A Patriotic Schoolgirl
BLACKIE & SON LIMITED 50 Old Bailey, LONDON 17 Stanhope Street, GLASGOW
BLACKIE & SON (INDIA) LIMITED Warwick House, Fort Street, BOMBAY
BLACKIE & SON (CANADA) LIMITED 1118 Bay Street, TORONTO
A Patriotic Schoolgirl
Author of "Schoolgirl Kitty" "The Luckiest Girl in the School" "Monitress Merle" &c. &c.
Illustrated by Balliol Salmon
BLACKIE & SON LIMITED LONDON AND GLASGOW
I. OFF TO BOARDING-SCHOOL 9
II. BRACKENFIELD COLLEGE 23
III. THE TALENTS TOURNAMENT 32
IV. EXEATS 45
V. AUTOGRAPHS 58
VI. TROUBLE 67
VII. DORMITORY NO. 9 79
VIII. A SENSATION 91
IX. ST. ETHELBERTA'S 98
X. THE RED CROSS HOSPITAL 106
XI. A STOLEN MEETING 119
XII. THE SCHOOL UNION 129
XIII. THE SPRING TERM 140
XIV. THE SECRET SOCIETY OF PATRIOTS 151
XV. THE EMPRESS 163
XVI. THE OBSERVATORY WINDOW 175
XVII. THE DANCE OF THE NATIONS 183
XVIII. ENCHANTED GROUND 195
XIX. A POTATO WALK 208
XX. PATRIOTIC GARDENING 222
XXI. THE ROLL OF HONOUR 231
XXII. THE MAGIC LANTERN 244
XXIII. ON LEAVE 255
XXIV. THE ROYAL GEORGE 264
XXV. CHARADES 276
"IF YOU WANT THE EUSTON EXPRESS, YOU'LL HAVE TO MAKE A RUN FOR IT" Frontispiece
THEY WERE HUDDLED TOGETHER, WATCHING HER WITH AWESTRUCK FACES 96
THEN SOMEHOW MARJORIE FOUND HERSELF BLURTING OUT THE ENTIRE STORY 168
SHE STARED AT IT IN CONSTERNATION 280
A Patriotic Schoolgirl
Off to Boarding-school
"Dona, are you awake? Donakins! I say, old sport, do stir yourself and blink an eye! What a dormouse you are! D'you want shaking? Rouse up, you old bluebottle, can't you?"
"I've been awake since five o'clock, and it's no use thumping me in the back," grunted an injured voice from the next bed. "It's too early yet to get up, and I wish you'd leave me alone."
The huskiness and general chokiness of the tone were unmistakable. Marjorie leaned over and took a keen survey of that portion of her sister's face which was not buried in the pillow.
"Oh! the atmosphere's damp, is it?" she remarked. "Dona, you're ostriching! For goodness' sake brace up, child, and turn off the water-works! I thought you'd more pluck. If you're going to arrive at Brackenfield with a red nose and your eyes all bunged up, I'll disown you, or lose you on the way. Crystal clear, I will! I'll not let you start in a new school nicknamed 'Niobe', so there! Have a caramel?"
Dona sat up in bed, and arrested her tears sufficiently to accept the creature comfort offered her. As its consistency was decidedly of a stick-jaw nature, the mingled sucking and sobbing which followed produced a queer combination.
"You sound like a seal at the Zoo," Marjorie assured her airily. "Cheer oh! I call it a stunt to be going to Brackenfield. I mean to have a top-hole time there, and no mistake!"
"It's all very well for you!" sighed Dona dolefully. "You've been at a boarding-school before, and I haven't; and you are not shy, and you always get on with people. You know I'm a mum mouse, and I hate strangers. I shall just endure till the holidays come. It's no use telling me to brace up, for there's nothing to brace about."
In the bedroom where the two girls lay talking every preparation had been made for a journey. Two new trunks, painted respectively with the initials "M. D. A." and "D. E. A.", stood side by side with the lids open, filled to the brim, except for sponge-bags and a few other items, which must be put in at the last. Weeks of concentrated thought and practical work on the part of Mother, two aunts, and a dressmaker had preceded the packing of those boxes, for the requirements of Brackenfield seemed numerous, and the list of essential garments resembled a trousseau. There were school skirts and blouses, gymnasium costumes, Sunday dresses, evening wear and party frocks, to say nothing of underclothes, and such details as gloves, shoes, ties, ribbons, and handkerchiefs, writing-cases, work-baskets, books, photos, and knick-knacks. Two hand-bags, each containing necessaries for the first night, stood by the trunks, and two umbrellas, with two hockey-sticks, were already strapped up with mackintoshes and winter coats.
For both the girls this morning would make a new and very important chapter in the story of their lives. Marjorie had, indeed, already been at boarding-school, but it was a comparatively small establishment, not to be named in the same breath with a place so important as Brackenfield, and giving only a foretaste of those experiences which she expected to encounter in a wider circle. She had been tolerably popular at Hilton House, but she had made several mistakes which she was determined not to repeat, and meant to be careful as to the first impressions which she produced upon her new schoolfellows. Marjorie, at fifteen and a half, was a somewhat problematical character. In her childhood she had been aptly described as "a little madam", and it was owing to the very turbulent effect of her presence in the family that she had been packed off early to school, "to find her level among other girls, and leave a little peace at home", as Aunt Vera expressed it. "Finding one's level" is generally rather a stormy process; so, after four years of give-and-take at Hilton House, Marjorie was, on the whole, not at all sorry to leave, and transfer her energies to another sphere. She meant well, but she was always cock-sure that she was right, and though this line of action may serve with weaker characters, it is liable to cause friction when practised upon equals or elders whose views are also self-opinionated. As regards looks, Marjorie could score. Her clear-cut features, fresh complexion, and frank, grey eyes were decidedly prepossessing, and her pigtail had been the longest and thickest and glossiest in the whole crocodile of Hilton House. She was clever, if she chose to work, though apt to argue with her teachers; and keen at games, if she could win, but showed an unsporting tendency to lose her temper if the odds were against her. Such was Marjorie—crude, impetuous, and full of overflowing spirits, with many good qualities and certain disagreeable traits, eager to loose anchor and sail away from the harbour of home and the narrow waters of Hilton House into the big, untried sea of Brackenfield College.
Two sisters surely never presented a greater contrast than the Anderson girls. Dona, at thirteen, was a shy, retiring, amiable little person, with an unashamed weakness for golliwogs and Teddy bears, specimens of which, in various sizes, decorated the mantelpiece of her bedroom. She was accustomed to give way, under plaintive protest, to Marjorie's masterful disposition, and, as a rule, played second fiddle with a good grace. She was not at all clever or imaginative, but very affectionate, and had been the pet of the family at home. She was a neat, pretty little thing, with big blue eyes and arched eyebrows and silky curls, exactly like a Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait, and she had a pathetic way of saying, "Oh, Marjorie!" when snubbed by her elder sister. According to Aunt Vera, if Marjorie needed to "find her level", Dona required to be "well shaken up". She was dreamy and unobservant, slow in her ways, and not much interested in any special subject. Marjorie's cherished ambitions were unknown to Dona, who liked to plod along in an easy fashion, without taking very much trouble. Her daily governess had found it difficult to rouse any enthusiasm in her for her work. She frankly hated lessons.
It was a subject of congratulation to Mrs. Anderson that the two girls would not be in the same house at Brackenfield. She considered that Dona's character had no chance for development under the shadow of Marjorie's overbearing ways, and that among companions of her own age she might perhaps find a few congenial friends who would help her to realize that she had entered her teens, and would interest her in girlish matters. Poor Dona by no means shared her mother's satisfaction at the arrangements for her future. She would have preferred to be with Marjorie, and was appalled at the idea of being obliged to face a houseful of strangers. She met with little sympathy from her own family in this respect.
"Do you all the good in the world, old sport!" preached Peter, an authority of eleven, with three years of preparatory-school experience behind him. "I felt a bit queer myself, you know, when I first went to The Grange, but one soon gets over that. You'll shake down."
"I don't want to shake down," bleated Dona. "It's a shame I should have to go at all! You can't any of you understand how I feel. You're all beasts!"
"They'll allow you a bucket to weep into for the first day or two, poor old Bunting!" said Larry consolingly. "It won't be so much kindness on their part as a desire to save the carpets—salt water takes the colour out of things so. But I fancy they'll limit you to a week's wailing, and if you don't turn off the tap after that, they'll send for a doctor, who'll prescribe Turkey rhubarb and senna mixed with quinine. It's a stock school prescription for shirking; harmless, you know, but particularly nasty; you'd have the taste in your mouth for days. Oh, cheer up, for goodness' sake! Look here: if I'm really sent to the camp at Denley, I'll come and look you up, and take you out to tea somewhere. How would that suit your ladyship?"
"Would you really? Will you promise?"
"Honest Injun, I will!"
"Then I don't mind quite so much as I did, though I still hate the thought of school," conceded Dona.
The Andersons generally described themselves as "a large and rambling family, guaranteed sound, and quiet in harness, but capable of taking fences if required". Nora, the eldest, had been married a year ago, Bevis was in the Navy, Leonard was serving "somewhere in France"; Larry, who had just left school, had been called up, and was going into training, and after Marjorie and Dona followed Peter, Cyril, and Joan. Marjorie and Dona always declared that if they could have been consulted in the matter of precedence, they would not have chosen to arrive in the exact centre of a big family. Nora, as eldest, and Joan, as youngest, occupied definite and recognized positions, but middle girls rarely receive as much attention. Dona, indeed, had claimed a certain share of petting, but Marjorie considered herself badly treated by the Fates.
"I wish I were the only one!" she assured the others. "Think how I'd be appreciated then!"
"We'll swop you with pleasure, madam, if you wish," returned Larry ironically. "I should suggest an advertisement such as this: 'Wanted situation as only daughter in eligible family, eight brothers and sisters given in exchange. A month's approval.' No! Better not put that in, or they'd send you packing back at the end of the first week."
"Brothers are beasts!" pouted Marjorie, throwing a cushion at Larry to express her indignation. "What I'd like would be for Mother to take me away for a year, or let me study Art, or Music, or something, just with her. Mamie Page's mother went with her to Paris, and they'd a gorgeous time. That's my ambition."
"And mine's just to be allowed to stop at home," added Dona plaintively.
Neither Marjorie's nor Dona's wishes, however, were considered at head-quarters. The powers that be had decided that they were to be educated at Brackenfield College, their boxes were ready packed, and their train was to leave at nine o'clock by railway time. Mother saw them off at the station.
"I wish I could have taken you," she said rather anxiously. "But I think you'll manage the journey all right. You're both together, and Marjorie's a big girl now, and used to travelling. You've only to cross the platform at Rosebury to get the London train, and a teacher is to meet you at Euston. You'll know her by the Brackenfield badge, and be sure you don't speak to anyone else. Call out of the window for a porter when you reach Rosebury. You've plenty of time to change. Well, good-bye, chicks! Be good girls. Don't forget to send me that telegram from Euston. Write as soon as you can. Don't lean against the door of the carriage. You're just off now! Good-bye! Good-bye!"
As the train steamed out of the station, Dona sank into her place with the air of a martyr starting for the stake, and mopped her eyes with her already damp pocket-handkerchief. Marjorie, case-hardened after many similar partings, settled herself in the next seat, and, pulling out an illustrated paper from her bag, began to read. The train was very full, and the girls had with difficulty found room. Soldiers on leave were returning to the front, and filled the corridor. Dona and Marjorie were crammed in between a stout woman, who nursed a basket containing a mewing kitten, and a wizened little man with an irritating cough. Opposite sat three Tommies, and an elderly lady with a long thin nose and prominent teeth, who entered into conversation with the soldiers, and proffered them much good advice, with an epitome of her ideas on the conduct of the war. The distance from Silverwood to Rosebury was only thirty miles, and the train was due to arrive at the junction with twenty-five minutes to spare for the London express. On all ordinary occasions it jogged along in a commonplace fashion, and turned up up to time. To-day, however, it behaved with unusual eccentricity, and, instead of passing the signals at Meriton, it slowed up and whistled, and finally stood still upon the bridge.
"Must be something blocking the line," observed one of the Tommies, looking out of the window.
"I do hope it's not an accident. The Company is so terribly understaffed at present, and the signal-men work far too long hours, and are ready to drop with fatigue at their posts," began the thin lady nervously. "I've always had a horror of railway accidents. I wish I'd taken an insurance ticket before I started. Can you see anything on the line, my good man? Is there any danger?"
The Tommy drew in his head and smiled. It was a particularly good-looking head, with twinkling brown eyes, and a very humorous smile.
"Not so long as the train is standing still," he replied. "I think they'll get us back to the front this time. We'll probably have to wait till something passes us. It's just a matter of patience."
His words were justified, for in about ten minutes an express roared by, after which event their train once more started, and jogged along to Rosebury.
"We're horribly late!" whispered Marjorie to Dona, consulting her watch. "I hope to goodness there'll be no more stops. It's running the thing very fine, I can tell you. I'm glad we've only to cross the platform. I'll get a porter as fast as I can."
But, when they reached Rosebury, the stout woman and the basket with the kitten got in the way, and the elderly lady jammed up the door with her hold-all, so that, by the time Dona and Marjorie managed to get themselves and their belongings out of the carriage, the very few porters available had already been commandeered by other people. The girls ran to the van at the back of the train, where the guard was turning out the luggage. Their boxes were on the platform amid a pile of suit-cases, bags, and portmanteaux; their extreme newness made them easily recognizable, even without the conspicuous initials.
"What are we to do?" cried Marjorie. "We'll miss the London train! I know we shall! Here, Dona, let's take them ourselves!"
She seized one of the boxes by the handle, and tried to drag it along the platform, but its weight was prohibitive. After a couple of yards she stopped exhausted.
"Better leave your luggage and let it follow you," said a voice at her elbow. "If you want the Euston express, you'll have to make a run for it."
Marjorie turned round quickly. The speaker was the young Tommy who had leaned out of the carriage window when the line was blocked. His dark eyes were still twinkling.
"The train's over there, and they're shutting the doors," he urged. "Here, I'll take this for you, if you like. Best hurry up!"
He had his heavy kit-bag to carry, but he shouldered the girls' pile of wraps, umbrellas, and hockey-sticks, in addition to his own burden, and set off post-haste along the platform, while Marjorie and Dona, much encumbered with their bags and a few odd parcels, followed in his wake. It was a difficult progress, for everybody seemed to get into their way, and just as they neared the express the guard waved his green flag.
"Stand back! Stand back!" shouted an official, as the girls made a last wild spurt, the whistle sounded, the guard jumped into the van, and, with a loud clanging of coupling-chains, the train started. They had missed it by exactly five seconds.
"Hard luck!" said the Tommy, depositing the wraps upon the platform. "You'll have to wait two hours for the next. You'll get your luggage, at any rate. Oh, it's all right!" as Marjorie murmured thanks, "I'm only sorry you've missed it," and he hailed a companion and was gone.
"It was awfully kind of him," commented Dona, still panting from her run.
"Kind! He's a gentleman—there was no mistaking that!" replied Marjorie.
The two girls had now to face the very unpleasant fact that they had missed the connection, and that the teacher who was to meet them at Euston would look for them in vain. They wondered whether she would wait for the next train, and, if she did not, how they were going to get across London to the Great Western railway station. Marjorie felt very doubtful as to whether her experience of travelling would be equal to the emergency. She hid her fears, however, from Dona, whose countenance was quite sufficiently woebegone already.
"We'll get chocolates out of the automatic machine, and buy something to read at the bookstall," she suggested. "Two hours won't last for ever!"
Dona cheered up a little at the sight of magazines, and picked out a periodical with a soldier upon the cover. Marjorie, whose taste in literature inclined to the sensational, reviewed the books, and chose one with a startling picture depicting a phantom in the act of disturbing a dinner-party. She was too agitated to read more than a few pages of it, but she thought it seemed interesting. The two hours were over at last, and the girls and their luggage were safely installed in the London train by a porter. It was a long journey to Euston. After their early start and the excitement at Rosebury both felt tired, and even Marjorie looked decidedly sober when they reached their destination. Each was wearing the brown-white-and-blue Brackenfield badge, which had been forwarded to them from the school, and by which the mistress was to identify them. As they left the carriage, they glanced anxiously at the coat of each lady who passed them on the platform, to descry a similar rosette. All in vain. Everybody was in a hurry, and nobody sported the Brackenfield colours.
"We shall have to get a taxi and manage as best we can," sighed Marjorie. "I wish the porters weren't so stupid! I can't make them listen to me. The taxis will all be taken up if we're not quick! Oh, I say, there's that Tommy again! I wonder if he'd hail us one. I declare I'll ask him."
"Hail you a taxi? With pleasure!" replied the young soldier, as Marjorie impulsively stopped him and urged her request. "Have you got your luggage this time?"
"Yes, yes, it's all here, and we've found a porter, only he's so slow, and——"
"Are you Marjorie and Dona Anderson?" interrupted a sharp voice. "I've been looking for you everywhere. Who is this you're speaking to? You don't know? Then come along with me immediately. No, certainly not! I'll get a taxi myself. Where is your luggage?"
The speaker was tall and fair, with light-grey eyes and pince-nez. She wore the unmistakable Brackenfield badge, so her words carried authority. She bustled the girls off in a tremendous hurry, and their good Samaritan of a soldier melted away amongst the crowd.
"I've been waiting hours for you. How did you miss your train?" asked the mistress. "Why didn't you go and stand under the clock, as you were told in the Head Mistress's letter? And don't you know that you must never address strangers?"
"She's angry with you for speaking to the Tommy," whispered Dona to Marjorie, as the pair followed their new guardian.
"I can't help it. He would have got us a taxi, and now they're all gone, and we must put up with a four-wheeler. I couldn't see any clock, and no wonder we missed her in such a crowd. I think she's hateful, and I'm not going to like her a scrap."
"No more am I," returned Dona.
Brackenfield College stood on the hills, about a mile from the seaside town of Whitecliffe. It had been built for a school, and was large and modern and entirely up-to-date. It had a gymnasium, a library, a studio, a chemical laboratory, a carpentering-shop, a kitchen for cooking-classes, a special block for music and practising-rooms, and a large assembly hall. Outside there were many acres of lawns and playing-fields, a large vegetable garden, and a little wood with a stream running through it. The girls lived in three hostels—for Seniors, Intermediates, and Juniors—known respectively as St. Githa's, St. Elgiva's, and St. Ethelberta's. They met in school and in the playgrounds, but, with a few exceptions, they were not allowed to visit each other's houses.
Marjorie and Dona had been separated on their arrival, the former being entered at St. Elgiva's and the latter at St. Ethelberta's, and it was not until the afternoon of the day following that they had an opportunity of meeting and comparing notes. To both life had seemed a breathless and confusing whirl of classes, meals, and calisthenic exercises, with a continual ringing of bells and marching from one room to another. It was a comfort at last to have half an hour when they might be allowed to wander about and do as they pleased.
"Let's scoot into that little wood," said Marjorie, seizing Dona by the arm. "It looks quiet, and we can sit down and talk. Well, how are you getting on? D'you like it so far?"
Dona flung herself down under a larch tree and shook her head tragically.
"I hate it! But then, you know, I never expected to like it. You should see my room-mates!"
"You should just see mine!"
"They can't be as bad as mine."
"I'll guarantee they're worse. But go on and tell about yours."
"There's Mona Kenworthy," sighed Dona. "She looked over all my clothes as I put them away in my drawers, and said they weren't as nice as hers, and that she'd never dream of wearing a camisole unless it was trimmed with real lace. She twists her hair in Hinde's wavers every night, and keeps a pot of complexion cream on her dressing-table. She always uses stephanotis scent that she gets from one special place in London, and it costs four and sixpence a bottle. She hates bacon for breakfast, and she has seventeen relations at the front. She's thin and brown, and her nose wiggles like a rabbit's when she talks."
"I shouldn't mind her if she'd keep to her own cubicle," commented Marjorie. "Sylvia Page will overflow into mine, and I find her things dumped down on my bed. She's nicer than Irene Andrews, though; we had a squabble last night over the window. Betty Moore brought a whole box of chocolates with her, and she ate them in bed and never offered a single one to anybody else. We could hear her crunching for ages. I don't like Irene, but I agreed with her that Betty is mean!"
"Nellie Mason sleeps in the next cubicle to me," continued Dona, bent on retailing her own woes. "She snores dreadfully, and it kept me awake, though she's not so bad otherwise. Beatrice Elliot is detestable. She found that little Teddy bear I brought with me, and she sniggered and asked if I came from a kindergarten. I've calculated there are seventy-four days in this term. I don't know how I'm going to live through them until the holidays."
"Hallo!" said a cheerful voice. "Sitting weeping under the willows, are you? New girls always grouse. Miss Broadway's sent me to hunt you up and do the honours of the premises. I'm Mollie Simpson. Come along with me and I'll show you round."
The speaker was a jolly-looking girl of about sixteen, with particularly merry blue eyes and a whimsical expression. Her dark curly hair was plaited and tied with broad ribbons.
"We've been round, thanks very much," returned Marjorie to the new-comer.
"Oh, but that doesn't count if you've only gone by yourselves! You wouldn't notice the points. Every new girl has got to be personally conducted by an old one and told the traditions of the place. It's a sort of initiation, you know. We've a regular freemasons' code here of things you may do or mustn't. Quick march! I've no time to waste. Tea is at four prompt."
Thus urged, Marjorie and Dona got up, shook the pine needles from their dresses, and followed their cicerone, who seemed determined to perform her office of guide in as efficient a fashion as possible.
"This is the Quad," she informed them. "That's the Assembly Hall and the Head's private house, and those are the three hostels. What's it like in St. Githa's? I can't tell you, because I've never been there. It's for Seniors, and no Intermediate or Junior may pop her impertinent nose inside, or so much as go and peep through the windows without getting into trouble. They've carpets on the stairs instead of linoleum, and they may make cocoa in their bedrooms and fill their own hot-water bags, and other privileges that aren't allowed to us luckless individuals. They may come and see us, by special permission, but we mayn't return the visits. By the by, you'd oblige me greatly if you'd tilt your chapeau a little farther forward. Like this, see!"
"Why?" questioned Marjorie, greatly astonished, as she made the required alteration to the angle of her hat.
"Because only Seniors may wear their sailors on the backs of their heads. It's a strict point of school etiquette. You may jam on your hockey cap as you like, but not your sailor."
"Are there any other rules?" asked Dona.
"Heaps. Intermediates mayn't wear bracelets, and Juniors mayn't wear lockets, they're limited to brooches. I advise you to strip those trinkets off at once and stick them in your pockets. Don't go in to tea with them on any account."
"How silly!" objected Dona, unclasping her locket, with Father's photo in it, most unwillingly.
"Now, look here, young 'un, let me give you a word of good advice at the beginning. Don't you go saying anything here is silly. The rules have been made by the Seniors, and Juniors have got to put up with them and keep civil tongues in their heads. If you want to get on you'll have to accommodate yourself to the ways of the place. Any girl who doesn't has a rough time, I warn you. For goodness' sake don't begin to blub!"
"Don't be a cry-baby, Dona," said Marjorie impatiently. "She's not been to school before," she explained to Mollie, "so she's still feeling rather home-sick."
Mollie nodded sympathetically.
"I understand. She'll soon get over it. She's a decent kid. I'm going to like her. That's why I'm giving her all these tips, so that she won't make mistakes and begin wrong. She'll get on all right at St. Ethelberta's. Miss Jones is a stunt, as jinky as you like. Wish we had her at our house."
"Who is the Head of St. Elgiva's?"
"Miss Norton, worse luck for us!"
"Not the tall fair one who met us in London yesterday?"
"Oh, thunder! I shall never get on with her, I know."
"The Acid Drop's a rather unsweetened morsel, certainly. You'll have to mind your p's and q's. She can be decent to those she likes, but she doesn't take to everybody."
"She hasn't taken to me—I could see it in her eye at Euston."
"Then I'm sorry for you. It isn't particularly pleasant to be in Norty's bad books. If you missed your train and kept her waiting she'll never forgive you. Look out for squalls!"
"What's the Head like?"
"Mrs. Morrison? Well, of course, she's nice, but we stand very much in awe of her. It's a terrible thing to be sent down to her study. We generally see her on the platform. We call her 'The Empress', because she's so like the pictures of the Empress Eugenie, and she's so dignified and above everybody else. Hallo, there's the first bell! We must scoot and wash our hands. If you're late for a meal you put a penny in the missionary box."
Marjorie walked into the large dining-hall with Mollie Simpson. She felt she had made, if not yet a friend, at least an acquaintance, and in this wilderness of fresh faces it was a boon to be able to speak to somebody. She hoped Mollie would not desert her and sit among her own chums (the girls took any places they liked for tea); but no, her new comrade led the way to a table at the lower end of the hall, and, motioning her to pass first, took the next chair. Each table held about twenty girls, and a mistress sat at either end. Conversation went on, but in subdued tones, and any unduly lifted voices met with instant reproof.
"I always try to sit in the middle, unless I can get near a mistress I like," volunteered Mollie. "That one with the ripply hair is Miss Duckworth. She's rather sweet, isn't she? We call her Ducky for short. The other's Miss Carter, the botany teacher. Oh, I say, here's the Acid Drop coming to the next table! I didn't bargain to have her so near."
Marjorie turned to look, and in so doing her sleeve most unfortunately caught the edge of her cup, with the result that a stream of tea emptied itself over the clean table-cloth. Miss Norton, who was just passing to her place, noticed the accident and murmured: "How careless!" then paused, as if remembering something, and said:
"Marjorie Anderson, you are to report yourself in my study at 4.30."
Very subdued and crestfallen Marjorie handed her cup to be refilled. Miss Duckworth made no remark, but the girls in her vicinity glared at the mess on the cloth. Mollie pulled an expressive face.
"Now you're in for it!" she remarked. "The Acid Drop's going to treat you to some jaw-wag. What have you been doing?"
"Spilling my tea, I suppose," grunted Marjorie.
"That's not Norty's business, for it didn't happen at her table. You wouldn't have to report yourself for that. It must be something else."
"Then I'm sure I don't know." Marjorie's tone was defiant.
"And you don't care? Oh, that's all very well! Wait till you've had five minutes with the Acid Drop, and you'll sing a different song."
Although Marjorie might affect nonchalance before her schoolfellows, her heart thumped in a very unpleasant fashion as she tapped at the door of Miss Norton's study. The teacher sat at a bureau writing, she looked up and readjusted her pince-nez as her pupil entered.
"Marjorie Anderson," she began, "I inspected your cubicle this afternoon and found this book inside one of your drawers. Are you aware that you have broken one of the strictest rules of the school? You may borrow books from the library, but you are not allowed to have any private books at all in your possession with the exception of a Bible and a Prayer Book."
Miss Norton held in her hand the sensational novel which Marjorie had bought while waiting for the train at Rosebury. The girl jumped guiltily at the sight of it. She had only read a few pages of it and had completely forgotten its existence. She remembered now that among the rules sent by the Head Mistress, and read to her by her mother, the bringing back of fiction to school had been strictly prohibited. As she had no excuse to offer she merely looked uncomfortable and said nothing. Miss Norton eyed her keenly.
"You will find the rules at Brackenfield are intended to be kept," she remarked. "As this is a first offence I'll allow it to pass, but girls have been expelled from this school for bringing in unsuitable literature. You had better be careful, Marjorie Anderson!"
The Talents Tournament
By the time Marjorie had been a fortnight at Brackenfield she had already caught the atmosphere of the place, and considered herself a well-established member of the community. In the brief space of two weeks she had learnt many things; first and foremost, that Hilton House had been a mere kindergarten in comparison with the big busy world in which she now moved, and that all her standards required readjusting. Instead of being an elder pupil, with a considerable voice in the arrangement of affairs, she was now only an Intermediate, under the absolute authority of Seniors, a unit in a large army of girls, and, except from her own point of view, of no very great importance. If she wished to make any reputation for herself her claims must rest upon whether or not she could prove herself an asset to the school, either by obtaining a high place in her form, or winning distinction in the playing-fields, or among the various guilds and societies. Marjorie was decidedly ambitious. She felt that she would like to gain honours and to have her name recorded in the school magazine. Dazzling dreams danced before her of tennis or cricket colours, of solos in concerts, or leading parts in dramatic recitals, of heading examination lists, and—who knew?—of a possible prefectship some time in the far future. Meanwhile, if she wished to attain to any of these desirable objects, Work, with a capital W, must be her motto. She had been placed in IVa, and, though most of the subjects were within her powers, it needed all the concentration of which she was capable to keep even a moderate position in the weekly lists. Miss Duckworth, her form mistress, had no tolerance for slackers. She was a breezy, cheery, interesting personality, an inspiring teacher, and excellent at games, taking a prominent part in all matches or tournaments "Mistresses versus Pupils". Miss Duckworth was immensely popular amongst her girls. It was the fashion to admire her.
"I think the shape of her nose is just perfect!" declared Francie Sheppard. "And I like that Rossetti mouth, although some people might say it's too big. I wish I had auburn hair!"
"I wonder if it ripples naturally, or if she does it up in wavers?" speculated Elsie Bartlett. "It must be ever so long when it's down. Annie Turner saw her once in her dressing-gown, and said that her hair reached to her knees."
"But Annie always exaggerates," put in Sylvia Page. "You may take half a yard off Annie's statements any day."
"I think Duckie's a sport!" agreed Laura Norris.
The girls were lounging in various attitudes of comfort round the fire in their sitting-room at St. Elgiva's, in that blissful interval between preparation and supper, when nothing very intellectual was expected from them, and they might amuse themselves as they wished. Irene, squatting on the rug, was armed with the tongs, and kept poking down the miniature volcanoes that arose in the coal; Elsie luxuriated in the rocking-chair all to herself; while Francie and Sylvia—a tight fit—shared the big basket-chair. In a corner three chums were coaching each other in the speeches for a play, and a group collected round the piano were trying the chorus of a new popular song.
"Go it, Patricia!" called Irene to the girl who was playing the accompaniment. "You did that no end! St. Elgiva's ought to have a chance for the sight-reading competition. Trot out that song to-morrow night by all means. It'll take the house by storm!"
"What's going to happen to-morrow night?" enquired Marjorie, who, having changed her dress for supper, now came into the room and joined the circle by the fire.
"A very important event, my good child," vouchsafed Francie Sheppard—"an event upon which you might almost say all the rest of the school year hangs. We call it the Talents Tournament."
"I wish you wouldn't ask so many questions. I was just going to explain, if you'll give me time. The whole school meets in the Assembly Hall, and anybody who feels she can do anything may give us a specimen of her talents, and if she passes muster she's allowed to join one of the societies—the Dramatic, or the Part Singing, or the Orchestra, or the French Conversational; or she may exhibit specimens if she wants to enter the Natural History or Scientific, or show some of her drawings if she's artistic."
"What are you going to do?"
"I? Nothing at all. I hate showing off!"
"I've no 'parlour tricks' either," yawned Laura. "I shall help to form the audience and do the clapping; that's the role I'm best at."
"Old Mollie'll put you up to tips if you're yearning to go on the platform," suggested Elsie. "She's A 1 at recitations, reels them off no end, I can tell you. You needn't hang your head, Mollums, like a modest violet; it's a solid fact. You're the ornament of St. Elgiva's when it comes to saying pieces. Have you got anything fresh, by the way, for to-morrow night?"
"Well, I did learn something new during the holidays," confessed Mollie. "I hope you'll like it—it's rather funny. I hear there's to be a new society this term. Meg Hutchinson was telling me about it."
"Oh, I know, the 'Charades'!" interrupted Francie; "and a jolly good idea too. It isn't everybody who has time to swat at learning parts for the Dramatic. Besides, some girls can do rehearsed acting well, and are no good at impromptu things, and vice versa. They want sorting out."
"I don't understand," said Marjorie.
"Oh, bother you! You're always wanting explanations. Well, of course you know we have a Dramatic Society that gets up quite elaborate plays; the members spend ages practising their speeches and studying their attitudes before the looking-glass, and they have gorgeous costumes made for them, and scenery and all the rest of it—a really first-rate business. Some of the prefects thought that it was rather too formal an affair, and suggested another society for impromptu acting. Nothing is to be prepared beforehand. Mrs. Morrison is to give a word for a charade, and the members are allowed two minutes to talk it over, and must act it right away with any costumes they can fling on out of the 'property box'. They'll be arranged in teams, and may each have five minutes for a performance. I expect it will be a scream."
"Are you fond of acting, Marjorie?" asked Mollie.
"I just love it!"
"Then put down your name for the Charades Tournament. We haven't got a great number of volunteers from St. Elgiva's yet. Most of the girls seem to funk it. Elsie, aren't you going to try?"
Elsie shook her curls regretfully.
"I'd like to, but I know every idea I have would desert me directly I faced an audience. I'm all right with a definite part that I've got into my head, but I can't make up as I go along, and it's no use asking me. I'd only bungle and stammer, and make an utter goose of myself, and spoil the whole thing. Hallo! There's the supper bell. Come along!"
Marjorie followed the others in to supper with a feeling of exhilaration. She was immensely attracted by the idea of the Talents Tournament. So far, as a new girl, she had been little noticed, and had had no opportunity of showing what she could do. She had received a hint from Mollie, on her first day, that new girls who pushed themselves forward would probably be met with snubs, so she had not tried the piano in the sitting-room, or given any exhibition of her capabilities unasked. This, however, would be a legitimate occasion, and nobody could accuse her of trying to show off by merely entering her name in the Charades competition.
"I wish Dona would play her violin and have a shy for the school Orchestra," she thought. "I'll speak to her if I can catch her after supper."
It was difficult for the sisters to find any time for private talk, but by dodging about the passage Marjorie managed to waylay Dona before the latter disappeared into St. Ethelberta's, and propounded her suggestion.
"Oh, I couldn't!" replied Dona in horror. "Go on the platform and play a piece? I'd die! Please don't ask me to do anything so dreadful. I don't want to join the Orchestra. Oh, well, yes—I'll go in for the drawing competition if you like, but I'm not keen. I don't care about all these societies; my lessons are quite bad enough. I've made friends with Ailsa Donald, and we have lovely times all to ourselves. We're making scrap albums for the hospital. Miss Jones has given us all her old Christmas cards. She's adorable! I say, I must go, or I shall be late for our call over. Ta-ta!"
The "Talents Tournament" was really a very important event in the school year, for upon its results would depend the placing of the various competitors in certain coveted offices. It was esteemed a great privilege to be asked to join the Orchestra, and to be included in the committee of the "Dramatic" marked a girl's name with a lucky star.
On the Saturday evening in question the whole school, in second-best party dresses, met in the big Assembly Hall. It was a conventional occasion, and they were received by Mrs. Morrison and the teachers, and responded with an elaborate politeness that was the cult of the College. For the space of three hours an extremely high-toned atmosphere prevailed, not a word of slang offended the ear, and everybody behaved with the dignity and courtesy demanded by such a stately ceremony. Mrs. Morrison, in black silk and old lace, her white hair dressed high, was an imposing figure, and set a standard of cultured deportment that was copied by every girl in the room. The Brackenfielders prided themselves upon their manners, and, though they might relapse in the playground or dormitory, no Court etiquette could be stricter than their code for public occasions. The hall was quite en fete; it had been charmingly decorated by the Seniors with autumn leaves and bunches of chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies. A grand piano and pots of palms stood on the platform, and the best school banner ornamented the wall. It all looked so festive that Marjorie, who had been rather dreading the gathering, cheered up, and began to anticipate a pleasant evening. She shook hands composedly with the Empress, and ran the gauntlet of greetings with the other mistresses with equal credit, not an altogether easy ordeal under the watching eyes of her companions. This preliminary ceremony being finished, she thankfully slipped into a seat, and waited for the business part of the tournament to begin.
The reception of the whole school lasted some time, and the Empress's hand must have ached. Her mental notes as to the quality of the handshakes she received would be publicly recorded next day from the platform, with special condemnation for the limp, fishy, or three-fingered variety on the one side, or the agonizing ring-squeezer on the other. Miss Thomas, one of the music mistresses, seated herself at the piano, and the proceedings opened with a violin-solo competition. Ten girls, in more or less acute stages of nervousness, each in turn played a one-page study, their points for which were carefully recorded by the judges, marks being given for tone, bowing, time, tune, and artistic rendering. As they retired to put away their instruments, their places were taken by vocal candidates. In order to shorten the programme, each was allowed to sing only one verse of a song, and their merits or faults were similarly recorded. Several of the Intermediates had entered for the competition. Rose Butler trilled forth a sentimental little ditty in a rather quavering mezzo; Annie Turner, whose compass was contralto, poured out a sea ballad—a trifle flat; Nora Cleary raised a storm of applause by a funny Irish song, and received marks for style, though her voice was poor in quality; and Elsie Bartlett scored for St. Elgiva's by reaching high B with the utmost clearness and ease. The Intermediates grinned at one another with satisfaction. Even Gladys Woodham, the acknowledged prima donna of St. Githa's, had never soared in public beyond A sharp. They felt that they had beaten the Seniors by half a tone.
Piano solos were next on the list, limited to two pages, on account of the too speedy passage of time. Here again the St. Elgiva's girls expected a triumph, for Patricia Lennox was to play a waltz especially composed in her honour by a musical friend. It was called "Under the Stars", and bore a coloured picture of a dark-blue sky, water and trees, and a stone balustrade, and it bore printed upon it the magic words "Dedicated to Patricia", and underneath, written in a firm, manly hand, "With kindest remembrances from E. H.".
The whole of Elgiva's had thrilled when allowed to view the copy exhibited by its owner with many becoming blushes, but with steadfast refusals to record tender particulars; and though Patricia's enemies were unkind enough to say that there was no evidence that the "Patricia" mentioned on the cover was identical with herself, or that the "E. H." stood for Edwin Herbert, the composer, it was felt that they merely objected out of envy, and would have been only too delighted to have such luck themselves.
They all listened entranced as Patricia dashed off her piece. She had a showy execution, and it really sounded very well. The whole school knew about the dedication and the inscription; the Intermediates had taken care of that. As their champion descended from the platform, they felt that she had invested St. Elgiva's with an element of mystery and romance. But alas! one story is good until another is told, and St. Githa's had been reserving a trump card for the occasion. Winifrede Mason had herself composed a piece. She called it "The Brackenfield March", and had written it out in manuscript, and drawn a picture of the school in bold black-and-white upon a brown paper cover. It was quite a jolly, catchy tune, with plenty of swing and go about it, and the fact that it was undoubtedly her own production caused poor Patricia's waltz to pale before it. The clapping was tremendous. Every girl in school, with the exception of nine who had not studied the piano, was determined to copy the march and learn it for herself, and Winifrede was immediately besieged with applications for the loan of the manuscript. She bore her honours calmly.
"Oh, it wasn't difficult! I just knocked it off, you know. I've heaps of tunes in my head; it's only a matter of getting them written down, really. When I've time I'll try to make up another. Oh, I don't know about publishing it—that can wait."
To live in the same school with a girl who composed pieces was something! Everybody anticipated the publication of the march, and felt that the reputation of Brackenfield would be thoroughly established in the musical world.
The next item on the programme was an interval for refreshments, during which time various exhibits of drawings and of scientific and natural history specimens were on view, and were judged according to merit by Miss Carter and Miss Hughlins.
The second part of the evening was to be dramatic. A good many names had been given in for the Charades competition, and these were arranged in groups of four. Each company was given one syllable of a charade to act, with a strict time limit. A large assortment of clothes and some useful articles of furniture were placed in the dressing-room behind the platform, and the actresses were allowed only two minutes to arrange their stage, don costumes, and discuss their piece.
Marjorie found herself drawn with Annie Turner, Belle Miller, and Violet Nelson, two of the Juniors. The syllable to be acted was "Age", and the four girls withdrew to the dressing-room for a hasty conference.
"What can we do? I haven't an idea in my head," sighed Annie. "Two minutes is not enough to think."
The Juniors said nothing, but giggled nervously. Marjorie's ready wits, however, rose to the emergency.
"We'll have a Red Cross Hospital," she decided. "You, Annie, are the Commandant, and we three are prospective V.A.D.'s coming to be interviewed. You've got to ask us our names and ages, and a heap of other questions. Put on that Red Cross apron, quick, and we'll put on hats and coats and pretend we've had a long journey. Belle, take in a table and a chair for the Commandant. She ought to be sitting writing."
Annie, Belle, and Violet seized on the idea with enthusiasm, and robed themselves immediately. When the bell rang the performers marched on to the platform without any delay (which secured ten marks for promptitude). Annie, in her Red Cross apron, rapped the table in an authoritative fashion and demanded the business of her callers. Then the fun began. Marjorie, posing as a wild Irish girl, put on a capital imitation of the brogue, and urged her own merits with zeal. She evaded the question of her right age, and offered a whole catalogue of things she could do, from dressing a wound to mixing a pudding and scrubbing the passages. She was so racy and humorous, and threw in such amusing asides, that the audience shrieked with laughter, and were quite disappointed when the five minutes' bell put a sudden and speedy end to the interesting performance. As Marjorie walked back to her seat she became well aware that she had scored. Her fellow Intermediates looked at her with a new interest, for she had brought credit to St. Elgiva's.
"Isn't she a scream?" she overheard Rose Butler say to Francie Sheppard, and Francie replied "Rather! I call her topping!" which, of course, was slang, and not fit for such an occasion; but then the girls were beginning to forget the elaborate ceremony of the opening of the evening.
Next day, after morning school was over, Jean Everard, one of the prefects, tapped Marjorie on the shoulder.
"We've put your name down for the Charades Society," she said briefly. "I suppose you want to join?"
"Rather!" replied Marjorie, flushing to the roots of her hair with delight at the honour offered her.
Marjorie and Dona possessed one immense advantage in their choice of a school. Their aunt, Mrs. Trafford, lived within a mile of Brackenfield, and had arranged with Mrs. Morrison that the two girls should spend every alternate Wednesday afternoon at her house. Wednesday was the most general day for exeats; it was the leisurely half-holiday of the week, when the girls might carry out their own little plans, Saturday afternoons being reserved for hockey practice and matches, at which all were expected to attend. The rules were strict at Brackenfield, and enacted that the girls must be escorted from school to their destination and sent back under proper chaperonage, but during the hours spent at their aunt's they were considered to be under her charge and might go where she allowed.
To the sisters these fortnightly outings marked the term with white stones. They looked forward to them immensely. Both chafed a little at the strict discipline and confinement of Brackenfield. It was Dona's first experience of school, and Marjorie had been accustomed to a much easier regime at Hilton House. It was nice, also, to have a few hours in which they could be together and talk over their own affairs. There were home letters to be discussed, news of Bevis on board H.M.S. Relentless, of Leonard in the trenches, and Larry in the training-camp, hurried scrawls from Father, looking after commissariat business "somewhere in France", accounts of Nora's new housekeeping, picture post cards from Peter and Cyril, brief, laborious, round-hand epistles from Joan, and delightful chatty notes from Mother, who sent a kind of family chronicle round to the absent members of her flock.
One Wednesday afternoon about the middle of October found Marjorie and Dona walking along the road in the direction of Whitecliffe. They were policed by Miss Norton, who was taking a detachment of exeat-holders into the town, so that at present the company walked in a crocodile, which, however, would soon split up and distribute its various members. It was a lovely, fresh autumn day, and the girls stepped along briskly. They wore their school hats, and badges with the brown, white, and blue ribbons, and the regulation "exeat" uniform, brown Harris tweed skirts and knitted heather-mixture sports coats.
"Nobody could mistake us for any other school," said Marjorie. "I feel I'm as much labelled 'Brackenfield' as a Dartmoor prisoner is known by his black arrows! It makes one rather conspicuous."
"Trust the Empress for that!" laughed Mollie Simpson, who was one of the party. "You see, there are other schools at Whitecliffe, and other girls go into the town too. Sometimes they're rather giggly and silly, and we certainly don't want to get the credit for their escapades. Everybody knows a 'Brackenfielder' at a glance, so there's no risk of false reports. The Empress prides herself on our clear record. We've the reputation of behaving beautifully!"
"We haven't much chance of doing anything else," said Marjorie, looking rather ruefully in the direction of Miss Norton, who brought up the rear.
At the cross-roads the Andersons found their cousin, Elaine, waiting for them, and were handed over into her charge by their teacher, with strict injunctions that they were to be escorted back to their respective hostels by 6.30.
Marjorie waved good-bye to Mollie, and the school crocodile passed along the road in the direction of Whitecliffe. When the last hat had bobbed round the corner, and the shadow of Miss Norton's presence was really removed for the space of four whole hours, the two girls each seized Elaine by one of her hands and twirled her round in a wild jig of triumph. Elaine was nearly twenty, old enough to just pass muster as an escort in the eyes of Miss Norton, but young enough to be still almost a schoolgirl at heart, and to thoroughly enjoy the afternoons of her cousins' visits. She worked as a V.A.D. at the Red Cross Hospital, but she was generally off duty by two o'clock and able to devote herself to their amusement. She had come now straight from the hospital and was in uniform.
"You promised to take us to see the Tommies," said Marjorie, as Elaine turned down the side road and led the way towards home.
"The Commandant didn't want me to bring visitors to-day. There's a little whitewashing and papering going on, and the place is in rather a mess. You shall come another time, when we're all decorated and in apple-pie order. Besides, we haven't many soldiers this week. We sent away a batch of convalescents last Thursday, and we're expecting a fresh contingent in any day. That's why we're taking the opportunity to have a special cleaning."
"I wish I were old enough to be a V.A.D.!" sighed Marjorie. "I'd love it better than anything else I can think of. It's my dream at present."
"I enjoy it thoroughly," said Elaine; "though, of course, there's plenty to do, and sometimes the Commandant gets ratty over just nothing at all. Have you St. John's Ambulance classes at school?"
"They're going to start next month, and I mean to join. I've put my name down."
"And Dona too?"
"They're not for Juniors. We have a First Aid Instruction class of our own," explained Dona; "but I hate it, because they always make me be the patient, as I'm a new girl, and I don't like being bandaged, and walked about after poisons, and restored from drowning, and all the rest of it. It's rather a painful process to have your tongue pulled out and your arms jerked up and down!"
"Poor old girl! Perhaps another victim will arrive at half-term and take your place, then you'll have the satisfaction of performing all those operations upon her. I've been through the same mill myself once upon a time."
The Traffords' house, "The Tamarisks", stood on Cliff Walks, a pleasant residential quarter somewhat away from the visitors' portion of the town, with its promenade and lodging-houses. There was a beautiful view over the sea, where to-day little white caps were breaking, and small vessels bobbing about in a manner calculated to test the good seamanship of any tourists who had ventured forth in them. Aunt Ellinor was in the town at a Food Control Committee meeting, so Elaine for the present was sole hostess.
"What shall we do?" she asked. "You may choose anything you like. The cinema and tea at a cafe afterwards? Or a last game of tennis (the lawn will just stand it)? Or shall we go for a scramble on the cliffs? Votes, please."
Without any hesitation Dona and Marjorie plumped for the cliffs. They loved walking, and, as their own home was inland, the seaside held attractions. Elaine hastily changed into tweed skirt and sports coat, found a favourite stick, and declared herself ready, and the three, in very cheerful spirits, set out along the hillside.
It was one of those beautiful sunny October days when autumn seems to have borrowed from summer, and the air is as warm and balmy as June. Great flocks of sea-gulls wheeled screaming round the cliffs, their wings flashing in the sunshine; red admiral and tortoise-shell butterflies still fluttered over late specimens of flowers, and the bracken was brown and golden underfoot. The girls were wild with the delight of a few hours' emancipation from school rules, and flew about gathering belated harebells, and running to the top of any little eminence to get the view. After about a mile on the hills, they dipped down a steep sandy path that led to the shore. They found themselves in a delightful cove, with rugged rocks on either side and a belt of hard firm sand. The tide was fairly well out, so they followed the retreating waves to the water's edge. A recent stormy day had flung up great masses of seaweed and hundreds of star-fish. Dona, whose tastes had just begun to awaken in the direction of natural history, poked about with great enjoyment collecting specimens. There were shells to be had on the sand, and mermaids' purses, and bunches of whelks' eggs, and lovely little stones that looked capable of being polished on the lapidary wheel which Miss Jones had set up in the carpentering-room. For lack of a basket Dona filled her own handkerchief and commandeered Marjorie's for the same purpose. For the first time since she had left home she looked perfectly happy. Dona's tastes were always quiet. She did not like hockey practices or any very energetic games. She did not care about mixing with the common herd of her schoolfellows, and much preferred the society of one, or at most two friends. To live in the depths of the country was her ideal.
Marjorie, on the contrary, liked the bustle of life. While Dona investigated the clumps of seaweed, she plied Elaine with questions about the hospital. Marjorie was intensely patriotic. She followed every event of the war keenly, and was thrilled by the experiences of her soldier father and brothers. She was burning to do something to help—to nurse the wounded, drive a transport wagon, act as secretary to a staff-officer, or even be telephone operator over in France—anything that would be of service to her country and allow her to feel that she had played her part, however small, in the conduct of the Great War. As she watched the sea, she thought not so much of its natural history treasures as of submarines and floating mines, and her heart went out to Bevis, somewhere on deep waters keeping watchful guard against the enemy.
It was so delightful in the cove that the girls were loath to go. They climbed with reluctance up the steep sandy little path to the cliff. As they neared the top they could hear voices in altercation—a high-pitched, protesting, childish wail, and a blunt, uncompromising, scolding retort. On the road above stood an invalid carriage, piled up with innumerable parcels, and containing also a small boy. He was a charmingly pretty little fellow, with a very pale, delicately oval face, beautiful pathetic brown eyes, and rich golden hair that fell in curls over his shoulders like a girl's. He was peering out from amidst the host of packages and trying to look back along the road, and evidently arguing some point with the utmost persistence. The untidy servant girl who wheeled the carriage had stopped, and gave a heated reply.
"It's no use, I tell you! Goodness knows where you may have dropped it, and if you think I'm going to traipse back you're much mistaken. We're late as it is, and a pretty to-do there'll be when I get in. It's your own fault for not taking better care of it."
"Have you lost anything?" enquired Elaine, as the girls entered the road in the midst of the quarrel.
"It's his book," answered the servant. "He's dropped it out of the pram somewhere on the way from Whitecliffe; but I can't go back for it, it's too far, and we've got to be getting home."
"What kind of a book was it?" asked Marjorie.
"Fairy tales. Have you found it?" said the child eagerly. "All about Rumpelstiltzkin and 'The Goose Girl' and 'The Seven Princesses'."
"We haven't found it, but we'll look for it on our way back. Have you any idea where you dropped it?"
The little boy shook his head.
"I was reading it in the town while Lizzie went inside the shops. Then I forgot about it till just now. Oh, I must know what happened when the Prince went to see the old witch!"
His brown eyes were full of tears and the corners of the pretty mouth twitched.
"He's such a child for reading! At it all day long!" explained the servant. "He thinks as much of an old book as some of us would of golden sovereigns. Well, we must be getting on, Eric. I can't stop."
"Look here!" said Dona. "We'll hunt for the book on our way back to Whitecliffe. If we find it we'll meet you here to-day fortnight at the same time and give it to you."
"And suppose you don't find it?" quavered the little boy anxiously.
"I think the fairies will bring it to us somehow. You come here to-day fortnight and see. Cheer oh! Don't cry!"
"He wants his tea," said the servant. "Hold on to those parcels, Eric, or we shall be dropping something else."
The little boy put his arms round several lightly-balanced packages, and tried to wave a good-bye to the girls as his attendant wheeled him away.
"Poor wee chap! I wonder what's the matter with him?" said Elaine, when the long perambulator had turned the corner. "And I wonder where he can possibly be going? There are no houses that way—only a wretched little village with a few cottages."
"I can't place him at all," replied Marjorie. "He's not a poor person's child, and he's not exactly a gentleman's. The carriage was very shabby, with such an old rug; and the girl wasn't tidy enough for a nurse, she looked like a general slavey. Dona, I don't believe you'll find that book."
"I don't suppose I shall," returned Dona; "but I have Grimm's Fairy Tales at home, and I thought I'd write to Mother and ask her to send it to Auntie's for me, then I could take it to him next exeat."
"Oh, good! What a splendid idea!"
Though the girls kept a careful look-out along the road they came across no fairy-tale volume. Either someone else had picked it up, or it had perhaps been dropped in the street at Whitecliffe. Dona wrote home accordingly, and received the reply that her mother would post the book to "The Tamarisks" in the course of a few days. The sisters watched the weather anxiously when their fortnightly exeat came round. They were fascinated with little Eric, and wanted to see him again. They could not forget his pale, wistful face among the parcels in the long perambulator. Luckily their holiday afternoon was fine, so they were allowed to go to their aunt's under the escort of two prefects. They found Elaine ready to start, and much interested in the errand.
"The book came a week ago," she informed Dona. "I expect your young man will be waiting at the tryst."
"He's not due till half-past four—if he keeps the appointment exactly," laughed Dona; "but I've brought a basket to-day, so let's go now to the cove and get specimens while we're waiting."
If the girls were early at the meeting-place the little boy was earlier still. The long perambulator was standing by the roadside when they reached the path to the cove. Lizzie, the servant girl, greeted them with enthusiasm.
"Why, here you are!" she cried. "I never expected you'd come, and I told Eric so. I said it wasn't in reason you'd remember, and he'd only be disappointed. But he's thought of nothing else all this fortnight. He's been ill again, and he shouldn't really be out to-day, because the pram jolts him; but I've got to go to Whitecliffe, and he worried so to come that his ma said: 'Best put on his things and take him; he'll cry himself sick if he's left'."
The little pale face was whiter even than before, there were large dark rings round the brown eyes, and the golden hair curled limply to-day. Eric did not speak, but he looked with a world of wistfulness at the parcel in Dona's hand.
"I couldn't find your book, but I've brought you mine instead, and I expect it's just the same," explained Dona, untying the string.
A flush of rose pink spread over Eric's cheeks, the frail little hands trembled as he fingered his treasure.
"It's nicer than mine! It's got coloured pictures!" he gasped.
"If it jolts him to be wheeled about to-day," said Elaine to the servant girl, "would you like to leave him here with us while you go into Whitecliffe? We'd take the greatest care of him."
"Why, I'd be only too glad. I can tell you it's no joke wheeling that pram up the hills. Will you stay here, Eric, with the young ladies till I come back?"
Eric nodded gravely. He was busy examining the illustrations in his new book. The girls wheeled him to a sheltered place out of the wind, and set to work to entertain him. He was perfectly willing to make friends.
"I've got names for you all," he said shyly. "I made them up while I was in bed. You," pointing to Elaine, "are Princess Goldilocks; and you," with a finger at Marjorie and Dona, "are two fairies, Bluebell and Silverstar. No, I don't want to know your real names; I like make-up ones better. We always play fairies when Titania comes to see me."
"She's my auntie. She's the very loveliest person in all the world. There's no one like her. We have such fun, and I forget my leg hurts. Shall we play fairies now?"
"If you'll show us how," said the girls.
It was a very long time before Lizzie, well laden with parcels, returned from Whitecliffe, and the self-constituted nurses had plenty of time to make Eric's acquaintance. They found him a charming little fellow, full of quaint fancies and a delicate humour. His chatter amused them immensely, yet there was an element of pathos through it all; he looked so frail and delicate, like a fairy changeling, or some being of another world. They wondered if he would ever be able to run about like other children.
"Good-bye!" he said, when Lizzie, full of apologies and thanks, resumed her charge. "Come again some time and play with me! I'm going home now in my Cinderella coach to my Enchanted Palace. Take care of giants on your way back. And don't talk to witches. I won't forget you."
"He's hugging his book," said Marjorie, as the girls stood waving a farewell. "Isn't he just too precious for words?"
"Sweetest thing I've ever seen!" agreed Dona.
"Poor little chap! I wonder if he'll ever grow up," said Elaine thoughtfully. "I wish we'd asked where he lives, and we might have sent him some picture post cards."
"I'm afraid 'The Enchanted Palace' wouldn't find him," laughed Marjorie. "We must try to come here another Wednesday."
But the next fortnightly half-holiday was wet, and after that the days began to grow dark early, and Aunt Ellinor suggested other amusements than walks on the cliffs, so for that term at any rate the girls did not see Eric again. He seemed to have made his appearance suddenly, like a pixy child, and to have vanished back into Fairyland. There was a link between them, however, and some time Fate would pull the chain and bring their lives into touch once more.
The Brackenfielders, like most other girls, were given to fads. The collecting mania, in a variety of forms, raged hot and strong. There were the Natural History enthusiasts, who went in select parties, personally conducted by a mistress, to the shore at low tide, to grub blissfully among the rocks for corallines and zoophytes and spider crabs and madrepores and anemones, to be placed carefully in jam jars and brought back to the school aquarium. "The Gnats", as the members of the Natural History Society were named, sometimes pursued their investigations with more zeal than discretion, and they generally returned from their rambles with skirts much the worse for green slime and sea water, and boots coated with sand and mud, but brimming over with the importance of their "finds", and confounding non-members by the ease with which they rapped out long scientific names. Those who had caught butterflies and moths during the summer spent some of their leisure now in relaxing and setting them, and pinning them into cases. It was considered etiquette to offer the best specimens to the school museum, but the girls also made private collections, and vied with one another in the possession of rare varieties.
The Photographic Society enjoyed a run of great popularity. There was an excellent dark room, with every facility for developing and washing, and this term the members had subscribed for an enlarging apparatus, with which they hoped to do great things. As well as these recognized school pursuits, the girls had all kinds of minor waves of fashion in the way of hobbies. Sometimes they liked trifling things, such as scraps, transfers, coloured beads, pictures taken from book catalogues or illustrated periodicals, newspaper cuttings or attractive advertisements, or they would soar to the more serious collecting of stamps, crests, badges, and picture post cards. In Marjorie's dormitory the taste was for celebrities. Sylvia Page, who was musical, adorned her cubicle with charming photogravures of the great composers. Irene Andrews, whose ambition was to "come out" if there was anybody left to dance with after the war, pinned up the portraits of Society beauties; Betty Moore, of sporting tendencies, kept the illustrations of prize dogs and their owners, from The Queen and other ladies' papers. Marjorie, not to be outdone by the others, covered her fourth share of the wall with "heroes". Whenever she saw that some member of His Majesty's forces had been awarded the V.C., she would cut out his portrait and add it to her gallery of honour. She wrote to her mother and her sister Nora to help her in this hobby, with the consequence that every letter which arrived for her contained enclosures. Her room-mates were on the whole good-natured, and in return for some contributions she had given to their collections they also wrote home for any V.C. portraits which could be procured. As the girls were putting away their clean clothes on "laundry return" day, Irene fumbled in her pocket and drew out a letter, from which she produced some cuttings. She handed them to Marjorie.
"Mother sent me five to-day," she said. "I hope you haven't got them already. Two are rather nice and clear, because they're out of The Onlooker, and are printed on better paper than most. The others are just ordinary."
"All's fish that comes to my net," replied Marjorie. "I think they're topping. No, I haven't got any of these. Thanks most awfully!"
"Don't mench! I'll try to beg some more. They've always heaps of papers and magazines at home, and Mother looks through them to find my pictures. No, you're not taking the 'heroes' away from me. I like them, but I don't want to collect them. My cube won't hold everything."
Marjorie sat down on her bed and turned over the new additions to her gallery. Three of them were the usual rather blurred newspaper prints, but, as Irene had said, two were on superior paper and very clear. One of these represented an officer with a moustache, the other was a private and clean shaven. Marjorie looked at them at first rather casually, then examined the latter with interest. She had seen that face before—the shape of the forehead, the twinkling dark eyes, and the humorous smile all seemed familiar. Instantly there rose to her memory a vision of the crowded railway carriage from Silverwood, of the run along the platform at Rosebury, and of the search for a taxi at Euston.
"I verily believe it's that nice Tommy who helped us!" she gasped to herself.
She looked at the inscription underneath, which set forth that Private H. T. Preston, West Yorks Regiment, had been awarded the V.C. for pluck in removing a "fired" Stokes shell.
"Why, that's the same regiment that Leonard is in! How frightfully interesting!" she thought. "So his name is Preston. I wonder what H. T. stands for—Harry, or Herbert, or Hugh, or Horace? He was most unmistakably a gentleman. He's going to have the best place among my heroes. If the picture were only smaller, I'd wear it in a locket. I wonder whether I could get it reduced if I joined the Photographic Society? I believe I'll give in my name on the chance. I must show it to Dona. She'll be thrilled."
The portrait of Private H. T. Preston was accordingly placed in a bijou frame, and hung up on the wall by the side of Marjorie's bed, in select company with Kitchener, Sir Douglas Haig, the Prince of Wales, and His Majesty the King. She looked at it every morning when she woke up. The whimsical brown eyes had quite a friendly expression.
"Where is he fighting now—and shall I ever meet him again?" she wondered. "I'm glad, at least, that I have his picture."
Marjorie lived for news of the war. She devoured the sheets of closely-written foreign paper sent home by Father, Bevis, and Leonard. She followed all the experiences they described, and tried to imagine them in their dug-outs, on the march, sleeping in rat-ridden barns, or cruising the Channel to sweep mines. When she awoke in the night and heard the rain falling, she would picture the wet trenches, and she often looked at the calm still moon, and thought how it shone alike on peaceful white cliffs and on stained battle-fields in Flanders. The aeroplanes that guarded the coast were a source of immense interest at Brackenfield. The girls would look up to see them whizzing overhead. There was a poster at the school depicting hostile aircraft, and they often gazed into the sky with an apprehension that one of the Hun pattern might make its sudden appearance. Annie Turner came back after the half-term holiday with the signatures of two Field-Marshals, a General, a Member of Parliament, three authors, an inventor, and a composer, and straightway set the fashion at St. Elgiva's for autographs. Nearly every girl in the house sent to the Stores at Whitecliffe for an album. At present, of course, specimens of caligraphy could only be had from mistresses and prefects, except by those lucky ones whose home people enclosed for them little slips of writing-paper with signatures, which could be pasted into the books.
Nobody took up the hobby more hotly than Marjorie. Her album was bound in blue morocco with gilt edges, and had coloured pages. The portion of it reserved for Brackenfield was soon filled by the Empress, mistresses, and prefects, who were long-suffering, though they must have grown very weary of signing their names in such a large number of books. Outside the school Marjorie so far had no luck. Her people did not seem to have any very noteworthy acquaintances, or, at any rate, would not trouble them for their autographs. She had thought it would be quite easy for Father to secure the signatures of generals and diplomats, but in his next letter he did not even refer to her request. Elaine secured for her the name of the Commandant of the Red Cross Hospital, and of a lady who sometimes wrote verses to be set to music, but these could not compete with the treasures some other girls had to show. Marjorie began to get a little downhearted about the new fad, and had serious thoughts of utilizing the album as a book of quotations.
Then, one day, something happened. Sixteen girls were taken by Miss Franklin for a parade walk into Whitecliffe, and Marjorie was chosen among the number. Every week a small contingent, under charge of a mistress, was allowed to go into the town to do some shopping. The chance only fell once in a term to each individual, so it was a cherished privilege.
They first visited the Stores, where a long halt was allowed in the confectionery department for the purchase of sweets. The investment in these was considerable, for each girl not only bought her own, but executed commissions for numerous friends. There was a school limit of a quarter of a pound per head, but Miss Franklin was not over strict, and the rule was certainly exceeded. The book and magazine counter also received a visit, and the stationery department, for there was at present a fashion for fancy paper and envelopes, with sealing-wax or picture wafers to match, and the toilet counter had its customers for scent and cold cream and practical articles such as sponges and tooth paste. There was a sensation when Enid Young was discovered surreptitiously buying pink Papier Poudre, though she assured them that it was not for herself, but for one of the Seniors, whose name she had promised not to divulge, under pain of direst extremities. Poor Miss Franklin had an agitating hour escorting her flock from one department to another of the Stores and keeping them all as much as possible together. She breathed a sigh of relief when they were once more in the street, and walking two and two in a neat, well-conducted crocodile. They marched down Sandy Walks to the Market Place, and turned along the promenade to go back by the Cliff Road. In this autumn season there were generally very few people along the sea front, but to-day quite a crowd had collected on the sands. They were all standing gazing up into the sky, where an aeroplane was flitting about like a big dragon-fly. Now when a crowd exhibits agitation, bystanders naturally become curious as to what is the cause of the excitement. Miss Franklin, though a teacher, was human; moreover, she always suspected every aeroplane of being German in its origin. She called a halt, therefore, and enquired from one of the sky-gazers what was the matter.
"It's Captain Devereux, the great French airman," was the reply. "He's just flown over from Paris, and he's been looping the loop. There! He's going to do it again!"
Immensely thrilled, the girls stared cloudwards as the aeroplane, after describing several circles, turned a neat somersault. They clapped as if the performance had been specially given for their benefit.
"He's coming down!" "He's going to descend!" "He'll land on the beach!" came in excited ejaculations from the crowd, as the aeroplane began gently to drop in a slanting direction towards the sands. Like the wings of some enormous bird the great planes whizzed by, and in another moment the machine was resting on a firm piece of shingle close to the promenade. Its near vicinity was quite too much for the girls; without waiting for permission they broke ranks and rushed down the steps to obtain a nearer view. Captain Devereux had alighted, and was now standing bowing with elaborate French politeness to the various strangers who addressed him, and answering their questions as to the length of time it had taken him to fly from Paris. He looked so courteous and good-tempered that a sudden idea flashed into Marjorie's head, and, without waiting to ask leave from Miss Franklin, she rushed up to the distinguished aviator and panted out impulsively:
"Oh, I do think it was splendid! Will you please give me your autograph?"
The Frenchman smiled.
"With pleasure, Mademoiselle!" he replied gallantly, and, taking a notebook and fountain pen from his pocket, he wrote in a neat foreign hand:
"HENRI RAOUL DEVEREUX",
and handed the slip to the delighted Marjorie.
"Oh, write one for me, please!" "And for me!" exclaimed the other girls, anxious to have their share if autographs were being given away. The airman was good-natured, perhaps a little flattered at receiving so much attention from a bevy of young ladies. He rapidly scribbled his signature, tearing out sheet after sheet from his notebook. So excited were the girls that they would take no notice of Miss Franklin, who called them to order. It was not until the sixteenth damsel had received her coveted scrap of paper that discipline was restored, and the crocodile once more formed and marched off in the direction of Brackenfield.
Miss Franklin's eyes were flashing, and her mouth was set. She did not speak on the way back, but at the gate her indignation found words.
"I never was so ashamed in my life!" she burst forth. "I shall at once report your unladylike conduct to Mrs. Morrison. You're a disgrace to the school!"
Marjorie and her fellow autograph collectors from St. Elgiva's entered the sitting-room in a state of much exhilaration, to boast of their achievement.
"You didn't!" exclaimed Betty Moore. "You mean to say you ran up and asked him under Frankie's very nose? Marjorie, you are the limit!"
"He was as nice as anything about it. I think he's a perfect dear. He didn't seem to mind at all, rather liked it, in fact! Here's his neat little signature. Do you want to look?"
"Well, you have luck, though you needn't cock-a-doodle so dreadfully over it. How did Frankie take it?"
"Oh, she was rather ratty, of course; but who cares? We've got our autographs, and that's the main thing. One has to risk something."
"We'll get something, too, in my opinion," said Patricia Lennox, one of the sinners. "Frankie was worse than ratty, she was absolutely savage. I could see it in her eye."
"Well, we can't help it if we do receive a few order marks. It was well worth it, in my opinion," chuckled Marjorie shamelessly.
She bluffed things off before the other girls, but secretly she felt rather uneasy. Miss Franklin's threat to report the matter to Mrs. Morrison recurred to her memory. At Brackenfield to carry any question to the Principal was an extreme measure. The Empress liked her teachers to be able to manage their girls on their own authority, and, knowing this, they generally conducted their struggles without appeal to head-quarters. Any very flagrant breach of discipline, however, was expected to be reported, so that the case could be dealt with as it deserved.
Marjorie went into the dining-hall for tea with a thrill akin to that which she usually suffered when visiting the dentist. To judge from their heightened colour and conspicuously callous manner, Rose Butler, Patricia Lennox, Phyllis Bingham, Laura Norris, Gertrude Holmes, and Evelyn Pickard were experiencing the same sensations. They fully expected to receive three order marks apiece, which would mean bed immediately after supper, instead of going to the needlework union. To their surprise Miss Franklin took no notice of them. She was sitting amongst the Juniors, and did not even look in their direction. They took care not to do anything which should attract attention to themselves, and the meal passed over in safety. Preparation followed immediately. Marjorie found the image of the aviator and Miss Franklin's outraged expression kept obtruding themselves through her studies, causing sad confusion amongst French irregular verbs, and driving the principal battles of the Civil Wars into the sidewalks of her memory. She made a valiant effort to pull herself together, and, looking up, caught Rose Butler's eye. Rose held up for a moment a piece of paper, upon which she had executed a fancy sketch of Captain Devereux and his aeroplane surrounded by schoolgirls, and Miss Franklin in the background raising hands of horror. It was too much for Marjorie's sense of humour, and she chuckled audibly. Miss Norton promptly glared in her direction, and gave her an order mark, which sobered her considerably.
When preparation was over the girls changed their dresses and came down for supper, and again Miss Franklin took no notice of the sinners of the afternoon. They began to breathe more freely.
"Perhaps she's going to overlook it," whispered Rose.
"After all, I can't see that we did anything so very wrong," maintained Phyllis.
"Frankie's jealous because she didn't get an autograph for herself," chuckled Laura.
"I don't believe we shall hear another word about it," asserted Evelyn.
The interval between supper and prayers was spent by the girls in their own hostels. At present each house was busy with a needlework union. They were making articles for a small bazaar, that was to be held at the school in the spring in aid of the Red Cross Society. They sat and sewed while a mistress read a book aloud to them. Marjorie was embroidering a nightdress case in ribbon-work. She used a frame, and enjoyed pulling her ribbons through into semblance of little pink roses and blue forget-me-nots. In contrast with French verbs and the Civil Wars the occupation was soothing. Ever afterwards it was associated in her mind with the story of Cranford, which was being read aloud, and the very sight of ribbon-work would recall Miss Matty or the other quaint inhabitants of the old-world village.
At ten minutes to nine a bell rang, sewing-baskets were put away, and the girls trooped into the big hall for prayers.
If by that time any remembrance of her afternoon's misdeeds entered Marjorie's mind, it was to congratulate herself that the trouble had blown over successfully. She was certainly not prepared for what was to happen.
Mrs. Morrison mounted the platform as usual, and read prayers, and the customary hymn followed. At its close, instead of dismissing the girls to their hostels, the Principal made a signal for them to resume their seats.
"I have something to say to you this evening," she began gravely. "Something which I feel demands the presence of the whole school. It is with the very greatest regret I bring this matter before you. Brackenfield, as you are aware, will soon celebrate its tenth birthday. During all these years of its existence it has always prided itself upon the extremely high reputation in respect of manners and conduct which its pupils have maintained in the neighbourhood. So far, at Whitecliffe, the name of a Brackenfield girl has been synonymous with perfectly and absolutely ladylike behaviour. There are other schools in the town, and it is possible that there may be among them some spirit of rivalry towards Brackenfield. The inhabitants or visitors at Whitecliffe will naturally notice any party of girls who are proceeding in line through the town, they will note their school hats, observe their conduct, and judge accordingly the establishment from which they come. Every girl when on parade has the reputation of Brackenfield in her keeping. So strong has been the spirit not only of loyalty to the school, but of innate good breeding, that up to this day our traditions have never yet been broken. I say sorrowfully up till to-day, for this very afternoon an event has occurred which, in the estimation of myself and my colleagues, has trailed our Brackenfield standards in the dust. Sixteen girls, who under privilege of a parade exeat visited Whitecliffe, have behaved in a manner which fills me with astonishment and disgust. That they could so far forget themselves as to break line, rush on to the shore, crowd round and address a perfect stranger, passes my comprehension, and this under the eyes of two other schools who were walking along the promenade, and who must have been justly amazed and shocked. The girls who this afternoon were on exeat parade will kindly stand up."
Sixteen conscience-stricken miserable sinners rose to their feet, and, feeling themselves the centre for more than two hundred pairs of eyes, yearned for the earth to yawn and swallow them up. Mrs. Morrison regarded them for a moment or two in silence.
"Each of you will now go to her own house and fetch the autograph she secured," continued the mistress grimly. "I give you three minutes."
There was a hurried exit, and the school sat and waited until the luckless sixteen returned.
"Bring them to me!" commanded Mrs. Morrison, and in turn each girl handed over her slip of paper with the magic signature "Henri Raoul Devereux". The Principal placed them together, then, her eyes flashing, tore them into shreds.
"Girls who have deliberately broken rules, defied the authority of my colleague, which is equivalent to defying me, and have lowered the prestige of the school in the eyes of the world, deserve the contempt of their comrades, who, I hope, will show their opinion of such conduct. I feel that any imposition I can give them is inadequate, and that their own sense of shame should be sufficient punishment; yet, in order to enforce the lesson, I shall expect each to recite ten lines of poetry to her House Mistress every morning before breakfast until the end of the term; and Marjorie Anderson, who, I understand, was the instigator of the whole affair, will spend Saturday afternoon indoors until she has copied out the whole of Bacon's essay on 'Empire'. You may go now."
Marjorie slunk off to St. Elgiva's in an utterly wretched frame of mind. It was bad enough to be reproved in company with fifteen others, but to be singled out for special condemnation and held up to obloquy before all the school was terrible. In spite of herself hot tears were in her eyes. She tried to blink them back, for crying was scouted at Brackenfield, but just at that moment she came across Rose, Phyllis, Laura, and Gertrude weeping openly in a corner.
"I'll never hold up my head again!" gulped Phyllis. "Oh, the Empress was cross! And I'm sure it was all because those wretched girls from 'Hope Hall' and 'The Birches' were walking along the promenade and saw us. If they'd had any sense they'd have rushed down and asked for autographs for themselves."
"It was mean of the Empress to tear ours up!" moaned Gertrude. "I call that a piece of temper on her part!"
"And after all, I don't see that we did anything so very dreadful!" choked Rose. "Mrs. Morrison was awfully down on us!"
"I hate learning poetry before breakfast!" wailed Laura.
"I'm the worst off," sighed Marjorie. "I've got to spend Saturday afternoon pen-driving, and it's the match with Holcombe. I'm just the unluckiest girl in the whole school. Strafe it all! It's a grizzly nuisance. I should like to slay myself!"
To Marjorie no punishment was greater than being forced to stay indoors. She was essentially an open-air girl, and after a long morning in the schoolroom her whole soul craved for the playing-fields. She had taken up hockey with the utmost enthusiasm. She keenly enjoyed the practices, and was deeply interested in the matches played by the school team. The event on Saturday afternoon was considered to be of special importance, for Brackenfield was to play the First Eleven of the Holcombe Ladies' Club. They had rather a good reputation, and the game would probably be a stiff tussle. Every Brackenfielder considered it her duty to be present to watch the match and encourage the School Eleven.
Marjorie would have given worlds to evade her punishment task that Saturday, but Mrs. Morrison's orders were as the laws of the Medes and Persians that cannot be altered, so she was policed to the St. Elgiva's sitting-room by Miss Norton, and provided with sheets of exercise paper and a copy of Bacon's Essays.
"I shall expect it to be finished by tea-time," said the mistress briefly. "If not, you will have to stay in again on Monday."
Marjorie frowned at the threat of further confinement, and settled herself with rather aggressive slowness. She was in a pixy mood, and did not mean to show any special haste in beginning her unwelcome work. Miss Norton glared at her, but made no further remark, and with a glance at the clock left the room. All the girls had already gone to the hockey-field, and Marjorie had St. Elgiva's to herself. She opened the book languidly, found Essay XIX, "Of Empire", and groaned.
"It'll take me the whole afternoon, strafe it all!" she muttered. "I wish Francis Bacon had never existed! I wonder the Empress didn't tell me to write an essay on Aeroplanes. If I drew them all round the edges of the pages, I wonder what would happen? I'd love to do it, and put Captain Devereux's picture at the end! I expect I'd get expelled if I did. Oh dear! It's a weary world! I wish I were old enough to leave school and drive a transport wagon. Have I got to stop here till I'm eighteen? Another two years and a half, nearly! It gives me spasms to think of it!"
She dipped her pen in the ink and copied:
"It is a miserable state of mind to have few things to desire, and many things to fear."
"I agree with old Bacon," she commented. "Only I've got great heaps of things to desire, and the one I want most at present is to go to the hockey match. I wish his shade would come and help me! They didn't play hockey in his days, so it would be a new experience for him. Francis Bacon, I command you to give me a hand with your wretched essay, and I'll take you to the match in return!"
A smart rap-tap on the window behind her made Marjorie start and turn round in a hurry. Her invocation, however, had not called up the ghostly countenance of the defunct Sir Francis to face her; it was Dona's roguish-looking eyes which twinkled at her from the other side of the pane.
"Open the window!" ordered that damsel.
Marjorie obeyed in much amazement. Dona was standing at the top of a ladder which just reached to the window-sill.
"Old Williams has been clipping the ivy," she explained, "so I've commandeered his ladder. I haven't broken any rules. I've never been told that I mustn't get up a ladder."
The girls' sitting-room at St. Elgiva's was on the upper floor, and members of other houses were strictly forbidden to mount the stairs. Marjorie laughed at Dona's evasion of the edict.
"Give me a hand and I'll toddle in," continued the latter. "Steady oh! Don't pull too hard. Here I am!"
"Glad to see you, but you'll get into a jinky little row if the Acid Drop catches you!"
"Right oh, chucky! The Acid Drop is at this moment watching the team for all she's worth. She's awfully keen on hockey."
"I know. And so am I," said Marjorie aggrievedly. "It's the limit to miss this match."
"You're not going to miss it altogether. I've come to help you. Here, give me a pen, and I'll copy some of the stuff out for you. Our writing's so alike no one will guess—and you'll get out at half-time."
"You mascot! But you're missing the match yourself!"
"I don't care twopence. I'm not keen on hockey like you are. Give me a pen, I tell you!"
"But how are we to manage?" objected Marjorie. "If we do alternate pages we shan't each know where to begin, and we can't leave spaces, or the Acid Drop would twig."
"Marjorie Anderson, I always thought you'd more brains than I have, but you're not clever to-day! You must write small, so as to get each line of print exactly into a line of exercise paper. There are twenty blue lines on each sheet—very well then, you copy the first twenty of old Bacon, and I'll copy the second twenty, and there we are, alternate pages, as neat as you please!"
"Dona, you've a touch of genius about you!" purred Marjorie.
The plan answered admirably. By writing small, it was quite possible to bring each line of print into correspondence with the manuscript. There were a hundred and twenty lines altogether in the essay, which worked out at six pages of exercise paper. Each counted out her own portion, then scribbled away as fast as was consistent with keeping the size of her caligraphy within due bounds. Thirty-five minutes' hard work brought them to the last word. Marjorie breathed a sigh of rapture, fastened the pages together with a clip, and took them downstairs to Miss Norton's study.
"You're an absolute trump, old girl!" she said to Dona.
The latter, meantime, had run downstairs and removed the ladder back to where she had found it, so that no trace of her little adventure should be left behind. The two girls hurried off to the playing-field, but took care not to approach together, in case of awakening suspicions.
Everybody's attention was so concentrated on the match that Marjorie slipped into a crowd of Intermediates unnoticed by mistresses. She was in time for part of the game, and keenly enjoyed watching a brilliant run by Daisy Edwards, and a terrific tussle on the back line resulting in a splendid shot by Hilda Alworthy. When the whistle blew for time the score stood six goals to three, Brackenfield leading, and Marjorie joined with enthusiasm in the cheers. She loitered a little in the field, and came back among the last. Miss Norton, who was standing in the hall, looked at her keenly as she entered St. Elgiva's, but the teacher had just found the essay "Of Empire" laid on her desk, and, turning it over, had marked it correct. If she had any suspicions she did not voice them, but allowed the matter to pass.
Dormitory No. 9
After the sad fiasco recorded in the last chapter, Marjorie's interest in autographs languished. She took up photography instead, and bartered a quite nice little collection of foreign stamps with one of the Seniors in exchange for a second-hand Kodak. Of course, it was much too late in the year for snapshots, but she managed to get a few time exposures on bright days, and enjoyed herself afterwards in the developing-room. She wanted to make a series of views of the school and send them to her father and to her brothers, for she knew how much they appreciated such things at the front. In his last letter to her, Daddy had said: "I am glad you and Dona are happy at Brackenfield, and wish I could picture you there. I expect it is something like a boys' school. Tell me about your doings. I love to have your letters, even though I may not have time to answer them."
Daddy's letters were generally of the round-robin description, and were handed on from one member to another of the family, but this had been specially written to Marjorie and addressed to Brackenfield, so it was a great treasure. She determined to do her best to satisfy the demands for photos.