Read CHAPTER VIII - The “Stunt” of For the Sake of the School , free online book, by Angela Brazil, on ReadCentral.com.

The general verdict on Rona, when she arrived back at The Woodlands, was that she was wonderfully improved.

“It isn’t only her dresses,” said Gertrude Oliver, “though she looks a different girl in her new clothes; her whole style’s altered.  She used to be so fearfully loud.  She’s really toned down in the most amazing fashion.  I couldn’t have believed it possible.”

“I’m afraid it’s only a veneer,” declared Stephanie, with a slighting little laugh.  “You’ll find plenty of raw backwoods underneath, ready to crop up when she’s off her guard.  You should have heard her this morning.”

“And she broke an ink-bottle,” added Beth Broadway.

“Well, she’s not perfect yet, of course, but I stick to it that she’s improved.”

“Oh, I dare say!  But Ulyth’s welcome to keep her cub.  She’ll always be more or less of a trial.  What else can you expect?  ’What’s bred in the bone will come out!’”

“Yes, I’m a great believer in heredity,” urged Beth, taking up the cudgels for her chum.  “If you have ancestors it gives you a decided pull.”

“Everybody has ancestors, you goose,” corrected Gertrude.

“Well, of course I mean aristocratic ones.  The others don’t count.  It must make a difference whether your grandfather was a gentleman or a farm-boy.  Rona says herself she’s a democrat.  I’m sure she looked the part when she arrived.”

“I don’t know that she exactly looks it now, though,” said Gertrude, championing Rona for once.

Everyone at the school realized that the Cuckoo was trying to behave herself.  The struggles towards perfection were sometimes almost pathetic, though the girls mostly viewed them from the humorous side.  She would sit up suddenly, bolt upright, at the tea table, if Miss Bowes’ eye suggested that she was lolling; she apologized for accidents at which she had laughed before, and she corrected herself if a backwoods expression escaped her.

“Am I really any shakes smarter I mean, more toned up than I was?” she asked Ulyth anxiously.

“You’re far better than you were last term.  Do go on trying, that’s all!”

“Will they take me as a candidate in the Camp-fire League?”

“I expect so, but we shall have to ask Mrs. Arnold about that.”

Since the great reunion by the stream in September there had been no meetings of the Camp-fire League.  Mrs. Arnold had been ill, and then had gone away to recruit her health, and no one was able to take her place as “Guardian of the Fire”.  She was recovered now, and at home again, and had promised to help to make up for lost time by superintending a gathering at the beginning of the new term.  It was to be held in the big hall of the school, though the girls begged hard to have it out-of-doors, pleading that on a fine evening they could keep perfectly warm, and it would only resemble a Fifth of November affair.

“That may be all very well for you, but I’m not going to risk Mrs. Arnold’s catching cold,” returned Miss Bowes; which argument put a final stop to the idea.

“We’ll have ripping fun in the hall, if we can’t be outside,” beamed Addie.  “I always enjoy a stunt.”

“What’s a stunt?” asked Rona.

“A stunt?  Why, it’s just a stunt!”

“It’s an American word,” explained Lizzie.  “It means just having any fun that comes.  An impromptu kind of thing, you know.  We sing, or recite, or act, or dance, on the spur of the moment anything to keep the ball rolling, and anybody may be called upon at any moment to stand up and perform.”

“Without knowing beforehand?” queried Rona, looking horror-stricken.

“Yes, that’s the fun of it.  We have a bag with all our names written on slips of paper, and we draw them out one by one to fill up the programme.  Nobody knows who’s to come next.  You may be the very first, or you may sit quaking all the evening, and never be called at all.”

“I hope to goodness I mean, I hope very much I shan’t be drawn.”

“You never know; so you’d better have something in your mind’s eye.”

Punctually at six o’clock on the appointed night the whole school filed into the hall, each girl carrying a candle in a candlestick.  Saluting their leader, they ranged themselves round the room for the opening ceremony.  At an indoor meeting this was of necessity different from the kindling of the camp-fire, but it had a certain impressiveness of its own.  First the lamps were extinguished, and the room was placed in entire darkness.  Then Mrs. Arnold struck a match and lighted her candle, which she held towards the Torch-bearer of highest rank, who lighted hers from it, and performed the same service for her next neighbour.  In this way, one after another, the candles were lighted all round the room, every girl saying, as she offered the flame to her comrade:  “I pass on my light!” After the “shining” song was sung, all the candlesticks were arranged on the large central table, taking the place the camp-fire would have occupied out-of-doors.

The business of the meeting came first, the roll-call was read, and the recorders gave their reports of the last gathering.  Several members were awarded honours for knowing the stars, being able to observe certain things in geology and field botany, or for ability in outdoor sports or indoor occupations, such as carpentry, stencilling, or sewing.  The ambulance work and the knitting done last term were specially noted and commended.  A few new candidates applied for enrolment, and their qualifications were carefully considered by the Guardian of the Fire.  Rona, after undergoing the League Catechism from Catherine Sullivan, the head girl and chief Torch-bearer, had submitted her name as candidate, and now waited with much anxiety to hear whether she would be accepted.  After several others had been admitted, Mrs. Arnold at last called: 

“Corona Margarita Mitchell.”

Quite startled at the unaccustomed sound of her full Christian name, Rona saluted and stepped forward.

“You have passed only three out of the seven tests required,” said Mrs. Arnold.  “I’m afraid you will have to try again, Rona, and see if you can be more successful before the next meeting.  No candidate can be accepted except on very good grounds.  That is the law of the League.”

Much crestfallen, the Cuckoo fell back into her place, and Mrs. Arnold was just about to read the next name when Ulyth interrupted: 

“Please, Guardian, if a candidate has shown unusual presence of mind, may that not stand in place of some of the other tests?”

“It depends on the circumstances.  How does that apply in this case?”

“Rona has saved a life,” declared Ulyth, then explained briefly how Dorothy had fallen on to the hearth and had been caught back from the fire in the very nick of time.

“In her thin dress she would probably have been burnt to death but for Rona’s quickness,” added Ulyth, with a tremble in her voice.

“I had not heard of this,” replied Mrs. Arnold.  “Rona is very greatly to be congratulated on her presence of mind.  Yes, I may safely say that it can cancel the tests in which she has failed, and that we may enrol her to-night as a candidate.  Corona Margarita Mitchell, if for three months you preserve a good character in the school, and learn to recite the seven rules of the Camp-fire Law, you may then present yourself as eligible for the initial rank of Wood-gatherer in the League.  There is your Candidate’s Badge.”

Immensely gratified, Rona received her little bow of blue ribbon.  She had hardly dared to hope for success, as Catherine had been rather withering over her Catechism, and had warned her that she would probably be disqualified.  It was pleasant to meet with encouragement, and especially to be commended before the whole school.  She had never dreamt of such luck, and she looked her grateful thanks at Ulyth across the room.

She was the last but one on the list of applicants, and when Jessie Howard (alas, poor Jessie!) had been rejected the ceremonial part of the meeting was over.  The girls smiled, for now the “stunt” was to begin.  Catherine produced the bag, shook it well, and handed it to Mrs. Arnold, who drew out a slip of paper.

“Marjorie Earnshaw!” she announced.

“Glad it’s one of the Sixth to open the ball,” murmured some of the younger girls as Marjorie stepped to the circle reserved for performers in front of the table.

The owner of the one guitar in the school was always much in request at Camp-fire gatherings, so it seemed a fortunate chance that her name should be drawn first.  She had brought her instrument, so as to be prepared in case the lot fell on her, and giving the E string a last hurried tuning she sat down and began a popular American ditty.  It was a favourite among the girls, for it had a lively, rollicking chorus, which they sang with great gusto.  Fifty voices roaring out:  “Don’t forget your Dinah!” seemed to break the ice and set the fun going.

Marjorie’s E string snapped suddenly, but she played as best she could on the others, though she confessed afterwards that she felt like a horse that has lost its shoe.  Except for this accident she would have responded to the enthusiastic calls of “Encore!”; as it was, she retired into the background to fix a new string.  It lent a decided element of excitement to the programme that nobody knew what the next item was to be.  The lot, as it happened, fell on one of the younger girls, who was overwhelmed with shyness and could only with great urging be persuaded to recite a short piece of poetry.  By the law of the Stunt everybody was obliged to perform if called upon, so Aveline fired off her sixteen lines of Longfellow with breathless speed, and fled back joyfully to the ranks of the Juniors.  Two piano solos and a step-dance followed, then the turn came to Doris Deane, a member of the Upper Fifth.  Doris’s speciality was acting, so she promptly begged for two assistants, and chose from IV B a couple of junior members who had practised with her before.  Taking Nellie and Trissie for “Asia” and “Australia”, she gave the scene from Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch where that delightful but haphazard heroine gets herself and the children ready to go to the opera.  The zeal with which she ironed their dresses, her alternate scoldings and cajolings, her wild hunt for the tickets, which all the while were stuck in her belt, the grandeur of her deportment when the family was at last prepared for the outing, all were most amusingly represented.  Doris was really a born actress, and so completely carried her audience with her that the lack of costumes and scenery was not felt in the force of the reality that she managed to throw into her part.  Covered with glory, she gave place to her successor, who, while bewailing the hardness of her luck in having to follow so smart a performance, recited a humorous ballad which won peals of applause.  Mrs. Arnold again dipped her hand into the bag and unfolded a twist of paper.

“Corona M. Mitchell,” she read.

“Not me, surely!  I can’t do anything,” objected Rona hastily.

“You’ll have to,” laughed the girls.  “No one’s let off.”

“I can’t, I tell you.  I’ve no parlour tricks.”

“Give us a story, Rona,” suggested Ulyth.  “One of those New Zealand adventures you used to tell to Peter and Dorothy.  They loved them.”

“Yes, yes!  A camp-fire story.  That would be spiffing!” clamoured the girls.  “Sit on the floor, near the fire, and we’ll all squat near you.  We haven’t had a story for ages and ages!”

“Tell it just as you did at home,” urged Ulyth.

“I’ll try my best,” sighed Rona, taking a small stool near the fire, so as to be slightly above the audience clustered round the hearthrug.

“It happened about a year ago,” she began; “that’s summer-time in New Zealand, you know, because the seasons are just opposite.  It was Pamela Higson’s birthday, and I’d been asked to go over for the day.  I saddled Brownie, my best pony, and started at seven, because it’s a twelve-mile ride to the Higsons’ farm, and I wanted to be early so as to have time for plenty of fun.  Brownie was fresh, and he wasn’t tired when I got there, so we decided to give him an hour’s rest and then ride up into the bush and have a picnic.  Pamela showed me her birthday presents while we waited.  She’d had a box sent her by the mail, and she was very delighted about it.

“Well, at perhaps eleven o’clock I set off with Pamela and the rest of the Higson children.  There was Jake, just my own age, and Billy, a little younger, and Connie and Minnie, the two smallest.  Oh yes, we each had our own horse or pony:  Everybody rides out there.  We slung baskets and tin cans over our saddles and then started up by the dry bed of the river towards the head of the gully.  It was very hot (January’s like July here), but we all had big hats and we didn’t care.  It was such fun to be together.  When your nearest neighbours are twelve miles off you don’t see them often enough to get tired of them.  Billy was always making jokes, and Jake was jolly too in a quiet kind of way.  Sometimes we could all ride abreast, and sometimes we had to go in single file, and our horses seemed to enjoy it as much as we did.  Brownie loved company, so it was a treat for him as well as for me.  The place we were going to was a piece of high land that lay at the top of the valley above the Higsons’ block.  There were generally plenty of berries up there, and we thought they’d just be ripe.  It took us a fairly long time to do the climb, because there was no proper road, only a rough track.  It was lovely, though, when we got up; we had a splendid view down the gully, and the air was so much cooler and fresher than it had been at the farm.  We tethered our horses and gathered scrub to make a fire and boil our kettle.  In New Zealand no one thinks of having a meal without drinking tea with it.  We’d the jolliest picnic.  The Higsons were famous for their cakes, and they’d brought plenty with them.  I can tell you we didn’t leave very many in the baskets.

“‘Best put out our camp-fire,’ Jake said when we’d finished; so we all set to work and stamped it out carefully.  Everything was so dry with the heat that a spark might easily have set fire to the bush.  Then we took our cans and went off to find berries.  There were heaps of them; so we just picked and picked and picked for ever so long.  Suddenly, when we were talking, we heard a noise and looked round.  There was a stampede among the horses, and two of them, Billy’s and Connie’s, had broken loose and were careering down the gully.  We ran as quick as lightning to the others for fear they might also free themselves and follow.  I caught Brownie by the bridle and soothed him as well as I could; but he was very excited and trembling, and kept sniffing.  Then I saw what had frightened him, for a puff of wind brought a puff of smoke with it, and ahead of us I saw a dark column whirl up towards the sky.  Even the youngest child who’s lived in the bush knows what that means.  When all the grass and everything is so dry, the least thing will start a fire.  Sometimes campers-out are careless, and the wind blows sparks; sometimes even a piece of an old bottle left lying about will act as a burning-glass.  We didn’t inquire the reason; all we knew was that we must tear back to the farm as rapidly as we could.  Bush fires spread fearfully fast, and this one would probably sweep straight down the gorge.

“With two animals gone, luck was against us.  Billy took Minnie’s pony, Connie mounted behind Jake, and I made Minnie come with me on Brownie, because he was so strong, and better able to bear the double burden than Pamela’s horse.  It was well for us we were good riders, for we pelted down that gully fit to break our necks.  Brownie was a sure-footed little beast, but the way he went slithering over rocks would have scared me if I hadn’t been more afraid of the fire behind.  We knew it would be touch and go whether we could save the farm or not.  If the men were all far away there would be very little chance, though we meant to do our level best.

“Well, as I was saying, we just stampeded down the gully, and our horses kept their feet somehow.  I guess we arrived at the house like a tornado.  We yelled out our news, and coo-eed to some of the men we could see working in the distance.  They came running at once, and Mrs. Higson sent up the rocket that was used on the farm as a danger-signal.  Fortunately the rest of the men had only gone a short way.  They were back almost directly, and everybody set to work to make a wide ring of bare land round the farm.  They cut down trees, and threw up earth, and burnt a great patch of grass, and we children helped too for all we were worth.  We were only just in time.  We could see the great cloud of smoke coming down the valley, and as it grew nearer we heard the roaring or the fire.  It seemed to bear down on us suddenly in a great burning sheet.  For a moment or two the air was so hot that we could scarcely breathe, then the flame struck our ring of bare land, and parted in two and passed on either side of us, leaving the farm as an island.  We watched it go crackling farther down the valley, till at last it spent itself in a rocky creek where it had nothing to feed on.  All the place it had passed over was burnt to cinders, a horrible black mass.  Only the house and the buildings and a few fields round them were untouched.  It was an awful birthday for poor Pamela.”

“Was your own farm hurt?” asked the girls breathlessly, as Rona paused in her story.

“Not at all.  You see it was in quite a different valley, and the fire hadn’t been near.  Jake rode home with me, to make sure I was safe.  Dad hadn’t even seen the smoke.”

“Suppose you hadn’t noticed the fire when you were up in the hills?”

“Then we should have been burnt to cinders, farm and all.”

“I think Rona’s most thrilling adventure will have to end our Stunt,” said Mrs. Arnold.  “It’s nearly eight o’clock.  Time to wind up and get ready for supper.  Attention, please!  Each girl take her candle.  Where’s our pianist?  Torch-bearer Catherine, will you start the Good-night Song?”

“I’m a candidate now, thanks to you!” exulted Rona to Ulyth; “perhaps by Easter I may be a Wood-gatherer!”

“It’s something to work for, isn’t it?” said Mrs. Arnold, who happened to overhear.