They say the first nearly killed her mother being born and before the year was out she was big with the next one. I suppose a wife has little say in such things, especially one too proud to send her shilling for a box of pills.
Sickly, she was, all through that confinement, and when that weak little thing slipped into the world with a mewl as pitiful as a kitten saved from drowning, you would have thought neither of them would last the week. By the time he was a year, we knew that if a cold, a cough, a fit of fever went around, that baby would take it until his forehead felt like bubbling oil, until it seemed the fluid in his lungs would drown him outright.
It is a poor thing to wish another’s life away. Still, at night, my pillow pressed fast against my ears, I wonder how it might have been had the Mistress swallowed yarrow and gin enough with both of them. Sometimes, it’s better that way. Every woman knows of another with a garden full of tansy and pennyroyal. I knew half a dozen by the time this business was done.
It would have been easier on the mother, at least. Not that she died. After the boy was born, she seemed to bleed away, until any room she sat in seemed an empty place. Nothing I, nor the Master, nor any doctor we hired could say anything to bring her up and about again, to play her part and dandle her pretty children on her knee.
So I was nursemaid to them. Alike as a pair of cherubs in a church window, they were, only not so rosy. They were pale, and their hair would not take a curl, for all the efforts I put into young Madam’s. His was just the same, hanging straight and lank. Their parents were dark, both of them. Perhaps theirs would have darkened, as the years went by.
There was something, something pinched and sickly about those two. Oh, the girl was better than her brother for her cheeks held some blush and her eyes were not that dreadful, faded grey, but perhaps it was the house that did it to them. It was a cheerless place after the young master was born.
Before that, the Mistress had kept songbirds, you see, had loved to hear their pretty trilling. Afterwards, they starved in their cages without her so much as looking their way. Of course, the Master tried to ply her with more but when that failed, it was the maids who bore the brunt of her indisposition. I set my face to make it seem plain and kept myself out of the Master’s way.
My care was for the children.
Now, I’d stood nursemaid often enough before. I know the way it is usual for a child, no more than a baby herself, to take to a new one turning her out of her cradle. Jealousy and tantrums, that is the way it should be, rather than the way young madam would stand, watching her brother snuffle through fevered sleep as she sang her baby’s nonsense to him, hour on hour. I would never have thought a child had it in her to stand so still. I did not like it. Did not like the way her fingers smoothed the bed-sheets, nor the way her mouth lisped out that babble. But the boy slept better, slept silent, when she was near.
A little mother to him, that was what the others said. They said I should be grateful for it.
On the nights when he was ill, and God knows they happened often enough, I would wake from my half-doze and see her leaning against the cot bars, her nightgown no whiter than her bare little feet, than that cap of fine, pale hair. Nothing I could say or threaten would move her, not until her own mind was made up to creep back to bed.
The Master doted on them. The maids told me he had been the same about his wife. Well, we could all see the good done by his affection there. By then, the other girls were casting lots to avoid answering his ring. The Mistress did not heed it when he called her name. Who was left, then, to experience his fondness?
Those children, though. Oh, true, they were not always running and troubling me with scraped knees and cracked heads, they would not argue the way children do. Thin, little things, they were, but they grew, year on year. There was something in the hollows under their eyes, the unsmiling way they would stare that put me in mind of a street waif, yearning for a decent meal.
And they would not suffer you to part them. As soon as he could stutter out the odd word by way of language, they would whisper as they wandered, hands clasped, or crouched down over some business I could never get close enough to see. He would follow after her, his invalid’s toddle to her more steady step. I would watch them pin butterflies to cards, or tug snails from their shells, or pass their dolls and tops forward and backward between them for quiet hours.
One day, their mother’s song thrush was found spread about its cage, neat as a chicken jointed, leg and breast and wing. Poor little singer. They had not a word to say about it, and no-one had been in that room but them.
Worse business came.