Dorothy had wronged her father in supposing that he was willing to let her starve to death in the street. He had, as a matter of fact, made efforts to get in touch with her, though in a roundabout and not very helpful way.
His first emotion on learning of Dorothy’s disappearance had been rage pure and simple. At about eight in the morning, when he was beginning to wonder what had become of his shaving water, Ellen had come into his bedroom and announced in a vaguely panic-stricken tone:
‘Please, Sir, Miss Dorothy ain’t in the house, Sir. I can’t find her nowhere!’
‘What?’ said the Rector.
‘She ain’t in the house, Sir! And her bed don’t look as if it hadn’t been slept in, neither. It’s my belief as she’s GORN, Sir!’
‘Gone!’ exclaimed the Rector, partly sitting up in bed. ‘What do you mean — GONE?’
‘Well, Sir, I believe she’s run away from ‘ome, Sir!’
‘Run away from home! At THIS hour of the morning? And what about my breakfast, pray?’
By the time the Rector got downstairs — unshaven, no hot water having appeared — Ellen had gone down into the town to make fruitless inquiries for Dorothy. An hour passed, and she did not return. Whereupon there occurred a frightful, unprecedented thing — a thing never to be forgotten this side of the grave; the Rector was obliged to prepare his own breakfast — yes, actually to mess about with a vulgar black kettle and rashers of Danish bacon — with his own sacerdotal hands.
After that, of course, his heart was hardened against Dorothy for ever. For the rest of the day he was far too busy raging over unpunctual meals to ask himself WHY she had disappeared and whether any harm had befallen her. The point was that the confounded girl (he said several times ‘confounded girl’, and came near to saying something stronger) HAD disappeared, and had upset the whole household by doing so. Next day, however, the question became more urgent, because Mrs Semprill was now publishing the story of the elopement far and wide. Of course, the Rector denied it violently, but in his heart he had a sneaking suspicion that it might be true. It was the kind of thing, he now decided, that Dorothy WOULD do. A girl who would suddenly walk out of the house without even taking thought for her father’s breakfast was capable of anything.
Two days later the newspapers got hold of the story, and a nosy young reporter came down to Knype Hill and began asking questions. The Rector made matters worse by angrily refusing to interview the reporter, so that Mrs Semprill’s version was the only one that got into print. For about a week, until the papers got tired of Dorothy’s case and dropped her in favour of a plesiosaurus that had been seen at the mouth of the Thames, the Rector enjoyed a horrible notoriety. He could hardly open a newspaper without seeing some flaming headline about ‘Rector’s Daughter. Further Revelations’, or ‘Rector’s Daughter. Is she in Vienna? Reported seen in Low- class Cabaret’. Finally there came an article in the Sunday Spyhole, which began, ‘Down in a Suffolk Rectory a broken old man sits staring at the wall’, and which was so absolutely unbearable that the Rector consulted his solicitor about an action for libel. However, the solicitor was against it; it might lead to a verdict, he said, but it would certainly lead to further publicity. So the Rector did nothing, and his anger against Dorothy, who had brought this disgrace upon him, hardened beyond possibility of forgiveness.
After this there came three letters from Dorothy, explaining what had happened. Of course the Rector never really believed that Dorothy had lost her memory. It was too thin a story altogether. He believed that she either HAD eloped with Mr Warburton, or had gone off on some similar escapade and had landed herself penniless in Kent; at any rate — this he had settled once and for all, and no argument would ever move him from it — whatever had happened to her was entirely her own fault. The first letter he wrote was not to Dorothy herself but to his cousin Tom, the baronet. For a man of the Rector’s upbringing it was second nature, in any serious trouble, to turn to a rich relative for help. He had not exchanged a word with his cousin for the last fifteen years, since they had quarrelled over a little matter of a borrowed fifty pounds; still, he wrote fairly confidently, asking Sir Thomas to get in touch with Dorothy if it could be done, and to find her some kind of job in London. For of course, after what had happened, there could be no question of letting her come back to Knype Hill.
Shortly after this there came two despairing letters from Dorothy, telling him that she was in danger of starvation and imploring him to send her some money. The Rector was disturbed. It occurred to him — it was the first time in his life that he had seriously considered such a thing — that it IS possible to starve if you have no money. So, after thinking it over for the best part of a week, he sold out ten pounds’ worth of shares and sent a cheque for ten pounds to his cousin, to be kept for Dorothy till she appeared. At the same time he sent a cold letter to Dorothy herself, telling her that she had better apply to Sir Thomas Hare. But several more days passed before this letter was posted, because the Rector had qualms about addressing a letter to ‘Ellen Millborough’— he dimly imagined that it was against the law to use false names — and, of course, he had delayed far too long. Dorothy was already in the streets when the letter reached ‘Mary’s’.
Sir Thomas Hare was a widower, a good-hearted, chuckle-headed man of about sixty-five, with an obtuse rosy face and curling moustaches. He dressed by preference in checked overcoats and curly brimmed bowler hats that were at once dashingly smart and four decades out of date. At a first glance he gave the impression of having carefully disguised himself as a cavalry major of the ‘nineties, so that you could hardly look at him without thinking of devilled bones with a b and s, and the tinkle of hansom bells, and the Pink ‘Un in its great ‘Pitcher’ days, and Lottie Collins and ‘Tarara-BOOM-deay’. But his chief characteristic was an abysmal mental vagueness. He was one of those people who say ‘Don’t you know?’ and ‘What! What!’ and lose themselves in the middle of their sentences. When he was puzzled or in difficulties, his moustaches seemed to bristle forward, giving him the appearance of a well- meaning but exceptionally brainless prawn.
So far as his own inclinations went Sir Thomas was not in the least anxious to help his cousins, for Dorothy herself he had never seen, and the Rector he looked on as a cadging poor relation of the worst possible type. But the fact was that he had had just about as much of this ‘Rector’s Daughter’ business as he could stand. The accursed chance that Dorothy’s surname was the same as his own had made his life a misery for the past fortnight, and he foresaw further and worse scandals if she were left at large any longer. So, just before leaving London for the pheasant shooting, he sent for his butler, who was also his confidant and intellectual guide, and held a council of war.
‘Look here, Blyth, dammit,’ said Sir Thomas prawnishly (Blyth was the butler’s name), ‘I suppose you’ve seen all this damn’ stuff in the newspapers, hey? This “Rector’s Daughter” stuff? About this damned niece of mine.’
Blyth was a small sharp-featured man with a voice that never rose above a whisper. It was as nearly silent as a voice can be while still remaining a voice. Only by watching his lips as well as listening closely could you catch the whole of what he said. In this case his lips signalled something to the effect that Dorothy was Sir Thomas’s cousin, not his niece.
‘What, my cousin, is she?’ said Sir Thomas. ‘So she is, by Jove! Well, look here, Blyth, what I mean to say — it’s about time we got hold of the damn’ girl and locked her up somewhere. See what I mean? Get hold of her before there’s any MORE trouble. She’s knocking about somewhere in London, I believe. What’s the best way of getting on her track? Police? Private detectives and all that? D’you think we could manage it?’
Blyth’s lips registered disapproval. It would, he seemed to be saying, be possible to trace Dorothy without calling in the police and having a lot of disagreeable publicity.
‘Good man!’ said Sir Thomas. ‘Get to it, then. Never mind what it costs. I’d give fifty quid not to have that “Rector’s Daughter” business over again. And for God’s sake, Blyth,’ he added confidentially, ‘once you’ve got hold of the damn’ girl, don’t let her out of your sight. Bring her back to the house and damn’ well keep her here. See what I mean? Keep her under lock and key till I get back. Or else God knows what she’ll be up to next.’
Sir Thomas, of course, had never seen Dorothy, and it was therefore excusable that he should have formed his conception of her from the newspaper reports.
It took Blyth about a week to track Dorothy down. On the morning after she came out of the police-court cells (they had fined her six shillings, and, in default of payment, detained her for twelve hours: Mrs McElligot, as an old offender, got seven days), Blyth came up to her, lifted his bowler hat a quarter of an inch from his head, and inquired noiselessly whether she were not Miss Dorothy Hare. At the second attempt Dorothy understood what he was saying, and admitted that she WAS Miss Dorothy Hare; whereupon Blyth explained that he was sent by her cousin, who was anxious to help her, and that she was to come home with him immediately.
Dorothy followed him without more words said. It seemed queer that her cousin should take this sudden interest in her, but it was no queerer than the other things that had been happening lately. They took the bus to Hyde Park Corner, Blyth paying the fares, and then walked to a large, expensive-looking house with shuttered windows, on the borderland between Knightsbridge and Mayfair. They went down some steps, and Blyth produced a key and they went in. So, after an absence of something over six weeks, Dorothy returned to respectable society, by the area door.
She spent three days in the empty house before her cousin came home. It was a queer, lonely time. There were several servants in the house, but she saw nobody except Blyth, who brought her her meals and talked to her, noiselessly, with a mixture of deference and disapproval. He could not quite make up his mind whether she was a young lady of family or a rescued Magdalen, and so treated her as something between the two. The house had that hushed, corpselike air peculiar to houses whose master is away, so that you instinctively went about on tiptoe and kept the blinds over the windows. Dorothy did not even dare to enter any of the main rooms. She spent all the daytime lurking in a dusty, forlorn room at the top of the house which was a sort of museum of bric-a-brac dating from 1880 onwards. Lady Hare, dead these five years, had been an industrious collector of rubbish, and most of it had been stowed away in this room when she died. It was a doubtful point whether the queerest object in the room was a yellowed photograph of Dorothy’s father, aged eighteen but with respectable side-whiskers, standing self-consciously beside an ‘ordinary’ bicycle — this was in 1888; or whether it was a little sandalwood box labelled ‘Piece of Bread touched by Cecil Rhodes at the City and South Africa Banquet, June 1897’. The sole books in the room were some grisly school prizes that had been won by Sir Thomas’s children — he had three, the youngest being the same age as Dorothy.
It was obvious that the servants had orders not to let her go out of doors. However, her father’s cheque for ten pounds had arrived, and with some difficulty she induced Blyth to get it cashed, and, on the third day, went out and bought herself some clothes. She bought herself a ready-made tweed coat and skirt and a jersey to go with them, a hat, and a very cheap frock of artificial printed silk; also a pair of passable brown shoes, three pairs of lisle stockings, a nasty, cheap little handbag, and a pair of grey cotton gloves that would pass for suede at a little distance. That came to eight pounds ten, and she dared not spend more. As for underclothes, nightdresses, and handkerchiefs, they would have to wait. After all, it is the clothes that show that matter.
Sir Thomas arrived on the following day, and never really got over the surprise that Dorothy’s appearance gave him. He had been expecting to see some rouged and powdered siren who would plague him with temptations to which alas! he was no longer capable of succumbing; and this countrified, spinsterish girl upset all his calculations. Certain vague ideas that had been floating about his mind, of finding her a job as a manicurist or perhaps as a private secretary to a bookie, floated out of it again. From time to time Dorothy caught him studying her with a puzzled, prawnish eye, obviously wondering how on earth such a girl could ever have figured in an elopement. It was very little use, of course, telling him that she had NOT eloped. She had given him her version of the story, and he had accepted it with a chivalrous ‘Of course, m’dear, of course!’ and thereafter, in every other sentence, betrayed the fact that he disbelieved her.
So for a couple of days nothing definite was done. Dorothy continued her solitary life in the room upstairs, and Sir Thomas went to his club for most of his meals, and in the evening there were discussions of the most unutterable vagueness. Sir Thomas was genuinely anxious to find Dorothy a job, but he had great difficulty in remembering what he was talking about for more than a few minutes at a time. ‘Well, m’dear,’ he would start off, ‘you’ll understand, of course, that I’m very keen to do what I can for you. Naturally, being your uncle and all that — what? What’s that? Not your uncle? No, I suppose I’m not, by Jove! Cousin — that’s it; cousin. Well, now, m’dear, being your cousin — now, what was I saying?’ Then, when Dorothy had guided him back to the subject, he would throw out some such suggestion as, ‘Well, now, for instance, m’dear, how would you like to be companion to an old lady? Some dear old girl, don’t you know — black mittens and rheumatoid arthritis. Die and leave you ten thousand quid and care of the parrot. What, what?’ which did not get them very much further. Dorothy repeated a number of times that she would rather be a housemaid or a parlourmaid, but Sir Thomas would not hear of it. The very idea awakened in him a class-instinct which he was usually too vague-minded to remember. ‘What!’ he would say. ‘A dashed skivvy? Girl of your upbringing? No, m’dear — no, no! Can’t do THAT kind of thing, dash it!’
But in the end everything was arranged, and with surprising ease; not by Sir Thomas, who was incapable of arranging anything, but by his solicitor, whom he had suddenly thought of consulting. And the solicitor, without even seeing Dorothy, was able to suggest a job for her. She could, he said, almost certainly find a job as a schoolmistress. Of all jobs, that was the easiest to get.
Sir Thomas came home very pleased with this suggestion, which struck him as highly suitable. (Privately, he thought that Dorothy had just the kind of face that a schoolmistress ought to have.) But Dorothy was momentarily aghast when she heard of it.
‘A schoolmistress!’ she said. ‘But I couldn’t possibly! I’m sure no school would give me a job. There isn’t a single subject I can teach.’
‘What? What’s that? Can’t teach? Oh, dash it! Of course you can! Where’s the difficulty?’
‘But I don’t know enough! I’ve never taught anybody anything, except cooking to the Girl Guides. You have to be properly qualified to be a teacher.’
‘Oh, nonsense! Teaching’s the easiest job in the world. Good thick ruler — rap ‘em over the knuckles. They’ll be glad enough to get hold of a decently brought up young woman to teach the youngsters their ABC. That’s the line for you, m’dear — schoolmistress. You’re just cut out for it.’
And sure enough, a schoolmistress Dorothy became. The invisible solicitor had made all the arrangements in less than three days. It appeared that a certain Mrs Creevy, who kept a girls’ day school in the suburb of Southbridge, was in need of an assistant, and was quite willing to give Dorothy the job. How it had all been settled so quickly, and what kind of school it could be that would take on a total stranger, and unqualified at that, in the middle of the term, Dorothy could hardly imagine. She did not know, of course, that a bribe of five pounds, miscalled a premium, had changed hands.
So, just ten days after her arrest for begging, Dorothy set out for Ringwood House Academy, Brough Road, Southbridge, with a small trunk decently full of clothes and four pounds ten in her purse — for Sir Thomas had made her a present of ten pounds. When she thought of the ease with which this job had been found for her, and then of the miserable struggles of three weeks ago, the contrast amazed her. It brought home to her, as never before, the mysterious power of money. In fact, it reminded her of a favourite saying of Mr Warburton’s, that if you took 1 Corinthians, chapter thirteen, and in every verse wrote ‘money’ instead of ‘charity’, the chapter had ten times as much meaning as before.
Southbridge was a repellent suburb ten or a dozen miles from London. Brough Road lay somewhere at the heart of it, amid labyrinths of meanly decent streets, all so indistinguishably alike, with their ranks of semi-detached houses, their privet and laurel hedges and plots of ailing shrubs at the crossroads, that you could lose yourself there almost as easily as in a Brazilian forest. Not only the houses themselves, but even their names were the same over and over again. Reading the names on the gates as you came up Brough Road, you were conscious of being haunted by some half-remembered passage of poetry; and when you paused to identify it, you realized that it was the first two lines of Lycidas.
Ringwood House was a dark-looking, semi-detached house of yellow brick, three storeys high, and its lower windows were hidden from the road by ragged and dusty laurels. Above the laurels, on the front of the house, was a board inscribed in faded gold letters:
Edge to edge with this board, on the other half of the house, was another board which read:
The district pullulated with small private schools; there were four of them in Brough Road alone. Mrs Creevy, the Principal of Ringwood House, and Mr Boulger, the Principal of Rushington Grange, were in a state of warfare, though their interests in no way clashed with one another. Nobody knew what the feud was about, not even Mrs Creevy or Mr Boulger themselves; it was a feud that they had inherited from earlier proprietors of the two schools. In the mornings after breakfast they would stalk up and down their respective back gardens, beside the very low wall that separated them, pretending not to see one another and grinning with hatred.
Dorothy’s heart sank at the sight of Ringwood House. She had not been expecting anything very magnificent or attractive, but she had expected something a little better than this mean, gloomy house, not one of whose windows was lighted, though it was after 8 o’clock in the evening. She knocked at the door, and it was opened by a woman, tall and gaunt-looking in the dark hallway, whom Dorothy took for a servant, but who was actually Mrs Creevy herself. Without a word, except to inquire Dorothy’s name, the woman led the way up some dark stairs to a twilit, fireless drawing-room, where she turned up a pinpoint of gas, revealing a black piano, stuffed horsehair chairs, and a few yellowed, ghostly photos on the walls.
Mrs Creevy was a woman somewhere in her forties, lean, hard, and angular, with abrupt decided movements that indicated a strong will and probably a vicious temper. Though she was not in the least dirty or untidy there was something discoloured about her whole appearance, as though she lived all her life in a bad light; and the expression of her mouth, sullen and ill-shaped with the lower lip turned down, recalled that of a toad. She spoke in a sharp, commanding voice, with a bad accent and occasional vulgar turns of speech. You could tell her at a glance for a person who knew exactly what she wanted, and would grasp it as ruthlessly as any machine; not a bully exactly — you could somehow infer from her appearance that she would not take enough interest in you to want to bully you — but a person who would make use of you and then throw you aside with no more compunction than if you had been a worn-out scrubbing-brush.
Mrs Creevy did not waste any words on greetings. She motioned Dorothy to a chair, with the air rather of commanding than of inviting her to sir down, and then sat down herself, with her hands clasped on her skinny forearms.
‘I hope you and me are going to get on well together, Miss Millborough,’ she began in her penetrating, subhectoring voice. (On the advice of Sir Thomas’s everwise solicitor, Dorothy had stuck to the name of Ellen Millborough.) ‘And I hope I’m not going to have the same nasty business with you as I had with my last two assistants. You say you haven’t had an experience of teaching before this?’
‘Not in a school,’ said Dorothy — there had been a tarradiddle in her letter of introduction, to the effect that she had had experience of ‘private teaching’.
Mrs Creevy looked Dorothy over as though wondering whether to induct her into the inner secrets of school-teaching, and then appeared to decide against it.
‘Well, we shall see,’ she said. ‘I must say,’ she added complainingly, ‘it’s not easy to get hold of good hardworking assistants nowadays. You give them good wages and good treatment, and you get no thanks for it. The last one I had — the one I’ve just had to get rid of — Miss Strong, wasn’t so bad so far as the teaching part went; in fact, she was a B.A., and I don’t know what you could have better than a B.A., unless it’s an M.A. You don’t happen to be a B.A. or an M.A., do you, Miss Millborough?’
‘No, I’m afraid not,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, that’s a pity. It looks so much better on the prospectus if you’ve got a few letters after your name. Well! Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I don’t suppose many of OUR parents’d know what B.A. stands for; and they aren’t so keen on showing their ignorance. I suppose you can talk French, of course?’
‘Well — I’ve learnt French.’
‘Oh, that’s all right, then. Just so as we can put it on the prospectus. Well, now, to come back to what I was saying, Miss Strong was all right as a teacher, but she didn’t come up to my ideas on what I call the MORAL SIDE. We’re very strong on the moral side at Ringwood House. It’s what counts most with the parents, you’ll find. And the one before Miss Strong, Miss Brewer — well, she had what I call a weak nature. You don’t get on with girls if you’ve got a weak nature. The end of it all was that one morning one little girl crept up to the desk with a box of matches and set fire to Miss Brewer’s skirt. Of course I wasn’t going to keep her after that. In fact I had her out of the house the same afternoon — and I didn’t give her any refs either, I can tell you!’
‘You mean you expelled the girl who did it?’ said Dorothy, mystified.
‘What? The GIRL? Not likely! You don’t suppose I’d go and turn fees away from my door, do you? I mean I got rid of Miss Brewer, not the GIRL. It’s no good having teachers who let the girls get saucy with them. We’ve got twenty-one in the class just at present, and you’ll find they need a strong hand to keep them down.’
‘You don’t teach yourself?’ said Dorothy.
‘Oh dear, no!’ said Mrs Creevy almost contemptuously. ‘I’ve got a lot too much on my hands to waste my time TEACHING. There’s the house to look after, and seven of the children stay to dinner — I’ve only a daily woman at present. Besides, it takes me all my time getting the fees out of the parents. After all, the fees ARE what matter, aren’t they?’
‘Yes. I suppose so,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, we’d better settle about your wages,’ continued Mrs Creevy. ‘In term time I’ll give you your board and lodging and ten shillings a week; in the holidays it’ll just be your board and lodging. You can have the use of the copper in the kitchen for your laundering, and I light the geyser for hot baths every Saturday night; or at least MOST Saturday nights. You can’t have the use of this room we’re in now, because it’s my reception-room, and I don’t want you to go wasting the gas in your bedroom. But you can have the use of the morning-room whenever you want it.’
‘Thank you,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, I should think that’ll be about all. I expect you’re feeling ready for bed. You’ll have had your supper long ago, of course?’
This was clearly intended to mean that Dorothy was not going to get any food tonight, so she answered Yes, untruthfully, and the conversation was at an end. That was always Mrs Creevy’s way — she never kept you talking an instant longer than was necessary. Her conversation was so very definite, so exactly to the point, that it was not really conversation at all. Rather, it was the skeleton of conversation; like the dialogue in a badly written novel where everyone talks a little too much in character. But indeed, in the proper sense of the word she did not TALK; she merely said, in her brief shrewish way, whatever it was necessary to say, and then got rid of you as promptly as possible. She now showed Dorothy along the passage to her bedroom, and lighted a gas-jet no bigger than an acorn, revealing a gaunt bedroom with a narrow white-quilted bed, a rickety wardrobe, one chair and a wash-hand-stand with a frigid white china basin and ewer. It was very like the bedrooms in seaside lodging houses, but it lacked the one thing that gives such rooms their air of homeliness and decency — the text over the bed.
‘This is your room,’ Mrs Creevy said; ‘and I just hope you’ll keep it a bit tidier than what Miss Strong used to. And don’t go burning the gas half the night, please, because I can tell what time you turn it off by the crack under the door.’
With this parting salutation she left Dorothy to herself. The room was dismally cold; indeed, the whole house had a damp, chilly feeling, as though fires were rarely lighted in it. Dorothy got into bed as quickly as possible, feeling bed to be the warmest place. On top of the wardrobe, when she was putting her clothes away, she found a cardboard box containing no less than nine empty whisky bottles — relics, presumably, of Miss Strong’s weakness on the MORAL SIDE.
At eight in the morning Dorothy went downstairs and found Mrs Creevy already at breakfast in what she called the ‘morning-room’. This was a smallish room adjoining the kitchen, and it had started life as the scullery; but Mrs Creevy had converted it into the ‘morning-room’ by the simple process of removing the sink and copper into the kitchen. The breakfast table, covered with a cloth of harsh texture, was very large and forbiddingly bare. Up at Mrs Creevy’s end were a tray with a very small teapot and two cups, a plate on which were two leathery fried eggs, and a dish of marmalade; in the middle, just within Dorothy’s reach if she stretched, was a plate of bread and butter; and beside her plate — as though it were the only thing she could be trusted with — a cruet stand with some dried-up, clotted stuff inside the bottles.
‘Good morning, Miss Millborough,’ said Mrs Creevy. ‘It doesn’t matter this morning, as this is the first day, but just remember another time that I want you down here in time to help me get breakfast ready.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Dorothy.
‘I hope you’re fond of fried eggs for your breakfast?’ went on Mrs Creevy.
Dorothy hastened to assure her that she was very fond of fried eggs.
‘Well, that’s a good thing, because you’ll always have to have the same as what I have. So I hope you’re not going to be what I call DAINTY about your food. I always think,’ she added, picking up her knife and fork, ‘that a fried egg tastes a lot better if you cut it well up before you eat it.’
She sliced the two eggs into thin strips, and then served them in such a way that Dorothy received about two-thirds of an egg. With some difficulty Dorothy spun out her fraction of egg so as to make half a dozen mouthfuls of it, and then, when she had taken a slice of bread and butter, she could not help glancing hopefully in the direction of the dish of marmalade. But Mrs Creevy was sitting with her lean left arm — not exactly ROUND the marmalade, but in a protective position on its left flank, as though she suspected that Dorothy was going to make an attack upon it. Dorothy’s nerve failed her, and she had no marmalade that morning — nor, indeed, for many mornings to come.
Mrs Creevy did not speak again during breakfast, but presently the sound of feet on the gravel outside, and of squeaky voices in the schoolroom, announced that the girls were beginning to arrive. They came in by a side-door that was left open for them. Mrs Creevy got up from the table and banged the breakfast things together on the tray. She was one of those women who can never move anything without banging it about; she was as full of thumps and raps as a poltergeist. Dorothy carried the tray into the kitchen, and when she returned Mrs Creevy produced a penny notebook from a drawer in the dresser and laid it open on the table.
‘Just take a look at this,’ she said. ‘Here’s a list of the girls’ names that I’ve got ready for you. I shall want you to know the whole lot of them by this evening.’ She wetted her thumb and turned over three pages: ‘Now, do you see these three lists here?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, you’ll just have to learn those three lists by heart, and make sure you know what girls are on which. Because I don’t want you to go thinking that all the girls are to be treated alike. They aren’t — not by a long way, they aren’t. Different girls, different treatment — that’s my system. Now, do you see this lot on the first page?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy again.
‘Well, the parents of that lot are what I call the good payers. You know what I mean by that? They’re the ones that pay cash on the nail and no jibbing at an extra half-guinea or so now and again. You’re not to smack any of that lot, not on ANY account. This lot over here are the MEDIUM payers. Their parents do pay up sooner or later, but you don’t get the money out of them without you worry them for it night and day. You can smack that lot if they get saucy, but don’t go and leave a mark their parents can see. If you’ll take MY advice, the best thing with children is to twist their ears. Have you ever tried that?’
‘No,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, I find it answers better than anything. It doesn’t leave a mark, and the children can’t bear it. Now these three over here are the BAD payers. Their fathers are two terms behind already, and I’m thinking of a solicitor’s letter. I don’t care WHAT you do to that lot — well, short of a police-court case, naturally. Now, shall I take you in and start you with the girls? You’d better bring that book along with you, and just keep your eye on it all the time so as there’ll be no mistakes.’
They went into the schoolroom. It was a largish room, with grey- papered walls that were made yet greyer by the dullness of the light, for the heavy laurel bushes outside choked the windows, and no direct ray of the sun ever penetrated into the room. There was a teacher’s desk by the empty fireplace, and there were a dozen small double desks, a light blackboard, and, on the mantelpiece, a black clock that looked like a miniature mausoleum; but there were no maps, no pictures, nor even, as far as Dorothy could see, any books. The sole objects in the room that could be called ornamental were two sheets of black paper pinned to the walls, with writing on them in chalk in beautiful copperplate. On one was ‘Speech is Silver. Silence is Golden’, and on the other ‘Punctuality is the Politeness of Princes’.
The girls, twenty-one of them, were already sitting at their desks. They had grown very silent when they heard footsteps approaching, and as Mrs Creevy came in they seemed to shrink down in their places like partridge chicks when a hawk is soaring. For the most part they were dull-looking, lethargic children with bad complexions, and adenoids seemed to be remarkably common among them. The eldest of them might have been fifteen years old, the youngest was hardly more than a baby. The school had no uniform, and one or two of the children were verging on raggedness.
‘Stand up, girls,’ said Mrs Creevy as she reached the teacher’s desk. ‘We’ll start off with the morning prayer.’
The girls stood up, clasped their hands in front of them, and shut their eyes. They repeated the prayer in unison, in weak piping voices, Mrs Creevy leading them, her sharp eyes darting over them all the while to see that they were attending.
‘Almighty and everlasting Father,’ they piped, ‘we beseech Thee that our studies this day may be graced by Thy divine guidance. Make us to conduct ourselves quietly and obediently; look down upon our school and make it to prosper, so that it may grow in numbers and be a good example to the neighbourhood and not a disgrace like some schools of which Thou knowest, O Lord. Make us, we beseech Thee, O Lord, industrious, punctual, and ladylike, and worthy in all possible respects to walk in Thy ways: for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord, Amen.’
This prayer was of Mrs Creevy’s own composition. When they had finished it, the girls repeated the Lord’s Prayer, and then sat down.
‘Now, girls,’ said Mrs Creevy, ‘this is your new teacher, Miss Millborough. As you know, Miss Strong had to leave us all of a sudden after she was taken so bad in the middle of the arithmetic lesson; and I can tell you I’ve had a hard week of it looking for a new teacher. I had seventy-three applications before I took on Miss Millborough, and I had to refuse them all because their qualifications weren’t high enough. Just you remember and tell your parents that, all of you — seventy-three applications! Well, Miss Millborough is going to take you in Latin, French, history, geography, mathematics, English literature and composition, spelling, grammar, handwriting, and freehand drawing; and Mr Booth will take you in chemistry as usual on Thursday afternoons. Now, what’s the first lesson on your time-table this morning?’
‘History, Ma’am,’ piped one or two voices.
‘Very well. I expect Miss Millborough’ll start off by asking you a few questions about the history you’ve been learning. So just you do your best, all of you, and let her see that all the trouble we’ve taken over you hasn’t been wasted. You’ll find they can be quite a sharp lot of girls when they try, Miss Millborough.’
‘I’m sure they are,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, I’ll be leaving you, then. And just you behave yourselves, girls! Don’t you get trying it on with Miss Millborough like you did with Miss Brewer, because I warn you she won’t stand it. If I hear any noise coming from this room, there’ll be trouble for somebody.’
She gave a glance round which included Dorothy and indeed suggested that Dorothy would probably be the ‘somebody’ referred to, and departed.
Dorothy faced the class. She was not afraid of them — she was too used to dealing with children ever to be afraid of them — but she did feel a momentary qualm. The sense of being an impostor (what teacher has not felt it at times?) was heavy upon her. It suddenly occurred to her, what she had only been dimly aware of before, that she had taken this teaching job under flagrantly false pretences, without having any kind of qualification for it. The subject she was now supposed to be teaching was history, and, like most ‘educated’ people, she knew virtually no history. How awful, she thought, if it turned out that these girls knew more history than she did! She said tentatively:
‘What period exactly were you doing with Miss Strong?’
Nobody answered. Dorothy saw the older girls exchanging glances, as though asking one another whether it was safe to say anything, and finally deciding not to commit themselves.
‘Well, whereabouts had you got to?’ she said, wondering whether perhaps the word ‘period’ was too much for them.
Again no answer.
‘Well, now, surely you remember SOMETHING about it? Tell me the names of some of the people you were learning about in your last history lesson.’
More glances were exchanged, and a very plain little girl in the front row, in a brown jumper and skirt, with her hair screwed into two tight pigtails, remarked cloudily, ‘It was about the Ancient Britons.’ At this two other girls took courage, and answered simultaneously. One of them said, ‘Columbus’, and the other ‘Napoleon’.
Somehow, after that, Dorothy seemed to see her way more clearly. It was obvious that instead of being uncomfortably knowledgeable as she had feared, the class knew as nearly as possible no history at all. With this discovery her stage-fright vanished. She grasped that before she could do anything else with them it was necessary to find out what, if anything, these children knew. So, instead of following the time-table, she spent the rest of the morning in questioning the entire class on each subject in turn; when she had finished with history (and it took about five minutes to get to the bottom of their historical knowledge) she tried them with geography, with English grammar, with French, with arithmetic — with everything, in fact, that they were supposed to have learned. By twelve o’clock she had plumbed, though not actually explored, the frightful abysses of their ignorance.
For they knew nothing, absolutely nothing — nothing, nothing, nothing, like the Dadaists. It was appalling that even children could be so ignorant. There were only two girls in the class who knew whether the earth went round the sun or the sun round the earth, and not a single one of them could tell Dorothy who was the last king before George V, or who wrote Hamlet, or what was meant by a vulgar fraction, or which ocean you crossed to get to America, the Atlantic or the Pacific. And the big girls of fifteen were not much better than the tiny infants of eight, except that the former could at least read consecutively and write neat copperplate. That was the one thing that nearly all of the older girls could do — they could write neatly. Mrs Creevy had seen to that. And of course, here and there in the midst of their ignorance, there were small, disconnected islets of knowledge; for example, some odd stanzas from ‘pieces of poetry’ that they had learned by heart, and a few Ollendorffian French sentences such as ‘Passez-moi le beurre, s’il vous plait’ and ‘Le fils du jardinier a perdu son chapeau’, which they appeared to have learned as a parrot learns ‘Pretty Poll’. As for their arithmetic, it was a little better than the other subjects. Most of them knew how to add and subtract, about half of them had some notion of how to multiply, and there were even three or four who had struggled as far as long division. But that was the utmost limit of their knowledge; and beyond, in every direction, lay utter, impenetrable night.
Moreover, not only did they know nothing, but they were so unused to being questioned that it was often difficult to get answers out of them at all. It was obvious that whatever they knew they had learned in an entirely mechanical manner, and they could only gape in a sort of dull bewilderment when asked to think for themselves. However, they did not seem unwilling, and evidently they had made up their minds to be ‘good’— children are always ‘good’ with a new teacher; and Dorothy persisted, and by degrees the children grew, or seemed to grow, a shade less lumpish. She began to pick up, from the answers they gave her, a fairly accurate notion of what Miss Strong’s regime had been like.
It appeared that, though theoretically they had learned all the usual school subjects, the only ones that had been at all seriously taught were handwriting and arithmetic. Mrs Creevy was particularly keen on handwriting. And besides this they had spent great quantities of time — an hour or two out of every day, it seemed — in drudging through a dreadful routine called ‘copies.’ ‘Copies’ meant copying things out of textbooks or off the blackboard. Miss Strong would write up, for example, some sententious little ‘essay’ (there was an essay entitled ‘Spring’ which recurred in all the older girls’ books, and which began, ‘Now, when girlish April is tripping through the land, when the birds are chanting gaily on the boughs and the dainty flowerets bursting from their buds’, etc., etc.), and the girls would make fair copies of it in their copybooks; and the parents, to whom the copybooks were shown from time to time, were no doubt suitably impressed. Dorothy began to grasp that everything that the girls had been taught was in reality aimed at the parents. Hence the ‘copies’, the insistence on handwriting, and the parroting of ready-made French phrases; they were cheap and easy ways of creating an impression. Meanwhile, the little girls at the bottom of the class seemed barely able to read and write, and one of them — her name was Mavis Williams, and she was a rather sinister-looking child of eleven, with eyes too far apart — could not even count. This child seemed to have done nothing at all during the past term and a half except to write pothooks. She had quite a pile of books filled with pothooks — page after page of pothooks, looping on and on like the mangrove roots in some tropical swamp.
Dorothy tried not to hurt the children’s feelings by exclaiming at their ignorance, but in her heart she was amazed and horrified. She had not known that schools of this description still existed in the civilized world. The whole atmosphere of the place was so curiously antiquated — so reminiscent of those dreary little private schools that you read about in Victorian novels. As for the few textbooks that the class possessed, you could hardly look at them without feeling as though you had stepped back into the mid nineteenth century. There were only three textbooks of which each child had a copy. One was a shilling arithmetic, pre Great War but fairly serviceable, and another was a horrid little book called The Hundred Page History of Britain — a nasty little duodecimo book with a gritty brown cover, and, for frontispiece, a portrait of Boadicea with a Union Jack draped over the front of her chariot. Dorothy opened this book at random, came to page 91, and read:
After the French Revolution was over, the self-styled Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte attempted to set up his sway, but though he won a few victories against continental troops, he soon found that in the ‘thin red line’ he had more than met his match. Conclusions were tried upon the field of Waterloo, where 50,000 Britons put to flight 70,000 Frenchmen — for the Prussians, our allies, arrived too late for the battle. With a ringing British cheer our men charged down the slope and the enemy broke and fled. We now come on to the great Reform Bill of 1832, the first of those beneficent reforms which have made British liberty what it is and marked us off from the less fortunate nations [etc., etc.] . . . .
The date of the book was 1888. Dorothy, who had never seen a history book of this description before, examined it with a feeling approaching horror. There was also an extraordinary little ‘reader’, dated 1863. It consisted mostly of bits out of Fenimore Cooper, Dr Watts, and Lord Tennyson, and at the end there were the queerest little ‘Nature Notes’ with woodcut illustrations. There would be a woodcut of an elephant, and underneath in small print: ‘The elephant is a sagacious beast. He rejoices in the shade of the Palm Trees, and though stronger than six horses he will allow a little child to lead him. His food is Bananas.’ And so on to the Whale, the Zebra, and Porcupine, and the Spotted Camelopard. There were also, in the teacher’s desk, a copy of Beautiful Joe, a forlorn book called Peeps at Distant Lands, and a French phrase- book dated 1891. It was called All you will need on your Parisian Trip, and the first phrase given was ‘Lace my stays, but not too tightly’. In the whole room there was not such a thing as an atlas or a set of geometrical instruments.
At eleven there was a break of ten minutes, and some of the girls played dull little games at noughts and crosses or quarrelled over pencil-cases, and a few who had got over their first shyness clustered round Dorothy’s desk and talked to her. They told her some more about Miss Strong and her methods of teaching, and how she used to twist their ears when they made blots on their copybooks. It appeared that Miss Strong had been a very strict teacher except when she was ‘taken bad’, which happened about twice a week. And when she was taken bad she used to drink some medicine out of a little brown bottle, and after drinking it she would grow quite jolly for a while and talk to them about her brother in Canada. But on her last day — the time when she was taken so bad during the arithmetic lesson — the medicine seemed to make her worse than ever, because she had no sooner drunk it than she began sinking and fell across a desk, and Mrs Creevy had to carry her out of the room.
After the break there was another period of three quarters of an hour, and then school ended for the morning. Dorothy felt stiff and tired after three hours in the chilly but stuffy room, and she would have liked to go out of doors for a breath of fresh air, but Mrs Creevy had told her beforehand that she must come and help get dinner ready. The girls who lived near the school mostly went home for dinner, but there were seven who had dinner in the ‘morning- room’ at tenpence a time. It was an uncomfortable meal, and passed in almost complete silence, for the girls were frightened to talk under Mrs Creevy’s eye. The dinner was stewed scrag end of mutton, and Mrs Creevy showed extraordinary dexterity in serving the pieces of lean to the ‘good payers’ and the pieces of fat to the ‘medium payers’. As for the three ‘bad payers’, they ate a shamefaced lunch out of paper bags in the school-room.
School began again at two o’clock. Already, after only one morning’s teaching, Dorothy went back to her work with secret shrinking and dread. She was beginning to realize what her life would be like, day after day and week after week, in that sunless room, trying to drive the rudiments of knowledge into unwilling brats. But when she had assembled the girls and called their names over, one of them, a little peaky child with mouse-coloured hair, called Laura Firth, came up to her desk and presented her with a pathetic bunch of browny-yellow chrysanthemums, ‘from all of us’. The girls had taken a liking to Dorothy, and had subscribed fourpence among themselves, to buy her a bunch of flowers.
Something stirred in Dorothy’s heart as she took the ugly flowers. She looked with more seeing eyes than before at the anaemic faces and shabby clothes of the children, and was all of a sudden horribly ashamed to think that in the morning she had looked at them with indifference, almost with dislike. Now, a profound pity took possession of her. The poor children, the poor children! How they had been stunted and maltreated! And with it all they had retained the childish gentleness that could make them squander their few pennies on flowers for their teacher.
She felt quite differently towards her job from that moment onwards. A feeling of loyalty and affection had sprung up in her heart. This school was HER school; she would work for it and be proud of it, and make every effort to turn it from a place of bondage into a place human and decent. Probably it was very little that she could do. She was so inexperienced and unfitted for her job that she must educate herself before she could even begin to educate anybody else. Still, she would do her best; she would do whatever willingness and energy could do to rescue these children from the horrible darkness in which they had been kept.
During the next few weeks there were two things that occupied Dorothy to the exclusion of all others. One, getting her class into some kind of order; the other, establishing a concordat with Mrs Creevy.
The second of the two was by a great deal the more difficult. Mrs Creevy’s house was as vile a house to live in as one could possibly imagine. It was always more or less cold, there was not a comfortable chair in it from top to bottom, and the food was disgusting. Teaching is harder work than it looks, and a teacher needs good food to keep him going. It was horribly dispiriting to have to work on a diet of tasteless mutton stews, damp boiled potatoes full of little black eyeholes, watery rice puddings, bread and scrape, and weak tea — and never enough even of these. Mrs Creevy, who was mean enough to take a pleasure in skimping even her own food, ate much the same meals as Dorothy, but she always had the lion’s share of them. Every morning at breakfast the two fried eggs were sliced up and unequally partitioned, and the dish of marmalade remained for ever sacrosanct. Dorothy grew hungrier and hungrier as the term went on. On the two evenings a week when she managed to get out of doors she dipped into her dwindling store of money and bought slabs of plain chocolate, which she ate in the deepest secrecy — for Mrs Creevy, though she starved Dorothy more or less intentionally, would have been mortally offended if she had known that she bought food for herself.
The worst thing about Dorothy’s position was that she had no privacy and very little time that she could call her own. Once school was over for the day her only refuge was the ‘morning-room’, where she was under Mrs Creevy’s eye, and Mrs Creevy’s leading idea was that Dorothy must never be left in peace for ten minutes together. She had taken it into her head, or pretended to do so, that Dorothy was an idle person who needed keeping up to the mark. And so it was always, ‘Well, Miss Millborough, you don’t seem to have very much to do this evening, do you? Aren’t there some exercise books that want correcting? Or why don’t you get your needle and do a bit of sewing? I’m sure I couldn’t bear to just sit in my chair doing nothing like you do!’ She was for ever finding household jobs for Dorothy to do, even making her scrub the schoolroom floor on Saturday mornings when the girls did not come to school; but this was done out of pure ill nature, for she did not trust Dorothy to do the work properly, and generally did it again after her. One evening Dorothy was unwise enough to bring back a novel from the public library. Mrs Creevy flared up at the very sight of it. ‘Well, really, Miss Millborough! I shouldn’t have thought you’d have had time to READ!’ she said bitterly. She herself had never read a book right through in her life, and was proud of it.
Moreover, even when Dorothy was not actually under her eye, Mrs Creevy had ways of making her presence felt. She was for ever prowling in the neighbourhood of the schoolroom, so that Dorothy never felt quite safe from her intrusion; and when she thought there was too much noise she would suddenly rap on the wall with her broom-handle in a way that made the children jump and put them off their work. At all hours of the day she was restlessly, noisily active. When she was not cooking meals she was banging about with broom and dustpan, or harrying the charwoman, or pouncing down upon the schoolroom to ‘have a look round’ in hopes of catching Dorothy or the children up to mischief, or ‘doing a bit of gardening’— that is, mutilating with a pair of shears the unhappy little shrubs that grew amid wastes of gravel in the back garden. On only two evenings a week was Dorothy free of her, and that was when Mrs Creevy sallied forth on forays which she called ‘going after the girls’; that is to say, canvassing likely parents. These evenings Dorothy usually spent in the public library, for when Mrs Creevy was not at home she expected Dorothy to keep out of the house, to save fire and gaslight. On other evenings Mrs Creevy was busy writing dunning letters to the parents, or letters to the editor of the local paper, haggling over the price of a dozen advertisements, or poking about the girls’ desks to see that their exercise books had been properly corrected, or ‘doing a bit of sewing’. Whenever occupation failed her for even five minutes she got out her workbox and ‘did a bit of sewing’— generally restitching some bloomers of harsh white linen of which she had pairs beyond number. They were the most chilly looking garments that one could possibly imagine; they seemed to carry upon them, as no nun’s coif or anchorite’s hair shirt could ever have done, the impress of a frozen and awful chastity. The sight of them set you wondering about the late Mr Creevy, even to the point of wondering whether he had ever existed.
Looking with an outsider’s eye at Mrs Creevy’s manner of life, you would have said that she had no PLEASURES whatever. She never did any of the things that ordinary people do to amuse themselves — never went to the pictures, never looked at a book, never ate sweets, never cooked a special dish for dinner or dressed herself in any kind of finery. Social life meant absolutely nothing to her. She had no friends, was probably incapable of imagining such a thing as friendship, and hardly ever exchanged a word with a fellow being except on business. Of religious belief she had not the smallest vestige. Her attitude towards religion, though she went to the Baptist Chapel every Sunday to impress the parents with her piety, was a mean anti-clericalism founded on the notion that the clergy are ‘only after your money’. She seemed a creature utterly joyless, utterly submerged by the dullness of her existence. But in reality it was not so. There were several things from which she derived acute and inexhaustible pleasure.
For instance, there was her avarice over money. It was the leading interest of her life. There are two kinds of avaricious person — the bold, grasping type who will ruin you if he can, but who never looks twice at twopence, and the petty miser who has not the enterprise actually to MAKE money, but who will always, as the saying goes, take a farthing from a dunghill with his teeth. Mrs Creevy belonged to the second type. By ceaseless canvassing and impudent bluff she had worked her school up to twenty-one pupils, but she would never get it much further, because she was too mean to spend money on the necessary equipment and to pay proper wages to her assistant. The fees the girls paid, or didn’t pay, were five guineas a term with certain extras, so that, starve and sweat her assistant as she might, she could hardly hope to make more than a hundred and fifty pounds a year clear profit. But she was fairly satisfied with that. It meant more to her to save sixpence than to earn a pound. So long as she could think of a way of docking Dorothy’s dinner of another potato, or getting her exercise books a halfpenny a dozen cheaper, or shoving an unauthorized half guinea on to one of the ‘good payers’’ bills, she was happy after her fashion.
And again, in pure, purposeless malignity — in petty acts of spite, even when there was nothing to be gained by them — she had a hobby of which she never wearied. She was one of those people who experience a kind of spiritual orgasm when they manage to do somebody else a bad turn. Her feud with Mr Boulger next door — a one-sided affair, really, for poor Mr Boulger was not up to Mrs Creevy’s fighting weight — was conducted ruthlessly, with no quarter given or expected. So keen was Mrs Creevy’s pleasure in scoring off Mr Boulger that she was even willing to spend money on it occasionally. A year ago Mr Boulger had written to the landlord (each of them was for ever writing to the landlord, complaining about the other’s behaviour), to say that Mrs Creevy’s kitchen chimney smoked into his back windows, and would she please have it heightened two feet. The very day the landlord’s letter reached her, Mrs Creevy called in the bricklayers and had the chimney lowered two feet. It cost her thirty shillings, but it was worth it. After that there had been the long guerrilla campaign of throwing things over the garden wall during the night, and Mrs Creevy had finally won with a dustbinful of wet ashes thrown on to Mr Boulger’s bed of tulips. As it happened, Mrs Creevy won a neat and bloodless victory soon after Dorothy’s arrival. Discovering by chance that the roots of Mr Boulger’s plum tree had grown under the wall into her own garden, she promptly injected a whole tin of weed-killer into them and killed the tree. This was remarkable as being the only occasion when Dorothy ever heard Mrs Creevy laugh.
But Dorothy was too busy, at first, to pay much attention to Mrs Creevy and her nasty characteristics. She saw quite clearly that Mrs Creevy was an odious woman and that her own position was virtually that of a slave; but it did not greatly worry her. Her work was too absorbing, too all-important. In comparison with it, her own comfort and even her future hardly seemed to matter.
It did not take her more than a couple of days to get her class into running order. It was curious, but though she had no experience of teaching and no preconceived theories about it, yet from the very first day she found herself, as though by instinct, rearranging, scheming, innovating. There was so much that was crying out to be done. The first thing, obviously, was to get rid of the grisly routine of ‘copies’, and after Dorothy’s second day no more ‘copies’ were done in the class, in spite of a sniff or two from Mrs Creevy. The handwriting lessons, also, were cut down. Dorothy would have liked to do away with handwriting lessons altogether so far as the older girls were concerned — it seemed to her ridiculous that girls of fifteen should waste time in practising copperplate — but Mrs Creevy would not hear of it. She seemed to attach an almost superstitious value to handwriting lessons. And the next thing, of course, was to scrap the repulsive Hundred Page History and the preposterous little ‘readers’. It would have been worse than useless to ask Mrs Creevy to buy new books for the children, but on her first Saturday afternoon Dorothy begged leave to go up to London, was grudgingly given it, and spent two pounds three shillings out of her precious four pounds ten on a dozen secondhand copies of a cheap school edition of Shakespeare, a big second-hand atlas, some volumes of Hans Andersen’s stories for the younger children, a set of geometrical instruments, and two pounds of plasticine. With these, and history books out of the public library, she felt that she could make a start.
She had seen at a glance that what the children most needed, and what they had never had, was individual attention. So she began by dividing them up into three separate classes, and so arranging things that two lots could be working by themselves while she ‘went through’ something with the third. It was difficult at first, especially with the younger girls, whose attention wandered as soon as they were left to themselves, so that you could never really take your eyes off them. And yet how wonderfully, how unexpectedly, nearly all of them improved during those first few weeks! For the most part they were not really stupid, only dazed by a dull, mechanical rigmarole. For a week, perhaps, they continued unteachable; and then, quite suddenly, their warped little minds seemed to spring up and expand like daisies when you move the garden roller off them.
Quite quickly and easily Dorothy broke them in to the habit of thinking for themselves. She got them to make up essays out of their own heads instead of copying out drivel about the birds chanting on the boughs and the flowerets bursting from their buds. She attacked their arithmetic at the foundations and started the little girls on multiplication and piloted the older ones through long division to fractions; she even got three of them to the point where there was talk of starting on decimals. She taught them the first rudiments of French grammar in place of ‘Passez-moi le beurre, s’il vous plait’ and ‘Le fils du jardinier a perdu son chapeau’. Finding that not a girl in the class knew what any of the countries of the world looked like (though several of them knew that Quito was the capital of Ecuador), she set them to making a large contour-map of Europe in plasticine, on a piece of three-ply wood, copying it in scale from the atlas. The children adored making the map; they were always clamouring to be allowed to go on with it. And she started the whole class, except the six youngest girls and Mavis Williams, the pothook specialist, on reading Macbeth. Not a child among them had ever voluntarily read anything in her life before, except perhaps the Girl’s Own Paper; but they took readily to Shakespeare, as all children do when he is not made horrible with parsing and analysing.
History was the hardest thing to teach them. Dorothy had not realized till now how hard it is for children who come from poor homes to have even a conception of what history means. Every upper-class person, however ill-informed, grows up with some notion of history; he can visualize a Roman centurion, a medieval knight, an eighteenth-century nobleman; the terms Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Industrial Revolution evoke some meaning, even if a confused one, in his mind. But these children came from bookless homes and from parents who would have laughed at the notion that the past has any meaning for the present. They had never heard of Robin Hood, never played at being Cavaliers and Roundheads, never wondered who built the English churches or what Fid. Def. on a penny stands for. There were just two historical characters of whom all of them, almost without exception, had heard, and those were Columbus and Napoleon. Heaven knows why — perhaps Columbus and Napoleon get into the newspapers a little oftener than most historical characters. They seemed to have swelled up in the children’s minds, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, till they blocked out the whole landscape of the past. Asked when motor-cars were invented, one child, aged ten, vaguely hazarded, ‘About a thousand years ago, by Columbus.’
Some of the older girls, Dorothy discovered, had been through the Hundred Page History as many as four times, from Boadicea to the first Jubilee, and forgotten practically every word of it. Not that that mattered greatly, for most of it was lies. She started the whole class over again at Julius Caesar’s invasion, and at first she tried taking history books out of the public library and reading them aloud to the children; but that method failed, because they could understand nothing that was not explained to them in words of one or two syllables. So she did what she could in her own words and with her own inadequate knowledge, making a sort of paraphrase of what she read and delivering it to the children; striving all the while to drive into their dull little minds some picture of the past, and what was always more difficult, some interest in it. But one day a brilliant idea struck her. She bought a roll of cheap plain wallpaper at an upholsterer’s shop, and set the children to making an historical chart. They marked the roll of paper into centuries and years, and stuck scraps that they cut out of illustrated papers — pictures of knights in armour and Spanish galleons and printing-presses and railway trains — at the appropriate places. Pinned round the walls of the room, the chart presented, as the scraps grew in number, a sort of panorama of English history. The children were even fonder of the chart than of the contour map. They always, Dorothy found, showed more intelligence when it was a question of MAKING something instead of merely learning. There was even talk of making a contour map of the world, four feet by four, in papiermache, if Dorothy could ‘get round’ Mrs Creevy to allow the preparation of the papiermache — a messy process needing buckets of water.
Mrs Creevy watched Dorothy’s innovations with a jealous eye, but she did not interfere actively at first. She was not going to show it, of course, but she was secretly amazed and delighted to find that she had got hold of an assistant who was actually willing to work. When she saw Dorothy spending her own money on textbooks for the children, it gave her the same delicious sensation that she would have had in bringing off a successful swindle. She did, however, sniff and grumble at everything that Dorothy did, and she wasted a great deal of time by insisting on what she called ‘thorough correction’ of the girls’ exercise books. But her system of correction, like everything else in the school curriculum, was arranged with one eye on the parents. Periodically the children took their books home for their parents’ inspection, and Mrs Creevy would never allow anything disparaging to be written in them. Nothing was to be marked ‘bad’ or crossed out or too heavily underlined; instead, in the evenings, Dorothy decorated the books, under Mrs Creevy’s dictation, with more or less applauding comments in red ink. ‘A very creditable performance’, and ‘Excellent! You are making great strides. Keep it up!’ were Mrs Creevy’s favourites. All the children in the school, apparently, were for ever ‘making great strides’; in what direction they were striding was not stated. The parents, however, seemed willing to swallow an almost unlimited amount of this kind of thing.
There were times, of course, when Dorothy had trouble with the girls themselves. The fact that they were all of different ages made them difficult to deal with, and though they were fond of her and were very ‘good’ with her at first, they would not have been children at all if they had been invariably ‘good’. Sometimes they were lazy and sometimes they succumbed to that most damnable vice of schoolgirls — giggling. For the first few days Dorothy was greatly exercised over little Mavis Williams, who was stupider than one would have believed it possible for any child of eleven to be. Dorothy could do nothing with her at all. At the first attempt to get her to do anything beyond pothooks a look of almost subhuman blankness would come into her wide-set eyes. Sometimes, however, she had talkative fits in which she would ask the most amazing and unanswerable questions. For instance, she would open her ‘reader’, find one of the illustrations — the sagacious Elephant, perhaps — and ask Dorothy:
‘Please, Miss, wass ‘at thing there?’ (She mispronounced her words in a curious manner.)
‘That’s an elephant, Mavis.’
‘Wass a elephant?’
‘An elephant’s a kind of wild animal.’
‘Wass a animal?’
‘Well — a dog’s an animal.’
‘Wass a dog?’
And so on, more or less indefinitely. About half-way through the fourth morning Mavis held up her hand and said with a sly politeness that ought to have put Dorothy on her guard:
‘Please, Miss, may I be ‘scused?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy.
One of the bigger girls put up her hand, blushed, and put her hand down again as though too bashful to speak. On being prompted by Dorothy, she said shamefacedly:
‘Please, Miss, Miss Strong didn’t used to let Mavis go to the lavatory alone. She locks herself in and won’t come out, and then Mrs Creevy gets angry, Miss.’
Dorothy dispatched a messenger, but it was too late. Mavis remained in latebra pudenda till twelve o’clock. Afterwards, Mrs Creevy explained privately to Dorothy that Mavis was a congenital idiot — or, as she put it, ‘not right in the head’. It was totally impossible to teach her anything. Of course, Mrs Creevy didn’t ‘let on’ to Mavis’s parents, who believed that their child was only ‘backward’ and paid their fees regularly. Mavis was quite easy to deal with. You just had to give her a book and a pencil and tell her to draw pictures and be quiet. But Mavis, a child of habit, drew nothing but pothooks — remaining quiet and apparently happy for hours together, with her tongue hanging out, amid festoons of pothooks.
But in spite of these minor difficulties, how well everything went during those first few weeks! How ominously well, indeed! About the tenth of November, after much grumbling about the price of coal, Mrs Creevy started to allow a fire in the schoolroom. The children’s wits brightened noticeably when the room was decently warm. And there were happy hours, sometimes, when the fire crackled in the grate, and Mrs Creevy was out of the house, and the children were working quietly and absorbedly at one of the lessons that were their favourites. Best of all was when the two top classes were reading Macbeth, the girls squeaking breathlessly through the scenes, and Dorothy pulling them up to make them pronounce the words properly and to tell them who Bellona’s bridegroom was and how witches rode on broomsticks; and the girls wanting to know, almost as excitedly as though it had been a detective story, how Birnam Wood could possible come to Dunsinane and Macbeth be killed by a man who was not of woman born. Those are the times that make teaching worth while — the times when the children’s enthusiasm leaps up, like an answering flame, to meet your own, and sudden unlooked-for gleams of intelligence reward your earlier drudgery. No job is more fascinating than teaching if you have a free hand at it. Nor did Dorothy know, as yet, that that ‘if’ is one of the biggest ‘ifs’ in the world.
Her job suited her, and she was happy in it. She knew the minds of the children intimately by this time, knew their individual peculiarities and the special stimulants that were needed before you could get them to think. She was more fond of them, more interested in their development, more anxious to do her best for them, than she would have conceived possible a short while ago. The complex, never-ended labour of teaching filled her life just as the round of parish jobs had filled it at home. She thought and dreamed of teaching; she took books out of the public library and studied theories of education. She felt that quite willingly she would go on teaching all her life, even at ten shillings a week and her keep, if it could always be like this. It was her vocation, she thought.
Almost any job that fully occupied her would have been a relief after the horrible futility of the time of her destitution. But this was more than a mere job; it was — so it seemed to her — a mission, a life-purpose. Trying to awaken the dulled minds of these children, trying to undo the swindle that had been worked upon them in the name of education — that, surely, was something to which she could give herself heart and soul? So for the time being, in the interest of her work, she disregarded the beastliness of living in Mrs Creevy’s house, and quite forgot her strange, anomalous position and the uncertainty of her future.
But of course, it could not last.
Not many weeks had gone by before the parents began interfering with Dorothy’s programme of work. That — trouble with the parents — is part of the regular routine of life in a private school. All parents are tiresome from a teacher’s point of view, and the parents of children at fourth-rate private schools are utterly impossible. On the one hand, they have only the dimmest idea of what is meant by education; on the other hand, they look on ‘schooling’ exactly as they look on a butcher’s bill or a grocer’s bill, and are perpetually suspicious that they are being cheated. They bombard the teacher with ill-written notes making impossible demands, which they send by hand and which the child reads on the way to school. At the end of the first fortnight Mabel Briggs, one of the most promising girls in the class, brought Dorothy the following note:
Dear Miss — Would you please give Mabel a bit more ARITHMETIC? I feel that what your giving her is not practacle enough. All these maps and that. She wants practacle work, not all this fancy stuff. So more ARITHMETIC, please. And remain,
P.S. Mabel says your talking of starting her on something called decimals. I don’t want her taught decimals, I want her taught ARITHMETIC.
So Dorothy stopped Mabel’s geography and gave her extra arithmetic instead, whereat Mabel wept. More letters followed. One lady was disturbed to hear that her child was being given Shakespeare to read. ‘She had heard’, she wrote, ‘that this Mr Shakespeare was a writer of stage-plays, and was Miss Millborough quite certain that he wasn’t a very IMMORAL writer? For her own part she had never so much as been to the pictures in her life, let alone to a stage- play, and she felt that even in READING stage-plays there was a very grave danger,’ etc., etc. She gave way, however, on being informed that Mr Shakespeare was dead. This seemed to reassure her. Another parent wanted more attention to his child’s handwriting, and another thought French was a waste of time; and so it went on, until Dorothy’s carefully arranged time-table was almost in ruins. Mrs Creevy gave her clearly to understand that whatever the parents demanded she must do, or pretend to do. In many cases it was next door to impossible, for it disorganized everything to have one child studying, for instance, arithmetic while the rest of the class were doing history or geography. But in private schools the parents’ word is law. Such schools exist, like shops, by flattering their customers, and if a parent wanted his child taught nothing but cat’s-cradle and the cuneiform alphabet, the teacher would have to agree rather than lose a pupil.
The fact was that the parents were growing perturbed by the tales their children brought home about Dorothy’s methods. They saw no sense whatever in these new-fangled ideas of making plasticine maps and reading poetry, and the old mechanical routine which had so horrified Dorothy struck them as eminently sensible. They became more and more restive, and their letters were peppered with the word ‘practical’, meaning in effect more handwriting lessons and more arithmetic. And even their notion of arithmetic was limited to addition, subtraction, multiplication and ‘practice’, with long division thrown in as a spectacular tour de force of no real value. Very few of them could have worked out a sum in decimals themselves, and they were not particularly anxious for their children to be able to do so either.
However, if this had been all, there would probably never have been any serious trouble. The parents would have nagged at Dorothy, as all parents do; but Dorothy would finally have learned — as, again, all teachers finally learn — that if one showed a certain amount of tact one could safely ignore them. But there was one fact that was absolutely certain to lead to trouble, and that was the fact that the parents of all except three children were Nonconformists, whereas Dorothy was an Anglican. It was true that Dorothy had lost her faith — indeed, for two months past, in the press of varying adventures, had hardly thought either of her faith or of its loss. But that made very little difference; Roman or Anglican, Dissenter, Jew, Turk or infidel, you retain the habits of thought that you have been brought up with. Dorothy, born and bred in the precincts of the Church, had no understanding of the Nonconformist mind. With the best will in the world, she could not help doing things that would cause offence to some of the parents.
Almost at the beginning there was a skirmish over the Scripture lessons — twice a week the children used to read a couple of chapters from the Bible. Old Testament and New Testament alternately — several of the parents writing to say, would Miss Millborough please NOT answer the children when they asked questions about the Virgin Mary; texts about the Virgin Mary were to be passed over in silence, or, if possible, missed out altogether. But it was Shakespeare, that immoral writer, who brought things to a head. The girls had worked their way through Macbeth, pining to know how the witches’ prophecy was to be fulfilled. They reached the closing scenes. Birnam Wood had come to Dunsinane — that part was settled, anyway; now what about the man who was not of woman born? They came to the fatal passage:
MACBETH: Thou losest labour;
As easy may’st thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed:
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests,
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
To one of woman born.
MACDUFF: Despair thy charm,
And let the Angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
The girls looked puzzled. There was a momentary silence, and then a chorus of voices round the room:
‘Please, Miss, what does that mean?’
Dorothy explained. She explained haltingly and incompletely, with a sudden horrid misgiving — a premonition that this was going to lead to trouble — but still, she did explain. And after that, of course, the fun began.
About half the children in the class went home and asked their parents the meaning of the word ‘womb’. There was a sudden commotion, a flying to and fro of messages, an electric thrill of horror through fifteen decent Nonconformist homes. That night the parents must have held some kind of conclave, for the following evening, about the time when school ended, a deputation called upon Mrs Creevy. Dorothy heard them arriving by ones and twos, and guessed what was going to happen. As soon as she had dismissed the children, she heard Mrs Creevy call sharply down the stairs:
‘Come up here a minute, Miss Millborough!’
Dorothy went up, trying to control the trembling of her knees. In the gaunt drawing-room Mrs Creevy was standing grimly beside the piano, and six parents were sitting round on horsehair chairs like a circle of inquisitors. There was the Mr Geo. Briggs who had written the letter about Mabel’s arithmetic — he was an alert- looking greengrocer with a dried-up, shrewish wife — and there was a large, buffalo-like man with drooping moustaches and a colourless, peculiarly FLAT wife who looked as though she had been flattened out by the pressure of some heavy object — her husband, perhaps. The names of these two Dorothy did not catch. There was also Mrs Williams, the mother of the congenital idiot, a small, dark, very obtuse woman who always agreed with the last speaker, and there was a Mr Poynder, a commercial traveller. He was a youngish to middle- aged man with a grey face, mobile lips, and a bald scalp across which some strips of rather nasty-looking damp hair were carefully plastered. In honour of the parents’ visit, a fire composed of three large coals was sulking in the grate.
‘Sit down there, Miss Millborough,’ said Mrs Creevy, pointing to a hard chair which stood like a stool of repentance in the middle of the ring of parents.
Dorothy sat down.
‘And now,’ said Mrs Creevy, ‘just you listen to what Mr Poynder’s got to say to you.’
Mr Poynder had a great deal to say. The other parents had evidently chosen him as their spokesman, and he talked till flecks of yellowish foam appeared at the corners of his mouth. And what was remarkable, he managed to do it all — so nice was his regard for the decencies — without ever once repeating the word that had caused all the trouble.
‘I feel that I’m voicing the opinion of all of us,’ he said with his facile bagman’s eloquence, ‘in saying that if Miss Millborough knew that this play — Macduff, or whatever its name is — contained such words as — well, such words as we’re speaking about, she never ought to have given it to the children to read at all. To my mind it’s a disgrace that schoolbooks can be printed with such words in them. I’m sure if any of us had ever known that Shakespeare was that kind of stuff, we’d have put our foot down at the start. It surprises me, I must say. Only the other morning I was reading a piece in my News Chronicle about Shakespeare being the father of English Literature; well, if that’s Literature, let’s have a bit LESS Literature, say I! I think everyone’ll agree with me there. And on the other hand, if Miss Millborough didn’t know that the word — well, the word I’m referring to — was coming, she just ought to have gone straight on and taken no notice when it did come. There wasn’t the slightest need to go explaining it to them. Just tell them to keep quiet and not get asking questions — that’s the proper way with children.’
‘But the children wouldn’t have understood the play if I hadn’t explained!’ protested Dorothy for the third or fourth time.
‘Of course they wouldn’t! You don’t seem to get my point, Miss Millborough! We don’t want them to understand. Do you think we want them to go picking up dirty ideas out of books? Quite enough of that already with all these dirty films and these twopenny girls’ papers that they get hold of — all these filthy, dirty love- stories with pictures of — well, I won’t go into it. We don’t send our children to school to have ideas put into their heads. I’m speaking for all the parents in saying this. We’re all of decent God-fearing folk — some of us are Baptists and some of us are Methodists, and there’s even one or two Church of England among us; but we can sink our differences when it comes to a case like this — and we try to bring our children up decent and save them from knowing anything about the Facts of Life. If I had my way, no child — at any rate, no girl — would know anything about the Facts of Life till she was twenty-one.’
There was a general nod from the parents, and the buffalo-like man added, ‘Yer, yer! I’m with you there, Mr Poynder. Yer, yer!’ deep down in his inside.
After dealing with the subject of Shakespeare, Mr Poynder added some remarks about Dorothy’s new-fangled methods of teaching, which gave Mr Geo. Briggs the opportunity to rap out from time to time, ‘That’s it! Practical work — that’s what we want — practical work! Not all this messy stuff like po’try and making maps and sticking scraps of paper and such like. Give ‘em a good bit of figuring and handwriting and bother the rest. Practical work! You’ve said it!’
This went on for about twenty minutes. At first Dorothy attempted to argue, but she saw Mrs Creevy angrily shaking her head at her over the buffalo-like man’s shoulder, which she rightly took as a signal to be quiet. By the time the parents had finished they had reduced Dorothy very nearly to tears, and after this they made ready to go. But Mrs Creevy stopped them.
‘JUST a minute, ladies and gentlemen,’ she said. ‘Now that you’ve all had your say — and I’m sure I’m most glad to give you the opportunity — I’d just like to say a little something on my own account. Just to make things clear, in case any of you might think I was to blame for this nasty business that’s happened. And YOU stay here too, Miss Millborough!’ she added.
She turned on Dorothy, and, in front of the parents, gave her a venomous ‘talking to’ which lasted upwards of ten minutes. The burden of it all was that Dorothy had brought these dirty books into the house behind her back; that it was monstrous treachery and ingratitude; and that if anything like it happened again, out Dorothy would go with a week’s wages in her pocket. She rubbed it in and in and in. Phrases like ‘girl that I’ve taken into my house’, ‘eating my bread’, and even ‘living on my charity’, recurred over and over again. The parents sat round watching, and in their crass faces — faces not harsh or evil, only blunted by ignorance and mean virtues — you could see a solemn approval, a solemn pleasure in the spectacle of sin rebuked. Dorothy understood this; she understood that it was necessary that Mrs Creevy should give her her ‘talking to’ in front of the parents, so that they might feel that they were getting their money’s worth and be satisfied. But still, as the stream of mean, cruel reprimand went on and on, such anger rose in her heart that she could with pleasure have stood up and struck Mrs Creevy across the face. Again and again she thought, ‘I won’t stand it, I won’t stand it any longer! I’ll tell her what I think of her and then walk straight out of the house!’ But she did nothing of the kind. She saw with dreadful clarity the helplessness of her position. Whatever happened, whatever insults it meant swallowing, she had got to keep her job. So she sat still, with pink humiliated face, amid the circle of parents, and presently her anger turned to misery, and she realized that she was going to begin crying if she did not struggle to prevent it. But she realized, too, that if she began crying it would be the last straw and the parents would demand her dismissal. To stop herself, she dug her nails so hard into the palms that afterwards she found that she had drawn a few drops of blood.
Presently the ‘talking to’ wore itself out in assurances from Mrs Creevy that this should never happen again and that the offending Shakespeares should be burnt immediately. The parents were now satisfied. Dorothy had had her lesson and would doubtless profit by it; they did not bear her any malice and were not conscious of having humiliated her. They said good-bye to Mrs Creevy, said good-bye rather more coldly to Dorothy, and departed. Dorothy also rose to go, but Mrs Creevy signed to her to stay where she was.
‘Just you wait a minute,’ she said ominously as the parents left the room. ‘I haven’t finished yet, not by a long way I haven’t.’
Dorothy sat down again. She felt very weak at the knees, and nearer to tears than ever. Mrs Creevy, having shown the parents out by the front door, came back with a bowl of water and threw it over the fire — for where was the sense of burning good coals after the parents had gone? Dorothy supposed that the ‘talking to’ was going to begin afresh. However, Mrs Creevy’s wrath seemed to have cooled — at any rate, she had laid aside the air of outraged virtue that it had been necessary to put on in front of the parents.
‘I just want to have a bit of a talk with you, Miss Millborough,’ she said. ‘It’s about time we got it settled once and for all how this school’s going to be run and how it’s not going to be run.’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, I’ll be straight with you. When you came here I could see with half an eye that you didn’t know the first thing about school- teaching; but I wouldn’t have minded that if you’d just had a bit of common sense like any other girl would have had. Only it seems you hadn’t. I let you have your own way for a week or two, and the first thing you do is to go and get all the parents’ backs up. Well, I’m not going to have THAT over again. From now on I’m going to have things done MY way, not YOUR way. Do you understand that?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy again.
‘You’re not to think as I can’t do without you, mind,’ proceeded Mrs Creevy. ‘I can pick up teachers at two a penny any day of the week, M.A.s and B.A.s and all. Only the M.A.s and B.A.s mostly take to drink, or else they — well, no matter what — and I will say for you you don’t seem to be given to the drink or anything of that kind. I dare say you and me can get on all right if you’ll drop these new-fangled ideas of yours and understand what’s meant by practical school-teaching. So just you listen to me.’
Dorothy listened. With admirable clarity, and with a cynicism that was all the more disgusting because it was utterly unconscious, Mrs Creevy explained the technique of the dirty swindle that she called practical school-teaching.
‘What you’ve got to get hold of once and for all,’ she began, ‘is that there’s only one thing that matters in a school, and that’s the fees. As for all this stuff about “developing the children’s minds”, as you call it, it’s neither here nor there. It’s the fees I’m after, not DEVELOPING THE CHILDREN’S MINDS. After all, it’s no more than common sense. It’s not to be supposed as anyone’d go to all the trouble of keeping school and having the house turned upside down by a pack of brats, if it wasn’t that there’s a bit of money to be made out of it. The fees come first, and everything else comes afterwards. Didn’t I tell you that the very first day you came here?’
‘Yes,’ admitted Dorothy humbly.
‘Well, then, it’s the parents that pay the fees, and it’s the parents you’ve got to think about. Do what the parents want — that’s our rule here. I dare say all this messing about with plasticine and paper-scraps that you go in for doesn’t do the children any particular harm; but the parents don’t want it, and there’s an end of it. Well, there’s just two subjects that they DO want their children taught, and that’s handwriting and arithmetic. Especially handwriting. That’s something they CAN see the sense of. And so handwriting’s the thing you’ve got to keep on and on at. Plenty of nice neat copies that the girls can take home, and that the parents’ll show off to the neighbours and give us a bit of a free advert. I want you to give the children two hours a day just at handwriting and nothing else.’
‘Two hours a day just at handwriting,’ repeated Dorothy obediently.
‘Yes. And plenty of arithmetic as well. The parents are very keen on arithmetic: especially money-sums. Keep your eye on the parents all the time. If you meet one of them in the street, get hold of them and start talking to them about their own girl. Make out that she’s the best girl in the class and that if she stays just three terms longer she’ll be working wonders. You see what I mean? Don’t go and tell them there’s no room for improvement; because if you tell them THAT, they generally take their girls away. Just three terms longer — that’s the thing to tell them. And when you make out the end of term reports, just you bring them to me and let me have a good look at them. I like to do the marking myself.’
Mrs Creevy’s eye met Dorothy’s. She had perhaps been about to say that she always arranged the marks so that every girl came out somewhere near the top of the class; but she refrained. Dorothy could not answer for a moment. Outwardly she was subdued, and very pale, but in her heart were anger and deadly repulsion against which she had to struggle before she could speak. She had no thought, however, of contradicting Mrs Creevy. The ‘talking to’ had quite broken her spirit. She mastered her voice, and said:
‘I’m to teach nothing but handwriting and arithmetic — is that it?’
‘Well, I didn’t say that exactly. There’s plenty of other subjects that look well on the prospectus. French, for instance — French looks VERY well on the prospectus. But it’s not a subject you want to waste much time over. Don’t go filling them up with a lot of grammar and syntax and verbs and all that. That kind of stuff doesn’t get them anywhere so far as I can see. Give them a bit of “Parley vous Francey”, and “Passey moi le beurre”, and so forth; that’s a lot more use than grammar. And then there’s Latin — I always put Latin on the prospectus. But I don’t suppose you’re very great on Latin, are you?’
‘No,’ admitted Dorothy.
‘Well, it doesn’t matter. You won’t have to teach it. None of OUR parents’d want their children to waste time over Latin. But they like to see it on the prospectus. It looks classy. Of course there’s a whole lot of subjects that we can’t actually teach, but we have to advertise them all the same. Book-keeping and typing and shorthand, for instance; besides music and dancing. It all looks well on the prospectus.’
‘Arithmetic, handwriting, French — is there anything else?’ Dorothy said.
‘Oh, well, history and geography and English Literature, of course. But just drop that map-making business at once — it’s nothing but waste of time. The best geography to teach is lists of capitals. Get them so that they can rattle off the capitals of all the English counties as if it was the multiplication table. Then they’ve got something to show for what they’ve learnt, anyway. And as for history, keep on with the Hundred Page History of Britain. I won’t have them taught out of those big history books you keep bringing home from the library. I opened one of those books the other day, and the first thing I saw was a piece where it said the English had been beaten in some battle or other. There’s a nice thing to go teaching children! The parents won’t stand for THAT kind of thing, I can tell you!’
‘And Literature?’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, of course they’ve got to do a bit of reading, and I can’t think why you wanted to turn up your nose at those nice little readers of ours. Keep on with the readers. They’re a bit old, but they’re quite good enough for a pack of children, I should have thought. And I suppose they might as well learn a few pieces of poetry by heart. Some of the parents like to hear their children say a piece of poetry. “The Boy stood on the Burning Deck”— that’s a very good piece — and then there’s “The Wreck of the Steamer”— now, what was that ship called? “The Wreck of the Steamer Hesperus”. A little poetry doesn’t hurt now and again. But don’t let’s have any more SHAKESPEARE, please!’
Dorothy got no tea that day. It was now long past tea-time, but when Mrs Creevy had finished her harangue she sent Dorothy away without saying anything about tea. Perhaps this was a little extra punishment for l’affaire Macbeth.
Dorothy had not asked permission to go out, but she did not feel that she could stay in the house any longer. She got her hat and coat and set out down the ill-lit road, for the public library. It was late into November. Though the day had been damp the night wind blew sharply, like a threat, through the almost naked trees, making the gas-lamps flicker in spite of their glass chimneys, and stirring the sodden plane leaves that littered the pavement. Dorothy shivered slightly. The raw wind sent through her a bone- deep memory of the cold of Trafalgar Square. And though she did not actually think that if she lost her job it would mean going back to the sub-world from which she had come — indeed, it was not so desperate as that; at the worst her cousin or somebody else would help her — still, Mrs Creevy’s ‘talking to’ had made Trafalgar Square seem suddenly very much nearer. It had driven into her a far deeper understanding than she had had before of the great modern commandment — the eleventh commandment which has wiped out all the others: ‘Thou shalt not lose thy job.’
But as to what Mrs Creevy had said about ‘practical school- teaching’, it had been no more than a realistic facing of the facts. She had merely said aloud what most people in her position think but never say. Her oft-repeated phrase, ‘It’s the fees I’m after’, was a motto that might be — indeed, ought to be — written over the doors of every private school in England.
There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England. Second-rate, third-rate, and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was a specimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town. At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection. And though some of them are better than others, and a certain number, probably, are better than the council schools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is, that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money. Often, except that there is nothing illegal about them, they are started in exactly the same spirit as one would start a brothel or a bucket shop. Some snuffy little man of business (it is quite usual for these schools to be owned by people who don’t teach themselves) says one morning to his wife:
‘Emma, I got a notion! What you say to us two keeping school, eh? There’s plenty of cash in a school, you know, and there ain’t the same work in it as what there is in a shop or a pub. Besides, you don’t risk nothing; no over’ead to worry about, ‘cept jest your rent and few desks and a blackboard. But we’ll do it in style. Get in one of these Oxford and Cambridge chaps as is out of a job and’ll come cheap, and dress ‘im up in a gown and — what do they call them little square ‘ats with tassels on top? That ‘ud fetch the parents, eh? You jest keep your eyes open and see if you can’t pick on a good district where there’s not too many on the same game already.’
He chooses a situation in one of those middle-class districts where the people are too poor to afford the fees of a decent school and too proud to send their children to the council schools, and ‘sets up’. By degrees he works up a connexion in very much the same manner as a milkman or a greengrocer, and if he is astute and tactful and has not too many competitors, he makes his few hundreds a year out of it.
Of course, these schools are not all alike. Not every principal is a grasping low-minded shrew like Mrs Creevy, and there are plenty of schools where the atmosphere is kindly and decent and the teaching is as good as one could reasonably expect for fees of five pounds a term. On the other hand, some of them are crying scandals. Later on, when Dorothy got to know one of the teachers at another private school in Southbridge, she heard tales of schools that were worse by far than Ringwood House. She heard of a cheap boarding-school where travelling actors dumped their children as one dumps luggage in a railway cloakroom, and where the children simply vegetated, doing absolutely nothing, reaching the age of sixteen without learning to read; and another school where the days passed in a perpetual riot, with a broken-down old hack of a master chasing the boys up and down and slashing at them with a cane, and then suddenly collapsing and weeping with his head on a desk, while the boys laughed at him. So long as schools are run primarily for money, things like this will happen. The expensive private schools to which the rich send their children are not, on the surface, so bad as the others, because they can afford a proper staff, and the Public School examination system keeps them up to the mark; but they have the same essential taint.
It was only later, and by degrees, that Dorothy discovered these facts about private schools. At first, she used to suffer from an absurd fear that one day the school inspectors would descend upon Ringwood House, find out what a sham and a swindle it all was, and raise the dust accordingly. Later on, however, she learned that this could never happen. Ringwood House was not ‘recognized’, and therefore was not liable to be inspected. One day a Government inspector did, indeed, visit the school, but beyond measuring the dimensions of the schoolroom to see whether each girl had her right number of cubic feet of air, he did nothing; he had no power to do more. Only the tiny minority of ‘recognized’ schools — less than one in ten — are officially tested to decide whether they keep up a reasonable educational standard. As for the others, they are free to teach or not teach exactly as they choose. No one controls or inspects them except the children’s parents — the blind leading the blind.
Next day Dorothy began altering her programme in accordance with Mrs Creevy’s orders. The first lesson of the day was handwriting, and the second was geography.
‘That’ll do, girls,’ said Dorothy as the funereal clock struck ten. ‘We’ll start our geography lesson now.’
The girls flung their desks open and put their hated copybooks away with audible sighs of relief. There were murmurs of ‘Oo, jography! Good!’ It was one of their favourite lessons. The two girls who were ‘monitors’ for the week, and whose job it was to clean the blackboard, collect exercise books and so forth (children will fight for the privilege of doing jobs of that kind), leapt from their places to fetch the half-finished contour map that stood against the wall. But Dorothy stopped them.
‘Wait a moment. Sit down, you two. We aren’t going to go on with the map this morning.’
There was a cry of dismay. ‘Oh, Miss! Why can’t we, Miss? PLEASE let’s go on with it!’
‘No. I’m afraid we’ve been wasting a little too much time over the map lately. We’re going to start learning some of the capitals of the English counties. I want every girl in the class to know the whole lot of them by the end of the term.’
The children’s faces fell. Dorothy saw it, and added with an attempt at brightness — that hollow, undeceiving brightness of a teacher trying to palm off a boring subject as an interesting one:
‘Just think how pleased your parents will be when they can ask you the capital of any county in England and you can tell it them!’
The children were not in the least taken in. They writhed at the nauseous prospect.
‘Oh, CAPITALS! Learning CAPITALS! That’s just what we used to do with Miss Strong. Please, Miss, WHY can’t we go on with the map?’
‘Now don’t argue. Get your notebooks out and take them down as I give them to you. And afterwards we’ll say them all together.’
Reluctantly, the children fished out their notebooks, still groaning. ‘Please, Miss, can we go on with the map NEXT time?’
‘I don’t know. We’ll see.’
That afternoon the map was removed from the schoolroom, and Mrs Creevy scraped the plasticine off the board and threw it away. It was the same with all the other subjects, one after another. All the changes that Dorothy had made were undone. They went back to the routine of interminable ‘copies’ and interminable ‘practice’ sums, to the learning parrot-fashion of ‘Passez-moi le beurre’ and ‘Le fils du jardinier a perdu son chapeau’, to the Hundred Page History and the insufferable little ‘reader’. (Mrs Creevy had impounded the Shakespeares, ostensibly to burn them. The probability was that she had sold them.) Two hours a day were set apart for handwriting lessons. The two depressing pieces of black paper, which Dorothy had taken down from the wall, were replaced, and their proverbs written upon them afresh in neat copperplate. As for the historical chart, Mrs Creevy took it away and burnt it.
When the children saw the hated lessons, from which they had thought to have escaped for ever, coming back upon them one by one, they were first astonished, then miserable, then sulky. But it was far worse for Dorothy than for the children. After only a couple of days the rigmarole through which she was obliged to drive them so nauseated her that she began to doubt whether she could go on with it any longer. Again and again she toyed with the idea of disobeying Mrs Creevy. Why not, she would think, as the children whined and groaned and sweated under their miserable bondage — why not stop it and go back to proper lessons, even if it was only for an hour or two a day? Why not drop the whole pretence of lessons and simply let the children play? It would be so much better for them than this. Let them draw pictures or make something out of plasticine or begin making up a fairy tale — anything REAL, anything that would interest them, instead of this dreadful nonsense. But she dared not. At any moment Mrs Creevy was liable to come in, and if she found the children ‘messing about’ instead of getting on with their routine work, there would be fearful trouble. So Dorothy hardened her heart, and obeyed Mrs Creevy’s instructions to the letter, and things were very much as they had been before Miss Strong was ‘taken bad’.
The lessons reached such a pitch of boredom that the brightest spot in the week was Mr Booth’s so-called chemistry lecture on Thursday afternoons. Mr Booth was a seedy, tremulous man of about fifty, with long, wet, cowdung-coloured moustaches. He had been a Public School master once upon a time, but nowadays he made just enough for a life of chronic sub-drunkenness by delivering lectures at two and sixpence a time. The lectures were unrelieved drivel. Even in his palmiest days Mr Booth had not been a particularly brilliant lecturer, and now, when he had had his first go of delirium tremens and lived in a daily dread of his second, what chemical knowledge he had ever had was fast deserting him. He would stand dithering in front of the class, saying the same thing over and over again and trying vainly to remember what he was talking about. ‘Remember, girls,’ he would say in his husky, would-be fatherly voice, ‘the number of the elements is ninety-three — ninety-three elements, girls — you all of you know what an element is, don’t you? — there are just ninety-three of them — remember that number, girls — ninety- three,’ until Dorothy (she had to stay in the schoolroom during the chemistry lectures, because Mrs Creevy considered that it DIDN’T DO to leave the girls alone with a man) was miserable with vicarious shame. All the lectures started with the ninety-three elements, and never got very much further. There was also talk of ‘a very interesting little experiment that I’m going to perform for you next week, girls — very interesting you’ll find it — we’ll have it next week without fail — a very interesting little experiment’, which, needless to say, was never performed. Mr Booth possessed no chemical apparatus, and his hands were far too shaky to have used it even if he had had any. The girls sat through his lectures in a suety stupor of boredom, but even he was a welcome change from handwriting lessons.
The children were never quite the same with Dorothy after the parents’ visit. They did not change all in a day, of course. They had grown to be fond of ‘old Millie’, and they expected that after a day or two of tormenting them with handwriting and ‘commercial arithmetic’ she would go back to something interesting. But the handwriting and arithmetic went on, and the popularity Dorothy had enjoyed, as a teacher whose lessons weren’t boring and who didn’t slap you, pinch you, or twist your ears, gradually vanished. Moreover, the story of the row there had been over Macbeth was not long in leaking out. The children grasped that old Millie had done something wrong — they didn’t exactly know what — and had been given a ‘talking to’. It lowered her in their eyes. There is no dealing with children, even with children who are fond of you, unless you can keep your prestige as an adult; let that prestige be once damaged, and even the best-hearted children will despise you.
So they began to be naughty in the normal, traditional way. Before, Dorothy had only had to deal with occasional laziness, outbursts of noise and silly giggling fits; now there were spite and deceitfulness as well. The children revolted ceaselessly against the horrible routine. They forgot the short weeks when old Millie had seemed quite a good sort and school itself had seemed rather fun. Now, school was simply what it had always been, and what indeed you expected it to be — a place where you slacked and yawned and whiled the time away by pinching your neighbour and trying to make the teacher lose her temper, and from which you burst with a yell of relief the instant the last lesson was over. Sometimes they sulked and had fits of crying, sometimes they argued in the maddening persistent way that children have, ‘WHY should we do this? WHY does anyone have to learn to read and write?’ over and over again, until Dorothy had to stand over them and silence them with threats of blows. She was growing almost habitually irritable nowadays; it surprised and shocked her, but she could not stop it. Every morning she vowed to herself, ‘Today I will NOT lose my temper’, and every morning, with depressing regularity, she DID lose her temper, especially at about half past eleven when the children were at their worst. Nothing in the world is quite so irritating as dealing with mutinous children. Sooner or later, Dorothy knew, she would lose control of herself and begin hitting them. It seemed to her an unforgivable thing to do, to hit a child; but nearly all teachers come to it in the end. It was impossible now to get any child to work except when your eye was upon it. You had only to turn your back for an instant and blotting-paper pellets were flying to and fro. Nevertheless, with ceaseless slave-driving the children’s handwriting and ‘commercial arithmetic’ did certainly show some improvement, and no doubt the parents were satisfied.
The last few weeks of the term were a very bad time. For over a fortnight Dorothy was quite penniless, for Mrs Creevy had told her that she couldn’t pay her her term’s wages ‘till some of the fees came in’. So she was deprived of the secret slabs of chocolate that had kept her going, and she suffered from a perpetual slight hunger that made her languid and spiritless. There were leaden mornings when the minutes dragged like hours, when she struggled with herself to keep her eyes away from the clock, and her heart sickened to think that beyond this lesson there loomed another just like it, and more of them and more, stretching on into what seemed like a dreary eternity. Worse yet were the times when the children were in their noisy mood and it needed a constant exhausting effort of the will to keep them under control at all; and beyond the wall, of course, lurked Mrs Creevy, always listening, always ready to descend upon the schoolroom, wrench the door open, and glare round the room with ‘Now then! What’s all this noise about, please?’ and the sack in her eye.
Dorothy was fully awake, now, to the beastliness of living in Mrs Creevy’s house. The filthy food, the cold, and the lack of baths seemed much more important than they had seemed a little while ago. Moreover, she was beginning to appreciate, as she had not done when the joy of her work was fresh upon her, the utter loneliness of her position. Neither her father nor Mr Warburton had written to her, and in two months she had made not a single friend in Southbridge. For anyone so situated, and particularly for a woman, it is all but impossible to make friends. She had no money and no home of her own, and outside the school her sole places of refuge were the public library, on the few evenings when she could get there, and church on Sunday mornings. She went to church regularly, of course — Mrs Creevy had insisted on that. She had settled the question of Dorothy’s religious observances at breakfast on her first Sunday morning.
‘I’ve just been wondering what Place of Worship you ought to go to,’ she said. ‘I suppose you were brought up C. of E., weren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy.
‘Hm, well. I can’t quite make up my mind where to send you. There’s St George’s — that’s the C. of E. — and there’s the Baptist Chapel where I go myself. Most of our parents are Nonconformists, and I don’t know as they’d quite approve of a C. of E. teacher. You can’t be too careful with the parents. They had a bit of a scare two years ago when it turned out that the teacher I had then was actually a Roman Catholic, if you please! Of course she kept it dark as long as she could, but it came out in the end, and three of the parents took their children away. I got rid of her the same day as I found it out, naturally.’
Dorothy was silent.
‘Still,’ went on Mrs Creevy, ‘we HAVE got three C. of E. pupils, and I don’t know as the Church connexion mightn’t be worked up a bit. So perhaps you’d better risk it and go to St George’s. But you want to be a bit careful, you know. I’m told St George’s is one of these churches where they go in for a lot of bowing and scraping and crossing yourself and all that. We’ve got two parents that are Plymouth Brothers, and they’d throw a fit if they heard you’d been seen crossing yourself. So don’t go and do THAT, whatever you do.’
‘Very well,’ said Dorothy.
‘And just you keep your eyes well open during the sermon. Have a good look round and see if there’s any young girls in the congregation that we could get hold of. If you see any likely looking ones, get on to the parson afterwards and try and find out their names and addresses.’
So Dorothy went to St George’s. It was a shade ‘Higher’ than St Athelstan’s had been; chairs, not pews, but no incense, and the vicar (his name was Mr Gore-Williams) wore a plain cassock and surplice except on festival days. As for the services, they were so like those at home that Dorothy could go through them, and utter all the responses at the right moment, in a state of the completest abstraction.
There was never a moment when the power of worship returned to her. Indeed, the whole concept of worship was meaningless to her now; her faith had vanished, utterly and irrevocably. It is a mysterious thing, the loss of faith — as mysterious as faith itself. Like faith, it is ultimately not rooted in logic; it is a change in the climate of the mind. But however little the church services might mean to her, she did not regret the hours she spent in church. On the contrary, she looked forward to her Sunday mornings as blessed interludes of peace; and that not only because Sunday morning meant a respite from Mrs Creevy’s prying eye and nagging voice. In another and deeper sense the atmosphere of the church was soothing and reassuring to her. For she perceived that in all that happens in church, however absurd and cowardly its supposed purpose may be, there is something — it is hard to define, but something of decency, of spiritual comeliness — that is not easily found in the world outside. It seemed to her that even though you no longer believe, it is better to go to church than not; better to follow in the ancient ways, than to drift in rootless freedom. She knew very well that she would never again be able to utter a prayer and mean it; but she knew also that for the rest of her life she must continue with the observances to which she had been bred. Just this much remained to her of the faith that had once, like the bones in a living frame, held all her life together.
But as yet she did not think very deeply about the loss of her faith and what it might mean to her in the future. She was too busy merely existing, merely struggling to make her nerves hold out for the rest of that miserable term. For as the term drew to an end, the job of keeping the class in order grew more and more exhausting. The girls behaved atrociously, and they were all the bitterer against Dorothy because they had once been fond of her. She had deceived them, they felt. She had started off by being decent, and now she had turned out to be just a beastly old teacher like the rest of them — a nasty old beast who kept on and on with those awful handwriting lessons and snapped your head off if you so much as made a blot on your book. Dorothy caught them eyeing her face, sometimes, with the aloof, cruel scrutiny of children. They had thought her pretty once, and now they thought her ugly, old, and scraggy. She had grown, indeed, much thinner since she had been at Ringwood House. They hated her now, as they had hated all their previous teachers.
Sometimes they baited her quite deliberately. The older and more intelligent girls understood the situation well enough — understood that Millie was under old Creevy’s thumb and that she got dropped on afterwards when they had been making too much noise; sometimes they made all the noise they dared, just so as to bring old Creevy in and have the pleasure of watching Millie’s face while old Creevy told her off. There were times when Dorothy could keep her temper and forgive them all they did, because she realized that it was only a healthy instinct that made them rebel against the loathsome monotony of their work. But there were other times when her nerves were more on edge than usual, and when she looked round at the score of silly little faces, grinning or mutinous, and found it possible to hate them. Children are so blind, so selfish, so merciless. They do not know when they are tormenting you past bearing, and if they did know they would not care. You may do your very best for them, you may keep your temper in situations that would try a saint, and yet if you are forced to bore them and oppress them, they will hate you for it without ever asking themselves whether it is you who are to blame. How true — when you happen not to be a school-teacher yourself — how true those often- quoted lines sound —
Under a cruel eye outworn
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay!
But when you yourself are the cruel eye outworn, you realize that there is another side to the picture.
The last week came, and the dirty farce of ‘exams’, was carried through. The system, as explained by Mrs Creevy, was quite simple. You coached the children in, for example, a series of sums until you were quite certain that they could get them right, and then set them the same sums as an arithmetic paper before they had time to forget the answers; and so with each subject in turn. The children’s papers were, of course, sent home for their parents’ inspection. And Dorothy wrote the reports under Mrs Creevy’s dictation, and she had to write ‘excellent’ so many times that — as sometimes happens when you write a word over and over again — she forgot how to spell it and began writing in ‘excelent’, ‘exsellent’, ‘ecsellent’, ‘eccelent’.
The last day passed in fearful tumults. Not even Mrs Creevy herself could keep the children in order. By midday Dorothy’s nerves were in rags, and Mrs Creevy gave her a ‘talking to’ in front of the seven children who stayed to dinner. In the afternoon the noise was worse than ever, and at last Dorothy, overcome, appealed to the girls almost tearfully to stop.
‘Girls!’ she called out, raising her voice to make herself heard through the din. ‘PLEASE stop it, PLEASE! You’re behaving horribly to me. Do you think it’s kind to go on like this?’
That was fatal, of course. Never, never, never throw yourself on the mercy of a child! There was an instant’s hush, and then one child cried out, loudly and derisively, ‘Mill-iee!’ The next moment the whole class had taken it up, even the imbecile Mavis, chanting all together ‘Mill-iee! Mill-iee! Mill-iee!’ At that, something within Dorothy seemed to snap. She paused for an instant, picked out the girl who was making the most noise, walked up to her, and gave her a smack across the ear almost as hard as she could hit. Happily it was only one of the ‘medium payers’.
On the first day of the holidays Dorothy received a letter from Mr Warburton.
My Dear Dorothy [he wrote] — Or should I call you Ellen, as I understand that is your new name? You must, I am afraid, have thought it very heartless of me not to have written sooner, but I assure you that it was not until ten days ago that I even heard anything about our supposed escapade. I have been abroad, first in various parts of France, then in Austria and then in Rome, and, as you know, I avoid my fellow countrymen most strenuously on these trips. They are disgusting enough even at home, but in foreign parts their behaviour makes me so ashamed of them that I generally try to pass myself off as an American.
When I got to Knype Hill your father refused to see me, but I managed to get hold of Victor Stone, who gave me your address and the name you are using. He seemed rather reluctant to do so, and I gathered that even he, like everyone else in this poisonous town, still believes that you have misbehaved yourself in some way. I think the theory that you and I eloped together has been dropped, but you must, they feel, have done SOMETHING scandalous. A young woman has left home suddenly, therefore there must be a man in the case; that is how the provincial mind works, you see. I need not tell you that I have been contradicting the whole story with the utmost vigour. You will be glad to hear that I managed to corner that disgusting hag, Mrs Semprill, and give her a piece of my mind; and I assure you that a piece of MY mind is distinctly formidable. But the woman is simply sub-human. I could get nothing out of her except hypocritical snivellings about ‘poor, POOR Dorothy’.
I hear that your father misses you very much, and would gladly have you home again if it were not for the scandal. His meals are never punctual nowadays, it seems. He gives it out that you ‘went away to recuperate from a slight illness and have now got an excellent post at a girls’ school’. You will be surprised to hear of one thing that has happened to him. He has been obliged to pay off all his debts! I am told that the tradesmen rose in a body and held what was practically a creditors’ meeting in the Rectory. Not the kind of thing that could have happened at Plumstead Episcopi — but these are democratic days, alas! You, evidently, were the only person who could keep the tradesmen permanently at bay.
And now I must tell you some of my own news, etc., etc., etc.
At this point Dorothy tore the letter up in disappointment and even in annoyance. He might have shown a little more sympathy! she thought. It was just like Mr Warburton after getting her into serious trouble — for after all, he was principally to blame for what had happened — to be so flippant and unconcerned about it. But when she had thought it over she acquitted him of heartlessness. He had done what little was possible to help her, and he could not be expected to pity her for troubles of which he had not heard. Besides, his own life had been a series of resounding scandals; probably he could not understand that to a woman a scandal is a serious matter.
At Christmas Dorothy’s father also wrote, and what was more, sent her a Christmas present of two pounds. It was evident from the tone of his letter that he had forgiven Dorothy by this time. WHAT exactly he had forgiven her was not certain, because it was not certain what exactly she had done; but still, he had forgiven her. The letter started with some perfunctory but quite friendly inquiries. He hoped her new job suited her, he wrote. And were her rooms at the school comfortable and the rest of the staff congenial? He had heard that they did one very well at schools nowadays — very different from what it had been forty years ago. Now, in his day, etc., etc., etc. He had, Dorothy perceived, not the dimmest idea of her present circumstances. At the mention of schools his mind flew to Winchester, his old school; such a place as Ringwood House was beyond his imagining.
The rest of the letter was taken up with grumblings about the way things were going in the parish. The Rector complained of being worried and overworked. The wretched churchwardens kept bothering him with this and that, and he was growing very tired of Proggett’s reports about the collapsing belfry, and the daily woman whom he had engaged to help Ellen was a great nuisance and had put her broom-handle through the face of the grandfather clock in his study — and so on, and so forth, for a number of pages. He said several times in a mumbling roundabout way that he wished Dorothy were there to help him; but he did not actually suggest that she should come home. Evidently it was still necessary that she should remain out of sight and out of mind — a skeleton in a distant and well-locked cupboard.
The letter filled Dorothy with sudden painful homesickness. She found herself pining to be back at her parish visiting and her Girl Guides’ cooking class, and wondering unhappily how her father had got on without her all this while and whether those two women were looking after him properly. She was fond of her father, in a way that she had never dared to show; for he was not a person to whom you could make any display of affection. It surprised and rather shocked her to realize how little he had been in her thoughts during the past four months. There had been periods of weeks at a time when she had forgotten his existence. But the truth was that the mere business of keeping body and soul together had left her with no leisure for other emotions.
Now, however, school work was over, and she had leisure and to spare, for though Mrs Creevy did her best she could not invent enough household jobs to keep Dorothy busy for more than part of the day. She made it quite plain to Dorothy that during the holidays she was nothing but a useless expense, and she watched her at her meals (obviously feeling it an outrage that she should eat when she wasn’t working) in a way that finally became unbearable. So Dorothy kept out of the house as much as possible, and, feeling fairly rich with her wages (four pounds ten, for nine weeks) and her father’s two pounds, she took to buying sandwiches at the ham and beef shop in the town and eating her dinner out of doors. Mrs Creevy acquiesced, half sulkily because she liked to have Dorothy in the house to nag at her, and half pleased at the chance of skimping a few more meals.
Dorothy went for long solitary walks, exploring Southbridge and its yet more desolate neighbours, Dorley, Wembridge, and West Holton. Winter had descended, dank and windless, and more gloomy in those colourless labyrinthine suburbs than in the bleakest wilderness. On two or three occasions, though such extravagance would probably mean hungry days later on, Dorothy took a cheap return ticket to Iver Heath or Burnham Beeches. The woods were sodden and wintry, with great beds of drifted beech leaves that glowed like copper in the still, wet air, and the days were so mild that you could sit out of doors and read if you kept your gloves on. On Christmas Eve Mrs Creevy produced some sprigs of holly that she had saved from last year, dusted them, and nailed them up; but she did not, she said, intend to have a Christmas dinner. She didn’t hold with all this Christmas nonsense, she said — it was just a lot of humbug got up by the shopkeepers, and such an unnecessary expense; and she hated turkey and Christmas pudding anyway. Dorothy was relieved; a Christmas dinner in that joyless ‘morning-room’ (she had an awful momentary vision of Mrs Creevy in a paper hat out of a cracker) was something that didn’t bear thinking about. She ate her Christmas dinner — a hard-boiled egg, two cheese sandwiches, and a bottle of lemonade — in the woods near Burnham, against a great gnarled beech tree, over a copy of George Gissing’s The Odd Women.
On days when it was too wet to go for walks she spent most of her time in the public library — becoming, indeed, one of the regular habituees of the library, along with the out-of-work men who sat drearily musing over illustrated papers which they did not read, and the elderly discoloured bachelor who lived in ‘rooms’ on two pounds a week and came to the library to study books on yachting by the hour together. It had been a great relief to her when the term ended, but this feeling soon wore off; indeed, with never a soul to talk to, the days dragged even more heavily than before. There is perhaps no quarter of the inhabited world where one can be quite so completely alone as in the London suburbs. In a big town the throng and bustle give one at least the illusion of companionship, and in the country everyone is interested in everyone else — too much so, indeed. But in places like Southbridge, if you have no family and no home to call your own, you could spend half a lifetime without managing to make a friend. There are women in such places, and especially derelict gentlewomen in ill-paid jobs, who go for years upon end in almost utter solitude. It was not long before Dorothy found herself in a perpetually low-spirited, jaded state in which, try as she would, nothing seemed able to interest her. And it was in the hateful ennui of this time — the corrupting ennui that lies in wait for every modern soul — that she first came to a full understanding of what it meant to have lost her faith.
She tried drugging herself with books, and it succeeded for a week or so. But after a while very nearly all books seemed wearisome and unintelligible; for the mind will not work to any purpose when it is quite alone. In the end she found that she could not cope with anything more difficult than a detective story. She took walks of ten and fifteen miles, trying to tire herself into a better mood; but the mean suburban roads, and the damp, miry paths through the woods, the naked trees, the sodden moss and great spongy fungi, afflicted her with a deadly melancholy. It was human companionship that she needed, and there seemed no way of getting it. At nights’ when she walked back to the school and looked at the warm-lit windows of the houses, and heard voices laughing and gramophones playing within, her heart swelled with envy. Ah, to be like those people in there — to have at least a home, a family, a few friends who were interested in you! There were days when she pined for the courage to speak to strangers in the street. Days, too, when she contemplated shamming piety in order to scrape acquaintance with the Vicar of St George’s and his family, and perhaps get the chance of occupying herself with a little parish work; days, even, when she was so desperate that she thought of joining the Y.W.C.A.
But almost at the end of the holidays, through a chance encounter at the library, she made friends with a little woman named Miss Beaver, who was geography mistress at Toot’s Commercial College, another of the private schools in Southbridge. Toot’s Commerical College was a much larger and more pretentious school than Ringwood House — it had about a hundred and fifty day-pupils of both sexes and even rose to the dignity of having a dozen boarders — and its curriculum was a somewhat less blatant swindle. It was one of those schools that are aimed at the type of parent who blathers about ‘up-to-date business training’, and its watch-word was Efficiency; meaning a tremendous parade of hustling, and the banishment of all humane studies. One of its features was a kind of catechism called the Efficiency Ritual, which all the children were required to learn by heart as soon as they joined the school. It had questions and answers such as:
Q. What is the secret of success? A. The secret of success is efficiency. Q. What is the test of efficiency? A. The test of efficiency is success.
And so on and so on. It was said that the spectacle of the whole school, boys and girls together, reciting the Efficiency Ritual under the leadership of the Headmaster — they had this ceremony two mornings a week instead of prayers — was most impressive.
Miss Beaver was a prim little woman with a round body, a thin face, a reddish nose, and the gait of a guinea-hen. After twenty years of slave-driving she had attained to an income of four pounds a week and the privilege of ‘living out’ instead of having to put the boarders to bed at nights. She lived in ‘rooms’— that is, in a bed-sitting room — to which she was sometimes able to invite Dorothy when both of them had a free evening. How Dorothy looked forward to those visits! They were only possible at rare intervals, because Miss Beaver’s landlady ‘didn’t approve of visitors’, and even when you got there there was nothing much to do except to help solve the crossword puzzle out of the Daily Telegraph and look at the photographs Miss Beaver had taken on her trip (this trip had been the summit and glory of her life) to the Austrian Tyrol in 1913. But still, how much it meant to sit talking to somebody in a friendly way and to drink a cup of tea less wishy-washy than Mrs Creevy’s! Miss Beaver had a spirit lamp in a japanned travelling case (it had been with her to the Tyrol in 1913) on which she brewed herself pots of tea as black as coal-tar, swallowing about a bucketful of this stuff during the day. She confided to Dorothy that she always took a Thermos flask to school and had a nice hot cup of tea during the break and another after dinner. Dorothy perceived that by one of two well-beaten roads every third-rate schoolmistress must travel: Miss Strong’s road, via whisky to the workhouse; or Miss Beaver’s road, via strong tea to a decent death in the Home for Decayed Gentlewomen.
Miss Beaver was in truth a dull little woman. She was a memento mori, or rather memento senescere, to Dorothy. Her soul seemed to have withered until it was as forlorn as a dried-up cake of soap in a forgotten soap dish. She had come to a point where life in a bed-sitting room under a tyrannous landlady and the ‘efficient’ thrusting of Commercial Geography down children’s retching throats, were almost the only destiny she could imagine. Yet Dorothy grew to be very fond of Miss Beaver, and those occasional hours that they spent together in the bed-sitting room, doing the Daily Telegraph crossword over a nice hot cup of tea, were like oases in her life.
She was glad when the Easter term began, for even the daily round of slave-driving was better than the empty solitude of the holidays. Moreover, the girls were much better in hand this term; she never again found it necessary to smack their heads. For she had grasped now that it is easy enough to keep children in order if you are ruthless with them from the start. Last term the girls had behaved badly, because she had started by treating them as human beings, and later on, when the lessons that interested them were discontinued, they had rebelled like human beings. But if you are obliged to teach children rubbish, you mustn’t treat them as human beings. You must treat them like animals — driving, not persuading. Before all else, you must teach them that it is more painful to rebel than to obey. Possibly this kind of treatment is not very good for children, but there is no doubt they understand it and respond to it.
She learned the dismal arts of the school-teacher. She learned to glaze her mind against the interminable boring hours, to economize her nervous energy, to be merciless and ever-vigilant, to take a kind of pride and pleasure in seeing a futile rigmarole well done. She had grown, quite suddenly it seemed, much tougher and maturer. Her eyes had lost the half-childish look that they had once had, and her face had grown thinner, making her nose seem longer. At times it was quite definitely a schoolmarm’s face; you could imagine pince-nez upon it. But she had not become cynical as yet. She still knew that these children were the victims of a dreary swindle, still longed, if it had been possible, to do something better for them. If she harried them and stuffed their heads with rubbish, it was for one reason alone: because whatever happened she had got to keep her job.
There was very little noise in the schoolroom this term. Mrs Creevy, anxious as she always was for a chance of finding fault, seldom had reason to rap on the wall with her broom-handle. One morning at breakfast she looked rather hard at Dorothy, as though weighing a decision, and then pushed the dish of marmalade across the table.
‘Have some marmalade if you like, Miss Millborough,’ she said, quite graciously for her.
It was the first time that marmalade had crossed Dorothy’s lips since she had come to Ringwood House. She flushed slightly. ‘So the woman realizes that I have done my best for her,’ she could not help thinking.
Thereafter she had marmalade for breakfast every morning. And in other ways Mrs Creevy’s manner became — not indeed, genial, for it could never be that, but less brutally offensive. There were even times when she produced a grimace that was intended for a smile; her face, it seemed to Dorothy, CREASED with the effort. About this time her conversation became peppered with references to ‘next term’. It was always ‘Next term we’ll do this’, and ‘Next term I shall want you to do that’, until Dorothy began to feel that she had won Mrs Creevy’s confidence and was being treated more like a colleague than a slave. At that a small, unreasonable but very exciting hope took root in her heart. Perhaps Mrs Creevy was going to raise her wages! It was profoundly unlikely, and she tried to break herself of hoping for it, but could not quite succeed. If her wages were raised even half a crown a week, what a difference it would make!
The last day came. With any luck Mrs Creevy might pay her wages tomorrow, Dorothy thought. She wanted the money very badly indeed; she had been penniless for weeks past, and was not only unbearably hungry, but also in need of some new stockings, for she had not a pair that were not darned almost out of existence. The following morning she did the household jobs allotted to her, and then, instead of going out, waited in the ‘morning-room’ while Mrs Creevy banged about with her broom and pan upstairs. Presently Mrs Creevy came down.
‘Ah, so THERE you are, Miss Millborough!’ she said in a peculiar meaning tone. ‘I had a sort of an idea you wouldn’t be in such a hurry to get out of doors this morning. Well, as you ARE here, I suppose I may as well pay you your wages.’
‘Thank you,’ said Dorothy.
‘And after that,’ added Mrs Creevy, ‘I’ve got a little something as I want to say to you.’
Dorothy’s heart stirred. Did that ‘little something’ mean the longed-for rise in wages? It was just conceivable. Mrs Creevy produced a worn, bulgy leather purse from a locked drawer in the dresser, opened it and licked her thumb.
‘Twelve weeks and five days,’ she said. ‘Twelve weeks is near enough. No need to be particular to a day. That makes six pounds.’
She counted out five dingy pound notes and two ten-shilling notes; then, examining one of the notes and apparently finding it too clean, she put it back into her purse and fished out another that had been torn in half. She went to the dresser, got a piece of transparent sticky paper and carefully stuck the two halves together. Then she handed it, together with the other six, to Dorothy.
‘There you are, Miss Millborough,’ she said. ‘And now, will you just leave the house AT once, please? I shan’t be wanting you any longer.’
‘You won’t be —’
Dorothy’s entrails seemed to have turned to ice. All the blood drained out of her face. But even now, in her terror and despair, she was not absolutely sure of the meaning of what had been said to her. She still half thought that Mrs Creevy merely meant that she was to stay out of the house for the rest of the day.
‘You won’t be wanting me any longer?’ she repeated faintly.
‘No. I’m getting in another teacher at the beginning of next term. And it isn’t to be expected as I’d keep you through the holidays all free for nothing, is it?’
‘But you don’t mean that you want me to LEAVE— that you’re dismissing me?’
‘Of course I do. What else did you think I meant?’
‘But you’ve given me no notice!’ said Dorothy.
‘Notice!’ said Mrs Creevy, getting angry immediately. ‘What’s it got to do with YOU whether I give you notice or not? You haven’t got a written contract, have you?’
‘No . . . I suppose not.’
‘Well, then! You’d better go upstairs and start packing your box. It’s no good your staying any longer, because I haven’t got anything in for your dinner.’
Dorothy went upstairs and sat down on the side of the bed. She was trembling uncontrollably, and it was some minutes before she could collect her wits and begin packing. She felt dazed. The disaster that had fallen upon her was so sudden, so apparently causeless, that she had difficulty in believing that it had actually happened. But in truth the reason why Mrs Creevy had sacked her was quite simple and adequate.
Not far from Ringwood House there was a poor, moribund little school called The Gables, with only seven pupils. The teacher was an incompetent old hack called Miss Allcock, who had been at thirty-eight different schools in her life and was not fit to have charge of a tame canary. But Miss Allcock had one outstanding talent; she was very good at double-crossing her employers. In these third-rate and fourth-rate private schools a sort of piracy is constantly going on. Parents are ‘got round’ and pupils stolen from one school to another. Very often the treachery of the teacher is at the bottom of it. The teacher secretly approaches the parents one by one (‘Send your child to me and I’ll take her at ten shillings a term cheaper’), and when she has corrupted a sufficient number she suddenly deserts and ‘sets up’ on her own, or carries the children off to another school. Miss Allcock had succeeded in stealing three out of her employer’s seven pupils, and had come to Mrs Creevy with the offer of them. In return, she was to have Dorothy’s place and a fifteen-per-cent commission on the pupils she brought.
There were weeks of furtive chaffering before the bargain was clinched, Miss Allcock being finally beaten down from fifteen per cent to twelve and a half. Mrs Creevy privately resolved to sack old Allcock the instant she was certain that the three children she brought with her would stay. Simultaneously, Miss Allcock was planning to begin stealing old Creevy’s pupils as soon as she had got a footing in the school.
Having decided to sack Dorothy, it was obviously most important to prevent her from finding it out. For, of course, if she knew what was going to happen, she would begin stealing pupils on her own account, or at any rate wouldn’t do a stroke of work for the rest of the term. (Mrs Creevy prided herself on knowing human nature.) Hence the marmalade, the creaky smiles, and the other ruses to allay Dorothy’s suspicions. Anyone who knew the ropes would have begun thinking of another job the very moment when the dish of marmalade was pushed across the table.
Just half an hour after her sentence of dismissal, Dorothy, carrying her handbag, opened the front gate. It was the fourth of April, a bright blowy day, too cold to stand about in, with a sky as blue as a hedgesparrow’s egg, and one of those spiteful spring winds that come tearing along the pavement in sudden gusts and blow dry, stinging dust into your face. Dorothy shut the gate behind her and began to walk very slowly in the direction of the main-line station.
She had told Mrs Creevy that she would give her an address to which her box could be sent, and Mrs Creevy had instantly exacted five shillings for the carriage. So Dorothy had five pounds fifteen in hand, which might keep her for three weeks with careful economy. What she was going to do, except that she must start by going to London and finding a suitable lodging, she had very little idea. But her first panic had worn off, and she realized that the situation was not altogether desperate. No doubt her father would help her, at any rate for a while, and at the worst, though she hated even the thought of doing it, she could ask her cousin’s help a second time. Besides, her chances of finding a job were probably fairly good. She was young, she spoke with a genteel accent, and she was willing to drudge for a servant’s wages — qualities that are much sought after by the proprietors of fourth-rate schools. Very likely all would be well. But that there was an evil time ahead of her, a time of job-hunting, of uncertainty and possibly of hunger — that, at any rate, was certain.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12