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   Chapter 14 OFT IN THE STILLY NIGHT

Ruth Fielding At College; or, The Missing Examination Papers By Alice B. Emerson Characters: 10498

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Ruth Fielding could not get that surprising, that almost unbelievable, discovery out of her mind.

It seemed ridiculous to think that girl could be Maggie, "the waif," she had seen on Bliss Island. Aunt Alvirah had written Ruth a letter only a few days before and in it she said that Maggie was very helpful and seemed wholly content.

"Only," the little old housekeeper at the Red Mill wrote, "I don't know a mite more about the child now than I did when Mr. Tom Cameron and our Ben brought her in, all white and fainty-like."

The girls had to hurry on or be late to dinner. But the very first thing Ruth did when she reached their rooms in Dare Hall was to look up Aunt Alvirah's letter and see when it was dated and mailed.

"It's obvious," Ruth told herself, "that Maggie could have reached here almost as soon as the letter if she had wished to. But why come at all? If it was Maggie over on that island, why was she there?"

Of course, these ruminations were all in private. Ruth knew better than to take her two close friends into her confidence. If she did the mystery would have been the chief topic of conversation after dinner, instead of the studies slated for that evening.

An incident occurred, however, at dinner which served to take Ruth's mind, too, from the mystery. There were a number of seniors and juniors quartered at Dare Hall. Nor were all the seniors table-captains at dinner.

This evening the dining hall had filled early. Perhaps the brisk air and their outdoor exercise had given the girls sharper appetites than usual. It had the three girls from Briarwood. They were wearied after their long skate around the island and as ravenous as wolves. They could scarcely wait for Miss Comstock, at the head of their particular table, to begin eating so they might do so, too.

And just at this moment, as the pleasant bustle of dinner began, and the lightly tripping waitresses were stepping hither and yon with their trays, the door opened and a single belated girl entered the dining hall.

As though the entrance of this girl were expected, a hush fell over the room. Everybody but Jennie looked up, their soup spoons poised as they watched Rebecca Frayne walk down the long room to her place at the housekeeper's table.

"Sh!" hissed Helen, admonishing Jennie Stone.

"What's the matter?" demanded the fleshy girl in surprise. "Is my soup noisy? I'll have to train it better."

But nobody laughed. All eyes were fastened on the girl who had made herself so obnoxious to the seniors and the juniors of Ardmore. She sat down and a waitress put her soup before her. Before poor Rebecca could lift her spoon there was a stir all over the room. Every senior and junior (and there were more than half a hundred in the dining hall) arose, save those acting as table-captains or monitors. The rustle of their rising was subdued; they murmured their excuses to the heads of their several tables in a perfectly polite manner; and not a glance from their eyes turned toward Rebecca Frayne. But as they walked out of the dining hall, their dinners scarcely tasted, the slight put upon the freshman who would not obey was too direct and obvious to be mistaken.

Even Jennie Stone was at length aroused from her enjoyment of the very good soup.

"What do you know about that?" she demanded of Ruth and Helen.

Ruth said not a word. To tell the truth she felt so sorry for Rebecca Frayne that she lost taste for her own meal, hungry though she had been when she sat down.

How Rebecca herself felt could only be imagined. She had already shown herself to be a painful mixture of sensitiveness and carelessness of criticism that made Ruth Fielding, at least, wonder greatly.

Now she ate her dinner without seeming to observe the attitude the members of the older classes had taken.

"Cracky!" murmured Jennie, in the middle of dinner. "She's got all the best of it-believe me! The seniors and the juns go hungry."

"For a principle," snapped the girl beside her, who chanced to be a sophomore.

"Well," said Jennie, smiling, "principles are far from filling. They're a good deal like the only part of the doughnut that agreed with the dyspeptic-the hole. Please pass the bread, dear. Somebody must have eaten mine-and it was nicely buttered, too."

"Goodness! nothing disturbs your calm, does it, Miss Stone?" cried another girl.

Few of the girls in the dining hall, however, could keep their minds or their gaze off Rebecca Frayne. In whispers all through the meal she was discussed by her close neighbors. Girls at tables farther away talked of the situation frankly.

And the consensus of opinion was against her. It was the general feeling that she was entirely in the wrong. The very law which she had essayed to flaunt was that which had brought the freshmen together as a class, and was welding them into a homogeneous whole.

"She's a goose!" exclaimed Helen Cameron.

And perhaps this was true. It did look foolish. Yet Ruth felt that there must be some misunderstanding back of it all. It should be explained. The girl could not go on in this way.

"First we know she'll be packing up and leaving Ardmore," Ruth said worriedly.

"She'll leave nobody in tears, I guess,"

declared one girl within hearing.

"But she's one of us-she's a freshman!" Ruth murmured.

"She doesn't seem to desire our company or friendship," said another and more thoughtful girl.

"And she won't pack up in a hurry," drawled Jennie, still eating. "Remember all those bags and that enormous trunk she brought?"

"But, say," began Helen, slowly, "where are all the frocks and things she was supposed to bring with her? We supposed she'd be the peacock of the class, and I don't believe I've seen her in more than three different dresses and only two hats, including that indescribably brilliant tam."

Ruth said nothing. She was thinking. She planned to get out of the dining hall at the same time Rebecca did, but just as the dessert was being passed the odd girl rose quickly, bowed her excuses to the housekeeper, and almost ran out of the hall.

"She was crying!" gasped Ruth, feeling both helpless and sympathetic.

"I wager she bit her tongue, then," remarked Jennie.

Ruth hurried through her dessert and left the dining hall ahead of most of the girls. She glanced through the long windows and saw that it was still snowing.

"I wonder if that girl is over on the island yet?" she reflected as she ran upstairs.

Her first thought just then was of an entirely different girl. She went to Rebecca's door and knocked. She knocked twice, then again. But no answer was returned. No light came through the keyhole, or from under the door; yet Ruth felt sure that Rebecca Frayne was in the room, and weeping. It was a situation in which Ruth Fielding longed to help, yet there seemed positively nothing she could do as long as the stubborn girl would not meet her half way. With a sigh she went to the study she and Helen jointly occupied.

Before switching on the light she went to one of the windows that looked out on the lake. Bliss Island was easily visible from this point. The snow was still falling, but not heavily enough to obstruct her vision much. The white bulk of the island rose in the midst of the field of snow-covered ice. It seemed nearer than it ordinarily appeared.

As Ruth gazed she saw a spark of light on the island, high up from the shore, but evidently among the trees, for it was intermittent. Now it was visible and again only a red glow showed there. She was still gazing upon this puzzling light when Helen opened the door.

"Hello, Ruthie!" she cried. "All in the dark? Oh! isn't the outside world beautiful to-night?"

She came to the window and put her arm about Ruth's waist.

"See how solemnly the snow is falling-and the whole world is white," murmured the black-eyed girl. "'Oft in the stilly night'--Or is it 'Oft in the silly night'?" and she laughed, for it was not often nor for long that the sentiment that lay deep in Helen's heart rose to the surface. "Oh! What's that light over there, Ruth?" she added, with quick apprehension.

"That is what I have been looking at," Ruth said.

"But you don't tell me what it is!" cried Helen.

"Because I don't know. But I suspect."

"Suspect what?"

"That it is a campfire," said Ruth. "Yes. It seems to be in one spot. Only the wind makes the flames leap, and at one time they are plainly visible while again they are partly obscured."

"Who ever would camp over on Bliss Island on a night like this?" gasped Helen.

"I don't see why you put such mysteries up to me," returned Ruth, with a shrug. "I'm no prophet. But--"

"But what?"

"Do you remember that girl we saw on the island this afternoon?"

"Goodness! Yes."

"Well, mightn't it be she, or a party she may be with?"

"Campers on the island in a snow storm? No girls from this college would be so silly," Helen declared.

"I'm not at all sure she was an Ardmore girl," said Ruth, reflectively.

"Who under the sun could she be, then?"

"Almost anybody else," laughed Ruth. "It is going to stop snowing altogether soon, Helen. See! the moon is breaking through the clouds."

"It will be lovely out," sighed Helen. "But hard walking."

Ruth gestured towards their two pairs of snowshoes crossed upon the wall. "Not on those," she said.

"Oh, Ruthie! Would you?"

"All we have to do is to tighten them and sally forth."

"Gracious! I'd be willing to be Sally Fifth for a spark of fun," declared Helen, eagerly.

"How about Heavy?" asked Ruth, as Helen hastened to take down the snowshoes which both girls had learned to use years before at Snow Camp, in the Adirondacks.

"Dead to the world already, I imagine," laughed Helen. "I saw her to her room, and I believe she was so tired and so full of dinner that she tumbled into bed almost before she got her clothes off. You'd never get her out on such a crazy venture!"

Helen was as happy as a lark over the chance of "fun." The two girls skilfully tightened the stringing of the shoes, and then, having put on coats, mittens, and drawn the tam-o'-shanters down over their ears, they crept out of their rooms and hastened downstairs and out of the dormitory building.

There was not a moving object in sight upon the campus or the sloping white lawns to the level of the frozen lake. The two chums thrust their toes into the straps of their snowshoes and set forth.

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