Chronicles of Halden, I
- Auksford, 2004 -
Just what Miss Hardacre saw
Copyright Robin Gordon, 2004
"The facts of the matter," said Miss Hardacre in her most positively cut-and-dried tone, are quite plain."
Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny admired her courage, her obvious confidence in the existence of the world, her at-one-ness with the great chain of being, so to speak. She was clearly a person of considerable force of character and decisiveness. He restrained himself with a sudden jerk from drifting off into a rambling footnote weighing the enviable efficiency of decisiveness against the concomitant dangers of loss of perspective and the global view, to concentrate on Miss Hardacre's report of certain relevant sense-data.
"I saw them with my own eyes," she observed, sweeping the steely luminosity of those peerless orbs round the table so that each member of the Board of Governors in turn could feel the power behind her gaze and be convinced without a shadow of doubt that error was out of the question.
Mrs Lambert beamed on her encouragingly. It must, she knew, be something of an ordeal for a simple assistant mistress to speak out before a circle of high-powered politicians, and she felt it incumbent on herself, as their leading light, to radiate sustaining warmth on so deserving a member of the public. Dame Virginia, at least, knew how to behave, even if certain others did not.
Councillor Bairstow snuffled audibly as he puffed his pipe into action, and met Miss Hardacre's piercing distaste with a mask of boredom.
"There were two boys and a girl behind the bushes in the ornamental garden, where children are absolutely forbidden to go. I moved quietly across to see what they were up to, since they appeared to be behaving in a very peculiar manner indeed."
Again she flashed her steely glare around the table. The Chairman seemed to be asleep. In fact he had taken the opportunity afforded by her pause to delve rapidly into a survey of human behaviour in general with a view to ascertaining whether it could ever be said that people behaved other than oddly. Councillor Bairstow's eyes were half-closed, but Miss Hardacre knew she had his attention. The others were listening quietly, while Mrs Lambert, who looked even more than usually as if she were in training to be Queen Mother, was positively bobbing her head up and down in her eagerness to hear the rest.
"I made no noise until I was right upon them," said Miss Hardacre. "There can be no possible doubt what they were up to. Both boys had removed their trousers and were naked from the waist down. The little girl was in a state of considerable distress. Her clothes were dishevelled, and it was quite obvious to me that these lascivious hooligans were attempting to strip her naked!"
A murmur of shock.
"Furthermore," said Miss Hardacre...
There was more! Even Councillor Bairstow, abandoning his pipe leaned forward in his chair.
"... when I questioned the boys they admitted that their intention was to undress the little girl and to wreak their foul lusts upon her innocent body. I crave your pardon, ladies and gentlemen, for the expression I am about to use. It is a four- letter word, and one of the crudest in the English language, me of the most demeaning towards womankind, but it is the word one of these louts used to me when I asked him what he was about. With your permission, Mr Chairman?"
Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny had no need to look at his colleagues. He waved his permission without thinking.
"He said," continued Miss Hardacre in a voice filled with a loathing foredooming its object to utter condemnation, "he said: 'We were going to f--- her'."
A whistling sigh from Councillor Bairstow was the first sign of life returning to the stunned committee.
"That's that, then," he said flatly.
The rest of the committee nodded glumly, but said nothing.
Mrs Lambert nodded as glumly as the rest, curbing the exhilaration of her racing pulses. Opportunity beckoned. The doors of the Royal drawing room were opening before her, and she heard the announcement: "The Marchioness of Halden and Mr Lambert".
The Headmaster leaned forward to speak to his Chairman. Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny coughed.
"Hem-ahem, ah, I am sure we are all extremely grateful to Miss Hardacre, indeed I believe that I could safely say that our gratitude knows no bounds, or could I, I wonder? Leaving aside, if the Committee will allow me to to so for the moment, the question of whether I may or may not be attributing to its members what may in fact be no more than my own gratitude, profound though it be, might it not seem that anything categorised as boundless must, ipso facto, be regarded as co-terminous with the Universe itself - though here again in speaking of the cosmologically and theologically infinite in this manner, it might be that I am guilty of the sin of terminological inexactitude. If I could just insert a brief footnote here, assuming of course that I am not trespassing too greatly on your very valuable time, and of course I am entirely in your hands, would terminological inexactitude be regarded as a sin, I wonder, or would that strictly depend on the precise denotation given to the word 'sin', whether, in fact, it were limited to the theological sphere, extended to the moral, or, indeed, as so frequently happens, semantically devalued to the point of indicating purely social peccadilloes - not that I would regard offences against syntax and semantics as purely social peccadilloes, for - and I think most of you would go some way towards agreeing with me on this matter - language, at least so it has always seemed to me, though I, of course cannot claim any specialised knowledge of the field - ars longa vita brevis est - language is one of our most precious gifts, of which we are not possessors absolute but guardians and trustees with a duty to preserve, and even perhaps, on occasion, to improve, so that, on balance, I am afraid I must regard terminological inexactitude as something of a sin - and this, of course brings me back to the main thread of my remarks, in which I was attempting, without, I hope, undue exaggeration, to convey something of the extent of our gratitude to Miss Hardacre for the very clear light she has thrown on what we had, I think almost without exception, feared would be a case of considerable doubt and complexity. If therefore no-one has any questions to put to Miss Hardacre... mmh? ... ah... I think we might perhaps ask her to withdraw while we consider what course the next stage of our deliberations might follow."
The governors duly assented, and Miss Hardacre withdrew.
"Thank you, Miss Hardacre," said the Chairman. Various grunts seconded his gratitude, and the Marchioness of Halden beamed upon the simple schoolmistress who little knew that already within the noble bosom of her patroness was forming a proposal to her advantage.
"Well," said Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny, when the door had closed with a firm click behind Miss Hardacre, "it would, on the face of it, appear that if there is one thing about which there can be, ahem, no probable, possible shadow of doubt, no possible doubt whatever, it must be that what Miss Hardacre was unfortunate and perspicacious enough to have observed, must be regarded as forming an example of what I can only describe as indecency."
"Gross indecency," growled Councillor Bairstow.
"Hear! Hear," cried the Marchioness of Halden, wishing she had got in first.
"I wonder if I might..." began the Headmaster, but the Bishop was already speaking.
"I hope, Mr Chairman, that this meeting will not now concentrate on punitive measures to the detriment of what I think we ought to be considering, namely ensuring that such an occurrence does not arise again. Of course_" (Here he held up one hand, forestalling their protest) "_there can be no question of the boys remaining at this school, that I think no-one would dispute. Whether or not further measures will be taken against them, is, I believe, out of our hands. That is purely a matter for the little girl's parents and the police."
"Quite!" said Mrs Snellgrove
"But, Mr Chairman," continued the Bishop, "what we must consider is not only an improvement in the moral tone of the school, but also an attempt to inculcate, within a Christian framework, a wider knowledge of the facts, mysteries, beauties and moralities of sex ..."
"Mr Chairman!" roared Councillor Bairstow, "This is neither the time nor the place for the Bishop to put forward his crackpot theories on sex-education."
Only Councillors Erie Little and Christine Pardoe shared the Bishop's predilection for this crackpot idea, but only the faintest hint of embarrassment about their gills showed their predicament as their fellow Labourite pulled the rug from beneath their feet and allied himself with all those horses of a different colour who now snorted their approval.
"What we want" neighed Mrs Ethel Ryeroft (Conservative), sole representative of the County Education Committee, "is a tightening of discipline and a return to stricter standards."
"What we need," cried the Marchioness, her eyes gleaning as brightly as the diamonds in her tiara, "is a deputy headmistress with determination, vigour and clarity of vision." She cantered on thrilled by the heady hum of appreciation, the roar of the crowd in her ears as she galloped into the home straight. This time she would be first at the tape. "Someone like Miss Hardacre!" she whinnied.
"Hear, hear!" roared Bairstow, "Mr Chairman, I have never liked the woman. She has always seemed to me to be a stiff-necked, bigotted old ratbag, but this week she has proved her worth. She knew exactly what to do and she did it without shilly-shallying. Mr Chairman, I admit I was wrong, and I beg to be allowed to second Mrs Lambert's proposal that the Board instruct the Headmaster to appoint Miss Hardacre to the vacant post of Deputy Headmistress."
"It gives me especial pleasure," Her Majesty the Queen said in her best state-occasion voice,, "that the only non-royal dukedom to be conferred this century should go to a woman."
The Duchess of Lambert glowed as fulsome Royal tribute after fulsome Royal tribute gushed over her coronetted head, and, coming forward, led by the Prince of Wales, the Dukes of Edinburgh, Kent, Norfolk and Bedford, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chief Justice, to take her seat in the House of Lords, she heard only as a faint murmur of applause, coming from somewhere far, far beneath her, the dry, pedantic tones of that old fool Gibbon, who'd once been her predecessor as Chairman of the Education Committee - how long ago it seemed - at the start of her glorious career.
"It might, and I think not inappropriately, be said that our meeting has taken a somewhat surprising turn, though of course there must be those among us who may well claim to have foreseen just such a confluence of circumstances, and indeed it might be thought that the question of the hierarchical administrative structure of the school must necessarily emerge from such disciplinary considerations as this week's misfortune has compelled us to examine."
The Chairman's stalling, his pitiful indecision and inability to follow the lead given to him by the glorious Duchess, was brought to an abrupt halt by the entry of Canon Tollgate.
"Ah!" he observed in tones which suggested he had been opening and closing doors along an immensely long corridor for an immensely long time and had at last discovered the persons he sought.
"I'm sorry I'm late, Mr Chaiman," he said grimly, and Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny felt somehow that he was obscurely to blame for having held the meeting in so inaccessible and unusual a situation. He found himself apologising for having started without the Canon, explaining, with no more than a slight tendency to parenthetical footnotes, what appeared to be the facts of the case, and summarising, at no more than three times the length of the original exchanges, the proposal that the disciplinary situation should be improved by appointing Miss Hardacre to the vacant joint deputy headship.
The Duchess of Lambert, Privy Councillor, Dame Grand Commander of the Orders of the Garter, the Bath, the Thistle, St Michael and St George, and the British Empire, glowed with pride and happiness as her name was mentioned as the proposer of the motion which must so obviously gladden the stern disciplinarian heart of the Canon. Not even the gold and precious stones of her coronet, not the orders gleaming on her breast, could shine so clear and bright as her honest face.
The ominously cumulo-nimbic sombreness of the Canon's severity seemed deeper and blacker by contrast, the rays of her smile, like the beams of the setting sun, picking out the edges of the massing storm, revealing the weight piled on weight, the threat piled on threat, the towering lowering, grumbling, rumbling menace before which man and nature quail in anxious. oppressive silence. When the storm broke, nothing would contain its fury. Heads would roll. The mighty would be put down from their seat and more worthy successors anointed. Miss Hardacre might be Headmistress before the evening was over, and Mrs Lambert Chairman of the Governors.
With carefully controlled, ominously quiet deliberateness the Canon rumbled, "We must ensure that the whole matter is thoroughly investigated. If we are to get to the truth, nothing must remain unexplained, no witness unseen, no testimony unheard."
The Duchess of Lambert nodded sagely.
"I suggest we listen to this," said Tollgate, heaving onto the table before him a massive machine in a grey case. He opened the top and some, but not all, of those present recognised that it was one of those new-fangled tape-recording machines that the school had recently acquired for use in modern language teaching. Miss O'Reilly, who had been lurking in the doorway unobserved by the Chairman, now bustled forward with an extension lead and plugged the recorder in. On its deck she placed two spools, one large and empty and the other smaller and full of tape. She took the leading edge of the tape and guided round a series of equalising sprockets, through the tape heads and over to the other spool, where she jammed it into a slot, and turned the empty spool a couple of times to tighten the tape around it. She then turned it again until the beginning of the brown tape reached the heads, nodded to Canon Tollgate and bustled out, closing the door with an audible click as if to reassure the governors that she had no intention of listening.
Canon Tollgate began to speak again.
"It is," he said, "a first hand account of the incident. The child involved is, unfortunately but quite understandably, overawed at the thought of appearing before the school governors, and - something which puzzles me rather - could not be persuaded to speak to me even when we were alone. This obstinate silence over the distressing affair also baffled even the most solicitous of maternal probing. It is only due to the patience and tact of Mrs Minerva Hodges that we have this recording."
The Canon pressed a button, and the tiny, frightened voice of a child was heard.
"Will you tell me what happened?" came the voice of Minnie Hodges.
"Yes," said the tiny, frightened voice.
"Poor little mite," murmured the Duchess of Lambert, "She must have been terrified."
The incense of her colleagues' agreement rose perfumed to her nostrils.
Canon Tollgate stopped the tape momentarily.
"I do not wish there to be any mistake," he said. "The terrified and tearful child to whom you are listening is not the little girl but one of the little boys who was found in the shrubbery with her."
Ignoring their bewildered indignation he released the tape.
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Chapter 11: Knocked for six
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