Authors: Monica Dickens
‘I reckon we all have,’ Mrs Abinger levered herself up by the table. She still felt a little shaky. ‘At least you can tell yourself you’re caring for the children of the boys who are fighting for us.’
‘One must do one’s bit,’ said Mrs Jessop grandly. ‘There’s many women in my position would have gone gallivanting off to nurse wounded Tommies, but I know where my duty lies. The chairman of the Board said to me: “I don’t know what we should have done if we’d lost you, Mrs Jessop,” he said. But I believe my humble place is here. I don’t want the glory, thank you.’
She took Mrs Abinger into her sitting-room, sat down at her desk, shot her cuffs, and brought a lot of complicated forms out of a folder.
Mrs Abinger hovered by, peering over her shoulder. She had left her handbag in the waiting-room and did not like to ask if she might go and fetch her spectacles. From what she could make out, she would not have been much wiser if she had. Matron slurred rapidly through the forms, so impatient when Mrs Abinger asked a question, that she did not ask any more, and signed her name where she was told. Matron sighed when she asked if she could borrow her fountain pen, and because Mrs Abinger pressed rather hard the first time, she sighed again, took the pen back, and chose her an inferior one from the pen tray.
‘And what has become of your friend?’ Mrs Jessop wiped her pen, screwed on the top and replaced it in the little leather holder which was buttoned to her bosom.
‘She’s gone upstairs with – ’ Mrs Abinger remembered that Nurse Loscoe was supposed to be on duty. ‘She’s gone up to wash her hands. She’ll be down directly, and then we shall have to be off.’
Matron stood up and consulted the turnip watch which was pocketed on the opposite side to the pen-holder. ‘Yes, you will, if you don’t want to stay here all night. You wouldn’t fancy such rooms as are to be had in the village, and of course,
have no accommodation, with my large family.’
‘But of course, we wouldn’t dream – ’ said Mrs Abinger, although when Miss Loscoe had first suggested coming here, she had said: ‘My sister will see we’re put up at Bolt House, I’m sure.’ Mrs Abinger had been quite disappointed when it had turned out they were to take rooms in Queensbridge after all. It had meant asking George for more money, and he had been funny enough already about the train fare.
‘Well, I shall be back to-morrow,’ she said happily, ‘to take my baby away. I’m going to buy shawls and that, in Queens-bridge, and a bottle, if you could oblige me with a drain of milk for the journey. What I need at home, I can borrow from my sister-in-law until I have time to get my own things.’
Matron was not interested. The woman must stew in her own juice once she had taken the baby away. There were no parents to account to for what happened to it.
‘I’ll send the maid to fetch your friend,’ she said. ‘Oh Margaret – ’ as the door opened. ‘Oh, it’s you, Humphrey. I wasn’t expecting you back yet.’
The man looked belligerently at Mrs Abinger. Because he did not want to be introduced, Mrs Jessop changed her mind and introduced him. ‘This is Mr Jessop. Mrs Ay-binger, who is adopting one of my children.’
Mrs Abinger stared, because Mrs Jessop’s husband was the very same artist who had glared at them from the sea-wall.
He had not removed his linen hat. Tendrils of yellow-grey hair strayed from under its misshapen brim, and a two-day beard stubbled his chin from ear to ear. He also had a tuft of hair on each cheek, and on each big toe, as revealed by the rope sandals. His grubby fisherman’s jersey said: ‘H.M.S.
and reached right down over his hips, making his body tubular.
He dropped into a chair and stuck an empty clay pipe between his teeth. ‘I’m hungry,’ he said. ‘I hope that wasn’t my dinner I smelled burning as I came in the back door.’
‘It can’t have been,’ said his wife. ‘We’re having the brawn mould. I told Mrs Dingwall. I do all the catering, you know,’ she told Mrs Abinger, ‘on top of everything else.’
‘Now you mention it, I do seem to smell something burning, don’t you?’ Mrs Abinger sniffed.
‘Don’t ask me,’ said Mrs Jessop. ‘My nose has never been the same since my sinuses went in that terrible winter of 1916. I’ll ask the girl.’ She rang the bell, but at that moment, the door burst open, and the cheerful maid, distraught now and wild-eyed, panted in.
‘Oh Mrs Jessop, please come quickly! There’s a fire in the babies’ room. Oh, it’s terrible! Come! Oh please! Cook said: “Whatever’s that burning?” I hadn’t but opened the door when the smoke hit me. Oh my days! It’s terrible – a terrible fire – ’ She followed them, burbling, as they ran down the hall.
Mr Jessop was wonderful. You never would have thought it of such a gone-to-seed-looking man. Smoke filled the little cubicle, so that it was impossible at first to see what had happened.
Mrs Abinger screamed and would have plunged in, but he pushed her back so hard that she staggered against the opposite wall, and rushed in himself, making swimming motions with his arms through the smoke. In a moment, he was out again, coughing with great whoops, to thrust a bundle of smouldering blankets at his wife.
She tore them off, took one look at the baby and ran with it out of the back door into the air. Mrs Abinger dived into the room, choking and half-blind, and found Mr Jessop scrabbling under the wreckage of the cots, which had collapsed on top of each other. Somehow, they got the baby out, and Mrs Abinger, with streaming eyes, groped her way after Matron out of the back door. The cool evening air struck her burning face like fire.
She laid the baby on the ground as Matron had done with hers, but she did not try to knead air into its chest as Matron was doing, and yelling at her to copy. Matron’s baby was black-faced, with blood all down one side of its head. It was crying and gasping and choking.
Mrs Abinger’s baby was dead.
They had laid the two babies on Matron’s sofa. The live one was wrapped in shawls and blankets, and had been given brandy. Sticking plaster sat drunkenly over the cut on its temple. The dead baby was wrapped only in a sheet. Someone had wound a bandage round its ear, but the blood and yellow fluid still seeped through, staining Matron’s chintz.
They had not covered its discoloured face, because they were still trying to discover which baby it was. Joy and Josephine had been alike enough before. Now, scorched, swollen, and battered, they were indistinguishable.
Mrs Jessop, who had risen to the actual crisis, had come down to earth again now. She was in a livid temper. She kept pounding at Nurse Loscoe with: ‘I
you to label them. If you had labelled them, this wouldn’t have happened. Don’t you see the responsibility is all mine? I
you to label them. What am I going to tell Lady Cope? What are you going to do about it?’
What could Nurse Loscoe do, except stand with her hands hanging, looking stupid and blind, because she had taken off her misted glasses and could not see where she had put them? She had cried so much already that she could not be goaded to any more tears. All she could do when Matron paused for breath, was hopefully to suggest that the dead baby was one or the other, and when Matron ridiculed that, suggest the opposite, which Matron contradicted as scornfully.
Humphrey Jessop had gone shakily upstairs with a strong whisky, coughing raucously and looking into his handkerchief like
la Dame aux Camélias.
He had done his part. He had even thrown buckets of water and put out the fire. He washed his hands of the post mortem.
His wife had tried to incriminate him for not remembering how the babies had been lying, but he had said rudely: ‘If you’d had the guts to go in first, you’d have seen they were all jumbled up,’ and slopped away in one rope sandal and one horny bare foot.
Miss Loscoe, who had not come down until it was all over, had turned faint and been given some of the baby’s brandy,
which made her cough more than the baby. She reclined now in an arm-chair, one given-over hand trailing to the floor, the other holding a handkerchief over her face.
Mrs Abinger was still crying. When anyone looked at her, she dabbed her streaming face and said the smoke had got into her eyes. She was crying for Joy or Josephine. She neither knew nor cared which.
If Joy were dead, it was unbearable to think of. If Josephine were dead, she had no baby, and that was more unbearable. Worst of all, whichever was dead, it was her fault.
She kept trying to confess that it was she who had switched on the light and caused the wire behind the wall to burn through to the heavy picture and send ‘The Age of Innocence’ crashing in flames on to the babies; but she could not say it. She did not think she ever could, although it would haunt her for the rest of her life. No one knew that the switch had been down. While they were all in the smoking, sodden room inspecting the cause of the fire, she had guiltily switched it up again. No one knew that she had been in the room before; she would never tell anyone now.
Matron sat down at her desk and beat her fists against the tape which tied her cap under the chin. ‘Someone has got to tell Sir Rodney,’ she said. ‘Someone will have to telephone his hotel.’ It was quite clear who would have to do it.
‘But what am I going to tell him?’ asked Nurse Loscoe.
‘He must come out here and decide for himself which is his niece.’
‘But he won’t know, Matron. He couldn’t tell them apart when they – when she – when they were both alive.’
‘That’s right, he couldn’t,’ Matron grew suddenly thoughtful. She got up and bent over the babies. Doped with brandy, the live baby slept, and whimpered a little because its head hurt.
Mrs Jessop made a decision and nodded to herself. ‘Don’t tell me that isn’t Joy Stretton,’ she said loudly. ‘I’m absolutely sure of it. You’d better go and tell Sir Rodney, Nurse, that his baby is injured and shocked, but alive.’ Why, how could she ever have contemplated telling him anything else?
Mrs Abinger was not going to stand for this. If Josephine
were really dead, that was one thing. If Matron was trying to take her baby from her because she was afraid of the Copes, that was another.
She stood up, not caring how she looked, her determination checking her tears, so that she was able to say: ‘I’m afraid I must contradict. From my knowledge of the two – and I did see Joy all the way down in the train – it’s the other way about.’
They faced each other. Mrs Abinger scarlet and desperate, Matron outraged, with flaring nostrils. Miss Loscoe removed the handkerchief to watch them.
say, Dot?’ Mrs Abinger appealed. ‘Come and look. You saw Joy as much as I did.’
‘Oh, please don’t ask me,’ moaned Miss Loscoe. ‘I can’t bear to look. I’m funny like that; I just can’t stand terrible sights.’
think I’m right?’ Mrs Abinger appealed to Nurse Loscoe, who opened her mouth, but trembled it shut again as Matron snapped: ‘Don’t ask that fool. She’s made enough trouble as it is.’
‘The Father,’ Mrs Abinger suggested. ‘The one who found Josephine in his church. Couldn’t we get him to come along and see if he knows her?’
‘He’s half blind,’ scoffed Matron. ‘
wouldn’t know. In any case, I’ve quite made up my mind. I will not stand for being argued with like this in my own drawing-room.’
‘And I won’t stand for being done out of my rights,’ retorted Mrs Abinger, surprised at herself. They glared at each other until a sudden squeal made them both turn to see Nurse Loscoe bang a hand against the side of her head, as if to capture the fly of an idea that Mrs Abinger’s suggestion had settled there.
‘Of course!’ she cried shrilly. ‘Now I remember why I didn’t label them at the time. I remember thinking: “Well, there’s no call,” I thought, “since –”’
‘Now don’t start making excuses,
’ Mrs Jessop turned away as if she could not bear any more. ‘You’d better go to the telephone and tell Sir Rodney what I told you.’
‘But Matron, it was because the foundling baby had a little crucifix. The chain was broken and I fastened it round her neck with wool. “That labels you,” I said to her.’
‘Well, it isn’t on either of them now, as you’d know if you could see half an inch beyond your nose. I’ll thank you now to go and do as I ask you, and put an end to all this nonsense.’ Mrs Jessop went to her desk and started slamming papers about, as if the affair were settled.
But Mrs Abinger had also had an idea. She put her hand in her pocket. ‘Suppose the cross should have dropped down and got caught in the nightie. It’s worth looking.’ She bent quickly to the sleeping baby.
‘Now don’t you meddle with Lady Cope’s baby,’ said Mrs Jessop. ‘If you dare uncover her – ’
But before she could get there, Mrs Abinger, after a pretence of fumbling under the blankets, had turned round again, dangling the cross on its broken chain triumphantly from her hand. Nurse Loscoe stood on tiptoe, blinking and shaking her head as if to clear it. Had she really seen what she thought she had seen?
‘There!’ Mrs Abinger swung the crucifix under Matron’s nose, quite carried away by her own powers of deception. ‘What did I tell you? It’s Josephine! It’s my baby. My Josephine’s alive!’
Mrs Abinger slept that night in the back bedroom of a fisherman’s cottage. They had tried to make her send for a cab to take her in to Queensbridge, but she wanted to be near, to take her baby away early next morning before Sir Rodney arrived. How could she face him when she might have kidnapped his niece? She might give herself away.
She was surprised that she did not feel more guilty. She did not care now whether it were Joy or Josephine. All she knew was that it was her baby, and no one was going to take it from her. If it should be Joy – well, she had got her heart’s desire, and no harm done. She knew she would care for her better than someone, however wealthy, who could send a baby to a woman like Mrs Jessop rather than have the bother of looking after it. And if Lady Cope were ill and grief-stricken, it might
be a relief to have no baby to remind her of her poor dead daughter.
All night long, Mrs Abinger lay awake in the thick-walled, stuffy room, arguing down her guilt. It was not Joy. It was Josephine, Josephine, Josephine, she kept telling herself, as she listened to the sea and watched the curtain blowing in the tiny window. She heard the grating of a boat on shingle, and the rough Devon voices of two men coming back from midnight conger fishing. It was Josephine, whom nobody but she wanted. She must never remember that it might be Joy, never tell a soul, because she had done a wrong thing, and it was best put out of mind.