Chapter 46: Schools

Mary could not get her conversation with Catherine Eliot out of her head. The notion of playing an important role in educating the children of St. Germans as well as her own children intrigued and excited her. She had come a long way from being a humble maid at Lanhydrock, worth no more than a plaything to satisfy the momentary lusts of a spoiled aristocrat. Mrs. Eliot was indeed good to her, and to Willy. Willy had his faults but he had shown signs of trying to improve himself. There was no doubt he had a head for the workings of Mr. Eliot’s many business interests and made himself very useful. He should probably watch out not to get too useful and upset Mr. Polkinghorne who, after all, had worked for Mr. Eliot for a long time and belonged at Port Eliot.

She wondered how Willy would take to being taught reading and writing by his wife. Not well, she guessed. Mr. Eliot would just have to tell him that he must. She and Willy had their ups and downs, but he was good to her most of the time, at least when he was not misbehaving, and she was grateful for his marrying her when she was pregnant. At least Willy was trying to stay away from the drink that used to get him into awful trouble. Now, blessedly, they were going to have their own little one. Perhaps there were other grown-ups who would be willing to learn their lessons too; there were plenty who needed help.

Mary had given Willy a big hug and a kiss earlier that morning after feeding him a good breakfast and sending him off to work, and he hugged and kissed her back. He seemed happy enough. She still suffered intermittent worries about Morwenna Clymo. She felt she could probably manage her husband, and perhaps somehow she could make better friends with Morwenna herself. Then Morwenna might feel embarrassed about any more carrying on with Willy, if that was what was happening, and give him up. Anyroad, if Morwenna got really busy with a school at Lanhydrock, she would have her hands full. She would have to talk to Mrs. Eliot more as soon as she had finished feeding little Catherine and straightening up the kitchen.

Perhaps she should write a letter to Morwenna. That way she could decide herself what she wanted to offer. Mrs. Eliot would be sure to make suggestions, but at least Mary would be able to put her own ideas forward and let Morwenna know who was in charge. The more she considered it the more she thought that writing the letter was a good idea. As soon as she had tidied up she sat down at the kitchen table with a quill pen and her inkpot. For a while she stared at a blank piece of parchment. Writing a letter was surely difficult. But finally she got started.

Later that morning with her tasks completed, Mary presented herself at the big house, once again going in by the side door and leaving little Catherine with an admiring kitchen staff. She sent a message by a footman into Mrs. Eliot who soon replied that she would receive her in the morning room.

“Do sit down, Mary,” said Catherine, “what do you have to talk about so soon after our conversation with the vicar?”

“Well mum, Oi’ve been thinkin’ loike,” Mary replied. “Oi really and truly want to ’elp you with startin’ the school. Oi’ve got some learnin’ meself, but of course Oi’d ’ave to improve, read and write better, and Oi’d loike to speak proper too. An’ Oi’d loike to start soon, not wait until our own kids are old enough, get in practice loike.”

“No doubt the vicar and I can help you as much as you want,” Catherine said. “No time like the present. You mustn’t drop your aitches. It’s not ’elp, it’s help, now try again.”

Mary blushed, took a deep breath and breathed it out through her mouth as she tried again. “Help, mum,” she said, and smiled.

“That’s very good, Mary,” Catherine said. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? It’s just a matter of getting out of your old bad habits and getting into good new ones. Just remember not to drop your aitches. Now, is there anything else on your mind?”

“Well, yes. If you don’t moind, mum, Oi’d loike to send Morwenna Clymo a letter and tell ’er about our ideas and see if ’er is willin’ to ’elp, Oi mean help Mum.” Mary blushed again and grinned triumphantly.

“Good, Mary!” smiled Catherine. “Well done. And instead of saying ’er you must try and say her.”

“Yes mum, her, mum,” said Mary, “her, her. I think Oi’ve got it.”

“Almost Mary, but it’s not just how you pronounce the word,” said Catherine, “it’s using the correct word, the correct grammar. Her is a pronoun, so is she. We often use pronouns instead of nouns or proper names; they make a sentence flow more easily. Instead of repeating Morwenna’s name you used a pronoun. But you must remember that when the pronoun is the subject of the verb you use she and when it’s the object of the verb you use her. Do you understand?”

“Yes mum, sort of, mum,” said Mary, looking puzzled. “Oi’ll try to remember, but it’s ’ard, Oi mean hard.”

“It’s just a matter of practice, Mary,” said Catherine, “and I promise to help you, then you can help the village children and even Willy. Now, tell me about this letter.”

“Loike Oi said, Oi think if us told Morwenna about our school ’er would, Oi mean she, would want to help. Oi’ve tried me best, but Oi wonder if you could look at it and correct it and see if you agree, loike?”

“Of course, Mary,” Catherine readily agreed; she wanted to encourage Mary as her protégée. “As a matter of fact, Mr. Eliot has decided to invite the Dunbargans to visit Port Eliot on their way up to London next month, assuming the viscount plans to take his seat in the House of Lords at the start of the new session. Mr. Eliot and I are agreed to pursuing the idea of starting village schools with them, and their visit would be a good opportunity to discuss this project, among others. It would be beneficial if we could tell them that we already have a teacher in mind to start things off.”

“Oh thank you, mum, that is good news. Oi ’ope us moight do somethin’ down west for the miners while we’m about it.”

“All in good time, Mary,” said Catherine. She took the letter from Mary and read it, suggested some corrections and some changes and then sat Mary down at the writing table to rewrite it. “Don’t dip your pen so far into the ink, Mary,” she advised, “then you won’t spoil the look of your letter with blots. Try and write more neatly, it’ll make your letter easier to read. Here, use this blotting paper. And do not say ‘Oi’, say ‘I’.”

Mary concentrated hard to remember all the advice she was given and unconsciously the tip of her tongue stuck out through her lips. She was pleased with the result.

The finished letter was clear and much neater. It told Morwenna Clymo about Mrs. Eliot’s plans for starting a village school for grown-ups as well as children and about Mary’s keen interest in supporting her. It asked Morwenna to join the crusade, for crusade is what it amounted to. It mentioned the vicar’s role and Mrs. Eliot’s preference for working presently with the Church of England and also alluded to the possibility, if necessary, of getting support from the Reverend Perry. Perhaps he could enroll the mine captains and their wives to help, if their wives were suitable.

“Leave the vicar to me, Mary,” said Mrs. Eliot. “I’ll take care of any objections he might raise. And I’ll write to Lady Dunbargan and see to it that she agrees with us. Her husband may be a peer but he is no gentleman. At least her ladyship seems to be developing a mind of her own.”

It was only a few days until the two women heard back from their correspondents. The replies that they shared with each other starkly contrasted. Morwenna wrote:

Dear Mary, I would love to help. I’m lucky that my dad made sure I learned my lessons, so I can read and write and spell pretty well although grammar is a bit hard. I can do arithmetic, and with some help I think I could help others. My aunt thought I should stay home when I was a nipper and help out, cuz my mum was poorly, but my dad said I should go to school, and a girl from the estate came in to help. My dad sent me to the church school in Bodmin where he was taught too. It was a long walk in the winter but was worth it. Sometimes my dad arranged for me to ride with someone from Lanhydrock what had to go in for something. It would really do the village children good to go to school and the grownups too I think. The miners down west need it too. Tell me more. Perhaps I should talk to my dad about it. He’ll know what to do. Maybe we should meet and make a plan. Say hullo to Willy for me, and tell him to stay away from the drink. Love, Morwenna.

The missive from Viscountess Dunbargan was less encouraging.

My dear Mrs. Eliot, What an extraordinary suggestion! I talked to my dear husband about it, and he is not only completely opposed but also indignant that you should meddle in his affairs by even bringing the subject up. He can’t begin to understand why the lower classes should be improved, particularly at his expense. He said he will be damned before his son and heir mixes with illiterate louts from the village. He is down for Eton and until then will be tutored at home.

In the strictest confidence, I sometimes wish that Dunbargan were a little more open to new ideas. Times, after all, my dear Mrs. Eliot, are changing. But he is the way God made him, although I’m not entirely confident that God would wish to take credit. I will, however, as you, talk to our vicar; but I fear he may not be much more amenable, and it may be unwise to go forward in view of my husband’s quite firm opposition.

We indeed plan to go up to Town for the new session. After all what is the point of going to all of the expense to get a more impressive title if one does not make full use of it? We are delighted to accept your most kind invitation and look forward to staying a day or so at Port Eliot on our way. Perhaps we could travel to London together. Faithfully yours, Elianor Dunbargan.

“It appears that you are a more successful persuader than I, Mary,” said Catherine, obviously disappointed. “I thought my new friend Viscountess Dunbargan had more backbone. She’s from an old Cornish family, after all.”

“Oi wouldn’t blame yourself, mum,” said Mary. “Just seems that Morwenna was already willing, and Lady Dunbargan was a harder nut to crack. Got her husband to deal with. Us’ll just ’ave to keep tryin, that’s all.”

“That’s the spirit, my girl! After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day!”

“What’s Rome got to do with it, if Oi may be so bold as to ask?”

“Just a figure of speech, Mary. You’ll get used to that kind of thing as your reading improves. And remember to say ‘I’, not ‘Oi’. Now, let’s just think what we must do next. I will consult with Mr. Eliot to see what ideas he may have to bring to bear on the viscount. Not that money should have anything to do with education or even doing some good in this world, but when one is short of it, money can be quite persuasive.”

“My stars, mum,” said Mary, “why would you consult with him exactly? Oi expect ’e’d do what you want if you just asked ’im, knowing you.”

Catherine looked at Mary quizzically.

“Oh, I mean him, mum.” Mary smiled.

“Excellent, Mary,” Catherine said, smiling back. “I knew you would be a quick learner. Do go on.”

“Well, mum, you look as if you be ready to go on a real tear. I wouldn’t want to stop in your way if you had your ’eart set on summat, heart I mean, not if Oi was Mr. Eliot ’imself or even that old viscount, that Oi wouldn’t.”

Catherine laughed. “We must respect our husbands, Mary,” she said, “and we must always let them think that whatever we suggest is really their own idea. But enough talking.” She stood up and moved towards the door. Mary put on her hat and followed her. “We have much to do and little time in which to do it. You write to your Miss Clymo and tell her to make some excuse to come to Port Eliot with her father and the Dunbargans, and tell her too to be ready to meet with you and me and the vicar about getting a school started as soon as possible, now that the harvest has been brought in.”

“Oi will, mum,” said Mary, “I’ll do it d’rec’ly.”

“I will meet with Mr. Eliot and discuss what he must tell the Dunbargans,” Catherine continued. “I will suggest that he invite not only Mr. Clymo, but also Mr. Bolitho, who carries much influence at Lanhydrock, and the Town Clerk of Liskeard as well. That should surround the viscount. And I must remember to ask my husband whether he has heard from Mr. Thomas Pitt about the powers of the Duchy of Cornwall concerning mineral rights. He must be well prepared to exert his influence and hammer out an agreement with our less than admirable neighbor once and for all.”

Mary only half understood what Catherine was talking about, but she was satisfied that all these projects were in good hands. “Oh mum, will he really?” said Mary. “Mr. Eliot is a very important man an’ ’e’s awful busy. Will ’e bother?”

“I can promise you Mr. Eliot will ensure that we are successful,” said Catherine. “I will speak to him as soon as he gets ’ome.” Mary giggled, then covered her mouth with her hand and blushed.

“I mean as soon as he gets home,” said Catherine, and giggled too.

“I hope I don’t get you into no bad habits,” laughed Mary, “that would never do. What ever would Mr. Eliot say?”