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She was quite the reverse of beautiful--to some she was positively unpleasant to look upon; but that made no difference to Mrs. Thaddeus Perkins, who, after long experience with domestics, had come to judge of the value of a servant by her performance rather than by her appearance. The girl--if girl she were, for she might have been thirty or sixty, so far as any one could judge from a merely superficial glance at her face and figure--was neat of aspect, and, what was more, she had come well recommended. She bore upon her face every evidence of respectability and character, as well as one or two lines which might have indicated years or toothache--it was difficult to decide which. On certain days, when the weather was very warm and she had much to do, the impression was that the lines meant years, and many of them, accentuated as they were by her pallor, the whiteness of her face making the lines seem almost black in their intensity. When she smiled, however, which she rarely did--she was solemn enough to have been a butler--one was impressed with the idea of hours of pain from a wicked tooth. At any rate, she was engaged as waitress, and put in charge of the first floor of the Perkins household.
"I fancy we've at last got a real treasure," said Mrs. Perkins. "There's no nonsense about Jane--I think." The last two words were added apologetically.
"Where did you get her?" asked Thaddeus. "At an Imbecility Office?"
"I don't quite know what you mean--an Imbecility Office?"
"Only my pet, private, and particular name for it, my dear. You would speak of it as an Intelligence Office, no doubt," was the reply. "My observation of the fruit of Intelligence Offices has convinced me that they deal in Imbecility."
"Not quite," laughed Mrs. Perkins. "They look after Domestic Vacancies."
"Well, they do it with a vengeance," said Perkins. "We've had more vacancies in this house to do our cooking and our laundering and our house-work generally than two able-bodied men could shake sticks at. It seems to me that the domestic servant of to-day is fonder of preoccupation than of occupation."
"Jane, I think, is different from the general run," said Mrs. Perkins. "As I said, she has no nonsense about her."
"Is she--an--an ornament to the scene--pretty, and all that?" asked Perkins.
"Quite the reverse," replied the little house-keeper. "She is as plain as a--as a--"
"Say hedge-fence and be done with it," said Perkins. "I'm glad of it. What's the use of providing a good dinner for your friends if they are going to spend all their time looking at the waitress? When I give a dinner it makes me tired to have the men afterwards speak of the waitress rather than of the puree or the birds. If any domestic is to dominate the repast at all it should be the cook."
"Service counts for a great deal, though, Ted," suggested Mrs. Perkins.
"True," replied Thaddeus; "but on the whole, when I am starving, give me a filet bearnaise served by a sailor, rather than an empty plate brought in in style by a butler of illustrious lineage and impressive manner." Then he added: "I hope she isn't too homely, Bess--not a 'clock-stopper,' as the saying is. You don't want people's appetites taken away when you've worked for hours on a menu calculated to tickle the palates of your guests. Would her homeliness--ah--efface itself, for instance, in the presence of a culinary creation, or is it likely to overshadow everything with its ineffaceable completeness?"
"I think she'll do," returned Mrs. Perkins; "especially with your friends, who, it seems to me, would one and all insist upon finishing a 'creation,' as you call it, even if lightning should strike the house."
"From that point of view," said he, "I'm confident that Jane will do."
So Jane came, and for a year, strange to relate, was all that her references claimed for her. She was neat, clean, and capable. She was sober and industrious. The wine had never been better served; the dinner had rarely come to the table so hot. Had she been a butler of the first magnitude she could not so have discouraged the idea of acquaintance; her attraction, if anything, was a combination of her self-effacement and her ugliness. The latter might have been noticed as she entered the dining-room; it was soon forgotten in the unconsciously observed ease with which she went through her work.
"She's fine," said Perkins, after a dinner of twelve covers served by Jane with a pantry assistant. "I've always had a sneaking notion that nothing short of a butler could satisfy me, but now I think otherwise. Jane is perfection, and there is nothing paralyzing about her, as there is about most of those reduced swells who wait on tables nowadays."
In August the family departed for the mountains, and the house was left in charge of Jane and the cook, and right faithfully did they fulfil the requirements of their stewardship. The return in September found the house cleaned from top to bottom. The hardwood floors and stairs shone as they had rarely shone before, and as only an unlimited application of what is vulgarly termed "elbow-grease" could make them shine. The linen was immaculate. Ireland is not freer from snakes than was the house of Perkins from cobwebs, and no speck of dust except those on the travellers was visible. It was evident that even in the absence of the family Jane was true to her ideals, and the heart of Mrs. Perkins was glad. Furthermore, Jane had acquired a full third set of teeth, which seemed to take some of the lines from her face, and, as Perkins observed, added materially to the general effect of the surroundings, although they were distressingly new. But, alas! they marked the beginning of the end. Jane ceased to wait upon the table with that solemnity which is essential to the manner of a "treasure"; she smiled occasionally, and where hitherto she had treated the conversation at the table with stolid indifference, a witticism would invariably now bring the new teeth unto view.
"Alas!" cried Thaddeus, "our butleress has evoluted backwards. She grins like an ordinary waitress."
It was too true. The possession of brilliantly white teeth seemed to have brought with it a desire to show them, which was destructive of that dignity with which Jane had previously been hedged about, and substituted for it a less desirable atmosphere of possible familiarity, which might grow upon very slight provocation into intimacy, not to mention a nearer approach to social equality.
"I don't suppose we can blame her exactly," said Perkins, when discussing one or two of Jane's lapses from her old-time standard. "I haven't a doubt that if I'd gone for years without teeth, I'd become a regular Cheshire cat, with a new, complete edition de luxe of celluloid molars. Still, I wish she'd paid more attention to the dinner and less to Mr. Barlow's conversation last night. She stood a whole minute, with the salad-bowl in her hand, waiting for him to reach the point of his story about the plumber who put a gas-pipe through Shakespeare's tenor in Westminster Abbey, and when he finished, and she smiled, you'd have thought a dozen gravestones to the deceased's memory had been conjured up before us."
"It's a small fault, Thaddeus," returned Mrs. Perkins, "but I'll speak to her about it."
"Oh, I wouldn't," said Perkins; "let it go; she means well, and when we got her we didn't suspect she'd turn out such a jewel. She's merely approaching her norm, that is all. We ought to be thankful to have had such perfection for one year. It's too bad it couldn't continue; but what perfection does?"
Nothing, therefore, was said, and Jane smiled on, yet waited most acceptably and kept all things decently and in order--for a little while. Along about Christmas-time a further decadence and additional flaw in the jewel was discovered, and it was Perkins himself who discovered it. It happened one day while he was at work alone in the house, Mrs. Perkins having gone out shopping. A friend from Boston appeared--a friend interested in bric-a-brac and china generally. Thaddeus, to whom a luncheon in solitary grandeur was little short of abomination, invited his Boston friend to stay and share pot-luck with him, knowing, hypocrite that he was, that pot- luck did not mean pot-luck at all, but a course luncheon which many men would have found all-sufficient at dinner. The Boston friend accepted, and the luncheon was served by Jane. In the course of the repast the visitor observed:
"Pretty good china you have, Perkins."
"Yes," returned Thaddeus, "pretty good. I've always had a penchant for china. My mother-in-law thinks I'm extravagant, and sometimes I think she is right. You never saw my Capodimonte coffees, did you?"
"No," replied the Bostonian, "I never did. Where'd you get 'em?"
"London," replied Perkins, "last time I was over. You must see them, by all means. Ah, Jane, hand Mr. Bunkerrill one of the Capodimonte coffees."
"Wan o' the what, sorr?" asked the treasure.
Thaddeus blushed. To have his jewel go back on him at such a crisis was excessively annoying. "One of those gold after-dinner coffee- cups--one of the little ones, with the flowery raised figures," he said, sharply.
"Oh!" said Jane, "wan o' thim with somebody else's initial on the bottom?"
"Yes," said Thaddeus, fuming inwardly.
"Quite a connoisseur, that woman," laughed the visitor, as Jane went after the dinner-cup. "She's observed the china mark. She know's N doesn't stand for Perkins."
Thaddeus laughed weakly. "She probably thinks we got them second- hand," he said.
"Very likely you did," retorted the Bostonian, and Jane returned with the desired cup. "An admirable specimen," continued the connoisseur; and them, turning the cup bottom upwards in search of the mark, he disclosed to his own and Thaddeus's astonished gaze no less an object than the remains of a mashed green pea, a reminiscence of the last Perkins dinner, and conclusive evidence that at times Jane was not as careful in the washing of her china as she might have been.
It would be futile and useless for me to attempt to describe the emotions of Thaddeus. I fancy a large enough number of us having been through similar experiences to comprehend the man's mortification and his inward wrath. It was too great to find suitable expression at the moment. Nothing short of the absolute destruction of the cup and the annihilation of Jane could have adequately expressed Perkins's true feelings. He was not by nature, however, a scene-maker--it would have been better if he had been--so he said nothing, abiding by his rule, which seemed to be that the man of the house would do better to reprehend the short-comings of a delinquent servant by blowing up his wife rather than by going direct to the core of the trouble and reading the maid a lecture. A great many men adopt this same method. I do. It is the easiest, though it is possibly prompted by that cowardice which is latent with us all. I never in my life have discharged more than one servant, and I not only did not do it gracefully, but discharged the wrong one; since which time I have left all that sort of work to others more competent than I. Perkins's method was precisely thus.
"I'm not going to interfere," was his invariable remark in cases of the kind under discussion; which was unwise, for if he had even scolded a servant as he did his wife for the servant's fault he might have secured better service sooner or later.
Unfortunately, when Mrs. Perkins reached home that night she was so very tired with her exertions in the shops that Thaddeus hadn't the heart to tell her what had happened, and when morning came the episode was forgotten. When it did recur to his mind it so happened that Mrs. Perkins was out of reach. The result was that a month had passed before Mrs. Perkins cane into possession of the facts, and it was then, of course, too late to mention it to Jane.
"You should have given her a good talking to at the time," said Mrs. Perkins. "It's awful! I don't know what has got into Jane. My best table-cloth has got a great hole in it, and she is very careless with the silver. My fruit-knife last night was not clean."
"I suppose you spoke to her about that?" said Perkins, smiling.
"Not exactly; I sent for another, and handed her the dirty one," returned Mrs. Perkins. "I guess she felt all that I could have said."
And time went on, and Jane continued to decay. She pulled corks from olive-bottles with the carving-fork prongs and bent them backwards. She developed a habit of going out and leaving her work undone. The powdered sugar was allowed to resolve itself into small, hard, pill-shaped lumps of various sizes. Breakfast had a way of being served cold. The coffee was at times merely tepid; in short, it seemed as if she really ought to be discharged; but then there was invariably some reason for postponing the fatal hour. Either her kindness to the children or a week or two of the old-time efficiency, her unyielding civility, her scrupulous honesty, her willing acquiescence in any new duty imposed, an impression that she was suffering, any one or all of these reasons kept her on in her place until she became so much a fixture in the household, so much one of the family, that the idea of getting rid of her seemed beyond the possibility of realization. That the axe should fall her employers knew well, and many a resolve was taken that at the end of the season she should go, yet neither Mrs. Perkins nor her husband liked to tell her so. Her good points were still too potent, although none could deny that all confidence in her efficiency was shattered past repair. The situation finally reached a point where it inspired reflections of a more or less humorous order.
"I tell you what I think," said Thaddeus one evening, after a particularly flagrant breach on Jane's part, involving a streak of cranberry sauce across a supposititiously clean plate: "you won't discharge her, Bess, and I won't; suppose we send for Mr. Burke, and get him to do it."
Mr. Burke was the one reliable man in town. It didn't make much difference what the Perkinses wanted done, they generally sent for Mr. Burke to do it, largely because when he attempted a commission he saw it through. A carpenter and builder by trade, he had for many years looked after the repairs needful to the Perkins' dwelling; he had come often between Thaddeus and unskilled labor; he had made bookcases which were dreams of convenience and sufficiently pleasing to the eye; he had "fixed up" Mrs. Perkins's garden; he had supplied the family with a new gardener when the old one had taken on habits of drink, which destroyed not only himself but the cabbages; he had kept an eye on the plumbers; he had put up, taken down, and repaired awnings--in short, as Perkins said, he was a "Universal." Once, when a delicate piece of bric-a-brac had been broken and the china-mender asserted that it could not be mended, Perkins had said, "See if Burke can't fix it," and Burke had fixed it; and as final tribute to this wonder, Perkins had said, in suffering:
"My dear, I'm afraid I have appendicitis. Send for Mr. Burke."
"Mr. Burke!" echoed his wife.
"Yes, Mr. Burke," moaned the sufferer. "If my vermiform appendix is to be removed, I'd rather have Mr. Burke do it with a chisel and saw than any surgeon I know; and I won't take ether either, because it is such a satisfaction to see him work."
So, when this happy pair of house-holders had reached what might be described as the grand climateric of their patience, and it was finally decided that Jane's usefulness was a thing of the past, and utterly beyond redemption, Thaddeus naturally suggested turning to his faithful friend, Mr. Burke, to rid them of their woes, and, indeed, but for Jane's own intervention, I fear that course would have proved the sole alternative to her becoming an irremovable fixture in the household. But it was Jane herself who solved the problem.
It was two days after the cranberry episode that the solution came, and it was in this wise:
"Did ye send for me?" Jane asked, suddenly materializing in Mrs. Perkins's room.
"No, Jane, I haven't; why?"
The girl began to shed tears.
"Because--you'd ought to have, ma'am. I know well enough that I ain't satisfactory to you," she returned, her voice quivering, "and I can't be, and I know you want me to go--and I--I've come to give you notice."
Then Mrs. Perkins looked at Jane with sorrow on her countenance, for she had acquired an affection for her which the maid's delinquencies had not been able to efface.
"Can't you try and do better?" she asked.
"No, ma'am," returned Jane. "Not with the system--never. Mr. Perkins is too easy, and you do be so soft-hearted it don't keep a girl up to her work. When I first come here, ma'am, not knowin' ye well, I was afraid to be anything but what was right, but the way you took accidents, and a bit of a shortcomin' once in a while, sort of took away my fear, and I've been goin' down hill ever since. Servant-girls is only human, Mrs. Perkins."
Mrs. Perkins looked at Jane inquiringly.
"We needs to be kept up to our work just as much as anybody else, and when a lady like yourself is too easy, it gets a girl into bad habits, and occasionally it does us good if the gentleman of the house will swear at us, Mrs. Perkins, and sort of scare us, so it does. It was that that was the making of me. The last place I was in, ma'am, I was so afraid of both the missus and the gentleman that I didn't dare to be careless; and I didn't dare be careless with you until I found you all the time a-smilin', whatever went wrong, and Mr. Perkins never sayin' a word, whether the dishes come to the table clean or not."
"Well, Jane," said Mrs. Perkins, somewhat carried away by this course of reasoning, "you haven't been what we hoped--there is no denying that; but knowing that you were disappointing us, why couldn't you have made a special effort?"
"Oh, Mrs. Perkins," sobbed the poor woman, "you don't understand. We're all disappointin' to them we loves, but--it's them we fear--"
"Then why aren't you afraid of us?"
Jane laughed through her tears. The idea was preposterous.
"Afraid of you and Mr. Perkins? Ah!" she said, sadly, "if I only could be--but I can't. Why, Mrs. Perkins, if Mr. Perkins should come in here now and swear at me the way Mr. Barley did when I worked there, I'd know he was only puttin' it on, and that inside he'd be laughin' at me. No, ma'am, it's no use. I feel that I must go, or I'll be forever ruined. It was the cranberry showed me; a girl had ought to be discharged for that. Dirty dinner plates isn't excusable, and yet neither of you said a word, and next week it'll be the same way--so I'm goin'. You won't send me off, so I've got to do it myself."
"Very well, Jane," said Mrs. Perkins; "if that is the way you feel about it we'll have to part, I suppose. I am sorry, but--"
The sentence was not finished, for Jane rushed weeping from the room, and within a few days, her place having been filled, the house knew her no more, except as an occasional visitor, ostensibly to see the children. Later she got a place to her satisfaction, and one night the Perkins were invited to dine with Jane's new employers. They went and found their old-time "butler" at the very zenith of her powers. She served the dinner as she had never served one in her palmiest days in the Perkins's dining-room; and when all was over, and when Mrs. Perkins went up-stairs to don her wrap to return home, she found Jane above waiting to help her.
"I am glad to see you so happy, Jane," she said, as the girl held her cloak.
"Ah, ma'am, I'm not very happy."
"You ought to be, here. Your work to-night was perfect."
"Yes," said Jane, "it had to be, for"--here her voice fell to a whisper--"I don't dare let it be different, ma'am. Mrs. Harkins is a regular divvle, and the ould gentleman--well, ma'am, he do swear finer 'n any gentleman I ever met. It's just the place for me."
And Jane sighed as her old mistress left her.
"Wasn't she great, Bess?" said Thaddeus, on the way home.
"She was, indeed," replied Mrs. Perkins, with a smile. "It's a pity I'm not a divvle."
Thaddeus laughed. "That's so," he said; "or that I never learned to swear like a gentleman, eh?"
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