Mary-Lou scrubbed at her tear-stained face with her handkerchief, determined not to let a single tear fall on her beautiful organza dress. Janet had put so much work into the costumes, and her piece de resistance was Cinderella's ballgown. She had even gained permission from Miss Grayling herself to use a beautiful piece of Swiss lace in the bodice. A teacher visiting from the Continent, Mrs. Maynard, had brought it to the school as a gift, and Janet had been thrilled to be allowed to use it. Though the seams were still raw, the sleeves needed pinning and the petticoats were unhemmed, Mary-Lou had felt just as Cinderella must have at her transformation, stepping out of the wings to gasps of surprise and admiration. She all but floated across the stage, her lines spilling out without effort, and had just opened her mouth to begin her song, when Moira's hard voice rang out from the back of the room.
"Can't hear you, mouse."
Mary-Lou cleared her throat, blushed, and started from her previous line, but Moira called out again.
"That's even quieter! Speak up!"
It all went downhill from there. Mary-Lou would start a line, Moira would interrupt her, the other girls would mutter mutinously, and it became even harder for Mary-Lou to speak over their grumbling. Somehow, they slogged through the entire scene. When it was finally over, Mary-Lou fled down the stairs as Cinderella, then dashed to the prop room in tears, arguments breaking out in her wake. Now she sat forlornly on the stack of folded drapes from Act Three, hiccupping, blowing her nose and trying not to damage her lovely frock.
"Mary-Lou! Are you back there?" Darrell's clear voice startled Mary-Lou out of her funk.
"Y-yes," she whispered.
Darrell made her way through the unused classroom that had been commandeered to serve as the props room and wardrobe, and plopped down next to Mary-Lou on the pile of heavy fabric.
"Buck up! Moira's just being Moira. Everyone else thinks you're terrific."
"It's no use trying to cheer me up, Darrell. I know you're not fond of Moira, but she's right. If the audience can't hear me, all your lovely words and Irene's songs will be wasted."
"It's just a matter of confidence! You're doing better and better every rehearsal."
"No, Darrell, that's not it at all." Mary-Lou folded her sodden hanky into eighths and tucked it back into her sleeve, her tears swallowed down for now. "I felt wonderful today, just as if my own fairy godmother had waved her wand and made me a princess. But I still couldn't speak up." She glanced up at Darrell, expecting disappointment, but Darrell's face was instead thoughtful.
"I've got an idea. Why don't you ask Mavis for some lessons? Maybe you can help her remember her spoken lines just as well as she remembers her songs?"
Mary-Lou smiled, though her voice was still tremulous. "Do you think she'd mind?"
Darrell jumped to her feet and tugged Mary-Lou to hers.
"Not for a minute! Don't let me catch you blubbering like a first former again, Mary-Lou! You know there's an answer to everything, if you'll only tell a friend." She tucked her arm through Mary-Lou's and marched them off to the stairs. "Worst of all, you've nearly missed supper!"
It had taken a full day for Mary-Lou to speak to Mavis, but the thought of the upcoming rehearsal on Friday was even more frightening. The last lesson of the day was French: Mrs. Maynard, who was herself English, had been at the class and startled both Mam'zelle and the class by telling them that at her school, lessons could be in any one of three languages! Mary-Lou thought that having to learn French was difficult enough - she couldn't imagine having to learn her history lessons in French! The very thought was enough to make her glad she was a Malory Towers girl, and pluck up the courage to tug at Mavis's sleeve as they left class.
"Mavis, Darrell said to me - I mean, I was wondering if - "
"If I would help you with your voice? Of course I will! Darrell had a word to me last night. I meant to ask you today, but I've been just frantic with the choir."
Mary-Lou beamed. Darrell had been right: there was an answer to everything.
"Oh, thank you, Mavis!"
"Come on, let's head down to the music-rooms now. You don't have lacrosse practise, do you?"
"I think I'd be trampled in no time. Come on - if we hurry, we might find a room with a piano."
The two girls trotted down the stairs at a good pace, though they had to press against the wall for a moment when Darrell, Sally and Moira dashed past them at high speed, lacrosse sticks in hand.
"Darrell says that Moira's a good sport on the lacrosse field," Mary-Lou ventured.
"It's a pity she can't bring that to rehearsals with her!" Mavis listened at each music-room door until she found one that was unoccupied. "I think she means well, honestly, but she does rub me the wrong way."
Mavis closed the door behind them. Indeed, they had managed to find a free music-room that had a piano, even if it was a drafty room where the door didn't quite close. Mavis opened the piano lid and idly played a few notes, humming to herself.
"Oh dear." Mary-Lou's face fell. "Even your humming carries better than my voice."
"Don't start thinking about what that beastly Moira says. It makes your muscles tight, and your throat close - then your voice will be even smaller. Take a deep breath." Mavis demonstrated, then let the air whoosh out again. "Then breathe out. Slowly!"
Mary-Lou copied Mavis, taking several deep, slow breaths in a row. She felt her shoulders relax and her customary small, worried frown melt away.
"There you are!" Mavis smiled. "You're feeling better already. When you're performing, half the battle is being prepared. You know all your lines - better than I do - and all your songs. If we can just have your body as prepared as your mind, you'll do wonderfully."
"So all I have to do is be prepared and breathe?" Mary-Lou asked dubiously.
"Oh no - then we have to fight the other half of the battle!" Mavis moved away from the piano, to stand behind Mary-Lou, reach around her, and place her hands at the bottom of Mary-Lou's ribs. Mary-Lou jumped, startled, but then stood still, trusting Mavis.
"Should I breathe again now?"
"Yes, don't stop!" Mavis laughed, and spread her hands out, firmly holding onto Mary-Lou. "Now, feel where that breath is going. It's right down at the bottom of your lungs, where my hands are. When you breathe out, sing a note, and make sure you keep my hands in place as you do it."
Mary-Lou breathed in, feeling her chest expand under Mavis's hands, then let her breath carry out a note. The sound filled up the music room without effort, for a moment, then Mary-Lou stopped in sheer surprise.
"Oh! Mavis, where did that come from? I was so loud!"
"Yes, but still sweet! You're using your whole body to sing, instead of just your throat and head. It gives you a much bigger voice."
Mary-Lou giggled. "Oh dear! Moira's going to be terribly shocked when I come out with that in rehearsal!" She sobered instantly. "Do you think I can do that? Really? For the whole play?"
"Of course you can. Let's practise the ballroom duet together. That's a nice slow song, and you can concentrate on your breathing while we sing." Mavis leaned over to the piano and hit an F. "There's your note. I'll give you a quick poke if your voice is getting smaller." She put her arms around Mary-Lou again, and hummed the note. Mary-Lou took a deep breath, Mavis's hands moving with it, and sang her opening phrase, her voice clear, sweet and strong. She couldn't help but smile.
On Friday evening, before rehearsal, Mary-Lou was not nearly as happy. Moira had received a thoroughly unpleasant poison pen letter, and everyone was nervous and over-excited. Darrell had sensibly told Moira that the only place for such a horrid note was the fire, but the destruction of the letter itself had made no difference to the notes of suspicion and fear in the girls' chatter.
"Who would do such a nasty thing?" Mary-Lou asked her friend Daphne, on their way to the hall for rehearsal.
"Someone who doesn't think she can confront Moira directly, I would think." Daphne disliked arguments nearly as much as Mary-Lou.
Mavis caught up with them and linked arms with both girls. "It's not doing any good, though. Whether or not those things that the writer said about Moira are true, it isn't going to matter. If a girl can't stand up for herself, nobody's going to listen."
"What if she's too afraid to argue with Moira? I know I could never stand up to her." Mary-Lou shivered, and Daphne nodded agreement.
"You two would find another way, though. You'd talk to someone like Sally, or Darrell, and tell them what was wrong. You wouldn't send a cowardly, mean note like that." Mavis sounded quite certain on that point.
"If I brought someone else into it, wouldn't that just be setting girls against each other? Now everyone's just waiting for Moira to explode, or more letters to come. I simply hate all this fighting and bad blood. It's like being out for a walk, and seeing lightning over the sea, and knowing a storm is sweeping in." Mary-Lou's face was crumpled in sadness. "I don't know why everyone has to be so horrid when we all want the same thing - for the play to be wonderful."
"Moira's tough, and so are the rest of us in the Fifth," Mavis replied, sticking her chin out. "Everyone's feelings are running a little high this term, but I'm sure we can all put that into the play and not peck at each other like silly hens."
Mary-Lou wasn't so sure, and the pandemonium of rehearsal made her feel even more certain that things were going terribly wrong. Nobody could get their lines straight, and Bill kept coming in on the wrong side, so often that Mary-Lou was starting to wonder if she was doing it on purpose. In fact, the only praise that Moira gave in the entire evening was for the ballroom duet that Mary-Lou and Mavis had been practising so hard.
"Excellent!" Moira called out at the end. "Well sung, Mary-Lou."
"Mavis has been coaching me," Mary-Lou called back from the stage, hoping to share the praise a little, and perhaps improve everyone's mood. "She's been a tremendous help!"
"Good work, then, Mavis!" Moira replied. "Now, if only you can do something with that wretched chorus!"
The chorus shifted uncomfortably and rather aggressively, preparing for yet another lecture. Mary-Lou looked apologetically over at Daphne, in the front row, as Moira strode over to give them a piece of her mind. Fortunately, Moira's attention was diverted by Alicia and Irene monkeying about at the piano, and she had to dash over and tell them off, instead. Mary-Lou sighed. That hadn't helped at all!
Mary-Lou's scenes were finished for the evening, as the others were now rehearsing the confusion in the ballroom after Cinderella's hasty departure, so she retired to the prop room to change out of her lovely dress. She carefully slid out of the gown and wrapped it in its protective sheet before retrieving her uniform from its peg. As she fastened her tunic belt on her tunic, Mary-Lou heard something rustle in her pocket, and stuck her hand in to see what she might have left in there. It was a note, printed in block letters.
Everyone thinks you're so nice, but I know about you.
When the others find out exactly what you've been practising with Mavis,
you won't have a single friend left. You disgust - ME.
Mary-Lou shoved the note back in her pocket, gasping like a fish cast onto a river bank. The words themselves were almost forgotten in her shock - not only did someone hate her, but they hated her enough to turn their venom into words! Quickly pulling on her stockings and shoes, Mary-Lou dashed back to her dormy, just managing to throw herself onto her bed and bury her face in the pillow before her hot, humiliated tears escaped her. She felt wretched that she'd ever thought that a note might be preferable to a fight - she hated it when the other girls fought, or when Gwen spoke badly of her - but this was much worse. It was as if enemies were watching Mary-Lou from every direction, pointing and laughing at everything she did. Anyone could have written that note, anyone at all! Mary-Lou had thought she was rather brave taking on the role of Cinderella, but if this was the price, she might as well just quit now! She could never get back up on that stage, and know that someone - or everyone - was looking at her with that hatred seething inside.
When she awoke, bathed in the pale morning sunshine, the room filled with other girls either dashing about or trying to catch a few more moments sleep, Mary-Lou felt a little better. She couldn't pull out of the play now - Darrell would be so upset, and no-one would have time to learn all Cinderella's lines before the performance. She could understand that someone would be jealous that she had been given the lead role - Gwen and Maureen, at the very least, had desperately wanted it - but the letter hadn't arrived until she'd rehearsed alone with Mavis. Perhaps it was her improving performance that made the mystery writer turn on her - after all, their duet did receive the only praise of the evening. Maybe if she was more her usual old self, just mousy Mary-Lou rather than Cinderella at the ball, the letter-writer wouldn't attack her again. She did so hate fighting, and the idea of someone attacking her at any moment was terrifying - she would do anything to stop it.
Mary-Lou slid out of bed, her mind made up. Her habitual, careful frown had returned, creasing her forehead. The expression felt a little odd, after a few days without it. It was Saturday, the day that Mavis went to the village for extra singing lessons with her teacher, so Mary-Lou wasn't concerned about running into her unexpectedly. There was an important lacrosse match on - both Darrell and Moira were playing - and all the girls were going to cheer. Mary-Lou caught up with Daphne as they went out to the sports field, and was very relieved to see that she, like everyone else, was caught up in the excitement of the match, and wasn't in the least bit interested in talking about the play or the poison-pen letters. Neither Mary-Lou nor Daphne were terrifically athletic, but it was always great fun to cheer on the other girls when they knew they would not have to pick up a lacrosse stick themselves! The day was clear and brisk, blowing the troubled thoughts right out of Mary-Lou's head. It wasn't until after tea, going up to the common-room, that she spotted Mavis and suddenly felt as if everyone was watching her again, the hatred that had inspired the vicious note hiding behind any one of the other girls' happy, laughing faces.
Mavis waited for Mary-Lou at the top of the stairs, and there was no way to avoid her. "Would you like to go down to the music-rooms, Mary-Lou? We've got at least an hour free."
Mary-Lou tensed, and couldn't quite manage to smile. "Sorry," she muttered in a low voice, "I've got to see Janet for a fitting."
"After that, then?" Mavis asked, cheerily, and Mary-Lou couldn't bring herself to tell another falsehood.
"Oh, Mavis! I'm so sorry, but I can't practise with you any more. Honestly, I can't."
Mavis drew Mary-Lou away from the stairs where the other girls were milling up and down, and held her arm firmly. "Mary-Lou, what on earth is wrong? You don't sound at all yourself."
Tears prickled beneath Mary-Lou's eyelids, and her voice wavered. "I don't want to make a fuss, Mavis, but I can't accept any more help."
"You did so well yesterday with just a little coaching from me! Even Moira said so! Why are you suddenly so set against it?" Mavis was startled, but unwavering.
"Don't bring Moira into this! If she wasn't so frightful, maybe none of this would have happened!"
"Mary-Lou! What's got into you?" Mavis gasped, and Mary-Lou collapsed into tears on Mavis's shoulder.
Ducking into an empty classroom, Mavis sat Mary-Lou at a desk and offered her a handkerchief, which Mary-Lou gratefully took. She cried for a good five minutes, Mavis patting her shoulder, before heartily blowing her nose and taking a deep, if uncertain, breath.
"Mavis, I received one of those awful letters. It was left in my tunic pocket in the props room while we were all in costume on Friday."
"Do you still have it?"
Mary-Lou pulled the note from her pocket and shoved it at Mavis, who read it with a serious expression on her face.
"You see? Somebody hates that I'm getting better and that your coaching is helping so much."
"Yes, I do see, but I don't understand why you're listening to her. Darrell was right - the best place for rubbish like this is in the fire." Mavis crumpled the note in her hand.
"I just want it all to go away - I feel I'm about to be attacked at any moment! I don't want to provoke them by keeping on rehearsing with you, not if extra practising is going to make people hate me, or you!"
Mavis burst out laughing, much to Mary-Lou's surprise.
"Mary-Lou, you utter goose! You don't even know what this letter is about!" Seeing Mary-Lou's utterly baffled expression, Mavis continued. "She's not saying that other girls will hate us for extra rehearsals. She's saying that they'll think we're, um, crushing on each other."
Mary-Lou opened her mouth, then closed it again. "Oh! Like Bill and Clarissa! Nobody cares about that - girls crush on each other all the time!"
"Exactly - and I'm jolly flattered that my Prince Charming is so convincing. Come on, Mary-Lou, let's go and rehearse." Mavis pulled Mary-Lou along for a few steps, but Mary-Lou was hanging back. "What's wrong?"
Mary-Lou still frowning, and dragging her feet. "Mavis, I know, now, that no-one's going to hate us, and I'm glad of that, but there's still at least one girl out there who despises me - the girl who sent the letter. I don't want to fight with her. I don't want to keep up my side of the argument. She won't just go away, I'm sure of it."
Mavis sighed. Years of being around singers, and having once been rather vain herself, had taught her how to cope with all the conflict that came with the grand artistic temperament, but Mary-Lou was the exact opposite - she had no desire to speak up and be heard at all! She took Mary-Lou by the shoulders. "Look, I think it would be best to tell a mistress. You're really afraid of this girl, aren't you?"
"I don't want to tell tales!" Mary-Lou set her chin, which would have been more impressive if it wasn't wobbling slightly. "And I don't want everyone to know! They'll all stick up for me - and that's very kind, but it's only going to make the letter-writer feel worse."
"Oh, Mary-Lou, you really are a soft-hearted creature! All right, then, what if we talk to Mrs. Maynard? We could swear her to secrecy, and she won't have to punish anyone - she's not a mistress here."
Mary-Lou nodded - she really was afraid, but she was not the type of girl to be conquered by her fears at another girls' expense. Mavis took her arm and led her back down the stairs towards the mistresses' studies.
Mrs. Maynard opened the door at the girls' knock, and greeted them politely, though she seemed a little startled at their presence.
"Mrs. Maynard," Mavis said, "My friend Mary-Lou has a problem - but she doesn't want to tell tales and cause trouble for someone else."
Mrs. Maynard looked at them closely, a very serious expression on her face. "Girls, is anyone in danger? Should you tell this to Miss Grayling, or your form mistress?"
"Oh, no, please, Mrs. Maynard." Mary-Lou's voice was tiny. "Please don't tell Miss Grayling. It's just - another girl is very upset, or she must be, to do what she's doing, and I'm worried about her, Mrs. Maynard, and scared of her."
"Come in, then, girls." Mrs. Maynard opened the door wide, and gestured the two girls into her study, closing the door behind them and quickly sweeping up a large pile of handwritten papers from a small armchair, so that all three of them could be seated. "Now, Mary-Lou, whatever is the matter?" Mrs. Maynard's voice was kind, but her steady gaze was fixed on the girl's face.
Mavis glanced over to see if Mary-Lou could still speak, shrunk far back in the armchair as she was, but Mary-Lou rallied, and spilled out the whole story: the play, Moira's production and her poison-pen letter. She spoke about the rehearsal and the nasty shock that Mary-Lou had herself received. Her voice became stronger and stronger, until she was speaking with a conviction and determination that Mavis hadn't heard from her outside the role of Cinderella.
"And so you see, Mrs. Maynard, I don't want to make the girl angrier. I don't want to fight with her - she's making all the rules, and all I can do is wait for her to turn on me. I don't want her to be caught, either - I'm sure she's just doing this because she feels powerless and small, and I know that feeling perfectly well."
Mrs. Maynard leant forward and took Mary-Lou's hands in hers. "Mary-Lou, you're a much braver girl than you realise. Most girls would have let their anger win out at once, but you're worried about this letter-writer's feelings. Now, my own first thought is that writing poison-pen letters are a despicable, cowardly way to behave, and we should seek out the girl writing them immediately."
Mavis and Mary-Lou both protested this, but Mrs. Maynard shushed them. "Of course, I'm not going to do that - you have asked me not to act, and I will not." She bit her lip. "You may not know this, girls, but my school was not always in Switzerland. Before the war, we were in Austria - I was a student there long before I ever married and returned to England. We had girls there from many nations, but as the Nazis took over Austria, we realised that we couldn't stay. It wasn't because of a direct threat - everyone was still hoping to avoid war, even then - but because of people like your poison-pen writers that we had to flee. There were all too many people there, as there are in any place, who are too weak to fight their own battles and instead look to fear and rumour to fight for them."
"But we're not at war, Mrs. Maynard," Mavis said in the pause. "The war was won, and we're just a school."
"Do you remember what my dear Miss Grayling likes to tell the girls when they are new to Malory Towers?"
"Oh yes," Mary-Lou replied. "She tells us that we will leave the school one day, and we need to be responsible, trustworthy women the world can lean on. And that these are lessons we must learn in our years at Malory Towers."
Mrs. Maynard smiled. "I see her words made quite an impression on you! I'm glad, because Miss Grayling is quite correct - what you learn here you will take into the wide world. You will help to shape everyone around you, no matter what course you choose in life. I can see that both of you are taking these lessons to heart, but there is at least one girl in this school, to judge by the letter you received, who has not learnt at all. It is people like her, unfortunately, that can cause a great deal of harm if left unchecked. I have seen her type fully grown - when she can cause innocent people to be arrested, and revel in her power over them, all because she feels small and insignificant herself. I think perhaps that you are a little wiser than I, Mary-Lou, or at least a little less hasty. You can see that this girl still has time to change, and learn the lessons that Malory Towers has to teach her."
Mary-Lou was sitting quite straight in her chair now, buoyed by Mrs. Maynard's praise and the expectation that she could, perhaps, help the girl who had hurt her.
"Mrs. Maynard, what could I do to help her? I truly have no idea who she might be."
"You must do what all good people try to do - go about your business with kindness and courage, and thereby set an example for this girl. You seem like a very shy girl to be playing Cinderella. Perhaps your determination to shine on stage, and not be cowed by either your own worries or her attacks can teach her more than either retaliation or capitulation would."
"Oh, thank you, Mrs. Maynard," Mary-Lou cried, bouncing to her feet, her face shining with new energy.
"Would you care to stay for hot chocolate? I have some here brought all the way from Switzerland."
"Thank you, but would you mind terribly if we dashed off to the music-rooms instead?" Mary-Lou turned her bright smile to Mavis. "Mavis has a lot to teach me, and I really want to find my voice."
Mrs. Maynard gestured towards the door, and the girls all but dashed out of the room, giggling apologies to Miss Potts, whom they had startled in the corridor. Surely nothing could bother them now - the play was waiting for them, and, with their hardest lessons learnt, their time at Malory Towers had never looked more wonderful.