“Christine, how—how long do people live?”
“It depends. Sometimes to a hundred—sometimes just a minute.
“But if one is careful, Christine—I mean, really careful?”
“It doesn’t always help, Robert. And even if it did, the people who need to live most have to take risks——” She broke off, following her thought further till it was far beyond his reach. “In fifteen years you will be grown up. You will be able to take care of yourself. What will you be then?”
“A doctor,” he said firmly; “and I’ll look after you, Christine, and you’ll live for ever and ever.”
“A doctor—a doctor!” She seemed startled, almost frightened. “Yes, of course. Your father would want it. He was always proud of his profession, though he made fun. But it will mean more—waiting a little longer.”
She brooded, her hand covering her eyes, and he crept nearer to her, pressing himself against her arm, trying to draw her back.
“Christine, who—who are you?”
“I don’t know, Robert, I don’t know——”
“I mean—why do you look after me? You’re not my mother.”
“Why, I love you.”
“But you didn’t at the beginning. You couldn’t have done.”
“Your father and I were friends. Yes, always—always—right through everything—to the very end. When your mother came into our lives, I loved her almost more. That will seem very strange to you one of these days, but it was true. When she was dying she asked me to take care of you both.” She drew herself up, and pushed the untidy wisps of hair out of her face, and with that gesture she seemed suddenly to grow vigorous and young. “Why, Robert, it’s better than if you were my own son; it’s as though in you I had a little of those two always with me.”
“Christine, you won’t ever leave me, will you?”
For now his fear had him by the throat. She didn’t—she never had belonged to him. It was his father and his mother, who were dead.
“Of course not—not so long as you need me. You mustn’t worry. It’s because we’re both tired and hungry. We’ll get supper.”
Her voice was its old self. But whilst she laid the cloth he stood pressed against the window and looked out with blind eyes into the darkness, so that she should not see his slow, hot tears. He was aware of great and bitter loss. But he loved Christine more than he had ever done. His love had ceased to be instinctive. It had become conscious of itself and of her separateness. And it would never be quite free again from pain.