Read CHAPTER VIII - AT THE WHITE HOUSE of The Automobile Girls At Washington, free online book, by Laura Dent Crane, on ReadCentral.com.

Mollie Thurston was not well the next day. She stayed in bed and explained that her head ached. And Harriet Hamlin behaved very strangely. She was shut up in the room with Mollie for a long time; when she came out Mollie’s eyes were red, and Harriet looked white as a sheet. But neither of the girls would say what was the matter.

Just before the hour for starting to the White House reception, Mollie got out of bed and insisted on dressing.

“I am afraid you are not well enough to go out to-night, Mollie,” Bab protested. “I hope you won’t be too disappointed. Shall I stay at home with you?”

Mollie shook her head obstinately. “I am quite well now,” she insisted. “Bab, would you mind leaving me alone while I dress? I do feel nervous, and I know Ruth and Grace won’t care if you go into their room.”

“All right, Mollie,” Barbara agreed cheerfully, wondering what had come over her little sister. “Call me when you wish me to button your gown. I have put the yellow one out on the lounge, if you should decide to wear it.”

When Mollie was left alone two large tears rolled down her cheeks. Once she started to crawl back into bed and to give up the reception altogether. But, after a while, she walked over to her closet and drew out a great box. With trembling fingers Mollie opened it and gazed in upon the exquisite blue frock that had already caused her so much embarrassment and regret.

Should she wear the frock that night? Mollie Thurston asked herself. And what would Bab say when she saw it? For Mollie had not yet mustered up the courage to make her confession. Well, come what might, Mollie decided to wear her new frock this one time. She had risked everything to own it, so she might as well have this poor pleasure.

When Mollie joined Mr. Hamlin and the other girls downstairs a long party cape completely concealed her gown.

Mr. Hamlin did not keep a private carriage; so, as long as Ruth’s automobile was in Washington, he decided to take his party to the White House in Ruth’s car.

The girls were ready early, for Mr. Hamlin explained to them that they would have to take their position in the line of carriages that slowly approached the White House door, and that sometimes this procession was nearly a mile in length.

“I suppose you girls won’t mind the waiting as much as we older people do, because you always have so much to say to each other. And perhaps this is my best chance to learn to know you better. I have been so busy that I have seen little of you during your visit to Harriet.”

But Mollie and Harriet were strangely silent, and Bab felt absolutely tongue-tied before Mr. Hamlin. Fortunately, Grace and Ruth sat on each side of him.

“Mr. Hamlin,” Grace asked timidly, “would you mind telling me what are the duties of the Secretary of State? Washington is like a new, strange world to us. I have learned the titles of the different members of the President’s Cabinet, but I have not the faintest idea what they do. Mollie and I looked over the cards of the guests who came to your reception. Some of the cards just read: ‘The Speaker,’ ’The Chief of Staff,’ ‘L’Ambassadeur de France,’ without any personal names at all.”

Mr. Hamlin seemed pleased. The stern, half-embarrassed expression, that he usually wore before the girls relaxed a little at Grace’s eager questioning.

“I am glad, Miss Carter, to find you take an interest in Washington affairs,” he answered. “It is most unusual in a young girl. I wish Harriet cared more about them, but she seems devoted only to society.” Mr. Hamlin sighed under his breath. “Yes; it is the custom for the officials in Washington to put only the titles of their office on their visiting cards. You are sure you wish to know the duties of the Secretary of State? I don’t want to bore you, my child.”

Grace nodded her head eagerly.

“Well, let me see if I can make it plain to you. The Secretary of State has charge of all the correspondence between the foreign countries and their representatives in the United States,” Mr. Hamlin continued. “Do you understand?”

“I think I do,” Grace answered hesitatingly, while Bab leaned over from the next seat to see if she could understand what Mr. Hamlin was explaining.

“The Secretary of State also receives all kinds of information from the consuls and diplomatic officers, who represent the United States abroad,” Mr. Hamlin went on. “Sometimes this information is very important and very secret. It might bring on serious trouble, perhaps start a war with another country, if some of these secrets were discovered. The Secretary of State has other duties; he keeps the Great Seal of the United States. But my chief business as Assistant Secretary is just to look after the important private correspondence with all the other countries.”

“Father,” exclaimed Harriet, “why are you boring the girls to death with so much information? They don’t understand what you mean. I have been living in Washington for four years, and I have not half an idea of what your duties are. But thank goodness, we have arrived at the White House at last!”

Their motor car had finally drawn up before the entrance to the Executive Mansion at the extremity of the eastern wing. The house was a blaze of lights; the Marine Band was playing a national air.

Harriet, who was familiar with all the rules that govern the President’s receptions, quickly marshaled her guests into the lobby, where they had to take off their coats and hats.

Bab was so overcome at the enormous number of people about her, that she did not see Mollie remove her cape.

Mollie slipped quietly into a corner, and was waiting by Harriet’s side, when Harriet called the other girls to hurry up the broad stairs to the vestibule above, where the guests were forming in line to enter the reception room.

Barbara, Ruth and Grace gave little gasps of astonishment when they first beheld Mollie. If little Mollie Thurston’s heart was heavy within her on this brilliant occasion, she held her pretty head very high. The worry and excitement had given her a slight fever; her cheeks were a deep carmine and her eyes glittered brightly.

“Why, Mollie! What a vision you are!” exclaimed Ruth and Grace together. “Where did you get that wonderful gown? You have been saving it to surprise us to-night, haven’t you?”

But Bab did not say a single word. She only looked at Mollie, her face paling a little with surprise and curiosity. How had Mollie come by a gown that was more beautiful than anything Bab had ever seen her sister wear? Barbara knew Mollie had not had the gown when they left home together, for she had packed her sister’s trunk for her. But this was not the time to ask questions. Bab’s mind was divided between the wonder and delight she felt at the scene before her, and amazement at Mollie’s secret. “I do hope,” she thought, as she followed Mr. Hamlin up the steps, “that Mollie has not borrowed that gown of Harriet. But no; it fits her much too well. Some one must have given it to her as a present and she has kept the secret until to-night to surprise me.”

The “Automobile Girls” stood behind Mr. Hamlin and Harriet in the great vestibule just outside the famous Blue Room of the White House, where the President and his wife were waiting to receive their guests. The line was moving forward so slowly that the girls had a chance to look about them. Never had any one of them beheld such a beautiful spectacle. Of course the “Automobile Girls” had been present at a number of receptions during their brief social careers, but for the first time to-night they saw men in other than ordinary evening dress. The diplomats from other countries wore their superb court costumes with the insignia of their rank. The American Army and Navy officers had on their bright full dress uniforms.

Bab thought the Russian Ambassador the most superb looking man she had ever seen, and Mollie blushed when Lieutenant Elmer Wilson bowed gallantly to her across the length of the hall.

When the girls first took up their positions in the line, they believed they would never grow weary of looking about them. But by and by, as they waited and the number of people ahead of them only slowly decreased, they grew tired.

A girl passed by Barbara and smiled. It was Marjorie Moore. She was not going to try to shake hands with the President. She had a note book and a pencil in her hand and was evidently bent on business. Barbara also caught a glimpse of Peter Dillon, but he did not come up to speak to them.

Mr. Hamlin’s charges at last entered the Blue Room. The President and his receiving party stood by a pair of great windows hung with heavy silk portieres.

It was now almost time for the “Automobile Girls” to shake hands with the President. They were overcome with nervousness.

Harriet was next to her father; Bab stood just behind Harriet, followed by Ruth, Grace and Mollie.

“You are just supposed to shake hands with the President, not to talk to him,” Harriet whispered. “Then the President’s wife is next and you may greet the other women in the receiving line as you pass along. The Vice-President’s wife stands next to the President’s wife and the ladies of the Cabinet just after her.”

Bab watched Harriet very carefully. She was determined to make no false moves.

Finally, Barbara heard her name announced by the Master of Ceremonies. She felt her heart stop beating for a moment, and the color mount to her cheeks. The next moment her hand was clasped in that of the President of the United States.

Barbara said a little prayer of thankfulness when she had finished speaking to all the receiving ladies. She felt glad, indeed, when Mr. Hamlin drew her behind a thick blue silk cord, where the President’s special guests were talking in groups together. Bab then watched Ruth, Grace and Mollie go through the same formality.

Now nobody had ever warned Mollie that it was not good form to speak to the President before he spoke to her. She thought it was polite to make some kind of a remark when she was introduced to him. So all the way up the line she had been wondering what she ought to say.

As the President took Mollie’s little hand he bent over slightly. For a very small voice said, “I like Washington very much, Mr. President.”

The President smiled. “I am glad you do,” he answered.

A little later, Mr. Hamlin took the girls through all the state apartments of the White House. One of these rooms was less crowded than the others. Groups of Mr. Hamlin’s friends were standing about laughing and talking together. Barbara was next Mr. Hamlin when she happened to glance toward a far corner of the room. There she saw her newspaper friend. The girl made a mysterious sign to Barbara to come over to her and to come alone. But Bab shook her head.

Still she felt the girl’s eyes on her. Each time she turned, Marjorie Moore again made her strange signal. Once she pointed significantly toward a group of people. But Bab only saw the broad back of the little Chinese Minister and the stately form of the Russian Ambassador. The two men were talking to a number of Washington officials whose names Barbara did not even know. Of course, Marjorie Moore’s peculiar actions could not refer to them. But to save her life Bab could not find any one else nearby.

Womanlike, Barbara’s curiosity was aroused. What could the girl want with her? Evidently, her news was a secret, for Miss Moore did not come near Mr. Hamlin’s party and Bab simply could not get away without offering some explanation to them.

Barbara was growing tired of the reception. She had been introduced to so many people that her brain was fairly spinning in an effort to remember their names. Again Bab looked across at Miss Moore. This time the newspaper girl pointed with her pencil through a small open door, near which she was standing. Her actions said as plainly as any words could speak: “Follow me when you have a chance. There is something I must tell you!” The next instant Marjorie Moore vanished through this door and was lost to sight.

A few minutes later Bab managed to slip over to that side of the room. She intended merely to peep out the open door to see whether Miss Moore were waiting for her in the hall. Bab carefully watched her opportunity. Mr. Hamlin and the girls were not looking. Now was her chance. She was just at the door, when some one intercepted her.

“Ah! Good evening, Miss Thurston,” said a suave voice.

Barbara turned, blushing again to confront the Chinese Minister looking more magnificent than ever in his Imperial robes of state.

The young girl paused and greeted the official. Still the Chinese Minister regarded her gravely with his inscrutable Oriental eyes that seemed to look her through and through. He seemed always about to ask her some question.

Of course, Barbara was obliged to give up her effort to follow Marjorie Moore, though she was still devoured with curiosity to know what the girl had wished to say to her. The next ten minutes, wherever Bab went, she felt the Chinese Minister’s gaze follow her.

It was not until Barbara Thurston discovered that the Oriental gentleman had himself withdrawn from the reception room that she mustered up a sufficient courage to try her venture the second time.

“Miss Moore, of course, is not expecting me now,” Barbara thought. “But as I have a chance, I will see what has become of her.”

Bab peeped cautiously out through the still open door. She saw only an empty corridor with a servant standing idly in the hall. Should she go forward? No; Barbara did not, of course, dare to wander through the White House halls alone. She was too likely to find herself in some place to which visitors were not admitted.

The servant who waited in the hall saw Barbara hesitate, then turn back. He leaned over and whispered mysteriously: “You are to come to the door at the west side, which opens on the lawn. The young woman left a message that she would wait for you there.”

“But I don’t know the west side,” Bab faltered hesitatingly, feeling that she ought to turn back, yet anxious to go on.

“The young woman said it was most important for her to see you; I can show you the way to the west door,” the man went on.

Barbara now quickly made up her mind. Marjorie Moore was only a girl like herself. If she needed her or if she wanted to confide in her, Bab meant to answer the summons.

Bab found the portico deserted. There was no one in sight.

Down on the lawn, some distance ahead, she thought she saw a figure moving. Barbara drew her chiffon scarf more closely over her shoulders and ran quickly out into the garden without thinking. It was, of course, Marjorie Moore ahead of her. But Bab had not gone far, when the figure disappeared, and she realized her own foolishness. She must get back into the White House in a hurry before any one found out what she had done.

It was exceedingly dark out on the lawn in contrast with the brilliant illumination of the house, and Barbara was running swiftly. She had begun to wonder what explanation she could make if Harriet or Mr. Hamlin asked where she had been. As usual, Barbara was repenting a rash impulse too late. She ran obliquely across the yard in order to return in a greater hurry. Between a clump of bushes set at some distance apart her feet struck against something soft and heavy and Bab pitched forward across the object.