Betty Gordon at Boarding School/Chapter 16

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CHAPTER XVI


THE NUTTING PARTY


To the boy's surprise Bobby, who was usually aloof and liked to tease him, squeezed his arm surreptitiously.

"You're a dear!" she told him enthusiastically.

"Girls are a queer lot," the dazed youth confided to Bob, as they went back to their quarters. "Here I handed over my coat to that Norma Guerin and gave her the flower I'd been saving for Bobby, just to pay Bobby back for being so snippy to me over at school. And she calls me a dear and is nicer to me than she's been in months!"

Bob briefly outlined something of the Guerin history, for Betty had told him of the lost treasure in her hurried note, and hinted his belief that the girls had very little money in comparison to Shadyside standards.

"Shucks—money isn't anything!" was Tommy's answer to the recital, with the easy assurance of a person who has never been without a comfortable competence. "They're nice girls, and we'll pass the word that the boys are to show them a good time."

As a result, when after the conclusion of the game, the girls and Miss Anderson were ushered upstairs into the cozy suite of rooms the cadets occupied, Norma and Alice found themselves plied with attentions. Miss Anderson poured the hot chocolate and made friends with the shy Sydney Cooke, who had been dreading this visit all the afternoon. Indeed his chums had threatened to lock him in the clothes closet in order that they might be sure of his attendance.

Winifred Marion Brown, in addition to his ability as a checker player, was a good pianist, and he obligingly played for them to dance. The piano belonged to the Tucker twins. Norma and Alice were "rushed" with partners, and they quite forgot their clothes in the enjoyment of dancing to irresistible music.

Libbie had brought a book of poems for Timothy Derby, who solemnly loaned her one of his in exchange. This odd pair remained impervious to all criticisms, and certainly many of those voiced were frank to the point of painfulness.

"But their natures can not understand the lyric appeal," said Libbie sadly. Her English teacher moaned over her spelling and rajoiced in her themes.

Finally Miss Anderson insisted they must go, and the bouquet of flowers on the tea table was plucked apart to reveal nine little individual bouquets, one for each guest.

"Good-bye, and thank you for a lovely party," said Miss Anderson gaily.

"Do you know?" blurted Teddy Tucker, "you're my idea of a chaperone! Most of 'em are such dubs and kill-joys!"

Which tactful speech proved to be the best Teddy could have made.

A week of small pleasures and hard study followed this "glorious Friday afternoon."

Bobby, for a wonder, remembered her promise of good behavior, and by herculean effort managed to be on the "starred" list for the Saturday set aside for the nutting expedition.

"We'll go after lunch," planned Betty. "Miss Anderson says if we strike off toward the woods at the back of the school we ought to come to a grove of hickory nut trees."

The eight girls, ready for their tramp, came in to lunch attired in heavy wool skirts and stout shoes and carried their sweaters. Ada Nansen glanced complacently at her own suede pumps and silk stockings.

"It's hard to tell which is really the farmer's daughter to-day," she drawled. "Perhaps we all ought to assume that uniform out of kindness."

Ada sat at the table directly behind Norma, and not a girl at either table could possibly miss the significance of her remarks. Their import, it developed, had been plain to Miss Lacey who, on her way to her own table, had overheard. Miss Lacey was a quiet, rather drab little woman, misleading in her effacement of self. She knew more about her pupils than they often suspected.

"Ada," she said quietly, stopping by the girl, "you may leave the table. If you will persist in acting like a naughty little six year old girl, you must be treated as one."

Ada flounced out of her chair and from the room. Her departure created a ripple of curiosity. It was most unusual for a girl to be dismissed from table, and had Ada only known it, she had drawn the attention of the whole school to herself.

Miss Lacey went on to her seat, without a glance at the flushed faces of Norma and Alice.

"Some day," said Bobby furiously, "I'm going to throw a plate at that girl!"

"No, you're not," contradicted Betty. "Then Mrs. Eustice would rise up and send you from the room and you'd feel about half the size Ada does now. For mercy's sake, don't descend to anybody's level—make 'em come up to fight on yours."

They were all glad to get through the meal and find themselves outdoors. It was a perfect autumn day, warm and hazy, and the red and gold of the leaves showed burnished from the hillside. They tramped rather silently at first, and then, as the tense mood wore off, their tongues were loosened and they chattered like magpies.

"Here's a tree!" shouted Louise and Frances, who were in the lead.

When they had picked all the nuts on the ground, Bobby essayed to climb the tree. She made rather sad work of the effort, for a shag-bark hickory is not the easiest tree in the world to climb, and after she had torn her skirt in two places and mended it with safety pins, she gave up the attempt.

"Let's walk further," she suggested. "We'll mark our trail as we go like the Indians."

This idea caught the fancy of the girls, and they marked an elaborate trail, building little mounds at every turn and leaving odd arrangements of stones to mark their passing.

"Come on, I'll race you," shouted Bobby suddenly. "I feel just like exercising."

Betty wondered what she called the scramble through the woods, but she, too, was ready for a run. They set off pellmell, laughing and shouting.

"Look out!" shrieked Betty, stopping so suddenly that Libble and Louise fell against her. "Look! I almost ran right into it!"

She pointed ahead to where the ground fell away abruptly. A great chasm, like an angry scar, was cut through the earth, and on the side opposite to the girls a steep hill came down in an uncompromising slant.

"What a dandy hill for coasting!" ejaculated Bobby. "Let's come up here this winter. We can steer away from this hole."

"That's no hole," said Norma Guerin, in an odd voice. "That's Indian Chasm. And it's miles long."

Betty stared at her. She had thought Indian Chasm many miles away.

"I didn't realize we had walked so far," said Norma, apparently reading her thoughts. "But I know I am right. Here are the woods and the steep hill, just as grandma has described them a hundred times. This is Indian Chasm."

The girls looked at her curiously. Betty had not told them the story, believing that Alice and Norma should have that sole right. Now Norma rapidly sketched the outlines for them and they listened breathlessly, for surely this true story was more thrilling than any piece of fiction, however highly colored.

"I never heard of anything so romantic!" was Libbie's comment.

To which Bobby retorted with cousinly severity:

"Romantic? Where do you see anything romantic in a band of Indians scalping a peaceful white family?"

"Oh, Bobby!" protested Norma, laughing. "They didn't scalp grandma. They stole everything she had."

"And is all that stuff down there now?" asked Constance Howard, round-eyed. "Perhaps if we look we can see something."

There was a concerted rush to the chasm's edge, and the eight girls plumped down flat on their stomachs, determined to see whatever there was to be seen.

The sides of the earth fell away sharply, down, down. Betty shouted, and the empty echo of her voice came back to her.

"The ground's so shaly and crumbly," she said thoughtfully, "that it would be impossible to let a man down with a rope—the earth would cave in and bury him."

"I think I see a diamond," reported Libbie. "Don't you see something glittering down there?"

"Can't even see the bottom," said Bobby curtly. "Much less a diamond. Oh, girls, to think of those valuables at the bottom of a chasm like this and none of us able to think up a way to get 'em out."

"Well, lots of people have tried," said Alice reasonably. "If grown-up men couldn't salvage 'em for grandma, I guess it's nothing to our discredit that we can't get them."

"We might push Libbie in," suggested Bobby wickedly. "Then she could tell us how deep it is."

This had the effect of sending Libbie scurrying away from the dangerous place, and the others followed her more slowly to resume the search for nuts.

"I wish we could think of a way, Norma, dear," said Betty.

"Oh, I don't care—not so very much," answered Norma bravely. But then she sighed deeply.