Millbank, or Roger Irving’s Ward, was written in 1871 by Mary Jane Holmes (1825-1907).
Every window and shutter at Millbank was closed. Knots of crape were streaming from both the bell knobs, and all around the house there was that deep hush which only the presence of death can inspire.
Milbank is a highly sentimental and not particularly well-written novel typical of the area. There was a sequel to Millbank called Magda’s Choice, published in 1920.
Laura Ingalls Wilder implied that the family so often read the book aloud that she knew the beginning by heart (see On the Banks of Plum Creek, Chapter 19, “The Fish-Trap”). Wilder doesn’t say where the book came from in On the Banks of Plum Creek, but in Pioneer Girl, she wrote that Uncle Tom Quiner had given the book to Ma (his sister). Wilder wrote: “Ma said it was a novel and not for little girls but she read it aloud to Pa at night…”
A similar story was edited out of an exiting manuscript for Little House in the Big Woods. Uncle Tom brought the book for Ma, and Laura lay in the trundle bed and listened to Ma read it to Pa.
Millbank is in the public domain. To read the book in its entirety, CLICK HERE. The first chapter of Millbank is below:
Chapter I – Expecting Roger.
Every window and shutter at Millbank was closed. Knots of crape were streaming from both the bell knobs, and all around the house there was that deep hush which only the presence of death can inspire. Indoors there was a kind of twilight gloom pervading the room, and the servants spoke in whispers whenever they came near the chamber where the old squire had died three days before, and where he still lay in his handsome coffin, waiting the arrival of Roger, the son of his old age, who had been in St. Louis when his father died, and was expected home on the night when our story opens. Squire Irving had died suddenly in the act of writing to his boy Roger, and when found by old Aleck his hand still grasped the pen, and his head was resting on the letter he would never finish. “Heart disease” was the verdict of the inquest, and then the electric wires carried the news of his decease to St. Louis, where Roger was, and to No. —, Lexington Avenue, New York, where lived the widow of the squire’s eldest son, Mrs. Walter Scott Irving, as she always called herself, fancying that in some way the united names of two so illustrious authors as Irving and Scott shed a kind of literary halo upon one who bore them.
Mrs. Walter Scott Irving had been breakfasting in her cozy little back parlor when the news came to her of her father-in-law’s sudden death, and to say that she was both astonished and shocked is only to do her justice, but to insinuate that she was sorry, though, is quite another thing. She was not sorry, though her smooth, white brow contracted into wrinkles, and she tried to speak very sadly and sorrowfully as she said to her son Frank, a boy of nine or more:
“Your grandfather is dead; poor man, you’ll never see him again.”
Frank was sorry. The happiest days of his life had been spent at Millbank. He liked the house, and the handsome grounds, with the grand old woods in the rear, and the river beyond, where in a little sheltered nook lay moored the boat he called his own. He liked the spotted pony which he always rode. He liked the freedom from restraint which he found there in the country, and he liked the old man who was so kind to him, and who petted him sometimes when Roger was not by. Roger had been absent on the occasion of Frank’s last visit to Millbank, and his grandfather had taken more than usual notice of him– had asked him many questions as to what he meant to be when he grew to manhood, and what he would do, supposing he should some day be worth a great deal of money. Would he keep it, or would he spend it as fast and as foolishly as his father had spent the portion allotted to him?
“You’d keep it, wouldn’t you, and put it at interest?” his mother had said, laying her hand upon his light hair with a motion which she meant should convey some suggestion or idea to his mind.
But Frank had few ideas of his own. He never took hints or suggestions, and boy-like, he answered:
“I’d buy a lot of horses, and Roger and me would set up a circus out in the park.”
It was an unlucky answer, for the love of fast horses had been the ruin of Frank’s father, but the mention of Roger went far toward softening the old man. Frank had thought of Roger at once; he would be generous with him, let what would happen, and the frown which the horses had brought to the squire’s face cleared away as he said:
“Hang your horses, boy; keep clear of them as you would shun the smallpox, but be fair and just with Roger; poor Roger, I doubt if I did right.”
This speech had been followed by the squire’s going hastily out upon the terrace, where, with his hands behind him and his head bent forward, he had walked for more than an hour, while Mrs. Walter Scott peered anxiously at him from time to time, and seemed a good deal disturbed. They had returned to the city the next day, and Frank had noticed some changes in their rather plain style of living. Another servant was added to their establishment; they had more dishes at dinner, while his mother went oftener to the opera and Stewart’s. Now, his grandfather was dead, and she sat there looking at him across the table as the tears gathered in his eyes, and when he stammered out: “We shall never go to Millbank any more,” she said soothingly to him: “We may live there altogether. Would you like it?”
He did not comprehend her clearly, but the thought that his grandfather’s death did not necessarily mean banishment from Millbank helped to dry his eyes, and he began to whistle merrily at the prospect of going at once to Millbank, for they were to start that very day on the three o’clock train. “It was better to be on the ground as soon as possible,” Mrs. Walter Scott reflected, and after a visit to her dressmaker, who promised that the deepest mourning suits should follow her, she took her heavy trailing black silk and camel’s-hair shawl, which were sure to make a sensation, and started with Frank for Millbank.
Mrs. Walter Scott Irving was not a favorite at Millbank. She had never been a favorite there since her husband had taken her there as a bride, and she had given mortal offense to the two real heads of the household, Aleck and Hester Floyd, by putting on all sorts of airs, snubbing little Roger; and speaking of his mother as “that low creature, whose disgraceful conduct had nearly prevented her marriage.” Hester Floyd, to whom this was said, could have forgiven the airs, if that had been all. Indeed, she rather looked upon them as belonging by right to one who was so fortunate to marry into the Irving family. But when it came to slighting little Roger for his mother’s error, and to speaking of that mother as a “low creature,” Hester’s hot blood was roused, and there commenced at once a quiet, unspoken warfare, which had never ceased, between herself and the offending Mrs. Walter Scott. Hester was as much a part of Millbank as the stately old trees in the park, a few of which she had herself helped Aleck to plant when she was a girl of eighteen and he a boy of twenty. She had lived at Millbank more than thirty years. She had come there when the first Mrs. Irving was a bride. She had carried Walter Scott to be christened. She had been his nurse, and slapped him with her shoe at least a dozen times. She had been married to Aleck in her mistress’s dining room. She had seen the old house torn down and a much larger, handsomer one built in its place; and then, just after it was completed, she had followed her mistress to the grave, and shut up the many beautiful rooms which were no longer of any use. Two years passed, and then her master electrified her one day with the news that he was about bringing a second bride to Millbank, a girl younger than his son Walter, and against whom Hester set herself fiercely as against a usurper of her rights. But when the sweet, pale-faced Jessie Morton came, with her great, sad blue eyes, which always seemed full of tears, and her curls of golden hair, Hester’s resentment began to give way, for she could not harbor malice toward a creature so lovely, so gentle, and so sad withal; and after that interview in the bed-chamber, when poor Jessie threw herself with a passionate cry into Hester’s arms and sobbed piteously: “Be kind to me, won’t you? Be my friend. I have none in all the world, or I should not be here. I did not want to come” — she became her strongest ally, and proved that Jessie’s confidence had not been misplaced. There had come a dark, dark day for Millbank since then, and Jessie’s picture painted in full dress, with pearls on her beautiful neck and arms, and in her golden hair, had been taken from the parlor wall and banished to the garret, and Jessie’s name was never spoken by the master, either to his servants or his little boy Roger, who had a dash of gold in his brown hair, and a look in his dark blue eyes like that which Jessie’s used to wear, when, in the long evenings before his birth, she sat with folded hands gazing into the blazing fire, as if trying to solve the dark mystery of her life, and know why her lot had been cast there at Millbank with the old man whom she did not hate, but whom she could not love. There was a night, too, which Hester never forgot– a night when, with nervous agony depicted in every lineament, Jessie made her swear that, come what might, she would never desert or cease to love the boy Roger, sleeping so quietly in his little crib. She was to care for him as if she were her own; to consider his interest before that of any other, and bring him up a good and noble man. That was what Jessie asked, and what Hester swore to do, and then followed swiftly terror, and darkness, and disgrace, and close upon their footsteps came retribution, and Jessie’s golden head was lying low off Hatteras’ storm-beaten shore, and Jessie’s name was rarely heard. But Hester kept her vow, and since the dreadful morning when Jessie did not answer to the breakfast call, and Jessie’s room was vacant, Roger had never wanted for a mother’s care. She had no children of her own, and she took him instead, petting and caring for, and scolding him as he deserved, and through all loving him with a brooding, clinging, unselfish love, which would stop at nothing which she could not make herself believe was right for her to do in his behalf. And so, when the young bride looked coldly upon him, and spoke slightingly of his mother, Hester declared battle at once, and the hatchet had never been buried, for Mrs. Walter Scott, in her frequent visits to Millbank, had only deepened Hester’s first impression of her.
“A proud, stuck-up person, with no kind of reason for bein’ so, except that she married one of the Irvingses,” was what Hester said of her, and this opinion was warmly seconded by Aleck, who always thought just as Hester did.
Had she been Eve, and he her Adam, he would have eaten the forbidden fruit without a question as to his right to do so, just because she gave it to him; but, unlike Adam, he would not have charged the fault to her; he would have taken it upon himself, as if the idea and the act had been his alone. For Frank, there was no more toleration at Millbank.
“He was not very bright,” Hester said, “but how could he be with such a mother? Now, if he’d had Roger’s bringin’ up, he’d been different, though there was more of the Brown blood in him than the Irving. Little, skinny, spindlin’, white-haired critter, there wasn’t half so much snap to him as there was to Roger.”
In this condition of things it was hardly to be supposed that Mrs. Walter Scott’s reception at Millbank was very cordial, when, on the evening after the squire’s death, the village hack deposited her at the door. Mrs. Walter Scott did not like the depot hack, it brought her so much on a level with the common people, and her first words to Hester were:
“Why wasn’t the carriage sent for us? Weren’t we expected?”
There was an added air of importance in her manner, and she spoke like one whose right it was to command there, and Hester detected it at once. But in her manner there was, if possible, less of deference than she had usually paid to the great lady.
“Aleck had the neurology, and we didn’t know jestly when you’d come,” was her reply, as she led the way to the chamber which Mrs. Walter Scott had been accustomed to occupy during her visits to Millbank.
“I think I’ll have a fire, the night is so chilly,” the lady said, with a shiver, as she glanced at the empty grate. “And, Hester, stay! You may send my tea up here after the fire is made. I have a headache, and am too tired to go down.”
There was in all she said a tone and air which seemed to imply that she was now the mistress, and, in truth, Mrs. Walter Scott did so consider herself, or, rather, as a kind of queen-regent, who, for as many years as must elapse ere Frank became of age, would reign supreme at Millbank. And after the fire was lighted in her room, and her cup of tea was brought to her, with toast and jelly and cold chicken, she was thinking more, I fear, of the changes she would make in the old place than of the white, motionless figure which lay, just across the hall, in a room much like her own. She had not seen this figure yet. She did not wish to carry the image of death to her pillow, and so she waited till morning, when, after breakfast was over, she went with Hester to the darkened room, and, with her fine cambric handkerchief ostensibly pressed to her eyes, but really held to her nose, she stood a moment by the door and sighed:
“Poor, dear old man! How sudden it was! and what a lesson it should teach us all of the mutability of life, for in an hour when we think not death cometh upon us!”
Mrs. Walter Scott felt that some such speech was due from her– something which savored of piety, and which might possibly do good to the angular, square-shouldered, flat-waisted woman at her side, who understood what mutability meant quite as well as she would have understood so much Hebrew. But she knew the lady was “putting on:” that, in her heart, she was glad the “poor old man” was dead, and with a jerk she drew the covering over the pinched, white face, dropped the curtain which had been raised to admit the light, and then opened the door and stood waiting for the lady to pass out.
“I shall dismiss that woman the very first good opportunity. She has been here too long to come quietly under a new administration,” Mrs. Walter Scott thought as she went slowly down the stairs, and through the lower rooms, deciding, at a glance, that this piece of furniture should be banished to the garret, and that piece transferred to some more suitable place. “The old man has lived here alone so long that everything bears the unmistakable stamp of a bachelor’s hall; but I shall soon remedy that. I’ll have a man from the city whose taste I can trust,” she said, by which it will be seen that Mrs. Walter Scott fully expected to reign triumphant at Millbank, without a thought of consideration for Roger, the dead man’s idol, who, according to all natural laws, had a far better right there than herself.
She had never fancied Roger. There was a look in his deep blue eyes and a gleam of gold in his brown curls like the picture which, unknown to anyone, she had climbed to the garret to see when she first came a bride to Millbank. Mrs. Walter Scott believed that she loved the husband who had given her the honored name of Irving, and perhaps she did; but when she first saw the glorious eyes and sweet, girlish face of Jessie, her hands were involuntarily clenched and her breath came hard as she recalled the bitterest disappointment of her life, when she had been deserted for this baby face, smiling at her from the canvas. She had even struck that baby face with the palm of her hand where the wedding ring was shining, and then had turned the picture to the wall and gone her way, and said what she did of the “low creature” to Hester, and snubbed little innocent Roger, who, dazzled with her dark and stately style of beauty, asked if she was his mother.
As Roger grew older, and she saw how superior in every respect he was to her own Frank, she disliked him more and more, though she tried to veil her dislike from her husband, who during his lifetime, evinced almost as much affection for his young half-brother as for his own son. Walter Scott Irving was a spendthrift, and the fifty thousand dollars which his father gave him at his marriage, as all or nearly all he was every to have, melted away like dew in the morning sun, until he had barely enough to subsist upon. Then ten thousand more was given him, with the understanding that that should positively be the last dollar he was every to receive. The rest was for Roger, the father said, and Walter acquiesced and admitted that it was right. He had had his education, with sixty thousand beside. He could not ask for more, for that would be to wrong his brother. This was a few days before he died so suddenly of a prevailing fever. Softened by his son’s death, the old man had added to the ten thousand. He had bought the house on Lexington Avenue, and deeded it to Mrs. Walter Scott herself. Since that time fortunate speculations had made Squire Irving a richer man than he was before the first gift to his son, and Mrs. Walter Scott had thought it very hard that Frank was not to have his share in this increase of wealth.
But no such thoughts were troubling her now. It was all right, and her face wore a very satisfied look of resignation and submission as she moved languidly around the house and grounds in the morning and then in the afternoon dressed herself in her heavy, trailing silk, and, throwing around her graceful shoulders a scarlet zephyr shawl, went down to receive the calls and condolences of the rector’s wife and Mrs. Colonel Johnson, who came in to see her. She did not tell them she expected to be their neighbor a portion of the year, and when they spoke of Roger and his probable distress when he heard of his father’s death, she looked very sorry, too, and sighed: “Poor Roger; it will be a great shock to him.”
Then when the ladies suggested that he would undoubtedly have a great deal of property left to him, and wondered who his guardian would be, she said, “she did not know. Lawyer Schofield, perhaps, as he had done the most of Squire Irving’s business.”
“But Lawyer Schofield is dead. He died three weeks ago,” the ladies said, and Mrs. Walter Scott’s cheek for a moment turned pale as she expressed her surprise at the news, and wondered she had not heard of it.
Then the conversation drifted back to Roger, who was expected the next night, and for whom the funeral was delayed.
“I always liked Roger,” Mrs. Johnson said. “He is such a manly, truthful little fellow, and so fond of my little Nellie. Indeed, I never saw a boy so fond of children as he is. It is something remarkable, and I must say I loved his mother, in spite of her faults. She was a lovely creature, and it seems a thousand pities that she should have married so old a man as Squire Irving when she loved another so much.”
Mrs. Walter Scott said it was a pity– said she always disapproved of unequal matches– said she had not the honor of the lady’s acquaintance, and then bowed her visitors out with her loftiest air, and went back to the parlor and thought of Roger and wondered what people would say when they knew what she did. She would be very kind to the boy, she thought. Her standing in Belvidere depended on that, so he should have a home at Millbank until he was of age, when, with the legacy left to him, he could do very well for himself. She wished the servants did not think quite so much of him as they did, especially Aleck and Hester Floyd, who talked of nothing except that “Master Roger was coming to-morrow.” Her mourning was coming, too, and when the next day it came she arrayed herself in the heavy bombazine, with the white crape at the throat and wrists, which relieved the somberness of her attire. She was dressing for Roger, she said, thinking it better to evince some interest in an event which was occupying so much of the servants’ thoughts.
The day was a damp, chilly one in mid-April, and so a fire was kindled in Roger’s room, and flowers were put in there, and the easy-chair from the hall library; and Hester went in and out, and then flitted to the kitchen, where the pies and puddings which Roger loved were baking, and where Jeruah, “or Ruey,” as she was called, was beating the eggs for Roger’s favorite cake. He would be there about nine o’clock, they knew, for late in the afternoon there came a telegram from Albany saying: “Shall be home at nine. Tell Hester to meet me at the depot without fail.”
In a great hurry Hester read the dispatch, wondering why she was to meet him without fail, and finally deciding that the affectionate boy could not wait till he reached home before pouring out his tears of grief on her motherly bosom.
“Poor child! I presume he’ll cry fit to bust when he sees me,” she said to Mrs. Walter Scott, who looked with a kind of scorn upon the preparations for the supposed heir of Millbank.
The night set in with a driving rain, and the wind moaned dismally as it swept past the house where the dead rested so quietly, and where the living were so busy and excited. At half-past eight the carriage came around, and Aleck, in his waterproof coat, held the umbrella over Hester’s head as she walked to the carriage, with one shawl wrapped around her and another on her arm. Why she took that second shawl she did not then know, but afterward, in recounting the particulars of that night’s adventures, she said it was just a special Providence and nothing else which put it into her head to take an extra shawl, and that a big, warm one. Half an hour passed, and then above the storm Mrs. Walter Scott heard the whistle which announced the arrival of the train. Then twenty minutes went by, and Frank, who was watching the window, screamed out:
“They are coming, mother. I see the lights of the carriage.”
It it had not been raining so hard Mrs. Walter Scott would have gone to the door, but the damp air was sure to take the curl from her hair, and Mrs. Walter Scott thought a great deal of the heavy ringlets which fell about her face by day and were tightly rolled in paper at night. So she only went as far as the parlor door, where she stood with her white, jeweled hand holding together the scarlet scarf she had thrown around her shoulders. There seemed to be some delay at the carriage, and the voices speaking together there were low and excited.
“No, Hester; she is mine. She shall go in the front way,” Roger was heard to say, and a moment after Hester Floyd came hurriedly into the hall, holding something under her shawl which looked to Mrs. Walter Scott like a package or roll of cloth.
Following Hester was Frank, who, having no curls to spoil, had rushed out in the rain to meet his little uncle, of whom he had always been so fond.
“Oh, mother, mother!” he exclaimed, “what do you think Roger has brought home? Something which he found in the cars where a wicked woman left it. Oh, ain’t it so funny– Roger bringing a baby?” and having thus thrown the bombshell at his mother’s feet, Frank darted after Hester, and poor Roger was left alone to make his explanations to his dreaded sister-in-law, Helen…
Millbank (BPC 13, 17, 19; PG)