One day, shortly before Whitsuntide, Irene Spencer walked into the third-class schoolroom with a letter in her hand, and a look on her face which proclaimed news of some importance.
"I don't believe any of you will ever guess what I've come to tell you," she announced. "I've heard this morning from my aunt at Linforth Vicarage. She writes asking me to spend a few days there at Whitsuntide (we are to have a short holiday, you know), and she says: 'We have asked Monica Courtenay, and we should be very pleased if Miss Russell would also allow you to bring one of your younger schoolfellows who would prove a nice companion for Rhoda.' My cousin Rhoda is twelve, so I have to pick out one from among you six. Whichever it is will have an uncommonly jolly visit, because we always have glorious times at Linforth."
"How delightful! Oh, do take me!" exclaimed the six in chorus, each enchanted with such a tempting prospect, and anxious to be the chosen favourite.
"I wish I could take you all," replied Irene, "but unfortunately the invitation is only for one. Miss Russell says this will be the best way to arrange it. The girl who is nearest to Rhoda's age must go. Will you each tell me the date of your birthday, and then I shall be able to decide. Rhoda's is on the twentieth of March."
It certainly seemed the fairest way of settling the question, and one against which there could be no appeal.
"Miss Russell is a modern Solomon," declared Jolly. "I'm afraid I haven't the slightest chance, because I'm only eleven and a half, and so is Nora."
"I'm almost thirteen," wailed Beryl. "I wish I were a few months younger. Effie, I shall be horribly jealous if the chance falls to you."
"No such luck! I am a Christmas child," returned Effie. "I believe Marjorie is nearer."
"The twenty-seventh of February. Can anybody do better than that?" asked Marjorie hopefully.
"Mine is the sixth of April," said Pasta.
"About as much after Rhoda's as Marjorie's is before," said Irene. "We must count it up exactly. Somebody give me a pencil and a piece of paper. Let me see, the twenty-seventh of February to the twentieth of March is twenty-one days, and the twentieth of March to the sixth of April is only seventeen. Then Pasta is nearer by four days."
"Hurrah!" cried Pasta, clapping her hands, "I'm glad I wasn't born a week later. How dreadfully sorry I am for you all, especially Marjorie!"
"My aunt says she will send the trap for us on Friday afternoon," continued Irene. "And we are to stay until Tuesday morning, so that will give us three whole days at Linforth. I'm sure you'll like Rhoda, and my other cousins too. There are eight of them altogether. Meta, the eldest, is seventeen; she's going to study music in Germany next September. Ralph and Leonard are fifteen and fourteen; they go to the Appleford Grammar School, and ride there every day on their bicycles. Then comes Rhoda, and there are four little ones. They do lessons with a governess, but perhaps some time Rhoda is to be sent to Winterburn Lodge. Aunt Esther says she shan't treat us as visitors; we must make ourselves at home amongst the others."
The visit seemed an event worth looking forward to, not only on its own account, but because Monica was to be one of the party. Pasta could hardly believe her good fortune, and rejoiced again and again over the happy date of her birthday. She was in a state of great excitement on the Friday afternoon, when the phaeton arrived with Monica already installed on the front seat. To drive away in such company was indeed a matter for congratulation, and she felt much sympathy for the disconsolate five who were perforce left behind, especially for poor Jolly, who would miss her more than anybody, and whose eyes were full of tears at the parting.
"Never mind," she whispered to the latter, "perhaps it will be your turn next time for something nice. At any rate, I shall have heaps to tell you when I come back."
Linforth Vicarage was a long, rambling stone house, the flagged roof and mullioned windows of which proclaimed it as belonging, equally with the Manor, to a period of the past. It was a delightful, roomy, almost medieval kind of a place, so picturesque, in its old-world fashion, that one could forgive the lowness of the rooms, the narrowness of the passages, the steepness of the stairs, and the inconvenience of the fact that the front door opened directly into the dining-room, and the bedrooms nearly all led into one another. None of these drawbacks seemed to distress the young Greenwoods, who thought their home the nicest spot in the world. They were a particularly jolly, merry, happy-go-lucky family, full of jokes and noise. Rhoda, for whose benefit Pasta had been invited, received her visitor with enthusiasm.
"I'm so glad Miss Russell let you come!" she said. "You see, Meta will monopolize Irene and Monica, and I should have been left out altogether. I'm delighted to have someone of my own age."
Monica was a great favourite in the household, and held in request by all, from Mr. and Mrs. Greenwood to Cyril, the baby. As Rhoda had prophesied, however, she disappeared after tea with Meta and Irene, the three elder girls evidently wishing to have a chat in private. Rhoda made an effort to secure Pasta to herself, but the four little ones--Wilfred, Alwyn, Joan, and Cyril--begged so piteously not to be banished from the society of the interesting visitor that in the end she yielded, and allowed them to help to exhibit the various treasures in the garden which she wished to show to her new friend.
The Greenwoods had quite a menagerie in the way of pets. They kept them in a disused stable, in neat cages with wire fronts, most of which had been made by Ralph and Leonard. There were silky-haired, lop-eared rabbits, that could be hugged in small arms without offering any remonstrances; bright-eyed little guinea-pigs, which often caused exciting chases by escaping from their owners' embraces and hiding away behind the cages; a family of piebald mice, consisting of a mother and five young ones, which generally went to bed in the daytime, and had to be poked out of their sleeping quarters with a lead pencil to make them show themselves; a morose-looking tortoise that would allow Wilfred to scratch its head, but spat indignantly at the others; and a whole box full of silkworms in various stages, from tiny, wriggling black threads to chrysalids in cocoons. The children were accompanied to the stable by a sharp little black Pomeranian; but they were obliged to leave him outside in case he might hurt the rabbits, and he sat howling dolefully on the doorstep until they came out again. He escorted them into the garden afterwards, however, and so did a large nondescript kind of yard dog, which was called Bootles, and which allowed itself to be harnessed to a mail-cart, and drew Cyril up and down the path.
"I want to show you our fruit trees," said Rhoda, leading the way to the orchard. "We each have one of our very own, planted as soon as we were born. Meta, Ralph, and Leonard have apples, Wilfred and Alwyn pears, mine is a Victoria plum, Joan has a greengage, and Cyril a black cherry. You see, they stand in a row, away from the other trees, so we call this our part of the orchard."
"Whose is the ninth?" enquired Pasta, looking at a fine pear tree which headed the line.
"That belonged to our eldest brother," said Rhoda. "He died before I can remember, but we still call it 'Herbert's tree'. The pears are always ripe every year on his birthday, so we pick them all and pack them carefully in a box, and send them to a children's hospital in London. Mother sends the money she would have spent on his birthday present too. They're the most beautiful pears, the best we have, and we thought that was the nicest thing we could do with them."
The Greenwoods' little gardens were as interesting as their fruit trees. Each child appeared to have been trying a different experiment. Wilfred had made a pond in his by sinking an old wooden tub in the ground, and was trying to persuade a water-lily to grow in it. He had planted a clump of iris and some forget-me-nots at the edge, which hung over rather gracefully, and really looked quite pretty. He kept several frogs to swim about in the water, though the constant catching of these rather interfered with the wellbeing of the struggling lily. Alwyn had built a miniature house in her plot out of old bricks and stones, and had thatched it neatly with straw. She had made a gravel path up to the front door, and had sown grass to represent lawns, and cut a round flower bed in the middle of each. Joan's garden was subject to violent changes. Last year it had been a potato patch, but as she dug up those useful vegetables every day to see how they were sprouting, it was not surprising that they refused to make much growth. Lately she had converted the whole into a dolls' cemetery, and, with Cyril's aid, keenly enjoyed conducting the funerals of various headless favourites, waxing so enthusiastic over the obsequies that she even buried several quite respectable wax babies, though, regretting their loss afterwards, she was eventually forced to dig them up again. She put tombstones at the heads of the graves, made of slates from the roof of a tumble-down shed, and carefully wrote names, dates, and epitaphs upon them in slate pencil, being greatly distressed when the inscriptions were invariably obliterated by every fresh shower of rain.
Cyril had sown the letters of his name in mustard and cress, which were just coming up fresh and green, and would soon be ready to cut. He also had some bulbs under pieces of glass in a corner which he called his hothouse. Ralph and Leonard were so busy at school that their gardens appeared to be mostly cared for by Rhoda, who had a very ambitious scheme for her own.
"I want to make a floral clock," she explained. "You see, I've dug a round face and marked it out into twelve parts, and I'm going to put each figure in different-coloured flowers. Then I thought if I could fix a pole in the middle it ought to cast a shadow, and tell the time like a sundial. I've made it north, south, east, and west by my compass, and it will be most delightful if I can only get it to work."
Rhoda had almost as much to show Pasta in the house as out-of-doors. There was her bedroom, a tiny sanctum where she kept all her special treasures out of the way of the children's meddlesome fingers. It was a very old-fashioned little room, with a low, black-beamed ceiling, and a window that opened on to a small balcony, where she could grow nasturtiums and other trailing plants in pots. The walls were covered with pictures in home-made frames, wonderful arrangements of corks, acorns, shells, or plaited straw; and there were quite a nice writing-table and some wonderful bookcases.
"The boys made these out of old boxes," said Rhoda. "They learn how in their carpentry class at school, and they did them to surprise me on my birthday. I keep all my books here. Father is giving me the poets now as Christmas presents. I have Longfellow and Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and I expect it will be either Cowper or Goldsmith next time. This is my paint-box. I daren't leave it in the schoolroom for fear of the little ones getting hold of it. Isn't it a beauty? Miss Johnson, our governess, gave it to me as a prize for passing the Trinity College exam. in piano and theory."
"Do you like music?" asked Pasta.
"Yes, I think I'm rather fond of it. Miss Johnson wanted me to go in for this exam.; she said it would be something to practise for. We had to go to Bridgend to take it. It was rather fun, for we were the whole day in getting there and back, and luckily I wasn't a scrap nervous. Do you play?"
"A little," replied Pasta. "I'm learning the violin, but I can't have any lessons at the Manor."
"I wish you could come over and help us at one of our temperance concerts."
"Oh, I should be much too frightened!" exclaimed Pasta, in horror.
"You needn't mind in a little village like this," declared Rhoda. "The people would think whatever you did was splendid. They clap at everything, even when Ralph gives nigger songs; and he's got no voice, and the banjo's generally out of tune, so that he's singing away in one key and playing in another."
"I don't know whether I could promise to keep in tune," laughed Pasta. "Do you play at these concerts?"
"Yes, nearly always. It was a little awkward last time, because something had gone wrong with the keys of the piano. They stuck down, and I had to get Wilfred to sit underneath and keep poking them up as fast as I played on them, or else half the notes wouldn't sound; and it seemed so queer to only get part of a chord, and to miss the middle of a run. It quite put me out. I suppose it was the damp that caused it. We must get a tuner to come and see to it."
"Did the people applaud?"
"Yes, tremendously. I think it amused them to see Wilfred sitting underneath. They simply roared every time he pushed up the keys. It was as good as a comic song. It really is tiresome, though, to have a piano like that at the school. John Crosby, the stonemason's little boy, sings very nicely, and I went so wrong in playing his accompaniment, through losing so many of the notes, that he finished half a verse ahead of me. I apologized to him afterwards, but he said he didn't think anyone had noticed it!"
Pasta found it quite a novel and entertaining experience to stay in the midst of such a large, enterprising, lively family as the Greenwoods. From Meta, the eldest, to Cyril, the baby, hardly out of petticoats, all had very decided opinions of their own, which they urged and argued with considerable force of character, but an amount of good temper which spoke well for their training. Mrs. Greenwood, who thought quarrelling greatly a matter of habit, insisted upon a certain standard of home politeness being maintained, and would tolerate neither domineering in the elder ones nor whining amongst the younger.
"You can discuss a subject perfectly well without being rude to each other when you differ," she declared. "You must take it in turns to have your own way. It is not fair that the eldest should always arrange everything, but on the other hand Joan and Alwyn will get nothing at all if they begin to wail and complain in that most grumbling and unpleasant tone of voice. I think it is a disgrace if you're all so selfish that you can't agree. You must each be prepared to give up a certain amount, for among eight children it is quite impossible for every one to be first and foremost."
Irene, being the Greenwoods' cousin, was accustomed to their tempestuous ways, and ready to hold her own amongst them; while Monica looked on with an amused smile, without taking part in any arguments or disputes. There was certainly plenty to do at the Vicarage, and none of the three guests could complain that the holiday was dull.
On Saturday afternoon Meta, Rhoda, and the two eldest boys arranged that they should make an expedition to a large lake about a couple of miles away. They had been promised the loan of a boat there, and they proposed to take their visitors for a trip on the water. They started off with baskets of provisions, intending to land and have a picnic tea, if they could find sufficient dry sticks upon the banks to light a fire and boil their kettle. Both Meta and her brothers could row well, so the boat was soon skimming over the lake in a delightfully smooth and satisfactory fashion.
"We daren't anchor anywhere near the woods," declared Meta, "Sir Percy Harwood, the owner, is so very strict about trespassing."
"Yes, the keepers are down on you if you even go a few yards into the preserves," agreed Ralph. "Look here! What do you say to camping out on that little island? There can't be any pheasants there to scare, and we ought to get plenty of sticks."
The island in question was a small, green-looking collection of hazel bushes and birch trees, well out in the middle of the lake. It had an attractive appearance, so they rowed through the quiet stretch of water that separated them from it, and ran the boat in among the reeds that grew at the edge.
"It seems rather jolly," said Rhoda. "Suppose we leave the baskets here, and go and explore first to find a good place?"
"It's quite romantic," declared Irene, "like Ellen's Isle in the Lady of the Lake. We ought to find a hunting-lodge among the trees, and an interesting outlaw living there."
"More likely to find a poacher!" laughed Ralph; "though there'd be nothing for him to trap here, unless he kept a boat stowed away in the reeds, and took midnight excursions into the woods."
"I think it's the kind of place for a hermit," said Monica. "He could have had a little cell and told his beads without being disturbed by anybody, except an occasional knight-errant who would blow a horn from the opposite bank. I wonder if one ever lived here?"
"The landlords couldn't have been so particular about trespassing in those days, then, if he did," replied Leonard. "I don't believe Sir Percy Harwood would let anybody settle so near his pheasants; he'd suspect steel traps or wire snares under the cassock, and expect to hear a shot in the woods instead of a vesper bell."
"We'll tie the boat to this old stump," said Ralph. "Be careful where you step in getting off--the ground seems fearfully soppy. Perhaps it may be better higher up. Let us come on a little. I say, there's something rather queer about it, isn't there?"
There certainly was something decidedly queer. The green mossy earth under their feet gave way as if they were treading upon a feather bed. At each step it sank with a curious squelching sound, and rose behind with the elasticity of a cork, so that as they sprang here and there the whole of the little island appeared to be bounding up and down beneath them, as Leonard expressed it, "just like a spring mattress when you jump on it".
"The ground is so funny, too," said Meta, poking about with a stick; "it doesn't seem proper soil, only roots and moss and grass growing through it. Why, this stick goes down ever such a long way, and there's actually water coming up!"
The others all came to investigate, and standing close together began to dig their sticks into the curious heaving surface. It bore their combined weight for a moment or two, then sinking suddenly, like a punctured indiarubber ball, it collapsed, and they found themselves struggling nearly up to their waists in water. Luckily they were able to clutch at the hazel bushes above, and, by swinging themselves along the branches, to arrive at a firmer foothold, though even there the ground felt very insecure and spongy, and little dark pools came oozing up with every step.
"We must keep as far apart from each other as we can," shouted Ralph; "the wretched place has no solid foundation, it's only a collection of sticks and leaves. Cling to the trees, and try to get back to the boat before you go in any deeper. Don't put your weight on it! It's like walking on thin ice."
Very wet and muddy, and somewhat frightened, the explorers picked their way carefully back, treading as much as possible on the roots of the trees, and never letting go their hold of the boughs. They scrambled into the boat again with considerable relief, and held a review of their damaged garments.
"I'm soaked to the skin!" declared Rhoda. "It's a horrible nuisance. Look at Pasta!"
"I don't mind my clothes so much, if it weren't so uncomfortable. My dress will wash," said Pasta.
"Mine won't though, I'm sorry to say!" groaned Irene.
"I was carrying the cakes, and they're wet through, and not fit to eat," announced Leonard.
"The island is a perfect trap," said Meta, trying to squeeze the muddy water from her own dress and Monica's. "I believe it's nothing but a kind of raft, made out of all the dead wood and rubbish that have accumulated in the lake. I expect seeds have blown on to it, and then trees and bushes have sprung up. Now I think of it, I don't believe it was in the same place last year, so it must be able to float. We shall have to go home; we can't stop and picnic when we're drenched like this."
"I wonder how the hermit managed, if he ever lived there?" said Monica.
"It must have been an excellent penance, with a chance of martyrdom at the end of it," returned Ralph. "Well, I must say we have given our visitors a pleasant afternoon! They won't want to take this as a specimen of our picnics. No good offering tea and cake in this condition!"
"I'd rather have a cake of soap and a can of hot water!" said Irene.
"Never mind!" said Leonard consolingly. "I vote we go up Pendle Tor on Monday. We can boil a kettle there, and have no end of fun. If you've never been before, I expect you'll say it makes up for this."