My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 21
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
Aunt Josephine's Letter
Bettina came into the room and handed me a letter.
"Mrs. Harborough!"-- my mother drew herself up on the pillow with an animation I had not thought to see again.
I opened and read: "My dear niece--"
"Ah!" my mother brought out the ejaculation with an effect of having doubted if the relationship would be owned.
That introductory phrase turned out to be the most comprehensible part of the first half of Aunt Josephine's letter. As for me, I was completely floored by "the Dynamism of Mind," after I had stumbled over a cryptic reference to my mother's state-- "which you must not expect me to call sickness. There is no such thing. There is only harmony or unharmony, whether of the so-called body or the soul."
On the third page, the writer descended
from these Alpine heights, to say that it had been "inspirationally born in upon" her that the time was come for her brother's daughters to widen their horizon, and incidentally, to see something of their father's world.
The implied slur upon our mother's world was, to my surprise, not resented.
"Go on. Go on."
The letter ended by saying that, in spite of very grave and urgent preoccupations, Aunt Josephine would endeavour to draw a little of the old life round her, if her nieces would come and stay with her in Lowndes Square for a few weeks.
"A London season!" Bettina cried.
I looked up from the letter and saw my mother watching with hungry delight Bettina's face of rapture. Bettina had not looked like that since the Helmstones went away.
But the most marked change, after all, was in my mother herself.
When Eric came he was staggered. "I'll believe in miracles after this!"--and we joked about the Dynamism of Mind.
My mother had taken for granted that both Bettina and I would accept Aunt Josephine's in-
vitation, though I said at once I could not leave home. My mother put this aside with: "Bettina go alone! A wild idea."
When the question came up again in Eric's presence I did not press it far. But, going down stairs, I asked him how was I to put it to my mother?
"Put what?" he asked.
"Why, the fact that we can't leave her. Or, at least, that I can't." I agreed Betty must go.
"So must you, he said. My heart beat faster. His villeggiatura was near the end. London, for me, meant Eric. "You need the change," he said, "more than Betty does."
"You forget," I said, a little sadly, "what we've been facing here. The specialist coming--"
"Well, he will find she has rallied."
Nevertheless, she was in no condition, Eric said, to be crossed. Had she not told me herself that my first duty was to take care of Betty? That was not how he would put it--all the same, the change would do me good. Then a word about our "trustworthy servants." In any event I was
not to say any more about not going, till we had seen the "London chap."
* * *
She went on quite wonderfully.
We were positively gay again--she and I and Bettina--the three of us laying plans. We talked about clothes, and planned how we should look very nice on very little money.
When the great specialist came, he found my mother sitting up in a bed covered with old evening-gowns, old laces, and embroidered muslins; things she had worn long ago in India, and which should help to make us brave for our first London season. Smart little blouses, morning-gowns and afternoon-gowns, could be made in the house or in the village. But who was worthy to make an evening-frock fit for London? My mother was much more concerned about this than about the great specialist, whom she received rather as a friend of Eric's. He echoed all that Eric had said.
* * *
My mother had made me write to Aunt Josephine on the evening of the same day that brought her letter. I did not tell anyone, but I put off
posting my answer till the London doctor had gone. My letter was not only thanks and acceptance. I felt I ought, in common civility, to try to make some more or less rejoinder to the odd part of my aunt's letter. And this modest effort seemed not to displease her. For she replied in eight pages of cloudy metaphysic and a highly lucid cheque. The cheque alone supported us in our attempt to grapple with those eight bewildering pages. The first introduced us, by way of the Psychology of the Solar Plexus, to the Self-Superlative:
"If this view-point interests you, I will later explain to you--in terms of inclusiveness and totalism--the mystical activities of the Ever-Creative Self."
"Isn't she awfully learned!" said Bettina in a scared voice.
"On your return home, having 'contacted,' as we say, the talents and tranquillity of others--instead of contacting things of lack and fear--you will be able to think happily and sweetly about matters that formerly disturbed you. All the ills of life are curable from within. Complete health is wisdom. I do not go so far as to predict
that you will find yourself instantly able to adopt the biovibratory sympathism which habitualises thought to the Majesty of Choice. But I do say that after giving the deeper and sweeter Self a chance to unite the self of common consciousness, constructively, with the Powers Within, that you, too, may find yourself a Healer--that is, Harmoniser--clothed in the Regal Now."
After that plunge, Aunt Josephine came to the surface for breath, so to speak, and to say that she thought it only fair to tell us that she herself had seen almost nothing of general society for the past ten years. She had her work. She had her classes in which we might take some interest. I was to tell "the musical one" that Self-Expression, through voice culture and pianoforte playing, was one of the Keys to the Biosophian System.
Aunt Josephine had already taken opera-tickets for the season. And we should go to as many concerts as we liked. We should see pictures and we should see people. We should "learn to use the plus sign in thought." We should "recognise the cosmic truth that ALL IS GOOD."
This concluding phrase was underscored three times. And still, despite its provokingly obvious aspect, I felt that I had not a notion what Aunt
Josephine meant by it. My mother said the reason was that I knew nothing of mysticism. Eric said neither did he. But he knew stark, staring lunacy when he saw it. And he was more than doubtful if we ought to be entrusted to this demented step-aunt.
My mother reproved Eric's flippancy. Either she really did see daylight, and most excellent meaning, in the Biosophical Theory, or she concerned herself to make out a case for the defence of Aunt Josephine. She told Eric she was surprised that a man of science should at this time of the day cast ridicule on the doctrine of an essential harmony between "soul states" and the health of the body. For her part, she felt the attraction of this idea of ceasing the little lonely personal fight against overwhelming odds--this putting oneself into direct relation with the Infinite.
Yes, my mother maintained, there was much to be said for Mrs. Harborough's idea that each individual should learn to think of his life in connection with this underlying force. If, instead of denying God we affirmed Him . . . refusing to accept or to believe in evil--
"All very jolly for us," Eric said, "but what about the poor cancerous devils in our hospital? I see us looking in on them and saying: "Oh, you're all right! Three cheers for the harmony. Come out and play golf with the staff.'"
* * *
After Eric had gone my mother lay back on the pillow, her shining eyes on Bettina pirouetting noiselessly about the room. I begged Bettina to stop her gyrating.
She explained she was doing the cheque dance. Mercifully there was this antidote--I mean postscript to Aunt Josephine's letter. "Nearer the time" she would send us the money for our tickets. The enclosed £ 40 was for clothes.
Now the way was clear!
The question still was, Who, this side of London, could be trusted to make our frocks? The seriousness of the consideration brought the cheque dance to an end. We sat and thought.
The precise date of this visit was not yet fixed. Aunt Josephine had asked what time would suit us best.
With one voice, Betty and I cried, June!"
But we were promptly told (and we agreed) that to suggest June would be too grasping. Aunt Josephine would have other, more important, guests eager to come to her for the Coronation month. So we answered: Any time convenient to her.
Then that admirable Aunt wrote back: "Would next month do?" And would we stay for the Coronation?
In spite of the breathless shortness of the time of preparation, Bettina composed Coronation dances and practised curtseying to the Queen, though she knew quite well that she would only see Her Majesty at a distance driving by in her golden coach.
The one consideration that sobered Bettina was who, who--on this short notice, with all the feminine world crying passionately for frocks--who could be found to make ours? The more plain and simple, the more important was style and cut. Nobody in the country-side was competent for such an undertaking.
Brighton? Very dear, and not first-rate.
Suddenly Bettina clapped her hands.
"The little French dressmaker Hermione told us about."
The very person! Only, wouldn't she be up to the eyes in work? We remembered, too, she was said to be "not strong." She didn't care, as a rule, to work out of London. But she had come to sew for those horrid people Lord Helmstone let the Pond House to the year before. The people turned out to be badly off, and, after doing some damage, they had gone away without paying their rent. A law-suit was pending between them and Lord Helmstone. We had never known them, but we could not help noticing their clothes. They were beautiful. Even my mother said so.
Hermione had played golf once or twice with the boy and girl. One day she had admired openly something the girl was wearing.
"Yes, looks quite Bond Street, doesn't it?" the girl said. "And all done at home by a little dressmaker at four-and-six a day."
Hermione had got the woman's address, specially for us, she said--meaning for Bettina. Hermione was always advising Bettina about her clothes and making the child discontented with what she had.
We had not wanted any "little tame dressmaker" at the time, but we were enchanted now, when Bettina turned up the card inscribed:
"MADAME AURORE, "87, Crutchley Street, "Leicester Square."
"Madame Aurore!" my mother echoed. "no doubt a cockney of the cockneys!"
* * *
She was not a cockney. And she was a great surprise.
End Chapter XXI
Available since August 1997