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A Surprising Story

NANCY froze behind the wheel. Had she inadvertently hit someone? Her heart pounding in fright, she opened the car door to step out.

At the same instant a shadowy figure arose from a pile of hay near her. "I guess I must have scared you silly when I screamed," said a girl of Nancy's age, stepping forward.

"You— You're all right?" Nancy gasped.

"Yes. And I'm sorry I yelled. I came out here to check on our supply of feed for the chickens. I didn't think it was going to be a bad storm, so I didn't bother to go back to the house."

"It's pretty bad," said Nancy.

"Well, the storm terrified me," the girl continued. "I didn't hear your car coming, and when it rushed in here, I panicked."

Nancy began to breathe normally again, then told the stranger her name and the fact that the mechanism for raising the top of the convertible was not working.

"That's a shame," said the girl. "And you must get your clothes dried. The storm is letting up. Let's dash over to the house. Grace will help you too. She's my sister. My name's Allison Hoover."

Hoover! Nancy was tempted to tell Allison that she had been planning to call, but she decided not to mention it at the moment. It might be better to do her sleuthing more subtly.

Nancy smiled at Allison. "Thanks a million. But first I'd like to wipe out the car. Are there any rags around the barn?"

Allison produced several and together the two girls mopped the water from the cushions and floor. By this time the rain had stopped. As Nancy and Allison sloshed through a series of puddles to the farmhouse, Nancy had a better chance to study her companion. She was tall, with reddish-blond hair and very fair skin. Her voice was musical and she had an attractive, lilting laugh.

The girls reached the run-down farmhouse and stamped the mud from their shoes on the back porch. Then Allison flung open the door, and they entered a cheerful kitchen.

As the door shut behind them, another girl who was just closing the oven of an old-fashioned range turned toward them in surprise.

"Grace, I've brought a visitor," Allison said quickly. "Nancy, I want you to meet my sister. She's the mainstay of our family of two."

Grace Hoover cordially acknowledged the introduction and greeted Nancy with a warm smile. Nancy judged her to be at least four years older than Allison. Her face was rather serious, and it was evident from her manner that responsibility had fallen on her shoulders at an early age.

Nancy was attracted to both girls and responded to their friendly welcome. She put on a robe which Allison brought her and Grace hung her wet clothes near the range. Presently Grace pulled an ironing board from a closet with the intention of pressing Nancy's garments. But Nancy would not hear of this and began to iron them herself.

"This is fun," she said to the sisters. "I don't know what I would have done without you girls."

"It's great for us," Allison spoke up. "We don't have much company. To tell you the truth, we can't afford it."

Grace stepped to the stove, removed a golden-brown cake from the oven, and set it on the table to cool.

"But today we're not talking about money. It's Allison's birthday and this is a birthday cake. Nancy, if you're not in too much of a hurry, I wish you'd join us in a little celebration."

"Why, I'd love to," Nancy said.

"Grace's cakes are yummy," Allison declared. "I'm not much of a cook myself. My department is taking care of the barn and the chickens."

Soon Nancy finished pressing her clothes and put them back on. Meanwhile, the cake had cooled and Grace started to spread the chocolate frosting.

"Suppose you two go into the living room and wait," she suggested. "I'll bring in the cake and tea."

Nancy followed Allison to the adjoining room. Although it was comfortable, the room did not contain much furniture. The floor had been painted and was scantily covered with handmade rag rugs. With the exception of an old-fashioned sofa, an inexpensive table, a few straight-backed chairs and an old oil stove which furnished heat in cold weather, there was little else in the room. However, dainty white curtains covered the windows, and Nancy realized that although the Hoovers were poor, they had tried hard to make their home attractive.

"Do you two girls live here alone all the time?" Nancy inquired.

Allison nodded. "Grace and I have been living here since Father died. That was two years ago. Mother passed away just before that," the girl added with a slight catch in her voice. "Their illnesses took every penny we had."

"I'm terribly sorry," Nancy remarked sympathetically. "It must be dreadfully hard for two girls to run the farm by themselves."

"Our farm isn't as large as it once was," Allison said quietly. "We have only a few acres left. I know you are too polite to ask how we manage, Nancy. Grace helps a dressmaker at Masonville whenever she can get work. She makes all her own, clothes and mine too. And I raise chickens."

From just beyond the doorway suddenly came the strains of "Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birth—"

By this time Nancy had joined in. She and Grace finished "—day to you. Happy Birthday, dear Allison. Happy Birthday to you!"

Grace set the cake with eighteen lighted candles on the table. She and Nancy sang the second verse with the words "May you have many more!"

Tears stood in Allison's eyes. When the song ended, she grasped her sister in a tremendous hug. Then she gave Nancy one.

"This—this is the nicest birthday I've had in years," she quavered.

"And it's one of the most enjoyable I've ever attended," Nancy said sincerely.

Suddenly Allison began to sing a tuneful old English ballad about the birthday of a village lass. Nancy listened entranced to Allison's clear, bell-like tones. When she finished, Nancy applauded, then said:

"That was perfectly lovely. You have a beautiful voice, Allison!"

The singer laughed gaily. "Thank you, Nancy. I've always wanted to take lessons, but as you know, voice training is pretty expensive."

At that moment Grace brought in a tray of fragrant tea. As she poured three cups, Allison blew out the candles and served the cake.

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