The nursemaid

8 May 2014 | Fiction, Prose

Lapsenpiika (‘The nursemaid’), a short story, first published in the newspaper Keski-Suomi in December, 1887. Minna Canth and a new biography introduced by Mervi Kantokorpi

‘Emmi, hey, get up, don’t you hear the bell, the lady wants you! Emmi! Bless the girl, will nothing wake her? Emmi, Emmi!’

At last, Silja got her to show some signs of life. Emmi sat up, mumbled something, and rubbed her eyes. She still felt dreadfully sleepy.

‘What time is it?’

‘Getting on for five.’

Five? She had had three hours in bed. It had been half-past one before she finished the washing-up: there had been visitors that evening, as usual, and for two nights before that she had had to stay up because of the child; the lady had gone off to a wedding, and baby Lilli had refused to content herself with her sugar-dummy. Was it any wonder that Emmi wanted to sleep?

She was only thirteen. And in the mornings her legs always ached so badly that for a while it was very hard to stand up. Silja, who slept in the same bed, said it was because she was growing. She ought to have them bled, in Silja’s opinion, but Emmi was afraid it might hurt. They were thin enough already, without having blood taken from them. They never ached while she was asleep, but the moment she woke up they started again. If she managed to get to sleep again, the aching stopped at once.

Now, as she sat up in bed, they were painful all over, from her knees right down to her heels. She felt the weight of her head pulling her down towards the bed again: try as she might, she could not lift it. Would she ever, in this life, be granted a single morning when she could sleep happily as long as she needed?

Emmi rubbed her legs. Her head had fallen forward, her chin touching her chest; her eyes would not stay open. In next to no time, she was asleep again.

The bell rang a second time. Silja dug her in the ribs with her elbow.

‘For pity’s sake, why can’t the little hussy do as she’s told? Up with you!’

She gave Emmi another shove with her sharp elbow, and it hurt so much that the girl cried out.

‘How many more times do you have to be chivvied, before you’ll get up?’

Emmi clambered out of bed. She felt dizzy, and almost fell.

‘Splash some cold water over your eyes, it’ll help to clear your head’, was Silja’s advice.

But Emmi had no time to do this, for the bell was ringing yet again. She quickly pulled on her petticoat and skirt, smoothed back her hair with both hands, and hurried in.

‘I have rung three times’, said the lady.

Emmi said nothing, but simply lifted Lilli from the lady’s side and held her in her arms.

‘Change her wet things and then put her in the cradle. She won’t go to sleep again anyway, if she comes back beside me.’

The lady turned on to her other side and closed her eyes. The cradle was in the adjoining room, into which Emmi now carried the baby. She changed its napkin, and then began to rock the cradle and sing. Every now and then some thought or other would come to her. Not a very big or complicated thought, but it was enough to interrupt her singing.

‘Sh, sh, sh. Ah, ah, ah. Sleep little one sleep. Rock-a-bye-baby, on the tree top. When the wind blows, the cradle will rock. Oh, lord, how sleepy I feel. Bye, baby bunting, daddy’s gone a-hunting. Silja’s still in bed, asleep, lucky devil. Daddy’s gone a-hunting. Sh, sh, ah, ah…’

Lilli dozed off. Emmi lay down on the floor beside the cradle, put one arm under her head, and was soon fast asleep. Unknown to her, Lilli had woken again almost at once, and was now rubbing her nose and gazing round her in puzzlement, as there seemed to be no-one with her. The child tried to sit up, but could not manage it; instead, she turned over on her side and got her head over the edge of the cradle. Seeing Emmi, she chuckled delightedly and reached out to touch her. Over went the cradle, and out tumbled Lilli, striking her forehead on the base of the cradle as she fell.

A piercing yell had everyone awake in seconds.

‘Jesus bless us!’

Emmi, finding the baby on the floor beside her, went as white as a sheet. She snatched her up, cuddled her, showed her the fire, and rocked her in her arms, all the time horrified by the thought that the lady must have heard. And in her panic she did not think of looking to see whether the child had been injured, or was just crying from shock.

The lady opened the door. Emmi felt faint, the whole world went black before her eyes.

‘What’s happened to her?’

‘Nothing.’

Emmi did not know what answer she was giving. Instinctively she stammered out words, any words that might save her.

‘Why is she crying like that, then? There must be some reason.’

Emmi made desperate attempts to quieten the baby.

‘Give her to me’, said the lady. ‘Oh, my poor baby, my darling one, what’s the matter? Good heavens, there’s a great bruise on her forehead.’

She looked at Emmi, who just stood there helplessly.

‘How did that bruise get there? Tell me, I want to know. Are you dumb?’

‘I don’t know…’

‘You dropped her, that’s obvious. Out of the cradle, was it?’

Emmi said nothing, and stared down at the floor.

‘You see, you can’t deny it any longer. What a useless, careless creature you are. First you drop the baby and then you lie to me. I’m sorry I ever took you on. Well, I’m telling you now, you’re not staying on here next year. Get yourself another job, if anyone will have you. I’ve had enough of you, I’d rather do without a nursemaid altogether… Sh, sh, my darling, mamma’s own sweet one, yes… Mamma will get you a better nurse next year, don’t cry, don’t cry.’

Lilli stopped crying, as she found the nipple and began to suck; and after a little while she was smiling contentedly, though teardrops still sparkled in her eyes.

‘There, there, my precious, are you giving Mamma a lovely smile, then? My own dear child, how sweet she is. What a nasty horrid bruise on her forehead!’

Lilli did not cry again that day; she was just as happy as before, perhaps even a little happier: smiled at Emmi, put her finger into Emmi’s mouth and pulled at her hair. Emmi let the child’s delicate little hand wipe her own wet cheeks, down which teardrops as big as cranberries kept trickling all day long. And when she thought that in six weeks’ time she would no longer be able to hold this soft, delightful child in her arms, or even to see her, except perhaps for an occasional glimpse through the window as she passed down the street, a rejected outcast – when she had these thoughts, or rather these feelings, the tears flowed so fast that they became a stream, and made a little puddle on the table.

‘Oh dear, just look at that’, she said to Lilli, who at once began to mop it up with the palm of her hand.

Later that morning the lady had visitors. Fru Vinter the doctor’s wife and Fru Siven, whose husband was the headmaster: very grand and elegant, both of them, though not nearly so grand as our own lady, said Silja, and Emmi was inclined to agree.

When Silja took in the coffee, the lady sent her with a message to Emmi, to bring Lilli in to be shown to the visitors. Emmi dressed her in her prettiest bonnet, and a brand-new hand-embroidered bib. The child looked so beautiful in these that Emmi had to call Silja to have a look, before she carried her in.

How those ladies cooed with admiration, the moment they appeared at the door!

‘O, så söt!’ 1

And eagerly they took turns to hold Lilli in their arms, kissing her and squeezing her, and laughing delightedly.

‘Så söt, så söt!’

Emmi stood in the background, smiling quietly. She did not really know the meaning of all this ‘så söt, så söt’, but evidently it was high praise indeed.

But suddenly they became very serious. The lady was telling the visitors about something, Emmi did not know what, as it was all in Swedish. But she guessed what it was when she saw the horror on their faces.

‘Herre gud, herre gud, nej, men tänk, stackars barn.’2

Three pairs of eyes, full of pity and concern, turned simultaneously to look at the bruise on Lilli’s forehead, and then, with shocked disapproval, at Emmi.

‘Ett sadant stycke!’3

Emmi stared at the carpet on the floor, and wished that something would fall from the ceiling on to her head, crushing her to pieces and at the same time burying her deep beneath the earth. Surely she was the wickedest, wretchedest person who had ever lived. She did not dare to look up, but she knew, and felt in every toe and fingertip, that their eyes were still upon her. Those grand, elegant ladies, who never, never, did anything wrong themselves. How could they, when they were so wise and clever, and so far above other, ordinary people?

‘You may take Lilli away,’ she heard her employer say.

Emmi’s arms had suddenly become so limp that she feared she might drop the child if she picked her up.

‘Did you hear?’

‘Där ser ni nu, hurudan hon är.’4

Emmi lurched forward and somehow managed the few steps to where the lady was sitting. The desire to get out of sight and back into the nursery gave her just sufficient strength to go through with her task. Or was it just out of long habit that her arms now obeyed her and fulfilled their function as before?

She lowered Lilli into the cradle and sat down on a stool close by to show her a toy. But Lilli had raised both legs in the air and was holding on to them with her hands. This game she found so amusing that she laughed out loud. Emmi would have laughed too, but for the distress that gripped her throat and made laughter impossible.

Sitting there, she thought with surprise that she had not, that morning, remembered the trick she had so often used in the past to combat sleepiness: pricking and scraping herself with a needle. And just because of that, all this had happened; this great, irremediable calamity, that had now ruined her life.

Late in the evening, when everyone else had gone to bed, Emmi went out into the yard. All was grey in the fading light, but overhead the stars were shining. She sat down on the bottom step to think about her present and future situation. Not that thinking about it made it any clearer: it remained as dim and grey as the evening itself.

Casting her own cares to one side for the moment, she looked up into the blue-grey sky, where heaven’s candles were burning so brightly. What happy souls, she wondered, were up there with the stars? And of the people now living, who would go there? Would there be any nursemaids there? she asked herself doubtfully. But the gentry – they would be there, of course, all of them. Obviously, since they were so immeasurably better, even here. She wondered, too, who had to light those candles each evening, the angels or the people? Or did the people all turn into angels when they got there? And what about little children who died young? Who nursed them and looked after them? But perhaps they didn’t need looking after any longer, once they were in heaven.

Silja opened the door and hustled her inside.

‘What the devil are you sitting out here for, in the cold?’

As she undressed, Emmi turned to Silja and said: ‘Why is it we’re so wicked, we servant-girls?’

‘Don’t you know?’

‘No.’

‘I’ll tell you, then: it’s because we have to stay awake so much of the time. We have time to commit more sins, half as many again as other folk. Look, the gentry can sleep on in the morning, till nine or ten o’clock; there’s not so much time left for them to do bad things in.’

Well, perhaps that was it. If she had been able to sleep a little longer that morning, Lilli would have not fallen out of her cradle, all because of her.

The following Sunday was the third Hiring Day. Emmi was given her employment­ book and sent down to the church.

Outside the church there were lots of people: would-be employers and would-be employees. They stood about in large groups; all of them seemed to have friends and acquaintances everywhere, and to be in league with each other.

Emmi felt forlorn and lonely. Who would want to employ a frail little creature like herself?

She stood by the churchyard wall with her employment-book, and waited. Ladies and gentlemen walked past her, to and fro, but none of them ever glanced at her.

There was a group of youths sitting by the church steps.

‘Come over here, girl,’ one of them called. The others laughed and whispered together.

‘Come on, come on, what are you waiting for? Come and sit here with us.’

Emmi blushed and moved further off. Just then a lady and gentleman came up to where she was. Well, not exactly gentlefolk, perhaps: the lady was wearing a headscarf and the gentleman’s clothes were very shabby.

‘What about this one?’ said the gentleman, pointing at Emmi with his stick. ‘At least she doesn’t look as if she’ll demand much in the way of wages. Eh?’

‘Whatever you like to pay me’, said Emmi quietly. ‘I’d be content with that.’

A shy hope sprang up within her.

‘What good would she be? She could hardly manage to carry a tubful of water.’

‘Oh, I could.’

‘And could you do the washing?’

‘I’ve done that too.’

‘Let’s have her, she seems quiet and clean,’ said the gentleman.

But the lady still had her doubts.

‘She looks sickly to me. See how thin she is.’

Emmi thought of her legs, but dared not mention them. If she did, they would certainly turn her down.

‘Are you sickly?’ enquired the gentleman, glancing through Emmi’s employment ­book, which he had snatched from her hand.

‘No’, Emmi whispered.

She made up her mind that, however much her legs ached, she would never complain.

Putting the book in his pocket, the gentleman gave her two marks as hiring-money, and the matter was settled.

‘Come to the Karvonen farm on All Saints’ Day, in the evening, and ask for Mr and Mrs Hartonen’, said the lady. ‘On All Saints’ Day, remember.’

Emmi went home.

‘That’s a bad place you’re going to’, said Silja, who knew the Hartonens: living conditions mean and squalid, and the lady such a shrew that no servant ever stayed a full year. And the food, she had heard, strictly rationed and pretty small rations at that.

Emmi flushed, but quickly recovered and replied: ‘Well, those good jobs are hard to come by, there aren’t enough of them for everybody to have one. Some people have to be content with the worse ones, and thank their good fortune that they’re not out on the street.’

She took Lilli into her arms and pressed her face against the child’s warm body. Lilli seized hold of her hair with both hands and chuckled ‘Ta, ta, ta.’

Translated by David Barrett

This translation was first published in Books from Finland 2/1994

  1. ‘Oh, so sweet!’
  2. ‘Oh, heavens, no! Just fancy! The poor child!’
  3. ‘What a wretch!’
  4. ‘There you are, you see what she’s like.’

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