IN the eighteen seventies, Shoreham Gardens was a popular pleasure resort, and when Squire Barfield’s horse, Silver Braid, won his race at Goodwood, the squire held a servants’ ball there. For a week before, the talk was of nothing else, and none of the servants at Woodview looked forward to it with keener anticipation than Esther Waters, the kitchenmaid. This would not have been remarkable except that she had been most strictly brought up as a chapelgoer to regard racing, drinking, gambling and dancing as wicked. And it was barely a month since she had stood on the top of the hill and looked down for the first time at Woodview, the squire’s borne and racing stables, snugly tucked in a fold of the Sussex Downs. She had not known then that the “Gaffer,” as the squire was affectionately known to his household, was a famous racehorse trainer or she would have turned and gone away from such a hot-bed of iniquity without entering it. As it was, horses and weights, odds and tips and wagers were almost the sole topic in the servants’ hall, and although she could not approve, at least she did not continue her outburst of virtuous anger that had nearly terminated her career at Woodview on the day she had arrived.
She had been called to interview Mrs. Barfield, and had been astonished to hear that Mrs. Barfield was “chapel,” too. The squire’s wife had gently pointed out that as one got older, without backsliding oneself, one wasn’t anxious to change everyone else. Because all the people in the house hadn’t their faith, they weren’t all bad.
“My husband is as honourable a man in his calling as another man in his. Try to bring out the good in people,” she had said. “Our Lord did, you know.”
Esther had taken her words to heart. And to her surprise, she found that Mrs. Latch’s bark was worse than her bite – Mrs. Latch was the cook and the female head of the below – stairs domain, which was ruled by Mr. Randal, the butler. She also found that Grover, Sarah Tucker and Margaret Gale, the other maids, who had seemed so antagonistic and cruel and who, she felt, bad despised her because she could not read, were really good-natured enough. Mr. Randal, too, she liked when she bad become used to his Self – importance and dictatorial gruffness. And nobody could dislike the Demon, a lad who for weeks had been run off his legs and baked and steamed within an inch of his life in order to get his weight down to ride Silver Braid. Most of all, however. Esther liked William, Mrs. Latch’s son, who had been promoted to footman in the house just before her arrival. Their first meeting had been somewhat stormy, but William liked a spirited girl just as he liked a spirited horse, and Esther was as pretty as she was proud. Esther, too, aware that William was handsome and well set-up, was not displeased by his open admiration.
It was not long before William was confiding his ambitions to her. His grandfather had owned the Barfield estates but extravagance and gambling had forced their sale. His father bad tried to retrieve the family fortunes, but he had had the misfortune to back the wrong horse habitually, to Mrs. Latch’s disappointment. William, Esther found, had the same ambition but – he had sublime faith in his own luck, and he had his plan of campaign worked out. He was going to bet carefully, as a start, then as soon as he had enough capital he was going to buy a public – house on the South Coast, merely as a means of building up a bookmaking business. And he reckoned that in five years be could lay by a fortune big enough to buy back the Latch estates.
Esther felt that she should have been shocked and horrified by such a long – term career of wickedness, or at least try to dissuade him from such a course. But somehow she could do neither – she was excited and thrilled and she hoped with all her heart that William would succeed. She was excited and thrilled again when William, on his return from Goodwood, put thirty shillings into her hand. Esther had lent him a shilling at the beginning of the week and he had bet it on Silver Braid for her. It was with this money, money she had been brought up to regard as tainted, that she bought herself a dress to wear at the servants’ ball. It was a silk frock, with ribbon – threaded embroidery round the low neck and puff sleeves – so pretty that not a prick of conscience disturbed her elation as she put it on for the great event, and she was delighted by William’s appreciative glances.
The ball, according to custom, was attended by the squire’s family and their friends. Miss Peggy, the squire’s daughter, it was well known, though never mentioned, had an eye for the handsome footman, and it was not long before she had singled him out to dance with her. They were standing by the refreshment table when Miss Peggy became aware that William’s eyes had suddenly lit up – and that they were not looking at her but beyond her. She turned her head to see Esther, so radiant and charming that a momentary pang of envy shot through Miss Peggy, who was accustomed to being quite satisfied with her own radiant charm and its effect. And though Esther passed by, escorted by one of the Barfields’ admiring guests. Miss Peggy knew that William’s attention was wandering. And as soon as the band struck up the next dance tune he murmured a word of excuse and hurried straight to Esther.
After a turn round the ball-room, he led her out to the balcony and from there along the paths, low hedged and studded with arbours, in whose secluded shade many young couples were enjoying a flirtation. Esther’s eyes were bright and sparkling, her lips parted – never in her life, for she had been born and bred in a London slum, had she dreamed that there was such a fairyland as Shoreham Gardens, nor such happy pleasure. And William found his pleasure in watching Esther. They bad their silhouettes done, in the popular fashion, by an artist, and then they strolled towards the ornamental lake, where a firework display was stabbing the night sky with brilliantly coloured, arrows and showers of golden and silver stars. A punt came into the bank near them, and as soon as the occupants had left it, William helped Esther into it. Lazily they paddled across the still, dark waters towards the opposite bank, gradually leaving in the distance the music of the band, the laughing chatter of voices, the shirring hiss and bangs and the lights of the fireworks. As the punt grounded, William leapt out, then taking Esther’s hand in his, began to lead her through the shrubbery that gradually thinned out as it met the sand dunes, and faint in their ears came the sound of the sea breaking on the beach beyond. They walked in silence.
William could feel Esther’s hand trembling in his – and when he turned and took her in his arms, his kisses, fierce and sweet, swept away all the restraint the unaccustomed gaiety and excitement had left her. She loved William with all her heart, and that was all that mattered.
BITTERLY Esther reproached herself for the sweet folly of that moonlit night. She had expected William to tell his mother at once that they would be married without delay – Mrs. Latch, she knew, was hoping for the news, for she felt that Esther would have a steadying influence upon William. But that was not William’s intention. When he married, he told Esther, he wanted a home to take his wife to – and he hadn’t yet saved money enough for a home. Esther was deeply hurt and angered by what she considered William’s betrayal of his word. William was infuriated by her stubborn refusal to see his point of view. In the ensuing weeks, William, after eagerly trying to break down Esther’s lofty air of disdainful contempt when she passed him, gave it up. Each attempt seemed merely to provoke another quarrel in which they said bitter, hurtful things to each other – words they regretted afterwards. but were too proud to withdraw. Then it became apparent that Miss Peggy was staying at home far more than was her custom, and that William was dancing attendance on her far beyond the duties of a footman or groom. The climax came one afternoon. With great difficulty, Esther had swallowed her pride and was trying to speak to William in the solitude of the passage outside the kitchen, when one of the row of bells that hung along the passage suddenly jangled. It was Miss Peggy’s room. William, knowing that it would hurt Esther, hurried to answer it instead of Mr. Randal.
As Esther stood there, she overheard a piece of gossip from the kitchen that took her, on a sodden impulse, through the baize door that shut off the servants’ quarters from the family’s precints – territory forbidden to a kitchenmaid.
Across the hall and up the stairs she went. She knew which was Miss Peggy’s room. For a moment she hesitated outside, then she turned the handle and half opened the door. She stared inside the room, shocked, then as she turned and went down the stairs, William, confused and anxious, hurried out and ran after her. At the foot of the stairs Mr. Randal, breathing fire and fury confronted them. He barked out an order to Esther, who hurried towards the baize door – and then the rustle of a dress and the sound of a door shutting made the two men glance up at the landing above. And that, with William’s guilty sidelong glance at him, told Mr. Randal the story.
Esther, on reaching the kitchen, collapsed on the stone floor. Grover and Sarah, who had been breathlessly aware of Esther’s forbidden journey and had, indeed, clustered at the baize door to see and hear what they could, had seen and beard enough. Mrs. Latch, noticing their significant exchange of glances, demanded an explanation. “William and Miss Peggy,” said Grover sharply.
Mrs. Latch sank on the floor beside Esther, tenderness and grief on her face as she took the girl’s cold hands in hers. “Esther – we’ll take care of you, dear,” she whispered.
SIX months later, Esther left Woodview. They had not been happy months for anyone. Mr. Randal had reported William’s conduct to the squire who bad dismissed William instantly. William had left the house that evening – but with him had gone Miss Peggy.
Mrs. Barfield, on learning that Esther was leaving and the reason for it, gently reproached her for not telling her that she was to have William’s child, and said that she could stay on if she wished. But Esther had saved eight pounds – enough to pay her stepfather for her keep, and she wanted to have her child in her own home. Mrs. Barfield made no attempt to dissuade her. She gave Esther a few extra pounds for the baby, marvelling a little at her confidence and tranquillity, and she was wondering whether Esther knew what she would have to face, when Esther quietly answered her unspoken question.
“You’ve been more than kind, m’am,” she said, “but may I ask one thing more? Would you – pray for me?” , Then as she met Mrs. Barfield’s eyes, the bond of their strict morality drew them together. “I truly loved him, ma’am,” she said, a catch in her voice, “but what I did was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
“Then God give you strength to bear your cross,” said Mrs. Barfield.
How heavy that cross was to be neither of them knew. When Esther reached her old home, in a sordid London slum, the door was opened by an old slattern strange to her, and she learned that her mother had died in childbirth and her stepfather had packed up and sailed with the other children for Australia.
Esther’s savings went on mean lodgings, and her baby was born in the workhouse infirmary no hospital would take her, she was told. The matron, kindly under her harshness, had a job waiting for her as between-maid in a good house when she was well enough to leave. She was told that she could easily board baby Jacky out for four-and-sixpence a week. One of the other girls in the ward gave her an address, and with many misgivings and a heavy heart she left Jacky, in company with three or four other babies, in a squalid, frowsy basement room.
She had not been in her new job long enough to get her first month’s wages when she received news that Jacky was ill. Esther, insistent on going to him at once, forfeited her job. But never did she regret it. Baby Jacky was thin and pale, quite different from the chubby child she bad left. And after only a few minutes in the basement room the woman began to make carefully veiled suggestions about ” adoption ” and “a happy home ” for five pounds in cash, that sent cold shudders of horror through her. The woman’s real and hideous occupation was to get rid of unwanted babies – she was a murderess. Wildly Esther snatched Jacky from his cot and fled up the stairs, running blindly from that room of foulness and evil.
Weariness slowed her steps at length, and she realised dully that she was both homeless and penniless. Still dazed by her experience, she could not think, and with Jacky in her arms, she trudged on and on, not knowing or caring where her feet carried her. And then, as she crossed a road, she suddenly heard a warning shout – a horse-drawn bus was thundering down on her. She stopped still, petrified with fear, then she was jerked back to the safety of the pavement as the bus rolled over the spot where she had stood. A policeman stood over her, mopping his forehead, and scolding her in a jocular manner. Then, as he learned of her plight, he sized her up shrewdly, and took her along to his sister.
It was the beginning of a long friendship, for the cheerful, motherly, childless Florrie offered to look after Jacky while Esther went out to work. The knowledge that Jacky was in a good home and well cared for buoyed her up in the dull, dreary, disheartening months that followed.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Jacky was eight years old when Fred Parsons came into Esther’s life. He was a lay preacher in his spare time, and she made his acquaintance at the Meeting House near her employer’s home. Esther liked and respected Fred. An uncompromising enemy of all kinds of sin, he was nevertheless kind and friendly, and he gave Esther back some of her lost faith and peace of mind, as well as relieving her loneliness. And then, one spring evening, as they sat on the bench in the square gardens after a mid-week service, he asked her to marry him. For a whale Esther was silent – and then she told him of Jacky. He. stared at her blankly, and she challenged him with thinking all the hard thoughts that other people bad spoken to her, battering her spirit with their contempt, since Jacky’s birth. Then she got to her feet and walked past him, certain that she had lost a friend. Outside the house Fred caught her up.
“But Esther-you’ve repented!” he said happily.
“I’ve repented enough for a dozen children,” she returned bitterly. ” But what’s the good of that – who cares about it? If God bas forgiven me, why does. nobody else? And I love my child – why must I live separated from him always – what harm has he done?”
She stared at him, her face hard. “I’ve only this to say, Esther,” Fred said quietly, putting his hand on her arm. “I still want you – I want you both.”
NEXT afternoon, Esther, returning from her usual weekly trip to see Jacky, suddenly found herself face to face with William. His delight was only equalled by her dismay. In the crowded railway carriage she could not escape him and when she got out, be followed her.
He looked well and prosperous, and a wave of angry resentment swept her that he should have been enjoying life while she had drudged to bring up his child. He realised something of what she was feeling, and assured her that he had not known about the child until after he had got back from abroad. It was all over between him and Peggy – he had never compared her with Esther.
And then Esther had another proposal. William’s dream of a little pub and a bookmaking business had become a reality – he had made the money himself. He assured her lest she should think that Miss Peggy’s money had had anything to do with it. The pub was not on the South Coast – but what did that matter? He could give her a home and comfort, and the boy a father.
Esther scorned his offer of marriage, but she had not the heart to refuse him when he humbly pleaded to see his son – she bad never known William to beg a favour before. And on condition that be did not reveal his identity to Jacky, whom she had brought up to think that his father was dead, she promised William that he should accompany her on her next visit.
William and Jacky took to each other at once – so much that Esther felt a queer little pang of jealousy as she realised how much a boy needed a father. But when, coming into the parlour from the kitchen, she found William giving Jacky a sovereign to buy a coveted toy sailing boat, her fury burst out. Sending Jacky into the kitchen, she turned on William.
“So you think you can buy him back!” she stormed. Memories of the heartbreaking years she had spent, alternately slaving and starving, flooded her, and bitterly she poured out to William the story of those years. “I was a wicked woman – on account of having your child – house after house I left and that was always the reason. And now you’re here trying to buy my child’s love with gold. You may go now. William – you’ll see neither of us again.”
Distressed by the interpretation Esther had put on his thoughtless action and humbled by her story of suffering, William could find no words to match against her passion. Silently, he left the room.
WHEN Fred called on Esther to know if she could give him his answer, she asked him to sit down at the table.
“He’s come back,” she said miserably. “William – Jacky’s father.”
To her surprise Fred was unsympathetic and even condemned her action in letting him see Jacky. And Esther suddenly realised why. She, a repentant sinner, had shown Signs of weakness towards the one who had caused her to sin. She indicated a letter which lay on the table with a legal-looking document. Unwillingly, at her request, Fred read it to her. William wanted her to accept two hundred pounds then and there for the boy, followed by a sum of money to be paid each year. The document included a stipulation that William should be able to see Jacky, but William in his letter gave her leave to delete the stipulation if she wished.
“I would like it of course. He’s a fine lad – what be owes to his mother.” the letter ended. “Forgive me, Esther. All my love – William Latch.”
For a moment there was silence as Fred’s flat, antagonistic voice ended. Then harshly, he advised Esther to have nothing to do with William or the tainted money – which was merely a trick to get to see the boy.
” He betrayed and deserted you. Does that give him the right to be the boy’s father?” he demanded. “He is the boy’s father.” retorted Esther. “Talking won’t alter that. As for betraying – there was two of us.” “Be careful, Esther – that’s wild talk!” Fred was shocked and disapproving. “It’s honest talk,” she said bluntly. Another silence fell, broken by Fred. ” Esther – do you want this – this deceiver back?” he demanded shrewdly. “Because that’s the way you re going.
Esther flushed. Now that her anger and resentment had died down, she wondered whether she had been over-hasty in her judgment of William.
” All I want to do is right,” she said slowly. Fred glanced at his watch and stood up ready to go to evening service. ” Black’s black and white’s white and that’s the end of it ” he remarked, then as she declined to go to the service, for the first time since they had become acquainted, be added severely: “You’ve a soul to save and it’s drifting back towards darkness.”
Esther jumped to her feet. “I’m not just a soul, Fred.” she said unhappily. “I’m a woman as well.”
Fred’s lack of understanding had hurt her. Until then she had been uncertain. On one hand there was Fred, narrow but upright, unexciting, honest and steady. On the other there was William, with his mysterious power to disturb and excite her, his enthusiasm and his ardour, but making his living in ways of which she thoroughly disapproved. Which should she choose? Now, a vision of life with Fred, who she suddenly realised, would never forget that be had married a repentant sinner, made her recoil. And when she went out of the kitchen her mind was made up.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
The three regular customers enjoying their nightly discussion of racing form with the butcher in the public bar of the King’s Head, Soho, were considerably disconcerted when Esther diffidently entered. In 1881 respectable women did not go inside public-houses. Then, as she inquired for Mr. Latch, they showed great relief. He was not yet back from the races at Hurst Park, they told her, and having assured themselves that she was a friend of Mr. Latch, they became effusively friendly, and were doing their best to make her feel at home when one of them glanced into the adjoining jug-and-bottle bar.
“Mr. Randal’s back,” he said, and a moment or two later Esther, scarcely able to believe her eyes, saw the former self-important butler at Woodview coming behind the bar. His eyes brightened and a welcoming smile creased his thin face as he saw her. With great cordiality he ushered her through the bar into the private parlour.
“Sit you down, Esther,” he said. “Why, it’s like the old Woodview days.”
Esther’s inquiry about Mrs. Barfield brought from Randal the story of the squire’s death while breaking in a horse, and how he had left so little money that while Mrs. Barfield would not sell Woodview, she had had to get rid of all the staff and had shut up nearly all the house, where she was living in a few rooms with only one maid to attend her.
” If it wasn’t for Will,” Randal observed with a wry smile, “I’d be in the work’us. Of course, he keeps me on the run – I do part bookie’s clerk and part in the bar.” Left alone, Esther wandered round the room looking at the pictures on the walls with nostalgic interest. They were nearly all treasured mementoes of Woodview – a picture of Silver Braid, a photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Barfield and their staff, and then Esther felt a lump rising in her throat as she stared at the silhouette of herself and William done on the night of the servants’ ball. He had framed it and kept it all these years. The door opened and William burst in. Slowly Esther moved towards him, and his face lit up. He strode across the room to her.
”You’ve come back, Esther,” he said, and then she was in his arms and be was kissing her tenderly and thankfully.
WILLIAM and Esther were married a few weeks later, on Wednesday, June 1 – Derby Day. And as soon as the ceremony was over the bridegroom hurried his bride into the brake and off they went to Epsom with Mr. Randal and the three regulars Esther had first met in the King’s Head. It was her first visit to a racecourse, and to her it seemed symbolic of her marriage – henceforth her life would be among people and surroundings entirely alien to her. Deafened by the noise of music and shouting, stimulated by the sights, excited by the atmosphere, warmed by the free and easy kindliness of William’s friends, Esther spent the afternoon in a sort of kaleidoscopic haze. It was a wonderful wedding day – marred only by two unexpected encounters. First was the appearance of Sarah one of the Woodview maids. William welcomed her with every appearance of genuine pleasure, but Esther was shocked by Sarah’s appearance – she had coarsened almost beyond recognition, her clothes were flashy her face heavily made-up, her manner vulgar. And when Sarah introduced her to her friend Jo Evans, she was even more shocked. Mr. Evans made a precarious living by selling tips in sealed envelopes to the gullible public. He was gross, fat and hoarse-voiced, with shifty little eyes that made Esther instinctively mistrust him. And it was not by Esther’s invitation that Sarah brought him along to the wedding breakfast – sandwiches, beer and special celebration champagne – eaten and drunk at top speed between races in a tent on the course. Telling Sarah to take Esther round the fair until the big race, William, who had dressed himself in a loud check suit, darted back to his pitch, which advertised “Lucky” Latch in enormous letters. Sarah and Esther went on the roundabouts and swings, they had their fortunes told, they viewed the peepshows, and then, as the uproar seemed to quieten a little, Sarah suddenly stopped and faced Esther, her face serious. She wanted Will to take Jo Evans as his clerk and she wanted to enlist Esther’s support.
A little later, Esther had her second encounter – this time she found herself face to face with Fred standing at the opening of a tent labelled Central London Gospel Mission.
From his questions and his expression, it was easy for Esther to guess that he believed that her marriage was leading her straight to perdition, but his disapproval gave way to compassion, and they parted with his assurance that he would pray that all would come right in the end.
That night, going upstairs with William’s arm round her she felt stangely comfortable and secure despite the unfamiliarity of this new life she had entered. Together they went into Jacky’s room where be lay fast asleep. “We had a good day to-day,” said William softly as be touched the bedclothes with a gentle hand. “A few more of these and we’ll send him to a good school, out of all this.” And Esther, brimming with happiness, felt that Fred’s prayers, after all, though helpful, might not be strictly necessary.
FOR the first two years Will prospered. Despite Esther’s protests, Will engaged Jo Evans as clerk, and Randal, grown too old and slow for the job, served at the bar. And it seemed as if Esther’s mistrust was unfounded, for Evans was sharp-witted and quick, and there was never a hint of anything wrong. Then Will’s luck turned and he suffered, along with all the other bookmakers, from a bad season in which it seemed that the betting public could do no wrong. William, who bad left the King’s Head more and more to the management of Esther and Randal, drove himself incessantly, never missing a meeting of any size. The travelling and standing out of doors in all weathers, added to the nervous tension of his work, had such an appalling effect on his health that Esther became more and more worried about him. He developed a persistent cough, and had become as thin as a lath. And still ill luck dogged him. On the wet, foggy day of the Manchester November Handicap, True Blue’s victory meant that he was broke. Before the race ended he knew which horse would win, and lowering his binoculars, be saw Jo Evans feverishly packing up, preparing to run for it instead of paying out. “Welsh!” shouted William in a fury. “Not Will Latch! Give me that satchel!”
He struggled violently with Evans, who hit and kicked viciously. Then, as William felt his strength ebbing, be realised that a crowd was surrounding them. He let go the satchel – Evans could not get away now – and stumbled off alone to recover.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Late that night a cabby helped William into the bar, and Esther, horrified by William’s condition, put him straight to bed and sent for the doctor. It was the beginning of a long illness that the doctor at length warned William would be fatal unless be could spend the following winter in Egypt. William worried himself into a fever over how he could get bold of enough money for the winter in Egypt to preserve his life. Only one way occurred to him, to take bets in the house. But here he confronted opposition in its strongest form from Esther, who not only knew that it was illegal, but privately considered it immoral. In vain William argued, ending his eloquent appeal with ” Backing your fancy is human nature, ’twill go on till time ends.” But neither time nor human nature moved Esther. She did what was right as she saw it – and William knew she was right when she told him that she had sent Jacky to a training ship.
That spring William was moved to the Brompton Hospital. His once sturdy body was now weak and wasted, and racked by his cough, which steadily increased in violence and frequency. But his interest in racing was as lively as ever, and as the 1885 Derby drew near, William’s excitement mounted.
William had saved a hundred pounds to bet on the race.
Only two horses in the race counted, he knew, Paradox and Melton. On form, Paradox should be the winner. But the great Fred Archer, by whom William bad always sworn, was riding Melton. Webb, who ranked next to Archer, was riding Paradox. And so William, after agonies of indecision, sent Randal off with instructions to take Esther to Epsom and to put the hundred pounds on Paradox to win.
That was the race that Archer, on Melton, won by a head from Webb, on Paradox, after a gruelling battle in which they were neck and neck all the way. But “Lucky” Latch, lying in the neat white hospital bed, did not know that his luck had deserted him. When Esther and Randal arrived at the hospital be was dead.
A few years later, in the Woodview drawing room, Esther, bringing in tea to Mrs. Barfield, now old and silver-haired, reminded her that Jacky, now sixteen years old, was home on leave and would like to meet her.
A tall lad in sailor’s uniform walked shyly in. “Mum’s told me all about you, ma’am,” he said. ” It makes me proud to know you.” Mrs. Barfield took his hand in hers, and smiled from him to Esther. “And we are proud of you,” she Said. Esther had found tranquillity and peace in the house where her troubles had begun.
(Adapted by permission from incidents in the Wessex photoplay).