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- The Getting of Wisdom - 5/41 -
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 alone.
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 smart.
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 stand."
Godmother was driving herself--a 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 months."
"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 cheeks again.
"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
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