The Book of Small

Mrs. Crane

I heard two women talking. One said to the other, “Mrs. Crane has a large heart.”

“Yes,” replied her companion, “and it is in the right place too.”

I thought, “That’s queer—hearts are in the middle of people. How can any person know if another person’s heart is big or small, or if it is in the right or the wrong place?”

Soon after I heard this conversation about Mrs. Crane’s heart, our Mother was seized with a very serious illness. My sister Alice and I—she was two years older—were hushed into the garden with our dolls and there, peeping from behind the currant bushes, we saw a high yellow dogcart stop in front of our gate. Mrs. Crane descended from it and came stalking up our garden walk.

“Come to enquire, I s’pose,” whispered Alice.

“My! Isn’t she long and narrow?” I replied.

Silently I fell to trying to make all the different hearts I knew fit into Mrs. Crane’s body—the gold locket one that made your neck shiver, beautiful valentine ones with forget-me-nots around them, sugar hearts, with mottoes, a horrible brown thing Mother said was a pig’s heart and boiled for the cat—none of these would fit into Mrs. Crane’s long narrow body.

She seemed to grow taller and taller as she came nearer. When she tiptoed up the steps, to us, crouched behind the currant bushes, she seemed a giant.

My big sister opened the door to Mrs. Crane. They whispered. Then my sister came to us and said, “Children, kind Mrs. Crane is going to take you home with her until Mother is better.”

Alice’s big eyes darkened with trouble. Obediently she picked up her doll and turned towards the house. I set my doll down with a spank, planted my feet wide apart and said, “Don’t want to go!”

My sister gave me an impatient shake. Mrs. Crane ahemmed.

We were scrubbed hard, and buttoned into our starchiest. Mrs. Crane took one of Alice’s hands and one of mine into a firm black kid grip and marched us to the gate. While she opened the gate, she let go of Alice’s hand but doubled her grip on mine. Her eyes were like brown chocolate drops, hot and rich in colour when she looked at Alice, but when she looked at me they went cold and stale-looking.

We were hoisted up to the back seat of the dogcart. Father’s splendid carpet bag with red roses on its sides and the great brass lock, was put under our feet to keep them from dangling. The bag was full of clean frocks and handkerchiefs and hairbrushes.

Mrs. Crane climbed up in front beside Mr. Crane. His seat was half a storey higher than hers. Mr. Crane cracked his whip and the yellow wheels spun furiously. Our house got smaller and smaller, then the road twisted and it was gone altogether. The world felt enormous.

We crossed two bridges. Mud flats were under one and the gas-works were under the other—they both smelt horrid. The horse’s hoofs made a deafening clatter on the bridges, and then they pounded steadily on and on over the hard road. When at last we came to the Crane’s house, it seemed as if we must have gone all around the world, and then somehow got there hind-before. You passed the Crane’s back gate first, and then you came to the front gate. The front door was on the back of the house. The house faced the water, which looked like a river, but was really the sea and salt. You went down the hill to the house and up the hill to the stable; everything was backwards to what it was at home and made you feel like Mother’s egg-timer turned over.

Mrs. Crane had three little girls. The two younger were the same age as Alice and I.

The three little Cranes ran out of the house when they heard us come. They kissed Mama politely and, falling on Papa, hugged him like bears.

A man came to lead the horse away. The little Cranes were all busy guessing what was in the parcels that came from under the seat of the dogcart, but the receding clop! clop! of the horse’s hoofs, hammered desolation into the souls of Alice and me.

The Crane’s hall was big and warm and dark, except for the glow from a large heater, which pulled out shiny things like the noses of a lot of guns hanging in a rack on the wall and the fire irons and the stair rods. It picked out the brass lock of Father’s bag and the poor glassy eyes of stuffed bear and wolves and owls and deer. Helen saw me looking at them as we went upstairs and said, “My Papa shot all those.”

“What for?”

Helen stared at me. “What for? Doesn’t your Papa go in for sport?”

“What is sport, Helen?”

Helen considered. “Why it’s—killing things just for fun, not because you are hungry, chasing things with dogs and shooting them.”

“My Father does not do that.”

“My Papa is a crack shot,” boasted Helen.

Alice and I had a grown-up bedroom. One window looked over the water and had a window-seat. The other window looked into a little pine wood. There was a pair of beautiful blue china candlesticks on the mantlepiece.

We children had nursery tea. Mrs. Crane had Grace the biggest girl pour tea and Grace was snobbish. After tea we went into the drawing-room.

Mrs. Crane’s drawing-room was a most beautiful room. There was a big three-cornered piano in it, two sofas and a lot of lazy chairs for lolling in. At home only Father and Mother sat in easy chairs: they did not think it was good for little girls to sit on any kind but straight up-and-down chairs of wood or cane. Mrs. Crane’s lazy chairs were fat and soft and were dressed up in shiny stuff with rosebuds sprinkled all over it. But bowls of real roses everywhere made the cloth ones look foolish and growing ones poking their pink faces into the open windows were best of all and smelled lovely. A bright little fire burned in the grate and kept the little sea breeze from being too cold and the breeze kept the fire from being too hot. In front of the fire was a big fur rug; a brown-and-white dog was sprawled out upon it.

When we five little girls trooped into the drawing-room, I thought that the dog was the only creature in the room. Then I saw the top of Mr. Crane’s head and his slippers sticking out above and below a mound of newspapers in an easy chair on one side of the fire. On the other side the fire lit up Mrs. Crane’s hands folded in her lap. Her face was hidden behind a beaded drape hanging from a brass rod which shaded her eyes from the fire-light. One hand lifted and patted a stool at her knee—this Helen went and sat on. Mrs. Crane’s lap was deep and should have been splendid to sit in, but her little girls never sat there. Helen said it was because Mama’s heart was weak and I said, “But Helen, I thought big things were always strong?”

Helen did not know what I meant, because of course she had not heard those ladies discussing her Mother’s heart and so she did not know what I knew about it.

Mrs. Crane told “Gracie dear”, to play one of her “pieces” on the piano. She always added dear to her children’s names as if it was a part of them.

Mary Crane and our Alice were shy little girls. They sat on the sofa with their dolls in their laps. Their eyes stared like the dolls’ eyes. Mrs. Crane would not allow dolls to be dressed or undressed in the drawing-room; she said it was not nice. I sat on the edge of a chair till it tipped, then I found myself in the very best place in all the room—right down on the fur rug beside the dog. When I put my head down on his side, he thumped his tail and a lovely live quiver ran through his whole body. I had meant to fight off sleep because of that strange bed upstairs, but the fire was warm and the dog comforting . . . I couldn’t think whose far-off voice it was saying, “Come to bed, children,” or whose hand it was shaking me.

The cold upstairs woke us up. Mrs. Crane looked black and tall standing by the mantlepiece lighting the blue candles. The big room ran away into dark corners. The bed was turned down and our nighties were ready, but we did not seem to know what to do next unless it was to cry. Mrs. Crane did not seem to know what to do either, so she said, “Perhaps you little girls would like to come into my little girls’ room while they undress?” So we sat on their ottoman and watched. They brushed themselves a great deal—their hair and nails and teeth. They folded their clothes and said their prayers into Mrs. Crane’s front, then stepped into bed very politely. Mrs. Crane told them to lie on their right sides, keep their mouths shut and breathe through their noses, then she threw the windows up wide. The wind rushed in, sputtered the candle and swept between Mrs. Crane’s kisses and the children’s foreheads. Then she blew the candle gently as if she was trying to teach the wind manners.

Back in our room, Mrs. Crane said something about “undoing buttons”. I backed up to Alice very quickly and she told Mrs. Crane that we could undo each other.

“Very well,” said Mrs. Crane, “I’ll come back and put out the candle presently.”

We scurried into bed, pulled the covers up over our heads and lay very still.

She came and stood beside the two white mounds for a second—then two gentle puffs, the up-screech of the window, long soft footsteps receding down the hall.

Two heads popped up from the covers.

“Weren’t you scared she’d kiss us?”

“Awfully! Or that she’d want to hear our prayers?”

“The Crane girls are very religious.”

“How’d you know?”

“They said two verses of ‘Now I lay me’. We only know one.”

Alice always slept quickly and beautifully. I tossed every way and did not sleep, till all my troubles were pickled away in tears.

At breakfast while Mrs. Crane was busy with the tea-cups I got the first chance of staring at her hard. The light was good and she was much lower, sitting. She talked to Mr. Crane as she poured the tea, using big polite words in a deep voice. The words rolled round her wisdom teeth before they came out. Her hair, skin and dress were brown like her eyes. Her heart could not help being in the right place, it was clasped so tight by her corset and her brown stuff-dress was stretched so taut above that and buttoned from chin to waist. Her heart certainly could not be a wide one. Her hands were clean and strong, with big knuckles. The longer I looked at Mrs. Crane the less I liked her. But I did like a lot of her things—the vase in the middle of the dining-room table for instance. Helen called it Mama’s “epergne”. It was a two-storey thing of glass and silver and was always full of choice flowers, pure white geraniums that one longed to stroke and kiss to see if they were real, fat begonias and big heavy-headed fuchsias. Flowers loved Mrs. Crane and grew for her.

Mrs. Crane’s garden was not as tidy as Father’s but the flowers had a good time and were not so prim. Mrs. Crane was lenient with her flowers. She let the wild ones scramble up and down each side of the clay path that ran down the bank to the sea. They jumbled themselves up like dancers—roses and honeysuckle climbed everywhere. The front drive, which was really behind the house, was circular and enclosed a space filled with fruit trees and raspberry canes. The vegetable garden was in the front and the flowerbeds in the back, because, of course, the front of the house was at the back. There was a little croquet lawn too and the little pine wood that our bedroom looked out on.

In the middle of this wood was a large platform with lots of dog-kennels on it—to these Mr. Crane’s hunting dogs were chained.

The dogs did not know anything about women or girls and Mrs. Crane did not like them. Mr. Crane would not let the children handle them; he said it spoilt them for hunting. I wanted to go to them dreadfully but Helen said that I must not. The children were allowed to have the old one who had been in the drawing-room because he was no good for hunting.

Helen said, “Once I had a little black dog. I loved him very much, but Papa said he was a mongrel. So he got his gun and shot him. When the little dog saw the gun pointed at him he sat up and begged. The shot went through his heart, but he still sat up with the beg frozen in his paws.”

“Oh Helen, how could your father? Why didn’t your mother stop him?”

“It did not make any difference to Mama. It was not her dog.”

In our house nobody would have thought of telling Father “not to”. Nor would we have thought of meddling with Father’s things. In the Cranes’ home it was different. When Helen took me into a funny little room built all by itself in the garden and said, “This is Papa’s Den,” I was frightened and said, “Oh Helen! surely we ought not to.”

There was not a single woman’s thing in the Den. There were guns and fishing rods and wading boots and there was a desk with papers and lots of big books. There was a bottle of quicksilver. Helen uncorked it and poured it onto the table. It did amazing things, breaking itself to bits and then joining itself together again, but presently it rolled off the table and we could not find it. Whenever Mr. Crane came home after that, I was in terror for fear he would ask about the quicksilver and I hated him because he had shot the little begging dog.

The little Cranes never took liberties with Mama’s things.

It seemed years since we left home, but neither Alice nor I had had a birthday and there had been only one Sunday at Mrs. Crane’s. There was one splendid thing though and that was Cricket. He was a pinto pony belonging to the children. Every day he was saddled and we rode him in turns. The older girls rode in a long habit. Helen’s legs and mine were too young to be considered improper by Mrs. Crane. So our frillies flapped joyously. Helen switched Cricket to make him go fast, but fast or slow were alike to me. It was a delight to feel his warm sides against my legs. The toss of his mane, the switch of his tail, his long sighs and short snorts, the delicious tickle of his lips when you fed him sugar—everything about him was entrancing, even the horsy smell. Just the thought of Cricket, when you were crying yourself to sleep, helped.

There was no more room for Cricket in Mrs. Crane’s heart than there was for the dogs, but Mrs. Crane’s heart did take in an old lady called Mrs. Miles. Mrs. Miles was almost deaf and almost blind. She wore a lace cap and a great many shawls and she knitted and blinked, knitted and blinked, all day. She came to stay with Mrs. Crane while we were there. Mrs. Miles liked fresh raspberries for her breakfast and to make up for being nearly blind and nearly deaf, Mrs. Crane gave her everything she could that she was fond of. We children had to get up earlier to pick raspberries and Mrs. Crane did not even mind if our fresh frocks got wetted with dew, because she wanted to comfort Mrs. Miles for being old and deaf and blind.

On Sunday afternoon Mrs. Miles draped her fluffiest shawl over her cap and face and everything and presently big snores came straining through it. Mr. Crane’s newspaper was sitting on top of his bald spot and he was snoring too—the paper flapped in and out above his mouth. Mr. Crane’s “awk, awk” and Mrs. Miles’ “eek, eek” wouldn’t keep step and we little girls giggled.

Mrs. Crane said, “It is very rude for little girls to laugh at their elders.”

Helen asked, “Even at their snores, Mama?”

“Even at their snores,” said Mrs. Crane. She hushed us into the far corner of the drawing-room and read us a very dull story.

Helen on the stool at her mother’s knee and the three others on the sofa were all comfortable enough to shut their eyes and forget, but how could anyone on a three-legged stool under the high top of the sofa sleep? Especially if the fringe of an antimacassar lolled over the top and tickled your neck? My fingers reached up to the little tails of wool bunched in colours and began to plait—red, yellow, black, red, yellow, black. A neat little row of pigtails hung there when the story was done and I thought it looked fine.

When we trooped down the stairs next morning, Mrs. Crane was waiting at the foot. Her teeth looked very long, the chocolate of her eyes very stale. From the upper landing we must have looked like a long caterpillar following her to the drawing-room.

Of course she knew it was me, because she had told me to sit there, but she put me through five separate agonies, her pointing finger getting longer and her voice deeper, with every “Did you do it?” When it came to me, her finger touched the antimacassar and her voice dragged me into a deep pit. When I said my, “Yes, Mrs. Crane,” she said that I had desecrated the work of her dear dead mother’s hands, that it was Satan that had told my idle fingers to do it, that I was a naughty mischievous child and that after breakfast I must undo all the little pigtails.

Not the boom of the breakfast gong, nor the bellow of Mr. Crane’s family prayers, nor the leather cushion that always smelt so real and nice when your nose went into it, could drown those horrid sobs. They couldn’t be swallowed nor would they let my breakfast pass them. So Mrs. Crane excused me and I went to the beastly antimacassar and wished her mother had taken it to Heaven with her. Mrs. Miles came and sat near and blinked and clicked, blinked and clicked.

“Please! Please! Mrs. Crane, can’t we go home?”

“And make your poor Mama worse?”

I did not even want to ride Cricket that day.

After tea we went to visit a friend of Mrs. Crane’s. We went in the boat. Mr. Crane rowed. Night came. Under the bridges the black was thick and the traffic thundered over our heads. Then we got into a boom of loose logs. They bumped our boat and made it shiver and when Mr. Crane stood up and pushed them away with his oar, it tipped. Helen and I were one on each side of Mrs. Crane in the stern. When she pulled one tiller rope her elbow dug into me, when she pulled the other her other elbow dug into Helen.

The ropes rattled in and out and the tiller squeaked. I began to shake and my teeth to chatter.

“Stop it, child!” said Mrs. Crane.

But I could not stop. I stared down into the black water and shook and shook and was deadly cold.

Mrs. Crane said I must have taken a chill. I had not eaten anything all day, so she gave me a large dose of castor oil when we got home. I felt dreadfully bad, especially in bed, when Alice said, “Why can’t you behave? You’ve annoyed Mrs. Crane all day.”

“I hate her! I hate her!” I cried. “She’s got a pig’s heart.”

Alice said, “For shame!”—hitched the bedclothes over her shoulder and immediately long breaths came from her.

Next morning was wet, but about noon there was meek sunshine and Helen and I were sent to run up and down the drive.

Everything was so opposite at Mrs. Crane’s that sometimes you had to feel your head to be sure you were not standing on it. For instance you could do all sorts of things in the garden, climb trees and swing on gates. It was not even wicked to step on a flower bed. But it was naughty to play in the stable yard among the creatures, or to tumble in the hay in the loft, or to lift a chicken, or to hold a puppy. Every time we came to the stable end of the drive, I just had to stop and talk to Cricket through the bars and peer into his great big eyes and whisper into his ears.

In the yard behind Cricket I saw a hen.

“Oh Helen just look at that poor hen! How bad she does feel!”

“How do you know she feels bad?”

“Well, look at her shut eyes and her head and tail and wings all flopped. She feels as I did yesterday. Maybe oil . . .”

“I’ll pour if you’ll hold,” said Helen.

We took the hen to the nursery. She liked the holding, but was angry at the pouring. When her throat was full she flapped free. I did not know a hen could fly so high. She knocked several things over and gargled the oil in her throat, then her big muddy feet clutched the top of the bookcase and she spat the oil over Mrs. Crane’s books so that she could cackle. She had seemed so meek and sick we could not believe it. I was still staring when I heard a little squashed “Mama” come from Helen, as if something had crushed it out of her.

Sometimes I have thought that Mrs. Crane had the power to grow and shrivel at will. She filled the room, her eyes burnt and her voice froze.

“Catch that fowl!”

As I mounted the chair to catch the hen, I saw what her muddy feet and the oil had done to me. Helen’s hair was long and she could hide behind it, but mine was short. I stepped carefully over the hateful blue bottle oozing sluggishly over the rug.

Out on the drive I plunged my burning face down into the fowl’s soft feathers.

“Oh, old hen, I wish I could shrivel and get under your wing!” I cried. I had to put her down and go back alone.

It seemed almost as if I had shrivelled, I felt so shamed and small when I saw Mrs. Crane on her knees scrubbing the rug.

I went close. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Crane.”

No answer. I went closer. “I wanted to help your hen. She’s better. Perhaps it was only a little cuddling she wanted.”

Oh, why didn’t she speak! Why didn’t she scold or even smack, not just scrub, scrub, scrub!

I stood looking down at Mrs. Crane. I had never seen the top of her before. I saw the part of her hair, the round of her shoulders, her broad back, her thickness when you saw her from on top. Perhaps after all there was room for quite a wide heart.

Suddenly now while I could reach her, I wanted to put my arms round her and cry.

Mrs. Crane rose so suddenly that she almost trod on me. I stepped back. The wings of her nose trembled. Mrs. Crane was smelling.

She strode to the doll cupboard and doubled down into it. When she backed out, a starfish dangled from the tips of the fingers of each hand. Helen and I had caught some under the boathouse ten days before and dressed them up in dolls’ clothes. Mrs. Crane’s nose and hands were as far as they could get away from each other.

Mrs. Crane looked at me hard. “Such things never enter my Helen’s head,” she said. “Your mama is better; they are coming for you tonight.”

In spite of the bad-smell-nose she wore, and the disgust in her fingertips, Mrs. Crane seemed to me just then a most beautiful woman.

“Oh, Mrs. Crane!”

My hands trembled up in that silly way pieces of us have of doing on their own, but the rest of me pulled them down quickly before Mrs. Crane saw.


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