Read CHAPTER XII of The Torch Bearer A Camp Fire Girls' Story , free online book, by I. T. Thurston, on ReadCentral.com.

NANCY REXTREW

But that was where Elsie was mistaken. Lena did go the very next afternoon, and dragged the reluctant Eva with her. The girls, proposing to join the Sunday promenade on the Avenue later, were in their Sunday best when they presented themselves at the big, old-fashioned frame house on Capitol Hill.

“Who you goin’ to ask for?” Eva questioned as Lena, lifting the old brass knocker, dropped it sharply.

“The Barlow angel, I s’pose. We don’t know the name of anybody else here,” Lena returned with a grin.

The maid who answered their summons told them to go right upstairs. They would find Mrs. Barlow in Room 10 on the second floor. So they went up, Lena’s eyes, as always, keen and alert, Eva scowling, and wishing herself “out of it.”

“Here’s N it must be that second door beyond,” Lena said in a low tone; but low as it was, somebody heard, for the next door N flew open instantly, and a woman stepped briskly out and faced the girls.

“Come right in come right in,” she said with an imperative gesture. “My! But I’m glad to see ye!”

So compelling was her action that, with a laugh, Lena yielded and Eva followed her as a matter of course.

The woman closed the door quickly, and pulled forward three chairs, planting herself in the third.

“My land, but it’s good to see ye sittin’ there,” she began. “What’s yer names? Mine’s Nancy Rextrew.”

Lena gave their names, and the woman repeated them lingeringly, as if the syllables were sweet on her tongue. Then she tipped her head, pursed her lips, and gave a little cackling laugh.

“I s’pose ye was bound fer her room Mis’ Barlow’s, eh?” she questioned.

“Yes,” Lena admitted, “but ”

“I don’t care nothin’ about it if you was!” Nancy Rextrew broke in hastily, her little black eyes snapping and her wrinkled face all alive with eager excitement. “I don’t care a mite if you was. Mis’ Barlow has somebody a-comin’ to see her nigh about every day, an’ I’ve stood it jest as long as I can. Yesterday when the Chapin girl an’ the Harding girl stayed along of her half the afternoon I made up my mind that the next girl that came through this corridor was a-comin’ in here be she who she might. I was right sure some girl or other’d come on a pretty Sunday like this, to read the Bible or suthin’ to her, an’ I says to myself, ’I’ll kidnap the next one I don’t care if it’s the daughter of the president in the White House.’ An’ I’ve done it, an’ I’m glad!” she added triumphantly, her eyes meeting Lena’s with a flash that drew an answering flash from the girl’s.

“Well, now that you’ve kidnapped us, what next?” Lena demanded with a laugh.

“I do’ know an’ I don’t care what next,” the woman flung out with a gleeful reckless gesture. “Of course I can’t keep ye if ye want to go in there,” with a nod towards N, “but you don’t somehow look like the pious sort. Be ye?”

Lena shook her head. “I guess I’m your sort,” she said. She had never before met an old woman at all like this one, and her heart went out to her. In spite of wrinkles and gray hairs, the spirit of youth nodded to her from Nancy Rextrew’s little black eyes, and something in Lena answered as if in spite of herself.

Nancy hitched her chair closer, and with her elbows on her knees, rested her shrivelled chin on her old hands, wrinkled and swollen at the joints. “Now tell me,” she commanded, “all about yourself. You ain’t no High School girl, I’m thinkin’.”

“You’re right I never got above the seventh grade I had to go to work when I was thirteen. Eva and I both work in Wood and Lanson’s.”

“What d’ye do there?” Nancy snapped out the question, fairly hugging herself in her delight.

“I’m a wrapper in the hosiery department. Eva’s in the hardware.”

“I know I know,” Nancy breathed fast as one who must accomplish much in little time, “I’ve been all over that store. My! But I’d like to see ye both there ’specially you!” Her crooked finger pointed at Lena. “I bet you’re a good one. You could make a cow buy stockings if you took a notion to.”

Lena broke into a shout of laughter at the vision of a cow coming in to be fitted with stockings. “I’m afraid,” she gurgled, “that we’d have to make ’em to order for a cow!” and all three joined in the laughter.

But Nancy could not spare time for much merriment. She poured out eager questions and listened to the answers of the girls with an interest that drew forth ever more details. At last, with a furtive sidelong glance at the clock, she said, “I s’pose now if I should go there to the store you’d be too busy to speak to me or mebbe you wouldn’t want to be seen talkin’ to an old thing like me, an’ I wouldn’t blame ye, neither.”

“Stuff!” retorted Lena promptly. “You come to my place next time you’re down town and I’ll show you. We wouldn’t be shoddy enough to turn down a friend, would we, Eva?”

“I guess no,” Eva agreed, but without enthusiasm.

“A friend!” As Nancy repeated the word a curious quiver swept over her old lined face. “You don’t have to call me a friend,” she said. “Old women like me don’t expect to be called friend didn’t ye know that?”

“I said friend, and I meant what I said,” repeated Lena stoutly, and the old woman swallowed once or twice before she spoke again.

“You’ve told me about your work, now tell me the rest of it the fun part,” she begged.

“O that!” said Lena. “The fun is moving pictures and roller skating and dances and the Avenue parade with the boys along sometimes.”

“I bet ye there’s boys along where you be!” Nancy flashed an admiring glance at the girl. “I always did admire bright hair like yours, an’ a pinch o’ freckles is more takin’ than a dimple if you ask me.”

Had Nancy been the shrewdest of mortals she could have said nothing that would have pleased Lena more. She had been called “Carrots” and “Redhead” all her life, and from the bottom of her soul she loathed her fiery locks and her freckles, though never yet had she acknowledged this to any living creature and here was one who liked freckles and red hair! Lena could have hugged the little old woman beaming at her with such honest admiration. A wave of hot colour swept up to her forehead. But Nancy’s thoughts had taken another turn.

“Movin’ pictures. That’s the new kind of show, ain’t it? I’ve heard about ’em, but I’ve never seen any.”

“You can go for a nickel,” said Eva.

“A nickel?” echoed Nancy, flashing a swift glance at her. “But nickels don’t grow on gooseberry bushes, an’ if they did, there ain’t any gooseberry bushes around here,” she retorted.

“Say ” Lena was leaning forward, her eyes full of interest, “we’ll take you to see the movies any time you’ll go, won’t we, Eva?”

“Er yes, I guess so,” Eva conceded reluctantly; but Nancy paid no attention now to Eva. Her eyes, widened with incredulous joy, were fixed on Lena’s vivid face.

“Do you mean it? You ain’t foolin’?” she faltered.

“Fooling? Well, I guess you don’t know me. When I invite a friend anywhere I mean it. When can you go?”

“When? Now this minute!” Nancy cried, starting eagerly to her feet. Then recollecting herself, she sat down again with a shamefaced little laugh. “For the land’s sake, if I wasn’t forgettin’ all about it’s bein’ Sunday!” she cried under her breath.

“I guess you wouldn’t want to go Sunday,” Lena said. “But how about to-morrow evening?”

Old Nancy drew a long breath. “I s’pose mebbe I can live through the time till then,” she returned. Then with a quick, questioning glance “But s’posing some of your friends should be there? I guess mebbe you wouldn’t care for ’em to see you with an old woman like me in such a place.”

“Don’t you fret yourself about that,” Lena replied. “You just meet us at the corner of Tenth and the Avenue. I’ll be there at half-past seven, if I can. Anyhow, you wait there till I come.”

When the girls went away Nancy Rextrew walked with them down to the front door and stood there watching as long as she could see them, her sharp old face full of pride and joy and hope that had long been strangers there.

“O my Lord!” she said under her breath as she went back to her room and again “O my Lord!”

“That old woman’s going to have the time of her life to-morrow night,” Lena said, as the two girls walked towards the Avenue.

“I don’t suppose she’s got a decent thing to wear,” Eva grumbled.

Lena turned on her like a flash. “I don’t care if she’s got nothing but a nightgown to wear, she shall have a good time for once if I can make her!” she stormed. “Talk about your Mrs. Barlow!” And Eva subsided into cowed silence.

At quarter of eight the next evening, the two girls saw Nancy Rextrew standing on the corner of Tenth Street and the Avenue, peering anxiously first one way and then the other.

“Oh!” groaned Eva. “Lena Barton, look at the shawl she’s got on. I bet it’s a hundred years old and that bonnet!”

“If it’s a hundred years old it’s an antique and worth good money!” retorted Lena. “Hurry up!”

But Eva hung back. “I’d be ashamed forever if any of the boys should see me with her,” she half whimpered.

Lena stopped short and stamped her foot, heedless of interested passers-by. “Then go back!” she cried. “And you needn’t hang around me any more. Go back, I say!” Without another glance at Eva she hurried on, and Eva sulkily followed.

Rapturous relief swept the anxiety from old Nancy’s little triangle of a face as she caught sight of the two girls.

“‘Fraid you’ve been waitin’ an age,” Lena greeted her breezily. “I couldn’t get off as early as I meant to. Come on now we won’t lose any more time,” and slipping her arm under Nancy’s, she swept her, breathless and beaming, towards the brilliantly-lighted show-place.

“Two,” she slapped a dime down before the ticket-taker, quite ignoring Eva, who silently laid a nickel beside the dime.

The place was one of the best of its kind, well ventilated and spaced and, though the lights were turned down, it was by no means dark within. Lena guided the old woman into a seat and sat down beside her, and Eva, after a quick searching glance that revealed none of her acquaintances present, took the next seat.

For the hour that followed Nancy Rextrew was in Fairyland. With breathless interest, her eyes glued to the pictures, her mouth half open, she followed the quick-moving figures through scenes pathetic or ludicrous with an absorbed attention that would not miss the smallest detail. When that popular idol the Imp was performing her antics, the old woman’s quick cackling laugh made Eva drop her head that her big hat might hide her face. When the “Drunkard’s Family” were passing through their harrowing experiences, tears rolled unheeded down old Nancy’s wrinkled cheeks as she sat with her knobby fingers tight clasped.

When, at last, Lena whispered in her ear, “I guess we’ll go now,” Nancy exclaimed,

“Oh! Is it over? I thought it had just begun. But it was beautiful beautiful! I’ll never ”

A loud sharp explosion cut through her sentence and instantly the whole place was in an uproar. Suffocating fumes filled the room with smoke as the lights went out. Then somebody screamed, “Fire! Fire!” and pandemonium reigned. Women shrieked, children wailed, and men and boys fought savagely to get to the doors. Lena was swept on by the first mad rush of the crowd, crazy with fear, but catching at a seat, she tried to slip into it and climb back to Nancy and Eva. Before she could reach them, she saw Eva thrown down in the aisle by a big woman frantic with terror, who tried to walk over her prostrate body, but a pair of bony hands grabbed the woman’s hair and yanked her back, holding her, it seemed, by sheer force of will, for the few precious seconds that gave Lena a chance to pull Eva up and out of the aisle.

“You fools!” The old woman’s voice, shrill and cracked, but steady and unafraid, cut through the babel of shrieks and cries, “You fools, there ain’t no fire! If you’ll stop yellin’ an’ pushin’ and go quiet you’ll all get out in a minute. It’s jest a step to the doors.”

She was only a little old woman a figure of fun, if they could have seen her clearly, with her old bonnet tilted rakishly over one ear and her shawl trailing behind her but through the smoke, in that tumult of fear and dread, the dauntless spirit of her loomed large, and dominated the lesser souls craven with terror.

A draught of air thinned the smoke for a moment, and as those in front rushed out, the pressure in the main aisle lessened. Climbing over the back of a seat, Lena caught the old woman’s arm.

“Come,” she shouted in her ear, “we can get through to the side aisle now that’s almost clear. Come, Eva, buck up buck up, I say, or we’ll never get out of this!” for Eva, terrified, bruised, and half fainting, was now hanging limp and nerveless to Lena’s arm.

“Don’t you worry ‘bout me. Go ahead an’ I’ll follow,” Nancy Rextrew said, and grabbing Eva’s other arm, the two half pushed and half carried her between them. Once outside, her blind terror suddenly left her, and she declared herself all right.

“Well, then, let’s get out of this,” and Lena’s sharp elbows forced a passage through the crowd that was increasing every minute, as the rumour of fire spread. She turned to old Nancy. “We’ll get you on a car My goodness, Eva, catch hold of her quick! We must get her into the drug store there on the corner,” she ended as she saw the old woman’s face.

They got her into the drug store somehow, and then for the first time in her life Nancy Rextrew fainted; and great was her mortification when she came to herself and realised what had happened.

“My soul and body!” she muttered. “I always did despise women that didn’t know no better than to faint, an’ now I’m one of ’em. Gi’ me my Injy shawl an’ let me get away. Yes, I be well enough to go home, too!” She struggled to her feet, and snatching her bonnet from Eva, crammed it on her head anyhow, fumbling with the strings while she swayed dizzily.

“Here, let me tie them,” Eva said gently. “You sit down so I can reach.” She tied the strings very slowly, pulled the old bonnet straight and drew the India shawl over the thin shoulders, taking as much time as she could, to give the old woman a chance to pull herself together.

“I’ll take her home,” Lena said.

“No, you won’t that’s my job!” Eva spoke with unusual decision, and Lena promptly yielded.

“Well I guess you’re right. I guess if it hadn’t been for her ”

“Yes,” said Eva, and her look made further words unnecessary.

The three walked out to the car a few minutes later. The fire in the picture theatre had been quickly put out, and already the crowd in the street was melting away. Nancy looked up and down the wide avenue brilliant with its many electric lights; then as she saw the car coming she turned to Lena, her pale face crinkling into sudden laughter.

“I don’t care it was worth it!” she declared. “I’ve lived more to-night than I have in twenty years before. I loved every minute of it the pictures an’ the fire an’ everything. But see here ” she leaned down and whispered in the girl’s ear, “don’t you let any feller put his arm round you like the man did round that girl that set in front of us don’t you do it!”

“I guess not!” retorted the girl sharply. “I ain’t that kind.”

“That’s right, that’s right! An’ an’ do come an’ see me again some time do, dearie!” the old woman added over her shoulder as the conductor pulled her up the high step of the car.

Eva followed her. “I’m going to see she gets home all right,” she said, and Lena waved her hand as the car passed on.

“An’ to think her sharp old eyes saw that!” Lena thought with a chuckle as she turned away. “An’ me all the time thinkin’ she didn’t see anything but the pictures. Well, you never can tell. But she’s a duck, an’ it’s her gets my nickels angel or no angel. And to think how she kidnapped us the old dear,” and Lena went on laughing to herself.

At the next Camp Fire meeting, Lena, with a mischievous spark in her eyes, called out to Frances Chapin, “Say, Frances, Eva and I took one of your old ladies to the picture show the other night.”

Frances looked distinctly disapproving. “I think you might have made a better use of your money,” she returned.

“I don’t, then!” retorted Lena, and thereupon she told the story of Nancy’s Sunday kidnapping, and of what had happened at the picture show. Her graphic wording held the girls breathless with interest.

“Well!” commented Louise Johnson, “I’d like to see that old lady of yours, Lena.”

“She’s worth seeing.” This from Eva.

A week later Louise announced that she had seen Lena’s old lady. “Saw her at the Home yesterday. I like her. She sure is a peach.”

“Isn’t she just?” Lena responded, her face lighting up. “And did you see Frances’ angel-all-but-the-wings old lady too?”

“Yes, and she’s a peach also, but a different variety,” Louise answered with a laugh. “I gave your Miss Rextrew some mint gum and she popped it into her mouth as handily as if she’d chewed gum all her life.”

Lena nodded. “She wanted to try it. She wants to try everything that is going. She’s a live wire, that’s what she is good old Nancy!”

“We went the rounds Annie Pearson and I,” Louise continued. “Saw all the old ladies except one that doesn’t want any visitors. Most of ’em do, though; and say, girlies ” Louise’s sweeping glance included all in the room “I reckon it won’t hurt any of us to run up there once a month or so when it means such a lot to those old shut-ins to have us.”

There was a swift exchange of amazed glances at this, from Louise Johnson, and then a murmur of assent from several voices, before Mary Hastings in her business-like way suggested, “Why not each of us set a date for going? Then we won’t forget or maybe all go on the same day.”

“All right, Molly you make out the list an’ we’ll all sign it,” Lena said, “and, say make it a nickel fine for any girl that forgets her date or fails to keep it. Does that go, girls?”

“Unless for some good and sufficient reason that she will give at our next meeting,” Laura amended.

Then began a new era for the old ladies at the Home. Always on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and often on other evenings, light footsteps and young voices were heard in the corridors and rooms of the old mansion. Not only gentle Mrs. Barlow and eager old Nancy Rextrew, but all the women who had drifted into this backwater of life found their dull days wonderfully brightened by contact with these young lives. Nancy Rextrew looked years younger than on that Sunday when she had turned kidnapper. Naturally she was still the prime favourite with Lena and Eva, and gloried in that fact. But there were girls “enough to go around” in more senses than one, and most of them were faithful to their agreement, and seldom allowed anything to keep them from the Home on the date assigned to them.