Miss Wilson placed a tick by the side of the last name on her list and shuffled her papers together. The day the School returned after the holiday was always a rush and this Spring term was no exception. She scanned the lists one last time, and her heart suddenly skipped a beat.
There was a name with no tick beside it. She looked again, more closely.
There was still no tick.
Augusta Maria Fraser. The name had an odd, foreboding feel to it. Miss Wilson told herself she was being ridiculous and had merely made a mistake. She peered again at the paper. She studied it from every angle, as though in a certain light the tick might show itself. But the faint hope was quickly extinguished. The white space remained white.
Miss Wilson sighed. Either the new child was outrageously late – not impossible in these tumultuous times – or she had escaped the rigors of the arrival process, concealing herself among the ranks of girls like a stowaway on a ship. Miss Wilson rose and wended her way sadly to the study to report the apparent absence to her Head and great friend, Hilda Annersley.
On arriving, she discovered that Matron had forestalled her. Both women turned as the door opened and – metaphorically – seized on her with both hands.
“Nell!” Matron got in first. “We seem to be missing a pupil – name, Augusta Maria Fraser. Have you seen her?” Nell seated herself comfortably before announcing calmly,
“I was just coming to ask you that. She’s the only name I don’t have ticked off on my list.” She flapped the sheaf of papers before them, a dispirited rustle. There was a pause.
“How old is the child? Twelve? In that case, I suggest we check the School to make sure that she really isn’t here before we do anything else about it,” was Hilda’s sensible proposal. The others agreed, and they sallied out on their mission.
Half an hour later, they were back in the study, having gathered up Rosalie Dene on the way but, unfortunately, not Augusta Maria Fraser. Hilda, beginning to find the situation somewhat alarming, took prompt action. It was only a few minutes before the telephone in a large stone house on the outskirts of Newcastle was ringing – and ringing. And ringing.
In fact, the telephone in question was somewhat erratic, and for a short time it made no sound at all. Then the silence of the house was broken by a harsh jangling that resembled a rusty alarm clock in the throes of death by strangulation. The papers that rested lightly on top of the telephone, covered by a light film of dust, shivered briefly and slithered to the floor. A precariously balanced teapot crashed to its own destruction. But the telephone continued to ring, apparently unheard.
In the study, Hilda gave replaced her own receiver.
“Well, that’s that,” she said flatly. “No answer.” The four looked at one another and Nell said,
“They must be on their way, then. Perhaps something happened to make them late.”
Rosalie ‘phoned again in the few intervals she was able to find in her other work, but the telephone continued to ring – and sometimes to not ring – loudly to itself in the Fraser house. By nine o’clock they came, reluctantly, to the conclusion that the mysterious Augusta would not be arriving that day. Hilda debated contacting the police, but the lack of response to their telephone calls suggested that, wherever Augusta was, her parents were probable with her.
“But if she hasn’t arrived by midday tomorrow I’m ‘phoning them whether they like it or not,” she said firmly.
But such measures proved to be unnecessary. Rosalie had barely begun her day’s work when the telephone rang. She lifted the receiver.
“The Chalet School, Rosalie Dene speaking,” she said.
“Oh, mmffff gll piffroff omgub chishinop,” came a sort of fuzz from the other end of the ‘phone.
“I’m sorry, could you – er – repeat that, please?” The blur suddenly vanished and she could understand a woman’s voice, talking very fast and high-pitched.
“Is that Miss Annersley? I’m so sorry she isn’t here, I mean, there, at School, but you see we quite forgot because of the fork in the engine and when we remembered we still hadn’t got it out so we couldn’t come but I think my husband has it now so we’ll bring her right away and I do hope you haven’t been worrying or anything, it was quite an accident. It could have happened to anyone, but Percy really is ever so naughty, you see….” At this point the speaker’s breath finally gave out, and Rosalie, somewhat bewildered, hazarded a guess as to her identity.
“Ah – Mrs. Fraser?”
“Yes. Oh, yes, of course. I’m so sorry, Miss Annersley.”
“This is Rosalie Dene,” said Rosalie, speaking over Mrs. Fraser’s breathless babble. “Miss Annersley’s secretary. I assume we can expect Augusta sometime in the near future, then?”
Mrs. Fraser seemed delighted by Rosalie’s intelligence and perceptivity.
“Yes!” she exclaimed, and Rosalie hastily removed the receiver a few inches further from her ear. “That’s exactly it. We’re staying at my brother’s, not at home, that’s how the fork got there, so we should be with you in an hour.”
Rosalie shook her head to clear it and went to inform Miss Annersley of the new state of affairs. Neither of them was able to comprehend the issue of the fork, but they decided that if the Frasers were going to be arriving with their daughter that would be time enough to clear up any mysteries. In the meantime they reassured Matron and Miss Wilson, and incidentally provided them with one or two more worries, principally regarding the probable sanity or insanity of the Fraser family.
It was perhaps around half past ten that morning when a sound obtruded itself on Miss Annersley’s notice. It began with a faint rumbling, which swiftly grew to a growl and increased until it was a roar. This was alarming enough, but it was accompanied by other sounds – a loud, continuous rattling, a regular plunk plunk noise, a squeak that was so high-pitched that it was only just audible to the human ear. Occasionally there came a crash that shook the very foundations of Plas Howell. Miss Annersley wondered, briefly, why a tank should be making its way up the School’s drive.
So it was that a large proportion of the School saw the Frasers arrive. It was hardly an impressive introduction. Hilda, soon joined in staring out of her window by Rosalie Dene, found it difficult to believe that the small, dilapidated car crawling up the long drive was capable of producing such hair-raising sounds and the two of them watched, fascinated, as it proceeded in a series of jerks and bounds. As it reached the front door there was a moment of suspense when, instead of coming to a halt, it leapt forward in a sprightly manner as though desirous of investigating the interior of the building. However, it changed its mind at the last moment and reversed with an enthusiasm that was audible in a resounding discord of groans and bangs. For a few moments the driver, barely visible through the grime-covered windscreen, appeared to be having an all-in wrestling match with his machine, which after a Herculean struggle he did win, and the car, vanquished for the moment, drew up meekly outside the front door.
Hilda and Rosalie gazed at one another and sank down weakly into chairs.They were just beginning to recover when the Frasers were announced. Rosalie jumped up but Hilda, feeling she would require moral support in dealing with this particular family, detained her with a gesture. Rosalie seated herself again with no outward display of reluctance.
However, she was lucky, for the Fraser family appeared relatively normal: Mr. Fraser could be accurately described as “long and thin”. His face was long and thin. His body was long and thin. His arms and legs were long and thin. His hair was thin, though not long. Mrs. Fraser was short and skinny and had a vague air about her. She looked like a woman whose greatest pleasure in life was to talk. Her daughter was a small edition of herself, even to the way she spoke.
Rosalie shook herself mentally and gave her attention to what Miss Annersley was saying to the new parents.
Learning from her secretary’s experience on the telephone, Hilda had prudently jumped in before the Frasers had time to speak and so far had not ceased to talk (she had never realised it would be so easy to do circular breathing). She was currently explaining that she had sent for someone to look after Augusta, but after saying it in three different ways and finding herself unable to think of anything new, she was obliged to give the Frasers a turn. Mrs. Fraser began (Mr. Fraser was a silent person. He probably had little choice about it).
“Thank you so much Miss Annersley. That is perfectly marvellous. It is so kind of you to do this for us although it was not our fault we were late. You see, I told that lady on the ‘phone – Miss Dream I think she said her name was which I do think is a marvellous name –” (here Rosalie spluttered into her handkerchief and tried to turn it into a cough) “Percy put the fork in the engine. Percy is my brother’s son and he is just a little mischievous if you know what I mean, not really bad but he doesn’t seem to understand what is a good thing to do. He said he was mending the car though really she didn’t need it at all. She’s quite a good little car. A little temperamental, but quite marvellous. Anyway, he was using a fork and somehow it stopped the car from starting. I don’t understand these things, Miss Annersley, do you? I always think that it is not really nice for a lady to be able to mend a car.” Rosalie emitted a wild noise that was a cross between a squeal and a snort, and, receiving a reproachful look from Hilda, she quickly rose and excused herself in a voice still muffled by her handkerchief. Mrs. Fraser looked mildly surprised, but politely pretended not to notice and continued her garrulous explanation.
Augusta was removed a few minutes later by Kathie Robertson, a mop-headed child of her own age, and Miss Annersley was left alone, her face frozen into a listening expression even though, by this time, her mind was drifting on to other matters, only picking up odd phrases and exclamations of ‘marvellous’. At last, she detected a pause as Mrs. Fraser was forced to take a breath, and leapt into the breach.
“I quite understand, Mrs. Fraser. It must have been very trying for you. Now, do you have anything you wish to ask about the School or Augusta’s place in it?” Mrs. Fraser, a master of the art of rhetoric, did not hesitate.
“Well, I should love you to tell me about the School, because although the prospectus looks absolutely marvellous it is never the same as actually being told about it by someone who knows.” This last uttered in a deeply conspiratorial tone, suggesting that Miss Annersley’s knowledge came from some source of unspeakable darkness and secrecy. Miss Annersley blinked, but was given no opportunity to respond. “You know, I think school will be a marvellous thing for Augusta, she tends to be just a little illogical sometimes. Like Percy and the fork.” Hilda just had time to wonder why everything they talked about seemed to return somehow to Percy and the fork before Mrs. Fraser moved on to another topic.
It was some hours before the Frasers left, which they did with what sounded like a clap of thunder. Since the sky was bright, however, Hilda concluded that it was merely the starting of the car. This theory was borne out as the roar, which had died down to the level of one School’s-worth of crockery being dropped from a great height, altered its volume and pitch once or twice, then faded away, through the stages of a percussion group falling downstairs and the destruction of a window, until it was merely a low growl, then a purr, and at last – blessed silence.
Hilda had enough strength to reach out, ring the bell, and request coffee – strong. She felt that the name Percy was one which would always conjure up a feeling of depression, and she never wished to see or hear of a fork again. Indeed, for the rest of her life Hilda Annersley had a fixed aversion to the word “marvellous”.