The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson

XIII.

ON her honourable promotion the following Christmas — she mounted two forms this time — Laura was a thin, middle-sized girl of thirteen, who still did not look her age. The curls had vanished. In their place hung a long, dark plait, which she bound by choice with a red ribbon.

Tilly was the only one of her intimates who skipped a class with her; hence she was thrown more exclusively than before on Tilly’s companionship; for it was a melancholy fact: if you were not in the same class as the girl who was your friend, your interests and hers were soon fatally sundered. On their former companions, Tilly and Laura, from their new perch, could not but look down: the two had masters now for all subjects; Euclid loomed large; Latin was no longer bounded by the First Principia; and they fussed considerably, in the others’ hearing, over the difficulties of the little blue books that began: GALLIA EST OMNIS DIVISA IN PARTES TRES.

In the beginning, they held very close together; for their new fellows were inclined to stand on their dignity with the pair of interlopers from Class Two. They were all older than Tilly and Laura, and thought themselves wiser: here were girls of sixteen and seventeen years of age, some of whom would progress no farther along the high-road of education. As for the boarders who sat in this form, they made up a jealous little clique, and it was some time before the younger couple could discover the secret bond.

Then, one morning, the two were sitting with a few others on the verandah bench, looking over their lessons for the day. Mrs. Gurley had snatched a moment’s rest there, on her way to the secretary’s office, and as long as she allowed her withering eye to play upon things and people, the girls conned their pages with a great show of industry. But no sooner had she sailed away than Kate Horner leant forward and called to Maria Morell, who was at the other end of the seat: “I say, Maria, Genesis LI, 32.”— She held an open Bible in her hand.

Maria Morell frowned caution. “Dash it, Kate, mind those kids!”

“Oh, they won’t savvy.”

But Laura’s eyes were saucers of curiosity, for Tilly, who kept her long lashes lowered, had given her a furious nudge. With a wink and a beck to each other, the bigger girls got up and went away.

“I say, what did you poke me so hard for?” inquired Laura as she and Tilly followed in their wake, at the clanging of the public prayer-bell.

“You soft, didn’t you hear what she said?”

“Of course I did”— and Laura repeated the reference.

“Let’s look it up then.” Under cover of the prayer Tilly sought it out, and together they bent their heads over it.

On this occasion, Tilly was more knowing than Laura; but on this alone; for when Laura once grasped what they were driving at, she was as nimble-witted as any.

Only a day or two later it was she who, in face of Kate and Maria, invited Tilly to turn up chapter and verse.

Both the elder girls burst out laughing.

“By dad!” cried Kate Horner, and smacked her thigh. “This kid knows a thing or two.”

“You bet! I told you she wasn’t born yesterday.”— And Maria laid her arm round Laura’s shoulders.

Thus was Laura encouraged, put on her mettle; and soon there was no more audacious Bible-reader in the class than she.

The girls were thrown thus upon the Book of Books for their contraband knowledge, since it was the only frankly outspoken piece of literature allowed within the College walls: the classics studied were rigidly expurgated; the school library was kept so dull that no one over the age of ten much cared to borrow a volume from it. And, by fair means or unfair, it was necessary to obtain information on matters of sex; for girls most of whom were well across the threshold of womanhood the subject had an invincible fascination.

Such knowledge as they possessed was a strange jumble, picked up at random: in one direction they were well primed; in another, supremely ignorant. Thus, though they received lectures on what was called “Physiology”, and for these were required to commit to memory the name of every bone and artery in the body, yet all that related to a woman’s special organs and chief natural function was studiously ignored. The subject being thus chastely shrouded in mystery, they were thrown back on guesswork and speculation — with the quaintest results. The fancies woven by quite big girls, for instance, round the physical feat of bringing a child into the world, would have supplied material for a volume of fairytales. On many a summer evening at this time, in a nook of the garden, heads of all shades might have been seen pressed as close together as a cluster of settled bees; and like the humming of bees, too, were the busy whisperings and subdued buzzes of laughter that accompanied this hot discussion of the “how”— as a living answer to which, each of them would probably some day walk the world. Innumerable theories were afloat, one more fantastic than another; and the wilder the conjecture, the greater was the respect and applause it gained.

On the other hand, of less profitable information they had amassed a goodly store. Girls who came from up-country could tell a lively tale of the artless habits of the blacks; others, who were at home in mining towns, described the doings in Chinese camps — those unavoidable concomitants of gold-grubbing settlements; rhymes circulated that would have staggered a back-blocker; while the governesses were without exception, young and old, kindly and unkindly, laid under such flamboyant suspicions as the poor ladies had, for certain, never heard breathed — since their own impudent schooldays.

This dabbling in the illicit — it had little in common with the opener grime of the ordinary schoolboy — did not even widen the outlook of these girls. For it was something to hush up and keep hidden away, to have qualms, even among themselves, about knowing; and, like all knowledge that fungus-like shrinks from the sun, it was stunted and unlovely. Their minds were warped by it, their vision was distorted: viewed through its lens, the most natural human relations appeared unnatural. Thus, not the primmest patterns of family life could hope for mercy in their eyes; over the family, too, man, as read by these young rigorists, was held to leave his serpent’s trail of desire.

For out of it all rose the vague, crude picture of woman as the prey of man. Man was animal, a composite of lust and cruelty, with no aim but that of brutally taking his pleasure: something monstrous, yet to be adored; annihilating, yet to be sought after; something to flee and, at the same time, to entice, with every art at one’s disposal.

As long as it was solely a question of clandestine knowledge and ingenious surmisings, Laura went merrily with the rest: here no barrier shut her off from her companions. Always a very inquisitive little girl, she was now agog to learn new lore. Her mind, in this direction, was like a clean but highly sensitised plate. And partly because of her previous entire ignorance, partly because of her extreme receptiveness, she soon outstripped her comrades, and before long, was one of the most skilful improvisers of the group: a dexterous theorist: a wicked little adept at innuendo.

But that was all; a step farther, and she ran her head against a stone wall. For the invisible yeast that brought this ferment of natural curiosity to pass, was the girls’ intense interest in the opposite sex: a penned-up interest that clamoured for an outlet; an interest which, in the life of these prospective mothers, had already usurped the main place. Laura, on the other hand, had so far had scant experience of boys of a desirable age, nor any liking for such as she had known; indeed she still held to her childish opinion that they were “silly”— feckless creatures, in spite of their greater strength and size — or downright disagreeable and antagonistic, like Godmother’s Erwin and Marmaduke. No breath of their possible dangerous fascination had hitherto reached her. Hence, an experience that came her way, at the beginning of the autumn was of the nature of an awakening.

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