The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson

XXV.

Ihr lerntet alle nicht tanzen, wie man tanzen muss — uber euch hinweg tanzen!

Nietzsche

The school year had ebbed; the ceremonies that attended its conclusion were over. A few days beforehand, the fifth-form boarders, under the tutelage of a couple of governesses, drove off early in the morning to the distant university. On the outward journey the candidates were thoughtful and subdued; but as they returned home, in the late afternoon, their spirits were not to be kept within seemly bounds. They laughed, sang, and rollicked about inside the wagonette, Miss Zielinski weakly protesting unheard — were so rowdy that the driver pushed his cigar-stump to the corner of his mouth, to be able to smile at ease, and flicked his old horse into a canter. For the public examination had proved as anticipated, child’s play, compared with what the class had been through at Dr Pughson’s hands; and its accompanying details were of an agreeable nature: the weather was not too hot; the examination-hall was light and airy; through the flung-back windows trees and flowering shrubs looked in; the students were watched over by a handsome Trinity man, who laid his straw hat on the desk before him.

Then came the annual concert, at which none of the performers broke down; Speech Day, when the body of a big hall was crowded with relatives and friends, and when so many white, blue-beribboned frocks were massed together on the platform, that this looked like a great bed of blue and white flowers; and, finally, trunks were brought out from boxrooms and strewn through the floors, and upper-form girls emptied cupboards and drawers into them for the last time.

On the evening before the general dispersion, Laura, Cupid, and M. P. walked the well-known paths of the garden once again. While the two elder girls were more loquacious than their wont, Laura was quieter. She had never wholly recovered her humour since the day of the history-examination; and she still could not look back, with composure, on the jeopardy in which she had placed herself one little turn of the wheel in the wrong direction, and the end of her schooldays would have been shame and disgrace. — And just as her discovery of God’s stratagem had damped her religious ardour, so her antipathy to the means she had been obliged to employ had left a feeling of enmity in her, towards the school and everything connected with it: she had counted the hours till she could turn her back on it altogether. None the less, now that the time had come there was a kind of ache in her at having to say good-bye; for it was in her nature to let go unwillingly of things, places and people once known. Besides, glad as she felt to have done with learning, she was unclear what was to come next. The idea of life at home attracted her as little as ever — Mother had even begun to hint as well that she would now be expected to instruct her young brothers. Hence, her parting was effected with very mixed feelings; she did not know in the least where she really belonged, or under what conditions she would be happy; she was conscious only of a mild sorrow at having to take leave of the shelter of years.

Her two companions had no such doubts and regrets; for them the past was already dead and gone; their talk was all of the future, so soon to become the present. They forecast this, mapping it out for themselves with the iron belief in their power to do so, which is the hall-mark of youth.

Laura, walking at their side, listened to their words with the deepest interest, and with the reverence she had learned to extend to all opinions save her own.

M. P. proposed to return to Melbourne at the end of the vacation; for she was going on to Trinity, where she intended to take one degree after another. She hesitated only whether it was to be in medicine or arts.

“Oogh! . . . to cut off people’s legs!” ejaculated Laura. “M. P., how awful.”

“Oh, one soon gets used to that, child. — But I think, on the whole, I should prefer to take up teaching. Then I shall probably be able to have a school of my own some day.”

“I shouldn’t wonder if you got Sandy’s place here,” said Laura, who was assured that M. P.‘s massy intellect would open all doors.

“Who knows?” answered Mary, and set her lips in a determined fashion of her own. “Stranger things have happened.”

Cupid, less enamoured of continual discipline, intended to be a writer. “My cousin says I’ve got the stuff in me. And he’s a journalist and ought to know.”

“I should rather think he ought.”

“Well, I mean to have a shot at it.”

“And you, Laura?” M. P. asked suavely.

“Me? — Oh, goodness knows!”

“Close as usual, Infant.”

“No, really not, Cupid.”

“Well, you’ll soon have to make up your mind to something now. You’re nearly sixteen. — Why not go on working for your B.A.?”

“No thanks! I’ve had enough of that here.” And Laura’s thoughts waved their hands, as it were, to the receding figure of Oliver Cromwell.

“Be a teacher, then.”

“M.P.! I never want to hear a date or add up a column of figures again.”

“Laura!”

“It’s the solemn truth. I’m fed up with all those blessed things.”

“Fancy not having a single wish!”

“Wish? . . . oh, I’ve tons of wishes. First I want to be with Evvy again. And then, I want to see things — yes, that most of all. Hundreds and thousands of things. People, and places, and what they eat, and how they dress, and China, and Japan . . . just tons.”

“You’ll have to hook a millionaire for that, my dear.”

“And perhaps you’ll write a book about your travels for us stay-at-homes.”

“Gracious! I shouldn’t know how to begin. But you’ll send me all you write — all YOUR books — won’t you, Cupid? And, M. P., you’ll let me come and see you get your degrees — every single one.”

With these and similar promises the three girls parted. They never met again. For a time they exchanged letters regularly, many-sheeted letters, full of familiar, personal detail. Then the detail ceased, the pages grew fewer in number, the time-gap longer. Letters in turn gave place to mere notes and postcards, scribbled in violent haste, at wide intervals. And ultimately even these ceased; and the great silence of separation was unbroken. Nor were the promises redeemed: there came to Laura neither gifts of books nor calls to be present at academic robings. Within six months of leaving school, M. P. married and settled down in her native township; and thereafter she was forced to adjust the rate of her progress to the steps of halting little feet. Cupid went a-governessing, and spent the best years of her life in the obscurity of the bush.

And Laura? . . . In Laura’s case, no kindly Atropos snipped the thread of her aspirations: these, large, vague, extemporary, one and all achieved fulfilment; then withered off to make room for more. But this, the future still securely hid from her. She went out from school with the uncomfortable sense of being a square peg, which fitted into none of the round holes of her world; the wisdom she had got, the experience she was richer by, had, in the process of equipping her for life, merely seemed to disclose her unfitness. She could not then know that, even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found; seeming unfitness prove to be only another aspect of a peculiar and special fitness. But, of the after years, and what they brought her, it is not the purport of this little book to tell. It is enough to say: many a day came and went before she grasped that, oftentimes, just those mortals who feel cramped and unsure in the conduct of everyday life, will find themselves to rights, with astounding ease, in that freer, more spacious world where no practical considerations hamper, and where the creatures that inhabit dance to their tune: the world where are stored up men’s best thoughts, the hopes, and fancies; where the shadow is the substance, and the multitude of business pales before the dream.

In the meantime, however, the exodus of the fifty-five turned the College upside-down.

Early the following morning Laura made her final preparations for departure. This, alas! was not to be on so imposing a scale as the departures of her schoolfellows. They, under special escort, would have a cab apiece, and would drive off with flying handkerchiefs and all their luggage piled high in front. Whereas Laura’s box had gone by van: for she and Pin, who was in Melbourne on a visit, were to spend a couple of days at Godmother’s before starting up-country. Even her farewells, which she had often rehearsed to herself with dramatic emphasis, went off without eclat. Except for Miss Chapman, the governesses were absent when the moment came, and Miss Chapman’s mind was so full of other things that she went on giving orders while she was shaking hands.

But Laura was not destined to leave the walls, within the shadow of which she had learned so much, as tamely as all this. There was still a surprise in waiting for her. As she whisked about the corridors in search of Mrs. Gurley, she met two girls, one of whom said: “I say, Laura Rambotham, you’re fetched. Your pretty sister’s come for you.”

“My . . . who?” gaped Laura.

“Your sister. By gum, there’s a nose for you — and those whopping eyes! You’ll have to play second fiddle to THAT, all your days, my dear.”

On entering the reception-room Laura tried hard to see Pin with the eyes of a stranger. Pin rose from her chair — awkwardly, of course, for there were other people present, and Laura’s violent stare was disconcerting in the extreme: it made Pin believe her hat was crooked, or that she had a black speck on her nose. As for Laura, she could see no great change in her sister; the freckles were certainly paler, and the features were perhaps beginning to emerge a little, from the cushiony fat in which they were bedded; but that was all. Still, if outsiders, girls in particular, were struck by it . . .

A keener stab than this — really, she did not grudge Pin being pretty: it was only the newness of the thing that hurt — a keener stab was it that, though she had ordered Pin repeatedly, and with all the stress she was master of, to come in a wagonette to fetch her, so that she might at least drive away like the other girls; in spite of this, the little nincompoop had after all arrived on foot. Godmother had said the idea of driving was stuff and nonsense — a quite unnecessary expense. Pin, of course, had meekly given in; and thus Laura’s last brave attempt to be comfortably like her companions came to naught. She went out of the school in the same odd and undignified fashion in which she had lived there.

The wrangle caused by Pin’s chicken-heartedness lasted the sisters down the garden-path, across the road, and over into the precincts of a large, public park. Only when they were some distance through this, did Laura wake to what was happening to her. Then, it came over her with a rush: she was free, absolutely free; she might do any mortal thing she chose.

As a beginning she stopped short.

“Hold on, Pin . . . take this,” she said, giving her sister the heavy leather bag they were carrying in turns to the tramway. Pin obediently held out her hand, in its little white cotton glove.

“And my hat.”

“What are you going to do, Laura?”

“You’ll see.”

“You’ll get sunstroke!”

“Fiddles! — it’s quite shady. Here’re my gloves. — Now, Pin, you follow your nose and you’ll find me — WHERE you find me!”

“Oh, what ARE you going to do, Laura?” cried Pin, in anxiety.

“I’m going to have a good run,” said Laura; and tightened her hair-ribbon.

“Oh, but you can’t run in the street! You’re too big. People’ll see you.”

“Think I care? — If you’d been years only doing what you were allowed to, I guess you’d want to do something you weren’t allowed to, too. — Good-bye!”

She was off, had darted away into the leaden heat of the December morning, like an arrow from its bow, her head bent, her arms close to her sides, fleet-footed as a spaniel: Pin was faced by the swift and rhythmic upturning of her heels. There were not many people abroad at this early hour, but the few there were, stood still and looked in amazement after the half-grown girl in white, whose thick black plait of hair sawed up and down as she ran; and a man with mop and bucket, who was washing statues, stopped his work and whistled, and winked at Pin as she passed.

Cross and confused Pin trudged after her sister, Laura’s hat and gloves in one hand, the leather bag in the other.

Right down the central avenue ran Laura, growing smaller and smaller in the distance, the area of her movements decreasing as she ran, till she appeared to be almost motionless, and not much larger than a figure in the background of a picture. Then came a sudden bend in the long, straight path. She shot round it, and was lost to sight.

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