Irene mentally shook herself. She’d planned for this. There was no point in delaying any longer, and standing around reconsidering possibilities would only result in her running short on time.
She stepped across the threshold.
Sudden raucous noise broke the silence. The stone arch above the doorway rippled, lips forming from the stone to howl, ‘Thief! Thief!’
Irene didn’t bother pausing to curse fate. There would be people here within seconds. With a loud scream she threw herself down on top of her mop and bucket, deliberately sprawling in the inevitable puddle of dirty water. She also managed to crack her shin on the side of the bucket, which brought genuine tears to her eyes.
A couple of senior boys got there first, scurrying round the corner in nightshirts and slippers. Far too awake to have only just risen from sleep, they’d probably been busy with some illicit hobby or other.
‘Where’s the thief?’ the dark-haired one shouted.
‘There she is!’ the blond one declared, pointing a finger at Irene.
‘Don’t be stupid, that’s one of the servants,’ the dark-haired one said, demonstrating the advantage of stealing books while dressed as a servant. ‘You! Wench! Where’s the thief?’
Irene pointed a shaking hand in the direction of the open window. It chose that moment to swing conveniently in the rising wind. ‘He – he knocked me down—’
‘What’s this?’ One of the masters had arrived on the scene. Fully dressed and trailing a drift of tobacco smoke, he cleared a path through the gathering mob of junior boys with a few snaps of his fingers. ‘Has one of you boys set off the alarm?’
‘No, sir!’ the blond senior said quickly. ‘We just got here as he was escaping. He went out through the window! Can we pursue him?’
The master’s gaze shifted to Irene. ‘You, woman!’
Irene hastily dragged herself to her feet, leaning artistically on the mop, and pushed back a straggle of loose hair. (She was looking forward to being out of this place, so she could have hot showers and put her hair up in a proper bun.) ‘Yes, sir?’ she snivelled. The book in her skirt pocket pressed against her leg.
‘What did you see?’ he demanded.
‘Oh, sir,’ Irene began, letting her lower lip quiver suitably. ‘I was just mopping the corridor, and when I came to the door of the trophy room here,’ she pointed it out needlessly, ‘there was a light inside. So I thought that one of the young gentlemen might be studying . . . and I knocked on the door to ask if I might come in to clean the floor. But nobody answered, sir. So I began to open the door, and then all of a sudden someone pushes it open from inside, and it knocks me down as he runs out of the room.’
The audience of boys, ranging from eleven to seventeen years old, hung on her every word. A couple of juniors set their chins pugnaciously, clearly imagining that they themselves would have been ready for such an event. They would undoubtedly have knocked the intruder unconscious then and there.
‘He was a very tall man,’ Irene said helpfully. ‘And he was all dressed in black, but something was muffled round his face so that I couldn’t see it properly. And he had something under one arm, all wrapped in canvas. And then the alarm went off, and I screamed for help, but he went running down the corridor and escaped through the window.’ She pointed at the clearly open window, an obvious – perhaps too obvious? – escape route for any hypothetical thief. ‘And then these young gentlemen came along, just after he’d escaped.’ She nodded to the first two arrivals, who looked smug.
The master nodded. He stroked his chin thoughtfully. ‘Jenkins! Palmwaite! Take charge of the House and have everyone get back to preparing for chapel. Salter, Bryce, come and inventory the room with me. We must establish what was taken.’
There were muffled noises of protest from the milling crowd of boys, who clearly wanted to leap out of the window and pursue the thief – or, possibly, go down to the ground floor and then pursue the thief without leaping out of a second-floor window. But nobody actually tried that.
Irene cursed inwardly. A large-scale attempted pursuit of a non-existent intruder would have confused matters nicely.
‘You,’ the master said, turning to Irene. ‘Go downstairs to the kitchen and have some tea, woman. It must have been an unpleasant experience for you.’ Was that a flash of genuine concern in his eyes? Or was it something more suspicious? She’d done her best to leave a false trail, but the fact remained that she was the only person in the vicinity, and something had just been stolen. Most of the masters round here ignored the servants, but this one might be the unfortunate exception to the rule. ‘Hold yourself ready in case we need to question you further.’
‘Of course, sir,’ Irene said, bobbing a little curtsey. She picked up the mop and bucket, and pushed through the crowd of boys, heading for the stairs, taking care not to walk suspiciously fast.
She’d need two minutes to get to the kitchen to dump the mop and bucket. Another minute to get out of the House. Five more minutes – three minutes at a run – to get to the school library. She would be cutting it fine.
The kitchen was already bustling when she got there, with the house maids preparing kettles of post-chapel porridge. The housekeeper, butler and cook were playing cards, and no one had bothered to investigate the alarms from upstairs.
‘Something the matter, Meredith?’ the housekeeper enquired as Irene entered.