I decline to name the income on which Emma Maria and I married, lest the statement should have a tendency to re-open in these pages or elsewhere a certain discussion which attracted a good deal of attention some little time ago. It is sufficient for my purpose to declare, that its amount was such as to render us desirous of so arranging our prospective household affairs, as to avoid all expense not absolutely necessary for comfort and propriety of appearance.
With reference to such arrangements our mutual friends and relatives favoured us with a good deal of advice; and as there was considerable difference in the opinions expressed, rendering it impossible for us, with the best intentions in the world, to follow everyone’s counsel, I need scarcely say that we managed to offend, more or less, about nine in every ten of those who were good enough to “take an interest in our welfare.”
There was one point, however, on which a remarkable unanimity of opinion appeared to subsist: that point was “servants.” It was demonstrated that we couldn’t get along at all with only one, and, further, that we couldn’t possibly afford to keep two. This would at first sight appear rather a dilemma; not so, however. Two servants “proper” being clearly proved unattainable, the alternative was as clearly proved to be one, and “a page.” We were informed that an average female servant, at average wages, cost from thirty-five to forty pounds a-year; but that a page — buttoned and ornamental to open the door and wait at table, unbuttoned and useful to clean knives and shoes, and so forth — was an article almost costless, and quite priceless, to young housekeepers.
I must affirm, that I did not see the advantages of the proposed functionary in quite so strong a light as some of our advisers, and that it was more in deference to the opinions of others, the parents and guardians of my youth, than of my own free will, that I was induced to try the experiment. And oh! if I had had the smallest idea of what I was preparing for myself and Emma Maria, I would have quarreled with every relative I possessed in the world, rather than have taken the course I did. If the recital of a few of my miserable experiences (a very few, for a volume of this periodical might be filled without exhausting the subject) be the means of preventing any young couple from treading the same dreary path, I shall be amply rewarded. Oh, my young friends, if you would be happy, remain pageless!
Well, having settled upon keeping a page, the next question was how to procure one: and here an aunt of Emma Maria’s (from whom she had expectations, never, alas! fulfilled) stepped forward. This old lady took an interest in an orphan asylum, the pupils of which being put out to service, were bound to their employers for a term of years; and it was represented to me, that, in addition to suiting my own purpose, I should be assisting a deserving charity by taking a boy from the establishment.
Accordingly, the week before we were married, Emma Maria and I, accompanied by her aunt, went to inspect the school. Sundry boys were called forward, and put through their facings, as it were, before us. Among these was one of the most ungainly youths I ever remember to have seen. His bones stuck out all over him in great lumps; his head was of the most peculiar shape, all angles where ordinary heads have curves; and there was that in his face which made me whisper to Emma Maria, in my droll way, that I was sure an admirably interesting melodramatic story might be written, suggested by his appearance, entitled, “Skeggs; or the Fatal Orphan.”
As he came from his seat towards us, he took the most absurd and exaggerated pains to tread on the tips of his toes, so as to avoid noise; a mode of progression which ended in his overbalancing, falling heavily against a desk, and eventually rolling up to Emma Maria’s little boots, much to her alarm, though she couldn’t help laughing when he had picked himself up, at his rueful expression, and the ape-like way in which he rubbed himself.
When we adjourned to the superintendent’s room, I was asked if I should like to select a boy. I modestly said that as I knew nothing about any of the youths, I should much prefer leaving it to the superintendent to send me one whom he could thoroughly recommend. He said he would think the matter over, and promised that we should find a boy at our house on our return from our wedding tour, which Emma Maria’s aunt, who I am bound to say took a more leading part in the arrangement than I altogether approved of, had told him was at hand.
At that epoch, when we drove up to our door, behind the friends who were in the hall waiting to receive us, my eye discerned a well-remembered hideous face, and I involuntarily exclaimed, in tones of horror, “Skeggs!” I thought Emma Maria would have fainted.
However, there was Skeggs, sure enough, resplendent in bright buttons (I had made arrangements about the clothing question), and on the mantelpiece was a note from the superintendent, stating that Skeggs’ name was Bernard Wilkins, and that in his (the superintendent’s) opinion, he was the very boy for us.
Emma Maria was rather mollified by this note; she said Bernard was a nice name, and would sound so well. I had misgivings, but I only shook my head; after all, they were but misgivings; I knew nothing about the lad, and could hardly send him back because of his looks. Besides, we were to have him a month on trial before binding him for three years. I may state, too, that the resources of sartorial science had considerably diminished the angularity of his appearance.
During his month of probation, Skeggs so conducted himself as to cause me many pangs of self reproach for my first judgment of him. He was respectful and attentive, perhaps a shade too demonstratively so: though this may be an after thought, begotten of subsequent events. The knives and boots were resplendent, the door was “answered” without undue delay; and the maidservant’s report was in addition so favourable, that, on a certain day, I, the superintendent of the asylum, and Skeggs, set our hands and seals respectively to a document whereby I bound myself to provide Skeggs with food, shelter, and raiment for three years — which was about the worst quarter of an hour’s work I ever did.
Very shortly after this the perfidious hypocrite threw off the mask, openly stating to Mary, the maidservant, “that we had him for three years, and that he wasn’t going to slave as he had bin.” He became idle, saucy, and gluttonous to a degree I should have before thought incredible; he was always eating, notwithstanding which it came to my knowledge that he had complained to a neighbour’s servant that we — that is, Emma Maria and I — were “a rubbishing, starving lot; and that he could hardly get enough to keep body and soul together;” and that he had likewise given to the world sundry other statements, which, though ingeniously and diabolically falsified, were yet sufficiently based upon circumstances of actual occurrence to convince me that he had acquired habits of persevering and judicious caves-dropping.
He speedily became the bane of my life; never did I leave the house in the morning, without some unpleasant reminder of his presence there; never did I return in the evening, but to hear the voice of lamentation and complaint respecting his behaviour. Unblacked were now the boots, unpolished the cutlery, unheeded the knocker and the bell; nay one day he absolutely declined to wait upon Emma Maria at dinner, (I dined at a chop-house near my place of business), and was so violent that, on my return at night, I found her in tears.
I couldn’t believe that any sane person would behave as Skeggs had done without some cause, fancied or real, and demanded particulars.
“He just said he wouldn’t.”
“But, my dear,” I asked, “didn’t you reason with him on such preposterous conduct?”
Yes. Emma Maria had reasoned with him.
“And what did he do then?”
“He da-da-danced at me;” with sobbing.
I admitted the difficulty of refuting this argument, and descended to the kitchen. But I could do no good with him, and I found that the notion that “we had him” for so long a time, had taken entire possession of him.
So, on the morrow, I presented myself before the superintendent of the asylum, and laid before him my complaint. I found him a different man from what he had been at our last interview — cold, not to say uncivil.
“It was very strange; Wilkins had always shown himself a remarkably good boy; if I doubted this, I could see his character duly certified in the books of the institution.”
I declined this solace, not seeing its exact bearing on my case, and being already aware from experience that Skeggs was a finished hypocrite. Shall I confess that I only kept my temper with difficulty, seeing as I did in the superintendent’s manner, an evident expression of opinion that I had no business to have a boy from the institution behaving badly in my house.
All that I could get by way of proposed remedy was a suggestion that one of the ladies’ committee should call at my house, talk to Wilkins, and give him good advice to keep him from future evil. I hadn’t the liveliest faith in this moral prophylactic, but, in an evil hour, I consented to its administration. How much the remedy transcended the disease, it is beyond my feeble power to tell .
The committee lady came and talked to our page, and talked and came, and talked again. She was never out of the house; she was there sometimes as early as nine, a.m., and on one occasion she left the door at a quarter before eleven, p.m. Whatever Bernard was doing, she came and demanded him to be talked to. She routed Emma Maria, who hinted to her that her presence was occasionally inconvenient, and when I ventured to second the hint, she wouldn’t take it.
She possessed us, and I used to go about my daily affairs thinking of how she was even then closeted with Wilkins in our dining-room, and composing imaginary forms of address to her, of which the beginning used to hover between, “Madam, I must really request that you will be good enough,” and, “Fiend, in the shape of lady, avaunt!” I don’t think I should ever have had the nerve to turn her out, had that course not been forced upon me.
One evening, goaded to frenzy by Skeggs’ behaviour, I confess I was so far transported with rage as to give him a box on the ears. This he reported to his lady-friend, and next day I had a visit from her and the superintendent, who took me to task roundly for what he was pleased to call my brutal conduct to an orphan lad, and informed me that if I again laid hands upon him, they would appeal to the law for his protection. Likewise that he could now understand how Wilkins was a boy so different to his former self, supposing my complaints of him to be well grounded.
To all this the committee-lady acted as chorus, throwing in remarks and suggestions at intervals in aggravation of my offence. I restrained myself so far as to ask whether they wouldn’t take him back again, or even exchange him for another boy; but no, it seemed that as I had made my bed so I must lie. With an exhortation to that treatment of the lad, which would draw out his good qualities (the delivery of which nearly caused me to kick him into the street), the superintendent departed accompanied by the lady.
I gave strict orders that on no pretext should either of them be ever again suffered to enter the house. It may be well supposed how this occurrence acted upon Skeggs. He, of course, learnt the result of the interview between the superintendent and myself — (I’ll swear I saw the committee lady lurking in the street one morning) — and shaped his course accordingly. But deliverance was at hand. One evening I was returning home and some fortunate wind having blown a brick down our bed-room chimney the night before, I bethought me that I would go up the back street, and look whether any outward damage was discernible.
It was just dusk, and I hastened up the street, doubting whether the fading light would serve my purpose, when I suddenly became aware of an old and very ill-favoured woman at our yard-door, in earnest conversation with some one within. Before I could reach the spot, a bundle was transferred to her, and she straightway departed. I went round to the front, was admitted by Emma Maria who was at the window looking out for me, and called Mary, the maid-servant. Mary was out. “At last, Skeggs,” thought I, “I have thee,” and I regret to say that I felt something very like triumph at the idea.
I summoned him up-stairs, and imperiously demanded what woman he had just been talking to? Of course the first impulse of the ingenuous boy was bold, barefaced falsehood.
“He hadn’t been talking to any woman.”
I convinced him gently that this line was useless; and then, “Oh, yes; there was a woman!” as though it had quite escaped his memory. ” Well, it was — yes, it was his aunt.”
“Oh! and what had he given her?”
It required the threat of a policeman before Skeggs admitted, as he ultimately did, that a few articles of household linen had been considerately bestowed by him upon this relative.
I may as well state here what we afterwards found out; that “a few” very inadequately described the number and variety of articles which had disappeared; evidently during some time.
Next day, I had the pleasure of visiting the school, and informing my friend the superintendent that if he didn’t at once ease me of Skeggs, I should be under the necessity of bringing the matter before a magistrate, who would not only deal with the said Skeggs, but would cancel the indenture which had bound him to me.
I was sorry, after all, for the superintendent — he seemed so east down and really grieved at the affair: but I was firm; and, to prevent the scandal, and consequent detriment to the institution, he consented to quash the indenture. He much wished me to try another boy, but to this proposal I hastily replied, “Heaven forbid!” and left the place, which I have never since entered.
Our next venture was not a bad boy like Skeggs, but he had his faults. He too was gluttonous; this, however, I find to be a peculiarity of the genus page; but it was unpleasant that this youth by gross feeding used to bring out boils upon his face to such an extent that he was often unable to wait at table. Not that this was an unmixed subject of vexation, especially when we had friends at our social board; for Edward used occasionally to take an obtrusive interest in the conversation, and alarm people by breaking out into hoarse chuckles, much behind time, at passing jokes; and cover Emma Maria and myself with confusion, either by losing himself in the contemplation of current events, or by dropping the plates and dishes.
The fact is, he was only one remove from an idiot. Skeggs’ suit of clothes was altered for him, and it appeared that he must have had some undeveloped views on the bullion question as connected with the shiny buttons thereof; for, having removed three of them from the most prominent part of his chest, with a view, I suppose, to some experiments on their nature and properties, he appeared at dinner one Sunday with two common brass flat trouser buttons and one pin, distinctly visible, in lieu of them. Notwithstanding this, there was as much placidity and self-complaisance in his face, as though his appearance presented no grounds for cavil or complaint; and his manner altogether was that of one conscious of being in all respects a perfectly appointed page.
This was trying: but it was more so to see him, when mildly questioned as to the cause of this absence of buttons, suddenly pass from absurd equanimity to idiotic despair, giving vent to the most frightful howl imaginable, and protesting that he “thought they were silver,” as if that was a good and sufficient excuse. He hadn’t sense to perceive that it was an aggravation of the offence. Well, I looked over this, had him rebuttoned, and retained him in my service. What was the consequence? One morning, in accordance with a previous arrangement with my tailor, I told Edward that a person would call for some new clothes — sent home to me in an unsatisfactory state — which he was to deliver on such application.
When I returned home, I found that the clothes were indeed gone, but whither, no one knew. It appeared that during the forenoon Edward, on opening the door, found there a man, and, idiotically jumping to a conclusion, at once said, “Oh, you’re from the tailor, I suppose, for those clothes of master’s?” To which the stranger — evidently a man capable of improving opportunity — promptly replied in the affirmative, and at once bore off the habiliments, as also an overcoat voluntarily added by our page. When the tailor’s boy — the real Simon Pure — arrived, Edward broke wildly in upon Emma Maria with a voluntary confession, the substance of which I have related. The top-coat he said he thought wanted mending, and it might as well go. This little freak cost me twelve pounds odd, and the services of Edward.
I have left myself no space to describe in detail the misdeeds of subsequent pages, and can only name three briefly: James, who in conjunction with Emma Maria’s brother, aged fourteen, and in the course of some experimental philosophy involving the use of gunpowder, set himself on fire; and had it not been for the presence of mind and body of Mary the servant, a female of great dimensions and weight, who at once knocked him down and sat upon him, he would doubtless have set the kitchen on fire also. As it was, he came from beneath Mary bald and buttonless, his clothes being utterly ruined.
Then there was Henry. Well do I remember returning one summer evening at about half-past eight, from a friend’s house, and seeing our “pretty page looking out afar,” — that is, perhaps fifty yards from our door — at a single combat between two of the youth of the neighbourhood. It was Mary’s “day out,” and Henry had been left in charge of the house. The neglected door had fortunately or unfortunately slammed-to, and I thus found myself shut out from my hearthstone and my household gods.
After attracting the delinquent’s attention to this state of things, I had to beg temporary accommodation for Emma Maria at a neighbour’s, whilst I sought a glazier. I thought myself fortunate in finding one in a neighbouring street, on his way home; and amid the jeers of the multitude, I had to superintend this individual whilst he cut out a pane of glass from the parlor window. Having thus gained access to the house, he opened the front door; but I regret to say that on the way he managed to possess himself of Emma Maria’s gold watch, which was always hung from a stand on the mantelpiece, and that I have not had the pleasure of seeing him since.
After this youth’s ignominious dismissal, came a string of pages, principally characterised by general incapacity; among them, however, stand prominently forward in my remembrance, John, who was subject to fits, poor fellow — not his fault certainly, but to some extent our misfortune.
It will be seen, when I mention our “page,” that I use the word as a noun of multitude, signifying many.
Talk of thirty-five pounds a year as the cost of a servant! I am convinced that I am within the mark, when I declare that the average annual expense of our page, or series of pages, was not one farthing under fifty pounds, taking into consideration the almost constant renewal of clothing requisite, and the damage and loss consequent upon stupidity and evil doing.
When I at length became convinced that the saving to be effected by the employment of these boys was a myth, I registered a vow — that is, I told Emma Maria — that I would no more of them, to her great delight.
We got another respectable female servant — not easy to get, my friends tell me; but we were fortunate, as we were perhaps unfortunate in our selection of boys; — at all events, never have I had occasion to repent of the resolution which I formed of abolishing and doing away with the office of “our page.”
C. P. William.