My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 11
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
There was another flutter of excitement when Eric had his Chief Assistant down from London. At last, somebody else was allowed to go into the Bungalow.
This extension of hospitality did not make the Bungalow seem more accessible, but distinctly less so. For the Chief Assistant lived altogether in the Bungalow; and he must have liked living there, for he never wanted to take walks, or do anything but just stay in the Bungalow. He cooked his own meals and washed his own dishes. His speech was like the rest of him, and the most forthcoming thing he ever said, according to Mrs. Klaus, was "Good-morning." So not even Hermione could pump the Invaluable Bootle, as Eric called him. Hermione called him the Beetle, because he was a round-shouldered, brown young man, with goggle eyes and very long arms and legs.
Eric defended his Assistant. Hermione once made the slip of saying of Mr. Bootle that he
looked like the kind of person she could quite imagine taking a pleasure in doing innocent animals to death.
"I shouldn't have said Bootle was the least like you," Eric said, with a deadly suavity. She saw he had not forgotten Babs' stories, but he seemed very willing not to pursue the subject.
"Everything comes to an end sometime. Even you, Lady Hermione--not to speak of the rest of us. And some of us would be content enough to know our way of dying had left the world a little more enlightened than we found it."
* * *
I minded none of Hermione's audacities so much as her speaking of Eric as "Babs' property." "Poor old Babs," she said behind her sister's back--the best Ugly Duckling of the family could hope for was a parson, or some professor-person.
We noticed the professor-person never stayed long if the Helmstones came.
That pleased me more than anything.
He was quite different when he was alone with us three. He was patient, and took some pains, I think, to make us understand that feeling of his
about Scientific Research. He seemed to give us the key of the wonderful laboratory in London, where he "spent the greater part" of his life. I, too, came to feel it must be the most fascinating place in the world.
Not a place where men dealt only with dead matter, but where they "proved the spirit."
A friend of his had discovered things about X rays; a knowledge, Eric said, which had saved other men from death; and from what he thought was worse--long, hopeless suffering. His friend knew that he was running a risk with the X rays. He saw that the sores on his hands grew worse; they were eating in. A thumb and forefinger had to go, then the entire hand; presently, the other hand. His eyes-- Then he died.
Eric didn't seem sorry, though his voice changed and he looked away. "It was a fine way to die."
He said the self discipline imposed by the pursuit of science had become the chief hope of the world. All the good that was in Militarism had been got out of it. It was a spent shell now, half-buried in the long grass of a fallow field. Still, it was no wonder the majority of the governing class, out of touch with the real work of the
world--no wonder they still groped after the military idea.
They saw the idle on the one hand and the overworked on the other, wallowing in a sickly wash of sentiment; they saw the dry rot in Government. He himself had small patience with politicians, or with those other "preachers:--in the pulpits. In old days, when the churches were in touch with the people, a man might feed his flock instead of merely living off the sheep of his pasture.
But the people who fared worst at Eric's hands were the professional politicians. They were "bedevilled" by the most intellect-deadening of all the opiates, the Soothing Syrup of Popularity. They must be excused from doing anything else because, forsooth, they did such a lot of talking.
We discovered an unexpected vein of humour in him the day he travestied a certain distinguished friend of Lord Helmstone's. We were show the Great Man on the hustings at a Scottish election, and we laughed afresh over Eric's fury at his own evocation. As though the distinguished personage were actually there, perorating on Duncombe lawn, Eric brushed up his moustache and
began to heckle him. What had he done--except to use his great position as a rostrum? What had been done by all the members of the Lords and Commons put together comparable to the achievements of--for instance, Sanitary Science? Ha, Science! No phrase-making. No flourish of fine feelings. Just Sanitation--the force that had done more in fifty years to improve the condition of the poor than all the philanthropy since the birth of Christ. And what had the Government done even for Science?
Then the Personage, magnificently superior, setting forth the folly, the sinful waste of getting him there, and not listening to his words of wisdom.
"When I ope my mouth let no dog bark."
No such ineptitudes from your man of science. The conditions of his work--humbleness of spirit, a patient tracking down of fact--these kept him sane; kept him oriented. Woe to him if he fell into fustian, or pretended to a wisdom he could not substantiate. Your man of science had to mind his eye and test his findings. He worked without applause, away from the limelight. He was unwritten about--unknown. Even when,
after years of toil, your man of science came out of obscurity with some great gift for the world in his hand, no one except other men of science was the least excited. The Daily Mail was quite unmoved. The service done mankind by science left the general public in the state of Pet Majorie's turkey:
"--she was more than usual calm,
She did not give a single damn."
He was not complaining.
All this was wholesome.
No high-piled monuments are theirs who chose
Her great inglorious toil--no flaming death.
To them was sweet the poetry of prose,
And wisdom gave a fragrance to their breath.
"Who wrote that?" my mother asked.
With a thrill in his voice: "A friend of mine!" Eric said, "A friend of the human race."
And he told us about him.
I asked to have the verse written down.
Life seemed a splendid thing as he talked; but
still, a splendour only to dazzle me--not to light and lead.
When he was there, all I asked was to sit and listen, and now and then to steal a look.
When he had gone, all I wanted was to be left alone, that I might go over all he had said, all he had looked, and endlessly embroider upon that background.
My best times, in his absence, were those safest from interruption--the long, blessed hours while other people slept.
To lie in bed conjuring up pictures of Eric, conversations with Eric, had come to be my idea not only of happiness but of luxury. And, as seems the way of all indulgence taken in secret and without restraint, this of mine enervated me, made me less fit for the society of my fellow-beings. I found myself irked by the things that before had pleased me, impatient even of people I loved. I was like the secret drinker, ready to sacrifice anything to gratify my hidden craving.
* * *
All this time Bettina was less in my thoughts than she had been since she was born--till that
afternoon when I began to think furiously about her again.
Lord Helmstone had come with Eddie Mommouth and carried Eric off. I thought they had all three gone to the links.
I went indoors and wrote a note for my mother. Then I escaped to the garden. I will go down in the orchard, I said to myself, and wait by the gap for a glimpse of Eric playing the short round. Along the south wall I went towards the landmark of the big apple-tree, a yard or so this side of the gap. As I passed the ripening wall-fruit, netted to protect it from the birds, I remembered my mother had said the formal espaliers wore the air of a jealously-guarded beauty smiling behind her veil. The old tree by the gap was like some peasant "Mother of Many," she said, rude and generous, bearing on her gnarled arms a bushel to one of the more delicate fruits on the wall.
All the way down to the end of the orchard I had glimpses through the lesser trees of old "Mother of Many," brave and smiling, holding out clusters of red-cheeked apples to the last rays of the sun. I started, and stood as still as the apple-tree.
Under the low branches two figures. My sister's raised face. The other bending down. He kissed her--Eddie Monmouth.
I turned and fled back to the house.
The kiss might have been on my lips, so effectually it wakened me out of my dreaming.
Bettina!--old enough to be kissed by a man!
So she was the first to be engaged . . . my little sister, who had only just had her sixteenth birthday.
* * *
I tried that night to lead up to a confidence.
But I had neglected Bettina too long, apparently, for her to want to tell me her great secret just at first.
So I waited.
Then a dreadful day when Hermione came over to say that she was going up to London for Eddie Monmouth's wedding.
Yes, most unexpected. All in hot haste, just before his sailing for India. The bride a girl they had never heard of.
I dared not look at Betty for some minutes. When at last I mustered up courage to steal a glance--not a cloud on Betty's face.
Here was courage!
But what the poor child must be going through. --I could not leave her to bear this awful thing alone. . . .
When Hermione had gone I told Bettina that I knew.
She looked at me out of her innocent eyes, and reddened just a little. Then she laughed: "Oh, I don't mind like that!" she said. "He was very nice. But I think I prefer Ranny Dallas."
At first I was sure this was just a brave attempt to bear her suffering alone.
But I was wrong.
Bettina did like Ranny Dallas best!
He liked Bettina, and flirted with her.
I began to see that I had not been looking after Bettina properly.
* * *
But I saw more than that.
I saw that I, too, had been drifting. I had no idea where any of us were. Where was my mother in her lonely struggle? Where was Bettina, in her ignorance, straying? I, myself? I had been content with dreaming. Or with waking now and then to thrill at stories about other
people's courage, insight, indomitable patience. Why should I not rouse myself and nerve myself? Why should not I, too, scorn delight and live-laborious days?
It was then the Great Idea came to me.
End Chapter XI
Available since August 1997