It was the middle of a quiet Wednesday afternoon in early Spring and I was working in my study, marking the Lower Sixth's Geography papers, when there was a knock at the door. 'Enter,' I said, turning over a sheet. The door opened and Sonya Moon came in, closed the door behind her and stood in front of my desk. 'You sent for me, Miss Alton,' she said.
Sonya was one of my brightest pupils, perhaps the cleverest girl I had taught for many years. But she was wilful - so wilful. It had only been the Autumn before last that she had absconded from school without telling anybody, except possibly one or two of her friends. Had her aunt - an excellent woman and much more intelligent than she seems at first acquaintance - not seen through Sonya's deception I do not think that we would ever have known that she had run away, rather than having been withdrawn from school by her father as she had conspired to make it appear.
I looked up from my work. Moon was standing with her feet slightly apart and her hands clasped behind her back in what appeared to be a military posture. I thought for a moment. "At ease"; that was what it was called in the army. She was standing at ease, looking straight towards the wall behind me like a soldier awaiting the orders of his commanding officer.
Did that mean she thought she had been called to my study for a reprimand? No, my Mamillius told me, soldiers stood at attention in that case. Was I going to reprimand her? I was not sure. Moon had changed so much in the time she had been away from us. She had missed nearly all of her Lower Sixth year's tutelage and had spent the first term following her return in a constant struggle to catch up. I had offered her the opportunity to re-take the year she had missed but she had refused. She was not going to be sent back to sit with the "babies", she had told me.
The one thing I could be sure about Sonya was that if she once put her mind to a task she would invariably succeed at it and so I had consented, provisionally and conditional on her making satisfactory progress, to let her accede into the Middle Sixth with the aim of taking her Matriculation at the end of the summer term. However, I did not make her a house prefect, despite the fact that my girls usually become prefects automatically upon entering their final year at Highdean School. I could not be certain of her, you see. There were too many unanswered questions regarding her past. Her future, also, was not clear. Where would she go when she finished her time at Highdean? What would she do?
'Sit down, please,' I said. She sat on the simple beechwood chair I keep by the side of my desk, her movements neat and precise, and looked at me with steady hazel eyes. Her hands were clasped in her lap, holding her daemon Alpharintus. An unexpected little shiver ran through me. How grown-up she had become! The Sonya Moon of two years ago would have thrown herself into the chair, more than likely scraping its legs noisily on the floor. She would have looked down at her feet and fidgeted, or stared at me with casual insolence.
I replaced my pen in its inkwell and put the Lower Sixth's papers to one side. 'Thank you for coming to talk to me, Sonya.'
Her eyes did not move. 'Why do you wish to see me, Miss Alton?' Moon's voice was calm and level. I sat back to draw breath and then, realising that the conversation that I wished to have with her was not one that should be conducted across the surface of a desk, stood up and took a seat by the fire. My girls knew that I sat there when I wished to converse less formally. Sonya turned to face me.
'You are having a very busy year, are you not, Sonya?'
'Yes, Miss Alton.'
'We are halfway through the first half of the Spring term, so this academic year is also at its mid-point. How well do you think you are doing?'
Sonya paused for a moment. 'Quite well, Miss Alton. I still have a great deal of work to do. I had nearly completed an essay on Grammatical Aspects of the Liturgical Works of Bartholomew Ainsworth when I received your message. I hope to have it ready to hand in to Miss Lambourne by teatime. Then I must get on with my Doytch studies. The construction of Doytch compound nouns is still giving me a little trouble.'
'I see. I do hope you will be able to spend a little time on the sports field this afternoon. Remember our School's Three Principles - A Fit Body, An Active Mind, A Healthy Daemon. Alpharintus is well?'
'Yes, Miss Alton. He is perfectly well.' There was, as there had always been, a slight hesitation in Sonya's voice when she spoke of her daemon. 'We will go for a cross-country run later, if we can find the time.'
'See that you do.' There was a pause.
'Is there anything else, Miss Alton? I am anxious to return to my studies.'
'Yes, there is something.' I reached over to the fireside table and took up the exercise book that lay there. 'The Head has asked me to have a word with you about this.' I showed Moon the book. 'This is your Modern History workbook, is it not?'
'Yes, Miss Alton.'
'And last week I believe Mrs Frimley asked you to research and write four sides of paper on the subject of the causes of the recent Holy War.'
'Yes, Miss Alton.'
I opened the book. 'You seem rather to have exceeded your brief. Your essay,' I flipped through the leaves of the book, 'comes in at fifteen pages. I must point out that there is no credit to be earned by simply writing words, Miss Moon. Words are nothing by themselves. Mrs Frimley would not have given you extra marks for anything you wrote above and beyond your original assignment. In fact, I myself am rather inclined to deduct marks for unnecessary prolixity. Information is most tellingly conveyed by clarity and brevity, Miss Moon, not wordiness.'
'No, Miss Alton.' Sonya's eyes had not moved. She sat perfectly upright on her plain wooden chair.
'But it is not the length of your essay that we are here to discuss today, but its content. Mrs Frimley was disturbed - very disturbed, Sonya - by what you wrote and very properly forwarded it directly to the Head. She read it and asked me to have a word with you about it. She takes it very seriously, Moon, and so do I.'
'Yes, Miss Alton.'
'Would you like to explain what you have written?'
'Yes, Miss Alton. What would you like me to explain?'
Was she being insolent now? I looked sharply at her. 'You realise, do you not, that the views you have expressed in this essay are, to say the least, dangerously heterodox?'
'Views, Miss Alton? I don't know what you mean.'
'Your opinions, then.'
'They are not opinions, Miss Alton. They are facts.'
'Facts? What you have written here are not facts. Not the facts that you have been taught at this school. Do you realise what you have done? Do you know what could be done to you, if word of this got out?'
Moon leaned forward. 'I don't know and I don't care!'
'Do not say that! Never say that you do not care! You know I will not put up with that!'
'I... I'm sorry, Miss Alton. I didn't mean it. Not in that way.'
'I should hope not.' I observed that Sonya was holding her Alpharintus very tightly.
'So,' I resumed, 'you have expressed certain views within your essay which differ radically from the accepted account in ways which, if they were to be given as evidence in a court of law would quite conceivably lead to your conviction and imprisonment. How do you justify those views, and why have you rejected our teaching, backed up as it is by Government policy? Your father is a Government minister, is he not? What would he say if he were to read this?' I lifted up the workbook.
'He would say... he would say that I must write what I believe to be true.'
'Even though your elders and betters have determined that the truth is otherwise?'
'I don't ca... No, I don't mean that. What I mean is this...' Sonya's composure had deserted her. She stood up, still clutching Alpharintus in her hands. 'I mean that I was there. I was there in the Ambulance Brigade, in the hospitals in London and at the Front. I saw things the way they were, not the way the newssheets reported them. I was there and you weren't.'
I ignored her rudeness and the implied accusation that I was a dupe of the Press. 'Yes, Sonya, I am aware that you were in London and Frankland when you were supposed to have been here at school. But you must also appreciate that the soldier in the field has only a limited view of the conflict in which he is engaged. He cannot perceive or understand the strategies that his senior commanders devise. His task is a simple one - to follow orders to the best of his ability, even unto death. Beyond that he knows little, for reasons of security. To put it in a nutshell, he cannot see the wood for the trees. Are you with me so far?'
'Yes, Miss Alton, but...'
'I appreciate that you were saving lives, not taking them, and I have not forgotten that your brother Gerald died at sea as the result of Enemy action. I would remind you, however, that you are not the only girl who lost a father or a brother in the War. To return to my point; your experiences, however vivid and first-hand, can only have given you the most limited view of the overall conduct and basis of the War. For that, you must rely on your teachers who have been given access to the wider picture. Surely you must see the truth of what I am saying? Or are you content simply to repeat barrack-room gossip? For that is what I would say the greater proportion of your essay comprises. Mere uninformed speculation.'
Sonya stood with her hands resting on the back of her chair. She shook her head violently, disturbing its dark locks. I wondered what she would do and say. There was a look on her face that I had never seen before. It was compounded of a terrible anger, a deep frustration and an overwhelming sorrow. She was full of passionate determination.
'Miss Alton... Miss Alton, you must promise me that you will never repeat what I am about to tell you. Not to anybody.'
'If you have done wrong...'
'I may have done wrong. I may not. But if I have done wrong, it is such a wrong that nothing you say or do to me can possibly change it or make amends for it. Not you, not the Head, not my father, not the King of Brytain himself. You know that I was in Frankland with the Brigade, that I ran away and joined up because I had to do something. Not just because of Gerry, but...' Sonya stopped speaking and swallowed hard.
'You see.. I was there. There in Geneva, just before the Catastrophe, when the Fire of Heaven fell and the Dome was destroyed. When all those thousands of people died.'
I was startled. 'In Geneva?'
'Yes. I wouldn't have been able to get by if I hadn't learned Frankish here.' She grinned. 'Yes, A good thing, else Peter and I...'
'Peter? Which Peter?'
'Peter the clockmaker. I travelled with him. Oh, don't worry. I'm perfectly intacta. He never touched me. And all sorts of things happened to me, and I held a copy of the Word of God in my hand but it was broken. And I learned the real reasons for the War - the ones that aren't in the books and don't get taught in schools. And those are the things I wrote in my essay. I couldn't stop myself. You can't stop, can you, when what you're writing is true and it matters so much and you really, really want people to read it and understand what you say and believe it? You read my essay didn't you? Didn't you get it? Wasn't it right, everything I said? About the starving Afric peoples, and the policies and doctrines of the Church and the Magisterium and how they were killing children all over the whole world with their selfishness and their grasping hatred and their refusing to share their knowledge and their evil, evil minds?
'When the Fire fell, I was miles away. But I was there in Geneva when we planned it. I could have prevented it. I had my sword. Don't you think I would have done everything I possibly could to save all those thousands of lives if there had been any other way? Don't you think that every time I read the official story - that Enemy agents sabotaged the orbital defences - I don't burn up with anger to hear lies told as truth? And don't you think I have to work and work and work all the time so that one day I can tell the truth and not be suppressed or shouted down? And work so hard that when it's time to sleep I'm too tired to dream?
'I do dream about it, just the same - the fire and the smoke and the falling of the buildings and the death all around, in the streets and the bedrooms and the cellars. But those dreams, even though they're terrible, horrible things, aren't going to stop me. I'm going to make it right, however long it takes. There's something new out there. A new idea, a new way of doing things. A new way of seeing things. It's about trying and caring and struggling to make things better. It's about not letting difficulties get in the way. It's about getting rid of the bad old ways, but still keeping the good ones. It's about sharing, and looking out for people who are worse off than you and helping them. It's about building a better world on the foundations of the one we have now. I want to bring Heaven down to earth. I'm going to make the world better, Miss Alton, or die trying.'
All the time Sonya was speaking her eyes were flashing blue behind the hazel. There was something extraordinary behind them; some force of deep conviction that was making them pulse with glittering violet coruscations. She was possessed by the truth of her words. Nothing I nor any authority could say or do would make her change her mind or prevent her from telling the truth as she had experienced it. No force on earth or in Heaven. I suddenly realised that my doubts regarding Sonya's future career were simultaneously resolving themselves and fading away. It actually did not matter very much what she chose to do with her life. She might follow a single path with all that fiery intensity of hers or she might choose to travel down many different roads. Whatever she did, wherever she went, she would do to her utmost ability. I sighed; a deep sigh of relief.
You see, a burden had slipped from my shoulders. A turning point had been passed - one that every teacher both yearns for and dreads, especially with her best pupils. Sonya Moon was no longer a clever, pretty girl but a beautiful, inspired young woman. I no longer had to support her, or even direct her unless she wanted me to. If she asked for my guidance I would give it to her gladly, but beyond that my teacher's job was done. This realisation had come to me many times before, of course, with many girls, but it had never lost its ability to flood my spirit with joyous fulfilment. I would never have stayed in the teaching profession otherwise.
'You told me a few minutes ago that you didn't care. Actually, Sonya, I think the fact is that you care very much indeed. Am I not right?'
'Yes, Miss Alton, I think you are.'
'Good. Nobody ever accomplished anything by not caring. Do you yet know where you intend to continue your studies when you leave us? You do want to go up to University, don't you?''
'Oh yes, Miss Alton, very much. I had thought of applying for Saint Katherine's in Cantabriensis or Saint Sophia's in Oxford.'
'You live in Oxfordshire, do you not?'
'Well, there is something to be said for studying near home, but there are also advantages to putting a fair distance between yourself and familiar surroundings. Both of those Colleges have very stringent entry requirements, as I am sure you are aware. You will have to work harder than you have ever worked before if you are to gain entry to one or the other of them.'
'Yes, Miss Alton. I'm doing all I can.'
'Good. I'm sure you are. I, and all of the teaching staff, will do all we can to help you. But please help us too, won't you? The truth is important, but do be a little more discreet in future about whom you tell it to.' The ghost of a smile appeared on Sonya's lips. 'We'll leave it at that, then. Now, there's just one other matter. Do you think you would like to wear this?' I opened one of my desk drawers, took out a small silver brooch and put it in the girl's hand.
'A prefect's badge,' she said softly. 'Are you sure?'
'Yes, Sonya. I have never been more so.'
Miss Moon smiled broadly, lighting up my dusty old room with her happiness. 'Thank you, Miss Alton. I won't let you down, I promise.'
'I don't think you will. Now; go and work. Study hard! You have a lot to do.'
The door closed behind Sonya and her footsteps receded down the corridor outside; slowly at first and then breaking into a run. I heard her excited voice in the distance - 'Look at this! Look what I've got!' - and smiled to myself.
We have done the right thing, haven't we? I asked Mamillius.
Oh, yes, my daemon replied. Oh yes, we most certainly have.