About this E-Book
London, 1872. In Victorian England, opportunities are scarce for Joanna and her sisters. Their only hope is to marry well, but who would take one of the penniless sisters as a wife? Joanna doesn’t believe in fairy tales, and chooses to be her own prince. Hence, she decides to pursue a career of her own by attending the prestigious Oliver Kenwood Boarding School – disguised as a boy.
If only it weren’t for her cunning yet fascinating teacher Charles Hanson who seems to dislike her quite passionately. With him watching her every step, she finds it increasingly difficult to hold up her disguise, particularly when rich and confident Abigail sets her eyes on Hanson – why does it bother Joanna quite so much? And is her secret really as safe as she hopes?
First Edition December 2017
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Cover design: © Anna Jane Greenville
Editing: Sarah Schemske and Daniela Pusch
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Positions and Partiality
'Jo,' yelled Eleanor, making the walls of our small and dusky house tremble in fear of her high-pitched voice. 'Jo, come quickly!'
My sister was one to make a big fuss over a small matter in regular intervals. Preferably during the quiet hours after dinner, when her brutally squeaky voice would stand in the most distinguished contrast to the harmonious silence. Confrontation was better avoided, for arguments were impossible to win, as her lingual exploitations were as rich in resources as they were poor in logic. One could all but hide, and hope for the storm to pass without becoming its victim.
My favourite hiding place was in the world of Charles Dickens. I knew every word he had ever cared to collect in a novel by heart. The sentences formed in my mind before my eyes could skim through the letters. But not even a thousand pages forged from fine wood and decorated with the most beautiful of writings were fortress enough to keep my sister at bay, hence my plan to spend a lazy afternoon with my beloved characters was shattered like John Chivery's hopes to marry Amy in Little Dorrit, book 1, chapter 18.
Eleanor stormed the tiny bedroom like it was the Bastille, and she, La Liberté of the French Revolution. Except that her dress was not torn – though old and well-worn it might be. And instead of a Tricolour, it was her sleeves that flapped about furiously – an exertion that made her face go all red. On second thought, my little sister looked less like a famous painting and more like a mad chicken.
'Quickly!' she demanded and grabbed my arm firmly. In an urgent gallop, she stomped down the tiny, creaking staircase, pulling me behind her.
In the kitchen, I was released and embraced by the strong aroma of food. The glum little room was fearfully warm, for the singular small window was not big enough to let the cooking heat and scents vent. The smell of food never left, as if we were rich and could afford plenty. Eleanor pointed to that very window with an unsteady finger and a shaking voice. 'Do you see the monstrous spider?'
'It is right there above the frame!'
I took the magnifying glass from the cupboard at my left, which had once belonged to Father, pointed it to where Eleanor was indicating, and exclaimed, 'Oh, there it is.'
'Please, kill it, Jo. I was about to feed the cat when the wretched thing attacked.'
She threw up her long lashes at me and her eyes grew even bigger than they normally were. They filled to the rim with tears, which never failed to achieve their objective.
I fought the urge to strangle her, which, for a moment, seemed inexpressibly tempting. And surely I would have acted on it, had I not been told to love her from the very day she had been an ugly, wrinkled little lump. According to Darwin, it was not even her fault that she was such an unbearable little creature, but due to the traits she had inherited from our parents – though I did not recall Father or Mother half-fainting at the mere sight of an insect. I did not recall a great many things about them, in general, for the past three months had blocked my memory, making my life prior to the most recent events seem like a blurry dream. Seeing Eleanor fret over inconsequential matters felt strangely normal, and I was almost grateful for it.
A heavy sigh escaped my lips before I mounted the wooden table that had no two legs of the same length, and I reached for the spider to let it crawl onto my finger. Eleanor squealed and ran to the far corner of the kitchen instead of supporting the table, which leaned in a different direction every time I took even a breath. With a loud thud, I jumped onto the brown tiled floor and opened the door to let the spider escape over the rusty handrail that connected our home with the outside world. Only then, Eleanor stopped screaming and squealing and being altogether intolerable.
The lush leaves of the trees around my family's house rustled in applause of my heroic act. A fresh breeze of warm spring air embraced me, and a glorious quietness settled. I climbed up a nearby tree, as high as I could, before Eleanor could find other employment for me. She would never follow me up a tree, for it was full of bugs.
High above the roof of our small Regency cottage that the sea salt laden air had decorated with deep cracks, I resumed my journey through the streets of Southwark as depicted by Charles Dickens. And though Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam were captivating companions throughout that journey, they failed to take my mind off my dwellings. Troublesome thoughts that I had successfully pushed from my mind this morning returned with a greater force than ever before. I closed my eyes for a moment to collect myself.
'How many times have I told you not to sleep in the tree,' thundered the angry voice of Elizabeth. Even in rage, my older sister sounded as beautiful as she looked. 'You might take a fall and break your neck.'
In the past, this conclusion of hers would have been accompanied by Father's laughter. He would poke his head from a window and insist I was too lucky a girl to ever break anything regardless of the height I fell from because I was like a cat who always landed on its feet. I did not feel so very lucky now that he and Mother were gone.
I opened my eyes and looked down to my sister.
Elizabeth returned home much earlier than expected. Even though she held herself gracefully and took off the bonnet and gloves in the elegant manner that was so natural to her, I could see that her cheeks were crimson with fury. She paced the small, dusky kitchen, where I had followed her, while she waited for her audience to arrive.
Just like my younger sister, my older sister was in constant need of attention, which was scarce on the Isle of Wight, as not many people lived on it.
My two sisters caused enough commotion for three, therefore, feeling my services were not needed, I mostly remained quiet in the background. After all, capriciousness was part of the charm in a beautiful lady but ugly in a plain one.
Upon hearing Elizabeth, Eleanor ran down the stairs to join us. The stomping of her little feet shook the walls so violently, I was afraid the cottage might cave at any moment.
Seeing Elizabeth's deep frown, our little sister stopped dead in her tracks, straight as a candle, like a miniature soldier in a white dress.
'It is unbelievable,' Elizabeth uttered in a low, enraged voice.
Eleanor instantly thought she had done something wrong and drew in her breath sharply. Elizabeth had an authority over her I could never dream to achieve.
'He refused me because I am a woman. I could hardly contain my temper.' She looked at us intently, searching for an adequate reaction, but while a spider was an easy opponent for me, my eldest sister's emotions were not. I felt Eleanor slide up behind me, using me as a shield, her small, sweaty hands clinging to mine, reminding me how young she was.
Tears glistened in Elizabeth's eyes – not due to the disappointment she feared to have caused her family, but because of the humiliating feeling the rejection had stirred within her. Utterly strength-less, she sank to one of the old chairs and leaned against the table, which shifted its position under the weight of her arm.
Being the eldest of three daughters, Elizabeth had the hardest time accustoming to our new situation. With a gentleman as a father and a pretty enough face, she had always thought herself to be a proper lady. Indeed, she was very accomplished, played the piano, spoke French, and her embroidery was second to none. But if there was one thing I admired her the most for, it was the fact that she had overcome her pride in order to apply for a position as a companion to an elderly gentleman who had only recently moved to Wight. According to rumour, he was nearly blind and deaf, between 120 and 170 years old (accounts varied here), and in desperate need of someone who would read to him. His bad temper had made him mildly famous among our neighbours, as he refused everyone who applied.
'There is no one else here who would have the means to entertain a companion or a governess. I will have to go away.' My oldest sister's voice matched her expression. She would not find the slightest of pleasures in leaving the comfort, however small, of her family. Folding her arms in front of her chest, Elizabeth tapped nervously on her elbow. Her delicate nail caught on the frill of her sleeve, adding to her overall vexation. As she was forced to uncoil the thread, she looked down on her dress, which was long out of fashion. The space between her eyebrows wrinkled further.
A little while ago, it would have been hard to imagine what being poor meant, but now it was very vivid. We had never led a life in wasteful splendour, but we had had the luxury to spend our father's income on little things that the heart desired. A new bonnet here, an old book there. That was until last winter. A harsh winter, indeed.
I wanted to say something adequate and soothing, but I could not think of a single thing that I had not already voiced a dozen times over the past weeks. 'All will be well' – all was not well and neither would it miraculously become so; 'We have us' – whatever is left, at least; 'We will manage, we will find a way' – quite evidently, we were neither doing one nor the other; 'Not all is lost' – perhaps not all, but very nearly everything. I feared that if I said any of it, my sister would attack me with a dull and rusty knife, for we had already sold all the silver.
'It is unthinkable that any of us should leave for any other reason than to marry,' said Eleanor, who had always imagined a handsome and wealthy young gentleman to ride into our village on a fiery steed and take her with him, for naturally, she would be the fulfilment of all his dreams. It was enough to make me cry, and from the look of it, Elizabeth was close to tears also. If I started crying, they both would, so instead I caught a loose strand of my hair and curled it around my finger.
The depression in the room was so thick, it was almost tangible. Something had to change. With a swift movement of my hand, I scooped the scissors off the kitchen table and cut off my dark hair, which rained heavily on the floor. My sisters gasped.
'Elizabeth,' I demanded with forced cheerfulness, 'have you not told the gentleman that you have a brother?'
Oddness and Oldness
'No man will want you for a wife if this becomes known,' Eleanor proclaimed.
'As of now, to find myself a husband is not the most urgent concern,' I said harshly. This was not a moment to think about more problems but to try and solve the most pressing one.
The usually so eloquent Elizabeth was flabbergasted and if I waited for her to restore herself, she would surely say something that would dim my resolve. I briskly walked up the stairs before she regained her composure.
A brittle ladder led through a square hole to the attic. Covered in dust and cobwebs, wooden beams formed a cross above my head, the smell of forgotten time hanging in the air. It was a small space and almost empty, bar an old mirror and trunk. The lock of that trunk gave way under creaking protest; its lid hit against the wall and a cloud of dust went up like a thick fog. It made me cough.
How strange that after many months, Father's clothes still smelt of him. Rummaging through the contents, I picked out a beige shirt that once was white and dark green trousers. I exchanged my black, heavy cotton dress and underskirts for them in the constricted space available. It was strangely liberating. The clothes were too big but much lighter than my usual wear. I picked the first jacket and hat that I came across and slid my arms through the sleeves of the former. Its padded shoulders almost reached my elbows. I rolled up the sleeves as far as they would go.
'I will not allow this.' Elizabeth’s voice startled me. Her face emerged from the hole in the floor. The fury in her eyes illuminated the dark attic. She climbed the ladder and built herself up before me. The old, faded mirror in the corner displayed the vast discrepancy between her and me. Having always been rather plain-looking in comparison to my sisters, I appeared almost inconsequential now with short hair and wearing Father's clothes that looked wrong on me – it was now a sight I had to get accustomed to. The dresses, handed down to me by my sister, never looked right on me anyway.
'Am I not ridiculed enough? Is my own sister going to humiliate me and take away every last notion of dignity there is left?' she demanded.
'Hurting you, dearest Elizabeth, is the last thing on my mind,' I said quietly, and it was all it took to break the dam of tears. Elizabeth sobbed and yelled at me, but I still descended the ladder and stairs. She followed me as far as the door, shouting her misery at me as though it was my fault. Her violent words, howling behind me, stung like a million daggers and made me accelerate my pace to get as far and as fast away from them as I could.
Running all the way, I could feel the wind through the thin fabric – there was no petticoat or corset to keep away its invigorating chill, and it was astonishing how much faster I could go wearing trousers instead of a dress, even though the braces were too long, forcing me to readjust them every yard. My brown leather boots, usually hidden underneath a heavy cotton skirt, now freed, hurried through the little forest, down a long dusty gravel road, and over the meadow, where my sisters and I had played as children. I jumped over a stream without bothering to cross the bridge, and had there been a mountain, I felt like I could have jumped over it too.
Everything had progressed so quickly that I did not have time to think. But now, with only the waves crashing against the cliffs in the distance and my soles crunching on the ground for noise, the magnitude of my actions hit me hard. I pulled my hat lower. What was I doing? What made me think this scheme could ever work? I wanted to grab a loose strand of hair and curl it around my finger, as I always did when I was nervous, but all my hand caught was air, and I realised that there was no going back now, because it would be a shame if I had brought upon myself this ugly hair style for nothing.
A cottage rose from above the rolling hills. Yellow bricks, entangled in reddening ivy piled up to the brown roof tiles that were embedded in orange moss. The windows framed nothing but endlessly blue sky. No one had lived in this house for a long time, but, unlike our house, the beautiful building had not aged. It had simply adjusted to the scenery of green puffy meadows and tall trees that reached on to the horizon. Despite the idyllic picture before me, a suffocating tension lay its fingers around my throat.
Perhaps I had been too hasty after all, and the wish to help my family had prevailed over my common sense. How humiliating it would be if the old man saw through my dress-up the moment I walked in. Gossip travelled fast on the small Isle of Wight. However, Father once said that it was better to do one's best and fail, rather than not to try at all.
My feet reached the porch before my mind did. The heat came to my cheeks. I feared my heart pounding in my chest would be louder than my fist knocking on the door. No one answered.
A strong gust of wind carried in from the sea and pushed the door open noiselessly. A long hallway stretched out before me, running into the light of a tall window.
'Good afternoon,' I shouted through the doorway.
Only the wind answered by pushing me inside.
'I came for the advertised position,' I trailed off as my words disappeared in the vast hall.
A gold-framed mirror hung horizontally in the golden flower field of a detailed wallpaper. I looked more out of place in the reflection than a rabbit among horses. The yellow shimmer of my surroundings highlighted me like the oddity in a fair. Father's worn old clothes drowned my small figure like the clasp of a monstrous wave. A pair of fearful eyes looked back at me. The skewed hair-cut made strands point in all directions. I tried to ruffle it into something more presentable. It was hard to say whether I looked like a boy, but I certainly did not look like a girl.
The hallway led to a large, airy room with big windows that caught the whole of the setting sun in them. An orange glow lay over the majestic furniture, of which not one piece matched the other. All of it had such an unfamiliar look to it that I could not help but wonder if any two pieces were from the same country.
Among the numerous statues and vases, and other pieces of exotic art, an oil painting, reaching from the marble mantelpiece to the ceiling, caught my attention. A young boy held himself proudly in a suit from another century. Warm brown eyes looked tenderly down on the red armchair in the room. Guided by the gaze, I realised with a start that there was a man sitting in it. He had dozed off with a board of chess in front of him. His head heaved back and forth, going lower each time. Soon his nose would touch the queen. I inhaled sharply, bracing myself for the encounter.
I cleared my throat.
'Good afternoon, sir,' I said thrice, going louder each time, until finally the silver-haired head yanked up.
A wild sound broke from his lungs and he pounced at me. I stumbled back with a start, into the many arms of an Indian statue. On the spur of the moment, and with my heart pounding like thunder, I mumbled an incomprehensible explanation and started to curtsey but remembered I was a boy, and clumsily turned the movement into a bow. My feet got confused and caught on the much-too-long trousers. My arms flew to the sides for balance and knocked over a vase. Before the ancient piece of some foreign history or other could scatter, I dived after it and caught it. Holding it up over my head, I kissed the magnificent Persian carpet.
Trembling laughter shook the air. The old man slumped back into his seat and laughed and laughed. When I was back on my feet and the vase back on its pedestal, he still heaved from the force of the humour he found in my performance.
'I am here for the position,' I said timidly. 'My sister was here before me, but she was kindly informed that—'
'Indeed!' he exclaimed. 'What a darling girl your sister is and handsome too. It is a shame I am such a stubborn old mule.' He smiled joyously, as if it was something he was proud of.
I did not know how to answer such a confession and decided it was safest to keep staring at him like an idiot, which I mastered handsomely.
'Ah! Well, well,' the gentleman muttered. 'Come here, child, come to me. Let me have a look.'
There was not much distance between us, but I stepped forward nonetheless.
His soft, big hand scratched the fluffy beard of finest silver, then a frown formed on his round, wrinkled face.
A large, polished clock, carved from dark wood, stood behind the gentleman. With every tick-tock, it seemed to become louder. His scrutiny made me frightfully nervous.
Finally, the corners of the gentleman's mouth twitched into a smile, making his eyes become two small semicircles. He leaned back into the deep red armchair, which had unfamiliar ornaments impregnated onto the rich, silky fabric, and raised one hand.
'Sit down, my boy.' He motioned towards the other armchair opposite him. Stiffly, I moved to my assigned position and sat on the edge of the velvet cushions, afraid of being devoured by them, like a pathetic insect by a magnificent, exotic flower.
'How old are you, child?'
'I am nearly eighteen, sir.'
'No, no. That won't do. You cannot be older than twelve, thirteen at best.'
'Now that you mention it, I am just turned thirteen,' I lied.
He laughed heartily and I very nearly smiled but thought better of it.
'Do you care for a game of chess?'
'Very much, sir,' I answered, then paused and added, 'Yet I have never played.'
'Then I shall teach you,' he declared with so much enthusiasm that I dared to believe my disguise had fooled him. Allowing myself to relax only a little bit, I focused on the explanation of the chess rules. With a child-like gleam in his old eyes that resembled the boy in the massive painting, the gentleman pointed out the movements of the pawns. One peculiarity angered me. The queen was very powerful while the king was weak, yet, the game depended entirely upon him. I tried to make my frown look like one of uttermost concentration.
At the end of an hour-long game, which he had played more against himself than against me, having amended every move I had made with great delight, he said he was tired.
'It was a pleasure meeting you,' said he with brisk politeness.
I understood it was time for me to leave. Afraid to ask whether my position was secured, I hesitantly turned my hat in my hands.
'Ah,' he remembered, pointing a finger in the air. With some difficulty, he rose from his throne and slowly walked to a white cupboard, which might as well have been crafted to grace a chamber in Versailles. Paper rustled in his hands and when he turned to me, I was presented with a twenty-pound note. I stared at it blankly.
'Would you like me to run an errand?' I asked, dazzled to be trusted with such a large sum so soon after our first meeting.
'Your sister mentioned one thing or another, which led me to believe you might find a suitable use for it.'
'No, sir, I-' I waved my hands before me.
'None of that,' he said sternly.
'Take it, or you won't have to come back.' All traces of friendliness left his voice and a coldness ran down my back.
I took the money and stuffed it into my pocket. The valuable piece of paper burnt a hole of guilt into my trousers.
'Until tomorrow, then. Be here at ten,' he said.
A bright summer evening sky lay overhead as I made for my way home.
Will and Wish
Upon my return, my sisters were in the sitting room. It seemed even tinier and more run-down after the eccentric extravagance of the old man's parlour. But even the most exotic art piece was nothing compared to Elizabeth's beauty, particularly when she was angry. My sister sat as straight as a candle, with her brows arched up and her lips pursed. All of her attention was consumed by the needle work she was occupied with.
'I am back,' I said, standing in the doorway and turning my hat in my hands as was becoming my wont.
Eleanor looked at me sharply and imitated our older sister by arching her brows, pursing her lips, and straightening her back. Only unlike Elizabeth, she overdid it and looked like she was in pain.
'Would you care for a cup of tea?' I asked.
My mouth was dry and I sure needed one. No one answered. Before I left for the kitchen, I glanced at Elizabeth. She looked like an elegant, cold statue from the old man's collection.
'It went well,' I told the empty kitchen.
'I am glad to hear it.' I heard Father's reply, even though I could not see him.
'Was she very angry after I left?' I asked him.
'Dear me, she raved on and on for as long as you were gone, I can tell you. Her choice of vocabulary made me turn in my grave like a whirlwind,' he joked and I laughed.
'Have you lost your mind completely now?' asked Elizabeth in a hoarse voice after following me into the kitchen, which only confirmed Father's observation.
I did not want to answer her question in the affirmative and I did not want to lie to her, so I merely repeated that it had gone well.
'We played chess,' I told her, 'and then,' I paused as a lump rose in my throat, 'he gave me twenty pounds.'
'Twenty pounds?' Elizabeth exclaimed with such a high pitch that I could see the crack in my cup extend. 'You refused it, I hope.'
I looked at her and then away.
'Jo,' she said with more force, and rested one of her palms on the table, which leaned towards her nearly catapulting my tea cup against the wall. 'Jo, you refused it, didn't you?'
'I tried, but…' I caught the teacup with both hands as Elizabeth put her other hand on the table and leaned further towards me.
'How dare you?' Her voice quivered.
I stared at my hands. The fact that my benefactor was her enemy did not help the situation.
'We are a respectable family. We do not need charity. We are no beggars, Jo.'
'Not yet,' I mumbled.
Two circles of fire emerged from her pupils.
'I have not raised you to accept... tokens.' It took all her disgust to pronounce that word. 'If you receive money, then it is for hard and honest work and nothing else.'
Trying to escape her furious gaze, which was about to scorch me, I looked down at myself. The large shirt, which was almost slipping from my shoulders, the braces, which would not stay in place for the world, the trousers that looked on me like a saddle would look on a cow – though not entirely honest, it was most definitely hard work.
'You will give it back tomorrow, is this understood?'
'I will keep it and there is nothing you can do about it,' I retorted and pushed past her. My heart raced dreadfully when I mounted the steps in quick strides. I slammed the door shut behind me. There was Little Dorrit still faithfully lying on my bed; it was the last book my father had given me – even Little Dorrit would want me to give that money back. But no one could persuade me to part with it now, as it was nothing to the old man, yet everything to us. Surely Little Dorrit would understand. I hugged the book close to me when the door jumped open. I was charged like a gun with angry words for bullets, but it was only Eleanor who entered.
'You are very stubborn indeed, Joanna Ryde,' she said and sat down next to me on my bed.
'It seems to run in the family.'
'It certainly does.' She paused, and I tried to estimate in which direction this conversation was going. It was surprising that she had not yet strangled me with accusations that were copies of Elizabeth's language.
'Can I see it, Jo?'
I looked at her.
'The... money,' she whispered conspiratorially.
I pulled it out of my pocket. It was no longer as smooth as it had been. She took it, and her cheeks gained in colour. The eyes sparkled.
'How pretty it is! Is it not pretty, Jo?' Her gaze was captured by the wrinkled piece of paper. 'Have numbers ever looked this beautiful?'
'I do not know that they have,' I said, mildly fascinated with my sister's fascination.
'Can you imagine how many dresses we could buy? And how many oranges?'
'It is not to be spent idly.' I grabbed it from her.
'Oh, let me look at it a little longer,' she whimpered.
I held it up but did not let go when she tried to take it, because I was afraid she would spend it if I blinked.
'I am not proud you took the money,' Eleanor stated, 'yet I am glad it is in our possession.'
'You are?' I said sceptically and with a readiness to jump her should she criticise me.
She smiled and her features became very pretty.
'Nonetheless, I do not like this whole scheme. It feels awfully dangerous somehow. And Elizabeth certainly disapproves,' she admitted, and I remembered how clever she was when she tried. 'I hope you won't need to keep it up for long.'
'I do not mind it quite so much.'
She ruffled my hair, smiled even brighter, and said that she loved me. My shoulders relaxed for the first time today, and I suddenly felt very tired. With my head on my sister's lap, I dozed off while she patted my head and hummed a melody that Mother used to sing.
Elizabeth and I were much more alike than any of us would admit, although I did not expect I could be as composed as she was, or ever as elegant and handsome. I admired her just as much as she disliked my unconventional manner of dealing with problems. During breakfast, she went back to ignoring me and raising her brows, pursing her lips, and straightening her back.
It did not keep me from going to my new workplace. The old man welcomed me as though I had been in his service for years.
He had no servants. His meals were brought by the son of the only public house owner in the area. I knew him and hid each time he came. Somebody else was employed once a fortnight to do his laundry and another person cleaned the house every now and then. Apart from that, the old man was very independent and liked to do everything himself and his way.
From the very first day onward, he treated me with nothing but kindness and devotion. He never allowed my teacup to remain empty – and what an excellent tea he made, for his storages were filled with the most exquisite herbs from Japan and China. During dinner, I had to have a good reason to refuse a second serving. And there was always fruit on the table because the old man was of the firm belief it might mend the meagreness of my countenance. More importantly however, the old man had many fields of interest and was determined to teach me in all of them. Being a scholar, he had spent his entire life investing both time and fortune in his own education, rather than wasting money on idle riches – although his rooms were stuffed with the strangest things. When I pointed it out, he laughed, and said his house was the beauty of the world in a nutshell. Having been to every continent, he would know. How I envied him for his luxury of knowledge and freedom.
Father, and after him, Elizabeth had taught me Arithmetic Mathematics, French and Latin, but through my new occupation as companion, or rather student, I gained much deeper insights into those and other subject matters. The education the old man gave me was one I would have never dared to dream of. I learnt about Philosophy, improved my notions of History and Politics, broadened my scientific horizon particularly with regard to Darwin's findings, gained an excellent understanding of the British Law, found myself capable of navigating a frigate (in theory, at least), and read brilliant novels from the old man's huge private library, which took up most of the first floor. All this inspired me and gave me the impression I could conquer the world with the powers of my mind. The idea of becoming a lawyer grew on me. The old man approved greatly of it and nodded his head eagerly every time I mentioned it.
He was as grateful for a devoted student as I was for a passionate teacher. I learnt to love him dearly as the closest friend I had ever had, and though neither one of us ever addressed the subject, I was sure he felt the same about me, and before long, the old man's house became my second home.
Even though my sisters could not fathom my enthusiasm, they came to terms with my cross-dressing double-life over the course of a year. Gradually, I talked to Father less and less, but not a day went by without me thinking of him and Mother.
'Elizabeth, have you heard? Jo wants to become a lawyer,' mocked Eleanor as we were having Sunday dinner – one that was made possible by the generosity of my benefactor and teacher. The salary he paid me was ridiculously high. Elizabeth even wanted to hire a maid to which I severely objected, claiming it was better to save as much as we could, while we could.
'I am not saying that my decision is made. The profession of engineer is just as tempting. A career in medical science is also under consideration. I do not want to be too hasty, of course.' I shared these thoughts with her under the illusion that she might be as interested in my career as I was.
'You cannot be a lawyer or medical engineer or whatever it is,' Eleanor spelled out. 'Just because you are fooling an old, blind, and deaf man, it does not mean you will fool the rest of the Empire. Besides, do you honestly consider living your life as a man?' She snickered.
How I wanted to pull her hair, which was neatly tied by a new lace the spoilt girl had acquired only recently. She had not even considered the possibilities I was laying out.
'First of all, he is neither blind nor deaf. Not yet, at least. And secondly, you do seem to like the advantages of my dress-up, judging by the tut you drape yourself with.'
Elizabeth allowed her to spend too much money on unnecessary things, and her view of the world was so limited that she did not seem to want to widen her horizon beyond French fashion.
'If you would rather go back to being as poor as a church mouse, I will wear a dress tomorrow.'
Eleanor pouted her lips. She would not want to be poor again, just as I would not want to endanger my relationship with my mentor.
As a precaution, I wore trousers at all hours. Even if the old man stayed indoors mostly, and I hardly left our house either, other than to go to him. I did not want to become confused, although Elizabeth claimed I was exactly that. It was her wish that I should limit my walks to the periphery of our cottage and his – so as not to embarrass the family. It was all the same to me, for I looked forward to going over to his house more than I did to returning home. With him, I could speak about all the things in the world. Even mundane things turned to profound conversations with him. Without ever interrupting whatever I was saying, he would take in every word I voiced and deliberate on the answer for a long time before giving a response, making sure he dealt with the subject in the most respectful manner. At home, I would not be heard until I started yelling and fuming, which drastically decreased in frequency. Somehow, I felt it was no longer important to prove my point to my sisters. But then, my family loved me more than I imagined anybody else could ever love me. And I knew to appreciate that.
One day, the old man and I had a very different topic from those we usually attended. It started with me asking him whether he would care to join us for dinner that day. Elizabeth was the one who had imposed this invitation upon me to deliver, as her opinions of the old man increased in favour proportionally to the growth of our finances. All of a sudden, she felt awfully rude for not having invited him sooner. She was eagerly preparing the most splendid meal – a much too expensive meal – and cleaning the house all day, and doing all sorts of unnecessary things for I knew he would refuse to come.
The old man did not leave his house unless there was absolutely no way to avoid it. It was in part because he preferred the sheltered comfort of his own home, and in part because there was no one, or nothing worth going out for. On this small island, there were no intelligent conversations to be had and no exceptional sights to be seen by a man who had travelled the world. It was the quiet he liked, and being invisible to the small society that lived here. I could only imagine how he must have had his fair share of balls and businesses in the old days. At his age, there were few pleasures to be had from such activities. Admiring him for his self-sufficiency, I was infinitely thankful he had singled me out to have the privilege of knowing him.
When I finally did ask him about the dinner, he declined immediately.
'Those things are not for me, boy. All these polite conversations one has to live up to knowing well that neither party is enjoying the least of it. Besides, I could not stand a room full of women. I am much too old to take pleasure in their presence.'
I knew he would say this and yet there was something I had long wanted to ask.
'Why is it that you oppose women so fervently? Let us assume I was a girl, yet the same person that I am, would you prefer not to know me?' I phrased carefully.
'You could be neither and still remain the delightful annoyance you are.' He laughed. 'Although, if you were actually a girl, I would like you not to tell me. I would hate my theory about men being better company to be contradicted.'
For a short moment, I wondered whether he had already found me out. It would have been very much like him to simply play along all this time, being the eccentric old man he was. I pictured him laughing himself to sleep every night. Even if he did exactly that, I could not hold it against him. On the contrary, I was relieved.
'But why is it that the company of women is so atrocious to you?' I pushed the subject further.
He sighed and I twitched. A sigh escaped him rarely, but when it did, it was usually because his body would not move the way it was supposed to, paining him as a warning, or worse yet, a hurtful memory was brought to his mind.
'You see, my boy, I was not born old. It is something I grew up to be. Before that, however, I was a young man; some called me handsome even. Although I am quite sure handsomeness is a trait people like to imagine in anyone who is well dressed and in the possession of a certain income. Everywhere I went, a flock of ladies followed. Every girl more beautiful than the next. Their mothers behind them pushed their offspring my way. Being nothing more than a man, I enjoyed the attention and the looks of envy that other men threw my way. But I was clever enough not to be fooled by appearances, for it was my money they saw, not the books I had read. I took pleasure in dulling them with conversation, watching them squirm in boredom, yet not leave the ground like brave soldiers protecting the last stand. With the years passing, and becoming decades at last, the women surrounding me became less. I had to give way to younger gentlemen who were more decisive than I was, picking the prettiest or the one with the best family name and being done with it. Before I was fifty, they all eventually left me alone. I came to see balls and other social events for what they truly were. Exhibitions of silliness and wealth. It was not until I travelled to India that I found love, or what you may call it. She was the most extraordinary thing I had ever beheld. Her caramel skin sparkled in the Eastern sun like the gold in Queen Victoria's crown. Her colourful gowns caught my gaze as soon as I set foot on the foreign continent. Her English was broken, yet it sounded like poetry to an old fool like me. I never understood how, but she came to love me just as much as I loved her. We met in secrecy, for she had already been promised to another; breaking such a promise would have meant her death. I was determined, however, to take her with me to London. We made plans on our elopement and I counted the seconds to the moment when she would finally be mine. She was supposed to come to my ship and simply disappear with me into the vast blue ocean that would lead us back to England.
'I waited for her upon the arranged time. But she did not come. I asked the captain to wait. Being my friend, he did for an hour, then two. When we could wait no longer, I climbed aboard the ship. I imagined she must have been caught in her attempt to escape. I imagined all sorts of punishments she would have to face. When the ship was leaving harbour, I almost jumped into the water, thinking I must protect her. But then, there she was, standing at the dock, wearing rags as a disguise. She was far away, but I could see the tears glittering on her cheeks reflecting the setting sun. She shook her head once, ever so slightly, and I knew she had chosen her family over me. And who could blame her for not leaving with a man she only had known but a few weeks, to come with him to a strange, cold country, which would have been much too different from the one she knew? I had only myself to blame and her to love for being such a wise, perfect creature whom a fool such as I could never strive to deserve, not for the rest of his life. This is why I do not like the company of women. The pain of losing them once you have sealed them into your heart is hardly worth the pleasure of holding them to begin with.'
When the old man finished, we sat there for a very long time in silence. I was overwhelmed. The way his face looked when he spoke of his lover made me see a glimpse of the young man he had once been. Courageous and fearless, arrogant and spoilt, having had everything except for the one thing he was left wanting for decades. The experience probably defined him more than I could credit myself to fathom.
'Has the speech been knocked out of your usually blunt mouth?' He mocked me and I could see that he had regained his spirit.
'Yes, sir,' I said truthfully, for I was not going to belittle his painful experience by denying its impact on me. 'I hope I will never fall in love.'
He laughed heartily. 'When the time comes, you will, lad, and the one you fall in love with will be just as stupid and plain as you are.'
'At least, I hope that person won't be as dull and boring as you are,' I countered.
'That person will be much more boring than I am, and ugly, too, but you will love them because you are as dumb and sincere as they come.'
I did not argue because I could not win the argument, and because no matter how badly he insulted me, I always felt flattered.
Soon he asked me to leave for the day. He seemed more tired than usual.
At home, I was yelled at for returning alone. But I was too melancholic to be provoked.
My sisters had polished all the rooms to a point at which I barely recognised my own home. There was not a grain of dust anywhere and fresh flowers everywhere.
The roast, mashed potatoes, various cooked vegetables, onion soup, and gravy smelt and looked delicious. We might not have had this kind of dinner for some years now and the last time must have been Christmas. I did not want to know how much they had spent on it, and yet, I could not wait to eat it all.
As soon as we sat down at the table, the disappointment was forgotten and Elizabeth told a funny story that had occurred at the market. Eleanor laughed so hard that she almost choked on her mashed potatoes.
It was at moments like these that Father's and Mother's chairs were the emptiest. Even though time had moved on, it still felt as though they would come through the door and pay one compliment to each of us girls, and then we would share our troubles or our joy with each other.
The past was a haunting creature. It sneaked up like a shadow. But I was strong and told myself so every day when I went out the door to face a new morning. Having too much to be grateful for, I could not afford being sad. I loved my annoying, beautiful sisters, and my friend, the old, grumpy man. I loved the knowledge he introduced me to and I loved wearing trousers! I loved how Eleanor vexed me with the most insignificant things, I loved how Elizabeth reprimanded me to behave more like a lady, and I loved how they laughed despite themselves when I altered another piece of Father's clothing to fit me.
I wished we could all stay like this forever.
Summer was slowly coming to an end and autumn was becoming more visible in the changing colour of the island's vegetation. I scuffed my feet through the carpet of yellow and brown, creating an orchestra of crunching noises. With every step, I kicked the leaves up in the air and watched them sail to the ground.
My mood was exceptionally cheerful, for the old man had promised me a rematch. I had lost three games of chess in a row, which was slowly but surely making me angry. It seemed as though my teacher was no longer holding back and this rendered all of my previous triumphs insignificant. Being of a competitive nature, I could not stand others to let me win. I wanted to win because I was the better player, not because someone else took pity on my lack of skill.
Today was going to be the day when the old man would admit defeat because I had spent all of last night meditating on a new strategy. I entered the house with my usual cheerful and loud 'Good day, sir!' which let him know I had arrived. Not waiting for a response, I ran into the parlour to set up the pawns. When I finished, I sat in the armchair, unafraid to be devoured by it, as I no longer felt like a pathetic insect. The large wooden clock tick-tocked away my patience as I waited and waited.
He lay in his massive bed under a colourful Indian blanket. Thick black wood with carvings of exotic birds with lowered beaks held up the mattress. A large faded map covered most of the wall over his head. Jade elephants stood with mourning heads on his bedside table. A big blue vase painted with golden ships that flew their flags at half-mast was next to it.
His skin was paler than usual and his upper body did not heave because his lungs no longer needed air. I ran my fingers over his hand that lay by his side. It was stiff and cold.
'I have a new strategy to defeat you in chess,' I told him softly. The fact that the old man did not answer annoyed me. What a rude old man.
'Who am I supposed to play chess with now? Who am I supposed to talk to about things no one else cares about?' I screamed until my voice broke and even then I could not stop. 'Who is going to teach me about Plato and who am I going to read Shakespeare to? I am not as rich as you, stupid old man. How dare you? Come back and finish our game of chess!'
Tears could not express my sadness, therefore I refused to cry. Dry sobs made me hiccup. His last words to me echoed in my mind: ‘The pain of losing them once you have sealed them into your heart is hardly worth the pleasure of holding them to begin with.’ My heart broke. I had noticed his health receding, but I would have never thought it would happen so soon. He had never mentioned anything.
I sat at the beach all day until my hands and feet were numb with cold. When I returned home, I went straight to bed. The next day, I walked around the fields until the sun disappeared again behind the horizon. On the third day, I told my sisters what had happened. Their reaction was agonisingly reserved.
'I am sorry for your loss,' said Elizabeth eventually and rubbed my shoulder.
'He was one hundred and seventy years old. What did you expect?' remarked Eleanor without even going to the trouble of feigning compassion.
They then went on to discuss what was to be done about our finances, and who of us should look for a position as a governess. Eleanor was too young, and Elizabeth was pretty, hence she was more likely to marry advantageously, therefore it was best to send me away. I went upstairs with the intention of staying in bed for a week. The old man's passing had left a hole in my life. Elizabeth and Eleanor might as well send me to the Moon – it was all the same to me now. But before the week ended, a Mr Davenport came to call on us. His whiskers were of the most remarkable facial hairdo – they ended in perfect circles at each end. I had no time to observe this small man much further, as he presented me with a letter and smiled broadly as he watched me open it.
Dear Mr. Ryde,
The fact that you hold this letter in your hands means that my legal adviser Mr Davenport has come to you. It also means; well, let us not speak of things we cannot change but consider what lies ahead. I have taught you all that was possible in the short time of our acquaintance. Yet, for a young gentleman of your enthusiasm and talent, there is much more to learn. As I can no longer live up to the task of being your teacher and friend, I have, with Mr Davenport's help, made arrangements for you to attend Oliver Kenwood Boarding School for Boys. You will enrol as a second-year and probably be one or two weeks late for the beginning of the term – do not let this distress you. As long as you pursue your academic career, you shall receive one hundred and fifty pounds a year. Arrangements have been made on this account also.
Should you wish to become a lawyer or doctor or engineer as you have mentioned before, the school I have taken the liberty to choose for you will open doors. And now, wipe your nose and go pack your bag instantly.
Be not afraid of greatness
Boys and Boundaries
Intimidating was the first word that came to mind when I stood before the ornamented bars of the elegantly curved brass gate. My breaths came in irregular intervals, as my heartbeat drum-rolled towards my entrance into a new life.
The Portsmouth Direct Line had brought me to London Waterloo. Despite Elizabeth's nightmare-imposing threat, my body did not implode due to the great velocity and speed of the train. Whether she meant to scare me so that I stayed at home or whether she really believed her own warning to be true, I knew not. But I did know for a fact that it was the seats that left a more lasting impression than the speed; from bumping up and down on hard wood for hours, my limbs had become wood.
Never before had I travelled by train or been so far from home on my own. Our aunt from Portsmouth had once taken Elizabeth to London for the season. But the only times I recalled travelling were visits made to distant family members in Portsmouth and Bournemouth. London was a strange and unfamiliar place. Its magnitude overwhelmed me.
At Waterloo Station, huge crowds of odd people pushed and shoved me about the platforms. On my way out, I got lost an innumerable amount of times and was certain never to find the exit until a nice lady took mercy on me and guided me outside. She expected a reward for her kindness, but I had nothing to give to her, which was when I realised that she was not so nice after all. It was her spit on my shoe that provided proof of that last notion. At least she did not seem to doubt I was a man, for she directed strictly masculine insults at me. I found solace in it as I rubbed my shoe clean.
After that rather less than more glorious victory over Waterloo's platforms, tunnels, and arched halls, I believed the worst to be over, but when I stepped onto the street, a flood of human bodies, cattle, carriages, and coaches drowned me. I felt as though I had swum out too far into the open sea and had now been caught by a massive wave that whirled me around like a forlorn piece of seaweed. It was all I could do to stay afoot. If I were to fall, or merely resist the direction, I would be trampled down and surely killed.
The stream of living things carried me up a street and across a long and broad bridge. Above the shouts of people, the cries of cattle, and the squeals of wheels, I suddenly heard the splashes of water caught in a strong current. It must be the Thames, I thought with a leap of the heart. I really and truly was in London.
Squeezed to half my size, I emerged on the other side of what appeared to be Waterloo Bridge and finally caught my breath. There was not sufficient life left in me to mind the rain, which had only just begun but was steadily fortifying.
I unfolded a map of the city, which I had found in our attic. Unfortunately, the map provided only a vague idea of my whereabouts, as it hardly represented the recent architecture of the city. According to the map, I was standing in the river. With the aid of some guessing, a little asking, and a great deal of luck, I arrived at Oliver Kenwood Boarding School for Boys very late in the evening. Try though it might, London's traffic and weather did not take my life. Even if I probably looked like they had done just that.
Now I pushed against the school gate, which reluctantly opened to display a muddy gravel path that led to a broad and majestic building made of scarlet bricks and forty-four paned windows. Three rows of bold white cornice emphasised the wealth that had gone into building the school – should anyone doubt it after seeing the massive arched entrance with a large column on each side of it, and the golden school emblem, depicting a quill and a sword, above it.
The small sack dangling from my shoulder might as well have been made of lead, for it felt just as heavy now that I saw what I was up against.
Inside, a long hallway with a high ceiling and echoing walls awaited me. Marble stones of different shades of grey and varying shapes were laid out into patterns underneath my brown laced boots. The ruthless London winds found their way into the corridor and howled in an unwelcoming manner. Lined up along the wall were over-sized oil-paintings of important-looking men who followed me with their eyes.
In our communication by letter, the headmaster had included instructions that would lead me to his office. My memory of them was knocked out of me by the magnificence of the place.
Was it the tenth door on the right or the twelfth on the left? Was it on this floor or did I have to go up the broad, white marble stairs?
A low hum of voices filled the hallway and I wondered if they were real or if my mind played tricks on me. Before I could decide, two boys emerged from a large double-door at the other end of the corridor. With an echoing creak, it fell shut behind them. The heavy sound rocked me in its wake.
Even though I was afraid that my voice, my speech, my face, my movements, and my very air could give me away, I asked the boys about the headmaster's office and where to find it. They stopped. I was expecting them to see through the lie I was staging. I could already picture them laughing and ridiculing me. But they did not. Instead, without the slightest trace of interest, they motioned towards the door whence they had come.
I knocked twice and waited an eternity before an invitation sounded from within.
The intimidating aura the man seated behind an enormous desk emitted went well with the rest of the school. He made me feel even tinier in my father's altered clothing.
'Yes?' His voice rolled like thunder as he looked at me from underneath a pair of thick glasses that turned his eyes into two small, black dots.
'I am the new student,' I said, clutching my braces until it hurt the inside of my palms. 'Jo... Jonathan Ryde.'
'Mr Jonathan Ryde, yes,' he said, tasting the sound of my father's name. 'I have received a very detailed account of your character from Mr Sears. He appears to have great hope in you.'
'He is... was a very generous man.'
A pause followed along with a stern look that made me understand I should not have interrupted.
'As I was saying. In his reference, Mr Sears advises me to put you with students of the second year, even though you have not been to any notable educational establishment before, and even though you are at least one year younger than most of the second-years. I have postponed making my decision until today, to see for myself whether or not you are worthy of such a privilege.' He took off his glasses and scrutinised me and I felt my body shrink under his gaze.
'I see no indication of the potential mentioned in Mr Sears' letter,' he pronounced agonisingly slowly. 'However, I will allow you to prove me wrong. Before Christmas, you will be evaluated based on your achievements.'
'Thank you, sir.'
Again, he made it clear I was not to speak.
'Kenwood is unique in its ways. We forge scholars as well as leaders. It is not a place to send sons to when their behaviour does not suit customs at home. If you do not live up to our high standards, you are expelled. If you fail your exams, you are expelled. I do not care if a mere five students remain at the end of a year, but those will be undoubtedly the elite. Disciplined, knowledgeable, and with supreme leadership skills. We want our boys to come out as men ready to shape the Empire. To this end, our curriculum entails three years of hard, fervent studies. Anyone who needs more than three years is a failure – you will have even less time to prove that you are not, and your situation is not a favourable one.'
By this, he meant I was much poorer than the other students. Fortunately, the man with the scarce grey hair over a balding head and thick vest over a prominent belly – natural indications of wisdom and wealth that he carried with pride – did not seem to realise that poverty was not my greatest concern. Preoccupied by his own performance, he overlooked who was really before him.
'You are dismissed, Mr Ryde.'
A tall and thin man whose body posture resembled a question mark melted from the darkest corner of the room. It was with a start that I learnt of his presence. He looked at me with dark and empty eyes. The corners of his mouth arched down to his chin and left his thin face in wrinkles.
This lifeless-looking shell of a person was presented to me as the caretaker, and he was to take me down below to the basement to provide me with a school uniform, bedding, and directions to the room I would live in. On our way out, we passed two swords that decorated the wall, and I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of one of the blades – I had never seen a more frightened, forlorn expression on my face.
Pursuing the caretaker's agonisingly slow step down the darkening staircase brought images of gruesome crimes to my mind in all of which I was the victim. I half expected the dim oil lamp in his spider-like hands to reveal a dungeon with chains hanging from the ceiling. But it was not the case. Just like the rest of the premises I had thus far seen, the basement was luxuriously clean and well-kept. We passed a tremendously huge scullery and kitchen on our way to the storage room. There, I received a bundle and was once more dismissed.
After my solitary odyssey through the main building, I exited through a backdoor and looked at the vast college green, which was surrounded by three more buildings. It was the one on the far end I was headed to. The halls of residence were situated in a four-storey villa with a flat front and long sash windows. It was built of rough brown bricks and misshaped cobbles providing the house with a hard and cold appearance. A four-panelled black door reluctantly gave way as I pushed it open with my elbow. Inside, it was dark. What little light the late evening provided met with a wooden staircase, wooden panelling, and a wooden balustrade. A thin crimson carpet reached from underneath my feet up to the upper storeys. I followed it to the second floor and stopped by the seventh door on the right.
The uniforms and bedding in my arms towered so high that they compromised my view. I manoeuvred backwards into the room and almost instantly stumbled against the hard wooden frame of what could only be a bed. My exhausted body fell onto it and I was determined not to move until morning.
'What a tiny fellow.' The voice startled me so very much that I almost jumped through the ceiling.
I lifted myself up to look into the eyes of a boy, and, worse yet, I found there was another bed.
'My name is Rajesh Greenfield. How do you do?' He walked towards me and reached out his hand.
Being as frightened and shocked as anyone who had travelled a good 90 miles in one day could be, I wanted to put some distance between us, but he approached so fast that I fell from my bed and hit the floor. The boy laughed.
'I did not mean to startle you.' He helped me up. 'Are you a first-year?'
'Second-year, sir, by recommendation,' I mumbled in what I hoped was a low and manly voice.
'A genius, then?'
'I would not call myself that, sir.'
'What is your age?'
I turned eighteen recently, but my first encounter with the old man had taught me not to admit it.‘Fifteen, sir.'
'Stop calling me 'sir', then. We are but one year apart.' The boy smiled and his friendly face became even more pleasant and amiable.
'You will find this a dull and grey place, I am afraid,' said the boy. He sat down by the desk in front of the window and pulled closer to himself the large book he had been reading.
Even though he was but a boy – who, as boys did, had grown tall too quickly for his posture to adjust to the change – I stared at him, unable to look away. Short strands of brown hair hung over his neck and he was wearing a loose white shirt, the buttons of which were not properly fastened. I was alone with a boy in the same room. Pure horror.
If Elizabeth found out, she would kill me and then burn down the school – all four buildings.
'You do not know me well enough to make such an assumption, for I see it a great privilege to be here, s-' I trailed off.
'What is your name?' He turned.
'Jo, Jo... Jonathan, sir,' I stammered, mentally slapping myself.
'Well, Jojojonathan, it seems we will be roommates from now on. Welcome to Oliver Kenwood Boarding School.' He smiled again. He then informed me, politely that the bed I sat on, the one closest to the door, was already occupied by another boy, who was currently absent. The second bed, by the window, was his own, leaving me with the smallest one in the corner, which could not deservedly be called a bed – more like a bed-like construction. Unlike the other two, it lacked a solid wooden frame, columns, and generally everything else. A box with a mattress on top, that was what it was – and the mattress was longer than the box. Rajesh Greenfield had the decency to look discomforted as he pointed me to it.
Even though the only luxury I had been expecting was that of an education, the sleeping arrangements made me understand my place better than I would have wished.
Impressions and Impertinences
The night progressed into the small hours of morning. The wind hammered against the big window over my head with the same ferocity as my thoughts against my mind. I had been staring at the ceiling for hours. Only several feet away, I could hear the steady breaths of a stranger - a man. Unlike my sisters, I had never given much thought to marriage, but I had never opposed the idea either. Now, it was all too evident that, regarding the situation I had thrown myself in, no decent man would have me for a wife if I were ever found out. Moreover, my sisters' reputations could be discredited as well. Was this what it was really like to be a man? To make decisions, potentially bad ones, and have loved ones suffer from the consequences? The tears welled up again. Wretched things. I was being ungrateful and undeserving. The letter the old man had left me was dated weeks prior to his death. He must have known it was close and his first and foremost concern was to make sure I was provided for. All I did to thank him was whine about it. No, I had to cherish his memory by doing my utmost best. The responsibility made my stomach turn and churn. I could not sleep.
My mind was in a foggy daze.
Suddenly, someone yanked at my shoulder. I shot up in an upright position. Everything around me was much too bright. I could not focus my vision and blinked confusedly. Where was I?
'You will be late, Jojojonathan. Make haste.'
The image of a boy formed in front of me. I was a fraction of a second short of screaming my lungs out when my mind raced to conclude that it was my roommate. Rajesh Greenfield busily rushed about the room in an effort to collect his school things. He wore deep blue trousers, a grey waistcoat, and long jacket, which was adorned by military-style silver buttons on each side. An emblem depicting a crossed sword and quill, an O left of it, a K right, was sewn with a silver thread over his heart.
'What is the time?' I said, rubbing my eyes.
'Almost six. Fencing begins in less than five minutes.'
'Why have you not woken me sooner?' I jumped to my feet and began disentangling the bundle of a uniform that lay next to my pillow.
'I did not realise you were still in bed. You are easy to overlook, all covered up in that blanket from top to bottom.'
This reminded me to pull the blanket around my figure. Already I had allowed myself to be reckless.
'You had better go on ahead without me,' I said, trying to find a manly pitch to my voice mid-sentence. I was barely awake and had to think about so many things already. It would be the end of me if he waited and watched me change. 'There is no need for both of us to be late.'
It did not take much effort to convince him, for he was eager to be on his way. Greenfield told me briskly where the lesson took place, which I was not sure to fully comprehend. Yet, before I could ask anything, he was out of the door, yelling, 'The fencing tutor hates unpunctuality,' just before it fell shut.
Hastily, I dressed. The uniform was much too big. I rolled up the sleeves and the trousers. It looked silly, but I had to run.
I pushed the door open, galloped down the stairs, and out into a cold morning. With clouds even thicker than the day before, it was hard to tell whether the sun had risen yet. The broad, brown two-storey building on the right rose above the mist-covered green. My roommate had told me to head towards those bleak bricks and grey windows. I ran across the grass with as much speed as I could muster and arrived before the building with muddy boots. My shirt did not look decent on me and I had fastened the buttons of my waistcoat asymmetrically. The jacket was under my arm. If Elizabeth had seen me, she would have fainted.
I tore the grey metal door open and skidded across the tiles on my wet soles. Unable to stop, I slammed my face into somebody's back, staggered into another person from the impact, who then shoved me in return, so that I hit the first person for a second time. Its owner turned around and grabbed me before any more damage was caused.
'This is a fencing hall, not the curling grounds,' the boy said, smiling haughtily down on me. Some chuckles sounded in the background. Then the corners of his mouth twitched and the green eyes became poisonous slits. Before I could even think of apologising, he brought up one finger and pointed it directly in my face.
'You are late,' he pronounced carefully, emphasising the severity of the crime. He pulled out a pocket watch by a gold chain, which was attached to a pair of black trousers, and let it fly through the air and land in his palm. That was when I realised he was not wearing a school uniform.
I stared at him wide-eyed and even stopped breathing for a moment. The boy was not a boy at all, although he hardly looked a great deal older than the rest of us; well, the rest of them.
With the hand that had been pointing at me, he brushed away a strand of blond hair from his venomous eyes. His gaze intensified as he scrutinised me. My face was as unfamiliar to him as his was to me. He hunched forward and I straightened my back and stiffened my arms at my sides, feeling like a mouse at the mercy of a snake.
'Jonathan Ryde, is it?' he said in a voice so wary that it turned husky. The name was heavy with responsibility and I had to try hard not to let its weight show on my face. Despite the effort, my mouth opened and shut twice before I mustered a yes.
Suddenly, he raised his hand and I ducked reflexively expecting a punch or the like, but his only motive was to shake my hand. I was making a great fool of myself.
'My name is Charles Hanson. I am your fencing instructor. Pleased to make your acquaintance,' he said, smiling genuinely, which changed his whole demeanour.
'And I yours, sir,' I stuttered with belated politeness.
'I understand the headmaster has explained to you that we take discipline very seriously?' He was still shaking my hand and I could not withdraw – not for lack of trying, though.
'Yes, sir, I-'
'The other students all know, but to you, I will explain the punishment for unpunctuality after the lesson.' His eyes became slits while his mouth was still smiling. With a gulp, I swallowed the urge to explain myself, for from what I had read in novels about the Royal Navy, manly men had to accept demotions without whining. Remembering the extensive volumes about the Battle of Trafalgar, I almost touched my knuckles to my forehead but stopped my mouth before it could pronounce 'Aye, aye, sir.'
Mr Hanson released me and told a boy to fetch me what he called a 'fencing kit.' Hesitantly, I entered the dressing room. Because I was late, there were only three boys left in it. They eyed me curiously and smiled to themselves. I did not raise my gaze over the white bundle in my arms until I heard the last boy leave. I would have to think of something more profound than tardiness in order to change in private. It all had seemed so much simpler to me during my contemplations on the train to London.
Carefully, I laid out the white clothes on the slim bench. How was I supposed to know how to wear a fencing uniform? Having seen the other boys wear it helped very little as it consisted of so many pieces. After some trying out, I decided on the following order: first the stockings and breeches, then half a jacket with only one sleeve, a whole jacket, and a vest of solid fabric on top. I earnestly hoped this was correct, for I did not want Mr Hanson to have yet another reason to reprimand me.
In the training hall there was an army of about forty white silhouettes standing in line and synchronously performing the instructor's commands.
'Quart, disengage, lunge,' he shouted and then noticed me. 'Mr Ryde has decided to join us and it did not even take him half the day.'
A storm of laughter followed. Feeling my cheeks blush, I tried to hide my head between my shoulders like a turtle.
At least I was wearing my uniform just like the other boys, except that mine was too big for me – a circumstance I was growing accustomed to.
Trying to put on the face of a fencing expert, I took my position beside my fellow students.
'Quart, disengage, lunge,' Mr Hanson chanted.
I studied the movements.
Mr Hanson passed behind the other boys, watching closely, nodding approvingly. When he was beside me, I held my head high and sophisticatedly copied what the other boys had been doing. I moved my hand as if I was casting a spell with a magic wand and then jumped forward like a deer. I felt like the perfect cross between a magician and a hoofed mammal, but Hanson only raised an eyebrow.
Directly after, he clapped his hands twice. White figures spread out all around me. I wanted to follow them, but Mr Hanson blocked my way. I would not have forgiven myself if I had bumped into him again.
'How long have you been fencing?'
'All my life, sir.'
'Is that so?' He squinted his eyes.
My common sense screamed at me to admit I was joking, but since common sense was not my strongest trait, I merely nodded.
'Get your mask and foil.' He motioned towards the other boys who stood around a chest that three of them had carried in. 'I am eager to see your accomplishments.'
He smiled at me ambiguously. I understood I had better have a natural talent in fencing.
When I reached the chest, all my fellow students were already wearing their masks and one glove on the hand that held the sword. They all looked the same with the exception of size and build. I was by far the smallest among them.
A tall boy appeared next to me to advise me on the gear. It took me a moment to recognise Rajesh Greenfield.
'He is a very good and fair teacher,' he told me, putting the grip of the foil into my hand, explaining that my thumb had to be on top and that the blade had to arch upwards when I hit. 'Do not lose his good opinion.'
Through the net of his mask, I saw the boy's eyes looking back at me with a soft smile. Surrounded by ghastly white, masked strangers I was glad to find at least one among them who had a friendly inclination towards me. My roommate even suggested to be my fencing partner.
We positioned ourselves opposite of each other in the two rows that had already formed. Mr Hanson proudly marched up and down like a commanding officer ready to defeat the enemy troops at Waterloo, and shouted combinations of words that held no meaning to me. To each of them, the boys reacted immediately. As much as I tried, I did not succeed in doing the same. Greenfield desperately hissed explanations at me. Sadly, I understood those no better than what Mr Hanson said, and felt incredibly sorry for being the source of that very nice boy's frustration. At some point, Mr Hanson finally took pity on me – or on Greenfield, more like – and told me to stand aside to 'watch and learn.'
Another boy paired up with Greenfield and then I saw what fencing was meant to look like. The two students held themselves gracefully and their blades danced. They attacked with speed and parried with ease without ever losing their balance or making an unnecessary step. Their swords seemed to weigh nothing while my hand was tired from just holding the long, straight metal.
Rajesh Greenfield pierced his opponent with the tip of his foil, and even though the blade arched up, easing the impact, it still looked painful.
My gaze wandered from the pair in front of me to the other students. There was not one who did not wield his weapon like a musketeer. I took a few steps back and leaned against the wall. My heart sank.
Mr Hanson pulled the watch from his pocket and announced the end of the lesson. His words could not have made me happier, and I readily took off my mask. However, my way towards freedom was cut off by a blade that shot up in front of me.
'Do stay behind.'
As soon as the other boys had poured out of the hall, I was alone with the snake. I could see my fear in his eyes.
'Put on your mask, boy,' he said as he was already putting on his. Stiffly, I did as I was told. He raised his sword and waited for me to take my position. The web in front of my eyes limited my peripheral vision. My heart began beating faster.
Mr Hanson saluted only moments before attacking. I was not prepared and clumsily tried to parry by throwing my weapon against his. Our blades clattered. An instant later, he pierced my side with his foil. I stumbled from the impact and pain, and fell to my backside. Fortunately, the solid vest prevented any serious damage, yet still, the spot was throbbing. Suddenly, I was glad I was wearing the mask, for it hid the tears of humility stinging in my eyes.
Mr Hanson took off his mask and reached out his left hand to help me up. His hand was so much bigger than my own. I hoped he would not notice.
'You have no experience in fencing whatsoever,' he diagnosed cold-heartedly. I stared down at my feet but could feel him squint again. 'Mr Ryde, it is in your own interest to be honest with me.'
Only then my eyes met his and I tried to evaluate whether I should understand this to be a threat. But his expression softened.
'Fencing is dangerous if you overestimate yourself. I do not want you to be injured during my class. Let us try again. Put your feet at a right angle, with your right foot facing me, then make one step forward so that you stand firmly. Bend your knees. Point the tip of your blade on target that is, at my chest.'
As I seemed to be doing it wrong, Mr Hanson adjusted my hand with a swift movement of his own. He walked around me and tipped his sword on my knee, an indication for me to go lower. Stepping behind me, he pulled my left shoulder slightly towards him. His fingers touched my lower back, making me straighten it.
'You hold the sword mostly with your thumb and forefinger, the grip rests on the inside of your wrist. This is the 'en-garde' position or 'parry of six'.'
Once he took his stance in front of me, I exhaled, realising that I had been holding my breath. Being exposed to a man's gaze and scrutiny in such a way made me feel very uncomfortable. He did not seem to notice how rigid I was. Under the protection of the black net, I allowed myself to look more closely at his face. He was young, or at least, not extremely old. When his expression was not distorted by contemplation and wariness, he could almost be considered handsome – well maybe not handsome, but not hideously ugly, at least.
'Are you listening?' he demanded briskly and his eyes glittered accusingly.
I was forced to admit that 'my thoughts were elsewhere; well, not really elsewhere. They were still in this room but not... engaged in the topic of... fencing. Not exactly.'
This time, he arched both eyebrows. And I did too. If stupidity were a crime, I would be hanged without trial.
Patiently, he showed me again how to launch. Stretching his sword arm forth, he made a long step with his front foot while the back foot remained in its place. I tried my best to follow his example, but he informed me that my backside was sticking out and that I was out of balance. This was most discomforting because he had no business looking at my backside!
The torture continued for another half hour until Mr Hanson, finally, dismissed me. In his frustration over my lack of skill, he forgot to tell me about my punishment. Needless to say, I did not remind him of it.
It was very hard for me to come to terms with the fact that both Mr Hanson and fencing would now be part of my daily routine.
The curriculum, Monday to Friday, consisted of fencing from 6 to 8, followed by an interval during which students were expected to wash and have breakfast until 9.20, then French from 9.25 to 10.50, Latin and literature from 10.55 to 12.20, science and mathematics from 12.25 to 1.50, another interval during which an early dinner was served from 1.55 to 3, directly after law and politics from 3.05 to 4.30, geographical and nautical studies from 4.35 to 6, and finally philosophy and history from 6.05 to 7.30. At 8, supper was served. Lights out was at 9.30. If a student was found outside his own room after lights out, it might lead to expulsion. On Saturdays, three exam papers were written, each for one hour. Sunday was, surprisingly, free, but students were advised to reinforce their knowledge by casual reading.
Over the roof of the Academic Building, which was opposite the fencing hall, across the green, was a church tower with a clock. It was 9 a.m. Mr Hanson had left me with less than half an hour to find a way to wash and have breakfast. The last meal I had eaten was a cucumber sandwich, which Elizabeth had lovingly packed for my journey. Approximately 17 hours had passed since I had eaten it.
I smelt like a train full of fencing students, but I was too tired and much, much too hungry to plan my way through to a bath or even just a bowl of water. All the obstacles and risks had to wait until later. At least I had something to look forward to.
As soon as I entered the main building, I was devoured by a crowd of boys that was charging at the dining hall like Achilles charged at the Trojans for stealing his Helen. Judging by the extensive physical contact I was subjected to, no one seemed to mind the reeking cloud I was surrounded by.
Poked by elbows, left and right, and half-smothered by shoulders, I drifted along to the rhythm of the dishes that were handed out to the hungry mob that attacked the food serving area. The density of bodies per square centimetre grew unscrupulously, and just as I thought my bones would break, I was handed a plate with two slices of bread, a small square of butter, and cold ham. With my mouth watering, I was released into freedom. I had no memory of my own birth, but it must have been a great deal similar to this experience. Only the sight I had encountered then could hardly be anything like what was before me now.
The dining hall was spacious with tall and colourful mosaic windows. Single rays of sunlight shone through them, making rainbows dance over the floor and walls. Large, long tables of thick and solid wood were aligned in three rows with benches positioned on each side. The noise of chatting and shouting boys echoed from the walls like the cries of wild animals. They were accompanied by an orchestra of clattering porcelain. Hands reached over the tables fighting over the milk carafes. Not a single seat remained unoccupied.
Intimidated by such barbaric customs but full of hope to find at least some tiny slot that would accommodate me, I walked down the aisle. The lucky boys with seats swung their arms carelessly and I had to stay alert to dodge them. Otherwise, I would have to scoop up my breakfast from the floor.
As I reached the end of the tables, my hopes slimmed. My hunger was overwhelming. Looking around once more, I sat down on the floor with my back against the wall and began eating. The bread was still warm and melted on my tongue; the ham was rosy and delicious. I looked longingly at the almost empty milk carafes at the tables but did not have the courage to ask for them. When the last bread crumb was in my mouth, I stood up and left the dining hall before another crowd could gather.
The classrooms were in the Academic Building, on the second floor above the library. This was, by far, the prettiest among the four buildings. Not for the architecture, though, but because of the reddening ivy that climbed the grey façade. The big leaves rustled with the wind, some came loose, and sailed to the ground. I picked one up by the stem and let it dance like a whirlwind in my fingers.
Three boys passed me on their way to the entrance. One of them whispered something into the ears of his companions, and three pairs of eyes looked at me, followed by laughter.
I let the leaf fall to the ground and walked in behind them, staring at my feet.
The classroom was big and airy with 43 desks in it, one of which was the teacher's. Behind it was a blackboard with French vocabulary written in chalk. I looked at the words and recognised them! A man in a light blue suit with a violet belt-bind and too much frill on his white shirt stood by the window, leaning against it. With a broad smile of flashing white teeth, he welcomed each student. His face was framed by thick, untamed locks of copper that were combed back into a short ponytail, a hairstyle that looked like it had been inspired by a painting of the French Revolution.
Stepping from one foot onto the other, I stood by the door while the entering boys determinedly took their seats. When I realised that no one would pull aside a chair for me and I would be left without one, I inhaled sharply and ventured towards an empty desk. Before I could sit down, however, a boy shoved me and claimed it for himself. Chuckles surrounded me. Helplessly, I remained in the aisle.
The clock on the church tower visible through the window chimed to ten o'clock and the man with the copper locks closed the door to the classroom.
'Am I correct in the assumption that you are the new student?' he asked me.
I nodded and felt all eyes on me. The chuckles died off. The heat came to my face.
'Capital.' His smile broadened, almost touching his ears. 'I am Mr Ferring. Do give us an introduction of yourself.'
'My name is-'
'Non, Monsieur,' Mr Ferring held up his palm, 'en Francais, s'il-vous-plais.'
My blush faded as the blood left my face completely. Here was another opportunity for my peers to ridicule me. It was highly unlikely that my French was as good as theirs. After all, I was only home-tutored.
'Je m'appelle Jonathan Ryde.' I paused, waiting for the laughter. The classroom remained silent.
'Continuez,' Mr Ferring prompted.
'Je suis le deuxième enfant de mes parents. J'arrive d'une petite île qui se trouve au sud de l'Angleterre...' I told them all the irrelevant detail that I could think of, in a voice that held hardly any sound, until Mr Ferring said, 'Capital, Mr Ryde, capital. The others can learn a great deal from you.'
Surprised, I looked at the teacher to see if he was mocking me. Then, suddenly, an appreciative murmur went about and I felt the tension in my chest relieve.
Since my early childhood, Elizabeth had tutored me in French. I would never have thought her teaching to be en par with that of Oliver Kenwood Boarding, but then that language was her passion. For as long as I could remember, it had been Elizabeth's dream to go to Paris. The first thing I would do, once I became a lawyer, or engineer, or doctor, would be to take her there.
Mr Ferring motioned for me to sit down behind one of two remaining empty desks. I chose the one by the window. Shortly after, the boy who had shoved me was called to sum up the previous lesson and stuttered his way through the task, unable to form a coherent sentence. I hid my terribly immodest grin behind a hand, scratching my chin as if I was thinking intently.
The Latin and literature teacher, Mr Walsh, was as short in size as he was long in lifetime. This seemed to be a combination of traits that encouraged my fellow students to purposely ignore the older gentleman's efforts to commence the lesson. The conversations among the students were louder than the small man's voice and so it took him thirteen subtle throat clearances – I counted – before he could finally make an introduction to Macbeth. It was not my favourite Shakespearian play, yet what else was one to do on cold winter days on an island but read the same literature over and over again. Therefore, I could not deny my distinct familiarity with it.
When the teacher called me to read Macbeth's soliloquy in Act I, Scene III, I did not even need to look in the book as I knew it by heart.
'Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme.
I thank you gentlemen.
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature?
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought whose murder is yet but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is,
But what is not.'
Unlike previously in French, there was no appreciation, but silence when I finished reciting and sat back down. I looked over my shoulder and saw some mean glares. For the rest of the lesson, I said nothing.
When the church tower clock struck 12.20, we changed rooms. I followed the other students through the cold hallway of grey stone walls. A few heads away, I saw Rajesh Greenfield and other boys that he talked to in a lively manner. My first impulse was to catch up with him and express my gratitude for his help and patience during fencing. But then I wondered whether he might have been one of the boys who had glared at me. While I hesitated, he and his friends disappeared through the door of the next classroom. When I entered it, the personification of all my nightmares leaned against the teacher's desk, making me forget everything else.
My feet came to an abrupt halt and some boys walked into me, complaining about the obstacle I caused. I tried to duck behind them. But they failed as a shield. The poisonous green eyes detected me as soon as I them. A half-smile formed. All that was missing was a sizzling tongue.
'Mr Ryde, do sit down.' He clapped his hand on the desk closest to him, leaving me no other option but to oblige.
I had thought Mr Hanson to be only the fencing instructor. He was too young to be a teacher – especially a teacher of science and mathematics. Even his classroom did not look like that of the other two teachers. The blackboard did not display the usual chalk scribblings that had been poorly wiped off, leaving a white layer. His was perfectly clean. There were no messy but important-looking piles of paper that had turned yellow from old age on his desk. It was tidy with only a small ink jar on it. There was no dusty globe in the front corner, or rolled up maps on the walls that had nothing to do with the subject taught. Instead, the walls were lined with shelves full of books all around that made room only for the door, windows, and blackboard. The last time I had seen such an impressive amount of literature was back at the old man's house.
Mr Hanson held up a book. The attention of the classroom was instantly his. He did not have to clear his throat once, but then, he was young and tall.
THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES
BY MEANS OF NATURAL SELECTION,
PRESERVATION OF FAVOURED SPECIES IN THE STRUGGLE FOR LIFE.
BY CHARLES DARWIN, M.A.,
it read on the title page.
'Who has looked this publication up in the library as I had instructed?' he asked, letting his gaze wander carefully.
I turned in my seat to see how my peers looked busily at their notes in order to avoid direct eye contact with Mr Hanson. I thought he would get angry and ducked my head preventively, but he laughed. It was not arrogant or accusing, but earnest. As if he had expected such a reaction and thought the predictability of it funny. I wondered why he had not been this forgiving when I had made a mistake – or twenty – in fencing.
'The title sounds daunting,' he admitted, pacing slowly between the tables. 'It does require your attention, but if you tried, I am sure you would find it comprehensible and informative. After all, you boys are clever.' After a pause, he turned to me and added, 'Even though it might be difficult at first.'
I turned away from him and faced the empty blackboard. My pulse pumped faster. I would not say a word during his class. I would ignore him.
He returned to his desk and put his palms on it, hunching forward. His gaze intensified as he looked every student, one after the other, directly in the eye. 'What do you think, gentlemen, what does 'natural selection' mean?'
A pause followed, but Mr Hanson did not fill it. He waited patiently until somebody raised his arm.
'The survival of the strongest, sir,' a boy from further back said.
Mr Hanson nodded, seemingly thinking about the answer.
'A big and healthy man, for instance, is more likely to survive in nature than a small and weak one, who, therefore, dies sooner, sir,' the boy continued, gaining in confidence as Mr Hanson did not seem to contradict.
'By 'nature', you mean any given environment, I suppose, Chester?' Mr Hanson resumed the habit he had made of pacing about the room. My theory was that he only did it to seem important. Most certainly, it did not impress me. The boys, on the other hand, followed his every move admiringly.
'Yes, Dr Hanson,' Chester said with eyes hungry for appreciation.
Him? A doctor? Unbelievable!
'Nature sorts out the weak and only leaves the strong,' another boy added.
'Following your logic, natural selection means that Ryde is to die sooner than, let us say, Redford?' concluded that so-called doctor.
Whoever Redford was, it seemed I had better avoid him. Unlike everyone else in the room, I did not find any humour in it. Knowing that it was a provocation, but unable to resist, I looked up at the teacher while the other boys laughed. All my anger was in the glare I gave that doctor. It amused him into a broad grin.
'Would you agree with Mr William Chester's theory, Mr Jonathan Ryde?'
'Not in the context of Darwin's findings, Dr Charles Hanson,' I emphasised 'Dr', letting him know how little impressed I was by his title, and then bit my lip. I had not wanted to speak, but the gleam in Hanson's eye made me continue; made me want to prove to him that contrary to his first impression of me, I was not stupid.
'Natural selection is not about the traits of one individual as such, but about the fertility and reproduction of that individual and the heritable traits thus given to the next generations. Survival is only one part of Darwin's theory, as it is possible that a poor and weak man, who dies at the age of 20 has five children and therefore a bigger influence on future generations than a wealthy and healthy 100-year-old man with only one child. However, it is true that whoever is better adapted to the environment is more likely to survive and therefore more likely to reproduce.' I could not stop the outpouring of words, particularly when I watched Hanson's encouraging smile turn shortly into surprise and back again.
The classroom was completely silent once more, but I did not care whether anyone glared or laughed. After all, this knowledge was the old man's gift to me. He had made me read that very publication, and then had spent a whole month discussing it with me thoroughly, comparing it to other theories and reviews. Remembering it, I felt strong emotions stir within me, but I kept them at bay.
'You have read it,' Hanson concluded, mildly taken aback. He had not expected a poor country boy to know evolution.
'That, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and Principles of Biology.' I enjoyed my short moment of victory over the snake, knowing well that my sisters would not be pleased with me if they knew that I was gloating.
He nodded. That was all. I received no acknowledgement whatsoever, as was to be expected from him. How could Rajesh Greenfield call him fair?
'Gentlemen,' he turned to the classroom abruptly, 'Ryde has mentioned one main fact discussed in On the Origin of Species. In evolution, the most relevant concern is the heritage of traits, with regard to their adaptation to environment and influence on offspring. Let me explain this with women as an example.” Cheeky chuckles spread about the room. Hanson certainly knew how to entertain his audience.
'A woman with good child-bearing hips (delight and laughter) may have little trouble giving birth (pure horror in the boy's faces), being likely to reproduce. Inheriting her child-bearing hips, her offspring is also likely to reproduce, thus child-bearing hips survive (laughter), and along with them, other traits that the initial woman may have: hair-colour, eye-colour, height, etc.' Hanson held two cupped hands up in front of his chest – seemingly accidentally – and the boys almost choked on laughter.
'On the other hand, a woman who is less able to bear children is more likely to die during child-birth along with her child. Her heritage ends. As a result, child-bearing hips may be a criterion in the process of 'natural selection'. However, this is only true as long as the environment requires child-bearing hips. Once the environment changes – as progress in the medical department occurs – the woman who is less able to bear children and her offspring are helped to survive as well. Child-bearing hips cease to be a selection criterion and the second woman too will have her traits inherited by future generations. Therefore, remember: 'survival of the fittest' implies the one who is best adapted to the environment; it does not necessarily mean the strongest, as Chester has said. In addition, that fitness is only relevant if it is heritable.'
If I had chosen that moment to blink, I would have missed the look Hanson directed my way. I found it hard to interpret. 'He is a good and fair teacher,' Rajesh Greenfield had said, but I did not share his opinion. Hanson was, however, interesting to listen to.
At the end of the lesson, I learnt that he had not forgotten my unpunctuality after all. I had to spend the forthcoming Sunday dusting every single book in the classroom as punishment.
'There are only approximately one thousand three hundred copies,' he mocked me.
Friend or Foe
I awoke to an ominous quietness and a blurry whiteness. Underneath my palms and bare feet was ice-cold grass. I perked up and tried to stand, but a hand shoved me and I fell back to the ground. Turning frantically but unable to distinguish my surroundings, I heard movement in the fog. Someone's feet scuffed on the wet grass. I forced myself up. Could this be a dream?
The cold crept underneath my nightgown and I was glad I wore trousers and a shirt under it. Sharing a room with boys, I could not afford not to.
'Explain 'natural selection',' someone yelled in a low voice and a face hidden by a fencing mask appeared before me. I stumbled backwards from fright.
'Too slow,' the low voice yelled and dissolved in the fog. A splash of icy water made me scream from the coldness that embraced me. My body began trembling.
'Name all plays by Shakespeare,' another voice commanded.
'Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet-' I stuttered hoarsely.
'Too slow,' a third voice bellowed and another splash of water followed. The coldness yanked my knees from underneath me. Three pairs of feet appeared from the whiteness. I crouched on the grass clasping my upper body in a futile attempt to stop the trembling. Looking up, my gaze met three fencing masks.
A hand grabbed me and pulled me up towards the masks.
'You do not seem so very knowledgeable, now, do you, Ryde?' The pack leader shoved me into two pairs of arms that caught me and held me up.
'Go back to where you came from,' he whispered.
The other two pushed me into the grass. Could you feel pain in a dream?
Suddenly, they howled like wolves.
'Who is there?' a fourth voice sounded. A light approached, blurringly diffused by the high density of water particles in the air.
The three wolves ran.
The light came nearer until it was only inches away. Warm and bright.
'Ryde?' Hanson stated, holding an oil lamp to my face. The man showed less surprise than was appropriate. 'What happened?'
My teeth were clattering ferociously. I was so cold I could neither speak nor stand.
He took off his night robe and put it on my wet shoulders. He rubbed my arms and it felt like I had daggers under my skin.
'Get up, boy,' he said, pulling one of my arms around his neck. I leaned against his warm body and commanded my legs to move. The stairs of the Academic Building came into sight. We approached it from the college green.
Hanson half-dragged me up the stairs and into a cosily warm room. He sat me down in front of the fireplace. I raised my shaking palms and felt the heat returning to my body slowly.
Hanson closed the door behind us, killing the draught, and rushed to another room. I heard water splash. Ten minutes later, he was beside me again, pulling me up, leading me to the other room. A filled bathtub with steaming water was in the centre of it. I almost cried with joy.
'Take off your clothes,' he said, already taking his robe from me.
Shock paralysed me momentarily.
'N-no,' my voice returned.
He looked at me angrily.
'I-I-I-I c-c-can't.' It took all my strength to connect the letters into words. I looked down at the floor, ashamed of everything.
'Get in with your clothes, then,' he said briskly.
The heat almost tore my flesh apart.
'It seems warmer than it is because you are freezing.'
Little by little, my body began feeling normal again.
'Thank you, sir,' I managed without stuttering, but still trembling.
He emptied a kettle of hot water into the bathtub. The warmth embraced my body pleasantly.
'Every now and then, we have students like you,' he said.
Girls who dress as boys? I wondered.
'Like me, sir?'
'Small and weak, no pedigree, no good at anything physical,' he smiled, 'but excellent in everything academic.'
I blushed and looked at my knees, which became visible through the soaked nightgown and white trousers.
'I knew this might happen,' he said, 'which is why I did not praise you in class. But I suppose the other teachers did in abundance. This won't make you very popular among your peers.'
'Do not worry about me, sir, I am f-f-fine,' I insisted, trying to seem strong.
He gave me one of his disbelieving looks complete with squinting and eyebrow-arching, and whatever else he usually did. I tried to smile, but my face might have turned into a distorted grimace instead, as I was not sure how well I could control my muscles. He frowned.
'I won't tolerate any bullying. Starting tomorrow, you will come to fencing an hour early so you can stand up to your peers. If you do that, they will respect you more and leave you alone.'
'You heard me.' He gave me a stern look and left.
I watched the ripples around me and tried to recuperate what had happened, wondering why I had not woken when the boys with the fencing masks had dragged me out of bed. But then I had never been this tired in my life. I was not sleeping much and everything was so stressful and unnerving. I rubbed my eyes to stop them from building up tears of self-pity. As a matter of course, Hanson chose this precise moment to return. He put a bundle of clothes on the small, three-legged stool beside the tub.
'Thank you, sir,' I barely mumbled, rubbing my eyes harder as my voice was giving me away. For a short moment, I could see sympathy in the green eyes. It was gone quickly, though, and his facial expression hardened.
'If you do not want to be bullied, do something about it yourself. If you run crying to the headmaster or me, it will only become worse.'
'Yes, sir.' I steadied myself.
'Would you please not tell anyone about this, sir?'
He nodded and I wondered if he regretted having helped me. It was easy for him to claim everyone should stand up for themselves. After all, he was tall and strong. I doubted he had had any problems with his classmates as a schoolboy. He might have been the main bully himself.
'Would you – I do not want to be rude – but would you...'
With another nod, he closed the door behind him. I took off the soaked nightgown, trousers, and shirt. Hanson had given me a pair of black trousers and a dark blue shirt. I rubbed my forefinger and thumb on the fabric. It was soft and thick. A quality my family could never afford. I put them on.
I wrung the water from my own wet clothes. Now that I was warm and dry, I had the mental capacity to take in my surroundings. There was not much in it apart from the bath in the centre and a basin by the wall. Both were boxed in wooden panelling. Underneath the big window, the thick curtains of which were drawn, was a little bowl with shaving utensils in it. It was quite a luxury to have your own private bathroom with running water. It might not be a novelty in London anymore, but back in my family home, we still had to pump water by hand.
When I finished observing the marvels of progress, I went outside to find Hanson sitting on the bed. He was absorbed in a book. Upon seeing me, he put it aside.
His bedroom was big. The fire painted the white linen of the large bed orange. The reflection of the flame swayed on the big and tall wardrobe on the opposite wall. Hanson stood up and motioned for me to follow him. I had not realised we had walked through a study before coming into the bedroom. On our way out, we passed it. A significant amount of books lined the shelves on both sides of the black window. They held as many books as they could carry, perhaps more. A massive desk stood in the centre with piles of papers neatly tied up. A pen lay symmetrically to the edge with an ink jar next to it. The desk was so big that the green armchair disappeared behind it almost completely. A fitting sofa with green cushions was next to the door that we walked out of.
'I know the way, sir,' I said as Hanson turned the key in the lock.
'It is past midnight, Ryde. You need a reason to be out of your room at this hour, in case you walk into the caretaker.'
'Thank you, sir.' I had not even thought of it.
We passed the college green on our way to the halls of residence. I glanced at the grass. The fog had lifted and with it all signs of what had occurred there. I wondered what the boys would have done to me if Hanson had not come. I felt a lump rise in my throat.
The halls of residence appeared dark and deserted. Our shadows flickered on the walls to Hanson's candle.
'Good night, Ryde,' Hanson said once I told him the door to my room was in sight. 'If you wake up with a fever, find me.'
I smiled at him as broadly as I could, and apologised to have disturbed his rest, and thanked him politely, and wished him good night. The door fell shut behind me and the smile disappeared from my face.
I climbed under my blanket without taking Hanson's clothes off.
'Jojojonathan,' exclaimed Rajesh Greenfield much cheerfuller than was appropriate under the given circumstances. 'You made me worry,' he complained. 'Are you all in one piece?'
I did not answer. Somehow, his behaviour struck me as odd. Considering how mean the others were, he was decidedly too nice. Was he really someone I could trust? Or was I merely exhausted and therefore overly wary and suspicious?
'Strange noises woke me,' he continued. 'When I found you gone, I went to tell Dr Hanson immediately.'
'Thank you,' I said grudgingly. ' There was no need.'
He tilted his head, frowning. 'Are you sure?'
He stood there for a moment. The moon, shining through the window, illuminated one side of his face eerily. Without another word, he lay down and pulled the blanket over his head. I was too embarrassed to thank him, if indeed he was the one who had called Hanson.
Acquaintances and Aspirations
After four hours of being in a state that could hardly be described as sleep, I rose from my bed, dressed, and went out into a chilly, cloudy, rainy morning. My head was heavy, my limbs were numb, my muscles were sore, but when Hanson greeted me at exactly five o'clock to begin my private fencing lesson, I tried not to reveal how poorly I felt. Bravely, I dived into the fencing uniform, put on the mask, and took the sword.
The fencing hall seemed much bigger without the other students. The polished wooden floor reflected the brightening sunrise through high and long windows, like a still lake. Hanson's footsteps echoed from the walls, as he arrived in front of me.
As he had taught me the day before, I took the en-garde position and he answered by doing the same. The foil wobbled in my hand, while Hanson's remained still in a firm grip. His blade touched mine and the sound of metal brushing metal filled the anticipating silence.
'Have you learnt how to dance?' he asked.
There had been a lot of dancing in my house. Ironically, Eleanor had always made me dance the male part. But I was not sure whether it was safe to say so. I edited the truth and answered in the negative.
'No dancing lessons?' Hanson exclaimed. 'Very unusual for a young gentleman. How do you intend to impress the ladies?'
I froze. Was he suspicious? The exhaustion made me warier than ever.
'I-I had a lesson or two, but I would not call it serious learning.'
A chuckle sounded from within the mask.
'You are very tense, Ryde. What are you afraid of?'
'Nothing, sir,' I responded immediately, perhaps too quickly.
'Everyone has a secret, but don't you worry, I won't pry out yours.' A flash of white teeth became visible through the black grid. 'I am sure you are a better dancer than fencer (certainly it is not possible to be worse). Just like in a dance, I would like you to follow my lead. When I step back, you make a step towards me. When I step forth, you retreat, and the distance between us has to remain the same. Let the length of our blades be your reference.'
He raised the peak of his right foot and let the heal follow, thus stepping forth, his heal touched the ground first, and the peak second, then he shifted his weight and ended the movement by covering exactly the same distance with his left foot. As I had to step back, I made the same movement backwards, starting with the left foot. Hanson gradually moved faster and I had to stay alert to react accordingly, so the distance between us would remain the same.
Sweat was running down my spine, for it was very hot under the three layers of uniform, a shirt, and chest bandages, and my leg muscles were aching from having to keep my knees bent. When I straightened them half an inch, Hanson noticed instantly and slapped his blade on my thigh.
When the other boys entered the hall, one by one, and commenced their training, I was told to practise lunges against the wall. Every now and then, he would stand beside me and tell me how to improve the movement, but for the most part, he focused on training the other students, and I was glad to be left in peace.
After training, I was not keen on facing my peers, since at least three of them felt enough hatred towards me to sacrifice a night's sleep to rid me of my own, hence I was suspicious of everyone who yawned.
Therefore, when the boys left to change, at the end of the lesson, I remained in the hall. Then again, I could not have joined them even if they had been my good friends.
'Ryde, I believe you have had enough for today,' said Hanson.
'I believe I have had enough for a whole month,' I mumbled under my breath, proceeding in my attack on the wall.
'Have you said something?'
'I believe I need to train much more.'
'Oh, you will. But not today. I do not want you to collapse halfway through the day. The headmaster would hold me accountable and that would be a nuisance.'
'I am glad to be taught by a man who knows his priorities,' I said and took off my mask.
'Certainly,' he agreed, untouched by my sarcasm. 'You do look rather pale, Mr Ryde. Are you all right?'
'Fresh air will make me quite myself again, sir, I assure you.'
By the time I entered the dressing room, the other boys were long gone. My shirt was soaked wet under the uniform. I had not known I could sweat this much. Strangely, needlework and reading had never provoked such a reaction from my body.
The fresh set of clothes cooled my skin. I felt light-headed as soon as I sat down on the long bench that was held by a metal chain. With my forehead, I touched the cold stone wall and closed my eyes. There was a knock on the door, but I did not bother to answer. It sounded so far away.
'Ryde, are you asleep?'
'No, sir, I am just blinking slowly, sir.'
'Very funny, boy. Be on your way or you will miss breakfast.'
'Yes, Dr Hanson.'
Rajesh Greenfield caught up with me on my way to the dining hall. His hair was damp from recent washing. He brushed away the dripping strands from his forehead and gave me a broad smile; he had such an easy and amiable demeanour that I did want to believe in his kindness. But to be proved wrong could be fatal, therefore I kept my guard up, however, to fortify my position among my peers, I needed friends. What to do?
'How do you do, Jojojonathan?'
'Not too bad, thank you.'
'You left early today.'
'Indeed I did,' said I, unsure of whether to encourage conversation or to end it there. 'I am now entitled to private fencing lessons by personal request of Dr Hanson,' I elaborated eventually.
'What an achievement,' the boy cheered mockingly.
'A very questionable one!'
We walked on in comfortable silence; it was uplifting to walk the school premises with a companion by my side. For this short moment, I felt a lot less alone, and my posture straightened of its own accord. If indeed his design was of an evil nature, then what was he to gain from it?
'Would you like to join me and some good friends for breakfast?'
My heart skipped a beat. I made enemies by simply entering a room, thus I was surprised there were students, apart from him, who would not mind my company.
'Or do you have another engagement?'
His good and friendly nature made it impossible to refuse or suspect maliciousness. Then why did I?
Two boys waited for us by the entrance to the main building. They looked highly strange together. One had blond hair that was almost white and a very slim figure, which exceeded six feet by far. The other one was short and round, with chubby cheeks and dark hair. They looked like the bat and ball in cricket.
Despite their appearance, only made more strange by one standing next to the other, Rajesh Greenfield introduced his friends with such pride that I could not help but think them to be the most handsome of men. I instantly liked them, as if they had been my own close relations for many years.
'Lawrence W. Larrington,' Greenfield pointed his chin towards the very tall boy, who blushed and asked to be called 'Larry', 'and Terence Barclay,' Greenfield motioned to the small, chubby boy, who did not say he wanted to be called 'Terry', but I was determined to address them as 'Larry and Terry' nonetheless, since they all thought it extraordinarily humorous to call me 'Jojojonathan'.
Breakfast in pleasant company was decidedly more preferable to sitting alone on the floor, even though I found it a trying challenge to keep my head from dropping into the scrambled eggs on my plate. Greenfield had not told Larry and Terry about my nightly adventures, which honoured him and earned him one trust point. However, this led to Terry thinking I could not sleep due to home-sickness. It was not a very manly explanation, but I had no strength to disagree. Feeling he had found a fellow sufferer, the boy confided in me but not without Larry providing his take on the matter. According to the latter, it was not his mother Terry missed dearly, but the sweets the woman provided for her fine boy.
'You see,' Larry said like a professor who had concluded many years of study on his subject, 'Mrs Barclay is much more willing to share her desserts with Terence than us mean school boys, for we have the indecency and impropriety to express our displeasure when poor, dear Terence discovers our secret hiding holes and plunders them like a ruthless pirate.'
'I am very sorry, indeed, but unlike you, dearest Lawrence, who has reached his height limit at the tender age of three, I am still growing. And it is a truth well-known that a growing body requires supplement.'
'And grow you do, most dearest Terence, in width.'
Terry, quite stricken with the remark, blew up his cheeks in anger.
Greenfield broke up the argument by suggesting that if both boys were thrown into a pot and melted into one, a normal person might come forth.
Their performance was very amusing. I could no longer believe any harm could come from such earnest friendship and companionship.
'I am most glad you have made friends,' said Hanson at the end of mathematics and science.
'Thank you, sir.'
'A very good choice of company as well.'
'To be sure.' I wanted to leave, but he blocked the way as was his wont. In a much quieter voice, he said, 'I trust there have been no incidents today.'
'No, sir. None that I know of, sir.'
He studied me for a moment, then stepped away to put the books on his desk back onto the shelves. Halfway through the door, I felt the urge to clarify one thing.
The last student left. Hanson stopped arranging the books and put them back on the table.
'I am quite capable of taking care of myself, despite what you have witnessed last night. As you have suggested, I won't come running for help.'
'I might have been too harsh on you yesterday, when clearly you weren't at fault. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, but you should...'
'Fight my own battles, sir. I am aware of it.'
'You should be able to avert battles altogether. Now that is an art. However, if something like last night happened again, I would rather you told me.'
'I will, sir.'
It was a lie and a rather obvious one at that. Hanson was the last person I wanted to take notice of any more disgrace on my part.
Due to the delay, my new friends had already gone ahead and I walked down the empty hallway by my lonesome. Suddenly, somebody grabbed me from behind and pushed me into a corner. A fencing mask appeared in front of me, and one more on each side of it. With their faces darkened by the shadow, I could not distinguish any features, but they seemed a lot less threatening than when they had been in the cold fog.
'The doctor's darling, are you?' hissed the left mask.
'Tell on us and see what happens,' spat the mask in the middle.
'Go home, country boy. Leave elitist institutions to the elite,' the right mask rumbled.
'If you are the elite, then the elite seems to have trouble keeping up with this country boy,' I protested and it took quite a bit of courage.
The left mask's right arm grabbed me by the jacket and yanked me towards it. 'Repeat what you have just said.'
One of my buttons came off and hit the floor, rolling away as if fleeing the ship.
'Three against one sure is cowardly,' I snarled at him. My blood was pumping so fast that it extinguished all fear. After all, how much harm could three good-for-nothing wolves do?
Pushing his accomplices aside, he grabbed my jacket with the other hand and pulled me across the hall to the opposite wall.
'How about a one-on-one fencing duel?' he whispered, and I saw his eyes and the deep frown separating his brows. It was a mistake to direct his face away from the shadow and into the light of the window.
'I do not mind, William Chester.' I hissed his name into the mask, and for a short moment, his black eyes glistened with nothing but hatred. It was the boy who had shoved me in French, the same one who had answered Hanson's questions about Natural Selection wrongly. His action towards me began to make sense. I was better than him and he was jealous. He shoved me again, as violence seemed to be his only asset. My bottom made a loud thud on the marble.
'Keep your mouth shut, Ryde, because I can make your life more miserable than you can imagine,' he said, walking backwards. He then turned and ran. The other two wolves followed their pack leader and howled as they disappeared behind the corner.
I searched for the cowardly button on the floor; it was not easily done with the tears blurring my vision. Hanson's classroom was close. If I remained sitting on the floor, he would come to enquire after me on his way out. I knew the wolf's name, and with Hanson on my side, the headmaster would have to take my complaint seriously, but it was not what I wanted. The other boys would not respect me. Hanson would not respect me. I would not respect me.
When Hanson's footsteps echoed down the hallway, I ran.
In law and politics, Greenfield informed me that I looked slightly pale. Indeed, I would have preferred to spend the rest of the day hiding in our room, but I could not afford William Chester to think he had succeeded in his attempt to intimidate me.
He glared at me across the classroom, and I glared back at him. Before every student found their seat, I made up my mind to answer each and every of the teacher's question sooner than that wolf could.
Self-Regard and Sunday
With the days packed with studies and my mind packed with thoughts, I did not even notice how my first weekend at Kenwood approached. By accident, I stood at five o'clock sharp in front of the fencing hall, only to realise after thirty minutes of waiting for Hanson that it was, indeed, a Sunday. With a mixture of frustration over my own silliness and relief over the fact that Hanson's harsh training would not spoil my morning, I ran back into my room and jumped into my warm bed. It was my firm resolve to sleep until noon. A vile knock on the door made this impossible, however. Even the pillow over my head did not block the unnerving noise from outside. Rajesh Greenfield allowed the culprit in.
'Ryde,' a very angry voice rolled thunderously over my head. The owner of the angry voice went even so far as to yank the pillow from my grasp, which was not much of a protection, anyway, from a snake's poison.
'What are you doing here, sir?' I mumbled into the linen.
'I should ask you the same question. You were to come to my office at ten.'
'I will, sir.'
'Have you invented means to travel as much as twenty minutes back in time, Ryde?'
Greenfield scoffed in the background.
'I will, sir.'
'Ryde, wake up!'
'Yes, sir.' I sat up and rubbed my eyes.
'Make yourself presentable and come to my office at once, and for such insolent behaviour, you will dust books until the end of term!'
He turned on his heel and stomped off fuming like fifteen London chimneys.
'You really should not have vexed him, Jonathan,' said Greenfield as if I had offended him in any way.
'I didn't,' I protested, astonished that my roommate took it quite so seriously.
'He hates unpunctuality,' repeated he and looked at me accusingly. I could not help but wonder why he cared so much about it.
'It is Sunday!' I threw my hands up in the air.
For once, the sun had risen above the roofs without clouds penetrating its yellow brightness, golden rays caressing the leather bindings of volumes and volumes of knowledge. Hanson impatiently tapped his finger on the shelves, disturbing the thin layer of dust that lay on top of them. He was dressed for journey. The long black coat lying on the man's shoulders almost touched the ground, and were he of an average height, it certainly would have. A dark red silk vest was underneath it, which suited the neck tie in colour. Only the impeccably white collar of his shirt lightened the darkness of the elegant suit.
He kept directions brief and spoke quickly. It was apparent that he was determined to be on his way. She must be pretty, I thought, if she made him this anxious. When Hanson was by the door, I could not help but say, 'Give my most heartfelt regards to the lady,' simply to test his reaction.
He stopped and observed me for a moment, then nodded, and confirmed that he would. A smile raised the corners of his lips for a split second, and his mood improved, then he was gone.
I took a turn about the classroom and traced my fingers on the leather of the books. Some, I took out to flip through their pages, and the urge to read rather than work was overwhelming. After all, Hanson would not be back for a long time.
His collections focused mostly on scientific and medical research, and there was a significant amount of biological theories and essays by scholars with more academic titles than I knew could be acquired. Many of the writings did not seem to be destined for revision in class due to their complexity, hence I wondered why Hanson owned them. His books seemed too purposefully acquired to serve a general interest; there were ten volumes, at least, on different types of influenzas; a whole shelf was occupied by copies debating on long term consequences of child diseases and their possible cures – I could imagine such a variety was not easy to come by; these books deserved to be treated with the uttermost care, for their content was of immeasurable value. Not even the old man could have prided himself with such an in-depth assortment of collected medical knowledge. Maybe it was time to start thinking of Hanson as an actual doctor.
'We have not seen you all day, Jo, where have you been?' asked Larry as I joined the boys for lunch.
Terry was eyeing Larry's pudding dangerously. As I sat down, I placed my own dessert as far away from the boy as possible.
'Jojojonathan has to dust books, you see,' explained Greenfield with a conspiratorial wink at his friend. Larry nodded understandingly and smiled at me mischievously. Now that his attention was distracted, Terry tried to reach for the tall boy's pudding, but Larry slapped his hand away without even looking. He must have developed a sixth sense by now with regards to the protection of his sweets.
'Yes, gentlemen,' I said, taking a mouth full of the most delicious meat pie. When I had swallowed it, I added, 'And I quite enjoy it.'
They all laughed and insisted that of course I did. There seemed to be no point in trying to convince them otherwise or to explain to them why being exposed to Hanson's library was a privilege.
'At the very least, you do not need to fear tardiness, for you have to dust books until the end of the century anyway,' joked Larry.
Again Terry tried his luck and again he was disappointed by Larry's quick reaction.
'Do not underestimate the doctor's inventiveness when it comes to finding punishments where he thinks needed,' warned Greenfield, and gave me a meaningful look. He seemed to know something about Hanson that I did not and it made me a little nervous, for I found Hanson quite scary the way he was. I did not need more details to prove it.
Across the dining hall, I detected William Chester and his fellows directing nasty glares my way. From then on, I found it hard to focus on my meal – so hard in fact that I did not notice how Terry had managed to steal my own pudding...
Upon my return, I found Hanson's classroom in chaos. Desks had been flipped upside down and lay in disarray. Chairs were everywhere except for where I had last seen them. Shelves rested on other pieces of furniture. And books. Books lay on chairs, which lay on desks, which lay on more books; books lay like a carpet on the floor, their pages flew about like plucked feathers. The small ink jar from the teacher's desk was spilled and scattered, like a pool of black blood, across the floor and the neighbouring chairs, desks, and books.
Hanson's face painted itself in my mind. The disappointment, distrust, and hurt was vivid in his expression.
With hands that did not feel like my own, I started collecting the books, observing their damage and piling them on the windowsill. I separated the ones without flaws from the ones with bent or missing pages. Five books were stained by ink; two of them had only suffered small drops, three had blackened pages beyond repair. I collected all the loose pages, bundled them up, and sorted them according to the titles incorporated in the running heads, and I moved the chairs and desks until their formation resembled their initial state, and I heaved the shelves up while almost being buried underneath their weight, and all the while, Hanson's face would not leave my mind. The poisonous, squinted eyes were so lively before me that I almost felt the man's breath on my shoulder.
It took ages to put the books back into the shelves, after I had spent more ages sorting them by category and alphabet, the first of which was not the most apparent thing in the world. The ink stain on the floor needed solid scrubbing for a whole hour, and even then, it was not entirely removed from the cracks in the wood.
To sew the loose pages into the spines of the books they belonged to, I fetched a needle and small spool from my room. On my way to halls and back again, I saw the other boys play football on the college green, and I would have much preferred joining them to sewing, as it had never been one of my strong suits, and it was particularly difficult to sew paper into leather, and the result was not at all satisfactory, but at least I was fast and reduced the pile of books that needed mending to ten before the sun sank as deep as the roof tops. Soon, only a mere three titles remained: Scarlet Fever, Epidemic Infant Diseases – Symptoms and Cures, and Herbal Healing: Illustrated Edition, but there was nothing I could do for them, as they had suffered such severe ink stains that I could not even flip through their pages for they stuck together. If I put them back in the shelves would Hanson ever notice and suspect me?
'Ryde, you are still here? Quite the fervent lad!'
The books dropped from my hands and I jumped after them immediately. I clutched them to my chest and dared not look up. Hanson's feet, with the long black coat swaying about them, came into my view and his hand grabbed one book from me, even though I was trying to hold against it.
'What is this?' he asked and the cheerful tone with which he had entered vanished from his voice. He tried to flip through the pages but had as little success as I.
'What have you done?' The restrained anger in his voice made me speechless. I hugged the other books closer. He grabbed those from my hand as well. After observing the damage, he looked at me with fury.
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