The Youngest Girl
in the Fifth
A School Story
Author of "The Leader of the Lower School" "A Pair of Schoolgirls" "The New Girl at St. Chad's" "A Fourth Form Friendship" &c.
ILLUSTRATED BY STANLEY DAVIS
BLACKIE AND SON LIMITED
LONDON GLASGOW AND BOMBAY
* * * * *
I. AN UNEXPECTED REMOVE
II. THE GASCOYNE GIRLS
III. A FALSE STEP
IV. A DELICATE TRANSACTION
V. TROUBLE IN THE FIFTH
VI. A CASTING VOTE
VII. DICK CHAMBERS
VIII. GWEN RECEIVES A LETTER
IX. KEEPING CHRISTMAS
X. A PRODIGAL
XI. A PRIZE ESSAY
XII. GWEN TURNS HENWIFE
XIII. THE SHOE PINCHES
XIV. GWEN MEETS TROUBLE
XV. STORM CLOUDS
XVI. FIRST AID
XVII. A PRESSING ACCOUNT
XVIII. GWEN'S BRIGHT IDEA
XIX. A SCHOOL GYMKHANA
XX. A DAY OF RECKONING
XXII. THE TENNIS TOURNAMENT
XXIII. GWEN TO THE RESCUE
XXIV. THE SENIOR OXFORD
* * * * *
GWEN IS CAUGHT BY THE STORM Frontispiece
GWEN MEETS DICK
"THINGS GO SO HARDLY WITH ME SOMEHOW, DAD"
"OH, I SAY, WELL CAUGHT!"
"YES, YOU CAN EASILY GO MILES OUT OF YOUR WAY"
"IT WAS BASIL WHO SPIED HIM FIRST"
* * * * *
THE YOUNGEST GIRL IN THE FIFTH
An Unexpected Remove
"Gwen! Gwen Gascoyne! Gwen! Anybody seen her? I say, have you all gone deaf? Don't you hear me? Where's Gwen? I—want—Gwen—Gascoyne!"
The speaker—Ida Bridge—a small, perky, spindle-legged Junior, jumped on to the nearest seat, and raising her shrill voice to its topmost pitch, twice shouted the "Gwen Gascoyne", with an aggressive energy calculated to make herself heard above the babel of general chatter that pervaded the schoolroom. Her effort, though far from musical, at any rate secured her the notice she desired.
"Hello, there! Stop that noise! It's like a dog howling!" irately commanded a girl in spectacles who was cleaning the blackboard.
"And get down from my desk this minute! Who said you might climb up there?"
"Look here, you kid, what are you doing in our classroom?"
"Take yourself off at once! Fly! Scoot!"
The "kid", however, stood her ground.
"Shan't move till you've answered my question," she replied with aggravating impudence. "I want Gwen Gascoyne."
"Why, there she is all the time!"
"Under your very nose, you stupid baby! Get down from my desk, I tell you!"
The Junior cast what was intended to be a withering glance before she descended.
"Gwen Gascoyne, why couldn't you answer when I called you?" she demanded abruptly.
Gwen paused in the act of sharpening a lead pencil, and eyed the intruder.
"Who asked you to come in here?" she retorted.
"You babes must keep to your own classrooms! Hey, presto! Vanish! And be quick about it!" interposed Myra Johnson.
"Shan't! Not till I've spoken to Gwen."
"Suppress that kid!"
"But I've got a message!" squeaked the babe, as sundry arms of justice thrust her summarily in the direction of the door. "Oh, I have really—a message for Gwen from Miss Roscoe! She's to go to the library—now!"
"Then why couldn't you say so at first?"
"You never gave me a chance!"
Gwen threw the half-sharpened pencil inside her desk and banged down the lid.
"What does Miss Roscoe want with me?" she asked in some consternation. "Are you sure she meant me?"
A summons from the headmistress rarely boded good fortune to the recipient, and the girls stared at Gwen with interested sympathy.
"What have you been doing?" murmured Eve Dawkins.
"Glad I'm not in your shoes!" proclaimed Daisy Hurst.
"Oh, Gwen, I am sorry for you!" bleated Alma Richardson.
"I've not been doing anything!" protested Gwen indignantly. "You've no need to look at me as if I were a cross between a criminal and a martyr! Here, you babe, what did Miss Roscoe say?"
"Only that you're to go to the library; and you'd better be quick, because she said: 'Tell her to come at once!' Said it in her snappiest way, too! I shouldn't be a month about going if I were you. Hello! There's the bell. Ta-ta, I'm off! I wish you luck!" and Ida Bridge fled to the region of her own classroom, with a grin on her impish face.
Though she might rail at the impudence of the small fry, Gwen was not above taking a hint—headmistresses do not lightly brook being kept waiting—so she started at a run up the passage, turning over in her mind every possible crime which she might unwittingly have committed.
"Can't remember using the front gate, or not changing my boots, or talking on the stairs, or—oh, wow! Here I am at the library! Well, whatever I've done, I suppose I'm in for it now! I hope she won't absolutely wither me up!"
So far from looking withering as Gwen entered the room, the Principal wore an unusually encouraging and benign expression. She was a handsome, large, imposing woman, with a stern cast of features, and was held in great awe by the whole school. As a rule, Seniors and Juniors quailed alike under the glance of her keen dark eyes.
"Come here, Gwen," she said blandly, as her pupil stood hesitating near the door. "I want to have a little talk with you. I've been looking over your reports for the last few weeks, and I find that you've done well—so well, that I consider the standard of the Upper Fourth is too easy for you. I think you ought to be able to manage the work of the Fifth Form, and I'm going to move you there."
Gwen stared at Miss Roscoe, too surprised to answer. Such a proposal as a change of Form was absolutely the last thing she could have expected. In the middle of a term it was surely an unprecedented happening. For the moment she scarcely knew whether to be alarmed or flattered at the honour thus thrust upon her.
"You may find the mathematics a little difficult," continued Miss Roscoe; "but Miss Woodville shall coach you until you've caught up the rest of the class. She can also go over the arrears of Latin translation with you. With that help you shouldn't be so far behind. I've spoken to both Miss Slade and Miss Douglas about it, and they fully agree with me. Do you think yourself you'll be able to manage the work?"
"I don't know, I'm sure," stammered Gwen. "I expect I'm behind in maths.—but—"
"But you must try your best. I shall trust you to make a great effort. I should be very sorry to have to put you down again. Come with me now, and I'll take you to your new Form."
Gwen followed the Principal with her head in a buzzing whirl. It seemed like a dream to be suddenly translated from the Lower School to the Upper. She wished she could have had a little time to get accustomed to the idea: she would have liked a day's preparation at least, so as to think the change over and discuss it at home. Miss Roscoe, however, always did things in a hurry; she never had a moment to waste, and at present she whisked her pupil along the corridor and into the Fifth Form room with almost breathless energy.
"Here's Gwen Gascoyne, Miss Douglas," she announced. "We'll try if she can manage the work, and I've arranged with Miss Woodville to give her the extra coaching we spoke about. She can bring her books from her old classroom at eleven."
Thus saying, she bustled away to take a history lecture, leaving the new member of the Fifth standing in much embarrassment. The eyes of every girl in the room naturally were glued upon Gwen, who felt herself twitching with nervousness under the scrutiny; but Miss Douglas motioned her to an empty desk in the back row, and went on with the lesson as if nothing had happened. I am afraid Gwen was too agitated to absorb much knowledge that morning. She had not brought notebook or pencil with her, and though at Miss Douglas's request her neighbour rather ungraciously lent her a sheet of paper and a stump of pencil, the notes which she took were scrappy and inadequate. She kept stealing peeps at the other girls, but turning away when she met the anything but friendly glances directed at her. The teacher asked her one or two questions, then, seeing that she did not quite grasp the subject, kindly ignored her.
"Talk of a fish out of water," thought Gwen; "I feel like an eel in a frying pan. I believe these girls are going to be detestable. I shall have to look out for squalls."
Nor was she mistaken. At eleven o'clock the storm broke. Directly Miss Douglas had left the room for the interval the seventeen members of the Fifth turned upon the newcomer.
"What are you doing here, Gwen Gascoyne, I'd like to know?" demanded Edith Arnold, opening the attack.
"We don't want any Fourth Form girls foisted on us!" proclaimed Rachel Hunter.
"You don't belong to the Upper School!" urged Charlotte Perry hotly.
"I didn't yesterday, but I do now," retorted Gwen. "Miss Roscoe's moved me up. Yes—and I mean to stay here, too!" she added, facing her opponents stubbornly.
"Miss Roscoe must be mad!"
"What can she be thinking of?"
"Better go and ask her yourself," said Gwen, "if you think she's likely to listen to you. She isn't generally very ready to enter into explanations."
"But this is monstrous! It's an unheard-of thing!" exclaimed Louise Mawson excitedly. "A chit like you to be brought into the Fifth! Why, how old are you?"
"Exactly fourteen and a quarter—birthday on July 16th, if you want exact date," returned Gwen smartly.
"Oh!" "What a shame!" "We shan't stand it!" rose in such a chorus from all sides that Gwen took the opportunity to make her escape and go to the dressing-room for her lunch. The interval was only ten minutes, and she wished both to break the news to her old classmates and to fetch some necessary books from her former desk before the bell rang.
The other members of the Fifth lingered behind in perturbed consultation. They considered they had a just and most pressing grievance. In all the annals of the school such a case had never occurred before. It had been hitherto an inviolable though unwritten law that no one under the age of fifteen should be admitted to the Fifth Form, a law which they had believed as strict as that of the Medes and Persians, and here was the headmistress actually breaking it, and in favour of a girl only fourteen and a quarter. If Miss Roscoe had not brought her herself into the room they would not have credited it.
"It's abominably unfair!" broke out Rachel Hunter, a tall girl of sixteen. "Because my birthday comes on October 4th I had to stop a whole year longer in the Lower School. Yes—though my mother came and begged Miss Roscoe to let me go up!"
"Well, you couldn't get moved up on your work, at any rate, Rachel!" chirped Joan Masters. "It would have had to be favour in your case."
"That's not the point! It's a different question. If Miss Roscoe makes a rule she ought to stick to it. Why, half the girls in the Form might have come up sooner if it hadn't been for the age limit."
"You're right, and I can't see why Gwen Gascoyne should be so specially noticed."
"She's supposed to be clever, I believe."
"She doesn't look it! Besides, what do we care whether she's clever or not? It's the injustice of the thing that makes me angry. A kid like her amongst us seniors! The idea!"
"Miss Roscoe may send Gwen up," declared Louise Mawson, "but she can't make us accept her as one of ourselves. I vote we send her to Coventry."
"We will! She's nothing but a Lower School girl, and we won't tolerate her being imposed upon us!"
"She'll be so conceited at finding herself a Senior!"
"We'll soon take her pride down, then!"
"She'll meet with a few snubs here, I'll undertake to say!"
"If Miss Roscoe is going to bring up all the rank and file like that there's no credit in being in the Fifth!"
"It's a positive insult to the rest of us!"
So decided Gwen's new classmates, jealous for the prestige of their Form, and annoyed at the indignity which they considered they were made to suffer in admitting a younger girl among their number. To Gwen or her feelings they gave not a thought. If she met with an unpleasant experience all the better; it might deter Miss Roscoe from repeating the experiment. That the remove was not Gwen's fault, and therefore that it was scarcely fair to visit the headmistress's act upon her innocent head, did not enter into their calculations. Where they consider their rights are concerned schoolgirls rarely hold mercy before justice.
Meantime Gwen, who had gone to break the important tidings to the Upper Fourth, did not find her old friends as responsive as she had expected. They received her communication with marked coldness.
"Why should you have been moved up, Gwen Gascoyne, and not Daisy, or Aileen, or I?" enquired Alma Richardson, with a distinctly aggrieved note in her voice.
"Miss Roscoe always favoured Gwen!" said Eve Dawkins enviously.
"You're six months younger than Viola Sutton, so it seems absurd you should be put above her."
"You'll be so grand now, I suppose you won't care to know us!"
"It's not fair to the rest of the Form!"
"Oh dear! I'm between two fires," thought Gwen, as she hastily cleared her possessions from her old desk. "The Fifth don't want me, and the Fourth are horribly jealous. You're going to have a bad time, Gwen Gascoyne, I'm afraid! I see breakers ahead! Never mind. It's a great honour to be moved up, and Father'll be glad and sympathize, if nobody else does. The work will be pretty stiff: I expect it'll be all I can do to manage it. But I mean to have a jolly good try. I'll show those girls I can do something, though I am the youngest! Oh, I say! I've only just remembered that Winnie'll be the under-mistress. I'll have to call her 'Miss Gascoyne' whenever I speak to her. How perfectly idiotic! I'm sure I shall laugh. I wonder if Miss Roscoe's told her yet? What a surprise it would be for her to come into the room and find me there!"
"I wish you'd be quick, Gwen Gascoyne," said Eve Dawkins; "I'm to have your desk as soon as you've moved out. It's a nicer seat than mine."
"Right-o!" answered Gwen, piling her books on top of her big atlas. "You're welcome to it, I'm sure. I think you might all have seemed a trifle more sorry to lose me! I don't see any display of pocket handkerchiefs. No, I can't say I'm shedding tears myself unless they're crocodile ones. Please to recollect in future, my dears, when you speak to me, that you're addressing a member of the Upper School! You're only little Junior girls! Ta-ta!" and with a mock curtsy, in process of which she nearly dropped her pile of books, Gwen retired laughing from the Fourth Form to take her place and try her luck among the Seniors.
The Gascoyne Girls
At fourteen and a quarter Gwen Gascoyne was at a particularly difficult and hobbledehoy stage of her development. She was tall for her age, and rather awkward in her manners, apt at present to be slapdash and independent, and decidedly lacking in "that repose which stamps the caste of Vere de Vere". Gwen could never keep still for five seconds, her restless hands were always fidgeting or her feet shuffling, or she was twisting in her chair, or shaking back a loose untidy lock that had escaped from her ribbon. Gwen often did her hair without the aid of a looking-glass, but when she happened to use one the reflection of her own face gave her little cause for satisfaction.
"I'm plain, and there's no blinking the fact," she confessed to herself. "Winnie says I'm variable, and I can look nice when I smile, but I'm afraid no one would trouble to look at me twice. If only I were Lesbia now, or even Beatrice! People talk about the flower of a family—well, I expect I'm the weed, as far as appearances go! I haven't had my fair share in the way of good looks."
It certainly seemed hard that Nature, which had been kind to the Gascoynes in that respect, should have dowered her brothers and sisters so liberally, and have left poor Gwen out in the cold. Her bright little face had an attraction all of its own, of which she was quite unconscious, but she was entirely accustomed to stand aside while strangers noticed and admired her younger sister Lesbia. To do Gwen justice, though she might lament her own plainness, it never struck her to be jealous of the others. She was intensely proud of the family reputation for beauty, and even if she could not include herself among "the handsome Gascoynes", it certainly gave her a reflected satisfaction to be aware of the epithet.
"I'm like Daddy," she said sometimes; "nobody ever calls him handsome, but he's a dear all the same—the dearest dear in the world!"
The Reverend Maurice Gascoyne was curate-in-charge of the church of St. John the Baptist in the little fishing village of Skelwick Bay, on the coast of the North Sea. He was rich in the possession of seven children, but there his luck ended, for his income, as is often the case, was in exactly inverse ratio to the size of his family.
"The fact is, we're as poor as church mice," said Beatrice one day. "Indeed, I think we're poorer, because the mouse we saw in church last Sunday, that scared Winnie so, was very fat and sleek and prosperous looking, and didn't bear out the old saying at all."
For the last four years, ever since pretty Mrs. Maurice Gascoyne had gently laid down the burden that had grown too heavy for her, Beatrice had been the clever, energetic "mother" of the establishment. She managed the house, and the children, and the one maid, and the parish, and her father, all included, with a business-like capacity far in advance of her twenty years. She was a fine-looking girl, tall and straight-limbed and ample, with blue eyes and dark brows, and a clear creamy skin, and that air of noble strength about her which the Greek sculptors gave to their statues of Artemis. Though she did her best both for home and hamlet, Beatrice often chafed against the narrowness of her limits. It was a sore point that she had been obliged to leave school at sixteen, and devote herself to domestic pursuits, and while not regretting the sacrifice, she often lamented the two years lopped off her education.
"I'm so behind, I never could go in even for the matric. now," she sighed sometimes. "If I could have realized my ambition, I'd have studied for a lady doctor."
Since the profession of medicine was utterly and entirely out of the question, Beatrice often consoled herself by planning that when the children were old enough to do without her, she would go as a nurse to a big London hospital, and rise to be a ward sister, or perhaps—who knew?—even a matron. In the meanwhile her talent for administration had to confine itself within the bounds of the Parsonage and the parish, where it was apt to become just a trifle dictatorial and overbearing. It is so hard for a young, keen, ardent nature, anxious to set the world right, to remember that infinite patience must go hand in hand with our best endeavours, and that the time of sowing is an utterly different season from that of harvest.
Between Gwen and Beatrice there was often friction. The former resented being ordered about by a sister of only twenty, and would prove rebellious on occasion. Really, the two girls' dispositions were much alike, but Beatrice's early position of responsibility had turned into strength of character what was at present mere manifestation of independence and often bravado in Gwen.
Winnie, a sweet-tempered, pretty girl of eighteen, had just been made an under-mistress at "Rodenhurst", Miss Roscoe's school, which she and Gwen and Lesbia attended daily. Teaching was not at all Winnie's vocation, she hated it heartily, but as her services cancelled her sisters' school fees, she was obliged to accept the unwelcome drudgery for the sake of the help it gave to her father's narrow income. If it was Beatrice's ambition to go out into the world and carve a career for herself, it was certainly Winnie's ideal to stop at home. She was a born housekeeper, and loved sewing and cake-baking and jam-making, and dusting the best china, and gardening, and rearing poultry and ducks. It seemed a great pity that she could not have changed places with her elder sister, but Beatrice's education had been stopped too soon for her to be of any use as a teacher, while Winnie, though not clever, had been carefully trained in Rodenhurst methods. Fortunately she had a very cheerful, sunny disposition, that was prone to make the best of things, so she struggled along, taking Miss Roscoe's many suggestions and reproofs so amiably that the Principal, often irate at her lack of capacity, had not the heart to scold her too severely. Of her own choice, I am afraid, Winnie would never have opened a book, but she managed to get up her subjects for her classes, and was a conscientious, painstaking mistress, if not a brilliant one.
After Gwen came the beauty of the family, twelve-year-old Lesbia, a dear, delightful, smiling, lovable little lazybones, usually at the bottom of her Form. Lesbia never attempted to work hard at school. She scraped through her lessons somehow, generally with Gwen's help at home, and took life in a happy-go-lucky fashion, with as little trouble to herself as possible. Lesbia's chief virtue was an admirably calm and unruffled temper: she would laugh philosophically over things that made Gwen rage, and though she had not half the character of the latter, she was a far greater general favourite. She was much petted at school, both by her own Form and by the Seniors, for she had sweet, coaxing little ways, and a helpless, confiding look in her blue eyes that was rather fascinating, and her lovely fair flaxen hair gave her the appearance of a large wax doll, just new from a toy shop. Lesbia had one great advantage: she was always well dressed. She possessed a rich cousin of exactly her own age, whose clothes were passed on to her. Irene grew rapidly, so her handsome frocks and coats were scarcely worn when they reached Lesbia, and as Aunt Violet invariably sent them first to the cleaners, they would arrive wrapped in folds of dainty tissue paper, and looking like new. It seemed rather hard that Lesbia should always be the lucky recipient of the parcels, and Beatrice, with a strict sense of justice, had often tried to adapt some of the things for Gwen. It was quite impossible, however—Lesbia's neat, dainty little figure exactly fitted into the clothes, while Gwen, tall and big-boned even for her extra two and a half years, was so many sizes too large that she had to resign all hope of "fineries", and content herself with plain blouses and navy-blue serge skirts that could be lengthened easily. Not that Gwen troubled much about dress at this period of her existence; indeed she was apt to throw on her garments in a haphazard fashion that greatly excited Beatrice's wrath, and would raise a remonstrance even from Winnie. Life was so full of different things, and so many fresh interests and new plans were crowding continually into her brain, that she never had time to think whether her tie was neatly knotted or her belt properly fastened; it is a sad admission to make, no doubt, but then Gwen was no ideal heroine, only a very faulty, impetuous, headstrong, human girl.
Three little brothers completed the Gascoyne family—Giles, Basil, and Martin, aged respectively ten, nine, and five, bonny mischievous urchins, who were alternately Beatrice's pride and despair. By vigorous measures she managed to keep them in tolerably good order, but she could never be sure what pranks they would play next, and was generally prepared for emergencies. She always had supplies handy of arnica, sticking plaster, and rags for cut fingers, and would toil away patiently mending long rents in small knickerbockers or darning holes in stockings and jerseys. Giles and Basil went daily to a branch establishment of Rodenhurst, kept by Miss Roscoe for boys under twelve; and Martin learnt his letters at home, and trotted about the house and parish in Beatrice's wake. He was a sweet little scamp, and the apple of her eye, for she had brought him up from babyhood, but she sometimes felt it would be an intense relief when he was old enough to go to school with the others.
For seven years the Gascoynes had lived at the little parsonage at Skelwick Bay. It was a small, low, creeper-covered place, built behind a sheltering spur of hill, to protect it from the fierce winter gales and the driving spray of the sea. Four latticed bedroom windows caught the early morning sun, and a stone porch shielded the front door, which opened directly into the sitting-room. There was nothing at all grand about the house, but, thanks to Beatrice, it was neatly kept, and had an air of general comfort. All articles likely to be broken by small fingers were wisely put away, or placed in father's study, a sanctum where no one might intrude without express permission; but books, paint boxes, &c., were freely allowed, and each member of the family had a special shelf on which to keep his or her particular possessions. Beatrice had many excellent rules, and though in the enforcement of these she was strict to the verge of severity, in the main she was just, and had her father's full sanction for her authority.
The garden at the Parsonage was a great joy, with its thick hedge of fuchsias, and its beds of fragrant wallflowers, and its standard roses growing among the grass, and its clumps of Czar violets under the sheltered wall. Here Winnie toiled early and late, getting up sometimes with the sun that she might put in an hour's work before breakfast, weeding, replanting, pruning, raking, and tying up. It was chiefly owing to her exertions that the show of flowers was so good, though Gwen was her ally in that respect, and even Lesbia gave a little desultory help. There was a thick, bowery lime tree under whose shade it was delightful to have tea in summer, or to lie reading books on hot Sundays; and there was a fascinating corner of the old wall, which the girls called "the rampart", from whence it was possible to command an excellent view of the main road—a great convenience sometimes to the younger ones, who would keep watch, and beat a hasty retreat if they saw an unwelcome visitor arriving, leaving Beatrice to offer hospitality alone.
Gwen was the worst sinner in this respect. She was bashful, and hated to have to say "How do you do?" to callers. In spite of Beatrice's efforts to train her in social ways, she would fly at the very approach of a flower-trimmed hat or a white parasol.
"You scuttle off like a rabbit into its burrow," said Beatrice indignantly on one occasion; "and if you're caught, you behave in such a silly, awkward way that I'm ashamed of you. People will think you haven't been properly brought up, and blame me. It's not my fault that you've got no manners."
"I feel as if I don't know where to look when people speak to me, and as if my hands and feet were too big," protested Gwen. "I can't help shuffling and wrinkling up my forehead—I can't indeed! You're awfully hard on me, Bee!"
"Perhaps she'll grow a little more accustomed to her hands and feet when she's older," suggested Winnie, the peacemaker.
"They're useful for catching chickens at present, and that ought to be enough for you, Win," laughed Gwen. "You'd have lost those white Leghorns if I hadn't rescued them."
Winnie was considered chief "henwife" at the Parsonage. She could not give as much time to the poultry as she wished, and had to delegate many of her duties to Beatrice, or Nellie, the maid, but nevertheless held herself responsible for the welfare of her feathered flock. On Saturdays she delighted to array herself in an overall pinafore and carry out improvements in the hen-yard. Armed with hammer, nails, and pieces of wire netting, she would turn old packing-cases into chicken coops and nesting boxes, or make neat contrivances for separating various fussy matrons with rival broods of chicks. Winnie was really wonderfully handy and clever, and albeit her carpentry was naturally of a rather rough-and-ready description, it served the purpose for which she designed it, and saved calling in the services of the village joiner, an economy which her father much appreciated. Winnie was determined to run her poultry systematically. She kept strict accounts, balancing the bills for corn and meal against current market prices for eggs and chickens, and being tremendously proud if her book showed a profit. On the whole she did well, for the fowls had a free run on the common at the back of the house, and could thus pick up much for themselves. With the help of the poultry, and a good vegetable garden, Beatrice was able to make her small housekeeping allowance supply the needs of the family, but there were no luxuries at the Parsonage. The girls possessed few or none of the pretty trifles dear to their sex, their pocket money was scanty almost to vanishing point, and they had early learnt the stern lesson of "doing without things". Adversity may be a hard task-mistress, but she is an excellent teacher in the school of life, and their Spartan upbringing had given the Gascoynes a certain resourcefulness and grit of character that they might possibly have lacked in more affluent surroundings. They were not a perfect family by any means, and had their squabbles and their cross moods like many another; but on the whole they were ready to give and take, make sacrifices for each other, and to try day by day to live a little nearer to that wonderful high standard that Father ever set before them, and which he himself followed so faithfully and truly.
A False Step
The morning following Gwen's promotion to the Fifth Form was wet, one of those hopelessly wet October days when the grey sky and the dripping trees and the sodden grass and the draggled flowers all seem to combine to remind us that summer, lovely, gracious summer, has gone with the swallows and left her fickle stepsister autumn in her stead. It had been raining heavily all night, and it was pouring hard when Nellie placed the coffee pot and the porridge on the table and rang the breakfast bell.
"It's an atrocious, abominable morning!" grunted Gwen, peering disconsolately through the window into the damp garden. "It's sheer cruelty to be expected to turn out and tramp two miles through the mud. We oughtn't to have to go to school when it rains."
"Wet at seven, fine at eleven!" chirped Beatrice at the coffee pot.
"It's all very well for you to be cheerful and quote proverbs—you haven't to go out yourself, Madam Bee!" grumbled Gwen. "I wonder how you'd like it if—"
"Oh, Gwen, don't whine! Come and get breakfast," interrupted Winnie. "It's five-and-twenty to eight, and I've a strong suspicion the clock's late."
"It is," remarked Lesbia calmly, pausing with her porridge spoon suspended midway between plate and mouth. "Stumps put it back ten minutes last night when Father wasn't looking. I saw him."
A chorus of united indignation followed her information, each member of the family trying to bolt breakfast and scold the offender at the same time.
"We've only five minutes. Oh, you naughty boy!" shrieked Winnie.
"I didn't want to go to bed—I meant to put it on again this morning first thing—I did, honest," protested Giles, otherwise known as "Stumps".
"Lesbia, why couldn't you say sooner?" fretted Gwen.
"Only just remembered."
"And the porridge is so hot I've burned my mouth!" wailed Basil.
"You haven't a moment to waste!" urged Beatrice. "Have you all got your boots on? I shall tell Father what you've done, Giles, as soon as he comes downstairs."
Even the loss of ten minutes was a serious consideration to those members of the Gascoyne family who were bound for school. Skelwick was such an out-of-the-way place that they had quite a journey to get to Stedburgh, the seaside town where Rodenhurst was situated. First they had to walk two miles along a very exposed country road to the village of North Ditton, where they could catch the motor omnibus that would take them the remaining four miles into Stedburgh, and then there was a further walk of at least ten minutes before they reached the school. The bus always started with the utmost promptitude, so it was a daily anxiety to leave home punctually and not be obliged to run the last half mile. On this particular morning there was more than the usual scramble to get off. At the last moment Gwen could not find her galoshes, and remembered that she had broken the rib of her umbrella some days before, and had forgotten to mention the fact and ask Beatrice to have it mended.
"You're the most tiresome girl!" scolded the harassed elder sister. "Why couldn't you tell me and I'd have sent it to Johnson's last night? Now I suppose I shall have to lend you mine, and very likely you'll go and break that too!"
"I don't want yours!" snapped Gwen, tucking her hair inside her mackintosh and putting on her "stormy-weather" cap. "I wouldn't risk smashing it for a five-pound note. I'll go without!" and snatching her satchel of books she rushed after the others, who had already started.
The rain was driving furiously, and the road was full of little running rivers of yellow mud. The strong wind made Gwen's eyes smart and water, and she was obliged to hurry to make up for lost time; so when she arrived at North Ditton she was a breathless, rather pitiful object, and most decidedly cross. The omnibus was so full that she was compelled to take Lesbia on her knee and to sit wedged between a very fat wheezy old farmer and a market gardener, who nursed a parcel of plants.
"It's rather fun, isn't it?" laughed Lesbia, graciously accepting the rose that her neighbour offered her. (Somehow people always gave things to Lesbia.)
"More fun for you than for me!" growled Gwen. "I wish you knew how heavy you are!"
A bad start does not make a good preparation for the rest of the day, and Gwen marched into the Fifth Form room that morning in no conciliatory frame of mind. She was quite prepared to be ill received, so she thought she would meet possible coldness by showing a defiant attitude. It was an extremely foolish move, for it brought about the very state of affairs she anticipated. Several of the nicer girls in the Form had half repented their wrath of yesterday, and were ready not only to treat her kindly, but to influence the others in her favour. When they saw her enter, however, with a "don't care" scowling air and walk to her desk, without even looking in their direction, they decided that she was an ill-conditioned, disagreeable girl, and that they would not trouble their heads about her. Instead, therefore, of going and speaking to her as they had intended, they let her severely alone. As a rule, if we go through life expecting slights and dislike, we get what we look for: the self-made martyr can find stake and faggots waiting round every corner. Gwen raged inwardly at the neglect of her classmates, but she did not realize in the least that it was partly her own fault. She sat all the morning with a thundercloud on her face, hurrying out of the room at the interval and eating her lunch alone in a corner of the gymnasium.
"How are you getting on in the Fifth?" whispered Lesbia, who ran up for a moment to sympathize.
"Badly," groaned Gwen. "They're boycotting me. Of course the Fourth won't have anything to do with me now; so I'm like Mahomet's coffin, swung between heaven and earth! It's not pleasant, I assure you."
"I should think not. I wish I could do anything."
"You can't. Go back and play basket-ball."
It was not Rodenhurst etiquette for Seniors to talk to Juniors, so Gwen, mindful even in her forlorn state of her new dignity as a member of the Upper School, could not indulge in the luxury of a chat with Lesbia. She wandered down the corridor, read the time sheets and the announcements on the notice boards, peeped into several empty classrooms, and was glad for once when the bell rang. At one o'clock things were no better. She was given a new place at the dinner-table and had to sit between Rachel Hunter and Edith Arnold, both of whom behaved as if unaware of her presence, and talked to each other across her as though she were non-existent. When she asked for the salt (rather shortly, certainly) Edith only stared and did not pass it. By the end of the meal Gwen began to feel the situation was getting on her nerves. She had been fairly popular in the Upper Fourth, so the change was the more unpleasant.
"I'm not going to give in, though," she thought. "I believe what they want is to make me ask Miss Roscoe to move me down again. Well, they'll find themselves mistaken, that's all! I'll stay in the Upper School if nobody speaks to me till next midsummer, and if I have to stop up half the night slogging away at my work!"
"How cross that Gwen Gascoyne looks!" whispered Hilda Browne to Iris Watson.
"Yes, she doesn't seem to want to know us, does she?"
"She needn't, I'm sure. I think she's horrid!"
It was still raining and impossible to go into the playground, so Gwen strolled into the empty classroom, and for lack of anything else to do began arranging and rearranging the contents of her desk. She had not been there more than five minutes when the door opened and Netta Goodwin, one of her new form-mates, entered, humming a tune. She glanced at Gwen, went to her own desk, made a pretence of trying to find a book, sat whistling for a moment or two, then finally turned towards Gwen.
"Well, how do you like being a Senior?" she asked half mockingly.
"Too soon to tell yet," replied Gwen cautiously. "I shall know better at the end of a week."
"You've not had a very charming reception so far, have you? I saw how Rachel and Edith were behaving at dinner."
"I don't care!" snapped Gwen. "I don't want to talk to them, thanks! The Form can please itself whether it's friendly or leaves me alone as far as I'm concerned."
Netta whistled softly. There was a rather inscrutable expression on her face.
"All the same I suppose you don't always want to go on being a kind of leper and outlaw? Not very interesting, I should say, to come to school every day and speak to nobody!"
Gwen was silent. She had no argument to advance.
"They're annoyed with you just at present for being moved into our Form, but they can't keep it up long. In a little while they'll feel accustomed to you and you'll get on all right. Then the question is, are you going to belong to the Saints or the Sinners?"
"What do you mean?" asked Gwen.
"We're all one or other here. We call Hilda Browne and Iris Watson and Louise Mawson and Rachel Hunter and Edith Arnold and a few more 'the Saints'."
"Nothing very saintly about them that I can see!" sniffed Gwen.
"Well, it depends on your standards. Perhaps they thought they behaved like saints at dinner."
"More like Pharisees! Which are you?"
Netta's brown eyes twinkled.
"I leave you to guess!" she replied sagely. "I'm not stiff and stand-off like some of them are, at any rate. If you'd care to take a walk down the corridor, I'll go with you."
A stroll with anyone was better than sitting alone in the classroom; it was still only two o'clock, and there was half an hour to get through before afternoon school began. Gwen was not averse to exploring the upper corridor, for as a Junior it had been forbidden ground to her. She and Netta went into the Sixth Form room, the Senior French and German room, and even looked inside the teachers' room, finding nobody there.
"Miss Roscoe's private sitting-room is at the end of the passage," said Netta. "She's down in the library, so if you like to take a peep, you can."
The spirit of curiosity strongly urged Gwen to see what a headmistress's private study was like, and thinking themselves perfectly safe, the two girls entered, and began eagerly to scan the pictures, the ornaments, the photographs, and the various objects which were spread about on desk and tables. It was a pretty, tasteful room, with choice prints from the old masters in carved oak frames, and pots of ferns and flowers, and handsomely bound books, and curios from foreign lands. The girls moved softly about, examining first one thing and then another with increasing interest.
"Oh, do look at this exquisite little case of butterflies! I never saw anything so perfect!" said Netta.
Gwen was standing absorbed in contemplation of a stained-wood blotter. She wheeled round, and as she did so her elbow knocked a parcel that had been placed on the corner of the desk, and sent it flying on to the floor. There was a smashing sound like the breaking of china, and at that exact moment somebody entered the room. Hopelessly caught, the two girls turned to face the newcomer. It was not Miss Roscoe—that was one thing to be thankful for—but it was Emma, the housemaid, which was quite bad enough. She looked at them as if she knew herself to be mistress of the situation, then waxed eloquent.
"I should just like to know what you two's doing here?" she demanded. "You've no business in this room—none at all. And you've gone and smashed that parcel as is only come five minutes ago from the china shop. I could hear it break. My word! What will Miss Roscoe say to this?"
"She mustn't know!" gasped Netta. "Emma, you must promise us faithfully not to tell you've found us here."
"Me not tell? And what for, please? Why should I screen you?"
"We shall get into such an awful scrape!" pleaded Gwen.
"You should have thought of that before you came!"
"Oh, Emma!" urged Netta. "We can't, we daren't let Miss Roscoe know. She'd be so fearfully angry. She might even expel us!"
"And what am I to say about this parcel you've broken? You don't suppose I'm going to take the blame of that on my shoulders! No, thank you!"
"The cat," murmured Netta.
"Cat, indeed!" repeated Emma scornfully. "That's too old a story to take in Miss Roscoe; besides which, there's not a cat in the house. She hates 'em. You'll just have to own up, and serve you both right for meddling."
"Is it badly broken, I wonder?" sighed Gwen, feeling the unfortunate parcel carefully. "It seems to be a box."
"Yes, but what's inside the box is smashed. You can hear the bits rattle when you shake it," returned Emma smartly. "It's her new afternoon tea set, I'll be bound. She told me she was going to order one from Parker's."
"There's Parker's name on the label," agreed Gwen despondently.
"Yes, and if you think—"
"Look here, I've got an idea," interrupted Netta. "You said the box only arrived about five minutes ago, so Miss Roscoe can't possibly know that it's come yet. If we could get it taken back to the shop and ask Parker's to send some more, and we pay for it, she need never know."
"A pretty idea!" snorted Emma.
"Oh, it would be grand!" exclaimed Gwen, grasping at any way out of the dreadful predicament.
"You'll help us, Emma, won't you?" entreated Netta.
"Not I! It's none of my business."
"But suppose it were worth your while? Wouldn't half a crown buy you something nice?"
"Nothing I'd care for."
"Five shillings, then?"
Emma's face showed signs of yielding.
"I don't want to get you into trouble if I can help it," she replied more gently. "I dare say Parker's would replace the things if you was willing to pay for them, and nothing need be said. I'm not one for wanting scenes, and a scene there'd be if Miss Roscoe found her set broken. She's a sharp tongue, as I know to my cost."
"Then, Emma, will you take away the box now, and hide it somewhere, and we'll meet you in the pantry at four o'clock, and you can give it to us, and we'll take it ourselves to Parker's, and ask them to send some more china to-night. We'll bring you the five shillings to-morrow morning. It shall be a present from us both, and thank you so much for helping us! You promise you won't tell? Well, that's a weight off our minds! Come, Gwen, we'll scoot!"
A Delicate Transaction
Gwen had stood by, listening to Netta's proposals, and offered no opposition. She was thankful to find any means of escape from the terrible prospect of braving Miss Roscoe's wrath. The Principal was a stern, even a severe woman, who never made allowances or admitted excuses, and greatly resented any liberties. How would she regard such an extreme liberty as an unauthorized visit to her private sitting-room, to say nothing of the accident to the tea service? Gwen shivered at the bare idea. She was aware that she and her sisters were received on rather special terms at Rodenhurst. Winnie's teaching scarcely compensated for the two younger ones' school fees, and did not include the daily board for the three girls, which was given in by Miss Roscoe, who knew of Mr. Gascoyne's poor circumstances. For this reason Gwen had been urged to work her hardest, so as to be a credit to her Form, and in some degree repay Miss Roscoe's generosity. The Principal had shown an interest in her, particularly in relaxing an old-established rule in her favour, and moving her up right in the middle of a term. If she were detected in such a grave breach of discipline, Miss Roscoe might consider her unworthy of any further kindnesses, might even ask her father to take her away altogether from Rodenhurst. To take her away! Why, the world would come to an end! At home she was already regarded as the troublesome one of the family, and if she suffered this disgrace, she could never hold up her head again. Father—dear, patient, self-sacrificing Father—would be grieved and worried beyond expression; he hoped great things, she knew, from her schooling, and how could she bear to disappoint him?
Then there was Beatrice, who always seemed ready to find fault, and think the worst of her. She would almost as soon let Miss Roscoe know as Beatrice! No, at all costs the episode of that afternoon must be kept a strict secret. She dared not confide it even to Winnie or Lesbia. She must take the burden on her own shoulders, and get out of the scrape as best she could alone. Netta had assumed the leadership of the affair, so to Netta she turned for counsel and comfort.
"What's the next move?" she asked.
"Why, we must go to Parker's directly school's over, and take the parcel with us."
"I shall miss the bus!"
"You can't help that; you must catch the next."
"I shall have to dodge Winnie and Lesbia."
"Dodge them, then, and make up some excuse for missing the bus. You can say I kept you."
"How much do you think the china will cost?"
"I haven't the least idea; it depends how much is broken."
"Netta, you won't tell a soul about this, will you?"
"Tell! Am I likely to tell? No, you and I are in the same boat, and we must shield each other. I wouldn't trust anybody in the school. One never knows how things are talked about and get round from the most unlikely quarters. Whatever happens, this mustn't reach Miss Roscoe's ears."
The motor omnibus started at 4.20, and as a rule the Gascoynes had quite a scramble to rush off and catch it. To-day Gwen managed to avoid Winnie and Lesbia, and waiting until they were safely off the premises, she went with Netta to the pantry. Emma was not there, but they found the parcel behind the door and appropriated it, Gwen hiding it carefully under her waterproof. Parker's china store was in the principal street of the town, nearly a quarter of an hour's walk from Rodenhurst. When the girls arrived there, several customers were in the shop, so that they had to wait a little before anyone could attend to them.
"You speak to him—I don't know what to say!" whispered Gwen, thrusting the parcel into Netta's hand, as an assistant at last came to serve them.
Netta had any amount of presence of mind, and did not at all object to be spokeswoman. She rapidly explained that they had had an accident, and were anxious to replace some broken articles at their own expense. The shopman opened the box, and pulling out the shavings in which the china was packed, laid the various pieces upon the counter. The girls were aghast at the extent of the damage. Several cups were smashed to atoms, the teapot had lost its lid, and the cream jug its handle.
"Have you any more like them?" asked Netta anxiously.
"Fortunately we have, miss," replied the assistant. "It is a pattern we usually keep in stock, and—yes, I can match them all. I can repack the box and send it out by the six-o'clock van."
Gwen heaved a great sigh of relief. Miss Roscoe would receive her parcel that night, and would be no wiser for what had happened.
"We shall be very glad if you will do that," she said. "And will you please tell us what we have to pay extra?"
The man took the bill which had been enclosed in the box and rapidly glanced over the items.
"Let me see—teapot, cream jug, three cups, four plates—the sugar basin is all right—ah! but this saucer is cracked! Sixteen and six, seventeen and nine—it will be exactly one pound two and sixpence, please."
Gwen felt ready to sink through the floor. She had very little notion of the value of things, and could hardly believe that china cost so much. She looked blankly and helplessly at Netta, who after a moment's pause met the emergency.
"We haven't the money with us this afternoon, I'm afraid, but we'll bring it to-morrow without fail. Will that do?"
"Yes, thank you, miss, I dare say it will be all right if you give me the name."
"Miss Gwen Gascoyne," said Netta promptly.
"At Rodenhurst, I suppose?"
That ended the transaction, so the two girls left the shop.
"Well, Gwen, my child, you've let yourself in for a nice little bill!" laughed Netta, when they found themselves in the street.
"It's impossible! I can't pay it!" gasped Gwen, with hot tears trickling down her cheeks. "What am I to do?"
"Turn along this quiet road immediately, and don't stand mopping your eyes in the middle of High Street! Everybody's staring at you. I believe the policeman's going to ask if you're lost!"
And seizing her schoolmate by the arm, Netta hustled her away from the unwelcome attention which she was attracting. The road led to the promenade, where the girls found an unoccupied bench, and sat down to talk matters over.
"One pound two and sixpence!" ejaculated Gwen, with a sob between the words.
"And five shillings we promised Emma, so that makes twenty-seven and six," agreed Netta briskly. "Of course it was you who broke the china, so it's your business to pay for it, but I'll go shares in squaring Emma."
"I can't—I can't ever pay it! Oh, I wish I was at the bottom of the sea!" wailed Gwen.
"Don't be an idiot! It must be managed somehow. How much have you got at home?"
"I've about fifteen shillings in my money-box."
"Well, look here, I'll lend you ten, and that will just do it. We'll each give Emma half a crown to make her hold her tongue, and we'll settle up Parker, and then the thing will be done with. You may pay me back as soon as you can."
"You're a white angel!"
"No, I'm not. I'm anything but a saintly person. I'm ready to help a chum out of a hole, though. I'll bring the money to school with me to-morrow morning. And now, for goodness sake, do wipe your eyes, and put your hat on straight, and try and make yourself look respectable enough to walk down the promenade. I want to go home."
"So do I," said Gwen. "What's the time? I mustn't miss the next bus."
"It's twenty past five."
"Oh, horrors! And the bus goes at half-past! Can I possibly catch it?"
"I'll say goodbye if you're going to pelt along the promenade. I hate rushing."
"Goodbye! And thank you a hundred thousand times!"
It was only as Gwen was scurrying along the asphalted walk that it struck her that, after all, Netta was getting rather easily out of the scrape. Of course she, Gwen, had knocked over the box of china, but it was Netta who had taken her into Miss Roscoe's room, and who was therefore in a sense responsible for the whole affair. Well, she was glad enough to find help on any terms; she did not know how she was going to repay Netta the money, but that might wait. It was sufficient for the present that the tea set could be replaced without any fear of discovery. She hurried breathlessly on, fearing to miss the omnibus; taking any short cuts she knew, and breaking into a run when she reached the Ditton Road. She could see the omnibus standing at its starting-place, and hoped it might be just possible to arrive in time. As she tore along the footpath, she noticed a boy a few yards in front of her who was running equally quickly, or even faster.
"I wonder if he's trying to catch it too?" she thought, and envied his longer legs and freedom from hampering skirts. "Oh! it's actually going! What a shame!"
The boy made a spurt, and shouted and whistled after the retreating omnibus, but it was not of the slightest avail; neither the conductor nor the driver took any notice. Realizing the hopelessness of his efforts, the boy stopped and saw Gwen, who came panting up.
"No use, it's gone too far!" he exclaimed. "It's an atrocious swindle! Those men never look. I suppose you were trying to catch it too?"
"Yes. I always go by the 4.20."
"So do I; so it's a nuisance to miss this. We're out of luck to-day."
Gwen knew the boy quite well by sight, as for the last few weeks he had been a fellow passenger morning and evening in the omnibus. He was a jolly-looking fellow, about her own age or perhaps a little older, with a brown skin and very twinkling, brown eyes. He wore a grammar-school cap, and carried some books, so she could guess his occupation in Stedburgh.
"I believe the next goes at half-past six," he remarked ruefully. "But you won't catch me waiting for it I shall walk."
"So shall I," agreed Gwen. "Walking's better fun any time than standing waiting," and she suited her action to her words. The boy kept by her side, evidently not unpleased to have a companion to talk to.
"You're one of the Gascoyne girls, aren't you?" he began. "I see the whole lot of you every day cramming into the bus. Aren't you the one they call Gwen?"
"I believe I am."
"It's you who's generally left something behind, or lost something, or got yourself into some kind of a pickle; then the one with her hair turned up scolds."
"That's Winnie," chuckled Gwen.
"Those two youngsters are cheeky imps. Tell them they'll get their heads smacked some day!"
"They often do at home."
"Serve 'em right. I'm glad to hear it. How many more are there of you at home?"
"Quite enough, I should think!"
"Thank you! You've asked all about my family, but you haven't told me who you are."
"Why, I thought you knew. My name is Dick Chambers. My father is Dr. Chambers, who's just taken Dr. Harrison's practice."
"At North Ditton?"
"Yes, we only came six weeks ago. Dr. Harrison has gone to London."
"I knew Dr. Harrison," said Gwen. "He came to see us when we had scarlatina, and gave us some loathly medicine!"
"Dad can do a little in that line!" laughed Dick. "He once made me drink asafoetida when I was a kid, to cure me of sampling bottles in the surgery."
"Is it nasty?"
"It smells like a defunct rat, so you can imagine the taste."
"He doesn't give such bad things to his patients, though. There's some quite decent stuff in the dispensary, and sometimes the bottles are coloured pink, especially if they're for girls. I'm going to be a doctor when I grow up."
"I suppose you'll help your father. Have you any brothers and sisters?"
"Not a single one."
"Oh, I should think that's rather slow!"
"I don't find it so. There's always plenty to do."
"Do you like North Ditton?"
"Oh, yes, pretty well! It's nicer than Essington, where we lived before."
"Do you like the Grammar School?"
"Fairly. The chaps are rather a rotten set, and the Head's unspeakable."
Chatting thus, Gwen found the four miles to North Ditton wonderfully short ones, but when she had said goodbye to her new friend, and was trudging along the road to Skelwick by herself, she had time for many unpleasant reflections. At one blow this afternoon, she had sacrificed not only all the money in her savings box, but had got into debt as well—a debt which she had no present prospect of paying. It was most aggravating to have to empty her private bank; the contents were the accumulation of several little gifts that had been sent by her uncles and aunts on her last birthday, and even so far back as last Christmas. How would she explain, if Beatrice asked what had become of her money? She groaned as she splashed, recklessly through the puddles left by the morning's rain. She could foresee many difficulties ahead, especially at Christmas time.
The family had finished tea when she reached home, and Beatrice, grown uneasy at her absence, greeted her with upbraidings.
"Where have you been, Gwen? Why didn't you come with the others? Winnie nearly lost the bus with going back to look for you. You know quite well you mustn't stay behind like this. Answer me at once! Where were you?"
"I went along the promenade with Netta Goodwin, then I missed the 5.30 and had to walk all the way home. That's where I've been, and you may scold as much as you like—I don't care."
"Oh, Gwen!" exclaimed Winnie.
"I don't. I'm not going to be ordered about by Beatrice, and treated as if I were a baby. I'm surely old enough to manage my own affairs!"
Gwen was tired out with her six-mile tramp, and hungry, and very miserable, or I think she would not have talked in so lawless and foolish a strain.
Beatrice gazed at her in amazement. Gwen had often been naughty, but had never before ventured thus to wave the flag of defiance.
"I shall have to get Father to speak to you," she replied gravely. "He's gone over to Hethersedge to take the temperance meeting. He started at five o'clock. You'd better have tea now. Nellie has made you some more, in the little blue pot, and we kept you a potato cake, though you don't deserve it. Father will be very astonished and sorry when I tell him what you've said."
Gwen ate her meal with a big lump in her throat. She had not meant to rebel openly, but she had lost her temper, and the words had flashed out. Beatrice's threat alarmed her. Through all the tangled skein of Gwen's character there ran, like a thread of pure gold, the intense passionate love for her father, and the desire to preserve his good opinion. She could not bear to see the grieved look that came into his eyes when he was forced to reprove her. What indeed would he think of her when he heard Beatrice's account? She pushed the potato cake away, feeling as if she could not swallow a morsel.
Beatrice was putting Martin to bed. Better follow her now, and try to patch up peace. She ran upstairs and met her sister coming out of the little fellow's bedroom, candle in hand.
"Bee! I'm awfully sorry for what I said just now! I didn't really mean it I can't think what possessed me!" gulped Gwen.
"I try to do my best for you all. It's hard work sometimes to be eldest," said Beatrice, and there was a quiver in her voice too. "If only Mother were here."
"Don't!" said Gwen huskily. "I miss her so dreadfully still. Oh, Bee! If only you wouldn't tell Father about this!"
"If I don't, will you promise faithfully always to come straight home from school with Winnie and Lesbia, and never go anywhere without asking?"
"On my honour!"
"Then I won't trouble him. He's enough worries, poor darling, without adding any more to them! I only wish I could save him some of those he already has!"
Early next morning, long before Lesbia was awake, Gwen got up very quietly, and unlocked her savings box. It seemed dreadfully hard to have to take her treasured fifteen shillings; pocket money was such a scarce article at the Parsonage that she did not know when she would have the chance of accumulating so much again. There were only two threepenny bits and a penny left to rattle when she shook the box, so she sighed ruefully as she locked it, and put it back in its place on the top shelf of the bookcase. She hoped Netta would not forget to bring the half-sovereign she had promised to lend, though how the loan was ever to be repaid she could not imagine. For to-day it seemed enough if she had avoided Miss Roscoe's anger, and spared casting an added worry on Father's already overburdened shoulders.
Netta was faithful to her word; she came to school with both the ten-shilling piece and the half-crown which was to be her share of the "hush money" for Emma. The two girls held a long whispered conference together during the interval.
"I can't possibly go and pay Parker's myself," said Gwen. "You've no idea what a row I got into last night for missing the bus. Winnie'll keep an eye on me to-day at four o'clock, I can assure you. Could you go?"
"Very sorry, but I've got to go straight home too. Some cousins are coming to tea, and I have to ask Miss Evans to let me out of the drawing class ten minutes earlier. Why not get Emma to go? We shall have to see her to give her her tip."
"A good idea," said Gwen. "Emma understands all about it."
They found the housemaid when she was helping to lay the tables for dinner, and managed to draw her aside for a private talk.
"Did the fresh china come last night?" they asked eagerly.
"Oh, yes! it came all right, and Miss Roscoe never said a word, so you may think yourselves lucky," replied Emma.
"Here's the little present we promised you," said Netta, slipping the five shillings into her hand.
"I hardly like taking it!" protested Emma, though she popped it hastily into her pocket all the same.
"Could you do something more for us?" begged Gwen. "Will you call at Parker's and pay for the broken china? Here's the money—it's one pound two and six. Neither Netta nor I can possibly go."
"Oh, yes, I don't mind doing that!" returned Emma. "It's my night out this evening, and I shall be down High Street, so I can easily call at Parker's on my road. They don't close till eight o'clock."
"And you promise you'll never breathe a single word to anybody about this?"
"Not likely!" declared Emma, as she turned away to finish laying her table.
"Well, I'm thankful that's done with," thought Gwen. "It might have been an awkward affair, and I've come out of it uncommonly well. I feel as if I'd laid a ghost, and popped a stone on its grave."
It was all very well for Gwen to congratulate herself, but she quite forgot that ghosts have an awkward habit sometimes of disregarding tombstones, and rising from their graves to haunt those who have interred them. The matter of the broken china was not to be so easily disposed of as she had imagined, and though for the present her secret seemed safe, there was trouble ahead for her in plenty.
Trouble in the Fifth
The direct result of Gwen's transaction about the china was to fling her into the arms of Netta Goodwin. With such a secret between them it was impossible not to be friendly, and though Netta was hardly an ideal chum, there seemed no choice in the matter. Moreover, she was the only one in the Fifth who had offered advances; the other girls, still indignant at the promotion of a Junior, turned the cold shoulder. This unfortunate intimacy caused Gwen to be banned the more.
"I see Gwen Gascoyne has taken up with Netta Goodwin," said Hilda Browne.
"Then that stamps her," replied Edith Arnold. "I wouldn't touch Netta with a pair of tongs myself. I thought better of the Gascoynes!"
Netta was a type of girl that can be found in every school and almost every Form. Rather deficient in moral fibre, and badly trained at home, her influence was always on the wrong side. She was clever enough, as a rule, just to avoid getting into open trouble with the authorities, but under the surface she was a source of disturbance. She had a certain following of gigglers and slackers, who thought her escapades funny, and were ready to act chorus to her lead, and though she had never done anything specially outrageous, her reputation at headquarters was not good. Every teacher realized only too plainly that Netta was the firebrand of the Form, and that while she might preserve a smug exterior it was really she who was responsible for any outbreaks of lawlessness among the others.
As Junior Mistress of the Fifth no one had more reason to be aware of this than Winnie Gascoyne. Teaching was uphill work to Winnie. She had not Beatrice's commanding disposition and capacity for administration, consequently it was the more difficult for her to keep order and enforce rules. She did her conscientious best, but girls easily find out a governess's weak point, and at present Netta was trying how far she could go. "Ragging Miss Gascoyne" was a favourite pastime of hers, and one which afforded much sport to her applauders, if not to the victim of her jokes.
A few mornings after Gwen's introduction to the Fifth there was a class for memory map drawing with the assistant teacher. Each girl was supposed to come prepared to make a map of India, and to mark in a large number of places, a fairly difficult task, and one over which many of them grumbled in unison.
"It's not fair! It takes such heaps of time to go over it at home, one hasn't a second for anything else!" wailed Minna Jennings.
"I'd a raging headache last night, and my mother said she thought Rodenhurst was getting too much for me," bleated Millicent Cooper.
"Poor frail flower! You look as if you'd wither at a breath! Better pack you off to a sanatorium!" laughed Netta.
"And you to a lunatic asylum, you mad thing! Don't you ever get headaches with all this over-swatting?"
"No, my child, for I know a dodge or two! N. G. is no infant in arms, I assure you."
"Deign to explain, O commander of the faithful!" begged Annie Edwards.
"Well, as I told you, I'm up to a thing or two, and I flatter myself I know just exactly how to tackle Grinnie."
"Who's Grinnie?" asked Gwen rather sharply.
The others roared.
"My sweet babe, my dear ex-Junior, let us initiate you into the shibboleths of the Fifth! Yes, Seniors indulge in their little nicknames as well as the Lower School, though perhaps we are rather more cultured in our choice of them. Be it known to you then that our respected Head, vulgarly called The Bogey by ill-trained Juniors, is among our elect set yclept Lemonade, partly owing to her habit of fizzing over, and partly to a certain acid quality in her temper, otherwise hard to define. Miss Douglas, our honoured Form mistress, being a canny Scot, goes by the familiar appellation of Thistles, intended also to subtly convey our appreciation—or shall I say depreciation?—of her prickly habit."
"And Grinnie?" continued Gwen.
"Your sister, by her perpetual smile, courted the title."
"It's no good exploding, Gwen!" said Annie Edwards. "If you've got a sister who's a teacher you'll just have to hear her called nicknames. You don't suppose we're going to shut up on your account?"
"And you needn't go sneaking, either, or it'll be the worse for you," added Minna Jennings.
"We'd soon know who'd told tales," snapped Millicent Cooper.
"Peace, turbulent herd!" said Netta, holding up her hand. "Our friend Gwen, being of a sensible disposition, and a lover, like ourselves, of all wholesome jests, fully realizes the exigencies of her peculiar situation. Though in the seclusion of her home she may be bound by many natural ties, family obligations cease entirely in the classroom. If her sister is a mistress, she is a pupil, and therefore bound to side with her Form through all those trials of tact known as 'thick and thin'. Have I not put the thing in a nutshell, O Gwendolen mine?"
Gwen could not help laughing, for there was undoubted truth in Netta's argument. Winnie would, she knew, treat her with the utmost impartiality, probably even more strictly, owing to their relationship. It would certainly never do if she were to be regarded as a sneak in the Form, ready to report misdoings and make mischief; such a character would be intolerable to her. Winnie must fight her own battles, and she would throw in her luck with her peers.
"You needn't be afraid of me!" she protested. "I'd be the very last to blab; and I like fun as well as anybody."
"I knew it, oh, altogether-wise-in-judgment! Have I not proved thee?" returned Netta, with a meaning look in her eyes which only Gwen understood. "Now, having established thy reputation, I will return to my original thingumgigs."
"Oh, Netta, stop being a lunatic, and tell us how you mean to tackle Grinnie!" interposed Minna.
"Well, my little dears, it's extremely simple, but a work of genius all the same. Genius always is simple, I believe! Behold my mapping book with its virgin page. Behold also this spotless piece of blotting paper. I turn it over, and hey, presto! a transformation. Here's my map, nicely done in pencil, with all the names marked. Nothing to do but copy it, you see. At the least approach of danger I turn it with its most innocent side up."
The girls sniggered their admiration. Gwen could not approve, but she did not protest. It was not her business to preach, so she told herself. As long as she did her own work honestly, she could not begin her career in the Fifth by assuming the very character she had just denied. Minna and Annie, inspired by Netta's brilliant idea, were copying the map on to pieces of blotting paper as fast as they could.
"It wouldn't be a bad plan to trace it the wrong way, and then rub it off like a transfer," suggested Millicent.
"Just a little too clever, most astute one! Grinnie comes round to look, and she'd think you'd got on too quickly, and want to know the reason why. You're bright, Millicent Cooper, but you're not far-seeing."
"You'll get caught yourself some time," said Millicent.
"True, O Queen! But I'll have somewhat in the shape of a run first," laughed Netta.
Gwen felt rather indignant as she began her map drawing. She hated cheating, and it seemed very unjust that Netta and the others should win credit for what was not fairly their own work.
"Winnie's not half sharp enough," she thought. "If it were Beatrice, now, there isn't a girl in the room would dare to try any tricks."
Possibly even Winnie had her suspicions. She kept a watchful eye on the Form, and made an occasional tour round the desks. Netta was extremely cautious, but all the same her attention to her blotting paper was rather conspicuous.
"Netta Goodwin, hand me your mapping book!"
Netta started in some confusion at the abrupt order, and dropped both mapbook and blotting paper on to the floor. Gwen, equally startled, moved her hand hastily and sent her book spinning after the other. It was a complete accident, but one by which Netta did not hesitate to profit. Under the shelter of the desk she rapidly substituted Gwen's piece of blotting paper for her own, then passed up the book with an air of sangfroid truly heroic in the eyes of Annie, Minna, and Millicent. Miss Gascoyne examined the pages carefully, but finding nothing incriminating, supposed she had been mistaken. Netta might be the chief sinner of the Form, certainly, but she was not invariably at fault.
"She thought I was as innocent as Mary's little lamb!" laughed that damsel afterwards. "You were a trump, Gwen, to help me. It was a smart notion of yours to drop your book too. You did it so promptly!" Then putting her arm round Gwen's neck she whispered: "I helped you when you were in a tight hole, and I'm glad to see you're going to stand by me. I shall always count upon you in future."
So thus it happened that almost in spite of herself Gwen became Netta's ally, pledged to support her on all occasions. She was afraid to risk a quarrel lest Netta should press for the return of the ten shillings she had lent. The debt felt a millstone round her neck, from which there was no immediate chance of relief. Netta's particular clique of friends, proving Gwen safe, included her in their special set, a compromising arrangement which seemed nevertheless inevitable. The girls did not really mean much harm, but they were silly and flippant, and enjoyed evading rules simply for the fun of the thing. Netta loved to show off before the others, and because she found Miss Gascoyne an easier victim than Miss Douglas, she kept most of her sallies for the junior teacher. She could estimate to a nicety the fine distinction between giving trouble and open defiance. She never actually overstepped the line, but she contrived to make matters very unpleasant for poor Winnie. It was her boast that she could always raise a spark out of Miss Gascoyne, and her admirers were ready to titter in sympathy.
Winnie, mindful of her position as teacher, never mentioned school affairs to Gwen; but one day Beatrice tackled the latter on the subject.
"I hear you've struck up a friendship with Netta Goodwin," she began. "I'm very surprised, for she doesn't seem a nice sort of girl."
"She's the only one who's been kind to me," returned Gwen, up in arms at once at Beatrice's tone.
"Indeed! Well, I wouldn't be too much with her if I were you. I'm afraid she's anything but desirable."
"Who said I was much with her? Has Winnie been telling tales about me?"
"Don't be nasty, Gwen. You know Winnie never tells."
"There's no particular harm in Netta," protested Gwen, taking up the cudgels for her schoolmate out of sheer contrariness. "She's only rather lively and funny. I suppose that's no great crime."
"Are you sure Father would like her?"
"Dad doesn't know her, so I can't pretend to say what he'd think of her," retorted Gwen, shuffling out of the matter with what she knew was a lame excuse.
A Casting Vote
Gwen had not been prepared to find the Fifth exactly a bed of roses, therefore she was hardly surprised at the thorns which beset her new path. In spite of the extra teaching from Miss Woodville, she found the work of the Form extremely difficult, especially in mathematics. There was a whole book of Euclid theorem which she had not been through, and the consequence was that every other problem had some little point proved by a theorem of which she had never heard. It was a most decided stumblingblock. It is possible to sit and look at a problem for hours without getting any further if there is just one statement of whose existence one is not aware. More than once Gwen had to hand in a blank page, and felt very humiliated at the meaning glances which passed between Rachel Hunter and Edith Arnold. Neither of these was yet reconciled to Gwen's presence in the Form. Rachel, mindful of her own delayed promotion to the Upper School, persisted in regarding her as an "intruding kid", and Edith could not forgive her intimacy with Netta Goodwin. Manifold small slights and snubs fell to Gwen's share, and though she affected to make light of them, they hurt all the same. She knew that under happier auspices she might have been friendly with Hilda Browne, Iris Watson, Louise Mawson, and several others of whom Father would have approved, and whom, with his entire sanction, she might have invited occasionally to the Parsonage. She was aware that she was in the worst set in the Form, and that not one of her new chums would pass muster if judged according to her home standards.
"I can't ever ask them, that's all," she declared. "Annie's giggles would give Beatrice a fit, Millicent puts on side horribly, Minna would probably make fun of everything, Claire Harris is absolutely vulgar, and as for Netta—no! Dad mustn't see Netta on any account."
Another not unexpected trouble had fallen to Gwen's share. As a member of the Upper Fourth she had, at the beginning of the term, been chosen Junior Basket-ball Captain, to arrange Lower School team games and matches, and she had worked very hard to get things going. On her promotion, however, it had been a greatly discussed point whether she should resign or finish the season. Some of the Upper Fourth, knowing how much was due to Gwen's exertions, had been anxious for her to retain her post, but on the whole the popular verdict was against her. To Gwen's disgust, her old friends, Eve Dawkins and Alma Richardson, were the loudest in her disfavour, and it was chiefly owing to their eloquence that she was requested to resign. She had been proud of her captaincy, and to give it up was a wrench. There seemed nothing at all in her new Form to compensate for the loss, and sometimes she wished heartily that she had never been moved.
The present excitement in the Fifth was a "Literary and Dramatic Club", the members of which intended to act a piece at Christmas. It was a rather cliquish society, worked with more favour than fairness, and was principally among those girls whose homes lay near to the school.
"They stay behind at four o'clock to rehearse," explained Netta. "It's really only among about half a dozen."
"Are you in it?" queried Gwen.
"I, my dear child? Hardly! You don't imagine the high and mighty Iris Watson would ask yours truly? Saints and sinners don't mix in this Form, if you please!"
"Do you mean to tell me the whole thing is in the hands of Iris and a few others?"
"With your usual astuteness you've hit the nail on the head."
"But that's monstrously unfair!" exclaimed Gwen indignantly. "A Dramatic Club ought to be for the whole Form. Everybody ought to have an innings, in the name of common justice."
Netta shrugged her shoulders.
"I don't want to act with Iris and Edith and Louise, thank you! A pleasant performance it would be! They may keep their precious piece to themselves, so far as I'm concerned."
"But that's not the point," persisted Gwen. "It's the fairness of the thing I'm talking about. One set has no right to monopolize everything."
"It is sickening, certainly."
"It's worse than sickening, it's intolerable, and I'm going to make a stand against it."
"You can try if you like, but you needn't expect success."
When Gwen had a cause to champion, she was ready for a fight, even on the losing side. One of her characteristics was a strong sense of justice, and here, she considered, was a distinct case of oppression. She thought over her plan of campaign, and decided that she would ask to be admitted to the Dramatic Club. Next morning, accordingly, she approached the five or six girls who constituted that society.
"Want to join our Dramatic Club!" exclaimed Louise Mawson almost incredulously. "I dare say you do!"
"But you won't!" said Hilda Browne quickly.
"Cheek!" ejaculated Rachel Hunter.
"Why shouldn't I join?"
"On the other hand, why should you?"
"Because a society ought to be open to the whole Form, and not just kept amongst a few. We didn't manage things like that in the Upper Fourth."
"How very kind of you, fresh from the Juniors, to come and give us Seniors a lesson in managing our affairs! Perhaps you'd like to be President? Would that content you?" enquired Hilda Browne sarcastically.
"I don't want to be President, but I claim the right to have some say in the matter. The thing ought to be properly constituted, and every girl in the Form ought to vote for officers."
"Well, of all cool proposals!"
"Look here, Gwen Gascoyne, you need suppressing!"
"She's not worth noticing!"
It was only what Gwen had expected, but she felt she had at any rate opened fire. She did not mean to retire vanquished after a first attempt. She now directed her energies to another quarter. She canvassed the entire Form, asking each girl separately if she did not consider the Dramatic Club ought to be put upon a general basis. Everybody, except those who were already members, agreed. Many had thought the present arrangement unfair, and had grumbled loudly, though nobody had had the initiative to start a revolt. Now Joan Masters and Elspeth Frazer took the matter in hand seriously, tackled the clique, and argued the question.
"You may run a private club if you like for your own amusement," said Elspeth, "but if you're going to call it 'The Fifth Form Dramatic', and give a performance before the other Forms at Christmas, then it must be a fair and open thing. Everyone must be eligible for membership, and officers should be chosen by ballot."
"Half of you wouldn't be able to join," declared Hilda Browne.
"That's our own lookout. The point is that we ought to be able to do so if we want. If you persist in keeping it all to yourselves, you may act without an audience, for none of us will come to see you, and we'll tell the other Forms what the quarrel is."
"I know they'd back us up," said Joan Masters.
Very unwillingly the clique gave way. They knew they had no just ground for their position, but they had hoped it would not be called in question.
"It's all the fault of Gwen Gascoyne, with her Lower School notions," said Rachel Hunter.
"She needn't think she's going to act!" asserted Edith Arnold.
"Don't want to!" rapped out Gwen, who happened to overhear. "I should miss the bus if I stayed behind after four. I only wanted to see things made fair and square."
Though the new arrangements were really owing to Gwen's enterprise, nobody was willing to accord her any thanks. Joan Masters and Elspeth Frazer received all the credit for having righted the wrong; and though a few might remember that Gwen had started the movement, they were almost ready to agree with Rachel Hunter that it was rather pushing of an ex-Junior to have taken so much upon herself. They had not yet forgiven her translation to the Fifth, and only the utmost humility on her part would have reconciled them. Humility was certainly not Gwen's characteristic, so she still went by the epithet of "that cheeky kid" in the Form.
"So much for their gratitude," confided Gwen to Lesbia. "I don't want to act, but some of those who have got into the play might at least acknowledge what I've done for them."
"They seem a hateful set!" sympathized Lesbia.
"Detestable!" said Gwen with unction.
One thing had not been settled by the Dramatic Society, and that was their choice of a President. Names were canvassed freely in the Form, and finally Hilda Browne and Elspeth Frazer were put up as candidates. Voting was to be by ballot during the interval, but while the papers were being given out Gwen bolted. She was feeling cross and forlorn, and sick of the whole affair.
"I don't mind who's chosen President," she thought "It makes no difference to me. They may elect whom they like."
So she went a solitary little walk round the playground, whistling a tune, and trying to look as if she didn't care about anything. She had not been there very long before she saw Betty Brierley and Ida Young signalling to her from the gymnasium door. She took no notice of their beckonings, whereupon they ran after her, and seizing her one by each arm, began to drag her towards the house.
"You're wanted most particularly, Gwen Gascoyne!" said Betty excitedly.
"We've been sent to fetch you quick!" chimed in Ida.
"Hello! Hands off!" cried Gwen, dragging herself from their grasp. "What do you want with me, I should like to know?"
"It's the others who want you."
"What for? Didn't know I was so popular!"
"You've not voted for a President yet."
"No, and I don't mean to, either."
"But, Gwen, you must! We've taken the ballot, and the votes are exactly even. You've got the casting vote!"
"Have I, indeed? No, thank you! It's rather too great an honour!"
"But look here, Gwen, it's the only way to decide it. We've got to choose either Elspeth or Hilda."
"Then you may fight it out amongst you. You don't suppose, when you've all voted by ballot, that I'm going to take the responsibility of a casting vote. It's a most unfair proposal. Why, the rejected candidate and all on her side would never forgive me!"
"We might have the ballot again," suggested Betty. "Then you need only put your cross."
"As if everybody wouldn't know who was responsible for the extra cross! I might as well write Gwen Gascoyne on my paper at once! It's no use pulling my arm; I'm not coming in to be made a cat's paw. You may go and tell the others so if you like."
Betty and Ida departed, grumbling loudly at Gwen's "unaccommodatingness", as they called it, and Gwen stayed in the playground until the bell rang, fuming with indignation. Every fresh little episode seemed to serve to make her more of an alien in the Form than ever. But here her decision was absolutely justifiable; not one of the girls would have cared to accept the unenviable role which they had wished to thrust upon her. Perhaps for that very reason they were all the more annoyed at her action. She was received with black looks when she re-entered the classroom. Elspeth Frazer whispered something to a friend, and turned away. Gwen could not quite hear, but it sounded painfully like "beast!"
"Have they settled it?" she asked Netta.
"Yes; Elspeth and Hilda drew lots, and Hilda won. I'm fearfully sorry she did. Elspeth says it's all your fault, and that you ought to have voted for her when you'd made such a fuss about the clique."