"If I were left a widow," she wrote, "I should get the children into orphanages, or persuade rich friends to adopt them. Then I would spend the three hundred pounds in buying new clothes and staying at the best hotels, and try to get married again to somebody who could provide for me better."
Among the flights of fancy in which the Fifth Form were forced to indulge were a railway collision, a fire, a bicycle accident, an escape of gas, the swallowing of poison, the bursting of the kitchen boiler, a case of choking, and an infectious epidemic. On the whole they rather enjoyed the fun of airing their views, and when asked to propose fresh topics had suggested such startling catastrophes as "A German Invasion," "A Revolution," "A Volcanic Eruption," "A Famine," and "A Zeppelin Raid."
Rejecting the first four, Miss Gibbs had chosen the last for discussion, and for fully ten minutes the Form, in imagination, dwelt in an atmosphere of explosives. They clutched their few valuables that were within reach, donned dressing-gowns and bedroom slippers, each seized a blanket, and all descended to the cellars with the utmost dispatch of which they were capable, while bombs came crashing through the roof, and the walls of the house tottered to ruin.
"I shall never dare to go to sleep again!" shivered Fauvette, appalled at the mental picture presented to her.
"Are the Zepps likely to come, Miss Gibbs?" enquired Ardiune.
"Not so likely at this time of year as in winter. Still, of course, one never can tell," replied the mistress, anxious to justify the usefulness of her emergency lessons. "It is wise to know what to do. We ought all to adopt the Boy Scouts' motto—'Be Prepared'."
"And suppose we ever do hear dreadful noises in the middle of the night?" said Raymonde, gazing with solemn, awestruck eyes at the teacher.
"Then you must make for the cellar without delay," replied Miss Gibbs emphatically.
If she could have seen Raymonde's expression, as that young lady turned her head for a moment towards Aveline, she would have been surprised. The serious apprehension had changed to dancing mischief. Even so well-seasoned a mistress as Miss Gibbs, however, cannot be aware of every sub-current in her Form. Human nature has its limits.
Raymonde left the class-room chuckling to herself, and at the earliest convenient moment summoned a committee of the Mystic Seven.
"I've got the idea of my life!" she declared. "It isn't often I have a really topping notion, but this is one of those inspirations that come sometimes, one doesn't know how."
"You needn't be quite so peacocky about it!" chirruped Katherine. "Other people have ideas occasionally as well as you."
"Ah! but wait till you've heard mine, and then you'll allow I've some reason to cock-a-doodle. Look here, don't you think it's extremely nice to be philanthropic?"
"Don't know," replied the others doubtfully. They distrusted Raymonde's philanthropy, and were unwilling to commit themselves.
"It's so nice to do things for others," continued their schoolmate gushingly. "When somebody has been looking forward to an event, just think of the bliss of being able to bring it to pass! One would feel a sort of mixture of Santa Claus and Cinderella's Fairy Godmother!"
"Go on!" murmured the Mystics.
"Well, you see, what I mean is this. Gibbie's been taking ever such a lot of trouble to teach us how to act in emergencies. She must have spent hours thinking out those problems. I sometimes feel, girls, that we do not sufficiently appreciate our teachers!"
The grimaces of the six were eloquent.
"Get to the point!" suggested Ardiune.
"I'm getting! Well, you know, we're all very grateful to Gibbie, and interested in the problems, and happy in our work, and all the rest of it. I think we ought to do something to make a little return to her for her kindness. Now it must be very disappointing to coach us up for these emergencies, and never have an opportunity of putting what we've been taught into practice. If we could show her that her lessons have sunk in, and that we could face a sudden catastrophe with calm courage and prompt presence of mind, then she'd feel her labour had not been in vain. She really deserves it!"
"We can't burst the kitchen boiler, or set the cook on fire to oblige her!" objected Valentine.
"Certainly not; but there are other emergencies. With proper preparation we might engineer a very neat little Zepp raid, quite sufficient to put every theory into practice."
Smiles illuminated the faces of the committee. They began to see daylight. Raymonde re-tied her hair ribbon, and continued:
"On that afternoon when I went exploring, I discovered a way on to the roof exactly over Gibbie's bedroom. Now what you've got to do for the next few days is to collect old tins. There ought to be plenty of them about. You can leave the rest to me!"
The result of Raymonde's suggestion was an extraordinary activity on the part of her friends in the acquisition of any species of discarded can. They begged empty cocoa tins from the cook, and even climbed over the wall on to the rubbish heap to rescue specimens, rusty or otherwise, that lay there unnoticed and unappropriated. Each can was furnished with four or five large pebbles inside, and was secured at the end with brown paper if the original lid was lost. They were packed in osier-plaited baskets, and hidden away in a corner of the barn until they were wanted.
Raymonde regarded her preparations with much satisfaction.
"It ought to be enough to wake the dead!" she said, rattling one of the tins in demonstration.
As has been before explained, the members of the Fourth and Fifth Forms—nineteen girls in all—slept in the huge chamber which occupied an entire wing of the house, and had been the dormitory of the French nuns a hundred years ago. The small room at the end, formerly the cell of the Mother Superior, was now the bower of Miss Gibbs. It had two doors, one leading into the passage and another into the dormitory, so that she could keep an eye upon the nineteen inmates. It was a very unnecessary arrangement to have her so near, the girls considered, for she would come popping in immediately if they made a noise. They envied the Sixth, who slept in little bedrooms along the corridor, and wished Miss Gibbs had possessed a lesser sense of duty and a greater appreciation of luxury, so that she might have chosen a more comfortable and spacious bedroom elsewhere.
When sufficient tin-can ammunition had been prepared, Raymonde carried the baskets upstairs by stealth, and hid them in the lumber cupboard which she had discovered on the day she had explored the roof. They were not likely to be disturbed here, for probably no one save herself knew of the existence of the tiny room. She crept through the small door on to the tiles, and verified her position by cautious tapping, to which Morvyth, stationed in the passage below with a hockey stick, replied. Having thus taken her exact bearings, she felt that the whole plot was in good training.
"We must choose a moonlight night, or I shouldn't be able to see my way over the roof," she informed the committee. "Of course Zepps don't generally come when there's a moon, but there'll be no time for anybody to think of that. You know your part of the business?"
The household at the Grange retired early to rest. Miss Gibbs, who was an ardent advocate of daylight saving, and always rose at six, was generally in bed by eleven, on the theory that it is impossible to burn a candle at both ends. As a rule, every occupant of the long dormitory was wrapt in slumber before that hour, and the mistress, taking a last peep at the rows of small beds, would hear nothing but peaceful breathing. On one particular evening, however, when she made her usual survey of the room, seven of the apparent sleepers were foxing. They lay with closed eyes and composed faces, but inwardly they were particularly lively. Each one had solemnly passed her word to keep awake, and considered herself on sentry duty. To pass the time they had brought acid drops to bed with them, and sucked them slowly, so as to make them last as long as possible. They dared not talk, for fear of disturbing the others, though the temptation was great. Occasionally a stealthy hand would reach over to the next bed, to make sure of its occupant's vigilance, and the squeeze would be passed on down the row of seven.
When the old grandfather clock on the stairs chimed midnight, Raymonde and Morvyth rose quietly, and donned dressing-gowns and bedroom slippers, then, with a final signal to their fellow mystics, crept cautiously out of the room. The passage was very dark, but Morvyth had brought her electric torch, and flashed a ray of light in front of them. It felt decidedly spooky, and they were thankful to be together. They went up the stairs towards the servants' quarters, and along an upper landing. By the aid of the torch it was not difficult to find the secret door among the panelling. The little lumber-room looked horribly dark; it needed an effort of will to enter among its dim shadows. A rat was gnawing in the corner, and scurried away with noise enough for a lion. Raymonde peeped through the small door on to the roof. Outside, the moon was shining brilliantly. She could see each separate tile as clearly as by daylight. The sight restored her courage.
"I'll creep through, and then you hand me the baskets," she whispered. "I know just the place to drop the tins. They'll go plump, and roll down the whole length of the gable."
"Right-o, old sport!" returned Morvyth.
Miss Gibbs lay in her bedroom, sleeping the sleep of the just. The moonlight, flooding through her hygienically wide-open window, revealed the rows of photographs on her chimney-piece, the gilt-edged volumes on her book-shelf, and the little emergency medicine cupboard on the wall. Was she dreaming of the lesson she meant to give to-morrow, or of the officer whose portrait, in the silver frame, occupied the post of honour in her picture gallery? Who could tell? Unsympathetic school-girls do not know all the secrets of a teacher's life. Perhaps Miss Gibbs, like the familiar chestnut burr, hid a silver lining under her prickly exterior. She slept so peacefully—it was a shame to disturb her. Schoolgirls are ruthless beings at best.
Bang! Rattle! Bang! Bump! She woke with a start. Projectiles were falling upon the roof with terrific force. At the same moment shrieks issued from the dormitory, and a wild shout of "Zepps!" Miss Gibbs's presence of mind did not desert her. It took her exactly three seconds to put on her dressing-gown and bedroom slippers, two more to sweep her watch, purse, and a little packet of treasures (placed nightly in readiness) into the ample pocket of her wrapper, and the next instant she was flashing her torchlight in the dormitory.
The girls, most of them very scared, were turning out of bed; Aveline, Fauvette, Valentine, Ardiune, and Katherine were already garbed, and encouraging the others. Before a minute and a half had elapsed, the whole party was on its way to the cellar, having rung the great bell on the stairs to warn the rest of the household.
Raymonde and Morvyth, having expended the ammunition, hurried downstairs, and slipped in among their Form mates unobserved. The school spent an agitated hour in the cellar, sitting on blankets clutched from their beds. As all appeared quiet, and no more mysterious thumps resounded on the roof, Miss Beasley, who had reconnoitred, declared it safe to return to roost, and ordered her twenty-six pupils upstairs again. Possibly she had her suspicions, for very early next morning she went out to investigate the extent of the damage, and discovered a selection of the projectiles lying on the lawn. The result was a solemn harangue to the whole school.
"I don't know who has played this contemptible practical joke," she proclaimed witheringly. "It may seem humorous to small minds, but to me it is pitiable. There were no doubt instigators amongst you, and for the sake of those ringleaders I shall punish you all. You will spend Wednesday afternoon in your class-rooms copying out 'Lycidas,' instead of taking our projected trip on the river. It is hard to punish the innocent with the guilty, but those responsible for this occurrence are probably known to their companions, who will, I hope, visit their displeasure upon them, and cause them to regret that they have deprived the school of a holiday."
Miss Beasley's method of punishment, though voted abominably unfair by the majority, was certainly efficacious. Such grave suspicion fell on the Mystic Seven that the indignant monitresses took the matter in hand, and insisted on investigating the entire business. Popular opinion raged hotly against the culprits, for the promised expedition to the river had been regarded as the treat of the term.
"I believe it's all your fault, Raymonde Armitage!" scolded Linda Mottram. "If there's any mischief about, one may be sure you're at the bottom of it. We don't want your monkey tricks here. They're on the level of a kindergarten for little boys. If anything more of this sort happens, you may expect to find yourself jolly well boycotted. I shan't speak to you, in any case, for a week, and I hope none of the other monitresses will. You deserve sending to Coventry by everybody."
"How hard it is to be public-spirited!" mourned Raymonde to her chums afterwards. "I'm sure I gave everybody a treat, and especially Gibbie. I'm a martyr to the cause of emergencies. For goodness' sake don't any of you drink poison by mistake, or they'll lay the blame on me and send me to the gallows!"
The Crystal Gazers
It was about this time that a wave of the occult passed over the school. It began with Daphne Johnson, who happened to read a magazine article on "The Borderland of the Spirit World," and it spread like an epidemic of influenza. The supernatural was the topic of the hour. Ghost stories were at a premium, and any girl who could relate some creepy spiritual experience, which had happened to the second cousin of a friend of a friend of hers, was sure of a thrilled audience. This taste for the psychic was particularly strong among the girls of the Sixth Form, who leaned towards its intellectual and scientific aspects. They despised vulgar apparitions, but discussed such abstruse problems as phantasms of the living, thought transference, will power, hypnotism, and clairvoyance. Meta Wright dabbled a little in palmistry, and examined the hands of her schoolmates, prophesying startling events in their future careers. Lois Barlow sent half-a-crown to a ladies' newspaper to have her horoscope cast, and was terribly dejected at the gloomy prospects offered her by the planets, till she fortunately discovered that she had put the date of her birth wrong by three hours, which would, of course, completely alter the aspect of the heavenly bodies, and cause the best of astrologers to err. Veronica Terry talked darkly of experiences in the psychic world, of astral bodies, etheric doubles, elemental entities, and nature spirits. She went to sleep at night with her thumbs and big toes crossed, in the hope of bringing back the adventures of her dreams into her waking consciousness. She was a little hazy on the subject, but yearned for further instruction.
"It's called 'Yoga'," she confided to her particular chum, Barbara Rowlands. "You concentrate your mind before you go to sleep, and then you're able to function in the astral body. My cousin Winnie told me of a girl at College who did it, and she was seen standing in the room of a friend at the other side of the hostel, while all the time she was asleep in bed."
"I hope you won't do that!" shuddered Barbara nervously. "It would give me a fit if I woke up and found you staring at me, and knew it wasn't really you. Promise you won't!"
"It may be rather difficult to regulate one's movements, once one is out of the body," returned Veronica guardedly.
Barbara did not crave for spiritual excursions, and secretly preferred the old days, when her chum talked tennis instead of psychology; but the occult was paramount, and she was obliged to follow the fashion. The atmosphere of the Grange was certainly conducive to superstition. The dim passages and panelled walls looked haunted. Every accessory of the old mansion seemed a suitable background for a ghost. The juniors were frankly frightened. They did not dare to go upstairs alone. They imagined skeleton fingers clutching their legs through the banisters, or bodiless heads rolling like billiard balls along the landings. Having listened, awestruck, to Veronica's accounts of a seance, they were apprehensive lest the tables should turn sportive and caper about the rooms rapping out spirit messages, or boisterous elementals should bump the beds up and down and fling the china about.
"That only happens if there's a powerful medium in the house," Veronica had assured them, and the girls devoutly hoped that none of their number possessed the required mystic properties.
"Look here," said Raymonde one day to Ardiune, "I'm getting rather fed up with this spook business."
"So'm I," agreed Ardiune. "I thought it was fun at first, but it's got beyond the limit now. The sillies can talk of nothing else. I'm sick of sitting on Veronica's bed and hearing about mediums and messages. I'd like a potato race for a change. I vote we get up some progressive games."
"It would be more jinky! I fancy a good many are tired of ghosts, only they don't like to say so. Ardiune! I've got an idea! While the school's still mad on these things, why shouldn't we have some fun out of it? Play a rag on them, you know."
"Dress up in a sheet and rub wet matches on one's hands?" suggested Ardiune.
"No, no! Nothing so stale as that! Why, it would hardly take in the juniors for more than a minute. I'm angling for bigger fish. I want to hook the Sixth!"
"H'm! Not so easy, my good girl!"
"It needs craft, of course, and one must have a suitable bait. The common or garden ghost trick would be useless. I want something subtle. If I could have developed mediumistic powers, now, and gone into a trance!"
"Couldn't you?" queried Ardiune eagerly.
Raymonde shook a regretful head.
"Veronica knows too much about seances. She says the great test of the trance is to stick pins into the medium. If she doesn't utter a groan, then her conscious entity is suspended, and a spirit is about to materialize. I couldn't stand being a living pin-cushion. I know I'd squeal."
"But we might pad you with cushions. Seances are always held in the dark, so they wouldn't find out."
"Trust Veronica to find my vulnerable spot! She detests me, and she'd just enjoy prodding me up with pins. No, we must have something less painful than that, please."
"Table-turning might be possible?"
"The Sixth did it, and the table was beginning to go round quite nicely when they discovered that Linda was pushing the leg. I think pretty nearly everything occult has been tried here lately, except just one. We've not had any crystal gazing."
"How d'you do that?"
"Don't you remember that chapter in Zilla, the Sahara Queen? How she goes to the Coptic magician, and he pours some ink into a little boy's hand, and sees all her future in it?"
"Ink would stain horribly," commented Ardiune.
"Yes, I don't mean to use ink. What I want is a crystal. There's something on Gibbie's chimney-piece that would do jolly well. I believe I'll borrow it! I know just how to manage, because Mabel and Sylvia went to consult a psychist in Bond Street, and they told me all about it, and everything she said and did. As a matter of fact she described Mabel's fiance quite wrong, and pretended she saw him sitting in a dug-out, while all the time he was on a battleship; but they thought it great fun, because they hadn't really intended to believe her."
"Would the girls believe you?"
"Certainly not as Raymonde Armitage. I don't mean them to know me. We're going to disguise ourselves, so that our very mothers wouldn't own us."
Ardiune looked decidedly sceptical.
"Wait till I've done telling you before you pull faces, you old bluebottle! Can't you trust me by now to get up a decent rag? Yes, I'm offended! All right, I'll accept apologies. Now if you're really listening, I'll explain. You know the gipsies are camping down by the river. Everybody in the school has noticed their caravans, and realizes they're there. Now what's more natural than for a couple of these gipsies to stroll round by the barn some evening during recreation time, and offer to predict the future? Katherine and Ave could be in the secret, have their fortunes told first, and then bring others. We'd install ourselves in the old cow-house; it's so dark, no one would see us very plainly."
"Ray, you've enough imagination for a novelist!" murmured Ardiune admiringly.
Having settled their plan of campaign, the next step was to carry out details. The question of costume loomed largest.
"We must look real gipsies, not stage ones," decreed Raymonde. "The thing's got to be done properly, if it's done at all."
They ransacked the property box used for school theatricals, and having selected some likely garments, set to work on an ideal of realism. Two skirts were carefully torn on nails, artistically stained with rust and mud, and rubbed on the barn floor to give them an extra tone. Some cotton bodices were similarly treated. Shoes were a knotty problem, for gipsies do not generally affect trim footgear, yet nobody at the Grange possessed worn-out or dilapidated boots. In the end Raymonde carefully unpicked the stitches in her oldest pairs to give them the requisite burst appearance, and with the aid of a file rubbed the respectability from them. A dip in the mud of the moat completed the transformation. Some cheap beads and coloured handkerchiefs, and a faint wash of Vandyke brown over face and hands, gave the finishing touches.
In the interval between preparation and supper, when several members of the Sixth Form were pursuing carpentry and other industrial occupations in the barn, Aveline Kerby entered to borrow a screw-driver. She conversed casually on the topics of wood-carving, photography, pressed flowers, and kindred hobbies; then, just as she was leaving, turned back and remarked, apparently as an afterthought:
"Oh, by the by, do you know there are two gipsies in the cow-house? They're from the caravan by the river. They came in through the back gate, begging, and Morvyth happened to meet them. They offered to tell her fortune, so she took them into the cow-house, so that Gibbie shouldn't see them. She says they're marvellous. They described her mother exactly, and her brother at the front. Isn't it wonderful now they can do it?"
"Are they there still?" asked Veronica, swallowing the bait.
"I believe so. At least they were, five minutes ago. Elsie Moseley and Cynthia Greene had gone to see them. I'd go myself, but I've spent all my allowance, and of course one has to cross their palms with the orthodox piece of silver, I suppose. It's hard luck to be stony-broke. Ta-ta! Thanks for the screw-driver!"
Aveline beat a judicious retreat, and left her words to work. As she had expected, the news of the arrival of the occultists was received with interest.
"It's an extraordinary thing that gipsies are so often gifted with psychic powers," commented Meta.
"They're children of nature," returned Veronica. "I suppose our ultra-civilization blunts our astral perceptions. One finds marvellous things among the hill tribes in India—things that can't be explained by any known rules of science."
"I suppose these ancient races have inherited secrets that we can't grasp?"
"Yes, they follow forgotten laws of nature. Some day, no doubt, science will rediscover them."
Veronica spoke seriously. During the holidays she had studied the subject by the aid of books borrowed from the Free Library.
"I should like just to go and have a look at these gipsies," she added. "Will you come with me?"
She voiced the feelings of the others. They rose with one accord, and went in the direction of the cow-shed. They met Cynthia Greene and Elsie Moseley coming out, half-awed, half-giggling. At the sight of monitresses they dived round the corner of the building, and escaped into the orchard.
"It's certainly our duty to investigate," propounded Meta.
It is pleasant when duty and inclination coincide. The girls walked forward briskly. The interior of the cow-house was dark as an Eastern temple. The gipsies had established themselves in the dimmest corner, and were squatting on bundles of straw under a manger. Obviously they were extremely dirty and dilapidated. Their hands and faces appeared to be unacquainted with soap and water, their clothes were tattered, their shoes seemingly in the last stage of decrepitude.
"Tell your fortunes, my pretty ladies?" pattered one of the Romanys. Her voice was hoarse but conciliatory. Possibly she had a cold—tents are notoriously draughty sleeping-places.
"We don't care about vulgar fortunes, we are really interested," commenced Veronica. "What we'd like to know is how you get your powers. Where does your knowledge of the future come from? I've always wanted to ask this."
The gipsy woman shook her head pityingly.
"Ah, lady! We don't know ourselves! It comes to us suddenly. Like a flash of light we see your future—then it fades. It's a sixth sense that's given to the poor gipsies. They're born with it, and they can't explain it any more than you can explain the breath of your body."
"I've often heard of this sixth sense," whispered Daphne to Lois.
"Sometimes we feel what's going to be, and sometimes we see it," continued the gipsy, fumbling with something in her lap. "We can't tell beforehand which way the knowledge will come."
"What's that you've got there?" asked Veronica sharply. "Is it a crystal?"
"You're right, lady. It is a crystal, and a wonderful one too. My grandmother got it from—but no! I'd best not be telling that. I wouldn't part with it, lady, if the Queen offered me her crown in exchange. Take it in your hand! Look how it sparkles! It doesn't often shine like that—only when someone with the sixth sense holds it."
"I've sometimes suspected that I possess psychic powers!" murmured Veronica complacently.
"Would you like to learn the future, lady?" queried the gipsy. "Then hold it so, in your hands, for a minute. Now it has felt you and known you, and it will tell—oh, yes! it will tell!"
She took the crystal again, and turned to the companion who squatted beside her on the floor.
"Zara! Look what is coming to the lady," she commanded softly.
Zara, who had apparently been in a deep reverie, roused herself with a start, placed the crystal in her lap with the first finger and the thumb of each hand lightly touching it, and stared fixedly into the magic glass. For a moment or two the future seemed obscured, then evidently it cleared. She began to speak in a deep, monotonous voice, as if talking in her sleep.
"I see the sea—waves—waves—everywhere. There is a ship—oh! it has changed. I see sand, and a white house, and palm trees. A soldier in khaki is coming out of the house. He stops to speak to a servant—a black man in a turban—he is angry—he frowns—he goes again into the white house. Oh, it is fading—it is gone!"
"My brother Leslie's in Egypt!" gasped Veronica, much impressed.
She would have requested a continuance of the vision, but at that moment the dressing-bell clanged loudly. It was plainly time to go and tidy up for supper.
"If you could come again to-morrow about five," she suggested, pressing a coin into the gipsy's ready hand.
"Yes, lady, if we're still in the neighbourhood. We never know when we'll be moving on, you see. But we'll try to oblige you if we can."
Raymonde's and Ardiune's toilets that evening would have done credit to quick-change variety artistes. With clean faces and hands, and their dresses at least half fastened, they slipped into their places at the supper-table just in time; a little flurried, perhaps, but preserving an outward calm. So far their scheme had succeeded admirably. The Sixth appeared to have no suspicions.
They repeated their performance on the following day, installing themselves in the cow-house, and receiving relays of enquirers who came to consult them as to their future. Knowing somewhat of the private history of each member of the school, they got on excellently, and their reputation spread till more than half the girls had paid surreptitious visits to their retreat. All might have gone well, and their secret might have remained undiscovered, had it not been for Veronica's friendship with Mademoiselle. Veronica was so impressed with the value of the crystal's information that she could not help confiding the news, and bringing the impressionable Belgian to consult the seer for herself.
Ardiune's visions of smoking ruins and rescued refugees left Mademoiselle almost speechless. She in her turn felt impelled to seek a confidante, and imparted the wonderful revelations to Miss Gibbs.
That worthy lady immediately set off for the cow-house. As she entered there was a scuttling of juniors, who sought safety behind the partition. Raymonde stared for a moment aghast, then whispered to Ardiune: "Bluff it out!"
Miss Gibbs proceeded in an absolutely business-like manner. She requested a consultation, and listened while the gipsy, decidedly nervous, gave a rambling description of a dark gentleman and an Indian temple.
"Thank you," she said at last. "I think it only fair to warn you that you can be prosecuted and fined twenty-five pounds for telling fortunes. I should like to know where you got that crystal! It's remarkably like the ball of glass that was broken off my Venetian vase. I missed it yesterday from my mantelpiece. By the by"—stooping down suddenly, and pulling aside the handkerchief from Zara's swarthy neck—"you are wearing a locket and chain that I know to be the property of one of my pupils. It is my duty immediately to put you in the hands of the police."
The game was up! The disconcerted gipsies rose from their alcove, and came back from the psychic to the material world. It was a hard, exacting, unsympathetic world as mirrored in Miss Gibbs's keen grey eyes. She told them briefly to go and wash their faces and change their attire, then to report themselves in the class-room, where she would be at work correcting exercises.
"You can bring with you the money that you have collected over this business," she added.
Half an hour later, two clean, tidy, but dejected pupils entered the class-room, and placed the sum of thirteen and ninepence upon her desk. Miss Gibbs counted it over scrupulously.
"Any girls who were foolish enough to give you this, deserve to lose it," she remarked, "and I shall send it as a contribution to the Red Cross Fund. You will each learn two pages of Curtis's Historical Notes by heart, and repeat them to me to-morrow after morning school. I may mention that I consider it a great liberty for any girl to enter my bedroom and remove ornaments from my mantelpiece."
That evening, after preparation and supper, the entire school, instead of being allowed to pursue fancy work, was summoned to the lecture hall, and harangued by Miss Beasley upon the follies and dangers of superstition. She touched upon ancient beliefs in witchcraft, and modern credulity in clairvoyance and spiritualism, and placed an equal ban upon both.
"In these enlightened times, with all the advantages of education to dispel ignorance," she concluded, "it is incredible to me that anybody can still be found ready to believe in such nonsense. I beg you all, and especially those elder girls who should be leaders of the rest, to turn your thoughts and conversation to some healthier topic, and to let these morbid fancies sink into the obscurity they deserve."
"It was a nasty hit for the monitresses!" whispered Ardiune to Raymonde afterwards. "Did you see Veronica turning as red as beetroot? We'll have to wake early to-morrow morning, and swat at those wretched dates. It was grizzly bad luck Gibbie found us out!"
"But on the whole the game was worth the candle!" proclaimed Raymonde unrepentantly.
After the events related in the last chapter, the monitresses suddenly awakened to a sense of their responsibility as leaders of the school. Particularly Veronica. She had a sensitive disposition, and Miss Beasley's reproof rankled. She determined to set an example to the younger ones, and to be zealous in keeping order and enforcing rules. She held a surprise inspection of the juniors' desks and drawers, and pounced upon illicit packets of chocolate; she examined their books, and confiscated any which she considered unsuitable; she put a ban upon slang, and wrote out a new set of dormitory regulations. Her efforts were hardly so much appreciated as they deserved. The girls grumbled at this unanticipated tightening of the reins.
"We've always bought sweets and kept them in our desks," declared Joan Butler. "I believe Veronica used to do it herself."
"Life wouldn't be worth living without chocolates!" mourned Nora Fawcitt.
"And we always used to scramble for the bathroom in the mornings, ever since I've been here," groused Dorothy Newstead. "It's no fun to wait in a queue."
The Fifth fared no better than the Fourth, and being older, their indignation was even hotter.
"Veronica took away Adam Bede, and said it wasn't 'suitable'!" fumed Aveline. "She told me I might read Scott and Dickens instead. And I'd just got to the interesting part! It's too idiotic!"
"I can't see why Veronica need act censor to all our reading," agreed Katherine bitterly. "Why should we be allowed Jane Austen and not Charlotte Bronte?"
"Little girls mustn't read love stories!" mocked Raymonde.
"But they're all love stories—Scott's and Dickens's and Jane Austen's and everyone's! How about Shakespeare? There's heaps of love-making in Romeo and Juliet, and we took that with Professor Marshall!"
"I don't think Gibbie ever quite approved of it. She thought it indiscreet of the Professor, I'm sure, and likely to put ideas into our heads!"
"Does she expect we'll go eloping over the garden wall? Perhaps that's why she keeps such a vigilant look-out with the telescope!"
"It's quite bad enough to have Gibbie always on our trail," said Ardiune gloomily, "but when it comes to Veronica turning watch-dog as well, I call it an outrage!"
"I think Fifth-Form girls have responsibilities as well as monitresses," grunted Raymonde. "It's not good for Veronica to take life so earnestly! She'll grow old before her time. The Bumble's always rubbing it into us to make the most of our girlhood, and not be little premature women, so I vote we live up to her theory. It's Veronica's last term here. She ought to be bubbling and girlish, and carry away happy memories of her light-hearted school-days when she goes out into the wide world to be a woman. I consider it's our duty to look after this. The Bumble says the value of school life consists in its 'give and take'. We're taking a good deal from Veronica at present, so we must give her something back. Let's teach her to be kittenish and playful."
The chums exploded. The idea of the serious-minded Veronica developing a bubbling or kittenish manner was too much for them.
"We did pretty well when we took Maudie Heywood in hand," urged Raymonde. "She's wonderfully improved. Never exceeds the speed limit in her lessons, and if she writes extra essays she keeps them to herself, and doesn't flaunt them before the Form. And there was Cynthia Greene, too! We don't hear a word about The Poplars now, or her wretched bracelet. It may be difficult, perhaps, but we'll do our best with Veronica. We must regard ourselves as sort of missionaries."
Having decided that it was their vocation to cultivate a spirit of artless happiness in the school, the Mystic Seven set to work on Veronica. She did not respond to their efforts; on the contrary, she seemed to resent them. When they attempted to introduce lighter veins of conversation, she reproached them with being frivolous. She frowned on riddles, limericks, and puns. One day she so far forgot herself as to murmur "Cheeky kids!"
Raymonde, with a shocked and grieved expression, looked at the illuminated card deprecating the use of slang, which had lately been hung in the lecture hall, and Veronica flounced out of the room.
That night, when the monitress went to bed, her sponge, nail-brush, tooth-brush, and cake of soap were missing, and it was only after a long search that she found them at the bottom of her emptied water-jug. On the next evening it was impossible for her to strike a light, owing to the fact that both her candle and matches had been carefully soaked beforehand in water.
Veronica felt it was high time to lay the matter before her fellow-monitresses. They decided that such flagrant cases of insubordination must be promptly dealt with. In order to catch the offenders they laid a trap, Linda and Daphne concealing themselves in Veronica's bedroom, while Veronica herself walked ostentatiously in the courtyard.
As they had expected, it was not long before two stealthy figures came tiptoeing in, and were taken red-handed in the very act of constructing an apple-pie bed. The vials of wrath which descended upon the would-be practical jokers were enough to damp the spirits of even such madcaps as Raymonde and Aveline. After all, monitresses are monitresses, and to affront them is rather like twisting a lion's tail. Miss Gibbs herself could not have been more scathing in her sarcasms than Linda. For once the Mystics retired crushed, and with a due respect for their seniors.
It was not in the nature of things, however, for Raymonde's spirits to remain long below zero. After a decent period of immersion they once more rose to the surface. The occasion of their revival was sufficient to awaken enthusiasm in the most down-trodden and monitress-ridden of school-girls.
A report was rumoured through the Grange; nobody seemed to know quite where it started, or what was the fount of information, but everybody said it was perfectly true, and girl whispered to girl the astounding secret.
"The Bumble and the Wasp are going out to dinner on Thursday, and are to stay the night, only we're not supposed to get a hint of it, so don't breathe a word, or let on you've heard."
Circumstantial evidence seemed to confirm the statement. Emily, the sewing-maid, had been seen in the linen-room employed on some renovations to Miss Beasley's best evening dress; Miss Gibbs's suit-case had been brought down from the box-room to have its lock and handles polished; and Dorothy Newstead, concealed behind a laurel bush during a game of "Hide-and-seek," had overheard the Principal give instructions to the gardener to order a conveyance for Thursday evening at half-past six. Certainly nothing could be more conclusive. Excitement was rife. Never in all the annals of the school had Miss Beasley and Miss Gibbs together taken a night off!
"It seems a shame to waste such a golden opportunity!" said Raymonde enthusiastically. "Gibbie was talking to us only to-day about seizing our opportunities.
"'Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying, And this same flower that smiles to-day To-morrow will be dying!'
She quoted it most impressively."
"She didn't go on to the verse about getting married while you'd the chance, though!" chuckled Ardiune.
"No, my child. Such a subject as matrimony is not supposed to be a fitting topic for a ladies' school. Gibbie always gracefully shelves it. But you're side-tracking, and I want to get back to my point. I was talking of opportunities, and never in the whole of our school-days shall we get such another as next Thursday. How are we going to make use of it? I vote for a beano in our dormitory."
"What's a 'beano'?" demanded Fauvette's plaintive voice. "You're always saying things I don't understand."
"You're young, child!" returned Raymonde indulgently, "and you can't be expected to know everything. A beano is a bean-feast. Now don't look alarmed! We're not going to eat beans; we'll have something far more appetizing—sardines, and tinned peaches, and biscuits, and anything else we can get. If the Bumble and the Wasp gad off to enjoy themselves, why shouldn't we make a night of it too?"
"How about those kids?"
"They'll join in. It shall be an affair for the whole dormitory. We'll share the treat, for once!"
"You won't get the monitresses to join," interposed Katherine dubiously.
"Shan't ask them! I've settled all that in my mind. You know the big oak door across the passage that leads to their rooms? Well, I'm going to fasten it after they've gone to bed, and lock them up in their own quarters."
"That would be all right, old sport, if there were a key, but there isn't."
"Morvyth Holmes, d'you think I'm an infant? I know perfectly well there isn't a key. I'm going to fix a screw in the door and another in the doorpost beforehand, and then twist some strong wire across. It'll act like a lock."
The Mystics stared at their leader in admiration. Her resourcefulness knew no bounds. With the monitresses safely boxed up in their bedrooms, any jinks would be possible in the dormitory. Of course there remained Mademoiselle, but she slept at the other side of the house, and from past experience they judged that she was more likely to devote the evening to her own pleasure than to an over-strict attention to duty. The juniors, when sounded on the subject, responded to a girl. Even Cynthia Greene assented gleefully. Every occupant of the dormitory vowed with a solemn oath to preserve the secret at all costs. A fund was opened to defray expenses. How to get the provisions was the main difficulty. There was not a single servant in the establishment whom they felt was absolutely to be trusted.
"I believe even that new little Lizzie would go and sneak to the Bumble," sighed Raymonde. "We shall have to go for the things ourselves. There's nothing else for it. Who'll volunteer? Oh! not all of you! We can't trot off in a body. Look here, I'll go with Morvyth."
The village, which lay half a mile away from the Grange, was out of bounds. It would be an extremely risky proceeding for two girls, in the ordinary brown serge uniform and conspicuous hats of the school, to enter a shop and make purchases. Some tiresome busybody would be sure to see them, and report the matter to Miss Beasley.
"It's a case of disguising ourselves," decided Raymonde. "The maids keep their waterproofs and hats in the passage near the kitchen. We'll turn up our hair, borrow what garments we want, and dash off between prep. and supper. Anyone noticing us on the road will think we're new servants from some house in the neighbourhood."
The audacity of the project almost staggered Morvyth, but as a member of the Mystic Seven she was pledged to follow her leader, and would not for worlds have displayed symptoms of the white feather, though her more cautious soul began to calculate consequences if caught. There were so many pitfalls in the path—servants, monitresses, and mistresses must be outwitted, both in going and returning, to make their excursion a success. The juniors, however, played up nobly. At a concerted hour, they managed by cleverly concocted excuses to engage the attention of all the monitresses, and hold them busy for five minutes explaining details of lessons or fancy work. Meantime, Aveline and Valentine purloined waterproofs of a suitable length, together with appropriate hats, from the passage near the kitchen.
Raymonde and Morvyth, after a rapid toilet and a hasty review of themselves in a looking-glass, were pleased with their appearance, especially the way they wore their hats.
"Tilt yours a little more on one side," commanded Raymonde, "and open your mouth with a sort of cod-fishy expression, as if you'd got adenoids. Remember, you want to look as common as possible. Drop your h's when you speak, wherever you can. Say you're in a 'urry to get back. I shall sniff all the time, as if I'd a bad cold."
"I shall laugh if you do!"
"No, you won't, because we're going to different shops. I'll do Adcock's, and you shall have Seymour's. It'll be far better than going together."
Under cover of a guard of Form-mates the conspirators managed to slip past the barns and off the premises, secure in the knowledge that Miss Gibbs was correcting exercises in the study, so could not possibly be watching them through her too useful telescope. Before arriving at the village they separated, Raymonde going a little in advance, and Morvyth following, as if they had no acquaintance with each other. It was perhaps as well for their mutual composure that they visited separate shops, for Morvyth's provincial accent and Raymonde's cold might have been mirth-provoking to a fellow conspirator, though they passed muster well enough with strangers. At the end of ten minutes the two girls were hurrying back, each armed with a large parcel. These were handed at once to scouts when they reached the Grange, and their costumes were removed in the barn, and replaced without delay on their hooks in the kitchen passage by Valentine and Ardiune.
So far so good. The commissariat department had managed to run the blockade of school regulations, and secure provisions for the entertainment. No Tommies looting supplies from the enemy's trenches could have felt prouder.
When the eventful Thursday arrived, great anxiety was felt as to whether the Principal and her assistant were really and actually going out or not. They did not announce their intention, and gave no hint of the matter. Little Nancie Page, however, sent to Miss Gibbs's room with a message, reported having seen that lady engaged in packing her suit-case, which was taken as proof conclusive of the contemplated expedition.
"We'll be subdued saints all supper-time!" suggested Raymonde. "Let's talk intelligently to the monitresses about intellectual subjects—the deeper the better. Make them think we're going to bed with our minds fixed on Egyptology, and the wonders of the microscope, and the Bagdad railway, and the future of European politics. Be sure you go upstairs very quietly. Anyone who laughs will give the show away."
The behaviour of the school that evening was a subject of satisfaction to Veronica and her fellow monitresses.
"I was afraid," remarked the head girl, "that they might take advantage when they saw Miss Beasley's and Miss Gibbs's places empty at supper, but they seemed to feel on their honour to be steadier than usual. I really think their tone is improving. Raymonde Armitage was particularly quiet."
"Yes," returned Daphne dubiously. "So she was; but if Raymonde has a quiet fit like that on, I generally look out for squalls afterwards."
When Mademoiselle went the round of the dormitory that night at 9.30, she found absolute peace and tranquillity reigning. Apparently the occupants of the nineteen beds were already wrapt in well-earned repose. One or two were even snoring slightly. Mademoiselle heaved a sigh of relief, and went off thankfully to her own bedroom to write letters. She did not consider it necessary to interrupt herself at this occupation. Miss Gibbs had indeed urged the expediency of a surprise visit at about 10 p.m., but Mademoiselle had no vocation for enforcing discipline, and was not over-burdened with conscientious scruples. Moreover, she considered that, if her Principal took an evening off, she might be licensed to do the same.
The conspirators had decided not to begin the celebrations too early. With heroic self-restraint they remained quietly in bed until 10.30. By that hour monitresses and servants alike would probably be asleep. Mademoiselle, at the far end of the house, on the other side of the big staircase, would hear nothing.
When the charmed moment arrived, everybody sprang up and lighted candles. Raymonde hurried into pink dressing-gown and bedroom slippers, and crept up the passage to the door which led to the monitresses' rooms. She had inserted her screws earlier in the evening, so with the aid of a pair of pliers, purloined from the wood-carving bench, it did not take her long to fix her wire and secure the door. She came back chuckling.
"If they should hear any slight sounds of revelry, and try to come upon the scenes, they'll just find themselves jolly well locked in!" she remarked with gusto.
"Perhaps they'll think Mademoiselle's done it!" suggested Ardiune.
Preparations for the feast were proceeding briskly. Two beds, pulled into the middle of the room, formed the table, and on these the comestibles were spread forth. The village shops had not offered a very wide range of dainties, but there were sardines, and canned peaches, and biscuits, and three Huntley & Palmer's cakes, rather dry, because they had been kept in a tin box, probably since last Christmas. The drinkable was lemon kali, served in bedroom tumblers, and stirred up with lead-pencils or tooth-brush handles.
Everybody was busy. Morvyth and Valentine were opening the tins with wood-carving implements; Ardiune was performing an abstruse arithmetical calculation as to how to cut up three cakes into nineteen exactly even portions, while Katherine waited with the penknife ready. Even the hitherto irreproachable Maudie Heywood and Cynthia Greene were occupied with scissors, making plates out of sheets of exercise paper. Beds drawn up alongside the impromptu table served for seats, and the girls crowded together as closely as they could. Raymonde and Morvyth, by virtue of their expedition to the shops, were voted mistresses of the ceremonies, and dispensed the provisions. Sardines on biscuits were the first course, followed by canned peaches, the juiciness of which was a decided difficulty, as there was not a solitary spoon with which to fish them up from the tin.
"Never mind, I'll spear them with a lead-pencil and stick them on biscuits, and you must drink the syrup in the glasses. I dare say it'll mix all right with lemon kali," purred Raymonde, thoroughly in her element as hostess.
The fun waxed furious, and it only increased when the sardine tin upset in the middle of one of the temporary tables.
"But it's my bed!" wailed Cynthia Greene.
"Cheer up! Someone's got to make a sacrifice for the good of the assembly, and you see the lot's fallen on you," said Raymonde consolingly. "You ought to be proud to have your bed chosen!"
"I'd just as soon it had been yours!" grumbled Cynthia. "I shan't like sleeping in a puddle of oil!"
"If you grouse any more, I'll empty the can of peaches on your pillow, so shut up!" commanded the mistress of the ceremonies. "A beano's a beano, and we're going to enjoy ourselves."
"If we make too much noise, though——" suggested Maudie Heywood.
Ardiune snapped her up promptly.
"We'll make what noise we like! What does it matter? The monitresses are locked out, and Mademoiselle will never hear. We've got the place to ourselves to-night, thank goodness! Just for once, Mother Soup's room down there is vacant!"
"Empty is the cradle, baby's gone!" mocked Morvyth.
"'Xpect she's having the time of her life at the dinner-party."
"Well, we'll have ours!"
A quarter of an hour later the dormitory presented a convivial scene. An orchestra of five, seated on a hastily cleared dressing-table, were performing music with combs, while the rest of the company waltzed between the beds, with intervals of the fox-trot. Maudie Heywood and Cynthia Greene had accepted the inevitable, and joined the multitude. Apparently they were enjoying themselves. Maudie's cheeks were scarlet, and Cynthia's long fair hair floated out picturesquely as she twirled round in Elsie Moseley's arms.
"We're certainly making the most of our bubbling girlhood!" murmured Raymonde with satisfaction. "The Bumble couldn't call us little premature women to-night!"
The dark anti-zepp curtains swayed in the night breeze, and the candles flared and guttered, the musicians tootled at their tissue-paper covered combs with tingling lips, faster and faster whirled the dancers, the fun was at its zenith, when quite suddenly the unexpected happened. The door of Miss Gibbs's room opened, and that grim lady herself stood on the threshold.
If a spectre had made its appearance in their midst, the girls could not have been more disconcerted. A horrible hush spread over the room, and for a moment everybody stared in frozen horror. The musicians slipped down from the dressing-table and scuttled towards their own beds.
"H'm! So this is how you are to be trusted!" remarked Miss Gibbs tartly, advancing towards the scene of the beano, and hastily casting an eye over the empty tins and crumby remains of the repast. "Move this rubbish away, and push those beds back to their places. Now get into bed, every one of you! Not a single sound more is to be heard to-night. We'll settle up this matter to-morrow."
Having seen each occupant of the dormitory ensconced between her sheets (Cynthia did not dare to complain that hers were sardiny!) Miss Gibbs went back to her own room, leaving the door wide open. With an enraged dragon in such close vicinity the girls did not venture to stir, and silence reigned for the rest of the night. At the first coming of the dawn, however, Raymonde rose with infinite precaution, and stole barefoot along the passage to remove her wire and screws from the oak door. She accomplished that task without discovery, and, after hiding the screw-driver behind a wardrobe, crept back to bed.
Nineteen subdued penitents, clothed in mental sackcloth and ashes, went down to breakfast next morning. Their fears were not without foundation, for when Miss Beasley returned at ten o'clock they were summoned to the most unpleasant interview they ever remembered, from which the more soft-hearted of them emerged sobbing. They spent Saturday afternoon in the schoolroom writing punishment tasks, while the monitresses went boating on the river. It was trying to see Daphne and Hermie coming downstairs in their nice white dresses and blue ties, and to know that they themselves were debarred the excursion. They hung about the hall sulkily.
"It's your own faults," moralized Veronica. "After that disgraceful business on Thursday, you couldn't expect anything else. We heard you plainly enough, and we were utterly disgusted. I'd like to know who locked that passage door. I have my suspicions," with an eye on Raymonde.
The babyish innocence of Raymonde's face at that moment might have served an artist as a model for a child angel.
"Have you? It's a pity to harbour suspicion!" she returned sweetly. "We ought to learn to trust our schoolfellows! I loathe Veronica," she added in a whisper to Ardiune, as the monitress tripped cheerily to the door.
A Week on the Land
The vacations at the Grange were arranged in rather an unusual fashion, a full week's holiday being given at Whitsuntide instead of the ordinary little break at half-term. This year Miss Gibbs, who was nothing if not patriotic, evolved a plan for the benefit of her country. She saw an advertisement in the local newspaper, stating that volunteers would soon be urgently needed to gather the strawberry crop upon a farm about fifteen miles away, and begging ladies of education to lend their services. Such a splendid opportunity of war work appealed to her. She wrote at once for particulars, and after some correspondence and a visit to the scene of action, announced her scheme to the school. She proposed that any girls who cared to devote their holidays to a useful end should join a camp of strawberry-pickers who were to be employed on the farm.
"It is being arranged by a Government bureau," she explained, "and many people will be coming who, like ourselves, want to help to bear their country's burdens—university students, journalists, social workers, hospital nurses, matrons of institutions, and mistresses and scholars from other schools. We shall sleep in tents, and lead an absolutely outdoor life. It will be a healthy way of passing a week, as well as a benefit to the nation. Any girl who would like to do her share may give me her name this afternoon, and Miss Beasley will write to her parents for permission for her to join the camp."
Outside in the quadrangle the school talked over the proposition at its leisure.
"Will they let us eat the strawberries?" asked Fauvette anxiously.
"Certainly, you little glutton!" snapped Veronica. "You'll be allowed to stuff till you loathe the very thought of swallowing a strawberry. But you'll have to pick hard and do your share, or they'll turn you off!"
The monitresses were fired with the idea, and all, except Linda, had decided to "do their bit." Their enthusiasm spread downward like a wave. Before the day was over, eighteen girls had given in their names as volunteers, Raymonde, Morvyth, Katherine, and Aveline being among the number.
"I would like to have joined you, really!" protested Fauvette, "only I know I'll be so dreadfully home-sick all the rest of the term if I don't go home, and——"
"Don't apologize, child!" interrupted Raymonde. "Nobody in their senses expects you to go. You'd be a huge embarrassment to the rest of us. Blue-eyed darlings, all baby-ribbon and fluffy hair, aren't meant for hard work. Why, you'd pick about six strawberries in an hour, and eat three-quarters of them! Go home and be petted, by all means! We don't want you weeping yourself to sleep at night, it disturbs the dormitory. The country'll survive without your services!"
Raymonde's harum-scarum mind was for once really filled with a wish to help. She meant to do her full share of work. Also she was determined to enjoy herself. The prospect of camp-life was alluring. There was a gipsy smack about it that satisfied her unconventional instincts. It seemed almost next door to campaigning.
"If I'd only been a boy, I'd have run away to the front long ago!" she announced.
"Girls have their own chances in life as well as boys now," said Hermie. "Wait till you've finished with school, then you must try to find your niche in the world. There's plenty of pioneer work for women to do yet. They haven't half exploited the colonies. Once we show we're some good on the land, why shouldn't the Government start us in co-operative farms out in New Zealand or Australia? It ought to be done systematically. Everything's been so haphazard before. Imagine a farm all run by girls educated at our best secondary and public schools! It would be ideal. I'm yearning to try it."
Hermie's aspirations towards field labour and a colonial future had been greatly spurred on lately by the advent of some lady labourers on a farm near the Grange. For the last fortnight the milk had been delivered, not by the usual uncouth boy, but by a charming member of the feminine sex, attired in short smock, knickers and gaiters, and a picturesque rush hat. Hermie had entered into conversation with her, and learned that she was a clergyman's daughter, that she milked six cows morning and evening, and went round with the cart delivering the milk, and that she was further concerned with the care of poultry, pigs, and calves. The glamour of her experiences made Hermie wish that the Grange were full of pigs instead of pupils.
"I'd rather attend to a dozen nice little black Berkshires than act monitress to those juniors!" she sighed. "There would really be more satisfaction in it. And as for Raymonde Armitage and her set—give me young calves any day!"
Miss Gibbs was extremely busy making preparations for the expedition. The farmer undertook to provide tents for the party, and bags of hay to sleep upon, but each member must bring her own pillow, blankets, mug, knife, fork, spoon and plate, as well as her personal belongings. These latter were whittled down to the smallest capacity, for there would be little room to stow them away in the tents. Stout boots, waterproofs, and hockey caps were taken, in case the weather might change, the girls wearing their usual Panama school hats on fine days. In order to prevent difficulty with the ordinary strawberry-pickers, they were to be paid for their work according to the amount accomplished, and were each to contribute ten shillings towards the canteen, the tents being provided free.
"But suppose we don't each earn ten shillings?" asked Daphne the cautious.
"Whoever doesn't will have to make up the balance from her own pocket," said Miss Gibbs. "If the ordinary pickers can pay their way, I suppose we can do the same, but it will mean sticking at it hard, and no shirking. We must show what we're made of!"
On the Friday before Whitsun week an excited little party of eighteen stood with bags and bundles ready to start, Miss Gibbs bustling round them like a fussy hen with a large brood of chicks, giving ever so many last directions and injunctions, which seemed rather superfluous as she was going with them, and would have them under her charge the whole time. They went by rail to Ledcombe, the nearest station to Shipley, where the strawberry gardens were situated. The scene on the platform when they arrived was certainly new and out of the common. A train had just come in from London, bringing pickers from the slums. It was labelled "Strawberry Gatherers Only," and its cargo was lively, not to say noisy. There were elderly men, younger ones unfit for military service, women with bawling babies, girls shouting popular songs, and a swarm of turbulent children. Whole families had apparently set forth to spend a few weeks helping at the fruit harvest, combining a holiday in the country with profit to their pockets.
"We're not going among that crew, I hope?" said Daphne, staring rather aghast at the unkempt crowd.
"Certainly not; we shall have our own quarters," returned Miss Gibbs, marshalling her flock to the gate of exit. Drawn up outside the station were six large hay wagons, and on one of these hung a placard: "Marlowe Grange." Miss Gibbs made for it immediately, turning out some struggling slum children who had already climbed in and taken temporary possession, and stowed the baggage inside.
"There's plenty of room for us all," she announced, "but you'll each have to sit on your own bundle. I'm glad I stipulated that they should reserve us a wagon for ourselves."
Judging by the rabble who were swarming on to the other hay carts, the girls also considered it a cause for rejoicing. Their own vehicle started first, and began to jolt slowly down the country road, its occupants sitting as steadily as they could on their knobbly luggage, and indulging in decidedly feminine squeals when, as often happened, an extra hard jog threw them together. After four miles of this rather exciting journey they reached the farm. Their driver stopped at a gate, and, pointing across a field to some tents, indicated that this was their destination. He could take them no nearer, and they must convey their own bags and bundles over the pasture.
Hauling their own luggage with them was no light task, and they were heartily tired of their burdens before they reached the tents. Three of these, labelled Marlowe Grange, they appropriated; then Miss Gibbs, after a brief confabulation with the canteen matron, beckoned to her flock.
"I hear we must go at once and secure first pick of the hay sacks," she said. "Come along, all of you!"
Over three more fields and two stiles they came to the farm buildings, where, spread out on hurdles, were a number of large sacks, mercifully clean. An individual in charge, wearing a faded blue suit and a two days' growth of stubbly beard, told them briefly to help themselves, and then take their sacks to the barn and fill them with hay. Preparing their own mattresses was a new experience, but an amusing one. It was fun stuffing the sweet-smelling hay into the rough canvas bags, and more fun still carrying the bulky bedding back over fields and stiles to the tents. Here, amid a chaos of unpacking, they at last disposed their belongings to their satisfaction.
Their special little colony consisted of nine tents and a marquee for meals. It was in charge of a matron, who directed the canteen, and was responsible for the comfort and order of the camp. In each tent hung a list of rules respecting hours of rising and going to bed, meals, and general conduct. As there was no servant except the cook, the task of washing up must be shared by all in rotation, the matron having authority to apportion the work. No lights or talking were to be allowed after 10.30 p.m.
By the time the girls had settled all their possessions it was seven o'clock, and the rest of the camp returned from the strawberry fields. Supper was served in the marquee, everybody sitting on benches round wooden tables without cloths. The company proved pleasant and congenial; there were fifty in all, including some students from Ludminster University, and eight girls and two teachers from a secondary school at Tadbury. The slum party, it seemed, were lodged in the big barns behind the farm, while some caravans of gipsy pickers had possession of a corner of a field some distance away.
Supper finished, most of the workers sat about and rested. A few, possessed of superfluous energy, took a walk to the village a mile off, but the generality were very tired. A gramophone in the marquee blared away at popular songs, and the more lively spirits joined in the choruses; one or two even attempted to dance on the grass. Miss Gibbs had already struck up a friendship with a lady journalist, and some of the girls began to make overtures to the Tadbury scholars, who looked rather a jolly little set. Everybody retired early, as they would have to be up at 5.30, and in the fields by seven.
The Marlowe Grange contingent were much exercised as to the best way to place their mattresses. They did not know whether to sleep with their heads or their feet to the tent-pole, and finally decided in favour of the former. Going to bed was a funny business in so very small a space, with no chairs or places to put clothes down, and only one tin basin amongst six to wash in. It was funnier still when they attempted to lie down on their mattresses. A bag stuffed with hay is so round that it is very difficult to keep upon it without rolling off, and there was much pommelling and flattening before the beds were at all tenable. At last everyone was settled, the lights were out, and the campers, rolled in their blankets, tried to compose themselves to sleep.
Raymonde, whose billet was opposite the door of the tent, could see out, and watch the stars shining. She lay awake a long time, with her eyes fixed on a bright planet that moved across the little horizon of sky visible to her, till it passed out of sight, and at length she too slept.
Life began at the camp soon after 5 a.m., when the more energetic spirits tumbled off their hay sacks, flung on dressing-gowns, and scrambled for turns at the bath tent. Fetching water for the day was the first business of the morning, and those on bucket duty trotted off to the stream, two fields away, joking and making fun as they went, but returning more soberly with the heavy pails. The 6.15 breakfast tasted delicious after their early outing, and most of the workers seemed in good spirits. By seven o'clock the whole party were down in the gardens. The Marlowe Grange girls had never seen strawberries by the acre before, and they were amazed, almost daunted, at the sight of the vast quantity of fruit that must be gathered. They were told off to a certain portion of the field, given baskets, and shown where to bring them when full. Each novice, for the first day, was expected to work near an experienced hand, who could show her what was required, as the picking, though quick, must be careful, so as not to bruise the strawberries. Raymonde and Morvyth found themselves under the wing of a Social Settlement secretary, a business-like dame who had picked the previous summer, and understood the swiftest methods. Close by, they could hear Miss Gibbs being instructed by the lady journalist, with whom she had apparently cemented a friendship.
It was a point of honour to fill the baskets with the utmost possible speed, and everybody worked steadily. There was no rule against eating the fruit, but the pay was according to the number of baskets handed in, so that shirkers would find themselves unable to earn their keep. It was a rather back-breaking employment, but otherwise pleasant, for the day was fine, the larks were singing, and wild roses and honeysuckle bloomed in the hedgerows. The slum pickers at the other side of the field toiled away with practised fingers. Many of them came every year, and would return in September for the hop harvest. The small children played under the hedge and took charge of the babies, who cried and slept alternately, poor little souls! without receiving much attention from the hardworking mothers.
The slum contingent was a subject of much amusement and curiosity to the Marlowe Grange platoon. Though they occupied different portions of the field, they would meet when they went to deliver baskets. The rollicking good nature and repartees of some of these people, especially of the gipsies, were often very funny. They would chaff the agent who registered their scores, with a considerable power of humour, and the Grange girls, waiting in line for their turns, would chuckle as they overheard the conversations.
At eleven everybody ate lunch which they had brought with them, then worked till one, when they returned to the camp for dinner. Picking went on again from two till six, with an interval at four o'clock for tea, which was brought down to the gardens in large cans, and poured into the workers' own mugs. It was almost the most acceptable meal of the day, taken sitting under the hedge, with the scent of roses in the air, and the summer sunshine falling across the fields.
By the end of the first evening, the Grange girls decided that, though they wished they had cast-iron backs, the experience on the whole was great fun. They liked the camp life, and even their hay-sack beds.
"I vote we don't sleep with our heads to the tent-pole to-night, though," said Raymonde. "You flung out your arms, Morvyth, and gave me such a whack across the face! I wonder I haven't a black eye. Let's turn the other way, with our feet to the pole."
"Right you are! I'm so sleepy, I don't mind which end up I am, if I can only shut my eyes!" conceded Katherine, yawning lustily.
"I shan't need rocking, either," agreed Morvyth.
Perched on her hay-bag, Raymonde was very soon in the land of Nod. She was dreaming a confused jumble about Miss Gibbs and gipsies and strawberries, when she suddenly awoke with a strong impression that someone was pulling her hair. She sat up, feeling rather scared. The tent was perfectly quiet. The other girls lay asleep, each on her own sack with her feet to the central pole.
"I must have dreamt it!" thought Raymonde, settling down again.
She had scarcely closed her eyes, however, before she heard a curious noise in the vicinity of her ear, and something unmistakably gave her plait a violent wrench. She started up with a yell, in time to see an enormous head withdraw itself from the tent door. A clatter of hoofs followed.
"What's the matter?" cried the girls, waking at the disturbance; and "What is it?" exclaimed Miss Gibbs, aroused also, and hurrying in from the next-door tent. But Raymonde was laughing.
"I've had the fright of my life!" she announced. "I thought a bogy or a kelpie was devouring me, but it was only Dandy, the old pony. He stuck his head round the tent door, and mistook my hair for a mouthful of grass, the wretch!"
"I've seen him feeding near the tents before," said Valentine. "There's some particular sort of grass here that he specially likes. It's rather the limit, though, to have him coming inside!"
"He oughtn't to be allowed in this field at night," declared Miss Gibbs. "I shall speak to Mr. Cox, and ask to have him put in another pasture. We can't close our tent doors, or we should be suffocated. I hope we shan't have any other nocturnal visitors! It's a good thing we have no valuables with us. I don't trust those gipsies."
Miss Gibbs's fears turned out to be only too well founded, for, on the morning but one following, there was a hue and cry in the camp. The larder had been raided during the night, and all the provisions stolen. The canteen matron and the cook were in despair, as nothing was left for breakfast, and the workers would have gone hungry, had not a deputation of them visited the farm, and begged sufficient bread and jam to provide a meal.
"A lovely ham gone, and four pounds of butter, and a joint of cold beef, and all the bread!" mourned the distracted matron. "I shall have to go in to Ledcombe again this morning for fresh supplies, and I believe Mr. Cox wants the pony himself."
"We ought to be able to track the thieves," said Miss Gibbs firmly. "There should be an inspection at lunch-time, and anyone seen eating ham should be under suspicion."
"They'd be far too clever to eat it publicly," objected Miss Hoyle, the lady journalist. "Gipsies are an uncommonly tricky set. They probably had a midnight feast, and finished the last crumb of our provisions before daybreak. We shall get no satisfaction from Mr. Cox. He'll say he's not responsible."
"Then we must take precautions that it doesn't happen again," decreed Miss Gibbs. "Isn't it possible to procure a lock-up meat safe? I never heard of a camp being without one."
"Perhaps you haven't had much experience," remarked the canteen matron icily. She thought Miss Gibbs "bossy" and interfering, and considered that she knew her own business best, without suggestions from outsiders.
The Grange girls chuckled inwardly to hear their teacher thus snubbed. They hoped a retort and even a wrangle might follow; but Miss Gibbs had too much common sense, and, restraining herself, stalked away with as unconcerned an aspect as possible.
"Look here, old sport!" whispered Raymonde to Morvyth, "somebody ought to take this matter up. I consider it's a job for us. Let's watch to-night, and see if we can't catch the prowling sneaks. Are you game?"
"Rather! It's a blossomy idea, only don't let Gibbie get wind of it."
"Do I ever go and tell Gibbie my jinky little plans? It's not this child's usual way of proceeding."
Raymonde and Morvyth had intended to run this little expedition "on their own," but in the end they were obliged to let the rest of the tent into the secret, as it was impossible to go to bed fully dressed without exciting comment. Their comrades refused to be left out, so it was decided that all six, under Raymonde's leadership, should mount guard over the larder. They drew their blankets up to their noses, and pretended to be very sleepy when Miss Gibbs came to take a last look at them before retiring. Apparently she noticed nothing unusual, for she only glanced quickly round, and went softly away. The self-constituted sentries allowed nearly an hour to pass before they dared to venture forth. Until that time the camp was not really quiet. The university students were a lively set, apt to keep up their fun late, and the secondary school girls often talked persistently, to the annoyance of their neighbours. At last, however, all lights were out, and a profound silence reigned. Not even an owl hooted to-night, and, as Dandy had been banished from the field, even his crunching of the grass was absent. Raymonde crept from her blankets and listened. Her companions, to judge from their breathing, were sound asleep. She felt much tempted to awaken only Morvyth, but she knew that if she omitted to call the others, their reproaches next morning would be too unbearable. So she roused the five. Taking torchlights, ready but not switched on, they stole from the tent towards the scene of action.
The larder was only a portion of the marquee curtained off, so it was really an easy prey for marauders. The girls could not quite decide where would be their best post for sentry duty; whether to dispose themselves in positions outside, or to keep guard within the tent. As it was rather a cold night, they plumped for the latter. Cautiously as Indians on the war trail, they crept across the marquee towards the farther corner where the stores were kept. Raymonde, as leader, went first, with her body-guard in close attendance behind her. Very, very gently she drew back the curtains and entered the larder. It was pitch-dark in here, and she began to grope her way along the wall. Then she stopped, for in front of her she fancied she heard breathing. She listened—all was silent. She started again, intending to go to the far side of the table. She put out her hand to guide herself, and came in contact with something warm and soft, like human flesh. In spite of herself she could not suppress an exclamation. It was too horrible, actually to touch a burglar! She had not bargained to find one already in possession of the larder. Instantly the girls behind her flashed on their torchlights, and the little sentry party found themselves confronted with—Miss Gibbs!
Yes, it was Miss Gibbs, crouching down near the table with Miss Hoyle, the lady journalist, close to her, both looking very determined, and ready to tackle any number of gipsy thieves. The astonishment was mutual.
"What are you doing here, girls?" asked Miss Gibbs sharply, the schoolmistress in her rising to the surface.
"Only trying to guard the larder!" faltered Raymonde.
"That's just what we're doing," explained Miss Hoyle.
At that moment the matron put in an appearance. She also had been on the qui vive in defence of her stores, and hearing voices, was sure she had trapped the thieves. She had already passed on the alarm, and in a few moments, acting on a preconcerted signal, Mr. Cox and several of the farm hands burst upon the scene, ready to knock down and secure intruders. Explanations naturally followed. It seemed that nearly everyone in the camp had private and separately arranged watch parties, each unconscious of the others' vigilance, and that all had mistaken their neighbours for burglars. No one quite knew at first whether to be annoyed or amused, but in the end humour won, and a general laugh ensued. As nobody felt disposed to spend the whole night on sentry duty, the matter was settled by Miss Corley and Miss Hoyle proposing to bring their beds and sleep in the marquee for the future.
"I wake easily, so I should hear the very faintest footstep, I'm sure," said Miss Hoyle. "I'm going to keep a revolver under my pillow, too, and I hope you'll spread that information all over the gardens, and add that I'm accustomed to use it, and would as soon shoot a man as look at him."
Whether through fear of Miss Hoyle's bloodthirsty intentions, or with a shrewd suspicion that Mr. Cox was on the watch, the marauders did not repeat their midnight visit, and left the camp in peace. Miss Hoyle seemed almost disappointed. Being a journalist, she had perhaps hoped to make copy of the adventure, and write a sparkling column for her newspaper. The Grange girls decided that it was not the revolver, but the dread of Miss Gibbs which had scared away the gipsies.
"They've seen her in the fields, you know, and I should think one look would be enough," said Morvyth. "She has a 'Come here, my good man, and let me argue the matter out with you' expression on her face this last day or two that should daunt the most foolhardy. If she caught a burglar she'd certainly sit him down and rub social reform and political economy into him before she let him go!"
The many acres of strawberry gardens were situated some little distance from the camp, so that the walk backwards and forwards occupied about a quarter of an hour each way. Once work was begun, nobody returned to the tents except on some very urgent errand, as the loss of time involved would be great. A really valid excuse occurred one morning, however. Aveline missed her watch, and remembered that she had laid it on the breakfast table in the marquee. It seemed very unsafe to leave it there, so she reported the matter to Miss Gibbs, who told her to go at once and fetch it, and sent Raymonde with her, not liking her to have the walk alone. The two girls were rather glad of the excuse. They were not shirkers, but the picking made their backs tired, and the run through the fields was a welcome change. They found the watch still lying on the table in the marquee, and Aveline clasped it round her wrist.
They were leaving the tent when Miss Jones, the canteen matron, bustled in, looking so worried that they ventured to ask: "What's the matter?"
She stopped, as if it were a relief to explode.
"Matter, indeed! You'll have no potatoes or vegetables for your dinner, that's all, and nothing at all for your supper! Mrs. Harper hasn't turned up, and I can't leave the place with nobody about. I meant to go to Ledcombe this morning for fresh supplies, and it's early-closing day, too, the shops will shut at one. Oh, dear! I can't think what's to be done! These village helps are more trouble than they're worth."
Mrs. Harper, the cook, had failed the camp before, taking an occasional day off, without any previous notice, to attend to her domestic affairs at home. Miss Jones knew from former experience that she would either stroll in casually about midday, or more probably would not come at all until to-morrow. In the meantime fifty people required meals, and the situation was urgent.
"Couldn't we go to Ledcombe for you?" suggested Raymonde.
The matron's face cleared; she jumped at the proposition.
"Geordie's somewhere about the buildings. He'd harness the pony for you, if you can manage to drive. I'll give you a list of what's needed. The meat's come, and I can put that on to stew, and get the puddings ready, and if you'll be back by eleven there'll be time to wash the potatoes. It's only half-past eight now. I'll write down all I want done."
It was impossible to go back to the gardens and ask permission from Miss Gibbs. The girls considered that the matron's authority was sufficient to justify the expedition, which was certainly for the benefit of the camp. Neither of them had ever handled the reins in her life before, so the drive would be a decided adventure.
Armed with a long list of necessaries, two huge market baskets, and Miss Jones's hand-bag containing a supply of money, they started off to the farm to find Geordie, a half-witted boy who did odd jobs about the fold-yard. After a considerable hunt through the barns they discovered him at last inside the pigsty, and bribed him with twopence to go and catch the pony. Dandy was enjoying himself in the field, and did not come readily; indeed, the girls were almost despairing before he was finally led in by his forelock. The little conveyance was a small, very old-fashioned gig, and though in its far-off youth it may have possessed a smart appearance, it was now decidedly more useful than ornamental. The varnish was worn and scratched, the cushions had been re-covered with cheap American cloth, the waterproof apron was threadbare, and one of the splash-boards was split. The harness also was of the most ancient description, and the rough pony badly needed clipping, so that the whole turn-out was deplorably shabby and second-rate.
"It's hardly the kind of thing one would drive in round the Park!" laughed Aveline.
"Scarcely! It's the queerest little egg-box on two wheels I've ever seen. But what does it matter? Nobody knows us in Ledcombe. The main point is, will it get us over the ground?"
"I wish we'd bicycles instead!"
"But we couldn't bring back a whole cargo of stores on them. I think it's top-hole!"
With much laughter and many little jokes the girls tucked themselves into their funny conveyance, evidently greatly to the interest of Dandy, who turned his head anxiously as they mounted the step.
"He do be a wise 'un!" explained Geordie. "You see, sometimes Mr. Rivers takes his father-in-law, as weighs seventeen stone, and, with a calf or maybe a young pig as well, it do make a big load. Dandy don't be one to overwork hisself. I reckon you'll have to use the whip to he!"
Neither of the girls had even the most elementary experience of driving, but Raymonde, as the elder, and the one who in general possessed the greater amount of nerve, boldly seized the reins and armed herself with the whip. Geordie released Dandy's head, and gave him a sounding smack as a delicate hint to depart, a proceeding which brought clouds of dust from his shaggy coat, and caused him to scramble suddenly forward, and plunge down the lane at quite an adventurous and stylish pace.
"If he won't go, just cuss at him!" yelled Geordie as a last piece of advice.
Though Dandy might make a gallant beginning, he had no intention of breaking the record for speed, and at the end of a few hundred yards dropped into an ambling jog-trot, a form of locomotion which seemed to jolt the badly hung little gig to its uttermost.
"It's rather a painful form of exercise!" gasped Aveline, setting her feet firmly in an attempt to avoid the jarring. "I believe something must be wrong with the springs. Can't you make him go faster?"
"Only if I beat him; and then suppose he runs away?"
"Well, if he does, we'll each cling on to one rein and pull. I suppose driving is pretty much like steering a bicycle. Is the rule of the road the same?"
"Of course. Don't be silly !"
"Well, I never can make out why it's different for foot-passengers. Why should they go to the right, and vehicles to the left?"
"You may be certain all motors will take the middle of the road, at any rate. We shall have to be prepared to make a dash for the hedge when we hear a 'too-hoo' round the corner. I've no mind to be run over and squashed out flat!"
"Like the naughty children who teased Diogenes in an old picture-book I used to have. I always thought it was a lovely idea of his to start the tub rolling, and simply flatten them out like pancakes. I expect it's a true incident, if we only knew. One of those things that are not historical, but so probable that you're sure they must have happened. He'd reason it out by philosophy first, and feel it was a triumph of mind over matter. Perhaps his chuckles when he saw the result were the origin of the term 'a cynical laugh'. The children in the picture looked so exactly like pieces of rolled pastry when the tub had done its work."
"I don't think the motors would have any more compunction than Diogenes, so the moral is—give them as wide a berth as possible. If we were driving a big hay-cart, I'd enjoy blocking the way!"
They had turned out of the lane, and were now on the high road to Ledcombe, but progressing at an extremely slow pace. Raymonde ventured to apply the whip, but on the pony's thick coat it appeared to produce as slight an impression as the tickling of a fly, and, when she endeavoured to give a more efficacious flick, she got the lash ignominiously entangled in the harness. There was nothing for it but to pull up, and for Aveline to climb laboriously from the trap, and release the much-knotted piece of string. Rendered more careful by this catastrophe, Raymonde wielded her whip with caution, and gave what encouragement she could by jerking the reins vigorously, and occasionally ejaculating an energetic "Go on, Dandy!" The pony, however, was a cunning little creature, and, knowing perfectly well that he was in amateur hands, took full advantage of the situation. Under the excuse of a very slight hill he reduced his pace to a crawl, and began to crop succulent mouthfuls of grass from the hedge-bank, as a means of combining pleasure with business. It was only by judicious proddings with the butt-end of the whip that he could be induced to hasten his steps.
In spite of the difficulties with Dandy, the drive was enjoyable. The country was very pretty, for they were nearing the hills, and the landscape was more diversified than in the immediate neighbourhood of the camp. They passed through a beech wood, where the sun was glinting through leaves as transparent and delicate as fairies' wings.
"I feel like primeval man to-day," said Aveline. "The wander fever is on me, and I want to see fresh things."
"We shall be in Ledcombe soon."
"I don't mean towns; it's something much subtler—different fields, unexplored woods, a new piece of river, or even a patch of grass with flowers I haven't found before."
"I know," agreed Raymonde. "It's the feeling one had when one was small, and read about how the youngest prince set out into the great wide world to seek his fortune. I always envied him."
"Or the knights-errant—they had a splendid time roaming through the forest, and tilting a spear against anyone who was ready for single combat. One might lead a very merry life yet, like Robin Hood and his band, in the 'good greenwood', though we shouldn't be 'hunting the King's red deer'."
"It was pretty much like camp life, I dare say, only a little rougher than ours. More like the gipsy diggings."
"Talking of gipsies, I believe you've conjured them up. That looks like a caravan over there. I expect it is some more of the tribe coming to pick strawberries."
The gipsies, collected in a group in the roadway, were loudly bewailing a catastrophe, for their horse had just fallen down dead. Until they could obtain another they must needs stay by the roadside, and could not get on to the gardens.
"They're a handsome set," said Aveline, taking out her camera, which she had brought with her. "Just look at the children!"
"It's the mother that attracts me most," said Raymonde.
The woman, indeed, was a beautiful specimen of Romany blood, tall and dark, with great flashing eyes and coarse black hair. She resembled a man more than the gentler sex. She wore a very short red skirt, and had a little barrel hung over her shoulder by a strap.
"I wish I'd brought my camera!" murmured Raymonde. "I simply hadn't room to stuff it in. It was a choice between it and my night-gear, and I thought Gibbie'd treat me to jaw-wag if I left out my pyjamas."
Aveline descended from the trap to take her photo, hoping to get a snapshot of the gipsies, just as they were, grouped in dramatic attitudes round the dead horse. At the sight of two well-dressed strangers, however, the tribal instincts asserted themselves, and the woman was pushed hurriedly forward by the rest.
"Tell your fortune, my pretty lady!" she began to Aveline in a half-bold, half-wheedling voice. "Cross the poor gipsy's hand with a shilling and she'll read the stars for you!"
"No, thanks!" said Aveline, rather scared by the woman's jaunty, impudent manner. "I only wanted to take a photo."
"Cross the gipsy's hand first, lady, before you take her photo. Don't you want to know the future, lady? I can read something in your face that will surprise you. Just a shilling, lady—only a shilling!"
The rest of the tribe were approaching the trap and begging from Raymonde, looking so rough and importunate that the girls began to be thoroughly alarmed, and afraid for the safety of the money they had brought with them. Aveline regretted her folly in having dismounted from the gig, and backed towards it again, pestered by the gipsy. She did not want a photo now, only to get away as swiftly as possible. But that the dark-eyed crew did not seem disposed to allow. A dusky hand was laid on the pony's reins, and a voluble tongue poured forth a jumble of planets and predictions. The situation had grown extremely unpleasant for the girls, when fortunately a cart was seen coming in the distance. The gipsies melted away instantly, Aveline jumped into the trap, and Raymonde whipped up Dandy, who evidently resenting on his own account the tribe's interference, set off at a swinging pace, and soon left the caravan behind. In another ten minutes they had reached the outskirts of Ledcombe, and arrived at civilization.