Betty Gordon in Washington/10
It is sometimes said that in moments of danger one's whole life passes swiftly in review through the mind, but Betty always declared that she had just a single thought when it seemed that in another moment she would be trampled under the mare's hoofs; she had not telegraphed to her uncle and he would not know where she had gone.
The horse continued to cover the ground rapidly, and then, when it had almost reached the terrified girl, fear lent sudden wings to Betty's leaden feet. She turned and ran.
Speeding over the field toward the fence at the other end, she could hear the steady pounding of the mare's hoofs, though she did not dare to glance over her shoulder. Her thoughts worked busily, trying to figure out a way to climb over or under the fence, and she had a lively fear of those terrible teeth nipping her as she tried to climb. As the fence seemed to her strained vision to rise suddenly from the ground and come to meet her, a way to safety opened.
Before she began to run she had unconsciously stooped to gather her sweater from the ground where she had dropped it, and now she turned and waved the garment frantically in the furious animal's face. Bewildered and confused, the mare stopped, and, as Betty continued to flap the sweater, she turned and dashed back to her colt. Weakly the girl tumbled over the fence and the adventure was over.
"She thought you were going to hurt Pinto," said Mrs. Brill, when she heard the story. "Goodness, I certainly am glad you had the presence of mind to shake your sweater at old Phyllis. Wouldn't it have been dreadful if she had bitten you!"
The next morning, Betty said good-by to the hospitable family who had been so wonderfully kind to her, and, much refreshed after a luxurious hot bath and a night's sleep in the pretty guest room, took the trolley car into town with Mr. Brill, who at the station door bade her farewell in his capacity of host and two minutes later as telegraph operator sent her message to Uncle Dick in Washington.
The 7:45 was on time to the minute, and as the long train pulled in and the porter helped her on, Betty drew a long breath of relief. Surely there could be no more delays and in a comparatively few hours she might hope to be with her uncle and know the comfort of telling him her experiences instead of trusting their recital to letters.
The train had been made up late the night before and many of the passengers were still sleepy-eyed after restless hours in their berths. A good many of them were at breakfast in the dining car, and as there was no parlor car Betty had to take half a section already occupied by a rather frowsy young woman with two small children.
"We take on a parlor car at Willowvale," the porter assured Betty, only too sympathetically, for he had been waiting on the woman and her children since the afternoon before. "I'll see that you get a chair then, Miss."
Betty settled herself as comfortably as she could and opened her magazine.
"Read to me?" suggested a little voice, and a sticky hand caressed her skirt timidly.
"Now don't bother the lady," said the mother, trying to pull the child away. "My land, if I ever live to get you children to your grandmother's I'll be thankful! Lottie, stop making scratches on that window sill!"
Lottie pursed her pretty mouth in a pout and drummed her small heels discontentedly against the green plush of the seat.
Betty smiled into the rebellious blue eyes and was rewarded by a sudden, radiant smile. She closed her magazine and found the mother gazing at her with a look almost as childlike in its friendly curiosity as her little daughter's.
"You've got a way with children, haven't you?" said the woman wistfully. "I guess everybody on this train will be glad when we get off. The children have been perfect torments, and Lottie cried half the night. We're none of us used to traveling, and they're so mussed up and dirty I could cry. At home I keep 'em looking as neat as wax. We're going to see my husband's mother, and I know she'll think I started with 'em looking like this."
Betty was far older than many girls her age in some things. She was self-reliant and used to observing for herself, and she had a rich fund of warm and ready sympathy that was essentially practical. She saw that the mother of these lively, untidy children was very young, hardly more than a girl, and worn-out and nervous as a result of taking a long journey with no help and little traveling experience. She was probably, and naturally, anxious that her children should impress their father's mother favorably, and it took little imagination to understand that in her home the young mother had been used to praise for her excellent management. Betty, added to her qualities of leadership and sound judgment, had a decided "knack" with children. In Pineville she had been a general favorite with the little ones, and many a mother had secretly marveled at the girl's ability to control the most headstrong youngster. Now she seized the opportunity presented to help a fellow-passenger.
"Have you had your breakfast?" she asked. "No? I thought not. Well, I had mine before I got on the train. If you are willing to trust the children with me, I'll amuse them while you go into the diner and have a quiet meal. You'll feel much better then."
"Oh, it's been a nightmare!" confided the young mother with a sudden rush of feeling. "Nobody ever told me what it would be like to travel with two children. Lottie upset her milk and Baby spilled her supper on the floor. And people just glare at me and never offer to help. It will be heavenly to eat my breakfast without them, but I feel that I'm imposing on you."
Betty managed to send her off convinced that everything was as it should be, and to the mother's surprise the children snuggled down like little mice to listen to the honorable and ancient story of the Three Bears. By the time a rested and radiant mother came back to them, for she had stolen a little time in the dressing room and rearranged her fair hair and adjusted her trim frock, something she had found it impossible to accomplish with two restless children clinging to her skirts, Lottie and Baby were firm friends with Miss Betty.
"I never knew any one as lovely as you are!" The gratitude of the woman was touching. "I was just about crazy. My husband tipped the porter, and he did try to look after me, but he didn't know what to do. Usually there is a maid on this train, they told us, but she was taken sick, and there wasn't time to get any one to fill her place. Now don't let the children bother you. They had their breakfast early, and I can read to them till we get to Willowvale where their grandmother will meet us."
But Betty had not finished. She loved the feel of soft little arms about her neck and there was not much connected with a baby's welfare she did not know about. Many a Pineville baby she had washed and dressed and fed as correctly as a model baby should be.
"Let me take them one at a time and tidy them up?" she suggested. "They'll take to it kindly, because I am new and that will lend to the washing a novelty. If we go in relays, we can't upset the whole car."
So first with Lottie, and then with Baby, who seemed to be without other name, Betty went into the dressing-room and there washed pink and white faces and hands till they shone, and brushed silk locks till they lay straight and shining. Clean frocks were forthcoming, and two spick and span babies emerged to beam upon a transformed world no longer seen through a veil of tears. This new friend could tell the most wonderful stories, invent delightful games, and sing dozens of foolish little rhymes in a low sweet voice that disturbed no one and yet allowed every word to be distinctly understood.
Both children went to sleep during the morning, and then Betty heard that Mrs. Clenning, as the mother introduced herself, lived in the West and that this journey to Willowvale was the first she had taken since the birth of the babies.
"My husband's mother is crazy to see them because they are her only grandchildren," she explained. "I didn't want to come without Mr. Clenning, but he couldn't get away for a couple of months. He is to come after us and take us home. If he didn't, I'm sure I'd live East the rest of my days, or at least till the children are grown up. I'll never have the courage to try a long train trip with them again."
Before Willowvale was reached Betty helped Mrs. Clenning get her wraps and bags together and tied the babies into bewitching white bonnets with long fluted strings. The porter came for the bags, but Betty carried the younger child to the car door and handed her down to the mother, who had gone first with Lottie. She saw a tall, stately, white-haired woman, dresed all in white from her shoes to her hat, gather all three into her arms, and then went back to her seat satisfied that the mother's troubles were over.
"Parlor car's ready, Miss," announced the porter, coming up to her. "Shall I take you on in?"
Betty followed him, to be established comfortably on the shady side of the car, with the window adjusted at the most comfortable height. She did not hear the porter's comment to the conductor when he passed him in the vestibule of the parlor car.
"That girl in seat fourteen, she's one perfect little lady," said the dusky porter earnestly. "You jest observe her when you takes her ticket. 'Member that lady with the two children what racketed all day and all night? Well, she done fix those two kids up till you wouldn't know 'em, and cheered their mother up, too. And all jest as pretty and like a lady. That mighty fine lady in the red hat (I give her a seat on the sunny side of the car a-purpose) wouldn't do nothing yesterday when I axted her to hold a glass of milk while I went to get a extra pillow. Said she wasn't going to be nursemaid to no stranger's brats!"
So Betty was zealously looked after by the whole train crew, for the story had spread, and the siege of Clenning had been a protracted one with a corresponding fervency of gratitude for release; and at six o'clock that night the attentive porter handed her down the steps to the platform of the beautiful Union Station in Washington.
She had only her light traveling bag to carry, so she followed the crowd through the gates, walking slowly and scanning the faces anxiously in order that she might not pass her uncle. She did not wish to go through the station out on the plaza, lest she make it more difficult for him to find her, and she was keenly disappointed that he had not been at the gate, for the train was half an hour late and she had confidently expected him to be waiting. She took up her stand near the door of the waiting room and scanned the eddying circles of travelers that passed and repassed her.
"Something must have delayed him," she thought uneasily. "He couldn't miss me even in a crowd, because he is so careful. I hope he got the telegram."
She had turned to compare her wrist-watch with the station clock when a voice at her back said half-doubtfully, "Betty?"