Tom and some other Girls A Public School Story
By Mrs George de Horne Vaizey You would be mistaken if you thought this was going to be a book about a girl called Thomasina, for it is actually about a girl call Rhoda Chester. Rhoda has been brought up as the child of rich parents. Her brothers have done well, but she has been kept at home, and has been taught by governesses and other visiting tutors. The German fraulein goes to her own home in Germany for a holiday, where she gets married and never comes back.
This prompts Mr Chester to consider sending Rhoda away to a boarding school. There is a discussion, Rhoda's mother not being at all in favour of the idea, but Rhoda is keen to go.
They settle on a school. Rhoda goes there, and enjoys herself, doing well. Tom and the other girls are of course her schoolmates. But there is to be an important exam, for which Rhoda overworks, to the point where her brain no longer works when she is in the examination hall. So life is downward, instead of upward, she realises. We will leave you to read the rest of the story. Vaizey is at her best again. N.H. TOM AND SOME OTHER GIRLS A PUBLIC SCHOOL STORY
BY MRS. GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY
"Yes, she must go to school!" repeated Mr Chester.
A plaintive sob greeted his words from the neighbourhood of the sofa. For once in her life Mrs Chester's kindly, good-tempered face had lost its smiles, and was puckered up into lines of distress. She let one fat, be-ringed hand drop to her side and wander restlessly over the satin skirt in search of a pocket. Presently out came a handkerchief, which was applied to each eye in turn, and came away bedewed with tears.
"It will break my heart to part from her!" she faltered. Her husband laughed with masculine scepticism.
"Oh, nonsense, dear," he said; "hearts are not so easily broken. You are too sensible to grieve over what is for the child's good, and will get used to the separation, as other mothers have done before you. It will be the making of Rhoda to leave home for a few years, to mix with other girls, and find her level. She is getting an altogether exaggerated idea of her own importance!"
"Her level, indeed! Find her level! I should like to know the school where you could find another girl like her!" cried the mother, in a tone which showed plainly enough who was responsible for Miss Rhoda's conceit. The tears dried on her face for very indignation, and she sat upright in her seat, staring across the room.
It was a gorgeous apartment, this drawing-room of Erley Chase, the residence of Henry Chester, Esquire, and Marianne his wife; a gorgeous room in the literal acceptance of the term, for each separate article of furniture looked as if it had been chosen more from the fact of its intrinsic value than for its usefulness or beauty.
Mr Chester, the son of a country clergyman, had considered himself passing rich when a manufacturer uncle took him into his employ, at a salary of L400 a year. The first thing he did after this position was assured was to marry his old love, the daughter of the village doctor, with whom he had played since childhood; and the young couple spent the first dozen years of their married lives very happily and contentedly in a little house in a smoky manufacturing town. The bachelor uncle was proud of his clever nephew and fond of the cheery little wife, who was always kind and thoughtful even when gout and a naturally irritable temper goaded him into conduct the reverse of amiable. When Harold was born, and christened after himself, he presented the child with a silver mug, and remarked that he hoped he would turn out better than most young men, and not break his parents' hearts as a return for their goodness. When Jim followed, the mug was not forthcoming; but when little Rhoda made her appearance six years later he gave her a rattle, and trusted that she would improve in looks as she grew older, since he never remembered seeing an uglier baby. He was certainly neither a gracious nor a liberal old gentleman, but the young couple were blessed with contented minds and moderate ambitions, so they laughed good-naturedly at his crusty speeches, and considered themselves rich, inasmuch as they were able to pay their way and were spared anxiety for the future. And then an extraordinary thing happened! The old man died suddenly, and left to his beloved nephew a fortune which, even in these days of millionaires, might truthfully be called enormous. Henry Chester could not believe the lawyers when the amount of his new wealth was broken to him, for his uncle had lived so unostentatiously that he had had no idea of the magnitude of his savings. The little wife, who had never known what it was to spend sixpence carelessly in all her thirty-five years, grew quite hysterical with excitement when an arithmetical calculation proved to her the daily riches at her disposal; but she recovered her composure with wonderful celerity, and expressed her intention of enjoying the goods which the gods had sent her. No poking in gloomy town houses after this! No hoarding of riches as the poor old uncle had done, while denying himself the common comforts of life! She herself had been economical from a sense of duty only, for her instincts were all for lavishness and generosity—and now, now! Did not Henry feel it a provision of Providence that Erley Chase was empty, and, as it were, waiting for their occupation?
Her husband gasped at the audacity of the idea. Erley Chase! the finest place around, one of the largest properties in the county, and Marianne suggested that he should take it! that he should remove from his fifty- pound house into that stately old pile! The suggestion appalled him, and yet why not? His lawyer assured him that he could afford it; his children were growing up, and he had their future to consider. He thought of his handsome boys, his curly-headed girl, and decided proudly that nothing was too good for them; he looked into the future, and saw his children's children reigning in his stead, and the name of Chester honoured in the land. So Erley Chase was bought, and little Mrs Chester furnished it, as we have seen, to her own great contentment and that of the tradespeople with whom she dealt; and in the course of a few months the family moved into their new abode.
At first the country people were inclined to look coldly on the new- comers, but it was impossible to keep up an unfriendly attitude towards Mr and Mrs Chester. They were utterly free from affectation, and, so far from apeing that indifference to wealth adopted by most nouveaux riches, were so frankly, transparently enchanted with their new possessions that they were more like a couple of children with a new toy than a steady-going, middle-aged couple. They won first respect, and then affection, and were felt to be a decided acquisition to the well- being of the neighbourhood, since they were never appealed to in vain in the cause of charity.
In the days of her own short means, when she had been obliged to look helplessly at the trials of her neighbours, Mrs Chester had solaced herself by dreaming of what she would do if she had money and to spare, and to her credit be it said, she did not forget to put those dreams into execution when the opportunity arose. The days are past when fairy godmothers flash suddenly before our raptured eyes, clad in spangled robes, with real, true wings growing out of their shoulders, but the race is not dead; they appear sometimes as stout little women, in satin gowns and be-feathered bonnets, and with the most prosaic of red, beaming faces. The Chester barouche was not manufactured out of a pumpkin, nor drawn by rats, but none the less had it spirited away many a Cinderella to the longed-for ball, and, when the Prince was found, the fairy godmother saw to it that there was no lack of satin gowns, or glassy slippers. Dick Whittingtons, too, sitting friendless by the roadside, were helped on to fortune; and the Sleeping Beauty was rescued from her dull little home, and taken about to see the world. It is wonderful what fairy deeds can be accomplished by a kind heart and a full purse, and the recipients of Mrs Chester's bounty were relieved from undue weight of obligation by the transparent evidence that her enjoyment was even greater than their own!
Harold went to Eton and Oxford, and Jim to Sandhurst; but Rhoda stayed at home and ruled supreme over her mother, her governesses, and the servants of the establishment. Her great-uncle's wish had been fulfilled, inasmuch as she grew up tall and straight, with a mane of reddish-gold hair and more than an average share of good looks. She was clever, too, and generous enough to have acknowledged her faults if it had for one moment occurred to her that she possessed any; which it had not. It was one of Mrs Chester's articles of faith that her daughter was the most beautiful, the most gifted, and the most perfect of created beings, and Rhoda agreeably acquiesced in the decision, and was pitiful of other girls who were not as herself. Every morning when she had not a headache, and did not feel "floppy" or "nervey," she did lessons with Fraulein, who adored her, and shed tears behind her spectacles when obliged to point out a fault. Then the two would repair together to the tennis courts and play a set, the pupil winning by six games to love; or go a bicycle ride, when Rhoda would practise fancy figures, while her good, but cumbersome, companion picked herself up from recumbent positions on the sidewalk, and shook the dust from her garments. At other times Rhoda would put on her riding habit and go a ride round the estate, taking care to emerge from the west gate at the moment when the village children were returning from school. The little girls would "bob" in old-fashioned style, and the boys would pull off their caps, and Rhoda would toss her flaxen mane and acknowledge their salutations with a gracious smile and a wave of the little gloved hand. The children thought she looked like a fairy princess, and no more dreamt that she was of the same flesh and blood as themselves than did Miss Rhoda herself. Then came lunch, and more often than not some excuse for getting off the hour's lessons with Fraulein before the "visiting professors" arrived. Music master, drawing master, French master—they each came in their turn, and Rhoda exerted herself to do her best, as she invariably did, given the stimulus of an audience, and was praised and flattered to her heart's desire. It was a happy life, and most satisfactory from the girl's point of view; so that it seemed most annoying that it should be interrupted, and by Fraulein too, who had always been so meek and tractable! Who could have imagined when she went home for the summer holidays that an old love would appear and insist upon marrying her out of hand?
"But what am I to do?" cried Rhoda, when the news was first received; and then, in stern disapproval, "I'm surprised at Fraulein! At her age she should know better. She always professed to be so devoted. I can't understand how she could make up her mind to leave me."
"It must have been a terrible trial to her, dearest," said Mrs Chester soothingly, and she meant what she said. How could any one prefer a fat, long-haired, spectacled lover (all Germans were fat, long-haired, and spectacled!) to her beautiful, clever daughter? She sighed, once for Rhoda's disappointment, and once again, and with an added stab, for herself.
Several times lately Mr Chester had hinted that Rhoda was getting too much for Fraulein, and should be sent to school, while Harold had treacherously seconded his father with remarks of such brotherly candour as made his mother hot with indignation. Jim was mercifully away from home, but even so it was two against one, and she instinctively felt that Fraulein's defection would be seized upon by the enemy and the attack pressed home upon the first opportunity. And now it had come, and there sat the poor, dear soul, shedding tears of anguish on her lace-edged handkerchief, as she vainly tried to oppose the inevitable.
"I cannot, and will not, part from my child!"
"Nonsense, mother, you parted from me, and I shall take it as a personal insult if you insinuate that you would feel Rhoda's absence more than you did mine. Remember how delighted you were when I came back! Remember the holidays, how happy you were, how interested in all I had to tell!"
Harold Chester crossed the room, and laid his hand on his mother's shoulder with a kindly gesture. He looked as if he were made on the same principle as the other objects of vertu in the room, and if Mrs Chester had desired to possess "the most superfine specimen of sons and heirs," she had certainly got her wish, so far as appearances were concerned. Harold was tall and fair, with aquiline features and a manly carriage. His hair would have curled if it had not been cropped so close to his head; his clothes were of immaculate cut. At twenty-five he was known as one of the most daring sportsmen in the county, and if he had not distinguished himself at college, he had, at least, scrambled through with the crowd. His mother declared with pride that he had never given her an hour's anxiety since he had had the measles, and thanked Heaven for her mercies every time she saw him ride off to the hunt in his beautiful pink coat. Harold was her first-born darling, but Rhoda was the baby, and she could not bring herself to believe that her baby was growing up.
"The child will fret and break her heart. I don't care about myself, but I will not have her made unhappy. She has such a sensitive heart!" She sobbed as she spoke, and Harold laughed.
"You trust me, mater; Rhoda is as well able to take care of herself as any girl can be. You will regret it all your life long if you keep her at home now. School is what she needs, and school she must have, if she is to make a woman worth having. She is a jolly little soul, and I'm proud of her; but her eyes are so taken up admiring Miss Rhoda Chester that she has no attention left for anything else. Let her go, mother, and find out that there are other girls in the world beside herself!"
"But the other girls will b-b-bully her. They will make fun of her and laugh at her little ways—"
"And a good—" Harold checked himself and said cheerily: "Rhoda won't let herself be bullied without knowing the reason why, mother. Whatever faults she may have, no one can accuse her of lack of spirit. I believe she would like to go. She has very few girl friends, and would enjoy the new experience."
"We will tell her about it, and see what she says," said Mr Chester; and at that very moment the door opened and Rhoda walked into the room.
WHAT RHODA THOUGHT.
Father, mother, and brother looked at Rhoda, and felt a pardonable pride in her appearance. Her white evening frock showed off the fair complexion and golden locks, and she carried herself with an erect, fearless mien which made a pleasant contrast to the stooping backs and shambling gait of most growing girls. If she were not regularly pretty, her air of assurance forced onlookers to think her so, despite their better judgment, and there was about her a breezy atmosphere of health and youth. She looked from one to the other of the watching faces, and smiled in a good-humoured, tolerant manner, which showed a dimple in the round cheek.
"Hatching mischief!" she cried, nodding her head sagely. "The way in which your voices ceased as I entered the room was highly suspicious. Never mind—I'll go to bed soon, and then you can talk at your ease. It is awkward when birthdays are drawing near! ... Chain bracelets are very nice, with turquoises set here and there, and I rather like that new edition of Shakespeare with a lot of dear little books fitted into a case. I don't object to brooches either, or ornaments for my room—"
"But, strange to say, we were not thinking of giving you anything! We were talking of a much more serious consideration than a birthday. We were talking of your Future Education," said Mr Chester, solemnly. He spoke so impressively, and with such very large capitals to the last two words, that Rhoda was startled into attention, and turned her eyes upon him in wonder.
"My—future—education? Why, what do you—what am I going to do?"
"We have been considering the advisability of sending you to school. You are nearly sixteen, and have been educated at home all your life, and now that Fraulein cannot return I feel strongly that it would be for your good to spend a couple of years at school among girls of your own age. Your mother naturally dreads the parting, and fears that you would be unhappy, but Harold thinks that you would enjoy the experience. What is your own impression? Do you dislike the idea, or feel inclined towards it?"
Rhoda meditated, and her mother watched her with wistful eyes. At the first mention of the word "school" the girl had started with surprise, and her eyes had looked wide and puzzled, but now as she stood deliberating, it was not dismay, but rather pleasure and excitement, that showed in her face. The eyes gleamed complacently, the dimple dipped, the fair head tilted itself, and Rhoda said slowly—
"I think I should—like it! It would be a—change!"
Alas for Mrs Chester, and alas for every mother in that sharp moment when she realises that the nestling which she has been keeping so safe and warm is already beginning to find the nest too narrow for its ambitions, and is longing to fly away into the big, wide world! Two salt tears splashed on to the satin gown, but no one saw them, for the girl was engrossed in her own feelings, while Mr Chester was saying brightly—
"That's my brave girl! I knew you would be no coward."
Harold watched his sister with mingled pity and amusement.
"They'll take it out of her! They'll take it out of her! Poor little Ro! Won't she hate it, and won't it do her good!" he said to himself, shrewdly. "And, after the first, I shouldn't wonder if she became a prime favourite!"
Rhoda seated herself on a crimson plush chair, and folded her hands on her knees, in an attitude of expectation. She was an impetuous young person, and could brook no delay when once her interest was aroused. School having been mentioned as a possibility of the future, it became imperative to settle the matter off-hand.
Which school? When? Who would take her? What would she have to buy? What were the rules? When were the holidays? How long would they be? Where would she spend them?—One question succeeded another in breathless succession, making Mr Chester smile with indulgent amusement.
"My dear child, how can I tell? So far it is only a suggestion. Nothing is settled. We have not even thought of one school before another—"
"If she goes at all, I should like her to go to Miss Moorby's, at Bournemouth," said Mrs Chester quickly. "She only takes ten girls, and I'm told it is just like a home—hot bottles in all the beds, and beef- tea at eleven—"
"Mother!" cried Rhoda, in a tone of deep reproach. Her eyes flashed, and she drew herself up proudly. "No, indeed! If I go at all, I will do the thing properly, and go to a real school, and not a hot-house. I don't want their old beef-tea and bottles. I want to go to a nice, big, sporty school, where they treat you like boys, and not young ladies, and put you on your honour, and don't bind you down by a hundred sickening little rules. I want to go to,"—she drew a long breath, and glanced at her mother, as if bracing herself to meet opposition—"to Hurst Manor! There! I've read about it in magazines, and Ella Mason had a cousin who had been there, and she said it was—simply mag.! She was Head Girl, and ruled the house, and came out first in the games, and she said she never had such sport in her life, and found the holidays quite fearfully flat and stale in comparison."
"You don't become Head Girl all at once," interposed Harold, drily; while Mrs Chester gave another sob at the idea that home could ever be looked upon in so sad a light.
"Hurst Manor?" she repeated vaguely. "That's a strange name. I never heard of the place before. What do you know about it that makes you want to go, darling? Are you quite sure it is nice, and what is the Head Mistress like, and how many young la— girls does she take? Not too many, I hope, for I can't see how they can be properly looked after when there are more than twenty or thirty. I've heard terrible stories of delicacy for life arising from neglect. You remember poor, dear Evie Vane! Her glands swelled, and nobody noticed, and—"
"My glands never swell. They know better. Over two hundred girls, mother; but they are divided into different houses, with a staff of teachers in charge of each, so there's no fear of being neglected; and it's much more fun living in a crowd. I'm tired of talking to the same people over and over again, and should love a variety. Among the hundred girls, one would be sure to find one or two whom one could really like."
Harold laughed again, a sleepy laugh, which brought a flash into his sister's eyes. That was the worst of Harold; he was so superior! He never argued, nor contradicted, but he had a way of smiling to himself, of throwing back his head and half shutting his eyes, which made Rhoda feel as if throwing cushions at him would be the only adequate relief to her feelings. She glared at him for a moment, and then turned her back on him in a marked manner and addressed herself to her father.
"You will write to Miss Bruce at once, won't you, father, and arrange for me to go at the beginning of the term?"
"I will write for particulars, or, better still, your mother and I will go down to see the place for ourselves. I should like you to go to the school you fancy, if it can be arranged, and I suppose this is as good as any."
"Better!" Rhoda declared rapturously, "a thousand times better! Ella Mason said so; and she knows, because her cousin's sisters have all been at different schools—one at Cheltenham, one at Saint Andrew's, one at Wycombe, and she declares that Hurst beats them all. It must be so, since it has adopted all the good ideas and abandoned the bad." She went on with a rambling statement which seemed to imply that Miss Bruce had been in turn sole proprietor of each of these well-known schools before abandoning them in favour of her new establishment; that Hurst Manor buildings had been recently erected, at vast expense, to provide every possible convenience for the pupils, and at the same time was a nobleman's seat of venerable interest; that sports and games formed the chief interest of the pupils, lessons being relegated to an appropriate secondary position; while, astonishing to relate, the honours in all University examinations fell to "Hurst girls," and every woman who had made a name for herself had graduated from its ranks! She detailed these interesting items of information with sublime assurance; and, when Harold mildly pointed out inconsistencies, retorted scornfully that she supposed she might be allowed to know, since Ella's cousin had said so, and she had been there, and seen for herself! Mrs Chester supported her by murmurs of assent, and little warning frowns to her son, which in dumb language signified that he was to be a good boy, and not aggravate his sister; and Mr Chester put his arm round her waist, and looked down at her, half smiling, half pitiful. The pitiful expression grew, and became so marked that the girl gazed at him in surprise. Why did he look so sorry? Was he already feeling the blank which her absence would leave? Did he fear that she would be home-sick, and regret her hasty decision? She stared into his face with her bright blue eyes, and her father gazed back, noting the firm chin, the arched brows, the characteristic tilt of the head. This overweening confidence of youth—he was asking himself earnestly—was it altogether a misfortune, or but raw material out of which great things were to be made in the future? Was it not better to go forth to meet life's battle with a light heart and fearless tread than trembling and full of doubt? Surely it was better, and yet his heart was sore for the girl, as the heart of a leader must be sore when he sends his soldiers to the front, knowing that no victory is won without a cost, no fight without a scar. Something very like a tear glittered in the father's eye, and at the sight Rhoda's face softened into a charming tenderness. She snuggled her head into his neck, and rubbed her soft cheeks against his, murmuring absurd little sentences of endearment, as to a child of two years old.
"Whose pet is it, then? Whose own precious? The nicest old sweet in the world."
Mr Chester pushed the girl aside, and put on a frown of portentous ferocity to conceal the delight with which her demonstration had, in reality, filled him. He loved to feel the sweep of the crisp locks, the touch of the soft cheek; he even appreciated, if the truth must be told, being addressed as a "precious," but wild horses would not have induced him to confess as much, and he made haste to leave the room with Harold lest perchance any sign of his real feelings might betray themselves to the sharp feminine eye.
Left alone with her mother, Rhoda clasped her hands behind her back, and paced slowly up and down. It was a relief, after all, to be rid of the men, and be able to talk things over with a feminine hearer who never brought forward inconvenient quibbles, who accepted statements as facts, as of course they were, and agreed to propositions in a quiet, reasonable manner. Rhoda thought out several important matters in that march to and fro, and announced the result in a decisive manner.
"I must have a complete new outfit! I don't believe in taking half-worn things. You can send them away to that poor clergyman in Ireland, with the five daughters. Geraldine, isn't it, who 'fits' my clothes? Well, Geraldine shall have my blue silk, and the fawn jacket, and the blouses, and the grey dress. If the arm-holes stick into her as much as they do into me, she will wish I had never been invented. She can have my best hat, too, if she wants it. I hate it, and at 'Hurst' you never wear anything but sailors', with the school colours. There is a blue house, and a pink, and a green, and a yellow, and a red; that's the way they arrange in all big schools, and I only hope and pray it won't be my fate to be yellow, or what an image I'll look! Other things being equal, Mum dear, kindly say you think the blue house would be best for my health and morals. I want to live in, you understand, not out— that's one point I have quite decided."
"In what, dearest? Out of what? I don't understand what you mean."
"In school itself. There are three houses in the school building and three in the grounds, and, of course, if you live 'out' you have ten minutes' walk over to classes, whatever the weather may be. I should object to shivering across the first thing in the morning in rain and snow and getting all splashed and blown. No one can call me a coddle, but I do like comfort, and it would be a dreadful fag—"
"I should think so, indeed; most risky! I wouldn't hear of it for you. If you go at all you must live in, and have a comfortable room, with a fire in cold weather."
"Oh, well; I don't know if you can expect that. We mustn't be too exacting. You will look after my clothes at once, mother, won't you? for there will be so much to get. I want things nice, you know! I should like the girls to see that I had decent belongings. I love having all the little things complete and dainty. I think girls ought to be particular about them. It's a sign of refinement. I can't endure shabby things round me."
"Of course not, darling; and there's no reason why you should. Write down a list of what you want, so that we shan't forget anything when we are in town. You shall have all you need; but, oh! dear me, I don't know how shall I live when you have gone. I shall break my heart without you!" And Mrs Chester's tears once more rolled down her cheeks. It seemed to her at this moment that the greatest trouble which her happy life had known was this projected parting from her beloved daughter.
Two days later Mr and Mrs Chester started on their tour of inspection, and Rhoda reflected that she could not employ herself better during their absence than by preparing, so far as might be, for the life ahead. She went upstairs to her own sitting-room, and made a sweeping survey of her treasures. The books in the hanging cases must, of course, be left behind, since they were too numerous to carry. She looked lovingly at their bright gold and leather backs, and took down a special favourite here and there, to dip into its contents. The Waverley novels ran in a long, yellow line across one shelf; Dickens, clad in red, came immediately beneath; and a whole row of poets on the bottom shelf. Wordsworth was a prize from Fraulein, but his pages were still stiff and unread; Longfellow opened of himself at "Hiawatha"; while Tennyson, most beloved of all, held half a dozen markers at favourite passages. His portrait hung close at hand, a copy of that wonderful portrait by Watts, which seems to have immortalised all the power and beauty of the strange, sad face. Rhoda nicked a grain of dust from the glass surface, and carefully straightened the frame against the wall, for this picture was one of her greatest treasures, and respected accordingly. Another case held books of stories, ranging from the fairy tales of childhood to the publications of last year; a third was devoted to bound volumes of magazines, and a fourth to the less showy and interesting school-books.
"It's no use taking you!" said Rhoda scornfully. "I expect you are quite out of date. You can stay here and rest, and when I come back I'll point out your errors, and send you into the lumber-room to make room for the new ones!" Then she turned her attention to the mantelpiece, on which reposed a quite extraordinary number of miniature jugs. Jugs, jugs everywhere, and nothing but jugs; blue jugs, yellow jugs, brown jugs, red jugs; Worcester jugs with delicate white figures against a background of blue; jugs worth a penny sterling at the village emporium; plain jugs, iridescent jugs; jugs with one handle, with two, with three, with none at all. Their variety was as puzzling as their number, but Rhoda gazed at them with all the pride of the collector. "Jugs"—unrivalled by postcards, stamps, or crests—had been her mania for a year on end, and the result was dear to her heart. To find a new jug to add to the collection had appeared one of the chief objects in travelling; an expedition to town had been a failure or success, according as it discovered jugs or no jugs.
In her anxiety for their safety she had even volunteered to dust her own mantelpiece, and now, alas! she must leave them to the tender mercies of Mary and her assistants! It was a painful reflection, and after a moment's consideration she determined not to risk it, but to store the darlings away in some safe hiding-place until her return.
No sooner said than done. Each little jug was wrapped in a separate roll of tissue paper, fitted into a drawer of the writing-table, and securely locked against invasion. The process of "putting away" thus begun extended itself indefinitely. The photographs in their various frames must be arranged and divided; nice relations and very dearest friends, to be taken to school, disagreeable or "middling" relations, and merely "dearest friends," to be laid aside in another drawer; fragile ornaments to be hidden, in case they were broken; silver and brass in case they tarnished; letters to be destroyed, to be tied up in packets, to be answered before leaving home; pieces of fancy work to be folded away, in case sacrilegious hands should dare to put them to any other use than that for which they were intended.
Rhoda set to work with the energy of ten women, and worked away until the once tidy room had become a scene of wildest confusion; until sofa, table, and chairs were alike piled high with bundles. Then of a sudden her energy flagged, she grew tired and discouraged, and wished she had left the stupid old things where she had found them. It occurred to her as a brilliant inspiration that there was no possible hurry, and that sitting under the trees reading a book, and drinking lemon squash, was a much more agreeable method of spending a hot summer's day than working like a charwoman. She carried her latest book into the garden forthwith, ordered the "squash," and spent an hour of contented idleness before lunch.
The story, however, was not interesting enough to tempt a second reading during the afternoon, for the heroine was a girl of unimpeachable character, who pursued her studies at home under the charge of a daily governess, and such a poor-spirited creature could hardly be expected to commend herself to a girl who had decided for two whole days to go to the newest of all new schools, and already felt herself far removed from such narrow experiences. Rhoda cast about in her mind for the next diversion, and decided to bicycle across the park to call upon the Vicar's daughter the self-same Ella Mason who had been her informant on so many important points. Ella would be indeed overcome to hear that Rhoda herself was to be a "Hurst" girl, and there would be an increased interest in hearing afresh those odd pieces of information which had fallen from the cousin's lips.
She felt a thrill of relief on hearing that her friend was at home, and in finding her alone in the morning-room, which looked so bare and colourless to eyes accustomed to the splendours of the Chase. Something of the same contrast existed between the two girls themselves, for while Rhoda sat glowing pink and white after her ride, Ella's cheeks were as pale as her dress, and her eyes almost as colourless as the washed-out ribbon round her waist. She was not a beauty by any means, but unaffectedly loving and unselfish, rejoicing in her friend's news, though it would deprive her of a favourite companion, and she was all anxiety to help and encourage. She knitted her brow to remember all that the cousin had said of Hurst Manor, wishing only that she had listened with more attention to those pearls of wisdom.
"Yes, she said that they did a great deal of Latin. All the girls learn it, and it seems to be looked on as one of the most important subjects. They translate Horace and Livy and all kinds of learned books."
"Humph! I shan't!" declared Rhoda coolly. "I don't approve of Latin for girls. It's silly. Of course, if you intend to teach, or be a doctor, or anything like that, it may be useful, but for ordinary stop- at-home girls it's nonsense. What use would Latin be to me, I should like to know? I shall take modern languages instead. I can read and write French fluently, though it doesn't come quite so easy to speak it, and German, of course, is second nature after jabbering with Fraulein all these years. I should think in German if I would allow myself, but I won't. I don't think it is patriotic. There is not very much that any one can teach me of French or German!"
"Then what is the use of studying them any more?" inquired Ella, aptly enough; but Rhoda was not a whit discomposed.
"My dear, it is ever so much pleasanter doing things that you understand! The first stages are such a grind. Well, what next? What other subjects are important?"
"Mathematics. Some of the girls are awfully clever, and are ever so far on in Euclid. I did one book with father; but it worried me so, and I cried so much one day when he altered the letters and put the whole thing out, that he grew tired, and said I could give it up. You didn't do any with Fraulein, I think?"
"No; it's a nuisance. I wish I did now; but I'll have to begin at once, that's all! I'll get Harold's old books and cram up before I go, so that I can just bring in an expression now and then, as if I knew all about it. Girls are so patronising if they think you are a beginner... I'm pretty well up in history, and can say reams of poetry, and play, and draw, and paint in water colours—"
"Ye-es!" assented Ella feebly. She was afraid to say so much in words, but her conviction was that her friend's methods of work would seem strangely antiquated when contrasted with the vivid strength of the new regime. She recalled Rhoda's mild copies of village scenes, with cottages in the foreground, trees to the rear, and a well-regulated flight of swallows on the sky line, and mentally placed them beside her cousin's vigorous sketches on the Slade system, where two or three lines seemed to do the work of a dozen, and prettiness was a thing abhorred! She remembered the lessons in theory and harmony, and trembled for her friend's awakening. "Yes," she repeated. "Oh, of course; and then there are other things besides lessons—a girl can make herself popular by being pleasant and obliging, and the outdoor life is so fascinating. Games every day, just as if you were boys, and each one trying to get into a higher team, and as keen and enthusiastic as she can be. You will enjoy the games, Rhoda!"
"Now that's just one thing I wanted to talk to you about!" cried Rhoda earnestly. "I'm glad you reminded me. Of course, tennis and croquet are all right. I can play a very good set, and beat most ladies at croquet. One time this summer I made five hoops in one turn, and took my partner with me, but of course I don't do that every day of the week. I'm all right for summer games, but winter is coming on, and I shall have to play that horrid old hockey, and I haven't the remotest idea how it is done. I've never seen a match, but you have, and I want you to tell me all about it, so that I may know what to do, and not make an idiot of myself. You went to the Betham ground when you were staying there, and saw the girls' team play. Go on! Describe it! Tell me all about it, and everything they did!"
Ella drew a deep breath, and looked awed and important.
"Well! it was a county match, and one team wore white blouses and the other pink. They had on blue skirts, very short, and awful feet! Some had great pads on each ankle, and some had leggings, and some had nothing at all. I should have swathings of cotton wool a foot wide, for it made my ankles ache just to see the sticks swinging about! It was an icy day; the wind went through us like knives and scissors, and we stood on little planks of wood and shuddered, with furs up to our ears, but they wore no hats or jackets, and their sleeves went flap, flap, as thin as possible. There was only one pretty one among them, all the rest looked—hideous! There was a goal at one end, here, and another, here." Ella drew a rough map of the ground on the back of an envelope, and Rhoda looked on with breathless interest. "This team wanted to make a goal here, and the other side tried to prevent them. They whacked with their sticks, and off went the ball, and each side flew after it, trying to send it the way they wanted, and one poor, wretched girl stood before each goal to prevent the enemy's ball from entering. I expected they would both die of consumption the next day, but I met them out at tea, quite spry and lively, and they said they didn't feel cold a bit. I didn't believe them, but that's nothing. An umpire marched about in leggings, and blew a whistle, and called out 'Off side! Off side!'"
"And what did he mean by that?"
Ella hesitated, uncertainly. Her knowledge of the game was of the slightest, but she was anxious to help her friend, and gallantly tried to recall odd explanations.
"Oh, well, I think one of the wrong side hit, you know, and there is a rule that you may not send the ball straight forward to one of your own side, but must hit it back to some one behind you."
"But that's silly! If you want to get on as fast as you can, why on earth must you go back? If they never hit forward, how can they win. Do you mean to say they never send it forwards towards the goal?"
"Oh, yes, yes! One girl was splendid. She hit magnificently. She ran like a man, and sent it flying before her, and made three goals herself."
"Then how—why—what—what in the world did you mean by saying that you mustn't do it?" demanded Rhoda sternly, and Ella made a gesture as of tearing her hair in confusion.
"I don't know! It isn't easy to understand a game when you see only one match. I was confused myself, but I know each side tries for a different goal, and there are 'backs' and 'half-backs' and 'forwards,' just as at football, and, whatever you do, you must not raise your stick above your waist. It's a murderous-looking game, anyhow. I wondered that they weren't all killed; and one girl's hand was bleeding horribly. I asked her if it was very painful, and she stared and said, 'Oh, I hadn't noticed it!' and mopped it up with her handkerchief. Awfully callous, I call it."
"Oh, I don't know!" replied Rhoda, airily. "Those flesh wounds don't hurt. I should never think of taking any notice of a little thing like that. Well, I can't say I am very much wiser for your instructions, my dear, but I will pump Harold and see what I can get out of him. I have no doubt I could hit all right, for I have a quick eye, and if you can play one or two games it helps you with the rest. But I should be pretty mad if I made a hit and they whistled at me and made me come back. I like to know what I am about."
"You had better be a goal-keeper," advised Ella, wisely; "you have no running to do until the ball comes your way, and then at it you go, tooth and nail! Stop it somehow—anyhow—with your hands, your feet, your skirt, your stick. I believe there is an etiquette about it, don't you know, as there is about all those things, and that it's more swagger to stop it one way than another, but the main thing is to stop it somehow, and that you simply must do!"
"Humph! If you can! What happens if you can't?"
"Emigrate to Australia by the first boat! I should think so, at least, to judge by the faces of the other girls when one poor creature did let a ball in. Feerocious, my dear! there was no other word for it. My heart ached for her. But it was a stupid miss, for it looked so easy. I felt sure I could have stopped it."
"It's all a matter of nerve. If you lose your head you are sure to play the fool at a critical moment. Fraulein was like that. The moment the game went against her she began to hop about, and puff and pant, and work herself into such a fever that she couldn't even see a ball, much less hit it. I kept calm, and so of course I always won."
It did strike Ella that victory under such circumstances would be easily gained, but she was too loyal to say so, and Rhoda leant back against the cushions of the sofa, and continued to discourse on games in general, and school games in particular, with an air of such intimacy and knowledge that no one would have suspected that the object of her visit had been to listen, rather than to teach.
Ella listened meekly to a recital of what her friend intended to do, and be; of the examinations she would pass, the honours she would gain; the influence she would exercise over her fellows; and sighed to think of her own limitations, and the impossibility of such a career ever falling to her lot. And then Rhoda rose, and put on her gloves preparatory to saying good-bye.
"I shall come down to see you again, of course, but I shall be very busy. I am going to have a complete new outfit, and everything as nice as possible."
"Ye-es," said the Vicar's daughter.
"I shall have all my best skirts lined with silk."
"Ah!" sighed Ella, and felt a pang of keenest envy. She had never possessed a silk lining in her life. It seemed to her at times that if she could only hear herself rustle as she walked, there would be nothing left to wish for in life!
"They will think you are a Princess!" she said, and Rhoda smiled, and did not attempt to deny the impeachment.
Mr and Mrs Chester returned from their visit to Hurst Manor with somewhat different accounts of the establishment. The father was delighted with all he had seen, thought the arrangements excellent, and Miss Bruce a charming and lovable woman. The mother did not see how draughts were to be avoided in those long, bare passages, considered the hours of work cruelly long, and was convinced that Miss Bruce could be very stern if she chose. Her husband laughed, and declared that a school of two hundred girls would fare badly indeed if she could not, and the maternal fears were silenced at once by his banter, and by Rhoda's fearless confidence.
It was finally decided that the girl should join at the beginning of the term, and preparations were set on foot without delay. It was almost like buying a trousseau, Rhoda declared; and certainly no bride-elect could have taken a keener interest in her purchases. The big, new box with her initials on the side; the dressing-bag with its dainty fittings; the writing-case and workbox; the miniature medicine chest stocked with domestic remedies, in case she should feel feverish or chilled, have earache, toothache, or headache; be threatened with sore throat or swollen glands—they were all new possessions, and as such afforded acute satisfaction, for though the wardrobe list was disappointingly short, there were at least no restrictions as to quality.
When the key was turned in her box Rhoda heaved a sigh of satisfaction in the confidence that not one of the two hundred girls could possess a better equipment than her own. Then she looked round her dismantled room, and felt a pang of depression. It looked so dead—as if its owner had already departed, and left it to its fate. The wardrobe door swung apart and revealed the empty pegs; the drawers were pulled open and showed piles of torn-up letters; the carpet was strewn with pins. All the treasured ornaments had been stored away, and the ugly ones looked uglier than ever, as if infected by the general dejection. In story-books girls were wont to bid a sentimental adieu to their maiden bowers before leaving for a new sphere, but Rhoda did not feel in the least inclined to be sentimental; she took to her heels instead and ran downstairs, only too glad to escape from her dreary surroundings, and presently she and her mother were driving towards the station on the first stage of the eventful journey.
The village women stood at the doors of their cottages to put their aprons to their eyes, and murmur, "Ay, poor dear!" as she drove past; little Tommy Banks threw a nosegay of marigolds through the carriage window, and waddled away, scarlet with confusion; and there was quite a gathering of friends on the platform.
Ella had brought a box of home-made Fuller's sweets from herself and a dainty copy of The Christian Year as the Vicar's farewell offering; Mrs Ross had a stack of magazines for reading on the journey, and little Miss Jones, who owed all the comforts of life to Mrs Chester's friendship, presented the most elaborate "housewife," stocked with every necessary which it seemed probable that a girl at school would not require. It was all most touching and gratifying. Even the station- master came up to express his good wishes, and the one-eyed porter blurted out, "Glad to see you back, Miss!" as if it were impossible to suppress his feelings a moment longer.
Rhoda felt an insight into the feelings of Royalty as she stood at the window of the carriage, graciously smiling and bowing so long as she remained in sight, and when this excitement was over, another appeared to take its place. Mrs Chester was discovered to be crying in quite uncontrolled fashion, and at the sight of her tears Rhoda put on her severest air.
"Mother! What are you doing? You must not cry! Please remember that in half an hour we shall be at Euston, and meet the school. I should never get over it if the girls saw my mother with a red face!"
Mrs Chester mopped her eyes obediently, and made a valiant effort to regain her composure. For herself, poor dear, she cared little about appearances, but Rhoda had already exhibited an intense anxiety that she should make a good impression on the minds of her future school-fellows. Each separate article of clothing had been passed in review, while the bonnet had been changed three times over before the critic was satisfied. It would never do to spoil an effect which had been achieved with so much trouble; so the unselfish creature gulped down her tears, and tried to talk cheerfully on impersonal topics, keeping her eyes fixed on the landscape the while, lest the sight of her child might prove too much for her resolution.
Rhoda was immaculate in blue serge coat and skirt, and sailor hat with a band of school colours. Nothing could have been simpler; but there are ranks in even the simplest garments, and she was agreeably conscious that her coat was not as other coats, neither was her skirt as other skirts. The hand of the Regent Street tailor was seen in both, and there was a new arrangement of pleats at the back which ought in itself to secure the admiration of the school! She was all complacency until Euston was reached, when the first glimpse at a group of "Hurst" girls smote her to earth. She had sewn the band on her hat upside down, putting the wide stripe next the brim, which should by rights have been the place of the narrow! To the cold, adult mind such a discovery might seem of trifling importance, but to the embryo school-girl it was fraught with agonising humiliation. It looked so ignorant, so stupid; it marked one so hopelessly as a recruit; Rhoda's cheeks burned crimson; she looked searchingly round to see if by chance any other strangeling had fallen into the same error, but, so far as bands were concerned, she was solitary among the throng.
A governess, seeing the two figures standing apart from the rest, came forward and welcomed Rhoda with a few kindly words, but she was too busy to spare time for more than a greeting. Fresh girls kept arriving with every moment—a crowd of brisk, alert, bustling young creatures, skurrying along bags in hand, and bright eyes glancing to right and left. At every step forward there would come a fresh recognition, a nod of the head, a wave of the hand, a quick "Halloa!" more eloquent than elegant. Rhoda felt a spasm of loneliness at the realisation that no greeting waited for herself, and at the strangeness of the many faces. She looked critically around and came to the most unfavourable conclusions.
"I don't like that one—she's a fright! I hate that one—she's so affected. Those two look common; I won't have anything to do with them. The big one with spectacles looks horribly learned. The one with the violin has a most unmusical face. She looks fit for stratagems if you like! The little one in brown is a cunning fox, I can see it in her eyes. Of all the plain, uninteresting, stodgy set of girls—"
There was a movement inside the saloon carriage opposite, and a large mamma clad in black, with a profusion of bugles, stepped on to the platform and marched stolidly away. She steered a course clear of the crowd of girls, the ends of her mantle floating behind her, like a brig in full sail before the breeze, while her poor little daughter hung out of the doorway gazing after her, sobbing bitterly, and mouthing in pathetic, helpless misery.
Mrs Chester began to cry at once in sympathy, and even Rhoda felt a smarting of the eyes. It was coming! The crucial moment was at hand; the bell was ringing, the girls were crowding into the carriages, the governess stepped forward and spoke a warning word.
"You had better come now, dear! Please take your seat."
Rhoda turned and bent her tall young head to her little mother, but neither spoke—the tension was too great. Mrs Chester's face was tremulous with agitation, the girl's white and defiant. Then she stepped into the carriage and seated herself among the crowd of strangers. The girls were all silent now, pale of face and red of eye, a few crying openly, the majority fighting against emotion. The mothers came to the edge of the platform, and stared in through the windows.
"It is like looking at animals in a cage," said Rhoda to herself, and then the wheels began to move, she saw her mother's quivering face—saw it from a distance—saw it no more—and realised for the first time, with a great, bitter pang of anguish, the meaning of farewell!
She had not intended to cry, she had never believed it possible that she would cry, but it was hard work to resist it during the next half- hour, when every second bore her further from home, and the strangeness of her surroundings pressed more heavily upon her. Other girls were beginning to cheer up and exchange confidences with their companions, but she had no one with whom to talk. Two girls opposite—the foxey one and the affected one—were chatting quite merrily together. The affected one, whose name appeared to be Hilda, had spent part of her holiday at Boulogne, and was discoursing on the delights of Continental bathing, while Foxey, not to be outdone, would have her know that Scarborough kept pace with all the Continental methods.
Another girl made the harrowing discovery that she had left her spectacles at home, and announced the same to a chum, who remarked that it was "a ripping joke!" The violin girl had had a bicycling accident, and exhibited her scars with pride. The shock of parting over, they all seemed very happy together, very friendly, very absorbed; far too much absorbed to notice a new-comer, or trouble themselves on her behalf. The governess stood by Rhoda's side for a few minutes and made remarks in an aggressively cheerful manner, but her reception was not encouraging, and presently she went away, and did not return.
Rhoda looked at the pictures in her magazines, or pretended to look, for her brain was so much occupied with other matters that she could not grasp their meaning, and after five minutes' inspection would hardly have been able to say whether she had been studying the features of a country landscape or those of a society beauty. Then she turned and cautiously examined her neighbours. The girl to the right was a square, stolid-looking creature, square-faced, square-shouldered, with square toes to her boots, and elbows thrust out on each side in square, aggressive fashion. Her eyes were small and light, and her nose a defiance of classic traditions; the corners of her mouth turned down, and she had at once the solemnest and the most mischievous expression it is possible to imagine. After a critical survey of her charms, Rhoda felt that she was not the person with whom to force a conversation, and turned her attention to the neighbour on her left.
A recruit, surely; for, though her hat-band was in order, there was in her mien an absence of that brisk, independent air which seemed to characterise the old Hurst girl. A pretty damsel, too, with curling hair and soft dark eyes, which at the present moment were bent in elaborate scrutiny on the paper before her. Rhoda noticed that it was the advertisement page at which she was looking, and suspected a pre- occupation kindred to her own. She coughed slightly and ventured a gentle question—
"Is this your first term at school?"
The dark-eyed girl turned a fleeting glance upon her, so fleeting that it seemed as if she had never altered her position, and replied monosyllabically:
"You are going up, like me, for the first time?"
"And you have never been to school before?"
"I mean a boarding school. A big school like this, on all the new lines?"
This was disconcerting! What did she mean? It was her first term, she was a new girl, and yet she had been up before! What was the girl thinking about! She might really trouble herself to say more than one single word.
"But you said—I understood you to say—"
Brown Eyes turned fiercely upon her, and fairly snapped in indignation.
"I don't care what I said, or what you understood. Can't you see I want to be quiet? Can't you leave me alone? If I am a new girl, I don't want to howl before all the others, do I! Very well, then! don't make me talk! Read your book, and let me read mine."
"I beg your pardon!" said Rhoda, in her most stately manner. She took up her magazine obediently, but now it was more impossible than ever to read it, for she was tingling with mortification. Such a snub from a stranger, and when she was trying to be friendly too! It would be a long time before she troubled Brown Eyes again. Her thoughts went back regretfully to Ella, the loyal, the sympathetic, the faithfully admiring. If Ella were only here now, how different it would be! Why had she not thought of it before, and asked her parents to pay Ella's fees, so that she might have the solace of her presence? They would have done it gladly, but, alas! Ella could not have been spared from home. She had to help her mother; to be governess as well as pupil, teaching the younger children for part of every day. No! Ella was impossible; but the craving for companionship grew so intense that it even conquered the dread inspired by her other companion, and strengthened her to make yet another effort.
The train had just left a station whose name was familiar in her ears, and she realised that they had crossed the boundary between two counties, and were now in Blankshire, in which Hurst Manor itself was situated. To remark on this fact seemed an innocent and natural manner of opening a conversation, so she turned towards Square Face, and said brightly, "Now we are in Blankshire, I see! I have never been here before. The country looks very pretty and undulating."
The girl turned and stared at her with a wooden stolidity of feature. Seen at close quarters she appeared to Rhoda as at once the most extraordinarily ugly and comical-looking creature she had ever beheld. Her little eyes blinked, and the thin lips flapped up and down in an uncanny fashion that refused to be likened to any ordinary thing. There was a moment's silence, then she repeated in a tone of the utmost solemnity—
"The country is very pretty and undulating—you are quite right. Your remark is most apt! May I ask if you would object to my repeating it to my friend over here? She would be so very much interested."
She was so preternaturally grave, that for a moment Rhoda was taken in by the pretence, the next she flushed angrily, and tilted her head in the air, but it was of no avail, for already the next girl was tittering over the quotation, and turning to repeat it in her turn. The simple words must surely contain some hidden joke, for on hearing it each listener was seized with a paroxysm of laughter, and face after face peered forward to stare at the originator, and chuckle with renewed mirth. It was a good ten minutes before it had travelled round the carriage and been digested by each separate traveller, and then, so far from dying out, it acquired fresh life from being adapted to passing circumstances, as when the train having stopped at a junction and moved on again with a jerk, Square Face fell prone into her companion's arms, and excused herself with a bland—
"Excuse me, dear. It's my little way. I am so pretty and undulating," and instantly the titters burst out afresh.
Rhoda's face was a study, but even as she sat fuming with passion, a voice spoke in her ear from the side where Brown Eyes still studied her advertisements.
"Laugh, can't you?" said the voice. "Laugh, too, as if you enjoyed the joke. It's the only way. They will go on all the more if they see you are angry."
"I hate them all!" hissed Rhoda savagely, and the other heaved a sigh.
"Ah, so do I, but they shan't hate me if I know it! I'm sorry I snapped, but I'll talk now, and for pity's sake don't look so dismal. Let us look over this paper together, and make remarks, and smile as if we were enjoying ourselves too."
"I don't feel as if I should ever enjoy myself again. It's hateful going to school. If I had known it was as bad as this I would never have come."
"There's a lake in the grounds. We will drown ourselves together after tea, but in the meantime do please keep up appearances. Don't give yourself away before all these girls!"
Rhoda looked at her curiously, and felt a thrill of comfort at finding a friend in the midst of her desolation. "What is your name?" she queried eagerly, and the dark eyes met hers in a solemn stare.
"Marah, for bitterness. That's how I feel to-day, anyhow. My godmothers and godfather christened me Dorothy, and in festive moments I have even answered to 'Doll,' but I'd murder any one who called me that to-day. Now, I'll show you something interesting... I've travelled on this line before, and if you look out of the window you can catch a glimpse of Hurst Manor as we pass the next station. It stands in its own grounds with nothing between it and the line. Over there to the right—you can't miss it if you keep your eyes open. Now! There! That gaunt, grey building."
Rhoda looked, and there it lay—a gaunt building, indeed, with row upon row of tall, bare windows staring like so many eyes, and out-standing wings flanked like sentinels on either side. The poor recruit's face lengthened with horror.
"It looks," she said dismally, "like a prison! It looks as if when you once got in, you would never never get out any more!"
Ten minutes later the journey came to an end, and the girls surged out on to the platform of the country station. A line of waggonettes, cheerfully denominated "Black Marias" by the pupils, was in waiting, and with less confusion than might have been expected the girls divided into different parties, and seated themselves in the carriages marked with their own house colours. Rhoda and her travelling companions, being all "blue," were among the first to drive off, each girl clutching the handbag which contained the immediate necessities of her toilet, and chattering away at the pitch of her voice. "Square Face" was evidently the wag of the party, and was treated with an admiring deference which seemed to bespeak a position of importance. She was professionally addressed as "Tom," and Rhoda from her seat opposite, read the words, "Thomasina Bolderston," upon the label of the bag, and reflected that she had never heard a name more entirely appropriate to its owner. It was at once so ugly, so uncommon, and so arresting to the memory, while Tom herself, once seen, could never be forgotten, nor confounded with another girl. There she sat, the keen autumn air blanching her cheeks and reddening her eyes, her arms crossed squarely over her bag, her lips twitching with mischievous enjoyment. She had but to roll her eyes, and the girls went into fresh convulsions of laughter; and when, at the entrance to "Hurst" grounds, she took out her handkerchief and affected to sob, the merriment reached an almost hysterical pitch. Rhoda, however, failed to appreciate the humour of the joke, being inclined to cry in good truth as the grim doorway yawned before her, and she caught a glimpse of the chill, grey hall, so different from the glowing warmth of her own dear home.
Dorothy gripped her arm in sympathetic fashion as they alighted and fell into position in the long line of girls, who had suddenly thrown off their hoyden airs, and assumed a demeanour of severe propriety. The queue wended its serpentine course down the hall itself, and across a smaller corridor to the head of the great staircase, where stood a lady in a black silk dress, and a cap with lavender ribbons, crowning bands of iron-grey hair. She was in reality small of stature, but she held herself with an air which gave her the appearance of being six feet high at least, and as she shook hands with each girl she addressed to her a word of greeting.
"How do you do, Mary? Glad to see you, Kathleen. Hope you are better, Ella. Welcome back, Carrie!" and so on, and so on. Occasionally there came a hesitation, and the greeting terminated without a name being added, but whenever this was the case there was a knitting of the brows which showed distinct annoyance. Miss Bruce evidently took a pride in remembering her pupils, and was hard on herself for any forgetfulness. When it came to the turn of the new girls, she detained them a moment to hope they would be happy, before waving them forward with an encouraging smile.
"That's what we call being 'presented.' She is the Queen, and on the next landing are 'the Lords,' and on the second 'the Commons,'" whispered a girl, who being herself only in her second term was not averse from posing as preceptor. Rhoda lifted her eyes and beheld an array of governesses standing before her, shaking hands and welcoming the pupils in their turn. Some looked formidable and learned, some did not. Some had the orthodox braided locks and spectacles, some even condescended to the frivolity of a 'fringe,' but one and all bore themselves with a dignity worthy of a foremost position in the newest of all new schools.
Rhoda passed by as in a dream, and felt far more interest in "the Commons," who were for the most part young women removed from girlhood by so slight a barrier that there was a tone of comradeship in their voices, a sympathetic understanding in their glance. The sweetest looking of all was evidently in special charge of the Blues, and, walked by the side of the two new girls as the detachment filed along the endless corridor towards its own apartments.
"You two are sisters? No! Ah, well, you must pretend you are, for a day or two at least, until you get over the first loneliness. Every one feels lonely at first among such a crowd of strangers, but it soon passes, and we are very happy together. You must come and sit with me in my little den sometimes. I'll ask you to tea on Sunday, and you must always come to me if you are in any difficulty. In the meantime do as the other girls do, and you will get along quite easily. You are in the same room. Wash and get ready for tea at once. The gong will ring in half an hour, and after that your boxes will have arrived and you will be able to unpack."
They reached the door of the dormitory as she finished speaking, and the girls entered, trying not to feel as if they were being introduced to a prison cell, or to be unduly cast down because they were separated by half the length of the room.
"If we could have been next each other and just wobbled the curtain occasionally it would have been friendly!" sighed Rhoda, sinking down on the solitary chair and gazing forlornly round her new abode. A bed, a wash-stand, a chest of drawers with a glass on top, a small fixture wardrobe, and about three yards of space on which to disport her own fair self—different quarters, indeed, from her room at home, with its spacious floor, its deep bay windows, its adjoining dressing-room and bathroom! When the curtains were drawn there was a feeling of cramped confinement which was most depressing to the spirits; yet, as her eye took in one detail after the other, Rhoda realised that there were redeeming points in the situation. Small as it was, the cubicle was decidedly pretty, and blue enough to satisfy the blondest of mistresses. Blue was the paint on the walls, blue the mat on the floor, blue and white the coverlet on the bed, blue the quaintly shaped china on the wash-stand. She remembered with a thrill of satisfaction that her own bags and cases were of the same hue, and took off her hat feeling that she had found an oasis in the desert of life.
Half-an-hour seemed a long time to prepare for tea, when no change of garment was possible, but it passed so quickly that the sound of the gong came as a surprise, and she emerged from her retreat to find her room-mates already filing towards the door. Thomasina led the way, staring at Rhoda's locks with an amusement which the girl found it hard to fathom. She had brushed out the curling mane with even greater care than usual, and was conscious that it was as tidy as nature had intended it should be. Then why stare and smile? She could not understand, but Thomasina only said enigmatically—
"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may! Come on, Fuzzy!" and led the way out into the corridor.
Lines of girls were appearing on every side—along this corridor, along that, down narrow nights of stairs, around unexpected corners, all converging steadily on the central staircase. It was like a game of "Follow my leader," and Rhoda could not but admire the ease and skill with which "Tom" avoided collision, and marshalled her party to its own table in the great dining-hall. When every one was seated, and grace said, the clatter of cups and saucers began, and Rhoda had her first experience of a school meal.
Well! the tea was very welcome, and it certainly was hot, but somehow or other it did not taste like the tea at home. There was so much "cup" about it—perhaps that was the explanation. It was quite an effort to get one's lips over the rim. Thickness seemed to be the order of the day when one looked from the china to the slices of bread and butter piled in the many plates. One such chunk would make a meal in itself, thought Rhoda, nibbling fastidiously at the first slice, but whether from the fatigue of the long journey or the stimulating effect of companionship, her appetite seemed to be unusually keen, and when it was finished she put out her hand to take a second slice.
Instantly Thomasina's voice rang out in warning. "Stop that, Fuzzy! That's forbidden!" Rhoda stared at her in dignified displeasure. "My name happens to be Rhoda Chester!"
"Congratulate you, I'm sure. Couldn't be sweeter; but you mustn't break rules, Rhoda Chester, all the same. The rule in this school is that no girl helps herself at meals, or asks for more, or pays any attention to her own plate."
"But if I am hungry? If I want more? How am I to get it?"
"You must rely on the thoughtfulness and attention of your neighbours. Each girl is supposed to look after those beside her, but if she forgets you must starve in silence, knowing that you suffer in a good cause. I find myself that a slight nudge applied to the elbow just as the cup is being carried to the mouth is a useful and judicious reminder... Let me press a piece of plum-cake upon you, Miss Chester!"
She held out the plate of bread with her squarest smile, and Rhoda smiled back with a curious sense of elation. She questioned herself curiously as to its cause, and made the surprising discovery that it was because Thomasina had spoken to her, and showed some faint signs of friendliness!
Tea over, there was another game of "Follow my leader," to the top story of the building this time, where all the length of a corridor was lined by baggage, with the mysterious addition of a flat wicker clothes-basket beside each trunk. The house-mistress, Miss Everett, was flitting to and fro, and explained to the bewildered new girls that as the cubicles afforded no room for the accommodation boxes they must unpack upstairs, and carry down their possessions to store in drawers and wardrobes.
For the next hour and a half, therefore, the curious scene was witnessed of sixty pupils staggering downstairs in turns under the weight of heavy baskets of clothes, and meeting with sundry adventures by the way. Lazy girls gave themselves the usual additional share of trouble by overweighting their load and toppling it over on the floor; hasty girls tripped on the stairs and collapsed in a heap, with a rain of boots falling on their head and pins showering broadcast through the banisters; careless girls took a rest to ease aching backs, then nipped up the wrong basket and bore it away, to reappear ten minutes later, puffing and injured, and receive indignant reproaches from the rightful owners.
Rhoda worked with a will, undisturbed by any such interruptions. It was with the unconsciousness of habit that she shook out her silk-lined skirts, on lifting them from the box, but the rustling sound could not be mistaken, and instantly she was aware that the girls on either side were mincing round in affected fashion, shaking out their own skirts, and simpering meaningly in her direction.
At the first glance from her eyes they became statues of propriety, but she felt their ridicule, and catching the giggles of laughter which followed her retreat blushed over cheek and neck in an agony of mortification.
After all, was it appropriate to bring fine clothes to school? Where the rules of the house were plain living and high thinking, was it not better to dress accordingly? Might not display savour of ignorance, of lack of perception, of—oh, horrors!—of snobbishness itself?
The new dresses hung neglected on their pegs, and Rhoda put on a silk blouse with her serge skirt, and walked down to supper in mental sackcloth and ashes.
But here was a pleasant surprise! The room was not grey any longer, but flooded with rosy light from the pink-hued shades which covered the electric burners. The girls, too, were no longer clad in dark blue as in a uniform, but shone forth in blouses of brilliant hues, pink, blue, red, and white alternating gaily, with an occasional green or yellow to add to the variety. There was in the atmosphere an indefinable air of relaxation, of rest after labour, which added tenfold to the brightness of the scene. What if on each plate there was only a morsel of fish, not half enough to satisfy clamourous appetites, there was unlimited bread and jam to follow, and if cocoa was not the drink of all others which one would have chosen, it was at least wholesome and satisfying. Rhoda ate and was thankful, and felt ready for bed even before the summons came. Several times during the day, when her feelings had threatened to become too keen for endurance, but pride had forbidden outward demonstration, she had cherished a determination to cry comfortably in bed; but when the time came she was so sleepy, so exhausted with excitement, the bed was so unexpectedly sympathetic, that she forgot her resolution, and, snoodling down on the pillow, fell swiftly and happily asleep.
The next moment, as it seemed, there came the roll of a distant gong, and instantly there burst into life a score of jangling bells, clanging and tinkling over one's very head in a manner calculated to destroy the strongest nerves. Rhoda felt an agonised certainty that the Chase was on fire, and springing up was confronted by the blue walls of her little cubicle. Memory came back then, and with a pang of regret she lay back in bed, listening to the succession of groans, yawns, and sighs which arose from every corner of the room.
They were so eloquent that one could almost see the sleepers stretching themselves in turn, blinking heavy lids, and rubbing dishevelled locks like so many sleek, lazy kittens. For a moment no one spoke, then began a chorus of lamentations.
"Seven o'clock! It can't be true. I haven't slept a wink all night!"
"I've been getting up at half-past eight all the holidays, and having a cup of tea in bed before that. It's killing going back to this!"
"Wait till the mornings are dark, and the water is frozen in the jugs; that's the time it is really fun. This is a mere trifle."
"It's not a trifle at all. I'm a growing girl, and need sleep. If Miss Bruce had any heart she would see it, and give me an excuse."
"She'll give you a mark instead, if you are not quick. Hurry up now! No laggards!" cried Thomasina's voice, in answer to which there came still louder groans, and the creaking of bedsteads as one girl after another rose to her feet.
Rhoda rose with the rest, and for ten minutes there was silence, broken only by the splashing of water. Then suddenly the air was filled with a deep, melodious roll, at which, as at a signal, Thomasina appeared from her lair—beautiful in a magenta dressing-jacket, and hair coiled in a tight little knot at the top of her head—and opened wide the door of the dormitory. Rhoda, peering from between her curtains could see other doors opening all the way down the corridor, and bare arms hastily withdrawn from view, while all the time the music swelled into fuller force, and pealed over the great, silent house like some majestic wakening voice.
"What is it?" she queried breathlessly, and Thomasina answered from behind her curtain:
"The organ, of course. The organ in the hall. One of the music mistresses plays a voluntary every morning ten minutes after we get up, and the choir sings a hymn. You will hear them presently. Each house takes it in turn to do choir duty. It's the Greens this week."
As she spoke the first note of the hymn sounded, and the words rose clearly on the air:—
"Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee. Holy, holy, holy, Merciful and Mighty, God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity!"
The clear voices were softened by distance into almost angelic sweetness, the treble rang true and sweet against the harmonious background of alto; the organ sank to a flute-like softness. It was an unexpected and beautiful beginning to the day's work, and the tears started to Rhoda's eyes as she listened, for she was of an emotional nature, quick to respond to any outside influence. She followed each line of the hymn with devout attention, and when it was finished knelt down beside her bed to offer a prayer, which was much longer and more fervent than it would have been ten minutes before. She prayed for strength, for guidance, and—with a remembrance of yesterday's trials— for patience too, that she might be able to take a joke in good part, and not value too highly her own dignity, and finally rose from her knees in a glow of virtuous resolution.
No sooner was she out of her cubicle than the blow descended. With the glow of good resolution still upon her, she was tried—and fell!
Thomasina regarded her critically, and said, with a cool assurance more maddening than downright rudeness:
"That coiffure is very becoming, Fuzzy, but it won't do here. Go back to your den, and plait it in a pigtail like mine!"
The glare of indignation, of scorn, of outraged dignity in Rhoda's eyes was beyond description. She straightened her back into a poker of obstinacy, and replied—
"I shall do no such thing! I shall wear my hair as I choose, and as I have always worn it."
"No you won't, my dear. Pigtails are the rule in this establishment, and pigtails you must wear so long as you are within its walls."
"If a teacher tells me to wear one, I shall obey. If it is a rule, some one in authority will tell me. I won't be ordered by you."
There was a gasp of astonishment throughout the room, and one head after another peered out to stare at the rebellious spirit who dared to defy that important personage, the Head Girl.
Thomasina closed her eyes and smiled in maddening fashion.
"That's where you make your mistake, sweet love, for it's just exactly what you've got to do! I'm Head Girl, and don't you forget it. The Queen on her throne is not more absolute than I am in this room. If you don't do what I tell you, it will be my painful duty to report you for insubordination, and it is a sad thing for a girl to get a mark on her first day. I must trouble you for that pigtail, if you please."
She was speaking the truth, that was evident! Confirmation was written on every watching face, in every warning frown. Rhoda's pride battled with a sense of helplessness so acute that she had much ado not to burst into tears on the spot. The two girls stood confronting each other, the new-comer flushed and quivering, like a beautiful young fury, with her flaxen hair streaming over her shoulders, and her blue eyes sending out sparks of fire; Thomasina composed and square, with her lips pursed up in a good-humoured, tolerant smile.
"Hurry up!" she said, and Rhoda whisked round and dashed behind her curtain, which flew out behind in an aggrieved fashion, as if unused to be treated with such scant courtesy. The next few moments seemed to have concentrated in them a lifetime of bitterness. The comb tugged remorselessly through the curling locks, but the physical pain passed unnoticed; it was the blow to pride which hurt—the sharp, sharp stab of finding herself worsted, and obliged to give in to the will of another. It was nothing at that moment that the pigtail was ugly and unbecoming; Rhoda would have shaved her head and gone bald for ever if by this means she could have escaped that verdict; but to appear again before all the girls with that hateful, hateful wisp hanging down her back—she felt as if she would die rather than do it; yet would it not be even more degrading to wait for a summons? She stalked forth, straight and defiant, and was received with a bland smile.
"Pretty fair for a first attempt. Plait it down further next time. I must have my girls neat and tidy. Now then, forward please—Right, left! right, left!"
The order was accompanied by a tap on the shoulder, which put the finishing touch to Rhoda's exasperation. She stepped into her place in the queue, trembling from head to foot, and with a painful throbbing in her head which was something new in her healthy experience. Immediately in front marched a tall, straight form, whom at first she failed to recognise, but at the head of the staircase there came a temporary wait, and then the head was turned towards her, and, behold, it was Dorothy herself, pigtailed like the rest, and looking curiously reduced without the background of hair.
"Morning!" she cried cheerily, and Rhoda gasped a breathless question.
"You too! Did she tell you? I never heard—"
"Didn't give her a chance! Heard her ordering you, and nipped mine up in a trice. Treat it as a matter of course, and don't seem to mind— that's the tip! Only get yourself disliked by making a fuss."
"I know, but I can't help it," sighed Rhoda dismally.
"I'm not used to bullying, and it makes me wild. My head's splitting. I feel all churned up."
"Worse troubles at sea!" said Dorothy shortly, and after that there was no more chance of conversation, for the queue moved on again, and they were separated at breakfast as at dinner the night before. Thomasina sat opposite to Rhoda, and pressed the various dishes upon her good- temperedly, ignoring all causes of discord, an attitude which, if she had only known it, but added to the score against her, for pride forced a haughty "No, thanks," whilst appetite prompted "Yes, please." To sit with empty plate, and see others feast on bread and marmalade is no slight trial when one is fifteen and a-hungred, but no one urged Rhoda to change her mind, or thought it possible to succeed where the Head Girl failed.
There were no regular lessons during the morning, but a great deal of confusing moving to and fro from one class-room to another, to go over preliminary arrangements, and receive instructions from the mistresses. Sometimes the new girls were ignored altogether, and then they felt worms, and ready to sink through the earth; sometimes they were questioned as to their attainments, and then the very walls seemed to have ears, and their replies echoed through a deadly silence. Dorothy attained a fair level throughout, and reaped neither praise nor blame, but Rhoda knew alternate rapture and despair, as Mademoiselle and Fraulein beamed approval, and the "class-mistress" put up her eye- glasses and regarded her as one might regard a wild animal at the Zoo, upon hearing that she had "done" no Latin or mathematics.
"You will not do much good at this school without them," she said, severely. "They are the most important subjects. I advise you to give all the time you can spare to working them up, and to get, if possible, some coaching during the holidays. That is, of course, if you wish to excel."
If she wished to excel! If, indeed! Did any one suppose for a moment that Rhoda Chester would be content to remain among the rank and file? Did they think that she could continue to be ignored, and live! Ten thousand times no! "A day would come!" as Disraeli had said. They thought just now that she was nobody, but in time to come the school would know her name, would be proud of it, would boast of it to other schools. Rhoda reared her head and smiled complacently, and the class- mistress noted the action, and made a mental note that the new pupil must be "kept down."
The morning seemed very long, but it came to an end at last with a blessed ten minutes "off" before preparing for dinner. The other girls hurried to their cubicles, but Rhoda waylaid Miss Everett in the corridor, and appealed to her in breathless eagerness.
"You said I was to come to you in any difficulty... I want to know if it is necessary for me to wear my hair like this? I never do it at home, and I'm sure my mother wouldn't like it. Is it really the rule?"
"I'm afraid it is," said Miss Everett kindly. "You don't like it, eh? Well, I don't wonder! I shouldn't myself, in your place; but you see, dear, bending over desks, and running about at games, loose hair gets in the way, and cannot possibly be kept tidy. It seems an arbitrary rule, but there's reason in it, as there is in all the rules if you think them out, and it doesn't apply to every day. On Thursday evening we have 'Frolics,' and then you can wear it loose, and put on your prettiest things. There is always something going on—concerts, dances, or theatricals—and Miss Bruce likes the girls to look bonnie and festive. On Sundays, too, you can go back to your mop if you choose. I hope you will, for I like to see it. I have a little sister with hair just like yours."