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CHAPTER VIII
The Heroine


It was William who, when they had searched house and garden and park for nearly an hour, greeted the two as they trailed forlornly into the stable-yard on the last wild chance of finding her there. By this time both were thoroughly sorry and remorseful, and very anxious indeed to know what had become of their sister.

'I suppose you haven't seen Caroline anywhere about?' they said to William, who was sitting at the harness-room door with a rose in his button-hole, smoking a black clay pipe.

'She was out in the garden a bit back,' he said; 'give me this 'ere button-hole. She's a sister to be proud on, she is.'

'Why?' asked Charles, blankly.

'What she done this morning,' William answered.

'I suppose she thought it was right.'

'I don't know about right,' said William, scratching his ear. 'Anyhow, she went down along towards where you was messing about in the wood this morning. Just after dinner she went with a book under her arm and her pinny full of roses. I'm coming along that way myself when I've finished my pipe.'

Charlotte and Charles went down slowly to the wood, and they were both very uncomfortable. However right Caroline might have been …

'I can't understand how she can—the very place where he was—all safe only this morning,' said Charlotte, and walked slower than ever. They went so slowly that William had almost caught them up before they had reached the wood.

Just before they turned in among the dappled shadows of the wood, Charles said, 'Did you hear that?'

'Yes,' said Charlotte; 'it's only Caro talking to herself.' And they went on. They did not hear any more talking; and when they reached the lair Caroline was sitting there silent with a splash of red rose colour beside her among the fern.

'Oh, Caro!' cried Charlotte, almost weeping, and flumping down beside her sister. 'I'm sorry we were horrid. We see now you must have thought you were being Spartan-boyish or something. And it's too perfectly horrid. And do let's make it up; do.'

'I did think you'd more sense,' said Caroline, but she kissed Charlotte too, 'or that you'd know that I had—more sense, I mean. And directly I began to tell you, you said That.' She sniffed. It was plain that she had been crying.

Charles sat down.

'I'm sorry too,' he said, handsomely. 'Now let's talk about something else. Our only hope is to forget poor Rupert.'

'I'll try to forget him,' Charlotte said; 'but he was such a nice boy. I suppose you had to do it, Caro. But, oh, I do wish he was back again!'

Here Charlotte began to cry.

'Oh, don't!' said Caroline, putting her arm round her. 'Do you mean to say you don't understand yet? I'd no idea you could be so silly.'

'l don't think she's silly at all,' said Charles, loyally. 'I wish he was here, too.'

'He is here,' said Caroline, in an exasperated whisper; 'just behind you. We thought you might be someone else, so he hid. Come back, Rupert; it's only them.'

And from the tangled thicket, Rupert put forth a head, very rough as to his hair, which bristled with twigs and pine-needles.

'Then you didn't run away to sea?'

'Not much,' Rupert answered, leaning on his elbows and showing only the head and shoulders part of him.

'But the letter said——'

'That was her,' Rupert explained, pointing at Caroline with his head. (That looks odd when you read it, but if you try you will find that it is quite easy to do.) 'That was her. It was all her. I'll never say anything about girls being muffs again. She absolutely ran the show. She's a brick.'

'Oh, shut up!' said Caroline, with hot ears.

'But what did she do?'

'Took them off the scent. Tell them all about it.' said Rupert.

'No; you,' said Caroline, rolling over and burrowing her nose among the roses.

'Well, it was like this. After you'd gone off I was in a blue funk, and I don't mind owning it. And when she came back I thought it was the Police, and about all being lost except honour—and precious little of that. Then she explained it all to me, and I got my boots off.'

'Explained what?' Charles had to ask.

'Her plan, you duffer—her glorious Sherlock-Holmes plan.'

'You might have told us,' Charlotte couldn't help saying.

'How could I? All among William and the Police?'

'Well, go on.'

'She'd got her pocket-book, and I wrote that letter. She thought of that too. And I gave her my hanky, and she carried my boots off in her hand, and when she got to the swampy place she put them on and made the footmarks.'

'I stamped them in as deep as I could,' Caroline broke in, 'and I found the fence and got out and put the letter, and simply tore back round by the lodge. Didn't you notice how hot I was? I saw the Murdstone man, but I'd got my sun-bonnet. He was cutting the heads off nettles with his stick, like some one in the French Revolution.'

'And she led them off the scent completely. They'd have been certain to find me here, with the fern all trampled about. She thought of that too,' Rupert said.

'But where were you, then?'

'Up that tree.' He pointed to a leafy branch. 'I saw you all go by, your Police with his nose on the ground like any old hound. Not one of you looked up. She's a regular A1, first-class brick, if you ask me. And now, if you can hide me a bit here till I've written to my people and got an answer—— Yes, she is a brick. And I shall always stand up for it that bricks are bricks even if they're only girls.'

'You do make such a fuss,' said Caroline, delighted with his praise and trying not to be, and feeling it the duty of a modest heroine to turn the subject. 'And now I thought we'd be the Royal Order of the Rose. The rose is the emblem of secrecy. Two buds and a full-blowner you have to wear. It's the badge.'

She chose flowers and buds from the crimson heap and presented them to the others. The needed pins she produced from the front of her pinafore.

'I've got one, too,' said Rupert, grinning from his covert. 'A badge, I mean, and——'

'Hush!' whispered Charlotte; 'there's someone coming. It's William.'

'Oh, that's all right,' said Caroline, amazingly. 'William knows. He's one of us. He's wearing the Royal Rose, too.'

'And he isn't going to tell?' Charles could hardly believe it of a grown-up.

'No, he ain't a-going to tell.' It was William who answered, pushing through the leaves and sitting down squarely on a stump. 'I don't give away a good sport like what Miss Caroline is—not me.'

'But when did you find out?' Charlotte asked.

'I had my suspicions from the first—Miss Caroline going off so artful. And then when she come back, of course I knew.'

'Why "of course"?' Charles wanted to know.

'Well, nobody except the Pleece would cotton to it as a young lady like Miss Caroline would set out to give away a runaway dog as 'ad trusted her, let alone a young gentleman.'

Charlotte and Charles never wish to feel less pleased with themselves than they did then.

'An' the bootmarks,' William went on; 'much too deep and plain they was for anybody as was out to get off, with somebody arter them. Let alone as I see a bit of young master's jacket up in the tree as we come over the park. And the ankercher dropped so handy. Not but what I own I thought it was all up when we come to that letter. I did think that was a bit too thick. As if people on the bolt 'ud stop to write letters and lay them convenient like in the middles of roads. I thought you'd killed the cat with kindness that time. But, no—'e swallowed it all, old Poad did; like mother's milk it went down. And so did the schoolmaster. And off 'e goes. And off he goes. And off you goes to your dinners, and I come along to the young chap in the tree and fetched him a bite of something, and whistles him down that all's serene. And Miss Caroline she comes along and makes me a member of her Ancient Order of Rosy Buffaloes, or whatever it is, and here we are as jolly as you please and as safe as you please. Only my advice is, tell the Master.'

'We can't,' said Caroline, earnestly. 'It wouldn't be fair. He might think it was his duty, or something——'

'Ah!' said Charles, relieved. 'We're not the only ones. We thought that of you. It's just the same.'

'There's only one difference,' said Caroline—and this was the only time she hit back that day, so we may forgive her for it—'one difference, and that is that I'm right and you were wrong.'

'Oh!' said Charles, blankly.

'Best tell the master.' William's tone was persuasive.

'You said you were ours to the death.'


The Wonderful Garden -p127.jpg

'Fetches him a bite of something.'


'You asked me if I was, and I wasn't going to contradict a lady,' William corrected. 'And as far as keeping my tongue betwixt my teeth, and lending a hand in the victualling department, and a rug and a truss in the straw-loft that I've got the key of, and where the Master himself wouldn't presume to show a nose—as far as that goes, I'm your man. More especially since I've seen your governors, teachers, pastors, and masters in that nasty white rage, with his face all twisted. I wouldn't 'and over a blind kitten to 'is tender mercies. But my advice is——'

'Don't!' Caroline implored. 'Because really, we can't, you know.'

'Well, I must be getting along,' said William, rising stiffly. 'I ain't talked so much since the election. And I wasn't a-going to say what you thought I was a-going to say. What I was a-going to say was, get out of this. It's all trampled, and someone's sure to notice—if it's only that Jim. You go deeper into the wood, and come night-time I'll fetch him away and bed him down all right. So long!'

He tramped away, crunching sticks and stalks as he went.

'How glorious,' Charlotte said, slowly, 'to have a real live heroine for your sister!'

'Yes, but.' Charles asked, anxiously, 'are you sure William will keep the secret?'

'I'd answer for him with my life.' said Rupert. 'You don't know how jolly he was when he brought me the bread and cheese, and water in a medicine bottle. It tasted a little of camphor. Awfully decent chap he is.

'He can't help keeping the secret.' Caroline spoke with impressive earnestness. 'He wears the Royal Rose and the twin buds, the badge of secrecy. If you wear that you simply can't betray a secret. It says so in the Language of, page 37.'

She picked up the book from under the roses, fluttered its leaves, found page 37 and read:

'"The red or damask rose, full-blown and worn with two of its own buds, is the emblem and pledge of inviolet"—inviolable. I mean—"secrecy, and he who wears the Royal Queen of flowers accompanied by two unopened promises of her future magnificence, by this eloquent symbol binds himself to preserve uncontaminated the secret trust reposed in him by the more delicate and fragile portion—fragile and delicate as the lovely flower which is the subject of our remarks—of the human race.”'

'I see,' said Charlotte, relieved. 'Then he can't tell, oven if he wants to.'

'If the book knows,' Charles added.

'Well, it's all right, you know.' said Rupert; 'because I'm a judge of human nature, and I know that William is the soul of honour, and wouldn't want to tell even if he could.'

'So that's all right.' Charlotte breathed deeply. 'I say. Rupert, aren't you afraid?

'What of?'

'The Police?'

Rupert laughed. 'I think William was right,' he said, wriggling out a little farther from the fern so that the rose in his button-hole burst suddenly upon public view. 'If the Police would swallow that letter they'd swallow anything. And if the eyes of the whole vox populi were upon me,' he ended, with a grand, if vague, remembrance of old Mug's careful teaching, 'Caroline would find a via media, or way out.'

'Rats!' said Caroline briefly.

'I say!' said Charles, gazing awe-struck, 'what a jolly lot of Latin you know!'