My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 16

My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins

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Chapter XVI 
The Yachting Party

I had to make use of Eric's old plea, "pressure of work," to account for his going away without seeing my mother.

I watched the clock that next afternoon in a state of fever. Would he come again at three, so that we might talk alone? No. The torturing minute-hand felt its way slowly round the clock-face, its finger, like a surgeon's on my heart, pressing steadily, for all my flinching, to verify the seat and the extent of pain.

Four o'clock. Five. Half-past. No hope now of his coming, I told myself, as those do who cannot give up hope. My mother questioned me. What had Mr. Annan said the day before? Had he, then, come so early for "nothing in particular"? I said that I supposed he had come early because he found he could not come late.

About six o'clock, as I was counting out some drops for my mother, a ring at the front door made me start and spill the liquid on the table. 

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He had relented! He was coming to say the things I had been so mad as to prevent his saying yesterday. We listened. My heart fell down as a woman's voice came up. Lady Helmstone! Wanting to see my mother "very particularly." We wondered, while the maid went down to bring her, what the errand might be which could not be entrusted to Bettina. For, wonderful to say, Bettina was to be allowed to go to a real dinner-party that night at the Hall. Hermione had written from London, begging that Betty might come and hear about the yachting party.

This was not the first we had heard of the project. It had been introduced in a way never to be forgotten. We had counted on hearing from the Helmstones all the thrilling details about the Coronation which was fixed for the coming June. We felt ourselves sensibly closer to the august event through our acquaintance with the Helmstones. Lesser folk than they might hope to see the great Procession going to the Abbey--King and Queen in the golden Coach of State, our particular friends the little Princes and the young Princess in yet another shining chariot, followed by the foreign Potentates, the State officials, and by our Peer of the 

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Realm with all his brother Lords and Barons in scarlet and ermine; and the flower of the British Army, a glancing flaming glory in the rear.

The highly fortunate might see this Greatest Pageant of the Age on its return from the Abbey, when the Sovereigns would be wearing their crowns and their Coronation robes.

But the Helmstones! They would actually see the anointing and the crowning from their High Seats in the Abbey. Even a girl like Hermione would be asked to the State Ball.

Never before had we realised so clearly the advantages of being a Peer.

We thought the Helmstones very modest not to be talking continually about the Coronation. While we waited, impatient to hear more on the great theme, they had introduced the subject of the yachting trip. I remembered this while Lady Helmstone was coming up the stair--I remembered our bewilderment at learning that they hoped to sail "about Easter," and to be cruising in the Aegean at the end of June.

They had forgotten the Coronation!

Then the shock of hearing Lord Helmstone thank God that he would "be well out of it." 

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London, he said, would be intolerable this season. He had let the house in Grosvenor Square "at a good round Coronation figure" to a new-made law-lord-- "sort of chap who'll revel in it all." Many of the greatest houses in London were to be let to strangers.

The yachting trip was one of many arranged that people might escape "the Coronation fuss."

According to my mother, Lord Helmstone and his like showed a kind of treason to the country in not doing their share to make the symbolic act of Coronation a public testimony to English devotion to the Monarchy. What would become of the significance of the occasion if the aristocracy (upholders of that order typified by the King) deserted the King on a day when the eyes of the world would be upon the English throne.

Oh, it was pitiable! this leaving the great inherited task to the upstart rich. Lord Helmstone's act showed blacker in the light of remembered honour done him both by the present King and by his father. We knew Lord Helmstone had liked the late King best. Yet even of him we had heard this unworthy subject speak with something less than reverence. With bated breath 

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Bettina and I had reported these lapses, as well as the late ironic reference to "the bourgeois standards of the present Court." Our mother said that only meant that the life of the King and Queen was a model for their people. "But Lord Helmstone laughed," we persisted-- "they all laughed."

We saw we were wrong to dwell upon so grave a lapse. Lord Helmstone's taste was questionable, we heard. "He does not scorn the distinctions His Majesty confers." There were people--my mother was sorry if Lord Helmstone was one--who thought it superior to smile at the Fount of Honour.

Smiling at Founts was one thing. But to go a-yachting when you might help to crown the King of England, Emperor of India, Defender of the Faith. . . . !

Bettina and I had agreed privately that the reason she was allowed the unheard-of licence of dining out alone was that she might embrace this final opportunity of probing the mystery before the Helmstones vanished. They had come down from London for their last week-end before going to Marseilles to join the Nautch Girl

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And now Lady Helmstone was passing our bedroom, where Bettina on the other side of the closed door sat working feverishly to finish putting some fresh lace on the gown she was to wear at dinner.

Lady Helmstone came into my mother's room, very smart and smiling, and without preamble proposed to take Bettina along as one of her party. Equally without hesitation my mother said the idea was quite impracticable.

Lady Helmstone was a person accustomed to having her own way. "You cannot expect," she said, "you cannot want to keep your girls at home for ever."

"N-no," my mother agreed, with that old look of shrinking. But Bettina was far too young--

A niece of Lord Helmstone's, just Bettina's age, was to be of the party.

Ah, well, Bettina was different. Bettina was the sort of child who had never been able to face the idea of a single night away from home. And this was a question of a cruise of--how many weeks?

"Six months," said Lady Helmstone cheerfully.

My mother stared. Lady Helmstone could not 

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have meant the proposal seriously-- "Bettina would die of home-sickness."

Lady Helmstone ventured to think not. As I have said, she was ill-accustomed to seeing her invitations set aside. She spoke of Hermione's disappointment . . . they were all so fond of Bettina. She should have every care.

My mother made her acknowledgments--the suggestion was most kind; most hospitable meant. But Lady Helmstone had only to put it to Bettina. She would soon see.

Lady Helmstone smiled. "I think you will find Bettina would like to come with us."

I was annoyed at her way of saying that, as if she knew Bettina better than we. I went into the next room, and got out my school-books. I left the door open in case my mother should need me, and I heard them talking about "daughters."

There was much to be said, Lady Helmstone thought, for the way they did things in France. My mother preferred the English way.

"And yet you will not take it," said the other, with the suavity that allowed her to be impertinent without seeming so. "I don't think--living as you do--you quite realise the trouble 

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mothers take to give their girls the sort of opportunity you are refusing." There were changes-- "great and radical changes," she said--changes which my mother, leading this life of the religieuse, was possibly not aware of.

My mother deprecated as much as she had heard of these changes.

"Ah, but, necessary-- a question of supply and demand. You can afford to disregard them only if you do not expect your daughters to marry." My mother said stiffly that she saw no reason to suppose her daughters would not marry-- "all in good time." They were very young, Bettina a child--

"She is very little younger than I was when I married; or than you were yourself, if I may hazard a guess." My mother was silent. She was still silent when Lady Helmstone laid down the law that a girl's best "opportunities" came before she was twenty. In these days of Gaiety girls and American heiresses the whole question had grown incomparably more difficult. "Mothers with a sense of family duty--I may say of patriotism--have to think seriously about these things." She herself, having married off three 

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daughters and two nieces, might be considered something of an expert. Indeed, she was so regarded. She had advised hundreds. There was her cousin Mrs. Monmouth. The Monmouths were not at all well off. "I used to come across Rosamund trailing her three girls about London. . . . Three! Conceive the indiscretion!--only the young one really caring about balls--the other two going stolidly through with it, season after season. The mother, every year more worn, more haggard--I changed all that! One chaperon will do for a dozen. A group of us took turns. 'Send the youngest to dance,' I said; 'and never more than two at a time.' After all, very little is done at balls!" She spoke impatiently, in a brisk, business-like tone. "As a rule, only boys and ineligibles care about dancing. The thing for people in Rosamund's position to do--I told my cousin, the thing to do was to spend August in London."

There was a pause.

"Do people not leave London in August nowadays?" my mother said, in a tone of perfunctory politeness.

All the other women leave," said Lady Helm- 

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stone, with a rusé significance. "The field is clear. There are always men in London when the town is supposed to be empty. Often Parliament is still sitting. Men have nowhere to go. They accept with gratitude in August an invitation they wouldn't even trouble to answer in June. August is the time. I made Rosamund Monmouth see it. I made her give her common, or garden, cook a holiday. I made her engage a chef--cordon bleu. 'You must give better dinners than men get at their clubs.' She did."

There was another significant pause.

"The least attractive of the Monmouth girls married the rising young barrister Harvey that very autumn. We call him 'Harvest.'" Her laugh rang lonely in the quiet room. "The other is engaged to the member for Durdan. He will be in the Cabinet when our side comes in. Both those girls would be manoeuvring for partners at balls still, and their mother would be in her grave, but for . . . "

The interview ended stiffly.

The only part of my mother's share in it that I regretted was her suggesting that Lady Helmstone should not, after all, let Bettina know there 

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had been any question of her going. "The child is already disturbed enough at the prospect of losing Hermione."

When Lady Helmstone was gone, my mother sat up with flushed cheeks, and said: "If Betty never went anywhere, I should not want her to go away in the care of a woman like that." 

End Chapter XVI 
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