The Getting of Wisdom/Chapter XXI
But the true seal was set on her regeneration when she was invited to join the boarders’ Literary Society; of which Cupid and Mary were the leading spirits. This carried her back, at one stroke, into the swing of school life. For everybody who was anybody belonged to the society. And, despite her friendship with the head of her class, Laura still knew what it was to get the cold shoulder.
But this was to some extent her own fault. At the present stage of her career she was an extraordinarily prickly child, and even to her two sponsors did not at times present a very amiable outside: like a hedgehog, she was ever ready to shoot out her spines. With regard, that is, to her veracity. She had been so badly grazed, in her recent encounter, that she was now constantly seeing doubt where no doubt was; and this wakeful attitude of suspicion towards others did not make for brotherly love. The amenity of her manners suffered, too: though she kept to her original programme of not saying all she thought, yet what she was forced to say she blurted out in such a precise and blunt fashion that it made a disagreeable impression. At the same time, a growing pedantry in trifles warped both her imagination and her sympathies: under the aegis of M. P., she rapidly learned to be the latter’s rival in an adherence to bald fact, and in her contumely for those who departed from it. Indeed, before the year spent in Mary’s company was out, Laura was well on the way towards becoming one of those uncomfortable people who, concerned only for their own salvation, fire the truth at you on every occasion, without regard for your tender places.—So she remained but scantly popular.
Hence, her admission to the Literary Society augured well.
Her chief qualifications for membership were that she could make verses, and was also very fond of reading. At school, however, this taste had been quiescent; for books were few. Still, she had read whatever she could lay hands on, and for the past half-year or more she had fared like a little pig in a clover field. Since Christmas, she was one of the few permitted to do morning practice on the grand piano in Mrs. Strachey’s drawing-room—an honour, it is true, not overmuch valued by its recipients, for Mrs. Gurley’s bedroom lay just above, and that lady could swoop down on whoever was weak enough to take a little rest. But Laura snapped her fingers at such a flimsy objection; for this was the wonderful room round the walls of which low, open bookshelves ran; and she was soon bold enough, on entering, hastily to select a book to read while she played, always on the alert to pop it behind her music, should anyone come into the room.
For months, she browsed unchecked. As her choice had to be made with extreme celerity, and from those shelves nearest the piano, it was in the nature of things that it was not invariably a happy one. For some time she had but moderate luck, and sampled queer foods. To these must be reckoned a translation of FAUST, which she read through, to the end of the First Part at least, with a kind of dreary wonder why such a dull thing should be called great. For her next repast, she sought hard and it was in the course of this rummage that she had the strangest find of all. Running a skilled eye over the length of a shelf close at hand, she hit on a slim, blue volume, the title of which at once arrested her attention. For, notwithstanding her fourteen years, and her dabblings in Richardson and Scott, Laura’s liking for a real child’s book was as strong as it had ever been; and A DOLL’S HOUSE seemed to promise good things. Deftly extracting the volume, she struck up her scales and began to read.
This was the day on which, after breakfast, Mrs. Gurley pulverised her with the remark: “A new, and, I must say, extremely interesting, fashion of playing scales, Laura Rambotham! To hold, the forte pedal down, from beginning to end!”
Laura was unconscious of having sinned in this way. But it might quite well be so. For she had spent a topsy-turvy, though highly engrossing hour. In place of the children’s story she anticipated, she had found herself, on opening the book, confronted by the queerest stuff she had ever seen in print. From the opening sentence on. To begin with, it was a play—and Laura had never had a modern prose play in her hand before —and then it was all about the oddest, yet the most commonplace people. It seemed to her amazingly unreal—how these people spoke and behaved— she had never known anyone like them; and yet again so true, in the way it dragged in everyday happenings, so petty in its rendering of petty things, that it bewildered and repelled her: why, some one might just as well write a book about Mother or Sarah! Her young, romantic soul rose in arms against this, its first bluff contact with realism, against such a dispiriting sobriety of outlook. Something within her wanted to cry out in protest as she read—for read she did, on three successive days, with an interest she could not explain. And that was not all. It was worse that the people in this book—the extraordinary person who was married, and had children, and yet ate biscuits out of a bag and said she didn’t; the man who called her his lark and his squirrel—as if any man ever did call his wife such names!—all these people seemed eternally to be meaning something different from what they said; something that was for ever eluding her. It was most irritating.— There was, moreover, no mention of a doll’s house in the whole three acts.
The state of confusion this booklet left her in, she allayed with a little old brown leather volume of Longfellow. And HYPERION was so much more to her liking that she even ventured to borrow it from its place on the shelf, in order to read it at her leisure, braving the chance that her loan, were it discovered, might be counted against her as a theft.
It hung together, no doubt, with the after-effects of her dip into Ibsen that, on her sitting down to write the work that was to form her passport to the Society, her mind should incline to the most romantic of romantic themes. Not altogether, though: Laura’s taste, such as it was, for literature had, like all young people’s, a mighty bias towards those books which turned their backs on reality: she sought not truth, but the miracle. However, though she had thus taken sides, there was still a yawning gap to be bridged between her ready acceptance of the honourable invitation, and the composition of a masterpiece. Thanks to her wonted inability to project her thoughts beyond the moment, she had been so unthinking of possible failure that Cupid had found it necessary to interject: “Here, I say, don’t blow!” Whereas, when she came to write, she sat with her pen poised over the paper for nearly half an hour, without bringing forth a word. First, there was the question of form: she considered, then abruptly dismissed, the idea of writing verses: the rhymes with love and dove, and heart and part, which could have been managed, were, she felt, too silly and sentimental to be laid before her quizzical audience. Next, what to write about—a simple theme, such as a fairy-tale, was not for a moment to be contemplated. No, Laura had always flown her hawk high, and she was now bent on making a splutter. It ended by being a toss-up between a play in the Shakesperian manner and a novel after Scott. She decided on the novel. It should be a romance of Venice, with abundant murder and mystery in it, and a black, black villain, such as her soul loved—no macaroon-nibblers or rompers with children for her! And having thus attuned her mind to scarlet deeds, she set to work. But she found it tremendously difficult to pin her story to paper: she saw things clearly enough, and could have related them by word of mouth; but did she try to write them down they ran to mist; and though she toiled quite literally in the sweat of her brow, yet when the eventful day came she had but three niggardly pages to show for her pains.
About twenty girls formed the Society, which assembled one Saturday evening in an empty music-room. All were not, of course, equally productive: some had brought it no further than a riddle: and it was just these drones who, knowing nothing of the pother composition implied, criticised most stringently the efforts of the rest. Several members had pretty enough talents, Laura’s two room-mates among the number: on the night Laura made her debut, the weightiest achievement was, without doubt, M. P.‘s essay on “Magnanimity”; and Laura’s eyes grew moist as she listened to its stirring phrases. Next best—to her thinking, at least—was a humorous episode by Cupid, who had a gift that threw Laura into a fit of amaze; and this was the ability to expand infinitely little into infinitely much; to rig out a trifle in many words, so that in the end it seemed ever so much bigger than it really was—just as a thrifty merchant boils his oranges, to swell them to twice their size.
Laura being the youngest member, her affair came last on the programme: she had to sit and listen to the others, her cheeks hot, her hands very cold. Presently all were done, and then Cupid, who was chairman, called on “a new author, Rambotham, who it is hoped will prove a valuable acquisition to the Society, to read us his maiden effort”.
Laura rose to her feet and, trembling with nervousness, stuttered forth her prose. The three little pages shot past like a flash; she had barely stood up before she was obliged to sit down again, leaving her hearers, who had only just re-adopted their listening attitudes, agape with astonishment. She could have endured, with phlegm, the ridicule this malheur earned her: what was harder to stomach was that her paper heroics made utterly no impression. She suffered all the humiliation of a flabby fiasco, and, till bedtime, shrank out of her friends’ way.
“You were warned not to be too cocky, you know,” Mary said judicially, on seeing her downcast air.
“I didn’t mean to be, really.—Then you don’t think what I wrote was up to much, M. P.?”
“Mm,” said the elder girl, in a non-committal way.
Here Cupid chimed in. “Look here, Infant, I want to ask you something. Have you ever been in Venice?”
“Ever seen a gondola?”
“Or the Doge’s palace?—or a black-cloaked assassin?—or a masked lady?”
“You know I haven’t,” murmured Laura, humbled to the dust.
“And probably never will. Well then, why on earth try to write wooden, second-hand rubbish like that?”
“Second-hand? . . . But Cupid . . . think of Scott! He couldn’t have seen half he told about?”
“My gracious!” ejaculated Cupid, and sat down and fanned herself with a hairbrush. “You don’t imagine you’re a Scott, do you? Here, hold me, M. P., I’m going to faint!”—and at Laura’s quick and scarlet denial, she added: “Well, why the unmentionable not use the eyes the Lord has given you, and write about what’s before them every day of your life?”
“Do you think that would be better?”
“I don’t think—I know it would.”
But Laura was not so easily convinced as all that.
Ever a talented imitator, she next tried her hand at an essay on an abstract subject. This was a failure: you could not SEE things, when you wrote about, say, “Beneficence”; and Laura’s thinking was done mainly in pictures. Matters were still worse when she tinkered at Cupid’s especial genre: her worthless little incident stared at her, naked and scraggy, from the sheet; she had no wealth of words at her disposal in which to deck it out. So, with a sigh, she turned back to the advice Cupid had given her, and prepared to make a faithful transcript of actuality. She called what she now wrote: “A Day at School”, and conscientiously set down detail on detail; so fearful, this time, of over-brevity, that she spun the account out to twenty pages; though the writing of it was as distasteful to her as her reading of A DOLL’S HOUSE had been.
At the subsequent meeting of the Society, expression of opinion was not lacking.
“Oh, Jehoshaphat! How much more?”
“Here, let me get out. I’ve had enough.”
“I say, you forgot to count how many steps it took you to come downstairs.”
Till the chairman had pity on the embarrassed author and said: “Look here, Laura, I think you’d better keep the rest for another time.”
“It was just what you told me to do,” Laura reproached Cupid that night: she was on the brink of tears.
But Cupid was disinclined to shoulder the responsibility. “Told you to be as dull and long-winded as that? Infant, it’s a whacker!”
“But it was TRUE what I wrote—every word of it.”
Neither of the two elder girls was prepared to discuss this vital point. Cupid shifted ground. “Good Lord, Laura, but it’s hard to drive a thing into YOUR brain-pan.—You don’t need to be ALL true on paper, silly child!”
“Last time you said I had to.”
“Well, if you want it, my candid opinion is that you haven’t any talent for this kind of thing.—Now turn off the gas.”
As the light in the room went out, a kind of inner light seemed to go up in Laura; and both then and on the following days she thought hard. She was very ambitious, anxious to shine, not ready to accept defeat; and to the next literary contest she brought the description of an excursion to the hills and gullies that surrounded Warrenega; into which she had worked an adventure with some vagrant blacks. She and Pin and the boys had often picnicked on these hills, with their lunches packed in billies; and she had seen the caves and rocky holes where blackfellows were said to have hidden themselves in early times; but neither this particular excursion, nor the exciting incident which she described with all the aplomb of an eyewitness, had ever taken place. That is to say: not a word of her narration was true, but every word of it might have been true.
And with this she had an unqualified success.
“I believe there’s something in you after all,” said Cupid to her that night. “Anyhow, you know now what it is to be true, yet not dull and prosy.”
And Laura manfully choked back her desire to cry out that not a word of her story was fact.
She was long in falling asleep. Naturally, she was elated and excited by her success; but also a new and odd piece of knowledge had niched itself in her brain. It was this. In your speech, your talk with others, you must be exact to the point of pedantry, and never romance or draw the long-bow; or you would be branded as an abominable liar. Whereas, as soon as you put pen to paper, provided you kept one foot planted on probability, you might lie as hard as you liked: indeed, the more vigorously you lied, the louder would be your hearers’ applause.
And Laura fell asleep over a chuckle.