The Manor House School
Author of "The Nicest Girl in the School" "The Third Class at Miss Kaye's" "The Fortunes of Philippa" &c.
ILLUSTRATED BY A. A. DIXON
BLACKIE AND SON LIMITED LONDON GLASGOW AND BOMBAY
I. NORA'S NEWS 9
II. AN INTERESTING STRANGER 22
III. A STRONG SUSPICION 36
IV. HAVERSLEIGH 50
V. AN UNEXPECTED DEVELOPMENT 67
VI. MONICA 80
VII. LINDSAY'S LUCK 94
VIII. PENDLE TOR 111
IX. THE PLOT THICKENS 127
X. UNDER THE HAWTHORN TREE 143
XI. SIR MERVYN'S TOWER 161
XII. AN ENIGMA 178
XIII. LINDSAY MAKES A RESOLVE 189
XIV. THE LANTERN ROOM 202
XV. HIDE-AND-SEEK 215
XVI. A SURPRISE 229
XVII. GOOD-BYE TO THE MANOR 243
GLORIOUS NEWS! Frontispiece 239
"SHE OPENED THE DOOR CAUTIOUSLY" 35
"I KNOW WHAT MONICA WAS GOING TO SAY" 93
AN UNFORTUNATE ACCIDENT 139
THE SECRET DOOR 202
It was the first week of the summer term at Winterburn Lodge. Afternoon preparation was over, and most of the girls had left the classroom for a chat and a stroll round the playground until the tea-bell should ring. From the tennis court came the sounds of the soft thud of balls and a few excited voices recording the score; while through the open windows of the house floated the strains of three pianos, on which three separate pieces were being practised in three different keys, the mingled result forming a particularly inharmonious jangle.
On a bench in the corner by the swing two yellow heads and a brown one might be seen bent in close proximity over a rather dilapidated atlas. Their respective owners were apparently making a half-hearted endeavour to hunt out a list of towns upon the map of England, and were amusing themselves between whiles with the pleasant, though somewhat unprofitable pastime of grumbling.
"I hate geography!" declared Lindsay Hepburn. "If we could be taken a picnic to each of the places, there'd be some sense in it; but to have to reel off a string of tiresome names that don't mean anything at all to you—I call it stupid!"
"It's such a fearfully long lesson, too!" agreed Cicely Chalmers dolefully. "Miss Frazer might have set us a shorter one for the first! It's really too bad of her to make us begin with two pages and a half in a new book! I'm sure I shall never get it into my head, if I try till midnight."
"I wonder why things always seem so much harder to learn when one's just come back after the holidays?" propounded Marjorie Butler with a melancholy yawn.
"I don't know. I suppose because it all feels so horrid. It's perfectly dreadful to think what a huge time it is until we can go home again."
"Thirteen whole weeks! And every one of them will be exactly the same: lessons with Miss Frazer or Mademoiselle, an hour's practising, a walk in the park or along the Surrey Road, and a game of tennis when you can manage to get hold of the court. There's never anything different, unless Miss Russell takes us to a museum or a concert, and that doesn't happen often, worse luck!"
Lindsay's picture of the forthcoming term certainly did not seem a remarkably enlivening one, and the other two groaned at the prospect.
"I wish one wasn't obliged to go to a boarding school," said Cicely in an injured tone.
"Girls! Girls!" cried a fourth voice, breaking abruptly into the conversation, "I've been hunting for you everywhere. I thought you were in the house or the gymnasium. Oh! I've such a piece of news to tell you!"
"What's the matter, Nora?" enquired Marjorie, for the newcomer was out of breath, and looked as excited as if it were breaking-up day.
"Come here and sit between us," added Lindsay, pushing the others farther along the seat to make room.
"Is it anything really nice?" asked Cicely.
"It depends on what you call 'nice'. I'll give you each six guesses, and even then I don't believe one of you'll be right."
"Miss Frazer doesn't mean to take geography to-morrow?"
"Absolutely wrong, though I wish she wouldn't."
"Somebody has broken another window with a tennis ball?"
"Don't be silly! It's much more interesting than that."
"Miss Russell's going to give us a holiday?"
"You're getting warm! Try again."
"Oh, we can't!"
"We give it up!"
"Go on and tell!"
"Do you remember that just before Easter a gentleman came with Dr. Redford, and they both went over the school, peeping and poking about in such a mysterious manner?"
"Yes, we wondered what they were doing."
"Well, it turns out that he's a sanitary inspector, and he's sent a report to Miss Russell to say that the drains are wrong, and must be taken up immediately."
"Is that your grand news?"
"No, it's only the first part of it. Let me finish, and then you'll see. Dr. Redford says the drains can't possibly be touched while we're all in the house, and yet they must be opened at once. Can't you guess now?"
"Miss Russell never means to send us home when we've only just come back?" gasped Lindsay hopefully.
"No, not that, though it's nearly as jolly. She's taken a beautiful old manor house in the country, and it's to be our school for the whole of the summer term. We're to go there in a body—girls, and teachers, and servants, and everyone."
If Nora had hoped to astonish her companions she had certainly succeeded. They were wild with curiosity, and fired off questions all three together.
"Where is it?"
"When are we going?"
"How did you get to know?"
"One at a time, please," said Nora, enjoying her importance. "I met Mildred Roper in the hall just now. Miss Russell has been explaining it to the monitresses, and said they might tell us as soon as they liked. It's a lovely Elizabethan house, at a place called Haversleigh, a long way from here. We're to start next Tuesday."
Such a tremendous event as the removal of the school from town to country was without precedent in the annals of Winterburn Lodge.
"It's almost too good to be true," cried Cicely rapturously.
"It will be like the last day and setting off for the seaside both together," declared Lindsay, waltzing round the seat in the exuberance of her spirits.
"Not quite, because we shall have lessons when we get there," corrected Nora.
"Well, at any rate it'll be ever so much nicer than being in London."
"Hurrah for the old Manor!" shouted Marjorie Butler, clapping her hands.
Miss Russell had indeed been much alarmed by the sanitary inspector's report. She was determined to make the change without delay, and hurried on the preparation as speedily as possible.
Boxes were brought down from the attic, and teachers and monitresses were kept busy superintending the packing of clothes, linen, schoolbooks, and numberless other articles. For the few days that remained work was relaxed, the headmistress's chief anxiety seeming to be the health of the girls, and her one object to take them away before any sign of illness should break out amongst them.
"Miss Russell looked so worried when I told her my head ached," said Nora Proctor. "She asked every one of us afterwards if we had sore throats."
"I was silly enough to say I thought mine felt a little scrapy," said Lindsay ruefully. "I soon wished I hadn't, because she gave me a horribly nasty disinfectant lozenge, and told me to suck it slowly until I'd finished it. Ugh! I can taste it yet!"
"I'm absolutely sick of the smell of carbolic. There's a jar full in every room," said Cicely.
"Never mind! You'll only have to endure it for one day more. We're actually off to-morrow."
Those in authority might certainly be excused if they looked worried, for it was no light task to accomplish so much in such a short space of time. By Tuesday morning, however, the final arrangements were completed; the rows of boxes were locked, strapped, and piled on railway carts; while the girls, an excited, chattering crew, were ready and waiting for the omnibuses which were to take them to the station.
"Good-bye to poor old Winterburn Lodge!" said Cicely, giving a last peep into the familiar classroom. "We shan't see these maps and desks again until next September."
"I wonder how many things will have happened before we come back here?" said Lindsay thoughtfully.
It was a long journey into Somerset, but Miss Russell had engaged saloon carriages, and taken large baskets of lunch; so, in the opinion of her thirty pupils at least, the expedition felt like a picnic.
"How I wish we could go every year, or that Miss Russell would remove into the country altogether," said Beryl Austen, who had secured a corner seat, and was in raptures over the view.
"Then it wouldn't be town, and we shouldn't be able to have visiting masters," said Mildred Roper, one of the monitresses.
"Who wants them? I'm sure I should be only too delighted never to see any of them again!"
"I suppose, after all, we're sent to school to learn something," she remarked dryly. "I'm afraid you'll find Miss Frazer will give you plenty of work to make up for the loss of Herr Hoffmann and Monsieur Guizet."
"I don't care a scrap, so long as there's fun when lessons are over. We're going to have a glorious time, and I mean to thoroughly enjoy myself."
Beryl only expressed the sentiments of the rest of the girls, most of whom regarded the coming term in the light of a holiday. As the train steamed through green meadows and woods just breaking into leaf, it indeed seemed as if London and professors had been effectually left behind, and their spirits rose higher with every mile.
By afternoon they were all impatience to arrive. For fully an hour before they reached their destination they kept enquiring whether they must get out at the next station, and were sure that each ancient house visible from the carriage windows could not fail to be the Manor.
"Here we are at last!" announced Miss Russell, when, after many false alarms, the welcome word "Haversleigh" made its appearance in plain letters, and a porter's voice was heard pronouncing something which bore a faint resemblance to the name. "Steady, girls! Steady! Remember each is to take her own bag, and file out in proper order. Nobody is to move until I say 'March!'"
Miss Russell first held a review on the platform, to make sure that none of her pupils or their belongings had gone astray.
"I am quite relieved we have all arrived safely," she said. "I think we may congratulate ourselves that not even an umbrella is missing. It is only half a mile from here to the house, quite an easy walk, so we will start at once, and leave our luggage to follow."
In a few minutes more they had passed the ticket collector, and found themselves on the leafy high road. It seemed as different from London as a fairy tale from a Latin grammar. There had been a slight shower of rain, which had brought out the scent of growing grass and budding leaves; the ground was white with the fallen blossom of blackthorn hedges; and a thrush, seated on the summit of an apple tree, was pouring forth a volume of song that sounded almost like a welcome to the country.
With so many new sights to gaze at, it was difficult to walk primly two and two, and the line proved a straggling one, in spite of Miss Frazer's efforts in the rear. At a pair of great iron gates Miss Russell stopped and turned to her girls.
"This is our first glimpse of the Manor," she said, with a touch of pride in her voice. "I want you to take a good look at your new school."
It was nicer even than they had expected—a glorious old place, built partly in Tudor fashion of grey stone, and partly of black and white timbers. There were latticed windows, and a porch ornamented with stone balls, and curious twisted chimneys, and picturesque gables at odd angles.
"It's like a house out of one of Sir Walter Scott's novels," said Marjorie Butler.
"It looks as if one might have all kinds of adventures there," added Lindsay Hepburn gleefully.
The inside proved just as satisfactory as the outside. It was delightful to sit down to tea in a great dining-hall, with a carved roof, and walls hung with spears, shields, and stags' antlers.
"I feel we oughtn't to be drinking tea," said Cicely Chalmers. "I'm sure they didn't have it in Queen Elizabeth's times. It was tankards of ale or mead in those days."
"Don't finish your cup, then, if you wish to imagine yourself entirely in the past," said Mildred Roper. "I'm afraid you'll have to leave the marmalade too. That's quite a modern invention, and so are the Bath buns."
"Don't be horrid!" said Cicely. "It really is an old-fashioned place. Lindsay and I have got the quaintest panelled bedroom you could possibly imagine. There's a great four-post bed, with yellow brocaded curtains; it's big enough to hold six, instead of only two."
"And there's a lovely library, and a picture gallery, and ever so many queer rooms and long passages upstairs," put in Nora Proctor. "I got quite lost, and couldn't find my way down at first."
"So did I," said Beryl Austen. "I tried to explore a little, but it looked so dim and dark I didn't dare to go alone, so I turned back. I thought I might meet a Cavalier or a Roundhead on the landing!"
Beryl was not the only one to whom their new quarters seemed rather weird and strange on this first evening of their arrival. After being accustomed to electric light and modern bedrooms, it was a great change to walk upstairs with candles to antique chambers that might have belonged to the Middle Ages.
"Don't be silly, girls!" exclaimed Miss Russell indignantly, as they scurried past the suits of armour in the picture gallery. "I shall not allow any absurd nonsense of this kind. You have no more to be afraid of here than you had at Winterburn Lodge. I will take you over the house to-morrow and show you everything, and when you study the real history of the place you won't want to concern yourselves with silly superstitions."
Though the old Manor might look ghostly by night, it wore a bright and cheerful aspect in the sunshine of next morning, and not even the most ardent of Cockneys would have wished herself back among streets and squares. It certainly seemed more interesting to learn lessons sitting on tall-backed oak chairs at a carved table, than at desks in an ordinary schoolroom, furnished with maps and blackboard. The teachers enjoyed it as much as the girls, and everybody had a delightfully romantic feeling of being transferred to the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
"We oughtn't to have science, or physiology, or anything up-to-date here," said Cicely, as, in company with the rest of the third form, she took possession of the panelled parlour that was to be their temporary classroom.
"No, indeed," said Lindsay. "Girls in those days didn't have half our work."
"You forget Lady Jane Grey," said Miss Frazer. "In the matter of knowledge she would easily have put you to shame. If you want her sixteenth-century studies you will have to begin Greek as well as Latin, French, Italian, and some Hebrew and Arabic!"
"Oh, dear!" exclaimed Lindsay, aghast at such a list of accomplishments. "I'd rather stick to our own century."
"I thought ladies did nothing but go hunting and hawking then," said Marjorie Butler. "Did they all know Greek and Latin?"
"Probably not, but they could make preserves, and perfumes, and other secrets of the still-room; and they embroidered the most beautiful tapestries, if we are to judge from the specimens in the big drawing-room. Young people were very severely brought up. They might never sit without permission in the presence of their parents or teachers, and they were beaten for the slightest offences. Don't you remember that even poor Lady Jane Grey was punished with 'nips, bobs, and pinches'; and little Edward VI had his whipping-boy, to receive the blows which it was not considered seemly to bestow upon his own princely person!"
"Had the other boy to be whipped for what the king had done? How horribly unfair!" said Beryl Austen.
"Yes, their ideas of justice were rather different from ours. They would have thought present-day children absolutely spoilt. The girls who perhaps may have done lessons in this room three hundred years ago would not learn them so easily and pleasantly as you are going to do this morning. Fetch the geology books, Beryl. We must go on with modern work, in spite of our ancient surroundings."
An Interesting Stranger
Among all Miss Russell's thirty pupils you could not have found two stancher friends than Lindsay Hepburn and Cicely Chalmers, both of whom were members of the third, or lowest, class.
Lindsay was a short, plump, fair, jolly-looking girl of twelve, with a very energetic disposition; apt, according to Miss Frazer, to be inconveniently lively and irrepressible in school, but a general favourite in the playground.
Cicely, six months younger, was much more quiet and steady on the surface, though her twinkling brown eyes belied her demurer manners, and proclaimed her ready for anything in the shape of fun. She admired Lindsay immensely, and copied her absolutely, being generally ready to follow her through thick and thin, whatever scrapes might be the consequence.
The pair shared a bedroom, and were so inseparable that Cicely was often called Lindsay's shadow. That was an injustice, however; she had a character of her own, though she might choose to merge it in her friend's stronger personality. It is with these two, and their strange experiences at the Manor, that my tale is chiefly concerned, for if it had not been for Lindsay's enquiring mind, backed by Cicely's persistent efforts, there might have been no story to tell.
This is how it all began.
On the second morning after their instalment at Haversleigh the whole school was assembled ready for a history class in the big dining-hall. Miss Russell, for a wonder, was late, and when she entered at last she brought with her a new pupil. The stranger was about sixteen, a pretty, graceful girl, with hazel eyes, long chestnut hair, and a rather distinguished air. She was given a seat in the first form, and replied to the few questions asked her in a quiet voice; then, at the close of the lecture, she took her books and went away alone, without waiting to join in the next lesson.
Naturally her sudden appearance and departure excited much curiosity. The moment work was over, Lindsay and Cicely seized upon Kathleen Crawford, who was rather a friend of theirs among the monitresses.
"Who's the new girl?" they asked. "We hadn't heard anybody was coming."
"She's only a day pupil for a few classes," answered Kathleen. "Her name's Monica Courtenay. She lives here, but of course not just now."
"What do you mean?" enquired Cicely.
"Why, surely you knew Miss Russell has taken the Manor for the summer from Mrs. Courtenay?"
"I never thought about whom it belonged to," confessed Lindsay.
"Well, at any rate, Mrs. Courtenay and Monica are staying in rooms in the village while their house is let, and Monica is to come three times a week for French and history."
"So this is really her home?"
"Yes, and I heard someone say it is all her own. She's an only child, and her father is dead."
"It must seem funny for her to see a whole school here!"
"I expect it does. I shouldn't like it if the place were mine."
"Is she nice?"
"How can I tell? I saw no more of her than you did yourselves."
Everybody was greatly interested in the newcomer, and ready, at the end of a week's acquaintance, to decide heartily in her favour. Monica was rather dignified and reserved in her manners, and evidently not much accustomed to mix with companions of her own age; but when her shyness began to wear off she proved most attractive.
"She's not at all conceited, although she's mistress of the Manor," said Lindsay.
"No, I can't say she gives herself airs in the least," agreed Cicely.
"I think she behaves beautifully," said Mildred Roper. "She never so much as hints that it's her own house, or tries to take the lead, as some girls would certainly have done. She doesn't go anywhere without leave, nor even stop to play tennis unless she's asked. I heard her apologizing to Miss Russell yesterday for giving an order to the gardener. Mademoiselle says she is 'bien elevee' and 'tres gentille', and that's a great compliment, for she doesn't admire English girls as a rule."
"No one could help liking Monica," said Kathleen Crawford. "She's charming. I call her one of the nicest girls I've ever met. And she's had such hard luck! I've just been hearing all about her from Irene Spencer."
"How does Irene know?" asked Lindsay.
"She stays sometimes with an uncle who is vicar of the next parish, and her cousins are friends of Monica's. It's a most extraordinary story—it might have come out of a book."
"Oh, do tell us!" said the others eagerly.
Kathleen's tale was in scraps, and missed out several points of which she was not aware at the time, so it will be better to set it down here as the girls learnt it more fully afterwards, for it was of great importance, and formed the basis of much that was to follow.
The Courtenays, it appeared, were a very ancient family, and had inherited the Manor from an ancestor who had fought bravely on the Yorkist side in the days of the Wars of the Roses. In the present generation there was no male heir, and Monica was the last of her race.
Until a few years ago the old house had been in the possession of her great-uncle, Sir Giles Courtenay, a most eccentric man, so odd and peculiar, indeed, that many people had considered him to be out of his mind. He was reputed to be extremely wealthy, yet lived in a miserly fashion, entertaining no visitors, and never spending a penny which it was possible for him to save. He never married, but passed his days as a recluse, shut up among the books in his library, seeing only a few old servants whose services he had retained. Sometimes in the early morning he would wander about the woods and fields in the neighbourhood, seeking for wild flowers, but on such occasions he seemed much annoyed if spoken to, and evidently preferred to take his rambles unnoticed.
At his death he left everything to his great-niece, Monica.
"Both the Manor", so ran the will, "and all that it may contain, especially commending to her the volumes in my library, and advising her to pursue the study of botany, which has ever been a solace and a distraction to me amidst the various ills and disappointments of life."
At first it was supposed that Monica must be a great heiress, but when Sir Giles's legacy came to be investigated nothing could be found beyond the ordinary furniture in the house and a few pounds in the local bank. No one knew anything about his affairs, and neither papers nor documents were forthcoming to give the slightest indication as to what had become of the fortune he was known to have inherited.
Not only was all trace of the money lost, but the valuable silver plate and jewellery that had been handed down from generation to generation of the Courtenays were also missing, and there was no clue to their whereabouts. It was generally believed that Sir Giles must have concealed the whole of his wealth somewhere in the old house, but, though a minute search had been made from cellar to garret, the hiding-place had not yet come to light.
Instead, therefore, of owning a fortune, Monica had received nothing but the Manor, in itself a very barren heritage. She and her mother had taken up their residence there, but they possessed only a small income, quite insufficient to maintain the former traditions of the family. It was on this account that they had been glad to let the house to Miss Russell for the summer, and to retire themselves into quiet lodgings close by.
"Hasn't Monica ever tried to hunt for the treasure?" asked Lindsay, when Kathleen had finished her narrative.
"Oh, yes—often! I believe she has gone systematically through each room, but it's so well hidden that it seems quite impossible to find it."
"Yet it must be there!"
"No doubt. It may never turn up, though, until the place is pulled down. The whole thing is a complete mystery, and so far nobody has been able to solve it."
"Have you asked Monica where she has looked?"
"Certainly not. Irene says she's very sensitive about it, and can't bear to hear it spoken of. Naturally it must have been a most terrible disappointment. I don't wonder she avoids the subject. Please be careful never to mention it to her, or you'll offend her dreadfully, and I shall be sorry I told you."
"I'm sure both Lindsay and Cicely would have too nice feeling to question Monica on such a personal matter," said Mildred Roper.
"Of course we shan't say anything—we wouldn't for worlds," promised the two younger girls.
That Monica should be the heroine of so romantic a story made her doubly interesting in the eyes of Lindsay and Cicely. They were much impressed by Kathleen's account, and retired to the privacy of the summer-house to talk it over together.
"It must be dreadful to be so poor when you know you ought to be so rich!" said Lindsay.
"And so tantalizing, when perhaps the fortune is actually in the house," said Cicely.
"I could never be happy for thinking about it."
"No more could I."
"Look here! Why shouldn't you and I set to work? So long as this treasure is hidden away somewhere, I suppose it's possible to find it."
"Oh, don't I wish we could!" cried Cicely, her eyes round at the idea.
"Well, I can't see why we shouldn't have as good a chance as anybody else. I expect it's chiefly a matter of careful hunting."
"How splendid it would be if Monica really turned out an heiress after all!"
"Glorious! It's worth trying for. Those panelled walls might be full of hiding-places. We don't know what we may discover when once we begin."
"We shan't have to let Miss Frazer catch us looking about."
"Rather not! Nobody must know what we intend to do."
"Not even Marjorie Butler?" pleaded Cicely.
"No," said Lindsay firmly. "Marjorie couldn't help whispering it to Nora, and then it would be all over the school. The big girls would make dreadful fun of us, I'm sure. They'd call us 'The Gold Seekers', or some other stupid name, simply for the sake of teasing. Besides, if it were talked about among the rest, it would be sure to get to Monica's ears, and we particularly don't want that."
"No, she mustn't hear a word of it."
"Very well, then, we had better keep it to ourselves. Will you promise faithfully that it shall be a dead secret just between you and me?"
"Absolutely dead!" agreed Cicely.
The two girls were determined to institute a thorough search for the lost legacy, but they foresaw many difficulties in the way. In the first place, it was hard even to make a start without letting anybody suspect what they were doing. Although the term at the Manor seemed like a holiday, it was nevertheless school: there was a certain amount of supervision by the mistresses, and there were rules and regulations to be obeyed, the same as at Winterburn Lodge. The girls were not allowed to wander about alone exactly when and where they wished, and even during recreation time they were expected to play games in the garden.
One of the greatest hindrances to their plan was Mrs. Wilson, an elderly servant who had been left in charge by Mrs. Courtenay, and who seemed to consider herself responsible for her mistress's property. She evidently much resented the presence of thirty schoolgirls in the Manor, and kept a keen eye upon them to see that they did no damage. She was continually watching to satisfy herself that they were not scratching the furniture, nor spilling candle-grease upon the stairs; and was loud in her complaints to Miss Russell over the most absurd trifles.
If she had had sufficient authority, I believe she would have limited the girls entirely to their bedrooms and schoolrooms, but as that was impossible, she did her best to frighten them away from the rest of the house by being as disagreeable as she could. As a natural consequence they detested her. They nicknamed her "The Griffin", and took a naughty pleasure in defying her as far as they dared.
"She's as sour as a green gooseberry!" grumbled Effie Hargreaves. "If we only take a stroll along the portrait gallery, she thinks we're going to knock down the armour, or poke our fingers through the pictures."
"Yes, she seems to imagine we can't look at a thing without breaking it. It's perfectly ridiculous!" declared Beryl Austen.
"She's an absolute nuisance. It's a pity she was left behind," said Nora Proctor; and that was the general verdict in the old housekeeper's disfavour.
With such a dragon continually on the alert, it was almost impossible for Lindsay and Cicely to find the slightest opportunity of beginning their treasure hunt, and they were reduced to very low spirits on the subject. One half-holiday afternoon, however, Lindsay reported that Mrs. Wilson, dressed in black bonnet and mantle, had been seen to leave the back door and walk away in the direction of the village.
"Now is our chance!" she assured Cicely. "Miss Russell is lying down in her bedroom with a bad headache, Miss Frazer is playing tennis, and Mademoiselle is sitting reading in the arbour. Everyone else is in the garden, and if we run indoors at once nobody will notice, and we shall have the place practically to ourselves."
Could anything have been more fortunate? They lost no time in hurrying into the Manor, feeling almost as desperate conspirators as Guy Fawkes and his confederates; and commenced immediately to make a careful tour of investigation. They stole round the hall, the dining-room, and the library, scrutinizing every nook and corner, tapping the panels to hear if they sounded hollow, and peeping up the old wide chimneys, but all with no success.
"I'm afraid we shan't find anything down here," said Lindsay at last. "I expect people made hiding-places where they wouldn't be so easy to get at. Let us go and explore the attics. We've never been up there yet."
They reached the top storey without encountering even a servant. Somehow it felt a little eerie to hear nothing but the echo of their own footsteps, and to find themselves quite alone in such an out-of-the-way part of the house. The Manor was very large, and nearly the whole of the left wing was unoccupied. They passed door after door, all leading to more and more empty rooms, till Lindsay began to grow almost dismayed at the bigness of their undertaking.
"I didn't know the place was so huge!" she sighed. "I'm afraid one might spend years looking round and examining it thoroughly. I don't wonder Monica lost heart. There isn't the faintest clue to go upon, either, to give one a hint where to hunt."
"Hadn't we better be turning back?"
Cicely was growing rather tired of the fruitless attempt.
"In a minute. Let us go to the end of this landing."
The passage in itself was like the others, but it differed in one particular, for it terminated in a narrow, winding staircase. This looked tempting—just the sort of thing, in fact, that they felt ought to lead to somewhere interesting and important.
"It's like the way to the turret chamber where Sir Walter was imprisoned, in Tales of the Middle Ages," said Lindsay.
"Or where Katherine was dragged when Sir Gilbert found she had overheard the secret plot," said Cicely.
They scrambled almost on hands and knees up sixteen steep steps. At the top was a small landing, and exactly facing them, up three steps more, stood a closed door. The girls paused for a moment to consider what to do next.
"Listen!" said Cicely suddenly. "I thought I heard a queer noise."
There certainly was a most extraordinary sound issuing from the room opposite. It resembled somebody groaning, or giving long-drawn, sighing breaths. It went on for a few moments and then stopped, then commenced louder than before, and finally died away altogether.
"What is it?" whispered Cicely, rather nervously.
"I don't know, but I'm going to look and see."
"Oh! Dare you? I hope it's nothing that will bounce out!"
"Nonsense! Why should it?"
"It might. Do be careful!"
"Don't be silly!" said Lindsay. "We came up here on purpose to discover things, and help Monica. If there's a noise in that room, we certainly ought to find out what's making it."
And with this plausible excuse for satisfying her curiosity, she opened the door cautiously, and peeped inside.
A Strong Suspicion
If Lindsay and Cicely had counted upon finding something interesting behind the closed door, they were much disappointed. The room was absolutely bare and unfurnished. It was not panelled, as mysterious rooms ought to be, but had an old-fashioned and rather ugly wallpaper, adorned with big bunches of grapes and flowers; and there was a plain, whitewashed ceiling. At one side a window overlooked the garden, and at the other was a shallow store cupboard, the open door of which revealed rows of empty shelves, probably intended for jam or linen.
There was nothing to give the least suggestion of romance, or the possibility of any concealed hiding-place. There was no carved overmantel nor four-post bed; in fact, the only article of any description to be seen was a large horn lantern that hung from a hook in the ceiling. The curious noise had ceased, and although the girls looked round most carefully, they were not able to find anything which would account for it.
"There isn't a corner that even a cat might hide in," said Lindsay. "It was so loud, too! I can't understand it in the least."
"I call it rather uncanny. Let us go!" said Cicely.
She was stepping down on to the little landing again, when, to her dismay, she almost ran into the arms of Mrs. Wilson, who, still in black bonnet and mantle, had returned from the village sooner than they anticipated, and must have come unheard up the winding staircase.
"The Griffin's" surprise at seeing them seemed as great as their own. She gave a gasp of consternation, peeped hastily inside the empty room, then turned to Lindsay and Cicely with a look of mingled relief and wrath.
"What were you doing in the lantern room?" she asked sharply. "You know perfectly well you've no right to be up here. You must mind your own business, and keep to your own places, instead of poking and ferreting about into matters that don't concern you. I can't have you rambling about wherever you please, and the sooner you understand that the better. It was sorely against my advice that the Manor was let for a school!"
She spoke rudely, and seemed more upset and annoyed than the occasion warranted. She swept the two girls downstairs before her, muttering angrily as she went, and did not let them out of her sight until she had watched them safely into the garden.
"How horrid she was!" exclaimed Cicely, when they were alone, and able to talk things over. "Miss Russell never said we weren't to go on to that top landing."
"What was Mrs. Wilson doing there herself—in an empty room, in such a deserted part of the house?" asked Lindsay meditatively.
"I don't know. She looked quite aghast at seeing us."
"I believe there's something about it we don't understand. Perhaps she has some reason beyond mere fussiness and nastiness for wanting to keep us away from that particular room."
"What kind of a reason?"
"Well, suppose she had discovered the hiding-place?"
"Wouldn't she tell Monica?"
"She might intend to take some of the money."
"Oh, how dreadful! It's quite possible, though, that she knows where it is. She was housekeeper to old Sir Giles for ever so many years."
"It seems to me most suspicious," said Lindsay. "We must watch her, and find out everything we can, for Monica's sake."
The idea that Mrs. Wilson was concealing the treasure for her own ends was a thrilling one. The more they thought about it, the more probable it appeared. Who had a better opportunity than she of searching the old house? She might even have been present when her eccentric master stowed his fortune so carefully away. If this were really the case, the greatest caution was necessary, for to allow "The Griffin" to see that they had noticed anything might entirely spoil their plans.
"We must treat her just as usual," said Lindsay, "only we must keep our eyes and ears open, in case something should turn up to give us a hint."
For the next few days they behaved with what they considered the greatest diplomacy. They took care not to aggravate Mrs. Wilson, nor in any way to attract her special attention; but they looked out for the slightest chance of following her movements, dodging round corners, and stalking her along passages with the zeal of detectives. Unfortunately their efforts were not so unobserved as they supposed, and drew down a reproof from headquarters.
"Lindsay and Cicely! how is it that you are continually loitering about the landing when you ought to be in the garden?" said Miss Russell. "I shall have to make a new rule, that nobody is to come upstairs until ten minutes before meals. In this lovely weather I expect you to be out-of-doors. It is a shame to waste a minute in the house. Don't let me find you here again during recreation time."
This was a blow, as it brought the great scheme temporarily to a standstill. The girls could not venture to disobey openly, and judged it wiser to let things rest for the present, until the mistress should have forgotten the matter, and they might once more quietly begin to renew their investigations.
"We'll play cricket hard, and put our names down for the tennis handicap," said Lindsay. "We mustn't on any account let Miss Russell think we'd a special motive in what we were doing."
"Rather not! We'll 'lie low and say nuffin'', like Brer Rabbit," agreed Cicely.
There was no lack of liveliness or occupation at the Manor to justify anybody in idling about the passages, and there were certainly many small excitements, apart from mysterious chambers or hidden treasures. All kinds of funny events kept occurring which had never disturbed the prim atmosphere of Winterburn Lodge.
Nora Proctor and Marjorie Butler awoke half the school one night by loud and repeated screams, and when Miss Frazer rushed into their room, imagining fire or burglars, she found them cowering behind the bed curtains, in mortal terror of a large bat that had made its way through the open casement. Earwigs were a constant nuisance, and everyone grew almost accustomed to catching green caterpillars, which crept in from the roses that surrounded the windows, and would turn up in the most undesirable spots.
Naturally so old a house was infested with rats and mice. They scuttled inside the walls, and squeaked behind the wainscots, and seemed to hold carnival at the back of the oak panelling, often disturbing the girls at night with the noise. This was particularly noticeable in the room where Lindsay and Cicely slept. They were sometimes awakened by sounds like the rolling of barrels overhead, as if heavy objects were being clanked about up in the ceiling.
"You've no need to be afraid of them," said Mrs. Wilson, who made light of all complaints, "they never venture out of the walls, to my knowledge."
The fear, however, that a rat might possibly gnaw its way into her bedroom afflicted Cicely continually.
"If it ran across my pillow I should die of fright, I know I should!" she wailed. "I wish Mrs. Wilson would let us have the cat to sleep with us. I should feel far safer."
"I wish we could send for the Pied Piper, and get rid of them all. They woke me twice last night," said Lindsay.
Poor Cicely never dared to retire without first having a thorough examination to assure herself that no lurking rodent was lying hidden behind the wardrobe, or in any other obscure corner. One evening she was making her usual round, armed with a tennis racket for protection, and was peeping under the bed, when she suddenly let the valance fall hurriedly, and drew back with a shriek.
"There's a rat there! I saw it quite plainly; its great big eyes were glaring at me!" she announced in a trembling voice.
"What are we to do?" exclaimed Lindsay, in equal consternation.
"Call for Miss Frazer this instant. She hasn't gone downstairs yet."
"Don't disturb it on any account!" decreed Miss Russell, who was fetched from the drawing-room to cope with the emergency. "I shall send at once for Scott, the gardener, and ask him to bring his terrier dog. We must really take some measures to destroy these pests."
It was not very long before Scott arrived. He clumped solemnly up the stairs with a thick stick in his hand, and Bill, his sharp little fox terrier, at his heels. Mrs. Wilson accompanied him, bearing the kitchen poker; and the parlour-maid followed, holding the yard dog by the collar, in case Bill should miss his prey. Miss Frazer and Miss Humphreys were there to support Miss Russell; while Mademoiselle and a great many of the girls hovered outside in the passage, half-frightened and half-excited over the coming fray.
"If you'll please to tell me where the young lady saw it, mum," said Scott, "I'll let Bill on it sudden. He's death on rats."
"It was just at the foot of the bed," quavered Cicely. Scott stooped, and raised the valance with the greatest precaution. Bill sniffed eagerly, but he did not pounce upon any concealed victim.
"There's nothing there, mum—leastways no rat," said Scott, straightening his back.
"Are you sure?" gasped Miss Russell. "It couldn't possibly have escaped."
"I think it's been a little mistake of the young lady's, mum," said Scott, suppressing a grin. "If you'll kindly take a look under the bed, you'll see for yourself."
Miss Russell hastened to comply, and, bending down, gave an exclamation as she drew out one of Lindsay's best Sunday gloves.
"What an extraordinary illusion!" she cried. "I don't wonder Cicely took it for a rat. The soft doeskin is exactly the same colour, and the buttons were gleaming just like two bright eyes. I never saw a more perfect resemblance. I should certainly have been deceived. Well, I'm glad our chase has been a case of much ado about nothing. I think you may go to bed with easy minds to-night, girls. If we have any more alarms, we must send for Bill to protect us. Good dog! Can you find some scraps for him in the kitchen, Mrs. Wilson?"
Cicely's rat was of course a great joke in the school, and a subject of teasing for several days afterwards.
"You'll imagine your dressing-gown is a tiger next," said Effie Hargreaves.
"Some people scream at nothing. I'd have been sure about it first, before making such a fuss," said Beryl Austen.
"She thought it was a wily rat, and watched to see it move, She looked again, and saw that it was nothing but a glove!"
improvised Nora Proctor, who was fond of Alice, and had rather a taste for parody.
"It was such a disappointment to us, when we were waiting to hear the scuffle," said Marjorie Butler.
"We shan't believe in your scares next time," said Effie.
"It's all very well, but I'm sure you'd have been just as frightened yourselves," retorted Cicely. "You've no need to make so much fun of me."
"It's too bad. I vote we pay them out, and have the laugh on our side," sympathized Lindsay, leading her friend away. "I've thought of such a capital idea. Come to the summer-house and we'll talk it over."
As the result of Lindsay's cogitations, the two girls went boldly to Mrs. Wilson, and begged an old cardboard box.
"It's half to pieces," said "The Griffin", quite amiably, for a wonder. "It's not much good you'll do with it, I'm afraid."
"Never mind, it's enough for what we want, thank you. We're not going to put anything very heavy in it, are we, Cicely?"
Cicely's reply was such a wildly hysterical giggle that Mrs. Wilson stared at her in offended surprise.
"She's only silly!" explained Lindsay hurriedly. "Please, could you let us have some scraps of dark cloth? Perhaps there'd be something in the rag bag. Be quiet, you stupid!"
The last remark was aside to the irrepressible Cicely, who straightened her face with an effort. "We're going to do some sewing," she volunteered, choking back her mirth.
"You're not generally so industrious," said Mrs. Wilson grimly. "I should be glad to see you using your needle for once. It seems all tennis and croquet with you young ladies."
She produced the rag bag, however, and allowed the girls to take their choice of the various odds and ends which it contained. They selected a piece of rough, hair-brown serge; then, fetching their work-baskets, they retired to a remote part of the garden, where they were not likely to be disturbed. If Mrs. Wilson had imagined they were about to engage in some fine and delicate needlework, she was much mistaken. They confined themselves to cutting and snipping, and to a few big, cobbling stitches that would have caused her to exclaim in righteous horror.
At the end of half an hour all was finished, and Lindsay proudly held up the result of their labours. It really was not a bad imitation of a rat. It had a nice round, plump body, four squat legs, a pointed nose, and a long, thin tail.
"We can't make whiskers," said Lindsay, "but that doesn't matter in the least. They wouldn't notice them. What a good thing it's light until so late now! They'll be able to see it perfectly well."
"We couldn't manage if the bed weren't a four-poster," said Cicely, chuckling in anticipation of the fun to come.
Beryl Austen and Effie Hargreaves slept in a room almost opposite to Lindsay's and Cicely's. Before eight o'clock arrived the two latter contrived to make an excuse to go upstairs, and hastily completed their preparations. The arrangements were ingenious. They fastened their rat very lightly by two pieces of thin sewing cotton to the middle of the piece of tapestry that formed the roof of the great four-post bed. To the cotton was attached a long strand of string, which passed through the curtains and out at the door (conveniently near the bed), the end being hidden under the mat on the landing.
"You'll see, when we jerk the string, the cotton will break, then down will plump the rat right on to their chests," said Lindsay, justly proud of her inventive powers. "Poke the box under the valance, Cicely, quick! I thought I heard someone coming."
The cardboard box contained a bobbin, to which a second string was tied, and concealed in the same manner as the first.
"I don't believe they'll suspect anything," said Cicely. "Won't it be lovely to give them a scare!"
At bedtime the conspirators retired innocently as usual, having wished Beryl and Effie good night in the passage.
"I nearly said I hoped nothing would disturb them," laughed Lindsay, "but I thought it would be wiser not. How long must we leave them to go to sleep?"
"About half an hour, I should think. Let us get up as soon as we hear the clock in the picture gallery striking nine."
The twilight lasted long, so it was still quite possible to distinguish objects as two nightgowned, barefooted figures stole gently across the landing. Fortunately everything was perfectly quiet in the upper portion of the house. The younger girls were in bed, and the elder ones were with the teachers downstairs.
"We must be sure to work the right strings," breathed Lindsay. "Have you got yours? This was mine, with a knot at the end."
She gave a smart pull, and the bobbin rattled loudly inside the box. They could hear it plainly, even through the closed door.
"What is that?"
The question came in an anxious and wideawake tone from within the room.
"I don't know. Oh, there it is again!"
The voice this time was Effie's.
"It sounds as if it were under the bed!"
"Oh, surely it's not a rat!"
"Now for it!" whispered Cicely, pulling the second string.
The result was all they could have desired. A series of yells proceeded from the four-post bed, sufficient not only to rouse the occupants of the other rooms on the landing, but to bring Miss Frazer hurrying up from the library. Lindsay and Cicely dropped their strings and fled, not a second too soon. They could hear Miss Frazer striking a match to light the candle, and her exclamation when she discovered the cause of the uproar.
"All the girls have turned out to see what's the matter," said Cicely. "If you and I don't go too, they'll know who's done it."
"I think we shall have to own up, in any case," replied Lindsay.
"It was worth the scolding," she declared afterwards, when Miss Frazer had administered a due homily on the danger of practical jokes. "I only wish I could have seen their faces when the rat plumped on to them. They needn't talk of screaming at nothing, and if they ever begin to tease us about anything again—well, we'll just say 'Rats!'"
There never was such a glorious place as the Manor. Upon that point the whole school perfectly agreed. The garden was as fascinating as the house, and proved an absolute dream of delight, with its smooth bowling-green, its winding paths, its charming little arbours overgrown with creepers, its clipped yew hedges, and its unexpected flights of steps. It might have been designed as a kind of terrestrial paradise for girls. The big lawns afforded space for so many tennis courts that there was no need for the younger ones to hover about, waiting enviously until their elders had finished before they could get a chance of a game; and there was plenty of room left for croquet and clock golf. The shrubbery and the plantation were ideal spots for hide-and-seek (almost too good, Lindsay said, because it was so very difficult to find anybody); while the various rustic seats scattered under the trees made sewing and reading a luxury on hot days, when no one felt inclined for violent exercise. A stone-flagged terrace ran the entire length of the front of the Manor, proving an invaluable playground when the grass was too wet for games in the garden; and a roomy summer-house stood near the bowling-green, so big that it was capable of sheltering all the school during a thunder shower.
Beyond the avenue, and at the farther side of the shrubbery, was a maze. Marvellous little narrow, twisting paths, with high hedges of clipped box, wound round and round in an utterly bewildering manner, most of them either ending blindly or turning back to the original entrance, and only one of the number leading to the arbour in the centre. For a long time the girls amused themselves with trying to discover the proper clue. Cicely, like Hansel, dropped pebbles to show which paths she had already traced; Lindsay essayed to cut the Gordian knot by creeping through the hedge; and it was only after many and repeated trials that they were at last able to solve the puzzle.
In the midst of one of the lawns grew a grand old yew tree, the lower branches of which were easy to climb. It was a favourite haunt of the younger girls, each having her special seat, and here they might often be seen perched like birds, and certainly chattering enough to suggest a flock of magpies. A stalwart oak close by supported a swing that was far more romantic than the swing in the playground at Winterburn Lodge, because a strong push would send the happy occupant high up among the green leaves, and give her a flying peep into a missel-thrush's nest on the topmost bough, where four gaping yellow mouths were clamouring for food. In a corner, down a flight of steps, there was a pond where grew marsh marigolds, and irises, and forget-me-nots, and other water-loving plants. A pair of ducks lived here in a wooden hutch, and would come waddling up to be fed with bread, which the girls saved from breakfast for them. Great was the delight of the whole school when one morning a brood of seven small ducklings appeared on the water, each as yellow as a canary, and seemingly quite at home already in its native element.
Then there was the rose garden, where every variety of the queen of flowers seemed to flourish, from the delicate Marechal Niel to the sweet, oldfashioned, striped York and Lancaster. Archways and pillars were covered with climbers and ramblers, a little untrained, but hanging down in such glorious profusion that one almost approved of the neglect. Round this garden was a high hedge of clipped holly, so that it was sheltered from every wind, and the roses bloomed as if in a greenhouse. Nor must we forget the peacocks, which were as much a feature of the old house as the twisted chimneys, or the stone balls on the porch. There were six of them, and the gorgeous sheen of their feathers as they spread their tails in the sunshine was a sight worth remembering. In fact, as Miss Russell often remarked, they gave a finishing touch to the whole scene, and made the Manor look more than ever like a medieval picture.
The village of Haversleigh was only ten minutes' walk from the lodge gates. It consisted of one long row of quaint black-and-white cottages, with thatched roofs, and gardens so gay with flowers that they seemed to be overflowing into the road, and pinks and pansies were coming up between the cobblestones of the street. At the end stood the beautiful ancient church, built in days when each artisan was a master of his craft, and made his work a labour of love. Strangers often came from a distance to admire the delicate tracery of the windows, the exquisite carving of the pillars, and the splendid old oak choir stalls that had formed part of a tenth-century abbey. At the west end hung a collection of banners, won by Monica's ancestors in many a hard-fought battle, and, all tattered and faded as they were, still bearing tribute to the glories of the past. There were monuments, too, in memory of the Courtenays: stone effigies of knights in armour, lying under carved canopies emblazoned with their coats-of-arms; stiff ladies and gentlemen of Tudor times, with starched ruffs and buckled shoes; and one lovely marble figure, by a forgotten sculptor, of a young daughter of the house who had perished during the Great Plague. The ruthless hands that had chipped and spoiled many of the other monuments had spared this one, and the beautiful, calm face seemed to be resting in tranquil sleep, patiently waiting for the summons to arise to immortality.
The Manor pew, though large, could not accommodate the school. The girls sat in the left aisle, and made quite an important addition to the little congregation of villagers. They certainly helped to swell the singing, and I think even the most thoughtless among them learned to love that dear old church, and carried its remembrance into after years.
The Rectory marked the last boundary of the village, then the road passed over a bridge straight into the open country. The scenery was pretty without being grand. Picturesque farmhouses stood in the midst of rich pastures, behind which rose wooded slopes leading to a higher peak, called Pendle Tor, that stood out as a landmark for the district. Naturally the girls were very anxious to explore the neighbourhood, and delighted when Miss Russell allowed walks on half-holidays. The whole school was not often sent out together, but each form would go in turn, separately, with its own teacher—an arrangement that all much preferred, as they could then ramble about in an informal manner, instead of keeping to the prim file which was the general rule.
One Wednesday afternoon, at the end of May, it was the turn of the third class, and its six members were standing by the gate, impatiently awaiting the arrival of Miss Frazer, who, to do her justice, was not often at fault in the matter of punctuality.
"I hope she isn't telling Miss Russell what bad marks I got this morning," said Effie Hargreaves dismally. "She threatened last week to report me if I had another cross for history, and I missed five times, and four times in literature, and all my problems were wrong in arithmetic too."
"I believe they're planning to hire another piano," said Beryl Austen, "so that we can all get in the same amount of practising as we did at Winterburn Lodge."
"Oh, what a shame! I'm sure half an hour a day is enough for anybody," came in a chorus from the others.
"Especially now, when we haven't a music master," added Cicely.
"That's the very reason," explained Beryl. "Miss Russell says she wants us to keep up what we've learnt, so that we won't seem to have fallen back when we begin with Mr. Nelson again."
"Don't talk of Mr. Nelson! We shan't see him for ages."
"You will, in September."
"Well, it's not September yet, it's only May, and in the meantime we're learning from Miss Frazer. Here she is, by the by, hurrying down the drive as fast as she can."
"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, girls," said the teacher, "but Miss Russell has been giving me a commission to transact while we are out. She wants us to go to Monkend, a farm about a mile and a half from here."
"A new walk?" asked Beryl.
"Yes, we have never been there before, but I don't think we can miss the way."
A perfectly fresh walk was a pleasant prospect. Everyone set off, therefore, in the best of spirits. It was a beautiful afternoon, one of those glorious days when summer seems to clasp hands with spring and join the delights of both seasons. The newly unfolded leaves were still a tender green, and the sycamores were covered with pendent blossoms, in the golden pollen of which the bees revelled like drunkards. The larches had opened all their tassels, and the young cones on the firs glowed with such a pink hue that they resembled candles on a Christmas tree. The hawthorns were almost over, but here and there a crab apple showed a mass of pink bloom, or a guelder rose made a white patch in the hedge; and all the stretches of grass by the roadsides were carpeted with bluebells and starry stitchwort.
Miss Frazer was indulgent, and would wait for a few minutes while the girls gathered handfuls of flowers, or climbed up to the top of a bank to admire the view. She was as interested as they were in the finding of a robin's nest; and quite as excited when a hawk swooped suddenly into a bush, and flew away with a young thrush in its claws. The cuckoos were calling persistently from the woods, the larks were singing up in the air above, and all the hedgerows seemed to teem with busy bird life.
Their way soon left the high road, and, striking across a field, led them through a copse where there was an interesting pond, swarming with tadpoles. The girls would have lingered here, trying to catch the funny, wriggling, little black objects, but Miss Frazer's patience gave way at last, and she hurried them on, declaring that if they were not quick they would never get to the farm and back before tea-time.
Monkend was a quaint old house, built in the midst of cherry orchards. Its timbered walls were grey and weather-stained, and its tiled roof yellowed with lichens. By the side of the open barn door the cows were standing lowing to be milked, and the dairymaid, a rosy-faced young woman in a blue apron, was coming from the kitchen, singing as she swung her bright pails. She stopped in astonishment at the unwonted sight of visitors to the farm, and ran to call her mistress to the scene.
"You may wait for me here, girls, while I do my business with Mrs. Brand," said Miss Frazer; "or if you like you may walk back to the stile, and I will overtake you in the wood."
Mrs. Brand insisted that Miss Frazer should come into the best parlour to transact her errand, so, left alone, the girls began slowly to retrace their steps towards the copse.
"I wonder how long she'll be," said Lindsay, who with Cicely had lingered a little behind.
"I believe she has to pay a bill and order more butter and eggs and things, so I don't expect we shall see her for five or ten minutes at least," replied Cicely.
"Then there'll be just time to run round the farm. I want to peep inside those barns, and see what is at the other side of those haystacks. It looks interesting. Come along! The dairymaid is busy milking, and won't see us, and I don't suppose it matters if she does. We'll soon run after the others."
Feeling rather adventurous, the pair fled away down the yard, and dived through an open doorway into the depths of a big barn. How fragrant it smelled—such a delicious, sweet scent was in the air! Surely it must come from that great heap of hay in the corner. The girls ran across, and jumping on to the pile, were soon burying each other with armfuls of the hay, and scooping out nests to sit in. It was dark inside the barn—the beautiful brown gloom that one sees only in old castles or churches, or ancient buildings, and is quite different from the black of ordinary darkness. Through the open door came just one shaft of sunshine, in which the specks of dust seemed to float and flutter like living things. Overhead the great beams of the roof were lost in dim obscurity; very old and rough they were, and covered with a mass of cobwebs, among which Cicely declared she could see bats hanging head downwards, with folded wings, though Lindsay said it was all her imagination.
It was so nice sitting perched on the hay that neither was in a hurry to move. I believe they quite forgot about the time, until at last they heard Miss Frazer's voice in the distance bidding good-bye to Mrs. Brand.
"We shall have to go," groaned Cicely. "What a nuisance! I could stay here for hours."
"So could I," said Lindsay, getting up with a yawn, and brushing loose stalks from her dress. "Let us jump down on the other side of the hay."
I do not know why it should have occurred to Lindsay to get off the stack by the back instead of the front. If they had gone out of the barn by the way they came, they could have overtaken Miss Frazer in a moment, and the adventure which followed would never have happened at all. As it was, fate decreed that Lindsay, in her flying leap through the dusk, should knock her shins against something decidedly hard. She stood rubbing them ruefully, and put out her hand to feel what had been the cause of her bruises. It was a ladder, standing against the wall, and through the gloom of the barn she could just distinguish its upper end, which seemed to communicate with a doorway in the angle of the roof. This looked attractive. She pointed it out at once to Cicely.
"Where does it lead, do you think?" asked the latter.
"To some granary above, I expect. I wonder what's up there! Shall we go and explore?"
Without even waiting for an answer, Lindsay had begun to ascend, and as she was six rungs up before Cicely ventured a half-hearted remonstrance, she did not see fit to come down again.
"Oh! we shan't be a minute," she declared. "Miss Frazer will wait for us in the wood, and we can run all the way from the farm."
Where Lindsay went Cicely always felt bound to follow; accordingly, she clambered up the ladder behind her friend, and in due course both arrived at the top. As Lindsay had supposed, they found a granary half-filled with sacks of corn and a pile of loose barley. A door at the farther end appeared to open on to a flight of steps leading outside, while opposite was a small lattice window overlooking the fields.
"There's really nothing to see," said Cicely. "It was hardly worth while coming, after all."
"We might go out through that door, instead of climbing down the ladder again," suggested Lindsay, beginning to walk round the sacks. "Why, look! Somebody has left his lunch here."
On the top of the barley was a tin can, and also a red cotton pocket-handkerchief, evidently containing slices of bread. From sheer idle curiosity Lindsay seized them, and showed them laughingly to Cicely.
"Will you have some afternoon tea?" she exclaimed in joke.
At that moment she was startled by a low growl behind her. From a corner of the room sprang a collie dog that, unobserved by them, had been lying among the sacks, and keeping a watch over its master's property.
Lindsay promptly replaced the tin and the handkerchief on the barley.
"Good dog! Poor fellow!" she said encouragingly, holding out her hand.
The dog, however, did not make the least response to her friendly advances. It came a little nearer, growling again, and showing its teeth in an ugly fashion.
"Come here, silly fellow! Does it think I want to steal something?" said Lindsay.
"I expect it does," replied Cicely, in rather a shaky voice. "Don't try to touch it! It'll certainly bite you."
Even Lindsay, fond of animals as she was, could not deny that the gleaming eyes and snarling mouth looked the reverse of friendly.
"Perhaps we'd better be going," she said, turning towards the door.
Directly she moved, the dog growled louder, and would have flown at her if she had not instantly stopped.
"What are we to do?" she exclaimed, looking at Cicely with a terrified face.
They were indeed in a most awkward and dangerous position. The dog, deeming itself guardian of the granary, and doubtless considering the two girls intruders for dishonest purposes, would let neither of them beat a retreat. It stood looking vigilantly from one to the other, snarling so fiercely if they stirred even an inch that they did not dare to put its intentions to the test. Oh! why had they come? If they had only gone back down the ladder before they had roused the dog, or if Lindsay had not been inquisitive enough to peep inside the handkerchief, they might have been across the yard and following Miss Frazer to the wood. How were they ever to escape? Would they be obliged to remain there until the dog's master returned?
"Perhaps Miss Frazer'll come to hunt for us," quavered Cicely, in a very small voice, and with a timid eye on the collie lest it should spring. Evidently it did not object to conversation, so long as they kept still, for though it looked at her it did not growl. That was one comfort, at any rate. The situation was terrible enough, but to endure it in silence would have been ten times worse.
"I don't believe anybody knows where we are," said Lindsay. "I wonder if the dairymaid noticed us go into the barn. They wouldn't dream of our climbing the ladder. They'd look all round the stackyard, and perhaps think we'd taken a short cut and gone home."
Would nobody ever arrive to release them? The minutes seemed long as hours, and they felt as if their trembling knees could scarcely support them. Cicely, from the place where she was standing, could fortunately look through the window and command a view of the field below. Though she gazed with as keen anxiety as Sister Anne in the story of Bluebeard, she did not see anybody hurrying to their rescue. The dog apparently grew a little tired, for it threw itself down on the floor, but without relaxing any of its former vigilance.
"I believe it's going to stop here all night," groaned Cicely, almost in tears.
The case was waxing desperate. So weary were the poor girls that they were ready to drop with fatigue. Unless something happened, and that speedily, there was bound to be a catastrophe. At the moment, however, when Cicely felt that she simply could not endure any longer, deliverance came. Through the little squares of the wooden lattice she saw a figure strolling leisurely across the field. It was Monica Courtenay, and she was walking in the direction of the farm. Cicely shouted at the very pitch of her voice:
"Monica! Monica! Help! Oh, do come!"
Monica stopped in much astonishment, and looked round as if to ask who was calling her by name; then, deciding that the screams came from the direction of the granary, she hurried as fast as she could up the steps, and opened the door. Her amazement was only equalled by her distress at the girls' plight.
She did her best to call off the dog, but as that proved impossible she ran to fetch the first person she could find. In less than a minute she had returned with Mr. Brand, whose stout boot and stick soon sent the collie yelping disconsolately into a corner, to realize that it had exceeded its duties.
"He's a good watchdog, is Pincher," said the farmer, "but he's been a bit too clever to-day. You silly hound! You ought to know better than to set on two young wenches. You may well slink off! You'd better keep out of reach of my stick, I can tell you!"
Lindsay and Cicely were much upset and shaken by their terrifying experience. They never forgot how kindly and considerately Monica behaved. She did not tell them it was their own fault, and that it served them right for prying into places where they had no business (as Mildred Roper or any of the other monitresses would certainly have done); she only sympathized in her gentle way, and offered to escort them to the Manor by a short cut, so that they should not be so very late after all.
"It was a lucky thing I happened to be taking a walk this way," she said. "It might have been hours before any of the farm people went into the granary. I wouldn't keep such a savage dog if it were mine."
As Lindsay supposed, Miss Frazer was not aware that she had left two of her pupils behind at Monkend, and imagined that the missing pair must have walked home in front of the others. Their absence had only just been discovered when they arrived to explain the cause. The teacher was hardly so tender with them as Monica, and they received more scolding than sympathy.
"Though it wasn't such a very dreadful crime to go into the barn," said Lindsay afterwards to her companion in misfortune. "Miss Frazer needn't say we are the two who are always in mischief, because it might have happened just as easily to any of the others. I saw Beryl and Effie peep into the cowhouse as they passed, though they didn't climb up a ladder. Wasn't Monica nice? I believe the old farmer would have been cross with us if she hadn't been there. He evidently knows her very well. So do all the people in the village. She seems to know each man, woman, and child there, and to be a favourite with everybody."
An Unexpected Development
Lindsay and Cicely had by no means forgotten either their quest for the treasure or their curiosity about the lantern chamber. In spite of several small efforts, nothing fresh had occurred to elucidate matters, and they were almost beginning to despair of ever making any further progress, when quite unexpectedly something important happened.
One afternoon, as they were sending tennis balls to each other along the terrace, they heard a voice calling to them from overhead. They looked up, and saw Merle Hammond, a second-form girl, leaning out of one of the upper windows of the house and beckoning to them violently.
"Lindsay and Cicely, is that you?" she cried. "Come up here; I've made such a discovery!"
"Where are you?" asked Cicely, for the old Manor had so many windows, it was impossible to identify any particular one from the outside.
"In a room up a funny winding staircase, on the top landing. It's empty, but there's a big kind of lamp hanging from the ceiling. Oh, you'll never guess what I've seen!"
"The lantern chamber!" gasped both the girls, and, dropping their rackets, they raced into the house in a state of the wildest excitement.
Were they actually on the brink of solving the mystery? How had Merle found it out? It was good of her to call to them. Had she accidentally come across the hiding-place? or was it some other secret still?
The answer to all these questions lay in that attic room, and they fled upstairs as if their feet were wings.
They were halfway along the passage, and a few seconds more would have seen them safely on the top landing, when (oh, the bad luck of it!) they almost knocked down Miss Frazer, who emerged at exactly the wrong moment from her own bedroom door.
"Gently, girls, gently!" she remonstrated. "Where are you going in such a hurry?"
It was impossible to explain. How could they tell the teacher the nature of their errand? They both stood still, looking very "caught" and dismayed, and said nothing.
"As you have come indoors so early, you had better tidy your drawers," continued Miss Frazer dryly. "I looked at them just now, and found them in terrible disorder. You will have nice time to do it before tea."
Could anything have been more aggravating? The poor girls were nearly crying with vexation. There was no appeal, however. Miss Frazer escorted them into their bedroom, and stood over them, giving directions, until each pair of stockings or pocket-handkerchief was disposed according to her ideas of neatness. They might chafe and fret inwardly at the delay, but outwardly they were obliged to behave with due decorum.
The governess was certainly justified in her disapproval, for Cicely's best coat and hat were lying jumbled together at the bottom of the wardrobe, and Lindsay's belongings looked as if they had been stirred up with a stick.
"If I notice any of your places in such a condition again, I shall be obliged to give you each a punishment," she said gravely. "Wash your hands now, and comb your hair. There's the first bell."
Would Miss Frazer never leave them alone? If only she would take her departure at once, they could perhaps manage to rush up to the lantern room before the second bell rang. Merle must be waiting for them, and wondering why they did not come. And the secret was waiting too! Lindsay looked at Cicely, almost meditating a bolt. Possibly the mistress read her intention in her face; at any rate, she waited until both were ready, then marched them downstairs to the dining-room like a female policeman, without giving them the slightest chance to escape.
"Of all jolly sells this is the biggest!" whispered Cicely.
"I wish Miss Frazer had been at the bottom of the sea!" groaned Lindsay.
Merle came in rather late and took her place at table, looking a little red and self-conscious. Lindsay tried to meet her eyes, but she avoided the gaze, and went on stolidly with her bread and butter as if nothing had happened. When Cicely made a like effort she fared the same. What had Merle seen? How they longed for tea to be over, that they might hear of her discovery! They hoped she would not reveal it to any of the other girls first, and they looked on in quite a fever of anxiety whenever she spoke to Elsie Ryder or Marjorie Butler, who sat one on either side of her.
"She doesn't know what we suspect about Mrs. Wilson," whispered Lindsay. "She may be letting out something it would be far better, for Monica's sake, not to tell."
The moment the meal was finished the two girls followed Merle into the garden, but, greatly to their surprise, she took no notice of them, and began to play tennis.
"I expect she's waiting for a safer time. Of course it wouldn't do for her to be seen talking to us so particularly. We'll stay here while she finishes her set," said Cicely.
The game lasted until preparation, and then Merle walked away with such an evident intention of escaping from them that the two were most indignant.
"What does she mean?" burst out Lindsay.
"Do you think she's offended because we didn't go up at once?" returned Cicely. "She doesn't know yet that Miss Frazer stopped us. We must explain it as soon as we can."
They tried to get hold of Merle after supper, but she kept persistently to Elsie Ryder's company, and would not give them any opportunity of speaking to her in private, so they were obliged to go to bed in a horrible state of suspense. Next morning things were just as bad. There was no mistaking the fact that Merle wished to avoid them, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that they succeeded at last in catching her alone.
"What do you want?" she enquired abruptly. "Please don't go chasing me about like this all over the school."
"We want to know what you saw in the lantern room, of course," replied Lindsay.
"Well, I'm sorry, but I can't tell you."
"Not tell us!"
Lindsay and Cicely could scarcely believe the evidence of their own ears.
"No, it's quite impossible."
"Simply that I can't."
"Were you offended, Merle, because we didn't come when you called us?" asked Cicely.
"We were hurrying up as fast as we could, only Miss Frazer stopped us and made us tidy our drawers. It wasn't our fault," added Lindsay apologetically.
"No, I'm not offended in the least. I'm very glad you didn't come."
"But you shouted to us to be quick."
"I know I did."
"Was it something or somebody you saw in that room?"
"Please don't ask me."
"But look here, Merle, this is too bad," protested Lindsay. "You're playing a very nasty trick upon us."
"It can't be helped. I've said I am sorry," returned Merle doggedly.
"Well, you are a fraud," cried Cicely. "I like people who keep their promises."
"So do I," said Merle, in rather a significant tone. "It's exactly what I intend doing, too."
"You don't mean to say you've promised not to tell!" exclaimed Lindsay.
"I didn't say anything at all."
"Have you told Elsie Ryder or Marjorie Butler?"
"Certainly not. I haven't mentioned the matter to anybody, and I hope you won't either."
"But why shouldn't you whisper it just to Lindsay and me? We wouldn't let a soul know," pleaded Cicely reproachfully.
"I can't explain why. Do let us drop the subject."
Here was indeed a deadlock. They had been afraid lest Merle should betray her secret indiscreetly, but they had certainly never contemplated being kept out of it themselves. The more they pressed her, the more obstinately she refused, and neither scolding nor coaxing would induce her to disclose even the least hint. They gave it up at last, feeling very baffled and rather out of temper.
"We do know something about your old room, all the same," said Lindsay crossly, as a parting shot.
"Oh, Lindsay, you don't really!"
There was an anxious note in Merle's voice.
"More than you think."
"Then, whatever it is, you had better keep it to yourselves, and not let it go any farther."
Merle's extraordinary behaviour seemed to make the mystery even deeper than before. She had evidently been exploring the Manor on her own account and had made some discovery, which she undoubtedly had intended to share with them when she called from the window. Then something must have occurred afterwards which caused her to change her mind.
To whom had she given a promise of secrecy? Surely not to Mrs. Wilson? That would be aiding and abetting one whom they strongly believed to be Monica's enemy. If only Miss Frazer had not such a tiresome love of tidiness, they might have reached the lantern room in time, and be now in possession of the information they wanted. It was too tantalizing to feel that they had been so near a solution of the problem, and had missed it by a few moments.
Events never happen singly. For a whole fortnight they had been able to find out nothing, yet on the very day following this disappointment something occurred which seemed to add another link to their chain of strange circumstances. They had managed to escape Miss Frazer's vigilance, and were indulging in a surreptitious game of "tig" along the forbidden ground of the picture gallery, when one of the bedroom doors opened, and Mrs. Wilson appeared in the distance, carrying a pile of clean towels in her arms.
"There's 'The Griffin'!" exclaimed Lindsay. "She mustn't catch us here, on any account. She'll tell Miss Russell, and we shall each lose a conduct mark. Quick! Let us hide somewhere till she's gone by."
The ancient arras seemed to offer a safe retreat. As fast as possible they whisked behind it, and stood flattening themselves against the wall, hoping Mrs. Wilson would notice nothing lumpy or unusual as she passed.
At the same time came a sound of heavy tramping footsteps from the other end of the gallery, and Cicely, peeping through a hole in the tapestry which happened to be on a convenient level with her eyes, saw Scott, the gardener, coming down the flight of stairs which led from the upper landing. He met Mrs. Wilson exactly opposite the hiding-place where the girls were concealed, and the two stopped to speak, quite unaware that listening ears were eagerly following their conversation.
"Have you been in the lantern room?" began the old housekeeper uneasily. "I'd no idea you were going up this afternoon."
"Thought I'd best take a look," returned Scott.
"There wasn't any need. I was there myself this morning, and things were all right."
"I don't know what you may call all right," grunted Scott. "There was far too much noise going on to satisfy me."
"You don't think there's any danger——?" burst out Mrs. Wilson, in an anxious voice.
"No, no!" interrupted Scott quickly. "Not for the present, at any rate. Don't upset yourself. Still, it needs care, especially with all this crew in the house."
"Yes, it's that that's worrying me. I shan't breathe freely till they're gone. And such an inquisitive, meddlesome set they are, too! You'd scarcely believe the trouble they give me. Two of them took it into their heads one day to go wandering on the upper landing. I actually found them inside the lantern room!"
Scott gave an exclamation of something like alarm.
"That'll never do!" he said. "You mustn't let them go poking about there; it would be most unsafe. Can't you lock the door?"
"No, the key's lost."
"I must try if I can find a padlock for it."
"I wish you would. It would take a load off my mind. By the by, I wanted to warn you——"
But here one of the housemaids came along the landing, Mrs. Wilson's voice sank to a whisper, and the only words audible were "Miss Monica", "evening", and "wouldn't trust".
"I'll be extra careful," said Scott, as he clumped away.
Lindsay and Cicely waited several moments after the gallery was empty before they ventured to emerge from behind the tapestry. They had the great satisfaction of having learnt something. They now knew definitely that there was a secret in connection with the lantern room which both Mrs. Wilson and Scott were anxious to keep from them.
"What can it be?" speculated Cicely. "Did you notice what he said about the noise? It must have been that dreadful groaning we heard."
"I've been thinking about that," replied Lindsay. "There may be a hidden room, and someone shut up in it."
"As a prisoner, do you mean?"
"But who could it be?"
"I can't imagine, unless—could it possibly be old Sir Giles Courtenay? Perhaps he didn't really die, after all. Don't you remember, in Ivanhoe, how Athelstane of Coningsburgh was supposed to be killed, and he was really only stunned; and the monks of St. Edmunds put an empty coffin in the chapel, and kept him in a dungeon and pretended he was dead, because they wanted his property? Mrs. Wilson may be doing the same."
"How dreadful!" Cicely looked quite appalled at the idea. "I suppose she goes up, then, to feed him. Scott must know too. I shouldn't have thought it of Scott. I rather liked him. I expect they'll share the money between them. I wonder what 'The Griffin' was warning him about. I hope they're not hatching a plot against Monica!"
"It looks bad," said Lindsay, "decidedly bad. It's evidently something shady, or they wouldn't want to keep it so quiet. It may be a very good thing for Monica that we've taken the matter up."
"What shall we do?"
"We must stalk 'The Griffin' again, and try to follow her to that room, and see what she does there."
"She's as wary as a weasel."
"Then we must be clever and outwit her. I'm positive she has some scheme on hand that ought to be watched. One doesn't know how much may depend upon it."
It was certainly very exciting to feel that dark deeds might be taking place in the attic, and that they were the fortunate instruments selected by fate for the purpose of bringing the wrongdoers to justice. It gave them a delightful sense of superiority over the other girls, whose heads were full of nothing but tennis and croquet, and who never troubled themselves with a thought about the missing treasure.
"Merle is the only one who knows anything," said Lindsay, "and I verily believe 'The Griffin' must have bribed her."
Mrs. Wilson evidently used the utmost precaution in her visits to the top landing. In spite of the pains they took to watch her movements, it was some days before they found the propitious moment. "All things come to those who wait," says the old proverb, however, and it proved true in this case.
One afternoon, through the chink of the bathroom door, they saw her walk into the gallery as if she were going to the upper story. As stealthily as Indians they crept after her. They tiptoed along the passages, and just caught a glimpse of the tail of her skirts as she passed up the winding staircase and entered the lantern room. Very quietly they followed on to the little landing, and listened for a moment outside the closed door.
"What is she doing?" whispered Cicely.
"That's what I want to find out."
They both tried to peep through the keyhole, and bumped their heads together in the attempt.
"I can hear her moving!"
There was a slight noise inside, almost like the clicking of a latch, then all was perfectly silent.
Lindsay could bear it no longer.
"Here goes!" she cried boldly, and flung open the door. To her utter amazement, the room was absolutely empty. Mrs. Wilson had vanished as completely as if she had been a ghost.
The two girls rushed into the empty room and examined every corner minutely. There was not a trace of any secret exit to be found. The opening through which Mrs. Wilson must have disappeared was evidently marvellously well concealed.
"Where can she be? It's like magic!" whispered Cicely.
"Wherever she's gone, I suppose she'll have to come back," replied Lindsay.
"Listen!" said Cicely, with a start.
It was the same strange sound again which they had heard on their former expedition—a low, long-drawn-out moaning, as of someone in pain, feeble at first, then growing louder, and suddenly ceasing.
"Oh! I wonder if she's hurting anybody?" cried Cicely, shuddering with horror.
"I'd give a great deal to find out what's going on. I'm afraid it's something that won't bear the light of day," said Lindsay uneasily.
"Dare we wait till she comes out of her hiding-place?"
"Yes, but we mustn't stay here. It would spoil everything if she caught us. Let us go outside and close the door again, and watch through the keyhole; then, if we see her coming, we can rush."
Mrs. Wilson's errand was evidently a long one. Though they relieved each other more than once in mounting guard over the keyhole, she did not return.
"Perhaps she knows we're here, and won't come out till we've gone," suggested Lindsay at last.
"How could she know?"
"She may have been looking at us all the time through some little spy place."
"Oh, how horrid! It makes me feel quite creepy to think of it."
The fact that they were doing exactly the same did not strike either of the girls. Circumstances alter cases, and they considered they were justified in their plan of action. They grew extremely tired of waiting, but they were determined not to give in.