My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 27

My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins

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Chapter XXVII 
At Dinner

Down in the lower hall were the men-servants with their watchful eyes.

They showed us the drawing-room door.

As we came in, I was conscious again of Aunt Josephine's appraising look. Then of the elaborate grey head turning towards an old man, as if to ask: Well, what do you think of my nieces? He had a red blotchy face. The kind of red that is crossed by little purple lines like the tracery of very tortuous rivers on a map. The lines ran zig-zagging into his nose. which was thick at the end, round and shining. He had no hair except a sandy fringe, and his eyes, which had no lashes, looked as if he had a cold. He was introduced as "an old friend of mine" --but she forgot to tell us his name. We heard him called Colonel. Through all the scent we could not help noticing that he smelled of brandy.

I looked round for the beautiful foreign lady. 

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But I was prepared to find her late, after seeing her idling at her door, in a dressing-gown, so near the dinner-hour.

There was only one other person. A man of about thirty-six. Good-looking I thought--and not happy. He had a clear face, quite without colour. The skin very smooth and tight. His dry brown hair was thinning on the crown. He had nice hands. I noticed that when he stroked his close-fitting moustache. I did not like him because of his manner. I did not know what was wrong with it. Perhaps he was only absent-minded. But when I tried to imagine him talking to my mother I could not.

He was introduced first to Bettina. The others treated him as if he were very important. They talked about his new Rolls Royce, which turned out to be a motor-car. The Colonel tried to get him to say how many times he had been fined for "exceeding speed limit." Then they talked about "The Tartar." How he was always late. It would be a chance if he came at all. Aunt Josephine was positive he would appear. "I wired to say it was all right."

"Just as well, perhaps, if he doesn't come to- 

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night," the good-looking man said. He would be in a devil of a temper.

Betty asked why would he? They said because his favourite horse had been "scratched." Betty thought it was nice of him to be so fond of his horse. But if it was only a scratch--

We did not know why they laughed. But we laughed too. We tried not to show how unintelligible the talk was. I listened very hard. I felt like a learner in a foreign tongue. I understood the words but not the sentences.

The Colonel looked at his watch in a discontented way. Then we went in to dinner.

I don't think we sat in the order Aunt Josephine had meant. But the absent-minded man, who had taken me in, refused to change, or to let me. I had the old Colonel on my left. Aunt Josephine of course at the head. The empty place was between her and Betty.

The table was glittering and magnificent. We had little helpings of strange, strong-tasting food before the soup. And caviar.

"You like caviar?" the Colonel said.

I said I didn't know, for in my heart I felt it looked repulsive. 

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"Don't know caviar?"

I said of course I had heard of it. He asked where. And I said, "In Shakespeare." The old Colonel choked, and they all laughed to see how apoplectic he looked--all except Betty and me.

I caught Betty's eye. She had that fiery-rose in her cheeks. I felt excited, too, and "strange." But I hoped they didn't notice. Betty and I had agreed that we must try not to show how unused we were to the ways of a great London house. So I made conversation. I asked about the absent guest.

My good-looking man pretended to be annoyed. He called, in his slightly husky voice, across the table to Aunt Josephine: "Already she wants to talk about The Tartar!" I explained that I meant the foreign lady--the very beautiful lady I had seen upstairs looking out of her door.

Again my man exchanged glances with Aunt Josephine. He was smiling disagreeably. Aunt Josephine did not smile at all. But the old Colonel laughed his croaking laugh, and said the lady upstairs expected people to go to her.

"Does she expect dinner to go to her, too?" Betty asked. And something in their faces made 

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Betty blush, though she didn't know why, as I saw. I believed they were teasing Betty, just for fun, and to see that beautiful colour in her cheeks flicker and deepen. So I leaned towards her, and across the flowers and the dazzling lights I told her the foreign lady was not very well. That was why she was not coming down.

The Colonel asked my why I thought the lady wasn't well. So I said: "Because I saw the doctor going up to her."

They were all quite still for a second or two. I looked at Aunt Josephine. Why was it wrong to mention the doctor's visit? Was she afraid of making these friends of the beautiful lady anxious about her? My man still was smiling, but not pleasantly. I couldn't tell whether the strange noises the Colonel made were choking or laughing. But I felt more and more miserably shy; and I had no clear idea of why I should feel so--unless it was that nothing these people said meant what it seemed to mean.

I could see that Betty was bewildered, too.

We knew we should feel strange; we did not know we should feel like this. 

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I was thankful when they all turned round and called out. "The Tartar" had come, after all.

He made no apology for being late, nor for not having dressed. He strolled in as if the place belonged to him--a great broad-shouldered young man in a frock-coat. He had a round, black, cannon-ball of a head, and his eyebrows nearly joined. His moustache was like a little blacking-brush sticking straight out. But he seemed to be making this effect deliberately, by pushing out his mouth like a pouting child; or, even more, like a person with swollen lips. I felt sure I could not have seen him before; but there was something oddly familiar about him.

He nodded to the others.

When Aunt Josephine said, "My nieces," he said, "Oh," stared a moment, and then, as he lounged into the empty place, said it had been a rotten race. I thought how astonished my mother would have been at such behaviour. Betty must have been thinking of her, too, for she put on our mother's manner. It was a beautiful manner, but it sat oddly on my little sister; it made her seem more self-possessed than she 

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was. She turned and said: "I think you must be Mr. Whitby-Dawson." The young man stared.

Everybody stared.

He turned sharply from Betty to his hostess. She shook her head. But the yellow part of her big eyes had turned reddish. She looked very strange.

A creepy feeling came over me.

I remembered she had been "most eccentric" twenty years ago. Was eccentricity the sort of thing that grew worse as people grew older?

I looked round at the company and met the eyes of the neighbour on my right. They were unhappy eyes; but they reassured me.

"What put such an idea into your head?" Aunt Josephine was asking Betty.

"Because," Betty said, and she looked at the young man again, "only because I saw so many of your--of Mr. Whitby-Dawson's photographs--"

"Really?" the young man said, in a bored voice. "That was, no doubt, a great privilege. My name's Williams."

In her embarrassment Betty turned to the man 

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who sat between us. "He has even the little scar," she said, like a person defending herself. "Mr. Whitby-Dawson got his scar in a duel with a student at Heidelberg. He studied at the University there part of one year--"

"Studied duelling?" the Colonel chuckled. Our absent-minded man was not absent-minded any more. He was listening, with a look I could not understand, as if he took a malicious pleasure in poor Betty's mistake. Such a trifling slip to have taken the young man for Guy Whitby-Dawson, and yet it seemed to have put the company out of tune. Or perhaps it was the loss of the race. All except my man seemed to care very much about the lost race. The Tartar, in his annoyed voice, told his hostess and the Colonel how it happened. He leaned his elbow on the table, and almost turned his back on poor Bettina.

I thought I could see that my man seemed not to like The Tartar; and that gave me a kindlier feeling towards him; I wondered what had made him unhappy.

I felt I wanted to justify Bettina to him.

I felt, too, that she would recover herself sooner if we broke the silence at our end. So I said--in 

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a voice too low, I thought, for the others to hear--that I also had noticed the resemblance to Mr. Whitby-Dawson. Lower still, he asked me how we came "to hear of Mr.--of--the gentleman in question." Then Betty and I between us told about Hermione Helmstone's engagement--only we did not, of course, give her name.

"The faithless Whitby!" our man said, with the tail of his eye on the young gentleman opposite. As for him, he tried to go on talking about "Black Friar," as though he heard nothing of the history being retailed on the other side. But I had a feeling that he was listening all the time.

Bettina's loyalty to Hermione made her object to hearing Guy called faithless. "They would have had only £400 a year between them. And he said--Mr. Whitby-Dawson said--they couldn't possibly live on that. He was miserable, poor man!"

"I should say so! Poor and miserable."

"Oh, you laugh," Bettina protested. "But I saw a heart-broken letter about the poverty that kept them apart and condemned him 'to run in single harness.'" 

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"'Single harness!'" the husky voice said. And he repeated it: "'Single harness,' eh?"

Bettina was recovering her spirits. She said something about Duncombe. And I don't know what reminded her of the collie-dog story; but she told it very well, though she did "pile it on." She made me out an immense heroine, and I am afraid I looked sheepish.

The husky voice said "Good!" and "Pretty cool." The story seemed to remind him of something. He looked at his plate, and he looked at Bettina and me.

Betty was amused at having made me feel shy, and she laughed that bubbling laugh of hers.

The Tartar turned his head.

He did not take away his elbow. But he looked over his shoulder down on Bettina's apricot-coloured hair. The fillet showed the shape of her head. It defined the satiny crown, where the hair lay as close as a red-gold skull-cap. The forget-me-nots and the little green leaves held all smooth and tight except the heavy, shining rings. They fell out and lay on her neck.

The Tartar stopped talking about the race. 

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He still ate his food condescendingly--with one hand. But he drank with great good-will.

He called to the butler, who had been going round with a gold-necked bottle in a napkin. He was to come back, The Tartar said, and fill the ladies' glasses.

I said no. Bettina said she, too, drank water.

The Tartar said "Nonsense!"--quite as though the matter were for him to decide. The servant filled Bettina's tall, vaselike glass. Bettina looked alarmed. Already she had displeased this dreadful Tartar once.

"Ought I?" she telegraphed across to me. I shook my head.

"There is one woman in London" --The Tartar made a motion towards the head of the table-- "one woman who's got a decent cellar." The Tartar was almost genial. He raised his glass to my aunt. "I approve of the new coiffure, too. Rippin'!"

The Colonel was not to be diverted from the subject of the wine. "Take an old man's advice," he said to me. "It's a chancy sort of world. Make sure of a little certain bliss." He lifted his own glass and drained it. 

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The Tartar said something to Bettina which I could not hear. She looked up at him with a kind of wonder in her eyes, and with that "fiery rose" quite suddenly overspreading her face again. She put out her hand to the tall glass, hesitated, and then looked at the head of the table. Perhaps Bettina saw what all of a sudden was clear to me. Aunt Josephine was like a huge grey hawk. The head craning out; the narrow forehead, all grey crest; the face falling away from the beak. How she had changed from the days when she had a double chin! The tilt of the outstretched head was exactly like a bird's. Watching sideways--watching . . . for what?

The eye made me shrink. It made Bettina set her lips, obedient, to the glass. She looked apologetic over the rim at me.

Mine stood untouched.

"I see you have a will of your own," the voice on my right said in my ear.

The London way seemed to be that ladies did not leave the table while men smoked. The talk was about wines, but it flagged. The Tartar kept looking at Bettina. The fitful colour in her cheeks had paled again. The scent of flowers, and that 

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other all-pervading perfume, mixed with the tobacco, was making Bettina faint.

My man noticed it. "You aren't accustomed to smoke," he said to Bettina, and he twisted his cigar round on his fruit-plate till he crushed out the burning. But the others took no notice.

I was sure Bettina was trying hard to throw off her oppression. I thought of our mother; and the thought of her sent sharp aching through me. Bettina and I looked at each other. I knew by her lip she had great trouble not to cry.

"Do you think," I whispered to my man, "you could ask to have a window opened?"

He said we would be going into the drawing-room soon. "Drink that black coffee," he recommended.

He seemed not unkind, so I tried to think why he would not do so small a thing for us as ask to have a window opened. "Are the downstairs windows barred with iron, too?"

He looked sharply at me.

"I believe so," he said.

I thought it must be because of all the silver and valuables in the house. But he glanced at me again, as if he thought I was still wondering and 

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might ask someone else. Then he said he had heard "it used to be a private madhouse."

This house?"

He nodded.

"You needn't say I told you."

That, then, was what I had been feeling. The poor mad people who used to be shut up here--they had left this uncanny influence behind. A strangeness and a strain.

The Colonel was speaking irritably to one of the footmen. Something had gone wrong with an electric-light bulb over the sideboard.

"Send for Waterson to-morrow to attend to that!"

No one but me seemed at all surprised to hear the Colonel giving orders in my aunt's house.

As I sat there in the midst of all the contending scents, with the soft clash of silver, glass, and voices in my ears, a train of ideas raced through my brain as crazy as any that could have been harboured here in the days when . . .

The letters that had come out of this house Eric had called "demented."

All the windows were still barred. 

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What if it were a private madhouse still! Before my eyes the watchful big footmen turned into keepers to the Grey Hawk and to the lady upstairs. The doctor--he was for those too dangerous to trust downstairs. That was why they had laughed at my inquiry--such callousness had familiarity bred. The Colonel might be the proprietor of the house. My aunt was well off. No doubt they humoured her. With a keeper dressed like a footman, they allowed her certain liberties--to write crazy letters in her harmless intervals . . . friends to dine . . . nieces to divert her. They would do almost anything to keep that red look out of her eyes.

"There is one thing I don't understand," I began to say to the man at my side.

But he was nervous too, and jumped down my throat: "Don't ask me questions! I never passed an examination in my life," he pulled out his watch. "And I've got an engagement to keep in exactly three minutes' time."

No wonder I stared. One man comes when dinner is half done, and one wants to go before the hostess had risen. For my part I wanted him not to go . . . I told him so. 

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"Why?" he turned suddenly and faced me.

I said it was perhaps because I felt I knew him best. "Anyway," I persisted, "don't go!" He hesitated. " Please don't go," I said. I was relieved when he said, very well, he would "see it out." For I knew, had he gone, my aunt would think I had driven him away.

There was a rustle, and I saw Aunt Josephine rising. My man left me instantly. He went and opened the door. As we filed out he turned towards my aunt. I heard him whisper, " Je vous fais mes compliments, madame." He looked at Betty.

Aunt Josephine nodded. "But . . . " her face changed.

What was wrong? For whom was that "but"? I turned quickly and caught the yellow eyes leaving my back. I was "but." But why? What had I done? The Colonel talked to Betty and The Tartar, as he led the way back to the drawing-room. The other man still was behind with my aunt. He seemed to be reassuring her. His curious low voice kept going off the register. At a break I heard the words: "Doucement" enunciated with an emphasis that carried. 

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I kept thinking how all the softly-draped windows had iron bars behind the silk.

In the drawing-room, my aunt was saying to The Tartar, "Oh, yes, Bettina sings and dances."

"She sings," I said.

"Don't you skirt-dance?" The Tartar asked.

Bettina looked sorry. "I can dance ordinary dances," she said. "But what sort is a skirt-dance?"

The men made a semicircle round her to explain.

Betty said she hadn't done any skirt-dances since she was a little girl.

"Oh, and what are you now?" the Colonel said, grinning horribly.

They made Bettina tell about the action-songs our mother had taught us in the nursery. They asked her to do one.

Of course Bettina refused. "They're only for children," she said with that little air borrowed from our mother.

The Tartar threw back his bullet head and roared. The Colonel said they were sick, in London, of sophisticated dancing. What they wanted was Bettina's sort. Bettina shook her head. 

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The Grey Hawk said it was too soon after dinner. But they went across the room towards the piano.

I was following, when the man who had taken me in to dinner said: "This is a comfortable chair." So I sat down.

He said something about the strangeness of London "just at first." It would pass away.

I told him I hoped Bettina would find it so. As for me, I was only staying till to-morrow.

He looked so surprised that I explained I had to go back and take care of my mother.

"You have never been to London since you were a child--and you come all this way just for a few hours?"

"I came to take care of Betty," I said. "She has never travelled alone."

He looked at me: "And you?"

"Oh, I haven't either. To-morrow will be the first time. But then, I am older."

He said nothing for several moments. I looked across the room to where I could see the back of Bettina's head, between the bare crown of the Colonel and The Tartar's black bullet. The Tartar was bending over towards Bettina. Aunt 

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Josephine sat near them, facing the door, and us.

My man looked up suddenly and saw the eyes of the Grey Hawk on us.

"We must talk!" he said, with a laugh, "or they will think we aren't getting on. That isn't a comfortable chair after all." He stood up. I said it was quite comfortable. While he was insisting, a servant came in to speak to my aunt. I caught a glimpse through the door of a footman going upstairs with a short, fattish young man. Too young, I thought, to be another doctor.

We went to the end of the room, and we sat on a sofa near the fireplace--one of those sofas you sink down in till you feel half buried. I didn't like to say I hated it, for he was taking so much trouble. He put a great down cushion at my back, as if I were an invalid.

"There! Now, can you sit quite still for a few minutes? As still as if I were taking your picture?" I said I supposed I could. "And must I look pleasant?" I laughed. He hesitated and then: "How good are your nerves?" he asked.

"Very good," I boasted.

But he was grave.

"Have you ever fainted?" 

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"Never!" I said, a little indignantly.

"Could you hear something very unexpected, even horrible, and not cry out?"

"You know something!" I thought of an accident to my mother. "You have news for me. . . . "

"Careful," he said in a sharp whisper. "You told me you could keep perfectly still. If you can't I won't go on." I begged him to go on, and I kept my face a blank. He turned his head slightly and took in the group at the other end of the room. He sat so a moment, with his eyes still turned away, while he said: "Everything--more than life, depends on your self-control during the next few minutes."

I sat staring at him.

"Have you any idea where you are?" --and still he looked not at me but towards the others.

My first bewilderment was giving way to fear. No fear now of anything he could tell me. Fear of the man himself. I saw it all. Not that iron-grey woman who had left the room with the servant, not the brilliant lady upstairs, but the person who had set me thinking wild thoughts at dinner about barred windows and private lunatic asylums. 

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The man sitting not three feet way from me--was mad.

I calculated the distance between me and the other group, while I answered him: "I am at my aunt's--Mrs. Harborough's."

"Where does your aunt live?"

"At 160 Lowndes Square."

"You are twenty minutes from Lowndes Square. You are in one of the most infamous houses in Europe." 

End Chapter XXVII 
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