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SECOND NATURE.

By Ethel Turner.

Illustrated by Frances Ewan.

 

"CLASS II. A," read out the sonorous voice of the clergyman who was presiding over the breaking-up of the school—"Prize for mathematics, Ellen Naylor."

A girl from the middle of the back form stood up with a jerky motion, crushed herself as flat as possible to make her way in front of the knees of the seat, and advanced to the book-laden table with the quick, ungraceful progress of the self-conscious school-girl all the world over.

"English prize, Alice Edwards."

A rather fat girl in stiff white muslin giggled as she worked her way out of her place. Then she came down with her face very red and one shoulder stuck higher than the other out of pure nervousness. When the girls clapped she giggled again and tumbled back to her seat, leaving the handsome book in the hands of a favourite friend a few seats away.

"Prize for Latin, Una Gilbert."

A thin, sallow little girl stepped down this time; her forehead was good, her eyes intellectual, but a doctor would have wanted to take her books away and make her run wild in the country. A very observant visitor might have noticed a faintly cynical smile on her young lips whenever the speechifying grew tiresome, or when a would-be humorous speaker attempted a pun.

She had been over the Alps with Hannibal and through all manner of battles with Cæsar, but she was so nervous when she went to take her prize from the hands of the harmless clergyman that she actually forgot to say "Thank you," and merely scurried back to her seat like a little frightened rabbit.

A visitor at the end of the row of chairs yawned slightly, and so contagious was the act that nearly all the kid-gloved hands in the room began to fumble at veils or feign to rub irritable upper lips. Such a close, sultry morning it was, and such an interminable prize and certificate list to be gone through. To those not interested in the achievements of any particular girl the proceedings seemed to resolve themselves into an endless repetition of girls in white muslin struggling out of their seats, plunging down to the prize table with their chins stuck out, mumbling their thanks with red faces, and plunging back amid the tireless applause of their fellows. Occasionally a girl bore herself gracefully, bowed with the self-possession of a woman, and went back well pleased with herself. Occasionally a particularly pretty face excited the admiration of the visitors. But twelve to seventeen is a girl's awkward, unbeautiful age, in eight causes out of every ten, and there being no one so entirely conscious of it as the girl herself, for the most part the ceremony was marked by a lack of grace that obtruded itself painfully.

The end of the regular list was reached at last, and a faint sigh of relief went up from the visitors. There were only three "extra special" prizes to be awarded, then the proceedings would be at an end. A slight ripple of interest ran over the assembled girls; the former results had been known to them for two or three days, but with these three, though many conjectures had been made, no one knew precisely to whom they would fall.

The prize for "public spirit" was awarded to a bright, sweet-faced girl amid a storm of clapping that clearly proclaimed a favourite.

The swimming prize, a particularly desirable tennis racquet, was carried off by a brown-cheeked elf who, besides out-distancing her compeers at the baths, had managed to write the best paper on "Methods of Life-saving." Last of all came the award of the prize which a distinguished visitor had offered at the beginning of the year, for the pupil displaying the best knowledge of history.

Class I. A, the principal said, had been left behind in this subject by II. A, in which two girls had worked exceedingly hard for the prize all the year. And now a great difficulty presented itself. In the three examinations which had been held, both girls had obtained full marks, and when the year marks had been added up it was found that they had precisely the same number, three hundred and forty-six each. What was to be done?

"Will Una Gilbert and Chrissie Young kindly stand up in their places?" said the clergyman. Una Gilbert stood up in the far-away back seat of Class II. A, and in the second front one Chrissie Young, a brown-eyed, calm-faced slip of a girl, rose to her feet.

The clergyman looked at them in perturbation. "I really don't know what to do," he said. "It would be a pity to divide the books, would it not, for the set would be broken for both of you; and it seems no use to set you written examinations, does it?"

Then the distinguished visitor spoke, and he was so very distinguished that everyone listened with deference to his suggestion.

"Let the girls be asked a few dates at the present moment," he said. "Dates are an excellent test of memory, requiring a promptness and power of concentration which a written examination, with ample time for thinking, does not call forth."

The principal said she considered the suggestion a most happy one, and thanked him for showing them so simple a way out of the difficulty.

The clergyman also agreed that the plan seemed good. "That is," he added, with his kindly smile, "if the little girls themselves are willing to allow the question to be decided in this way. I think, since they have worked so hard, they should be consulted."

"Oh, certainly," said the distinguished visitor; "ask them, by all means."

The principal's eyes went to the near front seat.

"Chrissie," she said, "Mr. Williams wishes to know if you are willing to let this be the test for the prize?"

Away in the back seat Una breathed hard. Oh, surely, surely Chrissie would not be so cruelly unkind as to say, Yes, when she knew of the terrible nervous fits an occasion like this produced in her! Chrissie knew she would be utterly unable to collect her thoughts, would be flurried, trembling, shivering; surely, surely she would say they must find some other way to decide.

But the calm-eyed girl was speaking.

"Yes, Miss Mackenzie," she said, "I am quite willing."

Then all eyes went to the back form, as the same question was put.

And what could little Unie do? The distinguished visitor had found this way, the Principal had applauded it, the clergyman had ratified it, the visitors were anxious for the whole ceremony to be over. How dare she lift up her trembling voice and say boldly, No, she would not agree to it, some other way must be tried, she refused to abide by a decision formed in this manner?

"Are you willing, Unie?" Miss Mackenzie said.

Red and pale ran to and fro on Una's cheeks.

"Yes," she said despairingly.

Then the distinguished visitor braced himself up; he said he would put the questions himself.

A breathless silence fell upon the room; to Una there seemed no sound in all the world but the fierce throbbing of her heart, and her knees and hands were trembling so the girl next to her had great tears in her eyes from sympathy.

"We will begin with you, little girl in the back seat," the distinguished visitor said. "Can you tell me the date of the South Sea Bubble?"

The bonnets and the tall hats of the visitors swam before the eyes of the little girl in the back seat. The maps on the wall were an indistinct blur of colour, the principal's desk seemed swaying about.

But the visitors noticed nothing but that her face was rather red and her eyes anxious.

"Come," said the Questioner encouragingly, "I am sure such a clever little girl can tell me that. The South Sea Bubble—when the National Debt was so enormous in England— come, what was the date?"

"1620," said the little girl faintly, after a long silence.

The distinguished visitor sent his eyebrows up in an astonished way. Then his eyes fell to Chrissie. "Can you tell me, my dear?" he said.

Not one moment had Chrissie to hesitate.

"1720," she said in her clear, quiet voice.

"Try again, little girl in the back form," said the visitor. "Here is something easier—something you cannot have forgotten. What was the date of the Great Plague of London?"

Una clenched her hands tightly round the rim of the desk; a page of the history book danced before her eyes—she saw the little picture there of the cart going round for the dead—just underneath it, in black letters, was the date.

"1555," she muttered, and her throat was so dry she had to repeat it to be heard.

"Is that your opinion?" he said, turning to Chrissie.

"1666," said Chrissie mechanically.

"One more," said the visitor. "I find it hard to believe that a girl who has done so well all the year should be ignorant of such common dates. When was the Battle of Waterloo, my child?"

Una bit her lip in desperation; her eyes were on his face, but she could think of nothing but the way his hair was parted in the middle.

"Answer, my dear," said the principal.

"1415," said Una; "I mean 1615—no, 1518."

"1815," amended Chrissie.

Then the ordeal was over. The distinguished visitor said he was afraid Una's knowledge had been lacking in foundation, although she had managed to keep equal with the other girl hitherto.

"See to your groundwork, little girl," was his advice, delivered generally to the back form, for Una had sat down, and a tall, kindly girl in front was sitting very straight to hide her. "You mustn't build a house and think of the decoration only."

Chrissie had gone forward to receive her beautiful prize—a set of all Scott's novels bound in dark green morocco. The room shook with the applause—even the visitors clapped this time.

Then there was a farewell speech, and everyone began to go. The lines of girls broke up; some went to join their parents and friends, some gathered in knots round the prize-winners and discussed the events of the day.

But Una slipped away from her would-be sympathisers and hid herself in the cloak-room. Her little face looked sallower than ever, and a queer whiteness had crept beneath the skin; her lips seemed thinner, they had lost any curve they had had, and had taken two straight, hard lines.

Not for one moment did she give Chrissie the benefit of the doubt that the advantage she had taken had been a thoughtless rather than an intentional one; not the least effort did she make to fling aside her bitterness and try to be glad in her friend's success. She had been so busy all her school-time years cultivating that brain of hers that her poor little soul had been left to grow stunted and twisted in neglect.

Girls look for more chivalry from their fellows towards themselves than boys, but act towards others with less. Among boys the defeated candidate would have readily acknowledged that it was perfectly fair for his rival to choose the most favourable method for himself. Una could not see this, though, had the positions been reversed, she would have laughed at the idea of foregoing the advantage.

"Mean!" she muttered; "wicked—how could she? She knew. She remembered—I could tell she remembered. Mean, mean, mean of her!"

Upstairs, Chrissie with downcast eyes had received her congratulations. The splendid case of books stood on a desk; she would have to take a cab to carry away the beautiful thing. Green and gold it was, royally embellished—"Ivanhoe," "The Bride of Lammermoor," "Kenilworth," "Waverley"—they were all there; she had been able to read the titles from her seat before the award was decided.

But, since the moment she had carried the case to her desk, not once had she glanced at it voluntarily, not once had she fingered the longed-for books, not once had her heart leapt with joy that she was the owner.

She had watched Una creep out of the room—white-faced, hard-eyed—and bitterest shame was working at her heart. They had been friends, she and Una, friends as close as such diverse natures would permit.

There had always been emulation between them, and, except in history, Una always managed to obtain a higher place than she. Lately a faint jealousy had stirred within her. Una, besides being hard-working, was distinctly clever; she herself—she recognised it sadly—was merely hard-working. The handicap preyed on her at times.

To keep up with her little friend in history she had been obliged to work so hard she had become quite ill; she denied herself all Saturday pleasures as the time of the examination drew near, she rose early, she went to bed at the weariest hours. And, with all her struggles, she only just managed to be equal to Una—surpass her she could not.

She was waiting anxiously in her front seat to know how the prize would be awarded, when the distinguished visitor's suggestion was made.

For one minute her heart sank. Una was almost perfect in her dates; they frequently heard each other their lessons for the day, and she could never remember Una failing in a date question. Then some swift voice whispered to her heart of her friend's exceeding nervousness, of the strange havoc it wrought with her.

She struggled bravely against it; she called to mind the scared expression of the girl's face when she had to undergo, a few minutes since, the ordeal of receiving the Latin prize. She knew she would hardly be recovered yet, and would be quite incapacitated for answering.

For a moment a gush of loving tenderness came over her, as she thought of the small, trembling girl who had just made her way back to her seat. Oh, of course she could not take so unkind an advantage; she herself, quite untroubled by nervousness, would stand up and ask the distinguished visitor if the decision might be deferred till they could write the answers to the questions in some quiet room.

The principal was putting her question—"Are you willing, Chrissie, for this to be the test?"

Again the swift voice whispered. "This is your only chance," it said. "Why shouldn't you take it? She will be certain to win, otherwise; she is clever, you are not—you are entitled to some advantage."

Just one second she hesitated, while she listened to the tempting voice, and in that second she was vanquished.

"Yes, Miss Mackenzie," she said, the colour fallen from her cheeks, "I am quite willing."

Her heart throbbed fiercely as she listened for Una's voice. The South Sea Bubble?—oh, certainly, Una would remember that, however nervous she was; it had been one of the questions in the written examination.

Through the room's silence came the faint voice. "Sixteen hundred and twenty."

Chrissie was pale, but outwardly quite calm. "Seventeen hundred and twenty," she said, and hated the sound of her own voice.

"The Plague of London?"

If Una failed in that, she decided—her better angel in the ascendency—she would fail, too.

"Fifteen hundred and fifty-five," said the voice, with a dry sound in it.

"Sixteen hundred and sixty-six," said Chrissie, so mechanically she hardly knew she had spoken.

"The Battle of Waterloo?"

The child's voice was sharp this time. The pitiful anxiety in the hurriedly altered figures made Chrissie feel sick with shame at herself. Yet, when the question fell to her, the control of her tongue seemed gone, for it refused to answer anything but the correct date.

"Poor little Una!" said a young teacher who had been admiring the books. "I expect she is breaking her heart somewhere. I can't help being sorry for her, though I am so glad that Chrissie has won."

Chrissie, standing irresolute near, overheard the remark and was more miserable than ever. She pictured Una lying on her bed at home crying her heart out. A sudden resolution came to her; she would follow Una home and beg her to let them divide the books.

She broke away from her friends and hurried off to the cloak-room for her hat; and up in a corner there, half hidden by a bulky macintosh, she espied the well-known grey of Una's frock. The sight made her heart glad. She sprang forward to her, her soft eyes shining.

"Oh, Una," she said, "dear little Una—oh, I am so sorry! I can't feel a bit glad about winning. I just feel horrid. Let us divide the books, Unie, darling."

But Una regarded her stonily.

"No, thank you," she said. "You won them meanly, and you can keep them."

Chrissie's young face flamed.

"Wh-what do you mean?" she faltered.

Una merely curled her thin lips and looked away.

Chrissie refused, however, to be repulsed. She slipped an impulsive arm round her friend's neck.

"Let it be as it was before the questions, Unie," she entreated. "We were equal then; let us go halves now in the prize."

But Una's anger burst forth and she flung aside the affectionate arm.

"Take half as a gift from you, when I could have won all if I had been given a fair chance?" she cried. "I'd rather die. Go, and take your books home and enjoy them—cheat, cheat, cheat! I'll never forgive you for this, never, never! I'll pay you out for it as sure as I'm alive—cheat, coward—I—you—I——"

She broke down, fairy stuttering with anger, seized her hat, and rushed out of the school, her classical prize and everything else forgotten.

Only five days holiday intervened, for it was merely the Michaelmas term that was following the ceremonial prize-giving.

Una came back, pale, hard-eyed, quiet. There was only one thought in her mind, and that was to have her revenge upon Chrissie. All the week she had brooded over her injury; she smarted all over with wounded pride every time she thought of the ridiculous figure she had made on the prize day before all the school and that assembly of visitors. That she, Una, whose brain-power every one of the teachers respected, and the younger girls stood in awe of, should have seemed to all of them ignorant of those babyish questions!

She fairly burned to retaliate, to find a way by which Chrissie might be covered with equal ridicule, and be made to suffer the bitterness she had done these five weary days.

But she would not have it that Chrissie should suspect who had worked the harm, and with this thought she regretted her outbreak in the cloak-room, and her threat to "pay her out." How to avert suspicion?

One of the dark crannies of her ill-developed little nature found a way. She would meet Chrissie as if nothing had happened; she would do more—do her a series of good turns while she waited for her chance to do the bad one; by this means her friend would be quite thrown off her guard.

Chrissie hung her hat up the first day of the new term, and gave a half-injured, half-sorrowful glance at her one-time friend. During those five days since Una had rebuffed her she had managed to palliate her own conduct—to herself. She had, indeed, almost persuaded herself that at the moment the question was asked she had forgotten her friend's nervous attacks. Una was a jealous, grasping little thing, she said to herself; she would find a new friend this quarter, and not care a bit for the quarrel.

Then Una came in and took off her hat and cloak.

"Done your Cæsar?" she asked in her ordinary tone.

Chrissie went pink with surprise; she had been certain Una would never speak to her again.

"Yes," she said nervously—"at least, I mean, No. Have you?"

Una nodded. "Mr. Giles is going to take us this quarter, and he's awfully strict," she said. "You'll get in a row, Chrissie."

Chrissie had nearly always left that hateful translation. Do it by herself she could not; but in the old, happy days before, Una had generally gone over it with her in the spare quarter of an hour before school.

"Yes," Chrissie returned despondently. "I expect I'll be kept in. And it is tennis afternoon."

"Where's your book? let's do it now!" Una said in the most matter-of-fact way.

Chrissie sat down by her little friend's side with cheeks burning with the shame that again had sprung up in her heart. They went through the chapter together, Una just as painstaking and patient as she used to be. "Quod ubi Cæsar resciit, quorum per fines ierant, his, uti conquirerent et reducerent, si aibi purgati esse vellent, imperavit," and so on. Unaided, Chrissie was powerless to disentangle such a piece, and allot to each verb its correct substantive or pronoun; but when Una's magic pencil ran over the page, putting faint figures above the words in the order in which they were to follow, then all difficulties disappeared, and Chrissie was able to scrape through the ordeal of construing in class.

"And don't forget," said the advising voice, as the ringing of the bell brought the task to an end, "that 'juris libertatisque' are genitive after 'conditionem.'"

"I won't forget," Chrissie said in a low tone.

She had to linger behind Una a second to get a chance to brush away the tears that were trembling on her long lashes.

One other good turn Una did her that day. Once she got stuck hard and fast for a word in her repetition of "Henry the Fifth."

 

Canst thou, when thou command'st the beggar's knee,
Command the health of it? No, thou proud dream,
That play'd so subtly with a king's repose:
I am a king, that find thee; and I know
'Tis not the—the—the——

 

Chrissie gazed at the ceiling, the floor, the maps of Asia and Africa, but no word sprang there to help her. She would miss her mark if she could not think of it, for she had already been helped once.

 

'Tis not the—the——

 

Her heart sank; she had learned it so well the night before, resolved to lose no chance of marks this quarter, and now this one word eluded her.

"Can you go on?" said the governess, with impatient ruler ready to point to next-door Una to continue.

Una rubbed her chin with careless hand. "Balm," whispered her lips, hidden for the instant by her fingers, and Chrissie was started safely once more.

The next day, and the next, and the next, no chance of a big revenge came by; instead, any number of opportunities for little kindly actions cropped up, and Una took them all. Chrissie had an imposition of a hundred lines, and it was swimming afternoon; Una seized a slate and did fifty of them for her, thereby releasing her in time. Chrissie had put up her name for election as secretary of the tennis club; another girl had the same number of votes, and Una's happened to be the casting one. Chrissie was elected.

On the fourth morning the principal stood up in her place to make a strange announcement. The girls remembered the case of Scott's novels, she said, which had been offered for a history prize; how the decision had lain between Christina Young and Una Gilbert, and of the test of dates that had been made. This morning, however, the distinguished visitor had sent word to say he wished to recall the decision then arrived at; that, on consideration, he had come to the conclusion that it was not fair to allow the award to be finally made by so slight a test as that one they had had. He sent an examination paper that he had drawn up himself, and he wished the principal to let the two competitors have plenty of time to do it in and a quiet room in which to work.

Una's eyes grew rounder and rounder at the amazing announcement; she could hardly credit what she heard.

Chrissie's face was suffused with guilty pink. "She's red with rage," said Una to herself. Her wildest thoughts never dreamed of the truth—that Chrissie, utterly undone by the seeming coals of fire, had gone to the principal, told her with sobs all the story, and implored her to write to the distinguished visitor and ask him to have the award reconsidered. "Only don't let Unie guess, please, Miss Mackenzie," she had said; "if she thought I had done it, she would never consent to having the test again."

The principal, interested in the little psychological study thus opened before her, arranged the matter speedily, and eleven o'clock found the two girls once more pitted against each other, and sitting, pen in hand and paper before them, in a retired study.

There was quiet exultation in Una's heart as she read the questions; everything was easy as child's play to her—there was not one thing on all the list that she could not answer and answer fully.

And Chrissie, she knew, was in difficulties. She could tell it by the queer, worried wrinkle on the fair forehead, by the anxiety in the brown eyes, by the way the girl fidgeted in her seat and bit her pen-handle and stirred the ink about. Chrissie had always been rather fogged over the American War of Independence, and the causes that led to the Triple Alliance; here were two of the chief questions relating to these events.

Una smiled exultantantly. Here was her revenge at last come to her hand. Now it was a fair question, fairly treated between them, everyone should see whose was the better head. Such a brilliant, perfect paper she would do, she would win back the respect of everybody and make the distinguished visitor eat his own words.

She wrote at a furious rate, answered two questions, started a third. Her hand was cramped a little, and while she rested it she looked at Chrissie. She tried to imagine how she would look when she had to bring the books back and hand them over to her rival.

Would she cry? Una wondered. Very probably; she cried rather easily. She had had tears brimming in her eyes half a dozen times since they had come back to school this quarter; at the election of the secretary, when the casting vote had borne her name; when she was helped with her Cæsar, her imposition; when her English marks were just saved to her. Well, no wonder if she cried this time; it had been hard enough to lose the books at first, it would be much harder to have to give them up after owning them for nine days.

She worked more slowly, more deliberately, over the third question. A genealogical tree, it was, connecting the Stuarts and the House of Brunswick. How well she knew it, even to the least important ramifications! But—she glanced at the opposite desk, and a queer little pink colour ran up into her cheeks. What if she let her pen write that Elizabeth, who married Frederick, Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia, had for issue James the Pretender? She knew, of course, beyond all doubting, that James was brother to Mary and Anne, and all were children of James II. But, still—what if she let her pen make that little slip?

The nib spluttered for a second over the strange error, then seemed to grasp the point at stake and rushed on smoothly, eagerly. It made the astounding statement that the Battle of the Boyne was a Highland war, and that Marlborough was the victor. It stated, in its roundest, fairest characters, that the Riot Act was passed in 1812, and it gave a new splutter of humour when it said the Act was read for the first time at the Wat Tyler Riot.

At last the gong sounded and they handed up their papers. Chrissie, recognising she had done her utmost to repair her fault, had put forth all her powers to do a paper that would enable her to fairly keep her prize.

But she came out, the tears a-tremble in her eyes. "I couldn't remember all the American Wars," she said. "And it was England, Holland, and Spain in the Triple Alliance, wasn't it? not Germany? I suppose your paper was perfect; you know those parts so well."

"Oh," said Una, with exaggerated carelessness, while her heart laughed, "I may have made a few mistakes—no one can be sure."

But on reaching home Chrissie dropped a tear on the green and gold case. "Good-bye," she said, "you're Una's now, you're going away to-morrow, little books." "Waverley" and "The Pirate" had a blister each from her tears.

Next day the principal stood up again in her desk, at the close of school, to claim undivided attention. The written examination had only confirmed the decision arrived at on prize day, she said. Chrissie's paper was by far the better one, and the prize had been honestly earned. She congratulated Chrissie on the result.

"But I want you, Una, to come to my room," she said, "and rectify the errors you have made."

Una went reluctantly. She cast her eyes down when the principal looked searchingly into her little sallow face. "You made some very bad blunders, my child," she said. "I want to find out what is the matter with this little brain of yours; those answers were not like you."

Una lifted her eyes swiftly. Her mouth looked defiant. "The questions were so hard," she muttered.

"Oh, no, they were not," said Miss Mackenzie quietly; "at all events, not to you, Una." Then she drew the girl towards er suddenly and kissed her.

"You dear little child!" she said.

Una's scarlet face of astonishment and consternation made her smile a little; she still kept her arm round the thin waist.

"Sometimes," she said, "I see other things in my pupils, Una, besides an aptitude for French or Euclid. I had one little girl among them whose brain was all I could wish, but from various things I often used to wonder what kind of dark, strange little place her heart was. It has made me happy—and humble—to find I was wrong, and that real nobility is a flower growing there." The kindly principal's reading was of the early Victorian order.

Una looked at her strangely—yearningly. "I," she said, "you—it—it—doesn't, Miss Mackenzie."

Miss Mackenzie smiled tenderly. It was only two afternoons ago since Chrissie had stood in the circle of her arm and sobbed over her wrongdoing, and now this strange little sallow thing was equally insistent that she had done nothing right.

"I—I—you—you are quite wrong, Miss M—Mackenzie," she stammered, a sudden desire to be perfectly honest upon her. "I—I didn't do anything for Chrissie because I—I wanted to. I meant to do something mean to her, only I—I didn't want her to guess. So—so I started to—to do rather nice things—and then, someway, I kept on, and kept on, and kept on. I never got a chance to do anything very horrid—till—till—and then, someway, when a chance came——"

But how could she explain that it was simply force of habit, when she did not understand her own motives?


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1958, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.