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Esther Waters by george moore - 13


"This dress was given to me by Miss Mary."
"Was it? She must be a real good 'un. I should like to go to service; I'm tired of making dogs; we have to work that 'ard, and it nearly all goes to the public; father drinks worse than ever."
Mrs. Saunders approved of Esther's purchase; it was a beautiful bit of steak. The fire was raked up, and a few minutes after the meat was roasting on the gridiron. The clock continued its coarse ticking amid the rough plates on the dresser. Jenny and Julia hastened with their work, pressing the paper with nervous fingers into the moulds, calling sharply to the little group for what sized paper they required. Esther and Mrs. Saunders waited, full of apprehension, for the sound of a heavy tread in the passage. At last it came. Mrs. Saunders turned the meat, hoping that its savoury odour would greet his nostrils from afar, and that he would come to them mollified and amiable.
"Hullo, Jim; yer are 'ome a bit earlier to-day. I'm not quite ready with yer supper."
"I dunno that I am. Hullo, Esther! Up for the day? Smells damned nice, what you're cooking for me, missus. What is it?"
"Bit of steak, Jim. It seems a beautiful piece. Hope it will eat tender."
"That it will. I was afeard you would have nothing more than a rasher, and I'm that 'ungry."
Jim Saunders was a stout, dark man about forty. He had not shaved for some days, his face was black with beard; his moustache was cut into bristle; around his short, bull neck he wore a ragged comforter, and his blue jacket was shabby and dusty, and the trousers were worn at the heels. He threw his basket into a corner, and then himself on the rough bench nailed against the wall, and there, without speaking another word, he lay sniffing the odour of the meat like an animal going to be fed. Suddenly a whiff from the beer jug came into his nostrils, and reaching out his rough hand he looked into the jug to assure himself he was not mistaken.
"What's this?" he exclaimed; "a pint of porter! Yer are doing me pretty well this evening, I reckon. What's up?"
"Nothing, Jim; nothing, dear, but just as Esther has come up we thought we'd try to make yer comfortable. It was Esther who fetched it; she 'as been doing pretty well, and can afford it."
Jim looked at Esther in a sort of vague and brutal astonishment, and feeling he must say something, and not knowing well what, he said----
"Well, 'ere's to your good health!" and he took a long pull at the jug. "Where did you get this?"
"In Durham street, at the 'Angel.'"
"I thought as much; they don't sell stuff like this at the 'Rose and Crown.' Well, much obliged to yer. I shall enjoy my bit of steak now; and I see a tater in the cinders. How are you getting on, old woman--is it nearly done? Yer know I don't like all the goodness burnt out of it."
"It isn't quite done yet, Jim; a few minutes more----"
Jim sniffed in eager anticipation, and then addressed himself to Esther.
"Well, they seem to do yer pretty well down there. My word, what a toff yer are! Quite a lady.... There's nothing like service for a girl; I've always said so. Eh, Jenny, wouldn't yer like to go into service, like yer sister? Looks better, don't it, than making toy dogs at three-and-sixpence the gross?"
"I should just think it was. I wish I could. As soon as Maggie can take my place, I mean to try."
"It was the young lady of the 'ouse that gave 'er that nice dress," said Julia. "My eye! she must have been a favourite."
At that moment Mrs. Saunders picked the steak from the gridiron, and putting it on a nice hot plate she carried it in her apron to Jim, saying, "Mind yer 'ands, it is burning 'ot."
Jim fed in hungry silence, the children watching, regretting that none of them ever had suppers like that. He didn't speak until he had put away the better part of the steak; then, after taking a long pull at the jug of beer, he said--
"I 'aven't enjoyed a bit of food like that this many a day; I was that beat when I came in, and it does do one good to put a piece of honest meat into one's stomach after a 'ard day's work!"
Then, prompted by a sudden thought, he complimented Esther on her looks, and then, with increasing interest, inquired what kind of people she was staying with. But Esther was in no humour for conversation, and answered his questions briefly without entering into details. Her reserve only increased his curiosity, which fired up at the first mention of the race-horses.
"I scarcely know much about them. I only used to see them passing through the yard as they went to exercise on the downs. There was always a lot of talk about them in the servants' hall, but I didn't notice it. They were a great trouble to Mrs. Barfield--I told you, mother, that she was one of ourselves, didn't I?"
A look of contempt passed over Jim's face, and he said--
"We've quite enough talk 'ere about the Brethren; give them a rest. What about the 'orses? Did they win any races? Yer can't 'ave missed 'earing that."
"Yes, Silver Braid won the Stewards' Cup."
"Silver Braid was one of your horses?"
"Yes, Mr. Barfield won thousands and thousands, everyone in Shoreham won something, and a ball for the servants was given in the Gardens."
"And you never thought of writing to me about it! I could have 'ad thirty to one off Bill Short. One pound ten to a bob! And yer never thought it worth while to send me the tip. I'm blowed! Girls aren't worth a damn.... Thirty to one off Bill Short--he'd have laid it. I remember seeing the price quoted in all the papers. Thirty to one taken and hoffered. If you had told me all yer knowed I might 'ave gone 'alf a quid--fifteen pun to 'alf a quid! as much as I'd earn in three months slaving eight and ten hours a day, paint-pot on 'and about them blooming engines. Well, there's no use crying over what's done--sich a chance won't come again, but something else may. What are they going to do with the 'orse this autumn--did yer 'ear that?"
"I think I 'eard that he was entered for the Cambridgeshire, but if I remember rightly, Mr. Leopold--that's the butler, not his real name, but what we call him--"
"Ah, yes; I know; after the Baron. Now what do 'e say? I reckon 'e knows. I should like to 'ave 'alf-an-hour's talk with your Mr. Leopold. What do 'e say? For what 'e says, unless I'm pretty well mistaken, is worth listening to. A man wouldn't be a-wasting 'is time in listening to 'im. What do 'e say?"
"Mr. Leopold never says much. He's the only one the Gaffer ever confides in. 'Tis said they are as thick as thieves, so they say. Mr. Leopold was his confidential servant when the Gaffer--that's the squire--was a bachelor."
Jim chuckled. "Yes, I think I know what kind of man your Mr. Leopold is like. But what did 'e say about the Cambridgeshire?"
"He only laughed a little once, and said he didn't think the 'orse would do much good in the autumn races--no, not races, that isn't the word."
"Handicaps?"
"Yes, that's it. But there's no relying on what Mr. Leopold says--he never says what he really means. But I 'eard William, that's the footman--"
"What are you stopping for? What did yer 'ear 'im say?"
"That he intends to have something on next spring."
"Did he say any race? Did he say the City and Sub.?"
"Yes, that was the race he mentioned."
"I thought that would be about the length and the breadth of it," Jim said, as he took up his knife and fork. There was only a small portion of the beef-steak left, and this he ate gluttonously, and, finishing the last remaining beer, he leaned back in the happiness of repletion. He crammed tobacco into a dirty clay, with a dirtier finger-nail, and said--
"I'd be uncommon glad to 'ear how he is getting on. When are you going back? Up for the day only?"
Esther did not answer, and Jim looked inquiringly as he reached across the table for the matches. The decisive moment had arrived, and Mrs. Saunders said--
"Esther ain't a-going back; leastways--"
"Not going back! You don't mean that she ain't contented in her situation--that she 'as--"
"Esther ain't going back no more," Mrs. Saunders answered, incautiously. "Look ee 'ere, Jim--"
"Out with it, old woman--no 'umbug! What is it all about? Ain't going back to 'er sitooation, and where she 'as been treated like that--just look at the duds she 'as got on."
The evening was darkening rapidly, and the firelight flickered over the back of the toy dogs piled up on the dresser. Jim had lit his pipe, and the acrid and warm odour of quickly-burning tobacco overpowered the smell of grease and the burnt skin of the baked potato, a fragment of which remained on the plate; only the sickly flavour of drying paste was distinguishable in the reek of the short black clay which the man held firmly between his teeth. Esther sat by the fire, her hands crossed over her knees, no signs of emotion on her sullen, plump face. Mrs. Saunders stood on the other side of Esther, between her and the younger children, now quarrelling among themselves, and her face was full of fear as she watched her husband anxiously.
"Now, then, old woman, blurt it out!" he said. "What is it? Can it be the girl 'as lost her sitooation--got the sack? Yes, I see that's about the cut of it. Her beastly temper! So they couldn't put up with it in the country any more than I could mesel'. Well, it's 'er own look-out! If she can afford to chuck up a place like that, so much the better for 'er. Pity, though; she might 'ave put me up to many a good thing."
"It ain't that, Jim. The girl is in trouble."
"Wot do yer say? Esther in trouble? Well, that's the best bit I've heard this long while. I always told ye that the religious ones were just the same as the others--a bit more hypocritical, that's all. So she that wouldn't 'ave nothing to do with such as was Mrs. Dunbar 'as got 'erself into trouble! Well I never! But 'tis just what I always suspected. The goody-goody sort are the worst. So she 'as got 'erself into trouble! Well, she'll 'ave to get 'erself out of it."
"Now, Jim, dear, yer mustn't be 'ard on 'er; she could tell a very different story if she wished it, but yer know what she is. There she sits like a block of marble, and won't as much as say a word in 'er own defence."
"But I don't want 'er to speak. I don't care, it's nothing to me; I only laughed because--"
"Jim, dear, it is something to all of us. What we thought was that you might let her stop 'ere till her time was come to go to the 'orspital."
"Ah, that's it, is it? That was the meaning of the 'alf-pound of steak and the pint of porter, was it. I thought there was something hup. So she wants to stop 'ere, do she? As if there wasn't enough already! Well, I be blowed if she do! A nice thing, too; a girl can't go away to service without coming back to her respectable 'ome in trouble--in trouble, she calls it. Now, I won't 'ave it; there's enough 'ere as it is, and another coming, worse luck. We wants no bastards 'ere.... And a nice example, too, for the other children! No, I won't 'ave it!"
Jenny and Julia looked curiously at Esther, who sat quite still, her face showing no sign of emotion. Mrs. Saunders turned towards her, a pitying look on her face, saying clearly, "You see, my poor girl, how matters stand; I can do nothing."
The girl, although she did not raise her eyes, understood what was passing in her mother's mind, for there was a grave deliberativeness in the manner in which she rose from the chair.
But just as the daughter had guessed what was passing in the mother's mind, so did the mother guess what was passing in the daughter's. Mrs. Saunders threw herself before Esther, saying, "Oh, no, Esther, wait a moment; 'e won't be 'ard on 'ee." Then turning to her husband, "Yer don't understand, Jim. It is only for a little time."
"No, I tell yer. No, I won't 'ave it! There be too many 'ere as it is."
"Only a little while, Jim."
"No. And those who ain't wanted 'ad better go at once--that's my advice to them. The place is as full of us that we can 'ardly turn round as it is. No, I won't 'ear of it!"
"But, Jim, Esther is quite willing to pay her way; she's saved a good little sum of money, and could afford to pay us ten shillings a week for board and the parlour."
A perplexed look came on Jim's face.
"Why didn't yer tell me that afore? Of course I don't wish to be 'ard on the girl, as yer 'ave just heard me say. Ten shillings a week for her board and the parlour--that seems fair enough; and if it's any convenience to 'er to remain, I'm sure we'll be glad to 'ave 'er. I'll say right glad, too. We was always good friends, Esther, wasn't we, though ye wasn't one of my own?" So saying, Jim held out his hand.
Esther tried to pass by her mother. "I don't want to stop where I'm not wanted; I wants no one's charity. Let me go, mother."
"No, no, Esther. 'Aven't yer 'eard what 'e says? Ye are my child if you ain't 'is, and it would break my 'eart, that it would, to see you go away among strangers. Yer place is among yer own people, who'll look after you."
"Now, then, Esther, why should there be ill feeling. I didn't mean any 'arm. There's a lot of us 'ere, and I've to think of the interests of my own. But for all that I should be main sorry to see yer take yer money among strangers, where you wouldn't get no value for it. You'd better stop. I'm sorry for what I said. Ain't that enough for yer?"
"Jim, Jim, dear, don't say no more; leave 'er to me. Esther, for my sake stop with us. You are in trouble, and it is right for you to stop with me. Jim 'as said no more than the truth. With all the best will in the world we couldn't afford to keep yer for nothing, but since yer can pay yer way, it is yer duty to stop. Think, Esther, dear, think. Go and shake 'ands with 'im, and I'll go and make yer up a bed on the sofa."
"There's no bloody need for 'er to shake my 'and if she don't like," Jim replied, and he pulled doggedly at his pipe.
Esther tried, but her fierce and heavy temper held her back. She couldn't go to her father for reconciliation, and the matter might have ended quite differently, but suddenly, without another word, Jim put on his hat and went out to join "his chaps" who were waiting for him about the public-house, close to the cab-rank in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. The door was hardly closed behind him when the young children laughed and ran about joyously, and Jenny and Julia went over to Esther and begged her to stop.
"Of course she'll stop," said Mrs. Saunders. "And now, Esther, come along and help me to make you up a bed in the parlour."
XIV
Esther was fast asleep next morning when Mrs. Saunders came into the parlour. Mrs. Saunders stood looking at her, and Esther turned suddenly on the sofa and said----
"What time is it, mother?"
"It's gone six; but don't you get up. You're your own mistress whilst you're here; you pays for what you 'as."
"I can't afford them lazy habits. There's plenty of work here, and I must help you with some of it."
"Plenty of work here, that's right enough. But why should you bother, and you nearly seven months gone? I daresay you feels that 'eavy that you never care to get out of your chair. But they says that them who works up to the last 'as the easiest time in the end. Not that I've found it so."
The conversation paused. Esther threw her legs over the side of the sofa, and still wrapped in the blanket, sat looking at her mother.
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