My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 7
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
When to-morrow came we knew.
We had been using up our capital.
Another year, at this rate, and it would be gone.
What was to become of us?
Should we all have to sell Duncombe House? I asked.
Only then we heard that Duncombe belonged to Lord Helmstone.
But the rent was low. My mother said "at the worst," we would go on living at Duncombe. Yes, even if we kept only one servant instead of three.
For we would still have the tiny pension granted an officer's widow.
And should we always have the pension?
Yes, as long as she lived.
Not "always" then.
* * *
A horrible feeling of helplessness, a sense of the bigness of the world and of our littleness, came down upon me.
We seemed to have almost no relations.
We knew our father had a step-sister, a good deal older than he. We heard that she lived in London and was childless. That was all.
My mother had been an orphan. She never seemed to want to talk about the past. When we where little we took no interest in these things. As we grew older we grew afraid of paining her with questions. In some crisis of house-cleaning a photograph came to the surface. Who was this with the hair rolled high and the pear-shaped earrings? Oh, that was Mrs. Harborough.
"Well, your father's step-sister."
All hope of better acquaintance with her was dashed by learning that she had opposed our father's marriage, opposed it bitterly.
"She couldn't have known you," Bettina said.
"That I was not known to her was crime enough," my mother answered with unwonted bitterness.
Just as we were made to feel that questions about Aunt Josephine were troubling, I felt now that to inquire into our precise financial condition was to harass and depress my mother. The con-
dition was bad. Therefore it was best covered up.
"We shall manage," she said.
I was sixteen when this thunder-bolt descended, and, by that time, I knew that "to manage" was just what my mother, at all events, was quite incapable of doing. We still kept three servants and no accounts. Lawyers' letters were put away. Out of sight, they seemed out of mind. Out of my mother's mind.
I thought constantly about these things.
One day, months later, I blurted out a hope that we should all die together. My mother was horrified.
"But if we don't," I said, "how are we going to live--Bettina and I, without the pension?"
"You will have husbands, I hope, to take care of you."
I went over the grounds for this "hope" with no great confidence.
My mother went alone into the garden.
She came in looking tired and white.
Compunction seized me. I persuaded her to go and lie down. I would bring up her tea-tray. I expected to have to beg and urge. But she went
upstairs "quite goodly," as we used to say. She looked back and smiled. She was still the most beautiful person we knew. But it was a very waxen beauty now. I must learn not to weary her with insoluble riddles. I went into the dining-room to make her tray ready--I liked doing it myself. Bettina's voice came floating in. She had grown tired of playing proper music. She was singing the nursery rhyme which my mother had set to variations of the tinkling old-world tune:
"Where are you going to, my pretty maid?"
I thought how strange and wonderful was the simplest, most ordinary little life. There must always be that question: what is going to become of me? I had long known what was the proper thing to happen. I ought to marry Lord Helmstone's heir. And Bettina should marry a prince.
But Lord Helmstone's heir turned out to be a middle-aged cousin with a family. Lord Helmstone himself had only lately taken to coming to Forest Hall--since the laying out of the golf-course. Still less frequently came my lady. Very
smart, with amazing clothes; and some married daughters with babies. There were two daughters unmarried, who seemed to be always abroad or in London. We liked Lord Helmstone; even my mother liked him. But she criticised his "noisy friends." These were the golfers who motored down from London. Broad-shouldered men, in tweeds that made them seem broader still. They would pass by our garden-wall and look at Bettina. Often when they had passed they looked back. Secretly, I wondered if any of them were those "husbands" who were going to take care of us. Some lodged in the village. The noisiest stayed at the Hall.
Bettina's singing had broken off abruptly. I heard her running upstairs.
And then a cry.
"Come--oh, quickly, quickly!"
Bettina had heard the fall overhead.
Our mother lay on the floor, Bettina standing over her, agonised, helpless.
We lifted her on to the bed. We loosened her clothing, and brought water, and bathed her temples.
She opened her eyes and smiled--then the lids went down. Still that look, the look that made her a stranger.
Was this death? . . .
Bettina shrank from it. But I told her not to leave the room a second. I would bring the doctor quickly.
Bettina's face. . . . "I cannot stay alone," she whispered.
"I will send up one of the servants."
She held my arm. "Suppose . . . while you are gone-- Oh, I am afraid."
"I will run all the way," I said.
End Chapter VII
Available since August 1997