The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson

XX.

WIE SOLLTE EIN STROM NICHT ENDLICH DEN WEG ZUM MEERE FINDEN!

NIETZSCHE

Sea, sun and air did their healing work, as did also the long, idle days in the home garden; and Laura drank in health and vigour with every breath.

She had need of it all when, the golden holidays over, she returned to school; for the half-year that broke was, in many ways, the most trying she had yet had to face. True, her dupes’ first virulence had waned — they no longer lashed her openly with their tongues — but the quiet, covert insults, that were now the rule, were every bit as hard to bear; and before a week had passed Laura was telling herself that, had she been a Christian Martyr, she would have preferred to be torn asunder with one jerk, rather than submit to the thumbkin. Not an eye but looked askance at her; on every face was painted a reminder of her moral inferiority; and even newcomers among the boarders soon learnt, without always knowing what her crime had been, that Laura Rambotham was “not the thing”.

This system of slight and disparagement was similar to what she had had to endure in her first school term; but its effect upon her was different. Then, in her raw timidity, she had bowed her head beneath it; now, she could not be so lamb-like. In thought, she never ceased to lay half the blame of what had happened on her companions’ shoulders; and she was embittered by their injustice in making her alone responsible, when all she had done was to yield to their craving for romance. She became a rebel, wrapping herself round in the cloak of bitterness which the outcasts of fortune wear, feeding on her hate of those within the pale. Very well then, she said to herself: if her fellows chose to shut her out like this, she would stop outside, and never see eye to eye with them again. And it gave her an unholy pleasure to mock, in secret, at all they set store by.

Her outward behaviour for many a day was, none the less, that of a footlicker; and by no sign did she indicate what she really was — a very unhappy girl. Like most rebels of her sex, she ardently desired to re-enter the fold of law and order; and it was to this end she worked, although, wherever she approached it, the place seemed to bristle with spears. But she did not let herself be daunted; she pocketed injuries, pretended not to hear them, played the spaniel to people she despised; and it soon became open talk, that no matter what you said to her, Laura Rambotham would not take offence. You could also rely on her to do a dirty job for you. — A horrid little toady was the verdict; especially of those who had no objection to be toadied to.

Torn thus, between mutinous sentiments on the one hand, a longing for restitution on the other, Laura grew very sly — a regular little tactician. In these days, she was for ever considering what she ought to do, what to leave undone. She learnt to weigh her words before uttering them, instead of blurting out her thoughts in the childish fashion that had exposed her to ridicule; she learnt, too, at last, to keep her real opinions to herself, and to make those she expressed tally with her hearers’. And she was quick to discover that this was a short-cut towards regaining her lost place: to conceal what she truly felt — particularly if her feelings ran counter to those of the majority. For, the longer she was at school, the more insistently the truth was driven home to her, that the majority is always in the right.

In the shifting of classes that took place at the year’s end, she left the three chief witnesses of her disgrace — Tilly, Maria, Kate — behind her. She was again among a new set of girls. But this little piece of luck was outweighed by the fact that, shortly after Christmas, her room was changed for the one occupied by M. P., and M. P.‘s best friend.

So far, Laura had hardly dared to lift her eyes in Mary Pidwall’s presence. For Mary knew not only the sum of her lies, but also held — or so Laura believed — that she came of a thoroughly degenerate family; thanks to Uncle Tom. And the early weeks spent at close quarters with her bore out these fears. The looks both M. P. and her friend bent on Laura said as plainly as words: if we are forced to tolerate this obnoxious little insect about us, we can at least show it just what a horrid little beast it is. — M. P. in particular was adamant, unrelenting; Laura quailed at the sound of her step.

And yet she soon felt, rightly enough, it was just in the winning over of this stern, rigid nature that her hope of salvation lay. If she could once get M. P. on her side, all might yet be well again.

So she began to lay siege to Mary’s good-will — to Mary, who took none but the barest notice of her, even in the bedroom ignoring her as if she did not exist, and giving the necessary orders, for she was the eldest of the three, in tones of ice. But it needed a great wariness on Laura’s part. And, in the beginning, she made a mistake. She was a toadeater here, too, seeking to curry favour with M. P. as with the rest, by fawning on her, in a way for which she could afterwards have hit herself. For it did not answer; M. P. had only a double disdain for the cringer, knowing nothing herself of the pitfalls that lie in wait for a temperament like Laura’s. Mary’s friendship was extended to none but those who had a lofty moral standard; and truthfulness and honesty were naturally the head virtues on her list. Laura was sharp enough to see that, if she wished to gain ground with M. P. she must make a radical change in her tactics. It was not enough, where Mary was in question, to play the echo. Did she, Laura, state an opinion, she must say what she meant, above all, mean what she said, and stick manfully to it, instead of, at the least hint, being ready to fly over to Mary’s point of view: always though, of course, with the disquieting proviso in the background that her own opinions were such as she ought to have, and not heretical leanings that shocked and dismayed. In which case, there was nothing for it but to go on being mum.

She ventured, moreover, little unobtrusive services, to which she thought neither of the girls could take exception; making their beds for them in the morning, and staying up last at night to put out the light. And once she overheard the friend, who was called Cupid, say: “You know, M. P., she’s not such a bad little stick after all.”— But then Cupid was easy-going, and inclined to be original.

May answered: “She’s no doubt beginning to see she can’t lie to US. But she’s a very double-faced child.”

It was also with an eye to M. P.‘s approval that Laura threw herself, with renewed zeal, upon her work. And in those classes that called only for the exercise of her memory, she soon sat high. The reason why she could not mount still higher was that M. P. occupied the top place, and was not to be moved, even had Laura dreamed of attempting it.

And at length, after three months of unremitting exertion in the course of which, because she had little peeps of what looked like success, the rebel in her went to sleep again — at length Laura had her reward. One Sunday morning M. P. asked her to be her partner on the walk to church. This was as if a great poet should bend from his throne to take a younger brother-singer by the hand; and, in her headlong fashion, Laura all but fell at the elder girl’s feet. From this day forward she out-heroded Herod, in her efforts to make of herself exactly what Mary thought she ought to be.

Deep within her, none the less, there lurked a feeling which sometimes made as if to raise its head: a feeling that she did not really like M. P., or admire her, or respect her; one which, had it come quite to life, would have kicked against Mary’s authority, been contemptuous of her unimaginative way of seeing and saying things, on the alert to remind its owner that HER way, too, had a right to existence. But is was not strong enough to make itself heard, or rather Laura refused to hear it, and turned a deaf ear whenever it tried to hint at its presence. — For Mr. Worldly-Wiseman was her model just now.

Whereas Cupid — there was something in Cupid that was congenial to her. A plain girl, with irregular features — how she had come by her nickname no one knew — Cupid was three years older than Laura, and one of the few in the school who loved reading for its own sake. In a manner, she was cleverer even than M. P.; but it was not a school-booky way, and hence was not thought much of. However, Laura felt drawn to her at once — even though Cupid treated her as quite a little girl — and they sometimes got as far as talking of books they had read. From this whiff of her, Laura was sure that Cupid would have had more understanding than M. P. for her want of veracity; for Cupid had a kind of a dare-devil mind in a hidebound character, and was often very bold of speech.

Yet it was not Cupid’s good opinion she worked for, with might and main.

The rate of her upward progress in Mary’s estimation could be gauged by the fact that the day came when the elder girl spoke openly to her of her crime. At the first merciless words Laura winced hotly, both at and for the tactlessness of which Mary was guilty. But, the first shameful stab over, she felt the better of it; yes, it was a relief to speak to some one of what she had borne alone for so long. To speak of it, and even to argue round it a little; for, like most wrongdoers, Laura soon acquired a taste for dwelling on her misdeed. And Mary, being entirely without humour, and also unversed in dealing with criminals, did not divine that this was just a form of self-indulgence. It was Cupid who said: “Look here, Infant, you’ll be getting cocky about what you did, if you don’t look out.”

Mary would not allow that a single one of Laura’s excuses held water.

“That’s the sheerest nonsense. You don’t seem to realise that you tried to defame another person’s moral character,” she said, in the assured, superior way that so impressed Laura. — And this aspect of the case, which had never once occurred to her, left Laura open-mouthed; and yet a little doubtful: Mr. Shepherd was surely too far above her, and too safely ensconced in holiness, to be injured by anything she might say. But the idea gave her food for thought; and she even tentatively developed her story along these unfamiliar lines, just to see how it might have turned out.

One night as they were undressing for bed, Mary spoke, with the same fireless depreciation, of the behaviour of a classmate which had been brought to her notice that day. This girl was said to have nefariously “copied” from another, in the course of a written examination; and, as prefect of her class Mary was bound to track the evil down. “I shall make them both show me their papers as soon as they get them back; and then, if I find proof of what’s being said, I must tackle her. Just as I tackled you, Laura.”

Laura flushed. “Oh, M. P., I’ve never ‘copied’ in my life!” she cried.

“Probably not. But those things all belong in the same box: lying, and ‘copying’, and stealing.”

“You never WILL believe me when I say I didn’t know anything about that horrid Chinky. I only told a few crams — that was quite different.”

“I think it’s most unfortunate, Laura, that you persist in clinging to that idea.”

Here M. P. was obliged to pause; for she had put a lock of hair between her teeth while she did something to a plait at the back. As soon as she could speak again, she went on: “You and your few crams! Have you ever thought, pray, what a state of things it would be, if we all went about telling false-hoods, and saying it didn’t matter, they were merely a few little fibs? — What are you laughing at?”

“I’m not laughing. I mean . . . I just smiled. I was only thinking how funny it would be — Sandy, and old Gurley, and Jim Chapman, all going round making up things that had never happened.”

“You’ve a queer notion of what’s funny. Have you utterly no respect for the truth?”

“Yes, of course I have. But I say”— Laura, who always slipped quickly out of her clothes, was sitting in her nightgown on the edge of the bed, hugging her knees. “I say, M. P., if everybody told stories, and everybody knew everybody else was telling them, then truth wouldn’t be any good any more at all, would it? If nobody used it?”

“What rubbish you do talk!” said Mary serenely, as she shook her toothbrush on to a towel and rubbed it dry.

“As if truth were a soap!” remarked Cupid who was already in bed, reading NANA, and trying to smoke a cigarette under the blankets.

“You can’t do away with truth, child.”

“But why not? Who says so? It isn’t a law.”

“Don’t try to be so sharp, Laura.”

“I don’t mean to, M. P. — But what IS truth, anyhow?” asked Laura.

“The Bible is truth. Can you do away with the Bible, pray?”

“Of course not. But M. P. . . . The Bible isn’t quite all truth, you know. My father ——” here she broke off in some confusion, remembering Uncle Tom.

“Well, what about him? You don’t want to say, I hope, that he didn’t believe in the Bible?”

Laura drove back the: “Of course not!” that was all but over her lips. “Well, not exactly,” she said, and grew very red. “But you KNOW, M. P., whales don’t have big enough throats ever to have swallowed Jonah.”

“Little girls shouldn’t talk about what they don’t understand. The Bible is God’s Word; and God is Truth.”

“You’re a silly infant,” threw in Cupid, coughing as she spoke. “Truth has got to be — and honesty, too. If it didn’t exist, there couldn’t be any state, or laws, or any social life. It’s one of the things that makes men different from animals, and the people who boss us know pretty well what they’re about, you bet when they punish the ruffians who don’t practise it.”

“Yes, now THAT I see,” agreed Laura eagerly. “Then truth’s a useful thing. — Oh, and that’s probably what it means, too, when you say: Honesty is the best Policy.”

“I never heard such a child,” said M. P., shocked. “Cupid, you really shouldn’t put such things into her head. — You’re down-right immoral, Laura.”

“Oh, how CAN you say such a horrid thing?”

“Well, your ideas are simply dreadful. You ought to try your hardest to improve them.”

“I do, M. P., really I do.”

“You don’t succeed. I think there must be a screw loose in you somewhere.”

“Anyhow, I vote we adjourn this meeting,” said Cupid, recovering from a fresh cough and splutter. “Or old Gurley’ll be coming in to put me on a mustard plaster. — As for you, Infant, if you take the advice of a chap who has seen life, you’ll keep your ideas to yourself: they’re too crude for this elegant world.”

“Right you are!” said Laura cheerfully.

She was waiting by the gas-jet till M.P. had folded her last garment, and she shuffled her bare feet one over the other as she stood; for it was a cold night. The light out, she hopped into bed in the dark.

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