The Getting of Wisdom/Chapter XXIII
GUT UND BOSE UND LUST UND LEID UND ICH UND DU.
“Laura, you’re a cipher!”
“I’m nothing of the sort!” threw back Laura indignantly. “You’re one yourself.—What does she mean, Evvy?” she asked getting out of earshot of the speaker.
“Goodness knows. Don’t mind her, Poppet.”
It was an oppressive evening: all day long a hot north wind had scoured the streets, veiling things and people in clouds of gritty dust; the sky was still like the prolonged reflection of a great fire. The hoped-for change had not come, and the girls who strolled the paths of the garden were white and listless. They walked in couples, with interlaced arms; and members of the Matriculation Class carried books with them, the present year being one of much struggling and heartburning, and few leisured moments. Mary Pidwall and Cupid were together under an acacia tree at the gate of the tennis-court; and it was M. P. who had cast the above gibe at Laura. At least Laura took it as a gibe, and scowled darkly; for she could never grow hardened to ridicule.
As she and Evelyn re-passed this spot in their perambulation, a merry little lump of a girl called Lolo, who darted her head from side to side when she spoke, with the movements of a watchful bird—this [P.241] Lolo called: “Evelyn, come here, I want to tell you something.”
“Yes, what is it?” asked Evelyn, but without obeying the summons; for she felt Laura’s grip of her arm tighten.
“It’s a secret. You must come over here.”
“Hold on a minute, Poppet,” said Evelyn persuasively, and crossed the lawn with her characteristically lazy saunter. Minutes went by; she did not return.
“Look at her Laura-ship!” said a saucebox to her partner. The latter made “Hee-haw, hee-haw!” and both laughed derisively.
The object of their scorn stood at the farther end of the wire-net fence: all five fingers of her right hand were thrust through the holes of the netting, and held oddly and unconsciously outspread; she stood on one leg, and with her other foot rubbed up and down behind her ankle; mouth and brow were sullen, her black eyes bent wrathfully on her faithless friend.
“A regular moon-calf!” said Cupid, looking up from THE TEMPEST, which was balanced breast-high on the narrow wooden top of the fence.
“Mark my words, that child’ll be plucked in her ‘tests’,” observed M. P.
“Serve her right, say I, for playing the billy-ass,” returned Cupid, and killed a giant mosquito with such a whack that her wrist was stained with its blood. “Ugh, you brute! . . . gorging yourself on me. But I’m dashed if I know how Evelyn can be bothered to have her always dangling round.”
“She’s a cipher,” repeated Mary, in so judicial a tone that it closed the conversation.
Laura, not altogether blind to externals, saw that her companions made fun of her. But at the present pass, the strength of her feelings quite out-ran her capacity for self-control; she was unable to disguise what she felt, and though it made her the laughing-stock of the school. What scheme was the birdlike Lolo hatching against her? Why did Evelyn not come back?—these were the thoughts that buzzed round inside her head, as the mosquitoes buzzed outside.—And meanwhile the familiar, foolish noises of the garden at evening knocked at her ear. On the other side of the hedge a batch of third-form girls were whispering, with choked laughter, a doggerel rhyme which was hard to say, and which meant something quite different did the tongue trip over a certain letter. Of two girls who were playing tennis in half-hearted fashion, the one next Laura said ‘Oh, damn!’ every time she missed a ball. And over the parched, dusty grass the hot wind blew, carrying with it, from the kitchens, a smell of cabbage, of fried onions, of greasy dish-water.
Then Evelyn returned, and a part, a part only of the cloud lifted from Laura’s brow.
“What did she want?”
“Oh, nothing much.”
“Then you’re not going to tell me?”
“What business has she to have secrets with you?” said Laura furiously. And for a full round of the garden she did not open her lips.
Her companions were not alone in eyeing this lopsided friendship with an amused curiosity. The governesses also smiled at it, and were surprised at Evelyn’s endurance of the tyranny into which Laura’s liking had degenerated. On this particular evening, two who were sitting on the verandah-bench came back to the subject.
“Just look at that Laura Rambotham again, will you?” said Miss Snodgrass in her tart way. “Sulking for all she’s worth. What a little fool she is!”
“I’m sure I wonder Mrs. Gurley hasn’t noticed how badly she’s working just now,” said Miss Chapman; and her face wore it best-meaning, but most uncertain smile.
“Oh, you know very well if Mrs. Gurley doesn’t want to see a thing she doesn’t,” retorted Miss Snodgrass. “A regular talent for going blind, I call it—especially where Evelyn Souttar’s concerned.”
“Oh, I don’t think you should talk like that,” urged Miss Chapman nervously.
“I say what I think,” asserted Miss Snodgrass. “And if I had my way, I’d give Laura Rambotham something she wouldn’t forget. That child’ll come to a bad end yet.—How do you like that colour, Miss C.?” She had a nest of cloth-patterns in her lap, and held one up as she spoke.
“Oh, you shouldn’t say such things,” remonstrated Miss Chapman. “There’s many a true word said in jest.” She settled her glasses on her nose. “It’s very nice, but I think I like a bottle-green better.”
“Of course, I don’t mean she’ll end on the gallows, if that’s what troubles you. But she’s frightfully unbalanced, and, to my mind, ought to have some sense knocked into her before it’s too late.—That’s a better shade, isn’t it?”
“Poor little Laura,” said Miss Chapman, and drew a sigh. “Yes, I like that. Where did you say you were going to have the dress made?”
Miss Snodgrass named, not without pride, one of the first warehouses in the city. “I’ve been saving up my screw for it, and I mean to have something decent this time. Besides, I know one of the men in the shop, and I’m going to make them do it cheap.” And here they fell to discussing price and cut.
Thus the onlookers laughed and quizzed and wondered; no one was bold enough to put an open question to Evelyn, and Evelyn did not offer to take anyone into her confidence. She held even hints and allusions at bay, with her honeyed laugh; which was HER shield against the world. Laura was the only person who ever got behind this laugh, and what she discovered there, she did not tell. As it was, varying motives were suggested for Evelyn’s long-suffering, nobody being ready to believe that it could really be fondness, on her part, for the Byronic atom of humanity she had attracted to her.
However that might be, the two girls, the big fair one and the little dark one, were, outside class-hours, seldom apart. Evelyn did not often, as in the case of the birdlike Lolo, give her young tyrant cause for offence; if she sometimes sought another’s company, it was done in a roguish spirit—from a feminine desire to tease. Perhaps, too, she was at heart not averse to Laura’s tantrums, or to testing her own power in quelling them. On the whole, though, she was very careful of her little friend’s sensitive spots. She did not repeat the experiment of taking Laura out with her; as her stay at school drew to a close she went out less frequently herself; for the reason that, no matter how late it was on her getting back, she would find Laura obstinately sitting up in bed, wide-awake. And it went against the grain in her to keep the pale-faced girl from sleep.
On such occasions, while she undid her pretty muslin dress, unpinned the flowers she was never without, and loosened her gold-brown hair, which she had put up for the evening: while she undressed, Evelyn had to submit to a rigorous cross-examination. Laura demanded to know where she had been, what she had done, whom she had spoken to; and woe to her if she tried to shirk a question. Laura was not only jealous, she was extraordinarily suspicious; and the elder girl had need of all her laughing kindness to steer her way through the shallows of distrust. For a great doubt of Evelyn’s sincerity had implanted itself in Laura’s mind: she could not forget the incident of the “mostly fools”; and, after an evening of this kind, she never felt quite sure that Evelyn was not deceiving her afresh out of sheer goodness of heart, of course—by assuring her that she had had a “horrid time”, been bored to death, and would have much preferred to stay with her; when the truth was that, in the company of some moustached idiot or other, she had enjoyed herself to the top of her bent.
On the night Laura learned that her friend had again met the loathly “Jim”, there was a great to-do. In vain Evelyn laughed, reasoned, expostulated. Laura was inconsolable.
“Look here, Poppet,” said Evelyn at last, and was so much in earnest that she laid her hairbrush down, and took Laura by both her bony little shoulders. “Look here, you surely don’t expect me to be an old maid, do you?—ME?” The pronoun signified all she might not say: it meant wealth, youth, beauty, and an unbounded capacity for pleasure.
“Evvy, you’re not going to MARRY that horrid man?”
“Of course not, goosey. But that doesn’t mean that I’m never going to marry at all, does it?”
Laura supposed not—with a tremendous sniff.
“Well, then, what IS all the fuss about?”
It was not so easy to say. She was of course reconciled, she sobbed, to Evelyn marrying some day: only plain and stupid girls were left to be old maids: but it must not happen for years and years and years to come, and when it did, it must be to some one much older than herself, some one she did not greatly care for: in short, Evelyn was to marry only to escape the odium of the single life.
Having drawn this sketch of her future word by word from the weeping Laura, Evelyn fell into a fit of laughter which she could not stifle. “Well, Poppet,” she said when she could speak, “if that’s your idea of happiness for me, we’ll postpone it just as long as ever we can. I’m all there. For I mean to have a good time first—a jolly good time —before I tie myself up for ever, world without end, amen.”
“That’s just what I hate so—your good time, as you call it,” retorted Laura, smarting under the laughter.
“Everyone does, child. You’ll be after it yourself when you’re a little older.”
“Oh, yes, indeed you will.”
“I won’t. I hate men and I always shall. And oh, I thought”— with an upward, sobbing breath—“I thought you liked me best.”
“Of course I like you, you silly child! But that’s altogether different. And I don’t like you any less because I enjoy having some fun with them, too.”
“I don’t want your old leavings!” said Laura savagely. It hurt, almost as much as having a tooth pulled out, did this knowledge that your friend’s affection was wholly yours only as long as no man was in question. And out of the sting, Laura added: “Wait till I’m grown up, and I’ll show them what I think of them—the pigs!”
This time Evelyn had to hold her hand in front of her mouth. “No, no, I don’t mean to laugh at you. Come, be good now,” she petted. “And you really must go to bed, Laura. It’s past twelve o’clock, and that infernal machine’ll be going off before you’ve had any sleep at all.”
The “machine” was Laura’s alarum, which ran down every night just now at two o’clock. For, if one thing was sure, it was that affairs with Laura were in a sorry muddle. In this, the last and most momentous year of her school life, at the close of which, like a steep wall to be scaled, rose the university examination, she was behindhand with her work, and occupied a mediocre place in her class. So steadfastly was her attention pitched on Evelyn that she could link it to nothing else: in the middle of an important task, her thoughts would stray to contemplate her friend or wonder what she was doing; while, if Evelyn were out for the evening, Laura gave up her meagre pretence of study altogether, and moodily propped her head in her hand. This was why she had hit on the small hours for the necessary cramming; then, there were no distractions: the great house was as still as an empty church; and Evelyn lay safe and sound before her. So, punctually at two o’clock Laura was startled, with a pounding heart, out of her first sleep; and lighting the gas she sat up in bed and pored over her books. Evelyn was not disturbed by the light, or at least she did not complain; and it was certainly a famous time for committing things to memory: the subsequent hours of sleep seemed rather to etch the facts into your brain than to blur them.
You cannot however rob Peter to pay Paul, with impunity, and in the weeks that followed, despite her nightly industry, Laura made no headway.
As the term tapered to an end, things went from bad to worse with her; and since, besides, the parting with Evelyn was at the door, she was often to be seen with red-rimmed eyelids, which she did not even try to conceal.
“As if she’d lost her nearest relation!” laughed her school-fellows. And did they meet her privately, on the stairs or in a house-corridor, they crossed their hands on their breasts and turned up their eyes, in tragedy-fashion.
Laura hardly saw them; for once in her life ridicule could not have her. The nearer the time drew, the more completely did the coming loss of Evelyn push other considerations into the background. It was bitter to reflect that her present dear friendship had no more strength to endure than the thin pretences of friendship she had hitherto played at. Evelyn and she would, no doubt, from time to time meet and take pleasure in each other again; but their homes lay hundreds of miles apart; and the intimacy of the schooldays was passing away, never to return. And no one could be held to blame for this. Evelyn’s mother and father thought, rightly enough, that it was time for their daughter to leave school—but that was all. They did not really miss her, or need her. No, it was just a stupid, crushing piece of ill-luck, which happened one did not know why. The ready rebel in Laura sprang into being again; and she fought hard against the lesson that there are events in life—bitter, grim, and grotesque events—beneath which one can only bow one’s head.—A further effect of the approaching separation was to bring home to her a sense of the fleetingness of things; she began to grasp that, everywhere and always, even while you revelled in them, things were perpetually rushing to a close; and the fact of them being things you loved, or enjoyed, was powerless to diminish the speed at which they escaped you.
Of course, though, these were sensations rather than thoughts; and they did not hinder Laura from going on her knees to Evelyn, to implore her to remain. Day after day Evelyn kindly and patiently explained why this could not be; and if she sometimes drew a sigh at the child’s persistence, it was too faint to be audible. Now Laura knew that it was possible to kill animal-pets by surfeiting them; and, towards the end, a suspicion dawned on her that you might perhaps damage feelings in the same way. It stood to reason: no matter how fond two people were of each other, the one who was about to emerge, like a butterfly from its sheath, could not be asked to regret her release; and, at moments—when Laura lay sobbing face downwards on her bed, or otherwise vented her pertinacious and disruly grief—at these moments she thought she scented a dash of relief in Evelyn, at the prospect of deliverance.
But such delicate hints on the part of the hidden self are rarely able to gain a hearing; and, as the days dropped off one by one, like over-ripe fruit, Laura surrendered herself more and more blindly to her emotions. The consequence was, M. P.‘s prediction came true: in the test-examinations which took place at midwinter, Laura, together with the few dunces of her class, was ignominiously plucked. And still staggering under this blow, she had to kiss Evelyn good-bye, and to set her face for home.