3. The Schoolgirl
It was with heavy hearts that the two sisters arrived at school at Halifax. They knew well that a stern life awaited them there, but in their desire to obey, nothing surprised them – neither the huge building with its scores of windows, nor the pupils all dressed alike in their navy blue and white “gym” dresses. They were soon to discover that most of them were, like themselves, daughters of ministers. Nor were they slow to realize that the real mistress of the house was the school bell, which dictated the hours of work and play. The classrooms were airy and comfortable, and had large pictures on the walls. There were spacious playgrounds and playing fields bounded by hawthorn hedges which extended to the foot of the hill and the white dusty road.
The girls slept ten in a dormitory. Each of them had a wardrobe by her bedside, which served not only as a repository for dresses and underclothes, for the school coat and hat with its striped ribbon, but also as a shrine of fancy where precious knickknacks – a ribbon of blue silk, a withered flower, a photograph, a polished stone – remained inviolate and could be retrieved during their leisure, to witness silently to the hours of freedom spent playing on the moors, every Wednesday afternoon. On that day they would go off in double file to the top of a high wind-swept hill, where Margaret was soon to read Wuthering Heights to her friends and act the part of Emily Bronte’s heroine.
But, indoors, school life was austere. The headmistress, strict toward herself as well as others, paid as much attention to moral education as to intellectual development A missionary by training – she was a member of the Plymouth Brethren – Miss Larrett loosed upon the whole school a wave of genuine religious fervor and stirred up a powerful surge toward self-sacrifice and repentance, with the result that her pupils under her leadership practiced every kind of self-denial to conquer their sins and overcome their faults. Many made vows to remain chaste, to dedicate their lives to God, to renounce facile pleasures, never to touch alcohol. The exercise of personal sacrifice became part of the general training.
Margaret felt Miss Larrett’s influence very deeply; she was afraid of her, but admired her all the more for that. Already more advanced in her studies than other girls of her age, she had no difficulty in becoming the ideal pupil, though her independence and high spirits got her into trouble frequently. She was a pretty girl, too, with a halo of golden curls; and once, when the headmistress discovered signs of pride in her, all her hair was cut off as a means of discipline, and not allowed to grow again for a year!
Every evening, when all the school had knelt together and prayed aloud. Miss Larrett would publicly announce the misdeeds of various pupils, and Margaret was often thus taken to task. On her knees, the tears streaming down her face, she felt neither anger nor rebellion, but only a burning desire to make amends. To discipline herself, she gave her pocket money and her share of the “Sunday sweets” to her sister, and herself performed tasks imposed upon May.
Here again, however, this strict mode of life did not prevent her escape into the realm of dreams and fantasy that is beyond the reach of parents and teachers; and she had the power to lead her companions into that world, too. When the last bell had rung at night she would tell stories to her dormitory mates, and bring every detail to life for them alL Thus they reached the halting.place on the Charan road where the patriarch
Jacob lay asleep, his head on a stone. The flocks were grazing after being watered: black sheep and speckled ones. Suddenly the clouds opened, and a ladder stretching from earth to heaven appeared. Angels ascended and descended, moving lightly in the moonlight with their white robes billowing about them. “Hal” cried the other girls, waving their sheets. “We are the wind in the angels’ wings!”
Another story, a favorite, told with variations, related the ludicrous adventures of a drunkard who got lost in a beer cellar and was laughed at by the casks, who could see in the dark. The girls never know how far the storyteller’s imagination would lead her, and them, or what would happen next. Once, when Margaret was playing the part of a devil struck down by an avenging angel, they saw her, during the mock battle, tear out a lock of her hair.
At the end of Margaret’s second year Miss Laxrett resigned, to be succeeded by a headmistress of quite different type. Miss Collins was an intellectual. She taught botany, physics, and the rudiments of mechanics, but she was deeply interested in literature. Under her influence, Margaret immediately found herself confronted with new problems: “Can death really destroy life? What happens to the life element during death if nothing is ever destroyed in the successive transformations?” Margaret was obviously out of place in the atmosphere of dogmatic tradition which reigned throughout the school. Astonished at this child of thirteen who seemed so thoughtful, Miss Collins took her aside and questioned her. She offered her her protection and taught her to discipline her mind, and formulate her own opinions. Then Margaret plucked up courage and asked her: “I believe in God, but I want to understand. How did the first thing begin?” She opened the Bible and read passionately; then with the imperious logic of the bold, she threw it aside for her science book. She trembled at the crime she had committed, but was ready to face the consequences. Fortunately for her, before experiencing this initial crisis of religious anxiety which shaped her whole spiritual development, she discovered, thanks to Miss Collins, the beauty of religious art and music A few well-chosen books and pictures had been enough to suggest to her the perfection of form and color, the laws of harmony and balance – which, for her, were sources of a deep-felt joy. Her nascent mysticism had discovered the faith which built the Gothic cathedrals, the love revealed in the face of Christ, and the alhpervading charity of comforting litanies. In chapel whenever the shrill voices of her fellow pupils began a hymn, she shut her ears to them, so as to listen to the throbbing organ notes that welled up within her and to offer up new prayers that filled her heart with tenderness.
She was now maturing quickly. Her expansiveness gave way to reflection. She had come to realize that religion was a vaster science even than chemistry and physics, and that one had to find within oneself, by personal experience, the answer to all spiritual problems.
Twice a year, at Christmas and in mid-July, school life was interrupted, and Margaret and May left immediately for Ireland. Even when they were small children, they made the journey alone: one of the teachers put them on the train, from which they embarked directly, and their grandfather Hamilton met them at Belfast docks and drove them briskly to his home in the country. Through the holidays they “kept house” for him, while he rejoiced in their freedom and let them do everything in their own way.
A retired cork merchant, Grandfather Hamilton was still so busy that he was hardly to be seen during the day. But his activity was only political now. He had fought for Home Rule all his life, and now he was the undisputed head of the “Young Ireland” faction and of those who advocated the distribution of reclaimed land among the peasants. He had risked death or imprisonment ten times over for this reform. His wife, who had died very young, had always backed him up; and when he spoke of her, he would say, “She was a Murdoch, descended from a proud family whose motto was Go through!”
When her grandfather put on his boots and lit his briar pipe, getting ready to leave the house in the morning, Margaret used to dream of accompanying him on his rounds. She had a passionate admiration for him; he had gradually revealed himself to her; she knew very well that his gamebag was full of copies of a clandestine paper, The Nation, which he was setting out to distribute – and at last he did begin to take her with him, and soon was taking her everywhere. When he introduced her to his friends he would say, “She is a Noble of Tyrone, my granddaughter, and that of Johii Noble as well” And in after years Nivedita often said, “The first teachers to show me what a nation was were my grandmother and grandfather”: Grandmother Noble and Grandfather Hamilton.
Nor did she leave her enthusiasm behind her at the end of the holidays, for Grandfather Hamilton always selected some books for Margaret to take Backto school – Shakespeare, Milton, the lives of Irish patriots, and memoirs and stories of great revolutionists, studies in international relations. She was afraid at first that Miss Collins might forbid this “Sunday reading,” but the headmistress understood her unusual pupil, watched her closely, and, under a cloak of discipline, left her quite free.
Without Miss Collins’ sympathy and protection, indeed, Margaret’s last two years at school would have been difficult. She had grown away from her schoolmates, and although as Chairman of the Students’ Committee and as a willing and able tutor she was respected, she did not feel that she was really loved. She was, in fact, considered proud and haughty, when actually the smallest sign of sympathy moved her to tears. She was working very hard now in preparation for her final examinations; and it was at this time, too, that she began to write her first essays. Some of these – mostly sermons on Biblical texts – were published in the school magazine. Others, also religious in inspiration, were read and criticized by Miss Collins. Still others, fervent calls to self-sacrifice and to freedom, were sent only to her grandfather.
With her mother, relations at this time were a little strained, or, at best; uncomprehending. Mary Noble had opened a small boardinghouse for foreigners in Belfast Her own life was dull and joyless. Margaret, in her holidays, found her embittered, dogmatic, prone to exaggeration, while she, on her part was taken aBackby her daughter’s independent spirit and by a seriousness so difierent from her own. But when Margaret passed her examinations brilliantly and left school with the announced determination to earn her own living, one of the things she wanted to do was set her mother free to be her old self again.