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we can be off. Ah, the moon is getting up splendidly, and when we have secured Betty's basket, we shall be quite out of reach of danger.”
At Annie's words of encouragement the seven girls ventured out. She locked the door, put the key into her pocket, and, holding Rover by his collar, led the way in the direction of the laurel-bush. The basket was secured, and Susan, to her disgust, and Mary Morris were elected for the first part of the way to carry it. The young truants then walked quickly down the avenue until they came to a turnstile which led into a wood.
The moon had now come up brilliantly, and the little party were in the highest possible spirits. They had got safely away from the house, and there was now, comparatively speaking, little fear of discovery. The more timid ones, who ventured to confess that their hearts were in their mouths while Annie was unlocking the side door, now became the most excited, and perhaps the boldest, under the reaction which set in. Even the wood, which was comparatively dark, with only patches of moonlight here and there, and queer weird shadows where the trees were thinnest, could not affect their spirits.
The poor, sleepy rabbits must have been astonished that night at the shouts of the revelers, as they hurried past them, and the birds must have taken their sleepy heads from under their downy wings, and wondered if the morning had come some hours before its usual time.
More than one solemn old owl blinked at them, and hooted as they passed, and told them in owl language what silly, naughty young things they were, and how they would repent of this dissipation by-and-by. But if the girls were to have an hour of remorse, it did not visit them then; their hearts were like feathers, and by the time they reached the field where the fairies were supposed to play, their spirits had become almost uncontrollable.
Luckily for them this small green field lay in a secluded hollow, and more luckily for them no tramps were about to hear their merriment. Rover, who constituted himself Annie's protector, now lay down by her side, and as she was the real ringleader and queen of the occasion, she ordered her subjects about pretty sharply.
“Now, girls, quick; open the basket. Yes, I 'm going to rest. I have organized the whole thing, and I'm fairly tired; so I 'll just sit quietly here, and Rover will take care of me while you set things straight. Ah! good Betty; she did not even forget the white table-cloth.”
Here one of the girls remarked casually that the grass was wet with dew, and that it was well they had all put on their waterproofs.
Annie interrupted again in a petulant voice
“Don't croak, Mary Morris. Out with the chickens, lay the ham in this corner, and the cherries will make a pieturesque pile in the middle. Twelve meringues in all, that means a meringue and a half each. We shall have some difficulty in dividing. Oh, dear! oh, dear! how hungry I am! I was far too excited to eat anything at supper-time."
“So was I," said Phyllis, coming up and pressing close to Annie. “I do think Miss Danesbury cuts the bread and butter too thick-don't you, Annie? I could not eat mine at all, to-night, and Cecil Temple asked me if I was not well.”
“ Those who don't want chicken hold up their hands," here interrupted Annie, who had tossed her brown cap on the grass, and between whose brow's a faint frown had passed for an instant at the mention of Cecil's name.
The feast now began in earnest, and silence reigned for a short time, broken only by the clatter of plates, and such an occasional remark as “ Pass the salt, please," “ Pepper this way, if you're no objection,” “How good chicken tastes in fairy-land,” etc. At last the ginger-beer bottles began to pop--the girls' first hunger was appeased. Rover gladly crunched up all the bones, and conversation flowed once more, accompanied by the delicate diversion of taking alternate bites at meringues and cheesecakes.
“I wish the fairies would come out,” said Annie.
“Oh, don't!” shivered Phyllis, looking round her nervously.
“Annie, darling, do tell us a ghost story,” cried several voices.
Annie laughed, and commenced a series of nonsense tales, all of a slightly eerie character, which she made up on the spot.
The moon riding high in the heavens looked down on the young giddy heads, and their laughter, naughty as they were, sounded sweet in the night air.
Time flew quickly, and the girls suddenly discovered that they must pack up their table-cloth and remove all traces of the feast unless they wished the bright light of morning to discover them. They rose hastily, sighing, and slightly depressed now that their fun was over. The white table-cloth, no longer very white, was packed into the basket, the ginger-beer bottles placed on top of it, and the lid fastened down. Not a crumb of the feast remained; Rover had demolished the bones, and the eiglit girls had made short work of everything else, with the exception of the cherry-stones, which Phyllis carefully collected and popped into a little hole in the ground.
The party then progressed slowly homewards, and once more entered the dark wood. They were much more silent now; the wood was darker, and the chill which foretells the dawn was making itself felt in the air. Either the sense of cold or a certain effect produced by Annie's ridiculous stories, made many of the little party unduly nervous.
They had only taken a few steps through the wood when Pliyllis suddenly uttered a piercing shriek. This shriek was echoed by Nora and by Mary Morris, and all their hearts seemed to leap into their mouths when they saw something move among the trees. Rover uttered a growl, and, but for Annie's detaining hand, would have sprung forward.
The high-spirited girl was not to be easily daunted.
Behold, girls, the goblin of the woods," she exclaimed. “Quiet, Rover; stand still."
The next instant the fears of the little party reached their culmination when a tall, dark figure stood directly in their paths.
“If you don't let us pass at once,” said Annie's voice, “I'll set Rover at you."
The dog began to bark loudly, and quivered from head to foot.
The figure moved a little to one side, and a rather deep and slightly dramatic voice said
“I mean you no harm, young ladies; I'm only a gipsymother from the tents yonder. You are welcome to get
back to Lavender House. I have then one course plain before me.”
“Come on, girls,” said Annie, now considerably frightened, while Phyllis, and Nora, and one or two more began to sob.
Look here, young ladies," said the gipsy in a whining voice, “ I don't mean you no harm, my pretties, and it's no affair of mine telling the good ladies at Lavender House what I've seen. You cross my hand, dears, each of you, with a bit of silver, and all I'll do is to tell your pretty fortunes, and mum is the word with the gipsy-mother as far as this night's prank is concerned.”
“We had better do it, Annie—we had better do it," here sobbed Phyllis. “If this was found out by Mrs. Willis we might be expelled—we might, indeed; and that horrid woman is sure to tell of us, I know she is.”
“Quite sure to tell, dear,” said the tall gipsy, dropping a curtsey in a manner which looked frightfully sarcastic in the long shadows made by the trees. “Quite sure to tell, and to be expelled is the very least that could happen to such naughty little ladies. Here's a nice little bit of clearing in the wood, and we'll all come over, and Mother Rachel will tell your fortunes in a twinkling, and no one will be the wiser. Sixpence a-piece, my dears-only sixpence a-piece."
“Oh, come; do, do come,” said Nora, and the next moment they were all standing in a circle round Mother Rachel, who pocketed her blackmail eagerly, and repeated some gibberish over each little hand. Over Annie's palm she lingered for a brief moment, and looked with her penetrating eyes into the girl's face.
“ You'll have suffering before you, miss; some suspicion, and danger even to life itself. But you 'll triumph, my dear, you 'll triumph. You ’re a plucky one, and you 'll do a brave deed. There-good-night, young ladies; you have nothing more to fear from Mother Rachel.”
The tall dark figure disappeared into the blackest shadows of the wood, and the girls, now like so many frightened hares, flew home. They deposited their basket where Betty would find it, under the shadow of the great laurel in the back avenue. They all bade Rover an affectionate “good-night.” Annie softly unlocked the side-door, and one by one, with their shoes in their hands, they regained their bedrooms. They were all very tired, and very cold, and a dull fear and sense of insecurity rested over each little heart. Suppose Mother Rachel proved unfaithful, notwithstanding the sixpences?