Augusta had settled down well at the Chalet School. It had taken a little more time for the School to grow accustomed to. The previous day, however, she had come to the conclusion that her two best friends, Mollie and Kathie, were to be trusted with a secret, and now she produced a cardboard box in the privacy of a corner of the common room.
“What’s in there?” asked Mollie, who suffered from insatiable curiosity. Augusta’s lips curved mysteriously, and she opened one flap of the lid.
“What is it?” Mollie persisted, attempting to peer in under the other flap. Augusta opened it to display a large number of variously sized parcels wrapped in brown paper.
“It’s my box of Things,” she explained, removing a package and unwrapping it. Something small and hairy fell out and Mollie leapt back with a smothered squeak.
“Oh! What – oh!” she sat down again with an irrepressible giggle as Augusta picked it up and carefully affixed it to her upper lip.
“A – moustache,” said Kathie blankly. Augusta beamed at her and the moustache fell off. “What on earth have you got a moustache for, Gussie?”
“For disguise, of course, silly,” Augusta spoke as though she were talking to an imbecile child. “It – well, it disguises you. So people don’t know you’re you.” Mollie rolled her eyes violently at the ceiling and Kathie looked long-suffering. Augusta was slightly chagrined at this response to one of her most prized possessions, but in a spirit of Christian forgiveness she decided to proceed onto the next parcel. This clanked and rattled as she took it up.
“Ah!” she cried gleefully and tore the paper off to reveal a pair of handcuffs and a key. “Look, they work!” She advanced purposefully on Mollie, who emitted a slight shriek and expressed her lack of desire to participate in the experiment in forcible terms. Augusta turned to Kathie, but she too appeared to be unenthusiastic. Augusta looked hurt.
“Don’t you want to try them?”
“No thanks,” said Kathie.
“Well, I don’t see why not.”
“Because we’ve seen what happens when you’re in a thing,” said Kathie, darkly.
“I’m not in them,” pointed out Augusta tartly.
“No that’s not what I meant – ”
“Then why did you say I was?”
“I didn’t. Do you think I can’t hear what I say with my own ears?”
“Now you’re being silly,” said Augusta firmly. “You must know you don’t talk with your ears.”
“What – ?” spluttered Kathie. Mollie decided it was time to interfere.
“Yes, well, maybe you should put them on yourself, Gus,” she suggested. Augusta turned on her.
“How can I?”
“On your feet?”
Augusta seized on the suggestion with alacrity.
“Jolly good idea.” She carefully clipped the handcuffs round her ankles. “The key’s only to unlock them. Look, they work, don’t they?”
“Yes,” agreed Kathie. “Pity we can’t keep you in them all the time.” Augusta threw the key at her and at the same moment the bell rang for lessons.
Augusta crawled forward with some difficulty and scrabbled for the key.
“Where is it? What’ve you done with it, Kathie?”
“I haven’t. It went over my head. You can’t throw for toffee,” said Kathie calmly, watching her friend hunt for the key.
“Well, help me find it, can’t you?” demanded Augusta irritably. Kathie and Mollie also began to search, but to no avail. By the time they had ascertained this fact, however, the Common Room had almost emptied.
“We’d better go – we’ll be awfully late,” said Mollie anxiously.
“But I can’t walk!” Augusta wailed.
“Your own fault,” said Mollie. “Come on!” With an air of martyrdom, Augusta stumbled to her feet and made for the door. It was not an easy task. The handcuffs allowed her to move her feet about six inches, so that she had to take two or three steps for each of her friends’ and as she trotted along they jangled. Much to her chagrin, Kathie and Mollie seemed to find the sight – and sound – hilariously funny.
“Woo-oooo-oo-ooo!” moaned Mollie. “Beware the jangling ghost that haunts our passages!”
“It may walk like a penguin but its clammy fingers send shivers down your spine,” hissed Kathie spookily. Augusta scowled at them.
“Ha – very – ha,” she said, her voice oozing with sarcasm. Their progress was rather slow due to her impediment, but when they reached the Form room it was to find that Miss Wilson had not yet arrived.
When she did enter the room Augusta succeeded in rising to her feet without moving them, although she came close to overbalancing. Then she buried herself in her work even more fervently than usual, thanking her lucky stars that that particular lesson consisted mostly of note-taking.
The moment that Augusta had been awaiting with a sort of fatalistic dread and the rest of the class had been anticipating eagerly arrived when Miss Wilson turned to her with a smile and said,
"Augusta, would you mind cleaning the board for me, please?"
Even Augusta's fertile mind was not equal to dealing with this alarming situation. She was aware of the muffled giggles of Mollie on one side of her, and hesitated.
"Come along, we can't wait all day," said Miss Wilson, a little impatiently. She had regretted asking Augusta as soon as the words were out of her mouth, but she had not anticipated being stared at with a look of imbecile stupidity.
"Er - " said Augusta. "If you don't mind, Miss Wilson, I'm a little tired. I mean," she added hastily as the mistress' mouth opened exasperatedly, "I think I've got a bit of a cold coming, and it does look a bit draughty over there by the blackboard, doesn't it? I'm bound to get a cold if I go waltzing round in a howling gale." She hurried on without taking a breath, seeing that Miss Wilson was about to object. "Not that I mind for myself - it's the rest of you I'm worried about. If I caught a cold I might give it to the rest of you. The whole School might catch it." She let her imagination run riot. "And then if someone outside the School got it, like that Colonel man Kathie was telling me about, they could give it to - "
"Augusta! Be quiet!" thundered Miss Wilson in an effort to stem the flood of eloquence that threatened to engulf her.
Augusta stopped mid-sentence and closed her mouth with a snap that sounded as though she were trying to bite the mistress' head off. Miss Wilson took a deep breath to calm herself and continued in a dangerously quiet tone.
"Do you intend to clean that board today or next century, Augusta?" Augusta sighed. She had not expected her tactics to succeed, and was prepared for what was to come, but she was highly tempted to reply "next century".
As she rose slowly to her feet she also thought about making a famous last speech - something along the lines of "we who are about to die salute you," or "it is a far, far, better thing..." A quick glance at Miss Wilson's face told her that this romantic gesture would probably go unappreciated. So, rattling like a choir of false teeth, she stepped out of her seat and approached the board with an air of nonchalance that suggested that it was a perfectly normal thing to wander round School with a pair of handcuffs fixed securely round one's ankles.
This time Miss Wilson's period of recuperation was longer.
Indeed, she was obliged to close her eyes and hold onto her desk to support herself. When she did speak it was through clenched teeth.
“Augusta, what is that you have around your ankles?” Augusta put on a look of convincing surprise.
“My ankles, Miss Wilson?”
“Yes. I suppose you have encountered the term ‘ankle’ before? The joint that connects the foot and the leg.”
“Oh – ankle! Yes, of course, I see what you mean now, Miss Wilson.”
“Well… I… er… It’s just a – just a slight handicap, Miss Wilson,” explained her pupil brightly. “I’m getting used to it now, honestly I am!”
“That is not the point,” said the mistress firmly. “The point is that pupils cannot be allowed to walk round school with handcuffs round their ankles. It would create chaos.” She paused to reflect that Augusta somehow always did manage to create chaos even when following implicitly the letter of the law. “Take them off, please, at once.” Augusta would have stood on one leg with embarrassment had those limbs not been closely linked together. She cleared her throat unnecessarily loudly and explained her predicament.
“So you see, I really couldn’t help it,” she finished.
Miss Wilson clicked her tongue in exasperation.
“Really, Augusta, you are one of the most careless and ridiculous children I have ever met,” she said. “If you don’t know better than this I am surprised you have survived to the age of twelve. Now, as it seems to be entirely your fault that you are in this situation you may keep those – er – handcuffs,” at this point Miss Wilson’s face twitched slightly. “Round your ankles for the rest of the day. You had better spend your spare time looking for the key, and if you can’t find it you may come to me after supper and I will remove them for you. Now clean the board and go and sit down.”