Hester sat quietly on the wooden bench by the infirmary door. Her feet dangled uncomfortably, and she kept catching her legs mid-swing and then keeping herself very still. She tried holding her breath, but that just made even more noise when she finally had to let it out. The opposite wall was plain, just dusty coloured plaster right from the ceiling down to the flagstones, stretching out to either side. She heard footsteps, and looked down at the ground, trying to make herself as small as possible. Two shoes stopped at the bench: silver buckles and soft, mouse-grey leather, just peeping out from underneath blue skirts. She felt a cool hand on her forehead.
'Are you quite well, child?'
Hester nodded without raising her head. The hand on her forehead slipped down to brush her cheek, and the other hand cupped her chin and tilted it up. She saw a tall lady, with fair hair tucked under a plain linen cap, secured by a neat strip of blue ribbon twisted into a rosette. Hester admired this, and tried to avoid the lady's eyes. Her chin was released.
'You're not one of the pupils that I know. What is your name?'
Panicked, Hester drew back against the wall. She looked around for Miss Bell, or even Tildy. She could see that the lady with the blue ribbon was wondering why she didn't answer. She lowered her eyes to the beautiful grey shoes, and wished that the floor would swallow her up.
'Well, child? Come now, don't be shy.'
With relief, Hester saw Tildy bustle out of the infirmary, drying her hands on her apron. She bobbed a curtsey when she saw the tall lady.
'Beg pardon mam, tis not that she's shy. She can't talk. Won't talk. Mounts to same thing, f'you ask me...'
The lady looked down on her with pity in her eyes. Hester stared at the wall. She heard Tildy repeat, in lowered tones, what Miss Bell had told her about the strange little girl who didn't speak. Tildy liked to talk, and that suited Hester very well. Tildy talked about anything, to anyone, and sang when she wasn't talking. She had a sharp nose and scrubbed-looking cheeks, and curly hair that escaped from under her cap. When she was angry she would slap Hester, but was sorry for it after, and sometimes gave her a strip of dried apple peel by way of apology.
'Hester...Hester! 'sakes girl, don't ee sit there in a maze...work to be done, and you to be doing it.' Tildy gave her a shake, but not a rough one, and Hester didn't mind it.
The infirmary wasn't large, just a few empty beds against the walls, and a few woven baskets for the babies. Hester thought they looked like large nests, all padded out with wool blankets. Only one child was in the infirmary - a new Foundling baby, who was tiny, the smallest baby Hester had ever seen, and he didn't do much but squall fitfully. He wasn't squalling now. Hester took the broom from beside the fireplace and began sweeping the room the way Tildy had shown her - long, slow strokes from the edges of the room back to the fireplace, where the sweepings could be burnt. The broom was taller than she was, heavy, and the rough wood of the handle hurt her hands. She propped it against the wall and ran to take a peep at the baby.
He was very still, and very quiet. Hester put a hand into the basket to touch his cheek. It was cold. Desperate, she picked him up, blanket and all, and ran to the fireplace. She knelt on the warm hearthstone and carefully cradled the baby in her arms. If Tildy were here she would sing to the baby, would sing lullabies like she sometimes did, picking the babies up and playing with them, even though Miss Bell didn't approve. But Hester couldn't sing, couldn't even call for help. She held the little, cold baby close and tried to make him warm again.
Tildy didn't scold, not even with Hester's dress all covered in dust and ashes from the fire. She was very gentle, and took the baby from Hester, handing him to Miss Bell with a shake of her head. Then she turned back to Hester and firmly pulled her to her feet. She led her over to the water pump and cleaned the tear stains from her face with the corner of her apron.
'Come now, don't ee cry, such a big girl as you. Anyone could see a little mite like that wouldn't thrive no matter what...'
Tildy brushed the marks out of Hester's dress. 'Now put that cap straight and come with me.' Taking Hester's hand, she led her out into the old carriage square and under the archway into the grounds. It had been cool inside, with the old, thick walls, but outside it was summer, and the grass was growing long in the pasture. The older boys had cut a pathway with scythes at the edge of the enclosure, and underfoot it was springy with moss and tiny blue creeping flowers. At the end of the pasture there was a high brick wall, with a door in it. Tildy pulled on a rope that hung down from a hole at the top of the door, and it opened. The rope was too high for Hester to reach.
Inside it was all laid out like a piece of printed cotton - like the dress Tildy wore on her day off, with swirls of colour and flowers. There was a tree in the centre, and flowers around the edges. It was warmer in here than in the pasture - the walls kept the breeze out. It was such a pretty little garden that Hester almost forgot why they were here, until Tildy took her forward to look at the little wooden plaques surrounding the tree.
One of the eldest boys dug the hole, wiping his sleeve across his forehead in the heat. Tildy placed the little body in the ground, and Mr Grimble read something from a book that Hester didn't understand. She looked at the flowers in the garden and felt the warmth from the sun on the back of her neck, and meanwhile the boy shovelled earth and patted the small mound flat with the back of the spade. Hester placed a straggly bunch of the little blue flowers on top, and walked back through the pasture with Tildy.