Boys and Girls from Thackeray - K. D. Sweetser

Becky Sharp at School

While the last century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton's Academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachman in a three-cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour. A black servant, who reposed on the box beside the fat coachman, uncurled his bandy legs as soon as the equipage drew up opposite Miss Pinkerton's shining brass plate; and as he pulled the bell at least a score of young heads were seen peering out of the narrow windows of the stately old brick house. Nay, the acute observer might have recognised the little red nose of good-natured Miss Jemima Pinkerton herself, rising over some geranium-pots in the window of that lady's own drawing-room. "It is Mrs. Sedley's coach, sister," said Miss Jemima. "Sambo, the black servant, has just rung the bell; and the coachman has a new red waistcoat."

"Have you completed all the necessary preparations incident to Miss Sedley's departure, Miss Jemima?" asked Miss Pinkerton, that majestic lady, the friend of the famous literary man, Dr. Johnson, the author of the great Dixonary of the English language, called commonly the great Lexicographer.

"The girls were up at four this morning, packing her trunks, sister," replied Miss Jemima; "we have made her a bow-pot."

"Say a bouquet, sister Jemima, 'tis more genteel."

"Well, a booky as big almost as a hay-stack; I have put up two bottles of the gillyflower-water for Mrs. Sedley, and the receipt for making it, in Amelia's box."

"And I trust, Miss Jemima, you have made a copy of Miss Sedley's account. This is it, is it? Very good—ninety-three pounds, four shillings. Be kind enough to address it to John Sedley, Esquire, and to seal this billet which I have written to his lady."

In Miss Jemima's eyes an autograph letter of her sister, Miss Pinkerton, was an object of as deep veneration as would have been a letter from a sovereign. Only when her pupils quitted the establishment, or when they were about to be married, and once, when poor Miss Birch died of the scarlet fever, was Miss Pinkerton known to write personally to the parents of her pupils; and it was Jemima's opinion that if anything could have consoled Mrs. Birch for her daughter's loss, it would have been that pious and eloquent composition in which Miss Pinkerton announced the event.

In the present instance Miss Pinkerton's "billet" was to the following effect:

THE MALL, CHISWICK, June 15, 18—.

Madam: After her six years' residence at the Mall, I have the honour and happiness of presenting Miss Amelia Sedley to her parents, as a young lady not unworthy to occupy a fitting position in their polished and refined circle. Those virtues which characterise the young English gentlewoman; those accomplishments which become her birth and station, will not be found wanting in the amiable Miss Sedley, whose industry and obedience have endeared her to her instructors, and whose delightful sweetness of temper has charmed her aged and her youthful companions.

In music, dancing, in orthography, in every variety of embroidery and needle-work, she will be found to have realised her friends' fondest wishes. In geography there is still much to be desired; and a careful and undeviating use of the back-board, for four hours daily during the next three years is recommended as necessary to the acquirement of that dignified deportment and carriage so requisite for every young lady of fashion.

In the principles of religion and morality, Miss Sedley will be found worthy of an establishment which has been honoured by the presence of The Great Lexicographer, and the patronage of the admirable Mrs. Chapone. In leaving them all, Miss Amelia carries with her the hearts of her companions, and the affectionate regards of her mistress, who has the honour to subscribe herself, Madam, your most obliged humble servant,


P.S.—Miss Sharp accompanies Miss Sedley. It is particularly requested that Miss Sharp's stay in Russell Square may not exceed ten days. The family of distinction with whom she is engaged as governess desire to avail themselves of her services as soon as possible.

This letter completed, Miss Pinkerton proceeded to write her own name and Miss Sedley's in the fly-leaf of a Johnson's Dictionary, the interesting work which she invariably presented to her scholars on their departure from the Mall. On the cover was inserted a copy of "Lines addressed to a young lady on quitting Miss Pinkerton's school, at the Mall; by the late revered Dr. Samuel Johnson." In fact, the Lexicographer's name was always on the lips of this majestic woman, and a visit he had paid to her was the cause of her reputation and her fortune.

Being commanded by her elder sister to get The Dixonary from the cupboard, Miss Jemima had extracted two copies of the book from the receptacle in question. When Miss Pinkerton had finished the inscription in the first, Jemima, with rather a dubious and timid air handed her the second.

"For whom is this, Miss Jemima?" said Miss Pinkerton, with awful coldness.

"For Becky Sharp," answered Jemima, trembling very much, and blushing over her withered face and neck, as she turned her back on her sister. "For Becky Sharp. She's going, too."

"MISS JEMIMA!" exclaimed Miss Pinkerton, in the largest capitals. "Are you in your senses? Replace the Dixonary in the closet, and never venture to take such a liberty in future."

"Well, sister, it's only two and nine-pence, and poor Becky will be miserable if she don't get one."

"Send Miss Sedley instantly to me," was Miss Pinkerton's only answer. And, venturing not to say another word, poor Jemima trotted off, exceedingly flurried and nervous, while the two pupils, Miss Sedley and Miss Sharp, were making final preparation for their departure for Miss Sedley's home.

Now, Miss Sedley's papa was a merchant in London, and a man of some wealth, whereas Miss Sharp was only an articled pupil, for whom Miss Pinkerton had done, as she thought, quite enough, without conferring upon her at parting the high honour of the dixonary. Miss Sharp's father had been an artist, and in former years had given lessons in drawing at Miss Pinkerton's school. He was a clever man, a pleasant companion, a careless student, with a great propensity for running into debt, and a partiality for the tavern. As it was with the utmost difficulty that he could keep himself, and as he owed money for a mile round Soho, where he lived, he thought to better his circumstances by marrying a young woman of the French nation, who was by profession an opera-girl, who had had some education somewhere, and her daughter Rebecca spoke French with purity and a Parisian accent. It was in those days rather a rare accomplishment, and led to her engagement with the orthodox Miss Pinkerton. For, her mother being dead, her father, finding himself fatally ill, as a consequence of his bad habits, wrote a manly and pathetic letter to Miss Pinkerton, recommending the orphan child to her protection, and so descended to the grave, after two bailiffs had quarrelled over his corpse. Rebecca was seventeen when she came to Chiswick, and was bound over as an articled pupil; her duties being to talk French, as we have seen; and her privileges to live cost free, and with a few guineas a year, to gather scraps of knowledge from the professors who attended the school.

She was small, and slight in person; pale, sandy-haired, and with eyes almost habitually cast down. When they looked up, they were very large, odd, and attractive. By the side of many tall and bouncing young ladies in the establishment Rebecca Sharp looked like a child. But she had the dismal precocity of poverty. Many a dun had she talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman had she coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and into the granting of one meal more. She had sat commonly with her father, who was very proud of her wit, and heard the talk of many of his wild companions, often but ill-suited for a girl to hear; but she had never been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years old.

Miss Jemima, however, believed her to be the most innocent creature in the world, so admirably did Rebecca play the part of a child on the occasions when her father brought her to Chiswick as a young girl, and only a year before her father's death, and when she was sixteen years old, Miss Pinkerton majestically and with a little speech made her a present of a doll, which was, by the way, the confiscated property of Miss Swindle, discovered surreptitiously nursing it in school-hours. How the father and daughter laughed as they trudged home together after the evening party, and how Miss Pinkerton would have raged had she seen the caricature of herself which the little mimic, Rebecca, managed to make out of the doll. Becky used to go through dialogues with it; it formed the delight of the circle of young painters who frequented the studio, who used regularly to ask Rebecca if Miss Pinkerton was at home. Once Rebecca had the honour to pass a few days at Chiswick, after which she brought back another doll which she called Miss Jemmy; for, though that honest creature had made and given her jelly and cake enough for three children, and a seven-shillings piece at parting, the girl's sense of ridicule was far stronger than her gratitude; and she sacrificed Miss Jemmy as pitilessly as her sister.

Then came the ending of Becky's studio days, and, an orphan, she was transplanted to the Mall as her home.

The rigid formality of the place suffocated her; the prayers and meals, the lessons and the walks, which were arranged with the regularity of a convent, oppressed her almost beyond endurance; and she looked back to the freedom and the beggary of her father's old studio with bitter regret. She had never mingled in the society of women: her father, reprobate as he was, was a man of talent; his conversation was a thousand times more agreeable to her than the silly chat and scandal of the schoolgirls, and the frigid correctness of the governesses equally annoyed her. She had no soft maternal heart, this unlucky girl. The prattle of the younger children, with whose care she was chiefly entrusted, might have soothed and interested her; but she lived among them two years, and not one was sorry that she went away. The gentle, tender-hearted Amelia Sedley was the only person to whom she could attach herself in the least; and who could help attaching herself to Amelia?

The happiness, the superior advantages of the young women round about her, gave Rebecca inexpressible pangs of envy. "What airs that girl gives herself, because she is an Earl's granddaughter," she said of one. "How they cringe and bow to the Creole, because of her hundred thousand pounds. I am a thousand times cleverer and more charming than that creature, for all her wealth. I am as well bred as the Earl's granddaughter, for all her fine pedigree; and yet everyone passes me by here."

She determined to get free from the prison in which she found herself, and now began to act for herself, and for the first time to make connected plans for the future.

She took advantage, therefore, of the means of study the place offered her; and as she was already a musician and a good linguist, she speedily went through the little course of study considered necessary for ladies in those days. Her music she practised incessantly; and one day, when the girls were out, and she remained at home, she was overheard to play a piece so well that Miss Minerva thought, wisely, she could spare herself the expense of a master for the juniors, and intimated to Miss Sharp that she was to instruct them in music for the future.

The girl refused; and for the first time, and to the astonishment of the majestic mistress of the school. "I am here to speak French with the children," Rebecca said abruptly, "not to teach them music, and save money for you. Give me money, and I will teach them."

Miss Minerva was obliged to yield, and of course disliked her from that day. "For five-and-thirty years," she said, and with great justice, "I never have seen the individual who has dared in my own house to question my authority. I have nourished a viper in my bosom."

"A viper—a fiddlestick!" said Miss Sharp to the old lady, who was almost fainting with astonishment. "You took me because I was useful. There is no question of gratitude between us. I hate this place, and want to leave it. I will do nothing here but what I am obliged to do."

It was in vain that the old lady asked her if she was aware she was speaking to Miss Pinkerton? Rebecca laughed in her face. "Give me a sum of money," said the girl, "and get rid of me. Or, if you like better, get me a good place as governess in a nobleman's family. You can do so if you please." And in their further disputes she always returned to this point: "Get me a situation—I am ready to go."

Worthy Miss Pinkerton, although she had a Roman nose and a turban, and was as tall as a grenadier, and had been up to this time an irresistible princess, had no will or strength like that of her little apprentice, and in vain did battle against her, and tried to overawe her. Attempting once to scold her in public, Rebecca hit upon the plan of answering her in French, which quite routed the old woman, who did not understand or speak that language. In order to maintain authority in her school, it became necessary to remove this rebel, this firebrand; and hearing about this time that Sir Pitt Crawley's family was in want of a governess, she actually recommended Miss Sharp for the situation, firebrand and serpent as she was. "I cannot certainly," she said, "find fault with Miss Sharp's conduct, except to myself; and must allow that her talents and accomplishments are of a high order. As far as the head goes, at least, she does credit to the educational system pursued at my establishment."

[Illustration] from Boys and Girls from Thackeray by K. D. Sweetser


And so the schoolmistress reconciled the recommendation to her conscience, and the apprentice was free. And as Miss Sedley, being now in her seventeenth year, was about to leave school, and had a friendship for Miss Sharp ("'Tis the only point in Amelia's behaviour," said Miss Minerva, "which has not been satisfactory to her mistress"), Miss Sharp was invited by her friend to pass a week with her in London, before Becky entered upon her duties as governess in a private family; which thoughtfulness on the part of Amelia was only an additional proof of the girl's affectionate nature. In fact, Miss Amelia Sedley was a young lady who deserved not only all that Miss Pinkerton said in her praise, but had many charming qualities which that pompous old woman could not see, from the differences of rank and age between her pupil and herself. She could not only sing like a lark, and dance divinely, and embroider beautifully, and spell as well as a "Dixonary" itself, but she had such a kindly, smiling, tender, gentle, generous heart of her own as won the love of everybody who came near her, from Miss Minerva herself down to the poor girl in the scullery and the one-eyed tart woman's daughter, who was permitted to vend her wares once a week to the young ladies in the Mall. She had twelve intimate and bosom friends out of the twenty-four young ladies. Even envious Miss Briggs never spoke ill of her: high and mighty Miss Saltire allowed that her figure was genteel; and as for Miss Swartz, the rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitts, on the day Amelia went away she was in such a passion of tears that they were obliged to send for Dr. Floss, and half-tipsify her with salvolatile. Miss Pinkerton's attachment was, as may be supposed, from the high position and eminent virtues of that lady, calm and dignified; but Miss Jemima had already whimpered several times at the idea of Amelia's departure; and but for fear of her sister would have gone off in downright hysterics, like the heiress of St. Kitts.

As Amelia is not a heroine, there is no need to describe her person; indeed I am afraid that her nose was rather short than otherwise, and her cheeks a great deal too round and red for a heroine; but her face blushed with rosy health, and her lips with the freshest of smiles, and she had a pair of eyes which sparkled with the brightest and honestest good-humour, except indeed when they filled with tears, and that was a great deal too often; for the silly thing would cry over a dead canary bird; or over a mouse that the cat haply had seized upon; or over the end of a novel, were it ever so stupid; and as for saying an unkind word to her, were any persons hard-hearted enough to do so—why so much the worse for them. Even Miss Pinkerton, that austere woman, ceased scolding her after the first time, and, though she no more comprehended sensibility than she did capital Algebra, gave all masters and teachers particular orders to treat Miss Sedley with the utmost gentleness, as harsh treatment was injurious to her.

So that when the day of departure came, between her two customs of laughing and crying, Miss Sedley was greatly puzzled how to act. She was glad to go home, and yet most woefully sad at leaving school. For three days before, little Laura Martin, the orphan, followed her about like a little dog. She had to make and receive at least fourteen presents, to make fourteen solemn promises of writing every week.

"Send my letters under cover to my grandpa, the Earl of Dexter," said Miss Saltire.

"Never mind the postage, but write every day, you dear darling," said the impetuous and woolly-headed, but generous and affectionate, Miss Schwartz; and little Laura Martin took her friend's hand and said, looking up in her face wistfully, "Amelia, when I write to you I shall call you mamma."

All of these details, foolish and sentimental as they may seem, go to show the extreme popularity and personal charm of Amelia.

Well then. The flowers, and the presents, and the trunks, and bonnet-boxes of Miss Sedley having been arranged by Mr. Sambo in the carriage, together with a very small and weather-beaten old cowskin trunk with Miss Sharp's card neatly nailed upon it, which was delivered by Sambo with a grin, and packed by the coachman with a corresponding sneer, the hour for parting came; and the grief of that moment was considerably lessened by the admirable discourse which Miss Pinkerton addressed to her pupil. Not that the parting speech caused Amelia to philosophise, or that it armed her in any way with a calmness, the result of argument; but it was intolerably dull, and having the fear of her schoolmistress greatly before her eyes, Miss Sedley did not venture, in her presence, to give way to any ablutions of private grief. A seed-cake and a bottle of wine were produced in the drawing-room, as on the solemn occasions of the visits of parents, and these refreshments being partaken of, Miss Sedley was at liberty to depart.

"You'll go in and say good-bye to Miss Pinkerton, Becky!" said Miss Jemima to that young lady, of whom nobody took any notice, and who was coming downstairs with her own bandbox.

"I suppose I must," said Miss Sharp calmly, and much to the wonder of Miss Jemima; and the latter, having knocked at the door, and receiving permission to come in, Miss Sharp advanced in a very unconcerned manner, and said in French, and with a perfect accent, "Mademoiselle, je viens vous faire mes adieux."

Miss Pinkerton did not understand French, as we know; she only directed those who did; but biting her lips and throwing up her venerable and Roman-nosed head, she said: "Miss Sharp, I wish you a good-morning." As she spoke, she waved one hand, both by way of adieu and to give Miss Sharp an opportunity of shaking one of the fingers of the hand, which was left out for that purpose.

Miss Sharp only folded her own hands with a very frigid smile and bow, and quite declined to accept the proffered honour; on which Miss Pinkerton tossed up her turban more indignantly than ever. In fact, it was a little battle between the young lady and the old one, and the latter was worsted. "Heaven bless you, my child," she exclaimed, embracing Amelia, and scowling the while over the girl's shoulder at Miss Sharp.

"Come away, Becky," said Miss Jemima, pulling the young woman away in great alarm, and the drawing-room door closed upon them forever.

Then came the struggle and parting below. Words refuse to tell it. All the servants were there in the hall—all the dear friends—all the young ladies—even the dancing master, who had just arrived; and there was such a scuffling, and hugging, and kissing, and crying, with the hysterical yoops of Miss Schwartz, the parlour boarder, from her room, as no pen can depict, and as the tender heart would feign pass over. The embracing was over; they parted—that is, Miss Sedley parted from her friends. Miss Sharp had demurely entered the carriage some minutes before. Nobody cried for leaving her.

Sambo of the bandy legs slammed the carriage door on his young weeping mistress. He sprang up behind the carriage.

"Stop!" cried Miss Jemima, rushing to the gate with a parcel.

"It's some sandwiches, my dear," she called to Amelia. "You may be hungry, you know; ... and Becky—Becky Sharp—here's a book for you, that my sister—that is, I—Johnson's Dixonary, you know; ... you mustn't leave us without that! Good-bye! Drive on, coachman!—God bless you!"

And the kind creature retreated into the garden, overcome with emotion.

But, lo! and just as the coach drove off, Miss Sharp suddenly put her pale face out of the window, and flung the book back into the garden—flung it far and fast—watching it fall at the feet of astonished Miss Jemima; then sank back in the carriage, exclaiming: "So much for the 'Dixonary'; and, thank God, I am out of Chiswick!"

The shock of such an act almost caused Jemima to faint with terror.

"Well, I never—" she began. "What an audacious—" she gasped. Emotion prevented her from completing either sentence.

The carriage rolled away; the great gates were closed; the bell rang for the dancing lesson. The world is before the two young ladies; and so, farewell to Chiswick Mall.