"I'll be there in a second!"
Charles knew he dared not tarry for too long, unless he wanted to upset his mother and Mrs. Hudson, the cook. Still, he had to stop as he had every morning of that week.
He looked at the calendar. It was only Thursday, March 12, 1896.
Charles began to run down the stairs, then remembered that he was expected to walk. After all, in a few days, he wouldn't be a baby anymore. He'd be seven. And his parents said he should know enough not to charge down the stairs and into the dining room.
He entered at what he thought would be an acceptable pace, neither charging nor dawdling. He looked at the faces of his parents and his sister, hoping to see some sign of approval for the grown-up manner in which he'd come to breakfast. His father was busy looking over the paper and his mother and sister were engaged in some conversation about a boy his sister knew.
But Miss Chelsea, the governess, looked at him and smiled. Though she didn't say anything, Charles knew she was pleased with his good manners.
At a sign from Charles' mother, everyone stopped what they were doing, bowed their heads, and said the breakfast prayer.
"Miss Chelsea," said Charles' mother after the prayer was done, "would you like to announce your surprise for the children?"
"A surprise?" said Millicent, Charles' older sister. "What sort of a surprise?"
"We're going to the park today," said Miss Chelsea.
"The park?" said Charles, a delighted grin on his face. "And the zoo?"
"If you wish it," said Miss Chelsea.
"Why are we going today?" asked Millicent. "It isn't the weekend."
"No. On the weekend, it will be Charles' birthday, and we'll be here for the party. Just think of today as an early birthday present."
"Can I stop and buy something from Gertie?" asked Charles.
"Now, Charles," said his father in a voice not too stern. "You know I disapprove of you consorting with that madwoman."
"She's not mad! She's my friend! Oh, please, may I? As part of the early birthday present?
Charles' parents exchanged glances with each other and Miss Chelsea. They all smiled. "All right," said the father. "But no more than 50 cents!"
Charles laughed and clapped his hands. Millicent stared at her family, unable to understand why they were being so nice to Charles before his birthday. They even had hotcakes and syrup, his favorite breakfast. It just didn't seem right.
It seemed even less right when they were at the park. Miss Chelsea allowed Charles to buy peanuts and popcorn to feed the animals in the zoo. She bought both of them spun sugar, and allowed Charles to buy a sandwich, even though all three of them knew Charles wasn't going to eat it himself. Instead, Charles marched proudly, sandwich in his hand, into the woods by the park. It was all Millicent and Miss Chelsea could do to keep up with him.
By the time they got there, Charles was already at the old shack, knocking on the door. Actually, thought Millicent , "shack" was too kind a word to describe this structure. "Hovel" was more like it.
The door opened, and an old woman peeped out from behind it. Her hair was a dirty, stringy white that hung about her face. One eye was clouded over with film, and looked out at an angle distinctly not aligned with the other eye. As soon as she saw Charles, her mouth widened into a grin that showed only two teeth, one upper, one lower. When they came together, they might've allowed her to chew, but no one was sure.
"Charlie!" she said with an accent no one could quite place. "Luv, but I didn't expect t'see you t'day. An' hello to you, too, Mizz Guvverness, an' you, Millie!"
"My name is Millicent!" said Charles' sister in protest.
"Ye'll have t' fergive an old woman, dearie. Yer full name's more syl'bles 'n' me tongue'll handle. What brings ye all here on a Thursday?"
"We're visiting the park!" said Charles.
"Today? But ain't it a learnin' day?"
"It's an early birthday present for Charles," said Miss Chelsea distractedly. She was worried something might scamper out of the corner of the shed.
"Yer birt'day, Charlie? An' me wit'out not'in ta give ye!"
"It's not until Saturday, Gertie," said Charles. "But I have something for you!"
Charles held the sandwich out to her. Gertie looked at it and smiled.
"Bless my soul!" said the old woman, just before she took a bite. "Peanut butter 'n' cucumber. Me fav'rite! Thank ye, Charlie."
"Can we come in?" he asked. "Father said I may spend 50 cents to buy something from you!"
"Ye'll do no such t'ing!" Charles heart sank for a moment, wondering what he'd done to upset Gertie. Then she smiled at him. "This sandwich is a proper trade fer anyt'in' I could give yer! Now come in, all o' ye."
Millicent didn't want to enter Gertie's home, but Miss Chelsea told her it would be rude not to do so. Still, Millicent couldn't help but wrinkle her nose when she walked into the shack. And she was flabbergasted when Miss Chelsea accepted Gertie's offer of tea! For Millicent's tastes, they spent far too much time socializing with this foolish old woman, especially since it was Gertie and Charles who did most of the talking. Millicent was certain Miss Chelsea felt the same way. The governess kept checking her watch.
"Now, then, Charlie," said Gertie after she'd finished the sandwich and her tea. "This Sat'day's yer birt'day?"
"Yes, Gertie," said Charles.
"Well, I got the very t'ing fer ye!" Jes' lemme see if'n I can r'member where I put it." Gertie walked over to a cupboard and began pulling all manner of things out of it. Bottles, tins, scraps of cloth and all came out. Finally, she pulled out a wooden box. Carrying it over to Charles, she took off the lid and showed him what was inside.
"It's just candles," said Charles with a frown.
"Charles!" said Miss Chelsea. "That wasn't polite!"
"S'all right, dearie," said Gertie. "If I'd seen 'em and not known what they was, I'd o' said 'jes' candles' meself."
"Why?" asked Charles. "What are they?"
"Them's special wishin' candles. Ye puts 'em on your cake, makes a wish, blows 'em out, an' yer wish comes true!"
"Really?" No one saw Millicent roll her eyes.
"Really," said Gertie. "Now, le's see. You'll be needin' what, fif'y candles?"
Charles giggled and shook his head."
"Oh, no? How 'bout twen'y-five?"
This went on for about a minute, with Gertie guessing an outrageously wrong number and Charles laughing. Millicent finally burst out "He's going to be seven!"
"Seven!" said Gertie. "Ye're never 'at young! But, seven it is!" She carefully counted out seven candles and put them in a paper sack, then gave them to Charles. Soon afterward, Miss Chelsea announced it was time for them to leave. Charles gave Gertie a heartfelt hug, and then he left with his sister and governess.
When Charles arrived home with Millicent and Miss Chelsea, he went into the parlor, where he found his mother talking with a portly, middle-aged woman. She had a hard face, but smiled at Charles.
"Is this the boy then, Mrs. Willingham?" asked the woman.
"Charles!" said his mother. "You shouldn't be home yet!" Miss Chelsea entered with Millicent. Mrs. Willingham looked at Miss Chelsea and repeated "You shouldn't be home yet!"
"But, Madam," said Miss Chelsea. "It's after 3:30. It's nearly 4!"
Mrs. Willingham glanced at the clock in dismay. "Oh, no. Mr. Willingham must've forgotten to wind it today! I've lost track of time!"
"It's alright, Mrs. Willingham," said the portly woman. "We'd best break the news to the children right away."
"What news?" asked Charles. "Mother, who is this woman?"
"I'm Mrs. Barker. I'm to be your new governess."
"New governess? You're sending Miss Chelsea away? But why?" Charles expected his heart to break at any moment.
"She's not sending me away, Charles," said Miss Chelsea. "I'm leaving."
"But you can't!" Don't you love me, I mean us anymore?"
"Or course I do, Charles. I'll always have love in my heart for you and Millicent. But, well, you know my friend, Mr. Hillegas? He has asked me to marry him. And I have said 'yes.' I'm leaving to start a family of my own."
"No!" said Charles, starting to weep. "You can't leave!"
"It's all right, Charles," said Mrs. Willingham. "Mrs. Barker is an excellent teacher. She'll be a wonderful governess for you and your sister."
"But I don't want her as our governess! I want Miss Chelsea!"
"Charles. That's enough. Don't let your father come home and see you carrying on like this."
"Perhaps I'd better leave for now, Missus," said Mrs. Barker.
"Very well. We'll expect you on Monday. Charles, I think you should go to your room until you can compose yourself."
Charles said nothing but began to leave. Then, he turned and faced Miss Chelsea.
"When will you be leaving?" he said, failing miserably to choke back his tears.
"Sunday," said Miss Chelsea. "Mr. Hillegas and I will be married next week."
"Will you still be here for my birthday?"
"Of course! I must see my Charles become a man!"
Charles did not think he could make it through the rest of the week. When Saturday finally came, he knew it would be the most miserable birthday he'd ever had. His mood was not helped by the arrival of Mr. Julius Hillegas on Saturday. Not even the toy boat Mr. Hillegas gave him could cheer Charles up.
Finally, the birthday party began. It was attended by Charles' parents, Millicent, Miss Chelsea, Mr. Hillegas, and several children from the neighborhood. Charles tried to be happy, but the cloud of Miss Chelsea's departure getting even closer was always in the back of his heart.
Mrs. Hudson came out with the cake. It was a beautiful cake, two sections high, chocolate with chocolate frosting, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHARLES written on top in icing. But there were no candles.
"Master Charles," said Mrs. Hudson. "Miss Chelsea said you'd gotten some special candles from old Gertie. Would you like me to put them on the cake?"
"Oh! Yes!" said Charles. He'd forgotten all about the candles. And now, he had an idea. Running so fast up and down the stairs that his father gave him a mild scolding, Charles got the candles and gave them to Mrs. Hudson. She quickly arranged them on top of the cake as evenly as she could, and then lit them.
"Now, make a wish, and blow out the candles," said Mrs. Willingham.
Charles leaned over the cake. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, concentrating. He opened his eyes and, exhaling as he moved his head around over the cake, blew out all of the candles. Everyone watching applauded.
"What shall we do next?" asked Millicent as everyone ate cake and ice cream.
"Blind man's bluff!" said Helen, a blonde, eight-year-old girl from down the road.
"Does that sound all right with you, Charles?" asked Mrs. Willingham.
"Yes," said Charles. "But only if Miss Chelsea will be 'it!'"
Miss Chelsea smiled, glancing at Mr. Hillegas. "Do you mind?" she asked him.
"I suppose I should be jealous," he said with a good natured grin. "But go ahead."
They went into the parlor, where the furniture was cleared away. Miss Chelsea was blindfolded, and then spun around. With gleeful laughter, the other party-goers began to move away from Miss Chelsea as she groped to try to catch each one of them. As she did, she thought how glad she was that Charles' mood had improved while they were eating. It made her a little sad to know he was already getting over her. But that was as it should be.
Suddenly, Miss Chelsea stumbled.
"Are you all right, Celia?" asked Mr. Hillegas.
"I'm fine," she said. "My shoes have somehow become loose, that's all. Let me take them off, and we'll continue."
Still blindfolded, working quickly to unbutton the suddenly cumbersome footwear, Miss Chelsea pulled off the right shoe. When she removed the left one, however, her stocking snagged on one of the hooks. To the giggles of the children, the stocking pulled off completely with the shoe.
"Miss Chelsea?" said Mrs. Willingham. "Do you think such an exhibition is appropriate in front of young children?"
"It was an accident," said Miss Chelsea. "I assure you. I don't know why, but suddenly, all of my clothing feels loose!"
No sooner had she said these words, when the blindfold slipped from her eyes and fell about her neck.
"Celia?" said Mr. Hillegas. "You seem to be diminishing!"
Miss Chelsea looked at herself. She saw the mutton-sleeve blouse she was wearing begin to sag. She tried to walk, and nearly fell again. She felt something sliding down her legs and instantly knew what it was.
"Children," she gasped. "Turn your heads. And you, Mr. Willingham. You, too, Julius, we're not married yet!"
When everyone who should have done so obeyed her instructions, Miss Chelsea hiked up her skirt. Mrs. Willingham and Mrs. Hudson both gasped, not at the indecency of Miss Chelsea's actions, but at the sight of her bloomers falling to the floor around her ankles. She quickly stepped out of them, picked them up, and stuffed them down her blouse.
"It's all right," she said. "It's safe to look again."
"Celia," said Mr. Hillegas. "You're turning into a child! You're quite the sight!"
It was true. Miss Chelsea now looked to be no older than 13. She had to hold on to her skirt at the belt, lest it also slide to the floor. Her blouse hung limply around her torso. There was no longer any sign of a bosom under it.
But Miss Chelsea had a bigger problem. She no longer felt whalebone digging into her flesh. As hard as it was to maintain her modesty while holding up her skirt, it was nearly impossible to do so and keep her corset from falling at the same time.
"Please excuse me," said Miss Chelsea, trying hard to keep her panic out of her voice. She turned and, as quickly as she could while not exposing the children to the sight of her now too-large undergarments, Miss Chelsea went up the stairs to her room.
A few minutes later, Mrs. Willingham and Mrs. Hudson knocked on Miss Chelsea's door. "May we come in?" asked Charles' mother. There was no answer. Quietly, they opened the door and slipped inside.
There, standing in front of a full-length mirror, was Miss Chelsea. She had nothing on but the corset. She was holding it out in front of her as far as it would go, looking in the mirror to compare the figure she'd had moments ago with the figure she had now. She still had her hair styled in the fashion made so popular by Mr. Gibson's girls that appeared in Life magazine every week. She then held the front of the corset against her body, turned from the mirror, and faced the two women now so much her seniors. Tears rolled down her face.
"You look as young as Master Charles," said Mrs. Hudson.
"What shall I do?" Miss Chelsea asked no one in particular.
"For now," said Mrs. Willingham, "there are some of Millicent's old clothes in her room. I was going to give them to her cousin, but some of them may fit you."
Presently, all of the party guests were astonished to see Mrs. Willingham and Mrs. Hudson come downstairs, followed by a pretty, apple-cheeked girl in a bright yellow dress. The girl's hair was styled for a woman three times her age. She carried herself with a maturity far beyond her years. There were tear stains on her face.
"Miss Chelsea?" said Charles in wonderment.
"I'm afraid so, Charles," said the girl.
"Celia?" said Mr. Hillegas.
"I can't marry you with you looking like this! I know how I feel whenever I read about a grown man taking a child bride. I don't want people feeling that way about me!"
"I understand. I release you from your proposal."
Mr. Hillegas stared at his now ex-fiancé for several more seconds. Then, he bowed his head, turned, and left the house.
After the other children had left, Charles went up to Miss Chelsea's room and knocked on the door. After being told to come in, he entered to find his mother and Mrs. Hudson trying to comfort the little girl who had been his beloved governess. She was crying bitterly.
"Miss Chelsea," said Charles. "I'm sorry about what happened."
"It wasn't your fault," said Miss Chelsea, smiling weakly at him through her tears.
"But it was!" Charles began to cry himself. "It was my wish that did all of this! Gertie told me my wish would come true if I blew out those candles. And I wished that you'd stay with me and be my girlfriend. I didn't think it would work like this."
"Charles," said his mother. "Are you serious?"
"I think he is, Madam," said Mrs. Hudson. "I'd always heard Old Gert was some kind of witch. This is just the sort of thing she's supposed to be able to do!"
"Can you relight the candles so another wish could be made?"
"No, Madam, I can't. I noticed when I was cleaning up. The candles've all melted away completely! It didn't seem they'd been lit long enough, but they were gone all the same. More of my old witch's magic, that's my guess!"
"Then we must go to Gertrude's home at once and have her undo this!"
"We can't, Madam! Haven't you heard yet?"
"There was a fire in those woods. Cleared all the trees around Gert's shack, and the shack itself. If she's alive, she's moved on!"
Mrs. Willingham said nothing for several seconds. Then, she looked at her son. "Charles," she said. "What have you done?"
"I'm sorry, Mother," said Charles. "I just love Miss Chelsea so much."
"And I love you, Charles," said Miss Chelsea. "I can't say why, but I'm not angry."
"But I made you a little girl!" said Charles.
"And you did that out of love, too. My mind is still an adult's. I can still teach you and your sister, if your parents will allow it."
"We certainly can't throw you out after this," said Charles' mother. "I'll still have Mrs. Barker come around. You and she can help each other. You'll always have a home here as far as I'm concerned."
"But what will we tell father?" asked Charles.
"I'm not sure. But I can't see him dismissing Miss Chelsea either. We'll work it out."
After talking things over a little more, the two women left the room. As they walked, Mrs. Hudson spoke up.
"Excuse me, Missus. I was wondering. Master Charles said he had wished for Miss Chelsea to stay and be his girlfriend. Besides turning her into a little girl, you don't think the magic made her fall in love with him, do you? I mean, I'm certain I wouldn't've been so forgiving if I were in her shoes."
"Perhaps. Miss Chelsea has always had a kind heart, and she's always been fond of Charles.
"It's said there is a woman for every man and a man for every woman. I've always believed that. But, sometimes, the 'timing' isn't right for the couples. Perhaps the magic just corrected some bad timing in years between a boy and girl who should be together."
"You're a romantic, Madam."
"And so, I suspect, is Gertie."
"Please don't feel bad about what's happened to me, Charles," said Miss Chelsea. "There are many people who would love the opportunity for a second chance at life. And I'm becoming fond of the idea of growing up again if I get to do it with you."
"Really, Miss Chelsea?" said Charles.
"Really. And, please, call me Celia. Now, how does a game of Snakes & Ladders sound?"
Celia smiled as Charles went to get the game.