The Getting of Wisdom/Chapter II
Laura, sleeping flat on her stomach, was roused next morning by Pin who said:
“Wake up, Wondrous Fair, mother wants to speak to you. She says you can get into bed in my place, before you dress.” Pin slept warm and cosy at Mother’s side.
Laura rose on her elbow and looked at her sister: Pin was standing in the doorway holding her nightgown to her, in such a way as to expose all of her thin little legs.
“Come on,” urged Pin. “Sarah’s going to give me my bath while you’re with mother.”
“Go away, Pin,” said Laura snappily. “I told you yesterday you could say Laura, and . . . and you’re more like a spider than ever.”
“Spider” was another nickname for Pin, owed to her rotund little body and mere sticks of legs—she was “all belly” as Sarah put it—and the mere mention of it made Pin fly; for she was very touchy about her legs.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Laura sprang out of bed and, waiting neither to wash herself nor to say her prayers, began to pull on her clothes, confusing strings and buttons in her haste, and quite forgetting that on this eventful morning she had meant to dress herself with more than ordinary care. She was just lacing her shoes when Sarah looked in.
“Why, Miss Laura, don’t you know your ma wants you?”
“It’s too late. I’m dressed now,” said Laura darkly.
Sarah shook her head. “Missis’ll be fine an’ angry. An’ you needn’t ‘ave ‘ad a row on your last day.”
Laura stole out of the door and ran down the garden to the summer-house. This, the size of a goodly room, was formed of a single dense, hairy-leafed tree, round the trunk of which a seat was built. Here she cowered, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands. Her face wore the stiff expression that went by the name of “Laura’s sulks,” but her eyes were big, and as watchful as those of a scared animal. If Sarah came to fetch her she would hold on to the seat with both hands. But even if she had to yield to Sarah’s greater strength—well, at least she was up and dressed. Not like the last time—about a week ago Mother had tried this kind of thing. Then, she had been caught unawares. She had gone into Pin’s warm place, curious and unsuspecting, and thereupon Mother had begun to talk seriously to her, and not with her usual directness. She had reminded Laura that she was growing up apace and would soon be a woman; had told her that she must now begin to give up childish habits, and learn to behave in a modest and womanly way—all disagreeable, disturbing things, which Laura did not in the least want to hear. When it became clear to her what it was about, she had thrown back the bedclothes and escaped from the room. And since then she had been careful never to be long alone with Mother.
But now half an hour went by and no one came to fetch her: her grim little face relaxed. She felt very hungry, too, and when at length she heard Pin calling, she jumped up and betrayed her hiding-place.
“Laura! Laura, where are you? Mother says to come to breakfast and not be silly. The coach’ll be here in an hour.”
Taking hands the sisters ran to the house.
In the passage, Sarah was busy roping a battered tin box. With their own hands the little boys had been allowed to paste on this a big sheet of notepaper, which bore, in Mother’s writing, the words:
Miss Laura Tweedle Rambotham The Ladies’ College Melbourne.
Mother herself was standing at the breakfast-table cutting sandwiches.
“Come and eat your breakfast, child,” was all she said at the moment. “The tea’s quite cold.”
Laura sat down and fell to with appetite, but also with a side-glance at the generous pile of bread and meat growing under Mother’s hands.
“I shall never eat all that,” she said ungraciously; it galled her still to be considered a greedy child with an insatiable stomach.
“I know better than you do what you’ll eat,” said Mother. “You’ll be hungry enough by this evening I can tell you, not getting any dinner.”
Pin’s face fell at this prospect. “Oh, mother, won’t she really get any dinner?” she asked: and to her soft little heart going to school began to seem one of the blackest experiences life held.
“Why, she’ll be in the train, stupid, ‘ow can she?” said Sarah. “Do you think trains give you dinners?”
“Oh, mother, please cut ever such a lot!” begged Pin sniffing valiantly.
Laura began to feel somewhat moved herself at this solicitude, and choked down a lump in her throat with a gulp of tea. But when Pin had gone with Sarah to pick some nectarines, Mother’s face grew stern, and Laura’s emotion passed.
“I feel more troubled about you than I can say, Laura. I don’t know how you’ll ever get on in life—you’re so disobedient and self-willed. It would serve you very well right, I’m sure, for not coming this morning, if I didn’t give you a penny of pocket-money to take to school.”
Laura had heard this threat before, and thought it wiser not to reply. Gobbling up the rest of her breakfast she slipped away.
With the other children at her heels she made a round of the garden, bidding good-bye to things and places. There were the two summer-houses in which she had played house; in which she had cooked and eaten and slept. There was the tall fir-tree with the rung-like branches by which she had been accustomed to climb to the very tree-top; there was the wilderness of bamboo and cane where she had been Crusoe; the ancient, broadleaved cactus on which she had scratched their names and drawn their portraits; here, the high aloe that had such a mysterious charm for you, because you never knew when the hundred years might expire and the aloe burst into flower. Here again was the old fig tree with the rounded, polished boughs, from which, seated as in a cradle, she had played Juliet to Pin’s Romeo, and vice versa—but oftenest Juliet: for though Laura greatly preferred to be the ardent lover at the foot, Pin was but a poor climber, and, as she clung trembling to her branch, needed so much prompting in her lines—even then to repeat them with such feeble emphasis—that Laura invariably lost patience with her and the love-scene ended in a squabble. Passing behind a wooden fence which was a tangle of passion-flower, she opened the door of the fowl-house, and out strutted the mother-hen followed by her pretty brood. Laura had given each of the chicks a name, and she now took Napoleon and Garibaldi up in her hand and laid her cheek against their downy breasts, the younger children following her movements in respectful silence. Between the bars of the rabbit hutch she thrust enough greenstuff to last the two little occupants for days; and everywhere she went she was accompanied by a legless magpie, which, in spite of its infirmity, hopped cheerily and quickly on its stumps. Laura had rescued it and reared it; it followed her like a dog; and she was only less devoted to it than she had been to a native bear which died under her hands.
“Now listen, children,” she said as she rose from her knees before the hutch. “If you don’t look well after Maggy and the bunnies, I don’t know what I’ll do. The chicks’ll be all right. Sarah’ll take care of them, ‘cause of the eggs. But Maggy and the bunnies don’t have eggs, and if they’re not fed, or if Frank treads on Maggy again, then they’ll die. Now if you let them die, I don’t know what I’ll do to you! Yes, I do: I’ll send the devil to you at night when the room’s dark, before you go to sleep.—So there!”
“How can you if you’re not here?” asked Leppie.
Pin, however, who believed in ghosts and apparitions with all her fearful little heart, promised tremulously never, never to forget; but Laura was not satisfied until each of them in turn had repeated, in a low voice, with the appropriate gestures, the sacred secret, and forbidden formula:
Is my finger wet? Is my finger dry? God’ll strike me dead, If I tell a lie.
Then Sarah’s voice was heard calling, and the boys went out into the road to watch for the coach. Laura’s dressing proved a lengthy business, and was accomplished amid bustle, and scolding, and little peace-making words from Pin; for in her hurry that morning Laura had forgotten to put on the clean linen Mother had laid beside the bed, and consequently had now to strip to the skin.
The boys announced the coming of the coach with shrill cries, and simultaneously the rumble of wheels was heard. Sarah came from the kitchen drying her hands, and Pin began to cry.
“Now, shut up, res’vor!” said Sarah roughly: her own eyes were moist. “You don’t see Miss Laura be such a silly-billy. Anyone ‘ud think you was goin’, not ‘er.”
The ramshackle old vehicle, one of Cobb’s Royal Mail Coaches, big-bodied, lumbering, scarlet, pulled by two stout horses, drew up before the door, and the driver climbed down from his seat.
“Now good day to you, ma’am, good day, miss”—this to Sarah who, picking up the box, handed it to him to be strapped on under the apron. “Well, well, and so the little girl’s goin’ to school, is she? My, but time flies! Well do I remember the day ma’am, when I drove you all across for the first time. These children wasn’t big enough then to git up and down be thimselves. Now I warrant you they can—just look at ’em, will you?—But my! Ain’t you ashamed of yourself”—he spoke to Pin—“pipin’ your eye like that? Why, you’ll flood the road if you don’t hould on.—Yes, yes, ma’am, bless you, I’ll look after her, and put her inter the train wid me own han’s. Don’t you be oneasy. The Lord he cares for the widder and the orphun, and if He don’t, why Patrick O’Donnell does.”
This was O’Donnell’s standing joke; he uttered it with a loud chuckle. While speaking he had let down the steps and helped the three children up—they were to ride with Laura to the outskirts of the township. The little boys giggled excitedly at his assertion that the horses would not be equal to the weight. Only Pin wept on, in undiminished grief.
“Now, Miss Laura.”
“Now, Laura. Good-bye, darling. And do try and be good. And be sure you write once a week. And tell me everything. Whether you are happy—and if you get enough to eat—and if you have enough blankets on your bed. And remember always to change your boots if you get your feet wet. And don’t lean out of the window in the train.”
For some time past Laura had had need of all her self-control, not to cry before the children. As the hour drew near it had grown harder and harder; while dressing, she had resorted to counting the number of times the profile of a Roman emperor appeared in the flowers on the wallpaper. Now the worst moment of all was come—the moment of good-bye. She did not look at Pin, but she heard her tireless, snuffly weeping, and set her own lips tight.
“Yes, mother . . . no, mother,” she answered shortly, “I’ll be all right. Good-bye.” She could not, however, restrain a kind of dry sob, which jumped up her throat.
When she was in the coach Sarah, whom she had forgotten climbed up to kiss her; and there was some joking between O’Donnell and the servant while the steps were being folded and put away. Laura did not smile; her thin little face was very pale. Mother’s heart went out to her in a pity which she did not know how to express.
“Don’t forget your sandwiches. And when you’re alone, feel in the pocket of your ulster and you’ll find something nice. Good-bye, darling.”
“Good-bye . . . good-bye.”
The driver had mounted to his seat, he unwound the reins cried “Get up!” to the two burly horses, the vehicle was set in motion and trundled down the main street. Until it turned the corner by the Shire Gardens, Laura let her handkerchief fly from the window. Sarah waved hers; then wiped her eyes and lustily blew her nose. Mother only sighed.
“It was all she could do to keep up,” she said as much to herself as to Sarah. “I do hope she’ll be all right. She seems such a child to be sending off like this. Yet what else could I do? To a State School, I’ve always said it, my children shall never go—not if I have to beg the money to send them elsewhere.”
But she sighed again, in spite of the energy of her words, and stood gazing at the place where the coach had disappeared. She was still a comparatively young woman, and straight of body; but trouble, poverty and night-watches had scored many lines on her forehead.
“Don’t you worry,” said Sarah. “Miss Laura’ll be all right. She’s just a bit too clever—brains for two, that’s what it is. An’ children WILL grow up an’ get big . . . an’ change their feathers.” She spoke absently, drawing her metaphor from a brood of chickens which had strayed across the road, and was now trying to mount the wooden verandah -“Shooh! Get away with you!”
“I know that. But Laura—The other children have never given me a moment’s worry. But Laura’s different. I seem to get less and less able to manage her. If only her father had been alive to help!”
“I’m sure no father livin’ could do more than you for those blessed children,” said Sarah with impatience. “You think of nothin’ else. It ‘ud be a great deal better if you took more care o’ yourself. You sit up nights an’ don’t get no proper sleep slavin’ away at that blessed embroid’ry an’ stuff, so as Miss Laura can get off to school an’ to ‘er books. An’ then you want to worry over ‘er as well.—She’ll be all right. Miss Laura’s like peas. You’ve got to get ’em outer the pod—they’re in there sure enough. An’ b’sides I guess school’ll knock all the nonsense out of ‘er.”
“Oh, I hope they won’t be too hard on her,” said Mother in quick alarm. -“Shut the side gate, will you. Those children have left it open again. —And, Sarah, I think we’ll turn out the drawing-room.”
Sarah grunted to herself as she went to close the gate. This had not entered into her scheme of work for the day, and her cooking was still undone. But she did not gainsay her mistress, as she otherwise would have made no scruple of doing; for she knew that nothing was more helpful to the latter in a crisis than hard, manual work. Besides, Sarah herself had a sneaking weakness for what she called “dra’in’-room days”. For the drawing-room was the storehouse of what treasures had remained over from a past prosperity. It was crowded with bric-a-brac and ornament; and as her mistress took these objects up one by one, to dust and polish them, she would, if she were in a good humour, tell Sarah where and how they had been bought, or describe the places they had originally come from: so that Sarah, pausing broom in hand to listen, had with time gathered some vague ideas of a country like “Inja”, for example, whence came the little silver “pagody”, and the expressionless brass god who squatted vacantly and at ease.