“Are you fonder of us than Granny was of you when you were little?” Phyllis asked. Bobbie made signs to her to stop, but Phyllis never did see signs, no matter how plain they might be.
Mother did not answer for a minute. She got up to put more water in the teapot.
“No one,” she said at last, “ever loved anyone more than my mother loved me.”
Then she was quiet again, and Bobbie kicked Phyllis hard under the table, because Bobbie understood a little bit the thoughts that were making Mother so quiet–the thoughts of the time when Mother was a little girl and was all the world to her mother. It seems so easy and natural to run to Mother when one is in trouble. Bobbie understood a little how people do not leave off running to their mothers when they are in trouble even when they are grown up, and she thought she knew a little what it must be to be sad, and have no mother to run to any more.
So she kicked Phyllis, who said:–
“What are you kicking me like that for, Bob?”
And then Mother laughed a little and sighed and said:–
“Very well, then. Only let me be sure you do know which way the trains come–and don’t walk on the line near the tunnel or near corners.”
“Trains keep to the left like carriages,” said Peter, “so if we keep to the right, we’re bound to see them coming.”
“Very well,” said Mother, and I dare say you think that she ought not to have said it. But she remembered about when she was a little girl herself, and she did say it–and neither her own children nor you nor any other children in the world could ever understand exactly what it cost her to do it. Only some few of you, like Bobbie, may understand a very little bit.
It was the very next day that Mother had to stay in bed because her head ached so. Her hands were burning hot, and she would not eat anything, and her throat was very sore.
“If I was you, Mum,” said Mrs. Viney, “I should take and send for the doctor. There’s a lot of catchy complaints a-going about just now. My sister’s eldest–she took a chill and it went to her inside, two years ago come Christmas, and she’s never been the same gell since.”
Mother wouldn’t at first, but in the evening she felt so much worse that Peter was sent to the house in the village that had three laburnum trees by the gate, and on the gate a brass plate with W. W. Forrest, M.D., on it.
- W. Forrest, M.D., came at once. He talked to Peter on the way back. He seemed a most charming and sensible man, interested in railways, and rabbits, and really important things.
When he had seen Mother, he said it was influenza.
“Now, Lady Grave-airs,” he said in the hall to Bobbie, “I suppose you’ll want to be head-nurse.”
“Of course,” said she.
“Well, then, I’ll send down some medicine. Keep up a good fire. Have some strong beef tea made ready to give her as soon as the fever goes down. She can have grapes now, and beef essence–and soda-water and milk, and you’d better get in a bottle of brandy. The best brandy. Cheap brandy is worse than poison.”
She asked him to write it all down, and he did.
When Bobbie showed Mother the list he had written, Mother laughed. It was a laugh, Bobbie decided, though it was rather odd and feeble.
“Nonsense,” said Mother, laying in bed with eyes as bright as beads. “I can’t afford all that rubbish. Tell Mrs. Viney to boil two pounds of scrag-end of the neck for your dinners to-morrow, and I can have some of the broth. Yes, I should like some more water now, love. And will you get a basin and sponge my hands?”
Roberta obeyed. When she had done everything she could to make Mother less uncomfortable, she went down to the others. Her cheeks were very red, her lips set tight, and her eyes almost as bright as Mother’s.
She told them what the Doctor had said, and what Mother had said.
“And now,” said she, when she had told all, “there’s no one but us to do anything, and we’ve got to do it. I’ve got the shilling for the mutton.”
“We can do without the beastly mutton,” said Peter; “bread and butter will support life. People have lived on less on desert islands many a time.”
“Of course,” said his sister. And Mrs. Viney was sent to the village to get as much brandy and soda-water and beef tea as she could buy for a shilling.
“But even if we never have anything to eat at all,” said Phyllis, “you can’t get all those other things with our dinner money.”
“No,” said Bobbie, frowning, “we must find out some other way. Now think, everybody, just as hard as ever you can.”
They did think. And presently they talked. And later, when Bobbie had gone up to sit with Mother in case she wanted anything, the other two were very busy with scissors and a white sheet, and a paint brush, and the pot of Brunswick black that Mrs. Viney used for grates and fenders. They did not manage to do what they wished, exactly, with the first sheet, so they took another out of the linen cupboard. It did not occur to them that they were spoiling good sheets which cost good money. They only knew that they were making a good–but what they were making comes later.
Bobbie’s bed had been moved into Mother’s room, and several times in the night she got up to mend the fire, and to give her mother milk and soda-water. Mother talked to herself a good deal, but it did not seem to mean anything. And once she woke up suddenly and called out: “Mamma, mamma!” and Bobbie knew she was calling for Granny, and that she had forgotten that it was no use calling, because Granny was dead.
In the early morning Bobbie heard her name and jumped out of bed and ran to Mother’s bedside.
“Oh–ah, yes–I think I was asleep,” said Mother. “My poor little duck, how tired you’ll be–I do hate to give you all this trouble.”
“Trouble!” said Bobbie.
“Ah, don’t cry, sweet,” Mother said; “I shall be all right in a day or two.”
And Bobbie said, “Yes,” and tried to smile.
When you are used to ten hours of solid sleep, to get up three or four times in your sleep-time makes you feel as though you had been up all night. Bobbie felt quite stupid and her eyes were sore and stiff, but she tidied the room, and arranged everything neatly before the Doctor came.
This was at half-past eight.
“Everything going on all right, little Nurse?” he said at the front door. “Did you get the brandy?”
“I’ve got the brandy,” said Bobbie, “in a little flat bottle.”
“I didn’t see the grapes or the beef tea, though,” said he.
“No,” said Bobbie, firmly, “but you will to-morrow. And there’s some beef stewing in the oven for beef tea.”
“Who told you to do that?” he asked.
“I noticed what Mother did when Phil had mumps.”
“Right,” said the Doctor. “Now you get your old woman to sit with your mother, and then you eat a good breakfast, and go straight to bed and sleep till dinner-time. We can’t afford to have the head- nurse ill.”
He was really quite a nice doctor.
When the 9.15 came out of the tunnel that morning the old gentleman in the first-class carriage put down his newspaper, and got ready to wave his hand to the three children on the fence. But this morning there were not three. There was only one. And that was Peter.
Peter was not on the railings either, as usual. He was standing in front of them in an attitude like that of a show-man showing off the animals in a menagerie, or of the kind clergyman when he points with a wand at the ‘Scenes from Palestine,’ when there is a magic-lantern and he is explaining it.
Peter was pointing, too. And what he was pointing at was a large white sheet nailed against the fence. On the sheet there were thick black letters more than a foot long.
Some of them had run a little, because of Phyllis having put the Brunswick black on too eagerly, but the words were quite easy to read.
And this what the old gentleman and several other people in the train read in the large black letters on the white sheet:–
LOOK OUT AT THE STATION.
A good many people did look out at the station and were disappointed, for they saw nothing unusual. The old gentleman looked out, too, and at first he too saw nothing more unusual than the gravelled platform and the sunshine and the wallflowers and forget-me-nots in the station borders. It was only just as the train was beginning to puff and pull itself together to start again that he saw Phyllis. She was quite out of breath with running.
“Oh,” she said, “I thought I’d missed you. My bootlaces would keep coming down and I fell over them twice. Here, take it.”
She thrust a warm, dampish letter into his hand as the train moved.
He leaned back in his corner and opened the letter. This is what he read:–
“Dear Mr. We do not know your name.
Mother is ill and the doctor says to give her the things at the end of the letter, but she says she can’t aford it, and to get mutton for us and she will have the broth. We do not know anybody here but you, because Father is away and we do not know the address. Father will pay you, or if he has lost all his money, or anything, Peter will pay you when he is a man. We promise it on our honer. I.O.U. for all the things Mother wants.
“Will you give the parsel to the Station Master, because of us not knowing what train you come down by? Say it is for Peter that was sorry about the coals and he will know all right.
“Roberta. “Phyllis. “Peter.”
Then came the list of things the Doctor had ordered.
The old gentleman read it through once, and his eyebrows went up. He read it twice and smiled a little. When he had read it thrice, he put it in his pocket and went on reading The Times.
At about six that evening there was a knock at the back door. The three children rushed to open it, and there stood the friendly Porter, who had told them so many interesting things about railways. He dumped down a big hamper on the kitchen flags.
“Old gent,” he said; “he asked me to fetch it up straight away.”
“Thank you very much,” said Peter, and then, as the Porter lingered, he added:–
“I’m most awfully sorry I haven’t got twopence to give you like Father does, but–”
“You drop it if you please,” said the Porter, indignantly. “I wasn’t thinking about no tuppences. I only wanted to say I was sorry your Mamma wasn’t so well, and to ask how she finds herself this evening–and I’ve fetched her along a bit of sweetbrier, very sweet to smell it is. Twopence indeed,” said he, and produced a bunch of sweetbrier from his hat, “just like a conjurer,” as Phyllis remarked afterwards.
“Thank you very much,” said Peter, “and I beg your pardon about the twopence.”
“No offence,” said the Porter, untruly but politely, and went.
Then the children undid the hamper. First there was straw, and then there were fine shavings, and then came all the things they had asked for, and plenty of them, and then a good many things they had not asked for; among others peaches and port wine and two chickens, a cardboard box of big red roses with long stalks, and a tall thin green bottle of lavender water, and three smaller fatter bottles of eau-de-Cologne. There was a letter, too.
“Dear Roberta and Phyllis and Peter,” it said; “here are the things you want. Your mother will want to know where they came from. Tell her they were sent by a friend who heard she was ill. When she is well again you must tell her all about it, of course. And if she says you ought not to have asked for the things, tell her that I say you were quite right, and that I hope she will forgive me for taking the liberty of allowing myself a very great pleasure.”
The letter was signed G. P. something that the children couldn’t read.
“I think we were right,” said Phyllis.
“Right? Of course we were right,” said Bobbie.
“All the same,” said Peter, with his hands in his pockets, “I don’t exactly look forward to telling Mother the whole truth about it.”
“We’re not to do it till she’s well,” said Bobbie, “and when she’s well we shall be so happy we shan’t mind a little fuss like that. Oh, just look at the roses! I must take them up to her.”
“And the sweetbrier,” said Phyllis, sniffing it loudly; “don’t forget the sweetbrier.”
“As if I should!” said Roberta. “Mother told me the other day there was a thick hedge of it at her mother’s house when she was a little girl.”