Patty was the instigator, the champion player, and the final victim of the game. Baron Münchhausen himself would have blushed at some of her creations, and her stories were told with such an air of ingenuous honesty that the most outrageous among them obtained credence.
The game in its original conception may have been innocent enough, but the rule was not always as carefully observed as it should have been, and the most unaccountable scandals began to float about college. The president of "Christians" had been called up for cutting chapel. The shark of the class had flunked her ethics, and even failed to get through on the "re." Cathy Fair was an own cousin of Professor Hitchcock's, and called him "Tommy" to his face. These, and far worse, were becoming public property; and even personal fabrications in regard to the faculty, intended solely for undergraduate consumption, were reaching the ears of the faculty themselves.
One day Patty dropped into an under-classman's room on some committee work, and she found the children, in the manner of their elders, regaling themselves on dainty bits of college gossip.
"I heard the funniest thing about Professor Winters yesterday," piped up a sophomore.
"Tell it to us. What was it?" cried a chorus of voices.
"I'd like to hear something funny about Professor Winters; he's the solemnest-looking man I ever saw," remarked a freshman.
"Well," resumed the sophomore, "it seems he was going to get married last week, and the invitations were all out, and the presents all there, when the bride came down with the mumps."
"Really? How funny!" came in a chorus from the delighted auditors.
"Yes—on both sides; and the clergyman had never had it, so the ceremony had to be postponed."
Patty's blood froze. She recognized the tale. It was one of her own offspring, only shorn of its unessential adornments.
"Where in the world did you hear any such absurd thing as that?" she demanded severely.
"I heard Lucille Carter tell it at a fudge party up in Bonnie Connaught's room last night," answered the sophomore, stoutly, sure that the source was a reputable one.
Patty groaned. "And I suppose that every blessed one of that dozen girls has told it to another dozen by this time, and that it's only bounded by the boundaries of the campus. Well, there's not a word of truth in it. Lucille Carter doesn't know what she is talking about. That's a likely story, isn't it?" she added with fine scorn. "Does Professor Winters look like a man who'd ever dare propose to a girl, let alone marry her?" And she stalked out of the room and up to the single where Lucille lived.
"Lucille," said Patty, "what do you mean by spreading that story about Professor Winters's bride's mumps?"
"You told it to me yourself," answered Lucille, with some warmth. She was a believing creature with an essentially literal mind, and she had always been out of her element in the lofty imaginative realms of local color.
"I told it to you!" said Patty, indignantly. "You goose, you don't mean to tell me you believed it? I was just playing local color."
"How should I know that? You told it as if it were true."
"Of course," said Patty; "that's the game. You wouldn't have believed me if I hadn't."
"But you never said it wasn't true. You don't follow the rule."
"I didn't think it was necessary. I never supposed any one would believe any such absurd story as that."
"I don't see how it was my fault."
"Of course it was your fault. You shouldn't be spreading malicious tales about the faculty; it's irreverent. The story's all over college by this time, and Professor Winters has probably heard it himself. He'll flunk you on the finals to pay for it; see if he doesn't." And Patty went home, leaving a conscience-smitten and thoroughly indignant Lucille behind her.
About a month before the introduction of local color, Patty had entered upon a new activity, which she referred to impartially as "molding public opinion" and "elevating the press." The way of it was this:
The college, which was a modest and retiring institution craving only to be unmolested in its atmosphere of academic calm, had been recently exploited by a sensational newspaper. The fact that none of the stories was true did not mitigate the annoyance. The college was besieged by reporters who had heard rumors and wished to have them corroborated for exclusive publication in the "Censor" or "Advertiser" or "Star." And they would also like a photograph of Miss Bentley as she appeared in the character of Portia; and since she refused to give it to them, they stated their intention of "faking" one, which, they gallantly assured her, would be far homelier than the original.
The climax was reached when Bonnie Connaught was unfortunate enough to sprain her ankle in basket-ball. Something more than a life-size portrait of her, clothed in a masculine-looking sweater, with a basket-ball under her arm, appeared in a New York evening paper, and scare-heads three inches high announced in red ink that the champion athlete and most popular society girl in college was at death's door, owing to injuries received in basket-ball.
Bonnie's eminently respectable family descended upon the college in an indignant body for the purpose of taking her home, and were with difficulty soothed by an equally indignant faculty. The alumnæ wrote that in their day such brutal games as basket-ball had not been countenanced, and that they feared the college had deteriorated. Parents wrote that they would remove their daughters from college if they were to be subjected to such publicity; and the poor president was, of course, quite helpless before the glorious American privilege of free speech.
Finally the college hit upon a partially protective measure—that of furnishing its own news; and a regularly organized newspaper corps was formed among the students, with a member of the faculty at the head. The more respectable of the papers were very glad to have a correspondent from the inside whose facts needed no investigation, and the less respectable in due time betook themselves to more fruitful fields of scandal and happily forgot the existence of the college.
Patty, having the reputation of being an "English shark," had been duly empaneled and presented with a local paper. At first she had been filled with a fit sense of the responsibility of the position, and had conscientiously neglected her college work for its sake; but in time the novelty wore off, and her weekly budgets became more and more perfunctory in character.
The choice of Patty for this particular paper perhaps had not been very far-sighted, for the editor wished a column a week of what he designated as "chatty news," whereas it would have been wiser to have given her a city paper which required only a brief statement of important facts. Patty's own tendencies, it must be confessed, had a slightly yellow tinge, and, with a delighted editor egging her on, it was hard for her to suppress her latent love for "local color." The paper, however, had a wide circulation among the faculty, which circumstance tended to have a chastening effect.
The day following Patty's bride-with-the-mumps contretemps with Lucille happened to be Friday, and she was painfully engaged in her weekly molding of public opinion. It had been a barren week, and there was nothing to write about.
She reviewed at length a set of French encyclopedias which had been given to the library, and spoke with enthusiasm of a remarkable collection of jaw-bones of the prehistoric cow which had been presented to the department of paleontology. She gave in full the list of the seventeen girls who had been honored with scholarships, laboriously writing out their full names, with "Miss" attached to each, and the name of the town and the State in its unabbreviated length. And still it only mounted up to ten pages, and it took eighteen of Patty's writing to make a column.
She strolled down to examine the bulletin-board again, and discovered a new notice which she had overlooked before:
Friday, January 17. Professor James Harkner Wallis of the Lick Observatory will lecture in the auditorium, at eight o'clock, upon "Theories of the Sidereal System."
Patty regarded the notice without emotion. It did not look capable of expansion, and she did not feel the remotest interest in the sidereal system. The brief account of the lecturer, however, which was appended to the notice, stated that Professor Wallis was one of the best known of living astronomers, and that he had conducted important original investigations.
"If I knew anything about astronomy," she thought desperately, "I might be able to spread him out over two pages."
An acquaintance of Patty's strolled up to the bulletin-board.
"Did you ever hear of that man?" asked Patty, pointing to the notice.
"Never; but I'm not an astronomer."
"I'm not, either," said Patty. "I wonder who he is?" she added wistfully. "It seems he's very famous, and I'd really like to know something about him."
The girl opened her eyes in some surprise at this thirst for gratuitous information; it did not accord with Patty's reputation: and ever after, when it was affirmed in her presence that Patty Wyatt was brilliant but superficial, she stoutly maintained that Patty was deeper than people thought. She pondered a moment, and then returned, "Lucille Carter takes astronomy; she could tell you about him."
"So she does. I'd forgotten it"; and Patty swung off toward Lucille's room.
She found a number of girls sitting around on the various pieces of furniture, eating fudge and discussing the tragedies of one Maeterlinck.
"What's this?" said Patty. "A party?"
"Oh, no," said Lucille; "just an extra session of the Dramatic Theory class. Don't be afraid; there's your room-mate up on the window-seat."
"Hello, Pris. What are you doing here?" said Patty, dipping out some fudge with a spoon. (There had been a disagreement as to how long it should boil.)
"Just paying a social call. What are you doing? I thought you were going to hurry up and get through so you could go down-town to dinner."
"I am," said Patty, vaguely; "but I got lonely."
The conversation drifting off to Maeterlinck again, she seized the opportunity to inquire of Lucille: "Who's this astronomy man that's going to lecture to-night? He's quite famous, isn't he?"
"Very," said Lucille. "Professor Phelps has been talking about him every day for the last week."
"Where's the Lick Observatory, anyway?" pursued Patty. "I can't remember, for the life of me, whether it's in California or on Pike's Peak."
Lucille considered a moment. "It's in Dublin, Ireland."
"Dublin, Ireland?" asked Patty, in some surprise. "I could have sworn that it was in California. Are you sure you know where it is, Lucille?"
"Of course I'm sure. Haven't we been having it for three days steady? California! You must be crazy, Patty. I think you'd better elect astronomy."
"I know it," said Patty, meekly. "I was going to, but I heard that it was terribly hard, and I thought senior year you have a right to take something a little easy. But, you know, that's the funniest thing about the Lick Observatory, for I really know a lot about it—read an article on it just a little while ago; and I don't know how I got the impression, but I was almost sure it was in the United States. It just shows that you can never be sure of anything."
"No," said Lucille; "it isn't safe."
"Is it connected with Dublin University?" asked Patty.
"I believe so," said Lucille.
"And this astronomy person," continued Patty, warming to her work—"I suppose he's an Irishman, then."
"Of course," said Lucille. "He's very noted."
"What's he done?" asked Patty. "It said on the bulletin-board he'd made some important discoveries. I suppose, though, they're frightful technicalities that no one ever heard of."
"Well," said Lucille, considering, "he discovered the rings of Saturn and the Milky Way."
"The rings of Saturn! Why, I thought those had been discovered ages ago. He must be a terribly old man. I remember reading about them when I was an infant in arms."
"It was a good while ago," said Lucille. "Eight or nine years, at least."
"And the Milky Way!" continued Patty, with a show of incredulity. "I don't see how people could have helped discovering that long ago. I could have done it myself, and I don't pretend to know anything about astronomy."
"Oh, of course," Lucille hastened to explain, "the phenomenon had been observed before, but had never been accounted for."
"I see," said Patty, surreptitiously taking notes. "He must really be an awfully important man. How did he happen to do all this?"
"He went up in a balloon," said Lucille, vaguely.
"A balloon! What fun!" exclaimed Patty, her reportorial instinct waking to the scent. "They use balloons a lot more in Europe than they do here."
"I believe he has his balloon with him here in America," said Lucille. "He never travels without it."
"What's the good of it?" inquired Patty. "I suppose," she continued, furnishing her own explanation, "it gets him such a lot nearer to the stars."
"That's without doubt the reason," said Lucille.
"I wish he'd send it up here," sighed Patty. "Do you know any more interesting details about him?"
"N—no," said Lucille; "I can't think of any more at present."
"He's certainly the most interesting professor I ever heard of," said Patty, "and it's strange I never heard of him before."
"There seem to be a good many things you have never heard of," observed Lucille.
"Yes," acknowledged Patty; "there are."
"Well, Patty," said Priscilla, emerging from the discussion on the other side of the room, "if you're going to dinner with me, you'd better stop fooling with Lucille, and go home and get your work done."
"Very well," said Patty, rising with obliging promptitude. "Good-by, girls. Come and see me and I'll give you some fudge that's done. Thank you for the information," she called back to Lucille.
The Monday afternoon following, Patty and Priscilla, with two or three other girls, came strolling back from the lake, jingling their skates over their arms.
"Come in, girls, and have some hot tea," said Priscilla, as they reached the study door.
"Here's a note for Patty," said Bonnie Connaught, picking up an envelop from the table. "Terribly official-looking. Must have come in the college mail. Open it, Patty, and let's see what you've flunked."
"Dear me!" said Patty, "I thought that was a habit I'd outgrown freshman year."
They crowded around and read the note over her shoulder. Patty had no secrets.
Dear Miss Wyatt: I am informed that you are the correspondent for the "Saturday Evening Post-Despatch," and I take the liberty of calling your attention to a rather grave error which occurred in last week's issue. You stated that the Lick Observatory is in Dublin, Ireland, while, as is a matter of general information, it is situated near San Francisco, California. Professor James Harkner Wallis is not an Irishman; he is an American. Though he has carried on some very important investigations, he is the discoverer of neither the rings of Saturn nor the Milky Way.
"It's from Professor Phelps—what can he mean?" said the Twin, in bewilderment.
"Oh, Patty," groaned Priscilla, "you don't mean to say that you actually believed all that stuff?"
"Of course I believed it. How could I know she was lying?"
"She wasn't lying. Don't use such reckless language."
"I'd like to know what you call it, then?" said Patty, angrily.
"Local color, my dear, just local color. The worm will turn, you know."
"Why didn't you tell me?" wailed Patty.
"Never supposed for a moment you believed her. Thought you were joking all the time."
"What's the matter, Patty? What have you done?" the others demanded, divided between a pardonable feeling of curiosity and a sense that they ought to retire before this domestic tragedy.
"Oh, tell them," said Patty, bitterly. "Tell every one you see. Shout it from the dome of the observatory. You might as well; it'll be all over college in a couple of hours."
Priscilla explained, and as she explained the funny side began to strike her. By the time she had finished they were all—except Patty—reduced to hysterics.
"The poor editor," gurgled Priscilla. "He's always after a scoop, and he's certainly got one this time."
"Where is it, Patty—the paper?" gasped Bonnie.
"I threw it away," said Patty, sulkily.
Priscilla rummaged it out of the waste-basket, and the four bent over it delightedly.
Ireland's eminent astronomer spending a few weeks in America lecturing at the principal colleges—His famous discovery of the rings of Saturn made during a balloon ascension three thousand feet in the air—Though this is his first visit to the States, he speaks with only a slight brogue—Loyal son of old Erin
"Patty, Patty! And you, of all people, to be so gullible!"
"Professor James Harkner Wallis's parents will be writing to Prexy next to say that their son can't lecture here any more if he is to be subjected to this sort of thing."
"It's disgusting!" said Bonnie Connaught, feelingly.
"When you've got through laughing, I wish you'd tell me what to do."
"Tell Professor Phelps it was a slip of the pen."
"A slip of the pen to the extent of half a column is good," said the Twin.
"I think you girls are beastly to laugh when I am probably being expelled this minute."
"Faculty meeting doesn't come till four," said Bonnie.
Patty sat down by the desk and buried her head in her arms.
"Patty," said Priscilla, "you aren't crying, are you?"
"No," said Patty, savagely; "I'm thinking."
"You will never think of anything that will explain that."
Patty looked up with the air of one who has received an inspiration. "I'm going to tell him the truth."
"Don't do anything so rash," pleaded the Twin.
"That is, of course, the only thing you can do," said Priscilla. "Sit down and write him a note, and I'll promise not to laugh till you get through."
Patty stood up. "I think," she said, "I'll go and see him."
"Oh, no. Write him a note. It's loads easier."
"No," said Patty, with dignity; "I think I owe him a personal explanation. Is my hair all right? If you girls reveal this to a single person before I come back, I'll not tell you a thing he says," she added as she closed the door.
Patty returned half an hour later, just as they were finally settling down to tea. She peered around the darkening room; finding only four expectant faces, she leisurely seated herself on a cushion on the floor and stretched out her hand for a steaming cup.
"What did he say? What kept you so long?"
"Oh, I stopped in the office to change my electives, and it delayed me."
"You don't mean to tell me that man made you elect astronomy?" Priscilla asked indignantly.
"Certainly not," said Patty. "I shouldn't have done it if he had."
"Oh, Patty, I know you like to tease, but I think it's odious. You know we're in suspense. Tell us what happened."
"Well," said Patty, placidly gathering her skirts about her, "I told him exactly how it was. I didn't hide anything—not even the bride with the mumps."
"Was he cross, or did he laugh?"
"He laughed," said Patty, "till I thought he was going to fall off his chair, and I looked anxiously around for some water and a call-bell. He really has a surprising sense of humor for a member of the faculty."
"Was he nice?"
"Yes," said Patty; "he was a dear. When he got through discussing Universal Truth, I asked him if I might elect astronomy, and he said I would find it pretty hard the second semester; but I told him I was willing to work, and he said I really showed a remarkable aptitude for explaining phenomena, and that if I were in earnest he would be glad to have me in the class."
"I think a man as forgiving as that ought to be elected," said Priscilla.
"You certainly have more courage than I gave you credit for," said Bonnie. "I never could have gone over and explained to that man in the wide world."
Patty smiled discreetly. "When you have to explain to a woman," she said
in the tone of one who is stating a natural law, "it is better to write
a note; but when it is a man, always explain in person."