My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 15
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
Eric, like the violets and primroses, came earlier that third spring.
He seemed an old friend now, with an established footing in the house. Yet I had never been alone with him for more than five minutes before the day I told him my secret.
I had imagined it all so different from the way it fell out. I said to myself that I would meet him on his way home some evening, after he had played the last round. He would never know that I had been waiting for him in the copse; but that would be where I should tell him, standing by the nearer stile, where I had first seen kindness in his eyes.
My mother's health was worse again that spring, and when I wasn't studying I was much with her. After Eric came I stayed with her even more, for he said she had lost ground.
He discouraged her from coming downstairs. I believe he prevailed on her to keep her room chiefly by coming constantly to see her, bringing
books and papers. My mother's sick-room was not like any other I have seen. It was full of light and air, and hope and pleasantness. She would lie on the sofa in one of the loose gowns she looked so lovely in, and we would have tea up there.
Nearly always I managed to go down to the door with Eric.
One day, that very first week, he came a good hour before we expected him. Bettina had shut herself up to write to Hermione, "--and I am afraid my mother is asleep," I said.
"Well, you are not," he answered. I saw his eyes fall on the books and papers that littered the morning-room sofa, and I felt myself grow red. The books would betray me!
The strange thing was that he pushed them away without ever looking at them! And he sat down beside me.
He had never been so close to me before. I think I was outwardly quite unmoved. But I could not see him, even at a distance, without inward commotion. When he sat down so near me, a great many pulses I had not known before were in my body began to beat and hammer. I
felt my heart grow many sizes too big, and my breast-bone ache under the pressure. I said to myself the one essential was that he should not suspect--for him to guess the state he had thrown me into would be the supreme disaster. He might despise me. Almost certainly he would think I was hysterical. I knew the contempt he felt for hysterical women. Never, never should he think me one! I would rather die, sitting rigidly in my corner without a sign, than let him think I had any taint of the hysterical in me!
Above all, for my Great Secret's sake, I must show self-command. Upon that I saw, in a flash, this was the ideal moment for telling him about The Plan.
He asked how had my mother slept. I don't know what I said. But I remember that he spoke very gently of her. And he said I must husband my strength. I stayed too much indoors, he said. Hereafter I was to take a hour's brisk walk every day of my life.
I told him I couldn't always do that in these days.
"You must," he said.
I thought of my books, and shook my head.
"Won't you do it if I ask you to?" he said.
He leaned a little towards me. I dared not look up.
"I understand your not wanting to leave your mother," he said. "But couldn't your sister--" Then, before I could answer, "No," he said, smiling a little, "I suppose she couldn't."
There was something in his tone that did not please me. "You mean Betty is too young?"
No; he didn't mean that, he said.
What did he mean?
"Well, she has other preoccupations, hasn't she?" he said lightly.
"You mean Hermione? Hermione and all the family are in London."
No; he didn't mean Hermione. I was in too much inner turmoil to disentangle his meaning then. For he went on quickly to say: "Suppose I sit with your mother for that hour, while you go out and get some exercise?"
I was to lose an hour of him--tramping about alone! The very thought gave me an immense self-pity. My eyes grew moist. . . . "Come, come!" I said to myself, "keep a tight rein!"
Just as I was getting myself under control
again, he undid it all by laying his hand over mine.
"Let me help you," he said.
"Oh, w-will you?" I stammered; while to myself I said: "He is being kind; don't think it is more--don't dare think it is more!"
Though I couldn't help thinking it was more, I turned to the thought of my Great Scheme as a kind of refuge from a feeling too overwhelming to be faced.
And yet, I don't know, it may have been partly some survival in me of the coquetry I thought I hated; that, too, may have helped to make me catch nervously at a change of subject. So I interrupted with something about: "If you really do want to help me--"
But I found I could not talk coherently while his touch was on my hand. The words I had rehearsed and meant to say--they flew away. I felt my thoughts dissolving, my brain a jelly, my bones turning to water.
With the little remnant of will-power left I drew my hand away. My soul and my body seemed to bleed at the wound of that sundering. For in those few seconds' contact we two seemed
to have grown into one. I found I had risen to my feet and gone to sit by the table, with a sense of having left most of myself behind clinging to his hand. I made an immense effort to remember things he had told us about those early struggles of his. And I asked questions about that time--questions that made him stare: "How did you guess? What put that in your head?" I said I imagined it would be like that.
"Well, it was like that."
"And you overcame everything!" I triumphed. "You are the fortunate one of your family."
He laughed a little grim kind of laugh. "The standard of fortune is not very high with us." He looked thoroughly discontented.
"I am afraid," I said, "you are one of the ungrateful people."
"What had he to be grateful for? He threw the question at me.
"Why, that you have the most interesting profession in the world," I said.
"You don't mean the practice of medicine!--mere bread-and-butter."
"You don't love your profession!"
He smiled, and that time the smile was less
ungenial. But I had not liked the tone of patronage about his work.
"They were all wasted on you, then--those splendid opportunities--the clinic in Hamburg, the years in Paris--"
"Oh, well"--he looked taken aback at my arraignment--"I mayn't be a thundering success, but I won't say I'm a waster."
"If you don't love and adore the finest profession in the world----! Yes, somebody else ought to have had your chances. Me, for instance."
"You! Oh, I dare say," his smile was humorous and humouring.
"You think I'm not in earnest. But I am." I went to the cupboard where Bettina and I each had a shelf, and brought out an old wooden workbox. I opened it with the little key on my chain. I took out papers and letters. "These are from the Women's Medical School in Hunter Street"--I laid the letters open before him-- "answers to my inquiries about terms and conditions."
He glanced through one or two. "What put this into your head?" he said, astonished, and not the least pleased so far as one could see. "How did you know of the existence of these people?"
"You left a copy of the Lancet here once." Something in his face made me add: "But I should have found a way without that."
"What way--way to what?" He spoke irritably in a raised voice. I looked anxiously at the door. "We won't say anything just yet to my mother," I begged. "My mother wouldn't--understand."
"What wouldn't she understand?" All his kindness had gone. He was once more the cold inaccessible creature I had seen that first day stalking up to Big Klaus's door.
"What I mean is," I explained, quite miserably crestfallen, "my mother wouldn't understand what I fell about studying medicine. But you" --and I had a struggle to keep the tears back-- "I've looked forward so to telling you--"
He turned the papers over with an odd misliking expression.
"For one thing, you could never pass the entrance examination," he said. I asked why he thought that.
"Do you see yourself going to classes in London, cramming yourself with all this?" --his hand swept the qualifications list.
"Not classes in London," I said. "But people do the London Matriculation without that. I am taking the University Tutorial Correspondence Course," I said.
I was swallowing tears as I boasted myself already rather good at Botany and French. My mother thought even my German tolerable.
I picked up the little pamphlet issued by the University of London on the subject of Matriculation Regulations, and I pointed out Section III., "Provincial Examinations." The January and June Matriculation Examinations were held at the Brighton Municipal Technical College. He could see that made it all quite convenient and easy. I can see it is all quite mad," he answered. "Suppose by some miracle you were to pass the entrance exams. --have you any idea how long they keep you grinding away afterwards?"
"Five to seven years," I said.
"Well! can't you see what a wild idea it is?"
I said to myself: he knows about our straitened means. "You mean it costs such a great deal."
"It costs a great deal more than you think," he said, shifting about discontentedly in his chair.
Then I told him that my mother had some jewels. "I am sure that when she sees I am in earnest, when I have got my B. A., she will be willing I should use the jewels--"
"It's a dog's life," he said," for a woman."
I gathered my precious papers together. "You think I shall mind the hard work. But I shan't."
"It isn't the hard work," he said, "though it's not easy for a man. For a woman--" he left the woman medical-student hanging over the abyss.
For all my questions I could not bring him to the point of saying what these bugbears were.
He was plainly tired of the subject.
My first disappointment had yielded to a spiritless catechism of how this and how that.
My persistent canvass of the matter brought him nearer a manifestation of ill-temper than I had ever seen in him.
There was a great deal, he said, that he couldn't talk about to a girl of eighteen. But had I or anybody else ever heard of a man who was a doctor himself wanting his sister, or his daughter to study medicine? He had never known one. Not one.
I confessed I couldn't think why that was, ex-
cept that nobody belonging to a girl ever wanted her to do anything, except--I stopped short and then hurried on. . . . "But after all, you know that women do go through the medical schools and come out all right."
He shook his head. "They've lost something. Though I admit most of the women you mean, never had the thing I mean."
I said I didn't understand.
"Well, you ought to. You've go it." He looked at me with an odd expression and asked how long I'd had this notion in my head. I said a year. "All this time! You've been full of this ever since I was here last!"
I lied. I said I had thought of absolutely nothing else all that time. He stood up . . . but I still sat there wondering what had made me tell him that lie.
"You won't go," I said, "without seeing my mother."
To-day--he hadn't time.
I went down with him as usual to the front door, weeping inwardly, yet hoping, praying, that before the door closed he would say something that would help--something kind.
He often said the best things of all just as he was going--as though he had not dared to be half so interesting, or a tenth so kind, but in the very act of making his escape.
To-day he put on his covert coat in a moody silence. Still silent, he took his hat.
I stood with the door-knob in my hand. "You think, then, even if Aunt Josephine helped--"
"Who is Aunt Josephine?"
"My father's step-sister. She is well off."
Aunt Josephine's riches made no impression upon him. He was going away a different man from the one who had come in and pushed away my papers, to sit beside me and to take my hand. He pulled his stick out of the umbrella-stand.
"You feel sure I couldn't?" I pleaded at the door.
"I feel sure you could do something better."
He was out on the step. "Good-bye," he said, with the look that hurt me, so tired--disappointed.
He had come for peace--for my mother's tranquil spirit to bring rest to his tired mind. And all he had found here was my mother's daughter fretting to be out in the fray! I had
not even listened. I had interrupted and pulled away my hand.
After I shut the door, I opened it again, and called out: "Oh, what was it you were going to tell me?"
"It wouldn't interest you," he said, without even turning round.
End Chapter XV
Available since August 1997