The castle had been built before the first known palace in Europe. It was fashioned centuries ago inside the walls of a stone cliff with two taller cliffs rising on either side. Beyond was a break between, allowing a narrow entrance to the cliff dwelling from the outside. In front there was a small plateau of rock ending in a precipice, which descended with a drop of a hundred feet to a new ledge, and then came another still deeper fall.
That afternoon a group of four persons were inside the ancient cliff dwelling. One of them – a young girl in an odd costume which was partly modern and yet suggesting an older race – had climbed to the crest of the ruins and stood, with her hand above her eyes, gazing about her.
Another girl, in a chamber below, was sitting upon a comfortable camp stool which she had undoubtedly brought with her, she was hammering industriously with a small steel hammer, and now and then stopped to work with her chisel at a solid stone wall. Evidently she believed some extraordinary treasure was embedded inside, since she never glanced away from her labors.
On the bottom floor historic influences had not kept the two remaining girls from the cheering occupation of preparing tea. The wood must have been brought from the country behind the cliffs, for a camp fire was burning in the old stone chamber, with a large kettle of water simmering above it.
One of the two girls – tall and foreign in appearance, with large dark eyes and thick dark hair parted in the middle over a low brow – left her task now and then. She would then walk twenty yards or more toward a figure lying quietly in the sunshine. In spite of the warmth this figure was wrapped in a great blanket which allowed only a fair head and thin face to show forth.
If no attention was vouchsafed her, she would quietly return to her occupation. But, by and by, without speaking, she came and spread a small cloth on a flat surface of rock. Then she unpacked an Indian basket stored with things for making tea. Immediately afterwards, putting her fingers to her lips, she summoned the other girls to join her.
In response Alice Ashton rose up at once and carefully stored away her precious bits of stone and her hammer and chisel into the bag she carried for the purpose. Then she climbed down the jagged but secure steps cut into the face of the rock so many years ago.
But Peggy Webster, at the summit of the cliff dwelling, refused to descend in any such sensible fashion.
Instead, she began to slide over the face of the rock, losing and then regaining her foothold. Below the others watched her half fascinated and half annoyed.
“Peggy!” one of the girls called warningly.
For Vera Lageloff had seen her safely reach a flat surface about ten feet from the plateau below. She had walked out to the edge of it and there stood poised for a moment with her back to the sun. Her pose was as virile and graceful as that of a young boy.
Then, before the watchers exactly realized her purpose, she had crouched and sprung from the ledge. For the instant she was in the air she was a figure of bronze and crimson. The moment had struck the earth, she was merely Peggy Webster, in a khaki Camp Fire costume with a red band about her black hair and a little out of breath from her plunge.
“There I have been wondering if I could accomplish that feat ever since I arrived in this stone age country,” she announced penitently, appearing more ashamed of her performance than proud.
“Well, as long as you are gratified and still alive, Peggy, I only request that you never make the same attempt again,” Betty Graham returned, her color returning swiftly, now that her momentary nervousness had passed. For she had come away from her task of guarding the fire just in time to behold the other girl’s act.
“Really, since we came West, Peggy dear, I am becoming more and more convinced that the Fates never intended you for a feminine person,” she went on. “There is never any guessing what reckless thing you may do next. I am afraid an accident may happen to you.”
While she was speaking, Bettina Graham had taken her seat on the ground and had begun pouring the hot water into a tea-kettle of generous size.
Peggy now dropped down beside her.
“Don’t say I am masculine, please, Bettina; I do so hate a masculine woman. Your last remark was only a more polite way of expressing the same unpleasant idea. Why don’t you say instead that I am ‘Seraphita?’ She is Balzac’s charming character – half girl, half boy, neither and both. When I am in favor with Tante she has a way of declaring me another Seraphita.”
“Besides your sudden plunge might have frightened Billy,” Vera Lageloff interrupted, not realizing how her speech betrayed the interest usually uppermost in her mind.
The figure, still wrapped in the blanket, was at present sitting up, looking from one girl to the other in a quietly disinterested fashion.
“Oh, no, I am never worried over Peggy when she is attempting athletic feats,” he announced. “She will never do herself serious harm in that way. What I fear for her, what I know will hurt her some day, are the experiences about which she is so scornful at present. You see she is perfectly convinced that she will never care for any human being outside her family and a few friends. So nothing and no one can ever harm her.”
Billy Webster accepted the cup of tea and a comfortable number of sandwiches which Vera now offered him.
“Don’t be absurd, Billy,” Peggy challenged, her face reddening in spite of her effects to appear undisturbed. “As far as you are concerned you will look ever so much better as soon as you cease behaving like an invalid. I do believe you are in better health than you wish us to think you are.”
“Perhaps I am; really I don’t exactly know,” Billy returned dispassionately, as if he were speaking of some one else. He was holding his cup and gazing over its rim. “I do enjoy having so little asked of me. It has never happened before, as I have always been expected to do the things I dislike. Now, I would far rather be half ill than to have to shoot and fish and do the kind of things Dan and the other fellows out here like to do. Besides, I really tried to make myself ill, so that father would have to consent to my coming West.”
Billy made this announcement without embarrassment, but not as if he cared whether or not it were believed.
It was his sister, Peggy, who flushed uncomfortably as she always did over her brother’s oddities. To her truthful mind and straightforward nature his peculiarities were impossible to understand.
But Billy did not look as if his words had been altogether true. In spite of his sister’s speech, he was far more fragile than he had been when she had said farewell to him at their farm in New Hampshire a few months before. She had then started west to join her aunt, Mrs. Burton, and become a member of the Sunrise Hill Camp Fire club in Arizona.
At this instant and without being observed, Vera shook her head at Peggy.
If no one else understood Billy Webster’s vagaries, the Russian girl with whom he had so deep a friendship apparently did, or if not she usually had an excuse for him.
But Peggy suddenly remembered that her brother was not supposed to know how ill he had been.
Then, almost at the same time, an interruption followed in the form of an extraordinary sound, or combination of sounds. First there was the long-drawn-out wail of annoyance and protest made by a small western burro; then an intermingling of faint shrieks of fear with gay laughter.
Peggy and Bettina both ran forward to the narrow opening between the two cliff walls. Then they beheld an extremely pretty, rather plump woman, with rose-colored cheeks and grey in her brown hair, riding astride a burro. The burro was being lead by another woman of the same age, extraordinarily like and yet unlike the other one. The woman on foot was more slender and paler, her hair was darker and not grey, and her eyes a deeper blue.
“Peggy, darling, for goodness sake help me get your mother off this beast,” she called out as soon as the two girls were inside the defile, “I have had to drag both the animal and Mollie Webster every inch of the way. See, Mollie, I told you that our camp was not far from this old cliff dwelling which the girls and I discovered and adopted the other day. You might easily have walked here.”
“So I might and would have, Polly O’Neill Burton, had I dreamed that you were going to make this wretched animal actually trot with me across a stone wilderness.”
During her protest, with some difficulty, Mrs. Webster was being persuaded to dismount from her burro by Peggy and Bettina. But she seemed not to have acquired the art of making the proper beginning, for her too long and too full skirt kept getting twisted around her.
“Better wear a proper Camp Fire costume, especially adapted for a Camp Fire guardian at the Grand Canyon of Arizona, Mollie,” Mrs. Burton suggested, going forward and leaving the girls to find some place to fasten the burro, when finally her beloved twin sister had made the descent to earth in safety.
Mrs. Burton’s costume was in fact charming and so simple that one would not easily have known how expensive it was. She wore tan-colored, high kid boots, wrinkling above the foot like mousquetaire gloves, a khaki-colored broadcloth coat and a short skirt with trousers of the same material beneath. Her hat was of French felt, a little deeper shade of brown, and trimmed with a soft red scarf.
“Billy, you look like an Indian chief with that blanket wrapped about you, provided one does not look too carefully on the inside,” she announced. “Hope the tea isn’t all gone; your mother needs some refreshment, although I don’t care for any.”
Then walking over to the edge of the cliff Mrs. Burton stood looking down, with a curious sensation of fascination and fear.
A moment later Mrs. Webster sat down beside her son, giving a suppressed sigh of relief. Billy seemed so much better, although he had been at the new Sunrise Camp but little over a week.
A short time before the Sunrise Hill Camp Fire party, who had been for several months living in a group of tents on the borders of the Painted Desert, had moved on to the neighborhood of the Grand Canyon. They were now in camp not far from the famous Angel Trail.
But before they were fairly settled a letter had arrived from Mrs. Webster saying that she would like to join the Camp Fire party and wished to bring along her two sons, Dan and Billy Webster.
There was no possibility of declining to welcome the newcomers, for it was Billy’s serious illness which had made a western trip necessary and forced his father’s consent to their joining his aunt’s camping party.
However, the campers were extraordinarily well pleased and particularly Polly Burton. For if her beloved Mollie were with her, surely her difficulties as Camp Fire guardian were over. She and Mollie were so unlike they were complements to each other.
“Fact is when we are together, Mollie mine, we have all the virtues and leave none to be desired,” Polly O’Neill, who was now Mrs. Richard Burton, had more than once announced to her twin sister.
And Mollie had laughed as she always did, accepting the speech as only one of her gifted sister’s absurdities. For, in spite of her Polly’s genius, her opinions never made much impression upon Mrs. Webster.
Nevertheless, perhaps on this point she was not altogether wrong. Already, since Mrs. Webster’s coming, the group of Camp Fire girls unconsciously were under the spell of its truth. There were some to whom Mollie Webster represented the influences which they needed and desired. She was far more motherly than her sister and loved to fuss and worry over each girl’s health and appetite. Yet, in her gentler fashion, she was really more exacting than Mrs. Burton, as such apparently yielding natures often are.
Already Alice Ashton and Vera Lageloff felt more closely drawn to Mrs. Webster – Vera, because she was Billy’s mother and had been her friend before she met Mrs. Burton.
With Alice Ashton the circumstances were different. For one thing, Alice felt that her Aunt Mollie took her more seriously and had a real respect for her intellectual interests and abilities. She could not always be perfectly certain that the other Camp Fire guardian was not sometimes a little amused by her ambitions.
Vera and Alice were both engaged in serving Mrs. Webster with tea. A moment later Bettina and Peggy walked over and stood on either side of Mrs. Burton.
“To what on earth, Tante, did you expect us to hitch that wretched beast?” Bettina demanded. “Peggy did finally manage to tie him to a cliff but it required an extraordinary amount of talent.”
Laughing, Mrs. Burton slipped one hand inside Peggy’s and the other in Bettina’s.
“Sorry, children, but I could not persuade Mollie to come with me in any other way and I did want her to see this wonderful view. You know how she hates walking, but perhaps we may get her into better habits while she is in the West with us. Look down there. The distance is tremendous, isn’t it? and yet this is only one of the smaller canyons – not the Grand Canyon. The roaring of the water sounds as far beneath as if it were the River Styx. But don’t get so close to the edge, Bettina. I thought looking down great heights made you feel uncomfortable.”
“Some one jumped or fell over this cliff the other day,” Peggy announced. “Ralph Marshall told me that the man had been a guest at the hotel where he is staying.”
Mrs. Burton shivered, drawing back in her usual impressionable fashion.
“Don’t tell us any gruesome details, please, Peggy dear. Remember it is the wonder and beauty of nature we must think of, and not its terribleness.”
Afterwards the woman and two girls were silent for a little while, each pursuing her own train of thought and each admiring in her fashion the marvelous spectacle before them.
It was as if a sunset had been inverted and its colors dropped down inside the cliffs, using the stones for clouds to hold the lights. Farther down, the walls of earth grew dark and finally a black stream ran between them.
A little later Mrs. Webster called to her sister and the two girls to join her. They then returned at once to the rest of the group and for half an hour sat there laughing and talking. For their background they had one of the most ancient dwellings of the human race ever found upon the earth, and their foreground was a portion of one of the great wonders of the world.
Nevertheless the Camp Fire party talked chiefly of their own affairs. After all, human beings are seldom vitally interested for long in anything save themselves and their own kind.
But, by and by, Mrs. Burton arose.
“Please hurry, everybody, we must get back to camp as soon as possible,” she suggested. “We forget that now September is here the days are getting shorter. I for one have not the courage to be lost in this part of the world. Moreover I have something to tell you when we reach camp which may surprise you.”
На этой странице вы можете прочитать онлайн книгу «The Camp Fire Girls at the End of the Trail», автора Margaret Vandercook. Данная книга имеет возрастное ограничение 12+, относится к жанру «Зарубежные приключения».. Книга «The Camp Fire Girls at the End of the Trail» была издана в 2017 году. Приятного чтения!