Boarding School Blues: Chapter 22
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 22 The Inner Sanctum
Sister Theophile’s office door was open when Blanche and Andy arrived. The headmistress’s inner sanctum was usually off limits. Rarely did anyone cross its threshold. The girls had noticed that Sister Gerald entered only when she was loaded with accounting ledgers and business files. No student gave Sister Theophile a courtesy visit and, like Sister Lucienne’s French classroom, no one was stationed there for morning employment duty.
Although it wasn’t a corner office, the chamber occupied a prime location with its three French windows overlooking SFA’s long drive. A sturdy chestnut desk faced the verdant campus rather than the hallway. “This is an invitation to daydream. I wonder if the headmistress does any of that?” Blanche asked herself as she and Andy walked inside.
A simple granite crucifix throned in the middle of the desk. A neat pile of legal folders sat on one side and a black rotary dial telephone on the other. Three black fountain pens and two yellow Ticonderoga pencils stood at attention in a small crystal vase to complete the decor. Blanche concluded that the headmistress’s taste for orderliness probably required delegating the dirty work to Sister Gerald. “Papa’s office desk is covered with medical textbooks, JAMA magazines and patient files and Maman wonders how he can keep on top of his practice in such clutter. He always points out that his ‘personal mess’ allows him to find things ‘tout de suite’.” Blanche was conjuring up images of her beloved Papa to help her face the inevitable admonishment.
Studying the Pennacooks’ lifestyle had helped her hone the observational skills even sans glasses. The fact that she wasn’t wearing them didn’t prevent her from drinking in the warm, cozy atmosphere of the room. A wide floor to ceiling bookcase displayed richly-colored, leather-bound volumes on one wall. Blanche couldn’t read the golden-lettered titles but understood that the books were precious. No Sister Lucienne style plants and flowers nestled between them. But, here and there, bronze busts of prominent figures had found suitable lodging among the tomes. She recognized Plato’s beard and solemn visage because the same sculpture greeted guests at her Tante Jeanne’s Victorian foyer in Lowell.
Another wall resembled a huge comic book page with its tight horizontal rows of framed lithographs telling tales of ages past. The images of castles, turrets, towers and churches caught Blanche’s eye and she yearned to close in on them to discover their secrets. Her friend and partner in crime, Andy the notorious cartoon artist, also seemed mesmerized.
The headmistress was sitting in her forest green leather swivel chair with her back to them. In excruciatingly long seconds, the chair rotated 180 degrees. Sister Theophile lifted her chin and peered over the round, wire-rimmed spectacles pinching her aristocratic nose. Not a word did she utter.
With candor and poise, the girls related the magazine incident without a single deprecatory remark about Sister Gerald. When the headmistress asked for the condemned publication, Blanche simply responded, “Sister Gerald disposed of it.” Sister Theophiles’s thin lips pinched ever so slightly and Blanche understood that the destruction of evidence irritated her. Nevertheless, she looked unperturbed by the girls’ unsolicited visit and appeared pleased to take advantage of their presence to chat. She sat back in her cushioned chair and began sharing her experiences as a young novice visiting “magnificent monastic houses in Gloucestershire.” Blanche saw that bringing those magical days of her youth to life triggered a physical transformation – her face softened, her eyes sparkled and the straight-as-a-rod posture drooped.
“I see that you are drawn by this fine collection of antique prints? Ah yes, they conjure up my sojourn in Albion when I was a young novice frequenting sacred grounds with elders whose example has been a beacon during this earthly life. An unknown scholar once said: ‘Never forget the importance of history. To know nothing of what happened before you took your place on earth is to remain a child for ever and ever.’ Meandering in historical settings taught me unforgettable lessons which have guided me in my quest for wisdom: the power of meditation, the value of self-control, the strength of solidarity. I have espoused the richness of austerity, discipline and dedication to an otherworldly ideal. Each and every frame hung before you brings to mind the pursuit of the divine. This is the foundation of our mission here at SFA.”
Blanche was hoping that the expose would continue and figured that the headmistress didn’t give a hoot about teen magazines. She was always ready for a new story no matter who the speaker was. As long as they laid it out with passion, it was all good. She had discovered l’Île d’Orléans with Sister Fran, cool French texts with Sister Lucienne and all kinds of trivia with Sister Roger. Would Sister Theophile have interesting tales too? Blanche shot a side look towards Andy who looked docile for the first time ever.
Sister Theophile rose and positioned herself in front of the wall like a museum guide about to instruct her public. Pointing to each print, she named the ancient places of worship which dotted her beloved English countryside. The girls retained a couple of unusual names like Minchinhampton Priory where nuns – or “minchins” – of Holy Trinity from Caen Normandy had settled in 1082 thanks to William the Conqueror. Tewkesbury Abbey reminded Blanche and Andy of a nearby Massachusetts town. Sister’s description of Horsley Priory, founded in 1066 after the Battle of Hastings, especially grabbed the girls’ attention.
The headmistress was obviously taking great pleasure in breathing life into the lithographs. “Horsley is now an upscale hotel which serves the finest high tea one could indulge in outside of Windsor Castle. Oh my, just thinking about those dainty cucumber sandwiches and warm scones topped with fresh clotted cream and strawberry preserves makes me nostalgic. And the Ceylon tea? Outstanding, hot and seeped to perfection. Ummm….high tea with your Maters in SFA’s reception hall could be a very enriching event indeed. I shall have a word with Madame Greenwood about it.”
Andy discreetly nudged Blanche at the mention of Madame Greenwood and Blanche decided that, should the magazine incident come up, she would broach the fashion show idea. Sister was admiring her prints and didn’t notice the wordless exchange.
The headmistress ended up being a fabulous storyteller. Whether they had fallen to a ruinous state or had turned into rural parish churches or grand aristocratic homes, she brought each structure to life.
An insistent knock interrupted a lovely description of Twyinging Monastery. “Founded in the late 700’s Twyinging is of one of the most illustrious priories niched in the Cotswolds hills and…. Sister Gerald, I am in the midst of dispensing historical instruction to the two young ladies you have sent me this afternoon and, I must say, they have been most attentive.”
Sister Gerald’s mouth gaped and her dentures slipped down. “These two were impertinent during the desk inspection where I found that vulgar publication in Mademoiselle Rejean’s desk. And Mademoiselle Tremblay went so far as to say it would inspire a so-called SFA fashion show. How preposterous! Madame Greenwood’s conference need not be followed by a demonstration of worldly apparel within our respectable institution where intellectual and spiritual pursuits are paramount. You know how easily these young souls fall into frivolity!”
“An SFA fashion show? How original a project! I dare say if Madame Greenwood accepts to supervise the production, I shall certainly encourage it.” The headmistress turned towards the girls and Blanche could see a twinkle in her normally cold onyx eyes.
“Mademoiselle Tremblay, I hear you have artistic talent? You shall be responsible for embellishing our grand room. Accessories in pastel shades and flower motifs would be appropriate as I believe Springtime is most conducive to putting on such a production. Indeed, the fashion show can precede our May Day festivities rather nicely. Andrea Tremblay, you will head a team of decorators. I give you carte blanche. Naturally, you will report back to me on a regular basis. And Blanche Rejean, you will gather classmates of all ages, heights and shapes to become models with respect to a single canon – the beauty of youth. All volunteers will have the opportunity to participate. Oh yes indeed, the SFA fashion show will bring added visibility to our institution. We shall invite the girls’ Maters and create a special SFA fund for future artistic activities. Surely, we can collect a lovely sum from parents who have but one desire – facilitating their offspring’s intellectual growth. Learning to clothe oneself with elegance is crucial to proper aesthetic training. One need only examine the breeding of young women in England’s society. When she graced us with her presence, Madame Greenwood mapped out the mores of comportment. The SFA fashion show will be a fitting follow-up. Consequently, whilst respecting tradition and protocol, we shall forge our identity and be inspired by the monastic houses in Gloucestershire. Like them, SFA will survive in an ever-evolving world!”
During the headmistress’s discourse Blanche followed the range of emotion projected on Sister Gerald’s face and saw fury, indignation, bafflement, surprise, perplexity and acquiescence. All the while, she and Andy stood at attention, like soldiers.
Sister Gerald uttered two words – “very well” – and bowed her head to her superior as she touched the girls’ shoulders to indicate it was time to take leave.
Andy turned towards the headmistress and firmly said, “you can count on us! The fashion show will honor SFA!”
In the end, the shredded Seventeen magazine had served its purpose. Blanche had never got round to reading the article on making new friends at parties. But she learned a great deal that day.
Read Chapter 3: Readying
Read Chapter 4: Au revoir!
Read Chapter 5: Arrival
Read Chapter 6: Settling In
Read Chapter 7: Beginning to Belong
Read Chapter 8: Quick Showers
Read Chapter 9: Inside & Outside Study Hall
Read Chapter 10: Math Manoeuvres
Read Chapter 11: Cinephiles
Read Chapter 12: Camera, Action, Lights
Read Chapter 13: Reconnecting
Read Chapter 14: Back to the Fold
Read Chapter 15: In the Night
Read Chapter 16: Parlez-vous?
Read Chapter 17: On the Agenda
Read Chapter 18: Dress up, sit up, chin up
Read Chapter 19: Post Conference Assessment
Read Chapter 20: Orderliness
Read Chapter 21: Inspection