Mr. Jessop's Experiment
MR. JESSOP'S EXPERIMENT
By ETHEL TURNER.
WITH a certain hardness that belongs to all young things, the girls at Sea View School laughed and giggled greatly amongst themselves when they came back from the Christmas vacation and found their head-mistress, Miss Mayne, had employed her time in being married.
"Old Hannah will go next," said Inez Flavelle, the school beauty, "and then Peters will begin to look out for a wife."
Hannah was the school-cook, fifty if a day, and woefully unbeautiful. Peters, the gardener, would never see sixty again. The comparison was surely a harsh one, for Miss Mayne was only forty.
Twenty years ago she had been engaged to this same man whom she had now married, Captain John Black, long time a "mariner of the sea." There was pink in her cheeks then, and the happy light of youth in her eyes; Inez herself had not more dimples nor more of the sun's brightness meshed in her hair.
There came no blinding storm, no violent earthquake to the young life; merely a grey dulness settled down over it and hid the sun for just a score of years.
There were helpless young sisters and brothers in her family, and an invalid mother; the father dying suddenly, left nothing but the big house to them, where they had lived so long. Miss Mayne opened a boarding-school in it.
"Soon, soon," she said desperately to her eager lover from the seas. There were all sorts of things, she told herself, in the pleasant Bag of Hope that hangs suspended above the world; someone would leave them a legacy, the boys would get on, the next sister Marie would take her place.
But the years dropped away one after the other, and not one bit of fluttered down from that brilliant bag to which her eyes turned so frequently. No legacy came, one boy went wrong, another died, Marie slipped into womanhood, stood aghast at the prospect of taking her sister's place in the grey, and rushed into a hasty and most unfortunate marriage; the mother was frailer than ever. After seven years, Miss Mayne gently but very resolutely cut herself off from her sailor lover; she could not bear to bring the grey mist over his cheery life.
He gave in at last, sulkily, and went away. For thirteen years he sailed the world, married, they said, to his ship. He almost forgot the pale girl who had given him back the ring that still lay in his desk, but no other woman appealed to him strongly enough for marriage, and he led a jovial, pleasant enough life, ploughing the great oceans, familiar with every continent, finding friendliness in every aspect of the stars.
Then it happened he was a year without a ship. They were making a cargo-boat of his old one, and the new one of which he had been promised the command was still building. He refused a temporary post, saying he would be a landsman for a year, and then, being in the same city at the time as his old love, curiosity prompted him to seek her out.
"If she has grown stout," he said to himself as he rang the bell at the selfsame house, "then it is 'Good-bye' again. But if she is still slim—well, who knows?" He had been for tea the night before to a home made strangely sweet and restful by a woman, and the remembrance tempted him.
Her figure bore inspection, she was thin to a fault. Exceeding primness hung about the mouth his own young lips had kissed, her eyes were quiet, her hair grey, her cheeks quite without colour. She dressed staidly, spoke staidly, as befitted the head of a school. But the uncontrollable rush of colour that flooded her cheeks when she saw him first made his heart young again.
Coming straight from the salt freshness and sunshine of his healthy life, the still greyness of hers filled all his nature with remorse and a rush of compassion. The mother was long since dead, the family was scattered, but the quiet, old-fashioned school still went on, the quiet, old-fashioned mistress still at the head. Marie had died a year ago and had left two orphan girls to her sister's care; the school went on to clothe and give them shelter.
When this lover of her youth again begged her to come to him, she gazed at him despairingly. One year ago, and she could have gone to him with a free heart; now there were these poor little girls clinging to her hand.
"Never mind," he said; "bring them, too. I'll manage someway." He was rather dismayed, certainly, for an unfortunate speculation had swept away his savings, and he had nothing but a somewhat meagre captain's pay. "Yes, I'll look after them," he repeated. He could not help feeling it was inconsiderate, and in a line with all her other conduct, for Marie to die.
But this Miss Mayne's gentle pride forbade. Wait longer she could not ask her lover to do, but she begged him to allow her to continue her school for another year or two.
"I have some very well-paying pupils coming," she said. "In two years, with care, I could save five hundred pounds. Could you not be content to marry me and come here to live till then?"
For so yielding a woman she was strangely pertinacious of this point, and finally he consented lazily. After all, he told himself, it might be as well: he was quite unversed in the ways of women. Perhaps if she had nothing whatever to do with her hours, he would have to be running after her with fans and cushions and smelling-salts all day; he had once found this was the lot of a passenger, a fine fellow and a friend of his, during the idleness of a voyage.
But he sent a couple of extra servants into the house, and he made a generous allowance for bills, and big quantities of meat and beer and tobacco and other manly things began to be carried through the meek, surprised, white gate of that abode of petticoats.
In the natural course of things so active a man could not live long in that beehive and not want to prove to the queen bee that her mode of government was all wrong.
"It is no way, no way at all to bring up girls," he said. "You have far too many rules, my dear: the unfortunate little beggars can't yawn without trespassing on one of them. You should have known Jessop, my dear—there was the man for a schoolmaster, and lost, quite lost as a sailor."
Mrs. Black, before she had been married three months, knew Jessop almost as well as she knew her husband, although with her actual eyes she never had seen him. He had been first mate on the vessel her husband had commanded so many years. A married man, a man with seven stalwart sons to his credit, but never a daughter, he was always theorising about how girls should be trained, and telling the captain just how he would have brought up a daughter if Heaven had granted him one instead of so many sons.
There were other things Jessop was interested in—inventions, for instance. Many a spare hour he spent trying to perfect some improvement for a sewing-machine, or drawing diagrams to illustrate how the weight of rolling stock on the railways might be decreased. But the training of girls was his pet hobby.
The school was pairing for its daily walk with the governess.
"There wouldn't be any of that if Jessop were steering here," said the Captain, "or that, or that," and he indicated a couple of round-shouldered, pasty-faced girls. He was standing with his wife at the window of her private sitting-room, and watching the procession fall into order.
"There's only one girl in the lot who looks what I'd call 'fit,’" he continued. "There, that bright-looking little thing in blue can't stand still a moment. Look at her! There! the old hen's after her. Ah! going to make her walk all by herself. Poor little beggar! poor little beggar!"
Mrs. Black was watching the school imp with strange eyes. A fine, straight little child she was—overflowing with animal spirits, in mischief twenty times a day, twenty times a day reprimanded.
"That is Edna Boyd," she said. "When she comes in, she has half-a-dozen impositions to write: 'It is unladylike to shout,' 'Enter a room quietly,' and similar things." The schoolmistress spoke in a curious tone of voice.
"Poor little beggar!" repeated the Captain; and he looked after the jolly little thing with real pity in his eyes. "You couldn't let her off one or two of them, Helen?"
"I intend to let her off everything," said Mrs. Black, and her voice was still strange.
"Eh?" said the Captain, puzzled. He looked away from the window and down at his wife, and he seemed then to have seen her face for the first time since she was young. Her thin mouth was working, the blood had come to her cheeks—not with the easy ebb and flow of youth, but in two painful patches. her faded eyes were filled with light.
"John," she said, "I have been making the most frightful mistakes all my life."
"Eh?" said John again.
His wife turned round, walked the room several times in agitated silence, and came back to his side again.
"ever since I—since we—since I have known you again," she said, "this has been working up in me. Every time I see you, hear you, I feel the wrong I have been doing." Her delicate white hand fluttered against his harsh serge coat; her eyes—wet, luminous—were gazing upon his sea-roughened visage with look of open worship, that slumbered there often, but seldom was boldly in evidence.
"B-b-but—I'm afraid I don't follow you, my dear," said the perplexed mariner.
"Oh!" said his wife, and suddenly all the prim control of years deserted her. "Look at me! Look at me, John! I saw myself this morning—crushed, grey, perfectly proper, colourless, lifeless. Look at my hair—and oh, my lips, such thin, prim lines! I am forty, John—forty—forty—though you never asked. I can never be young again! I never have been young!"
The Captain sought to soothe her. He told her the adverse fates had been too strong, but that all was well now. "There," he said, "there. Wouldn't you like a cup of tea? Yes, yes; I'll send Mary up with some nice, hot tea."
But this was not all that was so strongly agitating his wife; her words were running on again, failing, stopping, gathering strength once more.
"Don't you see? Can't you see where my fault is?" she said. "All these girls, these poor young girls, that pass through my care—— Why, I have been devoting years to pruning them, and restraining them, and moulding them to all one pattern. I write rules for this, and rules for that, as you say; they can hardly yawn without trespassing on some injunction. I have been thinking of the girls I have turned out—bunch after bunch of them, nearly all as alike as those wretched little native roses in that prim bunch there are like each other. I've clipped here, and I've trimmed here, and trimmed there. And oh! such pitiful things I have made, just like myself."
The Captain was distressed, completely at sea, and quite without the skill necessary to make a way amongst such waves. He suggested tea again, then sal volatile. How could she ever make him understand, bring him to know how all the stifled youth in her was crying out suddenly to repay her error with these girls of hers?
Next door to them had come to live a very modern young couple; the wife was a breezy, bright girl, who went long, joyous tramps with her boy husband, and laughed a hearty, ringing laugh, and rode any horse that she could beg or borrow in the district, and scorched down hills on her bicycle.
The bride of forty summers gave her the most intense admiration; here was a creature, she told herself, fresh from the making, and with all her individuality and glad nature left unspoiled. And here was herself, narrow, precise, correct, with every bit of nature carefully repressed, everything that might have individualised her religiously weeded out. No one would ever know how the Captain's unsoftened voice about the house, and the tramping of his great boots, worried her nerves—how unutterably sick his tobacco smoke made her. Nor yet would they know the fierce scorn she had for herself over these things—the protests she made that she enjoyed, really enjoyed, the smell of a pipe. That healthy young thing next door actually smoked cigarettes at times. The sight of Edna had fired the mine this afternoon. This strong-willed child, with her sturdy, honest young nature, her love of boys' games, her passionate rebellion against discipline—why, for two years now, she, the culpable head-mistress, had been striving by all means in her power to clip this young eagle's wings and turn her into a tame, meek, domestic fowl!
Thoughts of all the other rebellious girls she had had in her care from year to year crowded upon the distressed lady—what bright, original women they might have made, she said to herself, if she had only let them alone, instead of forcing them into machinery that turned out only one pattern! Then her thoughts went to her model girls who had left her care, laden with good conduct prizes, girls who talked correctly and walked correctly, whose very thoughts were correct. No admiration was in her mind for them to-day, nothing but a frank contempt.
And when her thoughts went seeking after them still further, and she remembered that this one who left her care ten years ago was still unmarried, and that one keeping a mild, little school, and half-a-dozen others were leading tame, colourless lives in different situations, she felt aghast.
"Can't you—oh! can't you see," she burst out again to her husband, "how frightfully wrong my system has been all these years? Edna, for instance—left to herself, or managed as Mr. Jessop would have managed her, she would be another bright, fresh woman like Mrs. Greville, next door. And here am I trying all I know to make her—like myself."
"Mrs. Greville!" said the Captain, who had his own old-fashioned ideas about women. "I don't like those loud, advanced young women myself. You won't go far wrong if you make the little beggar like yourself, my dear. But I'd let her off her lines sometimes, perhaps."
The patches on his wife's cheeks burned more deeply.
"No," she said almost vehemently. "No, no, it is all wrong—a woman when she is my age should either be a happy, busy wife and mother, or else a bright, happy woman of business, just as a single man would be. Not a repressed, half-trained, nervous, dependent woman like I am. If Mrs. Greville were not married, she would still be a strong, cheerful, clever woman—and she would have plenty of fun—I seem to have had no fun in all my life."
The Captain looked uneasy. "I didn't know you had views, my dear," he said. "What you are talking of is a mere matter of vitality; some have more than others, that is all."
"And that is the very thing I have been trying to crush out all these years, in every girl," returned his wife excitedly. "It seems to me now the most desirable thing in life, and the one thing to keep the world from becoming stagnant. All women ought to be like Mrs. Greville."
"Heaven forbid!" said the Captain. Only a few hours ago he had been nearly knocked down by that gay-hearted young woman off for her morning spin.
Mrs. Black rose energetically to her feet. "I am going out to tear up the sheet of rules in every room," she said.
The Captain laughed. "You'll let Pandemonium loose on us," he said. "Give the little beggars a bit more liberty, if you like, but preserve moderation."
But the schoolmistress, roused after all these lethargic years, could not be content with half measures. "From Monday," she said, "I shall conduct the school precisely on the lines of a boys' school—precisely as Mr. Jessop would have done. I am convinced he is quite right, and it will be the finest training in the world for girls."
She sat down at night and wrote notes to the parents of her pupils. She told them she was anxious to try a new system with the girls. She said she had come to the conclusion that a treatment more on the lines of that observed in boys' schools would have a beneficial effect on the moral character of the girls, who, she was grieved to observe, displayed much pettiness and narrowness and conceit.
The parents in every case said they were so entirely satisfied with Mrs. Black's training that they were quite content to leave her hands free to do as she pleased with their daughters.
Upon that the lady broke the pleasing news to her pupils.
"Hurrah!" shouted young Edna, when she at last grasped the astounding fact that she was required—actually required—to act like a boy. "Hurrah, hurrah!" and she flung the blackboard duster high in the air, no hat being available.
The head-mistress was coughing. She had actually begun to say, from sheer force of habit: "Bring me fifty lines for being unladylike, Edna Royd," and then had been obliged to cough the sentence aside.
"Sit down in your seat, Edna," was all she said; but the imp seized her rule and was up again in a second like a jack-in-the-box.
"Why—why," she almost shrieked, "boys play cricket! We'll have to get a bat and ball!"
"Certainly a bat and ball," said Mrs. Black; cricket had been almost the first thing to suggest itself to her.
"And football—every boy plays football," cried the girl.
Mrs. Black shrank back somewhat. "N-no, Edna; I—I think not quite football," she said.
"Oh, we ought to do it properly," Edna said. "There's a cricket season, you know, and a football season. We couldn't go back to croquet when the cricket was over."
Mrs. Black had known nothing of seasons, but the croquet-box she certainly had resolved to take away. A brilliant idea came to her.
"You could have kites," she said; "plenty of exercise would be afforded in running up the hills with them."
"And marbles," said a dull little girl, her eyes ashine.
Again Mrs. Black shrank a little. She had a mental vision of Inez and another stately girl down on their knees in the dust.
"I—I think not quite marbles, Minnie," she faltered.
The duster flew up in the air again.
"Why—why," cried the imp, "we can call each other Smith and Jones—all boys do!"
"Smith and Jones!" echoed the head-mistress.
"Pass the salt, Morley. Have you done your French, Flavelle? Lend me your cotton, Henderson," explained the imp succinctly.
Mrs. Black tried not to look disturbed. "Well, I might allow you to do that, perhaps," she said, "though I cannot see why you should like it better than saying Inez and Muriel," she said.
"We'll simply have to call each other nicknames," pursued Edna; "things like Fodgers, and Snooks, and Plumduff, and Treacle. My brother Alec is always called Treacle Royd."
"No more darning," said a lazy girl ecstatically.
"Nor sewing—boys never do," breathed another.
"Certainly you will not give up sewing," said Mrs. Black sharply. "What sort of women would you make?"
"But I thought we were going to be men," said Edna dolefully.
Mrs. Black saw that her experiment would have its difficulties, and resolved to find out Mr. Jessop's theories in this respect.
"Look here, girls," she said—and that of itself was a concession; a month ago she would have said "Attention, young ladies!"—"you must all use your good sense, and do everything in moderation. I told you I was going to let you act as if you were boys; I see I must modify that and say more as if you were boys. I want you all to become hardy and fearless and self-dependent—that is the chief thing. I shall no longer set Edna fifty lines if I see her up a tree or on a fence; after school, between four and six, if any girl wishes to walk to the shops to match crewel silks or anything, she may go without a governess or an older girl, as has hitherto been the rule. The deportment lessons and the conversation class, the formal letters home, and things of that character, will no longer have a place on the school curriculum, and during the hours formerly occupied by them you will be out of doors indulging in sports like——"
"Football," whispered Edna.
"Kites," said Mrs. Black, "or paper chases, or cricket. I will send for a bat immediately, and a ball—a soft tennis ball. I should not like any of you to get your hands hurt."
"A tennis ball. My eye!" said that uncouth imp; and, unversed as Mrs. Black was in boys' language, the scorn in the young person's voice made the meaning clear.
"Edna," she said sternly, "how dare you! Fifty—yes, I certainly must inflict fifty lines for that. Bring me fifty lines after school."
"Oh!" said Edna in anguish, "mayn't we even talk slang? That's really nothing, dear Mrs. Black; truly it isn't. You should just hear my brothers. Oh, surely, if we're going to be boys, we needn't always be mincing our words!"
"I am punishing you for your disrespect to me," said Mrs. Black, and entirely evaded the responsibility of answering the last question.
"Well, it must be a hard ball," pleaded the girl. "I'd as soon play rounders as cricket with an indiarubber ball." Mrs. Black was forced to say she would "see."
The school was as the Captain had foretold—a Pandemonium in a week.
Talking was no longer prohibited at table or in the dormitories, and bad marks were not inflicted for every little lapse from virtue, such as when Edna, in the middle of telling an exciting story about a dog that had chased her, pushed her chair back and, for realistic effect, rushed barking round the dinner-table; or when Muriel began to whistle for sheer joy when out one day; or when Edna electrified a party of starched old ladies by playing leap-frog on the road outside with the dull little girl. For the latter feat the imp had been summoned to the head-mistress.
"Dear Mrs. Black," said the wily little party, who knew how to get her own way, "it is only because people are not accustomed to seeing girls have fun yet. If those ladies had been passing the Grammar School and seen two boys doing it, they simply wouldn't have glanced at them twice," and Mrs. Black, grown quite thin and harassed-looking in this little time, felt compelled to send her away with only the mildest reproof.
Cricket was not a brilliant success yet. The Captain himself marked out the ground, put in the stumps, and established himself as umpire. But the paddock was a shadeless place, and summer's blinding heat lay on the land. It was in vain Midge pointed out the fact that up the hill the Grammar School paddock was alive with cricketers, and that they all wore only caps on their heads.
The elder girls were willing to play, in order to get out of lessons, but they infused no energy into their movements, and they wore their largest hats and gossamers. Inez scouted languidly, with a red sunshade held behind her delicate face.
The fun at the school went on, fast, free, and furious. Reports of the wild doings there spread about, and the people said marriage had turned the head-mistress's head! When she was Miss Mayne, it was impossible to find a more decorous, better conducted school. They blamed the Captain; these shocking innovations were his, they said; they would have found it impossible to believe the truth, that the old-fashioned Captain, who looked with horror on advanced women, was watching the proceedings almost with alarm, and that it was the staid head- mistress alone who sat astride on Mr. Jessop's unmanageable experiment, and clung there pertinaciously while it careered downhill with her.
The name of the first mate was on her tongue twenty times a day.
"Did Mr. Jessop consider girls should drill more than half an hour at a time? Had Mr. Jessop intended to ever have his daughter (when he had one) taught to sew? What new form of cricket for girls was it that Mr. Jessop had invented?"
"Oh, hang Jessop!" said the Captain, at last, in strong irritation. He found himself wishing heartily he had checked his first mate's theories and experiments, and made him give the whole of his time to seamanship.
Two or three of the elder girls about this time had asked to be removed from the school. Mrs. Black saw them go, quite unmoved. "It is too late for these elder ones," she said; "their bones are too set. It is to the younger ones I must direct all my care."
The Captain begged her continually to give up the riotous school and come away with the little orphans to some quiet spot until the building of the ship was accomplished. But no, the schoolmistress clung desperately to her wild steed.
"Upon my soul! upon my soul!" ejaculated the horrified Captain one afternoon when he was patrolling a little-used path in the garden, and rolling very slightly from side to side in the way that amused the girls.
Among the bushes at one side were two little figures in short frocks and school aprons. One was crying miserably, her face a strange greenish colour, her lips white. The other—Edna, of course—was also pallid about the cheeks and lips, but the look of high courage in her eyes still shone. She was puffing very, very laboriously at one of the Captain's own pipes, and the smell of his own strong tobacco came to his nostrils as he stood there.
She turned a little at the sound of the crunching of acacia leaves beneath the heavy footsteps, she smiled at the Captain in a faint, sickly fashion. Nowadays she found it seldom necessary to hide her misdeeds, and on this occasion she found it quite unnecessary, for no one could deny that every boy who was worth anything had, some time or other, made the trial of smoking. boy who was worth anything had, some time or other, made the trial of smoking.
"It’ll be all r-r-right when I once get it g-g-going," she explained, gasping and choking with the effort. "I got it alight once s-s-splendidly, but M-M-Minnie let it go out."
There was no light of admiration or amusement on the Captain's face, at which Edna felt distinctly surprised and aggrieved, for she could not even pretend to herself that she was enjoying the experiment; she had a vague sort of feeling that she was doing this for the good of the school and girl-kind in general. She felt quite injured at the look of horror and disgust upon the Captain's face.
"You abominable little sweep!" he said angrily, and snatched the ill-smelling pipe from her fresh little lips. "Go to Mrs. Black at once! You shall be well punished for this—I'll see to it myself."
Edna mingled her tears with Minnie's as she was hustled up through the garden.
"Y-y-you know q-quite well all b-b-boys learn to s-s-smoke, Mrs. Black," was her tearful reproach when brought before the head-mistress. "My b-brother T-Treacle did when he was only t-t-ten. I am turned twelve, and Minnie's thirteen; it was quite t-time we b-began."
"Even your brother wouldn't have touched a villainous pipe," said the still irascible Captain. "Boys have the sense to try on cigarettes."
Edna looked at him reproachfully through her sickly tears. "You never smoke them," she sobbed; "we had to take the pipe. Of course, we would rather have tried with nice, clean cigarettes."
"Upon my soul! upon my soul!" cried the Captain again, "she doesn't realise a bit what a detestable thing she has done, Helen. For Heaven's sake do something to her!"
Mrs. Black had been greatly agitated. "Yes, yes," she said. "This is too much, too much altogether. This is beyond everything, beyond everything. I shall punish you both by—by——" Her voice grew uncertain, her eyes sought the Captain's for help in such a difficulty; this was too great an offence to be dealt with by standing in the corner, sending to bed supperless, or such time-honoured punishments. She moved closer to her husband, her voice dropped to a whisper.
"What would Mr. Jessop have done in such a case, John?" she said.
"Trounced them!" said the Captain loudly, and, glaring at the culprit one ferocious minute, he strode from the room.
Mrs. Black only shrank slightly, which showed her how far she had been carried.
"No, no," she muttered to herself; "that is going too far, I'm afraid, quite too far."
She inflicted lines—live hundred of them. "Smoking is an abomination for girls," was the headline—the whole half-thousand had to be given up the next day.
"Your impositions, Edna and Minnie?" she said the following afternoon. Minnie handed up a stack of smudged slates to her, and Mrs. Black's quick pencil ticked off the number and found it correct.
"Yours, Edna?" she said coldly.
"I haven't finished," said Edna. "Mine took twice as long to do as Minnie's."
Mrs. Black looked at the slate. "Smoking is an abomination for silly girls, but all nice, jolly boys do it," the imp had written, unsparing of trouble.
"Edna, Edna!" said the headmistress, "what shall I do with you? There is no punishment left."
"Trounce me," said Edna cheerfully. "Go on, Mrs. Black. Treacle always gets trounced. It'll be a lot better for me than giving me billions of lines. It does you a lot more good to get a hiding, and have done with it, than always be writing and writing at stupid old lines."
Mrs. Black could not help feeling that this was a sentiment that would have won the approval of Jessop himself. And had not even her husband said: "Trounced them," as if he thoroughly endorsed the opinion? Boys flourished under a moderate amount of corporal punishment; she, herself, had seen "Treacle"—and a more manly, fearless, frank little fellow she had never met.
"I do not allow you to choose your own punishments, Edna," she said coldly. "You will write the imposition just as I set it five hundred times, and add to it: 'I must not be impertinent,' five hundred times. You will bring me both impositions next Thursday. Of course, you must stay in both half-holidays and write them."
Edna groaned over her waste labour. "I have one other thing to say," continued Mrs. Black: "lines seem to make no impression upon you, so I am going to try with you what corporal punishment, such as a boy receives, will do. The next time I have a complaint about you, I shall administer such punishment myself, and I have no doubt you will regret having made the suggestion."
But Edna thought of those nervous white hands and smiled to herself.
"What fun it will be!" she thought to herself, and cudgelled her bold little brains for an act that would bring down upon her such a punishment. It would be delightful to boast to "Treacle," whom she saw every week, that she had had a "trouncing," for he was very contemptuous of the so-called punishment at girls' schools.
The Captain came in a few days later looking positively upset.
"This is growing frightful!" he said. "I have had quite a shock, quite a shock."
Mrs. Black's anxious eyes went past him to where, with uplifted head, Edna stood, and near at hand the dull little girl, who was weeping bitterly.
"I have just brought them in," he said,
"I found them down the road, near the post-office; they were—fighting!"
Mrs. Black sat down suddenly in her chair: the shock was too much, even for her.
"Fighting?" she repeated faintly.
Edna rushed to her knee, her brazen little face red with agitation and sundry scratches.
"What was the use of telling us we could be boys," she demanded fiercely, "if he is going to stop us every time? I didn't do anything—anything a boy wouldn't. She"—and the little termagant indicated the sobbing Minnie—"she called me a cat. Well, I wasn't going to be a regular girl any longer, and say: 'Cat yourself!' I—I"—and the breast of this small champion of her sex heaved, and her eyes glowed—"I hit her on the nose."
"There—right at the post-office," said Mrs. Black, "with people everywhere?"
"Of course," said the defaulting maiden. "Wouldn't Treacle have hit anyone straight away? He wouldn't have waited till he got back to school. The people didn't matter; they'll have to get used to things like that. But he"—and she looked reproachfully at the indignant Captain—"he came and stopped us before we could start."
A strange excitement possessed the gentle and infatuated schoolmistress.
"And what did Minnie do?" she asked in a peculiar voice.
Edna's lip curled in extremest scorn. "She tried to scratch me," she said.
Mrs. Black sent the dull little girl to the schoolroom, and Edna to bed till the morrow, when she would deal with her.
"I hope you're convinced at last about your ridiculous experiment," the Captain said. "I was only just in time to stop what would have been a most disgraceful spectacle. Fortunately no one seemed to have noticed the row. Of course, you will expel the little ruffian at once."
The schoolmistress was sitting motionless in her chair, intensely thoughtful.
"Give me till to-morrow," she said. "I must think quietly what I must do." Her face looked grey, deeply sorrowful; it was being forced upon her that her cherished experiment was failing. And yet, and yet——
"There isn’t another course open to you," the Captain said. "Be a sensible woman; send the girl home quietly to-morrow, or else do as I have so long asked you—give up the school entirely."
"No," she said quickly, "not that—not that; we must think of Janet and little Marie." Then she sighed profoundly to think it was not to he hers to make another Mrs. Greville of naughty Edna.
The room was darkening with the swiftly falling pall of Australian night. A deep grey shadow loomed sufficiently heavily between her husband and herself.
"Of course," she said—"of course, John, I quite recognise that it was very wrong and very unmaidenly, and all that, of the child; but—but——" her voice sank to a timid questioning hesitancy that hardly dared to find its wav across the shadowy room—"don't you think Mr. Jessop would have—rather commended the action?"
That very same evening there came about events that closed for ever the career of that young ladies' seminary.
When the Captain perceived the nervous agitation under which his wife was labouring, for once he did not suggest tea. He insisted upon carrying her right away from the school premises for a couple of hours, and trusted to a quiet trip upon the silent, shadowy river to restore her to a normal vision of things.
But when they came back, they could not get into the house—their own quiet, respectable house. There were lights everywhere, girls' voices everywhere; giggles and little terrified "Ohs!" and "Ahs!" came through the chinks of the doors and windows. It was fully five minutes before they recognised what had happened, and what was the reason the door did not open and Hannah's form appear upon the loud ringing of the master of the house.
There was a lock-out, that was the matter. Right at the bottom of it was "Treacle"; and yet he could hardly be held responsible. He had, perhaps, had a larger miscellany of boys' literature in his school trunk than most boys have. Presently it came about that he began to lend his young sister the paper-covered volumes—"Tom Flooremall's School Days," "The Barchester Boys," and similar choice works. And they had proved too much for that small, unbalanced mind. The rebels were all glorious heroes to her—martyrs at the hands of their teachers; her blood beat high at the account of their daring tricks, which generally culminated in setting all authorities at complete defiance.
And this night, while she was in durance in her bedroom, she read the thrilling narrative telling how Tom and his fellows barricaded up the college doors and windows, and boldly withstood the siege of the wrathful masters outside, who finally capitulated, and agreed humbly to every condition imposed by the schoolboy.
Edna's eyes grew more and more brilliant as she read; the idea came flashing that she should emulate these heroic spirits—to- morrow there was the Deluge, at any rate; just as well be drowned for two great deeds as one.
She communicated her ideas in whispers to the dormitory when at bedtime it slowly filled. The girls here were all young, and more of them followed her lead blindly; they listened with the fascination of horror to her wild scheme.
"But there's Hannah in the house, and old John, and Miss Hargraves," said one; "and I'm certain Nellie Green and Florrie Edwards and Inez Flavelle wouldn't join."
"So much the worse for them," said the small rebel darkly. "When we are mistresses of the position, we will remember it and show them no mercy. But, for the present, we must render them ineffectual. Leave all to me." Just so had Tom spoken.
"But Hannah," repeated the girl, "and the others—why, they'll simply rush down and open the door when the bell rings."
"Oh, no, they won't," said Edna, "not when my plans are completed."
On investigation, however, it proved that even her schemes were not very brilliant, and, somewhat to the thrilled Minnie's disappointment, did not include the gagging and binding of the three grown-ups in the house, but merely the locking up of them.
When all plans were ripe, Edna rushed down to the kitchen, where Miss Hargraves was giving the breakfast orders to old John and Hannah.
"There's something burning in the bedroom—if you're very quick, you can put it out," she gasped.
They hurried up, pell-mell, Miss Hargraves with the hastily caught up ironing-blanket in her hand.
"What, Miss Edna?" said old Hannah breathlessly—she was standing just in the doorway, while John and Miss Hargraves were inside. Edna gave her one firm push, and the next minute slammed and locked the door.
"The gas," she cried gaily as she ran away.
"Three at a stroke," she chuckled to her marvelling mates. "I'm really a bit of a genius, aren't I? Considering there's only a skylight, they can't very well get out." It was quite a simple matter to take the key of the elder girls' room and lock it on the outside.
They finished their night toilets and went to bed, entirely ignorant of the fact that they could not get out if they wanted to.
Next Edna and her trembling followers locked the doors, front and back, inside, then all windows. For the appearance of the thing, and to emulate Tom Flooremall, Edna insisted upon piling up chairs at every doorway, and even dragging the hall-stand out, as a barricade.
They were in complete possession of the house, Edna with her brilliant, excited eyes, and half-a-dozen little girls terrified to death at the doings, yet following desperately. At the Captain's first ring, Minnie's fortress broke up.
"Oh, I t-t-think we'd better open the d-d-d-door!" she said with chattering teeth.
"Oh, yes, l-l-l-let us!" said the others. Edna strove frantically to rally their courage—she heaped contumely on their cowardice, she begged and besought them not to give in, she incited them with promises of impossible rewards. The Captain and Mrs. Black, out on the doorstep, hearing such extravagantly seditious speeches, felt they must be dreaming.
For five minutes the garrison held out, which was four and three-quarter minutes longer than it would have done had not its excited little captain made such frightful threats.
From the top storey came the sound of old John battering on the bathroom door; from the next floor the shouts and hammerings of the elder girls, who had just found themselves in a trap.
In the hall, Edna rampaged, beside herself with excitement, now holding this girl from opening the door, now struggling with that.
"Minnie!" said Mrs. Black's sternest voice from the other side of the door, "turn the key this instant!"
"Edna is t-t-twist—oh! t-twisting my hands!" sobbed Minnie.
"Florence and Elsie! " called Mrs. Black, "can you hear me? Take hold of Edna between you, and let Minnie open the door."
The shivering girls flew to obey: there was the sound of a scuffle, then the key was turned.
The Captain swept the light drawing-room chairs aside and entered, and the blockade was over.
But Mrs. Black's courage for Mr. Jessop's experiment never rose again. She was quite passive; when her husband next day sent all the girls to pack their boxes, and set Miss Hargraves to write notes to all the parents, she offered no resistance.
Edna wept bitterly at going; she promised anything, anything, if only she need not leave. "I'll stop being a boy, I'll be the properest, quietest girl in the world if you'll only keep me," she said with streaming eyes. "Oh, do forgive me—do, do forgive me!"
Mrs. Black was not in the least unkind, and forgave the sobbing child quite readily.
"It was not your fault, dear," she said, and Edna went away, wondering if the affair had turned the head-mistress's brain.
In two days Janet and little Marie were the only girls left. They were in high spirits when they learned that their home for the future would be on the sea, for the Captain's ship, finished at last, made this possible.
There was only one question the timid schoolmistress put while these changes were happening.
"Who will be your first mate?" she said.
And the Captain answered with much grimness: "Certainly not Jessop."