QUEER CONFIDENCE

When the excitement died down, and Nancy found an opportunity to “look
Rosa over,” as she expressed her scrutiny of the cousin’s physical
condition, she found so many cuts, scratches, bruises and other marks
of violence, that she really wanted to call Margot in to attend to
their cleansing and bandaging.

“I tell you, Nance, they’re all right,” insisted Rosa rather
petulantly. “I don’t poison easily and those are all scratches from the
trees and bushes.”

“But just see that long cut on the side of your leg–”

“A wire, I guess it was a barbed wire–”

“That’s always dangerous,” interrupted Nancy. “The rust is one of the
worst things. Rosa, how could you be so silly?” Nancy’s patience was
by no means abundant. She hated to see Rosa’s skin torn that way;
besides, she realized the danger of it.

“Nancy Brandon!” called out the cousin in a determined voice, “you
have no idea what I went through. Orilla acted like a lunatic and I
was honestly afraid of her. She seems quite fond of you–” there was
sarcasm in this–“that is, she spoke of you as if you and she were
pals. Just another one of her oddities, of course, so I let it go that
way.”

Here was Nancy’s chance to tell Rosa why the girl considered her
friendly. But the hot flush in her cheeks warned her. Besides, there
was in Nancy’s mind a new thought. It came when Orilla had smiled at
her in the woods. Perhaps Nancy could help Orilla!

So the moment passed and the cousins continued to bathe and bind the
scratches. Rosa’s hands were cruelly torn and, as the girls talked,
Rosa gave Nancy an inkling of the whole absurd plot.

“I never expected she would ask me to chop down trees, of course,”
explained Rosa. “She had always insisted that what I needed was hard
work. She made fun of me for being soft, and I suppose that made me
mad. At any rate, she promised that I would lose five pounds a week if
I faithfully followed her advice.”

“Five pounds a week?” repeated Nancy, incredulously.

“Yes. And you see, if I lost twenty pounds in the month the folks are
in Europe I would be quite–quite slender when they came back,” and she
smiled so prettily that Nancy wondered Why she wanted to spoil those
dimples with trimming off their scallops.

“And she was going to do all that–with violent exercise?” Nancy
questioned in amazement.

“That and–starvation.” Rosa uttered the last word tragically. “I
didn’t promise to starve but–now, Coz, haven’t I been humble enough?
You don’t want to hear any more of the horrible details, do you?”

“Well, I’d like to know,” continued Nancy cautiously, “why she wanted
the trees cut down? What was she going to do with them?”

“That’s just what I wanted to know, too,” Rosa said in reply. “I knew
for a long time that she had some secret scheme; you know the night
I hurt my foot we saw that she had a hatchet in her car, but she has
never told me what the real plan was. I’ve known Orilla since I was
a baby, and I suppose I’m used to her ways, but I must say she is
secretive. And sly! I couldn’t find out the least thing, ever, that she
didn’t want me to know.”

“Yes, I think she is like that,” agreed Nancy, thereby dismissing for
a time at least the mystery of the plot. “But what we have got to do
now is to fix up her damages. Rosa, I do wish you would let Margot see
that big scratch. I’m no good at nursing and I don’t want to take the
responsibility–”

“I’ll be as beautiful as ever in a day or two–see if I don’t,”
replied Rosa, making desperate efforts not to wince as she poured the
disinfectant over her hands.

“But when Margot smells this drug store she’ll surely suspect,”
intimated Nancy, for, as she said, the disinfectants had made havoc
with the atmosphere of Rosa’s little dressing room, that adjoined her
bath.

“I’m always getting cuts on my hands,” replied Rosa. “All I have to do
is to hide the rest of me. Margot is pretty busy now, you know. If she
hadn’t been she would have heard old Pixley’s story. Can’t that woman
talk though?”

Nancy agreed that she could, and that led to further discussion of
Mrs. Pixley, Orilla, Mrs. Rigney and some other folks that Nancy had
recently become acquainted with.

This was to have been the evening of the dance at Sunset Hotel, but
there was now no possibility of the girls attending it. Not only did
Rosa’s battered condition make it impossible, but a heavy summer
storm had descended upon the mountains, and showed no indications of
subsiding.

Rain, wind, thunder, lightning! The girls watched the great spectacle
from a west window, and at times it seemed as if the heavens were
splitting asunder. The lightning flashed in a solid sea of fire behind
one great mountain, and this looked indeed as if the sky were rent and
another world was breaking through.

Somehow the storm seemed a fitting finish for the turbulent day that
Nancy and Rosa had just passed through, and as they watched the display
in the heavens they worried about Orilla. Was she safely under shelter?
Why did not her mother prevent her foolish work? And, Nancy secretly
wondered, what had that little flash of light meant which she had seen
flame up suddenly and then die out?

For days following this there was no sign of Orilla nor did any word
from her come to Fernlode. But this was in no way unusual, rather was
it regarded as a good thing for Rosa and Nancy.

Mrs. Rigney came around occasionally, Nancy noticed, and she was
surprised to find her a woman of intelligence. She appeared to be on
the best of terms with Margot and the other servants at Fernlode, and
this seemed to be cause for greater wonderment that Orilla should be
so antagonistic.

Rosa recovered quickly, as she had promised to, and she also
“reformed.” That is, she no longer kept secret trysts with the
“fat-killer,” as she now called Orilla, although Nancy knew that
letters, messages, and even bundles addressed to Orilla went out very
privately from Rosa’s room.

The arrival of a lovely white scales for Rosa’s bath room came as a
surprise one day, but a letter from Lady Betty presently explained it.

Rosa was to take long walks with Nancy, as she had promised to do; she
was also to follow some sensible advice in the matter of diet, and just
to keep up her courage she was to watch the scales!

This plan, which was really the fulfillment of Nancy’s written
suggestion to Lady Betty, brought the dove of peace to Fernlode, in so
far as Rosa’s conduct was concerned. For in the first week of her trial
of it she actually lost three and one half pounds.

“And no barked paws nor skinned shins,” she gayly announced to
everyone, including, of course, the Durands.

“I can’t see why you didn’t know that insistent exercise and cut-down
rations was the real cure,” argued Nancy, reasonably enough. “Even at
grammar school, and in the lower grades, babes, fat dimply little ones,
are walking miles to school and turning their backs on lollipops.”

“But I hate to walk and I love lollipops,” explained the shameless Rosa.

“And you loved the excitement of a woodland mystery?”

“Yes; I could just see myself in a movie cutting down trees and falling
away into skeleton lines. It was romantic now, Nance, wasn’t it,
really?”

“Very. Especially when we brought you back on a tray. All carved up
like a tatooed injun–”

They yelled at this, and Nancy was so relieved at Rosa’s change of
disposition that she, Nancy, began to get fat! Just as Lady Betty had
hoped!

Everything was so happy and cheerful; Rosa’s friends came almost every
afternoon and evening, numbers of them, girls and boys, and at last the
summer had opened up into a real vacation for Nancy.

They finally went to a dance at Sunset Hotel, and Rosa wore the blue
cape. It was a perfect evening and everyone was so happy that even
the sight of the cape upon Rosa’s shoulders failed to bring regret to
Nancy. Four car loads of young folks from their summer homes paraded
down the hillside road at nine o’clock. It seemed late to Nancy, but
she knew better than to say so.

“The hotel children have the ball-room from eight until nine,” Dell had
explained, “then the young folks swarm in. Don’t worry about being too
young, Nancy. You look like a young lady in that stunning rig.”

The “rig” was stunning, even Nancy conceded that, for it was a
flame-colored chiffon robe that fell down straight from her shoulders,
sleeveless, and with the fashionable high neck. Her dark hair set
the flame color off beautifully, as did the glints of her dark eyes,
and she really did look lovely. This costume was one of Lady Betty’s
presents.

Whether a girl was fourteen or nineteen no one could tell, for the
bobbed heads were so much alike and so ineffably youthful, everyone
looked very young indeed.

The hotel was fascinating to Nancy; its great posts and pillars flanked
with baskets of growing vines, the spectacular lights set all over the
ceilings, and the music!

It was a scene of gaiety such as Nancy had never before witnessed, and
when Gar had danced with her and had then taken her out to the great
porch to see the lake illuminations, Nancy Brandon felt like a girl in
a dream. Summer life at a fashionable resort was to her like a page
from a book, or a scene in a play.

“But I’d die if I had to stay at a hotel,” Gar assured her as she
commented upon the grandeur. “It’s all right once in a while, but you
would hate this artificial living as a regular diet.”

Nancy agreed that she might, but she also expressed her interest in a
sample like this. Rosa had a wonderful time also, the best part of it
being the number of compliments she received.

“Wasn’t she getting thin!”

The dance ended early for the Durand party, as Dell was a practical
chaperon, and she insisted upon returning to the hills at a reasonable
hour. But the memory of that first night stayed in Nancy’s mind just as
she remembered her own little party in the Whatnot Shop last year.

Only Ted and her mother had been there to make that first one really
complete.

And Rosa was getting thin! In this simple, easy, pleasant way–just
long walks, daily. That meant rain or shine and “long” meant all the
way to the village, clear down to the post office, two miles each way.
At first Rosa objected; she found her feet untrained for such tramps,
but Nancy knew and insisted.

“Why not try _my_ cure?” she urged. “It’s not near as unpleasant as
Orilla’s.”

“Very well,” Rosa would sigh. “But you better tip off the scales. If
they don’t mark me low–”

“They will,” Nancy promised, and of course they always did.

Gar proposed tennis. Rosa had never before played–“good reason why,”
she explained, but now she was anxious to try the splendid summer game.

“You look wonderful in your sport suit, Rosa,” Nancy encouraged, “and
out on the courts–”

“All right. Anything once, but don’t expect me to fly up in the air
after the ball, the way you do, Nance. I’m still something of a paper
weight, you know.”

So tennis was tried, successfully.

“I know what was the matter with you, Rosa,” her cousin told her one
afternoon after an especially enjoyable set with Paul and Gar, “you
thought you were fat, and so you were self-conscious and miserable. Now
you think you aren’t very fat, and you’re proud.”

“I think I’m not! I am not, am I Nancy? Tell me quickly! End this
‘crool’ suspense–” and Rosa performed a wonderful stunt with tennis
racket and ball, actually “flying” off her feet in a really creditable
manner.

She was so happy! No one who has always been free from such an
insistent worry as Rosa’s had been, can actually understand the joy of
hope that a few pounds less flesh can bring. The hand of that little
white scale became a friend, an understanding friend, and every time
it pointed to a figure Rosa held her breath.

But this did not solve the mystery built around Orilla. Rosa herself
was as keenly interested in that as was Nancy, in spite of her rescue
from any actual need of it. Bit by bit she confided in Nancy details of
the queer bargain between her and Orilla. She had shared her allowance
with her, who insisted she had a right to some of it anyway, and that
she would not “make Rosa as thin as herself” if she didn’t pay well for
it.

“But what has she done with the money?” Nancy asked, after that
admission.

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Rosa, innocently. “You see, she had some
big project in her mind and everything else she could get was supposed
to go toward it.”

One evening when Nancy was seeking a little solitude along the lake
front, there to read again her latest letter from her mother and the
latest “funny page” from Ted, she was startled by someone calling her
name in a hushed, whispering voice.

“Who is it?” she asked, although quite certain of whom it would prove
to be.

“I, Orilla,” came the answer, as the girl stepped from behind the
shrubbery into Nancy’s path.

“Oh, how you frightened me!” Nancy exclaimed. “I was so intent upon–my
own thoughts. How are you, Orilla? We haven’t seen or heard of you in
such a long time.”

“Oh, I’m all right,” replied the girl, who as usual wore the dingy suit
of khaki, and a boy’s soft hat upon her thick red hair. “I’m glad I met
you here. I want to ask a favor of you.”

“All right, Orilla,” said Nancy sincerely, “I shall be glad to help you
if I can.”

“I believe you. You’re different. Maybe it’s because you’re poor–”

Nancy smiled broadly at this, but Orilla did not appear to notice it.
She motioned to a rustic seat and they both sat down. Nancy was curious
and a little anxious, for Orilla, while assuming friendship, still
had that queer, furtive look in her eyes, and her face was surely
unnaturally flushed.

“Have you been working too hard, Orilla?” Nancy asked kindly. “You
aren’t strong and you shouldn’t–”

“I’m strong as an ox,” interrupted the girl. “That’s because I live out
doors. I was sick once, and since I cured myself no one has interfered
with my ways.”

This, thought Nancy, must be why Orilla’s mother allowed her to do as
she pleased. But even so, she surely might have saved her daughter from
wood chopping!

“Yes, I only go indoors at night–I steal in. No one knows where I go,”
this meant much to Orilla, evidently. “But you’re my friend and we both
have a secret, so that’s what I want to tell you.”

Nancy was so surprised she merely listened, not venturing to interrupt
with a single word. Orilla kept locking and unlocking her fingers in a
nervous way, and she fidgeted in her seat even more nervously.

As if the secret so long waited for was about to burst over Nancy’s
head, like a cloud before a storm, she waited.

“Yes, I know I can trust you,” Orilla continued after a pause. “You’re
what they call an idealist, aren’t you?”

“No, I don’t think I am,” faltered Nancy. “Why should I be?”

“Because you’re so square. I’ve read about girls like you. They always
want everything just right, no tricks nor sneaking. I knew that night
when you tried on that cape that you were doing something for Rosa.”

“Why? How did you know?”

“You looked it. When a girl is sneaking she doesn’t flare up and get
mad the way you did,” went on the surprising Orilla and Nancy knew
better than to prolong the discussion by any arguments. She merely
smiled and accepted the words as they were intended.

“And since then you’ve never told,” Orilla declared, her features drawn
and strained as she talked, and her eyes shifting. “You never told
Rosa, for if you had she would have told me. What she knows the world
knows,” said Orilla, scornfully.

“But Rosa has never said anything against you, Orilla,” spoke up Nancy.
“I’m sure you ought to give her credit for that.”

“There you go again. I told you you were an idealist. But that’s all
the better for me. I can trust you, too.”

This sounded like trickery to Nancy, and she said so.

“But you are lots older than I am and you ought to have lots more
sense,” she pointed out. “I don’t mind helping you, if it’s something
you can’t do yourself, but I must be loyal to my own family,” she
insisted, firmly.

“It won’t interfere with your family, don’t worry,” replied Orilla. “I
just want you to take care of some money for me. That’s not so hard to
do, is it?”

“Money!” Nancy remembered what Rosa had said about that. “Why can’t
_you_ take care of it?” she asked.

“Because I suspect that someone knows I’ve got it, and they’re after
it.” Orilla was very calm and composed now, and Nancy noticed how
quickly her moods changed. “It’s in this little bag,” Orilla continued,
showing to Nancy a square, brown bag made of khaki, just like her suit.
It was bulky and seemed to contain quite a lot of money–if it were all
money.

“Well, if you just want me to take it for a few days I don’t suppose
there is any harm in that,” reasoned Nancy. “But suppose someone stole
it from me?”

“No one would around here, that is, not up in your rooms,” replied
Orilla. “Please take it, Nancy. It means an awful lot to me,” and she
laid the bag on Nancy’s lap as she pleaded.

“All right. But don’t hold me responsible. I’ll do the best I can to
take care of it, of course,” Nancy assured her, “but if anything _does_
happen–”

“It won’t. Thank you for taking it, Nancy. Now I am free to–finish my
work,” and she stood up to leave.

“But, Orilla, you were going to tell me something else; your secret
place, wasn’t it?” Nancy felt now she should know more about Orilla’s
business if she were going to act as her secret treasurer.

“Oh, I can’t wait now, but meet me here to-morrow evening at this time,
and then I’ll tell you. Good-bye, I must go. Don’t mention having seen
me,” and just as she had done before, Orilla slipped away, back of the
bushes like a wild creature of the woods, indeed.

For a few minutes Nancy sat there, the brown bag lying in her lap, an
unwelcome treasure.

“How queer!” she was thinking. “And most of this was Rosa’s. But
Rosa gave it to her, so it really is Orilla’s now. Imagine my being
her–cashier!” and a little laugh escaped from Nancy’s lips.

The gentle splash of a canoe paddle told of Orilla’s departure, and
Nancy checked her thoughts to listen.

“She is certainly the oddest girl I have ever met,” she reflected. “But
I had no idea of becoming a chum of hers. What would Rosa say if she
knew?”

This was not a pleasant consideration, but somehow Nancy knew she
could serve even Rosa best by agreeing, partly, with Orilla, so her
misgivings were presently quieted.

Having the bag of money was certainly a tangible link between her and
Orilla, and already Nancy understood its significance.

“I’d love to tell Rosa,” she pondered, “but if I did Orilla would not
trust me further, and I know I must keep her confidence, for a while at
least. Just now Rosa is getting along so splendidly,” she told herself,
“and she’s so relieved from her worries, that it surely must be best to
keep her out of Orilla’s affairs.”

The little brown bag assumed almost a live form as Nancy clutched it.
How long had Orilla been saving all that money? Some of it was in
bills–that was easily felt through the cloth–and much of it was in
coin; the weight vouched for that.

However, it was all in Nancy’s keeping now, and she tucked it under her
scarf as she entered the house. Meeting Rosa in the hall, Nancy then
accepted the plan for an evening at Durand’s.

“Anything easy for to-night,” she replied to Rosa’s suggestion. “I
don’t feel a bit like thinking–hard.”

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