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- The Getting of Wisdom - 10/41 -
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 classrooms--and 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 complaints--were any bold enough to offer them--standing 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 grasp--being 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 morning--it 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 head."
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 me--when 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 either--stupid, 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 reign--when she didn't know a single one of the dates!"
"She can say some poetry," said Miss Zielinski. "And she's read Scott."
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 right?"
"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
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