Father said Whisperwood would be my “home away from home.” I rather think it looks like an illustration straight from the cover of a penny dreadful, but I suppose he never insinuated that home away from home would be a pleasant one.
The central driveway curves through the grounds to a roundabout just before a wall of hedges the height of two grown men. This is where I exit the carriage, granting myself a moment to look around while the footman fetches my trunk and suitcase. Through the leafy, immaculately trimmed archway of the hedges sits a courtyard, complete with an elegant stone fountain adorned with lions and unicorns reared on two legs, water spilling from their open mouths.
I’ve grown so accustomed to the intricate buildings of the city that the symmetrical, simple architecture of Whisperwood is both strange and refreshing. Its high stone walls, deep-set, narrow windows, and a grand double-door gives it the look of an old royal countryside estate rather than a school. The pamphlet Mother showed me about Whisperwood said something of its history and the year it was built, but I hadn’t paid it the least bit of attention.
A member of staff trots out to greet us, bowing his head politely in my direction before chatting with the footman and preparing to gather my things. I scoop up my suitcase before he has a chance to take it but allow him to hoist the trunk into his arms and carry it off after giving him my name, so he knows to which room it’s to be delivered. Pack lightly, they’d said in the paperwork mailed with my registration information. How troublesome to have to fit one’s belongings into two meagre pieces of luggage.
There were carriages and omnibuses both in front of and behind mine coming up the driveway, and just as many boys disembarking. Other students who have likely arrived in the preceding days are milling about, rushing to see old friends as they unload. I have no one to greet me and, for just a moment, standing in a courtyard of strangers who seem to know one another, I’ll admit I’m feeling more than a little isolated.
That will change. I’m an easy-going and friendly enough lad; I know I will find a group to immerse myself in with no trouble and likely little time.
The important thing is that I’m away from home. That’s what I repeat to myself to combat the wave of loneliness and nervousness that creeps over me. I’m away from home and I am safe. I will be allowed the opportunity not just to grow back into myself, but perhaps to blossom to an even greater potential. One, perhaps, that will make my family proud of me again.
I linger in the courtyard for the better part of three hours, until my legs have begun to ache, and I’ve had to give in and steal a seat on the fountain ledge, awaiting instructions as more carriages deliver more students. Finally, just as I’ve begun to grow more than a little impatient, a voice crows over the top of all the chatter for new students to come inside.
As we’re ushered into the foyer of the building by men I presume to be instructors, I find myself crowding shoulder-to-shoulder with mostly boys younger than my seventeen years. First years, I presume. I’m coming in at the beginning of third year, later than most boys would begin at public school. But, surely, I’m not the only one.
Once everyone has been packed inside and the doors closed, an older man with a shock of white, thinning, but neatly combed hair steps to the forefront of the group. Despite his age, he stands tall with his shoulders pushed back and his chin up, surveying the lot of us with a critical eye. If I were to judge based on looks and demeanour alone, I don’t think I will much care for this man; he seems the sort to spit in disdain at his own birthday party.
“Hello, gentlemen, and good afternoon. My name is Maxwell King, and I am the headmaster here at Whisperwood.”
Ah, yes. Father corresponded with the headmaster through letters prior to choosing this school. No doubt to tell him of my troubles and see if Whisperwood would be an appropriate place for me to go. A place that could handle me.
There’s a thought that makes me uncomfortable all over again. How much, I wonder, did Father tell him? Would it really have been necessary to divulge my private affairs to as sour a man as this? And, for that matter, I wonder if he’s the only one who knows. Are the staff informed why the students are here as a means of knowing how to deal with us?
Nerves promptly begin to gnaw at me. I cannot let it get the best of me, though. I’m over-worrying. Father would not want word of my little mishap getting out any more than necessary for fear of how it might reflect on our family. Certainly, a school such as this would thrive best functioning on the utmost discretion.
The headmaster continues, “Here at Whisperwood, we take young men from all walks of life. Young men who have lost their direction and need assistance finding it again. We offer structure, balance, entertainment, and most importantly—an education that will assist you greatly in life after graduation, especially if your next destination should be university. Our instructors are some of the finest you’ll find anywhere.”
I want to roll my eyes as far back into my head as possible. Someone ought to tell him that our tuition has already been paid and there’s no need to sell us on the school; we’ve no choice in the matter.
He prattles on. He speaks of the history of the school—built in 1691, largely untouched since then save for some maintenance—and the expectations of the student body. We are to show up to all classes and activities on time and in presentable attire every day. Missed assignments are unacceptable. Our rooms are to be kept tidy, our bedding and laundry delivered to the laundry room twice a week, and the student body alternates weeks for doing said laundry. Mandatory church services every Sunday morning in the assembly hall. A ten o’clock curfew is strictly enforced.
Above all else, Mr. King wishes to instil upon us the blessing of this opportunity we’ve been given. Hardly a blessing; our parents are paying out of their arses for it. Whisperwood, he says, is our chance for redemption. That statement on its own solidifies my thought that he is a most unpleasant man and I want to do all that I can to steer clear of him.
After his lengthy and self-serving speech has concluded, another neatly dressed gentlemen takes his place and begins barking out orders. “New fourth years, head to the hall down your left and you’ll be instructed where to go. Third years, upstairs, to the left. Second years, surnames A through G…”
I begin inching my way through the crowd to venture upstairs, which is significantly less crowded. The bulk of students are, in fact, second and first years who must be split up because there are too many to shuffle into one classroom. The third years like myself, however, are only six in number and we all navigate easily into the room we’re directed to.
A classroom in the dipping sunlight is a bit eerie. The windows are open, helping to air out the stuffiness but allowing in the cold along with it, and the sunset outside casts everything in a warm, haunting light. There are enough desks for maybe forty students, give or take. I have a seat at one of them, suitcase beside me, and steal a look at the other third years who appear just as out of place as I do.
The man who steps into our class and shuts the door behind him is tall, middle-aged, bespectacled, and without a hair on his head. He doesn’t smile as his eyes rake over the few of us, and then he looks down at a stack of papers in his hand. From the first one, he reads aloud, “Marcus Worthington?”
A boy to my left slowly raises a hand as though he’s afraid it’s going to be removed from his person. “Present, sir.”
The instructor steps forward, without looking at him, and places a piece of paper upon his desk. “James Spencer?”
“Sir.” I put my hand up without hesitation, and even offer him a smile when he hands my paper over, although he scarcely glances at me to see it. Glad that the adults here are so sunny in disposition. We’re off to a great start.
He proceeds to go down the very short list until each of us has our paper, and I find myself looking at a class schedule. Breakfast at eight, Latin and history before lunch, English and maths after, followed by drill Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I look around, but the classroom we’re currently in doesn’t give me a clue as to which lessons are held here.
The instructor stands at the front of the room, before his desk, hands clasped neatly in front of him. “My name is Graham McLachlan. I’m the maths instructor for all third and fourth years, so I’ll be seeing a lot of you in the coming weeks. Lateness will not be tolerated. Breakfast is at eight, lunch at noon, dinner at six. From the hours of four to six you are expected to focus solely on your studies, save for days you have drill and sports, in which case, study time starts after that.
“Leisure time begins at seven. Use this time for bathing, socialising, and extracurricular activities. Curfew at ten. No exceptions.”
It’s a lot of information to take in, however I appreciate the succinct manner in which he relays it. It may not be exciting, but at least it isn’t the needless droning of the headmaster and, in that, I find sincerity.
Mr. McLachlan continues, “As third years, your dormitory will be Gawain Hall. Your registration papers ought to have your room numbers. Each hall has two prefects; these are fourth year students who have earned the privilege of residing on the second floor of each dormitory and helping to monitor the goings on. For you, this will be Virgil Appleton and Augustus Smith.
“In addition to your prefects, each building has a staff member located on the fourth floor who serves as your housemaster. This will be Mr. Charles Simmons. He’s a recent graduate of Whisperwood and now an apprentice, so he’s well-acquainted with how things work here. Any issues with your housemates, you report to your prefects and your prefects report to the housemaster. Any questions?”
A few of us glance at one another, an uncomfortable rustling as some shift in their chairs, but no one speaks up. Mr. McLachlan looks to each of us one at a time, granting us a moment to think of anything to ask. Personally, I can think of none that are serious in nature and it’s likely a bit too early in the year to be reprimanded for horsing around. When no hands go up, he gives a curt nod. “In that case, dismissed. I will see you for your first lesson tomorrow.”
Upon exiting the school building, I attempt to remind myself again that at least I’m not at home. Certainly, the rules are strict, the atmosphere itself is as cold as the headmaster, and the one teacher I’ve met comes across as quite humourless, but…
Things could be worse.
A fourth year outside directs me to the third years’ hall across the grounds. A trampled, gravelled pathway takes me to the large, four-story dormitory. A wooden signpost stands erect in the ground outside, etched with care to read the name Gawain. So, this must be the right place.
Inside, the architecture is more reminiscent of home. Polished wooden floors, framed paintings done by the student body mounted upon the walls like a gallery, interspersed with sconces, which have already been lit as the sun goes down. An intricate spiral staircase winds up from the ground floor to the first storey, and the steps creak in quiet protest beneath my feet. Boys mingle in the hall and in open-doored rooms, their voices echoing through the old architecture.
My floor is, at least, moderately quiet. A few boys are seated in a large den that appears to serve as a common area, just to the right of the stairs; they’re swapping stories of holiday, and not for the first time I feel the niggling concern at the back of my brain that being the new boy here may prove a challenge. There is always the possibility, too, that I’ll be stuck with some prick for a roommate, that my teachers will be abhorrent, and that the strict regime I have never been subjected to in my life will wear me down.
But these are not new thoughts. They’re thoughts I’ve entertained the last several weeks since Mother informed me that Whisperwood would be my new home, and I’ve yet to let it get me down. Whatever I will have to face, I must remember that I’ve survived worse and come out intact.
Still, I am hopeful, yes, that whomever will be sharing my room will be someone I get on with. Oh, I could get on with a rock, if needed, but there’s a significant difference between tolerating someone’s presence and genuinely enjoying their company. Should I be fortunate enough to have the latter, I should be quite pleased.
A friend. That would be nice.
The rooms are each labelled with iron numbers upon the doors. I locate mine down the second hall—room forty-two—and allow myself in.
I’m greeted by the waning sun spilling cider-coloured light through the open window, a bed against either wall, a table and chairs in one corner, a pair of modest-sized wardrobes and a shared chest of drawers and a washing table and mirror. Simple, clean, impossibly draughty.
More important to me in that moment is the boy who rises from his bed. He’s already dressed in uniform, sans jacket. A good bit shorter than myself, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, with a sunny smile upon his face that looks to have never shed its baby fat. It’s a smile that could do nothing but put a man at ease. If nothing else, it encourages me to don a smile of my own. “Evening. You must be my roommate.”
The boy wastes no time in crossing the distance between us and extending a hand. “S’right. Oscar Frances,” he says. “You must be James.”
“That’s what my mum tells me.” I grasp the offered hand and give it a firm shake. Oscar, I’ve already decided, has a good feel to him. That’s promising. “A pleasure to meet you.”
Oscar draws back, gesturing to the as of yet unoccupied side of the room. “Welcome to Whisperwood. You just come from orientation? Did the headmaster give that god-awful, droning speech about second chances and redemption?”
A chuckle escapes my mouth as I place my suitcase upon the floor at the foot of my bed. Unpacking can wait until staff has brought up my trunk. “I was certainly left with the impression that I ought to check the handbook to see what hours breathing is allowed.”
“Between two and four.” Oscar grins. As I survey the room, he adds, “Afraid it ain’t much, and it’s bloody freezing at night, but not so bad once you get used to it.”
“You’d think we were sleeping on beds of gold for how that man speaks of this place.” I brush a hand over the simplistic iron of the bedframe and then fall face-first onto the mattress. Certainly not the feather bed I was accustomed to at home, but it could be worse. Horse-hair and wool, perhaps, so not altogether horrible.
Oscar has an edge of amusement to his voice. “Trust me, better than what Edlebridge offered. My mum took me there first and we settled on Whisperwood because it was streets above.”
“Do you mean this isn’t a last resort and our only hopes of becoming civilized young men?” I ask, voice muffled into my pillow. No matter how the headmaster tries to sell it, it is, in essence, a place for boys whose families couldn’t afford somewhere like Harrow, or boys that somewhere like Harrow wouldn’t take.
“They’d like to make us think so. They’d also like to make us think they’re stricter than they are.” I see Oscar shrug from the corner of my gaze. “Only thing they’re big sticklers about is curfew; keep your marks good and don’t go wanderin’ about after hours, and you’ll have a grand time.”
I roll onto my back. I don’t recall ever having to be ushered to bed before I was good and ready. “They make an awful fuss about curfew. What do they think we’ll do, write obscene messages on the chalkboards?”
“This place is full of gentlemen—I use that term loosely, mind— who got themselves in trouble some way or another,” Oscar points out. “Stricter they are with us, less opportunities for us to get to doing somethin’ we ought to not be doing. Couple of terms ago, some bloke ran off in the middle of the night to meet up with someone from the girl’s school down the road. Needless to say, he got expelled and everyone else has suffered with a crackdown on curfew ever since.”
“Always one ruining it for the rest of us.”
“Always.” The other boy graces me with a charming smile. “You as famished as I am? Dinner starts soon.”
After a day of travelling on crowded trains and bumpy carriage rides and my nerves only now beginning to settle, I’m honestly not hungry in the slightest. Nor do I fancy staying in this room all by my lonesome. As such, I pick myself up off the bed and smooth a hand down my shirt. “Is the food good, at least?”
“Ain’t bad, actually.” Oscar leads the way out and back down the hall.
We pass a number of open doors, revealing boys moving in and out as they settle in, reacquainting themselves with their surroundings and each other. It makes me think to ask Oscar, “Have you been here long?”
“Started here at the beginning of second year,” he says, lifting a hand in a wave to a pair of boys in the common room who call his name. “What brings you here, anyway?”
Oh, that is a question I expect to be asked plenty in coming weeks and months. What are you in for? As though I’ve been convicted of some grievous crime. (Well…) “My parents thought I needed ‘structure,’ whatever that means.”
“Structure is something unavoidable here.”
“What about you?”
A faint frown passes across Oscar’s face, though it smooths out quickly enough. “My father was enlisted in the Army. Serving King and Country and all that. Something went wrong—couldn’t tell you what; Mum refused to tell me—but she thought…”
“It was wiser to send her son away?”
He opens the dormitory door, pausing half a second as though considering the best way to answer that. “I was a little difficult to deal with at times, I suppose. She thought she’d be better able to care for my little sister without me in the way. Father’s brother does all right for himself and offered to pay the tuition.”
That seems unduly harsh. I wonder if there’s more to his story than he’s telling me or if his mother really is that kind of person. Oscar doesn’t strike me as a boy prone to getting into trouble. Then again, we’ve only just met.
Not going to pry, though. I don’t want my personal business dug up, and so I won’t needle anyone else for details on theirs, either. “Are most of the occupants here really sent for reform, then?”
“Some, sure. Lads who were too caught up with crime or prostitutes or wouldn’t get out of the opium dens. Caught up in scandals, others just…in the way. Got a fair share of boys from illegitimate births, too. Mistresses couldn’t keep ‘em on their own, father wasn’t willing to take ‘em in.”
“So pay to send them to public school because it appears kinder than simply turning their backs on them.”
“About right, yeah.”
“Charming.” And sad. True, my relationship with my mother and father has been strained as of late, but I have a difficult time imagining either of them turning me away because they did not want me. Then again, I’ve always been a well-behaved boy. Father disliked some of my interests, found a few of my behaviours too foppish for his taste, but I’d never been caught doing anything inappropriate and so I think he still held out hope for me.
I don’t know that he still does now.
The sun has about completely set by the time we re-enter the school, whose doors are propped wide open. Even without Oscar there to guide me, all I need do is follow the crowd heading into a set of doors directly across the foyer, between the two staircases that lead to the next floor.
Inside the dining hall, the scent of food washes over me and makes my stomach growl despite my lingering nerves and previous notion that I wasn’t hungry. The mahogany tables are draped with cloths, adorned with candelabras spaced between the silver platters of food. I spy ham, rolls with sweet cream butter, vegetables, turkey roasted and dressed, and large bowls of soup. Not as elegant as meals at home, but better than expected. Although I won’t be surprised if our everyday spreads are significantly sparser than this, and what we’re presented with today is more of a welcome gift. Regardless, it does smell good, and as Oscar and I take up chairs at one of the far end tables near the windows, I think I shall eat after all.
The empty chairs around us fill quickly. Oscar introduces me to the various gentlemen who join us; Preston Alexander, a tall, broad-shouldered, smiling third-year with a handshake like a vice. His roommate, Benjamin Prichard, has some of the loveliest, darkest eyes I’ve ever seen, and is a quiet and unassuming boy who gives me a polite greeting but seems otherwise content to sit and listen to the conversation with the occasional smile and laugh. A few others fill in the gaps. I’m given their names, where they’re from, and at least some information about each of them that I will likely need to be reminded of again later, but I’m largely distracted.
My eyes have traversed the length of our table and come to land on a boy at the very far end of it. Which sounds ridiculous because the table is full of boys, but this one in particular…
There is little about him that would stand out in a crowd, at least from this distance. He’s dressed in the same uniform I’ve seen several of the others wearing, even though it isn’t required until the start of classes. His hair—darker than my own—is swept to the side and back, and a few strands threaten to slip down into his face. Perhaps what catches my eye is the way he’s sitting, isolated, tucked into his chair as though trying to put distance between himself and everyone around him.
I dig an elbow into Oscar’s side to get his attention, gaze unwavering. “Who is that? Why’s he by himself?”
Oscar leans forwards to peer around me. “Oh, that’s William Esher. He’s always off on his own. Not much of a social sort, that one. Bit of a snob.” He cuts into his dressing-covered turkey and pops a bite into his mouth even as one of the boys across from us—Edwin Davies, I think his name was—leans over to add, “They say he’s here because he murdered his parents.”
“Murdered his parents? Really.” The idea is so preposterous I almost laugh. Seems unnecessary to point out that anyone convicted of murder would be in a jail cell or an asylum, not sent off to public school. Instead, I turn to Oscar. “What makes him a snob?”
He shrugs. “He doesn’t talk to anyone if he can help it. Complete prick if you try to strike up a conversation, like he’s too good to grace anyone with polite conversation.”
“Also, heard someone caught him buggerin’ about with another student last term, but not sure how true that is.”
I arch an eyebrow. “Fancying men is somehow related to being a snob?”
Another shrug as he looks back down to his food. I think he might be avoiding meeting my eyes, but perhaps I’m imagining that. “Just an observation, is all. And a warning. If he gets caught doing anything of that sort, it’ll mean a pretty big punishment—if not expulsion—for anyone involved.”
Well, yes. Expulsion is honestly the better alternative than being tossed in jail, and I came to Whisperwood aware that my own…interests…were not something to be discussed openly. Still, I keep glancing askance at William Esher as I eat, studying this boy who probably did not murder his parents but maybe did get caught with his hands down someone’s trousers. I make a mental note that he is a person I shall most definitely pester later. Even snobs need friends, and I do enjoy a challenge.