“Oh, Mama, please may I look?”
My daughter is hopping from one foot to the other, her face alight with excitement, her golden curls bouncing on her shoulders. She was named for me, like the babe who came before her, but this child is a sturdy, healthy little girl now three years old, who lights up all our lives with her simple innocent joys and griefs. And the tears never last for long. The pet name we all give her is very apt, for never was there a happier child.
“You may look,” I tell her. “And you may touch, if your hands are clean. Are they clean?”
She holds them up for inspection. Indeed they are, pink and shining, with no more than a hint of earth beneath her neatly trimmed fingernails (she has been helping me in the garden, and could not resist building a little house of soil and leaves for a worm she found). “I scrubbed and scrubbed!” she informs me, with justifiable pride. “And they’re very, very, very clean.”
“Yes, poppet, I can see that they are. So, now we are all ready. You are ready, and I am ready, and William and Mary are fast asleep in the nursery so they will not disturb us, and now you can look.”
My daughter and I have been planning this moment all day. It must be when little William, my son, who is two years old and cannot let anything be without touching, holding, tasting, is sleeping, or he will loudly demand possession of my casket, and try as I and his nurse might, his hands are never, ever clean: nor has he yet learned that some things are precious, and must be treated with great care. And Mary, the baby, has been fed and her clouts changed and is sleeping also. This interlude of peace and calm is ideal for our purpose, but it will not last long, and I have promised her that today she can look.
I have already taken the box out of the cupboard in my chamber, and placed it on the little table by the window, which overlooks the garden. It is October, so there are few flowers left, and already the leaves on shrubs and trees are beginning to turn yellow, in readiness for their fall and the onset of winter. But today my beloved eldest living child is three years old, and I have promised her this as one of her birthday gifts, along with the French doll clad in the clothes I have made in little, and the hobby horse, and the pretty apron I have embroidered for her, in the latest fashion, so she may be as well dressed as any fine lady.
Ever since she first saw the box in the cupboard, a few months past, she has been afire with curiosity to know what it contains, and asks me almost daily, it seems, if she can look. At first I was reluctant, for it is so precious to me, and I would not have it spoilt by sticky fingers or thoughtless handling. But she is a good child, and takes great care of her toys, and so I have decided to indulge her. After all, I hope and pray that one day it will be hers, and her daughter’s after her, if she is as blessed as I have been, and so it is only right that she is given the chance to see the casket which took so long in the making, and into which I poured all my love for my family and my home and all my beloved Toms, my father and my husband and my lost brother.
So I pull up a stool for her to stand on, and she climbs up and rests her small dimpled hands on the table, and watches intently as I push back the catch and lift the lid. I smile as her eyes widen and her lips shape into a round circle of delight, as she sees what lies within. “Oh!” she cries in amazement. “It’s a picture!”
Carefully, I lift the casket out of its case, and set it on the table in front of her.
“A box of pictures! A box all made of pictures!” She looks at me, still overcome with awe. “Can I touch it, Mama?”
“Yes, but be very careful. Can you open the door at the front?”
She pulls gently on the little silver knob and looks inside. “There are drawers! Just like Papa’s new chest!” Tom has recently purchased, for his own chamber, a most beautiful chest of drawers in glowing rich walnut, in which he keeps his linen and stockings and other small items of clothing, and he has ordered one for me. She is fascinated by how sleekly and easily those drawers open and close, and now, looking at me for approval, she grasps the handle on one and very gently and carefully pulls it towards her. Inside, she finds my jewellery, and picks out each piece to examine it as closely as if she were assessing its value for sale. She is particularly enchanted by the bracelet that was given to me at my christening, and which has long been too small for me to wear, and I tell her that when she is a big girl of five or six, she may wear it too.
Momentarily, she is disappointed, but I then show her the minute silver toys, which my father had bought in London for the baby house my sisters and I played with when we were little children, and she gasps in wonder. “Look, Mama, look, a tiny warming pan, it must be for a mouse!”
I explain about the baby house and its contents, and resolve that for her next birthday, I shall have Harry Fulcher, who is the most skilled carpenter in the village, make one for her. I know from my own memories that she will love it, and play with it often, and so will her sister Mary and any other daughters I may have in the future too. Very carefully, at my instruction, she puts the toys back in their drawer, and we close the doors. Then she asks about the pictures on the casket. I tell her about the people I have embroidered, for almost all of them she knows – her grandparents, and her father, and her aunts. She finds it hard to understand, though, that there are neither lions nor leopards roaming the gardens of her grandfather’s house, although of course she is familiar with dogs, cats and hares. And then she wants to know who is the little boy, tasting an apple?
“That is your uncle Tom,” I say, and although he has been in his grave these five years and more, I feel again that dreadful pang of grief. For my mother and father have never recovered from the terrible shock of his loss, and although they still have us five girls, and all their many, many grandchildren, it is plain that a great light has gone from their lives. My father is often in London, throwing himself into Parliament business and the management of his affairs, and my mother spends much time in her garden, though sometimes when I visit she seems to be lost in a world of her own, where her beloved son still lives.
“But I don’t have an uncle Tom,” says my daughter, and I explain that long ago, before she was born, I had a brother who is now in Heaven with God and his angels. She looks puzzled at this, for I do not think that she has really understood that Mary and Dilly, Harriet and Pen, are my sisters as well as her aunts. Then, somewhat to my relief, she turns her attention to the garden, which I have just lifted out and set on the table before her. And if her wonder was great before, now it is repeated five fold, and the face she turns to me is full of delight. “It’s so small, Mama! Too small even for a mouse! Did the faeries make it? And why does that horse have a horn on its head?”
I tell her that it is called a unicorn, and is a most beautiful and magical creature, which can be seen only by girls who are very good.
“Is it a magic garden?”
“It is indeed magic, sweetheart, and inhabited only when no-one is looking.”
She studies me narrowly, as if unsure whether I am telling the truth, and then, obviously, decides that I am. “Put it back, Mama,” she commands, “put it back for the faeries.”
“You are three years old now,” I tell her, as I replace the casket in its box, and close the lid upon its magic. “I think it is time that I begin to teach you how to sew. You are a good girl, and careful, and more than ready to learn such skills. And perhaps one day you will make a cabinet such as this.” Although I doubt that she will, for they are no longer the fashion, and that style of embroidery is likewise considered outmoded. But I hope that in the fullness of time she will inherit my casket, and her daughter after her, and so into the future that I will not be here to see.