My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 4

My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins

page 16 

Chapter IV 

I see I have given the impression that Colonel Dover was the cloud. No. He was only a roll of thunder behind the cloud. I have put off saying more about the cloud because of the difficulty in making anyone else understand the larger, vaguer threat on our horizon.

Those early days, as I have said, were happy and warmly sheltered. Yet there was all about us, or hovering near ready to swoop down, a sense of fear.

I hardly know how we came first to feel it as a factor in life. A thousand impressions stamped the consciousness deep and deeper still. A fear, older than the fear of Colonel Dover, and apart from any danger with a name. A thing as close to life as the flesh to our bones.

We were safe there, on our island in the heathery sea, only as people are safe who never trust themselves to the treachery of ships.

My mother seemed to hug the thought of home 

page 17 

as those in old days who heard a wolf howl gave thanks for the stout stockade.

More times than I can count I have seen her coming home from one of our walks with that look, half dreaming, half vague apprehension. I have seen her turn that look back on Bettina, lagging: "Soon home, now, little girl. Soon safe in our dear home."

I remember the look of the heath, at dusk, on winter days. The forbidding grey of the sky. The clammy chill. A white fog coming out of the hollows--a level mist; not rising high at first, but rolling nearer, nearer, like the ghost of an inundating sea. All the familiar things taking on an unreal look. A silence, and a shivering. Sometimes the dull oppression broken by a birds' note. Harsh and sudden. A danger signal.

I see us linking arms and, with our mother between us, so mend the pace that she would reach home almost breathless. Nevertheless, we would hurry indoors and shoot the bolt behind use like people who knew themselves pursued.

Perhaps my mother's fear had grounds we children never knew. But we knew that the sound of a door shut, and a bolt shot, was music 

page 18 

in her ears. Her changed "home" face was like summer come again. She would help us to strip off our wraps, and, all in a glow, we would go flying to the haven of our pretty fire-bright room with its gay chintzes, its lamps and flowers. One of us would ring for tea; another would draw chairs about the blaze. My mother's part was to close the heavy inside shutters, to let down across the panels the iron bar, and draw the curtains.

Now we are safe and sound!" she would say.

I do not pretend to explain, for I do not know how it was that, though we loved our walks, Bettina and I came to share her sense of danger.

In the beginning we may have felt the flight home to be merely a kind of game. A playing at Prisoner's Base with the threshold of Duncombe House for goal. When we reached there (and only in the nick of time!) we had escaped our enemy, whether Colonel Dover or another. We had won. We had barred him out.

That feeling lasted warm, triumphant, until bed-time. Then, heavy wooden shutters, even with iron all across, were no avail. Another enemy, craftier, deadlier than any that might 

page 19 

haunt the heath at dusk, had got into the house. He was in hiding all the cheerful part of evening, when lights and voices were about. At bed-time, in dim passages, you felt his breath on the back of your neck. He never faced you. Always he was behind you. But he was never at his deadliest while you had your shoes and stockings on. He waited behind curtains or under the bed, to clutch at your bare feet as you jumped in.

I try not to read into the influences about our childhood more than was there.

Perhaps our fears had no obscurer origin than the humble domestic fact that my mother never trusted the servants with the locking-up of the house. We saw her go the rounds each night, holding a candle high to bolts, or low to locks and catches. I believe now she may have had only some natural fear, in that lonely place, of robbery. But for us children the Dread was harder to fight against, being bodyless.

As everyone knows, except those most in need of knowing--I mean children--every old house is an orchestra of ghostly sound. One room at Duncombe, in particular, was an eerie place to sit in when the winds were out. You heard a 

page 20 

kind of unearthly music played there on winter evenings. Sounds so remote from any whistling, moaning, or other wind instrumentality, that Bettina and I spoke of it in whispers: "Now the organ's playing."

Our mother heard it, too. At the first note she would lift her eyes and listen. We had an obscure feeling that she heard more than we--a something behind the music. Something which we strained to catch, and often seemed upon the verge of understanding.

There is no more characteristic picture of my mother in my mind than that which shows her to me with needle arrested over work slipping off her knee, or holding a page half-turned, her lifted face wearing that look, listening, foreboding.

There is something more expressive in the white of certain eyes than in the iris. The white of my mother's eyes was a crystalline blue-white. It caught the light and glistened. It seemed to respond more sensitively, to have more "seeing" in it than was in the pale blue iris. The contrast of heavy dark lashes may have lent the eye that almost startling look when the fringe of shadow 

page 21 

lifted suddenly, and the eyeball answered to the light.

There was nothing the least tragic about my mother's usual looks or moods. She was merely gentle and aloof.

She helped us to be very happy children; and if she made us sometimes most unhappy, she did so unconsciously. And she did so only at times when she must have been unhappy, too.

She played for us to dance. And she played for us to sing. But after Bettina and I had gone through our gay little action songs, and after we had sung all together our glees and catches, we would be sent upstairs to do lessons in the morning-room--which was our schoolroom under the cheerfuller name.

Then, sitting alone, between daylight and dark, our mother would sing for herself songs of such sadness as youth could hardly bear. I think we were not expected to hear them. We would open the windows on that side in mild weather to hear the better. But the songs were sadder when we heard them faintly. Have you ever noticed that?

I would sit trying to fix my mind on lessons, 

page 22 

listening to that music she never made for us.

And I would look across at Bettina's face, all changed and overcast.

Then I would shut the window.

Bettina ought never to hear such music.

For myself I wondered uneasily what there could be in the beautiful world to inspire a song like that, and to make a lady sit singing it "between the lights."

As I say, when the sound was fainter the sadness of it pierced us deeper still.

As we two sat there, formless fears crept in and crouched in the shadowy places.

Oh, we were glad when Martha Loring's face appeared, with the lamp and consolatory suggestions of supper.

Better still, the blessed times when the music was too sad even for our mother--when she would break off and come to find us--help us to hurry through our task, and then for reward (hers, or ours? . . . I never quite knew) open the satinwood cabinet, and take out the treasures and let us see and handle them. All but two. We had been allowed to hold our father's order and his watch. We had turned over the 

page 23 

pretty things he had given her; we knew that I was to have the diamond star, when I grew up, and Betty was to have the pearl and emerald pendant. Only the two brass buttons we might never touch.

We never knew why the brass buttons were so precious. She held them wonderfully--as though they were alive.

And we, too--we were always happier after we had seen them.

We knew that she felt, somehow, safer.

So did we. 

End Chapter IV 
Next Chapter 

Available since August 1997