She is very fair, my little sister.
I mean, not only she is good to look upon. I mean that she is white and golden, and always seemed to bring a shining where she went.
* * *
I have not been able, I see, to set down these few sentences without touching the quick.
I have used the present and then fallen to the past. I say "is" and then, she "seemed." And I do not know whether I should have written "was" or "seems."
And that, in sum, is my story.
* * *
We were both so young when we went to Duncombe that even I cannot clearly remember what life was like before.
Whether there was really some image left upon my mind of India, or my father in a cocked hat, looking very grand on a horse, or whether these were a child's idea of what a cavalry officer's daughter must have seen, I cannot tell. I do not
think I imagined the confused picture of dark faces and a ship.
My first clear impression of the world is the same as Bettina's. A house, which we did not yet know as small, set in a place which still is wide and green.
As far back as we remember it at all, we remember roaming this expanse; always, in the beginning, with our mother. A region where we played with the infinite possibilities of existence--from the discovery of a wheat-ears' hidden nest, to the apparition of a pack of hounds on the horizon, followed by men in red coats and ladies in sober habit, on horses that came galloping out of the vague, up over the green rim of the world, jumping the five-barred gate into Little Klaus's meadow, and vanishing in a pleasant fanfare of horn, of baying and hallooing, leaving us standing there in a stirred and wonderful stillness.
We seldom met anyone afoot in those days except, now and then, the cottager who lived in a thatched hut down in one of the multitude of hollows. We called him "Kleiner Klaus," because he had one horse of his own, and because sometimes in the paddock four others grazed and
kicked their heels. And he was little and shrewd-looking, and used to smile at Bettina.
To be sure, everyone smiled at Bettina.
And Bettina would show her dimple, and nod her shining curls, and pass by like a small Princess, scattering gold of gladness and goodwill.
Though we children looked on Kleiner Klaus as a friend, years went by before we dared so much as say good-morning to him. Anyone else found at large in our green dominions was an enemy.
So much we learned before we learned to speak our mother tongue, and all in that first lesson, so far as I was concerned. A lesson typified in the figure hurrying to the rescue down the flagged path toward the gate. My mother! . . . who had moved through all our days with changeless calm. And now she was running so fast that her thick hair was loosened. A lock blew across her face.
Mélanie, our nurse, stood inside the gate with Bettina in her arms. A lady leaned over, asking the way to the Dew Pond. Mélanie could not even understand the question. But I knew all about the Dew Pond. I had been there with my
mother to look for caddis flies. So I pointed to the knoll against the sky, and stammered a direction. Bettina was of no use to anyone looking for the Dew Pond. But she quickly took her place as the centre of interest. All that she did to make good her Divine Right was to show her dimple, and point a meaning finger at the jewelled watch pinned to the stranger's gown. The lady held out her hands to our baby. Bettina consented to be taken nearer to the sparkling toy.
Then our mother, as I say, hurrying out of the house as though it were on fire, taking the baby and the nurse and me away in such haste, I had no time to finish telling the lady how to find the Dew Pond.
I heard my mother, who was commonly so gentle, telling the nurse in stern staccato French if ever it happened again she would be sent away. Never, never was she to allow anyone to touch our baby. Had the strange woman kissed Bettina?
The new nurse lied.
And I said no word.
But the impression was stamped deep. No one outside the family at Duncombe was ever to
kiss Bettina. Or even to kiss me--which I remember thinking a pity.
Moreover, I perceived that if, through the ignorance or the wickedness of stranger-folk, this thing were to happen again, one would never dare confess it.
For such a catastrophe the far-sighted Bon Dieu had provided the refuge of the lie.
End Chapter I
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