"The Look"—Rubens—Mrs. Bundle Again
M Y widowed father and I were both terribly lonely. The depths of his loss in the lovely and lovable wife who had been his constant companion for nearly six years I could not fathom at the time. For my own part, I was quite as miserable as I have ever been since, and I doubt if I shall ever feel such overwhelming desolation again, unless the same sorrow befalls me as then befell him.
I "fretted"—as the servants expressed it—to such an extent as to affect my health; and I fancy it was because my father's attention was called to the fact that I was fast fading after the mother and sister whose death (and my own loneliness) I bewailed, that he roused himself from his own grief to comfort mine. Once more I was "dressed" after tea. Of late my bony nurse had not thought it necessary to go through this ceremony, and I had crept about in the same crape-covered frock from breakfast to bedtime.
Now I came down to dessert again, and though I think the empty place at the end of the table gave my father a fresh shock when I took my old post by him, yet I fancy the lonely evening was less lonely for my presence.
From his intense indulgence I think I dimly gathered that he thought me ill. I combined this in my mind with a speech of my nurse's that I had overheard, and which gave me the horrors at the time—"He's got the look! It's his poor ma over again!"—and I felt a sort of melancholy self-importance not uncommon with children who are out of health.
I may say here that my nurse had a quality very common amongst uneducated people. She was "sensational;" and her custom of going over all the circumstances of my mother's death and funeral (down to the price of the black paramatta of which her own dress was composed) with her friends, when she took me out walking, had not tended to make me happier or more cheerful.
That night I ate more from my father's plate than I had eaten for weeks. As I lay after dinner with my head upon his breast, he stroked my curls with a tender touch that seemed to heal my griefs, and said, almost in a tone of remorse,
"What can papa do for you, my poor dear boy?"
I looked up quickly into his face.
"What would Regie like?" he persisted.
I quite understood him now, and spoke out boldly the desires of my heart.
"Please, papa, I should like Mrs. Bundle for a nurse; and I do very much want Rubens."
"And who is Rubens?" asked my father.
"Oh, please, it's a dog," I said. "It belongs to Mr.
Mackenzie at the school. And it's such a little dear,
all red and white; and it licked my face when nurse and
I were there yesterday, and I put my hand in its mouth,
and it rolled over on its back, and it's got long ears,
and it followed me all the way home, and I gave it a
piece of bread, and it can sit up,
"But, my little man," interrupted my father—and he had absolutely smiled at my catalogue of marvels—"if Rubens belongs to Mr. Mackenzie, and is such a wonderful fellow, I'm afraid Mr. Mackenzie won't part with him."
"He would," I said,
"But what?" said my father.
"He wants ten shillings for him, Nurse says."
"If that's all, Regie," said my father, "you and I will go and buy Rubens to‑morrow morning."
Rubens was a little red and white spaniel of much beauty and sagacity. He was the prettiest, gentlest, most winning of playfellows. With him by my side, I now ran merrily about, instead of creeping moodily at the heels of nurse and her friends. Abundantly occupied in testing the tricks he knew, and teaching him new ones, I had the less leisure to listen open-mouthed to cadaverous gossip of the Cadman class. Finally, when I had bidden him good-night a hundred times, with absolutely fraternal embraces, I was soothed by the light weight of his head resting on my foot. He seemed to chase the hideous fancies which had hitherto passed from nurse's daytime conversation to trouble my night visions, as he would chase a water-fowl from a reedy marsh, and I slept—as he did—peacefully.
Nor was this all. My other wish was also to be fulfilled, but not without some vexations beforehand. It was by a certain air and tone which my nurse suddenly assumed towards me, and which it is difficult to describe by any other word than "heighty-teighty," and also by dark hints of changes which she hoped (but seemed far from believing) would be for my good, and finally, by downright lamentations and tragic inquiries as to what she had done to be parted from her boy, and "could her chickabiddy have the heart to drive away his loving and faithful nursey," that I learned that it was contemplated to supersede her by some one else, and that if she did not know that I was to blame in the matter, she at any rate believed me to have influence enough to obtain a reversal of the decree. That Mrs. Bundle was to be her successor I gathered from allusions to "your great fat bouncing women that would eat their heads off; but as to cleaning out a nursery—let them see!" But her most masterly stroke was a certain conversation with Mrs. Cadman carried on in my hearing.
"Have you ever notice, Mrs. Cadman," inquired my bony nurse of her not less bony visitor—"Have you ever notice how them stout people as looks so good-natured as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths is that wicked and cruel underneath?" And then followed a series of nurse's most ghastly anecdotes, relative to fat mothers who had ill-treated their children, fat nurses who had nearly been the death of their unfortunate charges, fat female murderers, and a fat acquaintance of her own, who was "taken" in apoplexy after a fit of rage with her husband.
"What a warning! what a moral!" said Mrs. Cadman. She meant it for a pious observation, but I felt that the warning and the moral were for me. And not even the presence of Rubens could dispel the darkness of my dreams that night.
Alternately goaded and caressed by my nurse, who now laid aside a habit she had of beating a tattoo with her knuckles on my head when I was naughty, to the intense confusion and irritation of my brain, I at last resolved to beg my father to let her remain with us. I felt that it was—as she had pointed out—intense ingratitude on my part to wish to part with her, and I said as much when I went down to dessert that evening. Moreover, I now lived in vague fear of those terrible qualities which lay hidden beneath Mrs. Bundle's benevolent exterior.
"If nurse has been teasing you about the matter," said my father, with a frown, "that would decide me to get rid of her, if I had not so decided before. As to your not liking Mrs. Bundle now—My dear little son, you must learn to know your own mind. You told me you wanted Mrs. Bundle—by very good luck I have been able to get hold of her, and when she comes you must make the best of her."
She came the next day, and my bony nurse departed. She wept indignantly, I wept remorsefully, and then waited in terror for the manifestation of Mrs. Bundle's cruel propensities.
I waited in vain. The reign of Mrs. Bundle was a reign of peace and plenty, of loving-kindness and all good things. Moreover it was a reign of wholesomeness, both for body and mind. She did not give me cheese and beer from her own supper when she was in a good temper, nor pound my unfortunate head with her knuckles if I displeased her. She was strict in the maintenance of a certain old-fashioned nursery etiquette, which obliged me to put away my chair after meals, fold my clothes at bedtime, put away my toys when I had done with them, say "please," "thank you," grace before and after meals, prayers night and morning, a hymn in bed, and the Church Catechism on Sunday. She snubbed the maids who alluded in my presence to things I could not or should not understand, and she directed her own conversation to me, on matters suitable to my age, instead of talking over my childish head to her gossips. The stories of horror and crime, the fore-doomed babies, the murders, the mysterious whispered communications faded from my untroubled brain. Nurse Bundle's tales were of the young masters and misses she had known. Her worst domestic tragedy was about the boy who broke his leg over the chair he had failed to put away after breakfast. Her romances were the good old Nursery Legends of Dick Whittington, the Babes in the Wood, and so forth. My dreams became less like the columns of a provincial newspaper. I imagined myself another Marquis of Carabas, with Rubens in boots. I made a desert island in the garden, which only lacked the geography-book peculiarity of "water all round" it. I planted beans in the fond hope that they would tower to the skies and take me with them. I became—in fancy—Lord Mayor of London, and Mrs. Bundle shared my civic throne and dignities, and we gave Rubens six beefeaters and a barge to wait upon his pleasure.
Life, in short, was utterly changed for me. I grew strong, and stout, and well, and happy. And I loved Nurse Bundle.