Robert Temple - Author of The Sphinx Mystery

Chapter One

Back in the good old days, - before Mr. Ketterer left, - when it was still possible to have marvellous adventures at All Hallows School, there was perhaps one tale which is remembered above all others. It concerns the tremendous escapade carried off by a group of girl boarders which was so daring, so ingenious, and so perfectly executed, that it has been heard of even by most of the parents to this day. But only now can the full story be told.

The heroines of the saga were Jessica and Clara Coleridge. Since they grew up long ago, and are no longer subject to reprisals, and are no longer worried about either being embarrassed or called to account, the full truth of the story need no longer be concealed.

It all started one day when Peggy Murray and Bethany Weddell (alias Halliday) were arguing between themselves over who was going to be the more famous when she grew up.

'It's certainly going to be me,' said Peggy, 'because I'm going to be a really famous actress who will make people cry with her sad performances and everybody will weep when they even hear my name, because they will think of how tragic a heroine I was on the stage last week.'

'Well, that's no good,' said Bethany. 'If you make people cry with sad and tragic performances, they won't like thinking about you, because it will be simply too gloomy. So I will obviously be the more famous, because I am going to be a comedienne and make everybody laugh. People like to laugh. So they'll always be thinking about me and smiling. That will make me more famous.'

'That's nonsense,' insisted Peggy. 'I will be more famous because I want to be! That will make me more famous.'

'Wanting to be is not enough,' said sensible Bethany. 'You have to be inspired, and you're not inspired the way I am, anyway.'

At which point Peggy was going to let a little tear of frustration form in her eye, but Jessica, who was listening, said:

'I think you're both so clever and so wonderful, and you'll be equally famous. But I wish we could be sure. It's terrible to have to wait whole years and years before we know for certain just how brilliant you'll be on stage and on telly. If only we could see now what you'll be like, and not have to wait. Bethany, I'm sure you'll be a brill comedy actress, and Peggy, you are so soulful and wonderful, you are bound to make everybody cry. Why, I'm practically crying now, just look, even thinking about how sad and tragic you will be on the stage. I tell you what, - couldn't we try you out now, - both of you - and see you on the stage somehow?'

'Oh, I wish we could,' said Peggy mournfully, dreaming of her future triumphs.

'Wouldn't it be wonderful?' said Bethany, getting a really mischievous twinkle in her eye just at the thought of being funny on stage and having everyone in the theatre look at her.

'But surely we could do it somehow?' suggested Jessie.

'I don't see why not,' said Clara, who had been listening carefully and liked to get on with things. 'I think we ought to get them on the stage and see for ourselves right away, if you ask me.'

'Well, just how are we going to do that?' asked Jessie.

'There must be a way,' said Clara with determination in her voice. 'We must put our minds to it.'

'Oh do,' said Peggy. 'I so long to be tragic and famous.'

'Not as famous as me!' said Bethany.

And the four girls wandered off to think about their problem.

Chapter Two

That evening after supper, Jessie poured out the dilemma to trusty Victoria Lyons, who was always very good and sound in her ideas, and came up with notions from time to time.

'I think we ought to find a stage somewhere away from the school and get them on it so we can see,' said Victoria.

'But how would we do that?' asked Jessie. 'We don't know where there are any stages, and we wouldn't be allowed out even if we found one.'

'Well, that's just it,' said Victoria. 'We'll have to do what they did in a film I saw on telly last summer, - break out of here somehow, like those men breaking out of camps in the War. Then we can find a stage and have a private show where we can decide which of them will be the more famous, and see for ourselves properly.'

'Oh, I'd be frightened,' said Jessie, who went pink at the thought, and looked round in case Mr. Ketterer might have heard what they were saying.

'Of course, one of us would have to be in sick bay to make the breakout possible. Because it's always from the sick bay that one of the prisoners starts the breakout in one of those films,' said Victoria. 'And my father's in the Navy and so I've inherited all kinds of military abilities.'

'Well, my father's in the Army. So maybe I've inherited something too,' said Jessie, who had never thought of this before.

'I don't think you're much of a soldier,' said Victoria a bit unfairly. 'You'd better let me and big girls like Peggy and Bethany organize things from the military point of view,' she said.

'Yes, and Clara's good at sports,' said Jessie hopefully. 'She will make a military person too.'

'Well. That's set, then. We'll break out of school and go find a stage. And then we'll see,' said Victoria, sensibly.

Chapter Three

When Clara heard about this plan, she consulted her friends Karen Neaves and Sophie 'The Aspirin' Jones. They were both very resourceful, with good ideas and a lot of nerve for a dangerous mission.

'Where are we going to find a stage?' asked Clara. Karen had no idea, but Sophie 'The Aspirin' had heard about one.

'There's one in Frome,' said Sophie. 'It's called the Mermaid or something.'

'Well, is it the Mermaid or isn't it?' snapped Clara, who liked things to be absolutely clear.

'I don't know,' said Sophie. 'Something like that.'

'Well we've got to be sure of the name' said Clara. 'We can't go to a place when we're not sure what it's called.'

'Do you really have to know the name?' asked Karen.

Clara took charge of the situation in no uncertain terms:

'Of course, silly. Have you ever heard of going somewhere when you don't know where you're going?'

There seemed no answer to this dilemma.

'Well, I do think it's the Mermaid or something like that,' said Sophie hopelessly.

Karen's eye lit up with a mischievous idea. 'I've got it!' she shouted.

'Keep your voice down,' said Clara, alarmed, and looking about conspiratorially.

'I've got it!' Karen repeated, this time in an excited hoarse whisper.

'What have you got?' asked a sceptical Clara. 'Measles?'

'I've got the idea! I've got the idea on how to find out the name,' said Karen.

'Well what is it, then?' asked Sophie.

'You just ask Mr. Ketterer,' said Karen.

The two other girls just looked at her bug-eyed, fearing their friend had finally gone mad as they had always predicted.

'Karen, you keep your toothbrush in a puddle on the sink in the washroom, and I've always known that was a bad sign. It shows that you're losing your grip.' But even as she said this, Clara hoped that perhaps Karen wasn't really mad after all, and that behind this strange remark was actually some sensible suggestion.

'Well, you pick your nose when you play football,' said an irritated Karen.

'Stop quarrelling,' said Sophie 'The Aspirin'. 'Karen, have you absolutely gone out of your senses? How could we possibly ask Mr. Ketterer when he's the very man we don't want to know anything about what we're doing?'

'But he doesn't have to know anything about what we're doing,' said Karen eagerly, and her eyes lit up even brighter. 'Don't you see, we just ask him the name of the theatre in Frome and don't tell him why.'

The other two girls swallowed hard.

'Brilliant!' proclaimed Clara, who knew a genius when she saw one. 'That's brilliant, isn't it?' she said, digging Sophie in the ribs repeatedly in her excitement.

'Ouch!' said Sophie. 'Will you stop poking me like that? Yes, it's positively inspired. Karen, how did you think of it?'

'I don't know,' said Karen. 'I just get these ideas sometimes.'

Clara's busy brain was already whirring with activity as she worked out the possibilities. Then like a cash register which suddenly gives the sum, she pronounced:

'We'll tell him we're interested in Shakespeare. No teacher could resist that, especially not a headmaster. We'll say that we want to know the name of the theatre in Frome where we hear they do Shakespeare, and that Mummy and Daddy would like to have the address and directions for when they next come, because we've asked them to take us to see Shakespeare.'

Karen looked goggle-eyed at Clara, brimming with admiration, and Sophie managed to whisper between deep breaths of excitement:

'Clara, that's positively ace. How do you do it?'

Clara just looked down her nose at her friends and said in a careless sort of way: 'Oh, it's easy when I try.'

Chapter Four

The seven girls managed to meet in the library when nobody else was there, and closed the door to the corridor. This was to be their big strategy meeting.

'Well, everyone,' said Bethany, who automatically assumed the chair, much to Peggy's annoyance, who thought it might mean she might become more famous than herself if this sort of thing continued, 'I see we're all here. So let's get on with our planning. Now Clara, I hear that you and Karen and Sophie have managed to find us a theatre and you even known where it is and how to get there.'

'Well, not how to get there exactly,' said Clara in an officious sort of way which she had adopted since her Shakespeare inspiration. 'But we do know the name of it and the address and we have directions.'

'Then you must know how to get there,' said Peggy, thinking she had better get a word in or Bethany would simply take over.

'No, no,' said Jessie, springing to the defence of her sister. 'We have the directions for someone who's driving a car.'

'Oh,' said Bethany and Peggy in disappointment and hopelessness.

'You actually got all that from Mr. Ketterer himself?' asked Victoria Lyons.

'Yes,' said Clara, who was about to start with a long story about how they had had the idea and how Mr. Ketterer had been so thrilled that they liked Shakespeare that he could barely contain his delight. But she was cut short.

'Don't tell us all that now,' said Peggy, looking nervously at the door. 'We don't know how long we've got before somebody comes in here and then we all have to pretend to be doing homework, and they're bound to be suspicious.'

At that moment the door-handle turned and the door opened a crack. The tiny face of a little six year-old girl peeked in, and when she saw all the bigger girls staring at her at once, she said: 'Oh, sorry!' and pulled the door to again and went scampering down the hall.

'Wheww!' said Victoria, 'that was a close one. Think who it might have been!'

'We'd better hurry up,' said Bethany, resuming the chair. 'Come on, now, we all know already about the Shakespeare ploy. Brilliant! But how are we going to get to the theatre and how are we going to break out of here to do it?'

They all stared at the table. Suddenly Jessie looked up at Clara hesitantly. Their eyes met and Jessie said to her sister in a tremulous little voice:

'The Temples …?'

Clara had never thought her sister was so clever before, to have such an audacious idea.

'Jessie, that's wonderful!' Clara looked meaningfully at all of her fellow conspirators, from one face to the other slowly, and with deep seriousness. 'Girls, there's only one hope. The only person any of us know who's crazy enough to help us with our plan is Robert Temple.'

'That's if Olivia will let him,' added Jessie plaintively, wondering if she would let her husband do it if she were a wife, and then wondering what it would be like to be a wife, and then wondering how long it would be before she was one, and then going pink.

'Who's Robert Temple?' asked Karen and Sophie, who didn't really know him.

'Is he that man I met when I had the hamster on my head?' asked Bethany.

'Oh, the Temples are really nice,' said Peggy, who had been out with them, 'but do you think he's really crazy?' She was very doubtful. 'I know he wears disguises, like a funny moustache and glasses and a false nose …'

Clara grimly determined to convince her friends of the urgency and truth of their situation:

'He's got to be,' she concluded. 'Otherwise we'll never carry out our plan. And anyway, he's the craziest person I know, and I'm sure he's crazy enough if we only work at him.'

Chapter Five

The next weekend that Jessie and Clara spent with the Temples, they looked at each other just after everyone had filled up nicely with cups of tea and plenty of home-made cakes and they were all feeling nice and fat and lazy, and a knowing look passed between the sisters. Jessie crossed her fingers under her skirt as Clara spoke up.

'Ummm … You know Frome?' asked Clara.

'Not very well,' said Robert.

Jessie looked alarmed, but Clara persisted.

'There's a theatre there …'

'The Mermaid,' Jessie interrupted.

'No it's not,' snapped Clara. 'It's the Merlin, whatever that means. I think it's a fish.'

'Oh, I've been there,' said Robert.

The girls both breathed a sigh of relief.

'Ummm … would you know how to get there again? If you had directions?'

'I think so. Even without directions. Anyway, why are you interested?'

Both the girls took deep breaths and swallowed hard. 'Well, we … Bethany and Peggy want to go on the stage there and see which of them is the more talented and will become the more famous. But we can't get there.'

'Oh, I'll take you all sometime,' said Robert, not appreciating the full meaning of what they were suggesting.

'Well, the trouble is, …' said Clara, who trailed off and didn't know quite how to put it.

Jessie continued: 'We have to go there when Mr. Ketterer doesn't know.' And she opened her eyes wider than they had ever been opened before, in case that was the thing to do and it might help.

'You mean during a holiday?' asked Robert.

(Olivia was in the kitchen, thank goodness.)

'Well, no, that won't do, because we've all got to be there and we can't really go into it all with all of our parents because that's too complicated and anyway most of our parents aren't around, and it just wouldn't work,' said Clara, getting up steam.

'You mean you want to do this when school is on?' asked Robert.

'Yes, that's right, only it's got to be a secret, only the seven of us, - well, I mean and you and Olivia, …'

'That's nine,' said Jessie, who wasn't usually very good at sums.

'I know,' snapped Clara, who didn't want to be interrupted at this stage with petty details. 'The nine of us I mean. Anyway, if that's not too many for the car …'

'Wait a minute,' said Robert, who was an American who said 'Wait a minute' in the way they do in the detective movies where people get killed in California and the detective says 'Wait a minute' … 'You mean you want to sneak out of school?'

The girls both got guilty looks on their faces because they hadn't intended to actually say it and now they heard it it sounded pretty daring and impossible. But they knew this was the crunch, it was now or never. Jessie blurted out: 'But you see…' and then couldn't think of what it was exactly, or quite how to put it. Then she added for good measure: 'It's really important. Bethany and Peggy have got to know which is more talented and which is going to be more famous.' And her enormous eyelashes reached practically from head to toe as she looked at Robert more meaningfully with all the pleading and urgency which she could summon up.

Clara added: 'Yes, you see, it's got to be done. Otherwise we'll none of us ever know. And anyway, Jessie goes to another school next year and also Bethany and Peggy will be gone. It can't wait at all.'

'Then we'll have to do it somehow, won't we?' said Robert.

'Really?' asked Jessie, excited.

Clara narrowed her eyes in suspicion. 'Do you really mean you would be prepared to bust us out of school? At night?'

'Oh, does it have to be at night?' asked Robert. 'That's a bit awkward. Will it mean I don't get my supper until late?'

'Oh, we can get you some food,' said Jessie, eager to please.

'How's that?' asked Clara.

'We can slip several days worth of extra helpings into our pockets and save them up and have a whole meal for you when you arrive.'

'I don't think Olivia would like eating that very much,' said Clara, who knew what a good cook she was.

'No, neither do I,' said Robert. 'But we can just eat early, I guess, like the farmers.'

'Well, that settles that, then,' said Clara, who liked wrapping things up.

They arranged that Robert and Olivia would meet them at the main gate in the evening during the video one night. But then Robert began to wonder about the size of the car and whether it should be a car at all.

'I'll find something,' he said.

At that point Olivia came back into the room and they had to break the news to her.

'Bim,' she said to Robert, because she called him Bim and nobody knew why particularly, 'you can't possibly do anything as mad as this. You can't go picking up seven little girls from a boarding school in the middle of the night and taking them without permission to a theatre which is going to have a play on there anyway and not be free. It's out of the question. How could you even think of such a thing? And what would their parents say? And if the headmaster discovered they were missing, he would call the police and you'd be arrested for kidnapping.'

Jessie pleaded: 'No, we'd say he hadn't kidnapped us!'

'Yes!' added Clara, afraid that all their plans were in ruins.

'But Pink,' said Robert, who called Olivia Pink because that's what her mother had called her when she was one year old, 'we've got to help the poor girls out.'

And gradually he talked her into agreeing to help in the plan. And that took some doing, because Olivia was very practical and sensible, and not at all crazy like Robert.

And the plan that they came up with was that Robert and Olivia's friends would loan them a Land Rover with a horsebox, and that the girls would be taken to the theatre disguised in a horsebox, which would be big enough to hold them all, except that they would all have to wear their cardigans.

And it couldn't be during the video because there would be a play on at that time. And so it would be when everybody was asleep, even Mr. Ketterer. And if the girls fell asleep instead of coming to the horsebox, Olivia insisted that that would be that because they couldn't do this more than once.

And so they decided upon which night it would be, and as an afterthought Robert and Olivia said they would borrow lots of extra torches from their neighbours to light the stage because they realized it would be dark. And also they would bring a crowbar to get in, in case it had already been locked up. But they hoped it wouldn't be locked. And then because they were all rather nervous, they each had another crumpet.

Chapter Six

And so the big night came when Bethany and Peggy would go on the stage. Bethany had memorized a whole comedy act and Peggy had developed an interest in Shakespeare ever since Mr. Ketterer was fooled by that, and so she memorized the speeches of Ophelia in Hamlet in order to be tragic and make everybody cry.

After all of the girls had read in bed, and they were told it was Lights Out, they pretended to settle down. After all, it was a long time yet before eleven o'clock when the Temples would be at the main gate. And Karen and Sophie actually dozed off so that Clara had a job to wake them. But the older girls never slept for a moment. Victoria Lyons, whose father knew how to stand on a ship's bridge and keep watch, had inherited the ability to remain resolutely awake in all weathers and to look at her watch from time to time with her eyelids only closing now and then, but just lightly, and to keep an eye out for the Matron.

When it was 10:45 PM, all the children in the school, even Karen and Sophie, were breathing deeply in their sleep or snoring, and it was the first night the others had ever been glad to hear the snores, because this night they wanted to stay awake.

When Clara woke Sophie and Karen she only managed to stop them crying out and waking the whole large room full of girls by stifling their mouths with her hand, which at first made them think they were being suffocated, and they almost screamed. But as soon as they got up and slipped on their clothes - not forgetting their cardigans - all of the girls stuffed their pillows and extra clothes and books and everything they could find under the bedclothes to look as if there was still someone in the bed. All except Jessie, whose pillow had slipped down again behind her mattress and she couldn't find it in the dark on the floor. So she borrowed another girl's adventure novels to make a bigger bundle in the bed.

And having stuffed their beds really convincingly, so that the Matron would be fooled completely, the girls all crept as quietly as they could down the creaky old stairways and met up in the main corridor downstairs. They made their way from the house, and tried not to let the gravel be too loud as they crept away. Once they were out on the great grass lawn they felt confident and could even talk in whispers.

'Isn't this exciting?' said Bethany, who loved every minute of the escapade.

'Yes, but I'm worried we'll get caught,' said Jessie.

'I still think we should have had someone in the sick bay,' said Victoria Lyons, who was miffed that no one had taken up her idea.

'What good would it have done?' asked Karen.

'It would have been easier to bust out. That's what I think, anyway,' said Victoria, who only said it for effect because she didn't really know how it would have helped.

The other girls kept a respectful silence, allowing Victoria to have the last say, as it was so important to cooperate this evening, and a disgruntled member of the team might be a dangerous thing.

They were on the lawn going past Mr. Ketterer's house. But suddenly, Victoria decided she wanted to make her point a little more firmly. She stopped and turned round without warning to repeat her idea about the sick bay, and in the darkness, Bethany walked straight into her with a crunch and a crack.

'Owww!!' screamed Bethany.

'Ohhh!' moaned Victoria. 'I've cracked my head!'

'I've broken my nose!' Bethany shouted.

'Shhhhh!' the others pleaded.

But already the damage was done. The lights popped on in Mr. Ketterer's house!!!!!

'Quick!' and the girls scampered over towards the boundary wall, where they cowered in the darkness.

Chapter Seven

'I'm sure I heard a scream,' said Mr. Ketterer to Mrs. Ketterer.

'I didn't hear anything, darling, go back to sleep, you need your rest,' said Mrs. Ketterer.

'No, I'm afraid I must go and see if everything's all right,' said Mr. Ketterer. And he got dressed and put on his shoes.

'You're not going over to the school building at this hour, are you?' asked Mrs. Ketterer.

'Well, first I'll look outside on the lawn to make sure none of the children are out and about by any chance.'

But while this was going on, the girls had scampered along to the gateway and gone through to the lane, where sure enough there was a Land Rover and a horsebox standing silently in the dark waiting for them.

All of the girls breathed a huge sigh of relief when they were on the far side of the wall.

They peered eagerly through the gate to see if Mr. Ketterer would come out. And sure enough he did, looking around briefly and then going over to the school building.

'It's just as well we put pillows in our beds,' said Clara. 'He's bound to check all the rooms now.'

'Oh no!' squealed Jessie.

'What is it?' asked Clara.

'I couldn't find my pillow so I used Susan's adventure books. But then I thought she might be cross, so I put them back. And there's no lump in my bed!'

'Oh no!' the others all exclaimed.

'This is a serious matter,' said Clara grimly. 'Something's got to be done about it.'

'I'll have to go back and put them in the bed after all,' said Jessie.

There was a long pause while everybody thought.

'No, Jessie, I'm afraid you'll have to do something more than that if Mr. Ketterer is to be fooled,' said Clara. 'You've actually got to go back and get into bed.'

'What? While Mr. Ketterer's making the rounds? He'll see me.'

'That's a chance we'll have to take. Anyway, the rest of us won't go without you. We'll wait until you come back.'

There wasn't time to think, so Jessie rushed off into the darkness and was gone.

'I hope Jessie is up to it on her own. Maybe I should have gone with her,' said Peggy.

'Don't be silly,' said Clara. 'You're much too big to get into bed with her, it would break.'

'Oh yes,' said Peggy.

'My nose is bleeding,' said Bethany.

'My head hurts,' said Victoria.

Clara said: 'You stay here and watch for Jessie, Peggy, and the rest of us will go and see the Temples and tell them to wait.'

Chapter Eight

This was the scariest thing Jessie had ever done. But she knew the success or failure of the whole mission hung upon her actions now. She crept into the house the very same way Mr. Ketterer had gone in, and sure enough he was already upstairs. Or, rather, she could hear him climbing the stairway. And thank goodness, he was going up the other way, to Clara's side rather than to Jessie's.

Jessie sped up her own stairway and tiptoed into her room. With her shoes and clothes still on, she slipped into bed and lay there trembling and breathing like a steam engine.

All the other girls were still breathing regularly in their sleep or snoring, as the case might be. Jessie was never so glad to hear the snores. They helped conceal her own panic breathing.

Then - help! - she heard footsteps near their door, and Mr. Ketterer looked in. She could just see him over the edge of her bedclothes as he looked round the room.

But suddenly, the exertion and fright all conspired to make Jessie swallow hard and breathe at the same time, and before she knew it, she gave a loud belch.

'Who's that?' whispered Mr. Ketterer.

Jessie was paralysed with fright.

'Who was that?' he repeated.

Jessie managed to whisper: 'It's me, Mr. Ketterer, Jessica Coleridge.'

'Well go to sleep,' said Mr. Ketterer. 'Really, you shouldn't have eaten so much tonight. I saw you have thirds of pudding. It's very rich, you know, that custard and crumble.'

'Yes sir,' said Jessie meekly, barely able to utter with fright.

'Well, good night,' Mr. Ketterer whispered, and went.

For what seemed like ages, Jessie lay there rigid at the fear of having almost been caught out. Then suddenly she pulled herself together and leapt from the bed, this time putting the adventure books in her place, and sped out of the building and out onto the lawn again.

Chapter Nine

'What happened?' asked a breathless Peggy.

Jessie, who could barely speak she was so out of breath and fearful, managed to blurt out enough of comfort that they could all be on their way. She would not be able to tell them all about her adventure until she had regained her breath and recovered herself a lot more.

'We'd better be off,' said Clara, who had assumed the role of sergeant major by now.

'Hello, Jessie,' said Robert. 'You seem awfully out of breath. Did you almost forget to come?'

'No, she had to go back,' said Clara, wishing to conceal just how serious their near-miss had been.

'Oh, forget your cardigan?' asked Robert merrily.

'I hope you girls are all going to be warm enough now,' said Olivia.

'Oh yes, we're all very warm,' they said in unison.

As arranged, they all got into the horsebox. Just as Robert was closing the door behind them, Clara just thought of something very urgent:

'Oh, Robert, did you remember to have your dinner?'

'Yes,' said Robert. 'That was ages ago, but just in case I got hungry, I've brought along some Dimes. That's the new chocolate bar I like. In fact, I got enough for all of us. Here are seven for you.'

'Ace!' said one of the girls in the darkness of the horsebox. And they all scrambled for the Dimes, and chomped on them as happy as could be all the way to Frome, which they reached a lot quicker than they would have thought possible.

Chapter Ten

When the horsebox was finally opened again and they stepped out, the girls found themselves in a deserted parking lot. Nearby was a funny sort of modern building standing all on its own and without any lights.

'That's the Merlin there,' said Robert. 'Pink, where did we put those torches?'

'I thought you brought them,' said Olivia.

'Oh yes, I did. Here they are,' said Robert.

The girls looked at each other as meaningfully as they could in the darkness of the parking lot, wondering if they were safe with such an absent-minded fellow as Robert. Next thing they knew, they'd probably discover that he had forgotten to bring the crowbar or something.

'Oh damn!' exclaimed Robert. 'What are we going to do? I forgot to borrow a crowbar from somebody!'

The girls were all silent. Their worst fears were being confirmed. This must be the end of the whole mission.

'Well, we'll just have to see if we can get in some other way,' said Robert.

'How are we going to do that, Bim?' asked a trusting Olivia.

'Well, how do I know?' he said. 'Let's go over and look at the building first. I can't even remember where the entrance is.'

They went round to the back where there was a little door and a light could actually be seen. Robert and Olivia and the girls all peeked in, as Robert simply opened the door, which was not locked. Inside they could hear someone whistling 'We Are Dainty Little Fairies' by Gilbert and Sullivan, which only Robert recognized.

' … ever singing, ever dancing ..' Robert started to sing softly, until they shut him up.

'Who do you think it is?' asked Clara, who was the only one of the girls to find her voice just then.

'Must be a cleaning lady,' said Robert, who knew all about theatres.

'Are you sure, Bim?' asked Olivia. 'What if it's a security guard with an Alsatian?' she added, giving vent to her worst dread.

'Are you kidding? A security guard who whistles "We Are Dainty little Fairies"? Anyway, they don't have security guards at theatres. It's not a jewellery store or something,' said Robert.

'What are we going to do?' asked Peggy, who was worried that she would not be famous at this rate.

'Yes,' said Bethany. 'My nose has stopped bleeding and I want to get on stage.'

'Let's go in,' said Jessie, who had become encouraged to be courageous after her Great Success earlier. Jessie was all for barging in anywhere now, and doing practically anything.

It was Clara's turn to have cold feet. 'I don't know,' she said, narrowing her eyes and scrunching her nose as she often did when thinking hard.

'Come on, Clara,' said Jessie, and in she went!

They all followed fairly timidly, and tried to make out where the whistling was coming from. They followed some corridors and went past dressing rooms, and then they found themselves all in a clump standing in the wings of the stage, which had its lights still on. And in the middle of the stage was a funny old man, whistling to himself.

The man turned and saw them, and they all started back guiltily.

'Oh hello,' he said. 'Did you leave something in the theatre?'

'What's that?' asked Robert.

'Leave a scarf or something?' asked the man, genially.

'Oh no, we just thought we'd see what backstage was like. These are my daughters. I mean, not all of them are, I mean, some of them are, well one of them is, or anyway, the rest are their, I mean her, friends,' said Robert, thinking it best to become an instant parent but getting in a muddle.

'Oh yes,' said the man absentmindedly, and resumed whistling. But then he turned and looked at them again intently. He said:

'Maybe your daughter and her friends would actually like to come on the stage and see how it feels to tread the boards.'

All of the girls held their breath, and didn't dare move in case this was a dream, or would go wrong suddenly.

'Oh that's very nice of you. I'm sure they'd be thrilled,' said Robert.

'Do you work here?' asked Olivia.

'Oh yes, I'm the theatre manager,' said the man. 'I always have to be the last to leave. I was just trying to remember how a Gilbert and Sullivan tune goes. Not one from this show, of course.'

'No, of course,' said Robert.

'Did you like Pinafore?' asked the old man.

'Oh yes, a splendid show, isn't it?' said Robert.

'What's that they're talking about?' whispered Karen.

'I think it's the play that was on tonight,' said Sophie.

'Yes,' said Clara. 'The actresses seem to have worn pinafores. It must be an old play.'

The old man continued: 'I think HMS Pinafore takes a lot of beating.'

Victoria heard the mention of HMS and piped up: 'My father's in the Navy.' Then she realized she probably had better have been quiet.

'You're in the Navy?' the man asked Robert.

'No, no, that's her father,' said Robert, nervously.

'Oh, which one's yours?' asked the man.

'Oh, this one here,' said Robert, waving his hand generally in the direction of all the girls and changing the subject: 'What a nice suggestion that we could all "tread the boards". I know that all the girls would like that. But two in particular are rather star-struck and fancy themselves as actresses one day.'

'Oh really?' said the man. 'Which ones are they?'

Peggy and Bethany stepped forward, sensing their chance.

'These two here,' said Robert. 'In fact, they've been practicing some skits recently, or something, haven't you, girls?'

Bethany and Peggy got lumps in their throats and smiled meekly, looking at the man and wondering how he would react.

The other girls all eyed each other tensely, exchanging so many meaningful looks that a person could have tripped over them.

'Well,' said the man, 'perhaps they'd like to have a go right now. I can hang on a few minutes and let them do their skits right here on the stage.'

'Yes please!' said Bethany.

Peggy was less forward, but managed to look convincingly eager.

'What a super idea,' drolled Clara, who was prepared for anything to happen after this incredible break.

'Ooh, how exciting!' squealed Jessie, jumping slightly on her toes on the springy boards of the stage.

'The rest of you go and sit down,' said Olivia, thinking she had better organize these girls quickly if this was really going to come off. 'Come along now, down these steps here, and sit in the front row.'

The five girls tripped hurriedly down the stairs and took up their seats, hardly daring to believe this was really happening.

Bethany and Peggy stood looking rather awkward on the stage, wondering what to do next.

Olivia said: 'Now Bethany, you start. No, Peggy, you first. You're going to be the sad one, aren't you? Let's be sad first and then laugh.'

'I'd rather go last, thanks,' said Peggy, who was losing her nerve a bit.

'Nonsense,' said Bethany, 'you want to be an actress, so you have to be prepared to act in front of an audience without being shy.'

'I'm not shy, I just want to think first,' said Peggy rather desperately, and blushing heavily.

'Come on girls, he who hesitates is lost,' said the old man.

'Yes, Peggy, go ahead. You first,' said Olivia.

Robert and Bethany moved away and Peggy was left in the centre of the stage. At first, she tried to disappear by wrapping her arms around herself and shrinking a bit. But as she was so tall, this didn't work very well at all. Then she took a deep breath and lifted her chin, and decided that this was her destiny, and so she took the plunge.

Peggy began to recite Shakespeare's speeches for Ophelia in Hamlet. They were a bit disjointed and breathless at first, but at last she got more into the mood. Just for good measure, she did some of Hamlet's speeches too, where he is talking to Ophelia and so forth. She got more and more dreamy and carried away by it all, and became more and more convincing at what she was saying.

The other six girls all watched her with their mouths wide open. How on earth could she remember all these lines? It was as if she had been memorizing them since birth.

Peggy got more and more into the spirit of the speeches. Emotion in her voice, emotion in her face, even her body relaxed and ceased to try to disappear, and became expressive of the emotions. The girls were all spellbound. Jessie, whose mouth was wide open enough to catch all the flies in Somerset, and whose eyes were almost as wide, was utterly riveted.

Jessie began to snuffle, and her eyes moistened. Then, a sparkling tear welled up and dropped onto her cheek, her mouth closed, her head lowered, and she looked sad and thoughtful. Sniffling, she batted her enormous eyelashes as rapidly as possible and wiped her nose on her sleeve. Everyone was completely silent. And then Peggy finished.

At first no one uttered a sound, and Peggy looked embarrassed as if she had been terrible. Then they all clapped at once with real enthusiasm, and Jessie, her eyes wide with awe and wonder, squeaked with emotion: 'Peggy, you're a great actress!'

When Peggy heard that, she looked down at Jessie and smiled as broadly as she had ever smiled before, and very pleased with herself indeed, she walked to the edge of the stage like a star.

'That was marvellous, Peggy,' said Robert.

'Very good, that girl's very good,' said the old man.

'Peggy, you have a real talent,' said Olivia.

'Now Bethany, cheer us up, we're all so depressed at all those sad and tragic things from Shakespeare,' said Robert, and stepped back.

Bethany immediately set about delivering her comic sketch that she'd found in a book. She knew it all by heart too, - well, almost all, - anyway, enough, - and as she chattered on with jokes and funny remarks, throwing her arms about as if they were hockey sticks flying in a match, everybody was completely absorbed by her remarkable performance and her sheer confidence on the stage. They began to laugh, mildly at first, and then uproariously. What fun it was! Bethany was absolutely killing. What a comic!

When Bethany had finished, everyone wanted her to go on, but she said:

'That's all I read up.'

Everyone clapped just as loudly as they had clapped for Peggy. And Peggy, good sport that she was, said: 'Well done, Bethany, that was really very funny indeed. You are a real comedienne. You really have a talent.'

'Fantastic!' enthused Robert, who liked to say 'fantastic' about everything, but this time especially he really meant it.

'You were wonderful, Bethany,' said Olivia.

'Those girls both ought to be on stage,' said the old man. 'I never saw such talented youngsters.'

'Really?' asked Peggy and Bethany at once.

'Who's the real star, girls?' Robert asked the other five.

'Both of them!' shouted all at once.

'And is one better than the other?' asked Robert.

'No,' said Clara, 'they're both just as good as each other. It's just that they're so different. They're both absolutely brilliant.'

'Oh, they're both wonderful,' said Jessie, thrilled to bits.

'Well, then, I pronounce them both stars!' said Robert, acting as the judge who announces the winner.

'Bim, I think we'd all better go,' said Olivia, who thought it might get embarrassing to prolong this, in case the man asked any questions or one of the girls mentioned the school by mistake.

'Oh yes, yes, come on girls. Well, thank you very much. That was very kind of you to let the girls use the stage,' said Robert to the old man.

'A pleasure,' he answered. 'I quite enjoyed it. See you again some time. Coming to see Antony and Cleopatra?'

'Antony and who?' asked Sophie.

'Shhh,' said Clara, poking her in the ribs. 'We'd better get out of here now.'

And they all went back out to the horsebox, floating on air, thrilled at the amazing success the evening had brought them. Several of them also did yawns behind their sleeves and rubbed their eyes. For, after all, it was quite late, and they hadn't had any sleep. Or, well, most of them hadn't, anyway.

The old man waved from the doorway and seemed extremely disconcerted to see seven little girls being herded into a horsebox.

'They're mad about horses,' said Robert lamely. 'You know what little girls are like about horses. They insist on being taken everywhere in a horsebox. Eccentric, I know. Pony Club types. Eccentric little girls …'

And they all hurried away as soon as Robert could start up the engine, which of course wouldn't start right away. Just as they drove away from the parking lot, the puzzled old man walked after them a bit, suspecting that this was a rather odd set-up. But they were gone.

The journey back to the school was very quick, and they seemed to pull up quietly next to the school wall only minutes later. The girls all the way had been jabbering and shouting at each other with such excitement about their triumph, that it must have been the noisiest horsebox ever to pass along that road from Frome. Just as well everyone on the way was asleep and couldn't notice, until they had gone past.

When they came to rest, Robert and Olivia ushered them as quietly as possible out of the horsebox and shooed them off down the lawn, waving at them as they went. And that night there were many tired little heads that hit the pillow and went straight to sleep. All, that is, except Bethany and Peggy, who didn't sleep a wink, and imagined themselves as stars of stage and screen all night long, as well they should.

Chapter Eleven

It was not possible to keep the great adventure completely secret, and of course some of the nasty boys at the school got jealous. So the very next day, as they went into supper, two very jealous and very nasty boys who shall be nameless went straight up to Mr. Ketterer and blurted out excitedly:

'Mr. Ketterer, Jessica and Clara Coleridge and some of their friends all escaped from the grounds and went out to the theatre last night!'

'Go along there now, boys, and have your supper,' said Mr. Ketterer.

'But it's true!' they pleaded.

'Don't be silly,' said Mr. Ketterer. 'I checked round all the rooms last night as a matter of routine, and Jessica Coleridge was in her bed just like everybody else. As a matter of fact, she was suffering from indigestion. And so will you if you don't go sit down and eat with the others.'

And so it was that Mr. Ketterer was fooled, but never knew it. And so also did Peggy and Bethany make their stage debuts, to much applause and delight of their friends. Now, of course, they are both famous actresses, one in Shakespeare and the other a comedienne. And as for the other girls, well, they are mostly married and some have children already. And all of them go to the theatre when they can.

The End

© Robert Temple 2009
Design by Jonathan Greet