Chapter VIII. Squads Left
 

"M-a-r-r-k t-i-m-e, m-a-h-k!"

Sixteen pairs of feet rose and fell with a soft thudding rhythm on the hard dirt road.

"One--two--three--four! One--two--three--four! F-or-r-r-d H'n-c-h!"

The double line of fours wavered for a moment and then strode forward uncertainly, some on the left foot, some on the right.

"HALT!" shouted the drill sergeant in a voice bristling with disgust.

The company halted.

"What does 'Forward Hunch' mean?" whispered Hinpoha to Sahwah, who stood beside her.

Sahwah shook her head.

"No talking in the ranks!" came the stern order from up front. Hinpoha subsided.

"R-r-r-i-g-h-t D-r-r-e-s-s!"

Heads whirled to the right as though turned by a single screw, and bent-up left elbows pressed stiffly into neighboring ribs.

"F-r-r-o-n-t!"

Heads whirled back and arms straightened out at sides as though released by a spring.

"R-r-i-g-h-t D-r-e-s-s!"

Heads and arms repeated their swift motions.

"Hold it! Hold it!" rasped the voice. "Who said 'Front?' Here, Redhead!"

Hinpoha hastily resumed the position she had abandoned too soon.

"Now, FRONT! Again, RIGHT DRESS! FRONT! R-r-r-e-a-d-y! M-a-r-r-k t-i-m-e, M-a-h-k! One-two-three-four! F-or-r-d HUNCH! Wake up there, Redhead!"

Hinpoha jumped and caught pace with the rest of her squad, who were several steps ahead, and then it dawned on her that "F-o-r-r-r-d Hunch!" must mean "Forward March!"

"One-two-three-four! Left! Left! Left! Left! You with the plaid tie, get in step!"

Migwan shuffled her feet and fell into rhythm.

"One-two-three-four!" The drill sergeant rapped out a jarringly emphatic accent against a tree with her staff.

She was a college gymnasium teacher home on her summer vacation; her name was Miss Raper. She had a tremendous reputation for rigid discipline in her classes. She had been trained in military drilling by an army drill officer and had acquired all his mannerisms, from the way of shouting his orders in such a way that it was next to impossible to understand them, to his merciless habit of calling out by name every one who made the slightest error.

"HALT! GUIDE RIGHT! Head to the front, there, Black Eyes! R-r-e-a-d-y! LEFT WHEEL!"

The squads wheeled in decidedly shaky order.

"Again! LEFT WHEEL! Hold your pivot there! H-o-l-d y-o-u-r p-i-v-o-t! Stand still, you Redhead, and wheel in place! Again! Left Wheel!"

So the endless tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp went on under the blistering July sun; the squads perspired and panted, muscles ached from the continued exertion and heels began to feel as though pounded to pulp from the violence with which they marked the accent.

But never a word of complaint did anyone breathe. They gloried in their discomfort. For this hot dusty road over which they toiled and perspired so was the road to glory, the avenue down which the girls of Oakwood, led by the Winnebagos, would march to triumph over their sworn rivals, the Hillsdale-ites.

Agony had gone through the town and picked out the most promising girls, whom, with the addition of the Winnebagos, she formed into a company. They drilled for an hour every morning with Miss Raper in the wide dirt road that ran along the foot of the hill behind Carver House.

The hour drew to a close with a final strenuous series of left and right wheels and the Winnebagos sought the shade of the trees along the roadside and fanned themselves with leaves.

"How did we do to-day, Miss Raper?" inquired Agony, as the drill sergeant prepared to depart.

"I congratulate you," replied Miss Raper with sarcastic wit. "I never saw it done worse."

The company recognized the fact that it was a tactical error to try to draw any praises to themselves from Miss Raper. Yet they did not consider themselves abused, nor did they harbor any hard feelings toward her on account of her sharp tongue. They realized that she was a "crackerjack" trainer, and for the sake of winning that contest they were willing to endure her caustic comments meekly.

"I'll never get left and right wheel correctly," sighed Oh-Pshaw with a discouraged air. "No matter which one she says, I always go in the opposite direction. I get so fussed when she looks at me that I can't tell my left foot from my right."

"Never mind, you'll get it in time," said Migwan soothingly. "I had the same trouble at first, but I'm getting sort of used to her now."

"I'm awfully stupid about things like that," mourned Oh-Pshaw, "and I'm afraid I'll never get over getting fussed. I never could stand up in front of anybody and perform; the minute I see people looking at me I forget everything I know and stand there like a dummy."

"Cheer up, child," said Migwan, "it isn't nearly as bad as you make out. Just think of the command and forget all about yourself and Miss Raper and then you'll get it right every time."

"I hope so," said Oh-Pshaw with a sigh.

"You'll have to get over it," said Agony emphatically. "If you make any mistakes on the night of the contest--!" Agony's voice hinted at the awful consequences which would follow such a misdemeanor.

"She isn't going to make any mistakes the night of the contest," said Migwan, putting her arm through Oh-Pshaw's and starting off toward Carver House.

The rest sauntered after them in twos and threes, practising drill steps as they went. Sahwah slipped her arm through Veronica's.

"Let's go over into the woods awhile before lunch," she said, "just us two."

Veronica came willingly and together they struck into the shady wood path, flecked here and there with irregular patches of sunlight which filtered through the branches above them. It was a pleasant place, this strip of woods crowning a gently rolling hill behind the town. Fallen logs thickly upholstered with moss made delightful sofas especially designed for friends to sit upon and exchange confidences. Veronica and Sahwah often came here on their walks.

Veronica was in a merry mood to-day and danced gaily down the path in pursuit of butterflies; waved her hands and called out gay greetings to the squirrels and chipmunks, and constantly exclaimed aloud in wonder and delight at some bit of brilliant orange-colored fungus, or some bright flower that greeted her eyes.

Sahwah was more quiet, and there was a sober look in her eyes. Her mind was filled with perplexity, and her heart with foreboding, and the cause was Veronica. The mystery that seemed to be hovering over her head had not been dispelled as the days went on; on the contrary, it had been deepened. Several more times Sahwah had seen her slipping out of the house at dead of night and an incident had occurred several days before which Sahwah was not able to put out of her mind.

Sahwah was behind the big carved settle in the hall, fishing for a bead that had rolled underneath, when the telephone rang. The telephone was in the hall, at the other end near the dining-room door. Sahwah sighed, thinking she would have to crawl out and answer it, because Nyoda and the girls were all out in the yard working among the vegetables, but just then she heard Veronica answer the call, and went on placidly feeling for her bead. Near to the telephone as she was, she could not help hearing every word Veronica said.

Instead of the "Mrs. Sheridan is in the garden, I will call her," that Sahwah had expected to hear. Veronica had answered, "This is Veronica talking. Yes, I can. I will come immediately. The coast is clear. No one is in the house just now and I can slip away without rousing any suspicions."

Then Sahwah heard her hang up the receiver and pass out of the hall. Sahwah sat up quickly and bumped her head sharply on the back of the settle. Then, as the significance of the conversation she had just overheard sank into her mind she remembered Veronica's mysterious nocturnal errands, and it came to her in a startled flash that Veronica was carrying on something which was a secret from the others--was stealing away from the house to meet someone. She sprang out from behind the settle, not knowing what she intended to do, but bent on seeing where Veronica went.

The hall was empty; Veronica was not there. Sahwah darted to the front door, expecting to see Veronica going down the walk to the street, but there was no sign of her. The street lay clear in the sunshine for its whole length down the hill; there was not a soul in it. Veronica could not have gone out the front way. Neither could she have gone out the back way, because the vegetable garden came up close to the kitchen door, and there Nyoda and the Winnebagos, including Agony and Oh-Pshaw, were working. Veronica must still be in the house. Sahwah went back in and looked through all the rooms for her, upstairs and down, but she was nowhere to be found.

Sahwah sat down on the lowest step of the stairway and thought, and thought, and a great dread came over her and would not be beaten back, a dread of something nameless and undefined, a sinister something that hovered over her with great dark wings, like the Thunder Bird. In an agony of love and sorrow Sahwah faced the fact which her prophetic soul, in its new insight, told her, even while her loyal heart tried to stop the whisper with a resolute hand.

Veronica had been caught in the toils of enemy agents, and was in some way having dealings with them. Sahwah's heart turned to water within her, and the strength went from her knees so that she could not stand up. Veronica, one of the Winnebagos! It was too horrible to believe! She couldn't believe it! She wouldn't believe it! Her loyal heart stood up firmly to her prophetic soul and shouted defiant denials at its insinuating whispers. No, no! Veronica was not deceiving them; she was the sincere, true-hearted girl they thought her, and she was as loyal to America as they were. There must be some explanation for her mysterious actions; it would all come out in time. She would be true to Veronica and keep what she knew to herself, until she found out the truth. She would never let Veronica know that she suspected her, never. All her love for Veronica came over her in a rush and scattered to flight the dark suspicions.

A call from the garden broke on her ear. "Sahwah! Oh, Sahwah! Where are you?"

"Here," she answered, appearing at the back door.

"Where have you been?" called Hinpoha. "We've been calling and calling for you. Come look at the robin trying to swallow the enormous angle worm twice as big as himself!"

Sahwah went out, trying to look perfectly natural, and feeling as though her secret were written on her face in letters a foot high. She looked at the girls closely, to see if by any chance Veronica were among them, but she was not.

"Where's Veronica?" she asked in a voice which she hoped sounded idle and casual.

"Gone up to her room to lie down a while," replied Nyoda. "She got a headache from the sun. She asked to be left undisturbed until dinner time."

("Oh, if she only were in her room," thought poor Sahwah!)

"Come on and help pick raspberries," said Nyoda. "We miss your nimble fingers."

So Sahwah fell to work among the bushes, absently stripping off the luscious red globes into the baskets, but her mind was far away and she took little part in the gay talk that went on around her. By and by, when the berries were all picked, Migwan said:

"Let's make a basket of leaves and fill it with some of the largest berries and take it to Veronica."

Sahwah's heart bounded painfully. "Let me take it up," she begged.

"All right," replied Migwan. "The rest of us are going to walk over with Agony and Oh-Pshaw while they take their berries home."

The rest went out of the front gate and Sahwah, not knowing what else to do, went upstairs to Veronica's room, carrying the berries. She planned to leave them on Veronica's dresser as a surprise for her when she should return, and then sit in her own room and read until dinner time. Thinking Veronica's room was empty she went right in without knocking. Then she paused in astonishment, for there on the bed lay Veronica, with a wet towel tied around her head and her forehead drawn up into painful headache lines. Sahwah nearly dropped the berries on the floor in her surprise, but recovered herself with an effort and approached the bed.

Veronica opened her eyes and smiled when she saw Sahwah. Sahwah, unable to think of a thing to say, held out the berries silently, and Veronica exclaimed in delight:

"You dear thing," she said, taking the dainty basket in one hand and catching hold of Sahwah's hand with the other. "You're so good to me," she whispered, squeezing the hand she held and looking up at Sahwah with wide-open, candid eyes. "Come, sit on my bed, and make my headache go away, like you did once before."

Sahwah sat down beside her and smoothed her throbbing forehead with light, soothing fingers that had a magic power to charm away aches and pains. As she worked over Veronica and caught the sweet, straightforward glances from her eyes all her doubts concerning her vanished, and in their place there came uncertainty as to whether she herself had not been suffering under a delusion that afternoon. Had she really heard the telephone ring and Veronica answer it? Had hearing played some bizarre trick on her? She seemed to be perfectly awake and in her right mind in other respects. The girls had evidently not noticed anything peculiar about her actions when she came out of the house, not even Nyoda, the sharp sighted. Clearly she had not been walking in her sleep. She had certainly heard the telephone ring; she had certainly heard Veronica answer it. She had understood every word she had said perfectly; the hall had been absolutely still. And yet--she had not heard Veronica go out of either door! She remembered that distinctly, but her first impulse had been to wait until Veronica had gone out of the front door and then look after her. It was impossible not to have heard the front door open; one hinge was rusty and it emitted a dismal squeak every time the door opened. But if she had gone out of the back door the others would have seen her and would not have said that she was upstairs in her room. That was the point which made Sahwah doubt her own memory. Veronica had not left the house; she must have gone right upstairs. And she must have said something else through the telephone and Sahwah's ears had played her a trick. It was easy to have missed her in her search through the big house; Sahwah had merely run into one room after another, given a hasty glance around and then run on to the next.

Sahwah smoothed the brown satiny forehead lovingly, and laughed at herself for a suspicious idiot. And yet, the occurrence would not go from her mind, and she wakened in the night to think about it hour after hour and when she did sleep she was oppressed with a constant feeling of uneasiness, and woke again and again with that sense of groping after something that had just occurred, but which had escaped her utterly.

Then the next morning her doubts all vanished once more when the Winnebagos assembled on the front lawn for flag raising, and Veronica, whose turn it was to hoist the Stars and Stripes, stepped out with shining eyes, and with loving hands fastened the flag of her adopted country to the waiting halyard, carefully keeping it from touching the ground, and with an attitude both proud and humble sent it fluttering to the top of the pole. Then she joined in the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner" with all her soul in her voice.

Clearly her actions told more eloquently than any passionate words her love and reverence for that flag and all it symbolized. No, it could not be possible that she could be connected with anything that aimed to harm it.

And yet--that very night Sahwah had seen Veronica leaving the house after midnight when the rest were all asleep, and going down the hill behind the barn, and at the sight Sahwah had experienced that same indescribable chill of fear that she had felt in the train; a peculiar sense of hovering danger; a sensation which she could never clearly define while it lasted nor describe afterwards.

She still kept the secret, but it haunted her day and night and tormented her with its thousand possibilities. At last it seemed as if she could endure it no longer without an explanation of some kind and she made up her mind to ask Veronica about it. For this end she had asked her to come into the woods to-day.

But the sight of Veronica, skipping gaily before her along the path, whistling to the birds, calling the squirrels, whispering affectionate words to the shy flowers, made her fears seem ridiculous, and her resolution wavered and threatened to crumble. There was not a shadow on Veronica's brow, not a glint of furtiveness in her eye, nowhere a hint of any secret knowledge or subdued excitement. Her eyes met Sahwah's with candid directness, her laughter was spontaneous and not forced; she was neither paler than usual nor more flushed. How perfectly absurd to connect this happy-hearted girl with anything suspicious!

And yet--Sahwah knew now beyond a doubt that she had not been dreaming when she saw Veronica leave the house at night, and there was still that strange conversation over the telephone.

Sahwah slackened her pace and rubbed her ankles together, a gesture which in her denoted intensely concentrated thought. Veronica looked back to see where she was and came back to her, slipping her arm around her waist and hugging her in an ecstasy of girlish delight, born of the beautiful weather and the release from strenuous military drill.

"Oh, look at the darling old stump!" she exclaimed. "Why, it must be miles across! Think what a tree that must have been! See, it has a sort of step up and then a broad seat, just like a throne. Come on, let's climb up and pretend we're queens."

She climbed up on the stump and drew Sahwah up after her.

"Why are you so quiet?" she asked finally, twisting her head and looking around into Sahwah's face. "Have you a headache? The sun was so hot out there in the road where we were drilling, and the glare was so blinding."

"No, I haven't a headache," replied Sahwah slowly.

"A toothache, maybe?" suggested Veronica in a playful voice in which there was a dash of concern. It was unusual indeed for Sahwah to lose her animation.

"No, it isn't a toothache," replied Sahwah. "It's just something I've been trying to figure out, that's all."

"Can I help you figure it out?" asked Veronica eagerly.

"Veronica," began Sahwah, striving to speak in an offhand manner, "if--if you had a friend that you loved and that friend did something that you couldn't understand and which seemed very strange and even suspicious to you, what would you do?"

Veronica's eyes took on a thoughtful, far-away look, but they met Sahwah's squarely. "If I loved that friend very much," she replied slowly, "and had always trusted her before, I would say to myself, 'This is my friend whom I love and trust I don't understand what she is doing, but I won't permit myself to have any doubts about her now. I will have faith that she is doing nothing wrong. I will wait patiently and see what happens further, and very likely the matter will soon be explained to my satisfaction,'"

"But," continued Sahwah, slowly and with an evident effort, "supposing you had done that, had refused to have any doubts concerning your friend and had waited patiently, trusting that it was all right, but things had not been explained to your satisfaction, and other things had happened, things still stranger and more suspicious?"

To Sahwah, watching intently, it seemed that Veronica's large luminous eyes had suddenly filmed over like an animal's in pain, but she answered naturally, in her calm, sweet voice, "Then, if I really loved that friend, and was afraid my suspicions were going to injure our friendship, I would go to her and tell her what I had heard and seen and ask her for an explanation."

Sahwah was silent for a moment, seemingly engaged in some inward struggle with herself. Then she cleared her throat nervously and moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue.

"Veronica," she burst out desperately, "why did you go out of the house in the middle of the night on several occasions, and whom were you talking to on the telephone that day when you said to someone that you could slip out at that time without arousing any suspicions?"

Veronica started painfully and stared at Sahwah in amazement, and Sahwah fancied she saw a great terror leap up in her eyes. Veronica looked at her a moment, the expression of astonishment frozen on her face, and then to Sahwah's great bewilderment she laughed aloud, a genuine, mirthful, unforced, ringing laugh.

"Sahwah dear," she said, looking her straight in the eye, "it's perfectly true, all that you said. I did go out of the house in the middle of the night, and I did say just exactly what you said you heard me say over the telephone. But as for the explanation, I can't give it now. It may be that you will never find out. It is not my secret, and I cannot tell it, even to clear away any suspicions you may have regarding it."

Sahwah gazed at her uncertainly, going over in her mind the unexpected effect her words had had upon Veronica, and the mysterious thing she had said in reply. They had both stepped off the throne and stood facing each other in the path. Veronica came up close to Sahwah and slipped a hand around each of her elbows and squeezed them, her favorite caress.

"Sahwah, dear," she said soberly, while the hurt animal look came back into her eyes, "you wouldn't want me to tell you my secret, would you, dear? I wouldn't want you to tell me yours, if you had one."

Sahwah felt rebuked and abashed, and very, very sorry. Her love for Veronica flamed higher than ever; all doubts concerning her vanished for good; she hugged and caressed her and begged to be forgiven for her foolishness, and with arms tightly entwined the two went blithely down the path.