A Hostel Frolic

“The Foursome League,” which Verity had instituted with her roommates at the hostel, was kept by them as a solemn compact. They stuck to one another nobly, though often in the teeth of great inconvenience. It generally took three of them to urge Fil through her toilet in the mornings and drag her down to breakfast in time. She was always so terribly sleepy at seven o’clock, and so positive that she could whisk through her dressing in ten minutes, and that it was quite unnecessary to get up so soon: even when the others mercilessly pulled the bedclothes from her, and pointed to their watches, she would dawdle instead of “whisking,” and spend much superfluous time over manicure or dabbing on cucumber cream to improve her complexion. She was so innocent about her little vanities, and conducted them with such childlike complacency, that the girls tolerated them quite good humoredly, and even assisted sometimes. One of them generally volunteered to brush her long flaxen hair, and tie her ribbon, and half out of habit the others would tidy her cubicle, which was apt to be chaotic, and put her things away in her drawers. They did it almost automatically, for they had come to look upon Fil somewhat in the light of a big doll, the exclusive property of “The Foursome League,” and to be treated as the mascot of the dormitory.

Mrs. Best, the hostel matron, was what the girls called “rather an old dear.” Her gray hair was picturesque, and the knowledge that she had lost her husband and a son in the war added an element of pathetic interest to her personality. She was experienced in the ways of girls, and contrived to keep order without seeming to be constantly obtruding rules. Among her various sane practices she instituted the plan of awarding marks for good conduct and order to each dormitory, and allowing the one which scored the highest to give an entertainment to the others during the last hour before bedtime on Thursday night. Naturally this was a privilege to be desired. It was fun to act variety artistes before the rest of the hostel, and well worth being in time for meals, preserving silence during prep., or getting up a little earlier so as to leave cubicles in apple-pie order. The Foursome League had not yet earned distinction, chiefly owing to lapses on the part of Fil, and Nora’s incorrigible love of talking in season and out of season. One week, however, after a really heroic series of efforts, they succeeded in establishing a record, and sat perking themselves at dinnertime when Mrs. Best read out the score.

“We’ve not had you on the boards before,” said Susie Wakefield, one of the Sixth, as the girls filed from the room when the meal was over; “we’re all expecting something extra tiptop and thrillsome, so play up!”

“Hope we shan’t let you down!” replied Ingred. “Please don’t expect too much, or you mayn’t get it!”

Dormitory 2 held a hurried conclave before afternoon school.

“It’s a great stunt!” rejoiced Nora.

“What are we to act?” fluttered Fil.

“Especially when we’ve to play up!” twittered Verity.

“What silly idiots we were not to plan it all out beforehand! But I really never dreamt we’d ever get the chance!”

“No more did I,” said Ingred, sitting with her head in her hands, considering. “On the whole, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes a quite impromptu thing goes off best. It’s largely a question of what costumes we can rake up out of nothing.

“The cleverer those are, the more we’ll get applauded. I’ve one or two ideas simmering. Thank goodness it’s drawing this afternoon, and I shall have time to think them over.”

“We’ll all think!” agreed Verity. “Then we’ll compare notes at four o’clock, and fix on what we’re going to do. Great Minerva! It’ll be a hectic evening! I’m shivering in my shoes!”

“And I’m absolutely green with stage-fright! What a life!” proclaimed Fil.

If Miss Godwin, the drawing-mistress, noticed a slacking off in accuracy on the part of four of her pupils, that afternoon, she perhaps set it down to want of artistic feeling. It is difficult to copy with absolute exactness when only your fingers are busy, and your brain is far away. Ingred planned enough entertainments to supply a Pierrot troupe for a month, but abandoned most of them as being quite impossible to act with the very limited resources that were available at the hostel. At a select Foursome Committee after school, however, she presented the pick of the performances, and as nobody else had thought of anything better, or indeed quite so good, her suggestions, with a few amendments and alterations, were carried unanimously.

At eight o’clock that evening, when preparation was finished, the boarders’ room was rapidly transformed into an amateur theater. The trestle tables were carried to one end to form the gallery, rows of chairs represented the dress circle, and cushions in front either the pit or the stalls, according to individual taste, or, as Mrs. Best said, the behavior of the occupants.

There was no curtain, but, as the scenery preserved Shakespearian methods of simplicity, that did not matter. Part of the charm of these Thursday night entertainments was their absolutely spontaneous character, and the fact that many details had to be left to the imagination of the spectators only made things more amusing.

When the audience, after a slight struggle for gallery seats, had settled itself, and Mrs. Best and Nurse Warner had taken possession of the armchairs specially reserved for them, Dollie Ransome, who had been requisitioned by the performers to act as Greek chorus, placed some stools by the fireplace, and announced importantly:

“King Alfred and the Cakes. A Historical Drama.”

The little old woman who entered, carrying some sticks and a basin, was difficult to identify as Fil. Her fair hair had been powdered, wrinkles were painted on her smooth forehead, a handkerchief was knotted on her head for a cap, and she wore an apron borrowed from the cook, and a check table-cover arranged as a shawl. She bestowed the sticks in the fender to represent a fire on the hearth, and taking some biscuits from her basin, placed them amongst the supposed embers, indulging meanwhile in a soliloquy about the hardness of the times for poor folk, and the danger from the Danes.

A violent knocking on the door was followed by the entrance of such a magnificent object that the spectators immediately applauded his advent. Nora, with her large build, short-cut hair, and generally boyish appearance, was the very one to act King Alfred. She had folded a plaid traveling rug into a kilt which reached just to her bare knees, borrowed a velvet coatee and a leather belt from Mrs. Best, and, by the aid of bandages from the ambulance cupboard, had made quite a good imitation of Saxon leg-gear. Armed with a bow and arrows, hastily constructed from twigs cut in the garden, she advanced with a manly stride, begged for hospitality, and was accommodated with a stool by the hearth, where she sat whittling arrows in an abstracted fashion, and heaving gusty sighs.

The audience had hardly recovered from its astonishment when it was thrilled again by the entrance of an ancient and elderly peasant man, so disguised that it was almost impossible to recognize Ingred. A waterproof with a broad leather belt served as coat, and, being padded inside with a pillow, gave the effect of bent and bowed shoulders. Some tow, supplied by Mrs. Best, was fastened as a long straggling beard, and bushy eyebrows of the same material were fixed on with soap. Leaning heavily upon a stick, he came limping in, complaining in a tremulous voice of his rheumatism, started with amazement at the sight of the handsome stranger seated by his hearth, and drew his wife aside for explanations. The old couple, after conversing in audible whispers, decided to go out for more firewood, and as a last charge the dame commended her cakes to the care of their guest. King Alfred, on being left alone by the hearth, whittled away at his arrows with more energy than discrimination, and showed indeed a sad lack of practical skill for so well seasoned a warrior. Perhaps, however, he was not accustomed to have to make them for himself, and missed his chief archer. Throwing them down at last, he sank his head in his hands in an absolute cinema pose of despondency, and sighed to an extent which must have been painful to his lungs. The dame returned to sniff burning cakes and fly to the rescue of her cookery. Fil was quite a good little actress, and produced what she considered her pièce de résistance. She had spent her summer holidays in Somerset, and had there picked up a local ballad which dealt with the legend in dialect. She brought out a verse of it now with great effect:

“Cusn’t ee zee the ca-akes, man?
And cusn’t ee zee ’em burrn?
I’se warrant ee eat ’em fast enough,
Zoon as it be ee turn!”

And catching up a biscuit, carefully blackened beforehand by toasting it over the gas, she flaunted it in the face of the embarrassed monarch.

The dramatic situation was slightly spoilt by the delay in the entrance of the courtier, who ought to have come in at that psychological moment, and didn’t. The fact was that Verity, finding it dull waiting in the passage, had run upstairs to make some additions to her costume, and had miscalculated the length, or rather shortness, of the act. It is difficult for the most accomplished actor to go on looking embarrassed for any length of time, and as Fil’s eloquence in the scolding line suddenly failed her, there was an awful pause while the peasant husband, with wonderful agility considering his rheumatism, hopped to the door and called agitatedly for the missing performer. The courtier flew downstairs like a whirlwind, tripped into the room, and fell upon his red-stockinged knees to do homage to his sovereign, who rose majestically and extended a hand of pardon to the now grovelling peasant.

The audience, particularly that portion seated in the gallery, clapped and cheered to such an extent that one of the trestles, which had been carelessly fixed, collapsed, and sent a whole row of girls sliding on to the floor, whence they were rescued speechless with laughter, but uninjured. They came crowding round the performers to admire the costumes.

“They’re topping!”

“How did you think of them?”

“I like King Alfred’s legs!”

“Ingred, you look about a hundred!”

“Fil could scold!”

“Verity, what was a courtier doing rambling about a forest in a blue dressing-gown? It would get torn on the bushes!”

“I know. We told her so, but she would wear it!” declared Ingred. “She was just pigheaded over that dressing-gown!”

“Well, go and look at the Saxon pictures for yourself, in the history book!” retorted Verity, sticking to her point. “You’ll see the courtiers in long flowing garments very like dressing-gowns. I think it was a capital idea, and the best I could do. There wasn’t another rug for the kilt anyhow, and when other people have taken the best parts and the nicest costumes, you’ve just got to put up with anything you can find that’s left.”

“You did it so well,” Ingred assured her hastily, for Verity had gone very pink, and her voice sounded distinctly offended. “I thought the way you dropped on one knee and cried: ‘My liege lord! I am your humble socman!’ was most impressive. What made you think of ‘socman’?”

“Got it out of the history book,” said Verity, slightly mollified. “It means a man who owned land, but wasn’t quite as high up as a thane. I meant to bring in some more Saxon words, but I hadn’t time.”

“You must win the dormitory score again, and give us another performance,” urged Mrs. Best. “I’m afraid it’s too late for any more tonight, though we’re all sorry to stop. Those juniors ought to be in bed. Janie and Doreen, if you’d like a quiet half-hour to finish your prep. you may go into my room. Somebody put the tables back, please, and be sure the trestles are in their right places this time, we don’t want another collapse! Phyllis, your cough’s worse. Nurse shall rub your chest with camphorated oil, and you mustn’t kiss anybody. Betty too? I’ll give you a lozenge, but don’t suck it lying down in bed, in case you choke.”

So saying, Mrs. Best, who generally mothered the hostel, dismissed her large family and bustled away with Nurse to superintend the putting to bed of the juniors and the due care of those who might be regarded as even ever so slightly on the sick list. It was perhaps owing to the excitement of their spirited performance that the members of No. 2 Dormitory could not get to sleep that night. They all lay wide awake in bed, and told each other tales about burglars, in whispers. Verity’s stories were bloodcurdling in the extreme; she was a great reader, and had got them from magazines. Her three roommates listened with cold shivers running down their spines. According to Verity’s accounts it was a common and every day occurrence for a housebreaker to force an entrance, murder the occupants, and depart, leaving a case to baffle the police until some amateur detective turned up and solved the mystery.

“Has it ever struck you that the hostel would be a very easy place to burgle?” asked Fil. “Those French windows have no shutters, and the glass could be cut with a diamond.”

“Or the doors could be opened with a skeleton key!” quavered Nora.

“I suppose they generally wear goloshes, so as to tread softly,” ventured Ingred.

“Wouldn’t it be dreadful,” continued Verity, whose mind still ran on magazine stories, “to marry a fascinating man whom you’d met by chance, and then find out that he was a gentleman-burglar? What would you do?”

“It often happens on the cinema,” said Nora. “The girl wavers about in an agony whether to tell or not, and wrings her hands and rolls her eyes, like they always do roll them on the films, and then, just when things are at the very last gasp, the husband tumbles over a precipice, or is wrecked at sea, or smashed in a railway accident, and she marries the other, who’s as good as gold, and loved her first.”

“Is the man who loves you first always as good as gold?” asked Fil.

“Well, generally on the Pictures. He’s loved you as a child, you see. You come on the film hand in hand, in socks, and he gives you his apple.”

“But suppose they don’t love you from a child?” said Fil plaintively. “I’ve only known a lot of horrid little boys whom I didn’t care for in the least. None of them ever gave me his apple, though I remember one taking mine. Is the first fascinating man I meet the true lover or the burglar? How am I to know which is which?”

“You’d better let me be there to decide for you, child, or you’ll be snapped up by the first adventurer that comes along,” declared Nora. “Don’t trust him if he has a mustache. ‘Daring Dick of the Black Gang’ had a little twisted mustache like Mephistopheles in Faust.”

“Oh dear! And the last piece I saw on the Pictures, the villain was clean shaven! That’s no guide at all!”

“Girls, you’re breaking the silence rule!” said Mrs. Best, opening the door of Dormitory 2, where the conversation, which had begun in whispers, had risen to a pitch audible on the landing outside. “This doesn’t look like scoring again next week, and giving another performance. Why, Nora, the rain’s driving through that open window straight on to your bed! You’ll be getting rheumatism! I shall shut it, and leave the door wide open for air instead. Now be good girls and go to sleep at once. Don’t let me hear any more talking.”

The Foursomes, in common with most of the hostel, were fond of Mrs. Best, so they turned over obediently, and composed themselves to slumber. They were really tired by this time, and dropped off into the land of Nod before the clock on the stairs had chimed another quarter. How long she slept, Ingred did not know. She dreamt quite a long and circumstantial dream of wandering on the cliffs near the sea with a gentleman-burglar, who was telling her his intention of raiding Buckingham Palace and taking away the Crown Jewels, and she heard his daring designs (as we always do in dreams) without the slightest surprise or any suggestion that the Crown Jewels are kept at the Tower instead of at Buckingham Palace. She woke suddenly, and laughed at the absurdity of the idea. She felt hot, and threw back her eiderdown. The other girls were sleeping quietly, and the rain was still beating against the window in heavy showers, for it was a stormy night. The door of the bedroom stood wide open. What was that sound coming up the stairs from the hall below? It was certainly not the ticking of the clock. It seemed more like muffled and stealthy footsteps. In an instant Ingred was very wide awake indeed, and listening intently. There it came again! She could not lie still and ignore it. She got out of bed, and with rather shaking knees walked on to the landing and peeped over the banisters. There was a tiny oil-lamp hanging on the wall; it faintly illuminated the stairs. Was that somebody moving about in the darkness of the hall? If it was a burglar, he certainly must not come upstairs, or she would die of fright. An idea occurred to her, and acting on a sudden impulse she dashed into Dormitory 2, roused the others, and told them to snatch what missiles they could, and hurry to her aid.

“We’ll fling things at him if he tries to come up!” she gasped, groping for her boots.

It was a horrible experience: four nervous, quaking girls stood in the dim light on the landing gazing down into the haunted blackness of the shadowy hall. The sounds had ceased temporarily, but now they began again⁠—a distinct shuffling as of footsteps, and even a subdued sniff, then the outline of a dark figure made its appearance, bearing straight for the stairs.

With quite commendable bravery Ingred flung her boots at it, which missiles were instantly followed by Nora’s hairbrush, Fil’s dispatch case, and Verity’s pillow. It screamed in a most unburglar-like voice, and apparently with genuine fright.

“If you t-t-t-try to c-c-come nearer, I’ll sh-sh-shoot you dead!” quavered Ingred, wishing she had at least some semblance of a pistol to bluff with.

“What are you doing, girls?” replied the dark shadow, persisting in its movement towards the staircase, and, as it came into the faint circle of radiance spread by the lamp, resolving itself into the familiar form of Nurse Warner. “Have you suddenly gone mad?”

Here was a situation! The four girls flew back to their dormitory in great haste, especially as Mrs. Best, disturbed by the noise, had opened her door and come on to the scene in a pink-and-gray dressing-gown. They were followed, however, by both Matron and Nurse, and forced to give an explanation of their extraordinary conduct.

“I couldn’t sleep for the wind, so I put on my felt slippers and my cloak, and went downstairs for a biscuit,” declared Nurse Warner, whose voice sounded rather aggrieved. “I didn’t think I should disturb anybody.”

“You girls are the limit with your silly notions!” said Mrs. Best, really angry for once. “If you fill your heads with absurd ideas about burglars before you go to sleep, of course you can imagine anything. If I hear any more talking in No. 2 another night after the lights are out, I shall separate you, and send each of you to sleep in another dormitory. I’ll not have the house upset like this! So you know what to expect. Are you all in your beds? Then not another word!”

“It’s very uncomfy without my pillow!” whispered naughty Verity, in distinct disobedience to this mandate, as the door of Mrs. Best’s room closed. “Dare I go and fetch it?”

“Sh! Sh! No!”

“I know what we’ll give Nursie for a Christmas present,” murmured Fil softly. “A nice ornamental tin box of biscuits to keep in her bedroom. She shan’t get hungry in the night again, poor dear!”

Sh! Sh! Will you go to sleep!” warned Ingred emphatically.