The Camp Fire Girls at School by Hildegard G. Frey
Chapter III. Some Trials of Genius.
"The sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles." Migwan drew the construction lines as indicated in the book and labored valiantly to understand why the Angle A was equal to its alternate, DBA, her brow puckered into a studious frown. Geometry was not her long suit, her talents running to literature and languages. Outside the October sun was shining on the crimson and yellow maples, making the long street a scene of dazzling splendor. The carpet of dry leaves on the walk and sidewalk tantalized Migwan with their crisp dryness; she longed to be out swishing and crackling through them. She sighed and stirred impatiently in her chair, wishing heartily that Euclid had died in his cradle.
"I can't study with all this noise going on!" she groaned, flinging her pencil and compass down in despair. Indeed, it would have taken a much more keenly interested person than Migwan to have concentrated on a geometry lesson just then. From somewhere upstairs there came an ear-splitting din. It sounded like an earthquake in a tin shop, mingled with the noise of the sky falling on a glass roof, and accompanied by the tramping of an army; a noise such as could only have been produced by an extremely large elephant or an extremely small boy amusing himself indoors. Migwan rose resolutely and mounted the stairs to the room overhead, where her twelve-year-old brother and two of his bosom friends were holding forth. "Tom," she said appealingly, "wouldn't you and the boys just as soon play outdoors or in somebody else's house? I simply can't study with all that noise going on."
"But the others have no punching bag," said Tom in an injured tone, "and Jim brought George over especially to-day to practice."
"Can't you take the punching bag over to Jim's?" suggested Migwan desperately.
"Sure," said Jim good-naturedly; "that's a good idea." So the boys unscrewed the object of attraction and departed with it, their pockets bulging with ginger cookies which Migwan gave them as a reward for their trouble. Silence fell on the house and Migwan returned to the mastering of the sum of the angles. Geometry was the bane of her existence and she was only cheered into digging away at it by the thought of the money lying in her name in the bank, which she had received for giving the clew leading to little Raymond Bartlett's discovery the summer before, and which would pay her way to college for one year at least.
The theorem was learned at last so that she could make a recitation on it, even if she did not understand it perfectly, and Migwan left it to take up a piece of work which gave her as much pleasure as the other did pain. This was the writing of a story which she intended to send away to a magazine. She wrote it in the back of an old notebook, and when she was not working at it she kept it carefully in the bottom of her shirtwaist box, where the prying eyes of her younger sister would not find it. She had all the golden dreams and aspirations of a young authoress writing her first story, and her days were filled with a secret delight when she thought of the riches that would soon be hers when the story was accepted, as it of course would be. If she had known then of the long years of cruel disillusionment that would drag their weary length along until her efforts were finally crowned with success it is doubtful whether she would have stayed in out of the October sunshine so cheerfully and worked with such enthusiasm.
Migwan's family could have used to advantage all the gold which she was dreaming of earning. After her father died her mother's income, from various sources, amounted to only about seventy-five dollars a month, which is not a great amount when there are three children to keep in school, and it was a struggle all the way around to make both ends meet. Mrs. Gardiner was a poor manager and kept no accounts, and so took no notice of the small leaks that drained her purse from month to month. She was fond of reading, as Migwan was, and sat up until midnight every night burning gas. Then the next morning she would be too tired to get up in time to get the children off to school, and they would depart with a hasty bite, according to their own fancy, or without any breakfast at all, if they were late. She bought ready-made clothes when she could have made them herself at half the cost, and generally chose light colors which soiled quickly. She never went to the store herself, depending on Tom or scatter-brained Betty, her younger daughter, to do her marketing, and in consequence paid the highest prices for inferior-grade goods.
Thus the seventy-five dollars covered less ground every month as prices mounted, and little bills began to be left outstanding. Part of the income was from a house which rented for twenty dollars but this last month the tenants had abruptly moved, and that much was cut off. Migwan, unbusiness-like as she was, began to be worried about the condition of their affairs, and worked on her story feverishly, that it might be turned into money as soon as possible. She was deep in the intricacies of literary construction when her mother entered the room, broom in hand and dust cap on head, and sank into a chair.
"Do you suppose you could finish this sweeping?" she asked Migwan. "My back aches so I just can't stand up any longer."
"Why can't Betty do it?" asked Migwan a little impatiently, for she thought she ought not be disturbed when she was engaged in such an important piece of work.
"Betty's off in the neighborhood somewhere," said her mother wearily. "Did you ever see her around when there was any work to be done?" Migwan was filled with exasperation. That was the way things always went at their house. Tom was allowed to upset the place from one end to the other without ever having to pick up his things; Betty was never asked to do any housework, and her mother left the Saturday dinner dishes standing and began to sweep in the afternoon and then was unable to finish. Migwan was just about to suggest a search for the errant Betty, when she remembered the "Give Service" part of the Camp Fire Law. She rose cheerfully and took the broom from her mother's hand.
"Lie down a while, mother," she said, plumping up the pillows on the couch. Mrs. Gardiner sank down gratefully and Migwan put away her story and went at the sweeping. She soon turned it into a game in which she was a good fairy fighting the hosts of the goblin Dust, and must have them completely vanquished by four o'clock, or her magic wand, which had for the time being taken the shape of a broom, would vanish and leave her weaponless. Needless to say, she was in complete possession of the field when the clock struck the charmed hour. Being then out of the mood to continue her writing, she passed on into the kitchen and attacked the Fortress of Dishes, which she razed to the ground completely, leaving her banner, in the form of the dish towel, flying over the spot.
"What are you planning for supper?" she asked her mother, looking into the sitting room to see how she was feeling.
"Oh, dear, I don't know," said Mrs. Gardiner. "I hadn't given it a thought. I don't believe there's anything left from dinner. Run down to the store, will you, and get a couple of porterhouse steaks, there's a dear. And stop at the baker's as you come by and get us each a cream puff for dessert. Betty is so fond of them." Migwan returned to the kitchen and got her mother's pocketbook. There was just twenty-five cents in it. Migwan realized with a shock that it would not pay for what her mother wanted, and her sensitive nature shrank from asking to have things charged.
"I won't buy the cream puffs," she decided. "I wonder if there is anything in the house I could make into a dessert?" Search revealed nothing but a bag of prunes, which had been on the shelf for months, and were as dry as a bone. They did not appeal to Migwan in the least, but there was nothing else in evidence. "I might make prune whip," she thought rather doubtfully. "They're pretty hard, but I can soak them. I'll need the oven to make prune whip, so I will bake the potatoes too." She hunted around for the potatoes and finally found them in a small paper bag. "Buying potatoes two quarts at a time must be rather expensive," she reflected. She put the prunes to soak and the potatoes in the oven and went down to the store. "How much is porterhouse steak?" she asked before she had the butcher cut any off.
"Twenty-eight cents a pound," answered the man behind the counter. Migwan gave a little gasp. The money she had would not even buy a pound.
"How much is round steak?" she inquired.
"Twenty-two," came the reply.
"Give me twenty-five cents' worth," she said. It did not look particularly tender and Migwan thought distressedly how her mother would complain when she found round steak instead of porterhouse. "But there is no help for it," she said to herself grimly, "beggars cannot be choosers." She stopped on the way home to get the recipe for prune whip from Sahwah. Sahwah was not at home, but her mother gave Migwan the recipe and added many directions as to the proper mixing of the ingredients. "Is--is there any way of making tough round steak tender?" she asked timidly, just a little ashamed to admit that they had to eat round steak.
"There certainly is," answered Mrs. Brewster. "You just pound all the flour into it that it will take up. I hardly ever buy porterhouse steaks any more since I learned that trick. I am having some to-night. It is one of our favorite dishes here. Round steak prepared in this way is known in the restaurants as 'Dutch steak,' and commands a high price." Considerably cheered by this last intelligence, Migwan sped home and got her prune dessert into the oven and then set to work transforming the tough steak into a tender morsel.
"What kind of meat is this?" asked her mother when they had taken their places at the table.
"Guess," said Migwan.
"It tastes like tenderloin," said her mother.
"Guess again," said Migwan gleefully; "it's round steak."
"The butcher must be buying better meat than usual, then," said Mrs. Gardiner. "I never got such round steak as this out here before."
"And you never will, either," said Migwan, swelling with pride, "if you leave it to the butcher," and she told how she had treated the steak to produce the present result.
"I never heard of that before," said her mother, amazed at this simple culinary trick.
Next the prune whip was brought on and pronounced good by every one and "bully" by Tom, who ate his in great spoonfuls. "I see I'll have to let you get the meals after this," said Mrs. Gardiner to Migwan. "You have a knack of putting things together, which I have not."
Migwan was too tired to write any more that night after the dishes were done, but she was entirely light-hearted as she wove into her bead band the symbols of that day's achievements--a broom and a frying pan. She had learned something that afternoon besides how to prepare beefsteak. She had waked up to the careless fashion in which the house was being run, and her head was full of plans for cutting down expenses. Monday afternoon, on her way home from school, Migwan saw a farmer's wagon standing in front of the Brewsters' home, and Mrs. Brewster stood at the curb, buying her winter supply of potatoes.
"Have you put your potatoes in yet?" she asked as Migwan came along.
Migwan stopped. "I don't believe we ever bought them in large quantities," she answered. "How much are they a bushel?"
"Sixty-five cents," said the farmer. Migwan made a quick mental calculation. At the rate they had been buying potatoes in two-quart lots they had been paying a dollar and seventy-five cents a bushel. Migwan came to a sudden decision.
"Are they all good?" she asked Mrs. Brewster.
"They have always been in the past years," answered Sahwah's mother, "and I have bought my potatoes from this man for the last six winters."
"How many would it take for a family of four?" asked Migwan.
"About five bushels," answered Mrs. Brewster.
"All right," said Migwan to the man; "bring five bushels over to this address." The potatoes were duly deposited in the Gardiner cellar, without asking the advice of Mrs. Gardiner, which was the only safe way of getting things done, for had she been consulted she would surely have wanted to wait a while, and then would have kept putting it off until it was too late. It was the same way with flour and sugar. Migwan found that her mother had been buying these in small quantities at an exorbitant price, and calmly took matters into her own hands, ordering a whole barrel of flour, because there was more in a barrel even than in four sacks. A certain large store was offering a liberal discount that week on fifty pounds of sugar, and Migwan took advantage of this sale also.
Then she had a terrified counting up. Those three items, potatoes, flour and sugar, had used up every cent of that week's income, leaving nothing at all for running expenses. All other supplies would have to be bought on credit. Migwan made a careful estimate of the necessary expenses for the coming week, and pare down as she might, the sum was nearly fifteen dollars. The loss of the rent money was making itself keenly felt. "Mother," she said quietly, looking up from her account book, "we can't live on fifty-five dollars a month. We must rent the house again immediately."
Mrs. Gardiner made a gesture of despair. "The sign has been up nearly a month, and if people don't make inquiries I can't help it."
"Have you been in the house since the last people moved out?" asked Migwan.
"No," said Mrs. Gardiner; "what good would that do? I haven't the time to go all the way over to the East Side to look at that old house. People know it's for rent, and if they want it they'll take it without my sitting over there waiting for them."
Nevertheless, Migwan made the long trip the very next day after school to look at the property. "It's no wonder no one has been making inquiries for it," she said when she returned. "The 'For Rent' sign was gone and I found it later when I was going back up the street. Some boys had used it to make the end piece of a wagon. Then, the plumbing is bad and the cellar is flooded, and the water will not run off in the kitchen sink. These must have been the repairs the old tenants wanted made when you told them you had no money to fix the house, and so they moved. I don't blame them at all.
"Then, there is another thing I thought of when I was looking through the rooms. You know that big unfinished space over the kitchen? Well, I thought, why can't we make a furnished room of that? There is space enough to build a large room and a bathroom, for part of it is just above the bathroom downstairs. A large furnished room with a private bath would bring in ten dollars a month. It is just at the head of the back stairs and the side door where the back stairs connect with the cellar way could be used as a private entrance, so the tenants of the house would not be disturbed in the least. It would cost over a hundred dollars to do it, most likely, but we could borrow the money from my college fund and the extra rent would soon pay it back." Migwan's eyes were shining with ambition.
Mrs. Gardiner shook her head wearily. "We never could do it," she answered. "Something would surely happen to upset our plans."
But Migwan was not to be waved aside. She had seen a vision of increased income and meant to make it come true. She argued the merits of her idea until Mrs. Gardiner was too tired of the subject to argue back, and agreed that if Miss Kent approved the step she would give her consent. Nyoda was therefore called into consultation. She looked at the house and saw no reason why the improvements could not be made to advantage. The house was in a good neighborhood, and furnished rooms were always in demand. She advised the step and gave Mrs. Gardiner the names of several contractors whom she knew to be reliable. Mrs. Gardiner was a little breathless at the speed with which things were moving, but there was no stopping Migwan once she was started. A contractor was engaged and work begun on the house one week from the day Migwan had thought of the plan.
Meanwhile financial matters at home were in bad shape, and Mrs. Gardiner willingly gave over the distribution of the family budget to Migwan. She herself was utterly unable to cope with the problem. And Migwan surprised even herself by the efficient way in which she managed things. By planning menus with the greatest care and omitting meat from the bill of fare to a great extent she made it possible to live on their slender income until the rent would begin to come in again.
"Whatever have you done with yourself?" asked Gladys at the weekly meeting of the Camp Fire. "Of late you rush home from school as if you were pursued." Migwan only laughed and said she had had uncommonly hard problems to solve these last few weeks. The other girls of course did not know the exact state of the Gardiner finances, and never dreamed that Migwan was having a struggle even to stay in high school. She was such a fine, aristocratic-looking girl, and was so sparkling and witty all the time that it was hard to connect her with poverty and worry.
"Let's all go to the matinee next Saturday afternoon," suggested Gladys. "The 'Blue Bird' is going to be played." The girls agreed eagerly and asked Gladys to get seats for them, all but Migwan, who said nothing.
"Don't you want to go, Migwan?" they asked.
"Not this time," Migwan answered in a casual tone. "There is something else I have to do Saturday afternoon." The girls accepted this explanation readily. It never occurred to them that Migwan could not afford to go.
"What is this mysterious something you are always doing?" asked Gladys teasingly. "Girls, I believe Migwan is writing a book. She has retired from polite society altogether." Migwan smiled blandly at her, but made no answer.
At home that night, however, she felt very low-spirited indeed. She was only human, after all, and wanted dreadfully to go to the matinee with the girls. Gladys would take them all to Schiller's afterward for a parfait and bring them home in style in her machine. It did not seem fair that she should be cut off from every pleasure that involved the spending of a little money. This was her last year in high school, the year which should be the happiest, but she must resolutely turn her face away from all those little festivities that add such touches of color to the memory fabric of school days. She knew that at the merest hint of her circumstances to Gladys or Nyoda they would have gladly paid her way everywhere the group went, but Migwan's pride forbade this. If she could not afford to go to places she would stay at home and nobody would be any the wiser. Nevertheless, a few tears would come at the thought of the good time she was missing, and she had no heart to work on her story.
"Cry-baby!" she said to herself fiercely, winking the tears back. "Crying because you can't do as you would like all the time! You're lots better off than poor Hinpoha this very minute, even if she is rich. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" The thought of Hinpoha, who would likewise miss the jolly party, comforted her somewhat, and she dried her tears and fell to writing with a will.
Now Nyoda, although she did not know just how hard pressed the Gardiners were at that time, rather surmised something of the kind, and wondered, after she left the girls, if that were not the reason for Migwan's not planning to go to the matinee. She remembered Migwan's saying some time before that she wanted very much to see "The Bluebird" when it came. She knew it would never do to offer to pay Migwan's way; Migwan was too proud for that. She lay awake a long time over it and finally formulated a plan. The next morning when Migwan came to school she saw a conspicuous notice on the Bulletin Board:
LOST: Handbag containing book of lecture notes and ticket for Saturday afternoon's performance of "The Bluebird." Finder may keep theater ticket if he or she will return notebook to Miss Moore, Room 10.
Migwan read the notice and passed on, as did the other pupils. That morning in English class Nyoda sent Migwan to an unused lecture room to get an English book she had left there. When Migwan opened the door she stumbled over something on the floor. It was a lady's handbag. She opened it and found Miss Moore's notebook and the theater ticket inside. Miss Moore was overjoyed at the return of the notebook and insisted on her keeping the ticket, which Migwan at first declined to accept. "My dear child," said Miss Moore, "if you knew what trouble I had collecting those notes you would think, too, that it was worth the price of a theater ticket to get them back!" And when Migwan's back was turned she winked solemnly at Nyoda. By a curious coincidence that seat was directly behind those occupied by the other Winnebagos!