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The Third Eye:
Ethell Lina White:
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Ethell Lina White
FROM the first, Professor Freeman was reluctant to let his young sister-in-law—Caroline—accept the post of games mistress at the Abbey School.
He rubbed his heel over his instep, scratched his cheek, bit his nails, and generally ran through the gamut of nervous mannerisms for which he scolded his two small sons. When the practical sex—as represented by his wife and sister-in-law—pressed him for some logical objection, he was unable to justify his misgivings.
"It's such a roundabout business," he complained to his wife. "You broadcast the fact that our Beloved Fool"—he smiled affectionately at Caroline—"wants a job, and some one who's staying in Wiltshire goes to tea with some one who can put her in touch with some one who can offer her work."
"But it's a blinking school," declared Caroline, who was studying the prospectus. "Look at the list of staff. They all have degrees."
As the non-brilliant member of a family who appeared to acquire academic honours as easily as the average person solves a crossword puzzle, she had a reverence for alphabetical tags. But the Professor merely wrinkled up his nose.
"If you'd coached as many thick-headed students as I have," he said, "you'd give the credit—if any—to their unlucky tutors. And I fail to see the good of it in these over-specialised days."
"Don't be reactionary," remarked his wife, Lesley Freeman, M.A. "Tell us instead exactly what you have against the school."
"Well, to begin with, it's a private school," grumbled the Professor. "I know from personal experience that these places can be hotbeds of jealousy and scandal."
"Don't reason by analogy," chimed in Caroline, eager to prove that even she possessed a vocabulary. "You don't know how I yearn to earn my first salary. I shall spend it going to Switzerland to the Winter Sports."
"I suppose I can't stop you. But there's plenty of room for you here."
Caroline avoided meeting her sister's eye, for the flat had only two bedrooms. She herself had slept for eleven weeks on a short divan in the dining-room. As the period included a heat-wave, and as she was tall and supercharged with energy, the experience had proved slightly trying.
"You're angels," she murmured. "But I must get a job."
Lesley backed her up, for she was intelligent as well as clever. A genuine student, and more interested in textbooks than facial charts, she knew she could not compete with Caroline's bloom at the breakfast-table. Seeing that he was beaten, the Professor gave in.
"You must first let me make some inquiries," he stipulated. "I seem to recollect that Hawkins knows a man who has a daughter at the Abbey School."
"You're going to ask some one who knows some one," jeered Caroline. "A bit roundabout. Stop quacking, Donald Duck. I'm going to find my most flattering photograph to send to Mrs. Nash."
"I feel worried about her," declared the Professor when she had burst out of the room. "She's such a babe."
"Babe, my eye," was the elegant retort of Lesley Freeman, M.A.
Checked in his lapse into sentiment, the Professor went to his club, where he ran his quarry to earth in the reading-room. Mr. Hawkins, who was headmaster of a preparatory school, bore a character for scrupulous impartiality. Although no one else was present, he was obviously uneasy about conversation in a place dedicated to silence.
"Yes," he agreed, speaking in a whisper. "Major Buck has a daughter at the Abbey School. He told me recently that he was satisfied with her progress. She matriculated with honours."
"Good," commented the Professor. "Then I take it he would recommend the school?"
Mr. Hawkins weighed the question.
"He is sending his younger daughter elsewhere," he remarked.
"Any specific reason?"
"Nothing definite. Perhaps some dissatisfaction with the discipline. He made some vague mention about not approving of one woman having too much influence. That is positively all I can tell you."
Mr. Hawkins lapsed into inaudibility at the entrance of a member, and the Professor knew that the subject was closed. When he returned to the flat his womenfolk held an inquest on his findings.
"Of course the high-handed woman is Mrs. Nash," said Lesley. "Well—it's her own school."
"And the discipline wouldn't affect me," beamed Caroline. "It's a luminous thought that at last I shall give discipline—not receive it."
As the Professor continued to pull his chin his wife made a suggestion.
"Could you tackle the Major direct?"
"He's abroad. Besides, it's unnecessary, for the deduction is obvious. The school is evidently going down, but the Major thinks it will last his elder daughter's time."
"Mine, too," declared Caroline. "I only want a ref." But the Professor was far from satisfied.
"Before I give the Beloved Fool my blessing," he said, "I must know two things. First—why the games mistress left only three weeks after the beginning of the term; second—why Mrs. Nash didn't apply to an agency, in the usual way, for her successor."
"That can soon be settled," his wife told him. "Mrs. Gloucester is expected home this afternoon. So we'll go over there tonight after coffee."
Mrs. Gloucester was the friend who had been the intermediary in Caroline's interests—over afternoon tea drunk from pedigree China in a stately Wiltshire drawing-room. She was a kind-hearted lady and possessed a talent for benevolent manipulation. In this special case she was beaming over her success when she greeted the Professor and his wife that evening.
"I do hope Caroline will get the post," she said. "I spoke strongly in her favour. The personal recommendation counts for so much after an unlucky experience."
"What unlucky experience?" asked the Professor, pouncing on the admission.
"Oh, the other poor games mistress. She was found dead in bed. Heart failure."
While the Professor and his wife were expressing conventional horror, Mrs. Gloucester—unprompted—answered the second objection.
"But you know what rumour is. All sorts of ridiculous stories got about. So Mrs. Nash felt that if she applied to an agency after all the best mistresses were snapped up she'd be landed with some odd-come-short. She preferred to get a temporary coach, and look around. Then a Miss Yaxley-Moore, who has an administration post in the Abbey School, chanced to mention it in a letter to her half-sister in Wiltshire. She spoke about it casually when we were calling on her. I saw my chance—and leaped for it...Really, I think I ought to charge both sides a commission."
"But is Mrs. Nash prepared to consider Caroline, when she is such a roundabout acquisition?" queried the Professor, who was fishing for an opening.
"I stood Sponsor for her," replied Mrs. Gloucester modestly. "That is one advantage of being in a book of reference."
"And your hostess in Wiltshire—whose half-sister is at the school—is she also duly documented?" asked the Professor. He felt that this lady—as the unknown factor—was the most important link in the chain, so he was really relieved by Mrs. Gloucester's assurance.
"That goes without saying, or I should not have mentioned Caroline to her. Both she and her half-sister, Miss Yaxley-Moore, belong to those families that are older than the Peerage. She is one of the most influential ladies in the district. Of course, I saw her in her own background—a beautiful period house which has been in her family for generations."
She paused for a breath before she uttered the name which was loaded with such fateful significance for Caroline.
"Miss Bat, of Bat House."
Unfortunately the girl was at home in the flat coaching her nephews in the gentle art of boxing, while to the Professor and his wife it was of secondary importance, since the main question had been answered, and therefore not worthy of mention. When they returned, Caroline listened to their report with unexpected gravity.
"Don't you want to go?" asked the Professor hopefully.
"Of course," she replied. "Only—I've thought and thought about getting a job. I've wished—I've even prayed. And now at last it comes, through some one's death...It seems unlucky."
Perhaps it was even more unlucky that the Professor had not the gift of clair-audience, and so was unable to hear Mrs. Gloucester's remark to her husband that night.
"I felt so sorry for the poor dear Professor having his sister-in-law wished on him for so long that I was furious with myself for blurring out about the rumours connected with the other games mistress's death. Luckily, her sister took no notice, and the Professor was far too wise to raise any question."
"What were the rumours?" asked her husband sleepily.
"Oh, the usual hush-hush affair. The doctor had been attending her for heart-strain, so he was able to write a certificate...But the story got about that she had been frightened to death."
EVERYONE knew that Caroline was desperately eager to get a job; but no one knew that she nearly turned back at the gates of the Abbey School.
She always regarded herself as the family failure because of her inability to pass examinations. When her mother's death disclosed a financial crisis and her relatives had no option but to capitalise her skill at games, she writhed in secret humiliation. Her brother-in-law's enforced hospitality was another thorn in her flesh, since she was quite unaware of his admiration for his Beloved Fool.
He grew quite dejected in anticipation of her loss, for there was a clear daylight quality about her nature which appealed to him as much as the charm of youth and her vivid, attractive face. But he was also worried about her character, for her own sake.
Impulsive, warm-hearted and imprudent, she also possessed unusually rigid principles harnessed to an incapacity to accept compromise which he feared might send her crashing into disaster.
He tried to put her on her guard when they were having tea together in a dark, smoky café before she caught the local bus out to the Abbey School. Against her wish, he had insisted on coming with her to Plume—the old west-country cathedral town which was as far as she could travel by rail; but, now that their parting was near, she was only too glad of his company.
"I don't wish to quack," he told her, "but there is something I must say. It's this: Keep clear of every one your first term. Don't make friends—and, above all, don't make enemies. Steer clear of any quarrel. Don't be curious about other people's business, or you may find yourself drawn into an intrigue which will spin you round like the drum which shuffles the counterfoils in the Irish Sweep, and land you up somewhere where you least want to be."
"I promise," said Caroline soberly.
They were the sole patrons of the tea-room, and she was vaguely depressed by the drizzling rain on the window-panes and the empty clutter of chairs. As though he read her thoughts, the Professor tried to tempt her.
"Still time to change your mind," he said, "Come back to London with me."
"Quack, quack," she murmured mechanically as she looked at her watch. "It's time to go, darling Donald Duck."
She felt an actual pang, after she had climbed into the bus, to see him standing below her on the pavement.
"Shall I promise not to change my shirt until you come back?" he asked.
"No—promise not to change your tailor."
Pleased with the compliment to his new suit, the Professor grinned bashfully; but his smile faded as the bus began to move. Her face, too, was serious as she rolled through dingy utilitarian quarters of the ancient town, which smelt of petrol—over a stagnant green river—past the last villa—and then out into the twilit country, where owls hooted dismally in the woods and the white scuts of rabbits were dimly visible as they scampered amid clumps of bracken.
Her luggage had been sent out by the local carrier, so that the driver was able to drop her almost outside the gates of the school. As she covered the short distance to the lodge, something happened which filled her with horror.
As a rule she walked quickly, with her head erect and looking before her, as though she saw some one she loved standing at the end of a long, straight road. This special characteristic was to prove of vital importance at a future crisis of her life, but it was absent that night.
While she moved slowly and unwillingly, dragging her feet and with her eyes fixed upon the road, a dark object writhed across her path and disappeared into the long grass which bordered the ditch.
"A snake—and I nearly trod on it," she shuddered.
She was so unnerved by the incident that she was almost on the point of waiting for the first bus back to Plume, lest it should prove an omen of ill-fortune. But while she waited in the greenish gloom common-sense prevailed, reminding her that the reptile was probably but a harmless grass-snake and prodding her through the lodge gates and up the drive.
The Abbey was now represented only by a pile of ruins in the grounds, while the house was one of the stately homes of England, whose owner could afford the cost of its maintenance no longer. It was a huge biscuit-stucco erection, with a pillared portico and a double flight of stone steps leading up to an imposing entrance.
Caroline had to wait some time before her ring was answered. She stood forlornly gazing at beds of waterlogged dahlias and dripping laurels until the door was opened by a pleasant-faced young man-servant in a striped linen coat.
"I'm Miss Watts," she told him. "Mrs. Nash is expecting me."
As she spoke, she got the uneasy impression of the birth of a smile behind the man's eyes.
"This way, please," he said.
He conducted her across a vast hall with a slippery parquet floor and into an immense drawing-room. It was a handsome apartment, but faintly suggestive of board meetings—for although most of the family furniture had been bought with the house, the place had already acquired an institutional air.
"If you will take a seat I'll tell Miss Melody you are here," offered the man.
"No," corrected Caroline firmly. "I wish to see Mrs. Nash."
She could not tell whether she were super-sensitive, but again she had the uncomfortable suspicion that the man was suppressing some secret amusement.
"Mrs. Nash is never disturbed in the evening," he said. "I'll send Miss Melody."
Feeling chilled by her reception, Caroline sat waiting until a little elderly woman hustled into the room with the air of having just caught a train. She had a small frost-bitten face, wispy grey hair and sunken brown eyes, under a straight fringe. Somehow she reminded Caroline of an irritable old dog who would snap at strangers, yet be faithful to its owner till the last whistle.
She shook hands in a nervous manner, and spoke abruptly, without looking at Caroline.
"As it is so late, I expect you would like to have your meal at once and then go straight to your room."
While Caroline tried to assure her of her success as a mind-reader, Miss Melody bustled her into the dining-room, which was blazing with electric clusters, as though lit for a banquet. It was also large and handsomely furnished, but it had a vaguely stripped appearance, due to unfaded crimson patches on the olive-brown wall, where family portraits had formerly hung.
One place was laid in the middle of a long, bare table. Miss Melody led Caroline towards it, only stopping at the door to switch off all the lights, with the exception of a single pendant.
"When you've finished," she said, "ring for Parker, and he will show you to your bedroom."
Stranded in the midst of a vast gloom, Caroline did not enjoy her first meal, which consisted of cold meat and salad for her first course, and tinned apricots and custard for her sweet.
When she had rung the bell, the manservant—Parker—appeared after a long interval. Their footsteps alone breaking the silence, she followed him up a wide branching staircase to a gallery—now denuded of its portraits—through a door at one end, and along the corridor of the east wing.
As she was sleeping at its extreme limit, he led her through a confusion of narrow passages, with uneven boards, to her room, which was small and reminded her of a single apartment in a popular hotel. Every inch of space was utilised to make room for the fumed-oak suite. There was a brown and buff Wilton carpet, beige casement-cloth curtains, and sheets of glass over the table and toilet-chest. All the surfaces were sticky with moisture, while the air held the smell of damp fabric.
She was looking around her with a forlorn expression when Miss Melody bustled in with a coffee-tray.
"I thought you would like a hot drink," she said nervously. "May I have a cup with you? Do you smoke?"
She opened her cigarette-case and began to pour out coffee with shaky haste. As she inhaled her first mouthful of smoke, Caroline's spirits began to rise.
"It's frightfully decent of you," she said. "I feel normal again. But I wish I could see Mrs. Nash and be formally approved. You see, I didn't have a personal interview."
Miss Melody bit her cigarette as though she wanted to hurt it. "You've nothing to worry about," she said. "You're young—and you haven't reached a vulnerable salary-point."
"But where is Mrs. Nash?"
Miss Melody crossed the room and pointed to a large lighted window in the opposite wing. It was curtained with some light silk which glowed whitely giving the effect of transparency.
"That is Mrs. Nash's private suite," she told Caroline. "She is with Miss Yaxley-Moore. So she must not be disturbed."
The peculiar note in her voice corresponded with the man-servant's flickering smile. It created an atmosphere of insinuation which was distasteful to Caroline.
"Who is Miss Yaxley-Moore?" she asked.
"Housekeeper. I'm Mrs. Nash's oldest friend and I've been here from the beginning. I may not have certificates, but I work all round the clock and do my best to stop leakage."
"Yes, I noticed you turned out the lights in the dining-room... What is the school like?"
"Its main line is social. To quote from an advertisement, we train the girls 'to become beautiful ladies.' But they can enter for all the examinations. No obstacles—and all the facilities."
"I see." Caroline frowned slightly. "This is going to be a change to me after a public school."
To her surprise Miss Melody burst into a vehement defence of the school.
"Girls must have the proper preparation for the life they are to lead," she declared. "Our pupils are society girls. Never a term without a title. Besides, this place is a real achievement. Mrs. Nash built it up from nothing...Look at it now. This magnificent building. Every mortgage cleared. And nothing foreign—not even a cooking-egg."
"Well, the charges are stiff," hinted Caroline.
"So are the overheads. Mrs. Nash's sons are still a heavy drain. One is at Oxford and the other at Marlborough. So she's not been able to accumulate any reserve. A few bad terms would break her."
As she listened to the confidence, Caroline suddenly remembered the Professor's advice to ignore other people's business. It was an uncomfortable reminder that already she had asked a number of questions. To change the subject, she crossed to the window, from whence she could trace the outlines of a huddle of broken pillars and arches beyond the opposite wing.
"I suppose those are the Abbey ruins," she remarked. "They look quite creepy."
"Nervous?" asked Miss Melody sharply.
"Good job. We've had one nervous mistress, and one is more than enough." Miss Melody laid her cup down on the table and cleared her throat. "I've come here specially to talk to you, because you're a newcomer. I want to tell you what a wonderful woman Mrs. Nash is. Her husband was killed in the War and she was left with two sons to bring up...This school is her answer. And I do most earnestly wish to impress on you the need of absolute loyalty to her interests."
"But all that's taken for granted," said Caroline uneasily.
Miss Melody continued to stare at her as she lowered her voice to a husky whisper.
"No. I don't believe in gossip, but before you've been here long you'll know what I mean. One can't explain things to a fool—and if you're not a fool you won't need any explanation...Good-night."
When she was alone Caroline stood at the open window, listening to the sigh of the rain rustling through the ivy on the walls. A heavy wet scent of drenched heliotrope rose from the garden-beds below, while across the gulf of darkness Mrs. Nash's room glowed like a lighted Chinese lantern.
She gazed at it with troubled eyes as she remembered the omen of the snake.
"I wish I hadn't come," she thought. "I'm only here because the other mistress died...I wonder if this is her room?"
She slept badly on her first night. Besides being homesick, she was full of nervous fancies which made her shrink from occupying a bed where some one might have died recently. For some time she lay awake, starting at every creaking board before she drifted into a semi-unconscious state in which she could still hear the rustle of the rain while her brain played the strange pranks of dreams.
She thought that she was awake, but was unable to stir, because of a heavy fear of something stirring inside the bed, which paralysed every muscle and locked every joint. She did not know how long it endured, but at last her fingers flexed again and she switched on the light.
As she sat up, she realised that she was really awake, and in a strange but commonplace room. In spite of her relief, she could not shake off the impression of her dream immediately. That sudden drainage of power in the moment of peril appeared to her the more horrible because of her own confidence in her strength and agility.
"Is it a warning dream?" she wondered with a flicker of prescience.
Ashamed of her folly, she doubled her arm and felt her muscle before she snapped off the light again.
The illuminated square still glowed in the opposite wing. As she gazed across at it one of the women in the room must have moved closer to the window, for the blurred silhouette of a gigantic black head was thrown upon the curtain.
CAROLINE was aroused from heavy sleep by the clanging of a bell. Jumping up in sudden fright, she realised that the sun was shining in through the ivy-hung window, and that it was her first day at school in a new capacity.
After dressing quickly, she opened her door and peeped into the corridor. Two schoolgirls who were loitering there turned and scanned her with merciless criticism. Both were immaculate, from the cut of their tailored flannel frocks to the set of their water-waved hair; but Caroline, being but a term's remove from them, could enter into their mentality.
She gave them back stare for stare, until their eyes began to waver. Pleased with her first taste of discipline, she looked away from them, to gaze in astonishment at a tall figure that was striding down the corridor.
At one time the woman might have been handsome, but the lines of her figure were lost in bulk, while her face had sagged and deepened in tint to the colour of port wine. Her eyes—violet-blue—were bloodshot and set in dark pouches. Her lips were coarse, her nose an heirloom of Norman period.
An ancient bath-robe of orange towelling was open to display creased purple pyjamas. To complete Caroline's amazement, her hair was set with metal clips and she wore a rubber chin-strap with perfect unconcern.
Instead of showing derision, the supercilious schoolgirls made way for her with every sign of respect. They were waiting to smile, eager to be noticed; but she pushed past them, staring the while at Caroline with insolent scrutiny.
"New, aren't you?" she asked, speaking thickly as though her tongue were swollen.
"Yes," replied Caroline.
"But not here for long. I presume you want to act for the films, like every pretty young teacher since Madeleine Carroll?"
Her caustic tone overwhelmed Caroline with confusion. Then, as though she had secret knowledge of the chink in her armour, she went on to strike the girl in her tender spot.
"Have you the usual string of letters after your name, like the tail of a kite?"
"No," confessed Caroline. "I'm here to teach games."
"Teach games?" The woman burst into a loud laugh. "That always strikes me as the limit in feebleness." She turned to the two schoolgirls. "You're both 'learning' to ride. Well, how do you think I was taught?... I was stuck on a blood-horse when I was three. The groom gave it a whack—and it was up to me to stick on...That was how we learned...Like me to take you over the sticks tomorrow?"
"Oh, yes, please," shouted the girls.
"Well, I'll see about it. What the hell are you blocking the way for?... Oh, it's Kewpie, blushing like the dawn. Too much dawn, Kewpie."
Caroline turned as a door opened and a cheerful young woman squeezed her way out into the corridor. Although she was officially listed as "Miss Cooper, B.A., London, Bedford College, Honours History," the aptness of her nickname was evident in her slanting blue eyes and broad spraying smile. She wore her hair in silver-blonde curls and was brightly rouged, which accounted for the alleged blush.
Grinning at Caroline, she stood respectfully on one side to allow the woman in the bath-robe to pass. The little group waited in silence, watching her as she strode down the corridor. In spite of an unlovely and grotesque appearance, she commanded homage by the force of a dynamic and flamboyant personality.
"Who is she?" asked Caroline when she had disappeared down the passage.
"Yaxley-Moore," replied Kewpie. "She's the Matron." Then she turned to the schoolgirls and added: "Don't count on the jumping. You know Mrs. Nash is against it."
"Oh, she'll listen to her Master's Voice," muttered one of the girls as they sauntered away.
Caroline could hardly believe her ears, especially as Kewpie chose to be deaf.
"Did that brat dare to hint that the Head is under some one's thumb?" she asked.
"I didn't hear." Kewpie changed the subject as they began to thread their way through the narrow passages towards the main corridor. "Those girls are titled pupils introduced by Yaxley-Moore. So she gives them preferential treatment... Did you sleep well?"
"Not too badly for a strange bed. I-I suppose I had the other games mistress's room?"
"Yes. But she didn't die of anything infectious. It was heart. She strained it getting her Bergman Osterberg Dip. She looked strong—big and fair, you know—but she was definitely nervy. She'd scream herself into hysterics if a spider from the ivy got on her bedroom wall."
Reminded vaguely of her dream, Caroline squirmed slightly.
Rather to her disappointment, Mrs. Nash did not come to breakfast, which was presided over by the Matron. With a monocle screwed in one bloodshot eye, and wearing a white starched uniform, she dominated the conversation. As the subject was surrealism, about which no one knew much, and cared less at that early hour, her curious corked voice was rarely silent.
Looking back later, Caroline wondered how she managed to get through her first day. It seemed a whirl of confusion, when she was forever asking the way to somewhere. Occasionally she met little Miss Melody, scampering about on some breathless errand, like a little old grey terrier with a tin tied to its tail.
Besides feeling helpless, she was vaguely worried by the fact that she was doing so little to earn her salary. Miss Yaxley-Moore's criticism had caused her inferiority complex to flare up, so that it seemed a scathing indictment of economic values that she should be paid to play games, when trained workers could not find employment.
As Mrs. Nash did not send for her, she plucked up courage presently to tap at the door of the Head's study. Her knock was answered by Mrs. Nash's secretary—a pretty, alert-looking young girl, who wore horn-rimmed glasses.
She shook her head to Caroline's request.
"Sorry. Mrs. Nash is engaged at present."
"Shall I come back later?" asked Caroline.
"No. I'll let you know when she can see you."
As she lingered, Caroline recognised a familiar thick voice speaking inside the private room.
"Melody's a comedian, not a housekeeper. She costs a pound to save a shilling. You'll have to sack her."
Caroline strained her ears, hoping to hear a protest from Mrs. Nash, but she could catch only a murmur. Apparently the Head was inaudible as well as invisible. The low voice suggested such a pliant, colourless personality that the girl felt almost rebellious at being controlled by a shadow-government.
Mrs. Nash took no notice of her official existence that day. But it was all she could do to keep her footing in what appeared one continual rush, when her brain reeled in her efforts to memorise the names and faces of the girls whom she coached in their first hockey practice.
She did not relax until after dinner, when those mistresses who were without the privilege of private sitting-rooms, gathered together in the large library. Stretched by the side of Kewpie, in a shabby Varsity chair, she lit her first cigarette and felt at peace.
Presently Miss Yaxley-Moore strolled in and stood in front of the fire. She wore a tailored dinner-suit with a frilled white shirt, over which her dark sardonic face glowed like an overripe mulberry.
A minute later, Miss Melody panted into the room, her small face a map of lines, and began to pour out coffee with frantic haste.
"Did you find the sheet you've been looking for all day?" asked Miss Yaxley-Moore, flashing her monocle around her, to pick up eyes.
"I did," snapped Miss Melody.
"Congratulations. Where was it?"
"On a bed."
"What a remarkable place to find it. And—if you don't mind, I prefer my coffee in my cup. It is not my custom to drink out of my saucer."
It was evident that the Matron had her following, for a laugh spluttered round the room. Caroline's sympathies, however, were with Miss Melody, whose hands were trembling as she hunted for clean china.
Mindful of the Professor's warning, she choked down her indignation, as she became aware that one of the mistresses was watching her intently. The woman's appearance was rather remarkable, since she was thin to emaciation, with amber hair and hollow, rouged cheeks; but there was attraction about her brilliant blue-green eyes and the moulding of her face.
"Who's that?" whispered Caroline.
"Auriol," replied Kewpie. "Teaches the juniors music. Been on the operatic stage, or says so...Crashing liar."
"She looks desperately ill."
"Hysteria. She starves at meals but eats tinned stuff in her room."
At that moment, Miss Auriol attracted general attention to Caroline by a question in a low carrying voice, suggestive of stage training.
"Did you bleach that strand of hair?"
Caroline bit her lip, for she was sensitive about the prematurely-white lock on the left side of her parting.
"The doctor thought it was the result of shock when I was a child," she explained. "But my mother used to joke about it and say it was the Gipsy's Curse. You see, just before I was born, she refused to let a tramp tell her fortune, so she prophesied that I should be marked."
She broke off in confusion when she noticed that the Matron was also staring at her through her monocle.
"If your mother had received a classical education," she remarked, "she would have known that the superstition she derided is the Wisdom of the Ages. Every rite we practise to avert ill-luck is of occult origin and is part of an ancient ritual to avert the power of elemental Evil."
"But mother went to Girton," protested Caroline. "My family is terribly intellectual."
"In that case, I do not need to tell you that every one has an undeveloped third eye. It still survives in some of us as an extra sense which is denied to others. You can call it second-sight... I, for one, can foretell the future."
As she scowled at Caroline, challenging contradiction, a maid ducked across the room and whispered to the Matron.
"Madam has been ringing for you. She said to tell you she was expecting you at nine."
Miss Yaxley-Moore glanced at the clock which showed that the time was ten minutes past nine.
"Tell her I am coming," she commanded.
To Caroline's amazement, she made no movement towards the door. Instead, she lit another cigarette, as though to demonstrate the fact that Madam could await her pleasure. Gulping down the smoke with relish, she continued to boast.
"I have—Something—which is given only to a few. I am often conscious of imprisoned Power which is struggling to free itself."
As she spoke she suddenly inflated her chest and rose upon the tips of her toes, as though to illustrate some invisible inflation. The effect was startling and Caroline almost expected to see the vast form shoot up into the air, as she listened.
"I have a feeling," went on the Matron, "that if I were to let myself be carried away by this Force, I could make things happen which are outside Nature. I dare not test it—but I believe that if I were to wish for some one's death, that person would die."
A slight gasp went round the circle. Glancing at their faces, Caroline was struck by the diversity of expression—excitement, interest, incredulity, in one instance—fear.
Miss Auriol, the music-mistress, clasped her thin hands tightly as she stared at Miss Yaxley-Moore with rapt eyes.
"It's true. All of it's true," she declared in a low vibrant voice. Miss Melody alone bristled like a chained dog which scents an antagonistic approach, yet is unable to attack. Rattling china in protest, she carried the coffee-tray out of the room.
The Matron watched her go—a sneering smile on her thick lips—before she tossed her cigarette stub into the grate and sauntered away.
Caroline's brain was racing when she went to bed that night. Although she was tired, she lay awake, passing in review the impressions which crowded her mind.
A dead games mistress—so terrified of things that crawled—that her self-control crashed at the sight of a harmless spider. A snake that wriggled across her path as an omen of misfortune.
Faces...Miss Auriol, the music mistress—a beautiful painted skull. Melody, the housekeeper—faithful and fierce. Kewpie with her broad spraying smile. The dark swollen features of Yaxley-Moore.
Lastly, the Head—draped, invisible and inaudible. What was behind the veil?
"I wonder if she's there at all?" thought Caroline.
THE next day the veil was lifted and Caroline met Mrs. Nash. She felt no advance qualms of nerves when she was summoned to her interview, because Miss Melody's plea for her championship of the Head had suggested some one blurred and muddled as the White Queen. It made her forget that Mrs. Nash had built up a successful enterprise.
She remembered the fact directly she crossed the threshold of the private study, which was plain and business-like as an office. Neither was there any trace of her pathetic lady in the clear-cut personality of Mrs. Nash. She was chilled, polished and immaculate—with satin-smooth, iron-grey hair which matched her tailored suit.
Scarcely removing her eyes from a ledger, she contrived to absorb, dissect, classify and reassemble Caroline in one glance from her penetrating grey eyes.
"Miss Watts' file," she said to her secretary, who had forestalled her request.
Her voice, although low-pitched, was vibrant and incisive. She made a rapid survey of the meagre contents of the folder, compared Caroline's flattering photograph with the original, and then asked the inevitable question:
"Why have you no diploma for Physical Culture?"
"I hadn't time to train," faltered Caroline heroically. "I meant to be a teacher. But I couldn't pass the examinations."
Mrs. Nash showed her first sign of approval in the flicker of a smile like winter sunshine.
"I have taken you without experience or qualifications," she said. "It is up to you to prove your worth." While Caroline was beginning to stammer her thanks, she found herself dismissed and outside the door. She was still gasping from the shock of her surprise, when she suddenly recalled the meaning mutter of the titled pupil:
"She'll listen to her Master's Voice."
The insinuation that this capable woman, who had all but mentally electrocuted her, could be the puppet of another's will, was preposterous. But she had no time to waste on solving mysteries, while she was trying to get her bearings and fit into the time-table of the school.
Although she localised the rooms and memorised faces, she remained an outsider—a fact which was not entirely due to the Professor's advice. She rarely came into contact with the teaching staff, who ignored her as a sort of super-schoolgirl. Kewpie was a merry little soul, but rather volatile for her sober taste, while Auriol was too inclined to dramatise herself. As for Miss Melody, she seemed that pathetic figure—the predestined failure, with her warped devotion, her incompetence, and her complaints.
It was not long before she fell victim to the mass-suggestion of Miss Yaxley-Moore's infallibility and the belief that there was no limit to the range of her general knowledge and accomplishments. Caroline, who worshipped efficiency, was hypnotised into accepting her boasts, when she witnessed her exhibition of horsemanship during the promised jumping practice.
As she swaggered on to the field, wearing breeches and a polo jersey, she looked preposterously clumsy beside the slim girls in jodhpurs; but directly she was mounted, there was a miracle of readjustment. Instead of a woman and an animal, there was a Centaur, as she became one with the horse—in striking contrast with the cleavage of the girls when they tried to emulate her over the hurdles.
In the days that followed, Caroline saw little of Mrs. Nash, although—from the retreat of her private office—she appeared to have her fingers on the reins of government and to be aware of the slightest development. The school itself was dominated by the autocratic Yaxley-Moore, against whose judgements there was no appeal. Stunned by her terrific personality, Caroline was astounded when she heard of some one who was even mightier than the Matron.
Mindful of her brother-in-law's warning, she asked no personal questions about the staff. But she was vaguely conscious that every one seemed on guard, as though aware of a secret whirlpool, and anxious to avoid being sucked into the outmost rim of a zone of danger.
"Has Yaxley-Moore told you about her half-sister?" asked Kewpie one evening.
"No," replied Caroline.
"Well, she will. She's her King Charles's Head. She can't keep her out of the conversation. She's got her knife into her. According to her, the half-sister prevented her marriage."
"I can't imagine her married!" objected Caroline. "She's definitely sporty Old English. I can see her fighting cocks and biting off badgers' heads."
"But when she was young, she might have shaped all right in some primitive place where women can't be squeamish. She'd enjoy joking about the chicken and the axe. I'd like to see that half-sister. She must be a regular man-eater to get our Glaxo down."
Instantly there flashed into Caroline's mind a vision of a taller, vaster and even more formidable edition of Yaxley-Moore, since the half-sister was reinforced with wealth and social prestige.
It was not long before she had proof of the Matron's obsession. Faced with the problem of projecting her authority with girls only slightly younger than herself, she was a martinet on the hockey-field. Fortunately, she could make a quick decision and stick to it, as she was spared the confusion of a split personality.
One practice, when she was giving a good sample of her slanging powers, she was rather disconcerted to find that she had an appreciative audience in Miss Yaxley-Moore, who stood grinning on the touch-line.
"That's right," she said approvingly. "Let yourself rip." Then, as though struck by an after-thought, she added, "I'm throwing a sherry party tonight, in my room, after nine. Come?"
Since the invitation was practically a command, Caroline went. She was rather jarred, however, to discover that, in addition to some of the junior mistresses, the two privileged titled pupils were present.
"You meet as equals," boomed Miss Yaxley-Moore, sensing her disapproval. "I know I've been criticised for taking girls into a cocktail bar at Plume. But it would be a fine advertisement for the school if they got tight at their first party."
She made a generous hostess, especially to herself, although Caroline got the impression that she could drink the party under the table and remain unaffected. In her favourite place, before the fire, her great figure loomed solid as a rock through the smoky air; but there was a blurred look in her violet eyes as suddenly she began to talk about her half-sister.
"Call the abbey old?" she said scornfully, singling out Caroline for her boast. "You should see my half-sister's place. Been in the family for centuries."
"Does she live there all alone?" asked Caroline.
"Yes. She has all the cash, you know. I plonked down my inheritance on a spin of the wheel, at Monte. I lost—and that's why I'm here...She interfered with my life. But for her, I should be in Canada now—the mother of lusty sons."
"Oh...Where does she live?" asked Caroline, who did not dare to offer sympathy.
Miss Yaxley-Moore did not reply at once. Although there was always a foundation of truth in her stories, she liked to trample down boundaries and be unhampered by fact.
"Wiltshire," she replied vaguely.
"Has she the same name as you?"
Reluctant to be localized, Miss Yaxley-Moore would not mention a name which Caroline might have heard through the medium of some one who could check up on her statements.
That was the reason why Caroline was misled when she met the ominous half-sister—for they were fated to meet. Otherwise, as Miss Yaxley-Moore had guessed, the name might have stuck in her memory.
"Miss Bat, of Bat House."
In any case, Caroline was too confused to make deductions: she tired of the party and wanted to slip out of the hot noisy little room, but her hostess stopped her.
"But for my half-sister," she repeated, harping on her grievance, "I should be now surrounded with men, instead of a pack of women. My sons would be heroes. I've no use for weaklings...Now, you've got guts. You're not like that other fool of a games mistress, who had convulsions if she met a worm. I couldn't stick her."
Caroline was aware of a sudden hush in the noisy room as the Matron rambled on.
"Disgusting—that sort of squeamishness. Middle-class. It revolts me. What's there to be afraid of in some poor harmless creature, just because it wriggles or crawls? Why, I remember one glorious rag at a house-party of Lord Pontypool's, when you never knew what you were going to find in your bed. Mice, spiders, frogs."
As she broke off to laugh loudly at the recollections, Caroline asked a careless question:
"Did you put anything in any one's bed?"
She had the uneasy sense of having blundered, when Miss Yaxley-Moore froze into icy hostility.
"No," she said with emphasis. "Never!"
"I'm afraid we must go now," declared Kewpie, becoming suddenly time-conscious as she gripped Caroline's arm. "Come, Watts."
When they were outside in the corridor, she lowered her voice.
"You dropped an awful brick just now," she said. "You know a servant started some wild story that something had been put in Miss Tate's bed for a joke, and she passed out from shock. Of course, it was a lie on the face of it, because she'd have thrown a fit and screamed blue murder; but there wasn't a sound all night, and she was rigid as a poker in the morning, while the bedclothes were perfectly tidy...I thought I'd give you the tip not to mention it again. Nighty-night."
Kewpie grinned broadly as they parted at her door, but Caroline went on to her room with quivering nerves. She remembered her dream when she lay locked in paralysis—with frozen vocal chords; yet in her own case of an imaginary experience, there must have been a skin of protective tissue between her and the stark horror.
"I know what it felt like," she thought. "She couldn't move. She was mesmerised."
The clean buff walls of her room—innocent of spiders—looked cheerful in the electric light. On her toilet-chest was placed a picture post-card from the Professor. It contained a photograph of King's College and a Browning quotation.
"How rolls the Wairoa at your World's far end?" he had scrawled. "Free translation—'It's your turn to write.' Don't forget our guest suite is still vacant."
Caroline glanced at her comfortable bed, contrasting it with the narrow divan and, to her surprise, a lump rose in her throat. She felt homesick for the little hot dining-room, lit by every passing bus—as she thought of the Professor playing, on the sly, with his sons' mechanical toys; of Lesley who, although a mathematical swell, was beaten regularly by her housekeeping books; of the small nephews whom she tried to make into pugilists.
That far-away life seemed so safe and normal as she questioned whether her bedroom had actually been the scene of a brutal practical joke, whose terror yet lingered on.
Then she shook her head. As Kewpie had declared, there was no foundation for the lie. She reminded herself that Mrs. Nash, in her ruthless competence, and in the school's interests, would have dismissed Yaxley-Moore—however close their friendship—had the alleged episode been fact.
To steady her nerves, she sat down and wrote an immediate answer to the Professor's letter.
She told him all about the food.
THE Professor replied by return of post.
"Definitely not your post, Beloved Fool. Your suite has been re-decorated and we have reinstated the second footman, pending your arrival."
In spite of the Professor's tendency to plug a feeble joke, Caroline was touched by his ability to read between the lines. She thought of the strained income—the novelty of a new suit, which had given him such innocent peacock pleasure—and vowed, at any cost to herself, never again to swell the family at the flat.
The resolution was not the outcome of improved circumstance, for she liked the school no better. As a result of the sherry party, she found herself several degrees removed from the sphere of the Matron's attraction. Although she still remained under the glamour of her reputation, she found herself growing critical of her omnipotence.
Gradually she realised that it was inevitable that Miss Yaxley-Moore should be surrounded with toadies—weaker natures who combined to build up a superstructure of false values around her. It followed as a natural sequence that the formula "brilliantly clever," through sheer repetition, should be accepted by even those members of the staff who were not in a position to prove its inaccuracy.
Yet in spite of her slow disillusionment, Caroline remained spellbound. It was left to a pupil to debunk Yaxley-Moore in much the same manner as the child in the fairy tale, who tactlessly pointed out to the population that their monarch was a nudist.
The curious part of the affair was that Caroline had a prejudice against this special girl—Flora Baumgarten—because she was fat and slacked at games. The only daughter of a wealthy financier, she seemed typical of a too-prosperous plutocracy, that concentrated solely on food and clothes.
On the occasion of the show-up, Flora had been puffing so painfully at hockey practice, that Caroline had called her off the field. Miss Yaxley-Moore capitalised the fact to raise a laugh when she stopped for a minute to watch the game.
"Why isn't the famous mannequin, 'Flora,' displaying her celebrated figure on the field?" she yelled. "Take off that disfiguring coat, Lady Godiva, and thrill your fans."
"Flora's not up to form," explained Caroline curtly. "Headache."
"Liver," corrected the Matron scornfully. "The true headache proceeds from the trigeminal nerve, which has three main branches connecting directly with the base of the brain and the most important of the cerebral nerves. I assume you know that elementary fact...Keep her on the run."
Fortunately for Caroline's prestige, she swaggered off without waiting to see whether her advice were being carried out. In the pause, the despised Flora stepped into the limelight. Caroline was surprised by the intelligence which beamed from her little brown eyes, as she spoke diffidently.
"I'm afraid Miss Yaxley-Moore's little bit about the trigeminal nerve was rather wasted on us. Dr. Arum might have been interested. It's a mystery to me why she never talks to any one on their special subject, although she's such a brilliant conversationalist. It's always a lecture and never a discussion, for no one's in a position to argue."
The shrewdness of the thrust was doubly convincing because of Caroline's own dawning doubt. The Matron splashed her conversation with impressive medical terms and took temperature with the importance of Harley Street, but, sometimes, she had seemed to lack actual knowledge of hygiene.
Because the girl was so different from the clod of her preconception, Caroline felt a dawning interest in her.
"Is the old ticker all right?" she asked casually. "I suppose you've been sounded?"
"No," replied Flora. "According to Miss Yaxley-Moore, I'm a biological freak. I've only a liver."
"Well, all the same, you'd better not turn out to hockey in future."
"Oh, please let me come. It's my only chance of meeting you. You look like Atlanta when you run."
Touched by the entreaty, Caroline gave way. Later she found she had to pay for Flora's homage by a puncture in the detachment which—according to the Professor—was her safeguard. Although she tried not to show favouritism, she was conscious of a bond between herself and the girl.
Soon afterwards, her impersonal attitude was subjected to a more dangerous strain. It began the morning she went to the Head's study with a list of fixtures. As Mrs. Nash was scanning it, Caroline glanced at two photographs which stood on her desk.
One represented a handsome youth, who looked an engaging young scamp; but Caroline felt more drawn to the other, who was thin-faced and spectacled, with an intellectual brow and a sensitive bitter mouth.
"My sons," said Mrs. Nash, smiling proudly at the photograph of the handsome youth. "This monkey face is in the First Eleven."
"The elder one looks very clever," ventured Caroline.
"William? Yes, he's brilliant. But you're not here to discuss my family. Here's your list."
She gave Caroline the paper and then, to the girl's surprise, smiled.
"You've started quite well," she said.
Caroline left the study, captive to this successful business woman, who combined maternity with a hundred percent efficiency. It made her feel responsive to Miss Melody, who was lingering in the hall waiting for a chance to enter her Shrine.
"I've just met William's photograph," she said. "I'd like to meet William."
"You shall," declared Miss Melody eagerly. "He'll be over for the half-term, and he always has tea with me, so as not to meet people."
Miss Melody redeemed her promise on the occasion of the Old Girls' Match, when William was a spectator. Caroline, who was helping the school, felt the stimulus of his presence and played above her form, to the delight of Flora Baumgarten, who plodded along the touchline, frantically turning the handle of her ciné- camera, in the hope of securing an exclusive shot of her idol.
During the interval she had the proud distinction of delivering a message to Caroline, together with her slice of lemon.
"Miss Melody says—and it's darned cheek—don't stop to change, but come to her room for tea."
Directly the match was over, Caroline raced back to the school and burst into the housekeeper's dingy little sitting-room. As she had hoped, William was there, crouching over the fire. He looked both thin and jaded, while the wind had nipped his features; but his smile was both eager and attractive. Unfortunately, he could not match it with appropriate words, for after a few remarks he became inarticulate.
Caroline thought she knew the type. He could sit beside her at a restaurant for six months and pass her the salt in silence. But at the start of the twenty-sixth week, still unintroduced, he would reveal the most startling intimate secrets of his life.
"Impulsive—but takes his time about it," she decided.
Even as she despaired, Miss Melody broke the ice and dropped them both into deep waters.
"I'm furious with William—and so is his mother. After all her work and hopes and ambition for him, he's come down just to tell her he is leaving Oxford."
As William bit his lip and remained silent, Caroline found herself explaining the situation.
"It's a heart-break," she declared, "just marking time when one wants to earn money. I know all about it."
William looked up, furious at her intervention, met her sympathetic eyes and grew suddenly expansive.
"My mother wants me to become a barrister," he said. "It's not exactly a speedy profession. And the trouble is, I've no sense of humour. My brother, John, jokes about being a kept man...Besides, soon there'll be no source of income, so it will be up to me to keep us all."
"That's a wicked exaggeration," cried Miss Melody, wrinkling up her face as though she were about to cry. "The school is full to capacity. There are only the usual notices—girls who are going abroad to finish."
"But not a single new application for a vacancy. That tells its tale."
A heavy silence fell upon the three as they sat in the red flickering firelight. Then William spoke in a hard, strained voice.
"An old friend of my father has advised me strongly to clear out Yaxley-Moore. He said he knew positively that people are fighting shy of the school because—because of the adverse rumours."
"But can't you persuade your mother to discharge her?" asked Caroline eagerly. "She's such a keen business woman that I'm sure she'd put the interests of the school before anything personal. I can't tell you how I admire your mother. I hate sloppiness."
"I have no influence." The muscles of William's thin face twitched as he pointedly changed the subject. "How is Zillah Auriol? I used to cherish a hopeless passion for her, because she was older than myself and suggested a Continental consumptive cocotte."
The young people were talking eagerly—one against the other—when Miss Melody hustled from the room on one of her futile missions, and their confidences lasted until a few minutes of William's departure. Regardless of appearances, Caroline rushed up to the staircase window to watch him get into the car. She felt flat and dejected when she walked slowly down the broad shallow steps into the hall, where the Matron and Miss Auriol stood under a lamp.
"Apparently you've fascinated the animated William," jeered Miss Yaxley-Moore. "I thought he was Auriol's property."
"I cherished him as my last bit of box-office draw," declared Auriol. "It's time for my Final Curtain."
As she laughed widely, the unshaded light beat down directly upon the strained skin over her cheek-bones, revealing the flash of too many teeth, so that for a moment she seemed to be fleshless.
"You've grown thinner," cried Caroline, who was startled by the illusion. "Are you ill?"
"No, I'm dying—that's all. I used to die—singing—eight times a week in my last engagement. I sang myself to death, for my voice cracked. That was my real death. The next one will be a mere detail, for I've passed through the sting and the victory."
As usual, Auriol was dramatising herself, to her own enjoyment and Caroline's discomfort. Glancing at the Matron, she was chilled by her altered expression. There was a smear of smile on her thick lips, while she watched the music mistress from slitted eyes.
It seemed to the girl that she was looking at something which was not there—something which could be seen with only a third eye.
WILLIAM brought a new interest into Caroline's life, for the Abbey School was a manless place. Dr. Arum, the school physician, who called daily, was almost the only male visitor, and he was married and had a Victorian family—in numbers.
But although she was pleased by her own importance, the friendship added to her complications. William wrote at length and rang her up for short and uneasy talks over the telephone, when she always wondered if any one were listening-in, which was illustrative of her own sense of guilt.
She felt that she was pitting her influence against the authority of the Head whenever she urged him to stand on his own feet, especially as he seemed to rely on her encouragement. He was often moody and depressed, but while he was expansive over anything which touched the personal element, she was conscious of his reserve whenever they skirted the forbidden subject—the relationship between Miss Yaxley-Moore and the Head.
William was the person who could have raised the veil yet he always shut up like a pimpernel at the threat of wet weather when Caroline introduced the Matron's name. She could not crash his confidence, but she was aghast as gradually the depth of his bitterness against the Matron was revealed.
She dared not question Miss Melody, for she felt that the housekeeper was treading on egg-shells already, and might reveal too much for her own safety. Kewpie, too, would give nothing away. She might appear a feather-head in general, but the shrewdness of her spraying blue eyes often reminded Caroline that she had acquired those coveted letters after her name—B.A.
As it was obviously out of the question to pump Flora Baumgarten, although Caroline had the deepest respect for the school-girl's excellent brain, she tried in vain to find some definite evidence against the Matron. The fact that she was both a bully and a braggart could not touch Mrs. Nash; while as regarded her salary-value, she introduced the titled pupils who were a draw to social climbers—anxious that their daughters might acquire useful friends.
Caroline also had to admit that there was not a shred of foundation for her own suspicion that the Matron had scared her predecessor to death by a callous practical joke. Her own reaction in the matter was pure instinct. Moreover, Mrs. Nash showed no affection for Miss Yaxley-Moore, and seemed definitely on top of her. Her attitude was impersonal as a machine, while sometimes her voice, when she spoke to her, had an extra edge, as though she actually disliked her.
Yet there remained the mystery of the lighted window in the west wing, which continued to glow, although at longer intervals, through the winter. Something was wrong with the school. Caroline did her best to suppress her suspicions in her letters home to the flat, but the Professor, of course, put his finger on the spot.
"I like the lady who goes to bed with her boots on (as I assume she does)," he wrote. "She sounds a jolly little pet. Don't let her get on your nerves."
It was excellent advice for him to give, writing with his pad on his knee, before the fire, in the cheerful flat; but Caroline read his letter as she stood at her window overlooking the ruins, whose crumbling walls enclosed long damp grass, choked with docks and nettles.
She was seeing the school under specially gloomy conditions, as there had been practically no liaison season of autumn. The summer had lasted until the second week in October—when she arrived—and soon afterwards the temperature dropped prematurely, nipping nearly every bloom in a single night. One wet evening, when she felt especially under the weather, she decided, by way of antidote, to ring up William. Dinner was over and the coast seemed clear; but as she hurried to the telephone she met Parker—the young manservant who had admitted her on her first evening.
His forehead was wrinkled and he was fussing to and fro about the hall, as though uncertain of his direction.
"What's the matter, Charles?" asked Caroline, who knew his Christian name.
"I'm in a fix," he confided. "A trunk-call has just come, and I took it without thinking. I should have said she was out, and rung off."
"What d'you mean?"
"It's for Miss Yaxley-Moore. She's up with Madam. And I have orders never to disturb them. But it's from her half-sister. And the lady says it's important."
Caroline felt a throb of excitement, for the reason that she had never been able to believe altogether in the wonderful half-sister. Miss Yaxley-Moore had so consistently withheld all facts and details, while surrounding her with vague glamour, that she seemed an obsession, rather than an actual person.
"That alters it," she said. "You'll have to let her know. I'm sure she would be furious to miss a message from her half-sister."
Although he agreed, Charles's forehead grew yet more furrowed.
"Yes, miss...But I crashed the lights once before, and—and I didn't get a welcome. I think I'd best leave it."
His reluctance to brave Miss Yaxley-Moore's displeasure made Caroline genuinely anxious to save the situation for him. The fact that the semi-fabulous half-sister had assumed humanity and was actually waiting by a telephone at that minute seemed of paramount importance.
"I'll tell her," she offered.
Breaking into one of her famous sprints, she sped up the stairs and along the gallery to the west wing.
She had been in that part of the house only once before, so had but a vague idea of the location of Mrs. Nash's suite. Spurred on by the knowledge of a precious trunk-call dribbling to waste—while a Personage fumed at the other end of the wire—she knocked at the first likely door.
Receiving no summons to enter, she turned the handle, in the hope of getting a clue to her direction. To her consternation, instead of seeing a bedroom, she found that she was in the boudoir.
As she stood on the threshold, she was convicted by so strong a sense of intrusion that she could sympathise with Charles's unwillingness to commit a second blunder.
The whole atmosphere suggested intense intimacy and personal withdrawal, together with dim lights and the dreamy music of a gramophone record. Two forms were bent over a low table on which stood the large framed photograph of an officer in uniform. The beam from a small electric lamp was placed so as to shine directly upon it, giving it unnatural emphasis, as though it were the only vital thing in a world of shadows.
One of the women—Miss Yaxley-Moore—had her eyes covered with a dark silk bandage—imparting a horrible resemblance to an executioner—while her hand was outstretched on the runner of a Ouija-board.
"I'm terribly sorry to interrupt," quavered Caroline, stressing the urgency of her excuse. "But a vitally important trunk-call has come through for you, from your half-sister."
With an exclamation of annoyance Miss Yaxley-Moore tore off her bandage.
"All right," she said. "I'm coming. You can go."
Caroline turned, too late to avoid hearing Mrs. Nash's whimper of protest.
"No, no! Don't break the current. Something may come...any moment now. Don't go, please."
The girl threw her one hurried glance and then rushed away down the corridor and back to the gallery, as though pursued by a ghost.
She ran away from a memory, for she wanted to forget what she had seen. To her self-controlled nature, there was something degrading in the metamorphosis of Mrs. Nash's face, with its twitching features, trembling lips and swimming eyes.
It reminded her of a childish disillusionment, when she had revisited an exhibition after it had sustained the ravages of time and weather. Mrs. Nash's self-abandonment was akin to the disintegration of those seemingly solid stone buildings, washed by rain to sodden pulp.
Parker was waiting for her in the hall as she bounded down the last flight of stairs. He looked so knowing that she thought he was going to wink, but he composed his features when she gave him the message.
"Miss Yaxley-Moore will take the call, Charles."
Still quivering with excitement, she ran to the housekeeper's room, where Miss Melody sat mending a pile of Mrs. Nash's stockings by a miserable light. She started to protest when Caroline—unable to endure the gloom—snapped on the main switch, but stopped at the sight of the girl's frightened face.
"How long has this spiritualism been going on?" asked Caroline.
Miss Melody laid down her work.
"So you've found out about it," she remarked. "It started when she came. Rosamund Nash was broken after her husband's death, and wanted to get into touch with him, but she wouldn't go to any mediums, for fear it might injure the school. And now she can get all she wants nice and quietly at home."
"Is it genuine?" asked Caroline, with a sudden recollection of the Matron's claim to supernatural powers.
Miss Melody hesitated, from force of habit, and then suddenly burst the dam of her silence.
"No! She's an out-and-out fraud. But she's so clever, she always finds out what's going to happen in advance. She's like Counsel for the Prosecution—all daisies and dewdrops—stringing people along with her innocent questions and trapping them into admissions. Then, when her prophecies come true, Rosa is impressed. There's no fool like a clever woman when you get her on the bend. Every now and then she's her old clear-headed self—but she always slips back again...It's like drugs; and it's so degrading. She has to beg for séances, and the Creature treats her like dirt when she has her where she wants her. She pretends the Major comes through to tell his wife how to run the school."
"How horrible for William!" cried Caroline, reminded of his twitching face.
After what she had just seen in the boudoir, she pitied Mrs. Nash, too—palsied and defenceless without her shell, like a quivering lump of lubber into which a bird of prey had hooked its claws.
"Yes," agreed Miss Melody bitterly. "He must enjoy seeing both his parents put through the hoop...Do you wonder now that I'd give anything to see that woman run out of the school?"
"No. But—but suppose she ran you out first?" hinted Caroline.
"Never. I'm here for life, and after. I don't believe in Spiritualism—in fact, I'm definitely against it—but nothing can stop me coming back to Rosa Nash when I'm dead."
Caroline felt a lump rise in her throat as she looked at the fierce little face. To reassure herself she stole back to the hall and rang up William. To his disappointment, however, she was more interested in Miss Melody's future than in his own problem.
"She's not everyone's money," she said. "Is there any danger of your mother giving her the sack?"
She was confronted by the decision in his reply.
"Never. I happen to know, because I asked her the same question myself. I have her word for it—never."
THE next morning, when Caroline met Mrs. Nash in the hall, she wondered whether she had dreamed the fantastic scene in the boudoir. The Head looked as though she had been steeped in some icy, stiffening solution overnight, for her eyes were frosty and her lips set in a rigid line.
She stopped Caroline to criticise her selection of the hockey team, and would listen to no explanations.
"I am not concerned with who was away or who was ill," she said. "But I am concerned with the fact that the School lost. You are here to win matches."
Smarting from the healing sting of a legitimate grievance, Caroline told Kewpie about the incident.
"It was so unfair," she complained. "Was it to punish me because of last night?"
"Probably," replied Kewpie. "Mrs. Nash expects results, both in material and spiritual things. Yaxley-Moore has not been ringing the bell lately, so Mrs. Nash has been calling the séances off."
"How do you know?"
"There's been no light in the boudoir lately until last night. And you spoiled that, hauling off the medium. It was like taking a bone from a starving tiger."
"Then I suppose Matron will have her knife in me, too?"
"Well, perhaps you'd better look inside your bed before you get in."
The words slipped out before Kewpie realized her admission.
"Forget it," she implored, gazing at Caroline with terrified eyes. "Don't tell any one I said it. I could lose my job for spreading a false report."
"Is it false?" whispered Caroline.
"I don't know. I know nothing except this: The less one talks about anything here the safer one is."
The next time Caroline met the Matron she shrank from her instinctively—not so much from dread of reprisal as from horror of the unspoken word. Therefore she was surprised one evening when Miss Yaxley-Moore asked her to take part in table-turning. Although she was anxious to keep on good terms with the Matron, she tried to refuse.
"Oh, I don't think I'd be any use. I—I can't help being a skeptic."
"Your feelings are of no interest to me," said Miss Yaxley-Moore. "But you are specially full of vitality. I want that to strengthen the electric current."
"Oh, well—as long as I haven't got to do anything—"
"Do anything? Do you realize what you are implying? Your part is merely to be a passive agent and let the Power, which I shall liberate, operate through you...I shall expect you tonight at nine."
The notice was short, and Caroline could frame no adequate excuse for absence. She grumbled about it to Kewpie when they met after dinner.
"I shall feel such a fool. A pack of grown women sitting mum around a silly table. What's the big idea, anyway?"
Kewpie's elfin grin was malicious as she explained the situation.
"It's a confidence-stunt. The spirits haven't been reading their financial News of late, and they put Mrs. Nash on to a bad investment. Now she's hanging up on their advice, and that's too bad for poor Glaxo, because she gets a commission on these flutters. She wants to bring off another coup—so it's up to her to prove to Mrs. Nash what a know-all lot these spirits really are."
"She'll get the table to predict something that will come true."
"You mean something she knows and we don't?"
"No. Something she thinks likely—and she'll make it come true."
It was in a spirit of levity that Caroline accompanied Kewpie to the small panelled room where some of the junior mistresses were already gathered. A circle of chairs was arranged round a table, whose weight surprised Caroline, since she guessed that Miss Yaxley-Moore would control its activity.
The Matron had dressed for her part of medium in heavy black draperies, while her face was thickly coated with white powder. With an air of absolute control, she looked at the straggle of excited women and then tightened them together in a self-conscious circle.
"Sit down," she commanded. "Lay your hands lightly on the table—little fingers touching. Concentrate—and avoid levity. Switch off the light, Auriol."
When the room was plunged into darkness and Auriol had stumbled back to the circle, she made a further explanation.
"The Spirit will communicate through the table. It is a clumsy method, but I could not get results otherwise under such imperfect conditions. No one here is mediumistic, except myself. One tap for 'yes,' two for 'no'—and the raps will spell out the alphabet. But when the answer is obvious I shall ask a direct question to save time...Get ready...Stop talking...Now!"
As Kewpie's nail playfully dinted her little finger Caroline barely suppressed a squeak. Her chief emotion was fear that she would have a fit of giggles while she waited for the tiresome preliminaries to end and the demonstration to begin.
At first the room seemed black as a pitch-plaster; but although no one spoke, the silence was not absolute. There were sighs, rustles and strangled coughs as the circle settled down to its vigil. Presently Caroline's eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, and she discovered that the small panes at the top of the tall window were uncurtained. Through these filtered a diluted quality of visibility—rather than light—which suggested the presence of a vague company seated round the table.
One vast shape rose higher than the rest and was identified as Yaxley-Moore by her distinctive voice.
"At present," she said thickly, "you are in an ordinary room. But soon the atmosphere will change. Others will be here besides ourselves...Even at this moment the table is becoming visible to the Spirit-World. They see it as a sort of dim, luminous patch glowing through the darkness. As it becomes clearer there will be a rush of spirits towards it, like moths towards a lamp...So be careful—all of you."
Caroline was glad that no one could see her as involuntarily she made a grimace.
"Patter," she thought derisively.
The circle settled down to another period of waiting. No one dared move or whisper, so that gradually the experiment changed to a test of endurance. Those who were most sensitive began to feel the tension, while even Caroline was affected by the sensation of being blind and dumb.
Like Kewpie, she had secured an easy-chair which was so low that she had to strain upwards in order to reach the table. Soon her unnatural posture produced a crop of minor discomforts. The muscles of her neck ached, and her outstretched arms tingled with "needles and pins." After a while she could scarcely endure their pricking. She wanted to jump and stretch, but she dared not break the human current.
With no relief in sight, she had to conquer her fit of nerves and remain in her seat, listening to the uneven ticking of the clock. It was an inaccurate time-keeper, and presently she was aware of an over-powering impulse to breathe in time with it. "In—out. In—out." It reminded her of listening to the Boat Race over the wireless. She caught her breath and was on the point of choking when suddenly the table gave a sharp crack. Out of sheer nerves she broke into a laugh, which she checked with guilty haste.
"You fool!" stormed Miss Yaxley-Moore. "Don't you understand we are close to ruins which are swarming with the earth-bound spirits of corrupt monks? They have seen our light. We are alone no longer."
Although Caroline did her best to resist the power of suggestion as the minutes crawled on again to the faulty ticking of the clock, she became aware of a change which was not imagination.
The room had grown actually blacker. She could no longer see the blurred outlines of the company, while the panes of outer darkness were merged into the framework of the windows.
There was a commonplace reason for the eclipse of which she was ignorant. In a room on the other side of the courtyard some one had switched off the light which had faintly filtered through the glass. But as Caroline was unable to account for the total black-out, she began to grow apprehensive of other changes. The circle was broken, for she could not feel the contact of Kewpie's finger. At first she thought that it must be her fancy and that her arm had grown too numb for sensation. Yet whenever she moved her hand she swept only empty air.
Kewpie had disappeared.
Miss Yaxley-Moore heard her movements, for she spoke commandingly.
"Don't move. The Power is here."
Even as she spoke there was the sound of a loud knocking as though some one were beating on the panels of the door for admission. Simultaneously the table heeled over to Caroline's knees and then rose again, hitting her under the chin.
The attack was so unexpected that her heart gave a violent leap. She forgot that she had been crouching low, and felt that she alone had incurred the wrath of an inanimate object which had mysteriously achieved motive power for purpose of revenge.
"Stop," shouted Yaxley-Moore.
Her voice was choked as though it issued from the gallows-tree. Instantly the table became stationary, although to Caroline's suddenly aroused imagination it seemed still to vibrate as if it had become animate.
"Is it Father Ignatius who is present?" asked Yaxley-Moore.
The table gave two taps, which signified "No."
"Is it Major Nash?"
"Have you a message?"
"Yes," tapped the table.
"Who is it for?"
"What is it?"
As Caroline counted the taps her old skepticism returned in renewed force. She realized that the table was coming up to expectation, for its advice was exactly in line with Kewpie's shrewd prediction.
Again she waved her arm mechanically over Kewpie's chair and missed counting a miniature battery of raps on the table. Yaxley-Moore, however, gave her the clue to the message as she reasoned with the table.
"You say 'trust.' But, Major, she has been misled by a lying spirit. If she is to trust, you must give her proof that the future is unveiled to you...Tell us of some event which will happen here, soon."
Caroline had not the least doubt that the Matron was manipulating the table, so was prepared for some prophecy whose fulfilment would be easy. Therefore she was doubly shocked and startled by the table's revelation.
It tapped out instantly "Death."
"Oh, stop, please," she cried impulsively.
Yaxley-Moore took no notice of her appeal as she went on with her questions.
"Any one present now?"
The table signified "Yes."
The table gave one sharp rap, stopped, and then galloped through the alphabet.
"'Au—,'" said Miss Yaxley-Moore. "There is only one person here whose name can begin with those letter. Is it—'Auriol'?"
The table banged assent as though it were hammering down the lid of a coffin.
"Oh, stop!" called Caroline again. "Put on the light, somebody."
A murmur of voices from the circle told of support from the other mistresses, when Miss Auriol spoke in the flat tone of one who has just received sentence of death.
"No. I must know. Ask it—what?"
Caroline stuffed her fingers in her ears, but the action did not deaden Auriol's scream.
"Cancer...It's true. I've always known it...Ask—when. Is it before the end of the term?"
As the table gave a sharp rap there was the sound of a gasping cry, followed by the crash of an overturned chair. Confusion broke out in the darkness—every one speaking at once and blundering against the furniture.
When the light was switched on it fell on two unconscious persons. Kewpie was slumped back in her chair, asleep, while Miss Auriol lay across the table in a faint.
TO Caroline's relief, the table-turning received no official recognition. When she went to bed, excited and overwrought, she had vaguely expected barriers to be erected against the approach of death, or to hear the tolling of the last curfew. But she woke up next morning to the pealing of the first bell and found that the school was carrying on as usual.
At breakfast everyone seemed to be normal, even Miss Auriol, who appeared with shadowed eyes and defiant patches of rouge on her hollow cheeks. It was true that she shuddered at the offer of solid food, but this habit followed precedent too closely to occasion remark.
The general opinion was that this time Miss Yaxley-Moore had gone too far.
Caroline was hurt to discover how little she knew of the school gossip, when Kewpie enlightened her.
"It's what half the school has been hinting for ages," she said. "The other half say it's only her fancy. But to come right out with the word—and to her face—it's too raw."
"She was so definite," protested Caroline. "She must know something."
"Yes," agreed Kewpie, "she's got an uncanny scent for carrion. I wouldn't like the old witch to prophesy my death. Still, this is too long a shot—even for her."
Apparently Mrs. Nash was of the same opinion, for her face was severe when she greeted the Matron in her study.
"What's this Melody has been telling me about Miss Auriol? Is it true that you predicted her death from cancer?"
"Don't ask me," blustered Miss Yaxley-Moore. "I know nothing about these things. And I certainly don't control them. All I do is to count the raps."
"Then I question your arithmetic...Melody says you gave a definite time-limit. The notion is absurd. I grant you the woman's ill, and I know that Arum thinks there may be internal trouble. But she's not dying."
"I didn't give it. And, as I told you before, time is not counted in the Spirit World as we count it here...Would you like a séance to-night?"
"No." Mrs. Nash's brilliant eyes suddenly blurred with doubt. "I should have no belief. Sometimes I wonder if the whole thing is not merely a shadow that I've cast myself, because I've wanted so passionately—" She broke off as her secretary entered.
"Can you see Miss Auriol?" she asked.
"Send her in."
Mrs. Nash remained silent as the music mistress' wasted form slipped through a crack of the opened door.
"I wish to give notice," she said in a fatalistic voice. "I shall not be returning next term."
"Why not?" asked Mrs. Nash sharply.
"I shall be—elsewhere."
As Miss Auriol gazed into space with dilated eyes Mrs. Nash rapped on the table with her pencil.
"Will you see Dr. Arum?" she asked.
"No. He would only tell me what I know already."
Miss Auriol's face puckered at the word.
"Yes. My mother died from it. I know all the symptoms only too well. I'm doomed."
"In that case, it won't hurt you to know a little more...Listen: I'm taking you to Plume Hospital for examination as soon as it can be arranged. You need only stay there a day. It is wiser to have definite knowledge, for my husband was a soldier—not a specialist."
Miss Auriol shrugged with the air of one who is past caring.
"If you like," she agreed. "It is nothing to me now—one way or another."
When she had drifted from the room Miss Yaxley-Moore suddenly decided to switch.
"I can predict the result of the examination without the aid of an X-ray apparatus," she said. "There is nothing the matter with Auriol but indigestion. She's everlastingly eating tinned muck in her room, and she's paying for her depraved appetite."
As Mrs. Nash raised her brows in ironic comment she tried to consolidate her new position.
"As a matter of fact," she said, "when first the message began to come through I was on the point of calling the whole thing off. Then I decided to force Auriol out into the open. There's been too much beating around the bush...And, you see, my plan has worked."
In spite of her swagger, she knew that she had hauled down her colors in defeat. Since the lapse of the séances, Mrs. Nash had been slipping gradually from her grasp, and her final desperate effort had merely dissolved the last lingering wisps of hypnotic glamour.
The Head emerged from her illusion in a mood of ice-cold sanity and with penetrating vision, which rejected the episode of the table-turning as an insult to her mentality. To mark her restoration, she ignored Miss Yaxley-Moore and restored Miss Melody to her former confidence.
The little woman's face lost its frost-bitten appearance as though it were actually responding to each gradation of the rising temperature. On the day that Miss Auriol went into hospital she stopped Caroline to gloat over the new position.
"'Somebody' never expected this development. She knew that Auriol had starved down to two straws and was scared stiff about her health. My impression is that she tried to frighten the poor thing into her grave."
"No, I can't believe that," protested Caroline. "I think she meant to be sensational. Besides, Miss Auriol looked appalling at times. If it's really—serious, it will be her score."
"It will not." Miss Melody clapped her hands together as though to slaughter a mosquito. "She definitely said that Auriol would die before the end of the term. I shall hold her to that—and so will Mrs. Nash."
Against her will, Caroline was infested by the underground wave of strange excitement that was sucking at the foundations of the school. On the surface, every one appeared bland and unconscious of crisis; but there was altogether more anxiety about Miss Auriol's health than was natural. The poor soul had been too engrossed in her complaints—whether real or imaginary—to be popular. She had given nothing of her personality, but had merely fulfilled a bargain, yet there was a constant relay of pupils to Mrs. Nash's study.
"Any news of Miss Auriol?" they inquired of the badgered secretary, who controlled the telephone in Mrs. Nash's absence. The Oracle, however, remained silent for lack of information; and when Mrs. Nash returned from Plume alone, she had nothing to report.
"She was very nervous and took the bismuth badly, which delayed things a bit," she said to the matron. "But she's been X-rayed, and they will let us know the result in due course."
That evening seemed to Caroline to be an endless ordeal of suspense. She admired the intellectual detachment of those mistresses who discussed the political situation; but, to her mind, their very efforts to preserve mental neutrality betrayed that they, too, were conscious of the general tension. Every one was more or less responsive to the drama of the issue at stake, because it involved the future existence of the school.
Miss Yaxley-Moore alone appeared untouched by the general excitement. She ignored the allusions to Miss Auriol's absence and went about with a baffling smile on her thick lips, as though she were in possession of censored knowledge.
"In a way I can't help admiring her," Caroline confessed to Miss Melody. "She's betting on a hundred-to-one chance, but she's giving nothing away."
Little Miss Melody shook her head in fierce dissent. "That's all shop-window display," she told Caroline. "When you're older you'll judge by the wares inside. That brazen creature is rotten to the core...Well—we shall all of us be praying for poor Auriol tonight."
Under the influence of her parting words, Caroline went to bed in an unusually susceptible frame of mind which made her conscious of atmospheric vibration—as though the school were actually shaken by alternate flicker and extinction in the invisible conflict of Light and Darkness.
Whenever she started out of sleep, however, she was reassured by the absolute darkness of the opposite wing, which flashed no signal to attract errant evil; and she awoke in a composed and hopeful frame of mind. The pale molten-gold sunlight of November fell in a bar across the wall. A robin sang in the ivy which framed her window. Both seemed omens of good fortune which sent her downstairs, expectant of good news.
To her disappointment, she found the situation unchanged, except that the study was now closed to inquiries. As the day wore on in the usual way, without incident or information, she began to grow uneasy. When she met Miss Melody, she noticed that the lines had returned to form a fish-bone pattern around her eyes.
"Hasn't Mrs. Nash heard from the hospital yet?" asked Caroline.
"I got my head snapped off when I tried to pump her," confessed Miss Melody. "Well, they say no news is good news. All the same, I can't help wondering if things have gone wrong."
She lowered her voice at the approach of Miss Yaxley-Moore, who radiated confidence.
"Buzz, buzz," she said indulgently as she passed the couple. "Every one's buzzing today."
"I believe she knows something," said Caroline nervously. It was this suspicion of concealed resource that gradually drained her of hope. She reminded herself that the Matron was in constant contact with Dr. Arum, who might have diagnosed Miss Auriol's malady. Although she had no personal interest at stake, her throat grew dry when, from her station at the staircase window, later in the afternoon she saw a car swing round the bend of the drive between the dripping laurels.
Little Miss Melody must have been also on the lookout, for immediately a skimpy little figure rushed down the steps of the portico and ran over the wet gravel to meet it.
Miss Auriol had returned.
Caroline waited until the two women had gone into Mrs. Nash's study, and then stole down to the hall. As she lingered there the door was burst open and Miss Melody darted out, nearly knocking her down.
A glance at her beaming face told Caroline that she bore good news before she panted out the official message:
"Nothing the matter but indigestion."
IN spite of the recent excitement, no one was really surprised by the news. Miss Yaxley-Moore had started a hare of unusually repellent appearance, and the School had chased it because it afforded a break in the monotony of routine.
Directly the tension had snapped, the sudden violent interest in Miss Auriol's health came to an end. Only those who realized its importance in connection with the prestige of the Head were conscious of deep relief, although few alluded to the subject. Miss Auriol, too, appeared to resent inquiries, so it was tacitly agreed to leave her in peace.
Miss Yaxley-Moore was the first to offer congratulations.
"I hear you've a clean bill," she said. "Good work...I suppose your friend the table was pulling your leg. Probably some gay lad who passed over in the Nineties. They were great on spoof then."
Miss Auriol pointedly ignored the explanation.
"Thank you for your inquiries," she said. "But you've got it wrong—again. I have gastric trouble, and may develop an ulcer."
She turned and made an appeal for general sympathy.
"Pity me. I'm on a strict diet. Nothing but milk for a month."
"Then you won't want to come to dinner, just to watch us eat," said Miss Melody. "I'll send up some milk to your room."
"Not on your life. I've earned a break after that hospital racket. No, I start tomorrow."
"Don't be silly. I shall send up the milk."
Dinner was a cheerful meal that night, since both Miss Auriol and Miss Yaxley-Moore were absent. Freed from the restraint of their presence, there was a positive gale of laughter when Kewpie upset the salt-cellar. The senior mistresses—although they remained remote—were too prudent to criticise the high spirits. They, too, reacted to a general sense of disinfection—as though a high wind were sweeping through cobwebbed passages, blowing away floating black filaments and sour odors.
To Caroline's fancy, even the lights seemed to glow more brightly—like street lamps after a storm—when she went up stairs to bed. Although very tired, she was in a specially cheerful mood, and she dropped to sleep in the midst of composing a letter which told William of the good news.
Her night was not particularly tranquil in spite of deep slumber. Even her dreams were disturbed by a sense of unrest, as though the house were astir. There seemed to be footsteps stamping past her door, and voices in the air, while she lay like a log, unable to stir. Once she thought she heard someone call out, as if in pain; but in the act of opening her eyes she sank back into a deeper trough of unconsciousness.
She awoke just as the first grey glimmer of dawn was stealing in through her window, to find that she had a visitor. Kewpie was hunched up on the end of her bed, her chin resting on her knees. She wore festive yellow pyjamas, decorated with blue birds, but her face looked strangely unfamiliar, bereft of its smile.
"I thought you'd never wake up," she said. "How you could have slept through it all beats me."
"Slept through what?" asked Caroline, rubbing her eyes.
"The upset. It's poor Auriol. She's been terribly ill all night. The doctor's with her still—and so is Mrs. Nash...They say she's sinking."
Caroline began to shiver, although the bed was warm.
"W-what's the matter with her?" she asked.
"Food poisoning. She had a beanfeast in her room last night before she went on diet. In her state she was just asking for it...Come outside with me."
Feeling in a bad dream, Caroline struggled into her dressing-gown and followed Kewpie into the corridor. In defiance of orders, a group of mistresses and girls was gathered outside the door of Miss Auriol's room. As they waited, with pale faces and awed eyes, the atmosphere was tense with expectation. It held some of the terrible excitement with which the unaffected man-in-the-street receives the news of a wholesale disaster.
As they approached, Caroline caught a whisper:
"She said, 'Before the end of the term!'"
"Hush!" called someone sharply.
The door of the room was opening and Miss Yaxley-Moore stood in the entrance. Her heavy face was deeply graven with lines, her voice subdued to a conventional note of regret.
"It's all over," she announced.
Her great arched nostrils dilated as an awe-stricken gasp arose from the group. She paused for a moment or so, as though to let her words sink in, and then added sharply: "Carry on as usual."
Caroline was only too grateful to accept the tradition: "The School must go on." She spared neither herself nor her girls at hockey that morning, keeping them on the run, and breaking up any attempt to collect in a huddle and whisper.
When she met Miss Melody later she was shocked to see how shrunken her face had become, as a visible sign of her vigil, while her shrunken eyes were fierce with defensive anger.
"Pack of fools," she declared. "Whispering together, as if there was anything out of the way. Poor Auriol as good as committed suicide—eating tinned lobster on an inflamed stomach."
She was like a terrified but courageous old terrier in a haunted building, snapping at a shadow which no one else could see.
"How is Mrs. Nash taking it?" asked Caroline anxiously.
"She's pretty badly shaken. But whenever I remind her it was not cancer she hardens up again...All the same, I'm worried about Yaxley-Moore."
"Why? What has she said?"
"It's what she has not said. She hasn't reminded any one that she prophesied Auriol's death. That's not like her! She's the kind who'd boast in the cradle about getting born, and give her parents none of the credit...I don't like it."
She looked so worn that Caroline had not the heart to add to her perplexity. She, too, was bewildered by the Matron's attitude, only in her case the problem was not omission but commission.
As she was coming back alone from the sports field she was surprised to notice Miss Yaxley-Moore on the other side of the hedge. She had chosen a curious part of the grounds for exercise, for she was returning from the dead-end, which was defiled by the rubbish dump.
She did not see Caroline, so the girl surprised her expression when she was off-guard. To her amazement, its official gravity had been replaced by a smile of triumph, while her lips moved as though she were rehearsing a speech.
She had not to wait long for enlightenment. When dusk was falling she was summoned by Kewpie to accompany her to Mrs. Nash's study. The Head was not there, but her place at the desk was occupied by Miss Yaxley-Moore.
Directly Caroline grasped the fact that she had collected only those who were present at the table-turning, she was prepared for some sensational sequel. The time and place were well chosen for effect, since the room was darkened by the angle of the walls.
Looking out at the twilight landscape, she saw the naked black branches of wind-tormented trees flogging an angry lilac sky. Turning away from the melancholy scene, she noticed that the circle of white faces—dim in the fading light—showed the strain of a sleepless night, which had rendered them emotionally susceptible. They were therefore especially receptive to suggestion when Miss Yaxley-Moore cleared her throat and began to address them pompously.
"I have called this meeting for the purpose of vindicating my character...You will all remember a recent occasion when we got a direct communication from the Spirit World. No one was more staggered than myself when it was foretold that Auriol would die of cancer, because I knew it to be a physical impossibility. My medical knowledge had already diagnosed her complaint as indigestion...Yet, because that message was a test, I would not suppress it—whatever the cost to myself."
She stopped to fumble with the paper wrapping of a parcel on her desk, and then went on speaking:
"Well—she is dead—and dead within the time-limit. So that part of the message came true...The cause of death, as you have heard, was inflammation from eating tinned lobster...And that, too, is true."
Caroline could hardly believe her ears as she listened to the recantation.
"She's admitting it," she told herself. "She's owning up to being beaten."
Her triumph was premature, for the next second Miss Yaxley-Moore corrected herself.
"I should have said, 'That is partly true...' Now I must ask all of you to look at this."
With the air of a specialist displaying an exhibit, she held up a battered empty tin, which had been apparently salvaged from a rubbish heap.
"I was looking after Auriol all the time she was ill," she went on, "so I knew she had not eaten lobster, but some other kind of tinned fish. As the result would have been exactly the same, it made no difference to the doctor's certificate...But I was suddenly made aware by my spirit-guide that the difference was of vital importance to me. I was directed to search for further proof. And you will all understand the value of my evidence when you realize the significance of—this."
She pointed to the label pasted on the tin, which depicted a sinister and unnatural scarlet crab on a sky-blue ground.
"You all know the Signs of the Zodiac," she told them.
Although they had been prepared by the picture, a chill of superstitious awe fell over the circle as they listened to the heavy tolling voice dropping on their ears like lead.
"Auriol died from eating tinned crab. She was killed by cancer—Cancer, the Crab."
No one realized the anti-climax of the empty tin, because of that silent shape in Miss Auriol's bed, which testified to the vindication of the test...
Later that night Caroline started out of sleep, to see the opaline screen of light glowing amid the darkness of the opposite wing.
ALTHOUGH she would not acknowledge it, after that night Caroline was afraid of Miss Yaxley-Moore. Her common sense told her that, while the Matron had an extraordinary break, luck in itself was not miraculous. She had brought off a long shot—equivalent to backing a hundred-to-one winner; but that was Signorinetta's price when she won the Derby.
What was more important was the fact that she was not instrumental in bringing about Miss Auriol's death, in which effect had followed cause. As for the interpretation of the empty tin, which had seemed so uncanny at the time, she rejected it as sheer sophistry. She told herself that a man who had stopped a bomb when in the A.S.C. wouldn't pun about the contents of tins.
"He'd call it 'Crab,'" she reflected. "More likely, 'Bloody Crab.'"
In spite of her reasoning, however, she could not help feeling uneasy in the Matron's presence. Whatever the actual circumstances, one sinister fact remained:
She had foretold Auriol's death—and Auriol had died.
Caroline remembered her second night at the School, when the great form suddenly shot up on her toes, as though arrested in the act of levitation. At that moment she seemed actually inflated with the power she claimed to possess.
Glancing nervously at the dark pitted face, Caroline thought of a gipsy who peddled charms with her pegs. A sensible person naturally would laugh at her curse; yet, if a broken arm followed in swift sequence, the coincidence would be noted.
As the short December days crawled on she grew depressed and vaguely apprehensive. Small things worried her, and she questioned her decisions, lest she should have abused the authority entrusted to her. It was an unusually dark month, so that the lights were rarely switched off, except between the hours of nine and three.
While Miss Melody fretted about the electric light bill, the gloom affected Caroline adversely. Used to the open skyline of the coast, she felt doubly confined by the mist-hung hills. Just as a child, after its first experience of death, is eager to escape from the house of mourning to some place where laughter is legitimate, so she longed to get away from the School, with its lurking suggestion of witchcraft.
She wanted to forget the tragedy of Miss Auriol. Even poor William was a worry, rather than an inspiration, because he belonged to the haunted zone.
Her great consolation was the thought of her Swiss holiday. She spent every spare moment poring over the folders; but directly she had posted the money for her tickets she was almost terrified by her own daring.
"I've done it," she declared tragically to Kewpie. "Pledged every cent and a bit over for luck. If I get the sack now, I'm sunk."
"Oh, loosen up and laugh," urged Kewpie. "Just watch your step with Public Enemy Number One, and you'll be all right."
Caroline took the hint and either avoided the Matron or was unobtrusively polite whenever they met. All she wanted was to be overlooked until the end of the term; but, as though she guessed her motives, Miss Yaxley-Moore deliberately singled her out, to sound her on her two weak spots.
"A word to the wise," she said to the girl one day. "The less you are seen talking to Melody, the better. One change often means another...We have to consider the interest of the School—and Melody has proved herself disloyal."
"Disloyal?" Caroline gasped at the charge. "Oh, but—"
"Do you call it loyal to gossip about the private affairs of the Head to a junior? Can you deny that Melody has betrayed confidences to you?"
As Caroline's rising color told her that the charge had gone home, Miss Yaxley-Moore pressed her advantage.
"Another hint: Mrs. Nash is ambitious for William's future."
Fortunately, Caroline managed to repress an explosion. Biting her lips, she rushed up to her room and refreshed herself with another look at her folders.
Each leaf torn off her calendar was bringing her nearer to release. But Miss Yaxley-Moore's hint made her feel uneasy the next time Miss Melody button-holed her in the corridor.
"Heard the latest?" she whispered hoarsely. "She's calling herself 'we.' I knew that would be the next step. She's all out for a partnership."
"Then why don't you try to work in with her?" suggested Caroline nervously.
She was anxious to stop the foolishly loyal little soul from crashing into the pit prepared for her, yet she was afraid of saying too much, lest she should betray her knowledge.
The natural result of such intervention was only to infuriate Miss Melody.
"As long as I've breath I'll fight her," she declared... "You don't know all. 'The Major' has begun to meddle with Rosa's investments. That night he told her to sell out certain shares. She made a profit of seventy pounds on them. And now he's going to tell her how to re-invest the money...'He,' indeed. She. It'll all be lost—and yet I can't make Rosa see sense."
As she listened, Caroline felt weighed down by this futility of effort—however unselfish—in a case of predestined failure.
"You have your own interest to consider," she said.
"I haven't any. My interests are all here."
"I know what you are going to say—and I dare you to say it. Rosamund Nash is loyal to the backbone. She'd never let me go."
On the whole, Caroline was inclined to agree with her. As usual, she saw the problem in definite black-and-white, and she could not believe that any civilized person could descend to the treachery of discharging an old and faithful servant.
"I must warn William," she thought.
She was looking forward to seeing him when he came down for Christmas, for she had resolved not to let herself be influenced by Yaxley-Moore's warnings. Her common sense was always infuriated by the lovers' misunderstandings of the pictures, which one word could straighten out.
Yet when they met she was conscious at once of some cloud between them. It was true that he hunted her out when she was tidying lockers in the gymnasium, but his moody face held no light of welcome.
"His mother's been getting at him," she thought.
Scrapping her pride, after an exchange of stilted remarks, she determined to force a situation.
"What's the matter with you?" she asked.
"Nothing." He gave a wretched laugh. "Only—I wonder if you were ever taught that virtue is its own reward, honesty the best policy—and so on?"
"Then don't believe it any longer."
"My mother is going to sack old Melody."
It was Caroline's first experience of the cruelty of the labor market, and she grew scarlet with indignation.
"Does Melody know?" she asked.
"No. She won't be told until she comes back—so as not to spoil her holidays. I managed that at least."
"How thoughtful...Well, she's your mother—so I had better not express an opinion."
The working muscles of William's thin cheeks betrayed the conflict of his feelings.
"Even now," he said, "the School comes first with her, because of us. If we could produce some definite proof that Yaxley-Moore is injuring it, I believe we could clear her out."
Caroline's set lips did not relax. She could only grasp the fact that William was trying to condone what was indefensible. Too inexperienced in emotions to understand the clash of dislocated loyalties, she spoke coldly:
"Is it so important to preserve the School, if this is what it does to people?"
"Of course it's important," said William stiffly. "Putting personal interests aside, it means employment for a large number of people, besides the money it puts into circulation with the tradespeople... But you have forgotten the most important thing: If Yaxley-Moore goes—Melody will stay."
William glanced at Caroline's aloof expression and changed the subject.
"Where are you going for your holidays?"
He had only arrived after lunch, and he was going away that evening to stay with friends until the end of the term; but they parted in a strained atmosphere. Directly he had gone, however, Caroline rushed upstairs to look after his taxi.
Her bitter expression was remarked at dinner by Kewpie.
"If you look like that in Switzerland you'll get frostbite," she warned her.
"Oh." Miss Yaxley-Moore adjusted her monocle. "Are you going out to the Sports?"
Conscious of the curtness of her reply, Caroline added quickly: "Are you going away anywhere?"
"No. I shall stay with my half-sister at her place in the country."
Caroline scarcely heard the reply, although Switzerland was destined to hold no vital interest for her while her whole future hung upon the circumstances of Miss Yaxley-Moore's holiday.
Once again she was menaced by the threat of an unknown person.
Miss Bat—of Bat House.
THREE days before the Abbey School broke up for Christmas, Caroline was in her bedroom packing for her visit to Switzerland. As her friends wanted to avoid the holiday rush, she had asked—and received—permission to leave two days earlier than the others.
Although Mrs. Nash's readiness to let her go did not stress the importance of her position, she was too grateful for self-deprecation. She congratulated herself—not only on keeping her post for a term, and on having that term's salary to spend in one glorious burst—but on having avoided any clash with Miss Yaxley-Moore.
Kewpie watched her with envious eyes as she stuck the travel agency's labels all over her bursting cabin-trunk.
"Why didn't you pack your bed, too?" she asked. "Then you'd have all your home comforts."
"You want all sorts of clothes," explained Caroline. "But I shall get this registered at Victoria and not worry about it any more. Really I'm travelling light with only a suitcase."
As she spoke, she thought of photographs in the Illustrated Press of gangs of athletic young men playing ice-hockey or ski-jumping. They swooped down snowy slopes, pushing poor William clean out of the picture.
In her impatience to be gone she felt she could scarcely endure the time of waiting. All the arrangements for her journey had been made. The local garage proprietor would call for her in his car at eight o'clock the following morning to motor her to Plume station, where she would catch the express up to Paddington. There only remained an eleventh-hour job—the packing of a small suitcase with necessities for a night in the train.
"Aren't you lucky?" sighed Kewpie.
"I'm paying for my luck," Caroline reminded her. "I shall come back broke. If I get stuck for funds, coming home, will you bail me out?"
"No. You're having the holiday—not me."
"That's fair. So I mustn't get in a jam." Caroline laughed as she rose from her knees. "Well, I must give the wretched girls a last hockey practice."
It was a cold grey day with a bite of north-east wind which pinched faces and nipped fingers. When Caroline reached the field, she found the girls standing together in a forlorn huddle, grumbling about the weather.
"Have a heart, Miss Watts," they pleaded. "Let us off."
"Do you good," declared Caroline. "Jean, you play centre-forward—Mary, goal—"
She broke off at the sound of a noisy burst of coughing behind her.
"Who's the crooner?" she asked.
"Me," replied a muffled voice.
Caroline swung round and saw Flora Baumgarten—the fat intelligent pupil. Her face was flushed and her eyes were streaming, as though she were in the grip of a heavy cold.
"Idiot," stormed Caroline. "What possessed you to come out in this wind? You ought to be in bed."
"I wanted to go," explained Flora. "But Glaxo—"
"Miss Yaxley-Moore said I wanted fresh air and exercise to sweat off my fat."
The girls giggled, but Caroline grew suddenly cold with apprehension. She felt that Fate had been playing with her—tossing her up high on purpose to fling her down to the ground again. Just when she thought she was safe, it seemed as though the dreaded clash with the Matron was inevitable.
To aggravate her discomfort, she had to make an important decision. Although she distrusted Miss Yaxley-Moore's medical knowledge, she was accepted throughout the school as an authority. In any case, years of experience should have made her expert in detecting the signs of malingering.
Caroline was painfully conscious of her own youth and inexperience as she tried to decide whether Flora's fit of coughing was a voluntary performance on the part of the alleged sufferer, or a genuine paroxysm. As the solution eluded her she suddenly swiped the ball across the field and shouted to Flora to follow it.
The poor fat pupil gave her a reproachful look before she pounded off in pursuit; but before she could reach it, Caroline had caught her up.
"Stop," she called. "I'm sorry I had to make you do that, but I wanted to find out your condition."
She was no longer in doubt, for Flora's distress was obvious. With an encouraging pat on the back, she speeded her in the direction of the school.
"Go back to the sick-bay," she said, "and tell the Matron that I ordered you off the field as unfit."
"Oh, thank you," gasped Flora. "I knew you wouldn't let me down. I've a pain in my chest and I feel foul."
After Flora had gone, Caroline tried to forget the incident. She had stopped the game to give a demonstration of passing on the left wing, when she heard a laugh.
"Flora's come back, Miss Watts," a girl told her.
Caroline turned and gazed with horrified eyes at the over-developed form—ludicrous in shorts and sweater—stumbling slowly down the field. Then she spoke to the girls.
"Carry on till I come back. I may be a little time."
With a sinking heart she went to meet her doom; but there was no sign of shrinking in her cheerful greeting to Flora.
"Thought I warned you off? Won't any one have you?"
"Miss Yaxley-Moore won't, for one," replied Flora. "I'm supposed to be swinging the lead."
"Well, don't talk about it. Keep your mouth shut and take my arm."
Flora was panting painfully after climbing the stairs, when they invaded the Matron's private sitting-room. Caroline, too, felt as though she were putting up a fair imitation of heart disease, as she spoke in rather a tremulous voice.
"I've brought you a patient, Miss Yaxley-Moore."
The Matron—who was stretched on the divan, smoking—rose heavily to her feet. It was obvious that she resented the intrusion, for her eyes were stormy and her lips compressed with temper.
"You are at liberty to order any one off your field," she told Caroline. "It's your province...The sick-bay is mine. Keep off it."
"But really," persisted Caroline, "Flora should see a doctor."
"For a cold in the head?"
"No, chest. Won't you take her temperature, please?"
Miss Yaxley-Moore's face grew purple as she exploded.
"I know perfectly well what's the matter with her—and I know the treatment. Fresh air and exercise. I've no patience with your soft middle-class ideas. Our class sends noblemen to be flogged at Eton—but an L.C.C. schoolboy gets damages for assault, if he's tapped. Sickening—and I'll have none of that spirit here."
"Then I shall have to appeal to Mrs. Nash," said Caroline desperately.
"Nothing would please me better. Good luck."
Miss Yaxley-Moore laughed derisively as Caroline went out of the room. Her knees were shaking as she spoke to Flora outside in the corridor.
"Wait in the sick-bay. And Flora—if you've let me down, it may finish me here."
"Darling." Flora's eyes were tragic with reproach. "I'm really sick. And you were splendid with old Glaxo."
A schoolgirl's tribute was not much moral support, and Caroline felt cold with suspense when she entered Mrs. Nash's office.
Mrs. Nash was wearing horn-rimmed glasses and was busy with files, as she sat at her desk. Directly she raised chilled steel eyes, Caroline knew that she was in her armored business mood.
She tapped her papers impatiently as Caroline stammered our her tale; and she picked up a sheaf of documents before it was finished, as a hint that she had heard enough.
"I am surprised you have disturbed me after what Miss Yaxley-Moore has said," she remarked stiffly. "Should I employ a Matron if I could not trust her judgment?"
For a second, Caroline saw red at the injustice. It was on the tip of her tongue to say, "You employ her to shove an Ouija board about," but she bit off the words in time. Looking more like a terrified schoolgirl than a competent member of the staff, she made a final appeal.
"Mrs. Nash, this is terribly serious for me, because Flora is supposed to be playing hockey, which makes her my pupil. I feel I'm responsible for her to her father. If you won't come up and see her, I—I shall have to telephone to Sir Felix and ask him if he authorizes me to send for the doctor."
Mrs. Nash smothered an exclamation of annoyance, but she rose from her chair.
"If this is a false alarm, you are taking a great risk," she warned the girl, icily.
The threat plunged Caroline in a panic as she followed her up the stairs, keeping at a respectful distance. Knowing the hypnotic influence of the Matron over Mrs. Nash, she was fearful of the result of her interference.
"I can't let the matter drop, whatever happens," she told herself. "Flora is sick...It may mean the sack, just when I've paid for a holiday I can't afford. I shan't enjoy it—and I won't have a bean left."
When they entered the sick-bay, Flora—still dressed for hockey—was sitting on a bed. In ominous silence Mrs. Nash crossed over to her—felt her forehead and her pulse—and then spoke to Caroline.
"Ring up Dr. Arum. Ask him to come at once."
When Caroline returned from the telephone, the Head patted her arm approvingly.
"Good girl," she said.
Caroline felt encouraged to make a request.
"May I come into your room to hear the doctor's report? You see, it concerns me."
As Mrs. Nash nodded consent, Miss Yaxley-Moore came into the room with the air of preparing to quell a mutiny.
"Put Flora in a blanket-bed with hot water-bottles," said Mrs. Nash.
"For a cold in the head?" sneered the Matron.
"The doctor will give it a name." Mrs. Nash spoke coldly. "Come, Miss Watts."
Although Dr. Arum lost no time in coming over to the school, Caroline thought he would never leave the sick-bay and end her suspense. As she hung about the hall, waiting for him to come downstairs, she realized, for the first time, Mrs. Nash's relentless attitude towards incompetence, and the strength of her self-interest, where the school was concerned.
It made her understand more completely the sapping strength of the superstitious strangle-hold which Yaxley-Moore had coiled around her. Involuntarily she thought of wings beating around a strong enclosed light.
"She's dazzled," she told herself. "But if she knew she was being gulled, she'd be adamant."
She was recalling her recent fear of dismissal when Dr. Arum came down the staircase, accompanied by Miss Yaxley-Moore. The Matron looked vast and imposing in her starched white overall, while the glacial dignity of her manner expressed the fact that she was present under protest, merely to protect her interests.
When they reached the hall, Dr. Arum, who was trying to thaw her, glanced expectantly towards the drawing-room, as though hopeful of tea; but when he saw that Mrs. Nash was in her office, he switched off his social manner and became strictly professional.
"I am afraid my news is not exactly welcome so near the end of the term," he informed Mrs. Nash.
Then he glanced at Caroline, who had slipped in behind him, and held the door half-open in invitation for her to withdraw. As she failed to take his hint, he began to talk in his usual bland manner, softening his diagnosis and shaving off all sharp angles, to provide a comfortable impression.
"I'm afraid the patient is in for a touch of pneumonia. She's running a bit of temperature. Hundred and three, to be exact. And she's got a nasty hacking cough, besides some pain in her chest. Nothing to worry about, except that her heart's rather groggy. Over-weight, you know." He glanced at Miss Yaxley-Moore's impressive figure, and added quickly, "Miss Yaxley-Moore was very wise to take no chances and send for me at once."
Miss Yaxley-Moore ignored the compliment, as though it were an insult, so he hurried on to give direction for treatment.
"I've given her an injection of permanganate of potash, which will help to bring her temperature down. I want to put my best nurse—Nurse Fisher—on the case, but she won't be available until tomorrow. I'm afraid Miss Yaxley-Moore is in for a wakeful night with the treatment."
"What treatment?" demanded the Matron stonily.
"I'm sending over two mixtures—one with digitalis, for the heart, and the other is a cough-mixture. Each to be given every four hours, and a tablespoon of brandy about the same time as the cough medicine."
He turned to the Matron with a smile.
"That means every two hours. No beauty sleep for you tonight. Won't you hate me? But I expect to find a great improvement in the morning."
He glanced at his watch and hurried out of the room, pausing at the door for a final reminder.
"Every two hours, Miss Yaxley-Moore, please. And without fail."
Although it was her victory, Caroline felt almost frightened when she found herself alone with the Matron. Fortunately for her, Miss Yaxley-Moore chose to preserve her dignity by a tirade against Dr. Arum.
"Sheer ignorance. It would be amusing if it were not dangerous. He's not a doctor—he's a survival.—and he ought to be bottled in spirits. The idea of waking up a patient is utterly preposterous..."
She was still muttering when Caroline slipped out of the room. As far as she was concerned, the matter was finished. The excitement of her holiday returned in full force, sweeping away the memory of her ordeal.
After a restless night—when she lost trains continuously in her dreams—she was up and ready for her journey, long before it was time to start. She had finished packing and taken leave of the Head overnight, when she had joyfully drawn her first salary. She had also bidden a general farewell and dodged the maids whom she could not afford to tip.
Dressed in her travelling outfit, she was just finishing her breakfast, when Kewpie hurried into the dining-room.
"I've bad news," she said. "Poor fat Flora flopped early this morning. She fainted when Y.-M. was giving her a cup of tea. The doctor's been and gone again—and she's much better. But she's keen to wish you 'Good-bye!'"
Caroline glanced at her watch.
"Then I must fly," she declared.
She sprinted to the sick-bay, expecting to find a sinister change in Flora. It was a relief to find her sitting up in bed, propped with pillows, and looking much the same as usual. When she saw the games mistress, her eyes—which were slightly sunken—lit up in welcome.
"Darling," she panted, "I made an excuse to send old Glaxo out of the room. I've something to tell you—about her. I heard her swear to the doctor that she'd given me drops and things. But I got nix. I called and called. She snored like a pig, all through the night...Let my father know."
"Now don't get so excited," urged Caroline. "Everything's going to be all right."
"Yes—but you can see for yourself," persisted Flora. "The bottles are over there. They're not opened."
Caroline thought of the car which must be waiting for her on the drive; but to humour the girl, she dared to unlock the medicine cupboard, which was the sacred property of the Matron. She could hardly believe her eyes when she saw two sealed medicine bottles, bearing Flora's name and written directions on the paper wrapper, which was intact.
In a fury of indignation, she snatched them from the shelf and dashed back to the bed.
"Good-bye, darling," she said. "I can't stop...But I'm taking these. Leave it all to me...Don't worry. Just get well."
Flora nodded with a satisfied smile and waved her hand in farewell as Caroline ran from the room. In the doorway she collided with Miss Yaxley-Moore, who had entered just too late to prevent the violation of her property.
"How dare you!" she panted. "Give me those bottles at once."
Without reply, Caroline twisted from her grip and dashed back to her bedroom, locking the door behind her. Her head was in a whirl, for while she realised that the bottles supplied evidence which could ruin the Matron, she did not know where to hide them.
She had only a minute or so in which to decide, and no time to unlock either her trunk or her suitcase. In any case, she had packed so tightly, that there was no room for an extra article without general redistribution. In addition she was going straight through to Switzerland and did not want to burden herself with unnecessary surplus.
The idea came to her just as the porter hammered on her door. She opened it and stood by while he put her suitcase and trunk upon his truck, in order to wheel it to the luggage lift. As she followed him into the corridor, she faced Miss Yaxley-Moore.
"Where are those bottles?" demanded the Matron, her voice shaking with rage.
As she replied, Caroline felt curiously detached, as though another—and much older person—had charged herself with her responsibility.
"I'm keeping them," she said calmly. "You're an ignorant, obstinate woman—and you're not fit to have the charge of girls...I warn you that if I find you here, after the holidays, I shall show them to the doctor...You're finished here."
THE day after the Abbey School broke up for the Christmas holidays, Miss Yaxley-Moore travelled to the village of Paddiscombe, by the London Streamline Coach. It was the shortest day of the year, with little daylight and glum weather which suited her own grim mood, as she stared out at starved winter fields and naked hedges.
Although she disliked Bat House—because of its associations—and its mistress, Miss Bat—because she was her relative—the holidays were not unwelcome, as a rule. They represented a licensed loaf when she did not raise a finger except in personal duties which no one else could perform. Moreover, the fact that she took her ease at her half-sister's expense appealed to her peculiar sense of humour, especially as she knew that Miss Bat—a gracious hostess on the surface—bitterly resented her presence.
The unspoken enmity between the two women was of ancient growth and had roots as deep as a plantain's. The two children quarrelled in the nursery, chiefly about the unfair distribution of wealth. Blanche Bat cherished and clung to her possessions—while Marthe Yaxley-Moore delighted in the destruction of other people's property.
Later, they were fundamentally estranged by the clash of human passions. Blanche Bat had remained a spinster from choice, since there was no young man in the district whose ancestry satisfied her standard, and nothing could induce her to leave the neighbourhood. In direct contrast, Marthe—then a coarsely attractive young woman—started a passionate adventure with the son of a small farmer.
It was Miss Bat who discovered the intrigue, and who—when they petitioned for marriage and sufficient capital to start overseas—persuaded her mother to apply financial sanctions. The affair was starved out; but she never forgave her half-sister for the slur on the family prestige, while Marthe hated her for the interference which she believed had ruined her life.
Since she had joined her old school-fellow, Rosamund Nash, at the Abbey School, the situation became eased to one of surface toleration, when, for the sake of appearances, Miss Bat welcomed her to Bat House for the holidays.
Now she was coming back to the hated place as a fixture. Her return meant not only the loss of power, but the ruin of her ambition. She had schemed to become Mrs. Nash's partner in order to control the school income for the purpose of speculation. Although she was ignorant of Stock Exchange procedure and minus any financial flair, her colossal vanity encouraged a vision of playing the market and scooping in a fortune.
The dream was over. Caroline, playing amid Swiss snow and sunshine, had already forgotten Flora Baumgarten's illness. She knew nothing of its latest developments. Soon after she had left, the girl had another collapse which brought her father dashing on the scene, accompanied by a heart-specialist and two trained nurses, to relieve the Matron of further responsibility.
She still remained in the limelight when Dr. Arum—who was defensively sensitive over the failure of his treatment—cross-examined her as to whether she had followed out his instructions to the letter. Although she refused to be shaken, so that he was forced to apologise for his doubt, in view of the publicity and general upset, she knew that Caroline's production of the unopened bottles must be fatal.
Hitherto, her enemies were unable to suggest any tangible proof of malpractice to the Head, since it was impossible to insult her by hints of sapped authority and waning prestige. But the bottles were concrete and definite. She was put on the spot by a half-baked junior mistress who was little more than a schoolgirl.
"Curse her," she thought, as the coach began to roll down a blind lane into the hollow which cupped Paddiscombe.
The village was enclosed, picturesque and damp, with a long, steep, winding street of plaster-and-thatched cottages and a sprinkling of better class residences, of which Bat House was the most imposing. Its population was chiefly feminine and composed of mature spinsters and widows.
Bat House was a fine eighteenth-century mansion—long and low, with two wings running out behind to form three sides of a courtyard. While there was a good garden at the back, the front was protected from the road by only an iron railing. Originally, it had stood in its own grounds, but owing to the dangerous slope of the village street, towards its end, a loop road had been cut across the property to accommodate the increased traffic.
Miss Yaxley-Moore grimaced at the rows of long narrow windows as she got out of the bus. Before she could ring the bell, the door was opened, and Miss Bat stood in the doorway.
"Welcome to Bat House," she said.
"Thanks." Miss Yaxley-Moore gave her a thick ironic laugh. "You must be tired of saying your little piece. Why not buy a mat with WELCOME printed on it?"
Miss Bat ignored the remark as she rubbed her half-sister's reluctant cheek, in imitation of a kiss.
"Did you have a pleasant journey?" she asked. "Come into the drawing-room and rest. The maid will carry your luggage up to your room."
"Have you still got the village idiot?" asked Miss Yaxley-Moore as she strode through the beautifully proportioned hall.
"If you mean Olive, I'm training her to become an excellent maid," said Miss Bat frigidly.
She was already finding her half-sister's presence an intolerable intrusion. For nearly forty years she had saturated herself with the pride and importance of her position as Miss Bat, of Bat House, until it had become acute monomania. It was her dominant passion, although it was run close by avarice.
The struggle to reconcile two conflicting emotions tested her ingenuity. In her character of great lady of the neighbourhood, she went to church, was benevolent to the poor, subscribed to every local charity, and kept Bat House up to requisite standard. But while there was no sign of cheese-paring economy, she looked at each coin before she spent it, and paid it away with regret.
Olive had proved a double opportunity. The girl was a village lout, of enormous strength and subnormal intelligence. Owing to her unusual size, she was always hungry, while her fury, when baited, gave her the reputation of being dangerous.
Miss Bat tamed her and transformed her into a contented tireless robot who did the entire work of Bat House. Olive was given unstinted quantities of cheap coarse food, and received only one order at a time. With no strain on her memory, no shouting or cold looks, the girl lost her fear, and grew fat and happy—a testimonial to Miss Bat's charity.
Miss Yaxley-Moore looked at her with disgust as she charged into the drawing-room, carrying the tea-table. She had a big pudding face, great vacant grey-green eyes, and a flawless red-and-white complexion. Grinning feebly at Miss Yaxley-Moore, who ignored her, she waited—open-mouthed—for Miss Bat's instructions about the rest of the tea.
"Wait till the canon has come, and then get the tea." She turned and apologised to her half-sister.
"I am sorry to keep you waiting, but Thursday is the canon's day...Ah, there is his ring. Go and answer the door, Olive."
There was a complacent note in her voice which her half-sister associated with a score.
"She's got something up her sleeve," she thought as she lit a cigarette.
The drawing-room was a beautiful apartment, with a suggestion of old-world elegance in its faded pastel tints, mellowed gilding and long mirrors, which reflected dark pools of polished parquet. But she was conscious only of its too-familiar enclosed atmosphere, as though all the vitality had been drained out of the air.
Miss Bat, who watched her movement uneasily, slipped an ash-tray by her side, while Olive charged into the hall to open the door to the canon.
"Good-afternoon, Olive," he said, beaming at her. "Is your mistress at home?"
"Yes, mum," she replied.
She knew perfectly well that she had used the wrong title, but she was also alive to the triumph of amusing one of the superior class.
The canon was still chuckling when he entered the drawing-room. He was a robust, business-like individual—slightly better on a committee than in the pulpit—and of such charity that he liked every one up to the moment when he tried not to dislike them.
He had long passed the time-limit of his endurance as regarded Miss Yaxley-Moore, and regretted her presence in the drawing-room, but he managed to give her a cordial greeting.
"She's Period," he reflected, as he looked at her congested, monocled face and thick sneering lips, pouted to blow rings of smoke. "William the Fourth, I should say."
It was pleasanter to congratulate his hostess on her successful work of human salvage.
"Olive does you real credit," he told her. "She looks well and happy."
Miss Bat sucked in his praise with a deprecating smile.
"It needs patience," she said. "Then good food—and plenty of it. And only one direction at a time."
"Exactly...You have given her a healthy body. But now you are faced with the more difficult part of your task. You have to stimulate her feeble intellect."
Miss Bat looked at him rather blankly. She had no desire to encourage Olive to think, lest she should expect the same privileges as other servants who wore silk stockings, and had a wireless set in the kitchen.
The canon continued to smile encouragement, although he was slightly chilled. He was aware that Miss Bat approved her own good deeds; but since he liked her for the same reason, his common sense forbade him to be prejudiced.
As the visit progressed he wondered—not for the first time—what was amiss. He had a genuine feeling for the fine old house, and could admire the sheen of parchment-hued hangings and faded laburnum-yellow brocade upholstery, revealed in the mellow glow of candle-light. At the same time, although his wife had the worst taste in the county, he preferred his own cheery drawing-room. The tea too, in its lavish spread, was a symbol of hospitality, while the spirit was lacking.
Miss Yaxley-Moore contributed nothing to his entertainment, but smoked and waited for her half-sister to reveal the reason for her suppressed satisfaction. Presently she was enlightened when Miss Bat cleared her throat with a little cough.
"My half-sister regrets that I no longer keep a staff," she explained. "For one thing, it would not be kind to Olive, since normal servants might bully her. For the second, I have a definite need to economise. I am going to let you into the secret, canon, for I may need your help about the business details...After my death, I mean Bat House to become an endowed home for reduced gentlewomen."
She waited while the canon paid her the correct tribute of praise, and then continued her explanation, without a glance at her silent half-sister.
"I have been haunted by a dread of my beautiful house being broken up, after my death. It has been in my family for generations. I should feel guilty of treachery to my ancestors."
"Quite Chinese," commented Miss Yaxley-Moore.
The canon glanced at her heavy face and then his brows contracted as he wondered the effect of Miss Bat's generosity on her undowered relative. Apparently she guessed his thought, for she hurried on:
"Naturally my half-sister can have no personal feeling for it. But, when I am dead, I want to live on in the parish, as a memory. At one time, I thought of a memorial window in the church, but this will do practical good. It must be called the 'Blanche Bat Home,' and I am afraid I must stipulate for a brass tablet and a bust of myself over the front door. You see, I want to welcome my guests personally."
Although he recognised the double motive, the canon felt that Charity must be encouraged.
"A charming idea," he said. "I should suggest also a large oil portrait of the founder in the hall."
"I should like that," confessed Miss Bat. "The tree must hang there too...And now, canon, will you have a slice of Olive's dough-cake? I have not forgotten your weakness for kitchen-cake."
"We keep a schoolroom-cake too, for visitors," remarked Miss Yaxley-Moore. "Grade A for the girls. Grade B for the parents."
The malice of the implication made the canon harden his heart to her disinheritance. Yet the thought of justice to the living was uppermost when Miss Bat accompanied him to the front door, at parting.
"You do approve of my idea, canon?" she asked.
"I do," he replied. "It is good to think of this gracious old house being indeed a Home of Charity. For charity begins at home."
Miss Bat took the hint.
"My half-sister will be provided for, of course," she said. "I am sure of it. I never questioned but that you would pension her adequately."
Miss Bat frowned at the wretched word "adequate." It implied a yearly income for her half-sister, far in excess of her own minimum estimate, lest she forfeited the good opinion of the parish.
Inside the drawing-room, Miss Yaxley-Moore smoked furiously as an active volcano.
"So that was it," she mused. "All right, then. I think I'll keep my own bit of news till the end of the holidays. It will cheer her up...After this, she's got it coming to her."
The air grew cloudy with smoke—while the mental atmosphere was charged with the poison-gas of hatred. Had they been articulate, the gracious walls might have panted for the open windows and invigoration of youth, in a whisper of crumbling plaster and creaking wood.
"Air...Give us air...Send us children again. Young life—that we too, may live."
THE Streamline Coaches passed through Paddiscombe several times daily, on their way to and from London. Miss Bat disliked motor traffic, although she had welcomed the new road scheme because of its compensation benefits. During the holidays, however, she always watched, from her bedroom window, for the west-bound bus.
It reminded her that there was a time limit to her infliction, and that one morning it would halt outside Bat House, to take up another passenger—Miss Yaxley-Moore—and whirl her back to the Abbey School.
Her habits had suffered the usual distressing dislocation. To save her precious drawing-room from spoliation, she had been forced to have the fire lit daily in the library, which was a dark, shabbily-furnished apartment in the back wing. Her house-keeping books showed a painful increase—her laundry was more than doubled; while the kitchen stove had to be kept stoked, instead of being frugally damped-down, to provide hot water for Miss Yaxley-Moore's frequent baths.
Outwardly the relations between the two women were those of polite formality. Miss Bat always registered grief whenever her half-sister expressed heavy regret for each ink-spot or burned hole, and ironically offered to pay for the damage.
"My dear Marthe," she would cry, "this is Liberty Hall—during the holidays."
The saving clause made Miss Yaxley-Moore gloat in anticipation of her bombshell. As she lay and smoked on the sofa, she kept seeing the same picture. Herself, twenty years younger, in breeches and high boots, surrounded by a clump of tall young men, who also wore breeches and high boots. One was slightly older than the rest and had attractively greying hair, to denote the status of parent.
This family group was posed against a background of forest and lake; each member was complete with gun, rod and dog; and there were a number of slain animals to complete this sporting paradise. It was the Canada of her day-dream, which had been shattered by interference which she had never forgiven or forgotten.
There was a hanging calendar in the library, and she noticed the eagerness with which Miss Bat tore each fresh leaf from the pad. One specially dark day, after she had looked at it, as though to refresh her memory, she put a careless question.
"Let me see. When is it you go back to the abbey?"
"School re-opens on the twenty-sixth," replied Miss Yaxley-Moore.
"But I suppose you will go back before the girls?"
"That should be the idea."
After a mental calculation, Miss Bat felt almost cheerful as she went into the kitchen. It was big and inconvenient, with a red-tiled floor—worn into hollows—and a huge dresser, stacked with superfluous china. Beyond was a cavern of a scullery with pots of ivy-geranium standing in the window.
Olive sat before the stove and gazed with rapt eyes at a basin tied with a yellowed cloth, which bubbled in a saucepan of water. She grinned with delight as her mistress sniffed the air.
"I can smell something good," she said. "It is— pease-pudding?"
"Yes, sir," declared Olive.
Miss Bat smiled indulgently at the poor simple...Only thirteen days more.
"I wonder who's going to eat it?" she remarked.
"Me," shouted Olive.
"What a lucky girl. You 'must be sure to tell every one in the village that your kind mistress gives you good food, or they will take you away from me."
Olive nodded vehemently. Although THEY constituted only an impersonal menace, she realised a vague connection with the constant hunger of her preservice days. Meanwhile, she was sitting with folded hands, so Miss Bat tried to think of a job which would work off the nervous energy which was responsible for her former fits of violence.
To do more house-cleaning that day would be waste of soap and polish. As she looked through the window, however, she had an inspiration, suggested by the garden.
In the middle of the courtyard was a large wooden tub, planted with bulbs, and already blue and white with snow-drops and scillas. All around it were packed pieces of tetra-cotta synthetic rockery, in which nothing was ever planted, but which served to conceal the sides.
"Olive," commanded Miss Bat, "take all those bits of china into the scullery. Put them in the soaking-tub, with cold water and no soap, and scrub off all the smuts and bird-lime."
Olive was thrilled at the prospect of a job which was out of the ordinary routine. She welcomed work because it helped to pass the time between her meals, for she was still dazed by the wonder of her food. Great slices of suet pudding, smeared with a spoonful of treacle; huge dough-cakes speckled with occasional currants; the minced remains of joints, cooked with potatoes and onions to make tasty stews.
Thinking all the time of the pease-pudding which was to be her supper, she carried bits of pottery into the scullery with the precision of a machine; but when she had pulled apart the outer portions, she discovered the outline of a large circle in the ground.
Her curiosity aroused, she hastened to remove the remaining rockery, and then trundled aside the tub—to find that it had concealed a wooden lid. In its middle was a ring, attached to a rusty chain, at which she began to tug.
The cover was heavy and it taxed her extraordinary strength to raise it; but, inch by inch, she eased it, until she was able to roll it aside, and peer down into the depths of a dark shaft, with slimy brick sides. As she knelt perilously on the brink, she could smell dank, foul air, and catch a gleam of inky water—very far below.
In great excitement over her discovery, she pounded upstairs to her mistress's bedroom.
"Mum, mum," she panted, "we got a well."
She was thrilled at the prospect of drawing water up in buckets, instead of turning taps in the usual dull way, so she was disappointed when Miss Bat showed no excitement.
"Yes, Olive, I know all about it," she said. "It was sunk a long time ago, when there was no water in the house. We should only use it if there was a fire...Did you take the cover off?"
"Then put it on again, before some one falls in...And go on at once with the work I told you to do."
Olive carried both directions in her head as she went downstairs, but her mistress had confused her by giving two different orders without a specified order of precedence. Therefore, since she liked peeping down the well, she left it uncovered while she went on with the job of scrubbing pottery. At every journey, she had the fun of throwing down the shaft some object from the dustbin, in order to hear the splash.
While she was thus innocently employed, she was the subject of a conversation which was destined to be of vital importance to Caroline. Miss Yaxley-Moore, who had been reviving her sense of injury, attacked Miss Bat directly she returned to the library.
"It beats me why you employ a half-wit instead of decent servants."
"Because if I didn't take her, nobody else would," replied Miss Bat virtuously.
"D'you pay her?"
"Not an actual salary. She would not know how to spend it. But she has a good home, good food, good clothes. I also give her pocket-money."
"Ah, now I can follow your line of country."
Miss Yaxley-Moore's laugh betrayed such unpleasant understanding of her character, that Miss Bat's face grew heated. She looked at her half-sister's heavy form on the sofa, and remembered that she had recently broken another spring. Her feet were stretched out on the unprotected fabric—her cigarette dropped ash on the good Brussels carpet—still intact, in spite of its age. Her tight skirt was rucked up to reveal most of a laddered silk stocking.
Suddenly a curious thought slid through a crack in her mind. Suppose Olive turned on her half-sister in one of her former furies, and savaged her fatally.
The next second, she was shocked by her own imagination.
"Patience," she reminded herself. "It will soon be tomorrow. And then it will be only twelve days more."
She cleared her throat to make a suggestion to her guest.
"Olive has had a lot of extra work this Christmas. She has done so many things for you that I am sure you will give her a generous present when you leave."
Aroused from a reverie of lake scenery, tall young men and a record kill, Yaxley-Moore decided that the psychological moment had come for her announcement.
"I should be only too happy to save your pocket, my dear Blanche," she said. "Only—I am not going back."
Miss Bat gave a whistling gasp as though her vocal chords had been cut.
"Why?" she asked.
"Because I've been warned off the turf."
To watch her half-sister's face as she listened to the story was compensation for her own downfall. Miss Bat heard without any sign of emotion, for she was too numbed by shock for complete realisation. At the end of the tale she made a frigid comment.
"You always were a heavy sleeper, Marthe."
"You understand the position, don't you?" insisted Miss Yaxley-Moore. "If I come back, that girl will expose me, and the fat will be in the fire. The only way to avoid publicity is for you to accept me as the first guest of the Bee-bee Home."
Miss Bat managed to bend her head in assent as she got up stiffly from her chair. She felt she could not endure to breathe the same atmosphere as her half-sister. As she crossed to the door, Miss Yaxley-Moore picked up a manicure tool which lay beside her and began to file her nails.
The outrage forced Miss Bat to protest.
"I'm sorry, Marthe, but could you do that somewhere else? I have a dislike of manicure in a living-room."
Miss Yaxley-Moore forced a laugh as she reluctantly hoisted herself up from the sofa.
"Apologies," she said.
"Where are you going?" asked Miss Bat as her half-sister opened the door which led out to the courtyard.
"Kitchen. Can't fag to go upstairs."
Even in wet weather, Miss Yaxley-Moore always used the short cut across the open space, in order to reach the opposite wing, rather than go the long way round, through the hall and passages. Her lips were half-smiling, half-sneering, as she strode out into the raw darkness. The scullery door was exactly opposite the library, but when she was half-way across, she swerved instinctively to the right, to avoid the tub in the centre.
As she did so, she came into violent contact with some heavy obstruction in her path. The shock—which stubbed her toes and bruised her shins—nearly threw her off her balance. To save herself, she sidestepped.
She felt one heel turn and slip under her, and she staggered backwards—only to claw the air as she dropped down the open shaft of the well, into twelve feet of black icy water.
THAT evening, Miss Bat sat alone in the library—thinking. The house was still as it used to be before the holidays. There was no dark jeering face in the circle of lamplight—no cigarette-stub left to smoulder on the table-cloth—no litter of crumpled newspapers.
The room was peaceful as a pool. Sometimes a cinder fell into the grate, or a mouse squeaked behind the wainscoting. Otherwise there was no sound save the ticking of the clock.
Olive had gone to bed earlier than usual, for she had been working extra hard and was tired out with excitement. There had been trickles of foul water all through the library, along the passage and hall, up the stairs, and down the corridor to Miss Yaxley-Moore's room. Carpets had to be rubbed clean with damped cloths and parquet borders had to be re-polished, besides all the other jobs which were the result of the accident.
The accident. Miss Bat turned the phrase over in her mind as a cat licks its fur. A fatal accident, for which no one could be blamed. An act of God. Truly it would seem like Divine intervention that, just when things looked blackest, the poor idiot whom she had befriended, should be the instrument of her release.
It was her just and logical reward for charity. She had been patient with Olive and warned her to cover up the well again. As a rule, the girl obeyed every direction faithfully; but in this case, she understood that she had to finish' the washing of the pottery first.
Splashing in the scullery sink, she could not possibly hear any choked shouts from the well. Besides, she was always terrified by loud voices, which was one reason why her mistress always spoke to her softly. Sharpness made her stampede, so that naturally she would run away from Miss Yaxley-Moore, rather than rush to her rescue. And Miss Bat herself, up in her bedroom, which was in the front of the large house, would be too remote from the scene of the tragedy.
No—Marthe Yaxley-Moore was doomed to die at the age of fifty-three, as the result of a fatal accident. The water in the well was only just above freezing-point, and the intense cold would soon numb resistance and still the heart. With the death of her half-sister, Miss Bat would be free—not only from the holiday infliction—and the need to provide an "adequate" pension—but also from the threat of this new martyrdom.
Miss Bat started at the sound of a distant thud. Some one had banged a door in the upstairs corridor.
It reminded her that she had been indulging in a vain dream of "the-might-have-been." Unfortunately, she had been half a minute too late in going up to her room. As she lingered to brush down the sofa, she had heard the strangled cry from the courtyard.
As a matter of course, her reaction had been that of any philanthropic lady who—however strong the provocation—could not leave a relative to drown. She called to Olive and directed the salvage operations. Poor Olive pulled at the laundry cords, which were wound around the heavy wringer, with the energy of a galley-slave. She thoroughly enjoyed the affair and looked upon herself as the producer of an exciting show, so that she was terribly disconcerted when Miss Yaxley-Moore—instead of congratulating her—swore at her.
Afterwards there had been the business of providing a boiling bath, hot water-bottles, a blanket-bed and stimulating drinks. And now—just when Miss Bat had flopped after the rush and excitement—her brief peace was disturbed by the invader.
The door of the library was kicked open and Miss Yaxley-Moore —wearing a striped brown and yellow dressing-gown— strode in and took up her station on the rug, where she blocked the fire from Miss Bat. Her garment was unfastened and the cords trailed on the floor, revealing her pyjamas, while her damp plaits—to Miss Bat's sensitive nostrils—still stank faintly of foul water.
"I came down to warn you," she said. "That girl is not only an idiot. She's a dangerous idiot. If you hadn't been in the library, I'd have been drowned like a rat in a drain."
"If."... Miss Bat bit her lip as her half-sister continued:
"I take it that after this—you'll sack her?"
"No. I've already explained that it was an accident which will never happen again. And I wish you wouldn't shout at her. It only confuses her."
"Oh, very well, go on cherishing your fool. It's not my funeral. I'm only warning you for your own sake. If I'd been drowned, think of the slur on your reputation."
"I—I don't understand."
"Of course you know that people would have hinted that I'd committed suicide—because of you. You told the canon all about your Bee-bee Home. He tells his wife everything and she tells the parish. You know what gossip is. People would say I was broken-hearted at being turned out of my old home."
Miss Bat gasped dumbly as a fish at her half-sister, who swaggered towards the door.
"I'm for bed," she said. "I only came down to put you on your guard. Another of the idiot's playful little tricks and you'll find yourself in the soup."
When she had gone, Miss Bat took a few coals off the fire with the tongs, for she was faced with a new need to economise. The extra expense of entertaining her half-sister must persist until she could find a way out.
Miss Yaxley-Moore's words had diverted the current of her thoughts into a new channel. She realised now that she must be on her guard against the possibility of another accident. Sudden death was not her solution—since no hint of scandal must taint the fair name of Miss Bat of Bat House.
She sat up late—thinking...
Miss Yaxley-Moore's premature disclosure proved disastrous to Caroline, because it gave Miss Bat essential time. Normally dull-witted, she had allowed her mind to grow atrophied. Had she heard of her half-sister's non-return at the end of the holidays, she would have been stunned to inaction.
But during a procession of silent days and sleepless nights, the dusty machinery of her brain ticked ceaselessly until she lost all sense of proportion in one fixed purpose. For years she had lived dangerously—in herself, by herself, and for herself. And now that in-growing self turned on her, to rend her.
January was grey and mild—misty outside and moist indoors. Fingers stuck to banisters, and walls and windows wept. Although it was hunting weather, Miss Yaxley-Moore lay about, smoking and putting on weight. She had grown too lazy to follow the sport which she had formerly loved.
Miss Bat rarely spoke to her guest; but towards the end of the holidays, she broke the silence.
"You told me you are not returning to the Abbey School. I hope you understand the position. My means will be very limited, since I have to endow the Blanche Bat Home. Two must live on the depleted income of one. There will be no luxuries. I am afraid you will find it a change from plenty of money and a more exciting time."
"I think I know what I'm losing better than you," remarked Miss Yaxley-Moore bitterly. "I've lost my chance of making a fortune—and I don't believe in fairies any more."
"Then are you going to give it up because of a mere girl?"
"No. Because of what that wretched girl has. Those bottles can ruin me."
"Take them away from her."
"Do you imagine the idea has not already occurred to me? She didn't leave them behind her, because I practically took her room to bits after she'd gone. And she didn't pass them on to any one else, for I followed her to the car. No, she's taken them away with her in her luggage."
"Then she'll bring them back with her in her luggage...You must stop her on the way and take them from her."
Miss Bat had no reply. Her brain was ticking out a string of words culled from a past episode. "Olive—well—fatal accident—" She had to force them out of her mind before she could think clearly.
"Will she come by rail or road?" she asked presently.
Miss Yaxley-Moore was able to supply the information, since Caroline had asked her about the Streamline Coach.
"By bus, because it's cheaper."
"Then she will pass through Paddiscombe?"
"What's the good of that? The bus only runs through. Riverdale is the stopping place for meals."
"She must be made to get out here," declared Miss Bat.
"Well, what do you want me to do? Hold up the coach and kidnap her? Or run a wire across the road and kill the lot?"
"You must return early and find out the exact time and date of the girl's return. Then let me know at once."
Miss Yaxley-Moore looked at her half-sister with new-born interest.
"All right," she said, "I'll take a chance. I will go back. But if you get into a mess, it won't help me."
Miss Bat smiled faintly. All she wanted was to take from an officious girl evidence which rendered her dangerous as a live wire. Besides, in any case, total lack of motive and her own social position would raise her high above suspicion of interference.
"Does she know you are related to me?" she asked.
"No," replied Miss Yaxley-Moore. "I like to boast of my rich half-sister. But I prefer to give the impression that you have an estate. I wouldn't let them know that you live in a house off the main road."
Miss Bat was forced to swallow the insult; but in the wakeful hours of the night, each unpleasant memory recurred in mental regurgitation. The girl herself was as impersonal as a cypher. She did not even know her name, nor was actually conscious that behind her obsession to destroy the evidence, there lurked a shadowy secondary idea.
If the evidence were lacking—then the human agency must be suppressed.
After this conversation, she shrank back again into her shell—only shooting out her head to ask an occasional question about Caroline. Little by little, one fact riveted on to the next, until a clumsy scheme took shape within her shadowed brain.
Absorbed in her plotting, she did not notice the change in Miss Yaxley-Moore, who had recovered her swagger and her purposeful air. The evening before her return she was writing at the library table, when she stopped to show her half-sister a sheet of cheap paper.
"I've had three of these posted from London," she boasted.
Miss Bat read a warning message, roughly printed in capitals:
"DO NOT START. YOU WILL NOT REACH YOUR JOURNEY END."
"Surely you cannot imagine these letters will frighten her from coming back?" she asked incredulously.
"Of course not. What would be the good, if they did? She could still write or ring up the school. As long as she has those bottles, she is on top of me."
"Then why have you sent them?"
"For their psychological effect. The idea is to get her worked up and nervy before she starts, so that we will soon have her on the run."
"Then you have a plan?" asked Miss Bat.
"I certainly have. It goes without saying that I cannot appear in it myself, as she would be on guard, if I met her in the coach. But I shall be represented by proxy."
"Some one who would do it for a rag. Watts is one of those fools who makes friends with strangers on a journey."
Miss Bat shook her head.
"This is too personal and private a matter to be entrusted to any one outside the family," she objected.
"My agent will not talk," Miss Yaxley-Moore assured her grimly. "I know altogether too much about this particular person."
Sitting withdrawn in the shadow, Miss Bat watched her half-sister's dark heavy face, splashed yellow by lamp-light, as she outlined her scheme.
"It's foolproof. I shall be at the school when Watts' box arrives. One of Parker's keys is bound to fit the lock, so I can make an exhaustive search. The bottles are most likely to be there...Supposing, however, they are in her suitcase, my agent must lure her out of the bus, so that her luggage goes on without her. I shall claim it on her behalf, at Plume. There will be no difficulty, because of my connection with the school."
"The bottles may be in her handbag," suggested Miss Bat.
"Nonsense. They would take up too much space. But in that case, my agent cannot fail to see them when the girl opens her bag. I'll make a point of the possibility in my instructions, and it should be easy to snatch her bag...You see, I've covered everything."
Miss Bat said nothing. What was seething in her own dark brain was her own secret.
While the two women plotted in the still dark room Caroline was on her way home. She had stayed away longer than her intention, for she had grown friendly with an American widow who was staying at the hotel. This lady proposed to drive her car through France, by leisurely stages, and she invited Caroline to relieve her at the wheel, in return for her expenses.
The girl's love of a new experience made her jump at the offer, although she soon grew bored with driving down straight poplar-lined roads. As mile succeeded mile—each marking off another stage in her journey—she found herself reviewing her holiday.
Although she had enjoyed the sports, she had counted most on the social side and, in this respect, it had been a failure. She met no super-athlete, nor any unattached young men. The hotel was filled with family parties, schoolmasters in charge of pupils, girls, or youths who were already annexed. There was not even a snowman for her.
As a natural consequence, she began to think of William. Her eagerness to see him made her realize that she appreciated his qualities more than she estimated. She had been chilled by his moodiness and his failure to respond to her own leaping spirit, without understanding his difficulties.
Clogged with such a handicap, he could no more be expected to soar than a firefly with water-logged wings. The thought of his need gave new significance to the clash of wills which awaited her at her journey's end.
She broke into a whistle as her heart grew light in her anticipation of her return. She was going back. Nearer—nearer—with every revolution of the wheels. France was flying behind with every muddy village passed. The telegraph poles flew to meet her—the milestones dropped and dwindled in her track, like pebbles thrown out as ballast.
She was going back...Back to Miss Bat.
THE Professor was a very disappointed man at being cheated out of his Beloved Fool's company during the entire holiday. She motored up from Dover with the American widow, and was delayed on the way with engine trouble, so that it was past midnight before she arrived at the flat.
"We shall be able to have a nice quiet talk, as the boys are in bed," said Lesley.
After this unmotherly libel on her sons, the three adults made rather more noise than a zoo at feeding-time, as they talked against each other over their picnic meal.
It was a joyful reunion to Caroline, who revelled in the sheer coziness of the small flat, which had grown even more cramped than when she occupied the divan-bed. After the empty slopes of valleys, the lighted buses appeared to rumble by so close to the windows, that people in the upper deck seemed almost inside the room.
"Have you brought back a wonder hero?" asked the Professor, who noticed the sudden radiance of her smile.
"No," she replied. "Tarzans don't attract me. I prefer brain."
Naturally the Professor took the compliment as a personal tribute, and his beam lasted throughout the Swiss Saga. It began to fade, however, when Caroline related in full her adventures at the Abbey School.
She became aware that she was endowing them with too many thrills as Lesley began to pull faces at her, in warning.
"Of course, I'm piling it on," she said hastily. "Any post for me?"
The Professor found a small pile of letters, through which she glanced hurriedly in the hope of recognising William's writing. Disappointed, she slipped them into her bag, unopened, with the exception of three, whose envelopes bore printed addresses.
"They can all wait, except these," she said. "Look at them. You'd think I was just learning to read."
"Open them," urged Lesley.
The sisters hooted with laughter when Caroline displayed the ominous message in triplicate: "DO NOT START. YOU WILL NOT REACH YOUR JOURNEY END."
The Professor's face alone was grave.
"I don't like it," he said. "There is something specially unpleasant about anonymous letters."
"But, my darling Donald Duck, they are not anonymous," spluttered Caroline. "That's the point of the joke. There's only one person who can have any object to try and scare me off the grass, and that's Yaxley-Moore."
The Professor, who had long legs, gave an imitation of striding about the room, to the detriment of the furniture.
"You must admit," he told them, "that I was against the Beloved Fool taking the post, from the beginning. And events have proved me right. I gave way before, but she must not go back."
"But why?" asked Lesley, as Caroline gaped with astonishment.
"Because of this woman. That kind of coarse-grained unimaginative nature is a positive danger to others. I don't suppose she did anything quite so horrible as Caroline has suggested; but she is certain to have played some vicious and heartless prank upon the other poor girl. Her very dislike for her victim is ominously suggestive, to my mind."
"The poor thing's dead," Caroline reminded him soberly. "So she can't hurt her any more."
"But she might hurt—others. I think we should be very grateful that we've got our Beloved Fool back safely. But we will not tempt Providence a second time."
In his anxiety to impress the women the Professor overstressed the danger and only aroused derision. Presently amid a barrage of counter-arguments and laughter, he managed to make a few remarks.
"All right, I concede I am a nervous old woman and I quack. But it will do no harm to try to visualise Caroline's position when she returns. We will assume that the Baumgarten girl has told her father about the Matron's neglect, and has probably lost her pupil. In that case, our Beloved Fool's object is already achieved, for if Mrs. Nash really puts the school's interest before her personal obsession, she must discharge the Matron...If, on the other hand, the woman is still at the school, it will prove that Caroline has no chance to influence Mrs. Nash, even with her evidence. She can try to stir up Sir Felix, but a great deal depends on his reaction to his daughter's story. If the girl is back at school, our Beloved Fool can save her breath. And it is certain that she will find a most unpleasant atmosphere. Those in authority will resent her interference, and the Matron may make her the victim of one of her infamous practical jokes."
The Professor tried to suppress the emotion in his voice as he added huskily, "And, believe me, it will not give me any satisfaction to say, 'I told you so,' if anything happens to our Beloved Fool."
"Nothing is going to happen to her," said Lesley briskly. "But if the Matron has not returned, Caroline can go back in safety? Is that what you've been telling us?"
"More or less."
"More." Lesley winked at her sister. "Then all we have to do is to ring up the school and find out exactly who's there...Do you know it is after three?"
"And this poor child must get some sleep. Will you put the guest suite into commission, Les?" requested the Professor, prodding at his wretched joke, to see if there was still any life in it.
After Lesley had gone into the dining-room to make up the divan-bed, Caroline turned to her brother-in-law.
"I want to go back," she said. "It's all very exciting there and sometimes it is a bit frightening. But until you are afraid, you can't find out how brave you are...And it's wonderful to be feeling brave for others."
When the Professor repeated the speech to his wife, Lesley snorted.
"You've taught history in a prep school. Can you remember the date of the Norman Conquest?"
"I can't see—Oh, you mean William?"
"Yes, Mrs. Nash's son, of course."
There was little left of the morning when Caroline awoke next day. She had stayed awake until six, and then she slept on, keeping the family out of the dining-room. A sort of hectic lunch got served eventually—half in the lounge and half in the kitchenette—in the middle of which Lesley telephoned to the Abbey School.
When she returned, she looked faintly apprehensive. "I got through to the secretary," she told Caroline. "My question seemed to surprise her. She said, 'Of course, Miss Yaxley-Moore has returned.' I hung up on that."
"What about Flora?" asked Caroline.
"I forgot to ask."
They went through the whole business again as Caroline presented her case. Then the Professor made another suggestion.
"Won't you write first to Mrs. Nash and hear what she has to say, before you go back? It's admittedly irregular, but the end justifies the means in the case of such an extraordinary school."
"No," declared Caroline. "I must be there, or Yaxley-Moore will have it all her own way. Really, it's a thrill. I'm the only one that can save the school. I feel like young David going out to fight Goliath."
She did not feel quite so confident when she started out, with her brother-in-law, for Victoria Station. It was gloomy weather to begin a new term, and the afternoon was dark, even for the time of the year. January had been an unpleasant month, mild and moist, yet with a hint of magic in its clouded mystery—as though an old witch stirred her potions over a slow fire, which steamed out her damp grey shawl.
The coach station was hazed with fog, through which motor-buses loomed or faded in the flux of arrival and departure. The Professor strained his eyes before he located the spectral glimmer of the Streamline Coach. It was an imposing vehicle, painted metallic silver and upholstered in pale grey velvet—an extravagant mistake, which Time, with some aid from the public, had rectified by darkening the cushions to mole.
Caroline was the only passenger from Victoria, so the driver soon packed away her suitcase. Punctually on time, he climbed up to his seat, and the coach nosed her way slowly out of the terminus, leaving the Professor standing in the fog.
As soon as they started, Caroline felt the preliminary stir of the magic of motion. In her opinion, modern motor transport held all the romance of the old stagecoach, combined with the advantages of comfort and speed. There were no straining horses, no springless jolting over rough roads; only tireless onward progress while the map of old England unrolled to reveal each secret tucked away amid its creases.
As the coach reached the road, it was held up by the traffic signals. Enclosed in a little concrete oasis amid a shifting confusion, Caroline watched blurred pedestrians and shrouded vehicles drifting past the window. Intangible as shadows, they were magnified by the fog to momentary visibility, and then melted again into smoke.
Suddenly the lights changed. The journey had begun. At first, traffic checks were numerous as the coach snailed through the pea-soup gloom—tremulous with vermilion electric shop-signs—which winked and quivered like streaks of molten sealing-wax; but after Hammersmith was passed the fog lightened and its speed was normal as it left the Chiswick High Road, to swing out on the curve of the Great High Road.
Caroline's eyes were alert as she gazed through the window. She felt the pull of the future at the sight of the buildings on either side of the road. Magnified and idealised by the screen of misted atmosphere, they rose in white and solid symmetry. A child built a toy with ornamental bricks—the god of the Mechanical Age breathed upon it; and behold—it was a model factory, a-gleam with glass and metal.
One after another, they fell behind as the Streamline Coach rolled on into that indeterminate region, neither town nor country, where fields and small woods were marooned amid bricks and mortar. Man had fled from the city in vain, for the city had come crawling out after him. It had begun to catch him up, for where he had built his solitary house, there were now scattered rows of dwellings of depressing uniform appearance.
There were also little shops and isolated cafés—tributes to the brave spirits of those pioneers who—first on the field—had ventured their all, to lay the foundation of future fortune or of bankruptcy.
Caroline pulled off her cap, revealing the bleached lock in her hair, and settled herself more comfortably against the grey velvet cushions. As she had no personal interest in a home, furnished on instalment principle, she was bored by the new building estates and preferred the roadhouses. Their jaunty architecture appealed to her, also the genial spirit which bestowed upon the public the freedom of their Christian names. The last Bob's Bungalow, Charley's Crib, and Dick's Dug-Out were passed, and the coach rolled on through a blurred landscape which held the quality of a dream. In the misted atmosphere, nothing appeared solid—nothing real. The trees and hedges which bordered the road took on the likeness of Röntgen-ray photographs, unreeling past the window in a continuous ribbon.
Lulled by the motion, Caroline looked out lazily at the fish-bone tracery of twigs and attenuated telegraph posts as they loomed blackly through the milky screen. Witched villages with ivy-choked cottages appeared, only to flicker out again, like the Red King's dream. The narrow twisted streets of small towns paraded as realities during the passage of the coach and then faded back into legends.
Slough glimmered past, dim as a phantasy. Maidenhead slipped by, with a hint of rain-swollen river and a drift of summer memories. Warm and torpid, Caroline wished that the journey could last forever like the protracted cruise of the Flying Dutchman. She was alone no longer, for they had picked up passengers at every halt; but she felt too slack to arouse herself to any interest in her company.
At the back of her mind was the reminder of an unpleasant ordeal at her journey's end. Partly to distract her mind from the prospect, she opened her bag and began to read her neglected letters.
The first was from Kewpie and continued a detailed account of purchases at the winter sales. Sandwiched between two bargains, in typical volatile spirit, was a piece of news which gave Caroline a severe shock.
Flora Baumgarten was dead.
THE tragedy was so unexpected that at first, Caroline could hardly realise what she read.
"—a dream of a dinner-gown. Did you hear that Flora Baumgarten died soon after you left? Heart failure. Her father raised hell and tried to prove neglect, but Arum backed up Matron and said that everything humanly possible was done to save her life. I forgot to tell you I got a divine evening cloak—"
Caroline was surprised by the lump which rose in her throat, for she was not of an emotional nature. According to her philosophy, one got born, willy-nilly; one got married, against the odds; and then one died, as a matter of course.
But influenced by her melancholy surroundings, she felt soft-shelled and soaked in sentiment. The fog was turning to a half-hearted attempt to rain, and occasional drops oozed down the pane, like tears wrung from a sorrow almost too deep for relief.
As she watched them, Flora's short life-history seemed a pitiful tragedy of frustration, finished before she had begun. Her territory confined to a school—her ambitions bounded by examinations—her emotions stifled in a crush on a mistress.
"I wish I'd been nicer," thought Caroline, with inevitable regret.
As she reviewed the tragedy she told herself that, in spite of official whitewash, Yaxley-Moore was responsible for the girl's death. Had she followed the medical instructions, the collapse would have been averted.
"I'll clear her out of the Abbey School, and out of every other school," she vowed grimly. "She's not fit to be trusted with responsibility. She's dangerous."
With a rush of ideas, she settled her future course. "I won't tackle Mrs. Nash myself, for she's too spellbound. No. I'll stop at Plume and go direct to Sir Felix. I'll tell him everything and offer to appear as a witness, if he brings an action."
Her depression was driven away by the prospect of action; and as the personal element entered, her heart grew light again.
"Won't William be thrilled?" she thought.
The exposure of the Matron would mean the end of his humiliation, since Mrs. Nash could not swim against the strong tide of public opinion. She would be freed from her evil genius, for Yaxley-Moore would be forced to resign. The publicity would he too searing, even should Sir Felix hold his hand over reprisal. It would mean not only the salvation of the school, but a reprieve for little Miss Melody. Caroline's elation did not last long, as the Streamline Coach continued to roll through desolate stretches of country. Savernake was passed in a swirl of phantom trees; nothing remained of graceless picnic parties, save the legacy of a few moist paper bags.
The Wiltshire Downs were deserted, except when a shrouded form loomed through the mist as though a barrow had released one of the prehistoric dead. Even the White Horse of Westbury, carved in the chalky hillside, had lost its substance, and wavered like a puff of smoke.
As Caroline blinked away her tears, she became aware of the passenger who shared her seat.
"Such a cold," she explained, blowing her nose to demonstrate the fact that she was not crying.
"Every one has them," said the girl. "Aren't they a nuisance?"
There was truth in Yaxley-Moore's statement that Caroline was expansive to strangers. This one appealed to her because she was young and attractive, although she was older than Caroline and wore a wedding-ring. She had a freckled, heart-shaped face, red hair, and was dressed in smart brown tweeds.
"We'll be stopping in a few minutes," she went on. "There will be time to get a hot drink for your cold."
Peering through the steamed glass, Caroline realised that stone walls had replaced hedges, and that they were passing the gas works and brewery of a town. The next minute they entered the coach station.
After they had parked, the driver cautioned them about the time of their halt.
"Ten minutes sharp," he said. "We're behind schedule."
Instantly there was a general rush towards the café which was already filled with passengers from the earlier coaches. As they struggled through the door, Caroline found herself beside the congenial stranger, who made a practical suggestion.
"Let's try upstairs," she said, running in advance up the bare wooden stairs.
Her resource was rewarded by an empty table in the window which overlooked the coach station. "I must keep my eye on the bus," confided the stranger. "We can stay until the driver comes out. I don't want to get home late."
"Neither do I," declared Caroline. "I've important business."
"Business? At your age?"
"Oh, I'm holding down a job."
Their mutual interest drew them together over their cups of strong coffee, during which one confidence attracted another. Caroline managed to work in a tabloid life history, completely up to date, while the stranger informed her that her name was Mrs. Marks, that she was married to a naval officer who was stationed in China, and that she had lived abroad.
She had gulped down her coffee and lit a cigarette, when she broke off in a description of her Indian bungalow to glance at her watch.
"Still three minutes by me," she said. "What do you make the time?"
"The same," replied Caroline. "But—what's the matter?"
To her dismay Mrs. Marks's face suddenly contorted with pain and she crumpled up in her chair.
"I feel terrible," she moaned, clutching her waist. "The pain's here. I've a grumbling appendix. It's flaring up again. The jolting...Oh, what shall I do? All alone—without my husband. Oh, my dear life."
Instead of showing sympathy, Caroline looked at her with a doubtful frown. To her ear there was a forced note in the sustained whimper, which vaguely reminded her of the whinny of a horse.
"She's putting it on," she thought suspiciously. "I wonder if Yaxley-Moore has sent her to sidetrack me? Well, I won't fall for it."
She felt ashamed as Mrs. Marks broke off in the middle of a groan to urge her not to lose her bus.
"Don't stop," she panted. "I'll be quite all right."
"But I can't leave you like this," declared Caroline.
There was not the slightest doubt now that Mrs. Marks' illness was genuine. Her face had paled to a sickly green, on which her freckles stood out darkly, like the spots on a lily-petal.
"You must go," she said, forcing a smile. "Please send up some brandy."
"Oh, it's not the last bus," Caroline reminded her. "I'll catch the next."
As she ran down the stairs, reviling her evil luck, a superstitious fancy flashed across her mind.
"Is this a warning? Shall I turn back?"
Instead of yielding to it, she was desperately eager to catch the bus. She felt gripped in the familiar nightmare of losing a train as she reached the café in time to see a passenger from the Streamline Coach hurry out through the door.
Other coaches had arrived, and the place seethed with a mob of fresh patrons, all wanting service within their allotted ten minutes. Caroline managed to stop a waitress who was carrying a tray laden with cups of coffee, but the girl merely shook her head at the request for brandy.
"We haven't a licence," she said.
A second waitress promised to come as soon as possible, and went on serving customers. It seemed impossible to enlist any aid for Mrs. Marks, and Caroline's vague worry sharpened to anxiety.
"Suppose she passes out," she thought in a panic.
Her voice was almost hysterical when she appealed to the manageress. The badgered woman, who was giving a good imitation of the Shell poster, snatched a tumbler, stamped with the name of the café, from a shelf.
"Take this to the Crown, private door, just outside the yard," she gabbled. "They'll let you have some brandy if you explain the circumstances." Her head slewed round as she added: "Telephone's over there, if you want a doctor."
The Streamline Coach was still in its place when Caroline dashed across the yard, although the doors were shut and the driver was hooting urgently. Hoping that he would give her a few minutes' grace, she waved frantically as she passed him.
At last luck seemed with her, for she found an intelligent barmaid who grasped the situation at once and served her quickly. She sprinted back, her palm hollowed over the top of the tumbler to keep the brandy from being spilt, and was rewarded by the glimmer of the Streamline Coach in the misty yard.
In spite of being in training, she felt clammy and choked with suspense as she raced up the stairs of the café. On the landing she met Mrs. Marks, who was just staggering from the cloak-room. She looked ghastly and on the verge of collapse, but she grinned at Caroline.
"Been sick," she told her. "I'm all right again...Oh, brandy."
"Can you drink it neat?" asked Caroline.
"And how! I had the best head in Gib."
Mrs. Marks drained the glass, dropped into an easy-chair and closed her eyes.
"Pay yourself," she urged, pushing her bag across the table. "I'm going to sleep. I'm desperately sorry I made you lose your bus. Good-bye—and a million thanks for all."
Feeling that she had done enough, Caroline hurled herself down the stairs for the last time and rushed towards the Streamline Coach, which had moved to another position.
"Where to?" asked the driver as he opened the door.
"Wrong coach, lady. We're going to London."
"The Plume bus left over five minutes ago," a bystander informed her. "The driver was sounding his horn for you."
"Trust the ladies to be late," chimed in another lounger.
"What a jam," cried Caroline tragically, as usual taking the crowd into her confidence. "My luggage has gone on in the coach—and my hat and coat. When is the next bus to Plume?"
"Not for another two hours," the driver told her. "That is if she runs to time."
"And when does it reach Plume?"
"Can't say. We don't even guarantee that you'll get there if the fog thickens. You'll have to chance your luck."
By that time a little crowd of people, attracted by the spectacle of a pretty girl in distress, had gathered around Caroline. She was explaining the exact situation to the driver when a motorist cut in.
"What time is the bus that's just gone due at Marley?" he asked, speaking in a rough voice.
"Three-fifty," replied the driver. "But she'll be late."
"She's gone by the loop, hasn't she? I'm going to Marley by the direct route, so I'll be there before her." He turned to Caroline and added: "Can I give you a lift?"
Caroline threw him one glance and was reassured both by his appearance and by his battered Buick. There was nothing flashy about his stained waterproof and soft felt hat. He looked a small farmer who had come in for market.
She smiled up at his weather-beaten face.
"What marvellous luck!" she cried. "Ate you starting at once?"
"Yes," replied the motorist, opening the door of his car.
An interested little crowd watched the Buick move out of the car station, and Caroline looked back to wave impulsively.
Her troubles were nearly over.
"Well," remarked a stout matron, shaking her head. "It's a sure thing she doesn't belong to this town. No local girl would take a chance like that."
"Why?" asked a traveller.
"A girl got murdered that way last week. Took a lift from a stranger, and was found in a field afterwards...I expect she's all right. But she's taking a chance."
CAROLINE was in a state of impatience when she would take any chance that offered. At that point no one could keep her back from her purpose. She had cast herself for the part of David, and she burned with impatience to use her sling and pebbles against the Enemy, as the car honked its way slowly through the dingy outskirts of the town.
Yet at the back of her mind was a premonition of peril, from which forces—both spiritual and human—were trying to save her. She was tired, emotional and not her normal self, so that the anonymous letters had rendered her susceptible to warnings and danger signals. But while she alternated between confidence and qualms, she had not the vaguest idea whom to accept and whom to suspect.
She had the sense of having to cross a giant draughtboard, checkered with innocuous and lethal squares. One false step might prove fatal, while she had to move entirely in the dark. It took some time to get clear of the built-in area, because of frequent one-way streets and traffic halts. Moreover, it happened to be market day, which was another complication. But at last they were out on the tarred road, bounded by telegraph posts and dim turnip-fields.
For the first time she spoke to the silent motorist. "It's nice of you to be bothered with me."
"I just wanted some one to balance the car," he told her in a surly voice. "She's light."
"Shall we get there in time? Aren't we going rather slowly?"
"Can't let her out—not in this fog, and with all this blooming traffic. I'd lose my licence."
The explanation made Caroline realize what she had been already noticing in a subconscious manner—the man was both a bad and nervous driver. He clung to the crown of the road, keeping back faster cars, and then waving them on without the least judgement.
"It would be cheerful to have a smash just now," she thought. Although she longed to wrench the wheel from him and show him some real speed, she could not encourage him to take any risks.
"It's such a terribly winding road," she complained. "We do nothing but take corners."
After the straight roads of France, she felt afflicted almost with a sense of curvature of the spine at the frequent twists and bends.
Presently she found that she was glancing at her watch every few minutes, as she remembered the driver's approximate estimates. The time they had been on their journey had failed to produce its corresponding mileage, and she began to grow definitely uneasy.
If she could not pick up her bus again at Marley, it meant not only an enforced wait there, but even a night spent on the road, should the fog thicken. The last would be catastrophic, for her prophecy to Kewpie was fulfilled.
She had returned to England with scarcely any money, and had borrowed from Lesley barely sufficient to cover the expenses of her journey back to school. Even in the best case, she would probably reach Plume too late to enlist Sir Felix's services.
As though to test her patience to the limit, they overtook a flock of sheep around the next bend. Their leader had apparently acquired road-sense, and was prepared to give way to allow the car to pass; but instead of taking advantage of his chance to slip through the gap, the motorist braked and sounded his horn, stampeding the sheep.
They spread out in front and trotted ahead, making their own pace, while the Buick chugged slowly in their rear. Forestalling Caroline's criticism, the driver spoke aggressively:
"We'll not be overtaking them now, all the way. You'll lose your bus all right. It's not my fault it's market day, is it?"
"Of course not." Caroline did her best to hide her feelings. "It was sporting of you to try...I really think that sheep is waiting for us to catch him up."
After they had finally passed the flock, the motorist made a suggestion.
"If we took a short cut down that lane on the left we'd tap the main London road to Marley and avoid all the cattle."
"Then why don't we do it?"
"Well, it's so narrow that if we met another car we'd both have to back till we came to a gateway. Will you take a chance?"
In spite of her brave words, after they had turned off the road and begun to bump down a lane with steep, muddy sides, Caroline had the hopeless sense of a lost venture. All the luck had been against her—she got out of one fix, only to find herself in another. The fog grew denser as they dropped lower, filling up the hollow like smoke, so that it was impossible to see more than a few yards ahead.
Suddenly Caroline thought of Miss Yaxley-Moore. In her imagination a face, rather larger than life-size, loomed up before her—dark, menacing, awry—as though a camera subject had slipped out of focus.
"You will not reach your journey's end."
The words rang in her ears as though some one had actually spoken them.
"I wish I hadn't taken this short cut," she thought before she spoke to the driver.
"How much farther do we drop?"
"It's about a mile down, and another half-mile rise to the London road."
Down they bumped again into dimness and silence. As they sank lower, the sky was blocked out by the hedges at the top of the banks. What had been a lover's paradise in the summer was now a dark tunnel with steep muddied sides smothered in dead ferns and trails of coarse ivy.
They coasted through a shallow water-splash at the bottom of the hill and began to mount the ascent on the other side—or, rather, the motorist made the attempt. He changed gears with a clash, but the car did not respond. It merely jerked convulsively at every fresh assault and remained stuck.
As far as Caroline could see through the fog, the lane appeared to rise ahead of them at so stiff a gradient that it looked like a wall.
"What's the matter?" she asked sharply.
"I'll find out," said the motorist.
Caroline did not possess a mechanical mind and was used to trusting to luck or the nearest garage. She remained in her seat, while the man began his investigations. His movements, however were so inexpert and fumbling that she began to grow uneasy.
"It's one of two things," she told herself. "Either he doesn't know the first thing about cars—or he knows too much. I—I wonder if he's made this happen?"
At that moment he broke his habitual silence to ask a personal question.
"Are you from London?"
His obvious satisfaction added to her discomfort. As she thought over the affair she grew still more uncomfortable. As a rule motor novices did not rush to offer their services, especially when it was a question of driving against time; but this man had not waited to give anyone else an opportunity to be helpful.
Everything which had happened since she got out of the Streamline Coach seemed to have been leading up to her present predicament—a breakdown off the main road and in the fog.
Unable to remain still, she jumped out of the car and spoke to the motorist's back.
"Found out what's wrong?" she asked.
As he raised his head she noticed that his upper lip was beaded, while the spanner shook in his roughened hands. "How long have you been driving?" she asked directly. "Donkey's years. You said you'd risk it."
"I know; but we didn't get a break. There doesn't seem much chance of my catching my bus at Marley now."
"Not a hope." The motorist agreed a shade too eagerly.
"You'll have a good two hours' wait there. What about tea and the pictures?"
"No, thank you." Her voice was sharp. "I'm going to walk up to the London road and see if I can get a lift there."
"No. It's a cruel drag up. Honest, I'm on the level. I'll soon fix her. There's hardly any water in the radiator. I'll fill up at the waterspout."
He disappeared into the bank of fog, leaving Caroline in a state of hopeless confusion. It was her chance to run away from him, yet she could not be certain that flight was her solution. An uphill toil for half a mile meant a hopeless proposition.
Probably the Streamline Coach had reached Marley already, and was on its way to Plume, with her suitcase under the roof and her hat and coat keeping her place for her. On the other hand, the motorist might succeed in tinkering the car so that they could resume their journey, and even—by a stroke of miraculous luck—reach Marley in time.
"If he finds I've walked out on him it would be enough to put him off," she reflected. "He might drive back the same way we came."
She had no pencil, so could not write a note telling him to overtake her. Lighting a cigarette, she began to smoke to while away the time of waiting.
It was both chill and eerie in the hollow—enclosed within walls of fog. She could hear nothing but a drip of water, and she began to wish that the motorist would return. There was something odd about his personality and behaviour which puzzled her—a kind of nervous haste combined with defensive aggression, as though he were conscious of having failed in something which he had undertaken; but at least he was company.
"Vaguely pathetic," she thought, and then switched on to her own problem. "I'm not even half-way to Plume. I wonder if it would be wiser to go back to London and write, as Donald Duck suggested. Darling. He'd love to see me come back."
The prospect of city light and pavements was so alluring that she promptly remembered Flora Baumgarten and began to blink. Of course, part of her sorrow was the sadness of twilight, and part came from sleep-starvation; but as she remembered the Professor's pinched face peering up at her through the fog at Victoria, the tears rolled down her face.
By the time the first reached her lips, she had overcome her weakness.
"I've got my ticket," she reminded herself. "And I've got a job to hold down. And my luggage has gone on to the School."
She finished her cigarette and glanced again at her watch. Although she knew that daylight would be lingering on the higher level of the road, she began to feel worried.
"It will be dark very soon," she told herself. "Why doesn't he come back?"
Although he was invisible in the fog, the waterspout was not many yards distant, so she called out to him:
"Haven't you nearly finished?"
He must have heard her question, but there was no reply. She shouted again, and then again, her voice growing high with panic. There was something ominous about the sustained silence. Leaving the car, she began to grope her way towards the waterspout.
She had underestimated the density of the fog which was gathered in the pocket. It baffled her completely, bewildering all sense of direction, although she had but to walk directly down the hill. Blundering like a purblind person, she succeeded in reaching the waterspout, which was only a thin trickle from a lead runnel, splashing down over the road.
There was no sign of the motorist—no sound but the drip of water and the bleating of sheep from the blanketed fields. She knew that it would be hopeless to go in search of him, in case he had wandered elsewhere and got lost. But if he were within earshot he must hear her shouts.
It was not until she was growing hoarse that she suddenly realized the significance of the motorist's nerves in connection with a worn out Buick which was pre-destined to break down and be abandoned.
She was ditched.
WHILE Caroline was on her way back to the Abbey School her box had arrived already and had been taken up to her room. Soon afterwards the Matron strolled in casually and squatted on the floor beside it. She was ready for action, for she had borrowed a large bunch of keys from Parker.
After a succession of misfits, the lock clicked and she opened the lid; but although she ransacked its contents with the ruthless thoroughness of a customs inspection, her search was unrewarded by the discovery of any bottles.
"They're in her suitcase," she muttered, re-packing with heavy-handed dexterity. "Hell. Why doesn't Marks ring up?"
There was a reason for the block in the Intelligence Department, since Miss Marks felt too slack to stir from her chair in the café. She had taken off her wedding-ring, but otherwise she had not stirred since Caroline left her.
She was not married—she had no connection with the Navy—and she had never crossed the Channel. Apart from the deception, she was a good-hearted, reckless feather-brain, friend to every one and her own enemy. She would do anything once, and most things twice, if it entailed a rag.
Although this especial joke was undertaken under moral compulsion—since Miss Yaxley-Moore had knowledge concerning one of her indiscretions—it had appealed to her as an amusing masquerade. Nothing unpleasant was required of her. She had merely to make an anonymous girl lose her bus connection. And, since there were later services, she could not see that any harm—beyond some minor inconvenience—could result.
Reminded of her obligation by the sight of the coach station clock, she left the café and rang up the Abbey School from a public call-office.
"Sorry to hang you up, Yaxley," she said, when Parker had summoned the Matron to the telephone. "Fact is, I thought she might spot a fake illness, so I put up a most convincing show. I took a dose before I left, and then drank coffee, which is literal poison to me. It acted at once, and did twice as much as I had hoped. I thought it was my end."
A bellow of laughter told her that Miss Yaxley-Moore appreciated the joke.
"Did she stand by and hold your hand?" she asked.
"Yes, she's a decent kid. We exchanged life-stories. I borrowed a husband."
"Not for the first time, Marks."
"Forget it...She lost her bus all right. But she's a fast worker."
When the Matron heard Miss Marks's account of the scene she had witnessed from the café window, her voice took on an edge.
"I shall have to work fast, too...Did you see inside her bag?"
"Yes, she opened it on the table. There were no bottles there."
"Then thanks for what you did—and didn't do. Why didn't you keep her with you, you fool?"
Miss Yaxley-Moore rang off and tapped her teeth thoughtfully. Presently she rang up Marley Post office and ascertained the official time-table of the Streamline Coach at the various stopping places as far as Plume.
"It'll run behind schedule," she repeated in an appeased tone. "Thanks. Thanks very much."
There only remained the important detail of the selection of her second agent.
As was natural, she pictured Caroline back in her original place in the Streamline Coach—her suitcase over her head. In reality, the girl was stranded somewhere off the map, and was feeling very sorry for herself.
After vainly trying to drive on, she had no option but to leave the Buick and climb up the hill to the London road as quickly as she could. It was too steep to run, but she hurried until she was hot and breathless. Her mental distress was even worse than her physical condition, for she worked herself up into a fever of apprehension over future difficulties.
She was certain now that she could not possibly pick up her original coach, and that therefore she would reach Plume too late to catch any bus out to the Abbey. As she tried to estimate the impression she would create—coatless and with luggage—at any hotel, the prospect of a night's lodging appeared bleak. She reminded herself that she could telephone to the school and ask some one there to establish her credentials and to guarantee payment of her bill; but even as she gasped with relief a shoal of fresh doubts overwhelmed her.
"They will only accept some one in authority. If I ask for Mrs. Nash she will send Yaxley, and that would be her chance. She'll disown me, just to put me in a hole, and she'll pretend afterwards that it was a misunderstanding...Melody may not be there. Perhaps William couldn't persuade his mother to keep her on for next term...And whoever I ask for, Parker is sure to tell Yaxley first, or else she'll hear him at the telephone and come out to see what it is."
If at that moment she could have seen a miniature chart which showed, by tiny moving lights, her own place on the map and the corresponding position of the Streamline Coach, she would have been driven frantic with suspense. They both were drawing nearer to Marley, by different routes. This special journey of the Streamline Coach included all the towns and villages on the loop road—and the bus was running very much behind time.
Caroline's fate depended not only on the number of stops to take up or drop passengers, but also on such trifles as an old lady fumbling in her bag to find her ticket, or a casual person holding up the coach while she collected her belongings before she got out.
Fortunately she was spared harrowing knowledge of the value of each minute—just as she was ignorant of the danger to which she exposed herself by her return to the School. At this stage it had not developed its full strength and was still an embryo peril—the germ of potential horror.
She was carrying dynamite in the form of two bottles of medicine. If she lost or discarded them, she would be reduced immediately to the harmless insignificance of a cypher. No one would molest her further or try to injure her.
At the present time she was mainly concerned with her run of bad luck. Her common sense had rejected the warning of the anonymous letters, since she had guessed their authorship. But she was utterly bewildered by the coil of events, and could not understand the reason for her present plight.
"Why?" she asked herself as she spurted on. "If the motorist was a maniac, and all on his own, he would have attacked me. Instead, he deliberately leaves me flat with a broken-down car. That puts him in a plot to get me out of the way...But I still can't see it. What's the good of this? I shall be popping up again...Besides, how could he know that nice Mrs. Marks was going to be ill, and that I should lose the bus?"
She was only just entering the labyrinth, when she could not distinguish true from false—friend from foe—or know which move led to salvation or death. The poor Professor, who had preserved a touch of Celtic vision in spite of the grind of routine, had been smitten with presentiment at his last sight of Caroline's face, drowning in the fog.
But the girl herself was jauntily hop-scotching over a loaded board. Already she had touched a lethal square, in the case of Mrs. Marks, and she was equally at fault in her estimate of the motorist. As a matter of fact, the issues were involved. There were two ways to safety—and one of them led back to London and the other led on to Plume.
In between was the zone of danger, when she ran the risk of interference from a vitally interested third party. Marthe Yaxley-Moore was at the telephone on the track of her agent. Time was short, and she abused the Exchange, and bit her nails in her impatience. With no leisure for the incubation of ideas, a new scheme had to be minted by pressure of necessity.
It involved cruder methods, since the girl would be on her guard against a second appeal to her sympathy. But the situation had to be saved...The wires hummed...
Meanwhile Caroline was relieved to find that the fog was thinning as she mounted higher. She could even faintly distinguish the telegraph poles on the London road, like strands of black cotton. But in the dip below, the dense murk still prevailed. It had already claimed its victim—the unlucky motorist, who was stumbling over the bumpy grass of a ten-acre meadow, while he tried vainly to find the stile which led back to the lane.
Caroline had detected a pathetic quality in his personality, but had fallen short of the mark. He was an uncouth lonely man who lived in a remote farm, and was shy of women, although he craved their company. Only a few days before, his ancient Buick displayed a large "L" on both back and front, so that he was proud when he passed his test.
The opportunity to prove his driving powers and at the same time to render a service to a smart, attractive stranger, seemed a stroke of luck. But the glamour of London, which, in his opinion, set Caroline apart from country girls, made him tongue-tied and nervous.
He dared not take the slightest risk, for fear of an accident, and when he discovered that he was going to disappoint her, he felt desperate to retrieve his reputation. Therefore the double catastrophe of engine trouble and a shortage of water made him lose his head completely.
Worried by the slow trickle from the spout, he decided to beg a bucketful from the water-butt of a cottage, which belonged to one of his acquaintances. He climbed up the steep bank of the lane, vaulted the stile, and plunged into the wall of vapor on the other side.
The fog was so dense there that he could see no trace of a building. Turning, to his confusion, he tried to steer a course back to the stile, shaved it narrowly, and missed it altogether.
Since that time he had been wandering. When Caroline shouted to him he was somewhere at the top of the meadow, while his own hails failed to reach her ears. Frantic on her account, he cursed his ill-luck as he blundered about the field in futile circles.
Like the music—he went round and round.
Caroline had climbed nearly two-thirds of the lane when she heard behind her the snarl of a powerful engine. A big car was coming down the hill towards the waterspout. Fortunately the track widened slightly at that point, and it managed to pass the derelict Buick, but she knew when it pushed it aside, like an arrogant snob, by the sound of grinding metal.
Climbing hastily on the bank out of its way, she waved frantically as a Rolls-Royce rounded the bend.
"Lift, please," she cried. "My car's broken down."
Slackening slightly, the chauffeur threw open the door nearest to her, and she leaped into the seat beside him as the car was passing. To her relief, there was no one inside it, which eased the situation.
"I've got a notion I might have touched a car just now," said the chauffeur guiltily. "Was it yours?"
"Oh, just junk," replied Caroline. "Where are you going?"
There was the signal again, flashing its message to come back. Only one consideration stopped her from yielding, and that was the fact she might lose touch with William. She was positive that if she broke faith with Mrs. Nash by postponing her return, the autocrat would replace her, without giving her a second chance.
"I want to go to Marley," she told the chauffeur.
After she had explained the circumstances, he screwed up his mouth.
"You say the bus is due there at ten to four," he said. "Well, it's gone the quarter-past. Still, I don't mind running you in on the chance."
As the powerful car throbbed over the smooth surface of the main road Caroline made a decision.
"I won't wait for the later bus. If I've lost this one I'll cadge a lift back to London."
At this point, the moving lights of the automatic chart would have indicated two vehicles rushing towards a junction—the Streamline Coach slightly in advance. It seemed, however, to Caroline that the Rolls was swallowing up each stretch of surface before it, while the hedges rushed past at express speed.
In less than five minutes it crossed the cobbled square of a small fairy-tale town, dominated by a church with sugar-loaf steeples. The chauffeur stopped at the post office and, leaping from his seat, he hurried inside.
"You're in luck," he told Caroline on his return. "Your bus is not in yet."
On the very last lap, the Streamline Coach had been held up by a herd of cows which insisted on establishing its right to a Belisha crossing of its own choice.
With the feeling that Fate had shown discrimination in choosing William, Caroline thanked the chauffeur and then stood in the square, watching the Rolls as it leaped forward on its journey.
She waved her hand to its tail lights as they disappeared around the bend.
"Give my love to London," she whispered.
She felt marooned, all alone in the twilight mist. The place was dead of life, with no shops, no loungers and no pedestrians. It was the communal tea-hour, and every one was indoors behind drawn curtains.
At that moment it was difficult to believe that the Streamline Coach was an authentic fact, or that she had actually staked out her claim to a seat with her coat and cap. It seemed unreal as a legend until the silence was shattered by the blare of a horn. Turning round, she saw the bus filling the width of a narrow, misty street, like a silver fish slipping through the murky water of a dock.
CAROLINE had the sensation of a disinherited heir who has come into his own at last, when she mounted the steps of the Streamline Coach. Her original seat was still faithfully guarded by her cap and coat; her suitcase was packed with the rest of the luggage. Once again she was a bona-fide traveller with accredited possessions.
It was warm inside the bus, but she made a complete out-door toilet, for the sake of her self-esteem, although she soon discarded her cap. As she powdered her nose she chatted cheerfully to her fellow-passengers.
To her sociable mind, the compensation for her adventure was that it broke the ice and established a friendly atmosphere. Every one seemed interested in her return and curious to know what had happened to her.
"We wondered what had become of you," said a cheery matron with a face the color of a pickled cabbage.
She wore a wool fur coat which made her resemble a mother bear, and had so many parcels on the rack that Caroline decided that she was a farmer's wife on a shopping jaunt.
"We all called out to the driver that you hadn't come back," she went on. "He didn't like leaving you behind, but he had no choice. It gave me quite a turn when I saw you walk in just now."
"What actually happened?" asked a little elderly lady, of the type which knits in seaside shelters. She was well dressed in brown, and wore horn-rimmed spectacles.
Caroline told them at length about Mrs. Marks's illness, and explained that afterwards she had been given a lift to Marley. She suppressed the episode of the stranded car as being too incredible.
"Do you think you were wise to go off with a stranger?" asked the little lady in brown. "When I was a girl I never took a country walk without a friend or a maid, for fear I should meet a tramp."
"If the two of you met a couple of tramps you would still be in the same position," Caroline reminded her. "Besides, I'm strong as an ox. I teach physical culture, and I'm not afraid of any man."
"But you might be trapped."
"So I might. Taking risks is half the fun of life, and I had a real adventure...I wish you had all seen me drive up in my Rolls."
"When did you get to Marley?" asked the teddy-bear matron.
"About five minutes before you did."
"Then I should say the Rolls wasn't exactly straining itself." Mother Bear winked at a tall bony man who was enjoying a conversation to which he was too bashful to contribute.
"I—I didn't start at once," said Caroline quickly. To change the subject, she asked, "Are you superstitious?"
"No," was the prompt reply. "Friday is always my lucky day." Mother Bear joined heartily in the laugh against herself, and then qualified her first statement.
"I am superstitious about one thing only. I'll never put down a setting of eggs on the thirteenth."
Her remark was the signal for every one to relate a personal taboo. As the passengers joined in community talking, the warm, well-lit bus seemed ages remote from an era before the dawn, when dark drunken gods staggered in the last setting of a false sun which rose in the west.
They crashed down to destruction and passed—yet something of their disintegration lingered—a black poisoned residue of ignorance, cruelty and fear, sifting down through the ages. Superstition...Some of it was here in the cheery atmosphere of the bus, as the pretty Bristol typist declared that she had to say "Rabbits" on the first of every month, and the bony man admitted to planting carrots with the wane of the moon.
Reminded of the anonymous letters, Caroline spoke impulsively to Mother Bear.
"I had a letter warning me not to make this journey. I thought I knew who wrote it, so I was merely amused. But I've had nothing but bad luck which nobody could have foreseen...Do you think there can be anything in it?"
"Never." The woman laughed heartily. "Some one's just having a joke with you."
A joke. It sounded so jovial viewed through sane country eyes that Caroline's spirits rose.
"I thought it might mean an accident to the bus," she said.
"Don't you believe it. I go to market by bus week in, week out, all weathers, and I've never had the smell of an accident. You'll be safe as long as you stick to the good old bus."
"That's what I mean to do. Now I'm back, I don't mean to leave it again until we reach Plume, except for tea."
She stopped talking as the coach pulled up at a desolate corner of wind-swept down. Standing at the deserted crossroads was a tall elderly woman wrapped in ancient sables. She was an imposing figure in her gaunt rigidity, as though she were the spirit of some gnarled thorny tree tormented by the blast, yet erect and defiant.
When the driver left his seat to open the door for her, she spoke to him in the tone of one used to obedience.
"I want the window—seat on the left-hand side, second from the top of the coach."
"That seat's taken, lady," the driver told her.
"I am accustomed to have that seat, driver."
As she opened her enormous handbag to display her ticket, she gave a coin to the man, who touched his cap.
"This way, lady," he said, leading the way down the coach.
"She's got it," whispered Caroline excitedly as a girl rose from her place and crossed to the opposite side of the bus. "I wonder who she is?"
"Shirley Temple in disguise," suggested the bony man, making his bid as humorist. "She wants to escape her fans, so don't ask for her autograph."
Mother Bear broke into her hearty laugh, to the obvious annoyance of the elderly lady, who looked around and glared towards the end of the bus.
There was a witch-like suggestion about the nut-cracker formation of her nose and chin, and also something fiercely heraldic in her strong carven features. Her piercing dark eyes seemed to have the quality possessed by certain oil portraits of looking directly at each person from any angle, for Caroline was positive that she was staring fixedly at herself.
"She must be a personage of local importance," said the little lady in brown approvingly. "Eccentric—so that she prefers to travel by bus to using her own car. The tip she gave to the driver is probably more than the price of her ticket. It is just these things which mark out certain people from the herd." She turned to Mother Bear and added: "Don't you think we might make a little less noise out of respect to her age?"
"Well, if she's all that grand, it's a pity she can't afford a new coat, for the sake of trade," snorted Mother Bear. "Those furs don't owe her much."
She gave another loud laugh to demonstrate her indifference, but no one swelled it by joining in, and it rolled to silence like the thunder of a spent storm. The elderly lady had contrived to cast a restraint over the general high spirits. When the bony man tried to make feeble jokes, the passenger in brown pointedly withdrew herself from the conversation, as though to indicate her own breeding.
Caroline was not sorry when silence fell at last on the passengers. Now that the excitement of her return had worn off, she felt tired and vaguely depressed. As the road suddenly cut through the gloom of a dense wood she began to realize that she was in the dark also about recent events.
Kewpie's letter had contained old news. Yaxley-Moore had known about Flora's death before she left the school for the holiday. For five weeks she had been able to study its influence on her own future, and presumably she had some plan of policy.
That she had not resigned was evident from her attempt to scare Caroline from returning by the anonymous letters. She did not consider the game was lost.
Caroline smiled no longer. She remembered that the woman was not only a ruthless personality—with terrific drive and cunning—but that she was also desperate.
"If she tries to stop me," she thought, "it will be at the last bit of the journey. Too many people here."
The coach continued to roll through the forest, which stretched for miles. On either side of her were walls of dark, funereal trees—pines, Scotch firs, yews—all weeping with moisture. The ray from the lamps picked out details: the rusty stain on a rubbed trunk, like dried blood; the moonlight-blue tips of black-green shoots; the scar of a lopped branch, which glimmered whitely like a magnified eye.
Suddenly Caroline had a vision of how the Streamline Coach would appear to any one outside in the wood. She pictured herself as a fugitive from vengeance—cold, lost, lonely, terrified of the darkness—starting at every rustle, hiding behind the tree-trunks. From this detached but poignant viewpoint, she saw the coach, agleam with golden lights, roll past, its load of lucky passengers enclosed in a shining sphere of warmth and safety.
"How she must envy me," she thought, forgetting that she was speaking of herself.
"Have a candy?"
With a start she realized that the bony man had turned round in his' seat and was holding out a paper of boiled sweets. He was unusually tall, with small dark eyes, high red-bitten cheekbones, and a ragged moustache like the cobwebs on a wall from which an undusted picture has been removed.
With instinctive caution she shook her head. One could not accept sweets from a stranger—especially now, when they might be poisoned.
"You will not reach your journey's end."
Again the phrase floated through her mind as the man bit the ends of his moustache, hesitated and then offered the packet to the woolly matron, who did not refuse.
"This wood's only a plantation to me," he told her. "I'm just back from Canada."
"Never! I've a brother in British Columbia."
"B.C.? You should pay him a visit. You'd like it there. Every one sociable and friendly."
As she listened, Caroline felt sorry that she had violated the courtesy of the road. Here was a friendly soul who had tried to infuse some of the essence of comradeship into the little company of travellers, and she had iced him with British reserve.
Moreover, the incident disquieted her because it proved that she was not so immune from nerves as she had believed. Even here she was suspicious and on guard. She reminded herself that Yaxley-Moore possessed the trick of making true prophecies.
She claimed to possess the Third Eye. She had foretold the death of Miss Auriol, the music mistress—and it had actually come to pass.
"Cause and effect," thought Caroline.
She knew that Miss Auriol had worried herself into such a state of apprehension and ill-health that she was especially vulnerable to the power of suggestion. Her last unwise meal would naturally liberate the poison she had been storing up in her system, with fatal results.
The uncanny element centered around the word "Cancer"—and its unexpected interpretation.
Yet they had accepted Yaxley-Moore's statement that Miss Auriol had eaten crab—and not lobster—on the evidence of a tin which she had salvaged from the rubbish heap. It was true that it had been raining, but it looked as though it might have been there for some time, since the dump was a scandal. Caroline remembered Yaxley-Moore's barely-concealed excitement and triumph when her reputation as a seer had been so sensationally enhanced.
"She wanted her to die," she thought with a recoil of horror. "And if an accident happened to me she'd be glad...But nothing could happen to me here. What could she do?"
Although she racked her brains, she could only think of an accident to the Streamline Coach. This, however, would be most difficult to engineer, and uncertain as to results. It was even possible that she might be the sole person to escape injury in a wholesale smash.
"I won't think about it," she decided. "I'll think of William."
Instead, she found herself recalling a remark of Flora Baumgarten's, after Miss Yaxley-Moore had raised a laugh at the expense of her figure.
"It's not exactly fun for me to be overweight, but I can console myself with Browning. You remember his poems on Art:
"'They are perfect, how else? they never change—We are faulty, why not? we have time in store...'"
With the self-consciousness of a schoolgirl, she quoted the lines in one breath, and then added: "Miss Yaxley-Moore is like a mountain, and she's not likely to slim now; but at my age I have time in store."
Caroline was glad to remember that she had assured Flora that she would soon reduce, and had told her—untruthfully—that at the same age she herself had been overweight. As she saw, in imagination, Flora's little brown eyes beaming with humour and intelligence, and heard her confident voice talking of "time in store," the lump rose again in her throat.
"She didn't have a deal," she thought. "Yaxley did her out of everything...I'll clear her out of the school if it's the last thing I do on earth."
It was an ill-advised phrase to use, just as the coach was rolling through the heart of the forest, where the trees jammed together in a solid wall and suffocated in a Black Hole of Calcutta.
The lamps of the coach flashed on the tangle of bare broken stumps and withered fringes and then picked up a milestone which was half buried in the dead bracken by the side of the road.
Caroline glanced at it uneasily, for as it sank again into dimness, it looked exactly like a sunken tombstone.
CHILLED by the omen, Caroline began to recognize a second contingency.
"What happened at the café had nothing to do with Yaxley," she told herself. "But she may have sent some one to stop me from coming back to Plume."
By now the poison of the anonymous letters had spread through her system, numbing her sense of proportion. As she looked around her she began to suspect every one in the bus. From that moment, Someone who was her enemy was travelling with her in the Streamline Coach. Yet, because it was impossible to credit any particular person with sinister qualities, "Someone" became an abstraction of horror, rather than an actual human being.
It was this anonymous element which gradually wore away her nerve, until lethal squares seemed to crowd the board. Yet as she looked around her, her fellow-passengers—with one exception—appeared a pleasant and respectable collection.
There were family parties, complete with children, and three girls who had struck up a friendship with two countrified-looking young men. The exception, however, was a mystery, for he—or she—was sitting near the top of the bus, so that Caroline could see only a head and shoulders. The cropped head, slouched felt hat and masculine collar suggested a man; yet the hand, with its slim manicured fingers, was feminine.
"It won't be you," decided Caroline. "It will be the person I suspect least."
Reasoning on these lines, the terrific elderly lady, the tall, bony man and the mystery passenger were all removed from her list of suspects, while she concentrated on the little lady in brown and Mother Bear. Both of them had shown interest in herself; yet they seemed so harmless and friendly that she could not be afraid of either.
As she realized the absurdity of her fear, she began to get at grips with her problem.
"Yaxley wants those bottles," she thought. "When she finds she can't get them, her next move would be to stop me from telling what I know. The only way to do that would be to murder me. And she wouldn't do that for the sake of a job...No, she's not that kind of criminal. Of course, she killed Flora by neglect, and I shall always believe she frightened the games mistress to death; but she didn't set out to do it. She would soap the stairs, for the joke of seeing me turn somersaults down them, but she wouldn't make a deliberate plan to break my neck."
Her reasoning was sound as regarded Miss Yaxley-Moore's character. It failed only through lack of knowledge of the second lady in the case. The girl could have no knowledge of the deadly force of hatred which throughout an adult lifetime had been flowing under the surface, like the black water of a built-over forgotten river still stealing underneath the pavements of a city.
Presently Mother Bear nudged her to attract her attention towards the autocratic elderly lady.
"Watch her next time we stop," she whispered.
It was not long before the bus halted to pick up a passenger. Instantly the tall lady shot up and stared at the other passengers through her lorgnette. Her survey was deliberate and systematic, as though they belonged to a different order.
"Why does she stare at us? We're not in a zoo," objected Mother Bear.
"I expect she gets stiff from sitting," explained Caroline soothingly.
It seemed to her that she was picked out for special notice by the elderly lady, but she knew that the impression was probably due to her fancy.
The next time the bus stopped it was for a longer period, as the driver left his seat and disappeared inside a garage. Caroline noticed that the personage was standing up, lorgnette in hand, when her attention was distracted by hearing her own name.
"Is Miss Watts here?" asked a deep masculine voice.
"Yes," she called, going to the door, where she looked down on two persons who stood below.
Both were without hats and wore gleaming mackintoshes. The man, who looked vital and healthy, had a shock of prematurely white hair, and bright dark eyes under bushy black brows. The woman also had a high natural colour and a frizz of brown hair which was beaded with moisture.
Instinctively Caroline thought of a couple of sound, rosy apples which had been lying on wet grass all night. She smiled down at them, liking them on sight, as the man went on:
"We're a couple of bandits come to hold up the coach and carry you off to tea. Your brother-in-law, Professor Freeman, wrote to me that you were travelling by this bus, and he asked me to meet it and take you by surprise."
"How lovely of you," cried Caroline impulsively. "Are you very old friends of his?"
"I believe I am his oldest friend. You must have heard of me. Jerome Gabriel."
Miss Yaxley-Moore was not far wide of the mark when she prophesied that the anonymous letters would get Caroline prematurely on the run. By this time they had induced a condition when she was alert to notice and suspect any discrepancy which she would have ignored in normal circumstances.
Her gaze grew more doubtful as she remembered her brother-in-law's enthusiastic description of his friend Gabriel.
"A beautiful face. Pallid and austere, with dark, luminous eyes. Rather like a sort of John the Baptist. A born ascetic and celibate."
"Yes, he's spoken of you," she said doubtfully. "But he never told me you were married."
"He doesn't know that," chimed in the wife. "We didn't tell him because—"
She broke off as the man planted his Wellington boot on her instep.
"Did I kick you, my dear?" he asked. "Clumsy brute...Miss Watts, there's a blazing fire at the Rectory. The table's spread with samples of my wife's cooking—and a very hearty welcome awaits you."
Caroline felt herself pulled in two directions. She liked the prospect of this friendly contact which linked her up with the Highgate flat, as well as making a pleasant break in her journey. On the other hand, she could not be certain whether this man was genuine or an imposter. The very fact that he displayed the two salient points of the description—the white hair and dark eyes—in spite of the other differences, seemed to point to an attempt at disguise.
As she hesitated her brain seemed to hum with whispering echoes. What was it that Melody had said about Yaxley-Moore's questions, which appeared innocent as daisies and dewdrops, yet led her victim on to admissions? She knew she had often talked of the Professor, so she might have mentioned his friend.
She could not remember—and she dared take no chances.
"It's frightfully kind of you," she told them. "But I don't want to be late getting to Plume."
"You'll get there not much later, if you wait for the next bus," the man assured her. "This one is wretchedly slow. It takes in a much longer round, so it is stopping all the time."
"But my suitcase is packed away."
"Tell the driver to get it down, or else leave it in the cloak-room at the Plume terminus."
He was making it so difficult for her to refuse that she became suddenly determined to oppose him. The smile faded from her face as the man went on:
"I especially want to talk about the Winter Sports. I, too, went out to Norway once, and it was an unforgettable experience."
"But didn't my brother-in-law tell you I'd been to Switzerland?"
"Same thing. Isn't he keen on sport?"
"I never knew it," remarked Caroline as she remembered the Professor's superior amusement over his Beloved Fool's vocation. "I'll tell him that you met me when I write. And thank you all the same."
She moved from the door as the driver climbed into his seat. Once again the Streamline Coach rolled on its way.
Now that it was too late, Caroline felt furious with herself over her decision. The Professor had taken the trouble to arrange an interlude, and she did not know how she could explain her conduct to him in a letter.
In any case, this especial bus seemed doomed to delays and difficulties, for it was advancing at little more than walking pace. The fog, which was localised—dense in some places and merely misty in others—was dangerously thick in the low-lying lane. Caroline reminded herself that the later bus would probably avoid the worst of it, since it followed the direct route, over the higher level.
She listened vaguely while Mother Bear told her about a Literary Luncheon she had attended in London, where she had seen her favourite writer "in the flesh," which seemed to impress her as a clever feat of materialism on the part of the gifted lady.
To Caroline's suspicious ear, this revelation of character did not seem to pair with farmhouse duties, until Mother Bear answered her unspoken criticism.
"We're mostly great readers in the country. No cinemas, you know...Bless me, we're stopping again."
The bus had pulled up on 'the cobbles before a dingy and decrepit inn which bore the name of The Smugglers' Inn. The next minute the driver entered to explain the situation.
"I've got to ring up here to find out what the stretch ahead is like. If it's as thick as this, I can't risk going on until it lightens a bit, for the road runs by the river."
"Can we get out?" shouted a young man.
"At your risk. I stop for nobody once I know it's clear ahead."
In spite of the caution, there was an immediate stampede of passengers, who were glad to snatch any chance of stretching their legs. Caroline and the little lady in brown remained in their seats, until they received some sage advice from Mother Bear.
"If we all get out he can't go on; and it's none too safe sitting here, when anything might crash into us."
The narrow passage of the inn was crowded when Caroline entered. To her mind, there was nothing beautiful about its antiquity, so that she was surprised when the autocratic lady spoke to her:
"There is a cellar down there with a monster beer cask which is worth a visit. Nothing like Heidelberg, of course."
"I've never been abroad," remarked the little lady in brown. "Shall we have a peep at it?"
She led the way down a flight of stone steps, at the foot of which Mother Bear was chatting to the bony man.
"It's a grim place," she informed them. "Mind your head as you go in."
Caroline ducked through the dirty white oak door and stumbled the length of a dimly-lit cellar towards the huge vat. She glanced at the dates of some of the initials carved on it, but was not impressed by its authentic antiquarian interest.
"I suppose you'd call this liquid history," she said. "Well, I'm fed, anyway."
"I think we had better hurry," remarked her companion, "or we might lose the bus." She added in a sharper tone: "I can't open the door."
In a couple of bounds Caroline reached her side and wrenched the handle.
"Is it jammed?" asked the lady in brown.
"Locked," snapped Caroline.
"I noticed a key outside. But who would lock me in? It is a liberty."
"You were with me. That's why. I can't explain...The big thing is to get out."
"Shall we shout?"
"No. No one would hear us down here, and we have no time to lose. There's a window up there, if I can reach it."
She pointed to a small grimed window, covered with wire netting, set high above her head.
"You mustn't," protested the little lady as she managed to grip the ledge at her second spring. "You'll strain yourself. It's not worth it."
Caroline did not reply. Her teeth were clenched and her eyes fierce as she gradually drew herself up to the level of the sill. It was a stiff muscular test; but she was in a fighting mood when opposition acted as a spur.
The anonymous "Someone" had moved against her again in another attempt to keep her from reaching her journey's end.
As she hoped, the window opened outwards when she butted it with her head, and she was able to worm her way through it on to the damp grass outside.
"I'll come down and let you out," she shouted before she began to follow the wall round to the entrance of the inn. The bus was in its place, and the passage still jammed with people. No one seemed to notice her as she ran down the stairs. At the bend she collided with the little lady in brown, who was coming up.
"I tried the handle again and found the door was open," she said. "The key was on the outside. Some one was playing a trick on us...We won't mention it, please. Every one will deny it, so it will only expose us to ridicule."
"Was any one near?" asked Caroline quickly.
"Yes. The elderly lady in the sables. But you must remember when people grow older their memory is not always reliable. Even if she is eccentric, it is plain that she is a lady of social status—and that counts in this country."
"All right." Caroline grinned at the snobbery. "I won't mention it."
They reached the top of the stairs in time to join a general surge towards the bus. The driver had reported that the fog was lighter along the river stretch, and he was anxious to force the pace while visibility held.
Rolling on again, Caroline reviewed the recent episode.
"Yaxley's behind it all," she thought. "She's got a fatal knack of ringing the bell. It sounds idiotic, but I won't be off guard...Perhaps some one is watching me now."
At the moment no one appeared to be taking any interest in her. The man-woman scribbled shorthand outlines in a notebook. The Canadian was instructing Mother Bear how to pronounce "Toronto." The young people progressed further in their flirtation.
As Caroline looked at them she was struck by a consoling fact. Including herself, there were four girls in the coach. They did not resemble one another in the least; yet all could be covered by one general description.
Each girl was young, slim, and had dark, waved hair worn to expose the ears. Each wore a variation of the same costume. Each complexion had been apparently beautified with communal cosmetics.
Therefore, since Yaxley-Moore did not possess a photograph of herself, even in a school group, she could only give a vague personal description, which would be useless for purposes of identification.
Even as Caroline congratulated herself on her anonymity, her composure was shattered by the recollection of her distinctive bleached lock of hair.
She was marked.
AT the reminder, Caroline was suddenly attacked by nerves. The blood rushed to her head and her heart began to thump unevenly. She had the sense of being spied on by some unknown individual whom Yaxley-Moore had deputised to do her dirty work.
At that moment the person was there in the coach waiting for the opportunity.
As she looked wildly round her she realised that it had grown very warm inside the bus. The air was thick with tobacco smoke, and the windows had grown steamy. Feeling unable to endure the fog another moment, she was obliged to appeal to the little lady in brown, who sat in front of her.
"Do you mind if I open your window?"
As the lady was elderly, she expected a refusal. Therefore she was pleasantly surprised by the reply.
"Please do. I like plenty of fresh air...Can I help you? The window is rather stiff."
She turned her head abruptly just as Caroline leaned forward, so that her glasses were swept off by the girl's arm and fell on the floor. Before Caroline could anticipate her movement, she stooped to pick them up. The next instant there was an ominous crack, and she gave a little cry of annoyance.
"I've trodden on them. How careless of me."
"A bad smash?" asked Caroline guiltily.
"Not too bad. The frame is intact, and that is the important part. The glasses are easily replaced."
As she spoke she showed Caroline the extent of the damage—one pebble cracked and the other completely smashed.
"I'm afraid it was my fault," said Caroline. "I'm terribly sorry."
"Oh, it doesn't really matter," the lady reassured her with forced politeness. "I always keep a spare pair at home, and I shall soon be there. But for the rest of the way I shall be a blind beggar—and no one will give me pennies."
This seemed to be a joke, so Caroline managed to laugh. As she did so, she realised that she was normal again after her brief brainstorm.
"I've let Yaxley-Moore get definitely on top of me with her idiotic letter," she reflected. "Sheer superstition...Besides, she couldn't get at me before Plume. And once I'm there I'm safe."
She was sure that Sir Felix would send her back to the Abbey School in one of his impressive cars. It was even possible that he would accompany her, in order to interview Mrs. Nash that night. In any case, the bottles would be in his possession—and once she was rid of the incriminating evidence she was of no more importance to any one.
Refreshed by the raw air on her face, she felt on friendly terms with the little lady who shared her prejudice against closed windows. They exchanged glances of mutual inquiry when the mystery passenger got up and began to move down the bus.
"Which?" their eyes questioned.
Rather to Caroline's surprise, the short tweed skirt proclaimed her a woman. She seated herself by the girl and then apologised in a gruff voice:
"Mind my crowding you? I want a mouthful of air. I'm cooped up my end with those mothers, and they won't have the window open because of their confounded kids. Maternity gets my goat. Too darned selfish...But perhaps I've dropped a brick?"
"By no means," replied the lady in brown.
As though to reproach her for lack of frankness, the masculine woman began to reveal her own status.
"Well, I'm single, praise be. I'm a drummer—a gentleman of the road."
"Shouldn't it be 'lady'?"
"Not me. I thank whatever gods that be I was never that. Haven't the outfit...I travel in knit-wear. I know every blooming bus in the district blindfold by the sound of its engine."
She turned to Caroline and asked abruptly:
"Fed up with sitting still?"
"No." Caroline shook her head. "I think modern transport is rather marvellous. It is a bit like magic."
"You mean old Mother Shipton's prophecy—'Carriages without horses will go,' or something like that? Didn't they burn her for a witch? Dangerous to know too much then."
"Sometimes it is dangerous to know too much to-day," remarked the little elderly lady.
Caroline winced at the innocent home-thrust. "You meet a rum lot of people on the road," went on the mystery passenger with splendid unconsciousness of her own appearance. "Interesting to study types. The worst of these buses is all the blinking stops."
"But we're stopping soon for tea," put in the lady in brown. "You wouldn't like to miss that."
"Shan't. I always bring my own nosebag with me. And old traveller's dodge. Can't stick these fake arty joints. You scrum to get a cup of tea, and then it's cold, and you've no time to drink it or wait for your change."
"You must allow me to correct that impression," said the little lady with unexpected firmness. "I am a native of this district, so I speak from personal experience. We are stopping at a genuine Elizabethan house, where the tea and service are excellent...Although I am getting out only a little farther on, I am going to have my tea there. My maid is out for the afternoon."
"H'm, I'd sooner wait and make my own. Not one woman in ten knows when the kettle boils."
"Ah, you evidently possess a gas-stove. Here in the country we depend on oil and coal. The kitchen fire may be out, and I am afraid I am not used to waiting on myself."
She caught Caroline's eye and added: "There is nothing so refreshing on a journey as a good cup of tea. I couldn't go without my afternoon tea."
"Neither could I," agreed Caroline.
The topic was not so casual as it appeared. Once long ago, in America, some one made a big cup of tea in the sea, and the result was war; in like manner, but on a small scale, this chat produced its repercussion, as the words conjured up a vision of old-world cheer, a leaping fire, the odour of hot tea.
The brief spurt of conversation died down like a spent match and the passengers relapsed into the silence of strangers. While they were talking, they had left the darkness of the wood and were now travelling through more open country, with wide rolling fields and low hedges, just visible in the fast-fading twilight.
Presently there were signs that they were drawing near to Riverdale. They passed occasional cottages, their tiny windows golden squares of light, and a villa with gilt-spiked railings where orange curtains were illumined by a lamp, which loomed dim as a moon through fog. The first lamp-post flickered through the gloom as they entered the approach to a small town.
Soon the narrow pavements grew wider and the mean shops, with slabs of liver and piles of frost-bitten tomatoes, were replaced by the more important frontages of the High Street. It was rather like an old engraving of the past weeping through a superimposed photograph of the present, for the centuries merged in an enchanting jumble.
A stately Georgian house with long windows rubbed shoulders with a familiar cream-and-gold Lyons, which advertised Swiss rolls in electric letters. A Boots was sandwiched between an Elizabethan building and an inn, whose patrons were drinking there when the news was first received of Queen Anne's death. A cinema squeezed the ribs of a nearly Victorian villa.
The Streamline Coach stopped by the square, where lines of rival motor-buses and private cars were parked, and the driver made his announcement:
"We stop here twenty minutes for tea."
The passengers consulted their watches, compared them with the clock which did not go, and then began to surge towards the doorways. Caroline was about to join in the scramble when she started, as though some one had actually whispered in her ear:
"Don't leave the bus."
It was only Mother Bear's advice; but for one bewildering moment it seemed as though the coach itself were speaking to her in voiceless warning.
As she hesitated, the poison of the anonymous letters began to infect her with superstitious dread. She told herself that this special stop would be scheduled as a place of opportunity in any plan against her person. Yaxley-Moore would bank on her going to the café for tea, and would instruct her confederate accordingly.
It would be so easy to engineer an accident in this fog. Peering uneasily through the misted glass, she wondered whether some unknown person was waiting, ready to trip her up on the narrow pavement and throw her in the path of a passing car.
Although she was disgusted with herself, she sat down again.
"Until I've seen Sir Felix and got through that bit of business, I'll stick to the good old 'Safety first,'" she decided.
"Are you coming to tea?" asked the little lady in brown.
"No," replied Caroline. "I don't want to get out."
The masculine person looked up from her note-book a shade too opportunely.
"Plenty of tea for both of us in my Thermos," she said.
Caroline was about to thank her when she noticed that the hard black eyes were fixed intently upon her own bleached lock of hair.
Instantly her mind was flooded with a wave of counter-suspicion. For all she knew, the danger was not outside, but here in the coach. She had refused one stranger's sweets, and it was wiser not to switch her policy, but to refuse another stranger's tea. A drink was a time-honoured medium for the disguise of drugs. While she could not forget that, although she had been warned not to start, she had crashed through the signals.
It was an awkward predicament, for a refusal to accept a cup from the Thermos would appear strange after her declaration that she could not miss her tea. As she hesitated, she noticed that the lady in brown was beginning to grope her way out of the coach.
"Can I help you?" she asked eagerly.
"That would be very thoughtful," replied the little lady.
"I'm so blind without my glasses that I'm nervous of crossing the road."
"Well, suppose we have tea together, and then I can guide you there and back?"
Leaning on the girl's arm, the little lady directed her to find the Tudor House.
"It's just opposite. White plaster and dark beams. You can't miss it." She lowered her voice and added, "I am so glad you did not stay alone with that—person. To my mind, she looked exactly like a man dressed up in a woman's clothes."
THE Tudor Tea-House was an Elizabethan building in a state of excellent preservation. Its main room was low, rambling, and of irregular shape, with panelled walls and a sunken floor. The only concessions to modernity were electric candles in iron sconces and semi-comfortable chairs.
Like the first café, it was crowded with customers who clamoured for tea, while frantic green-smocked waitresses rushed about with trays and plates of cakes. A haze of smoke and the odour of hot buttered toast hung on the heavy air.
"This is hopeless," declared Caroline. "We shall never get served in time."
"Oh, yes, you will," said the little lady pompously. "You are with me, so you will get preferential treatment."
She made no vain boast; it was evident that she was both known and respected in the neighbourhood; for the manageress, in a distinctive mauve overall, embroidered with pansies, came forward at once, with a deferential smile.
"It is a pleasure to see you here again," she said.
"We are in a hurry," hinted the lady in brown.
"Then you shall he served immediately. If you will go to the little room, I will send a waitress to receive your order."
Guided by Miss Bat's directions, Caroline worked a way round the clutter of oak tables towards the far end of the café. Before they reached it, Miss Bat stopped.
"Can you see the door?" she asked. "If you will go on and wait for me there, I will give our order now, to save time."
She smiled as she added, "I promise not to be ill, like the other unfortunate lady. I can assure you I'm in the best of health...Indian tea—or China?"
"The quickest, please," replied Caroline, who had more urgent reason for not losing the bus than a lady who lived in a short-distance radius.
She bent her head to pass under a low oak door and entered a small room. It was dimly lit by a wrought-iron lantern, which illumined rough plaster walls and tiny bottle-glass windows. The floor was stone-flagged, and the atmosphere held the chill of ages.
With a slight shiver, Caroline crossed to the fire, over which crouched a strapping country girl. Her neck and chin were swathed in a blue woolen scarf, and she appeared to have a heavy cold.
When Caroline approached, she looked up and—without any warning—coughed explosively right into her face.
Caroline drew back in disgust as the door opened to admit the lady in brown and a waitress with the tray. Instantly the country girl rose respectfully to her feet, while the little lady smiled at her in approval.
"Good-evening, Olive," she said, opening her purse. "I'm sure you would rather have your tea outside. Here's the money to pay for it."
She handed the girl a coin, and added in a benevolent voice, "What's the matter with your neck?"
The girl stared at her with blank grey-green eyes.
"Please, mum," she replied, "I've got the mumps."
"Dear, dear. Well, keep your neck warm—and be sure and have a good tea."
She nodded towards the door, in signal of dismissal, and the girl quickly ducked through into the café.
As though pleased with this little demonstration of kindly patronage, the little lady smiled as she took up the teapot.
"A raw country bumpkin," she remarked, "but honest and hard-working. I employ her, occasionally, for extra cleaning...How refreshing our tea smells. Weak or strong?"
Caroline made no reply. Her elbows were on the table and she held her head between her hands as she stared blindly at the opposite wall.
"Is anything the matter?" asked the little lady.
Caroline gave a short, mirthless laugh.
"I'm sunk, that's all," she replied. "That girl has the mumps...I've never had them. And they're contagious."
"But mumps are not dangerous. They are not like scarlet fever."
"Don't I wish it had been scarlet!" Caroline's eyes were tragic as she explained. "The incubation period for scarlet is three to five days. But mumps is a three—weeks' job. And it's been known to develop even later."
"But I'm afraid I don't understand—"
"Of course not...But it's like this. I'm a teacher and I'm on my way back to school...This means I shall have to stay in quarantine for about a month before it's safe for me to return."
"Oh, I'm sorry." The little lady's voice was gentle. "Do drink some tea. It will do you good."
Caroline mechanically gulped down a mouthful and then pushed her cup away.
"I don't know what to do," she said distractedly. "You see, my mother fussed me when I was a youngster. I was educated at home with a governess, and not allowed to mix with other children, so I missed all the usual childish complaints. When I was boasting about it to the matron of my school, she warned me I was bound to get them later, and much worse. And I did get measles, when I was over eighteen."
"All the same," remarked the little lady, "you may not develop Olive's mumps. You look very healthy. I don't want to advise you badly, but why not return to your school and say nothing about it?"
"Oh, I couldn't do that. That wretched girl sprayed me when she coughed. I might spread it right through the school. It would be criminal to risk infecting children."
"You have unusually high principles."
There was an acid note in the little lady's voice which Caroline did not notice. Neither did she hear the compliment as she lit a cigarette and raked her fingers through the wave of her hair, in an effort to concentrate.
"It's no good going on to Plume now," she burst out. "It's only farther to return. And I can't go back to my sister's flat in London, for she has children."
She was in a real dilemma for she had not money enough to pay hotel charges for the night, and yet she felt, at this crisis, what she needed most was a good night's rest, to clear her brain. It still hummed with the garnered noises of the Continent—the banging of coupled tram-cars in the streets—the voices in hotel corridors—the snore of early morning vacuum-cleaners.
In her own predicament, her business with Sir Felix sank into a second place. As he was a stranger to her, she could not appeal to him for help, with a hard-luck story. Besides, there was a possibility that he might not be at home.
She shelved the immediate issue by telling herself that she could telephone to him on the following morning, when she had more or less tackled her own problem.
The little lady opposite seemed to read her thoughts.
"Sleep on it," she advised. "Your eyes look heavy."
"Yes, I must," agreed Caroline wearily. "I can get in touch with my friends to-morrow...I think I had better stay here. The place is too small for a Travellers' Aid Society, but I expect I can find a cheap lodging which is clean."
The little lady coughed to clear her throat.
"May I introduce myself?" she asked. "I am Miss Bat, of Bat House, Paddiscombe, which is the next village."
The name meant nothing to Caroline, although Miss Bat paused impressively before she went on:
"Perhaps you would like to spend the night with me? That will give you time to make your plans."
"Oh, no, I couldn't bother you," cried Caroline with instinctive caution. "Thank you all the same, ever so much."
"I understand." Miss Bat smiled slightly as she touched the bell. "You are wise."
When the waitress appeared, she spoke to her.
"This young lady has had some bad news, so I have invited her to stay the night at my house. As I'm a stranger to her, will you reassure her I am—respectable?"
Although this was plainly a joke, the local girl was overwhelmed with confusion.
"Oh, Miss Bat, you!" she cried. "The very idea. The young lady is very lucky to be asked to such a lovely house...One and eight, please, mum."
Caroline studied Miss Bat's face intently as she paid the bill. She decided that in her youth, she must have been somewhat like a conventional Victorian beauty, with full eyes, aquiline nose and small mouth. The effect now was rather weak and tremulous, and only the nose remained as a tribute to character.
In a dowdy fashion, she was very well dressed, in a brown suit which had been bought at an exclusive London shop a season or two before. With it she wore old-fashioned but good sables, while her shoes, gloves and bag looked expensive.
She tipped the waitress lavishly, and then turned to Caroline.
"Have you changed your mind?" she asked. "Am I to have the pleasure of your company?"
As she spoke, Caroline realised that the offer was a stroke of amazing luck.
"Thanks so much!" she cried impulsively. "I'd love to come."
"I must warn you I live very quietly," went on the little lady. "I have to practise economy, in order to make a National Trust. But I have so many spare rooms that I could accommodate all the passengers in the Streamline Coach."
Caroline was still too upset to be amused at the boast, or to realise the clue to her future hostess's character which was contained in her next sentence.
"I'd like to explain one thing. My name is spelt with only one 't.' A small thing, perhaps—but it means everything to me in a world of unwelcome changes."
Then she consulted her watch.
"Time to go back," she said. "I'm sorry to be such a nuisance, but I'm so absurdly blind. Will you kindly guide me back to the bus?"
They presented rather a strange spectacle as they walked back through the café—the placid and benevolent Miss Bat holding the arm of a hatless girl, with wild hair and strained eyes, as though she were a guardian angel directing her steps to safety.
On the way, she caught the eye of the big country wench, who, in her own words, was "eating herself thick." She smiled at her, and Olive—her cheek bulging with sultana bun—smiled back.
OLIVE had good reason to smile. She knew that she was regarded locally as a half-wit, but she also knew when it was to her advantage to accept the superior wisdom of the quality. That morning, her mistress had felt some mysterious lumps on her neck—of which she was unaware—and had pronounced them "mumps."
"Dear me, Olive," she exclaimed, "I don't think you should work to-day, until we see how they develop...Can't you feel them yourself?"
Olive nearly throttled herself in her eagerness to confirm the diagnosis.
"Big as footballs they feel to me," she declared.
Her eyes bolted when her mistress began to enumerate some of the advantages which were the accompaniment to mumps. During the winter, she had a perpetual cold, of which no notice was taken, save strict orders "to cough off." But mumps meant a bus ride to Riverdale, tea at a café, and afterwards a visit to the cinema.
Miss Bat told the girl that she was going herself by train, to visit a dentist, and would come back by the afternoon bus to Riverdale.
"Wait for me in the little room at the Tudor House Tea-house," she said. "I will come and give you the money for your tea...And if any one asks you what is the matter with your neck remember to say, 'Mumps.'"
Olive nodded obediently. She was specially anxious to exploit the magic word, since its benefits covered a strictly limited period. Unfortunately, her mistress was confident that the holiday would work a complete cure.
That day was Olive's lucky day. Not long afterwards, Miss Bat told her that she had accidentally dropped six-pence between the rockery which covered the well.
"When you've nothing to do, you'd better find it," she said. "If you do, you may keep it. Move everything neatly—like last time."
Olive found the time immediately, as her mistress considerately forgot to tell her of a job. She removed every bit of pottery, but she did not find the sixpence until she had rolled the tub away. It lay right in the middle of the space, as though it had been poked there.
Without wasting any thought on the extraordinary gymnastics of the nimble coin, she knotted it in a corner of her handkerchief, and then lingered in hesitation.
The well was pulling her.
She wanted another peep at that oily water which looked exactly like ink, at the bottom of the deep shaft. She wondered how many miles deep it was; if there were fishes, or rats in it; what sort of splash a big bit of rockery would make if she pushed it in.
Unable to resist the temptation, she knelt down and tugged at the rusty ring. She heard the muscles of her back crack, but the cover was not so tightly jammed as before. In a few seconds she had heaved it up. Before, however, she could peep down at the water, her mistress called to her from the stair-case window.
"Olive! Go and dress at once, or you'll miss the bus."
At the mention of such tragedy, Olive rushed away, leaving the cover lying beside the open well.
She knew her mistress would not blame her, for she was not expected to think. Her part was to accept the prompting of superior minds.
The present—which held tea and buns—was the only reality; and a black circle of unbroken water, deep down in a fog-choked courtyard, seemed very far away.
But even then the Streamline Coach was rolling nearer to it, as it began to move again. When Caroline mechanically returned to her seat, the commercial traveller welcomed her with a nod.
She had watched her departure to the café with habitual philosophy. Afflicted by nature with an unpleasing appearance, she had deliberately accentuated its masculinity, in order to attract the attention demanded by her job.
As a side-line to her legitimate work, she had literary ambition, and planned to write a book about her life and the travelling companions with whom she came in contact. In this connection, she was attracted by the white lock in Caroline's hair. It made her wonder whether there was a story connected with it which might be extracted during tea.
But although she told herself that it would be hoggish to refresh herself alone, she was not really anxious to share the contents of her Thermos on the chance of a problematical yarn.
She noticed Caroline's distressed expression at once. The girl seemed fundamentally changed from the healthy, radiant creature who had practically carried the little lady down the steps of the coach.
She lowered her voice to a hoarse whisper.
"Nothing, thanks," replied Caroline quickly.
"Sure? You look as if that old dame had bewitched you...Is it cash? I know what it is to find myself caught short. So if I can lend you a trifle—"
As she paused for encouragement, Caroline shook her head with a forced smile.
"It's frightfully kind of you—but it's perfectly all right."
For a second or two she had been tempted to accept an offer which made her economically independent of chance hospitality. She was dimly aware of a deep-rooted prejudice against spending the night under the roof of a stranger.
But, at such a close range, the commercial traveller's face might have passed for a man's. Her skin was coarse and pitted, while her upper lip was perceptibly shaded with a black line. It inspired her with distrust against incurring an obligation which might have an unpleasant sequel.
As she hesitated, common sense—which is the enemy of instinct—reminded her of the advantages of Miss Bat's offer. At a crisis when economy was vital, it amounted to the benefit of a free hotel for the night. In this case, moreover, there were no grounds for suspicion, since she had received proof that her future hostess was a lady of local importance.
She was still too stunned by her misfortune for clear or consecutive thought, as the last lamp of Riverdale faded and the bus rolled on through the lonely countryside. Although it was not yet six o'clock, she felt utterly desolate and stranded, as though the hour was very late and she was far away from anywhere. Outside the window, she could see a phantom coach, peopled with reflections, which kept pace with them as it glided through the darkness, as though the ghost of an old stage-coach were plying its eternal journey.
Suddenly as Caroline thought of the anonymous letter, she realised that Yaxley-Moore had made good her prophecy once again. True to precedent, its fulfilment had been accomplished in a totally unexpected manner. While she had been on guard against an accident or personal attack, the real enemy had been a country lout with mumps.
In any case, now that the disaster was complete, she had nothing more to fear. As she realised the changed situation, she roused herself, for the first time since her return from the café, to look around the bus.
There had been a general redistribution, since there were fewer passengers. Mother Bear and the bony man had changed their places and were now sharing the seat which had been commandeered by the autocratic personage.
"I suppose she got out at Riverdale," she thought. "Odd if she really was Yaxley's half-sister."
As Caroline had guessed, the old lady with the features of an heraldic monster had left the bus during the tea-halt. Directly she reached the pavement a groom in livery saluted her and escorted her to a brougham adorned with a crest on its panels and drawn by two fine bays.
She patted them as she scolded the old coachman.
"You shouldn't have brought them out in this fog. I could have walked home perfectly well."
"Horses want exercise same as you," he told her. "Did you enjoy your ride, mum?"
His tone was indulgent, for he knew that although his mistress would remain loyal to her horses and himself, she cherished a guilty passion for riding in a motor-coach.
"Yes, John," she replied, "I did. I find that the world is such an interesting place to-day, and the proletariat get a much more amusing time than I do at the Court. There's always something I remember afterwards when I'm sitting alone..."
She broke off to chuckle as she added:
"For instance, I am used to old people trying to look young. But to-day I actually met a girl who was trying to look old. She had bleached her hair—and I longed to tell her that the effect was hideous."
The brougham rolled away, bearing the old lady out of the story. She had no connection with Miss Yaxley-Moore who did not know of her existence; but for all that, she was an unconscious accessory to a crime. Owing to Caroline's pre-conceived idea of the half-sister—the mythical Miss Yaxley-Moore, the elder—she had distracted her attention from the real Miss Bat, so that the psychological moment found her free from suspicion.
About the same time, the Reverend Jerome Gabriel and his wife were tramping across shrouded meadows to their rectory. "What did you think of old Freeman's marvellous sister-in-law?" he asked.
"Rather blasée," she replied after a pause. "Perhaps she was tired."
"Probably. She is certainly very different from his description." He remembered his last letter from the Professor, when he asked him to meet the Streamline Coach.
"You'll be enchanted with her. She gushes like a brook and positively crackles with vitality. I should really like you to see her on the wing—literally and on the hockey-field—outside-left."
He had no idea that Caroline might also have been the victim of a disappointment. The Professor's idealistic description of himself was based on his appearance, four years ago, when he was a curate in a London slum. Since he had lived in the country, he had thickened and filled out, owing to improved health. He had also put on weight since his marriage, for his wife was an excellent cook.
He had not written to tell his old friend about his approaching wedding, for a delicate reason which was connected with Caroline. When a mutual friend had mentioned that "Poor Freeman must find things tight now that he has to keep his sister-in-law," the Reverend Gabriel consulted his future bride, who was then a teacher of Domestic Science.
"He'll feel he'll have to stump up a handsome present, because of our old friendship," he said. "Let's wait six months and then tell him that we wanted no notice taken of our wedding, so we kept it as quiet as we could from every one...That'll let him out—or things may be easier then."
Naturally Caroline could not know the reason for his clumsy signal to his wife, any more than she was aware of the Professor's secret pride in her athletic exploits. They had been playing a game of cross purposes which had a disastrous effect on the course of the next two hours.
Suddenly she realised that the coach had stopped, and that Miss Bat had risen from her seat.
"This is Paddiscombe," she told Caroline. "We get out here." Through the window Caroline could see an ancient inn with a rough white plastered front. A washed-out signboard was suspended overhead, which bore the portrait of a monarch in a wig, together with the name "KING OF PRUSSIA."
Without a second thought, she jumped out of the bus and stood outside on the damp cobbles, waiting for the driver to get her luggage from the roof.
"Is that all?" asked Miss Bat sharply, as the man dumped down a small suitcase.
"Yes," replied Caroline, scarcely conscious of the question. She stood and watched the Streamline Coach as it rolled away—a gallant, glowing argosy of light and speed. It disappeared around the bend of the road—bearing away the matrons with their sleepy children, the lively flirtation party, the friendly commercial traveller.
A sharp pang of regret rent her as suddenly she remembered her vision of a girl stranded in a dark forest—terrified and lonely—while she watched, with longing eyes, a magic globe roll by with its cargo of safe happy passengers.
That girl was herself...Now that it was too late, she realised that she had forgotten her resolution not to leave the Streamline Coach.
THE departure of the lighted coach seemed to plunge the village into almost total eclipse. There were no lamps, and occasional wan gleams from uncurtained casements appeared strangled by skeins of fog, like bleached and shrivelled flies caught in a spider's web.
The slimed cobbles, the lack of pavements, the absence of humanity and—above all—the darkness, combined to depress Caroline's spirit. The place reminded her of some foul mildewed woodcut of the past, so that she could imagine she had strayed back into an era of uncleanliness and cruelty. Any horror might await her round the next bend—a pitch-plaster over her mouth, or a corpse dangling from a gibbet.
"We seem back in the Middle Ages here," she remarked, forcing a laugh.
The criticism offended her hostess.
"There is an adequate population," she said, "although it is hardly Piccadilly Circus, with people treading on each other's heels and poisoning the air with their breath. Naturally no sensible person would be out in the fog, except for urgent business.
"No. It's all so dreary."
"Yet it has been described by competent judges, as one of the most beautiful villages in England."
"Oh, I'm sure it is. I shall be able to admire it tomorrow, when I can see it properly."
Miss Bat's face contorted at the reminder that this miserable girl would be living at her expense for the next few hours. It was years since she had entertained a visitor for the night, owing to her twin passions for privacy and economy.
Although Caroline was not specially sensitive, she was vaguely aware of a change in Miss Bat. She seemed no longer a gentle little elderly lady, but a far stronger personality, whom she had contrived to inspire with personal antipathy. Even the pressure on her arm was no longer a fluttering bird-like tap, but had gained in strength and sureness, so that she appeared to be pulling the girl along rather than guiding by directions.
Caroline began to regret her acceptance of an impulsive invitation. She felt that she had put herself in the false position of an unwelcome guest. As she thought over her blunder, her spirit magically revived at a sudden resolution.
"I won't stay with her. It's not too late to switch. After I've seen her home, I'll return to the inn and go on to Plume by the next bus...I can go to some very cheap hotel."
Almost as though she could read her guest's thoughts, Miss Bat broke the silence.
"It has just occurred to me that we should establish Olive's mumps. These country people are very vague over illness."
The suggestion held such good sense and kindly thought that it was like a beam of light thrown on the gloom.
"Of course," cried Caroline. "Perhaps I've flown off the handle over nothing at all. Oh, please, may we go back to Riverdale at once?"
"Not to-night, I'm afraid," said Miss Bat. "You forget that I'm not so young or strong as you are, and I've had a tiring day. But I will go over by the early bus, to-morrow morning, and make inquiries. I know where Olive lives and also the medical officer of the district."
The news inspired Caroline with fresh courage; she reminded herself that, if the luck held, she might return to her post within twenty-four hours At the same time her reluctance to stay in the village persisted.
When she told Miss Bat of her change of plans, the little lady was thoughtful for a while. Presently she broke the silence with a question.
"Forgive my impertinence, but do you specially wish to keep your post?"
"I must hold it down," replied Caroline grimly.
"Then will you be guided by me? Without being dishonourable, it might be wise to remember that 'An ounce of serpent serves a pound of dove.' I should advise you not to burn your boats, but to send a vague general telegram to the school, saying you are delayed."
"I'll take your advice," promised Caroline. "And thank you. I always blunder myself...But I still feel I mustn't inflict myself on you. So I'll go to an hotel in Plume for the night, and if you would ring me up as early as possible and tell me the result of your inquiries, then I can get in touch with Mrs. Nash."
"But how will you explain why you are at an hotel?"
"Oh, I shall have to come clean, of course."
"If you do, you will cut your own throat. You see, it might be perfectly safe for you to return; but if once you mention 'mumps,' it will be exceedingly difficult to dislodge the word from their minds. Remember, a schoolmistress cannot afford to take chances."
Caroline had to agree, although it was dead against the grain. She shrank from the idea of a night in the village with an increasing hatred. Her imagination conjured up a low, damp, ivy-bound house, with flickering oil-lamps, cracked plaster walls and chill hospitality. Inconsequently she thought of the name of the village.
"'Paddiscombe.' Isn't 'paddy' old English for 'toad'? Toad's-hollow...I know what's queer about this old girl. She's got cold blood...But that's nothing for me to get windy about."
"We should be nearly at the post office," remarked Miss Bat. "Can you see a light at the left-hand corner?"
It struck Caroline vaguely that Miss Bat's blindness was not such an overwhelming handicap, as her sense of direction triumphed over the darkness. But she was too tired to work out any idea to its conclusion.
"I'd give a hundred pounds of any one's money to lie down now and get a real good sleep," she thought, as they reached the post office.
Its connection with His Majesty's mail was indicated by a letter-slit in the wall; otherwise it was the small general shop, with a bulging bow-window, cluttered with oddly assorted wares. Caroline noticed picture-postcards, boiled sweets, strings of onions, bars of yellow soap, pigs' trotters and corset belts, as she stumbled down the damp steps into a dimly-lit interior.
There was no one behind the counter, and no other customer. Miss Bat glanced around her and then spoke to Caroline.
"Please wait here, while I speak to the post-mistress on private business."
A bell jangled as she opened the door which led into the living-room—leaving Caroline alone.
As she leaned against the counter, the girl felt as though she were trapped in a nightmare, where everything appeared dark and unreal. The air was cold and stuffy and smelt of rotten apples and mice. Through the transparent top of the door, she could see the post-mistress, whose face was distorted by a slight flaw in the glass to the semblance of a frozen grimace.
In her state of nervous tension, the drone of voices seemed to go on endlessly, but the actual interview was short. After the postmistress had greeted Miss Bat almost with servility, the leading lady of the neighbourhood stated her wishes.
"I want you to send a trunk-call for me at once, please, as I do not want to wait for it when I reach my house."
"There's been one for you," the woman told her. "I knew you must be out when I couldn't get through. It's from Somerset. The number is Miss Yaxley-Moore's. She's going to put it through again soon." She glanced at the clock. "I'm expecting it any minute now. You should get it soon after you reach home."
Miss Bat's smile revealed her pleasure at being saved expense.
"In that case," she said, "it will not be necessary for me to make my call...But there's a young lady outside who wants to send off a telegram. As quickly as you can, please."
Caroline was dully relieved when the tinkle of the bell announced the return of Miss Bat, with the post-mistress. She was anxious to get outside again, for the raw darkness was preferable to the cheesy stench. In a kind of dream she accepted the form and stumpy pencil, and scrawled a short message to Mrs. Nash.
"Detained. Bad news. Writing."
Before she could protest, Miss Bat, who had been counting the words over her shoulder, paid for the telegram. Then she took the girl's arm again.
"You must want rest," she said, with her former kindliness. "We'll get home as quickly as possible."
It was not until they were again groping their way through the darkness, that Caroline realised that Miss Bat had dictated her telegram.
"I'm letting myself be run by a little old cardboard lady," she thought, with a flicker of amusement.
Meanwhile, Olive sat in the cinema, watching a picture with hypnotised eyes. The dark circle of water was still a long distance removed from her.
But another girl was drawing nearer to it with every step.
"HERE we are," announced Miss Bat, her voice stiff with pride. "This is Bat House."
Looming through the fog, Caroline saw the dim outlines of a gracious Christopher Wren mansion, set flush with the road. Although no lights of welcome shone from the long windows, it was such a pleasant substitute for the dismal lodging of her imagination that she began to praise it unstintedly.
Miss Bat accepted her homage as a matter of course. While she was fumbling with the key of the door, her mind was working over the problem of the girl's luggage. All the chances were in favour of the bottles being in the trunk, in which case, she must get in touch with her half-sister immediately.
The telephone had been installed in her own bedroom, in order to make it as inaccessible as possible when Miss Yaxley-Moore was at the house. It was necessary, therefore, to keep Caroline out of earshot, while she waited for the trunk-call.
"My maid is out, as I think I told you before," she explained.
"That is why we are in the dark. I do not expect her back before the evening, so I shall have a few matters to attend to upstairs. But I expect you will be glad to rest quietly for a while. Welcome to Bat House."
As the door slammed behind them with a dull thud, Miss Bat loosened her hold of Caroline's arm, leaving her alone in the darkness. A few seconds later there was the scrape of a match as the lady of the house lit a lamp placed upon an oaken chest.
True to forecast, the light was poor, but Caroline was able to admire the dimensions of the hall and the sweep of a fine staircase.
"I'm in luck," she told herself. "I'll ring up Lesley and have a chat with her when the little lady is out of the way. It will make me feel I'm still in the same old England, when I hear her voice."
Cheered by the prospect, she appealed eagerly to her hostess.
"Do you mind if I use your phone? I want to ring up my sister. She'll be able to advise me about this jam, and also have the doubtful pleasure of stumping up."
As Miss Bat hesitated, she added quickly, "I'll pay for the call, of course, directly my money comes through."
"That would be my pleasure," Miss Bat assured her with formal politeness. "But I am not on the telephone."
Caroline was surprised by the strength of her disappointment. She considered whether it were worth her while to grope through the fog back to the post office, but refrained from motives of economy. Since Miss Bat was not there to pay for her, it would be more prudent to conserve her small stock of money for an emergency.
"I always feel it gives one a feeling of safety to be on the phone," she told her hostess.
Miss Bat smiled faintly as she realised the wisdom of her lie.
"To my mind, the telephone has destroyed all personal privacy," she remarked. "Besides, I'm too well known in the neighbourhood for any one to dare break into my house."
"I shouldn't like to have to count the number of times she says 'my house,'" thought Caroline. "A mild form of mania, I suppose."
"I must get my glasses," said Miss Bat, "and then I'll take your suitcase up to your room."
She stooped to pick it up, but Caroline stopped her. "No. Let me."
"Later then. Will you please come to the library now? Since motoring has become a national menace, I am unable to use my beautiful front rooms much, owing to the annoyance."
Unable to resist the temptation, she lit a candle in an old pewter candlestick and opened a door.
"This is my drawing-room," she said.
Caroline had to guess at its glories, although she gained a general impression of fine proportions and austere furnishing, which reminded her of an eighteenth century salon.
The candle-light fell directly upon a bureau, upon which she noticed a bowl of violets and a calendar in a yellowed ivory stand. As she looked at it, she was reminded of how she had dreaded this special date.
"Presentiment," she told herself glumly.
"This way," Miss Bat informed her.
She led her guest down a short passage to the left wing of the house.
"This is the library," she announced. "I call it 'my wee snuggery,' although I suppose it would be considered large. But all my other rooms are so unusually spacious."
She placed the candle on the table and lit the lamp which stood in its centre. It threw a yellow circle over the faded grass-green cloth—revealing minute darns—but left the corners of the room in gloom.
Probably because she was keenly disappointed at being unable to get in touch with her sister, Caroline was depressed by her surroundings. The library was long and narrow, with shabby Victorian furniture, and a worn green Brussels carpet. Its claim to the title rested on two tall glass-fronted bookcases, whose shelves were stocked exclusively with nineteenth-century novels.
On one side was a French window, and on the other a half-glass door. A fire had been lighted earlier, and a few embers still smouldered in the ash-littered grate.
As she watched Miss Bat's clumsy movements, Caroline noticed dully that her hostess seemed surer of her direction in the darkness. But, lighted by the lamp, she walked towards the bureau, colliding with a chair on her way. After some fumbling in a drawer, she found a leather case, from which she drew a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.
"There," she exclaimed, putting them on her nose and blinking like a benevolent owl, "now I can see my beautiful house again. And I can see you...It is such a relief to be helpless no longer."
With brisk motions, she took the smashed spectacles from her bag and placed them inside the drawer. Then she crossed to the fire and began to blow it with a bellows.
Caroline took them from her and was beginning to coax a flicker of flame from the caked coals, when she heard a distant whirr.
"Telephone," she cried, and then laughed. "I forgot you haven't one."
"A bicycle bell, on the road," explained Miss Bat. "Kindly excuse me for a few minutes."
She went out of the library, closing the door carefully behind her and hurried upstairs to her bedroom, where the expected trunk-call was coming through with the maximum of noise and determination.
She snatched off the receiver and waited until a familiar corked voice told her that Miss Yaxley-Moore was at the other end of the wire.
"I called you up before. Where have you been all day?"
"Out," replied Miss Bat.
"Well, I've had foul luck. The idiot I sent to detain Watts let her break away again, and I couldn't find any one with the spunk to follow on."
"Have you searched her trunk?"
"Of course. All I got was the joy of packing it again. The bottles must be in the suitcase."
"In that case, I shall take the necessary steps to procure them." Miss Bat's precise voice was flecked with triumph. "The girl is here, at Bat House."
She could hear her half-sister splutter with astonishment.
"How the hell did you manage it?" demanded Miss Yaxley-Moore.
"That is my business. In any matter of importance, I can trust no one but myself. This is of vital importance to me. Now I want to know this: If the bottles are not inside the suitcase, what is the position?"
"You've done so well, I can leave you to grapple with that." Miss Yaxley-Moore's laugh jarred the wire. "The obvious thing is for you to adopt the girl—who is a poor orphan—and keep her from coming back to the school."
"No. Bat House is large, but there is only room in it for one...Good-bye."
Miss Bat smiled faintly as she hung up the receiver. It was balm to remember her half-sister's arrogant boasting, and to realise that she had triumphed where Marthe had failed.
As a matter of fact, she had hoped for a cheaper victory. When she recognised Caroline in the coach, she knew that the original plot to separate her from her luggage had miscarried. The subsequent unexpected halt at the Smugglers' Inn afforded her an opportunity to work out her half-sister's scheme.
It was merely a matter of taking advantage of chance events. When she noticed the key on the outside of the cellar door, she decided simultaneously to lock Caroline inside; but unfortunately, there were people hanging about the passage who would hear her cries for release.
Therefore, she was obliged to accompany Caroline, after removing the key stealthily, and to imprison herself as well, while the girl was examining the cask. Of course, Caroline's acrobatic feat spoiled everything; but had they been shut up for a sufficient time to lose the bus, she intended, at the first opportunity, to telephone to her half-sister to take steps to procure the suitcase which had gone on in advance.
As the key was in her bag, she counted on opening the door whenever she chose, provided the girl's attention was attracted elsewhere, and to explain the matter as a practical joke on the part of some anonymous wag.
Now, the suitcase was under her roof, but the wretched girl had accompanied it. She had to thank her half-sister for the intrusion of a stranger.
Suddenly her calm face was convulsed by a chance recollection. The half-sisters always breakfasted in bed; but while she could make a tray cloth last for a fortnight, Olive had to find a clean one for Miss Yaxley-Moore every morning.
As she thought of the mess of eggshell and cigarette ash in the tray, Miss Bat's lips tightened. Her original hatred was directed at her half-sister, but—like the sun's rays thrown back in a reflection—it was now focused on a secondary object.
She hated the girl who threatened the sanctity of her beautiful house.
AFTER Miss Bat had left, Caroline continued to blow up the fire until she was rewarded by a bed of glowing coals; but this foundation was wasted for lack of fuel. When she opened the scuttle, she found only a little coal-dust and some torn-up letters.
"Bad staff work," she reflected, as she looked around her. The clock had stopped at ten minutes past one, and the atmosphere smelt faintly of tobacco smoke, which suggested unopened windows. When she contrasted this evidence of neglect with the fresh flowers and up-to-date calendar in the drawing-room, she was sceptical that the library was in constant use.
"She really sits in 'my beautiful drawing-room,'" she decided derisively. "I suppose she did not want me to pollute it, so she brought me here...Yet the fire was lit in this room—and she couldn't have expected to bring home a stranger...Oh, what does it matter any old way? I'm too dog-tired."
Her eyes rested longingly on the old-fashioned sofa. A spring was broken and it was upholstered in such shabby green tapestry that it could not command respect.
"Verboten," she told herself. "I wonder if I dare flop for just half a minute. When I hear her coming down the passage, I can jump up again."
With a feeling of guilt, she stretched herself out on the sofa. It was hard and the cushion was dingy from use, but the relief of resting made her unconscious of any shortcomings. The very fact that she was indulging in forbidden fruit increased her sense of luxury. Sunken in delicious sloth, she was aware of relaxed muscles and appeased nerves, as though myriads of tiny clamouring voices had been suddenly stilled.
A minute passed, and then another, until five minutes had slipped away. Miss Bat did not return, so she took advantage of her absence to remain on the sofa, although she was beginning to grow dangerously drowsy. As she stared at the lamp she could see a faint blurred halo spraying from it, which warned her that her lids were drooping; yet her will was too feeble to prod her body to action.
"I won't close my eyes," she vowed, just before she drifted off to sleep.
Meanwhile, Miss Bat had carried the suitcase from the hall up to her own room. Although she was conscious of no definite mental process at work in her furred brain, it was significant that she did not take it to one of the spare bedrooms.
These were swept and dusted daily by Olive, in order to maintain the standard of Bat House, and not in the expectation of guests. Every bed was stripped, every drawer and wardrobe filled with Miss Bat's belongings. Even the room which had been grudgingly cleared for Miss Yaxley-Moore during the holidays, was already cluttered up again with a drift of accumulated trifles.
Miss Bat was a lady who treasured her possessions. There were piles of linen and extra blankets stacked away in chests and cupboards; yet she did not remove a single sheet or towel from the shelves.
At the back of her mind was one fixed idea. Whatever happened, no stranger-girl should occupy a bed in her house that night.
At present, her chief concern was Caroline's suitcase. It was small, battered and plastered with the highly coloured labels of foreign hotels. She stared at it as though to pierce its leather sides; picked it up to test its weight; shook it on the chance of hearing the rattle of glass; finally, in the absence of definite clues, she tried to open it.
The lock was ordinary and she had a hoard of old keys. Each one of these, however, either jammed the wards, or turned ineffectively round and round. In the end, therefore, she was forced to give up the attempt.
"I must persuade her to lend me the key," she decided.
Caroline, who was in a cat-sleep, heard her step in the passage, but not soon enough to get up in time. Before she could arouse herself sufficiently, Miss Bat entered, and surprised the stranger sprawling on the sofa, with her outdoor shoes resting on its tapestry covering.
At the sight, fireworks seemed to go off inside her head. Like Yaxley-Moore, this girl had not placed a newspaper under her feet to protect the property of another person. She had never asked permission to take such a liberty in some one else's house. In short, she had behaved with the gross discourtesy and wilful neglect which characterised Miss Yaxley-Moore.
At that moment, Caroline became identical with the half-sister. In the events which followed, Miss Bat could not disentangle the one from the other in her mind. Each represented the same factor—an intruder in the house.
She became conscious gradually of Caroline's flurry of apologies.
"I'm frightfully sorry. I don't know what you must think of me—doing the lounge-lizard act here. But I've gone short of sleep—"
"Don't apologise," broke in Miss Bat. "Lie down again, please. You are my guest—and I am glad you felt sufficiently at home in my house, to treat it as your own."
As Caroline struggled up to a sitting posture, Miss Bat firmly pressed her head back on the cushion. She noticed that the girl's eyes were heavy with sleep, and she determined to exploit the fact to her own advantage.
"I have still a few duties," she went on in a purring voice. "The pleasant tasks of a hostess. But I shall not feel that I am neglecting you if you are having a nice little nap...By the way, I've taken your suitcase up to your room."
"Oh, you shouldn't," protested Caroline sleepily.
"I assure you it was quite light. Now I am going to put a hot water-bottle in your bed, and I want your nightdress to wrap round it. If I might borrow the key it would save you the trouble of coming upstairs."
"Oh, please don't fag." Caroline hid her amusement at the fussy attentions. "I'm not used to these little luxuries."
"But I insist. The bed has not been used recently, and you may catch cold. I could not risk the health of a guest. You must allow me to be mistress in my own house."
Miss Bat never forgot that she was the most important lady in the district. For that reason, she was scrupulous in her conception of the hospitality which would naturally accompany such a position. The mention of every unfulfilled action was a tonic to her self-esteem, and helped to remind her that anything which might happen in her house, that night, could be nothing but a distressing accident.
"I'm going to light a fire in your room," she went on. "So please give me your keys. Unless, of course, there is anything private in your suitcase? If so, forgive me. But I've always been used to maids who unpack my luggage, whenever I pay a visit."
"Yes, I'm sure of it...And there's nothing compromising in my case. No baby shoes or what-nots."
"Naturally," Miss Bat stiffened. "Is the key in your handbag?"
"Yes. D'you mind fishing it out."
Miss Bat's back was turned towards the sofa as she bent over the table. Although her main design was to open the suitcase, she did not miss this opportunity to cheek up the contents of the bag.
There were the usual flapjack and lipstick, a few limp papers—chiefly bills and cinema counterfoils—besides the change from a pound note. Having ascertained that her guest had only eight shillings and ninepence, Miss Bat spoke benevolently to her as she left the room.
"Try to get another nap. It will do you good."
Almost directly she was alone, Nature compelled Caroline to follow the advice. But the heavy rush of sleep which swept down on her was of sand-bag quality, which paralysed a portion of her brain, while only slightly stunning her quivering nerves.
She did not realise that she was dreaming, because she knew that she was lying on the sofa in the library. She could still feel the broken spring and the rasp of the pillow under her cheek, as she listened to the noises of the old house. It was no longer a gracious building, mellowed and warmed by generations of life, but a dark prison of ancient sorrows and sins. It held footsteps and voices which could neither rest nor be stilled.
Caroline was conscious of being desperately afraid of something which was going to happen.
She was far more terrified than she would have been, in her waking state, of any definite peril. It seemed to her that while she lay helpless, unable to stir or scream, she was awaiting some unknown horror. The lamp had gone out, and the blackness was thick and sour; she kept swallowing it in great curded lumps, as she listened to the faint sound of distant footsteps limping down a very long passage.
They were still only at the beginning of their journey but their purpose was sure. They did not hesitate or falter as they advanced towards their goal. Some one—or something—was drawing nearer to her.
As she choked and tossed, she realised that she was asleep, and she tried frantically to break away from the clinch of her nightmare. For she knew that she must wake up, while there was still time.
While there was still time...Suddenly, to her relief, she tore herself out of her dream, to find that she was huddled up on the sofa in the library, blinking up at the yellow ball of the lamp.
Her head was throbbing and her heart thumped in an unaccustomed manner as she looked around her with a shudder.
"I don't like this house," she told herself. "I believe some one has been murdered here. Her memories are still in the air. I got them. And they nearly got me...I must get away. I'll never be able to stand a whole night here—only I must...Oh, what a fool I was to leave the bus!"
AS Caroline distractedly swept the hair back from her brow, she pictured the Streamline Coach, rolling farther away with every passing minute. She tried to calculate how much of the journey remained, and decided that—if not unduly delayed by fog—it must be getting near Plume.
What annoyed her disproportionately was the fact that she had surrendered her ticket at Paddiscombe—thus sacrificing a portion of her fare. Considering the mileage she had covered for a very modest sum, she had little ground for complaint; but in her present state of bankruptcy, it seemed to her that she had been altogether too precipitate in action.
"Well, tomorrow must come," she reflected. "And then I shall know more about the mumps."
Although she wondered idly whether her telegram had reached the Abbey School, she was too modest to imagine that it would create any stir. After all, she was only a humble games mistress, and first cousin to a "muddied oaf."
She would have been both surprised and gratified to know that Mrs. Nash was exceedingly annoyed when the village post mistress—following precedent—read the message to her over the telephone—prior to delivery.
"I don't know what girls are coming to," she complained to Miss Yaxley-Moore. "She gives no reason."
"Young man," sneered Yaxley-Moore. "She went out to the winter sports to catch one."
"That's no excuse. She doesn't even say whether she is coming back."
"Would that matter?"
"It would matter to me. Oh, I know I could replace her easily, but I like her. She had definite influence with the girls. Besides, she showed her sense over poor Flora Baumgarten. If she had not insisted on calling in the doctor, I might have been placed in a very awkward position with her father. I don't know what harm it might have done to the school."
Mrs. Nash paused and then added petulantly, "You let me down over that, Marthe."
Miss Yaxley-Moore realised that Mrs. Nash was in her most dangerous post-holiday mood. She looked hard, polished and business-like, from the grey satin sheen of her hair to the hem of her tailored evening-gown, and totally unlike the neurotic suppliant for her services at the séances.
"William's been at her," she reflected. "The sooner I get her under control, and put her into reverse, the safer for me. It's a sure bet the veil will have to be rent tonight."
But while she was confident that Mrs. Nash would be plastic again in her hands as soon as her husband announced his intention of "coming through," she could not ignore the fact that exposure over Flora Baumgarten meant the end. Then she remembered her half-sister, and her hopes revived.
If at that point, a mind-reader had presented her with a typed statement of her true sentiments, with a request for her signature, she would have repudiated it indignantly. All the same, however, her thoughts admitted a possibility which her tongue would not acknowledge.
"If the bottles are not in the suitcase, Blanche may get busy. Of course, she's definitely mental over her house. But if there's any monkey business, I can't stop it, this end. It's no affair of mine. And I know nothing about it. Nothing."
While she hoped for the best-unspecified—Miss Bat was pacing her bedroom. Her brain was a ferment of disappointment and hatred. After all her pains, the suitcase had only yielded pyjamas and toilet necessities.
And with the bottles still in her possession, the girl was dangerous as a viper whose sting is undrawn.
Her half-sister would return to her house—as a fixture. As though her mind were stencilled with a recurring design, she kept seeing a series of breakfast trays—their cloths stiff with dried yolk of egg, and fluffy with cigarette ash. They passed her in an endless string—one for each day of the week—and then began all over again, until the weeks grew months, and the months years.
"No," she cried hoarsely. "No!"
She reminded herself that she might still salvage the situation. The girl was a fool with a leaky tongue. She would draw her out artfully and lead her on to reveal the hiding-place of the evidence.
But—whatever the outcome of her strategy—one fact was static. The girl should not occupy a bedroom in her beautiful house that night.
Her own skin had never been touched with cosmetics, so her face was stiff with disgust as she hurled Caroline's aids to beauty back in the suitcase, and gingerly picked up the mauve silk pyjamas, which were creased from rolling. Re-locking the bag, she carried it down to the hall where she left it on the floor.
When she entered the library, Caroline greeted her with a somewhat pinched smile, for she was still under the shadow of her nightmare.
"I feel dreadful letting you wait on me," she said. "Can't I do something to help you?"
"Thank you, my dear," replied Miss Bat, "there is nothing to do. There's a nice fire in your bedroom and a hot water-bottle in your bed. And now I want to talk to you about supper. I can offer you cold meat—pheasant with tongue or ham. Or would you prefer some simple hot dish such as scrambled eggs with mushrooms?"
The speech was so hospitable that Caroline felt shamed.
"She's really decent," she thought. "And she can't help it if her blood is a bit cold."
With a warm-hearted gush of gratitude, she tried to establish a bond of sympathy between them.
"I'm so bad at thanks," she broke out impulsively. "But you've been my guardian angel. I don't know what I should have done without you. I wish I could make you understand what your kindness has meant to me. But I promise you that I will pass it on to some one else—so that it will really come from you. And then it will come back to you again. Things always come back."
Cheered by anticipation of a firelit bedroom and a good meal, she sprang up from the sofa and lit a cigarette.
"Do you mind if I circulate a bit?" she asked. "I'm feeling cold." She glanced at the dying embers and added quickly, "Sitting still in the bus always makes me stiff."
Miss Bat watched her swift, boyish strides as she paced the room, with fascinated eyes. She noticed too, whenever the ash dropped from her cigarette, and she shuddered to see it trodden into the carpet.
In just such a manner had Miss Yaxley-Moore worn the pile from her cherished Brussels. Another stencil was smeared across her mind, so that she saw endless pairs of boots—muddy from the road—resting on the unprotected tapestry cover of the sofa. Boots that would lie there from end to end of the calendar. And then all over again. Boots...Struck by an idea that had some connection with the sequence of her censored thoughts, her lips tightened in a curious smile.
"How quickly you walk," she said in a high, strained voice. "You seem so sure. I notice you never look where you are going.
"I look up at the stars, not down at the mud," laughed Caroline. "Sounds all right, doesn't it? But it's really training. I coach girls in games and gym. Even in the hols, I keep on the go. I've just come back from the winter sports in Switzerland."
Then she paused by the half-glass door and tried to penetrate the foggy darkness outside.
"Does this lead into the garden?" she asked.
"No, into the courtyard."
"Courtyard? I love those things. They make me think of Continental holidays. Has yours got tubs of little pink begonias? May I see it?"
The request was premature, so Miss Bat spoke sharply:
"To-morrow. Please don't open the door now. You will let in the damp air."
She added hastily, "Will you have some fruit?"
The refreshing word, with its promise of juice, reminded Caroline of a parched throat, and she eagerly accepted the offer. It was a stiff test of politeness, however, when Miss Bat handed her a plate of small Spanish oranges.
"I can feel my teeth shrinking," she thought as she valiantly bit through the sour divisions.
Now that her guest was safely occupied by refreshment, Miss Bat led up to the subject of a mystery which Caroline alone could clear.
"I wonder if that bus of ours will meet with an accident in the fog?" she remarked. "Personally, I was glad to get off it. It is not really safe to travel in this weather. It will be strange if those mumps—although they seem unlucky now—may have saved your life."
Caroline rose to the bait.
"How weird you should say that!" she cried excitedly. "You know, there was something odd connected with my journey."
As Miss Bat had anticipated, she related the story of the anonymous letters, and the various implications, which she coloured and exaggerated for the sake of drama. But she made no admission about the bottles of medicine, and only mentioned them under the vague description of "things."
"Am I to understand," fished Miss Bat, "that you are in danger because of something you are carrying?"
"Not dangerous to me," laughed Caroline. "But jolly dangerous to some one else. That's why she would like to get hold of it."
"Exactly. I suppose it is safe in your trunk?"
"Then you have it with you?"
As Caroline made no reply, she spoke persuasively:
"You're very young, my dear, and I don't think you should run any risk, however unlikely it seems. If you will let me take charge of your—treasure, I will lock it in my safe for the night."
Caroline only shook her head with a confident smile which maddened Miss Bat.
"No one can take it from me," she boasted. "For no one knows where it is. I've put it—somewhere—where I can get it, directly I want it. It's going to be of deadly importance later, you know."
"How mysterious. You make me curious. Won't you let me into the secret? Please."
In the pause that followed, Miss Bat reminded herself that she was indeed Caroline's guardian angel. For she held out her hands, offering a gift of infinite value, in return for a few paltry words.
"It's her last chance," she thought.
SHE offered Caroline—Life. And the girl threw it lightly away with a flippant toss of her head.
"Mean of me," she chuckled. "But it's a secret, for the present. I'll tell you where it was when I write my bread-and-butter letter."
Miss Bat spoke mechanically, for her thoughts were occupied with a problem. Should she ring up Marthe Yaxley-Moore, to explain the situation and tell her to shadow the girl on her arrival at Plume?
"Suppose some one followed you to this cache of yours and took the—and took your treasure from you?" she asked.
"Then they'd have to be fast workers and cosh me before I coshed them," said Caroline. "Directly I lift the 'doings,' I shall hand them over at once to an interested party."
Miss Bat realised from the speech that a trunk-call would be a waste of money. Immediate action was indicated, since her half-sister could not take away the bottles from a strong and active girl without attracting publicity. She set her lips—and tried to think.
As her hostess remained silent, Caroline began to wonder how long they were to remain in a fireless room. A move to pleasanter quarters seemed a necessity, so she tried to lead up to the idea by praising the house.
"I'm longing to go over it," she said. "The little I've seen of it is so quaint and picturesque. I expect you're very proud of it."
Miss Bat laughed scornfully as she considered the girl.
"I venerate it. My house is History."
Caroline instinctively shivered as she remembered the limping footsteps of her dream.
How far down the corridor had they come by now? Had they reached the door of the library? Were they waiting outside? She could not be thankful enough that she had awakened in time.
"A lot of people must have lived here," she said.
"Generations of Bats," remarked Miss Bat.
"Just like a belfry," thought Caroline flippantly. "Then they must have died here too," she said aloud. "I suppose no one was ever murdered here?"
Miss Bat started at the question.
"No," she declared vehemently. "There has never been a murder in Bat House. A fatal accident perhaps—for which no one could be held responsible."
"Of course." Caroline's voice was soothing as she changed the subject. "Has your family lived here long?"
"Only since the house was built, and that is under two hundred years. Of course, my family goes back much further. That is my Tree."
She nodded towards an immense framed chart which covered a shadowed wall outside the radius of light.
"How thrilling," declared Caroline. "I'm keen on trees. I like the follow-up. My stunt is to take two runners and back one to reach the bottom first. D'you mind if I take the lamp and have a good look at yours?"
Miss Bat gave a high squeal of protest.
"Please don't touch it. I am so afraid of fire. And candles drop grease on the carpet. If you can control your impatience until to-morrow, you will be able to study it by daylight."
"Always to-morrow," reflected Caroline, as she lit another cigarette, for something to do. She was wondering how she could endure the period of waiting, when Miss Bat spoke to her.
"I feel that in these days of upstarts and profiteers, a long pedigree means everything. Do you not agree?"
"No," replied Caroline thoughtlessly, as she remembered the snobbish atmosphere of the Abbey School. "That's all old stuff. I am modern, so I place personal achievement far higher. It's the man who's made a success of his life—something out of nothing, you know—that counts. But I can't see that any one has a right to feel elevated above the crowd just because he is standing on a pile of mouldy bones."
Mouldy bones! The tinted glasses hid the venom of Miss Bat's glance. The sudden rush of blood to her head and the frantic beating of a vein in her temple almost alarmed her. For a moment, she wondered whether she was going to have a stroke.
She realised that she loathed this girl with a direct personal hatred which had no connection with her half-sister. She abominated her for all that she was and did; for her mauve silk trousers and her safety razor—for the spilt ash on the carpet—for her derision of the priceless heritage of ancestry.
Above all, for being the means of grafting that poisonous parasite—Yaxley-Moore—on to the roof-tree of Bat House. Mouldy bones. In that moment of molten rage, she was glad when she thought of the well.
It was only a few yards away—a sixty-foot drop down to a circle of black stagnant water. It would be impossible to see it in the fog, and equally impossible for any one who crossed the courtyard in the dark, to miss it, since it lay in a direct line between the two doors. Miss Bat had only to light the scullery lamp as a guide to direction, and a few of those famous long strides would end—in a fatal accident.
Fortunately, it would not be a long drawn-out ordeal of suspense for the mistress of the house. A scream, a splash, some frantic struggles, fingers trying to grip the slimy brickwork. Numbed feet treading water, like a rat caught in a sewer. However strong a swimmer, the girl must soon be overpowered by the intense cold—although it might be safer not to raise the alarm until the next morning.
Suddenly Miss Bat saw herself wearing her sable cape, her pearl earrings, a bunch of Neapolitan violets, and her best veiled hat, in the character of principal witness at the inquest. Her evidence, which revealed a characteristic story of Christian charity, would gain her additional respect and sympathy.
Caroline? Oh, just a poor girl whom she had met in the local bus, for the first time. She had befriended her in some trouble—probably an unhappy love affair. She had given her tea at the Tudor House, and during the meal, the girl had declared that life was not worth living.
"She said such wild things," testified Miss Bat, "that I felt she should not be alone, and at personal inconvenience—for my maid was out—I invited her to spend the night at my house. The waitress may remember the incident."
After an interlude for corroborative evidence, Miss Bat saw herself in the limelight again...
"I wished her good-night, and left her safely in her bedroom. It was obvious, though, that she did not go to bed, for she was fully dressed when we found her."
Miss Bat, however, hoped there would be no suggestion of suicide. It was true that the girl had asked questions about the well, but she could not know that the maid—Olive—had previously removed the heavy cover.
At this point, Miss Bat remembered that she did not want to sacrifice a cheap and tireless worker. So she made a moving appeal to public opinion.
"I feel that no good can be achieved by punishing Olive for a crime she cannot understand. I will do my best to explain it to her. But I will not throw her out on the scrap heap. The well must be available in case of fire, but I will go into the matter of adequate safeguards. Meantime, I hope no one will think I am lacking in proper feeling when I say I shall continue to keep Olive in my employment."
Miss Bat could actually hear a ripple of suppressed applause lapping round the court. She smiled graciously and bowed to left and right, to Caroline's amazement.
Olive too, would assist at the happy conclusion. Secretly reassured by her kind mistress, she would confess fearlessly to her own part in the accident. Soon afterwards, Miss Yaxley-Moore would become joint partner with Mrs. Nash, and ultimately assume complete control of the Abbey School. With ample means of her own, she would cease to visit Bat House.
As for the bottles, according to the girl they were hidden where no one could find them. If any one stumbled on the cache, they would probably be thrown away as junk. After the girl was dead, there would be no one to bring a specific charge against Yaxley-Moore, although she must be prepared for the contingency of another meddlesome busybody.
In short, it was a story whose end should satisfy every one—except a girl who herself, would soon be only mouldy bones...
At this point in her reverie, a distant ring caused Miss Bat to glance at her watch.
"My front-door bell," she explained. "That will be the Parish Magazine. The village school-mistress brings it, and I make a point of taking it in myself, so that I may ask her about her personal affairs. It is greatly appreciated, and is one of the ways in which I keep in touch with those who are outside my own social circle."
Before Caroline could express the proper appreciation, Miss Bat went to a bookcase, unlocked it and took out a bound volume.
"You say you have been recently in Switzerland," she said. "These photographs—taken in the seventies—will show you what it was really like, before it was spoilt by cheap trippers."
When her hostess had gone, Caroline dutifully flicked over the pages, but could detect no changes in the contours of the mountains. By now, however, she had grasped the situation. In her character of hostess, Miss Bat directed every move, while a guest sat in polite inaction, awaiting each kind attention.
"I'll never be caught this way again," she vowed. "No more charity from great ladies. Next jam I'm in, I'll go to the police station and ask them to put me in a cell for the night."
Presently she grew so bored with glossy black-and-white views of lake and mountain scenery, that she rebelled against one of the restrictions. Taking up the lamp from the table, she carried it across to the end of the room where the family tree was hung.
It was certainly an impressive record, for the original ancestor had been dead for a very long time. Caroline ascertained his name and date, and then skipped the rest of his family, to find the lowest branches which should bear Miss Bat's name. After eliminating a crop of female Bats, who had either died, or married, she discovered a solitary spinster.
"She must be 'Blanche,'" she decided. "But—oh, my gosh, who's this popping up with her?"
In the shock of discovering the twin-ramification of "Yaxley-Moore" Caroline nearly dropped the lamp. It tilted dangerously as she remembered that the Matron had boasted of her half-sister's place in Wiltshire; although she always gave the impression that it was a large estate.
Returning to the sofa, she stared blankly at the Swiss photographs, while she tried to straighten out the situation. "What a mess. Sheer bad luck—for she couldn't know me from a bar of soap. Well, one thing's settled. I can't stop, considering I'm going to boot out her half-sister...I'd better get ready to go."
The knowledge of being in a false position, together with the need to hurry, made her feel shaky with suspense as she opened her bag and drew out her pocket-comb.
"She'd hate to see me doing this over her carpet," she reflected guiltily as she began to arrange the waves of her hair before the mirror. The light was poor and the glass old, so that she could only guess at the effect of her hasty make-up; but a ray from the lamp glinted on her bleached lock of hair. The sight of it reminded her again of the fact that she was marked.
"Miss Bat could recognise me from that," she thought wildly. "It wasn't chance. I believe it was a plot. They're both in it. Oh, what does it all mean? What is she going to do to me?"
She realised that she was trembling, although there was nothing to fear. It was in vain that she told herself that she could protect herself with one hand against any attack from a frail elderly woman.
There was Evil in the house. Once again she heard footsteps, very far away, limping down a long passage towards her.
"Fool," she said angrily to the blurred white face in the glass.
Steadied by the sound of her own voice, she regained her self-control and was able to sum up the situation with a cooler brain. She told herself that she was justified in believing that a blood-tie between Yaxley-Moore and Miss Bat meant treachery. If she stayed here for the night she would probably expose herself to danger. She might be suffocated in her sleep, or she might be poisoned.
But, since she proposed to walk out of Bat House within the next five minutes, she had nothing to fear. Moreover, Miss Bat's reception of her announcement would give her some valuable knowledge. If she tried to persuade her to stay, the implication would be sinister; but if she merely expressed conventional regret, it would be proof that her hospitality screened no ulterior motive.
In spite of her philosophy, her heart leaped in uncontrollable panic when she heard Miss Bat's step in the passage. Her hostess entered the room with a copy of the Parish Magazine in her hand.
"I had a delightful little conversation with—"
She broke off to stare at Caroline's cap and gloves.
"Surely you are not going out in this fog?" she asked.
"I'm going on to Plume," blurted out Caroline, feeling strangely unsure of herself and of her power to control the situation. "I've just remembered something very important. I simply must be back at the school to—night."
As Miss Bat said nothing, she added quickly: "I'm just as grateful to you as if I'd stayed."
"I quite understand." said Miss Bat with polite unconcern. "Of course, if you wish to go, I cannot press you to stay."
In that pause she had been thinking that since she did not mean to permit this girl to sleep under her roof, the new freak was a stroke of luck which cleared the way to direct action. There was no need to delay any longer.
"Are you going back immediately, or shall I look up your next bus in my time-table?" she asked.
"At once," replied Caroline firmly. "I'll wait at the inn. But I'm terribly sorry to have given you all your trouble for nothing."
Miss Bat smiled graciously as she thought of the cold upper rooms with their unmade beds, and the larder which held only her own supper.
"It is of no consequence," she assured Caroline. "Can I offer you some refreshment before you go? Tea—or wine?"
"Nothing, thanks," protested Caroline hastily.
"But you must feel sticky after your journey. Wouldn't you like to wash?"
Caroline's face lit up at the suggestion.
"I'd love to. I've not had a chance since I left London, and I feel a perfect sweep."
"Then I'll put a light in the downstairs cloak-room. The water is hotter down there than in the bathroom, as the pipes haven't so far to go."
She crossed to the half-glass door and opened it.
"This is your shortest way," she explained. "The cloakroom is directly opposite, in the kitchen wing. You have only to cross the courtyard to where you will see the light when I have lit it. It will save you a long walk back to the hall and through the house."
She paused and added: "Unfortunately I cannot save my own legs, as I must unlock the back door. Then I will light the lamp and put out clean towels. When everything is ready I will call out to let you know."
ALTHOUGH she had to wait for only a short time, Caroline fretted at this fresh check. She even regretted having yielded to a natural impulse for cleanliness, for she had worked herself to a state of nervous tension, when she felt she could scarcely endure the peculiar enclosed atmosphere of Bat House.
The next few minutes were of vital importance to her destiny. Yet she was barely conscious of her actions as she mechanically opened her cigarette-case—to find it empty. Unable to keep still, she began to pace the library, while subconsciously aware of a lack.
Presently she paused by the mantelshelf, upon which lay about half a cigarette. It was evident that she had lit it and then laid it down and forgotten it, so that it had burnt itself out.
Although it did not look too inviting, her craving to smoke overcame her reluctance.
"I know now why men collect fags from the gutter," she thought as she applied a match to the stump.
In that action she sealed her fate.
Her thoughts were still cloudy with suspicion of Miss Bat. It was true that her recent conduct cleared her of the charge of being in collusion with Yaxley-Moore; but there was something about the pale, unlined face and blank, dark glasses which chilled Caroline as much as the frigid politeness of her manner.
"She's got me guessing," she thought.
She knew that if she followed her instinct she would play an unworthy schoolgirl prank and take French leave of her hostess. While Miss Bat was busy with her hospitable preparation in the cloak-room, she could steal back to the hall and slip out through the front door.
The prospect allured her until she was actually upon the point of flitting, when she remembered that her suitcase was upstairs. Once again she was checked by the common sense which had played her false throughout her journey. It reminded her that she could not present herself at any lodging without necessities for the night.
As she considered the point, she was tempted anew by the thought of hot water gushing from a tap and the refreshing lather of soap. She could even see the cake decreed by Miss Bat's sense of refinement—transparent, amber and non-scented—also the towel of finest linen, of minute size, and almost covered by a worked monogram.
It was absurd to ruin everything and leave a thoroughly bad impression behind her just for the sake of a few extra minutes. All the same, as she paced the worn carpet it struck her that Miss Bat's elaborate preparations seemed to result in no definite comfort.
She checked up the items which represented the sum-total of her hospitality—café tea, which she had scarcely tasted; the charge for a telegram; a fireless room; a sour orange.
"I'll pay her for everything directly I'm back," she resolved. "And I'll write her a letter of apology, explaining all about Yaxley. I must make her see that I'm bound to act this way from principle, and that there's nothing personal."
But in spite of her resolution, her relentless conscience was not appeased. It kept reminding her that she had not summed up her debt entirely, since she could not ignore the responsibility of the smashed glasses.
She was reluctant to pay for their repair, because she was forced to make a rigid budget.
"I didn't knock them off," she argued. "She definitely butted me with her head...But it happened over the window—and I wanted it opened...No, I'll have to come clean."
At first she was tempted to compromise by offering to pay the bill for new pebbles; but she rejected the idea as unworthy.
"She wouldn't let me—and that's why I'm thinking of it. She'd say, 'Allow that to be my pleasure.' No, I'd better sneak them away, and leave a note in the drawer to say I'll return them mended."
As she crossed to the bureau she saw through the glass of the courtyard door a very dim glow struggling to escape extinction by the screen of fog. It was directly opposite, so she knew that Miss Bat had lit the lamp in the cloakroom.
At any moment she would hear the signal cry, telling of the welcome end of her ordeal.
"I must hurry," she thought.
On the other side of the yard Miss Bat had just put a match to a candle in a hanging lantern—but not in the cloakroom; that existed solely in her imagination, together with bedroom fires and hot-water bottles. Here was only an icy scullery, with damp stone flags.
Then she got down from the chair on which she stood and opened the door. This was not for purposes of admission, but to guide the girl to the spot marked in the map of her mind with an X.
While she did so. Caroline was busy in the library. She found the smashed glasses in the drawer of the bureau, but was surprised to find that their case was stamped with the name of a cheap wholesale maker. The spectacles, too, appeared to be like those which can be bought indiscriminately at Woolworth's as a protection against sun-glare.
When she remembered Miss Bat's blindness, she knew that she must be mistaken over their quality. Such feeble sight would need the aid of strong magnifying lenses, which could only be procured at an optician's.
"Dash! I shall have to write for the prescription," she thought. "But I must take them, to show her it's a genuine transaction...Wonder how strong they are?"
As one pebble remained intact, she slipped the frame over her nose, expecting to see only a blur. But, to her utter amazement, the glass made no difference to her vision, except for the line of the crack.
At first she was stunned by the shock of her discovery; but almost immediately a series of sequences began to jolt through her jammed brain, jerking it into action again. She argued that since the spectacles were made of ordinary crystal, it followed logically that Miss Bat could see perfectly well with one eye at least.
Yet she had feigned blindness, in order to claim help. So the accident was stage-managed, as though on purpose to lure Caroline into the Tudor House. Why?
Because she had arranged a meeting with the country girl whose face was swathed in a scarf. They knew each other, and the mumps were a put-up job. Why? To invite her to Bat House.
Caroline's teeth began to chatter and her knees grew suddenly weak as she tried, desperately and incoherently, to deny a possibility too hideous for reality.
No, no, not that! People didn't do things like that. Not ordinary people—and not in England...Only she was not in England. She had left her own familiar country when she jumped out of the Streamline Coach into this bewitched village of terrible old women. Even if she had rung up London, her sister would not have answered the call. She had slipped too far behind the radius of any wave-length or wireless.
Carried on a surge of hysteria, her only thought was to escape. In her terror of Miss Bat, she credited her with abnormal powers, and she dared not meet her again. If she returned to the hall she might run into her arms when they met in the darkness of the connecting passage.
But she knew there must be another way out. In a house of this size there would be a tradesmen's entrance. Besides, there had been mention of a back door somewhere in the courtyard.
Snatching up her bag, she opened the half-glass door and peered out into the fog. The illumination from the library barely lit up a yard or so of damp flagstones, making the surrounding darkness deeper. The middle of the open space was plugged with impenetrable shadows; but directly opposite to her she could detect the feeble glow which located the cloak-room.
It was a valuable guide to direction. If she steered by it it would lead her across the courtyard to the kitchen wing. Once she was on the other side she could work her way along the wall until she came to an outlet.
She started violently at the sound of a ready, high-pitched voice in the distance.
Miss Bat was calling to her. There was no time to linger, if she meant to escape.
With those famous quick strides—approved of by Miss Bat—she walked directly towards the well...
At that moment it seemed that nothing could save her from the ghastly shock of walking into vacancy. Her right foot touched the rim of the well. The next step would carry her over the brink and send her crashing down to a choking death in the darkness.
In the infinitesimal interval between, she felt a scorching pain in the palm of one hand, which reminded her that she was crushing the end of her cigarette within her doubled-up fingers. She dropped it instantly—tossing it before her—when it disappeared, as though jaws had opened and swallowed it.
Warned by an extra sense, she stopped dead where she stood and stared in bewilderment at the spot where a red smouldering stub should lie. She knew that something was hideously wrong, and she realised in a vague, subconscious way that her life depended on keeping perfectly still.
As she held herself rigid, fearing to draw a breath or stir a muscle, she became conscious of a familiar smell. It reminded her of a dungeon or a canal before she recognised the rank odour of stale water. Unable to bear further suspense, she fumbled in the pocket of her cardigan and found her matches. Striking one with infinite care, she flashed it before her.
Its flame flickered on the glistening brickwork of a circular shaft, and she saw that she was standing poised on the lip of a perpendicular drop. The rest was wiped out by blackness; but as the match fell from her nerveless fingers she caught a glimpse of it, a long way below her, still fluttering downwards. Deeper and deeper it sank—lower and lower—until it was suddenly extinguished in a gleam of dark water.
At the sight she was overpowered by a wave of vertigo. Her knees shook, her head swam, her stomach seemed to turn right over. Every muscle was loosened, every sinew unstrung, and she felt as though she must pitch forward down into the well. For a terrible second she oscillated, like a raindrop quivering from a twig, and then her heel turned and her foot slid under her.
Even as she fell, with a stupendous effort she threw herself backwards so that she lay partially on the damp flags of the courtyard. The balance of her body was exactly even, and one unguarded movement would send her slipping down over the brim; but in the moment of crisis, her training justified itself.
By sheer muscular force she wormed herself, inch by inch, over the stones, until she was able to roll over on her face and draw herself up to her knees. Too exhausted and terrified to rise, she crawled to within a yard of the open door and then managed to stagger into the library.
Her experience seemed an incredible adventure as she blinked stupidly at the shabby grass-green table-cloth within the circle of lamplight. She dropped into the nearest chair, but pulled herself up again as her brain suddenly whirled with monstrous suspicions.
"She meant to murder me," she told herself. "She told me to cross to the light. It was a trap...I must get away at once."
Still clutching her bag, she rushed down the passage and into the hall in a maddened bolt of panic. The lamp was turned at half-clock, revealing her suitcase lying amid a stretch of polished parquet floor. Snatching it up automatically as she dashed past, she unbolted the front door and slipped through it out into the fog.
ALTHOUGH she was outside the house, she had no sense of safety. Escape had been easy, with no attempt to stop her and with no pursuit; yet, instead of the exhilaration of freedom, she could not rid herself of the impression that she was in an evil dream, from which she had only partially awakened.
Some one knew that she had gone, but had made no effort to draw her back. She was looped at the end of a long string, allowed to go so far, and no farther. Another person held the other end...
The footsteps were still limping down the dark corridor of her brain.
"I must get away," she told herself.
To her horror, however, she found that she could not move, for fear of crashing down into an invisible pit. That moment of realisation, when she stood poised on the rim of the well, had taken its toll. It had swept her away, as on the spate of a mighty waterfall, sweeping her over the abyss in a boil of foam and thunder, and had shaken her off again into smooth water; but it left her with battered, stunned faculties and senses dislocated, awry.
She was suffering from the aftermath of her shock. The muscles which had served her so well in her struggle for life refused now to respond to her will. While she knew that every second of delay was dangerous, she stood as though rooted to the doorstep, staring helplessly at the fog which hung before her in a dense white sheet.
Suddenly she realised that she had not closed the door entirely and that she could hear sounds inside the house. The grandfather's clock in the hall ticked like drops of water falling from a height. As she listened she discovered that it was accompanied by other faint noises—the snap of a board—the padded tapping of feet.
Some one was coming down the stairs.
The knowledge unlocked her muscles, and she blundered into the fog, gripping at the railings round the house with her free hand, while she clung to her suitcase and bag with the other. As though she realised in some vague way that they represented her link with reality, she never relaxed her grip of her possessions, despite the burdensome handicap on movement.
The rusted iron rasped her palms as she swung herself along to the end of the fence. Here she paused, until the threat of pursuit forced her to take a chance. With the sensation of a non-swimmer venturing into the deep end of the bath, she stepped out into the wall of vapour.
Her courage was rewarded by the discovery of a stone wall, which served as a guide. With her fingers scraping its surface, she groped forward like a blind person, pace by pace, not venturing to move until her foot had explored and felt solid ground. She was baffled and bewildered also by the density of the mist, which seemed tangible, as though she were passing between clothes-lines draped with sodden sheets. When she brushed through the curtain she could almost imagine that folds of wet linen were flapping in her face.
As she advanced, her sense of being in a nightmare increased. There seemed to be no sign of habitation—no pavement—no lamp-post. When she had walked through the village with Miss Bat, although the place appeared depressingly antique and deserted, there were windows and doorsteps flush with the road, and occasionally the gate of a cottage garden.
Now every landmark had disappeared—every familiar thing vanished. She told herself that this was not the Great West Road, but a bewitched hostile region, tenanted only by horrible old women. Even then they were spying at her from invisible shrouded easements. At any minute she might feel skinny fingers clawing her arm to drag her back to Bat House—back to the well.
The open mouth still gaped in the courtyard, waiting to be fed.
She moved through a zone of silence, for not a dog barked or a child cried. There were no children in the village. There were no men and no young people. There were no animals, no birds. There were only terrible old women.
"There's only one way to get out of this place," she told herself. "I must get back to the Streamline Coach."
Presently, instead of the stone, she found that her fingers were touching the spiky twigs of a hedge. The ground, too, appeared softer, as though cobbles were replaced by trodden mud. To her dismay, she realised the reason for the wholesale disappearance of bricks and mortar. She had taken a wrong turning and was probably walking along some lane or minor road, which accounted for the absence of traffic.
Although the knowledge jolted her back to reality, the situation had grown more hopeless. As she turned round, on the chance of finding her way back to the King of Prussia, she was the victim of a poignant disappointment. Suddenly, and practically without warning, a car shot past her.
She did not know that it was near until she saw its tail-lights slipping away through the fog, and the sight drove her nearly frantic with longing. This car was driven by a normal man and had come from a real world which she had lost. It was her link with sanity, for it could take her out of this village of old women.
Shouting and slipping on the slimy camber of the lane, she rushed after it; but no one heard her, and the lights first dwindled to a gleam of glow-worms and then disappeared. The car had returned to another dimension.
She turned round and blinked the tears away. Her nerves were so completely shattered by her experience at the brink of the well that she was incapable of consecutive thought and could only act on the spur of impulse. She knew she must find the inn, and that it was situated at the extreme end of Paddiscombe.
To reach it she must first pass the dread Bat House; and at the mere thought, her courage failed utterly.
"She'll be waiting for me," she thought. "She'll get me again. I shall never escape."
Suddenly her foot scraped against a hard object, which warned her that she had strayed from the road. Striking a match, she had a momentary shock, for something white and gleaming, like a human skull, lay on the ground. The next second she discovered that there were lines of them stretching away from her, and that they were monstrous shells which bordered a garden path.
In front was the dim shape of a cottage. She could see the murky glow of a lamp through a window which was curtained with Nottingham lace and further blocked by plants in pots. When she reached the door she discovered it was open, while she could smell the warm sealed atmosphere with its characteristic odour of rotten apples.
"Oh, send some one young," she thought as she knocked on the panel.
She had reached a point when she would welcome the most shrewish housewife—provided she possessed the supreme quality of youth.
Her petition was not granted, for her tap brought a gaunt, elderly woman into the passage. Her nose was sharp, and she had inquisitive eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses. She was wearing a damp coat and a shapeless felt hat which cast a shadow over her face.
"Can you direct me to the inn?" asked Caroline. "The one where the London buses stop."
"The King of Prussia," said the woman in a harsh voice. "You're walking dead away from it."
"Then which way do I turn?"
"If I told you, you'd only get lost again in this fog. It's thick as mustard...You're a stranger, aren't you?"
"Are you the girl that's staying with Miss Bat for the night? She told me she'd gone out to post a letter and hadn't come back."
"No," lied Caroline with instinctive caution as her eye caught the pile of parish magazines on a chair, which identified the woman as the village school-mistress. "I'm not staying with Miss Bat. I am on my way to Plume, and I must catch the next bus."
"Well, I've still some magazines to drop, so I don't mind taking you to the 'King.'"
The woman unhooked a lantern, lit the stump of candle inside and led the way down the garden path, followed closely by Caroline.
She had no alternative but to accept the school-mistress as a guide, since it was impossible to find the way without the aid of a native. All the same, she quivered with apprehension when the woman shattered the silence to praise Miss Bat's philanthropy.
"She's charitable to all—the poor, the humble and the stranger within her gate. But every one's not grateful. There's some would walk out on her, so that she couldn't sleep, wondering if they had come to any harm."
Caroline only hoped that the woman was referring to some other person who had failed to appreciate the loving forethought of an uncovered well and a nice long drop.
"I'm younger and stronger than she is, if she's up to any trick," she told herself. "I'm not afraid of her."
She dared not acknowledge her real fear, lest she should precipitate the horror that she dreaded—the treachery of her nerves. They had mutinied already, in the very act of escape, leaving her numb and powerless, while footsteps drew nearer. She had conquered then, but the next time might find her locked in the rigid grip of nightmare, as she had been in her evil dream during her first night at the Abbey School.
She was gripped again by the sensation of having invaded some strange region outside time and space, where no one cast a shadow and nothing grew but finger-nails, as she stumbled through the watery darkness. When presently she slipped on some object she could not see, the woman took her arm.
"You're shaking all over," she said. "Have you had a shock?"
"Yes," replied Caroline. "I don't want to talk of it. What a lot of old people seem to live here. Aren't there any girls?"
"Surely you've seen one. Olive—she's Miss Bat's maid—and an object of blessed charity which praises the Lord."
The words seemed to Caroline the blasphemy of witches as she remembered the girl's name which confirmed her confederacy in Miss Bat's plot.
"I won't take up your time any longer," she said hastily. "Please point out the direction and I'll find my way to the inn."
"You can't. Not in this fog," said the woman, her fingers tightening on Caroline's arm.
As Caroline tried to shake off her hold she became aware of a faint light shining breast-high through the mist. Apparently some one who was carrying a lantern also was coming towards them. It might prove an uninterested party—some villager who would guide her to the inn for the sake of a shilling...
Even as her hope flared high she realised that the glow was stationary and that it was issuing from an open doorway. Someone was standing there on the step, peering out into the enveloping fog.
"Here she is, Miss Bat," called the old woman in her deep voice.
In that moment Caroline believed that she had reached the peak of ultimate horror towards which she had been climbing all the evening. This was Bat House—and Miss Bat herself was waiting, while the village schoolmistress restored to her her prey.
At the knowledge she went over the edge, so that she was temporarily deranged by terror. She told herself that all the old women in the village were out looking for her, drawing a drag-net from which she could not escape. Even though they were old and skinny, she must surely be defeated by numbers.
In anticipation she experienced the shrinking horror of the strong when overpowered by hordes of the weak. Her enemies were feeble creatures with chalky bones whom, singly, she could snap in two like a hollow pipe of straw. The mere thought of capture gave her the sickening unclean sensation of being enmeshed in cobwebs, or blinded by swarms of insects.
They would drag her back to the well...
With a scream, she tore herself from the woman's grasp and began to rush through the village. She had no sense of direction and no hope of escape. In her madness, she felt that she was being pursued by a crowd of hideous crones, who would chase her down a blind alley and trap her utterly.
When she slipped on a cabbage-stalk and fell heavily to the ground she gave herself up as lost. As she lay, temporarily dazed and unable to get up at once, she expected every second to feel feeble fingers picking at her limbs, in the first wave of the cumulative attack. Maddened by the thought, she managed to rise and went on again.
She was limping as she ran, for she had injured her knee-cap in her tumble. Her heart was thumping and her lungs felt strained to the point of bursting, yet she automatically hung on to her bag and suitcase.
She knew that she could not hold out much longer; but just as things seemed at their worse the miracle happened. She became aware of a familiar noise, rather like the working of a churn, and she realized that a motor-bus was ramming its way through the fog.
At that zero moment it seemed like a gleaming mirage which must surely fade back again into raw air. Then, as the lamps grew brighter, she had a clear vision of a Streamline Coach, like a magic golden globe, rolling along with its cargo of safe, happy passengers.
As she watched it she knew that she was the poor girl who was lost in the dark forest, and she had a horrible fear that it would rush past her, as in her vision...Reckless of danger, she leaped before it and stood in the glare of its headlights.
The driver braked only just in time to avoid an accident. The strength of his language as he climbed down from his seat was justified. But his anger was melted by Caroline's distress and penitence.
"Jump in quick and don't hold up the bus," he told her as he hoisted her suitcase on the rack. "Now, where do you want to go to, besides Kingdom Come?"
"Plume," gasped Caroline as she sank down on a seat.
The sense of a sudden and violent return to her own world was so strong that she felt almost giddy with emotion, as though she had been dropped from a great height. It was rapture to realise that she had left the hag-ridden village of her imagination when she climbed up into the Streamline Coach.
Once more she was inside.
The bus had nearly passed through the village already. As she peered through the steamy glass she could just distinguish a dark huddle of buildings, with an occasional crack of light shining between drawn curtains.
For a minute or so they flowed past the window—and then faded out, like an evil dream, as the Streamline Coach rolled on its way along the Great West Road.
THE next afternoon the Streamline Coach, on its way up to London, dropped a passenger in the village of Paddiscombe.
Miss Bat was sitting in her drawing-room, listening. Ever since she had come into the hall the previous evening to find Caroline's suitcase missing, she had been a prey to nervous expectancy. As she stood in the open doorway, the village school-mistress passed on her return journey. Hearing of the great lady's natural anxiety about a young guest who was presumably lost in the fog, she offered to look for her.
Only a few minutes later, she reported success; but the fact that the girl had literally fought her rescuer and bolted, proved that she was the victim of some delusion, and therefore in no mood to avail herself, for the second time, of the hospitality of Bat House.
With the failure of her scheme, Miss Bat reverted to her former status of village patroness, whose courtyard had mercifully escaped the stigma of being the scene of a distressing accident. When Olive—completely cured of mumps—returned, her first job was to re-cover the well. While she did so, her kind mistress did not scold her as she superintended the work, but she made her promise never to touch the lid again without permission.
Next morning, therefore, everything was normal at Bat House. There was the usual routine of duties and meals; but throughout each uneventful hour, Miss Bat's ears were strained to catch the shrilling of the telephone.
Just when she was lulled to false security the blow fell. She was sitting in the dusk of her fire-lit drawing-room, her nerves soothed by her second cup of tea, when she started violently at the sound of a ring and a double knock on the front door. Rigid with suspense, she waited while Olive lumbered from the kitchen to admit the invader.
With a brazen smile on her lips, Miss Yaxley-Moore swaggered into the drawing-room.
"First instalment," she announced, "myself. My luggage follows. I've come back to the ancestral home."
As Miss Bat remained silent, she crossed over to the fire, peeled off her gloves and lighted a cigarette.
"So you got her," she jeered, "and you let her slip through your fingers again."
"What else could I do?" asked Miss Bat quietly.
Miss Yaxley-Moore threw her a sharp glance.
"I left that to your resource," she said. "I know, from my own bitter experience, that you are an expert in interference."
It was the first time for many years that she had alluded to her ancient grudge, and Miss Bat knew that she would not reopen the subject. In that remark she had exposed her resentment of a frustrated destiny, and her determination to extract any possible repayment.
There was no need of further words. They understood each other. All Miss Bat could do was to continue to save the situation.
"I explained over the telephone," she said, "that the bottles were not in the girl's suitcase."
"Obviously," sneered her half-sister. "The wretched girl stopped off at Plume and took those bottles direct to Sir Felix's house. He got on to the doctor at once, and then they all came out to the school. The girl was Public Heroine Number One, and she got her wages. She's engaged to the spirited William."
"My faithful friend—Rosamund Nash—booted me out directly she saw my number was up...Sir Felix threatens to bring the case into court. If he does, I shall not take it lying down. I shall defend my reputation...But, whatever the result, I shall never get another post."
Miss Bat gave a faint gasp of protest, but her mind was elsewhere.
"Where did she hide the bottles?" she asked.
Miss Yaxley-Moore forced a laugh.
"Oh, that part was definitely amusing. They were not in her luggage at all. She carried them off under her travelling-rug and just dumped them in the cloak-room at Plume railway station all through the holidays. Quite a neat dodge."
She waved her cigarette, spilling ash over the carpet. Miss Bat watched it as it fell, with only a sub-conscious pang, for she was tormented with unavailing regret.
She remembered the limp papers in Caroline's bag, and knew that the cloak-room ticket had actually been hers for the taking. She could have slipped out of the house and caught the first bus to Plume station while the girl was sleeping. With the bottles in her possession, she had only to peel off the incriminating labels while she washed in the Ladies' Room, and the value of the evidence would have been reduced to mere junk.
The trump had been hers, and she had thrown it away.
Her half-sister recalled her attention with conscious spite.
"Well, you've got me for life. Even if I am a guest of His Majesty for a time, I shall not be too proud to return to you, my dear sister."
"I may refuse," said Miss Bat in a high, strained voice.
"You won't. People would talk."
Miss Bat bowed her head in defeat, for her half-sister had gauged the strength of her monomania. Whatever happened, she would remain Miss Bat—mistress of Bat House—who, by her patience and dignity in affliction, would continue to command the respect of the district.
Linked together in an enforced partnership of hatred, the two women sat and faced each other in the fading light.
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