The forbidding, antiquated house had at least one warm and cheerful room: its kitchen, where a plump round stove radiated ample heat to overcome the chill of a dreary morning. A plump round young woman bustled about, clearing away the remains of a substantial breakfast.
"Won't you have another cup of tea, Padeen? And one more rasher of bacon? Please sit a spell, if you have time. You don't say much, but I'm sure you understand more than you let on; and it's good to have someone to talk to. This is a lonely house.
"It wasn't always this way, not when Mrs. Diana was here: leastwise, not when she first came. She stirred things up around here, let me tell you. She spoke right sharp sometimes, and she liked things done her way, but you knew where you stood with her - not like some others. She used to come in the kitchen of an evening and sit down to a cup of tea with me and Mrs. Warren, sometimes with a tot of whisky in it to warm us up.
"But after she had such a cruel time with the baby, and when the poor thing came back from the nurse so strange, it was more than she knew what to do with. When that Mrs. Oakes showed up, I thought at first it was a blessing. She took charge of caring for the little one. Mrs. Diana learnt Mrs. Oakes how to ride, and it was good for her to get out in the air again after mouldering away in this gloomy old house for so long. And she kept Mrs. Diana company. Now I think on it, she might have encouraged the poor lady to take a little more wine than was good for her, if you ask me. . . and would always bring her a posset before bed, to help her sleep.
"I don't think the little one is over-fond of her, but it's hard to tell. The only thing I ever did see the child take a liking to was the kitten Mrs. Diana gave her, a pretty calico from the stable cat's litter. The very first night she had it, that Mrs. Oakes came into her room and found it sleeping in the bed with her. That would never do, she said -- dirt and fleas - and put it out of the room. I could hear the poor thing whining and scratching on Brigid's door when I went up to bed. When I came down the next morning, it was gone. Had run away, that Mrs. Oakes said.
"Twasn't long after that when Mrs. Diana went away. I heard her weeping in her room the night before, but never thought she had it in mind to leave - to leave her own child. In the morning, she was gone. Off to Ireland, Mrs. Oakes said. And she was to watch over the house, and mind the little one while she was gone.
"I can't say she gives us much to complain about. She don't ask for much, and eats like a bird. It just don't seem right having her here, playing at being lady of the house. One night, just a few weeks ago, I went to check on the child and heard a sound in Mrs. Diana's room. I crept to the door to have a look, thinking she might have come back. But it was that Mrs. Oakes, putting on one of Mrs. Diana's dresses. Of course it didn't do for her -- far too long and too full in the bodice, and she could never wear that shade of blue.
"She does take care of the child, or at least sees to it that she eats and dresses proper. Sometimes she reads to her, or sings to her, or takes her for a walk or a pony ride. You can see them out in the kitchen garden now, over by the well --oh, Padeen, I've been boring you shamefully with all this chatter. Here, take this last piece of toast with you."
Nellie watched Padeen move swiftly and silently across the grass, unnoticed by Clarissa and Brigid. The child stood mute while the woman spoke. "Brigid, I heard you yesterday, you and Padeen, speaking in that nonsensical language of his. That will never do. He is a common seaman, who cannot read or write or even speak properly. No, don't look at me in that way. You know what happens to little ones who cause trouble." Clarissa reached out to stroke Brigid's pale hair, singing softly, "Ding dong bell, pussy in the well. . . Oh, Padeen, how you startled me," she cried.
Padeen whispered something to Brigid: she scampered away toward the stables, where old Smith was raking out the pony's stall.
"Padeen, what is it?"
There was no trace of a stammer as he said "You will not harm the child."
"Why, Padeen! You know I would never --"
He stood very close, towering over her. "You will not harm the child. You will not harm the doctor."
Clarissa Oakes stepped back. "No, Padeen, I will not." She walked quickly to the house, into the warm cheerful kitchen.
© 2004 Katherine Tharp