Will Warburton by George Gissing
On the evening before, Martha had received her month's wages, and had been promised the usual afternoon of liberty to-day; but, as soon as Bertha had left the house, Mrs. Cross summoned the domestic, and informed her bluntly that the holiday must be postponed.
"I'm very sorry, mum," replied Martha, with an odd, half-frightened look in her watery eyes. "I'd promised to go and see my brother as has just lost his wife; but of course, if it isn't convenient, mum--"
"It really is not, Martha. Miss Bertha will be out all day, and I don't like being left alone You shall go to-morrow instead."
Half an hour later, Mrs. Cross went out shopping, and was away till noon. On returning, she found the house full of the odour of something burnt.
"What's this smell, Martha?" she asked at the kitchen door, "what is burning?"
"Oh, it's only a dishcloth as was drying and caught fire, mum," answered the servant.
"Only! What do you mean?" cried the mistress, angrily. "Do you wish to burn the house down?"
Martha stood with her arms akimbo, on her thin, dough-pale face the most insolent of grins, her teeth gleaming, and her eyes wide.
"What do you mean?" cried Mrs. Cross. "Show me the burnt cloth at once."
"There you are, mum!"
And Martha, with a kick, pointed to something on the floor. Amazed and wrathful, Mrs. Cross saw a long roller-towel, half a yard of it burnt to tinder; nor could any satisfactory explanation of the accident be drawn from Martha, who laughed, sobbed, and sniggered by turns as if she were demented.
"Of course you will pay for it," exclaimed Mrs. Cross for the twentieth time. "Go on with your work at once, and don't let me have any more of this extraordinary behaviour. I can't think what has come to you."
But Martha seemed incapable of resuming her ordinary calm. Whilst serving the one o'clock dinner--which was very badly cooked--she wept and sighed, and when her mistress had risen from the table, she stood for a long time staring vacantly before she could bestir herself to clear away. About three o'clock, having several times vainly rung the sitting-room bell, Mrs. Cross went to the kitchen. The door was shut, and, on trying to open it, she found it locked. She called "Martha," again and again, and had no reply, until, all of a sudden, a shrill voice cried from within--"Go away! Go away!" Beside herself with wrath and amazement, the mistress demanded admission answer, there came a violent thumping on the door at the other side, and again the voice screamed--"Go away! Go away!"
"What's the matter with you, Martha?" asked Mrs. Cross, beginning to feel alarmed.
"Go away!" replied the voice fiercely.
"Either you open the door this moment, or I call a policeman."
This threat had an immediate effect, though not quite of the kind that Mrs. Cross hoped. The key turned with a snap, the door was flung open, and there stood Martha, in a Corybantic attitude, brandishing a dinner-plate in one hand, a poker in the other; her hair was dishevelled, her face red, and fury blazed in her eyes.
"You won't go away?" she screamed "There, then--there goes one of your plates!"
She dashed it to the floor.
"You won't go away?--There goes one of you dishes!--and there goes a basin!--And there goes a tea-cup!"
One after another, the things she named perished upon the floor. Mrs. Cross stood paralysed, horror-stricken.
"You think you'll make me pay for them?" cried Martha frantically. "Not me--not me! It's you as owes me money--money for all the work I've done as wasn't in my wages, and for the food as I haven't had, when I'd ought to. What do you call that?" She pointed to a plate of something on the kitchen table. "Is that a dinner for a human being, or is it a dinner for a beetle? D'you think I'd eat it, and me with money in my pocket to buy better? You want to make a walkin' skeleton of me, do you?--but I'll have it out of you, I will--There goes another dish! And here goes a sugar-basin! And here goes your teapot!"
With a shriek of dismay, Mrs. Cross sprang forward. She was too late to save the cherished object, and her aggressive movement excited Martha to yet more alarming behaviour.
"You'd hit me, would you? Two can play at that game--you old skinflint, you! Come another step nearer, and I'll bring this poker on your head! You thought you'd get somebody you could do as you liked with, didn't you? You thought because I was willing, and tried to do my best, as I could be put upon to any extent, did you? It's about time you learnt your mistake, you old cheese-parer! You and me has an account to settle. Let me get at you--let me get at you--"
She brandished the poker so menacingly that Mrs. Cross turned and fled. Martha pursued, yelling abuse and threats. The mistress vainly tried to shut the sitting-room door against her; in broke the furious maid, and for a moment so handled her weapon that Mrs. Cross with difficulty escaped a dangerous blow. Round and round the table they went, until, the cloth having been dragged off, Martha's feet caught in it, and she fell heavily to the floor. To escape from the room, the terrified lady must have stepped over her. For a moment there was silence. Then Martha made an attempt to rise, fell again, again struggled to her knees, and finally collapsed, lying quite still and mute.
Trembling, panting, Mrs. Cross moved cautiously nearer, until she could see the girl's face. Martha was asleep, unmistakably asleep; she had even begun to snore. Avoiding her contact with as much disgust as fear, Mrs. Cross got out of the room, and opened the front door of the house. This way and that she looked along the streets, searching for a policeman, but none was in sight. At this moment, approached a familiar figure, Mr. Jollyman's errand boy, basket on arm; he had parcels to deliver here.
"Are you going back to the shop at once?" asked Mrs. Cross, after hurriedly setting down her groceries in the passage.
"Straight back, mum."
"Then run as quickly as ever you can, and tell Mr. Jollyman that I wish to see him immediately--immediately. Run! Don't lose a moment!"
Afraid to shut herself in with the sleeping fury, Mrs. Cross remained standing near the front door, which every now and then she opened to look for a policeman. The day was cold; she shivered, she felt weak, wretched, ready to sob in her squalid distress. Some twenty minutes passed, then, just as she opened the door to look about again, a rapid step sounded on the pavement, and there appeared her grocer.
"Oh, Mr. Jollyman!" she exclaimed. "What I have just gone through! That girl has gone raving mad--she has broken almost everything in the house, and tried to kill me with the poker. Oh, I am so glad you've come! Of course there's never a policeman when they're wanted. Do please come in."
Warburton did not at once understand who was meant by "that girl," but when Mrs. Cross threw open the sitting-room door, and exhibited her domestic prostrate in disgraceful slumber, the facts of the situation broke upon him. This was the girl so strongly recommended by Mrs. Hopper.
"But I thought she had been doing very well--"
"So she had, so she had, Mr. Jollyman--except for a few little things--though there was always something rather strange about her. It's only today that she broke out. She is mad, I assure you, raving mad!"
Another explanation suggested itself to Warburton.
"Don't you notice a suspicious odour?" he asked significantly.
"You think it's that!" said Mrs. Cross, in a horrified whisper. "Oh, I daresay you're right. I'm too agitated to notice anything. Oh, Mr. Jollyman! Do, do help me to get the creature out of the house. How shameful that people gave her a good character. But everybody deceives me--everybody treats me cruelly, heartlessly. Don't leave me alone with that creature, Mr. Jollyman. Oh, if you knew what I have been through with servants! But never anything so bad as this--never! Oh, I feel quite ill--I must sit down--"
Fearful that his situation might become more embarrassing than it was, Warburton supported Mrs. Cross into the dining-room, and by dint of loudly cheerful talk in part composed her. She consented to sit with the door locked, whilst her rescuer hurried in search of a policeman. Before long, a constable's tread sounded in the hall; Mrs. Cross told her story, exhibited the ruins of her crockery on the kitchen floor, and demanded instant expulsion of the dangerous rebel. Between them, Warburton and the man in authority shook Martha into consciousness, made her pack her box, put her into a cab, and sent her off to the house where she had lived when out of service; she all the time weeping copiously, and protesting that there was no one in the world so dear to her as her outraged mistress. About an hour was thus consumed. When at length the policeman had withdrawn, and sudden quiet reigned in the house, Mrs. Cross seemed again on the point of fainting.
"How can I ever thank you, Mr. Jollyman!" she exclaimed, half hysterically, as she let herself sink into the armchair. "Without you, what would have become of me! Oh, I feel so weak, if I had strength to get myself a cup of tea--"
"Let me get it for you," cried Warburton. "Nothing easier. I noticed the kettle by the kitchen fire."
"Oh, I cannot allow, you, Mr. Jollyman--you are too kind--I feel so ashamed--"
But Will was already in the kitchen, where he bestirred himself so effectually that in a few minutes the kettle had begun to sing. Just as he went back to the parlour, to ask where tea could be found, the front door opened, and in walked Bertha.
"Your daughter is here, Mrs. Cross," said Will, in an undertone, stepping toward the limp and pallid lady.
"Bertha," she cried. "Bertha, are you there? Oh, come and thank Mr. Jollyman! If you knew what has happened whilst you were away!"
At the room door appeared the girl's astonished face. Warburton's eyes fell upon her.
"It's a wonder you find me alive, dear," pursued the mother. "If one of those blows had fallen on my head--!"
"Let me explain," interposed Warburton quietly. And in a few words he related the events of the afternoon.
"And Mr. Jollyman was just getting me a clip of tea, Bertha," added Mrs. Cross. "I do feel ashamed that he should have had such trouble."
"Mr. Jollyman has been very kind indeed," said Bertha, with look and tone of grave sincerity. "I'm sure we cannot thank him enough."
Warburton smiled as he met her glance.
"I feel rather guilty in the matter," he said, "for it was I who suggested the servant. If you will let me, I will do my best to atone by trying to find another and a better."
"Run and make the tea, my dear," said Mrs. Cross. "Perhaps Mr. Jollyman will have a cup with us--"
This invitation was declined. Warburton sought for his hat, and took leave of the ladies, Mrs. Cross overwhelming him with gratitude, and Bertha murmuring a few embarrassed words. As soon as he was gone, mother and daughter took hands affectionately, then embraced with more tenderness than for a long, long time.
"I shall never dare to live alone with a servant," sobbed Mrs. Cross. "If you leave me, I must go into lodgings, dear."
"Hush, hush, mother," replied the girl, in her gentlest voice. "Of course I shall not leave you.
"Oh, the dreadful things I have been through! It was drink, Bertha; that creature was a drunkard of the most dangerous kind. She did her best to murder me. I wonder I am not at this moment lying dead.-- Oh, but the kindness of Mr. Jollyman! What a good thing I sent for him! And he speaks of finding us another servant; but, Bertha, I shall never try to manage a servant again--never. I shall always be afraid of them; I shall dread to give the simplest order. You, my dear, must be the mistress of the house; indeed you must. I give over everything into your hands. I will never interfere; I won't say a word, whatever fault I may have to find; not a word. Oh, that creature; that horrible woman will haunt my dreams. Bertha, you don't think she'll hang about the house, and lie in wait for me, to be revenged? We must tell the policeman to look out for her. I'm sure I shall never venture to go out alone, and if you leave me in the house with a new servant, even for an hour, I must be in a room with the door locked. My nerves will never recover from this shock. Oh, if you knew how ill I feel! I'll have a cup of tea, and then go straight to bed."
Whilst she was refreshing herself, she spoke again of Mr. Jollyman.
"Do you think I ought to have pressed him to stay, dear? I didn't feel sure."
"No, no, you were quite right not to do so," replied Bertha. "He of course understood that it was better for us to be alone."
"I thought he would. Really, for a grocer, he is so very gentlemanly."
"That's not surprising, mother."
"No, no; I'm always forgetting that he isn't a grocer by birth. I think, Bertha, it will only be right to ask him to come to tea some day before long."
Bertha reflected, a half-smile about her lips.
"Certainly," she said, "if you would like to."
"I really should. He was so very kind to me. And perhaps--what do you think?--ought we to invite him in his proper name?"
"No, I think not," answered Bertha, after a moment's reflection. "We are not supposed to know anything about that."
"To be sure not.--Oh, that dreadful creature. I see her eyes, glaring at me, like a tiger's. Fifty times at least did she chase me round this table. I thought I should have dropped with exhaustion; and if I had, one blow of that poker would have finished me. Never speak to me of servants, Bertha. Engage any one you like, but do, do be careful to make inquiries about her. I shall never wish even to know her name; I shall never look at her face; I shall never speak a word to her. I leave all the responsibility to you, dear. And now, help me upstairs. I'm sure 'I could never get up alone. I tremble in every limb--"