My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 9
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
For a long time I said nothing in his presence, except in answer to some direction.
There seemed no need to talk.
Enough for me to see him come striding across the links; to watch him walk into my mother's room; to see a certain look come into his eyes. It came so seldom that sometimes I told myself I must have dreamed it.
Then it would come again.
He made my mother almost well. But when he went back to London he left a great misery behind him.
No one knew, and I hoped that in time I should get over it. At least I pretended that was what I hoped. I would rather have had that pain of longing than all the pleasure any other soul could give.
* * *
The following year my mother was wonderfully well, and so cheerful I hadn't the heart to worry her with questions.
We saw more of the Helmstones than ever before. My mother even went to them once or twice. A few days before that first visit of Eric Annan's had ended, Lady Helmstone and the two unmarried daughters came home from touring round the world in their cousin's yacht. Lady Barbara was the plain daughter. She was twenty-two and wrote poetry, we heard. But we thought the youngest of the family much the cleverest. Hermione was striking to look at, and the fact that she laughed at Barbara, and at pretty well everyone else, made her seem very superior. Also, she had an air.
She made a deep impression on Bettina. I, too, found her wonderful. But my mother said she was crude. We thought that was only because, in spite of "being who she was," Hermione Helmstone put pink stuff on her lips and darkened the under lid of her green eyes. Just a little, you understand. Enough to give her a look of extraordinary brilliancy. She took a great fancy to Bettina. In spite of Bettina's being so young Hermione used to tell her about her love affairs.
There seemed to be a great many. But one was serious. She was as good as engaged, she
said, to Guy Whitby-Dawson. He was in the Guards.
We were all agog. When was she going to be married?
She didn't know. It was dreadfully expensive being in the Guards.
Being a peer seemed to be very expensive, too. Hermione's father had so many places to keep up, and so many daughters, he couldn't afford to give Hermione more than "the merest pittance." When we heard what it was, we thought it very grand to call such a provision a mere pittance.
I wished we three had a pittance.
For those two to try to live on it would be madness, Hermione said. So she and Guy would have to wait. Perhaps some of Guy's relations would die. Then he would have plenty.
Meanwhile, in spite of being as good as engaged. Hermione flirted a good deal with her cousin, Eddie Monmouth, and with the various other young men who came to the week-end parties and for the hunting. Bettina and I were often rather sorry for Guy, until the day when Hermione brought over some of his photographs
for us to look at. We did not admire him at all.
But we never told Hermione.
As for me, though I tried to take an interest, I was never really thinking about any of the things that were going on about me. And I was always thinking of the same thing. Day and night, the same thing.
If my mother sent me into the garden to see whether the autumn crocuses were up--all I could see was his face. It came up everywhere I looked. I grew impatient of the companionship I had most loved. I was thankful when Hermione had carried off my sister for the afternoon. I felt Lord Helmstone had done me a personal kindness when he dropped in, on the way to or from the golf links, to talk to my mother. I would slip away just for ten minutes to think about "him" in peace. When I went in I would find I had been gone for hours.
The old laws of Time and Space seemed all at sixes and sevens. The old devotions paled.
Mercifully, nobody knew.
* * *
I looked for him all the next spring. In the
summer I said to myself, I shall never see him again.
Then a day in September when he came. Came not only to Big Klaus's and the Links. He came to Duncombe the very first evening, to ask about my mother.
I heard his voice at the door. It seemed to come up from the roots of the world to knock against my heart. I stood by the banisters out of sight and listened, while I held the banisters hard.
No, he wouldn't come in now. He would come to-morrow.
I flew to the window in the morning-room, and looked out.
I had not dreamed him. He was true.
* * *
The next day brought him.
I had all those hours to get myself in hand. I was quite quiet. The others seemed gladder to see him than I.
He was pleased at finding my mother so well. The crowning proof of her being stronger was her doing a quite unprecedented thing. She invited Mr. Annan to come and have tea at Duncombe,
instead of tramping all that distance back to the Farm. Big Klaus's tea she was sure was worse even than the Club House brew.
The result was that he fell into the habit of playing another round after tea, which my mother said was good for him. She agreed with Lord Helmstone that Mr. Annan should not work when he had come away for a holiday. The Helmstones were for ever asking him to lunch and dine. But he always said "that sort of thing" took up too much time. So we felt flattered when, instead of playing the other round, he would sit there in the garden, after tea, smoking a pipe and talking to us.
Bettina said our home-made cakes and delicious Duncombe tea were quite wasted on him. I was secretly indignant at the charge. But Bettina made him confess he could not tell Indian from China.
"Very well then," I said, "it proves he doesn't come only for tea," and upon that a fire seemed to play all round my body, scorching me. But no one noticed.
It was wonderful to see him again--to verify all those things I had been thinking about him for
the year and four months since he went away.
But if I were told, even now, to describe Eric Annan, I would say once that he was a person whose special quality escaped from any net of words that sought to catch it. If, at the time I speak of, I had been compelled to make the attempt, I should have taken refuge in such commonplaces as: strongly-built; colouring, between dark and fair; a wholesome kind of mouth, with good teeth; brown eyes, not large, with reddish flecks in the iris. And I might have added one thing more uncommon. That gift of his for saying nothing at all without embarrassment.
I thought of him as a person standing alone. I could not imagine him in the usual relationships. The others must have felt like that about him, too, for I remember they were surprised when Lord Helmstone told us that Eric Annan was one of the large family of an impoverished Scots laird. Bettina said to him the next day: "I don't suppose you have any sisters."
He looked surprised, and I expected him to repudiate such trifles. But he said: "Yes. Three," in a tone that dismissed them.
But the confession seemed to have brought him
nearer, to make him more human. He had been a little boy, then, playing with little girls. He had grown up, not only with students and professors, but with sisters. Oh, happy sisters! how they must adore him! I asked him to tell us about the: were the sisters like him? No. What were they like?
"Oh--" he looked vague. Then he presented a testimonial. They were "all right."
The proof: two of them were married. And the third? Oh, the third was only twenty. I felt a special interest in that one. But all we could learn was that she was engaged. So she was probably "all right," too.
My mother was the best at making him talk. She discovered that he was "like so many of the silent-seeming people," fluent enough when he liked. Though he never was fluent about his sisters, when he came to know us better, he told my mother about his elder brother, struggling still to keep up the property--a losing battle. And a second brother, not very clever, intended for the navy. He hadn't got on. He left the navy and had some small post in the Customs. The third brother was "trying to grow tea in Ceylon."
Bettina hoped the third brother was more intelligent about tea than our friend. Eric was the fourth son. To get a scientific education, on any terms, had been a struggle. He had to arrive at it obliquely, by way of studying medicine. Pure science didn't pay. But science was the one thing on earth worth a man's giving his life to.
I see him sitting in the level light on Duncombe lawn, looking up in that sudden way of his, and narrowing his eyes at the sunset, bringing out the word research with a tenacity of insistence on the "r" which must make even a Natural Law feel the hopelessness of hiding any longer.
That preliminary to setting aside his earlier reserve--a forefinger sweeping upward and outward through the red-brown thatch on his upper lip--and then telling my mother about those hours of fathoms-deep absorption; of the ray of light that, from time to time, would pierce the darkness. He told her, with something very like emotion, of the great, still gladness that came out of conquest of the smallest corner of the Hidden Field--that vast Hinterland as yet untrodden.
End Chapter IX
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