"Lynn! Hi, Lynn, wait for me!"
"Hi, Nancy! I didn't see you back there." Lynn Chambers turned with a smile for the bright-haired girl behind her. "In fact, I almost stopped at your house on the way by, but I thought you'd probably left for school already. You were always such an early bird last year."
The September wind, still warm but with the faintest hint of autumn, whipped past the two girls, swirling Lynn's plaid skirt around her legs and mussing the blonde hair that had recently been so carefully combed. The result was that she looked prettier than ever. There was something about Lynn Chambers, a fineness of bone, an ease of bearing, a graceful, unconscious little lift of the head, that made newcomers to Rivertown, who had never seen her before, nod approvingly and ask, "Who is that?"
And whichever long-time resident was asked would usually know.
"That's the older Chambers' girl," he would say. "Nathan Chambers' daughter. You know Dr. Chambers — they live on the Hill."
"Oh, yes, of course."
Even if someone did not know of Dr. Chambers, everyone in Rivertown knew about the Hill. The Hill Road ran at an easy slope down to the river, and along it lived the society families of Rivertown — in lovely homes, one above another, surrounded by spacious yards and green lawns with gardeners to cut them and shade trees and beds of flowers. Rivertown was proud of the Hill and of the people who lived on it And Lynn Chambers represented it perfectly — tall and slim, clear-eyed and gracious, with a touch of unconscious aloofness with people who did not know her well.
There was nothing aloof about her now, though, as she waited for Nancy Dunlapp to catch up with her.
"Maybe I was early last year," Nancy said wryly, falling into step with her friend, "but there's nothing to get there early for now. Not with that brother of yours away at college." She smiled when she said it, but she could not hide the touch of loneliness underneath. Nancy Dunlapp and Ernie Chambers had gone steady for three years now, ever since she was a freshman and he a sophomore. They were seldom seen apart, the girl with the red hair and the quiet dark-eyed boy. And now Ernie was at college, and Nancy, alone, looked oddly small and incomplete.
Lynn reached over and gave her friend's hand a quick squeeze.
"Don't worry, Nan, December's only three months off. With this being senior year and everything, time will pass before you know it."
"I certainly hope so," Nancy said. "It's terrible how much you can come to depend on somebody, that is, somebody you really care for. You can't imagine — oh, but then of course you can. I keep forgetting that Paul is at college, too." "Oh, it's not the same," Lynn said quickly, trying to shut off the tremor that rose within her at the sound of Paul's name. "After all, you and Ernie have been a steady team for three years now. With Paul and me, it has only been since last winter."
"Maybe so," Nancy said teasingly, "but I must say he looked pretty solemn when he and Ernie left together, as though he wanted to say, 'To heck with college! I'm going back to high school for another senior year with Lynn.' "
She laughed, and Lynn did, too, but the latter's hand stole to the front of her blouse. Under it, she could feel the thin gold chain which held Paul's class ring. It felt odd still, having the light pressure around the back of her neck and the weight of the heavy ring against her chest, but it was a good feeling too, a warm, secure feeling. It brought back Paul's words when he came by to pick up Ernie and to say a final good-by.
"You take care of yourself," he had said awkwardly, while Ernie was busily piling his suitcases in the back of Paul's car. "You won't have me around to steer you across streets and things, you know."
"I know," Lynn said, fighting down the sting of tears in her eyes.
I won't cry, she told herself firmly, I just won't. But the tears were dangerously close to the surface when she turned to smile up at Paul.
He was smiling, too, a forced smile. And then suddenly, they were both laughing, for the smiles had been so ridiculously inadequate.
Paul reached forward and caught her hand.
"Lynn, I have something for you."
And then she felt the ring, heavy and hard and warm from his finger.
"Your ring!" she whispered. "Your class ring! Paul, how can we — "
"We can't," Paul said. "Not to mean 'going steady' the way it did in high school. I wouldn't ask that when I'm not going to be here to take you to things. But it can mean something else. That is, if you want it to."
"What?" Lynn asked, almost afraid to hear his answer because she knew what it was she wanted so much to hear.
"That you're my girl. That we've got something between us worth hanging onto. That — oh, darn it, Lynn, you know what I'm trying to say."
Lynn nodded, letting her fingers curl around the ring.
"Yes, I know. And I feel that way, too, Paul. I want your ring. It will give me something to kind of hang onto, as you say. Maybe I won't miss you as much."
"Well, you'd better miss me some," Paul exclaimed, "or I'm coming back for that ring in a week's time!"
He grinned, and Lynn did, too, and at that moment Ernie turned back from the car.
'Well, are you two through with the fond farewells? Because I've got a girl of my own to say good-by to before we take off."
"I know," Lynn said, "and she's probably about to burst by this time. She told me she was going to be out in the front yard, waiting, at eight o'clock and I think it's closer to a quarter of nine. She'll be sure you've forgotten her."
"No, she won't," Ernie said easily. "Nancy knows better than that."
They are so sure of each other, Lynn thought, so completely sure. But then, Paul and I are, too, now — now that he's given me his class ring.
Ernie gave her a brotherly hug and climbed into the car.
"I've already said my good-bys to the family. Come on, old man, let's get going. I'll look the other way, if you want to make the grand gesture."
"You're a noble guy," Paul said. He turned back to Lynn, but he did not kiss her. She did not expect him to. Paul was not the kind of boy who made a show of things in public. He simply held her hand a moment and then released it and gave her chin a little tap.
"Chin up. I'll be back soon. Don't you lose that ring now; it took my whole allowance for three months straight."
"I won't lose it," Lynn promised. 'I'll never lose it!"
And then, sooner than it seemed possible, they were gone.
Now, walking along beside Nancy toward the high school, the whole world had a kind of emptiness about it Last year, she had started toward school in the morning with an excitement burning inside her, with the knowledge that "in just ten minutes . . . seven minutes . . . four minutes . . . I'll see Paul." He would be waiting there by the front steps, maybe talking to some of the boys, for Paul always had friends around to talk to, but his eyes would be wandering off in the direction of the Hill Road, watching for Lynn. Or sometimes she would get there first and watch for him to come. It did not matter which way it happened.
But this year it won't be either way, Lynn thought as the street turned and the building came into view. It's going to seem so lonely!
Nevertheless, there were plenty of greetings as the two girls approached the building. Rivertown High was a public school, but all the young people from the Hill went there. Occasionally, some family would decide to send their children to a private school, but that was not the usual procedure, for the high school was a good one. Of course, other people went there, too, but the Hill crowd was a crowd of its own, set a little apart from the rest of the students.
It was not a conscious snobbery, and there were members of the Crowd who did not live on the Hill. Most of them had become part of the Crowd because of Paul. Paul had been president of the senior class and captain of the football team, and he had been friends with almost everyone in school. Paul was the sort of boy whom everybody liked, probably because he himself liked everyone.
Lynn had known about him for years before she met him. He was only a year ahead of her, but somehow, during the first years of high school, they had just seemed to miss each other.
"As though," Lynn said later, "every time I came in a door, you walked out one. We were in all the same places, but not at the same time. Just think, we might never have had a chance to know each other at all if it wasn't for Ernie!"
It was through Ernie that she had really come to know Paul.
It was Ernie's junior year, and he was trying out for the football team. Paul was already a member of the team and rumor had it he was the choice for next year's captain. But then Paul was the football type, broad-shouldered and stocky, and Ernie was slender in the same way Lynn was.
Why he wanted to make the team, his parents could not see.
"Really, dear," Mrs. Chambers had said gently, "it's not necessary to go out for something like that, just because a lot of the other boys do. We're not all meant for the same things."
"Sure," his father had agreed. "You're going to be a doctor. That's something most of those muscle-bound fellows could never dream of doing. You don't have to prove yourself by playing football, Son; there are plenty of other ways."
But Ernie had been stubborn. Lynn thought she knew why. It had something to do with getting a letter sweater to present to Nancy. It was just when his steady dates with Nancy were beginning, and he wanted to give her a sweater, as all the boys did when they went with a girl.
"Which is silly," Lynn had declared. "Nancy isn't the kind of girl to care about something like that. She cares about you, not about some old letter."
"Mind your own business, Sis," Ernie had said, not unkindly. "This is something I've made up my mind to do, and I'm going to do it."
And so he practiced. He practiced and practiced — and came home grimy and lame and bruised. Then the day of the tryouts came, and he did not make it He did not say much when he came home that day. He just said, "I didn't make it," and went upstairs and shut himself in his room.
Nancy phoned later, and he would not come to the phone to talk to her, which was unheard of for Ernie. He did not even come out for dinner.
Then, that evening, Paul arrived.
Dodie saw him first. Dodie was a year younger than Lynn and always saw everything.
"It's the Kingsley boy," she exclaimed, glancing out the window, "the Big Wheel of the school! My goodness, don't tell me he's come a'courting!"
"He certainly hasn't if it's me you're considering," Lynn said in equal surprise. "I've never even talked to him."
She went to the door and let Paul in, liking him right away; liking the easy way he walked and the warm blue eyes and the way one eyebrow went up a little higher than the other when he talked.
He said, "I came by to see Ernie."
"Ernie — " Lynn hesitated, wondering what to say. "Ernie's upstairs. He — he's not feeling awfully well. He tried out for the football team today and he — "
"I know," Paul broke in. "I was there. That's what I wanted to talk to him about." He glanced at the stairs. "Do you think it would be all right if I just went on up?"
"Why, yes," Lynn said. "I think that would be fine. It's the first door on the left."
She and Dodie stood in the hallway, watching him mount the stairs and turn down the upstairs hall. They heard him give a sharp rap on a door.
"Why did you let him go up?" Dodie whispered accusingly. "Ernie's going to be furious! You know he doesn't want to see anybody, even Nancy."
"I know," Lynn said. "But I have a feeling Paul's different. I think he'll want to see Paul."
The boys were upstairs for a long time, and when they finally came down together, Ernie had a smile on his face.
"Paul saw me at the tryouts," he said. "He thinks I've got the stuff for the team; I just haven't had practice enough. He's going to work out with me some this year, and next year I'm going to make it."
"Fine!" Lynn replied, glancing gratefully at Paul. "I'm sure you will, too."
Ernie said, "We're going to pick up Nancy and go to a drive-in for a hamburger. Want to come along, Sis?"
"Which sis?" Dodie asked.
"Not you, small fry," Ernie told her. "Big sis."
Lynn said, "Well, I — "
She glanced at Paul. He was smiling at her.
"I wish you would."
"Well, all right. I'd love to."
And that is the way it had begun, quickly, easily, simply — because Paul was the kind of boy who would go out of his way to help somebody who was having a tough time, and because Lynn happened to be there, and maybe because the hamburgers had been a little overdone and they had laughed together about them, and there had been stars, and the River Road, when they drove back, had been drenched in moonlight. Not one thing alone, but all of them, had added up to the fact that it was a special night, and when it was over Paul had asked, "What about next Friday? Want to go to a movie or something?" and Lynn had answered, "Yes." The next year, Ernie had made the football team. And by that winter, Lynn and Paul were going steady.
Because Paul was as he was, easy and cordial and quick to like everyone, he picked up friends everywhere he went, and, through their friendships with Paul, several "outsiders" were drawn into the Crowd. But generally speaking, the little group that sat on the left side of the front steps and called out greetings to Lynn and Nancy as they came up were from the Hill.
"Hi there, you two!" somebody shouted. "We were wondering where on earth you were. We've already been through 'who's been where' this summer and have a brand-new topic."
"Well, goodness," Lynn exclaimed, joining the laughing group, "we are behind on things! Catch us up."
"Guess what!" Holly Taylor cried, catching Lynn's hand and drawing her down onto the steps. What is the most exciting thing you can imagine happening in Rivertown? To us, I mean!"
"The most exciting thing?" Nancy joined the discussion. "I can't imagine. Maybe Hollywood talent scouts have discovered the beauties at Rivertown High and are planning to make a movie hen, or the school has decided to give flying lessons during gym class, or — "
"Oh, more exciting than that!" Joan Wilson exclaimed. "I'd keep on making you guess, but the bell will ring soon and then we won't have time left to hash it all over. We're going to make our debuts!"
"Our debuts!" Lynn's eyes opened in amazement. "What on earth — "
"We knew you'd be surprised!" Everyone began to talk at once. "We just learned it today. Mrs. Peterson is behind it of course, and it's going to be the most fabulous thing . . . you can't imagine . . . parties every weekend, and a whole week of them during Christmas vacation ... a huge Presentation Ball in the spring..."
"Slowly!" Nancy fairly shouted above the excitement "Please, please, one at a time! Lynn and I want to digest this thing. Suppose just one person tells it."
"Well, I will," Holly Taylor said quickly, "because I heard about it first Mrs. Peterson was talking to Mother on the phone, and she's got the whole thing organized already. It's the first time there have ever been debutantes in Rivertown! Twenty girls have been selected, invitations were mailed last night, and they are going to start things off by being the town's very first debs. All their friends and families will have parties for them during the year, and at Christmas there will be a whole week of big dances, just for them and their escorts. And in the spring, there will be a great ball, with everyone chipping in toward a big name orchestra. Everyone will be presented — " She ran out of breath. "It will be just fabulous," she ended.
"Dances all Christmas vacation!" Nancy echoed happily. "Why, then Ernie will be home for them. How super!" She turned eagerly to Lynn. "Paul will be home, too!"
"Yes," Lynn said, her own excitement beginning to rise. "It does sound marvelous. But how do you know which girls were selected? Who is doing the selecting?"
"Mrs. Peterson, I suppose," Joan Wilson answered. "Since she's the one behind it all. But she — well, it sounds awful to say it this way, but there are really just a certain group of girls she can select. What she wants is to start a debutante tradition, a sort of 'entrance-into-society' thing, the way they have in Boston and Atlanta and places like that. So she's got to choose girls from the Hill."
Lynn nodded, accepting the fact without question.
"I suppose so. Twenty. Well, that takes in all of us, I guess and a few others besides."
"Of course, Brenda Peterson will be one," Nancy said.
They were all silent a moment. Then Holly said, "Well, of course. Mrs. Peterson wouldn't be doing it at all, if it weren't for Brenda."
Somewhere a bell rang. The sound filled the air, and instantly the steps became alive with people. The girls scrambled to their feet, momentarily deserting the subject of the debuts.
"Let's try to get seats beside each other in home room this year," Nancy said, catching Lynn's arm.
The crowd swept them forward, through the open doors into the huge central hallway. The smell of the high school rose up around them — books and chalk and desks and people and, somehow, the faint odor of chewing gum. It was a familiar smell, and to Lynn it brought back three years of memories.
When I walked down this hall the last time, she thought nostalgically, Paul was walking beside me, carrying my books, and we were both laughing because school was out and we had the whole long summer in front of us. And now summer is already over, and Paul is at college, and I'm back again without him.
Suddenly, from close behind her, there came a whistle, clear and intimate, and a low voice said, "Well, Miss Chambers! A good-looking gal, but snooty as ever!"
Lynn whirled to find herself looking into the mocking eyes of a dark-haired boy with a thin face and a sarcastic curl to the comer of his mouth.
With an angry toss of her head, she turned away again without bothering to speak.
The boy laughed, a hard little laugh, and swung off down the hall.
"Who on earth — " Nancy began, trying to see who had spoken.
"Oh, it's just that horrid Dirk Masters," Lynn told her disdainfully. "If he isn't the crudest, coarsest thing I've ever seen! Imagine one of the boys from the Hill saying something like that!"
"You were right not to answer him," Nancy said. "I hear he got in some trouble with the police this summer, he and some of the tough bunch of older fellows he goes around with. It's too bad, because Anne is a nice girl."
"Who, his sister?" Lynn looked surprised. "How do you come to know Anne Masters?"
"She had a locker near mine last year," Nancy explained. "I didn't really know her, but we did say 'hello' to each other every day, and she seemed like a sweet little thing, not at all like Dirk. She was in my algebra class, too, and made good grades. It's funny, because I hear Dirk's always flunking everything."
"I guess so," Lynn said, "if he's still in high school. He must be eighteen at least."
Another bell rang.
"Come on," Lynn urged, giving her friend's arm an impatient little tug, "let's not be late to home room our very first day."
Nancy fell into step beside her.
"You know," she confided, "I'm glad to be back. I thought I would be just miserable, coming back to high school without Ernie. We've been going together so long, I didn't see how I'd ever feel right coming back without him. But I do. I mean, I miss him, but still I feel as though the year is going to be fun."
"Yes," Lynn agreed, "and being debutantes will be the saving thing! Isn't it wonderful they thought it up this year? Just think, if they had waited until one year later, we would have missed it, because we'll be away at college then."
And somehow, even without Paul to share it with her, senior year rose up before Lynn, interesting and different and exciting.