“Remember, Hazel,” said Mrs Thorne, “remember this – we may be reduced in circumstances; we may have been compelled by misfortune to come down into this wretched little town, and to live in this miserable, squeezy, poorly-furnished house or cottage, with the light kept out by the yellow glass, and scarcely a chimney that does not smoke; we may be compelled to dress shab – ”
“Yes, yes, mother dear – ”
“Bily,” said Mrs Thorne, with indignant emphasis on account of the interruption, “but remember this, Hazel, you are a lady.”
“Forgive me for interrupting you, mother.”
“Mamma, Hazel,” said the lady, drawing herself up with great dignity. “If we are by a cruel stroke of fate compelled to live in a state of indigence when pride has made my eldest child refuse the assistance of my relatives, I still maintain that I have a right to keep up my old and ladylike title – mamma.”
“But, dear, I am only a schoolmistress now – a national schoolmistress, and it would sound full of foolish assumption if I called you mamma. And are you not my dear, dear mother! There, there, good-bye, dear,” cried the speaker, kissing her affectionately; “and mind the dinner is done, for I shall be, – oh, so hungry.”
“As you please, Hazel,” said Mrs Thorne, smoothing down her dress, and looking ill-used. “Let it be mother then. My feelings have to be set aside as usual. My life is to be one slow glide down a slope of indignity to the grave. Ah, what have I done to deserve such a fate?”
“Mother, dear mother, pray, pray don’t grieve, and I’ll strive so hard to make you and the girls happy. You will soon like this little cottage; and when we get some more furniture, and some flowers, and a bird in the window, it will look so bright and cheerful and – there, there, pray don’t cry. I must go; it only wants five minutes to nine, and I must not be late the first morning.”
“I think it disgraceful that, in addition to six days a week, you should be compelled to go and teach on Sundays as well; and I shall make a point of speaking to Mr Lambent the first time he calls – that is, if he should ever condescend to call.”
“No, no, pray don’t think of such a thing, dear,” cried Hazel Thorne excitedly. “You forget that I have the whole of Saturday, and – there, there – dear, dear mother, I must go. Good – good-bye.”
Hazel Thorne kissed the stiff stately-looking lady in the stiffest of widow’s weeds, and with a bright look and a cheery nod, she hurried out of the little Gothic schoolhouse, with its prim, narrow lancet windows; but as she closed the door, the bright look gave place to one of anxious care, and there was a troubled nervous twitching about her lips that told of a struggle to master some painful emotion.
She had but a few yards to go, for the new school-buildings at Plumton All Saints were in one tolerably attractive architectural group, built upon a piece of land given two years before by Mr William Forth Burge, a gentleman who had left Plumton All Saints thirty – but it should be given in his own words, as he made a point of repeating them to every new-comer:
“Yes, sir; I left Plumton thirty year ago, after being two year with old Marks the butcher, and went up to London to seek my fortune, and I think I found it, I did.”
Mr William Forth Burge’s fortune was made by being a butcher’s boy for some years, and then starting among some new houses near Chelsea on his own account.
Mr William Forth Burge left Plumton – “Bill”; he came back writing his name in full, and everybody followed his example as soon as he had shown himself at the various land sales and bought pretty largely. For he was always looking out for “investments,” and the local auctioneers addressed him with great respect as “sir.” Why, upon the occasion of the dinner given at the “George,” when he took the chair after the laying of the first stone of the new school-buildings by Sir Appleton Burr, the county member, whose name was down for ten pounds, the Reverend Henry Lambent, the vicar, made his chin sore with his very stiff cravat, rolling his head to give due emphasis to the very sermon-like speech, the text of which was that Mr William Forth Burge was an honour to the place of his birth; and the finale, received with vociferous cheering and stamping of feet, was the proposal of this gentleman’s health.
He was a very modest, mild man, this donor of a piece of land of the value of some three hundred and fifty pounds to the parish; and though an ex-butcher, had probably never slain innocent lamb, let alone sheep or ox, in his life. When he rose to respond he broke forth into a profuse perspiration – a more profuse perspiration than usual; and his application of a fiery orange silk handkerchief to his face, neck, and hands, almost suggested that its contact with his skin would scorch him, or at least make him hiss, what time he told people that he left Plumton thirty year ago, after being two year with old Marks the butcher, etc., and then went on to speak of himself as if he were an oyster, for every few moments he announced to his fellow-townsmen that he was a native, and that he was proud of being a native, and that he did not see how a native could better show his love for his native place than by giving his native place a piece of ground for the erection of the new schools; and so on, and so on.
Of course, Sir Appleton Burr, M.P., said that it was a charmingly na?ve piece of autobiography, and that Plumton All Saints ought to be very proud of such a man, and no doubt Plumton was proud of him, for where was the need of grammar to a man with fifty thousand pounds; especially as Mr William Forth Burge, besides having no grammar, had no pride.
In due time, the money was found, with the help of a grant from the Committee of Council on Education, the schools being meanwhile erected – a long red-brick semi-Gothic central building, with houses for the schoolmaster and mistress at either end, each standing in its neat garden, the central school building being so arranged that, by drawing up and pushing down sash-hung shutters, the boys and girls’ schools could be thrown into one, as was always the case on Sundays.
Just as Hazel Thorne left her gate to walk thirty yards to that leading to the girls’ entrance, Mr Samuel Chute, master of the boys’ school, left his door to walk thirty yards to the gate leading to the boys’ entrance, but did not stop there, for he came right on, raising his hat, and displaying a broad white lumpy forehead, backed by fair hair that seemed to have been sown upon his head and come up in a sturdy crop, some portions being more vigorous than others, and standing up in tufts behind the lumps about his forehead; doubtless these latter being kindly arrangements made by nature to allow room for brain projections, consequent upon over-study.
Mr Samuel Chute smiled, and said that it was a very fine morning, a fact that Hazel Thorne acknowledged, as the schoolmaster replaced his hat.
“The handle of the door goes very stiffly,” he said, still smiling rather feebly, for he was annoyed with himself for not having offered to shake hands, and it was too late now. “I thought I’d come and open it for you.”
Hazel thanked him. The heavy latch was twisted up by an awkward ring like a young door-knocker, and went click! and was let down again, and went clack! Then the new schoolmistress bowed and entered, and Mr Samuel Chute went back to his own entrance, looking puzzled, his forehead full of wrinkles, and so preoccupied that he nearly ran up against Mr William Forth Burge, whom he might have smelt if he had not seen, as he came to the school as usual on Sunday mornings to take his class, and impart useful and religious instruction to the twelve biggest boys.
There was a mist before Hazel Thorne’s eyes as she entered the large schoolroom, with its so-called gallery and rows of desks down the side, all supported upon iron pedestals like iron bars with cricks in their backs. All about the floor were semicircles marked out by shiny brass-headed nails, as if the boards had been decorated by a mad undertaker after the fashion of a coffin-lid, while between the windows, and in every other vacant place, were hung large drawing copies of a zoological character, embracing the affectionate boa-constrictor, the crafty crocodile, and the playful squirrel, all of which woodcuts had issued from the Sanctuary at Westminster, probably with the idea that some child in Plumton schools might develop into a female Landseer.
This being Sunday, Hazel Thorne’s duties were light, and after Mr Samuel Chute had rapped upon his desk, and read prayers for the benefit of both schools, the new mistress had little to do beyond superintending, and trying to make herself at home.
She found that there were four classes in her side of the Sunday-school, each with its own teacher, certain ladies coming regularly from the town, chief of whom were the Misses Lambent – Beatrice and Rebecca, the former a pale, handsome, but rather sinister lady of seven or eight-and-twenty, the latter a pale, unhandsome, and very sinister lady of seven or eight-and-thirty, both elegantly dressed, and ready to receive the new mistress with a cold and distant bow that spoke volumes, and was as repellant as hailstones before they have touched the earth.
For the Misses Lambent were the vicar’s sisters, and taught in the Sunday-school from a sense of duty. Hazel Thorne was ready to forget that she was a lady by birth and education. The Misses Lambent were not; and besides, it was two minutes past nine when Hazel entered the room. It was five minutes to nine when they rustled in with their stiffest mien and downcast eyes.
But they always displayed humility, even when they snubbed the girls of their classes – a humility which prompted them to give up the first class to Miss Burge – christened Betsey, a name of which she was not in the least ashamed, and which, like her brother with his William Forth, she wrote in full.
The third and fourth class girls had an enmity against those of the first for no other reason than that they were under Miss Burge, who heard them say their catechism, and read, and asked questions afterwards out of a little book which she kept half hidden beneath her silk visite; for pleasant, little, homely, round-faced Miss Burge could hardly have invented a question of an original character to save her life. One thing, however, was patent, and that was that the first class was so far a model of good behaviour that the girls did not titter very much, nor yet pinch one another, or dig elbows into each other’s ribs more than might be expected from young ladies of their station; while they never by any chance made faces at “teacher” when her back was turned, a practice that seemed to afford great pleasure to the young ladies who were submitted to a sort of cold shower-bath, iced with awkward texts by the Misses Lambent, in classes third and fourth.
The second class was taken by another maiden lady – Miss Penstemon, sister of Doctor Penstemon, M.D., F.R.C.S., of the High Street. She was thinner and more graceful than the Misses Lambent, and possibly much older; but that was her secret and one which she never divulged.
The Misses Lambent, as before mentioned, bowed with dignity and grave condescension to the new mistress; and, taking her cue from the vicar’s sisters. Miss Penstemon bowed also, plunging her hand afterwards into her black bag for her smelling-bottle, for she thought the room was rather close.
The bottle she brought out, however, she thrust back hastily, and gave a quick glance round to see if she had been observed; for, instead of its containing a piece of sponge saturated with the colourless fluid labelled in her brother’s surgery, “Liq. Amm.,” and afterwards scented with a few drops of an essential oil, the little stoppered bottle bore a label with the enigmatical word “Puls.” thereon, and its contents were apparently a number of little sugar pills.
For be it known that Maria Penstemon had a will of her own, and a strong tendency to foster crotchets. The present crotchet was homoeopathy, which, without expressing any belief for or against, the doctor had forbidden her to practise.
“No, ’Ria,” he said, “if you want to go doctoring, doctor the people with your moral medicines. It won’t do for you to be physicking one way and me another, so let it alone.”
But Miss Penstemon refused to submit to coercion, and insisted in secret upon following her path while the doctor went his, Maria’s being the homoeopath, while the doctor’s was, of course, the allopath; and he was a long time finding out that his sister surreptitiously “exhibited” pilules, for she never did any harm.
Hazel Thorne met with a different reception, however, from downright Miss Burge, who rose from her seat, looked red and “flustered,” as she called it, smiled, and shook hands.
“I’m very, very glad to know you, my dear,” she said warmly, “and I hope you’ll come and see me often as soon as you get shaken down.”
Shaken down! The words jarred upon the young mistress, who felt that she could never become intimate with Miss Burge, whom she left to her class, and then busied herself with the attendance register and various other little matters connected with her duties. Once she stole a glance across at the boys’ school, to become aware of the fact that Mr Chute was watching her attentively, so was Mr William Forth Burge; and, to make matters worse, half the boys in the classes were following their teachers’ eyes, so that it was with something like a feeling of relief that Hazel saw that the clock pointed to half-past ten, the time for closing for the morning, and marshalling the girls in order for walking two-and-two as far as the church.
Mr Chute rang a bell and said, “Sh! sh!”
Books were put away, the lady teachers rose, and, with the exception of Miss Burge, moved towards the door, the latter lady glancing at the new mistress, and, apparently pitying her strangeness, seeming disposed to hang back and walk with her; but Hazel Thorne’s attention was too much taken up by her task, and getting her little force of about eight-and-thirty or forty girls two-and-two, she started them for church, herself taking the smallest morsel – to wit, little Jenny Straggalls – under her wing.
Now, the only ways to march forty girls two-and-two to church with anything like order are either to put the two smallest pupils in the front, and then go on rising in years till you have the two eldest in the rear, or to pair off the largest and smallest children together.
If neither of these plans is adopted, discipline is liable to fail. One black sheep will corrupt a flock, and though not a black sheep but a very red-haired frisky lamb, there were qualities in Ophelia, or more commonly “Feelier,” Potts sufficiently mischievous to corrupt any flock of girls.
The experiences she had picked up at Whitelands were forgotten by Hazel Thorne in the flurry and excitement of this her first morning with her school. The stern looks of the lady teachers had made her feel nervous. It was tiresome, too, just at starting that Mr Chute should be holding his boys in hand at the door, with a politeness of which he had never before been guilty, to allow the girls to go on first to church; and Mr William Forth Burge was standing by him, smiling all over his round, closely-shaven face, which was so smooth that it shone in the sun, and preparing himself for the incense of forty bobs, that he would receive from the girls as they went by.
This was Feelier’s opportunity. As one of the biggest girls, she had been placed first with Ann Straggalls, the fair, round eyed, and fat; and as Feelier went marching on with head erect, she turned the said head slowly round towards the boys, and squinted so horribly that her eyes half disappeared beneath the bridge of her nose, and Tommy Sullins, a very wild, excitable little boy, forgot his awe of Mr Samuel Chute, and burst into a loud “Ha, ha, ha!”
“Sullins!” shouted Mr Chute; and Feelier was gazing wonderingly at the boy with her eyes in their normal, position, as the little fellow became perfectly snail-like in his action, and crept back into the very stiff long pinafore he was wearing.
Then bob, bob, bob, bob went the girls as they passed Mr William Forth Burge, who came out of the gate as the last pair passed and smiled his way up to his sister, who was toddling along beside Hazel Thorne, and making Mr Samuel Chute feel annoyed, for he was obliged to leave some little space before starting his boys; and then as he had always been in the habit of walking last, it would have looked peculiar to walk in front. Besides which there would have been the risk of little boys straggling behind, and perhaps not appearing in church at all; so, in spite of an intense desire, freshly developed, to keep near the new schoolmistress, he was compelled to walk at a distance of twenty-two doubled boys behind, and this made him metaphorically gnash his teeth.
Mr Chute’s way of gnashing his teeth was, paradoxical as it may sound, with his hands, upon which he wore a pair of brand new kid gloves, bought late on Saturday night expressly to impress the new mistress. These hands seemed to have been suddenly seized with an angry itching to seize little boys’ arms and shoulders, to give them nips and shakes and pushes for not walking better than they did; and the severe drilling he gave them as he walked backwards and forwards along the semi-military column made the boys stare. But it was upon Master Sullins that the vials of his wrath threatened to be emptied. He could not forgive that laugh. What, he asked himself, would Miss Thorne think? It was terrible, and seemed to him like the first step towards blasting the hopes that had already begun to bud after seeing the new mistress only twice. The consequence was, that whenever he told himself never had the boys walked to church so badly before, he glanced at Tommy Sullins, and when he glanced at Tommy Sullins, he thought of a certain length of that thin rattan or rotan cane that grows so beautifully in the Malay Peninsula, running up and down trees in festoons for two or three hundred feet. Utterly ignorant as he was of the beauty of rotan cane in its native state, Tommy had so lively a recollection of it in its cut-up or commercial form, that reading threats in Mr Chute’s eyes, the boy’s face began to work, and had not the master gone right to the rear, and rigidly abstained from further demonstrations, the procession would have been enlivened by a most tremendous howl.
Quite disposed to be friendly. Miss Burge, then, while her fellow Sunday-school teachers sailed gracefully on to church, toddled and prattled beside the new-comer to Plumton, feeling pleased and attracted by her gentle ways.
Toddled is the only word that will express Miss Burge’s way of progression, for it seemed as if there were no joints to her legs, and consequently, as she walked she rolled sharply first to right and then to left, but got over the ground pretty smartly all the same.
“Oh, this is my brother, Miss Thorne,” she prattled pleasantly. “My brother, Mr William Forth Burge, who presented the town with the site for the new schools. Bill, dear, this is our new mistress. Miss Hazel Thorne, and a very pretty name, too, isn’t it?”
“A very nice name indeed,” said “Bill,” taking off his hat and perfuming the morning air with a whiff of pomatum scent; after which he replaced his hat and smiled, and breathed very hard, but took his place, to Mr Chute’s great annoyance, on Hazel’s other side, evidently with the intention of walking with her and his sister right up to church.
Hazel felt more nervous than before. It was very kind and friendly of these people, but they divided her attention, and the schoolgirls wanted it all. For, having succeeded so well over the squinting, and thereby won the admiration of her fellow-pupils, girl-like, Miss Feelier must attempt something new, and this novelty was the giving vent to little mouse-like squeaks, just loud enough to be heard by Ann Straggalls, who began to titter, and of course this was communicated to others near.
The long notes became so marked at last that Hazel had to apologise to her new friends, and hurry to the front and admonish, painfully conscious the while that plenty of the inhabitants were at their windows and doors, watching and commenting upon the appearance of the new mistress, some remarks being loud enough for her to hear.