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   Chapter 8 MIDNIGHT CONFIDENCES.

Elizabeth Hobart at Exeter Hall By Jean K. Baird Characters: 25395

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


On going to the office, Elizabeth found that Dr. Morgan had been called unexpectedly to the city, and would not return for several days. She was disappointed, as she much preferred having the thing over and done with than hanging fire for several days. The girls crowded about her, expressing both admiration and criticism and offering advice until Elizabeth did not know whether she was a culprit or a heroine. The maddening part of it was that she must wait three days to find out. Her own opinion in regard to being "policed" into honesty had not changed. She felt confident of the support of her father in the position she had taken. She knew how, from the bottom of his heart, he abhorred any questioning of one's honor. The more she listened to the talk of the other girls, the more indignant she was at the insult.

She was not one to give expression to her feeling in words only. After her remarks to Dr. Kitchell, the other girls did most of the talking while she listened, turning the matter over in her mind. She had her father's way of straightening matters out. "If a thing is wrong, make it right-if you can," she had often heard him say to Joe Ratowsky. Her four months at Exeter had taught her there were people of words and people of action. It was of the last-named class she selected her helpers. Landis was not to be considered. It is doubtful if she could have given a reason for the feeling that she would be of no assistance in a reform movement. It was merely intuition and could not be put into words. Min, too, who was but the shadow of Landis, was to be barred. There was enough to begin with-Anna Cresswell, Nancy Eckdahl, Mary Wilson, Mame Welch, Nora O'Day, strange to say, and herself.

At the dinner table, Elizabeth passed the word around asking the girls to come to her room immediately at the ringing of the study bell. Some of the students were already packing to leave for the holidays; and after the midwinter examinations, no strict observance was paid to study hours.

Miss Brosius heard the invitation and smiled. She was learning to know Miss Hobart. After the experience of the morning, she felt these summonses might be followed by a declaration of war. Her position in regard to overseeing examinations was more distasteful to her than it could possibly be to any of the students. But from time immemorial such had been the custom of most schools. There must have been a reason for it. No doubt, it had been forced upon the instructors by the attitude of the students themselves. New conditions may have arisen, but the old law still held.

"There's something brewing," Miss Brosius said to Miss Watson as they quitted the dining-hall. "If I read the stars aright, Exeter Hall will be reformed before Dr. Morgan returns from the city."

"She comes to-morrow."

"Maybe. Reforms have started in less than twenty-four hours. The fuel has been ready for several years, waiting for someone to apply the match."

"Who is doing that now?"

"Elizabeth Hobart, if I am not mistaken. Did you not notice the flash of her eyes and the message she was passing about to have the girls meet in her room?"

"Yes; but I thought it was nothing more than a taffy pull."

"It is a deep-laid plot to reform us all. I must give her credit in the selection of her colleagues. She has picked those who will carry her plans through if they once see fit to accept them. Oh, no, don't be alarmed," as she noticed Miss Watson's expression, "there may come some good from it; no evil at least, I'm sure. It may be a good thing to have them talk the matter over." Then she related the events of the morning.

The girls did not know the reason for their being called together. Nora O'Day, to Elizabeth's surprise, made no objections, Elizabeth having explained fully that it was not a social but a purely business meeting. Nora came in after the others had gathered. With a nod to them collectively, she took her place before the grate.

Elizabeth stated the reason of the gathering. She related the scene of the morning.

"You know I never was in an examination before," she said. "You have no idea how it impressed me. To think of having two and three teachers in the room to watch us! Why, it seemed to me it was the most insulting thing possible."

"That is because it is new to you. It really was not meant that way," Miss Cresswell explained. "But you must bear this in mind-school life is just like outside life. There are some students who are dishonest. There's no getting around that fact. And because of those few, we must all be put under surveillance."

Elizabeth was not to be convinced. "I do not see why. I felt this morning in class just as I would if I had gone into Dr. Morgan's room and she had immediately locked up her jewelry and her purse. Surely, the teachers themselves must have learned by this time who can be trusted and who can not! Suppose among the fifty girls in our room this morning, there were one or two who cheated. I think it would have been far better to allow them to go their way than have treated us all like criminals. What great difference would it make anyhow? They would be the only losers; and as to being watched, how is that going to make them any better?"

Mary Wilson shook back her hair. Her eyes were beginning to flash. As Elizabeth discussed the question, her enthusiasm grew.

"It makes them worse-far worse. If there is anything in the world that would make me cheat it is being watched to see that I didn't. I'd do it then just to prove that I could be sharper than they."

They talked the matter over thoroughly, each one, with the exception of Nora O'Day, expressing herself freely. She sat silent; but her silence did not spring from lack of interest. She listened keenly to every word, and weighed it fully before she accepted it. Elizabeth wondered at her, for she was not naturally quiet. The others understood, and did not ask for her opinion.

Elizabeth had gained one point. The girls did not treat Miss O'Day with that studied formality which is more galling than open neglect as they had on former occasions. Mary, in particular, was quite agreeable, and Nora herself more at ease.

Elizabeth had a plan for this reformation. She was not attempting the impossible. Her idea was practical. Even Miss Cresswell declared it to be wise.

"Will you be secretary, Miss Cresswell, and jot down our plan?" asked Elizabeth.

She moved to the study-table, taking up a pencil and tablet ready for work. "What have you decided to do about talking with the girls?" she asked. "Will you call them all together and present this plan to them?"

"No; my idea was to interview each one by herself. It seems so much more personal than talking to them all together. I think they will take it so; I'm sure I should."

"Perhaps so. But it will mean a great deal of work."

"We will not object to the work," said Mary Wilson, "if we only succeed in carrying out Elizabeth's idea."

The details were further discussed. Then they began to apportion a certain section of the Hall for each girl to visit.

"We need not visit them all. Each new recruit will be put to work to get other signers."

Anna Cresswell continued her writing. At last she spoke. "We will have this run off on the typewriter. Listen. Is this just what you intend, Elizabeth?" She read:

"We, the undersigned students of Exeter Hall, not being contented with the present method of conducting examinations, believing that it casts reflections upon the honor of each student, do hereby suggest a means of reformation. We pledge ourselves individually to receive no assistance at such times. Furthermore, we will quietly but firmly discountenance among the students any methods not strictly honorable.

"We respectfully request Dr. Morgan to have examinations conducted hereafter without the presence of instructors, we pledging ourselves that under our supervision they will reflect credit both upon Exeter and the students."

"You have done it beautifully. My father could not have done it better," said Elizabeth. "Now we must get the names of the best girls at Exeter."

"Don't have a name of one who does not mean to keep her pledge," advised Miss Cresswell. "Fifty people in earnest are worth more than an hundred, half of whom veer with the wind."

"But as Anna Cresswell said before," began Mary Wilson excitedly, "there will be some who will cheat. What will we do?"

"Most of the girls will agree to this, and the majority can be depended upon to do as they pledge themselves. If you keep your eyes open in the class-room, you can soon discover who has no sense of honor. These may be taken quietly aside and spoken to. If they transgress a second time, we will make the affair public." This advice came from Miss Cresswell.

At the close of her speech, Mame Welch arose. "If we don't scatter soon, the lights will be out, and I do not care to wander down the staircase in the dark. I did it once, and I had a bump on my head for a week. One's head is not the best 'lighting' place. Come, Carrie Hirsch, you go my way. If the lights go out, we will fall together." Slipping her arm through Carrie's, and bidding the others good-night, she quitted the room.

Miss Cresswell and Nancy followed, with cheery words to encourage Mary and Elizabeth for to-morrow's work. Nora O'Day remained. She was quite a striking figure as she stood leaning with her elbow against the mantel, looking down into the grate. As always, she was richly dressed. Her loose robe of crimson silk, her dark hair hanging in a single braid, and her olive-tinted skin presented a glowing picture.

"I waited until the others left," she said, "to speak to you alone, Elizabeth. I have been wishing to for several days, but you were so busy, I didn't feel that I could take you from your work."

"You can talk together here. I am going into the bedroom," said Mary, making ready to disappear.

"No; I do not wish to disturb you. I intended asking Elizabeth to walk to the end of the hall with me. I love to sit on the window-seat at the landing. The campus is beautiful in the moonlight. No one is disturbed by the talking there. I think Mrs. Schuyler will not mind late hours to-night, since we go home to-morrow. Will you come, Elizabeth?"

"Yes; wait one minute until I get a wrap. That window-seat is full of drafts, I know. I have sat there before."

Taking down a golf cape, she wrapped it about her. "Come," she added, drawing Miss O'Day's arm through her own. "We will be night-hawks until Mrs. Schuyler finds us. Don't lock the door, Mary. I'll slip in later."

A delightfully broad window-seat filled with cushions was at the turn of the stairway, where one had a view of the campus, now snow covered, beautiful in the glimmer of the moonlight.

Arranging the cushions here to her satisfaction, Nora began the conversation. "I heard you talk in the meeting yesterday, Elizabeth, and I wish to thank you."

"Why thank me? I only said what I thought."

"Some girls might have done considerably less-to my knowledge some of them have. You ran the risk of being unpopular, and yet you were willing to take that risk because you were my friend. That is the kind of friendship that is worth having. You do not know how pleased, how glad I was! Why, I had not been so happy for months."

"Take the risk! Because I was your friend! Well, I must be awfully dense, but really, Nora, I haven't the faintest idea what you are trying to say."

"You say that to escape my thanks-my gratitude. That is just your way. I might have expected as much. You do a generous, noble deed and then slip away from the gratitude that follows."

"Well, it may be my way, and it may not. I do not know what you are talking about. If I have done what you call a generous, noble deed, this is the first I have heard of it. If your mind is still upon the speech I made yesterday, you may be sure there was nothing noble about that. Why, you have no idea how angry I was! It made me so indignant to hear some explain what should be done and how. I didn't approve of their plans at all, so the only thing left for me to do was to say what I thought about it. It is news to me that being indignant and expressing yourself rather-well, rather forcibly, is noble and generous. Though," dryly, "I'm rather glad it is so, for it will be easy for me to be noble in that fashion."

Miss O'Day turned to look closely at her.

"Really, Elizabeth, upon your honor now, did you really not have me in mind when you made that speech yesterday?"

"I did not, 'pon honor," she laughed softly. Then she gave Miss O'Day's hand a very l

oving squeeze to mitigate the hurt her next words might contain. "It may be rather galling to your pride, but I did not even think of you after we entered the meeting, although I suppose you must have been sitting by me. I was all eyes and ears for what was going on up front. I suppose you might add all mouth, too, for that matter."

"Then you did not know what happened here last spring? Did none of the girls tell you?"

"I do not know what particular happenings you have in mind. But no one told me of anything that was unusual."

"Well, then I shall tell you. It was not until last evening that I felt that I could talk the matter over with any one; but after you spoke as you did, I knew that you could understand. I have borne it so long without letting any one know, that it is a relief to think I can tell just how I feel, and how awful these months at Exeter have been. I might have gone somewhere else this fall and not returned at all; but when I thought it over, it seemed to me that it would be cowardly to slip away like that. Last summer I wrote to Dr. Morgan that I intended returning. Then I made up my mind that I would stay here until I made every one at Exeter, from Dr. Morgan down to the dining-hall girls, respect me." She paused, then added slowly, "But I don't seem to have made much headway yet."

There was a sadness in the girl's voice which embarrassed Elizabeth. She knew that Nora O'Day was sad-had known that for a long time. She would have been glad to express sympathy, say some word which would show confidence in her companion, but she was so new to anything of this sort that she could do nothing but sit silent and look at her. Then she suddenly blurted out:

"I do not know what you are talking about! Tell me, Nora. I fancy it is not really so bad as you think."

"I do not see how it could be worse! Perhaps, when I tell you, you will feel as the others. If you do, don't stop to explain and give all kinds of reasons for your actions. Just walk off, and I will understand that you do not care to be friends with me. I'll not be surprised. Indeed, I rather expect you to do just that thing-yet, after all, you have always been different."

"Well, wait until I walk off. I may not. Dollars to doughnuts, the 'awful' thing you have done is partly imaginary. The girls are all right, and I love some of them; but even that doesn't make me think them infallible. But you sit there and hint about a dreadful deed you have done. One would think you were little less than a female Captain Kidd. There are cold chills running up and down my spine now, so begin quick and tell me everything."

"Last spring, I went into the geometry examination and took my book with me. I copied three theorems, letter for letter, right out of the book. A half-dozen girls saw me-Mary Wilson, Nancy, Carrie Hirsch, Mame Welch, Landis and Min. That same evening the girls met and decided to cut me. We had all been friends."

"I didn't think Mary or Nancy would have done that-meet and talk over such a matter in public."

"They didn't. Neither would Carrie or Mame. I know none of the four were at the meeting. I think each one of them thought the matter over and decided for herself. They speak to me at the table and any school meetings. But that is a small part of Exeter life. They never enter my room or invite me into theirs."

"Who called the meeting of the girls?" Elizabeth asked.

"Min Kean. I am positive of that, because the notices were signed by her. That is required before any meeting can be held. Then Dr. Morgan knows where to place the responsibility."

Elizabeth gave a gesture of disapproval. She was about to speak, but checked herself, deciding that criticism was not going to help the matter. Nora noticed her hesitancy, and attributed it to a different motive.

"What were you going to say? Do not hesitate. I deserve criticism. I am not afraid to hear it."

"It was not a criticism of you. I was thinking that Min Kean must have been a different person last term. I could not, although I stretched my imagination to its limit, think of her as taking the lead in any matter. What part did Landis take?"

"I do not know. No one ventured to tell me and I would not ask. Before we left Exeter in the spring, she came into my room and stayed almost all of the evening. She told me that she thought the girls acted impulsively, and that she had done what she could to have them wait and consider; but she was only one among many. She was acting-president at that meeting."

"Where was Anna Cresswell?"

"She was here, but would not attend. Someone told me that she refused to be present."

"Did Landis ever come again to see you?"

"Very often this semester. I have all the essays and papers my mother wrote when she was a student at Arlington Seminary. People who remember her say she was gifted in that line. Of course, I do not know, for she died when I was a baby. Somehow I never had the heart to read them, although I have saved every one. Landis says they are quite good, and Landis, you know, has some ability in that line herself."

Elizabeth smiled. She was beginning to understand. New ideas burst upon her suddenly. Unconscious of the meaning which might be given to her words, she said, "I'm just beginning to learn that it is not wise to take any one's opinion in regard to any one else. You must trust and be deceived, and trust again, and just go on learning people for yourself. Did Anna Cresswell never come to see you? I should think she would since she refused to attend the meeting."

"She came twice to ask me to go somewhere with her, once for a drive, and once to walk, but each time I refused. I felt so badly that I had no courage to go out among the girls. It was only a few weeks before we were to go home. I made up my mind to bear it until school was out and then not come back. But I changed my mind, as I told you. She did not ask me again. But I did not expect that for she is very busy with extra work. I suppose she thinks it has all passed away. She doesn't run about to spreads and high teas, so she may not have discovered that I am not among those present."

Elizabeth was silent. She was thinking, not of her companion's misdeed, but of the part which Landis had probably played throughout the affair. Nora waited for her to speak, but receiving no answer put another question.

"Are you, too, so disgusted with me that you can't bear to speak of it?"

"No," slowly, "I am not disgusted. But you certainly cannot expect me to grow enthusiastic or praise you for cheating. I don't like dishonesty in any form; but I do not know that it is my place to pass judgment on you. I may criticise that in you; someone else will find something to criticise in me. One thing I am quite sure of. You are sorry as sorry can be that you did it; and you will never be guilty of cheating again, even if you know that you will fail and be compelled to go to school here forever."

"You may be sure of that. One experience ended such methods for me." There was nothing conciliatory in her tone.

"I will be honest with you, Nora. I am disappointed in you, but I'm glad you told me. You may be quite sure this will make no difference in our friendship."

Much to Elizabeth's surprise, Nora, instead of replying, began to sob, and it was some minutes before she could speak.

"I appreciate this, Elizabeth. I know I did wrong, and I have spent six months in being sorry. Yet I do not believe I should be censured so much as some of you if you had done the same thing. That is rather an odd thing to say, I know. But when I tell you all, you will understand just what I mean. My mother died when I was a few weeks old. She belonged to an excellent family, an only child. Somehow," the girl hesitated. It was difficult to explain without seeming critical of one parent. "Somehow, my father never cared much for what mother cared for most. He could not see anything wrong in cards, and wine-parties, and things like that. When mother died grandmother Loraine took me. But she did not live long. Then I went back home and lived with a housekeeper and the servants. Sometimes they were honest and sometimes not. Mrs. Gager took charge of me. She was a very clean old German woman and not afraid of work, but was not refined. She couldn't even read. I am not complaining, for she was as good to me as she knew how to be. Nothing that I wanted was too much trouble. She was really my slave, and made every one around the house step when I spoke.

"I was a little tyrant. Father spent a great deal of time from home, for he was a very busy man. But he spoiled me, too. I had but to stamp my foot and he would let me do what I wished. He really could not deny me anything, and he doesn't yet. You see, I am the only person in the world he has left, and he thinks I am simply wonderful." She laughed lightly. "I am always amused when I hear him talk to anyone of me. It is nice, though, to have someone think of you in that way. He is wholly sincere. He really believes I'm the brightest and most attractive girl at Exeter.

"Mrs. Gager used to drink occasionally. At such times-I must have been eight years old-she told me what excuses to make to father for her and how to keep Maggie, the second maid, from knowing it. Strange as it may seem, this old woman was my ideal. I never hesitated to carry her false messages, and there was a constant succession of small deceptions. When I was able to fool Maggie, I was commended.

"When I grew older, I met a great number of business men-some of whom were my father's traveling salesmen. And they always made a point of telling how sharp they had been in their transactions. I know now that they were merely dishonest. I do not know whether father approved or not. They told these stories to entertain me and not when they were talking business with him.

"Father was always liberal. I spend as much as I wish. He never questions how, but gives me whatever I ask.

"The conversation I generally heard among the servants-and I spent most of my time with them-was comments on how well or how shabby some one dressed, and how much or how little money people had. Don't blame my father for neglecting me. He hired the best servants he could, and did what he thought was for my good. I was well clothed and fed; and Mrs. Gager took excellent care of my health. His business kept him away from home. And, anyhow, men are not like women. A woman would have understood at once that I needed something more than clothes and food."

"I suppose we can't understand," said Elizabeth. "I'm sure I don't. I've always had a mother. She would punish me severely if I ever deceived anyone. My father, too, and Miss Hale are the same way. I was brought up to abhor anything that wasn't honest. But, then," reflectively, "I'll not take much credit to myself for that. It was my training-not me. If I'm truthful and all that, it's because of my parents."

"If I saw no great harm in copying my examinations, it is because I had been no better taught. It was a surprise to learn that every one looked upon such an act with contempt. I would not do such a thing now. Not because I wish to curry favor with Mary Wilson and her set, but because I feel it is wrong." She paused awhile and then continued, "I think I am like the Loraines in that. My mother would have died before she would have knowingly done wrong."

The talk went on in this strain for some time. Then Elizabeth spoke of the telegram she had received and suggested that she might not go home during the holidays.

Nora offered her sympathy. She did not ask Elizabeth where she lived. It was odd that, although they were friends, she never knew until the close of school that Joseph Hobart, the expert mining engineer of Bitumen, was Elizabeth's father.

It was quite late when Elizabeth slipped back into her bedroom. She undressed in the dark so that she might not waken her roommate, but Mary heard her and spoke:

"You and Nora O'Day must have had a great deal to say. 'Smiles' has trotted down here twice inquiring for you."

"What did you tell her?"

"That I was not your keeper. I think she will interview you privately to-morrow."

"Mary, there's something I wish to ask you. At the meeting last spring, who was it that worked up the case against Nora O'Day?"

"Landis. Why?"

"Oh, because. Are you sure? Did she take an active part?"

"Yes; I'm sure. Could you imagine a meeting where Landis didn't put in her oar? Why do you ask?"

"Because I wanted to know."

"An excellent reason," was the sleepy response.

"But, Mary-" But Mary was asleep.

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