From that day forward the doctor’s boy considered that I belonged to him, but not until I was sent to school, with my cousin and her stepsister, did he feel called upon to claim his property.
It was a mixed day-school in the village, and it was controlled by a Board which had the village butcher as its chairman. The only teacher was a tall woman of thirty, who plaited her hair, which was of the colour of flax, into a ridiculous-looking crown on the top of her head. But her expression, I remember, was one of perpetual severity, and when she spoke through her thin lips she clipped her words with great rapidity, as if they had been rolls of bread which were being chopped in a charity school.
Afterwards I heard that she owed her position to Aunt Bridget, who had exercised her influence through the chairman, by means of his account with the Big House. Perhaps she thought it her duty to display her gratitude. Certainly she lost no time in showing me that my character had gone to school before me, for in order that I might be directly under her eye, she placed me in the last seat in the lowest class, although my mother’s daily teaching would have entitled me to go higher.
I dare say I was, as Father Dan used to say, as full of mischief as a goat, and I know I was a chatterbox, but I do not think I deserved the fate that followed.
One day, not more than a week after we had been sent to school. I held my slate in front of my face while I whispered something to the girl beside and the girl behind me. Both began to titter.
“Silence!” cried the schoolmistress, who was sitting at her desk, but I went on whispering and the girls began to choke with laughter.
I think the schoolmistress must have thought I was saying something about herself—making game, perhaps, of her personal appearance—for after a moment she said, in her rapid accents:
“Mary O’Neill, please repeat what you have just been saying.”
I held my slate yet closer to my face and made no answer.
“Don’t you hear, miss? Speak! You’ve a tongue in your head, haven’t you?”
But still I did not answer, and then the schoolmistress said:
“Mary O’Neill, come forward.”
She had commanded me like a dog, and like a dog I was about to obey when I caught sight of Betsy Beauty’s face, which, beaming with satisfaction, seemed to be saying: “Now, we shall see.”
I would not stir after that, and the schoolmistress, leaving her desk, came towards me, and looking darkly into my face, said:
“You wilful little vixen, do you think you can trifle with me? Come out, miss, this very moment.”
I knew where that language came from, so I made no movement.
“Don’t you hear? Or do you suppose that because you are pampered and spoiled by a foolish person at home, you can defy me?”