By Sue Cross
a glass of warm milk
The gas lamps had been extinguished and the last glowing embers from the log fire had offered the last vestiges of comfort. Pulling a shawl around my shoulders, I shivered as I walked up the two flights of stairs to my attic room. Outside a storm was brewing. It had been a wet, dreary day and my back ached from polishing the mistress’s brass and silver. I glanced at the clock. Half past ten. I would be up again at five and so I slid between my cool sheets and blew out the candle.
I was just dozing off when a loud bang coming from the room next to mine made me jump. What could it be? The room had not been occupied since Betty, the other housemaid, had left to get married.
I missed Betty. I missed her cheerful countenance, her jokes and her tall tales. To me she seemed to have a charmed life and good luck stuck to her like damp leaves on muddy boots. She had met Jake, a good looking horse trader, at the market and had decided to leave all behind and elope with him. He promised her an exciting life and I had to admit that I was a little jealous. My only child and then my husband had died of tuberculosis, leaving me in a state of poverty. I was resigned to a life of service. It could have been worse, I suppose. I worked for the Fergusons, a kind couple who treated their staff well.
Bang. There it was again. Wondering whether or not to investigate, I shivered and pulled the blankets around my shoulders. I wondered if a window had been left open. Outside the wind whistled around the house like ghostly chants. The banging was now persistent and so I forced myself to get up. Lighting my candle again, I noticed that my hands had started to tremble so I told myself to stop being so timid and just go and shut the window.
Betty’s room was identical to mine and was simply furnished with a small iron bedstead, a chair, a rag rug and a washstand. It was a cheerless room with an embroidered picture stating: Home Sweet Home. I hurried over to the window and at that moment the sky lit up with a fork of lightning so everything in the room became starkly visible. To my surprise, the window was bolted shut. So what could the noise have been?
I jumped as a clap of thunder seemed to shake the house. In my sleepy state I must have imagined that the window was banging when in fact it was the thunder that had been causing such a racket. Feeling a mixture of exhaustion and relief, I returned to my room to catch up on some much-needed sleep. The storm seemed to have abated and I was about to blow out the candle when I was alerted to something on my bed. It moved and then I heard a feeble whimper.
It was a baby.
I bit the back of my hand in shock. Then I noticed a piece of paper pinned to the baby’s shawl. With shaking hands I read:
I have left my baby in your care as I know you will do the right thing. He was born out of wedlock as Jake has disappeared without a trace. I am desperate. Please pray for me.
I read it again in disbelief and wondered what to do next. Betty had left no forwarding address and she had never mentioned any relatives. My mind was buzzing with unanswered questions: how did she get in, did she hide somewhere, how did she keep the baby quiet, where was she now?
Tentatively, I reached out and picked up the tiny bundle. It looked at me, sighed and went to sleep - but not for long. I was just dozing off when the infant began to wail. It must have been hungry. Lighting my candle again, I crept downstairs to the basement kitchen hoping that the baby’s cries would not wake the household. I found some milk that I warmed and, using a clean rag, soaked it in the milk and put it to the baby’s mouth. It sucked gratefully and the crying stopped.
When dawn broke and a watery sun crept through the sky, I arose. I knew what I had to do.
I cleaned the grates, swept the floors and carried on with my early morning household chores as if nothing had happened. At breakfast, cook seemed to be inspecting me with a curious air.
“You all right, girl?” she asked.
“Yes, fine. Why?” I hoped that she had not heard the baby.
“You look done in. Storm keep you awake did it?” she asked.
“Yes, it was a bad one. Must get on. Has the mistress finished her breakfast?”
I asked the lady’s maid.
“She’s in the morning room. Why?”
“Just wondered. I need a word with her.”
“I knew something was wrong. You in trouble?” Cook asked.
I excused myself without answering her and went to my room where the baby was just stirring. I quickly changed my apron, and, taking the baby, hurried into the morning room, where Mrs Ferguson was sitting a her desk writing something. Her fair hair was piled up on her head and she wore a pale blue dress with a white lace colour. She glanced up, surprised to see me.
“Emily. Why do you have a baby?”
I explained everything to my mistress who nodded in silent sympathy.
All’s well that ends well, I suppose. I was concerned that the baby, who has been named George, would be sent to an orphanage. I forgot to mention that the Fergusons are childless. Not any more though. After failing to trace Betty, they have adopted George and I have been promoted to nursemaid.
It seemed as if Betty had lost her lucky streak but George has inherited it. He will live a charmed life.
About the author
Sue Cross is an award winning short story writer who has published two novels, Tea at Sam’s and the sequel, Making Scents. Please visit her on www.suecross.com