An Unpleasant Experience

The girls filed out from the hockey ground as speedily as possible. There was a train due from Grovebury in about a quarter of an hour. They walked to the station in groups, discussing details of the match as they went. Ingred, Beatrice, and Verity happened to be blocked at the exit by the Clintonian team, and were obliged to wait some minutes before they could pass, and when at last they were through the gate, all their own schoolfellows were disappearing up the road.

“We needn’t run after them⁠—I believe we’ve plenty of time,” said Verity. “We can almost see the station from here. I say, aren’t you fearfully hungry? I’m literally starving. Let’s find a confectioner’s and each buy a bun before we go.”

Both Beatrice and Ingred felt that they required fortifying before they started for home, so they dived into the nearest pastry-cook’s and demanded buns. They were eating them rather hastily, when Linda Slater entered the shop in company with a gentleman, evidently her father. She hailed her classmates, and at once began to talk over the match and rejoice at the school victory.

“Who says we’re no good at games now? This has sent up our credit ten percent! I’m proud of the Coll.!”

“Blossom was A1,” exulted Verity.

“And Janie was simply ripping. Dad thought no end of her. Didn’t you, Dad?”

“Well, I’m glad we made something of a record,” admitted Ingred.

“I say,” declared Beatrice, hastily finishing her bun, “if that clock’s right, we must bolt for our train.”

“As a matter of fact, it’s one minute slow,” exclaimed Linda, consulting her watch. “You’ll have to sprint.”

“Aren’t you coming?”

“No, we have our car here. It’s outside.”

“Those girls will hardly catch their train,” remarked Mr. Slater to Linda, as the three went to the pay desk to settle for their buns. “Couldn’t we stow them into the car, and take them along with us?”

“Oh, no, Dad!” frowned Linda. “There really isn’t room. You promised you’d call at Brantbury and bring Gerald and Eustace back for the afternoon. We couldn’t cram them all in the car!”

“There isn’t time for them to get the train.”

“Oh, yes! You don’t know how they can run!”

Quite unaware of the kindly offer which had been rejected on their behalf, Beatrice, Verity, and Ingred fled from the shop, and hurried with all possible speed in the direction of the railway station. They could see the train coming along the top of the embankment, and it had drawn up at the platform before they reached the passenger entrance. They were not the only late comers. It was Saturday, and a crowd of work people from various factories near were returning to Grovebury.

In company with a very mixed and motley crew they pushed their way up the long flight of steps. A collector stood at the top, and just as they were nearing their goal, he slammed the gate and refused further admission to the platform. They could hear the whistle, and the general bumping of chains that betokened the starting of the carriages. They were exactly half a minute too late! When the train was well out of the station, the collector once more opened his barrier, and the crowd surged on. The three girls, who disliked pushing among a rough assembly, stood on one side to let the people pass by. There was no hurry now, and no object to be gained by forcing their way ahead. Last of all, therefore, they presented themselves at the gate.

“Tickets, please!” repeated the collector automatically.

All three felt in their pockets, but felt in vain. Return tickets and purses were alike missing, and even penknives and handkerchiefs had vanished, Ingred’s pocket, indeed, was neatly turned inside out. Here was a dilemma! They had evidently been robbed on the stairs by a professional thief, who had appropriated all their portable belongings. In utter consternation they looked at one another.

“We’ve lost our tickets!” faltered Beatrice.

“They’ve been stolen!” added Ingred.

“Do please let us through!” entreated Verity.

In ordinary circumstances the collector would no doubt have listened to the girl’s story, and taken them to interview the stationmaster, but today he had to do double duty, and could scarcely cope with the extra work. He had to deal with crowds, and to keep a sharp eye to see that no one defrauded the railway company by travelling without paying the fare. A train was due at the next moment on the other side of the platform, and his services were urgently required at the opposite exit.

“Haven’t you got your tickets?” he demanded curtly. “Then I must close the gate. No one’s allowed on the platform without tickets.”

The advancing train whistled as it ran through the cutting, and, disregarding the girls’ remonstrances, the official locked the barrier. He bolted across the line in front of the engine, just in time to take his place at the other gateway before the rush of passengers began, and probably never gave another thought to the three whom he had just excluded. Left shut out on the top of the station steps, the unlucky trio ruefully reviewed the situation.

“What are we to do?” demanded Ingred breathlessly.

“Goodness only knows!” sighed Verity.

“We’re in a very awkward fix!” admitted Beatrice.

They were much too far from Grovebury to make walking possible.

“I wonder Miss Giles didn’t miss us!” fretted Verity, trying to throw the blame on somebody.

“It isn’t her fault⁠—fair play to her!” urged Beatrice. “She wasn’t looking after us officially today, you know. On Saturdays we’re supposed to be on our own.”

“I lay the blame on buns!” said Ingred. “We’d have kept with the rest of the school if we hadn’t stopped at that confectioner’s.”

“Well, it’s no use crying over spilt milk now! What we’ve got to do is to find some means of getting home. We can’t stay here all day.”

“I believe it’s not very far to Waverley from Denscourt,” ventured Beatrice. “If we can manage to walk, I know some people who live at a house there. I’d ask them to lend us our fares, and we could catch a train at Waverley station.”

The idea seemed feasible, and, as it was the only one that suggested itself, they unanimously decided to adopt it. They walked down the steps again, therefore, on to the high road, and, stopping a girl who was passing, asked the way to Waverley.

“It’s a good four miles by the road, but it’s only about two by the fields,” she volunteered in reply. “I think you’d find the path. You go down the road to the right, and turn through the first gate across a field to a farm. Then you keep along the river bank, on the left. You can’t miss it.”

To save two miles in their present predicament was a matter of importance, and they all felt that they would greatly prefer walking through fields to tramping along a dusty high road. Thanking their informant, they took her advice, and set off in the direction which she indicated. After all, the affair was rather an adventure.

“The Mortons are sure to offer us lunch when we get there,” affirmed Beatrice; “of course we shall be fearfully late home, and our people will be getting very anxious about us, but we can’t help that. I was to have gone to a matinée of Carmen this afternoon, but it’s off, naturally! I expect Doris will use my ticket, when I don’t turn up.”

“I meant to wash our dog when I got back!” laughed Ingred. “He’ll have to look dirty on Sunday, now.”

“And I meant to do a hundred things; but what’s the use of talking about them now?” groaned Verity. “Here’s our farm, and that appears to be the river over there. Didn’t that girl say: ‘Keep along to the left’? Perhaps we’d better ask again.”

They verified their instructions from a boy who was standing in the farmyard, whittling a stick, and trudged away over a stubble field and through a turnstile gate. It was quite pretty along the path by the river. There was a tall hedge where hips and haws showed red, and a grassy border where a few wild flowers still bloomed. The sun shed a soft golden autumnal haze over the fields and bushes and the lines of yellow trees.

The girls rather enjoyed themselves; it was an unexpected country excursion, and had all the charm of novelty. They walked about half a mile, chatting about school matters as they went, then suddenly they were confronted by an alternative. A bridge spanned the river, and the broad, well-trodden path along which they had come turned over the bridge. There was indeed a track that continued along the left bank, but it was overgrown, and looked little used. Which were they to take?

That was a question which required discussion.

“The girl said: ‘keep along the river bank on the left,’ ” urged Ingred.

“Yet the path so plainly goes across here,” demurred Verity.

“That’s certainly the left bank, but that way looks as if it led to nowhere,” vacillated Beatrice.

“Can’t we ask anybody?”

“There isn’t a soul in sight.”

“Isn’t there a signpost?”

“Nothing of the sort.”

“Then which way shall we go?”

“Better take votes on it.”

“Right-o! I’m for ‘bypath meadow.’ ”

“And I’m for the ‘king’s highway.’ ”

“So am I, so we’re two to one!”

“I’ll give in, then,” said Ingred, “only I’ve a sort of feeling we’re going wrong, all the same!”

The new path led along the opposite bank, and was very much a replica of the former. It ran on and on for what seemed quite a long distance, but they met nobody from whom they could inquire the way. For nearly a quarter of a mile a belt of trees obscured the view, and when at last the prospect could once more be seen, Beatrice stopped short with a groan of despair. On the other side of the water was the unmistakable spire of Waverley church.

“We’ve come wrong, after all!”

“Oh, good night! So we have!”

“What an absolute swindle!”

The girls were certainly not in luck that day. They had missed their path as effectually as they had missed their train. The chimneys of Waverley were in sight, but separated from them by a wide stream, and unless they were prepared to wade, swim, or fly, there was no way of reaching the village.

“There’s nothing for it but to turn back!”

“Why, but that’s miles!”

“Are you sure it’s Waverley over there? Can we ask anybody?”

“No one to ask, worse luck!”

“Yes, there is! I can see some people coming along in a boat.”

Rendered desperate by the emergency, Ingred struggled through the reeds to the very edge of the river, and lifted up her voice in an agonized cry of “Help!”

A punt was drifting slowly with the current, and its occupants, a lady and gentleman, looked with surprise at the agitated girl who was hailing them from the bank. The gentleman at once paddled in her direction, and, running his little craft among the reeds, inquired what was the matter.

“Oh, please, is that Waverley over there?” asked Ingred anxiously. “We’ve lost our way, and we’ve walked miles! Is there any bridge near?”

“That’s certainly Waverley, but there’s no bridge till you come to one a mile and a half down stream.”

Ingred’s face was tragic. She turned to Beatrice and Verity, who had joined her.

“It’s no use! We shall have to go back!”

But the lady was whispering something to the gentleman, and he beckoned to the girls with a smile.

“Don’t run away!” he said. “Look here, we’ll punt you across if you like.”

“Like!” The girls hardly knew how to express their gratitude.

“The three of you’d be too heavy a load. I think I’d better take just one at a time. Can you manage to get in? It’s rather swampy here. Give me your hand!”

Ingred splashed ankle deep in oozy mud as she scrambled on board, but that was a trifle compared with the relief of being ferried over the river. Her knight-errant was neither young nor handsome, being, indeed, rather bald and stout, but no orthodox interesting hero of fiction could have been more welcome at the moment. She tendered her utmost thanks as she landed, again with damage to her shoes, on the rushy bank opposite. Their friends in need, having successfully punted over Beatrice and Verity also, bade them a laughing goodbye, and resumed their easy course down stream, leaving three very grateful girls behind them.

“That’s helped us out of a fix! Don’t say again we’ve no luck!” cried Beatrice, wiping her boots carefully on the grass.

“They were angels in disguise!” sighed Ingred.

“Rather stout angels!” chuckled Verity. “Now, how are we going to get out of this field?”

“Over the hedge, I suppose. There’s a piece of fence that looks climbable!” returned Beatrice, swinging herself up with elephantine grace, and dropping with a heavy thud on the other side. “Oh! good biz! We’re on a cinder path!”

They were indeed in a back lane which led at the bottom of some gardens, then behind a row of stables, and finally through a gate on to the high road.

“I know where we are now!” exclaimed Beatrice gleefully. “It’s only quite a short way to the Morton’s. They live in the next terrace but two. I believe we’re within measurable distance of some lunch.”

This was such good news that they strode along in renewed spirits. Considering all, they thought the adventure was turning out well. A meal would undoubtedly be most acceptable, if Beatrice’s friends were hospitable enough to offer it.

“It’s the fourth house,” said Beatrice, “the one with the copper beech over the gate. Linden Lea⁠—yes, here we are! Oh, I say, what are all the blinds down for?”

The girls faced each other blankly.

“Is anyone dead?” faltered Ingred.

“I’ll ring and inquire, at any rate,” murmured Beatrice.

So she rang, and rang again and yet again. She could hear the bell clanging quite plainly and unmistakably somewhere in the back regions, yet nobody came to the door.

“It’s funny! I don’t hear anybody in the house either,” she remarked. “Their dog generally barks at the least sound.”

At that moment a small face peeped over the top of the wall which divided the garden from that of the next house, and a childish voice asked:

“Do you want the Mortons?”

“Yes. Isn’t anybody in?”

“They’re all gone away to Llandudno, for a month.”

“All? Isn’t anyone here?”

“No, the house is locked up.”

Here a warning call of “Willie!” caused their informant to disappear as suddenly as he had come, but the girls had heard enough. All their hopes were suddenly blighted. They had arrived at the end of their journey only to draw a blank. They were indeed in a worse position than when they had missed the train at Denscourt, for they were farther from home, and it was much later. Almost ready to cry, they turned down the garden again.

“We’ve got to get home tonight somehow!” said Ingred through her set teeth.

“Shall we go to the police station?” quavered Verity.

“And give ourselves up like lost children? No, it’s too undignified! Wait a moment, I’ve got an idea!” said Beatrice. “We passed the post office just now, and I noticed it had a ‘Public Telephone.’ I’ll ring up Mother and tell her where we are, and ask her to come over for us.”

“But you can’t telephone for nothing, and we haven’t so much as a solitary penny amongst us!”

“I know. I thought I’d explain that to the people at the post office, and ask them to let me have the call, and Mother will pay when she comes. I could give them my watch as a security.”

“It’s worth trying!”

So, with just a little grain of hope, they retraced their steps to the post office, which was also a stationer’s and newsagent’s. Nobody was in the shop, but when the girls thumped on the counter a rosy-cheeked young person appeared from the back regions.

“Want to telephone without paying? It’s against the post office rules,” she snapped, as Beatrice briefly explained the circumstances.

“My mother will pay when she comes, and if you’d take my watch⁠—”

“I can’t go against post office rules! All calls must be paid for beforehand. That’s our instructions.”

“But just for once⁠—”

“What’s the matter, Doris?” asked a voice, and a kindly-looking little man emerged from the back parlor, wiping his mouth hastily, and took his place behind the counter. Beatrice turned to him with eagerness, and again stated the urgency of their peculiar situation.

“Well, of course we’ve our instructions from the post office, and we’ve got to account for the calls, but in this particular case we might let you have one, and pay afterwards,” he replied. “Oh, never mind the watch; it’s all right!”

Beatrice lost no time in ringing up Number 167 Grovebury, and to her immense delight, when she got the connection, she heard her mother’s voice at the instrument. A short explanation was all that was necessary.

“Stay where you are at the Waverley post office, and I will get a taxi and fetch you myself immediately,” returned Mrs. Jackson. “It’s the greatest relief to know what has become of you. I was going to ring up the police station, and describe you as ‘missing!’ ”

The girls had to wait nearly three-quarters of an hour before the taxi made its appearance, and the welcome form of Mrs. Jackson stepped out of it. She paid what was owing for the call, thanked the postmaster for his civility, and hustled the girls into the conveyance as quickly as possible.

“I suppose girls will be girls,” she said, “but I think you’ve been very silly ones today! Why didn’t you keep with the rest of the school, as you ought to have done?”

“It sounds a most horrible greedy confession,” replied Beatrice guiltily, “but I’m afraid it was all the fault of⁠—buns! They just threw us late, and we missed the others. We’ll never buy buns again! Never! Never! O peccavi! We have sinned!”

And she looked so humorously contrite that Mrs. Jackson, who was inclined to scold, laughed in spite of herself, and forgave the delinquents.

“On condition that such a thing doesn’t happen again!” she declared.

“Trust us! We wouldn’t go through such an experience again for all the buns in the world! Next time we’ll cling to the College apron strings like⁠—like⁠—”

“Like adhesive sticking-plaster!” supplied Ingred gently.

“Or oysters to a mermaid’s tail!” murmured Verity.