Mrs. Maxwell’s Sorrow
Milly spent a very happy afternoon at the keeper’s cottage the next day, and came down to dessert in the evening so full of her visit that she could talk of nothing else.
“They were so kind to me, uncle. Mrs. Maxwell made a hot currant cake on purpose for me, and the cat had a red ribbon for company, and we sat by the fire and talked when Mr. Maxwell was out, and she told me such lovely stories, and I saw a beautiful picture of the probable son in the best parlor, and Mrs. Maxwell took it down and let me have a good look at it. I am going to save up my money and buy one just like it for my nursery, and do you know, uncle—”
She stopped short, but not for want of breath. Putting her curly head on one side, she surveyed her uncle for a minute meditatively, then asked, a little doubtfully, “Can you keep a secret, Uncle Edward? Because I would like to tell you, only, you see, Mrs. Maxwell doesn’t talk about it, and I told her I wouldn’t—at least, not to the servants, you know.”
“I think you can trust me,” Sir Edward said gravely.
“This is it, then, and I think it’s so wonderful. They have got a real live probable son.”
Sir Edward raised his eyebrows.
His little niece continued. “Yes, they really have. It was when I was talking about the picture. Mrs. Maxwell took the corner of her apron and wiped her eyes, and said she had a dear son who had run away from home, and she hadn’t seen him for nine years. Just fancy! Where was I nine years ago?”
“But I must have been somewhere,” and Milly’s active little brain now started another train of thought, until she got fairly bewildered.
“I expect I was fast asleep in God’s arms,” she said at length, with knitted brows. “Only, of course, I don’t remember,” and having settled that point to her satisfaction, she continued her story.
“Mrs. Maxwell’s probable son is called Tommy. He ran away when he was seventeen because he didn’t like the blacksmith’s shop. Mrs. Maxwell and I cried about him. He had such curly hair, and stood six feet in his stockings, and he was a beautiful baby when he was little, and had croup and—and confusions, and didn’t come to for four hours; but he would run away, though he laid the fire and put sticks on it and drew the water for Mrs. Maxwell before he went. And Mrs. Maxwell says he may be a soldier or a sailor now for all she knows, and he may be drownded dead, or run over, or have both his legs shot to pieces, or he may be in India with the blacks. But I told her he was very likely taking care of some pigs somewhere, and she got happy a little bit then, and we dried our tears, and she gave me some peppermint to suck. Isn’t it a wonderful story, uncle?”
“Very wonderful,” was the response.
“Well, we were in the middle of talking when Mr. Maxwell came in, so we hushed, because Mrs. Maxwell said, ‘It makes my man so sad.’ But, do you know, when Mr. Maxwell was bringing me home through the wood he asked me what we had been talking about, and he said he knew it was about the boy because he could see it in Mrs. Maxwell’s eye. And then I asked him if he would run and kiss Tommy when he came back, and if he would make a feast. And he said he would do anything to get him home again.”
Milly paused, then said wistfully, “I wish I had a father, Uncle Edward. You see, nurse does for a mother, but fathers are so fond of their children, aren’t they?”
“It does not always follow that they are,” Sir Edward replied.
“The probable son’s father loved him, and Mr. Maxwell loves Tommy, and then there was David, you know, who really had a wicked son, with long hair—I forget his name—and he cried dreadful when he was dead. I sometimes tell God about it when I’m in bed, and then He—He just seems to put His arms round me and send me off to sleep. At least, I think He does. Nurse says God likes me to call Him my Father, but of course that isn’t quite the same as having a father I can see. Mr. Maxwell is a very nice father, I think. I told him I would pray for Tommy every night when I go to bed, and then I told him that God had lots of probable sons, too—the clergyman said so on Sunday, didn’t he?—people who have run away from Him. I’ve been asking God to make them come back. I hope He will let me know when they do. Do you know anyone who has run away from God, uncle?”
“You are chattering too much, child,” said Sir Edward irritably. “Sit still and be quiet.”
Milly instantly obeyed, and after some moments of silence her uncle said, “I don’t mind your going to Mr. Maxwell’s cottage, but you must never take Fritz with you. He is not allowed in that wood at all. Do you quite understand?”
“Yes, but I’m very sorry, for Fritz doesn’t like being left behind; the tears were in his eyes when nurse told him he wasn’t to go with me. You see, no one talks to him like I do. He likes me to tell him stories, and I told him when I came back about my visit, so he wants to go. But I won’t take him with me if you say no.”
When she was leaving him that night for bed, she paused a moment as she wished him good-night.
“Uncle Edward, when you say your prayers tonight, will you ask God to make Tommy come back home? His mother does want him so badly.”
“I will leave you to do that,” was the curt reply.
“Well, if you don’t want to pray for Tommy, pray for God’s probable sons, won’t you? Do, Uncle Edward. Mrs. Maxwell said the only thing that comforted her is asking God to bring Tommy back.”
Sir Edward made no reply, only dismissed her more peremptorily than usual, and when she had left the room he leaned his arms on the chimney piece, and resting his head on them, gazed silently into the fire with a knitted brow. His thoughts did not soothe him, for he presently raised his head with a short laugh, saying to himself, “Where is my cigar-case? I will go and have a smoke to get rid of this fit of the blues. I shall have to curb that child’s tongue a little. She is getting too troublesome.”
And while he was pacing moodily up and down the terrace outside, a little white-robed figure, with bent head and closed eyes, was saying softly and reverently as she knelt at her nurse’s knee—“And, O God, bring Tommy back, and don’t let him be a probable son anymore. Bring him home very soon, please, and will You bring back all Your probable sons who are running away from You, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.”
Sir Edward did not escape several visits from ladies in the neighborhood offering to befriend his little niece, but all these overtures were courteously and firmly rejected. He told them the child was happy with her nurse, he did not wish her to mix with other children at present, and a year or two hence would be quite time enough to think about her education. So Milly was left alone, more than one mother remarking with a shake of the head, “It’s a sad life for a child, but Sir Edward is peculiar, and when he gets a notion into his head he keeps to it.”
The child was not unhappy, and when the days grew shorter, and her rambles out of doors were curtailed, she would lie on the tiger-skin by the hall fire with Fritz for the hour together, pouring out to him all her childish confidences.
Sometimes her uncle would find her perched on the broad window-seat halfway up the staircase, with her little face pressed against the windowpanes, and late on one very cold afternoon in November he remonstrated with her.
“It is too cold for you here, Millicent,” he said sternly. “You ought to be in the nursery.”
“I don’t feel cold,” she replied. “I don’t like being in the nursery all day. And when it gets dark, nurse will have the lamp lit and the curtains drawn, and then there are only the walls and ceiling and the pictures to look at. I’m tired of them; I see them every day.”
“And what do you see here?” asked Sir Edward.
“You come and sit down, and I will tell you. There’s room, uncle; make Fritz move a little. Now, you look out with me. I can see such a lot from this window. I like looking out right into the world; don’t you?”
“Are we not in the world? I thought we were.”
“I s’pose we are, but I mean God’s world. The insides of houses aren’t His world, are they? Do you see my trees? I can see Goliath from this window. He looks very fierce tonight; he has lost all his leaves, and I can almost hear him muttering to himself. And then, uncle, do you see those nice thin trees cuddling each other? I call those David and Jon’than; they’re just kissing each other, like they did in the wood, you know. Do you remember? And there’s my beech tree over there, where I sit when I’m the probable son. It’s too dark for you to see all the others. I have names for them all nearly, but I like to come and watch them, and then I see the stars just beginning to come out. Do you know what I think about the stars? They’re angels’ eyes, and they look down and blink at me so kindly, and then I look up and blink back. We go on blinking at each other sometimes till I get quite sleepy. I watch the birds going to bed too. There is so much I can see from this window.”
“Well, run along to the nursery now; you have been here long enough.”
Milly jumped down from her seat obediently. Then, catching hold of her uncle’s hand as he was moving away, she said, “Just one thing more I want to show you, uncle. I can see the highroad for such a long way over there, and when it is not quite so dark I sit and watch for Tommy—that’s Mr. Maxwell’s probable son, you know. I should be so glad if I were to see him coming along one day with his head hanging down, and all ragged and torn. He is sure to come someday—God will bring him—and if I see him coming first, I shall run off quick to Mr. Maxwell and tell him, and then he will run out to meet him. Won’t it be lovely?”
And with shining eyes Milly shook back her brown curls and looked up into her uncle’s face for sympathy. He patted her head, the nearest approach to a caress that he ever gave her, and left her without saying a word.
Another day, later still, he came upon her at the staircase window. He was dining out that night, and was just leaving the house, but stopped as he noticed his little niece earnestly waving her handkerchief up at the window.
“What are you doing now?” he inquired as he passed down the stairs. Milly turned round, her little face flushed, and eyes looking very sweet and serious.
“I was just waving to God, Uncle Edward. I thought I saw Him looking down at me from the sky.”
Sir Edward passed on, muttering inaudibly, “I believe that child lives in the presence of God from morning to night”.