The Getting of Wisdom/Chapter XVIII
DER VERBRECHER IST HAUFIG GENUG SEINER TAT NICHT GEWACHSEN.
For a month or more, Laura fed like a honeybee on the sweets of success. And throve—even to the blindest eye. What had hitherto been lacking was now hers: the admiration and applause of her circle. And never was a child so spurred and uplifted by praise as Laura. Without it, her nature tended to be wary and unproductive; and those in touch with her, had they wished to make the most of her, would no more have stinted with the necessary incentive, that one stints a delicate rose tree in aids to growth. Laura could swallow praise in large doses, without becoming over-sure. Under the present stimulus she sat top in a couple of classes, grew slightly ruddier in face, and much less shrinking in manner.
“Call her back at once and make her shut that door,” cried Miss Day thickly, from behind one of the long, dining-hall tables, on which were ranged stacks and piles of clean linen. She had been on early duty since six o’clock.
The pupil-teacher in attendance stepped obediently into the passage; and Laura returned.
“Doors are made to be shut, Laura Rambotham, I’d have you remember that!” fumed Miss Day in the same indistinct voice: she was in the grip of a heavy cold, which had not been improved by the draughts of the hall.
“I’m sorry, Miss Day. I thought I had. I was a little late.”
“That’s your own lookout,” barked the governess.—“Oh, there you are at last, Miss Snodgrass. I’d begun to think you weren’t going to appear at all this morning. It’s close on a quarter past seven.”
“Sorry,” said Miss Snodgrass laconically. “My watch must be losing.— Well, I suppose I can begin by marking Laura Rambotham down late.—What on earth are you standing there holding the door for?”
“Miss Day knows—I don’t,” sauced Laura, and made her escape.
She did not let Miss Snodgrass’s bad mark disturb her. No sooner had she begun her practising than she fell to work again on the theme that occupied all her leisure moments, and was threatening to assume the bulk of an early Victorian novel. But she now built at her top-heavy edifice for her own enjoyment; and the usual fate of the robust liar had overtaken her: she was beginning to believe in her own lies. Still she never ventured to relax her critical alertness, her careful surveillance of detail. For, just a day or two before, she had seen a quick flare-up of incredulity light Tilly’s face, and oddly enough this had happened when she tried her audience with a fact, a simple little fact, an incident that had really occurred. She had killed the doubt, instantly, by smothering it with a fiction; but she could not forget that it had existed. It has very perplexing; for otherwise her hearers did not shy at a mortal thing; she could drive them where and how she chose.
At the present moment she was planning a great coup: nothing more or less than a frustrated attempt on her virtue. It was almost ready to be submitted to them—for she had read PAMELA with heartfelt interest during the holidays—and only a few connecting links were missing, with which to complete her own case.
Then, without the slightest warning, the blow fell.
It was a Sunday afternoon; the half-hour that preceded Sunday school. Laura, in company with several others, was in the garden, getting her Bible chapter by heart, when Maria called her.
“Laura! Come here. I want to tell you something.”
Laura approached, her lips in busy motion. “What’s up?”
“I say, chicken, your nose is going to be put out of joint.”
“Mine? What do you mean?” queried Laura, and had a faint sense of impending disaster.
“What I say. M. Pidwall’s asked to the you-know-who’s next Saturday.”
“No, she’s not!” cried Laura vehemently, and clapped her Bible to.
“S’help me God, she is,” asserted Maria.—“Look out, don’t set the place on fire.”
“How do you know? . . . who told you?”
“M. P. herself—Gosh, but you are a jealous little cub. Oh, go on, Kiddy, don’t take it like that. I guess he won’t give you away.”—For Laura was as pale as a moment before she had been scarlet.
Alleging a violent headache, she mounted to her room, and sat down on her bed. She felt stunned, and it took her some time to recover her wits. Sitting on the extreme edge of the bedstead, she stared at [P.181] the objects in the room without seeing them. “M. P.‘s going there on Saturday . . . M. P.‘s going there on Saturday,” she repeated stupidly, and, with her hands pressed on her hips, rocked herself to and fro, after the fashion of an older woman in pain.
The fact was too appalling to be faced; her mind postponed it. Instead, she saw the fifty-five at Sunday school—where they were at this minute —drawn up in a line round the walls of the dining-hall. She saw them rise to wail out the hymn; saw Mr. Strachey on his chair in the middle of the floor, perpetually nimming with his left leg. And, as she pictured the familiar scene to herself, she shivered with a sudden sense of isolation: behind each well-known face lurked a possible enemy.
If it had only not been M. P.!—that was the first thought that crystallised. Anyone else! . . . from any of the rest she might have hoped for some mercy. But Mary Pidwall was one of those people—there were plenty such—before whom a nature like Laura’s was inclined, at the best of times, to shrink away, keenly aware of its own paltriness and ineffectualness. Mary was rectitude in person: and it cannot be denied that, to Laura, this was synonymous with hard, narrow, ungracious. Not quite a prig, though: there was fun in Mary, and life in her; but it was neither fun nor vivacity of a kind that Laura could feel at ease with. Such capers as the elder girl cut were only skin-deep; they were on the surface of her character, had no real roots in her: just as the pieces of music she played on the piano were accidents of the moment, without deeper significance. To Mary, life was already serious, full of duties. She knew just what she wanted, too, where she wanted to go and how to get there; her plans were cut and dried. She was clever, very industrious, the head of several of her classes. Nor was she ever in conflict with the authorities: she moved among the rules of the school as safely as an egg-dancer among his eggs. For the simple reasons that temptations seemed to pass her by. There was, besides, a kind of manly exactness in her habit of thinking and speaking; and it was this trait her companions tried to symbolise, in calling her by the initial letters of her name.
She and Laura, though classmates, had never drawn together. It is true, Mary was sixteen, and, at that time of life, a couple of years dig a wide breach. But there was also another reason. Once, in the innocence of her heart, Laura had let the cat out of the bag that an uncle of hers lived in the up-country township to which Mary belonged.
The girl had eyed her coldly, incredulously. “What? That dreadful man your uncle?” she had exclaimed: she herself was the daughter of a church dignitary. “I should say I did know him—by reputation at least. And it’s quite enough, thank you.”
Now Laura had understood that Uncle Tom—he needed but a pair of gold earrings to pose as the model for a Spanish Grandee—that Uncle Tom WAS odd, in this way: he sometimes took more to drink than was good for him; but she had never suspected him of being “dreadful”, or a byword in Wantabadgery. Colouring to the roots of her hair, she murmured something about him of course not being recognised by the rest of the family; but M. P., she was sure, had never looked on her with the same eyes again.
Such was the rigid young moralist into whose hands her fate was given.
She sat and meditated these things, in spiritless fashion. She would have to confess to her fabrications—that was plain. M. P.‘s precise mind would bring back a precise account of how matters stood in the Shepherd household: not by an iota would the truth be swerved from. Why, oh why, had she not foreseen this possibility? What evil spirit had prompted her and led her on?—But, before her brain could contemplate the awful necessity of rising and branding herself as a liar, it sought desperately for a means of escape. For a wink, she even nursed the idea of dragging in a sham man, under the pretence that Mr. Shepherd had been but a blind, used by her to screen some one else. But this yarn, twist it as she might, would not pass muster. Against it was the mass of her accumulated detail.
She sat there, devising scheme after scheme. Not one of them would do.
When, at tea-time, she rose to wash her face before going downstairs, the sole point on which she had come to clearness was, that just seven days lay between her and detection.—Yet after all, she reminded herself, seven days made a week, and a week was a good long time. Perhaps something would happen between now and Saturday. M. P. might have an accident and break her leg, and not be able to go. Or thin, poorly-fed Mr. Shepherd fall ill from overwork.—Oh, how she would rejoice to hear of it!
And, if the worst came to the worst and she HAD to tell, at least it should not be to-day. To-day was Sunday; and people’s thoughts were frightfully at liberty. To-morrow they would be engaged again; and, by to-morrow, she herself would have grown more accustomed to the idea.—Besides, how foolish to have been in too great a hurry, should something come to pass that rendered confession needless.
On waking next morning, however, and accounting, with a throb, for the leaden weight on her mind, she felt braver, and quite determined to make a clean breast of her misdoings. Things could not go on like this. But no sooner was she plunged into the routine of the day than her decision slackened: it was impossible to find just the right moment to begin. Early in the morning everyone was busy looking over lessons, and would not thank you for the upset, the dinner-hour was all too short; after school, on the walk, she had a partner who knew nothing about the affair, and after tea she practised.—Hence, on Monday her purpose failed her.
On Tuesday it was the same; the right moment never presented itself.
In bed that night she multiplied the remaining days into hours. They made one hundred and twenty. That heartened her a little; considered thus, the time seemed very much longer; and so she let Wednesday slip by, without over-much worry.
On Thursday she not only failed to own up, but indulged anew.
All the week, as if Mary Pidwall’s coming visit worked upon them, the girls had been very greedy for more love-story, and had shown themselves decidedly nettled by Laura’s refusal to continue; for this was the week when the great revelation she had hinted at should have been made. And one afternoon when the four were twitting her, and things were looking very black, Laura was incited by some devil to throw them, not, it is true, the savoury incident their mouths watered for, but a fresh fiction—just as the beset traveller throws whatever he has at hand, to the ravenous wolves that press round the sledge. At the moment, the excitement that accompanies inspiration kept her up; but afterwards she had a stinging fit of remorse; and her self-reproaches were every whit as bitter as those of the man who has again broken the moral law he has vowed to respect, and who now sees that he is powerless against recurring temptation.
When she remembered those four rapacious faces, Laura realised that, come what might, she would never have the courage to confess. To them, at least. That night in deep humility she laid her sin bare to God, imploring Him, even though He could not pardon it, to avert the consequences from her.
The last days were also darkened by her belief that M. P. had got wind of her romancings: as, indeed, was quite likely; for the girls’ tongues were none too safe. Mary looked at her from time to time with such a sternly suspicious eye that Laura’s very stomach quailed within her.
And meanwhile the generous hours had declined to less than half.
“Twice more to get up, and twice to go to bed,” she reckoned aloud to herself on Saturday morning.
She was spending that week-end at Godmother’s. It was as dull as usual; she had ample leisure to brood over what lay before her. It was now a certainty, fixed, immovable; for, by leaving school that day without having spoken, she had burned her ships behind her. When she went back on Monday M. P. would be there, and every loophole closed. On Sunday evening she made an excuse and went down into the garden. There was no moon; but, overhead, the indigo-blue was a prodigal glitter of stars—myriads of silver eyes that perforated the sky. They sparkled with a cold disregard of the small girl standing under the mulberry tree; but Laura, too, was only half-alive to their magnificence. Her thoughts ran on suicide, on making an end of her blighted career. God was evidently not going to be generous or long-suffering enough to come to her aid; and in imagination she saw the fifty-five gaining on her like a pack of howling hyaenas; saw Mrs. Gurley, Mr. Strachey—Mother. Detection and exposure, she knew it now, were the most awful things the world held. But she had nothing handy: neither a rope, nor poison, nor was there a dam in the neighbourhood.
That night she had the familiar dream that she was being “stood up” and expelled, as Annie Johns had been: thousands of tongues shouted her guilt; she was hunted like a wallaby. She wakened with a scream, and Marina, her bedfellow, rose on one elbow and lighted the candle. Crumpled and dishevelled, Laura lay outside the sheet that should have covered her; and her pillow had slipped to the floor.
“What on earth’s the matter? Dreaming? Then depend on it you’ve eaten something that’s disagreed with you.”
How she dragged her legs back to school that morning, Laura never knew. At the sight of the great stone building her inner disturbance was such that she was nearly sick. Even the unobservant Marina was forced to a remark.
“You do look a bit peaky. I’m sure your stomach’s out of order. Your should take a dose of castor-oil to-night, before you go to bed.”
Though it was a blazing November day, her fingers were cold as she took off her hat and changed her white frock. “For the last time,” she murmured; by which she meant the last time in untarnished honour. And she folded and hung up her clothes, with a neatness that was foreign to her.
Classes were in full swing when she went downstairs; nothing could happen now till the close of morning school. But Laura signalised the beginning of her downfall, the end of her comet-like flight, by losing her place in one form after another, the lessons she had prepared on Friday evening having gone clean out of her head.
Directly half-past twelve struck, she ran to the top of the garden and hid herself under a tree. There she crouched, her fingers in her ears, her heart thumping as if it would break. Till the dinner-bell rang. Then she was forced to emerge—and no tottering criminal, about to face the scaffold, has ever had more need of Dutch courage than Laura in this moment. Peeping round the corner of the path she saw the fateful group: M. P. the centre of four gesticulating figures. She loitered till they had scattered and disappeared; then with shaking legs crept to the house. At the long tables the girls still stood, waiting for Mr. Strachey; and the instant Laura set foot in the hall, five pairs of eyes caught her, held her, pinned her down, as one pins a butterfly to a board. She was much too far gone to think of tossing her head and braving things out, now that the crisis had come. Pale, guilty, wretched, she sidled to her seat. This was near Maria’s, and, as she passed, Maria leant back.
“You VILE little liar!”
“How’s that shy little mouse of a girl we had here a month or two ago?” Mr. Shepherd had inquired. “Let me see—what was her name again?”
To which Miss Isabella had replied: “Well, you know, Robby dear, you really hardly saw her. You had so much to do, poor boy, just when she was here. Her name was Laura—Laura Rambotham.”
And Mrs. Shepherd gently: “Yes, a nice little girl. But very young for her age. And SO shy.”
“You wretched little lying sneak!”
In vain Laura wept and protested.
“You made me do it. I should never have told a word, if it hadn’t been for you.”
This point of view enraged them. “What? You want to put it on us now, do you? . . . you dirty little skunk! To say WE made you tell that pack of lies?—Look here: as long as you stay in this blooming shop, I’ll never open my mouth to you again!”
“Someone ought to tell old Gurley and have her expelled. That’s all she’s fit for. Spreading disgusting stories about people who’ve been kind to her. They probably only asked her there out of charity. She’s as poor as dirt.”
“Wants her bottom smacked—that’s what I say!”
Thus Maria, and, with her, Kate Horner.
Tilly was cooler and bitterer. “I was a dashed fool ever to believe a word. I might have known her little game. She? Why, when I took her out to see my cousin Bob, she couldn’t say bo to a goose. He laughed about her afterwards like anything; said she ought to have come in a perambulator, with a nurse.—YOU make anyone in love with you—you!” And Tilly spat, to show her disdain.
“What have they been saying to you, Laura?” whispered Chinky, pale and frightened. “Whatever is the matter?”
“Mind your own business and go away,” sobbed Laura.
“I am, I’m going,” said Chinky humbly.—“Oh, Laura, I WISH you had that ring.”
“Oh, blow you and your ring! I hate the very name of it,” cried Laura, maddened.—And retreating to a lavatory, which was the only private place in the school, she wept her full.
They all, every girl of them, understood white lies, and practised them. They might also have forgiven her a lie of the good, plain, straightforward, thumping order. What they could not forgive, or get over, was the extraordinary circumstantiality of the fictions which with she had gulled them: to be able to invent lies with such proficiency meant that you had been born with a criminal bent.—And as a criminal she was accordingly treated.
Even the grown-up girls heard a garbled version of the story.
“Whyever did you do it?” one of them asked Laura curiously; it was a very pretty girl, called Evelyn, with twinkling brown eyes.
“I don’t know,” said Laura abjectly; and this was almost true.
“But I say! . . . nasty tarradiddles about people who’d been so nice to you? What made you tell them?”
“I don’t KNOW. They just came.”
The girl’s eyes smiled. “Well, I never! Poor little Kiddy,” she said as she turned away.
But this was the only kind word Laura heard. For many and many a night after, she cried herself to sleep.