CAPS AND CAPERS
CAPS and CAPERS A Story of Boarding-School Life
by GABRIELLE E. JACKSON
Author of "Pretty Polly Perkins," "Denise and Ned Toodles," "By Love's Sweet Rule," "The Colburn Prize," etc., etc.
With illustrations by C. M. Relyea
PHILADELPHIA HENRY ALTEMUS COMPANY
Copyright, 1901, by Henry Altemus
To the dear girls of "Dwight School," who, by their sweet friendship, have unconsciously helped to make this winter one of the happiest she has ever known, this little story is most affectionately inscribed by the AUTHOR.
CHAPTER PAGE I. Which Shall It Be? 13 II. "A Touch Can Make or a Touch Can Mar" 21 III. "A Feeling of Sadness and Longing" 29 IV. New Experiences 41 V. Two Sides of a Question 53 VI. Dull and Prosy 63 VII. The P. U. L. 71 VIII. Caps and Capers 81 IX. A Modern Diogenes 89 X. "They Could Never Deceive Me" 97 XI. "La Somnambula" 107 XII. "Have You Not Been Deceived This Time?" 119 XIII. English as She is Spelled 127 XIV. "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells" 135 XV. "Pride Goeth Before a Fall" 143 XVI. Letters 153 XVII. "Haf Anybody Seen My Umbrel?" 161 XVIII. The Little Hinge 169 XIX. "Fatal or Fated are Moments" 179 XX. "Now Tread We a Measure." 187 XXI. Conspirators 197 XXII. "We've Got 'em! We've Got 'em!" 205 XXIII. A Camera's Capers. 213 XXIV. Whispers 225 XXV. "What Are You Doing Up this Time of Night?" 233 XXVI. "Love (and Schoolgirls) Laugh at Locksmiths" 243 XXVII. Ariadne's Clue 253 XXVIII. "When Buds And Blossoms Burst" 261 XXIX. Commencement 271 XXX. "O Fortunate, O Happy Day" 279
PAGE "Now, girls, come on! let's eat our cream." Frontispiece "You could have popped me over from ambush." 37 "Do you wish to join the P. U. L.?" 71 "Go, tell Mrs. Stone she isn't up to snuff." 109 "Sthick to yer horses, Moik." 141 "Let us begin a brand new leaf to-day." 165 "I feel so sort of grown up and grand." 181 "An' have ye been in there all this time?" 207 "Away went Marie, vanishing bit by bit." 231 "Her hand resting lightly on the arm of her friend." 267
WHICH SHALL IT BE?
"And now that I have them, how am I to decide? That is the question?"
The speaker was a fine-looking man about thirty-five years of age, seated before a large writing-table in a handsomely appointed library. It was littered with catalogues, pamphlets, letters and papers sent from dozens of schools, and from the quantity of them one would fancy that every school in the country was represented. This was the result of an advertisement in the "Times" for a school in which young children are received, carefully trained, thoroughly taught, and which can furnish unquestionable references regarding its social standing and other qualifications.
It was a handsome, but seriously perplexed, face which bent over the letters, and more than once the shapely hand was raised to the puckered forehead and the fingers thrust impatiently through the golden brown hair, setting it on end and causing its owner to look more distracted than ever.
"Poor, wee lassie, you little realize what a problem you are to me. Would to God the one best qualified to solve it could have been spared to you," and the handsome head fell forward upon the hands, as tears of bitter anguish flooded the brown eyes.
Can anything be more pathetic than a strong man's tears? And Clayton Reeve's were wrung from an almost despairing heart.
For ten years his life had been a dream of happiness. At twenty-five he had married a beautiful, talented girl, who made his home as nearly perfect as a home can be made, and when, three years later, a little daughter, her mother's living image, came to live with them, he felt that he had no more to ask for. Seven years slipped away, as only years of perfect happiness can slip, and then came the end. The beautiful wife and mother went to sleep forever, leaving the dear husband and lovely little daughter alone. For six months Mr. Reeve strove to fill the mother's place, but until she was taken from him he had never realized how perfectly and completely his almost idolized wife had filled his home, conducting all so quietly and gracefully that even those nearest and dearest never suspected how much thought she had given to their comfort until her firm, yet gentle, rule was missed.
Happily, Toinette was too young to fully appreciate her loss, and although she grieved in her childish way for the sweet, smiling mother who had so loved her, it was a child's blessed evanescent grief, which could find consolation in her pets and dollies, and—blessed boon—forget.
But Clayton Reeve never forgot, not for one moment; and though the six months had in a measure softened his grief, his sense of loss and loneliness increased each day, until at last he could no longer endure the sight of the home which they together had planned and beautified.
Unfortunately, neither he nor his wife had near relatives. She had been an only child whose parents had died shortly after her marriage, and such distant relatives as remained to him were far away in England, his native land. His greatest problem was the little daughter. Nursemaids and nursery-governesses were to be had by the score, but nursemaids and nursery-governesses were one thing with a mistress at the head of the household and quite another without one, as, during the past six months, Mr. Reeve had learned to his sorrow, and the poor man had more than once been driven to the verge of insanity by their want of thought, or even worse.
At last he determined to close his house, place Toinette in some "ideal" school, and travel for six months, or even longer, little dreaming that the six months would lengthen into as many years ere he again saw her. The trip begun for diversion was soon merged into one for business interests, as the prominent law firm of which he was a member had matters of importance to be looked after upon the other side of the water, and were only too glad to have so efficient a person to do it.
So, before he realized it, half the globe divided him from the sunny-haired little daughter whom he had placed in the supposed ideal school, chosen after deliberate consideration from those he had corresponded with.
But this anticipates a trifle.
As he sits in the library of his big house, a house which seems so like some beautiful instrument lacking the touch of the master hand to draw forth its sweetest and best, the sound of little dancing feet can be heard through the half-open door, and a sweet little voice calls out:
"Papa, Papa Clayton. Where is my precious Daddy?" and a golden-haired child running into the room throws herself into his arms, clasps her own about his neck and nestles her head upon his shoulder.
He held her close as he asked:
"Well, little Heart's-Ease, what can the old Daddy do for you?"
The child raised her head, and, looking at him with her big brown eyes, eyes so like his own, said, reproachfully: "You are not an old Daddy; Stanton (the butler) is old, you are just my own, own Papa Clayton, and mamma used to say that you couldn't grow old 'cause she and I loved you so hard."
Mr. Reeve quivered slightly at the child's words, and with a surprised look she asked:
"Are you cold, dear Daddy? It isn't cold here, is it?"
"No, not in the room, Heart's-Ease, but right here," laying his hand upon his heart.
The child regarded him questioningly with her big, earnest eyes, and said:
"Did it grow cold because mamma went so sound asleep?"
"I'm afraid so; but now let us talk about something else: I've some news for you, but do not know how you will like it; sit still while I tell it to you," and he began to unfold his plan regarding the school.
"A TOUCH CAN MAKE OR A TOUCH CAN MAR"
The school was chosen and Toinette placed therein. What momentous results often follow a simple act. When Clayton Reeve placed his little girl with the Misses Carter, intending to leave her there a few months, and seek the change of scene so essential to his health, he did not realize that her whole future would be more or less influenced by the period she was destined to spend there. No brighter, sunnier, happier disposition could have been met with than Toinette's when she entered the school; none more restless, distrustful and dissatisfied than her's when she left it, nearly six years later.
If we are held accountable for sins of omission, as well as sins of commission, certainly the Misses Carter had a long account to meet.
Like many others who had chosen that vocation, they were utterly incapable of filling it either to their own credit or the advantage of those they taught. While perfectly capable of imparting the knowledge they had obtained from books, and of making any number of rules to be followed as those of the "Medes and Persians," they did not, in the very remotest degree, possess the insight into character, the sympathy with their pupils so essential in true teachers.
It is not alone to learn that which is contained between the covers of a book that our girls are sent to school or college, but also to gather in the thousand and one things untaught by either books or words. These must be absorbed as the flowers absorb the sunshine and dew, growing lovelier, sweeter and more attractive each day and never suspecting it.
And so the shaping of Toinette's character, so beautifully begun by the wise, gentle mother, passed into other and less sensitive hands. It was like a delicate bit of pottery, the pride of the potter's heart, upon which he had spent uncountable hours, and was fashioning so skilfully, almost fearing to touch it lest he mar instead of add to its beauty; dreading to let others approach lest, lacking his own nice conceptions, they bring about a result he had so earnestly sought to avoid, and the vase lose its perfect symmetry. But, alas! called from his work never to return, it is completed by less skilful hands, a less delicate conception, and, while the result is pleasing, the perfect harmony of proportion is wanting, and those who see it feel conscious of its incompleteness, yet scarcely know why.
We will skip over those six miserable years, so fraught with small trials, jealousies, deceptions and an ever-increasing distrust, to a certain Saturday morning in December.
The early winter had been an exceptionally trying one, and Toinette, now nearly fourteen years old, had seen and learned many things which can only be taught by experience. She had seen that in some people's eyes the possession of money can atone for many shortcomings in character, and that certain lines of conduct may be condoned in a girl who has means, while they are condemned in a girl who has not; that she herself had many liberties and many favors shown her which were denied some of her companions, although those companions were quite as well born and bred as herself, and with all the latent nobility of her character did she scorn not only the favors but those who showed them, and often said to her roommate, Cicely Powell: "If I chose to steal the very Bible out of chapel, Miss Carter would only say, 'Naughty Toinette,' in that smirking way of hers, and then never do a single thing; but if Barbara Ellsworth even looks sideways she simply annihilates her. I hate it, for it is only because Barbara is poor and I'm—well, Miss Carter likes to have the income I yield; I'm a profitable bit of 'stock,' and must be well cared for," and a burning flush rose to the girl's sensitive cheeks.
It was a bitter speech for one so young, and argued an all too intimate acquaintance with those who did not bear the mark patent of "gentlewoman."
The six years had wrought many changes in the little child, both in mind and body, for, even though one had been cramped, and lacked a healthful development, the other had blossomed into a very beautiful young girl, who would have gladdened any parent's heart. She was neither tall nor short, but beautifully proportioned. Her head, with its wealth of sunny, wavy hair, was carried in the same stately manner which had always been so marked a characteristic in her father, and gave to her a rather dignified and reserved air for her years. The big brown eyes looked you squarely in the face, although latterly they had a slightly distrustful expression. Hurry home, Clayton Reeve, before it becomes habitual. The nose was straight and sensitive, and the mouth the saving grace of the face, for nothing could alter its soft, beautiful curves, and the lips continued to smile as they had done in early childhood, when there was cause for smiles only. The mother's finger seemed to rest there, all invisible to others, and curve the corners upward, as though in apology for the hardened expression gradually creeping over the rest of the face.
It is difficult to understand how a parent can leave a child wholly to the care of strangers for so long a period as Mr. Reeve left Toinette, but one thing after another led him further and further from home, first to Southern Europe, then across the Mediterranean into wilder, newer scenes, where nations were striving mightily. Then, just as he began to think that ere long his own land would welcome him, news reached him of trouble in a land still nearer the rising sun, and his firm needed their interests in that far land carefully guarded. So thither he journeyed. But at last all was adjusted, and, with a heart beating high with hope, he started for his own dear land and dearer daughter.
It must be confessed that he had many conflicting emotions as the great ship plowed its way across the broad Pacific, and ample time in which to indulge them. Many were the mental pictures he drew of the girl there awaiting him, and would have felt no little surprise, as well as indignation, could he have known that she was left in ignorance of the date of his arrival. But Miss Carter had reasons of her own for concealing it, and had merely told Toinette that her father was contemplating a return to the States during the coming year. It seemed rather a cold message to the girl whose all he was, for she had written to him repeatedly, and poured out in her letters all the suppressed warmth of her nature, yet never had his replies touched upon the subject of her loneliness and intense desire to see him, but had always assured her that he was delighted to know that she was happy and fond of her teachers. And Toinette had not quite reached the age of wisdom which caused her to suspect why he gave so little heed to such information, although it would not have required a much longer residence at the Misses Carter's to enlighten her. Happily, before the revelation was made she was beyond further chicanery.
"A FEELING OF SADNESS AND LONGING"
The half year was nearly ended, and most of the girls were looking eagerly forward to the Christmas vacation, which would release them from a cordially detested surveillance. But Toinette had no release to look forward to; vacation or term time were much the same to her. She had spent some of her holidays with her schoolmates, but the greater part of them had been passed in the school, and dull enough they were, too.
The past week had been a particularly stormy one, and the outcome had reflected anything but credit upon the school. Consequently, the girls were out of sorts and miserable, and the world looked decidedly blue, with only a faint rosy tint far down in the horizon, where vacation peeped.
As in most schools, Saturday was a holiday. The day was wonderfully soft and mild for December, and shortly after breakfast Toinette threw her golf-cape about her shoulders and stepped out upon the piazza to see if the fresh air would blow away the mental vapors hovering about her, for she felt not unlike a ship at sea without a compass. Poor little lassie, although what might be called a rich girl, in one respect she was a very poor one indeed, for she had scarcely known the influence of a happy home, or the tender mother love which we all need, whether we be big daughters or little ones. True, she had never known what it meant to want those things which girls often wish to have, but which limited means place beyond their reach. But often amidst the luxuries of her surroundings, for her father provided most liberally for her, she would be seized with a restless longing for something, she hardly knew what, which made her feel out of sorts with herself and everybody else.
"What ails you, this morning?" asked her chum, Cicely Powell, joining her upon the piazza. "You look as solemn as an oyster, and I should think you'd feel jolly because it's Saturday, and that horrid Grace Thatcher won't be here to poke her inquisitive nose into all our plans," referring to the prime mischief-maker of the school, already departed for her vacation, with the admonition to think twice before returning.
"I don't know what's the matter with me: I wish I did. Somehow, I don't feel satisfied with myself or anyone else, and I half believe I hate everybody," was Toinette's petulant reply.
"Well, I like that, I declare!" was the sharp retort. "Perhaps you include me among those you hate, and if that is the case, Toinette Reeve, you may just do as you like; I don't care a straw."
Ordinarily Toinette's reply would have been as sharp as Cicely's, but this time she just looked at her with her big eyes—eyes suspiciously bright, as though tears lay not far back of them—and walked away, leaving Cicely to wonder what had come over her.
"Well, I never!" was her rather vague comment. "I don't see what has come over Toinette since that last flareup. Mercy knows, we've had so many that we all ought to be used to them by this time. She has acted as though she were sorry that that horrid Grace was sent off earlier than the others, and I'm sure she has as much reason to be glad of it as any of us have. She did nothing but tell tales about all of us, and peep and spy upon her more than anyone else. Miss Carter would never have found out about half the things she did if it hadn't been for Grace, and we could have had no end of fun," and after this rather prolonged monologue Cicely went to join the other girls.
Meanwhile Toinette had drawn the hood of her cape over her head and strolled down to the lower end of the garden, where a rustic summer-house not far from the gate afforded a quiet little nook in which to indulge one's fancies, whether pleasant or painful. Curling herself up in one corner, she rested her cheek upon her arm, which she had thrown over the railing, and looked down the road toward the railway station.
Although a very beautiful one, it was a sad, wistful young face which turned toward the sunshine and shadows dancing upon the road. Poor little Toinette, now is the moment in which the mother-love you are unconsciously longing for would make the world anew for you. If, as you sit there, a gentle form and face could creep up quietly, slip an arm about your waist as she takes her seat beside you, and ask in the tender tone that only mothers use: "Well, Sweetheart, what is troubling you? Tell mother all about it, and let us see if there is not a sunny lining to the dark cloud that is casting its unpleasant shadow over this cozy nook."
Where is the daughter who could resist it? It would not be many minutes before the head would find a happy resting-place upon the shoulder beside it, and all the little trials and troubles—trials so very real and very appalling to young hearts—would be put into words, and lose half their bitterness in the telling just because love—that mighty magician—had come to help bear them.
A great man once said: "O opportunity, thy guilt is great!" and I have often wondered why he did not add, "or thou art very precious." So much depends upon an auspicious moment. A big door can swing upon a very small hinge.
As Toinette looked down the road with unseeing eyes, the whistle of an incoming train, brought her back to a realization of things around her. The station was barely half a mile away, and ere ten minutes had passed a man appeared in the distance. Evidently the owner of that athletic figure knew where he was bound, and was going to get there as quickly as his firm, long strides could carry him. He was a large man, sun-burned to the point of duskiness, bearded and moustached as though barbers were unknown in the land from which he hailed. Dressed in servicable tweed knickerbockers and Norfolk jacket, his Alpine hat placed upon his head to stay put, his grip slung by a strap across his broad shoulders, he came striding over the ground as though intent upon very important business. Toinette watched his approach in a listless sort of way, but as he drew nearer and nearer seemed to recognize something familiar.
"Who can he be, and where have I seen him, I wonder?" she said, half aloud, as she peered at him from behind the lattice-work of the summer-house.
On he came, quite unconscious of the big eyes regarding him so intently, and presently stopped to look about him, as though trying to recall old landmarks. He now stood almost opposite Toinette, when, chancing to glance toward the house, he became aware of her presence.
"Why, little lady, you could have popped me over from ambush if you had had a gun, for I walked straight upon you and never suspected that you were there. Can you direct me to the Misses Carter's school? The station-master said it was about ten minutes' walk, but it is so many years since I have been here that I find I've forgotten the lay of the land, and I don't want to waste much time, for I've a very precious somebody there whom I'm very anxious to see. Last time I saw her she was only about knee-high to a grasshopper, but I suspect I shall find a young lady now, and have to be introduced to her."
At the sound of his voice Toinette arose to her feet, her color coming and going, and her heart beating so loudly that she was sure he could hear it. As he finished speaking he regarded with very genuine surprise the young girl who, with parted lips and outstretched hands, was walking toward him like one who doubted the evidence of her own senses, and with a cry of, "Papa! oh, papa! don't you know me?" she was gathered into the strong arms whose owner had travelled half around the globe in order to win that one precious moment.
It did not take Clayton Reeve very long to gain a pretty clear idea of the condition of things at the Misses Carter's school, or to realize what influences had been brought to bear upon his only daughter. To say that he was keenly disappointed but mildly expresses it, and he reproached himself bitterly for having left her so long to the care of strangers. He remained with Toinette until the school closed for the holidays, and the time was the happiest she had ever known. Nor was it for her alone, for the other girls came in for their full share. He was a very liberal man, and it gave him genuine pleasure to make others happy.
The Misses Carter lost no opportunity of putting their establishment in a favorable light, for they had a strong suspicion that they were in a fair way to lose something of much more tangible value to themselves: a very handsome income. But Mr. Reeve easily saw through their little foibles, and was not deceived by the pretty veneer into believing that all was strong and firm beneath.
He had traveled about the world too much during the past six years not to have learned something of human nature, and to read it pretty correctly. Furthermore, his feeling of self-reproach made him keenly alive to every change upon Toinette's speaking countenance, and when he saw the look of questioning surprise which came over it when one or the other of the Misses Carter made some playful overture at petting her, or one of the other girls, he drew his own deductions.
When vacation arrived he settled his bill for the year, bade them a courteous farewell, and, with Toinette, "scraped the dust from his feet and left the mansion." Then came a two-weeks' holiday such as she had never even dreamed of. Mr. Reeve took rooms in one of New York's finest hotels, and gave himself up to the pleasure of renewing his acquaintance with his daughter. That holiday was never forgotten by either of them, but for very different reasons.
"By Jove," he said to himself more than once, "I've let a good bit of precious time, and many happy hours, slip away, if I'm not mistaken, and I don't know whether I shall ever catch up."
During their stay in the city Mr. Reeve went in quest of his old college chum, Sydney Powell, Cicely's father, and had an interview with him that was brief, but very much to the point.
"Go ahead, Clint, old chap, and find what is needed for the little girls, if you can. Cicely will never go back to the Carter school, and I should be glad to have the girls keep together. They seem fond of each other. How would you like to run out to Montcliff to look up that school? I've had fine reports of it from Fred Hubbard, whose daughter is a pupil there?"
And so it came to pass that directly after vacation the two girls were escorted to Sunny Bank, as the school was called, and, after a very satisfactory talk with its sensible principal, Mr. Reeve left them to her care, feeling sure that this time he had not made any mistake.
Toinette and Cicely had adjoining rooms, and nothing could have been daintier than the room appointments. From their windows they could look out over a wide sweep of the western valley, where the sun was just sinking behind the hills, and leaving upon the sky a glorious promise of the day to follow.
They were still busy arranging their pretty trifles about the rooms when the soft chime of the Chinese gong in the wide hall below announced dinner. Thus far they had not seen any of the other girls, but as they stepped from their rooms they were met by Miss Preston, who said, as she slipped an arm about each waist:
"I do not forget how lonely I felt when I first entered a strange school, so let me try to make it easier for my new girls by introducing some of my old ones; real old," she added, laughingly, as she called to two girls who were curled up on one corner of the big divan at the lower end of the hall.
"Come here, chicks, and let me make you acquainted with Miss Reeve and Miss Powell. These are Miss Gordon and Miss Osgood, my dears, but as we are all sort of 'sisters, cousins and aunts' in this big home, I'll just hint right off that their home names are Ruth and Edith, who will be glad to welcome my Toinette and Cicely."
By this time they had reached the cheerful dining-room, and with a very significant exchange of glances Toinette and Cicely took their seats, the latter whispering under cover of the bustle caused by the entrance of the other pupils: "My goodness, if Miss Carter had ever spoken like that to us, we should have fallen flat, shouldn't we?"
Ruth sat upon one side, and Edith upon the other, and it did not take the new girls long to discover that the dinner hour must be one of the pleasantest of the day, for all talked and chatted in the liveliest manner, discussing various happenings, and again and again appealing to Miss Preston, who was not one whit behind in the spirit of good-fellowship which prevailed.
There were six tables, each accommodating ten people, and a teacher sat at the head of each. In every instance a teacher who was wise enough not to observe too much, but who in reality saw everything, although she could laugh and joke with the girls, put them at their ease, and at the same time set them so perfect an example that few girls would have cared to fail in following it. Far from exercising a restraining influence, they proved the jolliest of companions, as the repeated appeals to their opinions, or the requests for some anecdote or amusing story, evidently old favorites, amply testified.
When the pleasant dinner was ended the girls gathered in the big hall, where Toinette and Cicely were introduced to many of the others.
"What have we to do now?" asked Toinette, whose sharp eyes had been observing everything worth observing, and whose active mind had received more impressions within the past hour than it had been called upon to receive in a year. It is needless to add that she was quick enough to profit by them, and to appreciate that in this school were taught more surprising things than chemistry or science.
"Do?" asked Ruth.
"Yes; isn't there some RULE to be observed after dinner?" and a rather ironical tone came into Toinette's voice.
"Yes; come along, and Edith and I'll show you the rule, as you call it," answered Ruth, as she caught up the big basket-ball lying upon one of the chairs in the hall, flew through the door with it, across the piazza and into the gymnasium beyond.
After an instant's hesitation the two girls followed, joining her and Edith, who had run Ruth a lively race.
"You don't mean to say that the teachers let you run and romp like this, do you?" demanded Cicely.
"Let us!" cried Edith in surprise. "Why shouldn't they? We aren't doing any harm, are we?"
"No, I don't suppose there is any harm, but if we had done such a thing at Miss Carter's, what do you think would have happened, Toinette?"
Toinette pursed her mouth into the primmest pucker, rolled her eyes in a horrified way, clasped her hands before her, and said, in a tragic tone: "Young ladies! Such conduct is most unseemly," in such perfect mimicry of Miss Carter that Ruth and Edith shouted.
"Well, all I can say is, that I'm thankful we were not sent to that school; aren't you, Ruth?" said Edith.
"Better believe I am," was the feeling reply. "I get skittish even in this blessed place sometimes, but if I had been sent there I'd have been just like one of those little red imps that Miss Preston has standing on her writing table."
"Yes, you'd have felt all rubbed the wrong way, just as Cicely and I feel, and just hate the sight of a teacher, and want to do everything you could to plague them," said Toinette, petulantly.
"Well, you won't want to do that here" answered Edith, emphatically. "If you cut any such capers in this school, it won't be the teachers who will go for you, but the girls," with a significant wag of her head.
"The girls?" asked Cicely, with a puzzled expression.
"Certain. We think our school about the best going, and we aren't going to let anyone else think differently, if we can help it; are we, Ruth? So, if a girl takes it into her head to be rude and cranky to the teachers, or other girls, she finds herself in a corner pretty quick, I can tell you."
"Suppose you break the rules?" asked Toinette.
"Aren't any to break," answered happy-go-lucky Ruth, as she pranced down the big room after the ball, which had gone bouncing off.
"No rules!" incredulously.
"Not a single one. All you've got to do is to be nice to everybody, remember you're a gentlewoman (or you wouldn't be here, let me tell you), and do your jolly best to pass your examinations. If you don't it is your own fault, and you have to suffer for it; no one else, that's sure; for you can have all the help you ask for."
Toinette and Cicely exchanged glances.
"Oh, I daresay you don't believe us," said Edith, who had correctly interpreted the glances, "but just you wait and see. All the new girls think the same, and I daresay that we should have, too, if we had come here from some other school; but, thank goodness, we didn't. There aren't any more schools like this, are there, Ruth?"
"Nary one; there's only one, and we've got it," cried the irrepressible Ruth, and two weeks later the girls found that, truly, no rules could be broken where none existed.
TWO SIDES OF A QUESTION
It could hardly be expected that, after her training of the past six and a half years, Toinette would at once respond to the wiser, more elevating influences now surrounding her. The old impulses would return, and a desire to conceal where no concealment was necessary often placed her in a false light. She distrusted those in authority simply because they were in authority, rather than that they ever made it apparent. It seemed to have become second nature with her, and bade fair to prove a work of almost infinite patience and love upon the part of the teachers to undo the mischief wrought in those miserable years.
But, after making a toy of the poor child for all that time, fickle fate seemed about to make amends, and, although it was yet to be proven, Toinette was now launched upon a sunny sea, and destined to sail into a happy harbor.
She was sitting in her room one beautiful afternoon about a week after her arrival at the school, and, unconsciously doing profitable examples in rhetoric by drawing nice contrasts between her present surroundings and her former ones. Presently a tap came upon her door, and she called: "Come in."
In bounced Ruth, crying: "Come on down to the village with us, will you? Edith and Cicely are waiting at the gate."
"Which teacher is going with us?" asked Toinette, suspiciously.
"Teacher?" echoed Ruth. "Why, none, of course. Why don't you ask if we are going in a baby-carriage?" and she laughed as she slipped her arm through Toinette's.
"You don't mean to say that we will be allowed to go by ourselves?"
"Toinette Reeve, I think you've got the queerest ideas I ever heard of! Come on!"
In spite of Ruth's assurance, Toinette cast apprehensive glances about her, as though she expected a frowning face to appear around some corner and rebuke them. Instead, however, they came upon Miss Howard just at the end of the corridor, who asked in a cheery voice:
"Where away so briskly, my lady birds?"
"Only to the village; good-bye," answered Ruth, waving her hand in farewell.
"Pleasant journey. You will probably run across Miss Preston down there somewhere, and can act as bodyguard for her."
The girls walked briskly on, and presently Cicely asked:
"What are you going for, anyway?"
"Some good things, to be sure. I'm just perishing for some cream-peppermints, and my week's pocket-money is scorching holes in my pocket as fast as ever it can."
"Do you think Miss Preston would scold if I got something, too?" asked Toinette.
"What would she scold about? You didn't steal the money you're going to buy it with, did you? And your stomach's your own, isn't it? Besides, when you've been here a while longer you'll learn that Miss Preston doesn't scold. If she thinks a thing isn't good for you to do, she just asks you not to do it, and she takes it for granted that you've got sense enough to understand why."
"Oh, I guess you're all saints in this school," replied Toinette, sarcastically.
"Well, as near as I can make out, you had a pretty good supply of sinners where you came from," was the prompt retort.
When Ruth's pocket was saved from destruction the girls started homeward. They had not gone far when three of the boys from the large school at the upper end of the town were seen coming toward them.
"Oh, jolly," cried Edith, "there are Ned, Allan and Gilbert! Now we'll have fun; they're awfully nice. Allan has the dearest pony and trap you ever saw, and is just as generous as can be with it."
The boys were now beside them, and, raising their caps politely, joined the party and were introduced to the new girls. This was a complete revelation to Cicely and Toinette, for at Miss Carter's school boys had been regarded as a species of wild animal, to be shunned as though they carried destruction to all whom they might overtake.
But here were Ruth and Edith walking along with three of those monsters in manly form, and, still worse, talking to them in the frankest, merriest manner, as though there were no such thing on earth as schools and teachers. Toinette and Cicely dropped a little behind, and soon found an opportunity to draw Edith with them.
"Don't forget that Miss Howard said that Miss Preston was down in the village. I'll bet a cookie there'll be a fine rumpus if she catches us gallivanting with all these boys," whispered Toinette.
A funny smile quivered about the corners of Edith's mouth, but before she could answer Miss Preston herself stood before them. She had suddenly turned in from a side street. As though detected in some serious misdemeanor, Toinette and Cicely hung back, and Edith remained beside them.
With such a smile as only Miss Preston could summon, she bowed to the group, and said:
"How do you do, little people? Are you going to let me add one more to the party? I'm not very big, you know, and I like a bodyguard. Besides, I haven't seen the boys in a 'blue moon,' and I think it high time I took them to task, for they haven't been to call upon us in an age. Give an account of yourselves, young sirs. Before very long there is going to be a dance at a house I could mention, and you don't want to be forgotten by the hostess, do you?"
Toinette and Cicely found it difficult to believe themselves awake. Touching Edith's elbow, they indicated by mysterious signs that they wished to ask something, and dropped still further behind.
"What does it all mean, anyhow? She doesn't really mean to have the boys at the house, does she?"
Edith's eyes began to twinkle as though someone had dropped a little diamond into each, and, without answering, she gave a funny laugh and took a few quick steps forward. Slipping an arm about Miss Preston's waist, she said: "Miss Preston?"
"Yes, dear," turning a pleasant face toward the girl.
"The girls are planning a candy frolic for next Friday night, and were going to ask your permission to-day, only they haven't had time yet. May we have it over in the kitchen of the cottage, and may the boys come, too?"
A merry smile had overspread Miss Preston's face, and when Edith finished speaking, she said:
"Young gentlemen, I hope you didn't hear the last remark made by my friend, Miss Osgood; at all events, you're not supposed to have done so; it would be embarrassing for us all. But, since you did not, I'll say to her: Yes, you may have your candy frolic, and that is for her ears alone. Now to you: The girls are to have a candy frolic Friday evening, and would be delighted to have your company."
It had all been said in Miss Preston's irresistibly funny way, and was greeted with shouts of laughter. Toinette and Cicely had learned something new. All now crowded about her urging her to accept some of their goodies, and, joining heartily in the spirit of good-comradeship, she took a sweetie from first one box and then another. Possibly another person, with a stricter regard for Mrs. Grundy's extremely refined sensibilities, might have hesitated to walk along the highways surrounded by half a dozen boys and girls, all chattering as hard as their tongues could wag, and munching cream-peppermints; but Miss Preston's motto was "Vis in ute," and, with the fine instinct so often wanting in those who have young characters to form, she looked upon the question from their side, feeling sure that sooner or later would arise questions which she would wish them to regard from hers; and therein lay the key-note of her success.
She would no more have thought of raising the barrier of teacher and pupil between herself and her girls than she would have thought of depriving them of something necessary to their physical welfare. The girls were her friends and she theirs—their best and truest, to whom they might come with their joys or their sorrows, sure of her sympathy with either, and, rather than cast a shadow upon their confidence, she would have toiled up the hill with the whole school swarming about her, and an express-wagon of sweets following close behind. That was the secret of her wonderful power over them. They never realized the disparity between their own ages and hers, because she had never forgotten when life was young.
DULL AND PROSY
It is to be hoped that those who read this story will not run off with the idea that I am trying to set Miss Preston's school up as a model in every sense of the word, for I am not. I am simply trying to tell a story of boarding-school life as it really was "once upon a time." And I think that I ought to be able to tell it pretty correctly, having seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears many of the pranks related. The methods followed and the results obtained may be believed or not; that rests with the individual reading. Long ago, in my own childhood days, our "old Virginy" cook used to say to me: "La, chile, dey's a heap sight mo' flies ketched wid 'lasses dan vingegar," and I have come to the conclusion that she had truth on her side.
The girls were by no means saints. Saints, after all, are rather ethereal creatures, and Miss Preston's girls were real flesh and blood lassies, brimful of life and fun, and, like most lassies, ready for a good time.
As Ruth had said, there were no rules; that is, the girls were never told that they must not do this, or that they must do the other thing. A spirit of courtesy dominated everything, and a subtle influence pervaded the entire school, bringing about desired results without words. The girls understood that all possible liberty would be granted them, and that their outgoings and incomings would be exactly such as would be allowed them in their own homes, and if some were inclined to abuse that liberty they soon learned where license began.
No school turned out better equipped girls, and none held a higher standard in college examinations. A Sunny Bank diploma was a sure passport. When the girls worked they worked hard, and when playtime came it was enjoyed to the full. Naturally, with so many dispositions surrounding her, Miss Preston often in secret floundered in a "slough of despond," for that which could influence one girl for her good might prove a complete failure when brought to bear upon another. Never was the old adage, "What is one man's meat is another man's poison," more truly illustrated.
But Miss Preston had a stanch friend, and trusted Him implicitly. Often, when perplexed and troubled, a half-hour's quiet talk with Him close shut behind her own door would give her wisdom and strength for the baffling question, and when she again appeared among them the girls wondered at her serene expression and winning smile, for in that half-hour's seclusion she had managed to remove all trace of the soil from the "slough," and, refreshed and strengthened by an unfailing help, could resume her "Pilgrimage."
She often said, in her quaint way: "The hardest work I have to do is to undo," and that was very true. Many times the home influence was of the worst possible sort for a young girl, or else there was just none at all. Such girls were difficult subjects. Many had come from other schools, as in Toinette's case, where distrust seemed to be the key-note of the establishment, and then came Miss Preston's severest trials. The confidence of such girls must be won ere a step could be taken in the right direction. It was a rare exception when Miss Preston failed to win it.
"You feel such a nasty little bit of a crawling thing when you've done a mean thing to Miss Preston," a girl once said. "If she'd only give you a first-class blowing up—for that's just what you know you deserve all the time—you could stand it, but she never does. She just puts her arm around you and looks straight through you with those soft gray eyes of hers, and never says one word. Then you begin to shrivel up, and you keep right on shriveling till you feel like Alice in Wonderland. You can't say boo, because she hasn't, and when she gives you a soft little kiss on your forehead, and whispers so gently: Don't try to talk about it now, dear; just go and lock yourself in your room and have a quiet think, and I'm sure the kink will straighten out. I could lie flat on the floor and let her dance a hornpipe on me if she wanted to."
It was not to be expected that all the other teachers would display such remarkable tact as their principal, but her example went a long way. Moreover, she was very careful in the choice of those in whose care her girls were to be given, and often said: "Neither schools nor colleges make teachers: it is God first, and mothers afterward." And she was not far wrong, for God must put love into the human heart, and mothers must shape the character. When I see a child playing with her dollies, I can form a pretty shrewd guess of the manner of woman that child's mother is.
Frolics and pranks of all sorts were by no means unknown in the school, and often they were funny enough, but what Miss Preston did not know about those frolics was not worth knowing. Her instructions to her teachers were: "Don't see too much. Unless there is danger of flood or fire, appendicitis or pneumonia, be blind."
Many of the girls had their own ponies and carriages, and drove about the beautiful suburbs of Montcliff. If the boys chose to hop up behind a trap and drive along, too, where was the harm? The very fact that it need not be concealed made it a matter of course. Friday evenings were always ones of exceptional liberty. Callers of both sexes came, and the girls danced, had candy pulls, or any sort of impromptu fun. Once a year, usually in February, a dance was given, which was, of course, the event of the season.
During the week the girls kept early hours, and at nine-thirty the house was, as a rule, en route for the "Land o' Nod," but exceptions came to prove the rule, and nothing was more liable to cause one than the arrival of a box from home. Upon such occasions the "fire, flood, appendicitis and pneumonia" hint held good.
THE P. U. L.
"What upon earth are you doing!" exclaimed Toinette, as she opened Ruth's door, in response to the "come in" which followed her knock, and stood transfixed upon the threshold at the spectacle she beheld.
"Cleaning house, to be sure. Didn't you ever do it?"
"Well, not exactly that way," was Toinette's reply.
Ruth threw back her head and gave a merry peal of laughter.
"It is rather a novel way, I will admit, but, you see, I hate to do things just exactly as everybody else does, so I sailed right in, head over ears. To tell the truth, now I'm in, I wish it wasn't quite so deep," and Ruth cast a look strongly savoring of despair at the conglomeration surrounding her.
She was seated in the middle of the floor, and almost buried beneath the contents of every drawer and closet in the room. Not only her own, but Edith's belongings, too, had been dumped in a promiscuous heap on the floor, and such a sea of underclothing, stockings, shoes, dresses, waists, jackets, coats, hats, gloves, collars, ties, ribbons, veils, dressing-sacques, golf-capes and belts, to say nothing of the contents of both their jewel boxes, no pen can describe.
Not content with the contents, the drawers, too, had been dragged out to be dusted, and were standing on end all about her, a veritable rampart of defence.
"I shouldn't think you would know where to begin," said Toinette.
"I don't, and I think I'll leave the whole mess for Helma to tidy up in the morning," and up jumped Ruth, to give the last stroke to the disorder by overturning the tray of pins and hairpins which she had been sorting when Toinette entered.
"There, now you have done it!" exclaimed Edith, "and I can tell you one thing, you may just as well make up your mind to put my things back where you got them, 'cause I'm not going to," and she wagged her head positively.
"Oh, dear me, this is what comes of trying to be a P. U. L.," said Ruth.
"A P. U. L.?" asked Toinette. "What in the world is that?"
"That's what it is! I found it stuck up in my room when I got back from recitations to-day. I've been in such a tear of a hurry for the last few mornings that my room hasn't been quite up to the mark, I suppose, but Miss Preston never said a word, and now here's this thing stuck here."
Toinette took the sheet of paper which Ruth handed to her, and began to read:
THE PICK-UP LEAGUE
Do you wish to join the P. U. L.? Then listen to this, but don't you tell, For it's a great secret, and will be—well— We hope, as potent as "book and bell."
A P. U. L. has a place for her hat, And keeps it there; O wonder of that! Her gloves are put away in their case; Her coat hung up with a charming grace.
School-books and papers are laid away, To be quickly found on the following day. Then, ere she starts, so blithe and gay, She tarries a moment just to say:
"Wait, just a jiff, while I stop to put This blessed gown on its proper hook, And tuck this 'nightie' snugly from sight Under my pillow for to-night.
"And all these little, kinky hairs, Which, though so frail, can prove such snares, And furnish some one a chance to say: 'Your comb and brush were not cleaned to-day.'
"Hair ribbons, trinkets, scraps and bits, Papers and pencils and torn snips, Left scattered about can prove such pits! And in we tumble, and just 'catch fits.'
"And this is the reason we formed the league, And will keep its rules, you had better believe: To keep our rooms tidy, to keep things neat, So much that is 'bitter' may be turned 'sweet.'"
When she had finished reading, she sat down on the edge of the bed and laughed till she cried.
"Great, isn't it?" asked Ruth. "That's the way Miss Preston brings us up to schedule time. When I came home from the school-building this afternoon I thought I'd do wonders; and," she added, ruefully, "I guess I've done them. Good gracious, I'm so hungry from working so hard that I just can't see straight. Isn't there something eatable in the establishment?"
"If that much work reduces you to a state of starvation, what will you be when it's all done?" asked Edith. "There were some crackers on the shelf, but land knows where they are now; you've dragged every blessed thing off of it."
"There are your crackers, right under your nose," said Ruth, triumphantly, as she pointed to a box of wafers half hidden under Edith's best hat. "There's some tea in that caddy, and you can heat some water in the kettle. What more do you want?"
Edith scratched a match and held it to the little alcohol lamp under the tea-kettle, but no flame resulted.
"Every bit of alcohol is burned out. Have you any more?"
"Not a drop; used the last to get the pine-gum off my fingers after we came back from the woods last Tuesday. Here, take the cologne, that will do just as well," and forthwith the cologne was poured into the lamp, which was soon burning away right merrily. The water was heated, the tea made, and four girls sat down in the midst of the topsy-turvy room to sip tea and munch saltines.
"I came in to ask," said Toinette, "whether you girls have any secret societies in this school; have you?"
"Nary one, as I know of," answered the irrepressible Ruth. "Wish we had."
"Let's start one," said Toinette. "We had two or three at Miss Carter's; they had to be secret or none at all, and it was no end of fun. Papa wrote me that he was going to send me a box of good things before long, and when it comes let's meet that night and have a feast. He will no doubt send enough for the entire school, he always does, and I want some of the girls to have the benefit of it."
"Don't believe you will have to urge them very hard," said Edith, laughing.
"Good!" cried Ruth. "Which girls shall we ask?"
Toinette named eight girls beside themselves, saying:
"That will make an even dozen to start with. More may come later, but that is enough to begin; don't you think so?"
"Plenty. If we have too many there will be sure to be someone to let the cat out of the bag. Come on, Cicely, let's go hunt the others up," and, leaving Toinette and Edith in the orderly (?) room, off they flew.
CAPS AND CAPERS
The eight girls were quickly gathered in Ruth's and Edith's room and listening eagerly to the scheme afoot. It need not be added that it was unanimously carried, and it was only necessary to choose a name for the society.
"Let's all wear masks and caps and cut all sorts of capers. It will be just no end of fun," cried Ethel Squire, a pretty, bright girl of fifteen who was always ready for a frolic.
"Splendid!" cried Toinette, "and Ethel has given me a fine idea for a name; let's call it the C. C. C."
"C. C. C.? What under the sun does that stand for?" asked Helen Burgess, a quiet, serene little body, and a general favorite with the other girls.
"Guess," said Toinette.
"Cuffs and Collars Club," said May Foster; "mine cause me more trouble than all the rest of my toilet, so they are never far from my thoughts."
"Cake and Cackle Club," said another.
"Cheese and Cider; a delicious combination when you've acquired a taste for them!" said Marie Taylor.
"Clandestine Carnivori," was the last guess, which raised a shout.
"Good gracious! let me tell you quickly before you exhaust the dictionary," laughed Toinette; "how will the Caps and Capers Club do?"
"Hurrah!" cried Ruth, "just the very thing. We'll all wear our bath-robes and white caps and masks. I've loads of white crepe paper, which will be the very thing to make them of, so let's sit down and make them right away. Come on, girls, help clear up this mess, and then I'll find the paper. I can give the finishing touches to the closets and bureau drawers to-morrow."
All turned to with more ardor than skill, and in a very few moments the conglomeration upon the floor had vanished. How it fared with Ruth and Edith when it came time to dress has never been disclosed. However, the room restored to outward order, twelve girls set to work to fashion caps and masks, and, as the last one was completed, the dressing-bell rang and all scattered to prepare for dinner.
The evening hours at Sunny Bank were very pleasant ones, for during the winter, while days were short and nights were long, there was not much opportunity for outdoor diversion. Immediately after dinner Miss Howard, the literature teacher, would place her snug little rocking-chair before the cheerful open fire in the big hall, and the girls would gather about her; some on chairs, some on hassocks, and some curled upon the large fur rug in front of the blazing logs, while she read aloud for an hour. A fine library in Mont Cliff supplied books of every imaginable sort, and the girls were allowed to take turns in selecting them; providing, of course, their selections were wise ones. But with Miss Howard as guide they could not go far astray, and many a delightful hour was passed before the fire. Just at present the books chosen were those relating to English history, and contained good, hard facts, but, when the girls grew a little tired of such substantial diet, historical novels came handy for a relish. As England was cutting a prominent figure in the world just then, the girls were encouraged to keep in touch with the current events, and to talk freely about them. The last book read, at least the one they were just concluding, was one which brought into strong contrast the reigns of England's two greatest queens, and the subject was discussed in a lively manner.
The book was finished shortly before the hour ended, and, laying it upon her lap, Miss Howard began to ask a few leading questions in order to get the girls started. As always happens, there were some girls not wildly enthusiastic over historical subjects, and such books did not hold their attention as a modern novel filled with thrilling situations would have done. But these were the very ones whom Miss Howard most wished to reach, and, feeling sure that her chances of doing so through such methods were far greater than could be hoped for if she pinned them right down to hard, dry facts, she took infinite pains to make her readings as interesting as much research and a careful selection of books could make them.
The conversation was in full swing, and Miss Howard, in high feather over the very evident impression the book had made, was congratulating herself upon her choice of that particular volume, when one girl asked:
"Miss Howard, what particular act of Elizabeth's reign do you think had the greatest influence upon later reigns?"
"That is rather a difficult question to answer, Natala. It was such a brilliant reign and so fraught with portentous results in the future that it would be very difficult to say that this or that one act was greatest of all; although, unquestionably, the translation of the Bible was one of the greatest blessings to posterity. Who can tell me something of great interest which happened then?"
"I can!" cried Pauline Holden.
"I'm more than delighted to hear it," answered Miss Howard, for Pauline was at once her joy and her despair. Affectionate and good-natured to the last degree, she was never disturbed by anything, but I put it very mildly when I say that Pauline did not possess a brilliant mind.
"Yes," continued Pauline. "There are not many things in history that I care two straws about, but I remembered that because the names made me think of a rhyme my old nurse used to say when she put me to bed."
"Miss Howard's hopes received a slight shock, but she asked:
"Will you tell us what it is?"
"It was letting Matthew, Mark, Luke and John out," triumphantly.
"Letting whom out?" asked Miss Howard, wondering what upon earth was to follow.
"Yes, don't you remember they let them out during Elizabeth's reign?"
"Let them out of where?"
"Why, out of the Tower, to be sure, and it made such a difference in a history some man was writing just then, because they had had a lot to do with it somehow—I don't remember just what it was. Maybe one of the other girls can."
By this time all the other girls were nearly dying of suppressed laughter, and when poor Pauline turned to them so seriously it proved the last straw, and such a shout as greeted her fairly made the wall ring. It was too much for Miss Howard, and, with one last look of despair, she gave way and laughed till she cried.
When the laugh had subsided and they had recovered their breath, Miss Howard endeavored to explain to the brilliant expounder of English history that Queen Elizabeth had had more to do with keeping Matthew, Mark, Luke and John out of the Bible than in the Tower of London.
A MODERN DIOGENES
"Half-past nine. Sh! Yes, down in the old laundry."
"The whole club. No end of fun."
This whispered conversation took place in the upper corridor. Many of the girls had come from schools where frolics were looked upon as an almost heinous crime, and strict rules and surveillance had made their lives a burden to them.
It was about ten o'clock when ghostly figures began to slip through the dark halls. Lights had been extinguished at nine-thirty and all was now silent.
Miss Preston was in her room in a remote part of the house, and most of the other teachers had rooms in the adjoining building. The laundry in this house was never used, and stout blinds shut out—and in—all light.
Tap, tap, tap.
"Who's there?" was whispered from within.
"C. C. C., open for me."
The door opened, and in skipped a figure arrayed like the six already assembled, in a warm dressing-gown and a high peaked paper cap, with white tissue mask and spy-holes.
All spoke in whispers, so it was almost impossible to recognize any one. But this only added to the fun and mystery. "Spread the feast, girls; the others will soon be here. Let's see, how many are there? Seven! Why don't the other five hurry? I wonder which ones here aren't here?" one girl laughingly whispered.
"They'll come, never fear, but their rooms are nearer 'headquarters,'" said another.
"What luck! Miss Preston doesn't suspect a thing. I met her in the hall just before 'lights' bell, and she said as innocently as could be, 'You look as though you were quite ready for the "land o' dreams," Elsie, but so long as you do not take a gallop on a "night mare" all will be well,' and I could hardly help laughing when I thought how soon I might be equipped for one."
"This fudge is my contribution," said another.
"Hold on, girls! I've a brilliant idea," said Toinette. "Who's got a long hairpin? Good! that's fine. Now prepare for something delectable," and, straightening out the pin, she stuck a marsh mallow on it and held the white lump of lusciousness over the one candle until it was toasted a golden if rather smoky brown.
Tap, tap, tap.
"It's the others. Quick! let them in, for it's half-past ten already."
The signals were exchanged, and in walked not five but nine more figures.
"Oh, girls, such luck! Just as I came out of my room I ran right into Maud Hanscomb's arms, and she wouldn't let me go till I'd told her what was up and promised to let her and the other girls share our fun. She said they suspected something was up, and they were bound to share it. And such a spread! Land knows how they got it! Just look."
The tubs were now groaning under their burden of king apples, cookies, which bore a striking resemblance to those served at dinner; crackers, which had surely rested in the housekeeper's pantry, and, joy of joys, a huge tub of ice cream, to say nothing of what the original five brought.
"Now, girls, come on! Let's eat our cream and make sure of it in case of accidents," said the stout red ghost, in red cap and mask, who presided over the tub. "No time to get plates, so hand over anything you've got, and excuse the elegance of my spoon. It's cook's soup spoon, and may give the cream an oniony flavor, but that will add to the novelty," she said as she served it.
"Who is she, anyhow?" asked one girl, who sat eating cream from a soap dish.
"Haven't the least idea. One of the old girls, I dare say, but who cares when she can conjure up such delicacies?"
As midnight struck appetites and feast came to an end.
"I vote," whispered one girl, "that we all take off our masks and have a good look at each other, so we'll know who's who when we meet in public."
"It's a go," whispered several others, and off they all came.
"Let's have more light," said the donor of the cream, and reached up and touched the electric button.
"Oh! Oh! Oh! Don't! Miss Preston will catch us!" cried dismayed voices, but Miss Preston herself stood before them, a red mask in one hand and a great spoon in the other.
"This isn't the first spread I've attended," she said, "and I hope it won't be the last. I've had too good a time. I had an idea the old laundry would prove an inviting place to-night, but I never attend a feast without my tub and candle—or electric light in this twentieth century—for, like another mortal who had a fancy for tubs and a candle, I am in search of honest folk.
"Your spread was a great success, girls. Only next time let me know beforehand. I may not be able to be present in person, but I can still furnish the tub and light, and it will be a comfort to me to know the menu in order to guard against future ills. Good-night. I'm ready for my bed, and I shouldn't wonder if you were, too," and, with a flourish of her red cap and big spoon, Miss Preston slipped through the door.
Some very wise ghosts sped away through the dark corridors, and whispered conversations were held far into the "wee, sma' hours."
The next day the story was all over the school, and met with various comments. One of Miss Preston's combined torments and blessings was the teacher of chemistry, a thoroughly conscientious woman, and exceptionally capable, but a woman who took life very seriously. Miss Preston used to say that Mrs. Stone must have been forty years old when she was born, and consequently had missed all her child and girlhood. She was kind and just to the girls, but could not for the life of her understand why they must have fun, and that fun in secret was twice the fun that everybody knew about.
Well Miss Preston knew that Mrs. Stone would take advantage of her privilege as an old friend, as well as one of the oldest teachers, and come in her solemn way to discuss the latest escapade, pro and con, so she was not in the least surprised when there came a light tap upon her door that afternoon, and Mrs. Stone entered. "'Save me from my friends,'" quoted Miss Preston, under her breath.
"THEY COULD NEVER DECEIVE ME"
"Well, Mrs. Stone, what can I do for you, and why such a serious expression?"
"My dear Marion," said Mrs. Stone, using Miss Preston's Christian name, as she sometimes did when more than usually solicitous of her welfare, "I've come to have a little talk with you regarding what happened last night, and I'm sure you will not take it amiss from one who has known you since your childhood."
"Do I often take it amiss?" asked Miss Preston, with an odd smile.
"Indeed, no; you are most considerate of my feelings, and I fully appreciate it, considering our business relations. Of course, I have not the slightest right to dictate to you, nor would I care to have you regard it in the light of dictation. It is only my extreme interest in your welfare that prompts me to speak at all."
"And is my welfare in serious peril now?" asked Miss Preston, half laughing as she recalled the previous evening's prank and her own very thorough enjoyment of the fun.
"No, my dear, not in peril, but I fear that you will never grow to look upon your position in the world with sufficient seriousness, for, I assure you, your responsibility is enormous."
"Would I could forget that mighty fact for one little fleeting moment," thought Miss Preston, but, aloud, she asked:
"And do you think that I am not fully conscious of it, Mrs. Stone?"
"Oh, most conscious! most conscious! You could not be more conscientious, I am sure, but you sometimes let a misdemeanor, such as occurred last night, go unpunished, and it establishes an unfortunate precedent, I fear."
"Did you ever know me to punish any girl placed in my charge?" asked Miss Preston, a slight flush creeping over her face.
"Certainly not! Certainly not!" cried Mrs. Stone, hastily, for she had touched upon a point which she knew to be a very sensitive one with her principal, and wished to smooth matters down a trifle. "I do not mean punishment in the generally accepted term, but do you think it wholly wise to let the girls feel that they can do such things and, in a measure, find them condoned?"
"Do you think that forbidding them would put an end to them?"
"Merely forbidding might not do so, but exacting some penalty for such disobedience would probably make them think twice before they disobeyed again."
"Did they disobey this time?" Miss Preston asked quietly.
Mrs. Stone looked a trifle disconcerted as she answered:
"Possibly it was not direct disobedience, but it certainly savored of deceit."
"I should be glad to have you ask any girl who has become a member of that comical C. C. C. if she thinks she has been guilty of deceit, and I'll venture to say that she will look you squarely in the eyes and say: 'Deceit! How could that fun be deceitful?'"
"Do you not think that it may lead to other undesirable lines of conduct?"
"It may lead to other sorts of innocent fun," was the dry remark. "Mrs. Stone, were you ever young? Surely, you have not forgotten what the world looked like then. Wasn't it invariably the thing you were least expected to do that it gave you the most satisfaction to do? Listen to me one moment, for, while I appreciate your sincere interest in my work and myself, I cannot allow you to run off with the idea that I regard my girls as prone to deceitful actions. It is just fun, pure and simple, and the natural result of happy, healthy girlhood. Far better let it have a safe vent than try to suppress it, and take very strong chances of directing it into less desirable channels. At the worst, a deranged stomach can follow, and a glass of bi-carbonate of soda-water is a simple remedy, if not an over-delightful one. I knew all about the feast several days ago, and took my own way of letting the girls know that I'd found it out. It was no use to forbid it for that night, for, just as sure as fate, they would have planned it for another, and devoured a lot of stuff far less wholesome than the contents of Toinette's box and my tub. As it was, we all had a good time, and I'll warrant you that the next time the C. C. C.'s meet I'll get a hint regarding the tub, at any rate."
"Perhaps it will prove so. I trust so, at all events. You are a far wiser woman than I am."
"Perhaps no wiser, but better able to recall the things which helped to make my girlhood a sunny one, and school frolics played no small part in them."
"I can but hope that the girls will refrain from practicing deceit. Of course, they cannot deceive me; no girl has ever yet succeeded in doing so, although many have tried to. But I can invariably detect the sham, and meet it successfully."
"I hope you may never find yourself undone," said Miss Preston, with a laugh. "Girls are pretty quick-witted creatures."
Girls are not blind to their elders' weaknesses and pet delusions, and it was an understood thing among them all that Mrs. Stone was easily "taken in," to use their own expression. Consequently, they told her things, and laid innocent little traps for her to walk into, such as they would never have thought of doing for a more wide-awake teacher, or, at least, one who did not make such a strong point of her power of discernment.
It was the very night after the Caps and Capers escapade that the girls were gathered in the upper hall talking about the previous night's fun.
"It's no use talking; you can't get ahead of Miss Preston," said one of the older girls. "You may think you have, and feel aglow clear down to the cockles of your heart, then—whew! in she walks upon you as cool as—"
"Ice cream!" burst in another girl. "To my dying day, girls, I shall never forget that red ghost."
"How did she ever find it out, I'd like to know," asked Toinette. "Not a soul said a word, and my box didn't come till the very last minute. I hardly had time to let the girls know, and how Miss Preston ever got her tub of cream in time is more than I can puzzle out. Maybe Mrs. Stores had it on hand."
"Mrs. Stores! Yes, I guess so," cried the girls, scornfully. "You don't for one moment suppose that she would let us have a whole tub of ice cream, do you? Not much," said Lou Perry.
"Why, if Miss Preston wanted it it would be different, you see," answered Toinette.
"No, it wouldn't, either. Miss Preston never bothers with the housekeeping or the housekeeper, although she is always just as lovely to her as she can be—she is to everybody, for that matter."
"For my part, I'm glad she found it out," laughed Cicely, "but if I'd suspected beforehand that she would, wild horses wouldn't have dragged me into that laundry. It's pretty easy not to be afraid of such a teacher; she seems just like one of us. Wasn't she too funny with that big spoon and the red mask?"
"Are all the other teachers so quick to 'catch on?'" asked Toinette.
"Most of them are sharp as two sticks," replied Ethel, "but they never let on. There is only one who makes the boast that she has never been deceived by any girl, and we've all been just wild to play her some trick, only we've never yet hit upon a really good one."
"You ought to get Toinette to do the scene from 'Somnambula,'" said Cicely, laughing.
"What is it? What is it? What is it?" cried a half-dozen voices.
"The funniest thing you ever saw in all your born days," said Cicely.
"Oh, tell us about it; please, do," begged the girls.
"Let her do it for you; it will be ten times funnier than telling it."
"When will you do it?"
"To-night, if I can manage it; it will be a good time after last night's cut-up."
When the bell for retiring rang at half-past nine that night, it produced a most remarkable effect, for, instead of suggesting snug beds and dream-land, it seemed instantly to banish any desire for sleep which the previous study hour from eight to nine had aroused in several of the girls.
They all went to their rooms, to be sure, but once within them a startling change took place. Instead of undressing like wise young people, they slipped off their dresses, and put on their night-dresses over the rest of their clothing, then all crawled into bed to await the first act of "La Somnambula."
They had barely gotten settled when footsteps were heard coming softly down the corridor, as though the feet taking the steps were encased in wool slippers, and the owner of those feet wished to avoid being heard. A few steps were taken, then a pause made to listen, then on went the cat-like tread from door to door.
Toinette's and Cicely's rooms communicated, and just beyond, with another communicating door, was the room occupied by Ruth and Edith, but the door was always fastened. Perhaps Miss Preston considered three communicating rooms altogether too convivial, and decided that "an ounce of prevention was always worth a pound of cure."
As the stealthy footfalls passed on down the hall, a light tap fell upon Toinette's door, and, springing out of bed, she flew to give a corresponding tap, and listen for what might follow.
"Sh-h!" came in a whisper from the other side.
"Yes," was the low reply.
"Did you hear the 'Princess' walk down the hall?" The Princess was the big Maltese house cat, and a privileged character.
"A pretty big cat," was whispered back.
"That was Mother Stone, and she was just as anxious to avoid being heard by Miss Preston as she was anxious to hear what might be going on in our rooms. If Miss Preston caught her listening at anybody's door, she would be angrier than if we sat up all night."
"What does she think we're up to, anyway?" whispered Toinette.
"No telling, but she knows we had a frolic last night and is on the lookout for another to-night, I guess."
"Maybe she won't look in vain," laughed Toinette, softly.
Twelve o'clock had just been struck by the tall clock in the lower hall, when a white figure walked slowly down the corridor. Her hair fell in long, waving ringlets far below her waist, her pretty white hands were outstretched in front of her, and the great eyes, wide open, stared straight before her with a strange, unseeing stare. As she walked along she whispered softly to herself, but the words were hardly audible. On she went, through the long corridor, down the little side hall, which led to the pantry below, still muttering in that uncanny manner.
It had long been a standing joke in the school that Mrs. Stone slept like a cat, with one eye open and one ear alert for every sound, for she was continually hearing burglars, or marauders of some sort or other. So it is not surprising that before that ghost had gone very far another white figure popped its head out into the hall and uttered a smothered exclamation at sight of number one.
"Dear me! dear me!" she murmured, "my suspicions were not amiss. Poor, dear Marion, is so very self-confident. I was sure the last night's folly would lead to something else. Such is invariably the case," and she followed rapidly after the figure which was just vanishing around the turn in the lower hall.
"Those children are certainly planning another supper, and, what is far worse, are adding to the discredit of such an act by resorting to dishonest means of procuring the wherewithal for it. Oh, it is shocking, shocking! And yet Marion cannot be convinced that her girls are capable of deceit. Poor child, poor child, it is fortunate for her that there is someone at hand to come to her rescue at such a crisis," and Mrs. Stone reached the bottom of the stairs just as the evil-intentioned ghost slipped into the housekeeper's pantry.
"Really, I must be quite sure before I speak, or I may bring about still greater trouble. But what can she want here at this hour of the night if it be not some of Mrs. Store's provisions?" and she wrung her hands in despair.
A dim light burned in the lower hall, rendering everything there plainly visible from above; and if Mrs. Stone had not been so distressed by that which was before her, she might have been aware of certain happenings just above her. Why did not some good fairy whisper in her ear just at that moment: "An' had you one eye behind you, you might see more detraction at your heels than fortune before you," but there were apparently none out of Dream Land.
As her foot touched the lower step, five or six heads peered over the banister railing above, and what mystery of gravitation prevented as many bodies from toppling over after them I am unable to say.
"Do look! Do look! She is after her full tilt, girls," whispered Cicely. "Didn't I tell you it would be the funniest thing you ever saw?"
"Sh! She'll hear us, and the whole thing will be spoilt," said Ethel.
"No, indeed, she won't," answered Ruth, "she is too intent upon catching Toinette."
"O, why can't I stretch my neck out a yard or two so that I may see what is going on in that pantry? Come on girls, I'm going downstairs if I die for it," and down crept Lou, followed by all the others, for there was no lack of bedroom slippers at Sunny Bank.
Meantime Toinette had entered the store-room, and, going straight to the corner where some smoked hams and bacon were hanging, took a monstrous ham from its hook, then, muttering, "Crackers, too, crackers, too," opened the cracker box and drew forth a handful.
Mrs. Stone was thoroughly scandalized, but, just as she was about to speak, Toinette turned full upon her and said:
"Yes, I will have some mustard, and a beefsteak, and baked beans, please. Mrs. Stores had some on the table to-night."
By this time Mrs. Stone began to realize that the girl was not accountable for her actions, for never was there a better bit of acting for an amateur. Yet she dared not wake her, for stories of the serious harm which had befallen somnambulists, when wakened suddenly in unfamiliar surroundings, flashed through her brain, and she was nearly beside herself with anxiety.
"What shall I do? what shall I do?" she said aloud in great distress; and, as though in answer to her question, Toinette answered:
"Go, tell Mrs. Stone that she isn't up to snuff as much as she thinks she is."
This was too much, and, laying her hand gently on Toinette's arm, she said, softly:
"My dear child, hadn't you better come back upstairs with me?"
Without changing her expression, Toinette replied:
"How oats, peas, beans and barley grow, nor you, nor I, nor Mrs. Stone knows," and began to dance around in a circle with her ham tightly clasped in one arm, and the crackers scattering from one end of the pantry to the other.
Now thoroughly alarmed, and almost in tears, Mrs. Stone said:
"Oh, my dear, dear little girl, won't you come back to your room with me?" and, grasping hold of Toinette's arm, endeavored to lead her from the pantry.
But my lady was having altogether too good a time to end her frolic so soon, while the audience upon the stairs were nearly dying from their efforts not to scream. So, without changing that dreadful stare which she had maintained throughout her performance, she said, as though repeating Mrs. Stone's own words:
"Come back—come back—come back, my Bonny, to me," and turned to leave the pantry. She had barely gotten outside the door, however, when she paused, and, muttering something about lemons and pickles, slipped away from Mrs. Stone's grasp and disappeared within the pantry again.
Trembling with excitement, Mrs. Stone stood for one instant, and then saying, "Miss Preston must be called, Miss Preston must be called," turned and literally flew up the stairs, for once too lost to everything but the matter in hand to be aware of anything else, which was certainly fortunate for the white-robed figures, which nearly fell over each other in their scramble to escape.
"HAVE YOU NOT BEEN DECEIVED THIS TIME?"
When Miss Preston arrived upon the scene Toinette was serenely making her way upstairs, her burdens still in her arms, but supplemented by several lemons and a bottle of pickles. She took no notice whatever of the new arrival, but walked straight to her own room, and, placing her treasures upon her bed, covered them carefully with her bedclothes. At this covert act poor Mrs. Stone gasped despairingly, and, grasping Miss Preston's arm, said, in a most tragic whisper: "Marion, Marion, what did I tell you?"
But "Marion" was very much alive to the situation, and, had not a slight quiver about Toinette's mouth while Mrs. Stone was speaking confirmed her suspicions, some very audible giggles from the rooms close at hand would have done so.
Having tucked her ham snugly to bed, Toinette proceeded to tuck herself there, and, with a sigh as innocent as a tired infant's, she closed those staring eyes and slipped off to the land of dreams.
"Well, I think the first act is ended," said Miss Preston, with the funniest of smiles, "and we shall not have the second to-night, at any rate. But this one was certainly performed by a star," and, stepping to Toinette's bedside, she quietly drew from beneath the covers the "dry stores" there sequestered, placed them upon the table, and then smoothed the clothes carefully about her.
Mrs. Stone began to gather up the articles Miss Preston laid upon the table, and, consequently, did not see her slyly pinch the rosy cheek resting upon the pillow nor the flash of intelligence which two big brown eyes sent back.
They then left Toinette to her slumbers (?), and, after carrying the pilfered articles back to the housekeeper's pantry, returned to Miss Preston's room, where Mrs. Stone dropped into the first chair that came handy. She was as near a nervous collapse as she well could be, and came very close to losing her temper when Miss Preston seated herself upon her couch, clasped her hands before her, and laughed as poor Mrs. Stone had never known her to laugh before.
"Why, Marion! Marion!" she cried. "Have you taken leave of your senses?"
It was some seconds before Miss Preston could control her voice enough to reply, and, when she did, it proved the very last straw to complete Mrs. Stone's discomfiture, for her words were:
"Mehitable Stone, had anyone told me that I was sheltering beneath my roof-tree such a consummate actress, I should have been the most surprised woman in Montcliff. Upon my word I never saw anything better done."
"Acting!" exclaimed Mrs. Stone, aghast. "You do not for one moment imagine that poor child was acting? Impossible! Why, she was as sound asleep as she ever was in all her life, and there was not the least sign that she was conscious of my touch when I took hold of her arm to lead her from the pantry. Do you suppose it would have been possible for her to dissemble to that extent? Never!"
Miss Preston did not answer, but laughed softly again.
It was too much for Mrs. Stone; rising suddenly to her feet, she said, with asperity: "It is useless for us to discuss the matter further to-night, nay, this morning," looking at the tiny clock ticking away upon Miss Preston's desk, "but I trust that in broad daylight you may see more clearly. For my part, nothing will ever convince me that that child was deceiving me; my knowledge of girls is too perfect. It was a most pronounced case of somnambulism, the outcome of last night's injudicious eating, and, in my opinion, a very alarming condition, as one can never tell to what it may lead. Her digestion may be seriously impaired. It is quite unsafe to leave her alone to-night, for she may be seized with another attack at any moment. I shall spend the remainder of the night upon the couch in her room," and away she went to take up her sentinel duty.
"It is quite unnecessary," called Miss Preston after the retreating figure, but no heed was given to the words, and when Toinette waked in the morning what was her surprise to find Mrs. Stone bending over her asking, in the most solicitous of voices, if she were feeling quite well.
For a moment Toinette was unable to take in the situation, but her wits got into working order pretty quickly, and only her quivering lips would have betrayed her to a more discerning person. Mrs. Stone, however, saw nothing but an inclination to weep, and, stooping over Toinette, said, soothingly: "There, there, dear, don't hurry to rise, you are a little nervous this morning and ought to rest."
But Toinette was at the breakfast table as promptly as anyone, and as she took her seat she gave a quick glance toward Miss Preston; but that astute woman was pouring cream into her coffee-cup. An hour later, when all were scurrying about getting ready for the walk to the schoolhouse, which was situated several blocks from the home house and its adjacent cottages, Toinette came face to face with Miss Preston in one of the upper halls. Both stopped short, looked each other squarely in the eyes, and said nothing. Then Miss Preston's eyes began to smile, and her mouth followed their example, and, placing one finger under Toinette's chin, she said:
"I am forced to admit that it was one of the funniest things I've ever seen, and extremely well done, but it scared Mrs. Stone nearly to death; so, please, don't favor us with the second act."
And that was the only allusion ever made by Miss Preston to the midnight ramble, nor was it ever repeated for Mrs. Stone's benefit, although nothing could ever have persuaded the good lady that she had been the victim of a hoax that night.
It would have been difficult to find a more consummate teacher than Miss Preston, or one who, without their ever suspecting it, could so bring her girls up to the mark. It was a rare exception when she failed to accomplish her aim, and her tact was truly wonderful. There was rarely a harsh word spoken, although Miss Preston could speak sharply enough when occasion required. But she seldom felt that it did. She had most unique methods, and they proved wonderfully successful. Then, too, some very old-fashioned ideas were firmly imbedded in her mind, which in the present day and age are often forgotten. That bad spelling is a disgrace to any girl was one of these, and most nobly did she labor to make such a disgrace impossible for any of her girls.
Knowing how cordially human nature detests doing the very thing best for it, she never had regular spelling lessons in the school, but twice a week every girl in it, big and little alike, gathered in the large assembly room to choose sides and spell each other down. So irresistibly funny were these spelling matches, and so admirably did they display Miss Preston's peculiar power over the girls, and their response to her wonderful magnetism, that I think they deserve a chapter to themselves.
ENGLISH AS SHE IS SPELLED
The last half hour before recess on Wednesdays and Fridays was the time set aside for the spelling matches. On Wednesday the words were chosen at random, sometimes from history, sometimes from geography, again from something which the classes had been reading; but Friday's words were invariably a surprise.
One morning, immediately after the opening exercises were concluded, Miss Preston rang her bell, and, when the girls were all attention, said:
"It will be well for those girls who are to lead the opposing sides of the spelling match to-day to choose with exceptional acumen—Annabel, spell that word!" So suddenly had the command been sprung upon her that, whatever knowledge poor Annabel might have possessed five seconds before, promptly flew straight out of her head, and she answered:
"Sorry I haven't time to pass it on just now, but I'll reserve that honor. As I was saying, the heads had best keep their wits wide-awake, for I'm going to choose the words from a highly scientific and instructive volume to-day. It is called "How to Feed Children," and in this you will observe that I have a double object in view: to teach you which words, as well as the sort of food, to be digested. Wholesome instruction, my dears; and now to work, every woman Jill of you."
At ten-thirty all were again assembled in the big room, and a lively choosing of sides ensued. It was not by any means invariably the older girls who could spell best, for often some of the younger ones led them a fine race.
Taking up the brilliantly bound little book, Miss Preston said:
"Now, my friends, I hope you will look upon the cover of this book as a brilliant and rosy example of what I expect, and, I beg of you, do not disappoint me," holding up the bright red book for the inspection of all. "Do not become excited, but learn to take a 'philosophical' view of it." Miss Preston paused, and so well did the girls understand her original way of doing things that "philosophical" was at once essayed. The first attempt resulted in "philosopical."
"A little too suggestive of milk-toast, I'm afraid, Marion. We must have our philosophy upon a sound basis. Next."
Several words passed successfully down the line until "course" was given, and when that was spelled "cource" Miss Preston's face was a study.
"That which we are most inclined to accept as a matter of course we may be sure will prove a matter of mortification to us. Katherine, you are given to poetic flights. Who was it that said: 'The course of true love never did run smooth?' He would have had an opportunity to learn that there were also other courses which did not run smoothly had he followed—'pedagogy.'"
This proved a stumbling-block for the first girl, but the next one spelled it correctly.
"You see, Alma, that even the road thereto has its pitfalls, so take warning."
"Catch me ever teaching," was the half-audible reply, but softly as it was spoken sharp ears caught it.
"Posterity will be grateful for the blessings in store for it, 'undoubtedly.'"
The word fell to a little girl, but was rattled off as quick as a wink, to Miss Preston's great amusement, for the child was an ambitious little body who hated to be outdone by the big girls.
"Desirability" was the next word, and was given to one of the largest, although by no means the most brilliant, girls in the school.
She hesitated a moment, and then said: "If desire is spelled d-e-s-i-r-e, I suppose the other end of it will be a-b-i-l-i-t-y."
"A quality in which you are lacking," was the instantaneous retort. "If you desired it more, your ability would be greater."
When desirability had been successfully dealt with, ten or more words were happily disposed of, then came another poser in the form of 'physiognomical,' and the groans which greeted it foretold its fate.
"What does it mean, anyway, Miss Preston?" asked one girl.
"Well, there is more than one way of telling you its meaning, but I believe in simple explanations, so I will say, that when you all rush off to the cloak-room at one o'clock that it would be well for you to observe carefully the expression upon the other girl's face when you throw down her hat and coat in your eagerness to get your own first. You will then, doubtless, have an excellent opportunity to form a correct idea of the meaning of physiognomical. Then you may come and tell me whether you consider her character an angelic or impish one."
How well Miss Preston was aware of their besetting sins, and how shrewdly did she use them to their undoing.
I should never dare tell the wonderful combinations of letters which were brought together ere that dreadful word was spelled correctly; but such a rapid sitting down followed that a stranger coming suddenly upon them might have supposed that Miss Preston's girls were fainting one after another.
About fifty words, all told, were spelled with more or less success, and then came the grand summing up, and those girls who could not yield a clean record from beginning to end had to pay the penalty.