On Strike

It was about this time that a general spirit of trouble and dissatisfaction seemed to creep into the school. How and where it started nobody knew, any more than one can trace the origin of influenza germs. There is no epidemic more catching than grumbling, however, and the complaint spread rapidly. It had the unfortunate effect of reacting upon itself. The fact that the girls were restive made the teachers more strict, and that in its turn produced fresh complaints. Miss Burd, careful for the cause of discipline, made a new rule that any form showing a record of a single cross for conduct would be debarred for a week from the use of the asphalt tennis-courts, a decidedly drastic measure, but one that in her opinion was necessary to meet the emergency.

Though the disorder was mostly among the juniors, Va was not altogether immune from the microbe. It really began with a quarrel between Ingred and Beatrice Jackson. The latter was a type of girl common enough in all large schools. She was not always scrupulously honorable over her work, but she liked to curry favor with the mistresses. She copied her exercises shamelessly, would surreptitiously look up words in the midst of unseen Latin translation, and was capable not only of other meannesses, but sometimes of a downright deliberate fib. She and Ingred were at such opposite poles that they did not harmonize well together. In the old days, with visions of parties at Rotherwood, Beatrice had at least been civil, but now that there seemed no further prospect of being asked to pleasant entertainments, she had turned round and treated Ingred with scant politeness in general, and sometimes with deliberate rudeness. Little things that perhaps we laugh at afterwards, hurt very much at the time, and Ingred was passing through an ultra sensitive phase. During the latter part of that autumn term she detested Beatrice.

One day Miss Burd announced that on the following Saturday there was to be a match played in a suburb of Grovebury between two first-class ladies’ hockey clubs. She suggested that it might be of advantage to some of the girls to go and watch it, and proposed that each of the upper forms should elect one of their number as special reporter to write an account of the match which could be read aloud afterwards in school. The idea rather struck them.

“It’s Finbury Wanderers versus Hilton,” said Linda Slater, “and they’re both jolly good, I know. Wish I could have gone myself, but I’m booked already for Saturday.”

“Heaps of us are,” said Cicely Denham.

“We’d like to hear about it, though,” added Kitty Saunders. “I call it rather a brain wave to choose a reporter.”

“Hands up any girls who are free on Saturday!” called Beatrice Jackson.

The announcement had been made rather late, so most of the form already had engagements for the holiday. Only six hands were raised, belonging respectively to Ingred Saxon, Avie Irving, Avis Marlowe, Francie Hall, Bess Haselford, and Beatrice Jackson herself.

“A poor muster for Va!” remarked Kitty. “As Ingred’s our warden, I should think she’d better write the report.”

“The Finbury ground is a horribly awkward place to get to,” put in Beatrice. “I suppose you’ll motor there, Ingred.”

“We have no car now,” confessed Ingred, turning very red, for she was sure that Beatrice knew that fact only too well, and had brought it into prominence on purpose to humiliate her.

“Oh! I suppose you’ll be motoring, Bess? Couldn’t you give some of us a lift?”

“I believe I could take you all,” replied Bess pleasantly. “Of course I shall have to ask Dad first if I may have the car out on Saturday, but I don’t expect he’ll say no.”

“Oh, what sport! We’ll come, you bet. Look here, I beg to propose that Bess Haselford writes the report of the match.”

“And I second it,” declared Francie. “Hands up, girls! Bess shall be ‘boss’ for this show.”

Half the girls in the room had not heard Kitty’s proposal that Ingred should be chosen, and some of the others, listening imperfectly, had gathered that she was not able to go to the match, so without giving her a further thought they raised hands in favor of Bess, and the matter was carried.

“But indeed I’m no good at writing or describing things!” protested Bess.

“Yes, you are! You’ve got to try, so there!” cried her friends triumphantly. “You’ll do it just as well as anybody else would.”

Ingred turned away with a red-hot spot raging under her blouse. That she, the warden of the form, should have been passed over in favor of a girl whose sole qualification seemed to be that she could offer some of the others a lift in her car, was a very nasty knock. Was Bess to supplant her in everything?

“Perhaps you’d like to make her warden instead of me!” she remarked bitterly to Belle Charlton, who stood near. “I’m perfectly willing to resign if you’re tired of me!”

Belle only giggled and poked Joanna Powers, who said:

“Don’t be nasty, Ingred! Bess is a sport, and we most of us like her.”

“I can’t see the attraction myself!” snapped Ingred.

She did not want to go to the hockey match now, and made up her mind obstinately that nothing in this wide world should decoy her to it. Bess came to school next morning armed with full permission to use her father’s car and to invite as many of her schoolfellows as it would accommodate. She cordially pressed Ingred to join the party.

“I’m not going to the match, thanks,” replied the latter frigidly.

“But there’s heaps of room⁠—there is indeed, without a frightful squash.”

“There’s something I want to do at home on Saturday.”

“Couldn’t you do it in the morning? The form will be disappointed if you don’t go⁠—and, I say⁠—” (shyly) “I wish you’d write that wretched report instead of me. I hate the idea of doing it!”

“The form won’t care twopence whether I go or stay away, and as they’ve chosen you to write the report you’ll have to write it or it’ll be left undone,” retorted Ingred perversely.

Bess, looking decidedly hurt, turned away. Her little efforts at friendship with Ingred were invariably met in this most ungracious fashion. She could not understand why her kindly-meant advances should always be so systematically repulsed. Ingred, on her part, stalked off with the mean feeling of one who at bottom knows she is in the wrong, but won’t acknowledge it even to herself. Under the sub-current of indignation she realized that she would have liked Bess immensely if only the latter had not taken up her residence at Rotherwood. That, however, was an offense which she deemed it quite impossible ever to forgive.

Ingred went about her work that morning in a very scratchy mood, so much so as to attract the attention of Miss Strong, who possibly felt a little prickly herself, since even teachers have their phases of temper. It was at that time a fashion in the form for the girls to keep all sorts of absurd mascots inside their desks, the collecting and comparison of which afforded them huge satisfaction. Now Miss Strong happened to be lecturing on “The Age of Elizabeth,” a subject so congenial to her that she was generally most interesting. But today she had reached a rather dry and arid portion of that famous reign, and even her powers of description failed for once and the lesson became a mere catalogue of events and dates. Ingred, bored stiff with listening, secretly opened her desk, and, taking a selection of treasures from it, began to fondle them surreptitiously upon her lap. It was, of course, a quite illegal thing to do. She glanced at them occasionally, but for the most part kept her eyes upon her teacher. Beatrice, however, who sat near and had an excellent view of Ingred’s lap, gazed at it with such persistent and marked attention that she attracted the notice of Miss Strong, who followed the direction of her looks and pounced upon the offender.

“Ingred Saxon, what have you there? Bring those things to me immediately and put them on my desk!”

With a crimson face Ingred obeyed, and handed over into the teacher’s custody:

  1. A black velvet cat.

  2. A small golliwog.

  3. A piece of four-leaved clover.

  4. A stone with a hole in it.

  5. An ivory pig.

Miss Strong smiled cynically.

“At fifteen years of age,” she remarked, “I should have thought a girl would have advanced a little further than playthings of this description. The Kindergarten would evidently be a more fit form for you than Va! You lose five order marks.”

Five order marks! Ingred gasped with amazed indignation. One at a time was the usual forfeit, but to lose five “at one fell swoop” seemed excessive, and would make a considerable difference to her weekly record. She blazed against the injustice. No girl in the form had ever had so severe punishment.

“Oh, Miss Strong!” she protested hotly. “Five! I haven’t really done anything more than heaps of the others. It’s not fair!”

Now if Ingred had really hoped to get her sentence remitted she could not have done a more absolutely suicidal thing. A mistress may overlook some faults, but she will not stand “cheek.” The discipline of the form was at stake, and Miss Strong was not a mistress to be trifled with. Her little figure absolutely quivered with dignity, and though physically she was shorter than her pupil, morally she seemed to tower yards. She fixed her clear dark eyes in a kind of hypnotic stare on Ingred and remarked witheringly:

“That will do! I don’t allow any girl to speak to me in this fashion! You’ll take a cross for conduct as well as losing the five order marks. You may go to your seat now.”

Ingred walked back to her desk covered with humiliation. To be publicly rebuked before the whole form was an unpleasant experience, particularly for a warden. Beatrice, Francie, and several others were holding up self-righteous noses, though their desks contained an equal assortment of mascots. Ingred, still seething, made little attempt to listen to the rest of the lecture, and was obliged to pass the questions which came to her afterwards on the subject-matter. She was heartily thankful when eleven o’clock brought the brief ten minutes “break.”

“Well, you have been a lunatic this morning!” said Beatrice, passing her, biscuits in hand, in the cloakroom. “What possessed you to go and lose the tennis-court for the form?”

“If you hadn’t stared so hard at me Miss Strong would never have noticed.”

“Oh, of course! Throw the blame on somebody else! You’re always the ‘little white hen that never lays astray.’ ”

“Kitty and Evie and Belle and I had arranged a set!” grumbled Cicely Denham. “It’s most unfair, this rule of punishing the whole form for what one girl does!”

“Go and tell Miss Burd so then!” flared Ingred. “It hasn’t been very successful so far to tell teachers they’re not fair, but you may have better luck than I had. She’ll probably say: ‘Oh, yes, Cicely dear, I’ll rearrange the rules at once!’ So like her, isn’t it?”

“Now you’re sark! Almost as sarky as the Snark herself!” commented Cicely, as Ingred, choking over a last biscuit, stumped away.

There is much written nowadays about the unconscious power of thought waves, and certainly one grumbler can often spread dissatisfaction through an entire community. Perhaps the black looks which Ingred encountered from the disappointed tennis-players in her form turned into naughty sprites who whispered treason in the ears of the juniors, or perhaps it was a mere coincidence that mutiny suddenly broke out in the Lower School. It began with a company of ten-year-olds who, with pencil boxes and drawing books, were being escorted by Althea Riley, one of the prefects, along the corridor to the studio. Hitherto, by dint of judicious curbing, they had always walked two and two in decent line and had refrained from prohibited conversation. Today they surged upstairs in an unseemly rabble, chattering and talking like a flock of rooks or jackdaws at sunset. It was in vain that Althea tried to restore order, her efforts at discipline were simply scouted by the unruly mob, who rushed into the studio helter-skelter, took their places anyhow, and only controlled themselves at the entrance of Miss Godwin, the art mistress.

Althea, flushed, indignant, and most upset, sought her fellow-prefects.

“Shall I go and complain to Miss Burd?” she asked.

“Um⁠—I don’t think I should yet,” said Lispeth a little doubtfully. “You see, Miss Burd has given us authority and she likes us to use it ourselves as much as we can, without appealing to her. Of course in any extremity she’ll support us. I’ll pin up a notice in the junior cloakroom and see what effect that has. It may settle them.”

Lispeth stayed after four o’clock until the last coat and hat had disappeared from the hooks in the juniors’ dressing-room. Then she pinned her ultimatum on their notice board:

“In consequence of the extremely bad behavior of certain girls on the stairs this afternoon, the prefects give notice that should any repetition of such conduct occur, the names of the offenders will be taken and they will be reported to Miss Burd for punishment.”

“That ought to finish those kids!” she thought as she pushed in the drawing-pins.

There was more than the usual amount of buzzing conversation next morning as juvenile heads bumped each other in their efforts to read the notice. The result, however, was absolutely unprecedented in the annals of the school. It was the custom of the Sixth Form, and of many of the Fifth, to take their lunch and eat it quietly in the gymnasium. There was no hard and fast rule about this, but it was generally understood to be a privilege of the upper forms only, and intermediates and juniors were not supposed to intrude. Today most of the elder girls were sitting in clumps at the far end of the gymnasium, when through the open door marched a most amazing procession of juniors. They were headed by Phyllis Smith and Dorrie Barnes carrying between them a small blackboard upon which was chalked:

Down with prefects!
Rights for juniors!
The whole school is equal!

After these ringleaders marched a determined crowd waving flags made of handkerchiefs fastened to the end of rulers. A band, equipped with combs covered with tissue-paper torn from their drawing-books, played the strains of the “Marseillaise.” They advanced towards the seniors in a very truculent fashion.

“Well, really!” exclaimed Lispeth, recovering from her momentary amazement. “What’s the meaning of all this, I’d like to know?”

“It’s a strike!” said Dorrie proudly, as she and Phyllis paused so as to display the blackboard before the eyes of the Sixth. “We don’t see why you big girls should lord it over us any longer. We’ll obey the mistresses, but we’ll not obey prefects.”

“You’ll just jolly well do as you’re told, you impudent young monkeys!” declared Lispeth, losing her temper. “Here, clear out of this gymnasium at once!”

“We shan’t! We’ve as good a right here as you!”

“We ought to send wardens to the School Parliament.”

“We haven’t any voice in school affairs!”

“It’s not fair!”

“We shan’t stand it any longer!”

The shrill voices of the insurgents reached crescendo as they hurled forth their defiance. They were evidently bent on red-hot revolution. Lispeth rose to read the Riot Act.

“If you don’t take yourselves off I shall go for Miss Burd, and a nice row you’d get into then. I give you while I count ten. One⁠—two⁠—three⁠—four⁠—”

Whether the strikers would have stood their ground or not is still an unsolved problem, but at that opportune moment the big school bell began to clang, and Miss Willough, the drill mistress, in her blue tunic, entered the gymnasium ready to take her next class. At sight of her, Dorrie hastily wiped the blackboard, and the juniors fled to their own form-rooms, suppressing flags and musical instruments on the way. Miss Willough gazed at them meditatively, but made no comment, and the Sixth, hurrying to a literature lesson, had no time to offer explanations.

Lispeth, more upset than she cared to own, talked the matter over with her mother when she went to dinner at one o’clock. She was a very conscientious girl and anxious to do her duty as “Head.” As a result of the home conference she went to Miss Burd, explained the situation, and asked to be allowed to have the whole school together for ten minutes before four o’clock.

“It’s only lately there’s been this trouble,” she said. “I believe if I talk nicely to the girls I can get back my influence. That’s what Mother advised. She said ‘try persuasion first.’ ”

“She’s right, too,” agreed Miss Burd. “If you can get them to obey you willingly it’s far better than if I have to step in and put my foot down. What we want is to change the general current of thought.”

Speculation was rife in the various forms as the closing bell rang at 3:45 instead of at 4 o’clock, and the girls were told to assemble in the Lecture Hall, and were put on their honor to behave themselves. To their surprise, the mistresses, after seeing them seated, left the room. Miss Burd mounted the platform and announced:

“Lispeth Scott wishes to speak to you all, and I should like you to know that anything she has to say is said with my entire approval and sanction. I hope you will listen to her in perfect silence.”

Then she followed the other mistresses.

All eyes were fixed on Lispeth as she ascended the platform. With her tall ample figure, earnest blue eyes, light hair, and fair face flushed with the excitement of her task she looked a typical English girl, and made what she hoped was a typical English speech.

“I asked you to come,” she began rather shyly, “because I think lately there have been some misunderstandings in the school, and I want, if possible, to put them straight. There has been a good deal of talk about ‘equality,’ and some of you say there oughtn’t to be prefects. I wonder exactly what you mean by ‘equality?’ Certainly all girls aren’t born with equal talents, yet each separate soul is of value to the community and must not go to waste. The test of a school is not how many show pupils it has turned out, but how all its pupils are prepared to face the world. I think we can only do this by sticking together and trying to help each other. In every community, however, there must be leaders. An army would soon go to pieces without its officers! The prefects and wardens have been chosen as leaders, and it ought to be a point of honor with you to uphold their authority. I assure you they don’t work for their own good, but for the good of the school. I hear it is a grievance with the juniors that they mayn’t elect wardens for the Council. Well⁠—they shall do that when they’re older; it will be something for them to look forward to! There’s a privilege, though, that we can and will give them. We’re going to start a Junior branch of the Rainbow League, and I think when they’re doing their level best to help others, they’ll forget about themselves. Carlyle says that the very dullest drudge has the elements of a hero in him if he once sees the chance of aiming at something higher than happiness. Please don’t say I’m preaching, for I hate to be a prig! Only we’d all made up our minds to do our ‘bit’ in ‘after the war work,’ and it seems such a pity if we forget, and let the tone of the school drop⁠—as it certainly has dropped lately. I’m sure if we all think about it we can keep it up, and Seniors and Juniors can work together without any horrid squabbles. We big girls were juniors ourselves once, and you little ones will be seniors some day, so that’s one way of looking at it. Now that’s all I’ve got to say, except that any Juniors who like can stay behind now and join the Junior Branch of the Rainbow League. We want to get up a special Scrapbook Union, and Miss Burd says she’ll give a prize for the best scrapbook, and also for the best homemade doll. She’s going to have an exhibition on breaking-up day.”