English Literature

The Little School-Mothers by L. T. Meade

The Little School-Mothers by L. T. Meade

Book One—Chapter One.

The Girls of the Third Form.

“Robina Starling will arrive at the school this evening,” said Mrs Burton. “She is twelve years old, and has never been at school before. I want you girls of the third form to take her under your charge. Frederica and Patience Chetwold, do you hear? Harriet Lane and Jane Bush, I expect great tact and consideration; don’t forget. And as to you, dear Rose, and you. Cecil and Vivian Amberley, I know beforehand that you are always sweet and considerate to those a little younger and a little more ignorant than yourselves. Robina has been sent from home because of her mother’s illness. She is quite a little home bird, and I have no doubt will be sorry for herself. I have given her people to understand that she will be very happy at school, and I expect you girls of the third form to help me to carry out my prognostications. Now then, I think that is all. We will begin our usual lessons. Miss Sparke, will you take the third form girls for their history? Miss Devigny, the sixth form are waiting for you in the blue parlour.”

A minute later the several girls of Abbeyfield School had dispersed to their different classrooms, and the great hall in which they had assembled for prayers, and afterwards to hear Mrs Burton’s remarks with regard to Robina Starling, was empty. A busy hum of eager voices might have been heard issuing from the different classrooms. It was the subdued hum caused by young people kept in complete order and actively engaged in following the pursuit of knowledge.

Abbeyfield School was situated in the neighbourhood of the New Forest, and was within half an hour by train of Bournemouth. The time was midsummer, and the holidays were not far ahead. The school was a very select one, and did not consist of more than twenty pupils. There was the third form for the girls already mentioned: Frederica and Patience Chetwold, Harriet Lane, and Jane Bush, and the three Amberleys. There was the first form, where the little children played and learned a little and were happy—there were only three little children now in the first form—and then there was the sixth form, where the girls who were considered grown-up pursued their studies. Here might be seen grave Constance Amberley, the sister of Rose and Cecil and Vivian; here, also, were Julia Price and Agnes Winter, and several more, all well-behaved girls anxious to do their duty and to take advantage of the many excellent opportunities offered to them at Abbeyfield.

There were, to all appearance, no really naughty girls in the school, although it is true that Harriet Lane and Jane Bush were not quite so much liked as their fellows. Still, harmony was the order of the hour, and no young people looked happier than these as they went two by two into their pews to the old church on Sunday and appeared now and then at a fashionable flower show at Bournemouth, or—best time of all—played merrily in the fields and lanes which surrounded Abbeyfield.

On the day when Mrs Burton had announced the arrival of Robina Starling, there was to be a picnic, to which every member of the school had been invited. It was a special picnic given by Miss Devigny, the lady who superintended the studies of the sixth form girls. She was to take them to a well-known place called Mark Ash, about six miles away. They were to have a picnic tea, and were not to return home until late. Mrs Burton would not accompany them, but Miss Sparke and Miss Devigny were considered quite a sufficient escort. They would drive to Mark Ash in two waggonettes, and every heart was pit-a-pat with excitement at the thought of their happy afternoon.

Miss Devigny was the sort of teacher whom all girls idolise. It was not that she was exactly beautiful, nor perhaps especially clever, but she had that indescribable attribute which is best known by the word “charm.” Without any apparent effort on her part, she charmed all those with whom she came in contact. Even the dullest pupil brightened and did her best under Miss Devigny’s influence; even the most sulky became good-tempered, and the most secretive became open and above-board. The great inducement for the little girls of the third form to struggle hard and conquer the difficulties of English, French, and German was the hope that they would be moved into Miss Devigny’s class. To work with her in the blue parlour was as good as a holiday—so the girls who were there already affirmed, and so all, without a single exception, believed.

Now, however, there was a new topic of interest. Something very wonderful had occurred. The third form girls were to receive a new companion. For a girl to arrive at the school so late in the term was itself rather remarkable, but for a girl to come and be immediately placed, as it were, in their charge; for a girl to be made over to them so that they alone were to be in a measure responsible for her well-being and happiness, was a state of things which at once dazzled and perplexed them.

During recess that morning the girls of the third form met in a little group to discuss the situation. Even the sixth form girls looked at them with a certain envy, and thought it somewhat strange of Mrs Burton to put this responsibility upon the young ones. The sixth form girls were, of course, much too grand to interfere, but they also were interested in Robina.

“She must be a sort of bird,” said Frederica. “Think of her funny name—Robina Starling.”

“We must not laugh at her,” said Patience; “we must be very careful about her. I wonder at what end of the dormitory she will sleep?”

“There is an empty bed at the far end near me,” said Harriet Lane.

“Oh, she won’t be put there, Harry; don’t you make any mistake,” said Jane Bush. “She is going to be petted and fussed over—I can see that. I know quite well what will happen. She will have the centre bed under the window—that’s the nicest bed of all. You’re in it now, Rose.” Here Jane laughed. “Well, you’ll have to turn out; the bird will want it; see if I am not right.”

“Don’t be nasty,” said Rose. “If I have to turn out, I don’t mind, not one bit. Poor little thing! She has never been at school before, and she is twelve years old. It’s rather nice to have the charge of her; don’t you think so, girls?”

“Yes,” said they all, except Harriet and Jane.

“I do wonder what she will be like?” said Cecil Amberley.

“I know,” cried Harriet. “You mark my words, girls.” Here she pushed herself forward in a silly, aggravating way she had. “You mark my words. There is something queer about that Robina. Why should we receive her in the sort of manner Mrs Burton seems to expect? Why should we be so precious good to her? She must be a weakling; perhaps she is deformed, or has a squint.”

“Oh! Harriet, you don’t think so!” said Vivian Amberley, the youngest of the four sisters, and in consequence the most petted. “I can’t bear girls with squints,” she added.

“But that would be better than having a hunchback,” said Jane.

“She is sure to have something,” continued Harriet. “It may not be either of these, but something. She is small, and ugly, and frightened—that I am certain of. Oh, of course we’ll have to be good to her; but at the same time, what I say is this, girls: we’ll have to let that young ’un know at once that she is not to have her own way about everything.”

“There is something in what you say,” remarked Patience Chetwold; “and although I never quite care for your sort of tone, Harriet, yet I think, too, we must not let the girl rule us all. She won’t love us a bit if we spoil her.”

“Of course she won’t,” said Frederica.

“Well, I am going to spoil her,” said Rose; “and I know for certain she is not a bit like what you say, you horrid thing,” and she darted an angry glance at Harriet Lane. “She has a very pretty name, to begin with, and I am certain she is just a dear.”

“Don’t let’s quarrel about her,” said Jane. “So far we are not a quarrelling lot. It would be too bad if that Robina started quarrelling in the school.”

“Oh, I say, girls, there’s the bell! Let’s go in. Let’s race to the door. Who’ll be first?”

“I say!” cried Harriet. “Who’ll follow? Come along, Jane Bush!”

The picnic was great fun. The girls said so afterwards. There was not a single flaw anywhere; there was no sort of dissension in the school; the children were well-behaved, they did not quarrel. It is true that Jane Bush could quarrel if there was anyone to quarrel with, and it is true that Harriet could be nasty, and even spiteful, were the occasion to offer. But then it did not offer. When there happen to be in a form two girls like the Chetwolds, and three girls like the Amberleys, two somewhat disagreeable girls have very little chance of making their presence felt. Accordingly, no one disputed for the favourite place near Miss Devigny, and no one rebelled or made nasty remarks when Jane Bush secured the last morsel of cream blancmange for herself; no one even whispered “Greedy pig!” but everyone was as ladylike and charming as possible.

Miss Devigny turned to Miss Sparke, and said, under her breath:

“I really never saw such well-behaved little girls; they do you great credit, Miss Sparke.”

“They are naturally amiable,” replied Miss Sparke; “and I only trust things will continue in as great harmony as at present after Robina Starling arrives.”

“Do you know anything about the child?” asked Miss Devigny, dropping her voice and coming closer to the other teacher.

“Not much, except that she is too troublesome at home to remain there any longer. Her mother is very far from well, and little Robina has never learned obedience. Dear Mrs Burton is not afraid of her on that account, however, and she believes that there will be no finer discipline for her than making her over, as it were, to the third form.”

“Perhaps so,” said Miss Devigny, a little doubtfully; “but I am not so sure on that point,” she added.

The girls were now playing hide-and-seek in the wood, and while the two governesses were talking, quite unperceived by them a little head peeped out from amongst a great mass of underwood, and two bright, mischievous black eyes looked keenly for a minute at Miss Devigny, and then the head popped back again before anyone could see. The governesses were quite unaware that one of the most troublesome children in the third form had overheard them. This child was no less a person than Jane Bush.

Jane was a little girl who had never known a mother’s care. She had been sent to this nice school when she was ten years of age. She had been at Abbeyfield now for nearly two years. She was a small girl for her age, somewhat stoutly built. She had very black eyes, and short black hair, which she always wore like a mop sticking up all over her funny round head. She was a perfect contrast to her own special friend and ally, Harriet Lane. Harriet was a tall, lanky, pale child. She had exceedingly light blue eyes, a large mouth, somewhat prominent teeth, and thin, hay-coloured hair. She was not at all pretty. Harriet had made up her mind on the subject of her own looks long ago.

“I must be something,” she thought. “If I am not pretty, I must at least be out of the common. I will make people see that I am awfully clever. It’s just as nice to be clever as to be pretty.”

Perhaps Harriet was more clever than her companions. She certainly did manage to impress the others with her power of learning French and German, with the excellent way in which she studied her “pieces” for the pianoforte, and with her really pretty little drawings, which, in her opinion, were almost works of art.

Harriet, in her heart of hearts, voted the Chetwolds dull and the three Amberleys molly-coddles.

“They are always fussing about their throats or having damp feet or getting a little bit of a chill,” she remarked on one occasion in a very superior tone to Jane. “I have no patience with girls who are always thinking of themselves; they just do it to be petted. As to that Vivian, she knows quite well that if she manages to cry a little and put her hand to her throat, she won’t have any more lessons for the rest of the day.”

“I call Vivian a horrid little cheat, although she is thought such a model,” said Jane.

“Oh, I hate models,” said Harriet. “Give me a naughty girl, by preference.”

“There are no naughty girls in this school,” said Jane; “they are every one of them as good as good. It’s awfully dull,” she added. “Even you and I can’t be naughty, Harriet; for there’s no one to be naughty with.”

These were the sentiments of these two really troublesome young people when they started on their picnic. In the course of that same evening, when the sun was about to set, and the slight summer breeze had dropped away, and there was a perfect calm all over nature and a serene pale blue sky overhead, then Jane Bush met Harriet Lane and, clutching her by the arm, said:

“Oh, Harry, Harry! What do you think?”

“I am sure I don’t know,” said Harriet, who looked taller and more lanky than ever. “I wish you wouldn’t get so frightfully excited, Jane. You quite take my breath away.”

“I have got news for you,” said Jane, making her mouth into a round “O,” and forming a trumpet for it with her hand. “News!” she repeated. “Wonderful grand news!” and now she managed to shout the words into Harriet’s ear.

“Don’t deafen me,” said Harriet. “I can’t help it if you have news. I don’t suppose there is anything in your new’s,” she continued.

“You are as cross as two sticks, Harry,” said Jane; “but you won’t be when you hear what I have got to say. Come along; I must tell you before we start for home, and they are putting the horses to the waggonettes already. Let’s run down this glade. Let’s be very quick, or they’ll stop us. I see old Sparke coming back as fast as she can, and she’ll begin to call us all to the top of that little mound. It is there we are to wait for the waggonettes. Come—quick!”

Harriet, although she liked Jane, had a secret sort of contempt for her. She could be naughty, of course, but she was not clever. Harriet admired nothing but talent. She believed herself to be a sort of genius.

“I don’t suppose you have anything to tell me,” she repeated; “but I’ll come if you want me to. See, I’ll race you—one, two, three! I’ll get first to that tall tree at the end of the glade.”

In a race with Harriet, Jane was nowhere, for Harriet’s legs were so long and she was so light that she flew almost like the wind over the ground. She easily reached the meeting-place first, and Jane followed her, panting, red in the face, and a little cross.

“You did take the wind out of me,” she said. “Oh, oh, oh!”

She pressed her hand to her side.

“I cannot speak at all for a minute—I—I—can’t—tell you my news. Oh, you have winded me—you have!”

“Don’t talk, then,” said Harriet, who was leaning comfortably with her back against a tree; while Jane, round as a ball and crimson in the face, panted a little way off. By-and-by, however, Jane got back her voice.

“I’ve found out something about the new ’un,” she said, “that bird thing, who will be here to-night. I was hiding down in the brushwood, just by the big oak, and you were all looking for me; but I buried myself under a holly tree, and no one could see even a squint of me, however hard one looked. They—didn’t know I was there.”

“Who do you mean by ‘they’?” interrupted Harriet.

“Sparke and Devigny,” said Jane. “Oh, of course I am fond of Miss Devigny, but I can’t be bothered to ‘Miss’ her when I’m in no end of a hurry. Well, they talked, and it was all about the new ’un. She is not a model; that’s one comfort. She is so desperately naughty she has been sent from home—sort of expelled, you know—sort of disgraced for life; a nice sort of creature to come here! And we’re to mould her. What is to ‘mould’ a body, Harriet?”

“To make them like ourselves, I suppose,” said Harriet, whose eyes sparkled over this intelligence.

“That is what Sparke said; she hopes everything for the bird from our influence. Isn’t it fun? Isn’t it great? I am quite excited! See here now: think what larks we’ll have with a squint-eyed, hunchbacked, very naughty girl. Oh, won’t it be larks!”

“She may be a nuisance, there is no saying,” remarked Harriet.

“Why, aren’t you delighted, Harriet? I am.”

“Can’t say,” answered Harriet. “I only hope,” she added, “that whatever else she is, she is stupid. I don’t want any clever girls in the same form with me. Now, let’s go back, Jane.”

“You don’t seem at all obliged to me for telling you such a wonderful piece of news,” said Jane.

“I am not. We’d have found it all out for ourselves in no time, and you should never listen—you know you shouldn’t.”

“Oh, Harriet, you won’t tell on me—you promise you won’t?”

“I? Of course not, silly. Now let’s be quick. I hear Sparkie shouting. Let’s run back. Oh, I am glad I have got long legs!”


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