Chapter X. Aut Caesar Aut Nihil
Examinations were the great autumn excitement. Gillian was going up for the higher Cambridge, and Valetta's form was under preparation for competition for a prize in languages. The great Mr. White, on being asked to patronise the High School at its first start, four years ago, had endowed it with prizes for each of the four forms for the most proficient in two tongues.
As the preparation became more absorbing, brows were puckered and looks were anxious, and the aunts were doubtful as to the effect upon the girls' minds or bodies. It was too late, however, to withdraw them, and Miss Mohun could only insist on air and exercise, and permit no work after the seven-o'clock tea.
She was endeavouring to chase cobwebs from the brains of the students by the humours of Mrs. Nickleby, when a message was brought that Miss Leverett, the head-mistress of the High School, wished to speak to her in the dining-room. This was no unusual occurrence, as Miss Mohun was secretary to the managing committee of the High School. But on the announcement Valetta began to fidget, and presently said that she was tired and would go to bed. The most ordinary effect of fatigue upon this young lady was to make her resemble the hero of the nursery poem---
'I do not want to go to bed,
Sleepy little Harry said.'Nevertheless, this willingness excited no suspicion, till Miss Mohun came to the door to summon Valetta.
'Is there anything wrong!' exclaimed sister and niece together.
'Gone to bed! Oh! I'll tell you presently. Don't you come, Gillian.'
She vanished again, leaving Gillian in no small alarm and vexation.
'I wonder what it can be,' mused Aunt Ada.
'I shall go and find out!' said Gillian, jumping up, as she heard a door shut upstairs.
'No, don't,' said Aunt Ada, 'you had much better not interfere.'
'It is my business to see after my own sister,' returned Gillian haughtily.
'I see what you mean, my dear,' said her aunt, stretching out her hand, kindly; 'but I do not think you can do any good. If she is in a scrape, you have nothing to do with the High School management, and for you to burst in would only annoy Miss Leverett and confuse the affair. Oh, I know your impulse of defence, dear Gillian; but the time has not come yet, and you can't have any reasonable doubt that Jane will be just, nor that your mother would wish that you should be quiet about it.'
'But suppose there is some horrid accusation against her!' said Gillian hotly.
'But, dear child, if you don't know anything about it, how can you defend her?'
'I ought to know!'
'So you will in time; but the more people there are present, the more confusion there is, and the greater difficulty in getting at the rights of anything.''
More by her caressing tone of sympathy than by actual arguments, Adeline did succeed in keeping Gillian in the drawing-room, though not in pacifying her, till doors were heard again, and something so like Valetta crying as she went upstairs, that Gillian was neither to have nor to hold, and made a dash out of the room, only to find her aunt and the head-mistress exchanging last words in the hall, and as she was going to brush past them, Aunt Jane caught her hand, and said---
'Wait a moment, Gillian; I want to speak to you.'
There was no getting away, but she was very indignant. She tugged at her aunt's hand more than perhaps she knew, and there was something of a flouncing as she flung into the drawing-room and demanded---
'Well, what have you been doing to poor little Val?'
'We have done nothing,' said Miss Mohun quietly. 'Miss Leverett wanted to ask her some questions. Sit down, Gillian. You had better hear what I have to say before going to her. Well, it appears that there has been some amount of cribbing in the third form.'
'I'm sure Val never would,' broke out Gillian. And her aunt answered---
'So was I; but---'
'My dear, do hush,' pleaded Adeline. 'You must let yourself listen.'
Gillian gave a desperate twist, but let her aunt smooth her hand.
'All the class---almost---seem to have done it in some telegraphic way, hard to understand,' proceeded Aunt Jane. 'There must have been some stupidity on the part of the class-mistress, Miss Mellon, or it could not have gone on; but there has of late been a strong suspicion of cribbing in Caesar in Valetta's class. They had got rather behindhand, and have been working up somewhat too hard and fast to get through the portion for examination. Some of them translated too well--used terms for the idioms that were neither literal, nor could have been forged by their small brains; so there was an examination, and Georgie Purvis was detected reading off from the marks on the margin of her notebook.'
'But what has that to do with Val?'
'Georgie, being had up to Miss Leverett, made the sort of confession that implicates everybody.'
'Then why believe her?' muttered Gillian. But her aunt went on---
'She said that four or five of them did it, from the notes that Valetta Merrifield brought to school.'
'Never!' interjected Gillian.
'She said,' continued Miss Mohun, 'it was first that they saw her helping Maura White, and they thought that was not fair, and insisted on her doing the same for them.'
'It can't be true! Oh, don't believe it!' cried the sister.
'I grieve to remind you that I showed you in the drawer in the dining-room chiffonier a translation of that very book of Caesar that your mother and I made years ago, when she was crazy upon Vercingetorix.'
'But was that reason enough for laying it upon poor Val?'
'She owned it.'
There was a silence, and then Gillian said---
'She must have been frightened, and not known what she was saying.'
'She was frightened, but she was very straightforward, and told without any shuffling. She saw the old copy-books when I was showing you those other remnants of our old times, and one day it seems she was in a great puzzle over her lessons, and could get no help or advice, because none of us had come in. I suppose you were with Lilian, and she thought she might just look at the passage. She found Maura in the same difficulty, and helped her; and then Georgie Purvis and Nelly Black found them out, and threatened to tell unless she showed them her notes; but the copying whole phrases was only done quite of late in the general over-hurry.'
'She must have been bullied into it,' cried Gillian. 'I shall go and see about her.'
Aunt Ada made a gesture as of deprecation; but Aunt Jane let her go without remonstrance, merely saying as the door closed---
'Poor child! Esprit de famille!'
'Will it not be very bad for Valetta to be petted and pitied?'
'I don't know. At any rate, we cannot separate them at night, so it is only beginning it a little sooner; and whatever I say only exasperates Gillian the more. Poor little Val, she had not a formed character enough to be turned loose into a High School without Mysie to keep her in order.'
'I am not so sure of Gillian. There's something amiss, though I can't make out whether it is merely that I rub her down the wrong way. I wonder whether this holiday time will do us good or harm! At any rate, I know how Lily felt about Dolores.'
'It must have been that class-mistress's fault.'
'To a great degree; but Miss Leverett has just discovered that her cleverness does not compensate for a general lack of sense and discipline. Poor little Val---perhaps it is her turning-point!'
Gillian, rushing up in a boiling state of indignation against everybody, felt the family shame most acutely of all; and though, as a Merrifield, she defended her sister below stairs, on the other hand she was much more personally shocked and angered at the disgrace than were her aunts, and far less willing to perceive any excuse for the culprit.
There was certainly no petting or pitying in her tone as she stood over the little iron bed, where the victim was hiding her head on her pillow.
'Oh, Valetta, how could you do such a thing? The Merrifields have never been so disgraced before!'
'Oh, don't, Gill! Aunt Jane and Miss Leverett were---not so angry--- when I said---I was sorry.'
'But what will papa and mamma say?'
'Must they---must they hear?'
'You would not think of deceiving them, I hope.'
'Not deceiving, only not telling.'
'That comes to much the same.'
'You can't say anything, Gill, for you are always down at Kal's office, and nobody knows.'
This gave Gillian a great shock, but she rallied, and said with dignity, 'Do you think I do not write to mamma everything I do?'
It sufficed for the immediate purpose of annihilating Valetta, who had just been begging off from letting mamma hear of her proceedings; but it left Gillian very uneasy as to how much the child might know or tell, and this made her proceed less violently, and more persuasively, 'Whatever I do, I write to mamma; and besides, it is different with a little thing like you, and your school work. Come, tell me how you got into this scrape.'
'Oh, Gill, it was so hard! All about those tiresome Gauls, and there were bits when the nominative case would go and hide itself, and those nasty tenses one doesn't know how to look out, and I knew I was making nonsense, and you were out of the way, and there was nobody to help; and I knew mamma's own book was there---the very part too--- because Aunt Jane had shown it to us, so I did not think there was any harm in letting her help me out of the muddle.'
'Ah! that was the beginning.'
'If you had been in, I would not have done it. You know Aunt Jane said there was no harm in giving a clue, and this was mamma.'
'But that was not all.'
'Well, then, there was Maura first, as much puzzled, and her brother is so busy he hasn't as much time for her as he used to have, and it does signify to her, for perhaps if she does not pass, Mr. White may not let her go on at the High School, and that would be too dreadful, for you know you said I was to do all I could for Maura. So I marked down things for her and she copied them off, and then Georgie and Nelly found it out, and, oh! they were dreadful! I never knew it was wrong till they went at me. And they were horrid to Maura, and said she was a Greek and I a Maltese, and so we were both false, and cheaty, and sly, and they should tell Miss Leverett unless I would help them.'
'Oh! Valetta, why didn't you tell me?'
'I never get to speak to you, said Val. 'I did think I would that first time, and ask you what to do, but then you came in late, and when I began something, you said you had your Greek to do, and told me to hold my tongue.'
'I am very sorry,' said Gillian, feeling convicted of having neglected her little sister in the stress of her own work and of the preparation for that of her pupil, who was treading on her heels; 'but indeed, Val, if you had told me it was important, I should have listened.'
'Ah I but when one is half-frightened, and you are always in a hurry,' sighed the child. And, indeed, I did do my best over my own work before ever I looked; only those two are so lazy and stupid, they would have ever so much more help than Maura or I ever wanted; and at last I was so worried and hurried with my French and all the rest, that I did scramble a whole lot down, and that was the way it was found out. And I am glad now it is over, whatever happens.'
'Yes, that is right,' said Gillian, 'and I am glad you told no stories; but I wonder Emma Norton did not see what was going on.'
'Oh, she is frightfully busy about her own.'
'And Kitty Varley?'
'Kitty is only going up for French and German. Miss Leverett is so angry. What do you think she will do to me, Gill? Expel me?'
'I don't know---I can't guess. I don't know High School ways.'
It would be so dreadful for papa and mamma and the boys to know,' sobbed Valetta. 'And Mysie! oh, if Mysie was but here!'
'Mysie would have been a better sister to her,' said Gillian's conscience, and her voice said, 'You would never have done it if Mysie had been here.'
'And Mysie would be nice,' said the poor child, who longed after her companion sister as much for comfort as for conscience. 'Is Aunt Jane very very angry?' she went on; 'do you think I shall be punished?'
'I can't tell. If it were I, I should think you were punished enough by having disgraced the name of Merrifield by such a dishonourable action.'
'I---I didn't know it was dishonourable.'
'Well,' said Gillian, perhaps a little tired of the scene, or mayhap dreading another push into her own quarters, 'I have been saying what I could for you, and I should think they would feel that no one but our father and mother had a real right to punish you, but I can't tell what the School may do. Now, hush, it is of no use to talk any more. Good-night; I hope I shall find you asleep when I come to bed.'
Valetta would have detained her, but off she went, with a consciousness that she had been poor comfort to her little sister, and had not helped her to the right kind of repentance. But then that highest ground---the strict rule of perfect conscientious uprightness---was just what she shrank from bringing home to herself, in spite of those privileges of seniority by which she had impressed poor Valetta.
The worst thing further that was said that night, when she had reported as much of Valetta's confidence as she thought might soften displeasure, was Aunt Ada's observation: 'Maura! That's the White child, is it not? No doubt it was the Greek blood.'
'The English girls were much worse,' hastily said Gillian, with a flush of alarm, as she thought of her own friends being suspected.
'Yes; but it began with the little Greek,' said Aunt Ada. 'What a pity, for she is such an engaging child! I would take the child away from the High School, except that it would have the appearance of her being dismissed.
'We must consider of that,' said Aunt Jane. 'There will hardly be time to hear from Lilias before the next term begins. Indeed, it will not be so very long to wait before the happy return, I hope.'
'Only two months,' said Gillian; 'but it would be happier but for this.'
'No,' said Aunt Jane. 'If we made poor little Val write her confession, and I do the same for not having looked after her better, it will be off our minds, and need not cloud the meeting.'
'The disgrace!' sighed Gillian; 'the public disgrace!'
'My dear, I don't want to make you think lightly of such a thing. It was very wrong in a child brought up as you have all been, with a sense of honour and uprightness; but where there has been no such training, the attempt to copy is common enough, for it is not to be looked on as an extraordinary and indelible disgrace. Do you remember Primrose saying she had broken mamma's heart when she had knocked down a china vase? You need not be in that state of mind over what was a childish fault, made worse by those bullying girls. It is of no use to exaggerate. The sin is the thing---not the outward shame.'
'And Valetta told at once when asked,' added Aunt Ada.
'That makes a great difference.'
'In fact, she was relieved to have it out,' said Miss Mohun. 'It is not at all as if she were in the habit of doing things underhand.'
Everything struck on Gillian like a covert reproach. It was pain and shame to her that a Merrifield should have lowered herself to the common herd so as to need these excuses of her aunts, and then in the midst of that indignation came that throb of self-conviction which she was always confuting with the recollection of her letter to her mother.
She was glad to bid good-night and rest her head.
The aunts ended by agreeing that it was needful to withdraw Valetta from the competition. It would seem like punishment to her, but it would remove her from the strain that certainly was not good for her. Indeed, they had serious thoughts of taking her from the school altogether, but the holidays would not long be ended before her parents' return.
'I am sorry we ever let her try for the prize,' said Ada.
'Yes,' said Aunt Jane, 'I suppose it was weakness; but having opposed the acceptance of the system of prizes by competition at first, I thought it would look sullen if I refused to let Valetta try. Stimulus is all very well, but competition leads to emulation, wrath, strife, and a good deal besides.'
'Valetta wished it too, and she knew so much Latin to begin with that I thought she would easily get it, and certainly she ought not to get into difficulties.'
'After the silken rein and easy amble of Silverfold, the spur and the race have come severely.'
'It is, I suppose, the same with Gillian, though there it is not competition. Do you expect her to succeed?'
'No. She has plenty of intelligence, and a certain sort of diligence, but does not work to a point. She wants a real hand over her! She will fail, and it will be very good for her.'
'I should say the work was overmuch for her, and had led her to neglect Valetta.'
'Work becomes overmuch when people don't know how to set about it, and resent being told--- No, not in words, but by looks and shoulders. Besides, I am not sure that it is her proper work that oppresses her. I think she has some other undertaking in hand, probably for Christmas, or for her mother's return; but as secrecy is the very soul of such things, I shut my eyes.'