My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 23

My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins

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Chapter XXIII 
Eric's Secret

My sister and I breakfasted in the morning-room in those days, and we always had a fire for Bettina's sake on chilly mornings.

In the back of my mind I was hoping Eric's complaint of cold was an excuse. If my first impression had been right, if he had something to tell me, he would tell it better indoors. I should hear it better, sitting beside him.

The pang when he passed the sofa by! I was wrong. . . . I was an idiot. . . .

He drew up before the ungenerous little fire and began at once to speak with suppressed excitement of a "secret."

"--the sort of thing that--well, I wouldn't trust my own brother with it." And upon that he stopped short.

I did not say: "You can trust me." But I hardly breathed in the pause. I felt it all hung on whether he told me. What hung? Why, everything--whether life was going to be kind to 

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me someday . . . whether it was well or ill that I had been born.

He seemed to be content with having told me there was a secret. For he changed the subject abruptly to the Bungalow, and what an adept Bootle was at the inoculation and the preparation of cultures. Bootle possessed the great and glorious faculty of accuracy! One of the few men on earth whose account of a thing did not need to be checked.

Sitting over the fire that morning, Eric told me that the Bungalow was a laboratory. Very important work had been done there last autumn. (So that was why he had stayed on!) "Tentative but highly significant results" had been arrived at--results which all these months of contest and putting to proof, in London and on the Continent, had not been able to upset.

"Gods!" Eric exclaimed, with a startling vehemence. But this was a glorious place to work in! The best air in England! And the Bungalow had been an inspiration from on high! Far away from noise and interruption; and not merely for a few paltry hours. Great stretches of time to himself! Then you were so fit here. 

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You slept. You had all your wits about you. As we knew, it was Hawkins's idea in the first place--that Eric should come down and rest. Well, now I was to hear something more about Hawkins. Hawkins was a kind of mascot. He not only was the best man they'd ever had in that chair at the University. He wasn't only a first-rate bacteriologist, and first-rate all-round man. There was something about Hawkins that struck fire out of other people. His rooms were a meeting-place for chaps keen about--well, about the things that matter. Hawkins gave a dinner at his club one night to some London University men and a couple of distinguished foreigners.

"Of course, we talked shop. We argued and stirred one another up, and the sparks flew. When the rest had gone Hawkins and I stayed talking in the smoking-room. About an idea"-- Eric looked round to see that the door was shut-- "a new idea I was working at for dealing with cancer."

"Dealing!" I echoed, leaning forward. "You mean curing?"

"--I told Hawkins about an experiment I'd been making. As I've said, Hawkins is very in- 

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telligent. But he contested my conclusions. I grew hot. We argued. I told him more and more. Hawkins thought my experiments too rough-and-ready. Even if they weren't rough-and-ready, to be conclusive they must be tried on an extended scale. I stood up for the validity of tests, on a small scale, done with an infinity of care--a ruthless spending of the investigator rather than multiplication of the subject. All the same, I couldn't deny that precious time was being wasted and many lives. Hawkins was right. I did need a trained staff, and I needed--oh, masses of things I had not got, and had no prospect of getting. We had tried the forlorn hope of a Government grant--and failed. We agreed that, in working out an idea like mine, the crucial danger lay in premature publicity. We are in a cleft stick in these matters. Without the right people knowing, believing, helping, it is hard--pretty nearly impossible--to go forward. I sat, rather dejected, and stared at the fire. The smoking-room had been empty except for a little, dried-up old man, who was half asleep over the evening papers. A few minutes after Hawkins had gone out to pay his bill, the little old man waked up 

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and went to a writing-table. In a half-minute or so I looked round, and he was standing quite near me, warming his back at the fire.

"I've been eavesdropping," he said. Lord! I was scared. How much had I given away? 'I don't know anything about this subject,' he said. 'But I've an idea you do. Anyhow, I'm willing to gamble on it. My name's Pearmain,' he said, and he showed me the signature on a cheque. 'A thousand pounds to start you.' He laid the cheque down on the little table among the matches and cigar-ends. 'You can let me know when you need more,' he said. He fished a card out of an inside pocket, and chucked it on top of the cheque. Naturally, I was staggered. He seemed right enough in his head, but I was sure he couldn't be. . . . When Hawkins came back I introduced him. We talked awhile longer. Then the old man said good-night. The next day I cashed the cheque. I gave up my post in the hospital, and I gave up . . . a lot of things. After that I invested ever ounce of energy I had in this undertaking. For three solid years I've done nothing, thought about nothing, except the one thing." 

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His eyes were shining as a lover's might, I thought. The sting of jealousy poisoned my pleasure in being taken into his confidence--a renewed antagonism to the work, work, always work, that made its triumphant claim.

"You pretend to be more inhuman than you are," I said. "For you don't forget that you can help people who have only ordinary everyday troubles."

"Oh, yes, I do," he laughed. "I'll have nothing to do with ordinary, everyday troubles."

"You helped us--"

"Oh, that's different--an exception. Just for once. . . . " He seemed to excuse himself, for wasting time on us. He said the most extravagant things. "A revolution might have swept England. I should have gone on attenuating serums and inoculating guinea-pigs."

It may have been something in my manner, or just my silence, that pulled him up. He spoke of the share we at Duncombe had had in "what's happened."

"When I was clean worked out and dead-beat, I came here."

We hadn't any notion of the "rest and refresh- 

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ment--the--" He looked at me out of those clear red-brown eyes of his, and seemed to deliberate. A sense of delicious panic seized me. "And--the--the experiments. How do they come on?" I asked, but I wasn't thinking of them at all.

"That," he said, sinking his voice--"that's just what I'm coming to; though I hoped I shouldn't tell you. I didn't mean to say anything at all this morning, except that I was going to be a hermit for these next days. But you aren't a chatterbox. The fact is . . . last night I believe I stumbled on the secret."

I don't know what I said, but it pleased him. His eyes were full of gentle brilliancy. "Yes, yes," he said. "I knew you'd understand."

Oh, it was good to see him with that light in his face!

And we sat there, with the morning sun shining over us, and just looked gladness at each other. Then I said I thought he must be the happiest man in England.

He half put out his hand, and drew it back.

"I am to find that out, too, very soon," he said. 

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The clock downstairs chimed ten. Eric jumped up like a person with a train to catch.

He had taken me into his counsels prematurely like this, he said, because he wanted to feel sure that I wasn't putting any wrong construction on the fact of his burying himself for these next days. "I like to think you are understanding. If I have any good news, I'll come and tell you. If you don't hear, you'll know I don't dare let go my clue even for an hour, except to sleep."

And now he must go.

I went with him as far as the gate.

He walked with head bent, and eyes that saw things hidden from me. Already he was back in the Bungalow.

I felt the misery of being deserted. But I felt, too, the strong intelligence, the iron purpose, in the man. And though I was torn and aching, I was proud. For all my jealousy, as I saw the mouth so firm-set under the red-brown thatch, saw the colour in his face, something reached me, too, of the heat of this passion to find out--something of the absorption of the man of science in his task. Here was the new kind of soldier going to his post. 

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I held out my hand. "Good luck!"

He took it, then dropped it quickly.

And quickly, without once looking back, he walked away.

I watched him hurrying across the links till one of the heath hollows swallowed him up.

As I turned to go back to my thyme-planting, I heard the dog-cart rattling along the stony road.

Madame Aurore!

I never finished planting the thyme. 

End Chapter XXIII 
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Available since August 1997