Chapter XI. A Night-Piece.
 

It was clear moonlight when the girls went to bed; clear, that is, to Hildegarde's unpractised eyes. She saw only the brilliant stars overhead, and took no note of the low bank of cloud in the south. Captain Roger (for Roger was in command at camp, Mr. Merryweather only coming out at night on his bicycle, and going in again to his business in the morning), after a critical survey of the sky, went the rounds in his quiet way before bedtime, making all secure, but said nothing to anybody. Going to bed was a matter of some labour at the camp. During the day the beds were piled one on top of another in the one bedroom, the blankets, after hanging in the air for two or three hours, being folded and laid over them. Only in the tent where Mr. and Mrs. Merryweather slept the beds remained stationary all day, the sides of the tent being rolled high, to let the air circulate in every direction.

When nine o'clock came, or ten, as the case might be, the order was given, "Bring out the beds!" Straightway the boys made broad their backs, and walked about like long-legged tortoises, distributing mattresses here and there. The three girls slept in the bedroom which opened off the living-room; the boys and Roger carried their beds into the second tent, or under the trees, or into the boat-house, as fancy suggested, and the wind favoured. Then blankets were unrolled, and the business of bed-making went on merrily.

As I said, it was clear moonlight when the girls went to bed; but somewhere in the middle of the night Hildegarde was waked by a rustle and a roar. Visions of lions ramped before her still- dreaming eyes; she shuddered awake, to find a gale raging round the camp. Outside was one continuous roar of waves on the shore, while overhead the wind clutched and tore at the branches, and shook the frail hut to its foundations. Hildegarde lay still and listened, with a luxurious sense of safety amid the wild tumult.

"But I am safe, and live at home!" she said softly. Then suddenly a thought came, like a cold hand laid on her heart, and she sat up in bed, her breath coming quickly.

"Bell!" she said, under breath, that she might not wake little Kitty, "Bell, wake up!"

"What is it?" asked Bell, turning drowsily on her side. "Not our turn to get breakfast, you know."

"There is a storm! Hear it raging outside. Oh, Bell! the birch canoe! Can you remember whether we put her in the boat-house when we came in from paddling?"

Bell was wide awake now, and on her feet in an instant.

"We did not!" she said, searching frantically for her clothes. "My dear, we left her; don't you remember? The boys were just cutting wood, and we thought we would wait till they finished, and then,-- what a wretch I am! What is happening to this skirt?"

"I am putting it on too," said Hildegarde. "It is mine. Here is yours. Now a jacket; there, we are all right. Is any one sleeping on the piazza?"

"No, they all went up to the pine grove to-night, or last night, or whenever it was. Have you any idea what time it is? Carefully now, Hilda. I will open the door, and you must be ready to help me shut it."

The two girls stepped out into the black night, and the wind clutched them. They were thrown violently against the wall of the hut, but contrived to shut the door and make it fast; then, bending low and holding by each other, they crept along toward the boat-house. The waves were dashing against the rocks, the spray flew in their faces, half blinding them; but it was not very dark, as there was a moon behind the clouds, and they could see their way dimly.

"Do you think we shall find her?" asked Hildegarde under her breath.

"I can't hear!" shouted Bell.

"Do you think we shall find her?"

Hildegarde thought she was shrieking, but her friend only shook her head.

"That comes of asking stupid questions," said Hildegarde to herself; and she lowered her head and fought her way on in silence.

Now, groping with their hands, they found the wall of the boathouse, and crept along in its lee, sheltered somewhat from the blast; but when they stepped out on the wharf, the wind seized them with such fury that Hildegarde tottered, staggered back a step, and felt the ground slip from under her. Another moment, and she would have been in the wild water; but Bell held her with a grasp of steel, and with one strong heave lifted her bodily to the wharf again. Then she shook her gently, "to bring back your nerve!" she shouted in explanation; and the next moment recoiled herself with a shriek that rang above the roar of wind and wave. Up from the wharf rose two forms, blacker than the blackness of night and storm, and confronted them. The two girls clung close together.

"What is it?" cried Bell, faintly.

Now Hildegarde was in mortal terror of the storm, but she did not fear anything that had human shape. "Who are you?" she asked, sternly. "What are you doing on this wharf?"

"We are playing on the jewsharp!" replied a familiar voice. "What are you doing, if it comes to that?"

"Oh, Jerry! oh, Phil! how could you frighten us so? We thought,--I don't know what we didn't think. We came to see if the canoe was safe. We forgot to see that you put her up after tea."

"Just what we came for," said Phil. "She isn't here; I'm afraid she's gone."

The girls uttered a cry of dismay.

"Oh, it can't be! Look in the boathouse, boys; it is possible--"

"It is highly possible," said Jerry, "that she got up on end and walked in, as soon as she saw that the weather looked squally. She's a very sensible boat, but weak in the legs, if you follow me. I think she's gone; and a very pretty kettle of fish she makes to seethe two tender bodies in. I wouldn't be us, Fergs, my boy, when the Cap'n finds it out to-morrow."

"Wait," said Hildegarde, "oh, wait! Don't let us give up hope. It will do no harm to look, Jerry."

"No harm in life," said Jerry. "Just hold on to this wind, will you, while I get in."

With some difficulty he opened the boat-house door; then, sheltered behind it, he struck a match, while all pressed eagerly forward. There in her place, high and dry, lay the birch canoe. Nobody said anything for a moment; the relief was too great. Hildegarde felt the tears come to her eyes, she could not tell why; but she found herself saying under her breath, "We might have known he would do it; he always takes care of everything."

"Roger is a tedious person," said Gerald, turning off his satisfaction with a laugh. "The amount of virtue that he staggers under is enough to swamp anybody. He will come to the gallows yet, you'll see! Human nature must assert itself some time. Whew! there goes my head! Catch it, Bell, will you?"

"I am very, very hungry!" Phil announced with mournful emphasis. "It makes me starved to play this kind of game in the middle of the night. Can't we have some food, to celebrate the safety of the Cheemaun?"

"Me, too!" cried Gerald. "I am dying, Egypt, dying! a corpse among the alders dank---"

"Oh, do stop, boys!" cried Bell. "I'll push you off the wharf if you go on so."

"Oh, wouldn't us lorf, if she pushed us off the wharf!" cried Gerald.

"I am cross!" said Bell. "My hair is wound all round my neck, and I am half strangled. You boys think of nothing but eating from morning till night. But I am hungry myself, so come along!"

The four buffeted their way back to the house, and Phil climbed in at the pantry window and opened the kitchen door for the dripping party. They lighted a lantern, and judicious rummaging produced crackers and cheese, gingerbread, and some bottles of root beer. Merrily the four adventurers gathered round the table, dripping, rosy and breathless; the girls' long locks hung down over their shoulders, the boys' short curls were plastered close to their heads.

"We must be a lovely sight!" said Bell. "What a pity there is no one to see us! What do you want, Jerry?"

"I want raspberry jam, chiefly," said Gerald, "but first I want to make a speech. I propose a sentiment. Pledging the assembled company in this beaker of rich wine--. Let go that bottle, Ferguson, or I'll have your life! that's my beaker, I tell you! There! now you've upset it. Attendez seulement bis ich dein tete abhaue!"

"Take the butter-dish," said Bell. "That will do just as well."

"I pledge the assembled company in this rich butter," Gerald continued with dignity, "though it is not so comfortable to drink, and I propose, first, the confusion of Ferguson, who is a pettifogger and an armadillo, and, secondly, the health of our captain, Roger, the Codger, who saved the Cheemaun. Three cheers for the well-bred captain of the--"

"Thank you so much!" said Roger, looking in through the window. "Empty compliments are all very well, but I think I might have been asked to supper."

He was hailed with a chorus of shouts, and stepping in through the window, drew up a stool and sat down by Hildegarde.

"What have you been doing, children?" he asked, looking round at the four, who had now arrived at the smoking stage of dampness, each sending up his little pillar of cloud.

Four eager voices told him of the search and the finding, and he smiled quietly as he helped himself to jam.

"I wonder what you took me for!" he said, "I truly wonder. The boat went to bed at nine o'clock, with the rest of the children. I beg your pardon, Miss Grahame," he added, turning to Hildegarde with his kind, grave smile, "for naming you in company with this lawless crew of mine."

"Oh, please," cried Hildegarde, "I like to--I wish I were--" She stammered, and felt herself blushing in the furious way that makes a girl the most helpless creature in the world. She would have given her hand, she thought, to keep back the tide that surged up over throat and cheek and brow. "When there is nothing earthly to blush about, ninny!" she almost cried aloud.

But Bell came to the rescue. "She wishes she were much wiser than the rest of us, Roger, but she doesn't think she is, and I am really not so sure about it myself. That is the best part of her: she's just a girl."

"Just a girl!" said Roger, looking at Hildegarde; and he looked so kindly that poor Hildegarde blushed again.