Mr William Whittlestaff was strolling very slowly up and down the long walk at his country seat in Hampshire, thinking of the contents of a letter which he held crushed up within his trousers’ pocket. He always breakfasted exactly at nine, and the letters were supposed to be brought to him at a quarter past. The postman was really due at his hall-door at a quarter before nine; but though he had lived in the same house for above fifteen years, and though he was a man very anxious to get his letters, he had never yet learned the truth about them. He was satisfied in his ignorance with 9.15 a.m., but on this occasion the post-boy, as usual, was ten minutes after that time. Mr Whittlestaff had got through his second cup of tea, and was stranded in his chair, having nothing to do, with the empty cup and plates before him for the space of two minutes; and, consequently, when he had sent some terrible message out to the post-boy, and then had read the one epistle which had arrived on this morning, he thus liberated his mind: “I’ll be whipped if I will have anything to do with her.” But this must not be taken as indicating the actual state of his mind; but simply the condition of anger to which he had been reduced by the post-boy. If any one were to explain to him afterwards that he had so expressed himself on a subject of such importance, he would have declared of himself that he certainly deserved to be whipped himself. In order that he might in truth make up his mind on the subject, he went out with his hat and stick into the long walk, and there thought out the matter to its conclusion. The letter which he held in his pocket ran as follows:—
St. Tawell’s, Norwich, February 18—.
MY DEAR MR WHITTLESTAFF,—Poor Mrs Lawrie has gone at last. She died this morning at seven o’clock, and poor Mary is altogether alone in the world. I have asked her to come in among us for a few days at any rate, till the funeral shall be over. But she has refused, knowing, I suppose, how crowded and how small our house is. What is she to do? You know all the circumstances much better than I do. She says herself that she had always been intended for a governess, and that she will, of course, follow out the intention which had been fixed on between her and her father before his death. But it is a most weary prospect, especially for one who has received no direct education for the purpose. She has devoted herself for the last twelve months to Mrs Lawrie, as though she had been her mother. You did not like Mrs Lawrie, nor did I; nor, indeed, did poor Mary love her very dearly. But she, at any rate, did her duty by her step-mother. I know that in regard to actual money you will be generous enough; but do turn the matter over in your mind, and endeavour to think of some future for the poor girl.—Yours very faithfully,
It was in answer to such a letter as this, that Mr Whittlestaff had declared that “He’d be whipped if he’d have anything to do with her.” But that expression, which must not in truth be accepted as meaning anything, must not be supposed to have had even that dim shadow of a meaning which the words may be supposed to bear. He had during the last three months been asking himself the question as to what should be Mary Lawrie’s fate in life when her step-mother should have gone, and had never quite solved the question whether he could or would not bring into his own house, almost as a daughter, a young woman who was in no way related to him. He had always begun these exercises of thought, by telling himself that the world was a censorious old fool, and that he might do just as he pleased as to making any girl his daughter. But then, before dinner he had generally come to the conclusion that Mrs Baggett would not approve. Mrs Baggett was his housekeeper, and was to him certainly a person of importance. He had not even suggested the idea to Mrs Baggett, and was sure that Mrs Baggett would not approve. As to sending Mary Lawrie out into the world as a governess;—that plan he was quite sure would not answer.
Two years ago had died his best beloved friend, Captain Patrick Lawrie. With him we have not anything to do, except to say that of all men he was the most impecunious. Late in life he had married a second wife,—a woman who was hard, sharp, and possessed of an annuity. The future condition of his only daughter had been a terrible grief to him; but from Mr Whittlestaff he had received assurances which had somewhat comforted him. “She shan’t want. I can’t say anything further.” Such had been the comfort given by Mr Whittlestaff. And since his friend’s death Mr Whittlestaff had been liberal with presents,—which Mary had taken most unwillingly under her step-mother’s guidance. Such had been the state of things when Mr Whittlestaff received the letter. When he had been walking up and down the long walk for an extra hour, Mr Whittlestaff expressed aloud the conclusion to which he had come. “I don’t care one straw for Mrs Baggett.” It should be understood as having been uttered in direct opposition to the first assurance made by him, that “He’d be whipped if he’d have anything to do with her.” In that hour he had resolved that Mary Lawrie should come to him, and be made, with all possible honours of ownership, with all its privileges and all its responsibilities, the mistress of his house. And he made up his mind also that such had ever been his determination. He was fifty and Mary Lawrie was twenty-five. “I can do just what I please with her,” he said to himself, “as though she were my own girl.” By this he meant to imply that he would not be expected to fall in love with her, and that it was quite out of the question that she should fall in love with him. “Go and tell Mrs Baggett that I’ll be much obliged to her if she’ll put on her bonnet and come out to me here.” This he said to a gardener’s boy, and the order was not at all an unusual one. When he wanted to learn what Mrs Baggett intended to give him for dinner, he would send for the old housekeeper and take a walk with her for twenty minutes. Habit had made Mrs Baggett quite accustomed to the proceeding, which upon the whole she enjoyed. She now appeared with a bonnet, and a wadded cloak which her master had given her. “It’s about that letter, sir,” said Mrs Baggett.
“How do you know?”
“Didn’t I see the handwriting, and the black edges? Mrs Lawrie ain’t no more.”
“Mrs Lawrie has gone to her long account.”
“I’m afeared, sir, she won’t find it easy to settle the bill,” said Mrs Baggett, who had a sharp, cynical way of expressing her disapprobation.
“Mrs Baggett, judge not, lest you be judged.” Mrs Baggett turned up her nose and snuffed the air. “The woman has gone, and nothing shall be said against her here. The girl remains. Now, I’ll tell you what I mean to do.”
“She isn’t to come here, Mr Whittlestaff?”
“Here she is to come, and here she is to remain, and here she is to have her part of everything as though she were my own daughter. And, as not the smallest portion of the good things that is to come to her, she is to have her share in your heart, Mrs Baggett.”
“I don’t know nothing about my heart, Mr Whittlestaff. Them as finds their way to my heart has to work their way there. Who’s Miss Lawrie, that I’m to be knocked about for a new comer?”
“She is just Mary Lawrie.”
“I’m that old that I don’t feel like having a young missus put over me. And it ain’t for your good, Mr Whittlestaff. You ain’t a young man—nor you ain’t an old un; and she ain’t no relations to you. That’s the worst part of it. As sure as my name is Dorothy Baggett, you’ll be falling in love with her.” Then Mrs Baggett, with the sense of the audacity of what she had said, looked him full in the face and violently shook her head.
“Now go in,” he said, “and pack my things up for three nights. I’m going to Norwich, and I shan’t want any dinner. Tell John I shall want the cart, and he must be ready to go with me to the station at 2.15.”
“I ought to be ready to cut the tongue out of my head,” said Mrs Baggett as she returned to the house, “for I might have known it was the way to make him start at once.”
Not in three days, but before the end of the week, Mr Whittlestaff returned home, bringing with him a dark-featured tall girl, clothed, of course, in deepest mourning from head to foot. To Mrs Baggett she was an object of intense interest; because, although she had by no means assented to her master’s proposal, made on behalf of the young lady, and did tell herself again and again during Mr Whittlestaff’s absence that she was quite sure that Mary Lawrie was a baggage, yet in her heart she knew it to be impossible that she could go on living in the house without loving one whom her master loved. With regard to most of those concerned in the household, she had her own way. Unless she would favour the groom, and the gardener, and the boy, and the girls who served below her, Mr Whittlestaff would hardly be contented with those subordinates. He was the easiest master under whom a servant could live. But his favour had to be won through Mrs Baggett’s smiles. During the last two years, however, there had been enough of discussion about Mary Lawrie to convince Mrs Baggett that, in regard to this “interloper,” as Mrs Baggett had once called her, Mr Whittlestaff intended to have his own way. Such being the case, Mrs Baggett was most anxious to know whether the young lady was such as she could love.
Strangely enough, when the young lady had come, Mrs Baggett, for twelve months, could not quite make up her mind. The young lady was very different from what she had expected. Of interference in the house there was almost literally none. Mary had evidently heard much of Mrs Baggett’s virtues,—and infirmities,—and seemed to understand that she also had in many things to place herself under Mrs Baggett’s orders. “Lord love you, Miss Mary,” she was heard to say; “as if we did not all understand that you was to be missus of everything at Croker’s Hall,”—for such was the name of Mr Whittlestaff’s house. But those who heard it knew that the words were spoken in supreme good humour, and judged from that, that Mrs Baggett’s heart had been won. But Mrs Baggett still had her fears; and was not yet resolved but that it might be her duty to turn against Mary Lawrie with all the violence in her power. For the first month or two after the young lady’s arrival, she had almost made up her mind that Mary Lawrie would never consent to become Mrs Whittlestaff. An old gentleman will seldom fall in love without some encouragement; or at any rate, will not tell his love. Mary Lawrie was as cold to him as though he had been seventy-five instead of fifty. And she was also as dutiful,—by which she showed Mrs Baggett more strongly even than by her coldness, that any idea of marriage was on her part out of the question.
This, strange to say, Mrs Baggett resented. For though she certainly felt, as would do any ordinary Mrs Baggett in her position, that a wife would be altogether detrimental to her interest in life, yet she could not endure to think that “a little stuck-up minx, taken in from charity,” should run counter to any of her master’s wishes. On one or two occasions she had spoken to Mr Whittlestaff respecting the young lady and had been cruelly snubbed. This certainly did not create good humour on her part, and she began to fancy herself angry in that the young lady was so ceremonious with her master. But as months ran by she felt that Mary was thawing, and that Mr Whittlestaff was becoming more affectionate. Of course there were periods in which her mind veered round. But at the end of the year Mrs Baggett certainly did wish that the young lady should marry her old master. “I can go down to Portsmouth,” she said to the baker, who was a most respectable old man, and was nearer to Mrs Baggett’s confidence than any one else except her master, “and weary out the rest on ’em there.” When she spoke of “wearying out the rest on ’em,” her friend perfectly understood that she alluded to what years she might still have to live, and to the abject misery of her latter days, which would be the consequence of her resigning her present mode of life. Mrs Baggett was supposed to have been born at Portsmouth, and, therefore, to allude to that one place which she knew in the world over and beyond the residences in which her master and her master’s family had resided.
Before I go on to describe the characters of Mr Whittlestaff and Miss Lawrie, I must devote a few words to the early life of Mrs Baggett. Dorothy Tedcaster had been born in the house of Admiral Whittlestaff, the officer in command at the Portsmouth dockyard. There her father or her mother had family connections, to visit whom Dorothy, when a young woman, had returned from the then abode of her loving mistress, Mrs Whittlestaff. With Mrs Whittlestaff she had lived absolutely from the hour of her birth, and of Mrs Whittlestaff her mind was so full, that she did conceive her to be superior, if not absolutely in rank, at any rate in all the graces and favours of life, to her Majesty and all the royal family. Dorothy in an evil hour went back to Portsmouth, and there encountered that worst of military heroes, Sergeant Baggett. With many lamentations, and confessions as to her own weakness, she wrote to her mistress, acknowledging that she did intend to marry “B.” Mrs Whittlestaff could do nothing to prevent it, and Dorothy did marry “B.” Of the misery and ill-usage, of the dirt and poverty, which poor Dorothy Baggett endured during that year, it needs not here to tell. That something had passed between her and her old mistress when she returned to her, must, I suppose, have been necessary. But of her married life, in subsequent years, Mrs Baggett never spoke at all. Even the baker only knew dimly that there had been a Sergeant Baggett in existence. Years had passed since that bad quarter of an hour in her life, before Mrs Baggett had been made over to her present master. And he, though he probably knew something of the abominable Sergeant, never found it necessary to mention his name. For this Mrs Baggett was duly thankful, and would declare among all persons, the baker included, that “for a gentleman to be a gentleman, no gentleman was such a gentleman” as her master.
It was now five-and-twenty years since the Admiral had died, and fifteen since his widow had followed him. During the latter period Mrs Baggett had lived at Croker’s Hall with Mr Whittlestaff, and within that period something had leaked out as to the Sergeant. How it had come to pass that Mr Whittlestaff’s establishment had been mounted with less of the paraphernalia of wealth than that of his parents, shall be told in the next chapter; but it was the case that Mrs Baggett, in her very heart of hearts, was deeply grieved at what she considered to be the poverty of her master. “You’re a stupid old fool, Mrs Baggett,” her master would say, when in some private moments her regrets would be expressed. “Haven’t you got enough to eat, and a bed to lie on, and an old stocking full of money somewhere? What more do you want?”
“A stocking full of money!” she would say, wiping her eyes; “there ain’t no such thing. And as for eating, of course, I eats as much as I wants. I eats more than I wants, if you come to that.”
“Then you’re very greedy.”
“But to think that you shouldn’t have a man in a black coat to pour out a glass of wine for you, sir!”
“I never drink wine, Mrs Baggett.”
“Well, whisky. I suppose a fellow like that wouldn’t be above pouring out a glass of whisky for a gentleman;—though there’s no knowing now what those fellows won’t turn up their noses at. But it’s a come-down in the world, Mr Whittlestaff.”
“If you think I’ve come down in the world, you’d better keep it to yourself, and not tell me. I don’t think that I’ve come down.”
“You bear up against it finely like a man, sir; but for a poor woman like me, I do feel it.” Such was Mrs Baggett and the record of her life. But this little conversation took place before the coming of Mary Lawrie.
Categories: English Literature