The New Mother
by Lucy Clifford
The children were always called Blue-Eyes and the Turkey. The elder one was like her dear father who was far away at sea; for the father had the bluest of blue eyes, and so gradually his little girl came to be called after them. The younger one had once, while she was still almost a baby, cried bitterly because a turkey that lived near the cottage suddenly vanished in the middle of the winter; and to console her she had been called by its name.
Now the mother and Blue-Eyes and the Turkey and the baby all lived in a lonely cottage on the edge of the forest. It was a long way to the village, nearly a mile and a half, and the mother had to work hard and had not time to go often herself to see if there was a letter at the post-office from the dear father, and so very often in the afternoon she used to send the two children. They were very proud of being able to go alone. When they came back tired with the long walk, there would be the mother waiting and watching for them, and the tea would be ready, and the baby crowing with delight; and if by any chance there was a letter from the sea, then they were happy indeed. The cottage room was so cosy: the walls were as white as snow inside as well as out. The baby’s high chair stood in one corner, and in another there was a cupboard, in which the mother kept all manner of surprises.
“Dear children,” the mother said one afternoon late in the autumn, “it is very chilly for you to go to the village, but you must walk quickly, and who knows but what you may bring back a letter saying that dear father is already on his way to England. Don’t be long,” the mother said, as she always did before they started. “Go the nearest way and don’t look at any strangers you meet, and be sure you do not talk with them.”
“No, mother,” they answered; and then she kissed them and called them dear good children, and they joyfully started on their way.
The village was gayer than usual, for there had been a fair the day before. “Oh, I do wish we had been here yesterday,” Blue-Eyes said as they went on to the grocer’s, which was also the post-office. The post-mistress was very busy and just said “No letter for you to-day.” Then Blue-Eyes and the Turkey turned away to go home. They had left the village and walked some way, and then they noticed, resting against a pile of stones by the wayside, a strange wild-looking girl, who seemed very unhappy. So they thought they would ask her if they could do anything to help her, for they were kind children and sorry indeed for any one in distress.
The girl seemed to be about fifteen years old. She was dressed in very ragged clothes. Round her shoulders there was an old brown shawl. She wore no bonnet. Her hair was coal-black and hung down uncombed and unfastened. She had something hidden under her shawl; on seeing them coming towards her, she carefully put it under her and sat upon it. She sat watching the children approach, and did not move or stir till they were within a yard of her; then she wiped her eyes just as if she had been crying bitterly, and looked up.
The children stood still in front of her for a moment, staring at her. “Are you crying?” they asked shyly.
To their surprise she said in a most cheerful voice, “Oh dear, no! quite the contrary. Are you?”
“Perhaps you have lost yourself?” they said gently.
But the girl answered promptly, “Certainly not. Why, you have just found me. Besides,” she added, “I live in the village.”
The children were surprised at this, for they had never seen her before, and yet they thought they knew all the village folk by sight.
Then the Turkey, who had an inquiring mind, put a question. “What are you sitting on?” she asked.
“On a peardrum,” the girl answered.
“What is a peardrum?” they asked.
“I am surprised at your not knowing,” the girl answered. “Most people in good society have one.” And then she pulled it out and showed it to them. It was a curious instrument, a good deal like a guitar in shape; it had three strings, but only two pegs by which to tune them. But the strange thing about the peardrum was not the music it made, but a little square box attached to one side.
“Where did you get it?” the children asked.
“I bought it,” the girl answered.
“Didn’t it cost a great deal of money?” they asked.
“Yes,” answered the girl slowly, nodding her head, “it cost a great deal of money. I am very rich,” she added.
“You don’t look rich,” they said, in as polite a voice as possible.
“Perhaps not,” the girl answered cheerfully.
At this, the children gathered courage, and ventured to remark, “You look rather shabby.”
“Indeed?” said the girl in a voice of one who had heard a pleasant but surprising statement. “A little shabbiness is very respectable,” she added in a satisfied voice. “I must really tell them this,” she continued. And the children wondered what she meant. She opened the little box by the side of the peardrum, and said, just as if she were speaking to some one who could hear her, “They say I look rather shabby; it is quite lucky isn’t it?”
“Why, you are not speaking to any one!” they said, more surprised than ever.
“Oh dear, yes! I am speaking to them both.”
“Both?” they said, wondering.
“Yes. I have here a little man dressed as a peasant, and a little woman to match. I put them on the lid of the box, and when I play they dance most beautifully.”
“Oh! let us see; do let us see!” the children cried.
Then the village girl looked at them doubtfully. “Let you see!” she said slowly. “Well, I am not sure that I can. Tell me, are you good?”
“Yes, yes,” they answered eagerly, “we are very good!”
“Then it’s quite impossible,” she answered, and resolutely closed the lid of the box.
They stared at her in astonishment. “But we are good,” they cried, thinking she must have misunderstood them. “We are very good. Then can’t you let us see the little man and woman?”
“Oh dear, no!” the girl answered. “I only show them to naughty children. And the worse the children the better do the man and woman dance.”
She put the peardrum carefully under her ragged cloak, and prepared to go on her way. “I really could not have believed that you were good,” she said reproachfully, as if they had accused themselves of some great crime. “Well, good day.”
“Oh, but we will be naughty,” they said in despair.
“I am afraid you couldn’t,” she answered, shaking her head. “It requires a great deal of skill to be naughty well.”
And swiftly she walked away, while the children felt their eyes fill with tears, and their hearts ache with disappointment.
“If we had only been naughty,” they said, “we should have seen them dance.”
“Suppose,” said the Turkey, “we try to be naughty today; perhaps she would let us see them to-morrow.”
“But, oh!” said Blue-Eyes, “I don’t know how to be naughty; no one ever taught me.”
The Turkey thought for a few minutes in silence. “I think I can be naughty if I try,” she said. “I’ll try to-night.”
“Oh, don’t be naughty without me!” she cried. “It would be so unkind of you. You know I want to see the little man and woman just as much as you do. You are very, very unkind.”
And so, quarrelling and crying, they reached their home.
Now, when their mother saw them, she was greatly astonished, and, fearing they were hurt, ran to meet them.
“Oh, my children, oh, my dear, dear children,” she said; “what is the matter?”
But they did not dare tell their mother about the village girl and the little man and woman, so they answered, “Nothing is the matter,” and cried all the more.
“Poor children!” the mother said to herself, “They are tired, and perhaps they are hungry; after tea they will be better.” And she went back to the cottage, and made the fire blaze; and she put the kettle on to boil, and set the tea-things on the table. Then she went to the little cupboard and took out some bread and cut it on the table, and said in a loving voice, “Dear little children, come and have your tea. And see, there is the baby waking from her sleep; she will crow at us while we eat.”
But the children made no answer to the dear mother, they only stood still by the window and said nothing.
“Come, children,” the mother said again. “Come, Blue-Eyes, and come, my Turkey; here is nice sweet bread for tea.” Then suddenly she looked up and saw that the Turkey’s eyes were full of tears.
“Turkey!” she exclaimed, “my dear little Turkey! what is the matter? Come to mother, my sweet.” And putting the baby down, she held out her arms, and the Turkey ran swiftly into them.
“Oh, mother,” she sobbed, “Oh, dear mother! I do so want to be naughty. I do so want to be very, very naughty.”
And then Blue-Eyes left her chair also, and rubbing her face against her mother’s shoulder, cried sadly. “And so do I, mother. Oh, I’d give anything to be very, very naughty.”
“But, my dear children,” said the mother, in astonishment, “Why do you want to be naughty?”
“Because we do; oh, what shall we do?” they cried together.
“I should be very angry if you were naughty. But you could not be, for you love me,” the mother answered.
“Why couldn’t we?” they asked.
Then the mother thought a while before she answered; and she seemed to be speaking rather to herself than to them.
“Because if one loves well,” she said gently, “one’s love is stronger than all bad feelings in one, and conquers them.”
“We don’t know what you mean,” they cried; “and we do love you; but we want to be naughty.”
“Then I should know you did not love me,” the mother said.
“If we were very, very, very naughty, and wouldn’t be good, what then?”
“Then,” said the mother sadly—and while she spoke her eyes filled with tears, and a sob almost choked her—“then,” she said, “I should have to go away and leave you, and to send home a new mother, with glass eyes and wooden tail.”
“Good-day,” said the village girl, when she saw Blue-Eyes and the Turkey approach. She was again sitting by the heap of stones, and under her shawl the peardrum was hidden.
“Are the little man and woman there?” the children asked.
“Yes, thank you for inquiring after them,” the girl answered; “they are both here and quite well. The little woman has heard a secret—she tells it while she dances.”
“Oh do let us see,” they entreated.
“Quite impossible, I assure you,” the girl answered promptly. “You see, you are good.”
“Oh!” said Blue-Eyes, sadly; “but mother says if we are naughty she will go away and send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail.”
“Indeed,” said the girl, still speaking in the same unconcerned voice, “that is what they all say. They all threaten that kind of thing. Of course really there are no mothers with glass eyes and wooden tails; they would be much too expensive to make.” And the common sense of this remark the children saw at once.
“We think you might let us see the little man and woman dance.”
“The kind of thing you would think,” remarked the village girl.
“But will you if we are naughty?” they asked in despair.
“I fear you could not be naughty—that is, really—even if you tried,” she said scornfully.
“But if we are very naughty tonight, will you let us see them to-morrow?”
“Questions asked to-day are always best answered to-morrow,” the girl said, and turned round as if to walk on. “Good-day,” she said blithely; “I must really go and play a little to myself.”
For a few minutes the children stood looking after her, then they broke down and cried. The Turkey was the first to wipe away her tears. “Let us go home and be very naughty,” she said; “then perhaps she will let us see them to-morrow.”
And that afternoon the dear mother was sorely distressed, for, instead of sitting at their tea as usual with smiling happy faces, they broke their mugs and threw their bread and butter on the floor, and when the mother told them to do one thing they carefully did another, and only stamped their feet with rage when she told them to go upstairs until they were good.
“Do you remember what I told you I should do if you were very, very naughty?” she asked sadly.
“Yes, we know, but it isn’t true,” they cried. “There is no mother with a wooden tail and glass eyes, and if there were we should just stick pins into her and send her away; but there is none.”
Then the mother became really angry, and sent them off to bed, but instead of crying and being sorry at her anger, they laughed for joy, and sat up and sang merry songs at the top of their voices.
The next morning quite early, without asking leave from the mother, the children got up and ran off as fast as they could to look for the village girl. She was sitting as usual by the heap of stones with the peardrum under her shawl.
“Now please show us the little man and woman,” they cried, “and let us hear the peardrum. We were very naughty last night.” But the girl kept the peardrum carefully hidden.
“So you say,” she answered. “You were not half naughty enough. As I remarked before, it requires a great deal of skill to be naughty well.”
“But we broke our mugs, we threw our bread and butter on the floor, we did everything we could to be tiresome.”
“Mere trifles,” answered the village girl scornfully. “Did you throw cold water on the fire, did you break the clock, did you pull all the tins down from the walls, and throw them on the floor?”
“No,” exclaimed the children, aghast, “we did not do that.”
“I thought not,” the girl answered. “So many people mistake a little noise and foolishness for real naughtiness.” And before they could say another word she had vanished.
“We’ll be much worse,” the children cried, in despair. “We’ll go and do all the things she says.” and then they went home and did all these things. And when the mother saw all that they had done she did not scold them as she had the day before, but she just broke down and cried, and said sadly—
“Unless you are good to-morrow, my poor Blue-Eyes and Turkey, I shall indeed have to go away and come back no more, and the new mother I told you of will come to you.”
They did not believe her; yet their hearts ached when they saw how unhappy she looked, and they thought within themselves that when they once had seen the little man and woman dance, they would be good to the dear mother for ever afterwards.
The next morning, before the birds were stirring, the children crept out of the cottage and ran across the fields. They found the village girl sitting by the heap of stones, just as if it were her natural home.
“We have been very naughty,” they cried. “We have done all the things you told us; now will you show us the little man and woman?” The girl looked at them curiously. “You really seem quite excited,” she said in her usual voice. “You should be calm.”
“We have done all the things you told us,” the children cried again, “and we do so long to hear the secret. We have been so very naughty, and mother says she will go away to-day and send home a new mother if we are not good.”
“Indeed,” said the girl. “Well, let me see. When did your mother say she would go?”
“But if she goes, what shall we do?” they cried in despair. “We don’t want her to go; we love her very much.”
“You had better go back and be good, you are really not clever enough to be anything else; and the little woman’s secret is very important; she never tells it for make-believe naughtiness.”
“But we did all the things you told us,” the children cried.
“You didn’t throw the looking-glass out of the window, or stand the baby on its head.”
“No, we didn’t do that,” the children gasped.
“I thought not,” the girl said triumphantly. “Well, good-day. I shall not be here to-morrow.”
“Oh, but don’t go away,” they cried. “Do let us see them just once.”
“Well, I shall go past your cottage at eleven o’clock this morning,” the girl said. “Perhaps I shall play the peardrum as I go by.”
“And will you show us the man and woman?” they asked.
“Quite impossible, unless you have really deserved it; make-believe naughtiness is only spoilt goodness. Now if you break the looking-glass and do the things that are desired . . .”
“Oh, we will,” they cried. “We will be very naughty till we hear you coming.”
Then again the children went home, and were naughty, oh, so very very naughty that the dear mother’s heart ached and her eyes filled with tears, and at last she went upstairs and slowly put on her best gown and her new sun-bonnet, and she dressed the baby all in its Sunday clothes, and then she came down and stood before Blue-Eyes and the Turkey, and just as she did so the Turkey threw the looking-glass out of the window, and it fell with a loud crash upon the ground.
“Good-bye, my children,” the mother said sadly, kissing them. “The new mother will be home presently. Oh, my poor children!” and then weeping bitterly, the mother took the baby in her arms and turned to leave the house.
“But mother, we will be good at half-past eleven, come back at half-past eleven,” they cried, “and we’ll both be good; we must be naughty till eleven o’clock.” But the mother only picked up the little bundle in which she had tied up her cotton apron, and went slowly out at the door. Just by the corner of the fields she stopped and turned, and waved her handkerchief, all wet with tears, to the children at the window; she made the baby kiss its hand; and in a moment mother and baby had vanished from their sight.
Then the children felt their hearts ache with sorrow, and they cried bitterly, and yet they could not believe that she had gone. And the broken clock struck eleven, and suddenly there was a sound, a quick, clanging, jangling sound, with a strange discordant note at intervals. They rushed to the open window, and there they saw the village girl dancing along and playing as she did so.
“We have done all you told us,” the children called. “Come and see; and now show us the little man and woman.”
The girl did not cease her playing or her dancing, but she called out in a voice that was half speaking half singing. “You did it all badly. You threw the water on the wrong side of the fire, the tin things were not quite in the middle of the room, the clock was not broken enough, you did not stand the baby on its head.”
She was already passing the cottage. She did not stop singing, and all she said sounded like part of a terrible song. “I am going to my own land,” the girl sang, “to the land where I was born.”
“But our mother is gone,” the children cried; “our dear mother will she ever come back?”
“No,” sang the girl, “she’ll never come back. She took a boat upon the river; she is sailing to the sea; she will meet your father once again, and they will go sailing on.”
Then the girl, her voice getting fainter and fainter in the distance, called out once more to them. “Your new mother is coming. She is already on her way; but she only walks slowly, for her tail is rather long, and her spectacles are left behind; but she is coming, she is coming—coming—coming.”
The last word died away; it was the last one they ever heard the village girl utter. On she went, dancing on.
Then the children turned, and looked at each other and at the little cottage home, that only a week before had been so bright and happy, so cosy and spotless. The fire was out, the clock all broken and spoilt. And there was the baby’s high chair, with no baby to sit in it; there was the cupboard on the wall, and never a sweet loaf on its shelf; and there were the broken mugs, and the bits of bread tossed about, and the greasy boards which the mother had knelt down to scrub until they were as white as snow. In the midst of all stood the children, looking at the wreck they had made, their eyes blinded with tears, and their poor little hands clasped in misery.
“I don’t know what we shall do if the new mother comes,” cried Blue-Eyes. “I shall never, never like any other mother.”
The Turkey stopped crying for a minute, to think what should be done. “We will bolt the door and shut the window; and we won’t take any notice when she knocks.”
All through the afternoon they sat watching and listening for fear of the new mother; but they saw and heard nothing of her, and gradually they became less and less afraid lest she should come. They fetched a pail of water and washed the floor; they found some rag, and rubbed the tins; they picked up the broken mugs and made the room as neat as they could. There was no sweet loaf to put on the table, but perhaps the mother would bring something from the village, they thought. At last all was ready, and Blue-Eyes and the Turkey washed their faces and their hands, and then sat and waited, for of course they did not believe what the village girl had said about their mother sailing away.
Suddenly, while they were sitting by the fire, they heard a sound as of something heavy being dragged along the ground outside, and then there was a loud and terrible knocking at the door. The children felt their hearts stand still. They knew it could not be their own mother, for she would have turned the handle and tried to come in without any knocking at all.
Again there came a loud and terrible knocking.
“She’ll break the door down if she knocks so hard,” cried Blue-Eyes.
“Go and put your back to it,” whispered the Turkey, “and I’ll peep out of the window and try to see if it is really the new mother.”
So in fear and trembling Blue-Eyes put her back against the door, and the Turkey went to the window. She could just see a black satin poke bonnet with a frill round the edge, and a long bony arm carrying a black leather bag. From beneath the bonnet there flashed a strange bright light, and Turkey’s heart sank and her cheeks turned pale, for she knew it was the flashing of two glass eyes. She crept up to Blue-Eyes. “It is—it is—it is!” she whispered, her voice shaking with fear, “it is the new mother!”
Together they stood with the two little backs against the door. There was a long pause. They thought perhaps the new mother had made up her mind that there was no one at home to let her in, and would go away, but presently the two children heard through the thin wooden door the new mother move a little, and then say to herself—“I must break the door open with my tail.”
For one terrible moment all was still, but in it the children could almost hear her lift up her tail, and then, with a fearful blow, the little painted door was cracked and splintered. With a shriek the children darted from the spot and fled through the cottage, and out at the back door into the forest beyond. All night long they stayed in the darkness and the cold, and all the next day and the next, and all through the cold, dreary days and the long dark nights that followed.
They are there still, my children. All through the long weeks and months have they been there, with only green rushes for their pillows and only the brown dead leaves to cover them, feeding on the wild strawberries in the summer, or on the nuts when they hang green; on the blackberries when they are no longer sour in the autumn, and in the winter on the little red berries that ripen in the snow. They wander about among the tall dark firs or beneath the great trees beyond. Sometimes they stay to rest beside the little pool near the copse, and they long and long, with a longing that is greater than words can say, to see their own dear mother again, just once again, to tell her that they’ll be good for evermore—just once again.
And still the new mother stays in the little cottage, but the windows are closed and the doors are shut, and no one knows what the inside looks like. Now and then, when the darkness has fallen and the night is still, hand in hand Blue-Eyes and the Turkey creep up near the home in which they once were so happy, and with beating hearts they watch and listen; sometimes a blinding flash comes through the window, and they know it is the light from the new mother’s glass eyes, or they hear a strange muffled noise, and they know it is the sound of her wooden tail as she drags it along the floor.
About the Author
Lucy Clifford married the mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford in 1875. After his death in 1879, she earned a prominent place in English literary life as a novelist, and later as a dramatist. Her best-known story, Mrs Keith’s Crime (1885), was followed by several other volumes, such as Aunt Anne (1892). She also wrote The Last Touches and Other Stories (1892) and Mere Stories (1896); and a play, A Woman Alone (1898). She is perhaps most often remembered, however, as the author of The Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise (1882), a collection of stories she had written for her children.
About the Narrator
Eliza Chan is a writer and occasional narrator of speculative fiction. She has narrated for Pseudopod, Podcastle and Cast of Wonders. It amuses her endlessly that people find her Scottish accent soothing. Eliza has had her own work featured in The Dark, Podcastle, Fantasy Magazine and The Best of British Fantasy 2019. When not working on her current novel or reading, Eliza can be found boardgaming, watching anime, baby wrangling and dabbling in crafts