The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson

VIII.

Laura had been, for some six weeks or more, a listless and unsuccessful pupil, when one morning she received an invitation from Godmother to spend the coming monthly holiday — from Saturday till Monday — at Prahran. The month before, she had been one of the few girls who had nowhere to go; she had been forced to pretend that she liked staying in, did it in fact by preference. — Now her spirits rose.

Marina, Godmother’s younger daughter, from whom Laura inherited her school-books, was to call for her. By a little after nine o’clock on Saturday morning, Laura had finished her weekly mending, tidied her bedroom, and was ready dressed even to her gloves. It was a cool, crisp day; and her heart beat high with expectation.

From the dining-hall, it was not possible to hear the ringing of the front-door bell; but each time either of the maids entered with a summons, Laura half rose from her chair, sure that her turn had come at last. But it was half-past nine, then ten, then half-past; it struck eleven, the best of the day was passing, and still Marina did not come. Only two girls besides herself remained. Then respectively an aunt and a mother were announced, and these two departed. Laura alone was left: she had to bear the disgrace of Miss Day observing: “Well, it looks as if YOUR friends had forgotten all about you, Laura.”

Humiliated beyond measure, Laura had thoughts of tearing off her hat and jacket and declaring that she felt too ill to go out. But at last, when she was almost sick with suspense, Mary put her tidy head in once more.

“Miss Rambotham has been called for.”

Laura was on her feet before the words were spoken. She sped to the reception-room.

Marina, a short, sleek-haired, soberly dressed girl of about twenty, had Godmother’s brisk, matter-of-fact manner.

She offered Laura her cheek to kiss. “Well, I suppose you’re ready now?”

Laura forgave her the past two hours. “Yes, quite, thank you,” she answered.

They went down the asphalted path and through the garden-gate, and turned to walk townwards. For the first time since her arrival Laura was free again — a prisoner at large. Round them stretched the broad white streets of East Melbourne; at their side was the thick, exotic greenery of the Fitzroy Gardens; on the brow of the hill rose the massive proportions of the Roman Catholic Cathedral. — Laura could have danced, as she walked at Marina’s side.

After a few queries, however, as to how she liked school and how she was getting on with her lessons, Marina fell to contemplating a strip of paper that she held in her hand. Laura gathered that her companion had combined the task of calling for her with a morning’s shopping, and that she had only worked half through her list of commissions before arriving at the College. At the next corner they got on to the outside car of a cable-tramway, and were carried into town. Here Marina entered a co-operative grocery store, where she was going to give an order for a quarter’s supplies. She was her mother’s housekeeper, and had an incredible knowledge of groceries, as well as a severely practical mind: she stuck her finger-nail into butter, tasted cheeses off the blade of a knife, ran her hands through currants, nibbled biscuits, discussed brands of burgundy and desiccated soups — Laura meanwhile looking on, from a high, uncomfortable chair, with a somewhat hungry envy. When everything, down to pepper and salt, had been remembered, Marina filled in a cheque, and was just about to turn away when she recollected an affair of some empty cases, which she wished to send back. Another ten minutes’ parley ensued; she had to see the manager, and was closeted with him in his office, so that by the time they emerged into the street again a full hour had gone by.

“Getting hungry?” she inquired of Laura.

“A little. But I can wait,” answered Laura politely.

“That’s right,” said Marina, off whose own appetite the edge had no doubt been taken by her various nibblings. “Now there’s only the chemist.”

They rode to another street, entered a druggist’s, and the same thing on a smaller scale was repeated, except that here Marina did no tasting, but for a stray gelatine or jujube. By the time the shop door closed behind them, Laura could almost have eaten liquorice powder. It was two o’clock, and she was faint with hunger.

“We’ll be home in plenty of time,” said Marina, consulting a neat watch. “Dinner’s not till three today, because of father.”

Again a tramway jerked them forward. Some half mile from their destination, Marina rose.

“We’ll get out here. I have to call at the butcher’s.”

At a quarter to three, it was a very white-faced, exhausted little girl that followed her companion into the house.

“Well, I guess you’ll have a fine healthy appetite for dinner,” said Marina, as she showed her where to hang up her hat and wash her hands.

Godmother was equally optimistic. From the sofa of the morning-room, where she sat knitting, she said: “Well, YOU’VE had a fine morning’s gadding about I must say! How are you? And how’s your dear mother?”

“Quite well, thank you.”

Godmother scratched her head with a spare needle, and the attention she had had for Laura evaporated. “I hope, Marina, you told Graves about those empty jam-jars he didn’t take back last time?”

Marina, without lifting her eyes from a letter she was reading, returned: “Indeed I didn’t. He made such a rumpus about the sugar-boxes that I thought I’d try to sell them to Petersen instead.”

Godmother grunted, but did not question Marina’s decision. “And what news have you from your dear mother?” she asked again, without looking at Laura — just as she never looked at the stocking she held, but always over the top of it.

Here, however, the dinner-bell rang, and Laura, spared the task of giving more superfluous information, followed the two ladies to the dining-room. The other members of the family were waiting at the table. Godmother’s husband — he was a lawyer — was a morose, black-bearded man who, for the most part, kept his eyes fixed on his plate. Laura had heard it said that he and Godmother did not get on well together; she supposed this meant that they did not care to talk to each other, for they never exchanged a direct word: if they had to communicate, it was done by means of a third person. There was the elder daughter, Georgina, dumpier and still brusquer than Marina, the eldest son, a bank-clerk who was something of a dandy and did not waste civility on little girls; and lastly there were two boys, slightly younger than Laura, black-haired, pug-nosed, pugnacious little creatures, who stood in awe of their father, and were all the wilder when not under his eye.

Godmother mumbled a blessing; and the soup was eaten in silence.

During the meat course, the bank-clerk complained in extreme displeasure of the way the laundress had of late dressed his collars — these were so high that, as Laura was not slow to notice, he had to look straight down the two sides of his nose to see his plate — and announced that he would not be home for tea, as he had an appointment to meet some ‘chappies’ at five, and in the evening was going to take a lady friend to Brock’s Fireworks. These particulars were received without comment. As the family plied its pudding-spoons, Georgina in her turn made a statement.

“Joey’s coming to take me driving at four.”

It looked as if this remark, too, would founder on the general indifference. Then Marina said warningly, as if recalling her parent’s thoughts: “Mother!”

Awakened, Godmother jerked out: “Indeed and I hope if you go you’ll take the boys with you!”

“Indeed and I don’t see why we should!”

“Very well, then, you’ll stop at home. If Joey doesn’t choose to come to the point ——-”

“Now hold your tongue, mother!”

“I’ll do nothing of the sort.”

“Crikey!” said the younger boy, Erwin, in a low voice. “Joey’s got to take us riding.”

“If you and Joey can’t get yourselves properly engaged,” snapped Godmother, “then you shan’t go driving without the boys, and that’s the end of it.”

Like dogs barking at one another, thought Laura, listening to the loveless bandying of words — she was unused to the snappishness of the Irish manner, which sounds so much worse than it is meant to be: and she was chilled anew by it when, over the telephone, she heard Georgy holding a heated conversation with Joey.

He was a fat young man, with hanging cheeks, small eyes, and a lazy, lopsided walk.

“Hello — here’s a little girl! What’s HER name? — Say, this kiddy can come along too.”

As it had leaked out that Marina’s afternoon would be spent between the shelves of her storeroom, preparing for the incoming goods, Laura gratefully accepted the offer.

They drove to Marlborough Tower. With their backs to the horse sat the two boys, mercilessly alert for any display of fondness on the part of the lovers; sat Laura, with her straight, inquisitive black eyes. Hence Joey and Georgy were silent, since, except to declare their feelings, they had nothing to say to each other.

The Tower reached, the mare was hitched up and the ascent of the light wooden erection began. It was a blowy day.

“Boys first!” commanded Joey. “Cos o’ the petticuts.”— His speech was as lazy as his walk.

He himself led the way, followed by Erwin and Marmaduke, and Laura, at Georgy’s bidding, went next. She clasped her bits of skirts anxiously to her knees, for she was just as averse to the frills and flounces that lay beneath being seen by Georgy, as by any of the male members of the party. Georgy came last, and, though no one was below her, so tightly wound about was she that she could hardly advance her legs from one step to another. Joey looked approval; but the boys sniggered, and kept it up till Georgy, having gained the platform, threatened them with a “clout on the head”.

On the return journey a dispute arose between the lovers: it related to the shortest road home, waxed hot, and was rapidly taking on the dimensions of a quarrel, when the piebald mare shied at a traction-engine and tried to bolt. Joey gripped the reins, and passed his free arm round Georgy’s waist.

“Don’t be frightened, darling.”

Though the low chaise rocked from side to side and there seemed a likelihood of it capsizing, the two boys squirmed with laughter, and dealt out sundry nudges, kicks and pokes, all of which were received by Laura, sitting between them. She herself turned red — with embarrassment. At the same time she wondered why Joey should believe George was afraid; there was no sign of it in Georgy’s manner; she sat stolid and unmoved. Besides she, Laura, was only a little girl, and felt no fear. — She also asked herself why Joey should suddenly grow concerned about Georgy, when, a moment before, they had been so rude to each other. — These were interesting speculations, and, the chaise having ceased to sway, Laura grew meditative.

In the evening Godmother had a visitor, and Laura sat in a low chair, listening to the ladies’ talk. It was dull work: for, much as she liked to consider herself “almost grown up”, she yet detested the conversation of “real grown-ups” with a child’s heartiness. She was glad when nine o’clock struck and Marina, lighting a candle, told her to go to bed.

The next day was Sunday. Between breakfast and church-time yawned two long hours. Georgy went to a Bible-class; Marina was busy with orders for the dinner.

It was a bookless house — like most Australian houses of its kind: in Marina’s bedroom alone stood a small bookcase containing school and Sunday school prizes. Laura was very fond of reading, and as she dressed that morning had cast longing looks at these volumes, had evenly shyly fingered the glass doors. But they were locked. Breakfast over, she approached Marina on the subject. The latter produced the key, but only after some haggling, for her idea of books was to keep the gilt on their covers untarnished.

“Well, at any rate it must be a Sunday book,” she said ungraciously.

She drew out THE GIANT CITIES OF BASHAN AND SYRIA’S HOLY PLACES, and with this Laura retired to the drawing-room, where Godmother was already settled for the day, with a suitable magazine. When the bells began to clang the young people, primly hatted, their prayer-books in their hands, walked to the neighbouring church. There Laura sat once more between the boys, Marina and Georgy stationed like sentinels at the ends of the pew, ready to pounce down on their brothers if necessary, to confiscate animals and eatables, or to rap impish knuckles with a Bible. It was a spacious church; the pew was in a side aisle; one could see neither reading-desk nor pulpit; and the words of the sermon seemed to come from a great way off.

After dinner, Laura and the boys were dispatched to the garden, to stroll about in Sunday fashion. Here no elder person being present, the natural feelings of the trio came out: the distaste of a quiet little girl for rough boys and their pranks; the resentful indignation of the boys at having their steps dogged by a sneak and a tell-tale. As soon as they had rounded the tennis-court and were out of sight of the house, Erwin and Marmaduke clambered over the palings and dropped into the street, vowing a mysterious vengeance on Laura if she went indoors without them. The child sat down on the edge of the lawn under a mulberry tree and propped her chin on her hands. She was too timid to return to the house and brave things out; she was also afraid of some one coming into the garden and finding her alone, and of her then being forced to “tell”; for most of all she feared the boys, and their vague, rude threats. So she sat and waited . . . and waited. The shadows on the grass changed their shapes before her eyes; distant chapel-bells tinkled their quarter of an hour and were still again; the blighting torpor of a Sunday afternoon lay over the world. Would to-morrow ever come? She counted on her fingers the hours that had still to crawl by before she could get back to school — counted twice over to be sure of them — and all but yawned her head off, with ennui. But time passed, and passed, and nothing happened. She was on the verge of tears, when two black heads bobbed up above the fence, the boys scrambled over, red and breathless, and hurried her into tea.

She wakened next morning at daybreak, so eager was she to set out. But Marina had a hundred and one odd jobs to do before she was ready to start, and it struck half-past nine as the two of them neared the College. Child-like, Laura felt no special gratitude for the heavy pot of mulberry jam Marina bore on her arm; but at sight of the stern, grey, stone building she could have danced with joy; and on the front door swinging to behind her, she drew a deep sigh of relief.

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