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- The Getting of Wisdom - 6/41 -
that's going to school! It looks just like a prison."
It certainly was an imposing building viewed from within, when the paling-gate had closed behind them. To Laura, who came from a township of one-storied brick or weatherboard houses, it seemed vast in its breadth and height, appalling in its sombre greyness. Between Godmother and Cousin Grace she walked up an asphalted path, and mounted the steps that led to a massive stone portico. The bell Godmother rang made no answering sound, but after a very few seconds the door swung back, and a slender maidservant in cap and apron stood before them. She smiled at them pleasantly, as, in Chinaman-fashion, they crossed the threshold; then, inclining her head at a murmured word from Godmother, she vanished as lightly as she had come, and they sat and looked about them. They were in a plainly furnished but very lofty waiting-room. There were two large windows. The venetian blinds had not been lowered, and the afternoon sun, beating in, displayed a shabby patch on the carpet. It showed up, too, a coating of dust that had gathered on the desk-like, central table. There was the faint, distinctive smell of strange furniture. But what impressed Laura most was the stillness. No street noises pierced the massy walls, but neither did the faintest echo of all that might be taking place in the great building itself reach their ears: they sat aloof, shut off, as it were, from the living world. And this feeling soon grew downright oppressive: it must be like this to be dead, thought Laura to herself; and inconsequently remembered a quarter of an hour she had once spent in a dentist's ante-room: there as here the same soundless vacancy, the same anguished expectancy. Now, as then, her heart began to thump so furiously that she was afraid the others would hear it. But they, too, were subdued; though Cousin Grace tittered continually you heard only a gentle wheezing, and even Godmother expressed the hope that they would not be kept waiting long, under her breath. But minute after minute went by; there they sat and nothing happened. It began to seem as if they might sit on for ever.
All of a sudden, from out the spacious halls of which they had caught a glimpse on arriving, brisk steps began to come towards them over the oilcloth--at first as a mere tapping in the distance, then rapidly gaining in weight and decision. Laura's palpitations reached their extreme limit--another second and they might have burst her chest. Cousin Grace ceased to giggle; the door opened with a peculiar flourish; and all three rose to their feet.
The person who entered was a very stately lady; she wore a cap with black ribbons. With the door-handle still in her hand she made a slight obeisance, in which her whole body joined, afterwards to become more erect than before. Having introduced herself to Godmother as Mrs. Gurley, the Lady Superintendent of the institution, she drew up a chair, let herself down upon it, and began to converse with an air of ineffable condescension.
While she talked Laura examined her, with a child's thirst for detail. Mrs. Gurley was large and generous of form, and she carried her head in such a haughty fashion that it made her look taller than she really was. She had a high colour, her black hair was touched with grey, her upper teeth were prominent. She wore gold eyeglasses, many rings, a long gold chain, which hung from an immense cameo brooch at her throat, and a black apron with white flowers on it, one point of which was pinned to her ample bosom. The fact that Laura had just such an apron in her box went only a very little way towards reviving her spirits; for altogether Mrs. Gurley was the most impressive person she had ever set eyes on. Beside her, God mother was nothing but a plump, shortsighted fidgety lady.
Particularly awe-inspiring was Mrs. Gurley when she listened to another speaking. She held her head a little to one side, her teeth met her underlip and her be-ringed hands toyed incessantly with the long gold chain, in a manner which seemed to denote that she set little value on what was being said. Awful, too, was the habit she had of suddenly lowering her head and looking at you over the tops of her glasses: when she did this, and when her teeth came down on her lip, you would have liked to shrink to the size of a mouse. Godmother, it was true, was not afraid of her; but Cousin Grace was hushed at last and as for Laura herself, she consciously wore a fixed little simper, which was meant to put it beyond doubt that butter would not melt in her mouth.
Godmother now asked if she might say a few words in private, and the two ladies left the room. As the door closed behind them Cousin Grace began to be audible again.
"Oh, snakes!" she giggled, and her double chin spread itself "There's a Tartar for you! Don't I thank my stars it's not me that's being shunted off here! She'll give you what-for."
"I don't think so. I think she's very nice," said Laura staunchly, out of an instinct that made her chary of showing fear, or pain, or grief. But her heart began to bound again, for the moment in which she would be left alone.
"You see!" said Cousin Grace. "It'll be bread and water for a week, if you can't do AMARE first go-off--not to mention the deponents."
"What's AMARE?" asked Laura anxiously, and her eyes grew so big that they seemed to fill her face.
But Cousin Grace only laughed till it seemed probable that she would burst her bodice; and Laura blushed, aware that she had compromised herself anew.
There followed a long and nervous pause.
"I bet Godmother's asking her not to wallop you too often," the tease had just begun afresh, when the opening of the door forced her to swallow her sentence in the middle.
Godmother would not sit down; so the dreaded moment had come.
"Now, Laura. Be a good girl and learn well, and be a comfort to your mother.--Not that there's much need to urge her to her books," Godmother interrupted herself, turning to Mrs. Gurley. "The trouble her dear mother has always had has been to keep her from them."
Laura glowed with pleasure. Now at least the awful personage would know that she was clever, and loved to learn. But Mrs. Gurley smiled the chilliest thinkable smile of acknowledgment, and did not reply a word.
She escorted the other to the front door, and held it open for them to pass out. Then, however, her pretence of affability faded clean away: turning her head just so far that she could look down her nose at her own shoulder, she said: "Follow me!"--in a tone Mother would not have used even to Sarah. Feeling inexpressibly small Laura was about to obey, when a painful thought struck her.
"Oh please, I had a box--with my clothes in it!" she cried. "Oh, I hope they haven't forgotten and taken it away again."
But she might as well have spoken to the hatstand: Mrs. Gurley had sailed off, and was actually approaching a turn in the hall before Laura made haste to follow her and to keep further anxiety about her box to herself. They went past one staircase, round a bend into shadows as black as if, outside, no sun were shining, and began to ascend another flight of stairs, which was the widest Laura had ever seen. The banisters were as thick as your arm, and on each side of the stair-carpeting the space was broad enough for two to walk abreast: what a splendid game of trains you could have played there! On the other hand the landing windows were so high up that only a giant could have seen out of them.
These things occurred to Laura mechanically. What really occupied her, as she trudged behind, was how she could please this hard-faced woman and make her like her, for the desire to please, to be liked by all the world, was the strongest her young soul knew. And there must be a way, for Godmother had found it without difficulty.
She took two steps at once, to get nearer to the portly back in front of her.
"What a VERY large place this is!" she said in an insinuating voice.
She hoped the admiration, thus subtly expressed in the form of surprise, would flatter Mrs. Gurley, as a kind of co-proprietor; but it was evident that it did nothing of the sort: the latter seemed to have gone deaf and dumb, and marched on up the stairs, her hands clasped at her waist, her eyes fixed ahead, like a walking stone-statue.
On the top floor she led the way to a room at the end of a long passage. There were four beds in this room, a washhand--stand, a chest of drawers, and a wall cupboard. But at first sight Laura had eyes only for the familiar object that stood at the foot of one of the beds.
"Oh, THERE'S my box!" she cried, "Someone must have brought it up."
It was unroped; she had simply to hand over the key. Mrs. Gurley went down on her knees before it, opened the lid, and began to pass the contents to Laura, directing her where to lay and hang them. Overawed by such complaisance, Laura moved nimbly about the room shaking and unfolding, taking care to be back at the box to the minute so as not to keep Mrs. Gurley waiting. And her promptness was rewarded; the stern face seemed to relax. At the mere hint of this, Laura grew warm through and through; and as she could neither control her feelings nor keep them to herself, she rushed to an extreme and overshot the mark.
"I've got an apron like that. I think they're so pretty," she said cordially, pointing to the one Mrs. Gurley wore.
The latter abruptly stopped her work, and, resting her hands on the sides of the box, gave Laura one of the dreaded looks over her glasses, looked at her from top to toe, and as though she were only now beginning to see her. There was a pause, a momentary suspension of the breath, which Laura soon learned to expect before a rebuke.
"Little gels," said Mrs. Gurley--and even in the midst of her confusion Laura could not but be struck by the pronunciation of this word. "Little gels--are required--to wear white aprons when they come here!" --a break after each few words, as well as an emphatic head-shake, accentuated their severity. "And I should like to know, if your mother, has never taught you, that it is very rude, to point, and also to remark, on what people wear."
Laura went scarlet: if there was one thing she, Mother all of them prided themselves on, it was the good manners that had been instilled into them since their infancy.--The rough reproof seemed to scorch her.
She went to and fro more timidly than before. Then, however, something happened which held a ray of hope.
"Why, what is this?" asked Mrs. Gurley freezingly, and held up to view-- with the tips of her fingers, Laura thought--a small, black Prayer Book. "Pray, are you not a dissenter?"--For the College was nonconformist.
"Well . . . no, I'm not," said Laura, in a tone of intense apology.
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