The Headmistress’ final comment on Augusta’s final report from her previous school had not been altogether enlightening to Miss Annersley.
When Augusta has learned to be more reliable and concentrate on the matter in hand, she may be able to use her intelligence to greater effect.
“She could be anything from a flighty genius to a full-time troublemaker,” said Miss Wilson in disgust. “What on earth does the woman expect you to make of that?” But Hilda could only shrug and suggest that they wait and find out.
Lessons at the Chalet School started in earnest on the Tuesday, and Miss Edwards, Augusta’s new Form mistress, quickly discovered the eccentricities of her new pupil’s character. The first lesson was English and, hoping to find out how much they remembered of the previous term’s lessons, she started them off on a dictation exercise.
Neither Kathie Robertson nor Mollie Avery, sitting on either side of Augusta, received high marks for that particular piece of work. Their attention was, instead, riveted on their new friend.
Augusta began the lesson by emptying her entire pencil-box onto the table. It contained about a dozen erasers, though no pencils except for one very short specimen that lurked at the bottom as though ashamed of its unprepossessing appearance, and a fountain pen which Kathie remarked afterwards bore evidence of having been used by Noah in the Ark. She opened her exercise book at the first page, took up the elderly pen and removed its cap, thereby releasing a stream of blue ink which ran across the middle of the page and dripped off it onto the desk. Mollie giggled. Miss Edwards looked across the room and ran into a desk as she tried to dash across the room.
“Augusta Fraser!” she said in tones that combined deep horror with anguished pain. Augusta gave her a reassuring smile.
“I hope you haven’t hurt yourself, Miss Edwards?” she said. “And it’s all right, I’ve got some tissues,” She dived into the recesses of her capacious pockets and resurfaced bearing a wad of tissues. The ink was swiftly removed, the only trace of its presence being the blue streaks of ink that seemed to have sunk irretrievably into the wood. Unperturbed, Augusta bundled the tissues up and returned them to her pocket. Miss Edwards hesitated for a moment before deciding not to notice. Instead, she began the dictation.
One Mr. Hughs had a wig, Augusta scrawled laboriously, her nose almost resting on the paper, whitch always hung on a sertain peg in the harl. Kathie and Mollie watched, spellbound, as the scratching of her pen gradually increased until Miss Edwards was forced to raise her voice slightly. Every now and again there was an occasional ‘ping’ as the two parts of the pen’s nib sprang back together after a painful and prolonged separation.
Even more remarkable than the orchestra of sounds which accompanied Augusta’s literary efforts was the visual aspect. Sore eyes would have feasted upon the sight. Slowly, gradually, but relentlessly and unmistakably a tide of Royal Blue ink spread onto Augusta’s fingertips, up her fingers and her arms. Her neat School uniform became almost invisible beneath the coating of ink. Her features were almost obscured behind a mask of it. Even her hair began to wear an air of distinct blueness. Ink flowed merrily off the page and wandered over the desk. It found its way in some mysterious fashion onto the work of Kathie and Mollie. Some of it made a bid for freedom and leapt recklessly to the floor, where it crept across Augusta’s shoes and up her legs.
But the most fascinating sight was Augusta’s dictation. It was smeared lightly with ink all over due to the progress of her fist across the page. Through this could be read occasional phrases such as dog folloed him up stares and seezed the wig. Scattered about this effusion were dark splotches and light splatterings of spots. The whole thing gave the impression of an army of insects, some with wings, having fallen into the inkwell and staggered across the page, perhaps attempting one or two complex acrobatic and balletic moves before expiring slowly and energetically.
Augusta, meanwhile, appeared to be completely oblivious to this and to the interest with which Kathie and Mollie, as well as others of the less studious elements of the Form, were watching. Even those who were generally hard-working were unable to stop themselves from glancing up occasionally when the mistress paused.
By the time, some twenty minutes later, the dictation had come to an end, Augusta’s new friends had been reduced to a state of helpless hysteria, made worse by the fact that they were unable to give voice to their uncontrollable giggles. Augusta dropped her pen, which, in protest at this treatment, showered a fine spray of droplets across a wider area than one would have thought possible. As she lifted her head, Mollie caught the full glory of Augusta’s blue countenance. It was too much. She snorted with laughter, tried to turn it into a cough, and came out with a remarkable noise that attracted the mistress’ full attention to that part of the room. For ten seconds she stared at Augusta with a sort of petrified horror that started at her eyes and gradually spread across her entire face like the darkening of the evening sky. Augusta watched the transformation with dispassionate interest, while the rest of the Form gazed at the two of them with expressions that were mild reflection of Miss Edwards’.
“Augusta!” It was only one word, but into it was infused such a wealth of feeling that a lecture could not have expressed more effectively her emotions. Every member of the Form held her breath. Only the cause of the trouble herself appeared to be unaware of anything unusual. She looked enquiringly at the mistress.
“Yes, Miss Edwards? Is anything wrong?” she added a trifle anxiously. If Miss Edwards had been a less self-controlled person she might have emitted a howl of anguish, or have thrown her pen on the floor and jumped on it or even have banged her head against the wall. But even a short time of teaching children can have a great effect on the mind, and Miss Edwards had already acquired patience. Instead of committing an act of violence she merely gave a small sigh of exasperation.
“Augusta, have you seen your face?”
“Well, I saw it this morning in the mirror,” said her pupil, displaying slight surprise at the question.
“Try looking at your hands, then.” Augusta followed this instruction and gazed judicially at her hands.
“They’re blue,” she offered, showing no particular interest or surprise at the fact. Miss Edwards remembered that her mother had always told her to count to ten before speaking, and decided to ignore the advice. This was not the moment for counting games. She summoned all her powers of sarcasm.
“I can only congratulate you upon your extraordinary powers of observation, Augusta,” she said. “I’m amazed that you even noticed such an insignificant detail.” Augusta, accepting her congratulations at face value, smiled at her happily.
“Shall I go and wash them?” she suggested.
“I think that would be an excellent idea. You could look at your face too, and perhaps even use a little soap on it.”
“Oh, is that blue as well?” asked Augusta.
“Just go and wash it!” said Miss Edwards through her teeth. Augusta looked faintly surprised. She left the room. There was a brief silence after her departure.
“Now,” said Miss Edwards, relaxing. “I will take your books in and mark them. Claire, would you…?”
“Miss Edwards!” A blue face appeared apologetically round the door. “I can’t remember where the Splasheries are.” Miss Edwards showed distinct signs of being about to indulge in an apoplectic fit and Kathie hastily jumped up and said,
“I’ll show her!” She pushed Augusta out of the room and closed the door, and peace once again reigned in the Form room.
It was some time before Augusta and Kathie reappeared. It had taken twenty minutes and vigorous application of soap and water to remove the evidence of Augusta’s literary activities. Even so her hands and face still glowed blue in certain lights. A greater problem was her uniform. Augusta maintained that this did not matter as her parents were used to it and the sooner the School was the better. Kathie, well trained by the autocratic Matron, was horrified by this idea and insisted an attempt be made to reduce the clothing to a state of cleanliness. So more soap and water were employed and the two girls became wetter and wetter.
“But a good bit of it has come off,” Augusta pointed out with her usual optimism.
“Yes, but I don’t think Miss Edwards’ll want us this wet,” said Kathie, doubtfully. “We’d better have a go with the towels.” They took it in turns to rub the other dry.
When at length they returned to the Form room, both girls bore ample evidence of their ablutions. Although they were now dry, Kathie’s hair was rumpled and frizzy, while Augusta’s (which never looked tidy under any circumstances) seemed to be standing quite literally on end. In fact, had you passed them at this point you might have been excused for assuming that they had both been hauled through the proverbial hedge in reverse.
Miss Edwards deliberately kept her eyes averted when they entered the room. She said afterwards, in the Staff Room, that she simply hadn’t dared look at Augusta after she had been attended to by Kathie. She invested considerable time, over the next few weeks, in attempting to instill in Augusta some sense of tidiness and the efficient use of ink. But Augusta seemed entirely unable to comprehend the importance of the issue and, in her own logical manner, gently made hay of the mistress’ every effort. In the end Miss Edwards, like many before her, was forced to give up the unequal struggle.