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"If you please, Miss Beasley," interposed Veronica, "how could Raymonde be buying a postal order when Hermie and I saw her practising here?"
"It is most puzzling, I allow; but both Mrs. Sims the postmistress, and Mrs. West, who happened to be buying groceries in the shop, agree emphatically that it was Raymonde who came to the counter. They say that she was not in school uniform, but wore a green dress and a small cap."
"Raymonde has no green dress!"
"But she has admitted to me that she bought the postal order."
The girls looked at their chum in consternation. Raymonde buried her face in her hands.
At this critical juncture there was the sound of a scrimmage outside in the pa.s.sage, and a loud excited voice was heard proclaiming:
"I will go in! I tell you I've come to see Miss Raymonde Armitage, and it's important. Miss Beasley there? All the better! I want to speak to her too. Will you kindly move out and let me pa.s.s? Oh, very well then--there!"
The door opened with a forcible jerk, and a stranger entered unceremoniously. She was a damsel of perhaps fifteen, slim, and very pretty, with twinkling brown eyes and curly hair and coral cheeks. She wore an artistic dress of myrtle-green Liberty serge, with a picturesque muslin collar, and had a chain of Venetian beads round her white throat.
The school gazed at her spellbound, almost aghast.
"The ghost-girl!" murmured Veronica faintly sinking into a chair.
"Violet!" exclaimed Raymonde in tones of ecstasy.
"Yes, here I am, right enough!" announced the stranger. "Cycled over directly I read your letter. Stars and stripes! You've got yourself into a jolly old mess! Hope they haven't tortured you yet! I suppose they still use the rack and the thumbscrew in this benighted country?
Cheero! We'll pull you through somehow!"
Then, catching the Princ.i.p.al's amazed and outraged expression, she continued: "Sorry! Are you Miss Beasley? I ought to have introduced myself. I do apologize! My name's Violet Chalmers, and I'm an American."
She proclaimed the fact proudly, though her soft r in "American," and slightly nasal intonation, would have established her nationality anyway.
"May I ask your errand?" said the head mistress rather stiffly.
"Certainly. I've come to help Raymonde out of a sc.r.a.pe. I never dreamed she'd be landed in such a queer business as this. I say, Ray, will you explain, or shall I do the talking?"
"You, please!" entreated Raymonde.
"Well, as I've just said, I'm an American. We crossed the herring-pond just before the war started, and we've been stuck in this old country ever since. Before you all came to the Grange we rented the place for a year, and a time we had of it, too, with rats and bats, and burst pipes, and no central heating or electric light! Mother went almost crazy! Well, last Easter, when I was staying at the seaside, I met Raymonde, and we chummed no end. She told me that her school was moving in here, and I bet her a big box of Broad Street pop-corns I'd turn up some time in the house and astonish the girls. I only bargained that she wasn't to let any of them know beforehand of my existence. Well, I guess I kept my word. I joined in a game of hide-and-seek one dark afternoon, and I reckon I pa.s.sed off as a first-cla.s.s ghost. Didn't I chuckle, just! You wonder how I got in without anybody seeing me? Why, I'd discovered the secret pa.s.sage that leads, from a sliding panel in the attic, right under the moat into a cave inside the wood."
"Joyce Ferrers' pa.s.sage!" exclaimed the girls.
"The very same. I rode over on my bicycle--we're staying only eight miles away--left it inside the cave, lighted my lamp, and strolled up to the attic as easily as you please. There was the whole school tearing around like mad, so I scuttled round too, and scared you just some! It was so prime, I guessed I'd try it on again. That was yesterday week. I'd luck enough to catch Raymonde, and she was a sport that day too. We changed clothes, and I came downstairs here and did her practising for her, while she explored the secret pa.s.sage and did a little shopping on her own account in the village."
"Then it was you, and not Raymonde, whom we saw sitting at the piano!"
"Exactly so! I guessed I was going to be found out, and daren't turn my head when you spoke."
"Did you see the notes put into the drawer?" enquired Miss Beasley.
"No, but I saw them afterwards, lying just on the top of some other papers. I locked the drawer before I left the room, and put the bunch of keys inside the pocket of Raymonde's dress, which I had on. I meant to tell her about it, but I forgot. She was in such a hurry when she came back, and said she'd be late for prep., so we each scrambled into our own clothes, and she tore off downstairs, and I went home."
"This, unfortunately, does not bring us any nearer to the solution of the puzzle--what has become of the notes?" said Miss Beasley.
"Raymonde couldn't have spent them in the village, when she had gone out before they were put there!" ventured Veronica.
"And I certainly didn't abscond with them!" declared Violet. "Though I really believe Ray thinks so. Confess you do, old sport!"
Raymonde blushed crimson.
"I thought you'd taken them for a joke," she said in a low voice.
"Is that why you refused to explain?" interposed the Princ.i.p.al quickly. "You were afraid of getting your friend into trouble?"
"Yes, Miss Beasley."
"But what's become of the wretched notes?" asked Violet; "They must be somewhere. Have you looked properly through this old bureau? I know these queer shallow drawers by experience, and things sometimes slip over the backs of them. Have you had the drawer right out? It's stuck, has it? Oh, it probably only wants a good pull! Lend me your key! Here goes!"
Violet exerted all her strength in a mighty tug, and the drawer tumbled out with a jerk. She put in her hand and felt about in the s.p.a.ce behind. There was a large hole in the back of the bureau, and her fingers went through it into a cavity in the wall.
"There's something queer here!" she exclaimed, drawing out a round ball of shreds of paper. "Mrs. Mouse's nursery, if I don't mistake!
Sorry to intrude, but we'll take a peep at the children!"
Very gingerly she pulled aside the torn pieces of paper, and disclosed to view four little atoms not much bigger than bluebottles.
"Baby mice!" squealed the girls.
"Shame to disturb them, but I've got to examine their cradle. Ah! what d'you make of this, now? If it isn't a piece of a ten-shilling note, I'll--I'll swallow the babies!"
"You are most undoubtedly right!" declared Miss Beasley, picking up the shreds of paper and trying to piece them together. "The mouse must have taken them out of the drawer to help to build her nest."
"Rather an expensive nursery!" chuckled Violet. "Well, I guess we've proved who's the thief, anyway!"
"I am extremely obliged to you," said Miss Beasley. "But for you, the matter might always have remained a mystery."
"And please forgive me for interfering. It was cheek, I know, to turn up in the attic, but I couldn't resist the secret pa.s.sage. I think this old place must be ripping as a school. I want to come next term.
We'd intended to go home to New York in September, but Dad heard this morning he'd have to stay here another couple of years on business, so he said he guessed I'd best settle down and learn to be a Britisher. Would you have me here?"
"That depends on whether your father wishes to send you to me or not."
"Oh! Dad'll let me do anything I like, so it's as good as settled.
I'll arrive with my boxes in September. Look here, it's cheek again, but will you please not scold Raymonde for all this affair? It was mostly my fault."
"Raymonde had no business to change places with you, and go to the village without leave," said Miss Beasley, eyeing her pupil reprovingly. "But I think she has been punished enough. She may take you downstairs now, and ask Cook to give you some cake and a gla.s.s of milk before you cycle home again."
"Thanks ever so! I came without my breakfast. I'm real hungry now.
I'll talk Dad over, and get him to write to you about my coming to school here. I'm dead nuts on it. Good-bye!"