The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson

IV.

The elderly lady was Laura’s godmother; she lived at Prahran, and it was at her house that Laura would sometimes spend a monthly holiday. Godmother was good to them all in a brusque, sharp-tongued fashion; but Pin was her especial favourite and she made no secret of it. Her companion on the platform was a cousin of Laura’s, of at least twice Laura’s age, who invariably struck awe into the children by her loud and ironic manner of speech. She was an independent, manly person, in spite of her plump roundnesses; she lived by herself in lodgings, and earned her own living as a clerk in an office.

The first greetings over, Godmother’s attention was entirely taken up by Laura’s box: after this had been picked out from among the other luggage, grave doubts were expressed whether it could be got on to the back seat of the pony-carriage, to which it was conveyed by a porter and the boy. Laura stood shyly by and waited, while Cousin Grace kept up the conversation by putting abrupt and embarrassing questions.

“How’s your ma?” she demanded rather than asked, in the slangy and jocular tone she employed. “I guess she’ll be thanking her stars she’s got rid of you;” at which Laura smiled uncertainly, not being sure whether Cousin Grace spoke in jest or earnest.

“I suppose you think no end of yourself going to boarding-school?” continued the latter.

“Oh no, not at all,” protested Laura with due modesty; and as both at question and answer Cousin Grace laughed boisterously, Laura was glad to hear Godmother calling: “Come, jump in. The ponies won’t stand.”

Godmother was driving herself — a low basket-carriage, harnessed to two buff-coloured ponies. Laura sat with her back to them. Godmother flapped the reins and said: “Get up!” but she was still fretted about the box, which was being held on behind by the boy. An inch larger, she asserted, and it would have had to be left behind. Laura eyed its battered sides uneasily. Godmother might remember, she thought, that it contained her whole wardrobe; and she wondered how many of Godmother’s own ample gowns could be compressed into so small a space.

“All my clothes are inside,” she explained; “that I shall need for months.”

“Ah, I expect your poor mother has sat up sewing herself to death, that you may be as well dressed as the rest of them,” said Godmother, and heaved a doleful sigh. But Cousin Grace laughed the wide laugh that displayed a mouthful of great healthy teeth.

“What? All your clothes in there?” she cried. “I say! You couldn’t be a queen if you hadn’t more togs than that.”

“Oh, I know,” Laura hastened to reply, and grew very red. “Queens need a lot more clothes than I’ve got.”

“Tut, tut!” said Godmother: she did not understand the allusion, which referred to a former ambition of Laura’s. “Don’t talk such nonsense to the child.”

She drove very badly, and they went by quiet by-streets to escape the main traffic: the pony-chaise wobbled at random from one side of the road to the other, obstacles looming up only just in time for Godmother to see them. The ponies shook and tossed their heads at the constant sawing of the bits, and Laura had to be continually ducking, to keep out of the way of the reins. She let the unfamiliar streets go past her in a kind of dream; and there was silence for a time, broken only by Godmother’s expostulations with the ponies, till Cousin Grace, growing tired of playing her bright eyes first on this, then on that, brought them back to Laura and studied her up and down.

“I say, who on earth trimmed your hat?” she asked almost at once.

“Mother,” answered Laura bravely, while the colour mounted to her cheeks again.

“Well, I guess she made up her mind you shouldn’t get lost as long as you wore it,” went on her cousin with disconcerting candour. “It makes you look just like a great big red double dahlia.”

“Let the child be. She looks well enough,” threw in Godmother in her snappish way. But Laura was sure that she, too disapproved; and felt more than she heard the muttered remark about “Jane always having had a taste for something gay.”

“Oh, I like the colour very much. I chose it myself,” said Laura, and looked straight at the two faces before her. But her lips twitched. She would have liked to snatch the hat from her head, to throw it in front of the ponies and hear them trample it under their hoofs. She had never wanted the scarlet lining of the big, upturned brim; in a dislike to being conspicuous which was incomprehensible to Mother, she had implored the latter to “leave it plain”. But Mother had said: “Nonsense!” and “Hold your tongue!” and “I know better,”— with this result.

Oh yes, she saw well enough how Godmother signed with her eyes to Cousin Grace to say no more; but she pretended not to notice, and for the remainder of the drive nobody spoke. They went past long lines of grey houses, joined one to another and built exactly alike; past large, fenced-in public parks where all kinds of odd, unfamiliar trees grew, with branches that ran right down their trunks, and bushy leaves. The broad streets were hilly; the wind, coming in puffs, met them with clouds of gritty white dust. They had just, with bent heads, their hands at their hats, passed through one of these miniature whirlwinds, when turning a corner they suddenly drew up, and the boy sprang to the ponies’ heads. Laura, who had not been expecting the end so soon, saw only a tall wooden fence; but Cousin Grace looked higher, gave a stagey shudder and cried: “Oh my eye Betty Martin! Aren’t I glad it isn’t me that’s going to school! It looks just like a prison.”

It certainly was an imposing building viewed from within, when the paling-gate had closed behind them. To Laura, who came from a township of one-storied brick or weatherboard houses, it seemed vast in its breadth and height, appalling in its sombre greyness. Between Godmother and Cousin Grace she walked up an asphalted path, and mounted the steps that led to a massive stone portico. The bell Godmother rang made no answering sound, but after a very few seconds the door swung back, and a slender maidservant in cap and apron stood before them. She smiled at them pleasantly, as, in Chinaman-fashion, they crossed the threshold; then, inclining her head at a murmured word from Godmother, she vanished as lightly as she had come, and they sat and looked about them. They were in a plainly furnished but very lofty waiting-room. There were two large windows. The venetian blinds had not been lowered, and the afternoon sun, beating in, displayed a shabby patch on the carpet. It showed up, too, a coating of dust that had gathered on the desk-like, central table. There was the faint, distinctive smell of strange furniture. But what impressed Laura most was the stillness. No street noises pierced the massy walls, but neither did the faintest echo of all that might be taking place in the great building itself reach their ears: they sat aloof, shut off, as it were, from the living world. And this feeling soon grew downright oppressive: it must be like this to be dead, thought Laura to herself; and inconsequently remembered a quarter of an hour she had once spent in a dentist’s ante-room: there as here the same soundless vacancy, the same anguished expectancy. Now, as then, her heart began to thump so furiously that she was afraid the others would hear it. But they, too, were subdued; though Cousin Grace tittered continually you heard only a gentle wheezing, and even Godmother expressed the hope that they would not be kept waiting long, under her breath. But minute after minute went by; there they sat and nothing happened. It began to seem as if they might sit on for ever.

All of a sudden, from out the spacious halls of which they had caught a glimpse on arriving, brisk steps began to come towards them over the oilcloth — at first as a mere tapping in the distance, then rapidly gaining in weight and decision. Laura’s palpitations reached their extreme limit — another second and they might have burst her chest. Cousin Grace ceased to giggle; the door opened with a peculiar flourish; and all three rose to their feet.

The person who entered was a very stately lady; she wore a cap with black ribbons. With the door-handle still in her hand she made a slight obeisance, in which her whole body joined, afterwards to become more erect than before. Having introduced herself to Godmother as Mrs. Gurley, the Lady Superintendent of the institution, she drew up a chair, let herself down upon it, and began to converse with an air of ineffable condescension.

While she talked Laura examined her, with a child’s thirst for detail. Mrs. Gurley was large and generous of form, and she carried her head in such a haughty fashion that it made her look taller than she really was. She had a high colour, her black hair was touched with grey, her upper teeth were prominent. She wore gold eyeglasses, many rings, a long gold chain, which hung from an immense cameo brooch at her throat, and a black apron with white flowers on it, one point of which was pinned to her ample bosom. The fact that Laura had just such an apron in her box went only a very little way towards reviving her spirits; for altogether Mrs. Gurley was the most impressive person she had ever set eyes on. Beside her, God mother was nothing but a plump, shortsighted fidgety lady.

Particularly awe-inspiring was Mrs. Gurley when she listened to another speaking. She held her head a little to one side, her teeth met her underlip and her be-ringed hands toyed incessantly with the long gold chain, in a manner which seemed to denote that she set little value on what was being said. Awful, too, was the habit she had of suddenly lowering her head and looking at you over the tops of her glasses: when she did this, and when her teeth came down on her lip, you would have liked to shrink to the size of a mouse. Godmother, it was true, was not afraid of her; but Cousin Grace was hushed at last and as for Laura herself, she consciously wore a fixed little simper, which was meant to put it beyond doubt that butter would not melt in her mouth.

Godmother now asked if she might say a few words in private, and the two ladies left the room. As the door closed behind them Cousin Grace began to be audible again.

“Oh, snakes!” she giggled, and her double chin spread itself “There’s a Tartar for you! Don’t I thank my stars it’s not me that’s being shunted off here! She’ll give you what-for.”

“I don’t think so. I think she’s very nice,” said Laura staunchly, out of an instinct that made her chary of showing fear, or pain, or grief. But her heart began to bound again, for the moment in which she would be left alone.

“You see!” said Cousin Grace. “It’ll be bread and water for a week, if you can’t do AMARE first go-off — not to mention the deponents.”

“What’s AMARE?” asked Laura anxiously, and her eyes grew so big that they seemed to fill her face.

But Cousin Grace only laughed till it seemed probable that she would burst her bodice; and Laura blushed, aware that she had compromised herself anew.

There followed a long and nervous pause.

“I bet Godmother’s asking her not to wallop you too often,” the tease had just begun afresh, when the opening of the door forced her to swallow her sentence in the middle.

Godmother would not sit down; so the dreaded moment had come.

“Now, Laura. Be a good girl and learn well, and be a comfort to your mother. — Not that there’s much need to urge her to her books,” Godmother interrupted herself, turning to Mrs. Gurley. “The trouble her dear mother has always had has been to keep her from them.”

Laura glowed with pleasure. Now at least the awful personage would know that she was clever, and loved to learn. But Mrs. Gurley smiled the chilliest thinkable smile of acknowledgment, and did not reply a word.

She escorted the other to the front door, and held it open for them to pass out. Then, however, her pretence of affability faded clean away: turning her head just so far that she could look down her nose at her own shoulder, she said: “Follow me!”— in a tone Mother would not have used even to Sarah. Feeling inexpressibly small Laura was about to obey, when a painful thought struck her.

“Oh please, I had a box — with my clothes in it!” she cried. “Oh, I hope they haven’t forgotten and taken it away again.”

But she might as well have spoken to the hatstand: Mrs. Gurley had sailed off, and was actually approaching a turn in the hall before Laura made haste to follow her and to keep further anxiety about her box to herself. They went past one staircase, round a bend into shadows as black as if, outside, no sun were shining, and began to ascend another flight of stairs, which was the widest Laura had ever seen. The banisters were as thick as your arm, and on each side of the stair-carpeting the space was broad enough for two to walk abreast: what a splendid game of trains you could have played there! On the other hand the landing windows were so high up that only a giant could have seen out of them.

These things occurred to Laura mechanically. What really occupied her, as she trudged behind, was how she could please this hard-faced woman and make her like her, for the desire to please, to be liked by all the world, was the strongest her young soul knew. And there must be a way, for Godmother had found it without difficulty.

She took two steps at once, to get nearer to the portly back in front of her.

“What a VERY large place this is!” she said in an insinuating voice.

She hoped the admiration, thus subtly expressed in the form of surprise, would flatter Mrs. Gurley, as a kind of co-proprietor; but it was evident that it did nothing of the sort: the latter seemed to have gone deaf and dumb, and marched on up the stairs, her hands clasped at her waist, her eyes fixed ahead, like a walking stone-statue.

On the top floor she led the way to a room at the end of a long passage. There were four beds in this room, a washhand — stand, a chest of drawers, and a wall cupboard. But at first sight Laura had eyes only for the familiar object that stood at the foot of one of the beds.

“Oh, THERE’S my box!” she cried, “Someone must have brought it up.”

It was unroped; she had simply to hand over the key. Mrs. Gurley went down on her knees before it, opened the lid, and began to pass the contents to Laura, directing her where to lay and hang them. Overawed by such complaisance, Laura moved nimbly about the room shaking and unfolding, taking care to be back at the box to the minute so as not to keep Mrs. Gurley waiting. And her promptness was rewarded; the stern face seemed to relax. At the mere hint of this, Laura grew warm through and through; and as she could neither control her feelings nor keep them to herself, she rushed to an extreme and overshot the mark.

“I’ve got an apron like that. I think they’re so pretty,” she said cordially, pointing to the one Mrs. Gurley wore.

The latter abruptly stopped her work, and, resting her hands on the sides of the box, gave Laura one of the dreaded looks over her glasses, looked at her from top to toe, and as though she were only now beginning to see her. There was a pause, a momentary suspension of the breath, which Laura soon learned to expect before a rebuke.

“Little gels,” said Mrs. Gurley — and even in the midst of her confusion Laura could not but be struck by the pronunciation of this word. “Little gels — are required — to wear white aprons when they come here!” — a break after each few words, as well as an emphatic head-shake, accentuated their severity. “And I should like to know, if your mother, has never taught you, that it is very rude, to point, and also to remark, on what people wear.”

Laura went scarlet: if there was one thing she, Mother all of them prided themselves on, it was the good manners that had been instilled into them since their infancy. — The rough reproof seemed to scorch her.

She went to and fro more timidly than before. Then, however, something happened which held a ray of hope.

“Why, what is this?” asked Mrs. Gurley freezingly, and held up to view — with the tips of her fingers, Laura thought — a small, black Prayer Book. “Pray, are you not a dissenter?”— For the College was nonconformist.

“Well . . . no, I’m not,” said Laura, in a tone of intense apology. Here, at last, was her chance. “But it really doesn’t matter a bit. I can go to another church quite well. I even think I’d rather. For a change. And the service isn’t so long, at least so I’ve heard — except the sermon,” she added truthfully.

Had she denied religion altogether, the look Mrs. Gurley bent on her could not have been more annihilating.

“There is — unfortunately! — no occasion, for you to do anything of the kind,” she retorted. “I myself, am an Episcopalian, and I expect those gels, who belong to the Church of England, to attend it, with me.”

The unpacking at an end, Mrs. Gurley rose, smoothed down her apron, and was just on the point of turning away, when on the bed opposite Laura’s she espied an under-garment, lying wantonly across the counterpane. At this blot on the orderliness of the room she seemed to swell like a turkey-cock, seemed literally to grow before Laura’s eyes as, striding to the door, she commanded an invisible some one to send Lilith Gordon to her “DI-rectly!”!

There was an awful pause; Laura did not dare to raise her head; she even said a little prayer. Mrs. Gurley stood working at her chain, and tapping her foot — like a beast waiting for its prey, thought the child. And at last a hurried step was heard in the corridor, the door opened and a girl came in, high-coloured and scant of breath. Laura darted one glance at Mrs. Gurley’s face, then looked away and studied the pattern of a quilt, trying not to hear what was said. Her throat swelled, grew hard and dry with pity for the culprit. But Lilith Gordon — a girl with sandy eyebrows, a turned-up nose, a thick plait of red-gold hair, and a figure so fully developed that Laura mentally dubbed it a “lady’s figure”, and put its owner down for years older than herself — Lilith Gordon neither fell on her knees nor sank through the floor. Her lashes were lowered, in a kind of dog-like submission, and her face had gone very red when Laura ventured to look at her again; but that was all. And Mrs. Gurley having swept Jove-like from the room, this bold girl actually set her finger to her nose and muttered: “Old Brimstone Beast!” As she passed Laura, too, she put out her tongue and said: “Now then, goggle-eyes, what have you got to stare at?”

Laura was deeply hurt: she had gazed at Lilith out of the purest sympathy. And now, as she stood waiting for Mrs. Gurley, who seemed to have forgotten her, the strangeness of things, and the general unfriendliness of the people struck home with full force. The late afternoon sun was shining in, in an unfamiliar way; outside were strange streets, strange noises, a strange white dust, the expanse of a big, strange city. She felt unspeakably far away now, from the small, snug domain of home. Here, nobody wanted her . . . she was alone among strangers, who did not even like her . . . she had already, without meaning it, offended two of them.

Another second, and the shameful tears might have found their way out. But at this moment there was a kind of preparatory boom in the distance, and the next, a great bell clanged through the house, pealing on and on, long after one’s ears were rasped by the din. It was followed by an exodus from the rooms round about; there was a sound of voices and of feet. Mrs. Gurley ceased to give orders in the passage, and returning, bade Laura put on a pinafore and follow her.

They descended the broad staircase. At a door just at the foot, Mrs. Gurley paused and smoothed her already faultless bands of hair; then turned the handle and opened the door, with the majestic swing Laura had that day once before observed.

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