Will Warburton by George Gissing
Happen what might in the world beyond her doors, Mrs. Cross led the wonted life of domestic discomfort and querulousness. An interval there had been this summer, a brief, uncertain interval, when something like good-temper seemed to struggle with her familiar mood; it was the month or two during which Norbert Franks resumed his friendly visitings. Fallen out of Mrs. Cross's good graces since his failure to become her tenant a couple of years ago, the artist had but to present himself again to be forgiven, and when it grew evident that he came to the house on Bertha's account, he rose into higher favour than ever. But this promising state of things abruptly ended. One morning, Bertha, with a twinkle in her eyes, announced the fact of Franks' marriage. Her mother was stricken with indignant amaze.
"And you laugh about it?"
"It's so amusing," answered Bertha.
Mrs. Cross examined her daughter.
"I don't understand you," she exclaimed, in a tone of irritation. "I do not understand you, Bertha! All I can say is, behaviour more disgraceful I never--"
The poor lady's feelings were too much for her. She retreated to her bedroom, and there passed the greater part of the day. But in the evening curiosity overcame her sullenness. Having obtained as much information about the artist's marriage as Bertha could give her, she relieved herself in an acrimonious criticism of him and Miss Elvan.
"I never liked to say what I really thought of that girl," were her concluding words. "Now your eyes are opened. Of course you'll never see her again?"
"Why, mother?" asked Bertha. "I'm very glad she has married Mr. Franks. I always hoped she would, and felt pretty sure of it."
"And you mean to be friends with them both?"
"Why not?--But don't let us talk about that," Bertha added good-humouredly. "I should only vex you. There's something else I want to tell you, something you'll really be amused to hear."
"Your ideas of amusement, Bertha--"
"Yes, yes, but listen. It's about Mr. Jollyman. Who do you think Mr. Jollyman really is?"
Mrs. Cross heard the story with bent brows and lips severely set.
"And why didn't you tell me this before, pray?"
"I hardly know," answered the girl, thoughtfully, smiling. "Perhaps because I waited to hear more to make the revelation more complete. But--"
"And this," exclaimed Mrs. Cross, "is why you wouldn't go to the shop yesterday?"
"Yes," was the frank reply. "I don't think I shall go again."
"And, pray, why not?"
Bertha was silent.
"There's one very disagreeable thing in your character, Bertha," remarked her mother severely, "and that is your habit of hiding and concealing. To think that you found this out more than a week ago! You're very, very unlike your father. He never kept a thing from me, never for an hour. But you are always full of secrets. It isn't nice--it isn't at all nice."
Since her husband's death Mrs. Cross had never ceased discovering his virtues. When he lived, one of the reproaches with which she constantly soured his existence was that of secretiveness. And Bertha, who knew something and suspected more of the truth in this matter, never felt it so hard to bear with her mother as when Mrs. Cross bestowed such retrospective praise.
"I have thought it over," she said quietly, disregarding the reproof, "and on the whole I had rather not go again to the shop."
Thereupon Mrs. Cross grew angry, and for half an hour clamoured as to the disadvantage of leaving Jollyman's for another grocer's. In the end she did not leave him, but either went to the shop herself or sent the servant. Great was her curiosity regarding the disguised Mr. Warburton, with whom, after a significant coldness, she gradually resumed her old chatty relations. At length, one day in autumn, Bertha announced to her that she could throw more light on the Jollyman mystery; she had learnt the full explanation of Mr. Warburton's singular proceedings.
"From those people, I suppose?" said Mrs. Cross, who by this phrase signified Mr. and Mrs. Franks. "Then I don't wish to hear one word of it."
But as though she had not heard this remark, Bertha began her narrative. She seemed to repeat what had been told her with a quiet pleasure.
"Well, then," was her mother's comment, "after all, there's nothing disgraceful."
"I never thought there was."
"Then why have you refused to enter his shop?"
"It was awkward," replied Bertha.
"No more awkward for you than for me," said Mrs. Cross. "But I've noticed, Bertha, that you are getting rather selfish in some things --I don't of course say in everything--and I think it isn't difficult to guess where that comes from."
Soon after Christmas they were left, by a familiar accident, without a servant; the girl who had been with them for the last six months somehow contrived to get her box secretly out of the house and disappeared (having just been paid her wages) without warning. Long and loudly did Mrs. Cross rail against this infamous behaviour.
The next morning, a young woman came to the house and inquired for Mrs. Cross; Bertha, who had opened the door, led her into the dining room, and retired. Half an hour later, Mrs. Cross came into the parlour, beaming.
"There now! If that wasn't a good idea! Who do you think sent that girl, Bertha?--Mr. Jollyman."
Bertha kept silence.
"I had to go into the shop yesterday, and I happened to speak to Mr. Jollyman of the trouble I had in finding a good servant. It occurred to me that he might just possibly know of some one. He promised to make inquiries, and here at once comes the nicest girl I've seen for a long time. She had to leave her last place because it was too hard; just fancy, a shop where she had to cook for sixteen people, and see to five bedrooms; no wonder she broke down, poor thing. She's been resting for a month or two: and she lives in the same house as a person named Mrs. Hopper, who is the sister of the wife of Mr. Jollyman's assistant. And she's quite content with fifteen pounds--quite."
As she listened, Bertha wrinkled her forehead, and grew rather absent. She made no remark, until, after a long account of the virtues she had already descried in Martha--this was the girl's name--Mrs. Cross added that of course she must go at once and thank Mr. Jollyman.
"I suppose you still address him by that name?" fell from Bertha.
"That name? Why, I'd really almost forgotten that it wasn't his real name. In any case, I couldn't use the other in the shop, could I?"
"Of course not; no."
"Now you speak of it, Bertha," pursued Mrs. Cross, "I wonder whether he knows that I know who he is?"
"Certainly he does."
"When one thinks of it, wouldn't it be better, Bertha, for you to go to the shop again now and then? I'm afraid the poor man may feel hurt. He must have noticed that you never went again after that discovery, and one really wouldn't like him to think that you were offended."
"Offended?" echoed the girl with a laugh. "Offended at what?"
"Oh, some people, you know, might think his behaviour strange-- using a name that's not his own, and--and so on."
"Some people might, no doubt. But the poor man, as you call him, is probably quite indifferent as to what we think of him."
"Don't you think it would be well if you went in and just thanked him for sending the servant?"
"Perhaps," replied Bertha, carelessly.
But she did not go to Mr. Jollyman's, and Mrs. Cross soon forgot the suggestion.
Martha entered upon her duties, and discharged them with such zeal, such docility, that her mistress never tired of lauding her. She was a young woman of rather odd appearance; slim and meagre and red-headed, with a never failing simper on her loose lips, and blue eyes that frequently watered; she had somehow an air of lurking gentility in faded youth. Undeniable as were the good qualities she put forth on this scene of innumerable domestic failures, Bertha could not altogether like her. Submissive to the point of slavishness, she had at times a look which did not harmonize at all with this demeanour, a something in her eyes disagreeably suggestive of mocking insolence. Bertha particularly noticed this on the day after Martha had received her first wages. Leave having been given her to go out in the afternoon to make some purchases, she was rather late in returning, and Bertha, meeting her as she entered, asked her to be as quick as possible in getting tea; whereupon the domestic threw up her head and regarded the speaker from under her eyelids with an extraordinary smile; then with a "Yes, miss, this minute, miss" scampered upstairs to take her things off. All that evening her behaviour was strange. As she waited at the supper table she seemed to be subduing laughter, and in clearing away she for the first time broke a plate; whereupon she burst into tears, and begged forgiveness so long and so wearisomely that she had at last to be ordered out of the room.
On the morrow all was well again; but Bertha could not help watching that singular countenance, and the more she observed, the less she liked it.
The more "willing" a servant the more toil did Mrs. Cross exact from her. When occasions of rebuke or of dispute were lacking, the day would have been long and wearisome for her had she not ceaselessly plied the domestic drudge with tasks, and narrowly watched their execution. The spectacle of this slave-driving was a constant trial to Bertha's nerves; now and then she ventured a mild protest, but only with the result of exciting her mother's indignation. In her mood of growing moral discontent, Bertha began to ask herself whether acquiescence in this sordid tyranny was not a culpable weakness, and one day early in the year--a wretched day of east-wind--when she saw Martha perched on an outer window-sill cleaning panes, she found the courage to utter resolute disapproval.
"I don't understand you, Bertha," replied Mrs. Cross, the muscles of her face quivering as they did when she felt her dignity outraged. "What do we engage a servant for? Are the windows to get so dirty we can't see through them?"
"They were cleaned not many days ago," said her daughter, "and I think we could manage to see till the weather's less terrible."
"My dear, if we managed so as to give the servant no trouble at all, the house would soon be in a pretty state. Be so good as not to interfere. It's really an extraordinary thing that as soon as I find a girl who almost suits me, you begin to try to spoil her. One would think you took a pleasure in making my life miserable--"
Overwhelmed with floods of reproach, Bertha had either to combat or to retreat. Again her nerves failed her, and she left the room.
At dinner that day there was a roast leg of mutton, and, as her habit was, Mrs. Cross carved the portion which Martha was to take away for herself. One very small and very thin slice, together with one unwholesome little potato, represented the servant's meal. As soon as the door had closed, Bertha spoke in an ominously quiet voice.
"Mother, this won't do. I am very sorry to annoy you, but if you call that a dinner for a girl who works hard ten or twelve hours a day, I don't. How she supports life, I can't understand. You have only to look into her face to see she's starving. I can bear the sight of it no longer."
This time she held firm. The conflict lasted for half an hour, during which Mrs. Cross twice threatened to faint. Neither of them ate anything, and in the end Bertha saw herself, if not defeated, at all events no better off than at the beginning, for her mother clung fiercely to authority, and would obviously live in perpetual strife rather than yield an inch. For the next two days domestic life was very unpleasant indeed; mother and daughter exchanged few words; meanwhile Martha was tasked, if possible, more vigorously than ever, and fed mysteriously, meals no longer doled out to her under Bertha's eyes. The third morning brought another crisis.
"I have a letter from Emily," said Bertha at breakfast, naming a friend of hers who lived in the far north of London. "I'm going to see her to-day."
"Very well," answered Mrs. Cross, between rigid lips.
"She says that in the house where she lives, there's a bed-sitting-room to let. I think, mother, it might be better for me to take it."
"You will do just as you please, Bertha."
"I shall have dinner to-day with Emily, and be back about tea-time."
"I have no doubt," replied Mrs. Cross, "that Martha will be so obliging as to have tea ready for you. If she doesn't feel strong enough, of course I will see to it myself."