My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 6

My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins

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Chapter VI 
Martha's Going--Yet Remaining

When I was thirteen years old we lost our ally, Martha Loring. She had been with us since she was fifteen--at first a little scullery-maid. Later, she was promoted, and became a person much trusted, in spite of her youth and her love of fun.

We had all sorts of games and private understandings with Martha. She was a genius at furnishing a dolls' house. She got another friend of ours to make us a dresser for Alexandra's kitchen. This other gifted person was Peter, one of Big Klaus's sons. He was almost twenty, and he used to bring the vegetables. We did not know why he could never bring us our presents at the same time--perhaps out of fear of the cook, who held strict views upon the wickedness of eating between meals. She was elderly, and very easily annoyed.

She never knew that that clever Peter circumvented her by climbing over the orchard wall with our red apples and with pockets full of the hazelnuts we loved. Martha Loring told us that, if 

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ever we spoke of these gifts, they would be forbidden, and Peter would never come any more. So we were most careful.

So was Peter.

So careful that he brought his gifts after dark. Martha used to have to go down the garden and wait for them--wait so long, sometimes, that we fell asleep, and only got Peter's presents in the morning.

Martha had laughing brown eyes and full scarlet lips. No wonder we were impressed by the transformation of this cheerful and familiar presence into something heavy-eyed and secret. One morning she came out of our mother's room sobbing, and went away without saying good-bye--though she wasn't ever coming back, the cook said.

Our mother was so unwell that day she did not want even me in the room.

In the evening Bettina and I went into the kitchen to ask Mrs. Ransom what had become of Martha.

Mrs. Ransom was in a bad temper. She said roughly that Martha had gone under.

"Under? Under what?" 

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Mrs. Ransom said, "Sh!"

I went back to the kitchen alone, and begged the cook to tell me what had happened. She was angrier than ever, and said the young ladies where she lived before never asked questions, and would never have fashed themselves about a housemaid who was a horrid person.

I was angry, too, at that, and told her she was jealous of Martha. She chased me out with a hot frying-pan.

We felt justified in disbelieving all Mrs. Ransom had said when we found out that Martha had not "gone under" at all. She had gone to stay with the family of Little Klaus. But our mother said Little Klaus's wife ought not to have taken Martha in. And she wrote Mrs. Klaus a letter.

As for us, we were never to speak to Martha again. And we were not to go near Little Klaus's cottage as long as Martha stayed there. Very soon she went away.

We were reminded of Martha whenever a beggar came to the back-door, or a dusty man on the heath-road asked us for his fare to Brighton.

Martha would have told the beggar to go and wait in the first clump of gorse. And she would 

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have smuggled food out to him. She used to borrow our threepenny-bits to make up the dusty man's fare. But she always paid us back.

I knew quite well why Mrs. Klaus had been kind to Martha. For a whole year the Klauses had been having bad luck. One of the children died. And, what seemed to be much more serious, something happened to the horse. He died, too. So the Klauses had no horse at all now, but they had four little children left. And one or other of the children was always cutting or bruising himself, or else falling ill. Martha would tell me about them. She and I would collect pieces of flannel or linen for bandages; and Martha would take mustard over to the cottage for plasters, and bread and milk for poultices. The little Klauses needed a fearful lot of poultices.

Martha was sure of my sympathy in these ministrations, because of a peculiarity of mine. When I was still quite a little girl my mother had admitted my skill in making compresses. I could take temperatures, too, and I learned how to prepare invalid foods. I found a fascinating book thrust away behind Gibbon's "Decline and Fall." 

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The book was called "Household Medicine." I read it a great deal--especially when one of the little Klauses had a new symptom. If I refrained from hoping my mother and sister might have more and worse maladies, that I might nurse them back to health, I would willingly have sacrificed the servants. So that the diseases that attacked the little Klauses were a godsend to me. I glanced at those unfortunates, as I passed, with the eye of the specialist. Yet often, to my shame, I could detect no sign of their sufferings.

One day I heard wailing as Betty and I went by. I told Betty to walk on slowly and wait by the Dew Pond. And I made my first visit to Mrs. Klaus. She was in bed in the tiny inner room, nursing the new baby. Mr. Klaus was sitting by the kitchen fire, with his back to the door. He had Jimmy in his arms. Jimmy had been the baby. His little face, all crumpled with crying, looked at me over his father's shoulder. He had been like this for two days.

"Just pining," they said, with the resignation of the poor. We parted upon the understanding that the thing for them to do was to give Jimmy a warm bath, and no tea or bacon for supper; 

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and the thing for me to do was to send him some proper food--all of which was done in collusion with Martha.

I was not a secretive person, but I had learned years before that my mother was unwilling that we should ever go into any of the cottages. Not even for shelter in a storm were we to cross one of those thresholds. I felt sure that this precaution was on Betty's account.

I never let Bettina go into the cottage. Indeed, she never wished to. That instinctive shrinking from ugliness and suffering seemed quite natural in a rose-leaf creature like Bettina. But I was made of commoner clay. And long after she had left us I missed that other piece of common clay, Martha Loring.

The thought of Martha was specially vivid in my mind on one occasion two years or more after she "went under."

Bettina caught one of her dreadful colds. But we had made her well again--so well that she insisted on going for a walk.

My mother wrapped her warmly, and I knelt down and put on her leggings and overshoes.

But, after all, we only stayed out about ten 

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minutes. My mother said the air was raw, and "not safe."

At luncheon Bettina was urged to eat more. Though, as I say, she seemed quite well again, she had not recovered her appetite. Her normal appetite was small and fastidious. Often special dainties had to be prepared to tempt Bettina. And I remember, for a reason that will be obvious later--I remember we had delicious things to eat that day. Unluckily, Bettina wasn't hungry, and she grew rather fretful at being urged to eat more than she wanted.

My mother remembered a tonic that she sometimes made Bettina take.

When she had helped us to pudding, she went upstairs to find the tonic, because she was the only one who knew where it was. The moment she had gone, Bettina sprang up and scraped her favourite pudding into the fire. We laughed together, and recalled her evil ways as a baby. Always there had been this trouble to make Bettina eat--specially breakfast. My mother and I used to be tired out waiting while my sister, sitting in her high-chair, nibbled toast a crumb at a time, and let her bacon grow cold. So a 

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punishment had to be invented. Bettina, who dearly loved society, must be left alone to finish breakfast--a plan that seemed to work, for when one of us went back in a few minutes, Bettina's plate would be bare. Then the awful discovery one day, in cleaning out a seldom-opened part of the side-board--a great collection of toast and bits of mouldy bacon, pushed quite to the back of the capacious drawer.

While we sat laughing over the old misdeed, feeling very grown up now and superior, a face looked in at the window--a pinched, unhappy face, with hungry eyes. A woman stood out there, holding a baby wrapped in a shawl. The window was shut, for the rain had begun as we sat down--heavy leaden drops out of a leaden sky.

I ran and opened the window. "What is it?" I said, quite unnecessarily. The woman told us she had started for the hop-fields that morning. She had no money to pay a railway fare, but a man had given her a lift as far as the village. She did not know how she was going to reach the hop-fields.

At that moment I heard my mother's voice. "What are you doing? Shut the window in- 

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stantly!" And as I was not quick about it, she came behind me and shut the window sharply. What was I thinking of? Had I no regard for my little sister, sitting there in the current of raw air? Really, she had thought me old enough by now to be trusted!

Seldom had I been so scolded. I forgot for a moment about the woman. I remembered her only when I saw my mother make a gesture over my head. "Go away!"

"Oh, but she is tired and wet," I said, and I tried to tell her story. My mother interrupted me. Hop-pickers were a very low class. They were dirty and verminous, and spread infectious diseases.

"Go away!" she said. And again that gesture.

I felt myself choking. "She is hungry," I whispered.

My mother measured out the tonic.

My first misgiving about her shook the foundations of existence. Other, lesser instances, came back to me--strange lapses into hardness on the part of so tender a being. What did they mean? If I scratched my arm, she would fly for a soothing lotion, and help healing with soft words. If 

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Bettina pinched her finger, the whole house would be stirred up to sympathise. No smallest ache or ailing of ours but our mother's sensitiveness shared. And yet . . .

The woman with her burden had moved away--a draggled figure in the rain.

A horrible feeling sprang up in my heart--an impulse of actual hatred towards my mother--as the hop-picker disappeared.

Hatred of Bettina, too.

I kept thinking of the pudding in the fires. And of Martha Loring. If Martha Loring had been in the kitchen, she would somehow have got food to the woman, and a few pence. The image of Martha Loring shone bright above the greyness of that wretched time.

Looking back, I say to myself: "Not all in vain, perhaps, the life of the little servant who had been turned out of doors." At Duncombe, where she had had her time of happiness, where she had served and suffered, something of her spirit still survived.

Martha Loring sat that day in judgment on my mother. And I was torn with the misery of having to admit the sentence just. 

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I became critical of matters never questioned before. I fell foul of Bettina. She was selfish. She was vain. And her hair was turning pink.

It was true that the paler gold of early childhood was warming to a sort of apricot shade, infinitely lovely. But "pink hair" was accounted libellous. And, anyhow, it was a crime to tease Bettina.

Wasn't it worse, I demanded, groping among the new perceptions dawning--wasn't it worse for Bettina to tease a dumb animal?

The "worse," I was shrewd to note, was not admitted. But "Of course, Bettina must not tease the cat."

With unloving eyes I watched my mother lift an ugly black spider very gently in a handkerchief, and put the creature out to safety.

But that haggard hop-picker--no, I couldn't understand it.

The hop-picker haunted me.

Then I made a compact with her. For her sake I would contrive, somehow, to give bread to any hungry man or woman who should go by. "And so," I addressed the hop-picker in my thoughts, "though you had no bread for yourself, 

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you will be the means of giving bread to others."

The hop-picker accepted the arrangement.

Peace came back.

In the vague pagan fashion of the young I thought, too, that by kind deeds I might pay off my mother's score. Her fears for us somehow prevented her from feeling for other people's children. Something I didn't know about had made her like that.

In my struggle to resolve the discord between a nagging conscience, and my adoration for my mother, I seemed to leave childhood behind.

Still, very dimly, if at all, could I have realised there was any connection between her continued shrinking from our fellow-creatures, and that old nameless fear we used to bar the door against. Yet in one guise or another, Fear still was at the gate. Yesterday the menace of Bettina's illness. To-day a hop-picker, bringing a whiff of the sick world's infection through our windows.


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Available since August 1997