Visited on the Children

THE spirit moves me to pour my sins into an impersonal and public ear, — not into one that is attached to a private and particular head. And in unloading my conscience before the Contributors’ Club, I come as a penitent to the confessional. I do not, it is true, ask for absolution, but I hope for the inward peace that follows acknowledgment of sin.

My first mistake was in following Hamlet’s advice to his mother, when I should have realized that the counsels of youth to age are frequently better as copy-book maxims than as guides for right living. If I had not assumed a virtue when I had it not, I should not now be acknowledging a fault when I unfortunately have it.

I am an old maid (though that is not my “ fault ” referred to above). I am supposed to be passionately devoted to children, and as I have none of my own, my friends are very kind about supplying Nature’s deficiency. As a matter of fact, I have always actively disliked children. When I was in the early twenties I had a great many girl friends, and I became almost a professional bridesmaid. By a natural sequence of events my rôle gradually changed to that of godmother, — and then my trials began. In looking back I can trace my decline and fall to one act.

When I was visiting my friend Kate Brown I assumed a sympathy with childhood which I did not feel, and out of friendship for an adoring mother feigned an interest in her mewling and puking offspring. I crushed my desire to pinch the baby, and instead, kissed it. I wanted to say, “ What a grotesque head it has! ” but, instead, murmured, “Is n’t he the image of his father!” Then fearing that insincerity was written all over my hypocritical face, I capped the climax of untruth by boldly saying.

“ I do love children.”

I have always called falsehoods of that type “ nervous lies,” meaning thereby the kind of misstatements called forth by some social exigency and not by a native desire to deceive. I am aware that no definition can palliate my offense.

From this moment my reputation as a child-worshiper was established. The news was flashed from fireside to fireside that a universal aunt had arisen to bless the homes of tired mothers. Thenceforward my seasons divided themselves into visits to the households — or rather to the nurseries — of my friends, for I really may be said to have visited the children. In fact, to speak still more truthfully, I was visited on the children as irrevocably as if I were the sins of the fathers incarnate.

The poor little victims were passive in suffering; I was active. If I had only said boldly to my married friends in the beginning, “ I’m sorry, but I’m not very fond of children and I have no knack in managing them,” all would have been well. I should have stood upon a definite, if eccentric, platform. But I catered to the vanity of motherhood, and incidentally to my own, by seeking parental popularity.

When I used to tell my friends that I could hardly keep my hands off their babies, I fear that I allowed them to misinterpret my meaning. The truth is, all the salient points about a child irritate me, — its ubiquitousness, its egotism, its power of usurping attention, and its horrible frankness. My arms fairly ache to shake most little girls, and my palm itches to spank most little boys. (I am not sparing myself in this confession.) In my fiercer moods I have even been known to suggest wild-animal games, so that I could roar and lay violent hands on the spoiled darling of its mother, and in the guise of a tiger give it the slap it so richly deserves. The first I knew of my supposed passion for children (ominous phrase!) was when I went to visit my friend Mrs. Smith, and she greeted me thus: “ Oh, Eliza dear, Kate Brown wrote me how fond you are of children, — she said you played with her baby for hours at a time to keep him from crying, — so I have arranged to let you have my three little girls all to yourself for a few days. I have taken the opportunity of your being here on a good long visit to run up to town for a friend’s wedding. Of course the children are a little noisy, but you won’t mind that, and they’re wonderfully friendly. They think of you as Aunty already. Come in, Lily, Rose, and Daisy.”

My three fates entered and glared at me. I drew back my upper lip in what Mrs. Smith thought was a smile, but the children knew was a snarl. Lily’s lower jaw dropped stupidly, and her m’s were all b’s. She snuffled incessantly. She was the most unprepossessing child I ever saw except Rose. Rose’s voice suggested a diet of slate-pencils and pickles. She had straight colorless hair, and her face was all bespattered with muddy freckles. Daisy had rudimentary teeth with fringed edges, like saws, and her eyes were like gimlets. When she looked at me she saw my real, but hidden, self as clearly as if I had been a transparency hanging in a window. She glowered her dislike at me, and I tried to do the same to her without being detected by her mother.

“ This is your dear Aunty Eliza,” Mrs. Smith said ingratiatingly, “ She has no little girls of her own, and you must n’t let her feel lonely.” (How tired I have become of that introduction!) Then she turned to me.

“ You are so different from Fanny! ” (mentioning a common friend). “ Now when she is here I keep my little girls out of her way, for she tells her friends quite honestly that she does n’t care for children. Is n’t it funny and frank of her ? ”

Funny and frank indeed, — and oh, supremely sensible! How I have envied Fanny, — that wise virgin, — who assumed a fault when she had it not, and now has the reward of seeing children swept from her path by parents too tender to submit the little dears to the eye of indifference. For, as a matter of fact, Fanny’s feeling for children is one of love and sympathy as compared with mine. It may excite surprise that the hollowness of my affection has never been detected. It has always been detected — by the children, who are the most clearsighted of the human family, but never by their mothers, who, having eyes, see not. Children don’t like me any better than I like them, — and thereby they win from me a grudging respect. Many a time have I begged parents, with tears in my eyes, not to force their little ones to stay with me against their wills. The only result of this appeal is that I have overheard subsequent curtain lectures and surreptitious admonishings, all on the text, “ Poor Aunt Eliza! She has no little children of her own, and you must try to love her because she loves you so much.” In my younger days I seriously contemplated matrimony as an escape from children (strange paradox!). But marrying is like quarreling in that it takes two to do it, and on the whole it seemed simpler to remain single.

It has been a great relief to speak the truth at last, although anonymously. I can assure my harshest judges that my punishment has fitted my crime with an exactness which even Gilbert’s Mikado — that dispenser of perfect justice — would approve. The moral of my confession is that it is better to seem worse than you are than to be worse than you seem; for the consequences of assumed virtue fall fatally upon the delinquent, while the wages of an assumed sin are frequently paid by other people.