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
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
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
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, without appearing to make the least effect upon her. This woman of thirty was very strong and had no difficulty in getting the better of a poor little child of my age. She gave me some sound cuffs on the ears which made me giddy. Then she put me down on the ground so violently that I almost had a fall. She gave me this order:
"Unbutton your clothes!"
"What?" said I, in astonishment.
"Take your knickerbockers down!"
I was about to obey her mechanically, when I was seized with a transport of anger and began stamping and shrieking. She then said:
"You refuse to obey me?"
"Why yes! I do refuse... You must be mad.
"Very well!" she replied. "You shall pay for this impertinence and for your rudeness at lunch at the same time."
In the twinkling of an eye, her quick fingers, in spite of her gloves, had unbuttoned my knickerbockers which she then proceeded to pull down to my heels. Pulling up my shirt, she laid me across her knees and gave me a very sound spanking which made me bellow and shriek. The slaps fell thick and loud while she cried to me:
"Shriek away, my young gentleman! Shriek as much as you like. No one will come to your aid. Presently I'm going to give you good reasons for crying yourself hoarse. That I promise you!"
After soundly spanking me, she set me on my feet again and
told me to
open the drawer of the sideboard, take the birch-rod which I should see
there and bring it to her. Instead of obeying her, I rushed away, as
she released me, nearly falling at full length on the floor
on account of having my knickers down, and took refuge in the farthest corner of the room. With my face turned to the wall, I began to cry bitterly.
"I One! Two!... Are you going to obey?"
I trembled at her voice and sobbing more than ever, as though my head was splitting, went to the sideboard. On finding the drawer, I was seized with a new fit of passion and crying worse, than ever, took refuge once more in my corner:
She got up, seized the rod herself, and holding me by the ear, led me back to the chair. She then made me go down on my knees in front of her, and holding my head between her knees, she flogged me during long minutes, paying no heed whatever to my tears and entreaties.
"Another time I shall flog you till the blood comes, naughty little rascal! It's the only way to make you mend your ways."
I shrieked, rolling on the ground. She told me to get
up. I did not want to listen to another word and lay where I
was. Leaning down over me, she inflicted a caress on
which far from calming me, unnerved me more than ever and made me fall into a state of dull stupefaction.
She dried my eyes, washed my face in cold water and led me back to the drawing-room, where ready to die wretchedness and grief, I seated myself apart from my mother and Mr. Baker who at first paid no attention to me. It was only after some minutes that my mother glanced at me attentively, saying:
"Look at him! One would think he had been crying."
Mr. Baker, who was seated in a revolving arm-chair with his back towards me, slowly wheeled rond. In his turn, he gazed at me, but in a contemptuous way which set my heart thumping. He laughed sarcastically, and then suggested:
"Let him alone. It only makes him conceited when attention is paid to him. I quite understand what it is. He's been impertinent and Betsy has punished him. She has a heavy hand - the wench!"
His face bore a strange expression as he said those words,
seemed to me as though
he were menacing me. My mother must have understood the words in the same way, for I saw her redden and lower her head in confusion. Rising to her feet, she looked at Mr. Baker apprehensively; so, at any rate, I interpreted her glance. Later, when the course of events had brought me light, I remembered that my childish intuition had not been at fault. My boyish mind did not easily reach this conclusion which I found very astonishing. I was so absorbed in my reflections on the matter that I trembled at hearing myself addressed in a stern voice by Mr. Baker.
"Well! your wits have gone woolgathering? Listen tome and have done with your blue devil's stare! It is important that you should hear what I say to you. I have known your mother for a long time. She was my mistress during your father's lifetime."
My mother tried to interrupt him.
"Oh! Joe..." was all she could say.
As for me, without precisely understanding the meaning of the words, I saw that they contained something insulting to my father's memory and in my grief I burst into a storm of sobs.
My mother cried, too, and ran to me to take me in her arms, I avoided her and as she ran to me to take me in her arms, I put out my arms to push her away.
Mr. Baker again burst into a hard unpleasant laugh.
"Ha! Ha! He doesn't want you to come near him. Leave him alone, or I
shall ask Betsy to take you into the Punishment Room. As for you young
man, this is what I have got to say to you. I have
decided to marry your mother. The ceremony will take place nest week. But I should
be ashamed to show my friends a big boy so badly brought up as
you. So you won't take part in the rejoicings. As your
education has been horribly neglected and you cannot imitate your
father's good manners because he hadn't got any, it is high time for me
to think of crushing your stubborn will and teaching you how to behave
in society. I have got money, and I am quite willing
to spend a large sum in so praiseworthy an
object. That is the reason why you will go to school
tomorrow. You will be very comfortable there, for the
establishment of Mrs. Flayskin is well
managed. I may even say that it is a perfectly aristocratic boarding-school where you will meet with the heirs and heiresses to the greatest titles of the United Kingdom and to the biggest fortunes of America. If you behave yourself well and make progress; in a word, if the mistress declares herself satisfied with your conduct, you will pass your holidays with us. I don't think you are a bad child. You love your mother. That is good. Only, in your own interest, you must bend your unruly spirit. While there is yet time, you must uproot, your instincts of revolt. Your understand then? To morrow you will leave the house. Betsy will take you. Come, give me your hand and let us be friends."
But already, like one distraught, shrieking in despair; my whole body convulsed with sobs, I had made a rush for the door wishing to flee this accursed house for ever. My idea was to gain the street and then go on foot to our own house to find once more the abode where my beloved father had died. Through the tears obscuring my sight I recognised Betsy. My childish fits were doubled in vain.
They were powerless against those strong arms cased in black kid.
No sooner had I reached the outer door, than I felt myself caught in a vigorous grip.