An Easter Pilgrimage

The thirteen weeks between Christmas and Easter dragged much more slowly than those of the autumn term. The weather was cold and variable. As fast as Spring stirred in the earth, Winter seemed to stretch forth chilly fingers to check her advent. Nature, like a careful mother, kept the buds tightly folded on the trees and the yellow daffodil blossoms securely hidden under their green casement curtains. Only the most foolhardy birds ventured to begin building operations. The rooks in the elm trees near the Abbey had begun to repair their nests during a mild spurt in January, then put off further alterations till late in March. Morning after morning the girls would wake to find the roofs covered with hoar frost. Ingred, who hated the cold, shivered as she crossed the windy quadrangle from the college to the hostel, and congratulated herself that she lived in the days of modern comforts.

“How the old monks and nuns managed to exist in those wretched chilly damp cloisters I can’t imagine,” she said, as she squatted by the stove warming her hands. “Were they allowed to take hot bricks to bed with them in their cells? Think of turning out for midnight services into an unwarmed church! It sounds absolutely miserable!”

“Perhaps they made themselves more comfortable than we think,” commented Verity. “One of them probably kept up the fire and doled out hot drinks after the services. It might even have been possible to take a hot-water bottle to church under the folds of those ample habits.”

“I don’t believe that would have been allowed. Surely the cold was part of the discipline.”

“I shouldn’t have been a nun if I’d lived in the Middle Ages,” said Fil. “I’d have wanted to go to the tournaments and to have seen my knight fighting with my ribbons in his helmet and bringing me the crown. Oh, wouldn’t it have been fun? Life’s not a scrap romantic nowadays. I do think men are slackers. Why don’t they wear their ladies’ colors at football, and let whoever gets a goal carry a wreath of flowers to the pavilion and crown his girl ‘Queen of Beauty’? There’d be some excitement in looking on then. As it is it’s nothing but a scrimmage; and I never care a button which side wins. You needn’t laugh. Why shouldn’t a footballer look gallant and present trophies? The world would jog on a great deal better if there were more chivalry in it.”

“The girls want to play games themselves nowadays instead of looking on and receiving trophies,” giggled Verity.

“I don’t!” declared Fil emphatically. “I hate tearing about at hockey, or running at cricket. I’d far rather let my knight do the work for me.”

“Chilly work looking on in this weather. The games keep one warm,” said Ingred, who was still only half thawed.

In spite of boisterous March winds and late spring frosts the sun climbed steadily higher in the sky and the days lengthened. Ingred, who used to arrive home in the twilight at Wynchcote on Friday afternoons, could now dig in the garden after tea. She liked the scent of newly-turned earth, and was happy working away with a trowel transplanting roots of wallflowers and forget-me-nots to make a display in the bed near the dining-room window. At school the various forms vied with one another in shows of hyacinths grown in bowls, the best of which were lent to the studio on drawing days and figured as models for watercolor sketches, together with daffodils and hazel catkins. Lispeth, who did not relax the activities of The Rainbow League, revived her idea of a Posy Union, persuaded some of the girls to bring little pots of gay crocuses or blue squills to school, and after these had been duly exhibited on a table in the lecture-hall, sent them through the agency of a “Children’s Welfare Worker” to brighten the bedsides of various small invalids in the poorer quarters of the town and let them know that spring had arrived.

Eastertide was very near now, and the school would break up for three weeks. Miss Burd was going away to allow her tired brains to lie fallow for a while, and most of the other teachers were looking forward to a well-earned rest apart from their forms. It came as a surprise to everybody when Miss Strong⁠—alone⁠—among the staff⁠—suggested the project of taking some of her pupils for a short walking tour. They were to start off, like pilgrims of old, carrying with them the barest necessaries, and have a four days’ tramp to visit a few of the beauty spots of the neighborhood, spending a couple of nights en route.

“It will be a real open-air holiday,” she assured them. “We shall be out of doors all day long and eat most of our meals by the roadside. I’ve planned it out carefully. A short railway journey to Carford, then walk by easy stages through Ryton-on-the-Heath to Dropwick and Pursborough, where we can get the train again back to Grovebury. I know of two extremely nice Temperance Hotels where we can be put up for the night. By going in this way we shall see the cream of the country. Any girl who is a good walker may join the party.”

It certainly sounded a fascinating program, and after due consideration at home eight girls put their names down for the excursion⁠—Ingred, Verity, Nora, Bess, Linda, Francie, Kitty, and Belle. They felt it would be quite a new experience to know Miss Strong out of school hours; the light in her eyes when she announced the scheme gave promise of hitherto hidden capacities for fun. It circulated round the form that she might prove quite a jolly companion. Those girls who could not join the tour were a trifle wistful and inclined towards envy. They took it out of the pilgrims in gloomy prognostications concerning the weather.

“It will probably rain all the time and you’ll tramp along like a row of drowned rats,” suggested Beatrice.

“It won’t do anything of the sort. I believe we’re going to have a fine mild spell and it will be just glorious. I’m taking my ‘Brownie,’ so there’ll be some snapshots to show we’ve been enjoying ourselves,” retorted Nora briskly. “You stay-at-homes will be sorry for yourselves when you hear our adventures!”

To allow the weather ample chance of improvement, and perhaps also to give Miss Strong time to rest, the excursion was fixed for the last week of the holidays. One morning in mid-April, therefore, found teacher and pupils meeting together on the platform of Grovebury station to catch the 9:25 train to Carford. They wore jerseys and their school hats, and they carried their luggage according to their individual ideas of convenience. Linda wore her little brother’s satchel slung over her back. Nora had borrowed a knapsack, Kitty preferred a parcel, Verity packed her possessions in a string bag, and Bess carried a neat dispatch-case.

“I’d a ripping idea for mine, but it wouldn’t work,” declared Ingred. “I meant to tie my parcel to a balloon and then just lead it along by a string. But I couldn’t get a proper gas balloon for the business, and that’s what you ought to have.”

“And suppose the wind were to blow it away from you, what then?” inquired Miss Strong.

“I suppose I should have to cable it round my waist.”

“Then you might be whisked up with it, and we should see you sailing off into the clouds in a kind of aeroplane holiday instead of a walking tour! I don’t think we can patent your balloon dodge yet.”

“What I want,” said Kitty, “is a sort of child’s light mail-cart arrangement that I could wheel along. It’s what Mother always says she needs for shopping⁠—a parcel-holder on wheels. Why doesn’t somebody invent one? He⁠—or she (I’m sure it would be a she)⁠—would make a fortune.”

“We might have borrowed a perambulator,” said Belle, quite seriously, “and have packed all our luggage into it.”

“Oh, I dare say! And who would have wheeled it?”

“We could have taken it in turns.”

“With long turns for the willing horses, and short turns for shirkers! No, thanks! Better each to stick to our own.”

“Besides which, forget stiles. We hope to try some field paths as well as high roads,” added Miss Strong. “Also I should decidedly have jibbed at escorting a perambulator. Here comes the train! Let us make a dash for an empty carriage and keep it to ourselves.”

It was only a short journey to Carford, but it took them over twelve rather uninteresting miles and put them down just at the commencement of a very beautiful stretch of country where open uplands alternated with wooded coombes, and where the stone-roofed villages were the prettiest in the county.

Miss Strong, who had had some experience of mountaineering in Switzerland, restrained the pace and kept them all at what she called a “guide’s walk.”

“It pays in the long run,” she assured them. “If you tear ahead at first, you get tired later on, and we must keep fairly well together. I can’t have some of you half a mile behind.”

The April days were still cold, but very bracing for exercise. Lambs were out in the fields, primroses grew in clumps under the hedgerows, hazel catkins flung showers of pollen to the winds, and in the coppice that bordered the road pale-mauve March violets and white anemone stars showed through last year’s carpet of dead leaves. There was that joyful thrill of spring in the air, that resurrection of Nature when the thraldom of winter is over, and beauty comes back to the gray dim world. The old Greeks felt it, thousands of years ago, and fabled it in their myth of Persephone and her return from Hades. The Druids knew it in Ancient Britain, and fixed their religious ceremonies for May Day. The birds were caroling it still in the hedgerows, and the girls caught the joyous infection and danced along in defiance of Miss Strong’s jog-trot guide walk. Even the mistress herself, so wise at the outset, finally flung prudence to the winds, and skirmished through the coppices with enthusiasm equal to that of her pupils, lured from the pathway by the glimpses of kingcups, or the pursuit of a peacock butterfly.

“All the same, if we tear round like small dogs, we shall never reach Dropwick tonight, and I’ve booked our rooms there,” she assured them. “You don’t want to sleep on the heather, I suppose!”

“Bow-wow! Shouldn’t mind!” laughed Kitty. “We could cling together and keep each other warm.”

“You won’t cling to me, thanks! I prefer a bed of my own.”

Nora, having brought a good supply of films for her Brownie camera, was most keen on taking snapshots. She photographed the company eating their lunch on a bank by the roadside, with Miss Strong in the very act of biting a piece of bread and butter, and Ingred with her face buried in a mug. She even went further. She had been reading a book on faked photography, and she yearned to try experiments.

“I’m going to give those stay-at-homes a few thrills,” she declared. “I told them we’d have adventures.”

Nora expounded her plan to Miss Strong, who was sufficiently interested in the subject to promise her collusion and good advice. A mock Alpine scene came first. Nora had brought with her, for this express purpose, a length of rope, which she wore around her jersey like a Carmelite’s girdle. She took it off now and fastened it round the waists of three of her schoolfellows, linking them together in the manner of Swiss mountaineers. Then she found a piece of rock on which were narrow ledges, and, with the help of Miss Strong, posed them in attitudes of apparent peril. Really, they were only a couple of feet from the ground, and a fall would have been a laughing matter, but in a camera they appeared to be clinging almost by their eyelashes to the face of an inaccessible crag and in imminent danger of their lives. Nora took two views, and chuckled with satisfaction.

“That’ll make their hair stand on end! I’ll fix a few more sensations if I can. Who’s game to run six inches in front of a mild old cow’s horns, while somebody urges her on from behind?”

“How will you guarantee she’s mild?” inquired Bess dubiously. “She might take it into her head to toss us!”

“Not she! It was only the ‘cow with the crumpled horn’ that went in for tossing.”

“Well, I’d rather be in a safer photo, thanks! I’m terrified of cows, anyway.”

Nora’s instincts were really quite dramatic. She photographed Bess crouching in the hollow of a tree, an imaginary fugitive, to whom Francie, in an attitude of caution, handed surreptitious victuals. She posed Linda, apparently lifeless, on the borders of a pond, with Kitty and Verity applying artificial respiration. She bound up Ingred’s head with a handkerchief, and placed her arm in a sling as the result of a fictitious accident, and would have arranged a circle of weeping girls round the prostrate body of Miss Strong, had not that stalwart lady stoutly objected.

“I’m not going to do anything of the sort, so put up that camera, and come along at once. We’ve wasted far too much time already, and we shall have to step out unless we want to finish our walk in the dark. I promise you tea at Ryton-on-the-Heath, if you hurry, but we can’t stop half an hour there unless you put your best foot foremost, so, quick march!”