A Little Town and a Little Girl


Medina’s Grove, was a gentle place; its moist mildness softened even the starch in Father and begged the twinkle that sat behind his stern grey eyes to come out. The Grove had not the sombre weight that belongs to the forest, nor had it the bare coldness of a windswept clearing. It was beautifully half real, like the place you fall into after the candle is blown out, and sleep is just taking hold of you.

Victoria had to be specially loyal because she was named after the Queen. To her the most important day, after Christmas Day of course, was the Queen’s Birthday, on the twenty-fourth of May. We made more fuss over the Queen’s Birthday than did any other town in Canada.

May is just about our most lovely month. The lilacs, the hawthorn, the laburnums and the broom are all in blossom, just begging the keen Spring winds to let their petals hang on till after the twenty-fourth so that Victoria can look most splendid for the Queen’s Birthday. On the twenty-third, one often had to stand on the chopping block and, hanging onto the verandah post with rain spittering in your face, sing right up into the sky—

“Rain, rain go away.
Come again another day
When I cook and when I bake
I’ll send you up a patty-cake.”

Sometimes the rain listened, sometimes it did not. But most of our twenty-fourths were fine which was lucky because on the Queen’s Birthday we wore our Summer frocks for the first time.

Mother prepared a splendid picnic. Father left his business frown and his home sternness behind him. Rugs, food and the black billy for making tea, were packed into the old baby buggy and we trundled it straight down Simcoe Street. Simcoe Street passed the side of our place and ended in Medina’s Grove. In May, what with the new green on the bushes, the Medina’s calves skipping about, and Medina Grove birds nesting, it was like fairy land. Sea air blew in from the beach, just one field away! Seagulls swooped down to look for picnic bits. The ground was all bumpy from being crowded with more new grass than the cows could eat. There were some big trees in the Grove, but not thick enough to keep the sun out. Every kind of delicious spring smell was there. It was not like being in a garden to play; the Grove was gently wild but had not the awe of the forest. Bushes grew here in little groups like families. Each picnic could have its own place quite private; just the laughs tumbled through the bushes and mixed. There were no gates to remember to shut, no flowerbeds you must not scoot across. You might pick anything you liked and eat as much picnic as you could. These Medina Grove picnics were our first Queen’s Birthdays. By and by we grew older and steady enough to sit still in boats; then we went to regattas, up the Arm, on the twenty-fourth. The Queen’s Birthday changed then. It was not so much our own day. A shadowy little old lady owned it.

This Queen, after whom Victoria was named, did not mean any more to me than a name. The older ones knew all about her and so I suppose they thought I did. It was Mrs. Mitchell who made the Royal Family stop being fairy and turned Royalty into real live people for me. Mrs. Mitchell was a little, frail, old woman. Henry, her husband, was an English nurseryman. They came from England and started a nursery garden not far from our house, at the time when farm land was being cut into small personal pieces. Mother went to see any new people who came to live near us, if she saw that they were lonely and homesick. Mrs. Mitchell was very homesick and very lonely. She said she loved me from the first time my Mother took me to see her, because I was fat and rosy just like an English child. But I was not an English child and I didn’t love her because she was English. I loved Mrs. Mitchell because she loved creatures, and I loved her garden, too, with its long rows of nursery stock, and its beds of pinks and mignonette. Mrs. Mitchell was gentle, small and frail. She had a little weak voice, which squeaked higher and higher the more she loved. Her guinea fowl and I cracked it altogether. She had four speckled guinea fowl—she and Henry loved them as if they had been real children. They opened the door of their cottage and called, “Coom, coom, coom, pretty little dears”—and the guineas came mincing through the kitchen into the sitting-room, and jumped into their laps.

The Mitchells’ nursery garden was next to a farm rented by Jim Phillips. Jim got angry because the guinea fowl flew over the fence into his grain field and he shot three of them. The old couple cried and cried. They took it to law and got the price of the guineas but the price of the birds’ flesh meant nothing to them. It was the life gone from their birds that they cried for. Never having any children the guineas had been next best. This last bird of their four they never let out of their sight. Jim Phillips was furious that he had had to pay for the bodies of the other three especially as he knew it was only for love, not value, that they cried.

Mrs. Mitchell cuddled the last bird in her little black silk apron and bowing her head on his speckled back cried into his feathers mournfully rocking him and herself. She took the little pink bow out of her black lace cap and its long black ties dropped over her shoulders as she bent crying. There was always a little bunch of everlasting flowers sewn into her cap over one ear, brittle, dried up little things like chrysalises; she let these be. She had a whole floor of everlasting flowers spread to dry in her front room. They smelled like hay and were just as much alive after they had been dead for a whole year. She made wreaths of them for funerals. Everlasting flowers reminded people there was no death, she said.

I went very often to Mrs. Mitchell to try to cheer her over the guinea fowl, but it seemed I could not cheer her at all. The remaining guinea’s wings were all drooped with loneliness and she held him in her lap nearly all day. I looked around the sitting-room to find something happy to say. The walls were covered with pictures of gentlemen and ladies cut out of the London News and the Daily Graphic. Grand ladies with frizzled hair and lots of necklaces, men with medals on and sashes across their chests.

“Q-u-e-e-n V-i-c-t-o-r-i-a”, I spelled out.

“Is that the lady who has the twenty-fourth of May birthday?”

“Yes, my dear,” Mrs. Mitchell sniffled into the guinea’s feathers. “Yes, our most gracious Queen Victoria.”

“Who is the man beside her?”

“The late Prince Consort, my dear, and this is the Princess Royal, and here is the Prince of Wales and Princess Beatrice.”

“Who are these people?” I asked. “I thought Princes and Princesses just belonged to fairy tales. What have they to do with Queen Victoria?”

Mrs. Mitchell was very much shocked indeed. She stopped crying and, using the guinea fowl as a pointer, she went from picture to picture telling the bird and me who all the Royalties were, how old, whom they had married and so on. At last we came to a lady in a black frame with a bow of crêpe over the top of it and a bunch of everlasting flowers underneath. “Princess Alice”, said Mrs. Mitchell with a long, long sniffle, “now a blessed saint,” and she began to cry all over again.

I thought these picture people must be relatives of Mrs. Mitchell’s, she seemed to know them so well and cried so hard about Alice. The Queen’s picture was everywhere. I knew she was someone tremendous, though to me she had been vague and far off like Job or St. Paul. I had never known she was real and had a family, only that she owned Victoria, Canada, and the twenty-fourth of May, the Church of England and all the soldiers and sailors in the world. Now suddenly she became real—a woman like Mother with a large family.

Mrs. Mitchell took a great deal of pains to get the Royal family straight in my head and it was lucky she did, because who should come out to Canada, to Victoria, that very year and pay a long visit to Government House, but the Princess Louise and the Marquis of Lorne! This excited Mrs. Mitchell so that she stopped crying. She, who never went out, found a bonnet that I had never seen before, put a dolman over her best silk dress, locked the guinea fowl safe in her kitchen and got into a hack with Henry, her smelling-bottle and her cap, in which was a new bunch of everlasting flowers. The cap was in a paper bag on Henry’s knee. They drove to the house of Dr. Ashe on Fort Street where the procession was to pass and sat in a bow window and waved at the Princess. When she saw the Princess smiling and dressed in gay colours, she realized that her beloved Princess Alice had been dead longer than she thought and that Court mourning was finished. She went home and took the crêpe off Alice but she left the everlasting flowers.

Mrs. Mitchell watched the papers for every crumb of news of her Princess while the visitors were in Victoria—how she had gone sketching in the Park, how she used to go into the shops and chat with people; how once she went into a bake-shop to buy some cakes and stepped behind the counter to point out the kind to the baker who ordered her back, saying gruffly, “Nobody ain’t allowed behind my counter, mum,” and then when she gave the address, the baker nearly died of shame and so did Mrs. Mitchell as she read it.

Seeing Royalty waked again all Mrs. Mitchell’s homesickness for England. They sold everything and she and Henry went back to the Old Country to die. She gave me a doctor’s book on diseases and an empty box with a lock and key. I did not like the disease book and could never find anything important enough to lock up in the box; so I put it away on a high shelf. Mrs. Mitchell cried dreadfully when she left Victoria but kept saying “I’m going home, my dear, going home.”

The journey nearly killed her, and England did quite. All her people were dead except distant cousins. England was different from what she had remembered. She sent me Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard and Henry wrote saying she was crying for me and for Victoria now as she had cried for England and Princess Alice and the guinea fowl. Then came a silver and black card “In Memoriam to Anne Mitchell”—then I had something to lock away in the little box, with a little bunch of everlasting flowers, the last that Mrs. Mitchell gave me.


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This work (The Book of Small by Emily Carr) is free of known copyright restrictions.