Chapter XVI. The Torch Kindles
 

Even the Winnebagos wondered slightly at the extremely quiet way in which Agony received the great honor that had been bestowed upon her. She did not expand as usual under the influence of the limelight until she fairly radiated light. She hummed no gay songs, she played no pranks on her friends; she did not outdo herself in work and play as she used to in the days of yore when she was the observed of all observers. Silent and pensive she wandered about Camp the next day and seemed rather to be shunning the gay groups in Mateka and on the beach. Most of the girls believed that Agony's silence proceeded from the genuine humility of the truly great when singled out for honor, and admired her all the more for her sober, pensive air. She found herself overwhelmed with requests to stand for her picture, and the younger girls thronged her tent, begging for locks of hair to take home as keepsakes. Agony escaped from them as best she could without offending them.

She sedulously avoided Mateka, for there sat Hinpoha busily painting robins on the place cards for the banquet which was to take place the following night. This banquet was given each year as a wind-up to the camp activities, with the winner of the Buffalo Robe in the place of honor at the head of the table. Agony felt weak every time she thought of that banquet. Why had she not the courage to confess the deception to Dr. Grayson, and give up the Buffalo Robe, she thought miserably. No, she could never do that. The terrific pride which was Agony's very life and soul would not let her humble herself. The pain it would give Dr. Grayson, the astonishment and disappointment of the Winnebagos, the coldness of the beloved councilors--and Jane Pratt! How could she ever humble herself before Jane Pratt and witness Jane's keen relish of her downfall? She could hear Jane's spiteful laughter, her malicious remarks, her unrestrained rejoicing over the situation.

And Miss Amesbury! No, she could never let Miss Amesbury know what a cheat she was. No, no, the thing had gone too far, she must see it through now. Better to endure the gnawings of conscience than give herself away now. And Nyoda--Nyoda who had praised her so sincerely, and Slim and the Captain, who thought it was a "bully stunt"--could she let them know that it was all a lie? She shrank back shuddering from the notion. No, she must go on. No one would ever find it out now. Other people had received honors which they hadn't earned; the world was full of them; thus she tried to soothe her conscience. But she averted her eyes every time she passed the Buffalo Robe hanging over the fireplace in Mateka.

Slumber came hard to her that night, and when she finally did drop off it was to dream that the Buffalo Robe was being presented to her, but just as she put out her hand to take it Mary Sylvester appeared on the scene and called out loudly, "She doesn't deserve it!" and then all the girls pointed to her in scorn and repeated, "She doesn't deserve it!" "She doesn't deserve it!" until she ran away and hid herself in the woods.

So vivid was the dream that she wakened, trembling in ever limb, and burrowed into the pillow to shut out the sight of those dreadful pointing fingers, which still seemed to be before her eyes. Once awake she could not go back to sleep. She looked enviously across the tent at Hinpoha, who lay calm and peaceful in the moonlight, a faint smile parting her lips. She had nothing on her mind to keep her awake. Sahwah, too, was wrapped in profound slumber, her brow serene and untroubled; she had no uncomfortable secret to disturb her rest. How she envied them!

She envied Oh-Pshaw, who had taken the swimming test that day after a whole summer of trying to learn to swim, and was so proud of herself that she seemed to have grown an inch in height. There was no flaw in her happiness; she had won her honor fairly.

Then, as Agony lay there, her favorite heroines of history and fiction seemed to rise up and repudiate her--Robert Louis Stevenson, with whom she had formed an imaginary comradeship; there he stood looking at her scornfully and coldly; Joan of Arc, her especial heroine; she turned away in disgust; so all the others; one by one they reproached her.

Agony tossed for a long while and then rose, slipped on her bathrobe and shoes and stockings and wandered about for awhile, finally sitting down on a rustic bench on the veranda of Mateka, where she could look out on the river and the wide sky. Even the beauty of the night seemed to mock her. The big, bright stars, which used to twinkle in such a friendly fashion, now gleamed coldly at her; the light breeze rustling in the leaves was like so many spiteful whispers telling her secret. She had plucked a red lily that grew outside her tent door as she came out, and sat twirling it in her fingers. In an incredibly short time it whithered and let its petals droop. Agony gazed at it superstitiously. An old nurse had once told her that a flower would wither in the hand of a person who had told a lie. The idle tale came back to her now. Was it perhaps true after all? Did she have a withering touch now?

The things Miss Amesbury had said to her at sunset on the river the day before came back with startling force. "We carry our destiny in our own hands. We are what we make ourselves. Whatever kind of bud we are, just such a flower we will be. You are setting your face now in the direction in which you are going to travel. To be a noble woman you must have been a noble girl. The Future is only a great many Nows added up. Every worthy action you perform now will make it easier to perform another one later on, and every unworthy one will do the same thing. If your lamp is dim you can't light the way for others...."

Agony looked at herself pitilessly and shuddered. Was this the road she was going to travel; was this the direction in which she had set her face? Cheat, deceiver, that was what she was. The winds whispered it; the river babbled it; the very stars seemed to twinkle it. Agony closed her eyes, and put her hands over her ears to shut out the little insinuating sounds; and in the silence her very heart beats throbbed it, rhythmically, pitilessly.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the hour before dawn Miss Amesbury sat up in bed, under the impression that someone had called her name. Yes, there was someone on her balcony; in the dim light she could make out a drooping figure beside her bed.

"Miss Amesbury," faltered a low, but familiar voice.

"Why Agony, child!" exclaimed Miss Amesbury, now well awake and recognizing her visitor. "What is the matter? Are you sick?"

"Yes," replied Agony quietly, "sick of deceiving people."

And there, in the dim light, she told her whole story, the story of vaulting ambition and timely temptation, of action in haste and repentance at weary leisure.

"So that was it," Miss Amesbury exclaimed involuntarily, as Agony finished. "It seemed to me that you had something on your mind; it puzzled me a great deal. How you must have suffered in conscience, poor child!"

She put out her hand and drew Agony down on the bed, laying cool fingers on her hot forehead. Agony, entirely taken aback by Miss Amesbury's sympathetic attitude, for she had expected nothing but scorn and contempt, broke down and began to weep wildly. Miss Amesbury let her cry for awhile for she knew that the overburdened heart and strained nerves must find relief first of all. After awhile she began to speak soothing words, and gradually Agony's tempestuous sobs ceased and she grew calm. Then the two talked together for a long while, of the dangers of ambition, the seeking for personal glory at whatever cost. When the rising sun began to redden the ripples on the river Agony's heart once more knew peace, and she lay sleeping quietly, worn out, but tranquil in conscience. She had at last found the courage to make her decision; she would tell the Camp at Morning Sing the true story of the robin, and decline the honor of the Buffalo Robe. Agony's torch, dim and smoky for so long, at last was burning bright and high.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was over. Agony sat on the deck of the Carribou beside Miss Amesbury. Camp had vanished from sight several minutes before behind an abrupt bend in the river, and was now only a memory. Agony sat pensive, her mind going back over the events of the day. It had been harder than she thought--to stand up in Mateka, and looking into the faces about her, tell the story of her deceit, but she had done it without flinching. Of course it had created a sensation. There was a painful silence, then several audible gasps of astonishment, and nervous giggles from the younger girls, and above these the scornful, unpleasant laugh of Jane Pratt. But Agony was strangely serene. Being prepared for almost any demonstration of scorn she was surprised that it was no worse. Now that the weight of deceit was off her conscience and the haunting fear of discovery put at an end the relief was so great that nothing else mattered. She bore it all tranquilly--Dr. Grayson's fatherly advice on the evils of ambition; the snubs of certain girls; Oh-Pshaw's sympathetic tears; Jo Severance's unforgettable look of unbelieving astonishment; Bengal Virden's prompt transferring of her affections to Sahwah; the loving loyalty of the Winnebagos, who said never a word of reproach.

And now it was all over, and she was going away with Miss Amesbury to spend a week with her in her home, going away the day before Camp closed. Miss Amesbury, loving friend that she was, realized that it was well both for Agony and for the rest of the girls that she should not be present at that farewell banquet where she was to have been presented with the Buffalo Robe, and had borne her away as soon as possible.

And now once more it was sunset, and the evening star was shining in the west, and it seemed to Agony that it had never seemed so fair and friendly before. Agony's face was pensive, but her heart was light, for now at last she knew that she was not a coward, and that "when the time came she would be able to do the brave and splendid thing."