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 clinking 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 super-charged 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 text-books 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 to-night 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 administrative 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 blurting 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 hugh-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.”