The Getting of Wisdom/Chapter XIV
“My cousin Bob’s awfully gone on you.”
Laura gaped at Tilly, in crimson disbelief. “But I’ve never spoken to him!”
“Doesn’t count. He’s seen you in church.”
“Go on!—you’re stuffing.”
“Word of honour!—And I’ve promised him to ask aunt if I can bring you with me to lunch next Saturday.”
Laura looked forward to this day with mixed feelings. She was flattered at being invited to the big house in town where Tilly’s relatives lived; but she felt embarrassed at the prospect, and she had not the least idea what a boy who was “gone” on you would expect you to be or to do. Bob was a beautiful youth of seventeen, tall, and dark, and slender, with milk-white teeth and Spanish eyes; and Laura’s mouth dried up when she thought of perhaps having to be sprightly or coquettish with him.
On the eventful morning Tilly came to her room while she was dressing, and eyed her critically.
“Oh, I say, don’t put on that brown hat . . . for mercy’s sake! Bob can’t stand brown.”
But the brown was Laura’s best, and she demurred.
“Oh well, if you don’t care to look nice, you know . . .”
Of course she did; she was burning to. She even accepted the loan of a sash from her friend, because “Bob loves blue”; and went out feeling odd and unlike herself, in her everyday hat and borrowed plumes.
The Aunt, a pleasant, youthful-looking lady, called for them in a white-hooded wagonette, and set them down at the house with a playful warning.
“Now don’t get up to any mischief, you two!”
“No fear!” was Tilly’s genial response, as Aunt and cab drove off.
They were going to “do the block”, Tilly explained, and would meet Bob there; but they must first make sure that the drive had not disarranged their hair or the position of their hats; and she led the way to her aunt’s bedroom.
Laura, though she had her share of natural vanity, was too impatient to do more than cast a perfunctory glance at her reflected self. At this period of her life when a drive in a hired cab was enough of a novelty to give her pleasure, a day such as the one that lay before her filled her with unbounded anticipation.
She fidgeted from one leg to another while she waited. For Tilly was in no hurry to be gone: she prinked and finicked, making lavish use, after the little swing-glass at school, of the big mirror with its movable wings; she examined her teeth, pulled down her under-lids, combed her eyebrows, twisted her neck this way and that, in an endeavour to view her person from every angle; she took liberties with perfumes and brushes: was, in short, blind and deaf to all but the perfecting of herself—this rather mannish little self, which, despite a most womanly plumpness, affected a boyish bonhomie, and emphasised the role by wearing a stiff white collar and cuffs.
Laura was glad when she at last decided that she would “do”, and when they stepped out into the radiant autumn morning.
“What a perfectly scrumptious day!”
“Yes, bully.—I say, IS my waist all right?”
“Quite right. And ever so small.”
“I know. I gave it an extra pull-in.—Now if only we’re lucky enough to get hold of a man or two we know!”
The air, Australian air, met them like a prickling champagne: it was incredibly crisp, pure, buoyant. From the top of the eastern hill the spacious white street sloped speedily down, to run awhile in a hollow, then mount again at the other end. Where the two girls turned into it, it was quiet; but the farther they descended, the fuller it grew— fuller of idlers like themselves, out to see and to be seen.
Laura cocked her chin; she had not had a like sense of freedom since being at school. And besides, was not a boy, a handsome boy, waiting for her, and expecting her? This was the CLOU of the day, the end for which everything was making; yet of such stuff was Laura that she would have felt relieved, could the present moment have been spun out indefinitely. The state of suspense was very pleasant to her.
As for Tilly, that young lady was swinging the shoulders atop of the little waist in a somewhat provocative fashion, only too conscious of the grey-blueness of her fine eyes, and the modish cut of her clothes. She had a knack which seemed to Laura both desirable and unattainable: that of appearing to be engrossed in glib chat with her companion, while in reality she did not hear a word Laura said, and ogled everyone who passed, out of the tail of her eye.
They reached the “block”, that strip of Collins Street which forms the fashionable promenade. Here the road was full of cabs and carriages, and there was a great crowd on the pavement. The girls progressed but slowly. People were meeting their friends, shopping, changing books at the library, eating ices at the confectioner’s, fruit at the big fruit-shop round the corner. There were a large number of high-collared young dudes, some Trinity and Ormond men with coloured hatbands, ladies with little parcels dangling from their wrists, and countless schoolgirls like themselves. Tilly grew momentarily livelier; her big eyes pounced, hawk-like, on every face she met, and her words to Laura became more disjointed than before. Finally, her efforts were crowned with success: she managed, by dint of glance and smile combined, to unhook a youth of her acquaintance from a group at a doorway, and to attach him to herself.
In high good humour now that her aim was accomplished, she set about the real business of the morning—that of promenading up and down. She had no longer even a feigned interest left for Laura, and the latter walked beside the couple a lame and unnecessary third. Though she kept a keen watch for Bob, she could not discover him, and her time was spent for the most part in dodging people, and in catching up with her companions for it was difficult to walk three abreast in the crowd.
Then she saw him—and with what an unpleasant shock. If only Tilly did not see him, too!
But no such luck was hers. “Look out, there’s Bob,” nudged Tilly almost at once.
Alas! there was no question of his waiting longingly for her to appear. He was walking with two ladies, and laughing and talking. He raised his hat to his cousin and her friend, but did not disengage himself, and passing them by disappeared in the throng.
Behind her hand Tilly buzzed: “One of those Woodwards is awfully sweet on him. I bet he can’t get loose.”
This was a drop of comfort. But as, at the next encounter, he still did not offer to join them—could it, indeed, be expected that he would prefer her company to that of the pretty, grown-up girls he was with?— as he again sidled past, Tilly, who had given him one of her most vivacious sparkles, turned and shot a glance at Laura’s face.
“For pity’s sake, look a little more amiable, or he won’t come at all.”
Laura felt more like crying; her sunshine was intercepted, her good spirits were quenched; had she had her will, she would have turned tail and gone straight back to school. She had not wanted Bob, had never asked him to be ‘gone’ on her, and if she had now to fish for him, into the bargain...However there was no help for it; the thing had to be gone through with; and, since Tilly seemed disposed to lay the blame of his lukewarmness at her door, Laura glued her mouth, the next time Bob hove in sight, into a feeble smile.
Soon afterwards he came up to them. His cousin had an arch greeting in readiness.
“Well, you’ve been doing a pretty mash, you have!” she cried, and jogged him with her elbow. “No wonder you’d no eyes for poor us. What price Miss Woodward’s gloves this morning!”—at which Bob laughed, looked sly, and tapped his breast pocket.
It was time to be moving homewards. Tilly and her beau led the way. “For we know you two would rather be alone. Now, Bob, not too many sheep’s-eyes, please!”
Bob smiled, and let fly a wicked glance at Laura from under his dark lashes. Dropping behind, they began to mount the hill. Now was the moment, felt Laura, to say something very witty, or pert, or clever; and a little pulse in her throat beat hard, as she furiously racked her brains. Oh, for just a morsel of Tilly’s loose-tonguedness! One after the other she considered and dismissed: the pleasant coolness of the morning, the crowded condition of the street, even the fact of the next day being Sunday—ears and cheeks on fire, meanwhile, at her own slow-wittedness. And Bob smiled. She almost hated him for that smile. It was so assured, and withal so disturbing. Seen close at hand his teeth were whiter, his eyes browner than she had believed. His upper lip, too, was quite dark; and he fingered it incessantly, as he waited for her to make the onslaught.
But he waited in vain; and when they had walked a whole street-block in this mute fashion, it was he who broke the silence.
“Ripping girls, those Woodwards,” he said, and seemed to be remembering their charms.
“Yes, they looked very nice,” said Laura in a small voice, and was extremely conscious of her own thirteen years.
“Simply stunning! Though May’s so slender—May’s the pretty one—and has such a jolly figure . . . I believe I could span her waist with my two hands . . . her service is just AI—at tennis I mean.”
“Is it really?” said Laura wanly, and felt unutterably depressed at the turn the conversation was taking.—Her own waist was coarse, her knowledge of tennis of the slightest.
“Ra-THER! Overhand, with a cut on it—she plays with a 14-oz. racquet. And she has a back drive, too, by Jove, that—you play, of course?”
“Oh, yes.” Laura spoke up manfully; but prayed that he would not press his inquiries further. At this juncture his attention was diverted by the passing of a fine tandem; and as soon as he brought it back to her again, she said: ‘You’re at Trinity, aren’t you?’—which was finesse; for she knew he wasn’t.
“Well, yes . . . all but,” answered Bob well pleased. “I start in this winter.”
There was another pause; then she blurted out: “We church girls always wear Trinity colours at the boat-race.”
She hoped from her heart, this might lead him to say that he would look out for her there; but he did nothing of the kind. His answer was to the effect that this year they jolly well expected to knock Ormond into a cocked hat.
Lunch threatened to be formidable. To begin with, Laura, whose natural, easy frankness had by this time all but been successfully educated out of her, Laura was never shyer with strangers than at a meal, where every word you said could be listened to by a tableful of people. Then, too, her vis-a-vis was a small sharp child of five or six, called Thumbby, or Thumbkin, who only removed her bead-like eyes from Laura’s face to be saucy to her father. And, what was worse, the Uncle turned out to be a type that struck instant terror into Laura: a full-fledged male tease.—He was, besides, very hairy of face, and preternaturally solemn.
No sooner had he drawn in his chair to the table than he began. Lifting his head and thrusting out his chin, he sniffed the air in all directions with a moving nose—just as a cat does. Everyone looked at him in surprise. Tilly, who sat next him, went pink.
“What is it, dear?” his wife at last inquired in a gentle voice; for it was evident that he was not going to stop till asked why he did it.
“Mos’ extraor’nary smell!” he replied. “Mother, d’you know, I could take my appledavy some one has been using my scent.”
“Silly pa!” said the little girl.
Ramming his knuckles into his eyes, he pretended to cry at his daughter’s rebuke; then bore down on Laura.
“D’you know, Miss Ra . . . Ra . . . Rambotham”—he made as if he could not get her name out—“d’you know that I’m a great man for scent? Fact. I take a bath in it every morning.”
Laura smiled uncertainly, fixed always by the child.
“Fact, I assure you. Over the tummy, up to the chin.—Now, who’s been at it? For it’s my opinion I shan’t have enough left to shampoo my eyebrows.—Bob, is it you?”
“Don’t be an ass, pater.”
“Cut me some bread, Bob, please,” said Tilly hastily.
“Mos’ extraor’nary thing!” persisted the Uncle. “Or—good Lord, mother, can it be my monthly attack of D.T.‘s beginning already? They’re not due, you know, till next week, Monday, five o’clock.”
“Dear, DON’T be so silly. Besides it’s my scent, not yours. And anyone is welcome to it.”
“Well, well, let’s call in the cats!—By the way, Miss Ra . . . Ra . . . Rambotham, are you aware that this son of mine is a professed lady-killer?”
Laura and Bob went different shades of crimson.
“Why has she got so red?” the child asked her mother, in an audible whisper.
“Oh, CHUCK it, pater!” murmured Bob in disgust.
“Fact, I assure you. Put not your trust in Robert! He’s always on with the new love before he’s off with the old. You ask him whose glove he’s still cherishing in the pocket next his heart.”
Bob pushed his plate from him and, for a moment, seemed about to leave the table. Laura could not lift her eyes. Tilly chewed in angry silence.
Here, however, the child made a diversion.
“You’re a lady-kilda yourself, pa.”
“Me, Thumbkin?—Mother, d’you hear that?—Then it’s the whiskers, Thumbby. Ladies love whiskers—or a fine drooping moustache, like my son Bob’s.” He sang: “‘Oh, oh, the ladies loved him so!’”
“Tom, dear, DO be quiet.”
“Tom, Tom, the piper’s son!” chirped Thumbby.
“Well, well, let’s call in the cats!”—which appeared to be his way of changing the subject.
It seemed, after this, as though the remainder of lunch might pass off without further hitch. Then however and all of a sudden, while he was peeling an apple, this dreadful man said, as though to himself: “Ra . . . Ra . . . Rambotham. Now where have I heard that name?”
“Wa . . . Wa . . . Wamboffam!” mocked Thumbkin.
“Monkey, if you’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself!—Young lady, do you happen to come from Warrenega?” he asked Laura, when Thumbkin’s excited chirrup of: “I’ll cut YOU, pa, into little bits!” had died away.
Ready to sink through the floor, Laura replied that she did.
“Then I’ve the pleasure of knowing your mother.—Tall dark woman, isn’t she?”
Under the table, Laura locked the palms of her hands and stemmed her feet against the floor. Was here, now, before them all, and Bob in particular, the shameful secret of the embroidery to come to light? She could hardly force her lips to frame an answer.
Her confusion was too patent to be overlooked. Above her lowered head, signs passed between husband and wife, and soon afterwards the family rose from the table.
But Tilly was so obviously sulky that the tense could not let her escape him thus.
He cried: “For God’s sake, Tilly, stand still! What on earth have you got on your back?”
Tilly came from up-country and her thoughts leapt fearfully to scorpions and tarantulas. Affrighted, she tried to peer over her shoulder, and gave a preliminary shriek. “Gracious!—whatever is it?”
“Hold on!” He approached her with the tongs; the next moment to ejaculate: “Begad, it’s not a growth, it’s a bustle!” and as he spoke he tweaked the place where a bustle used to be worn.
Even Bob had to join in the ensuing boohoo, which went on and on till Laura thought the Uncle would fall down in a fit. Then for the third time he invited those present to join him in summoning the cats, murmured something about “humping his bluey”, and went out into the hall, where they heard him swinging Thumbby “round the world”.
It was all the Aunt could do to mollify Tilly, who was enraged to the point of tears. “I’ve never worn a bustle in my life! Uncle’s a perfect FOOL! I’ve never met such a fool as he is!”
Still boiling, she disappeared to nurse her ruffled temper in private; and she remained absent from the room for over half an hour. During this time Laura and Bob were alone together. But even less than before came of their intercourse: Bob, still smarting from his father’s banter, was inclined to be stand-offish, as though afraid Laura might take liberties with him after having been made to look so small; Laura, rendered thoroughly unsure to begin with, by the jocular tone of the luncheon-table, had not recovered from the shock of hearing her parentage so bluffly disclosed. And since, at this time, her idea of the art of conversation was to make jerky little remarks which led nowhere, or to put still more jerky questions, Bob was soon stifling yawns, and not with the best success. He infected Laura; and there the two of them sat, doing their best to appear unconscious of the terrible spasms which, every few seconds, distorted their faces. At last Bob could stand it no longer and bolted from the room.
Laura was alone, and seemed to be forgotten The minutes ticked by, and no one came—or no one but a little grey kitten, which arrived as if from nowhere, with a hop and a skip. She coaxed the creature to her lap, where it joined head to tail and went to sleep. And there she sat, in the gloomy, overfilled drawing-room, and stroked the kitten, which neither cracked stupid jokes nor required her to strain her wits to make conversation.
When at length Tilly came back, she expressed a rather acid surprise at Bob’s absence, and went to look for him; Laura heard them whispering and laughing in the passage. On their return to the drawing-room it had been decided that the three of them should go for a walk. As the sky was overcast and the girls had no umbrellas, Bob carried a big one belonging to the Uncle. Tilly called this a “family umbrella”; and the jokes that were extracted from the pair of words lasted the walkers on the whole of their outward way; lasted so long that Laura, who was speedily finished with her contribution, grew quite stupefied with listening to the other two.
Collins Street was now as empty as a bush road. The young people went into Bourke Street, where, for want of something better to do, they entered the Eastern Market and strolled about inside. The noise that rose from the livestock, on ground floor and upper storey, was ear-splitting: pigs grunted; cocks crowed, turkeys gobbled, parrots shrieked; while rough human voices echoed and re-echoed under the lofty roof. There was a smell, too, an extraordinary smell, composed of all the individual smells of all these living things: of fruit and vegetables, fresh and decayed; of flowers, and butter, and grain; of meat, and fish, and strong cheeses; of sawdust sprinkled with water, and freshly wet pavements—one great complicated smell, the piquancy of which made Laura sniff like a spaniel. But after a very few minutes Tilly, whose temper was still short, called it a “vile stink” and clapped her handkerchief to her nose, and so they hurried out, past many enticing little side booths hidden in dark corners on the ground floor, such as a woman without legs, a double-headed calf, and the like.
Outside it had begun to rain; they turned into a Waxworks Exhibition. This was a poor show, and they were merely killing time when the announcement caught their eye that a certain room was open to “Married People Only”. The quips and jokes this gave rise to again were as unending as those about the umbrella; and Laura grew so tired of them, and of pretending to find them funny, that her temper also began to give way; and she eased her feelings by making the nippy mental note on her companions, that jokes were evidently “in the blood”.
When they emerged, it was time for the girls to return to school. They took a hansom, Bob accompanying them. As they drove, Laura sitting sandwiched between the other two, it came over her with a rush what a miserable failure the day had been. A minute before, her spirits had given a faint flicker, for Bob had laid his arm along the back of the seat. Then she saw that he had done this just to pull at the little curls that grew on Tilly’s neck. She was glad when the cab drew up, when Tilly ostentatiously took the fat half-crown from her purse, and Bob left them at the gate with a: “Well, so long, ladies!”
The boarders spent the evening in sewing garments for charity. Laura had been at work for weeks on a coarse, red flannel petticoat, and as a rule was under constant reprimand for her idleness. On this night, having separated herself from Tilly, she sat down beside a girl with a very long plait of hair and small, narrow eyes, who went by the name of “Chinky”. Chinky was always making up to her, and could be relied on to cover her silence. Laura sewed away, with bent head and pursed lips, and was so engrossed that the sole rebuke she incurred had to do with her diligence.
Miss Chapman exclaimed in horror at her stiffly outstretched arm.
“How CAN you be so vulgar, Laura? To sew with a thread as long as that!”