Ruth Fielding at Briarwood Hall/Chapter 24

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CHAPTER XXIV


"WHO IS THE TATTLE-TALE?"


The next day the whole school were at their books again—the short Thanksgiving recess was ended. It had been just a breathing space for the girls who really were anxious to stand well in their classes at Briarwood Hall. Those who—like some of the Upedes—desired nothing so much as "fun," complained because the vacation had been so short, and dawdled over their books again.

But there was no dawdling in Duet Two, West Dormitory. Had Helen been inclined to lapse occasionally, or Ruth sunk under the worriment of mind which had borne her down since the day of the skating party on Triton Lake, Mercy Curtis kept the two chums to the mark.

"No shirking, you young ones!" commanded the crippled girl, in her sharp way. "Remember the hare would have won the race easily if he hadn't laid down to nap beside the course. Come! some tortoise will beat you in French and Latin yet, Helen, if you don't keep to work. And go to work at that English composition, Ruthie Remissness! You'd both be as lazy as Ludlum's dog if it wasn't for me."

And so she kept them up to the work, and kept herself up, too. There wasn't much time for larking now, if one wished to stand well at the end of the term. The teachers watched for shirkers more closely, too. Even Mary Cox and her friends next door showed some signs of industry.

"Although it does seem as though we were always being worked to death," groaned Heavy, one day, to Ruth. "I feel as though my constitution was actually breaking down under the strain. I've written to my father that if he wants to see even a shadow of my former self at Christmas, he had better tell Mrs. Tellingham not to force me so!"

She sighed breezily and looked so hard at the piece of cocoanut pie beside Ruth's plate (having eaten her own piece already) that Ruth laughed and pushed it toward her.

"Have it if you like, Heavy," she said. "I am not very hungry."

"Well, there isn't quite so much of you to nourish, my dear," declared Jennie Stone, more briskly. "I really do feel the need of an extra piece. Thank you, Ruth! You're a good little thing."

"Miss Picolet will see you, Ruth," whispered Helen, on her other side. "She is disgusted with Heavy's piggishness. But Miss Picolet, after all, won't say anything to you. You are her pet."

"Don't say that, Helen," replied Ruth, with some sadness. "I am sorry for Miss Picolet."

"I don't see why you need be. She seems to get along very well," returned her chum.

But Ruth could not forget how the little French teacher had looked—how frightened she was and how tearful—the afternoon when Ruth had told her of the incident aboard the Minnetonka, and of her loss of the mysterious letter sent by the harpist. The little French woman had begged her not to blame herself for the loss of the letter; she had only begged her to say nothing to a soul about either the man or the letter. And Ruth had kept the secret.

Nearly a fortnight had passed since the occurrence, and it lacked not many days to the close of the term, when one evening, after a meeting of the S. B.'s in their usual room over the dining hall, Ruth had been delayed a bit and was hurrying out alone so as not to be caught out of the dormitory after warning bell, when old Tony Foyle hailed her.

"I was a-goin' to the West Dormitory to ax Miss Scrimp for to call ye, Miss Ruthie," said the old Irishman, who—like most of the help about the school—was fond of the girl from the Red Mill. "Ye're wanted, Miss."

"Wanted? " asked Ruth, in surprise. "Who by?"

"The Missus wants ye—Missus Tellingham. Ye're ter go straight to her study, so ye are."

Much disturbed—for she feared there might be bad news from home—Ruth ran to the main building and knocked on Mrs. Tellingham's door. At her pleasantly spoken; Come in!' the girl entered and found the Preceptress at her desk, while the old doctor, quite as blind and deaf to everything but his own work as usual, was bent over his papers at the end of the long table. But at this hour, and in the privacy of the place, he had cocked the brown wig over one ear in the most comical way, displaying a perfectly bald, shiny patch of pate which made his naturally high forehead look fairly enormous.

"Nothing to be frightened about, Miss Fielding," said Mrs. Tellingham, instantly reading aright what she saw in Ruth's countenance. "You need not be disturbed. For I really do not believe you are at fault in this matter which has been brought to my notice."

"No, Mrs. Tellingham?" asked Ruth, curiously.

"I have only a question to ask you. Have you lost something—something that might have been entrusted to you for another person? Some letter, for instance?"

The color flashed into Ruth's face. She was always thinking about the note the harpist had given to her on the steamboat to take to Miss Picolet. She could not hide her trouble from the sharp eyes of Mrs. Tellingham.

"You have lost something?"

"I don't know whether I should tell you. I don't know that I have a right to tell you," Ruth stammered.

Mrs. Tellingham looked at her sharply for a minute or so, and then nodded. Then she said:

"I understand. You have been put on your honor not to tell?"

"Yes, Mrs. Tellingham. It is not my secret."

"But there is a letter to be recovered?"

"Ye-es."

"Is this it?" asked Mrs. Tellingham, suddenly thrusting under Ruth's eye a very much soiled and crumpled envelope. And it had been unsealed, Ruth could see. The superscription was to "Mademoiselle Picolet."

"It—it looks like it," Ruth whispered. "But it was sealed when I had it."

"I do not doubt it," said Mrs. Tellingham f with a shake of her head. "But the letter was given to me first, and then the envelope. The—the person who claims to have found it when you dropped it, declared it to be open then."

"Oh, I do not think so!" cried Ruth.

"Well. Enough that I know its contents. You do not?"

"Indeed, no, Mrs. Tellingham. I may have done wrong to agree to deliver the letter. But I—I was so sorry for her——"

"I understand. I do not blame you in the least, child," said Mrs. Tellingham, shortly. "This letter states that the writer expects more money from our Miss Picolet—poor thing! It states that if the money is not forthcoming to an address he gives her before to-day—to-day, mind you, is the date—he will come here for it. It is, in short, a threat to make trouble for Miss Picolet. And the person finding this letter when you dropped it has deliberately, I believe, retained it until to-day before bringing it to me, for the express purpose of letting the scoundrel come here and disturb Miss Picolet's peace of mind."

"Oh, how mean!" gasped Ruth, involuntarily.

"Mean indeed, Ruth," said the Preceptress, gravely. "And you have yourself experienced some ill-usage from the person who has played spy and informer in this matter, since you have come to Briarwood Hall. I understand—you know that little can go on about the school that does not reach my ears in one way or another—that this same person has called you a 'tattle-tale' and tried to make your friends among the girls believe that you played traitor to them on a certain occasion. I have told Miss Cox exactly what I think of her action in this case," and she tapped the letter before her. "She has shown plainly," said Mrs. Tellingham, with sternness, "that she is a most sly and mean-spirited girl. I am sorry that one of the young ladies of Briarwood Hall is possessed of so contemptible a disposition."