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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Luckiest Girl in the School By Angela Brazil Characters: 21499

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Aunt Harriet

It is high time now that we paused to consider a very important person indeed in this story, namely Miss Harriet Beach, but for whose invitation Winona would never have attended Seaton High School at all. Aunt Harriet was what is generally known as "a character," that is to say, she was possessed of a strong personality, and was decidedly eccentric. Though her age verged on sixty she preserved the energy of her thirties, and prided herself upon her physical fitness. She was tall, with a high color, keen brown eyes, a large nose, a determined mouth, and iron gray hair. In her youth she must have been handsome, and even now her erect figure and dark, well-marked eyebrows gave her a certain air of distinction. She was a most thoroughly capable woman, reliable, and strongly philanthropic: not in a sentimental way, however; she disapproved of indiscriminate almsgiving, and would have considered it a crime to bestow a penny on a beggar without making a proper investigation of his case. She was a tower of strength to most of the charitable institutions in the city, a terror to the professional pauper, but a real friend to the deserving. Her time was much occupied with committees, secretarial duties, district visiting, workhouse inspection and other public interests. She was apt indeed to have more than her share of civic business; her reputation for absolute reliability caused people to get into the habit of saying "Oh, go to Miss Beach!" on every occasion, and as she invariably proved the willing horse, she justified the proverb and received the work in increased proportions.

Like most people, Aunt Harriet had her faults. She was apt to be a trifle overbearing and domineering, she lacked patience with others' weaknesses, and was too doctrinaire in her views. She tried very hard to push the world along, but she forgot sometimes that "the mills of God grind slowly," and that it is only after much waiting and many days that the bread cast upon the waters returns to us. She prided herself on her candor and lack of "humbug." Unfortunately, people who "speak their minds" generally treat their hearers to a sample of their worst instead of their best, and their excessive truthfulness scarcely meets with the gratitude they consider it deserves. Miss Beach's many estimable qualities, however, overbalanced her crudities, her friends shrugged their shoulders and told each other it was "her way," "her heart was all right." Though she might give offense, people forgot it, and came to her again next time they wanted anything done, and the universal verdict was that she was "trying at times," but on the whole one of the most useful citizens which Seaton possessed.

If there was one person more than another who wore out Miss Beach's patience it was her niece and goddaughter, Mrs. Woodward. She had a sincere affection for her, but their two personalities were at absolutely opposite poles. She admitted that Florita was amiable, well-meaning, and thoroughly affectionate, but for the rest she considered her weak, foolishly helpless, liable to extravagance, a poor housekeeper, and a perfect jelly-fish in her methods of bringing up her family. In vain did Aunt Harriet, on successive visits, preach firmness, order, consistency and other maternal virtues; her niece would brace herself up to a temporary effort, but would relax again directly her guest had departed, and the children-little rogues!-discovered at a remarkably early age that they could do pretty much as they liked. The Woodwards always dreaded the advent of Aunt Harriet, her disapproval of their general conduct was so manifest. By dint of urging from their mother they made extra attempts at good behavior before the august visitor, but they were subject to awful relapses. Mrs. Woodward, on her side, considered she had her trials, for her aunt had a habit of arriving suddenly, giving only a few hours' notice by telegram, and she could not forbear the suspicion that her revered godparent wished to surprise her housekeeping and catch her unprepared. On one occasion, indeed, when the family came down-rather late-for breakfast, Aunt Harriet was discovered sitting on the rustic seat outside the dining-room window. She explained that she had taken the 5 a.m. workmen's train and had come to spend a long day with them, but not wishing to disturb the house at too early an hour she had remained in the garden enjoying the view until somebody arrived downstairs. In spite of her rather angular attitude, Miss Beach was a very kind and generous friend to her widowed niece, and she was the one person in the world to whom Mrs. Woodward naturally thought of turning in time of trouble. Aunt Harriet's advice might not always be palatable, but it was combined with such practical help that there seemed no alternative but to follow it.

Miss Beach, though not a rich woman, was possessed of very comfortable private means. She lived in an old-fashioned house just opposite the Abbey, and her windows looked out on a view of towers and cloisters and tall lime trees, with a foreground of monuments. To some people the array of tombstones would have proved a dismal prospect, but she declared it never distressed her in the least. She prided herself greatly on the fact that she had been born in the house where her father, grandfather and great-grandfather had also come into the world and spent their lives. Except for an occasional expedition to Highfield, she rarely left home. All her interests were in Seaton, and she became miserable directly if she were away from her native city.

The little Woodwards had never regarded it as much of a treat to go and stay at 10, Abbey Close. The restraint which the visit necessitated quite neutralized the afternoon at the cinema with which their aunt invariably entertained them. The fine old Chippendale furniture had to be treated with a respect not meted out to the chairs and tables at home, boots must be scrupulously wiped on the door-mat, bedrooms left tidy, and books and ornaments were to be held altogether sacred from the ravages of prying young fingers.

Winona had taken up her residence there with somewhat the feeling of a novice entering a nunnery. She was not quite sure how she and Aunt Harriet were going to get on. To her great relief, however, things turned out better than she expected. Miss Beach received her with unusual complacency, and the two settled down quite harmoniously together. The fact was that Winona, a visitor with nothing to do, and Winona a busy High School girl, were utterly different persons. It is one thing to wander round somebody else's house and feel bored, and quite another to hang up your hat, realize you are part and parcel of the establishment, and occupy yourself with your own business. Once she had fallen into the swing of work at school Winona began to appreciate the orderliness of her aunt's arrangements. It had never seemed to matter at home if the breakfast were late and she arrived at Miss Harmon's when the clock had struck nine, but at "The High" it was an affair of vital importance to be in her seat before call-over, and she daily blessed the punctuality of Aunt Harriet's cook. It was also a great boon to be able to prepare her lessons in quiet. Her family had never realized the necessity of silence during study hours, and she had been used to learn French vocabularies or translate her Latin exercises to a distracting accompaniment of Ernie's trumpet, Dorrie's and Mamie's quarrels, Godfrey's mouth organ, and Letty's strumming upon the piano.

"It would have been utterly impossible to do my prep. at home!" she thought sometimes. "I'd no idea what work was like before I came to Seaton 'High'! It would do those youngsters good to have a drilling! I wish they could have been in the Preparatory. No, I don't! Because then I should have had them here, and it would have been good-by to all peace. On the whole things are much better as they are."

Miss Beach was so extremely busy with her own multifarious occupations that she had not time to see very much of her great-niece. She made every arrangement for her comfort, however, and caused the piano to be moved into the dining-room for the convenience of her practicing. She had always had a tender spot for Winona, whom she regarded as the one hopeful character in a family of noodles. She talked to her at meal times about a variety of subjects, some of them within her intelligence, but others completely-so far-above her head. She even tried to draw her out upon school matters. This, however, was a dead failure. Winona, most unfortunately, could not overcome her awe for her aunt, and refused to expand. To all the questions about her Form, her companions, teachers, lessons or new experiences, she replied in monosyllables. It was a sad pity, for Miss Beach had really hoped to win the girl's confidence and prove a temporary mother to her, but finding her advances repulsed she also shrank back into her shell, and the intimacy which might have existed between them was postponed to future years. Young folks often fail to realize what an interest their doings may have to grown-up people, and how their bright fresh outlook on life may come as a tonic to older and wearier minds. It never struck Winona to try to amuse or entertain her aunt. At her present crude stage of development she was incapable of appreciating the subtle pathos that clings round elderly lives, and their wistful longing to be included in the experiences of the rising generation. Shyness and lack of perception held her silent, and the empty corner in Aunt Harriet's heart went unfilled.

Saturday and Sunday were the only days upon which Winona had time to feel homesick. Her mother had at first suggested her returning to Highfield for the week ends, but Miss Beach had strongly vetoed the project on the justifiable ground that even the earliest train from Ashbourne on Monday mornings did not reach Seaton till 9.30, so that Winona would lose the first hour's lesson of her school week. She might have added that she considered such frequent home visits would prove highly unsettling and interfere greatly with her work, but for once she refrained from stating her frank opinion, probably deeming the other argument sufficient, and willing to spare Mrs. Woodward's feelings.

Letters from Highfield showed little change in the usual conduct of family affairs. The children were still attending Miss Harmon's school, though they were to leave at Christmas.

"We are late nearly every day now you are not here to make Ernie start," wrote Mamie, almost as if it were an achievement to be proud of. "He locked the piano and threw the key in the garden, an

d we could none of us practice for three days. Wasn't it lovely? Letty pours out tea if mother isn't in, and yesterday she broke the teapot."

The chief items of news, however, concerned Percy. That young gentleman, with what Aunt Harriet considered his usual perversity, had sprained his ankle on the very day before he ought to have returned to school. He had been ordered to lie up on the sofa, but Winona gathered that the doctor's directions had not been very strictly carried out. She strongly suspected that the patient did not wish to recover too quickly. Whether or not that had been the case, Percy was now convalescent, and was to set off for school on the following Friday. Longworth College was not a great distance, and as Percy would have to pass through Seaton on his way, Aunt Harriet invited him to break his journey there and spend the night at her house. She had a poor opinion of the boy's capacity, but having undertaken a half share in his education she felt an increased sense of responsibility towards him, and wished to find an opportunity of a word with him in private.

Winona hailed her brother's advent with immense joy. Even so flying a visit was better than nothing. Letters were an inadequate means of expression, and she was longing to pour out all her new experiences. She wanted to tell Percy about the Symposium, and her friendship for Garnet, and the chemistry class, and the gymnasium practice, and to show him her hockey jersey which had just arrived. She had so long been the recipient of all his school news that it would be delightful to turn the tables and give him a chronicle of her own doings at the Seaton "High," which in her opinion quite rivaled Longworth College.

To the young people's scarcely suppressed satisfaction, Miss Beach went out after tea to attend an important meeting, leaving her nephew and niece to spend the evening alone together. They had never expected such luck. As it was Friday Winona had no lessons to prepare for the next day, and could feel free for a delightful chat. She flung herself into Aunt Harriet's special big easy chair by the fireside, and lounged luxuriously, while Percy, boy-like, prowled about the room.

"Well, I'm glad you're jogging along all right," he remarked when his sister's long account came to a pause. "Though please don't for a moment compare your blessed old High School to Longworth, for they're not in the same running! Aunt Harriet hasn't quite eaten you up yet, I see?"

"She's not such a Gorgon as I expected. In fact she's been rather decent."

"The dragon's sheathed her talons? Well, that's good biz. You went off as tragic as Iphigenia, heroically declaring yourself the family sacrifice."

"Did I?" Winona had almost forgotten her original attitude of martyr. Three weeks had made a vast difference to her feelings.

"If you can peg it out in comfort with the dragon so much to the good. Shouldn't care to live here myself though. It's a dull hole. Number 10, Abbey Close wouldn't be my choice of a residence."

"Well, it's not likely you'll ever have the chance of living here!" retorted Winona, taking up the cudgels for her adopted home.

"I don't know about that," returned Percy. "The house belongs to Aunt Harriet. She'll have to leave her property to somebody, I suppose, when she shuffles off this mortal coil. I'm the eldest son, and my name's Percy Beach Woodward. That ought to count for something."

"Aunt Harriet's not going to die yet," said Winona gravely. "I think it's horrid of you to talk like this!"

"Oh, I don't wish the old girl any harm, but one may have an eye to the future all the same," was the airy response. "D'you remember Jack Cassidy who was a pupil at the Vicarage? His aunt left him five thousand pounds."

"Yes, and I heard he's muddling it away as fast as he can. Mary James told me. Her father's guardian of part of his property until he's twenty-five, you know."

"He's a topper, is Jack! He's promised to take me for a day sometime to Hartleburn, when the races are on. Now don't you go blabbing, or I'll never tell you anything again!"

"Mr. Joynson said-"

"Oh, for goodness sake shut up! A boy of sixteen isn't going to be bear-led by an old fogey like Joynson. He has the mater far too much under his finger and thumb for my taste. If you want to be chums with me, don't preach!"

Winona was silent. Her brother's infatuation for the Vicar's scapegrace ward was the affair of a year ago. She had hoped he had forgotten it. His escapades at the time, in company with his hero, had caused his mother to seek the advice and guidance of her trustee.

"Some one was telling me the other day that old oak furniture is worth a tremendous lot of money now," continued Percy, his eye roving round the room with an air almost of future proprietorship. "If that's so these things of Aunt Harriet's are a little gold mine. There was an account of a sale in the newspaper, with a picture of a cupboard that fetched two hundred pounds. It was first cousin to that!" nodding at a splendidly carved old piece which faced him.

Miss Beach's household goods were inherited from her great-grandfather, and included some fine specimens of oak, as well as rare Chippendale. Winona was too young to be a connoisseur of antiquities, but she had the curiosity to rise from her chair and join Percy in his inspection of the article in question.

"I tell you they're as alike as two peas!" he declared. "Same shape, same sort of carving, same knobs at the end! The reason why I remember the thing is that the buyer found a secret drawer in it after he'd got it home, with some old rubbish inside, and there was a lawsuit as to who owned these. He claimed he'd bought the lot with the cupboard, but the judge made him turn them up to the family of the original owner. That was why there was a picture of the cupboard in the newspaper. It put an arrow showing the place of the secret drawer. I wonder if there's one here, too? I'm going to have a try! By Jove, there is!"

A vigorous pull had dislodged a drawer in a very unexpected situation. Winona would certainly never have thought of its existence, nor would Percy, if the newspaper had not given away the secret. He looked eagerly inside.

"No treasures hidden in here! Absolutely nothing at all, except this piece of paper."

"Perhaps Aunt Harriet has never found it out," ventured Winona.

Percy did not answer immediately. He was reading the writing on the paper.

"You bet she has!" he cried at last, flushing angrily. "I never thought she'd much opinion of me, but I call this the limit! It's going where it deserves!" and acting on a sudden impulse he flung the cause of offense into the fire.

For a moment Winona did not realize what he had done. By the time she reached the hearth the paper was already half consumed. She made a snatch at it with the tongs, but a flame sprang up and forestalled her. She had just time to read the words "last Will and Testament of me Har-" before the whole sank into ashes. She turned to her brother with a white, scared face.

"Percy! You've never burnt Aunt Harriet's will?"

Ashamed already of his impetuous act the boy nevertheless tried to bluff the matter off.

"It was an abominable shame! When I'm named Beach after her too! I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't read it myself!" he blustered.

"Read what?"

"I shan't tell you! Look here, Win, you must promise on your honor that you'll never breathe a word about this."

"Perhaps Aunt Harriet ought to know."

"She mustn't know: mustn't, I tell you! I say, Win, I'm not at all sure that what I've just done isn't a chargeable offense-I believe they call it a felony. You wouldn't like to see me put into prison, would you? Then hold your tongue about it! Give me your word! Can you keep a secret?"

"I promise!" gasped Winona (Percy was squeezing her little finger nail in orthodox fashion and the agony was acute). "I promise faithfully."

She was in a terrible quandary. Her natural straightforwardness urged her to make a clean breast of the whole affair. Had she been the actual transgressor she would certainly have done so and faced the consequences. But this was Percy's secret, not her own. He was no favorite with his aunt, and so outrageous an act would prejudice him fatally in her eyes. The hint about prison frightened Winona. She knew nothing of law, but she thought it highly probable that burning a will was a punishable crime. Suppose Aunt Harriet's rigid conscience obliged her to communicate with the police and deliver Percy into the hands of justice. Such a horrible possibility must be avoided at all costs. The sound of a latch-key in the door made her start. In a panic she rushed to the old cupboard and pushed back the secret drawer into its place. When Miss Beach entered the dining-room her nephew and niece were sitting reading by the fireside. Their choice of literature might perhaps have astonished her, for Percy was poring over Sir Oliver Lodge's "Man and the Universe," while Winona's nose was buried in Herbert Spencer's "Sociology," but if indeed she noticed it, she perhaps set it down to a laudable desire to improve their minds, and placed the matter to their credit. Percy took his departure next morning, and Winona saw him off at the railway station.

"Remember, you've to keep that business dark," he reminded her. "Aunt Harriet must never find out. She's been jawing me no end about responsibility, and looking after the kids and supporting the mater and all that. Rubbed it in hard, I can tell you! Great Juggins! Do I look like the mainstay of a family?"

As Winona watched his boyish face laughing at her from the window of the moving train she decided that he certainly did not. She sighed as she turned to leave the station. Life seemed suddenly to have assumed new perplexities. Percy's act weighed heavily on her mind. It seemed such a base return for all Aunt Harriet was doing on their behalf. She longed to thank her for her kindness and say how much she appreciated going to the High School, but she could not find the words. Theknowledge of the secret raised an extra barrier between herself and her aunt. So she sat at lunch time even shyer and more speechless than usual, and let the ball of conversation persistently drop.

"Fretting for her brother, I suppose," thought Miss Beach. "She can talk fast enough with friends of her own age. Well, I suppose an old body like myself mustn't expect to be company for a girl of fifteen!"

She was too proud to let the hurt feeling show itself on her face, however, and propping up the newspaper beside her plate, she plunged into the latest accounts from the Front.

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