"Have you seen it?"
"Yes, once. It's only a patch of rust."
"Was Sir Mervyn buried in the church too?"
"There's no monument to him, and no record in the old church documents of his grave. I should think it was much more likely that his followers were allowed to carry him to his own estate near Appleford, and bury him in the church there. The story runs that his ghost haunts Haversleigh Tower and walks up the belfry stairs, but of course that's nothing but superstition and nonsense."
"Don't you believe in ghosts?" asked Cicely, who was sometimes a little afraid of the dark passages at the Manor.
"No: when people are dead, I think if they were good they are either resting until the resurrection, or have something so much better and nobler to do in another world that they could not revisit this, any more than a butterfly could turn again into a chrysalis; and if they were bad, I am sure they would not be allowed to come back simply to terrify the living."
"Quite right," agreed Mildred. "In most of the stories one reads about ghosts, they never return for any useful purpose, only to make silly people run and scream."
"There was one thing that didn't seem perfectly clear in the story," said Lindsay. "Was it really Roger who came to the Manor disguised as an old pedlar?"
"Evidently it was. He couldn't trust anyone else to give the letter to Catharine, and he wanted to see for himself how Sir Mervyn was prepared to defend the Manor. There is still part of a ruin left of the old Franciscan Convent near Covebury, where Catharine took sanctuary. It's not much though—only a few pillars and a tumble-down wall."
"Why didn't she go to the Convent of St. Agatha at Torton? It was so much nearer to ride."
"Because the nuns there wished to persuade her to take the veil, and she wanted to marry Roger."
"Were they very angry with her?"
"How can I tell, Cicely? You must ask the writer of the romance; he has a better imagination than I have. I wonder if Miss Russell has come back yet? I'm going indoors to see. By the by, I want to ask a favour. I practise the organ every Wednesday evening at the church, and to-night Judson, the old clerk, will be too busy to blow for me as usual. Would anybody be charitable enough to volunteer? And would Miss Russell allow it, do you think?"
"I expect Miss Russell wouldn't mind," said Mildred. "I'd go with pleasure if I could, but I have an hour's practising to do myself to-night, as well as preparation, and so have Irene and Mary."
"Oh, Monica, could we blow the organ?" cried Lindsay. "Cicely and I have both finished our practising, and if we were to learn our French at once, before tea, I believe Miss Frazer could be persuaded to excuse us from prep. We'd simply love to come."
"Thank you, Lindsay. I'll ask Miss Russell. If she says 'Yes', will you meet me at the church at seven?"
Miss Russell was lenient enough to give the required permission, having ascertained that all lessons for next day were duly prepared; so Lindsay and Cicely, much envied by the rest of their class, betook themselves with zeal to try their 'prentice hands at the task of organ blowing. The church was open, and Monica was already waiting for them in the porch. She soon showed them how to work the bellows, and after telling them to stop and rest as soon as they were tired, seated herself at the keyboard and began her practice. Both the younger girls felt it a decidedly novel and interesting experience to be in the little space behind the pipes, working away at a long handle. As they took it in turns they were able to keep the organ going fairly steadily, and only once left Monica without wind in the middle of a piece. As a reward she allowed them to try the instrument before she locked it up, showing them the various stops and pedals, and how they were to be used.
"It's much more difficult than the piano," sighed Cicely, after a rather unsuccessful attempt, "and yet it's simply grand to hear the lovely big notes sounding through the church. I should like to learn myself sometime when I'm older."
"Saint Cecilia was the patroness of music, and is always represented playing the organ, so you might very well justify your name by following in her footsteps," said Monica. "Now I simply must go, because my mother will be wanting me. I've been far longer than usual to-night."
"It's our fault, I'm afraid," said Lindsay. "We kept making you pull out the stops."
"No, you were dears to come. Perhaps Miss Russell will let you blow for me some other evening; then we'll start earlier, and I shall have time to let you both try again."
They had passed under the old yew trees of the churchyard and out through the lich-gate into the road, when Monica suddenly looked over her music and exclaimed:
"How stupid! I've left my little copy of Lux Benigna behind. It doesn't really matter much, only I don't care to get my pieces mixed up with the organist's, and he will be there at a choir practice to-morrow."
"Shall we go back?" suggested Cicely.
"No, I'm in too great a hurry. I want to get home at once."
"Then we'll fetch it for you," said Lindsay.
"Oh, thanks so much! Will you take it to school, please, and give it to me to-morrow, so that I needn't wait now? Good-bye!" and Monica hastened away as fast as possible in the direction of the cottage.
Lindsay and Cicely walked leisurely into the church again, and found the missing piece of music lying on a seat near the organ. They were returning down the aisle when Cicely said:
"Which is the tomb of Sir Roger Courtenay and Catharine Mowbray?"
"Monica said it was the one in the small side chapel," replied Lindsay. "Shall we go and look at it?"
What an old monument it was! Four centuries had passed away since it was placed over those who slept beneath. The carving was chipped and the marble scratched; part of Sir Roger's head was broken away, and one of poor Dame Catharine's clasped hands; and the letters of the inscription were so worn and effaced that it was with difficulty the girls could make out even a few words.
"It's in Latin, so we couldn't have understood it in any case," said Lindsay.
"How funny her costume is!" said Cicely. "She has a coif on her head, and very long sleeves; and he is in full armour. It makes them seem much more real people when we know their story."
"Can you imagine them living at the Manor?"
"I can hardly believe there was ever a fight going on inside this church."
"And people killing one another!"
"I suppose Sir Mervyn ran through this door up into the tower."
"I wonder if the stain is still on the bell?" said Lindsay.
"The story was that nothing could ever take it off."
"Shall we go up and see if it's really there?"
"What! Up into the belfry?"
"Yes. Why not?"
"Well, isn't it getting too late, and a little dark?"
"All right, then," assented Cicely, agreeing as usual with Lindsay's proposal.
The small, nail-studded oak door leading to the tower stood open, and they could see that there was a winding staircase inside. There was nobody to forbid them to explore, and though they knew they were due back at the Manor they considered they might allow themselves a little latitude in the way of time. It was rather dark up the corkscrew stairs, though there was a slit every now and then in the wall to admit air and light. At the top they found themselves in a square room, where the clerk evidently pulled the bell on Sundays, for the rope was hanging within easy reach. The roof was made of enormous oak rafters, and through it ran a ladder reaching higher than they could see.
"That will be the way up to the bell," said Lindsay.
"What a horrible place for Sir Mervyn to climb!" commented Cicely. "I can imagine him rushing up with a dagger in his hand, and the others swarming after him. I'm almost sorry they killed him. He was very brave, although he was so bad. You go first, Lindsay."
Up and up they toiled, till they thought they should never reach the top.
"The bell's hung very high," panted Cicely.
"We're nearly there now," replied Lindsay.
The ladder ended in a rough platform which was built round the bell, probably to allow workmen to attend to it now and then in case it were not hanging safely. It looked a great mass of metal, so large and heavy that even the clapper must be an enormous weight.
"There's a very queer mark on it here," said Cicely, in rather an awed voice.
Lindsay walked round to the other side of the platform. There was a most curious stain running along a portion of the bottom of the bell—a dull, irregular mark that might well have had its origin in some dark and dreadful deed. Cicely touched it cautiously, and then looked at her finger as if she expected to find the traces red on her hand.
"I think we'd better go down again," she said, with a shiver.
"All right, only I want to look out of the window first. Oh, what a glorious view!"
There was indeed a splendid prospect to be seen from the old church tower—a vista of village roofs, and tree tops, and fields, and winding high road, and distant woods and hills, all bathed in the beautiful, rosy light of sunset. It was so lovely that the girls stood for some time watching the sky turn from pink to crimson, and great bands of dappled clouds catch the reflection from the glow beneath. They quite forgot that supper would probably be over at the Manor, and that Miss Russell would be wondering why Monica had kept them so long, and wishing she had not allowed them to go without Miss Frazer or one of the monitresses to escort them back.
At last they tore themselves reluctantly away. It was much harder to come down the ladder than it had been to climb up. Cicely turned quite giddy, and they were both glad when they reached the square room where the bell rope was hanging. It was very dark on the winding staircase; they had to feel their steps most carefully, and keep a hand on the wall as they went. The church looked dim and gloomy as they found themselves once more in the nave. Cicely turned her back upon the monuments. She did not want to give even a glance in their direction just then. Perhaps Lindsay felt the same, for she also hurried quickly towards the door. To their utter amazement it was closed, shut tight and firm; and though they lifted the latch, and tugged and rattled and pulled with all their might, they could not open it. They stared at each other with blank, horror-stricken faces. They were locked up alone in the empty church!
"Let us call," quavered Cicely.
"Perhaps someone may be in the churchyard. I can't believe they've really left us shut up here. Somebody must be coming back," said Lindsay.
She knew in her heart of hearts all the same that it was a forlorn hope. The old sexton had probably seen Monica walk through the village, and had come to lock the church as usual after her practice, quite unaware that anyone was exploring the belfry. By this time he would be at home again, with the keys in his pocket. The two girls shouted themselves hoarse, and kicked and beat against the door, but there was no reply except hollow echoes that resounded from the vaulted roof. The church was just out of earshot from either the village on one side or the rectory on the other, and it did not seem likely that anybody would happen to pass through the churchyard at that hour in the evening. No doubt they would soon be missed at the Manor, but Miss Russell would be sure to go first to Monica to enquire about their absence, and it might therefore be some little time before anyone came to look for them inside the church.
"What are we going to do?" asked Cicely.
"We must get out somehow," replied Lindsay desperately. "Let us walk all round, and see if there is any window it would be possible to climb through."
They went up the aisle, looking carefully at the windows; but all were equally impracticable, being built high up in the walls, and the only panes that opened were at the top.
"There may be a lower one in the vestry," said Lindsay, after they had examined the side chapels and transepts. "Here's the door, and fortunately it's not locked."
Again they were doomed to disappointment. The vestry was one of the oldest portions of the building, and the tiny diamond-paned casement was fully ten feet above their heads. Plainly it was useless to think of escape there.
"We'd better go back to the door," said Cicely, "just in case anyone should be coming down the road, and might hear us."
The light was rapidly growing dimmer and dimmer, the pillars cast long shadows, and the corners were already wrapt in darkness, through which here and there a figure on a monument stood out white against the gloomy background. Once more the girls thumped at the door and shouted, though they feared it would be of no avail.
"There's only one thing left to be done, Cicely," said Lindsay at last.
"And what's that?"
"Go up into the belfry again and ring the bell. Everybody in the village would hear that, and Judson would come to see what was the matter."
"Yes," replied Cicely with some hesitation, "I suppose we must—but——"
"We should have to walk up the belfry stairs."
"Oh, Lindsay, Sir Mervyn! Suppose we were to meet him on the staircase? The village people say he walks!"
"And Monica said it was nothing but nonsense and superstition."
Lindsay tried to sound brave, but she held Cicely's arm tightly notwithstanding.
Poor Cicely felt "'twixt Scylla and Charybdis". To toll the bell seemed their only chance of escape, and to do so they must certainly mount into the square room where the rope was hanging. On the one hand was the prospect of spending some time in a building which was rapidly growing darker and darker, and on the other, there was a quick dash up the winding staircase, which was the centre of all her nervous fears.
"We must do it," urged Lindsay. "Come along! Let us go now, before you think about it any more."
It was very dark when they went through the small door and began groping their way up the narrow steps. There was not room for both to walk abreast, so Lindsay went first and Cicely clung tightly on to her skirt behind, ready to turn and flee precipitately if she heard the slightest sound from above. The stairs seemed twice as long as when they had mounted them before, and far narrower and steeper.
"Here we are!" exclaimed Lindsay, when at last they found their feet on the flooring of the tower room. There was just light enough to faintly distinguish objects, and they were making straight for the bell rope when Cicely grasped Lindsay's arm in a panic of fear.
"What's that noise?" she whispered breathlessly.
"There! Up the ladder in the roof!"
Both girls listened, their hearts beating in great thumps. Cicely was not mistaken. There was a faint rustling, as if someone were moving softly about in the tower above. Too terrified even to run away, they stood with their eyes fixed on the open trapdoor that led up to the bell.
"He's coming!" shrieked Cicely, as something large and white appeared silently through the aperture and glided down into the room. There was a sudden weird, uncanny cry, like a mournful, despairing wail, and a large pair of wings flapped through the open lattice that served for a window out into the thickness of the yew trees beyond.
"It's an owl—a big white owl! That's your ghost, Cicely!" cried Lindsay, with intense relief.
"It's gone, at any rate. Oh, what a fright it gave me! I thought it was Sir Mervyn himself."
"I expect it sleeps up there during the day, and then goes out hunting at night for birds and mice. What a fearful screech it gave!"
"Let us go and ring the bell before we have any more scares."
They dashed across the room and seized the rope. Surely since the day it was first hung the poor old bell had never been tolled with such frantic, hurried jerks. It was like an alarm of war or fire as the swift, short strokes went echoing from the tower. The girls pulled and pulled until they were both nearly exhausted.
"Somebody must have heard us by this time," said Lindsay. "Let us go down into the church and wait by the door."
"I don't feel so afraid of Sir Mervyn now I know he's only a white owl," declared Cicely.
They stumbled down the stairs and across the dark nave, then stood waiting anxiously for some sign of coming relief. Was that a distant footstep? Yes; they heard the creaking of the lich-gate, the sound of voices, and the crunching of boots on the gravel path. They sprang at the door, knocking and shouting for help with all their might. In another moment the great key turned in the lock. It was Judson, the sexton, who stood outside, with quite a number of people from the cottages behind him. All the village had been roused by the tolling of the bell, and everyone expected to find either a gang of thieves at work or the building on fire, instead of only two frightened little schoolgirls from the Manor.
At that moment both Miss Russell and Monica came hurrying up, the latter reproaching herself keenly for not having seen her companions safely home, and the former very angry at their escapade. As Lindsay had supposed, they had been expected back more than an hour ago, but Miss Russell thought Monica must have had an unusually long practice. When their bedtime arrived, and still they were missing, the headmistress had grown uneasy, and started in search of them. She had gone first to the church and found the door locked (it must have been while they were in the vestry), so concluded that they had returned with Monica to the cottage. She had been seriously alarmed to find they were not there, and her anxiety was shared by the Courtenays; and both she and Monica were on the point of rousing the whole village to aid in discovering their whereabouts when the sudden clanging of the bell made them hasten to the church. The girls gave a brief account of their adventure in reply to the many enquiries of their rescuers.
"I thought I could have trusted you to return straight home," said Miss Russell reproachfully. "No, Monica, it is not in any way your fault. Lindsay and Cicely knew perfectly well they had no right to linger behind, nor to enter the tower. I am disappointed in them, for I certainly should not have allowed them to go and blow the organ if I had believed there was the slightest opportunity for such behaviour. They have only themselves to blame, and I consider they thoroughly deserved the fright they have had."
Though most of the delights of the summer term at the Manor consisted of outdoor amusements, other interests were not entirely lacking. In a magazine which Miss Russell took in for the school library there was an announcement of a competition which offered a prize to children under thirteen for the largest number of poetical quotations descriptive of wild flowers. Both Lindsay and Cicely were anxious to try, and ransacked all the volumes of poetry they could get hold of for suitable extracts.
"I think it's too much bother," said Nora Proctor. "It means looking through such a heap of books, and then copying out the pieces so neatly afterwards. It would take one's whole recreation time."
"And probably one wouldn't get anything for it in the end," said Marjorie Butler.
"I began," said Effie Hargreaves, "but, as Nora says, it's far too great a fag. I got ten quotations from Shakespeare, and six from Tennyson. I'll give them to you, Cicely, if you like."
"Oh, thanks, if they're not the same as I have already!"
"I tried for a prize once in a magazine," said Beryl Austen, "but I only got highly commended. I'm afraid my writing wasn't good enough."
Though the other girls did not care to compete themselves, they were interested in Lindsay's and Cicely's lists, and gave them any assistance they could in hunting out fresh quotations.
"I'll tell you what," said Beryl, "you ought to ask Monica. She reads a great deal, and I believe she's rather clever at botany. I heard her talking about the wild flowers of the neighbourhood to Miss Russell."
"Yes, I believe she has a nice pressed collection," said Effie. "She promised to show it to us some day."
Lindsay and Cicely took Beryl's advice, and waylaid Monica as she came to the French class next morning.
"I'm glad you asked me," she replied. "I've no doubt I shall be able to help you; I have a good many beautiful books on botany in the library. I'll bring the key this afternoon, and unlock the case for you."
Monica always kept her promises. She arrived about four o'clock, and opened the large glass doors that preserved the handsome calf-bound volumes from dust and dirt.
"Here they are," she said. "Some are very dry and scientific, and some are popular, and have coloured pictures. There are catalogues of plants, and schedules of species, and old herbals, and every kind of book you can imagine that has a bearing on the subject. Some are about British flowers and some about foreign ones, and there are others on mosses and ferns and fungi. They used to belong to my uncle; he was extremely fond of botany."
"Have you read them all?" asked Cicely.
"No, I'm afraid I have rather neglected them. You see, I have had so many lessons to learn. One can't study everything at once, and Mother particularly wants me to work hard at French. Perhaps some day I may attack the natural orders. It will take you a long time to look through every one of these books. I'll leave the case unlocked, so that you can get them out when you like. I know I can trust you not to spoil the covers, and to put each back in its proper place."
"We'll be very, very careful of them," Lindsay assured her. "We won't carry them into the garden. We'll sit and read them here at the table."
"That will be all right, then," said Monica. "I feel they are rather a particular charge, because they were left to me as a special legacy. I believe my uncle valued them more than anything else in the world. I often think I don't appreciate them as much as I ought."
As Monica had said, it took considerable labour to thoroughly examine all the books and search for extracts. Some merely contained long lists of Latin names, and others were far too learned and scientific to interest schoolgirls. A few, however, treated the subject from its romantic side, and quoted passages of poetry such as they wanted. Miss Russell, who had encouraged them to try for the prize, gave them permission to use the library when they pleased; so for the next few days they spent most of their spare time there.
It was a pleasant occupation, and one that seemed to bring them into touch with the old poets who had loved Nature so dearly, and sung so charmingly about her blossoms. It was quite wonderful to think that nearly six hundred years ago Chaucer had noticed and recorded the little golden heart and white crown of the daisy; and that King James I of Scotland, while pining as Henry IV's prisoner in Windsor Castle, could remember and write of—
"The sharpe, greene, sweete juniper, Growing so fair with branches here and there".
The competition proved most interesting, and, as it happened, was to be connected with unforeseen occurrences.
One afternoon, Cicely, who was trying to work her way systematically along the shelves, brought down a thick, bulky volume, bound in brown leather, with metal corners, and entitled Floral Calendar.
"This must be an old one," she remarked. "Look how yellow the paper is, and there are actually long S's. Someone has scribbled notes all round the edges of the pages."
"I wonder if it was Sir Giles Courtenay?" said Lindsay.
Cicely turned to the flyleaf at the beginning. Yes, in exactly the same rather straggling hand was the inscription:
"GILES PEMBERTON COURTENAY, HAVERSLEIGH MANOR, SOMERSET."
"He seems to have been fond of writing in his books," said Lindsay. "What's this opposite his name?"
On the inside of the cover quite a long piece of poetry had been copied. It appeared to be something in the nature of an acrostic or charade, and it ran thus:—
My First, among flowers you can't find a better, 'T was used by a king for securing a letter. My Second, whose blossoms of yellow soon fade, Comes out every night in the calm evening shade. My Third, oft called Iris, is much in demand, It grows on an island named Van Diemen's Land. My Fourth, a wild flower with sweet golden eye, Is more blessing than "torment" to all who pass by. My Fifth, with great trusses of lavender hue, Is the sweetest of shrubs that the spring brings to view. My Sixth, an old blossom in medicine once famed, Was good for the eyesight, and thus it was named. Now if you have guessed all these flowers that I prize, Please take my initials and finals likewise: The former you'll find to be hiding the latter; If you've solved the enigma you'll see 'tis a matter Perchance may provide you with just a lost link, And bring you a greater reward than you think.
G. P. C.
Both Lindsay and Cicely were particularly fond of any kind of riddle. They seized upon this floral enigma with delight, and began to puzzle it out with the help of the illustrated catalogue of plants given in the old volume.
"How funny of Sir Giles Courtenay to have written it inside a botany book!" said Cicely.
"I suppose he was quite mad," replied Lindsay.
"He must have made it up himself, as it's signed with his initials," continued Cicely. "It was rather clever of him, wasn't it?—especially if he was mad. I'm sure I couldn't invent verses, however hard I tried."
"'My First, used by a king for securing a letter', is evidently 'Solomon's Seal'," said Lindsay. "Give me that spare piece of paper, and I'll put it down."
"'My Second' must be 'Evening Primrose'," said Cicely. "I can't think of any other yellow flower that comes out at night."
The third for a long time baffled the efforts of both girls to discover it. They searched through the lists of wild and garden flowers in vain.
"Irises are sometimes called 'flags'," ventured Cicely at last, turning to the page of 'F' in the index. "Why, here are quite a number. There are Asiatic flag, and corn flag, and dwarf flag, and Florentine flag, and German flag. Oh! and a heap more, too—golden flag, and Iberian flag, and Japanese, and Persian, and Missouri, and Tasmanian."
"That's the one!" said Lindsay. "Van Diemen's Land is the old name for Tasmania. 'My Third' must be Tasmanian flag."
"Why, of course. We're getting on, aren't we?"
The fourth, as it was stated to be a wild flower, was sought for in the list at the end of British Flora. It did not take a very large amount of penetration to fix it as 'tormentilla', especially as they could identify its golden eye in the coloured picture.
"The great trusses of lavender hue, growing on a shrub in spring, will mean lilac. I'm getting quite proud of our guessing," declared Lindsay.
"We've only one more left now," said Cicely.
The last proved the most difficult of all. I doubt if they would have been able to solve it, had not Lindsay chanced to take down an ancient herbal, and found a list of plants once employed for medicine.
"Amid all herbes that do grow, and are of greatest comfort and solace to mankind," so ran the passage, "a foremost place hath the euphrasy. Though it be but an humble plant scarce an inch in height, yet it maketh an ointment very precious for to cure dimness of sight. Thence it hath been called in the vulgar tongue 'eye-bright', nevertheless its true name is euphrasy, and thus it is known among apothecaries."
"It must be right," said Lindsay. "It's the only one that is said to do any good to the eyesight. The others seem to be for toothaches or agues."
"Or to heal wounds or sores," said Cicely. "People must have been continually hurting themselves in those days, if they needed so many 'salves' and 'unguents'."
They had now discovered all the six flowers, and wrote the result neatly down on a piece of paper.
S olomon's Sea L E vening Primros E T asmanian Fla G T ormentill A L ila C E uphras Y
"The initials read 'settle' and the finals 'legacy'," said Cicely. "How very queer! That hasn't anything to do with flowers."
"Let us look at the end lines again," said Lindsay, and she read aloud:
Please take my initials and finals likewise: The former you'll find to be hiding the latter; If you've solved the enigma you'll see 'tis a matter Perchance may provide you with just a lost link, And bring you a greater reward than you think.
"The initials hide the finals. 'Settle' hides 'Legacy'," repeated Cicely meditatively.
"Why, I see it now!" burst out Lindsay suddenly. "Oh, Cicely, I believe it means a great deal more than an ordinary riddle! It has something to do with the lost treasure. Don't you understand? The settle is hiding the legacy—Monica's legacy!"
"Oh, surely not!" exclaimed Cicely, bouncing up in great excitement.
"But I really think so. The poetry says the enigma is 'to provide the lost link' and 'bring a greater reward than you think'. This is indeed a discovery! It's evidently intended to tell Monica where her money is to be found."
"Can we be quite, quite certain?" hesitated Cicely.
"Well, everything seems to point to it. Don't you recollect Irene Spencer said that in old Sir Giles' will he left 'the Manor and all that it may contain to my great-niece Monica, especially commending to her the volumes in my library, and advising her to pursue the study of botany'? I remember those were the exact words. This must have been the reason. He had written the secret of the hiding-place inside the Floral Calendar, and he thought she would find it there. Perhaps he wasn't so very mad after all."
"I wonder if Monica has seen it and puzzled it out?"
"I don't know. She said she didn't often trouble about the books."
"Then is the treasure hidden inside some old settle in the house?"
"It seems likely."
"In that case we must be wrong about the lantern room."
"Perhaps we are. Well, at any rate this throws new light on the subject, and gives us a clue as to where to hunt. We'll go over the Manor again, and look carefully at every settle."
"I hope we're really on the right track at last," sighed Cicely. "What a glorious day it would be if we could actually say to Monica: 'Here's your fortune!'"
Lindsay Makes a Resolve
Lindsay and Cicely thought they understood what a settle was, but, to avoid the possibility of any mistake, they looked the word up in the dictionary. "Settle—a long bench, with high back, for sitting on," was the explanation given by that authority.
"So it 'settles' the matter," said Cicely, trying to make a pun.
"Well, it shows us it's not a chest, anyhow," replied Lindsay, "though the oak bench in the passage near the top of the stairs has a kind of box under it. The seat lifts up like a lid."
There were four pieces of old furniture in the Manor which might claim to answer to the description given in the dictionary. Two were in the dining-room, one in the picture gallery, and another, as Lindsay had said, at the head of the stairs. The girls made a most lengthy and careful inspection of them all, but without the slightest result. Neither their backs nor their seats were hollow, or capable of containing anything. Three of them stood upon carved oak legs, like chairs, and though the last was made in the fashion of a chest, it proved on investigation to be absolutely empty. It was a bitter disappointment.
"Can we have been mistaken about the enigma?" said Cicely, almost in tears.
"I don't believe so. What I think is, that Mrs. Wilson and Scott have been clever enough to find the money and carry it off. Perhaps there was another settle somewhere in the house, and they took it bodily away."
"Wouldn't Monica have missed it?"
"It may have been done just after Sir Giles died, and before she came to the Manor."
"Where would they put it?"
"Possibly in the lantern room, inside some hiding-place they know of."
"Then, until we can find out the secret of the lantern room, it seems to me we can't get any farther."
"And we don't even know that the treasure is still there, because it may be buried in the garden," groaned Lindsay.
The whole affair of the lost legacy was most aggravating and tantalizing. They seemed so continually on the point of unravelling the mystery, only to find themselves again defeated and baffled. Cicely was tempted to throw it up altogether in despair, but Lindsay had a native obstinacy of disposition that could not bear to be beaten.
"I shall go on trying as long as we're at Haversleigh, on that I'm entirely resolved," she declared. "I don't mean to give up until we're actually on our way to the station on breaking-up day."
"And that's only three weeks off now," said Cicely.
The summer term at the Manor had proved so enjoyable that the girls were not nearly so enthusiastic as usual for the advent of the holidays. Most of them felt a keen regret at leaving the beautiful old place, and bewailed the fact that the alterations at Winterburn Lodge were reported to be progressing favourably, and that the drains there would be in perfect order long before they need return in September.
"Couldn't we have school here always instead of in London?" they suggested hopefully to Miss Russell.
"No," said the headmistress; "there are many considerations which would make it impossible. Mrs. Courtenay and Monica will want to live in their own home again, and Haversleigh is too inconvenient a place for a permanency. We have managed wonderfully well for a few months with only Mademoiselle, but we certainly miss Herr Hoffmann's and Monsieur Guizet's classes, to say nothing of drawing and dancing lessons. Visiting masters cannot arrange to come so far away from town. There are no proper educational advantages to be had in the depths of the country."
"We shall be sorry when it comes to good-bye," declared the girls.
"We must make the most of our remaining time here then," said Miss Russell, "and try to see all we can in the neighbourhood before we go."
The mistress's birthday, falling on the following Wednesday, offered a propitious opportunity for an excursion such as she suggested. The girls were accustomed to celebrate the occasion with some little festivity, and were delighted when it was arranged that they should visit the town of Appleford, about ten miles away.
"There is the Dripping Well to see, and a fine old church," said Miss Russell. "I am sure we shall be able to spend a very pleasant afternoon there. We must ask Monica to come with us."
There was some doubt at first as to whether Monica would be able to accept the invitation. She had missed her French lesson one day, and arrived at school late on the next, looking pale and upset. Mrs. Courtenay had been very ill, so she explained. The doctor had been sent for, and had given an unfavourable report. Naturally extra care and attention were needful, and who could give these so well as her own daughter?
On the day of the picnic Monica turned up with rather an anxious face.
"I scarcely like to leave Mother," she said, "but she wants me so much to have this treat that she would not rest content until she had seen me put on my hat and start off. Fortunately Jenny is a good nurse, and will look after her nicely. Still, I always feel uneasy when I am long away from her."
The girls were to drive the whole distance to Appleford, and the prospect was so exhilarating that everyone was at the high-water mark of enjoyment. Even poor Monica caught the prevailing spirit, and for the moment, at least, began to forget her cares. There was just room to pack both teachers and pupils into the four wagonettes which arrived from the George Inn, but nobody seemed to mind crushing, and even Mademoiselle was in a good temper.
"I smile because I shall again see shops and streets," she declared.
"I believe Mademoiselle will be delighted to go back to Winterburn Lodge," said Marjorie Butler, who was in another wagonette, but overheard the remark.
"Yes, I think she's absolutely yearning for pavements and lamp-posts," said Cicely. "She'll weep with joy at the sight of a tramcar. She says it is terribly 'triste' here."
"Mademoiselle is French," observed Effie Hargreaves scornfully.
"What a very original remark! You didn't suppose we took her for a German?"
"Well, I mean she's a foreigner at any rate, so we can't expect her to like the country," replied Effie, with true British prejudice.
There were several small excitements on the journey. Beryl's hat was blown by a sudden puff of wind over a bridge, and was in great peril of descending into the river when it was rescued by the driver; the door of the second wagonette burst suddenly open, and nearly precipitated Irene Spencer into the road; while the whole cavalcade was brought to a standstill at a narrow turning by finding a broken-down motor-car blocking up the way.
Appleford proved to be a delightfully quaint old country town, with twisting streets and black-and-white houses.
"I'm afraid Mademoiselle will be very disappointed with the fashions. She certainly won't find Paris modes here," laughed Marjorie Butler, looking at the one row of small shop windows that appeared to satisfy the wants of the population.
"I'm glad there's a confectioner's, anyhow," said Effie Hargreaves, who was burning to spend her pocket-money on chocolates.
"And a place for picture postcards," added Nora Proctor; "I can see a whole tray full of them standing outside that door."
The arrival of four wagonettes containing so many schoolgirls evidently caused quite an excitement in the usually quiet street. Heads were popped out of windows, shopkeepers came to their doors, and people began to collect at corners and stare.
"Almost as if we were a wild-beast show!" said Cicely.
"I believe they hope we're going to march in procession round the market square and sing, or play as a band," declared Nora Proctor.
"Come along, girls! I am afraid we are attracting too much attention," said Miss Russell. "Let us set off for the Dripping Well as fast as we can. You must make any purchases you want when we return; I cannot let you wait now."
Effie Hargreaves had already dived into the toffee shop, and issued with several paper packages in her hand; so she went on her way rejoicing that she had seized the opportunity while there was yet time. Fortunately for the others, she was of a generous disposition, and ready to share her sweets.
"We'll pay you back when we get some of our own," said Marjorie Butler, blissfully sucking a caramel.
The Dripping Well was situated in a wood, about a mile from the town, and was, as the guide-book described it, "a most curious natural phenomenon". The water trickled slowly over a large rock, and was so charged with lime that it left a thin deposit over everything it touched. Articles hung up there, after a short time bore the appearance of having been turned to stone. All kinds of objects were suspended from the rock, in the process of being encrusted by the lime—top hats, boots, stockings, gloves, loaves of bread, and even bunches of flowers.
"It looks just as if the Gorgon had stared at them and petrified them with a glance," said Nora.
"I wonder, if we were hung up, should we turn solid too?" said Lindsay.
The caretaker of the well had many specimens to show them which he had polished, and was anxious to sell. There was quite a large collection in his cottage. The girls, after hastily conferring together, bought a stone bouquet as a birthday present for Miss Russell, an offering which she declared should grace the school museum when they returned to Winterburn Lodge.
"I thought she'd have put it in the drawing-room," said Beryl Austen, rather disappointed.
"Well, of course it is more of a curiosity than an ornament," said Mildred Roper. "It wouldn't have looked very beautiful decorating the mantel-piece, I'm afraid—not nearly so nice as a real bunch of flowers."
Close to the well was a cave in the cliff which a hermit had once used for his cell—a very picturesque spot to have chosen for his meditations, so the girls decided.
"But horribly damp; the poor man must have been racked with rheumatism," said Miss Frazer, who was of a practical mind.
"Perhaps, like Friar Tuck, he didn't often use it, and preferred to hunt venison in the woods," suggested Kathleen Crawford.
"No, he was a really devout hermit, who told his beads, and lived on bread and water," said Monica. "He dug his own grave in the rock about a hundred yards from here. You can see it still, though his bones have long ago been taken away for relics."
"I wonder if they petrified them first in the well," said Nora Proctor, "and how much they sold them for? There are more than two hundred bones in the human body, so a hermit ought to have been worth a good deal when he was properly divided."
"You naughty, irreverent girl!" said Monica.
Tea had been prepared at the old-fashioned inn in the market square. Afterwards they went to look through the church, where there were some fine examples of Gothic carving, and several beautiful stained-glass windows. One in particular, which Monica pointed out, was in memory of a member of the Courtenay family. There was a chained Bible, besides a black-letter Prayer Book, a pair of tongs for turning dogs out of church, and several other curiosities shown by the old verger; so time passed rapidly, and everyone was quite surprised when Miss Russell looked at her watch, and announced that they must be returning home.
"Will someone fetch Monica? I believe she is in the churchyard with the Rector's wife," she said.
Lindsay and Cicely volunteered to go, and found their friend under a big yew tree, engaged in talking to a lady who was evidently making enquiries about Mrs. Courtenay. Not liking to intrude and interrupt the conversation, they stood waiting until they should be noticed.
"The doctor was over yesterday," Monica was saying, with a choke in her voice. "He told me our only chance is to send to London for Sir William Garrett. And how can we? His fee is a hundred guineas."
"That is a heavy amount."
"Impossible for us. You know how gladly I would sell even the Manor to raise the money, but I cannot touch a penny of my property until I come of age, and that won't be for more than four years. I try not to blame Uncle Giles, yet sometimes——"
Here Monica broke down altogether, and wiped her eyes.
"You mustn't give up hope, my dear child," said the Rector's wife kindly. "Perhaps your mother may be spared to you after all. Strange things come to pass sometimes, and good can often result from evil."
"I wish I could believe so," sobbed Monica. "I don't care in the least about the fortune for myself; I only want it when I think of what it might do for her!"
* * * * *
"Cicely!" said Lindsay solemnly the next morning, as she tied her hair ribbon before the looking-glass, "we simply must have another try to find that treasure."
Cicely paused with her brush in her hand.
"It's dreadful that Mrs. Courtenay may die because they can't scrape together a hundred guineas," she agreed.
"And Monica is breaking her heart over it," continued Lindsay. "She goes about looking so unhappy, it makes me quite miserable too. I'd give everything in the world I have to help her."
"I don't know where we're to hunt next. We seem to have explored every corner, and we never have any luck."
Cicely's voice sounded utterly despondent.
"We can only go to the lantern room again. It's the one place where we're sure there's a secret. If Merle could discover something there, why shouldn't we?"
It appeared a forlorn hope, but anything was better than just sitting down and making no effort at all. Monica's troubles weighed much on Lindsay's mind. The idea that the invalid must slip out of life for lack of the money that might save her seemed too cruel to be endured.
"I wish I had a hundred guineas of my own to give them," she thought sorrowfully. "Oh dear! it's such a big sum—one might as well wish for the moon. I'm afraid there's not the slightest chance for poor Mrs. Courtenay unless the legacy turns up."
It was in rather a dejected mood that the girls betook themselves to the upper landing that afternoon, and once more climbed the now familiar winding staircase. The lantern room looked exactly the same as on their two former visits. There was nothing in it to excite interest or arouse curiosity. A more unromantic chamber could not be conceived.
The window was closed, the rusty firegrate contained only a few ashes, and the door of the cupboard stood open, revealing rows of empty shelves. The one object worthy of notice was the ancient lantern, which hung from a hook in the middle of the ceiling. That, at any rate, was curious. It was of a quaint, medieval pattern, and the sides, instead of being of glass, were of thin pieces of horn.
"It's a funny old thing," said Lindsay. "I suppose they used a dip candle for it. I wonder if there's a piece left in it still?"
She stood on tiptoe, and made an effort to open the lantern, but it was hung too high to allow her to peep inside. Reaching up as best she could, she gave it a jerk, to try to lift it down. Quite suddenly and unexpectedly the lantern and hook descended by a chain from the ceiling. There was a strange grating sound, and, turning round, the girls saw a sight which made them gasp with amazement.
The Lantern Room
Lindsay and Cicely might well cry out with surprise. A most peculiar thing had happened. A part of the back of the cupboard had opened like a door, revealing a narrow passage behind. Here at last was the hiding-place for which they had sought so long in vain.
They had never suspected the cupboard. It looked so ordinary, with its rows of shelves, that no one would have dreamt it concealed a secret exit. By a clever arrangement the lantern evidently worked a spring, and when pulled down caused the door to unclose automatically. Somebody in days gone by had no doubt constructed it thus to form a refuge in time of danger. The girls were in raptures of delight.
"This, of course, was where Mrs. Wilson vanished," said Lindsay.
"And what Merle saw," added Cicely.
It was an intense satisfaction to have found it out for themselves, especially when they had come upstairs with such small expectation of success. Where did the passage lead? That was naturally the first question they asked each other.
"It looks very dark," said Cicely, peering rather nervously into the opening.
"I wish we had a candle," said Lindsay. "There isn't even an end left inside the lantern, and we've no matches either."
"Shall I go downstairs and fetch some?" suggested Cicely.
"No, no! You might meet 'The Griffin' on the way. We'd better explore now, as quickly as we can, while the coast is clear."
It needed a little screwing up of courage to plunge into the dim obscurity before them. Lindsay went first, with Cicely clinging particularly closely on to her arm behind. The passage seemed to lead along the inside of the wall for about two yards, then took a sharp turn, and ended at the foot of a kind of ladder stairway.
One gleam of light fell from above, as if through some small chink in the roof, just sufficient to allow them to distinguish their surroundings and enable them to scramble up the rough steps. At the top they found themselves in a huge garret, how big they could not tell, for the corners were completely lost in black nothingness. The floor was thick with dust (such old dust!), and was so worm-eaten and rotten that it felt quite soft and crumbling under their feet.
They were close beneath the tiles, to judge from the rafters overhead. The air was hot and stifling, and had that stale, mouldy smell noticeable in places long shut up. They began to walk cautiously along, peering on all sides as their eyes grew more accustomed to the darkness.
"It's just the place for them to have put the treasure," said Cicely.
"If we only had a light!" sighed Lindsay. "I want to go nearer the wall, and see if I can find any heaps of money or silver tankards."
She groped her way a little more boldly across the room, and, putting out her foot, began to feel about.
"Do be careful!" begged Cicely.
It was a most necessary warning. The ancient, rotten boards could not stand the strain of Lindsay's weight, and down went her leg, making a great hole in the floor. Luckily she was not seriously hurt, only scratched and considerably frightened. With Cicely's help she managed to extricate herself, and withdrew to the safer middle of the garret.
"The old house must be almost ready to tumble down," she declared.
"Monica said parts of the Manor were very much out of repair," replied Cicely. "Besides, if this is a secret place, no one could ever come up to mend it."
"I wonder where my leg went to?" said Lindsay.
"Perhaps into some room below."
"In that case Mrs. Wilson will notice a hole in the ceiling, and will know somebody has been up here."
It was not an encouraging incident, but they were determined to venture farther all the same.
"We couldn't think of turning back now," said Lindsay.
At the far end of the room there was a door that seemed to lead into an attic even darker than the first.
"It's not much use going in there without a light," said Cicely.
"Just a few steps," said Lindsay.
She entered, and put up her hand to feel the height of the roof above. Instantly there was a tremendous rushing sound around them. The air seemed filled with flapping, shadowy forms, which brushed lightly against their cheeks. In an agony of fear poor Cicely shrieked and shrieked again, and clung to Lindsay desperately, as to the one substantial and human thing in the midst of what was horrible and unknown.
"All right, they're only bats," gasped Lindsay, in a rather quavering voice. "We've disturbed them, I expect."
Slightly reassured, Cicely dared to raise her head from her friend's shoulder and look round. They were surrounded by the fluttering wings of the bats. These little denizens of the darkness must have been hanging in numbers from the ceiling, and Lindsay's entrance had disturbed them. With strange squeaks and hisses they flitted to and fro for a few moments, then flew off to seek some safer retreat.
"I hope they've really gone," said Cicely, heaving a sigh of relief. "Don't go any farther in there, Lindsay. You can't see an inch before your face."
"But it may be the one important place," said Lindsay, yielding reluctantly as Cicely pulled her back into the outer garret. "I'd exchange all my next birthday presents for a candle."
"Hush! I want to listen. I thought I heard something."
"A kind of rustling."
"I expect it was the bats, or a rat."
Cicely gave an apprehensive glance behind. Her nerves were not so strong as Lindsay's. Though she had had time to grow accustomed to scratchings inside the wainscots at the Manor, she could not overcome her dread of rats. Perhaps Lindsay was less valiant in her heart of hearts than she would have liked to confess. After all, it was little satisfaction to explore a room where she could see nothing.
She was just deciding to go, when Cicely once more clutched her arm.
"Oh, what is it?"
The exclamation burst simultaneously from the lips of the two girls. Close, almost, as it seemed, in their ears, echoed that horrible low groan which had so terrified them twice before. Heard amidst such strange and dim surroundings, it was more than flesh and blood could stand. Without waiting to make any further investigations, they turned and fled.
They hardly knew afterwards how they had stumbled across the rotten floor and scrambled down the ladder. With blinking eyes they looked into each other's scared faces as they emerged from the dark passage into the bright daylight of the lantern room again.
"What a dreadful place!" shuddered Cicely. "I'm thankful we've got safely away from it. I don't believe I'd venture up there again for all the fortunes in the world."
"We must close the entrance," said Lindsay anxiously. "We must take care to leave everything as we found it."
The secret door shut with a spring, and in a moment there was nothing to be seen again but the innocent-looking cupboard. The lantern had ascended to its former place in the ceiling; the chain worked on a pulley, and, as it ran up or down, it fastened or unloosed the lock.
Cicely, at any rate, was not sorry to descend to the more civilized portions of the house.
"I wonder if Merle explored as far as we did," she said.
"I hardly think so," returned Lindsay. "She couldn't have had time. I believe she must have met 'The Griffin' coming out, and have been frightened into not telling."
The more the girls talked the matter over, the more complicated seemed the mystery. Though they had found Mrs. Wilson's hiding-place, they were no nearer ascertaining whether the treasure was concealed there or elsewhere. Out in the sunshine Lindsay's courage returned, and she began to reproach herself for having given up the search so soon.
"We'll go some other day, and take two candles and a box of matches with us," she announced.
"Is it really any good?"
Cicely's spirit quailed at the prospect of once more encountering the unknown horrors that might be lurking in that dark attic. She could not forget the groans she had heard there.
"Of course it is! I didn't think you'd be the one to draw back," said Lindsay reproachfully. "We've both pledged ourselves to do everything in our power to help Monica. It would be mean and cowardly to give in just because we felt afraid. If you don't care to come with me, I shall have to go alone. I'm only waiting for a good opportunity."
For several days the opportunity tarried. Mrs. Wilson was too often about the passages to make the expedition safe. On one occasion Cicely went to act scout, but found the housemaid sweeping the top landing, and had to beat a hasty retreat.
They were not able to discover where Lindsay's leg had descended so suddenly through the rotten floor, or whether any of the ceilings in the upper rooms had suffered in consequence. If Mrs. Wilson had found out the damage, she kept her own counsel. When at last they managed to seize a favourable chance, and to steal up the winding staircase, a sad checkmate awaited them. The door of the lantern room was securely fastened with a padlock.
"Scott said he was going to put one on," said Lindsay, after staring blankly at the unwelcome impediment. "Don't you remember, when he was talking to 'The Griffin' in the picture gallery, and she told him we had been here?"
"I'm certain they suspect us," returned Cicely. "Perhaps they only took part of the silver or jewellery away in that sack, and the rest is still up in the garret."
The sole plan of action they could think of after this last disappointment was to keep a watch upon Scott. If he had really concealed a portion of the treasure in the garden, he would probably go to look at it occasionally, to make sure of its safety. At Cicely's urgent request they had already made a careful examination, with a trowel, of the bank where Scott had been digging when they surprised him in the dark. It was fruitless work, however; nothing was there.
"I told you beforehand they wouldn't be so foolish," said Lindsay.
"I thought they might have dropped a piece of money, or an ear-ring perhaps, in their hurry—just something to show us what had actually been here," said Cicely, grubbing about in the loose soil.
"Trust Scott and Mrs. Wilson! They're an uncommonly clever couple. You may be sure they'd take care not to leave even a sixpence behind them."
"I've heard that criminals can't keep away from a place where they've buried anything," continued Cicely. "They always haunt the spot."
"Then we must notice where Scott goes most frequently," replied Lindsay.
For the present, Scott seemed to be particularly attracted to the cucumber frames.
"He's there constantly," said Cicely.
"Far oftener than is necessary, I'm sure," agreed Lindsay.
"It might be a likely place, too," added Cicely meditatively.
Several small incidents seemed to confirm their surmises.
"He was so cross last night when Marjorie Butler sent her ball over the hedge into the kitchen-garden, and went to fetch it," said Lindsay.
"Yes, he said she might have broken the glass in one of the frames; but I don't suppose that was the real reason. She may have gone near him just when he was putting something back."
"I heard Miss Russell asking him when the cucumbers would be ready, and he answered in a great hurry: 'Not for ever so long yet'. And then he said it was 'best not to be lifting the frames, and disturbing them more than needful'."
"He was evidently afraid she was going to ask to see them."
The idea that silver cups, jewels, or spade-guineas might be lying hidden under the glossy leaves of the cucumber plants began to obtain possession of the girls' minds.
"If we could only manage to look while he's out of the way," suggested Cicely eagerly.
Scott's close attention to his duties was most annoying. There really appeared to be something in Cicely's theory of criminals haunting a particular spot. He seemed never absent from the kitchen-garden, at any rate when they were in its vicinity. They could hear him mowing the lawn during lesson hours, but when recreation arrived, and they ran out hopefully to reconnoitre, he would be weeding the strawberries, or gathering peas within a few feet of his cherished hotbeds.
"There's only one way for it," said Lindsay. "We shall have to make a plot. You must hide near the kitchen-garden, and I'll do something to take him off; then, while he's gone, you must rush to the frames and open them."
"That would be grand! What will you do?
"I shall have to think it over. I know! We'll wait till this evening, when he's watering the cucumbers. I'll stand on the pipe of the hose; that will stop the water, and he'll go to see what's the matter."
"Capital!" agreed Cicely.
It took a little scheming to arrange their plan satisfactorily. They were much afraid lest Scott should do his watering earlier than usual, and greatly relieved when they ran out after preparation to find him only just beginning to uncoil his hose. He used a small tank on wheels, which he generally left on the gravel walk outside the kitchen-garden, bringing the indiarubber tubing through the hedge.
To the girls' extreme annoyance, Marjorie Butler spied them, and, coming up, insisted upon reading aloud to them a letter she had received that morning from a sailor cousin. Would she never go away? It was too tiresome of her to confide in them at such an inappropriate time.
"Don't let us keep you, if you want to play tennis," begged Lindsay, with cold politeness.
"Oh, I don't mind at all, thank you! I thought you'd be interested to hear about Cousin Cyril," replied Marjorie.
Lindsay wished sincerely that Cousin Cyril had been at the bottom of the sea, instead of sailing over it and writing long descriptions of its charms. The precious moments were passing by. She could hear the gentle swish of the water as Scott applied the hose; if they were not quick, he would have finished, and the opportunity would be gone.
"I believe Miss Russell is coming out to play croquet to-night," she ventured desperately.
"Is she? Oh! she promised I might be on her side next time. I wonder if she's there yet? I must go and see at once."
"Thank goodness!" ejaculated Lindsay, as their classmate's blue-linen dress disappeared along the avenue. "Now, I'm going to put this heavy stone on the hose pipe, just where it goes through the hedge. Then we'll both creep through that hole into the kitchen-garden."
Without wasting another minute, Lindsay hastily did as she had said, concealing the stone among the long grass, after which both girls crawled through the hedge into the midst of a bed of Jerusalem artichokes. As they had expected, their plot answered admirably. Scott gave a grunt of vexation, and looked at his hose. His water supply had undoubtedly failed him. He stumped away, grumbling, to examine the tank.
"I don't believe he'll ever look amongst the grass. He'll think something's wrong with the tap," chuckled Lindsay.
The moment Scott had vanished through the gate, they dashed (regardless of the artichokes!) in the direction of the frames. Lindsay slid her hands rapidly in a search under the large, vine-like leaves; and Cicely, armed with a trowel, began to dig furiously. All in vain! Though they prodded the soil with sticks they could not feel anything particularly solid underneath, and there was no time to make very deep excavations.
"He's coming back!" panted Lindsay. "Smooth the earth over in that corner, and place that leaf to hide it. Quick, or he'll catch us! Don't go through the artichokes; we must run the other way!"
The July days literally flew, and the term was drawing rapidly to a close. Miss Russell seemed determined to make the very most of the last weeks at the Manor, and arranged something fresh for nearly every afternoon. On one day there was a cricket match, on another a putting contest, and on a third a tennis tournament, all of which caused much excitement in the small world of the school.
Both Lindsay and Cicely were fond of games, and anxious to win their share of distinction, so by mutual consent they decided to relax their watch on Scott until after the athletic sports. These were always considered a great event, and this year were to be on a larger scale than usual.
"It's so splendid to be able to have them in these lovely grounds," said Mildred Roper. "There never seemed half enough room on the lawn at Winterburn Lodge."
"I hear Miss Russell is going to give quite a party," volunteered Nora Proctor. "She's invited the Rector and Mrs. Cross and all the people who have called on her at Haversleigh, so we shall have plenty of spectators."
"I wish Mrs. Courtenay could come," exclaimed Cicely.
"I wish indeed she could. I'm afraid she must be worse to-day, as Monica was not at the history class," said Mildred.
All the girls were busy "getting into good form", as they expressed it. The elder ones worked untiringly at tennis, while the younger ones practised running with a zeal worthy of candidates for a Marathon race.
"Miss Russell says there'll be several handicaps, but she won't tell us what they are," remarked Beryl Austen.
"Well, it's much more fun if you don't know beforehand," returned Effie Hargreaves. "They wouldn't be handicaps if we could do them too easily."
"I found a piece of four-leaved clover yesterday," observed Cicely, "so I ought to be lucky. I showed it to Mademoiselle, and she was quite envious. 'Vous aurez la chance!'" she said.
"How jolly! Have you kept it?"
"Rather! I've left it to press between two pieces of blotting-paper, under a pile of books. I'm going to have it put in a locket when I go home."
"I don't believe in luck," declared Nora. "I'm sure all the four-leaved clovers in the world wouldn't make Marjorie Butler win a race. She's out of breath before she's run ten yards."
"Is Monica going to take part?" asked Beryl.
"I don't know. She said she had put her name down provisionally. If she does, I expect she'll astonish us all. She can jump most beautifully—she's as light as a feather."
The afternoon of the sports was brilliantly fine. By half-past two the guests had assembled on the big lawn. They looked quite a small crowd. The school had aroused interest in the neighbourhood, and people had come from several miles' distance in response to Miss Russell's cards of invitation. Irene Spencer was the only girl who could boast of having any relations present, her uncle, aunt, and several cousins having driven over from Linforth Vicarage. The visitors were evidently prepared to enjoy everything.
"It is not often we have an opportunity in the country of witnessing Olympic games. I am looking forward to seeing so many young Atalantas run races. Where are the wreaths of laurel and parsley that are to grace the occasion?" said Mr. Cross, the genial rector, who was fond of a joke, and at home among schoolgirls.
"There aren't any," laughed Cicely. "Miss Russell uses the laurel leaves to flavour the custards, and the parsley to garnish the hams."
"I'm astonished at her putting such classic plants to such ignoble purposes. She has asked me to distribute the prizes, and I thought I should be expected to place green chaplets upon the brows of the victors. It's too bad, when I had composed a speech on purpose. You suggest I should make up another? Not so easy, my dears. I shall come to some of you for assistance. I wonder if Miss Frazer would be equal to the occasion?"
"I'm sure she couldn't think of anything funny," declared Cicely.
"Then I shall have to trust to what I can say on the spur of the moment. If you notice I'm breaking down, please begin to clap, and then everybody will suppose I have finished. Here comes Miss Russell. I believe she wants me to act umpire too. Greatness is being thrust upon me. I hope I shan't disgrace my high position."
In spite of the Rector's mock protestations, he seemed very capable of managing the sports, and reviewed the rows of waiting girls with the eye of a general.
"It takes me back to my own schooldays," he said. "I used to think then I would much rather win the long jump than be made Archbishop of Canterbury; and I considered the captain of our cricket club a far bigger fellow than the Prime Minister. Where's Monica? Isn't she joining in to-day's doings?"
Monica arrived at the last moment, just when everybody had given her up, and took her place quietly among the members of the first form.
"I was afraid I couldn't come at all," she explained; "but Mother is asleep now, so I can leave her for an hour, at any rate. I have told Jenny to send for me if she wakes."
The first item on the programme was a tennis contest, limited to the elder girls. It was a hard-fought battle, as the competitors were evenly balanced, and it ended in a victory for Mildred Roper and Kathleen Crawford. Monica played well, but she had not been able to spend so much time at practice as the others, and she missed several balls.
"It was very stupid of me," she apologized. "I never seem to grow accustomed to Mildred's fast serves."
A race followed for the second class, which Irene Spencer, much cheered by her cousins, nearly succeeded in winning, though she was beaten at the last by Merle Hammond, who made a sudden and unexpected spurt. It was now the turn of the third-form girls. They were to run a handicap, and awaited particulars with much eagerness.
"Miss Russell seems to set as severe tasks as the wicked stepmother in the fairy tales," said Mr. Cross. "She decrees that you are each to be given a small box of peas and beans and buttons mixed together, and that you are to sort them before you start to run the race. Will you please all kneel on the grass with your boxes in front of you. Are you ready? One—two—three—off!"
It was a question of deftness of fingers. Effie Hargreaves justified the old proverb, "More haste, less speed", by upsetting her box; and Marjorie Butler got her piles mixed in her agitation. Cicely finished first, and was halfway across the lawn before Nora Proctor overtook her. It was a keen struggle between these two. All the others were some distance behind, for Lindsay was not so fleet of foot, and Beryl Austen slipped and fell on the dry grass.
"It's Nora! No, it's Cicely!" cried the girls. "Well done, Cicely! Go on, Nora! She's gaining! No, she isn't! Why, it's Cicely after all!" as the latter reached the winning-post a couple of yards in advance of her opponent.
"Well run!" said the Rector. "You got over the course like young greyhounds. If you learn lessons at the same speed, you will turn out prodigies. Why is Miss Russell shaking her head? She says there is no danger of that. Really, I feel quite relieved to hear it. I was beginning to be almost afraid of you. I believe you are expected to pick up the beans before we continue our proceedings."
The programme was arranged so as to be as varied as possible. There were a round at clock-golf, a skipping tournament, an egg-and-spoon race, and an archery contest.
"It's jumping next," said Lindsay, as Miss Frazer and Miss Humphreys came forward, carrying a rope; "the first-form girls are to begin. I particularly want to see Monica."
Monica had taken her place modestly at the very end of the line, so that at each trial she was the last to compete. Her movements were very light and graceful, and the girls watched her with approval. One by one, as the rope was raised higher, the competitors began to thin, till at length their number was reduced to three—Kathleen Crawford, Bertha Marston, and Monica.
All looked eagerly to see the next attempt. Kathleen just managed to scramble over, Bertha failed utterly, but Monica took the jump with absolute ease.
"This will be the final test, I expect," said Miss Russell, when the two successful ones returned to the starting-point.
"I don't think they can do that!" murmured Lindsay, gazing with awe at what was to her the impossible height required.
It was too much for Kathleen. She ran, balked, and made another vain effort, to give it up.
The name was on everybody's lips.
Monica appeared to be perfectly cool, far less excited, indeed, than the spectators.
"Rest a moment, my dear, if you are out of breath," suggested Miss Russell.
"No, thank you. It would hardly seem fair to Kathleen. I'll try now."
"Took it like a bird!" cried the Rector, clapping his hands, as the rope was once more successfully cleared.
The girls raised a storm of cheering, to show partly their admiration for the skilful deed, partly their appreciation of Monica herself.
"She is a great favourite in the school," Miss Russell explained to Mr. Cross.
"I am delighted to see her mixing with other young people," he replied; "she has a dull time, poor child, as a rule, and has felt the disappointment about her uncle's property more than she cares to confess. Mrs. Courtenay's illness is very distressing. My wife was speaking to the doctor yesterday: he considers Sir William Garrett ought to be sent for at once; in a few weeks it may prove too late."
"You have known the family a long time?" asked Miss Russell.
"Since Monica's birth. I was as well acquainted with old Sir Giles as he would allow anyone to be. I used to call and see him sometimes, and discuss botany, the only subject in which he showed any interest. He lived so penuriously that his income must have accumulated for many years. He rarely spoke of business matters, but on one occasion he requested me to sign my name as witness to some document, the contents of which he did not tell me.
"He referred, however, to Monica as if she were to benefit substantially under his will, and asked me if I considered it harmful for a girl to be left an heiress. I assured him it would not be so in her case; both her disposition and upbringing were such that money could not spoil her.
"'A season of adversity is often the best preparation for prosperity,' he replied.
"I have remembered his words ever since.
"He sent for me on his deathbed, and I have sometimes wondered if there were any secret he wished to confide to me. Most unfortunately I was visiting a sick parishioner several miles away, and did not get the message in time. When I arrived at the Manor he was past speech. He tried to scrawl a few lines on a piece of paper, but the writing was quite undecipherable. If he regretted any earthly act, it was too late then to alter it; he was going to settle his great account."
While the Rector and the headmistress were talking, tea had been carried into the garden, and the girls now busied themselves in attending on the guests.
"I think the competitors must need refreshment more than we do," said Mrs. Cross, as Cicely handed her the cream.
"They are not forgotten," said Miss Russell, "but they are only too pleased to make themselves useful first."
Certainly the girls could not complain of being neglected; both cakes and strawberries were waiting for them on a separate table, where Miss Frazer was presiding.
When tea was over, the prizes were brought out, and the Rector, with a few appropriate remarks, began to distribute the awards. Cicely went up proudly to receive a pencil-case, and Nora Proctor, who had won the egg-and-spoon race, was presented with a box of chocolates.
"First prize for high jump, Monica Courtenay," announced Mr. Cross.
Everyone looked round for Monica, but she was nowhere to be found.
"She was here just before tea," said Miss Humphreys.
"I saw their maid come and speak to her during the archery competition," said Beryl Austen. "She went away immediately."
"She was obliged to go to her mother, no doubt, and did not wish to interrupt the shooting by saying good-bye," commented Miss Russell. "We must keep her prize for her."
"She won't get the clapping, though," lamented Lindsay.
"I think Monica will be rather glad to avoid that," said Mildred Roper. "She's so shy and retiring, she doesn't like to be made a public character."
The day following the sports was hopelessly wet. Lindsay and Cicely were awakened in the morning by the drip, drip of the rain on the ivy outside, and the splashing of water as it fell from the spout into the butt underneath. It was an absolutely drenching downpour, coming from a leaden sky that showed no prospect of clearing.
The weather had been so glorious during their stay at the Manor that they felt aggrieved at the change. It was particularly annoying, because Irene's uncle and aunt had invited all the girls to walk over to Linforth that afternoon, promising to show them the church, and to regale them with cherries afterwards in the Vicarage orchard.
"Wet at seven, fine at eleven!" said the sanguine Cicely.
"Not to-day, I'm afraid," replied Lindsay. "The glass was dropping last night. It's set in for a deluge."
The whole school seemed slightly depressed in spirits in consequence of the rain. No doubt it was a reaction from the excitement of the afternoon before. All their favourite occupations lay outside, and it was so long since they had been weather-bound that they seemed scarcely able to amuse themselves in the house. Everybody lounged about idly during afternoon recreation, looking dismally out of the windows at the lawns, where the markings of the tennis courts were being rapidly washed away.
"It's no use staring at the puddles," said Lindsay. "We can't possibly go to Linforth. It's just a piece of abominably bad luck. Everything's horrid!"
Lessons had not been a success that morning. Perhaps Miss Frazer also felt the influence of the gloomy day. Her pupils, at any rate, had been unusually stupid and inattentive; Lindsay, in particular, had merited a sharp scolding, and was dejected in consequence.
"We must do something," said Cicely. "I vote we hunt up the rest of our class, and go upstairs and have a really good game of hide-and-seek."
As anything seemed better than sitting still, the other girls agreed readily to come and play.
"Two can hide and four can look," said Marjorie. "Only, we'll keep on this landing."
The old Manor offered a splendid field for the purpose; it was so full of cupboards and crannies and odd nooks that it was quite hard to find anybody. The dull day improved the fun, for twilight reigned in most of the passages, and rendered many hairbreadth escapes possible. Nora actually had her hand on Beryl's foot without discovering the fact; Effie crept inside a suit of armour, and baffled pursuit for ever so long; and Marjorie was almost given up, but at length was discovered crouching in a dark angle which the others had passed several times without noticing her.
It was now the turn of Lindsay and Cicely to hide. They were determined to choose a specially good place, and debated the point until the latter grew impatient.
"Do be quick!" she exclaimed. "They'll soon have finished counting a hundred."
"I can't make up my mind whether it's better behind the tapestry or under the ottoman," deliberated Lindsay.
"Cuckoo!" cried Beryl's voice.
"They're coming! We've no time for either. We must get into the old box-settle."
It was the only possible retreat near at hand. Already they could hear the girls' footsteps creaking along the oaken boards of the picture gallery; in another moment they would have turned into the passage, and reached the top of the stairs. Without more ado both hiders scrambled inside the settle, and pulled down the lid over their heads.
It was a very tight fit indeed for two, and most uncomfortable.
"Could you let me have an inch more room?" begged Cicely in an agonized whisper.
"I'll try," returned Lindsay.
It was difficult to stir in such narrow quarters. To move at all, she was obliged to make a vigorous heave towards her end of the chest. The effect was as unexpected as extraordinary. Lo and behold! the entire bottom of the settle seemed to give way, and without any warning the two girls were precipitated into some unknown place below.
So sudden was their descent that Lindsay and Cicely had no time even to cry out. They evidently had not fallen far, and though for a moment they both thought they were killed, they soon found that beyond a few bruises neither was hurt. They picked themselves up in a state of bewilderment, and stared around them as if hardly realizing yet what had happened.
They were in a little low chamber about eight feet square. The walls were of unpolished oak timbers, roughly plastered in between, and the floor also was of oak beams. In one corner there was a tiny window, covered with a mass of cobwebs, through which nevertheless came sufficient light to enable them to see their surroundings. The trapdoor in the ceiling, through which they had dropped so unexpectedly, must have worked on a swivel, for it had righted itself again, and was once more closed above them.
Still half-dazed, the girls stood for a moment trying to recover their scattered wits, too shaken and amazed even to speak.
"Well!" exclaimed Lindsay at last, with a volume of meaning in the monosyllable.
"This is a house of surprises!" cried Cicely.
"Where are we?"
"How can I tell?"
"We seemed to tumble through the bottom of the settle."
"Yes, after you gave that great lurch to your end."
"We must be in another secret hiding-place."
"Then I vote we hunt about, and see what's in it."
One side of the small room was completely filled, as high as the ceiling, with a pile of boxes. They seemed a very miscellaneous collection. There were ancient hair trunks, such as were in use seventy or eighty years ago, made of wood covered with cow hide, with the hair left on; there were leather portmanteaux with strong brass corners, tin trunks, and even plain wooden packing-cases. On the floor, and leaning against the boxes, stood a row of fair-sized linen bags, and a couple of larger sacks.
It seemed to the girls as if they must have penetrated to some forgotten lumber room. Everything was thickly covered with the accumulated dirt and cobwebs of years. They could have written their names in the dust. As if she were moving in a dream, Lindsay stooped, and picked up one of the linen bags.
"How heavy it is!" she said. "I wonder what's inside?"
"It feels like something hard," replied Cicely, pinching it critically with her finger and thumb.
The mouth was secured by a cord, and Lindsay fumbled long trying to untie the knot.
"Oh! don't bother over it; here's my penknife," cried Cicely, waxing impatient.
In another moment she had cut the string, and a shower of golden sovereigns came pouring out on to the floor. The two girls looked at each other, with faces that were almost awe-stricken.
"Cicely!" said Lindsay solemnly. "I verily believe we have found Sir Giles's fortune!"
A further examination established the matter beyond any doubt. The bags were filled to the brim with gold pieces. In a state of intense excitement the girls continued their investigations. The two large sacks contained salvers, tankards, and goblets, dull and tarnished indeed, but unmistakably of silver. It was difficult to get at the boxes, but they managed to clamber up and open one at the top of the pile, disclosing more silver articles and some ornaments of gold.
"Don't let us pull out too many things, or we shan't be able to stuff them back again," said Cicely, trying to close the lid of the overflowing hair trunk.
"No doubt these underneath are filled with money or jewels," said Lindsay rapturously.
"This little box seems made of silver," remarked Cicely, taking up a small antique casket that specially claimed her attention. Its sides were beautifully chased in classic designs, and it bore the Courtenay arms on the lid.
"It's full of pieces of paper, with figures on them," she continued.
"Let me look!" cried Lindsay. "Why, don't you see?—they're bank notes!"
They were certainly in the midst of treasures. The extent of Sir Giles's hoard had evidently not been exaggerated. At the bottom of the casket lay a letter addressed:
"TO MY GREAT-NIECE MONICA COURTENAY."
"The writing on the envelope is exactly the same as in the Floral Calendar," said Cicely. "I remember those funny flourishes, and the 'a's' not closed at the top."
"So it is; I should know the sprawling look of it anywhere."
"It's such funny, old-fashioned writing, as if it were done with a quill pen. I think we had better put this away again."
Lindsay replaced the letter carefully with the bank notes inside the silver box.
"Then Sir Giles did intend the enigma for a guide," she observed. "The last lines were right.
'... you'll see 'tis a matter Perchance may provide you with just a lost link, And bring you a greater reward than you think.'"
"And the settle concealed the legacy after all!"
"Yes, a great deal more safely than we supposed."
"I never imagined the treasure would be in a place like this, all stowed away in old boxes! I thought we should press a secret spring, and a panel would fly open in the wall, and then we should see money and jewels lying together in a big heap!"
"I don't mind how we've found it, so long as it's here."
"Still, it's a surprise!"
"It will be a splendid surprise for Monica. This is actually her very own."
"She would have been content with a hundred guineas, and there are more than a hundred guineas here," said Cicely, letting some of the sovereigns slide through her fingers with a sigh of satisfaction.
"She ought to know about it at once," returned Lindsay. "If you can tear yourself away from these money bags, we'd better be thinking of going."
"Yes, I suppose it's time we went back. By the by, how are we to get out of this place?"
Ah! How to go back?—that was the question! The trapdoor had shut itself high above their heads.
"I expect if we stand on one of the boxes, we can push it up!" said Lindsay.
With much difficulty they dragged a heavy chest across the floor and climbed upon it. It was a fruitless effort. However hard they might try, the trapdoor would not budge an inch.
"There may be a secret spring," faltered Cicely, feeling in every direction to find some bolt or knob, but all in vain. Then the horrible truth broke upon them. They were locked up as securely as the legacy!
"What are we to do?"
Lindsay's pink cheeks were white with alarm.
"Let us call. Perhaps the girls are hunting for us still in the passage, and they may hear."
Both shouted until they were hoarse, yet there was no reply. This was indeed hide-and-seek with a vengeance. Their game had turned out more than they had bargained for.
"I'll bang on the ceiling. It may sound louder than calling," said Lindsay. "The girls must have given us up, and gone downstairs, for nobody seems to hear," she continued, after belabouring the trapdoor for several minutes.
"Perhaps they're at tea," suggested Cicely.
They examined the little window in the corner, but the fastenings were so rusty from long disuse that, tug as they would, they could not open it. They wiped away the dust and cobwebs from it, and peeped out.
"If it overlooks the garden, we could smash the glass and wave a handkerchief, at any rate," proposed Lindsay. "Scott would be almost sure to notice it, even if nobody else were out in the rain."
Alas! the window appeared to be securely hidden away among the gables, and absolutely out of sight from below.
"Would it be possible to crawl on to the roof?"
Lindsay shook her head in reply. The frame was too small for even the slim Cicely to squeeze through. The girls sat down and surveyed the piles of treasure around them with dismay. If they had required a sermon on the vanity of riches, it was there without any need of words.
"We can't eat bank notes, nor sleep on beds of sovereigns," remarked Lindsay at last.
"We may be shut up here for days and days before they find us," said Cicely blankly.
"They'll miss us directly, of course; but they won't know where to look. Even if they peeped inside the settle, they wouldn't be any the wiser."
"Do you remember the piece of poetry we read last week about Ginevra? She hid inside a chest on her wedding day, when they were playing hide-and-seek, and the lid snapped with a spring lock. They never found her—only her bones, years afterwards!"
"Don't talk of such horrible things."
"How long does it take people to starve?" continued Cicely in a tremulous voice.
"About ten days, I believe. They grow gradually weaker and weaker."
"There isn't anything to drink either, and I'm getting so thirsty," she said, her eyes filling with tears.
"We must try again," declared Lindsay, jumping up. "Let us pull out another trunk, and manage to lift it on to the chest. I believe if I were nearer the ceiling I should be able to push harder."
The boxes were arranged in a rather random fashion, so that as the girls dragged one from the bottom, the whole pile came tumbling down in confusion. They had to jump aside to avoid being hurt. When the upset was over, Cicely pointed silently to the wall opposite. In the part which before had been hidden was a small, low door. Here, surely, was a chance of escape.
They scrambled over the packing-cases and trunks without troubling to look inside them, though some had burst open in the fall. To find a way out seemed at present far more important than more silver tankards and salvers.
Was this exit also secured? With trembling hands Lindsay raised the latch. To her intense relief the door opened, showing a very narrow, unlighted passage.
After their experience in the garret it was not encouraging to find themselves once more obliged to explore in the dark, but there seemed nothing else to be done.
"It must lead somewhere," said Cicely. "I'd rather go anywhere than stay here."
"We'd better step carefully, in case the floor is as rotten as it was in the other place," cautioned Lindsay. The passage smelled dank and close. The air in it had probably been unstirred for many years. The faint light which entered it from the treasure room was soon lost, and they were obliged to grope their way by feeling along the walls. On and on they went for what appeared to be a considerable distance, sometimes turning sharp corners, and sometimes going up or down rickety steps.
"It must run half round the house," said Cicely. "Shall we never get to the end?"
Suddenly Lindsay, who was walking first, came to a halt.
"I can't go any farther," she faltered; "there's a wall in front."
The poor girls were almost in despair. They had been so confident that the passage would surely be taking them to the outer world; to find themselves once more at a full stop was a terrible blow.
"Must we go all that dreadful long way back?" wailed Cicely.
"I expect there is some door that we've passed without knowing it," replied Lindsay, rather chokily.
"Then we can never find it in the dark. It's no use. We shall both starve to death here, and they'll discover our skeletons a hundred years afterwards."
Cicely had utterly broken down, and was sobbing bitterly.
"We won't give up too soon," said Lindsay, whose sturdy courage stood her in good stead on this occasion.
She had been feeling about here and there on the blank wall that faced them, and her fingers at last encountered something that seemed like a sliding bolt. She pushed it back eagerly. A door opened outwards, letting in a blaze of light. To their utter amazement they were gazing down into the picture gallery!
It did not take them many seconds to spring to the floor and turn round to look through what aperture they had made their escape. It was the portrait of Monica Courtenay that formed the secret exit. It had swung out, frame and all, into the gallery, and appeared to be fitted with hinges so as to close and unclose quite easily.
"Now I see why the picture shook in its frame that day!" exclaimed Cicely. "I wonder we never thought of this before."
"And of course that was why she was supposed to guard the fortunes of the Courtenays. No doubt they always kept their valuables in this hiding-place, and only the head of the family would know the way to it."
"So old sayings do generally mean something, and aren't just nonsense."
"Let us go and tell at once. Everybody'll be wondering where we are. They must be doing prep. now, and Miss Russell will be sitting with the first class."
The headmistress's tranquil demeanour was not usually easily ruffled, but she sprang up in excitement as her two missing pupils burst into the library proclaiming the glorious news.
"Lindsay and Cicely! Where have you been? I was growing most uneasy at your absence. You say you have actually found Sir Giles's treasure? It is hardly to be credited. Girls, girls, try to calm yourselves and give me an intelligible account!" as first one and then the other took up the tale in disjointed sentences.
"We played hide-and-seek—and fell through the bottom of the settle—there were great bags of gold—and boxes of silver things and bank notes—won't she be rich? And he'd written it in an enigma—we thought we were going to starve there like Ginevra—and we climbed down through the portrait—oh, may we go and tell Monica about it now?"
"This is indeed a most extraordinary discovery," said Miss Russell, when at length she had drawn from them a more lucid statement of affairs. "Monica must certainly know, but no one is to tell her except myself. I will go down presently to the cottage and see her, and warn her to break the news very gently to her mother. If Mrs. Courtenay were to hear of it suddenly, the shock might be exceedingly dangerous, in her weak state of health."
The news that something of great importance had happened seemed to spread like wildfire through the school. Both teachers and pupils, abandoning their books, came crowding into the library to hear particulars. Even the servants hurried to the spot.
"Oh, bless you, bless you!" cried Mrs. Wilson, who had pushed her way among the girls to the central source of information. "This is indeed a day of rejoicing—a day to remember and give thanks for to the end of one's life!"
Lindsay and Cicely stared at her in amazement. Was it actually "The Griffin" who was speaking? And were those tears that were trickling down her hard cheeks? What did it mean? Was she acting a part? Or had they after all misjudged her? There was no time then for either surmises or explanations. They were the heroines of the hour, and had to repeat their story afresh to those who had not yet heard it at first hand.
"We couldn't imagine where you were hidden," said Marjorie Butler. "We were hunting in the picture gallery for ever so long. Beryl peeped inside the settle, and said it was empty."
"We were still more puzzled when you didn't turn up for tea," said Nora Proctor. "Do tell us again about the bags of money!"
Miss Russell, however, thinking the excitement had lasted long enough, interfered and put a stop to the recital.
"Everybody must go back to preparation at once," she decreed. "Lindsay and Cicely have had no tea. Are you hungry?" she added, turning to the adventurous pair.
"Starving," they replied laconically.
"Then I will excuse your preparation to-night, and you may come with me to the dining-room. It would be rather hard to expect you to set to work upon lessons immediately after such an experience."
Good-bye to the Manor
Monica's agitation, when she heard that her uncle's legacy had been found, was extreme. At first she refused to believe it; but when she was told the story of Lindsay's and Cicely's strange adventure, she began slowly to realize that it was no fairy tale, and that the fortune, so sorely needed and so much longed for, was lying awaiting her disposal.
"The money is there, and I can have some of it now?" she asked, still almost incredulously. "Will there be as much as a hundred guineas?"
"Far more than that, my dear, from the girls' account."
"Then we can send for Sir William Garrett!" she said, with a sigh of intense relief.
Miss Russell, who did not like the responsibility of being even a temporary custodian of such riches, had informed the Rector of what had occurred, and requested him to come to the Manor and help her to investigate the matter. As he was Monica's guardian, he seemed the proper person to take charge of her affairs. He arrived next morning, and, accompanied by Miss Russell and Monica, made a careful examination of the hiding-place and its contents. At the mistress's urgent request, he promised to arrange that all the valuables should be removed as speedily as possible to the bank.
"I could not sleep with them in the house, I should be so afraid of burglars, now the news of the discovery has been spread abroad," declared Miss Russell.
"They were only too safe here," said Monica.
"Yes, when their whereabouts was a mystery. It is different when everyone knows."
The wealth which old Sir Giles had stored in the secret room was considerable. He had evidently distrusted investments, and, following his own singular whim, had hoarded his money in gold and bank notes. There were precious stones also, in themselves worth a small fortune, which he must have collected, in addition to the family jewels and the old silver plate that had been handed down through generations of Courtenays.
After looking through some of the boxes, the Rector picked up the casket, and made a short scrutiny of its contents.
"This envelope is addressed to you, Monica," he observed.
The girl took it hesitatingly, then passed it back to her guardian.
"It seems like a message from the dead," she said. "I think, please, I would rather that you should read it aloud."
The letter was well in keeping with its writer's eccentric and morbid character. It ran thus:—
"MY DEAR MONICA,
"Gold, silver, and precious stones are but vanity of vanities, a snare to many, and the root of all evil. By the time you claim these, I trust you will have found how easy it is to dispense with them, and that you will despise them as much as I do.
"They have never brought me any happiness, and I am uncertain whether it is a kindness to bequeath to you what to me has been but an irksome encumbrance. After giving long and earnest thought to the matter, I have decided to leave it in the hands of destiny.
"I shall lay by these possessions in the hidden chamber, the existence of which was told me by my grandfather, and now is unknown to any except myself. I have concealed the secret, however, in an enigma, which, if you have followed my advice concerning the study of Botany, you will have found written inside the cover of the Floral Calendar.