Penard ordered his papers carefully. “I think I’ll take these upstairs to my rooms to review the household accounts. If you need me, you know where to ﬁnd me. You may notify me when the meal is ready.” He tucked his chair under the table, then left the room, going up the stairs off the kitchen.
It seemed to Charlotte that Sarah ought to be back with the sheets by now. The linens would have to be ironed tonight if the maids were going to prepare the bedrooms tomorrow.
Putting the knife down, Charlotte crossed the kitchen to the servants’ hall that led to several interconnected workrooms as well as a door opening onto the courtyard. The Banning house jutted out at angles that surrounded three sides, and the row house next door closed in the fourth side except for a passage accommodating delivery carts. Clearly the brick used on this view of the house was less expensive than the stone walls facing Prairie Avenue, but Charlotte savored the enclosure. Something about it felt safe. The family spent little\ time outside. The winters were too cold, and in the summer they escaped to the lake house. Certain the Bannings would not step into the rear courtyard, Penard allowed the staff to set out pots of ﬂowers and enjoy the lush patch of grass.
Charlotte often lingered outside in the evening to inhale the night air before retiring to her stiﬂing third-ﬂoor room. Charlotte exhaled. Despite her defense of Sarah’s abilities to Penard, she had her own doubts. In the day and a half since she had come from St. Andrew’s Orphanage to the Bannings’, sixteen-year-old Sarah Cummings had not completed a single task as requested. Charlotte already was aggravated at perpetually checking up on her and ﬁnding work half done. But she had promised Lucy to do her best with Sarah.
Sheets ﬂapped in the wind above an empty basket, and Sarah was nowhere in sight. With a sigh, Charlotte reached for the ﬁrst clothespin and began to pull the sheets off the line.
Charlotte stilled her hands. Had she actually heard the hoarse whisper? That voice should not be on Banning property. She spun around, a sheet draped over her shoulder. Out of the shadows against the courtyard wall stepped a middle-aged woman holding a baby.
“Mrs. Given! What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been waiting for almost thirty minutes, hoping you would come out. He was sleeping, but now he’s awake and I don’t think I can keep him quiet. I was about to give up and knock at the back door.”
Shock swelled through Charlotte as the little boy’s hands reached for her eagerly. Swiftly she wrestled out of the sheet across her shoulders, dumping it in the basket, and took the baby in her own arms. She cooed in a low voice to keep him quiet. Looking up again, she whispered, “Mrs. Given, what’s going on?”
“I have to leave town.” The older woman stuffed the baby’s quilt and a small bundle in Charlotte’s arms. “I’m on my way to the train now.”
“But what about Henry? I can’t keep him here. You know that.”
Mrs. Given covered her eyes with one hand as her shoulders Heaved once. “I have a family emergency. I truly have no choice. I can’t take him, and I have to go. You’ll have to work something out. I’m sorry I couldn’t bring more of his things, but it was too much to manage on the streetcar.”
Charlotte held the child tightly, wrapping him in the quilt he loved—her grandmother’s quilt. He snuggled happily against her chest, tucking his head under her chin in his favorite way.
“You know I can’t have him here!” Charlotte’s eyes moved from left to right, scanning the courtyard. “Mr. Penard will dismiss me if he discovers I have a child.” Without Lucy, Charlotte had no advocate. “What about your neighbor? Doesn’t she sometimes help you watch him?”
“For an hour or two,” Mrs. Given answered, “but I can’t ask her to take on the care of a child when I don’t know when I’ll be back—or even if I’ll be able to return.”
“Please, Mrs. Given—”
The woman was resolute. “I’ve had two telegrams saying that I must come now. My sister wired the fare this morning. I’m sure St. Andrew’s will take the boy, but I don’t have time to see to that for you.”
“You know I don’t want him at St. Andrew’s. That’s why he’s with you.”
“I’m sorry. I have to be on the next train to Omaha.” Brushing a strand of gray hair out of her face, Mary Given softened.
“He’s a lovely child, Charlotte, and you’re a devoted mother. You’ll always do what’s best for him.”
Within a few seconds, Charlotte was left standing in the courtyard with a laundry basket at her feet and an eleven month-old boy squirming in her arms. Suddenly feeling weak, she set her son in the basket and watched absently as he pulled a corner of the sheet over his head and giggled. Her knees trembled. Uncertain they would support her slight weight, Charlotte crouched next to the basket and laid her hand on the child’s feathery brown hair.
A shadow crossed her vision. Sarah.
“Where did that baby come from?” the girl demanded to know.