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.
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?"
"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?
"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.