Our Second Girl
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Our establishment on Beacon Street had been for some days in a revolutionary state, owing to the fact that our second girl had gone from us into the holy estate of matrimony. Alice was a pretty, tidy, neat-handed creature, and, like many other blessings of life, so good as to be little appreciated while with us. It was not till she had left us that we began to learn that clean glass, bright silver, spotless and untumbled table-linen, and, in short, all the appetizing arrangements and appointments of our daily meals, were not always and in all hands matters of course.
In a day or two, our silver began to have the appearance of old pewter, and our glass looked as if nothing but muddy water could be found. On coming down to our meals, we found the dishes in all sorts of conversational attitudes on the table,–the meat placed diagonally, the potatoes crosswise, and the other vegetables scattered here and there,–while the table itself stood rakishly aslant, and wore the air of a table slightly intoxicated.
Our beautiful china, moreover, began to have little chipped places in the edges, most unusual and distressing to our eyes; the handles vanished from our teacups, and here and there a small mouthful appeared to be bitten out of the nose of some pretty fancy pitchers, which had been the delight of my eyes.
Now, if there is anything which I specially affect, it is a refined and pretty table arrangement, and at our house for years and years such had prevailed. All of us had rather a weakness for china, and the attractions of the fragile world, as presented in the great crockery-stores, had been many times too much for our prudence and purse. Consequently we had all sorts of little domestic idols of the breakfast and dinner table,–Bohemian-glass drinking-mugs of antique shape, lovely bits of biscuit choicely moulded in classic patterns, beauties, oddities, and quaintnesses in the way of especial teacups and saucers, devoted to different members of the family, wherein each took a particular and individual delight. Our especial china or glass pets of the table often started interesting conversations on the state of the plastic arts as applied to every-day life, and the charm of being encircled, even in the material act of feeding our mortal bodies, with a sort of halo of art and beauty.
All this time none of us ever thought in how great degree our feeling for elegance and refinement owed its gratification at the hour of meals to the care, the tidiness, and neat handling of our now lost and wedded Alice.
Nothing presents so forlorn an appearance as battered and neglected finery of any kind; and elegant pitchers with their noses knocked off, cut glass with cracked edges, and fragments of artistic teacups and saucers on a tumbled tablecloth, have a peculiarly dismal appearance. In fact, we had really occasion to wonder at the perfectly weird and bewitched effect which one of our two Hibernian successors to the pretty Alice succeeded in establishing in our table department. Every caprice in the use and employment of dishes, short of serving cream in the gravy-boats and using the sugar-bowl for pickled oysters and the cream-pitcher for vinegar, seemed possible and permissible. My horror was completed one morning on finding a china hen, artistically represented as brooding on a nest, made to cover, not boiled eggs, but a lot of greasy hash, over which she sat so that her head and tail bewilderingly projected beyond the sides of the nest, instead of keeping lengthwise within it, as a respectable hen in her senses might be expected to do. There certainly is a great amount of native vigor shown by these untrained Hibernians in always finding an unexpected wrong way of doing the simplest thing. It quite enlarges one’s ideas of human possibilities.
In a paroxysm of vexation, I reviled matrimony and Murphy O’Connor, who had stolen our household treasure, and further expressed my griefs, as elder sons are apt to do, by earnest expostulations with the maternal officer on the discouraging state of things; declaring most earnestly, morning, noon, and night, that all was going to ruin, that everything was being spoiled, that nothing was even decent, and that, if things went on so much longer, I should be obliged to go out and board,–by which style of remark I nearly drove that long-suffering woman frantic.
“Do be reasonable, Tom,” said she. “Can I make girls to order? Can I do anything more than try such as apply, when they seem to give promise of success? Delicacy of hand, neatness, nicety of eye, are not things likely to be cultivated in the Irish boarding-houses from which our candidates emerge. What chance have the most of them had to learn anything except the most ordinary rough housework? A trained girl is rare as a nugget of gold amid the sands of the washings; but let us persevere in trying, and one will come at last.”
“Well, I hope, at any rate, you have sent off that Bridget,” I said, in high disdain. “I verily believe, if that girl stays a week longer, I shall have to leave the house.”
“Compose yourself,” said my mother; “Bridget’s bundle is made up, and she is going. I’m sorry for her too, poor thing; for she seemed anxious to keep the place.”
At this moment the doorbell rang. “I presume that’s the new girl whom they have sent round for me to see,” said my mother.
I opened the door, and there in fact stood a girl dressed in a neat-fitting dark calico, with a straw bonnet, simply tied with some dark ribbon, and a veil which concealed her face.
“Is Mrs. Seymour at home?”
“I was told that she wanted a girl.”
“She does; will you walk in?”
I pique myself somewhat on the power of judging character, and there was something about this applicant which inspired hope; so that, before I introduced her into the room, I felt it necessary to enlighten my mother with a little of my wisdom. I therefore whispered in her ear, with the decisive tone of an eldest son, “I think, mother, this one will do; you had better engage her at once.”
“Have you lived out much?” said my mother, commencing the usual inquiries.
“I have not, ma’am. I am but lately come to the city.”
“Are you Irish?”
“No, ma’am; I am American.”
“Have you been accustomed to the care of the table,–silver, glass, and china?”
“I think, ma’am, I understand what is necessary for that.”
All this while the speaker remained standing with her veil down; her answers seemed to be the briefest possible; and yet, notwithstanding the homely plainness of her dress, there was something about her that impressed both my mother and me with an idea of cultivation and refinement above her apparent station,–there was a composure and quiet decision in her manner of speaking which produced the same impression on us both.
“What wages do you expect?” said my mother.
“Whatever you have been accustomed to give to a girl in that place will satisfy me,” she said.
“There is only one thing I would like to ask,” she added, with a slight hesitation and embarrassment of manner; “would it be convenient for me to have a room by myself?”
I nodded to my mother to answer in the affirmative.
The three girls who composed our establishment had usually roomed in one large apartment, but there was a small closet of a room which I had taken for books, fishing-rods, guns, and any miscellaneous property of my own. I mentally turned these out, and devoted the room to the newcomer, whose appearance interested me.
And, as my mother hesitated, I remarked, with the assured tone of master of the house, that “certainly she could have a small room to herself.”
“It is all I ask,” she briefly answered. “In that case, I will come for the same wages you paid the last girl in my situation.”
“When will you come?” said my mother.
“I am ready to come immediately. I only want time to go and order my things to be sent here.”
She rose and left us, saying that we might expect her that afternoon.
“Well, sir,” said my mother, “you seem to have taken it upon you to settle this matter on your own authority.”
“My dear little mother,” said I, in a patronizing tone, “I have an instinctive certainty that she will do. I wanted to make sure of a prize for you.”
“But the single room.”
“Never mind; I’ll move all my traps out of the little third-story room. It’s my belief that this girl or woman has seen better days; and if she has, a room to herself will be a necessity of her case,–poor thing!”
“I don’t know,” said my mother hesitatingly. “I never wish to employ in my service those above their station,–they always make trouble; and there is something in this woman’s air and manner and pronunciation that makes me feel as if she had been born and bred in cultivated society.”
“Supposing she has,” said I; “it’s quite evident that she, for some reason, means to conform to this position. You seldom have a girl apply for work who comes dressed with such severe simplicity; her manner is retiring, and she seemed perfectly willing and desirous to undertake any of the things which you mentioned as among her daily tasks.”
On the afternoon of that day our new assistant came, and my mother was delighted with the way she set herself at work. The china-closet, desecrated and disordered in the preceding reigns of terror and confusion, immediately underwent a most quiet but thorough transformation. Everything was cleaned, brightened, and arranged with a system and thoroughness which showed, as my mother remarked, a good head; and all this was done so silently and quietly that it seemed like magic. By the time we came down to breakfast the next morning, we perceived that the reforms of our new prime minister had extended everywhere. The dining-room was clean, cool, thoroughly dusted, and freshly aired; the tablecloth and napkins were smooth and clean; the glass glittered like crystal, and the silver wore a cheerful brightness. Added to this were some extra touches of refinement, which I should call table coquetry. The cold meat was laid out with green fringes of parsley; and a bunch of heliotrope, lemon verbena, and mignonette, with a fresh rosebud, all culled from our little back yard, stood in a wineglass on my mother’s waiter.
“Well, Mary, you have done wonders,” said my mother, as she took her place; “your arrangements restore appetite to all of us.”
Mary received our praises with a gracious smile, yet with a composed gravity which somewhat puzzled me. She seemed perfectly obliging and amiable, yet there was a serious reticence about her that quite piqued my curiosity. I could not help recurring to the idea of a lady in disguise; though I scarcely knew to what circumstance about her I could attach the idea. So far from the least effort to play the lady, her dress was, in homely plainness, a perfect contrast to that of the girls who had preceded her. It consisted of strong dark-blue stuff, made perfectly plain to her figure, with a narrow band of white linen around her throat. Her dark brown hair was brushed smoothly away from her face, and confined simply behind in a net; there was not the slightest pretension to coquetry in its arrangement; in fact, the object seemed to be to get it snugly out of the way, rather than to make it a matter of ornament. Nevertheless, I could not help remarking that there was a good deal of it, and that it waved very prettily, notwithstanding the care that had been taken to brush the curl out of it.
She was apparently about twenty years of age. Her face was not handsome, but it was a refined and intelligent one. The skin had a sallow hue, which told of ill health or of misfortune; there were lines of trouble about the eye; but the mouth and chin had that unmistakable look of firmness which speaks a person able and resolved to do a quiet battle with adverse fate, and to go through to the end with whatever is needed to be done, without fretfulness and without complaint. She had large, cool, gray eyes, attentive and thoughtful, and she met the look of any one who addressed her with an honest firmness; she seemed to be, in fact, simply and only interested to know and to do the work she had undertaken,–but what there might be behind and beyond that I could not conjecture.
One thing about her dress most in contrast with that of the other servants was that she evidently wore no crinoline. The exuberance of this article in the toilet of our domestics had become threatening of late, apparently requiring that the kitchens and pantries should be torn down and rebuilt. As matters were, our three girls never could be in our kitchen at one time without reefings and manoeuvrings of their apparel which much impeded any other labor, and caused some loss of temper; and our china-closet was altogether too small for the officials who had to wash the china there, and they were constantly at odds with my mother for her firmness in resisting their tendency to carry our china and silver to the general melee of the kitchen sink. Moreover, our dining-room not having been constructed with an eye to modern expansions of the female toilet, it happened that, if our table was to be enlarged for guests, there arose serious questions of the waiter’s crinoline to complicate the calculations; and for all these reasons, I was inclined to look with increasing wonder on a being in female form who could so far defy the tyranny of custom as to dress in a convenient and comfortable manner, adapted to the work which she undertook to perform. A good-looking girl without crinoline had a sort of unworldly freshness of air that really constituted a charm. If it had been a piece of refined coquetry,–as certainly it was not,–it could not have been better planned.
Nothing could be more perfectly proper than the demeanor of this girl in relation to all the proprieties of her position. She seemed to give her whole mind to it with an anxious exactness; but she appeared to desire no relations with the family other than those of a mere business character. It was impossible to draw her into conversation. If a good-natured remark was addressed to her on any subject such as in kindly disposed families is often extended as an invitation to a servant to talk a little with an employer, Mary met it with the briefest and gravest response that was compatible with propriety, and with a definite and marked respectfulness of demeanor which had precisely the effect of throwing us all at a distance, like ceremonious politeness in the intercourse of good society.
“I cannot make out our Mary,” said I to my mother; “she is a perfect treasure, but who or what do you suppose she is?”
“I cannot tell you,” said my mother. “All I know is, she understands her business perfectly, and does it exactly; but she no more belongs to the class of common servants than I do.”
“Does she associate with the other girls?”
“Not at all–except at meal-times, and when about her work.”
“I should think that would provoke the pride of sweet Erin,” said I.
“One would think so,” said my mother; “but she certainly has managed her relations with them with a curious kind of tact. She always treats them with perfect consideration and politeness, talks with them during the times that they necessarily are thrown together in the most affable and cheerful manner, and never assumes any airs of supremacy with them. Her wanting a room to herself gave them at first an idea that she would hold herself aloof from them, and in fact, for the first few days, there was a subterranean fire in the kitchen ready to burst forth; but now all that is past, and in some way or other, without being in the least like any of them, she has contrived to make them her fast friends. I found her last night in the kitchen writing a letter for the cook, and the other day she was sitting in her room trimming a bonnet for Katy; and her opinion seems to be law in the kitchen. She seldom sits there, and spends most of her leisure in her own room, which is as tidy as a bee’s cell.”
“What is she doing there?”
“Reading, sewing, and writing, as far as I can see. There are a few books, and a portfolio, and a small inkstand there,–and a neat little work-basket. She is very nice with her needle, and obliging in putting her talents to the service of the other girls; but towards me she is the most perfectly silent and reserved being that one can conceive. I can’t make conversation with her; she keeps me off by a most rigid respectfulness of demeanor which seems to say that she wants nothing from me but my orders. I feel that I could no more ask her a question about her private affairs, than I could ask one of Mrs. McGregor in the next street. But then it is a comfort to have some one so entirely trustworthy as she is in charge of all the nice little articles which require attention and delicate handling. She is the only girl I ever had whom I could trust to arrange a parlor and a table without any looking after. Her eye and hand, and her ideas, are certainly those of a lady, whatever her position may have been.”
In time our Mary became quite a family institution for us, seeming to fill a thousand little places in the domestic arrangement where a hand or an eye was needed. She was deft at mending glass and china, and equally so at mending all sorts of household things. She darned the napkins and tablecloths in a way that excited my mother’s admiration, and was always so obliging and ready to offer her services that, in time, a resort to Mary’s work-basket and ever ready needle became the most natural thing in the world to all of us. She seemed to have no acquaintance in the city, never went out visiting, received no letters,–in short, seemed to live a completely isolated life, and to dwell in her own thoughts in her own solitary little room.
By that talent for systematic arrangement which she possessed, she secured for herself a good many hours to spend there. My mother, seeing her taste for reading, offered her the use of our books; and one volume after another spent its quiet week or fortnight in her room, and returned to our shelves in due time. They were mostly works of solid information,–history, travels,–and a geography and atlas which had formed part of the school outfit of one of the younger children she seemed interested to retain for some time. “It is my opinion,” said my mother, “that she is studying,–perhaps with a view to getting some better situation.”
“Pray keep her with us,” said I, “if you can. Why don’t you raise her wages? You know that she does more than any other girl ever did before in her place, and is so trustworthy that she is invaluable to us. Persons of her class are worth higher wages than common uneducated servants.”
My mother accordingly did make a handsome addition to Mary’s wages, and by the time she had been with us a year the confidence which her quiet manner had inspired was such that, if my mother wished to be gone for a day or two, the house, with all that was in it, was left trustingly in Mary’s hands, as with a sort of housekeeper. She was charged with all the last directions, as well as the keys to the jellies, cakes, and preserves, with discretionary power as to their use; and yet, for some reason, such was the ascendency she contrived to keep over her Hibernian friends in the kitchen, all this confidence evidently seemed to them quite as proper as to us.
“She ain’t quite like us,” said Biddy one day, mysteriously, as she looked after her. “She’s seen better days, or I’m mistaken; but she don’t take airs on her. She knows how to take the bad luck quiet like, and do the best she can.”
“Has she ever told you anything of herself, Biddy?” said my mother.
“Me? No. It’s a quiet tongue she keeps in her head. She is ready enough to do good turns for us, and to smooth out our ways, and hear our stories, but it’s close in her own affairs she is. Maybe she don’t like to be talkin’, when talkin’ does no good,–poor soul!”
Matters thus went on, and I amused myself now and then with speculating about Mary. I would sometimes go to her to ask some of those little charities of the needle which our sex are always needing from feminine hands; but never, in the course of any of these little transactions, could I establish the slightest degree of confidential communication. If she sewed on a shirt-button, she did it with as abstracted an air as if my arm were a post which she was required to handle, and not the arm of a good-looking youth of twenty-five,–as I fondly hoped I was. And certain remarks which I once addressed to her in regard to her studies and reading in her own apartment were met with that cool, wide-open gaze of her calm gray eyes, that seemed to say, “Pray, what is that to your purpose, sir?” and she merely answered, “Is there anything else that you would like me to do, sir?” with a marked deference that was really defiant.
But one day I fancied I had got hold of a clue. I was standing in our lower front hall, when I saw young McPherson, whom I used to know in New York, coming up the doorsteps.
At the moment that he rung the doorbell, our Mary, who had seen him from the chamber window, suddenly grew pale, and said to my mother, “Please, ma’am, will you be so good as to excuse my going to the door? I feel faint.”
My mother spoke over the banisters, and I opened the door, and let in McPherson.
He and I were jolly together, as old classmates are wont to be, and orders were given to lay a plate for him at dinner.
Mary prepared the service with her usual skill and care, but pleaded that her illness increased so that it would be impossible for her to wait on table. Now, nobody in the house thought there was anything peculiar about this but myself. My mother, indeed, had noticed that Mary’s faintness had come on very suddenly, as she looked out on the street; but it was I who suggested to her that McPherson might have some connection with it.
“Depend upon it, mother, he is somebody whom she has known in her former life, and doesn’t wish to meet,” said I.
“Nonsense, Tom; you are always getting up mysteries, and fancying romances.”
Nevertheless, I took a vicious pleasure in experimenting on the subject; and therefore, a day or two after, when I had got Mary fairly within eye-range, as she waited on table, I remarked to my mother carelessly, “By the bye, the McPhersons are coming to Boston to live.”
There was a momentary jerk of Mary’s hand, as she was filling a tumbler, and then I could see the restraint of self-command passing all over her. I had hit something, I knew; so I pursued my game.
“Yes,” I continued, “Jim is here to look at houses; he is thinking strongly of one in the next block.”
There was a look of repressed fear and distress on Mary’s face as she hastily turned away, and made an errand into the china-closet.
“I have found a clue,” I said to my mother triumphantly, going to her room after dinner. “Did you notice Mary’s agitation when I spoke of the McPhersons coming to Boston? By Jove! but the girl is plucky, though; it was the least little start, and in a minute she had her visor down and her armor buckled. This certainly becomes interesting.”
“Tom, I certainly must ask you what business it is of yours,” said my mother, settling back into the hortatory attitude familiar to mothers. “Supposing the thing is as you think,–suppose that Mary is a girl of refinement and education, who, from some unfortunate reason, has no resource but her present position,–why should you hunt her out of it? If she is, as you think, a lady, there is the strongest reason why a gentleman should respect her feelings. I fear the result of all this restless prying and intermeddling of yours will be to drive her away; and really, now I have had her, I don’t know how I ever could do without her. People talk of female curiosity,” said my mother, with a slightly belligerent air; “I never found but men had fully as much curiosity as women. Now, what will become of us all if your restlessness about this should be the means of Mary’s leaving us? You know the perfectly dreadful times we had before she came, and I don’t know anybody who has less patience to bear such things than you.”
In short, my mother was in that positive state of mind which is expressed by the colloquial phrase of being on her high horse. I–as the male part of creation always must in such cases–became very meek and retiring, and promised to close my eyes and ears, and not dream, or think, or want to know, anything which it was not agreeable to Mary and my mother that I should. I would not look towards the doorbell, nor utter a word about the McPhersons, who, by the bye, decided to take the house in our neighborhood.
But though I was as exemplary as one of the saints, it did no good. Mary, for some reasons known to herself, became fidgety, nervous, restless, and had frequent headaches and long crying spells in her own private apartment, after the manner of women when something is the matter with them.
My mother was, as she always is with every creature in her employ, maternal and sympathetic, and tried her very best to get into her confidence.
Mary only confessed to feeling a little unwell, and hinted obscurely that perhaps she should be obliged to leave the place. But it was quite evident that her leaving was connected with the near advent of the McPhersons in the next block; for I observed that she always showed some little irrepressible signs of nervousness whenever that subject was incidentally alluded to. Finally, on the day that their furniture began to arrive, and to provide abundant material for gossip and comment to the other members of the kitchen cabinet, Mary’s mind appeared suddenly made up. She came into my mother’s room looking as a certain sort of women do when they have made a resolution which they mean to stand by,–very pale, very quiet, and very decided. She asked to see my mother alone, and in that interview she simply expressed gratitude for all her kindness to her, but said that circumstances would oblige her to go to New York.
My mother now tried her best to draw from her her history, whatever that might be. She spoke with tact and tenderness, and with the respect due from one human being to another; for my mother always held that every soul has its own inviolable private door which it has a right to keep closed, and at which even queens and duchesses, if they wish to enter, must knock humbly and reverently.
Mary was almost overcome by her kindness. She thanked her over and over; at times my mother said she looked at her wistfully, as if on the very point of speaking, and then, quietly gathering herself within herself, she remained silent. All that could be got from her was, that it was necessary for her hereafter to live in New York.
The servants in the kitchen, with the warm-heartedness of their race, broke out into a perfect Irish howl of sorrow; and at the last moment, Biddy, our fat cook, fell on her neck and lifted up her voice and wept, almost smothering her with her tumultuous embraces; and the whole party of them would go with her to the New York station, one carrying her shawl, another her hand-bag and parasol, with emulous affection; and so our very pleasant and desirable second girl disappeared, and we saw her no more.
Six months after this, when our Mary had become only a memory of the past, I went to spend a week or two in Newport, and took, among other matters and things, a letter of introduction to Mrs. McIntyre, a Scotch lady, who had just bought a pretty cottage there, and, as my friend who gave it told me, would prove an interesting acquaintance.
“She has a pretty niece,” said he, “who I’m told is heiress to her property, and is called a very nice girl.”
So, at the proper time, I lounged in one morning, and found a very charming, cosy, home-like parlor, arranged with all those little refined touches and artistic effects by which people of certain tastes and habits at once recognize each other in all parts of the world, as by the tokens of freemasonry. I felt perfectly acquainted with Mrs. McIntyre from the first glance at her parlor,–where the books, the music, the birds, the flowers, and that everlasting variety of female small-work prepared me for a bright, chatty, easy-going, home-loving kind of body, such as I found Mrs. McIntyre to be. She was, as English and Scotch ladies are apt to be, very oddly dressed in very nice and choice articles. It takes the eye of the connoisseur to appreciate these oddly dressed Englishwomen. They are like antique china; but a discriminating eye soon sees the real quality that underlies their quaint adornment. Mrs. McIntyre was scrupulously, exquisitely neat. All her articles of dress were of the choicest quality. The yellow and tumbled lace that was fussed about her neck and wrists might have been the heirloom of a countess; her satin gown, though very short and very scanty, was of a fabulous richness; and the rings that glittered on her withered hands were of the fashion of two centuries ago, but of wonderful brilliancy.
She was very gracious in her reception, as my letter was from an old friend, and said many obliging things of me; so I was taken at once to her friendship, with the frankness characteristic of people of her class when they make up their minds to know you at all.
“I must introduce you to my Mary,” she said; “she has just gone into the garden to cut flowers for the vases.”
In a moment more “Mary” entered the room, with a little white apron full of flowers, and a fresh bloom on her cheeks; and I was–as the reader has already anticipated–to my undisguised amazement, formally introduced to Miss Mary McIntyre, our second girl.
Of all things for which I consider women admirable, there is no trait which fills me with such positive awe as their social tact and self-command. Evidently this meeting was quite as unexpected to Mary as to me; but except for a sudden flash of amused astonishment in the eyes, and a becoming flush of complexion, she met me as any thoroughbred young lady meets a young man properly presented by her maternal guardian.
For my part, I had one of those dreamy periods of existence in which people doubt whether they are awake or asleep. The world seemed all turning topsy-turvy. I was filled with curiosity, which I could with difficulty keep within the limits of conventional propriety.
“I see, Mr. Seymour, that you are very much astonished,” said Mary to me, when Mrs. McIntyre had left the room to give some directions to the servants.
“Upon my word,” said I, “I never was more so; I feel as if I were in the midst of a fairy tale.”
“Nothing so remarkable as that,” she said. “But since I saw you, a happy change, as I need not tell you now, has come over my life through the coming of my mother’s sister to America. When my mother died, my aunt was in India. The letters that I addressed to her in Scotland were a long time in reaching her, and then it took a long time for her to wind up her affairs there, and find her way to this country.”
“But,” said I, “what could”–
“What could induce me to do as I did? Well, I knew your mother’s character,–no matter how. I needed a support and protection, and I resolved for a time to put myself under her wing. I knew that in case of any real trouble I should find in her a true friend and a safe adviser, and I hoped to earn her esteem and confidence by steadily doing my duty. Some other time, perhaps, I will tell you more,” she added.
The return of Mrs. McIntyre put an end to our private communication, but she insisted, with true old-world hospitality, on my remaining to dinner.
Here I was precipitated into a romance at once. Mary had just enough of that perverse feminine pleasure in teasing to keep my interest alive. The fact was, she saw me becoming entangled from day to day without any more misgivings of conscience than the celebrated spider of the poem felt when she invited the fly to walk into her parlor.
Mrs. McIntyre took me in a very marked way into her good graces, and I had every opportunity to ride, walk, sketch, and otherwise to attend upon Mary; and Mary was gracious also, but so quietly and discreetly mistress of herself that I could not for the life of me tell what to make of her. There were all sorts of wonders and surmises boiling up within me. What was it about McPherson? Was there anything there? Was Mary engaged? Or was there any old affair? etc., etc. Not that it was any business of mine; but then a fellow likes to know his ground before–Before _what_? I thought to myself, and that unknown WHAT every day assumed new importance in my eyes. Mary had many admirers. Her quiet, easy, self-possessed manners, her perfect tact and grace, always made her a favorite; but I could not help hoping that between her and me there was that confidential sense of a mutually kept secret which it is delightful to share with the woman you wish to please.
Why won’t women sometimes enlighten a fellow a little in this dark valley that lies between intimate acquaintance and the awful final proposal? To be sure, there are kind souls who will come more than halfway to meet you, but they are always sure to be those you don’t want to meet. The woman you want is always as reticent as a nut, and leaves you the whole work of this last dread scene without a bit of help on her part. To be sure, she smiles on you; but what of that? You see she smiles also on Tom, Dick, and Harry.
“Bright as the sun her eyes the gazers strike;
And, like the sun, they shine on all alike.”
I fought out a battle of two or three weeks with my fair foe, trying to get in advance some hint from her as to what she would do with me if I put myself at her mercy. No use. Our sex may as well give up first as last before one of these quiet, resolved, little pieces of femininity, who are perfect mistresses of all the peculiar weapons, defensive and offensive, of womanhood. There was nothing for it but to surrender at discretion; but when I had done this, I was granted all the honors of war. Mrs. McIntyre received me with an old-fashioned maternal blessing, and all was as happy as possible.
“And now,” said Mary, “I suppose, sir, you will claim a right to know all about me.”
“Something of the sort,” I said complacently.
“I know you have been dying of curiosity ever since I was waiting behind your lordship’s chair at your mother’s. I knew you suspected something then,–confess now.”
“But what could have led you there?”
“Just hear. My mother, who was Mrs. McIntyre’s sister, had by a first marriage only myself. Shortly after my father’s death, she married a widower with several children. As long as she lived, I never knew what want or care or trouble was; but just as I was entering upon my seventeenth year she died. A year after her death, my stepfather, who was one of those men devoted to matrimony at all hazards, married another woman, by whom he had children.
“In a few years more, he died; and his affairs, on examination, proved to be in a very bad state; there was, in fact, scarcely anything for us to live on. Our stepmother had a settlement from her brother. The two other daughters of my father were married, and went to houses of their own; and I was left, related really to nobody, without property and without home.
“I suppose hundreds of young girls are from one reason or other left just in this way, and have, without any previous preparation in their education and habits, to face the question, How can I get a living?
“I assure you it is a serious question for a young girl who has grown up in the easy manner in which I had. My stepfather had always been a cheery, kindly, generous man, one of those who love to see people enjoy themselves, and to have things done handsomely, and had kept house in a free, abundant, hospitable manner; so that when I came to look myself over in relation to the great uses of life, I could make out very little besides expensive tastes and careless habits.
“I had been to the very best schools, but then I had studied, as most girls in easy circumstances do, without a thought of using my knowledge for any practical purpose. I could speak very fair English; but how I did it, or why, I didn’t know,–all the technical rules of grammar had passed from my head like a dream. I could play a little on the piano, and sing a few songs; but I did not know enough of music to venture to propose myself as a teacher; and so with every other study. All the situations of profit in the profession of teaching are now crowded and blocked by girls who have been studying for that express object,–and what could I hope among them?
“My mother-in-law was a smart, enterprising, driving woman of the world, who told all her acquaintance that, of course, she should give me a home, although I was no kind of relation to her, and who gave me to understand that I was under infinite obligations to her on this account, and must pay for the privilege by making myself generally useful. I soon found that this meant doing a servant’s work without wages. During six months I filled, I may say, the place of a seamstress and nursery governess to some very ungoverned children, varying with occasional weeks of servant’s work, when either the table girl or the cook left a place vacant. For all this I received my board, and some cast-off dresses and underclothes to make over for myself. I was tired of this, and begged my stepmother to find me some place where I could earn my own living. She was astonished and indignant at the demand. When Providence had provided me a good home, under respectable protection, she said, why should I ask to leave it? For her part, she thought the situation of a young lady making herself generally useful in domestic life, in the family of her near connections, was a delightful one. She had no words to say how much more respectable and proper it was thus to live in the circle of family usefulness and protection, than to go out in the world looking for employment.
“I did not suggest to her that the chief difference in the cases would be, that in a hired situation I should have regular wages and regular work; whereas in my present position it was irregular work, and no wages.
“Her views on the subject were perhaps somewhat beclouded by the extreme convenience she found in being able to go into company, and to range about the city at all hours, unembarrassed by those family cares which generally fall to the mistress, but which her views of what constituted general usefulness devolved upon me.
“I had no retirement, no leisure, no fixed place anywhere. My bed was in the nursery, where the children felt always free to come and go; and even this I was occasionally requested to resign, to share the couch of the housemaid, when sickness in the family or a surplus of guests caused us to be crowded for room.
“I grew very unhappy, my health failed, and the demands upon me were entirely beyond my strength, and without any consideration. The doer of all the odds and ends in a family has altogether the most work and least praise of any, as I discovered to my cost. I found one thing after another falling into my long list of appointed duties, by a regular progress. Thus first it would be, ‘Mary, won’t you see to the dusting of the parlors? for Bridget is’–etc., etc.; this would be the form for a week or two, and then, ‘Mary, have you dusted the parlors?’ and at last, ‘Mary, why have you not dusted the parlors?’
“As I said, I never studied anything to practical advantage; and though I had been through arithmetic and algebra, I had never made any particular use of my knowledge. But now, under the influence of misfortune, my thoughts took an arithmetical turn. By inquiring among the servants, I found that, in different families in the neighborhood, girls were receiving three dollars a week for rendering just such services as mine. Here was a sum of a hundred and fifty-six dollars yearly, in ready money, put into their hands, besides their board, the privilege of knowing their work exactly, and having a control of their own time when certain definite duties were performed. Compared with what I was doing and receiving, this was riches and ease and rest.
“After all, I thought to myself, why should not I find some respectable, superior, motherly woman, and put myself under her as a servant, make her my friend by good conduct, and have some regular hours and some definite income, instead of wearing out my life in service without pay? Nothing stood in my way but the traditionary shadow of gentility, and I resolved it should not stop me.
“Years before, when I was only eight or ten years old, I had met your mother with your family at the seaside, where my mother took me. I had seen a great deal of her, and knew all about her. I remembered well her habitual consideration for the nurses and servants in her employ. I knew her address in Boston, and I resolved to try to find a refuge in her family. And so there is my story. I left a note with my stepmother, saying that I was going to seek independent employment, and then went to Boston to your house. There I hoped to find a quiet asylum,–at least, till I could hear from my aunt in Scotland. The delay of hearing from her during those two years at your house often made me low-spirited.”
“But what made you so afraid of McPherson?” said I nervously. “I remember your faintness, and all that, the day he called.”
“Oh, that? Why, it was merely this,–they were on intimate visiting terms with my mother-in-law, and I knew that it would be all up with my plans if they were to be often at the house.”
“Why didn’t you tell my mother?” said I.
“I did think of it, but then”–She gave me a curious glance.
“But what, Mary?”
“Well, I could see plainly enough that there were no secrets between you and her, and I did not wish to take so fine a young gentleman into my confidence,” said Mary. “You will observe I was not out seeking flirtations, but an honest independence.”
* * * * *
My mother was apprised of our engagement in due form, and came to Newport, all innocence, to call on Miss McIntyre, her intended daughter-in-law. Her astonishment at the moment of introduction was quite satisfactory to me.
For the rest, Mary’s talents in making a home agreeable have had since then many years of proof; and where any of the little domestic chasms appear which are formed by the shifting nature of the American working-class, she always slides into the place with a quiet grace, and reminds me, with a humorous twinkle of the eye, that she is used to being second girl.