Every school has its epidemics, and the Chalet School was no exception. Matron was glad because at least this particular one was merely the common cold. On the other hand, it was becoming all too common, and the San was filling up swiftly.
It had begun quietly, with the Seniors. Matron had dosed them and sent them to the San. Most of them had nearly recovered when almost the entire Fourth Form fell victim overnight. Matron had, briefly, suspected some sort of trick, but the symptoms were too convincing for that. So she commandeered a dormitory, banished the patients, and left the rest of the School to settle down to a period of unnatural calm.
After a few days, the members of the Fourth began to trickle slowly back into lessons. There were only half a dozen remaining in exile when the cold made a dramatic comeback and, instead of concentrating on one age group, struck down a few members of almost every Form in the School and a not insignificant proportion of the Staff. Indeed, some of the previous victims were readmitted to the San, much to their disgust.
Eventually, however, the majority of the girls had returned to their lessons and, now that they had recovered, able to feel injured because they had been sent back into School far too soon. The San was only half full and most of its current residents looking forward to leaving its confines in the near future. One morning, Augusta awoke, sat up, and sneezed seven times.
“Gussie!” Kathie appeared between the curtains, a look of horror on her face. “Gosh, I thought you were exploding!”
Augusta sneezed again and, before the echoes had quite died away, sneezed yet again, causing the window-panes to rattle. Mollie later asserted that she had felt the building rock, though this was held by most to be an exaggeration. But it was certain that the dust behind the radiators was suddenly loosened, resulting in a black cloud rising around them and depositing an unpleasant sediment on the carpet. A carelessly placed hairbrush clattered to the floor and the curtains jangled on their rails. As the reverberations faded, Kathie put her head through the gap in the curtains, a little more cautiously this time.
“What on earth was that?” she demanded.
“Sorry,” said Augusta. “I sneezed.” There was a rattle and then a loud trumpeting as she retrieved a handkerchief from her drawer and used it.
“I think you’d better go to Matron,” said Kathie, eyeing her with apprehension. Augusta looked surprised.
“What on earth for?”
“Well, don’t you think your sneezing like that might mean you’re getting a cold?”
“I’ve never been ill in my life and I don’t intend to start now,” said firmly. “It’s a terrible waste of time, anyway.”
It was true. Augusta’s illnesses were few, and far between. When her best friend at home had contracted chickenpox Augusta, feeling that the discomfort would be worth the days of school she would miss, had industriously inhaled the atmosphere of Johnson’s French Grammar, which Caroline had been using the day she was taken ill. She had unlawfully entered the invalid’s room and made off with a used handkerchief, but to no avail. The illness, perhaps sensing that even if it were to attack Augusta it would probably not win, failed completely to attack her. At the tender age of seven all but three of her classmates had become ill with mumps. The other three had succumbed even as the earlier sufferes were returning to the fold, but Augusta had remained aggravatingly free of germs.
Now, however, she most definitely had a cold, and she knew it. Augusta, however, was the sort of person that never gives up without a struggle, and for the twelve years of her life so far she had laboured under the delusion that if one resists a cold strenuously enough it will eventually give up and go and haunt someone with less willpower. So far the colds had always proved stronger than Augusta, and this one was no exception.
Unwilling to give in without a struggle, Augusta took eight handkerchieves with her when she went downstairs. Breakfast passed without any major incidents, but no sooner had the first lesson started – Maths – than a tremendous sneeze blasted the ears of those who sat near Augusta. Miss Slater was not a nervous person, but even she jumped violently. The sneeze was followed by the trumpet-like blowing of Augusta’s nose.
“Really, Augusta!” said the mistress reprovingly. “Must you make quite so much noise about blowing your nose?” Augusta looked at her aggrievedly over the top of the first of her handkerchieves.
“I was being quiet, Miss Slater,” she objected. A minor explosion might have been heard from Mollie on one side of the sufferer, but the girls’ ears were still ringing, and no-one noticed it. Augusta finished blowing her nose and Miss Slater, not quite knowing what to do, continued the lesson.
It was not until that afternoon, however, that the cold struck in full force. Admittedly, Augusta had already reached her third handkerchief, but this was a mere bagatelle compared with what was to come.
Chemistry with Miss Wilson was one of Augusta’s favourite lessons. This was a particularly good one; Bunsen burners, in Augusta’s opinion, always made for an interesting time. She measured out her substances with meticulous care and began to mix two of them together.
Just as she was placing the beaker above the hissing flame three resounding sneezes blinded her. When she was able to see again she found that although she had kept hold of the beaker it had broken in her strong grip, and she was clutching a small handful of broken shards. The Bunsen burner had fallen over and was creating a dark scorch mark across the table. The rest of her ingredients had vanished, blown away by the force of the sneezes.
Miss Wilson, recalling the occasion when Evadne Lannis had blown up the lab, had dashed across the room to investigate the damage. Augusta finished excavating her pocket, masked her face with her fourth handkerchief and blew into it. Miss Wilson, just coming up behind her, leapt back like a startled fawn. She quickly recovered herself and ventured forward, covering her ears against the blasts that were still issuing from Augusta’s nose, to right the Bunsen burner before it set the bench alight. Augusta removed the handkerchief from her face, opened her mouth, sneezed again, brought forth the fifth handkerchief and continued to sneeze and blow for some ten minutes. By the end of this time her nose was red and sore, her eyes streaming and all the handkerchiefs very well used.
At last, however, the storm abated. Miss Wilson shook her head to stop the echoes of those monstrous blasts and suggested mildly that Augusta might like to go and see Matron. Augusta put on a pleading expression.
“Oh, please, Biss Wilsod,” she expostulated, “I’b quite all right, really I ab. Id’s just that I get these sdeezes sobetibes. It doesn’t bead adythig, hodestly. It’s dot a co’d or adythig like that. Baybe it was the Budsed burder or the chebicals or sobethig. I’ll be all right id a bidute, I probise, if I just blow by dose agaid…” she fumbled in her pocket, but Miss Wilson, seeing that she would probably continue to expound on the lack of germs in her system, hastily cut in.
“No, Augusta. Go to Matron now, if you please.” And Augusta sighed heavily but fatalistically and left the room. Miss Wilson turned to the rest of the Form. “Go on with your work, girls.” Still, after the lesson had finished she went to Matron to procure treatment for a headache.