A Chance Meeting . . . . part 3

Mrs Foster, a thin, grey-haired woman with a pale complexion and hard dark eyes, listened silently to Mr Broome’s report, her face quite expressionless, and when he had left she kept Dorothea standing in the middle of the room for several minutes before she looked her in the eye.
‘Have I made a mistake relying on Mrs Small’s recommendation?’ she asked. Knowing she was not expected to reply, Dorothea said nothing, but she refused to be cowed and returned her look calmly while the housekeeper got up and walked over to the window. Looking out, she spoke without turning her head, ‘Since I am not one to break a promise lightly I will keep the promise I made to her. But I wonder if you have the right attitude for an under-housemaid, Small. Like Mr Broome I shall be watching you carefully, and if you do not come up to my standards – and I assure you they are extremely high – you will be returned to your mother in disgrace.’

~  ~  ~  ~  ~

In the next month all Dorothea’s worst fears proved to be true. She was given the smallest of the servants’ attic rooms. That in itself wasn’t a problem, at home she shared a room with two sisters, and to have even the tiniest space to herself was a luxury; but the ceiling was so low she could hardly stand up straight, there was only a tiny square of glass in the end wall which couldn’t be opened, and the room smelled of damp and mould. What was infuriating about it was that a much larger more airy room right next to hers was empty and the unfairness of it galled her spirit.

Rose, the house-maid under whom she would be working, would have been friendly enough in normal circumstances, but she wasn’t prepared to put herself out for someone who was clearly in Mrs Foster’s bad books, so although she explained Dorothea’s duties and gave her her orders each morning, she remained cool and distant, not speaking to her unless she had to. That was disappointing, but it could be born; then on her third day she was called into Mrs Foster’s room and discovered that she was considered to be on probation.

‘I trust you have been instructed in your duties, Small?’

‘Yes, Mrs Foster.’

‘Good. Rose will be reporting to me regularly on your work and behaviour. If you prove yourself suitable by working well and making no trouble for a month, you will then have one afternoon off each week – by which I mean you can go out from one-thirty to four-thirty.’

Dorothea’s heart sank, taking with it all her hopes, and in her concern about what Henry would think if she didn’t make contact with him, she hardly heard the rest of Mrs Foster’s words.

‘That is all you will be allowed for the time being. It will give you time to take the air in the park, but you must not imagine there will be time to go beyond Richmond. You are too young and inexperienced to be permitted to put yourself in the way of the dangers which with London is filled. We are responsible to your aunt and mother for your safety and well-being, and in any case Mr and Mrs Gordon do not approve of their staff gallivanting off into the city.’

She rose from her chair, ushered Dorothea to the door, and said, ‘Now, back to your work, and no moping or wasting time.’

For the rest of the week Dorothea felt as if she were trapped in a pit of despair. She could have written a letter to Henry, she had his father’s card tucked safely in her bag and enough money for a stamp, but she didn’t know how she could get it to the post. She was certain that should she ask Rose, or even one of the kitchen maids to take it for her, it would immediately be reported to Mrs Foster, and the name and address on it would provoke a storm of disapproval. Another anxiety which was troubling her was the conviction that when the month was over she would have great difficulty in obtaining permission to borrow books from the lending library. It was common practice for servants to be asked to provide a recommendation from their employer before they were permitted to take books out. That was, she knew, only good sense; books were expensive, and should they be damaged or go missing they were hard to replace.
But she would have to ask Mrs Foster to ask Mr Broome to put her request before Mr or Mrs Gordon, and she imagined it wouldn’t get beyond the housekeeper’s room. Indeed merely to make the request would probably be seen as evidence that she didn’t know her place and was unsuited for it.

For two days she pondered the idea of writing to her aunt and asking her to pass on an enclosure to Henry, but in the end she decided she couldn’t risk it. She had only met her a few times, wasn’t particularly close to her, and didn’t know whether she approved of her having been taught by her father to read and write and take an interest in serious books.

For several nights she slept badly, with anxious dreams troubling her sleep, woke up tired, and found it a struggle to get through the day. Then one of the kitchen maids accused her of being above herself.

Bewildered, she replied, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean. I don’t intend to be anything of the kind.’

‘There, yer see. It’s jus wot I said ter Mary. Yer talks posh, and yer doesn’t sit and chat with us of an ev’nin’. “Intend,” wot kinda word’s that fer an ‘ousemaid. Say wot yer mean plain, an’ stop lookin’ down on us.’
. . . . . . . . . . . to be continued


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