Miss Amanda Hill, teacher in the Middleville High School, sat wearily at her desk. She was tired, as tired as she had ever been on any day of the fifteen long years in which she had wrestled with the problems of school life. Her hair was iron gray and she bent a worn, sad, severe face over a mass of notes before her.
At that moment she was laboring under a perplexing question that was not by any means a new one. Only this time it had presented itself in a less insidious manner than usual, leaving no loophole for charitable imagination. Presently she looked up and rapped on her desk.
"These young ladies will remain after school is dismissed," she said, in her authoritative voice: "Bessy Bell--Rose Clymer--Gail Matthews--Helen Tremaine--Ruth Winthrop.... Also any other girls who are honest enough to admit knowledge of the notes found in Rose Clymer's desk."
The hush that fell over the schoolroom was broken by the gong in the main hall, sounding throughout the building. Then followed the noise of shutting books and closing desks, and the bustle and shuffling of anticipated dismissal.
In a front seat sat a girl who did not arise with the others, and as one by one several girls passed her desk with hurried step and embarrassed snicker she looked at them with purple, blazing eyes.
Miss Hill attended to her usual task with the papers of the day's lessons and the marking of the morrow's work before she glanced up at the five girls she had detained. They sat in widely separated sections of the room. Rose Clymer, pretty, fragile, curly-haired, occupied the front seat of the end row. Her face had no color and her small mouth was set in painful lines. Four seats across from her Bessy Bell leaned on her desk, with defiant calmness, and traces of scorn still in her expressive eyes. Gail Matthews looked frightened and Helen Tremaine was crying. Ruth Winthrop bent forward with her face buried in her arms.
"Girls," began Miss Hill, presently. "I know you regard me as a cross old schoolteacher."
She had spoken impulsively, a rare thing with her, and occasioned in this instance by the painful consciousness of how she was judged, when she was really so kindly disposed toward the wayward girls.
"Girls, I've tried to get into close touch with you, to sympathize, to be lenient; but somehow, I've failed," she went on. "Certainly I have failed to stop this note-writing. And lately it has become--beyond me to understand. Now won't you help me to get at the bottom of the matter? Helen, it was you who told me these notes were in Rose's desk. Have you any knowledge of more?"
"Ye--s--m," said Helen, raising her red face. "I've--I've one--I--was afraid to g--give up."
"Bring it to me."
Helen rose and came forward with an expressive little fist and opening it laid a crumpled paper upon Miss Hill's desk. As Helen returned to her seat she met Bessy Bell's fiery glance and it seemed to wither her.
The teacher smoothed out the paper and began to read. "Good Heavens!" she breathed, in amaze and pain. Then she turned to Helen. "This verse is in your handwriting."
"Yes'm--but I--I only copied it," responded the culprit.
"Who gave you the original?"
"Where did she get it?"
"I--I don't know--Miss Hill. Really and tru--truly I don't," faltered Helen, beginning to cry again.
Gail and Ruth also disclaimed any knowledge of the verse, except that it had been put into their hands by Rose. They had read it, copied it, written notes about it and discussed it.
"You three girls may go home now," said Miss Hill, sadly.
The girls hastily filed out and passed the scornful Bessy Bell with averted heads.
"Rose, can you explain the notes found in your possession?" asked the teacher.
"Yes, Miss Hill. They were written to me by different boys and girls," replied Rose.
"Why do you seem to have all these writings addressed to you?"
"I didn't get any more than any other girl. But I wasn't afraid to keep mine."
"Do you know where these verses came from, before Helen had them?"
"Yes, Miss Hill."
"Then you know who wrote them?"
"I won't tell," replied Rose, deliberately. She looked straight into her teacher's eyes.
"You refuse when I've assured you I'll be lenient?" demanded Miss Hill.
"I'm no tattletale." Rose's answer was sullen.
"Rose, I ask you again. A great deal depends on your answer. Will you tell me?"
The girl's lip curled. Then she laughed in a way that made Miss Hill think of her as older. But she kept silent.
"Rose, you're expelled until further notice." Miss Hill's voice trembled with disappointment and anger. "You may go now."
Rose gathered up her books and went into the cloakroom. The door in the outer hall opened and closed.
"Miss Hill, it wasn't fair!" exclaimed Bessy Bell, hotly. "It wasn't fair. Rose is no worse than the other girls. She's not as bad, for she isn't sly and deceitful. There were a dozen girls who lied when they went out. Helen lied. Ruth lied. Gail lied. But Rose told the truth so far as she went. And she wouldn't tell all because she wanted to shield me."
"Why did she want to shield you?"
"Because I wrote the verses."
"You mean you copied them?"
"I composed them," Bessy replied coolly. Her blue eyes fearlessly met Miss Hill's gaze.
"Bessy Bell!" ejaculated the teacher.
The girl stood before her desk and from the tip of her dainty boot to the crown of her golden hair breathed forth a strange, wilful and rebellious fire.
Miss Hill's lips framed to ask a certain question of Bessy, but she refrained and substituted another.
"Bessy, how old are you?"
"Fifteen last April."
"Have you any intelligent idea of--do you know--Bessy, how did you write those verses?" asked Miss Hill, in bewilderment.
"I know a good deal and I've imagination," replied Bessy, candidly.
"That's evident," returned the teacher. "How long has this note-and verse-writing been going on?"
"For a year, at least, among us."
"Then you caught the habit from girls gone higher up?"
Bessy's trenchant brevity was not lost upon Miss Hill.
"We've always gotten along--you and I," said Miss Hill, feeling her way with this strange girl.
"It's because you're kind and square, and I like you."
Something told the teacher she had never been paid a higher compliment.
"Bessy, how much will you tell me?"
"Miss Hill, I'm in for it and I'll tell you everything, if only you won't punish Rose," replied the girl, impulsively. "Rose's my best friend. Her father's a mean, drunken brute. I'm afraid of what he'll do if he finds out. Rose has a hard time."
"You say Rose is no more guilty than the other girls?"
"Rose Clymer never had an idea of her own. She's just sweet and willing. I hate deceitful girls. Every one of them wrote notes to the boys--the same kind of notes--and some of them tried to write poetry. Most of them had a copy of the piece I wrote. They had great fun over it--getting the boys to guess what girl wrote it. I've written a dozen pieces before this and they've all had them."
"Well, that explains the verses.... Now I read in these notes about meetings with the boys?"
"That refers to mornings before school, and after school, and evenings when it's nice weather. And the literary society."
"You mean the Girl's Literary Guild, with rooms at the Atheneum?"
"Yes. But, Miss Hill, the literary part of it is bunk. We meet there to dance. The boys bring the girls cigarettes. They smoke, and sometimes the boys have something with them to drink."
"These--these girls--hardly in their teens--smoke and drink?" gasped Miss Hill.
"I'll say they do," replied Bessy Bell.
"What--does the 'Bell-garter' mean?" went on the teacher, presently.
"One of the boys stole my garter and fastened a little bell to it. Now it's going the rounds. Every girl who could has worn it."
"What's the 'Old Bench'?"
"Down in the basement here at school there's a bench under the stairway in the dark. The boys and girls have signals. One boy will get permission to go out at a certain time, and a girl from his room, or another room, will go out too. It's all arranged beforehand. They meet down on the Old Bench."
"They meet to spoon."
"I find the names Hardy Mackay, Captain Thesel, Dick Swann among these notes. What can these young society men be to my pupils?"
"Some of the jealous girls have been tattling to each other and mentioning names."
"Bessy! Do you imply these girls who talk have had the--the interest or attention of these young gentlemen named?"
"In what way?"
"I mean they've had dates to meet in the park--and other places. Then they go joy riding."
"Bessy, have you?"
"Yes--but only just lately."
"Thank you Bessy, for your--your frankness," replied Miss Hill, drawing a long breath. "I'll have another talk with you, after I see your mother. You may go now."
It was an indication of Miss Hill's mental perturbation that for once she broke her methodical routine. For many years she had carried a lunch-basket to and from school; for so many in fact that now on Saturdays when she went to town without it she carried her left hand forward in the same position that had grown habitual to her while holding it. But this afternoon, as she went out, she forgot the basket entirely.
"I'll go to Mrs. Bell," soliloquized the worried schoolteacher. "But how to explain what I can't understand! Some people would call this thing just natural depravity. But I love these girls. As I think back, every year, in the early summer, I've always had something of this sort of thing to puzzle over. But the last few years it's grown worse. The war made a difference. And since the war--how strange the girls are! They seem to feel more. They're bolder. They break out oftener. They dress so immodestly. Yet they're less deceitful. They have no shame. I can blind myself no longer to that. And this last is damning proof of--of wildness. Some of them have taken the fatal step!... Yet--yet I seem to feel somehow Bessy Bell isn't bad. I wonder if my hope isn't responsible for that feeling. I'm old-fashioned. This modern girl is beyond me. How clearly she spoke! She's a wonderful, fearless, terrible girl. I never saw a girl so alive. I can't--can't understand her."
In the swift swinging from one consideration of the perplexing question to another Miss Hill's mind naturally reverted to her errand, and to her possible reception. Mrs. Bell was a proud woman. She had married against the wishes of her blue-blooded family, so rumor had it, and her husband was now Chief of Police in Middleville. Mrs. Bell had some money of her own and was slowly recovering her old position in society.
It was not without misgivings that Miss Hill presented herself at Mrs. Bell's door and gave her card to a servant. The teacher had often made thankless and misunderstood calls upon the mothers of her pupils. She was admitted and shown to a living room where a woman of fair features and noble proportions greeted her.
"Bessy's teacher, I presume?" she queried, graciously, yet with just that slight touch of hauteur which made Miss Hill feel her position.
"I am Bessy's teacher," she replied, with dignity. "Can you spare me a few minutes?"
"Assuredly. Please be seated. I've heard Bessy speak of you. By the way, the child hasn't come home yet. How late she always is!"
Miss Hill realized, with a protest at the unfairness of the situation, that to face this elegant lady, so smiling, so suave, so worldly, so graciously superior, and to tell her some unpleasant truths about her daughter, was a task by no means easy, and one almost sure to prove futile. But Miss Hill never shirked her duty, and after all, her motive was a hope to help Bessy.
"Mrs. Bell, I've come on a matter of importance," began Miss Hill. "But it is so delicate a one I don't know how to broach it. I believe plain speaking best."
Here Miss Hill went into detail, sparing not to call a spade a spade. But she held back the names of the young society gentlemen mentioned in the notes. Miss Hill was not sure of her ground there and her revelation was grave enough for any intelligent mother.
"Really, Miss Hill, you amaze me!" exclaimed Mrs. Bell. "Bessie has fallen into bad company. Oh, these public schools! I never attended one, but I've heard what they are."
"The public schools are not to blame," replied Miss Hill, bluntly.
Mrs. Bell gave her visitor a rather supercilious stare.
"May I ask you to explain?"
"I'm afraid I can't explain," replied Miss Hill, conscious of a little heat. "I've proofs of the condition. But as I can't understand it, how can I explain? I have my own peculiar ideas, only, lately, I've begun to doubt them. A year or so ago I would have said girls had their own way too much--too much time to themselves--too much freedom. But now I seem to feel life isn't like what it was a few years ago. Girls are bound to learn. And they never learn at home, that's sure. The last thing a mother will do is to tell her daughter what she ought to know. There's always been a shadow between most mothers and daughters. And in these days of jazz it has become a wall. Perhaps that's why girls don't confide in their mothers.... Mrs. Bell, I considered it my duty to acquaint you with the truth about these verses and notes, and what they imply. Would you care to read some of them?"
"Thank you, but they wouldn't interest me in the least," replied Mrs. Bell, coldly. "I wouldn't insult Bessy or her girl friends. I imagine it's all some risque suggestion overheard and made much of or a few verses mischievously plagiarized. I'm no prude, Miss Hill. I know enough not to be strict, which is apparently the fault of the school system. As for my own daughter I understand her perfectly and trust her implicitly. I know the blood in her. And I shall remove her from public school and place her in a private institution under a tutor, where she'll no longer be exposed to contaminating influences.... I thank you for your intention, which I'm sure is kind--and, will you please excuse me? I must dress for my bridge party. Good afternoon, Miss Hill."
The schoolteacher plodded homeward, her eyes downcast and sad. The snub given her by the mother had not hurt her as had the failure to help the daughter.
"I knew it--I knew it. I'll never try again. That woman's mind is a wilderness where her girl is concerned. How brainless these mothers are!... Yet if I'd ever had a girl--I wonder--would I have been blind? One's own blood--that must be the reason. Pride. Could I have believed of my girl what I admitted of hers? Perhaps not till too late. That would be so human. But, oh! the mystery--the sadness of it--the fatality!"
Rose Clymer left the High School with the settled, indifferent bitterness of one used to trouble. Every desire she followed, turn what way she would, every impulse reaching to grasp some girlish gleam of happiness, resulted in the inevitable rebuke. And this time it had been disgrace. But Rose felt she did not care if she could only deceive her father. No cheerful task was it to face him. Shivering at the thought she resolved to elude the punishment he was sure to inflict if he learned why she had been expelled.
She had no twinge of conscience. She was used to slights and unkindness, and did not now reflect upon the justice of her dismissal. What little pleasure she got came from friendships with boys, and these her father had forbidden her to have. In the bitter web of her thought ran the threads that if she had pretty clothes like Helen, and a rich mother like Bessy, and a father who was not a drunkard, her lot in life would have been happy.
Rose lived with her stepfather in three dingy rooms in the mill section of Middleville. She never left the wide avenues and lawns and stately residences, which she had to pass on her way to and from school, without contrasting them with the dirty alleys and grimy walls and squalid quarters of the working-class. She had grown up in that class, but in her mind there was always a faint vague recollection of a time when her surroundings had been bright and cheerful, where there had been a mother who had taught her to love beautiful things. To-day she climbed the rickety stairs to her home and pushed open the latchless door with a revolt brooding in her mind.
A man in his shirt sleeves sat by the little window.
"Why father--home so early?" she asked.
"Yes lass, home early," he replied wearily. "I'm losing my place again."
He had straggling gray hair, bleared eyes with an opaque, glazy look and a bluish cast of countenance. His chin was buried in the collar of his open shirt; his shoulders sagged, and he breathed heavily.
One glance assured Rose her father was not very much under the influence of drink. And fear left her. When even half-sober he was kind.
"So you've lost your place?" she asked.
"Yes. Old Swann is layin' off."
This was an untruth, Rose knew, because the mills had never been so full, and men never so in demand. Besides her father was an expert at his trade and could always have work.
"I'm sorry," she said, slowly. "I've been thinking lately that I'll give up school and go to work. In an office uptown or a department store."
"Rose, that'd be good of you," he replied. "You could help along a lot. I don't do my work so well no more. But your poor mother won't rest in her grave. She was so proud of you, always dreamin'."
The lamp Rose lighted showed comfortless rooms, with but few articles of furniture. It was with the deft fingers of long practice that the girl spread the faded table-cloth, laid the dishes, ground the coffee, peeled the potatoes, and cut the bread. Then presently she called her father to the meal. He ate in silence, having relapsed once more into the dull gloom natural to him. When he had finished he took up his hat and with slow steps left the room.
"No more study for me," mused Rose, and she felt both glad and sorry. "What will Bessy say? She won't like it. I wonder what old Hill did to her. Let her off easy. I won't get to see Bessy so much now. No more afternoons in the park. But I'll have the evenings. Best of all, some nice clothes to wear. I might some day have a lovely gown like that Miss Maynard wore the night of the Prom."
Rose washed and dried the dishes, put them away, and cleaned up the little kitchen in a way that spoke well for her. And she did it cheerfully, for in the interest of this new idea of work she forgot her trouble and discontent. Taking up the lamp she went to her room. It contained a narrow bed, a bureau, a small wardrobe and a rug. The walls held several pictures, and some touches of color in the way of ribbons, bright posters, and an orange-and-blue banner. A photograph of Bessy Bell stood on the bureau and the girl's beauty seemed like a light in the dingy room.
Rose looked in the mirror and smiled and tossed her curly head. She studied the oval face framed in its mass of curls, the steady gray-blue eyes, the soft, wistful, tenderly curved lips. "Yes, I'm pretty," she said. "And I'm going to buy nice things to wear."
Suddenly she heard a pattering on the roof.
"Rain! What do you know about that? I've got to stay in. If I spoil that relic of a hat I'll never have the nerve to go ask for a job."
She prepared for bed, and placing the lamp on the edge of the bureau, she lay down to become absorbed in a paper-backed novel. The mill-clock was striking ten when she finished. There was a dreamy light in her eyes and a glow upon her face.
"How grand to be as beautiful as she was and turn out to be an heiress with blue blood, and a lovely mother, and handsome lovers dying for her!"
Then she flung the novel against the wall.
"It's only a book. It's not true."
Rose blew out the lamp and went to sleep.
During the night she dreamed that the principal of the High School had called to see her father, and she awoke trembling.
The room was dark as pitch; the rain pattered on the roof; the wind moaned softly under the eaves. A rat somewhere in the wall made a creaking noise. Rose hated to awaken in the middle of the night. She listened for her father's breathing, and failing to hear it, knew he had not yet come home. Often she was left alone until dawn. She tried bravely to go to sleep again but found it impossible; she lay there listening, sensitive to every little sound. The silence was almost more dreadful than the stealthy unknown noises of the night. Vague shapes seemed to hover over her bed. Somehow to-night she dreaded them more. She was sixteen years old, yet there abided with her the terror of the child in the dark.
She cried out in her heart--why was she alone? It was so dark, so silent. Mother! Mother!... She would never--never say her prayers again!
The brazen-tongued mill clock clanged the hour of two, when shuffling uncertain footsteps sounded on the hollow stairs. Rose raised her head to listen. With slow, weary, dragging steps her father came in. Then she lay back on the pillow with a sigh of relief.