The Doll Maker

Sarban. The Doll Maker

1

“Paston Hall, with its beautiful and extensive grounds,” so ran the Prospectus, “stands in a high and healthy situation, and while the School is surrounded on all sides by charmingly wooded, unspoilt country which ensures complete tranquillity, communication with the pleasant old−world market−town of Pentabridge is easy and regular.... The girls are encouraged to lead a varied outdoor life, which includes gardening, games and riding, under careful supervision.... Particular attention is paid to individual training in habits of mind and person, such as intelligent observation, initiative, acceptance of responsibility.... Entire charge is taken of pupils whose parents are abroad.”

These phrases, and particularly the last, were present in the mind of Clare Lydgate, one December night, as she crossed on tiptoe the dark Prefects' Room on the ground−floor of Paston Hall and gently drew back the oiled window−catch. She saw Miss Sperrod carefully selecting which words to underline on the shiny glazed paper and was revolted by the hypocrisy which, quite recently, she had discovered to be the main element in the Principal's character and the main component of the atmosphere she had been breathing for the last five years.

Clare climbed out of the Prefects' Room window and drew it quietly to behind her. The night was moonless, but the unclouded stars thinned the darkness so that gravel paths and grass and the bulks of trees were just distinguishable. In two long strides on the tips of her gym−shoes she crossed the loose gravel of the path and gained the grass, where footfalls were silent. She glanced back at the school building once to make sure that all the windows on her side were dark, then walked slowly, but with the confidence of one to whom the place was wholly familiar by night, across the short grass of the grounds.

She went with bent head, neither observing the rare embroidery of the black sky above her nor heeding the small night sounds of creatures awake in the school grounds and in the woods beyond the walls. The charmingly wooded, unspoilt country surrounding the school was as little known to Clare, or any of the Paston Hall girls, as was the pleasant, old−world market−town of Pentabridge. In claiming the countryside as one of the school's amenities Miss Sperrod did not mention the rule which strictly forbade her pupils to go about in it except in safe numbers under the eye of a Mistress. The Principal calculated that most parents, and especially those who perspire in the tropics, subscribe vaguely to a Wordsworthian doctrine of the beneficial influence of Nature in England on the growing child; but Miss Sperrod was aware of other influences lurking as much in the nearly unspoilt village of Halliwell as in the cinema and palais de danse of the old−world market−town, which, though they were native enough to English soil, were likely to produce effects on her pupils which would be sharply reflected in her accounts. The temptations of Pentabridge were, indeed, the lesser danger, for the town was six miles from Paston Hall, and the “easy and regular communication” consisted, in fact, of a contract with the County Bus Company to convey pupils to and from the railway−station when necessary. In an emergency girls might be taken to the town, suitably escorted, in a taxi, but most of them saw nothing of Pentabridge except its railway−station at the beginning and end of term.

Clare Lydgate had not even enjoyed that excursion this autumn term. She was one of those of whom entire charge was taken during the holidays. In the past she had accepted the position philosophically enough, for her father had had a long contract at the Rio Tinto copper−mines and she had been able to go to Spain for the summer and Christmas holidays, and the shorter Easter and Whitsun holidays and the half−terms at Paston Hall were endurable. Now, however, her father was in Malaya; it was impossible to go out there for the holidays. Neither her father nor her mother had any near relatives in England with whom she could stay; and so, for Clare, there had been not terms, but one long term, stretching unbroken in all but the incidence of lessons, from the last Christmas holidays to these. To make matters worse, the clique of friends who in the past had shared internment at Easter and half−term holidays with her was now broken up. Clare was eighteen; she would have left Paston Hall at the end of the last summer term with her contemporaries but for her father's insistence that she sit for an Oxford scholarship.

The Prospectus declared that girls were “prepared for School Certificate, Higher Certificate and entrance to the Universities”. Only dimly aware what an unexpected asset she had proved to the Principal, and the small Governing Body which discreetly made a living out of Paston Hall, Clare had by native intelligence and wide reading satisfied the examiners for the two Certificates and set a record in the annals of the School. Perhaps the flush of this triumph, which was naturally the School's, and the novelty of finding one of the awkward little creatures in whom she dealt actually co−operating with her in her patient and subtle task of drawing fees from parents' pockets, had gone to Miss Sperrod's head and led her to encourage Mr Lydgate's design and foster his belief that Clare could be coached at Paston Hall up to the standard required for a scholarship to Oxford. She was, no doubt, for one occasion in her life, the victim of immediate influences; there was the recent glory of a Higher Certificate, there was the flattery of Mr Lydgate's letter, there was Clare's own ambition and seeming promise, and, finally, there was Miss Otterel.

The Principal had engaged Annie Otterel through a scholastic agency. She was very young, without any teaching experience and without a Teaching Certificate; but she had a degree in History and she was under the necessity of finding a job promptly on going down from London University. She impressed Miss Sperrod with her inside knowledge of the higher academic world—almost as the conversation of a minor canon might impress a tailor who valued the custom of the Chapter—and she inspired Clare with yearning for the delights of University life.

So, convinced though she was that an excess of zeal is the worst of all excesses, the Principal had allowed herself to be carried away by her junior mistress's enthusiasm: Clare was to be specially coached by Miss Otterel, B.A.; the extra fees were assured and the increment of prestige appeared more than a possibility. As for Clare herself, it seemed to her that the heavens had opened; a goddess had descended upon Paston Hall—that all the girls frankly acknowledged from Miss Otterel's first day among them, but Clare was to be distinguished among the general congregation of worshippers and admitted to the goddess's particular intimacy throughout long, private hours of delightful study and confidence.

Then, before the autumn term began, Miss Otterel had died.

Standing in the Principal's sitting−room, watching Miss Sperrod's thin, rapidly−working lips, and listening with a kind of sullen helplessness to her embarrassed, glib, over−emphatic explanation, Clare was slow to grasp the news the Principal told her that morning. When she did she was shocked more by her discovery of the Principal's attitude than by the fact she was attempting to convey. Clare's real revolt against Paston Hall began that morning.

Incredulously, she saw that Miss Sperrod was neither shocked nor grieved at the death itself, only apprehensive. Her gabble of words had an exculpatory undertone, as if she were refuting in anticipation an imputation that the School might in some way be held to be concerned in Anne Otterel's death.

“Of course, it's seven weeks since she left,” the Principal repeated. “She went up to town the day we broke up. She was absolutely fit when she left; I remember distinctly noticing how well she looked after the summer term here. I remember Matron remarking to me how much better she looked than when she came at the beginning of the Easter term. That's what's so dreadful about that disease. The healthiest person can pick up the infection; and the incubation period is really frightfully short, so I'm told. She could have picked it up travelling in the train back to Pentabridge, or with the people she was staying with. They've had quite a number of cases in Pentabridge. It was a question whether the High School shouldn't be closed last term. Two children at least died, I know....”

Clare escaped and tried to obtain a clearer account of the facts from Miss Geary, the one assistant mistress who had stayed at Paston Hall throughout the summer holiday. In the interval which elapsed before she found her, Clare began to feel the full weight of the news. She had not known death before. With it, a strange importance seemed to have shouldered its way bulkily into Paston Hall's affairs and into Clare's own life. She had been living through the summer holiday in a kind of mellow haze of anticipation, gilding the term to come with fancies of delight. Death blew the haze away and revealed a drabness stretching endlessly onward.

At once the attractions of study and the possibility of success seemed to disappear with Anne's death. Special work for the Oxford scholarship now resolved itself into a mere continuance of the dispiriting sequence of lessons she had been groaning through for the last five years. With a ne ...

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