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CHAPTER X A HURRIED HOMEWARD HIKE
Not until she was well out of sight of the Heights did Blanche slacken her pace. Panting from her mad dash down the road, which followed the lake, though high above it, she came to a halt and paused to take breath. After a moment or two of rest, she made for the side of it. Extracting the vanity case from her blouse, she opened it and took from it a bit of paper, which had been folded many times to fit into its limited quarters. Spread out, it revealed itself as a sheet of extremely thin note paper covered with writing. At the bottom of the sheet a small diagram had been drawn, which Blanche studied intently, glancing from time to time about her as though to verify the directions marked upon it. Snapping the vanity case shut, she returned it to her blouse and, paper in hand, started on down the road at a brisk trot which even athletic Ruth Garnier could hardly have improved upon.

Meanwhile, the unsuspecting company of forest worshippers were blithely tramping along through the woods, pausing frequently to exclaim over some bit of woodland wonder that, for the moment, claimed their admiring attention. Each was bent on identifying some tree, bush, bird or even weed, peculiar to the locality, and hitherto known only to them through books devoted to Nature study. Correct identifications of these forest denizens meant a proud addition to honors already gained. As an authority on the flora and fauna of that region, Miss Drexal was continually appealed to for confirmation.

Noon found them perhaps three miles into the wilderness. They had endeavored to steer a direct northerly course, frequently consulting the compass Ruth carried, which still obligingly pointed due north. Their progress had been most leisurely, for they were not concerned as to the amount of ground they covered. With so many interesting sights to see, they preferred to go slowly and thus miss nothing worth while.

The wrist watches, which most of the girls wore, showed half past twelve when they halted for luncheon in a tiny natural open space between the trees, within sight of a small but noisy brook which chattered complainingly as it rushed along over the stones.

The site chosen was an ideal spot for loitering, and the amateur foresters hailed it with shouts of gleeful acclamation.

“It seems good to see the sun again,” commented Sarah, squinting gratefully up at the sunlight that poured generously down from between the giant trees, which formed a leafy wall about the little enclosure.

“I love the sun, but oh, you eats!” trilled Frances, casting a loving eye upon the hamper that Anne and Betty had just set upon a convenient flat rock. It being their only burden, the Equitable Eight had taken turns carrying it, having laughingly barred their hostess-guide from playing porter.

“You think more about eating than about Nature study, Frances Bliss,” accused Jane with a lofty indifference to the pangs of hunger, which were at that very moment assailing her.

“Can you look me squarely in the eyes and say you are not starved, Jane Pellew?” was the severe retort, as Frances marched over to her pet diversion, thrusting her mischievous face within a few inches of Jane’s.

“No, I can’t, you ridiculous person,” Jane’s lofty expression vanished in a half-vexed laugh. “Still, I am too polite to mention being starved unless I’m forced to do it.”

“You really mean that you lack simple frankness, Plain Jane,” translated Frances gently. “You may be polite, and occasionally frank. I can readily recall several such occasions, though I prefer not to dwell on them publicly. But I am always frank. It was my extreme frankness as a mere infant which induced my fond parents to name me Frances. Frankness and Frances are synonymous. Do you catch the beauty of the synonym?”

“Take her away,” begged Jane of the laughing listeners. “She gives me the headache.”

“Let’s condemn her to hard labor. Make her unpack the hamper,” sentenced Betty, firmly seizing the talkative synonym of frankness by the arm. Jane lost no time in grasping her tormentor’s other arm. Protesting volubly, Frances was conducted to the hamper. Then the avenging duo encountered a snag.

“You can drag an Equitable Eighter to a hamper, but you can’t make her unpack it,” jeered the victim of force.

“Oh, yes we can,” confidently assured Jane. “You make one arm go, Betty, and I’ll work the other.”

Thereupon followed a bit of by-play that sent the interested onlookers into shrieks of laughter. Frances was possessed of not only a will of her own, but corresponding strength as well. She put forth no effort to free herself; her arms simply refused to move in accordance with the will of her propellers. In fact, they flourished in every direction except hamperward, causing those of her captors to flourish unwillingly with them.

“No use, Jane,” gasped Betty. Weak with laughter she relaxed her hold. “She’s a second Sandow. I’d rather unpack the hamper twice over than keep this up.”

“The world is mine!” orated the triumphant conqueror, cheerfully waving the arm that Betty gladly dropped. “I feel like the Brave Little Tailor in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, who vanquished seven at one blow. Plain Jane, you may spend the next week of your young life embroidering me a girdle bearing that lovely legend.”

“You’re a brave little nuisance,” scathingly commented Jane. “You’ll wait a long time for that girdle.”

“How can I win her approbation?” murmured Frances. “Ah, I have it! I will unpack the eats and feed her a sandwich.”

“You will not.” Jane beat a prompt retreat as Frances made an energetic attack upon the hamper. Snapping up the fateful sandwich, she pursued the fleeing object of her mischievous intentions in and out among the trees, leaving her amused companions to busy themselves with the task she had begun only to abandon.

It was a very merry group that presently gathered about the tablecloth, laid on the mossy ground, and covered with a variety of eatables, best suited to picnicking. Frances’ nonsense had only served to heighten the atmosphere of good humor which had prevailed from the starting out of the expedition. Luncheon finished, they strolled over to the little brook to watch its hurried progress over the greenish-brown stones, and to dabble their hands in its clear waters.

“Why, what has become of the sun?” was Ruth’s cry. After loitering for half an hour by the rock, they had returned to the spot where they had lunched to recover the hamper and go forward again. Along the banks of the little stream the trees grew thickly, seeming almost to arch overhead. In consequence, they had failed to note Old Sol’s gradual disappearance behind a bank of bluish-gray clouds until, back in the open space, Ruth now called concerned attention to it.

Miss Drexal raised anxious eyes to the threatening cloud bank. “It doesn’t look promising, girls,” she declared uneasily. “I am not sure what those clouds mean. We sometimes have dreadful wind storms in this region. We had best about-face and make for the cottage. These clouds may pass; again they may not. It is almost three o’clock now. Should it begin to rain and rain steadily, it would be anything but pleasant in these woods.”

With no impeding luggage save the now light hamper, the return journey through the forest was begun within three minutes after Miss Drexal had sounded her warning call to march. This time there was no stopping by the way. All realized the importance of reaching shelter before a storm of either wind or rain or both should descend upon them. Thus far, there was little wind, yet as they proceeded, a faint but ominous rustling of leaves overhead told them that the wind was rising. The fact that it did not increase as they hurried along served somewhat to still their fears.

Apprehension returned full force during the last half mile. The portending rustle gradually grew into a profound sigh, as though the very leaves on the trees had united in protest against the rough tactics which the wind was rapidly adopting.

“We’re off our course,” called Ruth, consulting the compass. “Not much but a little. We must have strayed through being in such a rush to get home. We were going directly south when last I looked; about twenty minutes ago.”

“Let me see.” Miss Drexal halted and scrutinized their surroundings. “It’s all right,” she encouraged. “I know where we are. We shall come out of the woods about a quarter of a mile below the Heights, on the road to the village. Forward march, children. It won’t be long until we are there. We must try to escape the rain.”

“Follow your leader,” ordered Ruth cheerfully, catching Emmy’s arm as she rushed her playfully forward. Miss Drexal now ahead as guide, the two girls swung along directly behind her.

“Hurrah!” Emmy sang out joyfully. Through the trees she had glimpsed the road for which they were making.

“O-h-h!” a howl of anguish went up from the rear, causing the registrar to whirl and hasten in the direction of the sound. It proceeded from unlucky Jane, whose feet had unwarily wandered into the meshes of a fondly-clinging vine. Her wail had ascended as she descended, full force, upon her face.

Before Miss Drexal had reached her, she had regained her feet and stood sputtering angrily at the unfeeling Frances who had laughed so hard as to be unable to assist her fallen comrade.

Emmy turned and took a few steps toward Jane. Ruth was about to follow her when the purr of an automobile, dashing along the near-by road, attracted her attention. She obtained a good look at the driver, a dark, thin-faced young man, bending far over the wheel. His companions she merely glimpsed, as the machine flashed by, yet that one glimpse brought a soft “Oh” of dismay to her lips. Glancing quickly about, she was relieved to note that her friends had evidently paid no attention to the passing of the automobile. They were still busy with Jane. By the time they turned and came up with her, Jane still sputtering at the grinning Frances, who was endeavoring to lead her along, the automobile had disappeared around a curve in the road.

“Safe!” exclaimed Anne dramatically. “We are out of the woods at last.”

“Safe nothing,” disagreed Sarah. “I just felt a raindrop on my head. There’s another!” she cried as a big drop splashed upon a broad-leafed weed in front of her. “We’d better run for it.”

Her advice promptly heeded, the party set off pell-mell over the narrow strip of weed-grown ground that sloped gently down to the road. Up the road the race for shelter continued, Ruth and Frances well in the lead.

“Look out!” Ruth’s warning rang out just in time to scatter the runners as the same automobile she had so recently seen tore down upon them. This time the driver was alone. Like a flash he dashed by them, looking neither to the right nor left.

Only the fact that the rain was now beginning to come down in earnest deterred the ruffled hikers from holding forth wrathfully then and there. Bottling their caustic opinions of reckless motorists until a more convenient season, the homeward flight was continued. Rounding the curve, beyond which stood the cottage, every pair of eyes picked up a blue-clad figure fleeing across the lawn toward the front door.

“There’s Blanche!” called out Anne. “She has her hat on. She must have gone walking and got caught in the rain.”

“Do her good,” muttered Jane.

Bent on gaining cover, no one else took time to comment upon the girl just disappearing into the cottage. Nevertheless one of them had received a most unpleasant shock, and that one was Ruth Garnier.


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