The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson

IX.

From this moment on — the moment when Mary the maid’s pleasant smile saluted her — Laura’s opinion of life at school suffered a change. She was glad to be back — that was the first point: just as an adventurous sheep is glad to regain the cover of the flock. Learning might be hard; the governesses mercilessly secure in their own wisdom; but here she was at least a person of some consequence, instead of as at Godmother’s a mere negligible null.

Of her unlucky essay at holiday-making she wrote home guardedly: the most tell-tale sentence in her letter was that in which she said she would rather not go to Godmother’s again in the meantime. But there was such a lack of warmth in her account of the visit that mother made this, together with the above remark, the text for a scolding.

“YOU’RE A VERY UNGRATEFUL GIRL,” she wrote, “TO FORGET ALL GODMOTHER HAS DONE FOR YOU. IF IT HADN’T BEEN FOR HER SUPPLYING YOU WITH BOOKS AND THINGS I COULDN’T HAVE SENT YOU TO SCHOOL AT ALL. AND I HOPE WHEN YOU GROW UP YOU’LL BE AS MUCH OF A HELP TO ME AS MARINA IS TO HER MOTHER. I’D MUCH RATHER HAVE YOU GOOD AND USEFUL THAN CLEVER AND I THINK FOR A CHILD OF YOUR AGE YOU SEE THINGS WITH VERY SHARP UNKIND EYES. TRY AND ONLY THINK NICE THINGS ABOUT PEOPLE AND NOT BE ALWAYS SPYING OUT THEIR FAULTS. THEN YOU’LL HAVE PLENTY OF FRIENDS AND BE LIKED WHEREVER YOU GO.”

Laura took the statement about the goodness and cleverness with a grain of salt: she knew better. Mother thought it the proper thing to say, and she would certainly have preferred the two qualities combined; but, had she been forced to choose between them, there was small doubt how her choice would have fallen out. And if, for instance, Laura confessed that her teachers did not regard her as even passably intelligent, there would be a nice to-do. Mother’s ambitions knew no bounds; and, wounded in these, she was quite capable of writing post-haste to Mrs. Gurley or Mr. Strachey, complaining of their want of insight, and bringing forward a string of embarrassing proofs. So, leaving Mother to her pleasing illusions, Laura settled down again to her role of dunce, now, though, with more equanimity than before. School was really not a bad place after all — this had for some time been her growing conviction, and the visit to Godmother seemed to bring it to a head.

About this time, too, a couple of pieces of good fortune came her way.

The first: she was privileged to be third in the friendship between Inez and Bertha — a favour of which she availed herself eagerly, though the three were as different from one another as three little girls could be. Bertha was a good-natured romp, hard-fisted, thick of leg, and of a plodding but ineffectual industry. Inez, on the other hand, was so pretty that Laura never tired of looking at her: she had a pale skin, hazel eyes, brown hair with a yellow light in it, and a Greek nose. Her mouth was very small; her nostrils were mere tiny slits; and so lazy was she that she seldom more than half opened her eyes. Both girls were well over fourteen, and very fully developed: compared with them, Laura was like nothing so much as a skinny young colt.

She was so grateful to them for tolerating her that she never took up a stand of real equality with them: proud and sensitive, she was always ready to draw back and admit their prior rights to each other; hence the friendship did not advance to intimacy. But such as it was, it was very comforting; she no longer needed to sit alone in recess; she could link arms and walk the garden with complacency; and many were the supercilious glances she now threw at Maria Morell and that clique; for her new friends belonged socially to the best set in the school.

In another way, too, their company made things easier for her: neither of them aimed high; and both were well content with the lowly places they occupied in the class. And so Laura, who was still, in her young confusion, unequal to discovering what was wanted of her, grew comforted by the presence and support of her friends, and unmindful of higher opinion; and Miss Chapman, in supervising evening lessons, remarked with genuine regret that little Laura was growing perky and lazy.

Her second piece of good luck was of quite a different nature.

Miss Hicks, the visiting governess for geography, had a gift for saying biting things that really bit. She bore Inez a peculiar grudge; for she believed that certain faculties slumbered behind the Grecian profile, and that only the girl’s ingrained sloth prevented them.

One day she lost patience with this sluggish pupil.

“I’ll tell you what it is, Inez,” she said; “you’re blessed with a real woman’s brain: vague, slippery, inexact, interested only in the personal aspect of a thing. You can’t concentrate your thoughts, and, worst of all, you’ve no curiosity — about anything that really matters. You take all the great facts of existence on trust — just as a hen does — and I’ve no doubt you’ll go on contentedly till the end of your days, without ever knowing why the ocean has tides, and what causes the seasons. — It makes me ashamed to belong to the same sex.”

Inez’s classmates tittered furiously, let the sarcasm glide over them, unhit by its truth. Inez herself, indeed, was inclined to consider the governess’s taunt a compliment, as proving that she was incapable of a vulgar inquisitiveness. But Laura, though she laughed docilely with the rest, could not forget the incident — words in any case had a way of sticking to her memory — and what Miss Hicks had said often came back to her, in the days that followed. And then, all of a sudden, just as if an invisible hand had opened the door to an inner chamber, a light broke on her. Vague, slippery, inexact, interested only in the personal — every word struck home. Had Miss Hicks set out to describe HER, in particular, she could not have done it more accurately. It was but too true: until now, she, Laura, had been satisfied to know things in a slipslop, razzle-dazzle way, to know them anyhow, as it best suited herself. She had never set to work to master a subject, to make it her own in every detail. Bits of it, picturesque scraps, striking features — what Miss Hicks no doubt meant by the personal — were all that had attracted her. — Oh, and she, too, had no intelligent curiosity. She could not say that she had ever teased her brains with wondering why the earth went round the sun and not the sun round the earth. Honestly speaking, it made no difference to her that the globe was indented like an orange, and not the perfect round you began by believing it to be. — But if this were so, if she were forced to make these galling admissions, then it was clear that her vaunted cleverness had never existed, except in Mother’s imagination. Or, at any rate, it had crumbled to pieces like a lump of earth, under the hard, heavy hand of Miss Hicks. Laura felt humiliated, and could not understand her companions treating the matter so airily. She did not want to have a woman’s brain, thank you; not one of that sort; and she smarted for the whole class.

Straightway she set to work to sharpen her wits, to follow the strait road. At first with some stumbling, of course, and frequent backslidings. Intellectual curiosity could not, she discovered, be awakened to order; and she often caught herself napping. Thus though she speedily became one of the most troublesome askers-why, her desire for information was apt to exhaust itself in putting the question, and she would forget to listen to the answer. Besides, for the life of her she could not drum up more interest in, say, the course of the Gulf Stream, or the formation of a plateau, than in the fact that, when Nelly Bristow spoke, little bubbles came out of her mouth, and that she needed to swallow twice as often as other people; or that when Miss Hicks grew angry her voice had a way of failing, at the crucial moment, and flattening out to nothing — just as if one struck tin after brass. No, it was indeed difficult for Laura to invert the value of these things. — In another direction she did better. By dint of close attention, of pondering both the questions asked by Miss Hicks, and the replies made by the cleverest pupils, she began to see more clearly where true knowledge lay. It was facts that were wanted of her; facts that were the real test of learning; facts she was expected to know. Stories, pictures of things, would not help her an inch along the road. Thus, it was not the least use in the world to her to have seen the snowy top of Mount Kosciusko stand out against a dark blue evening sky, and to know its shape to a tittlekin. On the other hand, it mattered tremendously that this mountain was 7308 and not 7309 feet high: that piece of information was valuable, was of genuine use to you; for it was worth your place in the class.

Thus did Laura apply herself to reach the school ideal, thus force herself to drive hard nails of fact into her vagrant thoughts. And with success. For she had, it turned out, a retentive memory, and to her joy learning by heart came easy to her — as easy as to the most brilliant scholars in the form. From now on she gave this talent full play, memorising even pages of the history book in her zeal; and before many weeks had passed, in all lessons except those in arithmetic — you could not, alas! get sums by rote — she was separated from Inez and Bertha by the width of the class.

But neither her taste of friendship and its comforts, nor the abrupt change for the better in her class-fortunes, could counterbalance Laura’s luckless knack of putting her foot in it. This she continued to do, in season and out of season. And not with the authorities alone.

There was, for instance, that unfortunate evening when she was one of the batch of girls invited to Mrs. Strachey’s drawingroom. Laura, ignorant of what it meant to be blasee, had received her note of invitation with a thrill, had even enjoyed writing, in her best hand, the prescribed formula of acceptance. But she was alone in this; by the majority of her companions these weekly parties were frankly hated, the chief reason being that every guest was expected to take a piece of music with her. Even the totally unfit had to show what they could do. And the fact that cream-tarts were served for supper was not held to square accounts.

“It’s all very well for you,” grumbled Laura’s room-mate, Lilith Gordon, as she lathered her thick white arms and neck before dressing. “You’re a new girl; you probably won’t be asked.”

Laura did not give the matter a second thought: hastily selecting a volume of music, she followed the rest of the white dresses into the passage. The senior girl tapped at the drawingroom door. It was opened by no other than the Principal himself.

In the girls’ eyes, Mr. Strachey stood over six feet in his stocking-soles. He had also a most arrogant way of looking down his nose, and of tugging, intolerantly, at his long, drooping moustache. There was little need for him to assume the frigid contemptuousness of Mrs. Gurley’s manner: his mere presence, the very unseeingness of his gaze, inspired awe. Tales ran of his wrath, were it roused; but few had experienced it. He quelled the high spirits of these young colonials by his dignified air of detachment.

Now, however, he stood there affable and smiling, endeavouring to put a handful of awkward girls at their ease. But neither his nor Mrs. Strachey’s efforts availed. It was impossible for the pupils to throw off, at will, the crippling fear that governed their relations with the Principal. To them, his amiability resembled the antics of an uncertain-tempered elephant, with which you could never feel safe. — Besides on this occasion it was a young batch, and of particularly mixed stations. And so a dozen girls, from twelve to fifteen years old, sat on the extreme edges of their chairs, and replied to what was said to them, with dry throats.

Though the youngest of the party, Laura was the least embarrassed: she had never known a nursery, but had mixed with her elders since her babyhood. And she was not of a shy disposition; indeed, she still had to be reminded daily that shyness was expected of her. So she sat and looked about her. It was an interesting room in which she found herself. Low bookshelves, three shelves high, ran round the walls, and on the top shelf were many outlandish objects. What an evening it would have been had Mr. Strachey invited them to examine these ornaments, or to handle the books, instead of having to pick up a title here and there by chance. — From the shelves, her eyes strayed to the pictures on the walls; one, in particular struck her fancy. It hung over the mantelpiece, and was a man’s head seen in profile, with a long hooked nose, and wearing a kind of peaked cap. But that was not all: behind this head were other profiles of the same face, and seeming to come out of clouds. Laura stared hard, but could make nothing of it. — And meanwhile her companions were rising with sickly smiles, to seat themselves, red as turkey-cocks’ combs, on the piano stool, where with cold, stiff fingers they stumbled through the movement of a sonata or sonatina.

It was Lilith Gordon who broke the chain by offering to sing. The diversion was welcomed by Mrs. Strachey, and Lilith went to the piano. But her nervousness was such that she broke down half-way in the little prelude to the ballad.

Mrs. Strachey came to the rescue. “It’s so difficult, is it not, to accompany oneself?” she said kindly. “Perhaps one of the others would play for you?”

No one moved.

“Do any of you know the song?”

Two or three ungraciously admitted the knowledge, but none volunteered.

It was here Laura chimed in. “I could play it,” she said; and coloured at the sound of her own voice.

Mrs. Strachey looked doubtfully at the thin little girl. “Do you know it, dear? You’re too young for singing, I think.”

“No, I don’t know it. But I could play it from sight. It’s quite easy.”

Everyone looked disbelieving, especially the unhappy singer.

“I’ve played much harder things than that,” continued Laura.

“Well, perhaps you might try,” said Mrs. Strachey, with the ingrained distrust of the unmusical.

Laura rose and went to the piano, where she conducted the song to a successful ending.

Mrs. Strachey looked relieved. “Very nice indeed.” And to Laura: “Did you say you didn’t know it, dear?”

“No, I never saw it before.”

Again the lady looked doubtful. “Well, perhaps you would play us something yourself now?”

Laura had no objection; she had played to people before her fingers were long enough to cover the octave. She took the volume of Thalberg she had brought with her, selected “Home, Sweet Home”, and pranced in.

Her audience kept utter silence; but, had she been a little sharper, she would have grasped that it was the silence of amazement. After the prim sonatinas that had gone before, Thalberg’s florid ornaments had a shameless sound. Her performance, moreover, was a startling one; the forte pedal was held down throughout; the big chords were crashed and banged with all the strength a pair of twelve-year-old arms could put into them; and wrong notes were freely scattered. Still, rhythm and melody were well marked, and there was no mistaking the agility of the small fingers.

Dead silence, too, greeted the conclusion of the piece Several girls were very red, from trying not to laugh. The Principal tugged at his moustache, in abstracted fashion.

Laura had reached her seat again before Mrs. Strachey said undecidedly: “Thank you, dear. Did you . . . hm . . . learn that piece here?”

Laura saw nothing wrong. “Oh, no, at home,” she answered. “I wouldn’t care to play the things I learn here, to people. They’re so dull.”

A girl emitted a faint squeak. But a half turn of Mrs. Strachey’s head subdued her. “Oh, I hope you will soon get to like classical music also,” said the lady gravely, and in all good faith. “We prefer it, you know, to any other.”

“Do you mean things like the AIR IN G WITH VARIATIONS? I’m afraid I never shall. There’s no tune in them.”

Music was as fatal to Laura’s equilibrium as wine would have been. Finding herself next Mr. Strachey, she now turned to him and said, with what she believed to be ease of manner: “Mr. Strachey, will you please tell me what that picture is hanging over the mantelpiece? I’ve been looking at it ever since I came in, but I can’t make it out. Are those ghosts, those things behind the man, or what?”

It took Mr. Strachey a minute to recover from his astonishment. He stroked hard, and the look he bent on Laura was not encouraging.

“It seems to be all the same face,” continued the child, her eyes on the picture.

“That,” said Mr. Strachey, with extreme deliberation: “that is the portrait, by a great painter, of a great poet — Dante Alighieri.”

“Oh, Dante, is it?” said Laura showily — she had once heard the name. “Oh, yes, of course, I know now. He wrote a book, didn’t he, called FAUST? I saw it over there by the door. — What lovely books!”

But here Mr. Strachey abruptly changed his seat, and Laura’s thirst for information was left unquenched.

The evening passed, and she was in blessed ignorance of anything being amiss, till the next morning after breakfast she was bidden to Mrs. Gurley.

A quarter of an hour later, on her emerging from that lady’s private sitting-room, her eyes were mere swollen slits in her face. Instead, however, of sponging them in cold water and bravely joining her friends, Laura was still foolish enough to hide and have her cry out. So that when the bell rang, she was obliged to go in to public prayers looking a prodigious fright, and thereby advertising to the curious what had taken place.

Mrs. Gurley had crushed and humiliated her. Laura learnt that she had been guilty of a gross impertinence, in profaning the ears of the Principal and Mrs. Strachey with Thalberg’s music, and that all the pieces she had brought with her from home would now be taken from her. Secondly, Mr. Strachey had been so unpleasantly impressed by the boldness of her behaviour, that she would not be invited to the drawing-room again for some time to come.

The matter of the music touched Laura little: if they preferred their dull old exercises to what she had offered them, so much the worse for them. But the reproach cast on her manners stung her even more deeply than it had done when she was still the raw little newcomer: for she had been pluming herself of late that she was now “quite the thing”.

And yet, painful as was this fresh overthrow of her pride, it was neither the worst nor the most lasting result of the incident. That concerned her schoolfellows. By the following morning the tale of her doings was known to everyone. It was circulated in the first place, no doubt, by Lilith Gordon, who bore her a grudge for her offer to accompany the song: had Laura not put herself forward in this objectionable way, Lilith might have escaped singing altogether. Lilith also resented her having shown that she could do it — and this feeling was generally shared. It evidenced a want of good-fellowship, and made you very glad the little prig had afterwards come to grief: if you had abilities that others had not you concealed them, instead of parading them under people’s noses.

In short, Laura had committed a twofold breach of school etiquette. No one of course vouchsafed to explain this to her; these things one did not put into words, things you were expected to know without telling. Hence, she never more than half understood what she had done. She only saw disapproval painted on faces that had hitherto been neutral, and from one or two quarters got what was unmistakably the cold shoulder. — Her little beginnings at popularity had somehow received a setback, and through her own foolish behaviour.

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