The Getting of Wisdom/Chapter XV

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The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson
Chapter XV

For days Laura avoided even thinking of this unlucky visit. Privately, she informed herself that Tilly’s wealthy relations were a “rude, stupid lot”; and, stuffing her fingers in her ears, memorised pages with a dispatch that deadened thought.

When, however, the first smart had passed and she was able to go back on what had happened, a soreness at her own failure was the abiding result: and this, though Tilly mercifully spared her the “dull as ditchwater”, that was Bob’s final verdict.—But the fact that the invitation was not repeated told Laura enough.

Her hurt was not relieved by the knowledge that she had done nothing to deserve it. For she had never asked for Bob’s notice or admiration, had never thought of him but as a handsome cousin of Tilly’s who sat in a distant pew at St Stephen’s-on-the-Hill; and the circumstance that, because he had singled her out approvingly, she was expected to worm herself into his favour, seemed to her of a monstrous injustice. But, all the same, had she possessed the power to captivate him, she would cheerfully have put her pride in her pocket. For, having once seen him close at hand, she knew how desirable he was. Having been the object of glances from those liquid eyes, of smiles from those blanched-almond teeth, she found it hard to dismiss them from her mind. How the other girls would have boasted of it, had they been chosen by such a one as Bob!—they who, for the most part, were satisfied with blotchy-faced, red-handed youths, whose lean wrists dangled from their retreating sleeves. But then, too, they would have known how to keep him. Oh, those lucky other girls!

“I say, Chinky, what do you do when a boy’s gone on you?”

She would have shrunk from putting an open question of this kind to her intimates; but Chinky, could be trusted. For she garnered the few words Laura vouchsafed her, as gratefully as Lazarus his crumbs; and a mark of confidence, such as this, would sustain her for days.

But she had no information to give.

“Me? . . . why, nothing. Boys are dirty, horrid, conceited creatures.”

In her heart Laura was at one with this judgment; but it was not to the point.

“Yes, but s’pose one was awfully sweet on you and you rather liked him?”

“Catch me! If one came bothering round me, I’d do this” and she set her ten outstretched fingers to her nose and waggled them.

And yet Chinky was rather pretty, in her way.

Maria Morell, cautiously tapped, threw back her head and roared with laughter.

“Bless its little heart! Does it want to know?—say, Laura, who’s your mash?”

“No one,” answered Laura stoutly. “I only asked. For I guess you KNOW, Maria.”

“By gosh, you bet I do!” cried Maria, italicising the words in her vehemence. “Well, look here, Kiddy, if a chap’s sweet on me I let him be sweet, my dear, and that’s all—till he’s run to barley-sugar. What I don’t let him savvy is, whether I care a twopenny damn for him. Soon as you do that, it’s all up. Just let him hang round, and throw sheep’s-eyes, till he’s as soft as a jellyfish, and when he’s right down ripe, roaring mad, go off and pretend to do a mash with some one else. That’s the way to glue him, chicken.”

“But you don’t have anything of him that way,” objected Laura.

Maria laughed herself red in the face. “What’n earth more d’you want? Why, he’ll pester you with letters, world without end, and look as black as your shoe if you so much as wink at another boy. As for a kiss, if he gets a chance of one he’ll take it you can bet your bottom dollar on that.”

“But you never get to know him!”

“Oh, hang it, Laura, but you ARE rich! What d’you think one has a boy for, I’d like to know. To parlezvous about old Shepherd’s sermons? You loony, it’s only for getting lollies, and letters, and the whole dashed fun of the thing. If you go about too much with one, you soon have to fake an interest in his rotten old affairs. Or else just hold your tongue and let him blow. And that’s dull work. D’you think it ever comes up a fellow’s back to talk to you about your new Sunday hat! If it does, you can teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”

But, despite this wisdom, Laura could not determine how Maria would have acted had she stood in her shoes.

And then, too, the elder girl had said nothing about another side of the question, had not touched on the sighs and simpers, the winged glances, and drooped, provocative lids—all the thousand and one fooleries, in short, which Laura saw her and others employ. There was a regular machinery of invitation and encouragement to be set in motion: for, before it was safe to ignore a wooer and let him dangle, as Maria advised, you had first to make quite sure he wished to nibble your bait. —And it was just in this elementary science that Laura broke down.

Looking round her, she saw mainly experts. To take the example nearest at hand: there was Monsieur Legros, the French master; well, Maria could twist him round her little finger. She only needed to pout her thick, red lips, or to give a coquettish twist to her plump figure, or to ogle him with her fine, bold, blue eyes, and the difficult questions in the lesson were sure to pass her by.—Once she had even got ten extra marks added to an examination paper, in this easy fashion. Whereas, did she, Laura, try to imitate Maria, venture to pout or to smirk, it was ten to one she would be rebuked for impertinence. No, she got on best with the women-teachers, to whom red lips and a full bust meant nothing; while the most elderly masters could not be relied on to be wholly impartial, where a pair of magnificent eyes was concerned. Even Mr. Strachey, the unapproachable, had been known, on running full tilt into a pretty girl’s arms in an unlit passage, to be laughingly confused.

Laura was not, of course, the sole outsider in these things; sprinkled through the College were various others, older, too, than she, who by reason of demureness of temperament, or immersion in their work, stood aloof. But they were lost in the majority, and, as it chanced, none of them belonged to Laura’s circle. Except Chinky—and Chinky did not count. So, half-fascinated, half-repelled, Laura set to studying her friends with renewed zeal. She could not help admiring their proficiency in the art of pleasing, even though she felt a little abashed by the open pride they took in their growing charms. There was Bertha, for instance, Bertha who had one of the nicest minds of them all; and yet how frankly gratified she was, by the visible rounding of her arms and the curving of her bust. She spoke of it to Laura with a kind of awe; and her voice seemed to give hints of a coming mystery. Tilly, on the other hand, lived to reduce her waist-measure: she was always sucking at lemons, and she put up with the pains of indigestion as well as a red tip to her nose; for no success in school meant as much to Tilly as the fact that she had managed to compress herself a further quarter of an inch, no praise on the part of her teachers equalled the compliments this earned her from dressmaker and tailor. As for Inez, who had not only a pretty face but was graceful and slender-limbed as a greyhound, Inez no longer needed to worry over artificial charms, or to dwell self-consciously on her development; serious admirers were not lacking, and with one of these, a young man some eight years older than herself, she had had for the past three months a sort of understanding. For her, as for so many others, the time she had still to spend at school was as purgatory before paradise. To top all, one of the day-scholars in Laura’s class was actually engaged to be married; and in no boy-and-girl fashion, but to a doctor who lived and practised in Emerald Hill: he might sometimes be seen, from a peephole under the stairs, waiting to escort her home from school. This fiancee was looked up to by the class with tremendous reverence, as one set apart, oiled and anointed. You really could not treat her as a comrade her, who had reached the goal. For this WAS the goal; and the thoughts of all were fixed, with an intentness that varied only in degree, on the great consummation which, as planned in these young minds, should come to pass without fail directly the college-doors closed behind them.—And here again Laura was a heretic. For she could not contemplate the future that was to be hers when she had finished her education, but with a feeling of awe: it was still so distant as to be one dense blue haze; it was so vast, that thinking of it took your breath away: there was room in it for the most wonderful miracles that had ever happened; it might contain anything—from golden slippers to a Jacob’s ladder, by means of which you would scale the skies; and with these marvellous perhapses awaiting you, it was impossible to limit your hopes to one single event, which, though it saved you from derision, would put an end, for ever, to all possible, exciting contingencies.

These thoughts came and went. In the meantime, despite her ape-like study of her companions, she remained where the other sex was concerned a disheartening failure. A further incident drove this home anew.

One Saturday afternoon, those boarders who had not been invited out were taken to see a cricket-match. They were a mere handful, eight or nine at most, and Miss Snodgrass alone was in charge. All her friends [P.154] being away that day, Laura had to bring up the rear with the governess and one of the little girls. Though their walk led them through pleasant parks, she was glad when it was over; for she did not enjoy Miss Snodgrass’s company. She was no match for this crisply sarcastic governess, and had to be the whole time on her guard. For Miss Snodgrass was not only a great talker, but had also a very inquiring mind, and seemed always trying to ferret out just those things you did not care to tell—such as the size of your home, or the social position you occupied in the township where you lived.

Arrived at the cricket ground, they climbed the Grand Stand and sat down in one of the back rows, to the rear of the other spectators. Before them sloped a steep bank of hats gaily-flowered and ribbon-banded hats— of light and dark shoulders, of alert, boyish profiles and pale, pretty faces—a representative gathering of young Australia, bathed in the brilliant March light.

Laura’s seat was between her two companions, and it was here the malheur occurred. During an interval in the game, one of the girls asked the governess’s leave to speak to her cousin; and thereupon a shy lad was the target for twenty eyes. He was accompanied by a friend, who, in waiting, sat down just behind Laura. This boy was addressed by Miss Snodgrass; but he answered awkwardly, and after a pause, Laura felt herself nudged.

“You can speak to him, Laura,” whispered Miss Snodgrass.—She evidently thought Laura waited only for permission, to burst in.

Laura had already fancied that the boy looked at her with interest. This was not improbable; for she had her best hat on, which made her eyes seem very dark—“like sloes,” Chinky said, though neither of them had any clear idea what a sloe was.

Still, a prompting to speech invariably tied her tongue. She half turned, and stole an uneasy peep at the lad. He might be a year older than herself; he had a frank, sunburnt face, blue eyes, and almost white flaxen hair. She took heart of grace.

“I s’pose you often come here?” she ventured at last.

“You bet!” said the boy; but kept his eyes where they were on the pitch.

“Cricket’s a lovely game . . . don’t you think so?”

Now he looked at her; but doubtfully, from the height of his fourteen male years; and did not reply.

“Do you play?”

This was a false move, she felt it at once. Her question seemed to offend him. “Should rather think I did!” he answered with a haughty air.

Weakly she hastened to retract her words. “Oh, I meant much—if you played much?”

“Comes to the same thing I guess,” said the boy—he had not yet reached the age of obligatory politeness.

“It must be splendid”—here she faltered—“fun.”

But the boy’s thoughts had wandered: he was making signs to a friend down in the front of the Stand.—Miss Snodgrass seemed to repress a smile.

Here, however, the little girl at Laura’s side chimed in. “I think cricket’s awful rot,” she announced, in a cheepy voice.

Now what was it, Laura asked herself, in these words, or in the tone in which they were said, that at once riveted the boy’s attention. For he laughed quite briskly as he asked; “What’s a kid like you know about it?”

“Jus’ as much as I want to. An’ my sister says so ‘s well.”

“Get along with you! Who’s your sister?”

“Ooh!—wouldn’t you like to know? You’ve never seen her in Scots’ Church on Sundays I s’pose—oh, no!”

“By jingo!—I should say I have. An’ you, too. You’re the little sister of that daisy with the simply ripping hair.”

The little girl actually made a grimace at him, screwing up her nose. “Yes, you can be civil now, can’t you?”

“My aunt, but she’s a tip-topper—your sister!”

“You go to Scots’ Church then, do you?” hazarded Laura, in an attempt to re-enter the conversation.

“Think I could have seen her if I didn’t?” retorted the boy, in the tone of: “What a fool question!” He also seemed to have been on the point of adding: “Goose,” or “Sillybones.”

The little girl giggled. “She’s church”—by which she meant episcopalian.

“Yes, but I don’t care a bit which I go to,” Laura hastened to explain, fearful lest she should be accounted a snob by this dissenter. The boy, however, was so faintly interested in her theological wobblings that, even as she spoke, he had risen from his seat; and the next moment without another word he went away.—This time Miss Snodgrass laughed outright.

Laura stared, with blurred eyes, at the white-clad forms that began to dot the green again. Her lids smarted. She did not dare to put up her fingers to squeeze the gathering tears away, and just as she was wondering what she should do if one was inconsiderate enough to roll down her cheek, she heard a voice behind her.

“I say, Laura . . . Laura!”—and there was Chinky, in her best white hat.

“I’m sitting with my aunt just a few rows down; but I couldn’t make you look. Can I come in next to you for a minute?”

“If you like,” said Laura and, because she had to sniff a little, very coldly: Chinky had no doubt also been a witness of her failure.

The girl squeezed past and shared her seat. “I don’t take up much room.”

Laura feigned to be engrossed in the game. But presently she felt her bare wrist touched, and Chinky said in her ear: “What pretty hands you’ve got, Laura!”

She buried them in her dress, at this. She found it in the worst possible taste of Chinky to try to console her.

“Wouldn’t you like to wear a ring on one of them?”

“No, thanks,” said Laura, in the same repellent way.

“Truly? I’d love to give you one.”

“You? Where would YOU get it?”

“Would you wear it, if I did?”

“Let me see it first,” was Laura’s graceless reply, as she returned to her stony contemplation of the great sunlit expanse.

She was sure Miss Snodgrass, on getting home, would laugh with the other governesses over what had occurred—if not with some of the girls. The story would leak out and come to Tilly’s ears; and Tilly would despise her more than she did already. So would all the rest. She was branded, as it was, for not having a single string to her bow. Now, it had become plain to her that she could never hope for one; for, when it came to holding a boy’s attention for five brief minutes, she could be put in the shade by a child of eight years old.