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Mary Craig and Sara Reid and Josie Pye had all flocked into Ida Mitchell's room at their boarding-house to condole with each other because none of them was able to go home for New Year's. Mary and Josie had been home for Christmas, so they didn't really feel so badly off. But Ida and Sara hadn't even that consolation.
Ida was a third-year student at the Clifton Academy; she had holidays, and nowhere, so she mournfully affirmed, to spend them. At home three brothers and a sister were down with the measles, and, as Ida had never had them, she could not go there; and the news had come too late for her to make any other arrangements.
Mary and Josie were clerks in a Clifton bookstore, and Sara was stenographer in a Clifton lawyer's office. And they were all jolly and thoughtless and very fond of one another.
"This will be the first New Year's I have ever spent away from home," sighed Sara, nibbling chocolate fudge. "It does make me so blue to think of it. And not even a holiday—I'll have to go to work just the same. Now Ida here, she doesn't really need sympathy. She has holidays—a whole fortnight—and nothing to do but enjoy them."
"Holidays are dismal things when you've nowhere to holiday," said Ida mournfully. "The time drags horribly. But never mind, girls, I've a plummy bit of news for you. I'd a letter from Mother today and, bless the dear woman, she is sending me a cake—a New Year's cake—a great big, spicy, mellow, delicious fruit cake. It will be along tomorrow and, girls, we'll celebrate when it comes. I've asked everybody in the house up to my room for New Year's Eve, and we'll have a royal good time."
"How splendid!" said Mary. "There's nothing I like more than a slice of real countrified home-made fruit cake, where they don't scrimp on eggs or butter or raisins. You'll give me a good big piece, won't you, Ida?"
"As much as you can eat," promised Ida. "I can warrant Mother's fruit cake. Yes, we'll have a jamboree. Miss Monroe has promised to come in too. She says she has a weakness for fruit cake."
"Oh!" breathed all the girls. Miss Monroe was their idol, whom they had to be content to worship at a distance as a general thing. She was a clever journalist, who worked on a paper, and was reputed to be writing a book. The girls felt they were highly privileged to be boarding in the same house, and counted that day lost on which they did not receive a businesslike nod or an absent-minded smile from Miss Monroe. If she ever had time to speak to one of them about the weather, that fortunate one put on airs for a week. And now to think that she had actually promised to drop into Ida's room on New Year's Eve and eat fruit cake!
"There goes that funny little namesake of yours, Ida," said Josie, who was sitting by the window. "She seems to be staying in town over the holidays too. Wonder why. Perhaps she doesn't belong anywhere. She really is a most forlorn-appearing little mortal."
There were two Ida Mitchells attending the Clifton Academy. The other Ida was a plain, quiet, pale-faced little girl of fifteen who was in the second year. Beyond that, none of the third-year Ida Mitchell's set knew anything about her, or tried to find out.
"She must be very poor," said Ida carelessly. "She dresses so shabbily, and she always looks so pinched and subdued. She boards in a little house out on Marlboro Road, and I pity her if she has to spend her holidays there, for a more dismal place I never saw. I was there once on the trail of a book I had lost. Going, girls? Well, don't forget tomorrow night."
Ida spent the next day decorating her room and watching for the arrival of her cake. It hadn't come by tea-time, and she concluded to go down to the express office and investigate. It would be dreadful if that cake didn't turn up in time, with all the girls and Miss Monroe coming in. Ida felt that she would be mortified to death.
Inquiry at the express office discovered two things. A box had come in for Miss Ida Mitchell, Clifton; and said box had been delivered to Miss Ida Mitchell, Clifton.
"One of our clerks said he knew you personally—boarded next door to you—and he'd take it round himself," the manager informed her.
"There must be some mistake," said Ida in perplexity. "I don't know any of the clerks here. Oh—why—there's another Ida Mitchell in town! Can it be possible my cake has gone to her?"
The manager thought it very possible, and offered to send around and see. But Ida said it was on her way home and she would call herself.
At the dismal little house on Marlboro Road she was sent up three flights of stairs to the other Ida Mitchell's small hall bedroom. The other Ida Mitchell opened the door for her. Behind her, on the table, was the cake—such a fine, big, brown cake, with raisins sticking out all over it!
"Why, how do you do, Miss Mitchell!" exclaimed the other Ida with shy pleasure. "Come in. I didn't know you were in town. It's real good of you to come and see me. And just see what I've had sent to me! Isn't it a beauty? I was so surprised when it came—and, oh, so glad! I was feeling so blue and lonesome—as if I hadn't a friend in the world. I—I—yes, I was crying when that cake came. It has just made the world over for me. Do sit down and I'll cut you a piece. I'm sure you're as fond of fruit cake as I am."
Ida sat down in a chair, feeling bewildered and awkward. This was a nice predicament! How could she tell that other Ida that the cake didn't belong to her? The poor thing was so delighted. And, oh, what a bare, lonely little room! The big, luxurious cake seemed to emphasize the bareness and loneliness.
"Who—who sent it to you?" she asked lamely.
"It must have been Mrs. Henderson, because there is nobody else who would," answered the other Ida. "Two years ago I was going to school in Trenton and I boarded with her. When I left her to come to Clifton she told me she would send me a cake for Christmas. Well, I expected that cake last year—and it didn't come. I can't tell you how disappointed I was. You'll think me very childish. But I was so lonely, with no home to go to like the other girls. But she sent it this year, you see. It is so nice to think that somebody has remembered me at New Year's. It isn't the cake itself—it's the thought behind it. It has just made all the difference in the world. There—just sample it, Miss Mitchell."
The other Ida cut a generous slice from the cake and passed it to her guest. Her eyes were shining and her cheeks were flushed. She was really a very sweet-looking little thing—not a bit like her usual pale, timid self.
Ida ate the cake slowly. What was she to do? She couldn't tell the other Ida the truth about the cake. But the girls she had asked in to help eat it that very evening! And Miss Monroe! Oh, dear, it was too bad. But it couldn't be helped. She wouldn't blot out that light on the other Ida's face for anything! Of course, she would find out the truth in time—probably after she had written to thank Mrs. Henderson for the cake; but meanwhile she would have enjoyed the cake, and the supposed kindness back of it would tide her over her New Year loneliness.
"It's delicious," said Ida heartily, swallowing her own disappointment with the cake. "I'm—I'm glad I happened to drop in as I was passing." Ida hoped that speech didn't come under the head of a fib.
"So am I," said the other Ida brightly. "Oh, I've been so lonesome and downhearted this week. I'm so alone, you see—there isn't anybody to care. Father died three years ago, and I don't remember my mother at all. There is nobody but myself, and it is dreadfully lonely at times. When the Academy is open and I have my lessons to study, I don't mind so much. But the holidays take all the courage out of me."
"We should have fraternized more this week," smiled Ida, regretting that she hadn't thought of it before. "I couldn't go home because of the measles, and I've moped a lot. We might have spent the time together and had a real nice, jolly holiday."
The other Ida blushed with delight.
"I'd love to be friends with you," she said slowly. "I've often thought I'd like to know you. Isn't it odd that we have the same name? It was so nice of you to come and see me. I—I'd love to have you come often."
"I will," said Ida heartily.
"Perhaps you will stay the evening," suggested the other Ida. "I've asked some of the girls who board here in to have some cake, I'm so glad to be able to give them something—they've all been so good to me. They are all clerks in stores and some of them are so tired and lonely. It's so nice to have a pleasure to share with them. Won't you stay?"
"I'd like to," laughed Ida, "but I have some guests of my own invited in for tonight. I must hurry home, for they will most surely be waiting for me."
She laughed again as she thought what else the guests would be waiting for. But her face was sober enough as she walked home.
"But I'm glad I left the cake with her," she said resolutely. "Poor little thing! It means so much to her. It meant only 'a good feed,' as Josie says, to me. I'm simply going to make it my business next term to be good friends with the other Ida Mitchell. I'm afraid we third-year girls are very self-centred and selfish. And I know what I'll do! I'll write to Abby Morton in Trenton to send me Mrs. Henderson's address, and I'll write her a letter and ask her not to let Ida know she didn't send the cake."
Ida went into a confectionery store and invested in what Josie Pye was wont to call "ready-to-wear eatables"—fancy cakes, fruit, and candies. When she reached her room she found it full of expectant girls, with Miss Monroe enthroned in the midst of them—Miss Monroe in a wonderful evening dress of black lace and yellow silk, with roses in her hair and pearls on her neck—all donned in honour of Ida's little celebration. I won't say that, just for a moment, Ida didn't regret that she had given up her cake.
"Good evening, Miss Mitchell," cried Mary Craig gaily. "Walk right in and make yourself at home in your own room, do! We all met in the hall, and knocked and knocked. Finally Miss Monroe came, so we made bold to walk right in. Where is the only and original fruit cake, Ida? My mouth has been watering all day."
"The other Ida Mitchell is probably entertaining her friends at this moment with my fruit cake," said Ida, with a little laugh.
Then she told the whole story.
"I'm so sorry to disappoint you," she concluded, "but I simply couldn't tell that poor, lonely child that the cake wasn't intended for her. I've brought all the goodies home with me that I could buy, and we'll have to do the best we can without the fruit cake."
Their "best" proved to be a very good thing. They had a jolly New Year's Eve, and Miss Monroe sparkled and entertained most brilliantly. They kept their celebration up until twelve to welcome the new year in, and then they bade Ida good night. But Miss Monroe lingered for a moment behind the others to say softly:
"I want to tell you how good and sweet I think it was of you to give up your cake to the other Ida. That little bit of unselfishness was a good guerdon for your new year."
And Ida, radiant-faced at this praise from her idol, answered heartily:
"I'm afraid I'm anything but unselfish, Miss Monroe. But I mean to try to be more this coming year and think a little about the girls outside of my own little set who may be lonely or discouraged. The other Ida Mitchell isn't going to have to depend on that fruit cake alone for comfort and encouragement for the next twelve months."
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