Read CHAPTER IV of The Motor Maids at Sunrise Camp , free online book, by Katherine Stokes, on ReadCentral.com.

Table top

Miss Campbell was quite willing to trust her brood with Ben Austen.

“He was always reliable,” she remarked. “When he was a baby, his mother could depend on him not to cry at the wrong time, although, of course, he was only human.”

On the whole, she was relieved that her cousin had asked Ben to make them a visit. Mr. Lupo was all very well and had guided their walking parties up the trails, or, seated beside Billie in the “Comet,” had pointed out good roads for motoring; but Miss Campbell did not consider him as entirely to be trusted, because, as you probably recall, she never liked mixed bloods nor mixed colors, either.

Some days after their arrival, when they had quite recovered from that unconquerable disposition to sleep, which always attacks lowlanders visiting the mountains, Billie proposed that they take a walking trip across a tableland which separated their mountain from the one behind, and finally scale the peak beyond, where the view, it was said, was magnificent.

“Let’s go to-day while the spirit moves us and it’s so delightfully cool,” she suggested at breakfast.

“But Mr. Lupo isn’t here,” objected Miss Campbell. “He’s gone to the village.”

“We know the way, don’t we, Ben? Mr. Lupo showed us the trail yesterday. Most of it goes through the woods. It’s only two miles across ’Table Top’ and then we get to the other mountain. I’m wild to go. I’m beginning to feel shut in, and I want to see what’s on the other side of this Chinese wall.”

“More Chinese walls,” observed Ben gravely.

“Mr. Lupo is such a restraining influence,” put in Nancy. “When he’s along, we have no real conversation.”

“He is a kind of a wet blanket,” observed Percy. “You never know whether he has heard you or not. You generally have a feeling he has, but that your remarks are too trivial for comment.”

“All of which means,” said Miss Campbell, “that you want to go off for the day without a guide.”

“Please, Cousin Helen,” pleaded Billie.

“Dear Miss Campbell, won’t you let us?” cried the other Motor Maids.

“Not because that feather-top Percy is with you, but because Ben is here, I suppose I might as well consent,” said Miss Campbell.

“Old Ben is just as much of a feather-top as I am, Miss Campbell,” protested Percy. “He deceives people because he looks like an Indian. I’ve got a serious mind underneath all this curl and color.”

“I don’t believe it,” answered Miss Campbell. “But I wouldn’t have you changed, my boy. I like you as you are.”

After this two-sided compliment, they took it for granted that consent had been given and Billie rushed off to see Mrs. Lupo about the lunch.

They had come to learn during that first week in camp that Mrs. Lupo was a law unto herself. For one thing, the blackberries that Billie had purchased of the mountain girl had never come to the table, although the girls kept looking for them to appear in the form of a cobbler or a roly-poly pudding. What had become of them they never learned, but Billie had an uncomfortable suspicion that they had been tossed into the garbage pail.

“We can’t do anything about it, my dear,” Miss Campbell had informed Billie. “The woman certainly holds us in the hollow of her hand unless we want to do our own cooking.”

Billie smiled. Miss Campbell was never known to boil a kettleful of water, let alone cook a meal. If there was any culinary work to be done the Motor Maids would do it, and Miss Campbell might possibly arrange the salt cellars or offer to go over the silver with a polishing cloth.

Mrs. Lupo dumbly acquiesced to the lunch.

“We will be glad to make the sandwiches, Mrs. Lupo,” said Billie timidly. “Please let us have some cold meat. I suppose there is plenty of bread? Will you hard-boil a dozen eggs?”

Mrs. Lupo rarely replied to any question addressed to her, but she went about getting the things for the lunch and Billie breathed a sigh of silent thanks.

“It’s really terrible to be a slave to one’s cook,” she thought. “But I know perfectly well that if I ever tried to subjugate Mrs. Lupo I’d get mad, and she would just fold her tent like the Arab and silently steal away, and one morning there would be no breakfast.”

Billie had tried several methods with Mrs. Lupo. She had said good morning with a polite smile, but received no response. Once she had added:

“How do you feel this morning, Mrs. Lupo?”

A dead silence had followed this courteous inquiry.

“Wires crossed,” Percy had cried. “Try again, Central.”

They had all laughed at this witticism and Billie had hoped Mrs. Lupo had not understood.

“If you had lived in the mountains all your life I guess you wouldn’t be very communicative, either,” she had admonished Percy, after Mrs. Lupo had glided noiselessly out of the room.

“I guess I wouldn’t miss a call,” answered Percy. “If there was any one to call, I wouldn’t hang up the receiver.”

There were times, however, when Billie could scarcely conceal her irritation, and this morning nothing went quite as she had planned.

There was only enough bread for a dozen sandwiches and there were only six eggs.

“But I said a dozen eggs, Mrs. Lupo,” she said, after she had sliced and buttered the bread and glancing up saw six eggs cooling in a pan. “You know we are going to take a long walk across Table Top to Indian Head.”

The silence was profound.

“And we need more bread. Will you get me another loaf, please?”

No reply. Mrs. Lupo was quietly stringing beans on a bench by the door of the lean-to which served the camp as a kitchen.

“Did you hear what I asked?” demanded Billie.

Nancy and Mary, placing ham between the slices of bread, looked up quickly, half amused and half frightened.

“Did you hear me ask you a question, Mrs. Lupo?” repeated Billie, exasperated beyond endurance.

Mrs. Lupo went on stringing beans.

Brandishing the long carving knife, Billie went over and stood in front of the strange woman. Percy, peeping through the half open door, was grinning, and Nancy stifled a giggle.

“When I speak to you I expect an answer, Mrs. Lupo,” said Billie, trying to keep her voice smooth and even. “Now, answer me at once.”

Mrs. Lupo looked up mildly surprised.

“There ain’t no more bread and there ain’t no more eggs,” she said, in a voice that sounded like an echo.

Billie went back to her work without a word, and later, when they had started on the walk with the small allowance of lunch packed in a candy box, Percy teased her and called her the javelin thrower.

“I was almost tempted to pitch it at her,” said Billie. “She is the most aggravating human being I ever saw. I’ll certainly never address another word to her, but it’s so hard to remember not to be agreeable.”

The placid depths of Billie’s amiable nature had been so stirred by the incident that it took her some time to calm down, and she went blindly along the trail following Ben without seeing anything or anybody.

“Don’t let her jar you, Billie,” said Ben, soothingly. “If you want to forget your troubles, just have a look at Nancy-Bell. She looks like a fashion plate lady standing on the top of Mont Blanc.”

Nancy had disappeared just when they were ready to start and kept them waiting fifteen minutes, which had also served to aggravate Billie’s ruffled temper.

“Goodness me,” exclaimed Billie, laughing, “the child has put on her new walking costume made by Delosia Moxley’s mother! When the climbing part comes, what will she do, Ben?”

Ben shook his head doubtfully.

“How do you like it, Billie dear?” asked Nancy in a honeyed tone, noticing her friend’s backward glances.

“It’s awfully pretty, Nancy. Lovely color, but ”

“You see, the skirt’s quite broad,” interrupted Nancy, anticipating objections and endeavoring to spread the skirt to the full limit of its yard and a quarter.

“Just about as broad as one trouser leg,” teased Ben.

Nancy ignored the remark, and the pheasant’s feather in her hat seemed to quiver with indignation.

“Where’s the crook?” asked Mary politely.

“I’m her crook,” put in Percy. “You’ll find she’ll be using me as a staff presently when she has to take a step six inches instead of five.”

“We’ll be carrying her yet,” Ben predicted.

“I think you are all perfectly horrid,” ejaculated Nancy, who indeed looked as pretty as a picture in the blue velveteen. There was the coral tie at her throat, as she had planned, and perched on her curls was the jauntiest little hat imaginable that served only to keep the sun off the top of her head and was no protection whatever to her tip-tilted freckled nose. Mary and Elinor wore jimmies bought in the village, and Billie wore no hat at all.

“No, we aren’t, Nancy dear. We’re just teasing,” said Billie. “You look sweet, but why have you never worn it before?”

“To tell the truth, I was afraid of the scorn of Mr. Lupo,” said Nancy. “All of you are just like a family, so it didn’t matter, but Mr. Lupo might have thought me, well an amateur. I’ve been dying to wear it,” she added, giving a dance step and looking down with pride at the snug-fitting skirt. “Of course, I know the skirt is a bit narrow. You know how Mrs. Moxley is, just determined to have her own way. It was all I could do to get her to put the extra quarter of a yard in the skirt. But I think I can manage it if we don’t walk too fast. There is so much level ground on this walk, too, all that table land, you know.”

Ben gave a covert smile and the others laughed openly.

“You funny child,” said Billie. “It’s really beautiful to see a person enjoy clothes like that. You look sweet enough to charm a snake, and if the walking is too stiff, we’ll just carry you.”

“So far so good,” said Ben, “but on the other side of Table Top there’ll be some climb.”

Nancy did not hear this prediction.

So far, indeed, the trail was a broad and honest path leading through the pine forest; but after a while, as it descended toward the tableland, it grew so narrow as to be imperceptible to everybody but Ben, whose eyes, trained by long months of camping and vacation walking trips, could pick out the faintest indication of a path where the others saw nothing at all.

It was well past noon when at last they arrived at a scooped out area of land between the two mountains, connecting them half way to their summit, like the web foot of a duck.

Here, hungry and tired, they paused for lunch, and somehow, two sandwiches and a boiled egg apiece didn’t seem to go very far.

“I have to apologize,” said Billie. “There was nothing in the camp to eat. I suppose that’s why Mr. Lupo made his mysterious visit to the village: to get supplies.”

“I’m thankful it’s all gone and there is no more,” announced Percy. “It’s something less to carry,” he added, tying a cord around Nancy’s coat and his own and hanging them over his back like a peddler’s pack.

“Be still,” whispered Elinor, raising a warning hand, “I was certain I heard music off in that direction.”

The six friends sat silently listening for strains of music. In the stillness of the forest they heard nothing but the songs of the birds, broken occasionally by the caw of a crow or the tapping of a woodpecker. But it was good to stop chattering for a while in this peaceful place, and Billie, lying on her back looking up into the interlacing branches of the trees, smiled happily.

How could she have been out of humor when just at their very doorstep lay the most wonderful enchanted forest? It would not be easy to recall silly domestic troubles in the midst of all this beauty.

“Curious. I was certain I heard the sound of some instrument like a mandolin or a zither,” said Elinor. “It was just one strain, almost as if the wind had blown over an aeolian harp.”

“It was fairy music,” put in Mary.

“Like enough,” said Ben; “and we had better be moving on,” he added, rising and leading the way. “The fairies don’t like human ears to hear their music and they might be playing tricks on us. Then we’d be in the deuce of a fix out in the wilderness.”

“They don’t mind at all,” said Mary. “You’re entirely mistaken, Ben. You are thinking of elves. The fairies are kind little people who never harm anyone.”

They had been walking for some time when they heard cries behind them.

“Help! Help!” screamed the voice of Nancy from around a curve in the trail.

“What did I tell you,” said Ben, running back with the others to see what had happened, and then bursting into a perfect roar of laughter.

There was Percy in the act of killing a long black snake, which was curled up with head thrust out in an attitude of defence, and there was Nancy, who had evidently started to run and, missing the trail, had rushed into a tall clump of bramble bushes. The brambles had wrapped themselves about her like the tentacles of an octopus, and the jaunty feather was caught in an overhanging branch.

“Don’t kill the snake, Percy,” objected Ben. “There are lots more just like him, and it won’t help any to kill one. Besides, they never start a quarrel.”

“All right, old S. P. C. A.,” said Percy, as relieved as the snake, which immediately glided off into the bushes as if it had actually understood that Ben was making a plea for its life.

With subdued giggles they released Nancy from the clutches of the brambles. The feather was broken in half and dragged dejectedly over the crown of her hat, and there was a long scratch across her left cheek.

“Do you remember Jim Phipps in the Fourth Grade, Ben,” began Percy, pointing to Nancy’s hat. “Do you remember the poem called ‘Absalom’ he recited? That is, he began it but he never got any farther than the first line, because he started out by saying, ’Abalsom, my son Abalsom.’”

The laugh was against Nancy, but she took it good-naturedly and joined in, while she broke the feather in half and left the lower end standing up in the band in a straight cockade.

And now the path, although it was on level ground, seemed to grow more and more difficult. Ben, glancing behind him, doubtfully remarked:

“As long as there are only two miles of this, I suppose we can stand it, but if any person feels tired, sing out and we’ll start back without trying to make Indian Head.”

“We are all right,” they assured him.

For a long time they walked on in silence. The ground was soft and squashy under foot, and Billie privately believed that the trail lay only in Ben’s imagination.

“Ben,” she said at last. “I think maybe we had better start back. We don’t seem to be getting anywhere, and this ground is like a sponge.”

Silently they turned their faces in the other direction, feeling all at once chilled and tired and hungry. Ben, leading the way with Billie, began to look serious.

“Billie,” he said in a low voice after a while, “I am afraid I am not worthy the confidence Miss Campbell has placed in me. I am afraid I’ll have to confess that we are lost.”