Meet Augusta. She’s eleven years old and is the sort of child who accepts anything that life throws at her with perfect equanimity.
Certainly she had settled in at the Chalet School with admirable ease. It is, of course, debatable whether the School had grown as accustomed to her as she had to it. Her Form had only just recovered from the shock it had received when Augusta had objected to a correction to her grammar.
“Please can I go and find my stamps?” she had requested, and Miss Burnett had corrected her,
“You mean ‘may I’, Augusta.”
“Do I?” said Augusta with interest.
“Well, you can go and find your stamps, can’t you? You’re asking for permission, therefore the correct form for your question is ‘may’.” Augusta considered this for a moment and then said,
“But, Miss Burnett, my Father says there isn’t such a thing as correctness in grammar. He says that everyone speaks as they speak, if you know what I mean, and that the only sort of grammar there is is what people use and that what they say is ‘correct’ is really just standard and you can be non-standard if you want to be because the rules were only made up by some silly people who thought there ought to be rules and tried to make everyone follow them, so you see –”
“Thank you, Augusta, that will do,” said Miss Burnett, stemming the tide hastily. “Here we say ‘correct’, whatever you may do at home. You may go and find your stamps.” Augusta went off, and Mary Burnett related the story to an appreciative Staff later on. The Form, meanwhile, had been shocked at the audacity of their newest member and had endeavored to explain to her just why it was not the done thing to argue with a mistress. Augusta, unconvinced, insisted that she hadn’t been arguing and that her Father had said that and that she jolly well agreed with him. They gave it up in the end, but continued to regard Augusta rather as they might a bundle of fireworks that was liable to go off at any moment. This impression was not diminished by an event that occurred only a week after Augusta’s arrival at the School.
It began like any other night. Augusta succeeded for the first time in reaching her dormitory without getting lost (she had inherited her sense of direction from her mother), washed, undressed and said her prayers. Then she settled down and was asleep almost instantly. It was said in the Fraser family that nothing would wake them once they were between the sheets, and boasted that Uncle Gregory Albert Gregory who was by now as deaf as a doorpost, had, in his young days, slept through the firing of a gun a few feet from his ear.
It was about two in the morning when Augusta suddenly awoke and sat up in bed. Contrary to her usual manner of waking, she was instantly alert, the sleep vanishing as though it had never been. For a moment she sat quite still and wondered what had woken her. She could hear nothing, but swung her legs out of bed and crept to the dormitory door.
Opening it, she peered into the dim corridor, lit only by the regulation blue bulbs. Augusta slid through the tiny gap she had made in the doorway and began to creep furtively down the passage. It had not occurred to her to don dressing gown or slippers, but it was warm, and her bare feet made no sound. Suddenly she stopped, took a deep, calming breath, and turned slowly.
There was someone else in the corridor. A tall figure, gliding silently towards her. Augusta pressed herself into the doorway of the dormitory next to her own and somehow, by a miracle, the figure did not see her but passed by without a sound. It seemed to be wearing a dark, voluminous cape, and Augusta realised that it must be a burglar.
As soon as the intruder had passed she came out of hiding and, on hands and knees so as to be less visible, followed. The burglar began to descend the stairs. Realising that this would be a challenge in her current position, Augusta rose to her feet. She intended to wait until her victim should reach the bottom, but the plan went astray when she tripped over her own feet, flailed wildly in an attempt to save herself from falling, and crashed down the stairs. The burglar heard and turned in time to receive Augusta’s full weight in his stomach. He toppled backwards like a falling tree, and both emitted wild yells as, hopelessly entangled, they rolled down the stairs.
By some mysterious, eleven-year-old resilience Augusta found herself unharmed and not even winded. With admirable presence of mind she wriggled out from beneath the burglar, who made an ineffectual grab at her, and fled down the corridor. The burglar, apparently more desirous of revenge than of taking his chance to escape, leapt to his feet, picked up his robes and gave chase.
In the meantime Kathie, who slept beside the door in Augusta’s dormitory, had been woken by the breath of chilly air that came in when the door opened. Realising that the door was still open, and muttering about the iniquities of people who did not close doors when they used them, she crawled out of bed. Something prompted her to glance out before closing it, and she caught sight of Augusta vanishing on all fours down the corridor. Kathie’s jaw dropped. She saw that the new girl’s bed was empty and with a groan she decided you never knew what Augusta might be up to and she had better go and see what it was. She also decided that she might need help and went to prod her friend Mollie Avery, who sat up with a suddenness that was literally stunning, since the top of her head hit Kathie on the chin. Kathie yelled in protest, staggered back, and sat down hard on the next bed. Soon the entire dormitory was awake and sallying out in chase of its absent member. Even as the vanguard –Kathie, who was the only one who had any idea what was going on – reached the door, they heard bloodcurdling howls from the lower floor. With no hesitation they streamed down the corridor, joined by the members of the next two dormitories who had heard the noise and were investigating. They reached the top of the stairs in time to see the unknown figure running off down below.
“A burglar!” screamed Kathie in almost hysterical excitement. She plunged down the stairs so quickly that she almost fell, but righted herself, only to wobble again as Mollie shot past her, mounted on the bannister. The whole crowd followed, some tumbling down the stairs, others taking the easier if more dangerous option and sliding down the bannisters.
“What’s happening?” questioned a latecomer to the chase.
“Burglars!” gasped Mollie, tripping over her dressing-gown and losing the advantage gained by her bannister trip.