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- The Getting of Wisdom - 30/41 -
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 well--the 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 sea.
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 tranquillity.
It was Pin, poor, fat, little well-meaning Pin, who did the mischief
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 Turk--fashion 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 were--why, 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 heart!'"
"Old Anne? Well, I just wonder what next! It's none of her dashed business."
"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 at--and 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 know--quite 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 yourself."
"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 cried bitterly.
"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 were getting."
"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 golly--yes, 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 same--old 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 make--if she were not already glued firm to her silly notions--would be in quite another direction. For the quarrel
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