The Getting of Wisdom/Chapter XVII
OHNMACHT ZUR LUGE IST LANGE NOCH NICHT LIEBE ZUR WAHRHEIT. . . . WER NICHT LUGEN KANN, WEISS NICHT, WAS WAHRHEIT IST.
A pantomime of knowing smiles and interrogatory grimaces greeted her, when, having brushed the cake-crumbs from her mouth, she joined her class. For the twinkling of an eye Laura hesitated, being unprepared. Then, however, as little able as a comic actor to resist pandering to the taste of the public, she yielded to this hunger for spicy happenings, and did what was expected of her: clapped her hands, one over the other, to her breast, and cast her eyes heavenwards. Curiosity and anticipation reached a high pitch; while Laura, by tragically shaking her head, gave it to be understood that no signs could transmit what she had been through, since seeing her friends last.
In the thick of this message she was, unluckily, caught by Dr Pughson, who, after dealing her one of his butcherly gibes, bade her to the blackboard, to grapple with the Seventh Proposition.
The remainder of the forenoon was a tussle with lessons not glanced at since Friday night.—Besides, Laura seldom forestalled events by thinking over them, choosing rather to trust for inspiration to the spur of the moment.
Morning school at an end, she was laid hands on and hurried off to a retired corner of the garden. Here, four friends squatted round, determined to extract her adventures from her—to the last pip.
Laura was in a pretty pickle. Did she tell the plain truth, state the pedestrian facts—and this she would have been capable of doing with some address; for she had looked through her hosts with a perspicacity uncommon in a girl of her age; had once again put to good use those ‘sharp, unkind eyes’ which Mother deplored. She had seen an overworked, underfed man, who nagged like any woman, and made slaves of two weak, adoring ladies; and she very well knew that, as often as her thoughts in future alighted on Mr. Robby, she would think of him pinching and screwing, with a hawk-like eye on a shadowy bishopric. Of her warm feelings for him, genuine or imaginary, not a speck remained. The first touch of reality had sunk them below her ken, just as a drop of cold water sinks the floating grounds in a coffee-pot . . . But did she confess this, confess also that, save for a handful of monosyllables, her only exchange of words with him had been a line of Virgil; and, still more humbling, that she had liked his wife and sister better than himself: did this come to light, she would forfeit every sou of the prestige the visit had lent and yet promised to lend her. And, now that the possible moment for parting with this borrowed support had come, she recognised how greatly she had built on it.
These thoughts whizzed through her mind, as she darted a look at the four predatory faces that hemmed her in. Tilly’s was one of them: the lightly mocking smile sat on it that Laura had come to know so well, since her maladroit handling of Bob. She would kill that smile—and if she had to die for it herself.
Still, she must be cautious, wary in picking her steps. Especially as she had not the ghost of an idea how to begin.
Meanwhile cries of impatience buzzed round her.
“She doesn’t want to tell.”
“Shouldn’t wonder if it’s too dashed shady.”
“Didn’t I SAY he was a bad ’un?”
“I bet you there’s nothing to tell,” said Tilly cockily, and turned up her nose.
“Yes, there is,” flung out Laura, at once put on the defensive, and as she spoke she coloured.
“Look at her! Look how red she’s got!”
“And after she promised—the sneak!”
“I’m not a sneak. I AM going to tell. But you’re all in such a blooming hurry.”
“Oh, fire away, slow-coach!”
“Well, girls,” began Laura gamely, breathing a little hard.—“But, mind, you must never utter a word of what I’m going to tell you. It’s a dead secret, and IF you let on——”
“S’ help me God!”
“Ananias and Sapphira!”
“Oh, DO hurry up.”
“Well . . . well, he’s just the most—oh, I don’t know how to say it, girls—the MOST——”
“Just scrumptious, I suppose, eh?”
“Just positively scrumptious, and . . .”
“And what’d he do?”
“And what about his old sketch of a wife?”
“Her? Oh”—and Laura squeezed herself desperately for the details that WOULD not come—“oh, why she’s just a perfect old . . . old cat. And twenty years older than him.”
“What on earth did he marry her for?”
“Guess he’s pretty sick of being tied to an old gin like that?”
“I should say! Perfectly MISERABLE. He can’t think now why he let himself be induced to marry her. He just despises her.”
“Well, why in the name of all that’s holy did he take her?”
Laura cast a mysterious glance round, and lowered her voice. “Well, you see, she had LOTS of money and he had none. He was ever so poor. And she paid for him to be a clergyman.”
“Go on! As poor as all that?”
“As poor as a church-mouse.—But, oh,” she hastened to add, at the visible cooling-off of the four faces, “he comes of a MOST distinguished family. His father was a lord or a baronet or something like that, but he married a beautiful girl who hadn’t a penny against his father’s will and so he cut him out of his will.”
“Oh, never mind the father.”
“Yes. Well, now he feels under an awful obligation to her, and all that sort of thing, you know.”
“And she drives it home, I bet. She looks a nipper.”
“Is always throwing it in his face.”
“What a ghoul!”
“He’d do just ANYTHING to get rid of her, but—Girls, it’s a dead secret; you must swear you won’t tell.”
Gestures of assurance were showered on her.
“Well, he’s to be a Bishop some day. It’s promised him.”
“And I suppose he can’t divorce her, because of that?”
“No, of course not. He’ll have to drag her with him like millstone round his neck.”
“And he’d twigged right enough you were gone on him?”
Laura’s coy smile hinted many things. “I should say so. Since the very first day in church. He said—but I don’t like to tell you what he said.”
“No. You’ll only call me conceited.”
“No fear, Kiddy. Out with it!”
“Well, then, he said he saw me as soon as he got in the pulpit, and he wondered ever so much who the girl was with the eyes like sloes, and the skin like . . . like cream.”
“Snakes-alive-oh! He went it strong.”
“And how often were you alone with him?”
“Yes, and if he had met me before he was married—but no, I can’t tell any more.”
“Oh, don’t be such an ass!”
“No, I can’t.—Well, I’ll whisper it then . . . but only to Maria,” and leaning over Laura put her lips to Maria’s ear.
The reason for this by-stroke she could not have told: the detail she imparted did not differ substantially from those that had gone before.— But by now she was at the end of her tether.
Here, fortunately for Laura, the dinner-bell rang, and the girls had to take to their heels in order to get their books put away before grace. Throughout the meal, from their scattered seats, they exchanged looks of understanding, and their cheeks were pink.
In the afternoon, Laura was again called on to prove her mettle. Her companion on the daily walk was Kate Horner. Kate had been one of the four, and did not lose this chance of beating up fresh particulars.
After those first few awkward moments, however, which had come wellnigh being a fiasco, Laura had no more trouble with her story. Indeed, the plunge once taken, it was astounding how easy it became to make up things about the Shepherds; the difficulty was, to know where to stop. Fictitious details crowded thick and fast upon her—a regular hotchpotch; she had only to stretch out her hand and seize what she needed. It was simpler than the five-times multiplication-table, and did not need to be learnt. But all the same she was not idle: she polished away at her flimflams, bringing them nearer and nearer probability, never, thanks to her sound memory, contradicting herself or making a slip, and always able to begin again from the beginning.
Such initial scepticism as may have lurked in her hearers was soon got the better of. For, crass realists though these young colonials were, and bluntly as they faced facts, they were none the less just as hungry for romance as the most insatiable novel-reader. Romance in any guise was hailed by them, and swallowed uncritically, though it was no more permitted to interfere with the practical conduct of their lives than it is in the case of just that novel-reader, who puts untruth and unreality from him, when he lays his book aside.—Another and weightier reason was, their slower brains could not conceive the possibility of such extraordinarily detailed lying as that to which Laura now subjected them. Its very elaboration stood for its truth.
And the days passed, and Laura had the happiest ideas. A strange thing about them was that they came to her quite unsought, dropping on her like Aladdin’s oranges on his turban. All she had to do was to fit them into their niche in her fabrication.
At first, her tale had been chiefly concerned with the internal rift in Mr. Shepherd’s home-life, and only in a minor degree with herself. But her public savoured the love-story most, and hence, consulting its taste, as it is the tale-maker’s bounden duty to do, Laura was obliged to develop this side of her narrative at the expense of the other. And the more the girls heard, the more they wished to hear. She had early turned Miss Isabella into a staunch ally of her own, in the dissension she had introduced into the curate’s household; and one day she arrived at a hasty kiss, stolen in the vestry after evening service, while Mr. Shepherd was taking off his surplice. The puzzle had been, to get herself into the vestry; but, once there, she saw what followed as if it had actually happened. She saw Mr. Shepherd’s arm slipped with diffident alacrity round her waist, and her own virtuous recoil; saw Maisie and Isabella waiting, sheep-like, in their pew, till it should please the couple to emerge; saw the form of the verger moving about the darkening church, as he put the lights out, one by one.
But the success this incident brought her turned Laura’s head, making her so foolhardy in her inventions that Maria, who for all her boldness of speech was at heart a prude like the rest, grew uneasy.
“You’re not to go to that house again, Kiddy. If you do, I’ll peach to old Gurley.”
Laura ran upstairs to dress for tea, taking two steps at a time. On the top landing, beside the great clothes-baskets, she collided with Chinky, who was coming primly down.
“O ki, John!” she greeted her, being in a vast good-humour. “What do you look so black for?”
“Dunno. Why do you never walk with me nowadays, Laura? I say, you know about that ring? You haven’t forgotten?”
“Course not. When am I to get it? It never turns up.” Her eyes glittered as she asked, for she foresaw a further link in her chain. “Soon, now?”
Chinky nodded mysteriously. “Pretty soon. And you promise faithfully never to take it off?”
“But it must be a NICE one . . . with a red stone in it. And listen, Chink, no one must ever know it was you who gave it me.”
“All right, I swear. You’re a darling to say you’ll wear it,” and putting her arm round Laura’s shoulders, Chinky gave her a hearty kiss.
This was more than Laura had bargained for;—she freed herself, ungraciously. “Oh, don’t!—now mind, a red stone, and for the third finger of the left hand.”
“Yes. And Laura, I’ve thought of something to put inside. SEMPER EADEM . . . do you like that, Laura?”
“It’ll do.—Look out, there’s old Day!” and leaving Chinky standing, she ran down the corridor to her room.