My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 28
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
The Grey Hawk
Minutes seemed to go by. Vague hints from servants, things I had read in the papers--and still I sat there, not moving by so much as a hair.
He was looking at me now and telling me to "keep cool." And then: "I suppose you know there are such places--" He interrupted himself to say: "Remember! A careless look or move would mean--well, it would mean ruin. Now do you understand?"
Beyond a doubt I did. If I moved or cried for help, he would kill me before my aunt could get back; before I could cross the room. Though why he should wish to kill me I could form no idea.
"You must have time to recover," he said, in that muted, uneven voice. "I will shield you while you pull yourself together." He had bent forward till his shoulders shut out my view of the group at the other end of the room.
I shrank further back into the cushions. But:
"I have myself in hand, now," I said; for I remembered you must never let the insane know you are afraid.
Betty's laughter sounded far away.
"Take your time," he said. "They're enjoying themselves. They haven't even rung for the cognac and liqueurs yet." They would make Bettina and me drink a liqueur, he said. Or if they failed in that, they'd say, "'a thimble-full of coffee, then.'" And our coffee would be "doctored."
"But we've had coffee," I said, in a new access of terror. Was it drugged coffee that made me feel so lamed?
"That was all right," he said. "That was to steady us."
He did not look as if he needed steadying. What if he were not mad?
"Be careful," he said again. "Remember I am running a ghastly risk in telling you. But you are facing a ghastly certainty if I don't.
I sat in that stillness of stark terror--staring at him.
And as I stared I found myself clinging to the thought that had been horror's height a little
while before. "Pray God he's mad," I kept saying inwardly.
If I could keep my head, he said, I had no cause to be so frightened. It would be some little time before he could give me up without rousing suspicion.
"Before you give me up!" I imagined the Grey Hawk swooping to snatch me.
"Before I help you to get out of this," he explained. "And when I do, you will perhaps remember it is at a sacrifice. Greater than I supposed I could feel."
I moved at that--but like a sleep-walker on the edge of waking.
I asked him in a whisper what we where to do. I meant Betty and me. But he said: "When she begins to play, or to sing, you are to get up quite quietly-- can you?"
I made a sign for yes.
"No haste . . . you must do it languidly--go out of the room."
"But my--" (I suppressed "my aunt" with an inward twist of questioning anguish) "--shall I not be asked where I am going and why?"
He said no. Because he would make the others
a sign. He thought my sister was too excited to take any notice of my going. "But if she does, I'll tell her you wanted her to go on singing. I shall seem to be coming after you. But I'll stop to explain that we've had an argument about one of the pictures in the hall." He told me what I was to do.
"If, after all, they were to prevent me--what, what then?"
"They won't--they will leave you to me." He said it with a look that stopped the heart.
I implored him to let me go out alone.
He fixed his unhappy eyes on mine. "You would never be allowed out of this room alone."
"I could say I must post a letter."
"They would ring for a servant."
I measured the long room. If once I got as far as the door I could run."
"--as far as the front door perhaps. You would find it locked. No servant would open it for you"
"Will they for you?"
"I can do it for you," he said, under his breath, and he stood up.
I thought he meant I was to make trial then
of that terrible passage to the door. But was it not better to be where Betty was, whatever came--Betty and I together--than Betty alone with those devouring-eyed men, and I with a maniac out in the hall!
"I cannot leave my sister!" I said.
He stood in front of me, masking me from the others. "Haven't I made you understand? If you don't leave the room with me, she will leave it with Whitby-Dawson."
He hushed me. She won't know why--but she'll do it. And she won't come back. She would probably be on her way to Paris this time to-morrow." He pulled a great cushion up to hide my face. And then he turned and made a feint of getting an illustrated paper off the table. He kept his eye on the others. There was some little commotion, during which Betty had risen. She left the sofa and sat on the piano-stool. She was laughing excitedly.
The man came back to me with the illustrated paper. He sat down closer to me, and held the paper open for a shield. But he held it strangely, with his arm across the picture. The reading part
was in French. I had to crane to see over the top--Betty twisting round on the piano-stool, and touching the keys in a provoking way; the two men teasing her to sing.
I have lived over every instant of that hour, until the smallest detail is a stain indelible upon my mind. I have no trouble in remembering. My trouble is to be able to forget.
I hear again that muted voice behind the paper saying: "But for the collie-dog story, I wouldn't have dared to risk this. Everything depends on your nerve." And then he looked at me curiously, and wanted to know if I had not heard there were such places-- "I won't say like this. This is a masterpiece of devilry. And masterpieces are never plentiful."
He waited for me to say something. If I had known what, I could not have said it. I tried hard to speak. But I could only look dumbly in his face. And I saw there was no madness in the unhappy eyes.
"You must have heard or read of places . . . where men and women meet," he insisted.
Then, with an immense effort, I managed to say that I didn't seem able to think. I had been
imagining other people insane. But perhaps it was I . . .
I stared over the top of the French paper, that he was both holding up and hiding from me. I thought to myself: "My mind is going." I must have said as much, for he answered quickly: "Not a bit of it! You've had a shock--that's all."
I did not realise it at the time, but, looking back, I seem to see the man's growing horror of my horror, and his fear I should betray him.
"I am sorry I told you," he said.
What was it he had told me? I asked him to help me to understand.
"You make it hard. That isn't fair," he said. "You give me a sense of violation. You implicate me, in spite of the quixotic resolve I made when you begged me not to go. You make me, after all, an instrument of initiation."
Yes, he complained. Yet, looking back from the bleak height of later knowledge, I think he betrayed some relish of the moment. Heaven forgive me if I do him wrong! But he was not, I think, losing all that he had come for, or he would have shortened my agony. He was con-
scious, I think, of the excitement of finding himself, intellectually, on virgin ground. True, he was sacrificing what few of his sort would sacrifice. And he was running the gravest personal risk; for at some point I asked about that. "If she knew what you had told me, what would she do?"
"Call in her bullies to beat me to a jelly."
He was more and more unwilling to seem a mere adjunct of the baseness he unveiled. I was not to judge too harshly. "This situation"-- he nodded towards Bettina, the old man, and the young one-- "all this, far more crudely managed, is a commonplace in the world--in every capital of every nation on the earth. And it has always been so."
He saw I did not believe him. He seemed to imagine that, while I was being torn on the rack where he had stretched me, I could think of other things. I cried to him under my breath not to torture me any more-- "help me quickly to get help!"
He said I must trust him. Everything depended on choosing the right moment. "If you went out now, with that face, you'd pull the house about our ears."
He was doing all he could to calm and steady me, he said. And certainly he tried to make me feel that what to me was like a maniac's nightmare, an abysmal horror beggaring language and crucifying thought--it was all a commonplace to men and women of the world. "Human nature!" "Human nature!" --like the tolling of a muffled bell. Bishops and old ladies imagined you could alter these things. Take India-- "I've been there. I knew an official who'd had charge of the chaklas. You don't know what chaklas are? Your father knew. If you'd gone riding round any one of the cantonments you'd have seen. Little groups of tents. A hospital not far off. Women in the tents. Out there it's no secret. They're called "Government women." The women are needed by the army. So there they are."
Women are "needed." Through the chaos came back clear the memory of my talk with Betty in the train: "Men don't need us as much as we need them."
Even Governments, he said, had to recognise human nature, and shape their policies accordingly. I was too young to remember all that talk
in the press some years ago, about the mysterious movements of British battleships in the Mediterranean. Instead of hanging about Malta, the ships had gone cruising round the Irish coast. Why? The officials said, for good and sufficient reasons. The chorus of criticism died down. The "reasons" were known to those who had to know. Not enough women at Malta. The British fleet spent some time about the Irish coasts. "Human nature--"
"I can do it now!" I cried under my breath, and I stood up.
He shot out a hand and pulled me back. "Christ! not while the grey hawk is hovering outside! And your lips are livid." A good thing, he said, that I had still a few minutes. "You have your sister to thank. She is a success. She piles up anticipation. The value of that, to the jaded, is the stock-in-trade of people like our hostess. At a time when her profession is a hundred per cent. more dangerous than it's ever been since the world began, she perfects it--makes it pay in proportion to its danger." Couldn't I trust him to know? He gave me his word: "No indecent haste here. They are adepts. They have
learned that the climax is less to the sated than the leading up. The leading up is all." After a second: "How did she get hold of you?"
I knew no more than the dead.
"Through someone very well informed. . . . " He probed and questioned. I could only shake my head. But my tortured mind flung itself spasmodically from one figure to another in our little world, and felt each one's recoil from my mere unspoken thought. Until-- the little dressmaker! Her questions . . . her pains to establish the fact of our isolation, of our poverty . . . her special interest in our aunt. "You haf a photografie--hein?" And then the picture's vanishing. Had it come to this house to serve as model? The Tartar liked "the new coiffure--"
Two servants came in. One carried a great silver tray.
"Oh, leave that a bit!" The Tartar, over the back of the sofa, waved the footman off.
They came towards us, and were told: "Put it there on the table." The man beside me made a show of welcoming it. He dropped the illustrated
paper on my lap. "Bend down--bend down low," he whispered.
I bent over the swimming page.
"What will you have?" he called out to me, as the footmen were leaving the room.
I tried to answer. No sound.
"Oh, you prefer crême de menthe, do you?" he said quite loud. "Yes, there's crême de menthe." He filled a glass and brought it to me. "Cognac," he whispered. "It will steady you."
I put my shaking lips to the glass. I did not drink.
"Ah, you are afraid," he said. And he looked at me with his unhappy eyes.
My hand was shaking. Some of the stuff spilt out on my new dress.
"Give it to me," he said, and he drank it off--"just to show" me.
I was conscious that Betty was singing--And that the door had opened. The Grey Hawk stood there with, as I thought at first, a thick-set boy dressed in a man's evening clothes. As she dismissed him I saw he was a hunchback. She shut the door behind the hunchback and the Colonel left the piano and came towards her.
He was laughing. They stood and talked.
"Bend down. Bend low--" the voice said in my ear.
The Colonel's croaking laugh came nearer.
The man at my side called out: "Look here, Colonel. No poaching on my preserves. We are deep in a discussion about Art. You're not to interrupt."
"Oh, Art is it?" The old man had come behind our sofa, and was leaning down between us. I smelt a foul breath. With a sense of choking I lifted my head. The Colonel's watery eyes went from me to the strange ugly picture in the illustrated paper. I did not understand it. I do not think I would have been conscious of having looked at it, but for the expression on the Colonel's face.
Bettina finished her song. They all clapped. In the buzz, Bettina raised her voice. No, no. She couldn't dance, and sing, as well as accompany herself, she said.
"What time is it in?" the grey woman asked. She took Bettina's place at the piano.
Still Bettina hesitated, while The Tartar urged.
"Oh, I don't mind," Bettina said, "if you like such babyish songs."
"Of course we do," --the Colonel went back to them.
Bettina said pertly: "I should think you'd be ashamed." She stood beside the grey woman and hummed the old tune. She helped by striking a few notes.
"Now!" the grey woman said to Betty.
The word was echoed in my ear.
"Now?" I repeated.
"But first" --he caught my hand. "Bite your lip a little. . . . Ah! not blood." He smuggled his handkerchief to me behind the cushion. "You'll be all right," he whispered. "But I wish I could go with you! You see that I must stay behind--"
"Yes, oh yes," I looked at Betty.
"I must stay," he said, "to give you time. Then when I've seen you out of this . . . a door open, a door shut--and I shall never see you again. . . . "
"Now! Now!" I hardly noticed that he took his blood-stained handkerchief out of my hand. For Bettina had come forward and stood poised,
holding her green skirt with both hands, like a child about to curtsey. I stood up. All the room was dancing with my little sister. I got to the door.
B etty sang. But she was too amused and excited to notice me."Where are you going to . . . ?"
My companion had crossed the room and was bending over the Grey Hawk. She looked round at him surprised, mocking. . . .
Some power came to help me across the threshold. A footman started up out of the floor and stood before me. "Where are you going?" He echoed Betty.
"I am waiting for--one of the gentlemen," I said, and I steadied myself against a chair. If Betty's song stopped, I should know we had failed.
I held my breath, as I leaned over and took my last look into the room. Our friend was leaving the grey woman. She played on. Bettina was dancing, a hand on her hip, the other twirling moustachios--playing the gallant. Such a baby she looked!
And I had done her hair like that--
"What is your fortune, my pretty maid?"
The man had come out and softly shut the door. He gave the footman a strange look and passed him something. "It's all right," he said.
The footman looked in his hand and stared.
"Mais, merci--merci, monsieur." He vanished.
I went towards the stairs.
" That's not the way," the voice said harshly.
"Shan't I get a cloak--"
"For God's sake, no! It's a question of moments now." He was undoing the door. "Run for your life. First to the left--second to the right--a cab-rank."
I fled out of the house.
End Chapter XXVIII
Available since August 1997