Court Royal/Chapter XV

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XV. Wanted, a Housemaid


CHAPTER XV.
WANTED, A HOUSEMAID.

A few days after the events related in the foregoing chapters, Lazarus plunged into the kitchen with the newspaper in his hand, in hot excitement.

‘Joanna!’ he exclaimed, ‘my dear Joanna, put down the saucepan at once, and follow me into my room. I have something very particular to say. Providence is playing into our hands. Look at the paper, read that!’

He thrust it towards her.

‘My hands are wet,’ she said; ‘I cannot take the paper without reducing it to pulp. Read what you want me to know; I can listen and scour the saucepan.’

‘You cannot. I want your close attention. Put down the pan. Here, come into my room, away from the distractions of a kitchen. Take a seat. I have much to explain to you. Now, at last, you may render me valuable service.’

‘I have rendered you that for many years. I have recently saved your house from fire and your throat——’

‘Do leave my throat alone; you are continually making allusions to it which are painful.’

Joanna followed him into his room, and wiped her hands on her apron. He held the sheet to her, and indicated the lines she was to read. The paper was a Plymouth daily newspaper of local circulation, widely distributed in the West of England. The Jew had indicated the advertisement columns.

‘Well,’ said Joanna, ‘this does not concern me. “Wanted, a housemaid, immediately, in a gentleman’s family; steady, experienced, not under twenty, a churchwoman; must have good recommendations. Wages, 16l. Apply, Mr. C. Worthivale, Court Royal Lodge, Kingsbridge.”’

‘It does concern you.’

‘Only so far as to show me how little I get working for you. I am not going into service elsewhere—no such luck.’

‘But I do want you to go into service with the advertiser.’

‘What! Leave you?’

‘Yes, for three months; then to return.’

‘Why so?’

‘I will give you my reasons presently.’

Joanna looked again at the advertisement with a puzzled face.

‘I am a maid-of-all-work. I am not an experienced housemaid, fit to go into a gentleman’s family.’

‘That does not matter. There is no mistress—no lady in the house to see if you do your work well or badly. Gentlemen do not care how they pig.’

‘Steady,’ said Joanna, thoughtfully; ‘I am steady as the Eddystone, but I am not more than seventeen, and the advertiser requires a servant to be over twenty.’

‘That does not matter. Gentlemen are no judges of the ages of ladies. Besides, you look old for your years.’

‘A churchwoman,’ mused Joanna; ‘I am nothing; I have not been to any place of worship except the board-school, and there we worshipped the inspector. How can I say I am a churchwoman when I’ve been neither to church nor chapel?’

‘That does not matter,’ answered the Jew. ‘It is all a matter of sitting and standing. When church does one thing chapel does contrary. Go to church for a Sunday or two, and you’ll get enough scrape of ideas to pass muster.’

‘Then, how about references? I do not suppose a character from you will count heavy.’

‘I do not suppose it will,’ answered the Jew. ‘I’ll get Mrs. Delany to give you one, the wife of Colonel Delany—a tip-top respectable party that.’

‘She has never seen me.’

‘That don’t matter. I have lent her money.’

Presently Lazarus said, ‘Go to the table, Joanna, and we will rough out a character for Mrs. Delany to put in form and write in her best hand.’

Joanna took a pen, dipped it in the ink, and drew a sheet of old dirty letter-paper before her. ‘Go ahead,’ she said, somewhat sulkily.

‘“Mrs. Delany presents her compliments to Mr. C. Worthivale, and begs to recommend a strong, healthy young woman, who has been in her service three years, with whom she would not have parted on any consideration had not the girl been called to nurse a dying mother.”’

‘No,’ said Joanna, putting down her pen, ‘I will not write that.’

‘It is as true as the rest.’

‘That is not what I scruple about. I will not have my mother mentioned. She may be back any day with my ticket and ten shillings.’

‘Very well,’ said the Jew, ‘then we will make it “white swelling.” No—that won’t do. Say, “domestic affliction.”’

‘Domestic affliction,’ repeated Joanna after her dictator.

‘“When released,”’ continued Lazarus, ‘“Mrs. Delany had supplied her place, and could not in conscience dismiss her new housemaid.”’

‘Go on,’ said the girl. ‘I have written as far as “housemaid.”’

‘Full stop after “maid,”’ said the Jew. ‘Begin again with a capital. “Mrs. Delany has always found the girl Joanna steady, conscientious, and hard-working; very clean, both in her person and her work; and, though young-looking for her age, is turned twenty.”’

‘This is the first time you’ve said a good word for me,’ muttered the girl, ‘and now it is half lies. Shall I add “eats voraciously and grows at a gallop”?’

‘On no account, my dear child. Continue writing from my dictation,’ said the Jew; ‘“Joanna is unable to read or write.”’

Joanna laid down her pen. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because it is the best recommendation that can be given. It is as much as saying that you are a good servant. Besides, Mr. C. Worthivale will be less afraid of leaving about letters and account-books if he thinks they are unintelligible to you.’

‘I have written after your dictation that I cannot write. Is that all?’

‘Yes, that will suffice. I will take the letter to Mrs. Delany, and get her to transcribe and post it—and put the penny stamp on also. You are sure of the situation.’

‘You have not told me yet why I am to take it.’

‘I will tell you now. Mr. Christopher Worthivale is steward to the Duke of Kingsbridge. I have advanced a great deal of money on the property of the duke—more money than was prudent to put in one bag. The estate is so hampered with mortgages, and the requirements of the duke are so great, that Court Royal must come to the hammer. The family is pretty well in my hands. I have the mortgage on the home estate, which is the same as a grip on their very heart. Now I want you to ascertain for me how matters really stand there. You must pry and discover. I want to know when to close the trap on the noble duke, and whether I should leave it open a little longer. All the requisite information can be had at the steward’s. You will have access to his office, and must look at his books. You are keen of wit as myself, and cunning at accounts as a banker’s clerk.’

‘I must give up my dancing lessons for this!’ exclaimed the girl, pouting, and disposed to cry.

‘The dancing lessons! I had forgotten them.’

‘I have not; nor Mr. Charles Cheek, and his suppers, and the rose silk dress, and the Roman pearls.’

‘You shall have the lessons on your return.’

‘By that time Mr. Cheek will have forgotten me.’

‘That is possible.’

‘But that does not suit me. I will not go.’

‘I have my plans, Joanna.’

‘And I have mine, Lazarus.’

He looked at her for some minutes, irresolutely. Her brow was clouded, her eyes dull; the tears were filling them, and her lips quivered. She restrained the fall of the rain with effort.

‘Joanna, I am sending you where you may observe the manners of the gentry. You are sharp enough, and can use your knowledge. You must study their habits of action and their modes of speech. Some day you may have to assume a position in which this knowledge will be of service to you. Remember, you are my heiress.’ He opened a locked drawer, and drew forth his will. ‘Look! I have kept my word. I have left everything to you. Now, in your own interest it behoves you to see after my investments at Court Royal. Look well at the place. It may be yours some day. Such is the way of the world. That which is at the top comes down, and that which is at the bottom mounts. It is so in every saucepan, in every stew, and the world is but a boiling cauldron where the currents cross one another unceasingly.’

Joanna’s face flushed, and the tears disappeared from her eyes, which waxed bright and eager. ‘I will go,’ she said; ‘I will do everything you desire; I will find out everything.’

‘Very well,’ said Lazarus, laughing. ‘Now hunt up the sort of clothes you will need to wear, and let me see how you look in the rig-out of a respectable, sober-minded, and stupid English housemaid.’

After a few minutes she returned.

She had assumed a dark, quiet gown, with a white apron. She had brushed back her hair, and put on her a pretty white cap.

‘Oh ho! on my word!’ exclaimed the Jew. ‘What sweet simplicity! Holloa, my pert Betsy Jane!’ He chucked her under the chin insolently.

Joanna flushed crimson, and, striking him in the chest, sent him staggering back, to tumble over a stool and sprawl on the ground.

‘I will do what you bid,’ she said, angrily, ‘but touch me if you dare.’

Then the shop-door rang, and Joanna heard a voice calling her. She left Lazarus on the floor, rubbing his shin, and went into the shop. There stood Charles Cheek.

‘Well now!’ exclaimed the young man, ‘this is a transformation scene in a pantomime. What is the meaning of this?’

‘Mr. Cheek,’ said Joanna, ‘I have been considering what you said to me the other day. I am going into another element, to learn the manners of the gulls. It is a voyage of discovery. I know no more of the habits and speech and thoughts of those I am going to see than if I were about to visit Esquimaux.’