The Getting of Wisdom Video / Audiobook [Part 1] By Henry Handel Richardson

The Getting of Wisdom
by Henry Handel Richardson
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.
Proverbs, iv, 7 Chapter I.
The four children were lying on the grass. “… and the Prince went further and further
into the forest,” said the elder girl, “till he came to a beautiful glade–a glade, you
know, is a place in the forest that is open and green and lovely. And there he saw a lady,
a beautiful lady, in a long white dress that hung down to her ankles, with a golden belt
and a golden crown. She was lying on the sward–a sward, you know, is grass as smooth as velvet,
just like green velvet–and the Prince saw the marks of travel on her garments. The bottom
of the lovely silk dress was all dirty—-” “Wondrous Fair, if you don’t mind you’ll make
that sheet dirty, too,” said Pin. “Shut up, will you!” answered her sister who,
carried away by her narrative, had approached her boots to some linen that was bleaching.
“Yes, but you know Sarah will be awfly cross if she has to wash it again,” said Pin, who
was practical. “You’ll put me out altogether,” cried Laura angrily.–“Well, as I said, the
edge of her robe was all muddy–no, I don’t think I will say that; it sounds prettier
if it’s clean. So it hung in long, straight beautiful folds to her ankles, and the Prince
saw two little feet in golden sandals peeping out from under the hem of the silken gown,
and—-” “But what about the marks of travel?” asked Leppie.
“Donkey! haven’t I said they weren’t there? If I say they weren’t, then they weren’t.
She hadn’t travelled at all.” “Oh, parakeets!” cried little Frank. Four pairs of eyes went
up to the bright green flock that was passing over the garden. “Now you’ve all interrupted,
and I shan’t tell any more,” said Laura in a proud voice. “Oh, yes, please do, Wondrous
Fair! Tell what happened next,” begged Pin and Leppie. “No, not another word. You can
only think of sheets and parakeets.” “Please, Wondrous Fair,” begged little Frank. “No,
I can’t now.–Another thing: I don’t mind if you call me Laura to-day, as it’s the last
day.” She lay back on the grass, her hands clasped
under her head. A voice was heard, loud, imperative. “Laura, I want you. Come here.” “That’s mother
calling,” said Pin. Laura kicked her heels. The two little boys laughed approval. “Go
on, Laura,” coaxed Pin. “Mother will be angry. I’ll come, too.” Laura raised herself with
a grumble. “It’s to try on that horrid dress.” In very fact Mother was standing, already
somewhat impatient, with the dress in her hand. Laura wriggled out of the one she had
on, and stood stiffly and ungraciously, with her arms held like pokers from her sides,
while Mother on her knees arranged the length. “Don’t put on a face like that, miss!” she
said sharply on seeing Laura’s air. “Do you think I’m making it for my own pleasure?”
She had sewn at it all day, and was hot and tired. “It’s too short,” said Laura, looking
down. “It’s nothing of the kind,” said Mother, with her mouth full of pins. “It is, it’s
much too short.” Mother gave her a slight shake. “Don’t you contradict ME! Do you want
to tell me I don’t know what length you’re to wear your dresses?” “I won’t wear it at
all if you don’t make it longer,” said Laura defiantly. Pin’s chubby, featureless little
face lengthened with apprehension. “Do let her have it just a tiny bit longer, mother
dear, dear!” she pleaded. “Now, Pin, what have you got to do with it
I’d like to know!” said Mother, on the verge of losing her temper over the back folds,
which WOULD not hang. “I’m going to school to-morrow, and it’s a shame,” said Laura in
the low, passionate tone that never failed to exasperate Mother, so different was it
from her own hearty fashion of venting displeasure. Pin began to sniff, in sheer nervous anxiety.
“Very well then, I won’t do another stitch to it!” and Mother, now angry in earnest,
got up and bounced out of the room. “Laura, how can you?” said Pin, dissolving. “It’s
only you who make her so cross.” “I don’t care,” said Laura rebelliously, though she
was not far off tears herself. “It IS a shame. All the other girls will have dresses down
to the tops of their boots, and they’ll laugh at me, and call me a baby;” and touched by
the thought of what lay before her, she, too, began to sniffle. She did not fail, however,
to roll the dress up and to throw it unto a corner of the room. She also kicked the
ewer, which fell over and flooded the floor. Pin cried more loudly, and ran to fetch Sarah.
Laura returned to the garden. The two little boys came up to her; but she waved them back.
“Let me alone, children. I want to think.” She stood in a becoming attitude by the garden-gate,
her brothers hovering in the background.–Then Mother called once more. “Laura, where are
you?” “Here, mother. What is it?” “Did you knock
this jug over or did Pin?” “I did, mother.” “Did you do it on purpose?” “Yes.” “Come here
to me.” She went, with lagging steps. But Mother’s anger had passed: she was at work
on the dress again, and by squinting her eyes Laura could see that a piece was being added
to the skirt. She was penitent at once; and when Mother in a sorry voice said: “I’m ashamed
of you, Laura. And on your last day, too,” her throat grew narrow. “I didn’t mean it,
mother.” “If only you would ask properly for things, you would get them. “Laura knew this;
knew indeed that, did she coax, Mother could refuse her nothing.
But coaxing came hard to her; something within her forbade it. Sarah called her “high-stomached”,
to the delight of the other children and her own indignation; she had explained to them
again and again what Sarah really meant. On leaving the house she went straight to the
flower-beds: she would give Mother, who liked flowers very well but had no time to gather
them, a bouquet the size of a cabbage. Pin and the boys were summoned to help her, and
when their hands were full, Laura led the way to a secluded part of the garden on the
farther side of the detached brick kitchen. In this strip, which was filled with greenery,
little sun fell: two thick fir trees and a monstrous blue-gum stood there; high bushes
screened the fence; jessamine climbed the wall of the house and encircled the bedroom
windows; and on the damp and shady ground only violets grew. Yet, with the love children
bear to the limited and compact, the four had chosen their own little plots here rather
than in the big garden at the back of the house; and many were the times they had all
begun anew to dig and to rake. But if Laura’s energy did not fizzle out as quickly as usual–she
was the model for the rest—Mother was sure to discover that it was too cramped and dark
for them in there, and send Sarah to drive them off.
Here, safely screened from sight, Laura sat on a bench and made up her bouquet. When it
was finished–red and white in the centre with a darker border, the whole surrounded
by a ring of violet leaves—she looked about for something to tie it up with. Sarah, applied
to, was busy ironing, and had no string in the kitchen, so Pin ran to get a reel of cotton.
But while she was away Laura had an idea. Bidding Leppie hold the flowers tight in both
his sticky little hands, she climbed in at her bedroom window, or rather, by lying on
the sill with her legs waving in the air, she managed to grab, without losing her balance,
a pair of scissors from the chest of drawers. With these between her teeth she emerged,
to the excited interest of the boys who watched her open-mouthed. Laura had dark curls, Pin
fair, and both wore them flapping at their backs, the only difference being that Laura,
who was now twelve years old, had for the past year been allowed to bind hers together
with a ribbon, while Pin’s bobbed as they chose.
Every morning early, Mother brushed and twisted, with a kind of grim pride, these silky ringlets
round her finger. Although the five odd minutes the curling occupied were durance vile to
Laura, the child was proud of her hair in her own way; and when in the street she heard
some one say: look, what pretty curls!” she would give her head
a toss and send them all a-rippling. In addition to this, there was a crowning glory connected
with them: one hot December morning, when they had been tangled and Mother had kept
her standing too long, she had fainted, pulling the whole dressing-table down about her ears;
and ever since, she had been marked off in some mysterious fashion from the other children.
Mother would not let her go out at midday in summer: Sarah would say: “Let that be,
can’t you!” did she try to lift something that was too heavy for her; and the younger
children were to be quelled by a threat to faint on the spot, if they did not do as she
wished. “Laura’s faint” had become a byword in the
family; and Laura herself held it for so important a fact in her life that she had more than
once begun a friendship with the words: “Have you ever fainted? I have.” From among these
long, glossy curls, she now cut one of the longest and most spiral, cut it off close
to the root, and with it bound the flowers together. Mother should see that she did know
how to give up something she cared for, and was not as selfish as she was usually supposed
to be. “Oh .. h .. h!” said both little boys in a breath, then doubled up in noisy mirth.
Laura was constantly doing something to set their young blood in amazement: they looked
upon her as the personification of all that was startling and unexpected. But Pin, returning
with the reel of thread, opened her eyes in a different way. “Oh, Laura …!” she began,
tearful at once. “Now, res’vor!” retorted Laura scornfully–“res’vor” was Sarah’s name
for Pin, on account of her perpetual wateriness. “Be a cry-baby, do.” But she was not damped,
she was lost in the pleasure of self-sacrifice. Pin looked after her as she danced off, then
moved submissively in her wake to be near at hand should intercession be needed. Laura
was so unsuspecting, and Mother would be so cross.
In her dim, childish way Pin longed to see these, her two nearest, at peace; she understood
them both so well, and they had little or no understanding for each other.–So she crept
to the house at her sister’s heels. Laura did not go indoors; hiding against the wall
of the flagged verandah, she threw her bouquet in at the window, meaning it to fall on Mother’s
lap. But Mother had dropped her needle, and was just lifting her face, flushed with stooping,
when the flowers hit her a thwack on the head. She groped again, impatiently, to find what
had struck her, recognized the peace-offering, and thought of the surprise cake that was
to go into Laura’s box on the morrow. Then she saw the curl, and her face darkened.
Was there ever such a tiresome child? What in all the world would she do next? “Laura,
come here, directly!” Laura had moved away; she was not expecting recognition. If Mother
were pleased she would call Pin to put the flowers in water for her, and that would be
the end of it. The idea of a word of thanks would have made Laura feel uncomfortable.
Now, however, at the tone of Mother’s voice, her mouth set stubbornly. She went indoors
as bidden, but was already up in arms again. “You’re a very naughty girl indeed!” began
Mother as soon she appeared. How dare you cut off your hair? Upon my word,
if it weren’t your last night I’d send you to bed without any supper!”–an unheard-of
threat on the part of Mother, who punished her children in any way but that of denying
them their food. “It’s a very good thing you’re leaving home to-morrow, for you’d soon be
setting the others at defiance, too, and I should have four naughty children on my hands
instead of one.– But I’d be ashamed to go to school such a fright if I were you. Turn
round at once and let me see you!” Laura turned, with a sinking heart. Pin cried softly in
a corner. “She thought it would please you, mother,” she sobbed.
“I WILL not have you interfering, Pin, when I’m speaking to Laura. She’s old enough by
now to know what I like and what I don’t,” said Mother, who was vexed at the thought
of the child going among strangers thus disfigured.–“And now get away, and don’t let me see you again.
You’re a perfect sight.” “Oh, Laura, you do look funny!” said Leppie and Frank in weak
chorus, as she passed them in the passage. “Well, you ‘ave made a guy of yourself this
time, Miss Laura, and no mistake!” said Sarah, who had heard the above. Laura went into her
own room and locked the door, a thing Mother did not allow. Then she threw herself on the
bed and cried. Mother had not understood in the least; and
she had made herself a sight into the bargain. She refused to open the door, though one after
another rattled the handle, and Sarah threatened to turn the hose in at the window. So they
left her alone, and she spent the evening in watery dudgeon on her pillow. But before
she undressed for the night she stealthily made a chink and took in the slice of cake
Pin had left on the door-mat. Her natural buoyancy of spirit was beginning to reassert
itself. By brushing her hair well to one side she could cover up the gap, she found; and
after all, there was something rather pleasant in knowing that you were misunderstood.
It made you feel different from everyone else. Mother–sewing hard after even the busy Sarah
had retired—Mother smiled a stern little smile of amusement to herself; and before
locking up for the night put the dark curl safely away.
Chapter II. Laura, sleeping flat on her stomach, was roused
next morning by Pin who said: “Wake up, Wondrous Fair, mother wants to speak to you. She says
you can get into bed in my place, before you dress.” Pin slept warm and cosy at Mother’s
side. Laura rose on her elbow and looked at her sister: Pin was standing in the doorway
holding her nightgown to her, in such a way as to expose all of her thin little legs.
“Come on,” urged Pin. “Sarah’s going to give me my bath while you’re with mother.” “Go
away, Pin,” said Laura snappily. “I told you yesterday you could say Laura, and … and
you’re more like a spider than ever.” “Spider” was another nickname for Pin, owed
to her rotund little body and mere sticks of legs–she was “all belly” as Sarah put
it–and the mere mention of it made Pin fly; for she was very touchy about her legs. As
soon as the door closed behind her, Laura sprang out of bed and, waiting neither to
wash herself nor to say her prayers, began to pull on her clothes, confusing strings
and buttons in her haste, and quite forgetting that on this eventful morning she had meant
to dress herself with more than ordinary care. She was just lacing her shoes when Sarah looked
in. “Why, Miss Laura, don’t you know your ma wants you?” “It’s too late. I’m dressed
now,” said Laura darkly. Sarah shook her head. “Missis’ll be fine an’
angry. An’ you needn’t ‘ave ‘ad a row on your last day.” Laura stole out of the door and
ran down the garden to the summer-house. This, the size of a goodly room, was formed of a
single dense, hairy-leafed tree, round the trunk of which a seat was built. Here she
cowered, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands. Her face wore the stiff expression
that went by the name of “Laura’s sulks,” but her eyes were big, and as watchful as
those of a scared animal. If Sarah came to fetch her she would hold on to the seat with
both hands. But even if she had to yield to Sarah’s greater strength–well, at least she
was up and dressed. Not like the last time–about a week ago Mother
had tried this kind of thing. Then, she had been caught unawares. She had gone into Pin’s
warm place, curious and unsuspecting, and thereupon Mother had begun to talk seriously
to her, and not with her usual directness. She had reminded Laura that she was growing
up apace and would soon be a woman; had told her that she must now begin to give up childish
habits, and learn to behave in a modest and womanly way–all disagreeable, disturbing
things, which Laura did not in the least want to hear. When it became clear to her what
it was about, she had thrown back the bedclothes and escaped from the room.
And since then she had been careful never to be long alone with Mother. But now half
an hour went by and no one came to fetch her: her grim little face relaxed. She felt very
hungry, too, and when at length she heard Pin calling, she jumped up and betrayed her
hiding-place. “Laura! Laura, where are you? Mother says to come to breakfast and not be
silly. The coach’ll be here in an hour.” Taking hands the sisters ran to the house. In the
passage, Sarah was busy roping a battered tin box. With their own hands the little boys
had been allowed to paste on this a big sheet of notepaper, which bore, in Mother’s writing,
the words: Miss Laura Tweedle Rambotham The Ladies’ College
Melbourne. Mother herself was standing at the breakfast-table cutting sandwiches. “Come
and eat your breakfast, child,” was all she said at the moment. “The tea’s quite cold.”
Laura sat down and fell to with appetite, but also with a side-glance at the generous
pile of bread and meat growing under Mother’s hands. “I shall never eat all that,” she said
ungraciously; it galled her still to be considered a greedy child with an insatiable stomach.
“I know better than you do what you’ll eat,” said Mother. “You’ll be hungry enough by this
evening I can tell you, not getting any dinner. Pin’s face fell at this prospect. “Oh, mother,
won’t she really get any dinner?” she asked: and to her soft little heart going to school
began to seem one of the blackest experiences life held. “Why, she’ll be in the train, stupid,
‘ow can she?” said Sarah. “Do you think trains give you dinners?” “Oh, mother, please cut
ever such a lot!” begged Pin sniffing valiantly. Laura began to feel somewhat moved herself
at this solicitude, and choked down a lump in her throat with a gulp of tea. But when
Pin had gone with Sarah to pick some nectarines, Mother’s face grew stern, and Laura’s emotion
passed. “I feel more troubled about you than I can say, Laura.
I don’t know how you’ll ever get on in life–you’re so disobedient and self-willed. It would serve
you very well right, I’m sure, for not coming this morning, if I didn’t give you a penny
of pocket-money to take to school.” Laura had heard this threat before, and thought
it wiser not to reply. Gobbling up the rest of her breakfast she slipped away. With the
other children at her heels she made a round of the garden, bidding good-bye to things
and places. There were the two summer-houses in which she had played house; in which she
had cooked and eaten and slept. There was the tall fir-tree with the rung-like branches
by which she had been accustomed to climb to the very tree-top;
there was the wilderness of bamboo and cane where she had been Crusoe; the ancient, broadleaved
cactus on which she had scratched their names and drawn their portraits; here, the high
aloe that had such a mysterious charm for you, because you never knew when the hundred
years might expire and the aloe burst into flower. Here again was the old fig tree with
the rounded, polished boughs, from which, seated as in a cradle, she had played Juliet
to Pin’s Romeo, and vice versa–but oftenest Juliet: for though Laura greatly preferred
to be the ardent lover at the foot, Pin was but a poor climber, and, as she clung trembling
to her branch, needed so much prompting in her lines–even
then to repeat them with such feeble emphasis–that Laura invariably lost patience with her and
the love-scene ended in a squabble. Passing behind a wooden fence which was a tangle of
passion-flower, she opened the door of the fowl-house, and out strutted the mother-hen
followed by her pretty brood. Laura had given each of the chicks a name, and she now took
Napoleon and Garibaldi up in her hand and laid her cheek against their downy breasts,
the younger children following her movements in respectful silence.
Between the bars of the rabbit hutch she thrust enough green stuff to last the two little
occupants for days; and everywhere she went she was accompanied by a legless magpie, which,
in spite of its infirmity, hopped cheerily and quickly on its stumps. Laura had rescued
it and reared it; it followed her like a dog; and she was only less devoted to it than she
had been to a native bear which died under her hands. “Now listen, children,” she said
as she rose from her knees before the hutch. “If you don’t look well after Maggy and the
bunnies, I don’t know what I’ll do. The chicks will be all right. Sarah will take care of
them, ’cause of the eggs. But Maggy and the bunnies don’t have eggs,
and if they’re not fed, or if Frank treads on Maggy again, then they’ll die. Now if you
let them die, I don’t know what I’ll do to you! Yes, I do: I’ll send the devil to you
at night when the room’s dark, before you go to sleep.–So there!” “How can you if you’re
not here?” asked Leppie. Pin, however, who believed in ghosts and apparitions with all
her fearful little heart, promised tremulously
never, never to forget; but Laura was not satisfied until each of them in turn had repeated,
in a low voice, with the appropriate gestures, the sacred secret, and forbidden formula:
Is my finger wet? Is my finger dry? God will strike me dead, If I tell a lie.
Then Sarah’s voice was heard calling, and the boys went out into the road to watch for
the coach. Laura’s dressing proved a lengthy business, and was accomplished amid bustle,
and scolding, and little peace-making words from Pin; for in her hurry that morning Laura
had forgotten to put on the clean linen Mother had laid beside the bed, and consequently
had now to strip to the skin. The boys announced the coming of the coach with shrill cries,
and simultaneously the rumble of wheels was heard. Sarah came from the kitchen drying
her hands, and Pin began to cry. “Now, shut up, res’vor!” said Sarah roughly: her own
eyes were moist. “You don’t see Miss Laura be such a silly-billy.
Anyone ‘ud think you was goin’, not ‘er.” The ramshackle old vehicle, one of Cobb’s
Royal Mail Coaches, big-bodied, lumbering, scarlet, pulled by two stout horses, drew
up before the door, and the driver climbed down from his seat. “Now good day to you,
ma’am, good day, miss”–this to Sarah who, picking up the box, handed it to him to be
strapped on under the apron. “Well, well, and so the little girl’s goin’ to school,
is she? My, but time flies! Well do I remember the day ma’am, when I drove you all across
for the first time. These children wasn’t big enough then to git up and down be themselves.
Now I warrant you they can–just look at ’em, will you?–But my! Ain’t you ashamed of yourself”–he
spoke to Pin–“pipin’ your eye like that? Why, you’ll flood the road if you don’t hould
on.–Yes, yes, ma’am, bless you, I’ll look after her, and put her inter the train wid
me own han’s. Don’t you be on easy. The Lord he cares for the wider and the orphun, and
if He don’t, why Patrick O’Donnell does.” This was O’Donnell’s standing joke; he uttered
it with a loud chuckle. While speaking he had let down the steps and helped the three
children up–they were to ride with Laura to the outskirts of the township.
The little boys giggled excitedly at his assertion that the horses would not be equal to the
weight. Only Pin wept on, in undiminished grief. “Now, Miss Laura.” “Now, Laura. Good-bye,
darling. And do try and be good. And be sure you write once a week. And tell me everything.
Whether you are happy—and if you get enough to eat–and if you have enough blankets on
your bed. And remember always to change your boots if you get your feet wet. And don’t
lean out of the window in the train.” For some time past Laura had had need of all her
self-control, not to cry before the children. As the hour drew near it had grown harder
and harder; while dressing, she had resorted to counting the number of times the profile
of a Roman emperor appeared in the flowers on the wallpaper. Now the worst moment of
all was come–the moment of good-bye. She did not look at Pin, but she heard her tireless,
snuffly weeping, and set her own lips tight. “Yes, mother … no, mother,” she answered
shortly, “I’ll be all right. Good-bye.” She could not, however, restrain a kind of dry
sob, which jumped up her throat. When she was in the coach Sarah, whom she had forgotten
climbed up to kiss her; and there was some joking between O’Donnell and the servant while
the steps were being folded and put away. Laura did not smile; her thin little face
was very pale. Mother’s heart went out to her in a pity which she did not know how to
express. “Don’t forget your sandwiches. And when you’re alone, feel in the pocket of your
ulster and you’ll find something nice. Good-bye, darling.” “Good-bye … good-bye.” The driver
had mounted to his seat, he unwound the reins cried “Get up!” to the two burly horses, the
vehicle was set in motion and trundled down the main street. Until it turned the corner
by the Shire Gardens, Laura let her handkerchief fly from the window. Sarah waved hers; then
wiped her eyes and lustily blew her nose. Mother only sighed.
“It was all she could do to keep up,” she said as much to herself as to Sarah. “I do
hope she’ll be all right. She seems such a child to be sending off like this. Yet what
else could I do? To a State School, I’ve always said it, my children shall never go–not if
I have to beg the money to send them elsewhere.” But she sighed again, in spite of the energy
of her words, and stood gazing at the place where the coach had disappeared. She was still
a comparatively young woman, and straight of body; but trouble, poverty and night-watches
had scored many lines on her forehead. “Don’t you worry,” said Sarah. “Miss Laura will be
all right. She’s just a bit too clever–brains for two,
that’s what it is. An’ children WILL grow up an’ get big … an’ change their feathers.”
She spoke absently, drawing her metaphor from a brood of chickens which had strayed across
the road, and was now trying to mount the wooden verandah–“Shooh! Get away with you!”
“I know that. But Laura–The other children have never given me a moment’s worry. But
Laura’s different. I seem to get less and less able to manage her. If only her father
had been alive to help!” “I’m sure no father livin’ could do more than you for those blessed
children,” said Sarah with impatience. You think of nothing’ else. It ‘ud be a great
deal better if you took more care o’ yourself. You sit up nights an’ don’t get no proper
sleep slavin’ away at that blessed embroidery an’ stuff, so as Miss Laura can get off to
school an’ to ‘er books. An’ then you want to worry over ‘er as well.–She’ll be all
right. Miss Laura’s like peas. You’ve got to get ’em outer the pod–they’re in there
sure enough. An’ besides I guess school will knock all the nonsense out of ‘er.” “Oh, I
hope they won’t be too hard on her,” said Mother in quick alarm.–“Shut the side gate,
will you. Those children have left it open again.–And, Sarah, I think we’ll turn out
the drawing-room.” Sarah grunted to herself as she went to close
the gate. This had not entered into her scheme of work for the day, and her cooking was still
undone. But she did not gainsay her mistress, as she otherwise would have made no scruple
of doing; for she knew that nothing was more helpful to the latter in a crisis than hard,
manual work. Besides, Sarah herself had a sneaking weakness for what she called “dra’in’-room
days”. For the drawing-room was the storehouse of what treasures had remained over from a
past prosperity. It was crowded with bric-a-brac and ornament;
and as her mistress took these objects up one by one, to dust and polish them, she would,
if she were in a good humour, tell Sarah where and how they had been bought, or describe
the places they had originally come from: so that Sarah, pausing broom in hand to listen,
had with time gathered some vague ideas of a country like “Inja”, for example, whence
came the little silver “pagody”, and the expressionless brass god who squatted vacantly and at ease.
Chapter III. As long as the coach rolled down the main
street Laura sat bolt upright at the window. In fancy she heard people telling one another
that this was little Miss Rambo ham going to school. She was particularly glad that
just as they went past the Commercial Hotel, Miss Perrotet, the landlord’s red-haired daughter,
should put her fuzzy head out of the window–for Miss Perrotet had also been to boarding-school,
and thought very highly of herself in consequence, though it had only been for a year, to finish.
At the National Bank the manager’s wife waved a friendly hand to the children,
and at the Royal Mail Hotel where they drew up for passengers or commissions, Mrs. Paget,
the stout landlady, came out, smoothing down her black satin apron. “Well, I’m sure I wonder
your ma likes sendin’ you off so alone.” The ride had comforted Pin a little; but when
they had passed the chief stores and the flour-mill, and were come to a part of the road where
the houses were fewer, her tears broke out afresh. The very last house was left behind,
the high machinery of the claims came into view, the watery flats where Chinamen were
for ever rocking wash dirt in cradles; and O’Donnell dismounted and opened the door.
He lifted the three out one by one, shaking his head in humorous dismay at Pin, and as
little Frank showed sighs of beginning, too, by puckering up his face and doubling up his
body, the kindly man tried to make them laugh by asking if he had the stomach-ache. Laura
had one more glimpse of the children standing hand in hand–even in her trouble Pin did
not forget her charges–then a sharp bend in the road hid them from her sight. She was
alone in the capacious body of the coach, alone, and the proud excitement of parting
was over. The staunchly repressed tears welled up with a gush, and flinging herself down
across the seat she cried bitterly. It was not a childishly irresponsible grief
like Pin’s: it was more passionate, and went deeper; and her overloaded feelings were soon
relieved. But as she was not used to crying, she missed the moment at which she might have
checked herself, and went on shedding tears after they had become a luxury. “Why, goodness
gracious, what’s this?” cried a loud, cheerful and astonished voice, and a fat, rosy face
beamed in on Laura. “Why, here’s a little girl in here, cryin’ fit to break ‘er heart.
Come, come, my dear, what’s the matter? Don’t cry like that, now don’t.” The coach had stopped,
the door opened and a stout woman climbed in, bearing a big basket,
and followed by a young man with straw-colored whiskers. Laura sat up like a dart and pulled
her hat straight, crimson with mortification at being discovered in such a plight. She
had instantly curbed her tears, but she could not disguise the fact that she had red eyes
and a swollen nose–that she was in short what Sarah called “all bunged up”. She made
no reply to the newcomer’s exclamations, but sat clutching her handkerchief and staring
out of the window. The woman’s good-natured curiosity, however, was not to be done. “You
poor little thing, you!” she persisted. “Wherever are you goin’, my dear, so alone?”
“I’m going to boarding-school,” said Laura, and shot a glance at the couple opposite.
“To boarding’-school? Peter! D’you hear?–Why, whatever’s your ma thinkin’ of to send such
a little chick as you to boarding’-school? … and so alone, too.” Laura’s face took
on a curious air of dignity. “I’m not so very little,” she answered; and went on to explain,
in phrases which she had heard so often that she knew them by heart: “Only small for my
age. I was twelve in spring. And I have to go to school, because I’ve learnt all I can
at home.” This failed to impress the woman. “Snakes alive!–that’s young enough in all
conscience. And such a delicate little creature, too.
Just like that one o’ Sam MacFarlane’s that popped off last Christmas–isn’t she, Peter?”
Peter, who avoided looking at Laura, sheepishly mumbled something about like enough she was.
“And who IS your ma, my dear? What’s your name?” continued her interrogator. Laura replied
politely; but there was a reserve in her manner which, together with the name she gave, told
enough: the widow, Laura’s mother, had the reputation of being very “stuck-up”, and of
bringing up her children in the same way. The woman did not press Laura further; she
whispered something behind her hand to Peter, then searching in her basket found a large,
red apple, which she held out with an encouraging nod and smile. “Here, my dear. Here’s something
for you. Don’t cry any more, don’t now. It’ll be all right.” Laura, who was well aware that
she had not shed a tear since the couple entered the coach, colored deeply, and made a movement,
half shy, half unwilling, to put her hands behind her. “Oh no, thank you,” she said in
extreme embarrassment, not wishing to hurt the giver’s feelings. “Mother doesn’t care
for us to take things from strangers.” “Bless her soul!” cried the stout woman in amaze.
“It’s only an apple! Now, my dear, just you take it, and make your mind easy. Your ma
wouldn’t have nothin’ against it to-day, I’m sure o’ that–goin’ away so far and all so
alone like this.–It’s sweet and juicy.” “It’s Melb’m you’ll be boun’ for I dessay?” said
the yellow-haired Peter so suddenly that Laura started. She confirmed this, and let her solemn
eyes rest on him wondering why he was so red and fidgety and uncomfortable. The woman said:
“Tch, tch, tch!” at the length of the journey Laura was undertaking, and Peter, growing
still redder, volunteered another remark. “I was nigh to bein’ in Melb’m once meself,”
he said. “Aye, and he can’t never forget it, the silly
loon,” threw in the woman, but so good-naturedly that it was impossible, Laura felt, for Peter
to take offence. She gazed at the pair, speculating upon the relation they stood in to each other.
She had obediently put out her hand for the apple, and now sat holding it, without attempting
to eat it. It had not been Mother’s precepts alone that had weighed with her in declining
it; she was mortified at the idea of being bribed, as it were, to be good, just as though
she were Pin or one of the little boys. It was a punishment on her for having been so
babyish as to cry; had she not been caught in the act, the woman would never have ventured
to be so familiar. The very largeness and rosiness of the fruit
made it hateful to her, and she turned over in her mind how she could get rid of it. As
the coach bumped along, her fellow-passengers sat back and shut their eyes. The road was
shade less; beneath the horses’ feet a thick red dust rose like smoke. The grass by the
wayside, under the scattered gum trees or round the big black boulders that dotted the
hillocks, was burnt to straw. In time, Laura also grew drowsy, and she was just falling
into a doze when, with a jerk, the coach pulled up at the “Halfway House.” Here her companions
alighted, and there were more nods and smiles from the woman.
“You eat it, my dear. I’m sure your ma won’t say nothin’,” was her last remark as she pushed
the swing-door and vanished into the house, followed by Peter. Then the driver’s pleasant
face appeared at the window of the coach. In one hand he held a glass, in the other
a bottle of lemonade. “Here, little woman, have a drink. It’s warm work riding’.” Now
this was quite different from the matter of the apple. Laura’s throat was parched with
dust and tears. She accepted the offer gratefully, thinking as she drank how envious Pin would
be, could she see her drinking bottle-lemonade. Then the jolting and rumbling began anew.
No one else got in, and when they had passed the only two landmarks she knew–the leprous
Chinaman’s hut and the market garden of Ah Chow, who twice a week jaunted at a half-trot
to the township with his hanging baskets, to supply people with vegetables–when they
had passed these, Laura fell asleep. She wakened with a start to find that the coach had halted
to apply the brakes, at the top of the precipitous hill that led down to the railway township.
In a two-wheeled buggy this was an exciting descent; but the coach jammed on both its
brakes, moved like a snail, and seemed hardly able to crawl.
At the foot of the hill the little town lay sluggish in the sun. Although it was close
on midday, but few people were astir in the streets; for the place had long since ceased
to be an important mining center: the chief claims were worked out; and the coming of
the railway had been powerless to give it the impetus to a new life. It was always like
this in these streets of low, verandahed, red-brick houses, always dull and sleepy,
and such animation as there was, was invariably to be found before the doors of the many public-houses.
At one of these the coach stopped and unloaded its goods, for an interminable time.
People came and looked in at the window at Laura, and she was beginning to feel alarmed
lest O’Donnell, who had gone inside, had forgotten all about her having to catch the train, when
out he came, wiping his lips. “Now for the livin’ luggage!” he said with a wink, and
Laura drew back in confusion from the laughter of a group of larrikins round the door. It
was indeed high time at the station; no sooner was her box dislodged and her ticket taken
than the train steamed in. O’Donnell recommended her to the guard’s care; she shook hands with
him and thanked him, and had just been locked into a carriage by herself when he came running
down the platform again, holding in his hand, for everyone to see,
the apple, which Laura believed she had safely hidden under the cushions of the coach. Red
to the roots of her hair she had to receive it before a number of heads put out to see
what the matter was, and she was even forced to thank O’Donnell into the bargain. Then
the guard came along once more, and told her he would let no one get in beside her: she
need not be afraid. “Yes. And will you please tell me when we come to Melbourne.” Directly
the train was clear of the station, she lowered a window and, taking aim at a telegraph post,
threw the apple from her with all her might. Then she hung out of the window, as far out
as she could, till her hat was nearly carried off.
This was the first railway journey she had made by herself, and there was an intoxicating
sense of freedom in being locked in, alone, within the narrow compass of the compartment.
She was at liberty to do everything that had previously been forbidden her: she walked
up and down the carriage, jumped from one seat to another, then lay flat on her back
singing to herself, and watching the telegraph poles fly past the windows, and the wires
mount and descend.–But now came a station and, though the train did not stop, she sat
up, in order that people might see she was travelling alone.
She grew hungry and attacked her lunch, and it turned out that Mother had not provided
too much after all. When she had finished, had brushed herself clean of crumbs and handled,
till her finger-tips were sore, the pompous half-crown she had found in her pocket, she
fell to thinking of them at home, and of what they would now be doing. It was between two
and three o’clock: the sun would be full on the flagstones of the back verandah; inch
by inch Pin and Leppie would be driven away to find a cooler spot for their afternoon
game, while little Frank slept, and Sarah splashed the dinner-dishes in the brick-floored
kitchen. Mother sat sewing, and she would still be
sitting there, still sewing, when the shadow of the fir tree, which at noon was shrunken
like a dwarf, had stretched to giant size, and the children had opened the front gate
to play in the shade of the public footpath.–At the thought of these shadows, of all the familiar
things she would not see again for months to come, Laura’s eyelids began to smart. They
had flashed through several stations; now they stopped; and her mind was diverted by
the noise and bustle. As the train swung into motion again, she fell into a pleasanter line
of thought. She painted to herself, for the hundredth
time, the new life towards which she was journeying, and, as always, in the brightest colours.
She had arrived at school, and in a spacious apartment, which was a kind of glorified Mother’s
drawing-room, was being introduced to a bevy of girls. They clustered round, urgent to
make the acquaintance of the newcomer, who gave her hand to each with an easy grace and
an appropriate word. They were too well-bred to cast a glance at her clothes, which, however
she might embellish them in fancy, Laura knew were not what they ought to be:
her ulster was some years old, and so short that it did not cover the flounce of her dress,
and this dress, and her hat with it, were Mother’s taste, and consequently, Laura felt
sure, nobody else’s. But her new companions saw that she wore these clothes with an elegance
that made up for their shortcomings; and she heard them whisper: “Isn’t she pretty? What
black eyes! What lovely curls!” But she was not proud, and by her ladylike manners soon
made them feel at home with her, even though they stood agape at her cleverness: none of
THEM could claim to have absorbed the knowledge of a whole house.
With one of her admirers she had soon formed a friendship that was the wonder of all who
saw it: in deep respect the others drew back, forming a kind of allee, down which, with
linked arms, the two friends sauntered, blind to everything but themselves.–And having
embarked thus upon her sea of dreams, Laura set sail and was speedily borne away. “Next
station you’ll be there, little girl.” She sprang up and looked about her, with vacant
eyes. This had been the last stoppage, and the train was passing through the flats. In
less than two minutes she had collected her belongings, tidied her hair and put on her
gloves. Some time afterwards they steamed in alongside
a gravelled platform, among the stones of which a few grass-blades grew. This was Melbourne.
At the nearer end of the platform stood two ladies, one stout and elderly in bonnet and
mantle, with glasses mounted on a black stick, and shortsighted, peering eyes; the other
stout and comely, too, but young, with a fat, laughing face and rosy cheeks. Laura descried
them a long way off; and, as the carriage swept past them, they also saw her, eager
and prominent at her window. Both stared at her, and the younger lady said something,
and laughed. Laura instantly connected the remark, and
the amusement it caused the speaker, with the showy red lining of her hat, at which
she believed their eyes had been directed. She also realized, when it was too late, that
her greeting had been childish, unnecessarily effusive; for the ladies had responded only
by nods. Here were two thrusts to parry at once, and Laura’s cheeks tingled. But she
did not cease to smile, and she was still wearing this weak little smile, which did
its best to seem easy and unconcerned, when she alighted from the train.
Chapter IV. The elderly lady was Laura’s godmother; she
lived at Prahran, and it was at her house that Laura would sometimes spend a monthly
holiday. Godmother was good to them all in a brusque, sharp-tongued fashion; but Pin
was her especial favourite and she made no secret of it. Her companion on the platform
was a cousin of Laura’s, of at least twice Laura’s age, who invariably struck awe into
the children by her loud and ironic manner of speech. She was an independent, manly person,
in spite of her plump roundness’s; she lived by herself in lodgings, and earned her own
living as a clerk in an office. The first greetings over, Godmother’s attention
was entirely taken up by Laura’s box: after this had been picked out from among the other
luggage, grave doubts were expressed whether it could be got on to the back seat of the
pony-carriage, to which it was conveyed by a porter and the boy. Laura stood shyly by
and waited, while Cousin Grace kept up the conversation by putting abrupt and embarrassing
questions. “How’s your ma?” she demanded rather than asked, in the slangy and jocular tone
she employed. “I guess she’ll be thanking her stars she’s got rid of you;” at which
Laura smiled uncertainly, not being sure whether Cousin Grace spoke in jest or earnest.
“I suppose you think no end of yourself going to boarding-school?” continued the latter.
“Oh no, not at all,” protested Laura with due modesty; and as both at
question and answer Cousin Grace laughed boisterously, Laura was glad to hear Godmother calling:
“Come, jump in. The ponies won’t stand.” Godmother was driving herself–a low basket-carriage,
harnessed to two buff-coloured ponies. Laura sat with her back to them. Godmother flapped
the reins and said: “Get up!” but she was still fretted about the box, which was being
held on behind by the boy. An inch larger, she asserted, and it would have had to be
left behind. Laura eyed its battered sides uneasily. Godmother
might remember, she thought, that it contained her whole wardrobe; and she wondered how many
of Godmother’s own ample gowns could be compressed into so small a space. “All my clothes are
inside,” she explained; “that I shall need for months.” “Ah, I expect your poor mother
has sat up sewing herself to death, that you may be as well dressed as the rest of them,”
said Godmother, and heaved a doleful sigh. But Cousin Grace laughed the wide laugh that
displayed a mouthful of great healthy teeth. “What? All your clothes in there?” she cried.
“I say! You couldn’t be a queen if you hadn’t more togs than that.”
“Oh, I know,” Laura hastened to reply, and grew very red. “Queens need a lot more clothes
than I’ve got.” “Tut, tut!” said Godmother: she did not understand the allusion, which
referred to a former ambition of Laura’s. “Don’t talk such nonsense to the child.” She
drove very badly, and they went by quiet by-streets to escape the main traffic: the pony-chaise
wobbled at random from one side of the road to the other, obstacles looming up only just
in time for Godmother to see them. The ponies shook and tossed their heads at the constant
sawing of the bits, and Laura had to be continually ducking, to keep out of the way of the reins.
She let the unfamiliar streets go past her in a kind of dream; and there was silence
for a time, broken only by Godmother’s expostulations with the ponies, till Cousin Grace, growing
tired of playing her bright eyes first on this, then on that, brought them back to Laura
and studied her up and down. “I say, who on earth trimmed your hat?” she asked almost
at once. “Mother,” answered Laura bravely, while the color mounted to her cheeks again.
“Well, I guess she made up her mind you shouldn’t get lost as long as you wore it,” went on
her cousin with disconcerting can dour. “It makes you look just like a great big red double
dahlia.” “Let the child be. She looks well enough,”
threw in Godmother in her snappish way. But Laura was sure that she, too disapproved;
and felt more than she heard the muttered remark about “Jane always having had a taste
for something gay.” “Oh, I like the colour very much. I chose it myself,” said Laura,
and looked straight at the two faces before her. But her lips twitched. She would have
liked to snatch the hat from her head, to throw it in front of the ponies and hear them
trample it under their hoofs. She had never wanted the scarlet lining of the big, upturned
brim; in a dislike to being conspicuous which was incomprehensible to Mother, she had implored
the latter to “leave it plain”. But Mother had said: “Nonsense!” and “Hold
your tongue!” and “I know better,”–with this result. Oh yes, she saw well enough how Godmother
signed with her eyes to Cousin Grace to say no more; but she pretended not to notice,
and for the remainder of the drive nobody spoke. They went past long lines of grey houses,
joined one to another and built exactly alike; past large, fenced-in public parks where all
kinds of odd, unfamiliar trees grew, with branches that ran right down their trunks,
and bushy leaves. The broad streets were hilly; the wind, coming in puffs, met them with clouds
of gritty white dust. They had just, with bent heads, their hands
at their hats, passed through one of these miniature whirlwinds, when turning a corner
they suddenly drew up, and the boy sprang to the ponies’ heads. Laura, who had not been
expecting the end so soon, saw only a tall wooden fence; but Cousin Grace looked higher,
gave a stagey shudder and cried: “Oh my eye Betty Martin! Aren’t I glad it isn’t me that’s
going to school! It looks just like a prison.” It certainly was an imposing building viewed
from within, when the paling-gate had closed behind them. To Laura, who came from a township
of one-storied brick or weatherboard houses, it seemed vast in its breadth and height,
appalling in its somber greyness. Between Godmother and Cousin Grace she walked
up an asphalted path, and mounted the steps that led to a massive stone portico. The bell
Godmother rang made no answering sound, but after a very few seconds the door swung back,
and a slender maidservant in cap and apron stood before them. She smiled at them pleasantly,
as, in Chinaman-fashion, they crossed the threshold; then, inclining her head at a murmured
word from Godmother, she vanished as lightly as she had come, and they sat and looked about
them. They were in a plainly furnished but very lofty waiting-room. There were two large
windows. The venetian blinds had not been lowered,
and the afternoon sun, beating in, displayed a shabby patch on the carpet. It showed up,
too, a coating of dust that had gathered on the desk-like, central table. There was the
faint, distinctive smell of strange furniture. But what impressed Laura most was the stillness.
No street noises pierced the massy walls, but neither did the faintest echo of all that
might be taking place in the great building itself reach their ears: they sat aloof, shut
off, as it were, from the living world. And this feeling soon grew downright oppressive:
it must be like this to be dead, thought Laura to herself; and inconsequently
remembered a quarter of an hour she had once spent in a dentist’s ante-room: there as here
the same soundless vacancy, the same anguished expectancy. Now, as then, her heart began
to thump so furiously that she was afraid the others would hear it. But they, too, were
subdued; though Cousin Grace tittered continually you heard only a gentle wheezing, and even
Godmother expressed the hope that they would not be kept waiting long, under her breath.
But minute after minute went by; there they sat and nothing happened. It began to seem
as if they might sit on for ever. All of a sudden, from out the spacious halls
of which they had caught a glimpse on arriving, brisk steps began to come towards them over
the oilcloth–at first as a mere tapping in the distance, then rapidly gaining in weight
and decision. Laura’s palpitations reached their extreme limit–another second and they
might have burst her chest. Cousin Grace ceased to giggle; the door opened with a peculiar
flourish; and all three rose to their feet. The person who entered was a very stately
lady; she wore a cap with black ribbons. With the door-handle still in her hand she made
a slight obeisance, in which her whole body joined,
afterwards to become more erect than before. Having introduced herself to Godmother as
Mrs. Gurley, the Lady Superintendent of the institution, she drew up a chair, let herself
down upon it, and began to converse with an air of ineffable condescension. While she
talked Laura examined her, with a child’s thirst for detail. Mrs. Gurley was large and
generous of form, and she carried her head in such a haughty fashion that it made her
look taller than she really was. She had a high color, her black hair was touched with
grey, her upper teeth were prominent. She wore gold eyeglasses, many rings, a long
gold chain, which hung from an immense cameo brooch at her throat, and a black apron with
white flowers on it, one point of which was pinned to her ample bosom. The fact that Laura
had just such an apron in her box went only a very little way towards reviving her spirits;
for altogether Mrs. Gurley was the most impressive person she had ever set eyes on. Beside her,
God mother was nothing but a plump, shortsighted fidgety lady. Particularly awe-inspiring was
Mrs. Gurley when she listened to another speaking. She held her head a little to one side, her
teeth met her underlip and her be-ringed hands toyed incessantly with the long gold chain,
in a manner which seemed to denote that she set little value on what was being said. Awful,
too, was the habit she had of suddenly lowering her head and looking at you over the tops
of her glasses: when she did this, and when her teeth came down on her lip, you would
have liked to shrink to the size of a mouse. Godmother, it was true, was not afraid of
her; but Cousin Grace was hushed at last and as for Laura herself,
she consciously wore a fixed little simper, which was meant to put it beyond doubt that
butter would not melt in her mouth. Godmother now asked if she might say a few words in
private, and the two ladies left the room. As the door closed behind them Cousin Grace
began to be audible again. “Oh, snakes!” she giggled, and her double chin spread itself
“There’s a Tartar for you! Don’t I thank my stars it’s not me that’s being shunted off
here! She’ll give you what-for.” “I don’t think so. I think she’s very nice,” said Laura
staunchly, out of an instinct that made her chary of showing fear, or pain, or grief.
But her heart began to bound again, for the moment in which she would be left alone.
“You see!” said Cousin Grace. “It’ll be bread and water for a week, if you can’t do AMARE
first go-off–not to mention the deponents.” “What’s AMARE?” asked Laura anxiously, and
her eyes grew so big that they seemed to fill her face. But Cousin Grace only laughed till
it seemed probable that she would burst her bodice; and Laura blushed, aware that she
had compromised herself anew. There followed a long and nervous pause. “I bet Godmother’s
asking her not to wallop you too often,” the tease had just begun afresh, when the opening
of the door forced her to swallow her sentence in the middle. Godmother would not sit down;
so the dreaded moment had come. “Now, Laura. Be a good girl and learn well,
and be a comfort to your mother.–Not that there’s much need to urge her to her books,”
Godmother interrupted herself, turning to Mrs. Gurley. “The trouble her dear mother
has always had has been to keep her from them.” Laura glowed with pleasure. Now at least the
awful personage would know that she was clever, and loved to learn. But Mrs. Gurley smiled
the chilliest thinkable smile of acknowledgment, and did not reply a word. She escorted the
other to the front door, and held it open for them to pass out. Then, however, her pretense
of affability faded clean away: turning her head just so far that she could look down
her nose at her own shoulder, she said: “Follow me!”–in a tone Mother would not have
used even to Sarah. Feeling inexpressibly small Laura was about to obey, when a painful
thought struck her. “Oh please, I had a box–with my clothes in it!” she cried. “Oh, I hope
they haven’t forgotten and taken it away again.” But she might as well have spoken to the hat
stand: Mrs. Gurley had sailed off, and was actually approaching a turn in the hall before
Laura made haste to follow her and to keep further anxiety about her box to herself.
They went past one staircase, round a bend into shadows as black as if, outside, no sun
were shining, and began to ascend another flight of stairs, which was the widest Laura
had ever seen. The banisters were as thick as your arm, and
on each side of the stair-carpeting the space was broad enough for two to walk abreast:
what a splendid game of trains you could have played there! On the other hand the landing
windows were so high up that only a giant could have seen out of them. These things
occurred to Laura mechanically. What really occupied her, as she trudged behind, was how
she could please this hard-faced woman and make her like her, for the desire to please,
to be liked by all the world, was the strongest her young soul knew. And there must be a way,
for Godmother had found it without difficulty. She took two steps at once, to get nearer
to the portly back in front of her. “What a VERY large place this is!” she said in an
insinuating voice. She hoped the admiration, thus subtly expressed in the form of surprise,
would flatter Mrs. Gurley, as a kind of co-proprietor; but it was evident that it did nothing of
the sort: the latter seemed to have gone deaf and dumb, and marched on up the stairs, her
hands clasped at her waist, her eyes fixed ahead, like a walking stone-statue. On the
top floor she led the way to a room at the end of a long passage. There were four beds
in this room, a wash hand-stand, a chest of drawers, and a wall cupboard.
But at first sight Laura had eyes only for the familiar object that stood at the foot
of one of the beds. “Oh, THERE’S my box!” she cried, “Someone must have brought it up.”
It was unroped; she had simply to hand over the key. Mrs. Gurley went down on her knees
before it, opened the lid, and began to pass the contents to Laura, directing her where
to lay and hang them. Overawed by such complaisance, Laura moved nimbly about the room shaking
and unfolding, taking care to be back at the box to the minute so as not to keep Mrs. Gurley
waiting. And her promptness was rewarded; the stern face seemed to relax.
At the mere hint of this, Laura grew warm through and through; and as she could neither
control her feelings nor keep them to herself, she rushed to an extreme and overshot the
mark. “I’ve got an apron like that. I think they’re so pretty,” she said cordially, pointing
to the one Mrs. Gurley wore. The latter abruptly stopped her work, and, resting her hands on
the sides of the box, gave Laura one of the dreaded looks over her glasses, looked at
her from top to toe, and as though she were only now beginning to see her. There was a
pause, a momentary suspension of the breath, which Laura soon learned to expect before
a rebuke. “Little gels,” said Mrs. Gurley–and even
in the midst of her confusion Laura could not but be struck by the pronunciation of
this word. “Little gels–are required–to wear white aprons when they come here!”–a
break after each few words, as well as an emphatic head-shake, accentuated their severity.
“And I should like to know, if your mother, has never taught you, that it is very rude,
to point, and also to remark, on what people wear.” Laura went scarlet: if there was one
thing she, Mother all of them prided themselves on, it was the good manners that had been
instilled into them since their infancy.–The rough reproof seemed to scorch her.
She went to and fro more timidly than before. Then, however, something happened which held
a ray of hope. “Why, what is this?” asked Mrs. Gurley freezingly, and held up to view–with
the tips of her fingers, Laura thought–a small, black Prayer Book. “Pray, are you not
a dissenter?”–For the College was nonconformist. “Well … no, I’m not,” said Laura, in a tone
of intense apology. Here, at last, was her chance. “But it really doesn’t matter a bit.
I can go to another church quite well. I even think I’d rather. For a change. And the service
isn’t so long, at least so I’ve heard–except the sermon,” she added truthfully.
Had she denied religion altogether, the look Mrs. Gurley bent on her could not have been
more annihilating. “There is–unfortunately!–no occasion, for you to do anything of the kind,”
she retorted. “I myself, am an Episcopalian, and I expect those gels, who belong to the
Church of England, to attend it, with me.” The unpacking at an end, Mrs. Gurley rose,
smoothed down her apron, and was just on the point of turning away, when on the bed opposite
Laura’s she espied an under-garment, lying wantonly across the counterpane. At this blot
on the orderliness of the room she seemed to swell like a turkey-cock.
seemed literally to grow before Laura’s eyes as, striding to the door, she commanded an
invisible some one to send Lilith Gordon to her “DI-rectly!”! There was an awful pause;
Laura did not dare to raise her head; she even said a little prayer. Mrs. Gurley stood
working at her chain, and tapping her foot–like a beast waiting for its prey, thought the
child. And at last a hurried step was heard in the corridor, the door opened and a girl
came in, high-coloured and scant of breath. Laura darted one glance at Mrs. Gurley’s face,
then looked away and studied the pattern of a quilt, trying not to hear what was said.
Her throat swelled, grew hard and dry with pity for the culprit. But Lilith Gordon–a
girl with sandy eyebrows, a turned-up nose, a thick plait of red-gold hair, and a
figure so fully developed that Laura mentally dubbed it a “lady’s figure”, and put its owner
down for years older than herself—Lilith Gordon neither fell on her knees nor sank
through the floor. Her lashes were lowered, in a kind of dog-like submission, and her
face had gone very red when Laura ventured to look at her again; but that was all. And
Mrs. Gurley having swept Jove-like from the room, this bold girl actually set her finger
to her nose and muttered: “Old Brimstone Beast!” As she passed Laura,
too, she put out her tongue and said: “Now then, goggle-eyes, what have you got to stare
at?” Laura was deeply hurt: she had gazed at Lilith out of the purest sympathy. And
now, as she stood waiting for Mrs. Gurley, who seemed to have forgotten her, the strangeness
of things, and the general unfriendliness of the people struck home with full force.
The late afternoon sun was shining in, in an unfamiliar way; outside were strange streets,
strange noises, a strange white dust, the expanse of a big, strange city. She felt unspeakably
far away now, from the small, snug domain of home. Here, nobody wanted her ..
she was alone among strangers, who did not even like her … she had already, without
meaning it, offended two of them. Another second, and the shameful tears might have
found their way out. But at this moment there was a kind of preparatory boom in the distance,
and the next, a great bell clanged through the house, pealing on and on, long after one’s
ears were rasped by the din. It was followed by an exodus from the rooms round about; there
was a sound of voices and of feet. Mrs. Gurley ceased to give orders in the passage, and
returning, bade Laura put on a pinafore and follow her.
They descended the broad staircase. At a door just at the foot, Mrs. Gurley paused and smoothed
her already faultless bands of hair; then turned the handle and opened the door, with
the majestic swing Laura had that day once before observed.
Chapter V. Fifty-five heads turned as if by clockwork,
and fifty-five pairs of eyes were levelled at the small girl in the white apron who meekly
followed Mrs. Gurley down the length of the dining-room. Laura crimsoned under the unexpected
ordeal, and tried to fix her attention on the flouncing of Mrs. Gurley’s dress. The
room seemed hundreds of feet long, and not a single person at the tea-tables but took
stock of her. The girls made no scruple of leaning backwards and forwards, behind and
before their neighbors, in order to see her better, and even the governesses were not
above having a look. All were standing. On Mrs. Gurley assigning
Laura a place at her own right hand, Laura covered herself with confusion by taking her
seat at once, before grace had been said, and before the fifty-five had drawn in their
chairs with the noise of a cavalry brigade on charge. She stood up again immediately,
but it was too late; an audible titter whizzed round the table: the new girl had sat down.
For minutes after, Laura was lost in the pattern on her plate; and not till tongues were loosened
and dishes being passed, did she venture to steal a glance round.
There were four tables, with a governess at the head and foot of each to pour out tea.
It was more of a hall than a room and had high, church-like windows down one side. At
both ends were scores of pigeon-holes. There was a piano in it and a fireplace; it had
pale blue walls, and only strips of carpet on the floor. At present it was darkish, for
the windows did not catch the sun. Laura was roused by a voice at her side; turning, she
found her neighbor offering her a plate of bread. “No, thank you,” she said impulsively;
for the bread was cut in chunks, and did not look inviting. But the girl nudged her on
the sly. “You’d better take some,” she whispered. Laura
then saw that there was nothing else. But she saw, too, the smiles and signs that again
flew round: the new girl had said no. Humbly she accepted the butter and the cup of tea
which were passed to her in turn, and as humbly ate the piece of rather stale bread. She felt
forlornly miserable under the fire of all these unkind eyes, which took a delight in
marking her slips: at the smallest further mischance she might disgrace herself by bursting
out crying. Just at this moment, however, something impelled her to look up. Her vis-a-vis,
whom she had as yet scarcely noticed, was staring hard.
And now, to her great surprise, this girl winked at her, winked slowly and deliberately
with the right eye. Laura was so discomposed that she looked away again at once, and some
seconds elapsed before she was brave enough to take another peep. The wink was repeated.
It was a black-haired girl this time, a girl with small blue eyes, a pale, freckled skin,
and large white teeth. What most impressed Laura, though, was her extraordinary gravity:
she chewed away with a face as solemn as a parson’s; and then just when you were least
expecting it, came the wink. Laura was fascinated: she lay in wait for it beforehand and was
doubtful whether to feel offended by it or to laugh at it.
But at least it made her forget her mishaps, and did away with the temptation to cry. When,
however, Mrs. Gurley had given the signal, and the fifty-five had pushed back their chairs
and set them to the table again with the same racket as before, Laura’s position was a painful
one. Everybody pushed, and talked, and laughed, in a hurry to leave the hall, and no one took
any notice of her except to stare. After some indecision, she followed the rest through
a door. Here she found herself on a verandah facing the grounds of the school. There was
a long bench, on which several people were sitting: she took a modest seat at one end.
Two of the younger governesses looked at her and laughed, and made a remark. She saw her
room-mate, Lilith Gordon, arm in arm with a couple of companions. The winker of the
tea-table turned out to be a girl of her own age, but of a broader make; she had fat legs,
which were encased in thickly-ribbed black stockings. As she passed the bench she left
the friend she was with, to come up to Laura and dig her in the ribs. “DIDN’T she like
her bread and butter, poor little thing?” she said. Laura shrank from the dig, which
was rough; but she could not help smiling shyly at the girl, who looked good-natured.
If only she had stayed and talked to her! But she was off and away, her arm round a
comrade’s neck. Besides herself, there was now only an elderly governess left, who was
reading. She, Laura, in her solitude, was conspicuous to every eye. But at this juncture
up came two rather rollicking older girls, one of whom was fair, with a red complexion.
AS soon as their loud voices had driven the governess away, the smaller of the two, who
had a pronounced squint, turned to Laura. “Hullo, you kid,” she said, “what’s YOUR name?”
Laura artlessly replied. She was dumbfounded by the storm of merriment that followed.
Maria Morell, the fat girl, went purple, and had to be thumped on the back by her friend.
“Oh, my!” she gasped, when she had got her breath. “Oh, my … hold me, some one, or
I shall split! Oh, golly! Laura … Tweedle … Rambo ham–Laura … Tweedle … Rambo
ham! …” her voice tailed off again. “Gosh! Was there ever such a name?” She laughed till
she could laugh no more, rocking backwards and forwards and from side to side; while
her companion proceeded to make further inquiries. “Where do you come from?” the squint demanded
of Laura, in a business-like way. Laura named the township, quaveringly. “What’s your father?”
“He’s dead,” answered the child. “Well, but I suppose he was alive once wasn’t
he, duffer? What was he before he was dead?” “A barrister.” “What did he die of?” “Consumption.”
“How many servants do you keep?” “One.” “How much have you got a year?” “I don’t know.”
“How old are you?” “Twelve and a quarter.” “Who made your dress?” “Mother.” “Oh, I say,
hang it, that’s enough. Stop teasing the kid,” said Maria Morell, when the laughter caused
by the last admission had died away. But the squint spied a friend, ran to her, and there
was a great deal of whispering and sniggering. Presently the pair came sauntering up and
sat down; and after some artificial humming and hawing
the newcomer began to talk, in a loud and fussy manner, about certain acquaintances
of hers called Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Both the fat girl and the squint “split” with
laughter. Laura sat with her hands locked one inside the other; there was no escape
for her, for she did not know where to go. But when the third girl put the regulation
question: “What’s your name and what’s your father?” she turned on her, with the courage
of despair. “What’s yours?” she retorted hotly, at the same time not at all sure how the big
girl might revenge herself. To her relief, the others burst out laughing
at their friend’s bafflement. “That’s one for you, Kate Horner,” said Maria with a chuckle.
“Not bad for the kid.–Come on, Kid, will you have a walk round the garden?” “Oh yes,
PLEASE,” said Laura, reddening with pleasure; and there she was, arm in arm with her fat
savior, promenading the grounds like any other of the fifty-five. She assumed, as well as
she could, an air of feeling at her ease even in the presence of the cold and curious looks
that met her. The fat girl was protective, and Laura felt too grateful to her to take
it amiss that every now and then she threw back her head and laughed anew,
at the remembrance of Laura’s patronymics; or that she still exchanged jokes about them
with the other couple, when they met. But by this time half an hour had slipped away,
and the girls were fast disappearing. Maria Morell loitered till the last minute, then
said, she, too, must be off to ‘stew’. Every one was hastening across the verandah laden
with books, and disappearing down a corridor. Left alone, Laura made her way back to the
dining-hall. Here some of the very young boarders were preparing their lessons, watched over
by a junior governess. Laura lingered for a little, to see if no
order were forthcoming, then diffidently approached the table and asked the governess if she would
please tell her what to do. “I’m sure I don’t know,” answered that lady, disinclined for
responsibility. “You’d better ask Miss Chapman. Here, Maggie, show her where the study is.”
Laura followed the little girl over the verandah and down the corridor. At the end, the child
pointed to a door, and on opening this Laura found herself in a very large brightly lighted
room, where the boarders sat at two long tables with their books before them. Every head was
raised at her entrance. In great embarrassment, she threaded her way
to the more authoritative-looking of the governesses in charge, and proffered her request. It was
not understood, and she had to repeat it. “I’m sure I don’t know,” said Miss Day in
her turn: she had stiff, black, wavy hair, a vivid colour, and a big, thick nose which
made her profile resemble that of a horse. “Can’t you twiddle your thumbs for a bit?–Oh
well, if you’re so desperately anxious for an occupation, you’d better ask Miss Chapman.”
The girls in the immediate neighborhood laughed noiselessly, in a bounden-duty kind of way,
at their superior’s pleasantry, and Laura, feeling as though she had been hit, crossed
to the other table. Miss Chapman, the head governess, was neither
so hard-looking nor so brilliant as Miss Day. She even eyed Laura somewhat uneasily, meanwhile
toying with a long gold chain, after the manner of the Lady Superintendent. “Didn’t Mrs. Gurley
tell you what to do?” she queried. “I should think it likely she would. Oh well, if she
didn’t, I suppose you’d better bring your things downstairs. Yes … and ask Miss Zielinski
to give you a shelf.” Miss Zielinski–she was the governess in the dining-hall–said:
“Oh, very well,” in the rather whiny voice that seemed natural to her, and went on reading.
“Please, I don’t think I know my way,” ventured Laura.
“Follow your nose and you’ll find it!” said Miss Zielinski without looking up, and was
forthwith wrapt in her novel again. Once more Laura climbed the wide staircase: it was but
dimly lighted, and the passages were in darkness. After a few false moves she found her room,
saw that her box had been taken away, her books left lying on a chair. But instead of
picking them up, she threw herself on her bed and buried her face in the pillow. She
did not dare to cry, for fear of making her eyes red, but she hugged the cool linen to
her cheeks. “I hate them all,” she said passionately, speaking aloud to herself.
“Oh, HOW I hate them!”–and wild schemes of vengeance flashed through her young mind.
She did not even halt at poison or the knife: a big cake, sent by Mother, of which she invited
all alike to partake, and into which she inserted a fatal poison, so that the whole school died
like rabbits; or a nightly stabbing, a creeping from bed to bed in the dark, her penknife
open in her hand… But she had not lain thus for more than a very few minutes when steps
came along the passage; and she had only just time to spring to her feet before one of the
little girls appeared at the door. “You’re to come down at once.”
“Don’t you know you’re not ALLOWED to stay upstairs?” asked Miss Zielinski crossly. “What
were you doing?” And as Laura did not reply: “What was she doing, Jessie?” “I don’t know,”
said the child. “She was just standing there.” And all the little girls laughed, after the
manner of their elders. Before Laura had finished arranging her belongings on the shelves that
were assigned to her, some of the older girls began to drop in from the study. One unceremoniously
turned over her books, which were lying on the table. “Let’s see what the kid’s got.”
Now Laura was proud of her collection: it really made a great show;
For a daughter of Godmother’s had once attended the College, and her equipment had been handed
down to Laura. “Why, you don’t mean to say a kid like you’s in the Second Principia already?”
said a big girl, and held up, incredulously, Smith’s black and red boards. “Wherever did
YOU learn Latin?” In the reediest of voices Laura was forced to confess that she had never
learnt Latin at all. The girl eyed her in dubious amaze, then burst out laughing. “Oh,
I say!” she called to a friend. “Here’s a rum go. Here’s this kid brings the Second
Principia with her and doesn’t know the First.” Several others crowded round; and all found
this divergence from the norm, from the traditional method of purchasing each book new and as
it was needed, highly ridiculous. Laura, on her knees before her shelf, pretended to be
busy; but she could not see what she was doing, for the mist that gathered in her eyes. Just
at this moment, however, in marched Maria Morell. “Here, I say, stop that!” she cried.
“You’re teasing that kid again. I won’t have it. Here, come on, Kid–Laura Tweedledum come
and sit by me for supper.” For the second time, Laura was thankful to the fat girl.
But as ill-luck would have it, Miss Chapman chanced to let her eyes stray in their direction;
and having fingered her chain indecisively for a little, said: “It seems a pity, doesn’t
it, Miss Day, that that nice little girl should get in with that vulgar set?” Miss Chapman
liked to have her opinions confirmed. But this was a weakness Miss Day did not pamper;
herself strong-minded, she could afford to disregard Miss Chapman’s foibles. So she went
on with her book, and ignored the question. But Miss Zielinski, who lost no opportunity
of making herself agreeable to those over her, said with foreign emphasis: “Yes, indeed
it does.” So Laura was summoned and made to sit down at the end of the room,
close to the governesses and beside the very big girls–girls of eighteen and nineteen,
who seemed older still to her, with their figures, and waists, and skirts that touched
the ground. Instinctively she felt that they resented her proximity. The biggest of all,
a pleasant-faced girl with a kind smile, said on seeing her downcast air: “Poor little thing!
Never mind.” But when they talked among themselves they lowered their voices and cast stealthy
glances at her, to see if she were listening. Supper over, three chairs were set out in
an exposed position; the big bell in the passage was lightly touched; everyone fetched a hymn-book,
one with music in it being handed to Miss Chapman at the piano.
The door opened to admit first Mrs. Gurley, then the Principal and his wife–a tall, fair
gentleman in a long coat, and a sweet-faced lady, who wore a rose in her velvet dress.
“Let us sing in the hundred and fifty-seventh hymn,” said the gentleman, who had a Grecian
profile and a drooping, sandy moustache; and when Miss Chapman had played through the tune,
the fifty-five, the governesses, the lady and gentleman rose to their feet and sang,
with halting emphasis, of the Redeemer and His mercy, to Miss Chapman’s accompaniment,
which was as indecisive as her manner, the left hand dragging lamely along after the
right. “Let us read in the third chapter of the Second
Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians.” Everyone laid her hymn-book on the table and sat down
to listen to Paul’s words, which the sandy gentleman read to a continual nervous movement
of the left leg. “Let us pray.” Obeying the word, the fifty-five rose, faced about, and
knelt to their chairs. It was an extempore prayer, and a long one, and Laura did not
hear much of it; for the two big girls on her right kept up throughout a running conversation.
Also, when it was about half over she was startled to hear Miss Zielinski say, in a
shrill whisper: “Heavens! There’s that mouse again,” and audibly draw her skirts round
her. Even Miss Chapman, praying to her piano-chair
some distance off, had heard, and turned her head to frown rebuke. The prayer
at an end, Mr. and Mrs. Strachey bowed vaguely in several directions, shook hands with the
governesses, and left the room. This was the signal for two of the teachers to advance
with open Bibles. “Here, little one, have you learned your verse?” whispered Laura’s
pleasant neighbor. Laura knew nothing of it; but the big girl lent her a Bible, and, since
it was not a hard verse and every girl repeated it, it was quickly learned. I WISDOM DWELL
Told off in batches, they filed up the stairs. On the first landing stood Miss Day, watching
with lynx-eyes to see that no books or eatables were smuggled to the bedrooms. In a strident
voice she exhorted the noisy to silence, and the loiterers to haste. Laura sped to her
room. She was fortunate enough to find it still empty. Tossing off her clothes, she
gabbled ardently through her own prayers, drew the blankets up over her head, and pretended
to be asleep. Soon the lights were out and all was quiet. Then, with her face burrowed
deep, so that not a sound could escape, she gave free play to her tears.
Chapter VI. My dear mother i sent you a postcard did you
get it. I told you i got here all right and liked it very much. I could not write a long
letter before i had no time and we are only allowed to write letters two evenings a week
Tuesday and Friday. When we have done our lessons for next day we say please may i write
now and miss chapman says have you done everything and if we say we have she says yes and if
you sit at miss days table miss day says it. And sometimes we haven’t but we say so. I
sit up by miss chapman and she can see everything i do and at tea and dinner and Breakfast i
sit beside Mrs. Gurley. Another girl in my class sits Opposite and
one sits beside me and we would rather sit somewhere else. I don’t care for Mrs. Gurley
much she is very fat and never smiles and Never listens to what you say unless she scolds
you and i think miss Chapman is afraid of her to. Miss day is not afraid of anybody.
I am in The first class. I am in the college and under that is the school. Only Very little
girls are in the school they go to bed at half past eight And do their lessons in the
dining hall. I do mine in the study and go To bed with the big girls. They wear dresses
down to the ground. Lilith Gordon is a girl in my class she is in my room to she is only
as old as Me and she wears stays and has a beautiful figure.
All the girls wear Stays. Please send me some i have no waste. A governess sleeps in our
Room and she has no teeth. She takes them out every night and puts them In water when
the light is out. Lilith Gordon and the other girl say Goodnight to her after she has taken
them off then she cant talk Properly and we want to hear her. I think she knows for she
is very Cross. I don’t learn Latin yet till i go into the second class my sums Are very
hard. For supper there is only bread and butter and water if We don’t have cake and jam of
our own. Please send me some strawberry jam and another
cake. Tell sarah there are three servants to wait at dinner they have white aprons and
a cap on their heads. They say will you take beef miss i remain,
Your loving daughter : Laura. Dear pin: I am very busy i will write you
a letter. You would not like being here I think you should always stop at home you will
never get as far as Long division. Mrs. Gurley is an awful old beast all the girls call her
That. You would be frightened of her. In the afternoon after school we Walk two and two
and you ask a girl to walk with you and if you don’t You have to walk with miss chapman.
Miss chapman and miss day walks Behind and they watch to see you don’t laugh at boys.
Some girls write Letters to them and say they will meet them up behind a tree in the Corner
of the garden a paling is lose and the boys put letters in.
I Think boys are silly but Maria morel says they are tip top that means Awfully jolly.
She writes a letter to boys every week she takes it to Church and drops it coming out
and he picks it up and puts an answer Through the fence. We put our letters on the mantelpiece
in the Dining-hall and Mrs. Gurley or miss chapman read the address to see we Don’t write
to boys. They are shut up she cant read the inside. I hope You don’t cry so much at school
no one cries. Now miss chapman says it Is time to stop I remain Your affectionate sister
Laura. P.S. I took the red lineing out of my hat.
Warrenega Sunday. My dear Laura: We were very glad to get your letters which came this morning.
Your Postcard written the day after you arrived at the college told us Little or nothing.
However godmother was good enough to write us an Account of your arrival so that we were
not quite without news of you. I hope you remembered to thank her for driving in all
that way to meet You and take you to school which was very good of her. I am glad to Hear
you are settling down and feeling happy and I hope you will work Hard and distinguish
yourself so that I may be proud of you. But there Are several things in your letters
I do not like. Did you really think I shouldn’t read what you wrote to pin. You are a very
foolish girl if You did. Pin the silly child tried to hide it away because she knew it
Would make me cross but I insisted on her showing it to me and I am Ashamed of you for
writing such nonsense to her. Maria morel must be a Very vulgar minded girl to use the
expressions she does. I hope my Little girl will try to only associate with nice minded
girls. I didn’t Send you to school to get nasty ideas put into your head but to learn
Your lessons well and get on. If you write such vulgar silly things Again
I shall complain to Mrs. Gurley or Mr. Strachey about the tone of The college and what goes
on behind their backs. I think it is very Rude of you too to call Mrs. Gurley names.
Also about the poor Governess who has to wear false teeth. Wait till all your own teeth
are Gone and then see how you will like it. I do want you to have nice Feelings and not
grow rough and rude. There is evidently a very bad Tone among some of the girls and
you must be careful in choosing your Friends. I am sorry to hear you are only in the lowest
class. It would Have pleased me better if you had
got into the second but i always told You you were lazy about your sums–you can do
them well enough if you Like. You don’t need stays. I have never worn
them myself and i don’t Intend you to either. Your own muscles are quite strong enough to
bear The weight of your back. Bread and water is not much of a supper for You to go to bed
on. I will send you another cake soon and some jam and I hope you will share it with
the other girls. Now try and be sensible And industrious and make nice friends and then
i shant have to scold you . Your loving mother. J.T.R
P.S. Another thing in your letter i don’t like. You say you tell your Governess you
have finished your lessons when you have not done so. That is telling an untruth and i
hope you are not going to be led away By the examples of bad girls. I have always brought
you children up to Be straightforward and i am astonished at you beginning fibbing as
soon As you get away from home. Fibbing soon leads to something worse. P.P.S. You must
have written your letter in a great hurry for your Spelling is anything but perfect.
You are a very naughty girl to meddle With your hat. Pin has written a letter which i
enclose though her Spelling is worse than ever.
Dear Laura: Mother says you are a very silly girl to rite such silly letters i think You
are silly to i shood be frightened of Mrs. Girly i don’t want to go to School I wood
rather stop with mother and be a comfort to her i think it Is naughty to drop letters
in church and verry silly to rite to boys boys Are so silly Sarah sends her luv she
says she wood not ware a cap on her Hed not for anything she says she wood just as soon
ware a ring through Her nose. I remain Your loving sister pin.
Dear mother: Please please don’t write to Mrs. Gurley about the tone in the college
Or not to Mr. Strachey either. I will never be so silly again. I am Sorry my letters were
so silly i wont do it again. Please don’t write To them about it. I don’t go much with
Maria morel now i think she she Is vulgar to. I know two nice girls now in my own class
their names are Inez and bertha they are very nice and not at all vulgar. Maria morel Is
fat and has a red face she is much older than me and i don’t care For her now. Please don’t
write to Mrs. Gurley i will never call her Names again. I had to write my letter quickly
because when i have done My lessons it is nearly time for supper.
I am sorry my spelling was Wrong I will take more pains next time I will learn hard and
get on and Soon I will be in the second class. I did not mean I said I had done my Lessons
when I had not done them the other girls say it and I think it Is very wrong of them. Please
don’t write to Mrs. Gurley I will try and Be good and sensible and not do it again if
you only wont write. I remain Your affectionate daughter Laura. P.S. I can do my sums better
now. Warrenega My dear Laura My letter evidently
gave you a good fright and i am not sorry to hear It for i think you deserved it for
being such a foolish girl. I hope You will keep your promise and not do it again. Of
course i don’t mean That you are not to tell me everything that happens at school but I
Want you to only have nice thoughts and feelings and grow into a wise And sensible girl. I
am not going to write a long letter today. This is only a line to comfort you and let
you know that i shall not Write to Mrs. Gurley or Mr. Strachey as long as i see that you
are Being a good girl and getting on well with your lessons.
I do want you To remember that you are a lady though you are poor and must behave in A ladylike
way. You don’t tell me what the food at the college is like And whether you have blankets
enough on your bed at night. Do try and Remember to answer the questions I ask you. Sarah is
busy washing today And the children are helping her by sitting with their arms in the Tubs.
I am to tell you from pin that muggy is molting badly and has Not eaten much since you left
which is just three weeks today Your loving Mother.
Friday; My dear mother I was so glad to get your letter i am so glad you will not write
to Mrs. Gurley this time and i will promise to be very good and try to Remember everything
you tell me. I am sorry i forgot to answer the Questions i have two blankets on my bed
and it is enough. The food is Very nice for dinner for tea we have to eat a lot of bread
and butter I Don’t care for bread much. Sometimes we have jam but we are not allowed To eat
butter and jam together. A lot of girls get up at six and go Down to practice they don’t
dress and have their bath they just put on Their dressing gowns on top of their night
gowns. I don’t go down now Till seven i make my own
bed. We have prayers in the morning and the Evening and prayers again when the day scholars
come. I do my sums Better now i think i shall soon be in the second class. Pins spelling
Was dreadful and she is nearly nine now and is such a baby the girls Would laugh at her.
I remain Your affectionate daughter Laura. P.S. I parsed a long sentence without any
mistakes. Chapter VII.
The mornings were beginning to grow dark and chilly: fires were laid overnight in the outer
classrooms–and the junior governess who was on early duty, having pealed the six-o’clock
bell, flitted like a grey wraith from room to room and from one gas-jet to another, among
stretched, sleeping forms. And the few minutes’ grace at an end, it was a cold, unwilling
pack that threw off coverlets and jumped out of bed, to tie on petticoats and snuggle into
dressing-gowns and shawls; for the first approach of cooler weather was keenly felt, after the
summer heat. The governess blew on speedily chilblained fingers, in making her rounds
of the verandahs to see that each of the twenty pianos was rightly occupied;
and, as winter crept on, its chief outward sign an occasional thin white spread of frost
which vanished before the mighty sun of ten o’clock, she sometimes took the occupancy
for granted, and skipped an exposed room. At eight, the boarders assembled in the dining-hall
for prayers and breakfast. After this meal it was Mrs. Gurley’s custom to drink a glass
of hot water. While she sipped, she gave audience, meting out rebukes and crushing complaints–were
any bold enough to offer them—standing erect behind her chair at the head of the table,
supported by one or more of the staff. To suit the season she was draped in a shawl
of crimson wool, which reached to the flounce of her skirt, and was borne by her portly
shoulders with the grace of a past day. Beneath the shawl, her dresses were built, year in,
year out, on the same plan: cut in one piece, buttoning right down the front, they fitted
her like an eel skin, rigidly outlining her majestic proportions, and always short enough
to show a pair of surprisingly small, well-shod feet. Thus she stood, sipping her water, and
boring with her hard, unflagging eye every girl that presented herself to it.
Most shrank noiselessly away as soon as breakfast was over; for, unless one was very firm indeed
in the conviction of one’s own innocence, to be beneath this eye was apt to induce a
disagreeable sense of guilt. In the case of Mrs. Gurley, familiarity had never been known
to breed contempt. She was possessed of what was little short of genius, for ruling through
fear; and no more fitting overseer could have been set at the head of these half-hundred
girls, of all ages and degrees: gentle and common; ruly and unruly, children hardly out
of the nursery, and girls well over the brink of womanhood,
whose ripe, bursting forms told their own tale; the daughters of poor ministers at reduced
fees; and the spoilt heiresses of wealthy wool-brokers and squatters, whose dowries
would mount to many thousands of pounds.–Mrs. Gurley was equal to them all. In a very short
time, there was no more persistent shirker from the ice of this gaze than little Laura.
In the presence of Mrs. Gurley the child had a difficulty in getting her breath. Her first
week of school life had been one unbroken succession of snubs and reprimands. For this,
the undue familiarity of her manner was to blame: she was all too slow to grasp–
-being of an impulsive disposition and not naturally shy–that it was indecorous to accost
Mrs. Gurley off-hand, to treat her, indeed, in any way as if she were an ordinary mortal.
The climax had come one morning–it still made Laura’s cheeks burn to remember it. She
had not been able to master her French lesson for that day, and seeing Mrs. Gurley chatting
to a governess had gone thoughtlessly up to her and tapped her on the arm. “Mrs. Gurley,
please, do you think it would matter very much if I only took half this verb today?
It’s COUDRE, and means to sew, you know, and it’s SO hard. I don’t seem to be able to get
it into my head.” Before the words were out of her mouth, she
saw that she had made a terrible mistake. Mrs. Gurley’s face, which had been smiling,
froze to stone. She looked at her arm as though the hand had bitten her, and Laura’s sudden
shrinking did not move her, to whom seldom anyone addressed a word unbidden. “How DARE
you interrupt me–when I am speaking!”–she hissed, punctuating her words with the ominous
head-shakes and pauses. “The first thing, miss, for you to do, will be, to take a course
of lessons, in manners. Your present ones, may have done well enough, in the outhouse,
to which you have evidently belonged. They will not do, here, in the company of your
betters.” Above the child’s head the two ladies smiled
significantly at each other, assured that, after this, there would be no further want
of respect; but Laura did not see them. The iron of the thrust went deep down into her
soul: no one had ever yet cast a slur upon her home. Retreating to a lavatory she cried
herself nearly sick, making her eyes so red that she was late for prayers in trying to
wash them white. Since that day, she had never of her own free will approached Mrs. Gurley
again, and even avoided those places where she was likely to be found.
This was why one morning, some three weeks later, on discovering that she had forgotten
one of her lesson-books, she hesitated long before re-entering the dining-hall. The governesses
still clustered round their chief, and the pupils were not expected to return. But it
was past nine o’clock; in a minute the public prayer-bell would ring, which united boarders,
several hundred day-scholars, resident and visiting teachers in the largest class-room;
and Laura did not know her English lesson. So she stole in, cautiously dodging behind
the group, in a twitter lest the dreaded eyes should turn her way.
It was Miss Day who spied her and demanded an explanation. “Such carelessness! You girls
would forget your heads if they weren’t screwed on,” retorted the governess, in the dry, violent
manner that made her universally disliked. Thankful to escape with this, Laura picked
out her book and hurried from the room. But the thoughts of the group had been drawn to
her. “The greatest little oddity we’ve had here for some time,” pronounced Miss Day,
pouting her full bust in decisive fashion. “She is, indeed,” agreed Miss Zielinski. “I
don’t know what sort of a place she comes from, I’m sure,” continued the former: “but
it must be the end of creation. She’s utterly no idea of what’s what, and
as for her clothes they’re fit for a Punch and Judy show.” “She’s had no training either–stupid,
I call her,” chimed in one of the younger governesses, whose name was Miss Snodgrass.
“She doesn’t know the simplest things, and her spelling is awful. And yet, do you know,
at history the other day, she wanted to hold forth about how London looked in Elizabeth’s
reign–when she didn’t know a single one of the dates!” “She can say some poetry,” said
Miss Zielinski. “And she’s read Scott.” One and all shook their heads at this, and Mrs.
Gurley went on shaking hers and smiling grimly. “Ah! the way gels are brought up nowadays,”
she said. “There was no such thing in my time. We were made to learn what would be of some
use and help to us afterwards.” Elderly Miss Chapman twiddled her chain. “I hope I did
right Mrs. Gurley. She had one week’s early practice, but she looked so white all day
after it that I haven’t put her down for it again. I hope I did right?” “Oh, well, we
don’t want to have them ill, you know,” replied Mrs. Gurley, in the rather irresponsive tone
she adopted towards Miss Chapman. “As long as it isn’t mere laziness.” “I don’t think
she’s lazy,” said Miss Chapman. “At least she takes great pains with her lessons at
night.” This was true. Laura tried her utmost, with
an industry born of despair. For the comforting assurance of speedy promotion, which she had
given Mother, had no root in fact. These early weeks only served to reduce, bit by bit, her
belief in her own knowledge. How slender this was, and of how little use to her in her new
state, she did not dare to confess even to herself. Her disillusionment had begun the
day after her arrival, when Dr Pugh son, the Headmaster, to whom she had gone to be examined
in arithmetic, flung up hands of comical dismay at her befogged attempts to solve the mysteries
of long division. An upper class was taking a lesson in Euclid,
and in the intervals between her mazy reckonings she had stolen glances at the master. A tiny
little nose was as if squashed flat on his face, above a grotesquely expressive mouth,
which displayed every one of a splendid set of teeth. He had small, short-sighted, red-rimmed
eyes, and curly hair which did not stop growing at his ears, but went on curling, closely
cropped, down the sides of his face. He taught at the top of his voice, thumped the blackboard
with a pointer, was biting at the expense of a pupil who confused the angle BFC with
the angle BFG, a moment later to volley forth a broad Irish joke which convulsed the
class. He bewitched Laura; she forgot her sums in
the delight of watching him; and this made her learning seem a little scantier than it
actually was; for she had to wind up in a great hurry. He pounced down upon her; the
class laughed anew at his playful horror; and yet again at the remark that it was evident
she had never had many pennies to spend, or she would know better what to do with the
figures that represented them.–In these words Laura scented a reference to Mother’s small
income, and grew as red as fire. In the lowest class in the College she sat bottom, for a
week or more: what she did know, she knew in such an awkward form that she might as
well have known nothing. And after a few efforts to better her condition
she grew cautious, and hesitated discreetly before returning one of those ingenuous answers
which, in the beginning, had made her the merry-andrew of the class. She could for instance,
read a French story-book without skipping very many words; but she had never heard a
syllable of the language spoken, and her first attempts at pronunciation caused even Miss
Zielinski to sit back in her chair and laugh till the tears ran down her face. History
Laura knew in a vague, pictorial way: she and Pin had enacted many a striking scene
in the garden–such as “Not Angles but Angels, or, did the pump-drain overflow, Canute and
his silly courtiers–and she also had out-of-the-way scraps of information about the characters
of some of the monarchs, or, as the governess had complained, about the state of London
at a certain period; but she had never troubled her head with dates. Now they rose before
her, a hard, dry, black line from 1066 on, accompanied, not only by the kings who were
the cause of them, but by dull laws, and their duller repeals. Her lessons in English alone
gave her a mild pleasure; she enjoyed taking a sentence to pieces to see how it was made.
She was fond of words, too, for their own sake, and once,
when Miss Snodgrass had occasion to use the term “eleemosynary”, Laura was so enchanted
by it that she sought to share her enthusiasm with her neighbor. This girl, a fat little
Jewess, went crimson, from trying to stifle her laughter. “What IS the matter with you
girls down there?” cried Miss Snodgrass. “Carrie Isaacs, what are you laughing like that for?”
“It’s Laura Rambo ham, Miss Snodgrass. She’s so funny,” spluttered the girl. “What are
you doing, Laura?” Laura did not answer. The girl spoke for her. “She said–hee, hee!–she
said it was blue.” “Blue? What’s blue?” snapped Miss Snodgrass. “That word. She said it was
so beautiful … and that it was blue.” “I didn’t. Grey-blue, I said,” murmured Laura
her cheeks aflame. The class rocked; even Miss Snodgrass herself had to join in the
laugh while she hushed and reproved. And sometimes after this, when a particularly long or odd
word occurred in the lesson, she would turn to Laura and say jocosely: “Now, Laura, come
on, tell us what color that is. Red and yellow, don’t you think?” But these were “Tom Fool’s
colors”; and Laura kept a wise silence. One day at geography, the pupils were required
to copy the outline of the map of England. Laura, about to begin, found to her dismay
that she had lost her pencil. To confess the loss meant one of the hard, public rebukes
from which she shrank. And so, while the others drew, heads and backs
bent low over their desks, she fidgeted and sought–on her [P.72] lap, the bench, the
floor. “What on earth’s the matter?” asked her neighbor crossly; it was the black-haired
boarder who had winked at Laura the first evening at tea; her name was Bertha Ramsey.
“I can’t draw a stroke if you shake like that.” “I’ve lost my pencil.” The girl considered
Laura for a moment, then pushed the lid from a box of long, beautifully sharpened drawing-pencils.
“Here, you can have one of these.” Laura eyed the well-filled box admiringly, and modestly
selected the shortest pencil. Bertha Ramsay, having finished her map, leaned
back in her seat. “And next time you feel inclined to boo-hoo at the tea-table, hold
on to your eyebrows and sing Rule Britannia.–DID it want its mummy, poor ickle sing?” Here
Bertha’s chum, a girl called Inez, chimed in from the other side. “It’s all very well
for you,” she said to Bertha, in a deep, slow voice. “You’re a weekly boarder.” Laura had
the wish to be very pleasant, in return for the pencil. So she drew a sigh, and said,
with over-emphasis: “How nice for your mother to have you home every week!” Bertha only
laughed at this, in a teasing way: “Yes, isn’t it?” But Inez leaned across behind
her and gave Laura a poke. “Shut up!” she telegraphed. “Who’s talking down there?” came
the governess’s cry. “Here you, the new girl, Laura what’s–your-name, come up to the map.”
A huge map of England had been slung over an easel; Laura was required to take the pointer
and show where Stafford lay. With the long stick in her hand, she stood stupid and confused.
In this exigency, it did not help her that she knew, from hear-say, just how England
looked; that she could see, in fancy, its ever-green grass, thick hedges, and spreading
trees; its never-dry rivers; its hoary old cathedrals; its fogs, and sea-mists, and over-populous
cities. She stood face to face with the most puzzling
map in the world–a map seared and scored with boundary-lines, black and bristling with
names. She could not have laid her finger on London at this moment, and as for Stafford,
it might have been in the moon. While the class straggled along the verandah at the
end of the hour, Inez came up to Laura’s side. “I say, you shouldn’t have said that about
her mother.” She nodded mysteriously. “Why not?” asked Laura, and colored at the thought
that she had again, without knowing it, been guilty of a FAUX PAS. Inez looked round to
see that Bertha was not within hearing, then put her lips to Laura’s ear. “She drinks.”
Laura gaped incredulous at the girl, her young eyes full of horror. From actual experience,
she hardly knew what drunkenness meant; she had hitherto associated it only with the lowest
class of Irish agricultural labourer, or with those dreadful white women who lived, by choice,
in Chinese Camps. That there could exist a mother who drank was unthinkable … outside
the bounds of nature. “Oh, how awful!” she gasped, and turned pale with excitement. Inez
could not help giggling at the effect produced by her words–the new girl was a ‘rum stick’
and no mistake–but as Laura’s consternation persisted, she veered about. “Oh, well, I
don’t know for certain if that’s it. But there’s something awfully queer about
her.” “Oh, HOW do you know?” asked her breathless listener, mastered by a morbid curiosity.
“I’ve been there–at Values–from a Saturday till Monday. She came in to lunch, and she
only talked to herself, not to us. She tried to eat mustard with her pudding too, and her
meat was cut up in little pieces for her. I guess if she’d had a knife she’d have cut
our throats.” “Oh!” was all Laura could get out. “I was so frightened my mother said I
shouldn’t go again.” “Oh, I hope she won’t ask me. What shall I do if she does?” “Look
out, here she comes! Don’t say a word. Bertha’s awfully ashamed of it,” said Inez, and Laura
had just time to give a hasty promise. “Hullo, you two, what are you gassing about?”
cried Bertha, and dealt out a couple of her rough and friendly punches.–“I say, who’s
on for a race up the garden?” They raced, all three, with flying plaits and curls, much
kicking-up of long black legs, and a frank display of frills and tuckers. Laura won;
for Inez’s wind gave out half way, and Bertha was heavy of foot. Leaning against the palings
Laura watched the latter come puffing up to join her–Bertha with the shameful secret
in the background, of a mother who was not like other mothers.
Chapter VIII. Laura had been, for some six weeks or more,
a listless and unsuccessful pupil, when one morning she received an invitation from Godmother
to spend the coming monthly holiday–from Saturday till Monday—at Prahran. The month
before, she had been one of the few girls who had nowhere to go; she had been forced
to pretend that she liked staying in, did it in fact by preference.–Now her spirits
rose. Marina, Godmother’s younger daughter, from whom Laura inherited her school-books,
was to call for her. By a little after nine o’clock on Saturday morning, Laura had finished
her weekly mending, tidied her bedroom, and was ready dressed even to her gloves.
It was a cool, crisp day; and her heart beat high with expectation. From the dining-hall,
it was not possible to hear the ringing of the front-door bell; but each time either
of the maids entered with a summons, Laura half rose from her chair, sure that her turn
had come at last. But it was half-past nine, then ten, then half-past; it struck eleven,
the best of the day was passing, and still Marina did not come. Only two girls besides
herself remained. Then respectively an aunt and a mother were announced, and these two
departed. Laura alone was left: she had to bear the disgrace of Miss Day observing: “Well,
it looks as if YOUR friends had forgotten all about you, Laura.”
Humiliated beyond measure, Laura had thoughts of tearing off her hat and jacket and declaring
that she felt too ill to go out. But at last, when she was almost sick with suspense, Mary
put her tidy head in once more. “Miss Rambotham has been called for.” Laura was on her feet
before the words were spoken. She sped to the reception-room. Marina, a short, sleek-haired,
soberly dressed girl of about twenty, had Godmother’s brisk, matter-of-fact manner.
She offered Laura her cheek to kiss. “Well, I suppose you’re ready now?” Laura forgave
her the past two hours. “Yes, quite, thank you,” she answered.
They went down the asphalted path and through the garden-gate, and turned to walk town wards.
For the first time since her arrival Laura was free again–a prisoner at large. Round
them stretched the broad white streets of East Melbourne; at their side was the thick,
exotic greenery of the Fitzroy Gardens; on the brow of the hill rose the massive proportions
of the Roman Catholic Cathedral.–Laura could have danced, as she walked at Marina’s side.
After a few queries, however, as to how she liked school and how she was getting on with
her lessons, Marina fell to contemplating a strip of paper that she held in her hand.
Laura gathered that her companion had combined the task of calling for her with a morning’s
shopping, and that she had only worked half through her list of commissions before arriving
at the College. At the next corner they got on to the outside car of a cable-tramway,
and were carried into town. Here Marina entered a co-operative grocery store, where she was
going to give an order for a quarter’s supplies. She was her mother’s housekeeper, and had
an incredible knowledge of groceries, as well as a severely practical mind: she stuck her
finger-nail into butter, tasted cheeses off the blade of a knife, ran her hands through
currants, nibbled biscuits, discussed brands of burgundy and desiccated
soups–Laura meanwhile looking on, from a high, uncomfortable chair, with a somewhat
hungry envy. When everything, down to pepper and salt, had been remembered, Marina filled
in a cheque, and was just about to turn away when she recollected an affair of some empty
cases, which she wished to send back. Another ten minutes’ parley ensued; she had to see
the manager, and was closeted with him in his office, so that by the time they emerged
into the street again a full hour had gone by. “Getting hungry?” she inquired of Laura.
“A little. But I can wait,” answered Laura politely.
“That’s right,” said Marina, off whose own appetite the edge had no doubt been taken
by her various nibbling’s. “Now there’s only the chemist.” They rode to another street,
entered a druggist’s, and the same thing on a smaller scale was repeated, except that
here Marina did no tasting, but for a stray gelatine or jujube. By the time the shop door
closed behind them, Laura could almost have eaten liquor ice powder. It was two o’clock,
and she was faint with hunger. “We’ll be home in plenty of time,” said Marina, consulting
a neat watch. “Dinner’s not till three today, because of father. “Again a tramway jerked
them forward. Some half mile from their destination, Marina rose.
“We’ll get out here. I have to call at the butcher’s.” At a quarter to three, it was
a very white-faced, exhausted little girl that followed her companion into the house.
“Well, I guess you’ll have a fine healthy appetite for dinner,” said Marina, as she
showed her where to hang up her hat and wash her hands. Godmother was equally optimistic.
From the sofa of the morning-room, where she sat knitting, she said: “Well, YOU’VE had
a fine morning’s gadding about I must say! How are you? And how’s your dear mother?”
“Quite well, thank you.” Godmother scratched her head with a spare needle, and the attention
she had had for Laura evaporated. “I hope, Marina, you told Graves about those
empty jam-jars he didn’t take back last time?” Marina, without lifting her eyes from a letter
she was reading, returned: “Indeed I didn’t. He made such a rumpus about the sugar-boxes
that I thought I’d try to sell them to Petersen instead.” Godmother grunted, but did not question
Marina’s decision. “And what news have you from your dear mother?” she asked again, without
looking at Laura–just as she never looked at the stocking she held, but always over
the top of it. Here, however, the dinner-bell rang, and Laura, spared the task of giving
more superfluous information, followed the two ladies to the dining-room.
The other members of the family were waiting at the table. Godmother’s husband–he was
a lawyer–was a morose, black-bearded man who, for the most part, kept his eyes fixed
on his plate. Laura had heard it said that he and Godmother did not get on well together;
she supposed this meant that they did not care to talk to each other, for they never
exchanged a direct word: if they had to communicate, it was done by means of a third person. There
was the elder daughter, Georgina, dumpier and still brusquer than Marina, the eldest
son, a bank-clerk who was something of a dandy and did not waste civility on little girls;
and lastly there were two boys, slightly younger than Laura, black-haired, pug-nosed, pugnacious
little creatures, who stood in awe of their father, and were all the wilder when not under
his eye. Godmother mumbled a blessing; and the soup was eaten in silence. During the
meat course, the bank-clerk complained in extreme displeasure of the way the laundress
had of late dressed his collars–these were so high that, as Laura was not slow to notice,
he had to look straight down the two sides of his nose to see his plate–and announced
that he would not be home for tea, as he had an appointment to meet some ‘chappies’ at
five, and in the evening was going to take a lady friend to Brock’s Fireworks.
These particulars were received without comment. As the family plied its pudding-spoons, Georgina
in her turn made a statement. “Joey’s coming to take me driving at four.” It looked as
if this remark, too, would founder on the general indifference. Then Marina said warningly,
as if recalling her parent’s thoughts: “Mother!” Awakened, Godmother jerked out: “Indeed and
I hope if you go you’ll take the boys with you!” “Indeed and I don’t see why we should!”
“Very well, then, you’ll stop at home. If Joey doesn’t choose to come to the point—–”
“Now hold your tongue, mother!” “I’ll do nothing of the sort.” “Crikey!” said
the younger boy, Erwin, in a low voice. “Joey’s got to take us riding.” “If you and Joey can’t
get yourselves properly engaged,” snapped Godmother, “then you shan’t go driving without
the boys, and that’s the end of it.” Like dogs barking at one another, thought Laura,
listening to the loveless bandying of words–she was unused to the snappishness of the Irish
manner, which sounds so much worse than it is meant to be: and she was chilled anew by
it when, over the telephone, she heard Georgy holding a heated conversation with Joey. He
was a fat young man, with hanging cheeks, small eyes, and a lazy, lopsided walk.
“Hello–here’s a little girl! What’s HER name?–Say, this kiddy can come along too.” As it had
leaked out that Marina’s afternoon would be spent between the shelves of her storeroom,
preparing for the incoming goods, Laura gratefully accepted the offer. They drove to Marlborough
Tower. With their backs to the horse sat the two boys, mercilessly alert for any display
of fondness on the part of the lovers; sat Laura, with her straight, inquisitive black
eyes. Hence Joey and Georgy were silent, since, except to declare their feelings, they had
nothing to say to each other. The Tower reached, the mare was hitched up and the ascent of
the light wooden erection began. It was a blowy day.
“Boys first!” commanded Joey. “Cos o’ the petticuts.”–His speech was as lazy as his
walk. He himself led the way, followed by Erwin and Marmaduke, and Laura, at Georgie’s
bidding, went next. She clasped her bits of skirts anxiously to her knees, for she was
just as averse to the frills and flounces that lay beneath being seen by Georgy, as
by any of the male members of the party. Georgy came last, and, though no one was below her,
so tightly wound about was she that she could hardly advance her legs from one step to another.
Joey looked approval; but the boys sniggered, and kept it up till Georgy, having gained
the platform, threatened them with a “clout on the head”.
On the return journey a dispute arose between the lovers: it related to the shortest road
home, waxed hot, and was rapidly taking on the dimensions of a quarrel, when the piebald
mare shied at a traction-engine and tried to bolt. Joey gripped the reins, and passed
his free arm round Georgy’s waist. “Don’t be frightened, darling.” Though the low chaise
rocked from side to side and there seemed a likelihood of it capsizing, the two boys
squirmed with laughter, and dealt out sundry nudges, kicks and pokes, all of which were
received by Laura, sitting between them. She herself turned red—with embarrassment.
At the same time she wondered why Joey should believe George was afraid; there was no sign
of it in Georgy’s manner; she sat stolid and unmoved. Besides she, Laura, was only a little
girl, and felt no fear.–She also asked herself why Joey should suddenly grow concerned about
Georgy, when, a moment before, they had been so rude to each other.–These were interesting
speculations, and, the chaise having ceased to sway, Laura grew meditative. In the evening
Godmother had a visitor, and Laura sat in a low chair, listening to the ladies’ talk.
It was dull work: for, much as she liked to consider herself “almost grown up”, she yet
detested the conversation of “real grown-ups” with a child’s heartiness.
She was glad when nine o’clock struck and Marina, lighting a candle, told her to go
to bed. The next day was Sunday. Between breakfast and church-time yawned two long hours. Georgy
went to a Bible-class; Marina was busy with orders for the dinner. It was a bookless house–like
most Australian houses of its kind: in Marina’s bedroom alone stood a small bookcase containing
school and Sunday school prizes. Laura was very fond of reading, and as she dressed that
morning had cast longing looks at these volumes, had evenly shyly fingered the glass doors.
But they were locked. Breakfast over, she approached Marina on the subject.
The latter produced the key, but only after some haggling, for her idea of books was to
keep the gilt on their covers untarnished. “Well, at any rate it must be a Sunday book,”
she said ungraciously. She drew out THE GIANT CITIES OF BASHAN AND SYRIA’S HOLY PLACES,
and with this Laura retired to the drawing-room, where Godmother was already settled for the
day, with a suitable magazine. When the bells began to clang the young people, primly hatted,
their prayer-books in their hands, walked to the neighboring church. There Laura sat
once more between the boys, Marina and Georgy stationed like sentinels at the ends of the
pew, ready to pounce down on their brothers if
necessary, to confiscate animals and eatables, or to rap impish knuckles with a Bible. It
was a spacious church; the pew was in a side aisle; one could see neither reading-desk
nor pulpit; and the words of the sermon seemed to come from a great way off. After dinner,
Laura and the boys were dispatched to the garden, to stroll about in Sunday fashion.
Here no elder person being present, the natural feelings of the trio came out: the distaste
of a quiet little girl for rough boys and their pranks; the resentful indignation of
the boys at having their steps dogged by a sneak and a tell-tale.
As soon as they had rounded the tennis-court and were out of sight of the house, Erwin
and Marmaduke clambered over the palings and dropped into the street, vowing a mysterious
vengeance on Laura if she went indoors without them. The child sat down on the edge of the
lawn under a mulberry tree and propped her chin on her hands. She was too timid to return
to the house and brave things out; she was also afraid of some one coming into the garden
and finding her alone, and of her then being forced to “tell”; for most of all she feared
the boys, and their vague, rude threats. So she sat and waited … and waited.
The shadows on the grass changed their shapes before her eyes; distant chapel-bells tinkled
their quarter of an hour and were still again; the blighting torpor of a Sunday afternoon
lay over the world. Would to-morrow ever come? She counted on her fingers the hours that
had still to crawl by before she could get back to school–counted twice over to be sure
of them–and all but yawned her head off, with ennui. But time passed, and passed, and
nothing happened. She was on the verge of tears, when two black heads bobbed up above
the fence, the boys scrambled over, red and breathless, and hurried her into tea.
She wakened next morning at daybreak, so eager was she to set out. But Marina had a hundred
and one odd jobs to do before she was ready to start, and it struck half-past nine as
the two of them neared the College. Child-like, Laura felt no special gratitude for the heavy
pot of mulberry jam Marina bore on her arm; but at sight of the stern, grey, stone building
she could have danced with joy; and on the front door swinging to behind her, she drew
a deep sigh of relief. Chapter IX.
From this moment on–the moment when Mary the maid’s pleasant smile saluted her–Laura’s
opinion of life at school suffered a change. She was glad to be back–that was the first
point: just as an adventurous sheep is glad to regain the cover of the flock. Learning
might be hard; the governesses mercilessly secure in their own wisdom; but here she was
at least a person of some consequence, instead of as at Godmother’s a mere negligible null.
Of her unlucky essay at holiday-making she wrote home guardedly: the most tell-tale sentence
in her letter was that in which she said she would rather not go to Godmother’s again in
the meantime. But there was Such a lack of warmth in her
account of the visit that mother made This, together with the above remark, the text for
a scolding. “You’re a very ungrateful girl,” she wrote, “to forget all godmother Has done
for you. If it hadn’t been for her supplying you with books And things i couldn’t have
sent you to school at all. And i hope when You grow up you’ll be as much of a help to
me as marina is to her Mother. I’d much rather have you good and useful than clever and I
Think for a child of your age you see things with very sharp unkind Eyes. Try and only
think nice things about people and not be always Spying out their faults.
Then you’ll have plenty of friends and be Liked wherever you go. Laura took the statement
about the goodness and cleverness with a grain Of salt: she knew better. Mother thought it
the proper thing to say, And she would certainly have preferred the two qualities combined;
but, Had she been forced to choose between them, there was small doubt how Her choice
would have fallen out. And if, for instance, Laura confessed That her teachers did not
regard her as even passably intelligent, There would be a nice to-do. Mother’s ambitions
knew no bounds; and, Wounded in these, she was quite capable of writing post-haste to
Mrs. Gurley or Mr. Strachey, complaining of their want of insight,
And bringing forward a string of embarrassing proofs. So, leaving Mother to her pleasing
illusions, Laura settled down again to her role of dunce, now, though, with more equanimity
than before. School was really not a bad place after all–this had for some time been her
growing conviction, and the visit to Godmother seemed to bring it to a head. About this time,
too, a couple of pieces of good fortune came her way. The first: she was privileged to
be third in the friendship between Inez and Bertha–a favor of which she availed herself
eagerly, though the three were as different from one another as three little girls
could be. Bertha was a good-natured romp, hard-fisted,
thick of leg, and of a plodding but ineffectual industry. Inez, on the other hand, was so
pretty that Laura never tired of looking at her: she had a pale skin, hazel eyes, brown
hair with a yellow light in it, and a Greek nose. Her mouth was very small; her nostrils
were mere tiny slits; and so lazy was she that she seldom more than half opened her
eyes. Both girls were well over fourteen, and very fully developed: compared with them,
Laura was like nothing so much as a skinny young colt. She was so grateful to them for
tolerating her that she never took up a stand of real equality with them:
proud and sensitive, she was always ready to draw back and admit their prior rights
to each other; hence the friendship did not advance to intimacy. But such as it was, it
was very comforting; she no longer needed to sit alone in recess; she could link arms
and walk the garden with complacency; and many were the supercilious glances she now
threw at Maria Morell and that clique; for her new friends belonged socially to the best
set in the school. In another way, too, their company made things easier for her: neither
of them aimed high; and both were well content with the lowly places they occupied in the
class. And so Laura, who was still, in her young
confusion, unequal to discovering what was wanted of her, grew comforted by the presence
and support of her friends, and unmindful of higher opinion; and Miss Chapman, in supervising
evening lessons, remarked with genuine regret that little Laura was growing perky and lazy.
Her second piece of good luck was of quite a different nature. Miss Hicks, the visiting
governess for geography, had a gift for saying biting things that really bit. She bore Inez
a peculiar grudge; for she believed that certain faculties slumbered behind the Grecian profile,
and that only the girl’s ingrained sloth prevented them.
One day she lost patience with this sluggish pupil. “I’ll tell you what it is, Inez,” she
said; “you’re blessed with a real woman’s brain: vague, slippery, inexact, interested
only in the personal aspect of a thing. You can’t concentrate your thoughts, and, worst
of all, you’ve no curiosity–about anything that really matters. You take all the great
facts of existence on trust–just as a hen does–and I’ve no doubt you’ll go on contentedly
till the end of your days, without ever knowing why the ocean has tides, and what causes the
seasons.–It makes me ashamed to belong to the same sex.”
Inez’s classmates tittered furiously, let the sarcasm glide over them, unhit by its
truth. Inez herself, indeed, was inclined to consider the governess’s taunt a compliment,
as proving that she was incapable of a vulgar inquisitiveness. But Laura, though she laughed
docilely with the rest, could not forget the incident–words in any case had a way of sticking
to her memory–and what Miss Hicks had said often came back to her, in the days that followed.
And then, all of a sudden, just as if an invisible hand had opened the door to an inner chamber,
a light broke on her. Vague, slippery, inexact, interested only
in the personal–every word struck home. Had Miss Hicks set out to describe HER, in particular,
she could not have done it more accurately. It was but too true: until now, she, Laura,
had been satisfied to know things in a slipslop, razzle-dazzle way, to know them anyhow, as
it best suited herself. She had never set to work to master a subject, to make
it her own in every detail. Bits of it, picturesque scraps, striking features–what Miss Hicks
no doubt meant by the personal–were all that had attracted her.–Oh, and she, too, had
no intelligent curiosity. She could not say that she had ever teased
her brains with wondering why the earth went round the sun and not the sun round the earth.
Honestly speaking, it made no difference to her that the globe was indented like an orange,
and not the perfect round you began by believing it to be.–But if this were so, if she were
forced to make these galling admissions, then it was clear that her vaunted cleverness had
never existed, except in Mother’s imagination. Or, at any rate, it had crumbled to pieces
like a lump of earth, under the hard, heavy hand of Miss Hicks.
Laura felt humiliated, and could not understand her companions treating the matter so airily.
She did not want to have a woman’s brain, thank you; not one of that sort; and she smarted
for the whole class. Straightway she set to work to sharpen her wits, to follow the strait
road. At first with some stumbling, of course, and frequent backslidings. Intellectual curiosity
could not, she discovered, be awakened to order; and she often caught herself napping.
Thus though she speedily became one of the most troublesome askers-why, her desire for
information was apt to exhaust itself in putting the question, and she would forget to listen
to the answer. Besides, for the life of her she could not
drum up more interest in, say, the course of the Gulf Stream, or the formation of a
plateau, than in the fact that, when Nelly Bristow spoke, little bubbles came out of
her mouth, and that she needed to swallow twice as often as other people; or that when
Miss Hicks grew angry her voice had a way of failing, at the crucial moment, and flattening
out to nothing–just as if one struck tin after brass. No, it was indeed difficult for
Laura to invert the value of these things.–In another direction she did better.
By dint of close attention, of pondering both the questions asked by Miss Hicks, and the
replies made by the cleverest pupils, she began to see more clearly where true knowledge
lay. It was facts that were wanted of her; facts that were the real test of learning;
facts she was expected to know. Stories, pictures of things, would not help her an inch along
the road. Thus, it was not the least use in the world to her to have seen the snowy top
of Mount Kosciusko stand out against a dark blue evening sky, and to know its shape to
a tittle in. On the other hand, it mattered tremendously that this mountain was 7308 and
not 7309 feet high: That piece of information was valuable, was
of genuine use to you; for it was worth your place in the class. Thus did Laura apply herself
to reach the school ideal, thus force herself to drive hard nails of fact into her vagrant
thoughts. And with success. For she had, it turned out, a retentive memory, and to her
joy learning by heart came easy to her–as easy as to the most brilliant scholars in
the form. From now on she gave this talent full play, memorizing even pages of the history
book in her zeal; and before many weeks had passed, in all lessons except those in arithmetic–you
could not, alas! get sums by rote–she was separated from Inez and Bertha by the width
of the class. But neither her taste of friendship and its
comforts, nor the abrupt change for the better in her class-fortunes, could counterbalance
Laura’s luckless knack of putting her foot in it. This she continued to do, in season
and out of season. And not with the authorities alone. There was, for instance, that unfortunate
evening when she was one of the batch of girls invited to Mrs. Strachey’s drawing room. Laura,
ignorant of what it meant to be blasé, had received her note of invitation with a thrill,
had even enjoyed writing, in her best hand, the prescribed formula of acceptance.
But she was alone in this; by the majority of her companions these weekly parties were
frankly hated, the chief reason being that every guest was expected to take a piece of
music with her. Even the totally unfit had to show what they could do. And the fact that
cream-tarts were served for supper was not held to square accounts. “It’s all very well
for you,” grumbled Laura’s room-mate, Lilith Gordon, as she lathered her thick white arms
and neck before dressing. “You’re a new girl; you probably won’t be asked.” Laura did not
give the matter a second thought: hastily selecting a volume of music, she followed
the rest of the white dresses into the passage. The senior girl tapped at the drawing room
door. It was opened by no other than the Principal himself. In the girls’ eyes, Mr. Strachey
stood over six feet in his stocking-soles. He had also a most arrogant way of looking
down his nose, and of tugging, intolerantly, at his long, drooping moustache. There was
little need for him to assume the frigid contemptuousness of Mrs. Gurley’s manner: his mere presence,
the very unseeingness of his gaze, inspired awe. Tales ran of his wrath, were it roused;
but few had experienced it. He quelled the high spirits of these young colonials by his
dignified air of detachment. Now, however, he stood there affable and smiling,
endeavoring to put a handful of awkward girls at their ease. But neither his nor Mrs. Strachey’s
efforts availed. It was impossible for the pupils to throw off, at will, the crippling
fear that governed their relations with the Principal. To them, his amiability resembled
the antics of an uncertain-tempered elephant, with which you could never feel safe.– Besides
on this occasion it was a young batch, and of particularly mixed stations. And so a dozen
girls, from twelve to fifteen years old, sat on the extreme edges of their chairs, and
replied to what was said to them, with dry throats.
Though the youngest of the party, Laura was the least embarrassed: she had never known
a nursery, but had mixed with her elders since her babyhood. And she was not of a shy disposition;
indeed, she still had to be reminded daily that shyness was expected of her. So she sat
and looked about her. It was an interesting room in which she found herself. Low bookshelves,
three shelves high, ran round the walls, and on the top shelf were many outlandish objects.
What an evening it would have been had Mr. Strachey invited them to examine these ornaments,
or to handle the books, instead of having to pick up a title here and there by chance.
From the shelves, her eyes strayed to the pictures on the walls; one, in particular
struck her fancy. It hung over the mantelpiece, and was a man’s head seen in profile, with
a long hooked nose, and wearing a kind of peaked cap. But that was not all: behind this
head were other profiles of the same face, and seeming to come out of clouds. Laura stared
hard, but could make nothing of it.—And meanwhile her companions were rising with
sickly smiles, to seat themselves, red as turkey-cocks’ combs, on the piano stool, where
with cold, stiff fingers they stumbled through the movement of a sonata or sonatina. It was
Lilith Gordon who broke the chain by offering to sing.
The diversion was welcomed by Mrs. Strachey, and Lilith went to the piano. But her nervousness
was such that she broke down half-way in the little prelude to the ballad. Mrs. Strachey
came to the rescue. “It’s so difficult, is it not, to accompany oneself?” she said kindly.
“Perhaps one of the others would play for you?” No one moved. “Do any of you know the
song?” Two or three ungraciously admitted the knowledge, but none volunteered. It was
here Laura chimed in. “I could play it,” she said; and colored at the sound of her own
voice. Mrs. Strachey looked doubtfully at the thin little girl. “Do you know it, dear?
You’re too young for singing, I think.” “No, I don’t know it. But I could play it
from sight. It’s quite easy.” Everyone looked disbelieving, especially the unhappy singer.
“I’ve played much harder things than that,” continued Laura. “Well, perhaps you might
try,” said Mrs. Strachey, with the ingrained distrust of the unmusical. Laura rose and
went to the piano, where she conducted the song to a successful ending. Mrs. Strachey
looked relieved. “Very nice indeed.” And to Laura: “Did you say you didn’t know it, dear?”
“No, I never saw it before.” Again the lady looked doubtful. “Well, perhaps you would
play us something yourself now?” Laura had no objection; she had played to
people before her fingers were long enough to cover the octave. She took the volume of
Thalberg she had brought with her, selected “Home, Sweet Home”, and pranced in. Her audience
kept utter silence; but, had she been a little sharper, she would have grasped that it was
the silence of amazement. After the prim sonatinas that had gone before, Thalberg’s florid ornaments
had a shameless sound. Her performance, moreover, was a startling one; the forte pedal was held
down throughout; the big chords were crashed and banged with all the strength a pair of
twelve-year-old arms could put into them; and wrong notes were freely scattered.
Still, rhythm and melody were well marked, and there was no mistaking the agility of
the small fingers. Dead silence, too, greeted the conclusion of the piece Several girls
were very red, from trying not to laugh. The Principal tugged at his moustache, in abstracted
fashion. Laura had reached her seat again before Mrs. Strachey said undecidedly: “Thank
you, dear. Did you … hm … learn that piece here?” Laura saw nothing wrong. “Oh, no, at
home,” she answered. “I wouldn’t care to play the things I learn here, to people. They’re
so dull.” A girl emitted a faint squeak. But a half turn of Mrs. Strachey’s head subdued
her. Oh, I hope you will soon get to like classical
music also,” said the lady gravely, and in all good faith. “We prefer it, you know, to
any other.” “Do you mean things like the AIR IN G WITH VARIATIONS? I’m afraid I never shall.
There’s no tune in them.” Music was as fatal to Laura’s equilibrium as wine would have
been. Finding herself next Mr. Strachey, she now turned to him and said, with what she
believed to be ease of manner: “Mr. Strachey, will you please tell me what that picture
is hanging over the mantelpiece? I’ve been looking at it ever since I came in, but I
can’t make it out. Are those ghosts, those things behind the
man, or what?” It took Mr. Strachey a minute to recover from his astonishment. He stroked
hard, and the look he bent on Laura was not encouraging. “It seems to be all the same
face,” continued the child, her eyes on the picture. “That,” said Mr. Strachey, with extreme
deliberation: “that is the portrait, by a great painter, of a great poet–Dante Alighieri.”
“Oh, Dante, is it?” said Laura showily–she had once heard the name. “Oh, yes, of course,
I know now. He wrote a book, didn’t he, called FAUST? I saw it over there by the door.–
What lovely books!” But here Mr. Strachey abruptly changed his seat, and Laura’s thirst
for information was left unquenched. The evening passed, and she was in blessed ignorance of
anything being amiss, till the next morning after breakfast she was bidden to Mrs. Gurley.
A quarter of an hour later, on her emerging from that lady’s private sitting-room, her
eyes were mere swollen slits in her face. Instead, however, of sponging them in cold
water and bravely joining her friends, Laura was still foolish enough to hide and have
her cry out. So that when the bell rang, she was obliged to go in to public prayers looking
a prodigious fright, and thereby advertising to the curious what had taken place.
Mrs. Gurley had crushed and humiliated her. Laura learnt that she had been guilty of a
gross impertinence, in profaning the ears of the Principal and Mrs. Strachey with Thalberg’s
music, and that all the pieces she had brought with her from home would now be taken from
her. Secondly, Mr. Strachey had been so unpleasantly impressed by the boldness of her behaviour,
that she would not be invited to the drawing-room again for some time to come. The matter of
the music touched Laura little: if they preferred their dull old exercises to what she had offered
them, so much the worse for them. But the reproach cast on her manners stung
her even more deeply than it had done when she was still the raw little newcomer: for
she had been pluming herself of late that she was now “quite the thing”. And yet, painful
as was this fresh overthrow of her pride, it was neither the worst nor the most lasting
result of the incident. That concerned her schoolfellows. By the following morning the
tale of her doings was known to everyone. It was circulated in the first place, no doubt,
by Lilith Gordon, who bore her a grudge for her offer to accompany the song: had Laura
not put herself forward in this objectionable way, Lilith might have escaped singing altogether.
Lilith also resented her having shown that she could do it–and this feeling was generally
shared. It evidenced a want of good-fellowship, and made you very glad the little prig had
afterwards come to grief: if you had abilities that others had not you concealed them, instead
of parading them under people’s noses. In short, Laura had committed a twofold breach
of school etiquette. No one of course vouchsafed to explain this to her; these things one did
not put into words, things you were expected to know without telling. Hence, she never
more than half understood what she had done. She only saw disapproval painted on faces
that had hitherto been neutral, and from one or two quarters got what was unmistakably
the cold shoulder.– Her little beginnings at popularity had somehow received a setback,
and through her own foolish behavior.

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