The Getting of Wisdom/Chapter XI
It was an odd thing, all the same, how easy it was to be friends with Lilith Gordon: though she did not belong to Laura’s set though Laura did not even like her, and though she had had ample proof that Lilith was double-faced, not to be trusted. Yet, in the months that followed the affair of the purple dress, Laura grew more intimate with the plump, sandy-haired girl than with either Bertha, or Inez, or Tilly. Or, to put it more exactly, she was continually having lapses into intimacy, and repenting them when it was too late. In one way Lilith was responsible for this: she could make herself very pleasant when she chose, seem to be your friend through thick and thin, thus luring you on to unbosom yourself; and afterwards she would go away and laugh over what you had told her, with other girls. And Laura was peculiarly helpless under such circumstances: if it was done with tact, and with a certain assumed warmth of manner, anyone could make a cat’s-paw of her.
That Lilith and she undressed for bed together had also something to do with their intimacy: this half-hour when one’s hair was unbound and replaited, and fat and thin arms wielded the brush, was the time of all others for confidences. The governess who occupied the fourth bed did not come upstairs till ten o’clock; the publican’s daughter, a lazy girl, was usually half asleep before the other two had their clothes off.
It was in the course of one of these confidential chats that Laura did a very foolish thing. In a moment of weakness, she gratuitously gave away the secret that Mother supported her family by the work of her hands.
The two girls were sitting on the side of Lilith’s bed. Laura had a day of mishaps behind her—that partly, no doubt, accounted for her self-indulgence. But, in addition, her companion had just told her, unasked, that she thought her “very pretty”. It was not in Laura’s nature to let this pass: she was never at ease under an obligation; she had to pay the coin back in kind.
“Embroidery? What sort? However does she do it?”—Lilith’s interest was on tiptoe at once—a false and slimy interest, the victim afterwards told herself.
“Oh, my mother’s awfully clever. It’s just lovely, too, what she does— all in silk—and ever so many different colours. She made a piano-cover once, and got fifty pounds for it.”
“How perfectly splendid!”
“But that was only a lucky chance . . . that she got that to do. She mostly does children’s dresses and cloaks and things like that.”
“But she’s not a dressmaker, is she?”
“A dressmaker? I should think not indeed! They’re sent up, all ready to work, from the biggest shops in town.”
“I say!—she must be clever.”
“She is; she can do anything. She makes the patterns up all out of her own head. “—And filled with pride in Mother’s accomplishments and Lilith’s appreciation of them, Laura fell asleep that night without a qualm.
It was the next evening. Several of the boarders who had finished preparing their lessons were loitering in the dining-hall, Laura and Lilith among them. In the group was a girl called Lucy, young but very saucy; for she lived at Toorak, and came of one of the best families in Melbourne. She was not as old as Laura by two years, but was already feared and respected for the fine scorn of her opinions.
Lilith Gordon had bragged: “My uncle’s promised me a gold watch and chain when I pass matric.”
Lucy of Toorak laughed: her nose came down, and her mouth went up at the corners. “Do you think you ever will?”
“G. o. k. and He won’t tell. But I’ll probably get the watch all the same.”
“Where does your uncle hang out?”
“Sure he can afford to buy it?”
“Of course he can.”
“What is he?”
Lilith was unlucky enough to hesitate, ever so slightly. “Oh, he’s got plenty of money,” she asserted.
“She doesn’t like to say what he is!”
“I don’t care whether I say it or not.”
“A butcher, p’raps, or an undertaker?”
“A butcher! He’s got the biggest newspaper in Brisbane!”
“A newspaper! Great Scott! Her uncle keeps a newspaper!”
There was a burst of laughter from those standing round.
Lilith was scarlet now. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she said angrily.
But Lucy of Toorak could not recover from her amusement. “An uncle who keeps a newspaper! A newspaper! Well, I’m glad none of MY uncles are so rummy.—I say, does he leave it at front doors himself in the morning?”
Laura had at first looked passively on, well pleased to see another than herself the butt of young Lucy’s wit. But at this stage of her existence she was too intent on currying favour, to side with any but the stronger party. And so she joined in the boisterous mirth Lilith’s admission and Lucy’s reception of it excited, and flung her gibes with the rest.
She was pulled up short by a hissing in her ear. “If you say one word more, I’ll tell about the embroidery!”
Laura went pale with fright: she had been in good spirits that day, and had quite forgotten her silly confidence of the night before. Now, the jeer that was on the tip of her tongue hung fire. She could not all at once obliterate her smile—that would have been noticeable; but it grew weaker, stiffer and more unnatural, then gradually faded away, leaving her with a very solemn little face.
From this night on, Lilith Gordon represented a powder-mine, which might explode at any minute.—And she herself had laid the train!
From the outset, Laura had been accepted, socially, by even the most exclusive, as one of themselves; and this, in spite of her niggardly allowance, her ridiculous clothes. For the child had race in her: in a well-set head, in good hands and feet and ears. Her nose, too, had a very pronounced droop, which could stand only for blue blood, or a Hebraic ancestor—and Jews were not received as boarders in the school. Now, loud as money made itself in this young community, effectual as it was in cloaking shortcomings, it did not go all the way: inherited instincts and traditions were not so easily subdued. Just some of the wealthiest, too, were aware that their antecedents would not stand a close scrutiny; and thus a mighty respect was engendered in them for those who had nothing to fear. Moreover, directly you got away from the vastly rich, class distinctions were observed with an exactitude such as can only obtain in an exceedingly mixed society. The three professions alone were sacrosanct. The calling of architect, for example, or of civil engineer, was, if a fortune had not been accumulated, utterly without prestige; trade, any connection with trade—the merest bowing acquaintance with buying and selling—was a taint that nothing could remove; and those girls who were related to shopkeepers, or, more awful still, to publicans, would rather have bitten their tongues off than have owned to the disgrace.
Yet Laura knew very well that good birth and an aristocratic appearance would not avail her, did the damaging fact leak out that Mother worked for her living. Work in itself was bad enough—how greatly to be envied were those whose fathers did nothing more active than live on their money! But the additional circumstance of Mother being a woman made things ten times worse: ladies did not work; some one always left them enough to live on, and if he didn’t, well, then he, too, shared the ignominy. So Laura went in fear and trembling lest the truth should come to light—in that case, she would be a pariah indeed—went in hourly dread of Lilith betraying her. Nothing, however, happened—at least as far as she could discover—and she sought to propitiate Lilith in every possible way. For the time being, though, anxiety turned her into a porcupine, ready to erect her quills at a touch. She was ever on the look-out for an allusion to her mother’s position, and for the slight that was bound to accompany it.
Even the governesses noticed the change in her.
Three of them sat one evening round the fire in Mrs. Gurley’s sitting-room, with their feet on the fender. The girls had gone to bed; it was Mrs. Gurley’s night off, and as Miss Day was also on leave, the three who were left could draw in more closely than usual. Miss Snodgrass had made the bread into toast—in spite of Miss Chapman’s quakings lest Mrs. Gurley should notice the smell when she came in— and, as they munched, Miss Snodgrass related how she had just confiscated a book Laura Rambotham was trying to smuggle upstairs, and how it had turned out that it belonged, not to Laura herself, but to Lilith Gordon.
“She was like a little spitfire about it all the same. A most objectionable child, I call her. It was only yesterday I wanted to look at some embroidery on her apron—a rather pretty new stitch—and do you think she’d let me see it? She jerked it away and glared at me as if she would have liked to eat me. I could have boxed her ears.”
“I never have any trouble with Laura. I don’t think you know how to manage her,” said Miss Chapman, and executed a little manoeuvre. She had poor teeth; and, having awaited a moment when Miss Snodgrass’s sharp eyes were elsewhere engaged, she surreptitiously dropped the crusts of the toast into her handkerchief.
“I’d be sorry to treat her as you do,” said Miss Snodgrass, and yawned. “Girls need to be made to sit up nowadays.”
She yawned again, and gazing round the room for fresh food for talk, caught Miss Zielinski with her eye. “Hullo, Ziely, what are you deep in?” She put her arm round the other’s neck, and unceremoniously laid hold of her book. “You naughty girl, you’re at Ouida again! Always got your nose stuck in some trashy novel.”
“DO let me alone,” said Miss Zielinski pettishly, holding fast to the book; but she did not raise her eyes, for they were wet.
“You know you’ll count the washing all wrong again to-morrow, your head’ll be so full of that stuff.”
“Yes, it’s time to go, girls; to-morrow’s Saturday.” And Miss Chapman sighed; for, on a Saturday morning between six and eight o’clock, fifty-five lots of washing had to be sorted out and arranged in piles.
“Holy Moses, what a life!” ejaculated Miss Snodgrass, and yawned again, in a kind of furious desperation. “I swear I’ll marry the first man that asks me, to get away from it.—As long as he has money enough to keep me decently.”
“You would soon wish yourself back, if you had no more feeling for him that that,” reproved Miss Chapman.
“Catch me! Not even if he had a hump, or kept a mistress, or was over eighty. Oh dear, oh dear!”—she stretched herself so violently that her bones cracked; to resume, in a tone of ordinary conversation: “I do wish I knew whether to put a brown wing or a green one in that blessed hat of mine.”
Miss Chapman’s face straightened out from its shocked expression. “Your hat? Why do you want to change it? It’s very nice as it is.”
“My dear Miss Chapman, it’s at least six months out of date.—Ziely, you’re crying!”
“I’m not,” said Miss Zielinski weakly, caught in the act of blowing her nose.
“How on earth can you cry over a book? As if it were true!”
“I thank God I haven’t such a cold heart as you.”
“And I thank God I’m not a romantic idiot. But your name’s not Thekla for nothing I suppose.”
“My name’s as good as yours. And I won’t be looked down on because my father was once a German.”
“‘Mr. Kayser, do you vant to buy a dawg?’” hummed Miss Snodgrass.
“Girls, girls!” admonished Miss Chapman. “How you two do bicker.— There, that’s Mrs. Gurley now! And it’s long past ten.”
At the creaking of the front door both juniors rose, gathered their belongings together, and hurried from the room. But it was a false alarm; and having picked up some crumbs and set the chairs in order, Miss Chapman resumed her seat. As she waited, she looked about her and wondered, with a sigh, whether it would ever be her good fortune to call this cheery little room her own. It was only at moments like the present that she could indulge such a dream. Did Mrs. Gurley stand before her, majestic in bonnet and mantle, as in a minute or two she would, or draped in her great shawl, thoughts of this kind sank to their proper level, and Miss Chapman knew them for what they were worth. But sitting alone by night, her chin in her hand, her eyes on the dying fire, around her the eerie stillness of the great house, her ambition did not seem wholly out of reach; and, giving rein to her fancy, she could picture herself sweeping through halls and rooms, issuing orders that it was the business of others to fulfil, could even think out a few changes that should be made, were she head of the staff.
But the insertion of Mrs. Gurley’s key in the lock, the sound of her foot on the oilcloth, was enough to waken a sense of guilt in Miss Chapman, and make her start to her feet—the drab, elderly, apologetic governess once more.