Chapter I. Just an Argument
 

"It's positively cruel!" pouted Jennie Allen, one of a group of girls occupying a garden bench in the ample grounds of Miss Stearne's School for Girls, at Beverly.

"It's worse than that; it's insulting," declared Mable Westervelt, her big dark eyes flashing indignantly.

"Doesn't it seem to reflect on our characters?" timidly asked Dorothy Knerr.

"Indeed it does!" asserted Sue Finley. "But here comes Mary Louise; let's ask her opinion."

"Phoo! Mary Louise is only a day scholar," said Jennie. "The restriction doesn't apply to her at all."

"I'd like to hear what she says, anyhow," remarked Dorothy. "Mary Louise has a way of untangling things, you know."

"She's rather too officious to suit me," Mable Westervelt retorted, "and she's younger than any of us. One would think, the way she poses as monitor at this second-rate, run-down boarding school, that Mary Louise Burrows made the world."

"Oh, Mable! I've never known her to pose at all," said Sue. "But, hush; she mustn't overhear us and, besides, if we want her to intercede with Miss Stearne we must not offend her."

The girl they were discussing came leisurely down a path, her books under one arm, the other hand holding a class paper which she examined in a cursory way as she walked. She wore a dark skirt and a simple shirtwaist, both quite modish and becoming, and her shoes were the admiration and envy of half the girls at the school. Dorothy Knerr used to say that "Mary Louise's clothes always looked as if they grew on her," but that may have been partially accounted for by the grace of her slim form and her unconscious but distinctive poise of bearing. Few people would describe Mary Louise Burrows as beautiful, while all would agree that she possessed charming manners. And she was fifteen--an age when many girls are both awkward and shy.

As she drew near to the group on the bench they ceased discussing Mary Louise but continued angrily to canvass their latest grievance.

"What do you think, Mary Louise," demanded Jennie, as the girl paused before them, "of this latest outrage?"

"What outrage, Jen?" with a whimsical smile at their indignant faces.

"This latest decree of the tyrant Stearne. Didn't you see it posted on the blackboard this morning? 'The young ladies will hereafter refrain from leaving the school grounds after the hour of six p.m., unless written permission is first secured from the Principal. Any infraction of this rule will result in suspension or permanent dismissal.' We're determined not to stand for this rule a single minute. We intend to strike for our liberties."

"Well," said Mary Louise reflectively, "I'm not surprised. The wonder is that Miss Stearne hasn't stopped your evening parades before now. This is a small school in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else; otherwise you'd have been guarded as jealously as if you were in a convent. Did you ever know or hear of any other private boarding school where the girls were allowed to go to town evenings, or whenever they pleased out of school hours?"

"Didn't I tell you?" snapped Mable, addressing the group. "Mary Louise is always on the wrong side. Other schools are not criterions for this ramshackle establishment, anyhow. We have twelve boarders and four day scholars, and how Miss Stearne ever supports the place and herself on her income is an occult problem that the geometries can't solve. She pays little Miss Dandler, her assistant, the wages of an ordinary housemaid; the furniture is old and shabby and the classrooms gloomy; the food is more nourishing than feastful and the tablecloths are so patched and darned that it's a wonder they hold together."

Mary Louise quietly seated herself upon the bench beside them.

"You're looking on the seamy side, Mable," she said with a smile, "and you're not quite just to the school. I believe your parents sent you here because Miss Stearne is known to be a very competent teacher and her school has an excellent reputation of long standing. For twenty years this delightful old place, which was once General Barlow's residence, has been a select school for young ladies of the best families. Gran'pa Jim says it's an evidence of good breeding and respectability to have attended Miss Stearne's school."

"Well, what's that got to do with this insulting order to stay in evenings?" demanded Sue Finley. "You'd better put all that rot you're talking into a circular and mail it to the mothers of imbecile daughters. Miss Stearne has gone a step too far in her tyranny, as she'll find out. We know well enough what it means. There's no inducement for us to wander into that little tucked-up town of Beverly after dinner except to take in the picture show, which is our one innocent recreation. I'm sure we've always conducted ourselves most properly. This order simply means we must cut out the picture show and, if we permit it to stand, heaven only knows what we shall do to amuse ourselves."

"We'll do something worse, probably," suggested Jennie.

"What's your idea about it, Mary Louise?" asked Dorothy.

"Don't be a prude," warned Mable, glaring at the young girl. "Try to be honest and sensible--if you can--and give us your advice. Shall we disregard the order, and do as we please, or be namby-pambies and submit to the outrage? You're a day scholar and may visit the picture shows as often as you like. Consider our position, cooped up here like a lot of chickens and refused the only harmless amusement the town affords."

"Gran'pa Jim," observed Mary Louise, musingly, "always advises me to look on both sides of a question before making up my mind, because every question has to have two sides or it couldn't be argued. If Miss Stearne wishes to keep you away from the pictures, she has a reason for it; so let's discover what the reason is."

"To spoil any little fun we might have," asserted Mable bitterly.

"No; I can't believe that," answered Mary Louise. "She isn't unkindly, we all know, nor is she too strict with her girls. I've heard her remark that all her boarders are young ladies who can be trusted to conduct themselves properly on all occasions; and she's right about that. We must look for her reason somewhere else and I think it's in the pictures themselves."

"As for that," said Jennie, "I've seen Miss Stearne herself at the picture theatre twice within the last week."

"Then that's it; she doesn't like the character of the pictures shown. I think, myself, girls, they've been rather rank lately."

"What's wrong with them?"

"I like pictures as well as you do," said Mary Louise, "and Gran'pa Jim often takes me to see them. Tuesday night a man shot another in cold blood and the girl the murderer was in love with helped him to escape and married him. I felt like giving her a good shaking, didn't you? She didn't act like a real girl at all. And Thursday night the picture story told of a man with two wives and of divorces and disgraceful doings generally. Gran'pa Jim took me away before it was over and I was glad to go. Some of the pictures are fine and dandy, but as long as the man who runs the theatre mixes the horrid things with the decent ones--and we can't know beforehand which is which--it's really the safest plan to keep away from the place altogether. I'm sure that's the position Miss Stearne takes, and we can't blame her for it. If we do, it's an evidence of laxness of morals in ourselves."

The girls received this statement sullenly, yet they had no logical reply to controvert it. So Mary Louise, feeling that her explanation of the distasteful edict was not popular with her friends, quietly rose and sauntered to the gate, on her way home.

"Pah!" sneered Mable Westervelt, looking after the slim figure, "I'm always suspicious of those goody-goody creatures. Mark my words, girls: Mary Louise will fall from her pedestal some day. She isn't a bit better than the rest of us, in spite of her angel baby ways, and I wouldn't be surprised if she turned out to be a regular hypocrite!"