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A short story by Josephine Daskam Bacon

The Children

Title:     The Children
Author: Josephine Daskam Bacon [More Titles by Bacon]

It all came over me, as you might say, when I began to tell the new housemaid about the work. Not that I hadn't known before, of course, what a queer sort of life was led in that house; it was hard enough the first months, goodness knows. But then, a body can get used to anything. And there was no harm in it--I'll swear that to my dying day! Although a lie's a lie, any way you put it, and if all I've told--but I'll let you judge for yourself.

As I say, it was when I began to break Margaret in, that it all came over me, and I looked about me, in a way of speaking, for how I should put it to her. She'd been house-parlor-maid in a big establishment in the country and knew what was expected of her well enough, and I saw from the first she'd fit in nicely with us; a steady, quiet girl, like the best of the Scotch, looking to save her wages, and get to be housekeeper herself, some day, perhaps.

But when Hodges brought the tray with the porringers on it and the silver mug, for me to see, and said, "I suppose this young lady'll take these up, Miss Umbleby?" and when Margaret looked surprised and said, "I didn't know there were children in the family--am I supposed to wait on them, too?"--then, as I say, it all came over me, and for the first time in five years I really saw where I stood, like.

I stared at Hodges and then at the girl, and the tray nearly went down amongst us.

"Do you mean to say you haven't told her, Sarah?" says Hodges (and that was the first time that ever he called me by my given name).

"She's told me nothing," Margaret answers rather short, "and if it's invalid children or feeble-minded, I take it most unkind, Miss Umbleby, for I've never cared for that sort of thing, and could have had my twenty-five dollars a month this long time, if I'd wanted to go out as nurse."

"Take the tray up this time, yourself, Mr. Hodges, please," I said, "and I'll have a little talk with Margaret," and I sat down and smoothed my black silk skirt (I always wore black silk of an afternoon) nervously enough, I'll be bound.

The five years rolled away like yesterday--as they do now--as they do now----

I saw myself, in my mind's eye, new to the place, and inclined to feel strange, as I always did when I made a change, though I was twenty-five and no chicken, but rather more settled than most, having had my troubles early and got over them. I'd just left my place--chambermaid and seamstress--in a big city house, and though it was September, I was looking out for the country, for I was mortal tired of the noise and late hours and excitement that I saw ahead of me. It was parties and balls every night and me sitting up to undress the young ladies, for they kept no maid, like so many rich Americans, and yet some one must do for them. There was no housekeeper either, and the mistress was not very strong and we had to use our own responsibility more than I liked--for I wasn't paid for that, do you see, and that's what they forget in this country.

"I think I've got you suited at last, Sarah," the head of the office had said to me, "a nice, quiet place in the country, good pay and light work, but everything as it should be, you understand. Four in help besides the housekeeper and only one in family. Church within a mile and every other Sunday for yourself."

That was just what I wanted, and I packed my box thankfully and left New York for good, I hoped, and I got my wish, for I've never seen the inside of it since.

A middle-aged coachman in good, quiet country livery, met me at the little station, and though he was a still-mouthed fellow and rather reserved, I made out quite a little idea of the place on the way. The mistress, Mrs. Childress, was a young widow, deep in her mourning, so there was no company. The housekeeper was her old nurse, who had brought her up. John, who drove me, was coachman-gardener, and the cook was his wife--both Catholics. Everything went on very quiet and regular and it was hoped that the new upstairs maid wouldn't be one for excitement and gaiety. The inside man had been valet to Mr. Childress and was much trusted and liked by the family. I could see that old John was a bit jealous in that direction.

We drove in through a black iron gate with cut stone posts and old black iron lanterns on top, and the moment we were inside the gates I began to take a fancy to the place. It wasn't kept up like the places at home, but it was neat enough to show that things were taken thought for, and the beds of asters and dahlias and marigolds as we got near the house seemed so home-like and bright to me, I could have cried for comfort. Childerstone was the name of the place; it was carved on a big boulder by the side of the entrance, and just as we drove up to the door John stopped to pick some dahlias for the house (being only me in the wagon) and I took my first good look at my home for twenty years afterward.

There was something about it that went to my heart. It was built of grey cut stone in good-sized blocks, square, with two windows each side the hall door. To some it might have seemed cold-looking, but not to me, for one side was all over ivy, and the thickness of the walls and the deep sills looked solid and comfortable after those nasty brown-stone things all glued to each other in the city. It looked old and respectable and settled, like, and the sun, just at going down, struck the windows like fire and the clean panes shone. There was that yellow light over everything and that stillness, with now and then a leaf or so dropping quietly down, that makes the fall of the year so pleasant, to my mind.

The house stood in beeches and the trunks of them were grey like the house and the leaves all light lemon-coloured, like the sky, and that's the way I always think of Childerstone--grey and yellow and clean and still. Just a few rooks (you call them crows here), went over the house, and except for their cry as they flew, there wasn't a sound about the place. I can see how others might have found it sad, but it never seemed so to me.

John set me down at the servants' entrance and there, before ever I'd got properly into the hall, the strangeness began. The cook in her check apron was kneeling on the floor in front of the big French range with the tears streaming down her face, working over her rosary beads and gabbling to drive you crazy. Over her stood a youngish but severe-appearing man in a white linen coat like a ship's steward, trying to get her up.

"Come, Katey," he was saying, "come, woman, up with you and help--she'll do no harm, the poor soul! Look after her, now, and I'll send for the doctor and see to madam--it's only a fit, most like!"

Then he saw me and ran forward to give a hand to my box.

"You're the chambermaid, Miss, I'm sure," he said. "I'm sorry to say you'll find us a bit upset. The housekeeper's down with a stroke of some sort and the madam's none too strong herself. Are you much of a hand to look after the sick?"

"I'm not so clumsy as some," I said. "Let me see her," and so we left the cook to her prayers and he carried my box to my room.

I got into a print dress and apron and went to the housekeeper's room. She was an elderly person and it looked to me as if she was in her last sickness. She didn't know any one and so I was as good as another, and I had her tidy and comfortable in bed by the time the doctor came. He said she would need watching through the night and left some medicine, but I could see he had little hope for her. I made up a bed in the room and all that night she chattered and muttered and took me for different ones, according as her fever went and came. Towards morning she got quiet, and as I thought, sensible again.

"Are you a nurse?" she says to me.

"Yes, Mrs. Shipman, be still and rest," I told her, to soothe her.

"I'm glad the children are sent away," she went on, after a bit. "'Twould break their mother's heart if they got the fever. Are the toys packed?"

"Yes, yes," I answered, "all packed and sent."

"Be sure there's enough frocks for Master Robertson," she begged me. "He's so hard on them and his aunties are so particular. And my baby must have her woolly rabbit at night or her darling heart will be just broken!"

"The rabbit is packed," I said, "and I saw to the frocks myself."

There's but one way with the sick when they're like that, and that's to humour them, you see. So she slept and I got a little nap for myself. I was glad the children were away by next morning, for she was worse, the cook lost her head, and managed to break the range so that the water-back leaked and John and Hodges were mopping and mending all day. The madam herself had a bad turn and the doctor (a New York doctor for madam, you may be sure!) brought out a handsome, dark woman, the trained hospital nurse, with him. Madam wasn't allowed to know how bad her old nurse was.

So it turned out that I'd been a week in the house without ever seeing my mistress. The nurse and I would meet on the stairs and chat a little, evenings, and once I took a turn in the grounds with her. She was a sensible sort of girl, not a bit above herself, as our English nursing-sisters are, sometimes, but very businesslike, as they say, and a good, brisk way with her. She saw a lot more than she spoke of, Miss Jessop did, I'll warrant!

"It's a good thing the children are sent away," I said. "They always add to the bother when there's sickness."

"Why, are there children?" says she. "Oh, yes, a boy and a girl," I answered, "poor old Mrs. Shipman is forever talking about them. She thinks she's their nurse, it seems, as she was their mother's."

"I wish they were here, then," says she, "for I don't like the looks of my patient at all. She doesn't speak seven words a day, and there's really little or nothing the matter with her, that I can see. She's nervous and she's low and she wants cheering, that's all. I wonder the doctor doesn't see it."

That night, after both patients were settled, she came up to my room and took a glance at the old lady, who was going fast.

"Mrs. Childress will soon have to know about this," she said and then, suddenly, "Are you sure about the children, Sarah?"

"Sure about them?" I repeated after her. "In what way, Miss Jessop?"

"That there are any," says she.

"Why, of course," I answered, "Mrs. Shipman talks of nothing else. They're with their aunty, in New Jersey, somewhere. It's a good thing there are some, for from what she says when she's rambling, the house and all the property would go out of the family otherwise. It's been five generations in the Childress family, but the nearest now is a cousin who married a Jew, and the family hate her for it. But Master Robertson makes it all safe, Mrs. Shipman says."

"That's a queer thing," said she. "I took in a dear little picture of the boy and girl this afternoon, to cheer her up a bit, and told her to try to think they were the real ones, who'd soon be with her, for that matter, and so happy to see their dear mamma, and she went white as a sheet and fainted in my arms. Of course, I didn't refer to it again. She's quiet now, holding the picture, but I feared they were dead and you hadn't known."

"Oh, no," said I. "I'm sure not," and then I remembered that I'd been told there was but one in family. However, that's often said when there's a nurse to take care of small children (though it's not quite fair, perhaps), and I was certain of the children, anyway, for there were toys all about Mrs. Shipman's room and some seed-cookies and "animal-crackers," as they call those odd little biscuits, in a tin on her mantel.

However, we were soon to learn something that made me, at least, all the more curious. The doctor came that morning and told Miss Jessop that her services would be no longer required, after he had seen her patient.

"Mrs. Childress is perfectly recovered," he said, "and she has unfortunately conceived a grudge against you, my dear girl. I need you, anyway, in town. Poor old Shipman can't last the night now, and I want all that business disposed of very quietly. I have decided not to tell Mrs. Childress until it is all over and the funeral done with. She is in a very morbid state, and as I knew her husband well I have taken this step on my own responsibility. Hodges seems perfectly able to run things, and to tell the truth, it would do your mistress far more good to attend to that herself," he said, turning to me.

"It would be a good thing for the poor woman to have some one about her, Dr. Stanchon," the nurse put in quietly. "If there were children in the house, now----"

"Children!" he cried, pulling himself up and staring at her. "Did you speak to her about them? Then that accounts for it! I should have warned you."

"Then they did die?" she asked him. "That's what I thought."

"I'm afraid not," he said, shaking his head with a queer sort of sad little smile. "I forgot you were strange here. Why, Miss Jessop, didn't you know that----"

"Excuse me, sir, but there's no sign of your mare about--did you tie her?" says Hodges, coming in in a great hurry, and the doctor swore and ran off and I never heard the end of the sentence.

Well, I'm running on too long with these little odds and ends, as I'm sure Margaret felt when I started telling her all about it. The truth is I dreaded then, just as I dread now, to get at the real story and look our conduct straight in the face. But I'll get on more quickly now.

Old Mrs. Shipman died very quiet in her sleep and madam wasn't told, which I didn't half like. The doctor was called out of those parts to attend on his father, very suddenly, and Hodges managed the funeral and all. It was plain to see he was a very trusty, silent fellow, devoted to the family. I took as much off him as I could, and I was dusting the drawing-room the day of the funeral, when I happened to pick up a photograph in a silver frame of the same little fellow in the picture the nurse had shown me--a dear little boy in short kilts.

"That's Master Robertson, isn't it?" I said, very carelessly, not looking at him--I will own I was curious. He gave a start.

"Yes--yes, certainly, that's Master Robertson--if you choose to put it that way," he said, and I saw him put his hand up to his eyes and his mouth twitched and he left the room.

I didn't question him again, naturally; he was a hard man to cross and very haughty, was William Hodges, and no one in the house but respected him.

That day I saw Mrs. Childress for the first time. She was a sweet, pretty thing, about my own age, but younger looking, fair, with grey eyes. She was in heavy crepe and her face all fallen and saddened like, with grief and hopelessness--I felt for her from the moment I saw her. And all the more that I'd made up my mind what her trouble was: I thought that the children were idiots, maybe, or feeble-minded, anyhow, and so the property would go to the Jew in the end and that his family were hating her for it! Folly, of course, but women will have fancies, and that seemed to fit in with all I'd heard.

She'd been told that Shipman was away with some light, infectious fever, and she took it very mildly, and said there was no need to get any one in her place, at present.

"Hodges will attend to everything," she said, in her pretty, tired way; "not that there's much to do--for one poor woman."

"Things may mend, ma'am, and you'll feel more like having some friends about you, most likely, later on," I said, to cheer her a bit.

She shook her head sadly.

"No, no, Sarah--if I can't have my own about me, I'll have no others," she said, and I thought I saw what she meant and said no more.

That night the doctor and the legal gentleman that looked after the family affairs were with us and my mistress kept them for dinner. I helped Hodges with the serving and was in the butler's pantry after Mrs. Childress had left them with their coffee and cigars, and as Hodges had left the door ajar I couldn't help catching a bit of the talk now and then.

"The worst of it is this trouble about the children," said the doctor. "She will grieve herself into a decline, I'm afraid."

"I suppose there's no hope?" said the other gentleman.

"No hope?" the doctor burst out. "Why, man, Robertson's been dead six months!"

"To be sure--I'd forgotten it was so long. Well, well, it's too bad, too bad," and Hodges came back and closed the door.

I must say I was thoroughly put out with the doctor. Why should he have told me a lie? And it was mostly from that that I deliberately disobeyed him that night, for I knew from the way he had spoken to the nurse that he didn't wish the children mentioned. But I couldn't help it, for when I came to her room to see if I could help her, she was sitting in her black bedroom gown with her long hair in two braids, crying over the children's picture. "Hush, hush, ma'am," I said, kneeling by her and soothing her head, "if they were here, you may be sure they wouldn't wish it."

"Who? Who?" she answers me, quite wild, but not angry at all. I saw this and spoke it out boldly, for it was plain that she liked me.

"Your children, ma'am," I said, softly but very firm, "and you should control yourself and be cheerful and act as if they were here--as if it had pleased God to let you have them and not Himself!"

Such a look as she gave me! But soon she seemed to melt, like, and put out her arm over my shoulders.

"What a beautiful way to put it, Sarah!" says she, in a dreamy kind of way. "Do you really think God has them--somewhere?"

"Why, of course, ma'am," said I, shocked in good earnest. "Who else?"

"Then you think I might love them, just as if--just as if----" here she began to sob.

"Why, Mrs. Childress," I said, "where is your belief? That's all that's left to mothers. I know, for I've lost two, and their father to blame for it, which you need never say," I told her.

She patted my shoulder very kindly. "But oh, Sarah, if only they were here!" she cried, "really, really here!"

"I know, I know," I said, "it's very hard. But try to think it, ma'am--it helped me for weeks. Think they're in the room next you, here, and you'll sleep better for it."

"Shall I?" she whispered, gripping my hand hard. "I believe I would--how well you understand me, Sarah! And will you help me to believe it?"

I saw she was feverish and I knew what it means to get one good refreshing night without crying, and so I said, "Of course I will, ma'am; see, I'll open the door into the next room and you can fancy them in their cribs, and I'll sleep in there as if it was to look after them, like."

Well, she was naught but a child herself, the poor dear, and she let me get her into bed like a lamb and put her cheek into her hand and went off like a baby. It almost scared me, to see how easy she was to manage, if one did but get hold of the right way. She looked brighter in the morning and as Hodges had told me that Shipman used to do for her, I went in and dressed her--not that I was ever a lady's maid, mind you, but I've always been one to turn my hand easily to anything I had a mind to, and I was growing very fond of my poor lady--and then, I was a little proud, I'll own, of being able to do more for her than her own medical man, who couldn't trust a sensible woman with the truth!

She clung to me all the morning, and after my work was done, I persuaded her to come out for the air. The doctor had ordered it long ago, but she was obstinate, and would scarcely go at all. That day, however, she took a good stroll with me and it brought a bit of colour into her cheeks. Just as we turned toward the house she sat down on a big rock to rest herself, and I saw her lip quiver and her eyes begin to fill. I followed her look and there was a child's swing, hung from two ropes to a low bough. It must have been rotted with the rains, for it looked very old and the board seat was cracked and worn. All around--it hung in a sort of little glade--were small piles of stones and bits of oddments that only children get together, like the little magpies they are.

There's no use to expect any one but a mother or one who's had the constant care of little ones to understand the tears that come to your eyes at a sight like that. What they leave behind is worse than what they take with them; their curls and their fat legs and the kisses they gave you are all shut into the grave, but what they used to play with stays there and mourns them with you.

I saw a wild look come into her eyes, and I determined to quiet her at any cost.

"There, there, ma'am," I said quickly, "'tis only their playthings. Supposing they were there, now, and enjoying them! You go in and take your nap, as the doctor ordered, and leave me behind..."

She saw what I meant in a twinkling and the colour jumped into her face again. She turned and hurried in and just as she went out of sight she looked over her shoulder, timid like, and waved her hand--only a bit of a wave, but I saw it.

Under a big stone in front of me, for that part of the grounds was left wild, like a little grove, I saw a rusty tin biscuit box, and as I opened it, curiously, to pass the time, I found it full of little tin platters and cups. Hardly thinking what I did, I arranged them as if laid out for tea, on a flat stone, and left them there. When I went to awaken her for lunch, I started, for some more of those platters were on the table by her bed and a white woolly rabbit and a picture book! She blushed, but I took no notice, and after her luncheon I spied her going quickly back to the little grove.

"Madam's taking a turn for the better, surely," Hodges said to me that afternoon. "She's eating like a Christian now. What have you done to her, Miss Umbleby?" (I went as "Miss" for it's much easier to get a place so.)

"Mr. Hodges," I said, facing him squarely, "the doctors don't know everything. You know as well as I that it's out of nature not to mention children, where they're missed every hour of the day and every day of the month. It's easing the heart that's wanted--not smothering it."

"What d'you mean?" he says, staring at me.

"I mean toys and such like," I answered him, very firm, "and talk of them that's not here to use them, and even pretending that they are, if that will bring peace of mind, Mr. Hodges."

He rubbed his clean shaven chin with his hand.

"Well, well!" he said at last. "Well, well, well! You're a good girl, Miss Umbleby, and a kind one, that's certain. I never thought o' such a thing. Maybe it's all right, though. But who could understand a woman, anyway?"

"That's not much to understand," said I, shortly, and left him staring at me.

She came in late in the afternoon with the rabbit under her arm and there was Mr. Hodges in the drawing-room laying out the tea--we always had everything done as if the master was there, and guests, for the matter of that; she insisted on it. He knew his place as well as any man, but his eye fell on the rabbit and he looked very queer and nearly dropped a cup. She saw it and began to tremble and go white, and it came over me then that now or never was the time to clinch matters or she'd nearly die from shame and I couldn't soothe her any more.

"Perhaps Hodges had better go out and bring in the rest of the toys, ma'am," I says, very careless, not looking at her. "It's coming on for rain. And he can take an umbrella ... shall he?"

She stiffened up and gave a sort of nod to him.

"Yes, Hodges, go," she said, half in a whisper, and he bit his lip, and swallowed hard and said, "Very good, madam," and went.

Well, after that, you can see how it would be, can't you? One thing led to another, and one time when she was not well for a few days and rather low, I actually got the two little cribs down from the garret and ran up some white draperies for them. She'd hardly let me leave her, and indeed there was not so much work that I couldn't manage very well. She gave all her orders through me and I was well pleased to do for her and let Mr. Hodges manage things, which he did better than poor old Shipman, I'll be bound. By the time we told her about Shipman's death, she took it very easy--indeed, I think, she'd have minded nothing by that time, she had grown so calm and almost healthy.

Mr. Hodges would never catch my eye and I never talked private any more with him, but that was the only sign he didn't approve, and he never spoke for about a month, but joined in with me by little and little and never said a word but to shrug his shoulders when I ordered up a tray with porringers on it for the nursery (she had a bad cold and got restless and grieving). I left her in the nursery with the tray and went out to him, for I saw he wished to speak to me at last.

"Dr. Stanchon would think well of this, if he was here. Is that your idea, Miss Umbleby?" he said to me, very dry. (The doctor had never come back, but gone to be head of a big asylum out in the west.)

"I'm sure I don't know, Mr. Hodges," I answered. "I think any doctor couldn't but be glad to see her gaining every day, and when she feels up to it and guests begin to come again, she'll get willing to see them and forget the loss of the poor little things."

"The loss of what?" says he, frowning at me.

"Why, the children," I answered.

"What children?"

"Master Robertson, of course, and Miss Winifred," I said, quite vexed with his obstinacy. (I had asked her once if the baby was named after her and she nodded and went away quickly.)

"See here, my girl," says he, "there's no good keeping this up for my benefit. I'm not going into a decline, you know. I know as well as you do that she couldn't lose what she never had!"

"Never had!" I gasped. "She never had any children?"

"Of course not," he said, steadying me, for my knees got weak all of a sudden. "That's what's made all the trouble--that's what's so unfortunate! D'you mean to say you didn't know?"

I sank right down on the stairs. "But the pictures!" I burst out.

"If you mean that picture of Mr. Robertson Childress when he was a little lad and the other one of him and his sister that died when a baby, and chose to fancy they was hers," says he, pointing upstairs, "it's no fault of mine, Miss Umbleby."

And no more it was. What with poor old Shipman's ramblings and the doctor's words that I had twisted into what they never meant, I had got myself into a fine pickle.

"But what shall I do, Mr. Hodges?" I said, stupid-like, with the surprise and the shock of it. "It'd kill her, if I stopped now."

"That's for you to decide," said he, in his reserved, cold way, "I have my silver to do."

Well, I did decide. I lay awake all night at it, and maybe I did wrong, but I hadn't the heart to see the red go out of her cheek and the little shy smile off her pretty mouth. It hurt no one, and the mischief was done, anyway--there'd be no heir to Childerstone, now. For five generations it had been the same--a son and a daughter to every pair, and the old place about as dear to each son, as I made out, as ever his wife or child could be. General Washington had stopped the night there, and some great French general that helped the Americans had come there for making plans to attack the British, and Colonel Robertson Childress that then was had helped him. They had plenty of English kin and some in the Southern States, but no friends near them, on account of my mistress's husband having to live in Switzerland for his health and his father dying young (as he did) so that his mother couldn't bear the old place. But as soon as Mr. Robertson was told he was cured and could live where he liked, he made for Childerstone and brought his bride there--a stranger from an American family in Switzerland--and lived but three months. If anybody was ever alone, it was that poor lady, I'm sure. There was no big house like theirs anywhere about--no county families, as you might say--and those that had called from the village she wouldn't see, in her mourning. And yet out of that house she would not go, because he had loved it so; it was pitiful.

There's no good argle-bargling over it, as my mother used to say, I'd do the same again! For I began it with the best of motives, and as innocent as a babe, myself, of the real truth, you see.

I can shut my eyes, now, and it all comes back to me as it was in the old garden, of autumn afternoons--I always think of Childerstone in the autumn, somehow. There was an old box hedge there, trimmed into balls and squares, and beds laid out in patterns, with asters and marigolds and those little rusty chrysanthemums that stand the early frosts so well. A wind-break of great evergreens all along two sides kept it warm and close, and from the south and west the sun streamed in onto the stone dial that the Childress of General Washington's time had had brought over from home. It was set for Surrey, Hodges told me once, and no manner of use, consequently, but very settled and home-like to see, if you understand me. In the middle was an old stone basin, all mottled and chipped, and the water ran out from a lion's mouth in some kind of brown metal, and trickled down its mane and jaws and splashed away. We cleaned it out, she and I, one day, pretending we had help, and Hodges went to town and got us some gold fish for it. They looked very handsome there. Old John kept the turf clipped and clean and routed out some rustic seats for us--all grey they were and tottery, but he strengthened them, and I smartened them up with yellow chintz cushions I found in the garret--and I myself brought out two tiny arm-chairs, painted wood, from the loft in the coach house. We'd sit there all the afternoon in September, talking a little, me mending and my mistress embroidering on some little frocks I cut out for her. We talked about the children, of course. They got to be as real to me as to her, almost. Of course at first it was all what they would have been (for she was no fool, Mrs. Childress, though you may be thinking so) but by little and little it got to be what they were. It couldn't be helped.

Hodges would bring her tea out there and she'd eat heartily, for she never was much of a one for a late dinner, me sewing all the time, for I always knew my place, though I believe in her kind heart she'd have been willing for me to eat with her, bless her! Then she'd look at me so wistful-like, and say, "I'll leave you now, Sarah--eat your tea and don't keep out too late. Good-bye--good-bye..." Ah, dear me!

I'd sit and think, with the leaves dropping quiet and yellow around me and the water dripping from the lion's mouth and sometimes I'd close my eyes and--I'll swear I could hear them playing quietly beyond me! They were never noisy children. I'll say now something I never mentioned, even to her, and I'd say it if my life hung by it. More than once I've left the metal tea-set shut in the biscuit box and found it spread out of mornings. My mistress slept in the room next me with the door open, and am I to think that William Hodges, or Katey, crippled with rheumatism, or that lazy old John came down and set them out? I've taken a hasty run down to that garden (we called it the children's garden, after a while) because she took an idea, and seen the swing just dying down, and not a breath stirring. That's the plain gospel of it. And I've lain in my bed, just off the two cribs, and held my breath at what I felt and heard. She knew it, too. But never heard so much as I, and often cried for it. I never knew why that should be, nor Hodges, either.

There was one rainy day I went up in the garret and pulled the old rocking-horse out and dusted it and put it out in the middle and set the doors open and went away. It was directly over our heads as we sat sewing, and--ah, well, it's many years ago now, a many and a many, and it's no good raking over too much what's past and gone, I know. And as Hodges said, afterward, the rain on the roof was loud and steady....

I don't know why I should have thought of the rocking-horse, and she not that was always thinking and planning for them. Hodges said it was because I had had children. But I could never have afforded them any such toy as that. Still, perhaps he was right. It was odd his saying that (he knew the facts about me, of course, by that time) being such a dry man, with no fancy about him, you might say, and disliking the whole subject, as he always did, but so it was. Men will often come out with something like that, and quite astonish one.

He never made a hint of objection when I was made housekeeper, and that was like him, too, though I was, to say so, put over him. But he knew my respect for him, black silk afternoons or no black silk, and how we all leaned on him, really.

And then Margaret came, as I said, and it was all to tell, and a fine mess I made of it and William Hodges that settled it, after all.

For Margaret wanted to pack her box directly and get off, and said she'd never heard of such doings and had no liking for people that weren't right.

"Not right?" says Hodges, "not right? Don't you make any such mistake, my girl. Madam attends to all her law business and is at church regularly, and if she's not for much company--why, all the easier for us. Her cheques are as sensible as any one's, I don't care who the man is, and a lady has a right to her fancies. I've lived with very high families at home, and if I'm suited, you may depend upon it the place is a good one. Go or stop, as you like, but don't set up above your elders, young woman."

So she thought it over and the end of it all was that she was with us till the last. And gave me many a black hour, too, poor child, meaning no harm, but she admired Hodges, it was plain, and being younger than I and far handsomer in a dark, Scotch way, it went hard with me, for he made no sign, and I was proud and wouldn't have showed my feelings for my life twice over.

Well, it went on three years more. I made my little frocks longer and the gold fish grew bigger and we set out new marigolds every year, that was all. It was like some quiet dream, when I've gone back and seemed a girl again in the green lanes at home, with mother clear-starching and the rector's daughter hearing my catechism and Master Lawrence sent off to school for bringing me his first partridge. Those dreams seem long and short at one and the same time, and I wake years older, and yet it has not been years that passed but only minutes. So it was at Childerstone. The years went by like the hours went in the children's garden, all hedged in, like, and quiet and leaving no mark. We all seemed the same to each other and one day was like another, full, somehow, and busy and happy, too, in a quiet, gentle way.

When old Katey lay dying she spoke of these days for the first time to me. She'd sent up the porringers and set out glasses of milk and made cookies in heart shapes with her mouth tight shut for all that time, and we never knowing if she sensed it rightly or not. But on her deathbed she told me that she felt the Blessed Mary (as she called her) had given those days to my poor mistress to make up to her for all she'd lost and all she'd never had, and that she'd confessed her part in it and been cleared, long ago. I never loved any time better, looking back, nor Hodges either. One season the Christmas greens would be up, and then before we knew it the ice would be out of the brooks and there would be crocuses and daffodils for Mr. Childress's grave.

She and I took all the care of it and the key to the iron gate of it lay out on her low work table, and one or other of us always passing through, but one afternoon in summer when I went with a basket of June roses, she being not quite up to it that day, there on the flat stone I saw with my own eyes a little crumpled bunch of daisies--all nipped off short, such as children pick, and crushed and wilted in their hot little hands! And on no other tomb but his. But I was used to such as that, by then....

Margaret was handy with her needle, and I remember well the day she made the linen garden hat with a knot of rose-colour under the brim.

"You don't think this will be too old, do you, ma'am?" she said when she showed it to my mistress, and the dear lady was that pleased!

"Not a bit, Margaret," she said and I carried it off to Miss Winifred's closet. Many's the time I missed it after that, and knew too much to hunt. It was hunting that spoiled all, for we tried it....

And yet we didn't half believe. Heaven help us, we knew, but we didn't believe: St. Thomas was nothing to us!

Margaret was with us three years when the new family came. Hodges told us that Hudson River property was looking up and land was worth more every year. Anyway, in one year two families built big houses within a mile of us and we went to call, of course, as in duty bound. John grumbled at getting out the good harness and having the carriage re-lined, but my mistress knew what was right, and he had no choice. I dressed her very carefully, and we watched her off from the door, a thought too pale in her black, but sweet as a flower, and every inch full of breeding, as Hodges said.

I never knew what took place at that visit, but she came back with a bright red circle in each cheek and her head very high, and spent all the evening in the nursery. Alone, of course, for I heard little quick sounds on the piano in the drawing-room, and the fairy books were gone from the children's book-shelves, and Margaret found them in front of the fire and brought them to me....

It was only three days before the new family called on us (a pair of ponies to a basket phaeton--very neat and a nice little groom) and my heart jumped into my mouth when I saw there were two children in with the lady: little girls of eight and twelve, I should say. 'Twas the first carriage callers that ever I'd seen in the place, and Hodges says to me as he goes toward the hall,

"This is something like, eh, Miss Umbleby?"

But I felt odd and uncertain, and when from behind the library door I heard the lady say, "You see I've kept my word and brought my babies, Mrs. Childress--my son is hardly old enough for yours--only four--but Helena and Lou can't wait--they are so impatient to see your little girl!"--when I heard that, I saw what my poor mistress had been at, and the terrible situation we were in (and had been in for years) flashed over me and my hands got cold as ice.

"Where is she?" the lady went on.

At that I went boldly into the library and stood by my mistress's chair--I couldn't desert her then, after all those years.

"Where? where?" my poor lady repeated, vague-like and turning her eyes so piteous at me that I looked the visitor straight in the face and getting between her and my mistress I said very calmly,

"I think Miss Winifred is in the children's garden, madam; shall I take the young ladies there?"

For my thought was to get the children out of the way, before it all came out, you see.

Oh, the look of gratitude she gave me! And yet it was a mad thing to do. But I couldn't desert her--I couldn't.

"There, you see, mamma!" cried the youngest, and the older one said,

"We can find our way, thank you," very civil, to me.

"Children have sharp eyes," said the lady, laughing. "One can't hide them from each other--haven't you found it so?"

"Now what the devil does she mean by that?" Hodges muttered to me as he passed by me with the tray. He always kept the silver perfect, and it did one's heart good to see his tray: urn and sugar and cream just twinkling and the toast in a covered dish--old Chelsea it was--and new cakes and jam and fresh butter, just as they have at home.

I don't know what they talked of, for I couldn't find any excuse to stop in the room, and she wouldn't have had it, anyway. I went around to the front to catch the children when they should come back, and quiet them, but they didn't come, and I was too thankful to think much about it.

After about half an hour I saw the oldest one coming slowly along by herself, looking very sulky.

"Where's your sister, dear?" I said, all in a tremble, for I dreaded how she might put it.

"She's too naughty--I can't get her to leave," she said pettishly, and burst into the library ahead of me. My mistress's face was scarlet and her eyes like two big stars--for the first time I saw that she was a beauty. Her breath came very quick and I knew as well as if I'd been there all the time that she'd been letting herself go, as they say, and talked to her heart's content about what she'd never have a chance to talk again to any guest. She was much excited and the other woman knew it and was puzzled, I could see, from the way she looked at her.

Now the girl burst into the talk.

"Mamma, Lou is so naughty!" she cried. "I saw the ponies coming up the drive, and I told her it was time, but she won't come!"

"Gently, daughter, gently," said the lady, and put her arm around her and smoothed her hair. "Why won't Lou come?"

I can see that room now, as plain as any picture in a frame: the setting sun all yellow on the gilt of the rows of books, the streak of light on the waxed oak floor, the urn shining in the last rays. There was the mother patting the big girl, there was Hodges with his hand on the tray, and there was me standing behind my mistress, with her red cheeks and her poor heaving bosom.

"Why won't Lou come?" she asked the girl again.

"Because," she says, still fretful, and very loud and clear, "because she is taking a pattern of the little girl's hat and trying to twist hers into that shape! I told her you wouldn't like it."

My mistress sprang up and the chair fell down with a crash behind her. I turned (Hodges says) as white as a sheet and moved nearer her.

"Hat!" she gasped. "What hat? whose hat?"

There seemed to be a jingling, like sleighbells, all through the air, and I thought I was going crazy till I saw that it came from the tray, where Hodges's hand was shaking so, and yet he couldn't take it off.

"The hat with the rose-coloured ribbon on it," said the girl, "the one we saw as we drove in, you know, mamma. It's so becoming."

"Sarah! Sarah! did you hear? Did you hear?" shrieked my mistress. "She saw, Sarah, she saw!"

Then the colour went out of her like when you blow out a candle, and she put her hand to her heart.

"Oh, oh, what pain!" she said very quickly, and Hodges cried, "My God, she's gone!" and I caught her as she fell and we went down together, for my knees were shaking.

When I opened my eyes there was only Margaret there, wetting my forehead, for William had gone for a doctor. Not that it was of any use, for she never breathed. But the smile on her face was lovely.

We got her on her bed and the sight of her there brought the tears to me and I cried out, "Oh, dear, oh, dear! she was all I had in the world, and now----"

"Now you've got me, my girl, and isn't that worth anything to you, Sarah?"

That was William Hodges, and he put his arm over my shoulder, right before Margaret, and looked so kind at me, so kind--I saw in a moment that no one else was anything to him and that he had always cared for me. And that, coming so sudden, when I had given up all hope of it, was too much for me, weak as I was, and I fainted off again and woke up raving hot with fever and half out of my mind, but not quite, for I kept begging them to put off the funeral till I should be able to be up.

But this, of course, was not done, and by the time I was out of hospital the turf was all in place on her dear grave.

William had managed everything and had picked out all the little keepsakes I should have chosen--the heirs were most kind, though Jews. Indeed, I've felt different to that sort of people ever since, for they not caring for the house on account of its being lonely, to their way of thinking, made it into a children's home for those of their belief as were poor and orphaned, and whatever may have been, the old place will never lack for children now.

I never stepped foot in the grounds again, for William Hodges, though the gentlest and fairest of men, never thwarted me but once, and it was in just that direction. Moreover, he forbade me to speak of what only he and I knew for a certainty, and he was one of that sort that when a command is laid, it's best kept.

We've two fine children--girl and boy--and he never murmured at the names I chose for them. Indeed, considering what my mistress's will left me and what his master had done for him, he was as pleased as I.

"They're named after our two best friends, Sarah," he said, looking hard at me, once.

And I nodded my head, but if she saw me, in heaven, she knew who were in my heart when I named them!

[The end]
Josephine Daskam Bacon's short story: Children