"And so—" the postmaster stammered.
"Yes. I am available," she said to him. "Please smoothe your lapel; it's a little mussed. And see if perhaps tomorrow morning, when you shave, you could even those sideburns? I believe the right one is a fraction shorter than the left."
"Yes, of course! Thank you for bringing it to my attention!"
"Come along now, son." She turned to the boy. "I want to be at the market at precisely five minutes past ten. We're already twenty seconds behind"
How he loved a woman who was so precise, just like a Swiss train coming into a station! Hans-Peter allowed himself to hope, for the first time in his life, for a future that might perhaps include a postmistress! He bowed to her, clicking his heels slightly, and she nodded a polite goodbye.
"Schlee you later, alligatorplatz!" the boy said. "Bye-bye, Horstwurst!" he added, speaking to the dog. Then he followed his mother out of the post office and into the village's main street.
Watching the woman's tall, straight back as she walked toward the market, the postmaster fingered his sideburns and planned his next morning's meticulous shave with a shiver of excitement.
14. Reencountering an Infant
Nanny and the Willoughbys were out for a walk. This was something that old-fashioned families did from time to time, to expose themselves to invigorating fresh air. Nanny had donned her blue cape, which was the official uniform for nannies.
"Walk briskly, children," said Nanny, "and swing your arms."
They did so.
"Skip, if you like," Nanny said. "Skipping is very healthful."
"What is skipping?" Jane asked.
"Yes, what is skipping?" asked the twins.
"It's like this, dolts," Tim told them, and he skipped ahead of them to demonstrate.
"No more saying of the word dolt," Nanny announced. "I dislike it."
"What about dodo?" Jane asked.
"Well, let's allow dodo for now," Nanny said after thinking it over. "If someone does something really stupid, it is permissible to call that person a dodo.
"And," she added, looking at Tim, who had returned, "if you think that was skipping, you are a dodo. This is skipping"
She demonstrated, skipping to the corner of the block with her cape flying behind her. She turned and beckoned to the children, and they skipped toward her one by one. Nanny gave some further instructions—a little more left foot, Tim; no timidity, go flat out, A; good job, much better than before, B—and a pat on the back for Jane, who stumbled and skinned her knee but was heroically not crying.
Now, having walked for several blocks and skipped for the last one, the children found that they were on a familiar street. They had not been back to this street since the day they had trudged here hauling a wagon containing a basket with a baby in it. Tim nudged Barnaby A and nodded meaningfully toward the mansion that loomed ahead. Both of the twins gave nervous glances but then looked away and concentrated on remarks about the quality of the asphalt in the street and a particularly odd-shaped cloud in the sky. Jane fell silent and had a sad look. She had liked the baby, actually, though when its hair was cropped she had found it homely. From time to time she had missed it and wondered about it.
Nanny skipped ahead, not noticing that a hush had fallen upon the children.
"The windows are repaired," Barnaby B pointed out in a whisper.
"And the cat has been fed," his twin noticed. "It was thin before, but now it's pudgy."
"Someone has mowed the lawn," Tim observed.
"Shhhh," said Jane suddenly. "I hear a giggle."
They stood still, the four of them, and after a moment Nanny returned. She had skipped the entire length of the block, assuming the children were behind her. Now she came back to see why they had stopped. "The important thing in terms of fresh-air intake," Nanny said to them, "is continuity! If you stop, you lose your continuity. Why ever are you standing about like dodos? You are breathing stagnant air."
The children shifted their feet and didn't reply. Tim began to hum a bit. The twins stared at the pavement.
"What's that sound?" Nanny asked suddenly.
"I'm just humming 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic,'" Tim explained. "I try to do it in its entirety twice a day. Usually no one hears me. Sometimes I do it in the bathroom. It is possible to hum while brushing one's teeth."
"No, no. I meant that sound." Nanny held up one finger to silence them, and now they could all hear the delicious giggle from the porch of the mansion.
"I think we should go home," Barnaby A said nervously.
"Yes, isn't it lunchtime? Weren't you planning vichyssoise for lunch, Nanny?" asked Barnaby B.
"Let's skip home!" suggested Tim. He did a few tentative moves of his feet and arms.
"It's a very sweet sound," Jane said, glancing at Nanny.
"It's a baby!" Nanny announced. "On the porch of that mansion! Let's go look!"
"I believe," Tim said, "that it is quite against the law to enter a private gate and cross a private walk and ascend the steps of a private porch. I think we might very well be arrested, Nanny, if we investigate this any further. Let's leave at once. Fifty points off anyone who does not leave immediately."
"Nonsense," said Nanny. "You stopped that silly point thing weeks ago. Come. Close the gate behind you in case there is a dog confined in the yard. I once knew someone whose spaniel fled when a gate was left open and it was never seen again and three members of the family died of grief"
Jane took Nanny's hand and followed her through the gate. "I do love babies," Jane confided. "I've always wanted one. I remember when we found—"
Tim interrupted her. "I don't believe people die of grief," he muttered. He came through the gate as well and latched it behind him. Only the twins remained on the sidewalk, looking nervous.
"Yes, they do," Nanny told him. "They waste away. I have known at least twelve people who have died of grief. It's a terrible way to go."
"It is indeed!" a loud voice suddenly said. All of them, even Nanny, jumped.
A large man with a thick mustache had appeared suddenly through a door that opened onto the porch. He was wearing a tweed jacket and a polka-dot bow tie, and he was carrying a box of cookies.
"I myself came very close to dying of grief not long ago," he announced. "How do you do—I am Commander Melanoff. What are you doing on my porch? Have a ginger cookie?"
Nanny took one. "We heard a lovely giggle from your porch and came to investigate. I have learned over the course of my many years that it is a bad idea, usually, to investigate piteous weeping but always a fine thing to look into a giggle." She bit into the cookie. "Delicious," she said. "Twins!" she called to the other side of the fence. "There are cookies!" Timidly the two Barnabys came through the gate and approached the porch. "How do you do and thank you for the ginger cookie," Nanny said, extending her hand, which the commander shook. "I am sorry to hear that you almost died of grief. Have you recovered?"
"I'm somewhat better," he replied. He passed the box of cookies around to the children. "My source of solace has been this lovely infant." He walked toward the end of the large porch, where a grinning baby with curly hair stood grasping the side of her playpen, and they followed him.
"It's not the same baby," Jane whispered to Tim. "Its hair isn't stubbly."
"It grew, dolt, since Mother chopped it off." Tim looked nervously toward Nanny to see if she had heard the word dolt, which she had so recently forbidden. But she was leaning over the baby, smiling and talking in a babylike voice.
"What's your daughter's name, Commander?" she asked. "Oh, I see: Ruth. Sweet monogram"
"Yes, her name is Ruth. But she is not my daughter. She's my, ah, ward."
"Oh, lovely!" said Nanny. "You are an old-fashioned family, like us. We are four worthy orphans with a no-nonsense nanny."
"Like Mary Poppins?" suggested the man, with a pleased look of recognition.
"Not one bit like that fly-by-night woman," Nanny said with a sniff. "It almost gives me diabetes just to think of her: all those disgusting spoonfuls of sugar! None of that for me. I am simply a competent and professional nanny. And you are a—let me think—"
"Bereaved benefactor?" suggested the commander.
"Exactly. A bereaved benefactor with a ward. Like the uncle in The Secret Garden. What was his name? Oh yes: Archibald Craven."
"Oh my, no, not one bit like that ill-tempered scoundrel of an uncle. I am simply a well-to-do widower who happened to find a baby on my doorstep."
"We are both wonderfully old-fashioned, aren't we? Hello, Baby Ruth!" Nanny turned back to the baby and said in a sweet, high-pitched voice, "Aren't you fortunate to have found—" She hesitated. "What does she call you?" she asked the man.
"She doesn't speak yet. But I've been a bit worried about the question of what she will call me. I do like the sound of Papa," he said, and then paused and dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief. "But—"
"Brings back sad memories?" Nanny asked sympathetically.
"Well, there is time. Children?" She turned to the four Willoughbys. "This is Baby Ruth."
They nodded awkwardly.
"Give her a gingersnap," she directed them. "They're not too spicy, are they, Commander? An infant this age shouldn't have spicy food."
"No," he said, "they're quite bland. She likes them. But thank you for alerting me to that. I am new to this and sometimes it is hard to know what is proper. I've been thinking, actually, about looking for a nanny. I don't suppose..." He gave her a questioning look.
"She's ours," said Barnaby A, in an outraged tone. "And we're orphans, or at least almost orphans, so we need her!"
"We must go now," said his twin. "It's almost time for dinner."
"We haven't even had lunch yet, B," Nanny pointed out.
"I meant the cat's dinner. It's almost time for our cat's dinner."
The children moved toward the porch steps. "Well," said Nanny to the commander, "it was lovely to meet you, but the children seem eager to move on. Perhaps our paths will cross again. Goodbye to you, Commander Melanoff.
"And bye-bye to you as well, Baby Ruth," she said to the infant, who waved back with a chubby hand.
"Wait! I don't know your names," Commander Melanoff said suddenly, just as Nanny was latching the gate behind her. The children were halfway down the street.
"I'm just Nanny," she called back. "The children are Tim, A, B, and Jane."
"A and B? How odd."
"They're twins," Nanny explained.
"I see," he replied, though he didn't.
"They are all Willoughbys."
He nodded. "Goodbye, then," he called. He turned to the playpen and to Ruth because it was time to take her inside for her afternoon nap. But he had a puzzled look on his face. Willoughby, he thought. There was something vaguely familiar about the name.