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Changing the Nurseries by Katharine Tynan

 

To-day the fiat has gone forth, and we are already deep in consultation over paper and paint, chintz, and carpeting. How many years I have dreaded it; how many staved off, beyond my hope, the transformation of those two dear rooms! They have been a shabby corner in my big, stately house for many a day—a corner to which in the long, golden afternoons I could steal for an hour and shut out the world, and nurse my sorrow at my breast like a crying child. You may have heard Catholics talk about a 'retreat,' a quiet time in which one shuffles off earthly cares, and steeps one's soul in the silence that washes it and makes it strong. Such a 'retreat' I have given my heart in many and many an hour in the old nurseries. I have sat there with my hands folded, and let the long-still little voices sound sweet in my ear—the voices of the dead children, the voices of the grown children whose childhood is dead. The voices cry to me, indeed, many a time when I have no leisure to hear them. When I am facing my dear man at the other end of our long dining-table, when I am listening to the chatter of callers in my drawing-room, at dinner-parties and balls, in the glare of the theatre, I often hear the cries to which I must not listen.

A mother has such times, though her matronhood be crowned like mine with beautiful and dear children, and with the love of the best husband in the world. I praise God with a full heart for His gifts; but how often in the night I have wakened heart-hungry for the little ones, and have held my breath and crushed back my sobs lest the dear soul sleeping so placidly by my side should discover my inexplicable trouble. In the nurseries that I shall have no more after to-day, the memories of them have crowded about my knees like gentle little ghosts. There were the screened fire-place and the tiny chairs which in winter they drew near the blaze, and the window overlooking the pleasance and a strip of the garden, where the wee faces crowded if I were walking below. Things are just as they were: the little beds huddled about the wall; the cheap American clock, long done ticking, on the mantelshelf; the doll's house, staring from all its forlorn windows, as lonely as a human habitation long deserted; the cupboard, through the open doors of which you may see the rose-bedecked cups that were specially bought for the nursery tea. Am I the same woman that used to rustle so cheerfully down the nursery corridor to share that happy afternoon tea? From the door, half denuded of its paint, peachy little faces used to peep joyfully at my coming; while inside there waited my little delicate one, long gone to God, who never ran and played with the others. I can see her still, with the pleasure lighting up her little, thin face, where she sat sedately, her scarlet shoes to the blaze and her doll clasped to a tenderly maternal breast.

They will tear down the wall paper to-morrow, and the pictures of Beauty and the Beast, and those fine-coloured prints of children and doggies and beribboned pussy-cats that the children used to love. There is one of a terrier submitting meekly to be washed by an imperious small mistress. One of my babies loved that terrier so tenderly that he had to be lifted morning and night to kiss the black nose, whence the oily shine of the picture is much disfigured at that point. He is grown now and a good boy, but less fond of kissing, and somehow independent of his father and of me. There on the window shutter is a drawing my baby, Nella, made the year she died, a strange and wonderful representation of a lady and a dog. I have never allowed it to be washed out, and perhaps only mothers will understand me when I say that I have kissed it often with tears.

I shall miss my nurseries bitterly. No one ever came there but myself in those quiet afternoon hours, and my old Mary, my nurse, who nursed them all from first to last. She surprised me once as I sat strangling with sobs amid the toys I had lifted from their shelves, the dilapidated sheep, the Noah's Ark, the engine, which for want of a wheel lies on its side, and a whole disreputable regiment of battered dolls and tin soldiers. On my lap there were dainty garments of linen and wool, every one of which I kissed so often with a passion of regret. I have kept my baby clothes selfishly till now, hidden away in locked drawers, sweet with lavender. To-day I have parted with them. They are gone to dress the Christmas babies at a great maternity hospital. Each one I set aside to go tore my heart intolerably. May the Christmas Babe who lacked such clothing in the frost and snow, love the little ones, living or dead, to whom those tiny frocks and socks and shirts once belonged! Giving them away, I seem to have wrenched my heart from the dead children; each gift was a separate pang. The toys, too, go to-morrow to the Sisters of Charity, who have a great house near at hand. A Sister, a virginal creature whom I have seen holding the puny babies of the poor to a breast innocently maternal, has told me of the children who at Christmastide have no toys. This year they shall not go without; so I am sending them all—the doll's house and the rocking-horse, and all the queer contents of the nursery shelves, and the fairy stories well thumbed, with here and there a loose page, and the boxes of bricks and the clockwork mouse—all, all my treasures.

Yet, if the children had all lived, I might yet have had my nurseries. The three youngest died one after another: my smallest boy, whom I have not ceased yet to regard as my baby, I kept in the nurseries as long as I could. He has not yet outgrown his guinea-pigs, and his bantams, his squirrels, and his litter of puppies. When he went to school he commended each to my care, with tears he in vain tried manfully to wink away. Dear little sweetheart, he gave way at last, and we cried together passionately. But I wish he need not have gone for another year. He was more babyish than the others, more content to remain long my baby. His first letters from school were tear-stained and full of babyish thoughts and reminiscences. But he is growing ashamed of the softness, I can see, and talks of 'fellows,' and 'fielding,' and 'runs,' and 'wickets' in a way that shows me that my baby has put on the boy.

It was not fair, I see, to have kept the nurseries so long. The boys at the University, the girls, enjoying their first introduction to the gay world, have wanted rooms for their friends, and generous as the big house is, it does not do much more than hold its own happy brood. The nurseries are to be made into a couple of charming rooms, the one with a paper of tea-roses on a white satin ground, and yellow and white hangings, and paint and tiles in the pretty grate. The other is to be green and pink, with a suite of green furniture and rosy hangings. I entered into it with zest as my girls debated it. But all the time my heart cried out against the devastation of its dreams. To-morrow, when they begin to dismantle my nurseries, I do not know how I shall bear it. I feel to-night as if they were going to turn the gentle inhabitants out into the night and rain, the shades of my little children who used to sit round the fire of winter evenings, or by the window in the long, exquisite summer days. It is like long, long ago, when Nella and Cuckoo and Darling died.

 
 
 

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