My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 20
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
Two Invitations and a Crisis
Before those two were visible to the group round Duncombe front door, or within hailing distance of us, they turned into the bypath leading to Big Klaus's.
I could not tell whether Eric had seen us. But I was quite sure Lady Helmstone had. Sure, too, that she had deliberately avoided us.
Ranny didn't want to come back with me, and I didn't press him. I promised him I would say he was going to walk across the heath to the inn-- " had to get back--expecting a telegram."
I stayed behind in the gorse bushes alone, till I saw Lord Helmstone and all his party going home.
I couldn't bear the thought of meeting Betty.
I went round by the kitchen and crept up the back stairs. I listened at my mother's door.
Not a sound. Then I heard Betty downstairs playing the accompaniment to a song she and Ranny used to sing.
So I opened my mother's door and went in.
The first thing she said was, without any preface, "I know, now, why Lady Helmstone invited a child like Bettina to go yachting for six months rather than you."
"So do I," I answered; "they all adore Bettina. And then she is Hermione's special friend."
"There is another reason," my mother said, looking out of the window. "A reason that concerns--Lady Barbara." Then she glanced at me, a little shyly, and away her eyes went again to the window. "Lord Helmstone thinks a sea-voyage would be the best thing in the world for Mr. Annan. They are asking him to be one of the party."
I felt as if some hard substance had struck me violently in the face. But I managed to bring out the words: "Is he going, do you think?"
"No doubt he will go," she said.
* * *
Already I seemed to have lost him as utterly as though he had died. Yet with none of that sad comfort my mother had spoken of--the comfort of knowing one's possession safe beyond all risk of loss or tarnishing.
I had never been on a yacht.
I had never seen a yacht.
Yet I could see Eric on the Nautch Girl. And Lady Barbara!
Her mother's words came back: "Very little is done at balls." Very much, the story-books had told me, was done by throwing people together on a long voyage. My own heart told me the same.
Yes, I had lost him.
And I had lost myself.
* * *
The next day was Sunday. In the morning Hermione came to carry Bettina off for their last day together. I had to promise that, if Ranny should come to Duncombe, I would send for Betty.
As I sat with my mother, that same afternoon, the door opened, and there was the maid bringing in Mr. Annan.
I think I scarcely spoke or moved.
It was my mother who said: "I thought you would come to say good-bye."
"'Good-bye'?" Then, with unusual brus-
querie where my mother was concerned, he added: "When I come to see people, what I say is, 'How do you do?'"
"But aren't you going away to-morrow?"
"Why should I?"
"Why, to catch the Nautch Girl."
"I can't think of a girl I should so little care to catch."
And he wasn't going at all! Had never contemplated it for a moment!
The weight of the world fell off my shoulders. And for nearly five minutes of a joy almost too great to be borne, I believed that it was because of me he wasn't going.
Then he told my mother it was because of his work. And so it was that, unconsciously, he made good the excuse I had offered for his bolting off the afternoon I told him my secret. He seemed to have forgotten that episode. At least, he behaved as though it had never happened.
He laughed a little over his interview with her ladyship. "Very determined individual, Lady Helmstone." He had told her, finally, that he hadn't time even to go to his sister's wedding. He had not thought it necessary, he said to add
that he wouldn't have gone to his sister's wedding however much time he had.
Of course, my mother asked why such unbrotherly behaviour? He told us that he didn't approve of the marriage. There was nothing against the man's character. He was a "Writer to the Signet," which seemed in Scotland to mean a sort of barrister. I said "Writer to the Signet" sounded much finer than "barrister." I was told that Maggie Annan could not be expected to live on a fine sound. And that was about all they would have. This particular "Writer to the Signet" was poor. "Oh, poorer than poor!"
I didn't like his way of saying that.
As we went downstairs I was rather glad of being able to disagree with him about something. It would keep me from being foolish. I had that feeling of the creature who has been straining long at bonds, and finds the sudden loosing a test of equilibrium. For fear I should seem too gloriously content with him, I taxed Eric with thinking over much about money. He said a man may put up with any sort of hardship he likes for himself. But no man had a right to marry till he could support a wife in some sort of comfort. I
suggested that perhaps Maggie Annan cared less about comfort than she cared about other things. He retorted that Maggie probably hadn't thought it out at all. She was acting on impulse. "To think it out--that was the man's business." And so on.
I felt myself growing impatient when he said "comfort" for the second time.
"When people are old, yes! 'Comfort' then. But when they're young, what does it matter?"
He leaned against the newel of the staircase and looked at me, quite surprised. "I thought you were more practical," he said.
"I am practical. That's why I say comfort is wasted on the young. They don't even want it--unless they're rather horrid sort of young people."
"Thank you," he said, laughing, and I felt hot. I tried to explain. Such a lot of things were fun when you were young, especially when they were shared. I had noticed that. Things that made you cross, and made you ill when you were older-- Suddenly I stopped, saying in my heart: "Heavens! isn't this the kind of foolishness I was hoping to be saved from? Or is it worse? . . . " For Eric was smiling in such a disconcerting way.
I said primly that Miss Maggie did not need me to defend her, and that I must not keep him from his work.
That word was like the touch of a whip. In two seconds he was gone.
The next day, Monday, just the same. He ran in only for a moment to see my mother. He could not sit down; he could not do this, nor that. Work, work! It had seized him in a fresh grip.
I was thankful to the work for having carried him away that Monday afternoon, when Betty came back from seeing the Helmstones off. It was a Betty we had never seen before. I don't know what else Hermione had said to her, but Betty had been told that she, too, might have gone yachting.
It was like a stab to see my mother's face now, and to remember the confidence with which she had quoted the old story about Bettina's insisting on the promise that she should not be made to pay visits: "Not never?" "Not never!"
I had hated Lady Helmstone for saying that Bettina would, in her ladyship's opinion, be found to have outgrown her reluctance.
It was true.
Bettina wanted to go!
My mother, unwisely I felt, reminded Betty of the old pledge.
"I was a baby then. What did I know?"
And now there were tears in Bettina's eyes because she was not going to leave her mother.
* * *
I don't like to think of those next days. They were all a strain and a tangle.
I cannot imagine what we should have done without Eric. For the way Bettina took her disappointment made my mother positively ill. Eric's prescription was hard to fill: "Peace of mind--absolute quiet and tranquillity."
"You are less alarmed," he said in that direct way of his, "than you were that first day you brought me here. But you have more reason."
* * *
I did not want Bettina fully to realise the cloud that was so surely gathering to burst--and yet I was angry at her failure to realise. So unreasonable, so unkind I found I could be! Oh, I lost patience more than once. But my mother, never.
"You will see all the beautiful places some day, my darling."
Bettina was sure she never should. This had been her one chance--who else was likely to take her?
"The fit and proper person. Your husband will take you, as your father took me."
That answer surprised us both.
I could not blame Bettina for feeling that it seemed to postpone the delights of travel overlong.
The strange new Bettina went about the house, settling to nothing, at once restive and idle. All on edge. The worst sign of all was that she neglected her music. My mother remonstrated.
"What's the use?"
"You will find your music a very important part of your equipment."
"Equipment!" said the new Bettina scornfully. "Equipment for what?"
"For taking your place in the world."
"The world!" Bettina exchanged looks with me. Yes, the world seemed far away. Inaccessible.
"If we never go anywhere--never see anyone, what is the use in being equipped?"
I think Bettina was sorry she said that. The
effect of it was as though some rude hand had thrown down a screen. My mother looking up with hollow, startled eyes must have caught a glimpse of something that she dreaded.
* * *
"Don't put it off," she whispered. "Write to your Aunt Josephine to-night."
I composed my letter very carefully.
My sister and I had often wished, I wrote, that we had some acquaintance with our only relation. Especially as she and our father had been so much to each other. Our mother was in poor health. We lived very quietly. But we all hoped if ever Aunt Josephine came to this part of the world--a very pretty part--she would come to see us. I was nearly nineteen now, and I was hers "affectionately."
Feeling myself very diplomatic and "deep," I enclosed the last photograph Hermione had taken of Bettina. I wrote on it "Betty at sixteen--but it does not do her justice."
If anything could win her over, it would be that snapshot of Betty dancing on Duncombe lawn.
I posted the letter in an access of remorse and wretchedness--afraid I had left it too late. For
my mother had said, "After all, instead of your leaving me, I shall have to leave you."
That same night Eric told me that he had sent to London for a heart-specialist. And the heart-specialist had answered he would be down on Thursday, which was the day after to-morrow. I saw in Eric's face that he was anxious at the delay. He admitted that he was "afraid" to wait. Yes, he would wire for another man.
"You don't," I whispered, "you don't mean . . . quite soon?"
He repeated that he was "afraid."
Then I felt I knew all that any specialist could tell me.
* * *
That was the day I came to know the steadying influence of a call to face great issues. They bring their own greatness with them. They wrap it round our littleness. Only afterwards, thinking how gentle and watchful Eric looked in telling me, I remembered that people were supposed to faint when they heard news like that. For myself I had never felt so clear-headed. Never felt the responsibility of life so great. Never felt
that for us to fail in bearing our share was so unthinkable.
If this Majesty of Death were soon to clothe my mother, her children must not hide and weep. They must help her, help each other to meet the Great King at the gate.
All the little troubles fell away. I was kind again to Betty.
I called my lover "Eric." He called me by my name. Just that.
No more passed between him and me. But I felt I had taken this man and that he had taken this woman "for better or worse."
End Chapter XX
Available since August 1997