"Should Heaven ordain that you are to take up this burden, then you will read my riddle aright. Should it be otherwise decreed, this message will never meet your eyes. Believe me that I have striven to act for your best good.
"From your uncle and well-wisher, "GILES PEMBERTON COURTENAY."
"He seemed quite afraid for me to have this money," faltered poor Monica, on whom the letter had left a deep impression. "Shall I regret it? Is it really such a dangerous thing?"
"Not if you make a wise use of it. In your hands I hope it may prove a blessing instead of a curse," answered the Rector.
"It does not seem to have brought any happiness to Uncle Giles. He calls it a burden."
"Riches can never bring happiness unless they are being employed for the benefit of others."
"It is sad to think how long these have lain idle," remarked Miss Russell. "Monica will be able to do much good with them."
"Then you are sure I may take them?" asked Monica, turning to her guardian. "I didn't find out the enigma myself, you see."
"I am certain you may receive the legacy without scruple, my dear child! Your uncle himself said he had left matters to the disposal of destiny. It appears to me as if Lindsay and Cicely had been led just at the right time to this happy discovery. You must accept your fortune as a special gift of Providence. So far it has been a talent laid up in a napkin; it can now be your care to let it yield ten talents in return."
* * * * *
Though Lindsay and Cicely had satisfactorily accomplished their quest, they felt there were many points in connection with their adventure at the Manor that still puzzled them. The mystery surrounding the lantern room had not yet been cleared up, neither had the strange behaviour of Mrs. Wilson and Scott been accounted for.
So anxious were they to decide these perplexing points that they determined to confide the whole affair to Monica, and see if she could offer any explanation. A month ago it would have been impossible to get her for half an hour to themselves, but since their finding of the treasure the other girls were ready to allow them a special claim to her society, and took it as a matter of course when they carried her off to the summer house for a private chat.
Monica listened attentively to the story of their various experiences and suspicions. At the end she laughed heartily, then suddenly looked grave.
"You dear silly children!" she exclaimed. "It was a case of much ado about nothing, and yet you nearly ran into such great danger that it makes me shudder even to think about it. There certainly was a reason for visiting the attic, though not at all of the kind you imagined. It contains a large cistern, which supplies the water for the bath and the kitchen boiler. This is fed by a tank on the roof that catches the rain, and in dry weather it is apt to get out of order. If it is not working properly, it makes a curious blowing noise."
"Like groaning?" asked Cicely.
"Yes, very like groaning, though it would need a gigantic prisoner to utter such fearful moans of distress. No wonder you thought somebody was being tortured!" and Monica laughed again.
"You can understand," she continued, "that with so many girls in the house requiring baths, we were afraid lest the tank should run dry, and were continually examining the cistern, to make sure that the water was flowing properly. If it had stopped even for an hour, it might have caused the kitchen boiler to burst."
"Did Mrs. Wilson go to look, then?" enquired Lindsay.
"Either Mrs. Wilson or Scott went every day. My mother was so anxious about it that I several times ran up myself, so that I could tell her all was perfectly safe. Mrs. Wilson was equally nervous. We had so little rain in June that she was sure the tank must be nearly empty."
"Then that was what she and Scott meant about the noise and danger, when they were talking in the picture gallery!" interposed Cicely.
"Yes," replied Monica. "When people try to overhear conversations, and put two and two together for themselves, they rarely succeed in coming to a right conclusion."
Lindsay and Cicely blushed. They had known from the first that Monica would not approve of either eavesdropping or peeping through keyholes. This was the part of the business of which they both felt rather ashamed; they were conscious that there had been a great deal of curiosity mixed up with their efforts on her behalf. Monica, however, took no notice of their heightened colour, and went on:
"Both Scott and Mrs. Wilson were quite right in wishing to keep you away from the attics; you will understand when I explain why. The hiding-place in the lantern room is a relic of the times of King James I. Have you learnt yet in your history books what severe penal laws were made against Roman Catholics in those days? Any priest found celebrating Mass might be executed, and often he was tortured first to make him tell the whereabouts of his companions. Our ancestors, who lived then at the Manor, still belonged to the old faith, and they needed some spot where they could worship without fear of being disturbed; so they made the secret entrance through the cupboard, and private services were held in the great garret. Even with such precautions it was a very dangerous thing for a priest to remain long in a country house. If his presence were suspected, and information given, a party of soldiers would at once come with a search warrant to hunt for him.
"Then he would have to be ready to hurry away into some safer retreat still, in case his first place of concealment were discovered. At the end of the farther attic there is a small cupboard most cunningly hidden in the wall. In front of it there is a shaft, a great, horrible, yawning chasm, several feet wide and very deep, going quite to the basement of the house. It was intended as a trap to baffle pursuers, who would fall down it in the dark when chasing their fugitive."
"Is the shaft still there?" asked Cicely.
"Yes, it is quite untouched and open. It is in such a far-away part of the attic that nobody has considered it worth while to go to the trouble of having it covered in. Now you can understand how alarmed Mrs. Wilson was when she found that some of you had been in the lantern room. She didn't believe you would really be able to find your way through the cupboard; still, she was never easy when she thought of the danger you might perhaps run into. She couldn't rest until Scott had padlocked the door."
"We were very near it," said Cicely, with a shiver.
"It was the greatest mercy you didn't venture any farther. I can't be too thankful that the cistern made a noise just at that moment, and frightened you down again."
"Then you knew of this secret door, though not of the one in the picture gallery?" said Lindsay.
"Yes; it was discovered two centuries ago, in the reign of Queen Anne, I believe. In many old manor houses there are equally clever contrivances for hiding-places. They are often called 'priests' holes'. I've heard of one under the steps of the stairs, and another in a window-seat, or up a chimney, or even behind a picture."
"Like ours," said Cicely.
"No doubt the one under the settle may have been a 'priests' hole' too, and perhaps had the second entrance for extra security. Very sad stories are told about some of the hiding-places. Sometimes the poor fugitive couldn't find an opportunity to get away, and the person who knew the secret, and should have brought him food, was killed or taken prisoner. Then he either had to come out, and deliver himself up to the soldiers, or to remain and die a slow, lingering death of starvation."
"I thought we were going to do that when we were locked in with the treasure," remarked Cicely.
"How much did Merle find out in the lantern room?" interposed Lindsay.
"She happened to pull at the lantern, and had just the same surprise as you," replied Monica. "She had gone a few steps into the passage when I came down from looking at the cistern, and met her, much to her astonishment. Of course I explained everything, and begged her not to tell, because we didn't want any more schoolgirls to start exploring."
"Then it was to you she gave that mysterious promise?"
"Certainly it was to me. I'm glad to hear she kept it so well."
"But I still don't half understand," said Lindsay. "We thought Mrs. Wilson and Scott were hiding the treasure up there. We saw them take a sack into the garden one night and bury something."
"You managed to give poor Scott a great fright," laughed Monica. "He told me about it the next day. He was doing nothing more dreadful than digging out a wasps' nest. Mrs. Wilson had discovered it in the bank, and she went with him to show him the place and help him. Of course it could not be done by daylight, when the wasps were flying about; but at dark, when they were all safely inside their hole, Scott burnt tobacco to stupefy them, and then took the nest. He said two of the young ladies had suddenly tumbled down the bank while he was at work, and startled him terribly."
"So he and Mrs. Wilson weren't burying the treasure after all? They didn't even try to steal it?"
"No, indeed! I feel sorry to think they should have been suspected for a moment of such bad intentions. Mrs. Wilson may be rather gruff and blunt in her manners, but she is a faithful old soul, and devoted to Mother and me. I believe she would have starved rather than touch a penny that belonged to us. And Scott too is absolutely honest. I assure you he keeps nothing stowed away inside the cucumber frames! Naturally Mrs. Wilson had often looked for the hiding-place, but it was all on my behalf, and nobody rejoiced more heartily than she did when it was found."
"We were on a completely wrong track," said Lindsay. "The only right clue was the enigma. I'm glad we puzzled that out, though we didn't win any prizes in the competition."
"And yet the enigma was no real use," put in Cicely. "We shouldn't have gone through the bottom of the settle if we hadn't been playing hide-and-seek. Isn't it queer that when we tried so hard to find the secret room we couldn't, and then that we should come across it just by accident?"
To Monica the affair seemed no accident, but, as the Rector had said, a merciful arrangement of Providence. It enabled her to send for Sir William Garrett, and the great specialist arrived in the course of the next few days. After examining Mrs. Courtenay, he gave a more favourable report on her case than her own physician had dared to hope.
"You have consulted me in the nick of time," was his verdict. "I trust to be able to effect a complete cure. A winter in the south would work wonders, and, if my treatment is thoroughly carried out, she should return to Haversleigh in the spring with restored health."
It was an intense relief to be thus reassured. Monica felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her mind. When the doctors had finally taken their departure, she ran to share her good news with her friends at the Manor.
"Of course," she explained, "Mother will require the greatest care, but we can give her anything now that she needs. Sir William Garrett has promised to send a nurse from London who understands his special treatment, and who could go with us to Italy in the autumn. Oh, how splendid it will be when I can bring her back absolutely strong and well! I can hardly feel thankful enough. And it is all owing to you," she added, kissing Lindsay and Cicely with tears in her eyes.
It had come at length to the very end of the term; the girls were making up their minds to bid a reluctant good-bye to the beautiful old house where they had spent such a pleasant and eventful twelve weeks.
"If we weren't going home, I couldn't bear to leave it," said Cicely. "I've grown so fond of everything. Our dear bedroom, with its big four-poster (I love those yellow brocaded curtains), and the roses round the window that smell so delicious first thing when one wakes in the morning, and the dining-hall, and the picture gallery, and the library, and the oak parlour where we have lessons, and, above all, the garden. Oh dear, it makes me quite sad to think perhaps I may never see them again! What a change to settle down at Winterburn Lodge in September!"
"I suppose life can't be all honey; we shall have to go back to plain bread and butter now," replied Lindsay philosophically. "But I'll tell you a secret to cheer you up. Monica says her mother has promised that when they return from Italy she'll ask you and me to spend part of the summer holidays at the Manor. But she doesn't wish us to let any of the other girls know of the invitation just at present."
"How perfectly delightful!" exclaimed Cicely, with shining eyes.
"It's a whole year off yet."
"I don't mind, so long as I can think of coming here again some time, and being Monica's visitor. It's something to look forward to."
The last day arrived, as last days invariably do, whether one is longing for their advent or the reverse. Boxes had been brought down and packed, and Miss Russell's linen and silver had been collected and stowed away in great wicker baskets, which were already dispatched on their road to London. The girls, marshalled in order on the drive, were only waiting for the word "March!" to start for the railway station.
Monica stood on the steps to see them off, her pretty, fair face and rich chestnut hair framed in the oak doorway.
"I shall miss you all dreadfully," she said. "It has been a great pleasure for me to have you here. Please don't forget me."
"We're not likely to do that," replied Mildred Roper, speaking for herself and the rest. "We've spent a glorious three months. It's been more like holidays than school. I think every one of us, to the end of her life, will remember this summer term at the old Manor. Good-bye!"