September 17, 1896
Ring. Ring. Ring.
I groaned in bed. Caroline sheepishly opened on eye, saw I was a awake and promptly closed it. I considered making her rise and see who was at the door just for spite.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
I groaned again and pushed the covers off me. I grabbed my discarded robe from the foot of the bed and slipped into before descending the stairs to the front door. I opened the door prepared to bark grumpily at whoever dared to disturb me at such an ungodly hour of the morning.
The sun was not yet up and the cold morning air was filled with a thick fog. I looked around but the doorstep was vacant and the fog prevented me from seeing beyond a few feet away. I decided it must have been pranksters from Brown. The returning boys would no doubt be daring the new ones to all sorts of mischief in these first months of the year. I will have to address the issue with Dean….
Ring. Ring. Ring.
I spun around realizing the noise was coming not from the front door but my living room. I walked back inside, closing the door behind me and moved into living room feeling unnerved as I could not fathom what was making the awful noise. Then I saw the telephone on the wall and remembered. I walked to it feeling the fool.
I lifted the earpiece and listened. It was silent. I wondered if there was something more I needed to do when I finally heard the whisper of a voice.
“Hello?” It said.
I stepped closer to the box on the wall.
“Who is this?” I shouted.
There was silence for a moment again.
“This is Dean Steadward. I am sorry to disturb you so early in the morning, Mr. Birchwood.” The tiny voice said.
I regarded it skeptically for a moment wondering if this was a prank as well. The voice on the other end seemed far to small to belong to the imposing Dean.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“Have you heard about Miss Hill?”
The name sounded vaguely familiar as belonging to a student in my freshmen morning class. The face eluded my memory though.
“She is a student, I believe.”
“Yes. She was…. I will explain when I see you. I am calling an emergency board meeting this morning at 6AM. I would like to speak with you before then. Can you meet me at Primrose Hall in an hour?”
“Yes, of course.” I said.
“Excellent. We can continue this at that time then. Goodbye.”
There was a soft click in the earpiece and then silence. I regarded it for a moment before setting the earpiece back in its hold. I hurried back up the stairs to get myself dressed for the day. Caroline was waiting at the top of the stairs. She looked pales and her eyes were red as though she had been crying.
“Is something wrong, Charles?” She asked.
“It would seem so.” I replied.
“What?” She asked.
“I do not know.” I said.
An hour later I met Dean Steadward on the steps to Primrose Hall.
“I would say good morning but it obviously is not.” I said.
The dean merely nodded.
“You said you would explain.” I prompted.
“Inside. We should not be overheard.” He said.
I followed him up the steps wondering just what kind of a political mess I was about the be embroiled in. It would have to be politics as nothing else ever requires that amount of secrecy.
Inside we sat side by side on wooden chairs in the main hall. The dean looked tired, like he had not slept at all this night. By the tension in his shoulders I gathered whatever the situation with Miss Hill was, it was complicated and quite possibly dangerous.
“Yesterday afternoon, Miss Gloria Hill was found dead. She apparently hung herself from a tree just outside of school grounds.” The dean said.
The situation began to make more sense. I nodded for him to continue.
“We have had a suicide before in Primrose’s first year. It nearly shut the college down before it truly opened. This one however looks to be even more dangerous to the college’s future.” He said.
“How so?” I asked, annoyed that he kept making me prod for the information.
“This event appears tied to the application of discipline to the young lady on the previous day. She was strapped in front of her class which included a few young men.”
“I do not see what the one has to do with the other.” I said.
“As you well know there is a strong opposition to our placement of young men within our classes. That opposition will seize upon this situation to prove that we never should have gone down this path. They will link her turn to suicide to her emotional distress at being disciplined in front of young men her own age.”
“I can fathom the attempt but I cannot make the connection myself. Is there any proof of a connection between the two events?” I asked.
“We have the statements of several students who claim she emotionally distraught after the incident. She was crying for hours and unable to eat.”
“Did she leave a note?”
“Not that we have found.”
“It would seem to me then there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate what motivation she had. For all we know she might have tired of Mrs. Carrington’s cooking.” I said.
“This hardly a time for bad jokes, Mr. Birchwood.”
“My apologies, but my point remains, there is only conjecture to support your thesis.”
“That may be so but it is a powerful conjecture supported by numerous observations.”
“Is it your desire to shut this trial down?” I asked.
“I am looking out for what is best for Primrose College. People need to blame something for failure here and this trial situation is convenient.”
“If we wish to place blame why not focus on something we know need fixing?”
“What are you suggesting?”
“I do not follow your logic.”
“There is clearly a problem with procedure or security or both if a girl is able to slip out undetected in the middle of the night. In fact it should alarm us further when one considers if a young lady can find a way out it should not pose any difficulty at all for more dangerous elements to find their way in.” I said.
The dean scratched his head in though for a moment and then nodded at me.
“Would you argue this position to the board, Mr. Birchwood?”
“If it is necessary.”
It was nearly an hour later before all the board members and staff were gathered. Coffee arrived at last, courtesy of Miss Bowen. While not a technical member of the staff she was clearly called up as well. Her presence spoke volumes to me of what Dean Steadward’s opinion of her is.
Edith looked tired as we all did. Her hair was perfect as usual but her eyes were bloodshot from crying and by the way she held herself I imagined she was blaming herself for the tragedy. I would have provided comfort but the setting made such things impossible and no doubt she would find it hypocritical when I make my argument that the fault lies with the dormitory. She would agree but it is unfortunate because I believe she will attempt to shoulder the entire burden when hers should only be a sliver if any at all. The Carrington’s are the careless ones, the inattentive ones.
The meeting began on schedule with the dean reiterating the facts as known for the official record. Testimony of the events then swayed to Mr. Bard, followed by Miss Bowen and then Mrs. Carrington. The story they painted was essentially the story told to me by the dean. They claimed assumptions based on observations as fact. It was as if there was a concerted effort to end the attendance of young men at Primrose. I can certainly understand why one would oppose their presence, but to me it seemed a waste to end the school’s history making venture on such shallow cause.
Finally it was my turn to speak. I stood and faced the room.
My heart goes out to those who loved and cared for Miss Gloria Hill. It is always a tragedy to lose a young life. In the aftermath of such horror it is only natural to re-examine ourselves and ask what could we have done better, what could we have done different, what could have we done to save this girl’s life. The questions are hard and the answers are often harder.
Through hindsight we will always gain better perspective than we will ever have in foresight. It will behoove though to remember that even hindsight can be tainted by our prejudices and emotions. We want something or someone to blame but blame is not productive and will not protect the girls who remain in our care. There is plenty of it to go around but our purpose here should not be to lay blame but to correct what flaws we can so that we may better protect our students in the future.
The facts of this case are limited but they do point us toward a flaw which we should endeavor to correct. We cannot know what drove Miss Hill to take her own life. We will never know her embarrassment at having been disciplined in a classroom occupied by both young ladies and young men. We can only guess at how fragile Miss Hill’s emotional state must have been. If we could factually answer these question we might well know if removing young men from Primrose classes would be of any benefit, but we cannot.
The young men who attended Mr. Bard’s history class were not rule breakers. They caused no trouble within the classroom. Miss Hill caused the trouble and unless we want to argue that Mr. Bard was assigning too much work she is the only one to blame for the situation that befell her when Mr. Bard punished her. I think we can rule out Mr. Bard’s assignments as no other student in any of his classes was failing to complete the work.
In light of this fact it seems unfair to me to punish the young men who did nothing wrong by expelling them. Such a course of action would not be permissible in normal circumstances in any case but indeed our circumstances here are not normal. So, let us turn from that which we do not know and look at that which we do know.
Miss Hill went to bed with her roommates and was gone when the morning bell rang. Sometime during the night she left. How did this happen? How could this happen? Is there no security at Carrington Manor? These are real question and while I have not the answers to them at this very moment, we can find answers to these questions.
When we find those answers we will then know what to do. We may not have been able to protect Miss Hill from herself but we should have been able to keep her in her bed at night or at the very least in the dormitory. Had we done that job, Miss Hill would not have had the opportunity to do what she did.
This is a problem that we can fix. This is problem we must fix. If it is possible for a young lady to slip out of bed and leave Carrington Manor in the middle of the night, undetected, then it is equally possible for more dangerous persons to slip inside.
We have work to do here, but it is not throwing our young men out on the street. We have an obligation to Miss Gloria Hill and to the all the young ladies here at Primrose to provide a safe and secure environment they can call their home away from home.
I concluded my speech and sat down. There were nods of support and agreement around the room. That is except from the Carrington’s, who gazed at me with unadulterated hatred in their eyes and Miss Bowen, Edith, who sat crying in her seat. She stared at the floor, blaming herself for failures that were not hers alone if they were even hers at all. I wished to cross the room and hold her in my arms. I would hush her and comfort her and reassure her she was not to blame. That was not my role though. Today, I am the bastard.