Milly Darrell, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter iv.

Mrs. Thatcher.

It had been Milly’s habit to devote one day a week to visiting among the poor, before she went to Albury Lodge; and she now resumed this practice, I accompanying her upon her visits. I had been used to going about among the cottagers at home, and I liked the work. It was very pleasant to see Milly Darrell with these people — the perfect confidence and sympathy between them and her, the delight they seemed to take in her bright cheering presence. I was struck by their simple natural manner, and the absence of anything like sycophancy to be observed in them. One day, when we had been to several cottages about the village, Milly asked me if I could manage rather a long walk; and on my telling her that I could, we started upon a lonely road that wound across the moor in a direction I had never walked in until that day. We went on for about two miles without passing a human habitation, and then came to one of the most desolate-looking cottages I ever remember seeing. It was little better than a cabin, and consisted only of two rooms — a kind of kitchen or dwelling-room, and a dark little bedchamber opening out of it.

‘I am not going to introduce you to a very agreeable person, Mary,’ Milly said, when we were within a few paces of this solitary dwelling; ‘but old Rebecca is a character in her way, and I make a point of coming to see her now and then, though she is not always very gracious to me.’

It was a warm bright summer’s day, but the door and the single window of the cottage were firmly closed. Milly knocked with her hand, and a thin feeble old voice called to her to ‘come in.’

We went in: the atmosphere of the place was hot, and had an unpleasant doctor’s-shoppish kind of odour, which I found was caused by some herbs in a jar that was simmering over a little stove in a corner. Bunches of dried herbs hung from the low ceiling, and on an old-fashioned lumbering chest of drawers that stood in the window there were more herbs and roots laid out to dry.

‘Mrs. Thatcher is a very clever doctor, Mary,’ said Milly, as if by way of introduction; ‘all our servants come to her to be cured when they have colds and coughs. — And how are you this lovely summer weather, Mrs. Thatcher?’

‘None too well, miss,’ grumbled the old woman; ‘I don’t like the summer time; it never suited me.’

‘That’s strange,’ said Milly gaily; ‘I thought everybody liked summer.’

‘Not those that live as I do, Miss Darrell. There’s no illness in summer — no colds, nor coughs, nor sore-threats, nor suchlikes. I don’t know that I shouldn’t starve outright, if it wasn’t for the ague; and even that is nothing now to what it used to be.’

I was quite horror-struck by this ghoulish speech; but Milly only laughed gaily at the old woman’s candour.

‘If the doctors were as plain-spoken as you, I daresay they’d say pretty much the same kind of thing, Mrs. Thatcher,’ she said. ‘How’s your grandson?’

‘O, he’s well enough, Miss Darrell. Naught’s never in danger. — Peter, come here, and see the young ladies.’

A poor, feeble, pale-faced, semi-idiotic-looking boy came slowly out of the dark little bedroom, and stood grinning at us. He had the white sickly aspect of a creature reared without the influence of air and light; and I pitied him intensely as he stood there staring and grinning in that dreadful hopeless manner.

‘Poor Peter!’ He’s no better, I’m afraid,’ said Milly gently.

‘No, miss, nor never will be. He knows more than people think, and has queer cunning ways of his own; but he’ll never be any better or wiser than he is now.’

‘Not if you were to take as much pains with him as you do with the patients who pay you, Mrs. Thatcher?’ asked Milly.

‘I’ve taken pains with him,’ answered the woman, with a scowl. ‘I took to him kindly enough when he was a little fellow; but he’s grown up to be nothing but a plague and a burden to me.’

The boy left off grinning, and his poor weak chin sank lower on his narrow chest. His attitude had been a stooping one from the first; but he drooped visibly under the old woman’s reproof.

‘Can he employ himself in no way?’

‘No, miss; except in picking the herbs and roots for me sometimes. He can do that, and he knows one from t’other.’

‘He’s of some use to you, at any rate, then,’ said Milly.

‘Little enough,’ the old woman answered sulkily. ‘I don’t want help; I’ve plenty of time to gather them myself. But I’ve taught him to pick them, and it’s the only thing he ever could learn.’

‘Poor fellow! He’s your only grandchild, isn’t he, Mrs. Thatcher?’

‘Yes, he’s the only one, miss, and he’d need be. I don’t know how I should keep another. You can’t remember my daughter Ruth? She was as pretty a girl as you’d care to see. She was housemaid at Cumber priory in Mrs. Egerton’s time, and she married the butler. They set up in business in a little public-house in Thornleigh village, and he took to drinking, till everything went to rack and ruin. My poor girl took the trouble to heart more than her husband did, a great deal; and I believe it was the trouble that killed her. She died three weeks after that boy was born, and her husband ran away the day after the funeral, and has never been heard of since. Some say he drowned himself in the Clem; but he was a precious deal too fond of himself for that. He was up to his eyes in debt, and didn’t leave a sixpence behind him; that’s how Peter came to be thrown on my hands.’

‘Come here, Peter,’ said Milly softly; and the boy went to her directly, and took the hand she offered him.

‘You’ve not forgotten me, have you, Peter? Miss Darrell, who used to talk to you sometimes a long time ago.’

The boy’s vacant face brightened into something like intelligence.

‘I know you, miss,’ he said; ‘you was always kind to Peter. It’s not many that I know; but I know you.’

She took out her purse and gave him half-a-crown.

‘There, Peter, there’s a big piece of silver for your own self, to buy whatever you like — sugar-sticks, gingerbread, marbles — anything.’

His clumsy hand closed upon the coin, and I have no doubt he was pleased by the donation; but he never took his eyes from Milly Darrell’s face. That bright lovely face seemed to exercise a kind of fascination upon him.

‘Don’t you think Peter would be better if you were to give him a little more air and sunshine, Mrs. Thatcher?’ Milly asked presently; ‘that bedroom seems rather a dark close place.’

‘He needn’t be there unless he likes,’ Mrs. Thatcher answered indifferently. ‘He sits out of doors whenever he chooses.’

‘Then I should always sit out-of-doors on fine days, if I were you, Peter,’ said Milly.

After this she talked a little to Mrs. Thatcher, who was by no means a sympathetic person, while I sat looking on, and contemplating the old woman with a feeling that was the reverse of admiration.

She was of a short squat figure, with broad shoulders and no throat to speak of, and her head seemed too big for her body. Her face was long and thin, with large features, and a frame of scanty gray hair, among which a sandy tinge still lingered here and there; her eyes were of an ugly reddish-brown, and had, I thought, a most sinister expression. I must have been very ill, and sorely at a loss for a doctor, before I could have been induced to trust my health to the care of Mrs. Rebecca Thatcher.

I told Milly as much while we were walking homewards, and she admitted that Rebecca Thatcher was no favourite even among the country people, who believed implicitly in her skill.

‘I’m afraid she tells fortunes, and dabbles in all sorts of superstitious tricks,’ Milly added gravely; ‘but she is so artful, there is no way of finding her out in that kind of business. The foolish country girls who consult her always keep her secret, and she manages to put on a fair face before our rector and his curate, who believe her to be a respectable woman.’

The days and weeks slipped by very pleasantly at Thornleigh, and the end of those bright midsummer holidays came only too soon. It seemed a bitter thing to say ‘good-bye’ to Milly Darrell, and to go back alone to a place which must needs be doubly dull and dreary to me without her. She had been my only friend at Albury Lodge; loving her as I did, I had never cared to form any other friendship.

The dreaded day came at last — dreaded I know by both of us; and I said ‘good-bye’ to my darling so quietly, that I am sure none could have guessed the grief I felt in this parting. Mrs. Darrell was very kind and gracious on this occasion, begging that I would come back to Thornleigh at Christmas — if they should happen to spend their Christmas there.

Milly looked up at her wonderingly as she said this.

‘Is there any chance of our spending it elsewhere, Augusta?’ she asked.

Mrs. Darrell had persuaded her stepdaughter to use this familiar Christian name, rather than the more formal mode of address.

‘I don’t know, my dear. Your papa has sometimes talked of a house in town, or we might be abroad. I can only say that if we are at home here, we shall be very much pleased to see Miss Crofton again.’

I thanked her, kissed Milly once more, and so departed — to be driven to the station in state in the barouche, and to look sadly back at the noble old house in which I had been so happy.

Once more I returned to the dryasdust routine of Albury Lodge, and rang the changes upon history and geography, chronology and English grammar, physical science and the elements of botany, until my weary head ached and my heart grew sick. And when I came to be a governess, it would of course be the same thing over and over again, on a smaller scale. And this was to be my future, without hope of change or respite, until I grew an old woman worn-out with the drudgery of tuition!

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31