|A few minutes later|
‘What does it mean, Aunt Jane?’ Lucy asked. ‘Quick! You need to tell me before Matey gets back.’
‘It the numbers of items, dear,’ Miss Marple told her. ‘They’re very unlikely numbers and so they must mean something.’
‘Like what?’ Lucy could hardly contain her impatience.
‘It says “52 dresses”, which is possible but it’s much more likely that it means that what’s below is a date – 52 weeks in the year you see.’
‘So what date is it?’
‘Well it said 7 pillowcases, which is not enough for a school this size and 10 towels. So whatever it is they’re doing is going to be on 7 October.’
‘And what is it?’
‘The laundry list didn’t say,’ Miss Marple explained sadly. ‘So either Matron already knows what’s going to happen or it will be contained in a different communication.’
‘It’s quite exciting,’ Lucy said, giving a little bounce in her bed.
‘And dangerous,’ Miss Marple said. ‘Matey is obviously a practised criminal, so you must make sure she suspects nothing, Lucy dear.’
‘Yes, Aunt Jane.’
Miss Marple wasn’t fooled for a moment. She smiled at Lucy. ‘I know you haven’t been trained to instant obedience like these Chalet School girls. But your father has brought you up to be a sensible girl and you must put your own safety first. We don’t want you to be the next victim.’
Matey returned at that point and Miss Marple handled her like a true pro, as her alleged great-niece informed her in a later letter.
‘Oh, Matron. Yes. So kind of you. Looking after Lucy so well.’
‘The poor child has been very headachy and tired,’ Matey said. ‘I don’t think it’s anything terribly serious, Miss Marple. Typical teenage growing pains.’
‘Yes. Of course, Matron. You’re so experienced in looking after girls. Of course you can diagnose problems straight away.’
Matron preened. ‘Well of course I leave actual diagnosis to the doctors. Though I’ve been able to point Dr Jem and Dr Jack in the right direction on several occasions.’
‘Really, Matron. I’m not at all surprised. And who are Dr Jem and Dr Jack?’
Matron gave a detailed explanation, unable to contain her pride in being the school equivalent of the old family retainer. ‘Mrs Russell started the school of course. That’s Dr Jem’s wife. And Dr Jack married our most famous Old Girl, Josephine Bettany. I expect you’ve heard of her.’
‘Yes indeed, Matron,’ Miss Marple said, looking desperately at Lucy who mimed writing. ‘Such a wonderful writer. So educational.’
Matron was immensely pleased at this praise of her favourite. ‘They are educational, Miss Marple. Joey writes so vividly and there is such a strong moral background. Of course that’s based on her time here at the Chalet School.’
Miss Marple’s expression was so sincere, and Lucy was so well aware that Miss Marple thought the morals in the place were about on a par with Sodom and Gomorrah, that she could hardly resist giggling. She sank back on to her bed and hid her face in her pillow.
‘Such a wonderful place for girls,’ Miss Marple was cooing. ‘Indeed. Such a strong moral fibre. Of course Lucy has been brought up in the same way. My dear nephew is a vicar you know.’
‘And Lucy’s mother?’ Matron asked.
Miss Marple affected a hangdog expression. ‘Sadly the dear girl died when Lucy was just an infant. My nephew was very badly affected, but with the grace of God, he shouldered the burden of bringing the child up himself.’
‘How sad,’ Matron sympathised. ‘She’s such a balanced girl. One would never think she was motherless.’
‘She has borne it well,’ Miss Marple agreed. ‘She is constantly reminding me that she is no worse off than many children who have lost one or both parents at the Front or in the Blitz.’
As Lucy had never expressed any such thing, Miss Marple’s words and mournful expression was nearly enough to set her off giggling again. She controlled herself with an effort as Miss Marple
took her leave, thanking Matron for allowing her to see her great-niece.
‘Your aunt is a very nice lady,’ Matey said to Lucy. ‘Perhaps a little vague in manner but no doubt that’s due to her age.’
Or acting worthy of an Equity card, Lucy thought, as she agreed with Matey that dear Aunt Jane was lovely, but becoming somewhat scatty as she aged.
Nothing more happened in the San. and Lucy was allowed back into school the following morning. She managed to find an excuse to go past the San. door and, sure enough, the red cross had disappeared. As Lucy returned from collecting an unnecessary handkerchief from her dormitory, Peggy Bettany came out of the San.
‘What are you doing here, Lucy?’
‘I’ve got permission to come up and collect a spare handkerchief,’ Lucy told her. ‘I think I might have a cold coming on.’
‘I got sent for by Matey,’ Peggy said with a grimace. ‘Lecture about untidy drawers.’
Lucy may only have been at the school a few weeks, but she knew that Matey didn’t lecture people about untidiness in the San. She would drag them back to their cubicle and nag whilst they rectified the problem. It didn’t surprise Lucy that Peggy was part of whatever was going on. As a member of the ruling clan, she was obviously going to be up to her neck in it.
Over the next few days, Lucy kept her ear to the ground but was unable to find out what was going to happen on 7 October. The only clue was that Miss Annersley was going to be away for the day at a conference. That made Lucy think that, whatever was going on at the school, the headmistress wasn’t involved. So who was the criminal mastermind?
‘It’s not Matey,’ Lucy wrote to Aunt Jane. ‘She doesn’t strike me as a natural leader. Someone’s lieutenant but not the prime mover. She hasn’t got the brains.’
Author's Chapter Notes:
Miss Marple reveals the secret of the laundry list.