Chapter XVIII. Dorothy in Danger

Picnic day came at last, and with it there drew up to the gate of Dalton School two four-horse wagons, the regular "straw-ride" variety.

Mr. Ford had provided the conveyances, and when all the girls had been seated on the big side benches with parasols, lunch boxes and "happy smiling faces," the ride itself constituted a thoroughly enjoyable outing.

Sarah was there, between Dorothy and Tavia, and upon her arrival at the school (the wagon had stopped for her as it came up) she received a hearty welcome--an ovation, Tavia called it.

Her face was pale, and her manner nervous, but she whispered aside to Dorothy that she was so happy, and that she could never have been happy with the girls after the trouble if Dorothy had not "straightened every thing out for her."

Miss Ellis, too, seemed very much pleased at the prospect of a happy day--"after all," she thought, "her girls were well worth working for." It was a beautiful day in June and the ride to the woods was perfumed with that rare and wonderful incense--vapory sweetness of flowers warmed by the soft sunshine of early summer.

Blossoms brushed the faces of our friends as the picnic wagons rumbled on and many a wreath of "laurel" was pressed to the brow of fair graduates as the maple leaves in the hands of willing weavers, were made into crowns for the "grads."

A secret was plainly lurking in the eyes of Alice MacAllister. Dorothy had remarked that girls, alone, would probably be lost in the great, dark picnic place, for the pine trees grew so close there, the grounds were often called "Twilight Grove"; but Alice only smiled broadly and replied:

"You just wait--the woods may be enchanted."

"Splendid idea," declared Tavia, "I do need so much a little Brownie or a goblin to help me with my housework. Fancy going home with a dear little Jackanapes to carry my 'dinner pail'!" and at this suggestion every one seemed to enjoy the grotesque idea that Tavia had outlined.

The grove was finally reached, and the happy picnic party lost no time in leaving the wagons, and making for the "best spots."

But no sooner had they entered the great tall gateway than they were set upon by a tribe of very lively goblins, for, from behind tree and bush there darted upon the unsuspecting girls a rollicking, frolicking band of boys--the boys' school having come to the grove to surprise the girls, and help them enjoy the breaking up picnic.

"I told you we might find the woods enchanted," said Alice who, of course had learned of the secret, as it was Mr. MacAllister who provided the wagons for the boys as well as for the girls.

Such running about and such shouting! Some lads had hidden in the pines and now as the girls ran through the grove, the "goblins" dropped down upon their unsuspecting heads.

Tavia and Alice helped make things livelier by gathering up parasols and lunch boxes that had been left in the wagons for safety. These they gave to the boys, who lost no time in forming a brigade, parasols in the air and boxes under arms, to the distress and dismay of the unlucky owners.

But there was still another surprise in store for the school children. When everything was fairly settled down for a day in the woods, a two seated carriage drove in, and in this were President of the Town Council, Franklin MacAllister; the Treasurer of Dalton, Major Dale, Squire Travers and Ralph Willoby.

Wild cheers went up from the woods as the party entered the grove; first for the president, then for the major and a "hip-hip" and series of hurrahs for the new squire.

Certainly it was jolly to have such a crowd in the shady woods. The officials told Miss Ellis they came to get acquainted with the pupils of the Dalton schools. Also, they said, it was quite necessary to look after so important a gathering officially, as there was the lake, and other dangers, to which over enthusiastic youths might be more or less exposed.

Major Dale and Mr. MacAllister only remained long enough to see that everything was satisfactorily started, and then left, charging Ralph Willoby and Squire Travers to act as special officers. That this was a wise precaution was plainly demonstrated before the day ended.

Toward noon the merry-makers scattered throughout the spacious grounds, looking for particularly pleasant spots to eat lunch. This was by no means a difficult matter, for there were rustic benches built around wonderful trees, besides little caves lined with soft pine needles and covered with brown mounds of them.

The diversity of natural beauties made this grove famous, for many miles around, and never before, perhaps, was every nook and corner so thoroughly explored.

Ralph and the squire roamed around, seeing to it that boys in boats kept a safe distance from the falls coming from the gates and old water wheel.

From this falls the roaring of the water could be heard for a considerable distance, and so noisy were the rapids a person might shout at another but a few feet away without being able to make his voice heard.

But the falls had a strange charm for Dorothy, and after lunch she wandered there all alone, just to see, to think and to be quiet. Other attractions had now claimed the attention of her companions, and she sat there, enjoying the falls alone.

She could scarcely hear a voice through the woods, so loudly did the falls splash and splatter.

Who, in her place, could have heard a man stealing up to that very spot? Who could know a scoundrel was there, at that moment ready to seize Dorothy?

A rough hand clutched her slender arm!

That man--Anderson--was glaring into her eyes! Dorothy screamed shrilly.

"Hush!" commanded the man, "or I'll throw you over the falls!" and his hand was upon Dorothy's throat, preventing further outcry.

"Tell me," he growled, "did Miles Burlock leave his money with your father?"

Poor Dorothy felt as if the world had gone, and all the woes of death were upon her!

Looking about him hastily the man loosed his hold on her throat for an answer, but instead another shrill scream rent the air.

"You little fool!" he muttered, "do you want me to throw you over?"

But at that moment an answer came--Ralph Willoby bounded through the grove and had Dorothy in his arms before she could realize he was there! Then with a look of baffled rage the man disappeared.

"Ralph!" whispered Dorothy.

"You are all right now," the young man assured her, putting his arm firmly around the trembling girl, "if you feel faint I can carry you. Do not try to walk."

The noise of the falls was gone now--the sky was all black.

"Oh," gasped Dorothy, "I can't hear, or see, I am--"

It was welcome oblivion, however painful that clutch at her heart.

She could not remember--was it Ralph, or the squire?

She had been thinking how brave Ralph was--But now she could not think, it was all dark night!