My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 18

My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins

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Chapter XVIII 

I imagined that day I should never again have to live through a time of such suspense.

Waiting, till I could get away without being noticed, to carry my note to Kleiner Klaus's.

Waiting, while his mother brushed his clothes and cuffed him. Waiting, while he recovered his spirits. Waiting, while slowly, slowly, his mind took in the particulars of his errand, and the most particular part of it, in his eyes--the penny he should have when he brought me back an answer.

And the long hours of that afternoon waiting for the answer, or even for the errand-boy to come back. When I was not looking out of the window my mind was still so bent on listening for one particular footstep on the brick walk, and at the door his voice--the only voice in the world with meaning in it--that scarcely any impression was made on me by other steps and other voices. I heard them, subconsciously, to dismiss them; for everything was irrelevance that wasn't Eric. 

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But my mother interrupted my mechanical reading aloud. "Who," (with her air of listening to sounds beyond my ken) "who can all those people be?"

There was Bettina in the passage making frantic signs that I was to hurry out and speak to her. And voices of men and women came up from the open door. I recognised Lord Helmstone's. I heard him asking the maid if Mr. Annan were here.

"No? That's very odd," said Hermione in her skeptical way-- "Perhaps he's come in without your knowing. Will you just find out?"

My mother, too, had heard Lord Helmstone's cheerful bass, suggesting that his party might take shelter here. I had not noticed before the slight rain falling. "Go and ask him to come upstairs," my mother said. And lower: "I don't want him to take it amiss." I saw she was thinking of her refusal to let Betty go on the yacht.

Betty was waiting for me in ambush near the head of the stair: "You must come down and help me. Ranny is there, too."

I was bewildered at finding so many at the 

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door. For besides Lord Helmstone and Hermione, there was Lady Barbara, and Ranny Dallas and his friend--a cheerful, talkative, red-haired man they called Courtney.

The Helmstones were still discussing whether they should come in. Hermione said it was only a slight sprinkle, and her mother was expecting them back to tea. Lady Barbara, with engaging simplicity, insisted there was no object in going back without Mr. Annan.

I saw at once that Ranny looked different. Just in what way, or to what extent, I could not at first have said. A very little thinner, too little to account for the change I was dimly conscious of. And when he first came in, he came with some nonsense, and that pleasant laugh, that always "started things" in an easy harmonious key.

"We've descended on you," Lord Helmstone said, "like a posse of detectives. Sleuth-hounds on that fella Annan's track. We've our instructions to bag him and carry him home to tea."

Bettina (oh, I could have beaten her for that!) said Mr. Annan would very probably come in presently. And she led the way into the drawing-room, while I took Lord Helmstone upstairs. By 

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the time I came down again Bettina had ordered tea.

Hermione turned round as I came in. "What have you done with my father! Now father's disappeared!"--as if she had only just grasped the fact. "Didn't I tell you," she said to Ranny, "Duncombe is a place where if a man goes in, he doesn't come out?"

Betty and I gave them tea.

I lashed myself up to being almost talkative. I am sure they never guessed the effort I was making. I had not taken my usual place for pouring out tea. I sat where I could see the gate. My mind and eyes were so on the watch for Eric I should not have noticed Ranny much, but for an odd new feeling of comradeship that sprang up, I cannot tell how, as the minutes went by and still brought no sign of Eric. Not even a note to answer to mine.

As tea went on, and I grew more miserable, I noticed that Ranny flagged, too. After saying something Ranny-ish enough, he would fall into quiet, looking straight in front of him as though we none of us were there. As though even Bettina were not there. Bettina's eyes kept turning 

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his way. But Ranny never once looked at her. And the more I looked at him, the more I felt he was changed. He would rouse himself abruptly out of that new stillness and take part for a moment in the talk. His very laugh, that I have spoken of as so reassuring--his laugh most of all gave me a sense of uneasiness. It was a kind of laughter that seemed just a tribute to other people's light-heartedness and, more than anything about him, a betrayal of his own bankruptcy in cheer.

When he fell silent again, and in a way "out of the running," when that blindness came into his face, Ranny Dallas looks as I feel, I said to myself. And then I talked the more and smiled at everybody in a way probably more imbecile than pleasing.

I consoled myself with thinking neither Ranny nor I were being much noticed, for Hermione talked very fast, and rather louder than usual, to Bettina and to the other, newer, swain--one of the apparently endless supply of "Weak-ending young men" as Ranny called them.

Under cover Hermione's gaiety, I managed to ask Bettina what was the matter with Ranny. 

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"I don't know," she whispered.

I saw it was true. Bettina did not know.

She leaned across me to find a place on the crowded table for her teacup and the low voice was earnest enough: "Find out."

The rain had been only a passing shower.

"Oh, yes, the sun has come out--but my father hasn't! Didn't I say," Hermione laughed, "no man ever knows when to come away from this place?" Then she swept us all into the garden. "If he doesn't come soon I shall throw gravel up at the window. Isn't it this window?"

Bettina said very likely Lord Helmstone was having tea upstairs and that it had not gone up till after ours. Ranny and I left the new young man and Bettina trying to prevent Hermione from carrying out her audacious plan and apparently succeeding. For Lord Helmstone did not appear for another half-hour. And still no sign of Eric.

Ranny asked me how the sunk garden was coming on. I didn't like going so far from the gate, but Betty's earnest "find out" was ringing in my ears. I sent a searching look across the heath, and then Ranny and I left the others and went 

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down to the rock-quadrangle that used to be so tidily affluent in stone-loving mosses, seedums and suchlike. The weeds were fast driving the more delicate things out of the neglected tangle. For the old gardener had been gone a year, now, and there was overmuch for a jobbing person to do in a day or two a week.

I apologised for the poor unkempt place, thinking how different I might have made it, but for the hours I spent over books. And would Eric have liked me better if--

I craned my neck, uneasy at not being able to see the gate nor any part of the bypath. Only the higher reach of heath road.

Ranny had not pretended to be listening. I don't think he so much as saw how changed the garden was. We talked about the new young man-- "awful good sort," according to Ranny. But that testimony, too, he gave in an absent-minded perfunctory way.

"Can't we sit down?" he said, looking blindly at a garden seat still shining-wet.

I said we'd better walk. I lead him back near enough the house to see if the others had waylaid Eric. 

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No, just the same group under my mother's window--Hermione and Babs arguing hotly about something. The red-haired young man aiming at an imaginary golf-ball with the crook-handle of his heavy walking-stick, and swinging it violently over his shoulder, that Bettina might see the approved position of feet and body before, and after, a furious drive. Whether Bettina made a practice of asking for this information I cannot say. But every man who came our way, young or old, was seized with an uncontrollable desire to teach Bettina the difference between good form and bad form at the game of golf.

Ranny had been walking with his head bent and no pretense at making conversation. When I stopped, he looked up suddenly and caught sight of the group. He wheeled about, and stood with his back to the house and he face averted from me as well.

"Look here," he said, "why shouldn't we go and meet Annan? --warn him--eh?"

My heart leapt at the suggestion. And yet. . . . "Why should you want to do that?" I said suspiciously.

"Oh, well, I don't care where we go-- 

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only . . . " His voice sounded so queer I felt frightened.

"I don't think I'll go back to them just yet," he managed to bring out. "Do you mind?" 

End Chapter XVIII 
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Available since August 1997