Another picture prompt from Jane Doughtery
Millicent Mercury visited the river every day, accompanied by her dog, Rufus. Rufus knew they would stay by the bank for a while and settled to his customary pose, watching for anyone who might disturb his mistress. Some instinct told him she must be left alone at these times.
Millicent watched the water flowing past, the rippling and caressing as it curved off one bank and across to the other. But she didn’t see it as it was then but as it had been seven years before, on a sunny sharp day with a low light wind, when she handed over the last child to the boatman.
Millicent remembered each child, each freckle and scab, each tuft of hair and fold of flesh. She had held the first child when she was barely 18 and home from finishing school, a hated prison away from her beloved Moors. Her father, the owner of everything locally, had sent her away in the hopes of it crafting a young lady from the stubborn minx to whom his now loathed, long dead wife had given birth. She had returned having absorbed one lesson amongst many she ignored: to get on you had to be honest to yourself.
‘You’ll marry, lass. Before this year’s out. I want shot of you and your kind.’
Her father never expressed it, not in so many words, but Millicent understood. He did not consider her his and, but for scandal, she would have been disowned. She determined, in that moment, never to marry.
Needing an outlet for her frustrations she helped one woman, a mill setter, who had gotten herself in trouble. Nearing her time, Millicent visited the distraught young soul, a few months younger than Millicent but years less aware. The girl had become increasingly frantic as the due date approached. ‘What’ll I do with it?’ She wailed one day.
Millicent was flummoxed. ‘Keep it?’ All that did was bring on more tears.
So, Millicent enquired and was horrified to hear tell of drownings and suffocations. Surely there was another way.
She heard of a man, from the city across the Moors, who might help and went visiting. The man, prosperous and reasonably well educated met Millicent and offered her a deal. If she could smuggle the unwanted bairns to the river as dusk fell, he would send a man to collect them. From there the children would be dispatched to worthy homes in the South and in the Colonies, where families who couldn’t have children and were desperate for them would give them a loving home He offered her money but she refused. No this was her way of repaying her father for his neglect and treatment of her mother.
After a few years, her father died and he left her a sufficient living that she might be comfortable. She contented herself with her spinster’s life and began to teach. But all the while, if any of the townswomen found themselves in trouble and unable to keep the child they would head for Millicent’s back door. It was always a sad business but one where there was, at least, a glimmer of hope.
That was until that last night. Instead of the boatman, a young man in a shabby brown suit and worn shoes approached her as she stood on the bank, a bundle wrapped in her arms.
‘Ma’am, are you Miss Mercury?’
‘Indeed. How can I help?’
‘You helped my sister with her bairn. She said you were kind and took care of her baby but she were desperate to know where it was. So I made it my business to find out.’
He spun his hat and Millicent waited.
‘I found the man who takes the babies. He sells them, miss. They are put to work once they’re weaned and sorely used and abused. If they can’t work they are killed. I know you meant well but it ain’t no better than the old ways.’ With that the young man turned and left.
Millicent couldn’t believe him. Wouldn’t believe him. But she hired a man, a detective to see what truth there was in the story. And he confirmed what the young man had said.
From that day, that moment, Millicent never spoke a word. At precisely the hour she would have undertaken her walk to the river to deliver another unwanted child, she set off to her spot and she stood and waited. People said she was mad with despair and wanted to drown herself but didn’t have the courage. But the truth was more prosaic. Millicent just wanted to remember. Each of those little children didn’t have a name but they had a face and she had seen them. If she could stand on the bank and recall each face, then their lives were not for nothing. They had left a mark on this world, that mark being a scar deep into Millicent Mercury’s heart.