My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 29
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
I stood ringing, I thundered at the knocker. I beat the door with my fist.
An old man opened at last.
"Mrs. Harborough! Where is she?" The old man tried to keep me out. But he was gentle and frail. I forced my way past. I called and ran along a passage, trying doors that opened into darkness.
At last! A room where a woman sat alone--reading by a shaded light.
"Who are you?" I cried out. She laid her book in her lap. "Are you Mrs. Harborough? Then come--come quickly . . . I'll tell you on the way--"
The old woman lifted the fold of her double chin and looked at me through spectacles.
"You must come and help me to get Bettina. . . . " I broke into distracted sobbing on the name. "Bettina--! Bettina--!" I seized the lady's hand and tried to draw her out of her chair.
But I was full of trembling. She sat there massive, calm, with a power of inert resistance, that made me feel I could as easily drag her house out of the Square by its knocker, as move the woman planted there in her chair.
Neither haste nor perturbation in the voice that asked me: "What has happened?"
" Not yet!" I cried out. "Nothing has happened yet! But we must be quick. Oh, God, let us be quick--"
The butler had followed me in and was asking something. "Yes, said the quiet voice, "pay the cabman."
"No!" I shrieked. "Keep him! I must go back, instantly. . . . " And through my own strange-sounding voice, hers reached me.
"You must see that you are quite unintelligible. Sit down and collect yourself."
"Sit down! Isn't it enough that one woman sits still, while--while--"
She was putting questions.
I heard a reproach that seemed to fill the house: "You never came to meet us!"
And while the charge was ringing I felt, with anguish, the injustice of it. How could one have expected this woman to come!
But she should be moved and stirred at last!
"I sent my maid," she was defending herself, "--only a minute or two late."
"The other woman was not late!"
I begged the butler to get a cloak for Mrs. Harborough. She was saying Bettina and I should have waited. And again that I must calm myself and tell her--
"Someone pretended to be you!" I hurled it at her. "She took us to a house--a place where they do worse than murder. Betty is there now--" I told her all I could pack into a few sentences.
"It isn't possible," my aunt said. "This is England."
" Come and see! Betty--" But they only thought me mad; they tortured me with questions.
I caught her by the arm. "God won't forgive you if you wait an instant more."
Oh, but she was old and unbelieving! So old, I felt she had looked on unmoved at evil since the world began.
But she was sending for wraps, sending messages. Still she sat there, in the heavy, square-backed chair, her hands upon her knees, her two
feet side by side as motionless as the footstool, her heavy shoulders high and square, her lace cap with square ends falling either side her face, like the head-dress of an Egyptian, her air of monumental calm more like a Theban statue than a living woman.
I turned away.
The figure in the chair rose up at last.
Oh, but slowly--slow, and stiff, and ponderous.
I felt in her all the heaviness of the acquiescent since Time began.
"That is right," she said to the old man who had brought the maid.
And the maid was old, too.
Three helpless ghosts.
Like death the sense came over me that I was as badly off with these three, as I had been alone. Again I turned from them, frantic.
"I will go out," I cried, "and find help." I ran towards the door.
It was then the old man made the first sane suggestion. We could telephone the police.
That would save time! The police would meet us outside Betty's prison.
I followed the butler into the hall. We all stood there, by the telephone. Ages seemed to go by while he was getting the number. And when he had got the number, he could not hear the questions that were put. I tore the receiver out of his hand--I pushed him aside. But I had never used the telephone before, and I spoke too loudly. When they told me so, I sobbed. The voice at the other end was faint and cool. Oh, the easy way the world was taking Betty's fate!
And then the faint cool voice at the other end said something which showed me I was not believed.
He, too, was thinking I was out of my mind.
The receiver dropped from my hand.
"They cannot understand," I said. I told Mrs. Harborough that she must go to Bettina, and I would bring the police.
Some objection was made. I did not stop to hear it: "I cannot wait for any words! And I will not wait another second for any human soul!"
Then, running beside me as I made for the front door, the old butler spoke again: "--a
policeman in our square." He would call the policeman in.
The old man was right. A policeman stood at the corner, watching that no harm should come to the ladies of Lowndes Square.
I had run out, with the butler protesting at my heels: "Not in the street, miss!" he said, with the first hint of emotion I had found in him.
I did not wait; but he must have brought the policeman in during my outpouring, for the look of the hall during those swift seconds is stamped on my brain. The elderly maid kneeling at her mistress's feet, changing her shoes; the policeman facing my aunt, helmet in hand, his reverent eye falling before the dignity of Mrs. Harborough, while I, at his elbow, poured out broken sentences, interlarded with: "I'll tell you the rest as we go--"
My strained voice was grown weak. I wondered, suddenly, if it had ever really reached their ears.
I was like a person down under the sea, trying to make my voice heard through a mile of murky water.
I was like a woman buried alive, who, in the black middle of the night, beats at her coffin-lid in some deserted graveyard.
"It is no use!" I cried. "I shall go back alone."
At last we were all going out of the door. The policeman put on his helmet.
"And where is this house?" he asked.
"It is--it is--"
A pit of blackness opened. I felt myself falling headlong. I heard a cry that made my flesh writhe--as though the cry had been Bettina's, and not mine.
A voice said: "It is not possible you have forgotten the address!"
I had never known it!
End Chapter XXIX
Available since August 1997