TERRIFIED by the initial explosion of the mine, then confined by the bombardment to our rooms. I had not given a thought all day to our precious goat. When Toddy-Bob told me she was dead, I knew a moment of complete despair. Without the goat’s milk. Pearl faced starvation. – There was nothing else on which we could feed a three-month-old infant. Then I thought of Mrs MacGregor, “with more milk than a dozen old nannies”, and. with Charles, set out to find her. Stepping carefully over the recumbent forms of men who slept fully dressed on the floor. we made our way into the Residency and down a flight of stone stairs leading to the subterranean rooms where the wives of the men of the 32nd were quartered.
A series of large apartments opened before us, connected by great arches and ventilated only by inadequate slits set horizontally in the walls at roof level. Families crowded every inch of floor space. each huddled round some article of furniture or homely treasure-a brass bedstead perhaps, or a studded chest, or simply an old armchair losing its stuffing-that had come somehow to represent home and hearth. On mattresses laid on the bare stone the sick lay, many of them with their faces turned to the wall and away from the restless children, who ran and played noisily between and about their elders. The whole place reeked of damp and stank of ill, unwashed and crowded humanity. Compared to this, the air outside was almost sweet.
At length we discovered Jess sitting bolt upright on her mattress. She held her baby, wrapped in a shawl, in her arms. She did not seem to notice our approach. but a woman nearby. seeing us pause beside her, came to me and touched me on the arm.
“Mam, is it Jess you’re wantin’?”
“Yes.” I answered.
“Oh. mam, make ‘er give ‘im up! Last night it ‘appened, and she’s sat there like a statue all this while and let none of us lay a finger on ‘im.”
“But what . . . I don’t understand,” I whispered back.
-It’s her babe, mam. Jamie. ‘E died yesterday . . . but she won’t let ‘im go. Just sits there ‘olding ‘im, and singing to ‘im and crying. ‘Taint right-’e should be buried proper. mam, like all the others!”
MY heart sank. I wanted to leave the big woman to her grief. Before long she would recover from the first shock of sorrow and give up her child to her friends. I was an interloper: I had no right to interfere, and I wanted more from a woman who already had given too much. But there was Pearl. I seemed to see her in her box, demanding sustenance with outraged wails. I had to make the attempt. I went to the mattress and sat down beside Jessie.
I do not know whether it was my stumbling words or my own tears of bewilderment and exhaustion that finally penetrated the terrible wall of her grief. But all of a sudden she thrust the little body at me and collapsed weeping on the mattress.I had promised her Jamie would be buried properly. Toddy-Bob found a packing case, and I laid the little body ‘ in it, wrapped in its shawl with its head on the pillow. Then Toddy carried the box down to the graveyard, accompanied by Charles.
I held Pearl in my arms as I watched them go. She was fretful with hunger and I could do nothing but walk her up and down, and croon to her. After a time she dozed, and 1 put her in her bed but, as I did so, she awoke again and immediately began to cry. And then, as I knelt weeping beside the box, a determined voice behind me said, “Missie, that bairn’ll no sleep till she’s supped. Let me take her. Red Jess has all the wee girl needs!”
And Jessie, her hair well brushed, her clothing neat, took two long strides into the room. unbuttoning her bodice as she came. Red Jess moved in with us the following day, laid her mattress between our beds, stowed a small tin trunk away in a corner and thereafter was in undisputed control of the household. She devoted herself to Pearl with such ferocious intensity that the rest of us were soon asking her permission to fondle the child. She fed the baby, washed and dressed her, and crooned her to sleep. Had I not been so grateful to see Pearl fed and well, I believe I would have become jealous.