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The Education of Eliza Smith by Jane Fairweather – Sample

The Education of Eliza Smith by Jane FairweatherChapter One

“Eliza Smith, you should be up! You should be down in the kitchen helping me. You know what your papa said. We’ve got no maids till after the harvest. He cannot afford them. We’ve got Mr and Mrs Carter and Bessie coming to eat, and you’ve got to help.”

There was an air of desperation in Mrs Fitzpatrick’s voice as she stared into eighteen-year-old Eliza Smith’s incredibly untidy bedroom, where petticoats, dresses, bloomers, blouses, bodices, books, hairpins, and goodness knows what else covered the whole floor .

Mrs Fitzpatrick had been housekeeper for Mr Smith ever since his wife, Marion, had died all of a dozen years before. She had taken it on knowing she was old and hoping to save a few more dollars towards her retirement, fondly imagining that Mr Smith, who was a not an unattractive man, would be remarried in a year or two and her job would be over.

But somehow Job Smith had never remarried. Not that he was short of a woman. There had been Miss Hardaker and Miss Thomas and Mrs Angwin (who was a widow, whose husband had left her very well off). And if Mrs Fitzpatrick’s opinion had been asked, which it was not, some of the goings on, especially with Miss Hardaker, who was a touch free and easy, had not been at all proper. No doubt if there had been a child on the way a marriage would have followed quickly, but it had not, so Mr Smith must either be barren or using these new ways of preventing babies, which Mrs Fitzpatrick thoroughly disapproved of. Anyway, she stayed because Job Smith and his daughter would have buried themselves under the mess without her there. They were both as bad as one another. In an odd way, however, she was fond of them, and anyway, she never liked leaving a job unfinished.

But things were getting worse, she knew. Job Smith was never that much of a farmer. The farm had even been bought with his wife’s dowry. And Mrs Fitzpatrick suspected that Marion had been the brains of the outfit, anyway. Certainly the farm had gone down steadily ever since she had been housekeeper there, and the last harvest for the whole area had been as bad as anyone remembered, quite apart from Job Smith’s incompetence. It was then she had found herself running this great, white timbered farmhouse by herself, at the age of seventy-five and without a single maid.

And hard work it was too! She could do with this silly young girl pulling her weight. Not that she was a bad girl. She was reasonably polite, and she never meant any harm. And Mrs Fitzpatrick could forgive her a lot because of the way that she played the piano, which she had inherited from her mother, so she had heard tell. Mrs Fitzpatrick could not have told Schubert from Dvorak, or Beethoven from Brahms, but she knew a good thing when she heard it; and Eliza Smith playing the piano was a good thing, she knew, even if it would make her few cents in the real world.

But the truth was, the girl needed a hard hickory across her backside to put her on the right track, and her father was quite incapable of disciplining a daughter he adored. She suspected the girl’s mother would have been a different case. She knew there was an old hickory stick and a paddle in Job Smith’s wardrobe, and she suspected they had belonged to his wife, who was no longer here to administer them, which was sad…

But enough of standing round waiting for the girl to respond. There was no sign of movement from the bed where Eliza Smith was buried under a heap of bedclothes at 11.30 in the morning. Mrs Fitzpatrick resolutely approached the young woman over the mountain of things on the floor and pulled off the bedclothes.

There was a shriek of, “Don’t do that, I am still asleep!” from the raven-haired maiden.

“Don’t be silly, miss! I need your help in the kitchen. You know I’ve no help and there are people coming, and you know what your father said. Get up!”

“I shalln’t!”

Mrs Fitzpatrick was within an inch of giving her employee’s daughter a very sound spanking, but she stopped herself at the last minute, just as she was about to reach for the very tempting hairbrush on the bedside cabinet. She thought she had no power to do it, though she ground her teeth at the thought. So she wheedled instead.

“I really do need your help, miss. There are just too many vegetables for me to do by myself, and I really do need someone to wash up while I cook. There just is not time to do it all by myself. Come on, Miss Eliza, it will be good experience when you have a husband and a house of your own, which you will one day, for you are a such a pretty young thing.”

Possibly the flattery about being a pretty young thing did it, for Eliza (rather to Mrs Fitzpatrick’s surprise) suddenly sat up and observed, “You only have to ask nicely, you know. I will be down as soon as I can.”

Mrs Fitzpatrick shrugged, thanked her, and descended to the kitchen.

* * *

When Mrs Fitzpatrick had gone, Eliza got up surprisingly quickly. She felt slightly ashamed of her own rudeness and gave herself a sharp tap with her own hairbrush. In her heart of hearts, she had always felt that she needed more discipline, though she was very aware that she was extremely contradictory about it. The couple of times that her father had very reluctantly threatened her with the hickory across the backside she had felt angry and resentful. There was a contradiction there, she thought, as she resolutely brushed her lovely, shoulder length hair, which was decidedly knotted.

Then she positively scampered downstairs, intending to make for the kitchen. Unfortunately, this took her past the door to the parlour where her beloved piano was; and without really intending it, she started practicing one of the Mendelssohn Songs without Words to play to her father’s guests this evening. A good half hour went by like this, though after her usual fashion, when she was engrossed in music, she honestly thought she had only been there for a few minutes.

She was awoken from her reverie by a ferocious roar from her father: “Eliza Smith, what did I tell you? Get yourself into the kitchen now and help Mrs Fitzpatrick!”

Her father was very rarely really angry with her, and it startled her considerably.

“What are you standing there for? I have a good mind to give you a taste of the hickory. Get yourself to the kitchen, Eliza.”

Eliza fled with beating heart; it was some years since she had been threatened with corporal punishment. It came as a considerable shock.

* * *

“Job, as a friend, I am not happy about your situation.”

Robert Carter and Job Smith sat together in Job’s study. In the distance, they could hear Eliza playing Mendelssohn to Mrs Carter and her daughter.

“You borrowed heavily from me to plant this year’s crop after last year’s disaster with the weather, which admittedly hit everyone equally. But now I have only to drive by your fields to see your prospects look just as bad this year. You are my sister’s husband, and as such I will not press you till I think you can afford to repay me. However, I cannot lend you anymore, Job. If you want to borrow more, you will have to go to the bank and I suppose put up the farm as security, seeing it is all you’ve got.”

“So, what do you suggest?”

“Sell the farm now. It will fetch enough to pay your debts and perhaps start a small business in Philadelphia. There is money to be made there now, if you choose your trade right. I might even help you a little with that, but I am putting no more money into your farm. I’ve already done more than I ought to seeing you were my sister’s husband.”

“What would I know about any other business? I am a farmer or nothing. It is kind that you have done what you have done Robert, but I won’t sell. Next year must be better. You never get three bad harvests in a row. I will borrow from the bank if I have to.”

“On your own head be it, Job. But you ought to be worrying about Eliza too.”

“Why should I worry about Eliza? She is the apple of my life.”

“Yes, but beyond these very expensive piano lessons, which I imagine you have now had to stop, she has had almost no education. Bessie says she can barely read or write. What is she to do if you go bust and cannot keep her? There is little enough money in playing the sort of music she does; and by and large it is not women that play it. Folks feel it is not quite nice for a woman to perform in public. Then again, only the rich listen to that sort of rubbish like she is boring us with now. Why not ‘John Brown’s Body’? Or ‘Swanee River’, or a decent American tune? And my wife and daughter say every time they come here how slovenly Eliza is. She will be lucky to find herself a marriage with her so untidy and not able to cook. You ought to get the hickory out even now, Job. She needs a whipping.”

Job stirred uneasily. What was being said was not that far from his own thoughts, but he had been too fond of his daughter to thrash her when she was younger, and it seemed to him that she was now too old for such a punishment.

“Well, we will get through, Eliza and I,” he said stubbornly, though not entirely convinced of his own logic.

Then he added: “Another taste of bourbon for you, neighbour Carter? It is my last bottle; we may as well enjoy it.”

* * *

Eliza woke at ten that morning, early for her. She knew Father had been moaning about the harvest being as bad as ever and all the rain being a great worry, but the sun was blazing round the curtains. This, she decided, was a day for being outside and lounging in the sun. Alright, girls were not supposed to get their skin brown, but she liked the feel of the sun. She sprang out of bed with alacrity for once, sorted through the heap on her floor (Mrs Fitzpatrick had made it very clear only a day or two before that in future she would not tidy her room), dressed for outdoors, and positively sprinted downstairs.

She went to the kitchen, where from the noises she knew Mrs Fitzpatrick was busy with the household tasks.

“Morning, Mrs Fitzpatrick! I’d like a picnic please?” She announced: “I’m going out for the day.”

“What! By yourself?”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake, I don’t need a chaperone. I’m just going somewhere by myself to lie in the sun.”

“I don’t think your father would approve. And anyway, he said today you were to help me round the house again.”

“Oh, he won’t mind, dear Mrs Fitzpatrick.”

“Well, on your own head be it.” Mrs Fitzpatrick could not be bothered to argue, but she was sorely tempted by the large wooden mixing spoon on the draining board. If ever a creature deserved to be whipped, Eliza did, she decided. The girl was a brat!

However, if the girl was not going to help with the much needed dusting, there was something to be said for getting her out of the way. Mrs Fitzpatrick already had a slight headache, which Eliza hammering away at the piano would not improve. Therefore, to get rid of Eliza, she made the sandwiches and even found her a good rug, just the right size for sitting on, though even as she did this, Mrs Fitzpatrick thought to herself that this frump of a girl was so lazy. But mentioning Eliza’s behaviour to her father would do no good. It was sad because Eliza was a nice girl, and she just needed to learn a few manners.

“Where’s Papa?” enquired Eliza as an afterthought.

“He’s gone to see your uncle, on business I think. He won’t be back till this evening.”

“Good, he won’t have to worry about me then; and you won’t have to worry about telling him where I have gone. I will be sure to be back well before him.”

“Make sure you do. He is worried enough about business to make him angry and whip you if he finds out.”

“Dear Mrs Fitzpatrick, you know perfectly well he has never whipped me and he never will.”

“Well, you are safe then, miss, aren’t you? But I still would not rile him in the mood he is in.”

Eliza skipped out of the door without a care. Mrs Fitzpatrick’s eyes followed her trim young backside with a sullen anger. She wondered if Eliza had the faintest idea how difficult her father’s business affairs were. Mrs Fitzpatrick was fairly sure Job Smith was visiting Robert Carter about a small loan to pay her own wages and the two farmhands. Not that anything had been said, but the wages were three weeks behind; and while she did not mind too much about the money (provided she got her food), she knew the hands were talking more and more of going elsewhere.

* * *

Eliza was not, it must be said, in the most ladylike of positions. She had found herself a small space in a large field of maize and had spread her rug and lain down in the glorious sun. Then she realized that her outer clothes were impeding the sun’s access to her limbs, so she pulled her dress and petticoats up to her waist and took off her shoes and stockings. Then she felt that the skirts were in the way of the lovely sun even more now they were pulled up. Skirts could be pulled down again if anyone approached; but if they were off, she would just have to pretend she was not there. To be found with only her bodice and drawers on would be a terrible disgrace. Her father might even whip her for it, eighteen or not. Still, the risk was slight she decided, and she really wanted to do it, so she divested herself of her dress and petticoats and lay quietly, listening to the birds and revelling in the warmth of the sun.

Then an odd mood came on her when she realized she was being really naughty and that she ought to be punished for it. She turned over on her face and slapped herself on the seat of her drawers a good dozen times. She found this quite arousing, though the word “arousing” would have meant nothing to her. She wondered if it would be even more interesting with her drawers off? She paused for a second, for this really was very daring indeed; but then she removed them and repeated the slapping at some length. After that she lay still for a while and drank in the sun.

Then she started to touch the shape of her own buttocks and thighs. Shortly after, she started to touch and stroke the area between her thighs, fascinated by the moistness and the feeling of pleasure. Suddenly she began to gyrate from the hips, and the squeals of her pleasure mingled with the birds.

When it was over, she felt an intense feeling of gratification and just lay there. Then she put her clothes back on, wondering if this was anything like when you made love with a husband—which was a topic that she had very little information on, except for the rather alarming fact that babies somehow resulted. However, a baby definitely required a man, she was sure, so after a brief moment of panic, she decided she had discovered something rather pleasant.

Eliza then slept for a good hour before deciding that it would be as well to be back home a good while before her papa did. She packed up and slowly made her way back over the fields towards the farmhouse. The sun was still pleasant but definitely heading towards late afternoon.

She felt a certain delight at what she had been up to, even wondering if anyone had spied on her naughtiness. She fantasised, as she went along, that her husband had caught her doing what she had just done and whipped her with a stick a lot harder than she had slapped herself, and she had rather enjoyed it. In the abstract, it seemed something that husbands ought to do. However, she was not absolutely sure. Surely a really angry husband’s punishment would hurt a lot more, to the point of unpleasantness? But there was nothing to stop her from cutting herself a switch the next time she took a rug out to the field and acting out both husband and herself. It would make a good game, she thought.

* * *

The sky over the house was beginning to turn grey, implying yet more of the endless rain that was ruining her father’s crops for the third year running; it gave her an odd sense of foreboding, which she was never to forget for the rest of her life. Or was it because of what happened when she got to the house that she remembered the gathering darkness of the sky as an omen? At the time, she thought of the fact that Mrs Fitzpatrick had said her father was likely to be in a temper; and because she had quite seriously disobeyed him by going out for the day, it was at least possible she was going to make her first acquaintance with the hickory, which both frightened and excited her. She wondered if her drawers would be lowered, or not. She was not quite sure what the procedure was. And would Mrs Fitzpatrick hold her? She really did not want to be held by Mrs Fitzpatrick, but she was not sure if she could take the punishment if she was not restrained; she was bound to try and run away. Still, she had one way and another been thoroughly naughty, and if this punishment came, she would have deserved it. Then she resolutely lengthened her stride, thinking she had enjoyed her fun and now she must face the music.

There was a horse tethered to a tree, which suggested a visitor, but the front door was locked, which seemed surprising if there were a visitor. She walked round the back of the white timbered building, reflecting that it was time it was repainted, for the paint on the timbers was beginning to bubble and peel. She must speak to Papa about it. It would give them something serious to discuss that might take his mind off her other misdeeds, though with luck the visitor might have already distracted him.

The back door was not merely unlocked, which it usually was, but ajar. Mrs Fitzpatrick, who had a horror of vermin from the fields getting into the house, did not leave the back door open, and that simple fact worried Eliza a good deal. She walked into the kitchen, which was deserted. She put her head into the hall and shouted a greeting to Mrs Fitzpatrick.

“She is in here,” came a male voice that Eliza did not know from the parlour. What was going on?

She strode nervously into the parlour. Mrs Fitzpatrick was on the chaise longue, weeping. Beside her in an armchair was what she judged from his uniform to be a policeman, but she did not really know for sure, for there was little crime in this rural area and policemen were noticeable only by their absence. He could just be a fireman or a soldier, she supposed. Her father would not have committed any crime, she was sure of that, or would he? The preacher was always going on about sin.

“I am Jones from the Philadelphia force,” the man said rather awkwardly. “I think that you’d better have a chair, miss. I have something difficult to tell you!”

There was something in Jones from the Philadelphia force’s tone that needed to be obeyed, so Eliza went and got herself one of the extra chairs that were kept round the room in case the armchairs and chaise longue were not enough when there were guests. She realized as she did it that there was in fact an empty armchair that she could have sat in.

Then she sat down with beating heart and in the same breath asked: “What is the matter? Has my father done something wrong?”

“Nothing wrong, Miss Smith. I am afraid it is worse than that. There has been the most dreadful accident. Your father and your uncle and his wife and daughter were in a buggy, and a wheel came off at just the wrong place where the road crosses the rail track. Anyway, they stayed there a bit too long and the train hit them. Your father and uncle are dead. They were trying to get the wheel back on. And your aunt who stayed in the buggy is very injured and is in hospital and is unconscious. They don’t think she will live. The only one who is alright is the daughter. She had the sense to insist on getting out of the buggy and standing away from the railway.”

“You mean Bessie?” asked Eliza sharply, wanting something to say.

“She is called Elizabeth Carter. Yes, I suppose I mean Bessie, miss. I expect your mother is away today, is she, miss? It is her I really need to see. Your servant does not seem quite able to talk to me because of her grief, which I quite understand.”

“I am afraid Mother is dead. She has been dead a long time. So I suppose I am an orphan…”

“I really did not know that, miss. I really am sorry. I did not mean to put it like that.”

Jones from Philadelphia really did not know where to put himself. Eliza was too shocked to weep. Her immediate reaction was that at least she owned this farm. Perhaps she could sell it and live as she liked.

“Who will be my guardian?” she found herself asking.

“Your nearest relative, I imagine.”

“But Papa was an only child, and my grandparents are dead. Uncle Carter was Mama’s only brother and sibling, and you tell me he is dead and Aunt Carter is as near to it!”

“Well, you are old enough to care for yourself and with this farm, you won’t be poor.”

It was at this point that Eliza started to weep, and Mrs Fitzpatrick rose from the chaise longue and clutched her to herself wordlessly. Jones from Philadelphia felt most embarrassed at all this female emotion; so having done his duty and reported this awful happening, he departed with barely an apology.

* * *

It was the day after the funeral. Despite Mrs Fitzpatrick’s very gentle protest about the expense of it, Eliza had insisted that they bring her father home from Philadelphia and that he be buried at his own church. Bessie had very kindly come, but she had barely seemed in her right mind. Otherwise, it was just a few neighbours and the farmhands and the preacher and her.

It had been a good service. The preacher did not say too much about “dust to dust” and the sinfulness of man, which Eliza always hated, and he had said a good deal about her father’s many virtues, not least his raising of his daughter so well. At this point, Mrs Fitzpatrick thought to herself that he would have made a better job of it if he had reined in Eliza’s wilfulness just a little. The girl had a lot of spirit, which Mrs Fitzpatrick in her heart of hearts liked, but it was in her view no good for any child to be allowed to do whatever they liked; and Eliza had got away with far too much—though there was something about the girl she could never wholly disapprove of.

Anyway, it was the day after the funeral, and Mrs Fitzpatrick (if the truth were known) felt rather proud of Eliza. She seemed so brave in the face of this great tragedy, but today was the day the girl would found out about her father’s debts. The lawyer was coming with the will.

Mrs Fitzpatrick sighed. She would do what she could to find the girl a little job in town—that was only fair after all these years; but after that, she was going to find the little place of her own she had always wanted. This spoilt miss was going to have to find her own way.

* * *

Mr Benson drove his buggy with a certain sadness towards what had been Job Smith’s house. He and his wife had known Job and his wife well when they were all younger; they had often exchanged dinners, and their chats had always been good. But then Marion Smith had departed this earth for whatever place you go to, and Job had seemed to become distant while also becoming mixed up with several women that he maybe should not have been involved with; and without anything being said, the friendship had lapsed—though Mr Benson had continued as the family lawyer. In some ways, he rather wished in he had not done so, for it meant he had to watch while Job (without Marion to steady him) mishandled his money and wasted his inheritance more and more. And now all the problems were going to fall on the daughter, who probably had no idea of how profligate her father had been. Mr Benson reflected he had not seen Eliza (he only remembered her name because he had been looking at the will) since she was seven or eight. She had been a lively, bright thing then, but a little in need of a restraining hand, which her parents had been very unwilling to provide. She must be all of seventeen or eighteen now and must (he smiled to himself) be even more in need of a restraining hand.

He drew up in front of the house, and seeing he was a good twenty minutes early for his appointment about Job Smith’s will, he sat there, reflecting how many times he had done this when he was younger and Marion Smith was alive. Without anything improper ever having happened, he had been rather fond of Marion, and she of him. He remembered her dry wit and good sense and her excellent piano playing and those times he had escorted her to concerts in Philadelphia because her husband had not been interested in that sort of music. Nor for that matter had his wife wanted to come.

Very pleasant evenings they had been, and each time they had both been a little tempted. They had both admitted their quite strong feelings on occasions, but they had both felt honour bound to spouses that were genuinely good to them. And as Marion had remarked on one occasion: “It is not the sort of thing you do after a concert in Philadelphia.” He grinned to himself at the thought of that, even after all these years.

He sat in the buggy, engrossed with his thoughts, before he came out of his reverie, aware of the music from the piano in the house but not really listening to it. Then the piano switched from some minor composer to what was unmistakably the Beethoven Appassionata. He even thought for a minute it was Marion playing it, but then realized the player’s touch on the keys was just that bit different, though (unless he was being sentimental) there was an odd hint of Marion’s playing. This must be Eliza!

He could catch the note of unbearable tragedy. He had noticed before with the young that their sense of tragedy is more absolute, especially where death is concerned. For himself, as he got older and dealt with the demise of many clients, he felt that whether there is a heaven and hell or not, nevertheless the universe is in a state of constant evolution, and the death of a human being is only a part of that process. Still, he thought dryly to himself, you could not expect an eighteen-year-old who had just been deprived of a loved father and had already lost her mother to think that way. The girl was going to be upset and there was no other way to it.

He waited another ten minutes while going over these thoughts before getting out of the buggy, unfastening the horse, and tethering it to a tree which had rough grass round it. He had done this many times before and this, he reflected, was probably the last time, or maybe the last but one or two.

* * *

Mrs Fitzpatrick had been watching the lawyer through the upstairs landing window. She wondered whether to ask him in early before the strict time of his appointment, but that meant disturbing Eliza’s piano playing, which was the thing that seemed to keep her calm. And though she did not know all the facts, she was quite sure this was all going to be rather grim for Eliza. Anyway, the lawyer seemed happy enough with his own thoughts, so she left him and went on with some half-hearted dusting.

There was a knock at the front door. Mrs Fitzpatrick descended the stairs, reflecting that she was not going to be opening this front door many more times. Eliza was continuing with her playing of a rather strange, disturbing piece that Mrs Fitzpatrick did not wholly approve of.

Mr Benson and Mrs Fitzpatrick had a brief conversation in the hall. They both wished one another well. Mr Benson commented on her excellent service to the Smith family and hoped she was otherwise provided for. She said she had enough put away for it not to be a worry if Miss Eliza had to leave here. Mrs Fitzpatrick offered to bring the piano playing to an end, but Mr Benson said (rather to Mrs Fitzpatrick’s surprise) that this was very fine playing and he was quite happy to listen to it for a few minutes more. Then he stole into the parlour and sat very quietly listening to the Beethoven and thinking of Marion Smith.

The girl finished the sonata, stood up, and then rather deliberately leaned forward to shut the piano. Rather to Mr Benson’s regret, Eliza then straightened herself and turned round to greet him.

“I hope you did not mind my going on playing, but I felt having started, I could not stop. I suppose you must be the lawyer about the will?”

“I did not mind at all. I like that sort of music, though a lot of folks don’t, I know. You know, I heard your mother play that piece all of twenty years ago. I used to be a visitor here with my wife when Job and Marion were first married.”

The girl looked rather blank, then said: “I’d rather not hear about that. It is too painful. You’ve come about the will, haven’t you, so you’d better talk to me about it, though I don’t suppose there are any surprises.”

It would be hard to say why, but Mr Benson felt there was something distinctly rude about this. It had been at the back of his mind to say something about giving Eliza a room in his house until she sorted herself out, but this little speech stopped him from saying it. He solemnly opened his briefcase and took out the will and various other documents while Eliza arranged herself in an armchair opposite him.

He rather ferociously looked at his client and said: “The will is much as you would expect, Miss Smith. You have been left the whole estate, except for three hundred dollars for Mrs Fitzpatrick and fifty for any farmhand who has served your father for more than two years.”

“But what am I actually worth?” asked Eliza. “If I sell the farm, that is. I cannot see myself being a farmer.”

Mr Benson restrained himself from saying that Marion would have made a very fair fist of running a farm by herself and replied: “I am afraid you aren’t worth anything, Miss Smith, and the small bequests cannot be paid.”

“What do you mean? My father was well off, wasn’t he?”

“I am afraid not, Miss Smith. I do not think he was particularly careful with his money in the good years, and three bad harvests in a row cleared him out.”

“But even if there is no money in the bank, surely I can sell the house and live on that!”

“I am afraid not, Miss Smith. You see, he borrowed heavily. He owed your late uncle, Mr Carter, a good deal. Mercifully, Mr Carter (though he could not have foreseen this terrible accident) recently had a new will drawn up, and I am happy to tell you that he said that in the event of his death, your father’s debts should be written off. Mercifully, Mr Carter was a prosperous man and that generosity will make little difference to his family, as I understand it. However, I am sorry to say that your father also very foolishly borrowed from the bank and put down the farm as security. I am afraid the farm and all the rest of it will have to be sold to meet that.”

“Does that mean my piano has to be sold?”

“I am afraid so, Miss Smith,” Mr Benson replied.

As he said that, he thought to himself that Marion would have made some dry joke at this point. Marion had been good in a crisis. Her daughter, unfortunately, dissolved into the most dreadful hysterics and clearly was not good in a crisis.

There seemed little point in staying, so Mr Benson walked out into the hall, where as he rather expected, he found Mrs Fitzpatrick, who no doubt had heard rather more than she should have done. He told her that with a touch of pretended irritation, which both of them knew to be pretended. Then he told her rather more kindly that as Job and Marion Smith had been his friends, he would not charge anything for his services today or over the sale of the farm. Mrs Fitzpatrick thanked him for his kindness and said she would attend to her mistress.

Mr Benson walked out of the front door, overwhelmed by memories of the mother and wondering why the daughter had annoyed him so much.

* * *

“It just seems so unfair!” Eliza cried out quite suddenly as she sat beside Mrs Fitzpatrick in the buggy that was taking her to her new life as a maid at the New England Hotel, Philadelphia.

The last ten days (or was it more, Eliza was not sure) just seemed a great blur. There had been a sale, she knew. All the things of her childhood were gone. Above all, her beloved piano was gone, and probably she would never have another one as good, if ever. Mrs Fitzpatrick had been her usual kind self, bustling round and getting her a little job at this hotel, which was run by an old friend of Mrs Fitzpatrick’s from thirty years back.

“A tough old stick is my old friend Miss Murray, but it is the best I can do for you. Otherwise, you would be out on the streets, but perhaps it will give you time to draw breath. I should look for some work teaching piano when you can. No, I know you have lost yours; but you can teach children in their houses. Then you can get a room of your own maybe. But for now you must get along with Miss Murray. And be careful, my girl. She probably will not sack you because I have told her your circumstances and she has always been my friend since we were maids together, sixty years back. But she wields a mean paddle and she uses it on young maids who cannot keep their rooms tidy or do their work badly or offend the guests. You have been warned, my girl.”

Mrs Fitzpatrick in one form or another had repeated this homily each day for the last week. Now that they were nearing the hotel, she was repeating it with greater emphasis on the paddle than before. Eliza was unsure whether Mrs Fitzpatrick was being kind or gloating on her discomfiture. Mrs Fitzpatrick, if truth be told, was genuinely worried about abandoning the country bred Eliza, who had become almost her step-daughter, in the middle of a strange town, and was concerned that Mary Murray might really take it into her head to be a little severe.

Mrs Fitzpatrick was worried but was also half gloating at the thought. The girl had been spoiled by the lack of the rod, in Mrs Fitzpatrick’s view. However, whether Mary Murray was the right person to undertake this duty, was a dubious question. Whether her old friend Mary really carried out such punishments, Mrs Fitzpatrick was slightly unsure, but she was far too fond of describing how she had “tamed” various young ladies and turned them into “decent servants”.

Despite Mrs Fitzpatrick’s genuine pleasure at the thought of Eliza’s behind in the correct position for receiving the paddle, with her white cotton drawers stretched uncomfortably and the flesh growing red beneath them, she thought that it would be a pity to see Eliza really tamed. In reality, she wanted her former mistress out of the hotel and into teaching the piano as soon as possible, and she wished she could be there to see it accomplished. It would be all too like the girl to panic and stay desperately unhappy as a maid for years. But there were limits to what she could do. Eliza was not her daughter, not even her step-daughter. If she did not go now and retire to the little country place she had bought twenty years back and live on the money she had so carefully saved, then she would never do it.

“It is so unfair, Mrs Fitzpatrick. Why must I be a maid in some horrible hotel?”

“Because it is the best I can do for you, my dear Eliza; but if, as I have suggested, you look for piano pupils, you may not have to stay there forever. Before I leave you with Miss Murray I will give you ten dollars to place adverts.”

“I don’t want to teach piano. I want to play it.”

“I have already told you Miss Eliza, that is impossible.”

Mrs Fitzpatrick rather wished it were not impossible, but she knew well that no respectable woman could play the piano in public. And anyway, she was sure Eliza would not be willing to go unrespectable and play ragtime in some saloon, which would for good or ill mean pleasing some man (or men); for good or ill, Eliza was too well brought up. She could see this all turning very nasty, but there was little more she could do. She very sadly turned her mind to navigating Philadelphia’s carefully numbered grid system of streets, which she found at once off-putting and very helpful.

* * *

“This will be your room. It is small, but as a favour to my old friend who tells me that you have never been used to sharing, you will have it to yourself.”

There was an odd mixture of condescension and rudeness towards her new employee, mingling with a genuine affection towards her oldest friend, Mrs Fitzpatrick. However, Eliza was feeling too lonely and depressed to notice or analyse her new employer’s mode of speech. She looked at the tiny attic room with its small skylight and then glanced at the small chair and the little washstand with its enamel bowl and two large jugs. She wondered where one had to go to get the water.

“You can get water to wash yourself from the bathroom on the main landing; and you will need it with the work you will be doing,” announced Miss Murray, noticing where her new employee was looking: “But I always start my maids hard. You’re a bit older than most, of course. They normally start at fourteen. But don’t give yourself airs because you are that bit older, Miss Smith. I have had more than one girl holding the end of that bed and pushing her bottom out for the paddle in the first couple of weeks here. You may well join them if you don’t get yourself into shape pretty quick.”

“Yes, Miss Murray. I will do my best.” Eliza was unnaturally demure.

“And I expect this room to be kept tidy. Mrs Fitzpatrick tells me you are not a very tidy girl. I’ve paddled girls for that before now. Right, do we understand one another?”

“Yes, Miss Murray. What are my duties?”

“In the morning, you will put on these clothes that I have in my hand; and you will report to me. Your first duties will be to lay the fires in the guests’ rooms. Depending on how cold it gets, you are responsible also for lighting the fires at a sensible time, or when I tell you to do it, and for keeping the guests well supplied with coal. I suppose you do know how to lay a fire, do you, or did Mrs Fitzpatrick always do it for you?”

“I have done it a few times, Miss Murray,” said Eliza rather uneasily, hoping she was not too obviously lying.

“Well, Miss Smith, I think I had better show you how to do it before you start. I will see you down in the kitchen at six tomorrow morning. No later, please.”

Miss Murray carefully placed the maid’s uniform on the bed and departed. The door shut. Eliza threw herself fully clothed onto the bed (ignoring the maid’s uniform, which she thoroughly creased) and cried bitterly. She imagined herself clinging to the end of the bed as a large wooden paddle thumped her behind. Would it hurt as much as she had always imagined it would?

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