My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 26
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
She was an imposing figure, beautifully dressed in black. She was handsomer than her picture, and younger-looking than we expected. It occurred to me that bio-vibratory sympathism had a thinning effect.
Her manner was more decisive than I had expected from a dreamer. Very commanding and important, she stood there with her liveried servant behind her. Bettina had known her instantly by the grey hair rolled high and the pear-shaped earrings.
She kissed us, and said I was more like my mother. And were our boxes labelled?
She hardly waited for us to answer. She did not wait at all for our little trunk.
"A footman will attend to the luggage," she said. As she led us down the platform, her eyes kept darting about in a way that made me think she must be expecting someone else by that train. I looked round, too. But nobody else seemed to
be expecting Aunt Josephine, though a woman towards the end of the platform looked very searchingly at our party as we passed. Aunt Josephine did not seem to notice. She was busy putting on a thick motor-veil over the lace one that was tied round her hat--her lovely hat, that, as Betty said afterwards, was "boiling over with black ostrich-feathers."
A wonderful scent had come towards us with Aunt Josephine--nothing the least like that faint garden-smell that clung to our linen, from the sprays of lavender and dried verbena our mother put newly each year under the white paper of our wardrobe-shelves. Such a ghost of fragrance could never have survived here. This perfume of Aunt Josephine's--not so much strong as dominant--routed the sooty, acrid smell of the station. When she lifted her arms to put the chiffon over her face, fresh waves of the rich, mysterious scent came towards us.
She seemed in haste to leave so mean a place as Victoria. She spoke a little sharply to the footman. He explained--and, indeed, we could see--that a great, shining motor-car was threading its way as well as it could through a tangle of
taxi-cabs and inferior cars. Aunt Josephine stood frowning under her double veil, and once I saw her eyes go towards the woman who had noticed us. The woman was speaking to one of the porters. The porter, too, looked at Aunt Josephine and nodded. The dowdy woman gave a porter a tip, and sent him on an errand. I was far too excited to notice such uninteresting people, but for the curious personal kind of detestation in the look the dowdy woman fixed upon Aunt Josephine.
"We won't wait," said our aunt. "We'll take this taxi."
But just then the beautiful shining car swerved free, and we were hurried in. The footman spread a rug over our knees. As we glided out of the station I noticed the dowdy woman asking her way of a policeman.
And the policeman didn't know the way. He shook his head. And both of them looked after us.
As we whirled through the crowded streets I felt how everyone must be envying Bettina and me.
Presently we came to a quiet corner. The
houses stood back from the street, in gardens. Our aunt's was one of these.
I was too excited to notice much about the outside. But the inside!
Betty and I exchanged looks. We had no idea Aunt Josephine was so rich. There were more big footmen--foreigners; very quick and quiet.
The entrance hall and stairs were wide and dim. When the front-door was shut, the house seemed as silent as a church on a week-day, and the soft-footed servants rather like the sidesmen who show strangers to their places. The very window was like a window in a church. It had stained glass in it, and black lines divided it from top to bottom, into sections, like church windows.
If I had ventured to speak I should have whispered. Not even at Lord Helmstone's had we trodden on such carpets. No wonder our footsteps made no sound. Going upstairs we seemed like a procession in a picture. That was because the walls were immense mirrors separated by gilded columns.
Aunt Josephine had taken off her motor-veil. She had certainly grown much thinner since she
had the photograph taken. That accounted for her being a more "aquiline" aunt than we expected. Her nose curved down, especially when she smiled. And her eyes were not sleepy at all--a full yellow eye, the iris almost black.
We followed her along a corridor till she threw open a door. "This is yours," she said in the voice that was both sharp and quick.
I looked into the wonderful pink and white room. Instead of two little beds, as we had at home, was one very large one. It looked like anf Oriental throne with rose-silk hangings.
"I will send you up some tea," she said. "And you must rest. I am having a friend or two to dine. So wear your smartest gown. Come," she said to Betty.
"Betty is the one who ought to rest," I said.
"And so she shall," our aunt said. "I will show Betty her room."
Betty looked blank.
"We are not to be together?" she asked.
"Together!" Aunt Josephine repeated the word with the smile that drew her nose down. "Oh, you shall have a room of your own."
Betty moved a little nearer me.
I explained that she and I always had the same room.
"Yes, in a small house. Here there is no need."
I wanted to tell her that it was not need that made us share things. But though poor Betty looked cast down, all I said was that I should come to her in plenty of time to do her hair.
"A maid will do that," my aunt said.
But I managed to tell her quite firmly that I must show the maid how.
Aunt Josephine looked at me a moment.
She doesn't like me, I thought. And I felt uncomfortable.
As she followed her out, Betty made a sign over her shoulder that I was to come now.
But after that look Aunt Josephine had given me, I felt I must walk warily. So I only signalled back, as much as to say "by-and-by."
* * *
A woman in a cap and apron brought me tea.
I asked if she would mind taking the tray to my sister's room so we could have tea together.
The woman said madam's orders were that the young ladies should rest. I reflected that Bettina
would probably rest better if she did not talk, so I said no more.
The woman had a face like wood.
Two of the big footmen brought in our little trunk. I got out Bettina's dressing-gown and slippers, and asked the wooden woman to take them to my sister.
I was so tired with all the excitement that I went to sleep on the pink satin sofa.
The wooden woman waked me.
"Time to dress," she said, and she had the bath ready. I looked round for our little trunk.
"Oh, you couldn't have a thing like that standing about in here," the wooden woman said.
And, indeed, I had felt, as I saw it coming in, how out of keeping its shabbiness was with all the satin damask, the gilding, and the lace.
She had done the unpacking, the wooden woman said. And there were my white satin frock and silk stockings on the bed. "But half the things in the trunk are my sister's," I said.
She had taken the other young lady what was needed, the woman answered. And whatever I wanted I was to ring for.
I felt that this was no doubt the way of London
ladies. But I longed for our shabby little trunk. It seemed the last link with home. I looked round the beautiful room with a sense of distaste.
This feeling must be the homesickness I had read about.
I went to the window. The lines that divided the long panes into panels, the lines that I had thought of as purely decorative were rods of iron.
"You'll be late," the wooden woman said, and she drew the silk curtains over the lace ones, and switched on the electric light.
She came back while I was brushing my hair. She offered to do it for me. I was so glad to be able to do it myself. I would not have liked her to touch me.
I hurried with my dressing so that I could go to Bettina. The woman tried to prevent me. But I was firm. "Show me the way, will you? Or shall I ask someone else?"
She hesitated, and then seemed to think she had best do as she was told.
Half-way down a long, soft-carpeted passage she asked me to wait an instant.
She knocked at one of the many doors.
I heard my aunt's voice inside. And whispering. Only one of the electric lights was turned on here, in the corridor. The air was heavy. The "Aunt Josephine" scent, foreign, dizzily sweet, was everywhere. A light-headed feeling came over me. I longed for an open window. They must all be shut as well as curtained. Between the many doors, paintings were hung. I had been vaguely conscious of these as we came up. I saw now they were pictures of women. Most of them seemed to be in different stages of the bath. One was asleep in a strange position, with nothing on. I was going past that one when I noticed the opposite door ajar. I stopped and listened.
"Bettina," I said softly.
A voice very different from Bettina's answered in some language I did not know. I started back and, as I was going on, the door was opened wide. A lady stood on the threshold in a flood of light. A lady with a dazzling complexion. Her lips were so brightly red, they looked bloody. She had diamonds in her ears, and a diamond necklace on a neck as white and smooth as china. Her yellow hair was disarranged as though she
had been asleep. She was wearing a kimono of scarlet silk embroidered in silver.
She asked me something, not in French, not German, and not, I think, Italian. I said I was afraid I did not understand.
My aunt came noiseless down the long corridor, and the foreign lady hastily shut her door.
This other guest must be some very great person!
My aunt was dressed for dinner in a gown all covered with little shining scales, like a snake's skin.
"What are you doing?" she said, in an odd tone as if she had caught me in something underhand. I explained that I was looking for Bettina. And I found courage to say that I was sorry our rooms were so far apart.
She took no notice of that. "You will see Bettina at dinner," she said, and it struck me she could be very stern.
I felt my heart begin to beat, but I managed to say that I was sure Betty would wait for me to help her to dress.
"I have told you she will have a maid to do all that is necessary."
"I hope you won't mind," I said, "just for to-night. It is always my mother, or me, who dresses Bettina. . . . "
She seemed to consider. I said to myself again: "Oh, dear, she doesn't like me at all."
"Take her, Curran," she said. The hard-faced woman came and piloted me round the angle of the corridor to Betty's door.
We fell into each other's arms, and laughed and kissed, as though we had been parted for weeks.
* * *
I was determined not to let her know that Aunt Josephine and I were not liking one another. I only said I didn't like her taste in pictures.
Betty tried to stand up for her. She reminded me of the statues and casts from the antique at Lord Helmstone's. She asked me suddenly if I wasn't well. I complained a little of the air. I thought we might have the window open while I did her hair. But Betty said, no. She had tried, and found she didn't understand London fastenings. So she had rung for the maid, and the maid had said: "This isn't the country" --and that people didn't like their windows open in London.
Betty thought it quite reasonable. London dust and "blacks" would soon ruin this pretty white room.
Betty defended everything.
When I complained that the scent everywhere was making me headachy, Betty said she like it. She wished our mother would let us use scent. The only thing Betty found the least fault with was the way I was doing her hair. She wanted it put up "in honour of London." But she looked such a darling with her short curls lying on her neck that I was doing it in the everyday way. And there wasn't time now for anything more than to fasten on the little wreath, for the woman came to say madam had sent up for us. So I hurried Betty into her frock, the woman watching out of those hard eyes of hers. Nobody in the whole of Betty's life had looked at her like that.
The woman didn't want us to stop even to find a handkerchief. And after all, just as Betty was coming, the woman said: "Wait a minute," and wanted to shut the door. I stood on the threshold waiting. A gentleman was coming upstairs. With his hat on! He stared at me as he went by, and so did the footman who followed him. I
drew back into the room and the woman shut the door.
"Who was that gentleman?" I asked. She seemed not to hear. So I asked again.
" That--oh, that is the doctor," she said. Naturally we asked if somebody was ill.
"Not very," she answered in such a peculiar way we said no more.
She stood and watched us as we went downstairs.
* * *
"Our first London dinner-party," Bettina whispered.
We took hands. We were shaking with excitement.
We saw ourselves going by in the mirrors between the golden columns.
The whole place was full of tall girls in white, and little girls in apple-green, wearing forget-me-not wreaths in their hair.
End Chapter XXVI
Available since August 1997