My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 17
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
The Emerald Pendant
I put the finishing touches to Bettina's dress in our mother's room that night, so that the invalid might have the pleasure of lying there and looking at Betty, all white and golden in the candle-light. While I tied her sash I noticed her frowning at herself in the glass.
"I look dreadfully missish," she said.
When I protested, she said: "Worse, then! Like a charity child at a school-treat!"
We were amazed. My mother asked where she had got such ideas. I heard Hermione behind Betty's voice.
She turned round and faced our mother with her most beguiling air. "It's going to be mine some day . . . lend me the pearl and emerald pendant." That my mother should be surprised at the suggestion, seemed only natural. But I could not see why she should be so annoyed. I, too, begged her to let Bettina wear the pendant. After all, Bettina was in her seventeenth year . . . and this was a real party.
"A girl of sixteen wanting to wear a thing like that!"
Bettina frowned. How old must she be before she could wear the pendant?
My mother wouldn't say. . . .
After Bettina had gone, I asked about the market value of jewels.
My mother seemed to think the inquiry very odd and somehow offensive. I asked if she thought the big diamond star was worth as much as £ 600.
She said I appeared to have a very sordid way of looking at things whose real value was that they were symbolic of something beyond price.
I said I knew that. But did she not think that for some great and important end, my father would have been the first to say, let the jewels be sold?
My mother put her hand up to her eyes. I blew out one candle and set a shield before the other.
She spoke my name and I started--the voice sounded odd. I went back to the bedside. "Are you ill?" I said. She shook her head and motioned me to sit down.
Then she told me. We were living on the proceeds of the diamond star.
The pendant had been sold last summer. There was nothing more worth selling except the furniture, and possibly a few prints.
We owed Lord Helmstone six months' rent.
I met the shock with the help of my secret. I steadied myself against the thought that, at the worst, I would find the means (through Aunt Josephine or somebody) for qualifying myself to support my mother and sister. I saw myself, at the worst, a humble soldier enlisting in that army where Eric held command. I, too, marching with that high companionship . . . marching to the world's relief.
In the midst of telling how I was forging ahead with my London University Tutorial Correspondence, and to what the year's successful work was leading, I kept thinking that, after all, this ill wind might help to blow away the cloud that Eric's disapproval had brought lowering over the present and obscuring all the future. My mother will be proud of me, I thought. She will even be a little touched; and then, for all the light was so dim, I saw her face of horror!
It was a mad idea. Her daughter a "female doctor"! Never!
"Not--not female doctor," I protested. "That does sound--"
"Well, you see for yourself how the very sound of it--"
I assured her that I didn't dislike the sound of "medical woman." But there was no necessity to emphasise "woman" at all; the only thing important was whether the person was qualified to treat the sick. People did not feel they had to say male doctor. "Doctor is enough."
I was told that the reason no one said male doctor was because "doctor" was male, and everyone understood that.
I left the point, and I pleaded my main cause with all my might. I hadn't any accomplishments--no music, nothing. "I'm not the decorative one, and I like 'doing things'; plain, everyday things." There had to be people like that.
It was all no use.
* * *
That confession of mine, more than hers about the jewels, goaded my mother into taking a step which even we, blind as we were, felt to be epoch-making in our history.
That same evening she began to talk about Aunt Josephine--to excuse her. Mrs. Harborough had been so wrapped up in her brilliant young step-brother (and Aunt Josephine would never allow the "step") that any other person's coming in must inevitably have been resented. "She idolised your father." A woman of high character. Given to good works. Busied about the redemption of long-shoremen and about country treats for jam-factory girls. Knee-deep in philanthropy. And childless. She could not, especially now after that old first anger had long cooled, she could not be indifferent to the fate of her brother's children.
"Are you thinking of writing to her?" I said. She explained that for her to address Mrs. Harborough was, under the circumstances, hardly possible. But there was no reason in the world why I should not.
I felt there were reasons, but I could not think what they were. My mother, meanwhile, grew almost cheerful, outlining the sort of thing I might say. No requests in this first communication. A letter, merely--if it found her so inclined--merely to open a long-closed door.
I did not like my task. I decided I would put it off till morning, though I knew that at any time
I should find it easier to write: "Please lend me £1,000 for a course of study," than write such a letter as my mother had dictated.
* * *
Betty came back from her dinner-party in great excitement. Ranny Dallas had motored over from Dartmoor that very day--with a man friend. They had been at the Helmstones' to tea.
I wondered, dully, that Lady Helmstone had said nothing whatever about Ranny during her visit. She must have just parted from him. Another curious thing was that Ranny had not stayed for the dinner-party. He and his friend were at the inn.
"What in the world do you think that means?" I asked Bettina, glad enough to escape from my own thoughts.
She was smiling. "I think it is very natural."
And why was it natural for a luxurious young man to put up with tough mutton and watery potatoes at a village inn, when he and any friend of his were certain of a welcome, and the best possible dinner, in a house like the Helmstones'?
Betty merely continued to smile in that beatific,
but somewhat foolish fashion. I said, rather more to make her speak than for any soberer reason, "Perhaps he isn't so sure of his welcome"; and then in a flash I saw quite clearly something I had been blind to till that instant. For all the liking the Helmstones felt for Betty they may not have liked being undeceived about Ranny's supposed devotion to Hermione. That this idea had never occurred to me before showed me stupid, I saw, as well as self-absorbed. But the idea would not have occurred to me at all, I think, but for some of the things Lady Helmstone had said to my mother that afternoon.
Betty was asking me with a superior air, if I couldn't understand that Ranny would "prefer to talk things over" before meeting her at a dinner-party "with everybody looking on." She reminded me a little tremulously that it would be their very first meeting "since . . . " There was a moment when I thought she was going to cry. And then, without any sense of transition, I wondered how anybody in the world could be as happy as Betty looked.
The next morning, still in a mood of the deep-
est dejection, I dated a sheet of paper, and began: "My dear Aunt Josephine."
I looked at the words for full five minutes, with a feeling of intense unwillingness to set down another syllable. And then I yielded to the impulse which made certain other words so easy, so delicious to say or trace. I took a fresh sheet. Before I knew, I had written: "Dear Mr. Annan."
Well, why not? Was it not better to write to him, rather than face another afternoon like yesterday? My mother wondering, suspicious; my own eyes flying back and forth like distracted shuttles from window to clock--from clock to window, hour after hour.
Dear Mr. Annan, --I have told my mother. She feels as you do. She does not like my idea. So I have agreed for the present not to think about it any more.
I was his "sincerely," and I sent the note by one of the little Klauses.
* * *
End Chapter XVII
Available since August 1997