The Passionate Puritan
That evening, after supper, or tea as the village called it, Jack Ridgefield brought the school committee to meet her.
Sidney had never thought of a school committee. She had never come in contact with one, as that was the business of headmasters. She did not even know the duties of a school committee. She had taken it for granted that she would have official relations only with James Ridgefield and his son.
She was in the midst of unpacking when she heard the tramping of feet on the baked ground outside her fence. Looking through her window she saw six men filing through her gate after Jack Ridgefield. She recognised Tom Mackenzie, the saw doctor, as one of them.
As she stood framed in her open doorway, her face flushed with stooping, her eyes alight with an instant recognition of the human interest in the curiously assorted group with its hats off in front of her, each man according to his vision got a picture of her that stirred him to profound respect. Subconsciously they were all influencedpage 35 by her official position. To them she was more than woman, as a minister and a doctor are more than man to the small community dependent on them for emotional and physical comfort. Firstly, she was The Teacher. Secondly, in her simple blue print dress, she was a very attractive girl, much younger than they had expected.
"This is your school committee, Miss Carey," began Jack Ridgefield, with something like a twinkle in the corner of his eyes. "We wish to welcome you in the name of the village."
"My school committee!" she exclaimed. "Why, do I have one?"
As she looked at the youthful appearance of the men her comical surprise dispelled a certain stiffness that had threatened to make the occasion formal.
"Of course you do," he smiled back.
"Please come in," she said, forgetting the state of her room. There was not a chair that was not piled up with books or clothes.
"Of course we have come to help you to unpack, Miss Carey," said Bob Lindsay, the accountant, who was the village humorist.
Sidney flashed a responsive gleam back at his merry blue eyes, recognising him as a kindred spirit.
"Don't move anything, please," began Jack, hurriedly. "We won't stay a minute unless therepage 36 is really anything we can do. Later in the week we will meet you officially to find out what we have forgotten. Now let me introduce your humble servants. Mr. Bob Lindsay, your chairman. Mr. Mackenzie, whom you already know, your secretary. Mr. Alec Graham, our chief engineer, the treasurer. Mr. Stanley Dickson, our cook. He is the mill autocrat. He would be the hardest of all of us to replace. If everybody else fails you he will see that you do not starve." The cook was much pleased by this digression. "Mr. Dave Hansen and Mr. George Brody. They will do more for you than the rest of us put together. They've promised to keep the grounds in order, look after your wood supply, and do any carpentering you want. And, incidentally, they each have four children coming to school."
Sidney had tried to give each man an individual greeting, and because the last two had been the only ones mentioned as parents, she paused to ask them questions.
"Our boss has left himself out," said Bob Lindsay, with a smile at his employer. "He has refused to be anything but vice-chairman."
"I think a school is the business of parents. I'm the only single man present. And the rest of your committee have children of school age. So I'm going to take a back seat on this."page 37
Sidney rightly suspected him of inability to be anything but a paramount influence.
The little group of men stood round her in a ring, the oldest of them, Tom Mackenzie, who was about forty, being years older than the cook, who came next. She was vividly conscious of their deference. And she thought what a curious thing officialdom was. Then and there those men constituted themselves her helpers and protectors. And when months afterwards some foul-mouthed worker used her name lightly in the presence of the cook he found himself dazed on the ground, with the raging Dickson calling upon him to retract his words or "take some more."
"I brought them last night purposely," said Jack Ridgefield to her the next day. "I knew it would please the men." By "the men" he meant the cook and the two mill workers. "It's hard to be democratic with these chaps, and I take all the chances I see."
"Of course," she answered approvingly. "And I can't make any distinctions, even if I wished to. To me they are all parents. By the way, would you give me a list of the children who are coming? I want to call on the mothers."
"Oh, you don't have to do that," he objected.
"Why?" She raised her eyebrows at him. "I came a week earlier to do it. You bring thepage 38 fathers to me. Of course I must go to see the mothers."
She was disturbed by this first opposition. Then he told her rather bluntly about Mrs. Bill Hardy, the wife of the sad-eyed driver of the horses.
"They have eleven children," he said, "and poor Bill doesn't know how many of them are his. Only one of them looks like him. It's a favourite pastime in the kitchen trying to match the rest up among the men. Six of them will be coming to school. At first we said we wouldn't have them. But poor Bill took it so badly, and went away and got drunk, and when he came back we hadn't the heart to stick to it. The kids are harmless anyway. The only trouble is they use foul language. But we've cautioned Bill and Mrs. Bill that if they do that in the school grounds they will be expelled. Now you really can't call on Mrs. Bill. And I've forbidden her to come near you."
"You have!" A flush of annoyance spread over Sidney's face. "May I ask why?"
"Because she's not fit for any decent woman to see."
He looked down upon her with the old-fashioned respect that is both obnoxious and charming to the modern independent young woman.page 39
"Why, she couldn't hurt me, and I might do her good——"
She regretted that foolish remark.
"Well, after all, she is a parent. And why do you have them here if she is as bad as that?"
"Bill is the best man with horses in New Zealand," he said slowly. "And his wife is not his fault. I've tried to get rid of her and him. I've sacked him ever so many times, and she's deserted him ever so many times. But he always comes back to me, and she always comes back to him. And I always take him back, and he always takes her back. I bow to the inevitable. Can you explain it, Miss Carey?"
Sidney laughed suddenly, and her resentment at his interference left her.