'Then good morning, Mrs. Chu. It all promises very nicely, I think. You may depend upon our taking good care of Ema, and doing our best to train her well. Naylor takes great pride in her training. You will tell Ema what I say, and impress upon her those two or three broad rules, and if she attends to those, it will be all right.'
Mrs. Chu courtesied--her best courtesy, you may be sure; for it was not every day she was honoured with an interview by so grand a personage as old Lady Melicent Bourne of the Tower House, at Hopley. She had known Lady Melicent all her life, for before she married, Mrs. Chu's own home had been at Hopley; but I hardly think this in any way lessened her awe of the great old lady--rather the opposite. And there had been no small excitement in the neat cottage beside the forge at Wharton, five miles from Hopley, when the postman brought a letter from my lady's own maid, own cousin to Mrs. Chu, the blacksmith's wife, to say that the place of under-housemaid was vacant at last, and Ema was to be sent over to be seen by Lady Melicent herself. Ema went, and was approved of, and came home with a message desiring her mother to go in her turn to the Tower House for a talk with her daughter's future mistress. For Lady Melicent was old-fashioned enough to take personal interest in her servants; even the younger ones were safe to be 'known all about' by her.
'And she said it that nicely, mother,' Ema added eagerly, for she had returned full of admiration and enthusiasm about the sweet old lady. 'You are not to ill-convenience yourself; any morning saving Friday would do, she said, from eleven to twelve, and Cousin Ellen is to see that you stay to dinner. Her ladyship remembers you as well as can be; she thinks I favour you a bit, and she hopes as I'll favour you in my ways too. And so do I, I'm sure, dear mother.'
And on the child chattered, for a child she was--not yet sixteen--and the only sister among several brothers who had joined with their parents in taking 'choice care' of little Ema. Yet she was not spoilt; her mother was too sensible to have allowed anything of that kind. Ema was unselfish, well-meaning, and straightforward, though with some weak points which her sheltered life at home had scarcely yet tested fairly.
She was standing at the cottage door--'father' allowed no hanging about the forge or gossip with the neighbours--scarcely in sight herself, but eagerly looking out for her mother, when Mrs. Chu appeared, walking rather slowly up the hill which led from the little railway station. In a moment Ema's hat was on, and she had flown to meet her mother.
'Yes, love,' said Mrs. Chu, in answer to the girl's breathless, half-unspoken inquiry. 'It's all right. You're to go on Thursday week. And a very lucky girl you are, take it all together. Eight pounds wages, to be raised to ten in a year if you stop on and do well, church and Sunday-school every Sunday, and now and then an evening service if Cousin Ellen can take you; pleasant work and not too much of it, and best of all, a real good kind lady for your mistress.'
'I don't see as how it could be nicer, and not so far from home neither,' said Ema. 'Why do you say "take it all together," mother? I see no wrong side at all.'
Mrs. Chu smiled.
'There's that to most things in this world, I misdoubt me, Emaie. But I'm rather tired, child. We'll have a talk when I've got my things off, and have rested a little. It's hot to-day, and I've been on my feet a good bit. Cousin Ellen, she would have me to see all there was to be seen--she took me round the fields and showed me the cows and the dairy and the poultry-yard and the gardens. It's a sweet place, though not large of course.'
'Lady Melicent's been there a good many years, hasn't she?' asked Ema, as they slowly ascended the hill.
'Nigh upon twenty-five. Ever since her husband's death, when she had to leave Bourne Park. She had no son, only Miss Rosalind, who's now Mrs. Vyner; so the Park went to a cousin, and my lady took the Tower House, not caring to stay as a widow too near to where she had been so happy as a wife. I remember her coming--her and Miss Rosalind--as if it had been yesterday. I was a girl of fifteen. Well, here we are, and I shall be glad to sit me down, I can tell you, Ema.'
'And there'll be a cup of tea for you in half a minute, mother. It's all ready. I set the kettle on when I heard the train whistling--and it's just on the boil now. There's some hot toast too. Father and the boys'll not be in for over an hour; we'll have nice time for our talk.'
She took her mother's shawl and bonnet and ran off with them, returning with the good woman's slippers. Then she drew close to Mrs. Chu's arm-chair the little table on which she had already set out the tea-things, and stooped for the crisp slice of toast, which she began to butter. It was all done neatly and carefully--with even more care than usual, for Ema was touched and grateful for all her mother was doing for her, and the coming event of her leaving home for the first time was casting a tender shadow over these little duties and services--a shadow which the girl hardly herself as yet understood.
'Now then, mother,' she went on, when Mrs. Chu's first cup of tea had somewhat refreshed her, 'tell me the rest. What is it you're not so sure I'll like at the Tower House?'
'Nay, child. I didn't say that. It's nothing to mind. My lady spoke most kind and sensible. There's just two or three rules she's strict about, I was to tell you, and talkin' of them'll explain other things. She will have those about her to speak the truth, first and foremost, and to be civil and respectful when they're found fault with; and if you meet with any accident, Ema--breaking or spoiling anything in your charge, you're to up and tell it, straight away. These rules she will have attended to. Others, like about being up in time in the morning, and never going out without the housekeeper's leave, you'd find in every house. But I can see that my lady's very keen about truth-speaking and no underhand ways.'
'Of course,' said Ema, with a little surprise. 'But so would any right-thinking lady be, mother.'
'I don't know as to that--there's many as don't care much so long as the work's well done, about how things go on that don't come under their own notice. But of course no lady likes things broke and not told of.'
'I'd never think of not telling, never, mother,' said Ema, proudly. 'I'd be only too anxious to make it good too, out of my own money.'
'There's many times that's impossible,' said Mrs. Chu. 'But here comes in the difficulty you may find yourself in. You'll not be under Cousin Ellen, you see, child--Mrs. Mossop, as they call her at the Tower House--being as she's the lady's-maid, but it's Naylor, the head-housemaid, you must look to. She's a good-principled woman, so my lady says, and so Ellen says; but she's inclined to be jealous, and she has a very queer temper. You must try and not put her out, and if so be as you should do so ever--for nobody's perfect--you must bear it patient, and not go complaining to Ellen. Ellen couldn't stand it, she says so herself: it'd make such trouble, and my lady couldn't have it neither. So it won't be all roses, Ema, but still nothing so very bad after all. A little patience, and taking care to be quite straightforward, and you'll make your way.'
Ema looked grave.
'Do you mean, mother, that if I broke anything by accident I must tell Naylor and no one else? I'm sure I hope I shan't break anything; but if I did, I'd much rather tell Cousin Ellen, or even my lady herself. She seems that kind.'
'Well, but that's just what you mustn't do, my dear. It'd make ever such a deal of trouble. If there was anything very serious--but that I hope there never would be--you might better tell her ladyship than Ellen. It would never do to vex her, so kind as she is, and speakin' for you for the place and all--and it would never do to trouble Lady Melicent if you could possibly make shift without. You must just try and be very careful, Ema, and don't go and get afraid of Naylor; she's a good woman at heart.'
'Yes,' said the girl, 'I'll do my best;' but she gave a little sigh nevertheless. There is no such thing as perfect happiness in this world, Ema was beginning to find.
The next few days were full of bustle, rather pleasant bustle than otherwise. There were her 'things' to see to, one or two new dresses to get made, the choosing of which had been deferred till her prospects were certain, though Mrs. Chu was far too neat and methodical not to have the rest of her daughter's modest wardrobe in good order. There was the purchase of her box, and the presenting of different little gifts by her brothers and some of her school-fellows; there was the bidding goodbye to the neighbours, and the farewell tea-drinking in the vicarage nursery, where Ema was a great favourite, and had sometimes spent a few days when extra help had been needed. Altogether the little maiden felt herself something of a heroine in her way, and though the tears were not very far off when the eventful Thursday came, she managed to keep them from falling, and to wave back a last goodbye to mother, with a smiling face, from the window of the third-class railway carriage as the train whizzed out of Wharton station.
She had hardly time to realise she was off before it pulled up again at Hopley. Ema could almost have found it in her heart to wish she had been going a little farther away; it would have seemed rather grander! But here she was; and there was Cousin Ellen on the platform looking out for her, a vision which Ema was by no means sorry to see, in spite of her valour.
'How good of you to come to meet me, Cousin Ellen!' said the girl gratefully, as she kissed her.
'I thought you'd be glad to have me,' said Mossop, as we must call her. She glanced round a little nervously as she spoke. The Tower House dog-cart was standing at the gate, and a young groom was directing the porter to lift up the box. He was scarcely within earshot, but Mossop lowered her voice. 'I just wanted to tell you, Ema, love,' she said, 'you must call me Mrs. Mossop now as the others do. And I must not seem to favour you, you know--mother explained, didn't she?'
'Yes,' said Ema, 'yes, cou----, Mrs. Mossop I mean. I'll be particular,' but her heart sank a little--it seemed so formal and strange. Mossop saw the look on her face.
'Don't look so frightened, dear,' she said. 'You'll get used to it all, soon. Only I wanted you to understand, so that you won't feel hurt if I treat you just as I would another in your place. Now jump in--that's right. Yes, thank you, Joseph, that's all,' and off they drove.
It was not quite strange to Ema. She had been several times at Hopley, and once, as we have seen, to the Tower House. But places wear a different air when we know we have come to them 'for good,' and though all looked bright and pleasant that still summer afternoon, Ema caught herself wondering if she would ever think Hopley as pretty as Wharton, or the newly-restored church, of which she caught a glimpse through the trees, as beautiful as the old, ivy-covered one 'at home.'
There was no question of seeing Lady Melicent that evening, but to Ema the making acquaintance with her seven or eight fellow-servants was even more formidable. Naylor, a thin, grave-faced, middle-aged woman, shook hands with her civilly enough, and told Betsy the kitchenmaid to take her up to the bedroom they were to share together. Then came tea in the servants' hall, at which Mrs. Mossop was not present. But the others were kindly, and after it was over Naylor took her up-stairs and showed her what there was to do in the evening, adding that she had better get her box unpacked, so as to be ready to begin work regularly the next morning.
'And if there's anything you don't understand,' the upper-housemaid went on, 'be sure you ask me. Don't go on muddling for want of a word or two.'
'Thank you,' said Ema. But she felt rather confused. The house seemed very large to her, and compared with the vicarage at Wharton, which had been hitherto her model of elegance and spaciousness, it was so. And being rambling and old-fashioned, it appeared to a stranger larger than it really was.
'The first thing you have to do of a morning is to sweep and dust my lady's "boudore,"' said Naylor, 'and the book-room at the end of the passage opening from it. Then you'll come to me in the drawing-room, and I'll show you what to do. But there's no need for you to touch the ornaments, neither in the "boudore" nor the book-room. I do those myself, the last thing when the rooms are finished.'
'Yes, thank you,' said Ema again.
'My lady is very particular about her china. She has some very rare, though the best is behind glass and under lock and key, I'm glad to say.'
Then she sent the girl off to her unpacking, which would not have taken her long had she not lost her way by wandering up a wrong stair, and having to come down again to the kitchen to ask for Betsy's guidance, which made all the servants laugh except Naylor, who looked rather sour. But she smoothed down again when Ema reappeared in a quarter of an hour, armed with her little work-box, to announce that her things were all arranged, and she was ready to do any sewing required. Naylor soon found her some pillowcases in want of repair, and Ema sat quietly at work till supper, for her, soon followed by bedtime.
And so her first evening passed, and if some tears fell on her Testament as she read her verses, they were not very many nor bitter.
'I'll do my best,' she thought, 'and it'll be nice to write home in a few days and tell dear mother and all, that I'm getting on well.'