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These Little Ones. Nesbit, E. (Edith), 1858–1924.



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THE hearse and the mourning-coach went out at a demure foot-pace; they came back at a trot that was almost gay. It did not matter. The hearse was now only a smart empty showcase, bright with plate-glass and silvered fittings; and in the mourning-coach the mother sat alone.

This was the end.

When she should be once more in the empty house she might cry, scream, laugh, go mad. Nothing would make any difference. There was no one to be awakened. There was no white presence that must be lapped in silence and horrible flowers. The cook and the maids had brought the flowers. Her gift to the dead had been the silence.

They were talking about her in the warm, pleasant kitchen, where the fire glowed redly, and tea and toast scented the air.

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“Poor soul,” said the cook, “but she's borne up wonderful, I must say.”

“Heartless,” was the housemaid's epithet; and she added, “She might have cried a bit when they carried it out, if only for the look of the thing.”

“You don't understand,” said the cook heavily. “You'll see, she'll break down soon as ever she gets back from the burying. I shouldn't wonder if she was to go right off of her head, or something.”

“Ain't she got never a friend to turn to, a time like this?” asked the cook's niece, who had dropped in to tea.

“Not a single one, if you'll believe me. It's my belief she's done something she hadn't ought, and this is a judgment on her. Sin always comes home to roost.” So the housemaid.

“You be quiet with your texts,” the cook admonished; “if you come to texts, people that live in glass houses shouldn't quote Scripture. I know more about you than you think, my lady.”

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The parlourmaid flushed and scowled.

“No, but,” said the niece, “hasn't she really got e'er a friend?”

“Father dead,” said the cook. “Mother in India 'long of her other friends. Husband burnt to death under her very nose, as you might say, just before the baby came. Only married a year when he was taken. And now the baby. Cruel hard, I call it.”

“She tell you all that?” the housemaid sneered.

“Not she! Catch her telling us anything. She's a good mistress, she is, and quite the lady. Keeps herself to herself.”

“Then how . . .?”

“She's got a book,” said the cook, only very slightly embarrassed, “a die-airy, where you writes down what happens every day. I jest happened to glance into it one day I was doing the dining-room grate—not knowing what it was, d'you see?”

“She'll marry again all right,” said the niece.

“With that face?” said the housemaid.

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The niece asked how she came to be like that, and the cook told her.

“It was the fire, what her good gentleman lost his life in. She was near done for herself. Wishes to God she had been—in the book, I mean. Ah, she's had some trouble, she has.” The written record of another woman's agony was poignant even in remembrance, and the cook sniffed. “Well, God help us all's what I say. There she is. I'll make her a nice cup of tea.”

But the woman who had lost everything left the tea on the table in the dining-room, where the clock ticked, “Emp-ty, emp-ty, emp-ty,” and wandered through the house. And still she kept silence. There was the room where the child had lived—its cot, its soft woolly toys, its little gowns. And the room where it had lain dead, among the flowers and the silence, and the scent of camphor and eau de Cologne.

“Nothing,” she said, “nothing, nothing. I suppose,” she said, dry-eyed and detached, “I suppose I ought to cry. Or pray, perhaps?” page: 7 She fell on her knees by the bed; it was an experiment.

But no tears came and no prayers. Only the insistent silence filled her ears and battered at her brain.

“Oh, my baby, my baby!” she said, and a sob caught in her throat. But she did not cry.

So then she got up from her knees like one with a purpose new-born, and went very quickly and quietly down the stairs and out at the front door. It slammed behind her.

“There! If she 'asn't gone out! To make away with herself, I shouldn't wonder,” said the housemaid, in pleasant excitement.

“You oughter let the police know,” said the niece.

“You leave her be,” said the cook. “I don't know as it wouldn't be the best thing for her, poor thing. What's she got to live for?”

“I call that heathen, that's what I call it,” said the housemaid; “it's sinful to make away with yourself, whatever goes page: 8 wrong. It's our duty to bear whatever's laid upon us.”

“Ah,” said the cook, “it's easy enough to see you've never 'ad nothing to bear. If she comes back I'll make a excuse to go up and say a kind word. You see if I don't.”

“I do wonder where she's gone, though,” said the housemaid.

“It'll be in all the papers if she does make away with herself,” the parlourmaid pointed out.

“If you ever get in the papers,” said the cook, “it won't be for anything so 'armless and innocent. So now you know. I'd give a crown to be sure that she ain't come to no 'arm.”

She had not come to any harm. Only after a blind treading of bleak pavements, and streets where an unkind wind blew, she had come to wide steps and lamps, a heavy swing-door through which a priest had just passed. She was not a Catholic, not even a Christian. The early days of her life had been too sweet for her to need peace; the page: 9 later days too bitter for her to find it. But the gnawing chill of the December evening drove her, without any conscious will of hers, towards the shaft of light that had shown as the door opened. In there it would be warm and quiet. And it would not be the house where the child had lived and died.

She went up the steps, and as she went a hand touched her and some one spoke low in her ear.

“Lady, lady, won't you spare me a trifle? I 'aven't tasted food since yesterday morning—so 'elp me God, I haven't!”

She turned. A woman stood beside her—very shabby, very pale, with a horrible flattened hat and dreadful clothes. In her arms, under a shawl thin as a nun's veil, she held a baby.

“You're luckier than I am,” said the woman, whose veil was on her face, and her eyes were greedy with the rounded outline under the shawl. “I haven't got my purse—yes, here's a penny, loose in my pocket.”

The voice of the policeman broke through page: 10 the other woman's thanks—such thanks for such a gift.

“Now, then, at it again!” he said. “You give me your name and address,” he added sternly.

The woman muttered some formula.

“We can't 'ave you beggin' all over the place,” he went on. “On the church steps and all. You'll 'ear of this again, I shouldn't wonder. 'Ere, you be off outer this! Hear?”

The woman with the child looked at him and crept away.

“Oh, don't!” said the mother who had no child. “You wouldn't prosecute her for that?”

“Course not, mum,” the man reassured her. “But you 'ave to keep 'em up to the mark or you wouldn't be able to get into the church for the crowds of them there'd be. It's only encouraging them to give to beggars.”

“I only gave her a penny,” said the mother.

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“Gin—that's what it'll go in,” said the majesty of the law.

She went into the church. It was almost dark, except for a brightness that shone between thick pillars far away to the right.

The altar rose up into shadows. The red light burned before the altar. Here and there a kneeling figure. She kneeled also. Here, perhaps, one might be able to cry; tears made things easier, people said. She herself had thought so once. But no tears came. And her agony was wound like a cord about and around her heart, so that she could not pray. She kneeled there a very long time. The great calm splendid silence, the atmosphere of devotion, the presence of a great love and understanding that filled it, gave to her tortured mind the rest that a couch in a darkened room might give to limbs strained with the rack and to eyes scorched by the flames that lick round the stake. Life was all torture still, but this was a breathing space. At first she thought of the woman on the steps—the mother who page: 12 had her child—and envy and pity fought in her. She might get the address from the policeman and go and see the woman—help, perhaps. No, no. It was all no use. What was the good of helping one woman in a world where any woman might at any moment have this to bear?

Gradually peace, like an incoming tide, lapped in small waves round her soul. Or the exhaustion of prolonged agony, calling itself peace. She could no longer think—could hardly feel. Intense pain was becoming itself an anesthetic. The shadowy pillars seemed to move as shadows do, and the dim red light, hung between earth and heaven, swam before her eyes. A little more, it seemed, and she would forget everything.

But she roused herself. There was something in the world that she must not forget. Something beyond herself and her anguish. Her own mother. She must not forget. She was to her mother what that which she had lost had been to her. She rose and walked down the aisle. The soft yellow glow from page: 13 behind the pillars seemed brighter than ever, to eyes that had rested so long on the twilight that surrounds the altar.

“I wonder what that light is!” she said, and was glad for her own mother's sake that she could still wonder about anything. She walked towards the light, and presently perceived that the light, coming from some unseen place, shone full on a picture—no, a group of figures of wax or wood.

It was a rocky cave, as tradition tells that the stable was where Christ was born. Ivy wreathed the stones about. There was the straw, and the ox and the ass among it; also those two travellers for whom there was no room in the inn. They bent in adoration over the manger where the Hope of the World lay cradled.

Outside were the kneeling kings with their gifts, and the star-led shepherds, and beyond, in the deep eastern sky, the star that had led them.

It was the scene that has inspired Raphael and Correggio, set forth with ingenuous page: 14 realism, as loving peasant children might have set it.

And the centre of it all—that on which was concentrated the light of the lamps, and the light of love in the eyes of the Holy Mother, of the angels, the adoring kings, and the shepherds—was the Child, the waxen image of the Child who was born and laid in a manger, the image which the Catholic Church sets up at Christmas to remind simple people how the King of Heaven came down and was a little child. The very simplicity of it made a more direct appeal than could have been made by all the Raphaels and Correggios in the world. That wooden image of the Holy Mother bore on its face the light of love and joy the human mother herself had known—and the shadow of a greater sorrow even than this of hers, which was greater than all sorrows in the world.

The mother who had no child found that she was kneeling again, her arms on the wooden rail worn smooth by the arms of the many who had knelt there to realise, at page: 15 sight of this picture, the meaning of Christmas. There was no one kneeling there now but she. She felt herself alone among the kneeling shepherds and kings; and her eyes, like theirs, were turned on the Child.

The image was very lifelike. The Holy Child lay covered in soft, white draperies that showed only the little round head and one tiny hand. Just so, so many times, the mother had seen her baby sleep curled up, warm and safe in the kind firelight, her baby that now lay straight and white and cold in a very dark place, alone.

“My baby, my baby,” she said, and hid her face. And then she knew that she was crying, and praying, too. The tears were hot and many, and the prayer was only a cry for help.

“Oh, God,” she murmured, “help, help, help!” And again, and yet again: “Oh, God, help!”

All the dear memories of the past that made up the desolation of the present, she had put away because she could not bear to look at them; now she reached out her hands page: 16 to them, clasped them, pressed the sharp thorns against her heart, that she might call for help from the lowest depths of her sorrow.

Her face was against the wooden rail, wet with her tears. She crouched there. Faith could move mountains. Perhaps it was true about miracles. If she only prayed hard enough, perhaps she might go home to find her baby asleep in his cot—perhaps all this would be only a dream. No, that was nonsense, of course; but—

“Oh, my baby, my baby! Oh, God, help!” she moaned, almost aloud.

And then the miracle happened. She never doubted but that it was a miracle. A little soft sound crept to her ears—not a sigh, not a cry, not a sob—the contented, crooning murmur that a little child makes at the end of sleep, the little lovely sound that had drawn her so often to the cot-side in the pleasant firelit room when life was there.

She looked round. No one had come in—no happy mother with a baby in her arms, such as she had thought, from that soft page: 17 sound, to find close behind her. She was all alone, with the Holy Family, and the shepherds, and the angels, and the kings.

She dried her eyes and listened. Again the little beautiful sound, and then... It was no fairy story, but the truth. The mother who had no child saw, in the crib, where pious folks had laid a waxen image, the movement of a living child. The little dark head stirred on the pillow, the little pink hands stretched out, the little arms thrust back the draperies, and amid the soft whiteness of them the child awoke, and smiled—no cold image of the Divine infant, but a little, live, naked, human thing.

The human mother glanced round—the quick glance of a hunted animal that reassures itself. Next moment she had crept under the wooden rail and caught up the baby.

Its limbs moved in slow softness as her own child's had moved. It lay contented against her, wrapped in the white woollen folds, and covered with her furs.

The wind was wild as she reached the page: 18 swing-door; it tried to uncover the child, and blew great flakes of snow in the mother's face. She held the baby very closely.

She does not know how she got home. The next thing she remembers is pushing past the housemaid and carrying up those stairs, down which others had carried her baby, this new baby that was not hers.

“Brought home a baby? Say she's adopted it? Well, then, it's the best day's work she could ha' done, an' I'm going straight up to tell her so.” So the cook goes, leaving the housemaid and the parlourmaid and the niece to sniff in concert.

Upstairs there is firelight and warmth, and two women worshipping a naked child.

And in the church much talk and wonder and grief for the bambino that has been stolen—the little image of wood and wax so like life, that cost so much, and was so useful in reminding the faithful what the gift from Heaven was that came to a human mother on Christmas Day.

. . . . . . .

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For three days the mother had fed her hungry heart on the miracle-baby; it was three days before she remembered that other mother and that other baby on the steps outside the church. Then she bestirred herself, found the policeman, and got from him the address that he had so severely noted.

“I doubt you'll not find it a deserving case, mum,” he said. “I frightened her off this beat. Ain't been 'ere since. That shows she wasn't up to no good.”

It was a narrow street, where the house doors are never shut, and the children play in the gutter with such toys as they have—rags and bones and bits of broken wood. The door-posts are grimed to the level of a man's shoulder by the incoming and outgoing of tired people in greasy clothes. The stairs were foul, and a cold wind blew down them.

“Top floor,” a dirty painted woman told her—“top floor, left hand. But I fancy she's made a bolt—that's what I think. She was stony, I know, and three weeks' owing. I did take 'er up a nice cup of tea yesterday, page: 20 but I couldn't make no one hear. She ain't much class, anyhow.”

It was the man on the second floor, the man without collar and without shoes, who broke the door open. He protested that it was agin the law. But the mother who had found the miracle-baby found for the man a pretty golden argument.

“Well, if you say so,” he said; “but if there's any rumpus—well, you're a lady, and you'll say it was you. An' if you don't, I shall—see?”

“Yes, yes—there won't be any fuss. It's all right. Only do make haste. I'm certain there's something wrong. And just feel how the wind blows under the door: The window must be open.”

It was. And now the door hung crookedly from a broken hinge.

Of course, you have known all the time, as the mother knew, that the woman would be dead.

She was. Her empty arms outstretched, she lay very cold and stiff on a bed that was page: 21 old iron and sacking. The casement window had blown open, and the snow had drifted half across the room, and lay in a frozen streak like a shaft of dead-white moonshine. You know all that. It shows itself. What you do not know, perhaps—what at any rate the mother did not know who looked fearfully through the broken door—is that it was this woman who had stolen the waxen Christ Child, stripped her own baby, and laid it, with who knows what desperate incoherence of hope and love and faith, in the holy manger, and had gone away hugging the waxen babe that could not feel the bitter night under that shawl, thin as a nun's veil.

She had taken the Christ Child home; she called it home, one supposes. And, once safely there, some scruple, some forgotten reverence, must have come to her.

For she had set up an altar in that bare place.

Over the old sugar-box that used to serve her for table she had laid the greenish shawl that was thin as a nun's veil. She had set the image of the new-born Saviour in page: 22 a blue and white neckerchief that must have had to her the value of a relic, for it was clean, and its creases showed that it had long lain folded.

She had set up two candles in chipped beer bottles and lighted them. They must have burned bravely, illumining that shrine, till the wind thrust itself through the window and made everything dark and cold again.

And the last lean alms that Life had given she had spent on those two candles.

So the image of the Mother of God got back its bambino. And the mother who had no child got the miracle-baby. And the mother who made the shrine with her last coin and her last warmth and her last love- relic, got . . .

“Good thing for her she went off like she did,” said the policeman. “She'd a got a month for nicking of that image, sure as I'm a sinner. Theft an' sacrullidge. It's serious, that is. Lucky let-off, I call it.”