The Rainbow League

Though Lispeth, in her agitation, had not said half the nice things she had intended to say, her little speech had good effect. It reminded the girls of some of the high ideals with which they had started the term, and which, like many high and beautiful things, were in danger of getting crowded out of the way by commoner interests. Everybody suddenly remembered the exhibition and sale which was to come off before Christmas, and made a spurt to send some adequate contribution. The juniors, flattered at having a special branch of their own of the Rainbow League, and time allotted in school to its work, dabbed away blissfully at scrapbook making, with gummy overalls and seccotiny fingers, but complacent faces. The prefects, with intent, dropped in when possible to admire the efforts.

“I believe,” said Lispeth to her special confidante Althea, “that perhaps we were making rather a mistake. You can’t have any influence with those kids unless you keep well in touch with them. I was so busy, I just let them slide before, and I suppose that was partly why they got out of hand, though the little monkeys had no business to get up that impudent strike! They’re as different as possible now, and some of them are quite decent kiddies. Dorrie Barnes brought me a rose this morning. I suppose it was meant as a sort of peace-offering.”

It was arranged to hold what was called “The Rainbow Fête” on breaking-up afternoon, and parents and friends were invited to the ceremony. There was to be both a sale and an exhibition. The best of the toys and little fancy articles were to be at a special stall, and would be sold for the benefit of the “War Orphans’ Fund,” and those that were not quite up to standard would nevertheless be on view, and would be sent away afterwards to help to deck Christmas trees in the slums. The stall, as the girls called it, was of course the center of attraction. It was draped with colored muslins in the rainbow tints, and though real irises were unobtainable, some vases of artificial ones formed a very good substitute. The homemade toys were really most creditable to the handicraft-workers, and had been ingeniously contrived with bobbins, small boxes, and slight additions of wood, cardboard, and paper, aided by the color-box. Windmills, whirligigs, carts, engines, trains, dolls’ house furniture, jigsaw puzzles, cardboard animals with movable limbs, black velveteen cats with bead eyes, beautifully dressed rag dolls, wool balls and rattles for babies, and dear little books of extracts, were some of the things set out in a tempting display. Fil, whose slim fingers excelled in dainty work, had contributed three charming booklets of poetry and nice bits cut from magazines and newspapers, the back being of colored linen embroidered with devices in silk. They were so pretty that they were all snapped up beforehand, and could have been sold three times over.

“You promised one to me⁠—you know you did!” urged Linda Slater, much aggrieved at the nonperformance of an order.

“Well, I thought I’d have time to do four, and could only manage three,” apologized Fil. “You see, they really take such ages, and Miss Strong was getting raggy about my prep.”

“You might make me one for my birthday!” begged Evie.

“Certainly not! Those that ask shan’t have!”

“Well, couldn’t you do some during the Christmas holidays?”

“No, I can’t and shan’t!” snapped Fil. “I’m sick to death of making booklets, and I’m not going to touch one of them during the holidays. You seem to think I’ve nothing else to do except cut bits out of magazines for your benefit!”

“There! There! Poor old sport! Don’t get baity!”

“You shouldn’t do them so jolly well, and then you wouldn’t get asked!”

The stall occupied a position of importance at the end of the lecture hall, and the rest of the exhibits were put round on trestle tables. They were what Ingred described as “a mixed lot.” Some of the animals were bulgy in their proportions, or shaky in their cardboard limbs, the wheels of the carts did not quite correspond, the windmills were apt to stick, or the puzzles would not quite fit. In spite of their imperfections, however, they looked attractive, and would, no doubt, give great pleasure to the little people who were to receive them, and who were hardly likely to be very critical of their workmanship.

To make the afternoon more festive, there was to be a tea stall, to which the girls brought contributions of cakes, and music was to be given from the platform, so that the scene might resemble a café chantant. Ingred had been chosen as one of the artistes, and arrayed in her best brown velveteen dress, with a new pale-yellow hair ribbon, she waited about in her usual agonies of stage fright. Learning from Dr. Linton, however improving it might be to her touch, was hardly conducive to self-complacency, and, after having suffered much vituperation for her imperfect rendering of a piece, it was decidedly appalling to have to play it in public, especially with the horrible possibility that at any moment her master might happen to pop in to view the exhibition and arrive in time for her performance.

“I shall have forty fits if I see him in the room, I know I shall!” she confided to Fil. “You’ve no idea how he scares me. I have my lessons on the study piano generally, and if only he would sit still I shouldn’t mind, but he will get up and prowl about the room, and swing out his arms when he’s explaining things; he only just missed knocking over that pretty statuette of Venus the other day. I’m sure if Miss Burd knew how he flourishes about, she wouldn’t let him loose among her cherished ornaments!”

“Perhaps he won’t turn up today!”

“Oh yes! He said he should make a point of buying a toy for his little boy. If I break down suddenly in the midst of my piece, you’ll know the reason. I’m shaking now.”

“Poor old sport! Don’t take it so hard!”

By three o’clock the lecture hall was filled with what Lilias Ashby (who had undertaken to write a report for the school magazine) described as “a distinguished crowd.” Fathers indeed were as few and far between as currants in a war pudding, but mothers, aunts, and sisters had responded nobly to the invitations, and were being conducted round by the girls to see their special exhibits.

Mrs. Saxon had been unable to come that afternoon, but Quenrede had turned up, looking very pretty in a plum-colored hat, and giving herself slight airs as of one who is now a finished young lady, and no longer a mere schoolgirl. She chatted, in rather mincing tones, to Miss Burd herself, while Ingred stood by in awe and amazement, and when she bought a cup of tea from Doreen Hayward at the refreshment stall, she murmured: “Oh, thanks so much!” with the manner of a patroness, though only six months ago she and Doreen had sat side by side in the Science Lectures. It was a new phase of Quenrede, which, though accepted to some extent at home, had never shown itself before with quite such aggravated symptoms.

Ingred, walking as it were in her shadow, was not sure whether to admire or laugh. It was, of course, something to have such a pretty and decidedly stylish sister; she appreciated the angle at which the plum-colored hat was set, and the self-restraint that made the tiny iced bun last such an enormous time, when a schoolgirl would have finished it in three bites, and have taken another. A grand manner was certainly rather an asset to the family, and Queenie was palpably impressing some of the intermediates, who poked each other to look at her.

“It’s my turn to play soon, and I’m just shivering!” whispered Ingred.

“Nonsense, child! Don’t be such a little goose!” declared her sister airily. “It’s only a school party⁠—there’s really nothing to make a fuss about!”

Only a school party!” That seemed to Ingred the absolute limit. Quenrede last term had, in her turn, shivered and trembled when she had been obliged to mount the platform! Could a few short months have indeed effected so magnificent a change of front?

“All the same, it’s I who’ve got to play, not she! It’s easy enough to tell somebody else not to mind,” thought Ingred, as, in answer to Miss Clough’s beckoning finger, she made her way towards the piano to undergo her ordeal.

One point in favor of the recital was that the audience moved about the room and went on buying toys or cups of tea and cakes, and even talking, instead of sitting on rows of seats doing nothing but watching and listening. It was rather comforting to think that the concert was really only like the performance of a band, a soothing accompaniment to conversation. Ingred opened her music with an almost “don’t care” feeling. For one delirious moment she felt at her ease, then, alack! her mood suddenly changed. In a last lightning glance towards the audience she noticed among the crowd near the tea-stall the tall thin figure, cadaverous face, and long lank hair of Dr. Linton. The sight instantly wrecked her world of composure. If it had not been for the fact that Miss Clough was standing near, and nodding to her to begin, she would have run away from the platform.

“Oh, the ill luck of it!” she thought. “If I had only played last time, instead of Gertie, I’d have had it over before he came into the room! I know he’ll be just listening to every note, and criticizing!”

With a horrid feeling, as if her breath would not come properly, and her head was slightly spinning, and her hands dithering, Ingred began her “Nocturne,” trying with a sort of “drowning” effort to keep her mind on the music in front of her, instead of on the music-master at the other end of the room. For sixteen bars she succeeded, then came the hitch. She had rejected the offered services of Doris Grainger, and had elected to turn over her own pages. She now made a hasty dash at the leaf, her trembling hand was not sufficiently agile, the sheet slipped, she grabbed in vain, and the music fluttered on to the floor. The performance came to a dead halt. Doris and Miss Clough rushed to the rescue, but they were put politely aside by a tall figure who stepped on to the platform, and Dr. Linton himself picked up the scattered sheets of the unfortunate “Nocturne.” He arranged them together in order, placed them upon the stand, and, addressing his dismayed pupil, said:

“Now, then, begin again, and I shall turn over for you. Bring out that forte passage properly! Remember there’s a pedal on the piano!”

It was like having a lesson in public. Ingred felt too scared to begin, and yet she was too much afraid of her master to refuse, so the bigger fright prevailed, and⁠—as a cat will swim to escape an enemy⁠—she dashed at the “Nocturne.” Once restarted, it went magnificently: afterwards, she always declared that Dr. Linton must have hypnotized her, she was sure her unaided efforts could never have rendered it in such style. He behaved as if he were conducting an orchestra, soothing the piano passages and spurring her on to fortissimo efforts, even humming the melody in his eccentric fashion, quite unmindful of the audience. The enthusiastic applause at the end was so evidently for both master and pupil that he bowed instinctively in response.

Ingred, remembering, now the ordeal was over, that she was nervous, melted from the platform, and left him to receive the laurels. He did a characteristic but very kind act, looked round for his pupil, and then, perceiving that she had beaten a retreat, sat down to the piano himself, and, unasked, gave an encore for her. A solo from Dr. Linton was an unexpected treat, especially as he was in the mood for music, and played with a sort of rapture that carried his listeners into an ethereal world of delicate sounds. Ingred, hidden behind a protecting barrier of schoolfellows, could see all the sylphs dancing and the fairy pipers piping as the crisp notes came tripping from his practised fingers. At the end she came back as from a dream, to realize that she was not in elf-land, but in the College Lecture Hall, and that she was sitting on a form next to Miss Strong, who held on her knee a little red-coated, brown-haired boy with Dr. Linton’s unmistakable dark eyes.

In that instant, as the music ceased, Ingred received quite a sudden and new impression of Miss Strong; there was a tender look on the mistress’s face, as she held her arm around the child, and she whispered something to him that made the dark eyes dance. He slipped from her lap, and hand in hand they went together towards the toy-stall. It was quite a pretty little scene, one of those tiny glimpses into other people’s lives that we catch occasionally when the veil of their reserve is for a moment held aside. Ingred looked after them meditatively.

“Shouldn’t have thought the Snark capable of it,” she ruminated. “Perhaps she likes boys better than girls. Some people do.”

The toy stall, though half depleted of its contents, was still the center of attraction. Lispeth and Althea were displaying what were left of its windmills and whirligigs to friends who bought with an eye to Christmas presents. Miss Strong, reckless in the matter of expense, purchased the chef-d’œuvre of the whole collection⁠—a wonderful contrivance consisting of two cardboard towers and a courtyard, across which, by means of a tape wound round bobbins, and turned by a handle, walked a miniature procession of wooden soldiers. Little Kenneth Linton received it with open arms.

“Better let me wrap it up in paper,” urged Lispeth. “Somebody said just now that it’s beginning to snow, and you don’t want to have it spoilt before you get it home, do you?”

“N-no,” said Kenneth, relinquishing it doubtfully.

“You’re a lucky boy,” continued Lispeth, as she made up the parcel. “Isn’t that a Teddy Bear in your pocket? And a ball too? There, I believe I’ve used up all the string! What a nuisance! Can anybody get me any from anywhere?”

“I’ll find you some in half a jiff,” said Dorrie Barnes, whisking off immediately.

Since the formation of the Junior Rainbow League, Dorrie had taken a liking to Lispeth which amounted to absolute infatuation. She followed her like a pink-faced shadow, and was always at her elbow, sometimes at convenient and sometimes at embarrassing moments. She fled now, like a messenger from Olympus, with the fixed determination of procuring string for her goddess from somewhere. It was not an easy task, for string was a scarce commodity; what there was of it had mostly been already used, and what was left was jealously guarded by its proprietresses, who refused to part with it, even on the plea that it was for the head prefect. Dorrie, however, was a young person of spirit and resource, and she did not mean to be done. One of the trestles that supported the secondary exhibits of toys had rather come to grief, and had been patched up temporarily with stout twine. Her sharp eyes had noted this fact, so, going down on her hands and knees, she managed to creep unobserved under the table, cut the twine with her penknife, and unwound it. She was just congratulating herself upon the success of her achievement when the unexpected happened, or, rather, what might have been expected by anyone with an ounce of forethought. The damaged trestle, no longer held together, promptly gave way, and the table collapsed, burying a squealing Dorrie amid a shower of toys. She was pulled out, agitated but uninjured, and the scattered exhibits were carried to another table. In the confusion of their transit she managed to secrete the piece of twine, the loss of which had been the cause of the whole upset, and presented it quite innocently to Lispeth, who, not knowing that she was receiving stolen goods, thanked her and tied the parcel. Ingred, who had watched the whole comedy, laughed, but did not give away the secret.

“That child’s an imp!” she said to Quenrede. “But she’s a very accomplished imp. I’ll tell you the joke afterwards, not now! Lispeth little knows where her string comes from, and she’s wrapping up that parcel so placidly! Isn’t the Snark looking quite pretty this afternoon? Never saw her with such a color! Well, if you’re ready, Queenie, we’ll go over to the hostel and get my things. We can just catch the four o’clock train, if we’re quick. Wait half a sec, though! There goes Dr. Linton with Kenneth. I don’t want to walk out under his wing!”

The tall dark figure of the music master was striding through the doorway, carrying his small son, who hugged his toy with one arm, and waved a friendly goodbye with the other.

“What possessed you to drop all your music, child?” said Quenrede, rather patronizingly to Ingred. She was still trying to live up to the plum-colored hat. “You played ever so decently afterwards, though⁠—you did, really! Don’t tell me again that you’re nervous, for it’s all rubbish. You looked as if you enjoyed it.”

“Enjoyed it!” echoed Ingred. “If you’d gone through the palpitations that I felt this afternoon you’d want to go to a specialist, and consult him for heart trouble! I’ve lived through it this once, but if I’m ever asked to play again in public, you’d better go to the cemetery beforehand, and choose a picturesque corner for my grave, and buy a weeping willow ready to plant upon it. Yes, and order a headstone too, with the simple words: ‘Died of fright.’ I mean it! ‘Enjoyed it!’ indeed! Why, I’ve never in the whole of my life been in such an absolutely blue funk!”