My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 13
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
The Cloud Again
The very next day Ranny Dallas went away to shoot somewhere in the North.
Bettina did not hide from me how unhappy she was.
"Perhaps he will write," I said.
"He isn't the sort that writes--not even when he's friends with a person." Then, with a rather miserable laugh, Betty added: "He says he can't spell."
So I gathered that she had asked him to try.
And I gathered, too, that Hermione made light of the disagreement at the ball. She predicted that he'd be wanting to come back in a week or two, and Betty would find he had forgotten about the Battle of the Boyne. We all came tacitly to agree that was precisely what would happen--all, that is, except my mother, who knew nothing about the matter.
It was a somewhat subdued Bettina who began that year; but I don't think it was in the Bettina of those days to be unhappy long.
(Oh, Bettina! how is it now?)
I don't know how anyone so loved and cherished could have gone on being actively unhappy. Besides, though the weeks went by and still Ranny did not reappear, there was a family reason to account for that. His father was very ill. Ranny's place was at home.
Hermione often gave us news of him that came through friends they had in common. And she spoke as though any week-end that found his father better, Ranny might motor down.
So we waited.
Bettina was a great deal with the Helmstone girls and their friends.
As for me, I was a great deal with my books in the copse. February, that year, was more like April, and all the violets and primroses rejoiced prematurely.
I was extraordinarily happy. For I was sure I was finding a way out of all our difficulties. A glorious way. A way Eric would applaud and love me for finding--all alone like this.
I had a recurring struggle with myself not to write and tell him. When I had been "good"
and wanted to give myself a treat, I allowed myself to go over in imagination that coming scene in which he should be told the Great Secret.
* * *
My mother sometimes spoke a little anxiously about Bettina's being so much with Hermione. She surprised me one day by asking me outright if I thought the increasing intimacy was likely to do Bettina harm.
My feeling about it was too vague to produce. I could only suggest that if she was afraid of anything of the kind, why should she not speak to Betty?
"The child has so few pleasures," was the answer, with that brooding look of tenderness which the thought of Betty often brought into my mother's face. "Does she tell you what they talk about?"
"Oh, the usual things!" I answered discreetly. "Clothes, and people and dogs."
"Oh, as for dogs!--" My mother dismissed the Chows. Bettina, in an unguarded moment, had admitted that she thought she could care for one dog. But she couldn't possibly care for eighteen. "What people do they discuss?"
"Oh, pretty much everybody, I should say."
She looked at me. "But some more than others. The Boynes, for instance."
When I said I didn't think so, my mother seemed a little chilled, as though she might be feeling "out of things."
Her face troubled me. "I am afraid," I said, "that you are thinking Betty and I have been leaving you a good deal alone of late."
"Oh," she answered hastily, "I was not thinking about myself."
At that, of course, conscience pricked the more. "Anyhow, I have been away too much," I confessed. "And there's no excuse for me. For Betty is the one they chiefly want."
She saw I was making resolutions. "I like you two to be together," she said. "Bettina needs you more than I. I should feel much less easy in my mind about Bettina if you weren't there to watch over her, and" (she added significantly) "to tell me anything I ought to know."
As I look back, I pray that my mother did not feel we were growing away from her. But I cannot be sure some fine intuition did not visit her of the difficulty of confidence on our part--of
how our very devotion and craving for her good opinion made Betty, for instance, shy of telling her things that a younger sister could easily tell to one near her own age. I knew my mother's view about the relations that should exist between mothers and daughters. I made up my mind to speak to Betty about it. So I asked her one night if she didn't think she ought to "let her know about Ranny."
"Heavens, no! She is the last person I could tell!"
I felt for my mother the wound of that. And why, I asked Bettina, did she feel so?
Almost sulkily she said that if I wanted our mother told things, I could tell her about myself. "What on earth do you mean?" I said. "There's nothing to hear about me."
"Oh, very well," Betty said; "then there's nothing to tell."
And the sad part of it was that, after that, Betty began to be reserved with me too.
I was so afraid of the effect of our secretiveness on my mother that I learned how to interest her in people neither Betty nor I were the least interested in. I saved up stories and "charac-
teristics" to tell. The very success of these small efforts gave me secretly a sense of the emptiness of her life. To have nothing to think about but a couple of girls!--girls who were thinking all the while about things their mother didn't know. I could have cried out at the dreadfulness of such a fate. I felt it uneasily as a menace. Could she, when she was in her teens, have felt the least as I did? Oh, impossible! And yet . . .
"Tell me about when you were young," I said; but with the new insistence, now, of one bent on grasping the unexplained things in another's life, the better to understand the unexplained things in her own.
I could not make much of the few bony facts. Her father had had a small Government post, and she had told us before that when she was three she lost her mother. The only new fact to emerge was that she had not been happy at home. She tried to make out the reason was that she loved fields and gardens, and her father's pursuits kept them in the town. But try as I might I couldn't see the life she led there. I struggled against the sense of my impotence to realise her under any conditions but those at Duncombe. Feeling my-
self incredibly bold, I reminded her of old sayings about confidence between mothers and daughters. "I am always telling you things about us. You know exactly," I said (unconscious at the moment of the lie)--"you know all that happens to us, and what life looks like at every turn. We know so little about you except where the house was you lived in, and that it was dingy and big."
I could not have approached her in any way more telling than to make confidence on her part seem a corollary to confidence on ours. She cast about with an indulgent air for something new. And then I heard for the first time of the "sort of cousin" who had come to keep house for my grandfather, and to bring up the little girl of four. I wondered the more at so important a figure having been left out of all previous pictures, when I heard that my grandfather had cared more for this "sort of cousin" than he had cared for his only child. The cousin must have been a horrible woman, though my mother told me so little about her, I cannot think how I knew. The most definite thing that was said was: "She brought out all that was least good in your grandfather."
And when he ceased to care for the cousin in one way, she made him care for her in another. "She ministered to all his whims and perversities." My mother dismissed the first sixteen years of her life with: "I had seen a great deal of evil before I was grown; mercifully, I met your father when I was still very young."
He was the one man, I gathered, whom she had ever found worthy of all trust, all love; and she had been go glad to leave home--to leave England!
But out there in India she must have seen plenty of nice army people.
Oh, plenty of army people.
She seemed not to want to dwell much even on the happy time. She had her two children in three years. The babies kept her at home, and she had loved being at home with the babies--and above all with my father in his spare hours. Then, as we knew, he had been killed out tiger-hunting. And she broke off, "Now go on about the Boynes."
I asked her, mischievously, why she took such an interest in the Boynes, as though I had not tried to bring that very thing about. Her ideal
of "the confidence that should exist" broke down even here; the navy, she said evasively, was "the finest of the services."
"Not finer than the army," I protested.
"Yes, finer than the army. Peace was the real 'enemy' to soldiers; but peace did not demoralise sailors, for there was always the sea for them to conquer. Was Hermione expecting to see the Boynes soon again?"
I smiled inwardly. She might as well have confessed that she thought the older Boyne might "do" for me, and the younger Boyne for Betty. But what had become of the ideal of confidence?
Confidence, to be complete, must needs be mutual. If Betty and I had not been able to tear out of our hearts and hold up for inspection those shy hopes of ours, neither had our mother been able to show us the true face of memory. I did not know then how hard this was to do, or that the faithfullest intention must fall short; that genius itself cannot pass on to others all the poignancy of past Hope, or --mercifully--more than a pale reflection of past Despair.
There are no Dark Ages more impenetrable than those that lie immediately behind. They
may put on an air of the explained and the familiar; they are a mystery for ever and for ever sealed.
The young are secretly perplexed when the great words are used about the immediate past. They hear of Love and Joy, and when they see the issue, stand appalled.
The idea that my mother could have felt, even about my own father, as I felt about-- No! I looked at her lying on the sofa with her eyes raised, and that air, anxious, intent, of the eavesdropper overhearing ill. So, then, one could have had all that love, and live to wear a look like this.
I held fast to such reassurance as I could recall. I remembered how, when we where younger, the mere tone of voice in which she said "your father" had seemed to bring back the warmth of that old Happiness, the lamp of that old Safety which had lit the happy time. Out of those far-off days, so momentous for Bettina and me--days which our mother must recall so vividly, and which I saw, now, I should never have the key to--there nevertheless had come to me, as come to other children, an echo of the music that had fallen silent; dim apprehensions of the beauty of life to those two
lovers in the gorgeous East; and out of starlit Indian nights, "hot and scented," came vague wafts of bygone sweetness that moved me to the verge of tears. For it was all ended.
The strange thing was that, if she had never known that happiness, I should have felt less sorry for my mother now; less uneasy, in a way, at the Janus-face which life could hide until some unexpected hour.
Perhaps to a good many young people comes this haunting sense of the sadness of life to older people.
Especially when I thought of Eric I felt sharp pity for the race of older women--that grey majority for whom the Great Radiance had faded little by little; or those like my mother, out of whose hand the torch had been struck sharply and the darkness swallowed.
She very seldom touched the piano at this time; but often, when I was with her, that old feeling, which belonged to the evenings when she sang to herself, came back to me; a feeling of overwhelming sadness--and a fear.
Not even my secret could console me at such moments.
Eric will never come back, I said to myself; or he will come back with a wife. And, with that start I had learned from my mother--where was Betty?
She was late.
She was very late.
Unaccountably, alarmingly late.
End Chapter XIII
Available since August 1997