The following morning the girls were sitting in the schoolroom waiting apprehensively for their new tutor, Mr Eyre. Surely he could be no worse than the frightful Miss C? Hodge had sent them to ‘sit nicely at their desks’ while she plied Mr Eyre with tea and questions in the kitchen. They had caught a tiny glimpse of him from the sitting room earlier that morning where they had been playing ‘Happy Families’ until Bryony became tired of losing to her younger sister and took up a book. Bethany had occupied herself by skipping between the window seats, while watching for the tutor who must surely come soon.
When Hodge showed Mr Eyre into the school room Bryony’s head was buried in ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ while Bethany was drawing a series of cat pictures in the hope that it would hasten the arrival of the kitten which Tom had promised them. Both girls looked up and broke into smiles at the sight of his beaming bright young face.
He bounded into the room like an eager spaniel and sat on the tutor’s desk in front of them. As he nodded his thanks to Hodge, a thick lock of brown hair fell across his face. He swept it out of his eyes, then rubbed his hands together, grinning down at them. “Well then, well then, well then, I think we’d better begin by introducing ourselves.” He pointed at himself with both forefingers. “I’m Mr Eyre. I enjoy travelling and fixing things.” He turned his fingers to point at each of them. “Your turn.”
Bethany stared at him, unusually tongue-tied. Bryony glanced at her sister. “Er, I’m Bryony…I write…stories,” she said hesitantly.
“Bryony, a writer then. Excellent. Bryony, the flowering vine, so pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“You too, Mr Eyre,” said Bryony, blushing slightly.
Bethany sat up even straighter in her chair; the palms of her hands face down on the desk in front of her. She took a deep breath. Her eyes widened as she spoke. “I’m Bethany and I’m eight and a half years old and I like drawing and being outside.”
Mr Eyre’s raised his eyebrows as he looked down on the earnest little girl, who was staring up back up at him with her big blue eyes.
“Bethany, Bethany, Bethany.” Mr Eyre looked up at the ceiling eyes moving repeatedly from left to right. “Mmm…” He closed one eye, screwing up his face, obviously thinking. “I’ve got it! You’re from the House of Figs,” he said triumphantly.
“I’m not. I’m from Bluebell Wood House,” Bethany replied indignantly.
“Ah well…I was speaking of the origin of your names. Mine…am I allowed to tell you?” He paused and put a finger up to his chin; deliberating. His eyes slid to the right as he cocked his head on one side. “Yes, I think so.” He leaned forward, pointing his two forefingers at himself again. “My name is Andrew. It means brave and strong. The name comes from the Greek word for a man, Andros.”
The girls exchanged glances and smiled politely.
Mr Eyre clapped his hands together. “There, your first Greek word. You’re learning already,” his young face beamed at them again. “Now, tell me more about yourselves and the people who live here at Bluebell Wood House.”
“Well,” Bryony began, “there’s Hodge who you’ve already met, and there’s Tom, he’s our gardener…”
“Tom’s promised us a kitten,” Bethany interrupted.
“Has he, has he indeed?” Mr Eyre inclined his head.
Bethany nodded vigorously.
“But our parents are in India,” said Bryony with a small sigh.
“Ah, yes, India, a land of mystery and magic.” Mr Eyre’s eyes darted about the room. “Aha!” He leapt off the desk and ran to the back of the room snatching the globe from the top of the book case. He set it down on Bryony’s desk and beckoned to Bethany. “Come closer.” Bethany stood up and walked over to her sister’s desk. The three of them huddled around as Mr Eyre gently rotated the brightly coloured orb. “So, where in the world is India?”
Bryony stabbed the globe as it rotated; her finger landed on the large pink diamond shape which marked the location of British India. “There!”
“And do you know where in India your Papa is stationed, Miss Bryony of the Flowering Vine?”
“It’s somewhere in the north. I can’t quite remember, but think I’d recognise the name if I saw it. When Mama wrote last time she said she was hoping it might be cooler there. It gets frightfully hot in Calcutta she said. That’s where they were before.” Bryony looked closely at the globe. “Oh, there’s Calcutta, on the coast,” she said, pointing it out to Bethany. “But I can’t see anything at the top which I recognise.”
“Not Delhi, then?” asked Mr Eyre.
Bryony shook her head.
“Aha, perhaps the scale is too small,” Mr Eyre tapped his head then pointed at the bookshelves at the back of the room. He turned to Bethany. “Miss Bethany of the House of Figs, do you perchance have an atlas? A book of maps?”
Bethany nodded and went to the bookcase where she pulled out a large, leather-bound volume. Holding carefully in two hands, she brought it back and handed it to Mr Eyre. He opened it and leafed through the contents pages, explaining what he was doing as he located the relevant map. He turned the atlas round so that it was the right way up for Bryony to read. She squinted at the map and then pointed. “There, Amritsar,” she turned to her sister. “That’s where Mama wrote from last.”
Mr Eyre frowned for a moment and then looked up. “And do you know why India is coloured pink?” He leafed through the atlas again until he came to a map of the world. “Do you see? Many of the countries of the world are coloured in pink.”
Bryony read the title “‘The British Empire.’”
“Exactly so,” Mr Eyre ran his finger over the map. “The British Empire covers huge swathes of territory.” He tapped on the page. “Red is usually the colour associated with the Empire, but if the colonies were coloured in red it would be difficult to read the place names, so pink is the printer’s compromise.”
Bryony smiled and looked at Bethany. “Do you remember what Mama said about the British Empire in her last letter?”
Bethany shook head.
Bryony turned to Mr Eyre. “She said ‘That we should be educated in a manner befitting to the daughters of the British Empire’. Is that what you’re going to do Mr Eyre?”
Mr Eyre nodded vigorously. “Well, I certainly hope to.”
They spent a further happy half hour poring over different pages of the atlas. Finally Mr Eyre closed the leather-bound tome. “Well, I think that’s enough of geography, don’t you?” He consulted his watch. “Time for lunch, I imagine.”
Over the next few days, a rhythm was established; lessons in the morning and some kind of recreational activity in the afternoon. Mr Eyre assured a sceptical Hodge that the pursuit of pleasant pastimes was essential to the young ladies’ education. Lessons were seemingly random and unplanned, based on whatever struck Mr Eyre as the topic for the day, or prompted by a question or observation from one of the girls.
There was drawing and story-telling, ball-games and handicrafts. One wet afternoon, Mr Eyre had requested the use of the kitchen to investigate the science behind baking, which unfortunately caused rather a mess as Mr Eyre used rather too much of Hodge’s starter mixture. But Hodge was soon won over by the new tutor when he offered to put up the freshly laundered drawing room curtains for her while Tom was in the village fetching some more nails for the roof repairs.
Tom also found Mr Eyre’s presence helpful, despite his initial misgivings, when he was able to figure out what was causing the blockage in the drainpipes coming from the scullery. “I’d thought he’d be all stuck up, coming from London as he is, but I have to hand it to ‘im, he’s not afraid to roll his sleeves up,” Tom had been heard commenting to Hodge.
But best of all, at least in Bethany’s eyes, was that Mr Eyre swung the vote to allow them to adopt one of the kittens which Tom and Celia’s cat had produced.
The kitten was still quite small and had to be kept inside for a week or so yet. A suitable bed and toilet arrangements had been organised in a corner of the scullery by the knowledgeable Mr Eyre. The new kitten was a pretty little thing: all black, apart from a white star on her forehead. And so, after numerous traditional kitty names had been argued over and rejected, a classical suggestion put forward by Mr Eyre was agreed on. The new kitten would be named Astra, from the Greek for star, explained Mr Eyre. She would be destined for great things.
©2019 Chris Hall
From my latest work-in-progress. What do you think? I really appreciate your feedback.