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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Luckiest Girl in the School By Angela Brazil Characters: 20216

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

A Crisis

Winona had been more than a month, nearly five weeks indeed, at the Seaton High School. In the first few days of her introduction to V.a. she had told herself that the difficulty of the work consisted largely in its newness, and that as soon as she grew accustomed to it she would sail along as swimmingly as Garnet Emerson, or Olave Parry, or Hilda Langley, or Agatha James. Most unfortunately she found her theory acted in the opposite direction. Closer acquaintance with her Form subjects proved their extreme toughness. She was not nearly up to the standard of the rest of the girls. Her Latin grammar was shaky, her French only a trifle better, she had merely a nodding acquaintance with geometry, and had not before studied chemistry. Her teacher seemed to expect her to understand many things of which she had hitherto never heard, and was apparently astounded at her ignorance. Winona puzzled over her text-books during many hours of preparation, but she made little headway. The royal road to learning, which she had fondly hoped to tread, was proving itself a stony and twisting path.

"You seem to get on all right?" she said wistfully to Garnet one day.

"Why, yes. Of course one has to work," admitted her friend. "Miss Huntley keeps one up to the mark. But one must expect that in V.a. They don't put scholarship holders in the Preparatory."

"I was all at sea in math. this morning."

"You were rather a duffer, certainly. The problems weren't as difficult as the ones they gave us in the entrance exam. If those didn't floor you, why couldn't you work these?"

"But they did floor me. I barely managed half the paper. I reckoned I'd failed in it."

Garnet looked surprised.

"Then your other subjects must have been extremely good to make up for it. I was told that we should probably stand or fall by maths. You were ripping in everything else, I suppose? Scored no end?"

Winona did not answer the question. She was conscious that none of her papers could have merited such an eulogium. She envied Garnet's grasp of the form work. Try as she would, her own exercises and translations were poor affairs, and her ill-trained memory found it difficult to marshal the enormous number of facts that were daily forced upon it. Miss Huntley at first was patient, but as the weeks wore on, and Winona still wallowed in a quagmire of amazing mistakes, she grew sarcastic. The girl winced under some of her cutting remarks. Apparently the mistress imagined her failure to be due to laziness and inattention, and sooner than confess that she could not understand the work, Winona was silent. She never mentioned the long hours she spent poring over her books in Aunt Harriet's dining-room. After all, it was better to be thought idle than stupid. But it was humiliating to feel that she was counted among the slackers of the Form, while Garnet was already winning laurels. The contrast between the two scholarship holders could not fail to be noticed.

Miss Huntley (privately known to the Form as "Bunty") was a clever, but rather remorseless teacher. She had been on the staff since the opening of the school two years before, and she was determined at all costs to maintain the high standard inaugurated at its foundation. She was herself the product of High School education, and knew to the last scruple how much to require from girls in V.a. To those who appeared to be really trying their best she was ready to give intelligent help, but she had no mercy for slackers. She was possessed of a certain amount of dry humor, greatly appreciated by the form en bloc, though each quaked privately lest, through some unlucky slip, she might find herself the object of the smart but withering satires. Despite her strictness, "Bunty" was popular. She was an admirable tennis player, and a formidable champion in a match "Mistresses v. Girls." Her strong personality fascinated Winona, who would have done much to gain her approval. So far, however, she was entirely on Miss Huntley's black list.

Matters came to a crisis over a difficult bit of Vergil. Latin was, next to mathematics, the most painfully wobbling of Winona's shaky subjects. She had puzzled in vain over this particular piece of translation. The words, indeed, she had found in the dictionary, but she could not twist them into sense.

"Old Vergil's utterly stumped me to-day!" she mourned to Garnet, as they met in the dressing-room before nine o'clock. "If Bunty puts me to construe anywhere on page 21, I'm a gone coon. I'm feeling in a blue funk, I can tell you."

"Poor old bluebottle! Don't wrinkle up your forehead like that-you're making permanent lines! It's a bad trick, and just spoils you."

"I can't help it when I'm worried!"

"Then don't worry."

"Oh, it's easy enough for you; you don't have to receive the vials of Bunty's scorn."

Winona hoped against hope that the difficult page might fall to somebody else's turn. Miss Huntley took no particular order, but selected girls at random to construe the lesson. In a Form of twenty it was possible not to be chosen at all. Winona kept very quiet, so as not to attract the mistress' attention. Marjorie Kemp and Olave Parry had already translated half of the fatal page, with tolerable credit. Miss Huntley's eye was wandering in the direction of Irene Mills. Winona dared to breathe. Then, alas! alas! Some unlucky star caused the mistress to look back towards the middle of the room. In a spasm of nervousness, Winona jerked her elbow, and away went her pencil-box, clattering on to the floor, and dispersing its collection of pens, pencils, nibs and other treasures beneath the neighboring desks. There was a dead silence, and the culprit was instantly the center of attention.

"A clumsy thing to do! Leave those things where they are! You can pick them up after the lesson," observed Miss Huntley grimly. "Go on now with the translation."

Winona's hot face had been hidden under Audrey Redfern's desk. She rose reluctantly. Her confusion made the hard passage seem twice as difficult. Even the words which she had carefully looked up in the dictionary and learned by heart escaped her fickle memory. She stumbled and floundered hopelessly, getting redder and redder with shame. Miss Huntley preserved an ominous silence, and did not attempt to help her out.

"That will do!" she said, at the end of about eight lines. "After such a complete exhibition of incompetence we won't inflict any more of your bungling upon the form. We must see if we can find a way of sharpening your wits. Your brain seems to have been lying fallow since you came to school! You will report yourself to Miss Bishop at four o'clock this afternoon."

The rest of the morning passed like a bad dream to Winona. It was a rare event for a teacher to send a girl to the head mistress. The prospect of the coming interview made her cold with apprehension. She avoided Garnet at one o'clock, and hurried out of the dressing-room without speaking to any one. She had a wild project of pleading a headache, and begging Aunt Harriet to let her stop at home for the rest of the day. But then to-morrow's explanations would be infinitely worse. No, it was better to face the horrible ordeal and get it over. As it happened, Miss Beach had gone out to lunch, so that leave of absence was an impossibility. Winona ate her early dinner alone.

"Aren't you well, miss? Would you like me to make you a cup of tea?" asked Alice the housemaid, noticing that the pudding was unappreciated, and divining that something must be amiss.

"No, thanks! I'm in a hurry, and must fly off to school as quickly as I can. It's my early afternoon."

Winona had a music lesson at a quarter past two on Thursdays. It was always rather a rush to get back in time for it. She crammed her "Bach's Preludes" and "Schubert's Impromptus" automatically into her portfolio, and started. It was only when she was half-way down Church Street that she remembered she had left her book of studies on the top of the piano. Needless to say, her lesson that day was hardly a success. In the disturbed state of her mind she was quite incapable of concentrating her attention on music. Miss Catteral looked surprised at her wrong notes and imperfect phrasing.

"I shall expect to find some improvement in this 'Impromptu' next week," she remarked. "Have you practiced your hour daily? You must take these bars, which I have marked, separately, and play each twenty times in succession, slowly at first and then faster, and remember here that it is the left hand which gives the melody, and the right is only the accompaniment. I thought you had sufficient music in you to appreciate that! The way you thumped out those chords was painful. I am not pleased at all."

Miss Catteral so rarely scolded that Winona felt doubly humiliated. It was all a part and parcel of the general ill-luck of the day. She fetched her drawing-board, and went to the art class. Here at least she would have peace for an hour, though every one of the sixty minutes was bringing her nearer to her dreaded interview. At four o'clock, with a horrible sinking feeling in her heart, and a trembling sensation in her knees, she knocked at the door of the head-mistress's study, and entered in response to the "Come in!" which followed. Miss Bishop looked up from some papers, motioned her to a chair, and went on writing for several minutes. To Winona it seemed worse than waiting at the dentist's. The suspense was ghastly.

At last the Principal paused, laid down her pen, and blotted her pages.

"Come here, Winona Woodward," she said quietly. "I wish to have a straight talk with you."

Miss Bishop's eyes were her most striking feature. They were large and clear, but the pupils were unusually small, appearing mere black specks in the midst of a wide circle of blue. This peculiarity gave her a particularly intense and penetrating expression. Winona, standing at attention beside the desk, dropped her own eyes before the steady, searching gaze.

"Miss Huntley's report of your work is not

at all satisfactory," began Miss Bishop. "I have been watching your progress since you joined the school, and I cannot think you are trying your best. At first, when you were totally new to your Form, I suspended judgment, but you have been here nearly half a term now-quite long enough to accustom yourself to our methods. I confess I am greatly disappointed. I had hoped for better things from the holder of a County Scholarship."

Winona remained silent. She could think of nothing to say in self-defense.

"It must be sheer lack of grit and effort," continued Miss Bishop. "I cannot understand how a girl who did so remarkably well in the entrance examination can rest content with such a low record. How long do you take over your preparation?"

"Until my aunt sends me to bed," replied Winona, in a very subdued voice. "I spend the whole evening at my lessons."

Miss Bishop looked puzzled.

"Then the work must be too difficult for you. If that is the case, I must remove you to V.b."

V.b. was notorious in the school as a refuge for incompetence. It was mainly composed of girls of sixteen and seventeen who could not reach the standard of the Sixth, and who went by the nickname of "owls" or "stupids." The prospect of being relegated to such an intellectual backwater spread palpable dismay over Winona's face. Miss Bishop smiled rather grimly.

"We can't win honors without paying the price! You must know that already by experience. I conclude that you studied hard for the Scholarship examination? Well, your Form work requires equally close application. Here is Miss Huntley's report: 'French, weak; Latin, beneath criticism; mathematics, extremely bad.' Yet in all these three subjects you gained a high percentage in the entrance examination. I have your papers here-yes, Latin 85, French 87, mathematics 92" (rapidly turning over the pages), "it is simply incredible how you have fallen off."

Winona was gazing at the sheets of foolscap in the Principal's hand.

"Those aren't my papers," she faltered.

"Certainly they are. They're marked with your number, 11."

"But I wasn't number 11, I was number 10."

Miss Bishop stooped, opened a drawer in her bureau, and took out a book.

"Here it is in black and white," she replied. "No. 11, Winona Woodward."

Winona's shaking hands clutched the edge of the bureau. In a flash the whole horrible truth was suddenly revealed to her. Until that moment she had almost forgotten how she and the ruddy-haired girl had collided at the door of the examination-room, and dropped their cards. In picking them up, they must have effected an exchange. She remembered that she had been too agitated to notice her number until after the accident had happened. She now related the circumstance as best she could. Miss Bishop listened aghast.

"What number did you say you took in the examination-room? Ten? That is entered in my book as Marjorie Kaye. I have the rest of the candidates' papers in this bundle. Let me see-yes, here is No. 10. Is this your handwriting? Then I'm afraid there has been a terrible blunder, and the scholarship has been awarded to the wrong girl."

The Principal's consternation was equalled by Winona's. To the latter the ground seemed slipping from under her feet. She tried to speak, but failed. A great lump rose in her throat. For a moment the room whirled round.

"This set of papers, No. 10, was marked so low as to be out of the running," continued Miss Bishop. "It is a most unfortunate mistake, and places the school in an extremely awkward position. I must consult with the Governors at once. Pending their decision, it will be better not to mention the matter to anybody. You may go now."

Winona managed somehow to get herself out of the study, to put on her hat and coat, and to walk home to Abbey Close. Her aunt was still absent, for which she was intensely thankful, and ignoring the tea that was waiting on the dining-room table, she rushed upstairs to her bedroom. Her one imperative need was to be alone. She must face the situation squarely. Her world had suddenly turned topsy-turvy; instead of being the winner of the County Scholarship, she was among the rejected candidates. In her heart of hearts she had always marveled how her indifferent papers could have scored such a success. She wondered this explanation had never occurred to her before. All this time she had been wearing another girl's laurels. What was going to happen next? She supposed the scholarship would be taken from her, and given to its rightful owner. And herself? She would probably be packed home, as Percy had prophesied, "like a whipped puppy." Possibly Aunt Harriet might offer to pay her fee as an ordinary pupil at the High School, but in either case the humiliation would be supreme.

Winona dreaded returning home. In spite of the difficulty of the work, the High School had opened a fresh world to her. She could never again be content with the old rut. Miss Harmon's dull lessons would be intolerable, and life without Garnet's friendship would seem a blank. The companionship of her three little sisters was totally inadequate for a girl who was fast growing up. She shrank from speculating how her mother would receive the bad news. Mrs. Woodward was one of those parents who expect their children to gain the prizes which they were incapable of winning for themselves. She had claimed a kind of second-hand credit in her daughter's triumph. Winona knew from past experience that so keen a disappointment would involve a string of reproaches, regrets and fretting. She would probably never hear the last of it. The family hopes had been pinned upon her success, and to frustrate them was to court utter disgrace. For the present she must live with this sword of Damocles hanging over her head, but she hoped the Governors would decide the matter speedily, and put her out of her misery.

There is one virtue in a supreme trouble-it dwarfs all minor griefs. Percy's secret, which had been felt as a continual burden, seemed to sink into comparative obscurity, and the worry of school work and the dread of Miss Huntley's sarcasm were mere flies in the ointment. Winona never quite knew how she got through the week that followed. It stayed afterwards in her memory as a period of black darkness, a valley of humiliation, in which her old childish self slipped away, and a new, stronger and more capable personality was born to face the future. She had resigned herself so utterly to the inevitable, that when at last Miss Bishop's summons came, she was able to walk quite calmly into the study. The Principal was seated as usual at her bureau; Winona's entrance examination papers lay before her. Her manner was non-committal; her blue eyes looked even more penetrating than usual.

"You will have been wondering what was going to happen about the matter of the scholarship," she began.

"Yes, Miss Bishop," answered Winona meekly. She did not add that she had spent eight days in a mental purgatory.

"I of course placed the facts before the Governors, and we at once communicated with the parents of Marjorie Kaye. We find, however, that in the meantime she has been elected a scholar of the Maria Harvey Foundation, and will therefore be unable to accept this scholarship. Her papers and those of Garnet Emerson were the only ones of outstanding merit. In re-examining the remaining eighteen we find a uniform level of mediocrity. As regards your set of papers, the general standard is low, with one exception. We consider that your essay on Lady Jane Grey shows an originality and a capacity for thought which may be worthy of training. On the strength of this-and this alone-the Governors have decided to allow you to retain your scholarship. In so doing they are perfectly within their rights. They did not undertake to grant free tuition to the candidate who scored the highest number of marks, but to the one who, in their opinion, was most likely to benefit by the school course. It was a matter to be settled entirely at their discretion. I have carefully re-read your papers, and compared them with your form record, and I come to the conclusion that you are backward and ill-instructed in many subjects, but that you are not idle or stupid. I shall make arrangements for you to have special coaching in mathematics, Latin and chemistry until you can keep up with the rest of the Form. I find your reports for history and English literature are good, which confirms my opinion that you do not lack ability. You will need to work very hard, especially at those subjects in which you are so deficient, but I trust you will soon show a marked improvement, and thus justify the decision of the Governors. Are you prepared to try?"

"I don't know how to thank you-I'll do my very best!" stammered Winona, quite overcome by this unexpected dénouement.

"Then that is all that need be said. Miss Lever will take you every day from 3.30 to 4.15 for private tuition. Mark that on your time-table, and go to her this afternoon in the Preparatory Room. You may tell Miss Garside that I am disengaged now, and at liberty to speak to her."

Winona left the study with very different feelings from those with which she had entered. Her spirits were so high that she wanted to dance along the corridor. She could hardly believe her good fortune. Those great and important gentlemen, the Governors, had actually approved of her essay to the extent of allowing it to stand as her qualification for the Scholarship! She blessed Lady Jane Grey, and Edgar Allan Poe, and Browning, and André de Chénier, and the happy chance that had made her combine them all. She was glad she had paid that visit to Hampton Court, and that she had seen Lady Jane Grey's portrait, and had been able to describe both. Life was going to be a very exhilarating business, now her position in the school was once more secure.

"I'll show them how I can work," she thought. "They shan't be sorry that they let me stay after all! Oh, I am in luck! Yes, I'm the luckiest girl in the school!"

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