Of a sudden she noticed that an imitation-lace cover which should have lain mathematically square with the imitation-marble top of the radiator behind the green plush sofa had slipped away so that one corner hung over the bronze-painted steam pipes. She recalled that she must have rested her poor head against the radiator-top while she was taking off her boots. She tried to get up and set the thing straight, but the radiator at once receded toward the horizon, which, unlike true horizons, slanted diagonally, exactly parallel with the dropped lace edge of the cover. Frau Ebermann groaned through sticky lips and lay still.
‘Certainly, I have a temperature,’ she said. ‘Certainly, I have a grave temperature. I should have been warned by that chill after dinner.’
She resolved to shut her hot-lidded eyes, but opened them in a little while to torture herself with the knowledge of that ungeometrical thing against the far wall. Then she saw a child—an untidy, thin-faced little girl of about ten, who must have strayed in from the adjoining flat. This proved—Frau Ebermann groaned again at the way the world falls to bits when one is sick—proved that Anna had forgotten to shut the outer door of the flat when she went to the chemist. Frau Ebermann had had children of her own, but they were all grown up now, and she had never been a child-lover in any sense. Yet the intruder might be made to serve her scheme of things.
‘Make—put,’ she muttered thickly, ‘that white thing straight on the top of that yellow thing.’
The child paid no attention, but moved about the room, investigating everything that came in her way—the yellow cut-glass handles of the chest of drawers, the stamped bronze hook to hold back the heavy puce curtains, and the mauve enamel, New Art finger-plates on the door. Frau Ebermann watched indignantly.
‘Aie! That is bad and rude. Go away!’ she cried, though it hurt her to raise her voice. ‘Go away by the road you came!’ The child passed behind the bed-foot, where she could not see her. ‘Shut the door as you go. I will speak to Anna, but—first, put that white thing straight.’
She closed her eyes in misery of body and soul. The outer door clicked, and Anna entered, very penitent that she had stayed so long at the chemist’s. But it had been difficult to find the proper type of inhaler, and——
‘Where did the child go?’ moaned Frau Ebermann—‘the child that was here?’
‘There was no child,’ said startled Anna. ‘How should any child come in when I shut the door behind me after I go out? All the keys of the flats are different.’
‘No, no! You forgot this time. But my back is aching, and up my legs also. Besides, who knows what it may have fingered and upset? Look and see.’
‘Nothing is fingered, nothing is upset,’ Anna replied, as she took the inhaler from its paper box.
‘Yes, there is. Now I remember all about it. Put—put that white thing, with the open edge—the lace, I mean—quite straight on that—’ she pointed. Anna, accustomed to her ways, understood and went to it.
‘Now, is it quite straight?’ Frau Ebermann demanded.
‘Perfectly,’ said Anna. ‘In fact, in the very centre of the radiator.’ Anna measured the equal margins with her knuckle, as she had been told to do when she first took service.
‘And my tortoise-shell hair brushes?’ Fran Ebermann could not command her dressing-table from where she lay.
‘Perfectly straight, side by side in the big tray, and the comb laid across them. Your watch also in the coralline watch-holder. Everything’—she moved round the room to make sure—‘everything is as you have it when you are well.’ Frau Ebermann sighed with relief. It seemed to her that the room and her head had suddenly grown cooler.
‘Good! ‘said she. ‘Now warm my nightgown in the kitchen, so it will be ready when I have perspired. And the towels also. Make the inhaler steam, and put in the eucalyptus; that is good for the larynx. Then sit you in the kitchen, and come when I ring. But, first, my hot-water bottle.’
It was brought and scientifically tucked in.
‘What news?’ said Frau Ebermann drowsily. She had not been out that day.
‘Another victory,’ said Anna. ‘Many more prisoners and guns.’
Frau Ebermann purred, one might almost say grunted, contentedly.
‘That is good too,’ she said; and Anna, after lighting the inhaler-lamp, went out.
Frau Ebermann reflected that in an hour or so the aspirin would begin to work, and all would be well. To-morrow—no, the day after—she would take up life with something to talk over with her friends at coffee. It was rare—every one knew it—that she should be overcome by any ailment. Yet in all her distresses she had not allowed the minutest deviation from daily routine and ritual. She would tell her friends—she ran over their names one by one—exactly what measures she had taken against the lace cover on the radiatortop and in regard to her two tortoise-shell hairbrushes and the comb at right angles. How she had set everything in order—everything in order. She roved further afield as she wriggled her toes luxuriously on the hot-water bottle. If it pleased our dear God to take her to Himself, and she was not so young as she had been—there was that plate of the four lower ones in the blue tooth-glass, for instance—He should find all her belongings fit to meet His eye. ‘Swept and garnished’ were the words that shaped themselves in her intent brain. ‘Swept and garnished for——’
No, it was certainly not for the dear Lord that she had swept; she would have her room swept out to-morrow or the day after, and garnished. Her hands began to swell again into huge pillows of nothingness. Then they shrank, and so did her head, to minute dots. It occurred to her that she was waiting for some event, some tremendously important event, to come to pass. She lay with shut eyes for a long time till her head and hands should return to their proper size.
She opened her eyes with a jerk.
‘How stupid of me,’ she said aloud, ‘to set the room in order for a parcel of dirty little children!’
They were there—five of them, two little boys and three girls—headed by the anxious-eyed ten-year-old whom she had seen before. They must have entered by the outer door, which Anna had neglected to shut behind her when she returned with the inhaler. She counted them backward and forward as one counts scales—one, two, three, four, five.
They took no notice of her, but hung about, first on one foot then on the other, like strayed chickens, the smaller ones holding by the larger. They had the air of utterly wearied passengers in a railway waiting-room, and their clothes were disgracefully dirty.
‘Go away!’ cried Frau Ebermann at last, after she had struggled, it seemed to her, for years to shape the words.
‘You called?’ said Anna at the living-room door.
‘No,’ said her mistress. ‘Did you shut the flat door when you came in?’
‘Assuredly,’ said Anna. ‘Besides, it is made to catch shut of itself.’
‘Then go away,’ said she, very little above a whisper. If Anna pretended not to see the children, she would speak to Anna later on.
‘And now,’ she said, turning toward them as soon as the door closed. The smallest of the crowd smiled at her, and shook his head before he buried it in his sister’s skirts.
‘Why—don’t—you—go—away?’ she whispered earnestly.
Again they took no notice, but, guided by the elder girl, set themselves to climb, boots and all, on to the green plush sofa in front of the radiator. The little boys had to be pushed, as they could not compass the stretch unaided. They settled themselves in a row, with small gasps of relief, and pawed the plush approvingly.
‘I ask you—I ask you why do you not go away—why do you not go away?’ Frau Ebermann found herself repeating the question twenty times. It seemed to her that everything in the world hung on the answer. ‘You know you should not come into houses and rooms unless you are invited. Not houses and bedrooms, you know.’
‘No,’ a solemn little six-year-old repeated, ‘not houses nor bedrooms, nor dining-rooms, nor churches, nor all those places. Shouldn’t come in. It’s rude.’
‘Yes, he said so,’ the younger girl put in proudly. ‘He said it. He told them only pigs would do that.’ The line nodded and dimpled one to another with little explosive giggles, such as children use when they tell deeds of great daring against their elders.
‘If you know it is wrong, that makes it much worse,’ said Frau Ebermann.
‘Oh yes; much worse,’ they assented cheerfully, till the smallest boy changed his smile to a baby wail of weariness.
‘When will they come for us?’ he asked, and the girl at the head of the row hauled him bodily into her square little capable lap.
‘He’s tired,’ she explained. ‘He is only four. He only had his first breeches this spring.’ They came almost under his armpits, and were held up by broad linen braces, which, his sorrow diverted for the moment, he patted proudly.
‘Yes, beautiful, dear,’ said both girls.
‘Go away!’ said Frau Ebermann. ‘Go home to your father and mother! ‘
Their faces grew grave at once.
‘H’sh! We can’t,’ whispered the eldest ‘There isn’t anything left.’
‘All gone,’ a boy echoed, and he puffed through pursed lips. ‘Like that, uncle told me. Both cows too.’
‘And my own three ducks,’ the boy on the girl’s lap said sleepily.
‘So, you see, we came here.’ The elder girl leaned forward a little, caressing the child she rocked.
‘I—I don’t understand,’ said Frau Ebermann. ‘Are you lost, then? You must tell our police.’
‘Oh no; we are only waiting.’
‘But what are you waiting for?’
‘We are waiting for our people to come for us. They told us to come here and wait for them. So we are waiting till they come,’ the eldest girl replied.
‘Yes. We are waiting till our people come for us,’ said all the others in chorus.
‘But,’ said Frau Ebermann very patiently—‘but now tell me, for I tell you that I am not in the least angry, where do you come from? Where do you come from?’
The five gave the names of two villages of which she had read in the papers.
‘That is silly,’ said Frau Ebermann. ‘The people fired on us, and they were punished. Those places are wiped out, stamped flat.’
‘Yes, yes, wiped out, stamped flat. That is why and—I have lost the ribbon off my pigtail,’ said the younger girl. She looked behind her over the sofa-back.
‘It is not here,’ said the elder. ‘It was lost before. Don’t you remember?’
‘Now, if you are lost, you must go and tell our police. They will take care of you and give you food,’ said Frau Ebermann. ‘Anna will show you the way there.’
‘No,’—this was the six-year-old with the smile,—‘we must wait here till our people come for us. Mustn’t we, sister?’
‘Of course. We wait here till our people come for us. All the world knows that,’ said the eldest girl.
‘Yes.’ The boy in her lap had waked again. ‘Little children, too—as little as Henri, and he doesn’t wear trousers yet. As little as all that.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said Frau Ebermann, shivering. In spite of the heat of the room and the damp breath of the steam-inhaler, the aspirin was not doing its duty.
The girl raised her blue eyes and looked at the woman for an instant.
‘You see,’ she said, emphasising her statements with her fingers, ‘they told us to wait here till our people came for us. So we came. We wait till our people come for us.’
‘That is silly again,’ said Frau Ebermann. ‘It is no good for you to wait here. Do you know what this place is? You have been to school? It is Berlin, the capital of Germany.’
‘Yes, yes,’ they all cried; ‘Berlin, capital of Germany. We know that. That is why we came.’
‘So, you see, it is no good,’ she said triumphantly, ‘because your people can never come for you here.’
‘They told us to come here and wait till our people came for us.’ They delivered this as if it were a lesson in school. Then they sat still, their hands orderly folded on their laps, smiling as sweetly as ever.
‘Go away! Go away!’Frau Ebermann shrieked.
‘You called?’ said Anna, entering.
‘No. Go away! Go away!’
‘Very good, old cat,’ said the maid under her breath. ‘Next time you may call,’ and she returned to her friend in the kitchen.
‘I ask you—ask you, please to go away,’ Frau Ebermann pleaded. ‘Go to my Anna through that door, and she will give you cakes and sweeties. It is not kind of you to come into my room and behave so badly.’
‘Where else shall we go now?’ the elder girl demanded, turning to her little company. They fell into discussion. One preferred the broad street with trees, another the railway station; but when she suggested an Emperor’s palace, they agreed with her.
‘We will go then,’ she said, and added half apologetically to Frau Ebermann, ‘You see, they are so little they like to meet all the others.’
‘What others?’ said Frau Ebermann.
‘The others—hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of the others.’
‘That is a lie. There cannot be a hundred even, much less a thousand,’ cried Frau Ebermann.
‘So?’ said the girl politely.
‘Yes. I tell you; and I have very good information. I know how it happened. You should have been more careful. You should not have run out to see the horses and guns passing. That is how it is done when our troops pass through. My son has written me so.’
They had clambered down from the sofa, and gathered round the bed with eager, interested eyes.
‘Horses and guns going by—how fine!’ some one whispered.
‘Yes, yes; believe me, that is how the accidents to the children happen. You must know yourself that it is true. One runs out to look——’
‘But I never saw any at all,’ a boy cried sorrowfully. ‘Only one noise I heard. That was when Aunt Emmeline’s house fell down.’
‘But listen to me. I am telling you! One runs out to look, because one is little and cannot see well. So one peeps between the man’s legs, and then—you know how close those big horses and guns turn the corners—then one’s foot slips and one gets run over. That’s how it happens. Several times it had happened, but not many times; certainly not a hundred, perhaps not twenty. So, you see, you must be all. Tell me now that you are all that there are, and Anna shall give you the cakes.’
‘Thousands,’ a boy repeated monotonously. ‘Then we all come here to wait till our people come for us.’
‘But now we will go away from here. The poor lady is tired,’ said the elder girl, plucking his sleeve.
‘Oh, you hurt, you hurt!’ he cried, and burst into tears.
‘What is that for?’ said Frau Ebermann. ‘To cry in a room where a poor lady is sick is very inconsiderate.’
‘Oh, but look, lady!’ said the elder girl.
Frau Ebermann looked and saw.
‘Au revoir, lady.’ They made their little smiling bows and curtseys undisturbed by her loud cries. ‘Au revoir, lady. We will wait till our people come for us.’
When Anna at last ran in, she found her mistress on her knees, busily cleaning the floor with the lace cover from the radiator, because, she explained, it was all spotted with the blood of five children—she was perfectly certain there could not be more than five in the whole world—who had gone away for the moment, but were now waiting round the corner, and Anna was to find them and give them cakes to stop the bleeding, while her mistress swept and garnished that Our dear Lord when He came might find everything as it should be.