It smelled like feces and unwashed bodies in the dim, damp shack, but Millicent didn't care what her surroundings were like. She cared more about the bleeding foot of the old man in front of her.
Mr. Jefferies sat against the back wall of his shack as Millicent knelt in front of him to clean his wound. The poor man didn't have any shoes and had cut his foot on a piece of glass by the docks.
She dribbled water from her canteen onto his foot, and with a cloth from her bag she gently wiped away blood and grime. There was not much in her bag, and she felt ill prepared for this encounter. A little salve and some bandages would go a long way, but she needed medical ointment and something to sterilize the wound. She knew enough about medicine to know his foot would get infected without proper treatment. One of the larks of going to boarding school was having unrestricted access to the Bradshire College library where there were many medical books to read.
"My mum and I lived in the boarding house by the cannery," Mr. Jefferies said as Millicent worked on his foot. "There were rats in our bed some nights, but I enjoyed chasing them out. The boarding house owner said I was a saint for keeping her rooms rodent free. Oh I was a proud thing back then. Proud to be needed."
When he paused, Millicent looked up to catch him watching her intently.
"Your foot will be as good as new when I'm through," she said. She looked back to her work and felt his eyes on her still. "Did you always live near the cannery?"
"No - when my mum lost her job we moved to another boarding house near the wool factory. It wasn't as nice as our old one because there was a hole in the wall near the floor. I had to keep one of my shirts stuffed in the hold so bugs wouldn't crawl inside. I had two shirts back then, one I wore and one I left in the hole. But I always dreamed of having a Sunday shirt. All the boys in town had a Sunday shirt. The girls liked a fellow with a Sunday shirt. It meant he had something. That he came from something. That he was something."
He paused again and flinched as Millicent cleaned a tender part of his foot.
"Bless sweet Martha," he continued, "she didn't care if I had a Sunday shirt or not. I remember the first time I saw her. She had started working at the factory, and I got a glimpse of her as I was loading a shipment of wool onto a wagon. She had pretty blond hair and the greenest eyes you ever did see. Yes, she was something fine."
He sighed and looked off into space. "She had the kindest heart, my Martha did. She'd listen to me, and laugh at my jokes when they weren't a bit funny. We'd go for walks by the ocean when the factory was closed, and once I picked a flower for her hair. We were in love, the two of us. I knew I was going to marry her that first time we walked on the beach. My heart would start hurting when I was alone without her. I missed her something fierce sometimes."
He stopped and smiled softly. His voice was lower when he spoke. "We were watching the clouds on the beach once, and she whispered real soft like "I love you Lewis Jefferies." I'm telling you, my heart near flew to the sky."
Millicent smiled and smoothed salve onto his foot "This might sting a bit, Mr. Jefferies" she said. Thankfully bleeding was not as bad as it had been when she first saw him. She started wrapping his foot with a bandage, "Did you marry her?"
His voice was crestfallen, "She died of consumption the same year my mum did. Lots of girls died from it. The factory air got to her they said."
He was quiet again when Millicent finished wrapping his foot. She tied the bandage and set it down carefully.
Mr. Jefferies sighed, "I wouldn't have been a good husband for her anyways. She deserved better."
"Nonsense," Millicent said, "you would have made the perfect husband. I'm sure there were many girls who envied the attention you gave to Martha." She smiled at Mr. Jefferies, who laughed heartily.
"Oh if that do beat all," he said. "What about you? If I'd have been fifty years younger and had taken a liken' to you, would you have gone for a walk with me by the beach?"
Millicent's eyes twinkled playfully, "I would have jumped at the chance to walk with such a kind and handsome man."
Mr. Jefferies laughed again, and his smile was worth all the dirt and grime in the world.
"You are the first bit of sunshine to come my way since my dear sweet Martha passed on. After she died, the world lost all its sparkle. But, I suppose life isn't as bad as it could be. I've got this shack all to myself. No rats this time."
"Mr. Jefferies, please let me bring you some food. Or let me give you some money and you can buy what you like."
He shook his head firmly "No ma'am, I am not going to take your money. It was enough that you bandaged my foot, and I still feel like I owe you something for that in return."
"Your smile and your stories are all I will accept from you, Mr. Jefferies. I care about you and you're going to accept my gifts for free. I won't have it any other way."
He looked at her with wonder, "My dear you must be an angel from God. Here I am, an old man dwindling down to nothing, and a beautiful young woman I've never laid eyes on before finds me with my bleeding foot, and cleans it with her beautiful hands."
"It was nothing Mr. Jefferies. You shouldn't have to suffer so. It's not right."
"We're from two different worlds, you and me. I'm as poor as they come, and you were born into wealth. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just who we are. I'm from a poor place, and it's right and natural for me to be here in this shack. I'm not suffering as much as I could be. I could be out without shelter. I could be sick with the croup. I could have never met you." His smile was drowsy, "Will you come and see me again sometime?"
"Of course I'll come again. I have to make sure your foot doesn't get infected don't I? Besides, I'll miss you."
"Well I must be some kind of fellow if you'll miss me after the first day we meet. I guess I still have some of that young-man charm, huh?"
A soft smile formed on Millicent's lips, "Yes sir, you do indeed."
It was wrong. Mr. Jefferies should be living in peace and enjoying life like so many men his age. But because he wasn't from their social background he was kept from any type of luxury. He lived in a shack. A shack! A poor old shoeless man living in a shack, who was grateful for his living conditions, and all that he had. Millicent knew many rich men, as old as Mr. Jefferies, who complained about the lateness of their morning paper. It made her furious to think that the same men with a late morning paper would shun Mr. Jefferies in a heartbeat. Where was human compassion in the world?
The clock tower in town echoed to the country side, and Millicent ran the rest of the way to her house. In Westing Cove, the rich lived in great manors in the country side. Neighbors were about half a mile away. The clock chimed again and she lifted her skirts and dashed to her front porch.
Her mother had invited Henry McAllister and a few other guests to dinner for six thirty, and Millicent was not in the mood for a lecture on tardiness. Her corset was ready to burst at the seams. She breezed inside and headed for the stairs, but her mother came out of the parlor and stopped her. "There you are I was getting worried! Where have you been all afternoon? You should have been ready hours ago."
When she left after lunch, Millicent hadn't told her mother where she was going. It was better if her mother didn't know. There would be no confrontation, and that's how Millicent wanted it. Mick came out of the parlor followed by a handsome blond headed man with chocolate eyes.
"There she is," Mick said to the man "We were just talking about you, sis. You remember Henry McAllister."
"Yes, of course," Millicent said. "It's been a long time, Mr. McAllister. Welcome back to Westing Cove."
"The same to you Ms. Gregory, I heard that you just arrived back yourself."
"Yes I have, thank you."
"You can chat later," her mother said "Millicent you need to go get changed for dinner." Her mother eyes widened as she took in Millicent's clothing. "What in heaven's name have you been doing? Look at that dress! Have you been tromping through a pigsty? And what have you done to your hands? Their all a grimy mess."
"Go and clean yourself up. Why you should be ashamed." She turned to her guest "I'm sorry Henry, I'm so mortified. I thought five years of boarding school would knock some sense into my daughter, but it appears as though I've lost an investment."
Millicent felt her cheeks blazing, "Mother I –"
She turned from the hallway gathering not daring to look at anyone, and all but flew up the stairs. This was going to be a long and miserable evening.
Henry watched Millicent ascend the stairs. He could hardly believe that she was Mick Gregory's sister. That sweet little girl with braids had grown into a woman.
Mrs. Gregory left to speak with a servant after apologizing for her daughter's behavior. Again. "She's prettier when she's all cleaned up." Mrs. Gregory had said.
"Can you believe my pig nosed sister has turned into that rose?" Mick asked. "She's hardly a
Prima Donna, but her looks aren't so bad, eh Henry?"
"She's a very pretty girl. Some young man is going to be lucky one day. If your father's not careful she'll be gone by the year's end."
"Don't let Millicent hear you say that," Mick said, "she would have your head."
"She says she's not going to marry. Ever. It has mother in fits."
"I thought all young women wanted to get married," Henry said. All young women he knew did. They threw themselves at the richest bachelor, and tricked the poor lad into marriage.
"Not her. I keep saying she'll change her mind when the right fella comes along, but she's turned down every suitor who's come to call. Who knows? She might be a spinster yet."
Millicent took in a deep breath before she started down the stairs. She held the air in her cheeks and listened to the chatter in the parlor as she descended. The other guests had arrived and they were waiting for dinner to be served. I'm not going to be embarrassed about what happened earlier. I refuse to be embarrassed. She blew out the air she was holding and stepped into the front hallway. The chatter was louder and she made her way into the parlor.
"There you are Millicent dear, I was worried you had forgotten about us," he mother said with the mirth of an overeager hostess. "Come and say hello to Mrs. Hampton."
She walked to her mother's side to greet their guest. Mrs. Hampton talked with them for a few minutes before she went to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Applegate.
Standing off alone, Millicent and her mother watched gathering.
"I made a specific seating chart for this evening," her mother whispered. "I put you between the Applegate's. They may be married, but they have a tendency to argue at the dinner table."
"Alright," Millicent whispered, "who did you seat across from me?" She hoped it was Mrs. Thomson, her old school friend. Millicent hadn't seen her seen her since she went away to boarding school.
"Henry McAllister," her mother replied.