Chapter One - Welcome to Hellton
Kathleen Murray turned abruptly, startled by the sudden sound of bagpipes which echoed the familiar tune, 'Scotland the brave' around the stone hall. She smiled to herself, it was nice to have a piece of home when she was thousands of miles away. Her eyes followed the procession of boys, making their way down the steps and towards the end of the aisle where her grandfather, Mr Nolan was waiting to make the same speech that she remembered him making as a young girl.
'Tradition, Honour, Discipline, Excellence', she had heard those four words several times already since arriving in Vermont two days ago. Why did she have to be here? Maybe her Father had been right in wanting her to return to Scotland. Imagining herself travelling to another school like a sort of exchange student was one thing, actually being here was completely different. Now it all seemed quite real. Attending an all-boys school, unbelievable.
"Ladies and gentlemen, boys. The light of knowledge" Mr Nolan began.
Admittedly, she was under her grandfather's watchful eye and it was only temporary but wow, she was beginning to get nervous. Growing up with two younger brothers and a few boys her own age in the nearest village hadn't really prepared her for this, she thought as she shrunk low in the corner of her back pew. Any minute now all eyes would be searching for her.
"One hundred years ago in 1859, forty-one boys sat in this room and where asked the same question that now greets you at the start of each semester. Gentlemen what are the four pillars?"
Simultaneously, every school boy in the audience stood to recite the words "Tradition, honour, discipline, excellence." All had the same straight face and posture. What was this place? It had fascinated her as child with its maze of corridors, vast land, and classrooms full of books and knowledge. Now it seemed stifling and miserable. Not one student looked happy to be here.
"In her first year," her grandfather's voice broke her out of her thoughts, "Welton Academy graduated five students. Last year we graduated fifty-one. And more than seventy five percent of those went on to the Ivy leagues."
The following enthusiastic round of applause made it obvious why the school was so renowned amongst parents of a certain mindset.
"This kind of accomplishment" he continued, "is the result of fervent dedication to the principles taught here. This is why you parents are sending us your sons. This is why we are the best preparatory school in the United States."
Kathleen tried not to roll her eyes at the sight of the parents in the pew to her right. Their son looked downright terrified by the speech and they just nudged him to applaud. Oblivious to the poor boy's agitation.
"As you know, our beloved Mr Porte's of the English department retired last term," he announced to the sobered crowd. "You will have the opportunity later to meet his replacement, Mr John Keating." A kindly looking man stood at the sound of his name, he gave the crowd a small smile before lowering himself back into his seat. "Himself an honours graduate of this school, who for the past several years has been teaching at the highly regarded Chester School in London. Now, before we leave I have one more matter to address."
Kathleen felt her stomach drop as she met her grandfather's eyes across the hall.
"This semester we have a more...unconventional student attending the Academy. My granddaughter, Miss Murray will be here until the new year, when she will return to St. Mary's Academy for young ladies. I assure you that this will in no way affect the education of your sons. Her living quarters will be separate and if there is any disruption to classes, they will also become separate immediately. We will meet this temporary change with grace and use it as a practice for the boy's good manners and chivalry. That is all."
Hundreds of heads turned, eyes attempting to spot her, the girl breaking tradition. Fortunately, she was well hidden and dressed in a similar fashion to many of the boy's sisters. The unlucky girls whose parents would not send them to fancy schools like the ones their brothers attended. Only the people near her gave her questioning looks, she gave them a polite smile and nod as she stood, smoothed down her skirt and melted into the crowd exiting the hall.
Outside it was a hub of activity. The wave of noise hit her instantly. Cars lined the driveway, piles of luggage littered the ground, parents fussed and young boys cried in their Mother's arms whilst the older boys slapped each other's backs in greeting. She hovered just outside of the door for a moment. Her grandfather was clearly busy and nobody had told her what to do until dinner, or even where to sit. Now did not seem like the opportune moment to enquire so she decided to disappear. She rounded the corner of the building and headed towards the main entrance. She had received her timetable at breakfast and the present moment seemed like a good time to find tomorrows classrooms.
Inside it was much quieter. The odd teacher wondered by, seeking refuge from the onslaught of parents and their questions, no doubt. She found chemistry and Latin promptly and spent a little more time finding her way to English. It was getting easier to find her bearings by the day. She checked her watch, she still had a while before dinner. She turned down the next corridor and found herself in what must be the dorms. Boys darted in and out of rooms, suitcases were abandoned in doorways and the air was filled with chatter and boisterous laughter. It was so similar to her own experiences at boarding school yet so different. If she was at St. Mary's like she was supposed to be, there would be shrieks, hugs and giggles before late nights talking about the summer with snacks and coca cola. Homesickness stirred up inside of her, not just for her home in Scotland but for her own school and friends. It would be days before she received any letters.
She passed the rooms, briefly peering inside with curiosity. Each room was similar to her own which was located near her grandfathers, except her's had a bathroom and a little more space and storage since it was a single. She was approaching the end of the corridor when she was blocked by a group of boys who were gathered outside of an open door.
"Rumour has it you did summer school" she heard one of them say,
"Yep, chemistry. My Father thought I should get ahead. How was your summer slick?" came a reply from inside of the room. Kathleen tried to edge around the group but was forced back by a boy with a cold and his father hurrying past. She pulled a face involuntarily as the sick boy sneezed a little too close to her to be hygienic.
"King" the voice responded. Suddenly the boy closest to her stepped backwards, right into her. He turned around in surprise.
"Sorry, I didn't see you there" he extended his hand, "I'm Knox Overstreet and you must be Nolan's granddaughter, right?"
"Yes. Kathleen Murray" she replied shaking his hand, "it's okay, it wouldn't have happened if some kid hadn't sneezed so closely to me."
"That'll be spaz" laughed the boy in glasses next to him, "I'm Steven Meeks."
"Pleasure to meet you" Kathleen smiled shaking his hand as well.
"You found the girl?" came a voice from inside of the room.
"Yeah" Knox called back, stepping into the dorm, "do you want to come in and meet the others?" he asked.
"Sure," she followed Knox and Steven over the threshold. Inside were three other boys, including the terrified boy from the assembly.
"Meeks door, closed" called a brown-haired boy before lighting a cigarette.
"What are the four pillars?" asked another as the boys settled themselves in the room.
"Travesty, horror, decadence, excrement" they echoed dramatically.
Kathleen leaned against the wall, listening to the interaction with amusement.
"Hey, study group" announced the boy with the cigarette, "Meeks aced Latin. I didn't quite flunk English so" he continued as he stretched out on the bed, "if you want we've got our study group."
"Sure" replied the boy in the window, "Cameron asked me already, does anyone mind including him?"
"What's his specialty? Bootlicking" his friend drawled.
"He's your roommate"
"That's not my fault!"
"Kathleen, are you interested in joining?" Steven asked, turning away from his friends.
"If it's okay with you all" she said looking around at the others. They all nodded.
"Hey, we got the girl"" cheered one of the boys.
"The girl is called Kathleen" she smiled, "I'm great with English and history but pitiful with mathematics."
"Don't worry about it" assured the tall boy, "I'm Neil Perry by the way. That's Charlie" he said pointing at the boy on the bed who saluted, "and that's Todd Anderson. He's new to Welton too."
"Hi" all the boys echoed, introducing themselves to Todd, who shook their hands obligingly before returning to the task of unpacking his case.
"Todd's brother is Jeffrey Anderson" said Neil. The others murmured in recognition. Clueless to the significance of this brother, Kathleen listened.
"Valedictorian and national merits scholar" Charlie whistled. He was right, it was a pretty impressive list of accomplishments.
"Oh, welcome to Hellton" commented Steven with a nod at both Todd and Kathleen.
"It's every bit as tough as they say, unless you're a genius like Meeks" Charlie added.
"He flatters me. That's why I help him with Latin."
"And English, and trig" Charlie trailed off as he accidently inhaled the smoke and coughed.
A knock at the door sounded, sparking a frenzy of movement as Charlie stamped on the cigarette and Neil tried to wave the smoke away, "It's open" he called.
In strode a man in a grey suit, the boys stood, Kathleen followed suit.
"Father! I thought you'd gone" Neil blinked.
"Mr Perry" Charlie smiled, obviously familiar with the man.
"Keep your seats fella's keep your seats" he glanced around the room, "oh, and lady. You must be Gale's granddaughter, Miss Murray."
"Yes sir" she replied, not expecting Neil's father to know who she was.
"I've heard great things from your Grandfather. Shame about the fire at St. Mary's" he frowned, "but I'm sure you'll find Welton a great substitute. I hope the boys have been treating you well."
"I'm convinced I will, sir. My grandfather runs a fine institution. And the boys have all been perfect gentlemen" she smiled, layering on the charm.
"I'm glad" he nodded, "Neil, I've actually just spoken to Mr Nolan. I think you're taking too many extra-curricular activities this semester, and I've decided that you should drop the school annual."
"But I'm assistant editor this year" he protested with a frown.
"I'm sorry Neil", he responded but in Kathleen's opinion he didn't look it.
"But Father I can't! It wouldn't be fair-"
"Fellas, lady, would you excuse us for a moment please" Mr Perry interrupted before leading his son out of the room. Looks were exchanged between the boys, Kathleen caught Todd's look of concern. They were both newbies but she knew that he could also tell that it was bad. The atmosphere had changed the moment Mr Perry walked, it hadn't been so prominent though until now.
Whispered arguing was heard through the door, the students inside tried not to listen. Thankfully, Steven broke the silence "how did a fire start at St. Mary's, if you don't mind me asking of course."
"It's fine" she smiled, grateful for the distraction, not unlike the others by the looks of it. "Summer school cookery club got a little out of hand, one of the younger girl's pans caught fire. She panicked and ran the pan over to the sink, but it caught the curtains. The supervisor got everybody out before it got to the gas. Kitchens exploded along with damage to half of the west wing. They actually thought the chemistry class was at fault until they realised the class went to the library that day," she explained attempting to drag the story out until Neil and his Father were finished.
"That's awful, was everyone alright?" asked Knox.
"Shit" Charlie murmured.
"Fine, but repairs mean school can't open until January if it all goes to plan."
It seemed like Neil's Father had left but Neil still hadn't come back. Charlie and Knox got up to check on him.
Kathleen conversed with Steven and shy Todd while they waited for the rest of the boys to return. She found out that they had another friend, Gerard Pitts and that Charlie's roommate Richard Cameron sometimes tagged along as well. Dinner was in a few minutes so they re-grouped and made their way down to the dining hall.