The students of St Paul’s College, Cheltenham, gathered in the front hall and on the steps, waiting for the signal from the Senior Tutor. It was only a short step to the Assembly Room the college shared with St Mary’s Hall but etiquette forbade the men arriving before the women students were already seated in the front rows of the auditorium.
“Victorian mores!” Harry had declared on the first occasion he had experienced the segregation. But he found it amusing rather than irksome. Indeed, he was always more inclined to laugh than grumble.
Today would be the last occasion he and his fellow teachers-in-training would attend a ceremony in the Assembly Room. By September, they would be spread across the country, fully qualified, starting work in their first jobs. Finding digs in Haslemere was to be his next challenge.
But he put all thoughts of the future out of his mind. Time enough for that. There was this evening’s event immediately ahead of him. He grinned.
These termly occasions, when the Principals of St Mary’s and St Paul’s invited a former student who had achieved greatness, or a local worthy, or some newly retired administrator from a far-flung post in the Empire, to address their students were generally regarded with resignation at best and resentment at worst. A few of his more sanctimonious peers might claim to derive inspiration from a bleached missionary on furlough, but Harry detested humbug. It sat alongside prudery in his opinion: out-dated, puritanical traits that the new century should dispense with.
It was prudery, no doubt, that had determined the segregation during these events, separating with a good two yards’ distance the male students of St Paul’s from the female students of St Mary’s. He could not decide what the Principals and Trustees imagined might happen if the men were seated before the women or if, heaven forfend, both sexes should arrive at the Room at the same time. Would there be unbridled flirtation? Might waists be clasped or fingers entwined? Would some of the women, swishing their skirts past a phalanx of the male sex, simply find it too much and swoon? What orgy of promiscuity had the Principals’ fevered imaginations conjured?
“I can’t see your little red-head swooning,” his friend, Arthur Tipps, had said to Harry.
“She’s not anyone’s little red-head – not yet, anyway.”
Though winning Kate Chamberlain’s favour might have been his primary motivation in devising the scheme, the sheer devilry of the enterprise was what thrilled him. He had enjoyed the way his friends’ eyes lit up when he had the idea. He had been chuffed by how readily they fell into line with his plans for how to bring it off. One day, he thought, there might be greater schemes to hatch…schools to run…worlds to conquer. In the meantime, getting Kate to recognise that he was no longer the myopic boy who had sat on the other side of the class at the Widden Street Board School nor a run-of-the-mill charmer with a fine bass voice was a priority.
The Senior Tutor, not unaware of how the breeze filled out his academic gown and swelled his stature, was cutting across the forecourt. He stopped in front of the steps.
“Gentlemen, the ladies are seated,” he shouted. “You may proceed.”
He turned and led the men to the Assembly Room.
It was not an awe-inspiring space. Harry, used to the airy spread of the cathedral at Gloucester, thought it had the look of a Wesleyan chapel. But the neo-Gothic windows were set high enough in the walls to catch the summer’s evening sunlight and pick out the motes of dust in the air.
“That’s us, Harry,” his sister Jane had once said. They had been in the parlour, practising a duet. You only had to smack your hand on an anti-macassar in the house in Jersey Road to raise the dust.
“That’s us, unless we make something of ourselves. Just bits of dust floating aimlessly in a patch of light before the clouds come. You don’t want that, do you, Harry? So what’re you going to do?”
She had thrown back her head and laughed when he said he thought he’d train to be a teacher.
“You fancy giving the cane not getting it for a change, is that it?” she’d said.
He hadn’t worked it all out by that stage so just had to grin through her jibes and mockery. But he’d known, even then, that he wanted something more solid than her vaporous dreams.
“I shall follow Will to America as soon as Pa will let me go,” Jane had said. “I’ll change my name to Marguerite and become a chanteuse. There’ll be pictures of me, wrapped in furs, in all the papers.”
Perhaps her latest ‘escapade’ would propel her across the Atlantic. ‘A disgrace to the family’ was how his mother had described it. Though, Harry, for his part, could see nothing disgraceful about the little boy Jane had brought into the world. If there were any disgrace it belonged to Frank Margretts, wherever he was now.
The only thing that his sister Jane had in common with Kate Chamberlain was their glorious hair. Jane’s was thicker and she piled it higher but its deep auburn lacked the fiery red of Kate’s. He only had to have that thought and a quirk of the light, falling on the women seated demurely ahead of him, lit up the very person. No other woman in the room had a head of hair so radiant. He remembered when she had worn it as a thick plait down her back. One day, he would like to see it fall loose about her shoulders.
The men clattered in, taking their places in the back rows. The subdued talk from the women students maintained its decorous level. The rule forbade any of them from turning in their seats with the arrival of their male peers.
“We might be wraiths for all the notice they take of us,” said Arthur.
Harry winked and gave the waxed ends of his moustaches a rakish twist.
With the men settled, the mood was expectant. In a moment, the principals and senior staff would escort the guest of honour to the platform and the ceremony would begin. There was no time to waste.
Harry found himself obliged to sneeze – the dust, no doubt – and pulled, with flamboyant flourish, a large white handkerchief from his pocket to catch it and suppress the sound. He failed. Immediately there was a loud scraping of chairs from the men’s ranks, exactly the sound that would occur as the students stood politely to greet the guest’s arrival.
Still facing the front, the women had to take the cue. It was the way things were done. On hearing the men get to their feet, they had to follow suit so the entire body of students was standing as the procession passed down the centre aisle.
They stood. The faint rustle of their skirts was, to Harry, a deeply satisfying sound as he, and all the men, remained sitting. Many – those not in on the ruse – were perplexed. What were the women about? Others were greatly amused. It was impossible to suppress the reaction: a mixture of tutting and guffaws. One of the female students dared to turn around. She was not tall but her crown of copper-coloured hair made her stand out. Harry was sure her lips twitched as she caught his eye. Tipps nudged him in the ribs.
After a moment’s indecision and with an agreeable amount of fluster, the women sat back down. It was the moment when the Principals and their guest entered the hall from the rear. Of course, the men rose to their feet as was proper. The women, either because while sitting down they failed to hear the men rising or because they refused to be duped in the same way twice, remained firmly seated. It was only when the procession actually passed the ends of their rows that the seated women stood up. Harry was ecstatic.
The expressions on the faces of the staff, facing the assembled students, varied. Some frowned. Some wore a vacuous smile to indicate that if anything untoward had happened it was beneath their notice. Miss Bren, the iron-coiffed Principal of St Mary’s glared. She let her eye rake across the ranks of women, daring any to do anything so disrespectful ever again whilst in her charge. Only one of her students, it seemed to her, met her gaze unflinchingly.
Following the ceremony and the predictable exhortations to go forth and educate the nation’s youth, to produce the men and women who would labour for God, King and Empire in the years to come, there was some light refreshment. This was the only occasion in the Halls’ calendar when the men and women of St Paul’s and St Mary’s were permitted to mingle socially. It would, of course, only be a matter of days before they ceased to be students. There was, therefore, some good sense in allowing them to taste the sort of sexual licence that they would be exposed to in the raw world beyond Cheltenham.
Miss Chamberlain was accompanied by her best friend Miss Williams. Once they had furnished themselves with a cup of tea and a thin sandwich balanced on the saucer, they sought out Mr Matthews and Mr Tipps, boldly carving a path through the crush. On either side, Kate Chamberlain picked up the tenor of the gossip. Needless to say, no one was dissecting the finer points of this year’s address; the speaker, anyway, had been singularly unmemorable. She had already forgotten his name. The buzz was concentrated on the men clustered around Harry Matthews but she would have picked him out easily enough.
He was the only man in the room whose colouring matched hers. The same strong, red hair, the same deep blue eyes. She had, of course, known him for as long as she could remember. On their first day at school, Miss Clutterbuck had even mistaken them for brother and sister. It was partly the familiarity of a shared past that had caused her to give him no encouragement. That and her certain knowledge that she had the better brain. Nevertheless, she had still been interested in how he responded to her continued disdain and far more distance than that separating her parents’ home in Magdala Road from his in Jersey Road.
“Miss Chamberlain, good afternoon. Did you find the speaker inspiring?” Nudged by Arthur, Harry’s companions melted away.
“Good afternoon, Harry,” she said and smiled.