AN EXPERIMENT

“Canst play the fiddle?” asked the stranger.
“I don’t know,” quoth the Irishman, “but I’ll try if you’ll
lend me the instrument.” _Old Legend_.

Mrs. Methuen was having tea with Mr. Wycherly under the apple-tree at
the side of the lawn. She came very often to see him for the simple
reason that she found it so exceedingly difficult to persuade him to
come and see her. He always protested that he had lived out of the
world too long to go a-visiting now, that he did not know how to behave
in society, that he was a fusty old anchorite whom no one could really
want.

Now, Mrs. Methuen really did want him, so she came to see him instead,
to their great mutual satisfaction, and as it was a fine summer and she
generally came at teatime, Mrs. Dew would set it for them under the
apple-tree on the lawn, and Jane-Anne was allowed to carry out the cakes
and bread-and-butter.

On this particular afternoon they had discussed Jane-Anne’s future, for
Mrs. Methuen was full of a new plan, and when she had a new plan she was
wont to be most enthusiastic.

“You see,” she was saying, “it would be so much more original than being
a governess; they don’t do any heavy work, and the uniform is so
charming, she’d look sweet in it.”

“But do you think,” Mr. Wycherly asked dubiously, “that Jane-Anne has
any special gift for looking after little children? She has had no
experience; why should she be particularly fitted for that?”

“She would be trained,” cried Mrs. Methuen eagerly; “it is a splendid
training, and the girls are so sought after—Norland Nurses are never out
of a place——”

“Is your nurse a Norland Nurse?” asked Mr. Wycherly, trying to remember
if he had seen Mrs. Methuen’s nurse in any very enchanting uniform, but
only succeeding in a faint remembrance of a stout, comfortable person
who certainly did look “used to babies.”

“Well, no,” Mrs. Methuen answered, a trifle shamefaced. “You see,
mother thought I was young and inexperienced and we had all known Nannie
such years, and—she’s Nannie you see, and no one else was possible.”

“Of course, of course,” Mr. Wycherly agreed hastily. “I’m sure it is
most good of you to interest yourself so warmly in Jane-Anne, and such a
career might prove most suitable—but would it not be well to see—could
we not bring her into contact with some little child and see how they
get on?”

“I have it,” cried Mrs. Methuen; “she shall go and mind Mrs. Cox’s baby
on the days the nursery is turned out; it would be a great help to her.
They’re not well off, you know, and she has only one servant besides the
nurse, and it will give Jane-Anne a taste for babies: her baby’s a
perfect darling. It’s a beautiful idea—so helpful to poor Mrs. Cox and
so good for Jane-Anne, and she lives so close, too, only a few doors
down the street. I’ll go and propose it to her now and come back and
tell you what she says.”

No sooner said than done. Mrs. Methuen found Mrs. Cox at home, unfolded
her scheme to her, laying stress on the benefit it would be to Jane-Anne
and on Jane-Anne’s exceptional fitness for the task. She also pointed
out the unusual advantages the baby would enjoy in having so refined and
charming an unpaid under-nurse (Mrs. Methuen was fond of Jane-Anne) and
hinted at all sorts of possibilities when she should be older and more
experienced.

Mrs. Cox, wife of a young doctor as yet not very abundantly blessed with
patients, embraced the idea with effusion, and Mrs. Methuen flew back to
Mr. Wycherly to tell him she had arranged it and that Jane-Anne might
make her debut as an embryo Norland Nurse on Tuesday, that day being
Friday.

“She mustn’t attempt to carry a heavy baby,” Mr. Wycherly exclaimed
anxiously, knitting his brows distressedly.

“Of course not,” Mrs. Methuen said decidedly. “She’d wheel the darling
up and down Holywell in her pram, or perhaps in South Parks Road, it’s
so nice and quiet.”

“I hope it’s not a heavy perambulator,” Mr. Wycherly murmured.

“Now don’t you worry. No one would dream of setting Jane-Anne to do
anything hard or heavy. You wouldn’t, I suppose, object to her sitting
with the baby on her knee, would you? She’s quite a little baby, only
six months old and very small.”

“No,” Mr. Wycherly said doubtfully, “if you think it’s quite safe for
the baby.”

“My dear Mr. Wycherly, Jane-Anne is nearly thirteen.”

“I know,” he answered humbly, “that I must appear foolishly nervous to
you—but a tiny baby always seems to me so brittle, and Jane-Anne herself
is—so fragile—she might drop it.”

“Don’t you worry,” Mrs. Methuen repeated consolingly. “Mrs. Cox will
take every care of Jane-Anne, and Jane-Anne will take every care of the
baby. Besides, it’s only once a week, on nursery cleaning day.”

Then Mrs. Methuen went to see Mrs. Dew in the kitchen and unfolded the
scheme to her.

Mrs. Dew, of cautious Cotswold habit, viewed the plan with marked
distrust, but she was too well-trained a servant to do other than seem
to acquiesce gratefully in Mrs. Methuen’s kind efforts to benefit her
niece. So it was settled that Jane Anne should go to Mrs. Cox on
Tuesday morning at ten for a couple of hours, as Mrs. Methuen had
arranged. The one person who was not consulted was Jane-Anne herself.

Term was over. The men had all gone down, and next day the Methuen
household was off to the seaside.

Mrs. Methuen’s visit to Mr. Wycherly had been to bid him farewell for a
space; and in arranging this for Jane-Anne she felt she had been really
helpful.

Mr. Wycherly had consulted Mrs. Methuen on many matters connected with
the child. For one thing he had begged her to assist him in developing
her sense of humour. Whereupon she sent Jane-Anne both the “Alices,”
and suggested she should be allowed to see _Punch_ every week. She also
gave her “German Popular Stories” and “A Flat Iron for a Farthing.”
These works were all of absorbing interest and somewhat interrupted
Jane-Anne’s study of Lord Byron, as had been intended.

_Punch_ she took to her heart at once; not on account of the Immortal
Jester’s humour, but because of the beautiful ladies depicted by Mr. Du
Maurier. These she whole-heartedly admired and set herself to imitate.

All the same, Jane-Anne was getting on. She laughed very often now,
sometimes from sheer joy at being in a world where there were people so
kind and delightful as Mrs. Methuen and Mr. Wycherly; sometimes because
things really did seem funny. She began to realise, too, that it was
possible to jest; that Mr. Wycherly often said things that he did not
mean; and that it was conceivable that you might love a person with all
your heart and soul and yet be perfectly cognisant of their little
weaknesses and oddities. Mr. and Mrs. Methuen taught her this, quite
unconsciously, while she waited upon them when they lunched with Mr.
Wycherly.

Jane-Anne was a quick study.

That night as she waited upon “the master” at dinner, he unfolded to her
Mrs. Methuen’s plan, and Jane-Anne at once burst into floods of tears,
declaring hotly that she’d rather be his parlour-maid than anybody’s
nurse, “not if it was a prince.” That she didn’t want to wait upon a
horrid little baby when there was her own dear master to wait upon, and
she’d promised Master Montagu!

Very gently, Mr. Wycherly explained the arrangement, and when she heard
of the uniform the training lost some of its horror.

“I shan’t have to go for years and years, shall I?” she asked.

“Certainly not for many years; never at all if you don’t like it.”

“And I’m to practise on Mrs. Cox’s baby?”

“You are to take care—the greatest care—of Mrs. Cox’s baby for a short
time once a week.”

“Do you want me to?”

Candidly, Mr. Wycherly wanted nothing less. He detested schemes for the
ultimate employment of Jane-Anne. To him, everything suggested seemed
incongruous and infeasible, but he mistrusted his own judgment in
practical matters and bowed before the youthful wisdom and general
competence of Mrs. Methuen.

“I think,” he said guardedly, “that every woman ought to know how to
manage a baby.”

“I wonder,” she said dreamily, “if Lord Byron would approve of it?”

“As we have no means of finding out, let’s take it that he will,” he
answered drily.

“I don’t like the name Norland,” she objected.

“It will be years before you are even ready to apply for admission to
the Norland Institute,” said Mr. Wycherly.

“If it’s an institution, I’m not going,” she said firmly.

“What you have got to do is to see how well you can look after Mrs.
Cox’s baby.”

“I’ll do my best, I really will,” said Jane-Anne, “and it’ll be rather
fun to wheel it about, and I shall look very proud and stand-off like
Mrs. Methuen’s Nannie. I expect people will admire me very much and
wonder whose nurse I am.”

“That is possible,” Mr. Wycherly politely acquiesced.

“Shall I have to make the beds that morning, sir?”

“That, my dear child, is your good aunt’s province, not mine.”

“Master, dear—whenever you speak of aunt to me, you say she’s good, or
worthy, or excellent, or sensible—do you say those nice things about me
when I’m not there? Do you say ’my excellent Jane-Anne’ when you talk
about me to Mrs. Methuen? I hope you do—or ’that most sensible girl’—do
you?”

“How do you know I ever talk about you at all to Mrs. Methuen?”

Jane-Anne looked rather foolish for a moment, then brightened as she
remarked: “But you must to know all about Mrs. Cox’s baby and Norland
Nurses, and that. I’m sorry, though, that the young gentlemen have all
gone down; I’d like them to have seen me wheeling the pram.”

“My dear child,” exclaimed Mr. Wycherly with real consternation in his
voice. “You surely don’t suppose that a well-bred undergraduate would
be aware of the existence of a little girl wheeling a perambulator.”

“They’re aware of _my_ existence, anyway, master, dear. I heard one say
one day: ’Look what hair that flapper’s got.’”

“A most impertinent and ill-bred young man. I hope you felt very
angry.”

“Angry?” she repeated in a surprised voice. “Oh, no; I was pleased he
should admire my hair. It is very long, you know.”

Mr. Wycherly groaned, but he said nothing more, only registering a
mental vow to the effect that nothing would induce him to allow
Jane-Anne to wheel anybody’s perambulator once the men came up again.
“But she’ll be safely at school then,” he reflected, “and there will be
an end of these ridiculous schemes.”

Mrs. Dew discussed the question with her niece during their supper in
the housekeeper’s room.

“I don’t fancy the notion much, myself,” she said. “A nurse as is worth
having for a nurse is born so, and I don’t see as any institution will
either make or mar her. Bein’ a fine lady with someone else to do your
nurseries’d suit you well enough, I’ve no doubt, but whether you’d ever
learn to do _your_ part is more than mortal can say.”

“Aunt, what do you do with a baby if it cries?”

“Turn it face downwards on your knee an’ pat it gentle—ten to one it’s
got wind, poor little soul, and that’ll break it up. Many’s the time
I’ve held you that way an’ you starin’ at the carpet with those great
eyes of yours as good as gold. But you won’t have much nursing to
do—it’s wheelin’ that you’ll be doin’, an’ mind as you don’t let the
wheel go over the kerb. Whatever it is you’re doin’, Jane-Anne, for
mercy’s sake think about that thing, and don’t go dreamin’ of poetry
books and such foolhardy nonsense.”

Tuesday came and it poured with rain.

Jane-Anne duly made her timid appearance at Mrs. Cox’s and was shown
into Mrs. Cox’s study, where the baby sat propped up in her pram while
her mother pushed her back and forth to amuse her. Mrs. Cox stayed for
a little, then the baby showed signs of wanting to go to sleep, so she
was laid down and Jane-Anne was instructed to continue the gentle to and
fro movement till she “went off,” and Mrs. Cox departed to see to some
household matters elsewhere, leaving the door open.

The Cox baby was fair and plump and pretty, and appeared an entirely
exemplary infant, for in five minutes she was fast asleep.

Jane-Anne stopped pushing the perambulator to and fro, and sat down to
look round. There was a book-case at one side of the fireplace and its
two lowest shelves were full of bound volumes of _Mr. Punch_. In a
moment, her quick eyes had taken in this pleasing fact and she had one
of the big flat books open on her knee. She looked at the pictures and
read the legends beneath them with great content for a little while,
always, however, with one eye on the perambulator and ears alert to
catch the faintest movement from its occupant.

Presently there was a little stir and the indescribable soft sound a
baby makes when it is just waking up. From the room above came sundry
bumps and scrapings that proclaimed the cleaning to be in full swing.
She darted to the perambulator and looked in; the baby, rosy and warm
and adorable looked up at her and smiled. It was too much for
Jane-Anne. She forgot Mrs. Cox’s instructions that she was on no account
to lift the baby out when it woke, but to call her. She seized the
small delicious bundle that stretched and cuddled against her and sat
down on the low seat close by the book-case.

Baby began to whimper.

Jane-Anne repeated “See-Saw, Margery Daw,” but the baby evidently was
impervious to the charms of poetry, and the whimper grew a little more
decided.

Then there flashed into Jane-Anne’s perturbed mind her aunt’s
instructions: “Turn it face downwards on your knee and pat it gentle.”
No sooner thought of than done, and it was, apparently, quite
successful.

Jane-Anne had just got to a very interesting part of _Punch_, and she
longed to return to it. As the baby was evidently quiet and happy, she
felt she might go back to her study of the Great Jester—nurses always
were reading—even while they wheeled their prams—so it was all right.
She kept one hand on the baby’s back to steady it and tried to hold up
the volume of _Punch_ with the other, but _Punch_ was heavy and she was
not very successful.

Presently a brilliant thought struck her: If _Punch_ was open on the top
of the baby, it would fulfil a double purpose, keep the baby from
rolling off her knee, and amuse her, Jane-Anne.

It really was a very fascinating _Punch_.

For a moment Miss Cox was perfectly quiet. The heavy weight across her
back petrified her with astonishment. She tried to lift her head to see
what it all meant, but some hard substance caught her just in the nape
of the neck and prevented her doing anything of the kind.

Such an indignity was not to be borne for an instant.

Miss Cox filled her lungs as well as she could, considering how
compressed she was, and gave vent to a good hearty roar of rage and
grief that such impertinent persons should be left loose in a naughty
world.

Jane-Anne absently patted the pages of _Mr. Punch_ and read on
absorbedly.

There was a pause in the cleansing operations overhead. A door was
opened hastily and quick steps descended from above. At the same
instant, another door was opened just across the hall, and Mrs. Cox and
the nurse met at the open study door to behold the cause of the uproar.

Jane-Anne was never very clear as to what happened during the next three
minutes. All she knew was that _Mr. Punch_ fell violently on the floor
to the ultimate detriment of his back—the baby was seized from her and
two people hurled indignant reproaches at her while the baby, once more
in a position to inflate properly, filled the air with angry wails.

Of course Jane-Anne wept too. She made no excuses, for there were none
to be made, and this rather disarmed Mrs. Cox, who was kindly and
gentle, and finding that only the baby’s feelings were hurt, recovered
her sense of humour, laughed, and bade Jane-Anne go back to her aunt as
she was evidently not fitted yet for an under-nurse.

Nurse, with the baby clasped safely in her arms, had already stalked
upstairs in high dudgeon.

Soon after eleven o’clock, a meek, draggled, tear-stained Jane-Anne
crept in at the side-door in Holywell. Mrs. Dew was in the front of the
house “turning out” the dining-room, as her niece had observed as she
passed the windows.

Upstairs she flew and reached Mr. Wycherly’s study door undetected. She
looked particularly forlorn and miserable, for she wore her aunt’s
macintosh, a voluminous purple garment much too large for her. She had
left her umbrella at the Cox’s in the shame of her hasty exit, and the
heavy rain had beaten upon her face, mingling with her tears. Very
timidly she knocked.

Mr. Wycherly had quick ears, and he knew that knock.

“Come in, my child; they didn’t need you long,” he said, always with the
same kind welcome in his voice.

Jane-Anne shut the door softly and rushed across the room to throw
herself on her knees at his side.

“I’m sent away,” she cried tragically; “dismissed, disgraced; I don’t
know what aunt will say.”

“What in the world has occurred?” Mr. Wycherly said quietly. “Take off
that wet macintosh; look what a pool it’s making. Get up, you poor,
silly child; there, that’s better—now come and sit on my knee and tell
me exactly what happened.”

Jane-Anne flung herself upon Mr. Wycherly, buried her wet face in his
neck and sobbed out:

“I read _Punch_ on the top of the baby.”

At this most unexpected revelation Mr. Wycherly fairly jumped.

“You mean you sat on the baby?” he cried, aghast.

“No, it was _Punch_ sat on the baby and it didn’t like it. It yelled.”

“Do explain—your statements are so confused—what _do_ you mean?”

“I mean,” she continued, “I opened _Punch_ on the baby and read it—it
was only a minute, but I was so interested, and I’ve heard them say that
it doesn’t hurt to let a healthy baby cry for a minute—and all the
nurses read, I’ve seen them hundreds of times; but they heard and came
flying all in a hurry and were so cross, and Mrs. Cox said I needn’t
ever come back.”

It was well that Jane-Anne couldn’t see Mr. Wycherly’s face, which was
lighted up by a smile of immense satisfaction; but what he _said_
sounded very grave.

“I fear you have not been very honest, little Jane-Anne.”

She sat up and looked at him.

“Honest! I’ve told you exactly what happened.”

“Certainly, you’ve been honest to me, but what about Mrs. Cox?”

Jane-Anne hung her head.

“The baby slept at first,” she said, “and it was so dull and all the
_Punches_ were there—and I got so interested——”

“You’ve not done what you undertook to do, that was to look after the
baby. Mrs. Cox didn’t ask you there to read her _Punches_ did she?”

“She’ll never have me again, she said so.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“What will Mrs. Methuen say?”

“I can’t think.”

“And aunt?”

“I don’t think your—aunt” (Mr. Wycherly was just going to say
“excellent,” but restrained himself) “will be much surprised.”

Jane-Anne sighed deeply. “I shall never be a Norland Nurse now,” she
said sadly. “I’ve lost my character.”

“I’m afraid you have.”

“Do _you_ mind very much?”

“Upon my soul,” said Mr. Wycherly, “I don’t care a brass farthing.”