The Getting of Wisdom
by Henry Handel Richardson
The four children were lying on the grass.
". . . and the Prince went further and further into the forest,"
said the elder girl, "till he came to a beautiful gladea glade, you
know, is a place in the forest that is open and green and lovely. And
there he saw a lady, a beautiful lady, in a long white dress that hung
down to her ankles, with a golden belt and a golden crown. She was
lying on the swarda sward, you know, is grass as smooth as velvet,
just like green velvetand the Prince saw the marks of travel on her
garments. The bottom of the lovely silk dress was all dirty"
"Wondrous Fair, if you don't mind you'll make that sheet dirty,
too," said Pin.
"Shut up, will you!" answered her sister who, carried away by her
narrative, had approached her boots to some linen that was bleaching.
"Yes, but you know Sarah'll be awfly cross if she has to wash it
again," said Pin, who was practical.
"You'll put me out altogether," cried Laura angrily."Well, as I
said, the edge of her robe was all muddyno, I don't think I will say
that; it sounds prettier if it's clean. So it hung in long, straight
beautiful folds to her ankles, and the Prince saw two little feet in
golden sandals peeping out from under the hem of the silken gown,
"But what about the marks of travel?" asked Leppie.
"Donkey! haven't I said they weren't there? If I say they weren't,
then they weren't. She hadn't travelled at all."
"Oh, parrakeets!" cried little Frank.
Four pairs of eyes went up to the bright green flock that was
passing over the garden.
"Now you've all interrupted, and I shan't tell any more," said
Laura in a proud voice.
"Oh, yes, please do, Wondrous Fair! Tell what happened next,"
begged Pin and Leppie.
"No, not another word. You can only think of sheets and
"Please, Wondrous Fair," begged little Frank.
"No, I can't now.Another thing: I don't mind if you call me Laura
to-day, as it's the last day."
She lay back on the grass, her hands clasped under her head. A
voice was heard, loud, imperative.
"Laura, I want you. Come here."
"That's mother calling," said Pin.
Laura kicked her heels. The two little boys laughed approval.
"Go on, Laura," coaxed Pin. "Mother'll be angry. I'll come, too."
Laura raised herself with a grumble. "It's to try on that horrid
In very fact Mother was standing, already somewhat impatient, with
the dress in her hand. Laura wriggled out of the one she had on, and
stood stiffly and ungraciously, with her arms held like pokers from
her sides, while Mother on her knees arranged the length.
"Don't put on a face like that, miss!" she said sharply on seeing
Laura's air. "Do you think I'm making it for my own pleasure?" She
had sewn at it all day, and was hot and tired.
"It's too short," said Laura, looking down.
"It's nothing of the kind," said Mother, with her mouth full of
"It is, it's much too short."
Mother gave her a slight shake. "Don't you contradict ME! Do you
want to tell me I don't know what length you're to wear your dresses?"
"I won't wear it at all if you don't make it longer," said Laura
Pin's chubby, featureless little face lengthened with apprehension.
"Do let her have it just a tiny bit longer, mother dear, dear!" she
"Now, Pin, what have you got to do with it I'd like to know!" said
Mother, on the verge of losing her temper over the back folds, which
WOULD not hang.
"I'm going to school to-morrow, and it's a shame," said Laura in
the low, passionate tone that never failed to exasperate Mother, so
different was it from her own hearty fashion of venting displeasure.
Pin began to sniff, in sheer nervous anxiety.
"Very well then, I won't do another stitch to it!" and Mother, now
angry in earnest, got up and bounced out of the room.
"Laura, how can you?" said Pin, dissolving. "It's only you who make
her so cross."
"I don't care," said Laura rebelliously, though she was not far off
tears herself. "It IS a shame. All the other girls will have dresses
down to the tops of their boots, and they'll laugh at me, and call me
a [P.4] baby;" and touched by the thought of what lay before her, she,
too, began to sniffle. She did not fail, however, to roll the dress up
and to throw it unto a corner of the room. She also kicked the ewer,
which fell over and flooded the floor. Pin cried more loudly, and ran
to fetch Sarah.
Laura returned to the garden. The two little boys came up to her;
but she waved them back.
"Let me alone, children. I want to think."
She stood in a becoming attitude by the garden-gate, her brothers
hovering in the background.Then Mother called once more.
"Laura, where are you?"
"Here, mother. What is it?"
"Did you knock this jug over or did Pin?"
"I did, mother."
"Did you do it on purpose?"
"Come here to me."
She went, with lagging steps. But Mother's anger had passed: she
was at work on the dress again, and by squinting her eyes Laura could
see that a piece was being added to the skirt. She was penitent at
once; and when Mother in a sorry voice said: "I'm ashamed of you,
Laura. And on your last day, too," her throat grew narrow.
"I didn't mean it, mother."
"If only you would ask properly for things, you would get them."
Laura knew this; knew indeed that, did she coax, Mother could
refuse her nothing. But coaxing came hard to her; something within her
forbade it. Sarah called her "high-stomached", to the delight of the
other children and her own indignation; she had explained to them
again and again what Sarah really meant.
On leaving the house she went straight to the flower-beds: she
would give Mother, who liked flowers very well but had no time to
gather them, a bouquet the size of a cabbage. Pin and the boys were
summoned to help her, and when their hands were full, Laura led the
way to a secluded part of the garden on the farther side of the
detached brick kitchen. In this strip, which was filled with greenery,
little sun fell: two thick fir trees and a monstrous blue-gum stood
there; high bushes screened the fence; jessamine climbed the wall of
the house and encircled the bedroom windows; and on the damp and shady
ground only violets grew. Yet, with the love children bear to the
limited and compact, the four had chosen their own little plots here
rather than in the big garden at the back of the house; and many were
the times they had all begun anew to dig and to rake. But if Laura's
energy did not fizzle out as quickly as usualshe was the model for
the restMother was sure to discover that it was too cramped and dark
for them in there, and send Sarah to drive them off.
Here, safely screened from sight, Laura sat on a bench and made up
her bouquet. When it was finishedred and white in the centre with a
darker border, the whole surrounded by a ring of violet leavesshe
looked about for something to tie it up with. Sarah, applied to, was
busy ironing, and had no string in the kitchen, so Pin ran to get a
reel of cotton. But while she was away Laura had an idea. Bidding
Leppie hold the flowers tight in both his sticky little hands, she
climbed in at her bedroom window, or rather, by lying on the sill with
her legs waving in the air, she managed to grab, without losing her
balance, a pair of scissors from the chest of drawers. With these
between her teeth she emerged, to the excited interest of the boys who
watched her open-mouthed.
Laura had dark curls, Pin fair, and both wore them flapping at
their backs, the only difference being that Laura, who was now twelve
years old, had for the past year been allowed to bind hers together
with a ribbon, while Pin's bobbed as they chose. Every morning early,
Mother brushed and twisted, with a kind of grim pride, these silky
ringlets round her finger. Although the five odd minutes the curling
occupied were durance vile to Laura, the child was proud of her hair
in her own way; and when in the street she heard some one say:
"Lookwhat pretty curls!" she would give her head a toss and send
them all a-rippling. In addition to this, there was a crowning glory
connected with them: one hot December morning, when they had been
tangled and Mother had kept her standing too long, she had fainted,
pulling the whole dressing-table down about her ears; and ever since,
she had been marked off in some mysterious fashion from the other
children. Mother would not let her go out at midday in summer: Sarah
would say: "Let that be, can't you!" did she try to lift something
that was too heavy for her; and the younger children were to be
quelled by a threat to faint on the spot, if they did not do as she
wished. "Laura's faint" had become a byword in the family; and Laura
herself held it for so important a fact in her life that she had more
than once begun a friendship with the words: "Have you ever fainted? I
From among these long, glossy curls, she now cut one of the longest
and most spiral, cut it off close to the root, and with it bound the
flowers together. Mother should see that she did know how to give up
something she cared for, and was not as selfish as she was usually
supposed to be.
"Oh . . h . . h!" said both little boys in a breath, then doubled
up in noisy mirth. Laura was constantly doing something to set their
young blood in amazement: they looked upon her as the personification
of all that was startling and unexpected. But Pin, returning with the
reel of thread, opened her eyes in a different way.
"Oh, Laura . . .!" she began, tearful at once.
"Now, res'vor!" retorted Laura scornfully"res'vor" was Sarah's
name for Pin, on account of her perpetual wateriness. "Be a cry-baby,
do." But she was not damped, she was lost in the pleasure of
Pin looked after her as she danced off, then moved submissively in
her wake to be near at hand should intercession be needed. Laura was
so unsuspecting, and Mother would be so cross. In her dim, childish
way Pin longed to see these, her two nearest, at peace; she understood
them both so well, and they had little or no understanding for each
other.So she crept to the house at her sister's heels.
Laura did not go indoors; hiding against the wall of the flagged
verandah, she threw her bouquet in at the window, meaning it to fall
on Mother's lap.
But Mother had dropped her needle, and was just lifting her face,
flushed with stooping, when the flowers hit her a thwack on the head.
She groped again, impatiently, to find what had struck her, recognised
the peace-offering, and thought of the surprise cake that was to go
into Laura's box on the morrow. Then she saw the curl, and her face
darkened. Was there ever such a tiresome child? What in all the world
would she do next?
"Laura, come here, directly!"
Laura had moved away; she was not expecting recognition. If Mother
were pleased she would call Pin to put the flowers in water for her,
and that would be the end of it. The idea of a word of thanks would
have made Laura feel uncomfortable. Now, however, at the tone of
Mother's voice, her mouth set stubbornly. She went indoors as bidden,
but was already up in arms again.
"You're a very naughty girl indeed!" began Mother as soon she
appeared. "How dare you cut off your hair? Upon my word, if it weren't
your last night I'd send you to bed without any supper!"an
unheard-of threat on the part of Mother, who punished her children in
any way but that of denying them their food. "It's a very good thing
you're leaving home to-morrow, for you'd soon be setting the others at
defiance, too, and I should have four naughty children on my hands
instead of one. But I'd be ashamed to go to school such a fright if
I were you. Turn round at once and let me see you!"
Laura turned, with a sinking heart. Pin cried softly in a corner.
"She thought it would please you, mother," she sobbed.
"I WILL not have you interfering, Pin, when I'm speaking to Laura.
She's old enough by now to know what I like and what I don't," said
Mother, who was vexed at the thought of the child going among
strangers thus disfigured."And now get away, and don't let me see
you again. You're a perfect sight."
"Oh, Laura, you do look funny!" said Leppie and Frank in weak
chorus, as she passed them in the passage.
"Well, you 'ave made a guy of yourself this time, Miss Laura, and
no mistake!" said Sarah, who had heard the above.
Laura went into her own room and locked the door, a thing Mother
did not allow. Then she threw herself on the bed and cried. Mother had
not understood in the least; and she had made herself a sight into the
bargain. She refused to open the door, though one after another
rattled the handle, and Sarah threatened to turn the hose in at the
window. So they left her alone, and she spent the evening in watery
dudgeon on her pillow. But before she undressed for the night she
stealthily made a chink and took in the slice of cake Pin had left on
the door-mat. Her natural buoyancy of spirit was beginning to reassert
itself. By brushing her hair well to one side she could cover up the
gap, she found; and after all, there was something rather pleasant in
knowing that you were misunderstood. It made you feel different from
Mothersewing hard after even the busy Sarah had retired Mother
smiled a stern little smile of amusement to herself; and before
locking up for the night put the dark curl safely away.
Laura, sleeping flat on her stomach, was roused next morning by Pin
"Wake up, Wondrous Fair, mother wants to speak to you. She says you
can get into bed in my place, before you dress." Pin slept warm and
cosy at Mother's side.
Laura rose on her elbow and looked at her sister: Pin was standing
in the doorway holding her nightgown to her, in such a way as to
expose all of her thin little legs.
"Come on," urged Pin. "Sarah's going to give me my bath while
you're with mother."
"Go away, Pin," said Laura snappily. "I told you yesterday you
could say Laura, and . . . and you're more like a spider than ever."
"Spider" was another nickname for Pin, owed to her rotund little
body and mere sticks of legsshe was "all belly" as Sarah put itand
the mere mention of it made Pin fly; for she was very touchy about her
As soon as the door closed behind her, Laura sprang out of bed and,
waiting neither to wash herself nor to say her prayers, began to pull
on her clothes, confusing strings and buttons in her haste, and quite
forgetting that on this eventful morning she had meant to dress
herself with more than ordinary care. She was just lacing her shoes
when Sarah looked in.
"Why, Miss Laura, don't you know your ma wants you?"
"It's too late. I'm dressed now," said Laura darkly.
Sarah shook her head. "Missis'll be fine an' angry. An' you needn't
'ave 'ad a row on your last day."
Laura stole out of the door and ran down the garden to the
summer-house. This, the size of a goodly room, was formed of a single
dense, hairy-leafed tree, round the trunk of which a seat was built.
Here she cowered, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands. Her
face wore the stiff expression that went by the name of "Laura's
sulks," but her eyes were big, and as watchful as those of a scared
animal. If Sarah came to fetch her she would hold on to the seat with
both hands. But even if she had to yield to Sarah's greater
strengthwell, at least she was up and dressed. Not like the last
timeabout a week ago Mother had tried this kind of thing. Then, she
had been caught unawares. She had gone into Pin's warm place, curious
and unsuspecting, and thereupon Mother had begun to talk seriously to
her, and not with her usual directness. She had reminded Laura that
she was growing up apace and would soon be a woman; had told her that
she must now begin to give up childish habits, and learn to behave in
a modest and womanly wayall disagreeable, disturbing things, which
Laura did not in the least want to hear. When it became clear to her
what it was about, she had thrown back the bedclothes and escaped from
the room. And since then she had been careful never to be long alone
But now half an hour went by and no one came to fetch her: her
grim little face relaxed. She felt very hungry, too, and when at
length she heard Pin calling, she jumped up and betrayed her
"Laura! Laura, where are you? Mother says to come to breakfast and
not be silly. The coach'll be here in an hour."
Taking hands the sisters ran to the house.
In the passage, Sarah was busy roping a battered tin box. With
their own hands the little boys had been allowed to paste on this a
big sheet of notepaper, which bore, in Mother's writing, the words:
Miss Laura Tweedle Rambotham The Ladies' College Melbourne.
Mother herself was standing at the breakfast-table cutting
"Come and eat your breakfast, child," was all she said at the
moment. "The tea's quite cold."
Laura sat down and fell to with appetite, but also with a
side-glance at the generous pile of bread and meat growing under
"I shall never eat all that," she said ungraciously; it galled her
still to be considered a greedy child with an insatiable stomach.
"I know better than you do what you'll eat," said Mother. "You'll
be hungry enough by this evening I can tell you, not getting any
Pin's face fell at this prospect. "Oh, mother, won't she really get
any dinner?" she asked: and to her soft little heart going to school
began to seem one of the blackest experiences life held.
"Why, she'll be in the train, stupid, 'ow can she?" said Sarah. "Do
you think trains give you dinners?"
"Oh, mother, please cut ever such a lot!" begged Pin sniffing
Laura began to feel somewhat moved herself at this solicitude, and
choked down a lump in her throat with a gulp of tea. But when Pin had
gone with Sarah to pick some nectarines, Mother's face grew stern, and
Laura's emotion passed.
"I feel more troubled about you than I can say, Laura. I don't know
how you'll ever get on in lifeyou're so disobedient and self-willed.
It would serve you very well right, I'm sure, for not coming this
morning, if I didn't give you a penny of pocket-money to take to
Laura had heard this threat before, and thought it wiser not to
reply. Gobbling up the rest of her breakfast she slipped away.
With the other children at her heels she made a round of the
garden, bidding good-bye to things and places. There were the two
summer-houses in which she had played house; in which she had cooked
and eaten and slept. There was the tall fir-tree with the rung-like
branches by which she had been accustomed to climb to the very
tree-top; there was the wilderness of bamboo and cane where she had
been Crusoe; the ancient, broadleaved cactus on which she had
scratched their names and drawn their portraits; here, the high aloe
that had such a mysterious charm for you, because you never knew when
the hundred years might expire and the aloe burst into flower. Here
again was the old fig tree with the rounded, polished boughs, from
which, seated as in a cradle, she had played Juliet to Pin's Romeo,
and vice versabut oftenest Juliet: for though Laura greatly
preferred to be the ardent lover at the foot, Pin was but a poor
climber, and, as she clung trembling to her branch, needed so much
prompting in her lineseven then to repeat them with such feeble
emphasisthat Laura invariably lost patience with her and the
love-scene ended in a squabble. Passing behind a wooden fence which
was a tangle of passion-flower, she opened the door of the fowl-house,
and out strutted the mother-hen followed by her pretty brood. Laura
had given each of the chicks a name, and she now took Napoleon and
Garibaldi up in her hand and laid her cheek against their downy
breasts, the younger children following her movements in respectful
silence. Between the bars of the rabbit hutch she thrust enough
greenstuff to last the two little occupants for days; and everywhere
she went she was accompanied by a legless magpie, which, in spite of
its infirmity, hopped cheerily and quickly on its stumps. Laura had
rescued it and reared it; it followed her like a dog; and she was only
less devoted to it than she had been to a native bear which died under
"Now listen, children," she said as she rose from her knees before
the hutch. "If you don't look well after Maggy and the bunnies, I
don't know what I'll do. The chicks'll be all right. Sarah'll take
care of them, 'cause of the eggs. But Maggy and the bunnies don't have
eggs, and if they're not fed, or if Frank treads on Maggy again, then
they'll die. Now if you let them die, I don't know what I'll do to
you! Yes, I do: I'll send the devil to you at night when the room's
dark, before you go to sleep.So there!"
"How can you if you're not here?" asked Leppie.
Pin, however, who believed in ghosts and apparitions with all her
fearful little heart, promised tremulously never, never to forget; but
Laura was not satisfied until each of them in turn had repeated, in a
low voice, with the appropriate gestures, the sacred secret, and
Is my finger wet? Is my finger dry? God'll strike me dead, If I
tell a lie.
Then Sarah's voice was heard calling, and the boys went out into
the road to watch for the coach. Laura's dressing proved a lengthy
business, and was accomplished amid bustle, and scolding, and little
peace-making words from Pin; for in her hurry that morning Laura had
forgotten to put on the clean linen Mother had laid beside the bed,
and consequently had now to strip to the skin.
The boys announced the coming of the coach with shrill cries, and
simultaneously the rumble of wheels was heard. Sarah came from the
kitchen drying her hands, and Pin began to cry.
"Now, shut up, res'vor!" said Sarah roughly: her own eyes were
moist. "You don't see Miss Laura be such a silly-billy. Anyone 'ud
think you was goin', not 'er."
The ramshackle old vehicle, one of Cobb's Royal Mail Coaches,
big-bodied, lumbering, scarlet, pulled by two stout horses, drew up
before the door, and the driver climbed down from his seat.
"Now good day to you, ma'am, good day, miss"this to Sarah who,
picking up the box, handed it to him to be strapped on under the
apron. "Well, well, and so the little girl's goin' to school, is she?
My, but time flies! Well do I remember the day ma'am, when I drove you
all across for the first time. These children wasn't big enough then
to git up and down be thimselves. Now I warrant you they canjust
look at 'em, will you?But my! Ain't you ashamed of yourself"he
spoke to Pin"pipin' your eye like that? Why, you'll flood the road
if you don't hould on.Yes, yes, ma'am, bless you, I'll look after
her, and put her inter the train wid me own han's. Don't you be
oneasy. The Lord he cares for the widder and the orphun, and if He
don't, why Patrick O'Donnell does."
This was O'Donnell's standing joke; he uttered it with a loud
chuckle. While speaking he had let down the steps and helped the three
children upthey were to ride with Laura to the outskirts of the
township. The little boys giggled excitedly at his assertion that the
horses would not be equal to the weight. Only Pin wept on, in
"Now, Miss Laura."
"Now, Laura. Good-bye, darling. And do try and be good. And be sure
you write once a week. And tell me everything. Whether you are
happyand if you get enough to eatand if you have enough blankets
on your bed. And remember always to change your boots if you get your
feet wet. And don't lean out of the window in the train."
For some time past Laura had had need of all her self-control, not
to cry before the children. As the hour drew near it had grown harder
and harder; while dressing, she had resorted to counting the number of
times the profile of a Roman emperor appeared in the flowers on the
wallpaper. Now the worst moment of all was comethe moment of
good-bye. She did not look at Pin, but she heard her tireless, snuffly
weeping, and set her own lips tight.
"Yes, mother . . . no, mother," she answered shortly, "I'll be all
right. Good-bye." She could not, however, restrain a kind of dry sob,
which jumped up her throat.
When she was in the coach Sarah, whom she had forgotten climbed up
to kiss her; and there was some joking between O'Donnell and the
servant while the steps were being folded and put away. Laura did not
smile; her thin little face was very pale. Mother's heart went out to
her in a pity which she did not know how to express.
"Don't forget your sandwiches. And when you're alone, feel in the
pocket of your ulster and you'll find something nice. Good-bye,
"Good-bye . . . good-bye."
The driver had mounted to his seat, he unwound the reins cried "Get
up!" to the two burly horses, the vehicle was set in motion and
trundled down the main street. Until it turned the corner by the Shire
Gardens, Laura let her handkerchief fly from the window. Sarah waved
hers; then wiped her eyes and lustily blew her nose. Mother only
"It was all she could do to keep up," she said as much to herself
as to Sarah. "I do hope she'll be all right. She seems such a child to
be sending off like this. Yet what else could I do? To a State School,
I've always said it, my children shall never gonot if I have to beg
the money to send them elsewhere."
But she sighed again, in spite of the energy of her words, and
stood gazing at the place where the coach had disappeared. She was
still a comparatively young woman, and straight of body; but trouble,
poverty and night-watches had scored many lines on her forehead.
"Don't you worry," said Sarah. "Miss Laura'll be all right. She's
just a bit too cleverbrains for two, that's what it is. An' children
WILL grow up an' get big . . . an' change their feathers." She spoke
absently, drawing her metaphor from a brood of chickens which had
strayed across the road, and was now trying to mount the wooden
verandah -"Shooh! Get away with you!"
"I know that. But LauraThe other children have never given me a
moment's worry. But Laura's different. I seem to get less and less
able to manage her. If only her father had been alive to help!"
"I'm sure no father livin' could do more than you for those blessed
children," said Sarah with impatience. "You think of nothin' else. It
'ud be a great deal better if you took more care o' yourself. You sit
up nights an' don't get no proper sleep slavin' away at that blessed
embroid'ry an' stuff, so as Miss Laura can get off to school an' to
'er books. An' then you want to worry over 'er as well.She'll be all
right. Miss Laura's like peas. You've got to get 'em outer the
podthey're in there sure enough. An' b'sides I guess school'll knock
all the nonsense out of 'er."
"Oh, I hope they won't be too hard on her," said Mother in quick
alarm. -"Shut the side gate, will you. Those children have left it
open again. And, Sarah, I think we'll turn out the drawing-room."
Sarah grunted to herself as she went to close the gate. This had
not entered into her scheme of work for the day, and her cooking was
still undone. But she did not gainsay her mistress, as she otherwise
would have made no scruple of doing; for she knew that nothing was
more helpful to the latter in a crisis than hard, manual work.
Besides, Sarah herself had a sneaking weakness for what she called
"dra'in'-room days". For the drawing-room was the storehouse of what
treasures had remained over from a past prosperity. It was crowded
with bric-a-brac and ornament; and as her mistress took these objects
up one by one, to dust and polish them, she would, if she were in a
good humour, tell Sarah where and how they had been bought, or
describe the places they had originally come from: so that Sarah,
pausing broom in hand to listen, had with time gathered some vague
ideas of a country like "Inja", for example, whence came the little
silver "pagody", and the expressionless brass god who squatted
vacantly and at ease.
As long as the coach rolled down the main street Laura sat bolt
upright at the window. In fancy she heard people telling one another
that this was little Miss Rambotham going to school. She was
particularly glad that just as they went past the Commercial Hotel,
Miss Perrotet, the landlord's red-haired daughter, should put her
fuzzy head out of the windowfor Miss Perrotet had also been to
boarding-school, and thought very highly of herself in consequence,
though it had only been for a year, to finish. At the National Bank
the manager's wife waved a friendly hand to the children, and at the
Royal Mail Hotel where they drew up for passengers or commissions,
Mrs. Paget, the stout landlady, came out, smoothing down her black
"Well, I'm sure I wonder your ma likes sendin' you off so alone."
The ride had comforted Pin a little; but when they had passed the
chief stores and the flour-mill, and were come to a part of the road
where the houses were fewer, her tears broke out afresh. The very last
house was left behind, the high machinery of the claims came into
view, the watery flats where Chinamen were for ever rocking washdirt
in cradles; and O'Donnell dismounted and opened the door. He lifted
the three out one by one, shaking his head in humorous dismay at Pin,
and as little Frank showed sighs of beginning, too, by puckering up
his face and [P.22] doubling up his body, the kindly man tried to make
them laugh by asking if he had the stomach-ache. Laura had one more
glimpse of the children standing hand in handeven in her trouble Pin
did not forget her chargesthen a sharp bend in the road hid them
from her sight.
She was alone in the capacious body of the coach, alone, and the
proud excitement of parting was over. The staunchly repressed tears
welled up with a gush, and flinging herself down across the seat she
cried bitterly. It was not a childishly irresponsible grief like
Pin's: it was more passionate, and went deeper; and her overloaded
feelings were soon relieved. But as she was not used to crying, she
missed the moment at which she might have checked herself, and went on
shedding tears after they had become a luxury.
"Why, goodness gracious, what's this?" cried a loud, cheerful and
astonished voice, and a fat, rosy face beamed in on Laura. "Why,
here's a little girl in here, cryin' fit to break 'er heart. Come,
come, my dear, what's the matter? Don't cry like that, now don't."
The coach had stopped, the door opened and a stout woman climbed
in, bearing a big basket, and followed by a young man with
straw-coloured whiskers. Laura sat up like a dart and pulled her hat
straight, crimson with mortification at being discovered in such a
plight. She had instantly curbed her tears, but she could not disguise
the fact that she had red eyes and a swollen nosethat she was in
short what Sarah called "all bunged up". She made no reply to the
newcomer's exclamations, but sat clutching her handkerchief and
staring out of the window. The woman's good-natured curiosity,
however, was not to be done.
"You poor little thing, you!" she persisted. "Wherever are you
goin', my dear, so alone?"
"I'm going to boarding-school," said Laura, and shot a glance at
the couple opposite.
"To boardin'-school? Peter! D'you hear?Why, whatever's your ma
thinkin' of to send such a little chick as you to boardin'-school? . .
. and so alone, too."
Laura's face took on a curious air of dignity.
"I'm not so very little," she answered; and went on to explain, in
phrases which she had heard so often that she knew them by heart:
"Only small for my age. I was twelve in spring. And I have to go to
school, because I've learnt all I can at home."
This failed to impress the woman.
"Snakes alive!that's young enough in all conscience. And such a
delicate little creature, too. Just like that one o' Sam MacFarlane's
that popped off last Christmasisn't she, Peter?"
Peter, who avoided looking at Laura, sheepishly mumbled something
about like enough she was.
"And who IS your ma, my dear? What's your name?" continued her
Laura replied politely; but there was a reserve in her manner
which, together with the name she gave, told enough: the widow,
Laura's mother, had the reputation of being very "stuck-up", and of
bringing up her children in the same way.
The woman did not press Laura further; she whispered something
behind her hand to Peter, then searching in her basket found a large,
red apple, which she held out with an encouraging nod and smile.
"Here, my dear. Here's something for you. Don't cry any more, don't
now. It'll be all right."
Laura, who was well aware that she had not shed a tear since the
couple entered the coach, coloured deeply, and made a movement, half
shy, half unwilling, to put her hands behind her.
"Oh no, thank you," she said in extreme embarrassment, not wishing
to hurt the giver's feelings. "Mother doesn't care for us to take
things from strangers."
"Bless her soul!" cried the stout woman in amaze. "It's only an
apple! Now, my dear, just you take it, and make your mind easy. Your
ma wouldn't have nothin' against it to-day, I'm sure o' thatgoin'
away so far and all so alone like this.It's sweet and juicy."
"It's Melb'm you'll be boun' for I dessay?" said the yellow-haired
Peter so suddenly that Laura started.
She confirmed this, and let her solemn eyes rest on him wondering
why he was so red and fidgety and uncomfortable. The woman said: "Tch,
tch, tch!" at the length of the journey Laura was undertaking, and
Peter, growing still redder, volunteered another remark.
"I was nigh to bein' in Melb'm once meself," he said.
"Aye, and he can't never forget it, the silly loon," threw in the
woman, but so good-naturedly that it was impossible, Laura felt, for
Peter to take offence.
She gazed at the pair, speculating upon the relation they stood in
to each other. She had obediently put out her hand for the apple, and
now sat holding it, without attempting to eat it. It had not been
Mother's precepts alone that had weighed with her in declining it; she
was mortified at the idea of being bribed, as it were, to be good,
just as though she were Pin or one of the little boys. It was a
punishment on her for having been so babyish as to cry; had she not
been caught in the act, the woman would never have ventured to be so
familiar.The very largeness and rosiness of the fruit made it
hateful to her, and she turned over in her mind how she could get rid
As the coach bumped along, her fellow-passengers sat back and shut
their eyes. The road was shadeless; beneath the horses' feet a thick
red dust rose like smoke. The grass by the wayside, under the
scattered gum trees or round the big black boulders that dotted the
hillocks, was burnt to straw. In time, Laura also grew drowsy, and she
was just falling into a doze when, with a jerk, the coach pulled up at
the "Halfway House." Here her companions alighted, and there were more
nods and smiles from the woman.
"You eat it, my dear. I'm sure your ma won't say nothin'," was her
last remark as she pushed the swing-door and vanished into the house,
followed by Peter.
Then the driver's pleasant face appeared at the window of the
coach. In one hand he held a glass, in the other a bottle of lemonade.
"Here, little woman, have a drink. It's warm work ridin'."
Now this was quite different from the matter of the apple. Laura's
throat was parched with dust and tears. She accepted the offer
gratefully, thinking as she drank how envious Pin would be, could she
see her drinking bottle-lemonade.
Then the jolting and rumbling began anew. No one else got in, and
when they had passed the only two landmarks she knewthe leprous
Chinaman's hut and the market garden of Ah Chow, who twice a week
jaunted at a half-trot to the township with his hanging baskets, to
supply people with vegetableswhen they had passed these, Laura fell
asleep. She wakened with a start to find that the coach had halted to
apply the brakes, at the top of the precipitous hill that led down to
the railway township. In a two-wheeled buggy this was an exciting
descent; but the coach jammed on both its brakes, moved like a snail,
and seemed hardly able to crawl.
At the foot of the hill the little town lay sluggish in the sun.
Although it was close on midday, but few people were astir in the
streets; for the place had long since ceased to be an important mining
centre: the chief claims were worked out; and the coming of the
railway had been powerless to give it the impetus to a new life. It
was always like this in these streets of low, verandahed, red-brick
houses, always dull and sleepy, and such animation as there was, was
invariably to be found before the doors of the many public-houses.
At one of these the coach stopped and unloaded its goods, for an
interminable time. People came and looked in at the window at Laura,
and she was beginning to feel alarmed lest O'Donnell, who had gone
inside, had forgotten all about her having to catch the train, when
out he came, wiping his lips.
"Now for the livin' luggage!" he said with a wink, and Laura drew
back in confusion from the laughter of a group of larrikins round the
It was indeed high time at the station; no sooner was her box
dislodged and her ticket taken than the train steamed in. O'Donnell
recommended her to the guard's care; she shook hands with him and
thanked him, and had just been locked into a carriage by herself when
he came running down the platform again, holding in his hand, for
everyone to see, the apple, which Laura believed she had safely hidden
under the cushions of the coach. Red to the roots of her hair she had
to receive it before a number of heads put out to see what the matter
was, and she was even forced to thank O'Donnell into the bargain. Then
the guard came along once more, and told her he would let no one get
in beside her: she need not be afraid.
"Yes. And will you please tell me when we come to Melbourne."
Directly the train was clear of the station, she lowered a window
and, taking aim at a telegraph post, threw the apple from her with all
her might. Then she hung out of the window, as far out as she could,
till her hat was nearly carried off. This was the first railway
journey she had made by herself, and there was an intoxicating sense
of freedom in being locked in, alone, within the narrow compass of the
compartment. She was at liberty to do everything that had previously
been forbidden her: she walked up and down the carriage, jumped from
one seat to another, then lay flat on her back singing to herself, and
watching the telegraph poles fly past the windows, and the wires mount
and descend.But now came a station and, though the train did not
stop, she sat up, in order that people might see she was travelling
She grew hungry and attacked her lunch, and it turned out that
Mother had not provided too much after all. When she had finished, had
brushed herself clean of crumbs and handled, till her finger-tips were
sore, the pompous half-crown she had found in her pocket, she fell to
thinking of them at home, and of what they would now be doing. It was
between two and three o'clock: the sun would be full on the flagstones
of the back verandah; inch by inch Pin and Leppie would be driven away
to find a cooler spot for their afternoon game, while little Frank
slept, and Sarah splashed the dinner-dishes in the brick-floored
kitchen. Mother sat sewing, and she would still be sitting there,
still sewing, when the shadow of the fir tree, which at noon was
shrunken like a dwarf, had stretched to giant size, and the children
had opened the front gate to play in the shade of the public
footpath.At the thought of these shadows, of all the familiar things
she would not see again for months to come, Laura's eyelids began to
They had flashed through several stations; now they stopped; and
her mind was diverted by the noise and bustle. As the train swung into
motion again, she fell into a pleasanter line of thought. She painted
to herself, for the hundredth time, the new life towards which she was
journeying, and, as always, in the brightest colours.
She had arrived at school, and in a spacious apartment, which was a
kind of glorified Mother's drawing-room, was being introduced to a
bevy of girls. They clustered round, urgent to make the acquaintance
of the newcomer, who gave her hand to each with an easy grace and an
appropriate word. They were too well-bred to cast a glance at her
clothes, which, however she might embellish them in fancy, Laura knew
were not what they ought to be: her ulster was some years old, and so
short that it did not cover the flounce of her dress, and this dress,
and her hat with it, were Mother's taste, and consequently, Laura felt
sure, nobody else's. But her new companions saw that she wore these
clothes with an elegance that made up for their shortcomings; and she
heard them whisper: "Isn't she pretty? What black eyes! What lovely
curls!" But she was not proud, and by her ladylike manners soon made
them feel at home with her, even though they stood agape at her
cleverness: none of THEM could claim to have absorbed the knowledge of
a whole house. With one of her admirers she had soon formed a
friendship that was the wonder of all who saw it: in deep respect the
others drew back, forming a kind of allee, down which, with linked
arms, the two friends sauntered, blind to everything but
themselves.And having embarked thus upon her sea of dreams, Laura
set sail and was speedily borne away.
"Next station you'll be there, little girl."
She sprang up and looked about her, with vacant eyes. This had been
the last stoppage, and the train was passing through the flats. In
less than two minutes she had collected her belongings, tidied her
hair and put on her gloves.
Some time afterwards they steamed in alongside a gravelled
platform, among the stones of which a few grass-blades grew. This was
Melbourne. At the nearer end of the platform stood two ladies, one
stout and elderly in bonnet and mantle, with glasses mounted on a
black stick, and shortsighted, peering eyes; the other stout and
comely, too, but young, with a fat, laughing face and rosy cheeks.
Laura descried them a long way off; and, as the carriage swept past
them, they also saw her, eager and prominent at her window. Both
stared at her, and the younger lady said something, and laughed. Laura
instantly connected the remark, and the amusement it caused the
speaker, with the showy red lining of her hat, at which she believed
their eyes had been directed. She also realised, when it was too late,
that her greeting had been childish, unnecessarily effusive; for the
ladies had responded only by nods. Here were two thrusts to parry at
once, and Laura's cheeks tingled. But she did not cease to smile, and
she was still wearing this weak little smile, which did its best to
seem easy and unconcerned, when she alighted from the train.
The elderly lady was Laura's godmother; she lived at Prahran, and
it was at her house that Laura would sometimes spend a monthly
holiday. Godmother was good to them all in a brusque, sharp-tongued
fashion; but Pin was her especial favourite and she made no secret of
it. Her companion on the platform was a cousin of Laura's, of at least
twice Laura's age, who invariably struck awe into the children by her
loud and ironic manner of speech. She was an independent, manly
person, in spite of her plump roundnesses; she lived by herself in
lodgings, and earned her own living as a clerk in an office.
The first greetings over, Godmother's attention was entirely taken
up by Laura's box: after this had been picked out from among the other
luggage, grave doubts were expressed whether it could be got on to the
back seat of the pony-carriage, to which it was conveyed by a porter
and the boy. Laura stood shyly by and waited, while Cousin Grace kept
up the conversation by putting abrupt and embarrassing questions.
"How's your ma?" she demanded rather than asked, in the slangy and
jocular tone she employed. "I guess she'll be thanking her stars she's
got rid of you;" at which Laura smiled uncertainly, not being sure
whether Cousin Grace spoke in jest or earnest.
"I suppose you think no end of yourself going to boarding-school?"
continued the latter.
"Oh no, not at all," protested Laura with due modesty; and as both
at question and answer Cousin Grace laughed boisterously, Laura was
glad to hear Godmother calling: "Come, jump in. The ponies won't
Godmother was driving herselfa low basket-carriage, harnessed to
two buff-coloured ponies. Laura sat with her back to them. Godmother
flapped the reins and said: "Get up!" but she was still fretted about
the box, which was being held on behind by the boy. An inch larger,
she asserted, and it would have had to be left behind. Laura eyed its
battered sides uneasily. Godmother might remember, she thought, that
it contained her whole wardrobe; and she wondered how many of
Godmother's own ample gowns could be compressed into so small a space.
"All my clothes are inside," she explained; "that I shall need for
"Ah, I expect your poor mother has sat up sewing herself to death,
that you may be as well dressed as the rest of them," said Godmother,
and heaved a doleful sigh. But Cousin Grace laughed the wide laugh
that displayed a mouthful of great healthy teeth.
"What? All your clothes in there?" she cried. "I say! You couldn't
be a queen if you hadn't more togs than that."
"Oh, I know," Laura hastened to reply, and grew very red. "Queens
need a lot more clothes than I've got."
"Tut, tut!" said Godmother: she did not understand the allusion,
which referred to a former ambition of Laura's. "Don't talk such
nonsense to the child."
She drove very badly, and they went by quiet by-streets to escape
the main traffic: the pony-chaise wobbled at random from one side of
the road to the other, obstacles looming up only just in time for
Godmother to see them. The ponies shook and tossed their heads at the
constant sawing of the bits, and Laura had to be continually ducking,
to keep out of the way of the reins. She let the unfamiliar streets go
past her in a kind of dream; and there was silence for a time, broken
only by Godmother's expostulations with the ponies, till Cousin Grace,
growing tired of playing her bright eyes first on this, then on that,
brought them back to Laura and studied her up and down.
"I say, who on earth trimmed your hat?" she asked almost at once.
"Mother," answered Laura bravely, while the colour mounted to her
"Well, I guess she made up her mind you shouldn't get lost as long
as you wore it," went on her cousin with disconcerting candour. "It
makes you look just like a great big red double dahlia."
"Let the child be. She looks well enough," threw in Godmother in
her snappish way. But Laura was sure that she, too disapproved; and
felt more than she heard the muttered remark about "Jane always having
had a taste for something gay."
"Oh, I like the colour very much. I chose it myself," said Laura,
and looked straight at the two faces before her. But her lips
twitched. She would have liked to snatch the hat from her head, to
throw it in front of the ponies and hear them trample it under their
hoofs. She had never wanted the scarlet lining of the big, upturned
brim; in a dislike to being conspicuous which was incomprehensible to
Mother, she had implored the latter to "leave it plain". But Mother
had said: "Nonsense!" and "Hold your tongue!" and "I know
better,"with this result.
Oh yes, she saw well enough how Godmother signed with her eyes to
Cousin Grace to say no more; but she pretended not to notice, and for
the remainder of the drive nobody spoke. They went past long lines of
grey houses, joined one to another and built exactly alike; past
large, fenced-in public parks where all kinds of odd, unfamiliar trees
grew, with branches that ran right down their trunks, and bushy
leaves. The broad streets were hilly; the wind, coming in puffs, met
them with clouds of gritty white dust. They had just, with bent heads,
their hands at their hats, passed through one of these miniature
whirlwinds, when turning a corner they suddenly drew up, and the boy
sprang to the ponies' heads. Laura, who had not been expecting the end
so soon, saw only a tall wooden fence; but Cousin Grace looked higher,
gave a stagey shudder and cried: "Oh my eye Betty Martin! Aren't I
glad it isn't me that's going to school! It looks just like a prison."
It certainly was an imposing building viewed from within, when the
paling-gate had closed behind them. To Laura, who came from a township
of one-storied brick or weatherboard houses, it seemed vast in its
breadth and height, appalling in its sombre greyness. Between
Godmother and Cousin Grace she walked up an asphalted path, and
mounted the steps that led to a massive stone portico. The bell
Godmother rang made no answering sound, but after a very few seconds
the door swung back, and a slender maidservant in cap and apron stood
before them. She smiled at them pleasantly, as, in Chinaman-fashion,
they crossed the threshold; then, inclining her head at a murmured
word from Godmother, she vanished as lightly as she had come, and they
sat and looked about them. They were in a plainly furnished but very
lofty waiting-room. There were two large windows. The venetian blinds
had not been lowered, and the afternoon sun, beating in, displayed a
shabby patch on the carpet. It showed up, too, a coating of dust that
had gathered on the desk-like, central table. There was the faint,
distinctive smell of strange furniture. But what impressed Laura most
was the stillness. No street noises pierced the massy walls, but
neither did the faintest echo of all that might be taking place in the
great building itself reach their ears: they sat aloof, shut off, as
it were, from the living world. And this feeling soon grew downright
oppressive: it must be like this to be dead, thought Laura to herself;
and inconsequently remembered a quarter of an hour she had once spent
in a dentist's ante-room: there as here the same soundless vacancy,
the same anguished expectancy. Now, as then, her heart began to thump
so furiously that she was afraid the others would hear it. But they,
too, were subdued; though Cousin Grace tittered continually you heard
only a gentle wheezing, and even Godmother expressed the hope that
they would not be kept waiting long, under her breath. But minute
after minute went by; there they sat and nothing happened. It began to
seem as if they might sit on for ever.
All of a sudden, from out the spacious halls of which they had
caught a glimpse on arriving, brisk steps began to come towards them
over the oilclothat first as a mere tapping in the distance, then
rapidly gaining in weight and decision. Laura's palpitations reached
their extreme limitanother second and they might have burst her
chest. Cousin Grace ceased to giggle; the door opened with a peculiar
flourish; and all three rose to their feet.
The person who entered was a very stately lady; she wore a cap with
black ribbons. With the door-handle still in her hand she made a
slight obeisance, in which her whole body joined, afterwards to become
more erect than before. Having introduced herself to Godmother as Mrs.
Gurley, the Lady Superintendent of the institution, she drew up a
chair, let herself down upon it, and began to converse with an air of
While she talked Laura examined her, with a child's thirst for
detail. Mrs. Gurley was large and generous of form, and she carried
her head in such a haughty fashion that it made her look taller than
she really was. She had a high colour, her black hair was touched with
grey, her upper teeth were prominent. She wore gold eyeglasses, many
rings, a long gold chain, which hung from an immense cameo brooch at
her throat, and a black apron with white flowers on it, one point of
which was pinned to her ample bosom. The fact that Laura had just such
an apron in her box went only a very little way towards reviving her
spirits; for altogether Mrs. Gurley was the most impressive person she
had ever set eyes on. Beside her, God mother was nothing but a plump,
shortsighted fidgety lady.
Particularly awe-inspiring was Mrs. Gurley when she listened to
another speaking. She held her head a little to one side, her teeth
met her underlip and her be-ringed hands toyed incessantly with the
long gold chain, in a manner which seemed to denote that she set
little value on what was being said. Awful, too, was the habit she had
of suddenly lowering her head and looking at you over the tops of her
glasses: when she did this, and when her teeth came down on her lip,
you would have liked to shrink to the size of a mouse. Godmother, it
was true, was not afraid of her; but Cousin Grace was hushed at last
and as for Laura herself, she consciously wore a fixed little simper,
which was meant to put it beyond doubt that butter would not melt in
Godmother now asked if she might say a few words in private, and
the two ladies left the room. As the door closed behind them Cousin
Grace began to be audible again.
"Oh, snakes!" she giggled, and her double chin spread itself
"There's a Tartar for you! Don't I thank my stars it's not me that's
being shunted off here! She'll give you what-for."
"I don't think so. I think she's very nice," said Laura staunchly,
out of an instinct that made her chary of showing fear, or pain, or
grief. But her heart began to bound again, for the moment in which she
would be left alone.
"You see!" said Cousin Grace. "It'll be bread and water for a week,
if you can't do AMARE first go-offnot to mention the deponents."
"What's AMARE?" asked Laura anxiously, and her eyes grew so big
that they seemed to fill her face.
But Cousin Grace only laughed till it seemed probable that she
would burst her bodice; and Laura blushed, aware that she had
compromised herself anew.
There followed a long and nervous pause.
"I bet Godmother's asking her not to wallop you too often," the
tease had just begun afresh, when the opening of the door forced her
to swallow her sentence in the middle.
Godmother would not sit down; so the dreaded moment had come.
"Now, Laura. Be a good girl and learn well, and be a comfort to
your mother.Not that there's much need to urge her to her books,"
Godmother interrupted herself, turning to Mrs. Gurley. "The trouble
her dear mother has always had has been to keep her from them."
Laura glowed with pleasure. Now at least the awful personage would
know that she was clever, and loved to learn. But Mrs. Gurley smiled
the chilliest thinkable smile of acknowledgment, and did not reply a
She escorted the other to the front door, and held it open for them
to pass out. Then, however, her pretence of affability faded clean
away: turning her head just so far that she could look down her nose
at her own shoulder, she said: "Follow me!"in a tone Mother would
not have used even to Sarah. Feeling inexpressibly small Laura was
about to obey, when a painful thought struck her.
"Oh please, I had a boxwith my clothes in it!" she cried. "Oh, I
hope they haven't forgotten and taken it away again."
But she might as well have spoken to the hatstand: Mrs. Gurley had
sailed off, and was actually approaching a turn in the hall before
Laura made haste to follow her and to keep further anxiety about her
box to herself. They went past one staircase, round a bend into
shadows as black as if, outside, no sun were shining, and began to
ascend another flight of stairs, which was the widest Laura had ever
seen. The banisters were as thick as your arm, and on each side of the
stair-carpeting the space was broad enough for two to walk abreast:
what a splendid game of trains you could have played there! On the
other hand the landing windows were so high up that only a giant could
have seen out of them.
These things occurred to Laura mechanically. What really occupied
her, as she trudged behind, was how she could please this hard-faced
woman and make her like her, for the desire to please, to be liked by
all the world, was the strongest her young soul knew. And there must
be a way, for Godmother had found it without difficulty.
She took two steps at once, to get nearer to the portly back in
front of her.
"What a VERY large place this is!" she said in an insinuating
She hoped the admiration, thus subtly expressed in the form of
surprise, would flatter Mrs. Gurley, as a kind of co-proprietor; but
it was evident that it did nothing of the sort: the latter seemed to
have gone deaf and dumb, and marched on up the stairs, her hands
clasped at her waist, her eyes fixed ahead, like a walking
On the top floor she led the way to a room at the end of a long
passage. There were four beds in this room, a washhandstand, a chest
of drawers, and a wall cupboard. But at first sight Laura had eyes
only for the familiar object that stood at the foot of one of the
"Oh, THERE'S my box!" she cried, "Someone must have brought it up."
It was unroped; she had simply to hand over the key. Mrs. Gurley
went down on her knees before it, opened the lid, and began to pass
the contents to Laura, directing her where to lay and hang them.
Overawed by such complaisance, Laura moved nimbly about the room
shaking and unfolding, taking care to be back at the box to the minute
so as not to keep Mrs. Gurley waiting. And her promptness was
rewarded; the stern face seemed to relax. At the mere hint of this,
Laura grew warm through and through; and as she could neither control
her feelings nor keep them to herself, she rushed to an extreme and
overshot the mark.
"I've got an apron like that. I think they're so pretty," she said
cordially, pointing to the one Mrs. Gurley wore.
The latter abruptly stopped her work, and, resting her hands on the
sides of the box, gave Laura one of the dreaded looks over her
glasses, looked at her from top to toe, and as though she were only
now beginning to see her. There was a pause, a momentary suspension of
the breath, which Laura soon learned to expect before a rebuke.
"Little gels," said Mrs. Gurleyand even in the midst of her
confusion Laura could not but be struck by the pronunciation of this
word. "Little gelsare requiredto wear white aprons when they come
here!" a break after each few words, as well as an emphatic
head-shake, accentuated their severity. "And I should like to know, if
your mother, has never taught you, that it is very rude, to point, and
also to remark, on what people wear."
Laura went scarlet: if there was one thing she, Mother all of them
prided themselves on, it was the good manners that had been instilled
into them since their infancy.The rough reproof seemed to scorch
She went to and fro more timidly than before. Then, however,
something happened which held a ray of hope.
"Why, what is this?" asked Mrs. Gurley freezingly, and held up to
view with the tips of her fingers, Laura thoughta small, black
Prayer Book. "Pray, are you not a dissenter?"For the College was
"Well . . . no, I'm not," said Laura, in a tone of intense apology.
Here, at last, was her chance. "But it really doesn't matter a bit. I
can go to another church quite well. I even think I'd rather. For a
change. And the service isn't so long, at least so I've heardexcept
the sermon," she added truthfully.
Had she denied religion altogether, the look Mrs. Gurley bent on
her could not have been more annihilating.
"There isunfortunately!no occasion, for you to do anything of
the kind," she retorted. "I myself, am an Episcopalian, and I expect
those gels, who belong to the Church of England, to attend it, with
The unpacking at an end, Mrs. Gurley rose, smoothed down her
apron, and was just on the point of turning away, when on the bed
opposite Laura's she espied an under-garment, lying wantonly across
the counterpane. At this blot on the orderliness of the room she
seemed to swell like a turkey-cock, seemed literally to grow before
Laura's eyes as, striding to the door, she commanded an invisible some
one to send Lilith Gordon to her "DI-rectly!"!
There was an awful pause; Laura did not dare to raise her head; she
even said a little prayer. Mrs. Gurley stood working at her chain, and
tapping her footlike a beast waiting for its prey, thought the
child. And at last a hurried step was heard in the corridor, the door
opened and a girl came in, high-coloured and scant of breath. Laura
darted one glance at Mrs. Gurley's face, then looked away and studied
the pattern of a quilt, trying not to hear what was said. Her throat
swelled, grew hard and dry with pity for the culprit. But Lilith
Gordona girl with sandy eyebrows, a turned-up nose, a thick plait of
red-gold hair, and a figure so fully developed that Laura mentally
dubbed it a "lady's figure", and put its owner down for years older
than herselfLilith Gordon neither fell on her knees nor sank through
the floor. Her lashes were lowered, in a kind of dog-like submission,
and her face had gone very red when Laura ventured to look at her
again; but that was all. And Mrs. Gurley having swept Jove-like from
the room, this bold girl actually set her finger to her nose and
muttered: "Old Brimstone Beast!" As she passed Laura, too, she put out
her tongue and said: "Now then, goggle-eyes, what have you got to
Laura was deeply hurt: she had gazed at Lilith out of the purest
sympathy. And now, as she stood waiting for Mrs. Gurley, who seemed to
have forgotten her, the strangeness of things, and the general
unfriendliness of the people struck home with full force. The late
afternoon sun was shining in, in an unfamiliar way; outside were
strange streets, strange noises, a strange white dust, the expanse of
a big, strange city. She felt unspeakably far away now, from the
small, snug domain of home. Here, nobody wanted her . . . she was
alone among strangers, who did not even like her . . . she had
already, without meaning it, offended two of them.
Another second, and the shameful tears might have found their way
out. But at this moment there was a kind of preparatory boom in the
distance, and the next, a great bell clanged through the house,
pealing on and on, long after one's ears were rasped by the din. It
was followed by an exodus from the rooms round about; there was a
sound of voices and of feet. Mrs. Gurley ceased to give orders in the
passage, and returning, bade Laura put on a pinafore and follow her.
They descended the broad staircase. At a door just at the foot,
Mrs. Gurley paused and smoothed her already faultless bands of hair;
then turned the handle and opened the door, with the majestic swing
Laura had that day once before observed.
Fifty-five heads turned as if by clockwork, and fifty-five pairs of
eyes were levelled at the small girl in the white apron who meekly
followed Mrs. Gurley down the length of the dining-room. Laura
crimsoned under the unexpected ordeal, and tried to fix her attention
on the flouncing of Mrs. Gurley's dress. The room seemed hundreds of
feet long, and not a single person at the tea-tables but took stock of
her. The girls made no scruple of leaning backwards and forwards,
behind and before their neighbours, in order to see her better, and
even the governesses were not above having a look. All were standing.
On Mrs. Gurley assigning Laura a place at her own right hand, Laura
covered herself with confusion by taking her seat at once, before
grace had been said, and before the fifty-five had drawn in their
chairs with the noise of a cavalry brigade on charge. She stood up
again immediately, but it was too late; an audible titter whizzed
round the table: the new girl had sat down. For minutes after, Laura
was lost in the pattern on her plate; and not till tongues were
loosened and dishes being passed, did she venture to steal a glance
There were four tables, with a governess at the head and foot of
each to pour out tea. It was more of a hall than a room and had high,
church-like windows down one side. At both ends were scores of
pigeon-holes. There was a piano in it and a fireplace; it had [P.45]
pale blue walls, and only strips of carpet on the floor. At present it
was darkish, for the windows did not catch the sun.
Laura was roused by a voice at her side; turning, she found her
neighbour offering her a plate of bread.
"No, thank you," she said impulsively; for the bread was cut in
chunks, and did not look inviting.
But the girl nudged her on the sly. "You'd better take some," she
Laura then saw that there was nothing else. But she saw, too, the
smiles and signs that again flew round: the new girl had said no.
Humbly she accepted the butter and the cup of tea which were passed
to her in turn, and as humbly ate the piece of rather stale bread. She
felt forlornly miserable under the fire of all these unkind eyes,
which took a delight in marking her slips: at the smallest further
mischance she might disgrace herself by bursting out crying. Just at
this moment, however, something impelled her to look up. Her
vis-a-vis, whom she had as yet scarcely noticed, was staring hard. And
now, to her great surprise, this girl winked at her, winked slowly and
deliberately with the right eye. Laura was so discomposed that she
looked away again at once, and some seconds elapsed before she was
brave enough to take another peep. The wink was repeated.
It was a black-haired girl this time, a girl with small blue eyes,
a pale, freckled skin, and large white teeth. What most impressed
Laura, though, was her extraordinary gravity: she chewed away with a
face as solemn as a parson's; and then just when you were least
expecting it, came the wink. Laura was fascinated: she lay in wait for
it beforehand and was doubtful whether to feel offended by it or to
laugh at it. But at least it made her forget her mishaps, and did away
with the temptation to cry.
When, however, Mrs. Gurley had given the signal, and the fifty-five
had pushed back their chairs and set them to the table again with the
same racket as before, Laura's position was a painful one. Everybody
pushed, and talked, and laughed, in a hurry to leave the hall, and no
one took any notice of her except to stare. After some indecision, she
followed the rest through a door. Here she found herself on a verandah
facing the grounds of the school. There was a long bench, on which
several people were sitting: she took a modest seat at one end. Two of
the younger governesses looked at her and laughed, and made a remark.
She saw her room-mate, Lilith Gordon, arm in arm with a couple of
companions. The winker of the tea-table turned out to be a girl of her
own age, but of a broader make; she had fat legs, which were encased
in thickly-ribbed black stockings. As she passed the bench she left
the friend she was with, to come up to Laura and dig her in the ribs.
"DIDN'T she like her bread and butter, poor little thing?" she
said. Laura shrank from the dig, which was rough; but she could not
help smiling shyly at the girl, who looked good-natured. If only she
had stayed and talked to her! But she was off and away, her arm round
a comrade's neck.
Besides herself, there was now only an elderly governess left, who
was reading. She, Laura, in her solitude, was conspicuous to every
eye. But at this juncture up came two rather rollicking older girls,
one of whom was fair, with a red complexion. AS soon as their loud
voices had driven the governess away, the smaller of the two, who had
a pronounced squint, turned to Laura.
"Hullo, you kid," she said, "what's YOUR name?"
Laura artlessly replied. She was dumbfounded by the storm of
merriment that followed. Maria Morell, the fat girl, went purple, and
had to be thumped on the back by her friend.
"Oh, my!" she gasped, when she had got her breath. "Oh, my . . .
hold me, some one, or I shall split! Oh, golly! Laura . . . Tweedle .
. . RambothamLaura . . . Tweedle . . . Rambotham! . . ." her voice
tailed off again. "Gosh! Was there ever such a name?"
She laughed till she could laugh no more, rocking backwards and
forwards and from side to side; while her companion proceeded to make
"Where do you come from?" the squint demanded of Laura, in a
Laura named the township, quaveringly. "What's your father?"
"He's dead," answered the child.
"Well, but I suppose he was alive once wasn't he, duffer? What was
he before he was dead?"
"What did he die of?"
"How many servants do you keep?"
"How much have you got a year?"
"I don't know."
"How old are you?"
"Twelve and a quarter."
"Who made your dress?"
"Oh, I say, hang it, that's enough. Stop teasing the kid," said
Maria Morell, when the laughter caused by the last admission had died
away. But the squint spied a friend, ran to her, and there was a great
deal of whispering and sniggering. Presently the pair came sauntering
up and sat down; and after some artificial humming and hawing the
newcomer began to talk, in a loud and fussy manner, about certain
acquaintances of hers called Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Both the fat
girl and the squint "split" with laughter. Laura sat with her hands
locked one inside the other; there was no escape for her, for she did
not know where to go. But when the third girl put the regulation
question: "What's your name and what's your father?" she turned on
her, with the courage of despair.
"What's yours?" she retorted hotly, at the same time not at all
sure how the big girl might revenge herself. To her relief, the others
burst out laughing at their friend's bafflement.
"That's one for you, Kate Horner," said Maria with a chuckle. "Not
bad for the kid.Come on, Kid, will you have a walk round the
"Oh yes, PLEASE," said Laura, reddening with pleasure; and there
she was, arm in arm with her fat saviour, promenading the grounds like
any other of the fifty-five.
She assumed, as well as she could, an air of feeling at her ease
even in the presence of the cold and curious looks that met her. The
fat girl was protective, and Laura felt too grateful to her to take it
amiss that every now and then she threw back her head and laughed
anew, at the remembrance of Laura's patronymics; or that she still
exchanged jokes about them with the other couple, when they met.
But by this time half an hour had slipped away, and the girls were
fast disappearing. Maria Morell loitered till the last minute, then
said, she, too, must be off to 'stew'. Every one was hastening across
the verandah laden with books, and disappearing down a corridor. Left
alone, Laura made her way back to the dining-hall. Here some of the
very young boarders were preparing their lessons, watched over by a
junior governess. Laura lingered for a little, to see if no order were
forthcoming, then diffidently approached the table and asked the
governess if she would please tell her what to do.
"I'm sure I don't know," answered that lady, disinclined for
responsibility. "You'd better ask Miss Chapman. Here, Maggie, show her
where the study is."
Laura followed the little girl over the verandah and down the
corridor. At the end, the child pointed to a door, and on opening this
Laura found herself in a very large brightly lighted room, where the
boarders sat at two long tables with their books before them. Every
head was raised at her entrance. In great embarrassment, she threaded
her way to the more authoritative-looking of the governesses in
charge, and proffered her request. It was not understood, and she had
to repeat it.
"I'm sure I don't know," said Miss Day in her turn: she had stiff,
black, wavy hair, a vivid colour, and a big, thick nose which made her
profile resemble that of a horse. "Can't you twiddle your thumbs for a
bit?Oh well, if you're so desperately anxious for an occupation,
you'd better ask Miss Chapman."
The girls in the immediate neighbourhood laughed noiselessly, in a
bounden-duty kind of way, at their superior's pleasantry, and Laura,
feeling as though she had been hit, crossed to the other table. Miss
Chapman, the head governess, was neither so hard-looking nor so
brilliant as Miss Day. She even eyed Laura somewhat uneasily,
meanwhile toying with a long gold chain, after the manner of the Lady
"Didn't Mrs. Gurley tell you what to do?" she queried. "I should
think it likely she would. Oh well, if she didn't, I suppose you'd
better bring your things downstairs. Yes . . . and ask Miss Zielinski
to give you a shelf."
Miss Zielinskishe was the governess in the dining-hallsaid:
"Oh, very well," in the rather whiny voice that seemed natural to her,
and went on reading.
"Please, I don't think I know my way," ventured Laura.
"Follow your nose and you'll find it!" said Miss Zielinski without
looking up, and was forthwith wrapt in her novel again.
Once more Laura climbed the wide staircase: it was but dimly
lighted, and the passages were in darkness. After a few false moves
she found her room, saw that her box had been taken away, her books
left lying [P.51] on a chair. But instead of picking them up, she
threw herself on her bed and buried her face in the pillow. She did
not dare to cry, for fear of making her eyes red, but she hugged the
cool linen to her cheeks.
"I hate them all," she said passionately, speaking aloud to
herself. "Oh, HOW I hate them!"and wild schemes of vengeance flashed
through her young mind. She did not even halt at poison or the knife:
a big cake, sent by Mother, of which she invited all alike to partake,
and into which she inserted a fatal poison, so that the whole school
died like rabbits; or a nightly stabbing, a creeping from bed to bed
in the dark, her penknife open in her hand...
But she had not lain thus for more than a very few minutes when
steps came along the passage; and she had only just time to spring to
her feet before one of the little girls appeared at the door.
"You're to come down at once."
"Don't you know you're not ALLOWED to stay upstairs?" asked Miss
Zielinski crossly. "What were you doing?" And as Laura did not reply:
"What was she doing, Jessie?"
"I don't know," said the child. "She was just standing there." And
all the little girls laughed, after the manner of their elders.
Before Laura had finished arranging her belongings on the shelves
that were assigned to her, some of the older girls began to drop in
from the study. One unceremoniously turned over her books, which were
lying on the table.
"Let's see what the kid's got."
Now Laura was proud of her collection: it really made a great show;
for a daughter of Godmother's had once attended the College, and her
equipment had been handed down to Laura.
"Why, you don't mean to say a kid like you's in the Second
Principia already?" said a big girl, and held up, incredulously,
Smith's black and red boards. "Wherever did YOU learn Latin?"
In the reediest of voices Laura was forced to confess that she had
never learnt Latin at all.
The girl eyed her in dubious amaze, then burst out laughing. "Oh, I
say!" she called to a friend. "Here's a rum go. Here's this kid brings
the Second Principia with her and doesn't know the First."
Several others crowded round; and all found this divergence from
the norm, from the traditional method of purchasing each book new and
as it was needed, highly ridiculous. Laura, on her knees before her
shelf, pretended to be busy; but she could not see what she was doing,
for the mist that gathered in her eyes.
Just at this moment, however, in marched Maria Morell. "Here, I
say, stop that!" she cried. "You're teasing that kid again. I won't
have it. Here, come on, KidLaura Tweedledum come and sit by me for
For the second time, Laura was thankful to the fat girl. But as
ill-luck would have it, Miss Chapman chanced to let her eyes stray in
their direction; and having fingered her chain indecisively for a
little, said: "It seems a pity, doesn't it, Miss Day, that that nice
little girl should get in with that vulgar set?"
Miss Chapman liked to have her opinions confirmed. But this was a
weakness Miss Day did not pamper; herself strong-minded, she could
afford to disregard Miss Chapman's foibles. So she went on with her
book, and ignored the question. But Miss Zielinski, who lost no
opportunity of making herself agreeable to those over her, said with
foreign emphasis: "Yes, indeed it does."
So Laura was summoned and made to sit down at the end of the room,
close to the governesses and beside the very big girlsgirls of
eighteen and nineteen, who seemed older still to her, with their
figures, and waists, and skirts that touched the ground.
Instinctively she felt that they resented her proximity. The
biggest of all, a pleasant-faced girl with a kind smile, said on
seeing her downcast air: "Poor little thing! Never mind. "But when
they talked among themselves they lowered their voices and cast
stealthy glances at her, to see if she were listening.
Supper over, three chairs were set out in an exposed position; the
big bell in the passage was lightly touched; everyone fetched a
hymn-book, one with music in it being handed to Miss Chapman at the
piano. The door opened to admit first Mrs. Gurley, then the Principal
and his wifea tall, fair gentleman in a long coat, and a sweet-faced
lady, who wore a rose in her velvet dress.
"Let us sing in the hundred and fifty-seventh hymn," said the
gentleman, who had a Grecian profile and a drooping, sandy moustache;
and when Miss Chapman had played through the tune, the fifty-five, the
governesses, the lady and gentleman rose to their feet and sang, with
halting emphasis, of the Redeemer and His mercy, to Miss Chapman's
accompaniment, which was as indecisive as her manner, the left hand
dragging lamely along after the right.
"Let us read in the third chapter of the Second Epistle of Paul to
Everyone laid her hymn-book on the table and sat down to listen to
Paul's words, which the sandy gentleman read to a continual nervous
movement of the left leg.
"Let us pray."
Obeying the word, the fifty-five rose, faced about, and knelt to
their chairs. It was an extempore prayer, and a long one, and Laura
did not hear much of it; for the two big girls on her right kept up
throughout a running conversation. Also, when it was about half over
she was startled to hear Miss Zielinski say, in a shrill whisper:
"Heavens! There's that mouse again," and audibly draw her skirts round
her. Even Miss Chapman, praying to her piano-chair some distance off,
had heard, and turned her head to frown rebuke.
The prayer at an end, Mr. and Mrs. Strachey bowed vaguely in
several directions, shook hands with the governesses, and left the
room. This was the signal for two of the teachers to advance with open
"Here, little one, have you learned your verse?" whispered Laura's
Laura knew nothing of it; but the big girl lent her a Bible, and,
since it was not a hard verse and every girl repeated it, it was
I WISDOM DWELL WITH PRUDENCE AND FIND OUT KNOWLEDGE OF WITTY
Told off in batches, they filed up the stairs. On the first landing
stood Miss Day, watching with lynx-eyes to see that no books or
eatables were smuggled to the bedrooms. In a strident voice she
exhorted the noisy to silence, and the loiterers to haste.
Laura sped to her room. She was fortunate enough to find it still
empty. Tossing off her clothes, she gabbled ardently through her own
prayers, drew the blankets up over her head, and pretended to be
asleep. Soon the lights were out and all was quiet. Then, with her
face burrowed deep, so that not a sound could escape, she gave free
play to her tears.
MY DEAR MOTHER
I SENT YOU A POSTCARD DID YOU GET IT. I TOLD YOU I GOT HERE ALL
RIGHT AND LIKED IT VERY MUCH. I COULD NOT WRITE A LONG LETTER BEFORE I
HAD NO TIME AND WE ARE ONLY ALOWED TO WRITE LETTERS TWO EVENINGS A
WEEK TUESDAY AND FRIDAY. WHEN WE HAVE DONE OUR LESSONS FOR NEXT DAY WE
SAY PLEASE MAY I WRITE NOW AND MISS CHAPMAN SAYS HAVE YOU DONE
EVERYTHING AND IF WE SAY WE HAVE SHE SAYS YES AND IF YOU SIT AT MISS
DAYS TABLE MISS DAY SAYS IT. AND SOMETIMES WE HAVEN'T BUT WE SAY SO. I
SIT UP BY MISS CHAPMAN AND SHE CAN SEE EVERYTHING I DO AND AT TEA AND
DINNER AND BREAKFAST I SIT BESIDE MRS. GURLEY. ANOTHER GIRL IN MY
CLASS SITS OPPOSITE AND ONE SITS BESIDE ME AND WE WOULD RATHER SIT
SOMEWHERE ELSE. I DON'T CARE FOR MRS. GURLEY MUCH SHE IS VERY FAT AND
NEVER SMILES AND NEVER LISTENS TO WHAT YOU SAY UNLESS SHE SCOLDS YOU
AND I THINK MISS CHAPMAN IS AFRAID OF HER TO. MISS DAY IS NOT AFRAID
OF ANYBODY. I AM IN THE FIRST CLASS. I AM IN THE COLLEGE AND UNDER
THAT IS THE SCHOOL. ONLY VERY LITTLE GIRLS ARE IN THE SCHOOL THEY GO
TO BED AT HALF PAST EIGHT AND DO THEIR LESSONS IN THE DINING HALL. I
DO MINE IN THE STUDY AND GO TO BED WITH THE BIG GIRLS. THEY WEAR
DRESSES DOWN TO THE GROUND. LILITH GORDON IS A GIRL IN MY CLASS SHE IS
IN MY ROOM TO SHE IS ONLY AS OLD AS ME AND SHE WEARS STAYS AND HAS A
BEAUTIFUL FIGGURE. ALL THE GIRLS WEAR STAYS. PLEASE SEND ME SOME I
HAVE NO WASTE. A GOVERNESS SLEEPS IN OUR ROOM AND SHE HAS NO TEETH.
SHE TAKES THEM OUT EVERY NIGHT AND PUTS THEM IN WATER WHEN THE LIGHT
IS OUT. LILITH GORDON AND THE OTHER GIRL SAY GOODNIGHT TO HER AFTER
SHE HAS TAKEN THEM OFF THEN SHE CANT TALK PROPPERLY AND WE WANT TO
HEAR HER. I THINK SHE KNOWS FOR SHE IS VERY CROSS. I DON'T LEARN LATIN
YET TILL I GO INTO THE SECOND CLASS MY SUMS ARE VERY HARD. FOR SUPPER
THERE IS ONLY BREAD AND BUTTER AND WATER IF WE DON'T HAVE CAKE AND JAM
OF OUR OWN. PLEASE SEND ME SOME STRAWBERRY JAM AND ANOTHER CAKE. TELL
SARAH THERE ARE THREE SERVANTS TO WAIT AT DINNER THEY HAVE WHITE
APRONS AND A CAP ON THEIR HEADS. THEY SAY WILL YOU TAKE BEEF MISS
YOUR LOVING DAUGHTER
I AM VERY BUSY I WILL WRITE YOU A LETTER. YOU WOULD NOT LIKE BEING
HERE I THINK YOU SHOULD ALWAYS STOP AT HOME YOU WILL NEVER GET AS FAR
AS LONG DIVISION. MRS. GURLEY IS AN AWFUL OLD BEAST ALL THE GIRLS CALL
HER THAT. YOU WOULD BE FRIGHTENED OF HER. IN THE AFTERNOON AFTER
SCHOOL WE WALK TWO AND TWO AND YOU ASK A GIRL TO WALK WITH YOU AND IF
YOU DON'T YOU HAVE TO WALK WITH MISS CHAPMAN. MISS CHAPMAN AND MISS
DAY WALKS BEHIND AND THEY WATCH TO SEE YOU DON'T LAUGH AT BOYS. SOME
GIRLS WRITE LETTERS TO THEM AND SAY THEY WILL MEET THEM UP BEHIND A
TREE IN THE CORNER OF THE GARDEN A PALING IS LOSE AND THE BOYS PUT
LETTERS IN. I THINK BOYS ARE SILLY BUT MARIA MORELL SAYS THEY ARE TIP
TOP THAT MEANS AWFULLY JOLLY. SHE WRITES A LETTER TO BOYS EVERY WEEK
SHE TAKES IT TO CHURCH AND DROPS IT COMING OUT AND HE PICKS IT UP AND
PUTS AN ANSWER THROUGH THE FENCE. WE PUT OUR LETTERS ON THE
MANTLEPIECE IN THE DINING-HALL AND MRS. GURLEY OR MISS CHAPMAN READ
THE ADRESS TO SEE WE DON'T WRITE TO BOYS. THEY ARE SHUT UP SHE CANT
READ THE INSIDE. I HOPE YOU DON'T CRY SO MUCH AT SCHOOL NO ONE CRIES.
NOW MISS CHAPMAN SAYS IT IS TIME TO STOP
YOUR AFECTIONATE SISTER
P.S. I TOOK THE RED LINEING OUT OF MY HAT.
MY DEAR LAURA
WE WERE VERY GLAD TO GET YOUR LETTERS WHICH CAME THIS MORNING. YOUR
POSTCARD WRITTEN THE DAY AFTER YOU ARRIVED AT THE COLLEGE TOLD US
LITTLE OR NOTHING. HOWEVER GODMOTHER WAS GOOD ENOUGH TO WRITE US AN
ACCOUNT OF YOUR ARRIVAL SO THAT WE WERE NOT QUITE WITHOUT NEWS OF YOU.
I HOPE YOU REMEMBERED TO THANK HER FOR DRIVING IN ALL THAT WAY TO MEET
YOU AND TAKE YOU TO SCHOOL WHICH WAS VERY GOOD OF HER. I AM GLAD TO
HEAR YOU ARE SETTLING DOWN AND FEELING HAPPY AND I HOPE YOU WILL WORK
HARD AND DISTINGUISH YOURSELF SO THAT I MAY BE PROUD OF YOU. BUT THERE
ARE SEVERAL THINGS IN YOUR LETTERS I DO NOT LIKE. DID YOU REALLY THINK
I SHOULDN'T READ WHAT YOU WROTE TO PIN. YOU ARE A VERY FOOLISH GIRL IF
YOU DID. PIN THE SILLY CHILD TRIED TO HIDE IT AWAY BECAUSE SHE KNEW IT
WOULD MAKE ME CROSS BUT I INSISTED ON HER SHOWING IT TO ME AND I AM
ASHAMED OF YOU FOR WRITING SUCH NONSENSE TO HER. MARIA MORELL MUST BE
A VERY VULGAR MINDED GIRL TO USE THE EXPRESSIONS SHE DOES. I HOPE MY
LITTLE GIRL WILL TRY TO ONLY ASSOCIATE WITH NICE MINDED GIRLS. I
DIDN'T SEND YOU TO SCHOOL TO GET NASTY IDEAS PUT INTO YOUR HEAD BUT TO
LEARN YOUR LESSONS WELL AND GET ON. IF YOU WRITE SUCH VULGAR SILLY
THINGS AGAIN I SHALL COMPLAIN TO MRS. GURLEY OR MR. STRACHEY ABOUT THE
TONE OF THE COLLEGE AND WHAT GOES ON BEHIND THEIR BACKS. I THINK IT IS
VERY RUDE OF YOU TOO TO CALL MRS. GURLEY NAMES. ALSO ABOUT THE POOR
GOVERNESS WHO HAS TO WEAR FALSE TEETH. WAIT TILL ALL YOUR OWN TEETH
ARE GONE AND THEN SEE HOW YOU WILL LIKE IT. I DO WANT YOU TO HAVE NICE
FEELINGS AND NOT GROW ROUGH AND RUDE. THERE IS EVIDENTLY A VERY BAD
TONE AMONG SOME OF THE GIRLS AND YOU MUST BE CAREFUL IN CHOOSING YOUR
FRIENDS. I AM SORRY TO HEAR YOU ARE ONLY IN THE LOWEST CLASS. IT WOULD
HAVE PLEASED ME BETTER IF YOU HAD GOT INTO THE SECOND BUT I ALWAYS
TOLD YOU YOU WERE LAZY ABOUT YOUR SUMSYOU CAN DO THEM WELL ENOUGH IF
YOU LIKE. YOU DON'T NEED STAYS. I HAVE NEVER WORN THEM MYSELF AND I
DON'T INTEND YOU TO EITHER. YOUR OWN MUSCLES ARE QUITE STRONG ENOUGH
TO BEAR THE WEIGHT OF YOUR BACK. BREAD AND WATER IS NOT MUCH OF A
SUPPER FOR YOU TO GO TO BED ON. I WILL SEND YOU ANOTHER CAKE SOON AND
SOME JAM AND I HOPE YOU WILL SHARE IT WITH THE OTHER GIRLS. NOW TRY
AND BE SENSIBLE AND INDUSTRIOUS AND MAKE NICE FRIENDS AND THEN I SHANT
HAVE TO SCOLD YOU
YOUR LOVING MOTHER
P.S. ANOTHER THING IN YOUR LETTER I DON'T LIKE. YOU SAY YOU TELL
YOUR GOVERNESS YOU HAVE FINISHED YOUR LESSONS WHEN YOU HAVE NOT DONE
SO. THAT IS TELLING AN UNTRUTH AND I HOPE YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BE LED
AWAY BY THE EXAMPLES OF BAD GIRLS. I HAVE ALWAYS BROUGHT YOU CHILDREN
UP TO BE STRAIGHTFORWARD AND I AM ASTONISHED AT YOU BEGINNING FIBBING
AS SOON AS YOU GET AWAY FROM HOME. FIBBING SOON LEADS TO SOMETHING
P.P.S. YOU MUST HAVE WRITTEN YOUR LETTER IN A GREAT HURRY FOR YOUR
SPELLING IS ANYTHING BUT PERFECT. YOU ARE A VERY NAUGHTY GIRL TO
MEDDLE WITH YOUR HAT. PIN HAS WRITTEN A LETTER WHICH I ENCLOSE THOUGH
HER SPELLING IS WORSE THAN EVER.
MOTHER SAYS YOU ARE A VERY SILY GIRL TO RITE SUCH SILY LETTERS I
THINK YOU ARE SILY TO I SHOOD BE FRITENED OF MRS. GIRLY I DON'T WANT
TO GO TO SKOOL I WOOD RATHER STOP WITH MOTHER AND BE A CUMFERT TO HER
I THINK IT IS NAUTY TO DROP LETTERS IN CHERCH AND VERRY SILY TO RITE
TO BOYS BOYS ARE SO SILY SARAH SENDS HER LUV SHE SAYS SHE WOOD NOT
WARE A CAP ON HER HED NOT FOR ANNYTHING SHE SAYS SHE WOOD JUST AS SOON
WARE A RING THRUGH HER NOSE.
YOUR LUVING SISTER PIN.
PLEASE PLEASE DON'T WRITE TO MRS. GURLEY ABOUT THE TONE IN THE
COLLEGE OR NOT TO MR. STRACHEY EITHER. I WILL NEVER BE SO SILLY AGAIN.
I AM SORRY MY LETTERS WERE SO SILLY I WONT DO IT AGAIN. PLEASE DON'T
WRITE TO THEM ABOUT IT. I DON'T GO MUCH WITH MARIA MORELL NOW I THINK
SHE SHE IS VULGER TO. I KNOW TWO NICE GIRLS NOW IN MY OWN CLASS THEIR
NAMES ARE INEZ AND BERTHA THEY ARE VERY NICE AND NOT AT ALL VULGER.
MARIA MORELL IS FAT AND HAS A RED FACE SHE IS MUCH OLDER THAN ME AND I
DON'T CARE FOR HER NOW. PLEASE DON'T WRITE TO MRS. GURLEY I WILL NEVER
CALL HER NAMES AGAIN. I HAD TO WRITE MY LETTER QUICKLY BECAUSE WHEN I
HAVE DONE MY LESSONS IT IS NEARLY TIME FOR SUPPER. I AM SORRY MY
SPELLING WAS WRONG I WILL TAKE MORE PAINS NEXT TIME I WILL LEARN HARD
AND GET ON AND SOON I WILL BE IN THE SECOND CLASS. I DID NOT MEAN I
SAID I HAD DONE MY LESSONS WHEN I HAD NOT DONE THEM THE OTHER GIRLS
SAY IT AND I THINK IT IS VERY WRONG OF THEM. PLEASE DON'T WRITE TO
MRS. GURLEY I WILL TRY AND BE GOOD AND SENSIBLE AND NOT DO IT AGAIN IF
YOU ONLY WONT WRITE.
YOUR AFECTIONATE DAUGHTER
P.S. I CAN DO MY SUMS BETTER NOW.
MY DEAR LAURA
MY LETTER EVIDENTLY GAVE YOU A GOOD FRIGHT AND I AM NOT SORRY TO
HEAR IT FOR I THINK YOU DESERVED IT FOR BEING SUCH A FOOLISH GIRL. I
HOPE YOU WILL KEEP YOUR PROMISE AND NOT DO IT AGAIN. OF COURSE I DON'T
MEAN THAT YOU ARE NOT TO TELL ME EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS AT SCHOOL BUT
I WANT YOU TO ONLY HAVE NICE THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS AND GROW INTO A
WISE AND SENSIBLE GIRL. I AM NOT GOING TO WRITE A LONG LETTER TODAY.
THIS [P.62] IS ONLY A LINE TO COMFORT YOU AND LET YOU KNOW THAT I
SHALL NOT WRITE TO MRS. GURLEY OR MR. STRACHEY AS LONG AS I SEE THAT
YOU ARE BEING A GOOD GIRL AND GETTING ON WELL WITH YOUR LESSONS. I DO
WANT YOU TO REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE A LADY THOUGH YOU ARE POOR AND MUST
BEHAVE IN A LADYLIKE WAY. YOU DON'T TELL ME WHAT THE FOOD AT THE
COLLEGE IS LIKE AND WHETHER YOU HAVE BLANKETS ENOUGH ON YOUR BED AT
NIGHT. DO TRY AND REMEMBER TO ANSWER THE QUESTIONS I ASK YOU. SARAH IS
BUSY WASHING TODAY AND THE CHILDREN ARE HELPING HER BY SITTING WITH
THEIR ARMS IN THE TUBS. I AM TO TELL YOU FROM PIN THAT MAGGY IS
MOULTING BADLY AND HAS NOT EATEN MUCH SINCE YOU LEFT WHICH IS JUST
THREE WEEKS TODAY
MY DEAR MOTHER
I WAS SO GLAD TO GET YOUR LETTER I AM SO GLAD YOU WILL NOT WRITE TO
MRS. GURLEY THIS TIME AND I WILL PROMISE TO BE VERY GOOD AND TRY TO
REMEMBER EVERYTHING YOU TELL ME. I AM SORRY I FORGOT TO ANSWER THE
QUESTIONS I HAVE TWO BLANKETS ON MY BED AND IT IS ENOUGH. THE FOOD IS
VERY NICE FOR DINNER FOR TEA WE HAVE TO EAT A LOT OF BREAD AND BUTTER
I DON'T CARE FOR BREAD MUCH. SOMETIMES WE HAVE JAM BUT WE ARE NOT
ALOWED TO EAT BUTTER AND JAM TOGETHER. A LOT OF GIRLS GET UP AT SIX
AND GO DOWN TO PRACTICE THEY DON'T DRESS AND HAVE THEIR BATH THEY JUST
PUT ON THEIR DRESSING GOWNS ON TOP OF THEIR NIGHT GOWNS. I DON'T GO
DOWN NOW TILL SEVEN I MAKE MY OWN BED. WE HAVE PRAYERS IN THE MORNING
AND THE EVENING AND PRAYERS AGAIN WHEN THE DAY SCHOLERS COME. I DO MY
SUMS BETTER NOW I THINK I SHALL SOON BE IN THE SECOND CLASS. PINS
SPELLING WAS DREADFULL AND SHE IS NEARLY NINE NOW AND IS SUCH A BABY
THE GIRLS WOULD LAUGH AT HER.
YOUR AFECTIONATE DAUGHTER LAURA.
P.S. I PARSSED A LONG SENTENCE WITHOUT ANY MISTAKES.
The mornings were beginning to grow dark and chilly: fires were
laid overnight in the outer classroomsand the junior governess who
was on early duty, having pealed the six-o'clock bell, flitted like a
grey wraith from room to room and from one gas-jet to another, among
stretched, sleeping forms. And the few minutes' grace at an end, it
was a cold, unwilling pack that threw off coverlets and jumped out of
bed, to tie on petticoats and snuggle into dressing-gowns and shawls;
for the first approach of cooler weather was keenly felt, after the
summer heat. The governess blew on speedily chilblained fingers, in
making her rounds of the verandahs to see that each of the twenty
pianos was rightly occupied; and, as winter crept on, its chief
outward sign an occasional thin white spread of frost which vanished
before the mighty sun of ten o'clock, she sometimes took the occupancy
for granted, and skipped an exposed room.
At eight, the boarders assembled in the dining-hall for prayers and
breakfast. After this meal it was Mrs. Gurley's custom to drink a
glass of hot water. While she sipped, she gave audience, meting out
rebukes and crushing complaintswere any bold enough to offer
themstanding erect behind her chair at the head of the table,
supported by one or more of the staff. To suit the season she was
draped in a shawl of crimson wool, which reached to the flounce of her
skirt, and was borne by her portly shoulders with the grace of a past
day. Beneath the shawl, her dresses were built, year in, year out, on
the same plan: cut in one piece, buttoning right down the front, they
fitted her like an eelskin, rigidly outlining her majestic
proportions, and always short enough to show a pair of surprisingly
small, well-shod feet. Thus she stood, sipping her water, and boring
with her hard, unflagging eye every girl that presented herself to it.
Most shrank noiselessly away as soon as breakfast was over; for,
unless one was very firm indeed in the conviction of one's own
innocence, to be beneath this eye was apt to induce a disagreeable
sense of guilt. In the case of Mrs. Gurley, familiarity had never been
known to breed contempt. She was possessed of what was little short of
genius, for ruling through fear; and no more fitting overseer could
have been set at the head of these half-hundred girls, of all ages and
degrees: gentle and common; ruly and unruly, children hardly out of
the nursery, and girls well over the brink of womanhood, whose ripe,
bursting forms told their own tale; the daughters of poor ministers at
reduced fees; and the spoilt heiresses of wealthy wool-brokers and
squatters, whose dowries would mount to many thousands of
pounds.Mrs. Gurley was equal to them all.
In a very short time, there was no more persistent shrinker from
the ice of this gaze than little Laura. In the presence of Mrs. Gurley
the child had a difficulty in getting her breath. Her first week of
school life had been one unbroken succession of snubs and reprimands.
For this, the undue familiarity of her manner was to blame: she was
all too slow to graspbeing of an impulsive disposition and not
naturally shy that it was indecorous to accost Mrs. Gurley off-hand,
to treat her, indeed, in any way as if she were an ordinary mortal.
The climax had come one morningit still made Laura's cheeks burn to
remember it. She had not been able to master her French lesson for
that day, and seeing Mrs. Gurley chatting to a governess had gone
thoughtlessly up to her and tapped her on the arm.
"Mrs. Gurley, please, do you think it would matter very much if I
only took half this verb today? It's COUDRE, and means to sew, you
know, and it's SO hard. I don't seem to be able to get it into my
Before the words were out of her mouth, she saw that she had made a
terrible mistake. Mrs. Gurley's face, which had been smiling, froze to
stone. She looked at her arm as though the hand had bitten her, and
Laura's sudden shrinking did not move her, to whom seldom anyone
addressed a word unbidden.
"How DARE you interrupt mewhen I am speaking!"she hissed,
punctuating her words with the ominous head-shakes and pauses. "The
first thing, miss, for you to do, will be, to take a course of
lessons, in manners. Your present ones, may have done well enough, in
the outhouse, to which you have evidently belonged. They will not do,
here, in the company of your betters."
Above the child's head the two ladies smiled significantly at each
other, assured that, after this, there would be no further want of
respect; but Laura did not see them. The iron of the thrust went deep
down into her soul: no one had ever yet cast a slur upon her home.
Retreating to a lavatory she cried herself nearly sick, making her
eyes so red that she was late for prayers in trying to wash them
white. Since that day, she had never of her own free will approached
Mrs. Gurley again, and even avoided those places where she was likely
to be found. This was why one morning, some three weeks later, on
discovering that she had forgotten one of her lesson-books, she
hesitated long before re-entering the dining-hall. The governesses
still clustered round their chief, and the pupils were not expected to
return. But it was past nine o'clock; in a minute the public
prayer-bell would ring, which united boarders, several hundred
day-scholars, resident and visiting teachers in the largest
class-room; and Laura did not know her English lesson. So she stole
in, cautiously dodging behind the group, in a twitter lest the dreaded
eyes should turn her way.
It was Miss Day who spied her and demanded an explanation.
"Such carelessness! You girls would forget your heads if they
weren't screwed on," retorted the governess, in the dry, violent
manner that made her universally disliked.
Thankful to escape with this, Laura picked out her book and hurried
from the room.
But the thoughts of the group had been drawn to her.
"The greatest little oddity we've had here for some time,"
pronounced Miss Day, pouting her full bust in decisive fashion.
"She is, indeed," agreed Miss Zielinski.
"I don't know what sort of a place she comes from, I'm sure,"
continued the former: "but it must be the end of creation. She's
utterly no idea of what's what, and as for her clothes they're fit for
a Punch and Judy show."
"She's had no training eitherstupid, I call her," chimed in one
of the younger governesses, whose name was Miss Snodgrass. "She
doesn't know the simplest things, and her spelling is awful. And yet,
do you know, at history the other day, she wanted to hold forth about
how London looked in Elizabeth's reignwhen she didn't know a single
one of the dates!"
"She can say some poetry," said Miss Zielinski. "And she's read
One and all shook their heads at this, and Mrs. Gurley went on
shaking hers and smiling grimly. "Ah! the way gels are brought up
nowadays," she said. "There was no such thing in my time. We were made
to learn what would be of some use and help to us afterwards."
Elderly Miss Chapman twiddled her chain. "I hope I did right Mrs.
Gurley. She had one week's early practice, but she looked so white all
day after it that I haven't put her down for it again. I hope I did
"Oh, well, we don't want to have them ill, you know," replied Mrs.
Gurley, in the rather irresponsive tone she adopted towards Miss
Chapman. "As long as it isn't mere laziness."
"I don't think she's lazy," said Miss Chapman. "At least she takes
great pains with her lessons at night."
This was true. Laura tried her utmost, with an industry born of
despair. For the comforting assurance of speedy promotion, which she
had given Mother, had no root in fact. These early weeks only served
to reduce, bit by bit, her belief in her own knowledge. How slender
this was, and of how little use to her in her new state, she did not
dare to confess even to herself. Her disillusionment had begun the day
after her arrival, when Dr Pughson, the Headmaster, to whom she had
gone to be examined in arithmetic, flung up hands of comical dismay at
her befogged attempts to solve the mysteries of long division. An
upper class was taking a lesson in Euclid, and in the intervals
between her mazy reckonings she had stolen glances at the master. A
tiny little nose was as if squashed flat on his face, above a
grotesquely expressive mouth, which displayed every one of a splendid
set of teeth. He had small, short-sighted, red-rimmed eyes, and curly
hair which did not stop growing at his ears, but went on curling,
closely cropped, down the sides of his face. He taught at the top of
his voice, thumped the blackboard with a pointer, was biting at the
expense of a pupil who confused the angle BFC with the angle BFG, a
moment later to volley forth a broad Irish joke which convulsed the
class. He bewitched Laura; she forgot her sums in the delight of
watching him; and this made her learning seem a little scantier than
it actually was; for she had to wind up in a great hurry. He pounced
down upon her; the class laughed anew at his playful horror; and yet
again at the remark that it was evident she had never had many pennies
to spend, or she would know better what to do with the figures that
represented them.In these words Laura scented a reference to
Mother's small income, and grew as red as fire.
In the lowest class in the College she sat bottom, for a week or
more: what she did know, she knew in such an awkward form that she
might as well have known nothing. And after a few efforts to better
her condition she grew cautious, and hesitated discreetly before
returning one of those ingenuous answers which, in the beginning, had
made her the merry-andrew of the class. She could for instance, read a
French story-book without skipping very many words; but she had never
heard a syllable of the language spoken, and her first attempts at
pronunciation caused even Miss Zielinski to sit back in her chair and
laugh till the tears ran down her face. History Laura knew in a vague,
pictorial way: she and Pin had enacted many a striking scene in the
gardensuch as "Not Angles but Angels," or, did the pump-drain
overflow, Canute and his silly courtiersand she also had
out-of-the-way scraps of information about the characters of some of
the monarchs, or, as the governess had complained, about the state of
London at a certain period; but she had never troubled her head with
dates. Now they rose before her, a hard, dry, black line from 1066 on,
accompanied, not only by the kings who were the cause of them, but by
dull laws, and their duller repeals. Her lessons in English alone gave
her a mild pleasure; she enjoyed taking a sentence to pieces to see
how it was made. She was fond of words, too, for their own sake, and
once, when Miss Snodgrass had occasion to use the term "eleemosynary",
Laura was so enchanted by it that she sought to share her enthusiasm
with her neighbour. This girl, a fat little Jewess, went crimson, from
trying to stifle her laughter.
"What IS the matter with you girls down there?" cried Miss
Snodgrass. "Carrie Isaacs, what are you laughing like that for?"
"It's Laura Rambotham, Miss Snodgrass. She's so funny," spluttered
"What are you doing, Laura?"
Laura did not answer. The girl spoke for her.
"She saidhee, hee!she said it was blue."
"Blue? What's blue?" snapped Miss Snodgrass.
"That word. She said it was so beautiful . . . and that it was
"I didn't. Grey-blue, I said," murmured Laura her cheeks aflame.
The class rocked; even Miss Snodgrass herself had to join in the
laugh while she hushed and reproved. And sometimes after this, when a
particularly long or odd word occurred in the lesson, she would turn
to Laura and say jocosely: "Now, Laura, come on, tell us what colour
that is. Red and yellow, don't you think?"
But these were "Tom Fool's colours"; and Laura kept a wise silence.
One day at geography, the pupils were required to copy the outline
of the map of England. Laura, about to begin, found to her dismay that
she had lost her pencil. To confess the loss meant one of the hard,
public rebukes from which she shrank. And so, while the others drew,
heads and backs bent low over their desks, she fidgeted and soughton
her [P.72] lap, the bench, the floor.
"What on earth's the matter?" asked her neighbour crossly; it was
the black-haired boarder who had winked at Laura the first evening at
tea; her name was Bertha Ramsey. "I can't draw a stroke if you shake
"I've lost my pencil."
The girl considered Laura for a moment, then pushed the lid from a
box of long, beautifully sharpened drawing-pencils. "Here, you can
have one of these."
Laura eyed the well-filled box admiringly, and modestly selected
the shortest pencil. Bertha Ramsay, having finished her map, leaned
back in her seat.
"And next time you feel inclined to boo-hoo at the tea-table, hold
on to your eyebrows and sing Rule Britannia.DID it want its mummy,
poor ickle sing?"
Here Bertha's chum, a girl called Inez, chimed in from the other
"It's all very well for you," she said to Bertha, in a deep, slow
voice. "You're a weekly boarder."
Laura had the wish to be very pleasant, in return for the pencil.
So she drew a sigh, and said, with over-emphasis: "How nice for your
mother to have you home every week!"
Bertha only laughed at this, in a teasing way: "Yes, isn't it?" But
Inez leaned across behind her and gave Laura a poke.
"Shut up!" she telegraphed.
"Who's talking down there?" came the governess's cry. "Here you,
the new girl, Laura what'syour-name, come up to the map."
A huge map of England had been slung over an easel; Laura was
required to take the pointer and show where Stafford lay. With the
long stick in her hand, she stood stupid and confused. In this
exigency, it did not help her that she knew, from hear-say, just how
England looked; that she could see, in fancy, its ever-green grass,
thick hedges, and spreading trees; its never-dry rivers; its hoary old
cathedrals; its fogs, and sea-mists, and over-populous cities. She
stood face to face with the most puzzling map in the worlda map
seared and scored with boundary-lines, black and bristling with names.
She could not have laid her finger on London at this moment, and as
for Stafford, it might have been in the moon.
While the class straggled along the verandah at the end of the
hour, Inez came up to Laura's side.
"I say, you shouldn't have said that about her mother." She nodded
"Why not?" asked Laura, and coloured at the thought that she had
again, without knowing it, been guilty of a FAUX PAS.
Inez looked round to see that Bertha was not within hearing, then
put her lips to Laura's ear.
Laura gaped incredulous at the girl, her young eyes full of horror.
From actual experience, she hardly knew what drunkenness meant; she
had hitherto associated it only with the lowest class of Irish
agricultural labourer, or with those dreadful white women who lived,
by choice, in Chinese Camps. That there could exist a mother who drank
was unthinkable . . . outside the bounds of nature.
"Oh, how awful!" she gasped, and turned pale with excitement. Inez
could not help giggling at the effect produced by her wordsthe new
girl was a 'rum stick' and no mistakebut as Laura's consternation
persisted, she veered about
"Oh, well, I don't know for certain if that's it. But there's
something awfully queer about her."
"Oh, HOW do you know?" asked her breathless listener, mastered by a
"I've been thereat Vauclusefrom a Saturday till Monday. She
came in to lunch, and she only talked to herself, not to us. She tried
to eat mustard with her pudding too, and her meat was cut up in little
pieces for her. I guess if she'd had a knife she'd have cut our
"Oh!" was all Laura could get out.
"I was so frightened my mother said I shouldn't go again."
"Oh, I hope she won't ask me. What shall I do if she does?"
"Look out, here she comes! Don't say a word. Bertha's awfully
ashamed of it," said Inez, and Laura had just time to give a hasty
"Hullo, you two, what are you gassing about?" cried Bertha, and
dealt out a couple of her rough and friendly punches."I say, who's
on for a race up the garden?"
They raced, all three, with flying plaits and curls, much
kicking-up of long black legs, and a frank display of frills and
tuckers. Laura won; for Inez's wind gave out half way, and Bertha was
heavy of foot. Leaning against the palings Laura watched the latter
come puffing up to join herBertha with the shameful secret in the
background, of a mother who was not like other mothers.
Laura had been, for some six weeks or more, a listless and
unsuccessful pupil, when one morning she received an invitation from
Godmother to spend the coming monthly holidayfrom Saturday till
Mondayat Prahran. The month before, she had been one of the few
girls who had nowhere to go; she had been forced to pretend that she
liked staying in, did it in fact by preference.Now her spirits rose.
Marina, Godmother's younger daughter, from whom Laura inherited her
school-books, was to call for her. By a little after nine o'clock on
Saturday morning, Laura had finished her weekly mending, tidied her
bedroom, and was ready dressed even to her gloves. It was a cool,
crisp day; and her heart beat high with expectation.
From the dining-hall, it was not possible to hear the ringing of
the front-door bell; but each time either of the maids entered with a
summons, Laura half rose from her chair, sure that her turn had come
at last. But it was half-past nine, then ten, then half-past; it
struck eleven, the best of the day was passing, and still Marina did
not come. Only two girls besides herself remained. Then respectively
an aunt and a mother were announced, and these two departed. Laura
alone was left: she had to bear the disgrace of Miss Day observing:
"Well, it looks as if YOUR friends had forgotten all about you,
Humiliated beyond measure, Laura had thoughts of tearing off her
hat and jacket and declaring that she felt too ill to go out. But at
last, when she was almost sick with suspense, Mary put her tidy head
in once more.
"Miss Rambotham has been called for."
Laura was on her feet before the words were spoken. She sped to the
Marina, a short, sleek-haired, soberly dressed girl of about
twenty, had Godmother's brisk, matter-of-fact manner.
She offered Laura her cheek to kiss. "Well, I suppose you're ready
Laura forgave her the past two hours. "Yes, quite, thank you," she
They went down the asphalted path and through the garden-gate, and
turned to walk townwards. For the first time since her arrival Laura
was free againa prisoner at large. Round them stretched the broad
white streets of East Melbourne; at their side was the thick, exotic
greenery of the Fitzroy Gardens; on the brow of the hill rose the
massive proportions of the Roman Catholic Cathedral.Laura could have
danced, as she walked at Marina's side.
After a few queries, however, as to how she liked school and how
she was getting on with her lessons, Marina fell to contemplating a
strip of paper that she held in her hand. Laura gathered that her
companion had combined the task of calling for her with a morning's
shopping, and that she had only worked half through her list of
commissions before arriving at the College. At the next corner they
got on to the outside car of a cable-tramway, and were carried into
town. Here Marina entered a co-operative grocery store, where she was
going to give an order for a quarter's supplies. She was her mother's
housekeeper, and had an incredible knowledge of groceries, as well as
a severely practical mind: she stuck her finger-nail into butter,
tasted cheeses off the blade of a knife, ran her hands through
currants, nibbled biscuits, discussed brands of burgundy and
desiccated soupsLaura meanwhile looking on, from a high,
uncomfortable chair, with a somewhat hungry envy. When everything,
down to pepper and salt, had been remembered, Marina filled in a
cheque, and was just about to turn away when she recollected an affair
of some empty cases, which she wished to send back. Another ten
minutes' parley ensued; she had to see the manager, and was closeted
with him in his office, so that by the time they emerged into the
street again a full hour had gone by.
"Getting hungry?" she inquired of Laura.
"A little. But I can wait," answered Laura politely.
"That's right," said Marina, off whose own appetite the edge had no
doubt been taken by her various nibblings. "Now there's only the
They rode to another street, entered a druggist's, and the same
thing on a smaller scale was repeated, except that here Marina did no
tasting, but for a stray gelatine or jujube. By the time the shop door
closed behind them, Laura could almost have eaten liquorice powder. It
was two o'clock, and she was faint with hunger.
"We'll be home in plenty of time," said Marina, consulting a neat
watch. "Dinner's not till three today, because of father."
Again a tramway jerked them forward. Some half mile from their
destination, Marina rose.
"We'll get out here. I have to call at the butcher's."
At a quarter to three, it was a very white-faced, exhausted little
girl that followed her companion into the house.
"Well, I guess you'll have a fine healthy appetite for dinner,"
said Marina, as she showed her where to hang up her hat and wash her
Godmother was equally optimistic. From the sofa of the
morning-room, where she sat knitting, she said: "Well, YOU'VE had a
fine morning's gadding about I must say! How are you? And how's your
"Quite well, thank you."
Godmother scratched her head with a spare needle, and the attention
she had had for Laura evaporated. "I hope, Marina, you told Graves
about those empty jam-jars he didn't take back last time?"
Marina, without lifting her eyes from a letter she was reading,
returned: "Indeed I didn't. He made such a rumpus about the
sugar-boxes that I thought I'd try to sell them to Petersen instead."
Godmother grunted, but did not question Marina's decision. "And
what news have you from your dear mother?" she asked again, without
looking at Laurajust as she never looked at the stocking she held,
but always over the top of it.
Here, however, the dinner-bell rang, and Laura, spared the task of
giving more superfluous information, followed the two ladies to the
dining-room. The other members of the family were waiting at the
table. Godmother's husbandhe was a lawyerwas a morose,
black-bearded man who, for the most part, kept his eyes fixed on his
plate. Laura had heard it said that he and Godmother did not get on
well together; she supposed this meant that they did not care to talk
to each other, for they never exchanged a direct word: if they had to
communicate, it was done by means of a third person. There was the
elder daughter, Georgina, dumpier and still brusquer than Marina, the
eldest son, a bank-clerk who was something of a dandy and did not
waste civility on little girls; and lastly there were two boys,
slightly younger than Laura, black-haired, pug-nosed, pugnacious
little creatures, who stood in awe of their father, and were all the
wilder when not under his eye.
Godmother mumbled a blessing; and the soup was eaten in silence.
During the meat course, the bank-clerk complained in extreme
displeasure of the way the laundress had of late dressed his
collarsthese were so high that, as Laura was not slow to notice, he
had to look straight down the two sides of his nose to see his
plateand announced that he would not be home for tea, as he had an
appointment to meet some 'chappies' at five, and in the evening was
going to take a lady friend to Brock's Fireworks. These particulars
were received without comment. As the family plied its pudding-spoons,
Georgina in her turn made a statement.
"Joey's coming to take me driving at four."
It looked as if this remark, too, would founder on the general
indifference. Then Marina said warningly, as if recalling her parent's
Awakened, Godmother jerked out: "Indeed and I hope if you go you'll
take the boys with you!"
"Indeed and I don't see why we should!"
"Very well, then, you'll stop at home. If Joey doesn't choose to
come to the point-"
"Now hold your tongue, mother!"
"I'll do nothing of the sort."
"Crikey!" said the younger boy, Erwin, in a low voice. "Joey's got
to take us riding."
"If you and Joey can't get yourselves properly engaged," snapped
Godmother, "then you shan't go driving without the boys, and that's
the end of it."
Like dogs barking at one another, thought Laura, listening to the
loveless bandying of wordsshe was unused to the snappishness of the
Irish manner, which sounds so much worse than it is meant to be: and
she was chilled anew by it when, over the telephone, she heard Georgy
holding a heated conversation with Joey.
He was a fat young man, with hanging cheeks, small eyes, and a
lazy, lopsided walk.
"Hellohere's a little girl! What's HER name?Say, this kiddy can
come along too."
As it had leaked out that Marina's afternoon would be spent between
the shelves of her storeroom, preparing for the incoming goods, Laura
gratefully accepted the offer.
They drove to Marlborough Tower. With their backs to the horse sat
the two boys, mercilessly alert for any display of fondness on the
part of the lovers; sat Laura, with her straight, inquisitive black
eyes. Hence Joey and Georgy were silent, since, except to declare
their feelings, they had nothing to say to each other.
The Tower reached, the mare was hitched up and the ascent of the
light wooden erection began. It was a blowy day.
"Boys first!" commanded Joey. "Cos o' the petticuts."His speech
was as lazy as his walk.
He himself led the way, followed by Erwin and Marmaduke, and Laura,
at Georgy's bidding, went next. She clasped her bits of skirts
anxiously to her knees, for she was just as averse to the frills and
flounces that lay beneath being seen by Georgy, as by any of the male
members of the party. Georgy came last, and, though no one was below
her, so tightly wound about was she that she could hardly advance her
legs from one step to another. Joey looked approval; but the boys
sniggered, and kept it up till Georgy, having gained the platform,
threatened them with a "clout on the head".
On the return journey a dispute arose between the lovers: it
related to the shortest road home, waxed hot, and was rapidly taking
on the dimensions of a quarrel, when the piebald mare shied at a
traction-engine and tried to bolt. Joey gripped the reins, and passed
his free arm round Georgy's waist.
"Don't be frightened, darling."
Though the low chaise rocked from side to side and there seemed a
likelihood of it capsizing, the two boys squirmed with laughter, and
dealt out sundry nudges, kicks and pokes, all of which were received
by Laura, sitting between them. She herself turned redwith
embarrassment. At the same time she wondered why Joey should believe
George was afraid; there was no sign of it in Georgy's manner; she sat
stolid and unmoved. Besides she, Laura, was only a little girl, and
felt no fear.She also asked herself why Joey should suddenly grow
concerned about Georgy, when, a moment before, they had been so rude
to each other.These were interesting speculations, and, the chaise
having ceased to sway, Laura grew meditative.
In the evening Godmother had a visitor, and Laura sat in a low
chair, listening to the ladies' talk. It was dull work: for, much as
she liked to consider herself "almost grown up", she yet detested the
conversation of "real grown-ups" with a child's heartiness. She was
glad when nine o'clock struck and Marina, lighting a candle, told her
to go to bed.
The next day was Sunday. Between breakfast and church-time yawned
two long hours. Georgy went to a Bible-class; Marina was busy with
orders for the dinner.
It was a bookless houselike most Australian houses of its kind:
in Marina's bedroom alone stood a small bookcase containing school and
Sunday school prizes. Laura was very fond of reading, and as she
dressed that morning had cast longing looks at these volumes, had
evenly shyly fingered the glass doors. But they were locked. Breakfast
over, she approached Marina on the subject. The latter produced the
key, but only after some haggling, for her idea of books was to keep
the gilt on their covers untarnished.
"Well, at any rate it must be a Sunday book," she said
She drew out THE GIANT CITIES OF BASHAN AND SYRIA'S HOLY PLACES,
and with this Laura retired to the drawing-room, where Godmother was
already settled for the day, with a suitable magazine. When the bells
began to clang the young people, primly hatted, their prayer-books in
their hands, walked to the neighbouring church. There Laura sat once
more between the boys, Marina and Georgy stationed like sentinels at
the ends of the pew, ready to pounce down on their brothers if
necessary, to confiscate animals and eatables, or to rap impish
knuckles with a Bible. It was a spacious church; the pew was in a side
aisle; one could see neither reading-desk nor pulpit; and the words of
the sermon seemed to come from a great way off.
After dinner, Laura and the boys were dispatched to the garden, to
stroll about in Sunday fashion. Here no elder person being present,
the natural feelings of the trio came out: the distaste of a quiet
little girl for rough boys and their pranks; the resentful indignation
of the boys at having their steps dogged by a sneak and a tell-tale.
As soon as they had rounded the tennis-court and were out of sight of
the house, Erwin and Marmaduke clambered over the palings and dropped
into the street, vowing a mysterious vengeance on Laura if she went
indoors without them. The child sat down on the edge of the lawn under
a mulberry tree and propped her chin on her hands. She was too timid
to return to the house and brave things out; she was also afraid of
some one coming into the garden and finding her alone, and of her then
being forced to "tell"; for most of all she feared the boys, and their
vague, rude threats. So she sat and waited . . . and waited. The
shadows on the grass changed their shapes before her eyes; distant
chapel-bells tinkled their quarter of an hour and were still again;
the blighting torpor of a Sunday afternoon lay over the world. Would
to-morrow ever come? She counted on her fingers the hours that had
still to crawl by before she could get back to schoolcounted twice
over to be sure of themand all but yawned her head off, with ennui.
But time passed, and passed, and nothing happened. She was on the
verge of tears, when two black heads bobbed up above the fence, the
boys scrambled over, red and breathless, and hurried her into tea.
She wakened next morning at daybreak, so eager was she to set out.
But Marina had a hundred and one odd jobs to do before she was ready
to start, and it struck half-past nine as the two of them neared the
College. Child-like, Laura felt no special gratitude for the heavy pot
of mulberry jam Marina bore on her arm; but at sight of the stern,
grey, stone building she could have danced with joy; and on the front
door swinging to behind her, she drew a deep sigh of relief.
From this moment onthe moment when Mary the maid's pleasant smile
saluted herLaura's opinion of life at school suffered a change. She
was glad to be backthat was the first point: just as an adventurous
sheep is glad to regain the cover of the flock. Learning might be
hard; the governesses mercilessly secure in their own wisdom; but here
she was at least a person of some consequence, instead of as at
Godmother's a mere negligible null.
Of her unlucky essay at holiday-making she wrote home guardedly:
the most tell-tale sentence in her letter was that in which she said
she would rather not go to Godmother's again in the meantime. But
there was such a lack of warmth in her account of the visit that
mother made this, together with the above remark, the text for a
"YOU'RE A VERY UNGRATEFUL GIRL," she wrote, "TO FORGET ALL
GODMOTHER HAS DONE FOR YOU. IF IT HADN'T BEEN FOR HER SUPPLYING YOU
WITH BOOKS AND THINGS I COULDN'T HAVE SENT YOU TO SCHOOL AT ALL. AND I
HOPE WHEN YOU GROW UP YOU'LL BE AS MUCH OF A HELP TO ME AS MARINA IS
TO HER MOTHER. I'D MUCH RATHER HAVE YOU GOOD AND USEFUL THAN CLEVER
AND I THINK FOR A CHILD OF YOUR AGE YOU SEE THINGS WITH VERY SHARP
UNKIND EYES. TRY AND ONLY THINK NICE THINGS ABOUT PEOPLE AND NOT BE
ALWAYS SPYING OUT THEIR FAULTS. THEN YOU'LL HAVE PLENTY OF FRIENDS AND
BE LIKED WHEREVER YOU GO."
Laura took the statement about the goodness and cleverness with a
grain of salt: she knew better. Mother thought it the proper thing to
say, and she would certainly have preferred the two qualities
combined; but, had she been forced to choose between them, there was
small doubt how her choice would have fallen out. And if, for
instance, Laura confessed that her teachers did not regard her as even
passably intelligent, there would be a nice to-do. Mother's ambitions
knew no bounds; and, wounded in these, she was quite capable of
writing post-haste to Mrs. Gurley or Mr. Strachey, complaining of
their want of insight, and bringing forward a string of embarrassing
proofs. So, leaving Mother to her pleasing illusions, Laura settled
down again to her role of dunce, now, though, with more equanimity
than before. School was really not a bad place after allthis had for
some time been her growing conviction, and the visit to Godmother
seemed to bring it to a head.
About this time, too, a couple of pieces of good fortune came her
The first: she was privileged to be third in the friendship between
Inez and Berthaa favour of which she availed herself eagerly, though
the three were as different from one another as three little girls
could be. Bertha was a good-natured romp, hard-fisted, thick of leg,
and of a plodding but ineffectual industry. Inez, on the other hand,
was so pretty that Laura never tired of looking at her: she had a pale
skin, hazel eyes, brown hair with a yellow light in it, and a Greek
nose. Her mouth was very small; her nostrils were mere tiny slits; and
so lazy was she that she seldom more than half opened her eyes. Both
girls were well over fourteen, and very fully developed: compared with
them, Laura was like nothing so much as a skinny young colt.
She was so grateful to them for tolerating her that she never took
up a stand of real equality with them: proud and sensitive, she was
always ready to draw back and admit their prior rights to each other;
hence the friendship did not advance to intimacy. But such as it was,
it was very comforting; she no longer needed to sit alone in recess;
she could link arms and walk the garden with complacency; and many
were the supercilious glances she now threw at Maria Morell and that
clique; for her new friends belonged socially to the best set in the
In another way, too, their company made things easier for her:
neither of them aimed high; and both were well content with the lowly
places they occupied in the class. And so Laura, who was still, in her
young confusion, unequal to discovering what was wanted of her, grew
comforted by the presence and support of her friends, and unmindful of
higher opinion; and Miss Chapman, in supervising evening lessons,
remarked with genuine regret that little Laura was growing perky and
Her second piece of good luck was of quite a different nature.
Miss Hicks, the visiting governess for geography, had a gift for
saying biting things that really bit. She bore Inez a peculiar grudge;
for she believed that certain faculties slumbered behind the Grecian
profile, and that only the girl's ingrained sloth prevented them.
One day she lost patience with this sluggish pupil.
"I'll tell you what it is, Inez," she said; "you're blessed with a
real woman's brain: vague, slippery, inexact, interested only in the
personal aspect of a thing. You can't concentrate your thoughts, and,
worst of all, you've no curiosityabout anything that really matters.
You take all the great facts of existence on trustjust as a hen does
and I've no doubt you'll go on contentedly till the end of your
days, without ever knowing why the ocean has tides, and what causes
the seasons.It makes me ashamed to belong to the same sex."
Inez's classmates tittered furiously, let the sarcasm glide over
them, unhit by its truth. Inez herself, indeed, was inclined to
consider the governess's taunt a compliment, as proving that she was
incapable of a vulgar inquisitiveness. But Laura, though she laughed
docilely with the rest, could not forget the incidentwords in any
case had a way of sticking to her memoryand what Miss Hicks had said
often came back to her, in the days that followed. And then, all of a
sudden, just as if an invisible hand had opened the door to an inner
chamber, a light broke on her. Vague, slippery, inexact, interested
only in the personalevery word struck home. Had Miss Hicks set out
to describe HER, in particular, she could not have done it more
accurately. It was but too true: until now, she, Laura, had been
satisfied to know things in a slipslop, razzle-dazzle way, to know
them anyhow, as it best suited herself. She had never set to work to
master a subject, to make it her own in every detail. Bits of it,
picturesque scraps, striking featureswhat Miss Hicks no doubt meant
by the personalwere all that had attracted her. Oh, and she, too,
had no intelligent curiosity. She could not say that she had ever
teased her brains with wondering why the earth went round the sun and
not the sun round the earth. Honestly speaking, it made no difference
to her that the globe was indented like an orange, and not the perfect
round you began by believing it to be.But if this were so, if she
were forced to make these galling admissions, then it was clear that
her vaunted cleverness had never existed, except in Mother's
imagination. Or, at any rate, it had crumbled to pieces like a lump of
earth, under the hard, heavy hand of Miss Hicks. Laura felt
humiliated, and could not understand her companions treating the
matter so airily. She did not want to have a woman's brain, thank you;
not one of that sort; and she smarted for the whole class.
Straightway she set to work to sharpen her wits, to follow the
strait road. At first with some stumbling, of course, and frequent
backslidings. Intellectual curiosity could not, she discovered, be
awakened to order; and she often caught herself napping. Thus though
she speedily became one of the most troublesome askers-why, her desire
for information was apt to exhaust itself in putting the question, and
she would forget to listen to the answer. Besides, for the life of her
she could not drum up more interest in, say, the course of the Gulf
Stream, or the formation of a plateau, than in the fact that, when
Nelly Bristow spoke, little bubbles came out of her mouth, and that
she needed to swallow twice as often as other people; or that when
Miss Hicks grew angry her voice had a way of failing, at the crucial
moment, and flattening out to nothingjust as if one struck tin after
brass. No, it was indeed difficult for Laura to invert the value of
these things.In another direction she did better. By dint of close
attention, of pondering both the questions asked by Miss Hicks, and
the replies made by the cleverest pupils, she began to see more
clearly where true knowledge lay. It was facts that were wanted of
her; facts that were the real test of learning; facts she was expected
to know. Stories, pictures of things, would not help her an inch along
the road. Thus, it was not the least use in the world to her to have
seen the snowy top of Mount Kosciusko stand out against a dark blue
evening sky, and to know its shape to a tittlekin. On the other hand,
it mattered tremendously that this mountain was 7308 and not 7309 feet
high: that piece of information was valuable, was of genuine use to
you; for it was worth your place in the class.
Thus did Laura apply herself to reach the school ideal, thus force
herself to drive hard nails of fact into her vagrant thoughts. And
with success. For she had, it turned out, a retentive memory, and to
her joy learning by heart came easy to heras easy as to the most
brilliant scholars in the form. From now on she gave this talent full
play, memorising even pages of the history book in her zeal; and
before many weeks had passed, in all lessons except those in
arithmeticyou could not, alas! get sums by roteshe was separated
from Inez and Bertha by the width of the class.
But neither her taste of friendship and its comforts, nor the
abrupt change for the better in her class-fortunes, could
counterbalance Laura's luckless knack of putting her foot in it. This
she continued to do, in season and out of season. And not with the
There was, for instance, that unfortunate evening when she was one
of the batch of girls invited to Mrs. Strachey's drawingroom. Laura,
ignorant of what it meant to be blasee, had received her note of
invitation with a thrill, had even enjoyed writing, in her best hand,
the prescribed formula of acceptance. But she was alone in this; by
the majority of her companions these weekly parties were frankly
hated, the chief reason being that every guest was expected to take a
piece of music with her. Even the totally unfit had to show what they
could do. And the fact that cream-tarts were served for supper was not
held to square accounts.
"It's all very well for you," grumbled Laura's room-mate, Lilith
Gordon, as she lathered her thick white arms and neck before dressing.
"You're a new girl; you probably won't be asked."
Laura did not give the matter a second thought: hastily selecting a
volume of music, she followed the rest of the white dresses into the
passage. The senior girl tapped at the drawingroom door. It was opened
by no other than the Principal himself.
In the girls' eyes, Mr. Strachey stood over six feet in his
stocking-soles. He had also a most arrogant way of looking down his
nose, and of tugging, intolerantly, at his long, drooping moustache.
There was little need for him to assume the frigid contemptuousness of
Mrs. Gurley's manner: his mere presence, the very unseeingness of his
gaze, inspired awe. Tales ran of his wrath, were it roused; but few
had experienced it. He quelled the high spirits of these young [P.93]
colonials by his dignified air of detachment.
Now, however, he stood there affable and smiling, endeavouring to
put a handful of awkward girls at their ease. But neither his nor Mrs.
Strachey's efforts availed. It was impossible for the pupils to throw
off, at will, the crippling fear that governed their relations with
the Principal. To them, his amiability resembled the antics of an
uncertain-tempered elephant, with which you could never feel safe.
Besides on this occasion it was a young batch, and of particularly
mixed stations. And so a dozen girls, from twelve to fifteen years
old, sat on the extreme edges of their chairs, and replied to what was
said to them, with dry throats.
Though the youngest of the party, Laura was the least embarrassed:
she had never known a nursery, but had mixed with her elders since her
babyhood. And she was not of a shy disposition; indeed, she still had
to be reminded daily that shyness was expected of her. So she sat and
looked about her. It was an interesting room in which she found
herself. Low bookshelves, three shelves high, ran round the walls, and
on the top shelf were many outlandish objects. What an evening it
would have been had Mr. Strachey invited them to examine these
ornaments, or to handle the books, instead of having to pick up a
title here and there by chance.From the shelves, her eyes strayed to
the pictures on the walls; one, in particular struck her fancy. It
hung over the mantelpiece, and was a man's head seen in profile, with
a long hooked nose, and wearing a kind of peaked cap. But that was not
all: behind this head were other profiles of the same face, and
seeming to come out of clouds. Laura stared hard, but could make
nothing of it.And meanwhile her companions were rising with sickly
smiles, to seat themselves, red as turkey-cocks' combs, on the piano
stool, where with cold, stiff fingers they stumbled through the
movement of a sonata or sonatina.
It was Lilith Gordon who broke the chain by offering to sing. The
diversion was welcomed by Mrs. Strachey, and Lilith went to the piano.
But her nervousness was such that she broke down half-way in the
little prelude to the ballad.
Mrs. Strachey came to the rescue. "It's so difficult, is it not, to
accompany oneself?" she said kindly. "Perhaps one of the others would
play for you?"
No one moved.
"Do any of you know the song?"
Two or three ungraciously admitted the knowledge, but none
It was here Laura chimed in. "I could play it," she said; and
coloured at the sound of her own voice.
Mrs. Strachey looked doubtfully at the thin little girl. "Do you
know it, dear? You're too young for singing, I think."
"No, I don't know it. But I could play it from sight. It's quite
Everyone looked disbelieving, especially the unhappy singer.
"I've played much harder things than that," continued Laura.
"Well, perhaps you might try," said Mrs. Strachey, with the
ingrained distrust of the unmusical.
Laura rose and went to the piano, where she conducted the song to a
Mrs. Strachey looked relieved. "Very nice indeed." And to Laura:
"Did you say you didn't know it, dear?"
"No, I never saw it before."
Again the lady looked doubtful. "Well, perhaps you would play us
something yourself now?"
Laura had no objection; she had played to people before her fingers
were long enough to cover the octave. She took the volume of Thalberg
she had brought with her, selected "Home, Sweet Home", and pranced in.
Her audience kept utter silence; but, had she been a little
sharper, she would have grasped that it was the silence of amazement.
After the prim sonatinas that had gone before, Thalberg's florid
ornaments had a shameless sound. Her performance, moreover, was a
startling one; the forte pedal was held down throughout; the big
chords were crashed and banged with all the strength a pair of
twelve-year-old arms could put into them; and wrong notes were freely
scattered. Still, rhythm and melody were well marked, and there was no
mistaking the agility of the small fingers.
Dead silence, too, greeted the conclusion of the piece Several
girls were very red, from trying not to laugh. The Principal tugged at
his moustache, in abstracted fashion.
Laura had reached her seat again before Mrs. Strachey said
undecidedly: "Thank you, dear. Did you . . . hm . . . learn that piece
Laura saw nothing wrong. "Oh, no, at home," she answered. "I
wouldn't care to play the things I learn here, to people. They're so
A girl emitted a faint squeak. But a half turn of Mrs. Strachey's
head subdued her. "Oh, I hope you will soon get to like classical
music also," said the lady gravely, and in all good faith. "We prefer
it, you know, to any other."
"Do you mean things like the AIR IN G WITH VARIATIONS? I'm afraid I
never shall. There's no tune in them."
Music was as fatal to Laura's equilibrium as wine would have been.
Finding herself next Mr. Strachey, she now turned to him and said,
with what she believed to be ease of manner: "Mr. Strachey, will you
please tell me what that picture is hanging over the mantelpiece? I've
been looking at it ever since I came in, but I can't make it out. Are
those ghosts, those things behind the man, or what?"
It took Mr. Strachey a minute to recover from his astonishment. He
stroked hard, and the look he bent on Laura was not encouraging.
"It seems to be all the same face," continued the child, her eyes
on the picture.
"That," said Mr. Strachey, with extreme deliberation: "that is the
portrait, by a great painter, of a great poetDante Alighieri."
"Oh, Dante, is it?" said Laura showilyshe had once heard the
name. "Oh, yes, of course, I know now. He wrote a book, didn't he,
called FAUST? I saw it over there by the door.What lovely books!"
But here Mr. Strachey abruptly changed his seat, and Laura's thirst
for information was left unquenched.
The evening passed, and she was in blessed ignorance of anything
being amiss, till the next morning after breakfast she was bidden to
A quarter of an hour later, on her emerging from that lady's
private sitting-room, her eyes were mere swollen slits in her face.
Instead, however, of sponging them in cold water and bravely joining
her friends, Laura was still foolish enough to hide and have her cry
out. So that when the bell rang, she was obliged to go in to public
prayers looking a prodigious fright, and thereby advertising to the
curious what had taken place.
Mrs. Gurley had crushed and humiliated her. Laura learnt that she
had been guilty of a gross impertinence, in profaning the ears of the
Principal and Mrs. Strachey with Thalberg's music, and that all the
pieces she had brought with her from home would now be taken from her.
Secondly, Mr. Strachey had been so unpleasantly impressed by the
boldness of her behaviour, that she would not be invited to the
drawing-room again for some time to come.
The matter of the music touched Laura little: if they preferred
their dull old exercises to what she had offered them, so much the
worse for them. But the reproach cast on her manners stung her even
more deeply than it had done when she was still the raw little
newcomer: for she had been pluming herself of late that she was now
"quite the thing".
And yet, painful as was this fresh overthrow of her pride, it was
neither the worst nor the most lasting result of the incident. That
concerned her schoolfellows. By the following morning the tale of her
doings was known to everyone. It was circulated in the first place, no
doubt, by Lilith Gordon, who bore her a grudge for her offer to
accompany the song: had Laura not put herself forward in this
objectionable way, Lilith might have escaped singing altogether.
Lilith also resented her having shown that she could do itand this
feeling was generally shared. It evidenced a want of good-fellowship,
and made you very glad the little prig had afterwards come to grief:
if you had abilities that others had not you concealed them, instead
of parading them under people's noses.
In short, Laura had committed a twofold breach of school etiquette.
No one of course vouchsafed to explain this to her; these things one
did not put into words, things you were expected to know without
telling. Hence, she never more than half understood what she had done.
She only saw disapproval painted on faces that had hitherto been
neutral, and from one or two quarters got what was unmistakably the
cold shoulder. Her little beginnings at popularity had somehow
received a setback, and through her own foolish behaviour.
The lesson went home; Laura began to model herself more and more on
those around her; to grasp that the unpardonable sin is to vary from
the common mould.
In August, after the midwinter holidays, she was promoted to the
second class; she began Latin; and as a reward was allowed by Mother
to wear her dresses an inch below her knees. She became a quick,
adaptable pupil, with a parrot-like memory, and at the end of the
school year delighted Mother's heart with a couple of highly gilt
volumes, of negligible contents.
At home, during those first holidays, she gave her sister and
brothers cold creeps down their spines, with her stories of the great
doings that took place at school; and none of her class-mates would
have recognised in this arrant drawer-of-the-long-bow, the unlucky
little blunderbuss of the early days.
On her return, Laura's circle of friends was enlarged. The morning
after her arrival, on entering the dining-hall, she found a new girl
standing shy and awkward before the fireplace. This was the daughter
of a millionaire squatter named Macnamara; and the report of her
father's wealth had preceded her. Yet here she now had to hang about,
alone, unhappy, the target of all eyes. It might be supposed that
Laura would feel some sympathy for her, having so recently undergone
the same experience herself. But that was not her way. She rejoiced,
in barbarian fashion, that this girl, older than she by about a year,
and of a higher social standing, should have to endure a like ordeal.
Staring heartlessly, she accentuated her part of old girl knowing all
the ropes, and was so inclined to show off that she let herself in for
a snub from Miss Snodgrass.
Tilly Macnamara joined Laura's class, and the two were soon good
Tilly was a short, plump girl, with white teeth, rather boyish
hands, and the blue-grey eyes predominant in Australia. She was
usually dressed in silk, and she never wore an apron to protect the
front of her frock. Naturally, too, she had a bottomless supply of
pocket-money: if a subscription were raised, she gave ten shillings
where others gave one; and on the Saturday holidays she flung about
with half-crowns as Laura would have been afraid to do with pennies.
For the latter with her tiny dole, which had to last so and so
long, since no more was forthcoming, it was a difficult task to move
gracefully among companions none of whom knew what it meant to be
really poor. Many trivial mortifications were the result; and
countless small subterfuges had to be resorted to, to prevent it
leaking out just how paltry her allowance was.
But the question of money was, after all, trifling, compared with
the infinitely more important one of dress.
With regard to dress, Laura's troubles were manifold. It was not
only that here, too, by reason of Mother's straitened means, she was
forced to remain an outsider: that, in itself, she would have borne
[P.101] lightly; for, as little girls go, she was indifferent to
finery. Had she had a couple of new frocks a year, in which she could
have been neat and unremarkable, she would have been more than
content. But, from her babyhood on, Lauraand Pin with herhad
lamented the fact that children could not go about clad in sacks,
mercifully indistinguishable one from another. For they were the
daughters of an imaginative mother, and, balked in other outlets, this
imagination had wreaked itself on their clothing. All her short life
long, Laura had suffered under a home-made, picturesque style of
dress; and she had resented, with a violence even Mother did not
gauge, this use of her young body as a peg on which to hang fantastic
garments. After her tenth birthday she was, she thanked goodness,
considered too old for the quaint shapes beneath which Pin still
groaned; but there remained the matter of colour for Mother to sin
against, and in this she seemed to grow more intemperate year by year.
Herself dressed always in the soberest browns and blacks, she liked to
see her young flock gay as Paradise birds, lighting up a drab world;
and when Mother liked a thing, she was not given to consulting the
wishes of little people. Those were awful times when she went, say, to
Melbourne, and bought as a bargain a whole roll of cloth of an
impossible colour, which had to be utilised to the last inch; or when
she unearthed, from an old trunk, some antiquated garment to be cut up
and reshapeda Paisley shawl, a puce ball-dress, even an old pair of
green rep curtains.
It was thus a heavy blow to Laura to find, on going home, that
Mother had already bought her new spring dress. In one respect all was
well: it had been made by the local dressmaker, and consequently had
not the home-made cut that Laura abhorred. But the colour! Her heart
fell to the pit of her stomach the moment she set eyes on it, and only
with difficulty did she restrain her tears.Mother had chosen a vivid
purple, of a crude, old-fashioned shade.
Now, quite apart from her personal feelings, Laura had come to know
very exactly, during the few months she had been at school, the views
held by her companions on the subject of colour. No matter how
sumptuous or how simple the material of which the dress was made, it
must be dark, or of a delicate tint. Brilliancy was a sign of
vulgarity, and put the wearer outside the better circles. Hence, at
this critical juncture, when Laura was striving to ape her fellows in
all vital matters, the unpropitious advent of the purple threatened to
After her first dismayed inspection, she retreated to the bottom of
the garden to give vent to her feelings.
"I shall never be able to wear it," she moaned. "Oh, how COULD she
buy such a thing? And I needed a new dress so awfully, awfully much."
"It isn't really so bad, Laura," pleaded Pin. "It'll look darker,
I'm sure, if you've got it onand if you don't go out in the sun."
"You haven't got to wear it. It was piggish of you, Pin, perfectly
piggish! You MIGHT have watched what she was buying."
"I did, Laura!" asseverated Pin, on the brink of tears. "There was
a nice dark brown and I said take that, you would like it better, and
she said hold your tongue, and did I think she was going to dress you
as if you were your own grandmother."
This dress hung for weeks in the most private corner of Laura's
school wardrobe. Her companions had all returned with new outfits, and
on the first assemblage for church there was a great mustering of one
another, both by girls and teachers. Laura was the only one to descend
in the dress she had worn throughout the winter. Her heart was sore
with bitterness, and when the handful of Episcopalians were marching
to St Stephen's-on-the-Hill, she strove to soothe her own wound.
"I can't think why my dress hasn't come," she said gratuitously,
out of this hurt, with an oblique glance to see how her partner took
the remark: it was the good-natured Maria Morell, who was resplendent
in velvet and feathers. "I expect that stupid dressmaker couldn't get
it done in time. I've waited for it all the week."
"What a sell!" said Maria, but with mediocre interest; for she had
cocked her eye at a harmless-looking youth, who was doing his best not
to blush on passing the line of girls."I say, do look at that toff
making eyes. Isn't he a nanny-goat."
On several subsequent Sundays, Laura fingered, in an agony of
indecision, the pleasing stuff of the dress, and ruefully considered
its modish cut. Once, no one being present, she even took it out of
the wardrobe. But the merciless spring sunshine seemed to make the
purple shoot fire, to let loose a host of other colours it in as well,
and, with a shudder, she re-hung it on its peg.
But the evil day came. After a holiday at Godmother's, she
received a hot letter from Mother. Godmother had complained of her
looking "dowdy", and Mother was exceedingly cross. Laura was ordered
to spend the coming Saturday as well at Prahran, and in her new dress,
under penalty of a correspondence with Mrs. Gurley. There was no going
against an order of this kind, and with death at her heart Laura
prepared to obey. On the fatal morning she dawdled as long as possible
over her mending, thus postponing dressing to go out till the others
had vacated the bedroom; where, in order not to be forced to see
herself, she kept her eyes half shut, and turned the looking-glass
hind-before. Although it was a warm day, she hung a cloak over her
shoulders. But her arms peeped out of the loose sleeves, and at least
a foot of skirt was visible. As she walked along the corridor and down
the stairs, she seemed to smudge the place with colour, and, directly
she entered the dining-hall, comet-like she drew all eyes upon her.
Astonished titterings followed in her wake; even the teachers goggled
her, afterwards to put their heads together. In the reception-room
Marina remarked at once: "Hullo!is THIS the new dress your mother
wrote us about?"
Outside, things were no better; the very tram-conductors were
fascinated by it; and every passer-by was a fresh object of dread:
Laura waited, her heart a-thump, for the moment when he should raise
his eyes and, with a start of attention, become aware of the screaming
colour. At Godmother's all the faces disapproved: Georgina said, "What
a guy!" when she thought Laura was out of earshot; but the boys stated
their opinion openly as soon as they had her to themselves.
"Oh, golly! Like a parrotain't she?"
"This way to the purple parrotthis way! Step up, ladies and
gentlemen! A penny the whole show!"
That evening, she tore the dress from her back and, hanging it up
inside the cloak, vowed that, come what might, she would never put it
on again. A day or two later, on unexpectedly entering her bedroom,
she found Lilith Gordon and another girl at her wardrobe. They grew
very red, and hurried giggling from the room, but Laura had seen what
they were looking at. After this, she tied the dress up with string
and brown paper and hid it in a drawer, under her nightgowns. When she
went home at Christmas it went with her, still in the parcel, and then
there was a stormy scene. But Laura was stubborn: rather than wear the
dress, she would not go back to the College at all. Mother's heart had
been softened by the prizes; Laura seized the occasion, and extracted
a promise that she should be allowed in future to choose her own
frocks. And so the purple dress was passed on to Pin, who detested
it with equal heartiness, but, living under Mother's eye, had not the
spirit to fight against it.
"Got anything new in the way of clothes?" asked Lilith Gordon as
she and Laura undressed for bed a night or two after their return.
"Yes, one," said Laura shortly.For she thought Lilith winked at
the third girl, a publican's daughter from Clunes.
"Another like the last? Or have you gone in for yellow ochre this
Laura flamed in silence.
"Great Scott, what a colour that was! Fit for an Easter FairMiss
Day said so."
"It wasn't mine," retorted Laura passionately. "It . . . it
belonged to a girl I knew who diedand her mother gave it to me as a
remembrance of herbut I didn't care for it."
"I shouldn't think you did.But I say, does your mother let you
wear other people's clothes? What a rummy thing to do!"
She went out of the roomno doubt to spread this piece of gossip
further. Laura looked daggers after her. She was angry enough with
Lilith for having goaded her to the lie, but much angrier with herself
for its blundering ineffectualness. It was not likely she had been
believed, and if she were, well, it made matters worse instead of
better: people would conclude that she lived on charity. Always when
unexpectedly required to stand on the defensive, she said or did
something foolish. That morning, for instance, a similar thing had
happenedit had rankled all day in her mind. On looking through the
washing, Miss Day had exclaimed in horror at the way in which her
stockings were mended.
"Whoever did it? They've been done since you left here. I would
never have passed such dams."
Laura crimsoned. "Those? Oh, an old nurse we've got at home. We've
had her for years and yearsbut her eyesight's going now."
Miss Day sniffed audibly. "So I should think. To cobble like that!"
They were Mother's dams, hastily made, late at night, and with all
Mother's genial impatience at useful sewing as opposed to beautiful.
Laura's intention had been to shield Mother from criticism, as well as
to spare Miss Day's feelings. But to have done it so clumsily as this!
To have had to wince under Miss Day's scepticism! It was only a wonder
the governess had not there and then taxed her with the fib. For who
believed in old nurses nowadays? They were a stock property, borrowed
on the spur of the moment from readings in THE FAMILY HERALD, from
Tennyson's LADY CLARE. Why on earth had such a far-fetched excuse
leapt to her tongue? Why could she not have said Sarah, the servant,
the maid-of-all-work? Then Miss Day would have had no chance to sniff,
and she, Laura, could have believed herself believed, instead of
having to fret over her own stupidity.But what she would like more
than anything to know was, why the mending of the stockings at home
should NOT be Sarah's work? Why must it just be Motherher mother
alonewho made herself so disagreeably conspicuous, and not merely by
darning the stockings, but, what was a still greater grievance, by not
even darning them well?
It was an odd thing, all the same, how easy it was to be friends
with Lilith Gordon: though she did not belong to Laura's set though
Laura did not even like her, and though she had had ample proof that
Lilith was double-faced, not to be trusted. Yet, in the months that
followed the affair of the purple dress, Laura grew more intimate with
the plump, sandy-haired girl than with either Bertha, or Inez, or
Tilly. Or, to put it more exactly, she was continually having lapses
into intimacy, and repenting them when it was too late. In one way
Lilith was responsible for this: she could make herself very pleasant
when she chose, seem to be your friend through thick and thin, thus
luring you on to unbosom yourself; and afterwards she would go away
and laugh over what you had told her, with other girls. And Laura was
peculiarly helpless under such circumstances: if it was done with
tact, and with a certain assumed warmth of manner, anyone could make a
cat's-paw of her.
That Lilith and she undressed for bed together had also something
to do with their intimacy: this half-hour when one's hair was unbound
and replaited, and fat and thin arms wielded the brush, was the time
of all others for confidences. The governess who occupied the fourth
bed did not come upstairs till ten o'clock; the publican's daughter, a
lazy girl, was usually half asleep before the other two had their
It was in the course of one of these confidential chats that Laura
did a very foolish thing. In a moment of weakness, she gratuitously
gave away the secret that Mother supported her family by the work of
The two girls were sitting on the side of Lilith's bed. Laura had a
day of mishaps behind herthat partly, no doubt, accounted for her
self-indulgence. But, in addition, her companion had just told her,
unasked, that she thought her "very pretty". It was not in Laura's
nature to let this pass: she was never at ease under an obligation;
she had to pay the coin back in kind.
"Embroidery? What sort? However does she do it?"Lilith's interest
was on tiptoe at oncea false and slimy interest, the victim
afterwards told herself.
"Oh, my mother's awfully clever. It's just lovely, too, what she
does all in silkand ever so many different colours. She made a
piano-cover once, and got fifty pounds for it."
"How perfectly splendid!"
"But that was only a lucky chance . . . that she got that to do.
She mostly does children's dresses and cloaks and things like that."
"But she's not a dressmaker, is she?"
"A dressmaker? I should think not indeed! They're sent up, all
ready to work, from the biggest shops in town."
"I say!she must be clever."
"She is; she can do anything. She makes the patterns up all out of
her own head. "And filled with pride in Mother's accomplishments and
Lilith's appreciation of them, Laura fell asleep that night without a
It was the next evening. Several of the boarders who had finished
preparing their lessons were loitering in the dining-hall, Laura and
Lilith among them. In the group was a girl called Lucy, young but very
saucy; for she lived at Toorak, and came of one of the best families
in Melbourne. She was not as old as Laura by two years, but was
already feared and respected for the fine scorn of her opinions.
Lilith Gordon had bragged: "My uncle's promised me a gold watch and
chain when I pass matric."
Lucy of Toorak laughed: her nose came down, and her mouth went up
at the corners. "Do you think you ever will?"
"G. o. k. and He won't tell. But I'll probably get the watch all
"Where does your uncle hang out?"
"Sure he can afford to buy it?"
"Of course he can."
"What is he?"
Lilith was unlucky enough to hesitate, ever so slightly. "Oh, he's
got plenty of money," she asserted.
"She doesn't like to say what he is!"
"I don't care whether I say it or not."
"A butcher, p'raps, or an undertaker?"
"A butcher! He's got the biggest newspaper in Brisbane!"
"A newspaper! Great Scott! Her uncle keeps a newspaper!"
There was a burst of laughter from those standing round.
Lilith was scarlet now. "It's nothing to be ashamed of," she said
But Lucy of Toorak could not recover from her amusement. "An uncle
who keeps a newspaper! A newspaper! Well, I'm glad none of MY uncles
are so rummy.I say, does he leave it at front doors himself in the
Laura had at first looked passively on, well pleased to see another
than herself the butt of young Lucy's wit. But at this stage of her
existence she was too intent on currying favour, to side with any but
the stronger party. And so she joined in the boisterous mirth Lilith's
admission and Lucy's reception of it excited, and flung her gibes with
She was pulled up short by a hissing in her ear. "If you say one
word more, I'll tell about the embroidery!"
Laura went pale with fright: she had been in good spirits that day,
and had quite forgotten her silly confidence of the night before. Now,
the jeer that was on the tip of her tongue hung fire. She could not
all at once obliterate her smilethat would have been noticeable; but
it grew weaker, stiffer and more unnatural, then gradually faded away,
leaving her with a very solemn little face.
From this night on, Lilith Gordon represented a powder-mine, which
might explode at any minute.And she herself had laid the train!
From the outset, Laura had been accepted, socially, by even the
most exclusive, as one of themselves; and this, in spite of her
niggardly allowance, her ridiculous clothes. For the child had race in
her: in a well-set head, in good hands and feet and ears. Her nose,
too, had a very pronounced droop, which could stand only for blue
blood, or a Hebraic ancestorand Jews were not received as boarders
in the school. Now, loud as money made itself in this young community,
effectual as it was in cloaking shortcomings, it did not go all the
way: inherited instincts and traditions were not so easily subdued.
Just some of the wealthiest, too, were aware that their antecedents
would not stand a close scrutiny; and thus a mighty respect was
engendered in them for those who had nothing to fear. Moreover,
directly you got away from the vastly rich, class distinctions were
observed with an exactitude such as can only obtain in an exceedingly
mixed society. The three professions alone were sacrosanct. The
calling of architect, for example, or of civil engineer, was, if a
fortune had not been accumulated, utterly without prestige; trade, any
connection with tradethe merest bowing acquaintance with buying and
sellingwas a taint that nothing could remove; and those girls who
were related to shopkeepers, or, more awful still, to publicans, would
rather have bitten their tongues off than have owned to the disgrace.
Yet Laura knew very well that good birth and an aristocratic
appearance would not avail her, did the damaging fact leak out that
Mother worked for her living. Work in itself was bad enoughhow
greatly to be envied were those whose fathers did nothing more active
than live on their money! But the additional circumstance of Mother
being a woman made things ten times worse: ladies did not work; some
one always left them enough to live on, and if he didn't, well, then
he, too, shared the ignominy. So Laura went in fear and trembling lest
the truth should come to lightin that case, she would be a pariah
indeedwent in hourly dread of Lilith betraying her. Nothing,
however, happenedat least as far as she could discoverand she
sought to propitiate Lilith in every possible way. For the time being,
though, anxiety turned her into a porcupine, ready to erect her quills
at a touch. She was ever on the look-out for an allusion to her
mother's position, and for the slight that was bound to accompany it.
Even the governesses noticed the change in her.
Three of them sat one evening round the fire in Mrs. Gurley's
sitting-room, with their feet on the fender. The girls had gone to
bed; it was Mrs. Gurley's night off, and as Miss Day was also on
leave, the three who were left could draw in more closely than usual.
Miss Snodgrass had made the bread into toastin spite of Miss
Chapman's quakings lest Mrs. Gurley should notice the smell when she
came in and, as they munched, Miss Snodgrass related how she had
just confiscated a book Laura Rambotham was trying to smuggle
upstairs, and how it had turned out that it belonged, not to Laura
herself, but to Lilith Gordon.
"She was like a little spitfire about it all the same. A most
objectionable child, I call her. It was only yesterday I wanted to
look at some embroidery on her aprona rather pretty new stitchand
do you think she'd let me see it? She jerked it away and glared at me
as if she would have liked to eat me. I could have boxed her ears."
"I never have any trouble with Laura. I don't think you know how
to manage her," said Miss Chapman, and executed a little manoeuvre.
She had poor teeth; and, having awaited a moment when Miss Snodgrass's
sharp eyes were elsewhere engaged, she surreptitiously dropped the
crusts of the toast into her handkerchief.
"I'd be sorry to treat her as you do," said Miss Snodgrass, and
yawned. "Girls need to be made to sit up nowadays."
She yawned again, and gazing round the room for fresh food for
talk, caught Miss Zielinski with her eye. "Hullo, Ziely, what are you
deep in?" She put her arm round the other's neck, and unceremoniously
laid hold of her book. "You naughty girl, you're at Ouida again!
Always got your nose stuck in some trashy novel."
"DO let me alone," said Miss Zielinski pettishly, holding fast to
the book; but she did not raise her eyes, for they were wet.
"You know you'll count the washing all wrong again to-morrow, your
head'll be so full of that stuff."
"Yes, it's time to go, girls; to-morrow's Saturday." And Miss
Chapman sighed; for, on a Saturday morning between six and eight
o'clock, fifty-five lots of washing had to be sorted out and arranged
"Holy Moses, what a life!" ejaculated Miss Snodgrass, and yawned
again, in a kind of furious desperation. "I swear I'll marry the first
man that asks me, to get away from it.As long as he has money enough
to keep me decently."
"You would soon wish yourself back, if you had no more feeling for
him that that," reproved Miss Chapman.
"Catch me! Not even if he had a hump, or kept a mistress, or was
over eighty. Oh dear, oh dear!"she stretched herself so violently
that her bones cracked; to resume, in a tone of ordinary conversation:
"I do wish I knew whether to put a brown wing or a green one in that
blessed hat of mine."
Miss Chapman's face straightened out from its shocked expression.
"Your hat? Why do you want to change it? It's very nice as it is."
"My dear Miss Chapman, it's at least six months out of
date.Ziely, you're crying!"
"I'm not," said Miss Zielinski weakly, caught in the act of blowing
"How on earth can you cry over a book? As if it were true!"
"I thank God I haven't such a cold heart as you."
"And I thank God I'm not a romantic idiot. But your name's not
Thekla for nothing I suppose."
"My name's as good as yours. And I won't be looked down on because
my father was once a German."
"'Mr. Kayser, do you vant to buy a dawg?'" hummed Miss Snodgrass.
"Girls, girls!" admonished Miss Chapman. "How you two do bicker.
There, that's Mrs. Gurley now! And it's long past ten."
At the creaking of the front door both juniors rose, gathered their
belongings together, and hurried from the room. But it was a false
alarm; and having picked up some crumbs and set the chairs in order,
Miss Chapman resumed her seat. As she waited, she looked about her
and wondered, with a sigh, whether it would ever be her good fortune
to call this cheery little room her own. It was only at moments like
the present that she could indulge such a dream. Did Mrs. Gurley stand
before her, majestic in bonnet and mantle, as in a minute or two she
would, or draped in her great shawl, thoughts of this kind sank to
their proper level, and Miss Chapman knew them for what they were
worth. But sitting alone by night, her chin in her hand, her eyes on
the dying fire, around her the eerie stillness of the great house, her
ambition did not seem wholly out of reach; and, giving rein to her
fancy, she could picture herself sweeping through halls and rooms,
issuing orders that it was the business of others to fulfil, could
even think out a few changes that should be made, were she head of the
But the insertion of Mrs. Gurley's key in the lock, the sound of
her foot on the oilcloth, was enough to waken a sense of guilt in Miss
Chapman, and make her start to her feetthe drab, elderly, apologetic
governess once more.
DA REGIERT DER NACHBAR, DA WIRD MAN NACHBAR.
You might regulate your outward habit to the last button of what
you were expected to wear; you might conceal the tiny flaws and
shuffle over the big improprieties in your home life, which were
likely to damage your value in the eyes of your companions; you might,
in brief, march in the strictest order along the narrow road laid down
for you by these young lawgivers, keeping perfect step and time with
them: yet of what use were all your pains, if you could not marshal
your thoughts and feelingsthe very realest part of youin rank and
file as well? . .. if these persisted in escaping control?Such was
the question which, about this time, began to present itself to
It first took form on the day Miss Blount, the secretary, popped
her head in at the door and announced: "At half-past three, Class Two
to Number One."
Class Two was taking a lesson in elocution: that is to say Mr.
Repton, the visiting-master for this branch of study, was reading
aloud, in a sonorous voice, a chapter of HANDY ANDY. He underlined his
points heavily, and his hearers, like the self-conscious, emotionally
shy young colonials they were, felt half amused by, half-superior to
the histrionic display. They lounged in easy, ungraceful postures
while he read, reclining one against another, or sprawling forward
over the desks, their heads on their arms. It was the first hour after
dinner, when one's thoughts were sleepy and stupid, and Mr. Repton was
not a pattern disciplinarian; but the general abandonment of attitude
had another ground as well. It had to do with the shape of the
master's legs. These were the object of an enthusiastic admiration.
They were generally admitted to be the handsomest in the school, and
those girls were thought lucky who could get the best view of them
beneath the desk. Moreover, the rumour ran that Mr. Repton had once
been an actorhis very curly hair no doubt lent weight to the
reportand Class Two was fond of picturing the comely limbs in the
tights of a Hamlet or Othello. It also, of course, invented for him a
lurid life outside the College wallsnotwithstanding the fact that he
and his sonsy wife sat opposite the boarders in church every Sunday
morning, the embodiment of the virtuous commonplace; and whenever he
looked at a pupil, every time he singled one of them out for special
notice, he was believed to have an ulterior motive, his words were
construed into meaning something they should not mean: so that the
poor man was often genuinely puzzled by the reception of his friendly
overtures.Such was Class Two's youthful contribution to the romance
of school life.
On this particular day, however, the sudden, short snap of the
secretary's announcement that, instead of dispersing at half-past
three, the entire school was to reassemble, galvanised the class.
Glances of mingled apprehension and excitement flew round; eyes
telegraphed [P.119] vigorous messages; and there was little attention
left for well-shaped members, or for the antics of Handy Andy under
his mother's bed.
But when the hour came, and all classes were moving in the same
direction, verandahs and corridors one seething mass of girls, it was
the excitement that prevailed. For any break was welcome in the
uniformity of the days; and the nervous tension now felt was no more
disagreeable, at bottom, than was the pleasant trepidation experienced
of old by those who went to be present at a hanging.
In the course of the past weeks a number of petty thefts had been
committed. Day-scholars who left small sums of money in their jacket
pockets would find, on returning to the cloakrooms, that these had
been pilfered. For a time, the losses were borne in silence, because
of the reluctance inherent in young girls to making a fuss. But when
shillings began to vanish in the same fashion, and once even
half-a-crown was missing, it was recognised that the thing must be put
a stop to; and one bolder than the rest, and with a stronger sense of
public morality, lodged a complaint. Investigations were made, a trap
was set, and the thief discovered.The school was now assembled to
see justice done.
The great room was fuller even than at morning prayers; for then
there was always an unpunctual minority. A crowd of girls who had not
been able to find seats was massed together at the further end. As at
prayers, visiting and resident teachers stood in a line, with their
backs to the high windows; they were ranged in order of precedence,
topped by Dr Pughson, who stood next Mr. Strachey's desk. All [P.120]
alike wore blank, stern faces.
In one of the rows of desks for twoblackened, ink-scored, dusty
desks, with eternally dry ink-wellssat Laura and Tilly, behind them
Inez and Bertha. The cheeks of the four were flushed. But, while the
others only whispered and wondered, Laura was on the tiptoe of
expectation. She could not get her breath properly, and her hands and
feet were cold. Twisting her fingers, in and out, she moistened her
lips with her tongue.When, oh, when would it begin?
These few foregoing minutes were the most trying of any. For when,
in an ominous hush, Mr. Strachey entered and strode to his desk, Laura
suddenly grew calm, and could take note of everything that passed.
The Principal raised his hand, to enjoin a silence that was already
"Will Miss Johns stand up!"
At these words, spoken in a low, impressive tone, Bertha burst into
tears and hid her face in her handkerchief. Hundreds of eyes sought
the unhappy culprit as she rose, then to be cast down and remain glued
to the floor.
The girl stood, pale and silly-looking, and stared at Mr. Strachey
much as a rabbit stares at the snake that is about to eat it. She was
a very ugly girl of fourteen, with a pasty face, and lank hair that
dangled to her shoulders. Her mouth had fallen half open through fear,
and she did not shut it all the time she was on view.
Laura could not take her eyes off the scene: they travelled,
burning with curiosity, from Annie Johns to Mr. Strachey, and back
again to the miserable thief. When, after a few introductory remarks
on crime in general, the Principal passed on to the present case, and
described it in detail, Laura was fascinated by his oratory, and gazed
full at him. He made it all live vividly before her; she hung on his
lips, appreciating his points, the skilful way in which he worked up
his climaxes. But then, she herself knew what it was to be pooras
Annie Johns had been. She understood what it would mean to lack your
tram-fare on a rainy morningaccording to Mr. Strachey this was the
motor impulse of the theftsbecause a lolly shop had stretched out
its octopus arms after you. She could imagine, too, with a shiver, how
easy it would be, the loss of the first pennies having remained
undiscovered, to go on to threepenny-bits, and from these to
sixpences. More particularly since the money had been taken, without
exception, from pockets in which there was plenty. Not, Laura felt
sure, in order to avoid detection, as Mr. Strachey supposed, but
because to those who had so much a few odd coins could not matter. She
wondered if everyone else agreed with him on this point. How did the
teachers feel about it?and she ran her eyes over the row, to learn
their opinions from their faces. But these were as stolid as ever.
Only good old Chapman, she thought, looked a little sorry, and Miss
Zielinskiyes, Miss Zielinski was crying! This discovery thrilled
Laurajust as, at the play, the fact of one spectator being moved to
tears intensifies his neighbour's enjoyment.But when Mr. Strachey
left the field of personal narration and went on to the moral aspects
of the affair, Laura ceased to be gripped by him, and turned anew to
study the pale, dogged face [P.122] of the accused, though she had to
crane her neck to do it. Before such a stony mask as this, she was
driven to imagine what must be going on behind it; and, while thus
engrossed, she felt her arm angrily tweaked. It was Tilly.
"You ARE a beast to stare like that!"
"I'm not staring."
She turned her eyes away at once, more than half believing her own
words; and then, for some seconds, she tried to do what was expected
of her: to feel a decent unconcern. At her back, Bertha's purry crying
went steadily on. What on earth did she cry for? She had certainly not
heard a word Mr. Strachey said. Laura fidgeted in her seat, and stole
a sideglance at Tilly's profile. She could not, really could not miss
the last scene of all, when, in masterly fashion, the Principal was
gathering the threads together. And so, feeling rather like "Peeping
Tom", she cautiously raised her eyes again, and this time managed to
use them without turning her head.
All other eyes were still charitably lowered. Several girls were
crying now, but without a sound. And, as the last, awful moments drew
near, even Bertha was hushed, and of all the odd hundreds of throats
not one dared to cough. Laura's heart began to palpitate, for she felt
the approach of the final climax, Mr. Strachey's periods growing ever
slower and more massive.
When, after a burst of eloquence which, the child felt, would not
have shamed a Bishop, the Principal drew himself up to his full
height, and, with uplifted arm, thundered forth: "Herewith, Miss Annie
Johns, I publicly expel you from the school! Leave it, now, this
moment, and never darken its doors again!"when this happened, Laura
was shot through by an ecstatic quiver, such as she had felt once only
in her life before; and that was when a beautiful, golden-haired
Hamlet, who had held a Ballarat theatre entranced for a whole evening,
fell dead by Laertes' sword, to the rousing plaudits of the house.
Breathing unevenly, she watched, lynx-eyed, every inch of Annie Johns'
progress: watched her pick up her books, edge out of her seat and
sidle through the rows of desks; watched her walk to the door with
short jerky movements, mount the two steps that led to it, fumble with
the handle, turn it, and vanish from sight; and when it was all over,
and there was nothing more to see, she fell back in her seat with an
It was too late after this for the winding of the snaky line about
the streets and parks of East Melbourne, which constituted the
boarders' daily exercise. They were despatched to stretch their legs
in the garden. Here, as they walked round lawns and tennis-courts,
they discussed the main event of the afternoon, and were a little more
vociferous than usual, in an attempt to shake off the remembrance of a
very unpleasant half-hour.
"I bet you Sandy rather enjoyed kicking up that shindy."
"DID you see Puggy's boots again? Girls, he MUST take twelves!"
"And that old blubber of a Ziely's handkerchief! It was filthy. I
told you yesterday I was sure she never washed her neck."
Bertha, whose tears had dried as rapidly as sea-spray, gave Laura a
dig in the ribs. "What's up with you, old Tweedledum? You're as glum
as a lubra."
"No, I'm not."
"It's my belief that Laura was sorry for that pig," threw in Tilly.
"Indeed I wasn't!" said Laura indignantly.
"Sorry for a thief?"
"I tell you I WASN'T!"and this was true. Among the divers
feelings Laura had experienced that afternoon, pity had not been
"If you want to be chums with such a mangy beast, you'd better go
to school in a lock-up."
"I don't know what my father'd say, if he knew I'd been in the same
class as a pickpocket," said the daughter of a minister from Brisbane.
"I guess he wouldn't have let me stop here a week."
Laura went one better. "My mother wouldn't have let me stop a day."
Those standing by laughed, and a girl from the Riverina said: "Oh,
no, of course not!" in a tone that made Laura wince and regret her
Before tea, she had to practise. The piano stood in an outside
classroom, where no one could hear whether she was diligent or idle,
and she soon gave up playing and went to the window. Here, having
dusted the gritty sill with her petticoat, she leaned her chin on her
two palms and stared out into the sunbaked garden. It was empty now,
and very still. The streets that lay behind the high palings were
deserted in the drowsy heat; the only sound to be heard was a gentle
tinkling to vespers in the neighbouring Catholic Seminary. Leaning
thus on her elbows, and balancing herself first on her heels, then on
her toes, Laura went on, in desultory fashion, with the thoughts that
had been set in motion during the afternoon. She wondered where Annie
Johns was now, and what she was doing; wondered how she had faced her
mother, and what her father had said to her. All the rest of them had
gone back at once to their everyday life; Annie Johns alone was cut
adrift. What would happen to her? Would she perhaps be turned out of
the house? . . . into the streets?and Laura had a lively vision of
the guilty creature, in rags and tatters, slinking along walls and
sleeping under bridges, eternally moved on by a ruthless London
policeman (her only knowledge of extreme destitution being derived
from the woeful tale of "Little Jo").And to think that the beginning
of it all had been the want of a trumpery tram-fare. How safe the
other girls were! No wonder they could allow themselves to feel
shocked and outraged; none of THEM knew what it was not to have
threepence in your pocket. While she, Laura . . . Yes, and it must be
this same incriminating acquaintance with poverty that made her feel
differently about Annie Johns and what she had done. For her feelings
HAD been differentthere was no denying that. Did she now think back
over the half-hour spent in Number One, and act honest Injun with
herself, she had to admit that her companions' indignant and horrified
aversion to the crime had not been hers, let alone their decent
indifference towards the criminal. No, to be candid, she had been
deeply interested in the whole affair, had even managed to extract an
unseemly amount of entertainment from it. And that, of course, should
not have been. It was partly Mr. Strachey's fault, for making it so
dramatic; but none the less she genuinely despised herself, for having
such a queer inside.
"Pigpigpig!" she muttered under her breath, and wrinkled her
nose in a grimace.
The real reason of her pleasurable absorption was, she supposed,
that she had understood Annie Johns' motive better than anyone else.
Well, she had had no business to understandthat was the long and the
short of it: nice-minded girls found such a thing impossible, and
turned incuriously away. And her companions had been quick to
recognise her difference of attitude, or they would never have dared
to accuse her of sympathy with the thief, or to doubt her chorusing
assertion with a sneer. For them, the gap was not very wide between
understanding and doing likewise. And they were certainly right.Oh!
the last wish in the world she had was to range herself on the side of
the sinner; she longed to see eye to eye with her comradesif she had
only known how to do it. For there was no saying where it might lead
you, if you persisted in having odd and peculiar notions; you might
even end by being wicked yourself. Let her take a lesson in time from
Annie's fate. For, beginning perhaps with ideas that were no more
unlike those of her schoolfellows than were Laura's own, Annie was now
a branded thief and an outcast.And the child's feelings, as she
stood at the window, were not very far removed from prayer. Had they
found words, they would have taken the form of an entreaty that she
might be preserved from having thoughts that were different from other
people's; that she might be made to feel as she ought to feel, in a
proper, ladylike wayand especially did she see a companion convicted
Below all this, in subconscious depths, a chord of fear seemed to
have been struck in her as wellthe fear of stony faces, drooped
lids, and stretched, pointing fingers. For that night she started up,
with a cry, from dreaming that not Annie Johns but she was being
expelled; that an army of spear-like first fingers was marching
towards her, and that, try as she would, she could not get her limp,
heavy legs to bear her to the schoolroom door.
And this dream often returned.
ON her honourable promotion the following Christmasshe mounted
two forms this timeLaura was a thin, middle-sized girl of thirteen,
who still did not look her age. The curls had vanished. In their place
hung a long, dark plait, which she bound by choice with a red ribbon.
Tilly was the only one of her intimates who skipped a class with
her; hence she was thrown more exclusively than before on Tilly's
companionship; for it was a melancholy fact: if you were not in the
same class as the girl who was your friend, your interests and hers
were soon fatally sundered. On their former companions, Tilly and
Laura, from their new perch, could not but look down: the two had
masters now for all subjects; Euclid loomed large; Latin was no longer
bounded by the First Principia; and they fussed considerably, in the
others' hearing, over the difficulties of the little blue books that
began: GALLIA EST OMNIS DIVISA IN PARTES TRES.
In the beginning, they held very close together; for their new
fellows were inclined to stand on their dignity with the pair of
interlopers from Class Two. They were all older than Tilly and Laura,
and thought themselves wiser: here were girls of sixteen and seventeen
years of age, some of whom would progress no farther along the
high-road of education. As for the boarders who sat in this form, they
made up a jealous little clique, and it was some time before the
younger couple could discover the secret bond.
Then, one morning, the two were sitting with a few others on the
verandah bench, looking over their lessons for the day. Mrs. Gurley
had snatched a moment's rest there, on her way to the secretary's
office, and as long as she allowed her withering eye to play upon
things and people, the girls conned their pages with a great show of
industry. But no sooner had she sailed away than Kate Horner leant
forward and called to Maria Morell, who was at the other end of the
seat: "I say, Maria, Genesis LI, 32."She held an open Bible in her
Maria Morell frowned caution. "Dash it, Kate, mind those kids!"
"Oh, they won't savvy."
But Laura's eyes were saucers of curiosity, for Tilly, who kept her
long lashes lowered, had given her a furious nudge. With a wink and a
beck to each other, the bigger girls got up and went away.
"I say, what did you poke me so hard for?" inquired Laura as she
and Tilly followed in their wake, at the clanging of the public
"You soft, didn't you hear what she said?"
"Of course I did"and Laura repeated the reference.
"Let's look it up then." Under cover of the prayer Tilly sought it
out, and together they bent their heads over it.
On this occasion, Tilly was more knowing than Laura; but on this
alone; for when Laura once grasped what they were driving at, she was
as nimble-witted as any.
Only a day or two later it was she who, in face of Kate and Maria,
invited Tilly to turn up chapter and verse.
Both the elder girls burst out laughing.
"By dad!" cried Kate Horner, and smacked her thigh. "This kid knows
a thing or two."
"You bet! I told you she wasn't born yesterday."And Maria laid
her arm round Laura's shoulders.
Thus was Laura encouraged, put on her mettle; and soon there was no
more audacious Bible-reader in the class than she.
The girls were thrown thus upon the Book of Books for their
contraband knowledge, since it was the only frankly outspoken piece of
literature allowed within the College walls: the classics studied were
rigidly expurgated; the school library was kept so dull that no one
over the age of ten much cared to borrow a volume from it. And, by
fair means or unfair, it was necessary to obtain information on
matters of sex; for girls most of whom were well across the threshold
of womanhood the subject had an invincible fascination.
Such knowledge as they possessed was a strange jumble, picked up at
random: in one direction they were well primed; in another, supremely
ignorant. Thus, though they received lectures on what was called
"Physiology", and for these were required to commit to memory the name
of every bone and artery in the body, yet all that related to a
woman's special organs and chief natural function was studiously
ignored. The subject being thus chastely shrouded in mystery, they
were thrown back on guesswork and speculationwith the quaintest
results. The fancies woven by quite big girls, for instance, round the
physical feat of bringing a child into the world, would have supplied
material for a volume of fairytales. On many a summer evening at this
time, in a nook of the garden, heads of all shades might have been
seen pressed as close together as a cluster of settled bees; and like
the humming of bees, too, were the busy whisperings and subdued buzzes
of laughter that accompanied this hot discussion of the "how"as a
living answer to which, each of them would probably some day walk the
world. Innumerable theories were afloat, one more fantastic than
another; and the wilder the conjecture, the greater was the respect
and applause it gained.
On the other hand, of less profitable information they had amassed
a goodly store. Girls who came from up-country could tell a lively
tale of the artless habits of the blacks; others, who were at home in
mining towns, described the doings in Chinese campsthose unavoidable
concomitants of gold-grubbing settlements; rhymes circulated that
would have staggered a back-blocker; while the governesses were
without exception, young and old, kindly and unkindly, laid under such
flamboyant suspicions as the poor ladies had, for certain, never heard
breathedsince their own impudent schooldays.
This dabbling in the illicitit had little in common with the
opener grime of the ordinary schoolboydid not even widen the outlook
of these girls. For it was something to hush up and keep hidden away,
to have qualms, even among themselves, about knowing; and, like all
knowledge that fungus-like shrinks from the sun, it was stunted and
unlovely. Their minds were warped by it, their vision was distorted:
viewed through its lens, the most natural human relations appeared
unnatural. Thus, not the primmest patterns of family life could hope
for mercy in their eyes; over the family, too, man, as read by these
young rigorists, was held to leave his serpent's trail of desire.
For out of it all rose the vague, crude picture of woman as the
prey of man. Man was animal, a composite of lust and cruelty, with no
aim but that of brutally taking his pleasure: something monstrous, yet
to be adored; annihilating, yet to be sought after; something to flee
and, at the same time, to entice, with every art at one's disposal.
As long as it was solely a question of clandestine knowledge and
ingenious surmisings, Laura went merrily with the rest: here no
barrier shut her off from her companions. Always a very inquisitive
little girl, she was now agog to learn new lore. Her mind, in this
direction, was like a clean but highly sensitised plate. And partly
because of her previous entire ignorance, partly because of her
extreme receptiveness, she soon outstripped her comrades, and before
long, was one of the most skilful improvisers of the group: a
dexterous theorist: a wicked little adept at innuendo.
But that was all; a step farther, and she ran her head against a
stone wall. For the invisible yeast that brought this ferment of
natural curiosity to pass, was the girls' intense interest in the
opposite sex: a penned-up interest that clamoured for an outlet; an
interest which, in the life of these prospective mothers, had already
usurped the main place. Laura, on the other hand, had so far had scant
experience of boys of a desirable age, nor any liking for such as she
had known; indeed she still held to her childish opinion that they
were "silly" feckless creatures, in spite of their greater strength
and sizeor downright disagreeable and antagonistic, like Godmother's
Erwin and Marmaduke. No breath of their possible dangerous fascination
had hitherto reached her. Hence, an experience that came her way, at
the beginning of the autumn was of the nature of an awakening.
"My cousin Bob's awfully gone on you."
Laura gaped at Tilly, in crimson disbelief. "But I've never spoken
"Doesn't count. He's seen you in church."
"Go on!you're stuffing."
"Word of honour!And I've promised him to ask aunt if I can bring
you with me to lunch next Saturday."
Laura looked forward to this day with mixed feelings. She was
flattered at being invited to the big house in town where Tilly's
relatives lived; but she felt embarrassed at the prospect, and she had
not the least idea what a boy who was "gone" on you would expect you
to be or to do. Bob was a beautiful youth of seventeen, tall, and
dark, and slender, with milk-white teeth and Spanish eyes; and Laura's
mouth dried up when she thought of perhaps having to be sprightly or
coquettish with him.
On the eventful morning Tilly came to her room while she was
dressing, and eyed her critically.
"Oh, I say, don't put on that brown hat . . . for mercy's sake! Bob
can't stand brown."
But the brown was Laura's best, and she demurred.
"Oh well, if you don't care to look nice, you know . . ."
Of course she did; she was burning to. She even accepted the loan
of a sash from her friend, because "Bob loves blue"; and went out
feeling odd and unlike herself, in her everyday hat and borrowed
The Aunt, a pleasant, youthful-looking lady, called for them in a
white-hooded wagonette, and set them down at the house with a playful
"Now don't get up to any mischief, you two!"
"No fear!" was Tilly's genial response, as Aunt and cab drove off.
They were going to "do the block", Tilly explained, and would meet
Bob there; but they must first make sure that the drive had not
disarranged their hair or the position of their hats; and she led the
way to her aunt's bedroom.
Laura, though she had her share of natural vanity, was too
impatient to do more than cast a perfunctory glance at her reflected
self. At this period of her life when a drive in a hired cab was
enough of a novelty to give her pleasure, a day such as the one that
lay before her filled her with unbounded anticipation.
She fidgeted from one leg to another while she waited. For Tilly
was in no hurry to be gone: she prinked and finicked, making lavish
use, after the little swing-glass at school, of the big mirror with
its movable wings; she examined her teeth, pulled down her under-lids,
combed her eyebrows, twisted her neck this way and that, in an
endeavour to view her person from every angle; she took liberties with
perfumes and brushes: was, in short, blind and deaf to all but the
perfecting of herselfthis rather mannish little self, which, despite
a most womanly plumpness, affected a boyish bonhomie, and emphasised
the role by wearing a stiff white collar and cuffs.
Laura was glad when she at last decided that she would "do", and
when they stepped out into the radiant autumn morning.
"What a perfectly scrumptious day!"
"Yes, bully.I say, IS my waist all right?"
"Quite right. And ever so small."
"I know. I gave it an extra pull-in.Now if only we're lucky
enough to get hold of a man or two we know!"
The air, Australian air, met them like a prickling champagne: it
was incredibly crisp, pure, buoyant. From the top of the eastern hill
the spacious white street sloped speedily down, to run awhile in a
hollow, then mount again at the other end. Where the two girls turned
into it, it was quiet; but the farther they descended, the fuller it
grew fuller of idlers like themselves, out to see and to be seen.
Laura cocked her chin; she had not had a like sense of freedom
since being at school. And besides, was not a boy, a handsome boy,
waiting for her, and expecting her? This was the CLOU of the day, the
end for which everything was making; yet of such stuff was Laura that
she would have felt relieved, could the present moment have been spun
out indefinitely. The state of suspense was very pleasant to her.
As for Tilly, that young lady was swinging the shoulders atop of
the little waist in a somewhat provocative fashion, only too conscious
of the grey-blueness of her fine eyes, and the modish cut of her
clothes. She had a knack which seemed to Laura both desirable and
unattainable: that of appearing to be engrossed in glib chat with her
companion, while in reality she did not hear a word Laura said, and
ogled everyone who passed, out of the tail of her eye.
They reached the "block", that strip of Collins Street which forms
the fashionable promenade. Here the road was full of cabs and
carriages, and there was a great crowd on the pavement. The girls
progressed but slowly. People were meeting their friends, shopping,
changing books at the library, eating ices at the confectioner's,
fruit at the big fruit-shop round the corner. There were a large
number of high-collared young dudes, some Trinity and Ormond men with
coloured hatbands, ladies with little parcels dangling from their
wrists, and countless schoolgirls like themselves. Tilly grew
momentarily livelier; her big eyes pounced, hawk-like, on every face
she met, and her words to Laura became more disjointed than before.
Finally, her efforts were crowned with success: she managed, by dint
of glance and smile combined, to unhook a youth of her acquaintance
from a group at a doorway, and to attach him to herself.
In high good humour now that her aim was accomplished, she set
about the real business of the morningthat of promenading up and
down. She had no longer even a feigned interest left for Laura, and
the latter walked beside the couple a lame and unnecessary third.
Though she kept a keen watch for Bob, she could not discover him, and
her time was spent for the most part in dodging people, and in
catching up with her companions for it was difficult to walk three
abreast in the crowd.
Then she saw himand with what an unpleasant shock. If only Tilly
did not see him, too!
But no such luck was hers. "Look out, there's Bob," nudged Tilly
almost at once.
Alas! there was no question of his waiting longingly for her to
appear. He was walking with two ladies, and laughing and talking. He
raised his hat to his cousin and her friend, but did not disengage
himself, and passing them by disappeared in the throng.
Behind her hand Tilly buzzed: "One of those Woodwards is awfully
sweet on him. I bet he can't get loose."
This was a drop of comfort. But as, at the next encounter, he still
did not offer to join themcould it, indeed, be expected that he
would prefer her company to that of the pretty, grown-up girls he was
with? as he again sidled past, Tilly, who had given him one of her
most vivacious sparkles, turned and shot a glance at Laura's face.
"For pity's sake, look a little more amiable, or he won't come at
Laura felt more like crying; her sunshine was intercepted, her good
spirits were quenched; had she had her will, she would have turned
tail and gone straight back to school. She had not wanted Bob, had
never asked him to be 'gone' on her, and if she had now to fish for
him, into the bargain...However there was no help for it; the thing
had to be gone through with; and, since Tilly seemed disposed to lay
the blame of his lukewarmness at her door, Laura glued her mouth, the
next time Bob hove in sight, into a feeble smile.
Soon afterwards he came up to them. His cousin had an arch greeting
"Well, you've been doing a pretty mash, you have!" she cried, and
jogged him with her elbow. "No wonder you'd no eyes for poor us. What
price Miss Woodward's gloves this morning!"at which Bob laughed,
looked sly, and tapped his breast pocket.
It was time to be moving homewards. Tilly and her beau led the way.
"For we know you two would rather be alone. Now, Bob, not too many
Bob smiled, and let fly a wicked glance at Laura from under his
dark lashes. Dropping behind, they began to mount the hill. Now was
the moment, felt Laura, to say something very witty, or pert, or
clever; and a little pulse in her throat beat hard, as she furiously
racked her brains. Oh, for just a morsel of Tilly's loose-tonguedness!
One after the other she considered and dismissed: the pleasant
coolness of the morning, the crowded condition of the street, even the
fact of the next day being Sundayears and cheeks on fire, meanwhile,
at her own slow-wittedness. And Bob smiled. She almost hated him for
that smile. It was so assured, and withal so disturbing. Seen close at
hand his teeth were whiter, his eyes browner than she had believed.
His upper lip, too, was quite dark; and he fingered it incessantly, as
he waited for her to make the onslaught.
But he waited in vain; and when they had walked a whole
street-block in this mute fashion, it was he who broke the silence.
"Ripping girls, those Woodwards," he said, and seemed to be
remembering their charms.
"Yes, they looked very nice," said Laura in a small voice, and was
extremely conscious of her own thirteen years.
"Simply stunning! Though May's so slenderMay's the pretty
oneand has such a jolly figure . . . I believe I could span her
waist with my two hands . . . her service is just AIat tennis I
"Is it really?" said Laura wanly, and felt unutterably depressed at
the turn the conversation was taking.Her own waist was coarse, her
knowledge of tennis of the slightest.
"Ra-THER! Overhand, with a cut on itshe plays with a 14-oz.
racquet. And she has a back drive, too, by Jove, thatyou play, of
"Oh, yes." Laura spoke up manfully; but prayed that he would not
press his inquiries further. At this juncture his attention was
diverted by the passing of a fine tandem; and as soon as he brought it
back to her again, she said: 'You're at Trinity, aren't you?'which
was finesse; for she knew he wasn't.
"Well, yes . . . all but," answered Bob well pleased. "I start in
There was another pause; then she blurted out: "We church girls
always wear Trinity colours at the boat-race."
She hoped from her heart, this might lead him to say that he would
look out for her there; but he did nothing of the kind. His answer was
to the effect that this year they jolly well expected to knock Ormond
into a cocked hat.
Lunch threatened to be formidable. To begin with, Laura, whose
natural, easy frankness had by this time all but been successfully
educated out of her, Laura was never shyer with strangers than at a
meal, where every word you said could be listened to by a tableful of
people. Then, too, her vis-a-vis was a small sharp child of five or
six, called Thumbby, or Thumbkin, who only removed her bead-like eyes
from Laura's face to be saucy to her father. And, what was worse, the
Uncle turned out to be a type that struck instant terror into Laura: a
full-fledged male tease.He was, besides, very hairy of face, and
No sooner had he drawn in his chair to the table than he began.
Lifting his head and thrusting out his chin, he sniffed the air in all
directions with a moving nosejust as a cat does. Everyone looked at
him in surprise. Tilly, who sat next him, went pink.
"What is it, dear?" his wife at last inquired in a gentle voice;
for it was evident that he was not going to stop till asked why he did
"Mos' extraor'nary smell!" he replied. "Mother, d'you know, I could
take my appledavy some one has been using my scent."
"Silly pa!" said the little girl.
Ramming his knuckles into his eyes, he pretended to cry at his
daughter's rebuke; then bore down on Laura.
"D'you know, Miss Ra . . . Ra . . . Rambotham"he made as if he
could not get her name out"d'you know that I'm a great man for
scent? Fact. I take a bath in it every morning."
Laura smiled uncertainly, fixed always by the child.
"Fact, I assure you. Over the tummy, up to the chin.Now, who's
been at it? For it's my opinion I shan't have enough left to shampoo
my eyebrows.Bob, is it you?"
"Don't be an ass, pater."
"Cut me some bread, Bob, please," said Tilly hastily.
"Mos' extraor'nary thing!" persisted the Uncle. "Orgood Lord,
mother, can it be my monthly attack of D.T.'s beginning already?
They're not due, you know, till next week, Monday, five o'clock."
"Dear, DON'T be so silly. Besides it's my scent, not yours. And
anyone is welcome to it."
"Well, well, let's call in the cats!By the way, Miss Ra . . . Ra
. . . Rambotham, are you aware that this son of mine is a professed
Laura and Bob went different shades of crimson.
"Why has she got so red?" the child asked her mother, in an audible
"Oh, CHUCK it, pater!" murmured Bob in disgust.
"Fact, I assure you. Put not your trust in Robert! He's always on
with the new love before he's off with the old. You ask him whose
glove he's still cherishing in the pocket next his heart."
Bob pushed his plate from him and, for a moment, seemed about to
leave the table. Laura could not lift her eyes. Tilly chewed in angry
Here, however, the child made a diversion.
"You're a lady-kilda yourself, pa."
"Me, Thumbkin?Mother, d'you hear that?Then it's the whiskers,
Thumbby. Ladies love whiskersor a fine drooping moustache, like my
son Bob's." He sang: "'Oh, oh, the ladies loved him so!'"
"Tom, dear, DO be quiet."
"Tom, Tom, the piper's son!" chirped Thumbby.
"Well, well, let's call in the cats!"which appeared to be his way
of changing the subject.
It seemed, after this, as though the remainder of lunch might pass
off without further hitch. Then however and all of a sudden, while he
was peeling an apple, this dreadful man said, as though to himself:
"Ra . . . Ra . . . Rambotham. Now where have I heard that name?"
"Wa . . . Wa . . . Wamboffam!" mocked Thumbkin.
"Monkey, if you're so sharp you'll cut yourself!Young lady, do
you happen to come from Warrenega?" he asked Laura, when Thumbkin's
excited chirrup of: "I'll cut YOU, pa, into little bits!" had died
Ready to sink through the floor, Laura replied that she did.
"Then I've the pleasure of knowing your mother.Tall dark woman,
Under the table, Laura locked the palms of her hands and stemmed
her feet against the floor. Was here, now, before them all, and Bob in
particular, the shameful secret of the embroidery to come to light?
She could hardly force her lips to frame an answer.
Her confusion was too patent to be overlooked. Above her lowered
head, signs passed between husband and wife, and soon afterwards the
family rose from the table.
But Tilly was so obviously sulky that the tense could not let her
escape him thus.
He cried: "For God's sake, Tilly, stand still! What on earth have
you got on your back?"
Tilly came from up-country and her thoughts leapt fearfully to
scorpions and tarantulas. Affrighted, she tried to peer over her
shoulder, and gave a preliminary shriek. "Gracious!whatever is it?"
"Hold on!" He approached her with the tongs; the next moment to
ejaculate: "Begad, it's not a growth, it's a bustle!" and as he spoke
he tweaked the place where a bustle used to be worn.
Even Bob had to join in the ensuing boohoo, which went on and on
till Laura thought the Uncle would fall down in a fit. Then for the
third time he invited those present to join him in summoning the cats,
murmured something about "humping his bluey", and went out into the
hall, where they heard him swinging Thumbby "round the world".
It was all the Aunt could do to mollify Tilly, who was enraged to
the point of tears. "I've never worn a bustle in my life! Uncle's a
perfect FOOL! I've never met such a fool as he is!"
Still boiling, she disappeared to nurse her ruffled temper in
private; and she remained absent from the room for over half an hour.
During this time Laura and Bob were alone together. But even less than
before came of their intercourse: Bob, still smarting from his
father's banter, was inclined to be stand-offish, as though afraid
Laura might take liberties with him after having been made to look so
small; Laura, rendered thoroughly unsure to begin with, by the jocular
tone of the luncheon-table, had not recovered from the shock of
hearing her parentage so bluffly disclosed. And since, at this time,
her idea of the art of conversation was to make jerky little remarks
which led nowhere, or to put still more jerky questions, Bob was soon
stifling yawns, and not with the best success. He infected Laura; and
there the two of them sat, doing their best to appear unconscious of
the terrible spasms which, every few seconds, distorted their faces.
At last Bob could stand it no longer and bolted from the room.
Laura was alone, and seemed to be forgotten The minutes ticked by,
and no one cameor no one but a little grey kitten, which arrived as
if from nowhere, with a hop and a skip. She coaxed the creature to her
lap, where it joined head to tail and went to sleep. And there she
sat, in the gloomy, overfilled drawing-room, and stroked the kitten,
which neither cracked stupid jokes nor required her to strain her wits
to make conversation.
When at length Tilly came back, she expressed a rather acid
surprise at Bob's absence, and went to look for him; Laura heard them
whispering and laughing in the passage. On their return to the
drawing-room it had been decided that the three of them should go for
a walk. As the sky was overcast and the girls had no umbrellas, Bob
carried a big one belonging to the Uncle. Tilly called this a "family
umbrella"; and the jokes that were extracted from the pair of words
lasted the walkers on the whole of their outward way; lasted so long
that Laura, who was speedily finished with her contribution, grew
quite stupefied with listening to the other two.
Collins Street was now as empty as a bush road. The young people
went into Bourke Street, where, for want of something better to do,
they entered the Eastern Market and strolled about inside. The noise
that rose from the livestock, on ground floor and upper storey, was
ear-splitting: pigs grunted; cocks crowed, turkeys gobbled, parrots
shrieked; while rough human voices echoed and re-echoed under the
lofty roof. There was a smell, too, an extraordinary smell, composed
of all the individual smells of all these living things: of fruit and
vegetables, fresh and decayed; of flowers, and butter, and grain; of
meat, and fish, and strong cheeses; of sawdust sprinkled with water,
and freshly wet pavementsone great complicated smell, the piquancy
of which made Laura sniff like a spaniel. But after a very few minutes
Tilly, whose temper was still short, called it a "vile stink" and
clapped her handkerchief to her nose, and so they hurried out, past
many enticing little side booths hidden in dark corners on the ground
floor, such as a woman without legs, a double-headed calf, and the
Outside it had begun to rain; they turned into a Waxworks
Exhibition. This was a poor show, and they were merely killing time
when the announcement caught their eye that a certain room was open to
"Married People Only". The quips and jokes this gave rise to again
were as unending as those about the umbrella; and Laura grew so tired
of them, and of pretending to find them funny, that her temper also
began to give way; and she eased her feelings by making the nippy
mental note on her companions, that jokes were evidently "in the
When they emerged, it was time for the girls to return to school.
They took a hansom, Bob accompanying them. As they drove, Laura
sitting sandwiched between the other two, it came over her with a rush
what a miserable failure the day had been. A minute before, her
spirits had given a faint flicker, for Bob had laid his arm along the
back of the seat. Then she saw that he had done this just to pull at
the little curls that grew on Tilly's neck. She was glad when the cab
drew up, when Tilly ostentatiously took the fat half-crown from her
purse, and Bob left them at the gate with a: "Well, so long, ladies!"
The boarders spent the evening in sewing garments for charity.
Laura had been at work for weeks on a coarse, red flannel petticoat,
and as a rule was under constant reprimand for her idleness. On this
night, having separated herself from Tilly, she sat down beside a girl
with a very long plait of hair and small, narrow eyes, who went by the
name of "Chinky". Chinky was always making up to her, and could be
relied on to cover her silence. Laura sewed away, with bent head and
pursed lips, and was so engrossed that the sole rebuke she incurred
had to do with her diligence.
Miss Chapman exclaimed in horror at her stiffly outstretched arm.
"How CAN you be so vulgar, Laura? To sew with a thread as long as
For days Laura avoided even thinking of this unlucky visit.
Privately, she informed herself that Tilly's wealthy relations were a
"rude, stupid lot"; and, stuffing her fingers in her ears, memorised
pages with a dispatch that deadened thought.
When, however, the first smart had passed and she was able to go
back on what had happened, a soreness at her own failure was the
abiding result: and this, though Tilly mercifully spared her the "dull
as ditchwater", that was Bob's final verdict.But the fact that the
invitation was not repeated told Laura enough.
Her hurt was not relieved by the knowledge that she had done
nothing to deserve it. For she had never asked for Bob's notice or
admiration, had never thought of him but as a handsome cousin of
Tilly's who sat in a distant pew at St Stephen's-on-the-Hill; and the
circumstance that, because he had singled her out approvingly, she was
expected to worm herself into his favour, seemed to her of a monstrous
injustice. But, all the same, had she possessed the power to captivate
him, she would cheerfully have put her pride in her pocket. For,
having once seen him close at hand, she knew how desirable he was.
Having been the object of glances from those liquid eyes, of smiles
from those blanched-almond teeth, she found it hard to dismiss them
from her mind. How the other girls would have boasted of it, had they
been chosen by such a one as Bob!they who, for the most part, were
satisfied with blotchy-faced, red-handed youths, whose lean wrists
dangled from their retreating sleeves. But then, too, they would have
known how to keep him. Oh, those lucky other girls!
"I say, Chinky, what do you do when a boy's gone on you?"
She would have shrunk from putting an open question of this kind to
her intimates; but Chinky, could be trusted. For she garnered the few
words Laura vouchsafed her, as gratefully as Lazarus his crumbs; and a
mark of confidence, such as this, would sustain her for days.
But she had no information to give.
"Me? . . . why, nothing. Boys are dirty, horrid, conceited
In her heart Laura was at one with this judgment; but it was not to
"Yes, but s'pose one was awfully sweet on you and you rather liked
"Catch me! If one came bothering round me, I'd do this" and she set
her ten outstretched fingers to her nose and waggled them.
And yet Chinky was rather pretty, in her way.
Maria Morell, cautiously tapped, threw back her head and roared
"Bless its little heart! Does it want to know?say, Laura, who's
"No one," answered Laura stoutly. "I only asked. For I guess you
"By gosh, you bet I do!" cried Maria, italicising the words in her
vehemence. "Well, look here, Kiddy, if a chap's sweet on me I let him
be sweet, my dear, and that's alltill he's run to barley-sugar.
What I don't let him savvy is, whether I care a twopenny damn for him.
Soon as you do that, it's all up. Just let him hang round, and throw
sheep's-eyes, till he's as soft as a jellyfish, and when he's right
down ripe, roaring mad, go off and pretend to do a mash with some one
else. That's the way to glue him, chicken."
"But you don't have anything of him that way," objected Laura.
Maria laughed herself red in the face. "What'n earth more d'you
want? Why, he'll pester you with letters, world without end, and look
as black as your shoe if you so much as wink at another boy. As for a
kiss, if he gets a chance of one he'll take it you can bet your bottom
dollar on that."
"But you never get to know him!"
"Oh, hang it, Laura, but you ARE rich! What d'you think one has a
boy for, I'd like to know. To parlezvous about old Shepherd's sermons?
You loony, it's only for getting lollies, and letters, and the whole
dashed fun of the thing. If you go about too much with one, you soon
have to fake an interest in his rotten old affairs. Or else just hold
your tongue and let him blow. And that's dull work. D'you think it
ever comes up a fellow's back to talk to you about your new Sunday
hat! If it does, you can teach your grandmother to suck eggs."
But, despite this wisdom, Laura could not determine how Maria would
have acted had she stood in her shoes.
And then, too, the elder girl had said nothing about another side
of the question, had not touched on the sighs and simpers, the winged
glances, and drooped, provocative lidsall the thousand and one
fooleries, in short, which Laura saw her and others employ. There was
a regular machinery of invitation and encouragement to be set in
motion: for, before it was safe to ignore a wooer and let him dangle,
as Maria advised, you had first to make quite sure he wished to nibble
your bait. And it was just in this elementary science that Laura
Looking round her, she saw mainly experts. To take the example
nearest at hand: there was Monsieur Legros, the French master; well,
Maria could twist him round her little finger. She only needed to pout
her thick, red lips, or to give a coquettish twist to her plump
figure, or to ogle him with her fine, bold, blue eyes, and the
difficult questions in the lesson were sure to pass her by.Once she
had even got ten extra marks added to an examination paper, in this
easy fashion. Whereas, did she, Laura, try to imitate Maria, venture
to pout or to smirk, it was ten to one she would be rebuked for
impertinence. No, she got on best with the women-teachers, to whom red
lips and a full bust meant nothing; while the most elderly masters
could not be relied on to be wholly impartial, where a pair of
magnificent eyes was concerned. Even Mr. Strachey, the unapproachable,
had been known, on running full tilt into a pretty girl's arms in an
unlit passage, to be laughingly confused.
Laura was not, of course, the sole outsider in these things;
sprinkled through the College were various others, older, too, than
she, who by reason of demureness of temperament, or immersion in their
work, stood aloof. But they were lost in the majority, and, as it
chanced, none of them belonged to Laura's circle. Except Chinkyand
Chinky did not count. So, half-fascinated, half-repelled, Laura set to
studying her friends with renewed zeal. She could not help admiring
their proficiency in the art of pleasing, even though she felt a
little abashed by the open pride they took in their growing charms.
There was Bertha, for instance, Bertha who had one of the nicest minds
of them all; and yet how frankly gratified she was, by the visible
rounding of her arms and the curving of her bust. She spoke of it to
Laura with a kind of awe; and her voice seemed to give hints of a
coming mystery. Tilly, on the other hand, lived to reduce her
waist-measure: she was always sucking at lemons, and she put up with
the pains of indigestion as well as a red tip to her nose; for no
success in school meant as much to Tilly as the fact that she had
managed to compress herself a further quarter of an inch, no praise on
the part of her teachers equalled the compliments this earned her from
dressmaker and tailor. As for Inez, who had not only a pretty face but
was graceful and slender-limbed as a greyhound, Inez no longer needed
to worry over artificial charms, or to dwell self-consciously on her
development; serious admirers were not lacking, and with one of these,
a young man some eight years older than herself, she had had for the
past three months a sort of understanding. For her, as for so many
others, the time she had still to spend at school was as purgatory
before paradise. To top all, one of the day-scholars in Laura's class
was actually engaged to be married; and in no boy-and-girl fashion,
but to a doctor who lived and practised in Emerald Hill: he might
sometimes be seen, from a peephole under the stairs, waiting to escort
her home from school. This fiancee was looked up to by the class with
tremendous reverence, as one set apart, oiled and anointed. You really
could not treat her as a comrade her, who had reached the goal. For
this WAS the goal; and the thoughts of all were fixed, with an
intentness that varied only in degree, on the great consummation
which, as planned in these young minds, should come to pass without
fail directly the college-doors closed behind them.And here again
Laura was a heretic. For she could not contemplate the future that was
to be hers when she had finished her education, but with a feeling of
awe: it was still so distant as to be one dense blue haze; it was so
vast, that thinking of it took your breath away: there was room in it
for the most wonderful miracles that had ever happened; it might
contain anythingfrom golden slippers to a Jacob's ladder, by means
of which you would scale the skies; and with these marvellous
perhapses awaiting you, it was impossible to limit your hopes to one
single event, which, though it saved you from derision, would put an
end, for ever, to all possible, exciting contingencies.
These thoughts came and went. In the meantime, despite her ape-like
study of her companions, she remained where the other sex was
concerned a disheartening failure. A further incident drove this home
One Saturday afternoon, those boarders who had not been invited out
were taken to see a cricket-match. They were a mere handful, eight or
nine at most, and Miss Snodgrass alone was in charge. All her friends
[P.154] being away that day, Laura had to bring up the rear with the
governess and one of the little girls. Though their walk led them
through pleasant parks, she was glad when it was over; for she did not
enjoy Miss Snodgrass's company. She was no match for this crisply
sarcastic governess, and had to be the whole time on her guard. For
Miss Snodgrass was not only a great talker, but had also a very
inquiring mind, and seemed always trying to ferret out just those
things you did not care to tellsuch as the size of your home, or the
social position you occupied in the township where you lived.
Arrived at the cricket ground, they climbed the Grand Stand and sat
down in one of the back rows, to the rear of the other spectators.
Before them sloped a steep bank of hats gaily-flowered and
ribbon-banded hats of light and dark shoulders, of alert, boyish
profiles and pale, pretty facesa representative gathering of young
Australia, bathed in the brilliant March light.
Laura's seat was between her two companions, and it was here the
malheur occurred. During an interval in the game, one of the girls
asked the governess's leave to speak to her cousin; and thereupon a
shy lad was the target for twenty eyes. He was accompanied by a
friend, who, in waiting, sat down just behind Laura. This boy was
addressed by Miss Snodgrass; but he answered awkwardly, and after a
pause, Laura felt herself nudged.
"You can speak to him, Laura," whispered Miss Snodgrass.She
evidently thought Laura waited only for permission, to burst in.
Laura had already fancied that the boy looked at her with
interest. This was not improbable; for she had her best hat on, which
made her eyes seem very dark"like sloes," Chinky said, though
neither of them had any clear idea what a sloe was.
Still, a prompting to speech invariably tied her tongue. She half
turned, and stole an uneasy peep at the lad. He might be a year older
than herself; he had a frank, sunburnt face, blue eyes, and almost
white flaxen hair. She took heart of grace.
"I s'pose you often come here?" she ventured at last.
"You bet!" said the boy; but kept his eyes where they were on the
"Cricket's a lovely game . . . don't you think so?"
Now he looked at her; but doubtfully, from the height of his
fourteen male years; and did not reply.
"Do you play?"
This was a false move, she felt it at once. Her question seemed to
offend him. "Should rather think I did!" he answered with a haughty
Weakly she hastened to retract her words. "Oh, I meant muchif you
"Comes to the same thing I guess," said the boyhe had not yet
reached the age of obligatory politeness.
"It must be splendid"here she faltered"fun."
But the boy's thoughts had wandered: he was making signs to a
friend down in the front of the Stand.Miss Snodgrass seemed to
repress a smile.
Here, however, the little girl at Laura's side chimed in. "I think
cricket's awful rot," she announced, in a cheepy voice.
Now what was it, Laura asked herself, in these words, or in the
tone in which they were said, that at once riveted the boy's
attention. For he laughed quite briskly as he asked; "What's a kid
like you know about it?"
"Jus' as much as I want to. An' my sister says so 's well."
"Get along with you! Who's your sister?"
"Ooh!wouldn't you like to know? You've never seen her in Scots'
Church on Sundays I s'poseoh, no!"
"By jingo!I should say I have. An' you, too. You're the little
sister of that daisy with the simply ripping hair."
The little girl actually made a grimace at him, screwing up her
nose. "Yes, you can be civil now, can't you?"
"My aunt, but she's a tip-topperyour sister!"
"You go to Scots' Church then, do you?" hazarded Laura, in an
attempt to re-enter the conversation.
"Think I could have seen her if I didn't?" retorted the boy, in the
tone of: "What a fool question!" He also seemed to have been on the
point of adding: "Goose," or "Sillybones."
The little girl giggled. "She's church"by which she meant
"Yes, but I don't care a bit which I go to," Laura hastened to
explain, fearful lest she should be accounted a snob by this
dissenter. The boy, however, was so faintly interested in her
theological wobblings that, even as she spoke, he had risen from his
seat; and the next moment without another word he went away.This
time Miss Snodgrass laughed outright.
Laura stared, with blurred eyes, at the white-clad forms that
began to dot the green again. Her lids smarted. She did not dare to
put up her fingers to squeeze the gathering tears away, and just as
she was wondering what she should do if one was inconsiderate enough
to roll down her cheek, she heard a voice behind her.
"I say, Laura . . . Laura!"and there was Chinky, in her best
"I'm sitting with my aunt just a few rows down; but I couldn't make
you look. Can I come in next to you for a minute?"
"If you like," said Laura and, because she had to sniff a little,
very coldly: Chinky had no doubt also been a witness of her failure.
The girl squeezed past and shared her seat. "I don't take up much
Laura feigned to be engrossed in the game. But presently she felt
her bare wrist touched, and Chinky said in her ear: "What pretty hands
you've got, Laura!"
She buried them in her dress, at this. She found it in the worst
possible taste of Chinky to try to console her.
"Wouldn't you like to wear a ring on one of them?"
"No, thanks," said Laura, in the same repellent way.
"Truly? I'd love to give you one."
"You? Where would YOU get it?"
"Would you wear it, if I did?"
"Let me see it first," was Laura's graceless reply, as she returned
to her stony contemplation of the great sunlit expanse.
She was sure Miss Snodgrass, on getting home, would laugh with the
other governesses over what had occurredif not with some of the
girls. The story would leak out and come to Tilly's ears; and Tilly
would despise her more than she did already. So would all the rest.
She was branded, as it was, for not having a single string to her bow.
Now, it had become plain to her that she could never hope for one;
for, when it came to holding a boy's attention for five brief minutes,
she could be put in the shade by a child of eight years old.
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 necessaryand 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-ribbonthough, 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 churchand 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 worshipsuch
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
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.
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 youoh, my aunt!"
"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 everythingevery 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
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
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 DOLOREMisn't that the way
of it? And then . . . let me see! It's so long since I went to school,
"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
"With MUTTON, Robby dear?" ventured Mrs. Shepherd, with the utmost
"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
"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
"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
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 themselvesas Mother would have doneinstead 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 Isabellaas she
afterwards explained to Lauranever 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 forgetfulnessat 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
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
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
"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
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 voiceit went on and onsounded, 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
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-boneno
cooking was donewas 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 hisand 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 handsince
any other way was out of the questionLaura 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
"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
troublenot 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.
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
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 herto the last pip.
Laura was in a pretty pickle. Did she tell the plain truth, state
the pedestrian factsand 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
smileand 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 promisedthe sneak!"
"I'm not a sneak. I AM going to tell. But you're all in such a
"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 mostoh, I don't know how to say
it, girlsthe 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, butGirls, 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 saidbut I don't like to tell you what
"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 marriedbut 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
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 hera 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.
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
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.
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 throveeven 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
"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 knowsI 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 themfor she had read PAMELA with heartfelt
interest during the holidaysand 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
"What I say. M. Pidwall's asked to the you-know-who's next
"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. herselfGosh, 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 schoolwhere 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
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 peoplethere
were plenty suchbefore 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 himby reputation at
least. And it's quite enough, thank you."
Now Laura had understood that Uncle Tomhe needed but a pair of
gold earrings to pose as the model for a Spanish Grandeethat 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
She sat and meditated these things, in spiritless fashion. She
would have to confess to her fabricationsthat 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
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
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 fictionjust 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
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 starsmyriads 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. StracheyMother. 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
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 emergeand 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 seewhat was her name
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 LauraLaura 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 smackedthat'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 youyou!"
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
"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.
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
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 voicestalking 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 dismissedprivately because she was a
boarderfrom 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
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 goodbrighten 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
lastat 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 Bayin 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
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
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
"Hullo, Pin.Oh, I say, let me get out first."
"And pull up your bonnet, honey. D'you want to be after gettin'
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 herselfthat 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 teawith condensed milk in it,
for the cow had gone dry, and no milkman came out so farwhen tea was
overand 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 seaas
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, downhillwith a trip and a flounder that
sent the sand man-highand 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 wellthe 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
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
It was Pin, poor, fat, little well-meaning Pin, who did the
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 Turkfashion 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 werewhy, 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
"Old Anne? Well, I just wonder what next! It's none of her dashed
"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 atand 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 knowquite 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
"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
"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
"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 gollyyes, 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 sameold 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
makeif she were not already glued firm to her silly notionswould
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 sheand not she alonewhat
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 temperbad 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 matteredwho 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
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.
WIE SOLLTE EIN STROM NICHT ENDLICH DEN WEG ZUM MEERE FINDEN!
Sea, sun and air did their healing work, as did also the long, idle
days in the home garden; and Laura drank in health and vigour with
She had need of it all when, the golden holidays over, she returned
to school; for the half-year that broke was, in many ways, the most
trying she had yet had to face. True, her dupes' first virulence had
waned they no longer lashed her openly with their tonguesbut the
quiet, covert insults, that were now the rule, were every bit as hard
to bear; and before a week had passed Laura was telling herself that,
had she been a Christian Martyr, she would have preferred to be torn
asunder with one jerk, rather than submit to the thumbkin. Not an eye
but looked askance at her; on every face was painted a reminder of her
moral inferiority; and even newcomers among the boarders soon learnt,
without always knowing what her crime had been, that Laura Rambotham
was "not the thing".
This system of slight and disparagement was similar to what she had
had to endure in her first school term; but its effect upon her was
different. Then, in her raw timidity, she had bowed her head beneath
it; now, she could not be so lamb-like. In thought, she never ceased
to lay half the blame of what had happened on her companions'
shoulders; and she was embittered by their injustice in making her
alone responsible, when all she had done was to yield to their craving
for romance. She became a rebel, wrapping herself round in the cloak
of bitterness which the outcasts of fortune wear, feeding on her hate
of those within the pale. Very well then, she said to herself: if her
fellows chose to shut her out like this, she would stop outside, and
never see eye to eye with them again. And it gave her an unholy
pleasure to mock, in secret, at all they set store by.
Her outward behaviour for many a day was, none the less, that of a
footlicker; and by no sign did she indicate what she really wasa
very unhappy girl. Like most rebels of her sex, she ardently desired
to re-enter the fold of law and order; and it was to this end she
worked, although, wherever she approached it, the place seemed to
bristle with spears. But she did not let herself be daunted; she
pocketed injuries, pretended not to hear them, played the spaniel to
people she despised; and it soon became open talk, that no matter what
you said to her, Laura Rambotham would not take offence. You could
also rely on her to do a dirty job for you.A horrid little toady was
the verdict; especially of those who had no objection to be toadied
Torn thus, between mutinous sentiments on the one hand, a longing
for restitution on the other, Laura grew very slya regular little
tactician. In these days, she was for ever considering what she ought
to do, what to leave undone. She learnt to weigh her words before
uttering them, instead of blurting out her thoughts in the childish
fashion that had exposed her to ridicule; she learnt, too, at last, to
keep her real opinions to herself, and to make those she expressed
tally with her hearers'. And she was quick to discover that this was a
short-cut towards regaining her lost place: to conceal what she truly
feltparticularly if her feelings ran counter to those of the
majority. For, the longer she was at school, the more insistently the
truth was driven home to her, that the majority is always in the
In the shifting of classes that took place at the year's end, she
left the three chief witnesses of her disgraceTilly, Maria,
Katebehind her. She was again among a new set of girls. But this
little piece of luck was outweighed by the fact that, shortly after
Christmas, her room was changed for the one occupied by M. P., and M.
P.'s best friend.
So far, Laura had hardly dared to lift her eyes in Mary Pidwall's
presence. For Mary knew not only the sum of her lies, but also
heldor so Laura believedthat she came of a thoroughly degenerate
family; thanks to Uncle Tom. And the early weeks spent at close
quarters with her bore out these fears. The looks both M. P. and her
friend bent on Laura said as plainly as words: if we are forced to
tolerate this obnoxious little insect about us, we can at least show
it just what a horrid little beast it is.M. P. in particular was
adamant, unrelenting; Laura quailed at the sound of her step.
And yet she soon felt, rightly enough, it was just in the winning
over of this stern, rigid nature that her hope of salvation lay. If
she could once get M. P. on her side, all might yet be well again.
So she began to lay siege to Mary's good-willto Mary, who took
none but the barest notice of her, even in the bedroom ignoring her
as if she did not exist, and giving the necessary orders, for she was
the eldest of the three, in tones of ice. But it needed a great
wariness on Laura's part. And, in the beginning, she made a mistake.
She was a toadeater here, too, seeking to curry favour with M. P. as
with the rest, by fawning on her, in a way for which she could
afterwards have hit herself. For it did not answer; M. P. had only a
double disdain for the cringer, knowing nothing herself of the
pitfalls that lie in wait for a temperament like Laura's. Mary's
friendship was extended to none but those who had a lofty moral
standard; and truthfulness and honesty were naturally the head virtues
on her list. Laura was sharp enough to see that, if she wished to gain
ground with M. P. she must make a radical change in her tactics. It
was not enough, where Mary was in question, to play the echo. Did she,
Laura, state an opinion, she must say what she meant, above all, mean
what she said, and stick manfully to it, instead of, at the least
hint, being ready to fly over to Mary's point of view: always though,
of course, with the disquieting proviso in the background that her own
opinions were such as she ought to have, and not heretical leanings
that shocked and dismayed. In which case, there was nothing for it but
to go on being mum.
She ventured, moreover, little unobtrusive services, to which she
thought neither of the girls could take exception; making their beds
for them in the morning, and staying up last at night to put out the
light. And once she overheard the friend, who was called Cupid, say:
"You know, M. P., she's not such a bad little stick after all."But
then Cupid was easy-going, and inclined to be original.
May answered: "She's no doubt beginning to see she can't lie to US.
But she's a very double-faced child."
It was also with an eye to M. P.'s approval that Laura threw
herself, with renewed zeal, upon her work. And in those classes that
called only for the exercise of her memory, she soon sat high. The
reason why she could not mount still higher was that M. P. occupied
the top place, and was not to be moved, even had Laura dreamed of
And at length, after three months of unremitting exertion in the
course of which, because she had little peeps of what looked like
success, the rebel in her went to sleep againat length Laura had her
reward. One Sunday morning M. P. asked her to be her partner on the
walk to church. This was as if a great poet should bend from his
throne to take a younger brother-singer by the hand; and, in her
headlong fashion, Laura all but fell at the elder girl's feet. From
this day forward she out-heroded Herod, in her efforts to make of
herself exactly what Mary thought she ought to be.
Deep within her, none the less, there lurked a feeling which
sometimes made as if to raise its head: a feeling that she did not
really like M. P., or admire her, or respect her; one which, had it
come quite to life, would have kicked against Mary's authority, been
contemptuous of her unimaginative way of seeing and saying things, on
the alert to remind its owner that HER way, too, had a right to
existence. But is was not strong enough to make itself heard, or
rather Laura refused to hear it, and turned a deaf ear whenever it
tried to hint at its presence. For Mr. Worldly-Wiseman was her model
Whereas Cupidthere was something in Cupid that was congenial to
her. A plain girl, with irregular featureshow she had come by her
nickname no one knewCupid was three years older than Laura, and one
of the few in the school who loved reading for its own sake. In a
manner, she was cleverer even than M. P.; but it was not a
school-booky way, and hence was not thought much of. However, Laura
felt drawn to her at onceeven though Cupid treated her as quite a
little girland they sometimes got as far as talking of books they
had read. From this whiff of her, Laura was sure that Cupid would have
had more understanding than M. P. for her want of veracity; for Cupid
had a kind of a dare-devil mind in a hidebound character, and was
often very bold of speech.
Yet it was not Cupid's good opinion she worked for, with might and
The rate of her upward progress in Mary's estimation could be
gauged by the fact that the day came when the elder girl spoke openly
to her of her crime. At the first merciless words Laura winced hotly,
both at and for the tactlessness of which Mary was guilty. But, the
first shameful stab over, she felt the better of it; yes, it was a
relief to speak to some one of what she had borne alone for so long.
To speak of it, and even to argue round it a little; for, like most
wrongdoers, Laura soon acquired a taste for dwelling on her misdeed.
And Mary, being entirely without humour, and also unversed in dealing
with criminals, did not divine that this was just a form of
self-indulgence. It was Cupid who said: "Look here, Infant, you'll be
getting cocky about what you did, if you don't look out."
Mary would not allow that a single one of Laura's excuses held
"That's the sheerest nonsense. You don't seem to realise that you
tried to defame another person's moral character," she said, in the
assured, superior way that so impressed Laura.And this aspect of the
case, which had never once occurred to her, left Laura open-mouthed;
and yet a little doubtful: Mr. Shepherd was surely too far above her,
and too safely ensconced in holiness, to be injured by anything she
might say. But the idea gave her food for thought; and she even
tentatively developed her story along these unfamiliar lines, just to
see how it might have turned out.
One night as they were undressing for bed, Mary spoke, with the
same fireless depreciation, of the behaviour of a classmate which had
been brought to her notice that day. This girl was said to have
nefariously "copied" from another, in the course of a written
examination; and, as prefect of her class Mary was bound to track the
evil down. "I shall make them both show me their papers as soon as
they get them back; and then, if I find proof of what's being said, I
must tackle her. Just as I tackled you, Laura."
Laura flushed. "Oh, M. P., I've never 'copied' in my life!" she
"Probably not. But those things all belong in the same box: lying,
and 'copying', and stealing."
"You never WILL believe me when I say I didn't know anything about
that horrid Chinky. I only told a few cramsthat was quite
"I think it's most unfortunate, Laura, that you persist in clinging
to that idea."
Here M. P. was obliged to pause; for she had put a lock of hair
between her teeth while she did something to a plait at the back. As
soon as she could speak again, she went on: "You and your few crams!
Have you ever thought, pray, what a state of things it would be, if we
all went about telling false-hoods, and saying it didn't matter, they
were merely a few little fibs?What are you laughing at?"
"I'm not laughing. I mean . . . I just smiled. I was only thinking
how funny it would beSandy, and old Gurley, and Jim Chapman, all
going round making up things that had never happened."
"You've a queer notion of what's funny. Have you utterly no respect
for the truth?"
"Yes, of course I have. But I say"Laura, who always slipped
quickly out of her clothes, was sitting in her nightgown on the edge
of the bed, hugging her knees. "I say, M. P., if everybody told
stories, and everybody knew everybody else was telling them, then
truth wouldn't be any good any more at all, would it? If nobody used
"What rubbish you do talk!" said Mary serenely, as she shook her
toothbrush on to a towel and rubbed it dry.
"As if truth were a soap!" remarked Cupid who was already in bed,
reading NANA, and trying to smoke a cigarette under the blankets.
"You can't do away with truth, child."
"But why not? Who says so? It isn't a law."
"Don't try to be so sharp, Laura."
"I don't mean to, M. P.But what IS truth, anyhow?" asked Laura.
"The Bible is truth. Can you do away with the Bible, pray?"
"Of course not. But M. P. . . . The Bible isn't quite all truth,
you know. My father" here she broke off in some confusion,
remembering Uncle Tom.
"Well, what about him? You don't want to say, I hope, that he
didn't believe in the Bible?"
Laura drove back the: "Of course not!" that was all but over her
lips. "Well, not exactly," she said, and grew very red. "But you KNOW,
M. P., whales don't have big enough throats ever to have swallowed
"Little girls shouldn't talk about what they don't understand. The
Bible is God's Word; and God is Truth."
"You're a silly infant," threw in Cupid, coughing as she spoke.
"Truth has got to beand honesty, too. If it didn't exist, there
couldn't be any state, or laws, or any social life. It's one of the
things that makes men different from animals, and the people who boss
us know pretty well what they're about, you bet when they punish the
ruffians who don't practise it."
"Yes, now THAT I see," agreed Laura eagerly. "Then truth's a useful
thing.Oh, and that's probably what it means, too, when you say:
Honesty is the best Policy."
"I never heard such a child," said M. P., shocked. "Cupid, you
really shouldn't put such things into her head.You're down-right
"Oh, how CAN you say such a horrid thing?"
"Well, your ideas are simply dreadful. You ought to try your
hardest to improve them."
"I do, M. P., really I do."
"You don't succeed. I think there must be a screw loose in you
"Anyhow, I vote we adjourn this meeting," said Cupid, recovering
from a fresh cough and splutter. "Or old Gurley'll be coming in to put
me on a mustard plaster.As for you, Infant, if you take the advice
of a chap who has seen life, you'll keep your ideas to yourself:
they're too crude for this elegant world."
"Right you are!" said Laura cheerfully.
She was waiting by the gas-jet till M.P. had folded her last
garment, and she shuffled her bare feet one over the other as she
stood; for it was a cold night. The light out, she hopped into bed in
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-rooman 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 playand 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 unrealhow 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 readfor 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 bookthe 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 squirrelas 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
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 abouta 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
lovedno 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 bestto her thinking, at leastwas 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 wasjust 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
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
"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
"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
"Do you think that would be better?"
"I don't thinkI 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
"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
Till the chairman had pity on the embarrassed author and said:
"Look here, Laura, I think you'd better keep the rest for another
"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 wroteevery 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,
"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 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
And Laura fell asleep over a chuckle.
UND VERGESST MIR AUCH DAS GUTE LACHEN NICHT!
And then, alas! just as she rode high on this wave of approbation,
Laura suffered another of those drops in the esteem of her fellows,
another of those mental upsets, which from time to time had thrown her
young life out of gear.
True, what now came was not exactly her own fault; though it is
doubtful whether a single one of her companions would have made her
free of an excuse. They looked on, round-eyed, mouths a-stretch. Once
more, the lambkin called Laura saw fit to sunder itself from the
flock, and to cut mad capers in sight of them all. And their
delectation was as frank as their former wrath had been.As for
Laura, as usual she did not stop to think till it was too late; but
danced lightly away to her own undoing.
The affair began pleasantly enough. A member of the Literary
Society was the girl with the twinkly brown eyesshe who had gone out
of her way to give Laura a kindly word after the Shepherd debacle.
This girl, Evelyn Souttar by name, was also the only one of the
audience who had not joined in the laugh provoked by Laura's first
appearance as an author. Laura had never forgotten this; and she would
smile shyly at Evelyn when their looks met. But a dozen reasons
existed why there should have been no further rapport between them.
Although now in the fifth form, Laura had remained childish for her
age: whereas Evelyn was over eighteen, and only needed to turn up her
hair to be quite grown-up. She had matriculated the previous
Christmas, and was at present putting away a rather desultory
half-year, before leaving school for good. In addition, she was rich,
pampered and very prettythe last comrade in the world for drab
One evening, as the latter was passing through the dining-hall, she
found Evelyn, who studied where she chose, disconsolately running her
fingers through her gold-brown hair.
"I say, Kiddy," she called to Laura. "You know Latin, don't you?
Just give us a hand with this."Latin had not been one of Evelyn's
subjects, and she was now employing some of her spare time in studying
the language with Mr. Strachey, who taught it after a fashion of his
own. "How on earth would you say: 'We had not however rid here so
long, but should have tided it up the river'? What's the old fool mean
by that?" and she pushed an open volume of ROBINSON CRUSOE towards
Laura helped to the best of her ability.
"Thanks awfully," said Evelyn. "You're a clever chickabiddy. But
you must let me help you with something in return. What's hardest?"
"Filling baths and papering rooms," replied Laura candidly.
"Arithmetic, eh? Well, if ever you want a sum done, come to me."
But Laura was temperamentally unable to accept so vague an
invitation; and here the matter closed.
When, consequently, Miss Chapman summoned her one evening to tell
her that she was to change her present bedroom for Evelyn's, the news
came as a great shock to her.
"Change my room?" she echoed, in slow disgust. "Oh, I can't, Miss
"You've got to, Laura, if Mrs. Gurley says so," expostulated the
"But I won't! There MUST be some mistake. Just when I'm so
comfortably settled, too.Very well, then, Miss Chapman, I'll speak
to Mrs. Gurley myself."
She carried out this threat, and, for daring to question orders,
received the soundest snubbing she had had for many a long day.
That night she was very bitter about it all, and the more so
because Mary and Cupid did not, to her thinking, show sufficient
"I believe you're both glad I'm going. It's a beastly shame. Why
must I always be odd man out?"
"Look here, Infant, don't adopt that tone, please," said Cupid
magisterially. "Or you'll make us glad in earnest. People who are
always up in arms about things are the greatest bores in the world."
So the following afternoon Laura wryly took up armfuls of her
belongings, mounted a storey higher, and deposited them on the second
bed in Evelyn's room.
The elder girl had had this room to herself for over a year now,
and Laura felt sure would be chafing inwardly at her intrusion. For
days she stole mousily in and out, avoiding the hours when Evelyn was
there, getting up earlier in the morning, hurrying into bed at night
and feeling very sore indeed at the sufferance on which she supposed
herself to be.
But once Evelyn caught her and said: "Don't, for gracious' sake,
knock each time you want to come in, child. This is your room now as
well as mine."
Laura reddened, and blurted out something about knowing how she
must hate to have HER stuck in there.
Evelyn wrinkled up her forehead and laughed. "What rot! Do you
think I'd have asked to have you, if I hated it so much?"
"You asked to have me?" gasped Laura.
"Of coursedidn't you know? Old Gurley said I'd need to have some
one; so I chose you."
Laura was too dumbfounded, and too diffident, to ask the grounds of
such a choice. But the knowledge that it was so, worked an instant
change in her.
In all the three years she had been at school, she had not got
beyond a surface friendliness with any of her fellows. Even those who
had been her "chums" had wandered like shades through the groves of
her affection: rough, teasing Bertha; pretty, lazy Inez; perky Tilly,
slangily frank Maria and Kate, Mary and her moral influence, clever,
instructive Cupid: to none of them had she been drawn by any deeper
sense of affinity. And though she had come to believe, in the course
of the last, more peaceful year, that she had grown used to being what
you would call an unpopular girlone, that is, with whom no one ever
shared a confidenceyet seldom was there a child who longed more
ardently to be liked, or suffered more acutely under dislike. Apart
however from the brusque manner she had contracted, in her search
after truth, it must be admitted that Laura had but a small talent
for friendship; she did not grasp the constant give-and-take intimacy
implies; the liking of others had to be brought to her, unsought, she,
on the other hand, being free to stand back and consider whether or no
the feeling was worth returning. And friends are not made in this
But Evelyn had stoutly, and without waiting for permission, crossed
the barrier; and each new incident in her approach was pleasanter than
the last. Laura was pleased, and flattered, and round the place where
her heart was, she felt a warm and comfortable glow.
She began to return the liking, with interest, after the manner of
a lonely, bottled-up child. And everything about Evelyn made it easy
to grow fond of her. To begin with, Laura loved pretty things and
pretty people; and her new friend was out and away the prettiest girl
in the school. Then, too, she was clever, and that counted; you did
not make a friend of a fool. But her chief characteristics were a
certain sound common sense, and an inexhaustible fund of
good-naturea careless, happy, laughing sunniness, that was as
grateful to those who came into touch with it as a rare ointment is
grateful to the skin. This kindliness arose, it might be, in the first
place from indolence: it was less trouble to be merry and amiable than
to put oneself out to be selfish, which also meant standing a fire of
disagreeable words and looks; and then, too, it was really hard for
one who had never had a whim crossed to be out of humour. But,
whatever its origin, the good-nature was there, everlastingly; and
Laura soon learnt that she could cuddle in under it, and be screened
by it, as a lamb is screened by its mother's woolly coat.
Evelyn was the only person who did not either hector her, or feel
it a duty to clip and prune at her: she accepted Laura for what she
wasfor herself. Indeed, she even seemed to lay weight on Laura's
bits of opinions, which the girl had grown so chary of offering; and,
under the sunshine of this treatment, Laura shot up and flowered like
a spring bulb. She began to speak out her thoughts again; she
unbosomed herself of dark little secrets; and finally did what she
would never have believed possible: sitting one night in her
nightgown, on the edge of Evelyn's bed, she made a full confession of
the pickle she had got herself into, over her visit to the Shepherds.
To her astonishment, Evelyn, who was already in bed, laughed till
the tears ran down her cheeks. At Laura's solemn-faced incredulity she
"I say, Kiddy, but that WAS rich. To think a chicken of your size
sold them like that. It's the best joke I've heard for an age. Tell us
again from the beginning."
Nothing loath Laura started in afresh, and in this, the second
telling, embroidered the edge of her tale with a few fancy stitches,
in a way she had not ventured on for months past; so that Evelyn was
more tickled than before.
"No wonder they were mad about being had like that. You little
She was equally amused by Laura's description of the miserable week
she had spent, trying to make up her mind to confess.
"You ridiculous sprat! Why didn't you come to me? We'd have let
them down with a good old bump."
But Laura could not so easily forget the humiliations she had been
forced to suffer, and delicately hinted to her friend at M. P.'s moral
strictures. With her refreshing laugh, Evelyn brushed these aside as
"Tommyrot! Never mind that old jumble-sale of all the virtues. It
was jolly clever of a mite like you to bamboozle them as you didtake
my word for that."
This jocose way of treating the matter seemed to put it in an
entirely new light; Laura could even smile at it herself. In the days
that followed, she learned, indeed, to laugh over it with Evelyn, and
to share the latter's view that she had been superior in wit to those
she had befooled. This meant a great and healthy gain in
self-assurance for Laura. It also led to her laying more and more
weight on what her friend said. For it was not as if Evelyn had a low
moral standard; far from that: she was honest and straightforward, too
proud, or, it might be, too lazy to tell a lie herselfwith all the
complications lying involvedand Laura never heard her say a harder
thing of anyone than what she had just said about Mary Pidwall.
The two talked late into every night after this, Laura perched,
monkey-fashion, on the side of her friend's bed. Evelyn had all the
accumulated wisdom of eighteen, and was able to clear her young
companion up on many points about which Laura had so far been in the
dark. But when, in time, she came to relate the mortifications she
had sufferedand was still called on to sufferat the hands of the
other sex, Evelyn pooh-poohed the subject.
"Time enough in a couple of years for that. Don't bother your head
about it in the meantime."
"I don't nownot a bit. I only wanted to know why. Sometimes,
Evvy, do you know, they liked to talk to quite little kids of seven
and eight better than me."
"Perhaps you talked too much yourselfand about yourself?"
"I don't think I did. And if you don't talk something, they yawn
and go away."
"You've got to let them do the lion's share, child. Just you sit
still, and listen, and pretend you like iteven though you're bored
"And they never need to pretend anything, I suppose? No, I think
they're horrid. You don't like them either, Evvy, do you? . . . any
more than I do?"
"Say what you think they are," persisted Laura and waggled the
other's arm, to make her speak.
"Mostly fools," said Evelyn, and laughed againlaughed in all the
conscious power of lovely eighteen.
Overjoyed at this oneness of mind, Laura threw her arms round her
friend's neck and kissed her. "You dear!" she said.
And yet, a short time afterwards, it was on this very head that she
had to bear the shock of a rude awakening.
Evelyn's people came to Melbourne that year from the Riverina.
Evelyn was allowed considerable freedom, and one night, by special
permit, Laura also accepted an invitation to dinner and the theatre.
The two girls drove to a hotel, where they found Evelyn's mother,
elegant but a little stern, and a young lady-friend. Only the four of
them were present at dinner, and the meal passed off smoothly; though
the strangeness of dining in a big hotel had the effect of tying
Laura's tongue. Another thing that abashed her was the dress of the
young lady, who sat opposite. This personshe must have been about
the ripe age of twenty-fivewas nipped into a tight little pink satin
bodice, which, at the back, exposed the whole of two very bony
shoulder-blades. But it was the front of the dress that Laura faced;
and, having imbibed strict views of propriety from Mother, she
wriggled on her chair whenever she raised her eyes.
They drove to the theatrethough it was only a few doors off. The
seats were in the dress circle. The ladies sat in the front row, the
girls, who were in high frocks, behind.
Evelyn made a face of laughing discontent. "It's so ridiculous the
mater won't let me dress."
These words gave Laura a kind of stab. "Oh Evvy, I think you're
EVER so much nicer as you are," she whispered, and squeezed her
Evelyn could not answer, for the lady in pink had leant back and
tapped her with her fan. "It doesn't look as if Jim were coming, my
Evelyn laughed, in a peculiar way. "Oh, I guess he'll turn up all
There had been some question of a person of this name at dinner;
but Laura had paid no great heed to what was said. Now, she sat up
sharply, for Evelyn exclaimed: "There he is!"
It was a man, a real mannot a boywith a drooping, fair
moustache, a single eyeglass in one eye, and a camellia-bud in his
buttonhole. For the space of a breathless second Laura connected him
with the pink satin; then he dropped into a vacant seat at Evelyn's
From this moment on, Laura's pleasure in her expensive seat, in the
pretty blue theatre and its movable roof, in the gay trickeries of the
MIKADO, slowly fizzled out. Evelyn had no more thought for her. Now
and then, it is true, she would turn in her affectionate way and ask
Laura if she were all right just as one satisfies oneself that a
little child is happybut her real attention was for the man at her
side. In the intervals, the two kept up a perpetual buzz of chat,
broken only by Evelyn's low laughs. Laura sat neglected, sat stiff and
cold with disappointment, a great bitterness welling up within her.
Before the performance had dragged to an end, she would have liked to
put her head down and cry.
"Tired?" queried Evelyn noticing her pinched look, as they drove
home in the wagonette. But the mother was there, too, so Laura said
Directly, however, the bedroom door shut behind them, she fell into
a tantrum, a fit of sullen rage, which she accentuated till Evelyn
could not but notice it.
"What's the matter with you? Didn't you enjoy yourself?"
"No, I hated it," returned Laura passionately.
Evelyn laughed a little at this, but with an air of humorous
dismay. "I must take care, then, not to ask you out again."
"I wouldn't go. Not for anything!"
"What on earth's the matter with you?"
"Nothing's the matter."
"Well, if that's all, make haste and get into bed. You're
"Go to bed yourself!"
"I am, as fast as I can. I can hardly keep my eyes open;" and
Evelyn yawned heartily.
When Laura saw that she meant it, she burst out: "You're nothing
but a story-tellerthat's what you are! You said you didn't like them
. . . that they were mostly fools . . . and then . . . then, to go on
as you did to-night." Her voice was shaky with tears.
"Oh, that's it, is it? Come now, get to bed. We'll talk about it in
"I never want to speak to you again."
"You're a silly child. But I'm really too sleepy to quarrel with
"I hate youhate you!"
"I shall survive it."
She turned out the light as she spoke, settled herself on her
pillow, and composedly went to sleep.
Laura's rage redoubled. Throwing herself on the floor she burst
into angry tears, and cried as loudly as she dared, in the hope of
keeping her companion awake. But Evelyn was a magnificent sleeper; and
remained undisturbed. So after a time Laura rose, drew up the blind,
opened the window and sat down on the sill.
It was a bitterly cold night, of milky-white moonlight; each bush
and shrub carved its jet-black shadow on paths and grass. Across
Evelyn's bed fell a great patch of light: this, or the chill air
would, it was to be trusted, wake her. Meanwhile Laura sat in her thin
nightgown and shivered, feeling the cold intensely after the great
heat of the day. She hoped with all her heart that she would be lucky
enough to get an inflammation of the lungs. Then, Evelyn would be
sorry she had been so cruel to her.
It was nearly two o'clock, and she had several times found herself
nodding, when the sleeper suddenly opened her eyes and sat bolt
upright in bed.
"Laura, good heavens, what are you doing at the window? Oh, you
wicked child, you'll catch your death of cold! Get into bed at once."
And, the culprit still maintaining an immovable silence, Evelyn
dragged her to bed by main force, and tucked her in as tightly as a
GUT UND BOSE UND LUST UND LEID UND ICH UND DU.
"Laura, you're a cipher!"
"I'm nothing of the sort!" threw back Laura indignantly. "You're
one yourself.What does she mean, Evvy?" she asked getting out of
earshot of the speaker.
"Goodness knows. Don't mind her, Poppet."
It was an oppressive evening: all day long a hot north wind had
scoured the streets, veiling things and people in clouds of gritty
dust; the sky was still like the prolonged reflection of a great fire.
The hoped-for change had not come, and the girls who strolled the
paths of the garden were white and listless. They walked in couples,
with interlaced arms; and members of the Matriculation Class carried
books with them, the present year being one of much struggling and
heartburning, and few leisured moments. Mary Pidwall and Cupid were
together under an acacia tree at the gate of the tennis-court; and it
was M. P. who had cast the above gibe at Laura. At least Laura took it
as a gibe, and scowled darkly; for she could never grow hardened to
As she and Evelyn re-passed this spot in their perambulation, a
merry little lump of a girl called Lolo, who darted her head from side
to side when she spoke, with the movements of a watchful birdthis
[P.241] Lolo called: "Evelyn, come here, I want to tell you
"Yes, what is it?" asked Evelyn, but without obeying the summons;
for she felt Laura's grip of her arm tighten.
"It's a secret. You must come over here."
"Hold on a minute, Poppet," said Evelyn persuasively, and crossed
the lawn with her characteristically lazy saunter. Minutes went by;
she did not return.
"Look at her Laura-ship!" said a saucebox to her partner. The
latter made "Hee-haw, hee-haw!" and both laughed derisively.
The object of their scorn stood at the farther end of the wire-net
fence: all five fingers of her right hand were thrust through the
holes of the netting, and held oddly and unconsciously outspread; she
stood on one leg, and with her other foot rubbed up and down behind
her ankle; mouth and brow were sullen, her black eyes bent wrathfully
on her faithless friend.
"A regular moon-calf!" said Cupid, looking up from THE TEMPEST,
which was balanced breast-high on the narrow wooden top of the fence.
"Mark my words, that child'll be plucked in her 'tests'," observed
"Serve her right, say I, for playing the billy-ass," returned
Cupid, and killed a giant mosquito with such a whack that her wrist
was stained with its blood. "Ugh, you brute! . . . gorging yourself on
me. But I'm dashed if I know how Evelyn can be bothered to have her
always dangling round."
"She's a cipher," repeated Mary, in so judicial a tone that it
closed the conversation.
Laura, not altogether blind to externals, saw that her companions
made fun of her. But at the present pass, the strength of her feelings
quite out-ran her capacity for self-control; she was unable to
disguise what she felt, and though it made her the laughing-stock of
the school. What scheme was the birdlike Lolo hatching against her?
Why did Evelyn not come back?these were the thoughts that buzzed
round inside her head, as the mosquitoes buzzed outside.And
meanwhile the familiar, foolish noises of the garden at evening
knocked at her ear. On the other side of the hedge a batch of
third-form girls were whispering, with choked laughter, a doggerel
rhyme which was hard to say, and which meant something quite different
did the tongue trip over a certain letter. Of two girls who were
playing tennis in half-hearted fashion, the one next Laura said 'Oh,
damn!' every time she missed a ball. And over the parched, dusty grass
the hot wind blew, carrying with it, from the kitchens, a smell of
cabbage, of fried onions, of greasy dish-water.
Then Evelyn returned, and a part, a part only of the cloud lifted
from Laura's brow.
"What did she want?"
"Oh, nothing much."
"Then you're not going to tell me?"
"What business has she to have secrets with you?" said Laura
furiously. And for a full round of the garden she did not open her
Her companions were not alone in eyeing this lopsided friendship
with an amused curiosity. The governesses also smiled at it, and were
surprised at Evelyn's endurance of the tyranny into which Laura's
liking had degenerated. On this particular evening, two who were
sitting on the verandah-bench came back to the subject.
"Just look at that Laura Rambotham again, will you?" said Miss
Snodgrass in her tart way. "Sulking for all she's worth. What a little
fool she is!"
"I'm sure I wonder Mrs. Gurley hasn't noticed how badly she's
working just now," said Miss Chapman; and her face wore it
best-meaning, but most uncertain smile.
"Oh, you know very well if Mrs. Gurley doesn't want to see a thing
she doesn't," retorted Miss Snodgrass. "A regular talent for going
blind, I call itespecially where Evelyn Souttar's concerned."
"Oh, I don't think you should talk like that," urged Miss Chapman
"I say what I think," asserted Miss Snodgrass. "And if I had my
way, I'd give Laura Rambotham something she wouldn't forget. That
child'll come to a bad end yet.How do you like that colour, Miss
C.?" She had a nest of cloth-patterns in her lap, and held one up as
"Oh, you shouldn't say such things," remonstrated Miss Chapman.
"There's many a true word said in jest." She settled her glasses on
her nose. "It's very nice, but I think I like a bottle-green better."
"Of course, I don't mean she'll end on the gallows, if that's what
troubles you. But she's frightfully unbalanced, and, to my mind, ought
to have some sense knocked into her before it's too late.That's a
better shade, isn't it?"
"Poor little Laura," said Miss Chapman, and drew a sigh. "Yes, I
like that. Where did you say you were going to have the dress made?"
Miss Snodgrass named, not without pride, one of the first
warehouses in the city. "I've been saving up my screw for it, and I
mean to have something decent this time. Besides, I know one of the
men in the shop, and I'm going to make them do it cheap." And here
they fell to discussing price and cut.
Thus the onlookers laughed and quizzed and wondered; no one was
bold enough to put an open question to Evelyn, and Evelyn did not
offer to take anyone into her confidence. She held even hints and
allusions at bay, with her honeyed laugh; which was HER shield against
the world. Laura was the only person who ever got behind this laugh,
and what she discovered there, she did not tell. As it was, varying
motives were suggested for Evelyn's long-suffering, nobody being ready
to believe that it could really be fondness, on her part, for the
Byronic atom of humanity she had attracted to her.
However that might be, the two girls, the big fair one and the
little dark one, were, outside class-hours, seldom apart. Evelyn did
not often, as in the case of the birdlike Lolo, give her young tyrant
cause for offence; if she sometimes sought another's company, it was
done in a roguish spiritfrom a feminine desire to tease. Perhaps,
too, she was at heart not averse to Laura's tantrums, or to testing
her own power in quelling them. On the whole, though, she was very
careful of her little friend's sensitive spots. She did not repeat the
experiment of taking Laura out with her; as her stay at school drew to
a close she went out less frequently herself; for the reason that, no
matter how late it was on her getting back, she would find Laura
obstinately sitting up in bed, wide-awake. And it went against the
grain in her to keep the pale-faced girl from sleep.
On such occasions, while she undid her pretty muslin dress,
unpinned the flowers she was never without, and loosened her
gold-brown hair, which she had put up for the evening: while she
undressed, Evelyn had to submit to a rigorous cross-examination. Laura
demanded to know where she had been, what she had done, whom she had
spoken to; and woe to her if she tried to shirk a question. Laura was
not only jealous, she was extraordinarily suspicious; and the elder
girl had need of all her laughing kindness to steer her way through
the shallows of distrust. For a great doubt of Evelyn's sincerity had
implanted itself in Laura's mind: she could not forget the incident of
the "mostly fools"; and, after an evening of this kind, she never felt
quite sure that Evelyn was not deceiving her afresh out of sheer
goodness of heart, of courseby assuring her that she had had a
"horrid time", been bored to death, and would have much preferred to
stay with her; when the truth was that, in the company of some
moustached idiot or other, she had enjoyed herself to the top of her
On the night Laura learned that her friend had again met the
loathly "Jim", there was a great to-do. In vain Evelyn laughed,
reasoned, expostulated. Laura was inconsolable.
"Look here, Poppet," said Evelyn at last, and was so much in
earnest that she laid her hairbrush down, and took Laura by both her
bony little shoulders. "Look here, you surely don't expect me to be an
old maid, do you?ME?" The pronoun signified all she might not say:
it meant wealth, youth, beauty, and an unbounded capacity for
"Evvy, you're not going to MARRY that horrid man?"
"Of course not, goosey. But that doesn't mean that I'm never going
to marry at all, does it?"
Laura supposed notwith a tremendous sniff.
"Well, then, what IS all the fuss about?"
It was not so easy to say. She was of course reconciled, she
sobbed, to Evelyn marrying some day: only plain and stupid girls were
left to be old maids: but it must not happen for years and years and
years to come, and when it did, it must be to some one much older than
herself, some one she did not greatly care for: in short, Evelyn was
to marry only to escape the odium of the single life.
Having drawn this sketch of her future word by word from the
weeping Laura, Evelyn fell into a fit of laughter which she could not
stifle. "Well, Poppet," she said when she could speak, "if that's your
idea of happiness for me, we'll postpone it just as long as ever we
can. I'm all there. For I mean to have a good time firsta jolly good
time before I tie myself up for ever, world without end, amen."
"That's just what I hate soyour good time, as you call it,"
retorted Laura, smarting under the laughter.
"Everyone does, child. You'll be after it yourself when you're a
"Oh, yes, indeed you will."
"I won't. I hate men and I always shall. And oh, I thought" with
an upward, sobbing breath"I thought you liked me best."
"Of course I like you, you silly child! But that's altogether
different. And I don't like you any less because I enjoy having some
fun with them, too."
"I don't want your old leavings!" said Laura savagely. It hurt,
almost as much as having a tooth pulled out, did this knowledge that
your friend's affection was wholly yours only as long as no man was in
question. And out of the sting, Laura added: "Wait till I'm grown up,
and I'll show them what I think of themthe pigs!"
This time Evelyn had to hold her hand in front of her mouth. "No,
no, I don't mean to laugh at you. Come, be good now," she petted. "And
you really must go to bed, Laura. It's past twelve o'clock, and that
infernal machine'll be going off before you've had any sleep at all."
The "machine" was Laura's alarum, which ran down every night just
now at two o'clock. For, if one thing was sure, it was that affairs
with Laura were in a sorry muddle. In this, the last and most
momentous year of her school life, at the close of which, like a steep
wall to be scaled, rose the university examination, she was behindhand
with her work, and occupied a mediocre place in her class. So
steadfastly was her attention pitched on Evelyn that she could link it
to nothing else: in the middle of an important task, her thoughts
would stray to contemplate her friend or wonder what she was doing;
while, if Evelyn were out for the evening, Laura gave up her meagre
pretence of study altogether, and moodily propped her head in her
hand. This was why she had hit on the small hours for the necessary
cramming; then, there were no distractions: the great house was as
still as an empty church; and Evelyn lay safe and sound before her.
So, punctually at two o'clock Laura was startled, with a pounding
heart, out of her first sleep; and lighting the gas she sat up in bed
and pored over her books. Evelyn was not disturbed by the light, or at
least she did not complain; and it was certainly a famous time for
committing things to memory: the subsequent hours of sleep seemed
rather to etch the facts into your brain than to blur them.
You cannot however rob Peter to pay Paul, with impunity, and in the
weeks that followed, despite her nightly industry, Laura made no
As the term tapered to an end, things went from bad to worse with
her; and since, besides, the parting with Evelyn was at the door, she
was often to be seen with red-rimmed eyelids, which she did not even
try to conceal.
"As if she'd lost her nearest relation!" laughed her
school-fellows. And did they meet her privately, on the stairs or in a
house-corridor, they crossed their hands on their breasts and turned
up their eyes, in tragedy-fashion.
Laura hardly saw them; for once in her life ridicule could not have
her. The nearer the time drew, the more completely did the coming loss
of Evelyn push other considerations into the background. It was bitter
to reflect that her present dear friendship had no more strength to
endure than the thin pretences of friendship she had hitherto played
at. Evelyn and she would, no doubt, from time to time meet and take
pleasure in each other again; but their homes lay hundreds of miles
apart; and the intimacy of the schooldays was passing away, never to
return. And no one could be held to blame for this. Evelyn's mother
and father thought, rightly enough, that it was time for their
daughter to leave schoolbut that was all. They did not really miss
her, or need her. No, it was just a stupid, crushing piece of
ill-luck, which happened one did not know why. The ready rebel in
Laura sprang into being again; and she fought hard against the lesson
that there are events in lifebitter, grim, and grotesque
eventsbeneath which one can only bow one's head.A further effect
of the approaching separation was to bring home to her a sense of the
fleetingness of things; she began to grasp that, everywhere and
always, even while you revelled in them, things were perpetually
rushing to a close; and the fact of them being things you loved, or
enjoyed, was powerless to diminish the speed at which they escaped
Of course, though, these were sensations rather than thoughts; and
they did not hinder Laura from going on her knees to Evelyn, to
implore her to remain. Day after day Evelyn kindly and patiently
explained why this could not be; and if she sometimes drew a sigh at
the child's persistence, it was too faint to be audible. Now Laura
knew that it was possible to kill animal-pets by surfeiting them; and,
towards the end, a suspicion dawned on her that you might perhaps
damage feelings in the same way. It stood to reason: no matter how
fond two people were of each other, the one who was about to emerge,
like a butterfly from its sheath, could not be asked to regret her
release; and, at momentswhen Laura lay sobbing face downwards on her
bed, or otherwise vented her pertinacious and disruly griefat these
moments she thought she scented a dash of relief in Evelyn, at the
prospect of deliverance.
But such delicate hints on the part of the hidden self are rarely
able to gain a hearing; and, as the days dropped off one by one, like
over-ripe fruit, Laura surrendered herself more and more blindly to
her emotions. The consequence was, M. P.'s prediction came true: in
the test-examinations which took place at midwinter, Laura, together
with the few dunces of her class, was ignominiously plucked. And still
staggering under this blow, she had to kiss Evelyn good-bye, and to
set her face for home.
WAS MICH NICHT UMBRINGT, MACHT MICH STARKER.
Mother did not know or understand anything about "tests"; and Laura
had no idea of enlightening her. She held her peace, and throughout
the holidays hugged her disgraceful secret to her, untold. She had
never before failed to pass an examination, having always lightly
skimmed the surface of them on the wings of her parrot-like memory;
hence, at home no one suspected that anything was amiss with her. The
knowledge weighed the more heavily on her own mind. And, as if her
other troubles were not enough, she was now beset by nervous fears
about the future. She saw chiefly rocks ahead. If she did not succeed
in getting through the final examination in summer, she would not be
allowed to present herself for matriculation, and, did this happen,
there would be the very devil to pay. All her schooling would, in
Mother's eyes, have been for naught. For Mother was one of those
people who laid tremendous weight on prizes and examinations, as
offering a tangible proof that your time had not been wasted or
misspent. Besides this, she could not afford in the event of a
failure, to pay the school-fees for another year. The money which, by
hook and by crook, had been scraped together and hoarded up for
Laura's education was now coming to an end; as it was, the next six
months would mean a terrible pinching and screwing. The other
children, too, were growing day by day more costly; their little minds
and bodies clamoured for a larger share of attention. And Laura's eyes
were rudely opened to the struggle Mother had had to make both ends
meet, while her first-born was acquiring wisdom; for Mother spoke of
it herself, spoke openly of her means and resources, perhaps with some
idea of rousing in Laura a gratitude that had so far been dormant.
If this was her intention she failed. Laura was much too fast
entangled in her own troubles, to have leisure for such a costly
feeling as gratitude; and Mother's outspokenness only added a fresh
weight to her pack. It seemed as if everybody and everything were
ranged against her; and guilty, careworn, lonely, she shrank into her
shell. About school affairs she again kept her lips shut, enduring,
like a stubborn martyr, the epithets "close" and "deceitful" this
reticence earned her. Her time was spent in writing endless, scrawly
letters to Evelyn, which covered days; in sitting moodily at the top
of the fir tree which she climbed in defiance of her length of
petticoat glaring at sunsets, and brooding on dead delights; in taking
long, solitary, evening walks, by choice on the heel of a
thunderstorm, when the red earth was riddled by creeklets of running
water; till Mother, haunted by a lively fear of encounters with
"swags" or Chinamen, put her foot down and forbade them.
Sufferers are seldom sweet-tempered; and Laura formed no exception.
Pin, her most frequent companion, had to bear the brunt of her
acrimony: hence the two were soon at war again. For Pin was tactless,
and took small heed of her sister's grumpy moods, save to cavil at
them. Laura's buttoned-upness, for instance, and her love of solitude,
were perverse leanings to Pin's mind; and she spoke out against them
with the assurance of one who has public opinion at his back. Laura
retaliated by falling foul of little personal traits in Pin: a nervous
habit she had of clearing her throather very walk. They quarrelled
passionately, having branched as far apart as the end-points of what
is ultimately to be a triangle, between which the connecting lines
have not yet been drawn.
Sometimes they even came to blows.
"I'll fetch your ma to youthat I will!" threatened Sarah, called
by the noise of the scuffle. "Great girls like youfightin' like
bandicoots! You ought to be downright ashamed o' yourselves."
"I don't know what's come over you two, I'm sure," scolded Mother,
when the combatants had been parted and brought before her in the
kitchen, where she was rolling pastry. "You never used to go on like
this.Pin, stop that noise. Do you want to deafen me?"
"She hit me first," sobbed Pin. "It's always Laura who begins."
"I'll teach her to cheek me like that!"
"Well, all I can say is," said Mother exasperated, and pushed a
lock of hair off her perspiring forehead with the back of her hand.
"All I say is, big girls as you are, you deserve to have the nonsense
whipped out of you.As for you, Laura, if this is your only return
for all the money I've spent on you, then I wish from my heart you'd
never seen the inside of that Melbourne school."
"How pretty your eyes look, mother, when your eyelashes get
floury!" said Laura, struck by the vivid contrast of black and white.
She merely stated the fact, without intent to flatter, her anger being
given to puffing out as suddenly as it kindled.
"Oh, get along with you!" said Mother, at the same time skilfully
lifting and turning a large, thin sheet of paste. "You can't get round
ME like that."
"You used to have nice, ladylike manners," she said on another
occasion, when Laura, summoned to the drawingroom to see a visitor,
had in Mother's eyes disgraced them both. "Now, you've no more idea
how to behave than a country bumpkin. You sit there, like a stock or a
stone, as if you didn't know how to open your mouth."Mother was very
"I didn't want to see that old frump anyhow," retorted Laura, who
inclined to charge the inhabitants of the township with an extreme
provinciality. "And what else was there to say, but yes or no? She
asked me all things I didn't know anything about. You don't want me to
tell stories, I suppose?"
"Well, if a child of mine doesn't know the difference between being
polite and telling stories," said Mother, completely outraged, "then,
all I can say is, it's a . . . a great shame!" she wound up lamely,
after the fashion of hot-tempered people who begin a sentence without
being clear how they are going to end it."You were a nice enough
child once. If only I'd never let you leave home."
This jeremiad was repeated by Mother and chorused by the rest till
Laura grew incensed. She was roused to defend her present self, at the
cost of her past perfections; and this gave rise to new dissensions.
So that in spite of what she had to face at school, she was not
altogether sorry, when the time came, to turn her back on her
unknowing and hence unsympathetic relations. She journeyed to
Melbourne on one of those pleasant winter days when the sun shines
from morning till night in a cloudless sky, and the chief mark of the
season is the extraordinary greenness of the grass; returned a pale,
determined, lanky girl, full of the grimmest resolutions.
The first few days were like a bad dream. The absence of Evelyn
came home to her in all its crushing force. A gap yawned drearily
where Evelyn had beenbut then, she had been everywhere. There was
now a kind of emptiness about the great schoolexcept for memories,
which cropped up at each turn. Laura was in a strange room, with
strange, indifferent girls; and for a time she felt as lonely as she
had done in those unthinkable days when she was still the poor little
green "new chum".
Her companions were not wilfully unkind to herher last
extravagance had been foolish, not criminaland two or three were
even sorry for the woebegone figure she cut. But her idolatrous
attachment to Evelyn had been the means of again drawing round her one
of those magic circles, which held her schoolfellows at a distance.
And the aroma of her eccentricity still clung to her. The members of
her class were deep in study, too; little was now thought or spoken of
but the approaching examinations. And her first grief over, Laura set
her teeth and flung herself on her lessons like a dog on a bone,
endeavouring to pack the conscientious work of twelve months into less
The days were feverish with energy. But at night the loneliness
returned, and was only the more intense because, for some hours on
end, she had been able to forget it.
On one such night when she lay wakeful, haunted by the prospect of
failure, she turned over the leaves of her Bibleshe had been
memorising her weekly portionand read, not as a school-task, but for
herself. By chance she lighted on the Fourteenth Chapter of St John,
and the familiar, honey-sweet words fell on her heart like caresses.
Her tears flowed; both at the beauty of the language and out of pity
for herself; and before she closed the Book, she knew that she had
found a well of comfort that would never run dry.
In spite of a certain flabbiness in its outward expression, deep
down in Laura the supreme faith of childhood still dwelt intact: she
believed, with her whole heart, in the existence of an all-knowing
God, and just as implicitly in His perfect power to succour His human
children at will. But thus far on her way she had not greatly needed
Him: at the most, she had had recourse to Him for forgiveness of sin.
Now, however, the sudden withdrawal of a warm, human sympathy seemed
to open up a new use for Him. An aching void was in her and about her;
it was for Him to fill this void with the riches of His love.And she
comforted herself for her previous lack of warmth, by the reminder
that His need also was chiefly of the heavy-laden and oppressed.
In the spurt of intense religious fervour that now set in for her,
it was to Christ she turned by preference, rather than to the remoter
God the Father. For of the latter she carried a kind of
Michelangelesque picture in her brain: that of an old, old man with a
flowing grey beard, who sat, Turk-fashion, one hand plucking at this
beard, the other lying negligently across His knees. Christ, on the
contrary, was a young man, kindly of face, and full of tender
To this younger, tenderer God, she proffered long and glowing
prayers, which vied with one another in devoutness. Soon she felt
herself led by Him, felt herself a favourite lying on His breast; and,
as the days went by, her ardour so increased that she could not longer
consume the smoke of her own fire: it overspread her daily lifeto
the renewed embarrassment of her schoolfellows. Was it then
impossible, they asked themselves, for Laura Rambotham to do anything
in a decorous and ladylike way. Must she at every step put them out of
countenance? It was not respectable to be so fervent. Religion, felt
they, should be practised with modesty; be worn like an indispensable
but private garment. Whereas she committed the gross error in taste
of, as it were, parading it outside her other clothes.
Laura, her thoughts turned heavenwards, did not look low enough to
detect the distaste in her comrades' eyes. The farther she spun
herself into her intimacy with the Deity, the more indifferent did she
grow to the people and things of this world.
Weeks passed. Her feelings, in the beginning a mere blissful
certainty that God was Love and she was God's, ceased to be wholly
passive. Thus, her first satisfaction at her supposed election was
soon ousted by self-righteousness, did she contemplate her unremitting
devotion. And one night, when her own eloquence at prayer had brought
the moisture to her eyesone night the inspiration fell. Throughout
these weeks, she had faithfully worshipped God without asking so much
as a pin's head from Him in return; she had given freely; all she had,
had been His. Now the time had surely come when she might claim to be
rewarded. Now it was for Him to show that He had appreciated her
homage. Oh, it was so easy a thing for Him to help her, if He would
. . . if He only would!
Pressing her fingers to her eyeballs till the starry blindness was
effected that induces ecstasy, she prostrated herself before the
mercy-seat, not omitting, at this crisis, to conciliate the Almighty
by laying stress on her own exceeding unworthiness.
"Oh, dear Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me, miserable sinner! Oh,
Christ, I ask Thy humble pardon! For I have been weak, Lord, and have
forgotten to serve Thy Holy Name. My thoughts have erred and strayed
like . . . like lost sheep. But loved Thee, Jesus, all the time, my
heart seemed full as it would hold . . . no, I didn't mean to say
that. But I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me
on. But now, dear Jesus, if Thou wilt only grant me my desire, I will
never forget Thee or be false to Thee again. I will love Thee and
serve Thee, all the days of my life, till death us do . . . I mean,
only let me pass my examinations, Lord, and there is nothing I will
not do for Thee in return. Oh, dear Lord Jesus, Son of Mary, hear my
prayer, and I will worship Thee and adore Thee, and never forget Thee,
and that Thou hast died to save me! Grant me this my prayer, Lord, for
Christ's sake, Amen."
It came to this: Laura made a kind of pact with God, in which His
aid at the present juncture guaranteed her continued, unswerving
The idea once lodged in her mind, she wrestled with Him night after
night, filling His ears with her petitions, and remaining on her knees
for such an immoderate length of time that her room-mates, who were
sleepy, openly expressed their impatience.
"Oh, draw it mild, Laura!" said the girl in the neighbouring bed,
when it began to seem as if the supplicant would never rise to her
feet again. "Leave something to ask Him to-morrow."
But Laura, knowing very well that the Lord our God is a jealous
God, was mindful not to scrimp in lip-service, or to shirk the
minutest ceremony by means of which He might be propitiated and won
over. Her prayers of greeting and farewell, on entering and leaving
church, were drawn out beyond anyone else's; she did not doze or dream
over a single clause of the Litany, with its hypnotising refrain; and
she not only made the sign of the Cross at the appropriate place in
the Creed, but also privately at every mention of Christ's name.
Meanwhile, of course, she worked at her lessons with unflagging
zeal, for it was by no means her intention to throw the whole onus of
her success on the Divine shoulders. She overworked; and on one
occasion had a distressing lapse of memory.
And at length spring was gone and summer come, and the momentous
week arrived on which her future depended. Now, though, she was not
alone in her trepidation. The eyes of even the surest members of the
form had a steely glint in them, and mouths were hard. Dr. Pughson's
papers were said to be far more formidable than the public
examination: if you got happily through these, you were safe.
Six subjects were compulsory; high-steppers took nine. Laura was
one of those with eight, and since her two obligatory mathematics were
not to be relied on, she could not afford to fail in a single subject.
In the beginning, things, with the exception of numbers, went
pretty well with her. Then came the final day, and with it the
examination in history. Up to the present year Laura had cut a dash in
history; now her brain was muddled, her memory overtaxed, by her
having had to cram the whole of Green's HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH PEOPLE
in a few months, besides a large dose of GREECE and ROME. Reports ran
of the exceptionally "catchy" nature of Dr Pughson's questions; and
Laura's prayer, the night before, was more like a threat than a
supplication. The class had only just entered the Headmaster's room on
the eventful morning, and begun to choose desks, when there came a
summons to Laura to take a music-lesson. This was outside
consideration, and Dr Pughson made short work of the intrudera
red-haired little girl, who blushed meekly and unbecomingly, and
withdrew. Here, however, Laura rose and declared that, under these
circumstances, some explanation was due to Monsieur Boehmer, the
music-master, to-day's lesson being in fact a rehearsal for the annual
Dr Pughson raised his red-rimmed eyes from his desk and looked
"Tch, tch, tch!" he snapped, in the genial Irish fashion that made
him dreaded and adored. "How like a woman that is! Playing at concerts
when she can't add two and two together!Your arithmetic paper's fit
for PUNCH, Miss Rambotham."
The smile he looked for went round.
"Have you seen the questions?no? Well, give them here then.
You've got to go, I suppose, or we might deprive the concert of your
shining light.Hurry back, now. Stir your stumps!"
But this Laura had no intention of doing. In handling the printed
slip, her lagging eye had caught the last and most vital question:
"Give a full account of Oliver Cromwell's Foreign Policy."And she
did not know it! She dragged out her interview with the music-master,
put questions wide of the point, insisted on lingering till he had
arranged another hour for the postponed rehearsal; and, as she walked,
as she talked, as she listened to Monsieur Boehmer's ridiculous
English, she strove in vain to recall jot or tittle of Oliver's
relations to foreign powers.Oh, for just a peep at the particular
page of Green! For, if once she got her cue, she believed she could go
The dining-hall was empty when she went through it on her way back
to the classroom: her history looked lovingly at her from its place on
the shelf. But she did not dare to go over to it, take it out, and
turn up the passage: that was too risky. What she did do, however,
when she had almost reached the door, was to dash back, pull out a
synopsis[P.262] a slender, medium-sized volumeand hastily and
clumsily button this inside the bodice of her dress. The square,
board-like appearance it gave her figure, where it projected beyond
the sides of her apron, she concealed by hunching her shoulders.
Her lightning plan was, to enter a cloakroom, snatch a hurried peep
at Oliver's confounded policy, then hide the book somewhere till the
examination was over. But on emerging from the dining-hall she all but
collided with the secretary, who had come noiselessly across the
verandah; and she was so overcome by the thought of the danger she had
run, and by Miss Blount's extreme surprise at Dr Pughson's leniency,
that she allowed herself to be driven back to the examination-room
without a word.
The girls were hard at it; they scarcely glanced up when she opened
the door. From her friends' looks, she could judge of the success they
were having. Cupid, for instance, was smirking to herself in the
peculiar fashion that meant satisfaction; M. P.'s cheeks were the
colour of monthly roses. And soon Laura, crouching low to cover her
deformity, was at work like the rest.
Had only Oliver Cromwell never been born!thus she reflected, when
she had got the easier part of the paper behind her. Why could it not
have been a question about Bourke and Wills, or the Eureka Stockade,
or the voyages of Captain Cook? . . . something about one's own
country, that one had heard hundreds of times and was really
interested in. Or a big, arresting thing like the Retreat of the Ten
Thousand, or Hannibal's March over the Alps? Who cared for old Oliver,
and his shorn head, and his contempt for baubles! What did it matter
now to anyone what his attitude had been, more than two hundred years
ago, to all those far-away, dream-like countries? . . . Desperately
she pressed her hand to her eyes. She knew the very page of Green on
which Cromwell's foreign relations were set forth; knew where the
paragraph began, near the foot of the page: what she could not get
hold of was the opening sentence that would have set her mechanical
The two hours drew steadily to a close. About half an hour
beforehand the weakest candidates began to rise, to hand in their
papers and leave the room; but it was not till ten minutes to twelve
that the "crack" girls stopped writing. Laura was to be allowed an
extra twenty minutes, and it was on this she relied. At last, she was
alone with the master. But though he was already dipping into the
examination-papers, he was not safe. She had unbuttoned two buttons
and was at a third, when he looked up so unexpectedly that she was
scared out of her senses, and fastened her dress again with all the
haste she could. Three or four of the precious minutes were lost.
At this point, the door opened and Mr. Strachey strode into the
room. Dr Pughson blinked up from the stacks of papers, rose, and the
two spoke in low tones. Then, with a glance at Laura, they went
together to the door, which Dr Pughson held to behind him, and stood
just over the threshold. As they warmed to their talk, the master let
the door slip into the latch.
Laura could see them from where she sat, without being seen. A
moment later they moved stealthily away, going down the verandah in
the direction of the office.
Now for it! With palsied hands she undid her bodice, clutched at
the book, forced her blurred eyes to find the page, and ran them over
it. A brief survey: five or six heads to remember: a few dates.
Flapped to again; tucked under her apron; shoved into her bosom.
And not a second too soon. There he came, hurrying back. And three
buttons were still undone. But Laura's head was bent over her desk:
though her heart was pummelling her ribs, her pen now ran like
lightning; and by the time the order to stop was given, she had
covered the requisite number of sheets. Afterwards she had adroitly to
rid herself of the book, then to take parta rather pale-eyed,
distracted partin the lively technical discussions that ensued; when
each candidate was as long-winded on the theme of her success, or
non-success, as a card-player on his hand at the end of a round.
Directly she could make good her escape, she pleaded a headache,
climbed to her bedroom and stretched herself flat on her bed. She was
through but at what a cost! She felt quite sore. Her very bones
seemed to hurt her.
Not till she was thoroughly rested, and till she had assured
herself that all risk attaching to the incident was over, did she come
to reflect on the part God had played in the business. And then, it
must be admitted, she found it a sorry one. Just at first, indeed, her
limpid faith was shocked into a reluctance to believe that He had
helped her at all: His manner of doing it would have been so
inexpressibly mean. But, little by little, she dug deeper, and
eventually she reached the [P.265] conclusion that He had given her
the option of this way, throwing it open to her and then standing back
and watching to see what she would do, without so much as raising an
eyelid to influence her decision. In fact, the more she pondered over
it, the more inclined she grew to think that it had been a kind of
snare on the part of God, to trap her afresh into sin, and thus to
prolong her dependence on Him after her crying need was past. But, if
this were true, if He had done this, then He must LIKE people to
remain miserable sinners, so that He might have them always crawling
to His feet. And from this view of the case her ingenuous young mind
shrank appalled. She could not go on loving and worshipping a God who
was capable of double dealing; who could behave in such a "mean, Jewy
fashion". Nor would she ever forget His having forced her to endure
the moments of torture she had come through that day.
Lying on her bed, she grappled with these thoughts. A feeling of
deep resentment was their abiding result. Whatever His aim, it had
been past expression pitiless of Him, Him who had at His command
thousands of pleasanter ways in which to help her, thus to drive a
poor unhappy girl to extremities: one, too, whose petition had not
been prompted by selfish ends alone. What she had implored of Him
touched Mother even more nearly than herself: her part prayer to Him
had been to save Mother whose happiness depended on things like
examinationsfrom a bitter disappointment. That much at least He had
doneshe would give Him His duebut at the expense of her entire
self-respect. Oh, He must have a cold, calculating heart . . . could
one only see right down into it. The tale of His clemency and
compassion, which the Bible told, was not to be interpreted literally:
when one came to think of it, had He everoutside the Biblebeen
known to stoop from His judgment-seat, and lovingly and kindly
intervene? It was her own absurd mistake: she had taken the promises
made through His Son, for gospel truth; had thought He really meant
what He said, about rewarding those who were faithful to Him. Her
companionsthe companions on whom, from the heights of her piety, she
had looked pityingly downwere wiser than she. They did not abase
themselves before Him, and vow a lifelong devotion; but neither did
they make any but the most approved demands on Him. They satisfied
their consciences by paying Him lip-homage, by confessing their sins,
and by asking for a vague, far-distant mercy, to which they attached
no great importance. Hence, they never came into fierce personal
conflict with Him. Nor would she, ever again; from this time forward,
she would rival the rest in lukewarmness.But, before she could put
this resolve into force, she had to let her first indignation subside:
only then was it possible for her to recover the shattering of her
faith, and settle down to practise religion after the glib and shallow
mode of her friends. She did not, however, say her prayers that night,
or for many a right to come; and when, at church, Christ's name
occurred in the Service, she held her head erect, and shut the ears
and eyes of her soul.
IHR LERNTET ALLE NICHT TANZEN, WIE MAN TANZEN MUSSUBER EUCH HINWEG
The school year had ebbed; the ceremonies that attended its
conclusion were over. A few days beforehand, the fifth-form boarders,
under the tutelage of a couple of governesses, drove off early in the
morning to the distant university. On the outward journey the
candidates were thoughtful and subdued; but as they returned home, in
the late afternoon, their spirits were not to be kept within seemly
bounds. They laughed, sang, and rollicked about inside the wagonette,
Miss Zielinski weakly protesting unheardwere so rowdy that the
driver pushed his cigar-stump to the corner of his mouth, to be able
to smile at ease, and flicked his old horse into a canter. For the
public examination had proved as anticipated, child's play, compared
with what the class had been through at Dr Pughson's hands; and its
accompanying details were of an agreeable nature: the weather was not
too hot; the examination-hall was light and airy; through the
flung-back windows trees and flowering shrubs looked in; the students
were watched over by a handsome Trinity man, who laid his straw hat on
the desk before him.
Then came the annual concert, at which none of the performers broke
down; Speech Day, when the body of a big hall was crowded with
relatives and friends, and when so many white, blue-beribboned frocks
were massed together on the platform, that this looked like a great
bed of blue and white flowers; and, finally, trunks were brought out
from boxrooms and strewn through the floors, and upper-form girls
emptied cupboards and drawers into them for the last time.
On the evening before the general dispersion, Laura, Cupid, and M.
P. walked the well-known paths of the garden once again. While the two
elder girls were more loquacious than their wont, Laura was quieter.
She had never wholly recovered her humour since the day of the
history-examination; and she still could not look back, with
composure, on the jeopardy in which she had placed herself one little
turn of the wheel in the wrong direction, and the end of her
schooldays would have been shame and disgrace.And just as her
discovery of God's stratagem had damped her religious ardour, so her
antipathy to the means she had been obliged to employ had left a
feeling of enmity in her, towards the school and everything connected
with it: she had counted the hours till she could turn her back on it
altogether. None the less, now that the time had come there was a kind
of ache in her at having to say good-bye; for it was in her nature to
let go unwillingly of things, places and people once known. Besides,
glad as she felt to have done with learning, she was unclear what was
to come next. The idea of life at home attracted her as little as
everMother had even begun to hint as well that she would now be
expected to instruct her young brothers. Hence, her parting was
effected with very mixed feelings; she did not know in the least where
she really belonged, or under what conditions she would be happy; she
was conscious only of a mild sorrow at having to take leave of the
shelter of years.
Her two companions had no such doubts and regrets; for them the
past was already dead and gone; their talk was all of the future, so
soon to become the present. They forecast this, mapping it out for
themselves with the iron belief in their power to do so, which is the
hall-mark of youth.
Laura, walking at their side, listened to their words with the
deepest interest, and with the reverence she had learned to extend to
all opinions save her own.
M. P. proposed to return to Melbourne at the end of the vacation;
for she was going on to Trinity, where she intended to take one degree
after another. She hesitated only whether it was to be in medicine or
"Oogh! . . . to cut off people's legs!" ejaculated Laura. "M. P.,
"Oh, one soon gets used to that, child.But I think, on the whole,
I should prefer to take up teaching. Then I shall probably be able to
have a school of my own some day."
"I shouldn't wonder if you got Sandy's place here," said Laura, who
was assured that M. P.'s massy intellect would open all doors.
"Who knows?" answered Mary, and set her lips in a determined
fashion of her own. "Stranger things have happened."
Cupid, less enamoured of continual discipline, intended to be a
writer. "My cousin says I've got the stuff in me. And he's a
journalist and ought to know."
"I should rather think he ought."
"Well, I mean to have a shot at it."
"And you, Laura?" M. P. asked suavely.
"Me?Oh, goodness knows!"
"Close as usual, Infant."
"No, really not, Cupid."
"Well, you'll soon have to make up your mind to something now.
You're nearly sixteen.Why not go on working for your B.A.?"
"No thanks! I've had enough of that here." And Laura's thoughts
waved their hands, as it were, to the receding figure of Oliver
"Be a teacher, then."
"M.P.! I never want to hear a date or add up a column of figures
"It's the solemn truth. I'm fed up with all those blessed things."
"Fancy not having a single wish!"
"Wish? . . . oh, I've tons of wishes. First I want to be with Evvy
again. And then, I want to see thingsyes, that most of all. Hundreds
and thousands of things. People, and places, and what they eat, and
how they dress, and China, and Japan . . . just tons."
"You'll have to hook a millionaire for that, my dear."
"And perhaps you'll write a book about your travels for us
"Gracious! I shouldn't know how to begin. But you'll send me all
you writeall YOUR bookswon't you, Cupid? And, M. P., you'll let me
come and see you get your degreesevery single one."
With these and similar promises the three girls parted. They never
met again. For a time they exchanged letters regularly, many-sheeted
letters, full of familiar, personal detail. Then the detail ceased,
the pages grew fewer in number, the time-gap longer. Letters in turn
gave place to mere notes and postcards, scribbled in violent haste, at
wide intervals. And ultimately even these ceased; and the great
silence of separation was unbroken. Nor were the promises redeemed:
there came to Laura neither gifts of books nor calls to be present at
academic robings. Within six months of leaving school, M. P. married
and settled down in her native township; and thereafter she was forced
to adjust the rate of her progress to the steps of halting little
feet. Cupid went a-governessing, and spent the best years of her life
in the obscurity of the bush.
And Laura? . . . In Laura's case, no kindly Atropos snipped the
thread of her aspirations: these, large, vague, extemporary, one and
all achieved fulfilment; then withered off to make room for more. But
this, the future still securely hid from her. She went out from school
with the uncomfortable sense of being a square peg, which fitted into
none of the round holes of her world; the wisdom she had got, the
experience she was richer by, had, in the process of equipping her for
life, merely seemed to disclose her unfitness. She could not then know
that, even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be
found; seeming unfitness prove to be only another aspect of a peculiar
and special fitness. But, of the after years, and what they brought
her, it is not the purport of this little book to tell. It is enough
to say: many a day came and went before she grasped that, oftentimes,
just those mortals who feel cramped and unsure in the conduct of
everyday life, will find themselves to rights, with astounding ease,
in that freer, more spacious world where no practical considerations
hamper, and where the creatures that inhabit dance to their tune: the
world where are stored up men's best thoughts, the hopes, and fancies;
where the shadow is the substance, and the multitude of business pales
before the dream.
In the meantime, however, the exodus of the fifty-five turned the
Early the following morning Laura made her final preparations for
departure. This, alas! was not to be on so imposing a scale as the
departures of her schoolfellows. They, under special escort, would
have a cab apiece, and would drive off with flying handkerchiefs and
all their luggage piled high in front. Whereas Laura's box had gone by
van: for she and Pin, who was in Melbourne on a visit, were to spend a
couple of days at Godmother's before starting up-country. Even her
farewells, which she had often rehearsed to herself with dramatic
emphasis, went off without eclat. Except for Miss Chapman, the
governesses were absent when the moment came, and Miss Chapman's mind
was so full of other things that she went on giving orders while she
was shaking hands.
But Laura was not destined to leave the walls, within the shadow of
which she had learned so much, as tamely as all this. There was still
a surprise in waiting for her. As she whisked about the corridors in
search of Mrs. Gurley, she met two girls, one of whom said: "I say,
Laura Rambotham, you're fetched. Your pretty sister's come for you."
"My . . . who?" gaped Laura.
"Your sister. By gum, there's a nose for youand those whopping
eyes! You'll have to play second fiddle to THAT, all your days, my
On entering the reception-room Laura tried hard to see Pin with the
eyes of a stranger. Pin rose from her chairawkwardly, of course, for
there were other people present, and Laura's violent stare was
disconcerting in the extreme: it made Pin believe her hat was crooked,
or that she had a black speck on her nose. As for Laura, she could see
no great change in her sister; the freckles were certainly paler, and
the features were perhaps beginning to emerge a little, from the
cushiony fat in which they were bedded; but that was all. Still, if
outsiders, girls in particular, were struck by it . . .
A keener stab than thisreally, she did not grudge Pin being
pretty: it was only the newness of the thing that hurta keener stab
was it that, though she had ordered Pin repeatedly, and with all the
stress she was master of, to come in a wagonette to fetch her, so that
she might at least drive away like the other girls; in spite of this,
the little nincompoop had after all arrived on foot. Godmother had
said the idea of driving was stuff and nonsensea quite unnecessary
expense. Pin, of course, had meekly given in; and thus Laura's last
brave attempt to be comfortably like her companions came to naught.
She went out of the school in the same odd and undignified fashion in
which she had lived there.
The wrangle caused by Pin's chicken-heartedness lasted the sisters
down the garden-path, across the road, and over into the precincts of
a large, public park. Only when they were some distance through this,
did Laura wake to what was happening to her. Then, it came over her
with a rush: she was free, absolutely free; she might do any mortal
thing she chose.
As a beginning she stopped short.
"Hold on, Pin . . . take this," she said, giving her sister the
heavy leather bag they were carrying in turns to the tramway. Pin
obediently held out her hand, in its little white cotton glove.
"And my hat."
"What are you going to do, Laura?"
"You'll get sunstroke!"
"Fiddles!it's quite shady. Here're my gloves.Now, Pin, you
follow your nose and you'll find meWHERE you find me!"
"Oh, what ARE you going to do, Laura?" cried Pin, in anxiety.
"I'm going to have a good run," said Laura; and tightened her
"Oh, but you can't run in the street! You're too big. People'll see
"Think I care?If you'd been years only doing what you were
allowed to, I guess you'd want to do something you weren't allowed to,
She was off, had darted away into the leaden heat of the December
morning, like an arrow from its bow, her head bent, her arms close to
her sides, fleet-footed as a spaniel: Pin was faced by the swift and
rhythmic upturning of her heels. There were not many people abroad at
this early hour, but the few there were, stood still and looked in
amazement after the half-grown girl in white, whose thick black plait
of hair sawed up and down as she ran; and a man with mop and bucket,
who was washing statues, stopped his work and whistled, and winked at
Pin as she passed.
Cross and confused Pin trudged after her sister, Laura's hat and
gloves in one hand, the leather bag in the other.
Right down the central avenue ran Laura, growing smaller and
smaller in the distance, the area of her movements decreasing as she
ran, till she appeared to be almost motionless, and not much larger
than a figure in the background of a picture. Then came a sudden bend
in the long, straight path. She shot round it, and was lost to sight.