A HARUM-SCARUM SCHOOLGIRL
A HARUM-SCARUM SCHOOLGIRL
Illustrated by John Campbell
NEW YORK FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1920, by
FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY
All rights reserved
I. A PIXIE GIRL 9
II. STARS AND STRIPES 23
III. A PENNILESS PRINCESS 39
IV. THE RUSH-BEARING 51
V. DIANA DARES 65
VI. FRENCH LEAVE 77
VII. LAND GIRLS 91
VIII. ARMISTICE DAY 108
IX. DIANA'S ENGLISH CHRISTMAS 128
X. A FIT OF THE BLUES 141
XI. DIANA TO THE RESCUE 153
XII. DIANA BREAKS OUT 167
XIII. CRUSOE ISLAND 178
XIV. SPOOKS 195
XV. JOY-RIDING 207
XVI. A FAMILY CREST 219
XVII. THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER 235
XVIII. DIANA'S FOUNDLING 247
XIX. AMBITIONS 259
XX. A TANGLED PLOT 271
"COULD YOU DO ME A KINDNESS, MISS?" SHE ASKED Frontispiece
"O-O-O-OH! HOW GORGEOUS TO BELONG TO A HIGH-FALUTING FAMILY THAT'S GOT LEGENDS AND GHOSTS!" 48
TWO PAIRS OF BARE FEET WENT SPLASHING JOYOUSLY INTO THE BROOK 72
WE SET OFF AND RODE ALL THE MORNING 144
ITS COWL FELL BACK, AND DISCLOSED A WELL-KNOWN AND DECIDEDLY MIRTHFUL COUNTENANCE 200
DIANA CALLED AND SHOUTED TO THEM. THEY TOOK NO NOTICE 240
A HARUM-SCARUM SCHOOLGIRL
A Pixie Girl
"If I'd known!" groaned Winifred Cranston, otherwise Wendy, with a note of utter tragedy in her usually cheerful voice. "If I'd only known! D'you think I'd have come trotting back here with my baggage? Not a bit of it! Nothing in this wide world should have dragged me. I'd have turned up my hair—yes, it's quite long enough to turn up, Jess Paget, so you needn't look at it so scornfully; it's as nice as yours, and nicer! Well, I tell you I'd have turned up my hair, and run away and joined the 'Waacs' or the 'Wrens', or have driven a motor wagon or conducted a tramcar, or scrubbed floors at a hospital, or done anything—anything, I say!—rather than stay at the Abbey without Mrs. Gifford."
"It's pretty stiff, certainly, for the Head to go whisking away like this," agreed Magsie Wingfield, sitting on the other shaft of the wheelbarrow. "And without any notice either! It leaves one gasping!"
"Stiff? It's the limit! Why didn't she give us decent warning, instead of springing it on to us in this sudden fashion? I feel weak!"
"There wasn't time," explained Sadie Sanderson, who, with Violet Gorton and Tattie Clegg, occupied, in a tight fit, the interior of the wheelbarrow. "It was all done at a day's notice. Geraldine's been telling me the whole history."
"Mr. Gifford got suddenly exempted, and was made Governor of some outlandish place with an unpronounceable name in Burma. He telegraphed to Mrs. Gifford to join him at Marseilles, and go out with him. So she went—that's the long and the short of it!"
"Went and left her school behind her," echoed Vi.
"I call it simply running away," commented Wendy. "Why couldn't she have stopped to arrange things—say till Christmas—and then followed him?"
"It's some tiresome red-tape business at the War Office. They'd give her a passport to travel out with him, but not to join him afterwards, so she thought she'd better take the opportunity and go out with him while she could. It must have been a terrific scramble for her to get off. I believe she just bundled her things together and bolted, and left the school to Miss Todd."
"Will she ever come back?"
"I shouldn't think it's likely now."
"Then we're left for evermore to the tender mercies of Toddlekins?"
"That's just about the size of it. Toddlekins has taken the whole thing over."
"She's been longing and yearning to seize the reins and drive the coach ever since she came," commented Tattie.
"Well, she's got her chance now."
"And she'll use it, too! You bet there'll be changes!"
"Changes! There are changes already, although Mrs. Gifford can hardly have reached Marseilles yet."
"It's going to be a queer term," grunted Wendy.
The five girls were sitting in a retired corner of the garden at Pendlemere Abbey. On one side, above the tops of the rhododendron bushes, they could see the tall, twisted chimneys and flagged stone roof of the old house; on the other side, below the lawn and across the paddock, gleamed the silver waters of the lake, with its banks of rushes and alders, and beyond lay a range of grey hills that seemed to melt away into more distant peaks that merged into the mists on the horizon. It was a beautiful view, and on this hazy September afternoon, with the hidden sun sending long shafts of light from behind radiant masses of cloud, it formed a prospect that should have afforded keen aesthetic satisfaction to anybody who cared to look at it. Usually the girls appreciated its changeful glories, but to-day—this first day of a new term—they were too much taken up with their own grievances to think about scenery. In fact, they sat huddled together in the wheelbarrow with their backs towards the view.
It had certainly been a considerable shock to the girls to find, on arriving after the holidays, that their popular Principal had deserted them in so sudden a fashion. It was not indeed the first surprise which she had given them. Two years before she had been Miss Housman, with a purely educational outlook in life, and a horizon bounded by her school; but Cupid, who plays strange pranks even with head mistresses, brought her fate along in the shape of a major from the temporary camp by the lake, and shot his arrows with such deadly aim that the whole romantic business—courtship, engagement, and war wedding—took place in the course of a few weeks, almost under the very noses of her interested pupils. They had gone home for their Easter holidays much thrilled about her engagement ring, and had returned to school to find her a war bride, with her husband already in the trenches. When the excitement of choosing her a wedding present was over, matters seemed to settle down pretty much as before. Except in an increased anxiety for news from the front, Mrs. Gifford had differed in no degree from Miss Housman. To the school the Major was a mere abstraction; his leave had always occurred during the holidays, and up to this time his existence—apart from the element of romance with which it invested their head mistress—had not affected the atmosphere of Pendlemere in the least. It had occasionally occurred to some of the girls to question what would happen when the war was over, but they generally ended by deciding: "He'll have to come and live here, I suppose, and turn the junior room into a smoke-room". Some of the more imaginative had even ventured the suggestion that he might teach drilling and Latin. It never struck any of them that instead of settling down at the school he would want to whisk away his bride to the other side of the world. The unexpected had happened, however. Pretty Mrs. Gifford had decided that the claims of matrimony outweighed all consideration for her pupils, and had gone without even a good-bye, leaving Miss Todd to reign in her stead.
There was no doubt that Miss Todd was admirably fitted to fill the post. Possibly, unknown to the girls, she had been gravitating towards it ever since her principal's hasty war wedding. Certainly she was ready, with the utmost calm, to take over the school at the critical moment, and transfer the connection from Mrs. Gifford's name to her own. She was a woman of decided character, at her prime intellectually and physically, tremendously interested in reconstruction problems, and longing to try some educational experiments. So far, her ambitious schemes had been much hampered by her Head. Mrs. Gifford, pleasant and popular both with girls and parents, had clung to old-fashioned methods, and had been very difficult to move in the matter of modern innovations. She had always put on the curb when the second mistress's fertile imagination had pranced away on Utopian lines. To an ardent spirit, steeped in new race-ideals, and longing for an opportunity of serving her generation, it was a proud moment when she suddenly found herself in a position to carry out her pet schemes unchecked. On this first day of the new term she moved round the school with the satisfaction of an admiral reviewing a battleship.
It was much to Miss Todd's credit that she was able to take her fresh duties quite calmly, and without any fuss or exhibition of nerves. She was not a nervy woman, to begin with, and she had made a great point of cultivating self-control. With her tall figure, clear grey eyes, bright complexion, and abundant chestnut hair, she made a very favourable impression upon those parents who had brought their daughters back to school in person. At the moment when Wendy, Sadie, Tattie, Magsie, and Vi were sitting grousing in the wheelbarrow, Miss Todd, in the drawing-room, was completing an arrangement which was largely to affect their future.
"It's very short notice, of course," she was saying. "But, as it happens, there's a vacant bed, and I can manage it perfectly well."
"That's just a real relief to me!" replied a pleasant American voice from the sofa. "We can't take Diana with us to Paris, and I don't want to burden my cousin with her, so I said to my husband: 'There's nothing for it but school, only it must be a good one'. Well, we motored along to the nearest clergyman, introduced ourselves, and asked him to recommend a real first-class, high-toned British school that would take in Diana, and he said: 'Why, there's one on the spot here—you needn't go any farther!' Time was getting short, so we brought her right along. I must say I'm satisfied with all I've seen, and the talk I've had with you, and I feel we're leaving her in good hands. My cousin, Mrs. Burritt, will send over the rest of her things from Petteridge, and if there's anything else she needs please get it for her. Well, Steve, if we've to catch that 4.30 train, we must be going."
The tall dark gentleman in the arm-chair consulted his watch and rose hastily.
"Just time if we put on some speed; but the roads are execrable," he vouchsafed.
The central figure around whom this conversation had revolved had been sitting in the window gazing at the view over the lake. She now turned her head sharply, with an inscrutable expression in her dark grey eyes, and, walking across to her father, linked her arm in his. He bent down and whispered a few rapid words into her ear. Her mother patted her on the shoulder reassuringly.
"You're going to have a good time, Diana. Why, I expect you won't be wanting us to come back, you'll be so happy here. Address your letters under cover of the American Embassy, Paris, till we send you the name of our hotel. Good-bye! Be a good child and a credit to us."
The leave-taking was perhaps purposely cut short. Mr. and Mrs. Hewlitt each bestowed a swift kiss upon their daughter, then made a hasty exit to their waiting car, and were whirled away in the direction of Glenbury Station and the 4.30 train, and their ultimate destination of Paris.
Ten minutes later Lennie Browne, one of the juniors, disturbed the quintette on the wheelbarrow with a message.
"Miss Todd's sent me to find you," she announced. "You've got to come and make friends with a new girl."
Sadie, Vi, and Tattie quitted their seats so suddenly that Magsie and Wendy, still resting on the handles, came croppers on to the grass. Wendy rolled over into a comfortable position, and did not trouble to rise.
"Bunkum!" she remarked incredulously. "Don't try to rag me, Lennie Browne, for it won't come off. As it happens, I asked Toddlekins half an hour ago, and she said there were no new girls. There!"
"Well, there's one now, at any rate."
Wendy looked at her pityingly, and shook her head.
"Lennie, you're a decent kid, but you're not clever. If you'd really wanted to have us on successfully, why didn't you try something more out of the common? You've a great lack of imagination. Anybody—yes, anybody—could have thought of inventing a new girl!"
"But I haven't invented her—she's really here! She walked with me as far as the sundial, and I left her sitting on the seat while I went to look for you. I said I wouldn't be a minute. Why, there she is!—come to see what's become of me."
The quintette turned hastily, to find themselves confronted with an absolute endorsement of the truth of Lennie's statements. A stranger of about fourteen was walking towards them, or perhaps "shambling" would be a better description of her method of progress. She stooped badly, swung her arms in an awkward fashion, and shuffled her feet along the grass; her eyes were vacant, her chin was retreating, and her mouth was set in a foolish smile. For a full ghastly minute she stood and stared at the girls, and they, in utter and amazed consternation, could not think of a single intelligent remark with which to break the silence. Magsie was the first to recover herself.
"You—you've only just come, I suppose?" she gasped, as politely as she could.
The stranger gave a sickly giggle.
"Are you my new schoolfellows?" she asked in a low creaking voice. "Miss Todd said you'd be pleased to see me, and I must make friends with you. I've been wanting a bosom friend, so I'll just pick one of you out. Let me see"—running her vacant eyes over the group and singling out Wendy—"I may as well choose you as anybody. Are you ready to be my chum?"
Wendy flushed scarlet, and, jumping up from the grass, brushed some dead leaves from her dress.
"It's too soon to think about chums yet," she returned. "You haven't even told us your name, and you don't know ours. Where do you come from?"
"That means, I suppose, that you don't want me for a friend!" rasped the creaking voice. "Don't you like the look of me? What's wrong with me now? Please tell me, for I'd really like to know. I'm just crazy to make friends."
In huge embarrassment Wendy and her companions stared at the extraordinary stranger. She bore their united gaze without flinching. She even turned round slowly, so that they might have an adequate view of her foolish profile, protruding lips, and retreating chin.
"Do tell me what's wrong with me?" she repeated.
No one volunteered a criticism, and for another whole minute there was dead silence. Then a brisk voice remarked:
"Would this style suit you better now, I wonder?"
The girls caught their breath in amazement. The stooping, slouching figure had suddenly straightened itself up, the protruding lips had set into a small, neat mouth, the receding chin had come forward, and the vacant eyes were twinkling with mirth. Instead of a half-idiotic, and wholly unattractive, specimen of girlhood, a very charming little personality stood before them. The transformation was so utter that at first the audience simply gaped, then with one accord they exploded into laughter and words.
"Oh, I say!"
"I really thought you were dotty!"
"How did you do it?"
"You looked too awful for words!"
"You haven't told us your name yet!"
"Can you do it again?"
The stranger curtsied, dropped her jaw, set her eyes in a glassy stare, and, resuming the creaking voice, bleated forth:
"Thank you! Thank you for welcoming me! I'm called Miranda Jane Judkins, and I come from Conic Section Farm, Squashville, Massachusetts. Which of you wants to chum with me? Don't all speak at once!"
"Oh, for goodness' sake drop that awful face! It absolutely gives me spasms!" hinnied Magsie. "It's the very image of a village idiot who used to terrify me when I was a kiddie. Don't look at me with those horrid eyes! I shall have a fit!"
"Look here, you mad thing!" said Vi. "Can't you tell us who you really are?"
"No, no! Your real name! Stop ragging!"
Once more the half-witted, shambling figure gave place to a sparkling, self-possessed, laughing young witch of fourteen, who with another mock curtsy introduced herself.
"Diana Hewlitt—quick-change artiste. Entertainments arranged at any moment. Reserved seats, five shillings. Proceeds to the Red Cross Fund. Oh, I believe at first I really did take you in!"
"You did," admitted Wendy; "because, of course, we weren't expecting it. We shall know you better now, and be prepared. I say, you're rather a sport! Where have you turned up from? Miss Todd said only an hour ago there weren't any new girls."
"No doubt she told the truth. There weren't then! Why, an hour since we were just half-way between Glassenrigg and Scawdale, pelting along at about double the speed limit. Miss Todd didn't even know of my existence. I've been dropped upon her like a bolt from the blue. I must say I admired the calm way she fixed up to take me, all in ten minutes. Most Britishers wouldn't have fallen in so quickly with Dad's lightning methods, but she seemed to understand right away."
"Are you American, then?"
"Rather! I was born under the Stars and Stripes. Never saw England till we crossed this summer. Dad's just been called over to Paris, and d'you know, they've let Mother go with him, but they wouldn't give me a passport. Wasn't it real mean of them? I do think the War Office is the limit! Well, of course, the question was: what could be done with me. I said: 'Leave me at Petteridge'. But Mother said: 'No; I'm not going to dump you on Cousin Coralie; she'd be down with nervous exhaustion at the end of a fortnight. School's the place for you, and we've got to rake round and find a school in double-quick time'. Dad nodded, and just rang up and ordered the car, and we started out with no more idea than the man in the moon where I was going to be landed. I'm glad fate tossed me here, though. It looks nice; kind of a real old-world flavour about the place, somehow. I'm crazy on old things—Scott's novels, you know, and castles, and all the rest of it. When I heard this was called Pendlemere Abbey, I said: 'That'll do! Take me there!' So here I am!"
"It takes one's breath away," commented Tattie. "I don't know that I'd like to be whisked off to school in such a precious hurry myself."
"It's rather as if the pixies had dropped you," laughed Vi.
"Right you are! I guess I'm a pixie sort of girl. Please don't expect 'prunes and prism' from me, for you won't get them!"
"I don't know that we want them," chuckled Wendy.
"That takes a weight off my mind, then," twinkled Diana. "I like mediaeval abbeys and black beams and raftered roofs, and even ghosts; but I don't know that I exactly want mediaeval schoolgirls."
"Don't alarm yourself," said Wendy, clapping her on the shoulder. "I assure you you'll find us all absolutely and entirely modern and up-to-date."
Stars and Stripes
If Diana was possessed with a passion for antiquities, she might certainly congratulate herself that a kindly fate had popped her into such an appropriate spot as Pendlemere Abbey. It offered every attraction to those in search of the romantic and picturesque. The Cistercian monks who had founded it in the thirteenth century had exhibited their proverbial good taste in the choice of a situation. It was built on rising ground above the lake, and commanded a glorious view across the fells. The garden, with its hill-side of rhododendrons, its clumps of sweet-smelling pines, and its borders of such hardy flowers as did not mind the nip of the northern air, ran steeply from a flat terrace towards the lake, where it ended in a landing-stage and a locked boat-house. Its orchard linked branches with the apple-trees of a neighbouring farm. The house itself, though preserving the name and the traditions of the Abbey, had been converted during Tudor times from religious to lay uses. Very little of the old monks' building remained intact, though evidences of it cropped up in unexpected quarters. There were the remains of a piscina in the pantry; a groined arch roofed the back kitchen; two carved stone pillars supported the fire-place in the dining-room; a Gothic doorway led into the courtyard, and the remnants of some ancient choir stalls were fitted as a window-seat on the stairs. The Tudor and Elizabethan periods had left more permanent traces, and, though later architects had played havoc with the simplicity of the style, they had not altogether destroyed its sixteenth-century appearance. The greater part was built of northern stone, with mullioned windows, twisted chimneys, peaked gables surmounted with stone balls, and a roof of flat slabs of the same yellow-brown stone that formed the walls. A section of black and white timbered Elizabethan work, a Queen Anne wing, and some early Victorian alterations made a strange conglomeration of styles of architecture; but the roses and ivy had climbed up and clothed ancient and modern alike, and Time had softened the jarring nineteenth-century additions, so that the whole now blended into a mellow, brownish mass, with large, bright windows enclosed in a frame of well-clipped greenery.
There was accommodation in the roomy old house for twenty boarders, and though no day pupils were supposed to be received a special exception had been made in the case of Meg and Elsie Fleming, the Vicar's daughters, who arrived every morning by nine o'clock, and Nell Gledhill, whose governess brought her each Friday afternoon for dancing-lessons. So far the school had jogged along very happily under Mrs. Gifford's mild regime. Fathers and mothers had sometimes shrugged their shoulders and hinted that her methods were old-fashioned, but they always added that the tone of the place was so excellent, and the health of the pupils so well looked after, that there was really no just cause for complaint. Miss Todd, sitting in her study, and writing twenty neat, well-thought-out letters to explain the sudden transfer of the school, assured parents that, while preserving all the traditions of her predecessor, she hoped to introduce a modern element of progress in keeping with the needs of the day. "I realize that we must march with the times," she wrote; and she meant it. She began her innovations on that very first day. Several disconsolate seniors congregated on the upper landing viewed change number one with dismay.
"But Mrs. Gifford promised that Geraldine and Ida and I might have the East room," urged Nesta Erskine. "It was all arranged last term, and we clubbed together to buy a bookcase. What are we to do with it if we're separated? It belongs to us all three."
"I can't help it; those are Miss Todd's orders," answered Miss Beverley briskly. "Your names are on cards pinned on to the doors of your new rooms. Pass along at once, and find your quarters and begin to unpack. Don't stand here blocking up the passage! Yes, Betty? Miss Hampson wants to speak to me? Tell her I'm coming now."
As Miss Beverley bustled away the seniors moved slowly and forlornly along the landing in quest of billets. It reminded them of finding their places in an examination-room. Their names were unquestionably on the doors in black-and-white, but their distribution called forth a storm of indignant comment.
"I'm actually put with Tattie Clegg and Jess Paget!"
"And I'm boxed up with Dorothy, and Nora Haddon, and Glynne Hamilton!"
"Why, we're all mixed up with the kids!"
"Look here, you know, we can't stand this kind of thing!"
"Somebody had better go to Miss Todd!"
"It's no use; I've just been," said Loveday Seton, joining the group of malcontents. "We had it all out in the study, and she listened quite kindly and politely, but she was firm as nails. She says it's an experiment for the sake of good tone, and she hopes it will work well. We seniors are sandwiched up with intermediates and juniors so that our influence may permeate through the school."
The five listeners groaned.
"Couldn't we permeate enough during the daytime?" sniffed Ida. "I don't see what influence I can have while I'm asleep. I call it a jolly nuisance to be saddled with three kids in one's room."
"Of course you have your curtains."
"What's the use of curtains? A cubicle's only semi-private after all. What it means is that we seniors are always on duty policing those juniors. What a life!"
"Where are you put, Loveday?" asked Geraldine.
"In the little ivy room upstairs. There are two beds, and I'm to act mentor to this new American girl who's just arrived."
"Poor you! What's she like?"
"I don't know. I haven't seen her yet, but I wish she were at Jericho."
In a decidedly ruffled frame of mind, Loveday passed along the landing, and climbed the stairs that led to the ivy room. She found her room-mate already in possession, and with her belongings half-unpacked. Photos adorned her dressing-table, a large American flag draped the mirror, and her bed was spread with odds and ends. She smiled broadly as Loveday entered.
"So here you are!" she greeted her. "Goody! What a relief! I've been worrying about what you'd be like, and just praying you wouldn't have spectacles and talk with a lisp. Miss Todd gave me to understand you were a peach, and I might think myself in luck to room with you, but you never can trust head mistresses till you see for yourself. She's told me the truth, though, after all. Yes, I like you right straight away, and I always make up my mind about people, slap bang off at once."
Loveday stared in surprise at the impetuous little figure kneeling beside the big trunk. Diana's dark-grey eyes shone like stars, her oval face, if not exactly pretty, was piquant and interesting, her light-brown hair curled at the tips. It was, of course, an unheard-of liberty for a new girl, and an intermediate to boot, thus to address a senior, but the greeting was spontaneous and decidedly flattering. The grey eyes, in fact, expressed open admiration. On the whole, Loveday decided to waive ceremony and tradition for the nonce.
"We've been put together for the term, so we must make the best of each other," she conceded, more graciously than she had intended to address the interloper. "I'm glad to see you've kept to your own side of the room, and haven't overflowed into mine."
"No fear!" chuckled Diana. "I've been at school before, and learnt not to spread myself out. We're on rather a short allowance of space, aren't we? Are these drawers all I've got? I shall have just to wedge my things in. There's my cabin trunk to come yet."
"You may have three pegs in the landing cupboard, and a locker in the cloak-room, but anything else will have to be stored in the box-room. I should think you had enough clothes there to last you a year, instead of wanting another trunk full."
Diana shook her head.
"They're all mixed up. We packed in half an hour. I just flung in the first things that came to hand. Cousin Cora promised to send on the rest of my luggage after me. If she doesn't, I'd best 'phone."
"You'd have a little difficulty to do that," said Loveday dryly.
"D'you mean to say there's no 'phone here, or"—looking round the room—"no electric light either?"
"Certainly not. We go to bed with candles."
"Well! I wanted mediaeval ways, and it looks as if I was going to get them. It'll be rather a stunt to go to bed by candle-light. Are there any ghosts about this place? Or skeletons built into the wall? Or dungeons with rusting chains? Or mysterious footsteps? Oh! I thought there'd have been at least something spooky in a house that claims to be six hundred years old."
Diana's cabin trunk arrived in the course of a few days. She sorted out a selection of her numerous belongings, arranged them in her limited number of drawers, and consigned the surplus back to her boxes to be stored in the attic. This done, and a telegram received to announce the safe arrival of her father and mother in Paris, she seemed prepared to settle down. Her fellow intermediates, biased largely by her generosity in the matter of chocolates, gave her, on the whole, a favourable reception. Wendy even went further, and proffered friendship.
"You're just the jolly kind of girl I like," she explained. "I think we might have some topping times together, and wake up the school. Things are apt to get a little dull sometimes."
Diana nodded intelligently.
"I know. It was just the same at my last school. Everyone got into a sort of stick-in-the-mud mood, and one felt it was only kind to stir them up. I guess I did it!"
"I shouldn't wonder if you did," twinkled Wendy. "I vote we make an alliance, and, if one of us thinks of any rather ripping rag, she just tells the other, and we'll play it off together."
"Right you are! Let's shake on it!" agreed Diana, extending a small, slim hand, with a garnet birthstone-ring on the middle finger.
The little American did not fit into her niche at Pendlemere without encountering a certain amount of what her schoolmates considered necessary discipline for a novice. She had to go through an ordeal of chaff and banter. She was known by the sobriquet of "Stars and Stripes", or "The Yank", and good-natured fun was poked at her transatlantic accent. She took it good-temperedly, but with a readiness of repartee that laid the jokers flat.
"One can't get much change out of Diana," commented Magsie, after an unsuccessful onslaught of teasing.
"I think she's a scream," agreed Vi.
The baffling part of the new schoolmate was that her powers of acting were so highly developed that it was impossible to tell whether she was serious or playing a part. She "took in" her teasers times out of number, and in fairness they deserved all they got. Towards the end of the first week she came into the intermediate room one morning fondling a letter.
"From Paris," she vouchsafed. "Dad and Mother have got anchored at last. The journey must have been a startler. Paris is so full of Americans, it's like a little New York."
"Why do you call it 'Parr-is'?" sniggered Sadie.
"It's more like the French than your way of saying it, at any rate," retorted Diana smartly. "This letter's been four days in coming through."
"You might give me the stamp."
"Certainly not. You don't deserve it. I wish I were in Paris, too. Yes, I shall call it 'Parr-is'. I'm beginning to want some of my own folks."
"I've never met any Americans, except you," volunteered Vi. "What are they like?"
"What do you imagine they're like?"
"Like the pictures of 'Uncle Sam', with a limp shirt front, and a big tie, and a goatee beard. I want to meet some real out-and-out Yankees."
"Won't your cousins from Petteridge ever come over to see you, Di?" asked Magsie.
"Perhaps they may, sometime," replied Diana thoughtfully. "I should say it's quite within the bounds of possibility, considering they only live ten miles away."
"Gee-whiz! I guess I'd just admire to make their acquaintance!" mocked Vi. "I reckon they'll be some folks!"
Diana's eyes were fixed upon her with an inscrutable look, but she answered quite calmly:
"I'll take care to introduce you if they come."
It was in the course of the next few days that a parcel for Diana arrived from Petteridge Court. What it contained nobody saw except herself, for she did her unpacking in private. Judging from certain outbursts of chuckling, the exact cause of which she steadily refused to reveal, the advent of her package gave her profound satisfaction. The next Saturday afternoon was wet: one of those hopelessly wet days that are apt to happen in a land of lakes and hills. Banks of mist obscured the fells; the garden walks were turned to running rivers, the bushes dripped dismally, and cascades poured from the gutters. The school, which had been promised a country tramp, looked out of the windows with woeful disappointment. The seniors consoled themselves by holding a committee meeting, from which all but their elect selves were rigidly excluded. The juniors took possession of the play-room, and relieved their spirits by games which made the maximum of noise. Several of the intermediates peeped in, but, finding the place a mixture of a bear-garden and the Tower of Babel, they retired to the sanctuary of their own form-room, where they sat making half-hearted efforts to read or paint, and grousing at the weather.
"Is every Saturday going to be wet?" demanded Magsie in an injured voice.
"Seems like it!" mourned Jess Paget. "Of course it can be beautifully fine on Friday, when we have to stop in and do dancing; and it just keeps all the rain for Saturday. I call it spiteful! I wish I knew what to do with myself. I'm moping."
"Get a book out of the library."
"I loathe reading."
"Do some painting."
"You know I can't paint."
"Go and romp with the juniors."
"I'd as soon spend an hour in a monkey-house."
"Then I can't do anything for you, I'm afraid. You'll just have to mope."
"Where's Sadie?" asked Peggy Collins. "She promised to give me back my crochet-needle, and I can't get on without it."
"She went off with Diana and Wendy half an hour ago. I saw them running upstairs together. Don't flatter yourself she'll remember about your crochet-needle."
"I know she won't—the slacker! I shall just have to go and rout her up, and make her find it. Oh, kafoozalum! It's a weary world!"
Peggy rose languidly, stretched her arms, and strolled in the direction of the door, which at that identical moment opened to admit the missing Sadie.
"Here, you old blighter, where's that crochet-needle?" demanded Peggy impolitely.
"Bother your crochet-needle! I've no time to go and hunt for it now. I say, girls!" continued Sadie excitedly; "anybody know what's become of Diana? She's wanted. Those American cousins of hers have turned up. I told them she was in here, and they're waiting outside the door. Oh!"
Sadie's exclamation was caused by the door, which she had carefully closed suddenly opening, and nearly knocking her over. Apparently the visitors did not approve of being left to wait in the passage, and judged it expedient to make an entrance.
"Excuse me if we walk right in," said a nasal-toned voice; "but I was told we'd find Miss Diana Hewlitt in here."
The five girls, scattered about the room, stared for a second in blank amazement at the intruders. They were certainly unlike any other visitors who had ever come to Pendlemere. The speaker was a little, short, wiry man, in a slack-fitting, brown tweed suit, with a rather obtrusive striped tie. His raggy, grey beard straggled under his chin and up to his ears; his eyes twinkled through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles; in defiance of European etiquette, he wore his hat over a crop of rough, grey hair. Clinging to his arm was a very stout lady in a green coat and a velvet turban adorned with feathers. She also was grey-haired, and her features were somewhat obscured by a thick, black veil. The most prominent thing about her was a large and obtruding tooth, which gave her somewhat the appearance of a good-natured walrus; she held a morocco-leather satchel in her unoccupied hand, and wore a large feather-boa round her neck.
Magsie, to her eternal credit, was the first to remember her manners, and offer some sort of a greeting to the extraordinary strangers.
"Er—good afternoon!" she stammered. "I'm afraid Diana isn't here. Shall—shall I go and fetch her?"
"Well, now, I'd call that real elegant of you," returned the stout lady heartily. "We can't stay long, and we don't want to waste time."
"Cora, I guess we'd best introduce ourselves," observed the gentleman, gently disengaging her from his arm. "We're Mr. and Mrs. Elihu Burritt of Petteridge Court. I reckon you're Diana's schoolfellows? Pleased to meet you, I'm sure."
"Did you have a wet drive?" asked Jess Paget, making a desperate and most gallant attempt to pump up some item of conversation.
The stout lady shook her head eloquently.
"I do say that in the matter of weather a British wet day just about takes the cake!" she replied.
Her voice was slightly tremulous and muffled; perhaps the weather agitated her. Moreover, her large tooth seemed to cause her some inconvenience—it wobbled visibly as she spoke.
"If Diana don't turn up, I guess we'll have to be getting on," ventured Mr. Elihu Burritt, pulling out a big watch and consulting it. "We've got to call at the drug store at Glenbury, and time presses."
"Magsie's gone to fetch her. Peggy, you go too, and hurry her up. Won't you sit down while you're waiting?" asked Jess, pulling forward two chairs.
The visitors seated themselves, that is to say, they sank heavily down, and planted their hands on their knees. Their eyes took an interested review of the embarrassed faces of the girls, then they suddenly collapsed into gurgles of laughter. An instant wave of comprehension swept through the room.
"Diana and Wendy!" exclaimed a chorus of voices.
Mr. Elihu Burritt was guffawing to such an extent that his hat, and the venerable locks stitched inside it, tumbled to the ground, revealing a crop of brown hair. Mrs. Cora had lost her tooth altogether, and her turban was tilted to a most disreputable angle. She slapped her partner on the back, and commanded, between sobs of mirth:
"Elihu—stop laughing! I guess we'd best wangle ourselves off!"
But the girls had crowded round to examine the details of the costumes.
"They're topping!" they approved. "Absolutely A1! Can't think how you did it! Diana, where did you get those togs?"
"Sent to Petteridge for them," exulted Diana. "They came in that parcel. It's an old suit of Cousin Hugh's. I told Cousin Coralie I wanted it to dress up in. The beard's just made out of tow, and so's Wendy's hair. Flatter myself I came up to your expectations of a real backwoods Yank. I wonder if I'd take in Miss Todd. I'd give a hundred dollars to try. But it might be rather a risky experiment. Don't you think my old girl is a peach? I'm nuts on her!"
"I simply shouldn't have known you, Wendy," said Jess. "How did you make yourself so fat?"
"I'm stuffed out with all sorts of things," laughed Wendy. "Vests, and nightdresses, and stockings, and anything we could lay our hands on. I'm specially padded over the shoulders. The toque is one of Diana's hats turned inside out with some feathers pinned on. The tooth? Why, that was a piece of india-rubber tucked inside my lip. It was fearfully difficult to make it stick, I can tell you. It kept jiggling about when I tried to talk. Elihu, old man, shall we dance a tickle-toe?"
"Stop, you mad creatures! If you make such a racket you'll be bringing Bunty down upon us," interposed Magsie, as the masquerading couple twirled each other round and round. "If you want to be ready in time for tea, you'd better go and get out of those weird garments."
"I'd like to go down to tea in them," declared Diana. "What a lovely sensation they'd make! Magsie, just peep out and see that the coast is clear before we make a dash for it along the passage. It might upset Bunty's nerves if she met us."
As it happened, during the very next week Diana received a visit from her cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Burritt of Petteridge Court. They arrived in their Daimler car, and lunched with the school. They were the very epitome of cultured and polished America, and the girls raved over them. After half an hour of their company, seven intermediates had determined to mould themselves absolutely on the lines of "Cousin Coralie", and to marry exact replicas of Mr. Burritt. It was felt that ambition could soar no higher.
"I'm glad you like them," said Diana, as she stood on the steps with some of her friends watching the Daimler pass out through the gate. "I thought you would—when they really turned up. That was why I wanted you to see 'Cousin Elihu' and 'Cousin Cora' first. They were more your idea of typical Americans, weren't they? Ah!"—shaking her head commiseratingly—"that's because you benighted Britishers just don't know anything about the real America."
A Penniless Princess
Miss Todd, sitting at her desk in her study, with a row of the very latest publications on the most modern theories of education in a bookcase so near that she could stretch out her hand for any particular one she wanted, rapidly reviewed some of her new experiments. First and foremost came the plan of sandwiching seniors and juniors together in their bedrooms. She hoped the influence of the elder girls would work like leaven in the school, and that putting them with younger ones would give them the chance of developing and exercising their motherly instincts. She tapped her book with her pencil as she mentally ran over the list of her seniors, and considered how—to the outside view of a head mistress—each seemed to be progressing.
"It's difficult to foster just the spirit one wants in them—it depends so largely on the girl," she decided.
And there she was right—the girl made all the difference. Hilary Chapman had listened to her remarks on "the mother instinct", and had walked straight into her dormitory, tow-rowed her young room-mates for their untidiness, snapped at their excuses, and sent them downstairs with a snubbing, returning to the bosom of the seniors ruffled, but with a strong sense of having performed her obvious duty. Betty Blane, Erica Peters, and Peggy Collins, comparing injured notes, viewed the matter from a different angle.
"Calls herself a mother, does she? Jolly more like a step-mother, I should say," objected Erica.
"Pretty grizzly to be boxed up with Hilary for a whole term," lamented Betty.
"I'm not going to be 'mothered' by her," proclaimed Peggy with energy. "She's only two years older than I am, and yet from the airs she gives herself you'd think she was Methuselah."
"You don't look like her daughter," remarked Betty, who was literal-minded to a fault.
Peggy made an eloquent grimace.
"I'm an undutiful one, at any rate," she laughed. "I'm afraid Hilary will find me somewhat of a handful."
Up in the little ivy room, however, matters were going somewhat better. Diana and Loveday, after a few minor differences, dovetailed both their possessions and their dispositions so as to admit of the least possible friction. It was fortunate for Diana, for she had a side to her character that would have bristled into porcupine quills had she been placed with Hilary. Loveday's particular temperament soothed her down.
"I'm falling in love with her," she admitted to Wendy. "I was taken with her, of course, the moment I saw her, but I believe now I'm going to have it badly. I think she's beautiful! If there were a Peach Competition, she'd win at a canter."
Such a pandering to the "pomps and vanities" as a Beauty Show was certainly not an item in the list of new experiments at Pendlemere, but there was a general consensus of opinion that Loveday held the palm in the matter of looks. She was a fair, slender girl, with delicate features, a clear complexion, and a quantity of long flaxen hair. She spoke prettily, but without affectation, and always gave an impression of great refinement. The wistful look that sometimes shaded her blue eyes was, on the whole, attractive.
"She's like a picture I once saw of Eve just turned out of Paradise," commented Diana, sitting with Wendy and Tattie in the window-seat on the stairs.
"Not half a bad shot," said Wendy. "In fact, it just about hits the mark. In a way, Loveday is turned out of Paradise. That's to say, I suppose, if her grandfather hadn't gambled, the Abbey would have belonged to her."
"Why, this, of course, stupid!"
"Do you mean to say Loveday's folks used to own this place?"
"They did. Owned it for hundreds of years. They were an old Border family, and mixed up with the rebellion of 1745, and all sorts of interesting things. Loveday's grandfather was the regular old-fashioned sporting kind of squire you read about in books. He gambled the whole property away. I suppose it used to be a fine place in his day. I've heard he kept eight hunters, and always had the house full of guests while his money lasted. Then there was a grand smash up, and everything had to be sold—house, horses, furniture, and all. He went abroad and died of a broken heart—never smiled again, and all that sort of thing, you know."
"How fearfully romantic!" gasped Diana. "Of course it was his own fault for gambling, but still one feels sorry for him. Did Loveday live here too when she was little?"
Wendy shook her head.
"I shouldn't think so. I believe it happened ever such a long time ago; before she was born, even."
"Couldn't her father get it back?"
"I suppose not. Besides, he's dead too. Loveday is an orphan. She's neither father nor mother."
"Where does she live, then, when she's at home?"
"With an uncle and aunt—her mother's relations. But she never talks very much about them, so we fancy they're not particularly nice to her. She has no brothers or sisters. I think she feels lonely, if you ask my opinion, but she's too proud to say so."
"And Pendlemere ought to be hers! How romantic!" repeated Diana. "I wanted to stay in a real old-fashioned mediaeval British house, and here I'm plumped into a story as well. It's most exciting! What's going to happen next? Is Loveday going to get it back? Will she marry the man who owns it? Or will somebody leave her a fortune? Or will she find a lost will? How do stories generally end?" continued Diana, casting her mind over a range of light literature which she had skimmed and half forgotten.
Wendy disposed of each of the suggestions in turn.
"There isn't anybody to leave her a fortune; and what's the good of finding a will when the place is sold? The present owner is a fat old fellow of fifty, with a wife already, and, even if she died, I shouldn't think Loveday would want to marry him. He has three daughters older than she is, and he's quite bald."
Diana looked baffled. Her romantic plan of restoring the fortunes of the Seton family through matrimony certainly did not seem hopeful.
"I'm fearfully sorry for Loveday," confided Tattie. "I know something about her, because some friends of ours live near her aunt. They say she gets very much snubbed; her cousins make her feel it's not her own home. She wants to go to college, but it's doubtful if she'll be able. Nesta Erskine says Loveday is just counting on a career. She wants to be independent of her aunt."
"It must be horrible to be snubbed," commented Diana thoughtfully.
She had admired Loveday before, but now she looked at her room-mate with new eyes. To Diana there was something fascinating about the idea of a "penniless princess".
"Do your ancestors go right slap-bang back to the Conquest?" she asked interestedly, while she was undressing that evening.
"Well, not quite so far as that," smiled Loveday, diligently brushing a flaxen mane ripply with plaiting. "But I believe there were Setons in the fourteenth century, long before they had the Abbey from Edward the Sixth's commissioners. There are all sorts of stories and legends about them, of course."
"What kind of stories? Do tell me! I'd just admire to hear. I'm crazy on Border ballads and legends. Tell me, while I fix my hair."
"Well, there was little Sir Rowland. When he was only six years old his father was killed in one of the battles of the Wars of the Roses. They were Lancastrians, and the Yorkists seized his estate, and Rowland was only saved from the fury of the conquering party by the devotion of his nurse. She managed to hide him in a secret place in the tower till there was an opportunity to escape, and then she got him away to her father's house in the midst of a wild tract of forest. He lived there, disguised as a forester, for years and years, and helped to cut wood and to hunt, and only two or three people knew the secret of his birth. He used to go errands sometimes to the great Hall of the neighbourhood, and there he saw Lady Anne, the beautiful daughter of Lord Wharton, and fell desperately in love with her. One day when she was out riding he was able to save her from the attack of an infuriated stag, and I suppose she was very grateful, and perhaps showed her feelings too plainly, for her father shut her up in a turret-room, and ordered her to marry somebody whom she didn't like at all. I don't know what would have happened, but just then Henry VII came to the throne, and one of his first acts was to restore Sir Rowland Seton to his possessions and dignity. Lord Wharton must have thought him an eligible suitor then, for he was allowed to marry the Lady Anne, and take her away to his castle. Their tomb is in Dittington Church. He was killed at the Battle of Flodden, and one of his sons with him.
"There's a romantic story, too, about Sir Roderick Seton, who lived at the Abbey here in the days of Charles I. He had a stone seat made, and put just by the front door. The first person who sat on it was a lovely girl named Katherine, and he said to her: 'Katherine, you have sat on my seat, so you must give me three kisses as toll'. Not very long after he went away to London, leaving his brother William to look after the estate. Then civil war broke out, and he joined the Royalist forces, and followed the young King Charles into exile. After the Restoration he journeyed north, and came on foot to his old home. It was years and years since he had left there, and nobody had had any tidings about him, or knew whether he was alive or dead. He found his brother William, who was now married to Katherine, sitting with her and their two children on the stone seat by the door. He asked them for a night's lodging, and, though they did not know who he was, they took him in and treated him kindly. Next morning he asked his hostess to accompany him to the door, and, pointing to the stone seat, said:
"'It is many years since I had three kisses from the dame who first sat on it.'
"She recognized him then, and ran joyously to call the rest of the household. His brother at once wished to hand over the keys to him, but he would not accept them. 'I am old and childless,' he said. 'All I ask here is bed and board till you carry me to the churchyard.' He lived with them for some years, and devoted himself to study. The people of the neighbourhood venerated him as a sage, and after his death he was supposed on very special occasions to appear and give the family warning of future trouble. They say he was seen before the Battle of Culloden, and several times during the Napoleonic wars; but of course I can't vouch for that—it's only legend."
Diana, sitting up in bed with the curtains of her cubicle drawn aside to listen, gave a long-drawn, breathless sigh.
"O-o-o-oh! How gorgeous to belong to a highfaluting family that's got legends and ghosts. I'm just crazy to hear more. What about the house? Aren't there any dungeons or built-up skeletons or secret hiding-places? There ought to be, in a real first-class mediaeval place like this."
Loveday was plaiting her flaxen hair into two long braids; she paused with the ribbon in her hand.
"I don't know—as you say, there ought to be. I've often wondered—especially since——" She hesitated.
"Since what?" urged Diana, scenting the beginning of a mystery.
"Since something that happened once."
"When? Oh, do tell me!"
"I've never told anybody."
Diana hopped out of bed, and flung two lace-frilled arms round her room-mate, clinging to her with the tenacity of a young octopus.
"Oh, Loveday! Ducky! Tell me! I shan't let you go till you promise. Please! please!" she entreated.
"If you strangle me I can't tell anything. Get back into bed, Diana! I don't know whether it was really important, but it may have been. It happened when I was quite a little girl. I had a slight attack of measles, and of course I was kept in bed. Mother was nursing me, and one afternoon she went out to do some shopping and left me to have a nap. I wasn't sleepy in the least, and it was horribly dull staying there all by myself. I remembered a book I wanted to read which was in the dining-room bookcase, so I did a most dreadfully naughty thing: I jumped up, put on my dressing-gown and bedroom slippers, and ran downstairs to fetch At the Back of the North Wind. I opened the dining-room door and marched in, and then I got a surprise, for seated in a chair by the fire was a stranger. He looked as much surprised as I was.
"'Hallo!' he said. 'We go to bed early in this part of the world, don't we? Or are we only getting up?'
"I walked to the fire and warmed my hands, and looked at him calmly. I was a funny child in those days.
"'It's neither,' I answered. 'I've got measles.'
"'Then please don't give them to me,' he laughed. 'I assure you I don't want them. Look here! I called to see your father, or, failing your father, your mother. They're both out, and I've been waiting half an hour for either of them to come in. I can't stay any longer. Will you give them a message from me? Say I've been over at Pendlemere Abbey, and that I've made a most interesting discovery there. If they care to communicate with me, I'll tell them about it. Here's my card with my address. Now I must bolt to keep an appointment. You'll remember the message?'
"He flung his card on the table, went out of the room, and I heard the hall door bang after him. I stood for a moment thinking. If I gave this message, Mother would know that I had been out of bed and downstairs, and I should be sure to get a tremendous scolding. I was a naughty little girl in those days; I took the card, flung it on the fire, seized At the Back of the North Wind from the bookcase, and tore upstairs again. Of course I caught cold, and had rather a serious relapse which puzzled everybody. No one except myself knew the reason, and I took good care not to tell. Only six months afterwards I lost both my father and mother, and went to live with my aunt at Liverpool. What became of the stranger I don't know. I didn't even remember his name."
"You weren't living at the Abbey then?"
"No, no! We never lived at the Abbey. It was sold before I was born. I believe at that time it was empty, and a caretaker used to allow tourists to look through it. I suppose that gentleman was a tourist."
"What had he found?"
"That's a question I've asked myself a hundred times. Was it a sliding panel or a secret door? Or was he simply some antiquarian crank who wanted to prove that the Abbey was of Norman origin, or built on a Roman foundation? How I wish I hadn't forgotten his name! When I heard that Pendlemere had been turned into a school I begged my aunt to send me here. For a long time she wouldn't, and I went to a day-school. Then two years ago she and uncle decided to send me to a boarding-school, so again I asked to come here, and after a great deal of urging they let me. I hoped I might find out something. I'm always hunting about, but I've never yet made the 'interesting discovery'."
"Where have you looked?" asked Diana, immensely thrilled.
"Oh, everywhere! I've tapped panels, and pushed bits of carving to see if they'd move, but they're all absolutely firm and solid. I've had no luck."
"I'll go exploring on my own."
"Well, if you do, don't tell the other girls. I hate to pose as a sort of turned-out heiress, and have them pitying me. If they knew I was hunting for hiding-places, I believe some of them would rag me dreadfully. I should never hear the last of it. They'd always be pretending they'd found something, just to tease me."
"And yet you ought to have been the heiress," mused Diana.
"It's no use talking about being an heiress when the place was sold before I was born," returned Loveday rather bitterly. "I've told you this, but I trust you not to go blabbing it all over the school. If you're ready, I'll blow out the candle. Miss Hampson will be round in a minute."
Among Miss Todd's modern principles of education was the sensible theory that if you can once get a girl interested in a subject she will learn without any labour, and that self-acquired knowledge is far more readily retained than facts which are crammed down one's throat. More especially she applied this to history. Instead of making it a dry catalogue of dates of kings and battles, she tried to show the gradual evolution of the British nation from the barbarism of the Stone Age to present-day civilization. She dwelt much on folk-lore, ancient customs and traditions, and especially encouraged the study of all local legends and observances. In this she found an ally in the new vicar who had lately come to the church at Pendlemere, and whose daughters, Meg and Elsie, attended the school as day-girls. Mr. Fleming was an enthusiastic antiquarian, and revelled in the history of the neighbourhood. He went round his parish collecting information from the oldest inhabitants with regard to vanished and vanishing customs, and took notes for a book which he hoped to write upon the folk-lore of the northern counties. In the heat of his ardour he suggested the revival of several quaint old festivals which had once held time-honoured places in the calendar of the year. First and foremost came the Rush-bearing. In ancient days it had been the custom of the parishioners to cut bundles of rushes, and, walking in procession to the church, to strew the floor thickly with them as a covering for the winter. They would be left till the spring, and cleared away in time for Easter. This old ceremony had long fallen into disuse, and was only remembered by village patriarchs as one of the yearly events of their far-away childhood.
Though it might not be desirable once more to strew the floor with rushes, Mr. Fleming suggested that it would be a pretty idea if the girls at Pendlemere School were to cut some bundles of them, tie them with ribbons, and carry them into the church on the date of the old festival, as a memorial of the past observance. Anything so interesting as going out to cut rushes appealed to the girls, and they readily adopted the suggestion. Miss Todd decided to turn the afternoon into a kind of natural history and antiquarian excursion.
"The rushes by the lake are not very easy to get," she explained, "but there are beauties growing on Fox Fell. We'll have a ramble there on Saturday, take our lunch, and bring back our bundles. Then we can plait our ribbons at our leisure on Monday, in time for the festival on Tuesday. Who wants to go? Anybody who likes may stay at home."
A rustle passed round the room, for nobody was anxious to be left out of the fun. Rambles were considered special treats at Pendlemere, and smiles decorated twenty faces at the prospect. At Geraldine's suggestion they did their Saturday prep. in Friday's recreation time.
"And get all your practising finished too," she urged. "If we can tell Miss Todd that our work's quite squared up, she'll let us stay out longer; but you know her. If there's a single girl who hasn't learnt her literature, or made up her music list, the whole crew of us will have to come trotting back. I'd be sorry for that girl!" Geraldine looked round the room grimly. "I should give her a very unpleasant time myself, and I expect the rest of you would, too. She'd richly deserve all she got."
Warned by the head girl's awful threat, tasks were completed in good time, and promptly by half-past ten the school, in a uniform of brown jerseys, brown tam-o'-shanters with orange tassels, strong boots, lunch-wallets slung over their shoulders, and sticks in their hands, were prepared, like a group of pilgrims, to make their start. Spot, the fox terrier, escorted them, barking his loudest. Meg and Elsie Fleming joined them in the village; so with Miss Todd and Miss Beverley they formed a party of twenty-four. They set their faces towards the fells, and stepped out briskly. They were not bound to walk in a crocodile, but, though some progressed in groups, most of the girls gravitated into pairs. Diana and Wendy linked arms as naturally as two pieces of mercury merge together in a box. Their spirits, usually high, were to-day at bubbling-over point: they laughed at everything, whether it was a joke or not.
"It's my first real mountain walk in England," announced Diana.
"Oh! I'm glad you allow they are mountains," said Sadie, coming up from behind. "You've been bragging so hard about America, that I thought perhaps you'd consider them hillocks."
"They are hillocks compared with the Rockies," flashed Diana. "I'm not going to give way an inch about America, so there!"
"All right, Uncle Sam, brag away. Everything over there is ten times bigger and better than here—the apples are the size of pumpkins, and the brooks are so wide you can't see across them, and it takes you years to ride round a single farm! We know! You needn't tell us again."
"I wasn't going to!" retorted Diana. "What's the use, when you can make it all up for yourself?"
"Oh! my invention's nothing to yours. I expect you're telling Wendy some startlers. I'm going to walk with Vi, she's more interesting than you two."
"What's the matter with Sadie?" asked Diana, as their schoolmate ran on to catch up Violet.
"Jealous!" said Wendy, shaking her head sagely. "She has these attacks sometimes, and I know the symptoms. She doesn't like to see you and me walking together. Last term she and I and Magsie and Tattie were in Dormitory 4. Magsie and Tattie did the 'twin cherries on one stalk' business all the time, so in self-defence Sadie and I had to chum, though we squabbled six times a day. I'm not going to be monopolized now, so she needn't think it. Let her chum with Vi if she likes, I'm sure I don't care. Hallo! Which stile do we go over here, I wonder?"
The two girls had lagged behind, so that the rest of the party, walking at the brisk pace set by Miss Todd, had passed on in front. Wendy mounted each stile in turn, and surveyed the prospect of fields and high hedges. There was not a solitary tam-o'-shanter to be seen from either of them. In much doubt she hesitated.
"It'll probably be to the left, because I know we have to go through that wood over there before we get out on to the fells," she conjectured.
"I can't help you," said Diana. "Is it any use tossing for it?"
They ventured to the left, and, after walking over three fields, found themselves in a narrow lane which terminated in a pond. It was such an evident cul-de-sac that there was nothing for it but to turn back. When they again reached the stiles they found Geraldine sitting upon the right-hand one. Her expression was thundery, and her greeting the reverse of cordial.
"Where have you been, you two stupids? Why can't you keep up with the rest of us instead of side-tracking like this? Here you're keeping the whole party waiting, and I've had to turn back to hunt you up."
"Sorry to be on the earth!" apologized Wendy; "but we missed our way."
"Then it's your own fault, for we left the gipsy trail for you as plain as plain could be. Some people have no eyes!"
"What gipsy trail?"
Geraldine pointed laconically to the grass.
There, just by the right-hand stile, lay two crossed sticks. They were placed in a most obvious position. It was a marvel how they had escaped notice.
"You may well stare!" commented Geraldine with sarcasm.
"I believe I did see them," said Diana, "but I didn't know what they meant."
"Didn't know! Why, Sadie told you! I sent her on purpose. Miss Todd said we were to leave the gipsy trail at every doubtful place."
"Sadie never told us. She never said a single word."
"You probably didn't listen. Well, I can't argue it out now, the others are waiting, and Miss Todd's furious. Come along as fast as you can."
Diana and Wendy considered that the summary scolding which they received from Miss Todd, who was in too big a hurry to listen to any excuses, was entirely Sadie's fault, and a point to be settled up with her later. At present she scuttled on ahead, conveniently out of their way.
"Just let her wait!" vowed Wendy darkly.
It was necessary to step along briskly if they meant to accomplish the walk which Miss Todd had in her mind's eye, and anybody who has ever acted leader to a party of twenty-four knows the difficulty of making everyone keep the pace.
"I believe Toddlekins would like to rope us all together as if we were Swiss mountaineers," giggled Magsie, "or a gang of prisoners clanking chains. It's rather weak if one can't even stop to pick a flower."
They had passed through the wood by now, and were on the open fells. The view was gorgeous. The October sun flooded the landscape and showed up the wealth of autumn colour: tree-crested crags, ravines with brawling brooks, stretches of heather-clad moor, banks of faded bracken, rugged rocks and stony hill-crests were spread on the one hand, while to the west lay a distant chain of lakes, embosomed in meadows green as emerald, and reflecting the pale autumn sky in their smooth expanse. At the top of the first fell, Miss Todd called a halt. They had reached number one of the objects she had set in the day's programme. It was a pre-historic cromlech—three gigantic stones reared in the form of a table by those old inhabitants of our island whose customs and modes of worship are lost in the mists of antiquity. The storms and snows of many thousand years sweeping round it had slightly displaced the cap stone, but it stood otherwise intact, a grey, hoary monument to the toil of the short, dark neolithic race who once hunted on these self-same fells. The girls crowded round the cromlech curiously. It was large enough for four of them to sit underneath, and several crammed in as an experiment.
"Was it an altar?" asked Stuart.
"The altar theory is exploded now," said Miss Todd. "It is generally recognized that they were burial-places of great chiefs. The body would be placed inside, with stone weapons and drinking-cups, and any other articles the man had loved when he was alive. Then a great heap of stones and earth would be piled over and round it, to keep out the wolves which were the terror of early man. The weather, and perhaps farmers, have taken away the mound, and laid bare the cromlech; but look! here is one that is almost in its natural position."
The girls turned, and saw close by a rocky mound that jutted from among the crags. In its side was a small opening, just large enough to squeeze through. Miss Todd had brought candle and matches, and personally conducted relays of girls into the chamber within. They went curiously or timorously as the case might be.
"Is there a skeleton inside? I don't know whether I dare," shivered Tattie. "It's like going into a grave, and I'm scared to death."
"Don't be silly!" said Geraldine, who, with Loveday and Hilary, was making her exit. "There's nothing inside it. It's only like a cave."
"You're sure bogeys won't catch my legs?"
"Stop outside, if you're afraid."
"It's like a fairy-tale, and going into the gnome's hill," fluttered Magsie.
Everybody was determined to have a peep, and even Tattie mustered up sufficient courage to screw through the narrow portal, though she squealed in the process, and clung tightly to Magsie's hand. Diana and Wendy were among the last to effect the investigation. By that time the piece of candle was guttering out, and Miss Todd, tired of acting show-woman, returned to the open air, and gave marching orders.
Diana and Wendy, rather fascinated with the "Goblin Hole", as they called it, lingered, poking their noses inside the entrance.
"I didn't go in," said a voice behind them. Turning, they saw Sadie's face, interested, and half-regretful.
"Then you've lost your luck," said Diana decisively. "If you go in and turn round three times inside, you can have a wish, and it's bound to come true. You'd better do it. You've just time."
"In the dark?" hesitated Sadie.
"Quick! Go on!" urged her companions, standing back to make way for her. "Here are the matches."
Sadie struck a match, and cautiously ventured forward. The moment she was well inside Diana motioned to Wendy, and, catching up a piece of wood that lay on the ground, tilted it like a door across the entrance, and piled some stones against it. Then the pair fled. They heard an agonized shriek behind them, but they turned deaf ears to it.
They were half-way down the heathery hill-side when a very ruffled and indignant Sadie overtook them.
"Hallo! I thought you'd gone to live with the goblins," exclaimed Diana cheerfully.
"You're a pair of BEASTS!" exploded Sadie.
"Don't mench! What kind of beasts, please? Young gazelles or kittens?"
"Pigs would be more like it!" snapped Sadie. "To think of shutting me up alone in that bogey-hole! I might have lost my reason."
"Didn't fancy you'd go stark staring mad as fast as all that," chuckled Diana. "It didn't take you very long to push that door down."
"If we see any symptoms of insanity cropping out in you, we'll know the reason," added Wendy smartly.
"And you see it's been very good for you to know what it feels like to be left behind," rubbed in Diana. "You never told us about that gipsy trail dodge. Tit for tat's my motto."
"I think you're the two horridest girls in the school! I sha'n't speak to you again. You may consider yourselves funny, but no one else does," said Sadie witheringly, as she flounced away to hang on to Geraldine's arm, and pour her woes into the head girl's not too willing ear.
It was a good hour's walk from the cromlechs to Birk Water, the lake where they intended to pick the rushes. The path was the merest track, and the tramp through the heather and over rough and rugged stones well justified the thick footgear upon which Miss Todd had insisted. Birk Water was a lovely little mountain tarn lying under the shadow of Fox Fell, a smooth, grassy eminence down which hurried a noisy stream. They found a sheltered place in the sunshine on the bank, and sat down to eat their lunch. Hard-boiled eggs and cheese sandwiches tasted delicious in the open air, and for a special treat there was an apple apiece. In normal times the supply of apples was liberal, but this year the crop had failed, and they were rare dainties.
"I sympathize with Eve," said Wendy, munching blissfully. "It must have been a very great temptation, especially with 'knowledge' thrown in. Just think of being able to eat an apple that would teach you all your dates and French verbs."
"There weren't any dates then, unless they counted the geological periods; and the Tower of Babel came later, so the French language wasn't invented," objected Tattie.
"Oh! don't be so literal-minded. I never meant that Eve sat at a desk and wrote exercises. I'm only telling you I like apples."
"Well, so do I, and yours is a bigger one than mine."
"It won't be long, don't you worry yourself. It's getting 'small by degrees and beautifully less'."
The slopes of the hill were slightly marshy, and grew a crop of remarkably tall and fine rushes. They were much easier to gather than those on the borders of the lake. The girls had brought knives, and, when lunch had vanished to the last crumb, they dispersed up the hill-side to reap their rush harvest.
"If they're not all wanted for the church, I vote we ask Miss Todd to let us put some down on the schoolroom floor," said Diana, hacking away cheerfully. "I'd just admire to know what they feel like under one's feet. It would take one back about five centuries."
"Spiffing! We'll ask her! Get as many as you can carry, and tell the others. They'd be far more interesting than linoleum. Think of being able to swish one's toes about in them. I hope the church won't want too many."
"It oughtn't to claim more than its tithe. I suppose it's entitled to a tenth of every harvest, if we stick strictly to the old customs," smiled Loveday, whose arms were already filled with a sheaf of green and orange.
On the open side of the fell the wind blew strongly, and it was a struggle to toil upwards. The school tacked instead towards the sheltered bank of the stream, and with one accord broke into Scotch songs. Geraldine, in a full contralto, was singing "Green grow the rashes, O". Betty Blane's chirpy voice proclaimed "I'm ower young to marry yet",—a self-evident proposition, as she was only thirteen. Stuart and Loveday were crooning "Flowers of the Forest" as a kind of soprano dirge, which was drowned by a chorus of juniors roaring "Auld Lang Syne".
"We twa hae paidled i' the burn Frae mornin' sun till dine",
chanted Diana after them. "And that's just what I want to do. I've never had a chance yet to 'paidle' in a British burn."
"You won't to-day, then," said Geraldine, who chanced to overhear, and stopped her singing to interpolate a remark. "Shoes and stockings aren't allowed off, except in the summer term."
"Green grow the rashes, O! Green grow the rashes, O! The sweetest hours that e'er I spent Were spent among the lassies, O!"
Diana stood frowning as Geraldine passed along, carolling at the pitch of her voice.
"What nonsense!" she growled. "Who made such a silly old rule? I'm not going to keep it."
"It's quite as warm to-day as it sometimes is in summer," agreed Wendy.
"I believe it's only 'swank' on Geraldine's part, because she's head prefect. I shall paddle! Just because she said I mustn't. Come on, Wendy! Let's scoot into this hollow and enjoy ourselves. Geraldine makes me feel real bad when she bosses. I want to go and break all the rules I can."
If Diana—a modern Eve—hankered after the apples of new experiences, Wendy succumbed to her persuasions as readily as Adam. The little purling brook was attractive, mistresses and prefects were safely out of sight, and schoolmates, if they chanced to appear on the scene, might be bribed not to blab. In a twinkling laces were unfastened, and two stout pairs of boots stowed away among the stones, each with its stocking tucked inside; while two pairs of bare feet went splashing joyously into the brook. It was fun paddling in the little pools and scrambling over the rocks, waving a foot occasionally into a foaming fall, and dancing out on to the grass when the water grew too cold to be endured any longer. They wandered for some distance up the hill-side, supremely happy, though taking care not to allow their exuberant spirits to overflow into song. So far not a soul seemed to have noticed them—they were enjoying the sweets of undiscovered crime. Suddenly through the clear autumnal air rang out the shrill, bubbling call of the regimental whistle with which Miss Todd was wont, on country walks, to collect her scattered flock. The two sinners jumped so uneasily that Wendy slipped from a stone and splashed into a pool, with rather disastrous consequences to her skirt.
"We'd best go back and find our boots," she said, hurriedly wringing the water from the brown tweed.
They had not realized how far they had roamed up the stream, and the length of the way back surprised them. It is not an easy matter to hurry over slippery stones, though they made what speed they could, urged by another summons from the whistle.
"I think this was the place," declared Diana, at last arriving at landmarks that seemed familiar. "I left mine just over there."
Both girls sought their hiding-places, but, to their utter dismay, the boots were missing. They searched about here, there, and everywhere, but not so much as the tab of a lace could be found. Meanwhile the whistle sounded impatient blasts.
"What are we to do?" flustered Wendy. "Toddlekins will be furious if we don't go; and yet how can we go without our boots?"
"We must have mistaken the place," gasped Diana. "Perhaps it was farther down."
"No, no! I'm certain it was just here."
"Well, we're in a pretty fix, at any rate."
"T-r-r-r-r-ee-ee!" came again from the fell side. To disobey the summons deliberately was open mutiny. An agitated voice on the bank called to them.
"Wendy and Diana, can't you hear the whistle? Come this instant!"
It was Stuart Hamilton, who stood beckoning violently.
"We've lost our boots," wailed Wendy.
"Then come without them. Miss Todd has sent me to find you. Hurry up!"
It was a scratchy and painful performance to hurry through heather and over sharp stones to the spot where the school was assembled. Miss Todd stood staring at them as they approached, with her "report yourself in my study" expression. They felt their bare legs and feet most embarrassingly conspicuous, and wished that fickle fashion had clothed them in longer skirts.
"What is the meaning of this?" asked the Principal, eyeing their uncovered extremities severely.
"We've—we've—lost our boots," stammered Diana, speaking for both.
"And why were your boots taken off? You were aware of the rule, for I happen to know that you had just been reminded of it." (Here Wendy fixed a reproachful gaze on Geraldine, who coloured slightly.) "You've deliberately disobeyed orders, and you will be confined to 'bounds' for a fortnight. It's absolutely essential in our country rambles that discipline should be kept up, and any girl who breaks rules will stay at home next time. You deserve to walk back with bare feet, but Miss Beverley will give you your boots. Put them on at once!"
It was horrible to have to sit down upon the heather and pull on stockings and boots under the critical supervision of twenty-two pairs of eyes. Diana's lace broke, and Wendy's fingers seemed all thumbs. Miss Todd superintended till the last knot had been awkwardly tied, then she gave the signal for marching. Considerably crestfallen, the delinquents dropped towards the rear.
"Did Geraldine sneak?" whispered Wendy to Violet.
"No, it wasn't exactly her fault—it was Spot really. He routed out the boots, and began barking and worrying them, and Miss Beverley rushed up to see what he'd got—she thought he'd caught an otter or a water-rat. When she saw it was boots—well——"
"She knew she'd caught us," finished Diana.
"She took the boots straight to Miss Todd, and Toddlekins blew her whistle and counted us over like sheep to find who was missing. Then she asked who'd seen you last, and if anyone had given you leave to wade. She dragged it all out of Geraldine. I don't think Gerry would have told on her own."
"Spot!" said Diana, turning reproachful eyes on that panting specimen of the canine race. "I used to think you a dinky little dog, but I'm out of friends with you now. It's a real mean trick you've played us. Oh! you needn't come jumping up on me and licking my hand. What possessed you to unearth those boots? 'Bounds' for a whole fortnight! And I wanted to go to Glenbury on Wednesday. It's too disgusting for words! Vi, d'you think if I looked an absolute hallowed saint all Sunday, and Monday, and Tuesday, Miss Todd would let me go to Glenbury? My name's down for the exeat, you know."
Violet regarded Diana for a moment or two as if making mental calculations.
"You couldn't do it," she decided at last. "You couldn't look the least tiny, weeny atom like a saint if you tried till doomsday. Saints ought to be thin and wan, with straight noses and fair hair parted in the middle. You're rosy and substantial, and your nose isn't straight, and your hair's too brown, and as for your eyes—they've a wicked twinkle in them the whole time. No, my good girl, whatever else you may do, you won't succeed in looking saintly."
"Well, I guess I've got some bounce in me, certainly," agreed Diana. "But I thought perhaps if I went about on tiptoe and whispered, and"—hopefully—"I could keep my eyes half-shut, couldn't I?"
Violet shook her head decisively.
"That twinkle would ooze out of the smallest chink, and besides, even if you managed to look a saint, that wouldn't influence Toddlekins. You don't know her yet. Once she says a thing she sticks to it like glue. She calls it necessary firmness in a mistress, and we call it a strain of obstinacy in her disposition. In the old days we could get round Mrs. Gifford, but now Toddlekins rules the show, you may as well make up your mind to things and have done with it. What she says is kismet."
"Why do you want to go to Glenbury?" asked Jess.
"Oh! just a reason of my own," evaded Diana.
"You'll very likely get an exeat the week after," consoled Violet.
"It would be no use to me then," said Diana dismally.
The procession of rush-bearers, each carrying a good-sized sheaf in her arms, wound down the hill-side to go back to Pendlemere by a different route. This was a wild track over the moors, past the old slate-quarry, where rusty bits of machinery and piles of broken slates were lying about, then over the ridge and down by Wethersted Tarn to the gorge where the river took its rise. Here a stream of considerable force thundered along between high walls of rock. It was a picturesque spot; rowan-trees hung from clefts in the crags, their bright berries rivalling the scarlet of the hips and haws; green fronds of fern bent at the water's edge, and brilliant carpets of moss clothed the boulders. At one point a great tree-trunk, a giant of the fells, rotten through many years of braving the strong west wind, had fallen and lay across the torrent. It stretched from bank to bank like a rough kind of natural bridge, with the stream roaring and foaming only six feet below. The girls scrambled over its upturned roots, and stood looking at the straight trunk and withered branches that lay stretched before them.
"Shouldn't care to venture across there," said Loveday with a shiver.
"It looks particularly slippery and horrid," agreed Geraldine.
"The water must be so very deep down there," said Hilary.
"I don't believe there's one of us who'd go across for a five-pound-note," said Ida. "What offers? Don't all speak at once!"
The girls smiled, and were turning away to follow Miss Todd, when Geraldine stopped and held up a finger.
"What's that noise?" she asked.
"I don't hear anything but the stream," said Ida doubtfully.
"I do, though," said Diana, who with Wendy and Vi had joined the seniors. "It sounds like somebody whimpering."
"I'm going down the bank to see."
The others followed Geraldine, and swung themselves down to the water level. Sitting under the arch formed by the roots of the tree was a small boy of about seven, rubbing two swimming eyes with two grimy little fists and sobbing lustily.
"Hallo! What's the matter here?" said Geraldine briskly. "Where do you come from, and why don't you go home? Are you lost?"
At the mention of "home" the little fellow's tears redoubled, and the whimper rose to a roar. Ida sat down on the rock beside him, and tried to comfort him. It was a difficult process to get any coherent or sensible replies to her questions, but after considerable coaxing, and a last piece of chocolate which Wendy fortunately fished from her pocket, she managed to wring from him that his name was Harry, that he lived at a farm on the other side of the torrent, that he had come down to the river with several other boys, and that they had dared him to cross by the fallen tree. Once over, he was too frightened to go back, and, after waiting and calling to him for some time, the other boys had run away. How was he going to get home?
The situation was difficult, for there was no bridge across the river for many miles. Unless the child could go back the way he had come, it was a problem what was to be done.
"You were a silly boy ever to try to cross," said Geraldine sententiously.
"They said I durstn't!" sobbed the small sinner.
"Oh, don't scold him!" pleaded Diana. "I do know so exactly how he felt. I've often been dared to do things myself, and done them, though I shivered."
"Well, you'd surely never do such a silly thing as cross that tree?"
"Wouldn't I? I believe I'm going to do it now."
"He's got to get home somehow. Look here, Harry!"—Diana knelt on the pebbles, and put her arm round the little blue-jerseyed figure—"suppose I were to go too, would you dare to cross again? We'd both crawl on our hands and knees."
The sobs stopped, while Harry took a swift survey of her face. Apparently he found it satisfactory.
"If you'll go first," he stammered.
"Then come along—we've no time to waste," said Diana, springing up and giving him her hand.
"Diana! You surely don't mean——" began Geraldine in eager remonstrance.
"Yes, I do!" interrupted Diana. "I've done worse things before, and I'm not scared. Come on, Harry! We'll have you home in forty cracks."
The girls did not attempt to interfere. They stood and watched while Diana hauled the little boy up the bank. Perhaps each secretly wished she were capable of such a piece of pluck. Though the tree was tall enough to span the stream, its bole seemed very narrow to form a bridge, and the rounded surface made it all the more slippery; the few branches here and there were of little help. Diana hoisted up her protege, then going in front of him began to crawl across on her hands and knees, speaking to him all the time, so as to encourage him to follow her. Beneath them the water foamed and roared over the rocks: to slip would mean to be whirled into the depths of a dark pool below. It was a slow progress, but inch by inch they crept along till the most dangerous part was passed, and they had reached comparative safety. The girls cheered when at last Diana scrambled to her feet and lifted Harry on to dry ground. A path led up the side of the gorge, and along this he set off at full speed for home. His preserver stood looking after him for a minute or two, and then she turned to re-cross her perilous bridge. Six hands were stretched out to help her as she completed the venturesome journey.
"You're a trump, Di!"
"I daren't have done it!"
"You've been a guardian angel to that child!"
"Was it very awful?"
"I can't think how you managed it!"
"I nearly screamed when you reached the middle!"
"It felt worse coming back than going," said Diana, brushing her skirt, which had suffered considerably. "Somehow I minded it more. Well, it's over now! We'd better be getting on, hadn't we?"
"Yes, indeed; the others will think we're lost," agreed Geraldine.
The t-r-r-ee-ee of the whistle was sounding from the far distance, so the girls made a spurt and hurried along to catch up the rest of the party. Geraldine, in virtue of her office as head prefect, briefly explained to Miss Todd the cause of the delay.
"I shouldn't have let you do it, Diana, if I had been there," said the Principal. "But I've no doubt the little boy's mother is blessing you. We should have had to take him to Pendlemere with us, and have sent somebody from the village to take him home. There would have been no other way. Remember, though, that I'm responsible for you to your parents, and I really can't allow these harum-scarum tricks. Suppose there had been an accident!"
"Dad knows me, and he wouldn't have blamed you," said Diana cheerily. "He says I'm like a cat with nine lives, or a bad halfpenny that always turns up again. I've done worse things than this."