Letters of Two Brides/Chapter XLV

You complain of my silence; have you forgotten, then, those two little brown heads, at once my subjects and my tyrants? And as to staying at home, you have yourself hit upon several of my reasons. Apart from the condition of our dear uncle, I didn't want to drag with me to Paris a boy of four and a little girl who will soon be three, when I am again expecting my confinement. I had no intention of troubling you and upsetting your husband with such a party. I did not care to appear, looking my worst, in the brilliant circle over which you preside, and I detest life in hotels and lodgings.

When I come to spend the session in Paris, it will be in my own house. Louis' uncle, when he heard of the rank his grand-nephew had received, made me a present of two hundred thousand francs (the half of his savings) with which to buy a house in Paris, and I have charged Louis to find one in your neighborhood. My mother has given me thirty thousand francs for the furnishing, and I shall do my best not to disgrace the dear sister of my election—no pun intended.

I am grateful to you for having already done so much at Court for Louis. But though M. de Bourmont and M. de Polignac have paid him the compliment of asking him to join their ministry, I do not wish so conspicuous a place for him. It would commit him too much; and I prefer the Audit Office because it is permanent. Our affairs here are in very good hands; so you need not fear; as soon as the steward has mastered the details, I will come and support Louis.

As for writing long letters nowadays, how can I. This one, in which I want to describe to you the daily routine of my life, will be a week on the stocks. Who can tell but Armand may lay hold of it to make caps for his regiments drawn up on my carpet, or vessels for the fleets which sail his bath! A single day will serve as a sample of the rest, for they are all exactly alike, and their characteristics reduce themselves to two—either the children are well, or they are not. For me, in this solitary grange, it is no exaggeration to say that hours become minutes, or minutes hours, according to the children's health.

If I have some delightful hours, it is when they are asleep and I am no longer needed to rock the one or soothe the other with stories. When I have them sleeping by my side, I say to myself, "Nothing can go wrong now." The fact is, my sweet, every mother spends her time, so soon as her children are out of her sight, in imagining dangers for them. Perhaps it is Armand seizing the razors to play with, or his coat taking fire, or a snake biting him, or he might tumble in running and start an abscess on his head, or he might drown himself in a pond. A mother's life, you see, is one long succession of dramas, now soft and tender, now terrible. Not an hour but has its joys and fears.

But at night, in my room, comes the hour for waking dreams, when I plan out their future, which shines brightly in the smile of the guardian angel, watching over their beds. Sometimes Armand calls me in his sleep; I kiss his forehead (without rousing him), then his sister's feet, and watch them both lying in their beauty. These are my merry-makings! Yesterday, it must have been our guardian angel who roused me in the middle of the night and summoned me in fear to Athenais' cradle. Her head was too low, and I found Armand all uncovered, his feet purple with cold.

"Darling mother!" he cried, rousing up and flinging his arms round me.

There, dear, is one of our night scenes for you.

How important it is for a mother to have her children by her side at night! It is not for a nurse, however careful she may be, to take them up, comfort them, and hush them to sleep again, when some horrid nightmare has disturbed them. For they have their dreams, and the task of explaining away one of those dread visions of the night is the more arduous because the child is scared, stupid, and only half awake. It is a mere interlude in the unconsciousness of slumber. In this way I have come to sleep so lightly, that I can see my little pair and see them stirring, through the veil of my eyelids. A sigh or a rustle wakens me. For me, the demon of convulsions is ever crouching by their beds.

So much for the nights; with the first twitter of the birds my babies begin to stir. Through the mists of dispersing sleep, their chatter blends with the warblings that fill the morning air, or with the swallows' noisy debates—little cries of joy or woe, which make their way to my heart rather than my ears. While Nais struggles to get at me, making the passage from her cradle to my bed on all fours or with staggering steps, Armand climbs up with the agility of a monkey, and has his arms round me. Then the merry couple turn my bed into a playground, where mother lies at their mercy. The baby-girl pulls my hair, and would take to sucking again, while Armand stands guard over my breast, as though defending his property. Their funny ways, their peals of laughter, are too much for me, and put sleep fairly to flight.

Then we play the ogress game; mother ogress eats up the white, soft flesh with hugs, and rains kisses on those rosy shoulders and eyes brimming over with saucy mischief; we have little jealous tiffs too, so pretty to see. It has happened to me, dear, to take up my stockings at eight o'clock and be still bare-footed at nine!

Then comes the getting up. The operation of dressing begins. I slip on my dressing-gown, turn up my sleeves, and don the mackintosh apron; with Mary's assistance, I wash and scrub my two little blossoms. I am sole arbiter of the temperature of the bath, for a good half of children's crying and whimpering comes from mistakes here. The moment has arrived for paper fleets and glass ducks, since the only way to get children thoroughly washed is to keep them well amused. If you knew the diversions that have to be invented before these despotic sovereigns will permit a soft sponge to be passed over every nook and cranny, you would be awestruck at the amount of ingenuity and intelligence demanded by the maternal profession when one takes it seriously. Prayers, scoldings, promises, are alike in requisition; above all, the jugglery must be so dexterous that it defies detection. The case would be desperate had not Providence to the cunning of the child matched that of the mother. A child is a diplomatist, only to be mastered, like the diplomatists of the great world, through his passions! Happily, it takes little to make these cherubs laugh; the fall of a brush, a piece of soap slipping from the hand, and what merry shouts! And if our triumphs are dearly bought, still triumphs they are, though hidden from mortal eye. Even the father knows nothing of it all. None but God and His angels—and perhaps you—can fathom the glances of satisfaction which Mary and I exchange when the little creatures' toilet is at last concluded, and they stand, spotless and shining, amid a chaos of soap, sponges, combs, basins, blotting-paper, flannel, and all the nameless litter of a true English "nursery."

For I am so far a convert as to admit that English women have a talent for this department. True, they look upon the child only from the point of view of material well-being; but where this is concerned, their arrangements are admirable. My children must always be bare-legged and wear woollen socks. There shall be no swaddling nor bandages; on the other hand, they shall never be left alone. The helplessness of the French infant in its swaddling-bands means the liberty of the nurse—that is the whole explanation. A mother, who is really a mother, is never free.

There is my answer to your question why I do not write. Besides the management of the estate, I have the upbringing of two children on my hands.

The art of motherhood involves much silent, unobtrusive self-denial, an hourly devotion which finds no detail too minute. The soup warming before the fire must be watched. Am I the kind of woman, do you suppose, to shirk such cares? The humblest task may earn a rich harvest of affection. How pretty is a child's laugh when he finds the food to his liking! Armand has a way of nodding his head when he is pleased that is worth a lifetime of adoration. How could I leave to any one else the privilege and delight, as well as the responsibility, of blowing on the spoonful of soup which is too hot for my little Nais, my nursling of seven months ago, who still remembers my breast? When a nurse has allowed a child to burn its tongue and lips with scalding food, she tells the mother, who hurries up to see what is wrong, that the child cried from hunger. How could a mother sleep in peace with the thought that a breath, less pure than her own, has cooled her child's food—the mother whom Nature has made the direct vehicle of food to infant lips. To mince a chop for Nais, who has just cut her last teeth, and mix the meat, cooked to a turn, with potatoes, is a work of patience, and there are times, indeed, when none but a mother could succeed in making an impatient child go through with its meal.

No number of servants, then, and no English nurse can dispense a mother from taking the field in person in that daily contest, where gentleness alone should grapple with the little griefs and pains of childhood. Louise, the care of these innocent darlings is a work to engage the whole soul. To whose hand and eyes, but one's own, intrust the task of feeding, dressing, and putting to bed? Broadly speaking, a crying child is the unanswerable condemnation of mother or nurse, except when the cry is the outcome of natural pain. Now that I have two to look after (and a third on the road), they occupy all my thoughts. Even you, whom I love so dearly, have become a memory to me.

My own dressing is not always completed by two o'clock. I have no faith in mothers whose rooms are in apple-pie order, and who themselves might have stepped out of a bandbox. Yesterday was one of those lovely days of early April, and I wanted to take my children for a walk, while I was still able—for the warning bell is in my ears. Such an expedition is quite an epic to a mother! One dreams of it the night before! Armand was for the first time to put on a little black velvet jacket, a new collar which I had worked, a Scotch cap with the Stuart colors and cock's feathers; Nais was to be in white and pink, with one of those delicious little baby caps; for she is a baby still, though she will lose that pretty title on the arrival of the impatient youngster, whom I call my beggar, for he will have the portion of a younger son. (You see, Louise, the child has already appeared to me in a vision, so I know it is a boy.)

Well, caps, collars, jackets, socks, dainty little shoes, pink garters, the muslin frock with silk embroidery,—all was laid out on my bed. Then the little brown heads had to be brushed, twittering merrily all the time like birds, answering each other's call. Armand's hair is in curls, while Nais' is brought forward softly on the forehead as a border to the pink-and-white cap. Then the shoes are buckled; and when the little bare legs and well-shod feet have trotted off to the nursery, while two shining faces (clean, Mary calls them) and eyes ablaze with life petition me to start, my heart beats fast. To look on the children whom one's own hand has arrayed, the pure skin brightly veined with blue, that one has bathed, laved, and sponged and decked with gay colors of silk or velvet—why, there is no poem comes near to it! With what eager, covetous longing one calls them back for one more kiss on those white necks, which, in their simple collars, the loveliest woman cannot rival. Even the coarsest lithograph of such a scene makes a mother pause, and I feast my eyes daily on the living picture!

Once out of doors, triumphant in the result of my labors, while I was admiring the princely air with which little Armand helped baby to totter along the path you know, I saw a carriage coming, and tried to get them out of the way. The children tumbled into a dirty puddle, and lo! my works of art are ruined! We had to take them back and change their things. I took the little one in my arms, never thinking of my own dress, which was ruined, while Mary seized Armand, and the cavalcade re-entered. With a crying baby and a soaked child, what mind has a mother left for herself?

Dinner time arrives, and as a rule I have done nothing. Now comes the problem which faces me twice every day—how to suffice in my own person for two children, put on their bibs, turn up their sleeves, and get them to eat. In the midst of these ever-recurring cares, joys, and catastrophes, the only person neglected in the house is myself. If the children have been naughty, often I don't get rid of my curl-papers all day. Their tempers rule my toilet. As the price of a few minutes in which I write you these half-dozen pages, I have had to let them cut pictures out of my novels, build castles with books, chessmen, or mother-of-pearl counters, and give Nais my silks and wools to arrange in her own fashion, which, I assure you, is so complicated, that she is entirely absorbed in it, and has not uttered a word.

Yet I have nothing to complain of. My children are both strong and independent; they amuse themselves more easily then you would think. They find delight in everything; a guarded liberty is worth many toys. A few pebbles—pink, yellow, purple, and black, small shells, the mysteries of sand, are a world of pleasure to them. Their wealth consists in possessing a multitude of small things. I watch Armand and find him talking to the flowers, the flies, the chickens, and imitating them. He is on friendly terms with insects, and never wearies of admiring them. Everything which is on a minute scale interests them. Armand is beginning to ask the "why" of everything he sees. He has come to ask what I am saying to his godmother, whom he looks on as a fairy. Strange how children hit the mark!

Alas! my sweet, I would not sadden you with the tale of my joys. Let me give you some notion of your godson's character. The other day we were followed by a poor man begging—beggars soon find out that a mother with her child at her side can't resist them. Armand has no idea what hunger is, and money is a sealed book to him; but I have just bought him a trumpet which had long been the object of his desires. He held it out to the old man with a kingly air, saying:

"Here, take this!"

What joy the world can give would compare with such a moment?

"May I keep it?" said the poor man to me. "I too, madame, have had children," he added, hardly noticing the money I put into his hand.

I shudder when I think that Armand must go to school, and that I have only three years and a half more to keep him by me. The flowers that blossom in his sunny childhood will fall before the scythe of a public school system; his gracious ways and bewitching candor will lose their spontaneity. They will cut the curls that I have brushed and smoothed and kissed so often! What will they do with the thinking being that is Armand?

And what of you? You tell me nothing of your life. Are you still in love with Felipe? For, as regards the Saracen, I have no uneasiness. Good-bye; Nais has just had a tumble, and if I run on like this, my letter will become a volume.