"What we want to make first," she announced, "is a raft. I wonder it never struck me to make it before!"
Now rafts sound quite simple and easy when you read about them in books of adventure. Shipwrecked mariners on coral islands in the Pacific always lash a few logs together with incredible speed, and perform wonderful journeys through boiling surf to rescue kegs of provisions and other useful commodities which they observe floating about on the waves. The waters of the moat, being tranquil, and overgrown with duckweed, would surely prove more hospitable than the surging ocean, and ought to support a raft, of however amateur a description. Nevertheless, when they began to look round, it was more difficult than they had expected to find just the right material. The railway sleepers were too large and heavy, and the fence poles were of unequal lengths. Moreover, there was nothing with which to lash them together, for when Raymonde visited the orchard, intending to purloin a clothes-line, she found the housemaid there, hanging up a row of pantry towels, and was obliged to beat a hurried retreat. After much hunting about, the girls at last discovered in a corner exactly what they wanted. It was the door of a demolished shed, made of stout planking, strongly nailed and braced, and in fairly sound condition. Nothing could have been better for their purpose. After first doing a little scouting, to make sure that the rest of the school were safely at the other side of the garden, they dragged it down to the edge of the moat, returning to fetch two small saplings to act as punt-poles.
"For goodness' sake, let's be quick and get off before anybody comes round and catches us!" panted Raymonde.
"Are you absolutely certain it's safe?" quavered Aveline dubiously.
Raymonde looked at her scornfully.
"Aveline Kerby, if you don't feel yourself up to this business, please back out of it at once, and I'll go and fetch Morvyth instead. She may be a blighter in some things, but she doesn't funk!"
"No more do I," declared Aveline, suddenly assuming an air of dignified abandon, reminiscent of the heroes of coral-island stories. "I'm ready to brave anything, especially for the sake of old Wilkinson. Don't tip the thing so hard at your end! You've made me trap my fingers!"
They launched their craft from the water-garden, treading ruthlessly on Linda's irises and Hermie's cherished forget-me-nots. It seemed to float all right, so they crawled on, and squatted on the cross-beams on either side of it to preserve its balance. A good push with their poles sent them well out on to the moat. It was really a delightful sensation sailing amongst the duckweed and arrow-head leaves, although their shoes and skirts got wet from the water which oozed up between the planks. The raft behaved splendidly, and, propelled by the poles, made quite a steady passage. They had soon crossed the piece of water, and scrambled out upon the island. It was a rather overgrown, brambly little domain, and to penetrate its fastnesses proved a scratchy performance, resulting in a long rent down the front of Raymonde's skirt, and several tears in Aveline's muslin blouse, to say nothing of wounds on wrists and ankles. There was quite a clearing in the middle, with soft, mossy grass and clumps of hemp agrimony, and actually a small apple-tree with nine apples upon it. They were green and very sour, but the girls each sampled one, with a kind of feeling that by so doing they were taking formal possession of the territory, though, with Paradise for an analogy, it should have been just the reverse.
"We'll have the log-cabin exactly here," said Raymonde, munching abstractedly. "It'll face the sunset, and he can sit and watch the glowing west, and hear the evening bells, and—and——"
"Smoke his pipe," suggested Aveline unromantically. "He generally seems most grateful of all when one gives him tobacco."
"We shall be able to see him sitting there," continued Raymonde, in her most meditative mood. "There'll be a rose-tree planted beside the door, and nasturtiums and other thingumbobs for the bees. It'll make a beautiful end to his declining years."
"Yes," agreed Aveline, suppressing a yawn. She was not so enthusiastic over the scheme as her chum, and her apple had been much too sour to be really enjoyed. Raymonde sat twining pieces of grass round her finger; her eyes were dreamy, and she hummed "Those Evening Bells," which the singing class had learnt only the week before.
At that identical moment the clang of a very different bell disturbed the echoes. The girls sprang to their feet.
"Prep.!" they gasped in consternation.
They had absolutely no idea it was so late. Time had simply flown. They must get back immediately, and even then might expect to lose order marks. Regardless of scratches, they scurried through the brambles to the place where they had left their raft. To their horror it was gone! They had forgotten to anchor it, and it had floated out into the middle of the moat.
This was indeed a predicament! They looked at each other aghast.
"We're marooned, that's what it is!" stammered Aveline. "Raymonde, you're the silliest idiot I've ever met in the course of my life!"
"Well, I like that!"
"Can't help it—it's the truth! Whatever did you bring me out here for, on such a wild-goose chase?"
"Why, you wanted to come!"
"I didn't! You've landed me in a horrible scrape. I've been late for prep. twice already this week, and Gibbie gave me enough jaw-wag last time, so what she'll say this time, goodness knows! How are we ever going to get back?"
Raymonde shook her head and whistled. She might have attempted to defend herself, but Aveline by this time had begun to sob hysterically, and she knew that arguments were useless. The prospects of immediate rescue certainly appeared doubtful. Everyone would be indoors for preparation. No doubt they would be missed, and probably a monitress might be sent in quest of them, but the house would be searched first, and then the barns and garden; and it was quite problematical whether it would enter into anybody's head to walk to the edge of the moat, and look across towards the island.
"I suppose you can't swim?" asked Aveline, choking back her sobs, and dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief.
"No; only a little bit when somebody holds me up. Whoever would have thought of that wretched raft floating off in that fashion? It's too sickening!"
"Don't you think we'd better give a good shout?"
The girls put their united lung power into the loudest halloo of which they were capable, but it only scared a blackbird in the orchard, and provoked no human response. They sat down in a place where they could be best seen from the mainland, and waited. There were too many brambles for comfort, and the midges were biting badly. Raymonde began to wonder whether, after all, the island were as ideal a situation for a residence as she had supposed. Some lines from a parody on one of Rogers's poems flashed into her mind:
"So damp my cot beside the rill, The beehive fails to soothe my ear";
"Around my ivy-covered porch Earwigs and snails are ever crawling."
"It mightn't be just the best place in the world for rheumatism," she decided, "and probably there'd be just heaps of snails and slugs."
"Shall we shout again?" suggested Aveline forlornly.
The chums called, whistled, halloed, and cooeed until they were hoarse, but not a soul took the slightest notice. Time, which had sped so rapidly during their first twenty minutes on the island, now crawled on laggard wings. After what appeared to them an absolutely interminable period, but which was in reality about an hour and a half, the familiar figure of Hermie Graveson suddenly appeared on the mainland close to the water-garden. Raymonde and Aveline started up, and emitted yells that would have done credit to a pair of Zulu warriors on the war-path. Hermie waved frantically, shouted something they could not hear, and ran back towards the house. In a few minutes she returned with Miss Gibbs. That worthy lady picked up her skirts and advanced gingerly to the extreme limit of the stones that bordered the water-garden. She put her hands to her mouth to form a speaking-trumpet, and bawled a communication of which the marooned ones could only catch such fragments as "How ... get ... doing ..."
On the presumption that it was an enquiry into their means of locomotion, they pointed sadly to the floating raft. Miss Beasley now came hurrying up, surveyed the situation, and also attempted to converse, but with no better success. After an agitated colloquy with Miss Gibbs she retired.
"D'you think they'll have to leave us here for the night?" fluttered Aveline anxiously.
"Don't know. It looks like it, unless anyone can swim!" returned Raymonde, with what stoicism she could muster.
"Perhaps they'll hire a cart to the river, and fetch up a punt?"
"It'll take hours to do that!"
The prospect of supper and bed seemed to be retreating further and further into the dim and faraway distance. Aveline remembered that it was the evening for stewed pears and custard, and tears dripped down her cheeks on to her torn blouse.
"Oh! brace up, can't you?" snapped Raymonde. "It gives me spasms to hear you sniff!"
Aveline was bursting into an indignant retort, when her companion nudged her and pointed to the mainland.
Mackenzie, the old gardener, was coming across the orchard carrying on his shoulder a very large wash-tub. The cook followed him, bearing a clothes-prop.
"They've the best brains in the house! He's going to rescue us!" exclaimed Raymonde ecstatically.
The prisoners on the island watched with deep interest while Mackenzie launched his shallop, clambered in, and seizing the clothes-prop from Cook, pushed off cautiously. His craft was very low in the water and looked particularly wobbly, and they were terribly afraid it would upset. In spite of their anxiety they could not help seeing the humorous side of the episode, and they choked with laughter as the tub gyrated and bobbed about, and the old man clutched frantically at his pole. He made first of all for the floating raft, secured it with a piece of rope, and dragged it to the island. The girls straightened their faces and welcomed him with polite expressions of gratitude.
He received their thanks ungraciously—perhaps he had seen them laughing—pushed the raft to a spot where they could board it, and remarked tartly:
"Ye deserve to stop where ye are the night, in my opeenion. Get on with ye now, and paddle yerselves back. Giving a body all this trouble—and me with my leg bad, too!"
It was possibly a satisfaction to Mackenzie that Miss Beasley shared his views as to the culpability of the delinquents and the necessity of giving them their deserts. They were summoned to the study after prayers.
"What did she say?" whispered Ardiune, Morvyth, and Katherine, as they escorted the crestfallen pair upstairs to the dormitory.
"All recreation stopped for three days, and learn the whole of Gray's Elegy!" choked the sinners.
"Gray's Elegy! You'll never do it! Oh, you poor chickens! The Bumble can be a perfect beast sometimes! I say, what was it like on the island?"
"Top-hole!" responded Raymonde, as she mopped her eyes.
The very next day came the news that the farmer had decided to run up a number of corrugated-iron hutments in one of his own fields to accommodate his lady workers, and that the Squire had promised to pay the rent of old Wilkinson's cottage so long as he was left there undisturbed. Everybody felt it was a happy solution of the difficulty.
"After all, the island might have been rather an awkward place for him," admitted Raymonde. "I don't know how he'd have got backwards and forwards without a drawbridge."
"Unless he'd used a wash-tub," giggled Aveline. "I shan't forget Mackenzie in a hurry! It was the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life. Talk of people looking sour! He might have been eating sloes. Cook's taken it personally, I'm afraid. I asked her for some whitening this morning to clean my regimental button, and she scowled and wouldn't let me have any—nasty, stingy old thing!"
"It's a weary world!" sighed Raymonde. "Especially when you've got to learn the whole of Gray's Elegy by heart!"
The Fossil Hunters
If Miss Beasley had been asked what was her most difficult problem in the management of her school, she would probably have replied the arrangement of the practising time-table. With the exception of four, all the girls learned music, and therefore, for a period of forty-five minutes daily, each of these twenty-two pupils must do execution on the piano. There were five instruments at the Grange, and, except during the hours of morning lessons and meals, they hardly ever seemed to be silent. At seven o'clock they began with scales, arpeggios, and studies, and passed during the day through a selection of pieces, classical and modern, in such various degrees of playing, strumming, and thumping as might be calculated to wear out their hammers and snap their strings in double quick time. About half of the girls learned from Mademoiselle, and the remainder had lessons from Mr. Browne, a visiting master who came twice a week to the school. He was a short little man, with sandy hair, and a bald patch in the middle of it, and a Vandyke beard that was turning rather grey. He was himself an excellent musician, and sometimes the performances of his pupils offended his sensitive ear to the point of exasperation, and he would storm at them in a gurgling voice, blinking his short-sighted hazel eyes very rapidly, and wrinkling up his forehead till it looked like squeezed india-rubber. It was on record that he had once hit Lois Barlow a hard crack over the knuckles with his fountain-pen, whereupon she wept—not so much from pain as from injured feelings—and he had apologized in quite a gentlemanly fashion, and picked up the music that in his burst of temper he had flung upon the floor. In spite of his acknowledged irritability, all the girls who learned from him gave themselves airs of slight superiority over those who only learned from Mademoiselle. Though strict, he was an inspiring teacher, and when, as occasionally happened, he would push his pupil from the stool, and seat himself in her place to show the proper rendering of some passage, the music that followed was like a lovely liquid dream of sound.
Professor Marshall also attended the school twice a week to lecture on literature and natural science. He was a much greater general favourite than Mr. Browne; everybody appreciated his affable manner and bland smile, and the little jokes with which he punctuated his remarks.
The girls always felt that it made a change to have anybody coming in from the outside world. The one disadvantage of a boarding-school is that mistresses and pupils, shut up together, and seeing one another week in, week out, are rather apt to get on each others' nerves. At a day school the girls take their worries home at four o'clock, and the mental atmosphere has time to clear before nine next morning; but, when there is no home-going until the end of the term, little trifles are sometimes unduly magnified, and a narrow element—the bane of all communities—begins to creep in. To do Miss Beasley justice, she made a great effort to combat this very evil, and to run her school on broad lines. She recognized the necessity of letting the girls mix sometimes with outsiders. In a country place it was impossible to take them to concerts or entertainments, but they occasionally joined the rambles of the County Antiquarian Society or the local Natural History Club.
It occurred to Miss Beasley that it would be an excellent plan to throw open some of Professor Marshall's lectures to residents in the neighbourhood, asking those people who attended to stay to tea afterwards, thus giving her girls an opportunity of acting as hostesses, and entertaining them with conversation. A short course of four lectures on geology was announced, and quite a number of local ladies responded to the invitation. The girls received the news with mixed feelings.
"Rather a jink!" ventured Ardiune. "It'll be queer to see rows of strangers sitting in the lecture room! Did you say we've to give them tea when the Professor's done talking?"
"Yes, and talk to them ourselves too, worse luck! I'm sure I shan't know what to say!" fluttered Aveline.
"Oh, the monitresses will do that part of the business!" decided Raymonde easily. "We'll stand in the background, and just look ladylike and well-mannered, and all the rest of it."
"Will you, my child? Not if the Bumble knows it! She's nuts on this afternoon-tea dodge! (I don't care—I shan't put a penny in the slang box—Hermie isn't here to listen and make me!) Gibbie told me that we're all to act hostesses in turn. We're to be divided into four sets, and each take a time."
"Help! How are you going to divide twenty-six by four? It works out at six and a half. Who's to be the half girl?"
"Oh! They'll make it seven on one afternoon and six the next, I expect."
"That's not fair! It's throwing too much work on those six and not enough on the seven. It's opposed to all the instincts of co-operation and justice which Gibbie has laboured so hard to instil into me."
"Don't see how the Bumble can manage otherwise, unless she chops a girl in half. No, I predict you'll be chosen among a select six, and have to pour out tea and hand cakes with one-sixth extra power laid on, and your conversation carefully modulated to your hearers."
"Please to remember that this is a finishing school!" mocked Ardiune. "Don't on any account shock the neighbourhood by an unseemly exhibition of vulgar slang!"
"It'll slip out, I know, when I'm not thinking," groaned Raymonde.
On the first afternoon of the geological course, an audience of about twenty visitors augmented the usual gathering in the lecture hall. They were accommodated with the best seats, and the school occupied the third and fourth rows. Directly in front of Raymonde sat an elderly lady in a large black hat trimmed with cherries, which bobbed temptingly over the brim. She appeared to take an interest in her surroundings, glanced about the room, and turned a reproving eye on Raymonde, who ventured to whisper to Aveline. With Miss Gibbs hovering in the background with a now-mind-you-keep-up-the-credit-of-the-school expression, the girls hardly dared even to blink, but Aveline managed to write: "What a Tartar in front!" on a slip of paper, and hand it to her chum.
The Professor, bland as ever, was coming into the room and hanging a geological map over the blackboard. He smiled broadly, showing his large white teeth to the uttermost, and, after a few preliminary remarks of welcome to the visitors, plunged into a description of the earth's crust.
All went well for a while; then an untoward incident happened. The lady with the cherries in her hat, who had possibly taken cold, or was affected by the pollen in the flowers upon the table, sneezed violently, not only once, but twice, and even a third time.
"Three's for a wedding! Is it Gibbie?" whispered Raymonde the incorrigible.
Aveline's mental equilibrium was always easily upset. The idea of Miss Gibbs in connection with matrimony was too much for her, and she exploded into a series of painfully suppressed giggles. The more she tried to stop, the more hysterical she grew, especially as her lack of self-control appeared to produce great agitation among the cherries on the black hat in front. It was only by holding her breath till she almost choked that she managed to avoid disgracing herself absolutely.
As Morvyth had predicted, Raymonde was among the hostesses for the afternoon. She rose admirably to the occasion, handed round cakes and bread and butter, and talked sweetly to the guests on a variety of topics. Aveline, also one of the chosen, though less agile in conversation, tried to look "hospitable" and "welcoming," and cultured and pretty-mannered and gracious, and everything else which might be expected from a young lady at a finishing-school.
Miss Gibbs, who was keeping the deportment of the hostesses well under inspection, beamed approval, but spurred them on to fresh efforts.
"See that nobody is neglected," she whispered. "Hand the cakes to that lady who is standing by the piano; and you, Raymonde, take her the cream."
The chums had instinctively avoided the owner of the black hat with the cherries, but thus urged they were bound to fulfil their social obligations. They offered a selection of ginger-nuts and fancy biscuits, and the best silver cream-jug, and murmured some polite nothings on the hackneyed subject of the weather. The lady helped herself, and regarded them with an offended eye.
"I believe you're the two girls who sat behind me during the lecture!" she remarked tartly. "I should like to say that I considered your behaviour disgraceful. It would serve you right if I were to tell your governess."
Overwhelmed with confusion, Raymonde and Aveline beat a hasty retreat.
"Oh, dear! Does she think I was laughing at her?" whispered Aveline. "What must I do? Ought I to go and explain and apologize? I simply daren't!"
"She's a nasty old thing!" returned Raymonde in an indignant undertone. "I hope she won't sneak to Gibbie! You can't explain. I shouldn't go near her."
"Gibbie's working round towards the piano!"
"No, Mrs. Horner's stopped her."
Fortunately for the girls, at this moment Professor Marshall cleared his throat violently, and, obtaining by this signal a temporary respite in the babel of small talk, announced that on the following Saturday afternoon he proposed to lead a party to Littlewood Quarry to examine the geological formation there, and search for fossils. He hoped that all the present company would be able to attend, as the expedition would be of great educational value. The general conversation in the room immediately turned upon geology. The black hat with cherries bore down upon the Professor, and its owner plunged into a lengthy discussion on the flora of the carboniferous period, so apparently absorbing that it left her no opportunity to lodge complaints as to the behaviour of the pupils. The chums, whose social duties were now finished, slipped thankfully away to prep.
"I'm disgusted with the Professor!" groaned Morvyth. "It's too bad of him to take up another of our precious Saturday afternoons with his geology excursion. The tennis match will be all off now, and I know we could have beaten the Sixth! I don't want to hunt for fossils! I'm tired of continually having my mind improved!"
"We really don't get a fair chance for games at this school," Ardiune grumbled in sympathy. "I wish Gibbie were sporting instead of intellectual!"
It was really a grievance to the girls to be obliged to abandon tennis on this occasion. The match between Sixth and Fifth had been a fixture, and each side had hopes of its own champions. Daphne and Barbara were good players, but Valentine and Muriel had been practising early and late, and in the estimation of their own Form were well in the running for victory. Even the juniors had looked forward to witnessing the combat. Valentine, in her disappointment, went so far as to suggest to Miss Gibbs that the match might claim precedence over the excursion. The astonished mistress gazed at her for a moment with blank face, then burst out:
"Give up the fossil hunt in favour of tennis! What nonsense! You ought all to be deeply grateful to Professor Marshall for coming to take us. You girls don't appreciate your privileges!"
"There's one compensation," urged Fauvette. "We shall walk through the village, and, if we break line a little, it will give a chance for somebody to dash into the shop and buy pear-drops. One had better do it for us all, and get a pound. We'll pay up our shares, honest."
On the afternoon of Saturday, twenty-six rather apathetic geologists started forth from the Grange. Each carried a basket, and a few, who had scrambled first, had secured hammers. Miss Gibbs, armed with "An Illustrated Catalogue of the Fossils in the Bradbury Museum," by means of which she hoped to identify specimens, brought up the rear, in company with Veronica, and the school crocodiled in orthodox fashion as far as the village. Here they were met by the Vicar's wife and daughter, and several other ladies who were to join the excursion. The double line swayed and broke. Miss Gibbs's attention became engaged by visitors, and, during the few minutes' halt, Raymonde, well covered by her comrades, seized the golden opportunity, darted into the shop, and emerged with a large packet hidden in her basket, before mistress or monitresses had had time to miss her.
"Paradise drops!" she announced with gleeful caution. "Got them because they were on the counter, and the quickest thing I could buy. No, I daren't dole them out now. You must wait till we get to the quarry. Gibbie'd notice you sucking them, you idiots!"
It was rather a long way to Littlewood. Much too far, in the girls' opinion, though they would have thought nothing of the walk had they been keener on its object.
"Shouldn't have minded so much if we'd come on a Thursday, and missed French translation. Why had it to be Saturday?" groused Ardiune.
"Because Saturday's the only day the men aren't working in the quarry. For goodness' sake, stop grumbling!" returned Hermie in her most monitressy manner. "If you can't enjoy things yourself, let other people have a chance, at any rate!"
Duly snubbed, Ardiune subsided, and tramped on in silence, her discontent slightly alleviated by the prospect of Paradise drops, for Raymonde was rattling the basket suggestively to cheer her up. Extra visitors joined the party here and there upon the way, and outside Littlewood village the Professor himself was waiting for them, beaming as usual, and carrying a most professional-looking hammer, and a little bass for specimens. He greeted them with one of his customary jokes, and they smiled obediently, more out of habit than inclination.
The quarry proved more exciting than they had anticipated. It was a large place, and to get down into it they were obliged to descend several steep ladders, leading from one platform to another. Arrived at the bottom level, Professor Marshall collected his students in a group round him, and delivered a lecturette upon the points to be noticed in the strata surrounding them. Raymonde listened sadly. It seemed to her an unprofitable way of spending a Saturday afternoon. She brightened, however, when the audience dispersed to commence practical work.
"Come along!" she whispered to her chums. "Let's scoot over there and begin to chop rocks! Quick!"
"Where are the Paradise drops?" enquired the others eagerly.
"Don't worry, I have them safe. Only wait till Gibbie's back is turned."
Though they were decidedly tired of lectures, the girls nevertheless were quite mildly interested in searching for fossils. There was an element of competition about it which appealed to them, and when Hermie found a fine specimen of Cupressocrinus crassus, the Fifth felt that they must not be outdone.
"We haven't got anything really decent yet!" sighed Aveline, watching with envious eyes as Hermie exhibited her treasure to the admiring visitors. "The Sixth are cackling ever so hard."
"Let's go over there," suggested Raymonde. "No one's explored that bit of the quarry. We might find all sorts of things."
The Mystic Seven, who generally clung together in their undertakings, scaled a ladder therefore, climbed a mound of refuse, and found themselves on new ground. They dispersed, and each searched to the best of her ability among the pieces of crumbly rock that were lying about. Aveline, absorbed in splitting strata with her hammer, was suddenly disturbed by a piercing yell and a shout of "Help!" She ran at once in the direction of the screams, and round the corner discovered Raymonde, sunk nearly to her waist in a kind of clay bog.
"Help me!" she implored. "I can't get out. The more I try, the deeper I seem to sink in."
"Don't struggle, then; wait a minute," said Aveline, advancing on to some firm-looking stones and stretching out a hand. "Can you manage now?"
Raymonde made a desperate but futile effort. "No, I'm stuck tight—can't move my legs."
"Don't pull me, or I'll be in too! Now, I'm going to tug one of your legs out! That's it! Now the other! Here you are! Good gracious! What a mess you're in!"
Arrived on firm ground, Raymonde certainly looked a deplorable object. Her feet were two shapeless lumps of wet clay. She regarded them with rueful consternation. Ardiune came running up, and, being of a practical turn of mind, set to work to scrape her friend clean with a thin piece of stone. She succeeded in removing the bulk of the matter adhering to her, but there still remained a most unsightly coating of mud.
"What were you doing to get yourself in such a fix?" she asked.
"I don't know. It looked quite solid, and then, when I stepped on it, I just sank in—squash! I might have been swallowed up in it and killed, if Ave hadn't tugged me out!"
"You look a nice object to walk home with!" giggled Aveline. "What'll Gibbie say?"
What Miss Gibbs remarked when she saw the state of her pupil's garments was:
"Really, Raymonde, I might have known you would be sure to do some stupid thing! No other girl in the school has fallen into the mud. Why didn't you keep with the rest, and look where you were going? You're more trouble than everybody else put together. If you can't behave yourself when you come on an excursion, you must be left behind to do some preparation."
The Mystics consoled their leader as best they could, offering her their last remaining Paradise drops, and walking in a clump round her through the village to shield her from observation. Ardiune, who was poetically inclined, thought the occasion worthy of being celebrated in verse, and at bedtime handed Raymonde the following effusion, illustrated with spirited sketches in black lead-pencil, representing her with clay-covered feet of gigantic proportions.
Raymonde, a nice and cheerful child Who seldom wept and often smiled, Was taken by her teachers kind A jaunt, to elevate her mind.
By lengthy ladders undismayed, Behold her seek the quarry's shade, With firm resolve to hit and hew, And find a fossil fern or two.
She rapped the rocks with anxious pick, And scooped the ammonites out quick, But as she rang her brief tap-tap There chanced to her a sad mishap.
Urged on by hope of fossil round, She stepped on some perfidious ground, So now behold our luckless Ray Plunged in the midst of horrid clay.
The mud had nearly reached her waist, She called aloud in frantic haste: "I sink, I sink in quagmire sable, To free myself I am unable!"
Her friend, who hurried to her shout, Had much ado to drag her out. See! thick with mud and faint with fright, She bravely bears her woeful plight.
Her tender teacher's anxious fears She soothes, and dries her friends' fond tears, Declaring, with a courage calm, The outing had been worth th' alarm.
"Humph! Good for you, Ardiune!" commented Raymonde. "Not much tenderness about Gibbie, though! And I didn't see anybody's fond tears! You all laughed at me! My feet weren't a yard long, anyway!"
"Poetic and artistic license allows a few slight exaggerations. Even Shakespeare took liberties with his subjects!" returned the authoress blandly. "If not exactly a yard long, your feet, not small by nature, looked absolutely enormous! It's the truth!"
"Parlez-vous francais, Mademoiselle? She opened the window, and out she fell. And what happened next I've never heard tell, Parlez-vous francais, Mademoiselle?"
chanted Raymonde, dancing into the dormitory and plumping down on Fauvette's bed amid a pile of chiffons, muslins, and other flimsy articles of wearing apparel. "Why, what's the matter, child? Whence this spread-out? You look weepy! Packing to go home? Mother ill? Or are you expelled?"
"Neither," gulped Fauvette with a watery smile. "It's only her—Mademoiselle! She's turned all my drawers out on to the floor, and says I've got to tidy them. She lectured me hard in French. I couldn't understand half of what she said, but I knew she was scolding. And I've to sort all these things out, and put them neatly away, and mend up everything that needs mending before this evening, or else she'll tell the Bumble to come and look at them, and I shall get 'sadly lacking in order' down in my report again. It's too bad!"
"It's positively brutal of Mademoiselle!" said Raymonde reflectively. "If it had been Gibbie, now, it would have been no surprise to me. Don't cry, you little silly! You look like a weeping cherub on a monument! Shovel your clothes back again into your drawers, and put a tidy top layer. That's what I always do!"
"So do I," wailed Fauvette. "But it won't work this time. Mademoiselle was really cross, and I could see she means to come to-night, and hold what she calls 'une inspection'. She said something about making me an example. Why, if she wants an example, need she choose me?"
"It's certainly breaking a butterfly," agreed Raymonde. "I'm afraid there's something seriously wrong with Mademoiselle. She's completely altered this last week. She never used to worry about things, and she's suddenly turned as fussy as Gibbie."
Raymonde was not the only one who had noticed the change in the French mistress. It was apparent to everybody. Her entire character seemed suddenly to have altered. Whereas beforetime she had been easygoing, slack, and ready to shut eyes and ears to school-girl failings, she was now keenly vigilant and highly exacting. In classes and at music lessons she demanded the utmost attention, and no longer passed over mistakes, or allowed a bad accent. She prohibited the use of the English tongue altogether during meals, and insisted upon her pupils conversing in French, requiring each one to come to table primed with a suitable remark in that language. The number of fines which she inflicted was so heavy that the missionary box filled with a rapidity more gratifying to the local secretary of the society than to the contributors. The girls were considerably puzzled at this change of face on the part of Mademoiselle, but Morvyth and Katherine gave it as their opinion that Miss Beasley lay at the back of it.
"The Bumble's probably had a talk with her, and told her she must buck up or go!" suggested the former. "I'm sure she always thought Mademoiselle a slacker—which she certainly was! Possibly she's given her till the end of the term to show what she's capable of, and if she doesn't come up to the mark, we shall start next term with a new French governess."
"I shouldn't care!" said Raymonde easily. "I never liked her much. We used to call her 'the butterfly', but she's 'the mosquito' now. She's developing a very unpleasant sting."
Whatever might be the truth of Morvyth's surmises as to the reason of Mademoiselle's new attitude, the fact loomed large. Having determined to demonstrate her powers of discipline, she overdid it. She was one of those persons who cannot keep order and enforce rules without losing their tempers, and she stormed at the girls continually. She developed a mania for what she called "surveillance." She was continually paying surprise visits to dormitory or schoolroom, and pouncing upon offenders who were talking, or otherwise neglecting their duties. It was even suspected that she listened behind doors. Fauvette, whose babyish characteristics led her into many pitfalls, seemed suddenly to become the scapegoat of Mademoiselle's freshly acquired vigilance. Fauvette lacked spirit, and went down like a ninepin before the least word of reproof. Her feelings were easily hurt, and her tears always close to the surface. She sat now and sobbed pathetically upon her pillow, without making the least effort to tidy up her belongings. Raymonde shook her head over her.
"You're the sort of girl who ought to go through life with a nurse or a maid to look after you; you're not fit to take care of yourself," she decided. "Look here, how much wants doing to your clothes before the Mosquito comes buzzing round to inspect?"
"Shoals!" sighed Fauvette wearily. "I'm afraid I've left my mending. There are stockings, and gloves, and—all kinds of things."
"Can you get it done in time?"
"Impossible!" and the tears dripped again on to a dainty muslin collar.
"Then there's nothing for it but to get up a Mending Bee, and help you! We seven are sworn to stick together."
"There'll be squalls if you're caught in the dormitory during recreation. I was told to stay here," cautioned Fauvette.
"We've got to risk something," returned Raymonde cheerily, scurrying off in search of the remaining five of the Mystics.
"You've all got to fetch work-baskets and come this instant," she commanded. "It's an urgency call, like last term when we made T bandages for Roumania, and nose-bags for the horses, only it's even more important and urgent."
Armed with their sewing materials, the girls slipped one by one upstairs, and, settling themselves upon the beds in the immediate vicinity of Fauvette's, set to work. It was a formidable task. Their comrade had brought a large assortment of garments to school with her, and had happily left them unmended, trusting to take them home to be repaired. At present they were mixed in a hopeless jumble on the floor and on her bed, just where Mademoiselle had tipped out the drawers. Stockings, underclothes, gloves, handkerchiefs, photos, old letters, ribbons, ties, beads, lockets, books, and an assortment of odd treasures were lying together in utter confusion.
Fauvette brightened at the sight of her friends, mopped her eyes, and pushed back her fluffy hair from her hot forehead.
"Brace up!" Raymonde encouraged her. "We're not going to help unless you'll do your own share. Sort those things out, and be putting them in your drawers while we do your mending. Morvyth, take these stockings; Katherine, you're artistic, so I'll give you baby ribbon to thread through these bodices. Ardiune, you may mend gloves. Ave, collect those hair ribbons, and put them neatly inside that box, and stack those photos together. Why they're not in an album I can't imagine!"
"Because I generally sleep with one or two of them under my pillow," confessed Fauvette. "Why shouldn't I, if I like? There's no harm in it. Oh! please be careful with those beads, you'll break the strings!"
"I can't think why you need so many empty chocolate boxes," commented Aveline, sweeping up treasures with a ruthless hand. "Your drawers will be so full they won't shut. Throw half of them away!"
"No, no! I always keep them to remind me of the people who gave them to me. You mustn't throw any of them away. They're chock-full of memories."
"Rather have them chock-full of chocs, myself!" remarked Morvyth dryly. "Fauvette, you're interesting and pretty—when you don't cry (for goodness' sake look at your red eyes in the glass!); but you're as sentimental as an Early Victorian heroine. You ought to wear a bonnet and a crinoline, and carry a little fringed parasol, and talk about your 'papa'! If you don't get safely engaged to an officer before you're out of your teens, you'll turn into one of those faded females who bore one with sickly reminiscences of their past, and spend the remainder of your life pampering a pet poodle. Here, I've mended two pairs of stockings for you."
"And I've done three pairs," said Raymonde, folding up the articles in question and putting them in her friend's second long drawer. "We're getting on. Kathy, have you finished the bodices? We'll soon have you straightened up, Baby, and if Mademoiselle——Oh!"
Raymonde's sudden ejaculation was caused by a vision of no less a person than Miss Gibbs, who was standing in the doorway of the dormitory regarding the sewing party in some astonishment.
"What are you girls doing here?" she demanded, making a bee-line for them among the beds.
Nobody answered, and for a moment or two blank dismay spread itself over the countenances of the Mystics. Then Raymonde's lucky star came to the rescue, and popped an inspiration into her head.
"You were telling us in Social History class yesterday, Miss Gibbs, about the necessity of women co-operating in their work if they are ever to command a higher scale of pay," she explained glibly; "so we thought we'd better begin to put our principles into practice. Fauvette had fallen into arrears, and was in danger of—er—trouble, so we all came just to boost her up to standard, and let her get a fair start again. It's on the basis of a Women's Union or—or—Freemasons. We thought we were bound to help one another."
Miss Gibbs was not a remarkably humorous person, but on this occasion the corners of her mouth were distinctly observed to twitch. She mastered the weakness instantly, however, and remarked:
"I'm glad to hear that you are interested in co-operation. This is certainly a practical demonstration of the theory, and Fauvette ought to be grateful to you. Be quick and finish straightening the things, and, if anybody asks questions, you may say that you have my permission to remain here until tea-time."
The girls sat at attention till the door closed upon their mistress, then their mingled amazement and gratitude burst forth.
"Good old Gibbie!"
"She's an absolute sport to-day!"
"Never known her in such a jinky mood before!"
"The fact of the matter is," observed Raymonde sagely, "I believe Gibbie absolutely loathes Mademoiselle, and that for once in a way she's not above taking a legitimate chance of paying her out."
When the French mistress came round that evening on her tour of inspection, she found Fauvette's drawers in apple-pie order right to the very bottoms—beads, ties, and collars carefully arranged in boxes, and nicely mended stockings placed in a row.
"It only show vat you can do ven you try!" she commented. "In a woman to be untidy is—ah! I have not your English idiom?"
"The limit!" wickedly suggested Raymonde, who was standing close by.
But Mademoiselle, who had been warned against the acquisition of slang, glared at her till she beat a hasty retreat.
It was growing near to the end of the term, and examinations loomed imminently on the horizon. They were to be conducted this year by Miss Beasley's brother, a clergyman, and a former lecturer at Oxford. He had made a special study of modern languages, so that his standard of requirement in regard to French grammar was likely to be a high one. Up till now the Fifth Form had plodded through Dejardin's exercises in an easy fashion, without worrying greatly about the multitude of their mistakes, over which their mistress had indeed shaken her head, but had made no special crusade to amend. Now, in view of the awe-inspiring visit of the Reverend T. W. Beasley, M.A., Mademoiselle had instituted an eleventh-hour spurt of diligence, and kept her pupils with reluctant noses pressed hard to the grindstone. Irregular verbs and exceptions of gender seemed much worse when taken in such large doses. The girls began to wish either that the Tower of Babel had never been attempted, or that the world had reached a sufficient stage of civilization to adopt a universal language. Over one point in particular they considered that they had a just and pressing grievance. The French classes of Form V came on the time-table from 12 to 12.30, being the last subjects of morning school. Dinner was at one o'clock, and in the intervening half-hour the girls put away their books, washed their hands and tidied their hair, and refreshed their flagging spirits by a run round the garden. Mademoiselle had been wont to close her book at the exact minute of the half-hour, but now she utterly ignored the clock, and would go on with the lesson till a quarter or even ten minutes to one. The wrath of the Form knew no bounds. They valued their short exercise before dinner extremely. To have it thus cut off was an infringement of their rights. Mademoiselle, who was perfectly aware that she was exceeding the limit of the time-table, sheltered herself behind excuses.
"Ven I take your verbs I forget it is so late," she would remark. "Ze lesson slip avay, and ve not yet done all ve should."
The girls held an indignation meeting to discuss the subject. Even Maudie Heywood's appetite for knowledge was glutted by this extra diet of French syntax, and Muriel Fuller and Magsie Mawson, amiable nonentities who rarely ruffled the surface of the school waters, for once verified the proverb that the worm will turn.
"It's not fair!" raged Ardiune.
"Ma'm'selle knows she ought to stop at half-past!" urged Magsie in injured tones.
"It's taking a mean advantage!" echoed Muriel.
"And we can't really work properly when she goes on so long!" wailed Maudie.
"I vote we strike!" suggested Morvyth fiercely. "Let's tell her we won't go in for the exam. at all, if she goes on lengthening out the lessons."
Several of the Form brightened up at the suggestion, but Aveline, a shade more practical, shook her head discouragingly.
"If we do, there'll be a fine old row! The Mosquito'll appeal to the Bumble, who'd have her back up directly. I think we'd better not try that on. We don't want to take home 'conduct disgraceful' in our reports."
"Ave's right," agreed Raymonde. "We know the Bumble! This is a matter for tact, not brute force. We must manage Mademoiselle. She pretends she forgets the time—very well, then, we must take steps to bring it palpably to her notice. Will you leave the matter in my hands? I've got an idea."
Raymonde's inspirations were so well known in the Form, that the rest willingly consented to appoint her as a sub-committee of one to undertake the full management of the affair. Before the next French class she made a tour of the monitresses' bedrooms. They had instituted an early-rising society among themselves this term, and almost everyone was provided with an alarum-clock. Raymonde boldly borrowed five of these, without asking leave of their owners, and set them all carefully for 12.30, winding them up to their fullest extent. She then placed them inside the book cupboard in the class-room, and covered them with some sheets of exercise paper.
The lesson proceeded even more painfully than usual. Ardiune got hopelessly mixed between indefinite pronouns and indefinite pronominal adjectives, and Fauvette floundered over the negations, while Muriel found the proper placing of the p's and l's in the conjugation of appeler an impossible problem. As 12.30 drew near, there was much glancing at wrist-watches. Mademoiselle kept her eyes persistently turned away from the clock, with the evident intention of once more ignoring the time. This morning, however, Fate, in the person of Raymonde, had been against her. Exactly at the half-hour five alarums started punctually inside the cupboard, raising such a din that it was impossible to hear a word. Mademoiselle flew to investigate, took them out, shook them, and laid them on their backs, but they were wound up to their fullest extent, and nothing short of a hammer would have stopped them. The noise was terrific.
The baffled French governess, clapping her hands over her ears, raised her eyebrows in a signal of dismissal, and the girls availed themselves of the permission with record speed. The alarums burred cheerily on for about twenty minutes, after which, by Mademoiselle's instructions, they were replaced in the monitresses' bedrooms by Hermie. The Fifth were prepared for trouble, but to their surprise no notice was taken of the incident at head-quarters. Possibly Mademoiselle was aware that her late efforts at discipline were regarded by Miss Beasley with as little favour as her former slackness, and considered it useless to appeal to her Principal. She took the hint, however, and in future terminated the lesson punctually at the half-hour, so on this occasion the girls considered that they had most decidedly scored.
A Mysterious Happening
It was now nearly the end of July. The weather, which for many weeks had been fine and warm, suddenly changed to a spell of cold and wet. Rain dripped dismally from the eaves, the tennis courts were sodden, and the orchard was a marsh. The girls had grown accustomed to spending almost all their spare time out of doors, and chafed at their enforced confinement to the house. They hung about in disconsolate little groups, and grumbled. Miss Beasley, who was generally well aware of the mental atmosphere of the Grange, registered the barometer at stormy, and decided that prompt measures were necessary. To work off the steam of the school, she suggested a good old-fashioned game of hide-and-seek, and gave permission for it to be played on those upper landings which were generally forbidden ground. Twenty-six delighted girls started at once upstairs, and passed through the wire door, specially unlocked for their benefit, to the dim and mysterious regions that lay under the roof. It was the best place in the world for the purpose—long labyrinths of passages leading round into one another, endless attics, and innumerable cupboards. The smallness of the latticed windows, combined with the wetness of the afternoon, produced a twilight that was most desirable, and highly suited to the game.
Hermie and Veronica picked sides, and the former's band stole off to conceal themselves, while the others covered their eyes in orthodox fashion, and counted a hundred.
"Cuckoo! We're coming!" shouted Hermie at last, and the fun began.
Up and down, and in and out, diving through doorways, racing along passages, chasing one another round corners, groping in cupboards, panting, squealing, laughing or shuddering, the girls pervaded the upper story. There was a ghostly gloom about the old place which made it all the more thrilling, and gave the players a feeling that at any moment some bogy might spring upon them from a dark recess, or a skinny hand be stretched downwards through a trap-door. Flushed, excited, and really a little nervous, both sides at last sought the safety of the "den." Two or three of them began to compare notes. They were joined by others. In a very short time the whole school knew that at least a third of their number had seen a "something." They were quite unanimous in their report. "It" was a girl of about their own age, in a dark-green dress with a wide white collar. Hermie and Ardiune had noticed her most distinctly. She had smiled and beckoned to them, and run along the passage, but when they turned the corner she had disappeared; and Linda and Elsie, whom they had met coming in the opposite direction, declared that they had seen nobody. Lois and Katherine had caught a glimpse of her as they chased Maudie in one of the attics, and Joan declared positively that she had seen her flitting down the stairs.
"It's queer in the extreme," murmured Valentine.
"Are you quite sure it wasn't really only one of us?" urged Meta.
"Absolutely!" declared Hermie emphatically. "We all have on our brown serges to-day, and I tell you this girl was in dark green; not a gym. costume to wear over a blouse, like ours, but a dress with long sleeves and a big white collar."
"I don't believe she's a real girl at all," faltered Magsie tremulously. "She's a spook!"
Magsie voiced the opinion of the majority. It was what most of the school had been feeling for the last five minutes. The interest in the supernatural, which had been a craze earlier in the term until sternly repressed by Miss Beasley, suddenly revived. Daphne remembered the magazine article she had read entitled "The Borderland of the Spirit World," and cold thrills passed down her spine. Veronica ventured the suggestion that the apparition might be an astral body or an elemental entity.
"It's a case for the Society for Psychical Research to investigate," she nodded gravely. "I always said the Grange was bound to be haunted."
"What was this girl like?" asked Raymonde reflectively. "Ancient or modern?"
"Modern, decidedly. She had on a green dress with a white——"
"So you've told us already,"—impatiently. "We know about her clothes. What was she like?"
Hermie stood for a moment with eyes shut, as if calling up a mental picture.
"About Ardiune's height, but slimmer: rosy face, and dark hair done in a plait—really not so unlike you, Ray, only I should say decidedly prettier."
"Thank you!" sniffed Raymonde.
"That just about sizes her up!" agreed those who had seen the vision.
"She didn't look spooky at all," continued Hermie. "She was quite substantial. You couldn't see through her, and she didn't melt into the air."
"And yet she disappeared?"
"Yes, she certainly disappeared, and in a passage where there were no doors."
"Do you remember the story I told you of the lady whose astral double left her body during sleep, and haunted a friend's house?" began Veronica darkly.
"Don't tell any ghost stories up here—don't!" implored Fauvette. "I'll have hysterics in another minute!"
"I'm frightened!" whimpered Joan.
"I vote we go downstairs," suggested Morvyth. "I don't want to play any more hide-and-seek at present."
Nobody else seemed anxious to pursue the game. The attics were too charged with the occult to be entirely pleasant. Everybody made a unanimous stampede for the lower story, passing down the winding staircase with a sense of relief. Once on familiar ground again, things looked more cheery.
"Back already?" commented Miss Gibbs, who had met them on the landing.
"Yes, we're all—er—a little tired!" evaded Hermie, with one of her conscious blushes.
"Better go to the dining-room and get out your sewing, then," replied the mistress, eyeing her keenly.
The girls proceeded soberly downstairs, still keeping close together like a flock of sheep. Raymonde, however, lagged behind. For a moment or two she stood pondering, then she ran swiftly up the winding staircase again into the attic.
The talk of the school that evening turned solely upon the ghost girl. Meta, who had not seen the vision, declared it was nothing but over-excited imagination, and feared that some people were apt to get hysterical; at which Hermie retorted that no one could be further from hysteria than herself, and that six independent witnesses could scarcely imagine the same thing at the same moment, without some basis for their common report. Veronica considered that they had entered unwittingly into a psychic circle, and encountered either a thought-form that had materialized, or a phantasm of the living.
"Some people have capacities for astral vision that others don't possess," she said in a lowered voice. "It's quite probable that Hermie may be clairvoyante."
Hermie sighed interestedly. It was pleasanter to be dubbed clairvoyante than hysterical. She had always felt that Meta did not appreciate her.
"We've none of us been trained to realize our spiritual possibilities," she replied, her eyes wide and thoughtful.
While a few girls disbelieved entirely in the spectre, and others accepted the explanation according to Veronica's occult theories, most of the school considered the attic to be haunted by a plain old-fashioned ghost, such as anybody might expect to find in an ancient mansion like the Grange. They waived the subject of modern costume, deciding that in the dim light such details could hardly have been adequately distinguished, and that the apparition must have been a cavalier or Jacobite maiden, whose heart-rending story was buried in the oblivion of years.
"Perhaps her lover was killed," commented Fauvette, with a quiver of sympathy.
"Or her father was impeached by Parliament," added Maudie.
"She may have had a cruel stepmother who ill-treated her," sighed Muriel softly.
Raymonde alone offered no suggestions, and when asked for her opinion as to the explanation of the mystery, shook her head sagely, and said nothing. The immediate result of the experience was that Veronica went to Miss Beasley, and borrowed An Antiquarian Survey of the County of Bedworthshire, including a description of its Castles and Moated Houses, together with a History of its Ancient Families—a ponderous volume dated 1823, which had before been offered for the girls' inspection, but which nobody had hitherto summoned courage to attack. She studied it now with deep attention, and gave a digest of its information for the benefit of weaker minds, less able than her own, to grapple with the stilted language. The school preferred lighter literature for their own reading, but were content to listen to legends of the past when told by Veronica, who had rather a gift for narrative, and could carry her audience with her. As the next afternoon was still hopelessly wet, the girls gathered in one of the schoolrooms with their sewing, and were regaled with a story while they worked.
"I found out all about the Grange," began Veronica. "It belonged to a family named Ferrers, and they took the side of the King in the Civil War. While Sir Hugh was away fighting in the north, the house was besieged by Cromwell's troops. The Lady of the Manor, Dame Joan Ferrers, had to look after the defence. She had not many men, nor a great deal of ammunition, and not nearly as much food as was necessary. She at once put all the household upon short rations, and drew up the drawbridge, barred the great gates, and prepared to hold out as long as she possibly could. She knew that the Cavalier forces might be marching in the direction of Marlowe at any time to relieve her, and that if she could keep the enemy at bay even for a few weeks the Grange might be saved. The utmost vigilance was used. Sentries were posted in the tower over the great gate, and the lady herself constantly patrolled the walls. With so small a garrison it was a difficult task, for the men had not adequate time to rest or sleep, and were soon nearly worn out. The scanty supply of food was almost at an end. Unless help should arrive within a few days, they would be obliged to capitulate. All the flour was gone, and the bacon and salted beef, and the cocks and hens and pigeons, and even the horses had been killed and eaten, though these had been kept till the very last. The worst of the trouble was that there was treachery within the walls. Dame Joan was well aware of it, though she could not be absolutely sure which of her men were disaffected, for they all still pretended loyalty to their master and to the King. Nobody, she felt, was really to be trusted, though the walls were still manned, and the cannon blazed away with what ammunition was left. If the Grange were to be saved at all, it was imperative that a message asking for help should be conveyed to the Royalist forces. But how could it be taken? The Roundheads were encamped all round the walls, and would promptly shoot anyone who attempted to penetrate their lines. None of the garrison would be stout-hearted enough to venture.
"Sir Hugh's eldest son was away fighting with his father, but there was a daughter at home, a girl of about thirteen, named Joyce. She came now to her mother, and begged to be allowed to take the message. It was a long time before Dame Joan would give her consent, for she knew the terrible danger to which Joyce would be exposed; but she had the lives of her younger children to think of as well, and in the end she gave her reluctant permission. Just when it was growing dusk, she took her little daughter to a secret doorway in the panelling, from which a subterranean passage led underneath the moat into the adjoining wood. This secret passage was known only to Sir Hugh and his wife and their eldest son, and it was now shown to Joyce for the first time. It was a horrible experience to go down it alone, but she was a brave lassie, and ready to risk her life for the sake of her mother, and her younger brothers and sisters. She took a lantern to guide her, and set off with as cheerful a face as she could show. The air was stale and musty, and in some places she felt as if she could scarcely breathe. Her footsteps, light though they were, rang hollow. After what seemed to her a very long way, she found herself in a small cave, and could catch a gleam of twilight sky through the entrance. She at once extinguished the lantern, and advanced with extreme caution. She was in the wood at the farther side of the moat, a place where she had often played with her brothers, and had gathered primroses and violets in the springtime. She could recognize the group of tall elms, and knew that if she kept to the right she might creep through a hole in the hedge, and make her way across some fields into the high road. As quietly as some little dormouse or night animal she stole along.
"Not far off she could see the great camp fire, round which the troopers were preparing their supper. She hoped they would all be too busy with their cooking to notice her. As she passed behind some bushes she suddenly caught the gleam of a steel helmet within a few yards of her. She crouched down under the shelter of a clump of gorse. But in doing so she made a faint rustle.
"'Halt! Who goes there?' came the challenge.
"Joyce's heart was beating so loudly that she thought it must surely be heard.
"The sentry listened a moment, then levelling his pistol, sent a shot through the gorse bush. It passed within a few inches of her head, but she had the presence of mind not to cry out or move. Evidently thinking he was mistaken, the sentry paced farther on, and Joyce, seizing her golden opportunity, slipped through the hole in the hedge. Still using the cover of bushes, she made her way across three fields, and reached the road. It was quite dark now, but she knew her direction, and turned up a by-lane where she would be unlikely to meet troopers. All night she walked, guiding herself partly by the stars, for she knew that Charles's Wain always pointed to the north. At dawn a very tired and worn-out little maiden presented herself at the gateway of Hepplethorpe Manor, demanding instant audience of Sir Roger Rivington. That worthy knight and loyal supporter of the Crown, on hearing her story, immediately sent horsemen with a letter to General Bright, of the King's forces, who lay encamped only five miles off; and he, marching without delay for Marlowe Grange, surprised the Parliamentarians and completely routed them. The half-starved garrison opened the great gates to their deliverers with shouts of joy, and, we may be sure, welcomed the supplies of food that poured into the house later on. As for Joyce, she must have been the heroine of the family."
"Is that all?" asked the girls, as Veronica paused and began to count the stitches in the sock she was knitting.
"All that's in the book, and I've embroidered it a little. It was told in such a very dull fashion, so I put it in my own words. It's quite true, though."
"What became of Joyce afterwards?"
"She married Sir Reginald Loveday, and became the lady of Clopgate Towers. The tomb is in Byford Church."
"If she'd been shot by the trooper, I should have thought she was the ghost girl!" commented Ardiune. "I don't quite see how we could fix that up, though. It doesn't seem to fit. You're quite sure she escaped?"
"Perfectly certain. How else could the Grange have been saved?"
Veronica's argument settled the question, but the girls felt that the dramatic interest of the situation would have been better suited if the story had ended with the melancholy death of the heroine, and her subsequent haunting of the Manor.
"I always heard that Cromwell's soldiers destroyed the walls and made those big holes in the gateway with their cannon-balls," said Morvyth, still only half convinced.
"So they did, but that was two years afterwards, and the children were all sent safely away before the second siege."
"It hasn't solved the mystery of the ghost girl," persisted Ardiune. "Ray, what do you think about it?"
Raymonde, lost in a brown study, started almost guiltily, and recommenced her sewing with feverish haste.
"Think? Why, it's a pretty story, of course. What more can I think? Why d'you ask me?"
"Oh! I don't know, except that you generally have ideas about everything. Who can the ghost girl be?"
But Raymonde, having lost her scissors, was biting her thread, and only shook her head in reply.
The Coon Concert
At the end of the summer term it had always been the custom of the school for each Form to get up a separate little entertainment, at which the other Forms should act audience. This year it was unanimously decided not only to keep up the old tradition, but to extend the original plan by charging for admission, and sending the proceeds to the Blinded Soldiers' Fund. This idea appealed greatly to the girls.
"They've given their eyes for us, and we ought to do something for them!" declared Linda emphatically.
"It must be awful to be blind," sighed Muriel.
"Yes, and some of them are such lads, too! Think of losing your sight, and having your whole career ruined, when you're only nineteen or twenty, and the ghastly prospect of living years and years and years till you're quite old, and never being able to see the sun again, and the flowers, and your friends' faces, or anything that makes life beautiful! I don't think half of us realize what our soldiers have suffered for us!"
"And they're so patient and cheerful!" added Veronica. "In my opinion they prove their heroism as much by the way they bear their ruined lives afterwards as by their deeds in the trenches. It has shown what stuff British folk are made of. And you get such surprises. Often a boy whom you've known, and always thought weak and selfish and silly, will turn out to have any amount of grit in him. There's one in particular—a friend of ours. He cared for nothing before except amusing himself—the kind of boy who's always getting into debt and doing foolish things. Well, he's utterly changed; he's not like the same fellow. I think the war will have made a great difference to many of our men."
"And to our women too, I hope," said Miss Beasley, who, unnoticed by Veronica, had joined the group. "It would be a poor thing for the country if only the men came purified out of this time of trouble. 'A nation rises no higher than its women!' And now is Woman's great opportunity. I think she is taking it. She is showing by her work in hospitals, in canteens, on the land, in offices, or in public service, how she can put her shoulder to the wheel and help in her country's hour of need. I believe this war will have broken down many foolish old traditions and customs, and that people will be ready afterwards to live more simple, natural lives than they did before. The school-girls of to-day are the women of to-morrow, and it is on you that the nation will rely in years to come. Don't ever forget that! Try to prove it practically!"
Miss Beasley seldom "preached" to the girls, but when she spoke, her few quiet words generally had their effect. Hermie and Linda in especial turned them over in their minds. As the result of their mistress's last remark, they made a suggestion to their fellow-monitresses.
"Some of us are leaving this term, and at any rate in a few years we shall all have left, and be scattered about in various places. Wouldn't it be nice to make a kind of League, and undertake that every girl who has belonged to this school will do her very best to help the world? It should be a 'Marlowe Grange' pledge, and we'd bind ourselves to keep it. If a whole school makes up its mind to a thing, it ought to have some effect, and it would be splendid to feel that our school had been an inspiration, and helped to build up a new and better nation after the war. There are only twenty-six of us here at present, but suppose when we leave we each influence ten people, that makes two hundred and sixty, and if they each influence ten people more, it makes two thousand six hundred, so the thing grows like circles in a pond. I don't mean that we're to be a set of prigs, and go about criticizing everybody and telling them they are slackers—that's not the right way at all; but if we stick up constantly for all that we know is best, people will probably begin to sympathize, and want to do the same."
Hermie's and Linda's idea appealed to the Sixth. They instituted the League at once, and persuaded the entire school to join. They put their heads together, and drew up a short code which they considered should explain the attitude of their society. It ran as follows:—
MARLOWE GRANGE LEAGUE
1. To do some definite, sensible work, and not to spend all my time in golf, dances, and other amusements.
2. To read wholesome books, study Nature, and be content with simple pleasures.
3. Not to judge my friends by the standards of clothes and money, but by their real worth.
4. To strive to be broad-minded, and to look at things from other people's points of view as well as my own.
5. To do all I can to help others.
6. To understand that character is the most useful possession I can have, to speak the truth, be charitable to my neighbours' faults, and avoid gossip.
7. To cultivate and cherish the faculty of appreciating all the beautiful in life, and to enjoy innocent pleasures.
8. To realize that as a soldier is one of an army, so I am a unit of a great nation, and must play my part bravely and nobly for the sake of my country.
9. To remember that I can do good and useful work in my own home as well as out in the world.
10. To keep my heart open, and take life cheerfully, kindly, and smilingly, trying to make my own little circle better and happier, and to forget myself in pleasing others.
11. Not to moan and groan over what is inevitable, but to make the best of things as they are.
12. To be faithful to my friends, loyal to my King and my Country, and true to God.
God Save the King!
In order to make the League a binding and lasting affair, the monitresses decided to give each member a copy of the code, and ask her to sign her name to it. For this purpose they made twenty-six dainty little books of exercise paper, with covers of cardboard (begged from the drawing cupboard) decorated with Japanese stencils of iris, chrysanthemums, birds and reeds, or other artistic designs, the backs being tied with bows of baby ribbon. After the list of rules, were appended a few suitable quotations, and blank pages were left, so that each individual could fill them up with extracts that she liked, either cut out of magazines or written in her own hand. Most of the girls admired Robert Louis Stevenson, so the selections began with his wise and tender epitome of life:—
"To be honest, to be kind, to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation. Above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself. Here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy."
As Linda and Hermie could not agree whether this ideal of life or the one by William Henry Channing was the more beautifully expressed, it was agreed to put the latter's as well:—
"To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich, to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly; to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages with open heart; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common—this is to be my symphony."
As the League was to be nothing if not practical, everyone felt that the best way of upholding its principles at the present moment was to raise a good collection for the fund for the blinded soldiers. The Sixth determined to give a theatrical performance, the juniors a display of gymnastics and dancing, and the Fifth concentrated their minds upon a concert.
"It's not to be just an ordinary concert," said Ardiune, addressing a select committee of management; "it must be something extra special and outside, such as we've never had before in the school, so rub up your ideas, please, and make suggestions. I'm waiting!"
"Rather a big order to get anything entirely new!" grunted Morvyth. "I should say everything on the face of the earth's been tried already!"
"But not here! How you catch me up!"
"There isn't time to get up an operetta, I suppose?" ventured Fauvette.
"Hardly—in three days!"
"A patriotic performance?"
"Had one only last term, so it would come stale."
"Then what can we have?"
"I know!" exclaimed Raymonde, bouncing up from her chair, and taking a seat upon the table instead. "I vote we be coons!"
"What's coons?" asked Katherine ungrammatically.
"Oh, you stupid! You know! You sing plantation songs, and wear a red-and-white costume, and wave tambourines, and that sort of thing."
"Do we black our faces?"
"We can if we like, but it isn't necessary. We're not to be nigger minstrels exactly. Coons are different. Of course, the songs are all about Sambos and Dinahs, but white people can sing them with quite as great effect. I believe the Bumble's got some castanets and things put away that we could borrow."
"So she has! Bags me the cymbals!"
"Pity nobody can play the banjo."
"Never mind, we shall do very well with the piano."
The committee having decided that their concert was to be a coon performance, the girls set to work accordingly to make preparations. All the songbooks in the school were ransacked to find plantation melodies, and after much discussion, not to say quarrelling, a programme was at length arranged, sufficiently spicy to entertain the girl portion of the audience, but select enough not to offend the easily shocked susceptibilities of Miss Gibbs, whose ideas of songs suitable for young ladies ran—in direct opposition to most of her theories—on absolutely Early Victorian lines.
"Gibbie's notion of a concert is 'Home, Sweet Home' and 'Cherry Ripe', and perhaps 'Caller Herrin' if you want something lively," pouted Ardiune.
"Yes, and even those have to be edited," agreed Morvyth. "Don't you remember when we were learning 'Cherry Ripe', she insisted on our changing 'Where my Julia's lips do smile' into 'Where the sunbeams sweetly smile?'"
"And she wouldn't let us sing 'The Blue Bells of Scotland', and we knew it was just because it began: 'Oh where, tell me where, is your Highland laddie gone?'"
"Don't you know it's highly improper for a school-girl even to mention a laddie?" murmured Katherine ironically.
"How about the blinded soldiers, then?"
"That's another matter, I suppose."
"Look here—let's take our programme to the Bumble, and get her to pass it beforehand, and then there can be no criticisms afterwards."
"Right you are!"
"I've got another idea," propounded Raymonde. "Suppose, instead of having our concert in the lecture hall, we ask the Bumble to let us have it in the barn instead? It would be just twice as coony."
"Top-hole! It would be a regular stunt!" agreed the committee.
A deputation waited upon Miss Beasley, and found her quite gracious and amenable to reason, both in respect of the choice of plantation ditties and the use of the barn as a place of entertainment. She even vouchsafed the further and most valuable suggestion that they might supply refreshments and charge for them, to help to swell the funds.
"You can send an order to the Stores at Gladford to-morrow for cakes and biscuits. Cook shall make you some lemonade, and you may have the oil stove in the barn and supply cocoa at twopence a cup."
"May we sell sweets, Miss Beasley?" asked Raymonde tentatively.
"Well—yes. I don't see why you shouldn't. You may put down chocolates with your order for cakes and biscuits, if you like."
The delegates made a cheerful exit from the study, and hurried to communicate their good tidings to the rest of the Form.
"O Jubilate! We'll make a night of it!" commented Katherine. "The Bumble's turned into an absolute honey-bee!"
Great were the preparations for the event. Costumes had to be contrived—a difficult matter with only the school theatrical box to draw upon—and ten coons to be turned out in uniform garb. The usual stock properties, such as the brigand's velvet jacket, the Admiral's cocked hat, or the hunting top-boots, were utterly useless, and the girls had to set their wits to work. They decided to wear their best white petticoats with white blouses, and to make hats out of stiff brown paper trimmed with rosettes of scarlet crinkled paper (obtainable at the village shop), using bands of the same scarlet for belts and ties.
"Of course we'd rather have had real rush-hats and ribbons, but if you can't get them you can't, and there's an end of it, and you must just make up your mind to do without!" said Raymonde philosophically.
"If I sing too hard I know I'll burst my waistband!" objected Morvyth, who always looked on the gloomy side of events.
"Then don't sing too hard, and don't take any refreshments, if you've such an easily expanding figure!" snapped Raymonde.
"We could stitch the crinkled paper over an ordinary belt, and then it wouldn't break through," suggested Valentine.
"Scarlet's not my colour!" mourned Fauvette.
"Never mind, Baby, you look nice in anything!" returned Aveline soothingly. "And your white petticoat's a perfect dream! I always said it was a shame to wear it under a dress."
The entertainment was to take place in the evening, after preparation, and on the afternoon of the day in question the Fifth Form took sole and absolute possession of the barn, turning everybody else out, even those indignant enthusiasts who were at work at the wood-carving bench.
"Mind, our tools haven't got to be touched, or we'll have something to say!" called out Daphne as she made an unwilling exit.
"I shall put them all in the box!" returned Morvyth, slamming the door.
The wood-carving bench had to serve as refreshment table, so it was cleared with scant ceremony, in spite of Daphne's protest; a clean cloth, borrowed from the cook, was spread upon it, and plates of cakes and biscuits, and packets of chocolates, were laid out as attractively as possible, with vases of flowers between.
Raymonde, who was nothing if not inventive, suddenly evolved a new and enterprising scheme.
"We must have a platform!" she decided. "Come along to the wood pile, and we'll get some packing-cases and put railway sleepers over them. It won't take us long!"
It turned out a more strenuous business than she had anticipated, however, for it was difficult in the first place to find packing-cases of the same height, and more difficult still to get the railway sleepers to fit neatly together on the top of them.
"I hope it'll hold up!" said Aveline dubiously, when the erection was at last complete.
"Oh, it'll just have to hold!" returned Raymonde in her airiest manner. "I think it's nicer than a stiff platform, and more suitable for a barn. It looks really 'coony', and suggests the Wild West, and log-cabins, and all that sort of thing."
Immediately after preparation, the coons retired to make final arrangements in the barn. The big stable lanterns were lighted and hung up for purposes of illumination, and a cauldron of water was set upon the oil cooking-stove. It was a horrible scramble, for time was short, and they still had to change their dresses. Everyone seemed in everybody else's way, and each gave directions to the others, though nobody was in authority, and all got decidedly cross and snapped at one another.
"It's not an atom of use sticking up that lantern unless you fill it first," urged Valentine. "I tell you it's almost empty, and won't burn twenty minutes. You don't want to perform in the dark, I suppose?"
"It ought to have been filled before!" grumbled Ardiune. "Here, give me the paraffin can."
"Take care what you're doing! You're slopping into the cauldron!"
"But I saw you! We shall have to empty out the cauldron and wash it and refill it."
"Nonsense!" interfered Raymonde. "There isn't time. Val, is that lantern finished? Then hang it up, and come along and dress. We shall have everybody arriving before we're half ready."
Almost every amateur concert begins late, and this was no exception to the rule. By the time the coons had scrambled into their costumes, and Fauvette had got her best lace-trimmed white petticoat fastened adequately on to her blouse with safety-pins, and Katherine had adjusted her tie to her satisfaction, and Muriel had induced her paper hat to tilt at the right angle on her head, the audience was clamouring for admission at the door of the barn, and making moral remarks on the subject of punctuality.
"We're awfully sorry," panted Raymonde in excuse, undoing the padlock which the coons had left fastened, and allowing the school to tramp into the place of entertainment. "Your shillings, please! Yes, we're taking the money first thing, instead of handing round the plate in the interval. Where's the Bumble?"
"Just coming now, with Gibbie and Ma'm'selle."
The barn with its dark rafters, stable lanterns, and improvised benches, certainly looked a most appropriate setting for a plantation programme, and Miss Beasley glanced round with amused interest on her arrival. She and the other mistresses were escorted to special posts of honour, and the performance began without further delay. Everybody admired the costumes; the red-and-white effect was quite charming, especially when worn by all ten alike, and the paper hats with their big rosettes gave a coquettish appearance that added to the piquancy of the songs. There could, of course, be no piano accompaniment, but the girls made up for it by a liberal clashing of cymbals, rattling of castanets, and jingling of tambourines. They were as "cute" and "coony" as they knew how to be, putting a great deal of action into the songs, and adding a few comic asides. At Raymonde's suggestion, they had decided during the performance of "The Darkies' Frolic" to dance a lively kind of combined fox-trot and cake-walk measure to illustrate the words. They had practised it carefully beforehand, and considered it the piece de resistance of the evening. But alas! they had not calculated on the difference between the firm floor of the barn and the extremely shaky erection on which they were perched. They were only half-way through, and were capering in most approved darky fashion, when the middle packing-case which supported the planks suddenly gave way, and the platform collapsed. Some of the girls sprang off in time, but several went down among the ruins, and were rescued by the agitated mistresses, fortunately without real injuries, though there were scratches and bruises, and at least half a yard of lace was torn from Fauvette's best petticoat.