JEAN sat on the radiator in the passage, swinging her legs, and feeling rather defiant and important and frightened all at the same time.
To begin with, sitting on the radiators was strictly forbidden, although no one quite knew why. Monica said it was because the heat melted the base of your spine. Jean didn’t really believe that, but it added to the excitement of doing something against the rules to know that you might begin to melt away if you sat there too long.
Jean wasn’t really one of the law-breakers at Hill Crest, but to-day was the last day of term, and to-morrow she would be leaving the school for good, which of course was terribly thrilling, but rather frightening when she didn’t know why or where she was going. Miss Simms had been very mysterious and unusually kind and gentle, and had just told her that her father had died very suddenly abroad in a motor accident, and that she must be very brave and good.
Then she told her that she would not be coming back to school again, and that she would meet her brother Dick the next day, and go and see her great-grandmother who was now to look after them both.
“But, Jean, I never knew that you had a great-grandmother,” said one of the long-legged, black-stockinged thirteen-year-olds who were clustered round her as she sat on the radiator.
“Neither did I,” said Jean.
“If she’s your great-grandmother she must be simply frightfully old.”
“I believe she’s eighty-five.”
“Eighty-five! How simply awful! I expect you’ll have to bellow down an ear-trumpet, and run round fetching her spectacles all day long,” said Mona with a giggle.
This struck the others as being so funny that they all began to giggle too, and then they suddenly stopped when they remembered that Jean was an orphan and was wearing a black tie, and wouldn’t be coming back to Hill Crest ever again.
Mona perched on the radiator and put an arm round her shoulders.
“Jean,” she said, “just tell us from the beginning again what happened when the Head sent for you yesterday.”
Jean drew a long breath.
“Well,” she said, “I tottered up to the Simms’s room simply shaking in my shoes, knocked on the door and crept in, and there she was, sitting at her desk and looking awfully sad and stern . . . you know . . . and I felt my heart go simply flump right into my boots. Then to my surprise she smiled a funny sort of smile and said, ‘Come here, Jean dear,’ and then she put her arm round me and said that I must be very brave as Father had been killed in a motor smash abroad somewhere I simply didn’t know what to say, because I knew that she was expecting me to burst into tears, and lay my head on her shoulder or something . . .”
“Gosh! Fancy laying your head on the Simms’s shoulder; you’d need to be pretty far gone to do that,” said Mona.
“Well, anyhow, I just couldn’t raise a trickle then, because, you see, Father has always been much too busy, or too much away, to see a lot of us, and Dick and I have never got to know him awfully well.”
Jean paused. “I don’t think he really cared very much for us either,” she added thoughtfully.
There was a moment’s silence then:
“What did you say?” prompted Mona.
“Well, I didn’t say anything! I just stood there feeling the most awful ass, and staring at her desk, and after a minute or two she took her arm away and said, ‘Poor child, I suppose you hardly realize it yet’; and then she took up a letter and told me to sit down, and said that I was to meet Dick and Father’s solicitor, Mr. Hawkins, at Euston to-morrow, and that I wasn’t to do any more work last night and that I was to go to Matron and get a black tie, and that Ada would pack my things, and that I must say good-bye to everyone because I shouldn’t be coming back next term.
Jean paused for breath, and there was an awed silence. Then Mona said,
“But, Jean, didn’t she say about your great-grandmother?”
“Oh yes,” said Jean, “I forgot about that. After she’d said about my not coming back, I asked why, and she said that it was my great-grandmother’s wish, and I just gave a gasp and said that I didn’t know I had a great-grandmother. The Simms looked awfully put out and sort of muttered in her beard . . . you know how she does . . . and said, ‘I believe that it is your great-grandmother on your dear mother’s side, and that she is a very old lady, over eighty-five, but Mr. Hawkins is taking you to see her to-morrow, and I expect he will explain things more fully than I can.’ ”
“Do you mean that’s really all you know?” asked Mona, her eyes like saucers.
“Well not quite all. After I got out I began to think, and it did seem awfully odd to have a great-grandmother I’d never heard of, and then I suddenly remembered that once when Dick and I were very little we heard old Nana talking in the nursery after we were supposed to be asleep, and she said something about our great-grand-mother who lived in Scotland, and that she was a ‘Fair Tartar’ or something, so I suppose she must be the same one.”
“And does she still live in Scotland?” Jean frowned. “I shouldn’t think so. Miss Simms said that Dick and I should see her to-morrow, and the school train doesn’t get to London until half-past twelve.”
“Look out!” said someone suddenly.
“Here comes Mary.” Jean and Mona slipped off the radiator like eels, as a tall fair-haired prefect came along the passage.
“What are you kids doing?—” she began, and then she saw Jean.
“Oh, are you talking to Jean? Very well, I know you’ve been sitting on the radiator, and you ought not to be out of your form rooms, but as it’s the last day I won’t give you all reports. Cut along now, I’m going to ring the bell.”
Jean and the others obediently “cut along”, and it wasn’t until later in the evening that she began to realize that she would never sit in the big hall or run up and down the long passages at school again. As she went upstairs to change for supper she found herself wondering where she would be this time next term, and why her great-grandmother would not allow her to come back. Surely if she was a very old lady she would want to get rid of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl as much as possible. It all seemed very queer, and Jean’s excitement and the feeling of importance began to die down, and instead she felt a horrid sort of shivery feeling creep up her spine.