Edith Nesbit | from:English

The Marble Child

All over the pavement of the church spread the exaggerated cross-hatching of the old pews’ oak, a Smithfield market of intersecting lines such as children made with cards in the old days when kings and knaves had fat legs bulging above their serviceable feet, and queens had skirts to their gowns and were not cut across their royal middles by mirrors reflecting only the bedizened torso of them and the charge—heart, trefoil, or the like—in the right-hand top corner of the oblong that framed them.

The pew had qualities: tall fat hassocks, red cushions, a comparative seclusion, and, in the case of the affluent, red curtains drawn at sermon-time.

The child wearied by the spectacle of a plump divine, in black gown and Geneva bands, thumping the pulpit-cushions in the madness of incomprehensible oratory, surrendered his ears to the noise of intonations which, in his own treble, would have earned the reprimand, ‘Naughty temper.’ His eyes, however, were, through some oversight of the gods of his universe, still his own. They found their own pasture: not, to be sure, the argent and sable of gown and bands, still less the gules of flushed denunciatory gills.

There is fair pasture in an old church which, when Norman work was broken down, men loved and built again as from the heart, with pillars and arches, which, to their rude time, symbolized all that the heart desires to materialize, in symbolic stone. The fretted tombs where the effigies of warrior and priest lay life-like in dead marble, the fretted canopies that brooded above their rest. Tall pillars like the trunks of the pine woods that smelt so sweet, the marvel of the timbered roof—turned upside down it would be like a ship. And what could be easier than to turn it upside down? Imagination shrank bashfully from the pulpit already tightly tenanted, but the triforium was plainly and beautifully empty; there one could walk, squeezing happily through the deep thin arches and treading carefully by the unguarded narrow ledge. Only if one played too long in the roof aunts nudged, and urgent whispers insisted that one must not look about like that in church. When this moment came it came always as a crisis foreseen, half dreaded, half longed-for. After that the child kept his eyes lowered, and looked only at the faded red hassocks from which the straw bulged, and in brief, guarded, intimate moments, at the other child.

The other child was kneeling, always, whether the congregation knelt or stood or sat. Its hands were clasped. Its face was raised, but its back bowed under a weight—the weight of the font, for the other child was of marble and knelt always in the church, Sundays and week-days. There had been once three marble figures holding up the shallow basin, but two had crumbled or been broken away, and now it seemed that the whole weight of the superimposed marble rested on those slender shoulders.

The child who was not marble was sorry for the other. He must be very tired.

The child who was not marble,—his name was Ernest,—that child of weary eyes and bored brain, pitied the marble boy while he envied him.

‘I suppose he doesn’t really feel, if he’s stone,’ he said. ‘That’s what they mean by the stony-hearted tyrant. But if he does feel— How jolly it would be if he could come out and sit in my pew, or if I could creep under the font beside him. If he would move a little there would be just room for me.’

The first time that Ernest ever saw the marble child move was on the hottest Sunday in the year. The walk across the fields had been a breathless penance, the ground burned the soles of Ernest’s feet as red-hot ploughshares the feet of the saints. The corn was cut, and stood in stiff yellow stooks, and the shadows were very black. The sky was light, except in the west beyond the pine trees, where blue-black clouds were piled.

‘Like witches’ feather-beds,’ said Aunt Harriet, shaking out the folds of her lace shawl.

‘Not before the child, dear,’ whispered Aunt Emmeline.

Ernest heard her, of course. It was always like that: as soon as any one spoke about anything interesting, Aunt Emmeline intervened. Ernest walked along very melancholy in his starched frill. The dust had whitened his strapped shoes, and there was a wrinkle in one of his white socks.

‘Pull it up, child, pull it up,’ said Aunt Jessie; and shielded from the world by the vast silk-veiled crinolines of three full-sized aunts, he pulled it up.

On the way to church, and indeed, in all walks abroad, you held the hand of an aunt; the circumferent crinolines made the holding an arm’s-length business, very tiring. Ernest was always glad when, in the porch, the hand was dropped. It was just as the porch was reached that the first lonely roll of thunder broke over the hills.

‘I knew it,’ said Aunt Jessie, in triumph; ‘but you would wear your blue silk.’

There was no more thunder till after the second lesson, which was hardly ever as interesting as the first, Ernest thought. The marble child looked more tired than usual, and Ernest lost himself in a dream-game where both of them got out from prison and played hide-and-seek among the tombstones. Then the thunder cracked deafeningly right over the church. Ernest forgot to stand up, and even the clergyman waited till it died away.

It was a most exciting service, well worth coming to church for, and afterwards people crowded in the wide porch and wondered whether it would clear, and wished they had brought their umbrellas. Some went back and sat in their pews till the servants should have had time to go home and return with umbrellas and cloaks. The more impetuous made clumsy rushes between the showers, bonnets bent, skirts held well up. Many a Sunday dress was ruined that day, many a bonnet fell from best to second-best.

And it was when Aunt Jessie whispered to him to sit still and be a good boy and learn a hymn, that he looked to the marble child with, ‘Isn’t it a shame?’ in his heart and his eyes, and the marble child looked back, ‘Never mind, it will soon be over,’ and held out its marble hands. Ernest saw them come toward him, reaching well beyond the rim of the basin under which they had always, till now, stayed.

‘Oh!’ said Ernest, quite out loud; and, dropping the hymn-book, held out his hands, or began to hold them out. For before he had done more than sketch the gesture, he remembered that marble does not move and that one must not be silly. All the same, marble had moved. Also Ernest had ‘spoken out loud’ in church. Unspeakable disgrace!

He was taken home in conscious ignominy, treading in all the puddles to distract his mind from his condition.

He was put to bed early, as a punishment, instead of sitting up and learning his catechism under the charge of one of the maids while the aunts went to evening church. This, while it was terrible to Ernest, was in the nature of a reprieve to the housemaid, who found means to modify her own consequent loneliness. Far-away whispers and laughs from the back or kitchen windows assured Ernest that the front or polite side of the house was unguarded. He got up, simulated the appearance of the completely dressed, and went down the carpeted stairs, through the rosewood-furnished drawing-room, rose-scented and still as a deathbed, and so out through the French windows to the lawn, where already the beginnings of dew lay softly.

His going out had no definite aim. It was simply an act of rebellion such as, secure from observation, the timid may achieve; a demonstration akin to putting the tongue out behind people’s backs.

Having got himself out on the lawn, he made haste to hide in the shrubbery, disheartened by a baffling consciousness of the futility of safe revenges. What is the tongue put out behind the back of the enemy without the applause of some admirer?

The red rays of the setting sun made splendor in the dripping shrubbery.

‘I wish I hadn’t,’ said Ernest.

But it seemed silly to go back now, just to go out and to go back. So he went farther into the shrubbery and got out at the other side where the shrubbery slopes down into the wood, and it was nearly dark there—so nearly that the child felt more alone than ever.

And then quite suddenly he was not alone. Hands parted the hazels and a face he knew looked out from between them.

He knew the face, and yet the child he saw was not any of the children he knew.

‘Well,’ said the child with the face he knew; ‘I’ve been watching you. What did you come out for?’

‘I was put to bed.’

‘Do you not like it?’

‘Not when it’s for punishment.’

‘If you’ll go back now,’ said the strange child, ‘I’ll come and play with you after you’re asleep.’

‘You daren’t. Suppose the aunts catch you?’

‘They won’t,’ said the child, shaking its head and laughing. ‘I’ll race you to the house!’

Ernest ran. He won the race. For the other child was not there at all when he reached the house.

‘How odd!’ he said. But he was tired and there was thunder again and it was beginning to rain, large spots as big as pennies on the step of the French window. So he went back to bed, too sleepy to worry about the question of where he had seen the child before, and only a little disappointed because his revenge had been so brief and inadequate.

Then he fell asleep and dreamed that the marble child had crept out from under the font, and that he and it were playing hide-and-seek among the pews in the gallery at church. It was a delightful dream and lasted all night, and when he woke he knew that the child he had seen in the wood in yesterday’s last light was the marble child from the church.

This did not surprise him as much as it would surprise you: the world where children live is so full of amazing and incredible-looking things that turn out to be quite real. And if Lot’s wife could be turned into a pillar of salt, why should not a marble child turn into a real one? It was all quite plain to Ernest, but he did not tell any one: because he had a feeling that it might not be easy to make it plain to them.

‘That child doesn’t look quite the thing,’ said Aunt Emmeline at breakfast. ‘A dose of Gregory’s, I think, at eleven.’

Ernest’s morning was blighted. Did you ever take Gregory’s powder? It is worse than quinine, worse than senna, worse than anything except castor oil.

But Ernest had to take it—in raspberry jam.

‘And don’t make such faces,’ said Aunt Emmeline, rinsing the spoon at the pantry sink. ‘You know it’s all for your own good.’

As if the thought that it is for one’s own good ever kept any one from making faces!

The aunts were kind in their grown-up crinolined way. But Ernest wanted some one to play with. Every night in his dreams he played with the marble child. And at church on Sunday the marble child still held out its hands, farther than before.

‘Come along then,’ Ernest said to it, in that voice with which heart speaks to heart; ‘come and sit with me behind the red curtains. Come!’

The marble child did not look at him. Its head seemed to be bent farther forward than ever before.

When it came to the second hymn Ernest had an inspiration. All the rest of the churchful, sleepy and suitable, were singing,—

 

‘The roseate hues of early dawn,

The brightness of the day,

The crimson of the sunset sky,

How fast they fade away.’

Ernest turned his head towards the marble child and softly mouthed,—you could hardly call it singing,—

 

‘The rosy tews of early dawn,

The brightness of the day;

Come out, come out, come out, come out,

Come out with me and play.’

And he pictured the rapture of that moment when the marble child should respond to this appeal, creep out from under the font, and come and sit beside him on the red cushions beyond the red curtains. The aunts would not see, of course. They never saw the things that mattered. No one would see except Ernest. He looked hard at the marble child.

‘You must come out,’ he said; and again, ‘You must come, you must.’

And the marble child did come. It crept out and came to sit by him, holding his hand. It was a cold hand certainly, but it did not feel like marble.

And the next thing he knew, an aunt was shaking him and whispering with fierceness tempered by reverence for the sacred edifice,—

‘Wake up, Ernest. How can you be so naughty?’

And the marble child was back in its place under the font.

When Ernest looks back on that summer it seems to have thundered every time he went to church. But of course this cannot really have been the case.

But it was certainly a very lowering purple-skied day which saw him stealthily start on the adventure of his little life. He was weary of aunts—they were kind yet just; they told him so and he believed them. But their justice was exactly like other people’s nagging, and their kindness he did not want at all. He wanted some one to play with.

‘May we walk up to the churchyard?’ was a request at first received graciously as showing a serious spirit. But its reiteration was considered morbid, and his walks took the more dusty direction of the County Asylum.

His longing for the only child he knew, the marble child, exacerbated by denial, drove him to rebellion. He would run away. He would live with the marble child in the big church porch; they would eat berries from the wood near by, just as children did in books, and hide there when people came to church.

So he watched his opportunity and went quietly out through the French window, skirted the side of the house where all the windows were blank because of the old window-tax, took the narrow strip of lawn at a breathless run, and found safe cover among the rhododendrons.

The church-door was locked, of course, but he knew where there was a broken pane in the vestry window, and his eye had marked the lop-sided tombstone underneath it. By climbing upon that and getting a knee in the carved water-spout— He did it, got his hand through, turned the catch of the window, and fell through upon the dusty table of the vestry.

The door was ajar and he passed into the empty church. It seemed very large and gray now that he had it to himself. His feet made a loud echoing noise that was disconcerting. He had meant to call out, ‘Here I am!’ But in the face of these echoes he could not.

He found the marble child, its head bent more than ever, its hands reaching out quite beyond the edge of the font; and when he was quite close he whispered,—

‘Here I am.—Come and play!’

But his voice trembled a little. The marble child was so plainly marble. And yet it had not always been marble. He was not sure. Yet—

‘I am sure,’ he said. ‘You did talk to me in the shrubbery, didn’t you?’

But the marble child did not move or speak.

‘You did come and hold my hand last Sunday,’ he said, a little louder.

And only the empty echoes answered him.

‘Come out,’ he said then, almost afraid now of the church’s insistent silence. ‘I’ve come to live with you altogether. Come out of your marble, do come out!’

He reached up to stroke the marble cheek. A sound thrilled him, a loud everyday sound. The big key turning in the lock of the south door. The aunts!

‘Now they’ll take me back,’ said Ernest; ‘you might have come.’

But it was not the aunts. It was the old pew-opener, come to scrub the chancel. She came slowly in with pail and brush; the pail slopped a little water on to the floor close to Ernest as she passed him, not seeing.

Then the marble child moved, turned toward Ernest with speaking lips and eyes that saw.

‘You can stay with me forever if you like,’ it said, ‘but you’ll have to see things happen. I have seen things happen.’

‘What sort of things?’ Ernest asked.

‘Terrible things.’

‘What things shall I have to see?’

Her,’—the marble child moved a free arm to point to the old woman on the chancel steps,—’and your aunt who will be here presently, looking for you. Do you hear the thunder? Presently the lightning will strike the church. It won’t hurt us, but it will fall on them.’

Ernest remembered in a flash how kind Aunt Emmeline had been when he was ill, how Aunt Jessie had given him his chessmen, and Aunt Harriet had taught him how to make paper rosettes for picture-frames.

‘I must go and tell them,’ he said.

‘If you go, you’ll never see me again,’ said the marble child, and put its arms round his neck.

‘Can’t I come back to you when I’ve told them?’ Ernest asked, returning the embrace.

‘There will be no coming back,’ said the marble child.

‘But I want you. I love you best of everybody in the world,’ Ernest said.

‘I know.’

‘I’ll stay with you,’ said Ernest.

The marble child said nothing.

‘But if I don’t tell them I shall be the same as a murderer,’ Ernest whispered. ‘Oh! let me go, and come back to you.’

‘I shall not be here.’

‘But I must go. I must,’ said Ernest, torn between love and duty.

‘Yes.’

‘And I shan’t have you any more?’ the living child urged.

‘You’ll have me in your heart,’ said the marble child—’that’s where I want to be. That’s my real home.’

They kissed each other again.

‘It was certainly a direct Providence,’ Aunt Emmeline used to say in later years to really sympathetic friends, ‘that I thought of going up to the church when I did. Otherwise nothing could have saved dear Ernest. He was terrified, quite crazy with fright, poor child, and he rushed out at me from behind our pew shouting, “Come away, come away, auntie, come away!” and dragged me out. Mrs. Meadows providentially followed, to see what it was all about, and the next thing was the catastrophe.’

‘The church was struck by a thunder-bolt was it not?’ the sympathetic friend asks.

‘It was indeed—a deafening crash, my dear—and then the church slowly crumbled before our eyes. The south wall broke like a slice of cake when you break it across—and the noise and the dust! Mrs. Meadows never had her hearing again, poor thing, and her mind was a little affected too. I became unconscious, and Ernest—well, it was altogether too much for the child. He lay between life and death for weeks. Shock to the system, the physician said. He had been rather run down before. We had to get a little cousin to come and live with us afterwards. The physicians said that he required young society.’

‘It must indeed have been a shock,’ says the sympathetic friend, who knows there is more to come.

‘His intellect was quite changed, my dear,’ Aunt Emmeline resumes; ‘on regaining consciousness he demanded the marble child! Cried and raved, my dear, always about the marble child. It appeared he had had fancies about one of the little angels that supported the old font, not the present font, my dear. We presented that as a token of gratitude to Providence for our escape. Of course we checked his fancifulness as well as we could, but it lasted quite a long time.’

‘What became of the little marble angel?’ the friend inquires as in friendship bound.

‘Crushed to powder, dear, in the awful wreck of the church. Not a trace of it could be found. And poor Mrs. Meadows! So dreadful those delusions.’

‘What form did her delusions take?’ the friend, anxious to be done with the old story, hastily asks.

‘Well, she always declared that two children ran out to warn me and that one of them was very unusual looking. “It wasn’t no flesh and blood, ma’am,” she used to say in her ungrammatical way; “it was a little angel a-taking care of Master Ernest. It ‘ad ‘old of ‘is ‘and. And I say it was ‘is garden angel, and its face was as bright as a lily in the sun.”‘

The friend glances at the India cabinet, and Aunt Emmeline rises and unlocks it.

‘Ernest must have been behaving in a very naughty and destructive way in the church—but the physician said he was not quite himself probably, for when they got him home and undressed him they found this in his hand.’

Then the sympathizing friend polishes her glasses and looks, not for the first time, at the relic from the drawer of the India cabinet. It is a white marble finger.

Thus flow the reminiscences of Aunt Emmeline. The memories of Ernest run as this tale runs.