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   Chapter 6 MISS CULLAM'S TROUBLE

Ruth Fielding At College; or, The Missing Examination Papers By Alice B. Emerson Characters: 12499

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Ruth and Helen were much more amply supplied with frocks of a somewhat dressy order than when they began a semester at Briarwood Hall. Their wardrobes here were well filled, and of course there was no supervision of what they wore as there had been at the preparatory school.

When they went downstairs to the dining-room with Jennie Stone, they found they had made no mistake in "putting their best foot forward," as Helen called it.

"My! I feel quite as though I were going to a party," Ruth confessed.

The girls rustled through the corridors and down the wide stairways, laughing and talking, many of the freshmen, it was evident, already having made friends.

"There's that girl," whispered Jennie Stone, suddenly.

"What girl?" asked Helen.

"Oh! the girl with all the luggage," laughed Ruth.

"Yes," said the fleshy girl. "What was her name?"

"Rebecca Frayne," said Ruth, who had a good memory.

She bowed to the rather over-dressed freshman. She saw that nobody was walking with Rebecca Frayne.

"I hope she sits at our table," Ruth added.

"Of course," Helen rejoined, with a smile, "Ruth has already spied somebody to be good to."

"Shucks!" said Jennie. "I don't think she'd make a particularly pleasant addition to our party."

"What does that matter?" demanded Helen, roguishly. "Ruth is always picking up the sore-eyed kittens."

"I think that is unkind," returned Ruth, shaking her head. "Maybe Miss Frayne is a very nice girl."

"I wonder what she's got in all those bags and the big trunk?" said Jennie. "I see she's wearing the same dress she traveled in."

"I wager she misses her maid," sighed Helen. "Can't dress without one, I s'pose."

But there were too many other girls to watch and to comment on for the trio to give much attention to Rebecca Frayne. Ruth, however, said, with a little laugh:

"I must feel some interest in her. Her initials are the same as mine."

"And her arrival certainly took the curse off yours, my dear," Jennie agreed. "Edie Phelps and her crowd were laying for you and no mistake."

"I wonder if we shouldn't eschew all slang now that we have come to Ardmore?" Helen suggested demurely.

"You set the example then, my lady!" cried Heavy.

Miss Comstock, the very severe looking senior, sat at the table at which the Briarwood trio of freshmen found their numbers; but Miss Frayne was at the housekeeper's table. There were ten or twelve girls at each table and throughout the meal a pleasant hum of voices filled the room.

Ruth and Helen, not to mention their fleshy chum, were soon at their ease with their neighbors; nor did Miss Comstock prove such a bugaboo as they feared. Although the senior was a particularly silent girl, she had a pleasant smile and was no wet blanket upon the enjoyment of the dinner. At least, she did not serve as a wet blanket upon Jennie Stone. The fleshy girl's appetite betrayed the fact that she had been stinted at noon, and that a diet of string beans was scarcely a satisfactory one.

As they left the dining-room and came out into the wide, well-lighted entrance hall of the house, a lady just entering bowed to Jennie Stone.

"There she is!" groaned the fleshy girl. "Caught in the act!"

"Who is she, Heavy?" demanded Helen, in an undertone.

"She looks nice," observed Ruth.

"Miss Cullam. She's the one that advised the string beans," declared Jennie out of the corner of her mouth. Then she added, most cordially: "Oh! how do you do! These are my two chums from Briarwood-Ruth Fielding and Helen Cameron. Miss Cullam, girls."

The teacher, who was rather elderly, but very brisk and neat, if not wholly attractive, approached smiling.

"You will meet me in mathematics, young ladies," she said, shaking hands with the two introduced freshmen. "And how are you to-night, Miss Stone? Have you stuck to your vegetable diet, as I advised?"

Heavy made her jolly, round face seem as long as possible, and groaned hollowly.

"Oh, Miss Cullam!" she said, "I believe I could have stuck to the diet, if--"

"Well, if what?" demanded the teacher.

"If the diet would only stick to me. But it doesn't. I ate pecks of string beans for lunch, and by the middle of the afternoon I felt like a castaway after two weeks upon a desert island."

"Nonsense, Miss Stone!" exclaimed the teacher, yet laughing too. Heavy was so ridiculous that it was impossible not to be amused. "You should practise abstinence. Really, you are the very fattest girl at Ardmore, I do believe."

"That sounds horrid!" declared Jennie with sudden vigor, and she did not look pleased.

"You may as well face the truth, my dear," said the mathematics teacher, eyeing the distressing curves of the fleshy girl without prejudice. "Here are upwards of a thousand girls-or will be when all have arrived and registered. And you will be locally famous."

"Oh, don't!" groaned Ruth.

"Poor Heavy!" gasped Helen.

Miss Cullam uttered a short laugh.

"Your friends evidently love you, my dear," she said, patting the fleshy girl's plump cheek. "But you want to make new friends-you wish to be admired, I know. It will not be pleasant to gain the reputation of being Ardmore's heavyweight, will it?"

"It sounds pretty bad," admitted Heavy, coming out of her momentary slough of despond. "But we all have our little troubles, don't we, Miss Cullam?"

Somehow this question seemed to quench the teacher of mathematics' good spirits. A cloud settled upon her countenance, and she nodded seriously.

"We all have; true enough, Miss Stone," she said. "And I hope you, as pupils at Ardmore, will never suffer such disturbance of mind as I, a teacher, sometimes do."

Ruth, who had started up the stairway next to the teacher, put a friendly hand upon Miss Cullam's arm. "I hope we three will never add to your burdens, my dear Miss Cullam," she whispered.

The instructor flashed a rather wondering look at the girl of the Red Mill; then she smiled. It was a grouty person, indeed, who could look into Ruth Fielding's frank countenance and not return her smile.

"Bless you! I have heard of you already, Ruth Fielding. I have no idea I shall be troubled by you or your friends." They had fallen behind the others a

few steps. "But we never can tell. Since last term-well!"

Much, evidently, was on Miss Cullam's mind; yet she kept step with Ruth when they came to the corridor on which the rooms of the three Briarwoods opened. Ruth could always find something pleasant to say. This woman with the care-graved countenance smiled whimsically as she listened, keeping at the girl's shoulder.

Evidently somewhat oppressed by the attentions of the instructor, Helen and Heavy had disappeared into the fleshy girl's room.

"Do come in and see how nicely we have fixed our sitting-room-study, I mean, of course," and Ruth laughed, opening the door.

"Looks homelike," confessed Miss Cullam. Then, with a startled glance around the room, she murmured: "Why, it's the very room!"

"What is that you say?" asked Ruth, curiously.

"Do you know who had this room last year?"

"Of course I haven't the first idea," returned the girl of the Red Mill.

"Miss Rolff."

"Do I know her?" asked Ruth, somewhat puzzled.

"She left before the end of the term. I-I am not sure just what the matter was with her. But she is connected in my mind with a great misfortune."

"Indeed, Miss Cullam?" said the sympathetic Ruth.

It was, perhaps, the sympathy in her tone that urged the instructor to confide her trouble to a strange girl-a freshman, at that!

"I hope I shall never have the same fears and doubts regarding you and your friends, Miss Fielding, that I have felt about some of these girls who are now sophomores-and some of the juniors, too."

"Oh, Miss Cullam! What do you mean?"

"Well, I'll tell you, my dear," the teacher said, taking the comfortable chair at Ruth's gestured recommendation, as the girl switched on the electricity. "You seem like an above-the-average sensible girl--"

Ruth laughed at that, but she dimpled, too, and Miss Cullam joined in the laughter.

"Some of these girls were mere flyaways," she said. "But not many, after all. Girls who come as far as college, even to the freshman course in college, usually have something in their pretty noddles besides ideas for dressing their hair.

"Well, I will confide in you, as I say, because I have a fancy to. I like you. Listen to the troubles of a poor mathematics instructor."

"Yes, Miss Cullam," said Ruth, demurely.

"You see, my dear," said Miss Cullam, who had a whimsical way about her that Ruth had begun to delight in, "after all, we college instructors are all necessarily of the race of watch dogs."

"Oh, Miss Cullam!"

"Our girls are put upon their honor and are in the main worthy of our confidence. But we have experiences that show us how frail human virtue is.

"For instance, there are examinations. A most trying necessity are examinations. They come mainly toward the close of the college year, and a few of our girls are not prepared to pass.

"Last year I felt that some of my freshmen and sophomores could not possibly comply with the mathematical requirements. When I received from the printers my copies of the questions to be proposed to the classes I really felt that a few of my girls were going to have a hard time," and she smiled again, yet there was still trouble in her eyes.

"I chanced to be in the library when I received the papers. You have not seen our library yet, have you, Miss Fielding?"

"No, Miss Cullam. You know, Helen and I arrived only this afternoon at Ardmore."

"That is so. Well, the library is a very beautifully furnished building. It was a gift from certain alumni. I was alone in the reception-room when I examined the papers, and being called suddenly to a duty and not wishing to take the papers with me, I rolled them up and thrust them into a vase standing upon the table. When I returned in a few minutes, still hurried by a task before me, I found that I had thrust the papers so far into the small-mouthed vase that I could not reach them. Quite a ridiculous situation, was it not?

"But now the plot thickens," went on the teacher, with a sigh. "The papers were safe enough there, of course. The vase was a very beautiful and valuable silver one, and had its place of honor on that table. I could not stop to retrieve the question papers with a pair of tongs-as I might, had I not been hurried. When I returned armed with the tongs in the morning--"

"Yes, Miss Cullam?" rejoined Ruth, interestedly, as the teacher paused in her story.

"The vase-and, of course, the question papers-was gone," said the lady, in a sepulchral tone.

"Oh!"

"And almost all the girls I had marked for failure in mathematics went through the examination with colors flying!"

"Oh!" exclaimed Ruth again, and quite blankly.

"Do you see the terrible suspicion that has been eating at my mind ever since? There happened to be other unfortunate matters connected with the disappearance of the vase, too. It has never been found. One of the very freshmen who I feared would fail in the examination left the college under a cloud."

"Oh, Miss Cullam!" gasped Ruth. "Is she suspected of stealing the vase-and the examination papers?"

"I scarcely know what to say in answer to that," said Miss Cullam, gravely. "It seems that one of the sororities was initiating candidates on that night. One of the-er-'stunts,' as they call their ridiculous ceremonies, included the filching of this vase after dark and its burial somewhere on Bliss Island. So Dr. Milroth later informed me.

"The girl chosen for this ridiculous performance, Miss Rolff, who occupied this very room, was found at daybreak wandering alone upon the island in a hysterical condition. She insisted upon leaving the college immediately, before I had discovered the absence of the vase and the missing papers.

"I felt that I could not arouse suspicion in Dr. Milroth's mind by mentioning the papers. I secured copies from the printer. Of course, it is all ancient history now, my dear," ended the mathematics teacher, with a sigh. "But you see, suspicion once fastened upon my mind, it still troubles me."

"But what became of the poor girl?" asked Ruth, sympathetically.

"That I cannot tell you," Miss Cullam said, rising. "She has not returned this year, and I understand that Dr. Milroth lost trace of her."

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