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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Luckiest Girl in the School By Angela Brazil Characters: 21272

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Back to the Land

Easter fell late, so Winona spent the lovely early part of May at her own home. After so many weeks of town it was delightful to be once more in the country. She worked with enthusiasm in the garden, mowed the lawn, and with Letty and Mamie's help began to put up an arbor, over which she hoped to persuade a crimson rambler to ramble successfully. In the house she tried her hand at scones and cakes, entirely to the children's satisfaction, if not altogether to her own; she enjoyed experiments in cooking, for she had longed to join the Domestic Science class at school, and had felt aggrieved when Miss Bishop decided that her time-table was full enough without it. She found her mother looking delicate and worried. Poor Mrs. Woodward's health had not improved during the last two years; she was nervous, anxious about Percy, and inclined to be fretful and tearful. The increased income-tax and the added cost of living made her constantly full of financial cares; she was not a very good manager, and the thought of the future oppressed her.

"I don't know what's to be done with you, Winona, when you leave school!" she remarked plaintively one evening. "I feel that you ought to go in for something, but I'm sure I don't know what! I'd hoped you were going to turn out clever, and win a scholarship for College, and get a good post as a teacher afterwards, but there doesn't seem the least chance of your doing that. It's all very well this hockey and cricket that's made such a fuss of at schools nowadays, but it doesn't seem to me that it's going to lead to anything. I'd rather you stuck to your books! Yes, your future's worrying me very much. I've all these little ones to bring up and educate, and I'd hoped you'd be able to earn your own living before long, and lend the children a helping hand. I can't spend anything on giving you an expensive training, Percy has cost me so much out of capital, and it's Letty's turn next, besides which it's high time Ernie and Godfrey were packed off to a boarding-school. Oh, dear! I never seem free from trouble! It's no light anxiety to be the mother of seven children! I often wonder what will become of you all!"

To Winona her mother's tearful confidences came as a shock. Up to the present she had been so intensely interested in school affairs that she had given scarcely a thought to her future career. Life had existed for her in detail only to the end of the summer term, after that it had stretched a nebulous void into which her imagination had never troubled to penetrate. Now she took herself seriously to task, and tried to face the prospect of the time when she would have left the Seaton High School. There were many occupations open to girls nowadays besides teaching; they could be doctors, secretaries, sanitary inspectors, artists, musicians, poultry farmers. She knew however, that for any career worth taking up a considerable training would be necessary, and a certain amount of expense involved. What she would have liked very much would be to study at a Physical Training College, and qualify to become a Drill and Games Mistress, but this seemed as unattainable as taking a medical course or going to Girton or Newnham.

"I'm too young yet for a hospital nurse," she pondered, "and not clever enough to be an artist or a musician. Well, I suppose I can make munitions, or go on the land! Women are wanted on farms while the war lasts. I could earn my own living, perhaps. But oh, dear! That wouldn't be boosting on the children! I'm afraid mother's fearfully disappointed with me."

She seemed to be looking at things in a new light, and to see her position as it affected others. She was young and brave; surely it was her part to shoulder the family burdens, to shield the frail little mother who grew less and less able to cope with difficulties, to hold out a strong helping hand to the younger brothers and sisters, and so justify her existence on this planet. It had not before occurred to her how much her home people relied on her. The thought of it brought a great lump into her throat. She must not fail them. She could not yet see her way clearly, but somehow she must be a comfort and a support to them, that she was quite resolved.

She went back to school in a very thoughtful frame of mind. Her last term would be a full one in many ways. About half of the Sixth Form were to go in for their college entrance examinations, and Miss Bishop had decreed that Winona, as a County Scholarship holder, must certainly be among the number. She had little hope of passing, for most of her subjects were weak, but she meant to make an effort to try to pick up some of her lost ground. Her old enemies, Latin and Chemistry, still often baffled her, and her memory was only moderately retentive. She could not honestly believe that so far as her work was concerned she was any credit to the school. Games were another matter, however, and so long as they did not seriously interfere with her preparation for the matriculation, she meant to do her duty as captain. She arranged cricket fixtures and tennis tournaments, and though she could not devote as much of her own time as she would have liked to practice, she spurred on others who had more leisure than herself. She certainly possessed a gift for organization. There are some captains, splendid players themselves, who can never train their deputies. As Napoleon's genius was supposed to lie largely in his capacity for picking out able generals, so Winona proved her ability by choosing helpers who were of real service to her. With Audrey Redfern, Emily Cooper, and Bertha March to the fore, she hoped that both cricket and tennis would prosper, and that the school would score as successfully during the summer as it had done in the hockey season.

On the first Saturday after the beginning of the term, Miss Beach announced that she was going to spend the day with a friend who lived five miles out of Seaton, and that if Winona had leisure to accompany her she would be pleased to take her. No practices had been arranged for that afternoon, so Winona felt free to accept the invitation. She had been for several short runs in the car, but for no long expedition since the memorable outing to Wickborough, so the prospect of a day in the country was alluring.

They started at about eleven o'clock, and took a road that was new to Winona, consequently all the more interesting. Their way led through lovely woods, at present a sheet of blue hyacinths, the hedges were a filmy dream of blackthorn blossom, while the swallows wheeling and flashing in the sunshine testified to the return of summer.

Miss Carson, the lady whom they were going to visit, like most of Aunt Harriet's friends was engaged in very interesting work. She had taken a small holding, and with the help of a few women pupils was running it as a fruit, flower and poultry farm. The house, an old cottage, to which she had added a wing, was charmingly pretty. It was long and low, with a thick thatched roof, and a porch overgrown with starry white clematis. A budding vine covered the front and in the border below great clumps of stately yellow lilies drooped their queenly heads. The front door led straight into the house place, a square room with a big fire-place and cozy ingle nooks. It was very simply furnished, but looked most artistic with its rush-bottomed chairs, its few good pictures, and its stained green table with the big bowl of wallflowers.

Miss Carson, a delightfully energetic lady whose age may have been somewhere between thirty and forty, welcomed them cordially.

"I don't apologize for the plainness of my establishment," she remarked. "It's all part of a purpose. We have no servants here, and as we have to do our own house-work in addition to our farm-work, we want to reduce our labor to a minimum. You see, there's hardly anything to dust in this room: the books and the china are in those two cupboards with glass doors, and we have no fripperies at all lying about. The only ornament we allow ourselves is the bowl of flowers. Our bedrooms are equally simple, and our kitchen is fitted with the latest and most up-to-date labor-saving appliances. One of my students is preparing the dinner there now. She's a nice girl, and Winona will perhaps like to go and talk to her, unless she prefers to stay here with us."

Winona promptly decided in favor of the kitchen, so Miss Carson escorted her there, and introduced her to Miss Heald, a jolly-looking girl of about twenty, who, enveloped in a blue overall pinafore, was putting plates to heat, and inspecting the contents of certain boilerettes and casseroles. Like the sitting-room the kitchen contained no unnecessary articles. It was spotlessly clean, and looked very business-like.

"We go on kitchen duty for a week at a time," explained Miss Heald to Winona. "It's a part of the course, you know. We have dairy, gardening and poultry as well. Which do I like best? It's hard to say. Poultry, I think, because the chickens are such darlings. I'll show you all round the place this afternoon, when I've finished washing up. I'm going to lay the table now. You can help if you like."

Precisely at one o'clock the seven other students came in from their work. Each was dressed in her farm uniform, short serge skirt, woolen jersey, blue overall and thick boots. To judge from their looks, their occupation was both healthy and congenial, in physique they were Hebes, and their spirits seemed at bubbling point. Apparently they all adored Miss Carson. The latter made a few inquiries as to the morning's progress, and the capable answers testified to the knowledge of the learners. The dinner did credit to Miss Heald's skill; it was well cooked and daintily served. Winona was full of admiration; her culinary experience was limited so far to cakes and scones; she felt that she would have been very proud if she had compounded that stew, and baked those custards. When the meal was finished the students tramped forth again to their outdoor labor, while Miss Heald cleared away. Winona begged to be allowed to help her, and was initiated into the mysteries of the very latest and most sanitary method of washing up, with the aid of mop, dish-rack, and some patent appliances. It was so interesting that she quite enjoyed it. She swept the kitchen, filled kettles at the pump, and did several other odd jobs; then, everything being left in an absolutely immaculate condition, Miss Heald declared that she was ready, and offered to take her companion for a tour of inspection round the far

m.

The little holding had been well planned, and was skillfully arranged. In front was the garden, a large piece of ground stretching down to the hedge that bordered the road. Miss Carson's original idea had been the culture of flowers, partly for the sale of their blossoms, and partly for the preservation of their seeds, but the national need of producing food crops during the war had induced her to plant almost the whole of it with fruit and vegetables. At present it somewhat resembled a village allotment. Patches of peas and broad beans were coming up well. Groups of gooseberry bushes were thriving. Strawberry beds were being carefully weeded, and two of the students were erecting posts round them, over which nets would be hung later on to protect the fruit from the birds.

"Birds are our greatest pest here," explained Miss Heald. "One may like them from a natural history point of view, but you get to hate the little wretches when you see them devouring everything wholesale. They've no conscience. Those small coletits can creep through quite fine meshes, and simply strip the peas, and the blackbirds would guzzle all day if they had the chance. I want to borrow an air gun and pot at them, but Miss Carson won't let me. She's afraid I might shoot some of the other students."

A row of cucumber frames and some greenhouses stood at the bottom of the garden. The latter were mostly devoted to young tomato plants, though one was specially reserved for vegetable marrows. The students had to learn how to manage and regulate the heating apparatus of the houses, as well as to understand the culture of the plants.

"I left a window open once," confessed Miss Heald. "I remembered it when I had been about an hour in bed, and I jumped up and dressed in a hurry, and went out with a lantern to shut it. Fortunately there was no frost that night, or all the seedlings might have been killed. It was a most dreadful thing to forget! I thought Miss Carson would have jumped on me, but she was ever so nice about it."

Despite the predominance of foodstuffs there were a few flowers in the garden, clumps of forget-me-not and narcissus, purple iris, golden saxifrages and scarlet anemones. There were fragrant bushes of lavender and rosemary, and beds of sweet herbs, thyme, and basil and fennel and salsafy, for Miss Carson believed in some of the old-fashioned remedies, and made salves and ointments and hair washes from the products of her garden. The orchard, full of pink-blossomed apple trees, was a refreshing sight. They opened a little gate, and walked under a wealth of drooping flowers to the poultry yard that lay at the further side. Everything here was on the most up-to-date system. Pens of beautiful white Leghorns, Black Minorcas and Buff Orpingtons were kept in wired inclosures, each with its own henhouse and scratching-shed full of straw. Miss Heald took Winona inside to inspect the patent nesting-boxes, and the grit-cutting machine. She also showed her the incubators.

"They're empty now, but you should have seen them in the early spring, when they were full of eggs," she explained. "It was a tremendous anxiety to keep the lamps properly regulated. Miss Nelson and I sat up all night once when some prize ducklings were hatching. It was cold weather, and they weren't very strong, so they needed a little help. It's the most frightfully delicate work to help a chick out of its shell! It makes a little chip with its beak, and then sometimes it can't get any further, and you have gently to crack the hole bigger. Unless you're very careful you may kill it, but on the other hand, if it can't burst its shell when it's ready to hatch, it may suffocate, so it's a choice of evils. We put them in the drying pen first, and then in the 'foster mother.' They're like babies, and have to be fed every two hours. It's a tremendous business when you have hundreds of them, at different stages and on different diets. We seemed to be preparing food all day long. It's ever so fascinating, though!"

"I love them when they're like fluffy canaries," said Winona.

"Yes, so do I. I had a special sitting of little ducklings under my charge, and they got very tame. I put them into a basket one day, and carried them into the garden to pick up worms. I put them down on a bed, and while my back was turned for a few minutes they cleared a whole row of young cabbages that Miss Morrison had just planted. I got into fearful trouble, and had to pack up my protégés and take them back to their coop in disgrace. I'd never dreamed they would devour green stuff! We have to learn to keep strict accounts of the poultry; we put down the number of eggs daily, and the weekly food bill, and the chickens sold, and make a kind of register, with profit and loss. Miss Carson runs everything on a most business-like basis."

Miss Heald showed Winona the store-room, where meal and grain were kept, the big pans in which food was mixed, the boxes for packing eggs, and the little medicine cupboard containing remedies for sick fowls. All was beautifully orderly and well arranged, and a card of rules for the help of the students hung on the walls.

From the poultry department they passed to the Dairy Section. The four sleek cows were out in the field, but in a loose box there were some delightful calves that ran to greet Miss Heald, pressing eager damp noses into her hand, and exhibiting much apparent disappointment that she did not offer them a pailful of milk and oatmeal. Winona inspected the cool, scrupulously clean dairy, with its patent churn, and slate slabs for making up the butter. She saw the bowls where the cream was kept, and the wooden print with which the pats were marked.

"Butter-making is the side of the business I don't care for," admitted Miss Heald. "I like the gardening fairly well, and I just love the poultry, but I don't take to dairy work. Of course it's a part of my training, so I'm obliged to do it, but when my time here is over, I mean to make hens my specialty, and go in for poultry farming. An open-air life suits me. It's a thousand times nicer than being a nurse at a hospital, or a secretary at an office. You're in the fresh air all day, and the chicks are so interesting."

A pen of young turkey poults, a flock of goslings, and a sty full of infant pigs were next on exhibition. Miss Heald showed off the latter with pride.

"They're rather darlings, and I own to a weakness for them," she admitted. "We put them in a bath and scrub them, and they're really so intelligent. Wasn't it the poet Herrick who had a pet pig? This little chap's as sharp as a needle. I believe I could teach him tricks directly, if I tried! Miss Carson says I mustn't let myself grow too fond of all the creatures, because their ultimate end is bacon or the boilerette, and it doesn't do to be sentimental over farming; but I can't help it! I just love some of the chickens; they come flying up on to my shoulder like pigeons."

A rough-coated pony formed part of the establishment. Twice a week he was harnessed to the trap, and Miss Carson and one of the students drove to Seaton to dispose of the farm produce. Miss Carson had undertaken to supply several hotels and restaurants with eggs, fowls and vegetables, and so far had found the demand for her goods exceeded the supply. Labor was at present her greatest difficulty. Her students accomplished the light work, but could not do heavy digging. She managed to secure the occasional services of a farm hand, but with most able-bodied men at the war the problem of trenching or of making an asparagus bed was almost impossible to solve.

At the end of the orchard, against a south hedge of thick holly, stood the hives. Bee-keeping was one of the most successful ventures of the holding. Last autumn had shown a splendid yield of honey, and this year, judging by the activity of the bees, an equal harvest might be expected. There was continuous humming among the apple blossoms, and every minute pollen-laden workers were hurrying home with their spoils. Miss Heald lifted the lid of one of the hives, to show Winona the comb within. She observed caution, however.

"They don't know me very well," she explained. "They have their likes and dislikes. Miss Hunter can let them crawl all over her hands and arms, and they never sting her. She must have a natural attraction for them. They recognize a stranger directly. No, I'm not particularly fond of them. I prefer pigs and chickens."

Miss Carson and Aunt Harriet had also been going the round of the farm, and came up to inspect the hives. Miss Beach was greatly interested in her friend's work, and full of congratulations.

"Such women as you are the backbone of the country!" she declared. "The next best thing to fighting is to provide food for the nation. England is capable of producing twice her annual yield if there is proper organization. I'm a great advocate of small holdings, and I think women can't show their patriotism better than by going 'back to the land.' You and your students are indeed 'doing your bit'! You make me want to come and help you!"

It was such a delicious warm afternoon that chairs were carried outside, and they had tea in the garden under a gorgeous pink-blossomed almond tree, with the perfume of wallflowers and sweet scented stocks wafted from the rockery above. Two cats and a dog joined the party, also an impudent bantam cock, who, being considered the mascot of the establishment, was much petted, and allowed certain privileges. He would sit on Miss Carson's wrist like a little tame hawk, and she sometimes brought him into the garden at tea-time to give him tit-bits.

At 4.30 all the fowls and chickens were fed, a tremendous business, at which Winona looked on with enthusiasm. She admired the systematic way in which the food was measured and distributed so that each individual member of the flock received its due share, and was not robbed by a greedier and stronger neighbor. She was very reluctant to leave when Miss Beach at last brought round the car.

"How I'd love to go and learn farming when I leave school!" she ventured to remark as they drove home.

"It needs brains!" returned Aunt Harriet, rather snappily. "You mustn't imagine it's all tea in the garden and playing with fluffy chickens. To run such a holding intelligently requires a clever capable head. Your examination's quite enough for you to think about at present. If you're to have any chance at all of passing, it will take your whole energies, I assure you!"

Winona, duly snubbed, held her peace.

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