The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson

XXIV.

WAS MICH NICHT UMBRINGT, MACHT MICH STARKER.

NIETZSCHE

Mother did not know or understand anything about “tests”; and Laura had no idea of enlightening her. She held her peace, and throughout the holidays hugged her disgraceful secret to her, untold. She had never before failed to pass an examination, having always lightly skimmed the surface of them on the wings of her parrot-like memory; hence, at home no one suspected that anything was amiss with her. The knowledge weighed the more heavily on her own mind. And, as if her other troubles were not enough, she was now beset by nervous fears about the future. She saw chiefly rocks ahead. If she did not succeed in getting through the final examination in summer, she would not be allowed to present herself for matriculation, and, did this happen, there would be the very devil to pay. All her schooling would, in Mother’s eyes, have been for naught. For Mother was one of those people who laid tremendous weight on prizes and examinations, as offering a tangible proof that your time had not been wasted or misspent. Besides this, she could not afford in the event of a failure, to pay the school-fees for another year. The money which, by hook and by crook, had been scraped together and hoarded up for Laura’s education was now coming to an end; as it was, the next six months would mean a terrible pinching and screwing. The other children, too, were growing day by day more costly; their little minds and bodies clamoured for a larger share of attention. And Laura’s eyes were rudely opened to the struggle Mother had had to make both ends meet, while her first-born was acquiring wisdom; for Mother spoke of it herself, spoke openly of her means and resources, perhaps with some idea of rousing in Laura a gratitude that had so far been dormant.

If this was her intention she failed. Laura was much too fast entangled in her own troubles, to have leisure for such a costly feeling as gratitude; and Mother’s outspokenness only added a fresh weight to her pack. It seemed as if everybody and everything were ranged against her; and guilty, careworn, lonely, she shrank into her shell. About school affairs she again kept her lips shut, enduring, like a stubborn martyr, the epithets “close” and “deceitful” this reticence earned her. Her time was spent in writing endless, scrawly letters to Evelyn, which covered days; in sitting moodily at the top of the fir tree which she climbed in defiance of her length of petticoat glaring at sunsets, and brooding on dead delights; in taking long, solitary, evening walks, by choice on the heel of a thunderstorm, when the red earth was riddled by creeklets of running water; till Mother, haunted by a lively fear of encounters with “swags” or Chinamen, put her foot down and forbade them.

Sufferers are seldom sweet-tempered; and Laura formed no exception. Pin, her most frequent companion, had to bear the brunt of her acrimony: hence the two were soon at war again. For Pin was tactless, and took small heed of her sister’s grumpy moods, save to cavil at them. Laura’s buttoned-upness, for instance, and her love of solitude, were perverse leanings to Pin’s mind; and she spoke out against them with the assurance of one who has public opinion at his back. Laura retaliated by falling foul of little personal traits in Pin: a nervous habit she had of clearing her throat — her very walk. They quarrelled passionately, having branched as far apart as the end-points of what is ultimately to be a triangle, between which the connecting lines have not yet been drawn.

Sometimes they even came to blows.

“I’ll fetch your ma to you — that I will!” threatened Sarah, called by the noise of the scuffle. “Great girls like you — fightin’ like bandicoots! You ought to be downright ashamed o’ yourselves.”

“I don’t know what’s come over you two, I’m sure,” scolded Mother, when the combatants had been parted and brought before her in the kitchen, where she was rolling pastry. “You never used to go on like this. — Pin, stop that noise. Do you want to deafen me?”

“She hit me first,” sobbed Pin. “It’s always Laura who begins.”

“I’ll teach her to cheek me like that!”

“Well, all I can say is,” said Mother exasperated, and pushed a lock of hair off her perspiring forehead with the back of her hand. “All I say is, big girls as you are, you deserve to have the nonsense whipped out of you. — As for you, Laura, if this is your only return for all the money I’ve spent on you, then I wish from my heart you’d never seen the inside of that Melbourne school.”

“How pretty your eyes look, mother, when your eyelashes get floury!” said Laura, struck by the vivid contrast of black and white. She merely stated the fact, without intent to flatter, her anger being given to puffing out as suddenly as it kindled.

“Oh, get along with you!” said Mother, at the same time skilfully lifting and turning a large, thin sheet of paste. “You can’t get round ME like that.”

“You used to have nice, ladylike manners,” she said on another occasion, when Laura, summoned to the drawingroom to see a visitor, had in Mother’s eyes disgraced them both. “Now, you’ve no more idea how to behave than a country bumpkin. You sit there, like a stock or a stone, as if you didn’t know how to open your mouth.”— Mother was very cross.

“I didn’t want to see that old frump anyhow,” retorted Laura, who inclined to charge the inhabitants of the township with an extreme provinciality. “And what else was there to say, but yes or no? She asked me all things I didn’t know anything about. You don’t want me to tell stories, I suppose?”

“Well, if a child of mine doesn’t know the difference between being polite and telling stories,” said Mother, completely outraged, “then, all I can say is, it’s a . . . a great shame!” she wound up lamely, after the fashion of hot-tempered people who begin a sentence without being clear how they are going to end it. —“You were a nice enough child once. If only I’d never let you leave home.”

This jeremiad was repeated by Mother and chorused by the rest till Laura grew incensed. She was roused to defend her present self, at the cost of her past perfections; and this gave rise to new dissensions.

So that in spite of what she had to face at school, she was not altogether sorry, when the time came, to turn her back on her unknowing and hence unsympathetic relations. She journeyed to Melbourne on one of those pleasant winter days when the sun shines from morning till night in a cloudless sky, and the chief mark of the season is the extraordinary greenness of the grass; returned a pale, determined, lanky girl, full of the grimmest resolutions.

The first few days were like a bad dream. The absence of Evelyn came home to her in all its crushing force. A gap yawned drearily where Evelyn had been — but then, she had been everywhere. There was now a kind of emptiness about the great school — except for memories, which cropped up at each turn. Laura was in a strange room, with strange, indifferent girls; and for a time she felt as lonely as she had done in those unthinkable days when she was still the poor little green “new chum”.

Her companions were not wilfully unkind to her — her last extravagance had been foolish, not criminal — and two or three were even sorry for the woebegone figure she cut. But her idolatrous attachment to Evelyn had been the means of again drawing round her one of those magic circles, which held her schoolfellows at a distance. And the aroma of her eccentricity still clung to her. The members of her class were deep in study, too; little was now thought or spoken of but the approaching examinations. And her first grief over, Laura set her teeth and flung herself on her lessons like a dog on a bone, endeavouring to pack the conscientious work of twelve months into less than six.

The days were feverish with energy. But at night the loneliness returned, and was only the more intense because, for some hours on end, she had been able to forget it.

On one such night when she lay wakeful, haunted by the prospect of failure, she turned over the leaves of her Bible — she had been memorising her weekly portion — and read, not as a school-task, but for herself. By chance she lighted on the Fourteenth Chapter of St John, and the familiar, honey-sweet words fell on her heart like caresses. Her tears flowed; both at the beauty of the language and out of pity for herself; and before she closed the Book, she knew that she had found a well of comfort that would never run dry.

In spite of a certain flabbiness in its outward expression, deep down in Laura the supreme faith of childhood still dwelt intact: she believed, with her whole heart, in the existence of an all-knowing God, and just as implicitly in His perfect power to succour His human children at will. But thus far on her way she had not greatly needed Him: at the most, she had had recourse to Him for forgiveness of sin. Now, however, the sudden withdrawal of a warm, human sympathy seemed to open up a new use for Him. An aching void was in her and about her; it was for Him to fill this void with the riches of His love. — And she comforted herself for her previous lack of warmth, by the reminder that His need also was chiefly of the heavy-laden and oppressed.

In the spurt of intense religious fervour that now set in for her, it was to Christ she turned by preference, rather than to the remoter God the Father. For of the latter she carried a kind of Michelangelesque picture in her brain: that of an old, old man with a flowing grey beard, who sat, Turk-fashion, one hand plucking at this beard, the other lying negligently across His knees. Christ, on the contrary, was a young man, kindly of face, and full of tender invitation.

To this younger, tenderer God, she proffered long and glowing prayers, which vied with one another in devoutness. Soon she felt herself led by Him, felt herself a favourite lying on His breast; and, as the days went by, her ardour so increased that she could not longer consume the smoke of her own fire: it overspread her daily life — to the renewed embarrassment of her schoolfellows. Was it then impossible, they asked themselves, for Laura Rambotham to do anything in a decorous and ladylike way. Must she at every step put them out of countenance? It was not respectable to be so fervent. Religion, felt they, should be practised with modesty; be worn like an indispensable but private garment. Whereas she committed the gross error in taste of, as it were, parading it outside her other clothes.

Laura, her thoughts turned heavenwards, did not look low enough to detect the distaste in her comrades’ eyes. The farther she spun herself into her intimacy with the Deity, the more indifferent did she grow to the people and things of this world.

Weeks passed. Her feelings, in the beginning a mere blissful certainty that God was Love and she was God’s, ceased to be wholly passive. Thus, her first satisfaction at her supposed election was soon ousted by self-righteousness, did she contemplate her unremitting devotion. And one night, when her own eloquence at prayer had brought the moisture to her eyes — one night the inspiration fell. Throughout these weeks, she had faithfully worshipped God without asking so much as a pin’s head from Him in return; she had given freely; all she had, had been His. Now the time had surely come when she might claim to be rewarded. Now it was for Him to show that He had appreciated her homage. — Oh, it was so easy a thing for Him to help her, if He would . . . if He only would!

Pressing her fingers to her eyeballs till the starry blindness was effected that induces ecstasy, she prostrated herself before the mercy-seat, not omitting, at this crisis, to conciliate the Almighty by laying stress on her own exceeding unworthiness.

“Oh, dear Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me, miserable sinner! Oh, Christ, I ask Thy humble pardon! For I have been weak, Lord, and have forgotten to serve Thy Holy Name. My thoughts have erred and strayed like . . . like lost sheep. But loved Thee, Jesus, all the time, my heart seemed full as it would hold . . . no, I didn’t mean to say that. But I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on. But now, dear Jesus, if Thou wilt only grant me my desire, I will never forget Thee or be false to Thee again. I will love Thee and serve Thee, all the days of my life, till death us do . . . I mean, only let me pass my examinations, Lord, and there is nothing I will not do for Thee in return. Oh, dear Lord Jesus, Son of Mary, hear my prayer, and I will worship Thee and adore Thee, and never forget Thee, and that Thou hast died to save me! Grant me this my prayer, Lord, for Christ’s sake, Amen.”

It came to this: Laura made a kind of pact with God, in which His aid at the present juncture guaranteed her continued, unswerving allegiance.

The idea once lodged in her mind, she wrestled with Him night after night, filling His ears with her petitions, and remaining on her knees for such an immoderate length of time that her room-mates, who were sleepy, openly expressed their impatience.

“Oh, draw it mild, Laura!” said the girl in the neighbouring bed, when it began to seem as if the supplicant would never rise to her feet again. “Leave something to ask Him to-morrow.”

But Laura, knowing very well that the Lord our God is a jealous God, was mindful not to scrimp in lip-service, or to shirk the minutest ceremony by means of which He might be propitiated and won over. Her prayers of greeting and farewell, on entering and leaving church, were drawn out beyond anyone else’s; she did not doze or dream over a single clause of the Litany, with its hypnotising refrain; and she not only made the sign of the Cross at the appropriate place in the Creed, but also privately at every mention of Christ’s name.

Meanwhile, of course, she worked at her lessons with unflagging zeal, for it was by no means her intention to throw the whole onus of her success on the Divine shoulders. She overworked; and on one occasion had a distressing lapse of memory.

And at length spring was gone and summer come, and the momentous week arrived on which her future depended. Now, though, she was not alone in her trepidation. The eyes of even the surest members of the form had a steely glint in them, and mouths were hard. Dr. Pughson’s papers were said to be far more formidable than the public examination: if you got happily through these, you were safe.

Six subjects were compulsory; high-steppers took nine. Laura was one of those with eight, and since her two obligatory mathematics were not to be relied on, she could not afford to fail in a single subject.

In the beginning, things, with the exception of numbers, went pretty well with her. Then came the final day, and with it the examination in history. Up to the present year Laura had cut a dash in history; now her brain was muddled, her memory overtaxed, by her having had to cram the whole of Green’s HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH PEOPLE in a few months, besides a large dose of GREECE and ROME. Reports ran of the exceptionally “catchy” nature of Dr Pughson’s questions; and Laura’s prayer, the night before, was more like a threat than a supplication. The class had only just entered the Headmaster’s room on the eventful morning, and begun to choose desks, when there came a summons to Laura to take a music-lesson. This was outside consideration, and Dr Pughson made short work of the intruder — a red-haired little girl, who blushed meekly and unbecomingly, and withdrew. Here, however, Laura rose and declared that, under these circumstances, some explanation was due to Monsieur Boehmer, the music-master, to-day’s lesson being in fact a rehearsal for the annual concert.

Dr Pughson raised his red-rimmed eyes from his desk and looked very fierce.

“Tch, tch, tch!” he snapped, in the genial Irish fashion that made him dreaded and adored. “How like a woman that is! Playing at concerts when she can’t add two and two together! — Your arithmetic paper’s fit for PUNCH, Miss Rambotham.”

The smile he looked for went round.

“Have you seen the questions? — no? Well, give them here then. You’ve got to go, I suppose, or we might deprive the concert of your shining light. — Hurry back, now. Stir your stumps!”

But this Laura had no intention of doing. In handling the printed slip, her lagging eye had caught the last and most vital question: “Give a full account of Oliver Cromwell’s Foreign Policy.”— And she did not know it! She dragged out her interview with the music-master, put questions wide of the point, insisted on lingering till he had arranged another hour for the postponed rehearsal; and, as she walked, as she talked, as she listened to Monsieur Boehmer’s ridiculous English, she strove in vain to recall jot or tittle of Oliver’s relations to foreign powers. — Oh, for just a peep at the particular page of Green! For, if once she got her cue, she believed she could go on.

The dining-hall was empty when she went through it on her way back to the classroom: her history looked lovingly at her from its place on the shelf. But she did not dare to go over to it, take it out, and turn up the passage: that was too risky. What she did do, however, when she had almost reached the door, was to dash back, pull out a synopsis — a slender, medium-sized volume — and hastily and clumsily button this inside the bodice of her dress. The square, board-like appearance it gave her figure, where it projected beyond the sides of her apron, she concealed by hunching her shoulders.

Her lightning plan was, to enter a cloakroom, snatch a hurried peep at Oliver’s confounded policy, then hide the book somewhere till the examination was over. But on emerging from the dining-hall she all but collided with the secretary, who had come noiselessly across the verandah; and she was so overcome by the thought of the danger she had run, and by Miss Blount’s extreme surprise at Dr Pughson’s leniency, that she allowed herself to be driven back to the examination-room without a word.

The girls were hard at it; they scarcely glanced up when she opened the door. From her friends’ looks, she could judge of the success they were having. Cupid, for instance, was smirking to herself in the peculiar fashion that meant satisfaction; M. P.‘s cheeks were the colour of monthly roses. And soon Laura, crouching low to cover her deformity, was at work like the rest.

Had only Oliver Cromwell never been born! — thus she reflected, when she had got the easier part of the paper behind her. Why could it not have been a question about Bourke and Wills, or the Eureka Stockade, or the voyages of Captain Cook? . . . something about one’s own country, that one had heard hundreds of times and was really interested in. Or a big, arresting thing like the Retreat of the Ten Thousand, or Hannibal’s March over the Alps? Who cared for old Oliver, and his shorn head, and his contempt for baubles! What did it matter now to anyone what his attitude had been, more than two hundred years ago, to all those far-away, dream-like countries? . . . Desperately she pressed her hand to her eyes. She knew the very page of Green on which Cromwell’s foreign relations were set forth; knew where the paragraph began, near the foot of the page: what she could not get hold of was the opening sentence that would have set her mechanical memory a-rolling.

The two hours drew steadily to a close. About half an hour beforehand the weakest candidates began to rise, to hand in their papers and leave the room; but it was not till ten minutes to twelve that the “crack” girls stopped writing. Laura was to be allowed an extra twenty minutes, and it was on this she relied. At last, she was alone with the master. But though he was already dipping into the examination-papers, he was not safe. She had unbuttoned two buttons and was at a third, when he looked up so unexpectedly that she was scared out of her senses, and fastened her dress again with all the haste she could. Three or four of the precious minutes were lost.

At this point, the door opened and Mr. Strachey strode into the room. Dr Pughson blinked up from the stacks of papers, rose, and the two spoke in low tones. Then, with a glance at Laura, they went together to the door, which Dr Pughson held to behind him, and stood just over the threshold. As they warmed to their talk, the master let the door slip into the latch.

Laura could see them from where she sat, without being seen. A moment later they moved stealthily away, going down the verandah in the direction of the office.

Now for it! With palsied hands she undid her bodice, clutched at the book, forced her blurred eyes to find the page, and ran them over it. A brief survey: five or six heads to remember: a few dates. Flapped to again; tucked under her apron; shoved into her bosom.

And not a second too soon. There he came, hurrying back. And three buttons were still undone. But Laura’s head was bent over her desk: though her heart was pummelling her ribs, her pen now ran like lightning; and by the time the order to stop was given, she had covered the requisite number of sheets. Afterwards she had adroitly to rid herself of the book, then to take part — a rather pale-eyed, distracted part — in the lively technical discussions that ensued; when each candidate was as long-winded on the theme of her success, or non-success, as a card-player on his hand at the end of a round. Directly she could make good her escape, she pleaded a headache, climbed to her bedroom and stretched herself flat on her bed. She was through — but at what a cost! She felt quite sore. Her very bones seemed to hurt her.

Not till she was thoroughly rested, and till she had assured herself that all risk attaching to the incident was over, did she come to reflect on the part God had played in the business. And then, it must be admitted, she found it a sorry one. Just at first, indeed, her limpid faith was shocked into a reluctance to believe that He had helped her at all: His manner of doing it would have been so inexpressibly mean. But, little by little, she dug deeper, and eventually she reached the conclusion that He had given her the option of this way, throwing it open to her and then standing back and watching to see what she would do, without so much as raising an eyelid to influence her decision. In fact, the more she pondered over it, the more inclined she grew to think that it had been a kind of snare on the part of God, to trap her afresh into sin, and thus to prolong her dependence on Him after her crying need was past. But, if this were true, if He had done this, then He must LIKE people to remain miserable sinners, so that He might have them always crawling to His feet. And from this view of the case her ingenuous young mind shrank appalled. She could not go on loving and worshipping a God who was capable of double dealing; who could behave in such a “mean, Jewy fashion”. Nor would she ever forget His having forced her to endure the moments of torture she had come through that day.

Lying on her bed, she grappled with these thoughts. A feeling of deep resentment was their abiding result. Whatever His aim, it had been past expression pitiless of Him, Him who had at His command thousands of pleasanter ways in which to help her, thus to drive a poor unhappy girl to extremities: one, too, whose petition had not been prompted by selfish ends alone. What she had implored of Him touched Mother even more nearly than herself: her part prayer to Him had been to save Mother — whose happiness depended on things like examinations — from a bitter disappointment. That much at least He had done — she would give Him His due — but at the expense of her entire self-respect. Oh, He must have a cold, calculating heart . . . could one only see right down into it. The tale of His clemency and compassion, which the Bible told, was not to be interpreted literally: when one came to think of it, had He ever — outside the Bible — been known to stoop from His judgment-seat, and lovingly and kindly intervene? It was her own absurd mistake: she had taken the promises made through His Son, for gospel truth; had thought He really meant what He said, about rewarding those who were faithful to Him. Her companions — the companions on whom, from the heights of her piety, she had looked pityingly down — were wiser than she. They did not abase themselves before Him, and vow a lifelong devotion; but neither did they make any but the most approved demands on Him. They satisfied their consciences by paying Him lip-homage, by confessing their sins, and by asking for a vague, far-distant mercy, to which they attached no great importance. Hence, they never came into fierce personal conflict with Him. Nor would she, ever again; from this time forward, she would rival the rest in lukewarmness. — But, before she could put this resolve into force, she had to let her first indignation subside: only then was it possible for her to recover the shattering of her faith, and settle down to practise religion after the glib and shallow mode of her friends. She did not, however, say her prayers that night, or for many a right to come; and when, at church, Christ’s name occurred in the Service, she held her head erect, and shut the ears and eyes of her soul.

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