Growing Pains, by Henry Handel Richardson

The Bath

An Aquarelle

It was December and a scorching afternoon: a north wind blew; and the pale wind-streaked sky, the little verandahed houses, the glaring roads, the very air itself, all were white with heat and dust. In comparison the bathroom struck cool, being windowless, and lit only by a raised skylight. A good-sized room, it was really made for bathing in, was made to get wet, a concrete floor sloping towards a drain in one corner. Except for a large hanging mirror and a wooden table, it held nothing but a huge old zinc bath, the sides of which were streaked rust-brown from the tide-marks of the many waters that had filled it. Over the broad end hung a shower-ring. This dripped without ceasing, drops forming continuously on its under-surface, gathering volume, depending perilously, then falling on the zinc with a toneless thud. The water that oozed out when the large old-fashioned cock opened was not unlike muddied milk, and for the most part lukewarm. But it gushed freely, making up by abundance for its tepidness and want of clarity.

To-day it ran very red, for a storm overnight had churned up the mud bottom of the reservoir.

Four half-grown girls had come dancing into the room, and eight hands were busy; for all four had cried as one: “A bath! Let us have a bath!”

And while the water raced and sang, shoes were kicked off and clothes fell, a bit here, an oddment there, in their owners’ haste to be rid of encumbrances.

First ready was a fattish little blonde; though, as the eldest of the party, she had set to work more sedately than the rest. But, in her hurry to reach the water, one of the four had pulled a knot, and a brown and a red head were bent over it.

Meanwhile, Blonde sat on the side of the bath, swinging one leg. Her skin was of a delicate transparency, through which the veins showed blue as forget-me-nots. A wonderful prong, running down the chest, forked and lost itself in the whiteness of the barely-hinted breasts. Round her throat were two lines that might have been scored by a thumb-nail in wet clay; and below the ribs were two more — the lines of sitting beauty — deeply indented and wavy, like the lines carved by ripples on the sea-shore.

The knot unravelled, Red Head was out of her clothes in a twinkling, and now advanced, shoulders hunched, arms crossed and hugging their uppers. While she stood waiting for the tide to rise, rubbing the sole of one foot up and down the other leg, she made her brown-haired little companion, the youngest of the four, and still skinny and straight as a boy, look very dark; for, in Red Hair, the promise of a pale face powdered with freckles was fulfilled: her skin was white as milk from top to toe, and velvety as rose-petals to the touch.

Last came the knot-puller — a tall, slim, brown-eyed creature with a sallow face, flushed pink at the moment from heat and hurry, and a head of short golden curls. Against the others she stood out for the richness of her colouring; her skin was the shade of old, old ivory, tinting to amber, to a dusky gold, in all crevices: where the curls met her neck, and in the hollows of her armpits. Her young breasts — at this moment laid flat, for she was stretching with the abandon of a cat, both hands clasped tight behind her neck — ended in rings the colour of blue grapes dashed with sepia.

By now the bath was full to the brim. And while the four still lingered, chattering, twittering, exulting in their freedom, there was the sound of a heavy foot in the passage outside. And the room had three doors, none of which locked. Whrr! Like a herd of startled wild things, all made for the water at once, a phalanx of cream, white, and dusky legs whisking over the side with incredible rapidity. Amber came off worst: she was too tall; crouching did not help her. So she lay at full length, the others half-leaning, half-sitting on her, to keep her down. But the threatened intrusion passed; and with a fresh run of giggles and trills the bathers rose to their feet. — The water that trickled down their skins left visible traces, like tears on a grimy face.

Then the shower was pulled. Amber and Brownie stood under it, holding their heads to the gush and hiss, Amber raising an arm to screen her eyes, the little one pressing her face against her companion’s ribs. And, bristling and stinging, the shower flew off at right-angles, squirting madly out into the room. Blonde and Red Head dodged and scuttled. Then it was their turn. Blonde would not wet her hair; she leant her head and shoulders far back, stretching her lined throat, meeting the brunt of the water on her chest; or, stooping forward, let it hammer down the ridgeway of her spine.

Next, all tried to get under water at the same time. The result was wildest confusion; for the one below kicked, and splashed, and rolled over three slippery bodies, in her efforts to come to the surface. — Taking Blonde by the toes, the others floated her up and down.

An elderly woman looked in: the bathers gathered water in their joined palms and pelted her, in a perpendicular shower. Then they played at leaping. The game was: to go to the end of the room and take a running jump over the side, to see who could splash highest. Red Head was awkward, slipped and fell face downwards, to be half-drowned by the one who came after. This led to a free fight. The weapons were a big and little sponge: inflated to their fullest, they were hurled against any portion of a body that offered; and tireless hands, which scooped and flung, tweaked and slapped. The walls ran water, the concrete floor was a-swim with it.

In the midst of these gambols, a clock struck five. Like ghosts surprised by the dawn, the four were out of the bath in a trice and a-scramble for the towels that hung behind a door. There was a hasty rubbing down of sides and fronts; towels seesawed over backs, knees bent, curly toes wriggled dry. Grasped in two hands garments were poised for a moment high in air, then dropped into place, blotting out faces in the transit. And soon, of all that had lain bare, no more was visible than four damp-ringed, motley-coloured heads. — Though the long glass had given back in full the madcap riot of the bath, none had troubled to cast so much as a look at her naked self. Clothed, it was otherwise: here a sodden mass of curls was twitched and fingered, there the sit of a frock stroked into place.

Now a voice was heard calling — an urgent voice, that brooked no delay. Without a further backward glance each in turn followed the summons, vanishing swiftly. Four times the door opened and shut; till the room was empty. The splashed walls and swimming floor drained dry; the bath-water gurgled off; and the mirror’s surface lay blank, no conjurer being at hand to call to life the lovely shapes that slumbered in its depth.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33