I HAD never been out to service before, and I thought it a grand thing when I got a place at Charleston Farm. Old Mr. Alderton was close-fisted enough, and while he had the management of the farm it was a place no girl need have wished to come to; but now Mr. Alderton had given up farming this year or two, and young Master Harry, he had the management of everything. Mr. Alderton, he stuck in one room with his books, which he was always fond of above a bit, and must needs be waited on hand and foot, only driving over to Lewes every now and then.
Six pounds a year I was to have, and a little something extra at Christmas, according as I behaved myself. It was Master Harry who engaged me. He rode up to our cottage one fine May morning, looking as grand on his big grey horse, and says he, through the stamping clatter of his horse's hoofs on the paved causeway -
'Are you Deresby's Poll?' says he.
And I says, 'Yes; what might you be wanting?'
'We want a good maid up at the farm,' says he, patting his horse's neck - 'Steady, old boy - and they tell me you're a good girl that wants a good place, and ours is a good place that wants a good girl. So if our wages suit you, when can you come?'
And I said, 'Tuesday, if that would be convenient.'
And he took off his hat to me as if I was a queen, though I was floury up to the elbows, being baking-day, and rode off down the lane between the green trees, and no king could have looked handsomer.
Charleston is a lonesome kind of house. It's bare and white, with the farm buildings all round it, except on one side where the big pond is; and lying as it does, in the cup of the hill, it seems to shut loneliness in and good company out.
I was to be under Mrs. Blake, who had been housekeeper there since the old mistress died. No one knew where she came from, or what had become of Mr. Blake, if ever there had been one. For my part I never thought she was a widow, and always expected some day to see Mr. Blake walk in and ask for his wife. But as a widow she came, and as a widow she passed.
She had just that kind of handsome, black, scowling looks that always seem to need a lot of black jet and crape to set them off - the kind of complexion that seems to be playing up for the widow's weeds from the very cradle. I have heard it said she was handsome, and so she may have been; and she took a deal of care of her face, always wearing a veil when there was a wind, and her hands to have gloves, if you please, for every bit of dirty work.
But she was a capable woman, and she soon put me in the way of my work; and me and Betty, who was a little girl of fourteen from Alfreston, had most of the housework to do, for Mrs. Blake would let none of us do a hand's-turn for the old master. It was she must do everything, and as he got more and more took up with his books there come to be more and more waiting on him in his own room; and after a bit Mrs. Blake used even to sit and write for him by the hour together.
I have heard tell old Mr. Alderton wasn't brought up to be a farmer, but was a scholar when he was young, and had to go into farming when he married Hakes's daughter as brought the farm with her; and now he had gone back to his books he was more than ever took up with the idea of finding something out - making something new that no one had ever made before - his invention, he called it, but I never understood what it was all about - and indeed Mrs. Blake took very good care I shouldn't.
She wanted no one to know anything about the master except herself - at least that was my opinion - and if that was her wish she certainly got it.
It was hard work, but I'm not one to grudge a hand's-turn here or a hand's-turn there, and I was happy enough; and when the men came in for their meals I always had everything smoking hot, and just as I should wish to sit down to it myself: And when the men come in, Master Harry always come in with them, and he'd say, 'Bacon and greens again, Polly, and done to a turn, I'll wager. You're the girl for my money!' and sit down laughing to a smoking plateful.
And so I was quite happy, and with my first six months' money I got father a new pipe and a comforter agin the winter, and as pretty a shepherd's plaid shawl as ever you see for mother, and a knitted waistcoat for my brother Jim, as had wanted one this two year, and had enough left to buy myself a bonnet and gown that I didn't feel ashamed to sit in church in under Master Harry's own blue eye. Mrs. Blake looked very sour when she saw my new things.
'You think to catch a young man with those,' says she. 'You gells is all alike. But it isn't fine feathers as catches a husband, as they say. Don't you believe it.'
And I said, 'No; a husband as was caught so easy might be as easy got rid of, which was convenient sometimes.'
And we come nigh to having words about it.
That was the day before old master went off to London unexpected. When Mrs. Blake heard he was going, she said she would take the opportunity of his being away to make so bold as to ask him for a day's holiday to go and visit her friends in Ashford. So she and master went in the trap to the station together, and off by the same train; and curious enough, it was by the same train in the evening they come back, and I thought to myself, 'That's like your artfulness, Mrs. Blake, getting a lift both ways.'
And I wondered to myself whether her friends in Ashford, supposing she had any, was as glad to see her as we was glad to get rid of her.
That's a day I shall always remember, for other things than her and master going away.
That was the day Betty and I got done early, and she wanted to run home to her mother to see about her clean changes for Sunday, which hadn't come according to expectations.
So I said, 'Off you go, child, and mind you're back by tea,' and I sat down in the clean kitchen to do up my old Sunday bonnet and make it fit for everyday.
And as I was sitting there, with the bits of ribbons and things in my lap, unpicking the lining of the bonnet, I heard the back door open, and thinking it was one of the men bringing in wood, maybe, I didn't turn my head, and next minute there was Master Harry had got his hand under my chin and holding my head back, and was kissing me as if he never meant to stop.
'Lor bless you, Master Harry,' says I, as soon as I could push him away, dropping all the ribbons and scissors and things in my flurry, 'how could you fashion to behave so? And me alone in the house! I thought you had better sense.'
'Don't be cross, Polly,' says he, smiling at me till I could have forgiven him much more than that, and going down on his knees to pick up my bits of rubbish. 'You know well enough who my choice is. I haven't lived in the house with you six months without finding out there's only one girl as I should like to keep my house to the end of the chapter.'
He had that took me by surprise that I give you my word that for a minute or two I couldn't say anything, but sat looking like a fool and taking the ribbons and things from his hands as he picked them up.
When I come to my senses I said, 'I don't know what maggot has bit you, sir, to think of such nonsense. What would the master say, and Mrs. Blake and all?'
Well, he got up off his knees and walked up and down the kitchen twice in a pretty fume, and he said a bad word about what Mrs. Blake might say that I'm not going to write down here.
'And as for my father,' says he, 'I know he's ideas above what's fitting for farmer folk, but I know best what's the right choice for me, and if you won't mind me not telling him, and will wait for me patient, and will give me a kind word and a kiss on a Sunday, so to say, you and me will be happy together, and you shall be mistress of the farm when the poor old dad's time comes to go. Not that I wish his time nearer by an hour, for all I love you so dear, Polly.'
And I hope I did what was right, though it was with a sore heart, for I said -
'I couldn't stay on in your folks' house to have secret understandings with you, Master Harry. That ain't to be thought of. But I do say this - 'tain't likely that I shall marry any other chap; and if, when you come to be master of Charleston, you are in the same mind, why you can speak your mind to me again, and I'll listen to you then with a freer heart, maybe, than I can to-day.'
And with that I bundled all my odds and ends into the dresser drawer, and took the kettle off, which was a-boiling over.
'And now,' I says, 'no more of this talk, if you and me is to keep friends.'
'Shake hands on it,' says he; 'you're a good girl, Polly, and I see more than ever what a lucky man I shall be the day I go to church with you; and I'll not say another word till I can say it afore all the world, with you to answer "Yes" for all the world to hear.'
So that was settled, and, of course, from that time I kept myself more than ever to myself, not even passing the time of day with a young man if I could help it, because I wanted to keep all my thoughts and all my words for Master Harry, if he should ever want me again.