By the fifth week of term, Pam and Barbara had shaken off their newness and settled into boarding school life as though this was their fourth term instead of their first. Of course, coming to Malory Towers together, and being put into the same dormitory in the same tower had helped tremendously. The South Tower second formers were a jolly set. Mary, head of the dormitory and also the second form, had made sure Pam and Barbara were included in the fun and games in the common room after lessons were over each day.
"Are you positive you're not sisters?" asked Mary, when she spotted Barbara and Pam looking rather uncomfortable as they squashed together in one of the armchairs, poring over a letter that had been addressed to both of them.
"Or cousins, like Jane and Paula?" put in Veronica as she joined Mary. Jane and Paula were the girls who had left at the end of the previous term, and whose beds in the dormitory had been assigned to Pam and Barbara. "What other reason is there for someone to write to both of you if you're not family?"
This was the fifth time the girls had received a joint letter from the same person. As Mail Monitress this term, Veronica had the job of passing out the form's mail. She'd recognised the handwriting on the envelope when she'd handed the letter to Barbara. Being possessed of a healthy dose of curiosity in addition to a keen eye for detail and a good memory, she'd noticed the mysterious writer had carefully alternated addressing the letters, first to Barbara, then to Pam, and so on. By her calculations, it had been Barbara's turn to receive the letter, and Veronica was pleased to see she was right. She'd examined the envelope before handing it over. Once again, the heavy 'S' of South Tower appeared to have been overwritten, as though covering up a mistake. She was now convinced it was actually two 'S's close together and a secret sign for something. She edged around the chair, hoping to get a quick look at the contents as she leaned over Barbara's shoulder.
"It's from our friend Janet," replied Barbara, quickly folding the letter before Veronica could read a single word.
"We've been friends for ages," added Pam. "She's going to boarding school next term and she's been asking us for tips."
"Then I hope you've told her you simply can't learn lacrosse from books!" said Mary with a grin.
Barbara flushed. "We thought it would help."
"Anyway, she hasn't said yet whether her school has lacrosse or hockey." Pam's cheeks were equally pink.
"It's all right. We shouldn't tease you about that any more. You're both picking up the knack of catching the ball," said Mary reassuringly.
"Maybe she'll have to play basketball. Or rounders, like my cousin's school. Urgh! Poor souls. Their headmistress thinks it's healthier and safer, or some such rot, and they don't even play it against other schools." Veronica snorted. She launched into a familiar diatribe about schools run by weak teachers and so lacked team sports and didn't notice Pam and Barbara exchange relieved glances. "I can't imagine anyone would write a book about rounders. At least that one has some handy coaching tips and tactics." She stomped over to the nearest table, picked up Barbara's lacrosse book and took it over to a chair by one of the windows. After swivelling her legs over one of the arms, she leafed through its pages, silently daring anyone to say anything.
"I don't think anyone spotted us," whispered Barbara as she closed the door to the music room at the end of the corridor.
"Thank goodness Veronica is easily distracted by her favourite subject. I don't think she had time to read anything. You folded Janet's letter really quickly."
"You were amazing too, putting her off the scent with the boarding school story."
Pam smiled. "Thanks. It was good, wasn't it? And the best thing is, it's not even a lie. But we have to do something. If Veronica or any of the others keep asking about her, I'm sure I'm going to let something slip about the Secret Seven."
"Me too. It's all Peter's fault. I still don't know why he decided we had to do a special secret task every week so we could still be members of the Secret Seven. I'm sure he and Janet won't have to do that once they go to boarding school next term. They really have no idea."
"Lessons all day. Prep. Games. Meals. Bath time. The common room is never empty."
"And everyone wants to know where you're going and what you're doing if you try to leave. I'm sure they wonder why my French hasn't improved one bit when I'm supposed to be having extra coaching. I can't keep using that as an excuse to get away for ever." Barbara sighed. "I'm sure I don't care what colour my aunt's house is, or how big is John. "
"La maison de ma tante est rouge," murmured Pam.
"Smarty pants! That doesn't help us get a sample of a mistress's handwriting."
"Actually, this is one of the easier ones," said Pam slowly. "The mistresses all comment on our work. We simply need to cut a piece from one of your exercise books that has something you've written and a mistress's comment next to it and send it to Janet when we write next."
"One of my books? Why not one of yours?"
"Because I shadowed the gardener last weekend, although I'm not sure how Peter would know whether I really did or just made up my whole report."
"Because he knows we're members of the Secret Seven and we wouldn't do that." Barbara pinched her friend's arm.
"And members of the Secret Seven, even long distance ones, are not going to get caught in the music room out of hours." Pam pointed to the clock. "Look at the time. The others will be wondering where we are. And when you write to Janet, tell her not to make the 'double S' sign when she writes 'South Tower'. I'm sure Veronica suspects something. She always hands Janet's letters over last, even when we've got letters from someone else."
"You're right. I shall." Barbara opened the door. "Come on then, the coast is clear."
"Mary! Eve! Trixie! Annie! Elspeth! Quickly. They've gone." Veronica called the five remaining South Tower second formers to the far corner of the common room where she'd ostensibly been studying the lacrosse manual.
"What is it, Veronica? We're in the middle of a game," grumbled Annie.
"I think it's time to revive the 'South Tower Society', she announced dramatically.
Six left hands met in the centre of their hastily formed circle. Palms down, one on top of the other, with Veronica's at the bottom, the girls remained still while they whispered, "S. T. S. Sssh."
Veronica pulled her hand back, followed one at a time by the girl whose hand was next lowest, until Trixie, last to place her hand on the stack, clasped her hands tightly behind her back to prevent herself from clapping excitedly. The STS was a serious secret society.
"I hereby call a meeting of the STS to discuss the puzzle that are Pam and Barbara."
"Is. The puzzle that is. Or are. The puzzles that are." Eve always got full marks in English.
"Is, are, whatever. Word it properly in the secretary's report. There's something fishy about those girls and I think we should find out what it is." She glanced up at the door. "It's the letters. They get one letter every week, with some sort of code as part of the address. I've noticed it particularly. The 'S' of South Tower is written twice, really close together, so it's not really obvious, except to someone like me who notices these things. It's not from either of their parents. Pam's mother always uses pale blue envelopes, and Barbara's mother uses a typewriter because she used to be a secretary."
"I agree with Veronica," said Mary. "I was going to propose we re-open the society so we could have a midnight feast for my birthday in two weeks, but we need to make sure they're the type of girls we want."
"They are a little bit odd, always going off together," said Annie thoughtfully.
"And I spotted Pam acting most strangely only last week. She seemed to be following Tom the gardener around and taking notes in a red note book," contributed Eve. Veronica wasn't the only one who noticed things.
"Very well. All in favour of the STS investigating the new girls?" Mary may have been Head of the dormitory and the form, but Veronica was in charge of the STS.
"Let's meet after prep tomorrow. I have piano practise in Room four. Bring some ideas."
The girls scattered to their various games and puzzles, while Veronica took up her book, just as the common room door opened.
"Le maison de ma tante est rouge," said Barbara loudly as she and Pam entered.
"La maison," corrected Pam firmly. "That's enough French for now. Let's do a jigsaw."
The girls all smiled innocently at one another, and the talk turned to the lacrosse match between North Tower and West Tower, and which team would end up playing South Tower the following week.
Practice Room four was crowded. Veronica's hands automatically played scales for any prefect to hear should the corridor be checked.
"I hereby call this meeting of the STS to order," announced Veronica. "The purpose of this gathering is to determine what we know about the new girls, Pam and Barbara, what secret they are hiding, and is the secret something that forbids them being members of the STS."
"Prohibits," corrected Eve as she took notes.
"We know their names, ages and fathers' occupations," said Mary, ticking the first points off on her fingers.
"Do you want me to note all that down? asked Eve.
"Yes. You never know what may be important in the future."
"Pam doesn't have any brothers or sisters," offered Annie.
"Neither does Barbara," said Elspeth. "She was quite surprised to learn I have seven brothers, and that their names all started with the same letter."
"They aren't cousins or any sort of relation to each other either," added Victoria as she frowned over her shoulder at Elspeth. Their time was limited as her piano practice lasted only thirty minutes, which had to include the others sneaking in and out of the room.
"They have a friend called Janet, who writes to them every week. How many of us have friends that write every week? Only parents do that. Even grandparents and aunts only write occasionally. Don't you think that's strange? I do," said Trixie.
"Yes, and there's something else about Janet's letters. When we read out the news from our families, they never share anything of hers. Except for that one time in the common room about Janet wanting tips about boarding school," added Mary thoughtfully.
"Do we know where they come from?" asked Veronica. "I don't believe they've ever said."
The others looked at each other, shaking heads and shrugging shoulders.
"That's my job then, as I have been a bit restricted not checking the return addresses on their mail," said Veronica.
"Remiss," corrected Eve.
"Elspeth, you talk some more to Barbara and find out as much as you can. Annie, you take Pam."
"What about me, Veronica?" wailed Trixie.
""You are going to follow them," said Veronica importantly.
"Ooh! Do you think they are spies?"
"Don't be silly, Trix. Schoolgirls aren't employed as spies."
"Royalty, then? Maybe one is a princess in disguise." Trixie was plainly charmed with her idea and pictured herself receiving a reward for saving Princess Pamela of Ruritania from kidnappers. "I've read stories about that. You can count on me, Veronica," she vowed, ignoring the muffled giggles from the others.
"Mary, you are to see whether there is any gossip about them at the form captains' meeting. Maybe someone in another tower has noticed them creeping around or something. All right, you have your jobs. Now leave me to finish my practice." Veronica thankfully shifted from scales to the Minuet in F Major by Mozart.
Pam and Barbara waited anxiously for Janet's letter, due to arrive that day. It had proved almost impossible to find any time to be alone that week. If Elspeth wasn't telling Barbara more about her boring brothers, Annie was dragging Pam to the stables to see the horses or the courtyard to discuss the latest trick played on Mam'zelle by Jillian from West Tower, and all the while both of them kept dropping personal questions into the conversation. Any time Elspeth or Annie were busy, they soon noticed Trixie skulking in the background, always trying to get close enough to overhear their conversations, but never quite succeeding.
They'd finally escaped to the music room at the end of the corridor and opened Janet's letter. The double 'S' was still present, but Janet had obviously taken greater care to make it less obvious. Pam read it slowly aloud.
Barbara was practically dancing in fury by the end. "That's it. I'm writing back to Janet tonight and ordering her to tell Peter no more tasks. I'd rather not be in the Secret Seven any more. Tracing footprints, shadowing Tom, all those other stupid things. I don't want to be a detective when I leave school, and I don't want to get expelled if one of the mistresses catches us trying to draw an accurate pattern of some tyre tread. Why none of the teachers here owns a car. We'd have to wait for a taxi or a parent's car to arrive, and the driveway is visible from the classrooms." She screwed the pink pages into a ball and threw it at the wall.
"I agree. We can write tomorrow." Pam picked up the letter and smoothed it out. "I'll hide this with Janet's other letters. They're in the lining of my hat box. Nobody will find them there."
Barbara opened the door and quickly checked the corridor. "We need to hurry," she said softly, remembering to keep her voice low. "The next group of girls will be here to practise at any minute."
They scurried away down the corridor, neither noticing Janet's envelope had fallen on the floor, or that Trixie slipped into the room they'd just left and closed the door.
Trixie tucked her tooth glass into her blazer pocket. Rather than doing her half hour of piano practice, she'd been attempting to listen to the girls' conversation by placing her ear on a glass held to the wall, as she'd read about in some of her favourite mystery stories.
"I shall write to the publishers and tell them it doesn't work," she muttered, forgetting that the music rooms were sound proofed.
"Aha! What's that? A clue!" She picked the envelope and examined it carefully. When the door opened unexpectedly, she grabbed her music folder and stuffed the envelope between the sheets.
"S-s-sarah," she stammered, feeling her cheeks burn. "I've just finished my practice," she offered, hoping she didn't look guilty.
"Are you sure you practised the whole thirty minutes?" asked the South Tower music prefect sternly.
"N-n-not quite," Trixie answered, missing the amused twinkle in Sarah's eyes.
"I hope it was long enough for Miss Mantell to see some improvement in your technique." Sarah remembered all to clearly being a second former and using her own violin practice time for other various pursuits she and her friends had thought so important as juniors. The South Tower second formers were a nice crew and rarely gave the prefects any trouble, unlike several of the East Tower girls. "Off you go then."
"Yes, Sarah. Thank you, Sarah," said Trixie.
"Whew! That was close," she said to her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She had just enough time to examine the envelope before returning to the Common Room. Pam and Barbara would be there, which meant she would have to wait until bed time before getting a closer look. Carefully she smoothed it out. There was the 'double S' Veronica mentioned. It really did look like someone had overwritten it, like you did when your pen ran out of ink. And the sender was their friend Janet.
Trixie clapped her hand over her mouth to muffle an excited squeal. Janet lived in the same town as her Great-Aunt Amelia. She would write and ask her if she knew anything about Pam, Barbara and Janet.
The Common Room was quiet, except for the scratching of pens on notepaper as the girls answered their letters. Trixie scribbled short notes to her parents and Cousin Maud, who'd enclosed two pounds inside a box of handkerchieves, which had escaped Matron's eagle eye; now Trixie would be able to contribute some extra special treats for Mary's birthday feast.
Dear Aunt Amelia, she began, (Leave off the 'Great', Trixie. It makes me sound so old), I am well and hope this finds you in good health. It was the third time she'd used the same first sentence, but as they were not likely to read one another's mail, she didn't care. We have two new girls in our dormy this term. Their names are Pam and Barbara. Guess what Auntie? I think they live in your town of Peterswood. At least, they know someone who does. Her name is Janet. I don't suppose you've ever met Janet? Is she nice? Pam said she is going to boarding school next year, but it's not to Malory Towers. She is going to one with her brother. His name is Peter, but it could be Jack, or George. I can't remember now, and I can't ask as we're all on silence because of a trick that went wrong. I'll tell you about it in the hols as I want this letter to go with the mail tonight and I've run out of time. Much love from your (great) niece, Trixie. P.S. It would be lovely if you could send some sweets from McPherson's when you write to me about Janet. They have the best butterscotch.
Two days later, Trixie called a meeting of the STS. Elspeth, whose music practice time it was, had to be reminded more than once to keep playing scales as Trixie passed around a box of McPherson's butterscotch and read aloud from Aunt Amelia's letter.
"My dear Trixie, thank you for your letter. I look forward to hearing about the trick that went wrong, and any others that didn't, when you come to visit next. It takes me back to my own schooldays, and if you remind me, I will share details of some of the more successful tricks we played. You may find them useful.
"Isn't that good of her? Something different nobody here has heard of will sure to be fun." Trixie beamed around at the others.
"I'm sure you haven't called a meeting of the STS just to tell us about your Aunt's tricks," said Veronica, waving a hand to indicate Trixie should get down to business.
"Of course not. She's sent news about Pam and Barbara," replied Trixie.
"Hurry up then," urged Annie.
"Here, I'll pass these around. You can look at them while I tell you the rest of Aunt Amelia's news." She took a number of newspaper clippings from the envelope and handed them out. "Pam and Barbara, and their friend Janet and her brother Peter, are members of the Secret Seven!"
"Look! This report explains how the Secret Seven solved the mystery of the mail van robbery," said Mary.
"They broke up a dog-napping ring in this one," reported Veronica. "Keep practising!" she ordered when Elspeth begged for a newspaper clipping of her own to read.
"We need them in the STS," announced Eve, "and I shall formally propose their membership. They found a missing schoolgirl who was accused of stealing money, and proved that she hadn't taken it."
"We still need to find out exactly what they've been doing," said Veronica. "You know, spying on Tom the gardener, and all the other stuff. Elspeth, your thirty minutes is up. Go and find Pam and Barbara and bring them here. Annie, go and sign in the Practice Book and then start practising. You others, be quiet so nobody suspects we're in here."
"What do you want?" asked Barbara. She and Pam leaned against the wall where Veronica indicated they should stand. The other second formers stood, squashed together in a half circle facing them, except for Annie, who played her set piece over and over again; she'd had enough of Elspeth's scales.
Veronica handed over the newspaper clippings she'd collected into a neat pile. The top one had a clear picture of the Secret Seven, grinning all over their faces, while Peter accepted a reward on their behalf from an important looking man.
"Now you know our secret," said Pam.
"You're not exactly secret, are you?" said Eve.
"Not in Peterswood," agreed Barbara.
"But why didn't you tell us?" wondered Annie.
"Peter doesn't like outsiders to know details. We are still the Secret Seven," said Barbara.
"That doesn't explain what you've been doing the past five or six weeks, and why Janet writes every week. It's not usual for friends to write so much." Veronica crossed her arms over her chest. She wasn't quite ready to tell Pam and Barbara about the STS.
Pam and Barbara exchanged glances. Barbara raised her eyebrow, and after a moment, Pam nodded.
"I suppose it won't matter as we've written to Janet, asking her to tell Peter we're resigning from the Secret Seven, so then we won't have to do any more of the tasks he set us." It was a relief to share their secret; Barbara felt the weight of worry lift from her shoulders.
"Every week we had to do something to help with our detective training and then report back so we could still be members," continued Pam. "It was hard enough shadowing Tom the gardener."
"But we couldn't see how we could get a tracing of a tyre pattern from a teacher's car without getting ourselves expelled," finished Barbara. "We don't want to be detectives anyway. I'd rather be a nurse or a teacher."
Mary elbowed Veronica and whispered in her ear, Elspeth and Eve nodded vigorously, Trixie clapped her hands, while Annie played a few cheerful sounding bars, signally she was in agreeance with the others.
"Pam, Barbara, we'd like you to join our secret group...the South Tower Society, known as the STS," said Veronica. "Come back to the Common Room and we'll tell you all about it."