Read CHAPTER TWENTY - THE COMING STRUGGLE of The New Mistress A Tale , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on

Was there ever a young schoolmaster or mistress yet who did not view with a strange feeling of tribulation the coming of inspection day, when that awful being, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools for such and such a district, is expected down to make his report and add to or deduct so many pounds sterling from the teacher’s pay?

Of course we do these things better now; but there have been cases where the appointment of school inspector has been given to a gentleman who owed his elevation, not to the fact that he was a thorough scholar, a man who had always taken great interest in the education of the masses, a student of school management, a man of quick intellect apt to seize upon the latent points, ready to suggest, to qualify, and help the master or mistress upon whose teaching for the past year he was about to report, gifted with the brain-power that would enable him to appreciate the difficulties of the task, and ready to see that the boys and girls of Pudley Claypole really had not the quickness of the gamins and gamines of Little Sharp Street, Whitechapel Road ­but to the accident of his having friends, if not at Court, at all events with some high official ­his sisters, his cousins, or his aunts ­then in power.

Now, no one could have found fault with the gentlemanly demeanour of Mr Slingsby Barracombe.  Miss Lambent said it was a pleasure to have him at the vicarage, and quite made a break in the dulness of their life, for he discoursed of society in town, his high connections, the state of the country; and he could sip tea and talk family matters with the vicarage ladies like a woman.  He was a man of excellent presence:  his hair very slightly touched with grey, and in that stage when, as he parted it down the middle, you could not decidedly have said whether it was a very broad parting or a suggestion of growing bald.

Sometimes your school inspector is a reverend M.A.  Mr Slingsby Barracombe was not, but he dressed as much like a clergyman as he could, and his clothes were all made by one of the first clerical tailors in town.

Mr Barracombe’s uncle’s wife’s sister had married a gentleman whose brother was in the Ministry; and, somehow, Mr Slingsby Barracombe was named as likely to obtain the appointment of Inspector of Schools, did obtain it and went on afterwards merrily inspecting and reporting for his district after a fashion for which he ought to have had a patent, since it was essentially his own.

“You will endeavour to have as large an attendance as you can.  Miss Thorne,” said the vicar.  “Her Majesty’s inspector will be here on Thursday, and I shall feel it deeply if you do not receive a highly commendatory report.”

“We hope ­my sister and I ­Miss Thorne,” said Miss Lambent with asperity, “that the girls will acquit themselves well.  Some of their needlework has of late been terribly full of gobble stitches.”

“And so disgustingly grubby,” put in Miss Beatrice.

“That it has not been fit to be seen.  Pray ­pray ­I implore you.  Miss Thorne ­pray be more energetic with the girls.”

“Don’t you bother yourself, my dear,” said Miss Burge.  “My brother says he hopes the girls will all show up well, for your sake as well as the school’s; but don’t you bother yourself, my dear.  You’ve just worked like a slave and done no end.  Now let it all slide.  If the girls answer well, they do; if they don’t answer well, they don’t.  ’Taint your fault, so don’t you worry.  We’re both coming to the inspection, and my brother says if there’s any nonsense and fault-finding with the inspector he shall give him a bit of his mind.  He don’t believe in inspectors, don’t Bill.  He says there was never any inspectors in his time that he knows of, and if all the boys turn out as well as he did, there won’t be much to grumble about; so don’t you fidget, but take it as coolly as you can.”

“I say, how are you getting on!” said Mr Chute, popping his head in at the door.  “Can’t stop, because I expect Lambent; and if I do come in, it will be cats.  You know.”

“Cats?  I know?” said Hazel, staring at the lumpy front of Mr Chute, and noticing that his hair seemed to have come up more than ever.

“Yes, of course ­cats!  I mean Becky and Beatrice ­Rebel and Tricksy.  I call them the cats.  Don’t tell ’em I called ’em so; but I’m not a bit afraid of that.  Don’t feel nervous about the inspection, do you?”

“I do feel a little nervous Mr Chute.”

“So does my mother.  She’s in a regular fidget for fear I shouldn’t do well; but as I said to her, what does it matter?  When a man has done his best with his school, why, he can’t do any better, can he?”

“No; certainly not,” replied Hazel, for Mr Chute was gazing at her in his peculiarly irritating way, his head a little on one side and his nose pointing, as if he meant to have an answer out of her if it was not soon forthcoming.

“I think my boys are all well up, and if they don’t answer sharp they’ve got me to deal with afterwards, and they’ll hear of it, I can tell ’em.  But don’t you mind.  Old Barracombe isn’t much account.  He always asks the same questions ­a lot he has got off by heart, I believe.  I always call him the expector, because he expects answers to questions he couldn’t answer for himself.”

“I hope the children will acquit themselves well,” said Hazel.  “Oh, I don’t think I shall bother myself much about it.  I shall take precious good care that they have clean hands and faces, that’s about all.”

Just then Mr Chute popped back outside the door, as if he were part of a pantomime trick, and Hazel breathed more freely, thinking he had gone; but he popped in again, smiling and imitating his visitee more and more by assuming to take her into his confidence, and treating her as if she were combining with him in his petty little bits of deception.

“There’s nobody coming.  I looked right up the street, and I could have seen that stalking post Lambent if he had been a mile off.”

If Hazel had asked him if he could see the Misses Lambent he would have been happy; but she did not, though Mr Chute waited with a smile upon his face but a goodly store of bitterness in his heart, for he kept on thinking of George Canninge, and that gentleman who came down upon the first Sunday and caused him such a pang.

Hazel, however, did not speak.  She stood there, not caring to be rude, but longing to ask him to go, and with that peculiar itching attacking her fingers which made her wish to lift the Testament she had in her hand to well box his too prominent ears.

Just then Mr Chute popped out again, and once more Hazel’s heart gave a throb of relief, for it was troubled now by the idea that Mr Chute was growing attached to her, and there was something so horrible as well as ludicrous in this, that she shrank from him whenever he appeared.  But Mr Chute was not gone; he came back directly with a great bunch of flowers grasped in his two hands and held up to his breast and over which he smiled blandly.

“They’re not much of flowers for you to receive.  Miss Hazel, but I thought you’d like a few to put in water ­and you might like to accept them for my sake.”

Mr Samuel Chute did not say those last words, though it formed part of the speech he had written out when he planned making that offering of flowers, and promised the boys who had gardens at home a penny apiece for a bunch, which bunches had been rearranged by him into a whole, and carefully tied up with string.

The bunch was laid down outside the door when he first entered, and at last brought in and held as has been stated.

Hazel felt ready to laugh, for there was a smirk upon Mr Chute’s face, and a peculiar look that reminded her of a French peasant in an opera she had once seen, as he stood presenting a large bunch of flowers to the lady of his love.  There was a wonderful resemblance to the scene, which was continued upon the stage by the lady boxing the peasant’s ears and making him drop the huge bouquet which she immediately kicked, so that it came undone, and the flowers were scattered round.

Of course this did not take place in the real scene, for, after the first sensation relating to mirth, Hazel felt so troubled that she was ready to run away into the cottage to avoid her persecutor.

For was there ever a young lady yet who could avoid looking upon an offering of flowers as having a special meaning?  The pleasant fancy of the language of flowers is sentimental enough to appeal to every one who is young; and here was Mr Chute presenting her with his first bouquet, a very different affair, so she thought, to the bunches of beautiful roses brought from time to time by Miss Burge.

“Just a few flowers out of our garden, my dear,” the little lady said, without any allusion to the fact that her brother had selected every rose himself, cutting them with his own penknife, and afterwards carefully removing every spine from the stems.

What should she do?  She did not want Chute’s flowers, but if she refused them the act would be looked upon almost as an insult, and it was not in Hazel’s nature to willingly give pain.  So she rather weakly took them, thanked the donor, and he went away smiling, after giving her a look that seemed, according to his ideas, to tell her that his heart was hers for ever, and that he was her most abject slave.

Hazel saw the glance, and thought that Mr Chute looked rather silly; but directly after repented bitterly of what she had done, and wished that she had firmly refused the gift.

“And yet what nonsense!” she reasoned.  “Why should I look upon a present of a few flowers as having any particular meaning?  They are to decorate the school for the inspection, and I will take them in that light.”

Acting upon this, she quietly called up Feelier Potts and another of the elder girls who were whispering together, evidently about the the gift, sent them to the cottage for some basins and jugs, and bade them divide the flowers and put some in water in each window, a proceeding afterwards dimly visible to Mr Chute, who did not feel at all pleased.