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Millicent and Another

They were two quite small maidies, aged respectively four and six years
with some odd months in each case. They are older now and have probably
forgotten the stranger to whom they gave their fresh little hearts, who
presently left their country never to return; for all this happened a
long time ago--I think about three years. In a way they were rivals,
yet had never seen one another, perhaps never will, since they inhabit
two villages more than a dozen miles apart in a wild, desolate, hilly
district of West Cornwall.

Let me first speak of Millicent, the elder. I knew Millicent well,
having at various times spent several weeks with her in her parents'
house, and she, an only child, was naturally regarded as the most
important person in it. In Cornwall it is always so. Tall for her
years, straight and slim, with no red colour on her cheeks; she had
brown hair and large serious grey eyes; those eyes and her general air
of gravity, and her forehead, which was too broad for perfect beauty,
made me a little shy of her and we were not too intimate. And, indeed,
that feeling on my part, which made me a little careful and ceremonious
in our intercourse, seemed to be only what she expected of me. One day
in a forgetful or expansive moment I happened to call her "Millie,"
which caused her to look to me in surprise. "Don't you like me to call
you Millie--for short?" I questioned apologetically. "No," she returned
gravely; "it is not my name--my name is Millicent." And so it had to be
to the end of the chapter.

Then there was her speech--I wondered how she got it! For it was unlike
that of the people she lived among of her own class. No word-clipping
and slurring, no "naughty English" as old Nordin called it, and sing-
song intonation with her! She spoke with an almost startling
distinctness, giving every syllable its proper value, and her words
were as if they had been read out of a nicely written book.

Nevertheless, we got on fairly well together, meeting on most days at
tea-time in the kitchen, when we would have nice sober little talks and
look at her lessons and books and pictures, sometimes unbending so far
as to draw pigs on her slate with our eyes shut, and laughing at the
result just like ordinary persons.

It was during my last visit, after an absence of some months from that
part of the country, that one evening on coming in I was told by her
mother that Millicent had gone for the milk, and that I would have to
wait for my tea till she came back. Now the farm that supplied the milk
was away at the other end of the village, quite half a mile, and I went
to meet her, but did not see her until I had walked the whole distance,
when just as I arrived at the gate she came out of the farm-house
burdened with a basket of things in one hand and a can of milk in the
other. She graciously allowed me to relieve her of both, and taking
basket and can with one hand I gave her the other, and so, hand in
hand, very friendly, we set off down the long, bleak, windy road just
when it was growing dark.

"I'm afraid you are rather thinly clad for this bleak December
evening," I remarked. "Your little hand feels cold as ice."

She smiled sweetly and said she was not feeling cold, after which there
was a long interval of silence. From time to time we met a villager, a
fisherman in his ponderous sea-boots, or a farm-labourer homeward
plodding his weary way. But though heavy-footed after his day's labour
he is never so stolid as an English ploughman is apt to be; invariably
when giving us a good-night in passing the man would smile and look at
Millicent very directly with a meaning twinkle in his Cornish eye. He
might have been congratulating her on having a male companion to pay
her all these nice little attentions, and perhaps signalling the hope
that something would come of it.

Grave little Millicent, I was pleased to observe, took no notice of
this Cornubian foolishness. At length when we had walked half the
distance home, in perfect silence, she said impressively: "Mr. Hudson,
I have something I want to tell you very much."

I begged her to speak, pressing her cold little hand.

She proceeded: "I shall never forget that morning when you went away
the last time. You said you were going to Truro; but I'm not sure--
perhaps it was to London. I only know that it was very far away, and
you were going for a very long time. It was early in the morning, and I
was in bed. You know how late I always am. I heard you calling to me to
come down and say good-bye; so I jumped up and came down in my
nightdress and saw you standing waiting for me at the foot of the
stairs. Then, when I got down, you took me up in your arms and kissed
me. I shall never forget it!"

"Why?" I said, rather lamely, just because it was necessary to say
something. And after a little pause, she returned, "Because I shall
never forget it."

Then, as I said nothing, she resumed: "That day after school I saw
Uncle Charlie and told him, and he said: 'What! you allowed that tramp
to kiss you! then I don't want to take you on my knee any more--you've
lowered yourself too much."

"Did he dare to say that?" I returned.

"Yes, that's what Uncle Charlie said, but it makes no difference. I
told him you were not a tramp, Mr. Hudson, and he said you could call
yourself Mister-what-you-liked but you were a tramp all the same,
nothing but a common tramp, and that I ought to be ashamed of myself.
'You've disgraced the family,' that's what he said, but I don't care--I
shall never forget it, the morning you went away and took me up in your
arms and kissed me."

Here was a revelation! It saddened me, and I made no reply although I
think she expected one. And so after a minute or two of uncomfortable
silence she repeated that she would never forget it. For all the time I
was thinking of another and sweeter one who was also a person of
importance in her own home and village over a dozen miles away.

In thoughtful silence we finished our talk; then there were lights and
tea and general conversation; and if Millicent had intended returning
to the subject she found no opportunity then or afterwards.

It was better so, seeing that the other character possessed my whole
heart. _She_ was not intellectual; no one would have said of her,
for example, that she would one day blossom into a second Emily Bronte;
that to future generations her wild moorland village would be the
Haworth of the West. She was perhaps something better--a child of earth
and sun, exquisite, with her flossy hair a shining chestnut gold, her
eyes like the bugloss, her whole face like a flower or rather like a
ripe peach in bloom and colour; we are apt to associate these delicious
little beings with flavours as well as fragrances. But I am not going
to be so foolish as to attempt to describe her.

Our first meeting was at the village spring, where the women came with
pails and pitchers for water; she came, and sitting on the stone rim of
the basin into which the water gushed, regarded me smilingly, with
questioning eyes. I started a conversation, but though smiling she was
shy. Luckily I had my luncheon, which consisted of fruit, in my
satchel, and telling her about it she grew interested and confessed to
me that of all good things fruit was what she loved best. I then opened
my stores, and selecting the brightest yellow and richest purple
fruits, told her that they were for her--on one condition--that she
would love me and give me a kiss. And she consented and came to me. O
that kiss! And what more can I find to say of it? Why nothing, unless
one of the poets, Crawshaw for preference, can tell me. "My song," I
might say with that mystic, after an angel had kissed him in the
morning,

Tasted of that breakfast all day long.

From that time we got on swimmingly, and were much in company, for
soon, just to be near her, I went to stay at her village. I then made
the discovery that Mab, for that is what they called her, although so
unlike, so much softer and sweeter than Millicent, was yet like her in
being a child of character and of an indomitable will. She never cried,
never argued, or listened to arguments, never demonstrated after the
fashion of wilful children generally, by throwing herself down
screaming and kicking; she simply very gently insisted on having her
own way and living her own life. In the end she always got it, and the
beautiful thing was that she never wanted to be naughty or do anything
really wrong! She took a quite wonderful interest in the life of the
little community, and would always be where others were, especially
when any gathering took place. Thus, long before I knew her at the age
of four, she made the discovery that the village children, or most of
them, passed much of their time in school, and to school she
accordingly resolved to go. Her parents opposed, and talked seriously
to her and used force to restrain her, but she overcame them in the
end, and to the school they had to take her, where she was refused
admission on account of her tender years. But she had resolved to go,
and go she would; she laid siege to the schoolmistress, to the vicar,
who told me how day after day she would come to the door of the
vicarage, and the parlour-maid would come rushing into his study to
announce, "Miss Mab to speak to you Sir," and how he would talk
seriously to her, and then tell her to run home to her mother and be a
good child. But it was all in vain, and in the end, because of her
importunity or sweetness, he had to admit her.

When I went, during school hours, to give a talk to the children, there
I found Mab, one of the forty, sitting with her book, which told her
nothing, in her little hands. She listened to the talk with an
appearance of interest, although understanding nothing, her bugloss
eyes on me, encouraging me with a very sweet smile, whenever I looked
her way.

It was the same about attending church. Her parents went to one service
on Sundays; she insisted on going to all three, and would sit and stand
and kneel, book in hand, as if taking a part in it all, but always when
you looked at her, her eyes would meet yours and the sweet smile would
come to her lips.

I had been told by her mother that Mab would not have dolls and toys,
and this fact, recalled at an opportune moment, revealed to me her
secret mind--her baby philosophy. We, the inhabitants of the village,
grown-ups and children as well as the domestic animals, were her
playmates and playthings, so that she was independent of sham blue-eyed
babies made of sawdust and cotton and inanimate fluffy Teddy-bears; she
was in possession of the real thing! The cottages, streets, the church
and school, the fields and rocks and hills and sea and sky were all
contained in her nursery or playground; and we, her fellow-beings, were
all occupied from morn to night in an endless complicated game, which
varied from day to day according to the weather and time of year, and
had many beautiful surprises. She didn't understand it all, but was
determined to be in it and get all the fun she could out of it. This
mental attitude came out strikingly one day when we had a funeral--
always a feast to the villagers; that is to say, an emotional feast;
and on this occasion the circumstances made the ceremony a peculiarly
impressive one.

A young man, well known and generally liked, son of a small farmer,
died with tragic suddenness, and the little stone farm-house being
situated away on the borders of the parish, the funeral procession had
a considerable distance to walk to the village. To the church I went to
view its approach; built on a rock, the church stands high in the
centre of the village, and from the broad stone steps in front one got
a fine view of the inland country and of the procession like an immense
black serpent winding along over green fields and stiles, now
disappearing in some hollow ground or behind grey masses of rock, then
emerging on the sight, and the voices of the singers bursting out loud
and clear in that still atmosphere.

When I arrived on the steps Mab was already there; the whole village
would be at that spot presently, but she was first. On that morning no
sooner had she heard that the funeral was going to take place than she
gave herself a holiday from school and made her docile mother dress her
in her daintiest clothes. She welcomed me with a glad face and put her
wee hand in mine; then the villagers--all those not in the procession--
began to arrive, and very soon we were in the middle of a throng; then,
as the six coffin-bearers came slowly toiling up the many steps, and
the singing all at once grew loud and swept as a big wave of sound over
us, the people were shaken with emotion, and all the faces, even of the
oldest men, were wet with tears--all except ours, Mab's and mine.

Our tearless condition--our ability to keep dry when it was raining, so
to say--resulted from quite different causes. Mine just then were the
eyes of a naturalist curiously observing the demeanour of the beings
around me. To Mab the whole spectacle was an act, an interlude, or
scene in that wonderful endless play which was a perpetual delight to
witness and in which she too was taking a part. And to see all her
friends, her grown-up playmates, enjoying themselves in this unusual
way, marching in a procession to the church, dressed in black, singing
hymns with tears in their eyes--why, this was even better than school
or Sunday service, romps in the playground or a children's tea. Every
time I looked down at my little mate she lifted a rosy face to mine
with her sweetest smile and bugloss eyes aglow with ineffable
happiness. And now that we are far apart my loveliest memory of her is
as she appeared then. I would not spoil that lovely image by going back
to look at her again. Three years! It was said of Lewis Carroll that he
ceased to care anything about his little Alices when they had come to
the age of ten. Seven is my limit: they are perfect then: but in Mab's
case the peculiar exquisite charm could hardly have lasted beyond the
age of six.

W. H. Hudson