"There's that noise again!" said Cicely. "She must have a prisoner shut up there; I'm perfectly certain about it."
Both put their ears to the door, and were so absorbed in listening to the queer sounds inside the room that they did not hear footsteps sounding up the winding staircase. An exclamation behind them caused them to turn hastily round.
There was Monica!—the last person in the world whom they had expected to see, and who was looking as astonished as themselves at the meeting. Lindsay and Cicely felt decidedly embarrassed. Monica must have seen them peeping through the keyhole, and they knew they had been discovered in a somewhat doubtful and discreditable occupation. They could not possibly begin to explain that it was entirely on her account and for her benefit, so they simply turned very red and said nothing. It was a most uncomfortable situation.
There was a painful pause, and then Monica recovered her presence of mind.
"Why, Lindsay and Cicely, I thought you were with the others in the garden!" she said.
"We were only exploring the house a little," replied Lindsay, trying to pass the matter off carelessly. "Miss Russell said there were interesting things all over it."
"I'm afraid you won't find much to interest you among empty bedrooms," said Monica, in her calm, quiet voice. "If you like to come downstairs with me I'll show you some of the curiosities in my cabinet. I've a great many old coins and a few daggers that were dug up when the moat was drained."
Looking rather shamefaced, the pair went with Monica to the library, where she unlocked an oak cupboard, and spent quite twenty minutes in explaining her various treasures. She was most kind, and spared no trouble, but the others could not get over their confusion. They had the guilty sensation that they had been caught like naughty children, and were being amused to keep them out of the way.
"Why was Monica going into the lantern room?" demanded Lindsay, the moment they were alone.
"Does she know the secret?" ventured Cicely.
"Either she knows, or she's trying to find out. Perhaps she's stalking Mrs. Wilson too!"
This was a new idea, and required consideration.
"Then that would perhaps be what 'The Griffin' was warning Scott about," said Cicely reflectively. "Ought we to tell Monica?"
"Not yet—not till we've something more definite to go upon. We've only suspicions at present, and one can hardly speak about those. She might be offended, and think us meddlesome, especially as she doesn't like to talk of her affairs."
"I'm afraid she'll think us sneaky and underhand, in any case. I'm so sorry she saw us spying like that."
"Well, we couldn't help it, and we can't explain."
"Mightn't we just say why——?"
"It's no use," interrupted Lindsay decidedly. "We'd better not breathe a word."
And Cicely, as usual, gave way.
It was gratifying to feel that they were Monica's champions, though she might not yet be aware of what she owed them. They must be content to be misunderstood for a little while; afterwards she would appreciate what they had been doing for her, and would thank them accordingly. They often looked at her in school with the satisfactory sensation that they knew something of which everyone else, even Miss Russell, was ignorant.
I fear the lessons suffered sometimes while they indulged in day-dreams, for it was hard to recall such mundane matters as the capital of Mexico, or the date of Magna Charta, when their thoughts were far away in the lantern room, busy with concealed prisoners or supposed plots.
"You're the two most inattentive girls in the class!" cried Miss Frazer indignantly one day, after a specially bad lapse of memory. "You both did far better at Winterburn Lodge. I cannot understand why your work should have fallen off so much lately. This is the third time this week you have had bad marks. If it occurs again, I shall be obliged to report you to Miss Russell."
Apart from their interest in her as the owner of the hidden treasure, Lindsay and Cicely regarded Monica with the worship which schoolgirls are sometimes fond of bestowing upon a companion who happens specially to attract them. They admired the shape of her nose and her long chestnut hair, and considered her dignified manner absolute perfection. They used to follow her about at a respectful distance, longing to improve the acquaintance; but they received so many snubs from the elder girls, who also wished to monopolize her, that matters did not advance much further than an occasional "Good morning" or "Good afternoon".
"The big ones are so jealous, they like to keep her all to themselves," grumbled Cicely. "Eleanor Wright was quite rude when I offered to lend Monica a pencil yesterday. She said I was 'officious'."
"They're horribly mean," agreed Lindsay.
Monica had certainly become a great favourite at the Manor with both teachers and pupils, and, had she been of a less steady disposition, might have run considerable danger of being spoilt. She took her sudden popularity, however, very serenely, and scarcely seemed to notice that her schoolfellows were quarrelling over who should sit next her in class, or take part with her in a game of tennis.
"She always seems so calm and superior, like a nightingale among sparrows," remarked Irene Spencer sentimentally.
"Or a swan among a flock of geese," laughed Mildred Roper. "You've all grown really quite silly over Monica. I admire her very much myself, but I don't go and kiss her jacket when it's hanging in the vestibule, or beg her old torn exercises for keepsakes."
"Oh, well, you're a monitress!"
"I've got a little common sense left, I'm thankful to say."
The pretty rose-covered cottage where Monica and her mother had established themselves for the summer was only a few minutes' walk away from the Manor. One afternoon Miss Russell, happening to meet Lindsay and Cicely in the hall, gave them a note, and told them to take it at once to Mrs. Courtenay, and bring back an answer.
The two girls ran off in high glee, delighted to have this opportunity of seeing their idol in private. They found Monica preparing her French lesson in the small strip of front garden, but she put her books aside as they opened the gate.
"Come to Mother," she said, when they had explained their errand, leading the way through a French window into a low, old-fashioned sitting-room.
Mrs. Courtenay was a sweet, delicate-looking lady, with a gentle, refined face, and hair slightly streaked with grey. She did not rise from her sofa when they entered, but held out her hand instead, and asked them to come and speak to her.
"I am somewhat of an invalid, you see," she said. "The doctor is very strict, and has told me to lie still. It's rather hard, but I am trying to obey. So you are two of Monica's little friends? Well, now you are here, you had better stay for tea. The letter? Oh, I'll send Jenny, our maid, with the answer, and she shall tell Miss Russell that I'm keeping you. We'll take care that you go back in plenty of time for preparation."
This was indeed a most unexpected treat. Both Lindsay and Cicely beamed with smiles. They were the only girls in the school who had been thus favoured, and they felt that their present enjoyment would be equalled by the envy which they would excite among the others on their return.
"I am glad to hear you are all so happy at the Manor," continued Mrs. Courtenay. "Isn't it a dear, interesting old place? I expect Monica will have told you most of the legends. No! Why, Monica, what have you been thinking of? Do you mean to say they haven't heard yet about your ancestress and Sir Humphrey Warden in the rose avenue?"
"There really hasn't been any time for telling stories, Mother," declared Monica, "we've been so busy playing tennis when we were not at lessons. I'm never very good at remembering them, either—not like you are."
"I suppose I must consider myself the family chronicler," said Mrs. Courtenay. "We certainly ought to let Lindsay and Cicely hear the tale of the picture. Ah, here comes tea! Monica, you must look after our guests."
Monica evidently loved to be her mother's nurse. She placed a small table by the side of the sofa, and busied herself in arranging cushions and seeing that everything was placed for the invalid's greatest comfort. She did not neglect the visitors either, and brought out a jar of honey for their special benefit.
"I know you'll like it, because you were so interested in the bees," she said. "Do you remember the day when you went too close to the hives, and nearly got stung?"
"Yes; we had to run the whole length of the walk where the roses grow. I shan't forget it in a hurry," answered Cicely.
"That is the rose avenue where my namesake outwitted Sir Humphrey Warden. I wish you would tell them the story, Mother."
"Oh, do, please," pleaded Lindsay and Cicely; "we'd like so immensely to hear it!"
"I believe I shall just have time while we finish tea," said Mrs. Courtenay. "I suppose you need not be back in school until half-past five? Have you been in the long gallery at the Manor, and looked at the pictures?"
"Yes, often," said Cicely.
"Then you will remember one, at the far end, of a girl in a white dress, holding a bunch of roses in her hand?"
"Yes; it's the prettiest of them all. We always say it's the exact image of Monica."
"It is the portrait of a Monica Courtenay who lived here in the time of the Civil War. Her father was killed fighting for the king at Marston Moor, and her only brother, Sir Piers, was also one of the hottest supporters of the crown. When Cromwell came into power, Sir Piers had to flee for his life. He was chased from one hiding-place to another. Sometimes, like Prince Charles, he had to clamber up a tree until the soldiers had passed by, and once he spent a night in a fox's hole.
"At length, one summer evening, hunted almost to desperation, he returned to his old home. He met his sister in the garden, and though she exclaimed with joy at seeing him, she immediately made a sign for silence, and motioned him to conceal himself under a large box tree which stood near.
"It was not safe, so she whispered, to go to the Manor. There were spies about, and Sir Humphrey Warden, the most zealous Roundhead in the district, had set a watch upon the house. At any moment they expected he might arrive with a troop of soldiers. Piers must stay where he was, and she would run and bring him the key of the boathouse; then, under cover of the darkness, he might creep away to the river, get out the boat, and drop with the current until he reached the sea, where possibly he might find a ship to take him over to France.
"She hurried indoors at once to fetch the small key that unlocked the boathouse, but as she was returning down the avenue she found she was just too late. There was a tramp of horses' hoofs, and Sir Humphrey Warden came riding up at the head of a band of men.
"'Good even, fair neighbour,' he said. 'I must needs make an inspection of your house, and with your permission I will give myself the honour of supping with you to-night. What brings you hither?'
"'I do but take the air, and pluck a few of these fragrant blossoms,' replied Monica hastily. 'I will presently conduct you to the Manor myself, and entertain you.'
"She was in a desperate strait. How could she manage to save her brother? Now that Sir Humphrey had come, she knew her every movement would be watched. No one could be trusted, for the servants (so she feared) had all been bribed. Gathering a bunch of roses, she contrived unnoticed to slip her little key inside the heart of one of them.
"'I would fain crave the favour of a flower, madam,' said Sir Humphrey, who was an admirer of fair dames, in spite of his Puritan dress.
"'Take your choice, sir,' replied Monica, boldly holding out her bunch. 'Nay, not this red one; it is overblown, and will fall directly. 'Tis but fit to be flung away. This pink hath the sweeter scent, an you will wear it for me.'
"As she spoke she tossed the rose containing the key with apparent carelessness over the hedge to the foot of the box tree where her brother was lying concealed; then, leading her unwelcome guest to the house, she gave orders for his due entertainment.
"Sir Humphrey and his men searched the Manor in vain, but they never thought of looking in the garden, where the fugitive was waiting till the darkness should be black enough to hide him. Sir Piers got safely away to France, and returned in triumph to his estates when Charles II came to his own again. As a remembrance of his wonderful escape, he caused his sister's portrait to be painted, with the bunch of roses in her hand. Ever since the Courtenays have had an almost superstitious reverence for the picture. There is an old saying that it guards the safety and fortunes of the family."
"And what became of Monica?" asked Lindsay, who had been deeply interested in the story.
"She married a cavalier friend of her brother's, and went to live in Devonshire. I believe she kept one of the roses treasured away in a box, and it was buried with her when she died."
"I suppose Monica was christened after her?" said Cicely.
"Yes; that has always been a favourite name with the Courtenays, though I do not think any of them can have more closely resembled the portrait."
"How can the picture guard your fortunes?" enquired Lindsay.
"I don't know. It is one of those quaint ideas that sometimes linger in families. Of course it is only a tale, and I am afraid I have been a long while in telling it. Monica, dear, it is twenty minutes past five. Lindsay and Cicely must hurry back to school at once, if they are to be in time for preparation. We shall get into sad disgrace with Miss Russell if we allow them to be late."
"I think your mother is perfectly sweet," said Lindsay, as Monica walked with them along the road to the Manor gates.
"She's just everything in the whole world to me," replied Monica. "I wish she were stronger, though. She has been ill for such a long time. The doctor says it would do her good to spend next winter in the south of Italy, but that, I'm afraid, will be quite impossible. She ought to go, it might make all the difference," she continued, almost as if talking to herself; "yet we can't manage it, however much we try, unless, indeed——"
But here she seemed to recollect the presence of her companions, and wishing them a hasty good-bye, she turned back to the cottage.
"I know what Monica was going to say," remarked Cicely, as they walked up the drive.
"She meant her mother would be able to go away if the treasure were found," replied Lindsay. "Oh! it does seem hard, when they need it so badly, that it should be shut up somewhere, and doing no good to anybody at all."
"I think Monica is frightened lest Mrs. Courtenay should grow worse and die, if they have to stay in England for the winter. I don't believe she would enjoy a penny of her fortune if it were to come too late for her to share it with her mother."
One day, shortly before Whitsuntide, Irene Spencer walked into the third-class schoolroom with a letter in her hand, and a look on her face which proclaimed news of some importance.
"I don't believe any of you will ever guess what I've come to tell you," she announced. "I've heard this morning from my aunt at Linforth Vicarage. She writes asking me to spend a few days there at Whitsuntide (we are to have a short holiday, you know), and she says: 'We have asked Monica Courtenay, and we should be very pleased if Miss Russell would also allow you to bring one of your younger schoolfellows who would prove a nice companion for Rhoda.' My cousin Rhoda is twelve, so I have to pick out one from among you six. Whichever it is will have an uncommonly jolly visit, because we always have glorious times at Linforth."
"How delightful! Oh, do take me!" exclaimed the six in chorus, each enchanted with such a tempting prospect, and anxious to be the chosen favourite.
"I wish I could take you all," replied Irene, "but unfortunately the invitation is only for one. Miss Russell says this will be the best way to arrange it. The girl who is nearest to Rhoda's age must go. Will you each tell me the date of your birthday, and then I shall be able to decide. Rhoda's is on the twentieth of March."
It certainly seemed the fairest way of settling the question, and one against which there could be no appeal.
"Miss Russell is a modern Solomon," declared Cicely. "I'm afraid I haven't the slightest chance, because I'm only eleven and a half, and so is Nora."
"I'm almost thirteen," wailed Beryl. "I wish I were a few months younger. Effie, I shall be horribly jealous if the chance falls to you."
"No such luck! I am a Christmas child," returned Effie. "I believe Marjorie is nearer."
"The twenty-seventh of February. Can anybody do better than that?" asked Marjorie hopefully.
"Mine is the sixth of April," said Lindsay.
"About as much after Rhoda's as Marjorie's is before," said Irene. "We must count it up exactly. Somebody give me a pencil and a piece of paper. Let me see, the twenty-seventh of February to the twentieth of March is twenty-one days, and the twentieth of March to the sixth of April is only seventeen. Then Lindsay is nearer by four days."
"Hurrah!" cried Lindsay, clapping her hands, "I'm glad I wasn't born a week later. How dreadfully sorry I am for you all, especially Marjorie!"
"My aunt says she will send the trap for us on Friday afternoon," continued Irene. "And we are to stay until Tuesday morning, so that will give us three whole days at Linforth. I'm sure you'll like Rhoda, and my other cousins too. There are eight of them altogether. Meta, the eldest, is seventeen; she's going to study music in Germany next September. Ralph and Leonard are fifteen and fourteen; they go to the Appleford Grammar School, and ride there every day on their bicycles. Then comes Rhoda, and there are four little ones. They do lessons with a governess, but perhaps some time Rhoda is to be sent to Winterburn Lodge. Aunt Esther says she shan't treat us as visitors; we must make ourselves at home amongst the others."
The visit seemed an event worth looking forward to, not only on its own account, but because Monica was to be one of the party. Lindsay could hardly believe her good fortune, and rejoiced again and again over the happy date of her birthday. She was in a state of great excitement on the Friday afternoon, when the phaeton arrived with Monica already installed on the front seat. To drive away in such company was indeed a matter for congratulation, and she felt much sympathy for the disconsolate five who were perforce left behind, especially for poor Cicely, who would miss her more than anybody, and whose eyes were full of tears at the parting.
"Never mind," she whispered to the latter, "perhaps it will be your turn next time for something nice. At any rate, I shall have heaps to tell you when I come back."
Linforth Vicarage was a long, rambling stone house, the flagged roof and mullioned windows of which proclaimed it as belonging, equally with the Manor, to a period of the past. It was a delightful, roomy, almost medieval kind of a place, so picturesque, in its old-world fashion, that one could forgive the lowness of the rooms, the narrowness of the passages, the steepness of the stairs, and the inconvenience of the fact that the front door opened directly into the dining-room, and the bedrooms nearly all led into one another. None of these drawbacks seemed to distress the young Greenwoods, who thought their home the nicest spot in the world. They were a particularly jolly, merry, happy-go-lucky family, full of jokes and noise. Rhoda, for whose benefit Lindsay had been invited, received her visitor with enthusiasm.
"I'm so glad Miss Russell let you come!" she said. "You see, Meta will monopolize Irene and Monica, and I should have been left out altogether. I'm delighted to have someone of my own age."
Monica was a great favourite in the household, and held in request by all, from Mr. and Mrs. Greenwood to Cyril, the baby. As Rhoda had prophesied, however, she disappeared after tea with Meta and Irene, the three elder girls evidently wishing to have a chat in private. Rhoda made an effort to secure Lindsay to herself, but the four little ones—Wilfred, Alwyn, Joan, and Cyril—begged so piteously not to be banished from the society of the interesting visitor that in the end she yielded, and allowed them to help to exhibit the various treasures in the garden which she wished to show to her new friend.
The Greenwoods had quite a menagerie in the way of pets. They kept them in a disused stable, in neat cages with wire fronts, most of which had been made by Ralph and Leonard. There were silky-haired, lop-eared rabbits, that could be hugged in small arms without offering any remonstrances; bright-eyed little guinea-pigs, which often caused exciting chases by escaping from their owners' embraces and hiding away behind the cages; a family of piebald mice, consisting of a mother and five young ones, which generally went to bed in the daytime, and had to be poked out of their sleeping quarters with a lead pencil to make them show themselves; a morose-looking tortoise that would allow Wilfred to scratch its head, but spat indignantly at the others; and a whole box full of silkworms in various stages, from tiny, wriggling black threads to chrysalids in cocoons. The children were accompanied to the stable by a sharp little black Pomeranian; but they were obliged to leave him outside in case he might hurt the rabbits, and he sat howling dolefully on the doorstep until they came out again. He escorted them into the garden afterwards, however, and so did a large nondescript kind of yard dog, which was called Bootles, and which allowed itself to be harnessed to a mail-cart, and drew Cyril up and down the path.
"I want to show you our fruit trees," said Rhoda, leading the way to the orchard. "We each have one of our very own, planted as soon as we were born. Meta, Ralph, and Leonard have apples, Wilfred and Alwyn pears, mine is a Victoria plum, Joan has a greengage, and Cyril a black cherry. You see, they stand in a row, away from the other trees, so we call this our part of the orchard."
"Whose is the ninth?" enquired Lindsay, looking at a fine pear tree which headed the line.
"That belonged to our eldest brother," said Rhoda. "He died before I can remember, but we still call it 'Herbert's tree'. The pears are always ripe every year on his birthday, so we pick them all and pack them carefully in a box, and send them to a children's hospital in London. Mother sends the money she would have spent on his birthday present too. They're the most beautiful pears, the best we have, and we thought that was the nicest thing we could do with them."
The Greenwoods' little gardens were as interesting as their fruit trees. Each child appeared to have been trying a different experiment. Wilfred had made a pond in his by sinking an old wooden tub in the ground, and was trying to persuade a water-lily to grow in it. He had planted a clump of iris and some forget-me-nots at the edge, which hung over rather gracefully, and really looked quite pretty. He kept several frogs to swim about in the water, though the constant catching of these rather interfered with the wellbeing of the struggling lily. Alwyn had built a miniature house in her plot out of old bricks and stones, and had thatched it neatly with straw. She had made a gravel path up to the front door, and had sown grass to represent lawns, and cut a round flower bed in the middle of each. Joan's garden was subject to violent changes. Last year it had been a potato patch, but as she dug up those useful vegetables every day to see how they were sprouting, it was not surprising that they refused to make much growth. Lately she had converted the whole into a dolls' cemetery, and, with Cyril's aid, keenly enjoyed conducting the funerals of various headless favourites, waxing so enthusiastic over the obsequies that she even buried several quite respectable wax babies, though, regretting their loss afterwards, she was eventually forced to dig them up again. She put tombstones at the heads of the graves, made of slates from the roof of a tumble-down shed, and carefully wrote names, dates, and epitaphs upon them in slate pencil, being greatly distressed when the inscriptions were invariably obliterated by every fresh shower of rain.
Cyril had sown the letters of his name in mustard and cress, which were just coming up fresh and green, and would soon be ready to cut. He also had some bulbs under pieces of glass in a corner which he called his hothouse. Ralph and Leonard were so busy at school that their gardens appeared to be mostly cared for by Rhoda, who had a very ambitious scheme for her own.
"I want to make a floral clock," she explained. "You see, I've dug a round face and marked it out into twelve parts, and I'm going to put each figure in different-coloured flowers. Then I thought if I could fix a pole in the middle it ought to cast a shadow, and tell the time like a sundial. I've made it north, south, east, and west by my compass, and it will be most delightful if I can only get it to work."
Rhoda had almost as much to show Lindsay in the house as out-of-doors. There was her bedroom, a tiny sanctum where she kept all her special treasures out of the way of the children's meddlesome fingers. It was a very old-fashioned little room, with a low, black-beamed ceiling, and a window that opened on to a small balcony, where she could grow nasturtiums and other trailing plants in pots. The walls were covered with pictures in home-made frames, wonderful arrangements of corks, acorns, shells, or plaited straw; and there were quite a nice writing-table and some wonderful bookcases.
"The boys made these out of old boxes," said Rhoda. "They learn how in their carpentry class at school, and they did them to surprise me on my birthday. I keep all my books here. Father is giving me the poets now as Christmas presents. I have Longfellow and Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and I expect it will be either Cowper or Goldsmith next time. This is my paint-box. I daren't leave it in the schoolroom for fear of the little ones getting hold of it. Isn't it a beauty? Miss Johnson, our governess, gave it to me as a prize for passing the Trinity College exam. in piano and theory."
"Do you like music?" asked Lindsay.
"Yes, I think I'm rather fond of it. Miss Johnson wanted me to go in for this exam.; she said it would be something to practise for. We had to go to Bridgend to take it. It was rather fun, for we were the whole day in getting there and back, and luckily I wasn't a scrap nervous. Do you play?"
"A little," replied Lindsay. "I'm learning the violin, but I can't have any lessons at the Manor."
"I wish you could come over and help us at one of our temperance concerts."
"Oh, I should be much too frightened!" exclaimed Lindsay, in horror.
"You needn't mind in a little village like this," declared Rhoda. "The people would think whatever you did was splendid. They clap at everything, even when Ralph gives nigger songs; and he's got no voice, and the banjo's generally out of tune, so that he's singing away in one key and playing in another."
"I don't know whether I could promise to keep in tune," laughed Lindsay. "Do you play at these concerts?"
"Yes, nearly always. It was a little awkward last time, because something had gone wrong with the keys of the piano. They stuck down, and I had to get Wilfred to sit underneath and keep poking them up as fast as I played on them, or else half the notes wouldn't sound; and it seemed so queer to only get part of a chord, and to miss the middle of a run. It quite put me out. I suppose it was the damp that caused it. We must get a tuner to come and see to it."
"Did the people applaud?"
"Yes, tremendously. I think it amused them to see Wilfred sitting underneath. They simply roared every time he pushed up the keys. It was as good as a comic song. It really is tiresome, though, to have a piano like that at the school. John Crosby, the stonemason's little boy, sings very nicely, and I went so wrong in playing his accompaniment, through losing so many of the notes, that he finished half a verse ahead of me. I apologized to him afterwards, but he said he didn't think anyone had noticed it!"
Lindsay found it quite a novel and entertaining experience to stay in the midst of such a large, enterprising, lively family as the Greenwoods. From Meta, the eldest, to Cyril, the baby, hardly out of petticoats, all had very decided opinions of their own, which they urged and argued with considerable force of character, but an amount of good temper which spoke well for their training. Mrs. Greenwood, who thought quarrelling greatly a matter of habit, insisted upon a certain standard of home politeness being maintained, and would tolerate neither domineering in the elder ones nor whining amongst the younger.
"You can discuss a subject perfectly well without being rude to each other when you differ," she declared. "You must take it in turns to have your own way. It is not fair that the eldest should always arrange everything, but on the other hand Joan and Alwyn will get nothing at all if they begin to wail and complain in that most grumbling and unpleasant tone of voice. I think it is a disgrace if you're all so selfish that you can't agree. You must each be prepared to give up a certain amount, for among eight children it is quite impossible for every one to be first and foremost."
Irene, being the Greenwoods' cousin, was accustomed to their tempestuous ways, and ready to hold her own amongst them; while Monica looked on with an amused smile, without taking part in any arguments or disputes. There was certainly plenty to do at the Vicarage, and none of the three guests could complain that the holiday was dull.
On Saturday afternoon Meta, Rhoda, and the two eldest boys arranged that they should make an expedition to a large lake about a couple of miles away. They had been promised the loan of a boat there, and they proposed to take their visitors for a trip on the water. They started off with baskets of provisions, intending to land and have a picnic tea, if they could find sufficient dry sticks upon the banks to light a fire and boil their kettle. Both Meta and her brothers could row well, so the boat was soon skimming over the lake in a delightfully smooth and satisfactory fashion.
"We daren't anchor anywhere near the woods," declared Meta, "Sir Percy Harwood, the owner, is so very strict about trespassing."
"Yes, the keepers are down on you if you even go a few yards into the preserves," agreed Ralph. "Look here! What do you say to camping out on that little island? There can't be any pheasants there to scare, and we ought to get plenty of sticks."
The island in question was a small, green-looking collection of hazel bushes and birch trees, well out in the middle of the lake. It had an attractive appearance, so they rowed through the quiet stretch of water that separated them from it, and ran the boat in among the reeds that grew at the edge.
"It seems rather jolly," said Rhoda. "Suppose we leave the baskets here, and go and explore first to find a good place?"
"It's quite romantic," declared Irene, "like Ellen's Isle in the Lady of the Lake. We ought to find a hunting-lodge among the trees, and an interesting outlaw living there."
"More likely to find a poacher!" laughed Ralph; "though there'd be nothing for him to trap here, unless he kept a boat stowed away in the reeds, and took midnight excursions into the woods."
"I think it's the kind of place for a hermit," said Monica. "He could have had a little cell and told his beads without being disturbed by anybody, except an occasional knight-errant who would blow a horn from the opposite bank. I wonder if one ever lived here?"
"The landlords couldn't have been so particular about trespassing in those days, then, if he did," replied Leonard. "I don't believe Sir Percy Harwood would let anybody settle so near his pheasants; he'd suspect steel traps or wire snares under the cassock, and expect to hear a shot in the woods instead of a vesper bell."
"We'll tie the boat to this old stump," said Ralph. "Be careful where you step in getting off—the ground seems fearfully soppy. Perhaps it may be better higher up. Let us come on a little. I say, there's something rather queer about it, isn't there?"
There certainly was something decidedly queer. The green mossy earth under their feet gave way as if they were treading upon a feather bed. At each step it sank with a curious squelching sound, and rose behind with the elasticity of a cork, so that as they sprang here and there the whole of the little island appeared to be bounding up and down beneath them, as Leonard expressed it, "just like a spring mattress when you jump on it".
"The ground is so funny, too," said Meta, poking about with a stick; "it doesn't seem proper soil, only roots and moss and grass growing through it. Why, this stick goes down ever such a long way, and there's actually water coming up!"
The others all came to investigate, and standing close together began to dig their sticks into the curious heaving surface. It bore their combined weight for a moment or two, then sinking suddenly, like a punctured indiarubber ball, it collapsed, and they found themselves struggling nearly up to their waists in water. Luckily they were able to clutch at the hazel bushes above, and, by swinging themselves along the branches, to arrive at a firmer foothold, though even there the ground felt very insecure and spongy, and little dark pools came oozing up with every step.
"We must keep as far apart from each other as we can," shouted Ralph; "the wretched place has no solid foundation, it's only a collection of sticks and leaves. Cling to the trees, and try to get back to the boat before you go in any deeper. Don't put your weight on it! It's like walking on thin ice."
Very wet and muddy, and somewhat frightened, the explorers picked their way carefully back, treading as much as possible on the roots of the trees, and never letting go their hold of the boughs. They scrambled into the boat again with considerable relief, and held a review of their damaged garments.
"I'm soaked to the skin!" declared Rhoda. "It's a horrible nuisance. Look at Lindsay!"
"I don't mind my clothes so much, if it weren't so uncomfortable. My dress will wash," said Lindsay.
"Mine won't though, I'm sorry to say!" groaned Irene.
"I was carrying the cakes, and they're wet through, and not fit to eat," announced Leonard.
"The island is a perfect trap," said Meta, trying to squeeze the muddy water from her own dress and Monica's. "I believe it's nothing but a kind of raft, made out of all the dead wood and rubbish that have accumulated in the lake. I expect seeds have blown on to it, and then trees and bushes have sprung up. Now I think of it, I don't believe it was in the same place last year, so it must be able to float. We shall have to go home; we can't stop and picnic when we're drenched like this."
"I wonder how the hermit managed, if he ever lived there?" said Monica.
"It must have been an excellent penance, with a chance of martyrdom at the end of it," returned Ralph. "Well, I must say we have given our visitors a pleasant afternoon! They won't want to take this as a specimen of our picnics. No good offering tea and cake in this condition!"
"I'd rather have a cake of soap and a can of hot water!" said Irene.
"Never mind!" said Leonard consolingly. "I vote we go up Pendle Tor on Monday. We can boil a kettle there, and have no end of fun. If you've never been before, I expect you'll say it makes up for this."
It was with much pleasurable anticipation that the picnic party set out on Whit Monday for Pendle Tor. The four younger Greenwoods were left at home, as the walk would be too far for them, but they announced their intention of climbing a small hill behind the Vicarage in the afternoon, and having an alfresco tea on their own account, which was to be equal, if not superior, to that enjoyed by their elders—"because Mary will just have finished baking, and she has promised to bring us some buns straight out of the oven, and you certainly won't get those on Pendle Tor," said Joan.
Although they might be debarred from the pleasure of hot tea-cakes, the mountaineers nevertheless did not mean to starve on their journey, to judge from the baskets full of provisions which they bore with them. Leonard had taken a milk-can that would serve to boil the water in instead of a kettle, it being lighter to carry, and having the added advantage that they could pack the teacups inside.
"You see, an iron kettle is such a weight", he explained, "and the last time we took one of those rubbishy sixpence-halfpenny tin ones the solder all melted directly we put it on to the fire, and the spout dropped off. We can sling the milk-can on a stick and prop it over the fire, and it does splendidly."
"Mind you don't break the cups!" said Irene, expecting to hear a smash after the reckless way in which the can was being swung about.
"Couldn't do it if I tried; they're all enamel ones. The Mater wouldn't trust us with her best china, I assure you."
"There are ever so many trout up in the stream by Inglemere," remarked Ralph. "If we could manage to tickle a few, we might fry them in the lid of the milk-can."
"It's rank poaching!" declared Meta.
"I don't care in the least," returned Ralph. "If Sir Percy complains that any are missing, you can give him the bones, with my compliments."
"I don't think he would mind your catching one or two," said Monica. "I know Sir Percy rather well, and it is only real poachers that he's so hard on, and excursionists who come sometimes and try to fish. You see, as he says, if everyone were allowed to take fish, there would soon be none left, and people would begin to do it for the sake of selling them, and not for the sport. He allowed Mr. Cross's nephews to fish last summer when they were staying at the Rectory, and he said I might too, if I ever felt inclined."
"I've never seen trout tickled," said Lindsay.
"It will be a case of 'First catch your fish, then cook it'," laughed Rhoda. "It isn't at all easy to whisk them out—they're the most slippery things you can imagine. I'm glad we don't have to depend on Ralph's skill for our dinner. I was hoping we might find some mushrooms, and stew them in part of the milk we've brought. We could put the can down among the ashes of the fire, and they'd be cooking while we ate the first course."
"Well, it is certainly a case of 'First pick your mushrooms', for you don't even know whether there'll be any," retorted Ralph. "The trout are always there, at any rate."
It was a long walk to Pendle Tor, and appetites, sharpened by the fresh air of the hills, began to grow rather keen; but as they had all resolved not to have their picnic before they had reached the summit, they staved off the edge of their hunger with a few biscuits, and, trudging on, covered the last mile in such quick time that Leonard declared it reminded him of a paper-chase. It was rather a steep pull to gain the highest point, yet they were well rewarded when they reached it by the bird's-eye view of the landscape around them, farms, churches, and distant village looking like so many toys, and the fields like the divisions in a map.
"I hope it doesn't mean to rain," said Monica, pointing to some rather threatening clouds that were rolling up from the west.
"We shall get a nice wetting if it does, for we haven't an umbrella amongst us!" returned Irene.
"Rain? Not it! Don't distress yourself; the glass was up to 'Fair' this morning. It's only a little scrap of mist blowing over. I don't mind giving you a butter-scotch in exchange for every drop of rain you get on your hat to-day," declared Ralph, whose prophecies were generally in exact accordance with his hopes, and who was apt to shut his eyes to unwelcome truths.
"Better not promise too much, old chap, or you may have to pay up," said Leonard. "I don't like the look of the sky myself. But what's the odds? It won't be the first time we've been wet through, by a long way, and I suppose we shan't melt."
"What about the lunch?" asked Rhoda. "I'm getting so famished, I can't wait much longer."
It was decided that the extreme top of the Tor was hardly a suitable place—the wind was strong, and no water was available; so they climbed some little distance down the cliff on the farther side, and at last hit upon a sheltered spot among the rocks, where a small surface spring, bubbling up from the ground, enabled them to fill the milk-can which was to serve as a kettle. The boys cut large bundles of dry heather, and, stacking it well together, soon had a good fire burning. They found it after all impossible to suspend the can, for the flames burnt directly through any stick that they tried to hang over the blaze; so they were obliged to set it securely on an arrangement of stones, and rake the fire round it. They had brought the tea in a muslin bag, which they dropped into the can, to save a teapot; and though pouring out was rather difficult, owing to the tin being so extremely hot, Meta managed to dispense the cups without burning her fingers.
"You haven't provided the fish course yet," said Rhoda to Ralph. "I thought we were to have fried trout as part of the feast."
"And I thought you were to give us mushrooms," retorted Ralph.
"Shouldn't care to wait while she cooked them," declared Leonard. "Ham sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs are quite good enough for me. Did you bring any salt? Another cup of tea, please, and don't be stingy with the sugar, Meta. I like three lumps."
"I wonder why things always taste so different out-of-doors," said Lindsay, looking reflectively at the three-cornered strawberry jam pastry she was eating.
"Why, I saw you swallow an ant on your tart just now," said Ralph, "so perhaps that has given it a flavour. Oh, you needn't distress yourself! Ants are quite wholesome, I assure you. There are a frightful lot of them crawling about here, though. I think we shall have to move on a stave."
"Ugh! Yes. They're stinging me already!" agreed Lindsay.
They were all a little tired after their long walk, so they were glad to sit and rest after lunch, asking riddles, cracking jokes, and listening to the boys' school tales of exciting cricket matches, private feuds, combats between class champions, and the punishments that had been meted out to certain sneaks and bullies—accounts which were as thrilling in their way as the doughty deeds of mail-clad knights of old, the warlike sentiments being just the same, though the setting of the century might differ. It was so interesting that nobody gave a thought to the time, or remembered the ominous clouds that had been stretching themselves out like long ribbons over the moor.
"Why, where's the view gone to?" cried Monica at last. "I thought we could see Linforth and the lake from here, and the tower of Haversleigh Church."
She might well exclaim in astonishment. Instead of the landscape which had met their eyes before, there was nothing to be seen but a great white wall of mist that seemed to close them in on every side, as if some giant hand had suddenly drawn down a blind between them and the distance.
"Whew!" exclaimed Ralph, starting to his feet, and indulging in a long-drawn-out whistle. "This is a nice fix! We're in the middle of a cloud. I never saw it coming up. It will be uncommonly awkward to get out of it. What a shame of old Pendle Tor to play us such a trick!"
"Will it soon blow over, do you think?" asked Irene.
"I don't know," replied Meta rather gravely. "Sometimes the clouds stay on these moors for days and days together. I wish we had noticed it sooner, and gone down to the road again before we were surrounded. I'm afraid it may be very difficult to find our way now."
"I don't think it's any use waiting," said Leonard, "it mayn't clear for hours. We'd better pack up our traps, and make the best push we can to try to strike the path."
"We must all stick close together," remarked Ralph. "It won't do to get divided, or we might never find each other again. We'd better keep well to the right; there's an old quarry on the left, and it wouldn't be exactly pleasant to walk into it. Luckily I've a pocket compass on my watch chain."
Very much sobered in spirits, the picnic party hastily packed up the baskets, and, choosing Ralph as guide, set off down the hillside, hoping to find some track that would lead eventually into the road below. It was a strange walk, groping their way through what Monica described as "white darkness". The heavy mist hung in the air like a blanket, so completely shutting them in that they could scarcely see each other at a distance of even a few feet, and it was only by keeping near enough to touch one another that they managed to avoid being separated. Though they had some general idea of their direction, they did not really know where they were walking, and stumbled blindly on through heather and bilberry bushes, over stones and rocks, only feeling that they were going downhill. It was very slow progress. Ralph stopped continually to consult his compass, and occasionally gave a loud "cooee", in case they might find some wandering shepherd or countryman who would be able to help them. There was no answer to his calls, however—only the occasional bleat of a sheep that sounded far off and muffled through the mist. They knew there was neither cottage nor farm within hail, and unless they could strike the road they might wander on hour after hour over the moors, only getting farther and farther out of their way. Tired out with the rough trudge, the girls at last declared they must sit still for a few minutes and rest.
"I'm awfully sorry to have landed you in such a hole," said Ralph, "but who would have thought those innocent-looking clouds would have come down on us like feather beds? You really never know what to expect on these hills."
"I wonder what we'd better do?" said Monica.
"Stay where we are," suggested Irene.
"It would be too cold to spend the night here," replied Meta.
"We haven't even our jackets with us," added Lindsay.
"Unless we're quite dead beat, we'd better push on," said Leonard. "I'm hoping we may come to the stream, because we could find our way along the banks to Whitcombe, at any rate. I've been listening for it all the time, but I haven't heard a sound."
"I wish we had a divining rod!" groaned Rhoda. "That would tell us in what direction the water lay. We've been going south-east all the time, haven't we?"
"Yes, I believe the stream lay due south from where we started," answered Ralph, "but I didn't dare to turn that way, because of the quarry. Perhaps we may strike it higher up. If you're rested, girls, we'll be going."
The damp, clinging clouds appeared to have settled down to stay. The wind that had been blowing earlier in the day, when they ascended Pendle Tor, had ceased, and there was not even the breath of a breeze to blow away the clammy mist that was already drenching their clothes with a chilly dew. It was now half-past five o'clock, and they had been wandering for more than an hour.
"I haven't an idea where we are, nor how far we've come," said Ralph. "I only know I've been steering east by the compass. Of course we've been going very slowly, but I think we shouldn't be far from the brook. If we could find that, it would be an enormous help."
"I believe I hear water now," said Rhoda, pausing a moment. "I'm sure I do: to our left. Listen!"
All stood still, with every sense on the alert, straining their ears intently for the faintest murmur. In the far distance it seemed to them that they could certainly catch the unmistakable rush of a stream flowing swiftly over a rough, stony bed. Guided by the sound, they stumbled on, till at length, after climbing over a number of rocks, they reached the welcome brook that was to be their path to home and safety.
"I'm uncommonly glad to see it!" said Ralph, stooping to take a drink. "I began to think we should never get back again. If we follow it down, it will lead us straight into Whitcombe. Of course, that's far enough out of our way, but we might get a trap there, and drive home."
It was a most terrible scramble down the bed of the stream, over jagged rocks, among briers and bushes, and through rushes and reeds. The mist still wrapped them round, and they did not dare to venture away from the water to find smoother walking. The three visitors, who were not accustomed to such exploits, were nearly exhausted, while even sturdy Meta and Rhoda showed signs of giving in.
"We're at the old bridge now," said Ralph, trying to encourage them. "We can climb up and get on to the road. It's only about three miles farther to Whitcombe village. We're bound to find a trap of some sort there, and then you'll be all right."
"I think the mist is lifting a little," said Leonard; "it isn't half as thick as it was. Look at the sun trying to get through!"
"I believe we're walking straight out of the edge of the clouds. That's what it is!" declared Ralph. "I begin to see the trees. Hurrah! It's clearing ever so. We'll scramble up the bank, and we shall get along much faster on the road than down here on these wretched stones. Cheer up, girls! You'll soon be in Whitcombe now."
An hour afterwards, very footsore and weary, the party limped into Whitcombe, a small hamlet consisting of a wayside inn and a handful of cottages. It was eight o'clock, and the sun, behind long bars of crimson and grey, had already begun to sink below the horizon. They were nine miles away from home, as the stream had led them in quite a different direction from Linforth, and, as Leonard expressed it, they had "altogether landed themselves in a jolly pickle". Just at present tea seemed the most pressing necessity, so a council of war was held to see what funds could be mustered for the purpose. These did not amount to very much. Lindsay and Rhoda were penniless, Monica also had left her purse at the Vicarage. Irene and Meta mustered a shilling between them. Ralph had a sixpence, while the contents of Leonard's pockets proved to be exactly those of the traditional schoolboy's, twopence-halfpenny and an old knife.
"I'm afraid it won't go very far," said Ralph. "We shall have to ask them to give us tick. Come along! We'll try the inn, and see what they will do for us."
"We must tell them who we are," added Meta, "and say Father will pay afterwards."
The sight of seven such bona fide travellers appeared to occasion much surprise, to both the good woman at the bar and the few villagers who, with pipes and glasses, were sitting discussing local politics and the chances of the harvest. Tea at the unwonted hour of eight seemed an unprecedented request, and the landlady was not content until she had satisfied her curiosity as to who her guests were, where they came from, and what they wanted at Whitcombe at that time in the evening.
"What we want is some tea," said Ralph, after a brief explanation of their adventure, "and anything in the shape of a conveyance that can take us back to Linforth to-night. We've only one and eightpence-halfpenny amongst us, but my father will pay the rest when we get home. If you like, I'll leave you my watch and chain."
"You've no need to do that!" laughed the landlady. "I'm sure I can trust you. Come into the little parlour, and have your teas there. The young ladies look ready to drop, and this is no fit place for them to sit down in. Those mists be nasty things up Pendle Tor. It's a mercy as you've got down at all. There was a gentleman from London caught there last autumn, and he wandered round and round in a circle for two days before it cleared and they found him. He was nigh dead, too, with the cold and the damp. My son Albert shall put the horse in the trap and drive you home. I dare say you'll manage to cram in somehow."
No tea was ever so acceptable as the large, steaming cups which they drank in the stuffy little parlour, and no carriage and pair could have been more welcome than the old market cart that came round to the door afterwards. It was rather a problem how to pack themselves and the driver into it, but Lindsay sat on Meta's knee, and Rhoda squeezed herself between her two brothers on the front seat. The horse walked up and down hill, and only rose to a measured trot on level ground, so it took a considerable time to accomplish the nine-mile journey, and it was nearly eleven o'clock before they reached the Vicarage. Very tired and cold and cramped, they rushed into the house, where Mrs. Greenwood, in an agony of suspense, had been imagining all the accidents which could possibly have happened to them, and was preparing herself for the worst. The Vicar and some of the neighbours, it appeared, were out searching for them with lanterns, so a messenger was quickly sent through the village to spread the good news of their safe arrival.
"You can't complain you've had no excitement here," said Ralph to the three guests. "We almost drowned you on Saturday, and to-day we nearly lost you on the moors. You're going to-morrow, or we might have had some more hairbreadth escapes. At any rate, I don't think you'll forget Pendle Tor in a hurry!"
Lindsay had certainly plenty of news to relate when she returned to the Manor. Her classmates were quite envious, and poor Cicely was a little wistful lest Rhoda should have usurped her place in her friend's affections. Of that, however, she need not have been afraid. Lindsay was faithful to her chosen chum, and had so many things to ask about, as well as adventures to tell, that the two were soon chattering as fast as usual. Cicely had made no further important discoveries during the few days, though she had kept a careful watch on Mrs. Wilson, and had once noticed her go up to the lantern room carrying a jug in her hand. Scott had not been in the house again, but he had been seen talking earnestly with "The Griffin" in the garden. He had gone hastily away when Cicely approached, so he evidently did not wish the conversation to be overheard. Whether it had anything to do with the mystery or not, it was of course impossible to say.
"I'm rather glad, on the whole, that nothing particular happened while you were away," said Cicely. "I should have wanted so dreadfully to tell somebody, I'm afraid Marjorie Butler might have wormed it out of me. As it is, they none of them know, and we still have the secret to ourselves."
The Plot Thickens
After hearing the story of Monica Courtenay, their friend's ancestress, Lindsay and Cicely felt a special interest in her portrait. They strolled one afternoon along the picture gallery to take another look at it. There were the pretty smiling face—so like Monica's—and the bunch of red roses that had saved the life of Sir Piers Courtenay. Was all the good fortune of the race to be hers, and would none of it descend to the namesake who so closely resembled her?
"If she could only come back and be of some use again!" sighed Lindsay. "She ought to know every secret of this house."
"I wish we could make her speak and tell us," said Cicely.
At that moment a distant door banged, and a great gust of wind blew along the gallery. Cicely started violently.
"Lindsay, did you see?" she exclaimed. "The picture moved in its frame!"
"Nonsense! How could it?" said Lindsay, who had been looking the other way.
"I tell you it did!"
"You must have imagined it."
It certainly seemed rather improbable. The portraits were all firmly fixed in the panelled walls, and no breath of air could be expected to penetrate behind them.
"It's almost as if she were alive," continued Cicely, "and just when we were wishing she could talk! No wonder people make up tales about her. I don't think I quite like it."
"How silly you are!" said Lindsay scornfully. "You might have seen a ghost!"
"Well, it is queer! You needn't laugh at me so. I'm not going to stay here any longer; I vote we go out into the garden."
Pictures that moved were rather more than Cicely had bargained for. Mysteries were all very well in their way, but she began to feel it was possible to have too much of a good thing. It was a distinct relief to her to leave the gloomy old gallery, with its armour and tapestry, and walk out into the fresh air and sunshine. There was still half an hour to be disposed of before tea, and the two girls sauntered leisurely in the direction of the kitchen-garden.
"I wish I knew where the boathouse used to be that Sir Piers wanted the key for," said Lindsay.
"It was not very far away, I dare say. The river runs somewhere at the bottom of those fields."
"I wonder if there's a path."
"I believe there's one at the end of the orchard. I saw Scott walking down there once."
"Shall we go and see?"
The orchard was forbidden ground. Perhaps, though, the fact that they risked a scolding, or even a mark for bad conduct, only made the adventure more interesting. They ascertained first that Scott was safely attending to his tomatoes in the greenhouse, then they dived hastily between the rows of young apple trees. Cicely was right. At the far end there was a small gate that led into a meadow.
"The river must be over there, hidden by those willows," said Lindsay.
"I hope we shan't meet a bull," said Cicely, looking nervously at a group of cattle in the distance.
"Oh, come along! You're surely not afraid of cows!"
They had soon crossed the field and reached the shade of the willows by the water's edge. The low bank was covered with reeds and rushes. Tall purple flowers were growing on a green, boggy island close by. It was a very pleasant place, just the kind of spot to choose on a hot summer's afternoon.
"Far nicer than the garden, because we have it all to ourselves," declared Cicely.
"Oh, look what I've found!" exclaimed Lindsay ecstatically.
She had been poking about among the reeds, and now pointed in triumph under the branches of a big willow to a smooth little pool, where there actually floated a punt, anchored by a long chain to the trunk of the tree.
It was a most attractive-looking boat, nicely polished, and with the name Heatherbell painted in neat white letters on the prow. It came quite easily to the edge of the bank when Lindsay pulled the chain, and seemed deliberately to invite them to step into it. Such a temptation was not to be resisted. In a moment they were both inside.
"If I can manage to untie it, I'm sure I could punt us out on to the river," said Lindsay.
"Oh, do! And then perhaps we could find some water-lilies," agreed her ever-willing friend.
Lindsay leaned over to reach the chain. It was wound tightly round the tree, and was very difficult to unfasten.
"I'll come and help you!" cried Cicely, and without a thought of the consequences she bounced up, and stepped to the other end of the boat.
Her sudden change of position utterly upset the balance of their small craft. There was a splash, a succession of squeals, and both girls were floundering in the water. Luckily the pool was shallow, and they were in no danger of drowning; but by the time they reached the bank they were wet through, and in an extremely draggled condition.
"What are we to do?" said Cicely blankly, trying to wring the water out of her skirts.
"Go back, I suppose, and put on dry things," replied Lindsay. "We shall get into a fearful scrape, I expect."
"Yes! What will Miss Frazer say?"
Miss Frazer was on the point of collecting her flock in preparation for tea, when two dejected, dripping figures came creeping along the terrace. If they had hoped to reach the side door unobserved, they were soon undeceived; the governess's sharp eyes spied them at once.
"Lindsay and Cicely!" she burst out wrathfully. "You naughty girls! Where have you been? Come at once into the house and change your clothes. You give more trouble than all the rest of the class put together. Miss Russell will have to be told about this."
Miss Russell was angry—really angry. She lectured them both severely, and stopped their recreation for the whole of the next day. This seemed only a very small circumstance in itself, but strangely enough it led indirectly to something of much more consequence.
The two delinquents looked decidedly rueful when, instead of going into the garden as usual, they were obliged to sit in the classroom, and copy out a passage from "Lycidas" in their best handwriting. It was trying, certainly, particularly as the other girls were playing a tennis handicap, and they could hear the soft thud of balls, and the cries of "'Vantage!" or "Game!" It was possible to see a few heads bobbing over the wall, but they could not gather how the tournament was progressing, nor which was the winning side.
Long before tea-time they had finished their allotted portions, and going to the window they leaned out, to try to catch a glimpse of what was happening on the lawn. The classroom was at the back of the house, and overlooked a small paved courtyard. Below, on a wooden bench in the sunshine, sat Scott, leisurely blacking boots, and humming to himself in a voice that had little tune in it. The cat, purring loudly, was rubbing herself vigorously against his trousers.
The girls were just going to call to him, and beg him to peep through the door in the wall and give them some news of the tennis players, when they suddenly changed their intention. Mrs. Wilson had appeared in the porch. She brought out a flower vase, flung the stale water away, and refilled it from one of the butts that stood near.
Scott had evidently seen her too, for he gave a short whistle to attract her attention, then, throwing down his blacking brush, he crossed the courtyard to speak to her. In spite of his lowered tone, his voice rose up clearly to the classroom window above.
"About what we were talking of this morning," he began. "It had best be done as soon as possible. I'll do it to-night."
"I've marked the place," replied Mrs. Wilson, "but I'll come with you to make sure. You'll want a helping hand. It's too much for one."
"You can hold the lantern, at any rate. It's a job that will need some caution. We mustn't attempt it till it's quite dark."
"No, not till everything's quiet," said Mrs. Wilson, as she re-entered the house.
Lindsay drew Cicely back quickly into the room, as Scott returned to his rows of boots on the bench. She did not wish him, at any cost, to see them at the window, or to know that they had overheard the conversation.
"What are they going to do?" asked Cicely breathlessly.
"I don't know. It must be something dreadful if they want to keep it so quiet."
"And do it in the dark, too!"
"I'm afraid both Mrs. Wilson and Scott are bad characters," said Lindsay in an impressive voice. "I expect they've stolen the treasure, and they're going to hide it in the garden. Perhaps even it may have something to do with the prisoner in the lantern room."
"You don't think they've killed him?" gasped Cicely.
"I can't tell. I believe they're capable of anything. I'm quite uneasy for fear they intend to harm Monica. We'll watch to-night, and find out what they're about. I shouldn't wonder if we're on the verge of a great discovery. It was most fortunate we were kept in this afternoon; if we hadn't happened to be at the window just then, we shouldn't have heard their plans."
Cicely's face had lengthened considerably at the idea of the black doings which it was evidently their duty to investigate.
"I don't know how we're to follow them in the dark," she said, after a moment's hesitation.
"We must," declared Lindsay emphatically. "I feel it all depends on us. Monica may be in the greatest danger, and we are the only ones who know anything about the matter, and can save her."
The tea-bell ringing at that moment sent them down to the dining-hall. The meal had been delayed half an hour on account of the tournament, so preparation followed immediately afterwards, and Lindsay and Cicely were obliged, with their thoughts still running on possible tragedies, to endeavour to apply their minds to the unromantic details of parsing.
It seemed of such minor importance whether a verb were transitive or intransitive, weak or strong, compared with whether Mrs. Wilson and Scott were really going to meet in the garden to carry out some fell intention. The time seemed endless until the books were at last put away, and they could snatch a few moments for private talk.
"There's one comfort," said Lindsay, "they won't begin until it's dark, so they can't have been doing anything while we've been in prep."
"It's generally light for quite half an hour after we're in bed," said Cicely. "I don't see yet how we're to know when they're starting."
"We shall find out," returned Lindsay confidently. "I have a kind of feeling that something is going to happen to-night."
"What are you two whispering about?" asked Nora Proctor curiously.
"Oh, only a joke of our own!"
"You've got some secret, I'm sure," said Beryl Austen; "you're always looking at each other and making signs. I noticed you yesterday during arithmetic."
"Do tell us, Cicely," begged Marjorie Butler. "You and I used to be friends, but we never have a secret together now."
"There's really nothing worth telling," declared Cicely, much embarrassed.
"We shall have to be careful though," said Lindsay afterwards. "We don't want the others to hear, and then go poking about and making discoveries."
"Certainly not; if there's anything to be found out, I'd rather we found it out ourselves."
Cicely was tired when bedtime arrived, and ready to curl herself up and forget what might be happening outside. Lindsay, on the contrary, lay with wide-open eyes, watching the room grow darker and darker. When the wardrobe and the chest of drawers and the washstand had at last all merged together into one deep mass of shadow, she got up and peeped through the open window. What she saw there caused her to run hurriedly and shake her sleepy companion.
"Cicely! Do wake up! There's a light moving in the garden."
It took a second or two for Cicely to recover her senses, but when she realized the nature of the news, she hopped out of bed in frantic excitement.
"Is it Mrs. Wilson and Scott?" she asked eagerly.
"I expect so, but of course I can't tell. Be quick! We must go at once and see what they're doing."
The two girls hastily scrambled into their clothes, and tiptoed downstairs to the side door. The servants had not yet locked up, so it was still standing ajar.
"Suppose we were to meet Miss Russell or Miss Frazer!" shivered Cicely, with a nervous glance down the corridor.
"Don't think about it. They're both safe in the drawing-room."
In another minute they had closed the door gently behind them, and were running softly across the lawn. It was a cloudy night, with neither moon nor stars in the sky. The outlines of the trees and shrubs were just visible, but it was very dark indeed under their shade.
"The light seemed to be going through the shrubbery towards the arbour," said Lindsay, feeling her way along the rose avenue.
"There it is!" replied Cicely, as a faint gleam shone in the distance.
"We must be very, very careful," said Lindsay, "not to disturb them on any account. We must stop somewhere near, and just look and listen."
As quietly as ghosts they stole down the path, trying not to rustle so much as a leaf. They were close now to the lantern. They could see it quite clearly, set on the ground, and two figures bending over it.
Skirting round under the bushes, they reached the shelter of an oak tree that grew on the side of a bank, and peeped cautiously round the trunk. Yes, it was certainly Scott and Mrs. Wilson who were in the shrubbery below. Every now and then a glint of light revealed their faces unmistakably. They were talking together in low tones, unfortunately too low for their conversation to be overheard. Scott held a spade in his hand, and was stooping to watch Mrs. Wilson, who, kneeling on the grass, was fumbling inside a large sack.
"Can you see if she's counting money?" breathed Cicely into Lindsay's ear. "I believe they're going to bury it."
"It looks like something bigger and heavier," whispered Lindsay, trying to crane her neck farther forward.
"Is it silver plate?"
"It might be anything in that huge sack."
"Oh! Not a body!"
I believe Cicely would have fled precipitately if Lindsay had not held her tightly by the hand. The fear that old Sir Giles Courtenay was being finally disposed of oppressed her like a nightmare.
"No! I expect it's the treasure. We must notice exactly where they're putting it."
Lindsay took a step nearer, to gain a better view of the proceedings, but as she did so her foot trod noisily on a dead twig.
The question was in "The Griffin's" well-known voice.
There was a growl in reply from Scott.
"Best take a look, anyhow," came from Mrs. Wilson.
Scott seized the lantern, and began to flash it round in every direction. Then, oh horrors! he walked straight towards the oak where the two girls were hiding. Nearly paralysed with fear, they did not dare to run away, and could only hope that, after all, under cover of the darkness, he might chance to overlook them.
In her desperation, Lindsay tried to draw farther behind the trunk of the tree. To do so she perforce pushed Cicely back. The latter was not quite prepared for the sudden movement, the ground was uneven, she swayed, clutched violently at her companion to save herself, and over they both rolled down the bank, almost to the very feet of Scott himself.
As Lindsay and Cicely came crashing down the bank, Scott uttered a cry of consternation. In the suddenness of his dismay, the lantern dropped from his hand, extinguishing the light in its fall.
Instantly the two girls were on their feet, and rushed helter-skelter across the garden through the darkness. They plunged anyhow through bushes and over flower-beds, scratching their faces on overhanging boughs, and tearing their dresses on thorns, their one fear lest Scott should be pursuing them, and their one anxiety to gain the safe shelter of the house.
They reached the side entrance without hearing any footsteps behind them. If Scott had tried to follow them, they had evidently managed to elude him, and he must have given up the chase. The door was still unbolted, and they hurried breathlessly upstairs, luckily meeting nobody on the way. What a harbour of refuge it seemed to be, back in their own room! Without daring to light the candle, they went back to bed again with all possible speed.
"Well, we have had an adventure!" began Lindsay, when they were once more comfortably ensconced between the sheets.
"Do you think Scott noticed who we were?" whispered Cicely.
"I can't tell. He had just time to catch a glimpse of our faces before the lantern went out."
"I'm sure they were doing something dreadful that they wanted to keep secret, he looked so utterly horror-stricken at seeing us."
"There's no doubt about it. The unfortunate part is that now they find they've been discovered, they'll bury the treasure somewhere else instead."
"What a pity we fell just at that moment!"
Cicely's voice was very doleful.
"It will have aroused their suspicions, too, and will make them extra careful," lamented Lindsay. "If Scott recognized us, he and Mrs. Wilson will know we're watching them. They'll owe us a grudge. 'The Griffin' was bad enough before, but she'll be worse than ever now."
They scanned the old housekeeper's face narrowly next morning, as she carried the coffee into the dining-room, but her countenance wore its accustomed aspect of grim inscrutability. If she connected them with last night's happenings, she certainly did not betray the knowledge; it was impossible to tell whether she mistrusted them or not, or what feelings lay concealed under her forbidding exterior.
The moment breakfast was over, they rushed into the garden to renew their acquaintance with the scene of their adventure. Somebody had plainly been digging in the bank, though the traces had evidently been tidied carefully up, and the sods replaced.
"Do you think there could be anything here?" said Cicely wistfully, poking a stick into the loosened soil.
"Oh, dear me, no!" replied Lindsay. "Why, the first thing they'd do would be to rush off with that sack to some safer spot. Even the very stupidest persons wouldn't have gone on burying valuables in a place where they knew they'd been watched. 'The Griffin' and Scott are certainly not idiots!"
"If we could only guess where they'd put it!" sighed Cicely.
For the present they had had such a fright that, though neither would confess it, both were a little inclined to let the matter rest in abeyance. It needed courage to risk the anger of Mrs. Wilson and Scott if they were once more caught meddling. It had seemed pleasant enough to search for the treasure themselves in the house, but the affair was now beginning to assume a graver aspect.
"I sometimes wonder if we ought to tell Monica or Miss Russell," said Cicely, who occasionally had uneasy scruples as to the wisdom of their plan of secrecy.
"It wouldn't be of the slightest use," declared Lindsay. "'The Griffin' and Scott would simply deny everything. They'd make out it was all nonsense on our part, like grown-up people generally do. And how could we prove we were right? Miss Russell would tell us to mind our own business, and we should only get into a scrape for our pains. No, we shall just have to let things take their course, and trust to luck."
Under the Hawthorn Tree
It was high summer at Haversleigh. The trees, now in full leaf, cast rich shadows over the landscape, the wild roses were in bloom on the hedgerows, and tall foxgloves stood like crimson sentinels at the margins of the woods. The fields were white with moon-daisies, growing among the long, lush grass; and all the roadsides were a tangle of vetches, campion, bugle, trefoil and speedwells. The wind was fragrant with the scent of newly turned hay; everywhere the mowers were busy, and the daisies were falling fast beneath the swinging scythe or the blades of the reaping-machine. In the Manor garden the roses had reached perfection, and the flower-beds were a mass of colour. The girls spent every available moment out-of-doors, making the most of the bright days, and enjoying their country visit to the full.
One blazing half-holiday afternoon Lindsay and Cicely, allowed for once in the select company of a few of the elder girls, were lounging blissfully under the shade of a big hawthorn tree. The air seemed dancing for very heat; the grasshoppers were chirping away at the edge of the lawn, a lizard lay basking on the stones of the terrace wall, and the sparrows for once were silent.
"It's far too hot to play tennis," said Irene Spencer. "One just wants to sit somewhere where it's green and cool."
"I'm glad we're here, then, instead of at Winterburn Lodge," said Mary Parkinson.
"So am I; and yet Winterburn Lodge is nicer than many other schools," remarked Mildred Roper.
"It's not half bad," assented Mary. "I like it better, at any rate, than the French school I was at in Brussels."
"I didn't know you'd ever been in France," said Lindsay, idly picking a dandelion clock and blowing it to find out the time.
"No more I have, goosey."
"Then why did you say you'd been at a French school? You're telling fibs."
"No, I'm not, because Brussels doesn't happen to be in France—it's in Belgium."
"I thought you were supposed to learn geography in the third class," laughed Irene Spencer.
"She said a French school, not a Belgian one," objected Lindsay.
"Well, everybody speaks French in Brussels."
"Don't they speak Flemish?"
"Only the poor people, and even they can generally talk French as well."
"How long were you there, Mary?" put in Mildred Roper.
"Only one term. I got ill, and had to come home."
"Was it nice?"
"Oh, just tolerable!"
"Had you to talk French all the time?"
"I had to try, because none of the girls knew anything else. They used to laugh at me if I spoke English."
"How nasty! I shouldn't have cared to be you," said Cicely.
"Yes, it was horrid, when I was sure they were saying things about me and I couldn't understand them. I used to get quite cross, and that made my head ache."
"Was the school in the country?" asked Lindsay.
"No, I've told you already it was in Brussels, and that's a big city. It was a large building, with a great high wall all round it, with spikes on the top, as if it were a prison. Inside there was a courtyard where we used to play games. It had orange trees and oleanders in big green tubs, but no grass nor flowers. You couldn't possibly have called it a garden. We hardly ever went out for proper walks. Sometimes we were taken to the park, but even there we had to go very primly, two and two, with the teachers looking after us most sharply."
"Were the teachers nice?"
"Yes, pretty well. I liked them better than the girls, at any rate. There were two sisters in my class, called Marie and Sophie Beauvais, who were always making fun of me because I was English. I had a horrid time until a German girl came to the school, and then they teased her instead of me. The best thing of all was the coffee. It was perfectly delicious—nicer than any I've ever tasted in England."
"Why didn't you stay in Brussels?"
"I was ill, and my mother had to come and fetch me. She declared she would never let me go so far away from home again; so she sent me to Winterburn Lodge instead. Miss Russell is very kind if one's not well, and Mother said she would rather have me properly looked after, even if I didn't learn French."
"Yes, Miss Russell does take care of us," said Irene. "I used to be at another school, and the teachers never noticed if we had headaches, or couldn't eat our meals. We had to work most fearfully hard for exams, too. The headmistress made a point of getting a certain number of passes each year, and one was obliged to prepare and go in whether one was clever or not. Give me good old Winterburn Lodge!—especially when one's at the Manor instead. By the by, there's Monica. She's surely not come to play tennis? It's too hot."
"Fifteen degrees too hot," agreed Monica, throwing herself down on the grass beside the others and fanning herself with her hat. "Out on the road the heat's at simmering-point. I came to bring a message to Miss Russell, and I hear she's gone to Linforth and won't be back until half-past four. I think I shall wait for her."
"Oh, do!" cried the others. "We'll have a 'palaver' here under the trees."
"What's a 'palaver', please? I hope it's something cool and fizzy to drink."
"No, it's nothing of the sort. It's a kind of meeting, where everybody has to tell a story in turn."
"But I'm rigidly truthful!" objected Monica, with a twinkle in her eye.
"You naughty girl! You know we don't mean telling falsehoods. It's telling tales," said Irene.
"I'm no tell-tale either!"
"Don't be too funny. Your story will have to be longer than anyone else's to make up for this. Mildred, you explain, as I don't seem able to express myself properly."
"It can either be a story you have read, or one of something that has happened to yourself," said Mildred. "We prefer people's own adventures if we can get them."
"So few people have any adventures in real life!" said Monica.
"Then you can tell something out of a book."
"Suppose I can't remember anything?"
"You must. It needn't be grand; we're not a critical audience."
"I'm very stupid at telling things," said Monica; "might I read you something instead?"
"If you've got it here."
"As it happens, I have," replied Monica, opening a bound volume of a magazine which she held in her hand. "I brought this book to lend to Miss Russell, as I knew it would interest her. It has a story about the old Manor in the times of the Wars of the Roses, and how Sir Roger Courtenay came to win it for his own. I dare say you might like to hear it."
"If it's about the Manor I'm sure we shall," said Irene. "Who wrote the tale?"
"A gentleman who stayed in the village a year or two ago. He was very enthusiastic about Haversleigh. I suppose he made it up from the short account in the guide-book. All the facts are quite true, though he must have used his imagination for the details. The worst of it is that it's a fairly long story, and if I read it I'm afraid there won't be any time left for you to tell yours."
"Oh, we don't mind that!"
"So much the better!"
"Do go on!"
Thus encouraged, Monica found her place and, the girls having clustered round her in a close circle so as to hear the better, she began her tale:
SIR MERVYN'S WARD
The middle of the fifteenth century was one of the most stormy periods that the pages of English history have ever recorded. The rival claims of the houses of York and Lancaster had led to those disastrous Wars of the Roses that wiped away the flower of chivalry and made the fair land one bloody battlefield. In the autumn of 1470 Edward IV had been driven from his throne by the powerful Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker, and Henry VI had been once more restored to power, though for how long a period none could venture to guess. They were hard times to live through, especially for those lesser gentry and yeomen who had not placed themselves definitely under the protection of any of the greater barons, and still strove to keep their estates in peace and quiet. The turmoil of the great struggle had not spared even the obscure village of Haversleigh. The inhabitants went about their tasks with an air of unrest. It seemed scarcely worth while to plough the fields, and sow corn which might be trampled underfoot by the soldiery before there was a chance to reap it. There were loud and deep murmurs among the villagers at the many exactions and tyrannies of Sir Mervyn Stamford, the then occupant of the Manor, the estates of which he administered on behalf of his ward, Catharine Mowbray. Catharine's father, Sir John Mowbray, had fallen in battle on the side of the Yorkists, but with the return of Henry VI to power, Sir Mervyn, a stanch Lancastrian, had bought the rights of her guardianship from the half-imbecile king, and had not only assumed control of her property, but had announced his intention of wedding the maiden, either with or without her consent.
This was a state of affairs which, however satisfactory to Sir Mervyn himself, was by no means pleasing either to Catharine or to her lover, Roger de Courtenay, a young gentleman of high lineage though broken fortunes. Sir Mervyn was indeed a man whom any girl might have dreaded. Dark, stern, and forbidding, his face seamed with scars, he was a harsh master, a relentless foe, and a cruel tyrant to any who dared not resist his authority. He was cordially hated in Haversleigh, the inhabitants of which were Yorkists to a man, but he had garrisoned himself so strongly in the Manor, with so formidable a band of retainers, that the wretched villagers could do no more than groan under his oppressions, and bewail the advent of the day when, by his marriage with the unwilling Catharine, he would become their legal lord.
Matters were at this crisis one April morning in the year 1471 when Diccon of the Moat Farm came slowly down a path through the forest from Torton. He led a horse laden with a sack of flour, which he had taken to be ground at the mill of the convent of St. Agatha, to avoid the heavy dues imposed by Sir Mervyn on every sack ground within the jurisdiction of the Manor. In consequence he looked warily about him, since, should he chance to meet any of Sir Mervyn's retainers, not only would his flour be confiscated, but his own back would receive such a cudgelling as would lay him up for a month or more. For this reason he had avoided the main road, and chosen a little-used bridle path; and he glanced cautiously up and down each green alley, and listened for every sound that might give a hint of approaching footsteps. It was with a sense of swift alarm, therefore, that he saw a figure suddenly step out from behind the shelter of an oak in front, and heard himself challenged by name. The newcomer was a young man, tall and of fine build, and his commanding presence belied the shabbiness of his poor and travel-stained attire.
"I am an honest man minding mine own business, and sith ye are the same, seek not to hinder me," replied the owner of the Moat Farm.
"Nay, Diccon! Hast thou forgot thine old friend? Come hither, I pray thee, for in good sooth I have tidings of great import."
So saying, the stranger dropped the cloak with which he had so far partly concealed his face, and showed his features more fully.
"Master Roger!" gasped Diccon. "This is indeed a rash venture. An Sir Mervyn find you within a five mile of the Manor there will be an arrow through you ere nightfall."
"I am more like to send an arrow through him," replied Roger fiercely. "He hath done me ill enough already, and now to crown it all he purposes to wed my betrothed. Catharine is mine, not only by her choice, but by the law of the land. She was affianced to me by King Edward himself. Have her I will, or leave my body for the crows!"
"Brave words, Master Roger, brave words!" said Diccon, shaking his head. "'Twill need more than a single sword to cross Sir Mervyn in the matter."
"Where a sword can naught avail, craft and guile must find a way," returned Roger. "List you, I have brought tidings. Edward has come to his own again. But two days since did his arms meet those of Lancaster at Barnet. The Red Rose is trampled under foot, and Warwick and Montague lie dead upon the field."
"In sooth if this be true it were news of great import."
"I met one who carried a letter from my lord of Gloucester. He rode to gather the supporters of York in the West. Margaret the Queen hath landed at Weymouth, and is calling the men of Devon and Cornwall to the standard of the red rose. I hied me in all haste to my lord of Norfolk, and he hath given me a band of stout fellows that are even now hid under the brushwood yonder. An I can surprise Sir Mervyn ere he hears that the emblem of Lancaster is raised in the west it will strike a blow for York in Somerset, and moreover I shall win me my bride. I must myself to the Manor. I would see how it is garrisoned, and convey a message to Catharine alone."
"You are a dead man first!" exclaimed Diccon. "This were folly, Master Roger. A lion's den were safer than the Manor."
"None shall pierce my disguise if you, good Diccon, will but aid to trick me out for the part I fain would play. I wot I could count on your faith!"
"To the last drop of my blood. Yet it is a rash venture, and one that ill pleases me," replied the old man sadly.
Late that same afternoon the golden shafts of the warm spring sunshine were finding their way through the narrow windows of an upper room in the Manor. The house in those days was but a quarter of its present size; it was strongly fortified, and bore more resemblance to a medieval keep than to the Tudor mansion of later times. Strength and defence had been considered before beauty and elegance, and there was little even of comfort to be found inside the stern, forbidding walls. In the apartment in question some rude attempt had been made to render things more habitable than in the rest of the grim establishment. A few pieces of tapestry covered the rough masonry, and the floor was strewn with fresh rushes. On a carved wooden bench by the window sat a fair and beautiful girl of seventeen, who was occupying herself with a piece of needlework, and talking earnestly meanwhile to her attendant, a maiden of her own age, busy also with her tambour frame.
"I tell thee, Anne, I will not wed him—not if he drag me by force to the altar! Verily, it is a pretty case. Here be I a prisoner in mine own manor, my estates squandered, my tenants oppressed and robbed, my retainers dismissed, save only thee, my poor faithful Anne; and in return I am to wed him to boot! Nay! Rather will I take the veil and give all my goods to the convent of St. Agatha at Torton; though thou knowest I have scant mind to be a nun."
"It wants but five morns now to the bridal day," sighed Anne. "If I mistake not, lady, Sir Mervyn will wed you even against your will and despite the convent."
"Then I will die first! Oh, Roger, Roger!" she added softly to herself, "only a year agone, and I was thy betrothed! It is six months since I had tidings of thee, and whether thou art alive or dead I know not."
"Nay, weep not, sweet lady—weeping cures no ills," said Anne; then, wishful to divert her mistress's sad thoughts, she directed her attention to a commotion which was going on in the courtyard below. "Some stranger hath arrived. If I mistake not, 'tis a huckster come to spread out his wares. An it be your pleasure, I will hie me down and bring you tidings of what he hath."
Receiving a half-hearted consent, she hurried to the great courtyard, where many of the servants and retainers were already gathered to look at the contents of the pedlar's pack. At that period the arrival of a travelling merchant was an event at a remote country house, and even Sir Mervyn himself did not disdain to examine the cloths and buy an ell or two of velvet for a doublet. The pedlar, a white-haired man, much bent, and with a strange hood of foreign fashion drawn over his face, was proclaiming the virtues of his goods in a lusty voice.
"What do ye lack? What do ye lack?" he cried. "I have here hosen, shoon, caps, gloves, girdles, such as ye never might see out of London town. Here be beside cloth of silk and damask fit for the Queen. Is there no worshipful lady of this noble lord before whom I might spread forth my choicer wares?"
"My mistress would gladly have silk for a kirtle, an I may summon her to the courtyard," Anne ventured to whisper to Sir Mervyn.
Receiving a grudging permission, she hurried panting up the stairs with her tidings. Catharine at first would hardly be persuaded to descend from her chamber into the hated presence of Sir Mervyn, and it was finally more to please her maid than herself that she assented.
"Fair apparel is of scant use to one who hath a mind to wed the Church," she said, "but thou shalt have a riband for thyself, Anne, and a silk girdle withal."
No one remarked the swift, eager glance that the pedlar bestowed upon Catharine as she appeared in the doorway, nor how his hand shook as he untied his second pack. With apparent lack of intention he managed skilfully to draw her a few steps away from the rest, under pretence of exhibiting his silks in the best light; then, whispering: "Keep secret! Betray not that you receive this!" he rapidly thrust a small piece of parchment into her hand. Full of surprise, Catharine yet had the presence of mind to utter no exclamation, and to conceal the parchment in the folds of her gown. Hastily completing her purchases, she retired again to her chamber, where, dismissing Anne, she was able to examine the letter in private. It contained but a few lines:
"Right dear and well beloved,
"The White Rose musters again in the west, and I have hope of your release. Ope the west postern ere sunrise. Till then God keep ye.
"Written in great haste this eve of St. Withold by the hand of him who would remain ever yours,
Catharine's wild excitement on the perusal of this missive can be more readily imagined than described.
"He is alive! He comes to my rescue!" she exclaimed. "Perchance it was even Roger himself disguised as the pedlar. He was ever one to venture a bold deed. Alack! that I should have been so near, and not have known him!"
She did not dare to confide her secret even to her faithful maid, Anne, but retiring as usual at nightfall she lay awake, waiting in burning anxiety for the earliest peep of dawn. When the first faint glimmer of light stole into her room she rose and crept softly down the stairs. She was obliged to make her way through the great hall, where the men-at-arms lay sleeping on the rushes. A dog sprang up and growled, but she managed to quiet it with a caress, and passed on without disturbing the sleepers. The little west postern door was heavily barred, and it took all the strength of her white hands to pull back the bolts. Cautiously she peered out into the half-darkness. At the same moment a tall figure stepped from the shadow and clasped her in his arms.
"Sweet, you must fly! This is no place for ye now," whispered Roger. "Diccon waits with a trusty steed to conduct ye to Covebury. Take sanctuary at the convent of the Franciscans till I come to claim ye. I have stern work to do here."
Wrapping her hastily in a cloak, and helping her to mount, Roger waited till he judged the fugitives to be at a safe distance; then, giving the word of command to his followers, he commenced his attack on the Manor. Sir Mervyn and his retainers, surprised in their sleep, nevertheless offered a determined resistance. A fierce combat was waged in the great hall and in the courtyard, till, pressed from one point of vantage to another, the defenders made a desperate sally, and rushing helter-skelter down the village sought refuge inside the ancient church. It was of no avail; the villagers, hastily armed with swords and pikes, had joined in the fray. Determined to avenge themselves upon Sir Mervyn for his many acts of tyranny and injustice, they set upon him without mercy, and without respect even for the sacredness of the edifice. Chased from the choir to the Lady Chapel, and from the Lady Chapel to the tower, he fled up the narrow steps to the belfry, where he turned at bay, and held the staircase with the courage of despair. Driven from this last standpoint, he climbed yet higher to the rafters where hung the bell, and slew six men in succession before he fell, at length, shouting curses upon his foes.
Roger Courtenay had scant time to enjoy his triumph. The Yorkist army was mustering for a great struggle; so, having left a small garrison in charge of the Manor, he rode away immediately with the rest of his followers to join the adherents of the White Rose. The result of the battle of Tewkesbury is a matter of history. The unfortunate remnant of Lancaster took to flight, and York gained a final and triumphant victory. Roger, whose bravery was conspicuous throughout the day, worthily won his spurs, and was knighted on the field by Richard of Gloucester. His forfeited estate was restored to him, and King Edward himself forwarded his union with Catharine Mowbray, so that before the summer was over the ancient parish church of Haversleigh, which but lately had rung to the clash of arms, now echoed instead to the merry peal of wedding bells.
Sir Mervyn's Tower
"Is that all?" asked the girls, as Monica finished her story and closed the book.
"Why, yes. It's a fairly long tale, I think."
"Not long enough. I want to know so much more about them," said Irene.
"Is it perfectly and absolutely true?" enquired Cicely.
"Yes, it is quite true. It was Sir Roger Courtenay who began to build the Manor as it stands to-day. All the central portion was put up in his time, and the coats of arms over the porch are those of himself and his wife, Catharine Mowbray. Their tomb is in the church too—that big carved monument in the side chapel. They had seven children—five sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Sir Godfrey Courtenay, married a relation of Sir Thomas More. Her name is mentioned in one of the Paston Letters."
"Was it really in Haversleigh Church that Sir Mervyn climbed into the belfry and was killed?"
"Or did the writer make that up?"
"No, that is true too," replied Monica. "The tower is still called 'Sir Mervyn's Tower', and it is said there is the stain of his blood on the great bell, and that nothing can ever take it off."