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Chapter 20

  • Those who came to the workhouse for servants never offered more than fourtee_ounds a year, and these wages would not pay for her baby's keep out at nurse.
  • Her friend the matron did all she could, but it was always fourteen pounds.
  • "We cannot afford more." At last an offer of sixteen pounds a year came from _radesman in Chelsea; and the matron introduced Esther to Mrs. Lewis, a lonel_idowed woman, who for five shillings a week would undertake to look after th_hild. This would leave Esther three pounds a year for dress; three pounds _ear for herself.
  • What luck!
  • The shop was advantageously placed at a street corner. Twelve feet of frontin_n the King's Road, and more than half that amount on the side street, expose_o every view wall papers and stained glass designs. The dwelling-house wa_ver the shop; the shop entrance faced the kerb in the King's Road.
  • The Bingleys were Dissenters. They were ugly, and exacted the uttermos_arthing from their customers and their workpeople. Mrs. Bingley was a tall, gaunt woman, with little grey ringlets on either side of her face. She spok_n a sour, resolute voice, when she came down in a wrapper to superintend th_ooking. On Sundays she wore a black satin, fastened with a cameo brooch, an_ound her neck a long gold chain. Then her manners were lofty, and when he_usband called "Mother," she answered testily, "Don't keep on mothering me."
  • She frequently stopped him to settle his necktie or collar. All the week h_ore the same short jacket; on Sundays he appeared in an ill-fitting frock- coat. His long upper lip was clean shaven, but under his chin there grew _ing of discoloured hair, neither brown nor red, but the neutral tint tha_air which does not turn grey acquires. When he spoke he opened his mout_ide, and seemed quite unashamed of the empty spaces and the three or fou_ellow fangs that remained.
  • John, the elder of the two brothers, was a silent youth whose one passio_eemed to be eavesdropping. He hung round doors in the hopes of overhearin_is sisters' conversation and if he heard Esther and the little girl wh_elped Esther in her work talking in the kitchen, he would steal cautiousl_alfway down the stairs. Esther often thought that his young woman must b_adly in want of a sweetheart to take on with one such as he. "Come along, Amy," he would cry, passing out before her; and not even at the end of a lon_alk did he offer her his arm; and they came strolling home just like boy an_irl.
  • Hubert, John's younger brother, was quite different. He had escaped the famil_emperament, as he had escaped the family upper lip. He was the one spot o_olour in a somewhat sombre household, and Esther liked to hear him call bac_o his mother, "All right, mother, I've got the key; no one need wait up fo_e. I'll make the door fast."
  • "Oh, Hubert, don't be later than eleven. You are not going out dancing again, are you? Your father will have the electric bell put on the door, so that h_ay know when you come in."
  • The four girls were all ruddy-complexioned and long upper-lipped. The eldes_as the plainest; she kept her father's books, and made the pastry. The secon_nd third entertained vague hopes of marriage. The youngest was subject t_ysterics, fits of some kind.
  • The Bingleys' own house was representative of their ideas, and the taste the_ad imposed upon the neighbourhood. The staircase was covered with whit_rugget, and the white enamelled walls had to be kept scrupulously clean.
  • There were no flowers in the windows, but the springs of the blinds wer_lways in perfect order. The drawing-room was furnished with substantia_ables, cabinets and chairs, and antimacassars, long and wide, and chin_rnaments and glass vases. There was a piano, and on this instrument, ever_unday evening, hymns were played by one of the young ladies, and the entir_amily sang in the chorus.
  • It was into this house that Esther entered as general servant, with wage_ixed at sixteen pounds a year. And for seventeen long hours every day, fo_wo hundred and thirty hours every fortnight, she washed, she scrubbed, sh_ooked, she ran errands, with never a moment that she might call her own.
  • Every second Sunday she was allowed out for four, perhaps for four and a hal_ours; the time fixed was from three to nine, but she was expected to be bac_n time to get the supper ready, and if it were many minutes later than nin_here were complaints.
  • She had no money. Her quarter's wages would not be due for another fortnight, and as they did not coincide with her Sunday out, she would not see her bab_or another three weeks. She had not seen him for a month, and a great longin_as in her heart to clasp him in her arms again, to feel his soft chee_gainst hers, to take his chubby legs and warm, fat feet in her hands. Th_our lovely hours of liberty would slip by, she would enter on another lon_ortnight of slavery. But no matter, only to get them, however quickly the_ped from her. She resigned herself to her fate, her soul rose in revolt, an_t grew hourly more difficult for her to renounce this pleasure. She must paw_er dress—the only decent dress she had left. No matter, she must see th_hild. She would be able to get the dress out of pawn when she was paid he_ages. Then she would have to buy herself a pair of boots; and she owed Mrs.
  • Lewis a good deal of money. Five shillings a week came to thirteen pound _ear, leaving her three pound a year for boots and clothes, journeys back an_orward, and everything the baby might want. Oh, it was not to be done—sh_ever would be able to pull through. She dare not pawn her dress; if she di_he'd never be able to get it out again. At that moment something bright lyin_n the floor, under the basin-stand, caught her eye. It was half-a-crown. Sh_ooked at it, and as the temptation came into her heart to steal, she raise_er eyes and looked round the room.
  • She was in John's room—in the sneak's room. No one was about. She would hav_ut off one of her fingers for the coin. That half-crown meant pleasure and _appiness so tender and seductive that she closed her eyes for a moment. Th_alf-crown she held between forefinger and thumb presented a ready solution o_he besetting difficulty. She threw out the insidious temptation, but it cam_uickly upon her again. If she did not take the half-crown she would not b_ble to go Peckham on Sunday. She could replace the money where she found i_hen she was paid her wages. No one knew it was there; it had evidently rolle_here, and having tumbled between the carpet and the wall had not bee_iscovered. It had probably lain there for months, perhaps it was utterl_orgotten. Besides, she need not take it now. It would be quite safe if sh_ut it back in its place; on Sunday afternoon she would take it, and if sh_hanged it at once—It was not marked. She examined it all over. No, it was no_arked. Then the desire paused, and she wondered how she, an honest girl, wh_ad never harboured a dishonest thought in her life before, could desire t_teal; a bitter feeling of shame came upon her.
  • It was a case of flying from temptation, and she left the room so hurriedl_hat John, who was spying in the passage, had not time either to sli_ownstairs or to hide in his brother's room. They met face to face.
  • "Oh, I beg pardon, sir, but I found this half-crown in your room."
  • "Well, there's nothing wonderful in that. What are you so agitated about?
  • I suppose you intended to return it to me?"
  • "Intended to return it! Of course."
  • An expression of hate and contempt leaped into her handsome grey eyes, and, like a dog's, the red lip turned down. She suddenly understood that thi_asty-faced, despicable chap had placed the coin where it might hav_ccidentally rolled, where she would be likely to find it. He had complaine_hat morning that she did not keep his room sufficiently clean! It was _arefully-laid plan, he was watching her all the while, and no doubt though_hat it was his own indiscretion that had prevented her from falling into th_nare. Without a word Esther dropped the half-crown at his feet and returne_o her work; and all the time she remained in her present situation sh_ersistently refused to speak to him; she brought him what he asked for, bu_ever answered him, even with a Yes or No.
  • It was during the few minutes' rest after dinner that the burden of the da_ressed heaviest upon her; then a painful weariness grew into her limbs, an_t seemed impossible to summon strength and will to beat carpets or sweep dow_he stairs. But if she were not moving about before the clock struck, Mrs.
  • Bingley came down to the kitchen.
  • "Now, Esther, is there nothing for you to do?"
  • And again, about eight o'clock, she felt too tired to bear the weight of he_wn flesh. She had passed through fourteen hours of almost unintermitten_oil, and it seemed to her that she would never be able to summon u_ufficient courage to get through the last three hours. It was this las_ummit that taxed all her strength and all her will. Even the rest tha_waited her at eleven o'clock was blighted by the knowledge of the day tha_as coming; and its cruel hours, long and lean and hollow-eyed, stared at he_hrough the darkness. She was often too tired to rest, and rolled over an_ver in her miserable garret bed, her whole body aching. Toil crushed all tha_as human out of her; even her baby was growing indifferent to her. If it wer_o die! She did not desire her baby's death, but she could not forget what th_aby-farmer had told her—the burden would not become lighter, it would becom_eavier and heavier. What would become of her? Was there no hope? She burie_er face in her pillow, seeking to escape from the passion of her despair. Sh_as an unfortunate girl, and had missed all her chances.
  • In the six months she had spent in the house in Chelsea her nature had bee_trained to the uttermost, and what we call chance now came to decide th_ourse of her destiny. The fight between circumstances and character had gon_ill now in favour of character, but circumstances must call up no furthe_orces against character. A hair would turn the scale either way. One mornin_he was startled out of her sleep by a loud knocking at the door. It was Mrs.
  • Bingley, who had come to ask her if she knew what time it was. It was nearl_even o'clock. But Mrs. Bingley could not blame her much, having hersel_orgotten to put on the electric bell, and Esther hurried through he_ressing. But in hurrying she happened to tread on her dress, tearing it righ_cross. It was most unfortunate, and just when she was most in a hurry. Sh_eld up the torn skirt. It was a poor, frayed, worn-out rag that would hardl_ear mending again. Her mistress was calling her; there was nothing for it bu_o run down and tell her what had happened.
  • "Haven't you got another dress that you can put on?"
  • "No, ma'am."
  • "Really, I can't have you going to the door in that thing. You don't do credi_o my house; you must get yourself a new dress at once."
  • Esther muttered that she had no money to buy one.
  • "Then I don't know what you do with your money."
  • "What I do with my wages is my affair; I've plenty of use for my money."
  • "I cannot allow any servant of mine to speak to me like that."
  • Esther did not answer, and Mrs. Bingley continued—
  • "It is my duty to know what you do with your money, and to see that you do no_pend it in any wrong way. I am responsible for your moral welfare."
  • "Then, ma'am, I think I had better leave you."
  • "Leave me, because I don't wish you to spend your money wrongfully, because _now the temptations that a young girl's life is beset with?"
  • "There ain't much chance of temptation for them who work seventeen hours _ay."
  • "Esther, you seem to forget—"
  • "No, ma'am; but there's no use talking about what I do with my money—there ar_ther reasons; the place is too hard a one. I've felt it so for some time, ma'am. My health ain't equal to it."
  • Once she had spoken, Esther showed no disposition to retract, and she steadil_esisted all Mrs. Bingley's solicitations to remain with her. She knew th_isk she was running in leaving her situation, and yet she felt she must yiel_o an instinct like that which impels the hunted animal to leave the cover an_eek safety in the open country. Her whole body cried out for rest, she mus_ave rest; that was the thing that must be. Mrs. Lewis would keep her and he_aby for twelve shillings a week; the present was the Christmas quarter, an_he was richer by five and twenty shillings than she had been before. Mrs.
  • Bingley had given her ten shillings, Mr. Hubert five, and the other ten ha_een contributed by the four young ladies. Out of this money she hoped to b_ble to buy a dress and a pair of boots, as well as a fortnight's rest wit_rs. Lewis. She had determined on her plans some three weeks before he_onth's warning would expire, and henceforth the mountainous days of he_ervitude drew out interminably, seeming more than ever exhausting, and th_onging in her heart to be free at times rose to her head, and her brai_urned as if in delirium. Every time she sat down to a meal she remembered sh_as so many hours nearer to rest—a fortnight's rest—she could not afford more; but in her present slavery that fortnight seemed at once as a paradise and a_ternity. Her only fear was that her health might give way, and that she woul_e laid up during the time she intended for rest—personal rest. Her baby wa_ost sight of. Even a mother demands something in return for her love, and i_he last year Jackie had taken much and given nothing. But when she opene_rs. Lewis's door he came running to her, calling her Mummie; and th_mmediate preference he showed for her, climbing on her knees instead of o_rs. Lewis's, was a fresh sowing of love in the mother's heart.
  • They were in the midst of those few days of sunny weather which come i_anuary, deluding us so with their brightness and warmth that we look roun_or roses and are astonished to see the earth bare of flowers. And thes_right afternoons Esther spent entirely with Jackie. At the top of the hil_heir way led through a narrow passage between a brick wall and a high paling.
  • She had always to carry him through this passage, for the ground there wa_loppy and dirty, and the child wanted to stop to watch the pigs through th_hinks in the boards. But when they came to the smooth, wide, high road_verlooking the valley, she put him down, and he would run on ahead, crying,
  • "Turn for a walk, Mummie, turn along," and his little feet went so quickl_eneath his frock that it seemed as if he were on wheels. She followed, ofte_orced to break into a run, tremulous lest he should fall. They descended th_ill into the ornamental park, and spent happy hours amid geometrically- designed flower-beds and curving walks. She ventured with him as far as th_ld Dulwich village, and they strolled through the long street. Behind th_treet were low-lying, shiftless fields, intersected with broken hedges. An_hen Jackie called to his mother to carry him, she rejoiced in the labour o_is weight; and when he grew too heavy, she rested on the farm-gate, an_ooked into the vague lowlands. And when the chill of night awoke her from he_ream she clasped Jackie to her bosom and turned towards home, very soon t_ose herself again in another tide of happiness.
  • The evenings, too, were charming. When the candles were lighted, and tea wa_n the table, Esther sat with the dozing child on her knee, looking into th_lickering fire, her mind a reverie, occasionally broken by the homely talk o_er companion; and when the baby was laid in his cot she took up he_ewing—she was making herself a new dress; or else the great kettle wa_teaming on the hob, and the women stood over the washing-tubs. On th_ollowing evening they worked on either side of the ironing-table, the candl_urning brightly and their vague woman's chatter sounding pleasant in the hus_f the little cottage. A little after nine they were in bed, and so the day_ent softly, like happy, trivial dreams. It was not till the end of the thir_eek that Mrs. Lewis would hear of Esther looking out for another place. An_hen Esther was surprised at her good fortune. A friend of Mrs. Lewis's knew _ervant who was leaving her situation in the West End of London. Esther go_he address, and went next day after the place. She was fortunate enough t_btain it, and her mistress seemed well satisfied with her. But one day in th_eginning of her second year of service she was told that her mistress wishe_o speak to her in the dining-room.
  • "I fancy," said the cook, "that it is about that baby of yours; they're ver_trict here."
  • Mrs. Trubner was sitting on a low wicker chair by the fire. She was a larg_oman with eagle features. Her eyesight had been failing for some years, an_er maid was reading to her. The maid closed the book and left the room.
  • "It has come to my knowledge, Waters, that you have a child. You're not _arried woman, I believe?"
  • "I've been unfortunate; I've a child, but that don't make no difference s_ong as I gives satisfaction in my work. I don't think that the cook ha_omplained, ma'am."
  • "No, the cook hasn't complained, but had I known this I don't think I shoul_ave engaged you. In the character which you showed me, Mrs. Barfield sai_hat she believed you to be a thoroughly religious girl at heart."
  • "And I hope I am that, ma'am. I'm truly sorry for my fault. I've suffered _reat deal."
  • "So you all say; but supposing it were to happen again, and in my house?
  • Supposing——"
  • "Then don't you think, ma'am, there is repentance and forgiveness? Our Lord said——"
  • "You ought to have told me; and as for Mrs. Barfield, her conduct is mos_eprehensible."
  • "Then, ma'am, would you prevent every poor girl who has had a misfortune fro_arning her bread? If they was all like you there would be more girls who'd d_way with themselves and their babies. You don't know how hard pressed we are.
  • The baby-farmer says, 'Give me five pounds and I'll find a good woman wh_ants a little one, and you shall hear no more about it.' Them very words wer_aid to me. I took him away and hoped to be able to rear him, but if I'm t_ose my situations——"
  • "I should be sorry to prevent anyone from earning their bread——"
  • "You're a mother yourself, ma'am, and you know what it is."
  • "Really, it's quite different…. I don't know what you mean, Waters."
  • "I mean that if I am to lose my situations on account of my baby, I don't kno_hat will become of me. If I give satisfaction—"
  • At that moment Mr. Trubner entered. He was a large, stout man, with hi_other's aquiline features. He arrived with his glasses on his nose, an_lightly out of breath.
  • "Oh, oh, I didn't know, mother," he blurted out, and was about to withdra_hen Mrs. Trubner said—
  • "This is the new servant whom that lady in Sussex recommended."
  • Esther saw a look of instinctive repulsion come over his face.
  • "I'll leave you to settle with her, mother."
  • "I must speak to you, Harold—I must."
  • "I really can't; I know nothing of this matter."
  • He tried to leave the room, and when his mother stopped him he said testily,
  • "Well, what is it? I am very busy just now, and—" Mrs. Trubner told Esther t_ait in the passage.
  • "Well," said Mr. Trubner, "have you discharged her? I leave all these thing_o you."
  • "She has told me her story; she is trying to bring up her child on her wages….
  • She said if she was kept from earning her bread she didn't know what woul_ecome of her. Her position is a very terrible one."
  • "I know that…. But we can't have loose women about the place. They all ca_ell a fine story; the world is full of impostors."
  • "I don't think the girl is an impostor."
  • "Very likely not, but everyone has a right to protect themselves."
  • "Don't speak so loud, Harold," said Mrs. Trubner, lowering her voice.
  • "Remember her child is dependent upon her; if we send her away we don't kno_hat may happen. I'll pay her a month's wages if you like, but you must tak_he responsibility."
  • "I won't take any responsibility in the matter. If she had been here tw_ears—she has only been here a year—not so much more—and had proved _atisfactory servant, I don't say that we'd be justified in sending her away….
  • There are plenty of good girls who want a situation as much as she. I don'_ee why we should harbour loose women when there are so many deserving cases."
  • "Then you want me to send her away?"
  • "I don't want to interfere; you ought to know how to act. Supposing the sam_hing were to happen again? My cousins, young men, coming to the house—"
  • "But she won't see them."
  • "Do as you like; it is your business, not mine. It doesn't matter to me, s_ong as I'm not interfered with; keep her if you like. You ought to hav_ooked into her character more closely before you engaged her. I think tha_he lady who recommended her ought to be written to very sharply."
  • They had forgotten to close the door, and Esther stood in the passage burnin_nd choking with shame.
  • "It is a strange thing that religion should make some people so unfeeling,"
  • Esther thought as she left Onslow Square.
  • It was necessary to keep her child secret, and in her next situation sh_hunned intimacy with her fellow-servants, and was so strict in her conduc_hat she exposed herself to their sneers. She dreaded the remark that sh_lways went out alone, and often arrived at the cottage breathless with fea_nd expectation—at a cottage where a little boy stood by a stout middle-age_oman, turning over the pages of the illustrated papers that his mother ha_rought him; she had no money to buy him toys. Dropping the Illustrated Londo_ews, he cried, "Here is Mummie," and ran to her with outstretched arms. Ah, what an embrace! Mrs. Lewis continued her sewing, and for an hour or mor_sther told about her fellow-servants, about the people she lived with, th_onversation interrupted by the child calling his mother's attention to th_ictures, or by the delicate intrusion of his little hand into hers.
  • Her clothes were her great difficulty, and she often thought that she woul_ather go back to the slavery of the house in Chelsea than bear th_umiliation of going out any longer on Sunday in the old things that th_ervants had seen her in for eight or nine months or more. She was made t_eel that she was the lowest of the low—the servant of servants. She had t_ccept everybody's sneer and everybody's bad language, and oftentimes gros_amiliarity, in order to avoid arguments and disputes which might endanger he_ituation. She had to shut her eyes to the thefts of cooks; she had to fetc_hem drink, and to do their work when they were unable to do it themselves.
  • But there was no help for it. She could not pick and choose where she woul_ive, and any wages above sixteen pound a year she must always accept, and pu_p with whatever inconvenience she might meet.
  • Hers is an heroic adventure if one considers it—a mother's fight for the lif_f her child against all the forces that civilisation arrays against the lowl_nd the illegitimate. She is in a situation to-day, but on what security doe_he hold it? She is strangely dependent on her own health, and still more upo_he fortunes and the personal caprice of her employers; and she realised th_erils of her life when an outcast mother at the corner of the street, stretching out of her rags a brown hand and arm, asked alms for the sake o_he little children. Esther remembered then that three months out of _ituation and she too would be on the street as a flower-seller, match-seller, or——
  • It did not seem, however, that any of these fears were to be realised. He_uck had mended; for nearly two years she had been living with some ric_eople in the West End; she liked her mistress and was on good terms with he_ellow servants, and had it not been for an accident she could have kept thi_ituation. The young gentlemen had come home for their summer holidays; sh_ad stepped aside to let Master Harry pass on the stairs. But he did not g_y, and there was a strange smile on his face.
  • "Look here, Esther, I'm awfully fond of you. You are the prettiest girl I've ever seen. Come out for a walk with me next Sunday."
  • "Master Harry, I'm surprised at you; will you let me go by at once?"
  • There was no one near, the house was silent, and the boy stood on the ste_bove her. He tried to throw his arm round her waist, but she shook him of_nd went up to her room calm with indignation. A few days afterward sh_uddenly became aware that he was following her in the street. She turne_harply upon him.
  • "Master Harry, I know that this is only a little foolishness on your part, bu_f you don't leave off I shall lose my situation, and I'm sure you don't wan_o do me an injury."
  • Master Harry seemed sorry, and he promised not to follow her in the stree_gain. And never thinking that it was he who had written the letter sh_eceived a few days after, she asked Annie, the upper housemaid, to read it.
  • It contained reference to meetings and unalterable affection, and it conclude_ith a promise to marry her if she lost her situation through his fault.
  • Esther listened like one stunned. A schoolboy's folly, the first sill_entimentality of a boy, a thing lighter than the lightest leaf that falls, had brought disaster upon her.
  • If Annie had not seen the letter she might have been able to get the boy t_isten to reason; but Annie had seen the letter, and Annie could not b_rusted. The story would be sure to come out, and then she would lose he_haracter as well as her situation. It was a great pity. Her mistress ha_romised to have her taught cooking at South Kensington, and a cook's wage_ould secure her and her child against all ordinary accidents. She would neve_et such a chance again, and would remain a kitchen-maid to the end of he_ays. And acting on the impulse of the moment she went straight to th_rawing-room. Her mistress was alone, and Esther handed her the letter. "_hought you had better see this at once, ma'am. I did not want you to think i_as my fault. Of course the young gentleman means no harm."
  • "Has anyone seen this letter?"
  • "I showed it to Annie. I'm no scholar myself, and the writing was difficult."
  • "You have no reason for supposing——How often did Master Harry speak to you i_his way?"
  • "Only twice, ma'am."
  • "Of course it is only a little foolishness. I needn't say that he doesn't mea_hat he says."
  • "I told him, ma'am, that if he continued I should lose my situation."
  • "I'm sorry to part with you, Esther, but I really think that the best way wil_e for you to leave. I am much obliged to you for showing me this letter.
  • Master Harry, you see, says that he is going away to the country for a week.
  • He left this morning. So I really think that a month's wages will settl_atters nicely. You are an excellent servant, and I shall be glad to recommen_ou."
  • Then Esther heard her mistress mutter something about the danger of good- looking servants. And Esther was paid a month's wages, and left tha_fternoon.