She stood on the platform watching the receding train. A few bushes hid the curve of the line; the white vapour rose above them, evaporating in the pale evening. A moment more and the last carriage would pass out of sight. The white gates swung forward slowly and closed over the line.
An oblong box painted reddish brown and tied with a rough rope lay on the seat beside her. The movement of her back and shoulders showed that the bundle she carried was a heavy one, the sharp bulging of the grey linen cloth that the weight was dead. She wore a faded yellow dress and a black jacket too warm for the day. A girl of twenty, short, strongly built, with short, strong arms. Her neck was plump, and her hair of so ordinary a brown that it passed unnoticed. The nose was too thick, but the nostrils were well formed. The eyes were grey, luminous, and veiled with dark lashes. But it was only when she laughed that her face lost its habitual expression, which was somewhat sullen; then it flowed with bright humour. She laughed now, showing a white line of almond-shaped teeth. The porter had asked her if she were afraid to leave her bundle with her box. Both, he said, would go up together in the donkey-cart. The donkey-cart came down every evening to fetch parcels…. That was the way to Woodview, right up the lane. She could not miss it. She would find the lodge gate in that clump of trees. The man lingered, for she was an attractive girl, but the station-master called him away to remove some luggage.
It was a barren country. Once the sea had crawled at high tide half-way up the sloping sides of those downs. It would do so now were it not for the shingle bank which its surging had thrown up along the coast. Between the shingle bank and the shore a weedy river flowed and the little town stood clamped together, its feet in the water’s edge. There were decaying shipyards about the harbour, and wooden breakwaters stretched long, thin arms seawards for ships that did not come. On the other side of the railway apple blossoms showed above a white-washed wall; some market gardening was done in the low-lying fields, whence the downs rose in gradual ascents. On the first slope there was a fringe of trees. That was Woodview.
The girl gazed on this bleak country like one who saw it for the first time. She saw without perceiving, for her mind was occupied with personal consideration. She found it difficult to decide whether she should leave her bundle with her box. It hung heavy in her hand, and she did not know how far Woodview was from the station. At the end of the platform the station-master took her ticket, and she passed over the level-crossing still undecided. The lane began with iron railings, laurels, and French windows. She had been in service in such houses, and knew if she were engaged in any of them what her duties would be. But the life in Woodview was a great dream, and she could not imagine herself accomplishing all that would be required of her. There would be a butler, a footman, and a page; she would not mind the page—but the butler and footman, what would they think? There would be an upper-housemaid and an under-housemaid, and perhaps a lady’s-maid, and maybe that these ladies had been abroad with the family. She had heard of France and Germany. Their conversation would, no doubt, turn on such subjects. Her silence would betray her. They would ask her what situations she had been in, and when they learned the truth she would have to leave disgraced. She had not sufficient money to pay for a ticket to London. But what excuse could she give to Lady Elwin, who had rescued her from Mrs. Dunbar and got her the place of kitchen-maid at Woodview? She must not go back. Her father would curse her, and perhaps beat her mother and her too. Ah! he would not dare to strike her again, and the girl’s face flushed with shameful remembrance. And her little brothers and sisters would cry if she came back. They had little enough to eat as it was. Of course she must not go back. How silly of her to think of such a thing!
She smiled, and her face became as bright as the month: it was the first day of June. Still she would be glad when the first week was over. If she had only a dress to wear in the afternoons! The old yellow thing on her back would never do. But one of her cotton prints was pretty fresh; she must get a bit of red ribbon—that would make a difference. She had heard that the housemaids in places like Woodview always changed their dresses twice a day, and on Sundays went out in silk mantles and hats in the newest fashion. As for the lady’s-maid, she of course had all her mistress’s clothes, and walked with the butler. What would such people think of a little girl like her! Her heart sank at the thought, and she sighed, anticipating much bitterness and disappointment. Even when her first quarter’s wages came due she would hardly be able to buy herself a dress: they would want the money at home. Her quarter’s wages! A month’s wages most like, for she’d never be able to keep the place. No doubt all those fields belonged to the Squire, and those great trees too; they must be fine folk, quite as fine as Lady Elwin—finer, for she lived in a house like those near the station.
On both sides of the straight road there were tall hedges, and the nursemaids lay in the wide shadows on the rich summer grass, their perambulators at a little distance. The hum of the town died out of the ear, and the girl continued to imagine the future she was about to enter on with increasing distinctness. Looking across the fields she could see two houses, one in grey stone, the other in red brick with a gable covered with ivy; and between them, lost in the north, the spire of a church. On questioning a passer-by she learnt that the first house was the Rectory, the second was Woodview Lodge. If that was the lodge, what must the house be?
Two hundred yards further on the road branched, passing on either side of a triangular clump of trees, entering the sea road; and under the leaves the air was green and pleasant, and the lungs of the jaded town girl drew in a deep breath of health. Behind the plantation she found a large white-painted wooden gate. It opened into a handsome avenue, and the gatekeeper told her to keep straight on, and to turn to the left when she got to the top. She had never seen anything like it before, and stopped to admire the uncouth arms of elms, like rafters above the roadway; pink clouds showed through, and the monotonous dove seemed the very heart of the silence.
Her doubts returned; she never would be able to keep the place. The avenue turned a little, and she came suddenly upon a young man leaning over the paling, smoking his pipe.
“Please sir, is this the way to Woodview?”
“Yes, right up through the stables, round to the left.” Then, noticing the sturdily-built figure, yet graceful in its sturdiness, and the bright cheeks, he said, “You look pretty well done; that bundle is a heavy one, let me hold it for you.”
“I am a bit tired,” she said, leaning the bundle on the paling. “They told me at the station that the donkey-cart would bring up my box later on.”
“Ah, then you are the new kitchen-maid? What’s your name?”
“My mother’s the cook here; you’ll have to mind your p’s and q’s or else you’ll be dropped on. The devil of a temper while it lasts, but not a bad sort if you don’t put her out.”
“Are you in service here?”
“No, but I hope to be afore long. I could have been two years ago, but mother did not like me to put on livery, and I don’t know how I’ll face her when I come running down to go out with the carriage.”
“Is the place vacant?” Esther asked, raising her eyes timidly, looking at him sideways.
“Yes, Jim Story got the sack about a week ago. When he had taken a drop he’d tell every blessed thing that was done in the stables. They’d get him down to the ‘Red Lion’ for the purpose; of course the squire couldn’t stand that.”
“And shall you take the place?”
“Yes. I’m not going to spend my life carrying parcels up and down the King’s Road, Brighton, if I can squeeze in here. It isn’t so much the berth that I care about, but the advantages, information fresh from the fountain-head. You won’t catch me chattering over the bar at the ‘Red Lion’ and having every blessed word I say wired up to London and printed next morning in all the papers.”
Esther wondered what he was talking about, and, looking at him, she saw a low, narrow forehead, a small, round head, a long nose, a pointed chin, and rather hollow, bloodless cheeks. Notwithstanding the shallow chest, he was powerfully built, the long arms could deal a swinging blow. The low forehead and the lustreless eyes told of a slight, unimaginative brain, but regular features and a look of natural honesty made William Latch a man that ten men and eighteen women out of twenty would like.
“I see you have got books in that bundle,” he said at the end of a long silence. “Fond of readin’?”
“They are mother’s books,” she replied, hastily. “I was afraid to leave them at the station, for it would be easy for anyone to take one out, and I should not miss it until I undid the bundle.”
“Sarah Tucker—that’s the upper-housemaid—will be after you to lend them to her. She is a wonderful reader. She has read every story that has come out in Bow Bells for the last three years, and you can’t puzzle her, try as you will. She knows all the names, can tell you which lord it was that saved the girl from the carriage when the ‘osses were tearing like mad towards a precipice a ‘undred feet deep, and all about the baronet for whose sake the girl went out to drown herself in the moonlight, I ‘aven’t read the books mesel’, but Sarah and me are great pals,”
Esther trembled lest he might ask her again if she were fond of reading; she could not read. Noticing a change in the expression of her face, he concluded that she was disappointed to hear that he liked Sarah and regretted his indiscretion.
“Good friends, you know—no more. Sarah and me never hit it off; she will worry me with the stories she reads. I don’t know what is your taste, but I likes something more practical; the little ‘oss in there, he is more to my taste.” Fearing he might speak again of her books, she mustered up courage and said—
“They told me at the station that the donkey-cart would bring up my box.”
“The donkey-cart isn’t going to the station to-night—you’ll want your things, to be sure. I’ll see the coachman; perhaps he is going down with the trap. But, golly! it has gone the half-hour. I shall catch it for keeping you talking, and my mother has been expecting you for the last hour. She hasn’t a soul to help her, and six people coming to dinner. You must say the train was late.”
“Let us go, then,” cried Esther. “Will you show me the way?”
Over the iron gate which opened into the pleasure-ground, thick branches of evergreen oaks made an arch of foliage, and between the trees a glimpse was caught of the angles and urns of an Italian house—distant about a hundred yards. A high brick wall separated the pleasure-ground from the stables, and as William and Esther turned to the left and walked up the roadway he explained that the numerous buildings were stables. They passed by many doors, hearing the trampling of horses and the rattling of chains. Then the roadway opened into a handsome yard overlooked by the house, the back premises of which had been lately rebuilt in red brick. There were gables and ornamental porches, and through the large kitchen windows the servants were seen passing to and fro. At the top of this yard was a gate. It led into the park, and, like the other gate, was overhung by bunched evergreens. A string of horses came towards this gate, and William ran to open it. The horses were clothed in grey cloth. They wore hoods, and Esther noticed the black round eyes looking through the eyelet holes. They were ridden by small, ugly boys, who swung their little legs, and struck them with ash plants when they reached their heads forward chawing at the bits. When William returned he said, “Look there, the third one; that’s he—that’s Silver Braid.”
An impatient knocking at the kitchen window interrupted his admiration, and William, turning quickly, said, “Mind you say the train was late; don’t say I kept you, or you’ll get me into the devil of a pickle. This way.” The door let into a wide passage covered with coconut matting. They walked a few yards; the kitchen was the first door, and the handsome room she found herself in did not conform to anything that Esther had seen or heard of kitchens. The range almost filled one end of the room, and on it a dozen saucepans were simmering; the dresser reached to the ceiling, and was covered with a multitude of plates and dishes. Esther thought how she must strive to keep it in its present beautiful condition, and the elegant white-capped servants passing round the white table made her feel her own insignificance.
“This is the new kitchen-maid, mother.”
“Ah, is it indeed?” said Mrs. Latch looking up from the tray of tartlets which she had taken from the oven and was filling with jam. Esther noticed the likeness that Mrs. Latch bore to her son. The hair was iron grey, and, as in William’s face, the nose was the most prominent feature.
“I suppose you’ll tell me the train was late?”
“Yes, mother, the train was a quarter of an hour late,” William chimed in.
“I didn’t ask you, you idle, lazy, good-for-nothing vagabond. I suppose it was you who kept the girl all this time. Six people coming to dinner, and I’ve been the whole day without a kitchen-maid. If Margaret Gale hadn’t come down to help me, I don’t know where we should be; as it is, the dinner will be late.”
The two housemaids, both in print dresses, stood listening. Esther’s face clouded, and when Mrs. Latch told her to take her things off and set to and prepare the vegetables, so that she might see what she was made of, Esther did not answer at once. She turned away, saying under her breath, “I must change my dress, and my box has not come up from the station yet.”
“You can tuck your dress up, and Margaret Gale will lend you her apron.”
“What you’ve got on don’t look as if it could come to much damage. Come, now, set to.”
The housemaids burst into loud laughter, and then a sullen look of dogged obstinacy passed over and settled on Esther’s face, even to the point of visibly darkening the white and rose complexion.
Categories: English Literature