing up.

"Sit down!" sternly ordered Betty. "There is no danger! Sit down or you'll fall overboard!"

"Oh, but see the water!" cried the nervous Amy. "It is coming in faster!"

And indeed it was.

"It is those twins!" declared Mollie. "I told them not to get in my boat, but they must have, and they've loosened the drain plug so that it came out a moment ago. Quick! See if you can find it!"

There was a frightened search for the plug that fitted in a hole in the bottom of the boat, through which aperture the water could be drained out when the craft was on shore.

"It isn't here!" cried Grace. "Oh, Mollie!"

"Keep quiet! It must be here!" insisted the owner of the boat. "It couldn't get out. Look for it! Find it! Or, if you can't, we'll stuff a handkerchief in the hole!"

Meanwhile the water continued to pour in through the bottom of the boat, setting the boards afloat, and thoroughly wetting the skirts of the girls. And they were now in the centre of the widest part of the river.