Chapter V. On the Road from Atlantis
 

"Would you like to come along?"

Agony, sitting alone on the pier, idly watching the river as it flowed endlessly around its great curve, looked up to see Mary Sylvester standing beside her. It was just after quiet hour and the rest of the camp had gone on the regular Wednesday afternoon trip to the village to buy picture postcards and elastic and Kodak films and all the various small wares which girls in camp are in constant need of; and also to regale themselves on ice-cream cones and root beer, the latter a traditionally favorite refreshment of the Camp Keewaydin girls, being a special home product of Mrs. Bayne, who kept the "trading post."

Agony had not joined the expedition this afternoon, because she needed nothing in the way of supplies, and for once had no craving for root beer, while she did want to finish a letter to her father that she had commenced during rest hour. But the hilarity of the others as they piled into the canoes to be towed up the river by the launch lured her down to the dock to see them off--Miss Judy standing at the wheel of the launch and Tiny Armstrong in the stern of the last canoe, as the head and tail of the procession respectively. Beside Miss Judy in the launch were all the Minnows, gazing longingly back at the ones who were allowed to tow in the canoes. Only those who had taken the swimming test might go into the canoes--towing or paddling or at any other time; this rule of the camp was as inviolable as the laws of the Medes and the Persians. And of those who could swim, only the Sharks might take out a canoe without a councilor, and this privilege was also denied the Sharks if they failed to demonstrate their ability to handle a canoe skilfully.

Sahwah and Hinpoha were among the new girls who had qualified for the canoe privilege during the very first week; also Undine Girelle. The other Winnebagos had to content themselves thus far with the privilege of towing or paddling in a canoe that was in charge of a councilor or a qualified Water Witch; all except Oh-Pshaw, who had to ride in the launch.

Agony looked at Oh-Pshaw standing beside Miss Judy at the wheel, laughing with her at some joke; at Sahwah and Undine sitting together in the canoe right behind the launch, leaning luxuriously back against their paddles, which they were using as back rests; heard Jean Lawrence's infectious laugh floating back on the breeze; and she began to regret that she had stayed at home. She found she was no longer in the mood to finish her letter; she lingered on the pier after the floating caravan had disappeared from view behind the trees on Whaleback.

She looked up in surprise at the sound of Mary Sylvester's voice coming from behind her on the dock.

"I thought you had gone to the village with the others," she said. "I was almost sure I saw you in the boat with Pom-pom."

"No, I didn't go, you see," replied Mary. "I am going off on an expedition of my own this afternoon. The woman who took care of me as a child lives not far from here in a little village called Atlantis--classic name! Mother asked me to look her up, and Mrs. Grayson gave me permission to go over this afternoon. I'm going to row across the river to that landing place where we got out the other night, leave the boat in the bushes, and then follow the path through the woods. It's about six miles to Atlantis--would you care to walk that far? It would be twelve miles there and back, you know. I'm just ripe for a long hike today, it's so cool and clear, but it's not nearly so pleasant going alone as it would be to have someone along to talk to on the way. Wouldn't you like to come along and keep me company? I can easily get permission from Mrs. Grayson for you."

Agony was a trifle daunted at the thought of walking twelve miles in one afternoon, but was so overwhelmed with secret gratification that the prominent Mary Sylvester had invited her that she never once thought of refusing.

"I'd love to go," she exclaimed animatedly, jumping up with alacrity. "I was beginning to feel a wee bit bored sitting here doing nothing; I feel ripe for a long hike myself."

"I'm so glad you do!" replied Mary Sylvester, with the utmost cordiality. "Come on with me until I tell Mrs. Grayson that you are coming with me."

Mrs. Grayson readily gave her permission for Agony to go with Mary. There was very little that Mrs. Grayson would have refused Mary Sylvester, so high did this clear-eyed girl stand in the regard of all Camp directors, from the Doctor down. Mary was one of the few girls allowed to go away from camp without a councilor; in fact, she sometimes acted as councilor to the younger girls when a trip had to be made and no councilor was free. Mrs. Grayson would willingly have trusted any girl to Mary's care--or the whole camp, for that matter, should occasion arise, knowing that her good sense and judgment could be relied upon. So Agony, under Mary's wing, received the permission that otherwise would not have been given her.

"Yes, it will be all right for you to go in your bloomers," said Mrs. Grayson, in answer to Agony's question on the subject. "Our girls always wear them to the villages about here; the people are accustomed to seeing them. That green bloomer suit of yours is very pretty, Agony," she added, "even prettier than our regulation blue ones."

"I spilled syrup on my regular blue ones," replied Agony, "and had to wash them out this morning; that's why I'm wearing these green ones. Do you mind if I break up the camp color scheme for one day?"

"Not at all, under the circumstances," replied Mrs. Grayson, with a smile. "If it's going to be a choice of green bloomers or none at all--" She waved the laughing girls away and returned to the knotty problem in accounts she had been working on when interrupted.

"Isn't she lovely?" exclaimed Mary enthusiastically, as they came out of the bungalow and walked along the Alley path toward Gitchee-Gummee to get Agony's hat. "She has such a way of trusting us girls that we just couldn't disappoint her."

"She is lovely," echoed Agony, as they went up the steps of Gitchee-Gummee.

"I think I'll leave a note for the girls telling them I won't be back at supper time," said Agony, hastily pulling out her tablet. "They will be wondering what has become of me."

It gave her no small thrill of pleasure to write that note and tuck it under Hinpoha's hairbrush on the table: "Gone on a long hike with Mary Sylvester; won't be back until bed time." How delightfully important and prominent that sounded! The others admired Mary, too, but none of them had been invited to go on a long hike with her. She, Agony, was being drawn into that intimate inner circle of the Alley dwellers to which she had hitherto aspired in vain.

They were soon across the river, with the boat fastened in the bushes, and, leaving the shore, struck straight into the woods, following a path that curved and twisted, but carried them ever toward the north, in the direction where Atlantis lay. The way was cool and shady, the whiff of the pines invigorating, and the distance uncoiled rapidly beneath the feet of the two girls as they fared on with vigorous, springy footsteps along the pleasant way. Ferns and wild flowers bordered the path; there were brilliant cardinal flowers, pale forget-me-nots, slender blossomed blue vervain, cheerful red lilies. In places where the woods were so thick that the sun never penetrated, great logs lay about completely covered with moss, looking like sofas upholstered in green, while the round stones scattered about everywhere looked like hassocks and footstools which belonged to the same set as the green sofas.

Once Mary stopped and crushed something under her foot, something white that grew up beside the path.

"What was that?" asked Agony curiously.

"Deadly amanita," replied Mary. "It's a toadstool--a poisonous one."

"How can you tell a poisonous toadstool from a harmless one?" asked Agony. "They all look alike to me."

"A poisonous one has a ring around the stem, and it grows up out of a 'poison cup,'" explained Mary. "See, here are some more."

Agony drew back as Mary pointed out another clump of the pale spores, innocent enough looking in their resemblance to the edible mushroom, but base villians at heart; veritable Borgias of the woods.

"Aren't you afraid to touch it?" asked Agony, as Mary tilted over a sickly looking head and indicated the identifying ring and the poison cup.

"No danger," replied Mary. "They're only poisonous if you eat them."

"You know a great deal about the woods, don't you?" Agony said respectfully.

"I ought to," replied Mary. "I've camped in the woods for five summers. You can't help finding out a few things, you know, even if you're as stupid as I."

"You're not stupid!" said Agony emphatically, glad of the opportunity to pay a compliment. "I'm the stupid one about things like that. I never could remember all those things you call woodcraft. I declare, I've forgotten already whether it's the poisonous ones that have the rings, or the other kind."

Mary laughed and stood unconcernedly while a small snake ran over her foot. "It's a good thing Miss Peckham isn't here," she remarked. "Did you ever see anything so funny as that coral snake business of hers?" she added, laughing good naturedly. "Poor Miss Peckham won't be allowed to forget that episode all summer. It's too bad she resents it so. She could get no end of fun out of it if she could only see the funny side."

"Yes, it's too bad," agreed Agony. "The more she resents it the more the girls will tease her about it."

"I'm sorry for her," continued Mary. "She's never had any experience being a councilor and it's all new to her. She's never been teased before. She'll soon see that it happens to everybody else, too, and then she'll feel differently about it. Look at the way everybody makes fun of Tiny Armstrong's blanket, and her red bathing suit, and her gaudy stockings; but she never gets cross about it. Tiny's a wonder," she added enthusiastically. "Did you see her demonstrating the Australian Crawl yesterday in swimming hour? She has a stroke like the propeller of a boat. I never saw anything so powerful."

"If Tiny ever assaulted anyone in earnest there wouldn't be anything left of them," said Agony. "She's a regular Amazon. They ought to call her Hypolita instead of Tiny."

"And yet, she's just as gentle as she is powerful," replied Mary. "She wouldn't hurt a fly if she could help it. Neither would she do anything mean to anybody, or show partiality in the swimming tests. She's absolutely fair and square; that's why all the girls accept her decisions without a complaint, even when they're disappointed. Everybody says she is the best swimming teacher they've ever had here at camp. Once they had an instructor who had a special liking for a certain girl who couldn't manage to learn to swim, and because that girl was wild to go in a canoe on one of the trips the instructor pretended that she had given her an individual test on the afternoon before the trip, and told Mrs. Grayson the girl had passed it. The girl was allowed to go in a canoe and on the trip it upset and she was very nearly drowned before the others realized that she could not swim. Tiny isn't like that," she continued. "She would lose her best friend rather than tell a lie to get her a favor that she didn't deserve. I hate cheats!" she burst out vehemently, her fine eyes flashing. "If girls can't win honors fairly they ought to go without them."

This random conversation upon one and another of the phases of camp life, illustrating as it did Mary's rigid code of honor, was destined to recur many times to Agony in the weeks that followed, with a poignant force that etched every one of Mary's speeches ineradicably upon her brain. Just now it was nothing more to her than small talk to which she replied in kind.

They stopped after a bit to drink from a clear spring that bubbled up in the path, and sat down to rest awhile under a huge tree. Mary leaned her head back against the trunk and drawing a small book from her sweater pocket she opened it upon her knee.

"What is the book?" asked Agony.

"The Desert Garden, by Edwin Langham," replied Mary.

"Oh, do you know The Desert Garden?" cried Agony in delighted wonder. "I've actually lived on that book for the last two years. I'm wild about Edwin Langham. I've read every word he's ever written. Have you read The Silent Years?"

Mary nodded.

"The Lost Chord? I think that's the most wonderful book I've ever read, that and The Desert Garden. If I could ever see and speak to Edwin Langham I should die from happiness. I've never felt that way about any other author. When I read his books I feel reverent somehow, as if I were in church, although there isn't a word of religion in them. The things he writes are so fine and true and noble; he must be that way himself. Do you remember that part about the bird in The Desert Garden, the bird with the broken wing, that would never fly again, singing to the lame man who would never walk? And the flower that was so determined to blossom that it grew in the desert and bloomed there?"

"Yes," answered Mary, "it was very beautiful."

"It's the most beautiful thing that was ever written!" declared Agony enthusiastically. "It would be the greatest joy of my life to see the man who wrote those books."

"Maybe you will, some day," said Mary, rising from her mossy seat and preparing to take the path again.

It was not long after that that they came to the edge of the woods, and saw before them the scattered houses of the little village of Atlantis. Mary's old nurse was overjoyed to see her, and pressed the two girls to stay and eat big soft ginger cookies on the shady back porch, and quench their thirst with glasses of cool milk, while she inquired minutely after the health of Mary's "ma" and "pa."

"Mrs. Simmons is the best old nurse that ever was," said Mary to Agony, as they took their way back to the woods an hour later. "I'm so glad to have had this opportunity of paying her a visit. I haven't seen her for nearly ten years. Wasn't she funny, though, when I told her that father might have to go to Japan in the interests of his firm? She thought there was nobody in Japan but heathens and missionaries."

"Shall you go to Japan too, if your father goes?" asked Agony.

"I most likely shall," replied Mary. "I finished my school this June and do not intend to go to college for another year anyway; so I might as well have the trip and the experience of living in a foreign country. Father would only have to remain there one year, or two at the most."

"How soon are you going?" asked Agony, a little awed by Mary's casual tone as she spoke of the great journey. Evidently Mary had traveled much, for the prospect of going around the world did not seem to excite her in the least.

They were sitting in Mrs. Simmons' little spring house when Mary told about the possibility of her going to Japan. This spring house stood at some distance from the house; down at the point where the lane ran off from the main road. It looked so utterly cool and inviting, with its vine covered walls, that with an exclamation of pleasure the two girls turned aside for one more drink before beginning the long walk through the woods.

Seated upon the edge of the basin which held the water, Mary talked of Japan, and Agony wheeled around upon the narrow ledge to gaze at her in wonder and envy.

"I wish I could go to Japan!" she exclaimed vehemently, giving a vigorous kick with her foot to express her longing. The motion disturbed her balance and she careened over sidewise; Mary put out her hand to steady her, lost her balance, and went with a splash into the basin. The water was not deep, but it was very, very wet, and Mary came out dripping.

For a moment the two girls stood helpless with laughter; then Mary said: "I suppose I'll have to go back and get some dry things from Mrs. Simmons, but I wish I didn't; it will take us quite a while to go back, and it will delay us considerably. I promised Mrs. Grayson I'd be back in camp before dark, and we won't be able to make it if we go back to Mrs. Simmons's. I've a good mind to go on just as I am; it's so hot I can't possibly take cold."

"I tell you what we can do," said Agony, getting a sudden inspiration. "We can divide these bloomers of mine in half. They're made on a foundation of thinner material that will do very well for me to wear home, and you can wear the green part. With your sweater on over them nobody will ever know whether you have on a middy or not. We can carry you wet suit on a pole through the woods and it'll be dry by the time we get home, and you won't have to lose any time by going back to Mrs. Simmons's."

"Great idea!" said Mary, brightening. "Are you really willing to divide your bloomers? I'd be ever so much obliged."

"It's no trouble," replied Agony. "All I have to do is cut the threads where the top is tacked on to the foundation. It's really two pairs of bloomers." She was already cutting the tacking threads with her pocket knife.

Mary put on the green bloomers and Agony the brown foundation pair, and laughing over the mishap and the clever way of handling the problem, the two crossed the road and entered the woods.

"What's that loud cheeping noise?" Agony asked almost as soon as they had entered into the deep shadow of the high pines.

"Sounds like a bird in trouble," answered Mary, her practised ear recognizing the note of distress in the incessant twittering.

A few steps farther they came upon a man sitting in a wheel chair under one of the tallest pines they had ever seen, a man whose right foot was so thickly wrapped in bandages that it was three times the size of the other one. He was peering intently up into the tree above him, and did not notice the approach of the two girls. Mary and Agony followed his gaze and saw, high up among the topmost swaying branches, a sight that thrilled them with pity and distress. Dangling by a string which was tangled about one of her feet, hung a mother robin, desperately struggling to get free, fluttering, fluttering, beating the air frantically with her wings and uttering piercing cries of anguish that drove the hearers almost to desperation. Nearby was her nest, and on the edge of it sat the mate, uttering cries as shrill with anguish as those of the helpless captive.

"Oh, the poor, poor bird!" cried Mary, her eyes filling with tears of pity and grief. At the sound of her voice the man in the wheel chair lowered his eyes and became aware of the girls' presence. As he turned to look at them Mary caught in his eyes a look of infinite horror and pity at the plight of the wretched bird above him. That expression deepened Mary's emotion; the tears began to run down her cheeks. Agony stood beside her stricken and silent.

"How did it happen?" Mary asked huskily, addressing the stranger unceremoniously.

"I don't know exactly," replied the man. "I was sitting here reading when all of a sudden I heard the bird's shrill cry of distress and looked up to see her dangling there at the end of that string."

"Can't we do something?" asked Mary, putting her hands over her ears to shut out the piercing cries. "She'll flutter herself to death before long."

"I'm afraid she will," replied the man, "There doesn't seem to be any hope of her freeing herself."

"She shan't flutter herself to death," said Mary, with sudden resolution. "I'm going to climb the tree and cut her loose."

"That will be impossible," said the man. "She is up in the very top of the tree."

"I'm going to try, anyway," replied Mary, with spirit. "Let me take your knife, will you please, Agony?"

The lowest branches of the pine were far above her head, and in order to get a foothold in them Mary had to climb a neighboring tree and swing herself across. The ground seemed terrifying far away even from this lowest branch; but this was only the beginning. She resolutely refrained from looking down and kept on steadily, branch above branch, until she reached the one from which the robin hung. Then began the most perilous part of the undertaking. To reach the bird she must crawl out on this branch for a distance of at least six feet, there being no limb directly underneath for her to walk out on. Praying for a steady balance, she swung herself astride of the branch, and holding on tightly with her hands began hitching herself slowly outward. The bough bent sickeningly under her; Agony below shrieked and covered her eyes; then opened them again and continued to gaze in horrified fascination as inch by inch Mary neared the wildly fluttering bird, whose terror had increased a hundred-fold at the human presence so near it.

There came an ominous cracking sound; Agony uttered another shriek and turned away; the next instant the shrill cries of the bird ceased; the man in the chair gave vent to a long drawn "Ah-h!" Agony looked up to see the exhausted bird fluttering to the ground beside her, a length of string still hanging to its foot, while Mary slowly and carefully worked her way back to the trunk of the tree. In a few minutes she slid to the ground and sat there, breathless and trembling, but triumphant.

"I got it!" she panted. Then, turning to the man in the chair, she exclaimed, "There now, who said it was impossible?"

The man applauded vigorously. "That was the bravest act I have ever seen performed," he said admiringly. "You're the right stuff, whoever you are, and I take my hat off to you."

"Anybody would have done it," murmured Mary modestly, as she rose and prepared to depart.

"How could you do it?" marveled Agony, as the two walked homeward through the woods. "Weren't you horribly scared?"

"Yes, I was," admitted Mary frankly. "When I started to go out on that branch I was shaking so that I could hardly hold on. It seemed miles to the ground, and I got so dizzy I turned faint for a moment. But I tried to think of something else, and kept on going, and pretty soon I could reach the string to cut it."

The boundless admiration with which Agony regarded Mary's act of bravery was gradually swallowed up in envy. Why hadn't she herself been the one to climb up and rescue that poor bird? She would give anything to have done such a spectacular thing. Deep in her heart, however, she knew she would never have had the courage to crawl out on that branch even if she had thought of it first.

Silence fell upon the two girls as they walked along in the gradually failing light; all topics of conversation seemed to have been exhausted. Mary's clothes were dry before they were through the woods, and she put them on to save the trouble of carrying them, giving Agony back her green bloomers.

"Thank you so much for letting me wear them," she said earnestly. "If it hadn't been for your doing that I wouldn't have been in time to save that robin. It was really that inspiration of yours that saved him, not my climbing the tree."

Even in the hour of her triumph Mary was eager to give the credit to someone else, and Agony began to feel rather humble and small before such a generous spirit, even though her vanity strove to accept the measure of credit given as justly due.

When they were crossing the river they saw Dr. Grayson standing on the dock, shading his eyes to look over the water.

"There's the Doctor, looking for us!" exclaimed Mary. "It must be late and he's worried about us." She doubled her speed with the oars, hailing the Doctor across the water to reassure him. A few moments later the boat touched the dock.

"Mary," said the Doctor, before she was fairly out, "a message has come from your father saying that he must sail for Japan one week from today and you must come home immediately. In order to catch the boat you will have to leave for San Francisco not later than the day after tomorrow. There is an early train for New York tomorrow morning from Green's Landing. I will take you down in the launch, for the river steamer will not get there in time. Be ready to leave camp at half past five tomorrow morning. You will have to pack tonight."

Mary gasped and clutched Agony's hand convulsively.

"I have--to--leave--camp!" she breathed faintly. "I'm--going--to--Japan!"