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Authors: Angela Brazil

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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."

CHAPTER V

Diana Dares

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."

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