The Getting of Wisdom/Chapter XIX
Thus Laura went to Coventry.—Not that the social banishment she now suffered was known by that name. To the majority of the girls Coventry was just a word in the geography book, a place where ribbons were said to be made, and where for a better-read few, some one had hung with grooms and porters on a bridge; this detail, odd to say, making a deeper impression on their young minds than the story of Lady Godiva, which was looked upon merely as a naughty anecdote.
But, by whatever name it was known, Laura’s ostracism was complete. She had been sampled, tested, put on one side. And not the softest-hearted could find an excuse for her behaviour.
It was but another instance of how misfortune dogs him who is down, that Chinky should choose this very moment to bring further shame upon her.
On one of the miserable days that were now the rule, when Laura would have liked best to be a rabbit, hid deep in its burrow; as she was going upstairs one afternoon, she met Jacob, the man-of-all-work, coming down. He had a trunk on his shoulder. Throughout the day she had been aware of a subdued excitement among the boarders; they had stood about in groups, talking in low voices—talking about her, she believed, from the glances that were thrown over shoulders at her as she passed. She made herself as small as she could; but when tea-time came, and then [P.192] supper, and Chinky had not appeared at either meal, curiosity got the better of her, and she tried to pump one of the younger girls.
Maria came up while she was speaking, and the child ran away; for the little ones aped their elders in making Laura taboo.
“What, liar? You want to stuff us you don’t know why she’s gone?” said Maria. “No, thank you, it’s not good enough. You can’t bamboozle us this time.”
“Sapphira up to her tricks again, is she?” threw in the inseparable Kate, who had caught the last words. “No, by dad, we don’t tell liars what they know already.—So put that in your pipe and smoke it!”
Only bit by bit did Laura dig out their meaning: then, the horrible truth lay bare. Chinky had been dismissed—privately because she was a boarder—from the school. Her crime was: she had taken half-a-sovereign from the purse of one of her room-mates. When taxed with the theft, she wept that she had not taken it for herself, but to buy a ring for Laura Rambotham; and, with this admission on her lips, she passed out of their lives, leaving Laura, her confederate, behind.—Yes, confederate; for, in the minds of most, liar and thief were synonymous.
Laura had not cared two straws for Chinky; she found what the latter had done, “mean and disgusting”, and said so, stormily; but of course was not believed. Usually too proud to defend herself, she here returned to the charge again and again; for the hint of connivance had touched her on the raw. But she strove in vain to prove her innocence: she could not get her enemies to grasp the abysmal difference between merely making up a story about people, and laying hands on others’ property; if she could do the one, she was capable of the other; and her companions remained convinced that, if she had not actually had her fingers in some one’s purse, she had, by a love of jewellery, incited Chinky to the theft. And so, after a time, Laura gave up the attempt and suffered in silence; and it WAS suffering; for her schoolfellows were cruel with that intolerance, that unimaginative dullness, which makes a woman’s cruelty so hard to bear. Laura had to accustom herself to hear every word she said doubted; to hear some one called to, before her face, to attest her statements; to see her room-mates lock up their purses under her very nose.
However, only three weeks had still to run till the Christmas holidays. She drew twenty-one strokes on a sheet of paper, which she pinned to the wall above her bed; and each morning she ran her pencil through a fresh line. She was quite resolved to beg Mother not to send her back to school: if she said she was not getting proper food, that would be enough to put Mother up in arms.
The boxes were being fetched from the lumber-rooms and distributed among their owners, when a letter arrived from Mother saying that the two little boys had sandy blight, and that Laura would not be able to come home under two or three weeks, for fear of infection. These weeks she was to spend, in company with Pin, at a watering-place down the Bay, where one of her aunts had a cottage.
The news was welcome to Laura: she had shrunk from the thought of Mother’s searching eye. And at the cottage there would be none of her grown-up relatives to face; only an old housekeeper, who was looking after a party of boys.
Hence, when speech day was over, instead of setting out on an up-country railway journey, Laura, under the escort of Miss Snodgrass, went on board one of the steamers that ploughed the Bay.
“I should say sea-air’ll do you good—brighten you up a bit,” said the governess affably as they drove: she was in great good-humour at the prospect of losing sight for a time of the fifty-five. “You seem to be always in the dumps nowadays.”
Laura dutifully waved her handkerchief from the deck of the SILVER STAR; and the paddles began to churn. As Miss Snodgrass’s back retreated down the pier, and the breach between ship and land widened, she settled herself on her seat with a feeling of immense relief. At last—at last she was off. The morning had been a sore trial to her: in all the noisy and effusive leave-taking, she was odd man out; no one had been sorry to part from her; no one had extracted a promise that she would write. Her sole valediction had been a minatory shaft from Maria: if she valued her skin, to learn to stop telling crams before she showed up there again. Now, she was free of them; she would not be humiliated afresh, would not need to stand eye to eye with anyone who knew of her disgrace, for weeks to come; perhaps never again, if Mother agreed. Her heart grew momentarily lighter. And the farther they left Melbourne behind them, the higher her spirits rose.
But then, too, was it possible, on this radiant December day, long to remain in what Miss Snodgrass had called “the dumps”?—The sea was a blue-green mirror, on the surface of which they swam. The sky was a stretched sheet of blue, in which the sun hung a very ball of fire. But the steamer cooled the air as it moved; and none of the white-clad people who, under the stretched white awnings, thronged the deck, felt oppressed by the great heat. In the middle of the deck, a brass band played popular tunes.
At a pretty watering-place where they stopped, Laura rose and crossed to the opposite railing. A number of passengers went ashore, pushing and laughing, but almost as many more came on board, all dressed in white, and with eager, animated faces. Then the boat stood to sea again and sailed past high, grass-grown cliffs, from which a few old cannons, pointing their noses at you, watched over the safety of the Bay—in the event, say, of the Japanese or the Russians entering the Heads past the pretty township, and the beflagged bathing-enclosures on the beach below. They neared the tall, granite lighthouse at the point, with the flagstaff at its side where incoming steamers were signalled; and as soon as they had rounded this corner they were in view of the Heads themselves. From the distant cliffs there ran out, on either side, brown reefs, which made the inrushing water dance and foam, and the entrance to the Bay narrow and dangerous: on one side, there projected the portion of a wreck which had lain there as long as Laura had been in the world. Then, having made a sharp turn to the left, the boat crossed to the opposite coast, and steamed past barrack-like buildings lying asleep in the fierce sunshine of the afternoon; and, in due course, it stopped at Laura’s destination.
Old Anne was waiting on the jetty, having hitched the horse to a post: she had driven in, in the ‘shandrydan’, to meet Laura. For the cottage was not on the front beach, with the hotels and boarding-houses, the fenced-in baths and great gentle slope of yellow sand: it stood in the bush, on the back beach, which gave to the open sea.
Laura took her seat beside the old woman in her linen sunbonnet, the body of the vehicle being packed full of groceries and other stores; and the drive began. Directly they were clear of the township the road as good as ceased, became a mere sandy track, running through a scrub of ti-trees.—And what sand! White, dry, sliding sand, through which the horse shuffled and floundered, in which the wheels sank and stuck. Had one of the many hillocks to be taken, the two on the box-seat instinctively threw their weight forward; old Anne, who had a stripped wattle-bough for a whip, urged and cajoled; and more than once she handed Laura the reins and got down, to give the horse a pull. They had always to be ducking their heads, too, to let the low ti-tree branches sweep over their backs.
About a couple of miles out, the old woman alighted and slipped a rail; and having passed the only other house within cooee, they drove through a paddock, but at a walking-pace, because of the thousands of rabbit-burrows that perforated the ground. Another slip-rail lowered, they drew up at the foot of a steepish hill, beside a sandy little vegetable garden, a shed and a pump. The house was perched on the top of the hill, and directly they sighted it they also saw Pin flying down, her sunbonnet on her neck.
“Laura, Laura! Oh, I AM glad you’ve come. What a time you’ve been!”
“Hullo, Pin.—Oh, I say, let me get out first.”
“And pull up your bonnet, honey. D’you want to be after gettin’ sunstruck?”
Glad though Laura was to see her sister again, she did not manage to infuse a very hearty tone into her greeting; for her first glimpse of Pin had given her a disagreeable shock. It was astonishing, the change the past half-year had worked in the child; and as the two climbed the hill together, to the accompaniment of Pin’s bubbly talk, Laura stole look after look at her little sister, in the hope of growing used to what she saw. Pin had never been pretty, but now she was “downright hideous”—as Laura phrased it to herself. Eleven years of age, she had at last begun to grow in earnest: her legs were as of old mere spindleshanks, but nearly twice as long; and her fat little body, perched above them, made one think of a shrivelled-up old man who has run all to paunch. Her face, too, had increased in shapelessness, the features being blurred in the fat mass; her blue eyes were more slit-like than before; and, to cap everything, her fine skin had absolutely no chance, so bespattered was it with freckles. And none of your pretty little sun-kisses; but large, black, irregular freckles that disfigured like moles. Laura felt quite distressed; it outraged her feelings that anyone belonging to her should be so ugly; and as Pin, in happy ignorance of her sister’s reflections, chattered on, Laura turned over in her mind what she ought to do. She would have to tell Pin about herself—that was plain: she must break the news to her, in case others should do it, and more cruelly. It was one consolation to know that Pin was not sensitive about her looks; so long as you did not tease her about her legs, there was no limit to what you might say to her: the grieving was all for the onlooker. But not today: this was the first day; and there were pleasanter things to think of. And so, when they had had tea—with condensed milk in it, for the cow had gone dry, and no milkman came out so far—when tea was over—and that was all that could be undertaken in the way of refreshment after the journey; washing your face and hands, for instance, was out of the question; every drop of water had to be carried up the hill from the pump, and old Anne purposely kept the ewers empty by day; if you WOULD wash, you must wash in the sea—as soon, then, as tea was over, the two sisters made for the beach.
The four-roomed, weatherboard cottage, to which at a later date a lean-to had been added, faced the bush: from the verandah there was a wide view of the surrounding country. Between the back of the house and the beach rose a huge sand-hill, sparsely grown with rushes and coarse grass. It took you some twenty minutes to toil over this, and boots and stockings were useless impedimenta; for the sand was once more of that loose and shifting kind in which you sank at times up to the knees, falling back one step for every two you climbed. But then, sand was the prevailing note of this free and easy life: it bestrewed verandah and floors; you carried it in your clothes; the beds were full of it; it even got into the food; and you were soon so accustomed to its presence that you missed the grit of it under foot, or the prickling on your skin, did old Anne happen to take a broom in her hand, or thoroughly re-make the beds.—When, however, on your way to the beach you had laboriously attained the summit of the great dune, the sight that met you almost took your breath away: as far as the eye could reach, the bluest of skies melting into the bluest of seas, which broke its foam-flecked edge against the flat, brown reefs that fringed the shore. Then, downhill—with a trip and a flounder that sent the sand man-high—and at last you were on what Laura and Pin thought the most wonderful beach in the world. What a variety of things was there! Whitest, purest sand, hot to the touch as a zinc roof in summer; rocky caves, and sandy caves hung with crumbly stalactites; at low tide, on the reef, lakes and ponds and rivers deep enough to make it unnecessary for you to go near the ever-angry surf at all; seaweeds that ran through the gamut of colours: brown and green, pearl-pink and coral-pink, to vivid scarlet and orange; shells, beginning with tiny grannies and cowries, and ending with the monsters in which the breakers had left their echo; the bones of cuttlefish, light as paper, and shaped like javelins. And, what was best of all, this beach belonged to them alone; they had not to share its treasures with strangers; except the inhabitants of the cottage, never a soul set foot upon it.
The chief business of the morning was to bathe. If the girls were alone and the tide full, they threw off their clothes and ran into a sandy, shallow pool, where the water never came above their waists, and where it was safe to let the breakers dash over them. But if the tide were low, the boys bathed, too, and then Pin and Laura tied themselves up in old bathing-gowns that were too big for them, and all went in a body to the “Half-Moon Hole”. This pool, which was about twenty feet long and ten to fifteen deep, lay far out on the reef, and, at high tide, was hidden beneath surf and foam; at low water, on the other hand, it was like a glass mirror reflecting the sky, and so clear that you could see every weed that waved at the bottom. Having cast off your shoes, you applied your soles gingerly to the prickles of the rock; then plop!—and in you went. Pin often needed a shove from behind, for nowhere, of course, could you get a footing; but Laura swam with the best. Some of the boys would dive to the bottom and bring up weeds and shells, but Laura and Pin kept on the surface of the water; for they had the imaginative dread common to children who know the sea well—the dread of what may lurk beneath the thick, black horrors of seaweed.
Then, after an hour or so in the water, home to dinner, hungry as swagmen, though the bill of fare never varied: it was always rabbit for dinner, crayfish for tea; for the butcher called only once a week, and meat could not be kept an hour without getting flyblown. The rabbits were skinned and in the stew-pot before they were cold; the crayfish died an instant death: one that drove the blood to Laura’s head, and made Pin run away and cry, with her fingers to her ears; for she believed the sizzling of the water, as the fish were dropped in, to be the shriek of the creatures in their death-agony.
Except in bathing, the girls saw little of the boys. Both were afraid of guns, so did not go out on the expeditions which supplied the dinner-table; and old Anne would not allow them to join the crayfishing excursions. For these took place by night, off the end of the reef, with nets and torches; and it sometimes happened, if the surf were heavy, that one of the fishers was washed off the rocks, and only hauled up again with considerable difficulty.
Laura took her last peep at the outside world, every evening, in the brief span of time between sunset and dark. Running up to the top of one of the hills, and letting her eyes range over sky and sea, she would drink in the scents that were waking to life after the burning heat of the day: salt water, warmed sand and seaweeds, ti-scrub, sour-grass, and the sturdy berry-bushes, high as her knee, through which she had ploughed her way. That was one of the moments she liked best, that, and lying in bed at night listening to the roar of the surf, which went on and on like a cannonade, even though the hill lay between. It made her flesh crawl, too, in delightful fashion, did she picture to herself how alone she and Pin were, in their room: the boys slept in the lean-to on the other side of the kitchen; old Anne at the back. For miles round, no house broke the solitude of the bush; only a thin wooden partition separated her from possible bushrangers, from the vastness and desolation of the night, the eternal booming of the sea.
Such was the life into which Laura now threw herself heart and soul, forgetting, in the sheer joy of living, her recent tribulation.
But even the purest pleasures WILL pall; and after a time, when the bloom had worn off and the newness and her mind was more at leisure again, she made some disagreeable discoveries which ruffled her tranquillity.
It was Pin, poor, fat, little well-meaning Pin, who did the mischief
Pin was not only changed in looks; her character had changed, too; and in so marked a way that before a week was out the sisters were at loggerheads. Each day made it plainer to Laura that Pin was developing a sturdy independence; she had ceased to look up to Laura as a prodigy of wisdom, and had begun to hold opinions of her own. She was, indeed, even disposed to be critical of her sister; and criticism from this quarter was more than Laura could brook: it was just as if a slave usurped his master’s rights. At first speechless with surprise, she ended by losing her temper; the more, because Pin was prone to be mulish, and could not be got to budge, either by derision or by scorn, from her espoused views. They were those of the school at which for the past half-year she had been a day-pupil, and seemed to her unassailable. Laura found them ridiculous, as she did much else about Pin at this time: her ugliness, her setting herself up as an authority: and she jeered unkindly whenever Pin came out with them.—A still more ludicrous thing was that, despite her plainness, Pin actually had an admirer. True, she did not say so outright; perhaps she was not even aware of it; but Laura gathered from her talk that a boy at her school, a boy some three years older than herself, had given her a silk handkerchief and liked to help her with her sums.—And to Laura this was the most knockdown blow of all.
One day it came to an open quarrel between them.
They were lying on the beach after bathing, trying to protect their bare and blistered legs from the sandflies. Laura, flat on her back, had spread a towel over hers; Pin sat Turk—fashion with her legs beneath her and fought the flies with her hands. Having vainly endeavoured to draw from the reticent Laura some of those school-tales of which, in former holidays, she had been so prodigal, Pin was now chattering to her heart’s content, about the small doings of home. Laura listened to her with the impatient toleration of one who has seen the world: she really could not be expected to interest herself in such trifles; and she laughed in her sleeve at Pin’s simpleness. When, however, her little sister began to enlarge anew on some wonderful orders Mother had lately had, she could not refrain from saying crossly: “You’ve told me that a dozen times already. And you needn’t bawl it out for everyone to hear.”
“Oh, Laura! there isn’t anyone anywhere near us . . . and even if there were—why, I thought you’d be so pleased. Mother’s going to give you an extra shilling pocket-money, ‘cause of it.”
“Of course I’m pleased. Don’t be so silly, Pin.”
“I’m not ALWAYS silly, Laura,” protested Pin. “And I don’t believe you ARE glad, a bit. Old Anne was, though. She said: ‘Bless her dear heart!’”
“Old Anne? Well, I just wonder what next! It’s none of her dashed business.”
“Oh, Laura!” began Pin, growing tearful both at words and tone. “Why, Laura, you’re not ashamed of it, are you?—that mother does sewing?”— and Pin opened her lobelia-blue eyes to their widest, showing what very big eyes they would be, were they not so often swollen with crying.
“Of course not,” said Laura tartly. “But I’m blessed if I can see what it’s got to do with old Anne.”
“But she asked me . . . what mother was working at—and if she’d got any new customers. She just loves mother.”
“Like her cheek!” snapped Laura. “Poking her ugly old nose into what doesn’t concern her. You should just have said you didn’t know.”
“But that would have been a story, Laura!” cried Pin, horrified “I did know—quite well.”
“Goodness gracious, Pin, you——”
“I’ve never told a story in my life,” said Pin hotly. “And I’m not going to either, for you or anyone. I think you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
“Hold your silly tongue!”
“I shan’t, Laura. And I think you’re very wicked. You’re not a bit like what you used to be. And it’s all going to school that’s done it— Mother says it is.”
“Oh, don’t be such a blooming ass!” and Laura, stung to the quick, retaliated by taunting Pin with the change that had come to pass in her appearance. To her surprise, she found Pin grown inordinately touchy about her looks: at Laura’s brutal statement of the truth she cried bitterly.
“I’m not, no, I’m not! I haven’t got a full moon for a face! It’s no fatter than yours. Sarah said last time you were home how fat you were getting.”
“I’m sure I’m not,” said Laura, indignant in her turn.
“Yes, you are,” sobbed Pin. “But you only think other people are ugly, not yourself I’ll tell mother what you’ve said as soon as ever I get home. And I’ll tell her, too, you want to make me tell stories. And that I’m sure you’ve done something naughty at school, ‘cause you won’t ever talk about it. And how you’re always saying bad words like blooming and gosh and golly—yes, I will!”
“You were always a sneak and a tell-tale.”
“And you were always a greedy, selfish, deceitful thing.”
“You don’t know anything about me, you numbskull, you!”
“I don’t want to! I know you’re a bad, wicked girl.”
After this exchange of home truths, they did not speak to each other for two days: Pin had a temper that smouldered, and could not easily forgive. So she stayed at old Anne’s side, helping to bake scones and leatherjackets; or trotted after the boys, who had dropped into the way of saying: “Come on, little Pin!” as they never said: “Come on, Laura!” and Laura retired in lonely dudgeon to the beach.
She took the estrangement so much to heart that she eased her feelings by abusing Pin in thought; Pin was a pig-headed little ignoramus, as timid as ever of setting one foot before the other. And the rest of them would be just the same—old stick-in-the muds, unchanged by a hair, or, if they HAD changed, then changed for the worse. Laura had somehow never foreseen the day on which she would find herself out of tune with her home circle; with unthinking assurance she had expected that Pin, for instance, would always be eager to keep pace with her. Now, she saw that her little sister would probably never catch up to her again. Such progress as Pin might make—if she were not already glued firm to her silly notions—would be in quite another direction. For the quarrel had made one thing plain to Laura: with regard to her troubles, she need not look to Pin for sympathy: if Pin talked such gibberish at the hint of putting off an inquisitive old woman, what would she—and not she alone—what would they all say to the tissue of lies Laura had spun round Mr. Shepherd, a holy man, a clergyman, and a personal friend of Mother’s into the bargain? She could not blink the fact that, did it come to their ears, they would call her in earnest, what Pin had called her in her temper—bad and wicked. Home was, alas! no longer the snug nest in which she was safe from the slings and shanghais of the world.
And then there was another thing: did she stay at home, she would have to re-live herself into the thousand and one gimcrack concerns, which now, as set forth by Pin, so bored her: the colic Leppie had brought on by eating unripe fruit; the fact that another of Sarah’s teeth had dropped out without extraneous aid. It was all very well for a week or two, but, at the idea of shutting herself wholly up with such mopokes, of cutting herself off from her present vital interests, Laura hastily reconsidered her decision to leave school. No: badly as she had suffered at her companions’ hands, much as she dreaded returning, it was at school she belonged. All her heart was there: in the doings of her equals, the things that really mattered—who would be promoted, who prefect, whose seat changed in the dining-hall.—Besides, could one who had experienced the iron rule of Mr. Strachey, or Mrs. Gurley, ever be content to go back and just form one of a family of children? She not, at any rate!
Thus she lay, all day long, her hands clasped under her neck, a small white speck on the great wave-lapped beach. She watched the surf break, watched the waves creep up and hide the reef, watched the gulls vanish in the sun-saturated blue overhead. Sometimes she rose to her elbow to follow a ship just inside the horizon; and it pleased her to think that this great boat was sailing off, with a load of lucky mortals, to some unknown, fairer world, while she, a poor Cinderella, had to stop behind —even though she knew it was only the English mail going on to Sydney. Of Pin she preferred not to think; nor could she dwell with equanimity on her late misfortunes at school and the trials that awaited her on her reappearance; and since she HAD to think of something, she fell into the habit of making up might-have-been, of narrating to herself how things would have fallen out had her fictions been fact, her ascetic hero the impetuous lover she had made of him.—In other words, lying prostrate on the sand, Laura went on with her story.
When, towards the end of the third week, she and Pin were summoned to spend some days with Godmother, she had acquired such a gusto for this occupation, that she preferred to shirk reality, and let Pin pay the visit alone.