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In the afternoon of the same day, now dreary enough, with the dreariness naturally belonging to the dreariest month of the year, Mary arrived in the city preferred to all cities by those who live in it, but the most uninviting, I should imagine, to a stranger, of all cities on the face of the earth. Cold seemed to have taken to itself a visible form in the thin, gray fog that filled the huge station from the platform to the glass roof. The latter had vanished, indistinguishable from sky invisible, and from the brooding darkness, in which the lamps innumerable served only to make spots of thinness. It was a mist, not a November fog, properly so called; but every breath breathed by every porter, as he ran along by the side of the slowly halting train, was adding to its mass, which seemed to Mary to grow in bulk and density as she gazed. Her quiet, simple, decided manner at once secured her attention, and she was among the first who had their boxes on cabs and were driving away.
But the drive seemed interminable, and she had grown anxious and again calmed herself many times, before it came to an end. The house at which the cab drew up was large, and looked as dreary as large, but scarcely drearier than any other house in London on that same night of November. The cabman rang the bell, but it was not until they had waited a time altogether unreasonable that the door at length opened, and a lofty, well-built footman in livery appeared framed in it.
Mary got out, and, going up the steps, said she hoped the driver had brought her to the right house: it was Mrs. Redmain's she wanted.
"Mrs. Redmain is not at home, miss," answered the man. "I didn't hear as how she was expecting of any one," he added, with a glance at the boxes, formlessly visible on the cab, through the now thicker darkness.
"She is expecting me, I know," returned Mary; "but of course she would not stay at home to receive me," she remarked, with a smile.
"Oh!" returned the man, in a peculiar tone, and adding, "I'll see," went away, leaving her on the top of the steps, with the cabman behind her, at the bottom of them, waiting orders to get her boxes down.
"It don't appear as you was overwelcome, miss!" he remarked: with his comrades on the stand he passed for a wit; "--leastways, it don't seem as your sheets was quite done hairing."
"It's all right," said Mary, cheerfully.
She was not ready to imagine her dignity in danger, therefore did not provoke assault upon it by anxiety for its safety.
"I'm sorry to hear it, miss," the man rejoined.
"Why?" she asked.
"'Cause I should ha' liked to ha' taken you farther."
"But why?" said Mary, the second time, not understanding him, and not unwilling to cover the awkwardness of that slow minute of waiting.
"Because it gives a poor man with a whole family o' prowocations some'at of a chance, to 'ave a affable young lady like you, miss, behind him in his cab, once a year, or thereabouts. It's not by no means as I'd have you go farther and fare worse, which it's a sayin' as I've heerd said, miss. So, if you're sure o' the place, I may as well be a-gettin' down of your boxes."
So saying, he got on the cab, and proceeded to unfasten the chain that secured the luggage.
"Wait a bit, cabbie. Don't you be in sech a 'urry as if you was a 'ansom, now," cried the footman, reappearing at the farther end of the hall. "I should be sorry if there was a mistake, and you wasn't man enough to put your boxes up again without assistance." Then, turning to Mary, "Mrs. Perkin says, miss--that's the housekeeper, miss," he went on, "--that, if as you're the young woman from the country--and I'm sure I beg your pardon if I make a mistake--it ain't my fault, miss--Mrs. Perkin says she did hear Mrs. Redmain make mention of one, but she didn't have any instructions concerning her.--But, as there you are," he continued more familiarly, gathering courage from Mary's nodded assent, "you can put your boxes in the hall, and sit down, she says, till Mrs. R. comes 'ome."
"Do you think she will be long?" asked Mary.
"Well, that's what no fellow can't say, seein' its a new play as she's gone to. They call it Doomsday, an' there's no tellin' when parties is likely to come 'ome from that," said the man, with a grin of satisfaction at his own wit.
Was London such a happy place that everybody in it was given to joking, thought Mary.
"'Ere, mister! gi' me a 'and wi' this 'ere luggage," cried the cabman, finding the box he was getting down too much for him. "Yah wouldn't see me break my back, an' my poor 'orse standin' there a lookin' on--would ye now?"
"Why don't you bring a man with you?" objected the footman, as he descended the steps notwithstanding, to give the required assistance. "I ain't paid as a crane.--By Juppiter! what a weight the new party's boxes is!"
"Only that one," said Mary, apologetically. "It is full of books. The other is not half so heavy."
"Oh, it ain't the weight, miss!" returned the footman, who had not intended she should hear the remark. "I believe Mr. Cabman and myself will prove equal to the occasion."
With that the book-box came down a great bump on the pavement, and presently both were in the hall, the one on the top of the other. Mary paid the cabman, who asked not a penny more than his fare; he departed with thanks; the facetious footman closed the door, told her to take a seat, and went away full of laughter, to report that the young person had brought a large library with her to enliven the dullness of her new situation.
Mrs. Perkin smiled crookedly, and, in a tone of pleasant reproof, desired her laughter-compressing inferior not to forget his manners.
"Please, ma'am, am I to leave the young woman sittin' up there all by herself in the cold?" he asked, straightening himself up. "She do look a rayther superior sort of young person," he added, "and the 'all-stove is dead out."
"For the present, Castle," replied Mrs. Perkin.
She judged it wise to let the young woman have a lesson at once in subjection and inferiority.
Mrs. Perkin was a rather tall, rather thin, quite straight, and very dark-complexioned woman. She always threw her head back on one side and her chin out on the other when she spoke, and had about her a great deal of the authoritative, which she mingled with such consideration toward her subordinates as to secure their obedience to her, while she cultivated antagonism to her mistress. She had had a better education than most persons of her class, but was morally not an atom their superior in consequence. She never went into a new place but with the feeling that she was of more importance by far than her untried mistress, and the worthier person of the two. She entered her service, therefore, as one whose work it was to take care of herself against a woman whose mistress she ought to have been, had Providence but started her with her natural rights. At the same time, she would have been almost as much offended by a hint that she was not a Christian, as she would have been by a doubt whether she was a lady. For, indeed, she was both, if a great opinion of herself constituted the latter, and a great opinion of going to church constituted the former.
She had not been taken into Hesper's confidence with regard to Mary, had discovered that "a young person" was expected, but had learned nothing of what her position in the house was to be. She welcomed, therefore, this opportunity both of teaching Mrs. Redmain--she never called her her mistress, while severely she insisted on the other servants' speaking of her so--the propriety of taking counsel with her housekeeper and of letting the young person know in time that Mrs. Perkin was in reality her mistress.
The relation of the upper servants of the house to their employers was more like that of the managers of an hotel to their guests. The butler, the lady's-maid, and Mr. Redmain's body- servant, who had been with him before his marriage, and was supposed to be deep in his master's confidence, ate with the housekeeper in her room, waited upon by the livery and maid- servants, except the second cook: the first cook only came to superintend the cooking of the dinner, and went away after. To all these Mrs. Perkin was careful to be just; and, if she was precise even to severity with them, she was herself obedient to the system she had established--the main feature of which was punctuality. She not only regarded punctuality as the foremost of virtues, but, in righteous moral sequence, made it the first of her duties; and the benefit everybody reaped. For nothing oils the household wheels so well as this same punctuality. In a family, love, if it be strong, genuine, and patent, will make up for anything; but, where there is no family and no love, the loss of punctuality will soon turn a house into the mere pouch of a social inferno. Here the master and mistress came and went, regardless of each other, and of all household polity; but their meals were ready for them to the minute, when they chose to be there to eat them; the carriage came round like one of the puppets on the Strasburg clock; the house was quiet as a hospital; the bells were answered--all except the door-bell outside of calling hours--with swiftness; you could not soil your fingers anywhere--not even if the sweep had been that same morning; the manners of the servants--when serving--were unexceptionable; but the house was scarcely more of a home than one of the huge hotels characteristic of the age.
In the hall of it sat Mary for the space of an hour, not exactly learning the lesson Mrs. Perkin had intended to teach her, but learning more than one thing Mrs. Perkin was not yet capable of learning. I can not say she was comfortable, for she was both cold and hungry; but she was far from miserable. She had no small gift of patience, and had taught herself to look upon the less troubles of life as on a bad dream. There are children, though not yet many, capable, through faith in their parents, of learning not a little by their experience, and Mary was one of such; from the first she received her father's lessons like one whose business it was to learn them, and had thereby come to learn where he had himself learned. Hence she was not one to say our Father in heaven, and act as if there were no such Father, or as if he cared but little for his children. She was even foolish enough to believe that that Father both knew and cared that she was hungry and cold and wearily uncomfortable; and thence she was weak enough to take the hunger and cold and discomfort as mere passing trifles, which could not last a moment longer than they ought. From her sore-tried endeavors after patience, had grown the power of active waiting--and a genuinely waiting child is one of the loveliest sights the earth has to show.
This was not the reception she had pictured to herself, as the train came rushing from Testbridge to London; she had not, indeed, imagined a warm one, but she had not expected to be forgotten--for so she interpreted her abandonment in the hall, which seemed to grow colder every minute. She saw no means of reminding the household of her neglected presence, and indeed would rather have remained where she was till the morning than encounter the growing familiarity of the man who had admitted her. She did think once--if Mrs. Redmain were to hear of her reception, how she would resent it! and would have found it difficult to believe how far people like her are from troubling themselves about the behavior of their servants to other people; for they have no idea of an obligation to rule their own house, neither seem to have a notion of being accountable for what goes on in it.
She had grown very weary, and began to long for a floor on which she might stretch herself; there was not a sound in the house but the ticking of a clock somewhere; and she was now wondering whether everybody had gone to bed, when she heard a step approaching, and presently Castle, who was the only man at home, stood up before her, and, with the ease of perfect self- satisfaction, and as if there was nothing in the neglect of her but the custom of the house to cool people well in the hall before admitting them to its penetralia, said, "Step this way-- miss"; the last word added after a pause of pretended hesitation, for the man had taken his cue from the housekeeper.
Mary rose, and followed him to the basement story, into a comfortable room, where sat Mrs. Perkin, embroidering large sunflowers on a piece of coarse stuff. She was artistic, and despised the whole style of the house.
"You may sit down," she said, and pointed to a chair near the door.
Mary, not a little amused, for all her discomfort, did as she was permitted, and awaited what should come next.
"What part of the country are you from?" asked Mrs. Perkin, with her usual diagonal upward toss of the chin, but without lifting her eyes from her work.
"From Testbridge," answered Mary.
"The servants in this house are in the habit of saying ma'am to their superiors: it is required of them," remarked Mrs. Perkin. But, although her tone was one of rebuke, she said the words lightly, tossed the last of them off, indeed, almost playfully, as if the lesson was meant for one who could hardly have been expected to know better. "And what place did you apply for in the house?" she went on to ask.
"I can hardly say, ma'am," answered Mary, avoiding both inflection and emphasis, and by her compliance satisfying Mrs. Perkin that she had been right in requiring the kotou. "It is not usual for young persons to be engaged without knowing for what purpose."
"I suppose not, ma'am."
"What wages were you to have?" next inquired Mrs. Perkin, gradually assuming a more decided drawl as she became more assured of her position with the stranger. She would gladly get some light on the affair. "You need not object to mentioning them," she went on, for she imagined Mary hesitated, whereas she was only a little troubled to keep from laughing; "I always pay the wages myself."
"There was nothing said about wages, ma'am," answered Mary.
"Indeed! Neither work nor wages specified? Excuse me if I say it seems rather peculiar.--We must be content to wait a little, then--until we learn what Mrs. Redmain expected of you, and whether or not you are capable of it. We can go no further now."
"Certainly not, ma'am," assented Mary.
"Can you use your needle?"
"Have you done any embroidery?"
"I understand it a little, but I am not particularly fond of it."
"You mistake: I did not ask you whether you were fond of it," said Mrs. Perkin; "I asked you if you had ever done any"; and she smiled severely, but ludicrously, for a diagonal smile is apt to have a comic effect. "Here!--take off your gloves," she continued, "and let me see you do one of these loose-worked sunflowers. They are the fashion now, though. I dare say, you will not be able to see the beauty of them."
"Please, ma'am," returned Mary, "if you will excuse me, I would rather go to my room. I have had a long journey, and am very tired."
"There is no room yours.--I have had no character with you.-- Nothing can be done til Mrs. Redman comes home, and she and I have had a little talk about you. But you can go to the housemaid's--the second housemaid's room, I mean--and make yourself tidy. There is a spare bed in it, I believe, which you can have for the night; only mind you don't keep the girl awake talking to her, or she will be late in the morning, and that I never put up with. I think you will do. You seem willing to learn, and that is half the battle."
Therewith Mrs. Perkin, believing she had laid in awe the foundation of a rightful authority over the young person, gave her a nod of dismissal, which she intended to be friendly.
"Please, ma'am," said Mary, "could I have one of my boxes taken up stairs?"
"Certainly not. I can not have two movings of them; I must take care of my men. And your boxes, I understand, are heavy, quite absurdly so. It would look better in a young person not to have so much to carry about with her."
"I have but two boxes, ma'am," said Mary.
"Full of books, I am told."
"One of them only."
"You must do your best without them to-night. When I have made up my mind what is to be done with you, I shall let you have the one with your clothes; the other shall be put away in the box-room. I give my people what books I think fit. For light reading, the 'Fireside Herald' is quite enough for the room.--There--good night!"
Mary courtesied, and left her. At the door she glanced this way and that to find some indication to guide her steps. A door was open at the end of a passage, and from the odor that met her, it seemed likely to be that of the kitchen. She approached, and peeped in.
"Who is that?" cried a voice irate.
It was the voice of the second cook, who was there supreme except when the chef was present. Mary stepped in, and the woman advanced to meet her.
"May I ask to what I am indebted for the honner of this unexpected visit?" said the second cook, whose head its overcharge of self-importance jerked hither and thither upon her neck, as she seized the opportunity of turning to her own use a sentence she had just read in the "Fireside Herald" which had taken her fancy--spoken by Lady Blanche Rivington Delaware to a detested lover disinclined to be dismissed.
"Would you please tell me where to find the second house-maid," said Mary. "Mrs. Perkin has sent me to her room."
"Why don't Mrs. Perkin show you the way, then?" returned the woman. "There ain't nobody else in the house as I knows on fit to send to the top o' them stairs with you. A nice way Jemim' 'ill be in when she comes 'ome, to find a stranger in her room!"
The same instant, however, the woman bethought herself that, if what she had said in her haste were reported, it would be as much as her place was worth; and at once thereupon she assumed a more complaisant tone. Casting a look at her saucepans, as if to warn them concerning their behavior in her absence, she turned again to Mary, saying:
"I believe I better show you the way myself. It's easier to take you than find a girl to do it. Them hussies is never where they oughto be! you follow me."
She led the way along two passages, and up a back staircase of stone--up and up, till Mary, unused to such heights, began to be aware of knees. Plainly at last in the regions of the roof, she thought her hill Difficulty surmounted, but the cook turned a sharp corner, and Mary following found herself once more at the foot of a stair--very narrow and steep, leading up to one of those old-fashioned roof-turrets which had begun to appear in the new houses of that part of London.
"Are you taking me to the clouds, cook?" she said, willing to be cheerful, and to acknowledge her obligation for laborious guidance.
"Not yet a bit, I hope," answered the cook; "we'll get there soon enough, anyhow--excep' you belong to them peculiars as wants to be saints afore their time. If that's your sort, don't you come here; for a wickeder 'ouse, or an 'ouse as you got to work harder in o' Sundays, no one won't easily find in this here west end."
With these words she panted up the last few steps, immediately at the top of which was the room sought. It was a very small one, scarcely more than holding the two beds. Having lighted the gas, the cook left her; and Mary, noting that one of the beds was not made up, was glad to throw herself upon it. Covering herself with her cloak, her traveling-rug, and the woolen counterpane, she was soon fast asleep.
She was roused by a cry, half of terror, half of surprise. There stood the second housemaid, who, having been told nothing of her room-fellow, stared and gasped.
"I am sorry to have startled you," said Mary, who had half risen, leaning on her elbow. "They ought to have told you there was a stranger in your room."
The girl was not long from the country, and, in the midst of the worst vulgarity in the world, namely, among the servants of the selfish, her manners had not yet ceased to be simple. For a moment, however, she seemed capable only of panting, and pressing her hand on her heart.
"I am very sorry," said Mary, again; "but you see I won't hurt you! I don't look dangerous, do I?"
"No, miss," answered the girl, with an hysterical laugh. "I been to the play, and there was a man in it was a thief, you know, miss!" And with that she burst out crying.
It was some time before Mary got her quieted, but, when she did, the girl was quite reasonable. She deplored that the bed was not made up, and would willingly have yielded hers; she was sorry she had not a clean night-gown to offer her--"not that it would be fit for the likes of you, miss!"--and showed herself full of friendly ministration. Mary being now without her traveling- cloak, Jemima judged from her dress she must be some grand visitor's maid, vastly her superior in the social scale: if she had taken her for an inferior, she would doubtless, like most, have had some airs handy.
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