First published in 1948 in The Second Chalet Book for Girls, pages 89-100.
"It's a lie! it's a lie! I won't believe it!"
There was a crash as the front door slammed, and then Peter Pennell went racing down the narrow garden path, out of the gate and along the sandy lane. Soon she reached the seashore, where she scrambles and sprang across the rocks with little heed for possible sprains or broken bones making headlong for a certain niche between two enormous boulders facing out to sea. This was her own special eyrie. Her cheeks were flushed with the anger that was flaming through her veins, and her blue eyes blazed with it. The spring wind caught her thick chestnut hair, twisting and tangling it over her head, and she looked wild. At last she reached the flat rock behind the hidey-hole, made a final leap, and landed beyond it - to discover that she was too late. The place was already occupied!
Before Peter could do more than gasp at the unexpected sight, the usurper looked up. He was a tall, thin boy of about her own age, with untidy brown hair, brown skin and brown, 'doggy' eyes which were full of unhappiness. Even in her almost unreasoning rage Peter saw that. As for the stranger, he stared iun astonishment at the young fury who had so suddenly landed in front of him. Then he got to his feet, revealing an amazing length of leg as he did so.
"Hello?" he said questioningly.
"How - how did you know of this place?" demanded Peter.
"I didn't; I just wanted - well - wanted to get away from everyone so I came here."
Peter frowned. "Why? I mean, why'd you want to get away from everybody?"
"Because everything's so rotten," he answered simple.
Peter looked at him. "Shove along," she said abruptly. "There's plenty of room for two if you sit close."
Without demur he moved over a little and sat down beside her. The interest she had roused had faded from his face. His hands hung loosely linked between his bony knees, and he stared across the restless sea.
"Why is everything rotten?" demanded Peter. "Things are rotten for me. Why are the rotten for you?"
He turned his head to look at her. "Because they are," he replied, a certain remoteness edging his voice.
But Peter was not going to be put off by any remoteness. "Yes; but why?" she demanded. "What's your name, by the way?"
He said nothing for a moment. Then: "The chaps at school call me Pumpkin," he told her. "What's yours?"
"Peter Pennell - at least," as she saw the unbelief in his eyes, "my name is really Petronilla - Father was called Peter - but you couldn't say that all the time. He died when I was a baby - drowned at sea, so I've always been Peter. Why are things rotten for you?"
He removed his gaze from her. "What a gadfly of a kid you are! They just are; that's all. If it comes to that, why are the rotten for you?"
Peter was bursting to tell someone - anyone! She 'let fly.' "My Aunt Gladys - she's not really my aunt; just an old friend of Mother's that I'm living with while Mother's away - well, she said that I'd better learn to mind my P's and Q's, because Mother was going to be married again, and no stepfather would put up with my nonsensical ways! But it's a lie! I'm sure it is! Mother wouldn't marry again. Anyhow, she's never said anything to me about it!"
"That's my trouble, too," said the boy drearily. "At least it isn't my mother - never had one - not to remember, nor a father, either. But I've gota jolly decent guardian. We're tremendous pals - always have been. 'Smorning I got a letter saying he'd met an old sweetheart of his, and they were going to be married soon. I'm to go on living with them, and he's sure I'll like her. and she's got a kid - a girl-kid. He said she'd told him a lot about her little girl. She'll be there, too. What do I know about girl-kids? It'll just spoil everything. We've always gone away together in my hols, except when we've spent them at the Manor - that's our house - and that'll be ended now. It's only these hols I've ever spent away from him. He had to go to Australia suddenly on some business or other six months ago. Flew there. Now he's coming back - flying again - and bringing this woman with him. Her kid, too, I suppose."
"Mother and I have always been together!" burst foth Peter. "There were only the two of us when Father drowned. Mother's buyer for a smart London hat-shop, and this year they sent her to America to study the American fashions. That's why I've had to live with Aunt Gladys - horrid pig! She's the most awful fusser, not in the least like Mother! But, you see, it was to have been the other buyer, only she was ill, so they asked Mother to go at the last minute, and she met Aunt Gladys, who said I could live with her in the hols - of course, Mother pays for me - so Mother took it on, as it was a top-notch job, and well worth while, she said. But Aunt Gladys - well, I can't stand her. We had a fearful row this morning, and then she said - that! I don't believe it! She's lying to frighten me because I - said things! But somehow I'm awfully afraid in case it's true."
The boy shifted uneasily, for Peter's speech had ended with a sound that was perilously like a sob. "What else did she say to you?" he asked.
Despite the tears that were pricking at the backs of her eyes, Peter grinned at him impishly. "I didn't give her much chance of saying anything else," she informed him.
"What was the row about?" he asked.
"The Vicar - horrid old ninny! Aunt Gladys thinks he's the cat's pyjamas. He came in, and turned on his usual 'It's-very-good-of-me-to-talk-to-a-little-girl-like-you' manner, as though I were five instead of being nearly fifteen. I said, 'I beg your pardon, Mr Warren, but I'm not a baby!' He was furious, and Aunt Gladys was raging - after he'd gone. She's always sweet as honey when he's there. She said I was to apologise to him for being rude, and I said I wouldn't. I spoke most politely, anyhow! Then she said - that! I let fly, and came away here, after I'd told her she was lying and I wouldn't believe a word of it."
"But wasn't that rather mad?" said the boy judicially. "She'll only make it hot for yo when you go back."
"Yes - when!" said Peter darkly.
"What do you mean by that?"
"She won't see anything more of me for the rest of to-day."
The Pumpkin sat up. "Look here," he remonstrated, "you can't do a thing like that! For one thing, you'll get jolly hungry."
"I've got plenty of cash. Mother sent me some on Saturday. She wasn't in when the post came, so I said nothing about it. I cashed the cheque when she sent me to the town to shop yesterday, and I've got it down my chest." And Peter dived down the front of her frock and prodcued a small linen bag, which she opened, pulling out three notes. "There you are - three pounds. If Aunt Gladys knew, she'd take it away from me and dole it out at about a shilling a week. But she doesn't! Look here, Pumpkin, it's a quarter to twelve. There's a bus that passes for Combe Eldington about twelve. We can catch if we go now and cut across in that direction. The road sweeps inland just here, but it gets back to the shore-road further on. Let's go and make a day of it."
The Pumpkin shook his head, though a spark had lit up in his sad eyes. "We can't do that. Your Aunt Gladys would have several fits if you didn't get back till all hours. Tell her you're off for the day and I'll come with you if you like. I've plenty of money myself. My guardian says I've a goodish bit coming to me later on, and I must learn to handle it. He's always made me learn just how far money'll go. Before he went away, he opened an account for me at the bank, and told me I'd got to pay these hols out of it. I came here. Our old housekeeper runs a boarding-house in the village, and he told me to come to her. He had to go so suddenly he couldn't fix up anything else much. I just came. She's cheap, so I've plenty of cash. You send a message to your aunt, and we'll go."
"And how do you think I'm going to do that - from here?" asked Peter scornfully.
"Are you on the 'phone? Not? Well then you can send her a wire from this Combe place of yours when we get there. We'll do it if you'll swear to go straight to the Post Office andwire her first thing. Is it a bet?"
"Oh, bother you!" grumbled Peter. "All right, then; I'll do it. It's more than she deserves, though. Let her worry! Do her good!"
"Not if you're going to be away all day. Don't you see, you - you little ninny? She's responsible for you. If you do nothing, she might even cable to your mother in America. Then she'd get the wind up," he added shrewdly.
"I hadn't thought of that," said Peter in startled tones. "It's just the mad sort of things she would do. All right. I'll wire; Now comes on! We'd better get cracking if we mean to catch the bus."
They stood up, and, Peter leading the way, they set off across the shore. It was a precarious passage, for a good part of it led over rocks that were covered at high tide, and were slippery with seaweed. Peter remarked on this as they went.
"We've got to go out a bit to get round that point," she explained. "All this will be under water in a couple of hours from now, but once we're past the point, we turn inshore again, and it's easy. This cuts off a good two miles of the road, you know."
"Ahat about that place where we were?" he asked.
"Oh, that's safe enough except at the top of the springs - spring tide, I mean," as she saw the blankness in his face. "At such times it's surrounded. But it's all right even then unless there's an onshore wind. You'd catch it pretty badly if you were there. But there's no wind to speak of to-day; and it isn't spring tide, either. We could have stayed if we'd had food with us. But we might have got a bit bored with it after two or three hours."
There were negotiating a very treacherous part as Peter spoke, and she slipped and nearly sprawled headlong, but he caught her and steadied her with a brusque, "Careful, you idiot! Hurt yourself?"
"Just a graze," said Peter airily, though her cheeks were red. She went on carefully, paying more heed to her footing, and presently they had rounded the point. She turnedand led the way inland. Now the going was easier, and when they reached the sand, they made go time up the beach. Even so, Peter and the Pumpkin arrived on the road only a minute or so before the bus rolled along. They climed in, and she swung off again. Peter glanced at her watch.
"She's ten minutes late," she said. "Good thing for us! We'd have missed her if she'd been on time. It takes longer to get round than I thought."
"We could have walked it, I suppose?" said the Pumpkin.
"We could! But it's ten miles from here. We'd have been rather dead by the time we got there - unless we thumbed a ride; and I'd rather not do that. People are sometimes so rude about it."
"I should think you jolly well wouldn't do it!" The Pumpkin sounded severe. "Look here, Peter, it's no business of mine, of course; but you simply musn't do things like that! There are some pretty queer people about, and you might get into an awful jamb. Promise me you won't do it again. I'm sure your mother would hate it if she knew."
"Sure she would," Peter agreed. "Oh, well; I won't do it again. I say," she went on, changing the subject, "this bus is going at rather a tear, isn't she?"
He nodded, glancing round with a little worried frown. He and Peter were the only passengers, and the bus certainly was going at a tremendous rate. She rocked as she sped along the road. Luckily, this did not last long, for the way swung upwards, and the driver had to change gears, so that they slowed down. But once they reached the top of the road and were running along the cliff, he set off again at headlong speed. The Pumpkin, looking out of the window, noted that there were no houses in sight. The road was cut through acres of short close-cropped turf where the only living things, apart from themselves and the sea birds, seemed to be the small, dusty-coated sheep that cropped the sweet, thymey herbage. The road was clear, which seemed just as well, but the Pumpkin began to entertain serious doubts as to their safety. So, it appeared, did the conductor. He left his seat at the back of the bus and went forward to remonstrate with his mate. They could not hear what was said, but the speed lessened only a little, and the young man came back to his seat looking very black. He paused beside them to condescend to give an explanation.
"We're late, and this makes the third time this week," he said. "Nobody's fault, but you got to be on time, so we're trying to make up a bit like. See?"
THey said they saw - or rather the Pumpkin did. He stuck an elbow into Peter's ribs to make her shut up just as she was opening her lips to give full vent to some ideas. The man went on, and Peter turned indignantly to her companion.
"Look here! Why did you do that - dig me, I mean?" she asked angrily. "It hurt!"
"To stop you gassing," the Pumpkin replied calmly. "Sorry if I hurt. I forgot girls hurt easily. But it's no use putting that chap's back up. He's more than a bit scared himself. I saw! Do we go down here?" as they neared a steep slope.
Peter nodded. "Yes; it's along the shore road after that, and flattish all the way. So you needn't - "
She got no further. At this point there was a sudden road, and a huge mass of chalk, gorse bushes and rubble came hurtling down on to the road, catching the bonnet of the bus as it went. The bus swerved drunkenly from side to side and then went over - mercifully with the door-side uppermost.
Peter, sitting next the window, fell on top of the Pumpkin, and the breaking glass showered over her. Beyong one or two cuts and bruises, and being slightly stunned, she was unhurt. As for the Pumpkin, he had grasped what was coming almost as it came, and had involuntarily braced himself to met the shock. Peter's comparatively light weight winded him for a moment only.
"Come on!" he gasped. "Quick! The petrol may take fire!"
Peter was dazed, but she had enough sense left to do as she was told, and they contrived to reach the doorway. There they found the conductor lying in a heap, quite unconscious.
"Got to get him out!" the Pumpkin said. "Get on, Peter! I'll heave,and you yank. Hurry!"
It was a struggle neither of them liked to think of for long enough afterwards. The Pumpkin's length of leg stood them in good stead. Aided by him, Peter scrambled over the edge of the upturned steps, and then hung over, while he got under the unconscious man, and heaved till the girl was able to catch at the conductor's tunic. Then she dragged, and he lifted, till at length, between them, they contrived to get the poor fellow over the step, and thence he rolled to the ground with Peter beneath him. When the Pumpkin follwed them, he found her sitting in the road, crowing in an effort to get her breath back. However she was not badly hurt, and the boy clambered back and wriggled along to the bus to the driver. He, too, was unconscious, and he had evidently been caught by the steering wheel, for he was jammed against it and was moaning. Cold sweat broke out all over the Pumpkin as he realised that the man was probably seriously injured and there was no one grown up to help him. He switched off the engine, thus ending any fear of fire, and then crawled back to the still crowing Peter and reported matters to her. Then he looked at the conductor.
"This chap's out," he said. "Concussed, most likely. I've seen one or two look like him on the rugger field. Don't know how bad he is, though. But the driver's pretty rotten, I should say. You knw these parts better than me. Where's the nearest house?"
"I don't know," gasped Peter between grunts. "We're about eight miles from hime, and I've only ever come along here on the bus. Shall I help you get the driver out?"
The Pumpkin shook his head. "We daren't. If the old bus had taken fire we'd have to, of course. But I think it's safe enough now. I switched off the engine when I was along there. But I'm afraid that chap's pretty well messed up inside, and it'll need a doctor or ambulance chaps to move him. The only thing we can do is for one of us to stay here while the other goes to get help. Question is, which shall do which - ugh!" He ended up with a grunt, and Peter, her wind safely back, looked at him.
"You're hurt, Pumpkin? What is it?"
"Just wricked my ankle a bit," he said as lightly as he could.
"Then that rather settles it. You'll have to stay, and I'll go." She glanced ahead. "Pumpkin! That avalance or whatever it was is all across the road. If anything comes round the bend from the shore road it'll crash into that mess."
"Yes," said the Pumpkin grimly. "And if anything comes round the bend behind at any speed, it'll crash into this mess."
Peter looked round wildly. "What on earth shall we do?"
"Stop them" he said laconically.
"Yes; but how?"
"I dunno. Have to fix up some sort of signal."
"But what with?" Then her face suddenly cleared. "It's chalk all round here. I've got some coloured chalks in my pocket. We can write something like 'DANGER' near the top on that bare place where it's fallen away."
"Doubt if anyone going at speed 'ud see it. But it's the best we can do. Anyway, we must get help somehow. That chap in there may die if he's left much longer." He nodded towards the driver.
Peter struggled to her feet. "I'll go and do it now. And here!" She bent down and tore off her scarlet beach sandals. "Can you hang these up anywhere at the other end? Red stands for danger."
The Pumpkin took them and started to hobble painfully past the bus, while she turned, and went up the hill to the top with many suppressed groans due to bruises and aches. Luckily for all concerned, their precautions proved unnecessary. Just as Peter reached the place where she had noticed the chalk was bare, a car came into sight. She planted herself in the middle of the road and waved her arms violently, shrieking, "Stop! S.O.S." at the top of her voice.
The car slowed down, and the driver, a big man, leaned out to inquire irritably, "Well, what do you want?"
Breathlessly Peter told her talk, and her appearance certainly bore it out, for her clean cotton frock was torn and smeared, and the blood from a scratch on her cheek had dried most unbecomingly. He nodded as she ended.
"I'm a doctor," he told her briefly. "Here; take this red rug. Now, can you help me gather up some of this broken chalk? Come on!"
Together, they built a little cairn in the middle of the road, covered it with the bright scarlet rug, which they weighted down with other pieces of chalk, so that it stood out as a certain sign of trouble. Then, havng steered his car carefully beyond it, the doctor opened the door, helped Peter in, and drove slowly to the scene of the wreck. By this time the Pumpkin had struggled back to the conductor, and was crouching limply on the road, very white and bright-eyes from the pain in his ankle.
The doctor examined the unconscious man briefly. "Concussed," he said. "Not too bad. He'll be coming round before long." When he saw the driver, he looked very grave. "This is an ambulance job," he said. "We'l have to get on to the hospital. You - young man! Can you run?"
The Pumpkin shook his head. "Sorry sir; 'fraid my ankle's bust."
The doctor looked at him sharply. "I'll see to it in a moment. What about you, young woman?"
"I'll go if you tell me what to do," said Peter, looking rather sick.
"Good! Now listen carefully. Go to the top of the road, turn left along th cart-track, and carry on till you see the farmhouse on your left. Don't stop at the cottage; it's no use. The farm's on the 'phone, you see. Tell them that Dr Stanton sent you, and ask them to ring up Combe hospital and get an ambulance sent here. Say, two men; bad accident. They must also get the police to close the road at present. Then come back. Meantime, I'll see to your brother's ankle. Off you go!" And he waved her away, cutting short her attempted explanation that the Pumpkin was not her brother.
Peter was getting very tired. She ached from head to foot, and in helping to get the conductor out of the bus, she had wricked her shoulder. But she hadn't forgotten that the Pumpkin had said girls were easily hurt. Nor was she going to be beaten by him when he had done so much with a damaged ankle. She set her teeth, and went on gamely. Still, it was a tremendous relief when she finally reached the farm-house and was able to give her message to the farmer's wife, who received it with many "T't-t'ts!" and "Well I nevers!" Then, ignorning the good woman's offer of tea or milk and a rest, she turned back, and trudged her way to the bus.
It was not long before the ambulance came, by which time Dr Stanton had tied up the Pumpkin's ankle - pronouncing it a bad sprain, made no better by all he had done - had fastened up Peter's arm in a sling, and attended to the various cuts and bruises on the pair. The conductor was still unconscious, but the doctor said he would soon come round. The driver was clearly very badly hurt. Dr Stanton carried the Pumpkin to his car, and installed him on the back seat to hold the ankle up. Peter was put into the front one to keep him company, while the ambulance men carefully extricated the driver from behind the steering wheel, and then, after the doctor had given im a cursory examination, he and the conductor were put into the ambulance and driven slowly off to Combe Eldington. The doctor and his passengers had to wait a few minutes longer till the police came to see to the 'Road closed' signs. At long last they were able to get off. Dr Stanton back his car up the hill, then turned her, and drove the pair back home. They left the Pumpkin in charge of a Mrs Brown, whom Peter recognised at once, and who received him with open arms and "Oh, my poor Master Tony! What have you been gone and done to yourself noe?" much to the Pumpkin's obvious annoyance and Peter's secret glee,and then Peter herself was handed over to Aunt Gladys, who received strict injunctions that nothing was to be said about her escapade. Indeed, she was to be kept very quiet, and not allowed to talk much about anything for some time.
But five days later she ran down the garden path on her way to the village and Mrs Brown's, full of news of various sorts for her new chum. First there was the story of how the conductor's mother had arrived to thank her and the Pumpkin for what they had done, and to tell her that her son was recovering nicely, and though the driver was still very ill, eveyone at the hospita hoped he was pulling through. Then - there was Mother's letter!
Peter burst into the sitting room where the Pumpkin was lying on the sofa; he had been carried down by the doctor an hour before. Her chum had been very poorly for some days, but was much better now. He looked up with a grin as Peter's radiant face appeared.
"Hello!" he said.
Peter was too wildly excited to bother about her manners. "Pumpkin!" she crried. "I've heard from Mother! What do you think? It's true she marrying again, but she's going to be married to - "
"My guardian." said the Pumpkin calmly. "I heard from him this morning. They're flying back to England next week, and you and I are both to go to the Manor for the rest of the hols. So that's all right!"
"It might have been just anyone," said Peter. "But you said your guardian was a jolly good sort - "
"So he is!"
"And Mother's an angel! You'll love her! You couldn't help it! And - well, I'm sorry, but - I'm the kid!" And she smiled at him demurely.
"It might have been a lot worse!" quote the Pumpkin.