Why she had not done this with her own children is a question that cannot perhaps be solved till we know why so many soldiers, used for, it may be, a quarter of a century to personal cleanliness as scrupulous as a gentleman’s, and to enforced neatness of clothes, rooms, and general habits, take back to dirt and slovenliness with greediness when they leave the service; and why many a nurse, whose voice and manners were beyond reproach in her mistress’s nursery, brings up her own children in after life on the village system of bawling, banging, threatening, cuddling, stuffing, smacking, and coarse language, just as if she had never experienced the better discipline attainable by gentle firmness and regular habits.
Mrs. Lake had a small satisfaction in Jan’s brief and limited intercourse with so genteel a baby, and after it was all over she amused herself with making him repeat the baby’s very genteel (and as she justly said “uncommon”) name.
When Abel came back from school, he resumed his charge, and Mrs. Lake went about other work. She was busy, and the nurse-boy put Jan to bed himself. The sandy kitten waited till Jan was fairly established, so as to receive her comfortably, and then she dropped from the roof of the press-bed, and he cuddled her into his arms, where she purred like a kettle just beginning to sing.
Outside, the wind was rising, and, passing more or less through the outer door, it roared in the round-house; but they were well sheltered in the dwelling-room, and could listen complacently to the gusts that whirled the sails, and made the heavy stones fly round till they shook the roof. Just above the press-bed a candle was stuck in the wall, and the dim light falling through the gloom upon the children made a scene worthy of the pencil of Rembrandt, that great son of a windmiller.
When Mrs. Lake found time to come to the corner where the old press-bed stood, the kitten was asleep, and Jan very nearly so; and by them sat Abel, watching every breath that his foster-brother drew. And, as he watched, his trustworthy eyes and most sweet smile lighting up a face to which his forefathers had bequeathed little beauty or intellect, he might have been the guardian angel of the nameless Jan, scarcely veiled under the likeness of a child.
His mother smiled tenderly back upon him. He was very dear to her, and not the less so for his tenderness to Jan.
Then she stooped to kiss her foster-child, who opened his black eyes very wide, and caught the sleeping kitten round the head, in the fear that it might be taken from him.
“Tell Abel the name of pretty young lady you see today, love,” said Mrs. Lake.
But Jan was well aware of his power over the miller’s wife, and was apt to indulge in caprice. So he only shook his head, and cuddled the kitten more tightly than before.
“Tell un, Janny dear. Tell un, there’s a lovey!” said Mrs. Lake. “Who did daddy put in the hopper?” But still Jan gazed at nothing in particular with a sly twinkle in his black eyes, and continued to squeeze poor Sandy to a degree that can have been little less agonizing than the millstone torture; and obdurate he would probably have remained, but that Abel, bending over him, said, “Do ’ee tell poor Abel, Jan.”