The night was oppressively hot. Finding it impossible to sleep, Francine lay quietly in her bed, thinking. The subject of her reflections was a person who occupied the humble position of her new servant.
Mrs. Ellmother looked wretchedly ill. Mrs. Ellmother had told Emily that her object, in returning to domestic service, was to try if change would relieve her from the oppression of her own thoughts. Mrs. Ellmother believed in vulgar superstitions which declared Friday to be an unlucky day; and which recommended throwing a pinch over your left shoulder, if you happened to spill the salt.
In themselves, these were trifling recollections. But they assumed a certain importance, derived from the associations which they called forth.
They reminded Francine, by some mental process which she was at a loss to trace, of Sappho the slave, and of her life at St. Domingo.
She struck a light, and unlocked her writing desk. From one of the drawers she took out an old household account-book.
The first page contained some entries, relating to domestic expenses, in her own handwriting. They recalled one of her efforts to occupy her idle time, by relieving her mother of the cares of housekeeping. For a day or two, she had persevered — and then she had ceased to feel any interest in her new employment. The remainder of the book was completely filled up, in a beautifully clear handwriting, beginning on the second page. A title had been found for the manuscript by Francine. She had written at the top of the page: Sappho’s Nonsense.
After reading the first few sentences she rapidly turned over the leaves, and stopped at a blank space near the end of the book. Here again she had added a title. This time it implied a compliment to the writer: the page was headed: Sappho’s Sense.
She read this latter part of the manuscript with the closest attention.
“I entreat my kind and dear young mistress not to suppose that I believe in witchcraft — after such an education as I have received. When I wrote down, at your biding, all that I had told you by word of mouth, I cannot imagine what delusion possessed me. You say I have a negro side to my character, which I inherit from my mother. Did you mean this, dear mistress, as a joke? I am almost afraid it is sometimes not far off from the truth.
“Let me be careful, however, to avoid leading you into a mistake. It is really true that the man-slave I spoke of did pine and die, after the spell had been cast on him by my witch-mother’s image of wax. But I ought also to have told you that circumstances favored the working of the spell: the fatal end was not brought about by supernatural means.
“The poor wretch was not in good health at the time; and our owner had occasion to employ him in the valley of the island far inland. I have been told, and can well believe, that the climate there is different from the climate on the coast — in which the unfortunate slave had been accustomed to live. The overseer wouldn’t believe him when he said the valley air would be his death — and the negroes, who might otherwise have helped him, all avoided a man whom they knew to be under a spell.
“This, you see, accounts for what might appear incredible to civilized persons. If you will do me a favor, you will burn this little book, as soon as you have read what I have written here. If my request is not granted, I can only implore you to let no eyes but your own see these pages. My life might be in danger if the blacks knew what I have now told you, in the interests of truth.”
Francine closed the book, and locked it up again in her desk. “Now I know,” she said to herself, “what reminded me of St. Domingo.”
When Francine rang her bell the next morning, so long a time elapsed without producing an answer that she began to think of sending one of the house-servants to make inquiries. Before she could decide, Mrs. Ellmother presented herself, and offered her apologies.
“It’s the first time I have overslept myself, miss, since I was a girl. Please to excuse me, it shan’t happen again.”
“Do you find that the air here makes you drowsy?” Francine asked.
Mrs. Ellmother shook her head. “I didn’t get to sleep,” she said, “till morning, and so I was too heavy to be up in time. But air has got nothing to do with it. Gentlefolks may have their whims and fancies. All air is the same to people like me.”
“You enjoy good health, Mrs. Ellmother?”
“Why not, miss? I have never had a doctor.”
“Oh! That’s your opinion of doctors, is it?”
“I won’t have anything to do with them — if that’s what you mean by my opinion,” Mrs. Ellmother answered doggedly. “How will you have your hair done?”
“The same as yesterday. Have you seen anything of Miss Emily? She went back to London the day after you left us.”
“I haven’t been in London. I’m thankful to say my lodgings are let to a good tenant.”
“Then where have you lived, while you were waiting to come here?”
“I had only one place to go to, miss; I went to the village where I was born. A friend found a corner for me. Ah, dear heart, it’s a pleasant place, there!”
“A place like this?”
“Lord help you! As little like this as chalk is to cheese. A fine big moor, miss, in Cumberland, without a tree in sight — look where you may. Something like a wind, I can tell you, when it takes to blowing there.”
“Have you never been in this part of the country?”
“Not I! When I left the North, my new mistress took me to Canada. Talk about air! If there was anything in it, the people in that air ought to live to be a hundred. I liked Canada.”
“And who was your next mistress?”
Thus far, Mrs. Ellmother had been ready enough to talk. Had she failed to hear what Francine had just said to her? or had she some reason for feeling reluctant to answer? In any case, a spirit of taciturnity took sudden possession of her — she was silent.
Francine (as usual) persisted. “Was your next place in service with Miss Emily’s aunt?”
“Did the old lady always live in London?”
“What part of the country did she live in?”
“Among the hop gardens?”
“In what other part, then?”
“Isle of Thanet.”
“Near the sea coast?”
Even Francine could insist no longer: Mrs. Ellmother’s reserve had beaten her — for that day at least. “Go into the hall,” she said, “and see if there are any letters for me in the rack.”
There was a letter bearing the Swiss postmark. Simple Cecilia was flattered and delighted by the charming manner in which Francine had written to her. She looked forward with impatience to the time when their present acquaintance might ripen into friendship. Would “Dear Miss de Sor” waive all ceremony, and consent to be a guest (later in the autumn) at her father’s house? Circumstances connected with her sister’s health would delay their return to England for a little while. By the end of the month she hoped to be at home again, and to hear if Francine was disengaged. Her address, in England, was Monksmoor Park, Hants.
Having read the letter, Francine drew a moral from it: “There is great use in a fool, when one knows how to manage her.”
Having little appetite for her breakfast, she tried the experiment of a walk on the terrace. Alban Morris was right; the air at Netherwoods, in the summer time, was relaxing. The morning mist still hung over the lowest part of the valley, between the village and the hills beyond. A little exercise produced a feeling of fatigue. Francine returned to her room, and trifled with her tea and toast.
Her next proceeding was to open her writing-desk, and look into the old account-book once more. While it lay open on her lap, she recalled what had passed that morning, between Mrs. Ellmother and herself.
The old woman had been born and bred in the North, on an open moor. She had been removed to the keen air of Canada when she left her birthplace. She had been in service after that, on the breezy eastward coast of Kent. Would the change to the climate of Netherwoods produce any effect on Mrs. Ellmother? At her age, and with her seasoned constitution, would she feel it as those school-girls had felt it — especially that one among them, who lived in the bracing air of the North, the air of Yorkshire?
Weary of solitary thinking on one subject, Francine returned to the terrace with a vague idea of finding something to amuse her — that is to say, something she could turn into ridicule — if she joined the girls.
The next morning, Mrs. Ellmother answered her mistress’s bell without delay. “You have slept better, this time?” Francine said.
“No, miss. When I did get to sleep I was troubled by dreams. Another bad night — and no mistake!”
“I suspect your mind is not quite at ease,” Francine suggested.
“Why do you suspect that, if you please?”
“You talked, when I met you at Miss Emily’s, of wanting to get away from your own thoughts. Has the change to this place helped you?”
“It hasn’t helped me as I expected. Some people’s thoughts stick fast.”
“Remorseful thoughts?” Francine inquired.
Mrs. Ellmother held up her forefinger, and shook it with a gesture of reproof. “I thought we agreed, miss, that there was to be no pumping.”
The business of the toilet proceeded in silence.
A week passed. During an interval in the labors of the school, Miss Ladd knocked at the door of Francine’s room.
“I want to speak to you, my dear, about Mrs. Ellmother. Have you noticed that she doesn’t seem to be in good health?”
“She looks rather pale, Miss Ladd.”
“It’s more serious than that, Francine. The servants tell me that she has hardly any appetite. She herself acknowledges that she sleeps badly. I noticed her yesterday evening in the garden, under the schoolroom window. One of the girls dropped a dictionary. She started at that slight noise, as if it terrified her. Her nerves are seriously out of order. Can you prevail upon her to see the doctor?”
Francine hesitated — and made an excuse. “I think she would be much more likely, Miss Ladd, to listen to you. Do you mind speaking to her?”
Mrs. Ellmother was immediately sent for. “What is your pleasure, miss?” she said to Francine.
Miss Ladd interposed. “It is I who wish to speak to you, Mrs. Ellmother. For some days past, I have been sorry to see you looking ill.”
“I never was ill in my life, ma’am.”
Miss Ladd gently persisted. “I hear that you have lost your appetite.”
“I never was a great eater, ma’am.”
It was evidently useless to risk any further allusion to Mrs. Ellmother’s symptoms. Miss Ladd tried another method of persuasion. “I daresay I may be mistaken,” she said; “but I do really feel anxious about you. To set my mind at rest, will you see the doctor?”
“The doctor! Do you think I’m going to begin taking physic, at my time of life? Lord, ma’am! you amuse me — you do indeed!” She burst into a sudden fit of laughter; the hysterical laughter which is on the verge of tears. With a desperate effort, she controlled herself. “Please, don’t make a fool of me again,” she said — and left the room.
“What do you think now?” Miss Ladd asked.
Francine appeared to be still on her guard.
“I don’t know what to think,” she said evasively.
Miss Ladd looked at her in silent surprise, and withdrew.
Left by herself, Francine sat with her elbows on the table and her face in her hands, absorbed in thought. After a long interval, she opened her desk — and hesitated. She took a sheet of note-paper — and paused, as if still in doubt. She snatched up her pen, with a sudden recovery of resolution — and addressed these lines to the wife of her father’s agent in London:
“When I was placed under your care, on the night of my arrival from the West Indies, you kindly said I might ask you for any little service which might be within your power. I shall be greatly obliged if you can obtain for me, and send to this place, a supply of artists’ modeling wax — sufficient for the product ion of a small image.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52