My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 32
My Little Sister by Elizabeth Robins
But when the morning came I could not be sure that Bettina was dead.
They brought me a telegram.
In wrenching the envelope off I tore the message twice. My fingers could hardly piece the signature together. I realised, at last, the Duncombe housemaid's name. My mother was sinking, she said; and we were expected back by the night train.
The message had been sent an hour after we left home. It reached Lowndes Square seven hours before I had come beating at the door. That it had lain in the hall forgotten seemed to me hardly to matter now. Not even to-day could I go home.
I seemed to see the future. If my mother had not died in the night, the end would very quickly come. There was mercy there.
As for me--I knew I should not die till I was sure that Betty was out of the world. As though
to our best, our only friend, I turned to the thought of her physical weakness.
But I must be sure. I rose up out of my bed . . . and Darkness took me in her arms.
* * *
I was ill a long, long while.
Whenever a time came that found me free of fever, able to think again, what could I think except that, even if Betty were dead--there were the others.
The unhappy man had said that always, always there were others.
So I had seen "the need" wrong. The lamp of a young girl's hope, held up in her little world, to help her to find a mate--that light was pale beside the red glare of this fierce demand from men.
And the people who knew least went on saying it wasn't true. And the people who knew most said: there are many thousand "lost sisters" in London.
Who would help me to find mind? --or to sleep once more, knowing Bettina safely dead!
Nothing to hope from the foggy, self-bemused mystic, whose face alternated with that of the nurse in and out of my dreaming and my waking.
Long ago she had turned away from service, even from knowledge. There was "no evil, except as a figment of mortal mind." Peace! peace!--and this battle nightly at her gate! Just once her doors burst open, and she was made aware. The sound would soon be faint in her ears, and then would cease.
Not her friend, the Healer--whose way of healing was to look away from the wound.
Could I trust even Eric to help? The man who had set his work before his love--who had said: "If all the people in the house were dying, if the house were falling about my ears and I thought I was 'getting it'-- I'd let the house fall and the folks die and go on tracking the Secret home." Even if that were not quite seriously meant, no more than all the other good men and true, would that one leave the lesser task and set himself to cure this cancer at the heart of the world.
Eric, and all the rest (this it was that crushed hope out of my heart)-- they all knew.
And they accepted this thing.
That was the thought that again and again tore
me out of my bed, and brought the great Darkness down.
* * *
In the grey intervals I was conscious of Mrs. Harborough's being more and more in the room. I came to look for her.
She spoke sometimes of my father. She imagined I was like him. To think that made her very gentle and, I believe, brought her a kind of light.
I wondered about the doctor. How had she been brought to have someone tending me who did not call himself a healer, yet who I felt might well have cured any malady but mine?
She had forbidden the nurse to talk to me about my sister, so that I was the more surprised the day Mrs. Harborough spoke of Betty of her own accord. "If you will try to get strong," she said, "I will tell you what has been done to find her. And when you are really well I will do all that any one woman can to help."
So we talked a little--just a little now and then, about the things I thought of endlessly. And not vaguely either. She saw how vagueness maddened me. We faced things. How she had mis-
understood my mother. That could never be made up now. My mother never knew why we were not with her, nor even that we were not there. Consciousness had never come back to her. I heard of all that Eric had done, and that his was the last face she knew. He had stayed with her all that night, to the end.
There were letters for me from him. Soon, now, I should have my letters. He had been many times to ask about me.
About me! What was he doing about . . . But no, that was for me alone. Up and down the streets I should go, looking into the eyes of outcasts under city lamps--looking for the eyes I knew.
Nor could I wait till I was well. Night by night I went upon the quest. Catching distant glimpses of Bettina in my dreams, struggling to reach her, for ever losing her in the turmoil of streets and the roar of stations, till the thought of Bettina was merged in overmastering terror of the noise and evil which was London.
The moment I was a little better they tried to get me to sleep without an opiate. The doctor made so great a point of this, I did all in my
power not to disappoint him, and for no reason in the world but that something in his voice reminded me of Eric--just a little. Nobody knew how much of the time, behind closed eyes, my mind was broad awake. . . .
Oh, the London nights!--airless, endless. And the anguish of those haunted hours before dawn. My country ears, so used to silence or the note of birds, strained to interpret London sounds before break of day.
Hardly any honest, individual voices, and yet no moment quiet. Incessantly the distant rumbling of . . . something. I could never tell what. It was the roar of London streets by day, attenuated, held at bay, but never conquered--the bustle and clang muffled in the huge blanket of the night.
The strongest impression about it was just of the vague, unverifiable thing being there--an enemy breathing in the dark. Sometimes it started up with a rattle of chains.
"Mail-carts," said the nurse.
And that other sound--like one's idea of battering-rams thundering at fortress walls--the nurse would have me believe that to such an ac-
companiment did milk make entry into London! Sometimes the thick air was so sharply torn by horn, or pierced by whistle, that I would start up in my bed trembling, listening, till the dying clamour sunk once more to the level of the giant's breathing.
When I was not delirious, the reason I lay still was sometimes half a nightmare reason; a feeling that the muffled night-sounds were like the bees at home in the rhododendron, drumming softly so long as we sat still. The moment we rose up the bees rose too, with angry commotion, ready to fly in our faces and sting. Just so with that muted hum of London. If I were not very still, if I were to rise and venture out, all the stinging, angry noises would rise, too, and overwhelm me.
And out there in the heart of the swarm, Bettina. Being stung and stung, till feeling died.
End Chapter XXXII
Available since August 1997