Madge Morton's Secret

Madge Morton's Secret

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CHAPTER I

THE INTERRUPTED STORY

A girl in a green gown was cosily ensconced among the spreading branches of an old apple tree. She was reading, and she never stirred except to turn the pages of her book or to reach out for another red apple after dropping the core of the previous one.

It was a glorious morning in early September, and the old Virginia orchard was sweet with the odor of ripening apples. A press under a tree still dripped with the juices of yesterday's cider-making. The bees and flies buzzed lazily about it. There was no one but the girl in sight.

Some distance to the left was a red brick house, separated from the orchard by a low stone fence and the length of the kitchen garden. It had a big, white colonnaded balcony in front and a smaller veranda in the rear.

The girl in the apple tree read on, unaware that a carriage had driven up to the front of this house and that a woman and a young man were alighting from it. A few moments later a girl came out on the back veranda. She put her hands to her lips and hallooed. She whistled and called. Then she ran up and down the garden, searching everywhere.

"Madge, Madge! where are you?" she cried. "Oh, do answer me in a hurry! I have something so important to tell you!"

The girl in the apple tree did not stir. She was oblivious to everything except her story. Her cousin, Eleanor, called and called again, then ran to the stables. Pompey, the colored boy, declared that he had not seen Miss Madge all morning. Once Eleanor leaned over the orchard fence. The green of Madge's frock was too near the color of the foliage to show through the trees. Eleanor gave up her search in despair.

"All right, Madge Morton," she murmured, "if you will go off by yourself without telling a soul where you are going, you must take the consequences—though I am so sorry," added Eleanor. "Poor Madge will be so disappointed."

An hour later a book dropped from the apple tree to the ground, bringing a scurry of leaves with it. Madge Morton descended after her book, swinging herself down without a thought of her dignity. "Oh, dear me!" she exclaimed. "Why did I have to drop my book when I had only a few more pages to read? I suppose it is nearly luncheon time now, and I ought to see what has become of Nellie."

Madge strolled lazily along under the fruit trees. Now and then she stopped to look critically at the heavily-laden branches. Mr. William Butler, her uncle, owned a fruit farm, consequently the girl was interested in their autumn and winter crop of apples.

At the gate of the orchard she paused to peep at her book for another stolen moment and came face to face with her cousin. Although it was not yet midday, Eleanor Butler had on a white company frock and her hair had been freshly braided. Madge did not see her cousin at first. Nellie eyed her sympathetically, but at the same time her face wore an expression of disapproval. "Where have you been, Madge?" she demanded. "You've gone and done it this time, I can tell you; I have been looking for you for more than an hour."

"Sorry, Coz," returned Madge lightly....