My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 2
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
There was one lasting cloud upon a childhood spent as close to our mother as fledglings in a nest.
Our mother was the most beautiful person we had ever seen. Even as quite young children we were dimly conscious of the touch of pathos in the beauty that is frail, as though we guessed it was never to grow old. But this was not the cloud. For the presentiment was too undefined, it came in a guise too gentle to give us present uneasiness.
In the unquestioning way of children, we accepted the fact that one's mother should be too easily tried to join in active games. But she taught us how to play. She was as much a factor in our recreation as in our lessons--so much so that we were a long time in finding out the dividing line between work and play. I think that must have been because our mother had a genius for teaching. The hard things she made stimulating, and the easy things she made delight.
No; there was an exception to this.
Not even my mother could make me good at music. She was infinitely patient. She made allowances for me that she never made for my sister.
Once, when I was dreadfully discouraged, I was allowed to leave my "Étude" and learn something that might be supposed to catch my fancy--a gay and foolish little waltz-tune called "The Emerald Isle."
"Oh, but quicker, child!" I hear her now. "It is not a dirge."
I began again-- allegro, as I thought.
But "Faster, faster!" my mother kept saying, till I dropped my hands.
"How can I? You expect me to be as quick as God!"
I think this must have been after that act of His which gave use a sense of surpassing swiftness. For long I blamed my lack of skill upon my fingers; they were as stiff as Bettina's were elastic. She kept always the hand of a very young child--so soft and pliant that you wondered if there were any bones in it at all until you heard the firm tone in her playing, and saw the way in
which, when she was stirred, she brought down the flying hands on some rich, resolving chord.
Years after I was still able only to practise, Bettina "played." And better even than her playing was Bettina's singing. That began when she was quite a baby. I see her now, a small figure, all white except her green shoes and her hair of sunset gold, singing; singing a nursery rhyme to an ancient tune my mother had found in one of her collections of old English song:
Where are you going to, my pretty maid?"
We thought this specially accomplished of Bettina, because it was the first thing she sang in English.
I do not remember how we learned French. It must have been the first language that we spoke. Our mother, without apparent intention, kept us to the habit of talking French when we did the pleasantest things. All the phrases and verbal framework of our games were French; all the mythology stories were in French.
And we seemed to fall into that tongue only by chance when we went collecting treasures for our herbarium, or the fresh-water aquarium.
We found out by-and-by that the walks we thought so adventurously long were little walks. We also found that our world was less uninhabited than we thought. Duncombe, we discovered, stood midway between two large country houses. Besides the cottage of Kleiner Klaus, there were other small peasant holdings, dotted like islands in our sea of green--brave little enclosures made, as we heard later, by the few who refused to be wholly dispossessed when, in the eighteenth century, the open heath had been taken from the people.
Our own Duncombe, which we thought very grand and spacious, had been only a superior sort of farmhouse.
Everyone has marked the shrinkage in those nobler spaces we knew as children. In our case, not all imaginary, the difference between what we thought was "ours" and what, for the time being, was. We never doubted but the boundless heath belonged to us as much as our garden did.
We were confirmed in our belief by the attitude of our mother towards those persons detected in daring to walk "our" paths, or touch our wildflowers, or, worst crime of all, disturb our birds.
The proper thing to do, on catching sight of any stranger, was to start with an aversion suggested by our mother's, but improved upon--more pictorial. We would all three stare at the intruder, and then allow our eyes to travel to the nearer of the signs, "Trespassers," etc. If this pantomime did not convince the creature of the impropriety of his presence, we would look at one another with wide eyes, as though inquiring: "Can such things be? Are these, then, deliberate criminals? If so"--our looks agreed--"the company of outlaws is not for us." We turned our backs and went home. I was twelve before I realised that we ourselves were trespassers.
The heath belonged to Lord Helmstone.
That was a blow.
Still worse, the later knowledge that Duncombe House and garden were not our own. The laying out of a golf course, and the cheapening of the motor-car, forced the facts upon our knowledge. But I am glad that as little children we did not know these things. We saw ourselves as heiresses to the prettiest house and garden in the world. And no whit less to those broad acres rolling away--with foam of gorse and broom on
the crests of their green waves--rolling northward towards London and the future.
Two miles to the south was our village--source of such supplies as did not come direct from Big Klaus, or from Little Klaus. We knew the village, because when we were little we went to church there. Big Klaus, the red-faced farmer, who had a great many collie dogs and nearly as many sons, drove us to church in a dog-cart. The moment the squat tower came in view Bettina and I would lean out to see who would be the first to catch sight of Colonel Dover. He was nearly always waiting near the lych-gate to help my mother out of the cart. One or two other people would stop to speak as we came or went. Often they asked, Would she come to a garden-party? Would she play bridge? Would she help with a children's school-treat?
And she never did any of these things.
Bettina and I liked Colonel Dover till we overheard something Martha Loring said to the cook. Both women seemed to think my mother was going to marry him! Bettina was too young to mind much. Besides, he had beguiled Bettina with chocolate.
I was furious and miserable.
I said to myself that, of course, my mother would never dream. . . . But the servants gossip poisoned all the time of primroses that year. I thought about little else in our walks.
Once we met him. Something began that day to whisper in the back of my head: "If he asks her enough she might give in. She does to me when I persist."
Out of my first great anxiety was born the beginning of my knowledge of my mother's character.
I could see that she, too, was afraid of giving in.
But afraid of contest quite as much. Afraid of--I knew not what. But I knew she stayed away from church, because she was afraid. I knew our walks where different, because we were always thinking we might meet him.
I prayed God to give my mother strength--for Christ's sake not to let it happen. Morning and night I prayed that prayer for half a summer.
Dreadful as the issue was, I was thankful afterwards that I had taken the matter in hand.
End of Chapter II
Available since August 1997