The Baby and the Bird

When Ellis, after this rebuff, had disconsolately taken his leave, Clara, much elated at the righteous punishment she had inflicted upon the slanderer, ran upstairs to the nursery, and, snatching Dodie from Mammy Jane’s arms, began dancing gayly with him round the room.

“Look a-hyuh, honey,” said Mammy Jane, “you better be keerful wid dat chile, an’ don’ drap ’im on de flo’. You might let him fall on his head an’ break his neck. My, my! but you two does make a pretty pictur’! You’ll be wantin’ ole Jane ter come an’ nuss yo’ child’en some er dese days,” she chuckled unctuously.

Mammy Jane had been very much disturbed by the recent dangers through which little Dodie had passed; and his escape from strangulation, in the first place, and then from the knife had impressed her as little less than miraculous. She was not certain whether this result had been brought about by her manipulation of the buried charm, or by the prayers which had been offered for the child, but was inclined to believe that both had cooperated to avert the threatened calamity. The favorable outcome of this particular incident had not, however, altered the general situation. Prayers and charms, after all, were merely temporary things, which must be constantly renewed, and might be forgotten or overlooked; while the mole, on the contrary, neither faded nor went away. If its malign influence might for a time seem to disappear, it was merely lying dormant, like the germs of some deadly disease, awaiting its opportunity to strike at an unguarded spot.

Clara and the baby were laughing in great glee, when a mockingbird, perched on the topmost bough of a small tree opposite the nursery window, burst suddenly into song, with many a trill and quaver. Clara, with the child in her arms, sprang to the open window.

“Sister Olivia,” she cried, turning her face toward Mrs. Carteret, who at that moment entered the room, “come and look at Dodie.”

The baby was listening intently to the music, meanwhile gurgling with delight, and reaching his chubby hands toward the source of this pleasing sound. It seemed as though the mockingbird were aware of his appreciative audience, for he ran through the songs of a dozen different birds, selecting, with the discrimination of a connoisseur and entire confidence in his own powers, those which were most difficult and most alluring.

Mrs. Carteret approached the window, followed by Mammy Jane, who waddled over to join the admiring party. So absorbed were the three women in the baby and the bird that neither one of them observed a neat top buggy, drawn by a sleek sorrel pony, passing slowly along the street before the house. In the buggy was seated a lady, and beside her a little boy, dressed in a child’s sailor suit and a straw hat. The lady, with a wistful expression, was looking toward the party grouped in the open window.

Mrs. Carteret, chancing to lower her eyes for an instant, caught the other woman’s look directed toward her and her child. With a glance of cold aversion she turned away from the window.

Old Mammy Jane had observed this movement, and had divined the reason for it. She stood beside Clara, watching the retreating buggy.

“Uhhuh!” she said to herself, “it’s huh sister Janet! She ma’ied a doctuh, an’ all dat, an’ she lives in a big house, an’ she’s be’n roun’ de worl’ an de Lawd knows where e’se: but Mis’ ’Livy don’ like de sight er her, an’ never will, ez long ez de sun rises an’ sets. Dey ce’t’nly does favor one anudder⁠—anybody mought ’low dey wuz twins, ef dey didn’ know better. Well, well! Fo’ty yeahs ago who’d ’a’ ever expected ter see a nigger gal ridin’ in her own buggy? My, my! but I don’ know⁠—I don’ know! It don’ look right, an’ it ain’ gwine ter las’!⁠—you can’t make me b’lieve!”

Meantime Janet, stung by Mrs. Carteret’s look⁠—the nearest approach she had ever made to a recognition of her sister’s existence⁠—had turned away with hardening face. She had struck her pony sharply with the whip, much to the gentle creature’s surprise, when the little boy, who was still looking back, caught his mother’s sleeve and exclaimed excitedly:⁠—

“Look, look, mamma! The baby⁠—the baby!”

Janet turned instantly, and with a mother’s instinct gave an involuntary cry of alarm.

At the moment when Mrs. Carteret had turned away from the window, and while Mammy Jane was watching Janet, Clara had taken a step forward, and was leaning against the windowsill. The baby, convulsed with delight, had given a spasmodic spring and slipped from Clara’s arms. Instinctively the young woman gripped the long skirt as it slipped through her hands, and held it tenaciously, though too frightened for an instant to do more. Mammy Jane, ashen with sudden dread, uttered an inarticulate scream, but retained self-possession enough to reach down and draw up the child, which hung dangerously suspended, head downward, over the brick pavement below.

“Oh, Clara, Clara, how could you!” exclaimed Mrs. Carteret reproachfully; “you might have killed my child!”

She had snatched the child from Jane’s arms, and was holding him closely to her own breast. Struck by a sudden thought, she drew near the window and looked out. Twice within a few weeks her child had been in serious danger, and upon each occasion a member of the Miller family had been involved, for she had heard of Dr. Miller’s presumption in trying to force himself where he must have known he would be unwelcome.

Janet was just turning her head away as the buggy moved slowly off. Olivia felt a violent wave of antipathy sweep over her toward this baseborn sister who had thus thrust herself beneath her eyes. If she had not cast her brazen glance toward the window, she herself would not have turned away and lost sight of her child. To this shameless intrusion, linked with Clara’s carelessness, had been due the catastrophe, so narrowly averted, which might have darkened her own life forever. She took to her bed for several days, and for a long time was cold toward Clara, and did not permit her to touch the child.

Mammy Jane entertained a theory of her own about the accident, by which the blame was placed, in another way, exactly where Mrs. Carteret had laid it. Julia’s daughter, Janet, had been looking intently toward the window just before little Dodie had sprung from Clara’s arms. Might she not have cast the evil eye upon the baby, and sought thereby to draw him out of the window? One would not ordinarily expect so young a woman to possess such a power, but she might have acquired it, for this very purpose, from some more experienced person. By the same reasoning, the mockingbird might have been a familiar of the witch, and the two might have conspired to lure the infant to destruction. Whether this were so or not, the transaction at least wore a peculiar look. There was no use telling Mis’ ’Livy about it, for she didn’t believe, or pretended not to believe, in witchcraft and conjuration. But one could not be too careful. The child was certainly born to be exposed to great dangers⁠—the mole behind the left ear was an unfailing sign⁠—and no precaution should be omitted to counteract its baleful influence.

While adjusting the baby’s crib, a few days later, Mrs. Carteret found fastened under one of the slats a small bag of cotton cloth, about half an inch long and tied with a black thread, upon opening which she found a few small roots or fibres and a pinch of dried and crumpled herbs. It was a good-luck charm which Mammy Jane had placed there to ward off the threatened evil from the grandchild of her dear old mistress. Mrs. Carteret’s first impulse was to throw the bag into the fire, but on second thoughts she let it remain. To remove it would give unnecessary pain to the old nurse. Of course these old negro superstitions were absurd⁠—but if the charm did no good, it at least would do no harm.