The Nun’s Walk

The Saxon family agreed that whatever might be the drawbacks of Wynch-on-the-Wold in wintry weather, it was an idyllic spot in the month of May. The wallflowers which Ingred had transplanted were now in their prime, the apple trees were in blossom, clumps of lilies were pushing up fast, and pink double daisies bordered the front walk. The woods in the combe below the moor were a mass of bluebells, and here and there those who searched might find rarer flowers, orchises, lily of the valley, and true lover’s knot. Friends who had shirked the journey while the winds blew cold, now began to drop in at the bungalow and take tea under the apple trees. Ingred, returning home on Friday afternoons, would find bicycles stacked by the gate and visitors seated in the garden. She greeted them with enthusiasm or the reverse, according to her individual tastes.

“Really, Ingred, they don’t seem to teach manners at the College now!” said Quenrede one day. “The way you scowled at Mrs. Galsworthy and Gertrude was most uncivil. You didn’t look in the very least pleased to see them.”

“I wasn’t! They’re the most stupid people on the face of the earth! And they stayed such ages. I thought they’d never go. Just when I wanted a nice private talk with you and Mother before the boys came back. Why should you look glad to see a person when you’re not?”

“For the sake of manners, my dear!”

“Then manners really mean humbug,” declared Ingred, who loved to argue. “To say you’re glad to see people, when you’re not, is telling deliberate fibs. Most hypocritical, I call it! Why can’t people tell the truth?”

“Because it would generally be offensive and unkind to do so,” put in Mother, who happened to overhear. “There’s another side to the question, too. When you say⁠—against your will⁠—that you are glad to see somebody, you mean that all the best part of you is glad⁠—the kind, generous part that likes to give pleasure, not the selfish lower part that only thinks of its own convenience. So you are not really telling a fib, but being true to your nobler self. A great deal of what people call ‘plain speaking’ is simply giving rein to their most uncharitable thoughts. As a rule, I say Heaven defend me from those ultra-truthful souls who enjoy ‘speaking their minds.’ ”

“But are we to gush over every bore?” asked Ingred.

“There are limits, of course. We can’t let all our time be frittered away by idle friends, but we can generally manage tactfully without offending them. Don’t look so woebegone, childie! Nobody else is coming tonight, and I promise you tea in the woods tomorrow.”

“By ourselves?”

“Unless anyone very nice comes over to join us,” put in Quenrede quickly.

“You girls shall give the invitations. I won’t bring any middle-aged people,” laughed Mother, with a sly glance at Quenrede.

The party in the bluebell woods on Saturday was entirely a family one, with the exception of Mr. Broughten, who rode over on a motor-bicycle ostensibly to lend some microscopic slides to Athelstane, though Ingred suspected there was another attraction in the visit. Quenrede, who professed great surprise, gave him a guarded welcome.

“After all the fuss you made about my manners yesterday, you might have seemed more glad to see him,” sniffed Ingred critically.

“Might I? Well, really, I think I’m going to hang a label round my neck: ‘Pleased to meet you! Let ’em all come!’ It would save trouble. Stick tight to me when we’re gathering bluebells. Three’s better company sometimes than two. Don’t I like him? Oh yes, he’s all right, but I’m not keen on a tête-à-tête.”

After which hint, Ingred, who had some acquaintance with the perversity of Quenrede’s feminine mind, did exactly the opposite, and, abandoning her basket to the custody of Mr. Broughten, left him helping her sister to gather bluebells, and took herself off with Hereward.

“He’s not half bad!” she ruminated laughingly. “Not of course a fairy prince exactly, or even a Member of Parliament, but the bubbles on the pool by the whispering stones certainly came to ‘J,’ and his name is ‘John,’ for I asked Athelstane. There’s the finger of fate about it, and Queenie had better make up her mind.”

With Ingred, however, school matters were at present much more interesting than speculating about her sister’s possible future. It was an interesting term at the College. Cricket and tennis were in full swing, and she took an active part in both. The best of being at the hostel was that the boarders had the benefit of the tennis courts in the evening, and so secured an advantage in the matter of practice over any girls who did not possess a private court at home. So far the College had not competed in tournaments, but Blossom Webster was hopeful that later on in the term some champions might be chosen who would not disgrace the Games Club. Meantime she urged everybody to practice, and coached her favorites with the eye of an expert. Nora was particularly marked out for future distinction. She had made tremendous strides lately, and her swift serves were the terror of her opponents. The hostel felt justly proud of her achievements, and would collect in the evening, after prep., to watch her play a set of singles with Susie Wakefield, who, though older and taller, almost invariably lost.

Susie had good points of her own, however, and with Nora as partner could beat even Blossom and Aline occasionally. No doubt the future credit of the school was in their hands.

One evening it happened that Nora was in a particularly slashing and reckless mood, and she sent no less than three balls flying straight over the wall that bordered the tennis courts. They fell into the premises of old Dr. Broadfield, whose garden adjoined that of the school. They were not the first that had done so, indeed so many balls had gone over lately that the loss was growing serious. At one time the girls had been wont to ring Dr. Broadfield’s front-door bell and beg permission to pick up their property, but they had been received so sourly by his elderly housekeeper, that they hardly dared to ask again.

“Three good balls gone in half an hour!” grieved Verity. “There’ll soon be none left at this rate. I believe there must be a dozen at least lying on the grass over there, only that stingy old thing won’t throw them back. It’s really too bad.”

“How could we possibly get them?” ruminated Doreen.

“Sham ill, get Dr. Broadfield to attend, and coax them out of him,” suggested Fil.

Doreen shook her head.

“He’s not the school doctor, unfortunately. When Millie sprained her ankle, Miss Burd sent for Dr. Harrison. We might fish for them with a butterfly net tied to the end of a drilling pole, if they’re anywhere near enough.”

“They’re not. I peeped over the wall and they’ve rolled quite a long way off.”

“How weak! What are we to do?”

“There’s nothing for it,” said Ingred slowly, “but to make a sally into the enemy’s trenches and fetch them back!”

“Oh! I dare say! But who’s going to do the sallying business?”

I will, if you like.”


“Yes; I don’t mind a scrap.”

“You heroine!”

“Don’t mensh!”

“But suppose you’re caught?”

“I shall have to risk that, of course. I’ll reconnoiter carefully first.”

The boundary between the College premises and the property of Dr. Broadfield was part of the old Abbey wall. The mortar had crumbled away from the stones, leaving large interstices, so it was quite easy to climb. With a little boosting from Verity and Nora, Ingred successfully reached the top, and peered over into the neighboring garden. Just below her was a rockery, which offered not only an easy means of descent, but a quick mode of egress in the case of the necessity of beating a hasty retreat.

Beyond the flowerbed, and lying on the lawn, were no less than seven tennis balls, marked with the unmistakable blue cross that claimed them for the College. The sight was enough to spur on the faintest heart. Apparently there was nobody in this part of the garden, and no watchful face peered from any of the windows. It was certainly an opportunity that ought not to be missed. Ingred slipped first one foot and then the other over the wall, and dropped on to the rockery. It was the work of a minute to pick up the balls and throw them back to rejoicing friends. If she herself had followed immediately there would have been no sequel to the episode. But happening to look under the bushes, she noticed another ball, and went in quest of it. It seemed a shame to return until she had found any that might have strayed farther afield, so she dived under the rhododendron bushes, and was rewarded with two more balls. She had issued out on to another part of the lawn, and was on the very point of retreating, when she suddenly heard voices on the path between the bushes. To run to the wall would be to cross open country, so, with an instinctive desire to seek cover, she dived into a summerhouse close by, and shut the door. The footsteps came nearer. Were they going to follow her into her retreat, and catch her? It would be too ignominious! Peeping warily through a small window of the summerhouse, she saw two young people, apparently much interested in each other, strolling leisurely up. To her immense relief they did not attempt to enter, but sat down on a seat outside the window. They were so near that she could perforce hear every word, and was an unwilling but compulsory eavesdropper.

At first the conversation consisted mostly of tender nothings: “He” certainly called her “Darling!”; “She” replied: “Oh, Donald, don’t!” and a sound followed so suspiciously like a kiss that Ingred, only a few feet away from them, almost giggled aloud. She wondered how long they were going to keep her a prisoner. It might be very pleasant for themselves to sit “spooning” in the garden on a mild May evening, but if they prolonged their enjoyment beyond eight o’clock, the hostel supper-bell would ring, and any girl not in her place at the table would lose a mark for punctuality.

“He” on the other side of the window, was waxing sentimental about old times and bygone days.

“I’m glad you’re not a nun, darling!” he remarked fatuously. “If you had lived in the ancient Abbey, I shouldn’t have been able to walk about the garden with you, should I?”

“I suppose not,” she ventured, “especially if you’d been a monk.”

“I dare say some of them did manage to do a little lovemaking sometimes, though. What’s that story about the ghost?”

“The White Nun, do you mean? The one that haunts the College gardens?”

(Ingred pricked up her ears at this).

“Yes. Isn’t there some legend or other about her?”

“I believe there is, but I’ve forgotten it. I only know she walks on moonlight nights, down the steps by the sundial, and then disappears into the wall near the Abbey. At least she’s supposed to. I’ve never met anybody who’s seen her. Don’t talk of such shuddery things! You make me feel creepy!”

Apparently he offered masculine protection, for another suggestive sound was followed by a giggle and a remonstrance. The hostel bell was ringing, and the Abbey clock was striking eight. Were they going to stay talking all night? Ingred was growing desperate. She wondered how she was going to explain her absence to Mrs. Best. She even debated whether it would be advisable to open the summerhouse door, bolt across the lawn, and trust to luck that the matter was not reported at the College. She had her hand on the latch when the feminine voice outside remarked:

“It’s getting chilly, Donald!”

“Don’t catch cold, darling!” with tender solicitude. “Would you rather go indoors?”

“Hooray!” triumphed Ingred inwardly, though she did not dare to utter a sound.

It took a little while for the lovers to get under way and finally stroll back along the path among the bushes. Ingred gave them time to walk out of sight and hearing, then made a dash for the rockery, scrambled over the wall, tore across the tennis courts, and entered the dining-room nearly ten minutes late for supper. Mrs. Best looked at her reproachfully, and Doreen, who was monitress for the month, took a notebook from her pocket and made an entry therein. Nora and Verity and Fil went on eating sago blancmange with stolid countenances that betrayed no knowledge of their roommate’s doings, but that night, when The Foursomes met in the privacy of Dormitory 2, they demanded an account of her adventure.

She certainly had a piece of interesting news to confide.

“Did you know that a ghost haunts the garden?”

“No! Oh, I say, where?”

“That part by the sundial. I’ve heard it called ‘The Nun’s Walk!’ ”

“So have I; but I never knew there was a ghost!”

“It’s supposed to walk on moonlight nights.”

“How fearfully thrillsome!”

“I’ve never seen a ghost!” shivered Fil.

“No more have I⁠—and I’ve never met anyone who exactly has. It’s generally their cousin’s cousin who’s told them about it.”

“There’s a moon tonight,” remarked Nora.

“So there is!”

The four girls looked at one another, hair brushes in hand. Each had it on the tip of her tongue to make a suggestion.

“I dare you to go!” said Verity at last.

“Not alone?”

Fil was clutching already at Nora’s hand.

“Well, no! Hardly alone. I vote we all go together and try if we can see anything.”

“It would be rather spooksomely jinky!”

“Well, look here, don’t let’s undress properly, but get into bed, and cover ourselves up until Nurse has been her rounds, then we’ll slip downstairs and out through the side door into the garden. Are you game?”

“Who’s afraid?” said Ingred valiantly.

Upstairs in their bedroom, with the gas turned on, it was easy enough to feel courageous. Their spirits rose indeed at the prospect of such an adventure. Nurse Warner, who came into the room a little later, looked round at the four beds, turned out the gas, and departed without a suspicion. She had not been gone five minutes when a surreptitious dressing took place, and four figures in dark coats stole down the stairs. Though the building of the College might be absolutely modern, the garden was a relic of medieval days. It had formerly belonged to the nunnery of St. Mary’s, and had adjoined the Abbey. Parts of the crumbling old wall were still left, and a flagged path led from a sundial to some ruins. In the daytime it was a cheerful place, and a blaze of color. The girls had never before seen it in its night aspect. On this May evening it had a quiet beauty that was most impressive. The full moon shone on the great dark pile of the Abbey towers and the beech avenue beyond. There was just light enough in the garden to distinguish bushes as heavy masses, and to trace the paths from the grass. The air was sweet with the scent of flowers.

It is amazing how different conditions can alter a scene: at noon, with the hum from the busy streets, it was commonplace enough; by moonlight it became a mystic bower of enchantment. The girls walked along very quietly, treading on the grass so as to make no noise. A slight mist was rising from the ground near the Abbey; in the rays of the moon it resembled a lake. Everything, indeed, was altered. The outline of the sumach bush was like a crouching tiger; the laburnum tassels waved like skeleton fingers. It seemed a witching, unreal world.

Four rather scared girls crept along, clasping hands for moral support. Each secretly would have been relieved to abandon the quest, but did not like to be the first to turn tail. They had determined to walk from the sundial to the Abbey wall and back again. So far the garden, though mysterious, showed no signs of anything supernatural. They began to pluck up courage, and even to talk to one another in low whispers. At the ruins they turned and looked back towards the sundial. The moonlight streamed along the flagged path, and shimmered on the clumps of early yellow lilies.

What was that, stealing from under the shelter of the hawthorn tree? The girls gasped and almost stopped breathing.

A tall figure, clothed in some long white garment, was gliding towards them. It kept in the shadow, and they could see no details, only a light mass that was slowly and steadily advancing apparently straight to where they were crouching beside the wall. Fil was trembling like a leaf, Nora declared afterward that her hair stood on end, Ingred and Verity felt shivers run down their spines. Nearer and nearer came the white figure. Its approach was more than flesh and blood could stand. With a wild shriek Fil dashed across the lawn, followed closely by Nora, Ingred, and Verity.

“Girls!” cried a clear and well-known voice. “Girls! Stop! What are you doing here?”

There was no mistaking the tone of command of the headmistress. Four amazed and crestfallen damsels halted and turned back, to find Miss Burd, attired in a white dressing-gown, standing in the moonlight on the grass.

“What is the meaning of this?” she asked. “And why aren’t you all in bed?”

It is always difficult to give explanations, and (to such a matter-of-fact person as Miss Burd) it seemed particularly silly to have to confess that they had come out ghost-hunting, and had mistaken her for a spirit. She emptied the vials of her scorn upon their dejected heads.

“Don’t let me hear of any more nonsense of this sort!” she finished. “I should have thought you were too intelligent to believe in such rubbish. As for leaving your dormitory at this hour, you deserve to be locked in the cycle-shed for the night. I shall, of course, report you to Mrs. Best, and none of you will play tennis for a week, as a punishment.”

Miss Burd, bristling with anger, swept the delinquents before her to the door of the hostel, and watched them flee upstairs, then went to lay the matter before Mrs. Best.

In Dormitory 2, four girls got into bed at topmost speed.

“Of all the ill-luck!” mourned Fil.

“I didn’t know Miss Burd prowled about the garden in a dressing-gown,” exclaimed Ingred.

“She did look exactly like a ghost!” confirmed Verity.

“Tennis off for a whole week! Blossom will be furious! It’s too absolutely grizzly for anything!” groused Nora. “I wish the wretched old ghost had been at Jericho before we went to look for it!”