The Getting of Wisdom/Chapter XXII

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The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson
Chapter XXII

UND VERGESST MIR AUCH DAS GUTE LACHEN NICHT!

NIETZSCHE

And then, alas! just as she rode high on this wave of approbation, Laura suffered another of those drops in the esteem of her fellows, another of those mental upsets, which from time to time had thrown her young life out of gear.

True, what now came was not exactly her own fault; though it is doubtful whether a single one of her companions would have made her free of an excuse. They looked on, round-eyed, mouths a-stretch. Once more, the lambkin called Laura saw fit to sunder itself from the flock, and to cut mad capers in sight of them all. And their delectation was as frank as their former wrath had been.—As for Laura, as usual she did not stop to think till it was too late; but danced lightly away to her own undoing.

The affair began pleasantly enough. A member of the Literary Society was the girl with the twinkly brown eyes—she who had gone out of her way to give Laura a kindly word after the Shepherd debacle. This girl, Evelyn Souttar by name, was also the only one of the audience who had not joined in the laugh provoked by Laura’s first appearance as an author. Laura had never forgotten this; and she would smile shyly at Evelyn when their looks met. But a dozen reasons existed why there should have been no further rapport between them. Although now in the fifth form, Laura had remained childish for her age: whereas Evelyn was over eighteen, and only needed to turn up her hair to be quite grown-up. She had matriculated the previous Christmas, and was at present putting away a rather desultory half-year, before leaving school for good. In addition, she was rich, pampered and very pretty—the last comrade in the world for drab little Laura.

One evening, as the latter was passing through the dining-hall, she found Evelyn, who studied where she chose, disconsolately running her fingers through her gold-brown hair.

“I say, Kiddy,” she called to Laura. “You know Latin, don’t you? Just give us a hand with this.”—Latin had not been one of Evelyn’s subjects, and she was now employing some of her spare time in studying the language with Mr. Strachey, who taught it after a fashion of his own. “How on earth would you say: ‘We had not however rid here so long, but should have tided it up the river’? What’s the old fool mean by that?” and she pushed an open volume of ROBINSON CRUSOE towards Laura.

Laura helped to the best of her ability.

“Thanks awfully,” said Evelyn. “You’re a clever chickabiddy. But you must let me help you with something in return. What’s hardest?”

“Filling baths and papering rooms,” replied Laura candidly.

“Arithmetic, eh? Well, if ever you want a sum done, come to me.”

But Laura was temperamentally unable to accept so vague an invitation; and here the matter closed.

When, consequently, Miss Chapman summoned her one evening to tell her that she was to change her present bedroom for Evelyn’s, the news came as a great shock to her.

“Change my room?” she echoed, in slow disgust. “Oh, I can’t, Miss Chapman!”

“You’ve got to, Laura, if Mrs. Gurley says so,” expostulated the kindly governess.

“But I won’t! There MUST be some mistake. Just when I’m so comfortably settled, too.—Very well, then, Miss Chapman, I’ll speak to Mrs. Gurley myself.”

She carried out this threat, and, for daring to question orders, received the soundest snubbing she had had for many a long day.

That night she was very bitter about it all, and the more so because Mary and Cupid did not, to her thinking, show sufficient sympathy.

“I believe you’re both glad I’m going. It’s a beastly shame. Why must I always be odd man out?”

“Look here, Infant, don’t adopt that tone, please,” said Cupid magisterially. “Or you’ll make us glad in earnest. People who are always up in arms about things are the greatest bores in the world.”

So the following afternoon Laura wryly took up armfuls of her belongings, mounted a storey higher, and deposited them on the second bed in Evelyn’s room.

The elder girl had had this room to herself for over a year now, and Laura felt sure would be chafing inwardly at her intrusion. For days she stole mousily in and out, avoiding the hours when Evelyn was there, getting up earlier in the morning, hurrying into bed at night and feeling very sore indeed at the sufferance on which she supposed herself to be.

But once Evelyn caught her and said: “Don’t, for gracious’ sake, knock each time you want to come in, child. This is your room now as well as mine.”

Laura reddened, and blurted out something about knowing how she must hate to have HER stuck in there.

Evelyn wrinkled up her forehead and laughed. “What rot! Do you think I’d have asked to have you, if I hated it so much?”

“You asked to have me?” gasped Laura.

“Of course—didn’t you know? Old Gurley said I’d need to have some one; so I chose you.”

Laura was too dumbfounded, and too diffident, to ask the grounds of such a choice. But the knowledge that it was so, worked an instant change in her.

In all the three years she had been at school, she had not got beyond a surface friendliness with any of her fellows. Even those who had been her “chums” had wandered like shades through the groves of her affection: rough, teasing Bertha; pretty, lazy Inez; perky Tilly, slangily frank Maria and Kate, Mary and her moral influence, clever, instructive Cupid: to none of them had she been drawn by any deeper sense of affinity. And though she had come to believe, in the course of the last, more peaceful year, that she had grown used to being what you would call an unpopular girl—one, that is, with whom no one ever shared a confidence—yet seldom was there a child who longed more ardently to be liked, or suffered more acutely under dislike. Apart however from the brusque manner she had contracted, in her search after truth, it must be admitted that Laura had but a small talent for friendship; she did not grasp the constant give-and-take intimacy implies; the liking of others had to be brought to her, unsought, she, on the other hand, being free to stand back and consider whether or no the feeling was worth returning. And friends are not made in this fashion.

But Evelyn had stoutly, and without waiting for permission, crossed the barrier; and each new incident in her approach was pleasanter than the last. Laura was pleased, and flattered, and round the place where her heart was, she felt a warm and comfortable glow.

She began to return the liking, with interest, after the manner of a lonely, bottled-up child. And everything about Evelyn made it easy to grow fond of her. To begin with, Laura loved pretty things and pretty people; and her new friend was out and away the prettiest girl in the school. Then, too, she was clever, and that counted; you did not make a friend of a fool. But her chief characteristics were a certain sound common sense, and an inexhaustible fund of good-nature—a careless, happy, laughing sunniness, that was as grateful to those who came into touch with it as a rare ointment is grateful to the skin. This kindliness arose, it might be, in the first place from indolence: it was less trouble to be merry and amiable than to put oneself out to be selfish, which also meant standing a fire of disagreeable words and looks; and then, too, it was really hard for one who had never had a whim crossed to be out of humour. But, whatever its origin, the good-nature was there, everlastingly; and Laura soon learnt that she could cuddle in under it, and be screened by it, as a lamb is screened by its mother’s woolly coat.

Evelyn was the only person who did not either hector her, or feel it a duty to clip and prune at her: she accepted Laura for what she was—for herself. Indeed, she even seemed to lay weight on Laura’s bits of opinions, which the girl had grown so chary of offering; and, under the sunshine of this treatment, Laura shot up and flowered like a spring bulb. She began to speak out her thoughts again; she unbosomed herself of dark little secrets; and finally did what she would never have believed possible: sitting one night in her nightgown, on the edge of Evelyn’s bed, she made a full confession of the pickle she had got herself into, over her visit to the Shepherds.

To her astonishment, Evelyn, who was already in bed, laughed till the tears ran down her cheeks. At Laura’s solemn-faced incredulity she said:

“I say, Kiddy, but that WAS rich. To think a chicken of your size sold them like that. It’s the best joke I’ve heard for an age. Tell us again —from the beginning.”

Nothing loath Laura started in afresh, and in this, the second telling, embroidered the edge of her tale with a few fancy stitches, in a way she had not ventured on for months past; so that Evelyn was more tickled than before.

“No wonder they were mad about being had like that. You little rascal!”

She was equally amused by Laura’s description of the miserable week she had spent, trying to make up her mind to confess.

“You ridiculous sprat! Why didn’t you come to me? We’d have let them down with a good old bump.”

But Laura could not so easily forget the humiliations she had been forced to suffer, and delicately hinted to her friend at M. P.‘s moral strictures. With her refreshing laugh, Evelyn brushed these aside as well.

“Tommyrot! Never mind that old jumble-sale of all the virtues. It was jolly clever of a mite like you to bamboozle them as you did—take my word for that.”

This jocose way of treating the matter seemed to put it in an entirely new light; Laura could even smile at it herself. In the days that followed, she learned, indeed, to laugh over it with Evelyn, and to share the latter’s view that she had been superior in wit to those she had befooled. This meant a great and healthy gain in self-assurance for Laura. It also led to her laying more and more weight on what her friend said. For it was not as if Evelyn had a low moral standard; far from that: she was honest and straightforward, too proud, or, it might be, too lazy to tell a lie herself—with all the complications lying involved—and Laura never heard her say a harder thing of anyone than what she had just said about Mary Pidwall.

The two talked late into every night after this, Laura perched, monkey-fashion, on the side of her friend’s bed. Evelyn had all the accumulated wisdom of eighteen, and was able to clear her young companion up on many points about which Laura had so far been in the dark. But when, in time, she came to relate the mortifications she had suffered—and was still called on to suffer—at the hands of the other sex, Evelyn pooh-poohed the subject.

“Time enough in a couple of years for that. Don’t bother your head about it in the meantime.”

“I don’t now—not a bit. I only wanted to know why. Sometimes, Evvy, do you know, they liked to talk to quite little kids of seven and eight better than me.”

“Perhaps you talked too much yourself—and about yourself?”

“I don’t think I did. And if you don’t talk something, they yawn and go away.”

“You’ve got to let them do the lion’s share, child. Just you sit still, and listen, and pretend you like it—even though you’re bored to extinction.”

“And they never need to pretend anything, I suppose? No, I think they’re horrid. You don’t like them either, Evvy, do you? . . . any more than I do?”

Evelyn laughed.

“Say what you think they are,” persisted Laura and waggled the other’s arm, to make her speak.

“Mostly fools,” said Evelyn, and laughed again—laughed in all the conscious power of lovely eighteen.

Overjoyed at this oneness of mind, Laura threw her arms round her friend’s neck and kissed her. “You dear!” she said.

And yet, a short time afterwards, it was on this very head that she had to bear the shock of a rude awakening.

Evelyn’s people came to Melbourne that year from the Riverina. Evelyn was allowed considerable freedom, and one night, by special permit, Laura also accepted an invitation to dinner and the theatre. The two girls drove to a hotel, where they found Evelyn’s mother, elegant but a little stern, and a young lady-friend. Only the four of them were present at dinner, and the meal passed off smoothly; though the strangeness of dining in a big hotel had the effect of tying Laura’s tongue. Another thing that abashed her was the dress of the young lady, who sat opposite. This person—she must have been about the ripe age of twenty-five—was nipped into a tight little pink satin bodice, which, at the back, exposed the whole of two very bony shoulder-blades. But it was the front of the dress that Laura faced; and, having imbibed strict views of propriety from Mother, she wriggled on her chair whenever she raised her eyes.

They drove to the theatre—though it was only a few doors off. The seats were in the dress circle. The ladies sat in the front row, the girls, who were in high frocks, behind.

Evelyn made a face of laughing discontent. “It’s so ridiculous the mater won’t let me dress.”

These words gave Laura a kind of stab. “Oh Evvy, I think you’re EVER so much nicer as you are,” she whispered, and squeezed her friend’s hand.

Evelyn could not answer, for the lady in pink had leant back and tapped her with her fan. “It doesn’t look as if Jim were coming, my dear.”

Evelyn laughed, in a peculiar way. “Oh, I guess he’ll turn up all right.”

There had been some question of a person of this name at dinner; but Laura had paid no great heed to what was said. Now, she sat up sharply, for Evelyn exclaimed: “There he is!”

It was a man, a real man—not a boy—with a drooping, fair moustache, a single eyeglass in one eye, and a camellia-bud in his buttonhole. For the space of a breathless second Laura connected him with the pink satin; then he dropped into a vacant seat at Evelyn’s side.

From this moment on, Laura’s pleasure in her expensive seat, in the pretty blue theatre and its movable roof, in the gay trickeries of the MIKADO, slowly fizzled out. Evelyn had no more thought for her. Now and then, it is true, she would turn in her affectionate way and ask Laura if she were all right just as one satisfies oneself that a little child is happy—but her real attention was for the man at her side. In the intervals, the two kept up a perpetual buzz of chat, broken only by Evelyn’s low laughs. Laura sat neglected, sat stiff and cold with disappointment, a great bitterness welling up within her. Before the performance had dragged to an end, she would have liked to put her head down and cry.

“Tired?” queried Evelyn noticing her pinched look, as they drove home in the wagonette. But the mother was there, too, so Laura said no.

Directly, however, the bedroom door shut behind them, she fell into a tantrum, a fit of sullen rage, which she accentuated till Evelyn could not but notice it.

“What’s the matter with you? Didn’t you enjoy yourself?”

“No, I hated it,” returned Laura passionately.

Evelyn laughed a little at this, but with an air of humorous dismay. “I must take care, then, not to ask you out again.”

“I wouldn’t go. Not for anything!”

“What on earth’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing’s the matter.”

“Well, if that’s all, make haste and get into bed. You’re overtired.”

“Go to bed yourself!”

“I am, as fast as I can. I can hardly keep my eyes open;” and Evelyn yawned heartily.

When Laura saw that she meant it, she burst out: “You’re nothing but a story-teller—that’s what you are! You said you didn’t like them . . . that they were mostly fools . . . and then . . . then, to go on as you did to-night.” Her voice was shaky with tears.

“Oh, that’s it, is it? Come now, get to bed. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”

“I never want to speak to you again.”

“You’re a silly child. But I’m really too sleepy to quarrel with you to-night.”

“I hate you—hate you!”

“I shall survive it.”

She turned out the light as she spoke, settled herself on her pillow, and composedly went to sleep.

Laura’s rage redoubled. Throwing herself on the floor she burst into angry tears, and cried as loudly as she dared, in the hope of keeping her companion awake. But Evelyn was a magnificent sleeper; and remained undisturbed. So after a time Laura rose, drew up the blind, opened the window and sat down on the sill.

It was a bitterly cold night, of milky-white moonlight; each bush and shrub carved its jet-black shadow on paths and grass. Across Evelyn’s bed fell a great patch of light: this, or the chill air would, it was to be trusted, wake her. Meanwhile Laura sat in her thin nightgown and shivered, feeling the cold intensely after the great heat of the day. She hoped with all her heart that she would be lucky enough to get an inflammation of the lungs. Then, Evelyn would be sorry she had been so cruel to her.

It was nearly two o’clock, and she had several times found herself nodding, when the sleeper suddenly opened her eyes and sat bolt upright in bed.

“Laura, good heavens, what are you doing at the window? Oh, you wicked child, you’ll catch your death of cold! Get into bed at once.”

And, the culprit still maintaining an immovable silence, Evelyn dragged her to bed by main force, and tucked her in as tightly as a mummy.