THE MADCAP OF THE SCHOOL
BLACKIE & SON LIMITED
50 Old Bailey, LONDON
17 Stanhope Street, GLASGOW
BLACKIE & SON (INDIA) LIMITED
Warwick House, Fort Street, BOMBAY
BLACKIE & SON (CANADA) LIMITED
1118 Bay Street, TORONTO
MADCAP OF THE SCHOOL
Author of "The Luckiest Girl in the School" "The Jolliest Term on Record" "For the Sake of the School" &c. &c.
Illustrated by Balliol Salmon
BLACKIE & SON LIMITED
London and Glasgow
By Angela Brazil
My Own Schooldays.
Ruth of St. Ronan's. Joan's Best Chum. Captain Peggie. Schoolgirl Kitty. The School in the South. Monitress Merle. Loyal to the School. A Fortunate Term. A Popular Schoolgirl. The Princess of the School. A Harum-Scarum Schoolgirl. The Head Girl at the Gables. A Patriotic Schoolgirl. For the School Colours. The Madcap of the School. The Luckiest Girl in the School. The Jolliest Term on Record. The Girls of St. Cyprian's. The Youngest Girl in the Fifth. The New Girl at St. Chad's. For the Sake of the School. The School by the Sea. The Leader of the Lower School. A Pair of Schoolgirls. A Fourth Form Friendship. The Manor House School. The Nicest Girl in the School. The Third Form at Miss Kaye's. The Fortunes of Philippa.
Printed in Great Britain by Blackie & Son, Ltd. Glasgow
Chap. Page I. The Moated Grange 9 II. The Mystic Seven 21 III. The Limberlost 38 IV. Raymonde Explores 51 V. Fifth-Form Tactics 59 VI. A Midnight Scare 67 VII. The Crystal Gazers 78 VIII. The Beano 91 IX. A Week on the Land 107 X. The Campers 115 XI. Canteen Assistants 124 XII. Amateur Detectives 137 XIII. Camp Hospitality 153 XIV. Concerns Cynthia 165 XV. On the River 173 XVI. Marooned 188 XVII. The Fossil Hunters 202 XVIII. Mademoiselle 216 XIX. A Mysterious Happening 227 XX. The Coon Concert 238 XXI. The Blinded Soldiers' Fund 253 XXII. An Accusation 264 XXIII. A Mystery Unravelled 275
"The girls put their united lung power into the loudest halloo of which they were capable" Frontispiece
"The passage was very dark, but Morvyth had brought her electric torch" 80
"Raymonde drew a long breath of intense relief, and peeped out" 152
"'Gracious, girl! Turn off the waterworks!'" 176
"Fauvette in particular looked ravishingly pretty" 184
"The door opened with a forcible jerk, and a stranger entered" 280
THE MADCAP OF THE SCHOOL
THE MOATED GRANGE
"Here they are!"
"It is, I tell you!"
"Jubilate! You're right, old sport! Scooterons-nous this very sec! Quick! Hurry! Stir your old bones, can't you?"
The two girls, who had been standing in the ruined watch-tower that spanned the gateway, tore down the broken corkscrew staircase at a speed calculated to imperil their necks seriously, and reached the bottom at the identical moment that a motor char-a-banc rounded the corner and drew up in front of the entrance. Sixteen jolly faces were grinning under sixteen school hats, and at least a dozen excited voices were pouring forth a perfect babel of exclamations.
"Oh, I say!"
"This is top-hole!"
"What a chubby place!"
"I'd no idea it would be like this!"
"Oh, hold me up! This child's knocked me over entirely!"
The opening day of a fresh term is always more or less of an event, but this particular reunion was a thrillingly important occasion, for during the Easter holidays the school had removed, and the girls were now having their first peep at their new quarters.
The vision that greeted them through the old gateway was certainly calculated to justify their ecstatic remarks. A grassy courtyard, interspersed with box-edged flower beds and flagged footpaths, led to a large, gray old Tudor house, whose mullioned diamond-paned windows, twisted chimney stacks, irregular moss-grown roof, ivied bell-tower, stone balls and carved porch offered the very utmost of the romantic and picturesque. The change from the humdrum, ordinary surroundings of their former school was supreme. Miss Beasley had promised them a pleasant surprise, and she had undoubtedly kept her word. The sixteen new arrivals grasped their handbags and small possessions, and set off up the flagged pathway with delight written large on their countenances. Raymonde Armitage and Aveline Kerby, in virtue of half an hour's longer acquaintance with the premises, trotted alongside and did the honours.
"Yes, it's topping! Regular old country mansion sort of a place. Might have come straight, slap-bang out of a novel! You should see the Bumble Bee! I can tell you she's pleased with life! Buzzing about no end! Even the Wasp's got a smile on! Fact! You needn't look so incredulous. I'm not ragging."
"It's true," confirmed Raymonde. "The Wasp's quite jinky to-day. Actually said 'my dear' to me when I arrived. Of course, Mother was there, but even then it gave me spasms. Gibbie, of all people in this wide world, to call me 'my dear'! I nearly collapsed! 'Goodness! what next?' I thought. 'Wonders will never cease!'"
"Gibbie's certainly not given to trotting out pet names, even before parents," chirruped Morvyth Holmes. "Perhaps she's striking out a new line, and we shall all be 'Darling' and 'Sweetest' now!"
"Don't you alarm yourself! She couldn't twist her tongue round them. I'd think she was pining away to an early death if she did! You'll hear plenty of plain, straight, wholesome talking-to before you're half an hour older, my child, or else I'm entirely mistaken."
"You will, old sport, unless you've mended your ways," chuckled Morvyth. "Are you a reformed character this term, may I ask? Come back with a certificate for good behaviour—no vice, gentle in harness, a child can drive her, etcetera?"
"Help! The school would die of dullness if I did! You'd be positively bored to tears. No, we all have our talents, and I consider my mission in life is to keep things humming and cheer you all up. I may do it at some personal sacrifice, but——"
"Personal thingumjig!" interrupted Valentine Gorton.
"But it is!" persisted Raymonde, her dark eyes dancing. "You don't know how disinterested I am. Gibbie can't row us all at once, and when I draw fire on myself I save you. See? I'm a kind of scapegoat for the school. Everybody's sins are stuck on to me. Gibbie lets forth the vials of her wrath, the storm's over, she feels better, and nobody else is much the worse."
"Not even you—you heroic victim?"
"Bless you, child, I'm as used to scolding as eels to skinning. Neither the Bumble Bee nor the Wasp worry me. I let them both buzz. It seems to please them! Indeed, I think they expect it. When one's got a reputation, one's bound to live up to it."
Raymonde Armitage would certainly not have won a medal for exemplary behaviour, had any such prize been offered at the school. There was no harm in her, but her irrepressible spirits were continually at effervescing point, and in fizzing over were liable to burst into outbreaks of a nature highly scandalizing to the authorities. As regarded Miss Beasley, the Principal, though she upheld discipline firmly, it was an open secret that she had a sneaking weakness for Raymonde. "The Bumble Bee rows Ray, but she likes her," was the general verdict. With Miss Gibbs, however, it was a different matter. The humour of a situation never appealed to her. She frankly considered her troublesome pupil as a thorn in the flesh, and perhaps gave her credit for more than she really deserved in the way of blame. It was whispered in the school that several enterprising spirits had managed to shift on to Raymonde's shoulders the consequences of their own crimes, with results more satisfactory to themselves than to their lively classmate. In spite of the fact that she had passed her fifteenth birthday, Raymonde was the most irresponsible creature in the world. She looked it. Her face was as round and smooth as an infant's, with an absurd little dab of a nose, a mouth with baby dimples at the corners, and small white teeth that seemed more like first than second ones, and dark eyes which, when they did not happen to be twinkling, were capable of putting on a bewitching innocence of expression calculated to deceive almost any teacher, however experienced, save the case-hardened Miss Gibbs.
At the beginning of this term there were twenty-six girls in the little community assembled at Marlowe Grange. The old house provided ample accommodation, and had been easily adapted to meet the wants of a school. Built originally in Elizabethan days, it had been added to at various times, and its medley of architecture, while hopelessly confusing styles, had resulted in a very picturesque and charming whole. Perhaps the most ancient part was the fortified gateway, ruinous and covered with ivy, but still preserving its winding stair leading to an upper story that spanned the entrance. With its tiny loophole windows and its great solid oak gate with the little door cut through, it had the aspect of a mediaeval fortress, and was a fitting introduction to what was to follow. High walls on both sides enclosed the courtyard, and farther on, to the right of the house, was another quaint garden, where shaved yew trees and clipped hollies presented distorted imitations of peacocks, umbrellas, pagodas, or other ambitious examples of topiary art. Here, in the late April weather, spring bulbs were blooming, wallflowers made a sheet of gold, and the pear trees were opening pure white blossoms. Little clumps of pansies, pink daisies, and forget-me-nots were struggling up, rather mixed amongst the box edging, and a bank of white alyssum on the rockery near the hives provided a feast of nectar for the bees, whose drowsy hum seemed to hold all the promise of the coming summer.
Behind this garden, and sheltered by the outbuildings from the north and east winds, lay the orchard, neglected and unpruned, but very beautiful with its moss-grown apple trees, its straggling plums, and budding walnuts, and cherries just bursting into an ethereal fairy network of delicate palest pink bloom. Primroses grew here amongst the grass, and clumps of dog violets and little tufts of bluebells were pushing their way up to take the place of the fading daffodils, while a blackthorn bush was a mass of pure white stars. At the far end, instead of a hedge, lay the moat, a shallow stagnant pool, bordered with drooping willows, tall reeds, and rushes that reared their spear-like stems from the dark oozy water. Originally this moat had encircled the mansion as a means of defence, but now, like the ruined gateway, its mission was long past, and it survived, a sleepy witness to the warfare of our forefathers, and a picturesque adjunct to the general beauty of the place that could scarcely be surpassed. From the farther side of the moat peaceful meadows led to the river, where between high wooded banks a stately silver stream glided slowly and tranquilly on in its path towards the ocean, rippling over weirs, and bearing on its calm bosom an occasional pleasure boat, punt, or fussy little motor yacht.
The interior of the old Grange was quaint as its exterior. The large rooms lent themselves admirably to school uses. The big hall, with its oak-panelled walls, stained-glass windows, and huge fireplace, made an excellent lecture-room, or, when the forms were moved to one end, provided plenty of space for drilling or dancing. It seemed strange certainly to turn an Elizabethan bedroom into a twentieth-century class-room, and standard desks looked decidedly at variance with the carved chimney-pieces or the stags' antlers that still ornamented the walls; but the modern element only seemed to enhance the old, and the girls agreed that nothing could be more suitable than to learn history in such a setting.
"It'll give us a loophole for lots of our lessons," remarked Raymonde hopefully, as she personally conducted a party of new arrivals over the establishment. "For instance, if I get muddled over circulating decimals, I'll explain that my brains fall naturally into a mediaeval groove in these surroundings, and decimals weren't invented then, so that of course it's impossible for me to grasp them; and the same with geography—the map of Africa then had about three names on it, so it's quite superfluous to try to remember any more. I'm going to cultivate the mental atmosphere of the place and focus my mind accordingly. I'll concentrate on the Elizabethan period of history, and the rest I'll just ignore."
"Don't know how you'll convince Gibbie!" chuckled Muriel Fuller.
"You leave Gibbie to me! My mind's seething with ideas. It's absolutely chock full. I see possibilities that I never even dreamt of at the old school. I believe this term's going to be the time of my life. Bless the dear old Bumble Bee! She's buzzed to some purpose in bringing us here!"
Perhaps what struck the girls most of all was the large dormitory. In the days of the French Revolution Marlowe Grange had been the refuge of an order of nuns, who had escaped from Limoges and founded a temporary convent in the old house. It was owing to the excellence of their arrangements, and the structural improvements which they had left behind them, that the Grange had been so eminently suitable for a school. Seven little bedrooms placed side by side served exactly to accommodate the members of the Sixth Form, while the great chamber, running from end to end of the house, with its nineteen snow-white beds, provided quarters for the rank and file. Just for a moment the girls had stared rather aghast at their vast dormitory, contrasting it with the numerous small rooms of their former school; but the possibilities of fun presented by this congregation of beds outweighed the disadvantages, and they had decided that the arrangement was "topping." It had, however, one serious drawback. At the far end was a small extra chamber, intended originally for the use of the Mother Superior of the convent, and here, to the girls' infinite dismay, Miss Gibbs had taken up her abode. There was no mistake about it. Her box blocked the doorway; her bag, labelled "M. Gibbs. Passenger to Great Marlowe via Littleton Junction," reposed upon a chair, her hat and coat lay on the bed, and a neat time-table of classes was already pinned upon the wall.
"We didn't bargain to have the Wasp at such close quarters!" whispered Ardiune Coleman-Smith ruefully. "She'll sleep with both ears open, and if we stir a finger or breathe a word she'll hear!"
"Cheero! There are ways of making people deaf," remarked Raymonde sanguinely. "How? Ah, my child, that's a surprise for the future! D'you suppose" (with a cryptic shake of the head) "I'm going to give away my professional secrets? I've told you already it's my mission to enliven this school, and if you don't have a jinky term I'll consider myself a failure. Haven't I started well? I arrived half an hour before everyone else, and booked up all the beds on the far side for our set. Here you are! A label's pinned to each pillow!"
The six kindred spirits who revolved as satellites in Raymonde's orbit turned to her with a gush of admiration. It was a brilliant thought to have labelled the beds, and so secured the most eligible portion of the dormitory for themselves.
"You're the limit, Ray!" gurgled Aveline.
Aveline was generally regarded as Raymonde's under-study. She was not so clever, so daring, or so altogether reckless, but she came in a very good second-best in most of the harum-scarum escapades. She could always be relied upon for support, could keep a secret, and had a peculiarly convenient knack of baffling awkward questions by putting on an attitude of utter stolidity. When her eyes were half-closed under their heavy lids, and her mouth wore what the girls called its "John Bull" expression, not even Miss Beasley herself could drag information out of Aveline. The Sphinx, as she was sometimes nicknamed, prided herself on her accomplishment, and took particular care to maintain her character. Raymonde had apportioned the bed on her right to Aveline, and that on her left to Fauvette Robinson, who occupied about an equal place in her affections.
Fauvette was a little, blue-eyed, fluffy-haired, clinging, cuddly, ultra-feminine specimen who hung on to Raymonde like a limpet. Raymonde twisted her flaxen locks for her in curl rags, helped to thread baby ribbon through her under-bodices, hauled her out of bed in the mornings, drummed her lessons into her, formed her opinions, and generally dominated her school career. Fauvette was one of those girls who all their lives lean upon somebody, and at present she had twined herself, an ornamental piece of honeysuckle, round the stout oak prop of Raymonde's stronger personality. She was a dear, amiable, sweet-tempered little soul, highly romantic and sentimental, with a pretty soprano voice, and just a sufficient talent for acting to make her absolutely invaluable in scenes from Dickens or Jane Austen, where a heroine of the innocent, pleading, pathetic, babyish, Early Victorian type was required.
A more spicy character was Morvyth Holmes, otherwise "The Kipper." Her pale face and shining hazel eyes showed cleverness. When she cared to work she could astonish her Form and her teacher, but her energy came in such odd bursts, and with such long lapses between, that it did not in the aggregate amount to much. It was rumoured in the school that Miss Beasley had her eye on Morvyth as a possible candidate for public examinations, and, in fear lest such an honour might be thrust upon her, Morvyth was careful to avoid the display of too deep erudition.
"It wouldn't do," she assured her chums. "Catch me swatting for the Senior Oxford like poor old Meta and Daphne. I tell you those girls will hardly enjoy a decent game of tennis this term. The Bumble Bee's got their wretched noses on the grindstone, and they'll have a blighting time till the affair's over. No, I'm a wary bird, and I'm not going to be decoyed into an intellectual trap and dished up for examination. Not even the Essay Prize shall tempt me! You may win it yourself, Ray, if you like!"
"Poor old Kipper!" murmured Raymonde. "It's a little rough on you that you daren't exhibit your talents. Can't you show a doctor's certificate prohibiting you from entering for public exams. and limiting your prep.? The kind of thing one brings back to school after scarlet fever, you know."
Morvyth shook her head dolefully.
"It's no go! The Bumble would be capable of sending for the doctor and thrashing the matter out with him. My only safety lies in modesty. No school laurels for me. They cost too dear."
Valentine Gorton and Ardiune Coleman-Smith, known familiarly as "Salt" and "Pepper," were inseparable friends in spite of the fact that they quarrelled on an average at least three times a day. Their tiffs were very easily made up, however, and they always supported each other in upsets with anyone else, merging what might be termed tribal disputes in national warfare. Being well supplied from home with chocolates, and liberal in their dispensation, they were favourites in their Form, and indeed throughout the school wore the hallmark of popularity.
Raymonde's particular set of chums was completed by Katherine Harding, a damsel whose demure looks belied her character. Katherine's innocent grey eyes and doll-like complexion were the vineyards that hide the volcano. She could always be relied upon to support any enterprising project or interesting hoax that was presented for her approval. These seven comrades, close chums in the past, banded themselves together anew to enjoy life to the best of their ability, and to obtain the maximum of fun and diversion out of the forthcoming term. It is with their immediate adventures that this book is largely concerned.
The Mystic Seven
"D'you know," said Morvyth, flopping down disgustedly on to a form, and addressing an interested audience of three; "d'you know, my children, that I consider these two new girls the very limit?"
"Absolute blighters!" agreed Raymonde hastily, "I was thinking so myself only this morning. I can't decide which is the worst."
"Not a pin to choose between them!" commented Aveline with a yawn.
"I gave Cynthia Greene credit for shyness during the first twenty-four hours," continued Morvyth. "I thought in my own mind, 'the poor thing is suffering, no doubt, from home-sickness and general confusion, and we must be gentle with her', but I kept a wary eye upon her, and I've come to a conclusion. It's not shyness—it's swank!"
Ardiune nodded her head approvingly.
"Swank, and nothing else," she confirmed. "I know something about it too, for I heard her expounding to her own Form this morning. It almost made me ill. I had to take a run round the garden before I felt fit again. It seems she's come from some much smaller school, where she's been the head girl and show pupil, and the rest of it. She said the younger ones had all looked up to her, and the Principal had treated her as a friend, and that she'd always worked hard to keep up the tone of the place."
"O Sophonisba!" ejaculated Raymonde. "Well, it strikes me we've got the tone of this school to look after. We can't allow Fourth Form kids to bring those notions and run them here. She won't find herself queen of this establishment!"
"Hardly!" chuckled Aveline.
"Aren't her own Form attending to the matter?" enquired Morvyth.
"Naturally. They're giving her as bad a time as they know how, but they don't make much headway. She tells them she fully expects to be ragged, and she simply won't believe a word they say. They haven't taken her in once yet."
"That's because they're not skilful," said Raymonde thoughtfully. "They don't do the thing artistically. There's a finesse required for this kind of work that their stupid young heads don't possess. I'm not sure if it wouldn't be philanthropic to help them!"
"Set your own house in order first!" grunted Ardiune. "You'll have your hands full with Maudie Heywood."
"I'm not going to neglect Maudie; don't alarm yourself! She's the best specimen of the genus prig that I've ever come across in the course of my life. She ought to have a Form all to herself, instead of being plumped into the Fifth. I see dangerous possibilities in Maudie. Do you realize what she did this morning? Learnt the whole of that wretched poem instead of only the twenty lines that were set us."
"I heard Gibbie complimenting her, and thought she'd get swelled head."
"Swelled head indeed! It's the principle that's involved. Don't you see that if this girl goes and learns whole poems, Gibbie'll think we can do the same, and she'll give us more next time. It's raising the standard of work in the Form."
"Great Minerva! So it is!"
"We'll have to put a stopper on that," urged Aveline indignantly.
"There are a good many things that have given me spasms since I came back," proclaimed Raymonde. "They're things that ought to be set right. What I vote is, that our set form ourselves into a sort of Watch Committee to attend to any little matters of this sort. It would be a kindness to the school."
Ardiune chuckled softly.
"By all means! Let us be the Red Cross Knights, and go out to right the wrong. We'll attack Duessa straight away, and teach her to mend her morals. You'll let Val be in it?"
"Rather! And Fauvette and Katherine. Seven's a mystic number. You know there were the Seven Champions of Christendom, and there are the Seven Ages of Man, and the Seven Days of Creation, and seven years of apprenticeship, and—and——"
"Seven deadly sins!" suggested Aveline cheerfully. "And the Seven Vials—and——"
"Well, anyhow it's always seven, so we'll make ourselves into a society. We'll have a star with seven rays for our secret sign. It has a nice occult kind of smack about it. When we chalk that mark upon anybody's desk, it means we've got to reform her, whether she likes it or whether she doesn't."
"She probably won't," twinkled Ardiune.
"Then the sooner she submits the better. She'll find it's no use fighting against fate—otherwise the Mystic Seven!"
"We'll start business with Cynthia Greene to-morrow," decided Aveline.
Fauvette, Valentine, and Katherine were duly informed of the existence of the new society and their initiation thereinto. They offered no objections, and indeed would have been prepared at Raymonde's request to join a Black Brotherhood, or a Pirates' League with a skull and cross-bones for its emblem. A special committee meeting was held to discuss the matter of Cynthia Greene.
"It needs finesse," said Morvyth. "She's been to school before, and she's up to most dodges. Naturally she comprehends that her own Form are trying to rag her."
"That's where we come in," agreed Raymonde. "We're going to pose as philanthropists. One or two of us have got to take Cynthia up. We'll make her realize, of course, how very kind it is of Fifth Form girls to befriend a lonely junior."
"And having taken her up—what then?" queried Fauvette.
"Bless your innocence, child! Why, we'll let her down with a run!"
"Are we all in it?"
"No; it would be too marked. Best leave the affair to Aveline and me. You others must stand aloof and look disinterested but sympathetic. I'll speak to her at lunch-time."
During the mid-morning interval, therefore, Raymonde singled out her victim. Cynthia was standing slightly apart from her Form, consuming thick bread and butter with an air of pensive melancholy, and twisting a pet bracelet that adorned her wrist. Raymonde strolled up casually.
"Getting on all right?" she began, by way of opening the attack. "I say, you know, I thought I'd just speak to you. I expect you're having a grizzly time with those wretched juniors. They're a set of blighters, aren't they?"
"I do find them a little trying," admitted Cynthia cautiously, "especially as I was head girl at my old school."
"Rather a climb-down from Senior to Junior, isn't it? Why didn't Miss Beasley put you in the Fifth?"
"My mother asked her to, but she said as I was only thirteen it was quite impossible. It's all right. I expect to be ragged a little at first. I'll live it down in time."
Cynthia's expression of patient resignation was almost too much for Raymonde, but she controlled her countenance and continued:
"They'll respect you all the more afterwards, no doubt."
"I hope so. We didn't rag new girls at The Poplars. I always made a point of showing them they were welcome. It seemed only fair to Miss Gordon. She was more like a personal friend than a teacher, and she looked to me, you see, to keep up the tone of the school."
"She must be lost without you!"
"I think they'll miss me," admitted Cynthia, with a little fluttering sigh of regret. "The girls all subscribed before I left and gave me this bracelet as a keepsake. It's got an inscription inside. Would you like to look at it?"
Cynthia had unclasped her treasure, and handed it with an assumed nonchalance for Raymonde's inspection. On the gold band was engraved: "To Cynthia Greene, a token of esteem from her schoolfellows."
"Highly gratifying!" gurgled Raymonde.
"It was sweet of them, wasn't it? Well, I tried to do my best for them, and I'll do my best for this school too when I get the chance. I'm in no hurry. I'm content to wait, and let the girls come round."
"Quite the best plan. In the meantime, if there are any little tips I can give you, come to me."
"Thanks awfully! I will. I'd have done the same by you if you'd been a new girl at The Poplars."
Raymonde retired bubbling over with suppressed mirth.
"That girl's the limit!" she reported to her confederates. "For calm self-complacency I've never seen anybody to equal her. The idea of imagining me as a new girl at her wretched pettifogging old school! Oh, it's too precious! She'd patronize the Queen herself! The Poplars must be executing a war-dance for joy to have got rid of her. Probably they'd have subscribed for more than a bracelet to pass her on elsewhere!"
"So she's waiting patiently till she wins the school," hinnied Aveline. "Poor angel! Did you notice her wings sprouting, or a halo glowing round her head?"
"I think we can put her up to a few tips," chuckled Ardiune.
"It would only be kind," gushed Raymonde. "The sort of thing she must have done herself hundreds of times to many a poor neglected new girl at The Poplars. The bread she cast upon the waters shall be returned to her."
"With butter on it!" added Aveline.
"She can swallow any amount of butter," observed Raymonde. "She evidently likes it laid on thick. Suggestions invited, please, for kind and disinterested advice to be administered to her."
"Professor Marshall comes to-morrow," volunteered Aveline.
"The very thing! Ave, you old sport, you've given me an idea! Now just prepare your minds for a pretty and touching little scene at the beginning of the mediaeval arts lecture. No, I shan't tell you what it is beforehand. It'll be something for you to look forward to!"
The staff at Marlowe Grange consisted of Miss Beasley, Miss Gibbs, and Mademoiselle, but there were several visiting masters and mistresses who had attended at the former house, and were now to continue their instructions at the school in its present quarters. Among these Professor Marshall was rather a favourite. As befitted a teacher in an establishment of young ladies, he was grey-haired and elderly, and, as the girls added, "married and guaranteed not to flirt," but all the same he was jolly, had a hearty, affable manner, and a habit of making bad jokes and weak puns to break up the monotony of his lectures. It was decidedly the fashion to admire him, to snigger indulgently at his mild little pleasantries, and to call him "an old dear." Some of the girls even worked quite hard at their preparation for him. He had written his autograph in at least nineteen birthday books, and it was rumoured that, when the auspicious 10th of March had come round, no less than fourteen anonymous congratulatory picture post-cards had been directed to him from the school and posted by stealth. Having already improved their minds upon a course of English Classics and Astronomy, the school this term was booked for culture, and devoted to the study of the fine arts of the Middle Ages. A few selected members of the Sixth had been told off to search through back numbers of The Studio and The Connoisseur for examples of the paintings of Cimabue and Giotto, and the large engraving of Botticelli's "Spring," which used to hang in Miss Beasley's study, now occupied a prominent position on the dining-room wall to afford a mental feast during meal-times.
Raymonde, anxious not to overdo things, left Cynthia to herself for the rest of the day; but the following morning, after breakfast, she seized an opportunity for a few words with her.
"You won't mind my giving you a hint or two on school etiquette?" she observed casually. "You see, there are traditions in every school that one likes to keep up, and of course you can't find them out unless you're told."
"I'd be very glad," gushed Cynthia gratefully. "We'd a regular code at The Poplars, and I used to initiate everybody. They always came straight to me, and I coached them up. I can't tell you how many new girls I've helped in my time!"
"Well, you're new yourself now," said Raymonde, detaching Cynthia's mind from these reminiscences of past service and bringing it up to date. "Professor Marshall's coming to-day, and you'll have to be introduced to him."
"Oh dear! I'm so shy! I wonder what he'll think of me?" fluttered Cynthia.
"Think you're the sickliest idiot he ever met!" was on the tip of Raymonde's tongue, but she restrained herself, and, drawing her victim aside, whispered honeyed words calculated to soothe and cheer, adding some special items of good advice.
"Thank you," sighed Cynthia. "I won't forget. Of course, we never did such a thing at The Poplars, but, if it's expected, I won't break the traditions of the school. You can always depend upon me in that respect."
Precisely at 11.30 the whole of the school was assembled in the big hall awaiting the presence of their lecturer. Professor Marshall, who had been regaling himself with lunch in Miss Beasley's study, now made his appearance, escorted by the head mistress, and apparently refreshed by cocoa and conversation. The girls always agreed that his manners were beautiful. He treated everybody with a courtly deference, something between the professional consideration of a fashionable doctor and the dignity of an archdeacon. After Miss Gibbs's uncompromising attitude, the contrast was marked. He entered the room smiling, bowed a courteous good morning to his pupils, who rose to receive him, and placed a chair for Miss Beasley with gentlemanly attention.
The Principal, radiant after showing off her new quarters, refused it with equal politeness.
"No, thank you, Professor. I'm not going to stay. I have other work to do. You will find your class the same as before, with the addition of two new girls. Maude Heywood—come here, Maudie!—and Cynthia Greene. I hope they'll both prove good workers."
Maudie Heywood, blushing like a lobster, stepped forward and thrust three limp fingers for a fraction of a second into the Professor's large clasp, then thankfully merged her identity among her schoolfellows. Cynthia, who was behind her, smiled bewitchingly upwards into the florid, benevolent face of her new instructor, then, falling gracefully upon one knee, seized his hand and touched it with her lips.
The sensation in the room was immense. The Professor, looking decidedly astonished and embarrassed, hastily withdrew his hand from the affectionate salutation. Miss Beasley's eyes were round with horror.
"Cynthia!" she exclaimed, and the tone of her voice alone was sufficient reproof.
The luckless Cynthia, instantly conscious that her act had been misconstrued, retired with less grace than she had come forward, and spent most of the lecture in surreptitiously mopping her eyes. As she walked dejectedly down the corridor afterwards, she was accosted by Hermione Graveson, a member of the Sixth.
"Look here!" said Hermione briefly. "What prompted you to make such an utter exhibition of yourself just now? I never saw anything more sickening in my life!"
Cynthia's tears burst forth afresh.
"It wasn't my fault," she sobbed. "I didn't want to do it, but I was told it was school etiquette and I must."
"Who told you such rubbish?"
"That girl with the dark eyes and a patriotic hair ribbon."
"I believe that's her name."
Hermie shook her head solemnly.
"New girls are notoriously callow," she remarked, "but I should have thought anybody with the slightest grain of sense could have seen at a glance what Raymonde is. Why, she's simply been playing ragtime on you. Did you actually and seriously believe that the girls at this school were expected to go through such idiotic performances? Don't believe a word Raymonde tells you again."
"Whom shall I believe? Everybody tries to stuff me!" wailed the injured Cynthia. "I never treated anybody like this at The Poplars."
"Trust your common sense—that is, if you happen to have any; and, for goodness' sake, don't snivel any more. Wipe your eyes and take it sporting. And, wait a moment. If you want a bit of really good, sound advice, don't mention The Poplars again, or the fact that you were head girl there, and the idol of the school, and the rest of it. You're only a junior here, and the sooner you find your level the better. We're not exactly aching to have our tone improved by you! And, look here! Take that absurd keepsake bracelet off, and lock it up in your box, and don't let anybody see it again till the end of the term. There! go and digest what I've told you."
Having settled with Cynthia Greene, it now remained for the Mystic Seven to turn their attention to the matter of Maudie Heywood. The situation was growing acute. Maudie had been ten days at the Grange, and in that brief space of time she was already beginning to establish a precedent. She was a tall, slim girl, with earnest eyes, a decided chin, and an intellectual forehead. Work, with a capital W, was her fetish. She sat during classes with her gaze focused on her teacher, and a look of intelligent interest that surpassed everyone else in the Form. Miss Gibbs turned instinctively to Maudie at the most important points of the lesson. There was a feeling abroad that she sucked in knowledge like a sponge. Nobody would have objected to her consuming as much as she liked of the mental provender supplied had she stopped at that. Maudie unfortunately was over-zealous, and finding the amount of preparation set her to be well below the limit of her capacity, invariably did a little more than was required. Her maps were coloured, her botany papers illustrated with neat drawings, her history exercises had genealogical tables appended, and her literature essays were full of quotations. This was all very exemplary, and won golden opinions from Miss Gibbs, but it caused heartburnings in the Form. It was felt that Maudie was unduly raising the standard. Miss Gibbs had suggested that other botany papers might contain diagrams, and had placed upon the class-room chimney-piece a book of poetical extracts suitable for use in essay-writing.
"If we don't take care we'll be having our prep. doubled," said Aveline uneasily.
It was decided to reason with Maudie before taking any more active measures. The united Seven tackled her upon the subject.
"I promised Mother I'd work," urged Maudie, in reply to their remonstrances.
"But you've no need to work overtime," objected Ardiune. "We don't mind how hard you swat during prep., but it isn't right for you to be putting in extra half-hours while the rest of us are in the garden. It's stealing an advantage."
"It's a work of supererogation," added Katherine.
Maudie wrinkled up her intellectual forehead anxiously.
"Works of supererogation are supposed to count," she interposed in her precise, measured voice.
"Yes, if they're done with intention for somebody else!" flared Raymonde. "But yours aren't! They're entirely for your own pride and vanity. Do you come and translate my Latin for me in those extra half-hours? Not a bit of it!"
"Oh, that wouldn't be fair!" Maudie's tone was of shocked virtue.
"It's more unfair to heap burdens on the rest of your Form."
"I'm bound to do my best."
"The fact is," burst out Aveline, "you're suffering from an over-developed conscience. You've got an abnormal appetite for work, and it ought to be checked. It isn't good for you. Promise us you won't write or learn a word out of prep. time."
Maudie shook her head sadly. Her grey eyes gleamed with the enthusiasm of the martyr spirit.
"I can't promise anything," she sighed. "Something within me urges me to work."
"Then something without you will have to put a stop to it," snapped Raymonde. "We've given you full and fair warning; so now you may look out for squalls."
When preparation was over, the girls were allowed to amuse themselves as they liked until supper. Most of them adjourned to the garden, for the evenings were getting longer and lighter every day, and the tennis courts were in quite fair condition. It was Maudie's habit to take a pensive stroll among the box-edged flower beds in the courtyard, and then repair to the class-room again to touch up her exercises. On this particular evening Raymonde, with a contingent of the Mystic Seven, lingered behind.
"We've just about ten minutes," she announced. "Old Maudie's as punctual as a clock. She'll walk five times round the sundial and twice to the gate."
"That girl's destined for the cloister," said Aveline pityingly. "She's evidently thirsting to live her life by rule. Mark my words, she'll eventually take the veil."
"No, she'll pass triumphantly through College and come out equal to a double-first or Senior Wrangler, or something swanky of that kind, and get made head mistress of a high school," prognosticated Ardiune.
"In the meantime, she won't swat any more to-night!" grinned Raymonde. "Wait for me here, girls; I've got to fetch something."
Raymonde performed her errand with lightning speed. She returned with a lump of soft substance in one hand, and a spirit-lamp and curling-tongs in the other. Her chums looked mystified.
"Cobblers' wax!" she explained airily. "Brought some with me, in case of emergency. It's useful stuff. And I just looted Linda Mottram's curling apparatus from her bedroom. Don't you twig? What blind bats you are! I'm going to stick up Maudie's desk!"
Raymonde lighted the spirit-lamp and heated the tongs, then spreading a thick coating of the wax along the inside edge of the desk, she applied the hot iron to melt it, and put down the lid.
"It will have hardened by the time Maudie has finished her constitutional among the flower beds," she giggled. "I'll guarantee when she comes back she won't be able to open her desk."
"It's only right for her to feel the pressure of public opinion," decreed Ardiune. "We're working in a good cause."
"But we're modest about it, and don't want to push ourselves forward," urged Raymonde. "I vote we go for a stroll down to the very bottom of the orchard, near the moat."
A quarter of an hour later, Miss Beasley and Miss Gibbs were sitting together in the Principal's study enjoying a well-earned period of repose and a chat. Their conversation turned upon the varied dispositions of their pupils.
"Maudie Heywood strikes me as a very earnest character," observed Miss Beasley, toying with the violets in her belt. "Her work is really excellent."
"Almost too good," agreed Miss Gibbs, who was perhaps beginning to find out that Maudie's exercises took twice as long to correct as anybody else's, and thus sensibly curtailed her teacher's leisure. "The child is so conscientious. In my opinion she needs to concentrate more on physical exercise. I should like to see her in the tennis courts instead of copying out reams of poetry."
"Yes," said Miss Beasley, looking thoughtful. "Her activities perhaps need a little adjustment. We mustn't allow her to neglect her health. She looks over-anxious sometimes for a girl of fifteen."
"She is always such a calm, self-controlled, well-regulated child," remarked Miss Gibbs appreciatively.
At that moment there was a hurried rap-tap-tap; the door opened, and Maudie burst in unannounced. Her calm self-control had yielded to an agitated condition of excitement and indignation. Her earnest eyes were flashing angry sparks, and her cheeks were crimson.
"Oh, Miss Beasley!" she began, "those girls have actually gone and stuck up my desk, so that I can't get out my books. They say I work overtime, and it's not fair, for if I like to work, why shouldn't I? I just detest the whole lot of them! I hate this place!"
"I think you're forgetting yourself, Maudie," returned the Principal. "It is hardly good manners to enter my study so abruptly and to speak in this way to me. If you wish to please me, I should much prefer you to spend your leisure time at games instead of lessons. To-morrow evening I hope to see you playing tennis. If you ask the cook for a screw-driver you'll probably be able to wedge open your desk easily. But in future you'll be wiser to confine your work to the preparation hours. The bow must be unstrung sometimes, or your health will suffer. If you join with the other girls at their games you'll soon get to know them, and feel more at home here. Try to be sociable and make yourself liked. Part of the training of school life is to learn to accommodate yourself to a community."
The crestfallen Maudie retired, murmuring apologies. Miss Beasley picked up her copy of The Graphic and laughed.
"As a rule, we may trust the girls themselves to do any necessary pruning. They're the strictest Socialists that could be imagined. They instinctively have all the principles of a trade union about them. On the whole, it's good for Maudie to be restrained. A little innocent practical joke will do her no harm for once. She must be able to take her share of teasing. Humour is her one deficiency."
"I think I can guess who's at the bottom of the business," sniffed Miss Gibbs. "Raymonde Armitage is the naughtiest girl in the school."
"Pardon me!" corrected Miss Beasley. "The most mischievous, perhaps, and the most troublesome; full of bubbling spirits and misplaced energy, but straightforward and truthful. There is something very lovable about Raymonde."
Everybody agreed that Marlowe Grange was an ideal spot for a school. The picturesque old orchard and grounds provided an almost unlimited field of amusement. Those girls who were interested in horticulture might have their own little plots at the end of the potato patch, and a delightful series of experiments had been started down by the moat, where a real, genuine water-garden was in process of construction. Here, duly shod in rubber waders, a few enthusiasts toiled almost daily, planting iris and arrow-head and flowering rush, and sinking water-lily roots in old wicker baskets weighted with stones. There was even a scheme on hand to subscribe to buy a punt, but Miss Beasley had frowned upon the idea as containing too great an element of danger, and of consequent anxiety for teachers.
"I don't want a set of Ophelias drowning themselves among the willows and the long purples!" she remarked firmly. "If we bought a punt, we should need a drag and a life-belt as well. You shall go for a row on the river sometimes during the summer, and that must content you. There are plenty of occupations on dry land to amuse yourselves with."
The Grange certainly contained ample space for interests of every description. The old farm buildings made sheds for carpentry and wood-carving, or any other work that was too messy for the schoolrooms. Under the direction of Miss Gibbs, some of the elder girls were turning the contents of a wood pile into a set of rustic garden seats, and other industrious spirits had begun to plait osierwithes into baskets that were destined for blackberry picking in the autumn. The house itself was roomy enough to allow hobbies to overflow. Miss Beasley, who dabbled rather successfully in photography, had a conveniently equipped dark-room, which she lent by special favour to seniors only, on the understanding that they left it as they found it. Miss Gibbs had taken possession of an empty attic, and had made it into a scientific sanctum. So far none of the girls had been allowed to peep inside, and the wildest rumours were afloat as to what the room contained. Batteries and other apparatus had been seen to be carried upstairs, and those scouts who had ventured along the forbidden upper landing reported that through the closed door they could hear weird noises as of turning wheels or bubbling crucibles. It was surmised in the school that Miss Gibbs, having found a congenial mediaeval atmosphere for her researches, was working on the lines of the ancient alchemists, and attempting to discover the elixir of life or the philosopher's stone. One fact was certain. Miss Gibbs had set up a telescope in her solitary attic. She had bought it second-hand, during the holidays, from the widow of a coastguardsman, and with its aid she studied the landscape by day and the stars by night. The girls considered she kept a wary eye on watch for escaped Germans or Zeppelins, and regarded the instrument in the light of a safeguard for the establishment.
"Besides which, anything's a blessing that takes Gibbie upstairs and keeps her from buzzing round us all the time," averred Raymonde.
"She's welcome to keep anything she likes in her room, from a stuffed crocodile to a snake in a bottle!" yawned Fauvette. "All I ask is that she doesn't take me up and improve my mind. I'm getting fed up with hobbies. I can't show an intelligent interest in all. My poor little brains won't hold them. What with repousse work and stencilling and chip carving, I hardly ever get half an hour to enjoy a book. My idea of a jinky time is to sit by the moat and read, and eat chocolates. By the by, has that copy of The Harvester come yet? Hermie promised to get it for the library."
The girls at the Grange had fashions in books, and at present they were all raving over the works of Gene Stratton Porter. Even Raymonde, not generally much of a reader, had succumbed to the charms of Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost. The accounts of the American swamp forest fascinated her. It was a veritable "call of the wild."
"I'd give anything—just anything—to get into such a place!" she confided to Fauvette. "I'd chance even the snakes and mosquitoes. Just think of the trees and the flowers and the birds and the butterflies! Why don't we have things like that in England?"
"I expect we do, only one never gets to see them. There's a wood over there on the hill that looks absolutely top-hole if one could go into it. Hermie said the other day that the Bumble Bee had buzzed out something about taking us all for a picnic there some day. It would be rather precious."
Raymonde shook her head reflectively.
"Picnics are all very well in their way, but when you turn about thirty people together into a wood, I fancy the birds and butterflies will give us a wide berth. Freckles found his specimens when he was alone. You can't go naturalizing in a crowd! Look here! Suppose you and I go and explore. I'll be the Bird Woman, and you can be the Swamp Angel."
"Oh, what a blossomy idea! But what about Gibbie? Can we dodge her?"
"We'll wait till she's shut herself up in her attic, and then we'll scoot. Between tea and prep.'s the best time, especially now prep.'s been put later."
"You really have the most chubby inspirations, Ray," burbled Fauvette. "You're an absolute mascot!"
The idea of posing as the Swamp Angel appealed to Fauvette. She was conscious that she looked the part. She fingered her fluffy flaxen curls caressingly, and resolved to wear a blue cotton dress for the next day or two, in case there was a chance of the expedition. In imagination she was already photographing rare birds and shooting villains with revolvers, and looking her best through it all.
"I wish I knew how to mix iced drinks," she sighed regretfully. "One can't get even the ice over here, not to speak of the bits of cherry and lemon and grape and pineapple that the Angel used for Freckles. Girls in America have a far better time than we have."
"Cheero! We'll get a little fun, you'll see, if we can only circumvent the Wasp."
It was not a remarkably easy matter to leave the premises unobserved. Monitresses had a tiresome habit of hanging about in places where they were not wanted; Mademoiselle made herself far too conspicuous, and Miss Gibbs seemed everywhere. The chums decided that a too great attention to duty can degenerate into a fault.
"It's what Miss Beasley said in the Scripture lesson," declared Raymonde. "Economy over-done turns into parsimony, liberality into extravagance, self-respect into pride. Gibbie's over-stepping the mark, and letting responsibility run to fussiness."
It is hardly possible to tackle a mistress and convince her of her faults, so Miss Gibbs's pharisaical tendencies went unchecked. Evidently the only possible method was to dodge her. Whether her suspicions were aroused it is impossible to say, but for several days she neglected her attic sanctum and pervaded the garden during recreation hours.
Raymonde and Fauvette lay low, and toiled with an amazing spurt of industry at osier-weaving.
"You've each nearly finished a basket," said Miss Gibbs approvingly.
"Yes, if we go on working hard this afternoon I think we shall finish them," replied Raymonde craftily.
"It's nice to have a thing done. I'm glad you've taken to such a sensible employment," commented Miss Gibbs.
"We like to have our fingers occupied, and then our minds haven't time to wander," said Raymonde, quoting so shamelessly from Miss Beasley that Fauvette kicked her surreptitiously in alarm.
Miss Gibbs regarded her for a moment with suspicion, but her eyes were bent demurely over her basket, and her expression was innocence personified.
"It's as well you have something to do under cover, for I think it's going to rain," observed the mistress as she turned to leave the barn.
The girls watched her cross the courtyard and enter the house; then Fauvette, scooting in by the back way, had the further satisfaction of seeing the tail of her skirt whisking up the attic stairs. She ran back to report to Raymonde.
"Gibbie's safe in her sanctum. She thinks we're happily employed here for the next hour. Let's bolt for the Limberlost! There's nobody in the courtyard."
"Right-o!" echoed Raymonde. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime."
They did not wait to fetch hats, but, strolling down the flagged path as if for exercise, reached the great gate. Then, glancing cautiously round to see that the coast was absolutely clear, they unlatched the little postern door, slipped through, and shut it after them. A moment later they were running at top speed down the road that led to the wood. It was not a very great distance away, and they had often passed near it in their walks. To scramble over the palings and enter its cool, mysterious shade had been their dream. They were resolved now to make it a reality.
They had been prepared for something delightful, but not for the little terrestrial paradise that spread itself at the farther side of the fence. The wood had been thinned comparatively recently, so that it admitted an unusual amount of light and air. The trees, just bursting into the tender green of early May, spread delicate lacy boughs overhead, like tender fingers held out to guard the treasures underneath. The ground below, still moist and boggy from the spring rains, was clothed with a carpet of dog violets, growing in such profusion that they seemed to stretch in a vista of palest mauve into the distance. At close intervals among these grew glorious clumps of golden cowslips and purple meadow orchis, taller and finer by far than those in the meadows, and deliciously fragrant. In the swampy hollows were yellow marsh marigolds and blue forget-me-nots; on the drier soil of the rising bank the wild hyacinths were just shaking open their bells, and heartsease here and there lifted coy heads to the sunlight.
Raymonde and Fauvette wandered about in ecstasy, picking great bunches of the flowers, and running from clump to clump with thrills of delight. Surely even Freckles's "Limberlost" could not be more beautiful than this. A persistent cuckoo was calling in the meadow close by; a thrush with his brown throat all a-ruffle trilled in a birch tree overhead, and a blackbird warbled his heart out among the hazel bushes by the fence. The girls went peeping here and there and everywhere in quest of birds' nests, and their diligent search was amply rewarded. In the hollow of a decaying stump a robin was feeding five little gaping mouths, the blackbird's mate guarded four speckled eggs, and three separate thrushes had pale-blue treasures in clay-lined cradles amidst the undergrowth.
As they penetrated farther into the wood they struck upon a pond closely surrounded by sallows and alders. Raymonde peered through the shimmering leaves, and called Fauvette with a cry of joy, for covering almost the entire surface of the water was a mass of the gorgeous pale-pink fringed blossoms of the bog bean. The girls had never found it before, and it was indeed rare for it to be growing in a Midland county. They thought it was the most beautiful flower they had ever seen. How to pick any was the difficulty, for even the nearest piece lay fully a yard from the edge of the pond, and the finest blooms were in the middle of the water.
"I'm going to get some somehow, if I have to take off my shoes and stockings!" declared Raymonde.
An easier way than wading, however, presented itself. Close by the side of the pond was a young tree which had been blown over by the spring gales; the forester had chopped it from its roots, but had not yet removed it. By dint of much energy the girls lifted this, and pushed it over the water till part of it rested securely on an alder which grew on a little island in the midst. It made a rather shaky but perfectly possible bridge, if not for Fauvette, at least for Raymonde. The latter advanced upon it cautiously but courageously. She took three steps, almost slipped, but regained her balance by a miracle, grasped an overhanging bough of the alder, and set a firm foot on the island. From here, by reaching a long arm, she could gather some fine specimens of the bog bean. She pulled it up in handfuls, with trailing oozy stalks. As she turned to grip the alder branch before venturing back over her primitive bridge, her eye suddenly caught sight of a large nest built at the extreme brink of the water. It held four browny-speckled eggs, and an agitated moorhen, seeking cover among the reeds, gave the clue to their parentage.
The school was making a collection of birds' eggs for its museum. There were plenty of robins' and thrushes' and blackbirds', and all the common varieties, but so far not a solitary specimen of a moorhen's egg. Raymonde felt that even at the risk of betraying their secret expedition she must secure some of these. She decided to go halves, to take two and leave two in the nest to console the moorhen when she came back. She wrapped them in some grass and packed them in her handkerchief, which she slung round her neck for safety. Then taking her bunch of bog bean she managed to scramble back to the bank.
The girls were naturalists enough to remove their tree-trunk from the island, lest it should tempt marauding boys to go across and discover the moorhen's nest. They hoped the bird would return and sit again when they were out of the way. Each carefully carrying one of the precious eggs, they went on farther to explore the wood. They had only walked a short distance when Fauvette stopped suddenly.
"What's that queer squeaking noise?" she asked.
"Do you hear it too?" confirmed Raymonde.
The girls glanced round, and then looked at each other blankly. There was no doubt that the persistent chirruping and peeping came from the eggs in their hands.
"Oh, good night! The wretched things are hatching out!" gasped Raymonde.
They had indeed robbed the poor moorhen at the very moment when her chicks were in the process of hatching. Already there was a chip in the side of each egg, and a tiny bill began to protrude, the owner of which was raising a shrill clamour of welcome to the world. The girls laid them hastily down on the grass.
"Those won't be any use for the museum!" exploded Fauvette.
"I wonder if we ought to put them back," murmured Raymonde, decidedly conscience-stricken, though somewhat unwilling to venture again over the slippery tree-trunk.
She might perhaps have braved the crossing, and restored the eggs to the nest, but at that moment the rain, which had been threatening all the afternoon, came down in a torrent. She felt it had sealed the fate of the chicks.
"We'll just have to leave them here. It's like murder, but I can't help it. If we don't get back quick we shall be drenched."
As the girls turned to retrace their steps they became aware that they were not alone in the wood. Some distance among the bushes a dark coat and hat were plainly advancing in their direction. Undoubtedly somebody had been watching them and was following them. Wild visions of Black Jack and his "Limberlost" gang swam before their eyes, and with one accord they ran—ran anywhere, panic-stricken, bent only on escaping.
A voice shouted, and it added to their terror, and sent them hurrying on the faster. They imagined oaths and pistol-shots behind them. Such exciting scenes were all very well in the pages of Freckles, but they would be decidedly out of place in an English wood. When it came to the point, neither of them possessed the courage and presence of mind of the Swamp Angel.
Suppose they found themselves bound and gagged, and tied to trees, while some dastardly ruffians hewed down the best timber in the wood? The shouts behind grew nearer. Their pursuer was evidently gaining upon them. Through the pouring rain they struggled on, splashing anyhow through swampy places, regardless of soaked shoes and stockings, pushing through wet bushes and underneath dripping branches, possessed by the one idea of flight. Down through the hollow where they had gathered the forget-me-nots, and up the bluebell bank they struggled, with never a thought for the flowers; and they were just about to scramble over some felled trees when Raymonde, who was a yard in advance, caught her foot in a tangle of brier and fell on her hands and knees among the springing bracken. Fauvette, unable to stop herself, collided heavily and collapsed by her side. Too much out of breath to stir, the girls lay for a few moments panting.
"Hallo! Wait!" shouted their pursuer.
The rather rasping, authoritative voice was so well known and familiar that the girls scrambled up and turned round, to find—no desperate villain armed with revolver and bowie-knife, but Miss Gibbs, in a neat, shiny-black mackintosh and rainproof hat to match. She advanced breathless and agitated, and very decidedly out of temper.
"You naughty girls! What do you mean by running away like this? I watched you through my telescope as you went to the wood, and of course followed you. Why didn't you come at once when I called?"
"We didn't know it was you!" murmured Raymonde, forbearing to explain that they had taken their mistress for a ruffian.
Fauvette said nothing. She was looking horribly conscious and caught. Miss Gibbs glared at the guilty pair, and, telling them curtly to come along, led the way back.
Such a serious breach of school discipline was naturally visited with heavy consequences. For the next three days Raymonde and Fauvette spent their recreation hours indoors, copying certain classic lines of Paradise Lost. They were debarred from the purchase of chocolates or any other form of sweetstuff for the period of a month, and made to understand that they were under the ban not only of Miss Gibbs's, but also of Miss Beasley's displeasure.
"I never thought of that wretched telescope," mourned Fauvette. "Just imagine Gibbie spying on us all the time! She must have watched us scramble over the palings into the wood. It's worse than second sight! And then for her to come gallivanting out after us in that swanky mackintosh! It gave me spasms!"
"We'd a jinky time, though, first. It was worth being caught afterwards," maintained Raymonde candidly. "And, you know, in secret the Bumble Bee was rejoiced to see that bog bean. She won't admit it, of course, but I know it's the discovery of the term. It's recorded in the Nature Note-book, and the best piece was pressed for the museum. My own private opinion is that both the Bumble and the Wasp will go buzzing off to that Limberlost, exploring on their own, some day, and I don't blame them. It's a paradise!"
"Most top-hole place I've ever been in in my life!" agreed Fauvette, sighing heavily. "I say, I call it rather appropriate of the Bumble to have made us copy out Paradise Lost!"
There was no doubt that Marlowe Grange was one of the quaintest old houses in the county. The girls all felt that its mediaeval atmosphere was unrivalled. Even such prosaic subjects as geometry or analysis took on an element of romance when studied in an oak-panelled chamber with coats of arms emblazoned on the upper panes of the windows. It was the fashion in the school to rejoice in the antique surroundings. The girls took numerous photos, and printed picture post-cards to send home to their families and friends, and everyone with the least aptitude for drawing started a sketchbook. Like most ancient buildings, the old hall, while preserving its principal rooms in good repair, was growing shaky in the upper stories. The labyrinth of attics that lay under the roof had been neglected till the latticed windows were almost off their hinges, and the plaster had fallen in great patches from the ceilings. Fearing lest the worm-eaten floors were really unsafe, Miss Beasley had made the top story a forbidden territory, and, to ensure her orders being obeyed, had placed a wire door to shut it off from the rest of the house. This door was kept locked, Miss Beasley and Miss Gibbs each having a key. Every day, girls pressed inquisitive noses against the wire netting to peep at the tantalizing prospect beyond. They could just see round the corner of a winding oak staircase on to a dim, mysterious landing beyond. Once or twice Miss Gibbs had gone to her attic laboratory and had left the door open behind her, and a few bold spirits had ventured upstairs, but, as the door of her room had also been wide open, they had not dared to pass it and risk discovery, and had been obliged to beat a hasty retreat. It was highly aggravating, for the vista of dark passages looked most alluring.
"Couldn't we ask the Bumble to take us round the attics some Saturday for a special treat?" suggested Ardiune.
"'Twouldn't be much fun going in a specially conducted party like a crowd of tourists!" sniffed Raymonde. "We'd all have to stand at attention while the Bumble gave a short lecture on the architecture or the historical significance of some thingumbobs. It would just turn it all into a lesson. What I want is to go and poke about on my own; and I mean to some day!"
"Gibbie'd snap your head off if she caught you!"
"I don't intend to be caught."
It was all very well to lay plans, but another matter to carry them out. Miss Gibbs usually locked the wire door behind her, only leaving it open when she went upstairs to fetch something and meant to return almost immediately. The mere fact of its difficulty increased Raymonde's zest for the adventure. Her wild, harum-scarum spirits welcomed the element of possible danger, and the imminence of discovery added an extra spice. For days she haunted the vicinity of the winding staircase, hiding in bedrooms and watching, in case Miss Gibbs went to her laboratory. Twice she watched the mistress pass through the wire door and lock it safely behind her, quite unaware of the outraged pupil fuming in No. 3 Dormitory opposite. Raymonde reiterated her old opinion that Miss Gibbs was far too exact and conscientious.
On one eventful afternoon, however, fortune favoured her. No less a person than Miss Beasley ascended the interesting staircase, actually leaving the defences unsecured. Raymonde seized the opportunity, and like a little ghost or shadow stole softly after her. The head mistress had entered the laboratory, and had closed that door after her. Raymonde tiptoed up to it, and could hear voices inside, the whirling of a wheel, and a kind of bubbling sound. Was Miss Beasley assisting Miss Gibbs with the alchemy? She did not wait even to take a survey through the keyhole, but, hurrying on, turned the corner of the passage.
She found herself in another long, narrow landing, with rooms on both sides. She peeped into most of these. They were empty, and in a deplorable state of disrepair. Plaster had fallen from the ceilings, showing the rafters; in some places, even streaks of daylight shone through chinks in the tiled roof. The worm-eaten old floors had rotted into holes, and Raymonde had to walk warily to avoid putting her foot through in tender places. Many of the rooms had cupboards—dark, mysterious, cobwebby recesses—into which she peered with a rather jumpy sensation that a bogy might suddenly pop out. The whole atmosphere of the place was ghostly, even in the daytime.
"I shouldn't like to come up here at night!" shivered Raymonde.
As far as she could tell, the passage seemed to be leading her round the house. It turned several corners, and ended in a long gallery. This looked more cheerful, for the sun shone in through the large end window and brightened the cracked old walls. She danced along the floor with quite a return of high spirits.
"I wish the Bumble would let us come up here on wet days. It would be a glorious place for games, nicer by far than the barn. I call it mean of her to lock up all this part of the house. We'd have absolutely topping fun! I say! what's that little door over there?"
The door in question was very small, and quite low down on a level with the floor. Raymonde went on her hands and knees to investigate. It was secured with a bolt, which she easily opened. To her surprise, she found herself looking out upon the roof. Whether it had been constructed in past days to provide a means of escape from danger, or merely to allow workmen to replace loose tiles, it was impossible to say. It was certainly within the bounds of probability to imagine a Jacobite, with a price set on his life, creeping through the little opening to find a more secure hiding-place among the twisted chimneys, while King George's soldiers searched the mansion below.
Raymonde put her head out. The roof sloped steeply up in front. To a girl of her temperament the temptation to explore farther was irresistible. She squeezed through the small door, and wriggled out on her hands and knees on to the tiles.
She was in the angle of a small gable. She could see roof all round her, and sky above. Still on hands and knees, she began to creep upwards. The weather-beaten old tiles had mellowed to dull red and orange, and were partly covered with moss. She could not help admiring the artistic beauty of their colour. She reached the ridge, and peered over. Apparently she was somewhere in the middle of the roof, for a tall, twisted stack of chimneys reared itself close by, and gables spread on all sides. She went cautiously down the next incline, and up to the summit of a further ridge, which was higher. Here, by standing up and holding on to a chimney ledge, she had an excellent view. She could not see the courtyard, but she could command the bottom of the orchard, the moat, the fields that led to the river, and the cliffs and woods beyond. It was quite a bird's-eye prospect. She seemed to be looking on to the top of everything. The cattle in the meadows appeared mere specks, and a cart and horses passing over the bridge were like a child's toy. It was fascinating to watch them vanishing down the road.
Raymonde was in no hurry to return. She stood for quite a long time enjoying an exhilarating sense of being on the summit of a mountain. At last the recollection that it must be nearly preparation time recalled her to the necessity of departure. With a sigh of regret she dropped back on to the ridge, and crawled over the gables again. She was sure that she had left the little door open behind her, but when she approached it she saw that it was shut. Perhaps the wind had blown it to. She put out her hand to fling it open, but it did not yield. She pushed harder, pressing with all her force. It remained immovable. Then the awful truth burst upon her. Somebody had latched the door on the inside, and she was locked out upon the roof. Had Miss Beasley or Miss Gibbs been taking a survey of the attics? No matter who it was, the horrible result remained the same. What was she to do? She beat wildly at the door, hoping to break it in, but sixteenth-century oak and bolts were made of stuff too strong for a girl's hands. She shouted and called, knowing all the time that it was of little avail. Whoever bolted the door must have gone away. Miss Gibbs's laboratory was at the other side of the house, and she might scream herself hoarse without anyone hearing her. For a minute or two she sat huddled up in despair. Would she have to spend the night on the roof?
It was a ghastly prospect. Hot tears came welling up, but she dashed them away angrily. Her innate pluck rose to the surface. She had been in difficult, even dangerous positions before, and had escaped. Surely there must be some way out of this?
"I'll climb farther on over the roof," she decided. "If I can get nearer the edge, perhaps someone may see me."
The chance of rescue meant admitting her adventure, and incurring great wrath at head-quarters, but that was a lesser evil than passing a night on the roof. She crawled to her old vantage-ground, and descended to the right, where a gable sloped steeply. At the bottom she passed along a wide gutter, and, rounding a corner, found that she could easily drop on to a lower portion of the roof. She was in a state of tense excitement. Where was she getting to? Would anybody see her from the courtyard; and if so, how would they propose to rescue her? It would be difficult to shout down and explain that she had come through the little door in the upper gallery. She was on a much lower level now than when she had first started. She crawled on, with hands and knees rather sore and scraped with the tiles.
Another corner, and another short drop. She was nearing the edge of the parapet. She must creep down this next piece of roof. There was another wide gutter at the bottom. She walked along this, rounded a jutting chimney-stack, and then paused with a cry. Facing her was a small door, identical with the one by which she had emerged. Could it possibly be open? She stumbled up to it, and pressed it with trembling fingers. It yielded easily. The next moment she was creeping through.
Raymonde now found herself inside a cupboard full of old lumber. The dust was thick, and surely had not been disturbed for years. Some broken chairs with moth-eaten seats were piled together, and some ancient boxes lay full of rubbish. Straw, old books, hanks of rope, and other miscellaneous things occupied the corner. There was a door opposite, without either latch or knob. Raymonde with some difficulty managed to pull it open, and stepped out into a passage. When she pushed the door to behind her, she noticed that it fitted so exactly into the oak panelling as to be quite undiscernible. Could it be a secret cupboard? She wondered if Miss Beasley knew of its existence. There was a window close by; she looked out and took her bearings. Apparently she was just over the big dormitory; the tiles across which she had crawled to enter the cupboard must have been those of Miss Gibbs's bedroom. The landing where she found herself at present led to the servants' quarters; the staircase was to her right.
Raymonde hurried down without meeting anybody, washed the dust and dirt off her hands, and walked in to preparation in the very nick of time.
It was an unfortunate truth that Miss Gibbs was not very popular at the Grange. She was clever, conscientious, and well-meaning, and preserved a high ideal of girlhood. Much too high for practical use, so her pupils maintained.
"This isn't a school for saints!" grumbled Valentine one day. "If we followed all Gibbie's pet precepts we should have halos round our heads."
"And be sprouting wings!" added Raymonde. "A very uncomfortable process too. I expect it would hurt like cutting teeth, and it would spoil the fit of one's blouses. I don't want to be an angel! I'm quite content with this world at present."
"I'm so tired of developing my capabilities!" sighed Fauvette. "One never gets half an hour now, just to have fun."
Miss Gibbs, who aspired to a partnership in the school, was deeply concerned this term with the general culture and mental outlook of her charges. She had attended an educational congress during the Easter holidays, and came back primed with the very latest theories. She was determined to work on the most modern methods, and to turn her pupils out into the world, a little band of ardent thinkers, keen-witted, self-sacrificing, logical, anxious for the development of their sex, yearning for careers, in fact the vanguard of a new womanhood. Unfortunately her material was not altogether promising. A few earnest spirits, such as Maudie Heywood, responded to her appeals, but the generality were slow to move. They listened to her impassioned addresses on women's suffrage without a spark of animation, and sat stolidly while she descanted upon the bad conditions of labour among munition girls, and the need for lady welfare workers. The fact was that her pupils did not care an atom about the position of their sex, a half-holiday was far more to them than the vote, and their own grievances loomed larger than those of factory hands. They considered that they had a very decided grievance at present.
Miss Gibbs, acting on the advice of a book entitled Education out of School Hours, was determined that every moment of the day should be filled with some occupation that led to culture. She carefully explained that the word "recreation" meant "re-creation"—a creating again, not a mere period of frivolity or lotus-eating, and advocated that all intervals of leisure should be devoted to intellectual interests. She frowned on girls who sauntered arm-in-arm round the garden, or sat giggling in the summer-house, and suggested suitable employments for their idle hands and brains. "Never waste a precious minute" was her motto, and the girls groaned under it. Healthy hobbies were all very well, but to be urged to ride them in season and out of season was distinctly trying. One well-meant effort on Miss Gibbs's part met with particular disapproval. She had decided to take the girls on Saturday afternoons to visit various old castles, Roman camps, and other objects of historical and archaeological interest in the neighbourhood. On former similar occasions she had been in the habit of delivering a short lecture when on the spot; but, noticing that many of the girls were so distracted with gazing at the surroundings that they were not really listening, she determined that they should absorb the knowledge before visiting the place. She wrote careful notes, therefore, upon the subject of their next ramble, and giving them out in class, ordered each girl to copy them and to commit them to memory.
The result of her injunction was an outburst of almost mutinous indignation in Form V.
"When does she expect us to do it, I should like to know?" raged Morvyth. "There's not a moment to spare in prep., so I suppose it will have to come out of our so-called recreation! Look here, I call this the very limit!"
"Saturday afternoon's no holiday when we've got to go prowling round a wretched Roman camp!" mourned Valentine. "What do I care about ancient earthworks? If they were modern trenches, now, with soldiers in them, it would be something like! There'll be nothing to see except some mounds. I suppose we shall have to stand round and listen while she holds forth, and look 'intelligent' and 'interested'."
"I don't know whether she's going to hold forth herself," said Aveline. "I hear she's invited several people from an archaeological society to meet us there, and probably one of them will do the spouting—some wheezy old gentleman with a bald head, or an elderly lady in a waterproof and spectacles. One knows the sort!"
"Oh, good biz!" exclaimed Raymonde. "If visitors are coming, Gibbie'll have to talk to them, and she won't have so much time to look after us. She's welcome to the bald old boys! Let her have half a dozen if she wants!"
"You forget you've got to listen to them."
"Oh, I'll listen! At least I'll look serious and politely absorbed. That's all that's expected."
"In the meantime we've these wretched notes to copy," groused Katherine.
"Have we? I don't think so! I've got an idea. Maudie Heywood's sure to make a most beautiful copperplate copy; we'll borrow hers, and just skim them over to get a kind of general acquaintance with the subject, sufficient to show 'intelligent interest'. Gibbie won't be able to question us with those other people there."
"But suppose she asks beforehand to see our notes?"
"I've thought of that. We'll each copy out the first page, and stick some old exercise sheets behind it. She'll never find out."
The Mystic Seven looked at their leader in admiration. They considered that on such occasions her resourcefulness amounted to genius. They followed her advice, and copied the front page only of the notes, placing underneath some portions of Latin translation or historical essay. Aveline underlined her title with red ink, Morvyth ruled a neat margin, and Fauvette tied her sheets together with a piece of the blue baby ribbon which she used for threading through her underclothes. On the outside, at any rate, their copies looked most presentable.
It was only the Fifth Form who were accorded the privilege of the ramble. They were Miss Gibbs's special charge this term, Miss Beasley devoting herself to the Sixth, and Mademoiselle looking after the Juniors. The Fifth hardly appreciated receiving the lion's share of Miss Gibbs's attention. They complained that she tried all her educational experiments upon them. They were ready, however, the whole ten of them, on Saturday afternoon, clad in the neat school uniform, brown serge skirt, khaki blouse, scarlet tie, and burnt-straw hat. Miss Gibbs viewed them with approval. Each had slung over her shoulders a vasculum for botanical or other specimens, and each carried in her hand a copy of the notes. They looked business-like, healthy, well trained, and alert with intelligence, altogether an excellent advertisement for the school and its modern methods.
The camp was about a two-mile walk from the Grange, so the Form had at least the satisfaction of obtaining exercise. As Valentine had prophesied, it consisted of some mounds in the middle of a field, where, to Fauvette's infinite discomposure, some cows were grazing. The members of the Archaeological Society had already arrived, and came forward to greet Miss Gibbs. There was a large stout gentleman, with a grey moustache and bushy overhanging eyebrows; also a little thin gentleman with a pointed beard and an argumentative voice; a tall lady with a high colour, who carried a guide-book, and a short-sighted younger man, who was trying to spread out an ordnance map. These seemed to be the principal members of the party, though there were a few stragglers.
"Professor Edwards—my girls!" said Miss Gibbs, introducing the Form en bloc to the leader for the afternoon.
The stout gentleman smiled blandly, and murmured some suitable remark about the value of acquiring antiquarian tastes while still young.
"I had perhaps better read my short paper before we inspect the remains," he added.
"Goody! He surely isn't going to disinter any dead Romans to show us, is he?" whispered Katherine.
"Bunkum!" replied Ardiune. "Nothing as thrilling as that, don't you fear!"
Miss Gibbs smiled encouragingly to the Form, and beckoned them to draw nearer. They arranged themselves in a respectful semicircle, with attentive eyes fixed on the lecturer, and copies of notes rather conspicuously flaunted.
He discoursed exhaustively on the subject of Roman camps in general, and the girls listened with receptive faces, but minds wandering upon more modern themes. Morvyth was speculating whether it would be possible to purchase chocolates on the way home, Fauvette was planning her next party frock, and Aveline was wondering whether there would be jam or honey for tea that day.
"Before I ask you to take a personal survey of the earthworks," concluded the Professor, "I should like to have Miss Gibbs's opinion as to the exact position of the entrance and the approximate date of construction. She has, I know, made a study of this branch of archaeology."
"My ideas are embodied in my notes," purred Miss Gibbs. "Perhaps you would not mind reading the paragraph. I lent them a short time ago to Mrs. Gladwin."
Professor Edwards turned expectantly; but the tall lady, who a moment before had been at his elbow, had strayed away, papers in hand, and was not available for reference.
"My girls all have copies of the notes. Pass yours, Ardiune," smiled the mistress.
The luckless Ardiune blushed scarlet, but dared not disobey.
"The passage occurs about the middle," prompted Miss Gibbs, as the Professor fumbled with the pages. "May I find it for you? Why, surely there must be some mistake! This is French! Valentine, your copy, child!"
With an even more crimson countenance Valentine tendered her manuscript, which consisted of last week's essay on Comets. Miss Gibbs, with a growing tightness round her lips, inspected Raymonde's extracts from Chaucer, and Katherine's translation of Virgil, before Aveline had the presence of mind to hand up Maudie Heywood's copy. It is unwise for a mistress to show temper before visitors, and Miss Gibbs, with admirable self-control, mastered her feelings and read the paragraph calmly. During the discussion which followed, the girls availed themselves of an invitation from the short-sighted gentleman to inspect the earthworks, and thankfully fled to the farthest limits of the field. They knew, of course, that it was only putting off the evil hour, and further events justified their forebodings. Miss Gibbs preserved an ominous silence on the way home, and after tea summoned the Form to their class-room, where she went into exhaustive details of the whole business.
"I'm disgusted with you—utterly disgusted!" she declared. "It seems of little use to spend time in attempting to give you intellectual interests. Those girls who did not copy the notes will stay in now and write them. I shall look at them all at eight o'clock."
"It means a good solid hour's work," whispered Raymonde to Ardiune. "Tennis is off to-night. Strafe the old camp! I wish the Romans had never lived!"
A Midnight Scare
Miss Gibbs's plans for the enlargement of her pupils' minds ran over a wide range of subjects from archaeology to ambulance. As they expressed it, she was always springing some fresh surprise upon them. Like bees, they were expected to sip mental honey from many intellectual flowers. They had dabbled in chemistry till Ardiune spilt acid down Miss Gibbs's dress, after which the experiments suddenly stopped. They had collected fruits and seed-vessels, had studied animalculae through the microscope, and modelled fungi in plasticine. Stencilling, illuminating, painting, and marqueterie each had a brief turn, and were superseded by raffia-plaiting and poker-work. Miss Beasley suggested tentatively that it might be better to concentrate on a single subject, but Miss Gibbs, who loved arguments about education, was well prepared to defend her line of action.
"There is always a danger in specialization," she replied. "You can't tell how a girl's tastes will run till you give her an opportunity of proving them. My theory is, let them try each separate craft, and then choose their own hobbies. One will take naturally to oil-painting, another may find clay or gesso her means of artistic expression. Some minds delight in pure Greek outline, while others revel in the intricacies of Celtic ornament. Again, a girl with no aesthetic sense may be enraptured with the wonders of the microscope, and those who find a difficulty in mastering the technical terms of botany may yet excel in the extent of their collections of specimens. Who would have imagined that Veronica Terry would develop an interest in geology? I had always considered her a remarkably dull child, but her fossils formed the nucleus of the school museum. I have hopes at present that one or two of my girls are developing tastes that will last them for life."
It was one of Miss Gibbs's pet theories that not only should her pupils have the opportunity of sampling arts, handicrafts, and scientific pursuits, but that they should in every respect cultivate a wide mental horizon. She was fond of suggesting emergencies to them, and asking how they would act in special circumstances.
"Imagine yourself left a widow," she had once propounded, "with three small children to support, and a capital of only three hundred pounds. How would you employ this sum to the best advantage, so as to provide some future means of subsistence for yourself and family?"
The opinions of the Form had been interesting, and had varied from poultry farming to the establishment of a boarding-house or the setting up of tea-rooms. The most original suggestion, however, was contributed by Fauvette, and, while it outraged Miss Gibbs's sense of propriety, caused infinite hilarity in the Form.