THE JOLLIEST SCHOOL OF ALL
Author of "The Luckiest Girl in the School," "The Princess of the School," "A Popular School Girl," "Schoolgirl Kitty," "Marjorie's Best Year," etc.
A. L. Burt Company Publishers New York Published by arrangement with Frederick A. Stokes Co. Printed in U. S. A. Copyright, 1922, by Frederick A. Stokes Company All Rights Reserved
THE MANY CHARMING AMERICAN GIRLS WHOM I HAVE MET
THOSE UNKNOWN SCHOOLGIRLS OVER THE ATLANTIC TO WHOM THIS LITTLE BOOK CARRIES MY HEARTIEST GREETINGS
I. Off to Italy 1 II. The Villa Camellia 16 III. Hail, Columbia! 27 IV. A Secret Sorority 41 V. Fairy Godmothers, Limited 52 VI. Among the Olive Groves 66 VII. Lorna's Enemy 81 VIII. At Pompeii 93 IX. Reprisals 113 X. The School Carnival 126 XI. Up Vesuvius 141 XII. Tar and Feathers 156 XIII. Peachy's Pranks 174 XIV. The Villa Bleue 190 XV. Peachy's Birthday 213 XVI. Concerning Juniors 230 XVII. The Anglo-Saxon League 243 XVIII. Greek Temples 257 XIX. In Capri 272 XX. The Cameron Clan 287 XXI. The Blue Grotto 303
THE JOLLIEST SCHOOL OF ALL
Off to Italy
In a top-story bedroom in an old-fashioned house in a northern suburb of London, a girl of fourteen was kneeling on the floor, turning out the contents of the bottom cupboards of a big bookcase. Her method of doing so was hardly tidy; she just tossed the miscellaneous assortment of articles down anywhere, till presently she was surrounded by a mixed-up jumble of books, papers, paint-boxes, music, chalks, pencils, foreign stamps, picture post-cards, crests, balls of knitting wool, skeins of embroidery silk, and odds and ends of all kinds. She groaned as the circle grew wider, yet the apparently inexhaustible cupboards were still uncleared.
"Couldn't have ever believed I'd have stowed so many things away here. And, of course, the one book I want isn't to be found. That's what always happens. It's just my bad luck. Hello! Who's calling 'Renie'? I'm here! Here! In my bedroom! Don't yell the house down. Really, Vin, you've got a voice like a megaphone! You might think I was on the top of the roof. What d'you want now? I'm busy!"
"So it seems," commented the fair-haired boy of seventeen, sauntering into his sister's room and taking a somewhat insecure seat upon a fancy table, where, with hands in pockets, he regarded her quizzically. "Great Scott, what a turn out! You look like a magician in the midst of a magic circle. Are you going to witch the lot into newts and toads? Whence this thusness? You won't persuade me that it's a fit of neatness and you're actually tidying. Doesn't exactly seem you, somehow!"
"Hardly," replied Irene, with her head inside a cupboard. "Fact is, I'm looking for my history book. I can't think where the wretched thing has gone to. School begins to-morrow, and I haven't touched my holiday tasks yet; and what Miss Gordon will say if I come without those exercises I can't imagine. I'm sure I flung all my books into this cupboard, and, of course, here's the chemistry, which I don't want, but never so much as a single leaf of the history. Don't grin! You aggravate me. I believe you've taken it away to tease me. Have you? Confess now! It's in your pocket all the time?"
Irene looked eagerly at the bulging outline of her brother's coat, but her newly formed hopes were doomed to disappointment.
"Never seen it! What should I want with your old history book? I've finished for good with such vanities, thank the Fates!"
"Don't rub it in. It's a beastly shame you should be allowed to leave school while I must go slaving on at Miss Gordon's. Ugh! How I hate the place! The idea of going back there to-morrow! It's simply appalling. A whole term of dreary grind, and only a fortnight's holiday at the end of it. Miss Gordon gives the stingiest holidays. If my fairy godmother could appear and grant me a wish I should choose never, never, never to see St. Osmund's College in all my life again. I'd ask her to wave her magic wand and transport me over the sea."
Irene spoke hotly, flinging books about with scant regard for their covers. Her slim hands were dusty, and her short, yellow hair as ruffled as her temper. There was even a suspicion of moisture about the corners of her gray eyes. She rubbed them surreptitiously with a ball of a handkerchief when her head happened to be inside the cupboard. She did not wish Vincent to witness this phase of her emotions.
"Every girl ought to be provided with a decent fairy godmother," she gulped. "If mine did her duty she'd come to rescue me now. Yes, she would, and be quick about it too!"
How very seldom in the course of an ordinary life such wishes are granted! Not once surely in a million times! Yet at that identical moment, almost as if in direct answer to her daughter's vigorous tirade, Mrs. Beverley entered the room. There was a sparkle of excitement in her eyes, and her whole atmosphere seemed to radiate news. She ran in as joyously as a girl, clapping her hands and evidently brimming over with something she was about to communicate.
"Why, Mums! Mums—darling! What's the matter?" asked Irene. "You look as if you'd had a fortune left you. Tell us at once."
"Not quite a fortune, but next best to it," said Mrs. Beverley, sitting down on the end of the sofa. "Daddy says I may tell you now, bairns. It has all happened so suddenly, and has been arranged in a rush. You remember Dad mentioning a few weeks ago that Mr. Southern, the firm's representative in Naples, was very ill? Well, Mr. Fenton has decided to send Dad to Italy to take his place, for a year at any rate, and perhaps longer. We're to start in a fortnight."
Such a stupendous announcement required a little realizing. Vincent removed his hands from his pockets.
"You don't mean to say we're all going?" he inquired. "Jemima! Leaving London fogs and toddling off to Italy? Materkins, you take my breath away! How's the whole business to be fixed up so soon?"
"Quite easily. We shall let this house, just as it is, to Mr. Atherton, who will come from the Norfolk branch to fill Father's post in London. We are to rent Mr. Southern's flat in Naples, while he takes a voyage round the world to try to regain his health. Dad means to put you into his office in Naples, Vin. Don't look so aghast! It's high time you started, and it will be a splendid opening for you. And as for Renie—of course she's too young to leave school yet——"
"Mums! Mums!" interrupted an agonized voice, as Irene took a flying leap over her circle of books and, plumping herself on the sofa, clutched tightly at her mother's sleeve. "You're not going to leave me behind at Miss Gordon's? You couldn't! Oh, I'd die! Mums darling, please! If the family's going to jaunt abroad I've got to jaunt too! Say yes, quick, quick!"
"What a little tempest you are! Cheer up! We'd never any intention of deserting you. We'll stick together for a while at any rate, though when we arrive in Naples you'll be packed off to a boarding-school, Madam, so I give you fair warning."
"An Italian school?"
Irene's gray eyes were round with horror.
"No, an Anglo-American school for English-speaking girls. Do you remember that charming Mr. Proctor who stayed with us last year on his way from New York to Naples? His daughter is at this school, and he strongly recommended it. It seems just exactly the place for you, Renie. It will solve a great problem if we can educate you out there. It would have complicated matters very much if we had been obliged to leave you in England. As it is you'll be quite near to Naples, and can come home for all your holidays."
"Hooray! Then I'm not to go to Miss Gordon's again?"
"As we start in a fortnight it's not worth while your beginning a fresh term at St. Osmund's."
"Then I needn't bother to find the hateful old history book. I'm so glad I didn't do those wretched holiday tasks—they'd just have been sheer waste. Mums, I'm so excited! May I begin and pack for Italy now? I can't wait."
For the next two weeks great confusion reigned in the Beverley household. It is no light matter to decide what you need to take abroad, what you wish to lock up at home, and to leave your establishment in apple-pie order for the use of strangers. Inventories of furniture, linen, blankets, and china had to be written and checked, a rigorous selection made of the things to be packed, and the luggage cut down to the limits prescribed by the railway companies. Poor Mrs. Beverley was nearly worn out when at last the overflowing boxes were fastened, the bags and hold-alls were strapped, and the taxis, which were to take them to the station, arrived at the door. Tears stood in her eyes as she crossed the threshold of her own house.
"It's a tremendous wrench!" she fluttered.
"Never mind, Mums!" consoled Irene, linking her arm in her mother's. "It's an adventure, and we all want to go. You'll love it when we're once off. No, don't look back: it's unlucky! Your bag's in the cab; I saw Jessie put it in. Hooray for Italy, say I, and a good riddance to smoky old London! In another couple of days we shall be down south and turning into Romeos and Juliets as fast as we can. You'll see Dad learning a guitar and strumming it under your balcony, and serenading you no end."
"Hardly at his time of life!" said Mrs. Beverley; but the joke amused her, she wiped her eyes, and, as Irene had hoped and intended, stepped smiling into the waiting taxi, and left her old home with laughter instead of with tears.
In her fourteen years of experience Irene had traveled very little, so the migration to Italy was a fairy journey so far as she was concerned. To catch the boat express they had made an early start, and they breakfasted in the train between London and Dover. It was fun to sit in comfortable padded armchairs, eating fish or ham and eggs, and watching the landscape whirling past; fun to see the deft-handed waiters nipping about with trays or teacups; and fun to observe the occupants of the other tables in the car. There was a fat, good-natured Frenchman who amused Irene, a languid English lady who annoyed her, an elderly gourmand who excited her disgust, and a neighboring party, one member of which at least aroused her interest and caused her to cast cautious side glances in the direction of the next table. This center of attraction was a small girl about eight or nine years of age, a dainty elfin little person with bewitching blue eyes and a mop of short, flaxen curls. She was evidently well used to traveling, for she would lift a tiny finger to summon the waiter, and gave him her orders with all the savoir-faire of an experienced diner-out. Perhaps her clear-toned treble voice was a trifle too high-pitched for the occasion, and would have been better had it been duly modulated, but her parents seemed proud of her conversational powers and allowed her to talk for the benefit of anybody within ear-shot. That she excited comment was manifest, for many looks were turned to her corner. The criticisms on her were complimentary or the reverse. "Isn't she perfectly sweet?" gushed a young lady at Irene's left. "Sweet? She ought to be in the nursery instead of showing off here!" came a tart voice in reply, from some one whose face was invisible but whose back and shoulders expressed an attitude of strong disapproval. "Hope we shan't be boxed up with her in the same carriage to Paris! I vote we give her a wide berth at Calais."
Irene laughed softly. The little flaxen-haired girl attracted her; she felt she would have gravitated towards her compartment rather than have avoided her. But traveling companions were evidently more a matter of chance than choice, for the crowd that turned out of the train at Dover became mixed and mingled like the colored bits of glass in a kaleidoscope. Irene realized that for the moment the one supreme and breathless object in life was to cling to the rest of her family, and not to get separated from them or lost, as they pushed through narrow barriers, showed tickets and passports, traversed gangways, and finally found themselves on board the Channel steamer bound for France. Father, who had made the crossing many times, scrambled instantly for deck-chairs, and installed his party comfortably in the lee of a funnel, where they would be sheltered from the wind. Mrs. Beverley, who had inspected the ladies' saloon below, sank on her seat, and tucked a rug round her knees with a sigh of relief.
"It will be the 'Black Hole of Calcutta' downstairs," she remarked. "I'd rather stay on deck however cold it is. The mother of the wee yellow-haired lassie is lying down already, evidently prepared to be ill. The stewardess says we shall have a choppy passage. She earns her tips, poor woman! Thanks, Vincent! Yes, I'd like the air-cushion, please, and that plaid out of the hold-all. No, I won't have a biscuit now; I prefer to wait till we get on terra firma again."
Irene, sitting warmly wrapped up on her deck-chair, watched the white cliffs of Dover recede from her gaze as the vessel left the port and steamed out into the Channel. It was the last of "Old England," and she knew that much time must elapse before she would see the shores of her birthplace again. What would greet her in the foreign country to which she was going? New sights, new sounds, new interests—perhaps new friends? The thought of it all was an exhilaration. Others might seem sad at a break with former associations, but as for herself she was starting a fresh life, and she meant to get every scrap of enjoyment out of it that was practically possible.
The stewardess had prophesied correctly when she described the voyage as "choppy." The steamer certainly pitched and tossed in a most uncomfortable fashion, and it was only owing to the comparative steadiness of her seat amidships that Irene escaped that most wretched of complaints, mal de mer. She sat very still, with rather white cheeks, and refused Vincent's offers of biscuits and chocolates: her sole salvation, indeed, was not to look at the heaving sea, but to keep her eyes fixed upon the magazine which she made a pretense of reading. Fortunately the Dover-Calais crossing is short, and, before Neptune had claimed her as one of his victims, they were once more in smooth waters and steaming into harbor.
Then again the kaleidoscope turned, and the crowd of passengers remingled and walked over gangways, and along platforms and up steep steps, and jostled through the Customs, and said "Rien a declarer" to the officials, who peeped inside their bags to find tea or tobacco, and had their luggage duly chalked, and showed their passports once more, and finally, after a bewildering half-hour of bustle and hustle, found themselves, with all their belongings intact, safely in the train for Paris. Irene had caught brief glimpses of the child whom she named "Little Flaxen," whose mother, in a state of collapse, had been almost carried off the vessel, but revived when she was on dry land again: a maid was in close attendance, and two porters were stowing their piles of hand-luggage inside a specially reserved compartment. "The cross lady won't be boxed up with them at any rate," said Irene. "I saw her get in lower down the train."
It was dark when they arrived in Paris, so Irene had only a confused impression of an immense railway station, of porters in blue blouses, of a babel of noise and shouting in a foreign language which seemed quite different from the French she had learned at school, of clinging very closely to Father's arm, of a drive through lighted streets, of a hotel where dinner was served in a salon surrounded by big mirrors, then bed, which seemed the best thing in the world, for she was almost too weary to keep her eyes open.
"If every day is going to be like this we shall be tired out by the time we reach Naples," she thought, as she sank down on her pillow. "Traveling is the limit."
Eleven hours of sleep, however, made a vast difference in her attitude towards their long journey. When she came downstairs next morning she was all eagerness to see Paris.
"We have the whole day here," said Mrs. Beverley, "so we may as well get as much out of it as we can. Daddy has business appointments to keep, but you and I and Vin, Renie, will take a taxi and have a look at some of the sights, won't we?"
"Rather!" agreed the young people, hurrying over their coffee and rolls.
"I wouldn't miss Paris for worlds," added Vincent; "only don't spend the whole time inside shops, Mater. That's all this fellow bargains for."
"We'll compromise and make it half and half," laughed Mother.
A single day is very brief space in which to see the beauties of Paris, but the Beverleys managed to fit a great deal into it, and to include among their activities a peep at the Louvre, a drive in the Bois de Boulogne, a visit to Napoleon's Tomb, half an hour in a cinema, and a rush through several of the finest and largest shops.
"It's different from London—quite!" decided Irene, at the end of the jaunt. "It's lighter and brighter, somehow, and the streets are wider and have more trees planted in them. It's a terrible scurry, and I should be run over if I tried to cross the street. The shops aren't any better than ours really, though they make more fuss about them. The little children and the small pet dogs are adorable. The cinema was horribly disappointing, because they were all American films, not French ones; but that light that falls from the domed roof down on to Napoleon's tomb was worth coming across the Channel to see. Yes, Mummie dear, I thoroughly like Paris. I'm only sorry we have to leave it so soon."
The train for Rome was to start at nine o'clock in the evening, and immediately after dinner the Beverleys made their way to the station. It would be a thirty-eight hour journey, and they had engaged two sleeping compartments, wagon-lits as they are called on the Continental express. Mrs. Beverley and Irene were to share one, and Mr. Beverley and Vincent the other. The beds were arranged like berths on board ship, and Irene, who occupied the upper one, found, much to her amusement, a little ladder placed in readiness for her climb aloft.
"I don't need to use that!" she exclaimed, scrambling up with the agility gained in her school gymnasium. "How silly of the conductor to put it for me."
"How could the poor man tell who was to occupy the berth! You might have been a fat old lady for anything he knew!" replied Mrs. Beverley, settling herself on the mattress below.
It was a funny sensation to lie in bed in the jolting train, and Irene slept only in snatches, waking frequently to hear clanking of chains, shrieking of engines, shouting of officials at stations, and other disturbing noises. As dawn came creeping through the darkness she drew the curtain aside and looked from the window. What a glorious sight met her astonished gaze! They were passing over the Alps, and all around were immense snow-covered mountains, great gorges full of dark fir forests, and rushing streams of green glacier water. It was very cold, and she was glad to pull her rug up, and later to drink the hot coffee which the conducteur made on a spirit-lamp in the corridor and brought to those who had ordered it overnight.
Irene never forgot that long journey on the Continental express. The sleeping compartments became sitting-rooms by day, for the berths turned into sofas, and a table was unfolded, where it would have been possible to write or sew if she had wished. She could do nothing, however, but stare at the landscape; the snow-capped mountains and the great ravines and gorges were a revelation in the way of scenery, and it was enough occupation to look out of the window. Switzerland and Northern Italy were a dream of wild, rugged beauty, but she woke on the following morning to find the train racing among olive groves and orange trees, and to catch glimpses of gay, unknown, wild flowers blooming on the railway banks. Here and there were stretches of the blue Mediterranean; and oxen and goats in the fields gave a vivid foreign aspect to the country. Everything—trees, houses, landscape, and people—seemed unfamiliar and un-English, yet strangely fascinating. The bright land with its sunshine appeared to be welcoming her.
"I shall like it! I shall like it! I shall like it!" said Irene to herself, hanging out of the open window of their compartment and watching some picturesque children who were waving a greeting to the train. "I know I shall like it!"
"Put your hat on and strap up your hold-all," said Father's voice in the corridor outside. "Everybody else has luggage ready, and in another ten minutes or so we shall be in Rome."
The Villa Camellia
The Beverleys did not break their journey in Rome, but merely changed trains and pushed on southward. Irene was sorry at the time not to see the imperial city, but afterwards she was glad that her first impression of an Italian town should have been of Naples. Naples! Is there any place like it in the whole world? Irene thought not, as she stood on her veranda next morning and gazed across the blue bay to where Vesuvius was sending a thin column of smoke into the cloudless sky. Below her lay the public gardens, in which spring flowers were blooming, though it was only the end of January, and beyond was a panorama of white houses, green shutters, palm trees, picturesque boats, and a quay thronged with traffic. To that harbor and that blue stretch of sea she was bound this very day, for Father and Mother had arranged to take her straight to her new school, and leave her there before they established themselves in their flat.
"We haven't any time for sightseeing at present, dear," said Mrs. Beverley, when Irene begged for at least a peep at the streets of Naples. "We must put off these jaunts until the Easter holidays. The term has begun at the Villa Camellia, and you ought to set to work at your lessons at once. Don't pull such a doleful face. Be thankful you're going to school in such a glorious spot. We might have left you at Miss Gordon's."
"I'd have run away and followed you somehow, Mums darling! I don't mind being a few miles off, but I couldn't bear to feel the Channel and the whole of France and Switzerland and Italy lay between us. It's too far."
"Yes, our little family quartette is rather inseparable," agreed Mother. "It's certainly nice to think that we're all 'within hail.'"
The school, recommended to Mr. and Mrs. Beverley by their American friend, Mr. Proctor, was situated at the small town of Fossato, not far from Naples. The easiest way of getting there was by sea, so Irene's luggage was wheeled down to the quay, and the family embarked on a coasting steamer. Father and Mother were, of course, taking her, and Vincent accompanied them, because they could not leave him alone in a strange city.
"It will be your last holiday though, young man," said Mr. Beverley jokingly, "so make the most of it. To-morrow you must come with me to the office and start your new career. I don't know whether the Villa Camellia observes convent rules, and whether you will be admitted. If not, you must wait outside the gate while we see Miss Rodgers."
"Oh, surely she wouldn't be so heartless?"
"That remains to be seen. In a foreign country the regulations are probably very strict."
The Beverleys were not the only British people on board the steamer. Parties of tourists were going for the day's excursion, and as much English as Italian or French might be heard spoken among the passengers. Two groups, who sat near them on deck, attracted Irene's attention. The central figure of the one was a girl slightly taller than herself—a girl with a long, pointed nose, dark, hard, bright eyes, penciled eyebrows, beautiful teeth, and a nice color. She was talking in a loud and affected voice, and laying down the law on many topics to several amused and smiling young naval officers who were of the party. An elder girl, like her but with a sweeter mouth and softer eyes, seemed to be trying to restrain her, and occasionally exclaimed, "Oh, Mabel!" at some more than ordinary sally of wit; but the younger girl talked on, posing in rather whimsical attitudes, and letting her roving glance stray over the tourists close by, as if judging the effect she was making upon them.
"She's showing off," decided Irene privately. "Is that 'Villa Camellia' on the label of her bag? I hope to goodness she's not going to school with me. Hello! Who's that talking English on the other side? Why, Little Flaxen for all the world! What's she followed us down here for?"
The small, fair-haired girl, whom they had seen in the train to Dover, was undoubtedly claiming public notice on their right. Her high-pitched, childish voice was descanting freely about everything she saw, and people smiled at her quaint questions and comments. Her mother, still very pale and languid, made no effort to silence her, and her father seemed rather to encourage her, and to exploit her remarks for the entertainment of several gentlemen friends.
A little bored by the evident self-advertisement of these rival belles, Irene moved away with Vincent to a quieter corner of the deck. She was to see more of them soon, however. They both disembarked when the steamer reached Fossato, their luggage was piled upon the carriages, and she watched them drive away up the steep, narrow road that led into the town.
The Beverleys had decided to have an early lunch at the hotel by the quay before taking Irene to school. It was their last meal together, so she was allowed to choose the menu, and regaled the family on hitherto unknown Italian dishes, winding up with coffee, ices, and chocolates.
"I'm glad you don't cater for us every day, Renie, or I should soon be ruined," said Father, as the waiter brought him the bill. "Now are you ready? If we don't hurry and get you up quickly to school we shall miss the boat back to Naples. Another package of chocolates! You unconscionable child! Well, put it in your pocket and console yourself with it at bedtime. The concierge says our vetturino is waiting—not that any Italian coachman minds doing that! All the same, time is short and we had better make a start."
In that first drive through the narrow, steep, stone-paved streets of Fossato Irene was too excited to take in any details except a general impression of rich, foreign color and high, white walls. Afterwards, when she came to know the town better, she realized its subtler points. She felt as one in a dream when the carriage turned through a great gate, and passed along an avenue of orange trees to a large, square house, color-washed pink, and approached by a flight of marble steps. What happened next she could never clearly recall. She remembered the agony of a short wait in the drawing-room until Miss Rodgers arrived, how the whole party, including Vincent, were shown some of the principal rooms of the house, an agitated moment of good-by kisses, then the sound of departing wheels, and a sudden overwhelming sensation that, for the first time in her life, she was alone in a foreign land. Foreign and yet familiar, for the Villa Camellia was a skillful combination of the best out of several countries. Its setting was Italian, its decorations were French, and its fifty-six pupils were all unmistakably and undoubtedly Anglo-Saxon. Irene was assured on this point immediately, for Miss Rodgers, calling to a girl who was passing down the corridor, gave the newcomer into her charge with instructions to take her straight to the senior recreation room.
"Our afternoon classes begin at 2.30," she remarked, "but you will have just ten minutes in which to be introduced to some of your schoolfellows. Elsie Craig will show you everything."
Elsie made no remark to Irene—perhaps she was shy—but, starting off at a quick pace, led her down a long passage into a room on the ground floor. It was a pleasant room with a French window that opened out on to a veranda, where, over a marble balustrade, there was a view of an orange garden and the sea. Round a table were collected several older girls, watching with deep interest a kettle, which was beginning to sing, upon a spirit-lamp. They looked up with surprise as Elsie ushered in the new pupil.
"Hello! You don't mean to tell us there's another of them!" exclaimed a dark girl with a long pigtail. "We've had two already! Why are they pouring on us to-day, I should like to know? It's a perfect deluge."
"I hate folks butting in when the term has begun," said another grumpily.
"We shall be swamped with 'freshies' soon," grunted the owner of the spirit-lamp. "If they expect coffee I tell them beforehand they just won't get it."
"She says her name's Irene Beverley," volunteered Elsie Craig, in a perfunctory voice, as if she were performing an obvious duty and getting it over.
"Well, now we know, so there's an end of it."
It could hardly be called a flattering reception. The general attitude of the girls was the reverse of friendly. The kettle was suddenly boiling, and they were concentrating their attention upon the making of the coffee, and rather ostentatiously leaving the stranger outside the charmed circle. Irene, used to school life, knew, however, that she was on trial, and that on her present behavior would probably depend the whole of her future career. She did not attempt to force her unwelcome presence upon her companions, but, withdrawing to the window, pretended to be utterly absorbed in contemplation of the scenery. She kept the corner of her eye, nevertheless, upon the group at the table. The girl with the long pigtail had made the coffee and was pouring it into cups. A shorter girl nudged her and whispered something, at which she shook her head emphatically. But the short girl persisted.
"I'm superstitious," affirmed the latter aloud. "One's for sorrow, two's for joy, and three's for luck! She's the third to-day and she may be a mascot."
"I'd rather have chocolates than mascots," said an injured voice from behind a coffee-cup.
The chance remark gave Irene the very opportunity she needed. She suddenly remembered the chocolates her father had handed her before she left the hotel, and, producing the package, she offered its contents. After a visible moment of hesitation the girl with the long pigtail accepted her hospitality, and passed the delicacies round. Instantly all were chumping almonds, and the icy atmosphere thawed into summer. Everybody began to talk at once.
"There's a spare cup here if you'd like some coffee. Yes, Rachel, I shall offer it!"
"I suppose you're over fourteen?"
"We may make coffee after lunch if we're seniors, but the kids aren't allowed any."
"You've just one minute to drink it in before the bell rings."
"Hustle up if you want to finish it."
"I'll bet a cookie you're a real sport."
"There's the bell! Don't choke or you'll blight your young career."
"We've got to scoot quick!"
"Come along with me and I'll show you where."
Irene, taken in tow by a girl with a freckled nose, was hurried along the corridor and up the stairs to the classrooms. Although she had scarcely spoken a word she had undoubtedly gained a victory, and had established her welcome among at least a section of her schoolfellows. She did not yet know their names, but names are a detail compared with personalities, and with some members of the coffee-party she felt that she might ultimately become chums.
"Don't I bless Dad for those chocs!" she thought as she took her seat at a desk. "They worked the trick. If I'd had nothing to offer that crew I might have sat out in the cold forevermore. The dark pigtail is decent enough, but if it comes to a matter of chumming give me 'Freckles' for choice."
The Villa Camellia was a high-class boarding-school for English-speaking girls whose parents were residents, permanently or temporarily, in the neighborhood of Naples. It was generally described as an Anglo-American college, for the arrangements were accommodated to suit the customs of both sides of the Atlantic. Miss Rodgers and her partner, Miss Morley, the two principals, came respectively from London and New York; one teacher had been trained in Boston, and another at Oxford, while the British section of the community included girls from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Pupils belonging to other European races were not received, the object of the college being to preserve the nationality of girls who must of necessity be educated in a foreign land, and whose parents did not wish them to attend Italian schools. The arrangements were of course modified by the climate and by the customs of the country. Outwardly the Villa Camellia resembled a convent. Its garden was surrounded by immensely high walls edged with broken glass, and the only entrance was by the great gate, which was solemnly unlocked by old Antonio, the porter, who inspected all comers through a grille before granting them admittance. Small parties in charge of a teacher were taken at stated times for walks or excursions in the neighborhood, but no girl might ever go out unless escorted by a mistress or by her parents. The Villa Camellia was a little world in itself, and as much retired from the town of Fossato as the great, gray monastery that crowned the summit of the neighboring mountain.
Fortunately the grounds were very large, so there was room for most of the activities in which the girls cared to indulge. Tennis and netball were the principal games. There were several courts, and there was a gymnasium, where the school assembled for exercise on wet days. From two flagstaffs on the roof floated the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes respectively. It was an understood fact that here Britannia and Columbia marched hand in hand with an entente cordiale that recognized no distinctions whatsoever.
Miss Rodgers and Miss Morley, who respectively represented the interests of Britain and America, were tremendous friends. Miss Rodgers was fair and rather plump and rosy-faced and calm, with a manner that parents described as "motherly," and a leaning towards mathematics as the basis of a sound education. Miss Morley, on the contrary, was thin and dark and excitable, and taught the English literature and the general knowledge classes, and was rumored—though this no doubt was libel—to dislike mathematics to the extent of not even adequately keeping her own private accounts. The pair were such opposites that they worked in absolute harmony, Miss Rodgers being mainly responsible for the discipline of the establishment, and acting judge and court of appeal in her study, while Miss Morley supplied the initiative, and kept the girls interested in a large number of pursuits and hobbies which could be carried on within the walls of the house and garden.
As regards the fifty-six British and American maidens who made up this brisk little community we will leave some of them to speak for themselves in the next chapter.
Irene, finding herself in her new form, looked round inquiringly. A few of the girls with whom she had taken coffee were seated at desks in the same room, but the rest of the faces were unfamiliar. Her teacher entered her name on the register, and seemed to expect her to understand the lesson which was in progress, but the subject was much in advance of what she had hitherto learned at Miss Gordon's, and it was very difficult for her to pick up the threads of it. She grew more and more bewildered as the afternoon passed on, and though Miss Bickford gave her several hints, and even stopped the class once to explain a point, Irene felt that most of the instruction had been completely over her head. It was with a sense of intense relief that she heard the closing bell ring, and presently filed with the rest of the school into the dining-room for tea. Her place at table was between two girls who utterly ignored her presence, and did not address a single remark to her. Each talked diligently to the neighbor on either side, but poor Irene seemed an insulator in the electric current of conversation, and had perforce to eat her meal in dead silence. She was walking away afterwards in a most depressed condition of mind, when at the door some one touched her on the arm.
"You're wanted in the senior recreation room," said a brisk voice. "Rachel has convened a general meeting and told me to tell you. So hurry up and don't keep folks waiting. We want to get off to tennis."
Marveling why her actions should hinder the tennis of the rest of the community, Irene obeyed the message, and presented herself in the room where she had been introduced on her arrival. It was now full of girls of all ages, some sitting, some standing, and some squatting on the floor. Rachel Moseley, the owner of the long dark pigtail, seemed in a position of command, for she motioned Irene to a vacant chair, then rapped on the table with a ruler to ensure silence. She had to tap not once but several times, and finally called:
"When you've all done talking I'll begin." There was an instant hush at that, and, though a few faint snickers were heard, most of the audience composed itself decently to listen to the voice of authority.
"I've called this meeting," began Rachel, "because to-day an unusual thing has happened. Three new girls have arrived, although the term is well under way. By the rules of our society they must give some account of themselves, and we must explain what is required from them. Will they kindly stand up?"
Blushing considerably Irene rose to her feet, in company with the dark-eyed damsel who had crossed in the same steamer with her from Naples, and the fair-haired child whom she had privately christened Little Flaxen.
"Name and nationality?" demanded Rachel, pencil and note-book in hand. She wrote down Irene Beverley, British, without further comment; the fact was evidently too obvious for discussion. At "Mabel Hughes, Australian, born in Patagonia," she demurred slightly, and she hesitated altogether at "Desiree Legrand."
"That's not English!" she objected. "We don't reckon to take Frenchies here, you know!"
"But I'm not French," came the high-pitched voice of the little, fair-haired girl. "I'm as English as anybody. I am indeed!"
"Then why have you got a French name?"
"Legrand isn't French—we come from Jersey."
"Very much on the borderland," sniffed Rachel. "What about Desiree? Not much wholesome Anglo-Saxon there at any rate."
"I was called Desiree because I was so very much desired. Mother says it just fits me."
An indignant titter went round the room and Rachel frowned.
"I'm afraid you won't find yourself so much desired here," she said sarcastically. "I'll enter you British, though I have my doubts. Now come along, all three of you, and lay your hands on this book. You've got to take an oath of allegiance. I'll repeat the words, and you must say them after me:
"'I hereby promise and vow that being of Anglo-Saxon birth I will uphold the integrity of Great Britain and her colonies and of the United States of America, and strive my utmost to maintain their credit in a foreign land.' Now then, do you understand what your oath means?"
Her eyes rested on Irene as she asked the question. That much embarrassed damsel stuttered hesitatingly:
"We're not to trouble our heads about learning foreign languages?"
A delighted chuckle came from several members of the audience at this interpretation of the vow. Rachel hastily condescended to explain.
"Oh, no! You'll have to study French and Italian, but what we mean is for goodness' sake don't stick on all the airs and graces that some of these foreign girls do. Remember we're plain, wholesome, straightforward Anglo-Saxons, who play games and say what we mean, and call a spade a spade and have done with it. Whatever Italian friends you may make during the holidays please forget them during term-time, and try and imagine that the Villa Camellia stands in Kent or Massachusetts. Do you understand my drift now?"
"Oh, yes!" sighed Mabel languidly. "Anglo-American patriotism, crystallized in a nutshell, I suppose! I'm not going to offend your prejudices, I'm sure!"
"You'd better not, or you'll hear about it," said Rachel, looking at her sharply. "Well, girls, that's the wind-up. The three freshies are admitted and you've witnessed their vows. Just jolly well take care they keep them, that's all. Juniors are due now at netball practice, and any seniors who want the tennis courts——"
But Rachel's sentence went unfinished for her listeners were tired of sitting still, and the second they found themselves dismissed had jumped up and fled from the room.
"Now that that ordeal's over I guess you may smooth out the kinks in your forehead, honey!" said a serene voice at Irene's elbow.
Turning quickly she saw the short girl who had braved Rachel's possible wrath and had offered her coffee on her arrival. It was a pleasant face that gazed into hers, not exactly beautiful, but with a charm that eclipsed all mere ordinary prettiness; the sparkling gray eyes were dark-fringed, the cheeks were like wild roses under their freckles, the tip-tilted little nose held an element of audacious sauciness, and dimples lay at the corners of the wide, smiling mouth.
"I'm Priscilla Proctor, called Peachy for short. Oh, yes, I knew all about you beforehand, although you happen to be the newest girl. Dad wrote me a whole page—wonderful for him!—and said he'd stayed at your house in London, and I was to tack myself on to you and show you round, and see you didn't fret and all the rest of it. Are you wanting a crony, temporary or otherwise? Then here I am at your service. Link an arm and we'll parade the place. I guess by the time we've finished there's not much you won't know about the Villa Camellia."
"Have you been here long?" asked Irene, accepting the proffered arm with alacrity, and submitting to be led away by her cicerone.
"Just a year. Cried myself to a puddle when I first came, but I like it now. I didn't realize who you were when you first arrived, or I'd have given you a tip or two straight away. Thank goodness you're fairly in favor with Rachel at any rate. Any one who starts by offending her has a bad term. I don't envy Mabel Hughes. That girl will get a few eye-openers before she's much older, and serve her right. She rooms with you? Well, I'm sorry for you. I wish there was a spare bed in our dormitory, but we're full up to overflowing. Now then, I've brought you out by the side door to show you what we consider the best view of the garden. Ah, I thought it would make your eyes pop out! It's some view, isn't it?"
The garden of the Villa Camellia was certainly one of the greatest assets of the school, and to Irene, who had been transported straight from the desolation of a London suburb in January, it seemed like a vision of a different world. The long terrace, with its marble balustrade, edged a high cliff that overtopped the sea, while at present the setting sun was lighting up the white houses of the distant outline of Naples, and was touching the purple slopes of Vesuvius with gold. Pillars and archways formed a pergola, from which hung roses and festoons of the trumpetflower; from the groves near at hand came the sweet strong scent of orange blossoms, and the little favorites of an English spring, forget-me-nots, pink daisies, and pansies, lifted contented heads from the border below. In the basin of the great marble fountain white arum lilies were blooming, geraniums trailed from tall vases, and palms, bamboos, and other exotics backed the row of lemon trees at the end of the paved walk. Here and there marble benches were arranged round tables in specially constructed arbors.
"These are our summer classrooms," explained Peachy. "When it's blazingly hot we do lessons here early in the mornings, and it's ripping. No, we don't use them at this time of the year, because the marble is cold to sit upon, and the garden is damp really, although it looks so jolly. You should see it in a sirocco wind! You wouldn't want to have classes outside then, you bet! It's luck you're in the Transition form. If you'd been one of Miss Rodger's elect eleven, or one of Miss Brewster's lambs, I'd have had to chum with you by stealth. I'd have managed it somehow, of course, to please Dad, but it isn't done here openly. School etiquette is like the law of the Medes and Persians. We keep to our own forms. Hello! There's Sheila Yonge. Sheila! If you can find any Camellia Buds that aren't playing tennis bring them along right here for a little powwow with Irene."
"Is she a 'buddy' yet?" whispered Sheila.
"Of course not! She's only been here a few hours. What a dear old silly you are. Hunt up some of that crew all the same, and I'm yours forever. Don't you understand the situation? Well, Irene's folks entertained Dad in London and were just lovely to him—nursed him when he was sick and took him round the shows when he got well. He's been bursting with gratitude ever since, and he wrote and told me Irene was coming here and I must pay her out—no, pay her back—pour coals of fire on her head—Great Scott, I'm getting my similes mixed! I mean give her a right down good time as far as I can, and make her think the Villa Camellia is a dandy place. Twiggez-vous, cherie?"
"I twig!" laughed Sheila. "I'll beat up all I can muster," and she ran lightly away along the terrace.
"A decent girl, though a little hard of comprehension," Peachy nodded after her. "Doesn't she look adorable in that blue tam-o'-shanter?"
"She's awfully pretty!" agreed Irene readily.
"She'd be the beauty of the school if she'd any idea how to use her advantages," sighed Peachy. "Give me her complexion and that classical nose and—well, I guess I'd blaze out into a cinema star before I'd done with life. I hope she won't be all day raking a few girls together. She's not what you'd call quick. I've misjudged her. Here she comes with half a dozen at least—and, oh, no, Sheila! You don't mean to say you've brought candy? Well, you are a sport! Let's squat under the mimosa tree and hand it round."
The little group of Peachy's favorite friends who settled themselves under the yellow mimosa bush to suck taffy and watch the flaming sunset were all afterwards intimately bound up with Irene's school career. Each was such a distinct personality that she sorted them out fairly accurately on that first evening, and decided the particular order in which they would rank in her affections.
There was Jess Cameron, a jolly Scottish lassie. She rolled her r's when she spoke, and was a trifle matter-of-fact and practical, but was evidently the dependable anchor of the rest of the scatter-brained crew, the one who made the most sensible suggestions, and to whom—though they teased her a little and called her "Grannie"—they all turned in the end for help and advice. Jess was slightly out of her element in a southern setting. Her appropriate background was moorland and heather and gray loch, and driving clouds and a breeze with fine mist in it, that would make you want to wrap a plaid round your shoulders and turn to the luxury of a peat fire. Quite unconsciously she suggested all these things. Peachy once described her as a living incarnation of one of Scott's novels, for she was steeped in old traditions and legends and superstitions, and could tell tales in the gloaming that sent eerie shivers down the spines of her listeners, or would recite ballads with a swing that took one back to the days of wandering minstrels. She was not a girl to make a fuss over anybody, and she did not greet Irene with the least effusion, but her plain "If you're a friend of Peachy's I'm glad to see you," was genuine, and better than any amount of gush. Jess undoubtedly had her faults; she was what her chums called "too cock-sure," and she was apt to be severe in her judgments, flashing into the righteous wrath of one whose standards are high, but her very imperfections were "virtues gane a-gley," and she was a considerable force in the molding of public opinion at the Villa Camellia.
If Jess, calm, canny, and reliable, stood for the spirit of the North, attractive, persuasive, fascinating little Delia Watts represented the South. She came from California, and was as quick and bright as a humming-bird, constantly in harmless mischief, but seldom getting into any serious trouble. Her highly strung temperament found school restrictions irksome, and she was apt to blaze out into odd pranks which in other girls might have met with sterner punishment. But Miss Morley had a soft corner for Delia, and, though she did not exactly favor her, she certainly made allowances for her excitability and her strongly emotional disposition.
"Delia's like a marionette—always dancing to some hidden string," the teacher remarked once to Miss Rodgers. "She mayn't be strong-minded but she's immensely warm-hearted, and if we can only pull the love-string she'll act the part we want. You can't force her into prim behavior; she's as much a child of nature as the birds, and if you clip her wings altogether you take away from her the very gift that perhaps God meant her to use. Let me have the handling of the little sky-rocket, and I'll do my best to keep her within bounds, but she's not the disposition to 'be made an example of' or to be set on the 'stool of repentance.' Five minutes with Delia in private is worth more than a long public admonition. You've only to look at her face to know her type."
And Miss Rodgers, who stood no nonsense from really naughty and turbulent girls, yielded in this case, and left the exclusive management of Delia in the hands of her partner.
Of the seven damsels who sat under the yellow feathery flowers of the mimosa bush, three of them—Peachy, Jess, and Delia—talked so hard and continuously that none of the others had a chance to chip in with anything more than an occasional yes or no. Irene realized in a vague way that Esther Cartmel was plain and stodgy looking, but that every now and then a world of light suddenly flashed into her eyes, and transfigured her for the brief moment; that Sheila Yonge giggled at all Peachy's remarks, and that Mary Fergusson was a pale and weak copy of Jess, and slavishly followed her lead in everything. It was the seventh member of the little party, however, who particularly attracted her attention. Lorna Carson was quiet, probably from sheer lack of opportunity to speak, but her pale face was interesting and her dark eyes met Irene's with a curious questioning glance. It was almost as if she were asking "Have we known each other before?" Irene could not help looking at her, and ransacking the side cupboards of her memory to try to light upon some forgotten clew as to why the face should seem half familiar.
"Have I seen her in London? Or is she like some one else? No, I can't fix her at all. Surely I must have dreamed about her," mused Irene, while aloud she said, almost as if compelled to speak:
"Have you been long at school here? Are you English, or American, or colonial, or what?"
"A little bit of anything you like," smiled Lorna. "Rachel gets very muddled about me. I've such a sneaking weakness for Naples that I believe she thinks I'm an Italian at heart. That's a crime Rachel absolutely can't forgive. 'Foreign' is the last word in her vocabulary."
"So I gathered when she made me take that oath. I suppose she's head girl and that's why she rules the roost? Is she decent or does she keep you petrified? I don't know whether I'm expected to say 'Bow-wow,' or to listen in respectful humility when she deigns to notice me."
"You'd better not have any 'bow-wows' with Rachel," broke in Peachy, "though you just jolly well have to wag your tail the way she wants. She's not bad on the whole, but rather a tyrant, and it would do her all the good in the world if some day somebody had the courage to knock sparks out of her. We do what we can in a mild way," (here the other chuckled) "but she's got the ears of both Miss Rodgers and Miss Morley, and if you go on the rampage against her you only land yourself in a scrape. Of course, for purposes of protection the Transition girls have to unite and——"
"Peachy! Take care!" exclaimed Jess warningly.
Peachy blushed crimson under her freckles.
"I wasn't telling anything!" she retorted. "I suppose Irene——"
"Do shut up!"
"Well Agnes said herself——"
"It doesn't matter what Agnes said."
"Peachy Proctor, if you blab like this you'll be tarred and feathered. Girl alive, can't you keep a still tongue in your head? If you'd lived in the Middle Ages you'd have ended your days in a dungeon!"
Jess spoke hotly, and, by the general scandalized look on the faces of the others, Irene judged that luckless Peachy must have been on the verge of betraying some secret. She tactfully turned the conversation with a remark upon the beauty of the sunset, and the clanging of the garden bell opportunely broke up the gathering, and sent the girls hurrying helter-skelter along the terrace in the direction of the house. Irene paused for a moment to look back at the sea and the sky, and the distant twinkling lights, and to curtsy to the crescent moon that hung like a good omen in the dome of blue. There was a scent of fragrant lemon blossoms in the air, and she trod fallen rose petals under her feet. Suddenly a remembrance of the desolation of Miss Gordon's garden in a February fog swept across her mental vision. Whatever trials she might encounter here—and she did not expect her new life to be absolute Paradise—the environment of this school in the south was perfect and would make up for many disadvantages.
"Give me sunshine and flowers and I'll always worry on somehow," she murmured, plucking a little crimson rose, and tucking it into her dress for a mascot, then ran with flying footsteps under the orange trees to catch up with her companions, who were already mounting the marble steps that led to the Villa Camellia.
A Secret Sorority
The dormitories at the Villa Camellia were among the main features of the establishment, and were a source of considerable pride and satisfaction to the principals, Miss Rodgers and Miss Morley. They were always shown to parents as the very latest and newest development of school arrangements. Some of them were on the second story and some were on the third, but all had French windows opening onto long verandas on which were placed large pots of geraniums or oleanders. The walls were covered with striped Italian papers, the frieze being color-washed and decorated with designs of flowers or birds, the woodwork was white, the beds were enameled white, and the blankets, instead of being cream or yellow as they are in England, were all of a uniform shade of pale blue, with blue eider-downs to match. The whole of the house was heated by radiators, so that the dormitories were always warm, and were used as studies by the older girls, who did most of their preparation there. A table with ink-pots stood in the middle of each room, and a large notice enjoining, "Silence during study hours" hung as a warning over every fireplace.
Irene was given a vacant bed in No. 3 on the second floor, and found herself in company with Elsie Craig, Mabel Hughes, and Lorna Carson. For the first two she felt no attraction, but the last excited her interest and curiosity. There was an air of mystery about Lorna; she asked questions but gave little information in return on the subject of her own concerns. Her bright dark eyes were unfathomable, and she "kept herself to herself" with a reserved dignity not very common among schoolgirls of her age. Irene, who loved to chatter, found Lorna a ready listener, and, although the confidence was not reciprocated and in consequence the friendship seemed likely to be rather one-sided, it was a friendship all the same from the very start. At the end of the week, moreover, something important happened to cement it.
For the first seven days of her residence at the Villa Camellia Irene had felt herself "goods on approval." Peachy Proctor and her chums had indeed given her a welcome, but afterwards they had held back a little as if testing her before offering further intimacy. There seemed to be some secret bond amongst them, some alliance carefully hidden from the general public. She caught nods, signs, mysterious words, and veiled allusions, all of which were instantly suppressed when her presence was noticed. On the eighth day after arrival she found a note inside her desk. It was marked—
This must be opened in absolute seclusion
its contents must be treated with the
A crowded classroom, with inquisitive form-mates ready to peep over her shoulder, did not seem the congenial atmosphere for the opening of the missive, so Irene was obliged to curb her curiosity until mid-morning "interval," when she gulped her glass of milk hastily, took her portion of biscuits, and, avoiding conversation, hurried down the garden to the seclusion of a stone arbor. Here she tore open the envelope, and drew forth a large sheet of exercise paper. On it was printed in bold black letters:
"You are elected a member of the Sorority of Camellia Buds. Please present yourself for initiation to-night at 8.10 prompt in No. 13. Strictest secrecy enjoined."
There was no signature, but Irene gave a smile of comprehension. Dormitory No. 13 was shared by Peachy Proctor, Jess Cameron, Delia Watts, and Mary Fergusson. There was, therefore, little doubt but that she was to be received into the secret society of whose existence she had already gathered some hints.
"I'll be there at 8.10," she whispered to Peachy, as they trooped into the French class.
"Right-o!" replied that light-hearted damsel. "Just one warning—don't be scared at anything that happens; it's all in fun! Don't say I told you, though. No, I can't explain. I'm not allowed. You'll soon find out."
Peachy shook off Irene's company as if in a hurry to get rid of her before she asked any more questions, so there was nothing to be done but wait in patience until the evening. Supper was at 7.30, and from 8 till half past the girls did as they chose. Those who wished to study might take the extra time for preparation, but work was not obligatory, and it was an understood thing that in the interval between supper and "set recreation" visits might be paid to other dormitories, and that so long as no noise reached the ears of the prefects, anybody disposed to be frivolous might indulge in a little harmless fun.
Irene's wrist-watch was not a reliable timepiece, having bad habits of galloping and then suddenly losing, so to-night she did not trust to it, but sat in the hall with her eyes on the big white-faced clock. At exactly nine and a half minutes past eight she ran upstairs and tapped at the door of dormitory 13. There were sounds of scuffling inside and an agitated voice squealed:
"Wait a minute."
But after a few moments quiet reigned and somebody else called:
Feeling rather as if she were awaiting initiation into some Nihilist association Irene entered the room. As she did so a bandage was clapped over her eyes and she was led forward blindfolded. It was only after an impressive pause that the handkerchief was removed.
It was well she had been warned beforehand, or the sight which met her gaze might have caused her to emit a yell loud enough to attract the attention of a passing prefect. The Villa Camellia was admirably supplied with electric light, but on this historic occasion the apartment was illuminated solely by a couple of candle-ends stuck in a pair of vases. Their flickering flame revealed a solemn row of nine dressing-gowned figures, each of which wore a black paper mask with holes for her eyes. The general effect was most startling and horrible, and resembled a meeting of the Inquisition, or some other society bent on torture and dark doings. Repressing her first gasp, however, Irene bore the vision with remarkable equanimity, and advancing towards the dread figures waited obediently until she was addressed. Evidently she had done the right thing, for the spokeswoman, clearing her throat, began in impressive accents:
"Sister Irene Beverley, you are admitted here to-night to be made a member of our Sorority. Are you willing to join and to take the pledges?"
"Yes, thanks, but please what's a sorority?" ventured Irene meekly.
Two or three distinct snickers were heard from underneath the black masks, but a voice murmured, "Order!" and the sounds promptly ceased.
"A sorority is a secret sisterhood," explained the President, "just the same as a fraternity is a brotherhood. We call ourselves 'The Camellia Buds,' and we're members of the Transition who have banded ourselves together for the purposes of mutual protection. It's a great honor to be elected. There are only nine of us so far, and we've waited ever so long to choose a tenth. I hope you appreciate the privilege?"
"I do indeed!"
"You're ready to take the vow? Then the initiation may proceed. Sword-bearers, guard the door, please."
There was a Masonic quality about the proceedings. Two dark figures, armed with rulers, placed themselves at the threshold, prepared to settle all intruders, and to preserve the absolute secrecy of the ceremony.
"Will you give your word of honor to be a loyal member of the Sorority of Camellia Buds, and never to do a dirty trick so long as you remain at this school?" asked the President.
"I promise!" replied Irene.
At that somebody switched on the electric light, and the members, pulling off their black masks, disclosed their laughing faces.
"You stood it A-1. I was quite prepared for you to start hysterics and had the sal volatile bottle ready right here," chirruped Delia gayly.
"We call it our 'strength of mind' test," explained President Agnes, blowing out the guttering candles.
"If I had screamed what would have happened?" inquired Irene.
"Probation for another week till you got your nerves. We'd a business with Sheila just at first; she's rather fluttersome. Well, anyway, you've got through the ordeal, and now you're a full-fledged 'bud.' Aren't you proud?"
"Rather! Is the society limited to ten?"
"Sorority, please, not society. It's limited because there isn't anybody else in the Transition who's worth asking to join. Most of them are a set of utter sneaks. They may take Rachel's oath about preserving their nationality and all the rest of it, but if they're to be counted specimens of Anglo-American honor it makes one blush for one's mother country whichever side of the ocean it happens to be on. Oh, you don't know most of them yet! Wait till you find them out."
"You'll be glad then you belong to us."
"Not that we're perfect, of course."
"We don't set up as Pharisees."
"On the whole we're rather a lot of lunatics."
"We just have a little sport among ourselves to keep things humming."
"Well, now Irene understands, we'd best get her fixed up with a 'buddy' and close the meeting."
"But I don't understand. What, for goodness' sake, is a buddy, and why must I have one?" demanded Irene tragically.
"Sit down there, child, and let Grannie talk to you," replied President Agnes. "If you haven't heard of a buddy yet it's time you did. They're the latest out. They had them at all the camps last summer, in England as well as in America. A buddy is a chum with whom you're pledged to do everything, and who's bound to support you. For instance, when the bathing season is on you must never swim unless your buddy is swimming with you; if you go on an excursion you stick to each other tight as glue, and if one of you is lost the other is held responsible. You're as inseparable as a box and its lid, or the two blades of a pair of scissors, or a bottle and its cork, or any other things you happen to think of that ought to go together, and aren't any use apart."
"We only realized buddies last term," explained Peachy, "but the idea caught on no end. We all went simply crazy over it. I don't mind guessing that every girl in this school who's worth her salt has got her buddy. She mayn't let it be known outside her own sorority, but we aren't blind."
"Are there other sororities in the school then besides the Camellia Buds?" asked Irene.
"Bless your innocence! I should think there are. There's a rival one in the Transition. I rather fancy they've snapped up Mabel already. I gave Winnie a hint she wasn't to tackle you, because you'd come to school with an introduction to me, so I ought to have first innings. The prefects have a sorority all to themselves, and the seniors have one, and as for the juniors, silly little things, they're as transparent as glass, with their signaling and their grips and their cypher letters. Any one can see through them with half an eye. But we're wasting time. We've got to fix you up with a buddy, and we must be quick before the bell rings."
"May we choose?" asked Irene, and her eyes fell longingly on Peachy.
"No, we mayn't!" said President Agnes firmly. "We have to take what the fates send us. It's Kismet. Every time we elect a new member we draw lots again for buddies. It's a kind of general shuffle. If we're an uneven number somebody of course has to be odd man out."
"I was the 'old maid' last draw, and I haven't had a buddy this term," remarked Sheila plaintively.
"Never mind, ducky! You're bound to find a partner now," consoled Delia. "It might even be my little self, so live in hope."
"No such luck," groaned Sheila. "I'll probably get Joan, and you know she always uses me as a door-mat."
Agnes meantime was writing ten names on ten separate pieces of paper and folding them in identically the same fashion. Peachy offered the loan of a hat, and into this treasury they were cast and shuffled.
"The newest member draws," murmured Agnes, and the others pushed Irene forward. She chose two folds of paper at a venture, and twisted them together, then performed the like service for another pair, until all the ten were assorted. The thrill of the ceremony was when Agnes opened the screws of paper and read out the names. Fate had mixed the Camellia Buds together thus:
Peachy Proctor—Sheila Yonge. Jess Cameron—Delia Watts. Joan Lucas—Esther Cartmel. Agnes Dalton—Mary Fergusson. Lorna Carson—Irene Beverley.
Whether the members of the secret sorority felt satisfied or otherwise with the result of the shuffle, etiquette forbade them to show anything but polite enthusiasm. Each took her buddy solemnly by the hand and vowed allegiance. Peachy then produced what she called "the loving cup," a three-handled vase of brown pottery brought by Jess from Edinburgh and with the motto "Mak' yersel' at hame," on it in cream-colored letters. It was usually a receptacle for flowers, but it had been hastily washed for the occasion and filled with lemonade, a rather bitter brew concocted by Peachy and Delia from a half-ripe lemon plucked in the garden and a few lumps of sugar saved from tea. This was passed round, and the Camellia Buds gulped it heroically as a pledge of sisterhood.
"The password is Thistle-down," decreed Agnes, as the members, trying not to pull sour faces, consoled themselves with candy and broke up the meeting. "Any one who can think of a stunt for next time please bring along propositions. We're always open to new ideas and ready for a startler."
As a direct result of her admission to this select sorority Irene found herself flung by Fate into the arms of Lorna Carson. Had any individual choice been allowed she would have selected Peachy, Jess, Delia, or even Sheila in preference, but the lot once cast she must abide by it and be content. She had a very shrewd suspicion that when the buddies got tired of each other they elected a fresh member and so necessitated a general reshuffle of partners, and that her admission to the society had been welcomed as the pretext for such a change. Here she was, however, pledged to intimate friendship with Lorna, a girl who half fascinated and half repelled her, and who, though she might possibly turn out trumps in the future, was for the present at least most difficult to understand.
Fairy Godmothers, Limited
Irene Beverley, when she first left the shores of her native land, was a particularly light-hearted, jolly little Britisher, not at all bookish, and not accustomed to worry her head over any of the deep affairs of life, but ready to have a royal time with anybody of similar tastes and inclinations. In her first letter home she summed up the results of a week's experience.
"THE VILLA CAMELLIA.
"This is to tell you I am still alive! I'm a little surprised, because I thought math would kill me. Miss Bickford is most horribly conscientious and insists upon finding out whether I really understand or not, and it is generally 'not.' I suppose I was born with a thick head for figures, anyway, she seems amazed at my ignorance. I lay the blame on St. Osmund's. Is that mean of me? It's my only way of paying out Miss Gordon for past scores.
"I don't mind admitting I have warm times in school over some of the classes, but the rest of the life is lovely. Miss Bickford is often a big thorn, but Peachy is a rose. As for Lorna she's like one of those tropical flowers that Uncle Redvers grows in his conservatory. How does Vin like being at the office? Are you straight yet at the flat? Come and see me as soon as ever you can, because I'm a little bit lonesome and wanting my home folks, though I wouldn't confess it to any of these girls for the world.
"Heaps of love to Dad and Vin and your dear self.
If Irene, who had found her niche in a congenial set at the Villa Camellia, was capable of feeling the pangs of homesickness, that unpleasant malady exhibited itself with far more serious symptoms in the case of another new girl who had entered the school upon the same day. Desiree Legrand could not settle down among the juniors. She was used to the society of grown-up people, and did not take kindly to young companions. In the excitement of her own affairs Irene had hardly given the child a thought since her arrival, but one afternoon, when enjoying a solitary ramble round the garden, she suddenly came face to face with Little Flaxen. She was shocked at the change in her; the once pink cheeks were white and pasty, and her eyelids were red and swollen as if with perpetual crying.
"Hello! Whatever have you been doing to yourself?" exclaimed Irene. "You look rather a bunch of misery, don't you? What's the matter?"
Desiree, squatting forlornly on the steps that led to the upper tennis courts, produced a lace-bordered pocket-handkerchief and mopped her eyes.
"Nobody loves me here!" she blurted out dramatically. "I'm just wr-r-r-etched! They all laugh and call me Frenchie! I'm not French, and I w-w-ant to be l-l-oved!"
Irene looked at her and shook her head.
"That's not the way to go about it I'm afraid. I'm sorry, but you know you'll just invite teasing if you carry on like this. Can't you brace up and be sporty? Pretend you don't mind anything they say and they'll soon stop."
"But I do mind!" sobbed the tragic little figure on the steps. "I mind d-d-dreadfully! Why are they all so horrid to me? People have always been so nice till I came here!"
"That's exactly the reason," said Irene, grasping the situation and explaining it truthfully. "You've been accustomed to be petted by everybody, and after all why should the other girls in your form pet you? You don't pet them, do you?"
Desiree's eyes were round with amazement.
"Well, can't you see school's a matter of give and take? If you do something for the rest they'll possibly like you, but they won't fall on your neck just out of sheer good nature. Why don't you write home for a box of chocolates and offer them round your form?"
"I never thought of it. I had some chocolates—but—I ate them!"
"There you are! You expected to get all the attention and give nothing. Sorry if I seem brutal, but it's the solid truth. You take my advice and cheer up instead of continually sniveling. I've been at school myself since I was seven, and I know a thing or two. If a girl's popular there's generally some reason behind it. Look here, I'll help you if I can. Those kids over there are doing nothing. I'll get them to come and play rounders, choose you for a partner, and I'll back our side to win. Here's Peachy! Perhaps she'll join in too. I'll ask her."
Irene rapidly explained her philanthropic intentions, and enlisted both Peachy and Delia in her team. The juniors, amazed and flattered at an invitation from older girls, were ready enough for a game. Irene insisted upon the innovation of what she called "hunting in couples," that is to say, dividing the company into partners who made the course hand in hand. She took good care to choose Desiree for her "running-mate," and as they were both fleet of foot they scored considerably. By the time the bell rang they had beaten the records.
"Look here!" said Irene, addressing the juniors before they scooted away, "you kids are missing a chance. Why don't you make Desiree train for the sports? She can run like a hare! With the start she'd get as a junior she might win you a trophy. Hadn't it ever entered your silly young noddles to see what she could do for your form? Well, you are a set of slackers! That's my opinion of you. We manage our affairs better in the Transition."
"Oh, thank you! Thank you!" gasped Little Flaxen, lingering a moment or two behind the others. "You've been just great! I'll write to Dad to-night to send me some chocs, and I won't eat a single one myself. They shall have them all. They shall really!"
With scarlet cheeks and shining eyes she was a different child from the weeping Niobe who had sat and sobbed on the steps.
"Now if I'd simply coddled her and sympathized she'd have cried a few gallons more and have been no better off," mused Irene, as her protegee danced away. "I fancy those juniors have been fairly nasty to her, though I wouldn't tell her so. Something ought to be done about it, but the question is 'what?' I want to have a talk with Peachy when I can wedge in ten minutes of spare time."
All evening remembrance of Little Flaxen's red eyes and white cheeks haunted Irene. She felt it ought not to have been possible for the child to be so lonely and neglected. Granted that her unpopularity might be partly her own fault, boycotting was nevertheless hard to bear. It was clearly somebody's business to have looked after her, and that duty ought not to have devolved upon a newcomer like herself, who only realized the necessity by the merest chance.
"What's the use of the prefects?" Irene asked herself, but she gave up the answer, and appealed to Peachy at breakfast-time instead.
That cheery young American took the matter more seriously than Irene expected. There was a very kind little heart hidden under her bubbles of fun.
"I'll call a meeting of the Camellia Buds right now," she declared. "I guess we don't want any of those poor babes crying their eyes out. Talk of homesickness! You should have seen me my first week here. I brought four dozen pocket-handkerchiefs to school with me and I used them all. It's not good enough! Prefects, did you say? Humph! I don't call Rachel exactly laid out for this job. Bring your biscuits to the 'Grotto' at interval, and we'll have a powwow about it."
There was a twenty-minute mid-morning break between classes, during which the girls ate lunch and amused themselves as they pleased in the house or grounds. The biscuits, three apiece, were laid out in rows on the dining-room table together with each pupil's glass of milk. As Irene ran in to take her portion she heard a scrimmage going on at the other end of the room. Several small girls were quarreling loudly, and above the noise came Desiree's piping, high-pitched voice:
"I haven't had a biscuit for days and it isn't fair."
"What's all this about?" asked Irene, striding into the crowd just in time to see Mabel and another member of the Transition pass, laughing, through the lower door.
There was a babel in reply.
"Those big girls come and grab our biscuits!"
"It's a shame of them!"
"There ought to be three apiece!"
"And there never are!"
"It's something if you get two!"
"Nancy's taken both mine!"
"Honest injun, I haven't!"
"I tell you I'm famished!"
"Help! Don't all shout at once," decreed Irene. "Let's have a biscuit parade. Each hold out what she's got. Here, Audley, hand one of yours over to Francie. Effie, break that one in half and share with Chris. Desiree, you may have mine this morning, but this business mustn't happen again. I've no time to stop now, but I'll inquire into this, you bet!"
Leaving an only partially satisfied group of small girls behind her Irene sped to her tryst in the garden. She took a short cut, and ran through the orange grove, where the half-ripe oranges were beginning to turn yellow on the trees, then shamelessly jumping over a flower border of stocks and primulas, crossed under the rose-pergola, turned down a creeper-covered side alley, and found herself in a neglected portion of the grounds. Here there was a very dilapidated little arbor, built sixty or seventy years ago when the Villa Camellia had been owned by an Italian count with a weakness for the fine arts. The roof leaked, and a riot of jessamine almost hid the door; the window-sill had fallen, and the floor was a mass of dead leaves. The plastered walls were painted with frescoes—faded and moldy now—of a country chateau with cypress trees, and three ladies in big plumed hats riding on white horses, and a gentleman in shooting costume and tall boots, who wore side whiskers, and carried a gun, and had four hunting dogs standing in a row behind him. All these were rather stiff and badly painted, yet gave an air of neglected grandeur to the grotto. There were marble seats, and a rickety marble table, and a little broken statue of Cupid in the corner, and the floor under the rubbish was of blue glazed tiles, so that the building, though fallen on evil days, still showed some remnants of its former glory. As it was in an out-of-the-way spot and far from the tennis courts, it was not often visited, and had therefore been appropriated by the Camellia Buds as a suitable place for the secret meetings of their sorority.
The nine were all assembled here waiting impatiently for Irene. She brushed through the jessamine-covered doorway, took her seat, and breathlessly explained the reason of her delay.
"Would you have believed such meanness?" she ended.
Peachy nodded solemnly.
"I told you some of our precious Transition would make you blush. Was it Bertha? I thought so! I knew she had got hold of Mabel. I believe they're buddies, and a charming pair they'll be! We shall have to tackle them somehow. This certainly can't be allowed to go on."
"Isn't it a case for the prefects?" asked Irene, addressing the President.
Agnes's forehead was drawn into a series of puckers.
"We hate telling," she sighed. "The fact is the prefects in this school aren't quite what they ought to be. They think they do their duty, but they're too aloof and high-handed and bossing, and the consequence is they're not popular, and the girls would as soon complain to a teacher as to Rachel or Sybil or Erica. It simply isn't done. Yet those kids need a champion. There are several abuses among them that I've noticed myself."
"Guess we've got to take it on then and 'champ'," murmured Delia.
"Poor little souls, it's a shame to steal their 'bikkies'; we'll have to stand over them and act as fairy godmothers," said Sheila.
Peachy bounced suddenly in her seat.
"Sheila Yonge, you've given me an idea—yes, an absolute brain-throb. What the Camellia Buds ought to do is to turn the sorority into an Amalgamated Society of Fairy Godmothers, and each of us take over a junior to look after and act providence to. It's what those kids are just aching for—only they mayn't know it. What good are prefects to them except as bogies? They skedaddle like lightning if they see so much as Rachel's shadow. They each ought to have one older girl whom they can count on as a friend."
"A kind of buddy?"
"Something of the sort, but more like a foster-mother."
"I vote we ask them all to a candy party, and each adopt one," suggested Delia warmly.
"There are ten of us, and there are nineteen juniors," calculated Jess. "How's it going to work out?"
"Why, some of us must take twins or even triplets," decreed Peachy. "I'm bursting to begin. Let's have that candy party right away. Can anybody raise a lira or two?"
"We'll give you our subscriptions back in the house, if you'll act treasurer and wheedle Antonio. Fairy Godmothers, Limited! It's a brainy notion. When shall you ask those kids? You bet they'll buzz in like bees."
The loud clanging of the garden bell, which seemed to punctuate life at the Villa Camellia, broke up the meeting in a hurry and scattered its members in the direction of their classrooms. At the first opportunity, however, Irene unlocked her cash-box and took out a contribution towards the candy party. She was not yet used to the Italian paper money, and had only a vague idea of its value, but she judged that two lire was the expected amount, and carried it accordingly to Peachy's dormitory.
"You white angel! It's a bountiful 'contrib.' I've squared Antonio. He'll leave the parcel inside the grotto. What we should do without that dear old man I can't imagine. I've told the juniors, and they're simply crazy to come. I've fixed it up for directly after tea."
Antonio, the old concierge who had charge of the gate, was absolutely faithful to his duties as porter, and guarded the Villa Camellia as zealously as a convent, but he was lenient on one point—he was willing sometimes to smuggle sweets, and those girls who knew how to coax could induce him to make an expedition to the confectioner's and fetch them a small private store of what delicacies they fancied. He had his own ideas of how much was good for them, and would never be responsible for more than a limited allowance; neither would he undertake more than one commission per week for any single girl. It was a matter of favor, and to some of the pupils he would only grunt a refusal. Peachy, however, was a champion wheedler; she had a certain command over the Italian language, and could persuade Antonio, in his native tongue, of the absolute necessity of her demands. He was quite generous on this occasion, and slipped a fair-sized parcel of mixed Neapolitan bonbons into the sanctuary of the deserted summer-house.