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.'
'Somehow, Jane, I think you have become so much afraid of giving way to curiosity that you sometimes shut your eyes rather too much.'
'Well, perhaps in one's old age one suffers from the reaction of one's bad qualities. I will think about it, Ada. I certainly never before realised how very different school supervision of young folks is from looking after them all round. Moreover, Gillian has been much more attentive to poor Lily Giles of late, in spite of her avocations.'
Valetta was not at first heartbroken on hearing that she was not to go in for the language examination. It was such a relief from the oppression of the task, and she had so long given up hopes of having the prize to show to her mother, that she was scarcely grieved, though Aunt Jane was very grave while walking down to school with her in the morning to see Miss Leverett, and explain the withdrawal.
That lady came to her private room as soon as she had opened the school. From one point of view, she said, she agreed with Miss Mohun that it would be better that her niece should not go up for the examination.
'But,' she said, 'it may be considered as a stigma upon her, since none of the others are to give up.'
'Indeed! I had almost thought it a matter of course.'
'On the contrary, two of the mothers seem to think nothing at all of the matter. Mrs. Black---'
'The Surveyor's wife, isn't she?'
'Yes, she writes a note saying that all children copy, if they can, and she wonders that I should be so severe upon such a frequent occurrence, which reflects more discredit on the governesses than the scholars.'
'Polite that! And Mrs. Purvis? At least, she is a lady!'
'She is more polite, but evidently has no desire to be troubled. She hopes that if her daughter has committed a breach of school discipline, I will act as I think best.'
'No feeling of the real evil in either! How about Maura White?'
'That is very different. It is her sister who writes, and so nicely that I must show it to you.'
'MY DEAR MADAM---I am exceedingly grieved that Maura should have acted in a dishonourable manner, though she was not fully aware how wrongly she was behaving. We have been talking to her, and we think she is so truly sorry as not to be likely to fall into the same temptation again. As far as we can make out, she has generally taken pains with her tasks, and only obtained assistance in unusually difficult passages, so that we think that she is really not ill-prepared. If it is thought right that all the pupils concerned should abstain from the competition, we would of course readily acquiesce in the justice of the sentence; but to miss it this year might make so serious a difference to her prospects, that I hope it will not be thought a necessary act of discipline, though we know that we have no right to plead for any exemption for her. With many thanks for the consideration you have shown for her, I remain, faithfully yours,
'A very different tone indeed, and it quite agrees with Valetta's account,' said Miss Mohun.
'Yes, the other two girls were by far the most guilty.'
'And morally, perhaps, Maura the least; but I retain my view that, irrespective of the others, Valetta's parents had rather she missed this examination, considering all things.'
Valetta came home much more grieved when she had found she was the only one left out, and declared it was unjust.
No,' said Gillian, 'for you began it all. None of the others would have got into the scrape but for you.'
'It was all your fault for not minding me!'
'As if I made you do sly things.'
'You made me. You were so cross if I only asked a question,' and Val prepared to cry.
'I thought people had to do their own work and not other folks'! Don't be so foolish.'
'Oh dear! oh dear! how unkind you are! I wish---I wish Mysie was here; every one is grown cross! Oh, if mamma would but come home!'
'Now, Val, don't be such a baby! Stop that!'
And Valetta went into one of her old agonies of crying and sobbing, which brought Aunt Jane in to see what was the matter. She instantly stopped the scolding with which Gillian was trying to check the outburst, and which only added to its violence.
'It is the only thing to stop those fits,' said Gillian. 'She can if she will! It is all temper.'
'Leave her to me!' commanded Aunt Jane. 'Go!'
Gillian went away, muttering that it was not the way mamma or Nurse Halfpenny treated Val, and quite amazed that Aunt Jane, of all people, should have the naughty child on her lap and in her arms, soothing her tenderly.
The cries died away, and the long heaving sobs began to subside, and at last a broken voice said, on Aunt Jane's shoulder, 'It's---a--- little bit---like mamma.'
For Aunt Jane's voice had a ring in it like mamma's, and this little bit of tenderness was inexpressibly comforting.
'My poor dear child,' she said, 'mamma will soon come home, and then you will be all right.'
'I shouldn't have done it if mamma had been there!'
'No, and now you are sorry.'
'Will mamma be very angry?'
'She will be grieved that you could not hold out when you were tempted; but I am sure she will forgive you if you write it all to her. And, Val, you know you can have God's forgiveness at once if you tell Him.'
'Yes,' said Valetta gravely; then, 'I did not before, because I thought every one made so much of it, and were so cross. And Georgie and Nellie don't care at all.'
'Oh, Maura does, because of Kalliope.'
'How do you mean?'
Valetta sat up on her aunt's lap, and told.
'Maura told me! She said Kally and Alec both were at her, but her mamma was vexed with them, and said she would not have her scolded at home as well as at school about nothing; and she told Theodore to go and buy her a tart to make up to her, but Theodore wouldn't, for he said he was ashamed of her. So she sent the maid. But when Maura had gone to bed and to sleep, she woke up, and there was Kally crying over her prayers, and whispering half aloud, "Is she going too? My poor child! Oh, save her! Give her the Spirit of truth--"'
'Poor Kalliope! She is a good sister.'
'Yes; Maura says Kally is awfully afraid of their telling stories because of Richard---the eldest, you know. He does it dreadfully. I remember nurse used to tell us not to fib like Dick White. Maura said he used to tell his father stories about being late and getting money, and their mother never let him be punished. He was her pet. And Maura remembers being carried in to see poor Captain White just before he died, when she was getting better, but could not stand, and he said, "Truth before all, children. Be true to God and man." Captain White did care so much, but Mrs. White doesn't. Isn't that very odd, for she isn't a Roman Catholic?' ended Valetta, obviously believing that falsehood was inherent in Romanists, and pouring out all this as soon as her tears were assuaged, as if, having heard it, she must tell.
'Mrs. White is half a Greek, you know,' said Aunt Jane, 'and the Greeks are said not to think enough about truth.'
'Epaminondas did,' said Valetta, who had picked up a good deal from the home atmosphere, 'but Ulysses didn't.'
'No; and the Greeks have been enslaved and oppressed for a great many years, and that is apt to make people get cowardly and false. But that is not our concern, Val, and I think with such a recollection of her good father, and such a sister to help her, Maura will not fall into the fault again. And, my dear, I quite see that neither you nor she entirely realised that what you did was deception, though you never spoke a word of untruth.'
'No, we did not,' said Valetta.
'And so, my dear child, I do forgive you, quite and entirely, as we used to say, though I have settled with Miss Leverett that you had better not go up for the examination, since you cannot be properly up to it. And you must write the whole history to your mother. Yes; I know it will be very sad work, but it will be much better to have it out and done with, instead of having it on your mind when she comes home.'
'Shall you tell her!'
'Yes, certainly,' said the aunt, well knowing that this would clench the matter. 'But I shall tell her how sorry you are, and that I really think you did not quite understand what you were about at first. And I shall write to Miss White, and try to comfort her about her sister.'
'You won't say I told!'
'Oh no; but I shall have quite reason enough for writing in telling her that I am sorry my little niece led her sister into crooked paths.'
Gillian knew that this letter was written and sent, and it did not make her more eager for a meeting with Kalliope. So that she was not sorry that the weather was a valid hindrance, though a few weeks ago she would have disregarded such considerations. Besides, there was her own examination, which for two days was like a fever, and kept her at her little table, thinking of nothing but those questions, and dreaming and waking over them at night.
It was over; and she was counselled on all sides to think no more about it till she should hear of success or failure. But this was easier said than done, and she was left in her tired state with a general sense of being on a wrong tack, and of going on amiss, whether due to her aunt's want of assimilation to herself, or to her mother's absence, she did not know, and with the further sense that she had not been the motherly sister she had figured to herself, but that both the children should show a greater trust and reliance on Aunt Jane than on herself grieved her, not exactly with jealousy, but with sense of failure and dissatisfaction with herself. She had a universal distaste to her surroundings, and something very like dread of the Whites, and she rejoiced in the prospect of quitting Rockstone for the present.
She felt bound to run down to the office to wish Kalliope good-bye. There she found an accumulation of exercises and translations waiting for her.
'Oh, what a quantity! It shows how long it is since I have been here.'
'And indeed,' began Kalliope, 'since your aunt has been so very kind about poor little Maura---'
'Oh, please don't talk to me! There's such a lot to do, and I have no time. Wait till I have done.'
And she nervously began reading out the Greek exercise, so as effectually to stop Kalliope's mouth. Moreover, either her own uneasy mind, or the difficulty of the Greek, brought her into a dilemma. She saw that Alexis's phrase was wrong, but she did not clearly perceive what the sentence ought to be, and she perplexed herself over it till he came in, whether to her satisfaction or not she could not have told, for she had not wanted to see him on the one hand, though, on the other, it silenced Kalliope.
She tried to clear her perceptions by explanations to him, but he did not seem to give his mind to the grammar half as much as to the cessation of the lessons and her absence.
'You must do the best you can,' she said, 'and I shall find you gone quite beyond me.'
'I shall never do that, Miss Merrifield.'
'Nonsense!' she said, laughing uncomfortably 'a pretty clergyman you would be if you could not pass a girl. There! good-bye. Make a list of your puzzles and I will do my best with them when I come back.'
'Thank you,' and he wrung her hand with an earnestness that gave her a sense of uneasiness.