My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 14
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
Where is Bettina?
She had come running in a little after six o'clock to ask if we mightn't, both of us, go and dine with Hermione. I said I didn't see why Bettina shouldn't go, but we could not ask till my mother was awake; she had been having broken nights, and had just fallen asleep. So Bettina waited--nearly half an hour; still my mother slept. Then Bettina went away softly and dressed, "so as to be ready, in case."
She came back in her white frock, and still the sleeper had not waked nor stirred.
We went out in the hall and held a whispered conference. "She won't mind a bit," Bettina was sure. "It isn't as if it would do another time"-- for the Helmstones were off again to-morrow. To clinch the argument, Betty told me that Hermione was expecting a letter, by the last post, from a friend of Ranny's; the one chance of hearing anything for Heaven knew how long.
So I let Bettina go.
* * *
My mother never woke till nearly nine, and of course the first thing she asked was, "Where is Betty?"
I said the maid had taken her, and Lady Helmstone had promised to send her home.
My mother was extremely ill-pleased that Bettina had gone. I had hoped that after that profound sleep she would wake up feeling better, as I have noticed the books nearly always say is what will happen. But I have noticed, since, that people who have been sleeping heavily at some unseasonable hour will often waken not refreshed and calmed, but out of sorts, and easily fretted by quite small things. They seemed to require time before they can collect themselves and see the waking world in true proportion.
"We thought you wouldn't mind," I said.
And why should we? Why, above all, should I, who was so much older . . . ?
"To go anywhere else . . . I should have been against it," I said, "but to the Helmstones--where you let her go so constantly."
Saying that was a mistake.
Did not Betty know, above all, did not I know, the feeling of all the proper sort of mothers about
young girls being away from home at night? Day-visiting--a totally different matter.
It was "the last evening for weeks," I reminded her. The Helmstones were going back to town. . . .
"I am not sorry," said my mother.
To my surprise the circumstance that seemed to annoy her most was that I had not gone with Bettina. She spoke to me in such a way I felt the tears come into my eyes. "I stayed on your account," I said.
"I have told you before"--and she told me again.
The supper tray came up, and went down scarcely touched. I asked if I should read to her.
No. There had been reading enough for that day.
So I mended the fire and brought some sewing.
She lay with the candle alight on the night table, waiting, listening.
"Who is to be there?"
"Oh, just the family, I suppose."
"Did you ask?"
"No--but Betty would have said, if . . . "
" "--never even asked!"
We sat in silence.
"What time is it?"
"A quarter to ten."
"It is not like Bettina," she said presently. Bettina had never in her life done such a thing before.
I agreed she never had. If Bettina transgressed (and I admit that this was seldom), she never did so outright. And she was not sly. She did not so much evade as avoid an inconvenient rule.
My mother remembered, no doubt, that any sin of deliberate disobedience was far more likely to be mine. "I suppose the child, not able to ask my permission, came to you."
Yes, she had consulted me.
"And you took it upon yourself--"
I sat there, in disgrace.
Presently: "Perhaps the Boynes have motored down. Or one of them."
I said I had no reason to think so. All the same, I couldn't help welcoming the suggestion. For the idea that the Boynes, "or one of them," might be there, seemed oddly enough, to excuse Bettina in my mother's eyes. And she was moved
to make me understand why I had been reproached. We had to be far more careful than most girls. I heard about the heavy responsibility of bringing up "girls without a father."
I wondered in what way our father's being here would have altered the events of this particular evening. And since he had been quoted to justify anxiety, I made bold to go to him for cheer. At times of stress before, I had invoked my father. Not often, and all-cautiously. And never yet in vain. That night I wondered aloud what where the kind of things our father would have done.
"His mere being here would make all the difference."
His mere name certainly did much. Once again I had cause to bless him for taking the chill out of the domestic atmosphere.
She talked more about him and, by implication, more about herself that night than ever before or after. She told me of the mistakes he had saved her from. The things he had warned her against. Though he was brave as a lion, she would have me believe that he was afraid of trusting people. He had said to her after a certain occurrence--
"What occurrence?" I interrupted.
"No need to go into that," she said hurriedly. The point lay in his comment: "The safe course is not to trust anyone."
"That is very uncomfortable," I said.
It was better, she answered, to be less comfortable and safe, than to be more comfortable and--
She had stopped suddenly, and felt for her watch on the night table. "Ten minutes past. They will surely see that she starts for home by ten o'clock."
We sat for five minutes without speaking. I thinking of my father. Then we heard the maids making the nightly round, shutting and locking up the house.
"Look out of the window," my mother said.
I could see nothing. The night was dark and still.
"She can't be long now," my mother said. "But go and tell them they may bolt the front door. We are sure to hear her coming up the walk."
She called me back. "Tell them not to forget to put the chain on the door."
Oh, the times we had been told that!
Downstairs I found the house shut up and barred as for a siege. The maids had done their work and vanished. I was the only creature stirring. Upstairs the same. My mother seemed not to hear me come back into the room. She was lying with the candle-light on her face, and on her face the old listening fear. What made her look like that?
If there had been anything, if there had been even that old mournful sound of the wind, I could have minded less. But the night was very quiet. The house was hushed as death. And still she listened.
Now and then she would lift her eyelids suddenly, and the intense white of the eyeballs shone, while she strained to catch some sound beyond my narrower range.
I sat there by the fire a long, long time. And she never spoke--until I, unable to bear the stillness any longer, fell back for that last time on the familiar Magic--my father, and the old, beautiful days. She stirred. She folded and unfolded her hands, and then took up the theme. But in a different key.
"The more I came to understand other women's lives," she said, "the more I saw that my happiness was like the safety of a person walking a narrow plank across a chasm." Then after a moment, she added: "A question of nice equilibrium."
"I don't know how you ever bore the fall," I said.
"Yes--when father was killed--and all the happiness fell down."
Then she said something wholly incomprehensible at the time, but which I understand better now. "Perhaps," she said, "I would have borne what you call 'the fall' less well if I hadn't known . . . there are worse than tigers in the world's jungle."
I felt I was on the track of some truer understanding, and a secret excitement took hold of me. "How was it you came to know that?" I asked.
"It is a thing," she said, "that even happy women learn." Then, hurriedly, she went on: "And it ended--my happiness--before any stain or tarnish dimmed it. All bright and shining one moment, the next all vanished."
I watched the face I knew so well. Covertly,
I watched it. Saw the delicate lineaments a little pinched with anxiety. The eyes veiled one moment, the next lifting wide as at a sudden call.
"What was that?" she said.
I heard nothing.
Oftenest that quick lift of heavy eyelids, and the flash of bright fixity, would come without any following of speech. And the eloquence of that silence, tense, glittering, wrought more upon my nerves than any words. All my body strung to attention, I listened with my soul.
No sound at all. Then, inwardly, I rebelled against the tyranny and waste of this emotion. Why was she like this?
"Have they put on the chain?" she asked.
"And bolted the door?"
"How do you know they have bolted it?"
"I heard them."
"heard the bolt."
"One may easily think a stiff bolt has gone home, and all the while--"
"But I am sure."
My easy certainty seemed to anger her. "I thought so, too, once." She said it with a vehemence that startled me.
After a moment: "Was that here?" I asked.
"No, no, no" --she shook it off.
I went and knelt down by the bed. "Tell me about it, mother."
"No, no. It is not the kind of thing you need ever know."
"How can you be sure? You weren't expecting anything to happen." I felt my way by the shrinking in her face. "Yet someone came to the unbolted door--?"
"What makes you think that!" she exclaimed, and I was hot and cold under her look.
"It--it only came into my head"; and then, with fresh courage, or renewed curiosity, "But I am right!" I said, with sudden firmness. "Isn't it so? You were horribly frightened, weren't you?" I touched her hand expecting she would draw it away from me, but the fingers had locked on the silk frill of the quilt. They were cold; they made me think of death.
"Yes," she said, very low, "I was horribly
frightened." I felt the shuddering that ran along her wrist, and the chill of that old fear of hers crept into my blood, too. She looked through me, as though I were vapour, as though the bodyless Dread her eyes were fixed on once again for that instant--as though that were the most real presence in the room.
"Tell me," I whispered, "tell me what it was."
"--impossible to talk about such things." She drew away her hand. "All you need to know is . . . the need of taking care. Of never running risks. What time is it?"
"Five minutes past eleven."
"Did Lady Helmstone say she and Hermione would walk back with Bettina?"
"No, she didn't say that."
"What did she say?"
"Just that she would send Betty home."
After some time she said quite suddenly: "That might mean alone in the motor."
I was going to say "Why not?" But as I looked up from my work at the face under the candle light, a most foolish and indefinable fear flashed across my mind--a feeling too ridiculous to own--sudden, indefinable dread of that in-
offensive man, the Helmstones' head chauffeur. I had no sooner cast out the childish thought than I remembered the two under men. One only a sort of motor-house "odd man." To that hang-dog creature might fall the task of driving Betty home! I had thought of this man vaguely enough before, yet with some dash of human sympathy, for it was common talk that he was "put upon" by the other men. He was a weakling, and unhappy; now I suddenly felt him to be evil--desperate.
Oh, why had I let Bettina go!
Even if the chauffeurs, all three, were decent enough ordinarily, what if just to-night they had been drinking?
Betty coming across the deserted heath with a drunken driver--
Oh, God, I prayed, don't let anything happen to Bettina. . . .
* * *
A quarter past eleven.
I put on a bold face. "They wouldn't, I think, have a motor-car out for Betty at this hour, and the reason she is late is because she has told them she would like the walk."
"They will hardly send a woman with her at this time of night."
We both started violently, and all because a coal had fallen out of the grate on the metal fender.
My mother was the first to speak: "They are haphazard people, I sometimes think. . . . You don't suppose they would send her back with a groom. . . . ?"
I said I was sure they would not, though an hour before I would have asked, Why not?
"Lord Helmstone couldn't be expected to put himself out. I wish I had not let the servants go to bed!" she exclaimed. "Why didn't you think of it? Of course, they should have gone and brought Bettina home."
I saw now how right and proper this would have been.
Half past eleven.
"It is very strange," I said.
"Go and look out again, you may see a lantern, or the motor-lamps."
I leaned out into the fresh-smelling darkness, and I saw nothing, I heard nothing.
I hung there, unwilling to draw in my head and
admit the world without was empty of Bettina. She had been thrown out of the car. She was lying by the roadside somewhere, dead, that was why she didn't come home.
Suddenly I thought of Gerald Boyne. What if, after all, he had been dining there. He would be sure to want to bring Bettina home. Yes, and those casual Helmstones would turn Bettina over to him without a thought. A man Ranny wouldn't let his sister dance with in a room full of her friends. . . . Bettina, setting out with Gerald Boyne to cross the lonely heath--and never reaching home.
I knew all this was wild and foolish . . . then why did these imaginings make me feel I could not bear the suspense another moment? I shut the window and turned round. "You must let me go for her," I said.
The same suggestion must have been that moment on her lips. "Go, wake the servants," she said, "tell them to dress quickly. Get your cloak and light the lantern." She gave her short sharp directions. The young servant was to go with me. The old one was to lock the door behind us, and wait up with my mother. I went with a
candle through silent passages, and knocked on doors.
I left the lantern burning down in the hall, and in my cloak went back to my mother's room.
She was leaning out, over the side of the bed listening.
"Aren't they ready?"
"They are only just roused."
"Servants take ten times as long to dress as--Hark. Look out!"
I went back to the window and peered between the close-drawn curtains, with hands at my temples on either side of my eyes.
Except . . . Yes, I could hear the heavy step of the older woman down in the hall unlocking, unbolting, unchaining the door . . . that the housemaid and I might lose no time when she was ready. The old woman must be waiting for us there below, with the lantern in her hand. A faint light was lying on the path. Not a sound now in all the world except my mother's voice behind me:
"You will take the short cut."
"And as you go don't talk-- listen."
"Listen!" I echoed, with mounting horror. "What should I hear?"
How do we know?"
A chill went down my back.
The bedroom-door opened, and Bettina walked in.
"Such a nice evening! They've been teaching me bridge. Why have you put on your cloak? Why are you looking--oh! what has happened to you?"
Not very much was said to Bettina that night. She and two of the Helmstones' maids had come round by the orchard-gate, walking softly on the grass, "so as not to waken mother."
Only a little crestfallen, she was sent away to bed. My mother had motioned me to wait. As I watched Bettina making her apologies and her good-night, I thought how worse than useless had been all that anxiety and strain. "I shall remember to-night," I said to myself, "whenever I am frightened again."
But this, I could see before she spoke, was not the moral my mother was drawing. "Shut the door," she signed. And when I had come back to
her, she drew herself up in bed and laid her hand on mine. "I want you to make me a promise," she said. "It is not fair to girls not to let them know that terrible things can happen. Promise me that you will take better care of Bettina. Never let anyone make you forget--"
I promised--oh, I promised that!
End Chapter XIV
Available since August 1997