Never In First Place
Back then school was a choice and not forced on us of the common lot. Thus it came to be that I was seventeen, and had never been to school before. We lived in the heart of the country, and my education at home had never been more than a casual pursuit. I never minded it being broken into now for a day's work, and now for a day's play, now for visitors staying in the house, now for a visit to friends or relations. I believe that is the way when you are one of a large family, and do your lessons at home--especially if your tastes lie rather more in the line of doing than thinking anyway.
Back then I did not love books. I loved gardening and riding the pony, and making cakes, and minding the baby. My sisters were much cleverer than I anyway, and I had never believed it possible that I could excel against them in anything that required study, so I satisfied myself with being rather clever with my hands.
Work of any kind has always felt right and pleasant to me, therefore I worked at my lessons when I _was_ at them, though I admit that I was always ready enough to throw my lessons aside for anything else that might turn up. I was surprised when my mother said I must go away to a good school for a year, but I was quite willing. Even though I always loved where I was and appreciated what I was doing it was also true that I always loved a change.
The school chosen was a London High School, and I was to board with some people we knew. They had no connection with the school however, so I was thrown out pretty much on my own resources, and had to find my way about for myself.
First I had to go up for the entrance exam and I shall never forget my feelings that day. The headmistress had a sharp, quick manner, and I thought she set me down as very stupid for my age. I was put in a room with a lot of girls, mostly younger than myself, and given a set of exam papers to do. The way the questions were presented was new to me, I was nervous and worried, but I worked on doggedly with the courage of despair, certain that I was showing appalling ignorance for a girl of seventeen, and that I should be placed in a form with the newborn babies.
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Two very pretty girls were working beside me. They had curly black hair, and bright complexions, and lovely dark eyes, and there was a fair girl, who wrote diligently all the time, and seemed in no difficulty. When it was over I asked her how she had got on, and she said she had found it quite easy, and answered most of the questions. We compared notes, and I saw that if she was right I must be wrong, and as she was quite sure she was right I went home very despondent indeed, but determined to work my way up from the bottom if need be.
Next morning I hardened my heart for what was to befall me, and started for school. I had to go by omnibus, and found one that ran just at the right time.
I was met at the school entrance by a tall, thin, small-featured lady, who wore glasses, and spoke in a sharp, clear voice, but quite kindly, telling me that I was in the Fifth Form, and my desk was that nearest the door.
There was a good deal of crush and confusion as there were a lot of new girls, and I sat at my desk and wondered whether the Fifth Form was the highest or the lowest. I could hardly believe I was in the highest form, but the other girls sitting at the desks looked as old as myself. The two pretty dark girls were there, but I saw no sign of the fair girl who had worked so easily.
I sat and watched for her, and presently she came in, but she was moved on to the form behind. She was in the Fourth Form, and I heard her name--Mabel Smith.
I had a good report at the end of the first term, and went home happy--very happy to get home again, for I had never been so long away before, and I found my little brothers grown out of knowledge. But the Christmas holidays were soon over, and I went back in a cold, snowy week; and London snow is always a miserable spectacle, not like the lovely pure white covering which hides up any of the dirt and ugliness in the country.
However, I knew my way about by this time, and found my old familiar bus waiting for me, and the conductor greeted me with great friendliness. He was a most kind man, and always waited for me as long as he could when I chanced to be late.
This term we had a new mistress for mathematics, and I didn't like her a bit. I was always very slow and stupid at mathematics, and the new mistress had a mind so keen and so quick that she worked away like lightning, and I _could_ not follow her. She would rush through a proposition in Euclid, proving that some figure was, or was not equal to some other figure, and leave me stranded vainly trying to understand the first proof when she was at the last, and I _couldn't_ care, anyhow, whether one line could be proved equal to another or not, I felt it would be much simpler to measure it and have done with it. It was the same in arithmetic; she took us through innumerable step-fractions with innumerable steps, just as fast as she could put the figures down, and all I could do was to stare stupidly at the blackboard and hope that I might be able to worry some sense out of it all at home; and she gave us so much home-work that I had to toil till after ten at night, and then had to leave my sums half done, or neglect my other work altogether.
I was slow and stupid, I knew, but the others all suffered too, though not so much, and presently complaints were made by all the other mistresses that their work was not done, and all the girls had the same reason to give, the arithmetic took so long.
So Miss Vinton made out a time-table for our prep., and said we were to leave off when the time was up, whether we'd finished or not. It was a great relief, my hair was turning grey with the work and worry! But I did not get on at all with mathematics, and in the end of term exam. I came out very badly in that as well as in French.
Because so many of us had done badly in those subjects our poor madame and the mathematical mistress did not come back next term.
Miss Vinton gave us mathematics herself, and a splendid teacher she was, letting some daylight even into my thick head, which was not constructed for that kind of work, and her sister gave us French, and we really began to make progress. Some of the girls had done well before, those who sat near madame and talked to her, but most of us had not learnt much from her.
Altogether it was with regret that I saw the end of my school-year drawing near; and I was very anxious to do well in the final exams.
They were to be rather important, as we were to have a university examiner, and there were two prizes offered by people interested in the school, one for the best literature paper, and one for the best history. I really did want a prize to take home. It would be tangible proof that I had used my time wisely.
There was great excitement ringing throughout the school, and we all determined to try our best. The Fourth and Fifth Forms were to have the same papers, so as to give the Fourth Form girls a chance for the prize, and Mabel Smith said she was determined to win that prize being offered for literature.
The exam. week began. Geology, arithmetic, Latin, French, German. We worked through them all conscientiously but without much enthusiasm. Then came the literature exam; you could hear the girls hold their breath as the papers were passed out to them.
I read the questions down the first time, and my head spun round so fast that I could not understand one.
"This won't do," I said to myself, and set my teeth and clung to my desk till I steadied down. After my vision cleared and my heart ceased its infernal clumping in my breast, I read them through again. I found one question I could answer right away, and by the time I had done that my brain was clear, and I knew the answers to every one.
Alice Thompson was sitting next me, she was one of the pretty dark girls, and very idle.
"What's the date of Paradise Lost?" she whispered.
I didn't know what to do. I wouldn't speak, and of course I knew that it was very mean of her to ask, but I was sure of the date, and I thought it would be mean of me not to tell her. Just then Miss Vinton walked up the room and glanced round at us.
Alice bent over her work, writing diligently. Miss Vinton went down the room again, and Alice edged up to me, questioning me with her pretty, dark eyes.
I hesitated, with the question of right or wrong did battle with her pretty eyes, then I sighed deeply in surrender and pushed the sheet I had just finished close to the edge of my desk so that she could read the date at a glance, which she did quickly enough. After that Alice didn't even ask as she looked over my papers freely any time she saw that Miss Vinton wasn't looking. I didn't know what to do. It seemed that what had begun as a quite small deviation of code had now grown into a situation both dark and ugly. I resented being sucked into it, and feelings of guilt chased about in my mind even when I stared straight down at my papers and made my eyes ignore what was happening just outside my field of vision.
I was rather worried about it, but I didn't think she could win the prize, for I knew she hadn't worked at the subject at all, and if she didn't win then I thought it couldn't matter much to any one.
I had answered all the questions a good while before the time was up, I thought we had been allowed too long, and was surprised to see Mabel Smith and one or two more scribbling away for dear life right up till the last minute. However, the time was up at last, and we all gave in our papers.
"How did you get on, Margaret?" asked Miss Vinton, smiling kindly at me as I approached the desk.
"I think I answered all the questions right," I replied. I kept my eyes stuck to my paper and would not look at her at all, lest she see proof in me of the guilt that I felt.
"That's good," she said and then bent to her work as if she too was faced with something she wished not to see.
The history paper was given us next day, and it filled me with despair. The questions were so put that short answers were no use, and I was afraid to trust myself to write down my own ideas. However, after a bit the ideas did begin to flow, and I quite enjoyed scribbling them down. Here I could at least be comfortable. It really helped that Alice had been moved to another desk, so I was left in peace, for Joyce, who was a friend of mine, was now seated next to me, and she was working away quietly.
I was getting on swimmingly, when all at once the bell rang, and I realized that I had only answered three quarters of the questions.
I _was_ vexed, for I could see one or two more I could have done. However, there was no help for it. The papers must be given up.
"I wish I had had a little more time," I said to Miss Vinton, as I gave in my work.
"You had as much time as the rest," she answered, rather sharply, and I went away feeling sad and snubbed. The exams. were over, and we were to know the result next day.
I don't think any of us wanted that extra half hour in bed in the morning, which generally seemed so desirable; and we were all waiting in the cloak-room--a chattering throng, for discipline was relaxed on this occasion. When the school-bell rang, and we hurried in to take our places, Miss Vinton made us a speech, saying that the general results of the examinations had been very satisfactory. Our term's work had been good on the whole.
We could hardly listen to these general remarks when we were longing for particulars. At last they came: Miss Vinton said that Alice Thompson was awarded the literature prize because her work was so very accurate, and her paper so well written.
There was a silence of astonishment. Alice turned scarlet. I felt horrified to think what mischief I had done by being so weak-willed as to let her copy my work. Mabel Smith was white. But Miss Vinton went on calmly: "Mabel Smith comes next. Her paper was exceptionally well written, but there were a few loose ends there which placed it below Alice's work. Well done, Alice. You have really surprised me with this solid piece of work."
Then came Nelly, Joyce, and the rest of the Fifth Form, and one or two of the Fourth--and my thudding heart began to get over the shock of Alice's success and to wonder what had happened to me. At last my name came and all I had earned was just half marks.
My cheeks were burning. I was dreadfully disappointed with my efforts and I was ashamed of having let a consternation of feelings disrupt my mind when I needed it most. Miss Vinton must have seen what I was feeling for she paused to explain that the examiner had not wanted mere bald answers of dates and names. “she was looking for well-written essays, showing both thought and intelligence.”
This was how I had come in last, while Alice, who had been brazenly cribbing my facts, had worked them out well, and she had come out first. I felt very sore about the loss, and I had almost forgotten the injustice done to Mabel Smith.
There was still the history prize to be given, and a hush of excited expectation fell on us when Miss Vinton began again: "The history prize has been awarded to Nelly Gascoyne for a very good paper indeed. Margaret and Joyce have been bracketed in second place together. Both their papers were excellent, and only just slightly behind Nelly's in merit."
I gasped with surprise. I had left so many questions unanswered that I had had no hope of distinction in history. This was some consolation for my former disgrace--and then my mind went back to the question of what I was to do about the literature prize.
As soon as the business of the morning was concluded Mabel Smith touched my arm. She was still quite white, and her eyes were blazing. "I must speak to you," she said.
"Come to the cloak-room," I suggested, "we can get our books after."
The moment we were alone she spun to face me: "You _know_ Alice Thompson cheated. I sat just behind you, and I saw you push your papers over, and I watched her as she leant over, and copied whatever she wanted."
"I never dreamt she'd get the prize," I answered, "I only wanted to help her out of a hole."
"Well, she _did_ get out of a hole--and she got my prize -- and just what are you going to do about it?"
"Me? I don't know, I'm sure. Of course I oughtn't to have let her copy. I can see that, but I thought it wouldn't hurt any one."
Mabel stamped her foot. "You'll have to tell Miss Vinton what you have done, right now. It's not fair I should be cheated out of the prize that I have honestly won when I have worked so hard for it too. I can't think how I came to make those mistakes."
"I wish to peace you hadn't!"
"But, anyhow, Alice could never have got my prize it if she hadn't cheated, and you must tell Miss Vinton."
"Oh! that's too much to ask of me," I cried. "It's for Alice to tell Miss Vinton that she cheated, all I did was let her. Don't you see? I can't.”
I ducked my head and said: But, I am willing to tell Alice she must."
"And if she won't?"
"Then I don't quite see what's to be done about this."
"Do you mean that you'll let her keep my prize?"
Then I thought of a brilliant solution. "Well Mabel, you can tell Miss Vinton if you like."
"It's you that ought to tell her. It was all your fault; you'd no right to help Alice to cheat."
"Okay, I admit it. I know that's true. But it makes it all the more impossible for me to tell on her."
Just then Alice came in: "Oh, Margaret!" she cried. Then she saw Mabel and stopped so suddenly that I never did learn for sure what else she was going to say.
"Are you going to tell Miss Vinton that you cheated?" said Mabel as she stalked right up to her face with flaming eyes.
"Margaret --” Alice gasped. “Did you tell on me?"
"She didn't have to tell me, I saw you!" said Mabel, "I sat just behind and I saw you doing the copying! You're not going to try to keep the prize you stole from me, are you?"
"No, of course not," said Alice after a long sigh, "I never dreamed of getting the prize. All I wanted to do was write a decent paper and not have Miss Vinton pitching into me as usual. You're welcome to the prize, if that will do."
Mabel said nothing. She simply waited.
"I'm afraid that won't quite do," I said at last. "It would be too difficult for Mabel to explain at home without telling on you. It would be much better if you were to tell on yourself."
"I can't," said Alice, "I'm as sorry as I can be, now, that I did it--but I can't face Miss Vinton." She looked ready to cry.
"Well, I shall have to confess too," I said. "It was partly my fault. Let us go together."
"I daren't," said Alice. But I could see she was yielding.
"Come along," I said, taking her arm firmly. "It's really the only way out. You know you don't even want to keep Mabel's prize, and it's as bad to keep her honour and glory. This is the only way out. Let's get it over."
She came with me then, but reluctantly.
Fortunately we found Miss Vinton alone in her room, and between us Alice and I managed to stammer out our confession.
Miss Vinton, I think, was not surprised. She had feared there was something not quite straight. She was almost ruthless with us both as if we had been a team and I as much to blame as was Alice, and as it was to be my last interview with Miss Vinton I was heart-broken.
However, I lingered a moment after Alice escaped, and then I turned back and said: "Miss Vinton.. Please forgive me, you can't imagine how sorry I am."
"Always remember, Margaret," she replied softly but firmly, "that it is not enough to be honourable in your own conduct--you must -- as far as possible discourage anything dishonourable in other people. I know you would not cheat for yourself, but if it is wrong to cheat for yourself then it is equally wrong to help some one else to cheat--don't you see? Will you remember this in the future—to always choose the rightin big things as well as in small? You must not only do right yourself, your influence must be on the right side too. Certainly, I forgive you for this. You've been a good girl all this year, and I'm sorry to lose you."
So I went away comforted.
And I came home with never a prize to show. But I had what was better. I had acquired a real love of study which I have never lost. I don't know what became of Alice Thompson, I just hope that she never had to earn her living by teaching. Nelly Gascoyne went home to a jolly family of brothers and sisters and gave herself up to the pleasures and duties of home. Joyce became assistant mistress in a school, and Mabel followed up her successes at school by winning a scholarship at Cambridge just one year later.
And I – well -- I've never come in first anywhere in life, but my heart is right and I'm fairly contented with earning a second place every now and then.
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