Going to London
Mercifully, no soul can stand at the pitch of tension long. Those too frail snap. The strong relax. As I have learned since, few who have to do with lingering illness but come to know the gradual, inevitable dulling of apprehension in the watchers. Eric says the power of human adaptability sees to it that the abnormal state of the sufferer shall come by mere continuance to wear an air of the normal. And so the watcher, with no violence to loyalty, or conscience, is relieved of the sharper sympathy.
Certainly, my mother seemed to us in no worse case than many a time before. Bettina and I agreed that she began to improve the moment Duncombe air was no longer poisoned for her by the presence of poor Madame Aurore. What Eric had said of our trustworthy servants was true. Yet I had brought my mother to agree that my absence, now, was to be a matter only of hours, even if I went back for the Coronation.
And still I was not quite spared a profound sinking
of the heart at the moment of leave-taking. I put my misgiving down to the fear that parting from Bettina for four long weeks, would be more than my mother's scant reserve of strength could bear.
As for Bettina (oh, when I remember that!) --Bettina showed the bravest front; calling back from the door: "I shall write you every blessed day."
"Yes," my mother steadied her voice to answer. "I shall want to hear everything. The good and--the less good."
"There won't be any 'less good.' It's all going to be glorious."
* * *
As Big Klaus's dog-cart took us across the heath I strained my eyes for some glimpse of Eric. A week that day since he had come and shared his secret! He could never mean to let me go without a word. Not till the train was in motion could I give up hope. I stood a moment longer at the window looking back. No sign.
I took my seat between Betty and an old gentleman; she and I both too stirred and excited to talk. Betty, half-turned away, looked out of her window,
and I, across her shoulder and over the flying hedges, looked still for a man who might be walking the field-paths, looked for the bright green roof of his Bungalow, looked for the chimneys of the farm.
I sat fighting down my tears.
Not an hour of these bustling days had been so full, but I had felt the blank of Eric's silence. And now again I met the ache of loss with: This will teach you! You were dreading a little time away. He adds a week to our parting. He doesn't mind. It's only you, poor fool--only you who mind.
I looked round, in a sudden terror, lest anyone should be noticing that my eyes were wet.
Mercifully, the people were all looking at Betty. I looked at Betty, too. I could not see her eyes, but the nearer cheek was that lovely colour whose name she gave once to an evening sky. We had come up on the top of a knoll and stood for a moment, breathless. My mother had said no painter could get such a colour. And neither were there any words in the language to describe it. For it was not red, not flame, not pink, nor
orange. But Betty, looking steadily, had found the right words for it: "A fiery rose."
And that was the colour in Betty's cheeks on the way to London.
No wonder people looked at her. There was a man who got out of the first-class carriage next us at every station, and walked by our window. He looked in at Bettina. I was glad our carriage was full. I felt sure, if it had not been, he would have come in. I could see Bettina did not resent the staring. And then I saw her look out of the corner of her eyes.
"Bettina!" I whispered. "Don't encourage that strange man to stare in here."
"Me?" she said. "What am I doing?"
I told her again that she encouraged him. But I was handicapped by not being able to say just how. I admitted that what she did was very slight. But it was enough. "It was what you did to Eddie Monmouth." Then, because she pretended not to understand, I told her that she was falling into bad deceitful ways. I knew she had written to Ranny Dallas. . . . Yes, and kept writing, though the moment I realised what was going on I wrote to Ranny myself. I said
if any more letters came from him, I should have to tell Betty about the girl in Norfolk. Ranny wrote back that he had told Betty himself! And still they went on corresponding, secretly. I said to her now, that I should hardly be surprised if she was hoping to meet Ranny in London.
"Oh, one may 'hope' almost anything," said Betty airily.
"Not of a man who is engaged to another girl!"
"Yes," said Betty; "as long as he isn't married. . . . "
Then, rather frightened, I asked outright if she was really expecting to meet Ranny somewhere.
"How can I say? He is fond of the opera," she said in a very superior, grown-up way. "I might happen to see him some night in the throng--"
"In the throng! Betty," I said. "You have given Ranny Dallas your address."
"No," she said; "but I've given it to Tom Courtney."
Tom Courtney was Ranny's red-haired friend. "If you had watched," Betty said, "you would
know that I was corresponding with Tom Courtney, too. Chiefly about Ranny. Tom Courtney is a splendid friend. He explains things much better than Ranny can. And then" (Betty's momentary annoyance vanished in laughter)-- "then, too, Tom can spell--beautifully!"
I refused to laugh.
"I knew you'd be horrified," Betty said again, "and that is why I have to keep things from you. You are a sort of nun. You never feel as if all your blood had been whipped to a syllabub. And besides--"
"I do like nice men. I don't mind their knowing. And I don't mean to be an old maid. You wouldn't care."
"You think I wouldn't?" I had no time to say more, for the train stopped. We thought at first we had reached Victoria Station, but it was only Clapham Junction. The "staring" man passed once more, with a porter behind carrying golf-clubs and portmanteau. Our carriage, too, was emptying. The people stood and reached things down from the racks, and then filed out. When the train went on we were alone.
Betty was still excited, but more grave, even harassed--a look that sat rather pitiful on her babyish face.
I moved up close to her again, and I told her there was something I had to say before we got to London. "You and I, you see, we don't know very much, and we get carried away."
"You mean me," said Betty. "You are thinking about Eddie Monmouth and--"
Then I told her I did not mean her alone. "I don't know how it is," I said, remembering Mr. Whitby-Dawson and Captain Monmouth and Ranny--yes, and others-- "I don't know how it is, but girls seem to 'care' more than men do."
"I've thought that, too," Bettina said.
I said I was sure it was true. Men had so much to do. Life was so full for them . . . perhaps that took their minds off. I put my arm round Bettina and held her close. "I am going to confess something," I said, "that most older sisters would deny. But you have got nobody but me. And I have nobody but you. We must help each other."
"I shall have Aunt Josephine," Betty reminded me.
"A stranger--and too old besides." I dismissed Aunt Josephine for the particular purpose in view. "I am going to tell you something very--particular." Then, while she looked at the cushions opposite, and I looked out of the window, I told her I had learned from Eric Annan what she had learned through the others. "We'll say it just this once, and never, never again so long as we live! And we may have to deny it," I warned her. "But I think, if I'm honest about it with you, maybe you won't feel that I don't understand . . . or that I am, as you say, 'different.' You will feel closer to me," I pleaded. "And maybe we shall both be stronger for that." I waited a moment. I was glad Betty still stared straight in front of her. "We don't only care more than men do," I said. "We need men more than they need us."
Bettina turned at that. I felt her eyes on me. Then she looked down and stroked my hand.
"I think Mr. Annan does care about you," she said.
"A little," I said. "Not enough. Not as I care."
Bettina pointed out that Eric Annan was not so
young as we. "Why, he must be thirty. Perhaps when he was our age" --our eyes met in the new comradeship, and then fell-- "he may have taken more interest in--more interest in the things we think about."
Then she took it back. "No, no. You may depend it's only girls who are like that--caring so terribly much. I thought it was only me. But if you are like that too, maybe there are others." After a moment: "You were good to tell me," she said. "I don't feel so--unnatural."
The train was slowing. The light grew grey. We were in a dim place, between a smoky wall and a rattling train going out as we came in. Then the platform, and the porters running along by our windows. "Luggage, miss?"
Bettina started up.
End Chapter XXV
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