A Young Fire-Bug
Disclaimer: The Chalet School series belongs to Elinor M Brent-Dyer & her heirs. I'm just having fun.
Summary: How an only child from Australia ended up at an English Boarding School
Emerence Anna Elizabeth Hope was bored. It was too hot to do anything except go swimming, and she was tired of swimming! She had been on holidays for three weeks now, with the prospect of another four weeks in front of before her. Christmas was in two days, and she supposed it would be something to break up the boredom, but it also meant that she had to be nice to her grandparents and aunts and uncles, and they all thought she should be seen and not heard, which was not at all how she viewed things.
She thought about visiting the Mackenzies next door; if Mr Mackenzie wasn't home she should be able to stay for the rest of the day. Mrs Mackenzie – Con Stewart "as was" – tolerated her for longer stretches of time than her husband did. Teaching at the Chalet School had given her plenty of exposure to mischievous young teens, although even she had to concede that she had never met one as obstreperous as Emerence.
Emerence wandered down the brown and dusty garden – there had been no rain for weeks, and the vegetation was bone-dry – past the summerhouse, and through the gate that had been cut between the Hope and Mackenzie properties.
Mrs Mackenzie's rose-garden was wilting terribly in the heat, and the vegetable garden didn't look much better. As Emerence strolled past them, she swiped at the biggest rose-bush with a stick, destroying several of the flowers. She looked at the scattering of rose-petals on the ground for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders and bounced up onto the verandah. She twisted the doorknob and pushed on the door, confidently expecting to be able to barge straight in as she normally did.
To her surprise, the door didn't open immediately, and after twisting the knob a few more times, she came to the unpleasant conclusion that she was going to have to entertain herself for the rest of the day, as it appeared that the Mackenzies were not at home.
Dragging the stick behind her in the dust, she strolled back through the garden to the gate, stopping momentarily at the incinerator where she pocketed a box of matches which had been left there.
After lunch – salad, of course – Emerence was shooed back out into the garden by her mother. Mrs Hope was entertaining a group of ladies from the church, and having her bored and sulky daughter around was not helping matters.
She idly fingered the box of matches in her pocket as she drifted down the garden. She had her storybook – A Little Bush Maid by Mary Grant Bruce – with her as well, intending to stay out of the sun this afternoon by reading in the summerhouse.
If anything, it was hotter in the summerhouse than it was outside in the garden. Emerence was having difficulty concentrating on the pages, and finally put the book aside after reading the same page three times without taking any of it in. Reading about the bush fire prompted her to take out the box of matches, and strike one.
Entertaining herself by seeing how far down the match she could let it burn before singeing her fingers, Emerence used half the box of matches before the attraction palled.
Next she gathered up some dried leaves from under the bushes, piled them on the floor of the summerhouse, and set fire to them. They made a jolly little blaze, which quickly died out as the leaves were consumed by the flames.
Emerence felt vaguely dissatisfied with how quickly the fire had died out, and this time collected a larger pile of leaves and a few odds and ends of branches. This made a much more impressive blaze and Emerence clapped her hands in delight. This was far more exciting than reading!
Then she frowned. This fire wasn't dying down like the other one had. In fact, it was getting bigger, starting to lick along the floor and up one of the pillars. A sudden gust of wind caught the burning leaves and scattered them into the bushes, which immediately started to burn.
Emerence stared in horror at the burgeoning inferno. Childish and protected as she was, she knew that this was bad. She made ineffectual movements towards the fire, hoping to put it out before it grew any larger. But the swirling winds meant that the fire was moving to the left and right of the summerhouse, spreading rapidly into both the Mackenzie and Templeton properties.
Turning on her heel, she tore back up garden towards the house, shrieking, "Fire! The garden's on fire!" at the top of her lungs.
Women boiled out of the kitchen door in the way ants do when you poke their nest with a stick (something else Emerence had done another time she was bored, with equally nasty consequences). They took one look at the blaze, and scattered with astounding organisation. Mrs Hope went back into the house to call the fire brigade and indulge in a spot of quiet hysterics afterwards, two went to the neighbouring houses to alert them, and the rest organised themselves into a bucket-chain, hoping to at least dampen the area around the house in an effort to provide a fire-break.
The fire was creeping steadily along the bushes towards the house, despite the best efforts of the bucket-chain. Mrs Williams, a leading force in the Hope's church, wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, smearing soot. "I hope the truck gets here soon, there's not much more we can do. If it doesn't arrive soon, there's not much hope of saving the houses."
On the tail-end of her words came the welcome sound of the fire-bell, followed closely by the sight of the engine. Within minutes of the engine arriving, the fire was under control, and people were starting to ask how it had begun. Mr Templeton, as a member of the volunteer brigade, was the first to find the box of matches in the burnt-out summerhouse.
"Someone lit the fire deliberately," he announced, brandishing the box. "The bounder is probably miles away by now, and we'll never know who it was or why he did it."
For all her other faults, Emerence was a truthful person when confronted with her misdeeds. This was a result of her upbringing, where she had never been punished, or even scolded for anything she had ever done. She pushed her way through the ring of adults and announced, "I did it."
"She's going to boarding-school, and that's final!" Mr Hope declared in the face of Mrs Hope's tearful protestations. "We can't have another incident like this one. Templeton and Mackenzie have made it perfectly clear that they believe our daughter is one step away from gaol, and if something isn't done soon, she'll be there in no time. Mrs Mackenzie speaks very highly of the school she taught at before the war, and I have determined that Emerence will be sent there for the next four years."
"But that school is in England. She won't be able to come home for the holidays," Mrs Hope exclaimed.
"Probably all for the best," he answered ruthlessly. "Maybe the school will be able to drill some sense and manners into her if she can't come home every three months. There will be no more discussion into this matter, my mind is made up. I'll send the Headmistress a cable this afternoon, and Emerence will be on the next available plane."
And so, before Emerence knew what was happening, she was on a plane to England, ready to begin her new life at the Chalet School.