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CHAPTER XVIII A DISGRUNTLED EXPLORER
An hour of decidedly slow progress convinced the wayfarers that they were not likely to accomplish the crossing of the island in a whole afternoon, not to mention doing it by three o’clock. It was a rough and rocky course that they had elected to travel, though the untamed beauty which they encountered at every step fully repaid them for the effort it entailed. Blazing their trail required continual stopping. Then, too, there was so much to see and wonder at. Had Blue Wolf been with them, his stoical patience would have been sorely tried. He would not have relished halting his march every two minutes while his charges went into raptures over what he had always taken for granted.

At half past two Miss Drexal called her flock together for a brief rest. “We won’t have time to go any farther, girls. Suppose we take it easy for fifteen minutes, then start back. We’ve done very well, I think, all things considered.” She glanced smilingly about at the bevy of girls. Each was carrying some trophy wrested from the woods. Anne and Emmy were laden with huge bunches of long-fronded ferns. Betty had found a deserted wasp’s nest—a queer, grayish looking affair. She had spied it hanging to a low limb of a tree, and secured it by poking it down with a long stick. Frances and Sarah had kept an open eye for fungi, of the smooth, creamy sort, on which they proposed to draw pictures. Marian rejoiced in the possession of a mammoth bunch of young wintergreens. Jane had devoted herself to accumulating long trails of green squaw berry-vines, dotted thickly with eatable scarlet berries. Ruth, however, had captured the prize. Quite a way back, while wandering a little distance off the trail, she had noticed a curious rock formation that jutted straight out and overhung a little hollow about ten feet below. About to go closer to examine it from above, she had prudently stopped to survey the prospect before attempting it. Deciding that it would be rather risky, she was about to turn away when she spied among a heap of loose stones close to her feet a flint arrow-head. Elated by her find, she snatched it up in a hurry, and ran back to show it to her friends, who were much impressed by it.

Blanche alone was empty-handed. She had set herself strictly to trying to carry out her unkind design, and had been given no opportunity to do so. Miss Drexal’s injunction against straying had blocked her plan to drop behind the others. Every few moments during the march, the registrar had turned to cast an anxious eye over her charges to see that none were missing.

In consequence, Blanche had been obliged to keep up with the others, which did not suit her at all. She had not given up all hope, however, of carrying out her plan. On the return trip, she would wait until they came near to the outcropping rocks where Ruth had picked up the arrowhead. She would lag behind under pretense of tying her shoe. By watching her chance, she might be able to approach them from below, crawl back under them and conceal herself. Perhaps Miss Drexal would be too busy following the blazings on the trees to notice her absence. Certainly, the girls wouldn’t trouble themselves about her. They cared nothing for her, and she cared still less for them. If they did miss her, then they would have the pleasure of hunting her until she chose to reappear.

All in all, it was a very senseless proceeding, but Blanche was too strongly bent on discomfiting others to realize the utter folly of it. Stalking grimly along at the tail of the procession, she took a morbid enjoyment in merely contemplating the trick she was about to play.

Fortune apparently decided to favor her. When at last the party reached a spot a few rods to one side of the shelving rocks, Miss Drexal again halted them for a breathing spell.

“Oh, look!” exclaimed Jane. “Right over there is the place where Ruth found the arrow-head. I’m going to see if I can find one, too.”

“So am I,” declared Frances. “May we, Miss Drexal? We’ll come right back.”

“Don’t be gone long, then,” stipulated the Guardian. Her consent was hardly given when the two raced off to the left, where the top of the ledge was just visible, rising above the surrounding green.

Frowningly, Blanche watched them go. As usual, Jane Pellew had provokingly interfered with her plans. At that very moment, the sudden upward flapping of a convention of crows startled by Frances and Jane, set all eyes gazing after them in an opposite direction. Like a flash, Blanche saw her chance and seized it. Making a swift, noiseless dash toward a rioting clump of bushes, she crouched behind it. The group still had their backs turned toward her. Bending low, she ran on down a kind of natural path that wound around an elevation of which the shelving rocks formed a part.

She had not made her escape unobserved. The first to take her gaze from the flapping, wildly-cawing crows, Ruth had turned just in time to catch a glimpse of an auburn head as it disappeared from view. The very fact that Blanche had slipped away without saying a word pointed to but one thing. Out of sheer perversity, she had chosen to disregard Miss Drexal’s order, and started off alone to sulk in solitary grandeur. In her present mood, she was likely to go on and on, and end by actually getting lost. Alarmed by the possibility, Ruth’s conscience stabbed her sharply. Unjust to herself, she felt that she was to blame for what had happened at the spring. Now, all she could do was to steal away, and coax Blanche to come back before her absence had been noticed. Ruth worked her way quietly to the edge of the group gathered about the registrar. The latter was deep in regaling her absorbed audience with the tale of a pet crow which she had owned as a child.

“My father caught him and had his tongue slit, so that he was able to talk quite a little. He could say many words and a few short sentences. I named him Sambo and—”

At this point Ruth took noiseless leave, so stealthily and swiftly that a darting backward glance showed her that she had made a successful get-away. She would have preferred to say boldly that she was going. That, however, would have called undue attention to Blanche’s peculiar behavior—something which Ruth wished to avoid. If they returned very shortly together, nothing would be said further than, “Where did you go?” or a casual equivalent.

Now screened from sight by the surrounding green, Ruth sped along the same path Blanche had taken. She presently rounded the base of the hill and came abreast of the rocky ledge. Pausing for an instant, her glance roved anxiously about in an effort to pick up the runaway. She was still nowhere to be seen. Suddenly Ruth’s lips formed an “Oh!” Back under the ledge, she had spied a gap in the rocks that much resembled a cave. For the moment, curiosity blotted out the remembrance of her quest. Approaching the aperture, she examined it wonderingly. It was easily large enough for her to step into, provided she ducked her head on entering. Fearlessly, Ruth poked her head inside it. How dark it was! Did it end abruptly in a wall of solid rock? Perhaps it went on in an underground passage. Possibly long ago, when the Indians warred against the whites and each other, it had served as a refuge. She had often read of such queer underground hiding places. A great longing to see more of it overpowered her. With a soft little laugh, she stooped and stepped into it.

“It’s certainly dark enough here,” she commented aloud. “I wonder—” Her cogitations broke off in a sharp little scream as she stumbled against something that drew away from her feet with a vigorous flop. In the same instant, a cross voice cut the gloom of the cave: “Look out. You nearly stepped on my hand!”

“Why, Blanche Shirly!” came the amazed cry. “I was just looking for you. I didn’t expect to find you in here, though. I happened to notice this hole in the rocks, and wondered if it was a cave. I suppose you noticed it, too, and thought the same.”

“I don’t see why you should be looking for me,” was the acid response, “especially after what you said this morning. Go away and let me alone! Why I’m here is none of your business.” From a crouching position, Blanche now sprang angrily erect.

“But you can’t stay here,” remonstrated Ruth. “Miss Drexal will wonder already what has become of us. She doesn’t know I came after you. I am truly sorry about this morning. I wish you’d forgive and forget it. Can’t we begin over again? You can’t really believe that I told Jane anything that I had promised you to keep secret.”

“I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could see you,” flashed Blanche, bent on being obstinate. “Go on back to your dear friends, who think you are so wonderful. Too bad they don’t know what a hateful, deceitful girl you are! I’ll leave here when I get ready, and not before.”

“How can you—” Ruth’s expostulation was suddenly drowned by an ominous rumble from above. Came a dull, reverberating roar, a pelting hail of dirt and stones, a terrific, explosive crash; then utter blackness and silence.


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