Guilty by Ralph Henry Barbour
It was my first place and my last, and I don’t think we should have got on in business as we have if it hadn’t been for me being for six or seven years with one of the first families in the county. Though only a housemaid, you can’t help learning something of their ways. At any rate, you learn what gentlefolks like, and what they can’t abide. But the worst of being housemaid where there’s a lot of servants kept is, that one or other or all of the men-servants is sure to be wanting to keep company with you. They have nothing else to do in their spare time, and I suppose it’s handy having your sweetheart living in the house. It doesn’t give you so much trouble with going out in the evening, if not fine.
The coachman was promised to the cook, which, I believe, often takes place. Tim, the head groom, was a very nice, genteel fellow, and I daresay I might have taken up with him, if I hadn’t met with my James, though never with John, who was the plague of my life. To begin with, he had a black whisker, that I couldn’t bear to look at, let alone putting one’s face against it, as I should have had to have done when married, no doubt. And he had a roving black eye, very yellowy in the white of it, and hair that looked all black and bear’s-greasy, though he always said he never put anything on it except a little bay rum in moderation.
They tell me I was a pretty girl enough in those days, though looks is less important than you might think to a housemaid, if only she dresses neat and has a small waist. And I suppose I must think that John really did love me in his scowling, black whiskery way. He was a good footman, I will say that, and had been with the master three years, and the best of characters; but whatever he might have thought, I never would have had anything to do with him, even if James and me had had seas between us broad a-rolling for ever and ever Amen. He asked me once and he asked me twice, and it was ‘no’ and ‘no’ again. And I had even gone so far as to think that perhaps I should have to give up a good place to get out of his way, when master’s uncle, old Mr. Oliver, and his good lady, came to stay at the Court, and with them came James, who was own man to Mr. Oliver.
Mr. Oliver was the funniest-looking old gent I ever see, if I may say so respectfully. He was as bald as an egg, with a sort of frill of brown hair going from ear to ear behind; and as if that wasn’t enough, he was shaved as clean as a whistle, as though he had made up his mind that people shouldn’t say that it had all gone to beard and whiskers, anyway. He wrote books, a great many of them, and you may often see his name in the papers, and he was for ever poking about into what didn’t concern him, and my Lady, she said to me when she found me a little put out at him asking about how things went on in the servants’ hall, she said to me–
‘You mustn’t mind him, Mary,’ she said; ‘you know he likes to find out all that he can about everything, so as to put it in his books.’
And he certainly talked to every one he came across–even the stable-boys–in a way that you could hardly think becoming from a gentleman to servants, if he wasn’t an author, and so to have allowances made for him, poor man! He talked to the housemaids, and he talked to the groom, and he talked to the footman that waited on him at lunch when he had it late, as he did sometimes, owing to him having been kept past the proper time by his story-writing, for he wrote a good part of the day most days, and often went up to London while he was staying with us–to sell his goods, I suppose. He wore curious clothes, not like most gentlemen, but all wool things, even to his collars and his boots, which were soft and soppy like felt; and he took snuff to that degree I wouldn’t have believed any human nose could have borne it, and he must have been a great trial to Mrs. Oliver until she got used to him and his pottering about all over the house in his soft-soled shoes; and the mess he made of his pocket-handkerchieves and his linen!
Mrs. Oliver was a round little fat bunch of a woman, if I may say so in speaking of master’s own aunt by marriage, and him a baronet. She had the most lovely jewellery, and was very fond of wearing it of an evening, more than most people do when they are staying with relations and there’s no company. She never spoke much except to say, ‘Yes, Dick dear,’ and ‘No, Dick dear,’ when they spoke to each other; but they were as fond of each other as pigeons on a roof, and always very pleasant-spoken and nice to wait on.
As for James, he was the jolliest man I ever met, and cook said the same. He was like Sam Weller in the book, or would have been if he had lived in those far-off times; but footmen are more genteel now than they were then.
Anyway, he hadn’t been at the Court twenty-four hours before he was first favourite with every one, and cook made him a Welsh rabbit with her own hands, ’cause he hadn’t been able to get his dinner comfortable with the rest of us–a thing she wouldn’t have done for Sir William himself at that time of night. As for me, the first time he looked at me with his jolly blue eyes–it was when he met me carrying a tray the first morning after he came–my heart gave a jump inside my print gown, and I said to it as I went downstairs– ‘You’ve met your master, I’m thinking’; and if I did go to church with him the very first Sunday, which was more than ever I had done with any of the others, it was after he had asked me plain and straight to go to church with him some day for good and all.
Now, the next morning, quite early, I was dusting the library, when John come in with his black face like a thundercloud.
‘Look here, Mary,’ he says; ‘what do you mean by going to church with that stuck-up London trumpery?’
‘Mind your own business,’ says I, sharp as you please.
‘I am,’ he says. ‘You are my business–the only business I care a damn about, or am ever likely to. You don’t know how I love you, Mary,’ he says. And I was sorry for him as he spoke. ‘I would lie down in the dirt for you to walk on if it would do you any good, so long as you didn’t walk over me to get to some other chap.’
‘I am very sorry for you, John,’ says I, ‘but I’ve told you, not once or twice, but fifty times, that it can never be. And there are plenty of other girls that would be only too glad to walk out with a young man like you without your troubling yourself about me.’
He was walking up and down the room like a cat in a cage. Presently he began to laugh in a nasty, sly, disagreeable way.
‘Oh! you think he’ll marry you, do you?’ says he. ‘But he’s just amusing himself with you till he gets back to London to his own girl. You let him see you was only amusing yourself with him, and you come out with me when you get your evening.’
And he took the dusting-brush out of my hand, and caught hold of my wrists.
‘It’s all a lie!’ I cried; ‘and I wonder you can look me in the face and tell it. Him and me are going to be married as soon as he has saved enough for a little public, and I never want to speak to you again; and if you don’t let go of my hands, I’ll scream till I fetch the house down, master and all, and then where will you be?’
He scowled at that, but he let my hands go directly.
‘Have it your own way,’ he said. ‘But I tell you, you won’t marry him, and you’ll find he won’t want to marry you, and you’ll marry me, my girl. And when you have married me, you shall cry your eyes out for every word you have said now.’
‘Oh, shall I, Mr. Liar?’ says I, for my blood was up; ‘before that happens, you’ll have to change him into a liar and me into a fool and yourself into an honest man, and you’ll find that the hardest of all.’ And with that I threw the dusting-brush at him–which was a piece of wicked temper I oughtn’t to have given way to–and ran out of the door, and I heard him cursing to himself something fearful as I went down the passage.
‘Good thing the gentlefolks are abed still,’ I said to myself; and I didn’t tell a soul about it, even cook, the truth being I was ashamed to.
Well, everything went on pretty much the same as usual for two or three weeks, and I thought John was getting the better of his silliness, because he made a show of being friendly to James and was respectful to me, even when we was alone. Then came that dreadful day that I shall never forget if I live to be a hundred years old. Dinner was half an hour later than usual on account of Mr. Oliver having gone up to town on his business; but he didn’t get home when expected, and they sat down without him after all. I was about my work, turning down beds and so forth, and I had done Mrs. Oliver’s about ten minutes, and was in my lady’s room, when Mrs. Oliver’s own maid came running in with a face like paper.
‘Oh, what ever shall I do?’ she cried, wringing her hands, as they say in books, and I always thought it nonsense, but she certainly did, though I never saw any one do it before or since.
‘What is it?’ I asked her.
‘It’s my mistress’s diamond necklace,’ she said. ‘She was going to wear it to-night. And then she said, No, she wouldn’t; she’d have the emeralds, and I left it on the dressing-table instead of locking it up, and now it’s gone!’
I went into Mrs. Oliver’s room with her, and there was the jewel-box with the pretty shining things turned out on the dressing-table, for Mrs. Oliver had a heap of jewellery that had come to her from her own people, and she as fond of wearing it as if she was slim and twenty, instead of being fifty, and as round as an orange. We looked on the dressing-table and we looked on the floor, and we looked in the curtains to see if it had got in any of them. But look high, look low, no diamond necklace could we find. So at last Scott–that was Mrs. Oliver’s maid–said there was nothing for it but to go and tell her mistress. The ladies were in the drawing-room by this time. So she went down all of a tremble, and in the hall there was Mrs. Oliver looking anxious out of the front door, which was open, it being summer and the house standing in its own park.
‘Mr. Oliver is very late, Scott,’ she says. ‘I am getting anxious about him.’
And as she spoke, and before Scott could answer, there was his step on the gravel, and he came in at the front door with his little black bag in his hand that I suppose he carried his stories in to see if people would like to buy them.
‘Hullo! Scott,’ he says, ‘have you seen a ghost?’ And, indeed, she looked more dead than alive. She gulped in her throat, but she could not speak.
‘Here, young woman,’ says Mr. Oliver to me, ‘you haven’t lost your head altogether. What’s it all about?’
So I told him as well as I could, and by this time master had come out and my Lady, and you never saw any one so upset as they were. All the house was turned out of window, hunting for the necklace; though, of course, not having legs, it couldn’t have walked by itself out of Mrs. Oliver’s room. All the servants was called up, even to the kitchen-maid; and those who were not angry, were frightened, and, what with fright and anger, there wasn’t one of us, I do believe, as didn’t look as they had got the necklace on under their clothes that very minute. John was very angry indeed. ‘Do they think we’d take their dirty necklace?’ he said, as we were going up. ‘It’s enough to ruin all of us, this kind of thing happening, and leaving the doors open so that any one could get in and walk clear off with it without a stain on their character, and us left with none to speak of’
So when master had asked us all a lot of questions, and we were told we could go, John stepped out and said–
‘I am sure I am only expressing the feelings of my fellow-servants when I say that we should wish our boxes searched and our rooms, so that there shall be no chance for any one to say afterwards that it lays at any of our doors.’
And Mrs. Oliver began to cry, and she said ‘No, no, she wouldn’t put that insult on any one.’ But Mr. Oliver, who hadn’t been saying much, though so talkative generally, but kept taking snuff at a rate that was dreadful to see, he said–
‘The young man is quite right, my dear; and if you don’t mind,’ he says to master, ‘I think it had better be done.’
And so it was done, and I don’t know how to write about it now, though it was never true. They came to my room and they looked into all my drawers and boxes except my little hat-tin, and when they wanted the key of that, I said, silly-like, not having any idea that they could think that I could do such a thing, ‘I’d rather you didn’t look into that. It’s only some things I don’t want any one to see.’
And the reason was that I’d got some bits of things in it that I’d got the week before in the town towards getting my things for the wedding ready, and I felt somehow I didn’t want any one to see them till James did. And they all looked very queer at me when I said that, and my Lady said–
‘Mary, give me the key at once.’
So I did, and oh! I shall never forget it. They took out the flannel, and the longcloth and things, and the roll of embroidery that I was going to trim them with, and rolled inside that, if you’ll believe me, there was the necklace like a shining snake coiled up. I never said a word, being struck silly. I didn’t cry or even say anything as people do in books when these things happen to them; but Mrs. Oliver burst out crying, God bless her for it! and my Lady said, ‘O Mary, I’d never have believed it of you any more than I would of myself!’
And Mr. Oliver he said to master, ‘Have all the servants into the library, William. Perhaps some one else is in it too.’
But nobody said a word to say that it wasn’t me, and indeed how could they?
I should think it’s like being had up for murder, standing there in the library with all the servants holding off from me as if I had got something catching, and master and my Lady and Mr. and Mrs. Oliver in leather armchairs, all of a row, looking like a bench of magistrates. I could not think, though I tried hard–I could only feel as if I was drowning and fighting for breath.
‘Now, Mary,’ says Master, ‘what have you got to say?’
‘I never touched it, sir,’ I said; ‘I never put it there; I don’t know who did; and may God forgive them, for I never could.’
Then my Lady said, ‘Mary, I can hardly believe it of you even now, but why wouldn’t you let us have the key of your box?’
Then I turned hot and cold all of a minute, and I looked round, and there wasn’t a face that looked kind at me except Mr. Oliver’s, and he nodded at me, taking snuff all over his fat white waistcoat.
‘Speak up, girl,’ he said, ‘speak up.’
So then I said, ‘I’m a-going to be married, my Lady, and it was bits of things I’d got towards my wedding clothes.’
I looked at James to see if he believed it, and his face was like lead, and his eyes wild that used to be so jolly, and to see him look like that made my heart stand still, and I cried out–
‘O my God, strike me down dead, for live I can’t after this!’
And at that, James spoke up, and he said, speaking very quick and steady, ‘I wish to confess that I took it, and I put it in her box, thinking to take it away again after. We were to have been married, and I wanted the money to start in a little pub.’
And everybody stood still, and you could have heard a pin drop, and Mr. Oliver went on nodding his head and taking snuff till I could have killed him for it; and I looked at James, and I could have fallen at his feet and worshipped him, for I saw in a minute why he said it. He believed it was me, and he wanted to save me. So then I said to master–
‘The thing was found in my box, sir, and I’ll take the consequences if I have to be hanged for it. But don’t you believe a word James says. He never touched it. It wasn’t him.’
‘How do you know it wasn’t him,’ says master very sharp. ‘If you didn’t take it, how do you know who did?’
‘How do I know?’ I cried, forgetting for a moment who I was speaking to. ‘Why, if you’d half a grain of sense among the lot of you, you’d know why I know it’s not him. If you felt to a young man like I feel to James, you’d know in your heart that he could not have done such a thing, not if there was fifty diamond necklaces found in fifty pockets on him at the same time.’
They said nothing, but Mr. Oliver chuckled in his collar till I’d have liked to strangle him with my two hands round his fat throat. And I went on–
‘I’m as sure he didn’t do it as I am that I didn’t do it myself, and as he would have been that I didn’t if he had really loved me, as he said, instead of believing that I could do such a thing, and trying to save me with a black lie–God bless him for it.’
And James he never looked at me, but he said again, ‘Don’t mind her–she’s off her head with fright about me. You send me off to prison as soon as you like, sir.’
And still none of the others spoke, but Mr. Oliver leaned back in his chair, and he clapped his hands softly as though he was at a play. ‘Bravo!’ he says, ‘bravo!’
And the others looked at him as if they thought he had gone out of his mind.
‘It’s a very pretty drama, very nicely played, but now it’s time to put an end to it. Do you want to see the villain?’ he says to master, and master never answering him, only staring, he turned quite sharp and sudden and pointed to John as he stood near the door with his black eyes burning like coals. ‘You took it,’ said Mr. Oliver, ‘and you put it in Mary’s box. Oh! you needn’t start. I know it’s true without that.’
John had started, but he pulled himself together in a minute. The man had pluck, I will say that. He spoke quite firm and respectful. ‘And why should I have done that, sir, if you please, when all the house knows that I have been courting Mary fair and honest this two year?’
Mr. Oliver tapped his snuff-box and grinned all over his big smooth face. ‘When you do your courting fair and honest, young man, you should be careful not to do it in the library with the window open. I was in the verandah, and I heard you threaten that she should never marry James, and that she should marry you; and that you would be revenged on her for her bad taste in preferring him to you.’
John drew a deep breath. ‘That’s nothing, sir, is it?’ he says to master. ‘Every one in the house knows I have been sorry for a hasty word, and have been the best friends with both of them for these three weeks.’
Mr. Oliver got up and put his snuff-box on the table, and his hands in his trouser pockets. ‘You can send for the police, William,’ he said to master, ‘because as a matter of fact, I saw the black-whiskered gentleman with the necklace in his hand. I did get home late to-night, but not so late as you thought, and I came in through the open door and was up in my dressing-room when that scoundrel sneaked into my wife’s room and took the necklace to ruin an innocent girl with. What a thorough scoundrel you are, though, aren’t you?’ he said to John.
Then John, he shrugged his shoulders as much as to say, ‘It’s all up now,’ and he said to Mr. Oliver very politely, ‘You are always fond of poking your nose into other people’s business, sir, and I daresay you’d like to know why I did it. Oh yes. You know everything, you do,’ says John, growing very white, and speaking angry and quick, ‘with your writing, and your snuff, and your gossiping with the servants, which no gentleman would do, and your nasty, sneaking, Jaeger-felt boots, and your silly old tub of a wife. I knew that smooth-spoken man of yours would believe anything against her, and I knew he would never marry her after a set-out like this, and I knew I should get her when she found I stuck to her through it all, as I should have done, and as I would have done too, if she had taken fifty diamond necklaces.’
‘Send for the police,’ said master, but nobody moved. For Mrs. Oliver, who had been crying like a waterworks ever since we came down into the library, said quite sudden, ‘O Dick dear! let him go. Don’t prosecute him. See, he’s lost everything, and he’s lost her, and he must have been mad with love for her or he wouldn’t have done such a thing.’
Now, wasn’t that a true lady to speak up like that for him after what he’d said of her? Mr. Oliver looked surprised at her speaking up like that, her that hardly ever said a word except ‘Yes, Dick dear,’ and ‘No, Dick dear,’ and then he shrugs his shoulders and he says, ‘You are right, my dear, he’s punished enough.’
And John turned to go like a dog that has been whipped; but at the door he faced round, and he said to Mrs. Oliver, ‘You’re a good woman, and I’m sorry I said what I did about you. But for the other I’m not sorry, not if it was my last word.’
And with that he went out of the room, and out of the house through the front door. He had no relations and he had no friends, and I suppose he had nowhere to go with his character gone, and so it happened that was truly his last word as far as any one knows. For he was found next morning on the level-crossing after the down express had passed.
You never saw such a fuss as every one made of me and James afterwards. I might have been a queen and him a king. But when it was all over it stuck in my mind that he oughtn’t to have doubted me, and so I wouldn’t name the day for over a year, though Mrs. Oliver had bought him a nice little hotel and given it to him herself; but when the year was up, Mr. and Mrs. Oliver came down to stay again, and seeing them brought it all back, and his having tried to save me as he had seemed more than his having doubted me. And so I married him, and I don’t think any one ever made a better match. James says he made a better match, and if I don’t agree with him, it’s only right and proper that he should think so, and I thank God that he does every hour of my life.