My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 5
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
The Mother's Vow
We had no knowledge at first hand, of any family life except our own. But we imagined that we made up for any loss in that direction by following the outward fortunes of one other family, from a reverent distance, but with a closeness of devotion.
In that mysterious world beyond the heath, we divined two exhaustless springs of enthusiasm: the Army and the Royal Family.
The reason for the first is clear.
As for the second, we never guessed that our varied knowledge and intimate concern about the persons of the reigning house was a commonplace in English family life of the not very strenuous sort.
Royal personages presented themselves to our imagination, partly as the Fairy Tale element in life, partly as an ideal of mortal splendour, partly as symbols of our national greatness.
From fairy queens and princes no great step to the sea-king's daughter, or to her sailor-son,
the Prince of Wales. His wife, that Princess of Wales, who even before her marriage had been the idol of England was our idol too--apart from her high destiny as mother of the future King (the little Prince born in the same year as Bettina)--and mother of that fascinating figure in the story, the solitary Princess of her house, three years younger than the youngest of our family. Our interest in them all received a fresh accession at the birth of Prince Henry; we hailed the advent of Prince George; we felt the succession trebly sure in the fortunate arrival of Prince John. We saw them safely christened; we consulted the bulletins in the Standard and the Queen about their health; we followed their august comings and goings with an enthusiasm undampened by hearing how well they were all being brought up on the incomparable "White Lodge" system, which had been so successfully applied to the little royalties' mamma.
Apart from these Shining Ones, a sense of the variety, the unexpectedness of life to lesser folk, reached us through the changing fortunes of one of the country-houses that abutted on the heath.
It was let to different people, from time to time,
for the hunting. If the people had children, they were of palpitating interest to us, even though we never saw much of the children.
Sometimes the fathers and mothers scraped acquaintance with our mother.
If they had seen the Brighton doctor driving up to our door, they would stop to ask how my mother was.
The doctor was a grim man with a stiff grey beard. He said my mother ought to have a nurse. She said she had me.
That was the proudest moment of my childhood.
I had to try very hard not to be glad when she was ill. It was such delight to nurse her. And after all, the only thing she herself seemed to mind about being ill was not having Bettina always with her.
Bettina was too little to understand that one must be quiet in a sick room.
In any case Bettina never wanted to stay indoors. So she would escape, and run about the garden, singing. My mother made us wheel her bed to the window that she might look out. She would lie there, watching Bettina play at church-
choir with all our dolls in a row, and tiny homemade hymn-books in their laps. When a butterfly detached the leader of the choir, and Bettina went in chase to the other side of the garden, my mother would say anxiously: "Someone must go down and bring Bettina back."
I could not bear to see Loring, or Mélanie, doing anything for my mother. I think they humoured me, and that Mélanie performed her service chiefly by stealth. I know I felt it to be all my doing when the invalid was able to come downstairs.
She sat very near the fire though the day was hot. When she held up her hand to shade her eyes, her hand was different.
Not only thin. Different.
* * *
Bettina and I were sorry she would never see the one or two kind people who "called to inquire."
We had come early to know that her refusal to take any part in such meagre "life" as the scattered community offered was indeed founded upon "indisposition," as we had heard; but an indisposition deeper than her malady.
We never knew her to say: these card-playing, fox-hunting people are our inferiors. But she might as well. We read her thought.
When the Marley children went by on ponies, when the Reuters bought their third motor-car, Bettina and I stifled longing and curiosity with the puerilities of infant arrogance: Our mother doesn't mean to return your visit. She doesn't want us to 'sociate with your children.
In our hearts we longed for the society specially of Dora Marley. Betty used to slip out and show Alexandra to Dora. Alexandra was Betty's most glorious doll. When the others couldn't find Betty I knew where to look. I went secretly, a roundabout way through the shrubberies, to bring Betty in, reluctant and looking back at Dora: "Come again to-morrow?"
One day Dora shook her head.
She was going back to school. "Aren't you going back to school?" she asked.
"Oh, no," I said, "we don't go to school."
Dora seemed not only surprised, but inclined to pity us.
"You like having to go to school!" I said.
She loved it. "So would you."
"I should hate it!" I said with a passion of conviction.
She couldn't think why.
Neither could I--beyond the fact that my mother couldn't go with me. And that she had said of the Marley children, with that high air of pity--"They have the manners of girls who have not been brought up at home."
Dora asked if we didn't hate our governess. She was still more mystified to hear we had never had one.
Even then we did not associate that lack with poverty. Rather with the riches of our mother's personal accomplishments, and her devotion for her children. And indeed we may have been partly right. I think if she had been a millionaire she would not willingly have shared with a strange woman those hours she spent with us.
We read a great deal aloud. My mother and I took turns. Bettina used to sit over the embroidery she was so good at, and I so helpless. Or she would sit under the wild broom in Caesar's Camp watching the birds; or lie curled up on the sofa stroking Abdul, the blue Persian. Indoors
or out, I don't think Bettina often listened to the reading. Perhaps that was because we read a good deal of history. Poetry was "for pleasure," our mother said. But it had to be translated into singing to be any pleasure to Bettina. I loved it all.
Betty was two years younger than I, but nobody would believe I was not the elder by five years, or even six. I was proud of this, seeing in the circumstance my sole but sufficient advantage over a sister excelling in all things else.
I am not to be understood as having been envious of Bettina. For I recognised her accomplishments as among our best family assets--reflecting glory on us all; ranking in honour after the respect shown to our mother, and the V. C. our father won in the Soudan. But my thoughtfulness and gravity as a child, my being cast in a larger, soberer mould, lent validity to my assumption of the right to take care of Bettina. Even to harry her now and then, when her feet outstrayed the paths appointed.
Bettina was not only younger, she was delicate; she had to be protected against colds, against fatigue.
There is, in almost every house, one main concern.
When I look back, I see that in ours the main concern was Bettina. If she had been less sweet-natured, she would have been made intolerable.
But the great need of being loved kept Bettina lovable.
I cannot remember that we ever spent half a day away from each other, or away from our mother, until--but that is to come later.
I feel still the panic that fell on us after the excitement of seeing the good-natured Mrs. Reuter drive up in her motor-car--the first we had encountered at close quarters--a jarring, uncanny, evil-smelling apparition in our peaceful court. Mrs. Reuter leaned out and unfolded her dreadful errand--to invite us children to come and stay at her house in Brighton from Friday to Monday!
We stood there, blank, speechless.
Our mother, with a presence of mind for which we blessed her, said she could not spare us; she was not well; I was a famous little nurse.
Relief and pride rushed together. I could
have kissed my mother's feet. My own could hardly keep from dancing.
"Let me take the little one, then," said this brutal visitor.
The little one burst into large, heart-rending sobs.
Twenty times that afternoon the little one made my mother say: "I will not let anyone take you away--no, never. Very well, you shall not pay visits."
And Betty, suspicious, insistent: "Not never?"
Oh, mother! mother! would you had kept your word!
End Chapter V
Available since August 1997