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- The Getting of Wisdom - 20/41 -
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 size--or 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 to him!"
"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 plumes.
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 warning.
"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 herself--this 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 morning--that 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 him--and 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 them--could 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 all."
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 in readiness.
"Well, you've been doing a pretty mash, you have!" she cried,
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