“That girl,” Miss Hardbroom announced sharply as she strode into the headmistress' office. “That girl should not be allowed in this school.”
Miss Cackle looked up from her papers and peered over her glasses at Miss Hardbroom's stiff figure. “I'm sorry, HB,” she replied, vaguely, and, to Miss Hardbroom's irate mind, rather unconcernedly. “Which girl would that be?”
Miss Hardbroom could barely keep herself from stamping her foot with impatience. By golly, but Miss Cackle could be frustrating at times! “I believe you know who I'm talking about, headmistress,” she replied icily. “Mildred Hubble.” The syllables of the irritating girl's name fell through her lips like stones. It was rather a pleasurable release of her irritation to enunciate them, as if she were spitting out something unpleasant tasting.
Miss Cackle sighed, and looked down at her desk. “Constance, you know as well as I do that the girl has every right to be here. In fact, you of all people should understand.” Before Miss Hardbroom could protest, Miss Cackle continued. “I'm sure she'll pass her Broomstick Aptitude Test well enough, and otherwise I have no reason to disallow her from continuing here. Fresh blood, HB – fresh blood!”
Since that seemed to be a dismissal, Miss Hardbroom allowed herself a small “humph,” but strode out of the room. How the headmistress could not see that girls like Mildred Hubble were simply not Cackle's material, she could not understand. Humble beginnings was one thing, but a girl lacking in an understanding of standards, of discipline, of the honour granted to her by giving her a place at such a prestigious academy – a scholarship place, no less! That was another thing entirely.
As she marched up the stairs with her lantern to check that the girls' candles were all out, another thought struck her: Miss Cackle's words, that she of all people should understand. The nerve! Her own start at Cackle's was under far different circumstances. She had always striven to be the very best in her class, no matter the effort it had taken. No time for friends and silly chit-chat when she knew that her presence at the school was due to goodwill, not money and heritage. She would never have dreamed of being late, of showing such blatant disrespect to those who had been good enough to give her the opportunity she had always dreamed about. What nonsense on the part of the headmistress, to imagine that she, Constance Hardbroom, had anything at all in common with Mildred Hubble. The girl cared about cats and bats and breakfast over the boundless and, most of all, serious possibilities of magic. Cats and bats and breakfast! Miss Hardbroom snorted, and blew out the last candle in the corridor.
Cats and bats and breakfast, indeed. If the headmistress is unwilling to remove the girl, I suppose I'll have to see what shape I can whip her into.
Mildred tugged at her nightgown distractedly, and sighed heavily. “Second year's much worse than first year, Maud,” she groaned.
Maud put her hands on her hips and looked squarely at Mildred. “Don't be so silly, Millie. You know that first year was heaps of fun. And this year will be too. Maybe you just need to try to... well, avoid Ethel?”
“But she's impossible to avoid! It's like she hunts me down just to get me into trouble!”
Maud folded her arms. “But Millie, it all worked out in the end! After all, you got an award for bravery. Ethel must be steaming mad!”
“Yes, but that was a whole week ago now. It's ancient history! And Ethel has been twice as bad since then.” Mildred looked at the floor dejectedly.
Maud shrugged. “Oh, she's just jealous. And she knows it's all her fault!”
“It doesn't matter. She still knows exactly how to get HB to think I'm the worst witch in the entire school.” With that, Mildred flung herself backwards onto her bed dramatically. Unfortunately, she misjudged the distance and cracked her head sharply on the wooden bedstead, her flailing hands accidentally knocking her candlestick to the ground with a loud clatter, where it sputtered out, leaving a trail of wax on the hard stone floor. Maud gasped, her face draining of all colour, as a familiar voice sounded from the other side of the bedroom door.
“Mildred Hubble! I should have known it would be you who would still be awake and causing trouble!” The door to Mildred's bedroom swung open with a sharp crack, and the two girls peered nervously at Miss Hardbroom's tall, angular figure, shadowy in the light of her candle. “And Maud Moonshine! Back to your room this instant. I'll deal with you later.”
Maud glanced quickly at Mildred, who had stood up quickly, then back at Miss Hardbroom, and scuttled from the room. Mildred bit her lip anxiously. “I'm sorry, Miss Hardbroom...” she began.
“Sorry?” Despite the darkened room, Mildred could distinctly make out her teacher's disdainfully raised eyebrow. “Mildred, you are a second year. You should not be causing situations that you have to be sorry for!”
Mildred looked down at the floor. “It won't happen again....”
Miss Hardbroom snorted. “I should think not. It has happened far too many times already. You will present yourself to me before breakfast tomorrow, in my study, where I will give you a suitable punishment.” She drew out the last word slightly longer than necessary.
Mildred sighed. “Yes, Miss Hardbroom.”
“Now, go to sleep!” And with that, Miss Hardbroom disappeared, candle and all. Mildred collapsed back onto her bed, rubbing the sore patch on the back of her head. Just my luck, she thought. First Ethel, and now this. She climbed under the covers, and heard a thud as Tabby jumped up to join her, snuggling under her chin. “At least I don't get you into trouble,” she whispered.
Just after dawn, Mildred made her way sleepily to Miss Hardbroom's chambers. Despite the numerous times that she had been in trouble with the stern teacher, she had never been called to her private study before. Fenella Feverfew had tried to persuade her that she had heard of one girl who had gone there and never returned, but Mildred had heard Fen's legpulls a few too many times to believe her.
At least, that's what she tried to tell herself.
Reaching the door, she tried (in vain) to straighten the bent tip of her black hat – somehow, no matter how smart it looked at the beginning of the school year, it was always bent again by the second day – and knocked once.
Miss Hardbroom's rooms at Cackle's Academy were quite suited to her outlook on life. A single bed with white sheets, smartly starched and with hospital corners took up most of the small bedroom. In the adjoining study, three bookshelves were arranged above a neat mahogany desk, with an ink blotter placed perfectly in the middle, a quill and inkstand to one side, and a small candlestick in the corner. The stone-slabbed floor had no rug or covering, and everything was clean and shining, all in either white or dark browns and black. Mildred had never seen a room so orderly in her life.
“Mildred.” Miss Hardbroom said sharply, suddenly appearing behind her. Mildred whipped around, nearly falling over, and landed wobbling precariously on one foot, facing her teacher.
“M..Miss Hardbroom!” she stuttered with surprise.
Miss Hardbroom glowered at her. “Mildred, it is not often that I go so far as to call a student here to speak to me, but in your case I find it rather necessary. This blatant disregard of the rules of this academy must not continue.”
Mildred looked at the floor. “Yes, Miss Hardbroom. I was just...”
“I do not care what you were 'just doing', Mildred,” Miss Hardbroom said. “Lights out is lights out. Silence, and all girls in their own rooms! I don't doubt that you were somehow involved in starting the events after lights out last week, too, Medal for Bravery notwithstanding!”
Mildred looked affronted. “That was nothing to do with me! All I did was help Sybil. And it was all Ethel's fault in the first place, anyway!”
Miss Hardbroom sniffed. “I find that hard to believe, that Ethel would go around the school, after lights out, conjuring up tornadoes! She, unlike you, is capable of a modicum of discipline.”
Mildred looked back down at the floor. It was hopeless to argue.
“In any case,” Miss Hardbroom continued. “I did not go so far as to ask you to come to my study simply to argue with you. I believe it's about time that you learn how to properly comport yourself as a Cackle's girl should.”
Mildred could feel worry begin to churn in the pit of her stomach. What on earth was Miss Hardbroom going to suggest?
“The message that you have repeatedly been given since arriving at this school has clearly not quite yet reached your brain from your ears. Perhaps writing it will help. You will sit here, in this room, and you will write lines.” She held out a piece of parchment paper. “Please write out fifty times: 'A scholarship does not allow free rein to disrespect this school. If I waste my time, I waste everyone's time.'”
Mildred mutely took the paper, and, at Miss Hardbroom's pointed look, sat at her teacher's desk, and began to write. Disrespect? Wasting time? How could trying her best and having a little bit of fun mean a waste of time?
But... Miss Hardbroom certainly thought that it did. Mildred glanced quickly at her teacher, stood stiffly and sternly behind her. Maybe she wasn't so much looking for Mildred to mess up, but rather was somehow genuinely offended by people actually enjoying themselves? After all, she had never seen HB smile. Maybe she didn't really understand how?
Miss Hardbroom saw the girl's glance, and frowned more deeply than before. How can she not understand it? she wondered, just as she had done multiple times per day for the last year. A scholarship girl must be better than the best. What else is the point of us being asked in the first place?
Ten years later
Cackle's, in a lot of ways, had not changed one bit, Mildred thought as she landed solidly in the courtyard. “And there's one more thing that hasn't changed,” she muttered as a familiar figure marched across the flagstones.
“Mildred Hubble,” Miss Hardbroom, now headmistress of Cackle's, exclaimed in a familiar tone. “To what do we owe this honour?” The teacher's formal bun now had a hint of grey in it, and her face was etched with a few more lines. Otherwise, she looked exactly as she had done back in Mildred's schooldays – right down to the scornful raising of her eyebrows at the sight of her former pupil.
Instead of answering, Mildred had begun to look curiously at her former teacher. A kind of bravery that she had never felt before rose within her, and she tilted her head to one side. “Miss Hardbroom, may I ask you a question?”
Miss Hardbroom frowned. What did I do to deserve this today? she asked herself. “I hardly believe that you flew all the way here from London to simply ask me a question.”
Mildred took that as a 'yes.' “I always wondered, back when I was here, in school, what you did in the holidays.”
Miss Hardbroom was taken aback. What sort of a question is that? she thought, surprised at the girl's forthrightness.
It must have shown on her face, since Mildred made an apologetic gesture. “I'm sorry, it's a silly question. It's just that, well, I suppose I only ever found out what sort of things you didn't like. I never found out what you actually liked to do.”
Miss Hardbroom narrowed her eyes. What possible reason could the girl have for asking? “It's really of no consequence for you,” she replied stiffly. Somehow, though, the girl's deflated face struck a chord. “I read,” she replied finally, shortly. “I make potions. I occasionally visit the other schools for wizards and witches. For the most part, I remain here, at the school.”
“Oh,” said Mildred, seeming a little disappointed. “I thought... well, I thought perhaps you would go abroad. Somehow I always imagined that you did.”
“Goodness, no,” Miss Hardbroom said, her surprise at the turn her day had taken freeing her words before she could stop herself. Before she could say more, she stopped herself. Why on earth was she even having this conversation with Mildred Hubble, of all people? Time to put a stop to this. “Miss Hubble. Why, exactly, are you here? I do not have time to spend all day stood in the courtyard chit-chatting, you know!”
It was clear that Mildred had forgotten that she had come here for a reason. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “Oh yes, sorry. I mean... I have a commission. For art, you know. An ex-Cackle's pupil has asked me to make some sketches and paintings of the school. As a gift for someone important, she said. So I wondered... would that be alright? I only need a few days!” She looked at the headmistress, however, with a strange expression on her face – she looked as though she had finally worked out how to get her bootlaces to stay done up, Miss Hardbroom thought cynically.
“Oh, very well,” Miss Hardbroom replied. “But you're to stay out of the way of the students, mind you! I won't have you disrupting the school for another generation of girls.”
Mildred gave a lopsided grin. “Thank you, Miss Hardbroom!” Still with that strange look on her face, and with a couple of quick glances back at her old teacher, she headed around the side of the school purposefully. Miss Hardbroom watched her go. I will never understand that girl, she thought.
Fifty years later
When Constance Hardbroom stood in her study, it looked very much the same as it always had. The desk, the candlestick, the inkwell and blotter. Ad finally, of course, the magnificent painting of Cackle's, which hung directly over it all. Occasionally, as she glanced at her school - her home – if anybody had happened to be there, they might just have seen the beginnings of a smile.
When Mildred Hubble looked back over her career, she couldn't help but think of one painting in particular. It was not as celebrated as many of her other paintings, which often adorned the walls of witches and wizards throughout Britain – in fact, it had never left Cackle's at all. Somehow, though, she saw it as one of her greatest successes – a representation on paper of the day that she had realised exactly what made Miss Hardbroom tick.