Read CHAPTER V - FUN AND SOLDIERS of The Outdoor Girls at the Hostess House, free online book, by Laura Lee Hope, on ReadCentral.com.

“I wish we could do something for Mrs. Sanderson,” Betty remarked with a sigh.  “I haven’t slept a wink for two nights just trying to think out some way of finding that boy of hers.”

“He must have been a darling,” Grace added thoughtfully.  “I can’t understand how a boy like that could run away from home and stay away for years without even trying to get in touch with his mother.”

“Maybe that charge changed his character,” Mollie suggested dramatically.  “I’ve heard of such things.”

“I’ve read of ’em,” sniffed Grace.  “But I must say I never believed it.  Give a boy the right sort of character to start with ­”

“I don’t see where you get that,” Mollie interrupted hotly.  “Why, half the criminals in the world are made up of boys who were good enough to start with, but because of some temptation, or their environment, went wrong ­”

“But Mrs. Sanderson’s Willie wasn’t a criminal,” suggested Amy mildly.

“But he was accused of being one and threatened with jail,” retorted Mollie.  “And how do you know that wasn’t just what he needed to start him on the downward path ­”

“Heavens, how melodramatic,” drawled Grace.  “Here, Mollie dear, have a candy and try to cheer up.”

“Then I’d have indigestion and never cheer up,” retorted Mollie crossly.  “Sometimes you make me feel as if I were on a little island completely surrounded by chocolates, Grace, and whenever anything bothered me I’d only have to eat one ­a chocolate, I mean, not the island ­to forget all my troubles.”

“Oh, bliss,” sighed Grace ecstatically.  “If you have discovered any such wonderful island, Mollie darling, lead me to it, and I will spend all the rest of my life worshipping you.”

“When you’re not too busy gobbling the chocolates,” Mollie returned with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Which reminds me,” broke in Betty, shaking off the thoughtful mood that had taken possession of her, “that this is the day of our picnic, and if we don’t get back to the Hostess House pretty soon the boys will be there before we have even made a sandwich.”

“Goodness,” cried Mollie in consternation, “all this talk about criminals put the boys entirely out of my head.”

“I should hope so,” twinkled Betty.  “Our boys are as little apt to remind us of criminals as anybody I know.  But seriously,” she added, a little of the thoughtfulness returning, “I think we’re making a mistake in thinking that Willie Sanderson has become a criminal.  I think there is probably some satisfactory explanation of why he stayed away from home; and perhaps with the help of the people we know we may be able to solve the mystery.  Anyway, I don’t believe that a boy like that and with a mother like this dear old soul could turn out very badly.”

“But suppose he’s dead!” Mollie put in.

“Well, then our days of detectivities will be over as far as he’s concerned,” put in Grace before Betty could reply.  “Here, Mollie, take another chocolate and don’t ask foolish questions.”

“Goodness, I think you’re going to die, Gracie,” said Mollie, looking her friend over anxiously.  “This is the first time since the fateful day of our meeting that I can remember your offering, actually offering, me two chocolates in succession.”

“It isn’t the first time you’ve taken them, though,” suggested Grace dryly.  “It just occurred to me that since you will take them anyway, I might as well get the credit of offering them.”

“Ah, I guessed it, villainness,” cried Mollie darkly.  “I have long suspected that that lovely face hid a soul of venom ­I should say, a venomous soul ­”

The girls chuckled and Grace answered lightly: 

“Well, as long as you admit my beauty I don’t care what you say about the rest.”

“Ah, heartless one ­” Mollie was beginning, when with a laugh Betty hooked an arm through hers and hustled the dramatic one in very undramatic fashion, up the steps into the Hostess House.

“Oh, Betty, you are so impulsive,” sighed Mollie, as she was finally permitted a chair in the kitchen.  “If you don’t stop rushing around so you’ll have me worn to skin and bones ­”

“Goodness, have you got those things, too?” asked Betty, as she hurried busily from table to pantry and back again.  “Please don’t be so lazy, Mollie dear.  The boys will be here before we’re half ready, and we don’t want to lose a minute of this perfect day.”

Harder heart than Mollie’s must have softened at this appeal, and she set to work with a will preparing delicacies for this picnic with the boys ­perhaps the thought was accompanied by a strange, panicky sinking of the heart ­the very last picnic they would have together, at least until after the war.

“Did Allen have any more news for you, yesterday?” Mollie asked suddenly, following up this train of thought.

“No, nothing definite,” the Little Captain responded, deftly slipping currant jelly into layers of buttered biscuit.  “Of course, he said there were all sorts of rumors, but since they all came from equally good sources and no two of them pointed the same way, he wasn’t listening to any of them.  All they really know is that the regiment is all ready and equipped and will surely be on its way very soon.”

“I’m not even thinking of it,” said Mollie, slamming down the cover of the bread box by way of emphasis, as Amy and Grace came upon the scene.  “I don’t dare to let myself think,” she repeated.

“That’s right, dear, I wouldn’t either,” approved Grace, patting her encouragingly on the back as she passed on her way to the pantry.  “You want to get your mind used to it by degrees, otherwise the shock might be too great.  What’s that, Betty ­the sugar?  Surely.  Anything to be agreeable!” The last hamper had just been done up, filled to the brim with good things, when the boys arrived.

“Heavens, I’m a fright,” cried Grace, viewing herself in the kitchen mirror ­a mirror, by the way, which brought out all a person’s bad points with Puritan honesty.

“Go in and keep the boys quiet, Amy, that’s a dear,” she begged, then, seeing refusal in Amy’s eyes, added cajolingly:  “You always look as if you came out of a bandbox yourself, you know.  Please, dear ­”

But Amy was already half way up the backstairs and paused to make a face at her.

“Taffy!” she cried succinctly.

Five minutes later the three girls, in various attitudes of impatience, were waiting for Grace while she still primped before the mirror.

“Just one minute more I give you,” stated Mollie, regarding her wrist watch frowningly.

“Oh, Mollie, if you only wouldn’t talk so much,” sighed Grace, turning with an air of resignation from the mirror.  “As soon as you begin to talk everything goes wrong.  My gloves walk under the bed, and my hair stands on end ­”

“Goodness,” cried Mollie, looking injured, “anybody’d think I was a ghost.  I’ll stand for being called lots of things, but a phantom ­Ouch!  Now what’s the idea?” For Grace’s thumb and forefinger had come together in the fleshy part of her arm.

“I was just trying to reassure you,” explained Grace innocently, as Mollie stared indignantly.  “There’s nothing the least bit ethereal ­”

But Mollie waited to hear no more, and sped down the stairs after Betty to bounce unceremoniously in upon the boys.

“Beware!” she cried.  “A lunatic is about to descend upon us!”

“I should say one had already,” grinned Allen, at which Mollie surrendered.

“Everybody’s against me,” she sighed.  “When one whom I have always called my friend, turns agin me ­Never mind,” she added diplomatically, “I made the layer cake, Allen Washburn ­”

“Oh, Mollie, let me carry your pocketbook,” begged Allen in alarm.

“How do I know you’re honest?” she retorted with a twinkle, and peace was once more restored.

The young folks paired off as usual, and Allen drew Betty a little behind the others.  The two formed so handsome a couple that many a passer-by stopped and looked back after them with an admiring smile.

The camp training had improved Allen wonderfully.  Always splendidly athletic, he carried himself with a poise and moved with a swing that spoke of perfectly trained muscles, while his handsome face had been tanned to the color of an Indian’s.

No wonder that when Allen bent toward her and spoke in a certain tone reserved for her alone, Betty found it hard to look at this tall, bronzed soldier who had been her faithful cavalier for ­oh, she could not remember how long.

“I haven’t seen you for ages,” he murmured, and she glanced sideways at him, dimpling.

“Not for twenty-four whole hours,” she agreed soberly.  “Wasn’t it this time yesterday ­”

“What has yesterday to do with it?” he interrupted ardently.  “I tell you when a fellow’s to be parted from the thing he wants most in the world every twenty-four hours count ­”

“Allen!” she cried, turning upon him in swift alarm, “is it settled then?  Have you learned anything definite?”

He shook his head, while his laughing eyes said things that made her turn her own away.

“Then why,” she asked, with a little pout, “do you have to scare me so?”

“Because,” he answered happily, “there’s nothing I like better than to see you scared ­about that,” he added quickly, as she turned an indignant glance upon him.

For a moment it seemed as if anger were there to stay, but it was impossible to be very angry with Allen ­when he looked at one like that.  At least Betty thought so.

“You’d better be careful,” she said with a soft little laugh.  “If you try that too much, I may not believe you when the real time comes.”

“Betty,” he cried fervently, “I won’t ever do it again ­I promise you.  At least,” he added, straightening up, while in his eyes grew a great resolve, “not until ­that real time comes!

“But what have you girls been doing this morning?” he went on, after a pause.

The girl gave an amused but sympathetic laugh before she answered.  Then she said: 

“Mollie and I have been trying to keep the hearts of three of those recruits that came in yesterday from breaking outright.  Poor boys, they’re awfully young ­I believe they fibbed about their ages ­and look like cherubs.  None of them has ever been away from home before, and they are pathetically homesick.  But they have told us about their homes and their mothers and fathers and the little brothers and sisters, and Mollie has joked with them and ­Well, anyway, Allen, I believe we have made them feel that they are not wholly friendless.”

“I’m sure you have, Betty dear.”

“Poor boys,” went on Betty.  “I presume it will get easier as they get used to it.”

“Grace has been writing letters for some of the boys who find it hard to do that.  Grace is awfully good at that.  And Amy, I believe, has been showing some girls who came down to see their brother, about the place and trying to keep them interested during the long waits between the times they can see the boy, who, like his sisters, is almost too timid to look out for himself.”

Admiration shone in Allen Washburn’s eyes as he looked at the Little Captain and remarked: 

“What lucky people those Y.W.C.A. officials were to get you girls down here for this Hostess House!  But come, Betty, the others are beckoning to us.”