The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson

III.

As long as the coach rolled down the main street Laura sat bolt upright at the window. In fancy she heard people telling one another that this was little Miss Rambotham going to school. She was particularly glad that just as they went past the Commercial Hotel, Miss Perrotet, the landlord’s red-haired daughter, should put her fuzzy head out of the window — for Miss Perrotet had also been to boarding-school, and thought very highly of herself in consequence, though it had only been for a year, to finish. At the National Bank the manager’s wife waved a friendly hand to the children, and at the Royal Mail Hotel where they drew up for passengers or commissions, Mrs. Paget, the stout landlady, came out, smoothing down her black satin apron.

“Well, I’m sure I wonder your ma likes sendin’ you off so alone.”

The ride had comforted Pin a little; but when they had passed the chief stores and the flour-mill, and were come to a part of the road where the houses were fewer, her tears broke out afresh. The very last house was left behind, the high machinery of the claims came into view, the watery flats where Chinamen were for ever rocking washdirt in cradles; and O’Donnell dismounted and opened the door. He lifted the three out one by one, shaking his head in humorous dismay at Pin, and as little Frank showed sighs of beginning, too, by puckering up his face and doubling up his body, the kindly man tried to make them laugh by asking if he had the stomach-ache. Laura had one more glimpse of the children standing hand in hand — even in her trouble Pin did not forget her charges — then a sharp bend in the road hid them from her sight.

She was alone in the capacious body of the coach, alone, and the proud excitement of parting was over. The staunchly repressed tears welled up with a gush, and flinging herself down across the seat she cried bitterly. It was not a childishly irresponsible grief like Pin’s: it was more passionate, and went deeper; and her overloaded feelings were soon relieved. But as she was not used to crying, she missed the moment at which she might have checked herself, and went on shedding tears after they had become a luxury.

“Why, goodness gracious, what’s this?” cried a loud, cheerful and astonished voice, and a fat, rosy face beamed in on Laura. “Why, here’s a little girl in here, cryin’ fit to break ‘er heart. Come, come, my dear, what’s the matter? Don’t cry like that, now don’t.”

The coach had stopped, the door opened and a stout woman climbed in, bearing a big basket, and followed by a young man with straw-coloured whiskers. Laura sat up like a dart and pulled her hat straight, crimson with mortification at being discovered in such a plight. She had instantly curbed her tears, but she could not disguise the fact that she had red eyes and a swollen nose — that she was in short what Sarah called “all bunged up”. She made no reply to the newcomer’s exclamations, but sat clutching her handkerchief and staring out of the window. The woman’s good-natured curiosity, however, was not to be done.

“You poor little thing, you!” she persisted. “Wherever are you goin’, my dear, so alone?”

“I’m going to boarding-school,” said Laura, and shot a glance at the couple opposite.

“To boardin’-school? Peter! D’you hear? — Why, whatever’s your ma thinkin’ of to send such a little chick as you to boardin’-school? . . . and so alone, too.”

Laura’s face took on a curious air of dignity.

“I’m not so very little,” she answered; and went on to explain, in phrases which she had heard so often that she knew them by heart: “Only small for my age. I was twelve in spring. And I have to go to school, because I’ve learnt all I can at home.”

This failed to impress the woman.

“Snakes alive! — that’s young enough in all conscience. And such a delicate little creature, too. Just like that one o’ Sam MacFarlane’s that popped off last Christmas — isn’t she, Peter?”

Peter, who avoided looking at Laura, sheepishly mumbled something about like enough she was.

“And who IS your ma, my dear? What’s your name?” continued her interrogator.

Laura replied politely; but there was a reserve in her manner which, together with the name she gave, told enough: the widow, Laura’s mother, had the reputation of being very “stuck-up”, and of bringing up her children in the same way.

The woman did not press Laura further; she whispered something behind her hand to Peter, then searching in her basket found a large, red apple, which she held out with an encouraging nod and smile.

“Here, my dear. Here’s something for you. Don’t cry any more, don’t now. It’ll be all right.”

Laura, who was well aware that she had not shed a tear since the couple entered the coach, coloured deeply, and made a movement, half shy, half unwilling, to put her hands behind her.

“Oh no, thank you,” she said in extreme embarrassment, not wishing to hurt the giver’s feelings. “Mother doesn’t care for us to take things from strangers.”

“Bless her soul!” cried the stout woman in amaze. “It’s only an apple! Now, my dear, just you take it, and make your mind easy. Your ma wouldn’t have nothin’ against it to-day, I’m sure o’ that — goin’ away so far and all so alone like this. — It’s sweet and juicy.”

“It’s Melb’m you’ll be boun’ for I dessay?” said the yellow-haired Peter so suddenly that Laura started.

She confirmed this, and let her solemn eyes rest on him wondering why he was so red and fidgety and uncomfortable. The woman said: “Tch, tch, tch!” at the length of the journey Laura was undertaking, and Peter, growing still redder, volunteered another remark.

“I was nigh to bein’ in Melb’m once meself,” he said.

“Aye, and he can’t never forget it, the silly loon,” threw in the woman, but so good-naturedly that it was impossible, Laura felt, for Peter to take offence.

She gazed at the pair, speculating upon the relation they stood in to each other. She had obediently put out her hand for the apple, and now sat holding it, without attempting to eat it. It had not been Mother’s precepts alone that had weighed with her in declining it; she was mortified at the idea of being bribed, as it were, to be good, just as though she were Pin or one of the little boys. It was a punishment on her for having been so babyish as to cry; had she not been caught in the act, the woman would never have ventured to be so familiar. — The very largeness and rosiness of the fruit made it hateful to her, and she turned over in her mind how she could get rid of it.

As the coach bumped along, her fellow-passengers sat back and shut their eyes. The road was shadeless; beneath the horses’ feet a thick red dust rose like smoke. The grass by the wayside, under the scattered gum trees or round the big black boulders that dotted the hillocks, was burnt to straw. In time, Laura also grew drowsy, and she was just falling into a doze when, with a jerk, the coach pulled up at the “Halfway House.” Here her companions alighted, and there were more nods and smiles from the woman.

“You eat it, my dear. I’m sure your ma won’t say nothin’,” was her last remark as she pushed the swing-door and vanished into the house, followed by Peter.

Then the driver’s pleasant face appeared at the window of the coach. In one hand he held a glass, in the other a bottle of lemonade.

“Here, little woman, have a drink. It’s warm work ridin’.”

Now this was quite different from the matter of the apple. Laura’s throat was parched with dust and tears. She accepted the offer gratefully, thinking as she drank how envious Pin would be, could she see her drinking bottle-lemonade.

Then the jolting and rumbling began anew. No one else got in, and when they had passed the only two landmarks she knew — the leprous Chinaman’s hut and the market garden of Ah Chow, who twice a week jaunted at a half-trot to the township with his hanging baskets, to supply people with vegetables — when they had passed these, Laura fell asleep. She wakened with a start to find that the coach had halted to apply the brakes, at the top of the precipitous hill that led down to the railway township. In a two-wheeled buggy this was an exciting descent; but the coach jammed on both its brakes, moved like a snail, and seemed hardly able to crawl.

At the foot of the hill the little town lay sluggish in the sun. Although it was close on midday, but few people were astir in the streets; for the place had long since ceased to be an important mining centre: the chief claims were worked out; and the coming of the railway had been powerless to give it the impetus to a new life. It was always like this in these streets of low, verandahed, red-brick houses, always dull and sleepy, and such animation as there was, was invariably to be found before the doors of the many public-houses.

At one of these the coach stopped and unloaded its goods, for an interminable time. People came and looked in at the window at Laura, and she was beginning to feel alarmed lest O’Donnell, who had gone inside, had forgotten all about her having to catch the train, when out he came, wiping his lips.

“Now for the livin’ luggage!” he said with a wink, and Laura drew back in confusion from the laughter of a group of larrikins round the door.

It was indeed high time at the station; no sooner was her box dislodged and her ticket taken than the train steamed in. O’Donnell recommended her to the guard’s care; she shook hands with him and thanked him, and had just been locked into a carriage by herself when he came running down the platform again, holding in his hand, for everyone to see, the apple, which Laura believed she had safely hidden under the cushions of the coach. Red to the roots of her hair she had to receive it before a number of heads put out to see what the matter was, and she was even forced to thank O’Donnell into the bargain. Then the guard came along once more, and told her he would let no one get in beside her: she need not be afraid.

“Yes. And will you please tell me when we come to Melbourne.”

Directly the train was clear of the station, she lowered a window and, taking aim at a telegraph post, threw the apple from her with all her might. Then she hung out of the window, as far out as she could, till her hat was nearly carried off. This was the first railway journey she had made by herself, and there was an intoxicating sense of freedom in being locked in, alone, within the narrow compass of the compartment. She was at liberty to do everything that had previously been forbidden her: she walked up and down the carriage, jumped from one seat to another, then lay flat on her back singing to herself, and watching the telegraph poles fly past the windows, and the wires mount and descend. — But now came a station and, though the train did not stop, she sat up, in order that people might see she was travelling alone.

She grew hungry and attacked her lunch, and it turned out that Mother had not provided too much after all. When she had finished, had brushed herself clean of crumbs and handled, till her finger-tips were sore, the pompous half-crown she had found in her pocket, she fell to thinking of them at home, and of what they would now be doing. It was between two and three o’clock: the sun would be full on the flagstones of the back verandah; inch by inch Pin and Leppie would be driven away to find a cooler spot for their afternoon game, while little Frank slept, and Sarah splashed the dinner-dishes in the brick-floored kitchen. Mother sat sewing, and she would still be sitting there, still sewing, when the shadow of the fir tree, which at noon was shrunken like a dwarf, had stretched to giant size, and the children had opened the front gate to play in the shade of the public footpath. — At the thought of these shadows, of all the familiar things she would not see again for months to come, Laura’s eyelids began to smart.

They had flashed through several stations; now they stopped; and her mind was diverted by the noise and bustle. As the train swung into motion again, she fell into a pleasanter line of thought. She painted to herself, for the hundredth time, the new life towards which she was journeying, and, as always, in the brightest colours.

She had arrived at school, and in a spacious apartment, which was a kind of glorified Mother’s drawing-room, was being introduced to a bevy of girls. They clustered round, urgent to make the acquaintance of the newcomer, who gave her hand to each with an easy grace and an appropriate word. They were too well-bred to cast a glance at her clothes, which, however she might embellish them in fancy, Laura knew were not what they ought to be: her ulster was some years old, and so short that it did not cover the flounce of her dress, and this dress, and her hat with it, were Mother’s taste, and consequently, Laura felt sure, nobody else’s. But her new companions saw that she wore these clothes with an elegance that made up for their shortcomings; and she heard them whisper: “Isn’t she pretty? What black eyes! What lovely curls!” But she was not proud, and by her ladylike manners soon made them feel at home with her, even though they stood agape at her cleverness: none of THEM could claim to have absorbed the knowledge of a whole house. With one of her admirers she had soon formed a friendship that was the wonder of all who saw it: in deep respect the others drew back, forming a kind of allee, down which, with linked arms, the two friends sauntered, blind to everything but themselves. — And having embarked thus upon her sea of dreams, Laura set sail and was speedily borne away.

“Next station you’ll be there, little girl.”

She sprang up and looked about her, with vacant eyes. This had been the last stoppage, and the train was passing through the flats. In less than two minutes she had collected her belongings, tidied her hair and put on her gloves.

Some time afterwards they steamed in alongside a gravelled platform, among the stones of which a few grass-blades grew. This was Melbourne. At the nearer end of the platform stood two ladies, one stout and elderly in bonnet and mantle, with glasses mounted on a black stick, and shortsighted, peering eyes; the other stout and comely, too, but young, with a fat, laughing face and rosy cheeks. Laura descried them a long way off; and, as the carriage swept past them, they also saw her, eager and prominent at her window. Both stared at her, and the younger lady said something, and laughed. Laura instantly connected the remark, and the amusement it caused the speaker, with the showy red lining of her hat, at which she believed their eyes had been directed. She also realised, when it was too late, that her greeting had been childish, unnecessarily effusive; for the ladies had responded only by nods. Here were two thrusts to parry at once, and Laura’s cheeks tingled. But she did not cease to smile, and she was still wearing this weak little smile, which did its best to seem easy and unconcerned, when she alighted from the train.

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