'Good morning, girls!'
Miss Peters's hearty voice hailed Bill and Clarissa from the other side of the stable yard as they walked down the path from the school. A good morning it certainly was. The sun, already some way above the horizon at this early hour, smiled down upon Malory Towers out of a sky of unbroken pale blue, and the air, pleasantly cool for now, held the promise of a perfect summer's day.
It was the first time they had been out for one of these rides since the School Cert. exam. In the days leading up to the exam even Bill had been working too hard to give up a day to riding, and she was very glad indeed that it was behind them now.
'Well, it's good to see you both again,' said Miss Peters, with a smile, as the girls joined her at the stable door. 'You look well. I trust you both worked hard and did very well in the exam!'
A little frown crossed Clarissa's face. As she had confessed to Bill the day before, she was not at all sure that she had done well. She had been so nervous, she said, and, only having been at school for that one tern, she was certain that her work could not be up to the standard of the others'.
'For goodness' sake, don't let's talk about the exam today,' said Bill quickly. The last thing she wanted this morning was to see Clarissa upset. 'There are so many better things to think about, on a day like—yes, hallo, Thunder!' For as she spoke she had opened the door and gone in to where her own horse waited for her—and he was surely a better thing to think about than exams. Even when Bill had been working her hardest, she had not stopped visiting Thunder in the stables as often as she could; but she was sure that he had missed their trips out together across the countryside, down the lanes and along the cliffs.
Thunder whinnied happily and nuzzled against Bill. He seemed to understand that she had now come back to him truly. How clever he was!
Clarissa and Miss Peters fetched their own horses; saddles and bridles were put on, and in a very short time they were clattering out of the stable yard and away. They headed southwest, with the bright morning sun behind them and the sea, calm and bright and smiling, down beyond the cliffs to their right.
With the school behind them, they turned into a narrow lane with high, curved banks that hid the sea from view. The horses had to go slowly on the steep downwards slope, and the pace of Thunder's sure-footed walk gave Bill time to notice the details of their surroundings. The banks on either side of the lane—it was almost hollowed out of the hillside—were all overgrown with bracken and gorse, with the big white trumpets of the bindweed and the more delicate flowers of the wild roses tangled across them. The dry, sandy soil sent little puffs of dust up into the air where the horses' hoofs disturbed it.
Of course, when she was stuck inside, swotting in the common room or sitting the exam itself in the big fourth-form classroom (and how perfect the summer outside the windows always looks, when you are in the middle of an important exam!), Bill had missed these rides terribly. But it was only now that she realised just how much she had missed them. The imagined scenes could not live up to the reality. The sweet, warm scents of heather and bracken, the July sun on her back, Thunder's sure and steady movement beneath her, were a thousand times more vivid than her memory had made them.
'I am jolly glad to be back out here again,' she said, inadequately. Clarissa smiled at her, and Bill hoped her friend understood something of what she could not express in words. Clarissa too had been looking around her as they went, a little smile on her face and her green eyes shining with quiet enjoyment, and Bill—who had not, she thought, taken much notice of the change at the time—was suddenly very glad indeed that Clarissa no longer had to wear those thick glasses she had had at the start of the term.
The slope led them towards and then around a tiny cove, where the gentle waves lapped against the rocks, and from here the path climbed up towards the cliffs on the other side. At the top it widened out into a broad track, grown all over with short grass. Here there was no longer anything to slow them down, and the horses fairly streamed along above the sea, Bill and Thunder in the lead. The clear air, with its sharp salt smell, rushed past Bill's face and swept through Thunder's mane, and the ground fell away beneath them as though the horse were flying. Here was another thing Bill had missed more than she knew! She laughed aloud.
They came to a tall hedge, just as overgrown with the profusion of summer as the banks of the lane had been. A high gate let the track through. Now, perhaps Bill was a little too excited, and perhaps Thunder also was over-exuberant, at their first taste of real freedom in some time—for they, instead of slowing down at the approach to the gate, sped up ahead of the others and jumped straight over it! It was a perfectly executed jump, confident and assured. Bill turned Thunder round on the other side of the gate and waited there for Clarissa and Miss Peters to catch up.
Clarissa, who was laughing as she rode up to the gate and allowed Miss Peters to open it for them both, went straight over to Bill.
'That was a fine jump!' she said. 'You both looked splendid, flying over the gate like that.'
Of course, it was always jolly pleasant whenever anyone said nice things about you—but, somehow, it was different when it was Clarissa saying such things. Bill looked abruptly away, out to where the sun shone upon the sea. The brightness was dazzling, but not so much so, somehow, as looking at Clarissa just then.
Now, however, Miss Peters joined them. 'That was reckless, Bill,' she said. 'I don't say that you don't know how to jump, of course—but a jump that high is dangerous, and you know the rules. Next time you're planning something like that, ask me first, please!'
Bill and Clarissa glanced at each other and grinned. Miss Peters was obliged to be the responsible mistress, of course, and she was right that it had been slightly reckless. But a little smile betrayed itself at the corner of her mouth as she spoke; she was a horsewoman as well as a teacher, and she could appreciate riding prowess like Bill's.
'I think it was awfully brave of you,' whispered Clarissa as they set off again. It was possible that Miss Peters was not the greatest admirer of Bill's feat.
They had brought a picnic lunch with them, and presently, when the sun was high in the sky, they decided that it was lunchtime. They stopped in a wide green meadow that fell away down towards the clifftop, and set about unpacking their bags.
It was a splendid picnic! There were jam sandwiches, a pork pie, some little cheese pastries, and finally slices of a sponge-cake which Clarissa's people had sent her as a present to congratulate her on a successful first term at school. Seeing, when they had cut it up that morning, that there was far too much of the cake for the three of them to eat in one go, Clarissa had decided to keep the rest to share with the other fourth-formers at tea-time; and now she happily declared that the others had a great treat in store.
The sky was still quite without a cloud, and the hot July sun shone down uninterrupted upon the quiet Cornish countryside. As they were finishing their lunch Miss Peters saw a friend of hers, who lived nearby, walking her three dogs along the side of the next field, and went over to speak to her, waving merrily. Bill and Clarissa were left alone to lie down on the grass in the shade of a hedge.
The hawthorn and maple leaves, with the deep green and slightly battered appearance that leaves generally acquire by the middle of summer, hung still in the air above them, and even the sea beyond the cliffs was calm, with scarcely a wave to be seen. This quiet scene was a contrast to the movement and action of their ride—a pleasant contrast, thought Bill, watching Thunder contentedly eating his own lunch.
They were near where Clarissa's family lived—indeed, part of the route they had taken that morning was one she had been riding and walking for years of happy summer days. Bill's home was also not far away; and, talking in the quiet voices that seemed suited to this peaceful scene, they now compared notes on their memories of the countryside places they had both known from childhood.
'I miss the old carefree life,' said Bill wistfully. 'No timetables or bells or exams—just riding over with my brothers to see our tutor in the morning, and then spending the rest of the day however we liked!'
'Would you rather you hadn't gone to school?' asked Clarissa.
'Not really,' said Bill, laughing. 'School's awfully nice too, in other ways. How about you?'
Clarissa grinned. 'I'm glad I got the chance to go to school,' she said. 'You know how I couldn't before, because of my heart. It was dreadful knowing I couldn't be like other girls, and had to miss out on everything they did. And Malory Towers is a marvellous place.'
And with this Bill agreed whole-heartedly.
'Besides,' went on Clarissa, looking back towards the horses, 'if I hadn't gone to school, I wouldn't have met you.'
There was little Bill could say to this; but she smiled up at the sky between the green leaves, and when Clarissa turned shyly back towards her they were both still smiling.
'In any case,' Clarissa said, in a brighter tone, 'we are learning useful things at school. If you're ever to run your own stables or keep race-horses, like your father, you'll have all the accounts to keep—you shall need your maths lessons for that!'
Bill laughed. 'You're right, of course.'
'Clarissa,' she added after a moment, raising herself on her elbows and looking at her friend, 'I'm sure you did do well in the School Cert. Your work has been good ever since you arrived here. And I know you worked hard for it—Miss Peters says that's what really counts, you know.'
'Thank you,' said Clarissa, in an altered tone. 'Yes—I'm glad you think that. And I hope you're right.'
Bill, who was always forthright and a little blunt, sometimes found it difficult to say the right thing—the right thing was so often more complicated and subtle than her own thoughts. And though she usually cared little what other people thought of the things she said—they were true, after all, and she didn't say cruel things or try to hurt people—she was very glad indeed to know that she had said the right thing now. She took Clarissa's hand where it lay upon the grass and squeezed it.
Miss Peters had seen her friend and the dogs on their way, and she now wandered back over towards where the two girls were sitting. In certain respects Miss Peters was not an unperceptive woman, and she had already formed certain private and rather amused conclusions about her two young friends. Now, watching them together, she thought for a moment of the long summer days of her own girlhood, and the captivating young lady who had once—but never mind about that now. 'Time to be getting back, don't you think?' she called to them as she reached the horses.
And so they rode together back to Malory Towers. By now the day was getting very hot, and the prospect of seeing Thunder and the other horses safely into the stables and then going and lazing around on the wide lawns, or having a bathe in the cool water of the swimming-pool, was beginning to look a decidedly appealing one. At last they rounded the final corner, and Malory Towers appeared in view. From here it was only a short distance back to the stable yard.
'We have had a fine day, haven't we?' said Bill to Thunder, patting his nose, as she prepared to leave him in his stall.
Clarissa was waiting for her outside. 'Come on,' she said, linking her arm through Bill's, 'we must go and tell the others about that cake.'
Bill grinned, and agreed that they must. She felt terribly uplifted. Of course, she was always happy after such a long and lovely day out on horseback, but today there somehow seemed to be something more than that.
But, straightforward as ever, she did not examine the feeling in any great detail. She went with Clarissa to find the others.