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A Rolling Stone Vol. II

Chapter IV

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Chapter IV.

‘There must be those who bear that heat
And burden: on with weary feet
They toil along the noontide way;
Nor rest when comes the fall of day.

‘Through dewy morn, through tender eves
Love's labour keeps them binding sheaves
Which no man cares for. One on high
Will count their earnings by and by.’

On the next day Stephen was bereft of his visitors. Once again he had to content himself with the companionship of Wrackstraw. There was no one else to talk with, and Wrackstraw when he did not talk of turnips talked of shorthorns. There was nothing to read except the newspaper, which generally had nothing in it, and there was nothing which he cared to do. Yet here he remained immured for two months, a fact which shows how rich he must have been in patient endurance.

Maud came back to her home duties with renewed interest. Do not think she had nothing to do. Though she had no skill in those domestic arts to which Mrs. Langridge was devoted, she was not that pitiable creature, a woman without an occupation. Work may be found anywhere, page 66 and it was her happy gift to be glad of whatever her hand found to do. Then she lived very much in the fresh air and sunshine. She knew all the windings of the creek; she followed it in her boat from one bend to another, till boulders and snags, waterfalls and rapids, stopped the way, and made navigation dangerous for any bark less light than a nutshell. High up the stream, where the kingfishers kept watch on the withered branches of tall dead trees, and the wood-pigeons, hidden in their leafy halls, dreamed away the sultry noontide, she had her sheltered little harbours, where, with her boat moored in the shade of overhanging boughs, she could read or think in a delicious quietness. And on the banks she had her bowers, draped with starry clematis in springtime, canopied with crimson flowers in midsummer. She could row beneath branches drooping with their weight of flowers, and pluck what she chose without stepping from the boat. Sometimes she slowly drifted down the stream, singing softly to herself. There were only birds to hear her, and often a clear sweet gush of song seemed to answer her from the bush. The birds were not afraid of her; perhaps they did not mind her looking curiously into their nests, and robbing them of a pink or white egg—when there was a nestful—or possessing herself of some little deserted house whence the young brood had departed.

What long rambles she had with Harry for her page 67 companion, and how profoundly learned they became in all kinds of lore of birds and insects, flowers and trees. They fished in the creek together, though Maud never caught anything, and Harry nothing better than eels or very small fry. They drove together for miles, and they rode together, when Harry could be trusted on horseback. Oh, better this a thousand times than a languid indoors existence, shut in by four walls, and looking at the blue sky and the world of sunshine through panes of glass. No wonder that this young lady's eyes were so bright and that she had such a rich colour on her cheek. The book of Nature was her chiefest study; that book whose thousand pages are blank to careless or unloving eyes, but to those who look aright are written closely within and without. After this, perhaps, you expect to hear that she dabbled in science. Well, she read books of science sometimes, for her reading had a wide range. But she was sadly unscientific in her classification; she did not know the names of many of her treasures, and, like any ordinary woman, she collected only what was curious or pleasing to the eye. Her science was of the mild and inferior kind, disdainfully termed ‘popular.’ But very possibly a great naturalist was lost to the world when this gentle inquirer was made a woman.

But now other things were in her thoughts. Her last conversation with Violet often recurred to her. That little glimpse which it had given her of an ill-managed and unhappy home troubled her and would page 68 not be forgotten. It was none of her business, perhaps, but she was one of a class (would it were larger!) who are never satisfied with their own well-being, but would, if they could, put right all that is wrong, and comfort all who mourn. They may blunder over it sometimes, and Quixote-like, go tilting with wind-mills, but theirs is a good doctrine.

She thought she would like to see for herself how it was with Violet's family, and one day went to the house. It was not less dingy nor ugly than she had expected; but she could not understand why, on such a fine warm day, clothing could not have been put outside to air instead of being hung out of every window. Why were the blinds all askew, why was everything askew that ought to have been straight, and why were all the doors clapping? Also, she might have asked, why such screaming from a child of about three, laid on its back in the middle of the gravel path, and black in the face with passion. She was frightened at its distorted features, and tried to lift it from the ground. A feeble voice was heard to say, ‘Alice, are you going to let that boy scream himself into convulsions?’ ‘What can I do?’ answered some one in high-pitched tones. ‘Better let him have his cry out. I would whip him if I'd time.’

A door opened and slammed. Footsteps were heard in the passage—the footsteps of some one in slippers which were big and down-trodden at the heel. They flapped, along the oil-cloth till they nearly came to the front door. Maud half saw an page 69 untidy woman, too slatternly, she supposed, to be any one but the servant. The woman peeped at her through the crack of the door, and then took flight as quickly as her slippers would allow her.

Some one stirred in the little room at the end of the verandah. Mr. Everard appeared, with a flushed face, looking deeply ashamed and nervous for some cause. He knew Miss Desmond, having met her once or twice before, and he made her welcome in his quiet gentlemanly manner. ‘Get up, and leave off crying directly,’ he said to the little boy. ‘Go to your mother.’ The child obeyed, staring vacantly at the visitor, before it toddled away to the back of the house.

Mr. Everard said quietly that they were very uncomfortable at present. Mrs. Palmer was so busy she could not attend to the children as usual; the fact was, they had lost their servant; it was so very difficult to get a good servant to stay with them. Maud felt enlightened and astonished. Was it then the mistress of the house who had peeped at her from behind the door, and wisely hidden herself in flight?

They went into the room—ah, what a room! The visitor could not help thinking that bare boards scrubbed clean would have looked ever so much better than the gaudy carpet. Why, oh why was magenta the prevailing colour in this carpet, and why was the furniture covered with a shade of crimson that most effectually killed the vulgar hues of the carpet while vicing with them in brightness? page 70 It was a room full of eyesores. One who had to live in it might not unreasonably pray for colour-blindness. Tawdry brackets in every corner, common pictures on the wall, cheap finery on the mantelpiece, chair-covers gaudy even now when faded and worn out. How frowsy, and dusty, and neglected everything looked! No wonder it had vexed and annoyed poor Violet. Better far a clean kitchen, with its wooden chairs and table, and its homely adornments of brightened stove and polished tin-ware, than this caricature of a drawing-room.

She would never have noticed one half of this had it not been for Violet's words. It made her uncomfortable to have it before her eyes. In such a room perhaps the best thing was to sit still in one place, and look straight at the blank spaces on the wall. Mr. Everard, in his gentle mournful way, was trying to talk of things very far away from her thoughts. He had such a melancholy expression, poor man, as if he had been wearied to death with trifles and the petty troubles that make three-quarters of this world's woe. He always spoke in a low voice, and looked at one so winningly with his mournful cavernous eyes, and was so simple and unconscious in his manner, no one could help pitying him and liking him.

Maud was sorry he should be embarrassed on her account. She resolutely turned her head away from the ragged lace curtain, which, with the exasperating pertinacity of inanimate things, would obtrude itself page 71 on her notice, and roused herself to talk pleasantly and kindly of the flowers outside, which were his care (or they would not have existed long); of the caged birds singing on the verandah, which were his also. She did not know how she was charming him. The faded eyes brightened, the wearied brow relaxed—he looked ever so much younger when he smiled. They had tastes in common; they both loved birds and flowers. How seldom had he found such a lively intelligent listener! how rare it was for him to listen to anything but a querulous woman's complainings! The quiet self-possessed manners of this lady soon put him at ease; he talked freely with her, as if she had been an old friend. He was led into speaking of his studies. There also they were agreed; she was well-informed, without being pedantic, and her favourite science happened to be the one to which just then he was devoted. He proved how much he was pleased by asking her to go into his study, a little box rather than a room, lined about with books. She followed him there. Why, there was another atmosphere here! a blaze of sunlight through the open window, and a sweet savour of fresh air which had blown over beds of scented flowers. He did not tell her, but, looking at the man himself, and judging from his scrupulous neatness, she guessed that no one but himself entered this room, and that he took care it should always be as delicately clean and orderly as it was then. His microscope was on the table, and page 72 he showed her some objects, talking the while with animation of what he hoped to discover, for he believed himself to be on the brink of a discovery. She was soon out of her depth in following his arguments, but he was too interested in what he was bent on proving to perceive this. He pulled down books from the shelves, and referred to written notes now and then. They were all ready to his hand—no book nor paper was out of its place.

Mrs. Palmer's foot was heard in the passage, and they went back to the sitting-room. The lady of the house had dressed herself with more than ordinary care, and Mr. Everard was pleased and reassured to see his wife looking so well. She was not old yet; but she had succeeded, after years of worry, in making a very near approach to old age in appearance. She was Violet herself, twenty years further advanced in time, and with all the bloom gone from her complexion and the brightness from her eyes. The mother and daughter were duplicates almost; only much that was undisguised and glaring in Mrs. Palmer's manner had been covered in Violet's with the veneering of boarding-school accomplishments.

Mrs. Palmer was flattered and delighted to have a visitor. The ladies of the neighbourhood, after some spasmodic complimentary calls, had united in ignoring her. To have Miss Desmond in her house compensated for the neglect of others; and to think that most probably some of those others had seen her come, was a thought of joy and consolation. page 73 She admired her beauty and her dress, which was elegant in its simplicity, and probably costly, like most things of that kind which look beautifully simple. ‘Ah, if I could only look like that!’ she thought, ‘if I could always say and do the proper thing, and if I could dress myself as beautifully, perhaps Everard would let me go into society.’ She thought of herself as she had been half an hour before, bedraggled, untidy, unloveable, and her lip quivered with an irrepressible sign. But her mind could not reach far enough above the level of present things to show her what she might have been.

It was fortunate, or unfortunate (which, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer hardly knew) that sudden rain, heavy and continuous, obliged them to keep this engaging stranger under their roof. Mr. Palmer was pleased that she should stay, and yet he was ashamed that she should see still more of the peculiar domestic economics of the house. Mrs. Palmer was glad enough of her presence, but she felt it as a trial that for the next four and twenty hours she would have to endure the strain of keeping herself presentable. This also when there was no Abigail to bear the burden of the day. But her guest was so easy and unaffected in her ways that she surely could not be hard to please. And she did not seem to notice anything. There were women—Mrs. Palmer knew and feared them—whose piercing eyes could detect tears in the curtains or stains on the carpet at distances far removed, who could tell by instinct page 74 what was happening in the kitchen while they sat in the room, and whose taste was so refined that they had merely to nibble at her bread or cake to know how it had been made. Joyful to think of!—here was not such a one. This woman could not be suspected of darting invidious glances around her, her mild eyes were not spying out instances of ill-thrift, and most likely she would never know whether the cake had been raised with soda or with eggs, or that the dark colour of the preserves was caused by their burning in the pan. It was a comfortable task to entertain such a woman; with her any timorous and incapable housekeeper was safe.

How often has it been said, without explaining the fact, that some natures irresistibly attract confidence? How is it that so often confidence is not bartered, but freely given to those who are very loath to part with their own secrets? There are people who seem appointed to listen and to comfort—people who trouble no one with their cares, and yet are ever chosen to bear the weight of secrets not their own, and to give counsel on matters which do not concern them. They wonder why others will tell them so much, since they know it would be painful, humbling, impossible for them to make such confessions. As if there were anything to wonder at! Why are those beloved who rejoice with us in our joy, who mourn when we mourn, who forget their own affairs to be interested in ours, and who can counsel without judging us? These are the page 75 people to whom we can tell everything, and to whom we can tell it uninvited. As for those who are anxious to possess themselves of your feelings in detail, or to force their consolations upon you, flee such affectionates. Job's comforters, let it be remembered, were not sent for, but came.

Before she left that house Maud knew all that its distressed, complaining mistress could tell her of the troubles and harassing trifles that had soured and aged her. She had no pride, poor woman; she never stopped to consider whether she were not making a very unnecessary exposure of family jars. All she knew was that it was very soothing to speak of what had long been festering in her heart to a kind woman who could feel deeply for her. So pleasant to sit close to her, and look into her eyes, and tell it all; for all must come out when she had once begun. Mr. Everard would have writhed in agony had he known of these revelations, but of course he did not know. The greatest of mercies is our ignorance.

‘I don't know why I've told you all this,’ she said, ‘unless it's because I've never any one to talk to who cares about my troubles. It's a bother to you, perhaps.’

‘Oh, no,’ the listener hastened to reply; ‘but is it right that you should—I mean’ (hesitating over her words) ‘ought I to know this?’

‘Oh, I'm not afraid of you knowing everything about us!’ burst out the distressed Mrs. Palmer. page 76 ‘I wouldn't breathe a word to any one else; but you are so—so different. It does me good to speak out. You can't think how lonely I am. No one comes near me; I've nothing to think of but work, and it's always behindhand, and I'm always in a muddle. One never knows when one is well off. When I was a girl I wanted to be married and have a house of my own: now I'd give anything to be a girl again. Don't you be in a hurry to get married; you'll never be so happy again as you are now.’

‘Oh, don't say that,’ said Maud, ‘you do not always think so’.

‘Yes, I do’, sobbed Mrs. Palmer. ‘I'm miserable, and Everard doesn't care. I'm not what I once was to him; he never thinks of me now; he wouldn't miss me much if—if I were gone.’

‘Oh, Mrs. Palmer!’ exclaimed her visitor, blushing as deeply as the other woman ought to have blushed for herself. How could any one speak of such a thing even if it were true! how could she listen without feeling as much ashamed as if she herself were in the other's place, blurting out all this to one whom she had hardly known the day before! As it was, when Mrs. Palmer cried—Mrs. Palmer was ready to cry at very little provocation—she could not help the tears coming into her own eyes, she was so heartily sorry for her.

‘It all comes of not being clever or educated,’ Mrs. Palmer went on with her plaint. ‘I'm no companion for Everard. I can't understand him when page 77 he talks about his fancies, and I never could read the books he likes. I ought never to have married above myself. Oh! if I'd married a plain working man, like my own father, we could have got along with each other, and he'd have had no need to be ashamed of his wife, as Everard is ashamed of me, and my own daughter wouldn't have thought herself above me as Violet does. I shall never care to visit her after she is married, because I shall know all the while that she'll be afraid of her grand friends finding out that her mother isn't a lady. Don't stop me—don't say I'm mistaken: all this is true, and I can't mend it. Only if I could keep the house nicer, and if the children weren't always so untidy, perhaps Everard would be pleased with me again. But I can't. I can't work harder. Look at me: I'm younger than your sister Mrs. Meade; but would any one think it who saw us together? And once—oh, you needn't think I'm vain, or it's that I care for!—but once I was so pretty, as pretty as Violet is now.’

‘Mrs. Palmer,’ said Maud, glad to have a chance of interrupting her, ‘I think I can help you.’

‘No one can. It's no use bothering. I let things go now.’

‘Yes; I think I can. Perhaps it is something like presumption on my part to offer advice about housekeeping. You know I am ignorant of everything; but I think you are trying to do more than is possible. You could not—at least I do not page 78 think one woman could do everything in this house.’

‘She couldn't, and then feel fresh and bright in the evenings,’ said Mrs. Palmer. ‘Everard wonders why I'm cross, and I know I do let my temper get the better of me sometimes. He never considers how fagged I am with it all; and that's why I'm never fit to be seen, and no one cares to visit me.’

‘But if you had a nice, industrious woman, who was fond of children, and would take care of them, as well as help you in other things,—cookery, for instance, which a common servant seldom does well, you would have time for rest.’

‘Ah, that would mean money,’ said Mrs. Palmer mournfully. ‘You have to pay for such comforts. We couldn't afford to keep more than one servant.’

‘I think,’ said Maud, looking shyly at her, and colouring faintly, ‘that the person I was thinking of wouldn't want money. I know of some one who would do it, and whom you need not pay.’

‘Do you mean to say,’ asked Mrs. Palmer incredulously, ‘that any woman who'd be worth having would wait on my cross dirty children just for love of them? I can't believe that.’

‘I know of one who would come if I asked her,’ said Maud, ‘and who would do her work as if it were a pleasure to her. She will only ask you to give her a home; there will be no word of money. She knows how to do everything, and I don't think any child could be cross with her.’

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‘Well, I wish she'd drop down into this room,’ said Mrs. Palmer, smoothing her light hair and drying her eyes, ‘for if she's ready to do it, and make a pleasure of it, she's an angel.’

‘She is not quite that,’ said Maud, smiling, ‘she only pretends to be a good amiable girl. I assure you I know of such a person, and if you will allow me I will tell her to come.’

‘I think I could go and bring her,’ said Mrs. Palmer, ‘if she is all that you say. I'd better ask Everard; but he is sure to say I can do as I like; he doesn't care to have anything to do with such affairs.’

‘Then she shall come next week if it is possible,’ said Maud. ‘Please don't ask me yet who she is, for I am not certain whether she is still at home. Her mother keeps a boarding-house. We stayed there for a short time while our house was building, and that was how I found her out. I know she wants to leave home: life in a boarding-house is an unsettled scrambling sort of existence. She would be delighted to live in the country, and she would think helping in the work of your family quite easy compared to the perpetual waiting and serving she has been accustomed to. You must humour me in this. They tell me at home I was a spoilt child, and that is why I am fond of my own way.’

‘I think it's a way that's good for other people,’ answered Mrs. Palmer. There was no more said, for the moment of departure had arrived.

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Instead of going home that same morning, Maud went into the town and called to see Mrs. Sherlock. She had some conversation with that woman of experience, and Rosa also was admitted to their counsels. Mrs. Sherlock declared that Rosa could do as she liked; and Rosa replied that if her mother were satisfied she was ready to go wherever Miss Desmond pleased. Then there was mention made of salary—discreetly by Mrs. Sherlock, who brought up again the well-worn saying that ‘time is money.’ Miss Desmond's remarks on this subject were of an agreeable nature. There was to be a salary; she would make that her care; and she named a sum which Rosa thought large, and which Mrs. Sherlock admitted to be ‘fair.’ But one condition was attached: those whom Rosa was to serve must never know of this salary. They might imagine, if they chose, that like those needy and over-anxious women who protest in their advertisements that wages are ‘no object,’ she was content to earn the right to her daily bread and a comfortable home.

‘I ought to tell you,’ said Miss Desmond, ‘that you may not find this a very easy or pleasant place. I do not think you will have so much work as you have been used to at home; but you may have many little annoyances that you have not here. I am certain of one thing, however, that you will make the place an easy one before you have done with it, and I know of no one else who could undertake it, or whom I could trust so thoroughly.’

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Mrs. Sherlock said that a secret was as safe with Rosa as if it were sunk in the sea, and Rosa felt proud that such trust was reposed in her. Mrs. Sherlock settled everything, and detained Maud at the door that she might speak more highly of her daughter than she had liked to do in her presence.

‘I suppose it will be something like a nursery governes's place?’ she said. ‘Rosa's well qualified to teach young children. I make bold to say she would show up better in an examination than one half of the teachers here. I took pains to give her a downright good plain education.’

‘I don't know whether she will have to teach, Mrs. Sherlock,’ said her visitor, with a smile, ‘unless it is to teach housekeeping. She will have to be a little of everything, perhaps. I want her to take her orderly ways into a family which has great need of them. But she will find out for herself what she has to do.’

‘Well, you may depend on, Rosa,’ said Mrs. Sherlock.

Rosa entered on her engagement during the first days of the next week. Mrs. Palmer was dismayed to see a nice-looking girl, instead of the middle-aged and sour-faced woman whom the idea of a person experienced in domestic duties had always brought before her mind's eye. She doubted whether any one so good-looking and well-dressed could know much about household work. So far as her own experience went, a hardworking woman must needs page 82 be untidy; only those who did nothing were able to attend to their appearance. She had another servant now who was quite slovenly enough to bear out this theory. Rosa was taken round the house, and shown hidden and interior arrangements of every kind. She saw enough to amaze her, and to make it very plain why Miss Desmond had been so anxious to introduce a reformer into this household.

She was a brave girl, so her heart did not fail her. Everything was against her: the fixed habits of the helpless mistress, the spoilt children, the stupidity of the servant; but she began her campaign against disorder and mismanagement with that determination to win success which so often commands it. And after many days a brightness and refreshing cleanliness was in that house which it had not known before.

It was noticed by the nearest neighbours that the children cried less frequently; it was noticed also that torn curtains no longer flapped out of the windows, nor were articles of clothing hung upon the sills to dry. Mrs. Palmer was seldom seen, as of yore, traversing the backyard with head uncovered, and hair in that state which, however gracefully careless it may look in a portrait, in real life is far from seemly. Example in these things is contagious. When Rosa came down every morning with her brown hair as smooth as satin, and in a neat print dress innocent of spot or blemish, even Mrs. Palmer shrank from exposing herself to un- page 83 favourable comparisons by going to the breakfast-table with frizzly hair and in a costume by no means spotless. The example reached farther; it roused the sluggish spirit of Hannah in the kitchen, and that hard-worked damsel went the length of washing her morning gowns and brushing her hair at least twice as often. Then the meals and especially the dinners, began to be so much better. Rosa had sense enough to perceive that a reform in cookery might well herald an improvement in the tempers of those who had suffered so long from food dyspeptic in its qualities. Cookery had always been an incomprehensible science to Mrs. Palmer. How often had she stood before her oven wondering how a batch of bread or some curiously-compounded cake would turn out, and how often had it turned out far from well! Things would not do for her as they did for other women. No amount of baking powder was efficacious in some cases of her sad experience, yeast would not rise, butter refused to come, or milk to curdle, except when it ought not—the chemistry of the kitchen was full of disagreeable surprises. How gladly she handed it all over to Rosa, a girl who was a very witch in her knowledge of this dark science. Mr. Everard could not imagine (though he was profoundly thankful) why the supply of sour and half-baked bread suddenly ceased, nor why, without having more dishes or different ones, the dinners seemed so much nicer. He was not so often disturbed by banging doors or crying children, page 84 he never heard Mrs. Palmer scolding in a loud shrill voice: she had been shamed out of that. Why should she scold? things had ceased to be provoking and unbearable. Her irritable disposition was soothed by an ease and comfort she had not felt during all the other years of her married life. She could rest now when she was tired; she began to feel not so very old, and the wrinkles smoothed out of her forehead and the colour came back to her face. But what made her happiest was the approval of her husband, who, slow to notice any change in a house in which for the last ten years he had found it best to be blind and deaf to one half of what was happening, at last awakened to a sense of this new departure. He praised her warmly, and told her how all the while he had feared she was overworking herself, he even took blame to himself for permitting it. All this was very sweet to her. She thought as she listened, flattered and happy in his assurances that she was looking young and pretty again, that this praise compensated her for every trial and toil.

I suppose no one gave particular attention or praise to the good girl whose cunning right hand had wrought all these changes. Those who do such work as hers seldom have their meed of praise. She must have been wearied at times, but she made no complaint. To the children she was a wonder. Never before had any one thought it worth the while to teach them games or tell them stories. Could any one number her games, and had any one else a page 85 head so full of fairy lore? She had a ready wit too; when stories grew old, she could weave together new ones, or alter them to suit the taste of her critical audience. In the quiet of the afternoon, when housework was done, they would gather round her to listen to her romances. And all the while her bright needle flew fast—ah, what a swift little needle that was! No child wandered now all forlorn in garments wanting string or button; no gaping rents were suffered to last the week out unmended and extending. She had a charm for bad temper; she had a charm that brought sleep to restless fretful little ones, though it was only her soft voice singing or going over again unweariedly the oft-told tale. Hers were the little cares, the humble labours, little noticed, often despised, and yet surely all written down somewhere to the account of the patient servant.