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Chapter 30

ABOUT SERVANTS.


I went to call on Lady Bernard the next day: for there was one subject on which I could better talk with her than with Marion; and that subject was Marion herself. In the course of our conversation, I said that I had had more than usual need of such a lesson as she gave us the night before,--I had been, and indeed still was, so vexed with my nurse.

"What is the matter?" asked Lady Bernard.

"She has given me warning," I answered.

"She has been with you some time--has she not?"

"Ever since we were married."

"What reason does she give?"

"Oh! she wants to better herself, of course," I replied,--in such a tone, that Lady Bernard rejoined,--

"And why should she not better herself?"

"But she has such a false notion of bettering herself. I am confident what she wants will do any thing but better her, if she gets it."

"What is her notion, then? Are you sure you have got at the real one?"

"I believe I have now. When I asked her first, she said she was very comfortable, and condescended to inform me that she had nothing against either me or her master, but thought it was time she was having more wages; for a friend of hers, who had left home a year after herself, was having two more pounds than she had."

"It is very natural, and certainly not wrong, that she should wish for more wages."

"I told her she need not have taken such a round-about way of asking for an advance, and said I would raise her wages with pleasure. But, instead of receiving the announcement with any sign of satisfaction, she seemed put out by it; and, after some considerable amount of incoherence, blurted out that the place was dull, and she wanted a change. At length, however, I got at her real reason, which was simply ambition: she wanted to rise in the world,--to get a place where men-servants were kept,--a more fashionable place, in fact."

"A very mistaken ambition certainly," said Lady Bernard, "but one which would be counted natural enough in any other line of life. Had she given you ground for imagining higher aims in her?"

"She had been so long with us, that I thought she must have some regard for us."

"She has probably a good deal more than she is aware of. But change is as needful to some minds, for their education, as an even tenor of life is to others. Probably she has got all the good she is capable of receiving from you, and there may be some one ready to take her place for whom you will be able to do more. However inconvenient it may be for you to change, the more young people pass through your house the better."

"If it were really for her good, I hope I shouldn't mind."

"You cannot tell what may be needful to cause the seed you have sown to germinate. It may be necessary for her to pass to another class in the school of life, before she can realize what she learned in yours."

I was silent, for I was beginning to feel ashamed; and Lady Bernard went on,--

"When I hear mistresses lamenting, over some favorite servant, as marrying certain misery in exchange for a comfortable home, with plenty to eat and drink and wear, I always think of the other side to it, namely, how, through the instincts of his own implanting, God is urging her to a path in which, by passing through the fires and waters of suffering, she may be stung to the life of a true humanity. And such suffering is far more ready to work its perfect work on a girl who has passed through a family like yours."

"I wouldn't say a word to keep her if she were going to be married," I said; "but you will allow there is good reason to fear she will be no better for such a change as she desires."

"You have good reason to fear, my child," said Lady Bernard, smiling so as to take all sting out of the reproof, "that you have too little faith in the God who cares for your maid as for you. It is not indeed likely that she will have such help as yours where she goes next; but the loss of it may throw her back on herself, and bring out her individuality, which is her conscience. Still, I am far from wondering at your fear for her,--knowing well what dangers she may fall into. Shall I tell you what first began to open my eyes to the evils of a large establishment? Wishing to get rid of part of the weight of my affairs, and at the same time to assist a relative who was in want of employment, I committed to him, along with larger matters, the oversight of my household expenses, and found that he saved me the whole of his salary. This will be easily understood from a single fact. Soon after his appointment, he called on a tradesman to pay him his bill. The man, taking him for a new butler, offered him the same discount he had been in the habit of giving his supposed predecessor, namely, twenty-five per cent,--a discount, I need not say, never intended to reach my knowledge, any more than my purse. The fact was patent: I had been living in a hotel, of which I not only paid the rent, but paid the landlord for cheating me. With such a head to an establishment, you may judge what the members may become."

"I remember an amusing experience my brother-in-law, Roger Percivale, once had of your household," I said.

"I also remember it perfectly," she returned. "That was how I came to know him. But I knew something of his family long before. I remember his grandfather, a great buyer of pictures and marbles."

Lady Bernard here gave me the story from her point of view; but Roger's narrative being of necessity the more complete, I tell the tale as he told it me.

At the time of the occurrence, he was assisting Mr. F., the well-known sculptor, and had taken a share in both the modelling and the carving of a bust of Lady Bernard's father. When it was finished, and Mr. F. was about to take it home, he asked Roger to accompany him, and help him to get it safe into the house and properly placed.

Roger and the butler between them carried it to the drawing-room, where were Lady Bernard and a company of her friends, whom she had invited to meet Mr. F, at lunch, and see the bust. There being no pedestal yet ready, Mr. F. made choice of a certain small table for it to stand upon, and then accompanied her ladyship and her other guests to the dining-room, leaving Roger to uncover the bust, place it in the proper light, and do whatever more might be necessary to its proper effect on the company when they should return. As she left the room, Lady Bernard told Roger to ring for a servant to clear the table for him, and render what other assistance he might want. He did so. A lackey answered the bell, and Roger requested him to remove the things from the table. The man left the room, and did not return. Roger therefore cleared and moved the table himself, and with difficulty got the bust upon it. Finding then several stains upon the pure half transparency of the marble, he rang the bell for a basin of water and a sponge. Another man appeared, looked into the room, and went away. He rang once more, and yet another servant came. This last condescended to hear him; and, informing him that he could get what he wanted in the scullery, vanished in his turn. By this time Roger confesses to have been rather in a rage; but what could he do? Least of all allow Mr. F.'s work, and the likeness of her ladyship's father, to make its debut with a spot on its nose; therefore, seeing he could not otherwise procure what was necessary, he set out in quest of the unknown appurtenances of the kitchen.

It is unpleasant to find one's self astray, even in a moderately sized house; and Roger did not at all relish wandering about the huge place, with no finger-posts to keep him in its business-thoroughfares, not to speak of directing him to the remotest recesses of a house "full," as Chaucer says, "of crenkles." At last, however, he found himself at the door of the servants' hall. Two men were lying on their backs on benches, with their knees above their heads in the air; a third was engaged in emptying a pewter pot, between his draughts tossing facetiŠ across its mouth to a damsel who was removing the remains of some private luncheon; and a fourth sat in one of the windows reading "Bell's Life." Roger took it all in at a glance, while to one of the giants supine, or rather to a perpendicular pair of white stockings, he preferred his request for a basin and a sponge. Once more he was informed that he would find what he wanted in the scullery. There was no time to waste on unavailing demands, therefore he only begged further to be directed how to find it. The fellow, without raising his head or lowering his knees, jabbered out such instructions as, from the rapidity with which he delivered them, were, if not unintelligible, at all events incomprehensible; and Roger had to set out again on the quest, only not quite so bewildered as before. He found a certain long passage mentioned, however, and happily, before he arrived at the end of it, met a maid, who with the utmost civility gave him full instructions to find the place. The scullery-maid was equally civil; and Roger returned with basin and sponge to the drawing-room, where he speedily removed the too troublesome stains from the face of the marble.

When the company re-entered, Mr. F. saw at once, from the expression and bearing of Roger, that something had happened to discompose him, and asked him what was amiss. Roger having briefly informed him, Mr. F. at once recounted the facts to Lady Bernard, who immediately requested a full statement from Roger himself, and heard the whole story.

She walked straight to the bell, and ordered up every one of her domestics, from the butler to the scullery-maid.

Without one hasty word, or one bodily sign of the anger she was in, except the flashing of her eyes, she told them she could not have had a suspicion that such insolence was possible in her house; that they had disgraced her in her own eyes, as having gathered such people about her; that she would not add to Mr. Percivale's annoyance by asking him to point out the guilty persons, but that they might assure themselves she would henceforth keep both eyes and ears open, and if the slightest thing of the sort happened again, she would most assuredly dismiss every one of them at a moment's warning. She then turned to Roger and said,--

"Mr. Percivale, I beg your pardon for the insults you have received from my servants."

"I did think," she said, as she finished telling me the story, "to dismiss them all on the spot, but was deterred by the fear of injustice. The next morning, however, four or five of them gave my housekeeper warning: I gave orders that they should leave the house at once, and from that day I set about reducing my establishment. My principal objects were two: first, that my servants might have more work; and second, that I might be able to know something of every one of them; for one thing I saw, that, until I ruled my own house well, I had no right to go trying to do good out of doors. I think I do know a little of the nature and character of every soul under my roof now; and I am more and more confident that nothing of real and lasting benefit can be done for a class except through personal influence upon the individual persons who compose it--such influence, I mean, as at the very least sets for Christianity."


George MacDonald