Intruder Bess

Ingred, after a blissful weekend, returned to Grovebury by the early train on Monday morning, and, wrenching her mind with difficulty from the interests of Wynch-on-the-Wold, focused it on school affairs instead. There was certainly need of mental concentration if she meant to make headway in the College. The standard of work required from Va was very stiff, and taxed the powers of even the brightest girls to the uttermost.

“Miss Strong reminds me of Rehoboam!” wailed Fil, fresh from the study of the Second Book of Chronicles. “Her little finger’s thicker than her whole body used to be, and, instead of whips, she chastises us with scorpions. I want to go and bow the knee to Baal.”

“Rather mixed up in your Scripture, child, but we understand your meaning,” laughed Verity. “The Bantam’s certainly piling it on nowadays in the way of prep.”

“Shows an absolutely brutal lack of consideration,” agreed Nora.

“So do all the mistresses,” groaned Ingred. “Each of them seems to think we’ve nothing to do but her own particular subject. Dr. Linton actually asked me if I could practise two hours a day. Why, he might as well have suggested four! I can only get the piano for an hour, even if I wanted it longer. It’s a frightful business at the hostel to cram in all our practicing, isn’t it? I nearly had a free fight with Janie Potter yesterday. She commandeered the piano, and though I showed her the music timetable, with my name down for ‘5 to 6’ she wouldn’t budge. I had to tilt her off the stool in the end. It was like a game of musical chairs. She wouldn’t look at me today, she’s so cross about it. Not that I care in the least!”

Music was a favorite subject with Ingred, and one in which she excelled. She would willingly have given more time to it, had the school curriculum allowed. She was a good reader, and had a sympathetic, if rather spidery touch. This term she had begun lessons with Dr. Linton, who was considered the best master in Grovebury. He was organist at the Abbey Church, and was not only a Doctor of Music, but a composer as well. His anthems and cantatas were widely known, he conducted the local choral society and trained the operatic society for the annual performance. His time was generally very full, so he did not profess to teach juniors; it was only after celebrating her fifteenth birthday that Ingred had been eligible as one of his pupils. He had the reputation of being peppery tempered, therefore she walked into the room to take her first lesson with her heart performing a sort of jazz dance under her jersey. Dr. Linton, like many musicians, was of an artistic and excitable temperament, and highly eccentric. Instead of sitting by the side of his new pupil, he paced the room, pursing his lips in and out, and drawing his fingers through his long lank dark hair.

“Have you brought a piece with you,” he inquired. “Then play to me. Oh, never mind if you make mistakes! That’s not the point. I want to know how you can talk on the piano. What have you got in that folio? Beethoven? Rachmaninoff? M’Dowell? We’ll try the Beethoven. Now don’t be nervous. Just fire away as if you were practising at home!”

It was all very well, Ingred thought, for Dr. Linton to tell her not to be nervous, but it was a considerable ordeal to have to perform a test piece before so keen a critic. In spite of her most valiant efforts her hands trembled, and wrong chords crept in. She kept bravely at it, however, and managed to reach the end of the first movement, where she called a halt.

“It’s not talking⁠—it’s only stuttering and stammering on the piano,” she apologized.

Dr. Linton laughed. Her remark had evidently pleased him. He always liked a pupil who fell in with his humor.

“You’ve the elements of speech in you, though you’re still in the prattling-baby stage,” he conceded. “It’s something, at any rate, to find there’s material to work upon. Some people wouldn’t make musicians if they practised for a hundred years. We’ve got to alter your touch⁠—your technique’s entirely wrong⁠—but if you’re content to concentrate on that, we’ll soon show some progress. You’ll have to stick to simple studies this term: no blazing away into M’Dowell and Rachmaninoff yet awhile.”

“I’ll do anything you tell me,” agreed Ingred humbly.

Dr. Linton’s manner might be brusque, but he seemed prepared to take an interest in her work. He was known to give special pains to those whose artistic caliber appealed to him. In his opinion pupils fell under two headings: those who had music in them, and those who had not. The latter, though he might drill them in technique, would never make really satisfactory pianists; the former, by dint of scolding or cajoling, according to his mood at the moment, might derive real benefit from his tuition, and become a credit to him. It was a byword in the school that his favorites had the stormiest lessons.

“I’m thankful I’m not a pet pupil,” declared Fil, whose playing was hardly of a classical order. “I should have forty fits if he stalked about the room, and tore his hair, and shouted like he does with Janie. He scared me quite enough sitting by my side and saying: ‘Shall we take this again now?’ with a sort of grim politeness, as if he were making an effort to restrain his temper. I know I’m not what he calls musical, but I can’t help it. I’d rather hear comic opera any day than his wretched cantatas, and when I’m not practising I shall play what I like. There!”

And Fil, who was sitting at the piano, twirled round on the stool and strummed “Beautiful K⁠—K⁠—Katie” with a lack of technique that probably would have brought her teacher’s temper up to bubbling-over point had he been there to listen to her.

It was exactly ten days after the term had begun that Bess Haselford came to the College. She walked into the Upper Fifth Form room one Monday morning, looking very shy and lost and strange, and stood forlornly, not knowing where to sit, till somebody took pity on her, and pointed to a vacant desk. It happened to be on a line with Ingred’s, and the latter watched her settle herself. She looked her over with the critical air that is generally bestowed on new girls, and decided that she was particularly pretty. Bess was the image of one of the Sir Joshua Reynolds’ child angels in the National Gallery. The likeness was so great that her mother had always cut and curled her golden-brown hair in exact copy of the picture. She was a slim, rosy, bright-eyed, smiling specimen of girlhood, and, though on this first morning she was manifestly afflicted with shyness, she had the appearance of one whose acquaintance might be worth making. Ingred decided to cultivate it at the earliest opportunity, and spoke to the new arrival at lunchtime. Bess replied readily to the usual questions.

“We’ve only come lately to Grovebury. We used to live at Birkshaw. Yes, I’m fairly keen on hockey, though I like tennis better. Have you asphalt courts here, and do you play in the winter? I adore dancing, but I hate gym. I’m learning the violin, and I’m to start oil-painting this term.”

She seemed such a pleasant, winsome kind of girl that Ingred, who was apt to take sudden fancies, constituted herself her cicerone, and showed her round the school. By the time they had made the entire tour of the buildings, Ingred began to wonder whether, without offense, it would be possible to leave her desk, next to Verity, and sit beside Bess. There was a great charm of voice and manner about the newcomer, and Ingred’s musical ear was sensitive to gentle voices. She discussed Bess with the others next morning before school.

“Yes, she’s pretty, and that blue dress is simply adorable,” conceded Nora. “I’m going to have an embroidered one myself next time.”

“Her hair is so sweet,” commented Francie.

“I call her ripping!” said Ingred with enthusiasm.

“Well, you ought to take an interest in her, Ingred, considering that she lives at Rotherwood,” put in Beatrice.

“At Rotherwood!”

“Yes, didn’t you know that?”

Ingred, under pretence of distributing exercise-books, turned hastily away. Her heart was in a sudden turmoil. This was indeed a bolt from the blue. She, of course, knew that Rotherwood was let, but she had not heard the name of the tenants, and, as the subject was a sore one, had forborne to ask any questions at home. It was surely the irony of fate that the house should be taken by people who had a daughter of her own age, and that this daughter should come to the College, and actually be placed in the same form as herself. She seemed a rival ready-made. Biased by jealous prejudice, Ingred’s hastily-formed judgment reversed itself.

“I’m thankful I didn’t move away from Verity to sit next to her,” she thought. “I expect she’ll be ever so conceited and give herself airs, and the other girls will truckle to her no end. I know them! I wish to goodness she hadn’t come to the College. Why didn’t they send her away to a boarding school? I’m not going to make a fuss over her, so she needn’t think it.”

Poor Bess, quite unaware of being any cause of offence, and grateful for the kindness shown her the day before, greeted Ingred in most friendly fashion, and looked amazement itself at the cool reception of her advances. She stared for a moment as if hardly believing the evidence of her eyes and ears, then turned away with a hurt look on her pretty, sensitive face.

Ingred shut her desk with a slam. She was feeling very uncomfortable. She had liked Bess with a kind of love-at-first-sight, and if the latter had come to live at any other house in the town than Rotherwood, would have been prepared to go on liking her. Generosity whispered that her conduct was unjust, but at this particular stage of Ingred’s evolution she did not always listen to those inner voices that act as our highest guides. Like most of us, she had a mixed character, capable of many good things but with certain failings. Rotherwood was what the girls called “the bee in her bonnet,” and the knowledge that Bess was in possession of the beautiful home she had lost was sufficient to check the incipient friendship.

It was otherwise with the rest of the form. They frankly welcomed the newcomer, and if they did not, as Ingred had bitterly prognosticated, exactly “truckle” to her, they certainly began to treat her as a favorite. She was asked at once to join the Photographic Society and the Drawing Club, and her very superior camera, beautiful color-box, and other up-to-date equipments were immensely admired. Ingred, on the outside of the enthusiastic circle, preserved a stony silence. Her own camera was three years old, and she did not possess materials for oil-painting. She thought it quite unnecessary for Verity to want to look at Bess’s paraphernalia. Verity, who was a kindhearted little soul, perhaps divined the cause of her chum’s glumness, for she came presently and took Ingred’s arm.

“I’ve something to tell you, Ingred,” she whispered. “We are to have the election on Friday afternoon, and everybody’s saying you’ll be chosen warden for the form.”

“Don’t suppose I’ve the remotest chance!” grunted Ingred gloomily.

“Nonsense! Don’t be a bluebottle! Cheery-ho! In my opinion you’ll just have an easy walk over.”

With the removal into the new building, Miss Burd had instituted many innovations and changes. Among the most important of these was the College Council, which really served as a sort of House of Parliament for the school. Each form among the seniors and intermediates was to elect a representative called a warden, and these, with such permanent officers as the prefects and the games captain, were to meet once a fortnight to discuss questions of self-government. It was a new experiment, and the head mistress hoped it would give the girls some idea of responsibility, and train them to understand civic duties later on. The girls themselves voted it a “ripping” idea. They took it up most enthusiastically. It would be fun to have elections, and it seemed desirable that there should be a warden to look after the interests of each separate form.

“When I was in the Fourth we never got a chance for the tennis courts, and it was utterly hopeless to appeal to the prefects,” said Ingred. “I always used to feel there ought to be some way of making one’s voice heard.”

“Well, if you’re elected, you’ll have a chance to make your maiden speech!” laughed Verity. “By the by, will there be a ‘Strangers’ Gallery, so that we can come and listen to you? I’d be sorry to miss the fun!”

Friday afternoon had been fixed for the election, and a bright idea originated in Va, circulated through the school, and finally crystallized in the Sixth. It was nothing less than that each form should make a special fête of the affair. Lispeth Scott, the head girl, went boldly to Miss Burd, and asked permission for those who liked to bring thermos flasks, cups, and bags of buns and cakes, and hold parties in the various classrooms.

“It would make so much more of the whole thing,” she urged. “If we simply stop for ten minutes after school and vote, I’m afraid it may fall rather flat. But if every form has its festival to elect its own warden, it will make the council seem a much more important business. We’d like to be allowed to stay till about half-past five, if we may, so that there would be time to have some fun over it. We’d promise not to make a mess with our picnicking.”

Miss Burd, looking rather astonished, nevertheless consented. She was a wise woman, and believed in permitting a certain amount of liberty, within limits.

“You may try it this once,” she conceded. “But it’s on the distinct understanding that you’re all on your good behavior. I shall hold you prefects responsible for controlling the school. If you hear a great noise, you must go into their form-rooms and stop them. I can’t allow the College to be turned into a bear-garden.”

“We won’t! I’ll put them all on their honor to behave, and I’ll leave the door of our form-room open so that I can hear what’s going on. Thank you so much, Miss Burd!”

And Lispeth departed, fearful lest any other qualifications should be added to temper the joy of the proceedings.

Six girls, waiting outside the door to hear the result of the negotiations, waved signals of success to others farther down the corridor, and, in an almost incredibly short space of time, the happy news had spread to the remotest corners of the school.

“But how are we hostelites going to manage our share?” asked Ingred anxiously.

“Don’t you worry about that,” Jess and Francie assured her. “Ten girls in our form have promised to bring thermos flasks, and if we pool to tea there’ll be heaps to go round, and the same with buns and cakes. We’ll each bring a little extra to make enough. The hostel will very likely lend you each a cup if you ask for it. That’s all you’ll need!”

“Right-o! We’ll cast ourselves on the charity of the form!” agreed Ingred.