For several nights Dorothea 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 at us.’
Dorothea was too flustered to know how to respond to this. Her father, who’d started out as an under clerk in a tailor’s business in Birmingham had taken every opportunity that offered to educate himself, and had been encouraged in the attempt by his employer. He’d already been promoted once and was set to rise again when he was killed in an accident in New Street. One of the first things he’d learned was to speak well and he’d insisted his children do the same, both the girls and the boys. Of course she knew how to speak Brummy, she’d used it when she was younger and played with other children in the street, but it hadn’t occurred to her to try to talk like the other girls in the Gordon’s house.
‘I’m sorry, Betty,’ she stammered. ‘I didn’t meant to be unfriendly. I’m a bit homesick, and by the end of the day I’m so tired I just want to go to bed.’ She tried a smile, ‘I could talk Brummy, if you want, but I don’t think you’d understand it any better.’
‘Well, I dunno,’ Betty muttered. ‘I guess yer might be missin’ yer mam an all, an Brummy’s no good ‘ere, so I s’pose yer’ll ‘ave to carry on talkin’ posh if yer wants ter talk to us at all.’
With a bit of effort on both sides, better relationships were slowly forged; Dorothea agreed to be called Dot – apparently even her name was too posh – and was careful not to use anything but the simplest words when talking with Mary and Betty. At last the month crawled to its end and she was summoned to Mrs Foster’s sitting room again.
‘Well, Small, it seems you’ve been doing your work well. Rose is satisfied, and apart from a couple of complaints from the kitchen staff about your attitude, it appears you’ve settled in well.’ A small smile showed on her face for a second. ‘So, beginning this next week, I think we can let you have some time off. Once luncheon is over you may have three hours every Sunday afternoon.’
‘Oh, but. . .’ Despite her best efforts and her resolution not to do anything which might annoy the housekeeper, the exclamation of dismay was out before she could stop it.
‘Well, Miss Small? I see you are not satisfied. Is our generosity not enough for you?’ The atmosphere in the room had turned glacial, and the look on Mrs Foster’s face was enough to turn any self-respecting servant to stone.
‘Yes, of course, er. . .forgive me, Mrs Foster, the hours are um, most generous.’ Dorothea was reduced to stammering incoherence.
‘And yet you seemed displeased with them. Perhaps you would condescend to explain.’
‘It’s nothing, nothing at all. I had hoped to visit the lending library, but it’s not important,’ she lied, knowing that she wasn’t a good lier – her face always gave her away.
‘If you think you have time to waste in reading, perhaps we haven’t given you enough work to do, Miss Small. I think I shall have to reconsider your situation.’ The housekeeper walked to the door, opened it, and said, ‘Stand here in the passage. I will return shortly.’
Numb with shock and dismay Dorothea waited, and the moments ticked past. If only she’d managed to keep quiet. It was true what they said, she wasn’t suited to this position, she had too high an opinion of herself. But she couldn’t help who she was, and she wasn’t asking much, only an hour or two in which she could read, an hour or two which might carry her beyond this. . .this prison of ignorance and stultifying convention. The words gave her a grim satisfaction – even if she must talk as if she were an ignorant nothing, even if her tongue had to be crippled, her thoughts were free.
The time seemed to stretch out forever. What was happening? Who was Mrs Foster talking with? At last, almost half an hour later Mrs Foster reappeared accompanied by Winnie, the woman in charge of the laundry.
‘Winnie, Dorothea here, is under-employed, so she will come to you every Sunday after luncheon, and do whatever mending is required until her other duties call her away. I’m afraid you will have to supervise her until you are satisfied with her sewing; but once you are, you may have the afternoon off. Apparently Small doesn’t want free time on a Sunday. Let me know how she gets on, and if there are any difficulties report them to me at once.’
Turning away to go into her room, she said over her shoulder, ‘You may go back to your work, Small.’
Winnie, shook her head in incomprehension, and hurried off without speaking. She knew better than to commiserate with someone under threat of losing their place.
Next Sunday as she stitched at a pile of pillowcases, it was no comfort to Dorothea to know that she had put herself in this situation. If only she’d restrained her impulsiveness and been patient for a few weeks, she might have been able to arrange an exchange of free time with someone else; but now Mrs Foster would be careful never to let her out of the house at any time when the lending library was open. She could see no hope of improvement in her position.
Indeed even her other duties had been re-arranged so as to ensure she could not possibly come into contact with Mr and Mrs Gordon. Rose did almost all the visible work, while Dorothea fetched and carried, tidied, cleaned and polished before they rose in the morning or when they were out. Inevitably she was now forbidden to go into Mr Gordon’s study on any pretext – not that tidying and dusting it had been a part of her duties, Rose had always done that while Dorothea merely cleared the grate and laid a fresh fire.
She attempted to be patient and willing to do whatever was asked of her. She smiled at her fellow servants, but didn’t put herself forward or offer her opinion on any subject discussed in the downstairs hall. To all outward appearances she had learned her lesson and was swiftly becoming a model house-maid; but inside she felt as if she was suffocating, and by the end of her third month at Richmond it was noticed that she was eating little and looking distinctly peaky.
‘I’m very well, thank you,’ she said when, one day while they were alone, Betty asked if she was alright.
‘Yer not lookin’ well,’ Betty muttered. ‘If yer ask me, yer pinin’. When was the last time yer went outside fer some air?’
‘Not since I came,’ Dorothea admitted.
‘Blimey, Dot, that’s near on three month! No wonder yer lookin’ badly,’ and Betty put a hand on Dorothea’s shoulder and squeezed it.
This one bit of sympathy was her undoing. She could be stoical as long as everyone treated her coolly and dispassionately, but Betty’s kind touch broke through her defences and bursting into tears she fled the kitchen before the cook returned from the cold larder where she’d gone to fetch the cream.
Hurrying to the sanctuary of her room and half-blinded by her tears she barged into Rose in the top corridor, almost knocking her off her feet.
‘Hey, look where you’re going, can’t you!’ Rose called after her. But she didn’t stop to apologise, it was too important to get into her room. Once there, and the door shut between her and the rest of the world, she let the tears flow and acknowledged the impossibility of continuing like this any longer. Whether she was dismissed, or whether she left of her own accord would make little difference. She wasn’t sending any money home to her mother – she hadn’t been paid a single copper since she came – so as long as she didn’t go back to Birmingham it wouldn’t make things harder at home.
She waited until she was sure the house was quiet and everyone was in their rooms, then she put on her coat and hat, unused since the day she’d arrived, and taking up her bag she went down to Mrs Foster’s room and knocked on the door.
‘Yes, who is it?’
Opening the door, she didn’t bother to step inside. ‘I’m leaving, Mrs Foster. I’m leaving before I become too ill to leave.’ Then turning on her heel she walked down the stairs to the back door, let herself out and set out to walk into London. She would go and find Henry.
. . . . . . to be continued.