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There was an audible hush, even above the tinkling notes of the piano, as Elsie stepped out onto the floor of the gymnasium and bowed to her audience.
This was the pièce de résistance of the program, and every eye was fastened upon the girl who had received more honors than any other girl in school. She had gone beyond mere speculation or jealousy and had become the admiration of the girls, the pride of the teachers. They delighted in her every achievement. Whatever she did, whether to lead in a debate, to work out a difficult problem in mathematics, or translate some complex sentence in Latin, they settled into silence and prepared to be entertained. That she had recently discovered a new gift in athletics was the crowning pleasure of her friends. And now upon the occasion of the annual Maypole Dance, given by the members of the gymnasium classes, Elsie Hathaway was to be distinguished again. The audience settled into instant quiet, with pleased expectation on every face.
Many distinguished men and women were present, parents and friends of the school, the smiling members of the faculty, a considerable number of students from the near-by men's college, and even a sprinkling of gray-haired college professors. It was an audience worthy of anyone's best efforts.
Just above the platform in the gallery sat Professor Bowen, the principal of the school, gray-haired, dignified, scholarly, with gentleness and kindliness written all over his strong, true face.
By his side sat a stranger, a former pupil in another school, a most attractive young man so far as looks were concerned, who had stopped over for a day to visit his old friend and teacher who had been his greatest inspiration during high school days.
Most of the program was over. The tall, white-robed queen with flowing hair, and wreaths of laurel and asparagus fern, like emerald frost-work over her white garments, had marched in with her fairy attendants dressed in all manner of fantastic costumes. They had placed her upon the throne, crowned her, danced about her and the Maypole; danced separately and together; danced with pink and blue and white ribbons around and around the pole until it stood sheathed in its woven rainbow.
Cameron Stewart, at first amused by the brilliant, ever-changing panorama, had begun to furtively count the remaining numbers on the program and wish that he and his dear Professor Bowen might slip away and have a good old-time talk. There were hosts of questions he wanted to ask, and as many things he wanted to tell, and here they had to sit and watch these girls playing like giddy butterflies. There was a good deal about girls' schools that was like child's play, he thought. Nonsense. You wouldn't catch men wasting their time on silliness like that. He wondered that Professor Bowen could care to sit through it all. He was not even one of the judges — why didn't he slip out? Would it do to suggest it? He had to take that early train in the morning, if possible, and there would be so little time to talk after this performance was over!
He cast a furtive glance at Professor Bowen to see if a suggestion of this kind would be welcome, but he saw on the old, kindly face an expression of deep interest, expectation, and satisfaction — the same that used to bloom for himself sometimes when he had done well at school, the look he had met when he stood up to deliver the valedictory speech. It had stirred his heart to its depths and had been his inspiration during that long and carefully prepared speech, helping him to put the right fire into his words. The interest in that kind face had been one of the long-cherished pictures on the walls of his memory. And was it possible that it could be worn for the sake of a foolish dancing girl? It was worth nothing then. It was but put on to please! He must tear the picture down from that most honored place in his heart and memory and realize that he was growing up and that nothing was as it had seemed when he was a boy. He was conscious of a distinct twinge of disappointment and jealousy, as with a deep, involuntary sight he turned to see what or who had the power to bring out the look which previously had not rested on that noble face for nothing.
Elsie Hathaway stood poised for an instant, surveying her audience, cool, self-possessed, lovely, a veritable fairy in her make-up.
She was small and slight, a dainty head set upon dainty shoulders, her garments green, soft, and fluffy. Even her slippers were apple green and her gown of green gauze, modest and simple, with a round neck, not too low, and little short puffed sleeves fitted closely to her round, pink arms. The greenness set off the red gold hair. She had taken off the wreath of green roses she had worn when she marched with the queen around the Maypole, and looked as simple as any wood nymph about to dance upon the moss of the forest. She swept a glance over her audience, then looked up in the gallery straight to where the stranger sat with the gray-haired professor, and gave him one cool, questioning glance. Somehow her eyes challenged his interest even against his will. They had so much quiet assurance for a mere little high school dancer. But he sat up and gave cold, critical attention to the movements of the wood nymph.
She swept her audience a grave, dignified bow, almost too dignified for a wood nymph, he thought. It gave the impression of an intellectual wood nymph, he thought, solemnly but sweetly performing some woodland ceremony.
Then she moved with the music, light as a thistledown blown by the wind, fanciful as sunlight playing with the leaves of the trees and sifting through branches to the shadowy moss in yellow, twinkling kisses. Her every movement was utmost grace, not the slightest pretense, but perfect self-control, perfect confidence in her own supple power. He watched her as the others did; as anyone would watch a beautiful instrument. As he grew less astonished at the beauty of the gliding movements, a perfect poetry of motion, he began to brood over that look on his old professor's face. After all, he reflected, there was the child in every heart, for even an old man would be carried away with a pretty girl dancing. Nevertheless, he watched the whirling bit of feathery green as breathlessly as the rest of the audience, till she at last swept another low bow and glided out of sight and then he turned to see that old face beside him beaming with the same light it had worn when Professor Bowen came to congratulate him upon the honors he had won in high school.
It fell blankly upon the younger man. It brought bitterness to his soul. He was amazed. He couldn't bear to find his idol but human after all. A mere dancing puppet, pretty, of course, but after all a puppet! And Professor Bowen! Devotee of art and science and literature! But before he could find words to express his disappointment, Professor Bowen spoke.
"She's a wonderful little girl!" he said. "Brightest student we have had for years! She simply swept the honors away from everyone else."
"In athletics, I suppose!" said the young man, his lip curling sarcastically.
Professor Bowen turned in surprise at the tone and looked his young friend in the face anxiously. That did not sound like his dear Cameron. Was the boy's head swelling with all his honors?
"Not at all," said Professor Bowen, adjusting his have-to-be-convinced tone of voice that he used in cases of resistant or lazy scholars. "She's a wonder in any direction you take her. She's a marvel of keenness in mathematics, quick as a flash in Latin, up in literature and the sciences. I never saw anything like it. She studies early and late, takes little or no time for recreation, and is as sweet and kindly with it all as you ever saw a girl. She was working so hard her health was breaking under it, and we insisted upon her giving some time to the development of her body. She struggled hard against it at first, but I had a long talk with her about it, how she would be no good at all if her body broke down, and finally convinced her; this is the result. She plunged into athletics with as much vim as anything else, and put her perfect self-control into tangible form for our pleasure.
"Of course this dancing business is merely to please the gymnasium teacher, but it shows what wonderful power the girl has. She's the best all-around developed student I ever saw, with no exception," the old man finished emphatically.
The younger man bit his lips. He was mortified that he had a rival in his dear old professor's heart. A girl, too, a dancing girl!
"And what good will it all be to her," said the young man, bitterly. "She may dance well and do difficult mathematical problems, and all that, but what will she accomplish? I don't suppose she expects to earn her living by dancing or mathematics, either. She doesn't look it. How will she be any better than other girls? I don't know whether I believe much in higher education for women. It doesn't prepare them for their lives as wives and mothers."
He spoke with the intolerance of youth.
The old professor looked at the young man with keen pity in his eyes. To think that Cameron had got no further than that! He could not see the bitterness in the heart of his young idolater.
"No, she probably will never earn her living by her knowledge, for she will not need to do so. She has a wealthy uncle and is not studying with any such purpose in view. But I can't believe, my dear friend, that you don't think a woman is better for every advantage she can have."
"Of course she is," said the younger man, half vexed with himself. "But I was wondering how you could be so pleased over a mere pretty frivolity like this. It didn't seem like you!"
The old professor smiled.
"I was pleased over the many tests the child has stood and shines in them all. She's a rare girl. She's pure gold. You don't know her."
"Are you sure you do?" asked Stewart, a bit impudently. "After all, these tests are not real. It's the later life that is the real test, the home life."
"Some who have taken such honors in school have been tried by fire and they have shone out pure gold, Cameron," said the old professor, his voice trembling slightly. He could call to mind instances that brought tears to his old eyes.
"Well, I'd like to see this paragon of yours tried by fire once — the fire in the range, for instance, like the pioneer women. If she could stand that she surely ought to be the honor girl," laughed the young man. And looking down, as if drawn by some strange attention, he met the eyes of Elsie Hathaway, clear, keen, haughty, and he knew that she had heard him, for she stood just beneath the low gymnasium gallery.
He felt the color stealing into his face annoyingly. What was the matter with him? He tried to comfort himself by thinking that she could not possibly know of whom he was speaking but in his heart he was sure she did all the time. Well, she was only a kid anyway, why should he care? He was glad that Professor Bowen started downstairs.
He hoped to escape this marvelous Hathaway kid further, but the professor was determined his two best-beloved pupils should meet and brought about an introduction. Stewart tried to say something about how much he had enjoyed her dancing, but she held him coolly with her eyes, and turning away talked to Professor Bowen. Cameron Stewart was glad when he at length emerged from the crowd of eager, fluttering schoolgirls and gray, smiling elderly teachers, and was seated in the big leather chair of his beloved professor's study. But somehow after he was there he could not think of the things he had intended to say and he found himself listening to a long tale of Elsie Hathaway's achievements, told by the dear old man who could not bear to have his pet pupil discounted.
Elsie Hathaway, cool, dainty, lovely, dividing the honors with the queen of the occasion, moved down the length of the gymnasium slowly, met on every hand by adulation.
"O Elsie, you dear, you were too sweet!" murmured another girl snuggling up to her, proud to be allowed to stay a few minutes by her side.
"Elsie Hathaway, we are proud to lay even the honors of the Athletic Department at your feet," saluted a teacher, bending to fasten a decoration of fluttering ribbons and gleaming stones on Elsie's green gauze breast.
They gathered around her, laughing and chattering as only schoolgirls can chatter. Now and then the group would be broken into by friends who wished to be introduced and tell how much they had enjoyed the beautiful entertainment Elsie had given them; and little girls who had been privileged witnesses looked wonderingly at the fairy who was real flesh and blood, after all.
They gave her flowers, they invited her to dine, they showered their compliments freely, as Elsie progressed to the door of the gymnasium, and outside it was the same.
The boys from the neighboring college stood hovering in shadowy groups along the way, watching for her coming with admiring glances.
"Say, that was something great, Elsie! You'd make your fortune on the stage. What a pity so much talent is lost to the public!" said a daring youth.
"It certainly was fine, Elsie. I never saw anything more graceful in my life. Butterflies aren't as graceful as you, nor a bird on the wing. I didn't know, one whirl there, but you had been growing some wings yourself and might fly away from us!" chimed in another, gallantly.
"Say, Elsie, that was dandy!" called out a young man who presumed upon a distant cousinship.
And so, laughing and admiring they accompanied her to her uncle's car where awaited her proud aunt and uncle and two adoring cousins, and as they drove away a low admiring murmur of friendly voices, almost like a cheer, followed her into the night.
One might have expected Elsie's head to be turned, and she certainly was pleased with all the pleasant things that had been said to her. One drop of bitter was mixed with the sweet, however, perhaps to make the sweet seem all the sweeter.
The beloved aunt and two dear cousins fluttered after her even to her room and stayed to talk over the evening, how everyone did, and what everyone said. They told her as they left that she had been the best of all. But it all surged over her after they were gone, that one bitter drop in the evening's draught of delight.
"Horrid thing, I hate him!" she said to herself in the glass. "He just spoiled it all for me. He had an awfully arrogant look. He said he would like to see me 'tried by the fire in the range.' I know he was talking about me. His eyes were too honest to keep me from knowing, though his tongue did try to make me think he had enjoyed it, and deceive me about what he had said. He is one of those old-fashioned men who want to keep women down to their 'sphere,' I'm sure. Poor fellow! He belongs to a former generation. Well, I'm thankful I don't have to make fires in ranges nor be tried by them, but if I did, and had to, I'm sure I could excel if I tried. Anyway, I'd like to show that man that I could — and I know I could. I wish they had courses in ranges at school and I'd take one just to prove to the horrid fellow that I could do something in that line, too. It's my opinion people can do well in anything if they only put their hearts into it, no matter what it is. It may not be so pleasant, but they can make it a means of winning. Dear old Professor Bowen! He thought I was pure gold. I wonder if I am?" And so she fell asleep.
But the fire that was to try Elsie Hathaway was not far away.CHAPTER 2
When Elsie awoke the next morning, which was Saturday, everything looked bright in her life. She had forgotten the hateful stranger. He was relegated to the place in her mind with farmers who worked their wives to death, and dull men who saw no good in women except to do drudgery. She remembered only the delightful things that had been said, and the intoxication of the whirling, gliding motion of her dance the night before. It if were right and not frivolous and useless she would delight to go on entertaining people in that way always. It was a delicious sensation to feel herself floating to the music, in the sight of admiring beholders, and to know that she had the power to charm them thus. She felt that the intoxication was dangerous and it was well the gymnasium was closed with last night's performance. There would be no more temptation that year for showing off. She must be careful not to let that tendency grow. Of all things, she despised people who thought too much of themselves. But there would probably be no danger in that sort of thing next year. She would be a senior and would have to work. This had but been a play and now it was over.
With which sensible reflections she put the finishing pat to a charming outfit and went down to breakfast in a cool muslin of palest sea green, the color that always intensified the red gold of her hair and made it shine like a halo. One of the boys used to say that Elsie Hathaway was the only girl in the world who looked better with light golden eyelashes than she would have done with dark. They seemed but to soften the delicate texture of her skin as white chiffon might do, and made a shy drapery for the grayness of her eyes — eyes that never seemed to flirt or grow boldly intimate. The boys liked her quiet reserve.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Honor Girl"
Copyright © 2014 Grace Livingston Hill.
Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc.
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