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Smith's Sister, A Story by A Boy About A Girl by Robert Overton

 

Before I tell you the story about Smith's sister in particular (said Stanislaus Yarrow), I wish to make a few remarks about sisters in general.

Sisters are of two kinds—your own and other fellows'. There are boys—especially older ones—who consider their own sisters worse than other fellows' sisters.

(“Hear, hear,” cried Martin Abbott, who was strongly suspected of having fallen in love with Dr. Audlem's maiden aunt, who was not much more than forty).

But the general opinion amongst boys is that all sisters—all girls, in fact—are muffs and nuisances.

(“So they are,” agreed a number of voices cordially).

I thought so myself once. But Smith's sister taught me to take a higher view of girls. I admit that they have defects—they can't help 'em. There are times when I doubt if even boys are perfect. I freely admit that there is a certain amount of idiocy in the ways and manners of girls in general. Far be it from me to deny that they squeak and squeal when there is no occasion for squeaking and squealing. There is no use in denying that they are afraid of mice. Even Smith's sister visibly shuddered when I offered to give her my biggest piebald rat, to be her very own for ever. But we ought to be charitable and try to overlook these things, for, as I said just now, they can't help 'em.

What I insist upon is that there's real grit in girls all the same. This is how I work it out: Smith's sister was a brick—Smith's sister is a girl—therefore, as one girl can be a brick, so can other girls, other sisters, be bricks.

Now for my true yarn. To separate the circumstances of the story from the story itself, I will first give you the circumstances.

Smith and I lived next door to each other, and were close chums, especially at intervals. He was a very generous chap—he'd give a friend anything he'd got. When he was laid low with illness last summer, I slipped into his bedroom by way of the verandah, to have a look at him, and he gave me the scarlet fever. He was such a very generous chap that he never wanted to keep anything all to himself. The fever stayed with both of us as long as it could, and left us a good deal weaker than it found us. Finding us both in need of a long and thorough change, Smith's father and mine put their heads together, and finally decided to send us to North Wales for the rest of the summer and the autumn. The idea was promptly carried out.

They didn't, strictly speaking, “send” us, for they came with us. In fact, it was quite a carriage-ful of us that steamed away north-west from Paddington—namely, Smith, myself, Smith's father and mother, my father and mother, a number of boxes, portmanteaux, and parcels, and Smith's sister. I put her last because at the time she was last in my estimation.

We had a lovely journey, to a lovely little out-of-the-way and out-of-the-world station, which was spelt with all consonants, and pronounced with three sneezes, a cough and two gasps. From the station we had a long drive to the remote farmhouse in which our fathers had taken apartments.

In this delicious old farmhouse we soon made ourselves—Smith and I—quite at home. It was in a beautiful valley. Tremendous hills rose all round it. On the very tops of some of the mountains there was snow almost all the year round. Glens, and brooks, and streams, and waterfalls simply abounded.

After a fortnight our two fathers had to return to London, leaving behind them our mothers, us, and Smith's sister.

Oh, what a time we had then! Smith shot me by accident in the leg with the farmer's gun—Smith himself got almost drowned in two different streams, and was once carried over a waterfall, and dashed against the stones. On all three occasions he was getting black in the face when pulled out. I fell down a precipice in the mountains, and was rescued with the greatest difficulty. On another occasion a neighbouring farmer caught us trespassing, and thrashed us with a stick till he was too tired to hold it any longer. Smith got bitten by a dog supposed to be mad, and a horse kicked me in the stomach.

All was gaiety and excitement. Ah! when shall we have such times again? We made inquiries as to whether we were likely to catch scarlet fever a second time.

Now Smith's sister screamed at our accidents; she was afraid to join us in any of our adventures. She was as old as myself, and only a year younger than Smith, but as timid as a chicken—or so we thought her, for so she seemed. We tried at first to encourage her, to bring her out a little; but it was no good—we just had to leave her to herself.

“She hasn't pluck enough to come with us,” Smith used to say as we set off on our rambles—“let her stop at home and play with the fowls.”

You must understand that we didn't dislike her—we simply despised her. I think contempt is worse than dislike—at all events, it is harder to bear. Week after week passed away, till at length the end of September approached. In a few days we were to go home again.

Now high as all the hills were, there was one that towered above the others. From the very first, Smith and I had been warned not to attempt to scale this monarch of the mountains, whose crown was sometimes visible, sometimes hidden in the clouds. Being warned not to do it, we naturally wanted to do it. We had made, in fact, several tries, but had always been frustrated. Once or twice Mr. Griffiths—the farmer at whose house we were staying—caught us starting, and turned us back.

“Up towards the top of that mountain,” he said, on the last occasion, “is a place so difficult of access, except by one way, that it is called the 'Eagles' Home.' Lives have been lost there. The hill is dangerous—the clefts are steep and deep. Leave it alone. There are plenty of other hills to climb that are not so dangerous.”

That reference to the Eagles' Home was more than we could stand. We could make out the very spot he meant. Fancy being up there with the eagles near the sky—fancy birds-nesting in the clouds!

“Yarrow,” said Smith firmly, “we must do it.”

“Or perish in the attempt,” I agreed recklessly, quoting from a book I'd read.

What we meant was, of course, that before our visit ended we must climb that hill, at all events as high as the Eagles' Home.

Our approaching return to London left us with no time to lose. We had only four clear days before us.

“We'll make the ascent immediately after dinner to-morrow,” said Smith.

“Right you are,” replied I.

The next day arrived. Dinner was always over soon after one at the farmhouse, and by two o'clock, having slipped quietly and secretly off, we were beginning our climb up the hillside. For more than an hour we made slow but easy progress, taking a rest every now and then for a minute or two. We must have got up a considerable distance, but neither the mountain-top nor the Eagles' Home seemed much nearer. On and up we trudged, walking faster and determined to take no more rests. We noticed how much colder it was, and cast uneasy glances at the dipping sun.

We met a shepherd going down, and stopped him to ask some questions. He told us that there was an easy way and a hard way to reach the Eagles' Home. The easy way was to follow the path worn up the hill to the left. That would take us above the spot. Still following the path as it curved round to the right, we should find a comparatively easy way down to the “home of the eagles,” unless we lost the road, and tumbled down one of the many steep declivities.

“Which was the hard way?” we asked.

With a smile, he pointed straight up the mountain-side. It wasn't far that way, he said—only that way would take us farther than we wanted to go. We looked up the frowning pathless mountain—and knew what he meant. We must take the safer and longer way.

“Not that we're afraid of the other,” said Smith.

“Of course not,” I replied.

In vain the shepherd tried to dissuade us from going any further in the failing light: in vain he told us of the dangers we should run. We thanked him, put him off with some excuse about going “a little” further, and turned resolutely on up the “path” he had pointed us to. It was by no means the sort of path we were accustomed to.

On and on and on—I don't know how far we went. But the farther we went the more silent we became. Each knew the other knew that he was getting more and more uneasy at every step. Each knew the other wasn't going to be the first to admit that he was funky.

It grew so awfully cold. It became so awfully dark.

“The moon will be up by-and-by,” Smith said.

“Yes,” said I; “we shall be all right then. What's this?”

It was too dark to see it, but we felt it in our faces. We put our hands on our sleeves and felt it there.

Snow!

We both gave in then, and funked it without disguise. We turned to go down, to get home. We tried at first to disbelieve it, but it wasn't long before we both gave up the pretence.

“We're lost!” we cried together.

That was just our position. In the cold, dark night, in the midst of a rapidly-rising storm and fast-falling snow, we were lost on the wild Welsh mountains.

We stumbled about. For a long time—I don't know how long, but it was a long time—we stumbled about. That is the only expression I can use, for soon we didn't know whether we were moving up or down, left or right. We were so numbed, so bewildered. It was so cold up there, though October had not yet set in, that we had a vague idea that if we didn't keep on moving we should be frozen still, meeting the fate of many other mountaineers.

You must bear in mind that we had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and only our summer clothes on. Neither of us had a watch, so we could only judge what the time was. Smith's hope that the moon would soon rise hadn't been realised, for everything above was as dark and black as everything was beneath.

At last a frightful thing happened. Our feet slipped at the same moment, and the next moment we were both falling through space. My previous slip down a precipice was nothing compared with that awful fall in the darkness. Only one thing saved us. Before we struck the ground, we managed to break the full force of our fall by grasping the roots and branches of some low-growing shrubs and bushes which we felt without seeing. We slipped then less rapidly from hold to hold, until, with a thud, we struck the earth. It seemed more like the earth striking us.

Smith gave a loud scream of pain—then all was silent.

Smith fainted. I cried. Smith recovered and cried. I left off crying, and took his turn at fainting. There's nothing like telling the truth. We both prayed. I won't tell you about that, because praying is a thing to do, not to talk about.

We didn't move about any more. That fall proved that moving about was too dangerous. Poor old Smith couldn't move. He couldn't even stand up. He tried to once and sank down again with a yell. He had sprained his ankle.

Please imagine for a moment that this adventure is being played on the stage, and let the curtain fall. Now imagine the curtain raised again.

In the meantime, the storm has died down. The winds are not howling now, the snow is not falling. The heavens above us are not so black we can see parts of the mountain that drops from our feet into the deep invisible valley below. We can see enough to make out where we are. We are in the Eagles' Home. Our ambition has been realised—but in what a way! We reached the spot neither by the pathway nor up the rugged steep—we rolled from the top; we came through the air with the snowflakes.

Pretty snowflakes! Smith is hopelessly crippled, and I—the other snowflake—am simply a living collection of bumps and bruises. We must spend the rest of the bleak night strung up on this dizzy height. We must wait till the morning—if we can live through the night.

What's that, down there—far away down there?

A light! a number of lights. They're moving—moving up. They've reached the spot where we met the shepherd who told us of the two ways.

They've stopped. Hark! What's that?

A shout—a hail—loud and long continued, as though a lot of people are calling together.

Hurrah! We're saved. The farmer has turned out a rescue party to find and save us. Hurrah!

Gathering all my strength—all I have left—I answer the hail. Smith joins me as well as he can. Once, twice, thrice we shout. We catch the distant cry that tells us we have been heard.

For a minute the lights are stationary. Then—their bearers sending up another great hail as though to tell us they know where we are and are coming—we see the lanterns flashing forward up the track which leads above our heads, and then round to the Eagles' Home. Mr. Griffiths, who knows the hills as well as he knows his own farm lands, has told them where we are from the direction of our frantic voices.

So cheer up, Smith—they're coming.

But they'll be such a long time coming—and we're so cold and numbed. Smith is fainting again. So am I, I'm afraid—you must remember I am knocked about. It will be such a long time before the coming help reaches us.

Will it? Then what's that solitary light stealing up the jagged steep below us? Who is it coming to us by the “hard” way, straight up the precipitous mountain-side? It must be Griffiths—he's crawling up the rough boulders—he's clinging hold of roots and branches, swinging himself over the clefts. The shepherd said it couldn't be done—but Griffiths is doing it. How torn his hands must be!

I can't be quite fainting, because I can see that Griffiths' lantern is coming nearer and nearer.

Listen! I can hear his voice—only it sounds such a weak voice. That is because I am getting so weak now myself, though I manage to call back, that Griffiths may know just where we are....

Griffiths has reached us. Griffiths is attending to poor old Smith. Now he's got his arm round me. Griffiths is pouring a cordial down my throat that brings life back into me. I can feel my heart beating again. I'm better now. I'll shake Griffiths by the hand. I dare say I shall by-and-by. But this is the hand of SMITH'S SISTER!

The strain of this theatrical style, and of the present tense, is more than I can stand any longer, so I hope it is quite clear to you what had happened. Just a few words to sum up.

When the rescue party formed by Mr. Griffiths—as soon as it was obvious that Smith and I had lost ourselves—set out, Smith's sister set out with them. Griffiths ordered her back. She went back, collared a lantern and a flask all to herself (in view of the party separating—what a thoughtful girl!), followed and rejoined them. When they stopped and halloaed to find whereabouts we were, he ordered her back again, but not until she had heard the hasty consultation which resulted in the party sticking to the safer way to us. She heard about the “two ways,” and she dared the one that everybody else was afraid of. The ascent up the mountain's face was suggested, but only Smith's sister had the pluck to make it. This was the girl we had scorned and laughed at. This was the girl whom we had told to stop at home and play with the chickens!

About an hour after she reached us with the “first help” that may have saved our lives, we saw the lights of Griffith's party on the crest above us. We exchanged shouts, and they let down a rope at once, and hauled us up. Long before this, Smith's sister had bound up his injured ankle neatly and lightly with her own handkerchief and our handkerchiefs.

You should have seen the farmer's face—and, indeed, the faces of all the others too—when they realised how she had reached us.

It is all very well for her to say that she didn't know what she was doing—that she couldn't have done in the light what she did in the dark. All I am concerned with is the fact that she did do what I have told you she did.

Referring to the proposition I laid down soon after I started—about there being real grit in girls after all—you will understand what I meant when I wind up my yarn with the familiar quotation, Q. E. D.

 
 
 

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