Miss Cullen's aggravated tones finally penetrated her daydream, and Jennifer sat up hurriedly, pulling her gaze away from the dull grey October sky outside. Her governess looked at her and sighed.
"It's very nearly time for lunch," she said a little more coaxingly. "If you'll just concentrate for fifteen minutes, Jennifer, I know you're perfectly capable of doing this."
Jennifer dutifully wrote down the first algebra question, but she was a long way from concentrating on it. Her mind was still on the letter from Frances that had arrived that morning. A handful of scribbled pages, talking excitedly about school hockey and some complicated feud with another girl in her class, and then just as eagerly begging for news from the moors. Peter had sent a couple of lines — the most he ever managed — a couple of days before, briefly informing her that all was going well now he was in the top form, and telling her to check on Grey Owl. (As if she would forget!)
She’d intended to write back to both of them after lunch, but as she stared out of the window again, she couldn’t think of anything worth saying. The summer seemed far-distant, now it was October already and the nights were drawing in. What was there to say about lessons every morning, and just riding by herself in the afternoons? She could tell them about the vivid autumnal colour on the moors, and the red deer she’d seen from a distance the week before; but compared to their adventures in the holidays, and the excitement of school, it was all dull;. She sighed deeply, and looked again at her algebra.
What she needed, she decided halfway through lunch, was an adventure all of her own. This time last year, she would never have thought of such a thing; but after a summer of Peran-Wisa and voyaging to the sea and sleeping on haystacks, her neck tingled at the idea. But what? Where could she go, on her own? She would never be allowed to sleep out at this time of year. She shivered at the thought, then wondered suddenly where Maurice was now. She hadn’t heard from him -— none of them had -- since that night on Mount Elbruz. She remembered seeing him on the moors before they really knew him -- but that was then. Surely he would be somewhere else now.
Despite the grey sky, it hadn’t yet begun to rain, so she went straight out to the stables after lunch to saddle Goosefeather. They were barely out of the stable yard before she was urging him into first a trot, then a canter. He didn't need very much urging, as keen as she was to stretch himself across the moors. A scattering of yellow autumn flowers were on the gorse, and the cold damp air whistled past her cheeks as they raced towards the stream, riding down towards Peran-Wisa for the first time since the others left.
Goosefeather splashed happily through the stream, and once on the other side, she slid off his back as he slowed and dropped his head to nibble at the grass. Halfway into the hut, she stopped to look up at the tree. They’d taken the rope-ladders and the hammocks down before the Hunterlys left, but the cupboard was still nailed up at the top. She wondered suddenly whether she could climb back up, at least as far as where the second rope-ladder had started. But even Bridget hadn’t been able to climb that first bit without Sunset’s assistance, and she didn’t think that Goosefeather would stand still for long enough. She abandoned the idea with a sigh, and wandered into the hut, where the pile of books from their library at home were still sitting on a shelf. Curling up in the blankets still piled in the corner, she lost herself in ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ for an hour, and only remembered with a start that she would be expected home when Goosefeather poked his nose enquiringly in the doorway.
Riding home, she crested the hill just below Siestan just as the sun peeked out briefly from the clouds behind her and lit the hills beyond Siestan, opposite the Indian Caucasus, with a golden glow. Suddenly, she realised where she could go for her adventure. They’d never ridden in that direction over the summer. She could go across the hills, and voyage to find out what was on the other side. It would be all her own; something to write to Bridget about. She reined Goosefeather in and stood for a moment, looking across at the sun-bathed hilltop. If she started very early, and stayed out all day, she thought she could make it to there and back in a single day.
The sun went back behind a cloud, and she let Goosefeather carry on home, thinking about the next question: how to manage it. If her father were here, Jennifer was sure that he would let her go. But he was in London for the next two weeks, and Miss Cullen had much stronger opinions on things like missing lessons, and being back in time for tea. If she waited for him to return, it would be into November, the weather that much colder and the days that much shorter, and even her lenient father might, Jennifer felt dismally certain, be less enthusiastic about her spending the whole day and on beyond dark out on her own.
She spent the next couple of days thinking about it, turning over plans in her mind, but finding no solution. Then, on the third day, Miss Cullen came down with a truly unpleasant cold, took herself off to her room, and banished Jennifer to do lessons alone until she recovered.
“I don’t want you coming down with this as well,” she said, as Jennifer hovered in the doorway of Miss Cullen’s room. “Off you go, and carry on from where we were yesterday.”
It was, Jennifer realised as she went obediently back to the classroom, the perfect opportunity. Miss Cullen wouldn’t be up tomorrow, and the servants wouldn’t stop her from going out for the day, so no one would miss her. She asked the cook, after tea, for a packed lunch for the next day, telling her airily that Miss Cullen wasn't expecting her for lessons the next day, and fell asleep telling herself firmly to wake up at six.
The clock in the hallway was just striking six as she awoke. She blinked for a moment, then remembered her plan, and leapt out of bed, and into thick trousers and her thick polo sweater, as quietly as possible. The packed lunch was sitting on the kitchen table, and she let herself out of the back door and padded into the stables to tack up Goosefeather. Dawn was just beginning to show in the sky as they left the yard, and Jennifer shivered happily.
It was a beautiful morning, crisp and dry. She watched the colours gradually seep back into the world and the pink clouds gather over the horizon, until the moment when the sun finally emerged over the hills, and the light changed in a moment to full daylight. Jennifer could feel the world springing into daytime life around her. A curlew flew up from the green-brown heather just in front of Goosefeather, and he snorted and shook his head. Jennifer watched it fly off into the clear blue sky, her heart lifting.
As they crested another tiny hill, Jennifer heard a crack echoing in front of her. In the dip in front of them, revealed as they came over the hill, were two stags, antlers down, backing away and circling one another. The wind blew her hair back off her forehead, and she realised that they were upwind, and the stags were too focused on what they were doing to see her. She reined in Goosefeather, and sat watching in awe. She’d often seen the deer from a distance, and of course she knew about stags in autumn, but she’d never actually seen them rutting. One of them -- the older one, from the points on his antlers -- put his head up and roared, then lowered his head once again, and looked about to charge. But it was the second one, the younger, who moved first, and there was another crack that echoed across the hills as their antlers crashed together. The older stag held his ground, moving his head from side to side, and Jennifer held her breath as he pressed forwards against the other. It was a bare few seconds, though it felt like much longer, before the second stag suddenly backed away, then turned tail and ran. The first one bellowed again, then looked directly towards Jennifer, still frozen on the top of the hill, before turning and moving, stately, away.
Jennifer let her breath out, and Goosefeather snorted again and shifted his weight. Jennifer shook her head to clear it before letting him move down the hill.
The rest of the ride to and over the hills was beautiful. Jennifer rode, looking around her at the moors -- her moors. She wished the others were here with her -- but the feeling of having an adventure on her own bubbled up within her. She reined Goosefeather in again on the top of the hill she’d seen from Siestan. She could see the moors, in their vivid autumnal colours, spreading down in front of her, and in the distance she could see where they gave way again to normal farmland. For a moment she wished that she could just keep riding, on and on -- but even without a watch, the sun and her stomach gave away the fact that it was definitely lunchtime. Which meant that really she should be starting for home soon.
She slid off Goosefeather’s back, and sat down on a convenient rock to eat her lunch. The bread and cheese tasted even better than normal.
“Why is it,” Jennifer mused, “that food tastes so much better outside?”
She sat for a while longer, admiring the view, and was about to get up and, reluctantly, head for home, when she saw movement in the heather below her. She squinted downwards, trying to get a better view, then realised with a shock, that what she could see was a pure black pony, without a rider, picking its way idly through the heather.
“Dragonfly!” she gasped, certain that it must be him, and jumping up, she ran to Goosefeather.
“Come on,” she encouraged Goosefeather down the slope, ignoring the fact that she really should be heading in the other direction. “If that’s Dragonfly, Maurice must be somewhere around here.”
As if her words had conjured him up, she heard the shrill whistle he used to call Dragonfly, and saw Dragonfly’s head go up, before he turned and trotted in the direction of the whistle. Jennifer encouraged Goosefeather to go a little faster, and then, over the brow of another small rise, saw Maurice, looking towards Dragonfly. His head turned, and he saw her at almost the same moment, and for a second, she thought that he might be about to run away. Then it passed, and he smiled.
“Jennifer!” he called, and she urged Goosefeather towards him.
She slid off when she reached him.
“Maurice! I didn’t know you were still here. I thought…” but she fell silent, not wanting to say anything more.
Maurice shrugged. “I’ve been staying over this side since the end of the summer.”
This side, where there were fewer farms, and fewer still that would already recognise Maurice, Jennifer thought.
“But where are you staying?” she asked curiously, but Maurice just shrugged.
“Here and there,” he said. “Here, fancy some cocoa?”
“What, here?” Jennifer asked, and he nodded with a grin, then bent down and pulled a small saucepan out of the saddlebag on the ground by his feet.
“There’s a stream just down there,” he directed. “You fetch some water, and I’ll get a fire started.”
“So what are you doing all the way over here?” he asked, once the fire was started and the water beginning to warm.
“I wanted an adventure,” Jennifer confessed shyly, and told him about Miss Cullen’s cold, and creeping out before dawn, and then about the stags.
“You’re lucky,” Maurice said. “I’ve heard them before, but I’ve never been able to get close enough to see them, or not before it’s all over. That’s an adventure, all right!”
“And now I’ve found you as well,” she said. “The others will be thrilled to hear about that, as well!”
Maurice looked down into his cocoa, then up again at her.
“Would you mind not mentioning it to them?” he asked slowly. “Can this just be between you and me?”
Jennifer nodded without even thinking about it. “Of course,” she said. “But…”
Maurice sighed and looked down again, obviously struggling with something. “I’d like to tell you,” he said eventually. “But… I can’t. Not just now.”
Jennifer sighed as well. “That’s okay. If you don’t want me to tell the others, I won’t. But,” she paused. “Maybe you could come over to Peran-Wisa, sometime? The rugs are still there, and the books.”
“And I can bring my saucepan,” Maurice agreed. He smiled at her. “I will, then. Look out for me.”
“I will,” Jennifer promised, then glanced up at the sky again, and realised with a shock just how far into the afternoon it had become.
She jumped up. “But I really have to go now!”
There was a flurry of goodbyes, and Jennifer jumped back onto Goosefeather and gathered the reins, preparatory to setting off.
“Day after tomorrow,” Maurice said suddenly, just as she was about to go. “At Peran-Wisa, after lunch. I’ll see you then?”
“See you then,” Jennifer promised, and urged Goosefeather up the hill again.
She was going to be very, very late home. But she had had her adventure, and she’d found Maurice again. Even if she did get into trouble, there was no question in her mind that it had been worth it. Grinning, she settled further into the saddle, and set her face towards home.