Augusta swung round and overbalanced onto the floor. Miss Linton, wearing an expression of resigned exasperation, waited for her to get up before she spoke again.
“Yes, Miss Linton?” said Augusta, brushing the dust from her skirt as she rose. Observing that the mistress appeared less than pleased to see her, she summoned up her most tranquil, peaceful smile. A faintly suspicious frown appeared on Miss Linton’s face.
“Why are you crouching in a corner of the corridor when you should be in Prayers?” she enquired sternly.
Augusta, her eyes widening in horror, could not help but admit that this was a fair question.
“Oh, gosh, I forgot all about Prayers,” she said. “Don’t you think we should hurry, Miss Linton?” Setting off at a brisk trot, she continued the conversation over her shoulder. “I just wanted to see whether the ants were still here, you see. I was a bit late anyway, because I’d forgotten about my stockings, and then I saw them – the ants, not my stockings – and I forgot all about Prayers.”
“It’s only the first evening of term,” said Miss Linton, with a quick burst of speed that brought her level with her pupil. “And already you’re late. I’m afraid Miss Annersley might be expecting you to turn over a new leaf this term.”
Augusta looked at her in alarm.
“Who else did you think I meant?” said Miss Linton with asperity.
Augusta glanced around as though hoping another candidate for leaf-turning-over might suddenly spring out of a hidden corner. The corners, however, remained empty, and she turned back to Miss Linton.
Miss Linton stifled a sudden desire to laugh at Augusta’s injured tones.
“Well, with all the extra –” She paused, as though she had suddenly decided not to say something. After a moment she began again. “Now that you’re in the Fourth form, I mean. It’s a time when we like to see girls taking a little more responsibility. Taking life a little more seriously.”
Augusta considered this, immediately seeing herself, tall and stern, surrounded by the greatest men of the day – Churchill, of course, and President Roosevelt, and maybe Charlie Chaplin – all begging for her wise advice on every subject from the size of acid drops to the best way of bringing about world peace.
She mused for some time on this last issue, only vaguely aware that Miss Linton was still discoursing on the subject of responsibility and using one’s influence wisely. After some time she realised that the mistress was awaiting a reply to some question. Gathering her scattered wits, she hastily dragged her attention back to the real world.
“Yes,” she said firmly, on the principle that most people prefer to be agreed with. “I agree. But you’d have to make sure everyone had enough food, or they’d always be fighting, and my father says that there are still millions of starving people in the world.”
Miss Linton blinked at this startling reply to her query as to whether Augusta was looking forward to the new term, and embarked on a cautious enquiry.
“What are you talking about, Augusta?”
“World peace, of course,” said Augusta, looking surprised.
To her sorrow, Miss Linton was prevented from investigating further by their arrival at the door of the hall.
“We’re a little late,” she warned her small pupil. “So just find your form and sit at the end of the row. Do you understand? No scrambling about to sit near your friends. In any case, you’ll need to be able to get out easily.”
Before Augusta could ask any awkward questions, she pushed the door open and they crept in. In any case, the pressing problem of how to feed everyone in the world was far more interesting to Augusta and she barely listened to Prayers, though she was briefly aware of the rustling as the door opened to admit the Catholics. Kathie Robertson, who happened to be sitting at the end of the row beside her, took the opportunity to prod her hard in the ribs.
“Wake up, Gussie,” she hissed. “The Abbess’s about to do her speech and give out the prees.”
“Oh,” said Augusta vaguely. There were two pigeons sitting on the windowsill, and she’d just remembered that you could teach pigeons to home. Maybe if you taught them to fly to one of those places where people were starving...
“...form prefects first,” said Miss Annersley.
You could tie food to their feet, decided Augusta. Pigeons were biggish; they probably wouldn’t even notice a tiddly little basket of food dangling from their legs.
“Third form...” announced the Head.
Or maybe you could train up some bigger birds. Ducks, or something.
“Julie Lucy.” There was applause, and Julie blushed. It occurred to Augusta that once the ducks had delivered their burden, the people could eat them, too.
“Lower Fourth,” said Miss Annersley, and paused dramatically. Augusta smiled to herself, picturing the starving millions gazing up at the sky, their faces filled with hope, seeing the enormous flock of ducks, each one bearing a small package containing all the trimmings – and perhaps cookery instructions, too, since ducks probably weren’t native to those countries – so that they could be made into a succulent meal.
“Augusta Fraser,” the Head announced in ringing tones.
Augusta jumped guiltily as the sound of her own name cut through her glorious vision.
“Yes, Miss Annersley?” she said into the shocked silence that had greeted the proclamation. As the Head merely stared at her, slightly bewildered, Augusta prompted her. “Did you want me?” she asked gently.
Miss Annersley pulled herself together, telling herself that she really should have expected something like this. She hoped it wouldn’t put some of the staff off even more; it had taken her long enough to persuade them to agree to the experiment. Now, however, Augusta was politely waiting for her to speak.
“I was merely announcing your appointment as head of Lower Fourth,” she said, raising one eyebrow in the manner of Miss Wilson.
Augusta’s jaw dropped. For a moment there was silence as even Beth Chester, nervously awaiting her own ascension to the position of Head Girl, waited to hear her reaction.
“Are you sure?” she said at last, rather faintly.
“Yes, Augusta, I am entirely sure.”
There was another silence as Augusta digested this.
“I won’t be offended if you want to change your mind.”
“That is extremely kind,” said the Head, “but it won’t be necessary.”
“Oh,” said Augusta. She seemed to gather herself with a visible effort. “Well, it’s very kind of you, and I appreciate the trust you’re placing in me. I promise I won’t let you down.”
Miss Annersley smiled.
“I feel sure you won’t. Now, Upper Fourth...”
Augusta, as her shock began to subside, allowed herself to look forward a little. After all, Form Head was only a short step away from Head Girl. A few years on, she’d be an important diplomat, or a spy, or Home Secretary or something. Perhaps she could even end up as Prime Minister.
The future stretched before her, unknown but glorious.