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   Chapter 7 No.7

This Freedom By A. S. M. Hutchinson Characters: 19835

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


What anybody can have nobody wants; but what only one person can have there's a queue to get.

This is an elementary principle of the frailty of human nature, and knowledge of it, and experience of its mighty truth, used to cause, during the three holiday periods of the year, a standing advertisement to appear on the front page of the Morning Post.

"High-class Ladies' School for the Daughters of Gentlemen of the Professions has UNEXPECTED VACANCY for ONE ONLY pupil at reduced terms-Mrs. Impact, Oakwood House School, St. John's Wood, London."

ONE ONLY pupil! That was the magic touch.

The very first words addressed to Rosalie by a fellow boarder at Oakwood House were from a short, sharp-featured girl of her own age, which then was twelve, who said to her sharply, "You're a One Only. I can see you are. Aren't you a One Only?"

"Well, I'm by myself," said Rosalie, not understanding but most anxious to say the right thing.

"Stupid, you're not," said the sharp girl, "because I'm with you. Did your mother see the advertisement in the Morning Post? The advertisement of this school?"

It happened that Rosalie knew her mother had seen it for Aunt Belle had shown it to her and to them all. "One of the very best schools," Aunt Belle had said. "You see, it's only quite by chance there was a vacancy."

"Yes, she did," said Rosalie.

"She's the cat's grandmother," said the sharp girl. "Never say 'she' for a person's name. Well, if your mother saw the advertisement then you are a One Only at reduced terms, and I knew you were directly I saw you. Now, tell me. Don't blink-unless of course you're an idiot; all idiots blink. Tell me. Was that dress made for you or was it cut down?"

"It was my cousin Laetitia's," said Rosalie.

"Of course it was," returned the sharp girl very triumphantly. "Every One Only's clothes are cut down for her. Poopers! Do you know what a pooper is? A pooper is half a poop and half a pauper. Every One Only's a pooper. Well, now you know what you are. You see that girl over there. Do you know what she is?"

Rosalie said she did not.

"She's a Red Indian."

"Is she?" said Rosalie, much surprised, for the girl did not look in the least like a Red Indian.

"Ask her," said the sharp girl. "Do you know what I am?"

Rosalie shook her head.

"Answer," said the sharp girl.

"No, I don't," said Rosalie.

"I'm a Sultan," said the sharp girl. "All the nice girls are Sultans and the school belongs to them. Do I look nice?"

"Very," said Rosalie, though she did not think so.

"Then why didn't you know I was a Sultan? The school belongs to the Sultans. The One Onlys and the Red Indians are interlopers, especially the One Onlys. Always shudder when you see a Sultan. Shudder now."

Rosalie wriggled her shoulders.

"Again, poop."

Rosalie repeated the wriggle.

"Vanish, poop," said the sharp girl, and herself sprung away with mysterious crouching bounds, her head thrust forward, looking very like Gagool, the witch, in King Solomon's Mines; and was seen by Rosalie to pounce upon another small girl who was probably a One Only and, from her forlorn aspect, certainly a sad and desolated new.

One Onlys, Red Indians, Sultans. They were the three castes into which the girls divided themselves: One Onlys the poopers brought by the advertisement; Red Indians the daughters of parents resident in India; Sultans the proud creatures who paid full fees and took their title from the nickname of the headmistress-the Sultana. This Oakwood House School in which Rosalie now found herself was one of those very big old houses with a spacious, walled-in garden that probably was occupied in the Fifties somewhere, when St. John's Wood was out in the country, by a wealthy old City merchant who rode in to business two or three times a week, never dreaming that one day London was going to stretch miles beyond St. John's Wood, and his imposing residence go dropping down the scale of fashion eventually to become a school for young ladies who on their crocodile walks would huddle, giggling, along the kerbstone while the dangerous traffic roared up and down the Maida Vale highway.

Those crocodiles! There was a news agent's shop just opposite where the crocodile used to cross when it went out every morning, and one of the great excitements of the walk was to get around the corner and see what the newspaper bills had to tell. There were about forty girls at the school-a crocodile twenty files long-and on the days of sensational events the news from the placards used to come flashing back in emotional little screams from the head of the crocodile, gazing with goggling eyes, to the tail of the crocodile pressing deliriously up behind. "The Maybrick Case"; "Jack the Ripper Again"; "Death of the Duke of Clarence"; "Loss of H.M.S. Victoria"; Rosalie never afterwards could hear those terrific things referred to without recalling instantly the convulsions of the crocodile and experiencing within her own bosom the tumults that contributed their share to the convulsions. She was in the writhing tail of the crocodile when "Jack the Ripper Again" caused it almost to swoon, and she was in its weeping head when "Death of the Duke of Clarence" and "Loss of H.M.S. Victoria" struck its orderly coils into a tangled and hysterical knot.

Mrs. Impact, who kept this school, was a massive and frightening figure of doom who wore always upon her head, and was suspected of sleeping in, a strange erection having the appearance of a straw beehive. She was called the Sultana and her appearance and her habits seemed to Rosalie precisely the appearance and habits that would belong to a sultana. The Sultana appeared virtually never among the girls. The direction of the discipline and education of the pupils was in the hands of the chief of the Sultana's staff of badly paid and much intimidated mistresses. This chief of staff, by name Miss Ough, but called the Vizier, appeared from and disappeared into the quarters occupied by the Sultana, and was popularly supposed to be kept there in a dungeon. If you were near the door through which the Vizier passed from public gaze there was unquestionably to be heard shortly afterwards a metallic clank. This was the portal of the Vizier's dungeon being closed upon her and was very shuddering to hear. The Vizier, moreover, like one long incarcerated, was skeletonized of form, cadaverous and sallow of countenance, and grew upon her face, as all right prisoners in royal custody grow, a thick covering of greyish down.

A second known inhabitant of the Sultana's quarters was Mr. Ponders, her butler, who sometimes slid into the classrooms in a very eerie way with messages and whom Rosalie came to know strangely well; a third, but he did not exactly live in the awful regions, was the Sultana's husband. The Sultana's husband lived in two rooms over the stable. From the front classroom windows he was to be seen every morning disappearing through the front gates at about eleven o'clock; very shiny top hat; very tight tail coat; very tight grey trousers; very tight yellow gloves; very tight grey-yellow moustache; very tight pasty face; curiously constricted, jerky gait as though his boots, too, were very tight. Precisely the sort of chronic, half-tipsy hanger-on one used to see in billiard rooms or eating cloves in West End bars. By association of ideas with the orientalism of Sultana he was called by the girls the Bashibazook.

Junior to Miss Ough, the vizier, were four or five other mistresses, all known by nicknames. Children are exactly like savages in their horrible sharpness at picking out physical peculiarities and labelling by them. One would imagine these governesses, judged by their nicknames, a deplorable collection of oddities. Actually they must have been a presentable enough and a capable enough set of spinsters, though sicklied o'er by the pale cast of indifferent personalities, indifferently housed, indifferently fed, indifferently paid; all anaemic, all without any prospects whatsoever, all dominated by and domineered over by the masterful personality of the Sultana.

Only one of them contributed to the life of Rosalie and this was "Keggo," Miss Keggs, who taught mathematics. This Keggo was rather like Anna in appearance, Rosalie thought, and was most popular of all the mistresses with the girls, partly because of her bright moments in which she was a human creature and an entertaining creature; partly because of her curiously supine periods in which she would be utterly listless, allow her class to do anything they liked provided they kept perfectly quiet, and would make no attempt whatsoever to correct idleness or to impart the lesson of the hour. Miss Keggs had been known to knock over the inkpot on her desk and sit and watch the ink dripping in a pool on to the floor without making the least attempt even to upstand the vessel. No one knew why Keggo had these moods. But it was known that for her to come into class looking rather flushed was a sign foreshadowing them.

She appeared to take a fancy to Rosalie from the first, and Rosalie to her, probably by reason of the fancied resemblance to Anna. She invited Rosalie to her room and Rosalie loved to go there because the One Onlys were in a very weak and humble minority in Rosalie's first term and were rather hunted by the Sultans who were then particularly strong in numbers and rich in apparel, in pocket money, and in friends. The poor little One Onlys led rather abashed lives and they had no chance at all around the playroom fire where the Sultans stretched their elegant legs and warmed their shapely toes.

One evening in her first few weeks Rosalie had to take an exercise up to Miss Keggs, and Miss Keggs's room was warm, and Miss Keggs like Anna, and Rosalie lingered and was invited to linger; after that Rosalie sought and invented

reasons for going up to Miss Keggs's room and Miss Keggs would nearly always say, "Well, you may stay a little, Rosalie, as you're here."

Miss Keggs's room was right at the top of the house where were also the servants' room and the room shared by Miss Downer and Miss Frost. It was a long, narrow room with sloping ceiling and the window high up in the ceiling. In the winter it was warmed with a small oil stove which smelt terribly when you first went in but to the smell of which you almost at once got accustomed. It was curious to Rosalie that even in summer when there was no oil stove there was nearly always a very strong smell in Miss Keggs's room. Miss Keggs used eau de Cologne for bathing her forehead and temples on account of the very bad headaches from which she said she suffered and the smell was like eau de Cologne but with an unpleasantly harsh strong tang in it, like bad eau de Cologne, Rosalie used to think. However, you almost at once got accustomed to that also. These headaches of Miss Keggs were a symptom of the very bad health from which she suffered, and on the occasions of Rosalie's visits to her room Miss Keggs was very communicative about her ill health. It was the reason, she told Rosalie, why, alone of all the mistresses, she had a room to herself instead of sharing one. The Sultana had granted her that privilege, provided she would use this remote and rather poky attic, because it was so essential she should be quiet and undisturbed.

"Don't you have any medicine, Miss Keggs?" said the small Rosalie, in one part genuinely sympathetic and in the other eager to discuss anything that would prolong her stay by the warm oil stove.

"Nothing does me any good," said Miss Keggs wearily. After a minute she added, "But I really am feeling very bad to-night. Mr. Ponders very kindly gives me some medicine that relieves my bad attacks. I wonder, Rosalie, if you could find your way down to Mr. Ponders and give him this medicine bottle and ask him if he could very kindly oblige me with a little of my medicine?"

"Oh, I'm sure I could, Miss Keggs," cried Rosalie, delighted at the opportunity of doing a service.

Miss Keggs became extraordinarily animated with the feverish animation of one who, having made up her mind after hesitation, furiously tramples hesitation under foot.

"Go right downstairs," directed Miss Keggs, "right down below the hall into the basement. You know the basement stairs?" She proceeded with her directions, detailing them most exactly. She accompanied Rosalie to the door and when Rosalie was a little down the passage sharply called her back. "And, Rosalie! If you should meet any one-if you should meet any one, on no account say where you are going or where you have been. On no account. If it should be known how ill I continue to be, I might be sent away. They might think I am not strong enough to continue my work here. Say you have lost your way if you should be met. You are a new little girl and it is easy to lose your way in this big, rambling house. Keep the bottle in your pocket and remember, Rosalie, on no account to tell. On no account." And so dismissed her.

A creepy business, going down to interview Mr. Ponders! The Sultana's butler was only seen by the girls on momentous and thrilling occasions. He opened the hall door when new little girls arrived with their mothers, and he would sometimes appear in a classroom and walk thrillingly to the mistress and thrillingly whisper. This always meant that for some fortunate girl a parent or an aunt had arrived and that the presence of the fortunate girl was desired by the Sultana. He was a shortish, dingy man with a considerable moustache. As he walked between the desks to deliver his message, his eyes were always glancing from side to side as though furtively in search of something, and always as he left the room he would stand a moment with his hand on the door as though meditating some statement and then suddenly de-termining to disappear without making it. A rather mysterious and thrilling man.

Come into the basement, Rosalie walked as bid along the passage, then to the right and then past two doors to the third, whereon she tapped gently, and when a man's voice said "Come in," quaked rather, and went in. The walls of Mr. Ponders' room were completely surrounded by narrow shelves. Beneath the shelves were the closed doors of low cupboards and on the shelves were ranged many glasses, china and silverware. At one end beneath the window was a sink with two taps, both dripping. On the right-hand side was a fire before which in a wicker armchair sat Mr. Ponders smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper.

"What do you want?" inquired Mr. Ponders.

Rosalie said, "If you please, Mr. Ponders, Miss Keggs is not feeling at all well and would you be so very kind as to give her some of her medicine, please?"

Mr. Ponders rose and regarded Rosalie from the hearthrug. "So it's going to be you coming for the medicine now, is it?" he said. He looked rather a mean little man, standing there; not thrilling as when he appeared in the schoolrooms for there was an unpleasing familiarity in his air, but still decidedly mysterious, for though he smiled and looked snakily at Rosalie, he still glanced from side to side as though furtively looking for something and he still, before committing himself to an action, paused as though meditating a statement and then suddenly performed the action as though he had made up his mind not to speak-yet.

"You're Rosalie, aren't you?" inquired Ponders, putting his hands in his pockets and stretching out his stomach like one much at his ease. "Rosalie Aubyn. You come with your Auntie. What's your Pa?"

"A clergyman, Mr. Ponders."

"Oh, he's a clergyman, is he?" Mr. Ponders's eyes slid from side to side, rather as if he had somewhere in the room some confirmation or some refutation of Rosalie's statement that he could produce if he could catch sight of it, and continued thus to slide with the same suggestion while he playfully put Rosalie through a further examination relative to her "Auntie," her "Ma" and her brothers and sisters. He appeared then to be meditating a question of some other order but instead suddenly straightened himself, withdrew his hands from his pockets and said, "Well, you'd better be running along with the medicine."

He took from Rosalie the bottle Miss Keggs had given her and from his pockets a bunch of keys. In the lock of one of his cupboards he fitted a key, paused a meditative moment, then with a decisive action opened the cupboard and from a tall black bottle very carefully and steadily filled the medicine bottle. The medicine was dark red. It first ran in a fine dark red cloud around the inner shoulders and sides of the bottle and then plunged in a steady stream direct from the larger receptacle to the smaller.

Rosalie, watching, was moved to say, "How well you pour it, Mr. Ponders."

"I've poured a tidy drop in my time," said Mr. Ponders, completing the operation and corking the medicine bottle. He held it towards Rosalie, paused in his mysteriously deliberative way, and then suddenly handed it to her. "And a tidy fair drop for Miss Keggs at that," he added. He went to the door, again paused as though uncertain whether to open it, then opened it for Rosalie to pass out. "Good night," said Mr. Ponders.

Lucky Mr. Ponders to have for his own a cosy room like that-men, always for some reason, with the best of everything again! Unpleasing Mr. Ponders to look at you like that and to speak to you like that-men, always horrible again! Rosalie, thus thinking, made a swift and unobserved climb to the attics. Miss Keggs must have heard her coming. The door was pulled sharply from Rosalie's hand and there was Miss Keggs and the bottle almost snatched away from Rosalie. "How long you've been! But you've got it! And no one saw you?" Miss Keggs went very swiftly to the washstand and took up a small tumbler. Clear that she wanted her medicine very badly. She toppled in the contents of the bottle, its neck clinking against the glass, the dark red medicine splashing and some spilling, so differently from Mr. Ponders's performance of a far more difficult operation, and with the bottle still in her hand held the glass to her lips and drank deeply.

Yet there was a funny thing about the draught. It seemed to Rosalie that Miss Keggs with that eager draught yet did not swallow at once but only filled her mouth to its capacity. She then swallowed very slowly and with movements of her cheeks as though she was sucking down the medicine and tasting it in every portion of her mouth. Colour came into her cheeks. The medicine certainly appeared to do her immense good.

Miss Keggs's friendliness towards Rosalie was settled and established from that night. Thereafter it became a very regular thing for Rosalie to visit the room of Miss Keggs of an evening; and at intervals, sometimes twice a week, sometimes not three times in a month, to descend to the den of Mr. Ponders for the dark-red medicine which did Miss Keggs so much good and which she always took in that peculiar sucking way from a full mouth, one would be so long sometimes in swallowing a mouthful, beginning a sentence and then drinking and then all that time in swallowing before she completed the sentence, that she several times, by way of apology, ex-plained the reason to Rosalie. "I have to swallow it very slowly like that," explained Miss Keggs, "because that's the way for it to do me good. It's my doctor's orders."

"It seems a business," was Rosalie's comment.

"Yes, it is a business," Miss Keggs agreed.

Rosalie added, "How very lucky it is, Miss Keggs, that Mr. Ponders keeps your medicine."

"Yes, it's certainly very lucky," Miss Keggs agreed.

The effect of her medicine was always to make her very complaisant.

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