Read CHAPTER IX - WORK AND PLAY of A World of Girls The Story of a School , free online book, by L. T. Meade, on ReadCentral.com.

In a few days Hester was accustomed to her new life.  She fell into its routine, and in a certain measure won the respect of her fellow-pupils.  She worked hard, and kept her place in class, and her French became a little more like the French tongue and a little less like the English.  She showed marked ability in many of her other studies, and the mistresses and masters spoke well of her.  After a fortnight spent at Lavender House, Hester had to acknowledge that the little Misses Bruce were right, and that school might be a really enjoyable place for some girls.  She would not yet admit that it could be enjoyable for her.  Hester was too shy, too proud, too exacting to be popular with her schoolfellows.  She knew nothing of school-girl life ­she had never learned the great secret of success in all life’s perplexities, the power to give and take.  It never occurred to Hester to look over a hasty word, to take no notice of an envious or insolent look.  As far as her lessons were concerned, she was doing well; but the hardest lesson of all, the training of mind and character, which the daily companionship of her schoolfellows alone could give her, in this lesson she was making no way.  Each day she was shutting herself up more and more from all kindly advances, and the only one in the school whom she sincerely and cordially liked was gentle Cecil Temple.

Mrs. Willis had some ideas with regard to the training of her young people which were peculiarly her own.  She had found them successful, and, during her thirty years’ experience, had never seen reason to alter them.  She was determined to give her girls a great deal more liberty than was accorded in most of the boarding-schools of her day.  She never made what she called impossible rules; she allowed the girls full liberty to chatter in their bedrooms; she did not watch them during play-hours; she never read the letters they received, and only superintended the specimen home letter which each girl was required to write once a month.  Other head-mistresses wondered at the latitude she allowed her girls, but she invariably replied: 

“I always find it works best to trust them.  If a girl is found to be utterly untrustworthy, I don’t expel her, but I request her parents to remove her to a more strict school.”

Mrs. Willis also believed much in that quiet half-hour each evening, when the girls who cared to come could talk to her alone.  On these occasions she always dropped the school-mistress and adopted the rôle of the mother.  With a very refractory pupil she spoke in the tenderest tones of remonstrance and affection at these times.  If her words failed ­if the discipline of the day and the gentle sympathy of these moments at night did not effect their purpose, she had yet another expedient ­the vicar was asked to see the girl who would not yield to this motherly influence.

Mr. Everard had very seldom taken Mrs. Willis’ place.  As he said to her:  “Your influence must be the mainspring.  At supreme moments I will help you with personal influence, but otherwise, except for my nightly prayers with your girls, and my weekly class, and the teachings which they with others hear from my lips Sunday after Sunday, they had better look to you.”

The girls knew this rule well, and the one or two rare instances in the school history where the vicar had stepped in to interfere, were spoken of with bated breath and with intense awe.

Mrs. Willis had a great idea of bringing as much happiness as possible into young lives.  It was with this idea that she had the quaint little compartments railed off in the play-room.

“For the elder girls,” she would say, “there is no pleasure so great as having, however small the spot, a little liberty hall of their own.  In her compartment each girl is absolute monarch.  No one can enter inside the little curtained rail without her permission.  Here she can show her individual taste, her individual ideas.  Here she can keep her most prized possessions.  In short, her compartment in the play-room is a little home to her.”

The play-room, large as it was, admitted of only twenty compartments; these compartments were not easily won.  No amount of cleverness attained them; they were altogether dependent on conduct.  No girl could be the honorable owner of her own little drawing-room until she had distinguished herself by some special act of kindness and self-denial.  Mrs. Willis had no fixed rule on this subject.  She alone gave away the compartments, and she often made choice of girls on whom she conferred this honor in a way which rather puzzled and surprised their fellows.

When the compartment was won it was not a secure possession.  To retain it depended also on conduct; and here again Mrs. Willis was absolute in her sway.  More than once the girls had entered the room in the morning to find some favorite’s furniture removed and her little possessions taken carefully down from the walls, the girl herself alone knowing the reason for this sudden change.  Annie Forest, who had been at Lavender House for four years, had once, for a solitary month of her existence, owned her own special drawing-room.  She had obtained it as a reward for an act of heroism.  One of the little pupils had set her pinafore on fire.  There was no teacher present at the moment, the other girls had screamed and run for help, but Annie, very pale, had caught the little one in her arms and had crushed out the flames with her own hands.  The child’s life was spared, the child was not even hurt, but Annie was in the hospital for a week.  At the end of a week she returned to the school-room and play-room as the heroine of the hour.  Mrs. Willis herself kissed her brow, and presented her in the midst of the approving smiles of her companions with the prettiest drawing-room of the sets.  Annie retained her honorable post for one month.

Never did the girls of Lavender House forget the delights of that month.  The fantastic arrangements of the little drawing room filled them with ecstacies.  Annie was truly Japanese in her style ­she was also intensely liberal in all her arrangements.  In the tiny space of this little enclosure wild pranks were perpetrated, ceaseless jokes made up.  From Annie’s drawing-room issued peals of exquisite mirth.  She gave afternoon tea from a Japanese set of tea-things.  Outside her drawing-room always collected a crowd of girls, who tried to peep over the rail or to draw aside the curtains.  Inside the sacred spot certainly reigned chaos, and one day Miss Danesbury had to fly to the rescue, for in a fit of mad mirth Annie herself had knocked down the little Japanese tea-table, the tea-pot and tea-things were in fragments on the floor, and the tea and milk poured in streams outside the curtains.  Mrs. Willis sent for Annie that evening, and Miss Forest retired from her interview with red eyes and a meek expression.

“Girls,” she said, in confidence that night, “good-bye to Japan.  I gave her leave to do it ­the care of an empire is more than I can manage.”

The next day the Japanese drawing-room had been handed over to another possessor, and Annie reigned as queen over her empire no more.

Mrs. Willis, anxious at all times that her girls should be happy, made special arrangements for their benefit on Sunday.  Sunday was by no means dull at Lavender House ­Sunday was totally unlike the six days which followed it.  Even the stupidest girl could scarcely complain of the severity of Sunday lessons ­even the merriest girl could scarcely speak of the day as dull.  Mrs. Willis made an invariable rule of spending all Sunday with her pupils.  On this day she really unbent ­on this day she was all during the long hours what she was during the short half-hour on each evening in the week.  On Sunday she neither reproved nor corrected.  If punishment or correction were necessary, she deputed Miss Good or Miss Danesbury to take her place.  On Sunday she sat with the little children round her knee, and the older girls clustering about her.  Her gracious and motherly face was like a sun shining in the midst of these young girls.  In short, she was like the personified form of Goodness in their midst.  It was necessary, therefore, that all those who wished to do right should be happy on Sunday, and only those few who deliberately preferred evil should shrink from the brightness of this day.

It is astonishing how much a sympathizing and guiding spirit can effect.  The girls at Lavender House thought Sunday the shortest day in the week.  There were no unoccupied or dull moments ­school toil was forgotten ­school punishment ceased, to be resumed again if necessary on Monday morning.  The girls in their best dresses could chatter freely in English ­they could read their favorite books ­they could wander about the house as they pleased; for on Sunday the two baize doors were always wide open, and Mrs. Willis’ own private suite of rooms was ready to receive them.  If the day was fine they walked to church, each choosing her own companion for the pleasant walk; if the day was wet there was service in the chapel, Mr. Everard always conducting either morning or evening prayers.  In the afternoon the girls were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased, but after tea there always came a delightful hour, when the elder girls retired with their mistress into her own special boudoir, and she either told them stories or sang to them as only she could sing.  At sixty years of age Mrs. Willis still possessed the most sympathetic and touching voice those girls had ever listened to.  Hester Thornton broke down completely on her first Sunday at Lavender House when she heard her school-mistress sing “The Better Land.”  No one remarked on her tears, but two people saw them; for her mistress kissed her tenderly that night, and said a few strong words of help and encouragement, and Annie Forest, who made no comment, had also seen them, and wondered vaguely if this new and disagreeable pupil had a heart after all.

On Sunday night Mrs. Willis herself went round to each little bed and gave a mother-kiss to each of her pupils ­a mother-kiss and a murmured blessing; and in many breasts resolves were then formed which were to help the girls through the coming week.  Some of these resolves, made not in their own strength, bore fruit in long after-years.  There is no doubt that very few girls who lived long enough at Lavender House, ever in after-days found their Sundays dull.