Of Girls in a Canadian College

ALTHOUGH our college is a small one and little famous, it is still the chiefest in the well-known province of Ultima Thule. It was founded early in the last century ; and though our numbers be few and our housing unlovely, there are those that believe in our little college, admire it, love it. Some twenty years ago, certain ambitious girls signified their desire to attend it. The staff, the governors made no objection ; the girls came ; one married within the year, the other crowned a full course with a good degree ; other girls have been coming ever since. I have been young and am now old. I have had some hundreds of the college girl, as bred in these parts, under observation, and I have arrived at definite conclusions regarding her.

The popular imagination is a romantic thing. It transformed the meddlesome old woman in Southey’s tale of the three bears into the picturesque and mischievous Goldilocks. And it has created an impossible ethereal being, all good looks and good clothes, who subsists on caramels, and floats gracefully through her courses until she becomes one in a bevy of “ sweet girl graduates with their golden hair.” This is labeled “ the college girl,” and is exactly the kind of doll that great baby, the public, loves to play with.

The reality is very different. The Canadian college girl, as I know her, is an earnest young person, who is not carried to the skies of academic distinctions on flowery beds of ease. She knows the meaning and the value of hard work, with small leisure for frivolity of any kind. She may be an infant of sixteen, fresh from school, with her frock at her ankle and her hair in a “ club,” or she may be a mature woman, who may well have prepared her classmate for matriculation, or a city girl of means, with time on her hands, who takes a class or two because she wants to improve herself ; but they all alike learn to work, and shun to be idle. More of our girls have taken honors in mathematics than in any other departments ; but this may be due to the climate; the popular opinion is that the head that grows in Ultima Thule is particularly hard and strong.

Outwardly the life of the college girl is rather neutral-tinted. She comes from the country and finds a boarding-house for herself, where she exists in more or less discomfort. Her work is attending lectures ; her diversions are church and the meetings of the two college societies for girls, a rare party, or a college “ at home.” She gives her days to lectures, does not dream of cutting even the dullest, and her nights to study. Outwardly, it is not an attractive life ; but every now and then comes a hint of how those who live it look upon it, — a letter from the ends of the earth, a rarity for the museum, some books for the library, a picture for a classroom, a visit of an old student to his former haunts. The secret is that youth is the season of romance, and that within our homely walls the inner life of the intellect is kindled or fanned to brighter flame, that tinges all about it with the color of the rose. The young people get here something that they value, call it awakening, education, point of view, mental attitude, or what you will.

We have no “problem ” in our little college. The young women sit at lectures with the young men ; they read in the library and work in the laboratory together. They wear streamers of the college colors at the football matches, encouraging the gladiators by their presence at the celebration of their victory as well as at the actual contest. But they are neither rivals with the youths, nor, to the acute observer, unduly friendly. The young men will open the door of a classroom for them and allow them to go out first ; but there is no open flirtation. There was once a girl who came to the college for fun, and who had usually two or three youths about her, engaged in sparkling conversation. Her fate was strikingly appropriate; she married a minister. I have seen her since her marriage and her spirits have not abated. It must, however, be admitted that our college is, somehow or other, a matrimonial bureau, — a school for husbands and wives. Our graduates show a very amiable propensity to marry within the family, so to say. In spite of lectures, examinations, and all the stress of intellectual effort, the old puzzle regarding the way of a man with a maid persists here as elsewhere.

“The god of love, a ! benedicite,
How mighty and how great a lord is he ! ”

There must be a good deal of question and answer; the lasses must get their dues of courting, but public opinion decrees that it must not be done on the premises. A few lines in the newspaper, or occasional wedding-cards, or the gossip of an old student, tell the faculty all they ever know of these affairs. The freaks of mating are as curious here as elsewhere ; as when a stalwart football player chooses a quiet little slip of a girl, who looks as if a breath of wind would blow her away, and carries her off to Christianize the heathen at the other side of the world.

In other words, the relations between the young men and maidens are right and pleasant, as our girls find when they compare notes with their friends in other colleges. They discover that they have been treated with a courtesy and consideration not invariably accorded to girls at college. Part of the credit is due to the young men ; but most to the young women themselves. They come from Puritan homes, where religion is a reality. They are good girls. As I sit alone in the long afternoons, in my eyrie that overlooks the sea, there comes at twilight, down the deserted corridor, the sound of girlish voices upraised in a hymn ; and, in the silence that follows, I know that they are praying. This exercise is not prescribed in the curriculum, but it forms no small part of their education, and, I imagine, of others. The college girls take their share of church work, sometimes to the detriment of their studies and standing, or they find time in the midst of heavy honor courses for works of mercy among the needy at their own door.

Let no one infer from the last remark but two or three that our girls lack their share of comeliness, of the essential charm of girlhood. Our classrooms have here and there a picture, though our decoration is meagre; but the best are the living pictures. “ Praised be Allah,” says the devout Arab, “ who made beautiful women ! ” and even in Ultima Thule he would often have such cause for thankfulness. The poor youths! they are so placed in the classroom that they can study only the rear view of various coiffures ; but the lucky professor, by virtue of his office, may and must look his audience in the face, and if he dwells on the most attractive part of it, who shall blame him ? The prevailing impression left on his mind is pinkish, for our Norland air is tempered by the sea, and sets a lasting rouge upon the cheek that has known it from childhood. Elsewhere on this continent the color in the young girl’s face is apt to be too faint. Tusitala would have liked our Ultima Thulians, for here the young maidens have “ quiet eyes.” As I think of them, a long procession of fresh faces passes before me;

“ I dream of a red-rose tree.”

Jessica’s face comes first, — a baby face, except for its earnest look, full, round, dimpled, in color like a ripened peach. Jessica’s eyes are blue, the blue of an April sky after rain, and her hair is wavy and fair. She looked soberly in class; but once she smiled when she thanked me for something she had learned, she said, from me. Jessica is a woman now, winning her bread by her own toil. I met her the other day, on my long walk, with a young man. They both had a happy, confidential air that proclaimed their relation as well as a placard. I think her days of independence are near an end.

Norah was true to her Celtic name and Celtic blood. Generously made, impulsive, hearty, ready with her tongue, her wit, her laugh, Norah in the classroom made stagnation impossible. She had a trick of blushing when she laughed, and her color changed quickly. When she graduated, she was undecided between going on the stage and going into a convent; and she took the veil. I have seen her since. They have cut off her beautiful hair, and she wears the black habit and white coif of her order. Norah is her name no longer. I must call her Sister Theresita. But these changes do not go very deep. Sister Theresita is my old hearty, impulsive Norah, perfectly happy in her new sequestered life, a power in the convent school, and still warmly interested in her old college.

All the Bellair sisters were pretty. They were all well made, and with a peculiarly graceful carriage. They came in a long succession, and though not famous as students, were most decorative in the classroom. Kate, the eldest, was a court lady in our Shakespearean revival, and she looked the part. Their cousin, Bonnibel, was girlishly slim, with brown eyes and ruddy brown hair. No more than a child when she entered college, she soon proved a good student, patient, systematic, steady as the clock. Without overworking, but by simple faithfulness, she won her high honors, and she deserved them. Not yet content, she is working for a higher degree ; but I am glad to notice that she is no longer as thin as she was. Her friend and classmate was called “ the Little Duchess ” by the Old Professor, from the way she queened it over the whole college. Every one liked her, and every one made demands upon her ; and that was the trouble. There was too much for her to do in the twenty-four hours of each day, and, for a time, she was forced to retire from the field. Her disappointment was extreme, but she waited, and the laurels were ready for her when she came back. Like the other Maud, her little head ran over with curls.

But my procession is growing too long ; still I must not forget Anita, who has Spanish eyes that dance when she dances. She is in part exotic, a flower of the tropics, strayed in our stern north land. Phœbe was a staid country lass, of the wholesome English type, with smooth black hair, bright red cheeks, and brown eyes that looked black under sleek black brows and long black eyelashes. We had to break the news to Phœbe that she had won, by quiet, hard work, as great an honor as our little world has to offer. It was a complete surprise. Phœbe laughed and blushed, and gasped “I?” in thorough incredulity. I have seen many a rosy dawn and sunset, but never any play of color as fine as the come and go of the good red blood in Phœbe’s face that day.

Neither our lads nor our lasses are weaklings. Half the college play football, and our champion team is a joy to behold. Di Vernon is as straight as a lance-shaft, and has swum across the bay and back. A six-mile tramp over country roads is no great feat for any of them. Many are daughters of sea-captains, and have seen, as children, those strange places all round the world, that are for most of us mere names in story books. With this breeding, on or by the sea, they have gained character early. Janet spent her childhood in a lighthouse on a lonely island ; her father has saved many a life; Flora remembers a “ norther ” on her father’s ship in Valparaiso harbor; Hannah’s earliest recollection is of a strange man, who could speak no English, knocking at the door one stormy night, all faint and dripping from a recent wreck.

But they are not all strong. Alicia, my best scholar, was in my classes two years before I was able to identify her. She was a quiet, slight little woman, very shy and low-spoken. Her voice was never heard in class, which was a pity, for it was caressing, clear, and exquisitely modulated. Nearly two years passed before I could connect the perfect papers bearing Alicia’s name with the most silent, most attentive student in the room. When I did, our friendship began. There is much virtue in work, in mastering the knowledge that is worth knowing, in learning how to wield and handle it, in making it subserve noble ends. This was the stamp of Alicia’s work ; it was full of this virtue ; but the chief charm was the character that showed itself unconsciously in all that work. Strength to endure, an unvaryingsweet patience, the scholar’s modest ambition and enthusiasm, a richness of gentle affection that radiates warmth on all about her, — these are Alicia. We are old friends now, but the years, as they pass, only give me better reasons for thinking well of her. Sorrow has come to her in many forms, one of the sorest being a long severance from her beloved books ; but the fire has only made the gold finer. Mine is the opinion of all who know her. Her life is not one that most would choose ; but it is neither without fruit nor without cheer. If only the jewel had not so frail a casket!

Honor was the best listener I ever had. Every speaker knows what I mean. The greater part of every class attends, and attends well ; but once in a while you entertain an angel, in the shape of a hearer, who is specially interested, who never takes his eye off you, who never misses a point, who is completely sympathetic. Such a hearer was Honor. Her face was a telltale mirror of what was passing in her mind ; every thought, every emotion made some change there. Her eyes were the fresh well-opened eyes of a child, free from concealment, from self-consciousness, from any shade of unreality or affectation. Frank, proud, sensitive, alert, open as the day, Honor was also fair to see, a tall, straight girl who looked her best in her habit and on horseback; eyes, a Scottish gray-blue ; a mouth like Browning’s Edith, the lips parting naturally and showing a little bit of two white strong teeth. And a pretty wit had Honor, a way of putting things all her own. Once we played a comedy of Shakespeare’s, and Honor was our star. Shall we ever forget her brightness, patience, docility, unfailing good humor ? Honor made the play, and left her friends a legacy of pleasant memories. Now she is happily married, and has gone to live in a far country. She writes that forget-me-nots grow thick in the Jhelum meadows ; they grow also along the brooks of Ultima Thule.

Constance came up to college with strong health, excellent preparation, and a merry face. A way of turning her head on one side, like a bird, and a twist of her lips into a quizzical smile are what I remember her by. Students fix themselves upon the teacher’s memory by trick of personality, displaying itself in word, or gesture, or question. Some phrase, or attitude, or incident establishes the identification forever. Many come and go like phantoms, impressing themselves in no way on the college memory; but Constance worked faithfully and cheerfully, earning the respect of the staff, moving in a brightness of her own making, and leaving behind her the afterglow of a rich and sunny nature. When she passed out of our halls for the last time, she little knew what was before her. Mercifully she did not. Constance was fated to be one of an English garrison besieged in a foreign city by the cruel yellow people. The first thing to do, after the investment began, was to write to the far-off friends and put the letters in the safe, so that they would know, in case the promised relief came too late. Otherwise precautions were taken. At the ringing of a bell, all the women and children were to assemble in one place, if the foe broke in. But they were not to be allowed to fall into the hands of the torturers alive. These were among the possibilities our little college girl had to face through weeks of agony. Quenching fire under a sleet of bullets, and the pitiful mother’s tragedy, when the long strain was over, — these things she has known, but neither she nor her friends will speak of them willingly as long as they live.

The college girl will play a part of increasing importance in the community ; but as yet the community has done very little for the college girl, in Canada at least. Coeducation is a temporary makeshift, due to the national poverty. The time is coming when our women will have their education apart, when it will be shaped to their needs, capacities, tastes, and destiny. There is already such a college, where the students have grown from less than a score to over a thousand in its short lifetime of twentyfive years. It is in a beautiful country town, in a broad valley between ranges of serrated hills. The college is the result of a large plan intelligently carried out. The girls are not allowed to drift into casual boarding-houses, nor are they herded in huge dormitories. They live in little homes, ten or twenty together, under the care of one of the staff. There is a homelike air about the place that strikes the stranger at once. An ample gymnasium, a picture gallery, a library, a chapel where I saw the whole college at their orisons, classrooms, laboratories, hammocks under the apple trees about the tennis courts, are among the more obvious provisions for the education of the lucky girls who can attend this college.

Our Canadian girls deserve as good treatment.

Archibald MacMechan.