"Now, what do you think the author is trying to say in this passage from the text?" George Martin asked the four teenagers gathered in a circle around him.
"That if the Pilgrim progresses any further, he's going to get horrible bunions on his feet," proposed the bespectacled student sitting to his right. The boy slouched further down in his wooden, straight-backed chair and threw an impish grin at his three fellow students.
Mr. Martin lowered his book and scowled at the pupil. "Don't be cheeky, Mr. Jonen," he chided. "And sit up straight. You're setting a bad example for the younger boys."
The short, sad-eyed student with a large nose examined the cover of the leather-bound volume in his hands. "Do you suppose John Bunyan had bunions, Mr. Martin?"
"Makes sense to me," answered the fair-faced boy sitting beside him. "All the characters in this bloody book have symbolic names. The author's name is probably representative as well."
"You shouldn't say 'bloody'," scolded the rail-thin boy sitting at the teacher's left. "It's sacrilegious." He sniffed loudly, then pulled a handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and coughed into it.
Mr. Martin darted his eyes at the white cloth to see if his sickly student had coughed up any blood. But the boy folded the handkerchief and tucked it back in his pocket before the teacher could get a good look.
"Can't we call this lesson to a close?" whined the boy wearing glasses. "It's getting late!"
"As soon as Mr. Epstein returns, I shall leave you in his charge," Mr. Martin declared. He pulled a watch from his vest pocket, held it up to the gas-lit lamp on his desk to check the time, then tucked the timepiece back in his pocket and re-examined his book. He opened his mouth to ask another question, but was interrupted by a loud knocking on the classroom's door. He closed the book and nodded at the boy sitting across from him. "Please see who that is, Mr. McMegtry."
The fair-faced student rested his copy of Pilgrim's Progress on the seat of his chair and walked to the door. The three other boys clapped their books shut with loud slaps and sighed in collective relief.
The instructor's eyes grew wide with alarm as he watched his student open the door and greet a tall, mustachioed man in a police uniform and bobby's helmet.
"Mr. George Martin?" the policeman asked, stepping into the room. "I'm Constable Desmond Jones from Police Station 31. Might I have a word with you?"
"Of course," Mr. Martin replied. "Mr. Amyrr, could you please lead your fellow students into the scullery? I shall see to your supper as soon as I finish conversing with our guest."
"But we want to know what the copper is doing here!" shouted the nearsighted boy.
"I might as well tell you lot all together," the policeman replied. He squared his shoulders and offered the boys a sympathetic look. "I'm afraid your headmaster won't be coming back to your school this evening. He has been detained."
"You've thrown him in the nick?" asked the handsome student, his large eyes growing even wider with disbelief.
The constable nodded. "Yes. Now do as you've been told, lads, and run along. I need to speak with your teacher in private."
"You can tell us what crime Mr. Epstein has been accused of committing," insisted the thin boy. "We're not lads anymore. We're young men."
"It's a delicate business," the policeman insisted. "Might not be suitable for young ears such as yours."
"But we were just reading about sins and vices in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress," the nearsighted boy replied. "Perhaps we could incorporate Mr. Epstein's arrest into our morale lesson for the day."
Mr. Martin sighed. "I apologize for my students' seemingly impertinent behavior, Mr. Jones. But this is a very progressive school, dedicated to our headmaster's strong conviction that children's intellects are best served when they are treated like adults. I'm sure Mr. Epstein would not want to hide anything away from his pupils. Neither from his day students, nor from these four boarders."
The policeman released a long, whistling sigh and stared at his feet. "How old are these lads?" he asked after a long moment of reflection.
"John Jonan and Richard Amyrr are each eighteen. They are the school's oldest students," Mr. Martin replied. "Our head-boy, Paul McMegtry, is just seventeen. And little Georgie Betherson, sitting there by the desk, is a very mature sixteen-year-old."
"Why is your head-boy not one of the older lads?" the constable asked, furrowing his brow.
The teacher rolled his eyes. "They are both on disciplinary probation at the moment."
"Mr. Martin disapproved of an illustrated essay he found in a notebook that Ritchie and I share," John explained.
"I see," mumbled the policeman. "Well then, I'll be brief. This school's headmaster, Mr. Brian Epstein, was caught doing a bit of funny business down by the docks."
"How funny?" asked John.
"Never you mind how funny!" the policeman harrumphed. "It was inappropriate, that's all you need to know."
"Were there any witnesses?" asked Paul.
"Aye, there were," the policeman replied bluntly. "A priest and a spinster heard Mr. Epstein make a lewd proposition to a young dockworker."
"What were a priest and a spinster doing down by the docks?" asked Richard. "That's hardly the sort of place you'd expect to find such a couple."
"They claimed they were meeting a ship's captain who was selling anthropological artifacts he had collected on his voyage," Constable Jones answered, rocking anxiously back and forth on his boot heels.
"What were a priest and spinster doing on the docks together without a chaperone?" challenged Georgie. "Their behavior seems highly inappropriate to me as well." He covered his mouth with the back of his hand and coughed once more.
"They're reputable witnesses!" shouted the policeman. "And they have each agreed to testify against your Mr. Epstein in court tomorrow morning. So you'd best contact these students' parents immediately, Mr. Martin, and ask them to collect their boys. I can't imagine they'd want their sons to be enrolled in a school run by a man accused of buggery!" He turned on his heels and headed towards the door.
"But we haven't any parents," Richard called after him. "We're orphans, the lot of us."
The policeman slammed the door behind him as he left the schoolroom.
Paul plopped back down in his chair and scowled. "Well, this is certainly a sad state of affairs. What will Joanie think when she finds out? There's bound to be a scandal!"
"Is that all you can bloody think about at a time like this, your sorry sod?" cursed John. "Mr. E has been thrown into shackles, and you're worried that the pretty governess next door is going to think the less of you for it?"
Paul arched his eyebrows. "Well, perhaps, Johnny, if you gave the matter some thought as well, you'd realize that our neighbor Laurie might also not be too keen on going out with you anymore, once she discovers the truth about our headmaster."
John started pacing the floor in frustration. "I'm sick and tired of hearing things from uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocrites!" he shouted, raising his hands to his head and grabbing tufts of his long hair. "All I want is the truth! Just give me some truth!"
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, mates, but we're not going to get to the bottom of things if we just sit here while our headmaster rots away behind bars," Richard reminded his classmates. "One of us should go to the police station and try to speak to Mr. Epstein."
"An excellent idea," Mr. Martin replied. He started walking towards the wardrobe by the door to grab his coat. "I'll see what I can discover. Mr. McMegtry, I shall leave your classmates in your capable hands."
"Like hell you will!" John protested. He blocked his teacher's path to the wardrobe. "I'll go. You're too polite. You'll never ask the right questions." He turned around, flung open the wardrobe's door and pulled out his long woolen coat. "I'll see what I can discover. Or at least find out how much money we'll need to bail out Eppie."
"We have no money," Paul called to him from across the room. "Don't you remember how the two of us had to share a pair of gloves between us when we escorted Joanie and Laurie to the holiday fête at Mrs. Gardiner's boarding house on New Year's Eve?"
"Screw Mrs. Gardiner!" John cursed. "That old cow served us crap champagne! It was hardly even worth the trouble of quaffing!" He pulled a knitted hat out of one of the coat's large front pockets and tugged it over his thick mane of chestnut-colored hair. "I'm off to the cop shop by the docks then. Wish me luck."
"Mind your manners, John!" Mr. Martin warned his departing student. "I don't want to see you brandished in iron as well!"
John slammed the door behind him as he stormed out of the building.
Mr. Martin rolled his eyes and sighed theatrically.
"I've always found it rather odd that our neighbor's governess is hardly any older than Laurie herself," Richard said aloud to no-one in particular. "Do any of you find that strange as well?"
Paul shrugged him off. "Joanie Brooke is preternaturally talented, that's all. Some people are born geniuses, you know. I personally think we should respect Miss Brooke's inborn gifts, and not go making such a fuss about her being so young."
"How much older is she than you, Paul?" Richard asked.
"I like older girls," Paul huffed. "They're sophisticated."
Little Georgie slunk out of his chair and walked to the far corner of the room. He sat down cross-legged on the uncarpeted floor and rested his hands, palms up, on top of his knees. "I shall pray for Mr. Epstein. And for our dear, rash John as well. And ask my sweet lord to ensure that neither of them comes to any harm." He closed his eyes and started humming.
Mr. Martin cast a nervous glance at the boy. "Mr. McMegtry, be a good lad and fetch a rug to wrap around our poor, pious Georgie. I wouldn't want him to catch a draft while he says his prayers so far away from the fire."
"Shall I put some more coal on to burn as well?" Paul asked as he plucked a threadbare tartan throw off the back of the faded davenport in the classroom's small sitting area.
"No, we must be frugal," his teacher admonished him. "Our supplies remain short."
As soon as Paul wrapped the blanket over Georgie's shoulders, another knock at the door shattered the room's quiet.
"I'll see who it is," Richard offered. He opened the door, locked eyes with one of the two young women standing on the outside doorstep, and curled his lips into a sad smile. "Laurie! I mean…Miss Lawrence! It's…it's so very lovely to see you," he stammered. He cleared his throat quickly to recover his composure. "And Miss Brooke. Pray, to what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?"
"Come in, ladies, come in!" Paul shouted from the far corner of the room. He rushed to Richard's side, offered his arm to Joanie Brooke, and escorted her into the sitting area.
Theodora Lawrence, the young heiress affectionately known as "Laurie" to the four orphaned boarders, stepped into the room behind her governess and lifted her tear-stained eyes towards Richard. "Is it true, Ritchie? Oh, please tell me it isn't! It can't possibly be true!"
"What did you hear?" he asked. His knees started buckling with nerves and he grabbed Laurie's hands for support. At the touch of her soft skin against his blistered fingers, he blanched. He immediately released her hands from his awkward grasp.
Laurie blushed and looked down at her shoes. "Grandpapa saw a constable leaving your schoolhouse, so he rushed out of our home to have a word with him. When he came back inside, he told Miss Brooke and me that Mr. Epstein had been taken into custody."
"Alas, it is true," Richard replied, lowering his voice. "But our John has gone to the police station to see if he can offer Mr. Epstein any help."
Laurie lifted her eyes and stared plaintively at Richard. "Oh, I do so hope he can! He has such a forceful personality. I'm sure if anyone can set things to right, it would be our John."
Richard's face fell. "Yes," he mumbled. "I know how highly John stands in your esteem."
Laurie opened her mouth to speak, but fell silent as she continued gazing into Richard's sad blue eyes.
Paul and Joannie Brooke stood up from the davenport and offered their seats to Richard and Laurie. "Come, Laurie, please sit down," Paul said. "Joanie and I will go to the scullery to prepare a nice tea for us all while we await John's return."
Laurie nodded and walked to the sofa. She looked back at Richard and patted the cushion beside her as she took a seat. "Oh please, Ritchie, do keep me company while we wait. My heart is all aflutter."
The color returned to Richard's cheeks as he sat down beside her. "Of course, Miss Lawrence. Your wish is my command."
Mr. Martin darted his eyes between the davenport and the kitchen door and sighed. "How am I supposed to chaperone two couples in two separate rooms?" he mumbled just loud enough for Richard and Laurie to hear.
"Mind Paul," Richard called back to him. He turned towards Laurie. "You have no need to chaperone us, Mr. Martin," he added in a sad voice. "I know that Miss Lawrence is practically spoken for. I shall treat our neighbor with the courtesy due to her, and will give neither you nor her any cause for alarm."
"Whatever to you mean?" Laurie asked, blushing afresh.
"Well, you and John…" Richard began.
Laurie turned her head away from him and stared dumbly at the peeling wallpaper for several seconds. She said nothing while Mr. Martin traipsed noisily across the wooden planks of the schoolroom floor and closed the kitchen door behind him with a soft thud. Then she started to speak, without looking back at Richard.
"You are quite mistaken, Ritchie," she began, her voice breaking with emotion. "It is true that John and I have always been the best of chums, ever since Mr. Epstein established this school in the building next to my grandfather's townhouse. But that is all that we are, and all that we ever shall be. Chums. John made it quite clear to me after Mrs. Gardiner's New Year's Eve dance, that he feels nothing but friendship towards me. He said we 'had no spark'."
"But how could he say that!" Richard demanded, his voice rising with anger. "Why, you have the most sparkling wit of any girl I've ever known! And the most sparkling eyes of any girl I've ever seen!"
Laurie turned back to him and smiled. "Oh, Ritchie. Do you know how long I have wanted to hear you say that?"
"But…I don't…I don't understand," Richard stammered. "I thought you considered me a fool! Do you remember that day I followed you and John to the frozen pond when you went skating, and I fell through the ice…and I…and John…"
"And John rescued you," Laurie said, finishing his thought. "Yes, I remember that day very well."
"You laughed at me," Richard mumbled, choking back a sob.
"No, Ritchie, no," Laurie insisted. She grasped his hands. "I laughed with joy, that you were safe."
Richard looked back up at her and held her gaze. "Truly?"
"Truly," she answered. "I have always fancied you, Ritchie. Much more than I ever fancied John. He is quick with a joke, and a source of endless amusement. But you, my dearest boy, you are an artist. I've always admired the drawings you made to illustrate John's stories. Each time he showed me his notebook, I only had eyes for your pictures. You have a spark of genius about you."
"But my doodles…" Richard replied, lowering his head once more. "The pictures I drew in John's notebook…those aren't…some of those aren't fit to be seen by…by such a lady as yourself."
"I may be a lady, Richard," Laurie replied. "But I am a young woman too, with a curious mind."
Richard looked back up at her. "Indeed?"
"Indeed!" she laughed. She raised her hands to the back of Richard's neck and drew his face towards hers. "Quick, let us kiss before Mr. Martin returns from the scullery!"
"There, there," said George Martin as he carried little Georgie across the creaky wooden floor and laid him gently upon the faded davenport. "You rest now, son. You've worked yourself into another sorry state with all your feverish prayer."
Georgie coughed twice, releasing an ominous rattling sound deep in his chest. Then he looked up at his teacher with an exasperated expression in his bloodshot, rheumy eyes. "But sir, the ladies are here. Miss Brooke and Miss Lawrence should have the privilege of sitting their dainty derrieres upon the davenport, not I."
Joanie Brooke exchanged a slight giggle with her protégé, then turned towards Georgie. "Now, now, Mr. Betherson. Miss Lawrence and I are quite content to rest our dainty derrieres upon the wooden chairs. Nobody expects a comfy chair to always be at the ready for her personal convenience."
Laurie squeezed Richard's hand. "I do," she whispered in his ear.
Richard winked at her conspiratorially, then started escorting her to one of the wooden chairs Paul had pulled into a semicircle after the group had finished their tea. Just as she sat down, the front door was thrown open with a loud smack against the wall.
"I'm back!" cried John. "And I've brought Mr. Epstein with me!"
The two young couples ran to the door to greet their returned comrades. George Martin, who had pulled one of the wooden chairs closer to the davenport, remained by Georgie's side and held his hand.
Brian Epstein exchanged hearty hugs with Paul and Richard, and tipped his hat to the ladies. Then he spied the two Georges sitting across the room and rushed to their side. "How is my brave boy?" he asked Georgie, flashing a nervous glance at his teacher.
"I'm happy now, to see you safely returned, sir," Georgie replied with a weak smile. "I prayed for you." He coughed twice more and closed his eyes.
"Yes, I'm delighted to see you back as well, Brian," Mr. Martin added. "So tell us, is your nightmare safely over now?"
"Indeed it is," Brian replied, smiling broadly. "And it's all thanks to our Johnny. He bailed me out, then convinced my accusers to recant their allegation."
"Bailed you out?" Paul gasped. "But how could he do that? All the money's gone!"
"True, but I had something that was worth a lot to someone who did have a heap of cash," John said. He put his hand to the top of his head and slowly slipped off his woolen cap.
"Oh, John!" cried Laurie. She covered her mouth in horror. "You've shaved your head!"
"You've sacrificed your crowning glory," added Joanie Brooke, a tear slipping down her cheek.
"It was nothing," John insisted. He rubbed his bald pate and grinned at Brian. "I was due for a haircut anyway. But this time, instead of having to pay a barber to give me a trim, I got paid to let someone shear it all off!"
"And a tidy sum she gave you too," Brian laughed. "That blasted copper set my bail outrageously high."
"And now you're out for good?" George Martin asked his employer. "The charges have all been dropped?"
"Yes," Brian answered. "As soon as John set me free, we hurried to the parsonage where my principle accuser resides. Father Mackenzie serves as the vicar of 'Our Lady, the Madonna' parish, just north of the docks. His housekeeper, Miss Eleanor Rigby, who seconded his false charges, lives in a small home just beside the church."
"She does more than keep house for him, if you ask me," John added. "It was long past sunset when we arrived at the rectory, but Miss Rigby was still there, sitting at the parson's side by the fire. The two of them were darning each other's socks. I suspect the righteous, goodly Father Mackenzie has a right good foot fetish."
"John, please, not in front of the ladies," Mr. Martin admonished him.
John simply smiled and continued with his story. "Father Mackenzie kept a treasure trove of pagan relics scattered about his drawing room. Cannibals' spears and shields hanging on his walls. Shrunken heads stashed in jam jars by his door. And all sorts of primitive-looking statues resting on his tabletops, showing naked natives engaged in…"
"That's enough, John," Brian interrupted. "I'm sorry you had to see those. It is my sworn duty to protect your innocence."
"But I'm glad I spied 'em!" John insisted. "'Cause it set me to thinking. I could tell our sanctimonious parson had a wicked mind. So I made him a deal. I pulled my notebook out of my coat pocket—the one where I write my dirty stories about dirty men, and Ritchie draws even dirtier doodles—and I let him have a tiny peek. Then I told the wanker he could keep it if he and his fancy lady came back with us to the cop shop and recanted their charges. You should have seen that bugger salivating when I handed him my book!"
"John, please, mind your tongue!" Mr. Martin scolded him. "Remember, there are ladies present."
"I think we can forgive Mr. Jonan his colorful language, under the circumstances," Joanie Brooke asserted. "After all, his—how shall I put this?—his curious way of looking at the world gave him the foresight to plan and enact Mr. Epstein's release from prison!"
"But we must give some credit to Ritchie as well," Laurie added. She looked up at Richard and smiled beatifically. "His curious drawings in John's naughty notebook sealed the deal with the foul-minded Father."
Georgie rallied his strength and sat up straight on the sofa. "I suspect that this Father Mackenzie character is not C of E," he pronounced crossly.
John eyed Richard and Laurie quizzically, and raised one of his eyebrows. "Did I miss something while I was off saving the world?"
Laurie blushed. Richard took her hand, brought it to his mouth and kissed it. "You did. Laurie and I are now officially courting."
John frowned at the couple, but his laughing eyes belied his mocking show of disapproval. "Well, good on you both then! Ritchie, you've released me from the burden of crushing Miss Lawrence's dreams with my own good fortune." He turned towards his headmaster. "Mr. Epstein, could you please check the time? I'm expecting a visitor at half-past nine."
"A visitor so late in the evening?" Paul asked. "Whoever could that be?"
A small rap at the front door answered his question. John ran to the door, threw it open and welcomed his visitor into the room. "Girls, boys, Messers M and E, I'd like to present Miss Fredericka Bhaer, the lady who cut my hair."
A tiny woman in a large fur coat stepped forward and smiled shyly at the party assembled in the school's sitting area. Her long black hair was braided tightly and piled high on her head in an elaborate coiffure that called to mind images of both Marie Antoinette and Medusa.
Mr. Martin cleared his throat and approached John's guest. "Good evening, Miss Bhaer. I presume you are a wigmaker?"
"Hell no!" John exclaimed. He draped his right arm possessively around Fredericka's shoulders and puffed out his chest in pride. "She's an artist! She makes sculptures out of hair and sells them in her ex-husband's gallery down by the docks. And we're in love!"
Inspired by the novel "Little Women," by Louisa Mae Alcott, and by the Temple School, a charitable academy for underprivileged boys established by Louisa's father Amos Bronson Alcott, the mid-eighteenth century American educational pioneer.