“....Mr. Macefield,” Cecily said, keeping her eyes on the smudged handle of her tea-cup and wishing she were anywhere but in the dining room with this…this author. She refrained from labeling him a malaprop, though this entire ordeal was his fault. “I think I had better take the children up to bed now.” She waited not for his reply, but summoned the children with a regal gesture of her white hands. The trio of twins rose amid the clattering of the tea-things, and followed her out of the dining room and up the marble staircase. Up the children went, then mounted the banister to begin their usual process of going to bed.
“What are you doing?” Miss Woodruff asked, hands on her hips.
“We are going to bed,” Darby said, waving at her from his vantage-point of the ornate landing-newel.
“How so, Master Darby? On the banister? I would think that would make a hard sleeping-place.”
The children had never before questioned their manner of going to bed. It was always up the stairs, down the banister, up the stairs again, and a rollicking tramp through the halls before descending upon Mum with over-earnest kisses. So it was a new thought to wonder what the normal manner of going to bed was.
“How d’you go to bed, Mith Woodruff?” Fergus asked, banging her lightly on the head with a balled up fist. He swung his legs and kicked the balusters, as at home on the hand-rail as a cat is on a ridge-pole.
Miss Woodruff caught the belligerent fist in her hand and patted it. “I walk up the stairs and then I go calmly to my bed like everyone else.”
Bertram coughed and put his head to one side, chewing his lip. “I s’pose ‘everyone else’ is a relative term, Miss Woodruff. We’ve never watched anyone go to bed but ourselves—how are we supposed to know how people do it?”
Cecily Woodruff laughed and the children felt warm all over. “Go on then and slide down. Just once, mind you, and tomorrow I will show you the proper way to go about it.”
There was a scuffle and a sliding noise like half-a-dozen little penguins sledding down an embankment, then a rush and a dreadful clatter of shoes-on-marble as the children came up the stairs. Darby and Charlotte each grabbed one of Cecily’s hands and the whole mob of children and nanny proceeded up the stairs and into the hall. Cecily withdrew her hand and put a finger to her lips.
“We must be quiet, for your Mama has a headache,” she said.
The children were so far acquainted with their new nanny at this point, that they thought absolutely nothing of her knowing about their mother, and they only crept down the hall and assembled at the door in silence. Cecily put a hand to the knob and eased the door in, and strange to say, it did not hush at them as usual but glided open without a sound.
“Children? Is that you?” Mrs. Macefield’s querulous voice warbled from the shadows of her canopied bed.
“Yes, Mum,” Bertram said in a low voice. “We’ve brought our new nanny too.”
“A new nanny?” Mrs. Macefield asked in accusing tones, as if it were far more probable they had brought a giraffe or a baboon to perform tricks for her. “What do you mean by teasing me so?”
“But we aren’t, Mum. Her name is Cecily Woodruff, and she’s come to look after us.” Bertram took hold of one of Cecily’s hands and tugged her forward. Cecily stepped into the uncertain light of the bedside gas-lamp, and curtsied. It was the most regal curtsey Bertram had ever seen, for Miss Woodruff did not bow her head, but sank down, long lashes sweeping her cheeks, and rose again with courtly poise. He could almost imagine she was not a nanny at all, but a fine lady at a dress-ball—only the clothes were wrong, and the room was wrong, and there was no music.
Mrs. Macefield fluttered in her bed, clutching at her blanket with discontent fingers and sighing. “I regret I am not able to leave my bed, Miss Woodruff,” she said, casting her eyes at the said person and sighing again.
“Regrettable indeed, Mrs. Macefield. But rest assured, the children and I are getting along very well already.”
Mrs. Macefield laughed bitterly, but it was so very unlike Cecily’s musical laughter that it jarred Bertram’s ears and he drew away from his mother.
“Doubtless you will find out, Miss Woodruff, that the children are not all they seem. Or perhaps, they are more than they seem. Either way, they ran the last nanny off after only a month.”
Cecily inclined her head with a respectful gesture, but by the set of her red lips, Bertram knew she was not pleased. He felt unsettled and torn inside, like he’d eaten too many muffins at teatime, and one of them had been full of pencil shavings. Cecily—nay, Miss Woodruff was so wonderful he couldn’t help but side with her. But then Mum wasn’t a bad sort, and she was ill—so perhaps his allegiance belonged to her?
Bertram did not like such problems—they couldn’t be solved with logic, and therefore they oughtn’t to exist. He scuffed at a beige rose in the carpet and wondered what would happen next. Something had to happen, for they were all standing here dull as powder in a sort of unspoken check-mate.
As Bertram felt his collar tighten and his ears getting hot, and he wondered if the awkwardness would ever wear off, Miss Woodruff finally cleared her throat. It had an “I’ll handle this” sort of sound to it, and Bertram let his breath out in a relieved whistle.
“Mrs. Macefield, I have not had much experience in life yet—”
“No,” Mrs. Macefield said. It was a very decided no, and Bertram bit his lip at the sarcasm shaking through its tones. Miss Woodruff only smiled, and under the influence of her smile, Mrs. Macefield’s manner relaxed an increment. “No, you have not. But I interrupted you—go on, pray.”
Miss Woodruff clasped her hands before her, and the gas-light shone on her hair till it glowed like polished pine-wood. “I believe it is a rule with people that the moment we think we know everything about a person, we find out we are very much wrong. Goodnight, Mrs. Macefield.”
Cecily Woodruff stepped back into the shadows and pushed the children forward with a gentle but firm hand. They dropped heartfelt, though timid kisses on Mrs. Macefield’s sallow cheeks, then tip-toed out of the room, feeling that something had gone wrong and been set right all in a moment back there.
Once in the nursery, Cecily sighed, and swept the children with a bright gaze. “We shall have to see about cheering your Mama up,” she said.
Adelaide poked her head through the opening of her night-gown and wriggled her arms through the sleeves. “Oh, Mum is always ill. There’s no use trying to cheer her up.”
Cecily pulled Adelaide to her side and fastened the buttons up the back with her lithe, tapering fingers. “But think how much worse her illness would be if you didn’t try your very best to make her feel better.”
Adelaide gave a side-ways smile and tugged her curls into a loose braid. “You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met, Miss Woodruff.”
“Oh? How so?”
Adelaide jumped in bed beside Charlotte and pulled the covers to her chin. “I don’t know exactly—but you’re better and prettier somehow than anyone in real life. It’s almost as if you were a fairy princess come out of a story to take care of us.”
“Yes, Miss Woodruff,” Charlotte said. Her voice came sleepily from the depths of the feather-pillows.
Darby and Bertram scrambled into their beds and burrowed beneath the counterpanes like a pair of dozy caterpillars. The babies toddled over to Cecily as she seated herself in the rocking chair near the fireplace. She lifted them into her lap, and Eugenie laid a curly head against Cecily’s breast. Fergus regarded her with a thoughtful expression on his baby-face.
Darby sat up and scratched his nose. “Where are you from, Miss Woodruff?”
A queer smile quirked at the corners of Cecily’s mouth as she answered, “I may or may not be from somewhere very far away.”
And if felt then, as Adelaide later described it, as if her words made the world seem very large, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. It was such a strange, broadening sensation, and not at all like a Just Before Bed thought, that the children were more than happy to whisper goodnights to each other and go to sleep directly. And nothing, save the moon out the nursery window, saw the starry tear slip down Cecily’s cheek and land on Eugenie’s nightgown as she rocked the child to sleep.