My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 10
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
My mother said this was the New Consecration. He is the stuff of the dévot, she said. In another age he would have been a great ascetic, or a saint.
I was thankful the temptations, in these directions, were slight for people of our time. I liked better to think of him in one of his boyish moods, helping us to re-stock our aquarium.
Hermione Helmstone's inclination to mock behind his back, to imitate little stiffnesses and what she called his "Scotticisms," even Lady Barbara's unblushing Schwärmerei, was less a trial to me than the talk about saints and ascetics.
The Helmstone girls fell into the bad habit of dropping in to share our tea and our visitor.
Hermione pretended that she came solely to keep Barbara in countenance.
But Hermione on these occasions did most of the talking.
She didn't care what she said. "How long," she demanded, "are you going to stay?" -- a heart-thumping question which none of us had ventured to put.
"A beggarly little while," she said, exchanging looks with her confederate. Then her malicious sympathy at his having to spend so much of his life in sick rooms and hospitals, "looking at horrors."
He said, somewhat shortly, that he spent most of his life nowadays--thank God!--in a laboratory.
Which was scarcely polite.
"Ouf!" Hermione sniffed, "I know! Place full of bottles and bad smells."
He smiled at that, and took it up with spirit.
"No room in your house so clean," he said. "And no place anywhere half so interesting." A laboratory was full of mystery; yes, and of romance--oh, naturally, not her kind.
What did he know about "her kind"? Hermione demanded.
Perhaps he knew more than we suspected. For, just as though he guessed that Hermione's name for him was "Scotch Granite," and that she lamented Barbara's always falling in love with such unromantic people, he scoffed at Hermione's conception of romance. "An ideal worthy of the servants' hall. A marble terrace by moon-
light. . . . No? Well, then, the supper-room at the Carlton--Paris frocks, diamonds, a band banging away; and a thousand-pound motor-car waiting to whirl the happy pair away to bliss of the most expensive brand."
They went on to quarrel about novels. Hermione hated the gloomy kind. For Eric's benefit she added, "And the scientific kind."
"Exactly!" It was for her sort of "taste" that ample provision was made in the feuilleton of a certain paper.
Hermione was not a bit dashed. " You may look for romance in bottles if you like. For my part . . . " she stuck out her chin.
"Well, oblige the company by telling us what you look for in a story?"
"Orange blossoms," says she promptly; "not little bits of brain."
He laughed with the rest of us at that, and he knocked the ash out of his pipe against the arm of the garden chair. Lord Helmstone, he said, would be waiting for his foursome.
* * *
A day or two after, Hermione accused him to his face of "story-telling."
"You said you were only going to stay three weeks."
To our astonishment he answered: "I don't think I said 'only' three weeks. I said three weeks. Three weeks certainly."
"--and all the while arranging to settle down and live here."
I looked from Eric, slightly annoyed, to Hermione, mocking, and to Lady Barbara, rolling large pale eyes and smiling self-consciously.
"What makes you think I'm going to settle down?" he demanded.
"Well, isn't that the intention of most people who put up a cottage in the country?"
"Oh! you mean my penny bungalow." He picked up his golf clubs. "Nobody in this country 'settles down' in a bungalow," he said.
As though she had some private understanding of the matter, Lady Barbara seemed to speak for him. "--just to live in for a while," she said quite gently.
"Not to live in at all." Eric threw the strap of the canvas golf-bag over his shoulder, and made for the front-door.
"What do you want a bungalow for, then?"
Hermione's teasing voice followed after him.
"--mere harmless eccentricity." He was "like that," he said. He turned round at Hermione's laugh, and I saw him looking at the expression on Lady Barbara's face. Very gentle and happy; almost pretty. And I had never thought Lady Barbara the least pretty before.
Eric, too, seemed to be struck. "I find I've got to have a place to put things," he said more seriously, and then he went on out. "Must have some place to keep one's traps," he called back.
Lady Barbara stood leaning against the door and looking out at the retreating figure, still with that expression that made the plain face almost beautiful.
I felt that Eric had come lamely out of the encounter. What did it all mean? For he had said nothing whatever to us (who thought ourselves his special friends) about this curious project of putting up a bungalow.
* * *
A hideous little ready-made house, with a roof of corrugated iron, painted arsenic green, it came down from London in sections, and was set up in a field adjoining Big Klaus's orchard.
The field belonged to Lord Helmstone.
Eric continued to eat and to sleep at Big Klaus's, but he used to go over to the Bungalow and shut himself up to work.
As the days went on, and he showed no sign of increased intimacy with the Helmstones I clutched at the idea that perhaps he had found he couldn't work very well in the midst of farmyard noises. He had spoken of the melancholy moo-ing of cows waiting for meadow-bars to be let down; of the baa-ing and grunting and the eternal barking that went on. And those noises--which he was, strangely, still more sensitive to--produced by Big Klaus's cocks and hens underneath Eric's window; and by the ducks and geese hissing and clacking on the pond between the house and the stables. I was not likely to forget how he had mocked at "country quiet" or the samples he gave us of the academic calm that reigned at Big Klaus's. I think I never heard my mother laugh so much as on that first day he "did" the peaceful country life for us--Eric rather out of temper, presenting his grievance with great spirit:
"--wretched man sits up addling his brains till two in the morning. At four, this kind of
thing--" In a quiet, meditative way he would begin clucking. Then quacking, almost sleepily at first; then with more and more fervour till he would leave the ducks and soar away on the ecstasy of a loud, exuberant crow. All this not the least in the sketchy, impressionist way that most people who try will imitate those humble noises, but with a precision and vigour that first startled you, and then made you feel that you were being given, not only an absolutely faithful reproduction of the sound those creatures make, but in the oddest way given their point of view as well. We laughed the more, I think, because the comedy seemed to come out of the revelation of the immense seriousness of the animals. Eric's commentary seemed so fair. It seemed to admit that the importance to ducks and cocks and hens of their goings on was at least as great as the importance of peace and quiet to him. With an air of doing it against the grain, he gave you (with a rueful kind of honesty) the duck's sentiments in a series of depressed little quacks that hardly needed the translation: "'Been all over this repulsive pond; turned myself and all my family upside down for hours. Nothing!'" Then
indignant quacks, and: "'Silly new servant can't tell time. Past five o'clock, and no sharps!'" Then a single jubilant "'Quack! There she is--'" and a rising chorus, till anyone not in the room would be ready to swear we kept as many ducks as Big Klaus. A moment's silence, and in his own person Eric would say with a sigh: "Now, perhaps, I can tackle that German review." "'Buck! Buck! Buck!'"--or rather a series of sounds that defies the alphabet. Then the interruption: "'My wife's-laid-an-egg!'" and the shrill rapture of a loud crow of great authority.
The Bungalow was out of earshot of all that. We heard orders were given that no letters or telegrams were ever to be taken to the Bungalow. When Eric was there, "no matter what happened," nobody was to disturb him.
And when he wasn't there the Bungalow was shut and locked.
I think I have said that Hermione was the most daring girl imaginable.
She went one day ("Well, doesn't the field belong to us?") and looked in at first one window and then another. She said there was nothing
but a stove and packing-cases in the room she could see into. And she brought back a bewildering account of what had been done to the windows of the other room. There were no curtains and no blinds, but thick brown paper had been pasted over the glass of each lower sash. You could no more see in than you could see through the wall.
The top sashes were down, and Hermione naturally thought he must be there. So she called "Mr. Annan!" quite loud. But he wasn't there after all, she said.
Of course, the next time she met him on the links she began to tease him about papering up his windows. "And how can you see?"
"Oh, quite well, thank you."
"Well, anyhow, I don't believe you read all the time. Nobody could read the whole day and half the night."
No, he didn't read all the time.
"What do you do then?"
Ah, there was no telling.
And that was true. There was no getting Eric to tell you anything he didn't want to.
Hermione announced that she had been to call.
"Yes," he said, "I heard you call."
"You don't mean to say you were in there all the time?"
"Yes, I was there," he said, going on with his putting practice quite at his ease.
Hermione was speechless for a moment, and that was the only time in my life I ever saw Hermione blush.
"What a monster you were not to come out when you heard me!"
"Sorry, but I was too busy," he said. "I always am busy when I'm at the Bungalow."
She was still rather red, but laughing, too. "I suppose, then, you heard me try the door?" (She hadn't told us she had gone as far as that.)
"Yes, I heard you try the door."
"Well, you are an extraordinary being--shutting yourself up with brown paper pasted over the windows--"
"--only the lower half, and none at all over the skylight."
"Sitting there behind brown paper, with the door locked!"
He laughed. "You see how necessary my precautions are."
I believe you do something in there you're ashamed of."
"Well, I'm not very proud of what I do. Not yet."
She clutched Barbara's arm. "Babs," she said in a loud whisper, "he makes bombs."
"Sh! not so loud, please." Eric looked solemnly across the links to where Eddie Monmouth was giving Bettina her first lesson in hitting off.
"No, it isn't bombs," Hermione said, after a moment. "You make counterfeit money."
"If ever I make any money," Eric agreed, "it will have to be counterfeit."
* * *
One day, with Lady Barbara following anxious in her wake, Hermione came flying in to tell us she was hot on the trace of Eric Annan's secret. He was one of those horrible vivisectionists! The Bungalow was a torture chamber. She had gone to the station to meet someone, and there on the platform, addressed "E. Annan, Esq.," was a crate full of creatures--poor little darling guinea-pigs.
She taxed him with the guinea-pigs the moment he appeared.
"No wonder you paste thick brown paper over your windows. What do you do with all those poor darling guinea-pigs?"
He answered by asking her what she did with all her Chow dogs. I think he probably knew that Hermione bred these dogs. They took prizes at shows, and Hermione did a thriving trade in selling Chows to her friends, for sums that seemed to us extortionate. She bought jewellery with some of the proceeds, the rest she put in the bank.
But there was truth as well as evasion in the answer she gave Eric: "You know perfectly well the Chows are pets."
"Exactly; and what a wasted youth yours must have been if you never heard of keeping guinea-pigs."
"'Keeping them'--I used to have them to play with; but you know quite well you don't mean to 'keep' them."
"Not for ever. Very clever of you if you kept yours for ever."
Of course she hadn't been able to keep them
beyond their natural span. "But I never did anything horrible to them."
Then Lady Barbara, whose long upper lip seemed to have grown longer under the tension, behaved a little treacherously to her sister. In her anxiety to excuse whatever Eric might do, or have done, Barbara told, in her halting way, some family anecdotes about Hermione's teasing pets that had to be rescued from her clutches, and about certain birds and kittens, and a monkey, which had one and all succumbed.
Hermione tried to make light of these damaging revelations. "I was only a child."
But Lady Barbara gave her no quarter. It was only a year ago, Babs said, that Hermione had a horse killed under her in Scotland. "You were warned, too. You just rode him to death. And you know nobody gives the dogs such whippings as you do."
Hermione ignored the horse. To do her justice she hated to be reminded of that. But she defended whipping the dogs. If they weren't whipped now and then, they'd get out of hand.
"Why should they be 'in hand'?" Eric asked. "For your pleasure. And profit. Not
theirs." He spoke of the severity of training that broke in house-dogs, and I had my first glimpse of the difficulty of that point in ethics, the relation of human beings to domestic animals. Hermione was goaded into harking back to the guinea-pigs. Where was he going to keep them?
In hutches, or in enclosures in the field.
Hermione's eyes sparkled. She was glad she had counted them, she said. "I shall just notice how long you keep them."
"Oh, when I've trained them, of course I shall dispose of them."
Hermione looked at him a moment, and then with her most beguiling air, she begged him not to tease her any more. "What do you really want them for?"
"Well," he said, "I'll tell you. I am trying an experiment. I expect, after all, to make my fortune."
Lady Barbara brightened at that. Eric went on briskly: "You know how fast guinea-pigs breed, and how close and clean they crop grass. Well, here is a great natural industry waiting to be exploited. My guinea-pigs are going to give an ocular demonstration to my farmer friends. My
idea is, if I breed guinea-pigs and let them out in squads at so much a day--"
"But if you let them out," said Lady Barbara, innocently, "won't they run away? Ours did."
While Hermione was laughing, Eric promised to supply movable enclosures with his Guinea-Pig Squads. "When they've eaten one area clean, simply move the hurdles on. You'll see. There'll soon be a corner in guinea-pigs and a slump in lawn-mowers."
End Chapter X
Available since August 1997