Stays and gloves
I had just reached the age of ten when my father died. At this period we lived in a nice-looking house. But the quarter bears that stamp of poverty which is all-prevailing in the East-End of London. The dwelling is in Shepherdess Walk, close to the City Road.
I went regularly to the district-school and was reputed a bad scholar. The master was kind, although we found his haughty manner very trying. He was content to go through his lessons. If he asked a question or made an observation, he did so briefly, in a manner devoid alike of politeness and roughness. Never did I see him in a temper. He rarely rebuked and struck more rarely still. On these latter occasions, it was a rap with the ruler upon the fingers as he passed. And he did not pause either to console or to reprimand the weeping child whom he had hit.
The death of my father brought about great changes. Without being rich, we had been comfortably off. My mother was always ill at ease in this quarter of poor people, she with her prettiness, refinement and distinction. She was also still young, for she was not quite eighteen years old when she brought me into the world. After my father's funeral, my first recollection is the visit of a gentleman who was on very familiar terms with my mother,and me although I had never seen him previously. Alfter my father's death he was a daily caller. Sometimes he took my mother on his knees arid kissed and caressed her. At these moments the faces of both were very red. At times she would seize hold of his arm and with a movement of her eyes make signs towards me. But the gentleman would laugh and reply:
'Absolute nonsense! What does that young innocent know of the fires of love?'
I disliked him and yet I was always glad of his visits, for he always brought me a toy or some sweets and sometimes both. Indeed he was not above playing with me. But- though whether inadvertently or purposely I do not know – he made me feel quile queer: for his manner of touching me as he raised me from the ground or as he rolled me over and over made feel ashamed and unnerved.
I no longer went to school.
The three of us would step into a very beautiful carriage drawn by two horses, and in Mr. Joe Baker's (for such was his name) fine turn-out, we would drive to the West-End, to Portland Place, to a beautiful mansion belonging to him and containing a vast number of grooms and maid-servants.
All the latter were pretty. They were both fair and dark, gentle and proud, but all were remarkable. They were not dressed as English domestics usually are, except that they wore, as is customary, the little linen cap, so stylish, light and charming. The other parts of their costume were of a picturesque nature. All wore aprons of brilliant, coloured silk and a dress with no sleeves. On their hands and arms were exceedingly tight gloves of glazed kid, coloured black or dark brown, and very long, reaching above the elbow. I was struck by this particular feature in their costume. It seemed strange that humble maid-servants. should wear such valuable gloves. My little brain, much puzzled, sought a solution of this mystery, but with no success. The events which I shall relate threw light upon the matter for me as they will not fail to do for the reader. For the time being, I could not get beyond this simple conclusion: that Mr. Joe Baker must posses a vast fortune if he could clothe his servants so sumptuously.
As I have said, we used to leave our house in Shepherdess Walk in the carriage and Mr. Baker would come himself to fetch us, but at times it was merely the carriage which would drive up to our door. We would lunch and dine with Mr. Baker who would not fail to remark at table that I was exceedingly illmannered, yet without giving the least suggestion as to how I should correct myself. His observation, always accompanied on his part with smiles and affability, did not fail to cover me with confusion. I sought to discover in what respect I was bad-mannered, but in vain and I finished by asking Mr. Baker what he found amiss in my behaviour. His sole reply was a fit of laughter, when my mother became greatly annoyed. She boxed both my ears and I remember that the pain was nothing to me as compared with my sense of the injustice of her act. I wept with grief and vexation, bursting into hysterical sobs, which exhibition had for result my being sent away to finish my luncheon in the servants' hall.
A maid came to lead me away and see after my meal. She was tall, dark, and stout with very big eyes looking blackly out from under heavy brows. Her lips were red and full, and the suspicion of a moustache was visible. Her thick arms carried without a single wrinkle the black, glazed kid gloves. She took me by the hand. I stamped and resisted, but in vain; she took me away without effort. I was, however, in a terrible passion due to my mother's injustice wich I had never previously experienced. I let myself fall to the ground and tried to kick.
The maid took me in her arms. I struggled and cried, saying that I wanted to leave the house immediately. I tried to bite her. But we were already in the hall. Here she handled me as Mr. Baker had done, but with more insistance. The sensation due to the contact of the kidglove immediately calmed my anger. I became at once quite tractable, my mind being filled with a strong desire to obey this tall girl and do everything she wished. It was at this moment that she smiled at me pleasantly.
In the servants' hall, as she watched me eating, she frowned from under her heavy brows. Then in a rough voice, she ordered me to cease eating bread. To tell the truth, I was in the habit of eating a great deal of bread, far more than is eaten in England where they take scarcely any. I used at that time to stuff my mouth with bread between the courses and consequently had little appetite for meat and vegetables. My father had only langhed and used often to say that 'in mo gluttony for bread I was a true Frenchman.' I repeated this saying of my father to the maid, whose name was Betsy.
She strugged her shoulders disdainfully and replied that my father was a poor sort of man who had brought me up badly, or rather who had not brought me up at all, but all was going to change now.
My lassitude of a few minutes before was succeeded by a mood of excessive irritation. Her contempt for my poor dear father whom I so sincerely mourned, I found unbearable. I burst into bitter reproaches of Betty's cruelty, assuring her that my father had been worth Mr. Baker a thousand times over. She roughly told me to hold my tongue, adding:
'You. are an impertinent little boy!'
'No!' cried I. 'It is you who are insolent. You have no right to speak of my father except with respect, as a servant should.'
She turned pale at the insult and directed so terrible a look at me that I immediately regretted my imprudence.
Then appearing to recover herself, she rejoined:
'Not another word! Instead of gossiping, you would do well to eat this nice piece of underdone meat. It is better than stuffing yourself with bread.'
So I tried to leave the bread alone, but so strong is habit that I began eating it again absent-mindedly, filling my mouth gluttonously.
'You disgust me!' said Besty. 'You perfect little gormandizer!'
The meal was however, at an end. She showed me fruits and jam and then replaced them in the cupboard without offering them to me. She said that as a punishment for my impertinence, I should be deprived of dessert. Then she came and sat close to me, putting one arm round my neck and patting my face in an affectionate way. I do not know if it came from her arm or from her glove, but the perfume which entered my nostrils intoxicated me.
'Your father ought to have whipped you,'' she said.
I made no answer. She continued. 'Have you ever been whipped?'
'Well! You are going to be then! You deserve punishment.'
'Really?' said I, escaping from her. 'And who's going to whip me, I should like to know?'
She had already caught me in her powerful arms. I struggled, kicked, threatened, tried to bite and scratch her,