The children had come back from their outing with the governess with several disgusting curios in tow.
“Where did you take the little beasts?” the mother had asked.
“Portobello Road, ma’am.”
“And you let them buy someone else’s rubbish with their pocket money?”
“Oh no, ma’am,” the governess had said. “I thought it were an excellent opportunity for a lesson. Especially for Jack, so that he might see value in other people’s treasures.”
“Value in what?” The mother wrinkled her nose. “Filth?”
The governess was gone the next day, as were the curios, but the boy had begged and pleaded and threatened when the mother tried to take away his trinket that she relented. She hated a scene. The girl-child watched them both with large, solemn eyes.
“What is it?” the mother asked irritably. She could feel a headache coming on.
The girl-child said nothing. Such a strange little hobgoblin of a child, the mother thought. Thin, sallow, and ugly, with limp, flat, colourless hair that was nothing like the mother’s own shiny golden curls. There were dark, discoloured bruises beneath the girl’s enormous eyes, which were a dull mud brown, giving the child a peaky look. The mother disliked peaky-looking children.
“Come on,” said the boy to his sister with a grin. “Let’s play.”
The girl shrank away from her brother, who reached out to grab her by the arm. At least the boy had some promise, the mother thought. Bright, robust, and healthy, he had the ruddy cheeks of a promising footballer and the easy smile of a born charmer. His blue eyes were curiously cold and flat, and set just a little too close together, but otherwise, the boy was a handsome devil. The mother appreciated handsome devils.
“I don’t want to play,” the girl mumbled. She looked to the mother for support. The mother frowned. Where was that governess? The girl-child was sorely lacking in diction and presentation, and the mother could not abide shrinking violets.
“Go play with your brother,” the mother snapped. The headache was growing stronger and the children were beginning to get underfoot. “And where is that beknighted governess?”
It wasn’t until after the children had left the room that the mother remembered she had asked the housekeeper to put out an advert for a new one.
Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
The mother could hear the boy sing all throughout the house, a silly little nonsense ditty that managed to worm its way into the mother’s ears.
Every night when I get home
The monkey’s on the table,
Take a stick and knock it off,
Pop! goes the weasel.
Each time the boy got to the end of a verse, the girl screamed. The shrieks were dancing on the mother’s last nerve. Why hadn’t that posting for a new governess been filled yet? She reached for the bell for the maid to bring her the smelling salts.
“Pop! goes the weasel!” the boy shouted.
“Stop!” the girl sobbed. “Please, stop!”
The maid wasn’t forthcoming with the smelling salts. The mother sighed and lifted herself from the fainting couch to make her way upstairs to the nursery.
“Pop! goes the weasel!”
The mother cracked open the doors to the nursery and peered inside. The boy and the girl were sitting on the floor. The boy had the trinket box from Portobello Road in his lap, turning the handle on its side as he sang. Once he reached the last line of the ditty, a figurine popped out of the box, startling the girl.
“Don’t,” the girl said. “I don’t want to play anymore.”
“Too bad,” said the boy. “I do.”
The boy cranked the handle again as he sang, and the figurine sprang out of the box. It was a young woman, dressed in a frumpy, dowdy gown, such as something that worthless governess might wear.
“I don’t like this game,” the girl said.
The boy grinned, and it seemed for a moment he would listen to his sister. But he continued to the turn the handle of the box. “What will it be this time?” he asked, cranking the handle and singing his nonsense ditty. “A wolf? A bear? A jester? The dark? What are you most afraid of, Lily dear?”
The girl made no answer, but continued to sob into her hands.
The mother shut the door to the nursery. Seemed like harmless play. She retreated back to her fainting couch, and berated the maid for not bringing the smelling salts and gin fast enough.
“Mama,” the girl-child said. “I don’t like Jack’s new toy.”
The mother was entertaining guests in the parlour and did not appreciate the unexpected appearance of her child at the party. Why hadn’t that governess post been filled yet? The housekeeper had tried to give her some twaddle about no one applying for the position because of the “demon children”, but the mother scoffed. Her children were complete angels, when they weren’t being maddeningly underfoot.
“Excuse me,” the mother said politely to her guests. The society matrons all nodded their heads and cooed prettily as the mother swept up the girl-child in her arms and walked out of the room.
“What is it?” the mother asked irritably. The girl looked at her with those dull mud-brown eyes.
“I don’t like Jack’s new toy,” the girl said again, this time in a whisper. She seemed even more peaky than before, the dark circles beneath her eyes a stark contrast to the unhealthy pallor of her skin. The mother made a moue of distaste.
“And you interrupted my party to tell me this?”
The girl nodded, shrinking further into herself. “It scares me.”
The mother sighed and resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Ladies did not roll their eyes, even when their children were being impossible. “It’s just a dirty old box. It can’t hurt you.”
The girl looked at her feet. “It’s a bad thing, Mama,” she said to her toes. “And if you don’t take it away, something bad will happen.”
The mother rang for the housekeeper. She had to attend to her guests.
A penny for a spool of thread
A penny for a needle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! Goes the weasel.
The boy had begun leaving the trinket box in odd places about the house. The mother would trip over the toy on her way up and down the steps, or upon entering and leaving the residence. She had tried to get the staff to be more diligent about cleaning up after the children, but—as was the way of servants—they always managed to disappear whenever they were needed. This is what came from hiring sub-par help, as the mother repeatedly informed her husband.
This time the mother found the trinket box in the foyer, tucked behind a coatrack, and completely hidden from less sharp-eyed observers. She screwed up her face and picked up the offending toy by the corners, trying to bring as little of herself into contact with it as possible. Who knows what dirty tinkers or soot-mongers had touched the nasty thing?
Out of nowhere, the girl-child materialized like a wraith.
“Don’t touch it,” the girl whispered.
The mother nearly leapt out of her skin with fright, but managed to steel her limbs into rigid elegance. A lady did not show unseemly displays of emotion. “You,” she said to the girl. “Go take this thing back to your brother. The two of you need to learn to pick up after yourselves.”
The girl shook her head. Upstairs the mother could hear the boy-child sing, Up and down the London road…
“No?” The mother was growing irritated. “Don’t be pert with me. Take this thing back to your brother at once.”
The girl shook her head again. Her dull brown eyes were over-large in her wan face, giving her an unattractive, goggle-eyed look. What a disgusting little frog, the mother thought. A disgusting, disobedient little frog.
“I will go fetch the switch if you don’t take this back to your brother immediately,” the mother threatened.
Again the girl shook her head. “It’s a bad thing, Mama,” she whispered. “And I’m afraid of it more than I’m afraid of you.”
That’s the way the money goes, the boy sang from elsewhere in the house. Pop! goes the weasel!
At that moment, the trinket box sprang open. The mother dropped the toy, and the little girl darted back up the stairs. The figurine of a broken woman lay sad and bent on the floor, still attached to the trinket box by a rusty spring. The mother frowned. She could have sworn the figure inside the box had been a young woman before. She picked up the toy.
The old woman stared back at her with cracked, glassy eyes. The hair was a faded yellow, and the eyes a milky blue. The mother peered closer. The figurine wore a dress very much like the one she wore right then, and bore an uncanny resemblance to herself. It was as though she were staring into the face of what she might look like if she were old and ugly.
The mother dropped the box again. She dusted off her hands. Let the staff deal with the trinket; she would make sure they threw it out with the rest of the refuse tomorrow.
“Where is it?”
The boy was throwing a fit. The mother lay back on her fainting couch with a cold compress on her brow. She could hear the little beast throwing and breaking things upstairs, and the cries of the girl-child as her brother took his anger out on her. Where were the servants? She reminded herself to sack them all tomorrow and advertise for better help.
“Give me back my box!” the boy was shouting. “Give it back or I will hurt you!”
“It’s evil,” the girl sobbed. “It’s a bad thing and I’m afraid of it more than I’m afraid of you.”
The mother could hear the sounds of smacks and shouts of pain. She sighed. She ought to rouse herself and tend to those unruly little terrors, but her nerves were frayed with everything else she had had to deal with that day. The housekeeper had inexplicably gone missing, and the rest of the downstairs staff were simply incompetent in managing the household without her.
“That’s a lie!” the boy said. “You want my trinket box! You want to scare me with it, just like I can scare you! Well I won’t let you!” Another smack. “Give it back!”
“I can’t!” the girl hiccoughed. “I won’t!”
“You will!” Another smack, and then a high-pitched shriek. “Or I’ll kill you!”
A sudden silence. The mother lifted her head off the fainting couch. The crying and the screaming had stopped. With an aggrieved sigh, she got up from her prone position and made her way up the stairs to the nursery. She cracked open the door and peered inside.
The girl sat with a music box in her lap, singing along with the melody as she turned the handle.
I’ve no time to plead and pine,
I’ve no time to wheedle,
Kiss me quick and then I’m gone
Pop! Goes the weasel.
The mother smiled at the scene of her daughter at play. The late afternoon sunshine turned the girl’s curls into burnished gold and stained the girl’s cheeks a posy pink. Such a pretty child. Just like the mother.
The music box sprang open, startling the mother. She pressed her hand to her heart, trying to still its nervous fluttering. The figurine in the box was of a little boy, almost a twin to the girl-child, with golden hair and round apple cheeks. The mother frowned, as though trying to remember something she had just misplaced. The boy in the box seemed familiar, with a devilish grin that tugged at her heart in a peculiar way. Then the mother shook her head to clear herself of the thought. What she had taken to be a cheeky smile now seemed grotesque, more like a rictus grin of fear than a charming smirk.
She reminded herself to take the trinket box away tomorrow. Now where were the servants?
First posted on Halloween 2013, I was struck with an idea for a short story after a scary dream I had had. (Yeah, I know, scary dreams inspiring stories, how very Twilight of me.) It involved a creepy jack-in-the-box, an unwitting victim, and the creeping sense of dread that something awful was about to happen. The dream was actually nothing at all like the story, but it served as a inspiration kernel, and that’s all writers need, right?