The Peephole

The Foursome League met in Dormitory 2 after the holidays with much clattering of tongues. Each wanted to tell her own experience, and they all talked at once. Fil had a new way of doing her hair, and gave the others no peace till they had duly realized and appreciated it. Verity had been bridesmaid to a cousin, and wished to give full details of the wedding; Nora had played hockey in a Scotch team against a Ladies’ Club, and had been promised ten minutes in an aeroplane, but the weather had been too stormy for the flight; the disappointment⁠—when she happened to remember it⁠—quite weighed down her spirits.

“If there’s one thing on earth⁠—or rather on air⁠—I’d like to be, it’s a flying woman!” she told her friends emphatically. “I’m hoping aeroplanes will get a little cheaper some day, and rich people will keep them instead of motor cars. Then I’ll go out as an aviatress. It’s a new career for women.”

“I wouldn’t trust myself to your tender mercies, thank you!” shuddered Ingred. “You’d soon bring the machine down with a crash, and smash us to smithereens.”

“Indeed I shouldn’t! I’d go sailing about like a bird!”

And Nora, suiting action to words, stood on her bed fluttering her arms, till Verity wickedly gave her a push behind, and sent her springing with more force than grace to the floor.

“You Jumbo! You make the room shake!” exclaimed Ingred. “If that’s how you’re going to land you’ll dig a hole in the ground like a bomb! Do move out, and let me get to my drawer! You’re growing too big for this bedroom!”

“Nobody’s looked at my new hair ribbons yet!” interposed Fil’s plaintive voice. “See, I’ve got six! Aren’t they beauties! Pale pink, pale blue, Saxe blue, navy for my gym. costume, black for a useful one, and olive green to go with my velveteen Sunday dress. Don’t you think they’re nice?”

“Ripping!” agreed Nora. “We’ll know where to go when we want to borrow. There, don’t look so scared, Baby! I’ve chopped my hair so short I couldn’t wear a ribbon if I tried! It would be off in three cracks! Stick them back in their box, and don’t tempt me! They’re not in my line! I’m going in for uniform. You’re the sort who wears chiffons and laces and all the rest of it, but you’ll see me in gilt buttons before I have done, with wings on them, I hope! I may be the first to fly to Mars! Who knows? You shall all have my photo beforehand just in case!”

Everybody at the College, and particularly at the Hostel, agreed that the first few weeks of the new term were trying. After the interval of the holidays, the yoke of homework seemed doubly heavy, and undoubtedly the prep. was stiffer than ever. Only certain hours were set apart for study during the evenings at the hostel, and any girl who could not accomplish her lessons in that time had to finish them as best she could in odd minutes during the day, or even in bed in the mornings if she happened to wake sufficiently early. Fil, who generally succeeded in mastering about half her preparation and no more, railed at fate.

“I’m so unlucky!” she sighed to a sympathetic audience in No. 2. “I knew the first ten lines of my French poetry beautifully, and I could have said them if Mademoiselle had asked me, but of course she didn’t. She set me on those wretched irregular verbs, and they always floor me utterly. As for the dictée⁠—I can’t spell in English⁠—let alone French! It’s not the least use for Mademoiselle to get excited and stamp her foot at me. I shall be glad when I’m old enough to leave school. I never mean to look at a French book again!”

“How about English spelling?” suggested Ingred. “You’ll want to write a letter occasionally!”

“I think by that time,” said Fil hopefully, “somebody will have invented a typewriter that can spell for itself. You’ll just press a knob for each word, you know!”

“There are about 3,000 words in common daily use!” laughed Verity. “If you need a knob for each, your typewriter will have to be the size of a church organ. It’ll want a room to itself!”

“Oh, but think of the convenience of it! No more hunting in the dictionary!” declared Fil.

To add to the aggravations of the new term the weather was doubtful, and seemed to take a spiteful pleasure in being particularly wet on hockey afternoons. Day after day, disappointed girls would watch the streaming rain and lament the lack of practice. To give them some form of exercise they were assembled in the gymnasium, and held rival displays of Indian clubs, Morris dancing, or even skipping. “The True Blues” excelled at high jumping, “The Pioneers” at certain rigid balancing feats, “The Old Brigade” were great at vaulting, and “The Amazons” and “The Mermaids” performed marvels in the way of Swedish Boom exercises.

Still, everybody agreed that though the contests were fun in their way they were not hockey, and the girls would much have preferred the playing-fields, however wet, to the gymnasium.

The girls in the hostel had the hour between four and five o’clock at their own disposal. They were not allowed to leave the College bounds, but they might amuse themselves as they pleased in the garden, playground, or gymnasium. In turns, according to the practising list, they had to devote the time to the piano, and a few even began their prep., though this was not greatly encouraged by Miss Burd, who thought a short brain rest advisable. One afternoon Ingred walked along the corridor with a big pile of music in her arms. Just outside the study she met Verity, and saluted her:

“Cheerio, old sport! Here’s Dr. Linton left his whole cargo behind him today. He rushed off in a hurry and forgot it, and I know he’ll be just raging. I’m going to ask Miss Burd if I may run over into the Abbey and leave it on the organ for him. He has a choir practice tonight, so he’s sure to find it. Will you come with me? Right-o! We’ll both go in and ask ‘exeats.’ ”

The College was erected upon a plot of land which had originally been part of the Abbey grounds. All the old buildings, formerly inhabited by the monks of St. Bidulph’s, and by the nuns in the adjoining convent of St. Mary’s, had long ago been swept away, and only a few ruined walls marked their sites. The nave of the Abbey, however, had escaped, and was still in use as a parish church, though the beautiful original chancel and transepts had been battered down by Henry the Eighth’s Commissioners. It was only a few hundred yards from the school to the Abbey, and Miss Burd readily gave the girls permission to take Dr. Linton’s music and leave it for him on the organ. It was the first time either of them had been inside the church when no service was going on, and they looked round curiously. The organ was locked, or Ingred would certainly never have resisted the temptation to put on the fascinating stops and pedals. She tried to lift the lid that hid the keyboards, but with no success.

“He might have left it open!” she sighed.

“But the verger would come fussing up directly you began to play,” said Verity.

“I don’t see the verger anywhere about.”

“Why, no more do I, now you mention it.”

“Perhaps he’s slipped across to his cottage to have his tea!”

“Perhaps. I say, Ingred, what a gorgeous opportunity to explore. Let’s look round a little on our own.”

There was nobody to forbid, so they started on a tour of inspection. The places they wanted to look at were those that ordinary churchgoers never have a chance of seeing. They peeped into the choir vestry, and Verity gave rather a gasp at the sight of an array of white surplices hanging on the wall like a row of ghosts. They went down a narrow flight of damp steps into a dark place where the coke was kept, they peered into a dusty recess behind the organ, and into a room under the tower, where spare chairs were stored. All this was immensely interesting, but did not quite content them. Verity’s ambition soared farther. Very high up on the wall, above the glorious pillars, and just under the clerestory windows, was a narrow passage called the Nuns’ Ambulatory. It had been built in the long-ago ages to provide exercise for the sisters in the adjoining convent, to which a covered way had originally led.

“Just think of the poor dears parading round there on wet days when they couldn’t walk in their own garden!” said Verity, turning her head almost upside down in her efforts to scan the passage. “I wonder if they ever felt giddy.”

“There’s a balustrade, of course, but I prefer our modern gym. I believe there’s a walk all over the roof too. Athelstane went up once. He said it was like being on the top of a mountain, and you could look all over the town.”

“What’s that queer stone box thing on the wall?” asked Verity, still gazing upwards.

Ingred followed the line of her friend’s eye to a point above the pillars but below the Nuns’ Ambulatory. Here, built out like an oriel window, was a curious closed-in-gallery of stone, pierced in places by tiny frets. It seemed to have nothing to do with the architecture of the Abbey, and indeed to be a sort of excrescence which had been added to it at some later date. It spoilt the beauty of line, and would have been better removed.

“Oh, that’s the peephole!” said Ingred, lowering her head, for it was painful to stretch her neck in so uncomfortable a position. “It was put up in the seventeenth century, when the whole place was full of those old-fashioned high pews. People were very dishonest in those days, and thieves used to come to church on purpose to pick pockets. So they always used to keep somebody stationed up there, looking down through the holes over the congregation to see that no purses were taken during the service. Nice state of things, wasn’t it?”

“Rather! But I’d love to go up there. I say, the verger’s still at his tea. Shall we try?”

“Right-o! I’m game if you are!”

By the north porch there was a small oak door studded with nails. Generally this was kept locked, but today, by a miracle of good fortune, it happened to be open. It was, of course, a very unorthodox thing for the verger to go away and leave the Abbey unattended, even for half an hour, but vergers, after all, are only human, and enjoy a cup of tea as much as other people who do not wear black cassocks. He was safely seated by the fireside in his ivy-colored cottage at the other side of the churchyard, so the girls seized their golden opportunity. They went up and up and up, along a winding staircase for an interminable way. It was dark, and the steps were worn with the tread of seven centuries, and here and there was a broken bit over which they had to clamber with care. At last, after what seemed like mounting the Tower of Babel, they stumbled up through a narrow doorway into the most extraordinary place in the world. They were in the garret of the roof over the south aisle. Above them were enormous beams or rafters, and below, a rough flooring. It was very dim and dusky, but about midway shone a bright shaft of light evidently from some communication with the interior of the nave. Towards this they directed their steps. It was a difficult progress owing to the huge rafters that supported the roof. A plank pathway about four feet above the floor had been laid across the beams, and along this Ingred decided to venture.

She started, balancing herself with her arms, and kept her equilibrium, though the plank was narrow and sprang as she walked. Verity, who had no head for such achievements, preferred to scramble along the floor, creeping under the rafters, in spite of the thick dust of years that lay there. Eventually they both reached the radius of light, and found another doorway leading down by a few steps into what was apparently a cupboard. In the wall of the cupboard, however, were frets through which the sunlight was streaming. Ingred applied an eye and gave a gasp of satisfaction.

They were in the peephole on the wall of the nave, and could gaze straight down into the church below. It was marvellous what an excellent view they obtained. Nothing was hidden, not even the interiors of the old-fashioned square pews that had lingered as a relic of the eighteenth century. Anybody stationed in this spy-box would certainly be able to keep guard over the congregation, and note any nefarious designs on the pockets of the worshipers.

For the moment the church was empty, then footsteps were audible in the porch. Was it the verger returning from his tea? The girls began to flutter at the prospect of his wrath if he discovered them. It was no cassock-clad verger that entered, however, but two young people, far too much interested in each other to gaze upwards towards the frets of the peephole. They thought they had the church to themselves, and walked along conversing in a low tone. The particular shade of flaxen hair in the masculine figure seemed familiar, and Ingred chuckled as she recognized her eldest brother.

“Caught you, old boy! Caught you neatly!” she thought. “Who’s the girl? Oh, I know. It’s one of the Bertrands⁠—Queenie said they were at the Desmonds’ dance, so I suppose he met her there. What a priceless joke! How I shall crow over him for this! They’re actually going to sit down in a pew and talk! Well, this is the limit!”

Quite unconscious that sisterly eyes were watching, Egbert ushered his fair partner into one of the old-fashioned square pews. It was a quiet place to rest, and perhaps the young lady was tired. He sat by her side, very much occupied in explaining something which the girls in the peephole could not overhear. At last the quiet well-trained footsteps of the verger echoed again in the nave. He glanced at the young couple in the pew, and began to dust and rearrange the hymnbooks. Egbert and Miss Bertrand took the hint and departed.

The pair spying through the fretwork above also judged it expedient to beat a hasty retreat. They were terrified lest the verger should remember that he had left the tower door open, and should lock them in. They stumbled back among the rafters, regardless of dust, and groped their rather perilous way down the winding staircase. To their infinite relief the door was not shut, and they were able to creep quietly out and bolt from the Abbey unperceived. They fled along the stone path that edged the churchyard, then stopped under the shelter of a ruined wall to brush the dust off their dresses before re-entering the College.

“It’s been quite an adventure!” gasped Verity.

“Rather! Particularly catching old Egbert. Won’t he look silly when I bring it out before the family? I don’t know whether I will tell them, though! I think I’ll keep it back, so as to have something to hold over his head when he teases me. Yes, that would be far more fun, really. I can hint darkly that I know one of his secrets, and he’ll be so puzzled. I don’t admire his taste much. Queenie detests those Bertrand girls. I don’t know them myself to speak to, but I’m not impressed. Look here, the dust simply won’t come off your skirt, Verity!”

“It’ll do as it is, then, and I’ll use the clothes brush afterwards. Don’t worry any more. There’s the Abbey clock striking five! It’s a few minutes fast, fortunately, but we shall simply have to sprint, or we shall be late for tea!”