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The Madcap of the School
by Angela Brazil
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The little country town was one of those sleepy places where you could almost shoot a cannon down the High Street without injuring anybody. There were shops with antiquated-looking goods in the windows; a market hall, closed except on Tuesdays; a church with a picturesque tower, a bank, and a large number of public-houses. It seemed to the girls as if almost every other building displayed a green dragon, or a red lion, or a black boar, or some other sign to indicate that the excessive thirst of the inhabitants could be satisfied within. Raymonde felt rather nervous at driving in the town, but fortunately, being a Thursday morning, there was little traffic in the streets. Had it been market day she might have got into difficulties. She sat outside in the gig while Aveline went into the shops and purchased the various commodities on Miss Jones's list. These were so many, that by the time everything had been bought the gig was crammed to overflowing, leaving only just room for the two girls. Raymonde sat with her feet on a sack of potatoes, Aveline clutched the big baskets full of loaves and vegetables, while parcels were piled up on the floor and on the seat. Their business had taken them longer than they expected, and the church clock warned them that they must hurry if the potatoes were to be cooked in time for dinner. As soon as they were clear of the town, Raymonde attempted to communicate the urgency of the case to Dandy. Her efforts were in vain, however. That faithless quadruped utterly refused to proceed faster than an ambling jog-trot, and took no notice of whipping, prodding or poking, beyond flicking his ears as if he thought the flies were troublesome.

"We shall never get back to the camp at this rate," lamented Raymonde. "What are we to do?"

"Geordie suggested 'cuss words'," grinned Aveline. "I expect that's what Dandy's accustomed to from most of his drivers."

"Don't suppose he'd be particular as to the exact words," said Raymonde. "Probably it's the tone of voice that does it. Let's wait till he gets to the top of this hill, then I'll prod him again, and we'll both growl out 'Go on!' and see if it has any effect."

"If it hasn't, I shall lead him and run by his head. It would be quicker than this pace."

"We'll try shouting first. Here we are at the top of the hill. Now, both together, in the gruffest voice you can muster. Are you ready? One—two—three—GO ON, DANDY!"

Whether it was really the result of the deep bass tones, or Raymonde's unexpected prod, or merely the fact that they had arrived at the summit of the slope, the girls could not determine, but the effect on the pony was instantaneous. He gathered all four legs together, and gave a sudden jump, apparently of apprehension, then set off down the hill as fast as he could tear.

"Hold him in!" yelled Aveline, alarmed at such an access of speed.

"I'm trying to!" replied Raymonde, pulling at the reins as hard as her arms would allow.

Dandy, however, seemed determined for once to show his paces, and took no more notice of Raymonde's checking than he had previously done of her urgings. The little trap was flying like the wind, when without the least warning a most unanticipated thing happened. The worn, crazy old straps of the harness broke, and the pony, giving a wrench that also snapped the reins, ran straight out of the shafts. The gig promptly fell forward, precipitating both girls, amid a shower of parcels, into the road, where they sat for a moment or two almost dazed with the shock, watching the retreating heels of Dandy as he fled in terror of the dangling straps that were hitting him on the flanks.

"Are you hurt?" asked Raymonde at last, getting up and tenderly feeling her scraped shins.

"No, only rather bruised—and astonished," replied Aveline.

Then the humour of the situation seemed to strike both, for they burst into peals of laughter.

"What are we to do with the trap?" said Aveline. "We can't drag it back ourselves. And what about the pony? He's playing truant!"

"And Mr. Rivers said he was so quiet and well-behaved that a baby in arms could drive him!" declared Raymonde, much aggrieved.

"Well, they shouldn't patch their harness with bits of string!" said Aveline. "It's very unsafe. I noticed it before we started out, but I supposed it would be all right. Hallo! Here's Dandy back! Somebody's caught him!"

It was the gipsy woman who made her appearance, leading the pony. She looked rather scared, and much relieved when she saw Raymonde and Aveline standing safe and sound in the middle of the road.

"I thought for sure someone was killed!" she remarked when she reached the scene of the accident. Though the girls had been frightened of her before, they were glad to see her now, for they had no notion what to do next. She at once assumed command of the situation, sent one of the children, who had followed her, back to the caravan to fetch her husband, and with his assistance set to work and patched up the harness.

"We're tinkers by trade, lady, so we know how to put in a rivet or two, enough to take you safely home, at any rate; but they don't ought to send that harness out again, it's as rotten as can be. Mr. Rivers's, did you say? Why, it's his farm as we're going to, to pick strawberries, as soon as we can get there, with our horse lying dead!"

A fellow feeling makes us wondrous kind, and before the harness was mended the girls had struck up quite a friendship with the gipsies, which was further cemented by the transference of half a crown from Raymonde's purse to the brown hand of the woman, and the bestowal of the greater part of Aveline's chocolates into the mouths of the dark-eyed children.

Dandy was placed between the shafts once more, and the parcels were restored to the gig. The girls, being doubtful as to the security of the hastily-mended harness, did not venture to mount inside, but led the pony by the head, lest he should be inspired to race down another hill. It was a slow progress back, and the workers were just returning from the fields as they reached the camp. Naturally there were no potatoes for dinner that day, though Raymonde and Aveline congratulated themselves that the bread was just in time. They were the heroines of the hour when they related their adventures, and even Miss Gibbs did not scold them, though they afterwards heard her remarking to Miss Hoyle that Miss Jones was a poor manager, and ought to make better arrangements about catering.

"Gibbie's got to let fly at somebody!" chuckled Raymonde. "If it can't be us, it's someone else, but she'd better not try criticizing Miss Jones's methods to her face, or there'll be fighting in the camp."

"Wouldn't I like to see a match between them!" sighed Aveline. "I'd stake my all on Gibbie, any day!"

"I don't know," said Raymonde reflectively. "Gibbie has fire and spirit, and powers of sarcasm, and traditions of Scotch ancestry; but there's a suggestion of icy stubbornness about Miss Jones that looks capable of standing out against anybody with bulldog grit. I believe I'd back Miss Jones, if it came to the point!"



CHAPTER XII

Amateur Detectives

The girls felt that their short week of strawberry picking was crammed more full of experiences than a whole term of ordinary school life. There were so many interesting people at the camp who had been working at various absorbing occupations, and were ready to talk about their adventures. Miss Hoyle could give accounts of celebrities whom she had been sent to interview by her newspaper; Miss Gordon, the Social Settlement secretary, had stories of factory girls and their funny ways and sayings to relate; Nurse Gibbons had much to tell about her training in a London hospital; Miss Parker was an authority on munition work, and Miss Lowe, an artist, drew spirited sketches of everybody and everything, to the amusement of all. There was a great feeling of comradeship and bonhomie in the camp; everyone was ready to be friendly, and to meet everybody else on equal terms. There was only one member who did not seem responsive and ready to mix with the others. This was Mrs. Vernon, a shy, reserved little woman, who never blossomed out into any confidences. She would sit and listen attentively to all the tales told by Miss Hoyle and Miss Parker, and would even question the latter about her munition work, but she gave no information at all respecting herself or her occupation. It was rumoured that she was a widow, but the report was not confirmed. The Marlowe Grange girls did not much like her, and took very little notice of her. It was the easiest thing in the world to ignore her, for she seemed to shrink from even the most ordinary civilities, and would vouchsafe nothing but a curt reply when spoken to.

On the morning after the expedition to Ledcombe there was considerable excitement in Raymonde's tent. Katherine woke up with her face covered with a rash. Morvyth, who slept next to her, noticed it immediately, and told her that she had better stay in bed until Miss Gibbs saw her. Naturally Miss Gibbs was in a state of great apprehension, and feared that Katherine must be sickening for measles, scarlatina, chicken-pox, or some other infectious complaint. Manifestly the first thing to be done was to send for a doctor. The nearest medical man lived at Ledcombe, and in order to save time Raymonde and Aveline offered to walk in to Shipley village, and telephone to him from the post office there.

"Nice little business if Kitty starts an epidemic in the camp!" said Aveline as they went along. "I suppose we couldn't go back to school?"

"No, and we shouldn't be allowed to pick strawberries either, if we were infectious. They'd turn us out of the camp, and treat us like lepers."

"Oh, I say! It would be no fun at all!"

They had reached Shipley by this time—a little quaint old-world place consisting of one village street of picturesque cottages, most of them covered with roses or vines, and with flowery gardens in front. The tiny church stood on a mound, surrounded by trees, and looked far smaller than the handsome vicarage whose great gates opened opposite the school. The post office appeared also to be a general store, where articles of every description were on sale. From the ceiling were suspended tin pails, coils of clothes-line, rows of boots or shoes, pans, kettles, brooms, and lanterns, while the walls were lined with shelves containing groceries and draperies, stationery, hosiery, quack medicines, garden seeds, and, in fact, an absolutely miscellaneous assortment of goods and chattels, some old, some new, some fresh, some faded, some appetizing, and some decidedly stale.

Raymonde asked to use the telephone, and retired to the little boxed-off portion of the shop reserved for that instrument, where she successfully rang up Dr. Wilton, and received his promise to call during the morning at the camp. This most pressing business done, they proceeded to execute a few commissions for Miss Jones, Miss Lowe, and several other members of the party. Miss Hoyle had begged them to buy a few yards of anything with which she might trim a large shady rush hat she had brought with her, so the girls asked the postmistress to show them some white ribbon. That elderly spinster, having first, with considerable ingenuity, satisfied her curiosity as to the object for which they required it, commenced a vigorous hunt among the miscellaneous collection of boxes in her establishment.

"I know I have some," she soliloquized, "for it was only six weeks ago I sold a yard and a half to Mrs. Cox, to finish a tea-cosy she was making. Where can I have put it? No, this is lead-pencils and india-rubber, and this, neuralgic powders and babies' comforters. It might have got into the small wares, but I had that out only yesterday. Why, here it is, after all, among the tapes and buttons!"

The girls soon found that shopping at Shipley possessed an immense advantage over kindred expeditions in town. When there was only a single article, no selection could be made; it was impossible to be bewildered with too many fineries, and "This or nothing" offered a unique simplicity in the way of choice. Miss Pearson, the postmistress, decided for them that the ribbon was the right width and quality, and even offered a few hints on the subject of trimming.

"I believe she's longing to do it herself!" whispered Aveline. "Are those specimens of her millinery in the window? I'd as soon wear a cauliflower on my head as that erection with the squirms of velvet and the lace border!"

"You're sure three yards will be sufficient?" pattered the little storekeeper. "Well, of course you can come for more if you want. I'm not likely to be selling it out, and, if anybody should happen to come and ask for the rest of it, I'll get them to wait till you've finished trimming your hat. Dear me! If I haven't mislaid my scissors now! I was cutting flowers with them in the garden before breakfast, and I must have put them down in the middle of the sweet peas, or on the onion bed. It wouldn't take me five minutes to find them. You'd rather not wait? Then perhaps you'll excuse my using this."

Without further apology, Miss Pearson seized the carving-knife with which she usually operated on the cheese and bacon, and, giving it a hasty wipe upon her apron, proceeded to saw through the ribbon, wrapping up the three yards in a scrap of newspaper.

"I'm sorry I'm out of paper bags," she announced airily, "but the traveller only calls once in six months. Let me know how you get on with the hat, and, if you want any help that I can give you, just bring it across to me, and I'll do my best. By the by, I suppose you young ladies go to a fine boarding-school? Do you learn foreign languages there?"

"Why, yes—French and German and Latin—most of us," replied Raymonde, rather astonished.

"Then perhaps you'll be so good as to help me, for there's a letter arrived this morning I can make nothing of. It's certainly not in English, but whether it's in French or German or Russian or what, I can't say, for I'm no authority on languages."

"Let me look at it, and I will do my best."

Miss Pearson bustled to her postmistress's desk, and with an air of great importance produced the letter. Raymonde took it carelessly enough, but when she had grasped a few sentences her expression changed. She read it through to the end, then laid it down on the counter without offering to translate.

"This is not addressed to you, I think," she remarked.

"You're quite right, it's for Martha Verney; but she's no scholar, so I opened it for her, like I do for many folks in Shipley. I was quite taken aback when I couldn't make it out, and Martha said: 'Miss Pearson, if you can't read it, I'm sure nobody else can!' But I told her to leave it, in case anyone came into the shop who could."

"Where's the envelope?" asked Raymonde briefly.

"It's here. The writing is small and queer, isn't it? I had to put on both my pairs of glasses, one over the other, before I could see properly."

"You've made a very great mistake," said Raymonde. "The letter is addressed to Mrs. Vernon, Poste Restante, Shipley."

"Well, I never! I thought it was Martha Verney. There are no Vernons in Shipley."

"There's a Mrs. Vernon at the camp. No doubt it's intended for her."

"Well, I am sorry," replied Miss Pearson. "To think of me being postmistress all these years, and making such a mistake! I'll put it in an official envelope and readdress it. She'll get it to-morrow. Is it important? I suppose you were able to understand it?" with a suggestive glance at the letter, as if she hoped Raymonde would reveal its contents.

Raymonde, however, did not answer her question.

"I think you had better seal it up at once," she parried, "and drop it into the box, and then you'll feel you've finished with it."

"Oh, it will be all right! I hope I know my duties. If people addressed their envelopes properly in a plain hand, there'd be no mistakes," snapped Miss Pearson, highly offended, putting back the bone of contention among her papers, and locking the desk. She knew she had been caught tripping, and wished to preserve her official dignity as far as possible. "I've opened Martha Verney's letters for the last fifteen years, and had no complaints," she added.

"Ave," said Raymonde, as the two girls left the shop and turned up the lane towards the camp, "that was a most important letter. I didn't tell that old curiosity-box so, but it was written in German. I'd Fraeulein as my governess for four years before I came to school, so I can read German pretty easily, as you know. Well, I couldn't quite understand everything, but the general drift seems to be that Mrs. Vernon has a husband or a brother or a cousin named Carl, who is interned not so far away from here, and is trying to escape. This evening's the time fixed, and he's coming into the neighbourhood of our camp, and she's to meet him, and give him clothes and money."

"Good gracious! What are we to do? Go back and 'phone to the police—or tell Mr. Rivers?"

"Neither," said Raymonde decidedly. "After that idiotic business on Wednesday night, trying to guard the larder with everybody tumbling over everyone else, it's worse than useless to tell. It would be all over the camp in five minutes, and Mrs. Vernon would hear about it, and go and warn 'Carl' somehow. As for the police, they'd spend a week in preliminaries. They'd have to send a constable to look at the letter, and ask questions of us, and Miss Pearson, and Mr. Rivers, and no end of red-tape nonsense; and by that time Carl would be safely out of the country, and on to a neutral vessel. No, my idea is to 'set a thief to catch a thief'. I'm going to ask the gipsies to help us. If anybody can deal with the business, they can!"

"Topping!" exclaimed Aveline. "I'd back the gipsies against the best detectives in England."

"I'll go to the field and talk to that woman who caught Dandy for us yesterday. Mr. Rivers sent a horse last night, and brought their caravan to the farm, so they'll all be at work picking this morning. Don't tell a single soul in the camp. You and I will watch Mrs. Vernon, and follow her if she goes out, and the gipsies shall keep guard in the wood where she's evidently arranged to meet him. They'll get a reward if they catch him."

"That'll spur them on, as well as the sport of the thing!" laughed Aveline.

The girls were fearfully excited at the idea of such an adventure. They had never liked Mrs. Vernon, and now saw good ground for their suspicions. They wondered how much information she had gleaned at the camp, for Miss Hoyle and Miss Parker were not very discreet in their communications. They walked at once to the gardens, found their Romany friend among the strawberries, and with much secrecy told her the whole affair. As they had expected, she rose magnificently to the occasion.

"You leave it to us gipsies," she assured them. "Bless you, we're used to this kind of job. There's a lot of us altogether working here, and I'll pass the word on. There'll be scouts this evening behind nearly every hedge, and if any German comes this way we'll get him, I promise you. You keep your eye on that Mrs. Vernon! We may want a signal. Look here, lady; come to the back of that shed, and I'll teach you the gipsies' whistle. Anybody with Romany blood in them's bound to answer it."

The gipsy's whistle was a peculiar bird-like call, not very easy to imitate. Raymonde had to try again and again before she could accomplish it to her instructress's satisfaction. At last, however, she had it perfectly.

"Don't use it till you must," cautioned her dark-eyed confederate; "but, if we hear it, it will bring the lot of us out. Now I must go back to my picking, or the agent will be turning me off."

"And I must rush back to the camp," declared Raymonde, remembering that Miss Gibbs, who had stayed with the invalid, would expect a report of the visit to the telephone. The excitement of the German letter had temporarily banished Katherine's illness from her thoughts, and she reproached herself for her unkindness in forgetting her friend. The doctor called during the course of the morning, and, after examining the patient, pronounced her complaint to be neither measles, chicken-pox, nor anything of an infectious character, but merely a rash due to the eating of too many strawberries.

"They cause violent dyspepsia in some people," he remarked. "I will make up a bottle of medicine, if you can send anybody over on a bicycle for it this afternoon. You mustn't eat any more strawberries, young lady. They'd be simply poison to you at present. Oh yes! you may go and pick them; the occupation will do you no harm."

Much relieved that they had not started a centre of infection in the camp, Katherine and Miss Gibbs returned to work after lunch, the latter issuing special instructions to her girls against the excessive consumption of the fruit they were gathering. Katherine was inclined to pose as an interesting invalid, and to claim sympathy, but the general feeling of her schoolfellows was against that attitude, and the verdict was "Greedy pig! Serves her right!" which was not at all to her satisfaction.

"You're most unkind!" she wailed. "You've every one of you eaten quite as many strawberries as I have, only I've a delicate digestion, and can't stand them like you can. You're a set of ostriches! I believe you'd munch turnips if you were sent to hoe them! I don't mind what you say. So there!"

As half-past six drew on, and most of the workers were handing in their last baskets for the day, Raymonde and Aveline kept watchful eyes on Mrs. Vernon. They fully expected that she might disappear on the way back to the camp, so, without making their purpose apparent, they shadowed her, pretending that they were looking for flowers in the hedge. They hung about in the vicinity of her tent until supper-time, and changed their seats at table so that they might sit nearer to her in the marquee. When the meal was over, and the washing up and water carrying finished, nearly everybody collected for an amateur concert. Miss Hoyle had a banjo, which she played atrociously out of tune, but on which she nevertheless strummed accompaniments while the rest roared out "Little Grey Home in the West," "The Long, Long Trail," and other popular songs. It was certainly not classical music, but it was amusing; and, as everybody joined in the choruses, the company consisted entirely of performers, with no audience except the cows in the adjacent pasture. Even Mrs. Vernon was singing, though with an inscrutable look in her grey eyes hardly suggestive of enjoyment.

"She's doing it as a blind!" whispered Raymonde to Aveline. "Don't let her out of your sight for a single moment!"

When the fun was at its height, and everybody seemed fully occupied with ragtimes, two pairs of watchful eyes noticed Mrs. Vernon slip quietly away in the direction of her tent. She went inside for a moment, then, coming out again with a parcel in her hand, walked rapidly towards a stile that led into the fields. Raymonde and Aveline allowed her to reach the other side of it, then flew like the wind to a gap in the hedge through which they could see into the next meadow. She was walking along the path among the hay, in the direction of the wood, and was no doubt congratulating herself upon getting rid of her camp-mates so easily. There was nothing at all unusual in the fact of her taking a stroll; many of the workers did so in the evenings, though they generally went two or three together. Had it not been for the letter she had read at the post office, Raymonde's suspicions would probably never have been aroused. The two girls crossed the stile, and began to follow Mrs. Vernon as if they, too, were merely enjoying an ordinary walk, leaving a considerable distance between her and themselves. She turned round once, but as they were in the shadow of the hedge she did not see them. It was a more difficult business to track her through the wood. The light was waning fast here, and in her brown costume she was sometimes almost indistinguishable among the tree-trunks and bushes. That she was going to some specially arranged trysting-place they were certain. Using infinite caution, they followed her. Towards the middle of the wood she paused, looked round, and, seeing nobody (for the girls were hidden behind a tangle of bramble), she stood still and called softly. There was no answer. She called again, waited a few moments, and then began to walk farther on into the wood. She was at a point where two paths divided, and she chose the one to the right.

"Ave," whispered Raymonde, "we must spread ourselves out. She's evidently looking for 'Carl', and he may be on the other path. We mustn't miss him. You follow her, and I'll take the way to the left."

Aveline nodded and obeyed. She did not much relish going alone, but she had a profound respect for her chum's judgment. The path which Raymonde had chosen was the narrower and more overgrown. She stole along, listening and watching. After a few hundred yards she came to an ancient yew-tree, the trunk of which, worn with age, was no more than a hollow shell. It would be perfectly possible for anyone to hide here. An idea occurred to her, venturesome indeed, but certainly feasible. Raymonde was not a girl to stop and consider risks. If an escaped German were in the wood, it was her duty to her king and country to try to effect his arrest. All her patriotism rose within her, and, though her heart thumped rather loudly, she told herself that she was not afraid. Going into the middle of the path, she called as Mrs. Vernon had done, then dived into the shelter of the hollow tree.

"If he's anywhere near here, that'll bring him!" she thought.

For a moment all was silence, then came a crashing among the bushes, and an answering call. Someone was coming in the direction of the yew-tree.

Peeping from her hiding-place, Raymonde could just distinguish a man's figure advancing through the gathering darkness of the wood. Then awful fear fell upon her. Suppose he were to look inside the hollow tree and find her? He was a German, and a desperate man; she was a girl, and alone. Why, oh why had she sent Aveline away? He would be quite capable of murdering her.

In that moment of agony she bitterly repented her folly. To be sure, there were the gipsies, but she was not certain whether they were really within call, and would come quickly in answer to her signal. The footsteps drew nearer, they were almost at the tree; she shrank to the farthest corner, trusting that in the darkness her brown serge school costume might escape notice. Just at that moment another cautious shout sounded through the wood. The footsteps stopped, so near to her tree that Raymonde could see the flap of a coat through the opening; then they turned, and went in the direction of the voice. Raymonde drew a long breath of intense relief, and peeped out. The man was tacking down a little incline towards the brook, guided by a further call.

"I've seen he's here, and I know he's going down there to meet her," thought Raymonde. "It's time for me to act."

She slipped from the tree, ran nearer to the edge of the wood, and gave the peculiar blackbird-like whistle which the Romany woman had taught her. Its effect was immediate. Within ten seconds one of the gipsy boys ran up to her, and she told him briefly what had occurred.

"I'll pass the signal on," he replied. "There's a ring of us all round the wood. We won't let him go, you bet!"

He gave a low cry like the hooting of an owl, which was at once answered from the right and the left.

"That means 'close the ring'," he explained. "We've all sorts of calls that we understand and talk to each other by when we're in the woods. They'll all be moving on now."

The gipsy boy went forward, and Raymonde, with her heart again thumping wildly, followed at a little distance. This was indeed an adventure. She wondered where Aveline was, and if she were equally frightened. She wished she had not left her friend alone.

The gipsies, well versed in wood-craft, walked as silently as hunters stalking a buck. She would not have known they were within a mile of her, had she not been told. Her boy guide had vanished temporarily among the bushes. She stood still for a few minutes, uncertain what to do.

Then there was a shout, and a sound of running footsteps crashing through the bushes, excited voices called, and presently between the trees came five or six of the gipsies hauling a man whose arms they had already bound with a rope. The Romany woman, herself as strong as any man, was helping with apparent gusto. When she saw Raymonde she ran to her.

"We've got him right enough, lady!" she exclaimed triumphantly. "They're going to take him to the farm, and borrow a trap to take him to the jail at Ledcombe. We nabbed him by the brook as neat as anything. The other young lady's over there."

"Aveline! Aveline!" called Raymonde, rushing in pursuit of her friend.

The two girls clung to each other eagerly. They were both thoroughly frightened.

"Let's go back to the camp," gasped Aveline. "I daren't stay here any longer. Oh! I was terrified when you left me!"

"What's become of Mrs. Vernon?" asked Raymonde.

Aveline did not know. In the hullabaloo of the pursuit the woman had been allowed to escape. She had the wisdom not to return to the camp, and was indeed never seen again in the neighbourhood. Great was the excitement at the farm when the gipsies brought in the German. Mr. Rivers himself undertook to drive them and their prisoner to the jail.

Raymonde and Aveline had a thrilling story to tell in the marquee that night, where everybody collected to hear the wonderful experience, those who had already gone to their tents donning dressing-gowns and coming to join the interested audience. Miss Gibbs seemed divided between a sense of her duty as a schoolmistress to scold her pupils for undertaking such an extremely wild proceeding, and a glow of pride that her girls had actually succeeded in effecting the capture of an escaped enemy. On the whole, pride and patriotism prevailed, and the pair were let off with only a caution against madcap adventures.

Raymonde found herself the idol of the gipsies at the strawberry gardens next day.

"We're to have a big reward, lady, for copping that German!" said the Romany woman. "It'll buy us a new horse for our caravan. Will you please accept this basket from us? We wish we'd anything better to offer you. I'll teach you three words of Romany—let me whisper! Don't you forget them, and if you're ever in trouble, and want help from the gipsies, you've only to say those words to them, and they'll give their last drop of blood for you. But don't tell anybody else, lady; the words are only for you."

"What was she saying to you?" asked Morvyth curiously.

"I can't tell you," replied Raymonde. "It's a secret!"



CHAPTER XIII

Camp Hospitality

The brief visit at the camp was vanishing with almost incredible rapidity; the week would finish on Saturday, but Miss Gibbs had decided to stay till Monday morning, so as to put in the full period of work on Saturday afternoon. Sunday was of course a holiday, and the pickers enjoyed a well-earned rest. Those who liked went to the little church in Shipley village, the clergyman of which also held an outdoor service in the stackyard at the farm for all whom he could persuade to come.

In the afternoon the members of the camp gave themselves up to hospitality. They had small and select private tea-parties, and invited each other, the hostesses generally being "at home" in some cosy spot beneath a tree, or under the shelter of a hedge, where the alfresco repast was spread forth, each guest bringing her own mug and plate. Raymonde, Morvyth, Katherine, and Aveline were the recipients of a very special invitation, and Miss Gibbs assenting, they accepted it with glee. Miss Lowe, the artist with whom they had struck up a friendship, had removed on Friday from the camp to lodgings at an old farm near the village, and she had asked her four school-girl acquaintances to come for early dinner and tea, so that they might spend the afternoon with her.

Miss Lowe was an interesting personality. She sketched beautifully, and had shown the girls a few charming specimens of her work. She had been painting in the neighbourhood for some weeks before the strawberry picking began, and had many quaint accounts to give of her experiences. Her quarters in the village had been decidedly uncomfortable, and it seemed very uncertain whether the rooms she had engaged at the farm would turn out to be any improvement.

"You'll have to take pot-luck if you come to dinner with me," she announced to her guests. "I don't believe my landlady has even the most elementary notions of cooking. The meal will probably be a surprise."

"We shan't mind that!" the girls assured her.

Miss Lowe had chosen her lodgings more for the sake of the picturesque than for creature comforts. The farm-house was an extremely ancient building, and its very dilapidation rendered it a more suitable subject for her brush. It consisted of a front later-date portion, and a much older part at the back, the two being really separate blocks, connected by a large central hall. This hall, which measured about twenty feet square and thirty feet in height, must at one time have belonged to a family of some pretensions. The walls to a height of fifteen feet were covered with splendid oak panelling, grey with neglect, and above that were ornamented with plaster designs in bas-relief—lions, unicorns, wild boars, stags, and other heraldic devices, a form of decoration which was also continued over the ceiling. The back part of the house was evidently the older; the same beautiful plaster-work was to be seen, both in the bedrooms and kitchen, together with fine black oak beams. There was a winding stair to the upper story, with narrow windows that suggested a castle, and that dull, dim, soft yellow-brown light about everything which only seems reflected from ancient walls. The front portion consisted of two great sitting-rooms, one of which was empty, while the other had been arranged for the accommodation of visitors. Neither walls nor window-sills had been touched with paint for half a century, and they were sadly in need of attention. The house was the property of an old miser, who refused to spend a penny on repairs, and every year things went on from bad to worse. The woodwork of the wide old staircase was rotting away, most of the doors were off their hinges, and the rain came through several spots in the roof. Like many another fine mansion, it had descended from hall to farm-house, and showed now but faded relics of its former grandeur.

The farmer and his family lived entirely in the back premises, and the whole of the front was given up to their lodgers.

"I shouldn't like to sleep here alone," said Morvyth, as Miss Lowe acted cicerone and showed them through the house. "These long, gloomy, eerie corridors give me the shivers!"

"I felt the same," admitted their friend, "so I persuaded Miss Barton to join me. She's as mad on the antique as I am, and together we enjoy ourselves immensely, though we should each feel spooky alone. Our first business last night was to turn five bats out of our bedroom. There's an open trap-door in the ceiling of the landing, and a whole colony of them seem to be established up there; they flit up and down the stairs at dusk! One has to sacrifice comfort to the picturesque. I think I begin to have just a glimmer of an understanding why some people prefer new houses to old!"

Both Miss Lowe and Miss Barton certainly found their romantic proclivities came into collision with their preconceived ideas of the fitness of things. Mrs. Marsden, their landlady, was a kind soul who did her best; but she had all her farm work and a large family of children to cope with, so it was small wonder that cobwebs hung in the passages and the dust lay thick and untouched. It is sometimes wiser not to see behind the scenes in country rooms. Miss Barton had set up her easel in the great hall, and absolutely revelled in painting the grey oak and plaster-work, nevertheless she had a tale of woe to unfold.

"They use the place as a dairy," she explained, "and they keep the milk in large, uncovered earthenware pots. First I found the cat was lapping away at it, and I jumped up and scared it off; and then the dog strayed in and began to help itself, and I had to rush again and chase it away. Then the unwashed baby, still in its dirty little night-gown, brought a mug and kept dipping it into the pot to get drinks. We're going to take a jug into the field at milking-time this afternoon, and ensure our particular portion straight from the cow."

"I'm glad to hear it," said Morvyth, looking considerably relieved.

"Perhaps it's as well we don't see most foodstuffs in the making," moralized Aveline.

"Decidedly! Isn't there a story of a barrel of treacle, and a little nigger baby being found at the bottom?"

"And an attendant who fell by mistake into the sausage machine," added Miss Lowe, laughing. "I suppose one ought to be judiciously blind if one is to preserve one's peace of mind."

"One may shut one's eyes, but one can't do away with one's nose!" persisted Miss Barton. "There was the most horrible and peculiar and objectionable odour in the hall yesterday morning, all the time I was painting. I came to the conclusion that a rat must have died recently behind the panelling. Then Mrs. Marsden came in with some milk-cans, and she raised a lid from a big pot close to where I was sitting. What do you think was inside? Twelve pounds of beef that she had put down to pickle! I hinted that it was rather high, but she didn't seem to perceive it in the least. She can't have the slightest vestige of a nose!"

"Perhaps, like some tribes of Africans, she prefers her meat gamey. Don't look so alarmed, you poor girls, it's not going to appear on our table for dinner! I ordered a fowl."

"Which was alive only a couple of hours ago, for I saw the children assisting to chase it wildly round the yard and catch it!" put in Miss Barton. "We warned you, when we invited you, not to expect too much!"

Mrs. Marsden's training in the domestic arts had evidently been defective, and her cooking was decidedly eccentric. The fowl turned up at table plucked, certainly, but looking very pale and anaemic with its long untrussed legs sticking helplessly out before it. It was such an absurd object that as soon as the landlady had departed from the room the company exploded.

"How am I to carve the wretched thing?" shrieked Miss Lowe. "I hardly know where its wings are! I've never before seen a chicken served absolutely au naturel!"

"I expect it to rise up and walk!" hinnied Miss Barton. "It seems hardly decent to have left its claws on! Look at the sauce! It's simply bread and milk! Oh, for the fleshpots of Egypt!"

A ground-rice pudding which followed proved equally astonishing. Miss Lowe had suggested that an egg would be an improvement in its composition, and behold! when it made its appearance there was an egg neatly poached in the middle. The giggling guests rather enjoyed the episode than otherwise. They had come to be entertained, and they certainly found plenty to amuse them, especially in the humorous attitude with which their hostesses viewed all the little inconveniences.

"Perhaps we shall do better at tea-time," said Miss Barton hopefully. "Mrs. Marsden surely can't go very wrong there. We're going to walk to the woods this afternoon. I've bespoken Jenny, the fourth child, as a guide. She's the most quaintly fascinating person. I hope she won't be long; we're waiting for her now."

The girls were all impatience to start for the woods, so, as their little guide was already late, Miss Barton went to the kitchen in search of her, and found her concluding a somewhat lengthy toilet with the assistance of her family. The choicest possessions of several members, in assorted sizes, seemed to have been commandeered, and she was finally turned out in a red serge dress, a black jacket much too large, a feather boa, and a pair of woollen gloves, which, considering that it was quite a hot day, was rank cruelty, though—true daughter of Eve as she was—she seemed so pleased with her appearance that nothing would induce her to pull off her suffocating grandeur. She was not at all shy, and very old-fashioned for her seven years. The girls found her conversation most entertaining as they walked along.

"She is absolutely refreshing!" giggled Raymonde. "The way she shakes out her skirts and manoeuvres the sleeves of the big jacket is perfectly lovely. She ought to be a mannikin when she grows up, and try on coats and mantles in shops. Wouldn't she just enjoy it?"

To Jenny an expedition with six ladies was apparently the opportunity of a lifetime, and she was determined to make the most of it. She volunteered to recite, and wound out a long poem in such a rapid, breathless monotone that it was hardly possible to distinguish a word. The party politely expressed gratitude, whereupon she announced: "I'll say it for you again!" and plunged at once into an encore.

"For pity's sake stop her! I'm getting hysterical!" gurgled Morvyth. "She's like a gramophone record that's rather blurred and has been set too fast. Thank goodness, here's the wood! She can't recite while she's climbing that stile."

Everybody decided that the wood was worth the walk. They spent a delicious afternoon lying under the tall straight pines, with the sweet-smelling needles for a bed, watching the delicate and illusive effects of light filtering among the shimmering leaves of birches.

"I feel as if I ought to be picking something!" laughed Katherine, throwing pine cones at Raymonde. "If I live to be a hundred, I'll never forget this strawberry-gathering business. One got to do it automatically."

"You know the story, don't you, of the old man who described himself in the census as a picker?" said Miss Barton. "When he was asked to explain, he said: 'Well, in June I picks strawberries, and then I picks beans, and then I picks hops, then when them's over I picks pockets, and then I gets copped and sent to quod, and picks oakum!' I shouldn't wonder if some of your gipsy friends, Raymonde, could boast of a similar record."

"I don't care—they're top-hole!" declared Raymonde, sticking up for the tribe.

"Who wants tea?" said Miss Lowe. "We've asked Miss Nelson and Miss Porter from the camp, and if we don't hurry back at once, we shall find them waiting for us when we return, and slanging us for being rude. Come along!"

Miss Lowe had casually informed Mrs. Marsden that she expected a few friends to tea, but had not mentioned anything about special preparation, thinking that they would carry the cups and saucers into the garden, and have it under the trees. Little did they know the surprise their enterprising landlady had in store for them. When they arrived at the farm they found her, dressed in her best attire, waiting at the door to receive them, and she proudly ushered them into the sitting-room, where she had spread forth a meal such as might be set before a particularly hungry assemblage of Sunday School scholars.

A large ham, not yet quite cold, adorned one end of the table, and a big apple-pie the other, while down the centre were seven round jam-tarts, each measuring about seven inches in diameter. The cruets had been put in the middle of the table instead of Miss Barton's bowl of flowers, and there were several substantial platefuls of currant-bread. It was an extremely warm afternoon, and even to school-girl appetites the sight of such plenty at 4 p.m. was appalling. Miss Lowe's convulsed apologies sent the visitors into explosions.

"Look at the tarts!" choked Miss Barton. "They're all made with black-currant jam! There's one apiece for us, counting the apple-pie. And the currant-bread is half an inch thick! Who'll take a slice of lukewarm ham? Oh, it's positively painful to laugh so hard! I never saw such a bean-feast in my life!"

"We certainly can't consume all these!" echoed Miss Lowe. "The children must eat up some of them for supper. It will take days to get through such a larderful! For once they'll be satiated with jam-tarts. Well, I suppose it's an ill wind that blows nobody good. Still, if the baby comes to an untimely end through acute dyspepsia, I shan't be in the least surprised."

Mrs. Marsden seemed determined to entertain her guests, and had yet another surprise in store for them. She beckoned them into a little private parlour of her own, and showed them the paintings of her eldest boy, a youth of eighteen, who, she proudly assured them, had never had a drawing lesson in his life. It was not difficult to believe her, for the specimens were so funny that the spectators could hardly keep their faces straight. Horses with about as much shape as those in a child's Noah's ark, figures resembling Dutch dolls in rigidity, flowers daubed on with the crudest colours, and the final effort, a bird's-eye view of the village, consisting chiefly of tiled roofs and chimney-pots in lurid red and black.

"No doubt it has afforded him the supremest delight," whispered Miss Lowe to Miss Barton, "and it's evidently a subject of the utmost satisfaction to his mother, so I won't make carping criticisms, but take it as a moral for the necessity of due humility over one's own productions. Perhaps mine would be as diverting to an Academician as his are to me."

In the same room Mrs. Marsden showed her visitors a mysterious oil-painting, black with age and hideous beyond compare, which she informed them was an original portrait of Nell Gwynn. She supposed it to be immensely valuable, and was keeping it safe until prices rose a little higher still, after the war, when she had hopes of launching it on the auction rooms in London, and realizing a sum that would make her family's fortune.

"An ambition she'll never realize in this wide world," said Miss Barton afterwards, "for the thing is absolutely not genuine. It's not the right period for Nell Gwynn, and it's so atrociously badly painted that it's obviously the work of some village artist. She's in for a big disappointment some day, poor woman! I hadn't the heart to squash her, when she seemed so proud of it—especially as she was still a little huffy that we hadn't consumed her black-currant tarts!"

Though physically they were rather weary, the girls were sorry when their week's strawberry picking came to an end. It was found that when their canteen bills had been paid, and railway fares subtracted, they had each earned on an average a little over five shillings; some who were quicker pickers exceeding that amount, and others falling below. They decided to pool the general proceeds, and present the sum cleared—L4, 16s. 8d.—to the Hospital for Disabled Soldiers as their "bit" towards their country. They went back to school feeling highly patriotic, and burning to boast of their experiences to those slackers who had chosen the parental roof for their holidays.

"I'd have loved it!" protested Fauvette, "but I really did have a very nice time at home. My cousin was back on leave. He's in the Flying Corps, and he's six feet three in his stockings—and—well—I've got his photo upstairs, if you'd like to look at it."

"Oh, we're all accustomed to gipsies and poachers now, and don't think anything of airmen!" returned Morvyth nonchalantly (she was apt to sit on Fauvette). "You should see my snapshots of the strawberry pickers!"

"And mine!" broke in Cynthia Greene. "By the by, I wrote my name and school address on a card, and packed it inside one of my strawberry baskets. I put on it: 'Will the finder kindly write to a blue-eyed, fair-haired girl who feels lonely?'"

"Cynthia, you didn't!" exploded the others.

"I did—crystal! Why shouldn't I? Lonely soldiers beg for letters, and it's as lonely at school as in barracks any day, at least I find it so!"

"Suppose somebody takes you at your word and sends an answer?"

"I heartily and sincerely hope somebody will. It would be absolutely topping!"



CHAPTER XIV

Concerns Cynthia

"Look here!" said Hermie to Raymonde two days later, when the latter was helping the monitress to put away the wood-carving tools; "what's the matter with Cynthia Greene? She's behaving in the most idiotic fashion—goes mincing about the school, and sighing, and even mopping her eyes when she thinks anybody's looking at her. What's she posing about now?"

"She says she feels lonely—and fair-haired and blue-eyed—at least that's what she wrote inside her strawberry basket," volunteered Raymonde.

"What in the name of the Muses do you mean?"

Raymonde explained. The monitress listened aghast.

"Well, I call that the limit!" she exploded. "The little monkey! Why, Gibbie would slay her if she knew! Such an atrociously cheeky, unladylike thing to do, and putting her address here at the Grange! Bringing discredit on the school! I don't suppose whoever finds it will take any notice."

"She's hoping for an answer," said Raymonde. "I believe she's just yearning to be mixed up in a love affair."

"At thirteen!" scoffed Hermie. "The silly young blighter! I'd like to shake her!"

"If you do, she'll be rather pleased than otherwise," returned Raymonde. "She'll pose as a martyr then, and say the world is unsympathetic. I'm beginning to know Cynthia Greene."

"I believe you're right!" said the monitress thoughtfully.

Sentiment was not encouraged at the Grange. Miss Beasley very rightly thought that girls should keep their childhood as long as possible, and that premature love affairs wiped the bloom off genuine later experiences. The school in general assumed the attitude of scoffing at romance, except in the pages of the library books. It was not considered good form to allude to it. Tennis or hockey was a more popular topic.

"So Cynthia's trying to run the sentimental business," mused Hermie. "It'll spread if we don't take care. It's as infectious as measles. I'm not going to have all those juniors wandering about the garden, reading poetry instead of practising their cricket—it's not good enough. Yet it's difficult for a monitress to interfere. As you say, Cynthia would take a melancholy pride in being persecuted. Look here, Raymonde, you're a young blighter yourself sometimes, but you don't go in for this kind of rubbish. Can't you think of some plan to nip the thing in the bud before it goes further? You're generally inventive enough!"

"If I might have a free hand for a day or two, I might manage something," admitted Raymonde with caution.

"I'd tell the other monitresses to let you alone. I don't mind how you contrive it, as long as you knock the nonsense out of the juniors. Cynthia Greene of all people, too! The former ornament of The Poplars, who used to keep up the tone (so she says) and set an example to the rest. What is she coming to? I should think they'd want that bracelet back, if they knew!"

The Mystic Seven had a special Committee Meeting before tea, and pledged one another to utmost secrecy. The result of their confabulations seemed satisfactory to themselves, for they parted chuckling.

The next morning, when Cynthia Greene went to her desk to take out a lesson book, she found inside a letter addressed to herself. She opened it in a whirl of excitement. It was written in a slanting, backward kind of hand, with a very thick pen. Its contents ran thus:

"Dear Miss Cynthia,

"Being the fortunate recipient of the card placed in a strawberry basket, and bearing your name, I am venturing to answer it. I, too, am lonely, and long for friendship. I admire blue eyes and fair hair; I myself am dark. I should like immensely to meet you. Could you possibly be at the side gate of your garden shortly after seven this evening? I shall arrive by motor, and walk past on the chance of seeing you.

"Yours respectfully but devotedly, "Algernon Augustus Fitzmaurice."

The conduct of Cynthia during the course of the day was extraordinary. She exhibited a mixture of self-importance and fluttering anticipation that was highly puzzling to her companions. She refused to explain, but dropped sufficient hints to arouse interest. It was presently whispered among the juniors that Cynthia had received a love-letter from somebody highly distinguished and aristocratic.

"Did it come by post?" asked Joan Butler.

"No, of course not. Gibbie would never have given it to her if it had. Cynthia found it inside her desk. She doesn't know who put it there. It's most mysterious."

For the day, Cynthia was a heroine of romance among her Form. She played the part admirably, wearing an abstracted expression in her blue eyes, and starting when spoken to, as if aroused from daydreams. She mentioned casually that she believed the family of Fitzmaurice to be an extremely ancient one, and that its members were mentioned in the Peerage. As there was no copy of that volume in the school library, nobody could contradict her, and her audience murmured interested acquiescence. When asked whether they preferred the name of Algernon or Augustus, their opinions were divided.

At first the juniors were sympathetic, but by the end of the afternoon the goddess of envy began to rear her head in their midst. Cynthia's manner had progressed during the day to a point of patronage that was distinctly aggravating. She openly pitied girls who did not receive private letters, and spoke of early engagements as highly desirable. She missed two catches when fielding at cricket, being employed in staring sentimentally at the sky instead of watching for the ball.

"Buck up, you silly idiot, can't you? You're a disgrace to the school!" snarled Nora Fawcitt furiously.

Cynthia sighed gently, with the air of "Ah-if-you-only-knew-my-feelings!" and twisted the ends of her hair into ringlets. After tea, in defiance of all school traditions, she changed her dress and put on her best slippers. She appeared in the schoolroom with a bunch of pansies pinned into her belt.

Preparation was from six to seven, and was supposed to be a period of strenuous mental application. That evening, however, Cynthia made little progress with her Latin exercise or the Wars of the Roses. Her Form mates, looking up in the intervals of conning their textbooks, noted her sitting with idle pen, gazing raptly into space or glancing anxiously at the clock. Though she had not confided the details of her secret, her companions felt that something was going to happen. Romance was in the atmosphere. Several of the juniors found themselves wishing that clandestine letters had appeared in their desks also. When the signal for dismissal was given, and the girls trooped from the schoolroom, Cynthia mysteriously melted away somewhere. Ardiune, walking round the quad. five minutes later, accosted Joan Butler, Janet Macpherson, Nancie Page, and Isobel Parker, who were sitting on the steps of the sundial reading Ella Wheeler Wilcox's Poems of Love.

"If you'd like a little sport," she observed, "come along with me. You may bring Elsie and Nora if you can find them. I promise you a jinky time!"

The juniors rose readily. None of them were really very fond of reading, but Cynthia had lent them the book earlier in the day, with a few pages turned down for reference. They flung it on to the stone step, with scant regard for its white cover. Ardiune led her recruits hastily to the back drive, and bade them hide behind the thick laurel and clipped holly bushes that backed the border.

"Somebody you know is coming to keep an appointment, and will get a surprise," she volunteered.

They had hardly taken cover when Cynthia Greene appeared, strolling along the drive. She advanced to the gate, leaned her elbow on it, and, posing picturesquely, glanced with would-be carelessness up and down the back lane, and coughed.

At this very evident signal a figure emerged from the shelter of the opposite bushes and strode to the gate. The juniors gasped. They had all taken part in last Christmas's term-end performance, and they easily recognized the hat, long coat, and military moustache of the school theatrical wardrobe, the only masculine garments permitted at the Grange. Cynthia, being a new-comer, was not acquainted with them. Her agitated eyes merely took in a manly vision who was accosting her politely, though without removing his hat.

"Have I the pleasure of addressing Miss Cynthia Greene?" asked a deep-toned voice.

Cynthia, utterly overcome, giggled a faint assent.

"I am Algernon Augustus. Delighted to make your acquaintance! You're the very girl I've always longed to meet. I can't describe my loneliness, and how I'm yearning for sympathy. Fairest, loveliest one, will you smile upon me?"

What Cynthia might have answered it is impossible to guess, but at that critical moment the hat, which was several sizes too large, tilted to one side, and allowed Raymonde's hair to escape down her back. Cynthia's agitated shriek brought a crowd of witnesses from out the laurel bushes. They did not spare their victim, and a perfect storm of chaff descended upon her.

"Did it go to meet its ownest own?"

"Did you call him Algernon, or Augustus?"

"Did he tell you his family pedigree?"

"Where's his motor-car, please?"

"Is the engagement announced yet?"

"I think you're a set of beasts!" whimpered Cynthia, leaning her head against the gate and sobbing.

"If you hadn't been such a silly idiot you wouldn't have been taken in by such a transparent business," returned Raymonde, pulling off her moustache. "Look here, we don't care about this sickly sort of stuff, so the sooner you drop it the better. Gracious, girl! Turn off the waterworks! Be thankful Gibbie didn't scent out your romance, that's all! If the Bumble knew you'd put that card inside that strawberry basket, she'd pack up your boxes and send you home by the next train. Crystal clear, she would!"

For at least a week after this, Cynthia Greene suffered a chastened life, and shed enough tears to make her pocket-handkerchiefs a conspicuous item in her laundry bag. She began to wish that the names of Augustus and Algernon could be expunged from the English language. Her Form mates hinted that she might receive a present of Debrett's Peerage on her next birthday. If she missed a ball at tennis, or slacked a little at cricket, somebody was sure to enquire: "Thinking of him?" She found a picture of two turtle-doves attached to the pin-cushion on her dressing-table, and drawings of hearts and darts were scrawled by unknown hands inside her textbooks. Moreover, she lived in constant dread lest somebody should have really found the card inside the strawberry basket, and should send an answer by post, which would fall into the hands of Miss Beasley. The prospect of expulsion from the school haunted her.

Fortunately for her, nobody troubled to notice her request for correspondence, the basket of strawberries having probably found its way to some snuffy individual at a greengrocer's stall, who took no interest in the loneliness of blue-eyed, fair-haired damsels. As for her volume of Poems of Love, Hermie confiscated it until the end of the term, and recommended a Manual of Cricket instead.



CHAPTER XV

On the River

Miss Gibbs was fast arriving at the disappointing conclusion that patriotism costs dearly: in other words, that if you take away eighteen girls to do strawberry picking, you cannot expect them, immediately on their return, to settle down again into ordinary routine and everyday habits. An atmosphere of camp life seemed to pervade the place, a free-and-easy, rollicking spirit that was not at all in accordance with Miss Beasley's ideas of propriety. The Principal, who had never altogether approved of the week on the land, considered that the school was demoralized, and made a firm effort to restore discipline. The monitresses, several of whom had been guilty of whistling in the passages, were summoned separately for private interviews in the study, whence they issued somewhat subdued and abashed; and the rank and file, by means of punishment lessons and fines, were made to feel a wholesome respect for the iron hand of the law.

Miss Beasley and Miss Gibbs agreed that the Fifth Form gave the largest amount of trouble. It was here that most of the mischief fermented and fizzed out on unexpected occasions. At present the Mystic Seven, who beforetime had offered a united front to the world, were suffering from a series of internal quarrels. The four who had been to camp assumed an air of superiority over the three who had not, which led to unpleasantness. Naturally it was annoying to Ardiune, Valentine, and Fauvette to hear constant allusions to people they had not met, and to thrilling experiences in which they had not participated. They sulked or flew out as the occasion might be.

"I believe you're just making up half the things to stuff us!" sneered Ardiune.

"Indeed we're not!" flared Morvyth. "Every word we've told you is gospel truth, as you'd have found out if you'd come and done your bit for your country!"

"D'you mean to call me a slacker?"

"Certainly not, but it's no use ostriching about things. You either went and picked strawberries, or you didn't"

"You know I wasn't allowed to go! You mean wretch!"

"I know nothing at all about it."

"Well, I've told you a dozen times."

"I really can't listen, child, to all the things you tell me!"

"Then I shan't take the trouble to speak to you again!"

With Ardiune and Morvyth on terms of distant iciness, Valentine and Katherine constantly sparring over trifles, Fauvette preserving an attitude of martyred dignity, and Aveline, out of sheer perversity, striking up a friendship with Maudie Heywood, matters were not very brisk in the Fifth.

"I'm getting just about fed up with you all!" said Raymonde irritably. "I never saw such a set! How can we have any fun, when everybody's grousing with everyone else? For goodness' sake, buck up! I've a blossomy idea in my head! Yes, I have, honest!"

Signs of interest manifested themselves on the faces of her companions. Raymonde's ideas were always worth listening to. Aveline stopped yawning, Morvyth desisted from kicking her geography book round the floor, and Fauvette snapped the clasp of her bracelet, and sat bolt upright.

"We're hanging upon your words, if you'll condescend to explain, O Queen!" she vouchsafed.

Raymonde bowed, with heels together and hands back, like the star of a pierrot troupe.

"Don't mensh! Glad to do my bit!" she replied. "Well, my notion's this. It's the Bumble's birthday on Friday!"

"As if every girl in the school didn't know that!" chafed Ardiune impatiently. "Haven't we all given our shillings towards her present ages ago? Really, Ray, what more chestnuts are you going to bring forth?"

"Don't be in such a hurry, my good child! I haven't finished yet. I should have thought you could have trusted your grannie by this time. My remark, though no doubt stale, was only one of those preliminary announcements with which a chairman always has to begin—like 'Glad to see so many bright young faces collected here', or 'Gratified to be allowed the pleasure of saying a few words to you'. But don't look so scared, I'm not going to prose on like a real chairman at a prize-giving; I'm going to get to the point quick. Being the Bumble's birthday—if you grin, Ardiune Coleman-Smith, I'll pinch you!—Being, as I have observed, the Bumble's birthday, it seems only right and fit and proper that the other bees in the hive should buzz in sympathy, and take a holiday, and go and sip nectar. Let us copy Nature's methods!"

"Copy Nature, by all means," sneered Ardiune, "only don't suggest that bumble-bees live in hives, or you'll be a little out of it!"

"Oh, you're so literal! It's only for the sake of the metaphor. Mayn't I talk about 'the busy bee' and 'the shining hour'?"

"For pity's sake, don't get flowery!" snapped Morvyth.

"'How doth the little busy bee Delight to bark and bite; She gathers honey all the day, And eats it up at night!'"

misquoted Aveline with a giggle.

"Stop frivolling, and let me get to my point!" commanded Raymonde. "For the third time, let me remind you that it is the Bumble's birthday on Friday, and that it's only decent and seemly and becoming that the school should do something to celebrate so joyous an occasion."

"Stop a minute!" interrupted Katherine. "Are we rejoicing that she came into this world to gladden us, or are we counting one more year off towards the time when we'll have done with her? I'm not quite clear which."



"Whichever you like, so long as you look congratulatory and happy-in-our-school-days and love-our-teachers, and all the rest of it. What you want is to spread the butter on thick, then, when there's an atmosphere of smiles, ask for a holiday and suggest the river. Yes, my children, I said the river. You didn't misunderstand me; I speak quite clearly."

"Whew! She'll never let us! Might as well ask for the moon. Why, our river expedition was knocked off after that little business of the Zepp scare!"

"All the more reason why we should have it now."

"Ray, you're the limit!"

"Hope I am, if it means getting what we want. I propose a deputation to the Bumble, to state that the gratitude and devotion of the hive can only work itself off on water. Yes, Ardiune Coleman-Smith, I did say 'the hive', my sense of poetry being more highly developed than my love of exact science. You needn't lift your eyebrows, it's not a pretty habit."

"Who's going to make the deputation?" asked Fauvette.

"You, for one. You're our strongest point. You look naturally affectionate and clinging and docile, and ready-to-be-taught-if-taken-the-right-way, and easily led, and all the rest of it. You'll burble forth something pretty about wanting to have an expedition with our Principal in our midst, and mention what a wet day it was last year, and how disappointed we all were."

"Look here, I'm not going to do all the talking, so don't think!"

"Oh, we'll support you! But I'm just giving you a few leading lines to work upon. We'll take Maudie Heywood with us; she got ninety-five marks out of a hundred last week, which ought to go for something!"

"Then Magsie and Muriel had better come too. It won't do to let the Bumble think the whole idea has originated with us."

"Right you are! The more pattern pupils we can scrape together, the better."

At five o'clock the deputation presented itself at the door of the study, and was received graciously by the Principal, though she declined to commit herself to an immediate answer, promising to think the matter over and to let them know later on.

"Which means she daren't say 'yes' till she's asked leave from Gibbie!" declared Raymonde, when the delegates were out of ear-shot of the sanctum. "Fauvette, child, you did splendidly! I'd give five thousand pounds to have your big, pathetic, innocent blue eyes! They always bowl everybody over. I envy you at your first grown-up dance. You'll have your programme full in five minutes, like the heroine of a novel."

Raymonde's supposition was not altogether mistaken, for that evening, after the school had gone to bed, Miss Beasley, Miss Gibbs, and Mademoiselle sat up talking over the proposed expedition. Miss Gibbs vetoed the idea entirely.

"The girls have not been behaving well enough to justify any such indulgence," she maintained impressively. "Their conduct on the stairs yesterday was disgraceful. Better make them stick to their lessons."

Mademoiselle, whose mental scales always tipped naturally towards the side of pleasure, thought it was a beautiful idea of the dear girls to want to give their headmistress a fete on her anniversary. So sweet to go upon the water, and while the weather was so pleasant! It would be an event to be remembered for ever in their young lives, when sterner lessons might be forgotten; at which remark Miss Gibbs sniffed, but restrained herself. Miss Beasley vibrated for some minutes between the practical and the ideal aspects thus presented to her, but finally decided in favour of the latter.

"It seems ungracious to refuse when they wish it to be my birthday treat," she said rather apologetically. "The poor children would be so disappointed. We might make a clear mark-book a necessary condition."

"Yes," Miss Gibbs grudgingly conceded. "They'll miss their Latin preparation that evening," she added.

"And their French," sighed Mademoiselle. "But what will you?" with a little shrug. "It is not every day that our Principal makes a birthday! As for me, I am glad I bought my new sunshade."

The announcement of the forthcoming water excursion was received with great rejoicings. Ever since the beginning of the term the school had thirsted to go upon the river. They had been taken for an occasional walk along its banks, and had greatly envied the young men and maidens who might be seen punting up its willowy reaches.

"That's what I'm going to do directly I'm grown up!" Fauvette had confided to her chums. "I'll buy a white boating costume, exactly like that girl's with the auburn hair, and lean against blue cushions while HE rows. He'll have to have brown eyes, but I've not quite decided yet whether he shall have a moustache or not. On the whole I think I'll have him clean shaven."

"And tall," prompted Raymonde, to whom Fauvette's prospective romances were a source of perennial interest.

"Yes, tall, of course, with several military crosses. He's the one I'm going to like the best, though there'll be others. They'll all want me to go and row with them—but I shan't. I don't mean to flirt."

"N—no!" conceded Raymonde a little dubiously. "Don't you think, though, it might be rather good for him not to let him see you were too keen? Of course I don't want you to break his heart, but——"

Fauvette shook her yellow curls.

"It's not right to trifle with people's hearts," she decided, with all the authority of an experienced reader of magazine stories. "If you pretend you don't care for them, they drive their aeroplanes recklessly and smash up, or expose themselves to the enemy's fire, or get submarined, before you've had time to tell them you didn't really mean to be cold. I'm not going in for misunderstandings."

Raymonde glanced at her admiringly. With those blue eyes and fluffy curls it all seemed so possible. She felt that she should look forward to her chum's inevitable engagement almost as much as Fauvette herself. It would be as good as a Shakespeare play, or one of the best pieces on the kinema. But these rosy prospects were still in the dim and distant future; the present was entirely prosaic and unromantic. Whatever punting excursions Fauvette might enjoy in years to come, this particular water party would be quite unsentimental, conducted under the watchful eyes of Miss Beasley and Miss Gibbs, with boatmen well over military age to do the rowing. For the first time for four years the Principal's birthday morning was gloriously fine. The pupils placed the usual bouquet of flowers opposite her seat at the breakfast table, together with a handsomely bound volume of Ruskin's Stones of Venice. She thanked them with her customary surprise and gratitude, and assured them, as she did annually, what a pleasure it was to her to receive so kind a token of their esteem.

This preliminary business being over, breakfast and classes proceeded as usual, a more than ordinary atmosphere of decorum pervading the establishment, for Miss Gibbs had announced that the afternoon's excursion depended upon the mark-book, and the girls knew that she would keep her word. The veriest slackers paid attention to lessons that morning, and even Raymonde for once did not receive an order mark.

Lunch was served early, and directly the meal was finished all the girls flew upstairs to change their attire. During hot weather the school was not kept strictly to the brown serge uniform, and the girls blossomed out into linen costumes, or white drill skirts and muslin blouses. For the credit of the Grange they made careful toilettes that afternoon; Fauvette in particular looked ravishingly pretty in a pale-blue sailor suit with a white collar and silk tie. She made quite a sensation as she came down the stairs.

The mistresses had also turned out suitably dressed for the occasion: Miss Beasley was dignified and matronly in blue voile with a motor veil; Miss Gibbs, who intended to row, was in practical blouse and short skirt; while Mademoiselle was a dream of white muslin, chiffon ruffles, and pink parasol.

It was about half an hour's walk to the river, down shady lanes and across lately cleared hayfields. There was a little landing-place close to the weir, with a boat-house, a refreshment room, and rows of benches and tables under the trees, where visitors could sit and drink tea or lemonade. Miss Beasley had engaged boats beforehand, and these were drawn up ready, with their boatmen, a rheumatic and elderly set, waiting about smoking surreptitious pipes among the willows. There was a great deal of arranging before everybody was settled, and many injunctions to sit still, and not to change places, or to grab at water-lilies, or lean too far over the side, or play any other foolish or dangerous prank likely to upset the equilibrium of the boat and endanger the lives of its occupants. At last, however, the whole party was stowed safely away, and the little procession set off up the river.

All agreed that it was quite delightful. The banks were covered with trees, and tall reeds, and masses of purple willow herb, and agrimony, and yellow ragwort, which were reflected in the dark waters of quiet pools. In the centre the sunshine made little gleaming, glinting ripples like leaping bars of gold, and here and there patches of water-lilies spread their white chalices open to the sky. There was a delicious breeze, most grateful after the hot walk across the hayfields, and the smooth gliding motion was ideal. The girls trailed their hands in the river, and dabbed their faces, and said it was topping, and began to sing boat songs which they had learnt at school, and which sounded very pretty and appropriate to an accompaniment of oars and lapping water.

The great event of the afternoon was to be a picnic tea. Hampers of provisions had been brought, and Miss Beasley proposed that they should land at one of the numerous little islands, light a fire, and boil their big kettles. The selection of the particular island was, of course, in her discretion, and she had a conference with her old boatman on the subject.

"Island? I knows of the very one to suit you. I've taken parties there before, and there's a good spot to land, and a place to tie the boats to, which there isn't on every one of them islands. It's just an hour's row up from the weir, and less time to go back because of the current."

After gliding onward for what seemed to the girls all too short a space of time, but no doubt appeared considerably longer to their rheumatic rowers, the island in question was at last reached. It looked most attractive with the willows and bulrushes and tangly interior. A tree-stump made quite a good landing-place, and everyone managed to scramble out successfully without planting a foot in the water. The first business was to explore, and to hunt up sufficient wood for a camp fire. Luckily the weather had been dry, so that all available sticks would be suitable for fuel. The girls dispersed in various directions, on the understanding that they were to reassemble when Miss Beasley blew her whistle as a signal.

"I call this a great stunt!" observed Morvyth, as the Mystic Seven moved off in company.

"Even Gibbie's in spirits, bless her!" murmured Aveline fatuously.

"So she is. But all the same, I'd rather wander off alone than be tied to her apron-strings; so come along, quick! Remember you're to earn your living by picking up sticks, so don't slack!"

"Cheero, old sport! Don't get raggy!"

Pioneers were penetrating the virgin forest on all sides. From right and left came squeals, giggles, or chuckles, as the girls investigated the capacities of the island. Some kept to the banks and cut dry reeds to make the bonfire burn quickly, while others were in quest of more solid fuel.

"If we'd only had a hatchet or a saw," sighed Raymonde, "we might have cut off some quite nice logs. There really isn't much to pick up on the ground."

"Wish we could take that rotten tree along with us," murmured Morvyth, pointing to a decayed old stump that stood upright with two withered boughs like scraggy arms outstretched on either side of it.

"Too big a job, my child; but we might break off one of those branches," opined Raymonde. "No, I know we can't reach it from below, that's self-evident. Your humble servant's going to climb. Here, Ave, you bluebottle, give me a leg up!"

"Oh! Suppose it topples over with you! Don't, Ray!"

"Bunkum! It won't! I'm not scared, thanks!"



As a matter of fact, Raymonde knew perfectly well that she was going to perform rather a risky feat. She did it because she was in a don't-care frame of mind, also because she had quarrelled with Morvyth earlier in the afternoon, and wished to astonish her. Morvyth was standing now, elevating her eyebrows, and looking as if she did not believe that Raymonde would really carry out her boast, which was all the more reason for the latter to put speech into action.

Aveline obediently rendered the required assistance, and with a swing and a clutch Raymonde managed to scramble up the trunk to the place where the boughs forked. One of these was in a particularly crumbling and decrepit condition, and she thought that with a strong effort she might succeed in breaking it off. It was not an easy matter to balance herself on the fork and stretch out to pull at the branch.

"You'll be over in a sec.!" called Morvyth.

"Bow-wow!" responded Raymonde airily.

She leaned a little farther along, seized the branch with both hands, and gave a mighty tug. The result was more than she anticipated. The poor old tree had reached a stage of such interior decay that it was really only kept together by the bark. The violence of the wrench upset it to its foundations; it tottered, swayed, and suddenly descended. The girls picked up Raymonde out of a cloud of dust and a mass of touchwood. By all strict rules of retribution she ought to have been hurt, but as a matter of fact she was only a little bruised, considerably choked with pulverized wood, and very much astonished. When she recovered her presence of mind, she set to work to break off pieces from the boughs, which were just exactly what was wanted for the bonfire fuel.

"Don't tell Gibbie!" she besought the others.

"Right-o! Mum's the word!" her chums assured her. "Bless its little heart, we wouldn't get it into a scrape! Don't think it of us!"

Miss Beasley's signal sounded at this critical moment, so the Mystic Seven filed off like vestal virgins to feed the fire which Miss Gibbs, with her accustomed energy, had already lighted. Their contribution of wood was so substantial that it drew comment from the rest of the party, but they received the congratulations with due modesty, and did not divulge the source of their supply. Most of the girls were too much interested in proclaiming their own adventures to care to listen to anybody else's, and the mistresses were busy watching the kettles. It seemed like camp life over again to be sitting in a circle, drinking tea out of enamelled mugs, and eating thick pieces of bread and butter. Miss Beasley had provided a large home-made plum birthday cake, with a sixpence baked in it, the acquisition of which was naturally a matter of keen interest to each several girl, until the lucky slice fell to the lot of Cynthia Greene, who fondled the coveted coin tenderly.

"I'll have a hole bored through it, and wear it on my chain always, in memory of you, dear Miss Beasley!" she declared in emphatic tones.

"Little sycophant!" sneered Morvyth enviously.

"She ought to give it to the soldiers!" snapped Raymonde.

But Miss Gibbs was rattling a row of mugs together as a delicate hint that the feast was finished, and the Principal was consulting her watch, and calling to the boatmen to make ready. The monitresses swept all remaining comestibles into the baskets, stamped out the fire, emptied the kettles, and proclaimed the camping-ground left in due order. One by one the boats started on their way down the river, drifting easily now with the current, and leaving long trails of ripples behind them. The sun was sinking low in the west, and there was a lovely golden light on the water, the shadows on the willowy shore were deep and mysterious, a kingfisher flashed along the bank like a living jewel. The spirits of the school, already risen to fermenting point, effervesced into stunt songs composed on the emergency of the moment, and passed on from boat to boat.

"For we've had such a jolly good day-ay-ay, As we only get once in a way-ay-ay! I can tell you it was prime, Oh! we've had a topping time, And we wish a little longer we could stay-ay-ay! With a rum-tum-tum And a rum-tiddley-um, We will make the river hum; So come, come, come, Don't be glum, glum, glum! But pass the stunt along and just be gay-ay-ay!"



CHAPTER XVI

Marooned

Amongst other cardinal virtues the practice of philanthropy was zealously cultivated at Marlowe Grange. The girls made garments for the local hospital, contributed towards a creche for soldiers' children, and on Sunday mornings put pennies into a missionary box. Charity is apt to wax a trifle cold, however, when you never see the object of your doles; and though ample statistics were provided about the creche babies, and literature was sent describing the Chinese orphans and little Hindoo widows, these pieces of paper information did not quite supply the place of a real live protege. It was felt to be a decided asset to the school when old Wilkinson loomed upon their horizon. The girls discovered him accidentally, engaged in the meritorious occupation of carrying his own water from the well. He had opened a gate for them, and had touched his forelock with the grace and fervour of a mediaeval retainer. His pink cheeks, watery blue eyes, snow-white hair, and generally picturesque personality made the more enthusiastic members of the art class anxious to paint his portrait. It was ascertained that he subsisted upon an old-age pension of five shillings a week, and resided in a romantic-looking, creeper-covered cottage just between the Grange and the village. To visit old Wilkinson, and present him with potatoes from their own little war-gardens, became an immediate institution among the girls. There was no doubt about his gratitude. All was fish that came to his net, and he accepted anything and everything, from tea and tobacco to books which he could not read, with the same toothless smile and showers of blessings. If, as Miss Gibbs suggested, his cottage would have been improved by a little more soap and water, and a good stiff broom, that did not really matter, as he was generally sitting outside on a bench beside a beehive, with a black-and-white Manx cat upon his knee, and a tame jackdaw hanging in a wicker cage by the window, exactly like a coloured frontispiece in a Christmas number of a magazine.

It was a tremendous blow to the school when the news was circulated that old Wilkinson had received notice to quit his cottage. The girls were filled with indignation against his landlord. The fact that that long-suffering farmer had received no rent for the last six months, and badly required the cottage as a billet for lady workers on the land, went for nothing in the estimation of the Grange inmates. Wilkinson, so they considered, was a persecuted old man, about to be evicted from his home, and a very proper object for sympathy and consideration.

"Something's got to be done for him—that's flat!" declared Raymonde. "You don't suppose we can allow him to be taken to the workhouse? It's unthinkable! He'd break his poor old heart. And we'd miss him so, too. Won't the landlord change his mind and let him stay?"

"Miss Gibbs went to see him about it," vouchsafed Aveline agitatedly, "and she came back and shook her head, and said she couldn't but feel that the man was only doing his duty, and women were wanted on the land, and must have a place to live in, and someone had to be sacrificed."

"He's a victim of the war!" sighed Morvyth. "One of those outside victims who don't get Victoria Crosses and military funerals."

"He hasn't come to a funeral yet!" bristled Raymonde. "The old boy looks good for another ten years or so. Don't you go ordering tombstones and wreaths!"

"I wasn't going to. How you snap me up! All the same, I heard Miss Beasley tell Miss Gibbs that if he has to go to the workhouse it will be enough to kill him."

"Then we've absolutely got to keep him alive! Won't anybody in the village take him in?"

"No, they're all full up, and say they can't do with him, and he hasn't any relations of his own except a drunken granddaughter in a town slum."

Raymonde sighed dramatically.

"I'm going to think, and think, and think, and think, until I find some way of helping him," she announced. "It'll be hard work, because I hate thinking, but I'll do it, you'll see!"

Raymonde was abstracted that evening, both at preparation and at supper. In the dormitory she put aside all conversation with a firm: "Don't talk to me, I'm thinking!" She borrowed Fauvette's bottle of eau-de-Cologne, and went to bed with a bandage tied round her head to assist her cogitations.

"Of course I shan't go to sleep," she assured the others. "I must just lie awake until the idea comes to me. Old Wilkinson's on my mind."

"Glad he's not on mine," gurgled Aveline, settling herself comfortably on her pillow. "Couldn't you leave him until to-morrow?"

"Certainly not! I shall wake you up and tell you when my idea arrives."

"Help!" murmured her schoolmate, half-asleep.

That night, when the whole household at the Grange was soundly wrapped in slumber, Aveline was suddenly brought back from a jumbled dream of punts, cows, and Latin exercises by feeling somebody shaking her persistently and urgently.

"What's the matter?" she asked, sitting up in bed. "Is it Zepps?"

"Sh—sh! Don't wake the whole dormitory, you goose!" came Raymonde's voice in a whisper. "Remember Gibbie's door's wide open, can't you? I've just got my idea."

Aveline promptly lay down again and closed her eyes.

"Won't it keep till to-morrow?" she murmured.

"Certainly not! You've got to hear it now. Move further on—I'm coming into bed with you. That's better!"

"But I'm so sleepy,"—rather crossly.

"Don't be horrid! You might wake up for once, and listen!"

"I am listening."

"Well, I'll tell you, then. I said to myself when I began to think: 'What's wanted is a home for old Wilkinson!' and just now it suddenly flashed into my head: 'We'll make him one for ourselves!'"

"Where?"

"That's the point. The Bumble says she can't have him at the Grange—Hermie suggested that—and every place one knows of seems to belong to somebody who wants it—all except the island!"

"What island? The one on the river?"

"No, no! Not so far as that. The island on our moat, I mean. We'll build a little house for him, and he can have it all for his very own."

"Wouldn't it—wouldn't it be rather difficult to build?" gasped Aveline, dazed at the magnitude of her chum's idea.

"Oh, not impossible! There are heaps and heaps of railway sleepers down in the wood heap, and we could pile them up into a hut. It's only what people do out in Canada. Gibbie's always telling us tales of women who emigrate to the backwoods, and build colonies of log-cabins. Ave, you're not going to sleep again, are you?"

"N—no!" came a rather languid voice; "but how'll we ever get to the island?"

"We'll make a raft. We'll do it to-morrow, you and I. Don't tell any of the others yet. Morvyth's been so nasty lately, I'm fed up with her, and Ardiune would only laugh. When we've got the thing really started, we'll take them over and let them help, but not till then. Will you promise to keep it an absolute secret?"

"I'll promise anything you like"—wearily—"if you'll only go back to your own bed."

"All right, I'm off now—but just remember you're not to mention it to a single soul."

Raymonde, next day, was tremendously full of her new scheme. It savoured of romance. Old Wilkinson would be a combination of a mediaeval hermit and Robinson Crusoe, and in imagination she already saw him installed in a picturesque log-cabin, with his Manx cat and his tame jackdaw for company. Naturally the first step was to take possession of the island. It lay in the middle of the moat, a reedy little domain covered with willows and bushes. It had never yet been explored by the school, for the simple reason that there had been no means of gaining access to it. The water was too deep for wading, and Miss Beasley had utterly vetoed the suggestion of procuring a punt. Raymonde had cast longing eyes at it many times before, but not until now had she made any real effort to reach it. She thought out her plans carefully during the day—considerably to the detriment of her lessons—and when afternoon recreation time came round she linked Aveline's arm firmly in hers, and led her to the lumber yard. Here, piled up behind the barn, was a large stack of wood stored for fuel—old railway sleepers, bits of broken fencing, packing-cases, tumbled-down trees, and brushwood.

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