Opening Day

The Girls’ College at Grovebury, under its able headmistress, Miss Burd, had made itself quite a name in the neighborhood. The governors, realizing that it was outgrowing its old premises, decided to erect others, and had put up a handsome building in a good situation near the Abbey. No sooner was the last tile laid on the roof, however, than war broke out, and the new school was immediately commandeered by the Government as a recruiting office, and it had been kept for that purpose until after the Armistice.

The girls considered it a very great grievance to be obliged to remain cramped so long in their old college. The foundation stone of the new building had been laid by Queen Mary herself, and they thought the Government might have fixed upon some other spot in which to conduct business, instead of keeping them out of their proper quarters. All things come to an end, however, even the circumlocution and delays of Government offices, and by the beginning of the autumn term the removal had been effected, and the ceremony arranged for the opening of the new college. Naturally it was to be a great day. The Members of Parliament for Grovebury, and the Mayor, and many other important people were to be present, to say nothing of parents and visitors. The pupils, assembled in the freshly color-washed dressing-rooms, greeted one another excitedly.

“How do you like it?”

“Oh, it’s topping!”

“Beats the old place hollow!”

“There’s room to turn around here!”

“And the lockers are just A1.”

“Have you seen the classrooms?”

“Not yet.”

“The gym’s utterly perfect!”

“And so is the lab.”

“Shame we’ve had to wait for it so long!”

“Never mind, we’ve got into it at last!”

Among the numbers of girls in the capacious dressing-rooms, Ingred also hung up her hat and coat, and passed on into the long corridor. Like the others she was excited, interested, even a little bewildered at the unfamiliar surroundings. It seemed extraordinary not to know her way about, and she seized joyfully upon Nora Clifford, who by virtue of ten minutes’ experience could act cicerone.

“We’re to be in Va,” Nora assured her. “All our old set, that is, except Connie Lord and Gladys Roper and Meg Mason. I’ve just met Miss Strong, and she told me. She’s moved up with us, and there’s a new mistress for Vb. Haven’t seen her yet, but they say she’s nice, though I’d rather stick to Miss Strong, wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t know,” temporized Ingred, screwing her mouth into a button.

“Oh, of course! I forgot! You’re not a ‘Strong’ enthusiast⁠—never were! Now I like her!”

“It’s easy enough to like anybody who favors you. Miss Strong was always down on me somehow, and I’d rather have tried my luck with a fresh teacher. I wonder if Miss Burd would put me in Vb if I asked her.”

“Of course she wouldn’t! Don’t be a silly idiot! I think Miss Strong’s absolutely adorable. Don’t you like the decorations in the corridor? Miss Godwin and some of the School of Art students did them. But just wait till you’ve seen the lecture-hall! Here we are! Now then, what d’you say to this?”

The big room into which Nora ushered her companion was lighted from the top, and the walls, distempered in buff, had been decorated with stencils of Egyptian designs, the bright barbaric colors of which gave a very striking effect. There was a platform at the far end, where were placed rows of chairs for the distinguished visitors, and also pots of palms and ferns and geraniums to add an air of festivity to the opening ceremony. The long lines of benches in the body of the hall were already beginning to fill with girls, their bright hair-ribbons looking almost like a further array of flowers. Mistresses here and there were ushering them to their places, the Kindergarten children to the front seats, Juniors to the middle, and Seniors to the rear. Ingred and Nora, motioned by Miss Giles to a bench about three-quarters down the room, took their seats and talked quietly with their nearest neighbors. A general buzz of conversation, constantly restrained by mistresses, kept rising and then falling again to subdued whispers. In a short time the hall was full, Miss Perry had opened the piano, and the choir leaders had ranged themselves round her. In dead silence all the girls, big and little, turned their eyes towards the platform. The door behind the row of palms and ferns was opening, and Miss Burd, in scholastic cap and gown, was ushering in the Mayor, the Mayoress, several Town Councilors and their wives, a few clergy, the headmaster of the School of Art, and, to the place of honor in the middle, Sir James Hilton, the Member of Parliament for Grovebury, who was to conduct the ceremony of the afternoon. He was a pleasant, genial-looking man, and though, as he assured his audience, he had never before had the opportunity of addressing a room full of girls, he seemed to be able to rise to the occasion, and made quite a capital speech.

“You’re lucky to have this handsome building in which to do your lessons,” he concluded. “Our environment makes a great difference to us, and I think it is far easier to turn out good work in the midst of beautiful surroundings. Grovebury College has reaped a well-deserved reputation in the past, and I trust that its hitherto excellent standards will be maintained or even surpassed in the future. As member for the town there’s a special word I wish to say to you. Train yourselves to be good women citizens. Some day, when you’re grown up, you will have votes, and in that way assist in the self-government of this great nation. The better educated and the more enlightened you are, the better fitted you will be for your civic responsibility. Every girl who does her duty at school is helping her country, because she is making herself efficient to serve it in some capacity. At present England stands at a great crisis; if we are to keep up the traditions of our forefathers we want workers, not slackers, in every department of life. Even the smallest of those little girls sitting in the front row can do her bit. As for you elder girls, think of yourselves as a Cadet Corps, training for the service of the British Empire, and let every lesson you learn be not for your own advantage, but for the good you can do with it afterwards to the world. I have very great pleasure in declaring this new building open.”

After Sir James had sat down, the Mayor and several other people made short speeches, and when all the clapping had finally subsided, the piano struck up, and the school sang an Empire Song and the National Anthem. Then the door at the back of the platform opened again for the exit of the visitors, who, chatting among themselves, made their way to Miss Burd’s study to be hospitably entertained with tea and cakes. The whole ceremony had barely occupied an hour, and it was not yet four o’clock. The girls, in orderly files, marched from the lecture-hall, and betook themselves first to their new form-rooms, where textbooks were given out with preparation for the next day, and desks allotted; then, when the great bell rang for dismissal, to the playground and cloakrooms, en route for home.

Ingred, with a goodly pile of fresh literature under her arm, walked slowly downstairs. She was not in any hurry to leave the classroom, and lingered as long as the limits of Miss Strong’s patience lasted. She knew there was a certain ordeal to be faced with her form-mates, and she was not sure whether she wanted to put it off, or to get it over at once.

“Better let them know and have done with it,” she said to herself after a few moments’ consideration on the landing. “After all, it’s my business, not theirs!”

It was a rather airily-defiant Ingred who strolled into the cloakroom and put on her hat. Francie Hall, trying to thread her boot with a lace that had lost its tag, looked up, smiled, and made room for her on the form.

“Cheery-ho, Ingred! How do you like our new diggings? Some removal, this, isn’t it? I must say the place looks nice. It’s topping to be here at last. By the by, I suppose you’ll be getting in Rotherwood soon? Or have you got already?”

Ingred was stooping to lace her shoe, so perhaps the position accounted for her stifled voice.

“We’re not going back there.”

“Not going back!” Francie’s tone was one of genuine amazement. “Why, but you said it was being done up for you, and you’d be moving before the term started!”

“Well, we’re not, at any rate.”

“What a disappointment for you!” began Beatrice Jackson tactlessly, as several other girls who were standing near turned and joined the group. “You always said you were just longing for Rotherwood.”

“Do the Red Cross want it again?” queried Jess Howard.

“No, they don’t; but we’re not going to live there. Where are we going to live? At our bungalow on the moors, and I’m a weekly boarder at the hostel. Are there any other impertinent questions you’d like to ask? Don’t all speak at once, please!”

And Ingred, having laced both shoes, got up, seized her pile of books, and, turning her back on her form-mates, stalked away without a goodbye. She knew she had been rude and ungracious, but she felt that if she had stopped another moment the tears that were welling into her eyes would have overflowed. Ingred had many good points, but she was a remarkably proud girl. She could not bear her schoolfellows to think she had come down in the world. She had thrown out so many hints last term about the renewed glories of Rotherwood, that it was certainly humiliating to have to acknowledge that all the happy expectations had come to nothing. On the reputation of Rotherwood both she and Quenrede had held their heads high in the school; she wondered if her position would be the same, now that everybody knew the truth.

As a matter of fact, most of the girls giggled as she went out through the cloakroom door.

“My lady’s in a temper!” exclaimed Francie.

“Lemons and vinegar!” hinnied Jess.

“Why did she fly out like that?” asked Beatrice.

“Well, really, Beatrice Jackson, after all the stupid things you said, anybody would fly out, I should think,” commented Verity Richmond. “I’m sorry for Ingred. I’d heard the Saxons can’t go back to their old house. It’s hard luck on them after lending it all these years to the Red Cross.”

“But why aren’t they going back?”

“Why, silly, because they can’t keep it up, I suppose. If you’ve any sense, you won’t mention Rotherwood to Ingred again. It’s evidently a sore point. Don’t for goodness sake, go rubbing it into her.”

“I wasn’t going to!” grumbled Beatrice. “Surely I can make an innocent remark without you beginning to preach to me like this! I call it cheek!”

Verity did not reply. She had had too many squabbles with Beatrice in the past to want to begin a fresh campaign on the first day of a new term. She discreetly pretended not to hear, and addressing Francie Hall, launched into an account of her doings during the holidays.

“We’re moving out to Repworth at the September quarter,” she concluded. “And it’s too far for me to bicycle in to school every day, so I’ve started as a boarder at the hostel. I shall go home for weekends, though. Nora Clifford and Fil Trevor are there too. They’ll be glad Ingred’s come. With four of us out of one form, things ought to be rather jinky. Hullo, here they are! I say, girls, let’s go to our diggings.”

The two girls who came strolling up arm-in-arm were the most absolute contrast. Nora was large-limbed, plump, rosy, with short-cut hair, a lively manner, and any amount of confidence. Without being exactly pretty, she gave a general impression of jolly, healthy girlhood, and reminded one of an old-fashioned, sweet-scented cabbage rose that had just burst into bloom. Dainty little Filomena might, on the other hand, be described as the most delicate of tea roses. She was fair to a fault, a lily-white maid with the silkiest of flaxen tresses. Her pale-blue eyes, with their light lashes, and rather colorless little face with its straight features were of the petite fairy type. You felt instinctively that, like a Dresden china vase, she was made more for ornament than for use, and nobody⁠—even schoolmistresses⁠—expected too much from her. Experience had shown them that they did not get it.

For two years, ever since her mother’s death, Fil had been a boarder at the College, and because at first she had been such a pathetic little figure in her deep mourning, the girls had petted her, and had continued an indulgent attitude long after the black dress had been exchanged for colors. If Fil had rather got into the habit of posing as the mascot of the form, she certainly deserved some consideration, for she was a dear little thing, with a very sweet temper, and never made any of the ill-natured remarks that some of the other girls flung about like missiles. She was so manifestly unfitted to take her own part that somebody else invariably took it for her.

Verity Richmond, who, with Nora, Filomena and Ingred, represented Va in the hostel, was a brisk, up-to-date, go-ahead girl, full of fun and high spirits. She was a capital mimic, and had a turn for repartee that, quite good-naturedly, laid any adversary flat in the dust. If Nora and Fil were like rose and lily, she was decidedly the robin of the party. Her fair complexion seemed to add force to the brightness of her twinkling brown eyes, and her general restlessness and quick alert ways made one think of a bird always hopping about. Though not quite such a romp as Nora, she was ready for any fun that was going, and intended to get as much enjoyment as possible out of the coming term. She linked herself now on to Fil’s disengaged arm, taking the latter’s pile of books with her own and began towing her two friends in the direction of the hostel.

“I’ve hardly had time even for a squint at our dormitory yet,” she announced. “Mrs. Best said I was late, and made me pop down my bag and fly; but she told me we were all four together, so I went off with an easy mind. I’d been worrying for fear I’d be boxed up with some kids, or sandwiched in among the Sixth. I told you Ingred was to be with us, didn’t I? Let’s go and hunt her out; she’ll have wiped her eyes and got over her jim-jams by now. We’ll have time to do some unpacking before tea, if they’ve carried up our boxes.”

The hostel was a separate house, built at the opposite side of the school playground. It could accommodate thirty girls, and twenty-six were already entered on its register. After a brief peep into the attractive dining-hall, and an equally pleasant-looking boarders’ sitting-room, the three girls went upstairs to a dormitory marked 2. They found Ingred already at work on her task of unpacking, putting clothes away in drawers, and spreading the shelf that served as a dressing-table with an assortment of photos, books, and toilet requisites. She looked rather in the dumps, but it was impossible for anybody to remain gloomy when in the presence of such lively spirits as Nora and Verity, and by the time the gong sounded for tea she had cheered up, and was sitting on her bed discussing school news.

“Look here!” said Verity. “If we want to have a jolly term we four must stick together. Let’s make a compact that, both in school and in the hostel, we’ll support each other through thick and thin. We’ll be a sort of society of Freemasons. I haven’t made up any secrets yet, but whoever betrays them will be outlawed! Let’s call ourselves ‘The Foursome League.’ Now then, put your right hands all together on mine, and say after me: ‘I hereby promise and vow on my honor as a gentlewoman that I’ll stand by my chums in No. 2 Dormitory at any cost.’ That’s a good beginning. When we’ve time, we’ll draw up the rules. Subscriptions? Oh, bother! You can each give sixpence if you like, and we’ll spend the money on a chocolate feast. Remember, Fil, not a word to anybody! It’s to be kept absolutely quiet. There’s the gong. If the tea’s up to the standard of the rest of the hostel, I shan’t object. Glad we’re not rationed now, for I’m as hungry as a hunter.”