‘This is the drawing-room’, I told the dealer. ‘The best pieces are in here.’
‘I can see that’, he said, eyeing the delicate porcelain that covered every surface. There was silence; he, I supposed, pondering what offer to make and I imaging the big white room bare at last.
He raised his eyes, ‘a lovely portrait, that’, he said, looking at the blond, rosy-cheeked child as if he could not draw his eyes away.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed.
‘And the frame! The frame is a gem.’
‘It is indeed,’ I said, seeing its oval gilt intricacy as if for the first time. ‘I am very fond of the frame.’
‘Of course, it can’t be you as a child?’
I shook my head, ‘my mother.’
‘Ah yes, such a pretty girl. No wonder she loved beautiful things.’ He continued to study the portrait closely. ‘I can see a lot of you in her,’ he said.
I could not think what; I have dark hair, and I wear it short.
‘And corkscrew curls!’ he exclaimed, ‘Fancy!’ He shook his head in wonderment. ‘No,’ he went on, ‘the likeness isn’t in the colouring. It’s more in the eyes… They are very determined for a little girl,’ and turning away from the picture to me, he peered for a moment into my eyes.
‘The collection,’ I began, but he was still standing in front of the portrait of my mother.
‘Those beads,’ he said. ‘There are positively yards of them, what can they be?’
‘Blue coral. I have them still. They are very precious to me.’
‘Priceless,’ he breathed, shaking his head. ‘I hope they have been restrung.’
‘It wasn’t necessary; she had them done shortly before she died.’
‘Your mother was a true connoisseur,’ he said, returning at last to the shelves and cabinets. ‘How fortunate that you kept her collection together.’ He made a little dart towards an object that stood in the cold light of the window. ‘The Chinese Vase!’ He could hardly stop himself from picking it up, ‘Now, that must be the gem of the collection, a monument to an exquisite taste. You were lucky, you and your sister, to have such a wonderful mother.’
* * * * * *
‘What are you doing up here?’
‘Tidying my doll’s clothes, Mummy.’
‘Well, stop that and go downstairs. How do you expect me to keep an eye on you when you wander all over the house? Just because it is Nanny’s day off, it doesn’t mean you can do what you like.’
‘Do what you are told; you never argue with Nanny. One would suppose you were her child, not mine.’
Then, ‘Stop clinging to the banisters. Can’t you walk properly? If you think I am going to take you out with me, looking like that, you are quite mistaken.’
There was always blame. ‘Did you use soap? Well, go and use some more, your hands are filthy.’ Then, ‘Keep away from the baby. No, you may not kiss her. Where is your handkerchief, you are showering germs all over the house.’
‘You know you are not allowed in the drawing-room. Those things are very fragile and very very valuable. Come out at once, before you break something. Give me that disgusting teddy-bear, I can’t think why Nanny allows you to take it to bed. Its ear is wet! Don’t tell me you’ve been sucking it? I shall have to burn it. Give it to me, please.’
That evening she took the teddy-bear out of my arms, then stood a moment in her silvery dress with the blue beads wound twice around her throat and falling almost to her waist. She looked at me, but did not see me. ‘I’m going down to wash the porcelain,’ she said, ‘the servants can’t be trusted with it; it has to be done with love.’
I lay down and turned my face to the wall.
‘Aren’t you going to kiss me good-night? Well, it’s a silly habit.’
But I did turn and offer her my cheek, and she did stoop and touch it with her cool lips. ‘Be absolutely quiet now, I don’t want your sister woken up.’
* * * * * *
She came upstairs again when the baby started crying. Cissie was just old enough to notice that our mother had kissed me good-night, but not her. She stood up in the cot, clutching the rail with fat little fists and howled.
Through the half-open door of the night-nursery, I watched mother cross the landing. She was holding the Chinese Vase, so old, so fragile that she moved as though an uneven step would shatter it. She paused in the doorway.
‘How dare you wake the baby! Go and stand on the landing, in the corner. And don’t move.’
I turned my head as she bent towards the cot. Cissie had lifted her arms towards her; she swayed for a second on her tiny, soft feet and caught at the beads that dangled from my mother’s neck. She clenched her fists around them, and fell.
I knew my mother would not drop the vase. I knew the strength of Cissie’s grip. I saw my mother bent over the rail of the cot, and heard the noises she was making, but I turned my face to the corner as I had been told, and did not move.
I was still standing in the corner of the landing when Nanny got back; I never disobeyed my mother.