The Getting of Wisdom/Chapter XVI
Since, however, it seemed that some one had to be loved if you were to be able to hold up your head with the rest, then it was easier, infinitely easier, to love the curate. With the curate, no personal contact was necessary—and that was more than could be said even of the music-masters. In regard to them, pressures of the hand, as well as countless nothings, were expected and enacted, in the bi-weekly reports you rendered to those of your friends who followed the case. Whereas for the curate it was possible to simulate immense ardour, without needing either to humble your pride or call invention to your aid: the worship took place from afar. The curate was, moreover, no unworthy object; indeed he was quite attractive, in a lean, ascetic fashion, with his spiritual blue eyes, and the plain gold cross that dangled from his black watch-ribbon—though, it must be admitted, when he preached, and grew greatly in earnest, his mouth had a way of opening as if it meant to swallow the church—and Laura was by no means his sole admirer. Several of her friends had a fancy for him, especially as his wife, who was much older than he, was a thin, elderly lady with a tired face.
And now, by her own experience, Laura was led to the following discovery: that, if you imagine a thing with sufficient force, you can induce your imagining to become reality. By dint of pretending that it was so, she gradually worked herself up into an attack of love, which was genuine enough to make her redden when Mr. Shepherd was spoken of, and to enjoy being teased about him. And since, at any rate when in church, she was a sincerely religious little girl, and one to whom— notwithstanding her protested indifference to forms of worship—such emotional accessories as flowers, and music, and highly coloured vestments made a strong appeal, her feelings for Mr. Shepherd were soon mystically jumbled up with her piety: the eastward slant for the Creed, and the Salutation at the Sacred Name, seemed not alone homage due to the Deity, but also a kind of minor homage offered to and accepted by Mr. Shepherd; the school-pew being so near the chancel that it was not difficult to believe yourself the recipient of personal notice.
At home during the winter holidays, his name chanced to cross her lips. Straightway it occurred to Mother that he was the nephew of an old friend whom she had long lost sight of letters passed between Warrenega and Melbourne, and shortly after her return to the College Laura learnt that she was to spend the coming monthly holiday at Mr. Shepherd’s house.
In the agitated frame of mind this threw her into, she did not know whether to be glad or sorry. Her feelings had, of late, got into such a rapt and pious muddle that it seemed a little like being asked out to meet God. On the other hand, she could not but see that the circumstance would raise her standing at school, immeasurably. And this it did. As soon as the first shock had passed she communicated the fact freely, and was shrewd enough not to relate how the invitation had come about, allowing it to be put down, as her friends were but too ready to do, to the effect produced on the minister by her silent adoration.
The Church girls were wild with envy. Laura was dragged up the garden with an arm thrust through each of hers. Mr. Shepherd’s holy calling and spiritual appearance stood him in small stead here; and the blackest interpretation was put on the matter of the visit.
“Nice things you’ll be up to, the pair of you—oh, my aunt!” ejaculated Maria.
“I think it’s beastly risky her going at all,” filled in Kate Horner, gobbling a little; for her upper lip overhung the lower. “These saints are oftenest bad ‘uns.”
“Yes, and with an Aunt Sally like that for a wife.—Now look here, Kiddy, just you watch you’re not left alone with him in the dark.”
“And mind, you’ve got to tell us everything—every blessed thing!”
Laura was called for, on Saturday morning, by the maiden sister of her divinity. Miss Isabella Shepherd was a fair, short, pleasant young woman, with a nervous, kindly smile, and a congenital inability to look you in the face when speaking to you; so that the impression she made was that of a perpetual friendliness, directed, however, not at you, but at the inanimate objects around you. Laura was so tickled by this peculiarity, which she spied the moment she entered the waiting-room, that at first she could take in nothing else. Afterwards, when the novelty had worn off, she subjected her companion to a closer scrutiny, and from the height of thirteen years had soon taxed her with being a frumpish old maid; the valiant but feeble efforts Miss Isabella made to entertain her, as they walked along, only strengthening her in this opinion.
Not very far from the College they entered a small, two-storied stone house, which but for an iron railing and a shrub or two gave right on the street.
“Will you come up to the study?” said Miss Isabella, smiling warmly, and ogling the door-mat. “I’m sure Robby would like to see you at once.”
Robby? Her saint called Robby?—Laura blushed.
But at the head of the stairs they were brought up short by Mrs. Shepherd, who, policeman-like, raised a warning hand.
“Hssh . . . ssh . . . sh!” she breathed, and simultaneously half-closed her eyes, as if imitating slumber. “Robby has just lain down for a few minutes. How are you, dear?”—in a whisper. “I’m so pleased to see you.”
She looked even more faded than in church. But she was very kind, and in the bedroom insisted on getting out a clean towel for Laura.
“Now we’ll go down.—It’s only lunch to-day, for Robby has a confirmation-class immediately afterwards, and doesn’t care to eat much.”
They descended to the dining-room, but though the meal was served, did not take their seats: they stood about, in a kind of anxious silence. This lasted for several minutes; then, heavy footsteps were heard trampling overhead: these persisted, but did not seem to advance, and at length there was a loud, impatient shout of: “Maisie!”
Both ladies were perceptibly flurried. “He can’t find something,” said Miss Isabella in a stage-whisper; while Mrs. Shepherd, taking the front of her dress in both hands, set out for the stairs with the short, clumsy jerks which, in a woman, pass for running.
A minute or two later the origin of the fluster came in, looking, it must be confessed, not much more amiable than his voice had been: he was extremely pale, too, his blue eyes had hollow rings round them, and there were tired wrinkles on his forehead. However he offered Laura a friendly hand which she took with her soul in her eyes.
“Well, and so this is the young lady fresh from the halls of learning, is it?” he asked, after a mumbled grace, as he carved a rather naked mutton-bone: the knife caught in the bone; he wrenched it free with an ill-natured tweak. “And what do they teach you at college, miss, eh?” he went on. “French? . . . Greek? . . . Latin? How goes it? INFANDUM, REGINA, JUBES RENOVARE DOLOREM—isn’t that the way of it? And then . . . let me see! It’s so long since I went to school, you know.”
“TROJANAS UT OPES ET LAMENTABILE REGNUM ERUERINT DANAI,” said Laura, almost blind with pride and pleasure.
“Well, well, well!” he exclaimed, in what seemed tremendous surprise; but, even as she spoke, his thoughts were swept away; for he had taken up a mustard-pot and found it empty. “Yes, yes, here we are again! Not a scrap of mustard on the table. “—His voice was angrily resigned.
“With MUTTON, Robby dear?” ventured Mrs. Shepherd, with the utmost humbleness.
“With mutton if I choose!” he retorted violently. “WILL you, Maisie, be kind enough to allow me to know my own tastes best, and not dictate to me what I shall eat?”
But Mrs. Shepherd, murmuring: “Oh dear! it’s that dreadful girl,” had already made a timid spring at the bell.
“Poor Robby . . . so rushed again!” said Isabella in a reproachful tone.
“And while she’s here she may bring the water and the glasses as well,” snarled the master of the house, who had run a flaming eye over the table.
“Tch, tch, tch!” said Mrs. Shepherd, with so little spirit that Laura felt quite sorry for her.
“REALLY, Maisie!” said Miss Isabella. “And when the poor boy’s so rushed, too.”
This guerilla warfare continued throughout luncheon, and left Laura wondering why, considering the dearth of time, and the distress of the ladies at each fresh contretemps, they did not jump up and fetch the missing articles themselves—as Mother would have done—instead of each time ringing the bell and waiting for the appearance of the saucy, unwilling servant. As it turned out, however, their behaviour had a pedagogic basis. It seemed that they hoped, by constantly summoning the maid, to sharpen her memory. But Mrs. Shepherd was also implicated in the method; and this was the reason why Isabella—as she afterwards explained to Laura—never offered her a thimbleful of help.
“My sister-in-law is nothing of a manager,” she said. “But we still trust she will improve in time, if she always has her attention drawn to her forgetfulness—at least Robby does; I’m afraid I have rather [P.165] given her up. But Robby’s patience is angelic.” And Laura was of the same opinion, since the couple had been married for more than seven years.
The moment the meal, which lasted a quarter of an hour, was over, Mr. Shepherd clapped on his shovel-hat and started, with long strides, for his class, Mrs. Shepherd, who had not been quite ready, scuttling along a hundred yards behind him, with quick, fussy steps, and bonnet an awry.
Laura and Isabella stood at the gate.
“I ought really to have gone, too,” said Isabella, and smiled at the gutter. “But as you are here, Robby said I had better stay at home to-day.—Now what would you like to do?”
This opened up a dazzling prospect, with the whole of Melbourne before one. But Laura was too polite to pretend anything but indifference.
“Well, perhaps you wouldn’t mind staying in then? I want so much to copy out Robby’s sermon. I always do it, you know, for he can’t read his own writing. But he won’t expect it to-day and he’ll be so pleased.”
It was a cool, quiet little house, with the slightly unused smell in the rooms that betokens a lack of children. Laura did not dislike the quiet, and sat contentedly in the front parlour till evening fell. Not, however, that she was really within hundreds of miles of Melbourne; for the wonderful book that she held on her knee was called KING SOLOMON’S MINES, and her eyes never rose from the pages.
Supper, when it came, was as scrappy and as hurried as lunch had been: a class of working-men was momently expected, and Robby had just time to gulp down a cup of tea. Nor could he converse; for he was obliged to spare his throat.
Afterwards the three of them sat listening to the loud talking overhead. This came down distinctly through the thin ceiling, and Mr. Shepherd’s voice—it went on and on—sounded, at such close quarters, both harsh and rasping. Mrs. Shepherd was mending a stole; Isabella stooped over the sermon, which she was writing like copperplate. Laura sat in a corner with her hands before her: she had finished her book, but her eyes were still visionary. When any of the three spoke, it was in a low tone.
Towards nine o’clock Mrs. Shepherd fetched a little saucepan, filled it with milk, and set it on the hob; and after this she hovered undecidedly between door and fireplace, like a distracted moth.
“Now do try to get it right to-night, Maisie,” admonished Isabella; and, turning her face, if not her glance, to Laura, she explained: “It must boil, but not have a scrap of skin on it, or Robby won’t look at it.”
Presently the working-men were heard pounding down the stairs, and thereupon Maisie vanished from the room.
The next day Laura attended morning and evening service at St Stephen’s-on-the-Hill, and in the afternoon made one of Isabella’s class at Sunday school.
That morning she had wakened, in what seemed to be the middle of the night, to find Isabella dressing by the light of a single candle.
“Don’t you get up,” said the latter. “We’re all going to early service, and I just want to make Robby some bread and milk beforehand. He would rather communicate fasting, but he has to have something, for he doesn’t get home till dinner-time.”
When midday came, Robby was very fractious. The mutton-bone—no cooking was done—was harder than ever to carve with decency; and poor Mrs. Shepherd, for sheer fidgetiness, could hardly swallow a bite.
But at nine o’clock that evening, when the labours of the day were behind him, he was persuaded to lie down on the sofa and drink a glass of port. At his head sat Mrs. Shepherd, holding the wine and some biscuits; at his feet Isabella, stroking his soles. The stimulant revived him; he grew quite mellow, and presently, taking his wife’s hand, he held it in his—and Laura felt sure that all his querulousness was forgiven him for the sake of this moment. Then, finding a willing listener in the black-eyed little girl who sat before him, he began to talk, to relate his travels, giving, in particular, a vivid account of some months he had once spent in Japan. Laura, who liked nothing better than travelling at second hand—since any other way was out of the question—Laura spent a delightful hour, and said so.
“Yes, Robby quite surpassed himself to-night, I thought,” said Isabella as she let down her hair. “I never heard anyone who could talk as well as he does when he likes.—Can you keep a secret, Laura? We are sure, Maisie and I, that Robby will be a Bishop some day. And he means to be, himself.—But don’t say a word about it; he won’t have it mentioned out of the house.—And meanwhile he’s working as hard as he can, and we’re saving every penny, to let him take his next degree.”
“I do hope you’ll come again,” she said the following morning, as they walked back to the College. “I don’t mind telling you now, I felt quite nervous when Robby said we were to ask you. I’ve had no experience of little girls. But you haven’t been the least trouble—not a bit. And I’m sure it was good for Robby having something young about the house. So mind you write and tell us when you have another holiday”—and Isabella’s smile beamed out once more, none the less kindly because it was caught, on its way to Laura, by the gate they were passing through.
Laura, whose mind was set on a good, satisfying slab of cake, promised to do this, although her feelings had suffered so great a change that she was not sure whether she would keep her word. She was pulled two ways: on the one side was the remembrance of Mr. Shepherd hacking cantankerously at the bare mutton-bone; on the other, the cherry-blossom and the mousmes of Japan.