The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson

VII.

The mornings were beginning to grow dark and chilly: fires were laid overnight in the outer classrooms — and the junior governess who was on early duty, having pealed the six-o’clock bell, flitted like a grey wraith from room to room and from one gas-jet to another, among stretched, sleeping forms. And the few minutes’ grace at an end, it was a cold, unwilling pack that threw off coverlets and jumped out of bed, to tie on petticoats and snuggle into dressing-gowns and shawls; for the first approach of cooler weather was keenly felt, after the summer heat. The governess blew on speedily chilblained fingers, in making her rounds of the verandahs to see that each of the twenty pianos was rightly occupied; and, as winter crept on, its chief outward sign an occasional thin white spread of frost which vanished before the mighty sun of ten o’clock, she sometimes took the occupancy for granted, and skipped an exposed room.

At eight, the boarders assembled in the dining-hall for prayers and breakfast. After this meal it was Mrs. Gurley’s custom to drink a glass of hot water. While she sipped, she gave audience, meting out rebukes and crushing complaints — were any bold enough to offer them — standing erect behind her chair at the head of the table, supported by one or more of the staff. To suit the season she was draped in a shawl of crimson wool, which reached to the flounce of her skirt, and was borne by her portly shoulders with the grace of a past day. Beneath the shawl, her dresses were built, year in, year out, on the same plan: cut in one piece, buttoning right down the front, they fitted her like an eelskin, rigidly outlining her majestic proportions, and always short enough to show a pair of surprisingly small, well-shod feet. Thus she stood, sipping her water, and boring with her hard, unflagging eye every girl that presented herself to it. Most shrank noiselessly away as soon as breakfast was over; for, unless one was very firm indeed in the conviction of one’s own innocence, to be beneath this eye was apt to induce a disagreeable sense of guilt. In the case of Mrs. Gurley, familiarity had never been known to breed contempt. She was possessed of what was little short of genius, for ruling through fear; and no more fitting overseer could have been set at the head of these half-hundred girls, of all ages and degrees: gentle and common; ruly and unruly, children hardly out of the nursery, and girls well over the brink of womanhood, whose ripe, bursting forms told their own tale; the daughters of poor ministers at reduced fees; and the spoilt heiresses of wealthy wool-brokers and squatters, whose dowries would mount to many thousands of pounds. — Mrs. Gurley was equal to them all.

In a very short time, there was no more persistent shrinker from the ice of this gaze than little Laura. In the presence of Mrs. Gurley the child had a difficulty in getting her breath. Her first week of school life had been one unbroken succession of snubs and reprimands. For this, the undue familiarity of her manner was to blame: she was all too slow to grasp — being of an impulsive disposition and not naturally shy — that it was indecorous to accost Mrs. Gurley off-hand, to treat her, indeed, in any way as if she were an ordinary mortal. The climax had come one morning — it still made Laura’s cheeks burn to remember it. She had not been able to master her French lesson for that day, and seeing Mrs. Gurley chatting to a governess had gone thoughtlessly up to her and tapped her on the arm.

“Mrs. Gurley, please, do you think it would matter very much if I only took half this verb today? It’s COUDRE, and means to sew, you know, and it’s SO hard. I don’t seem to be able to get it into my head.”

Before the words were out of her mouth, she saw that she had made a terrible mistake. Mrs. Gurley’s face, which had been smiling, froze to stone. She looked at her arm as though the hand had bitten her, and Laura’s sudden shrinking did not move her, to whom seldom anyone addressed a word unbidden.

“How DARE you interrupt me — when I am speaking!”— she hissed, punctuating her words with the ominous head-shakes and pauses. “The first thing, miss, for you to do, will be, to take a course of lessons, in manners. Your present ones, may have done well enough, in the outhouse, to which you have evidently belonged. They will not do, here, in the company of your betters.”

Above the child’s head the two ladies smiled significantly at each other, assured that, after this, there would be no further want of respect; but Laura did not see them. The iron of the thrust went deep down into her soul: no one had ever yet cast a slur upon her home. Retreating to a lavatory she cried herself nearly sick, making her eyes so red that she was late for prayers in trying to wash them white. Since that day, she had never of her own free will approached Mrs. Gurley again, and even avoided those places where she was likely to be found. This was why one morning, some three weeks later, on discovering that she had forgotten one of her lesson-books, she hesitated long before re-entering the dining-hall. The governesses still clustered round their chief, and the pupils were not expected to return. But it was past nine o’clock; in a minute the public prayer-bell would ring, which united boarders, several hundred day-scholars, resident and visiting teachers in the largest class-room; and Laura did not know her English lesson. So she stole in, cautiously dodging behind the group, in a twitter lest the dreaded eyes should turn her way.

It was Miss Day who spied her and demanded an explanation.

“Such carelessness! You girls would forget your heads if they weren’t screwed on,” retorted the governess, in the dry, violent manner that made her universally disliked.

Thankful to escape with this, Laura picked out her book and hurried from the room.

But the thoughts of the group had been drawn to her.

“The greatest little oddity we’ve had here for some time,” pronounced Miss Day, pouting her full bust in decisive fashion.

“She is, indeed,” agreed Miss Zielinski.

“I don’t know what sort of a place she comes from, I’m sure,” continued the former: “but it must be the end of creation. She’s utterly no idea of what’s what, and as for her clothes they’re fit for a Punch and Judy show.”

“She’s had no training either — stupid, I call her,” chimed in one of the younger governesses, whose name was Miss Snodgrass. “She doesn’t know the simplest things, and her spelling is awful. And yet, do you know, at history the other day, she wanted to hold forth about how London looked in Elizabeth’s reign — when she didn’t know a single one of the dates!”

“She can say some poetry,” said Miss Zielinski. “And she’s read Scott.”

One and all shook their heads at this, and Mrs. Gurley went on shaking hers and smiling grimly. “Ah! the way gels are brought up nowadays,” she said. “There was no such thing in my time. We were made to learn what would be of some use and help to us afterwards.”

Elderly Miss Chapman twiddled her chain. “I hope I did right Mrs. Gurley. She had one week’s early practice, but she looked so white all day after it that I haven’t put her down for it again. I hope I did right?”

“Oh, well, we don’t want to have them ill, you know,” replied Mrs. Gurley, in the rather irresponsive tone she adopted towards Miss Chapman. “As long as it isn’t mere laziness.”

“I don’t think she’s lazy,” said Miss Chapman. “At least she takes great pains with her lessons at night.”

This was true. Laura tried her utmost, with an industry born of despair. For the comforting assurance of speedy promotion, which she had given Mother, had no root in fact. These early weeks only served to reduce, bit by bit, her belief in her own knowledge. How slender this was, and of how little use to her in her new state, she did not dare to confess even to herself. Her disillusionment had begun the day after her arrival, when Dr Pughson, the Headmaster, to whom she had gone to be examined in arithmetic, flung up hands of comical dismay at her befogged attempts to solve the mysteries of long division. An upper class was taking a lesson in Euclid, and in the intervals between her mazy reckonings she had stolen glances at the master. A tiny little nose was as if squashed flat on his face, above a grotesquely expressive mouth, which displayed every one of a splendid set of teeth. He had small, short-sighted, red-rimmed eyes, and curly hair which did not stop growing at his ears, but went on curling, closely cropped, down the sides of his face. He taught at the top of his voice, thumped the blackboard with a pointer, was biting at the expense of a pupil who confused the angle BFC with the angle BFG, a moment later to volley forth a broad Irish joke which convulsed the class. He bewitched Laura; she forgot her sums in the delight of watching him; and this made her learning seem a little scantier than it actually was; for she had to wind up in a great hurry. He pounced down upon her; the class laughed anew at his playful horror; and yet again at the remark that it was evident she had never had many pennies to spend, or she would know better what to do with the figures that represented them. — In these words Laura scented a reference to Mother’s small income, and grew as red as fire.

In the lowest class in the College she sat bottom, for a week or more: what she did know, she knew in such an awkward form that she might as well have known nothing. And after a few efforts to better her condition she grew cautious, and hesitated discreetly before returning one of those ingenuous answers which, in the beginning, had made her the merry-andrew of the class. She could for instance, read a French story-book without skipping very many words; but she had never heard a syllable of the language spoken, and her first attempts at pronunciation caused even Miss Zielinski to sit back in her chair and laugh till the tears ran down her face. History Laura knew in a vague, pictorial way: she and Pin had enacted many a striking scene in the garden — such as “Not Angles but Angels,” or, did the pump-drain overflow, Canute and his silly courtiers — and she also had out-of-the-way scraps of information about the characters of some of the monarchs, or, as the governess had complained, about the state of London at a certain period; but she had never troubled her head with dates. Now they rose before her, a hard, dry, black line from 1066 on, accompanied, not only by the kings who were the cause of them, but by dull laws, and their duller repeals. Her lessons in English alone gave her a mild pleasure; she enjoyed taking a sentence to pieces to see how it was made. She was fond of words, too, for their own sake, and once, when Miss Snodgrass had occasion to use the term “eleemosynary”, Laura was so enchanted by it that she sought to share her enthusiasm with her neighbour. This girl, a fat little Jewess, went crimson, from trying to stifle her laughter.

“What IS the matter with you girls down there?” cried Miss Snodgrass. “Carrie Isaacs, what are you laughing like that for?”

“It’s Laura Rambotham, Miss Snodgrass. She’s so funny,” spluttered the girl.

“What are you doing, Laura?”

Laura did not answer. The girl spoke for her.

“She said — hee, hee! — she said it was blue.”

“Blue? What’s blue?” snapped Miss Snodgrass.

“That word. She said it was so beautiful . . . and that it was blue.”

“I didn’t. Grey-blue, I said,” murmured Laura her cheeks aflame.

The class rocked; even Miss Snodgrass herself had to join in the laugh while she hushed and reproved. And sometimes after this, when a particularly long or odd word occurred in the lesson, she would turn to Laura and say jocosely: “Now, Laura, come on, tell us what colour that is. Red and yellow, don’t you think?”

But these were “Tom Fool’s colours”; and Laura kept a wise silence.

One day at geography, the pupils were required to copy the outline of the map of England. Laura, about to begin, found to her dismay that she had lost her pencil. To confess the loss meant one of the hard, public rebukes from which she shrank. And so, while the others drew, heads and backs bent low over their desks, she fidgeted and sought — on her lap, the bench, the floor.

“What on earth’s the matter?” asked her neighbour crossly; it was the black-haired boarder who had winked at Laura the first evening at tea; her name was Bertha Ramsey. “I can’t draw a stroke if you shake like that.”

“I’ve lost my pencil.”

The girl considered Laura for a moment, then pushed the lid from a box of long, beautifully sharpened drawing-pencils. “Here, you can have one of these.”

Laura eyed the well-filled box admiringly, and modestly selected the shortest pencil. Bertha Ramsay, having finished her map, leaned back in her seat.

“And next time you feel inclined to boo-hoo at the tea-table, hold on to your eyebrows and sing Rule Britannia. — DID it want its mummy, poor ickle sing?”

Here Bertha’s chum, a girl called Inez, chimed in from the other side.

“It’s all very well for you,” she said to Bertha, in a deep, slow voice. “You’re a weekly boarder.”

Laura had the wish to be very pleasant, in return for the pencil. So she drew a sigh, and said, with over-emphasis: “How nice for your mother to have you home every week!”

Bertha only laughed at this, in a teasing way: “Yes, isn’t it?” But Inez leaned across behind her and gave Laura a poke.

“Shut up!” she telegraphed.

“Who’s talking down there?” came the governess’s cry. “Here you, the new girl, Laura what’s — your-name, come up to the map.”

A huge map of England had been slung over an easel; Laura was required to take the pointer and show where Stafford lay. With the long stick in her hand, she stood stupid and confused. In this exigency, it did not help her that she knew, from hear-say, just how England looked; that she could see, in fancy, its ever-green grass, thick hedges, and spreading trees; its never-dry rivers; its hoary old cathedrals; its fogs, and sea-mists, and over-populous cities. She stood face to face with the most puzzling map in the world — a map seared and scored with boundary-lines, black and bristling with names. She could not have laid her finger on London at this moment, and as for Stafford, it might have been in the moon.

While the class straggled along the verandah at the end of the hour, Inez came up to Laura’s side.

“I say, you shouldn’t have said that about her mother.” She nodded mysteriously.

“Why not?” asked Laura, and coloured at the thought that she had again, without knowing it, been guilty of a FAUX PAS.

Inez looked round to see that Bertha was not within hearing, then put her lips to Laura’s ear.

“She drinks.”

Laura gaped incredulous at the girl, her young eyes full of horror. From actual experience, she hardly knew what drunkenness meant; she had hitherto associated it only with the lowest class of Irish agricultural labourer, or with those dreadful white women who lived, by choice, in Chinese Camps. That there could exist a mother who drank was unthinkable . . . outside the bounds of nature.

“Oh, how awful!” she gasped, and turned pale with excitement. Inez could not help giggling at the effect produced by her words — the new girl was a ‘rum stick’ and no mistake — but as Laura’s consternation persisted, she veered about

“Oh, well, I don’t know for certain if that’s it. But there’s something awfully queer about her.”

“Oh, HOW do you know?” asked her breathless listener, mastered by a morbid curiosity.

“I’ve been there — at Vaucluse — from a Saturday till Monday. She came in to lunch, and she only talked to herself, not to us. She tried to eat mustard with her pudding too, and her meat was cut up in little pieces for her. I guess if she’d had a knife she’d have cut our throats.”

“Oh!” was all Laura could get out.

“I was so frightened my mother said I shouldn’t go again.”

“Oh, I hope she won’t ask me. What shall I do if she does?”

“Look out, here she comes! Don’t say a word. Bertha’s awfully ashamed of it,” said Inez, and Laura had just time to give a hasty promise.

“Hullo, you two, what are you gassing about?” cried Bertha, and dealt out a couple of her rough and friendly punches. —“I say, who’s on for a race up the garden?”

They raced, all three, with flying plaits and curls, much kicking-up of long black legs, and a frank display of frills and tuckers. Laura won; for Inez’s wind gave out half way, and Bertha was heavy of foot. Leaning against the palings Laura watched the latter come puffing up to join her — Bertha with the shameful secret in the background, of a mother who was not like other mothers.

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