The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson

V.

Fifty-five heads turned as if by clockwork, and fifty-five pairs of eyes were levelled at the small girl in the white apron who meekly followed Mrs. Gurley down the length of the dining-room. Laura crimsoned under the unexpected ordeal, and tried to fix her attention on the flouncing of Mrs. Gurley’s dress. The room seemed hundreds of feet long, and not a single person at the tea-tables but took stock of her. The girls made no scruple of leaning backwards and forwards, behind and before their neighbours, in order to see her better, and even the governesses were not above having a look. All were standing. On Mrs. Gurley assigning Laura a place at her own right hand, Laura covered herself with confusion by taking her seat at once, before grace had been said, and before the fifty-five had drawn in their chairs with the noise of a cavalry brigade on charge. She stood up again immediately, but it was too late; an audible titter whizzed round the table: the new girl had sat down. For minutes after, Laura was lost in the pattern on her plate; and not till tongues were loosened and dishes being passed, did she venture to steal a glance round.

There were four tables, with a governess at the head and foot of each to pour out tea. It was more of a hall than a room and had high, church-like windows down one side. At both ends were scores of pigeon-holes. There was a piano in it and a fireplace; it had pale blue walls, and only strips of carpet on the floor. At present it was darkish, for the windows did not catch the sun.

Laura was roused by a voice at her side; turning, she found her neighbour offering her a plate of bread.

“No, thank you,” she said impulsively; for the bread was cut in chunks, and did not look inviting.

But the girl nudged her on the sly. “You’d better take some,” she whispered.

Laura then saw that there was nothing else. But she saw, too, the smiles and signs that again flew round: the new girl had said no.

Humbly she accepted the butter and the cup of tea which were passed to her in turn, and as humbly ate the piece of rather stale bread. She felt forlornly miserable under the fire of all these unkind eyes, which took a delight in marking her slips: at the smallest further mischance she might disgrace herself by bursting out crying. Just at this moment, however, something impelled her to look up. Her vis-a-vis, whom she had as yet scarcely noticed, was staring hard. And now, to her great surprise, this girl winked at her, winked slowly and deliberately with the right eye. Laura was so discomposed that she looked away again at once, and some seconds elapsed before she was brave enough to take another peep. The wink was repeated.

It was a black-haired girl this time, a girl with small blue eyes, a pale, freckled skin, and large white teeth. What most impressed Laura, though, was her extraordinary gravity: she chewed away with a face as solemn as a parson’s; and then just when you were least expecting it, came the wink. Laura was fascinated: she lay in wait for it beforehand and was doubtful whether to feel offended by it or to laugh at it. But at least it made her forget her mishaps, and did away with the temptation to cry.

When, however, Mrs. Gurley had given the signal, and the fifty-five had pushed back their chairs and set them to the table again with the same racket as before, Laura’s position was a painful one. Everybody pushed, and talked, and laughed, in a hurry to leave the hall, and no one took any notice of her except to stare. After some indecision, she followed the rest through a door. Here she found herself on a verandah facing the grounds of the school. There was a long bench, on which several people were sitting: she took a modest seat at one end. Two of the younger governesses looked at her and laughed, and made a remark. She saw her room-mate, Lilith Gordon, arm in arm with a couple of companions. The winker of the tea-table turned out to be a girl of her own age, but of a broader make; she had fat legs, which were encased in thickly-ribbed black stockings. As she passed the bench she left the friend she was with, to come up to Laura and dig her in the ribs.

“DIDN’T she like her bread and butter, poor little thing?” she said. Laura shrank from the dig, which was rough; but she could not help smiling shyly at the girl, who looked good-natured. If only she had stayed and talked to her! But she was off and away, her arm round a comrade’s neck.

Besides herself, there was now only an elderly governess left, who was reading. She, Laura, in her solitude, was conspicuous to every eye. But at this juncture up came two rather rollicking older girls, one of whom was fair, with a red complexion. AS soon as their loud voices had driven the governess away, the smaller of the two, who had a pronounced squint, turned to Laura.

“Hullo, you kid,” she said, “what’s YOUR name?”

Laura artlessly replied. She was dumbfounded by the storm of merriment that followed. Maria Morell, the fat girl, went purple, and had to be thumped on the back by her friend.

“Oh, my!” she gasped, when she had got her breath. “Oh, my . . . hold me, some one, or I shall split! Oh, golly! Laura . . . Tweedle . . . Rambotham — Laura . . . Tweedle . . . Rambotham! . . .” her voice tailed off again. “Gosh! Was there ever such a name?”

She laughed till she could laugh no more, rocking backwards and forwards and from side to side; while her companion proceeded to make further inquiries.

“Where do you come from?” the squint demanded of Laura, in a business-like way.

Laura named the township, quaveringly. “What’s your father?”

“He’s dead,” answered the child.

“Well, but I suppose he was alive once wasn’t he, duffer? What was he before he was dead?”

“A barrister.”

“What did he die of?”

“Consumption.”

“How many servants do you keep?”

“One.”

“How much have you got a year?”

“I don’t know.”

“How old are you?”

“Twelve and a quarter.”

“Who made your dress?”

“Mother.”

“Oh, I say, hang it, that’s enough. Stop teasing the kid,” said Maria Morell, when the laughter caused by the last admission had died away. But the squint spied a friend, ran to her, and there was a great deal of whispering and sniggering. Presently the pair came sauntering up and sat down; and after some artificial humming and hawing the newcomer began to talk, in a loud and fussy manner, about certain acquaintances of hers called Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Both the fat girl and the squint “split” with laughter. Laura sat with her hands locked one inside the other; there was no escape for her, for she did not know where to go. But when the third girl put the regulation question: “What’s your name and what’s your father?” she turned on her, with the courage of despair.

“What’s yours?” she retorted hotly, at the same time not at all sure how the big girl might revenge herself. To her relief, the others burst out laughing at their friend’s bafflement.

“That’s one for you, Kate Horner,” said Maria with a chuckle. “Not bad for the kid. — Come on, Kid, will you have a walk round the garden?”

“Oh yes, PLEASE,” said Laura, reddening with pleasure; and there she was, arm in arm with her fat saviour, promenading the grounds like any other of the fifty-five.

She assumed, as well as she could, an air of feeling at her ease even in the presence of the cold and curious looks that met her. The fat girl was protective, and Laura felt too grateful to her to take it amiss that every now and then she threw back her head and laughed anew, at the remembrance of Laura’s patronymics; or that she still exchanged jokes about them with the other couple, when they met.

But by this time half an hour had slipped away, and the girls were fast disappearing. Maria Morell loitered till the last minute, then said, she, too, must be off to ‘stew’. Every one was hastening across the verandah laden with books, and disappearing down a corridor. Left alone, Laura made her way back to the dining-hall. Here some of the very young boarders were preparing their lessons, watched over by a junior governess. Laura lingered for a little, to see if no order were forthcoming, then diffidently approached the table and asked the governess if she would please tell her what to do.

“I’m sure I don’t know,” answered that lady, disinclined for responsibility. “You’d better ask Miss Chapman. Here, Maggie, show her where the study is.”

Laura followed the little girl over the verandah and down the corridor. At the end, the child pointed to a door, and on opening this Laura found herself in a very large brightly lighted room, where the boarders sat at two long tables with their books before them. Every head was raised at her entrance. In great embarrassment, she threaded her way to the more authoritative-looking of the governesses in charge, and proffered her request. It was not understood, and she had to repeat it.

“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Miss Day in her turn: she had stiff, black, wavy hair, a vivid colour, and a big, thick nose which made her profile resemble that of a horse. “Can’t you twiddle your thumbs for a bit? — Oh well, if you’re so desperately anxious for an occupation, you’d better ask Miss Chapman.”

The girls in the immediate neighbourhood laughed noiselessly, in a bounden-duty kind of way, at their superior’s pleasantry, and Laura, feeling as though she had been hit, crossed to the other table. Miss Chapman, the head governess, was neither so hard-looking nor so brilliant as Miss Day. She even eyed Laura somewhat uneasily, meanwhile toying with a long gold chain, after the manner of the Lady Superintendent.

“Didn’t Mrs. Gurley tell you what to do?” she queried. “I should think it likely she would. Oh well, if she didn’t, I suppose you’d better bring your things downstairs. Yes . . . and ask Miss Zielinski to give you a shelf.”

Miss Zielinski — she was the governess in the dining-hall — said: “Oh, very well,” in the rather whiny voice that seemed natural to her, and went on reading.

“Please, I don’t think I know my way,” ventured Laura.

“Follow your nose and you’ll find it!” said Miss Zielinski without looking up, and was forthwith wrapt in her novel again.

Once more Laura climbed the wide staircase: it was but dimly lighted, and the passages were in darkness. After a few false moves she found her room, saw that her box had been taken away, her books left lying on a chair. But instead of picking them up, she threw herself on her bed and buried her face in the pillow. She did not dare to cry, for fear of making her eyes red, but she hugged the cool linen to her cheeks.

“I hate them all,” she said passionately, speaking aloud to herself. “Oh, HOW I hate them!”— and wild schemes of vengeance flashed through her young mind. She did not even halt at poison or the knife: a big cake, sent by Mother, of which she invited all alike to partake, and into which she inserted a fatal poison, so that the whole school died like rabbits; or a nightly stabbing, a creeping from bed to bed in the dark, her penknife open in her hand . . .

But she had not lain thus for more than a very few minutes when steps came along the passage; and she had only just time to spring to her feet before one of the little girls appeared at the door.

“You’re to come down at once.”

“Don’t you know you’re not ALLOWED to stay upstairs?” asked Miss Zielinski crossly. “What were you doing?” And as Laura did not reply: “What was she doing, Jessie?”

“I don’t know,” said the child. “She was just standing there.” And all the little girls laughed, after the manner of their elders.

Before Laura had finished arranging her belongings on the shelves that were assigned to her, some of the older girls began to drop in from the study. One unceremoniously turned over her books, which were lying on the table.

“Let’s see what the kid’s got.”

Now Laura was proud of her collection: it really made a great show; for a daughter of Godmother’s had once attended the College, and her equipment had been handed down to Laura.

“Why, you don’t mean to say a kid like you’s in the Second Principia already?” said a big girl, and held up, incredulously, Smith’s black and red boards. “Wherever did YOU learn Latin?”

In the reediest of voices Laura was forced to confess that she had never learnt Latin at all.

The girl eyed her in dubious amaze, then burst out laughing. “Oh, I say!” she called to a friend. “Here’s a rum go. Here’s this kid brings the Second Principia with her and doesn’t know the First.”

Several others crowded round; and all found this divergence from the norm, from the traditional method of purchasing each book new and as it was needed, highly ridiculous. Laura, on her knees before her shelf, pretended to be busy; but she could not see what she was doing, for the mist that gathered in her eyes.

Just at this moment, however, in marched Maria Morell. “Here, I say, stop that!” she cried. “You’re teasing that kid again. I won’t have it. Here, come on, Kid — Laura Tweedledum come and sit by me for supper.”

For the second time, Laura was thankful to the fat girl. But as ill-luck would have it, Miss Chapman chanced to let her eyes stray in their direction; and having fingered her chain indecisively for a little, said: “It seems a pity, doesn’t it, Miss Day, that that nice little girl should get in with that vulgar set?”

Miss Chapman liked to have her opinions confirmed. But this was a weakness Miss Day did not pamper; herself strong-minded, she could afford to disregard Miss Chapman’s foibles. So she went on with her book, and ignored the question. But Miss Zielinski, who lost no opportunity of making herself agreeable to those over her, said with foreign emphasis: “Yes, indeed it does.”

So Laura was summoned and made to sit down at the end of the room, close to the governesses and beside the very big girls — girls of eighteen and nineteen, who seemed older still to her, with their figures, and waists, and skirts that touched the ground.

Instinctively she felt that they resented her proximity. The biggest of all, a pleasant-faced girl with a kind smile, said on seeing her downcast air: “Poor little thing! Never mind. “But when they talked among themselves they lowered their voices and cast stealthy glances at her, to see if she were listening.

Supper over, three chairs were set out in an exposed position; the big bell in the passage was lightly touched; everyone fetched a hymn-book, one with music in it being handed to Miss Chapman at the piano. The door opened to admit first Mrs. Gurley, then the Principal and his wife — a tall, fair gentleman in a long coat, and a sweet-faced lady, who wore a rose in her velvet dress.

“Let us sing in the hundred and fifty-seventh hymn,” said the gentleman, who had a Grecian profile and a drooping, sandy moustache; and when Miss Chapman had played through the tune, the fifty-five, the governesses, the lady and gentleman rose to their feet and sang, with halting emphasis, of the Redeemer and His mercy, to Miss Chapman’s accompaniment, which was as indecisive as her manner, the left hand dragging lamely along after the right.

“Let us read in the third chapter of the Second Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians.”

Everyone laid her hymn-book on the table and sat down to listen to Paul’s words, which the sandy gentleman read to a continual nervous movement of the left leg.

“Let us pray.”

Obeying the word, the fifty-five rose, faced about, and knelt to their chairs. It was an extempore prayer, and a long one, and Laura did not hear much of it; for the two big girls on her right kept up throughout a running conversation. Also, when it was about half over she was startled to hear Miss Zielinski say, in a shrill whisper: “Heavens! There’s that mouse again,” and audibly draw her skirts round her. Even Miss Chapman, praying to her piano-chair some distance off, had heard, and turned her head to frown rebuke.

The prayer at an end, Mr. and Mrs. Strachey bowed vaguely in several directions, shook hands with the governesses, and left the room. This was the signal for two of the teachers to advance with open Bibles.

“Here, little one, have you learned your verse?” whispered Laura’s pleasant neighbour.

Laura knew nothing of it; but the big girl lent her a Bible, and, since it was not a hard verse and every girl repeated it, it was quickly learned.

IN WISDOM DWELL WITH PRUDENCE AND FIND OUT KNOWLEDGE OF WITTY INVENTIONS.

Told off in batches, they filed up the stairs. On the first landing stood Miss Day, watching with lynx-eyes to see that no books or eatables were smuggled to the bedrooms. In a strident voice she exhorted the noisy to silence, and the loiterers to haste.

Laura sped to her room. She was fortunate enough to find it still empty. Tossing off her clothes, she gabbled ardently through her own prayers, drew the blankets up over her head, and pretended to be asleep. Soon the lights were out and all was quiet. Then, with her face burrowed deep, so that not a sound could escape, she gave free play to her tears.

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