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- The Getting of Wisdom - 2/41 -
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: "Look--what 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 have."
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 self-sacrifice.
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 everyone else.
Mother--sewing 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 who said:
"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 legs--she was "all belly" as Sarah put it--and the mere mention of it made Pin fly; for she was very touchy about her legs.
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 strength--well, at least she was up and dressed. Not like the last time--about 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 way--all 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 with Mother.
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 hiding-place.
"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 sandwiches.
"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 Mother's hands.
"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
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