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The Camden Ghost

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Chapter 1: Expelled

Even worse than being trapped inside a stuffy classroom figuring out Latin verbs was being stuck inside on such a beautiful day, all that sunlight and greenery of Massachusetts out of reach. Susie wanted to snap her pencil, push aside her books, throw open a window, climb over the sill, and escape to go swimming in the stream. But that would be scandalous. No young lady at Wheaton Female Seminary would dare set aside her skirts to wade into the cool blue water.

Susie sighed. Better to have been born in ancient Greece, maybe, or the heyday of the Roman Empire. At least then she wouldn't have to wear uncomfortable leather shoes and a white blouse whose stiff cuffs smelled like bleach and made her wrists itch.

"Miss Phillips," said the teacher briskly. "Less daydreaming and more conjugating."

The girls around her tittered. Even after all these months they thought she was a backwaters hick because they came from Boston and New York, and she from lowly Rhode Island. Their families were of old stock and firm finances. Her father's fortune was currently waxing, but like the moon it periodically waned.

"Yes, ma'am," Susie said, her cheeks hot, and turned her gaze from the window.

She tried to focus on her chart of singular imperative tenses but her right ankle was throbbing and the idea of soaking it in the stream was so very tempting. Perhaps she could slip away after dinner at noon, when all the girls were supposed to walk around the campus to take in the fresh air and discuss great ideas or important literature. More often than not they simply gossiped about each other, their teachers, and the seminary staff. If she ducked away for just a few minutes--

A secretary knocked on the wooden door, entered, and handed Susie's teacher a note.

"Miss Phillips," the teacher said. "Mrs. Metcalf requests your presence."

More tittering. Being pulled from class by the seminary principal was never good for a student's reputation. Susie held her chin high and gathered up her small leather-bound books. Acutely aware of every eye on her, she rose as gracefully as she could and took a firm step away from her desk. Her right ankle twinged a red-hot warning and she stopped, trying hard not to flinch.

From her desk, the Latin teacher said, "Mrs. Metcalf is waiting for you."

Susie gritted her teeth and took another step. She wished she'd though to keep her laces loose. Apparently her ankle had swelled up during her studies of verbs. Sheer stubbornness got her to the front of the room and then down the hall after the secretary, limping as minimally as she could.

Mrs. Metcalf--the nastiest girls called her Old Calf-- did not look impressed when Susie arrived, but at least she motioned for her to take a side chair. Susie sank down gratefully against the brown upholstery. The windows here looked down across the campus grounds and toward the pretty village of Norton. A horse-drawn blue carriage clopped up the driveway, perhaps bringing one of their wealthy benefactors from the Wheaton family.

Mrs. Metcalf cleared her throat. Susie pulled her gaze inside and tried to calm herself, but her hands had gone sweaty in her lap and her heart was beating faster than usual. Perhaps Mrs. Metcalf only wanted to see how she was doing. That would be nice.

"I have received a report that you were seen climbing down from that old oak tree by the stables this morning," Mrs. Metcalf said sternly.

Well, that wasn't good. Susie tried to look innocent. "I'm a great fan of nature, Mrs. Metcalf."

"At dawn."

"I rise early," Susie said.

"And then climbing up the trellis to your room before the morning bells rang," Mrs. Metcalf added.

Susie decided not to point out that it was a poorly maintained trellis, full of wood-rot and loose nails. She wouldn't have twisted her ankle in a short fall if it had done its job properly.

"One might reasonably presume you spent the night in that oak tree, and look to see if any of the stable boys had descended from its branches as well."

"Mrs. Metcalf!" Susie did a good imitation of sounding scandalized. "That's a very serious accusation."

Mrs. Metcalf leaned forward in her stiff brown dress. Behind her spectacles, her eyes were quite furious.

"What's quite serious, Miss Phillips, is the reputation of this school and its students! I will not have you sullying that for ill-conceived dalliances and harlotry!"

Susie sat back in the chair as if slapped. To be accused of harlotry was an entirely new category of insult than the others she'd endured. It was true that she'd spent the night in the tree, but all she and Daniel had done was talk about their homes, their dreams, the shooting stars in the sky, and the beauty of the night around them. They had held hands, true enough, but only to keep from slipping out of the thick sturdy branches. Daniel had been a perfect gentlemen, and Susie thought it very wrong to assume he had poor intentions just because he came from a lower class.

Mrs. Metcalf clamped her mouth shut for a moment as if she regretted her words. But her eyes didn't yield anything, and after a moment she resumed.

"It's my duty to say that when the term ends in a few weeks you'll be returning to your family in Rhode Island and not invited to return," Mrs. Metcalf said. "I will write to your father and let him know of this development. I'm sure he'll be very disappointed in you."

Not just disappointed. Susie imagined he'd be furious.

"You are not to go near the stables, or the trees, or anywhere but your room and classrooms until term end," Mrs. Metcalf said. "Break that edict and I'll send you packing immediately. Do you understand, Miss Phillips?"

Susie dug her fingernails into her palms. No one ever won an argument with Mrs. Metcalf. She was known to fire teachers who didn't perform to her exacting standards, even if the girls loved them. She was so frugal that the food at mealtime was sometimes inedibly bland, and she skimped on firewood during the coldest months of winter. She was the seminary's sole judge and juror, and Susie had already been tried and convicted.

"I understand," Susie gritted out. "May I return to class?"

"Return and speak of it not," Mrs. Metcalf said. "Try to retain a shred of decency until you leave."

Until she was expelled and sent home in utter disgrace while the other girls twittered and gossiped about her. Sarah Susan Phillips, such a little harlot.

Susie rose from her chair and limped away, hoping only the worst things for Mrs. Metcalf's future and wishing she could burn the whole seminary to the ground.

end of part one