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Three Twins at the Crater School

CHAPTER TWO: NEW BEGINNINGS

"To a historian's eye, of course, it's really not a castle at all. It's a mockery. You can't even call it pastiche; it's sheer trumpery. A layman's notion of what a castle ought to look like, with the double burden of being designed as a hotel, by a man who had no more notion of the hotel trade than he did of Norman architecture."

Miss Harribeth was short and stocky, forthright and ruthlessly dismissive; and even so, Levity thought she loved this place, however determined she might be to disparage it. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. She glanced at her sister, to try if she could express that with a grimace. They were used to sharing everything out loud and immediately, and this notion of public manners was a trial. Mamma had pleaded with them not to blurt, and not to whisper confidences unless they were alone; they had promised, and they really were trying.

So far, Miss Harribeth's tour of the school had shown them the Great Courtyard and the Divided Stairs - "girls on the eastward branch, always; staff and visitors to the west" - with a detour through the dining-hall so that they could see the glories of the little private chapel beyond, with its high arched roof and vivid stained glass depicting St Francis with the animals, including sandcats and other denizens of Mars.

Now they were in a corridor of stone and dark timber, with windowed doorways on either side offering glimpses of blackboards and desks in neat rows, long tables with stools set around, other rooms whose purpose was harder to guess.

Levity's two companions on the tour were her sister Charm, younger by a mere fifteen months, and a dark sullen girl called Rachel. She wasn't going to speak at all if she could help it, and Charm was tongue-tied by the effort not to babble sixteen to the dozen in her sister's accustomed ear; which meant that all the burden of conversation fell on Levity. No Buchanan has ever been shy, and she and her sister both were well accustomed to adult company, and even so. She'd never had much to do - had never had anything, indeed, to do - with schoolteachers, in all her thirteen years and a half, and she wasn't quite sure where to begin.

It was rude to question grown-ups, but she'd been doing it all her life. How else was she supposed to learn, except by asking questions? Still, she'd learned sometimes to frame them another way; and now she gazed around at the bare walls hung with noticeboards and prints, the floor with its stones rubbed worn beneath coarse rush matting, and said, "It's hard to picture this as a hotel."

Miss Harribeth snorted. "It barely was one, for a season or two, no more; and that more than seventy years ago. There may be no one alive now who remembers. The man was either a fool or else fifty years ahead of his time, which may amount to the same thing. He thought the lake here would draw people from all over, and so it does: holidaymakers, sportsmen and women, the sick and the frail, all sorts. Now, it does. But he thought they would come as soon as the district was opened up. He paid to install the funicular and started building up here on the rim when the Queen Empress was still new to her throne, sure that by the time the castle was ready, guests would be lining up at the door. That was plain foolishness. We'd been on Mars for two generations, no more; we were still building a country, still struggling with the land and the creatures, still learning to navigate the seasons. No one had time for leisure, however much they needed it. He was a wealthy man, but he broke himself trying to build his paradise in our sweet air. He built it, and nobody came.

"He tried to sell out, but who would buy a hotel with no trade? Authority leased it for a time and found it impractical as a focus for local government, hard to reach, inconvenient for everybody. The Army tried it as a training base, and again found that the disadvantages outweighed the gains. So then it stood empty, except for occasional field trips from universities back home, coming to study the naiad in the lake and develop our understanding of bubble-talk. Miss Tolchard came, as a student from Oxford. Twenty years later, when it was quite decided what she would do, she remembered the great forlorn castle she'd camped at in her youth, and knew where she wanted to establish her school.

"It had served as a hospital in the war, but was empty again after. When she came to see about it, she found the sanatorium already building across the lake. The lake and the air and the views were drawing hikers and families and visitors from all across Charter territory and further yet. Tour companies from Earth were starting to add this region to their itineraries. If she'd been five years later, who can say but that the castle might not have been a hotel again? Certainly the need was there.

"But the girls of Mars needed schooling, and Miss Tolchard came to an agreement with the owners, and the Crater School has been here ever since. We've put up new buildings, of course, as the school expanded, but all our classrooms are here, except for the science block; and the dining room you've seen, and the chapel too. The turrets are reserved for staff bedrooms and studies. And here, now: here is the library."

A high Gothic door set in a carved stone arch closed off the corridor. Miss Harribeth flung it open and stepped inside, giving them just a moment to peer into a gloom pierced by slanted beams of vivid colour, where the sun struck down through more stained glass. Then she swept her hand down across a bank of electric switches, and many lights blazed out at once.

"Oh!"

Even the scowling Rachel couldn't bite back her cry of delight. Before them stretched a book-lover's paradise indeed. Desks stood in alcoves, tables stretched down the middle of the long, long room - and every wall, every alcove was shelved with dark oak, and every shelf was tight with books, from old worn leather bindings to bright modern paper jackets. Levity was content merely to stand and look, to take in the glory of the tall windows, the high beamed ceiling, the spiral staircase that wound up to an ironwork gallery and yet more shelving, yet more books. Charm, she knew, would ache to bury herself in the fiction section, seeking out the school stories she loved so much. Levity preferred to read history, and especially the history of the British Empire on Mars, the great men - and women too - who had founded the colony and built an abiding presence here over a century and a half; but she had her mother's eye for colour and design, and for now, it was enough to look.

Miss Harribeth was beaming at her side. "It is impressive, girls, is it not? For once, this isn't down to our adapting the original building to the needs of a school; this was always intended for a library. What sort of visitors he thought it might draw, I cannot say. What kind of man he was, I think his own house tells us. Visionary, romantic, extravagant, capricious, all of those; and engaged, resolute, hopeful, those too. A man of parts. He achieved a great thing here, though he never found success with it. Everything we have made here, from Miss Tolchard's original vision to our realisation of it, this school as it stands now, everything has its foundation in his work. He didn't know that we were coming, or that we should be so grateful - but he knew that he built for the ages, and however much I want to deprecate the artificiality of his castle, I find that in honesty I cannot. We are grateful, and with cause - and more than that, I think I should have liked him, had we only had the chance to meet."

Just then there came the patter of urgent feet behind them, in the corridor. Levity glanced around to see two girls about her own age, leggy and blonde and stunningly alike. For a moment she thought it was only the uniforms they wore - a match for those in her trunk and her sister's, not yet unpacked, a deep forest-green gym tunic and blazer with gold piping, smart and striking both at once - and the identical long straight ponytails in which they wore their hair. A second look told her she was wrong, though. Everything about them was identical, from the slight snub of their noses to the cool misty blue of their eyes. Even their stances, as they stood side by side and put their hands politely behind their backs and lifted their eyes to the mistress.

"Please, Miss Harribeth" - did they decide beforehand which one would speak, or did it happen by instinct? - "Miss Leven sent us to collect Rachel, if you've finished with her."

"Thank you, girls. Tasha, is it?"

"Tawney, Miss Harribeth."

"Tawney, I do beg your pardon. I still say we should try colour-coding: a thread of blue or red in your lapel, like the ribbon of the Légion d'Honneur - discreet and telling. Though I suppose you might swap blazers, and then we'd never be sure."

The other girl smiled, with a glimmer of wickedness. "Miss Leven can always tell. So can Rowany."

"Miss Leven is wise in her generation, as Rowany in hers. Those of us with less wisdom must get by with asking, and trust you to be honest. As we do. Very well, girls: you may take Rachel now. Levity and Charm" - the twins' eyes bugged suddenly at the sound of their names; Levity felt her sister's hand nudge hers, see? Told you! - "find a book each and sit quietly, till someone comes for you."

Neither needed telling twice. Charm made a predictable beeline for the novels; Levity was happy simply to browse the nearest shelf. She was half tempted to watch the other girls depart, partly for the fascination of twins and partly just to see Rachel's demeanour, if she were as sulky with schoolgirls as she was with a grown-up.

They were still very much on their best behaviour, though, she and Charm both, and Mamma always told them not to stare. To look, yes, and to see clearly, to consider what they saw; but staring was unmannerly. "New girls need to tread lightly," Mamma had said. "It's going to be a big change for both of you, I know, but first impressions matter at school almost more than anywhere else. Don't gabble, don't yell, and don't stare."

So she focused on the faded leather bindings on the shelf closest at hand, and found that this was the Geography section - or Areography, rather, books about the lands and waters of Mars. Cassini, the Crater City - but Cassini was far from here, and Levity had read that already, when they spent a winter living there. The Peaks and Canyons of Tharsis - but the book had no pictures and no maps, and what was the use of a book about Tharsis without a picture of Olympus Mons to dream over, and a map with contour-lines to show how high it stood, and how deep the Mariner Valley?

Our Martian Canals and the Ships We Sail There was a better book, richly illustrated. Again, though, she had read it before, that year they had spent on a steam-liner cruising between Marsport and New Victoria. And besides, it was shockingly out of date. Of course there were still sailcraft on the canals, and many of them; but the Age of Steam had dawned in the last century, and that book took no account of it at all. Which was just silly.

Ooh now, this was better: The History of Lowell Lake, from the Charter to the Great War's End. She'd only need to walk outside to see the landscape it described; the Crater School stood on the very margin of Lowell Lake, looking out across its dark waters. And better yet, the book was only a few years old; the school itself might even be mentioned in its pages!

Levity perched on the nearest chair, opened the book - and found a sheet-map glued inside the back cover, folded tight to fit. That was best of all. She laid the book flat on the table and spread the map out to its fullest extent. She barely noticed when her younger sister came to sit beside her. By then Levity was kneeling on her chair and stretched on her elbows across the table, utterly absorbed, poring over the map's every detail with her nose just an inch above the paper.

"Careful, kid. You'll do yourself a mischief."

The voice was warm and gurgling with laughter, and it came with two firm hands attached. Which was just as well, for Levity startled and tried to twist her head to see who had come at the same time as trying to slide back into her chair like a civilised human being. She failed at both. The tabletop was polished to the slipperiness of ice; she lost all balance as her elbow slipped, and her jerking legs sent the chair skidding away across the equally well-polished floor."

Whoops! Who knew I was going in for a prophetess?"

Those welcome hands caught Levity with a grip like iron springs as she squawked, as she flailed, as she felt herself about to fall awkwardly between table and chair. Charm screamed, but there was no need; the dark stranger took her weight easily, set her lightly on her feet, held her until she was steady and then released her with a nod.

"You'll do. But for the love of Michael and all his saints, don't treat the furniture hereabouts as a climbing-frame. Old Mr Felton loves his polish-can, and he gives everything a special rub-up for the start of term. Treat all the woodwork like glass for a week or two, I should. And don't ever let him catch you deliberately sliding on it, for there's nothing he hates more and he's a tongue like one of his own rasps. Now, stand there and let me look at you. You too, girly. And don't look so scared, your sister's not hurt. Are you?"

Levity shook her head stoutly, though in fact the sudden fall and equally sudden rescue had set all her body a-tremble.

"No, I thought not. Just shaken up. A slip like that can rattle your brains entirely. Believe me, I know. My name's Melanie Fitzwalter; I'm Games pree, and head of Stokes House for my sins. Which must have been greater than I knew, because I appear to have been landed with both you babes at once. Come along with me now, and I'll show you the house and your dorms and so forth. Levity - you're Levity, the elder, yes? - you're in Herschel, and Charm's in Cavendish. And of course I shan't ask, I can't ask, because manners are important here, you'll learn that if you learn nothing else in all your days as Craterians - but if you chose to tell me how you came by those names, I can guarantee that I'd be interested."

"Oh, that's simple." Apparently the shock of seeing her sister fall had driven all promises of discretion out of Charm's scatterbrained head. "We're both redheads, you see," which was possibly the most redundant statement ever uttered aloud by a girl with blazing ginger curls, "and Mamma doesn't believe at all in old wives' tales about bad temper going with red hair, but she does believe in sympathetic magic and the power of names. She says she named us after light-hearted virtues so that we'd grow up cheerful and contented, in defiance of society's expectations. She thinks too many people provoking us in hopes of a temper-tantrum could push us over the edge and prove the rumours true; and she thinks our names help us to push back against it. But please" - and now that she wasn't quoting their mother she sounded like herself again, young and uncertain and slipping a cold slim hand into Levity's for the comfort of her sister's grip - "can't we be in the same dormitory? We haven't ever been apart, we've always shared a room together, and..."

"Sorry, girlie, can't be done. You're going into Lower Third, which is firmly Junior territory; your sister's in Lower Fourth, which is Middles through and through. Can't have Juniors and Middles in the same dorm. You'll have different bedtimes, for one thing. Don't worry, you'll have plenty of chances to see each other; that's why you've been put in the same house, I expect. Family is important to us, here at the Crater School. Well, it has to be, when so many of our girls have relatives in the sanatorium across the water. But at the same time you'll need to make friends in your own crowd. If we do our jobs right, you'll want to. The Juniors are a happy crew, by and large - and if you don't find them welcoming, I'll be asking the reason why. Has either of you been in school before?"

"No, we never have." Levity fielded that question, to give her sister a chance to catch her breath and possibly bite her tongue. "Nor had a governess, either. Mamma's always moved around so much, and always wanted to keep us with her; she says there's more than one road to an education, and it doesn't always mean sitting in a classroom reciting multiplication tables and Latin declensions."

"Well, she's quite right, as far as that goes - but on the other hand, multiplication tables and Latin declensions are both of them quite handy if you want to make your way in the world, and reciting them in class with your friends is a neat way to swallow them down."

She was walking as she talked; they followed her perforce, to a corner of the library where three stone steps led down to a shadowed doorway.

"This is the back way in; we use this more often than the front door. It's a short dash from here to Stokes, or any of the other houses. Just don't let anyone catch you treating the library as a shortcut through to your classrooms; that's frowned on. Same rule for chapel, of course. That has a back door too, just the other side of the arch here, but you don't ever use it for access to the rest of the school."

She held the door open and ushered them through. They came out at the back of the castle; it rose behind and above them, solid and timeless, a high red wall. On their left, an archway led through to the courtyard they had already admired; beyond the arch, as Melanie had said, the tall stained glass of the chapel made a pair with the library's own windows.

Here there was no moat to bridge, as there was at the front. The rear of the castle was paved rather than defended, presumably to make it easier for supply-wagons and steamtrucks to come and go, easier for deliverymen and kitchen staff to fetch and carry, in and out. Beyond the paving stood a line of stables, empty now. Melanie turned to walk them briskly past the run of open stable doors, past the tack-room and the muck-heap and the gardeners' sheds.

"We do keep half a dozen ponies, but they"re all down below for the holidays. Some of the staff will ride them up tomorrow, rather than take the funicular. If you're keen on horses, you'll have your chance to try that ride sooner or later. It takes half a day, but the views are spectacular as you rise up from the plain. The track zigzags back and forth, all the way up the crater wall. Only you have to earn the opportunity, by mucking out and cleaning tack and so forth for a term or two. Ponies take a lot of looking after, and there's no stable lad to do the work. Just us."

Charm was mad on horses, happy to let herself get filthy and ravenous and exhausted in the process of seeing them clean and fed and content. Levity left her to say so, at length, since the older girl seemed just as keen as she was. For Levity herself, it was enough just to walk along quietly and look at their new home. She couldn't hope to take in everything at first glance, but at least she was paying attention and learning what she could. Charm would be seeing nothing, she knew, except a delightful dream of ponies; at least one sister should be able to find her way around.

Past the stables lay the tennis courts, original to the hotel. Beyond those were four large houses spaced apart, each with their own gardens round about. Built of the same red sandstone as the castle but to a much more modern design, roofed with grey tiles and with their feet rooted in spring green growth, they looked cosy and welcoming.

"Butler, Jopling, Greenaway and Stokes," Melanie recited, counting them off one by one with a pointing finger. "That last, of course, being our own home from home. Come along, and we'll see if your trunks have been put where they should be. If so, we'll get you both unpacked tonight; tomorrow will be the most dreadful scrum. Such a good idea, sending new girls up a day early. Gives you the chance to get your feet under the table before the mob descends..."

Levity was still chanting under her breath, Butler, Jopling, Greenaway, Stokes... "They're all artists," she announced abruptly.

Charm stared at her. "Who are, loopy?"

"Butler, Jopling, Greenaway and Stokes. Famous artists, from the last century."

"Famous women artists," Melanie amplified. "Of course they are. Just as the dormitories are all named after women scientists. Didn't you read the prospectus?"

"We haven't even seen the prospectus," Charm said. "Mamma left us here in a bit of a rush, you might say." She was glancing sideways at her sister, biting back a giggle; Levity glowered crushingly. The last thing she wanted was for that story to become common gossip.

"Oh." Melanie looked a little blank for a moment. "Hope it wasn't a family emergency or anything like that?"

"No, not really. Just Mamma." At least Charm had the sense to leave it at that. For now. Levity resolved to have a quiet but firm word with her, as soon as they could contrive to be alone.

"Well, then. Yes, Levity, all artists: Elizabeth, Lady Butler; Louise Jopling; Kate Greenaway; Marianne Stokes. Each house has at least one original work by their namesake, and plenty of prints. You must be keen on art, to know them from their surnames if you really hadn't a clue before."

"Not a hint of a clue, no. But - well, we get it from Mamma. She practically raised us in galleries." She could safely say that much, at least - though now it was Charm's turn to glower at her.

"Did she? Oh - wait a minute. Your surname's Buchanan, isn't it? You're not by any remote chance talking about Isobel Buchanan, the sculptress?"

Levity and Charm glanced at each other, two sisters with but a single thought: We told her so, we said we should register under another name but no, "Hide in plain sight," she said, as if that could ever hope to work...

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Three Twins at the Crater School © Chaz Brencley 2015