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A Spray of Southernwood

To pass from little girls to little boys is to go into quite another,
an inferior, coarser world. No doubt there are wonderful little boys,
but as a rule their wonderfulness consists in a precocious intellect:
this kind doesn't appeal to me, so that if I were to say anything on
the matter, it would be a prejudiced judgment. Even the ordinary
civilised little boy, the nice little gentleman who is as much at home
in the drawing-room as at his desk in the school-room or with a bat in
the playing-field--even that harmless little person seems somehow
unnatural, or denaturalised to my primitive taste. A result, I will
have it, of improper treatment. He has been under the tap, too
thoroughly scrubbed, boiled, strained and served up with melted butter
and a sprig of parsley for ornament in a gilt-edged dish. I prefer him
raw, and would rather have the street-Arab, if in town, and the
unkempt, rough and tough cottage boy in the country. But take them
civilised or natural, those who love and observe little children no
more expect to find that peculiar exquisite charm of the girl-child
which I have endeavoured to describe in the boy, than they would expect
the music of the wood-lark and the airy fairy grace and beauty of the
grey wagtail in Philip Sparrow. And yet, incredible as it seems, that
very quality of the miraculous little girl is sometimes found in the
boy and, with it, strange to say, the boy's proper mind and spirit. The
child lover will meet with one of that kind once in ten years, or not
so often--not oftener than a collector of butterflies will meet with a
Camberwell Beauty. The miraculous little girl, we know, is not more
uncommon than the Painted Lady, or White Admiral. And I will here give
a picture of such a boy--the child associated in my mind with a spray
of southernwood.

And after this impression, I shall try to give one or two of ordinary
little boys. These live in memory like the little girls I have written
about, not, it will be seen, because of their boy nature, seeing that
the boy has nothing miraculous, nothing to capture the mind and
register an enduring impression in it, as in the case of the girl; but
owing solely to some unusual circumstance in their lives--something
adventitious.

It was hot and fatiguing on the Wiltshire Downs, and when I had toiled
to the highest point of a big hill where a row of noble Scotch firs
stood at the roadside, I was glad to get off my bicycle and rest in the
shade. Fifty or sixty yards from the spot where I sat on the bank on a
soft carpet of dry grass and pine-needles, there was a small, old,
thatched cottage, the only human habitation in sight except the little
village at the foot of the hill, just visible among the trees a mile
ahead. An old woman in the cottage had doubtless seen me going by, for
she now came out into the road, and, shading her eyes with her hand,
peered curiously at me. A bent and lean old woman in a dingy black
dress, her face brown and wrinkled, her hair white. With her, watching
me too, was a little mite of a boy; and after they had stood there a
while he left her and went into the cottage garden, but presently came
out into the road again and walked slowly towards me. It was strange to
see that child in such a place! He had on a scarlet shirt or blouse,
wide lace collar, and black knickerbockers and stockings; but it was
his face rather than his clothes that caused me to wonder. Rarely had I
seen a more beautiful child, such a delicate rose-coloured skin, and
fine features, eyes of such pure intense blue, and such shining golden
hair. How came this angelic little being in that poor remote cottage
with that bent and wrinkled old woman for a guardian?

He walked past me very slowly, a sprig of southernwood in his hand;
then after going by he stopped and turned, and approaching me in a shy
manner and without saying a word offered me the little pale green
feathery spray. I took it and thanked him, and we entered into
conversation, when I discovered that his little mind was as bright and
beautiful as his little person. He loved the flowers, both garden and
wild, but above everything he loved the birds; he watched them to find
their nests; there was nothing he liked better than to look at the
little spotted eggs in the nest. He could show me a nest if I wanted to
see one, only the little bird was sitting on her eggs. He was six years
old, and that cottage was his home--he knew no other; and the old bent
woman standing there in the road was his mother. They didn't keep a
pig, but they kept a yellow cat, only he was lost now; he had gone
away, and they didn't know where to find him. He went to school now--he
walked all the way there by himself and all the way back every day. It
was very hard at first, because the other boys laughed at and plagued
him. Then they hit him, but he hit them back as hard as he could. After
that they hurt him, but they couldn't make him cry. He never cried, and
always hit them back, and now they were beginning to leave him alone.
His father was named Mr. Job, and he worked at the farm, but he
couldn't do so much work now because he was such an old man. Sometimes
when he came home in the evening he sat in his chair and groaned as if
it hurt him. And he had two sisters; one was Susan; she was married and
had three big girls; and Jane was married too, but had no children.
They lived a great way off. So did his brother. His name was Jim, and
he was a great fat man and sometimes came from London, where he lived,
to see them. He didn't know much about Jim; he was very silent, but not
with mother. Those two would shut themselves up together and talk and
talk, but no one knew what they were talking about. He would write to
mother too; but she would always hide the letters and say to father:
"It's only from Jim; he says he's very well--that's all." But they were
very long letters, so he must have said more than that.

Thus he prattled, while I, to pay him for the southernwood, drew
figures of the birds he knew best on the leaves I tore from my note-
book and gave them to him. He thanked me very prettily and put them in
his pocket.

"And what is your name?" I asked.

He drew himself up before me and in a clear voice, pronouncing the
words in a slow measured manner, as if repeating a lesson, he answered:
"Edmund Jasper Donisthorpe Stanley Overington."

The name so astonished me that I remained silent for quite two minutes
during which I repeated it to myself many times to fix it in my memory.

"But why," said I at length, "do you call yourself Overington when your
father's name is Job?"

"Oh, that is because I have two fathers--Mr. Job, my very old father,
and Mr. Overington, who lives away from here. He comes to see me
sometimes, and he is my father too; but I have only one mother--there
she is out again looking at us."

I questioned him no further, and no further did I seek those mysteries
to disclose, and so we parted; but I never see a plant or sprig of
southernwood, nor inhale its cedarwood smell, which one does not know
whether to like or dislike, without recalling the memory of that
miraculous cottage child with a queer history and numerous names.

W. H. Hudson