THE PERFECT CHAPERON

Three girls, Azalea McBirney, Annie Laurie Pace and Carin Carson rode
slowly along the red clay road that led no-where-in-particular. In fact,
these friends were bound for No-Where-In-Particular, and the way there
was lined on both sides with blossoming dogwood, as white as snow. There
were snow-white clouds in the sky, too, against a background of glorious
blue. But the balm in the air suggested anything rather than snow. It
blew back and forth, carrying with it delicious perfumes of the
blossoming shrubs that grew by the roadside and within the wood, and
touching the cheek like a caress.

The horses seemed to be enjoying themselves almost as much as the girls.
They stepped daintily, throwing back their heads as if they would be
pleased if their mistresses would give them leave to be off and away down
the road, and expanding their nostrils to catch the scents of the
spring-awakened earth. But their mistresses were too deeply engaged in
conversation just then to grant them their desire.

“You see,” the fairest of them was saying—the one the others called
Carin—“I don’t really _want_ to go to Europe with father and mother this
time. It isn’t as if they were going to stay in one place. They’ll be
traveling the whole time, because, you see, father is going on business,
and mother is going along to keep him company. It wouldn’t be very
pleasant, would it, to hear mother saying: ‘And now what in the world
will we do with Carin to-day?’ Really, you know, I wouldn’t at all enjoy
having my name changed to ‘Little-Carin-in-the-Way.’”

The tallest girl, Annie Laurie Pace, laughed rather enviously.

“Think of giving up a European trip for that!” she cried.

“Oh, indeed, I’ll be only too thankful to go on some other occasion,
Annie Laurie, when there’s time to see things or to study. Remember,
I’ve gone twice already; once over the same ground that father and mother
are going over this time. The next time, I hope to stay and study, but
this summer I want to follow the plan we made last summer and go up into
the mountains and teach school.”

“Oh, do you really, Carin?” cried Azalea, the third girl. “I’ve wondered
and wondered if you’d remember about that! Would your father and mother
let you?”

“That remains to be seen. One can always ask. Do you think Ma McBirney
would give you permission, Azalea?”

“Oh, I think she would. The trouble with Ma McBirney is that she’s
likely to say ‘yes’ whether my going makes it hard for her or not.”

“But didn’t she plan,” broke in Annie Laurie, “to visit her cousin down
Calhoun way? Pa McBirney will be going too, won’t he?”

“I don’t think he could leave the stock and the farm. But you see, I
thought maybe Mother McBirney would want to take me along to—”

“To show off her new daughter,” laughed Carin. “I don’t blame her.”

“I never meant anything of the sort,” protested Azalea, coloring. “But
of course, having picked me up by the roadside the way she did—like a
poor stray kitten, you may say—perhaps she would like her relatives to
see that I wasn’t—” Azalea hesitated again, with the mocking eyes of her
friends on her.

“That you weren’t _what_?” demanded Carin teasingly.

But Annie Laurie interrupted with one of the practical remarks for which
she was celebrated.

“It’s all very well for you girls to talk of going off to the mountains
to teach school,” she said, “but have you any idea of where you’ll go and
whom you’ll teach?”

“We have a very clear idea,” answered Carin. “We’ll go back to Sunset
Gap, where we were last summer, and where they need help about as badly
as they can. I was talking with Azalea’s minister, Mr. Summers, and he
says he doesn’t know of any place where the people are in greater need of
schooling than they are there. You remember the place, Annie Laurie,
don’t you? We stopped there overnight when we were on our camping trip.
It took us a long time to get there by wagon, but this time we’ll take
the train as far as Bee Tree and drive only the last fifteen miles. Mr.
Summers says he knows a man who will meet us at the station.”

“You’ve quite made up your mind to go, haven’t you?” asked Annie Laurie.
“What a girl you are, to be laying out all these plans without telling
anyone.”

“Oh, I haven’t done much,” protested Carin, “only, when I happened to
meet Mr. Summers, I talked it over with him. You see, there are men and
women up there on Dundee mountain who don’t even know their letters, and
teaching the children will be like carrying civilization to them,” said
Carin earnestly, meaning very much more than she said but trusting her
sympathetic friends to understand.

“It’s the very kind of work that I want to do above everything else,”
declared Azalea with an earnestness no less than that of her friend.
“Oh, Annie Laurie, if we go, do come with us! You’d make the best
teacher of us all. You’re so firm, and you always think out beforehand
what you’re going to do.”

“The best way for me to live up to that fine reputation,” retorted Annie
Laurie, “is by staying at home. This is my last chance for learning to
manage my dairy, for Sam Disbrow, who has been taking almost all of the
responsibility, is leaving me next October for his two years at
Rutherford Academy. I’m so happy to think he’s going, after all the
disappointments and troubles he’s had.”

“But couldn’t your Aunt Adnah look after the dairy for a couple of
months? I thought she was a fine business woman,” Carin persisted.

“Oh, Carin, father’s death was a much greater shock to her than to any of
the rest of us. She oughtn’t to have much care. Anyway, the dairy is my
business now that father is gone, and I’m anxious to learn every detail
of it. I understand now about keeping the books, but I am making a study
of raising fodder and preserving it, and of feeding the cattle and
marketing the milk. Oh, it’s a huge undertaking.”

Annie Laurie drew a deep breath.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” sighed Carin sympathetically. “Isn’t it queer,
when you come to think of it, that work had to be brought into the world?
Why weren’t we made like the birds, so that we could hop around awhile,
and sing awhile, and go to sleep under a nice dry leaf?”

“Well, life isn’t that way,” said Annie Laurie in the solemn tones the
Paces sometimes used. “We have to work for what we get, and I’m glad we
do. Life is more interesting just the way it is.”

“I like to keep busy myself,” admitted Carin, “but if anyone came up to
me and told me that what I was doing was _work_, I believe I’d fall in my
tracks.” She gave a silvery laugh.

“After you’ve taught school a week, you’ll not need anyone to point out
that what you are doing is work,” Annie Laurie returned. “Azalea, have
you spoken yet to Pa and Ma McBirney about going?”

Azalea gave a little chuckle, half of amusement, half of affection, as
her friend spoke the names of the good mountain people who had taken
Azalea into their home when she was orphaned.

“Naturally, I haven’t,” she said, “because until this hour I didn’t know
Carin was really planning for it. And now I’ll have to approach the
subject cautiously. You know how it is with my dear pretend-parents;
they’re mountain people and don’t like to be frightened out of their wits
by having a question hurled at them. You have to lead them up to it,
like you would a nervous horse.”

“Don’t say ‘like you would,’ Azalea,” pleaded Carin. “You know Miss
Parkhurst never lets you. Say ‘as you would,’ Zalie.”

“As you would,” breathed Azalea meekly.

“Well,” said Annie Laurie, “it’s a grand plan and I hope it will come
true, though I’m not perfectly in love with the idea of having you girls
go off for the summer and leave me. But never mind that. Let’s have a
gallop!”

She flicked the reins on the neck of her pretty mare, and the animal,
delighted at the signal, bounded away as playfully as a kitten. Like
kittens, too, the ponies on which the other girls were mounted followed
after. As they rode, the blooms of the dogwood rained about them and the
laughter of the girls mingled with the nickering of the horses.

At the ford, two miles down the valley, they drew rein.

“It’s time I was getting home,” said Annie Laurie. “How about you,
Azalea? Do you go up the mountain to-night?”

“No, I’m staying with Carin. That’s getting to be my habit on Friday
nights. Mother McBirney comes down Saturday for her trading, and I meet
her at the village and then we go home together.”

And now while they canter back down the lovely Valley of Lee in the bland
light of the closing day, let us tell something of their history to such
readers as have not met them before.

Azalea McBirney did not bear the name to which she was born. She was
Azalea Knox, the daughter of a ne’er-do-well son of a fine family, and of
a loving-hearted mother who had left her home and friends for the sake of
the man she married. The young mother had fallen upon such evil days
that at last, to provide her little girl with the necessaries of life,
she had traveled with a band of sorry actors who journeyed from town to
town in squalid, covered wagons. Sick in body and shamed in spirit, she
died on the road in front of the mountain cabin where Thomas and Mary
McBirney lived. They had taken Azalea into their home, where she shared
their care and affection with Jim McBirney, their only living child.

Carin Carson was the daughter of Charles and Lucy Carson, Northerners of
wealth, who, having lost their three sons in a tragic manner, had come to
the beautiful little mountain town of Lee, to forget, if possible, amid
its beautiful surroundings and peaceful life, the pain which had made
their old home impossible to them. They had interested themselves
greatly in Azalea, had offered to make her their adopted daughter, and
upon her decision to stay with her devoted foster mother, had given her
the privilege of sharing with Carin the excellent instruction received
from Miss Parkhurst, Carin’s governess.

A warm friendship had developed between the girls, and it was a sharp
disappointment to them when Mrs. Carson, who thought they were growing
too self-centered and indifferent to other young folk, brought into their
classroom Annie Laurie Pace, the daughter of the dairy-man at Lee. It
was only after Annie Laurie’s revolt from their selfishness that they
realized the need they had of her as well as the privilege that it was to
her—a girl too advanced for the district school—to share their
opportunities with them. Troubles came to Annie Laurie. She lost her
father and her fortune; but these misfortunes only bound the three girls
closer in “the triple alliance” which they had formed. When, finally
Annie Laurie’s fortune was recovered by a singular chance, they settled
down into happy enjoyment of their school days.

The previous summer had found them together with their elders upon a
camping trip which was to remain in the minds of all of them as one of
the most delightful experiences of their lives. On this excursion they
had seen something of the lives of the mountaineers of the Blue Ridge far
back from the railroads and the main routes of travel, and had resolved
that at the first opportunity they would return to pass on to these
untaught, friendly, wistful folk some of the knowledge which had been
bountifully given them. But this thought had slipped out of sight during
the winter, for each girl had been much occupied after her own fashion.
Now, with the return of summer, their thoughts turned naturally to the
mountains. Back of their desire to be useful to their less fortunate
neighbors, was the hunger for life in the open. They dreamed of the
low-lying valleys bathed in purple mist, of the flaming azalea burning on
the higher slopes, of the innumerable flowers springing to life along the
adventurous pathways, of the wild beauty of the storms, and the ever-new
miracle of sunrise and sunset.

Annie Laurie said good-bye, and Carin and Azalea turned in at the great
gate of the Shoals, the beautiful home built by Colonel Atherton, the
grandfather of Azalea. But Azalea entered it now, a poor girl, the
foster daughter of simple mountain folk, and it was Carin’s parents who
owned the fine old place and who lived there in a very different sort of
state from that which had obtained in Colonel Atherton’s day. His
thought had been all of his own indulgence and glory. Charles Carson and
his wife had their greatest happiness in sharing their prosperity with
others. They had built up a trade for the handicraft of the mountain
people, had lent a hand to several of the enterprises in the town of Lee,
and were the chief supporters of a school for the mountain children.

When Mustard and Paprika, the ponies, had been led away by the stable
boy, the girls ran up the wide sweeping stairs to Carin’s room to dress
for dinner, and as they brushed their hair and changed their frocks, they
talked of how they could best approach their parents with their rather
madcap plan of going up into the mountains. In the midst of their talk
Mrs. Carson came into the room. She kissed them in her gentle way and
then held Azalea off with one white jewelled hand, eyeing her with
quizzical affection. Azalea returned her look adoringly, for Carin’s
mother was the girl’s ideal of what a “beautiful lady” should be. The
faint breath of violet perfume which floated from her gowns, the satin
sheen of her waving hair, her indescribably soft and musical voice, her
gestures, her laugh, all served Azalea as the standard by which she
measured charm in women.

“You two have been plotting something,” declared the lady. “I can read
conspiracy in your faces—such a pair of telltale faces as you have!
Come! What is it?”

She drew Azalea closer to her, and the girl nestled her face for a moment
against Mrs. Carson’s soft cheek.

“It’s the mountains, mamma Carson,” she replied. “Carin and I want to go
up there and teach school the way we planned last summer. You remember,
don’t you?”

“So that’s it! Well, that’s not a very dark conspiracy. There wouldn’t
be any objection if we weren’t going abroad.”

“But it’s because you are going abroad, mamma,” cried Carin, “and because
I don’t really want to go, that this plan seems so—so timely.”

Well, that was where the argument began. It was continued at the dinner
table; it was taken up the next day with the McBirneys as soon as ever
they showed their faces in the village, so that they were not, after all,
allowed to approach the subject in that gradual and cautious manner
advised by Azalea; it was carried to the Reverend Absalom Summers and his
wife Barbara. Even Jonathan Summers, aged three, took a hand in it by
pulling Azalea’s skirt and saying: “Don’t go! Don’t go.”




Mr. Carson explained the situation to Mr. Summers after this fashion:
“It’s not that I am really so keen about taking Carin on this trip; and I
certainly have no objection to her making herself useful, but going to
live upon a wild mountain among wilder people doesn’t appeal to me as the
best thing for young girls to do. I doubt if it would be safe.”

“Safe?” roared the Reverend Absalom, who had been a mountain man himself
and to whom the honor of the mountaineers was dear. “Safe, Mr. Carson!
Do you mean to insinuate that those girls wouldn’t be as safe on Dundee
Mountain as here in the town of Lee? Are you not aware that women are
honored and protected in the remotest regions of our mountains?”

Mr. Carson enjoyed the outbreaks of his friend and was not at all put out
at having provoked one. His smile led Mr. Summers to suppose that his
eloquence had not been vigorous enough, so he resumed in a louder tone of
voice:

“We may do a good many things up on the mountain that aren’t generally
approved of by people living in the valleys; we may quarrel among
ourselves, and we may forget to pay the government the tax on our
whiskey; we may be lazy—we _are_ lazy, if you like; we may have different
ideas of enjoyment from those you have, but if you think there is any
human panther among us who—”

Mr. Carson roared with laughter.

“No, Summers,” he cried, waving his hands to stop the stream of protest,
“I don’t think so—I don’t think anything. But you know yourself that if
the girls go up to Sunset Gap, they’ve got to have a reliable, sensible,
agreeable woman along with them. Now where shall we find anyone like
that? She must like roughing it, yet she’ll have to be a refined,
companionable woman. She must know how to keep the pantry stocked, do
the cooking, and yet be a restraint to our impulsive young people. Such
a person is hard to find.”

Mr. Summers had to admit that it was. His little wife, Barbara, who
wanted terribly to go with the girls but who was unwilling to leave her
preacher-man, had to admit it also, though she usually was the first to
think of the answer to any puzzle. Finally, Mr. Carson put it this way:

“McBirney and his wife are willing Azalea should go, providing the proper
protectress is found. Mrs. Carson and I feel the same way. Now,
Summers, I ask you, isn’t it up to the girls to find the right chaperon?
Why not leave it in their hands? Let them produce a woman of good sense,
refinement, courage, love of adventure mixed with judgment,
well-educated, accustomed to killing snakes, friendly to the mountain
people, with a religious nature and a perfect disposition—no objection to
a little knowledge of medicine thrown in—and they can go.”

The Rev. Absalom threw back his head and laughed, and his laugh was
entirely out of proportion to the size of the little house in which he
and his wife and his yellow-headed son lived and had their being, and in
which they were now entertaining their friends the Carsons and the
McBirneys.

But Carin and Azalea arose to the situation.

“It’s an hour before father and mother are to start up the mountain for
home,” said Azalea, taking the dare gayly; “so we’ve time to go out and
look around.”

“Why not?” demanded Carin. “I’m great at finding four-leaf clovers. Why
shouldn’t I find the perfect chaperon?” Half in expectation, half in
despair, the two of them ran off down the sunny street, followed by the
applause of Barbara Summers’ small brown hands.

“First,” said Carin, when they were beyond the hearing of their elders,
“let’s go tell Annie Laurie.”

“Of course,” agreed Azalea. “Even if she doesn’t know of the right
person, she must be told what we’re doing.”

It was not far from the Summers’ home to the rather gaunt house which
Annie Laurie Pace had inherited. The girls made their way between the
well-kept fields in which the fodder was raised for Annie Laurie’s fine
herd of cattle—the celebrated Pace herd, which provided milk for half the
county—and so came by carefully tended roads to their friend’s home.

Annie Laurie had been training vines to grow over the austere house, and
had made flower gardens in the yard which until recently had worn a
forbidding and business-like appearance. There was even an arbor about
which clematis and wisteria were beginning to climb, and here, sparsely
sheltered by shade, sat Miss Zillah Pace, the younger and gentler of
Annie Laurie’s two aunts. There was a wistful look on her face and her
hands lay idly in her lap, but when she saw the two girls she got to her
feet and came swiftly forward to meet them.

“Oh,” she cried, “how very nice to see you on such a beautiful day!
Everyone ought to be young to-day, oughtn’t they? I declare, I don’t see
how I’m ever going to give up and be middle-aged if it means sitting
around here at home season in and season out.”

“Were you such a very giddy girl, Miss Zillah?” asked Carin in amusement,
casting an eye at Miss Zillah’s staid frock and prim little curls, and
thinking how amusing it was that such a settled little person should be
able to think of herself as adventurous.

“Not on the outside,” returned Miss Zillah. “When I was young I had a
very great sense of duty, and there were many opportunities for me to
exercise it. But do you know, I’m kind of worn out doing my duty, and
I’d give anything if I were going away on some such jaunt as we went on
last year.” She looked at the girls appealingly, and then concluded with
a shy little smile, “I suppose you think I’m a dreadfully silly old
woman.”

But Carin had clasped Azalea’s arm in a fierce grasp.

“The perfect chaperon,” she whispered, “made to order!”

“Found in fifteen minutes,” whispered back Azalea.

Miss Zillah, who caught their rapid exchange of confidence, looked
perplexed.

“Oh, don’t think us rude, Miss Zillah,” pleaded Carin. “We’re not; we’re
merely excited. You see, we’ve just made a discovery.”

“Have you, my dears?” asked Miss Zillah. “Come sit down in the arbor and
tell me about it.”

“I’m afraid we’re almost too elated to sit down,” laughed Azalea. “You
see, what we have discovered, Miss Zillah, is you.”

“But it’s a long time since you landed on my continent,” said Miss
Zillah.

“Yes, but when we first saw you we made the same mistake that Columbus
did. We thought you were some one else.”

“Who did you think I was? Who am I?” laughed the nice old lady, glad of
an excuse to be talking happy nonsense.

“Why, we thought you were just Annie Laurie’s aunt,” explained Azalea,
“but now we’re wondering if you’re not our chaperon. We’re going up to
Sunset Gap again; this time to teach school. And we _must_ have a
perfect chaperon, else we’ll not be allowed to go.”

“And you’re she!” cried Carin, flinging her arms impulsively about Miss
Zillah’s soft neck. “You know you are! Say you’ll come, Miss Zillah,
and then we can run back and tell our people that everything is all
right.”