English Literature

White Lilac or the Queen of the May by Amy Walton

White Lilac or the Queen of the May by Amy Walton.jpg

Chapter One.

A Bunch of Lilac.

“What’s in a name?”—Shakespeare.

Mrs James White stood at her cottage door casting anxious glances up at the sky, and down the hill towards the village. If it were fine the rector’s wife had promised to come and see the baby, “and certainly,” thought Mrs White, shading her eyes with her hand, “you might call it fine—for April.” There were sharp showers now and then, to be sure, but the sun shone between whiles, and sudden rays darted through her little window strong enough to light up the whole room. Their searching glances disclosed nothing she was ashamed of, for they showed that the kitchen was neat and well ordered, with bits of good substantial furniture in it, such as a long-bodied clock, table, and dresser of dark oak. These polished surfaces smiled back again cheerfully as the light touched them, and the row of pewter plates on the high mantelshelf glistened so brightly that they were as good as so many little mirrors. But beside these useful objects the sunlight found out two other things in the room, at which it pointed its bright finger with special interest. One of these was a large bunch of pure white lilac which stood on the window sill in a brown mug, and the other was a wicker cradle in which lay something very much covered up in blankets. After a last lingering look down the hill, where no one was in sight, Mrs White shut her door and settled herself to work, with the lilac at her elbow, and the cradle at her foot. She rocked this gently while she sewed, and turned her head now and then, when her needle wanted threading, to smell the delicate fragrance of the flowers. Her face was grave, with a patient and rather sad expression, as though her memories were not all happy ones; but by degrees, as she sat there working and rocking, some pleasant thought brought a smile to her lips and softened her eyes. This became so absorbing that presently she did not see a figure pass the window, and when a knock at the door followed, she sprang up startled to open it for her expected visitor.

“I’d most given you up, ma’am,” she said as the lady entered, “but I’m very glad to see you.”

It was not want of cordiality but want of breath which caused a beaming smile to be the only reply to this welcome. The hill was steep, the day was mild, and Mrs Leigh was rather stout. She at once dropped with a sigh of relief, but still smiling, into a chair, and cast a glance full of interest at the cradle, which Mrs White understood as well as words. Bending over it she peeped cautiously in amongst the folds of flannel.

“She’s so fast, it’s a sin to take her up, ma’am,” she murmured, “but I would like you to see her.”

Mrs Leigh had now recovered her power of speech. “Don’t disturb her for the world,” she said, “I’m not going away yet. I shall be glad to rest a little. She’ll wake presently, I dare say. What is it,” she continued, looking round the room, “that smells so delicious? Oh, what lovely lilac!” as her eye rested on the flowers in the window.

Mrs White had taken up her sewing again.

“I always liked the laylocks myself, ma’am,” she said, “partic’ler the white ones. It were a common bush in the part I lived as a gal, but there’s not much hereabouts.”

“Where did you get it?” asked Mrs Leigh, leaning forward to smell the pure-white blossoms; “I thought there was only the blue in the village.”

“Why, no more there is,” said Mrs White with a half-ashamed smile; “but Jem, he knows I’m a bit silly over them, and he got ’em at Cuddingham t’other day. You see, the day I said I’d marry him he gave me a bunch of white laylocks—and that’s ten years ago. Sitting still so much more than I’m used lately, with the baby, puts all sorts of foolishness into my head, and when you knocked just now it gave me quite a start, for the smell of the laylocks took me right back to the days when we were sweetheartin’.”

“How is Jem?” asked Mrs Leigh, glancing at a gun which stood in the chimney corner.

“He’s well, ma’am, thank you, but out early and home late. There’s bin poaching in the woods lately, and the keepers have a lot of trouble with ’em.”

“None of our people, I hope?” said the rector’s wife anxiously.

“Oh dear, no, ma’am! A gipsy lot—a cruel wild set, to be sure, from what Jem says, and fight desperate.”

There was a stir amongst the blankets in the cradle just then, and presently a little cry. The baby was awake. Very soon she was in Mrs Leigh’s arms, who examined the tiny face with great interest, while the mother stood by, silent, but eager for the first expression of admiration.

“What a beautifully fair child!” exclaimed Mrs Leigh.

“Everyone says that as sees her,” said Mrs White with quiet triumph. “She features my mother’s family—they all had such wonderful white skins. But,” anxiously, “you don’t think she looks weakly, do you, ma’am?”

“Oh, no,” answered Mrs Leigh in rather a doubtful tone. She stood up and weighed the child in her arms, moving nearer the window. “She’s a little thing, but I dare say she’s not the less strong for that.”

“It makes me naturally a bit fearsome over her,” said Mrs White; “for, as you know, ma’am, I’ve buried three children since we’ve bin here. Ne’er a one of ’em all left me. It seems when I look at this little un as how I must keep her. I don’t seem as if I could let her go too.”

“Oh, she’ll grow up and be a comfort to you, I don’t doubt,” said Mrs Leigh cheerfully. “Fair-complexioned children are very often wonderfully healthy and strong. But really,” she continued, looking closely at the baby’s face, “I never saw such a skin in my life. Why, she’s as white as milk, or snow, or a lily, or—” She paused for a comparison, and suddenly added, as her eye fell on the flowers, “or that bunch of lilac.”

“You’re right, ma’am,” agreed Mrs White with a smile of intense gratification.

“And if I were you,” continued Mrs Leigh, her good-natured face beaming all over with a happy idea, “I should call her ‘Lilac’. That would be a beautiful name for her. Lilac White. Nothing could be better; it seems made for her.”

Mrs White’s expression changed to one of grave doubt.

“It do seem as how it would fit her,” she said; “but that’s not a Christian name, is it, ma’am?”

“Well, it would make it one if you had her christened so, you see.”

“I was thinking of making so bold as to call her ‘Annie’, and to ask you to stand for her, ma’am.”

“And so I will, with pleasure. But don’t call her Annie; we’ve got so many Annies in the parish already it’s quite confusing—and so many Whites too. We should have to say ‘Annie White on the hill’ every time we spoke of her. I’m always mixing them up as it is. Don’t call her Annie, Mrs White, Lilac’s far better. Ask your husband what he thinks of it.”

“Oh! Jem, he’ll think as I do, ma’am,” said Mrs White at once; “it isn’t Jem.”

“Who is it, then? If you both like the name it can’t matter to anyone else.”

“Well, ma’am,” said Mrs White hesitatingly, as she took her child from Mrs Leigh, and rocked it gently in her arms, “they’ll all say down below in the village, as how it’s a fancy sort of a name, and maybe when she grows up they’ll laugh at her for it. I shouldn’t like to feel as how I’d given her a name to be made game of.”

But Mrs Leigh was much too pleased with her fancy to give it up, and she smilingly overcame this objection and all others. It was a pretty, simple, and modest-sounding name, she said, with nothing in it that could be made laughable. It was short to say, and above all it had the advantage of being uncommon; as it was, so many mothers had desired the honour of naming their daughters after the rector’s wife, that the number of “Annies” was overwhelming, but there certainly would not be two “Lilac Whites” in the village. In short, as Mrs White told Jem that evening, Mrs Leigh was “that set” on the name that she had to give in to her. And so it was settled; and wonderfully soon afterwards it was rumoured in the village that Mrs James White on the hill meant to call her baby “Lilac.”

This could not matter to anyone else, Mrs Leigh had said, but she was mistaken. Every mother in the parish had her opinion to offer, for there were not so many things happening, that even the very smallest could be passed over without a proper amount of discussion when neighbours met. On the whole they were not favourable opinions. It was felt that Mrs White, who had always held herself high and been severe on the follies of her friends, had now in her turn laid herself open to remark by choosing an outlandish and fanciful name for her child. Lilies, Roses, and even Violets were not unknown in Danecross, but who had ever heard of Lilac?

Mrs Greenways said so, and she had a right to speak, not only because she lived at Orchards Farm, which was the biggest in the parish, but because her husband was Mrs White’s brother. She said it at all times and in all places, but chiefly at “Dimbleby’s”, for if you dropped in there late in the afternoon you were pretty sure to find acquaintances, eager to hear and tell news; and this was specially the case on Saturday, which was shopping day.

Dimbleby’s was quite a large shop, and a very important one, for there was no other in the village; it was rather dark, partly because the roof was low-pitched, and partly because of the wonderful number and variety of articles crammed into it, so that it would have puzzled anyone to find out what Dimbleby did not sell. The air was also a little thick to breathe, for there floated in it a strange mixture, made up of unbleached calico, corduroy, smockfrocks, boots, and bacon. All these articles and many others were to be seen piled up on shelves or counters, or dangling from the low beams overhead; and, lately, there had been added to the stock a number of small clocks, stowed away out of sight. Their hasty ceaseless little voices sounded in curious contrast to the slowness of things in general at Dimbleby’s: “Tick-tack, tick-tack,—Time flies, time flies”, they seemed to be saying over and over again. Without effect, for at Dimbleby’s time never flew; he plodded along on dull and heavy feet, and if he had wings at all he dragged them on the ground. You had only to look at the face of the master of the shop to see that speed was impossible to him, and that he was justly known as the slowest man in the parish both in speech and action. This was hardly considered a failing, however, for it had its advantages in shopping; if he was slow himself, he was quite willing that others should be so too, and to stand in unmoved calm while Mrs Jones fingered a material to test its quality, or Mrs Wilson made up her mind between a spot and a sprig. It was therefore a splendid place for a bit of talk, for he was so long in serving, and his customers were so long in choosing, that there was an agreeable absence of pressure, and time to drink a cup of gossip down to its last drop of interest.

“I don’t understand myself what Mary White would be at,” said Mrs Greenways.

She stood waiting in the shop while Dimbleby thoughtfully weighed out some sugar for her; a stout woman with a round good-natured face, framed in a purple-velvet bonnet and nodding flowers; her long mantle matched the bonnet in stylishness, and was richly trimmed with imitation fur, but the large strong basket on her arm, already partly full of parcels, was quite out of keeping with this splendid attire. The two women who stood near, listening with eager respect to her remarks, were of very different appearance; their poor thin shawls were put on without any regard for fashion, and their straight cotton dresses were short enough to show their clumsy boots, splashed with mud from the miry country lanes. The edge of Mrs Greenways’ gown was also draggled and dirty, for she had not found it easy to hold it up and carry a large basket at the same time.

“I thought,” she went on, “as how Mary White was all for plain names, and homely ways, and such-like.”

“She do say so,” said the woman nearest to her, cautiously.

“Then, as I said to Greenways this morning, ‘It’s not a consistent act for your sister to name her child like that. Accordin’ to her you ought to have names as simple and common as may be.’ Why, think of what she said when I named my last, which is just a year ago. ‘And what do you think of callin’ her?’ says she. ‘Why,’ says I, ‘I think of giving her the name of Agnetta.’ ‘Dear me!’ says she; ‘whyever do you give your girls such fine names? There’s your two eldest, Isabella and Augusta; I’d call this one Betsy, or Jane, or Sarah, or something easy to say, and suitable.’”

Did she, now?” said both the listeners at once.

“And it’s not only that,” continued Mrs Greenways with a growing sound of injury in her voice, “but she’s always on at me when she gets a chance about the way I bring my girls up. ‘You’d a deal better teach her to make good butter,’ says she, when I told her that Bella was learning the piano. And when I showed her that screen Gusta worked—lilies on blue satting, a re’lly elegant thing—she just turned her head and says, ‘I’d rather, if she were a gal of mine, see her knit her own stockings.’ Those were her words, Mrs Wishing.”

“Ah, well, it’s easy to talk,” replied Mrs Wishing soothingly, “we’ll be able to see how she’ll bring up a daughter of her own now.”

“I’m not saying,” pursued Mrs Greenways, turning a watchful eye on Mr Dimbleby’s movements, “that Mary White haven’t a perfect right to name her child as she chooses. I’m too fair for that, I hope. What I do say is, that now she’s picked up a fancy sort of name like Lilac, she hasn’t got any call to be down on other people. And if me and Greenways likes to see our girls genteel and give ’em a bit of finishing eddication, and set ’em off with a few accomplishments, it’s our own affair and not Mary White’s. And though I say it as shouldn’t, you won’t find two more elegant gals than Gusta and Bella, choose where you may.”

During the last part of her speech Mrs Greenways had been poking and squeezing her parcel of sugar into its appointed corner of her basket; as she finished she settled it on her arm, clutched at her gown with the other hand, and prepared to start.

“And now, as I’m in a hurry, I’ll say good night, Mrs Pinhorn and Mrs Wishing, and good night to you, Mr Dimbleby.”

She rolled herself and her burden through the narrow door of the shop, and for a moment no one spoke, while all the little clocks ticked away more busily than ever.

“She’s got enough to carry,” said Mrs Pinhorn, breaking silence at last, with a sideway nod at her neighbour.

“She have so,” agreed Mrs Wishing mildly; “and I wonder, that I do, to see her carrying that heavy basket on foot—she as used to come in her spring cart.”

Mrs Pinhorn pressed her lips together before answering, then she said with meaning: “They’re short of hands just now at Orchards Farm, and maybe short of horses too.”

“You don’t say so!” said Mrs Wishing, drawing nearer.

“My Ben works there, as you know, and he says money’s scarce there, very scarce indeed. One of the men got turned off only t’other day.”

“Lor’, now, to think of that!” exclaimed Mrs Wishing in an awed manner. “An’ her in that bonnet an’ all them artificials!”

“There’s a deal,” continued Mrs Pinhorn, “in what Mrs White says about them two Greenways gals with their fine-lady ways. It ’ud a been better to bring ’em up handy in the house so as to help their mother. As it is, they’re too finnicking to be a bit of use. You wouldn’t see either of them with a basket on their arm, they’d think it lowering themselves. And I dare say the youngest ’ll grow up just like ’em.”

“There’s a deal in what Mrs Greenways’s just been saying too,” remarked the woman called Mrs Wishing in a hesitating voice, “for Mrs James White is a very strict woman and holds herself high, and ‘Lilac’ is a fanciful kind of a name; but I dunno.” She broke off as if feeling incapable of dealing with the question.

“I can’t wonder myself,” resumed Mrs Pinhorn, “at Mrs Greenways being a bit touchy. You heard, I s’pose, what Mrs White up and said to her once? You didn’t? Well, she said, ‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and you’ll never make them girls ladies, try all you will,’ says she. ‘Useless things you’ll make ’em, fit for neither one station or t’other.’”

“That there’s plain speaking!” said Mrs Wishing admiringly.

Mr Dimbleby had not uttered a word during this conversation, and was to all appearance entirely occupied in weighing out, tying up parcels, and receiving orders. In reality, however, he had not lost a word of it, and had been getting ready to speak for some time past. Neither of the women, who were well acquainted with him, was at all surprised when he suddenly remarked: “It were Mrs Leigh herself as had to do with the name of Mrs James White’s baby.”

“Re’lly, now?” said Mrs Wishing doubtfully.

“An’ it were Mrs Leigh herself as I heard it from,” continued Dimbleby ponderously, without noticing the interruption.

“Well, that makes a difference, don’t it now?” said Mrs Pinhorn. “Why ever didn’t you name that afore, Mr Dimbleby?”

“And,” added Dimbleby, grinding on to the end of his speech regardless of hindrance, like a machine that has been wound up; “and Mrs Leigh herself is goin’ to stand for the baby.”

“Lor’! I do wish Mrs Greenways could a heard that,” said Mrs Pinhorn; “that’ll set Mrs White up more than ever.”

“It will so,” said Mrs Wishing; “she allers did keep herself to herself did Mrs White. Not but what she’s a decent woman and a kind. Seems as how, if Mrs Leigh wished to name the child ‘Lilac’, she couldn’t do no other than fall in with it. But I dunno.”

“And how does the name strike you, Mr Snell?” said Mrs Pinhorn, turning to a newcomer.

He was an oldish man, short and broad-shouldered, with a large head and serious grey eyes. Not only his leather apron, but the ends of his stumpy fingers, which were discoloured and brown, showed that he was a cobbler by trade. When Mrs Pinhorn spoke to him, he fingered his cheek thoughtfully, took off his hat, and passed his hand over his high bald forehead.

“What name may you be alludin’ to, ma’am?” he enquired very politely.

“The name ‘Lilac’ as Mrs James White’s goin’ to call her child.”

“Lilac—eh! Lilac White. White Lilac,” repeated the cobbler musingly. “Well, ma’am, ’tis a pleasant bush and a homely; I can’t wish the maid no better than to grow up like her name.”

“Why, you wouldn’t for sure wish her to grow up homely, would you now, Mr Snell?” said Mrs Wishing with a feeble laugh.

“I would, ma’am,” replied Mr Snell, turning rather a severe eye upon the questioner, “I would. For why? Because to be homely is to make the common things of home sweet and pleasant. She can’t do no better than that.”

Mrs Wishing shrank silenced into the background, like one who has been reproved, and the cobbler advanced to the counter to exchange greetings with Mr Dimbleby, and buy tobacco. The women’s voices, the sharp ticking of the clocks, and the deeper tones of the men kept up a steady concert for some time undisturbed. But suddenly the door was thrown violently back on its hinges with a bang, and a tall man in labourer’s clothes rushed into their midst. Everyone looked up startled, and on Mrs Wishing’s face there was fear as well as surprise when she recognised the newcomer.

“Why, Dan’l, my man,” she exclaimed, “what is it?”

Daniel was out of breath with running. He rubbed his forehead with a red pocket handkerchief, looked round in a dazed manner at the assembled group, and at length said hoarsely: “Mrs Greenways bin here?”

“Ah, just gone!” said both the women at once.

“There’s trouble up yonder—on the hill,” said Daniel, pointing with his thumb over his shoulder, and speaking in a strange, broken voice.

“Mary White’s baby!” exclaimed Mrs Pinhorn.

“Fits!” added Mrs Wishing; “they all went off that way.”

“Hang the baby,” muttered Daniel. He made his way past the women, who had pressed up close to him, to where the cobbler and Dimbleby stood.

“I’ve fetched the doctor,” he said, “and she wants the Greenways to know it; I thought maybe she’d be here.”

“What is it? Who’s ill?” asked the cobbler.

“Tain’t anyone that’s ill,” answered Daniel; “he’s stone dead. They shot him right through the heart.”

“Who? Who?” cried all the voices together.

“I found him,” continued Daniel, “up in the woods; partly covered up with leaves he was. Smiling peaceful and stone dead. He was always a brave feller and done his dooty, did James White on the hill. But he won’t never do it no more.”

“Poachers!” exclaimed Dimbleby in a horror-struck voice.

“Poachers it was, sure enough,” said Daniel; “an’ he’s stone dead, James White is. They shot him right through the heart. Seems a pity such a brave chap should die like that.”

“An’ him such a good husband!” said Mrs Wishing. “An’ the baby an’ all as we was just talking on,” said Mrs Pinhorn; “well, it’s a fatherless child now, anyway.”

“The family ought to allow the widder a pension,” said Mr Dimbleby, “seeing as James White died in their service, so to speak.”

“They couldn’t do no less,” agreed the cobbler.

The idea of fetching Mrs Greenways seemed to have left Daniel’s mind for the present: he had now taken a chair, and was engaged in answering the questions with which he was plied on all sides, and in trying to fix the exact hour when he had found poor James White in the woods. “As it might be here, and me standing as it might be there,” he said, illustrating his words with the different parcels on the counter before him. It was not until all this was thoroughly understood, and every imaginable expression of pity and surprise had been uttered, that Mrs Pinhorn remembered that the “Greenways ought to know. And I don’t see why,” she added, seizing her basket with sudden energy, “I shouldn’t take her up myself; I’m goin’ that way, and she’s a slow traveller.”

“An’ then Dan’l can go straight up home with me,” said Mrs Wishing, “and we can drop in as we pass an’ see Mrs White, poor soul. She hadn’t ought to be alone.”

Before nightfall everyone knew the sad tidings. James White had been shot by poachers, and Daniel Wishing had found him lying dead in the woods.

As the days went on, the excitement which stirred the whole village increased rather than lessened, for not even the oldest inhabitant could remember such a tragical event. Apart from the sadness of it, and the desolate condition of the widow, poor Jem’s many virtues made it impressive and lamentable. Everyone had something to say in his praise, no one remembered anything but good about him; he was a brave chap, and one of the right sort, said the men, when they talked of it in the public-house; he was a good husband, said the women, steady and sober, fond of his wife, a pattern to others. They shook their heads and sighed mournfully; it was strange as well as pitiful that Jem White should a been took. “There might a been some as we could mention as wouldn’t a been so much missed.”

Then came the funeral; the bunch of white lilac, still fresh, which he had brought from Cuddingham, was put on Jem’s newly-made grave, and his widow, passing silently through the people gathered in the churchyard, toiled patiently back to her lonely home.

They watched the solitary figure as it showed black against the steep chalky road in the distance.

“Yon’s an afflicted woman,” said one, “for all she carries herself so high under it.”

“She’s the only widder among all the Whites hereabouts,” remarked Mrs Pinhorn. “We needn’t call her ‘Mrs White on the hill’ no longer, poor soul.”

“It’s a mercy she’s got the child,” said another neighbour, “if the Lord spares it to her.”

“The christening’s to be on Sunday,” added a third. “I do wonder if she’ll call it that outlandish name now.”

There was not much time to wonder, for Sunday soon came, and the Widow White, as she was to be called henceforth, was at the church, stern, sad, and calm, with her child in her arms. It was an April morning, breezy and soft; the uncertain sunshine darted hither and thither, now touching the newly turned earth of Jem’s grave, and now peering through the church window to rest on the tiny face of his little daughter in the rector’s arms at the font. All the village had come to see, for this christening was felt to be one of more than common interest, and while the service went on there was not one inattentive ear.

Foremost stood Mrs Greenways, her white handkerchief displayed for immediate use, and the expression in her face struggling between real compassion and an eager desire to lose nothing that was passing; presently she craned her neck forward a little, for an important point was reached—

“Name this child,” said the rector.

There was such deep silence in the church that the lowest whisper would have been audible, and Mrs Leigh’s voice was heard distinctly in the farthest corner, when she answered “Lilac.”

“Not that it matters,” said Mrs Greenways on her way home afterwards, “what they call the poor little thing—Lilac White, or White Lilac, or what you will, for she’ll never rear it, never. It’ll follow its father before we’re any of us much older. You mark my words, Greenways: I’m not the woman to discourage Mary White by naming it to her now she’s so deep in trouble, but you mark my words, she’ll never rear that child.”

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