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CHAPTER IX AN ENERGETIC INVALID
“What is the pleasure of the Equitable Eight?” Hardly had Blanche’s footsteps died away when Miss Drexal plunged briskly into the programme for the day. It was with secret relief that the eight young women turned their attention to a pleasanter subject. Though only one of them had taken an active part in the disagreement with Blanche, they all felt embarrassed that such a state of affairs had leaped up on their first morning at the Heights.

“We are in the hands of our hostess.” Emmy made a graceful little gesture of deference. “The question is, what would you like us to do, Miss Drexal?”

“Suppose we go picnicking in the woods, just back of the cottage,” proposed their hostess. “I wish you to begin early to get acquainted with them. My sister and I have explored them for perhaps five miles in a northerly direction. Now that we are strong in numbers, we can go deeper into them. It will give us practice in trail blazing. We can pack a luncheon, start in an hour from now, and spend the day as good explorers, keeping in mind that we must start back in time to reach the Heights by sunset.”

“That will be splendid,” glowed Ruth. “Ever since I first saw those woods, I’ve been longing to go into them.”

“Is it perfectly safe for us to tackle them without a guide?” asked Anne timidly. “I’ve read ever so many blood-curdling tales of people who got hopelessly lost in northern forests, and had all sorts of horrible adventures.”

“But we don’t intend to get lost,” stoutly declared venturesome Jane, always ready for the unexplored. “All we have to do is to blaze a proper trail, and keep together. When folks get lost in the woods, it’s generally because they stray away from one another. It would be hard to lose this noisy crowd.”

“These woods are not dense enough to warrant getting lost. In the past few years, the lumbering business has served to cut away a great deal of the timber up here. Later on, we shall take to the woods with an Indian guide, whom I know, to look out for us. I have planned a trip to Vermilion Lake. It lies about a hundred miles from here. We will go by train to Tower, a town situated on the lake. Our guide will meet us there, and show us some real forest country. We shall be away for at least two weeks, and sleep under tents. Does that please you?”

The jubilant cries which arose at this announcement gave signal proof of the pleasure of the eight girls. The alluring prospect of the trip was doubly enhanced by the promise of a real Indian guide.

“What is the name of our guide, Miss Drexal?” eagerly inquired Ruth.

“His name is Blue Wolf. He is a Cheyenne, and his grandfather was a famous Cheyenne chief. He lives in a lodge about twenty miles from here, and spends most of his time hunting and trapping in Canada. He was a firm friend of my father’s, who once nursed him through a long illness when they were both young men. He swore allegiance then to my father, and has ever since been a faithful friend to our family. He is a quaint person, middle-aged but so strong and rugged he looks almost like a young man. He is very proud, and dignified, with little to say. When he does talk, his English is rather broken. He is quite easily offended, so you had best treat him with a certain amount of respect. Taking a party of girls on a camping trip will be a new experience for him. I had some difficulty in persuading him to promise his services. It was only to please a Drexal that he consented.”

“We shall have to practice beforehand,” asserted Frances gleefully. “Jane, you may be Blue Wolf, and we will pose as your respectful admirers. You can say ‘How’ when you are pleased with us, and ‘Ugh’ when we don’t come up to your expectations. You can wear one of those striped portieres, that hang in the living room door, for a blanket, and I will thoughtfully pluck a few feathers from that big duster in the kitchen and make you a head-piece. Won’t that be nice?” Frances was captivated by the cleverness of her own idea, and smirked patronizingly at her selected victim.

“I’ll do nothing of the kind,” balked Jane. “Wear your own blankets and feather dusters! They’ll become you better than me.”

“I doubt it,” retorted Frances with a droll significance, that brought a reluctant grin even to Jane’s face.

“If we are going on a hike this morning, we’d better be making ready,” reminded practical Betty. Unconsciously, her eyes strayed to the doorway, through which Blanche had lately disappeared.

Reading their expression aright, Miss Drexal rose from her chair. “I will tell Blanche,” she said. “Ruth, will you go to the kitchen, and ask Martha to pack the luncheon at once?”

“May I help her!” pleaded Marian. “That is, if you think she won’t mind.”

“Oh, let me help, too!” cried Emmy.

“She will be glad of your help,” smiled the registrar, secretly pleased both at Marian’s thoughtful request, and Emmy’s readiness to be of service. Marian was a girl after her own heart. As for Emmy, she marveled at the steady effort toward usefulness that the once indolent French girl was daily putting forth. At no far distant date, she foresaw that both young women could lay just claim to the high office of Torch Bearer.

The session ended in a grand scurrying in all directions to make ready for the hike. Miss Drexal climbed the stairs to the room, which she and Blanche were occupying. She had taken Blanche under her wing for wise reasons of her own. Betty, Anne and Jane shared one room; Emmy, Ruth and Marian another. Sarah and Frances claimed a smaller sleeping chamber at the end of the hall. As there were but four upstairs rooms in the cottage, this had been the only possible arrangement. It was highly satisfactory to all concerned, save Blanche Shirly. Privately, she considered it a cross, rather than an honor, to share a room with Miss Drexal. She would have preferred being with Ruth and Marian. To her, they were the least to be feared of the eight girls. She flattered herself that she could wind them around her finger.

Miss Drexal paused to rap at her own door, which was closed, and waited until Blanche’s indifferent, “Come in” bade her enter. “We have decided to go on a picnic in the woods,” she said. “We shall start as soon as possible. Can you be ready within the next half hour?” Noting that Blanche was still wearing her blue negligee, the registrar saw fit to set a limit to the time of preparation.

Seated at a small desk, and evidently at work on the letter which had formed her excuse for leaving the living room, Blanche swung about in her chair, her glance not entirely friendly. Her tone, however, was plaintively sweet as she said: “I am all tired out from walking so far yesterday. Shall you mind if I don’t go with you to-day? Besides, I really ought to finish this letter to Mamma. She will be so worried until she hears from me.”

“Do just as you think best, Blanche,” Miss Drexal said kindly. “I would be glad to have you go, but shall not urge you to do so, against your own wishes. Martha will be here, so you will have someone in the cottage with you. When the man comes with the trunks, you can send your letter to the village by him. Otherwise, you will have to walk to the nearest house along the Rural Free Delivery Route, three miles from here. If you have other letters to write, I would suggest that you write them, and have them ready for him.”

“Thank you. I believe I will. There are one or two other letters I ought to write. I am going to spend the day getting rested. I am anxious to go bathing in the lake, and take long walks. But I have to be careful not to overdo. I am not very strong.”

“What you need most of all, Blanche, is to begin at once to lead a free, out-door life. A few more hikes, such as yesterday’s, and you will not complain of feeling tired. It should not take you long to complete your elective honors for becoming a Wood Gatherer.”

“Oh, I expect to do that,” emphasized Blanche. “That was one reason I was so glad to come up here.” Blanche neglected to state that it was a minor reason.

“As soon as you have won them, I will call a Council Fire, and initiate you as a Wood Gatherer.” Miss Drexal was determined on one point. Blanche must be offered every chance for self-improvement. The recent scene in the living room had shown her that, thus far, the Camp Fire movement had done little for the arrogant, self-opinionated girl, who had caused her so much annoyance while at Hillside.

“As I am ready for our walk, I will leave you,” she said pleasantly. “I will speak to Martha about luncheon for you. We shall not be back until sundown.”

Blanche made a face at the registrar’s trim, serge-clad back. She was still pouting, because Miss Drexal had not taken sides with her against Frances. Left alone, she hastily finished her letter, addressed an envelope and prepared it for mailing. Then rising, she went to the door, opened it an inch or so and listened intently. Running steps on the stairs caused her to close it noiselessly. She was still within a foot of it when someone knocked.

Tiptoeing to the middle of the room, she called a languid, “Come.”

Ruth entered with an impulsive, “I am sorry you’re not going on the picnic, Blanche. Shall I stay here with you?”

“Oh, no, indeed! Don’t think of such a thing. Go ahead and enjoy yourself. I’ll be all right.” Consternation prompted Blanche’s refusal of Ruth’s companionship. Inspiration caused her to next say: “Ruth, would you mind giving this letter to Martha? Tell her to ask the trunk man to mail it in Lakeview. I’m thankful I had my trunk shipped straight here from home. I won’t need to see the man, or be disturbed by having a trunk banged into the room. Please tell Martha that I don’t care for any luncheon. That will save her the trouble of getting it ready. I have a headache. I am going to lie down and sleep, if I can. I just want to be let alone. You are so nice about such things. You can explain to her, without making her mad. You’d better speak to her just before you start, or else she may tell Miss Drexal that I said I didn’t want any luncheon. It will worry Miss Drexal, and I don’t care to do that. You see, I am trying not to be a bother to anyone. You know how you’d feel about it yourself.”

“Of course.” Blanche’s sudden thoughtfulness toward others rather surprised Ruth. She wondered if, hitherto, she had misjudged the other girl by privately believing her selfish. “I’ll speak to Martha,” she promised. “It’s nice in you to be so thoughtful. You are sure you’d rather I’d not stay with you?”

“Perfectly sure. I hope I’m not so selfish as to let you make a martyr of yourself for me. It was sweet in you to offer to. Now run along, or the girls will be coming up here. I’d rather not see them just now. I was so hurt this morning. It has really made me feel ill.”

“I was sorry—” began Ruth.

“Please don’t.” Blanche held up a protesting hand. “I know you weren’t to blame. Let’s not talk of it.”

“Very well; we won’t,” assured Ruth. “I must go. Good-bye until to-night.”

“Good-bye.” Blanche shrugged mocking shoulders as Ruth vanished. Silently her lips formed the word “Goose!” Cautiously reopening the door, she resumed her listening attitude. No one else came upstairs, however, to express regret for leaving her at the cottage. Soon afterward, the sound of gay voices outside the Heights notified her that the picnickers were about to start on their jaunt. Slipping into the hall, she went cat-footed to a window at its rear, and, concealed by the curtain, watched them swing off toward the forest.

Before they were out of sight, she turned and ran lightly to her room. Her languor dropping away like a cloak, she hastily pulled off her negligee, and began getting into her Camp Fire uniform at top speed. Sitting down on the edge of her couch bed, she made short work of drawing on and lacing her high tan boots. Springing up, she snatched her soft white felt hat from the wardrobe, and going to the mirror, set it carefully on her thick auburn hair. Seizing a powder puff, she applied it to her face, then picking up a tiny gold vanity case from the dressing table, tucked it inside her blouse.

Silently leaving the room, she crept down the staircase, casting an anxious glance down the hall toward the kitchen. From it floated Martha’s deep voice, raised in cheerful song as she ambled about at her work. Blanche made a noiseless dash out the front door, and ran like a deer in the direction the party had taken from the village on the hike of the previous day. For one who claimed the need for rest, Blanche Shirly was behaving in a very peculiar fashion.


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