My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 24
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
Madame Aurore was little and wasted and shrill.
She had deep scars in her neck, and dead-looking yellow hair.
She was drenched in cheap scent.
Her untidy, helter-skelter dress gave no hint of the admirable taste she lavished upon others.
She saw at once what we ought to have, and she talked about our clothes with an enthusiasm as great as Betty's own.
"Ah, but Madame!" she remonstrated dramatically, when my mother showed her the new white satin, which was for me, and a creamy lace gown which was to be modernised for Bettina-- "not bot vhite!"
My mother explained that my gown was to have rose-coloured garnishing.
"Mais non! mais non!" Madame must pardon her for the liberty, but she, Madame Aurore, could not bring herself to see our chief advantage thrown away.
What, then, was our chief advantage? Betty demanded.
What indeed, but the contrast between us. The moment she laid eyes on the hair of Mademoiselle Bettina she had said to herself: the frock of Mademoiselle Bettina should be that tender green of tilleul--with just a note of bleu de ciel. Oh, a dress of spring-time--an April dress, a gay little dress, for all its tenderness! A dress to make happy the heart of all who look thereon.
But "green!" We had sent all the way to London for the white satin, and we had not green.
Then 'twas in truth une bonne chance that Madame Aurore had! She often bought up bargains and gave her clients an opportunity to acquire them. She rushed out of the room, and returned with a piece of silk chiffon of the most adorable hue. She showed us the effect over white satin. My satin. But then, as Madame Aurore said, we could so easily sent to Stagg and Mantle's for more.
She looked at me out of snapping black eyes--eyes like animated boot-buttons. "Yes, yes; for you, Mademoiselle, ze note sall be sérénité . . . hein? Zis priceless old lace over ivory satin.
Ah . . . " She struck an attitude. "I see it. So . . . and so. A ceinture panne, couleur de feuille d'automme touched with gold broderie. Hein? Oh, very distingué, hein?"
"It must be expensive"; we had to say that to Madame Aurore all that first day, at regular intervals. But she had her way. She sewed hard, and she chattered as hard as she sewed.
Bettina ran across her in the passage that first evening as Madame Aurore came up from supper. And they began instantly on the fruitful theme of "green gown." My mother called out to Bettina that she had talked enough about clothes for one day, and in any case she had left us to go early to bed. Bettina regretted her rash promise--wasn't the least tired, and could have talked clothes till cock-crow! There was some argument on this head at the door, in which Madame Aurore joined, with too great a freedom, and an elaborate air ranging herself on my mother's side. This pleased, least of all, the person Madame Aurore designed to propitiate.
Madame Aurore, I am sure, had not been in the house an hour before she had taken the meas-
ure of our main preoccupation. Mademoiselle Bettina ought to be grateful, she said, to have a mother so devoted, so solicitous. Standing near the open door, she piled up an exaggerated case of maternal love. There was nothing in life like the love between mother and child. Ah, didn't she know! Her own little girl--
My mother said she must have the door shut now, and I was sent to undo Betty's gown.
Bettina thought it angelic of Madame Aurore not to resent our mother's lack of interest in the small Aurore. According to Bettina, Madame showed a wonderfully nice disposition in not withdrawing her interest from us after that. She seemed rather to imply: very well, you don't care about my child . . . but I am still ready to care about yours.
"Parfaitement!" . . . the little dressmaker remembered Bettina's passing Drew Pond House the summer before. It was true what Hermione had reported. Madame Aurore had leaned out of the window to watch Bettina. She had even expressed the wish that she might have the dressing of cette jolie enfant.
Oh, but life was a droll affair!
Bettina thought it entirely delightful. She went about the house singing. The first time Madame Aurore heard Bettina she arrested the rapid stab of her basting needle: "Who ees dat?"
"That is my youngest daughter."
"She tink to go on ze stage?"
"Not?" It ess a vast, zat."
* * *
She was always cold.
Whenever we were out of the morning-room she piled on the coal. On the second day I remonstrated. Fuel, I explained, was very expensive so far from the coal-fields. She smiled. "You are ze careful one, hein?" and she looked at me in a way which made me feel uncomfortable.
But I did not feel about the poor little creature as my mother did.
My mother went so far as to wish we had not sent for her. She would never have allowed her to come if she had seen her first. I thought my mother severe.
Everybody else, including the servants, liked Madame Aurore. No wonder. She spent her life doing things for people. Sewing for us all
day like mad, so that our two best frocks might be finished in spite of the shortness of the time; and still ready at nightfall to show the cook how to make p'tite marmite, or sauce à la financière--equally ready to advise the housemaid how to give the Bond Street, not to say the Rue de la Paix, touch to her Sunday alpaca, and chic to old Ransom's beehive hat.
If she asked them one and all more questions in a minute than they could answer in a month, what did that show but the generous interest she took in her fellow-beings?
Bettina, with her little air of large experience, said that Madame Aurore was the most "sympathetic" person she had ever met. Madame Aurore's benevolent concern about our clothes, our soups, sauces, and servants, and everything that was ours, extended to our friends and relations and everything that was theirs. She had never, she said, known people--let alone such charming people as we--with so few acquaintances. Bettina thought Madame Aurore was sorry for us.
She asked a great deal about the Helmstones.
"Ze only friends and zey are avay for seex mont!" Ah, it was well we were going to London. We
should die, else, of aloneness. Aunt Josephine plainly was the one ray of light in our grey existence. Where did she live? Lowndes Square! Ah, but a very expensive and splendid part of London! No news to us, who had our own private measure for social altitudes. Bettina had looked out Lowndes Square on our faded map of London. Aunt Josephine was only a private person, but she lived nearer the King and Queen than the Helmstones did.
And for all her being a Biosophist she had asked us to stay for the Coronation. Bettina frequently led the conversation to the great event of June. But this queer little Frenchwoman was more interested in Aunt Josephine than she was in the King and Queen. Here was distinction for an Aunt!
And what was she like--this lady? We must have a picture of our only and so valuable relation.
Bettina went and rooted about in the deep print and photograph drawer, till she brought Aunt Josephine to light. Very faded and old-fashioned looking, but Madame Aurore regarded the face with a respectful enthusiasm. "Oh, une
grande dame! une vraie grande dame!" Madame Aurore understood better now what was required.
We repudiated, on our aunt's behalf, the idea that she was so much grande dame as philanthropist, thinker, recluse. We did not deny her grandeur. We but clarified it; or, at least, Bettina did.
"Bettina talks too much to that woman," my mother said to me privately. She sent for Bettina and told her she was not to speak to Madame Aurore about anything except her work.
Bettina thought to interpret this order literally would be inhuman. Besides, she considered it very nice of Madame Aurore to take such an interest in us. " I am grateful when people take an interest," said Bettina with her air of superiority.
When my mother heard that Bettina had been discussing Aunt Josephine, and had unearthed the photograph to show to Madame Aurore, she was annoyed. "Go and bring me the picture," she said.
Bettina went into the morning-room, and looked about for some minutes. The little dressmaker sat there, in a litter of white and green, sewing
furiously. Bettina said at last that she hated most dreadfully to bother Madame Aurore, but where was that photograph?
Madame Aurore looked up absently. "Had Mademoiselle Bettina not taken it out?"
"Perhaps I did--" Bettina scoured the house.
Aunt Josephine's photograph was never found.
* * *
I was glad our mother did not know that Bettina had told Madame Aurore about the pendant and the diamond star. Bettina excused herself by saying Madame Aurore had been so certain a lady like our mother must have jewels, and that she would lend them to her daughters, in order to put the finishing touch of elegance to our toilette. Betty had felt it due to our mother to acknowledge that a part, at least, of this exalted expectation was not so wide of the mark. And Bettina endorsed Madame Aurore's opinion that a diamond star certainly would "light up" my ivory satin and old lace. Also--but no, we must do without.
* * *
The green frock was all but finished. We had
brought the cheval glass out of my mother's room. She was "not strong enough to stand the patchouli," so she missed the great moment of the final trying on. Bettina stood before the glass, looking somehow more childish than ever, or rather seeming less of common earth and more of fairyland, in the tunic-frock of green, her short curls on her neck.
My fancy that she was like somebody out of "The Midsummer Night's Dream," was set to flight by Madame Aurore's shower of couturière's compliment, mixed with highly practical considerations, such as: "See how it falls when you sit down. Parfaitement! And can you valk in it? But wis grace!" Bettina proved she could. "A merveille! Sapristi! Mademoiselle Bettine would see the sensation she was going to create in London. Could she lift ze arm--hein?" Mais belle comme un ange!--many makers of quite beautiful gowns studied the effect seulement en repos. Mademoiselle Bettine would, without doubt, dance in that frock. Let us see, did it lend itself? Bettina moved about the morning-room to waltz time--laughing at and with Madame Aurore; stopping to make court curtsies;
watching in the glass if green frock had pretty manners.
One thing more, its maker said, and behold Perfection! It needed . . . it cried aloud for a single jewel.
"Ah, yes." Bettina's look fell. No doubt the finishing touch would have been a pearl and emerald pendant. But--
Madame Aurore struck in with a torrential rapture, drowning explanation and regret. Life, Madame Aurore shrilled, was for ever using her, humble instrument though she was--for the working out of these benevolences. There had she--but three days ago--all innocent, unknowing--tossed that piece of chiffon tilleul into her trunk. Or rather, not her hand performed the act--not hers at all. The hand of Fate! And now, The Finger! . . . pointing straight at the pearl and emerald pendant. But, instantly, must Mademoiselle Bettine go and get the ravishing jewel--the diamond star, as well, while she was about it.
Then poor Betty had to say these glories were no more.
Madame Aurore snapped her boot-button eyes, and rolled them up. Our poor, poor mother!
Deeply, ah! but profoundly, Madame Aurore commiserated une dame si distinguée, si élégante, being in straitened circumstances. Ah, Madame Aurore understood! She would be most economical with the coals.
All the same she wasn't.
But what did it matter! since she turned us out dresses that we where sure Hermione, herself, would have characterised as "Dreams." Bettina went about the house, singing:
"'Where are you going to, my pretty maid?'
'Going to London, Sir,' she said. . . . "
* * *
Madame Aurore even managed to put the finishing touches to the two frocks made in the village, which Bettina called our Coronation robes--just white muslin, but not "just muslin" at all, after they had passed through Madame Aurore's hands. She listened indulgently while Bettina wondered how the young Princes would like driving through London in a gold coach, and above all how the little Princess would feel; and how she would look; and how did Madame Aurore think she would do her hair?
"I don't like that woman," my mother observed pointedly to Bettina.
"Oh, dearest, she feels it. I know from something--"
"I do not object to her knowing. But I am not interested in Madame Aurore." My mother dismissed her.
The fact was that none of the torrent of talk (carried on now in a whisper, with elaborate deference to the chère malade)--none of it had to do with Madame Aurore herself. We had had to ask her all of the little we came to know about her. She had no regular business in London. Ah, no, she was too often ill. She merely went out to work when she was "strong enuss."
"Zen too, ze leedle gal. I haf to sink about her." The thought seemed one to harass. All would be different if Mme. Aurore had a shop.
We agreed that to have a shop full of lovely French models, would be delightful. And by-an-by the little Aurore would help in the shop.
" Nevair!" said Mme. Aurore with sudden passion. She knew all about being in shops. It was to prevent her daughter from knowing, too,
that Mme. Aurore must make money. The little Aurore should go to the Convent school--which seemed somehow an odd destination for the daughter of Madame Aurore. She spoke of it as a far dream, beckoning.
"Nossing--but nossing can be done in zis world vidout monny." And what people will do for money--oh, little did we know! But the world was like that. Eh bien, Madame Aurore had not made it. Had she done so, it would be a better place.
Betty and I smiled at the pains taken to make this clear. Madame Aurore professed herself revolted by an arrangement which made "ze goodness or ze badness of a pairson" dependent upon where you happened to find yourself.
"Par example you can be extrêmement good here." More. She would go so far as to say you must be a genius to discover how to be bad here.
Through Betty's laughing protest, the little woman went on with seriousness to assure us it was "une chose bien différente dans . . . " she checked herself, bit off the end of her thread, and spat it out.
"It is different, you mean, in Crutchley
Street?" Betty asked. And, though she got no answer, I think we both understood the anxious mother to be thinking of the small Aurore left all alone in one of the world's Mean Streets. Perhaps the reason Betty got no answer to her question was that she had slightly raised her voice in putting it, and I had said, "Sh!"
"What ees it?" Madame Aurore demanded, looking round.
"I was only reminding Betty," I said. "We mustn't disturb my mother."
Hah! naturally not. Whatever happened, she was not to be disturbed!
I was afraid, from the tone in which Madame Aurore said this, that she thought I had been reproving her. And, to divert her thoughts, I asked: "Who takes care of her--the little daughter--while you are away?"
Again she bit viciously at the thread. "Not motch 'care'!" The small eyes snapped as she drew the thread through the needle's eye. I had never seen even her hands fly so fast, or her whole feverish little body attack the basting with such fury of energy as after that reference to the child left behind in Crutchley Street.
Bettina said soothingly: "I suppose you left her with some good friend?"
"Ze best I haf."
The admission was made in an accent so coldly hopeless that Bettina, round-eyed, said: "Oh, dear, isn't she a nice friend?"
"She is like ozzers. She is as nice as she can afford." Madame Aurore had recovered her shrill vivacity. She had not, after all, taken to heart my hint about keeping our voices down. "In some parts of ze vorld," she went on, in that raised, defiant note, "you might be quite good for a week; wis luck for a few months; but you could not be good from year's end to year's end."
"Why was that?" Bettina asked softly.
Madame Aurore laughed out. "Ze climat!" she said, in a voice that must certainly have penetrated in the next room. "Somesing in ze air." Then lower, with a tigerish swiftness: "I shall not ron ze risk for my liddle gal! Non!" She tossed the satin on the machine, thrust it under the needle, and seemed to work the treadle by dint of compressing lips and knitting brows.
Bettina and I agreed we would not talk to her any more about her daughter, since, unlike most
mothers, the thought of her child did not soften Madame Aurore, but made her hard and angry.
We put this down to wounded feelings at my mother's curt dismissal of the theme.
Surreptitiously--for she knew leave would be refused--Bettina gave Madame Aurore some of our old toys, and other little gifts, to take home to her daughter.
I did not prevent this, for I, too, felt uneasily that we ought somehow to make up for our mother's nervous detestation of Madame Aurore.
Had this, as the little dressmaker hinted, something of sheer sickness in it--an invalid's caprice? Bettina said lightheartedly: "Oh, it's only because Aurore is a foreigner. Mother admits she never did like foreigners."
After the first day there was almost no personal interchange between Madame Aurore and her employer. Yet I had a queer feeling that a silent drama was being played out between those two who, without meeting, were acting and reacting upon each other.
Madame Aurore asked each day, How was madame? in a voice of extremest solicitude--nay, of gloomiest apprehension.
I found myself wrestling with an uncomfortable feeling that this hopeless view of my mother's health was somehow prompted by a desire "to get even" with the one unresponsive member of our little circle--to get even in the only way open to Madame Aurore. I knew she advised the housemaid to look out for another place, and offered to find her one in London, where she would be paid double, and have almost nothing to do. The housemaid was greatly tempted, but I was told she said she wouldn't go till her mistress was better.
"Bettair! She vill not last a mont!" said Madame Aurore.
At first such echoes as reached me of these prognostications made me merely angry. But I could not quite cast them aside. I began to wonder miserably if there were anything in this view. After all we, too--even Eric--had held it ourselves, only such a little while before!
I wrote to Aunt Josephine to say that if my mother were not better by Monday morning, I should bring Bettina as arranged; but I would stay only one night and go home the next day.
The question rose on Friday as to whether
Madame Aurore should return to London on Saturday night, or some time on Sunday.
"Saturday night," said my mother with decision.
Bettina ventured to urge the Sunday alternative. "The poor little thing is so tired after sewing all day--"
To which my mother responded by ordering the cart for Saturday evening.
"I cannot sleep with that woman in the house."
Bettina ran in to say Madame Aurore was ready to say good-bye. To our embarrassment, our mother would not permit Madame Aurore to enter the room, even for the purpose of taking leave.
We went out and did what we could to soften the refusal. "She has not been sleeping. . . . " "She is trying to rest. . . . " "She is so much obliged to you. . . . "
Ah, Madame Aurore understood. Our poor, poor mother was undoubtedly failing. We were adjured to take every care. Certainly we should not both leave the poor lady.
We told Madame Aurore that we should
never forget her. "I shall take good care of the address," Bettina said.
No, Madame Aurore would send us a new address. She was looking for larger rooms. She believed she was going to be stronger now. She meant to take on two or three hands. In that case, she would not be able to go out any more to people's houses. She would let us know. . . .
She filled the hall with her patchouli and shrill vivacity, and presently was gone.
When we went back into my mother's room, we found her telling the housemaid to hang our gowns in a draught "to purify them."
Betty was moved to some final remonstrance.
My mother cut her short: "That was a horrible woman!"
"Well, well," I said, "she's gone."
"Yes. That is the best that can be said of Madame Aurore. We are done with her for ever.
End Chapter XXIV
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