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The Luckiest Girl in the School By Angela Brazil Characters: 19415

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A Great Change

"There's no doubt about it, we really must economize somehow!" sighed Mrs. Woodward helplessly, with her housekeeping book in one hand, and her bank pass-book in the other, and an array of bills spread out on the table in front of her. "Children, do you hear what I say? The war will make a great difference to our income, and we can't-simply can't-go on living in exactly the old way. The sooner we all realize it the better. I wish I knew where to begin."

"Might knock off going to church, and save the money we give in collections!" suggested Percy flippantly. "It must tot up to quite a decent sum in the course of a year, not to mention pew rent!"

His mother cast a reproachful glance at him.

"Now, Percy, do be serious for once! You and Winona are quite old enough to understand business matters. I must discuss them with somebody. As I said before, we shall really have to economize somehow, and the question is where to begin."

"I saw some hints in a magazine the other day," volunteered Winona, hunting among a pile of papers, and fishing up a copy of The Housewife's Journal. "Here you are! There's a whole article on War Economies. It says you can halve your expenses if you only try. It gives ten different recipes. Number One, Dispense with Servants. Oh, goody! I don't know how the house would get along without Maggie and Mary! Isn't that rather stiff?"

"It's impossible to be thought of for a moment! I should never dream of dismissing maids who have lived with me for years. I've read that article, and it may be practicable for other people, but certainly not for us. Oh, dear! Some of my friends recommend me to remove to the town, and others say 'Stay where you are, and keep poultry!'"

"We can't leave Highfield! We were all born here!" objected Winona decisively.

"And we tried keeping hens some time ago," said Percy. "They laid on an average three-quarters of an egg a year each, as far as I remember."

"I'm afraid we didn't know how to manage them," replied Mrs. Woodward fretfully. "Percy, leave those papers alone! I didn't tell you to turn them over. You're mixing them all up, tiresome boy! Don't touch them again! It's no use trying to discuss business with you children! I shall write and consult Aunt Harriet. Go away, both of you, now! I want to have a quiet half-hour."

Aunt Harriet stood to the Woodward family somewhat in the light of a Delphic oracle. To apply to her was always the very last resource. Matters must have reached a crisis, Winona thought, if they were obliged to appeal to Aunt Harriet's judgment. She followed Percy into the garden with a sober look on her face.

"You don't think mother would really leave Highfield?" she asked her brother anxiously.

"Bunkum!" replied that light-hearted youth. "We always have more or less of a fuss when my school bills come in. It'll soon fizzle out again! Don't you fret yourself. Things will jog on as they always have jogged on. There'll be nothing done, you'll see. Come on and bowl for me, that's a chubby one!"

"But this time mother really seemed to be in earnest," said Winona meditatively, as she helped to put up the stumps.

Mrs. Woodward had been left a widow three years before this story opens. She was a fair, fragile little woman, still pretty, and pathetically helpless. She had been accustomed to lean upon her husband, and now, for lack of firmer support, she leaned upon Winona. Winona was young to act as prop, and though it flattered her sense of importance, it had put a row of wrinkles on her girlish forehead. At fifteen she seemed much older than Percy at sixteen. No one ever dreamt of taking Percy seriously; he was one of those jolly, easy-going, happy-go-lucky, unreliable people who saunter through life with no other aim than to amuse themselves at all costs. To depend upon him was like trusting to a boat without a bottom. Though nominally the eldest, he had little more sense of responsibility than Ernie, the youngest. It was Winona who shouldered the family burdens.

The Woodwards had always lived at Highfield, and in their opinion it was the most desirable residence in the whole of Rytonshire. The house was old enough to be picturesque, but modern enough for comfort. Its quaint gables, mullioned windows and Cromwellian porch were the joy of photographers, while the old-fashioned hall, when the big log fire was lighted, would be hard to beat for coziness. The schoolroom, on the ground floor, had a separate side entrance on to the lawn, leading through a small ante-room where boots and coats and cricket bats and tennis rackets could be kept; the drawing-room had a luxurious ingle nook with cushioned seats, and all the bedrooms but two had a southern aspect. As for the big rambling garden, it was full of delightful old-world flowers that came up year after year: daffodils and violets and snow-flakes, and clumps of pinks, and orange lilies and Canterbury bells, and tall Michaelmas daisies, and ribbon grass and royal Osmunda fern, the sort of flowers that people used to pick in days gone by, put a paper frill round, and call a nosegay or a posy. There was a lawn for tennis and cricket, a pond planted with irises and bulrushes, and a wild corner where crocuses and coltsfoot and golden aconite came up as they liked in the spring time.

Winona loved this garden with somewhat the same attachment that a French peasant bears for the soil upon which he has been reared. She rejoiced in every yard of it. To go away and resign it to others would be tragedy unspeakable. The fear that Aunt Harriet might recommend the family to leave Highfield was sufficient to darken her horizon indefinitely. That her mother had written to consult the oracle she was well aware, for she had been sent to post the letter. She had an instinctive apprehension that the answer would prove a turning-point in her career.

For a day or two everything went on as usual. Mrs. Woodward did not again allude to her difficulties, Percy had conveniently forgotten them, and the younger children were not aware of their existence. Winona lived with a black spot dancing before her mental eyes. It was continually rising up and blotting out the sunshine. On the fourth morning appeared a letter addressed in an old-fashioned slanting handwriting, and bearing the Seaton post mark. Mrs. Woodward read it in silence, and left her toast unfinished. Aunt Harriet's communications generally upset her for the day.

"Come here, Winona," she said agitatedly, after breakfast. "Oh, dear, I wish I knew what to do! It's so very unexpected, but of course it would be a splendid thing for you. If only I could consult somebody! I suppose girls nowadays will have to learn to support themselves, and the war will alter everything, but I'd always meant you to stop at home and look after the little ones for me, and it's very-"

"What does Aunt Harriet say, mother?" interrupted Winona, with a catch in her throat.

"She says a great deal, and I dare say she's right. Oh, this terrible war! Things were so different when I was a girl! You might as well read the letter for yourself, as it concerns you. I always think she's hard on Percy, poor lad! I was afraid the children were too noisy the last time she was here, but they wouldn't keep quiet. I'm sure I try to do my best all round, and you know, Winona, how I said Aunt Harriet-"

But Winona was already devouring the letter.

"10 Abbey Close,

"Seaton,

"August 26th.

"My Dear Florita,-You are quite right to consult me in your difficulties, and are welcome to any advice which I am able to offer you. I am sorry to hear of your financial embarrassments, but I am not surprised. The present increase in the cost of living, and extra taxation, will make retrenchments necessary to everybody. In the circumstances I should not advise you to leave Highfield. ("Oh, thank goodness!" ejaculated Winona.) The expense of a removal would probably cancel what you would otherwise save. Neither should I recommend you to take Percy from Longworth College and send him daily to be coached by your parish curate. From my knowledge of his character I consider the discipline of a public school to be indispensable if he is to grow into worthy manhood, and sooner than allow the wholesome restraint of his house master to be removed at this critical portion of his life, I will myself defray half the cost of his maintenance for the next two years.

"Now as regards Winona. I believe she has ability, and it is high time to begin to think seriously what you mean to do with her. In the future women will have to depend upon themselves, and I consider that all girls should be trained to gain their own living. The foundation of every career is a good education-without this it is impossible to build at all, and Winona certainly cannot obtain it if she remains at home. The new High School at Seaton is offering two open Scholarships to girls resident in the County, the examination for which is on September 8th. I propose that Winona enters for this examination, and that if she should be a successful candidate, she should come to live with me during the period of her attendance at the High School. The education is the best possible, there is a prospect of a University Scholarship to be competed for, and every help and encouragement is given to the girls in their choice of a career. With Winona off your hands, I should suggest that you should engage a competent nursery governess to teach the younger children the elements of order and discipline. I would gladly pay her salary on the understanding that I should myself select her.

"Trusting that these proposals may be of

some service, and hoping to hear a better account of your health,

"I remain,

"Your affectionate Aunt

"and Godmother,

"Harriet Beach."

Winona laid down the letter with an agitated gasp. The proposition almost took her breath away.

"What an idea!" she exclaimed indignantly. "Mother, of course you won't even dream of it for an instant! I'd hate to go and live with Aunt Harriet. It's not to be thought of!"

"Well, I don't know, Winona!" wavered Mrs. Woodward. "We must look at it from all sides, and perhaps Aunt Harriet's right, and it really would be for the best. Miss Harmon's a poor teacher, and I'm sure your music, at any rate, is not a credit to her. You played that last piece shockingly out of time. You know you said yourself that you were getting beyond Miss Harmon!"

Whatever impeachments Winona may have brought against her teacher, she was certainly not prepared to admit them now. She rejected the project of the Seaton High School with the utmost energy and determination, bringing into the fray all that force of character which her mother lacked. Poor Mrs. Woodward vacillated feebly-she was generally swayed by whoever was nearest at the moment-and I verily believe Winona's arguments would have prevailed, and the whole scheme would have been abandoned, had not Mr. Joynson opportunely happened to turn up.

Mr. Joynson was a solicitor, and the trustee of Mrs. Woodward's property. He managed most of her business affairs, and some of her private ones as well. She had confidence in his judgment, and she at once thankfully submitted the question of Winona's future to his decision.

"The very thing for her!" he declared. "Do her a world of good to go to a proper school. She's frittering her time away here. Send her to Seaton by all means. What are you to do without her? Nonsense! Nobody's indispensable-especially a girl of fifteen! Pack her off as soon as you can. Doesn't want to go? Oh, she'll sing a different song when once she gets there, you'll see!"

Thus supported by masculine authority, Mrs. Woodward settled the question in the affirmative, and replied to her aunt by return of post.

Naturally such a stupendous event as the exodus of Winona made a sensation in the household.

"Well, of all the rum shows!" exclaimed Percy. "You and Aunt Harriet in double harness! It beats me altogether!"

"It's atrocious!" groaned Winona. "I'm a victim sacrificed for the good of the family. Oh! why couldn't mother have thought of some other way of economizing? I don't want to win scholarships and go in for a career!"

"Buck up! Perhaps you won't win! There'll be others in for the exam., you bet! You'll probably fail, and come whining home like a whipped puppy with its tail between its legs!"

"Indeed I shan't!" flared Winona indignantly. "I've a little more spirit than that, thank you! And why should you imagine I'm going to fail? I suppose I've as much brains as most people!"

"That's right! Upset the pepper-pot! I was only trying to comfort you!" teased Percy. "In my opinion you'll be returned like a bad halfpenny, or one of those articles 'of no use to anybody except the owner.' Aunt Harriet will be cheated of her prey after all!"

"If Win goes away, I shall be the eldest daughter at home," said Letty airily, shaking out her short skirts. "I'll sit at the end of the table, and pour out tea if mother has a headache, and unlock the apple room, and use the best inkpot if I like, and have first innings at the piano."

"You forget about the nursery governess," retorted Winona. "If I go, she comes, and you'll find you've exchanged King Log for King Stork. Oh, very well, just wait and see! It won't be as idyllic as you imagine. I shall be saved the trouble of looking after you, at any rate."

"What I'm trying to ascertain, madam," said Percy blandly, "is whether your ladyship wishes to take up your residence in Seaton or not. With the usual perversity of your sex you pursue a pig policy. When I venture to picture you seated at the board of your venerable aunt, you protest you are a sacrifice; when, on the other hand, I suggest your return to the bosom of your family, you revile me equally."

"You're the most unsympathetic beast I've ever met!" declared Winona aggrievedly.

When she analyzed her feelings, however, she was obliged to allow that they were mixed. Though the prospect of settling down at Seaton filled her with dismay, Percy's gibe at her probable failure touched her pride. Winona had always been counted as the clever member of the family. It would be too ignominious to be sent home labeled unfit. She set her teeth and clenched her fists at the bare notion.

"I'll show them all what I can do if I take a thing up!" she resolved.

In the meantime Mrs. Woodward was immersed in the subject of clothing. Every post brought her boxes of patterns, amongst which she hesitated, lost in choice.

"If I knew whether you're really going to stay at Seaton or not, it would make all the difference, Winona," she fluttered. "It's no use buying you these new things if you're only to wear them at home, but I'd make an effort to send you nice to Aunt Harriet's. I know she'll criticize everything you have on. Dear me, I think I'd better risk it! It would be such a nuisance to have to write for the patterns all over again, and how could I get your dresses fitted when you weren't here to be tried on? Miss Jones is at liberty now, and can come for a week's sewing, but she'll probably be busy if I want her later. Now tell me, which do you really think is the prettier of these two shades? I like the fawn, but I believe the material will spot. What have you done with the lace collar Aunt Harriet gave you last Christmas? She's sure to ask about it if you don't wear it!"

Having decided that on the whole she intended to win a scholarship, Winona bluffed off the matter of her departure.

"I've changed my mind, that's all," she announced to her home circle. "It will be a great comfort to me not to hear Mamie scraping away at her violin in the evenings, or Letty strumming at scales. Think what a relief not to be obliged to rout up Dorrie and Godfrey, and haul them off to school every day! I'm tired of setting an example. You needn't snigger!"

The family grinned appreciatively. They understood Winona.

"Don't you worry! I'll set the example when you're gone," Letty assured her. "I'll be as improving as a copy-book. I wish I'd your chance; I'd stand Aunt Harriet for the sake of going to a big High School. Younger sisters never have any luck! Eldests just sweep the board. I don't know where we come in!"

"Don't you fret, young 'un, you'll score later on!" cooed an indulgent voice from the sofa, where Percy sprawled with a book and a bag of walnuts. "Remember that when you're still in all the bliss and sparkle of your teens, Winona'll be a mature and passée person of twenty-two. 'That eldest Miss Woodward's getting on, you know!' people will say, and somebody'll reply: 'Yes, poor thing!'"

"They won't when I've got a career," retorted Winona, pelting Percy with his own walnut-shells.

"You assured us the other day that you despised such vanities."

"Well, it depends. Perhaps I'll be a lady tram conductor, and punch tickets, or a post-woman, or drive a Government van!"

"If those are careers for girls, bag me for a steeple jack," chirped Dorrie.

It was perhaps a good thing for Winona that such a short interval elapsed between the acceptance of Aunt Harriet's proposal and the date of the scholarship examination. The ten days were very busy ones, for there seemed much to be done in the way of preparation. Miss Jones, the dressmaker, was installed in the nursery with the sewing-machine, and demanded frequent tryings-on, a process Winona hated.

"I shall buy all my clothes ready made when I'm grown up!" she declared.

"They very seldom fit, and have to be altered," returned her mother. "Do stand still, Winona! And I hope you're learning up a few dates and facts for this examination. You ought to be studying every morning. If only Miss Harmon were home, I'd have asked her to coach you. I'm afraid she'll be disappointed at your leaving, but of course she can't expect to keep you for ever. I heard a rumor that she means to give up her school altogether, and go and live with her uncle. I hope it's true, and then I can take the little ones away with an easy conscience. I don't want to treat her badly, poor thing, but I'm sure teaching's not her vocation."

Winona really made a heroic effort to prepare herself for the coming ordeal. She retired to a secluded part of the garden and read over her latest school books. The process landed her in the depths of despondency.

"I'll never remember anything-never!" she mourned to her family. "To try and get all this into my head at once is like bolting a week's meals at a single go! I know a date here and there, and I've a hazy notion of French and Latin verbs, and a general impression of other subjects, but if they ask me for anything definite, such as the battles of the Wars of the Roses, or a list of the products of India, I'm done for!"

"Go in for Post-Impressionism, then," suggested Percy. "Write from a romantic standpoint, and don't condescend to mere facts. Stick in a quotation or two, and a drawing if possible, and make your paper sound eloquent and dramatic and poetical, and all the rest of it. They'll mark you low for accuracy, but put you on ten per cent. for style, you bet! I know a chap who tries it on at the Coll., and it always pays."

"It's worth thinking about, certainly," said Winona, shutting her books with a weary yawn.

* * *

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