Better than Byron
Meeting the Master
Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life. The evening beam that smiles the clouds away, and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.
At the Thurlow Academy for Young Ladies, Margaret Doria Vickers, the spectacled headmistress, began putting away her painting-things as the clock in the hall struck twelve. The proprietor of the establishment would be arriving in another half hour, and it was her solemn duty to receive him. Margaret's head was not overflowing with fantasy, so she did not feel the urge to ornament herself abundantly. Her dress was a flowing, grey, high-waisted morning-gown of the humblest appearance.
After storing all of her supplies back into their designated places, she glanced at herself in the mirror on the wall, as even the most sensible and plain of women have a touch of vanity in them. Her straight chocolate hair was arranged in a tight bun with perfectly straight bangs covering her large forehead. She wore silver metal spectacles, round as moons, because they were so clear-cut and cold, and her complexion, though sallow, was not altogether contemptible.
She did not pluck her eyebrows to fine arches, but kept them in long, thick bands over her large and softly lit black eyes, which were occasionally illuminated by lamp-like flickers of delight. Although the expression contained within them could be sweet, she was rather tight-lipped, her nose was irregular, and her brow intellectual – she was a bluestocking, as some called strong-minded women with an appetite for scholastic pursuits. Margaret Doria Vickers was no great beauty, but at least she was perfectly indifferent to the deficiency of conventional charm in her looks.
She glimpsed the mantel-clock. It was ten past twelve. What would she do until Mr. Thurlow arrived? She paced the room restlessly, when finally one of the maids of the establishment popped her head into the parlour and announced the master's arrival.
"Very good, Maria," she nodded. "You may send him in. I am ready to receive him." Miss Vickers was a very strait-laced person, and when Mr. Thurlow entered, he was somewhat amused by her determined look of sobriety. A more proper lady could not be met with in all of London.
As to Mr. Thurlow, he was a tall, lean gentleman of thirty who had rather the appearance of an aristocrat. I will not say that he was handsome, for the word generally lifts the reader's imagination to the very height of exaggeration; so I will venture to describe his features as best I can without embellishing them. He had rather theatrical lineaments, and a patrician's air and address, but then there was something almost rebellious in the expression of the sharp, dark eye, and in the mould of the wide and flexible mouth. She perceived something inconsistent and emotionally loose in him – as though he were constantly leaping from one emotion to the other, uncertain of which to project, and with what amount of force.
And yet as dissimilar as they were in essence, something in their eyes indicated that they were carved out of the same stone.
Margaret curtsied, receiving a curt bow in return. "Welcome, Mr. Thurlow," she said with a subdued smile. "How did you find your journey to London?"
"Exceptionally displeasing, Miss Vickers," he retorted with a bare disregard for common civility. Yet there was no crudeness in his tongue or manner – he was a thoroughly polished man, and the only offsetting thing about him was that he appeared to scorn his own polish. He seemed to delight in contradicting himself.
"How do you like the school, sir?" Margaret posed quietly.
"What? Oh yes, the school! It is a pretty place," he replied sardonically.
"I am glad you approve of it, sir. It is so much pleasanter in the spring, however, when the flowers are all in full bloom, and the trees sprout fresh buds."
"Do you take interest in gardening, Miss Vickers?" he asked, glancing around the tastefully furnished room with the haughty nonchalance of a man who grew up amidst finer surroundings.
"Not I. I prefer painting and drawing. Are you interested in botany, Mr. Thurlow?"
"Not in the least," he muttered, his searching eyes dwelling on a large, framed picture above the fireplace. "Pray, what is that, Miss Vickers? It looks like an assortment of badly done miniatures."
"They are miniatures of our pupils," she retorted with a frown, piqued by his patronizing tone.
"Very strange – I do not see any young faces among them."
"That is because those are our finissantes. I am most proud of them."
"Indeed? How old are you, Miss Vickers? Do be sincere."
"I am five and twenty, sir."
"Five and twenty," he repeated, his eyes narrowing. "But you look younger – I say, Miss Vickers, are you a fabulist?"
"Mr. Thurlow!" she gasped, the colour rising to her face.
"I see I have successfully stunned you," he laughed sardonically, passing his hand through his dark and curly mane and then letting it rest on his chest. "Do no take offense in my eccentricities, Miss Vickers. I see you are a mild young lady with mild thoughts and mild manners… you are not accustomed to eccentrics. Ahem! This is as long as I can remain in conversation without taking a run around the room, like an exasperated colt. Good-afternoon, madam, and thank you for your time."
"I shall send for Maria," she whispered, rustling over to the bell and giving it a decided tug. When the maid came in, she said to her, "Maria, Mr. Thurlow must be shown to his room. Have all his trunks been taken up?"
"Yes, Miss Vickers," she bowed with a curious glance at the master. Though not handsome – sometimes, because his features were so exaggerated by emotion, he even looked ugly – he had a certain inborn attraction that pulled not only women but also men to him, and he seemed perfectly unaware of it to boot. It was an aura that was nigh on Byronic. What is more, he had a tendency of holding his chin up rather too high, and of continually tightening his lips – whether in displeasure or in rigidity varied with each circumstance. Besides that, Margaret perceived no other particularities, and was glad to part with him, as he was beginning to unsettle her immensely.
Edgar Thurlow had been abroad for half a decade, and so Margaret Vickers had never seen or met him before, as she had been the headmistress of the school for but four years. The little she knew of him came from the fly-by-night servants' gossip; he had a past, and that past included a somewhat disconcerting upbringing and odd circumstances surrounding his father's death. His childhood was quite unknown to his circle of friends and no one knew from whence he came. He was no libertine, for he was a sporadically practicing Christian with humanist ideologies, yet he was known to have had a mistress in Paris. It was not known, however, whether he had dropped the shameful relationship.
Edgar was miserable and he had no way of concealing his misery, for it was plainly stamped across his face like printed words on a page. Fury and passion were predominant, and he was as Atlas standing upon a pedestal of worldly shame. Margaret was fortunate enough to be gifted with patience and benevolence, and so she could be in the presence of such a one without being overwhelmed by her discomfort, but as for the other teachers of the establishment—let us only say that he was not a very dashing, flattering man, and that if he flattered, it savoured strongly of sarcasm.
As he was making his way towards the stairs the following morning he ran into Miss Vickers, who was just but locking her bedroom door. He had a mind to pass her without a word – one of his hermetic habits – but the creak of his boots on the stairs caught the headmistress's attention, and she turned to face him with the startled look of a late-riser; one who had not their wits sharpened as of yet.
"Good morning, Mr. Thurlow," she bowed, clipping the ring of keys to her girdle. "I trust you slept well?"
"Oh, tolerably, tolerably," he muttered with a look of disgruntlement.
"Do you care to breakfast with the teachers, Mr. Thurlow, and thus observe our pupils, or would you rather breakfast with me in my private dinner-parlour? I am very fortunate to have it – other schools would not allow the headmistress such domestic luxuries." She knew that he would sooner dine with her, and he confirmed her suspicions in an instant. They went downstairs, and found their breakfast already spread out on the varnished mahogany table.
"Following our morning repast, sir," Margaret began, smiling so kindly on her master that he was cornered into a rare feeling of social security, "I habitually go into the school-rooms to bid my girls good-morning, and to consult a moment with the teachers. Would it please you to accompany me on this daily errand?"
"Oh, why the devil not?" he replied, looking longingly at the food on the table, as if he had not eaten for days. As it happens, he had not eaten for two because his thoughts had distracted him from his earthly requirements. He was a heavily afflicted man, and food often weighed less on his mind than his heart, a heavy burden that he frequently complained about as if it were an old relative he would gladly be rid of. He observed the rather girlish headmistress throughout the length of the meal, as they were seated opposite each other and this could be done unsuspiciously. She was a curious study: her round cheeks and large, glossy black eyes gave her all the appearance of youth, and yet the rigid mouth and bookish glasses made her look too serious for her age. She seemed half-subdued, half-stubborn, and half-stupid. He was thankful for her non-inquisitive nature and her patience, but he could not fathom her heart. Her thoughts were easily surmised, but as to her feelings – she had a good heart, he was certain of it, but could not dig any deeper.
Moreover, she was not like the horde of silly women he was accustomed to meeting – she was not like Brigitte, his Parisian mistress. She was a woman, and yet she was authoritative and had the independent air of a man. She gave an altogether new meaning to her denigrated sex. He was then urged to ask her something regarding her origins. He formulated his blunt query thus: "Miss Vickers, what is your native country?"
"Hampshire, sir," was her dry reply.
"And your parents – who are they?"
"My father is a gentleman, and my mother a gentlewoman long gone."
"And have you any brothers or sisters?"
"I have a sister who is a governess in the country of Kent."
"What is the name of the family that employs her?"
"Would that be Sir Elliot Barlow's people?"
"Yes – quite right, sir." Silence ensued, and soon both had finished their meals. The clock struck ten. Five minutes later, Margaret rose from her chair and, followed by Edgar, passed into the school-house – for there was the dwelling-house and the school-house, both buildings bearing uniform styles of architecture, although one had been built before the other – and was admitted into the first and smallest of classrooms.
The rowdy pupils immediately fell silent upon her entrance – not because they feared her, but because they revered her. "Good morning, girls," she said, smiling softly at them. They were all dressed in very modest attire – not too fine, and not too plain either. This became them, for it was not a charity school, but a rather well-to-do academy for girls who went on to becoming accomplished ladies, meaning that they married well.
"As you well know, Mr. Thurlow has just but arrived a day ago from the Continent, and is to reside in the Academy. I trust you will all treat him with the respect he deserves, and behave with utmost civility. Now, Miss Ashe," she said, transferring her attention to the teacher. Edgar guessed with the utmost conviction that she was the only female teacher under his employment by the look of confidence that passed between the two women.
"Miss Ashe, have you been informed of the meeting I have scheduled after classes in your school-room?"
"Yes," nodded the short, yellow-haired lady with Slavic bone structure, "I have been informed." Then, glancing confrontationally at him, she said, "Welcome to our seminary, Mr. Thurlow. A fine April day, don't you think?"
"To be sure," he bowed shortly, wondering at the women of the house. They spoke to him as if they were on a level of equality with him – as if they were men trapped within the helpless bodies of women.
"Very good," said Margaret, smiling openly at her favourite teacher and then addressing a few more words to the class. "I leave you to your studies, ladies." Miss Ashe made a subtle movement of her hand that prompted the class to chant in unison, "Good morning, Miss Vickers. Good morning, Mr. Thurlow."
Margaret did not pause in the corridor to ask him what he thought of the first class, but proceeded into every other ere requesting his opinion.
In the second classroom, there was a Mr. Briggs, master of history – he was a short, slight man of forty with a bald head and wide blue eyes that seemed to take no holiday from scrutinising. In the third classroom, one Mr. Croft taught geography. He was tall, whey-faced, had a rather snide look, and laughed slowly and sonorously at the most unexpected moments, as if silence amused him. The fourth classroom was whither M. Doucet taught French, and indeed to those who understand the language, he was as soft as his surname suggested him to be. He had as good as no control over his pupils, and when tried, he plaintively called to the girls, "Les amies – les amies!"
Then there was the algebra class, taught by a crudely overweight man with the look of a walrus, and whom his pupils seemed to regard with controlled dislike. After touring all of the classes in the same hurried yet to-the-point style they had visited Miss Ashe's, they retreated into the teachers' private garden, where flowers were slowly beginning to adorn the bare and gaunt branches of brambles and trees. The plum tree was already beginning to sprout pink blooms.
"Tell me, Mr Thurlow. What do you think of the pupils?" Margaret looked keenly at her master, no doubt expecting a small amount of praise.
"They are all of them from wealthy families," he observed, producing a cigar from his waistcoat pocket and then lighting it offhandedly. "A spoiled set, I presume?"
"Some of them are spoiled, yes," she said, lifting her dark brows in subtle disapproval. "And… the teachers, what did you think of them?"
"Dreadfully dull, Miss Vickers, and some are even ridiculous. However, I like the looks of Miss Ashe. She is the English mistress, yes?"
"She is indeed."
"And I suppose that you teach the girls music, art, and sewing – in short, all the customary female accomplishments – on the side?"
"Quite right, Mr. Thurlow. Jane and I teach the girls sewing and drawing, and then a master from London comes thrice a week to perform music lessons for those of the girls who are interested – or pressed (by their relatives)."
"You have a very liberal establishment, Miss Vickers. Is this your Machiavellian scheme to advance your career or the management's?"
"The education board, you mean? My cousin is the head of the board, and I often put useful suggestions to him. It is his choice whether to act on them or not."
"But he does – does he not?"
"Yes. He is a very wise man." Edgar aimed a smirk at her, and then blew a ring of smoke into the air. They looked over the low brick wall, and past the thin layer of trees. There was London. Not even a faint hum arose from the great cityscape – perhaps the faint knell of St Paul's was heard every hour; but all else was taken in with one sense. The dome of St Paul's stuck out from among the parks and buildings and the Tower of London was almost as distinctly visible to the detached onlookers.
"Tomorrow, sir," Margaret broke out, unfalteringly staring before her. "We go to the city. The girls and teachers are permitted a whole day's holiday one day each month. Shall you be accompanying us?"
"Well, I did mean to venture out this week," he muttered, contemplating the scheme with a grim look. "But do not be surprised if I scurry off at a certain point. I have some friends I should be obliged to call upon."
"You are under no obligation, sir," she said, advancing towards the path that led back to the dwelling-house. "Now, if you'll kindly excuse me – I have some work to attend to." He bowed, and then turning his face upwards to the sky, he muttered with a cool sneer, "What next do you bring, O Fortune?"