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CHAPTER XI THE REVOLT OF RUTH

“We certainly missed one grand ducking,” crowed Jane. “Just listen to that!”

Gathered in the living room, the foresters had good reason for self-congratulation. Not more than ten minutes had passed since their run to cover, yet in that short interval, the shower had increased to driving sheets of rain that lashed furiously against the window panes. Above the beating of the rain, the wind whistled and roared about the sturdy little cottage, as though determined to tear it from its foundations.

“I’d hate to be back in the woods now with this storm going on,” shuddered Betty. “That wind is strong enough to send the trees crashing down.”

“We are lucky to have escaped it,” said Miss Drexal. “I would advise you girls to go upstairs and change your damp clothing. Then you will run no risk of catching cold. I am going to take my own advice and do so at once.”

“I hope that horrid man that nearly ran us down gets a good wetting,” grumbled Sarah.

“He wasn’t a man. He was only a crazy boy,” jeered Jane.

“I’d like to know where he came from so suddenly,” remarked Betty. “I wonder if he lives somewhere near here.”

“He drove his car up the road just as we came out of the woods,” informed Ruth. “Didn’t any of you see him then? It was at the very minute when Jane fell down.”

“You couldn’t expect us to bother with a little thing like an automobile when our Jane had come to grief,” smiled Anne. “I never even heard it.”

“Nor I,” chorused several voices.

For reasons best known to herself, Ruth was not sorry to hear this.

“He couldn’t have gone much further than the cottage, or he wouldn’t have come back so soon,” argued Betty. “He certainly didn’t stop at the Heights, or Martha would have mentioned it when she told us about the drayman bringing our trunks.”

“I don’t see why he should stop here,” declared Jane. “We don’t know him and he doesn’t know us.”

“The Mystery of the Mad Motorist; or Why, Where and When,” supplied Frances gaily.

“Very likely he was afraid of the storm, and decided to turn back,” suggested practical Betty, bent on clearing up the mystery.

“Why bother our heads over a silly boy who hasn’t any notion of speed laws?” laughed Marian. “Let’s think of our own precious selves, and go upstairs for a grand change of costume. Blanche has certainly beaten us to it. She didn’t stop to compare notes with us.”

“That’s so. I’d forgotten about seeing her come in just ahead of us. I wonder where she had been.” Mention of Blanche had aroused Jane’s curiosity. “She must have—” Jane stopped. She had been on the point of saying that Blanche must have forgotten all about being tired.

Sarah giggled faintly. She had guessed the rest of the speech to be satirical, hence Jane’s reason for chopping it off so abruptly. Ruth cast the sharp-tongued girl an approving glance, which Jane caught and understood.

“Come, girls.” Miss Drexal moved toward the hall.

Arrived in their rooms, the hikers lost no time in changing their slightly damp clothing for simple house gowns, substituting pumps and slippers for their cumbersome high tan boots.

The Guardian found Blanche, already arrayed in a pale blue linen gown, seated before the dressing-table rearranging her auburn hair in the elaborate coiffure she always affected.

“I thought I would go for a walk,” she began hurriedly, before Miss Drexal had time to make a remark. “I had no idea it was going to storm. I was hurrying for the cottage when you and the girls came up the road. I was tired of just sitting around doing nothing,” she added, as though feeling it incumbent upon her to explain her movements.

“I am glad you went. It was fortunate you didn’t walk far,” replied Miss Drexal, smiling. She was secretly pleased to find that her languid guest had been about and stirring. Her advice to Blanche, before starting on the walk, had evidently borne fruit. At once busying herself with her own dressing, she failed to observe the curious expression of relief that lurked in Blanche’s eyes as she studied the other woman intently for an instant, then turned to the mirror.

Before Miss Drexal had completed her change of gown, Blanche rose and walked to the door. “I am going to Ruth’s room,” she announced. She was bent on getting away, lest the registrar should ask questions which she could not truthfully answer. She preferred not to commit herself to anything which might afterward involve her in a mesh of difficulties.

Admitted to Ruth’s room by Emmy, she found the three girls had begun the overhauling of their steamer trunks.

“It’s a good thing for us these trunks came,” congratulated Marian. From a kneeling position before her own, she looked up and nodded brightly. “What time did they get here, Blanche?”

This being one of the very questions Blanche was trying to evade, it stumped her for an instant. Quickly rallying, she drawled, “I’m not sure. While I was asleep, perhaps, or maybe while I was out walking. I didn’t ask Martha. I—well—I haven’t seen her since this morning.”

“Didn’t you have any luncheon?” Emmy turned abruptly from the chiffonier drawer, which she was filling with the soft silk blouses she usually wore in preference to the heavy white middies.

“No. I didn’t want any. I—that is—Martha understood she needn’t get me any luncheon.”

“You must be hungry by this time,” observed Marian. “Never mind, it will soon be dinner time. Jane and Frances are the cooks to-night. I hope Martha can hear herself think.”

“Will you sit down, Blanche?” Thus far Ruth had refused to look at the caller. Her eyes fixed steadily on the tray of her trunk, she was wondering dejectedly what she ought to do.

“No, thank you.” Deep in her own problem, Blanche failed to mark the note of constraint in Ruth’s voice. “Would you mind coming to my room, Ruth?” She had made a swift resolve to ask Ruth to find out from Martha when the trunks had arrived; also if the latter had kept strictly away from her door, and what she had said about the message Ruth had delivered. It would be easy to further impress on Ruth that it was necessary to know these things in order to keep secret her pretended consideration toward Miss Drexal.

“I’ll be with you in a minute.” Unwittingly, Blanche had opened to Ruth the way she dreaded and yet felt was the only right one. Her pleasant face set in determined lines, Ruth turned from her trunk and followed Blanche to the door.

Emmy shot a curiously speculative glance after the two as they disappeared. She wondered what now ailed finicky Blanche. Marian placidly continued her unpacking. She was not concerned by the request for a private session with Ruth.

“Did you give Martha my message? What did she say?” They were hardly in the hall when Blanche began her questioning.

“She didn’t like it very well.” Ruth had decided not to be too hasty. It was just possible that Blanche intended to offer a satisfactory explanation of what Ruth had privately observed. “She said she didn’t like to go against Miss Drexal’s orders. I repeated what you said about not caring to worry Miss Drexal, and saving extra work. Then she said, ‘All right,’ but that she would have to tell Miss Drexal to-night. I said it wouldn’t matter then, because—”

“You shouldn’t have said that! It matters a good deal!” Vexation robbed Blanche of caution. They had now reached her room and entered.

“Why?” Ruth swung the door shut, and faced her companion, her usually placid features alive with accusation.

“I didn’t want her to know. That’s all. Why—what’s the—matter?” Blanche began haughtily enough, but ended by stammering. Ruth’s stern expression sent a chill to her heart.

“That is not all,” Ruth grimly contradicted. “I’m glad you asked me to come here. Still, I should have come anyway to ask you to explain a number of things.”

“What do you mean?” Blanche tried to pretend amazement.

“You know very well what I mean.” Ruth made an impatient gesture. “Why pretend that you don’t? You’ve deceived me from the very start, but you can’t do it any longer. I saw you this afternoon in the automobile that passed us—”

“Where were you when you—” With a gasp Blanche checked herself, looking the picture of guilt.

“Where was I when I saw you?” Ruth smiled wryly. “I was standing at the edge of the woods when the machine went along the road. We came out of them about a quarter of a mile below the cottage. Jane fell down. The rest of the girls and Miss Drexal went back to her. It was then I saw you. No one else even noticed the automobile. Of course, we all saw you running toward the cottage. The girls thought nothing of that. There’s just this much about it, Blanche, you owe me a full explanation. You’ve got to begin at the very first of this affair, and tell me every single thing about it.”

A note of passionate resentment had crept into Ruth’s voice. The humiliating knowledge that she had served as a cat’s-paw to Blanche had struck deep. Her sturdy soul revolted against the very idea of it. Now she was resolved to learn the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Further, she would not leave the room until she had learned it.


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