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Monday, May 27, 2024

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Monday, May 27, 2024


Leaving behind the village church service on a bright Christmas day, a bespectacled old lady was seen laboring up a gentle hillside to explore what remained of the old school where she had studied long back as a girl. In this charming Christmas story, Ravindra Bhalerao takes us along to explore Amelia’s old school, and share in the surprises that awaited the old lady among the crumbling ruins of her beloved schoolhouse.

By Ravindra Bhalerao

When Amelia set out from the inn, she could hear the soft strains of “Joy to the World” floating out of the village church. But now, as she began the short climb up the hillside, her mind began to grow wistful and melancholic. The oaks and alders on the wooded hillside stood still, as though to welcome the old lady on her unusual Christmas pilgrimage. Every now and then, she would halt and glance around. And each time, through the chinks in the sylvan canopy, she could see golden corn fields in the distance and red roofs in the village not far below—the village where she had grown up as a child.

On trudged the old lady, up the steps, up the gravel pathway of this Irish hillside. It was not something new for Amelia, for she had taken this pathway each day when she trudged up the hill to attend Miss Wallis’ school as a girl. Now, fifty years later, Catherine Wallis was nearly a forgotten figure in the village; her whereabouts during the past few decades were uncertain. But her schoolhouse still stood on the hillside, abandoned and in ruins.

Amelia had inquired about the schoolhouse from the innkeeper and had received a favourable response. “It was all in one piece, lady, as sturdy as yonder oak until a few years ago,” the man had said, and Amelia had felt reassured. And so, on she laboured up the hill, her skirts rustling with every step she took, eager to see her old school, eager to catch a whiff of her beloved Miss Wallis.

Presently, the lady found herself in a clearing on the hillside and halted to catch her breath. There spread before her eyes was a flat expanse of land covered with wild grass, with a profusion of orchids, bluebells, and celandines, wherein poured in winter sunshine in all its radiance and bounty. Birds could be heard chirping all around; swallows darted through the sky from one tree to another. Amelia was aware of a deep silence within her soul. She stood gazing intently at a stone house that stood at the edge of the clearing, a solitary relic of bygone times that lay abandoned and forgotten.

Cautiously, the old lady waded through the grass toward the house. At first glance, it had looked like a heap of ruins, but slowly in bits and pieces, everything began to return. The ravages of time were plain to see: masonry was falling apart, wooden beams lay in the front yard covered with moss… But ah! Here was an entrance that looked familiar.

Amelia’s heart quickened. She now stood in the doorway of the school, the doorway through which the children had filed in a row. And like a flood, the memories came: there was Gladys, and Rupert, and Clara, and Bernard… she heard the cries and yells of boys and girls; she could see the trim figure of Miss Wallis standing firm, holding a book of Latin; she could hear the school bell ring and the children pour out jubilantly…

How hard lessons had seemed fifty years ago! There were poems to memorise, there was arithmetic to do, there were essays to write, and new words to learn. And yet, looking back in retrospect, Amelia knew that those were some of the happiest days she had ever seen in life—days free of care and filled with laughter, games, and fun.

Lost in a world of her own, Amelia had wandered to the rear of the building where amidst the crumbling edifice, she came upon a door that stood ajar. Time had been remorseless, the elements unyielding in their assault.

Plucking up courage, she decided she would step inside, if only for a moment. She had come thus far; she would not miss out on seeing what lay inside her old schoolhouse. Cautiously she stepped within, her footsteps crunching loudly along the rubble that lay strewn all around. Inside, the air was dank, the silence so grave that she could almost hear her own heart beating.

Slowly, as her eyes grew used to the feeble light, a stone wall rose into view crumbling to pieces, and beyond the wall, the remains of tiny chairs and desks… that was without a doubt her own classroom, the classroom where she sat with Gladys and Rupert and Clara and others… she could hear the noise and din of it all, she could hear the chatter of the boys and the slam of school desks, and Catherine Wallis would sail in, neat and prim, beaming with radiance, and begin with prose in her characteristic tinkling voice…

Amelia would think a good deal of Miss Wallis even after she had finished school and moved to a distant town. She remembered Miss Wallis as a gentle soul and a dearly loved friend.

While a schoolgirl, Amelia had often gone up to meet Catherine before sunset, where she received extra tutoring in arithmetic and other lessons she found hard to grasp. Miss Wallis was wonderfully patient and had a charming way with her pupils, which was both playful and irresistible. If Amelia showed a reluctance to continue further with lessons and rose to leave, Miss Wallis would often pat her on the back and promise a board game and a slice of chestnut cake as a reward for a quarter of an hour more of study.

What had become of this dear old soul, Amelia wondered. To this question, strangely no one in the village below seemed to have a satisfactory answer. It was said that with advancing years, the old spinster had chosen to live a solitary life in her own schoolhouse on the hillside.

Her school had closed, and the children were gone, but the old lady lived on happily in her stone dwelling. She had a pleasing disposition and a charming manner that endeared her to the inhabitants of the village. Then one day, a horse cart was seen carrying out a few of her belongings. Catherine Wallis was moving to a far-off town to be with her elder sister, it was learned, but it would only be a matter of a few months before she would return, she had said.

As the years wore on, many of her pupils at school had gone on to become prominent citizens in nearby towns. The girls at school were married well and were now portly ladies keeping busy with the daily routine of housekeeping. The simple village folk of her day had waited and waited, but old Miss Wallis never did return. Over time, she had become largely a forgotten figure, a part of village folklore. No one in the village gave much thought to her; no one cared to visit the solitary schoolhouse that stood on the hillside. No one, except an old pupil who remembered her dear schoolmistress and had come from afar to see how the old schoolhouse stood.

Having spent over three-quarters of an hour in the desolate schoolhouse, Amelia prepared to return. She began to dexterously manoeuvre her way through a pile when something caught at her skirts. The old lady was startled.

The tug had set into motion an avalanche, and down came crashing a stool, bringing down with it an assortment of goods piled up in a heap: a glass vase, cutlery, chinaware, glasses, a pile of books, stationery… one after the other, articles came crashing down in the darkness in a clatter that lasted a whole minute.

When it was all over, Amelia found herself frozen where she stood; she could feel her heart thumping. In the feeble light, she could see she was standing beside a bedstead. Below on the floor lay something queer. It was a picture set in a frame. Amelia bent over to take a closer look at the picture. It was a portrait of a lady. A portrait of Catherine Wallis.

There she lay on the floor, Miss Wallis, amid the grime and rubble of half a century. The curls in her hair, the slight tilt of the head, the high neckline and lace collar, the sparkle in her eye—Amelia could see it all in the feeble light. She stood still, staring intently at the portrait lying on the floor. Through the copious dust, she saw Miss Wallis faintly looking up, but unmoving. In the eerie silence of the derelict schoolhouse lay Catherine Wallis on the floor for over half a century, unsought and forgotten, gazing into the eye of the pupil she had once loved. It was an extraordinary event.

The cold winter afternoon brought gusts of wind, and the old schoolhouse creaked and shuddered. Amelia had one long, last look at the face that lay at her feet. “Goodbye Miss Wallis, I shall ever remember you…” she whispered softly as she turned to leave. “And Merry Christmas to you…”

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