The Rivals

This book does not propose to extol an ideal heroine, only to chronicle the deeds and thoughts of a girl, who, like most other girls, had her pleasant and her disagreeable moods, her high aspirations and good intentions, and her occasional bursts of bad temper. Ingred had been very passionate as a child, and, though she had learnt to put on the curb, sometimes that uncomfortable lower self would take the bit between its teeth and gallop away with her. It is sad to have to confess that the enjoyment of her walking tour was entirely spoilt by an ugly little imp who kept her company. In plain words she was horribly jealous of Bess. Ingred liked to be popular. She was gratified to be warden of “The Pioneers” and a member of the School Parliament. She felt she had an acknowledged standing not only in her own form but throughout the college. Her official position, her cleverness in class, her aptitude for music, her skill at games, made her an all-round force and a referee on most subjects. There is no doubt that Ingred would have had the undivided post of favorite in her form had it not been for Bess Haselford. Not that Bess was in any way a self-constituted rival⁠—on the contrary she was rather shy and retiring, and made no particular bid for popularity. Perhaps that was one reason why the girls liked her. She was generous in lending her property, invited her form-mates to charming parties at Rotherwood, and often persuaded an indulgent father to include some of her special chums in motoring expeditions on Saturday afternoons. She had, indeed, taken up the exact role that Quenrede had played years ago, before the war, and which Ingred would have followed had Rotherwood and a car still been in the Saxons’ possession. In spite of several overtures from Bess, Ingred had thrust away all idea of friendship, and had steadily refused any invitations to her old home. The reports which the girls brought back of the renewed glories of Rotherwood made her feel like a disinherited princess. She considered it rough luck that her supplanter should be at the same school and in the same form as herself, and decided that Bess had ousted her from both house and favor. It made it only the more aggravating that Bess’s musical talent was quite equal, if not superior, to her own. Bess had improved immensely on the violin, and her performance at the end-of-term recital had received quite a little ovation.

When the question of the walking tour was broached, Bess, owing to home engagements, had at first reluctantly refused, then had managed to rearrange her holidays and had joined the party after all. To Ingred her presence utterly marred the enjoyment. It was extremely unreasonable of Ingred, for Bess was most unassuming and really very long-suffering. She put up with snubs that would have made most girls retaliate indignantly. Nobody likes to be sat upon too hard, however, and even the proverbial worm will turn at last.

As the walking party, much urged by Miss Strong straggled along towards Ryton-on-the-Heath, Bess made a lightning dive up a bank and came back with a blue flower plainly of the Labiate species.

“Bugle!” she remarked with satisfaction.

“Bugle?” echoed Ingred scornfully. “Shows how much you know about botany! That’s self-heal!”

“Oh no; it’s certainly bugle.”

“I tell you it’s self-heal. I found some at Lynstones last August and looked it up in the flower-book.”

“Very likely you did, but that doesn’t prove that this is self-heal.”

“It does, for anybody with a pair of eyes. I’ve been studying botany.”

“And so have I!”

“You may think you know everything, Bess Haselford, but you don’t know this.”

“I didn’t say I knew everything; but I’m certain this is bugle all the same, and I stick to it!”

Bess’s usually sweet voice had an obstinate note in it for once. She seemed determined to defend her botanical trenches.

“Go it⁠—hammer and tongs!” laughed Kitty. “I’ll back the winner!”

“And I’ll take the case into court,” said Linda, snatching the flower from her schoolfellow’s hand and running on to show it to Miss Strong, who was an authority on the subject.

The mistress paused to let the others overtake her.

“Bugle, certainly,” she decided emphatically. “The first bit we’ve found this year. It’s out early. Self-heal? Oh dear no! The two are rather alike and are sometimes mistaken one for another, but no botanist would dream of confusing them. Bugle is a spring and early summer flower, and self-heal blooms much later. Make a note in your nature diaries that you found bugle on 15th April.”

Considerably squashed, Ingred had for once to acknowledge her botany to be at fault, and, though Bess did not triumph, Francie gave Kitty a poke and the pair giggled.

“Well, of course, one can’t be always right,” said Ingred airily.

“So it seems; though some people set themselves up for wiseacres!” sniggered Kitty.

Ingred fell behind with Verity and let the others walk on. It was only a trifling incident, but she was annoyed to notice how openly and instantly the girls had sided with Bess. She felt too glum for speech, and as Verity was tired and disinclined to talk, they tramped along in silence.

They had been winding steadily uphill for some miles and were now on the heath from which Ryton took its name. The ground fell steeply to the west, showing glimpses of a great river in the valley below, where the still-leafless woods had burst here and there into faint tokens of spring. Beyond the river rose the characteristic grey hills of the neighborhood, with their stone walls and sheepfolds and stretches of moorland, looking a little hazy in the afternoon light, but with patches of yellow gorse catching the sunshine. Ryton was a delightful little village. Its cottages, built long ago by local craftsmen, seemed absolutely in harmony with the landscape: walls, dormers, and mullions and long undulating roofs were all of limestone and conveyed an impression of sturdy self-respect. The rain-worn, lichen-covered roofs had weathered to charming irregularities of form and lovely tones of color. Ivy and clematis climbed over the porches and twisted themselves round the low chimneys. The little gardens were bright with daffodils, mezereon, and flowering currant.

To the girls, somewhat tired and decidedly hungry, the main focus of the village was a long iron post which stretched out over the street and supported a rudely-painted sign of a bird, whose species might have been a puzzle to an ornithologist but for the words “Pelican Inn” that appeared beneath it.

In the long-ago days before railroads, the little hostelry had been a stopping-place for stagecoaches, and a wooden board still set forth that it supplied “Posting in all its branches.” The landlord would no doubt have been much dismayed if any wag had entered and demanded a chaise and post-horses to drive to Gretna Green, and a shabby motor in his stable-yard showed that he marched with the times.

Miss Strong, on consulting her watch, decided that her party might safely indulge in a halt of half an hour, and ordered tea for nine persons. The inn, built on a type common in the district, was entered by an archway leading straight into a courtyard. A door on the right led to the bar, and a door on the left to the coffee-room. To this latter more aristocratic quarter Miss Strong conducted her pupils. Some of them had never before been in a small village hostelry, and were much amused at the quaint old parlor with its sporting prints, its glass cases of stuffed squirrels and badgers, and its horsehair-seated chairs with crochet antimacassars hung over the backs. The atmosphere was certainly rather redolent of stale beer and tobacco, but a bunch of crimson wallflowers on the table did their best to spread a pleasant perfume. The tea, when, after much delay, it arrived, was delicious. The Pelican was a farm as well as an inn, and the rosy-faced servant girl carried in cream, fresh butter, and red-currant jam to the coffee-room. She apologized for the absence of cake, but it was an omission that nobody minded. Upland air gives good appetites, and, though Miss Strong reminded her flock that this was only a meal by the way, and that supper was ordered for them at Dropwick, they set to work as if they would taste nothing more till midnight. There was something so delightfully fresh and out of the common in having tea at a wayside inn; they felt true pilgrims of the road, and civilization and school seemed to have faded into a far background. The love of travel is in the blood of both Celt and Anglo-Saxon; our forefathers visited shrines for the joy of the journey as well as for religious motives, and maybe our Bronze Age ancestors, who flocked to the great Sun Festivals at Stonehenge or Avebury Circles, derived pleasure from the change of scene as well as a blessing from the Druids. The Romans, those great pioneers of travel, had opened out the district eighteen centuries ago, and laid a straight, paved road from Wendcester to Pursborough; the remains of their fortified camps and of their villas were still left to mark their era. The foss-way, leading from Ryton-on-the-Heath to Dropwick, was their handiwork, and our pilgrims were to march on the identical track of some old Roman legion.

It must be owned that when tea was finished they were very unwilling pilgrims, and would gladly have spent the night at The Pelican and have slept in the funny, musty, low-ceiled little bedrooms upstairs.

“Couldn’t we possibly stop here?” implored Verity.

But Miss Strong, having booked rooms in Dropwick, was adamant.

“Besides which I wouldn’t trust the beds here,” she remarked. “So early in the year they’re almost bound to be damp, and we don’t want any of you laid up with rheumatic fever as the result of our trip. I prefer to give a wayside inn a week’s notice if I mean to sleep there in April. Nobody has had enough coal during the winter to keep fires going in spare bedrooms. That front room was as chilly as a country church! You won’t feel so tired, Verity, when you’re on your feet again, and it’s all downhill to Dropwick.”

The Temperance Hotel, where the girls finally stayed their weary feet, was quite modern and unromantic, though well aired and fairly comfortable. Ingred, whom the fates had placed to sleep with Nora, had a trying night, for her obstreperous bedfellow had a habit of flinging out her arms, and of appropriating the larger half of the clothes, leaving poor Ingred to wake shivering. Also, the bed sloped towards the middle, so that both girls had to poise themselves on a kind of hillside, and were constantly rolling down and colliding. These troubles, however, were only incidental in the Pilgrimage, and certainly might have been worse.

On comparing notes at breakfast nearly everybody had had similar experiences. Miss Strong confessed to a patent mattress with a broken spring jutting up in the center, round which she had been obliged to lie in a curve. Linda and Francie had slept near the water-cistern, which alarmed them with weird noises, and Bess and Kitty, trying to open their window wider, had found it lacked sash-cords, and descended like a guillotine, sending the prop that had upheld it, flying into the street. Though they groused at the time, the girls laughed as they discussed these details over the eggs and bacon. The sun was shining and they felt rested, and quite ready once more to shoulder their kit and set out on the march.

There was nothing of very great interest to see in Dropwick itself, though it was a quaint enough old-fashioned market-town, with a fifteenth-century church tower, and a few black and white houses. Miss Strong decided not to waste any time there, but to push on as fast as possible across the hills to Sudbury, where there was a fine Romano-British villa that was well worth a visit. So the foss-way took them up, and up, and up, through fir-woods where the new cones were showing like candles on Christmas trees, and alongside a quarry where they pounced upon some quite interesting fossils in the heaps of stones by the road, and over a craggy weatherworn peak, where, again, they caught the magnificent view of the valley and the river and hills beyond. Then down again, through more fir-woods, where the timber was being felled, and great tree-trunks lay piled in rows one above another, and past banks that were a dream, with starry blackthorn blossom and primroses growing beneath, to where the crossroads met and the signpost pointed an arm to Sudbury.

The Romans might take their roads straight as an arrow across moor and hill, but they chose out the beauty spots of the land on which to build their villas, and were careful to fix upon a southern aspect and shelter from the prevailing winds. The remains of the old settlement lay behind a farm, and had been carefully excavated by a local antiquarian society. Visitors applied at the farmhouse, entered their names in a book, paid their admission money, and were escorted round by a guide.

Time, and successive conquests, had demolished the greater part of the villa, but its foundations and some of the old brick walls could be plainly traced. The great bath, that indispensable feature of a Roman establishment, could still be seen, with its beautiful tesselated pavement, inlaid with mosaics of doves, cupids, and designs of fruit and flowers. The heating system also, with the leaden pipes and remains of furnaces, was a testimony to the civilization of the period, and the amount of comfort that the legions brought with them into their foreign exile. A large shed had been fitted up as a museum, and held a number of objects that had been dug up during the excavations. The girls, poring over the glass cases, looked with interest at a Roman lady’s silver hand-mirror, toilet pots, and tiny shears that must have been the early substitute for scissors. More fascinating still were the toys from a little child’s grave, small glass bottles, roughly-made animals of clay, and a carved object that no doubt had been at one time a treasured doll, though now it was crumbling into dust.

Among the pile of broken statues or fragments of ornamental stonework in the corner was a monumental tablet, cracked across in two places, but pieced together for preservation with iron rivets. The inscription ran:

D.M. Simpliciæ Florentinæ Animæ Innocentissimæ quæ vixit menses decem. Felicius Simplex Pater fecit. Leg. vi, V.

(To the Divine Shades. To Simplicia Florentina, a most innocent soul, who lived ten months. Felicius Simplex of the Sixth Legion, the Victorious, the father, erected this.)

Some of the girls glanced at the tablet, and the English translation of the inscription which lay near, and turned away without much notice. But Ingred stood gazing at them with a catch in her throat. They brought a whole pathetic human story to life again. She could picture the noble Roman father, leader of the victorious legion, sent over from Italy and making his home here in a conquered foreign land, as our officers do in India, and bringing with him his lady with her Roman customs and her slaves. Those few brief words⁠—“a most innocent soul who lived ten months”⁠—told the tragedy of the cherished little daughter whose frail life faded in the fogs of the British climate about eighteen hundred years ago. Hearts are the same all the world over, and the pretty dark-eyed Roman baby must have been laid to its rest with as much grief and sadness as the fair-haired darlings whom British mothers sometimes bury in Indian soil.

“It’s a sweet name, too⁠—Simplicia Florentina!” mused Ingred. “I wonder what she would have grown up like. And what her history would have been! I’d give worlds to know more about her!”

“Aren’t you coming, Ingred?” called Verity from the doorway. “Miss Strong says we ought to be getting on now.”

Ingred brought her thoughts back with an effort to the twentieth century, and joined the waiting party outside. Miss Strong was talking to their guide, who was describing a shortcut across the fields that would save them several miles on their way to Pursborough.

Verity, after calling to her friend in the museum, had run out. Ingred followed her, to find her with her arm locked closely through Bess’s. There was no reason why she should not display such a mark of affection, but to Ingred it seemed little short of an insult to herself. Verity, her particular chum, to have openly gone over to the enemy! She stared at her in surprise. Verity did not appear to notice the stare, however, and walked on quite calmly.

Miss Strong had decided that they should find a quiet place along the lane where they could eat their lunch before beginning the second part of their march. She fixed on a lovely spot with a high wooded bank at the back and in front fields that sloped to the river. There were specks of yellow in these fields, and Kitty who finished her sandwiches first, ran to inspect nearer and reported cowslips. Instantly most of the girls went scrambling over the stile.

Miss Strong, who had bought picture-postcards of the Roman villa, and was addressing them with a stylo-pen, did not follow the exodus. She called to Ingred, however, who was last.

“Warn the girls,” she said, “not on any account to go into that meadow where there is a horse with a young foal. The guide at the farm said it is a savage beast and will attack people. Be sure to tell them all!”

“I’ll run after them now,” answered Ingred, calling “Cuckoo!” to attract their attention.

She told Belle and Linda and Verity, who were near to the stile, and Linda passed the news on to Francie and Kitty. Bess was quite a long distance down the field, gathering blackthorn from the hedge.

“I’m not going to tear all that way after her!” thought Ingred crossly. “Verity will be sure to tell her. They seem inseparable today. Besides which nobody’s particularly likely to go into that other meadow. There are plenty of cowslips here.”

It took Miss Strong a much longer time to write her postcards than she had originally intended, and while she was thus employed her girls spread themselves out in quest of flowers. It is always amazing when you start rambling in company with others how quickly you can find yourself alone. By the time Ingred had gathered a fragrant, sweet-smelling bunch and looked round for somebody to admire it, her schoolmates were gone. She hunted about for them, and noticed Verity’s green jersey and Kitty’s brown tam-o’-shanter in the wood above. Surely they must all be up there together.

She was just going to follow, when a qualm of conscience seized her. She had not delivered Miss Strong’s message to Bess, and it would perhaps be as well to ascertain that the latter had not strayed unwarned into the danger zone.

“It’s not at all likely,” Ingred kept repeating to herself, as she walked briskly along the meadow to the fence. “I’m really only going on a wild goose chase.”

Likely or unlikely, it was the very thing which had happened. The cowslips on the other side of the railings were larger and finer, and Bess, having no fear of horses, had climbed over and wandered some way down the field. Only about twenty yards from her the lanky foal was gambolling round its mother, a big draught mare, cropping the grass innocently enough at present, and apparently not perceiving trespassers.

If Bess could retreat quietly and unnoticed from the field all might be well. Ingred did not dare to call for fear of attracting the mare’s attention. If Bess would only turn round she might wave to her. But Bess kept her back to the fence and had no idea of danger. There was only one course open to Ingred. She slipped over the railings and went along the meadow to warn her schoolfellow. In a few quiet words she explained the situation.

“Don’t run,” she whispered. “Let us walk back and perhaps it will take no notice of us.”

The girls went as softly as possible, looking over their shoulders every now and then to see that all was safe. Of bulls they had a wholesome terror, but they had had no previous experience of a savage horse.

They were about fifteen yards from the railings, when the mare, which hitherto had been feeding quietly, raised her head and lumbered round. She saw strangers in her territory; her primeval instinct was to protect her foal, and she came tearing across the field with wild eyes and lip turned back from gleaming teeth. The girls fled for their lives. It was a question of which could reach the railings first, they or the dangerous brute whose huge hoofs thundered behind them. Ingred, who was the taller and the stronger of the two, seized Bess by the hand and literally dragged her along. Together they tumbled over the fence somehow and rolled down the bank into the safe shelter of some gorse bushes. For a moment they were afraid the mare would leap after them, but the height of the rails balked her; apparently she was satisfied with routing the enemy and returned across the field to her foal. The girls, with shaking knees, got up and hurried towards the lane where they had left Miss Strong.

“You’ve saved my life, Ingred!” gasped Bess, as they went along.

“No, I haven’t!” choked Ingred. “At least, it was my fault you ever went into the field at all. Miss Strong told me to tell you the horse was savage, and you were such a long way off picking cowslips that I didn’t trouble to go after you. I trusted to Verity telling you.”

“Verity ran the other way with Kitty.”

“I know. Well, at any rate, it was my fault and I’m ready to take the blame. Precious row I shall get into with the Snark!”

“Why should we say anything about it?”

“Not say anything?”

“There’s really no need. It’s over and done with now. I don’t want to get you into a scrape. I vote we just keep it to ourselves.”

Ingred paused, with her hand on the gate, and gazed with unaffected astonishment at her companion.

“Bess Haselford, you’re the biggest trump I’ve ever met! It’s only one girl in a thousand who’d want to cover up a thing like that. Most people would make such a tale of it, and pose as an injured martyr whom I’d nearly murdered. I’m sure Francie would, or even Verity.”

“You put yourself into danger to come and warn me!”

“Well, it was the least I could do!”

“Let’s forget about it then. And don’t tell any of the girls, in case they blab. It would make Miss Strong so nervous, she’d be scared about our going into any fields for ever afterwards.”

“Right-o, I won’t tell, but I shan’t forget. As I said before, I think you’re the biggest trump on the face of the earth.”

“Cuckoo!” rang out Linda’s voice from the bank.

“Where are you girls?” shouted Miss Strong from the lane.

“Coming!” called Ingred, as she latched the gate and hurried with Bess to rejoin the rest of the party.