Regiment of Women
The school secretary pattered down the long corridor and turned into a class-room.
The room was a big one. There were old-fashioned casement windows and distempered walls; the modern desks, ranged in double rows, were small and shallow, scarred, and incredibly inky. In the window-seats stood an over-populous fish-bowl, two trays of silkworms, and a row of experimental jam-pots. There were pictures on the walls—The Infant Samuel was paired with Cherry Ripe, and Alfred, in the costume of Robin Hood, conscientiously ignored a neat row of halfpenny buns. The form was obviously a low one.
Through the opening door came the hive-like hum of a school at work, but the room was empty, save for a mistress sitting at the raised desk, idle, hands folded, ominously patient. A thin woman, undeveloped, sallow-skinned, with a sensitive mouth, and eyes that were bold and shining.
They narrowed curiously at sight of the new-comer, but she was greeted with sufficient courtesy.
“Yes, Miss Vigers?”
Henrietta Vigers was spare, precise, with pale, twitching eyes and a high voice. Her manner was self-sufficient, her speech deliberate and unnecessarily correct: her effect was the colourless obstinacy of an elderly mule. She stared about her inquisitively.
“Miss Hartill, I am looking for Milly Fiske. Her mother has telephoned—Where is the class? I can’t be mistaken. It’s a quarter to one. You take the Lower Third from twelve-fifteen, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Clare Hartill.
“Well, but—where is it?” The secretary frowned suspiciously. She was instinctively hostile to what she did not understand.
“I don’t know,” said Clare sweetly.
Henrietta gaped. Clare, justly annoyed as she was, could not but be grateful to the occasion for providing her with amusement. She enjoyed baiting Henrietta.
“I should have thought you could tell me. Don’t you control the time-table? I only know”—her anger rose again—“that I have been waiting here since a quarter past twelve. I have waited quite long enough, I think. I am going home. Perhaps you will be good enough to enquire into the matter.”
“But haven’t you been to look for them?” began Henrietta perplexedly.
“No,” said Clare. “I don’t, you know. I expect people to come to me. And I don’t like wasting my time.” Then, with a change of tone, “Really, Miss Vigers, I don’t know whose fault it is, but it has no business to happen. The class knows perfectly well that it is due here. You must see that I can’t run about looking for it.”
“Of course, of course!” Henrietta was taken aback. “But I assure you that it’s nothing to do with me. I have rearranged nothing. Let me see—who takes them before you?”
Clare shrugged her shoulders.
“How should I know? I hardly have time for my own classes—”
Henrietta broke in excitedly.
“It’s Miss Durand! I might have known. Miss Durand, naturally. Miss Hartill, I will see to the matter at once. It shall not happen again. I will speak to Miss Marsham. I might have known.”
“Miss Durand?” Clare’s annoyance vanished. She looked interested and a trifle amused. “That tall girl with the yellow hair? I’ve heard about her. I haven’t spoken to her yet, but the children approve, don’t they?” She laughed pointedly and Henrietta flushed. “I rather like the look of her.”
“Do you?” Henrietta smiled sourly. “I can’t agree. A most unsuitable person. Miss Marsham engaged her without consulting me—or you either, I suppose? The niece or daughter or something, of an old mistress. I wonder you didn’t hear—but of course you were away the first fortnight. A terrible young woman—boisterous—undignified—a bad influence on the children!”
Clare’s eyes narrowed again.
“Are you sure? The junior classes are working quite as well as usual—better indeed. I’ve been surprised. Of course, to-day—”
“To-day is an example. She has detained them, I suppose. It has happened before—five minutes here—ten there—every one is complaining. Really—I shall speak to Miss Marsham.”
“Of course, if that’s the case, you had better,” said Clare, rather impatiently, as she moved towards the door. She regretted the impulse that had induced her to explain matters to Miss Vigers. If it did not suit her dignity to go in search of her errant pupils, still less did it accord with a complaint to the fidgety secretary. She should have managed the affair for herself. However—it could not be helped. . . . Henrietta Vigers was looking important. . . . Henrietta Vigers would enjoy baiting the new-comer—what was her name—Durand? Miss Durand would submit, she supposed. Henrietta was a petty tyrant to the younger mistresses, and Clare Hartill was very much aware of the fact. But the younger mistresses did not interest her; she was no more than idly contemptuous of their flabbiness. Why on earth had none of them appealed to the head mistress? But the new assistant was a spirited-looking creature. . . . Clare had noticed her keen nostrils—nothing sheepish there. . . . And Henrietta disliked her—distinctly a point in her favour. . . . Clare suspected that trouble might yet arise. . . . She paused uncertainly. Even now she might herself interfere. . . . But Miss Durand had certainly had no right to detain Clare’s class. . . . It was gross carelessness, if not impertinence. . . . Let her fight it out with Miss Vigers. . . . Nevertheless—she wished her luck. . . .
With another glance at her watch, and a cool little nod to her colleague, she left the class-room, and was shortly setting out for her walk home.
Henrietta looked after her with an angry shrug.
For the hundredth time she assured herself that she was submitting positively for the last time to the dictates of Clare Hartill; that such usurpation was not to be borne. . . . Who, after all, had been Authority’s right hand for the last twenty years? Certainly not Clare Hartill. . . . Why, she could recall Clare’s first term, a bare eight years ago! She had disliked her less in those days; had respected her as a woman who knew her business. . . . The school had been going through a lean year, with Miss Marsham, the head mistress, seriously ill; with a weak staff, and girls growing riotous and indolent. So lean a year, indeed, that Henrietta, left in charge, had one day taken a train and her troubles to Bournemouth, and poured them out to Authority’s bath-chair. And Edith Marsham, the old warhorse, had frowned and nodded and chuckled, and sent her home again, no wiser than she came. But a letter had come for her later, and the bearer had been a quiet, any-aged woman with disquieting eyes. They had summed Henrietta up, and Henrietta had resented it. The new assistant, given, according to instructions, a free hand, had gone about her business, asking no advice. But there had certainly followed a peaceful six months. Then had come speech-day and Henrietta’s world had turned upside down. She had not known such a speech-day for years. Complacent parents had listened to amazingly efficient performances—the guest of honour had enjoyed herself with obvious, naïve surprise: there had been the bomb-shell of the lists. Henrietta had nothing to do with the examinations, but she knew such a standard had not been reached for many a long term. And the head mistress, restored and rubicund, had alluded to her, Henrietta’s, vice-regency in a neat little speech. She had received felicitations, and was beginning, albeit confusedly, to persuade herself that the stirring of the pie had been indeed due to her own forefinger, when the guests left, and she had that disturbing little interview with her principal.
Edith Marsham had greeted her vigorously. She was still in her prime then, old as she was. She had another six years before senility, striking late, struck heavily.
“Well—what do you think of her, eh? I hope you were a good girl—did as she told you?”
Henrietta had flushed, resenting it that Miss Marsham, certainly a head mistress of forty years’ standing, should, as she aged, treat her staff more and more as if it were but a degree removed from the Upper Sixth. The younger women might like it, but it did not accord with Henrietta’s notions of her own dignity. She was devoutly thankful that Miss Marsham reserved her freedom for private interviews; had, in public at least, the grand manner. Yet she had a respect for her; knew her dimly for a notable dame, who could have coerced a recalcitrant cabinet as easily as she bullied the school staff.
She had rubbed her hands together, shrewd eyes a-twinkle.