Miss Foster really was a much-tried woman. Just as she had settled
comfortably into her groove, just as she had got the domestic
arrangements in B. House to run on oiled wheels exactly in the direction
she desired, just as the whole household had learnt that her will was
law and her methods the only possible methods, there came this
girl–this most upsetting, disorganising, disturbing girl: a girl as
impossible to ignore as to coerce; a girl whose all-pervading presence
was made manifest in every corner of the house.
Miss Foster was above all things orderly. She made a fetish of tidiness,
and her drawing-room was its temple. She had arranged it entirely to
her own liking, and the furniture was as the fixed stars in the fabric
of the firmament. It really pained and distressed her should a fidgeting
guest move a chair ever so little out of its own proper orbit, and she
quite longed for such an one to depart that she might promptly push the
errant piece of furniture back into its original position. In her eyes
the drawing-room was perfect, incapable of improvement, and any
alteration therein must of necessity be for the worse.
Imagine her feelings then when she came back to find a grand piano and a
harp added to its effects! Even this she might have borne had the harp
remained quietly in some inconspicuous corner; but it proved a restless
and ubiquitous instrument, and she never knew where she might find it
Lallie could not move it herself, and she would ring for one of the
maids to help her; and once moved would leave it where it was, even
though three chairs and a sofa had been displaced to make room for it.
Before her arrival the drawing-room had never been used in the morning
unless for the reception of some lunching parent. The fire had been lit
at two precisely, and up to three o’clock Miss Foster rarely entered the
room unless to arrange the two vases of flowers that always graced the
mantelpiece. Miss Foster was of the opinion that there was something
irregular, Bohemian, almost disreputable, in using a drawing-room for
any other purpose than that of receiving friends; and it seemed to her
to emphasise the unpleasant fact of Lallie’s Irish origin, that now the
girl invaded this sacred room directly after breakfast, and that the
fire was lit before by Tony Bevan’s orders.
Lallie practised there, sewed there, even cut things out there upon the
gate table that hitherto had never been unfolded except for afternoon
She would leave her green silk work-bag hanging on the backs of chairs
or slung carelessly upon any excrescence that happened to be handy, such
as the bell or the knob of a Chippendale tallboys. She left books about
on unaccustomed tables, and had been known to fling the newspaper
outspread and sprawling, loose and flagrant, upon the Chesterfield that
stood in stately comfort at a convenient distance from the hearth.
Everywhere there were traces of Lallie. When she sewed, and she was
always sewing if she wasn’t knitting, she dropped bits of thread and
snippets of material upon the carpet, sometimes even pins.
A large old-fashioned footstool was placed in the very centre of the
hearthrug right against the tall brass fender. Miss Foster liked it
there, and it had never been moved or even used except when some
unusually bold boy would sit thereon and warm his back when he came to
tea. Lallie was for ever moving that stool. Nearly all the chairs in
the drawing-room were rather high, and she liked a footstool. It never
occurred to her that the footstool was to be considered in any other
light than as a footstool, and she dragged it about to whatsoever chair
she wanted to sit in, sometimes curling up the edge of the hearthrug in
“A footstool by the hearth so prim,
An oaken footstool was to him
And it was nothing more”–
Only in this case the him was a her, which made such insensibility even
more unpardonable in Miss Foster’s eyes.
“Why do you always move the footstool, Miss Clonmell?” she asked one
“Because the chairs are so tall and my legs are so short,” Lallie
“The chairs are of the usual height. Chairs are not nowadays
manufactured for pigmies,” Miss Foster said severely.
“Did they use to be?” Lallie demanded with interest.
“No one has ever complained of the chairs in this house before,” Miss
Foster continued, ignoring Lallie’s question.
“I never complained of them, Miss Foster. They’re very nice chairs as
chairs go: a bit straight and stiff, perhaps, but quite endurable if one
has a footstool. Tony has comfortable chairs in his room. I wonder how
men always manage to get such comfortable chairs? It’s the same at
home; Dad has always the best of the chairs in his den, though I must
say we have a good many that are pretty decent.”
“The hearth does look so naked without that stool,” Miss Foster
“I’ll try to remember to put it back when I’ve done with it,” Lallie
said, with undiminished sweetness; “but I’m not very good at putting
“That I have already observed, Miss Clonmell, and it is a pity. No
untidy person has ever achieved real greatness.”
“Are you sure, Miss Foster? That’s rather a sweeping assertion.”
“I believe it to be a fact,” Miss Foster replied coldly, “although it is
quite possible you may be able to bring forward one or two examples to
“I’m trying to think of all the lives of great men that ever I’ve read,
and I can’t remember if it said they were tidy or not. I’ve an idea
some of them were not. Goldsmith now—-”
“Goldsmith was Irish,” Miss Foster interrupted.
“So was Wellington; so’s Lord Roberts.”
Miss Foster, without being at all sure of her facts, longed to point out
that orderliness was a striking characteristic of both these heroes, but
the fact of their nationality deterred her.
“I fear,” Lallie went on, “that Shakespeare must have had a niggly sort
of mind in some ways in spite of his genius, because he left his wife
the second-best bed. If he’d been an ordinary, careless, good-natured
kind of man he’d never have remembered to specify which bed. Perhaps,
though”–and here Lallie spoke more cheerfully, as though she suddenly
perceived a rift in this cloud resting upon Shakespeare’s memory–“it
was his wife who was so tiresome and finnicky, always pestering him
about not using the best things, so he left her the second-best bed as a
Miss Foster made no reply, but opened the _Spectator_ with a flourish
and held it up in front of her as a screen.
“Don’t you think that is possible, Miss Foster?” Lallie persisted.
“I must refuse to discuss any such absurd contingency. I have already
told you that I believe disorderly personal habits to be incompatible
with true greatness of character.”
Lallie sighed deeply.
“It sounds like a police court case,” she said sadly. “’Lallie
Clonmell, having no visible means of subsistence, and giving no address,
was yesterday arrested as being of “disorderly personal habits.”’ Well,
Tony would come and bail me out if the worst came to the worst. And yet
I’m considered very tidy and managing at home; quite a sort of Mrs.
Shakespeare, in fact. Everything depends on environment.”
Miss Foster made no answer. Literally and figuratively she had wrapped
herself up in the _Spectator_.
But the harp, the piano, the bits of cotton dropped on the floor were
mere venial offences compared to the sin of making dirty footmarks upon
the stair carpet.
The front staircase at B. House is imposing, wide, and Y-shaped. The
first broad flight of steps starts from the centre of the large square
hall. Half way up it branches into two, terminating at opposite ends of
the landing upon which open the chief bedrooms, and the
assistant-master’s sitting-room. It is a handsome staircase of polished
oak–no other house in Hamchester College has one half so fine–and it
was at that time carpeted with a particularly soft and thick,
self-coloured, art-blue carpet that matched the walls.
When the master of the house found how conspicuous were muddy or dirty
footmarks on this same carpet, and how such defacement distressed Miss
Foster who had chosen it, he always used the boys’ staircase whenever he
went to his room to change. So did Mr. Johns. Till Lallie came no one
save Miss Foster ever used the front staircase at all, and she was most
careful never to ascend by it if her boots were either muddy or dusty.
She therefore saw no reason why Lallie should not show equal
forethought, especially as there was no chance of her guest meeting any
of the boys on the back staircase, as they were never allowed to go up
to the dormitories during the day.
Alas! Lallie showed no disposition to consider the welfare of the
carpet, but ran lightly up to her room by the front stairs no matter how
dirty her boots, and she often left the clear impression of a small sole
on every step.
The third time this occurred Miss Foster met her just outside her
bedroom door, and remarked with some acerbity:
“Haven’t you discovered the other staircase yet, Miss Clonmell? It
really is the shortest way to your room.”
“I like these stairs best, thank you. I’m not used to wooden stairs; my
feet make such a patter it disturbs me.”
“But look at the marks your feet have made on the carpet,” Miss Foster
Lallie went to the top of the stairs and looked down.
“They’re very little marks,” she said consolingly. “My worst enemy
couldn’t say I’ve big feet.”
“Quite large enough to make ugly and distressing stains when the feet
happen to be muddy. Don’t you see how _every_ mark shows on that plain
“Yes, it must be tiresome,” Lallie said coolly, as though she and the
footmarks had nothing whatever to do with one another. “It’s a pity Tony
went and chose a colour like that where people have always to be going
up and down, but it’s just like a man not to think of these things.”
Miss Foster was really angry.
“There is no necessity for any one to go up and down with dirty feet,
Lallie’s cheeks flushed pink, and the eyes that met Miss Foster’s were
bright with defiance as she said softly and distinctly:
“When Mr. Bevan asks me to use the back staircase I’ll do it; so far, he
has not so much as suggested it,” and with her head in the air Lallie
marched across the landing to her room and shut the door very quietly,
with ostentatious care that it should latch effectively.
It was a declaration of war, and, as such, Miss Foster received it.
That evening Miss Foster unbosomed herself in a letter to her favourite
niece–the niece whose wedding she had attended when Lallie, as she
described it, “sneaked in” during her absence.
“That girl’s presence becomes more and more irksome every day, and I
really do feel that her prolonged stay is likely to be a serious menace
to the peace of B. House. You know how undesirable and unwholesome it
is for manly boys to have anything whatever to do with girls of that
sort, the sort that is always polite and pleasant, making them think far
too much of themselves. It isn’t exactly _what she says_ that one can
object to, though any conversation I have overheard is always extremely
foolish, but she has a way of looking up under her eyelashes–I do
dislike very thick black eyelashes in a grown-up person, they give such
a made-up look to the face–that is most objectionable. She is not a
pretty girl, quite pale and insignificant, and so small; but as I say
she flatters men, and young and old they all seem perfectly silly about
her, and therefore she is a most dangerous and disturbing influence. It
is particularly trying for me, for the tone of B. House has always been
so high ever since I came here; and I cannot but feel that this girl has
imported an atmosphere of noisy frivolity and insubordination that must
lead to moral deterioration. So far I have not discovered anything with
regard to the boys that one can exactly complain of, but I have no doubt
whatever that she is sly and underhand. The Irish are proverbially
untrustworthy, and she seems to me to embody all the worst
characteristics of that stormy and unreliable race.
“People here make a great fuss about her singing and playing, but I
never was an admirer of loud voices, and particularly dislike her
theatrical and affected way of singing. ’Dramatic’ they call it, but to
my thinking it is simply unladylike! I have no patience with people who
can work themselves up into a state about nothing at all. I can
appreciate a good concert now and then as much as anybody; but to have
constant shouting and thrumming going on in my drawing-room is a very
real trial. It’s not only herself, but other people come to sing duets
and practise their songs. Young masters who never entered the house
before come now and bawl for hours, because they say she is such a
beautiful accompanist. They come to _flirt_ with her, that’s what they
come for; and dear, innocent Mr. Bevan never seems to see it. It is
extraordinary how blind men are to the wiles of a designing girl.
“As you may imagine a girl of any sort is rather a white elephant in a
house like this, but had she been a nice, sensible, ordinary girl, with
no nonsense about her, I would have managed. As it is, I don’t know
what may happen. Goodness knows how many other instruments she can
play. I always enter the drawing-room in fear and trembling lest a drum
and a trombone be added to the existing collection.
“Mrs. Wentworth has chosen to make a great fuss of her, and she, in her
turn, makes a great fuss of the children. As you know I am not one of
those who go about raving over Mrs. Wentworth. I could not truckle like
some of them to that commonplace little woman. I am surprised that Dr.
Wentworth has not himself suggested the desirability of Miss Clonmell’s
departure before this. But men are curious. They will let an abuse
continue till it becomes absolutely intolerable rather than interfere
with one another. It has struck me again and again since I came here
how procrastinating men are, how extremely unwilling to speak the word
in season. Well, I intend to do my part, cost what it may; my vigilance
shall be untiring; and when I find, as I have no doubt I shall find,
that that girl has overstepped the limits of propriety I shall go
straight to Mr. Bevan with the facts. _Then_ he cannot refuse to act
firmly in the interest of the House. So far we have been free from any
infectious disease. If only the other houses were as carefully
disinfected and watched as this one, such illnesses might be stamped out
altogether. Yet whenever I suggest my methods to those in charge of
other houses I receive but scant sympathy or even thanks.”