Read CHAPTER XX - IN THE SOUTH PARLOR of A World of Girls The Story of a School , free online book, by L. T. Meade, on ReadCentral.com.

Immediately after Easter the real excitement of the school-year began.  All the girls who had ambition, who had industry, and who had a desire to please distant fathers, mothers, or guardians, worked hard for that great day at midsummer when Mrs. Willis distributed her valuable prizes.

From the moment of Hester’s entrance into the school she had heard this day spoken of.  It was, without doubt, the greatest day of the year at Lavender House.  Smaller prizes were given at Christmas, but the great honors were always reserved for this long sunshiny June day, when Mrs. Willis herself presented her marks of approbation to her successful pupils.

The girls who had lived in the school for two or three years gave Hester vivid descriptions of the excitements, the pleasures, the delights of this day of days.  In the first place it was the first of the holidays, in the second it was spent almost from morning to night in the open air ­for a great tent was erected on the lawn; and visitors thronged to Lavender House, and fathers and mothers, and aunts and uncles, arrived from a distance to witness the triumphs of the favored children who had won the prizes.  The giving away of the prizes was, of course, the event of the day; but there were many other minor joys.  Always in the evenings there was some special entertainment.  These entertainments differed from year to year, Mrs. Willis allowing the girls to choose them for themselves, and only making one proviso, that they must take all the trouble, and all the pains ­in short, that they themselves must be the entertainers.  One year they had tableaux vivants; another a fancy ball, every pretty dress of which had been designed by themselves, and many even made by their own industrious little fingers.  Mrs. Willis delighted in the interest and occupation that this yearly entertainment gave to her pupils, and she not only encouraged them in their efforts to produce something very unique and charming, but took care that they should have sufficient time to work up their ideas properly.  Always after Easter she gave the girls of the three first classes two evenings absolutely to themselves; and these they spent in a pretty room called the south parlor, which belonged to Mrs. Willis’ part of the house, and was rarely used, except for these great preparations.

Hester, therefore, after Easter found her days very full indeed.  Every spare moment she devoted to little Nan, but she was quite determined to win a substantial prize, and she was also deeply interested in various schemes proposed in the south parlor.

With regard to prizes, Mrs. Willis also went on a plan of her own.  Each girl was expected to come up to a certain standard of excellence in all her studies, and if she fell very much below this standard she was not allowed to try for any prize; if she came up to it, she could select one subject, but only one, for competition.

On the Monday after the Easter holidays the special subjects for the midsummer prizes were given out, and the girls were expected to send in their answers as to the special prize they meant to compete for by the following Friday.

When this day arrived Hester Thornton and Dora Russell both discovered that they had made the same choice ­they were going to try for the English composition prize.  This subject always obtained one of the most costly prizes, and several of the girls shook their heads over Hester’s choice.

“You are very silly to try for that, Hetty,” they exclaimed, “for Mrs. Willis has such queer ideas with regard to English composition.  Of course, we go in for it in a general way, and learn the rules of grammar and punctuation, and so forth, but Mrs. Willis says that schoolgirls’ themes are so bad and affected, as a rule, and she says she does not think any one will go in for her pet prize who has not natural ability.  In consequence, she gives only one prize for composition between the three first classes.  You had better change your mind, Hetty, before it is too late, for much older girls will compete with you, and there are several who are going to try.”

Hester, however, only smiled, and assured her eager friend that she would stick to her pet subject, and try to do the best she could.

On the morning when the girls signified their choice of subject, Mrs. Willis came into the school-room and made one of her little yearly speeches with regard to the right spirit in which her girls should try for these honors.  The few and well-chosen words of the head mistress generally roused those girls who loved her best to a fever of enthusiasm, and even Hester, who was comparatively a newcomer, felt a great wish, as she listened to that clear and vibrating voice and watched the many expressions which passed over the noble face, that she might find something beyond the mere earthly honor and glory of success in this coming trial.  Having finished her little speech, Mrs. Willis made several remarks with regard to the choice of subjects.  She spoke of the English composition prize last, and here she heightened the interest and excitement which always hung around this special prize.  Contrary to her usual rule, she would this year give no subject for an English theme.  Each girl might choose what pleased her best.

On hearing these words Annie Forest, who had been sitting by her desk looking rather dull and dejected, suddenly sprang to her feet, her face aglow, her eyes sparkling, and began whispering vigorously to Miss Good.

Miss Good nodded, and, going up to Mrs. Willis, said aloud that Annie had changed her mind, and that from not wishing to try for any of the prizes, she now intended to compete for the English composition.

Mrs. Willis looked a little surprised, but without any comment she immediately entered Annie’s name in the list of competitors, and Annie sat down again, not even glancing at her astonished schoolfellows, who could not conceal their amazement, for she had never hitherto shown the slightest desire to excel in this department.

On the evening of this Friday the girls of the three first classes assembled for the first time in the south parlor.  Hitherto these meetings had been carried on in a systematic and business-like fashion.  It was impossible for all the girls who belonged to these three large classes to assemble on each occasion.  Careful selections, therefore, were, as a rule, made from their numbers.  These girls formed a committee to superintend and carry on the real preparations for the coming treat, and the others only met when specially summoned by the committee to appear.

As usual now the three classes found themselves in the south parlor ­as usual they chattered volubly, and started schemes, to reject them again with peals of laughter.  Many ideas were put forward, to be cast aside as utterly worthless.  No one seemed to have any very brilliant thought, and as the first step on these occasions was to select what the entertainment should be, proceedings seemed to come to a standstill.

The fact was the most daring originator, the one whose ideas were always flavored with a spice of novelty, was absolutely silent.

Cecil Temple, who had taken a seat near Annie, suddenly bent forward and spoke to her aloud.

“We have all said what we would like, and we none of us appear to have thought of anything at all worth having,” she said; “but you have not spoken at all, Annie.  Give us an idea, dear ­you know you originated the fancy ball last year.”

Thus publicly appealed to, Annie raised her full brown eyes, glanced at her companions, not one of whom, with the exception of Cecil, returned her gaze fully; then, rising to her feet, she spoke in a slightly contemptuous tone.

“These preparations seem to me to be much ado about nothing; they take up a lot of our time, and the results aren’t worth the trouble ­I have nothing particular to say.  Oh, well, yes, if you like ­let’s have blind man’s buff and a magic lantern;” and then, dropping a mock curtsey to her companions, she dropped out of the south parlor.

“Insufferable girl!” said Dora Russell; “I wonder you try to draw her out, Cecil.  You know perfectly that we none of us care to have anything to do with her.”

“I know perfectly that you are all doing your best to make her life miserable,” said Cecil, suddenly and boldly.  “No one in this school has obeyed Mrs. Willis’ command to treat Annie as innocent ­you are practically sending her to Coventry, and I think it is unjust and unfair.  You don’t know, girls, that you are ruining poor Annie’s happiness.”

“Oh, dear! she doesn’t seem at all dull,” said Miss West, a second-class girl.  “I do think she’s a hardened little wretch.”

“Little you know about her,” said Cecil, the color fading out of her pale face.  Then after a pause, she added; “The injustice of the whole thing is that in this treatment of Annie you break the spirit of Mrs. Willis’ command ­you, none of you, certainly tell her that she is guilty, but you treat her as such.”

Here Hester Thornton said a daring thing.

“I don’t believe Mrs. Willis in her heart of hearts considers Annie guiltless.”

These words of Hester’s were laughed at by most of the girls, but Dora Russell gave her an approving nod, and Cecil, looking paler than ever, dropped suddenly into her seat, and no longer tried to defend her absent friend.

“At any rate,” said Miss Conway, who as the head girl of the whole school was always listened to with great respect, “it is unfortunate for the success of our entertainment that there should be all this discussion and bad feeling with regard to Miss Forest.  For my own part, I cannot make out why the poor little creature should be hunted down, or what affair it is of ours whether she is innocent or not.  If Mr. Everard and Mrs. Willis say she is innocent, is not that enough?  The fact of her guilt or innocence can’t hurt us one way or another.  It is a great pity, however, for our own sakes, that we should be out with her now, for, whatever her faults, she is the only one of us who is ever gifted with an original thought.  But, as we can’t have her, let us set to work without her ­we really can’t waste the whole evening over this sort of talk.”

Discussions as to the coming pleasure were now again resumed with vigor, and after a great deal of animated arguing it was resolved that two short plays should be acted; that a committee should be immediately formed, who should select the plays, and apportion their various parts to the different actors.

The committee selected included Miss Russell, Miss Conway, Hester Thornton, Cecil Temple, and two other girls of the second class.  The conference then broke up, but there was a certain sense of flatness over everything, and Cecil was not the only girl who sighed for the merry meetings of last year ­when Annie had been the life and soul of all the proceedings, and when one brilliant idea after another with regard to the costumes for the fancy ball had dropped from her merry tongue.