By Mrs. Murray Hickson
FROM the first day that she came to Underwood Terrace Martha
interested me. She arrived, I remember, one dull November
afternoon. I saw her pass down the street, peering, in a short-
sighted fashion, at the numbers over the doors. She carried a large
bonnet-box in one hand and a neat brown paper parcel in the
other. She had no umbrella, and the rain dripped from the limp
brim of her large straw hat. Her skirt, shabby and worn, had
slipped from her overladen fingers and dragged upon the muddy
pavement. I don’t know why I noticed her, but, as I glanced up
from my book, my eyes fell upon her forlorn little figure, and I
felt that sudden, curious sensation of pity which sometimes, we
don’t know why, takes us by the throat and shakes us out of our
egotism and self-reflection. Very possibly my first interest in her
was merely a matter of mood. Perhaps, had I been happier
myself, I should not have taken much notice of her ; but my
own concerns appeared, just then, so dull and grey that it was a
relief to turn from them to the contemplation of somebody else’s.
For the present, however, the little figure in the draggled black
sight and thought of her.
In the drawing-room, before dinner, Mrs. Norris explained to
me that, in consideration of the arrival of a new boarder, she had
engaged a girl as a sort of ” understudy ” for the other servants,
and to work between them in the capacity of general help and
factotum. The girl was young, she came from Surrey, and her
name was Martha. Mrs. Norris hoped that she would turn out
well, but the training of young girls was always an experiment ;
she had known few who repaid the trouble expended upon
them. This much she told me—the rest I supplied for myself.
Help, in our overworked household, was imperatively needed, and a
girl from the country (despite the drawbacks of her ignorance and
lack of training) would cost little in keep and less in wages. In
fact, properly managed, she should prove a good investment.
Late that evening I met a quaint little figure upon the stairs,
and instantly recognised the limp, broad-brimmed hat, and the
shabby jacket, frayed at collar and at cuffs. Our new maid-servant
and the girl who had that afternoon attracted my attention in the
street represented the same identity. She drew aside to let me pass,
shrinking timidly against the wall ; but, by a sudden impulse, I
stopped and spoke to her. The gas-light fell on the glasses of her
spectacles, so that I could not catch the expression of her large,
short-sighted eyes ; but I saw that the eyelids were red and swollen
and I guessed that she had been crying.
” So you found the house after all,” I said. ” You must have
got very wet out there in the rain.”
” Yes, m’m,” she answered, and saluted me with a quick, bobbing
curtesy. She expressed no curiosity as to how I came to know
that she had at first been unable, in the driving mist, to discover
number 127. To girls of her class, knowledge on every subject,
course. I looked at her again, and it struck me that, in the house,
she should wear a cap and apron. But her dress remained
unchanged since the afternoon.
” You are not going out now ? ” I said, ” so late ? And it is
still raining. Listen, you can hear it on the skylight.”
She listened obediently. The rain, blown by a gusty wind,
pattered upon the big skylight in the roof. Martha glanced at me
from behind her spectacles. ” Yes, m’m, but the mistress told me to post this letter. After
that I may go to bed.” She held a fat, square envelope in her ungloved fingers, and I
knew, without looking at it, that it contained the usual daily letter
from Amy Norris to her lover. I moved impatiently. Why
could not the girl have written earlier in the afternoon ?—this
going out to catch the late post was an old grievance with the
servants, and now I supposed both of them would thrust the dis-
tasteful duty upon Martha.
” But do you know the way ? ” I asked.
” Yes, thank you, m’m,” she answered, and slipped down the
stairs away from me.
Before I went to bed that night I ventured on a sketchy
remonstrance with Amy Norris upon this subject of the late post.
” The girl is young, and evidently country-bred,” I concluded.
” Don’t you think it’s a pity to send her out so late into the streets ?
Could we not all get our letters ready for the last post before
dinner ? ”
Amy looked at me in amazement. She was good-hearted
enough, but perfectly stolid and unapproachable when such small
matters as this were in question, and consideration for servants was
quite beyond her comprehension.
she said. ” Besides, one can’t plan things out like that, beforehand
—it would be a perfect nuisance. It won’t do the girl any harm ;
Eliza always used to go.”
Eliza was a former servant. She was pretty and feather-brained,
and when she left our house some few months earlier, Mrs. Norris
had refused to give her a character. The reason, no doubt, was
unanswerable, but the fault had appeared to me to lie with the
mistress as much as with the maid.
I thought of Eliza, looked at Amy’s plump, satisfied counten-
ance and laughed a little by way of reply. Long experience had
taught me that argument and explanation here—in Mrs. Norris’
boarding-house—were entirely useless weapons.
As I was preparing for bed, I wondered idly if Martha had
found her way safely back, and where she was to sleep. I knew
there was only one room available for the servants, and I supposed
that she was to share it with the cook and the housemaid. The
child interested me ; there was about her an unconscious earnestness
which appealed to me. Her face was stamped with that expression,
at once piteous and irritating, which is the result of a slow but
conscientious nature striving its utmost to keep level with the
demands made upon it by quicker minds. This first night away
from home and in the midst of new surroundings would be very
trying for the girl. My thoughts dwelt on her for a brief space
and then, turning inevitably towards my own affairs, they dropped
her out of their consideration. Presently, I lit a candle and went
up to the box-room, where, amongst other things, I had stored
away several books, one of which I particularly wanted to read.
The box-room was at the top of the house, and was reached by a
short staircase, so steep as to be almost a ladder. From the top
of this ladder, which was of bare deal, uncarpeted, you stepped
recess holding a large cistern for water. To-night as I came to
the foot of the stairs, I could hear the water gurgling through the
pipes into the great tank, and caught an intermittent sound of rain
upon the window in the sloping roof. A light shone from the
top of the staircase ; evidently somebody was there before me, and
I blew out my candle ere climbing the ladder. It was late, the
house was very still, and I wondered who had thus invaded my
territory, for, as my bedroom was small, I kept many things
stowed away in my big travelling trunk, and I often came up here
to fetch what, at the moment, I required. When my eyes were
level with the floor of the box-room I stopped suddenly, and I
understood. The room had been turned into a bedchamber.
Trunks and portmanteaus were piled along one side of the wall,
and a small—very small—truckle bedstead stood underneath the
skylight. One chair and a broken-down chest of drawers
completed the furniture. A small square of looking-glass
cracked across one corner, hung upon the wall. Martha herself
knelt beside the bed, her face hidden in the pillow. Her loosened
hair—crisp, and bright chestnut in colour—streamed over her
coarse white night-gown ; her bare feet, as she knelt, were thrust
out from beneath the hem. I stood a moment, and then, for the
girl had neither heard nor seen me, crept cautiously down the
steep stairs back to the landing below. I would go without my
book to-night, for Martha was saying her prayers, and, to judge by
the convulsive movement of her shoulders, Martha was also crying. II
A week later our new lady-boarder arrived, and a very fine lady
she was. We, the older occupants of the establishment, shrank
requirements were so many. Now came the time of Martha’s
trial, and, poor child, a severe ordeal it proved to be. She was
called upon, without any previous training, and with no help
beyond her own native wits, to wait at the dinner-table. I must
say that Martha’s wits (being, though tenacious, somewhat slow)
at times failed her ; but, on the whole, it seemed to me that she
did very well indeed, especially as Mrs. Norris, during the dinner
hour, confiscated her spectacles, so that she was obliged to find
her way about the room in that semi-mist which blurs the vision
of very short-sighted people. Her appearance, however, as her
mistress justly observed, was enormously improved thereby ; and
her eyes, albeit often red and swollen with much weeping, were
so well-shaped and charmingly fringed with long lashes that one
could hardly regret the absence of the ugly, though useful,
glasses. Poor little Martha ! She used to hand the dishes,
I remember, with awkward haste and alacrity, born of an earnest
desire to give satisfaction and to succeed. Her cheeks were
flushed, her small hands a trifle tremulous ; her hair—usually
dragged back from her forehead and twisted into a tight knot
behind—had become, by this time in the evening, slightly
loosened : here and there a stray curl crept above her brow. She
was still very shabby ; and in consequence of much hard work
and little leisure, her hands, I noticed, had lost their first appear-
ance of cleanliness, and become permanently roughened and
begrimed. But, in spite of this, I began to look upon Martha as
quite a pretty girl.
She did not have a particularly good time of it, I am afraid ;
she was far too sweet-tempered and anxious to conciliate every-
body. Most of the hard words of the household, and a good deal
of its concentrated ill-temper, fell to her share, and was borne by
was occasionally both slow and uncomprehending—I myself felt
tempted to speak sharply to her ; but something in the expression
of her earnest little face, some unconscious pathos in her person-
ality, restrained me. Gradually, as the weeks passed, I found
myself more and more interested in her—once or twice almost
One day in particular, I remember, things had gone awry with
Martha from morning until night. She let fall, and smashed to
atoms, a vegetable dish which she was handing to her mistress at
luncheon. Mrs. Norris was, naturally, much annoyed, and the
poor girl went through the rest of her duties with burning cheeks,
and an increased clumsiness of manner. Afterwards I heard one
of the other servants scolding her about a fire which had been
allowed to die out, and, later in the evening, I found her in the
hall, undergoing a severe reprimand from Amy Norris, whose
nightly letter she had dropped into the mud on her way to the
” It isn’t only that,” said Amy, with concentrated scorn and
annoyance. “Though such stupidity is bad enough, goodness
knows. But she must needs bring the letter back again, to show
to me—as if that would do any good ! And now she’s missed the
post from the pillar-box. Isn’t it inconceivable ? ”
As the last few words were addressed to me, I nodded in reply.
It certainly did appear inconceivable—I should have posted the
letter and said nothing about it.
Amy rubbed the envelope vigorously with her handkerchief.
” I thought, Miss, I’d better tell you about it, I thought
perhaps you’d like to write it over again,” said Martha, submis-
“You thought—you thought—you’ve no business to think,”
address. The front door was open, and the gas-light from the
hall streamed out into the night. The steps were shining with
wet ; because of the fog, one could hardly see beyond them. The
street, at this time, was almost deserted, but the throb and roar of
a big London thoroughfare close at hand came to us through the
I looked at Martha, who stood waiting beside me. She was
pale, and I noticed that she shifted wearily from one foot to the
other as though too tired to rest her weight upon either. Before,
however, I had time to say more than a hasty word to her, Amy
came back with the letter.
“You must go to the Post-office now,” she said. ” Be quick,
Martha, don’t lose a moment.”
The girl ran hastily down the steps, and Amy shut the door
“Stupid little thing,” she said vexedly. “She seems always to
be doing something idiotic. I really don’t see how we are to
I should like to have represented the matter from my point of
view, but upon other people’s affairs, silence is presumably golden ;
therefore I held my peace.
Martha’s cup had been so full all day that, when she came to
my room with hot water at bed-time, a kindly word or two over-
came her completely. She set down the hot water can, and
mopped her streaming eyes with a crumpled pocket-handkerchief.
I waited till her sobs became less suffocating. Presently she
stammered an excuse and an explanation. The mistress, it
appeared, had called her into her room half an hour earlier, and,
complaining that her only black gown was too shabby for daily
wear, had commanded her to buy another with the least possible
her next month’s wages.
” I can’t do it, m’m, indeed I can’t,” she said, breathlessly ; ” I
don’t have but seven pound a year ; and I’ve got to help mother
all I can. Father died just before I came here, and mother has
four children besides me to look after ; she’s not strong either,
” Your frock is shabby, Martha,” I said severely ; ” it’s shiny at
the seams and frayed at the hem. As for the vegetable dish—
well, you break a lot of things, you know, and Mrs. Norris is not
rich enough to replace them.”
Martha sniffed sadly.
” But white caps and aprons do run into money,” she remarked,
with apparent irrelevance, and turned towards the door to depart.
Her head drooped disconsolately, her tired feet dragged as she walked.
” Martha,” said I, ” stop a minute, and come here.”
She came back at once, standing before me with tear-stained
cheeks ; her breath, like that of a grieving child, caught now and
again in a vagrant, shivering sob.
I meant to give myself the luxury of a kindness, and Martha
the pleasure of a new gown.
“The vegetable dish,” said I, “you must replace yourself ; but
the frock I will give to you. I will buy the stuff, and we must
find somebody who can make it up for you nicely. But, if I do
this, you must promise me to be very careful in future, and to
break no more dishes.”
For a minute the girl made no reply, then the ready tears
brimmed again into her eyes.
” Oh ! m’m, you are good—you are good,” she said eagerly.
“And I will try; that I will. But I’m that stupid, I never
seem able to do right.”
The Yellow Book Vol. VII. Q
now, and have a good night ; it’s long past eleven. By the way,
don’t I hear you up very early in the morning ?
Martha’s room was over mine.
” Yes m’m. Now it’s so cold I get up at a quarter to six to make
tea for the other servants. They like a cup in bed in the mornings.”
She said it in all simplicity, and I made no comment upon the
communication. If it had been my own house …. But it
wasn’t, and I had no excuse for interference.
* * * * *
I bought Martha a thick stuff gown—and she needed it.
Winter, which set in late that year, made up for its loitering by
an intense severity. I could barely keep myself warm, even with
the help of a big fire in my bedroom ; Martha’s little chamber
next to the great water-cistern must have been bitterly cold. It
contained no fireplace, and Mrs. Norris, whose fear of fire
amounted to a craze, would not allow the use of a gas-stove. In
all weathers, at all hours, Martha ran the errands of the household.
She was up early, she went to bed late ; how, when she got there,
she contrived to sleep at all, is a mystery to me, save that youth
and hopefulness are potent to achieve miracles. The bitter cold
froze our tempers below zero ; we were fractious and difficult to
please, and Martha, as usual, bore the brunt of everybody’s dissa-
tisfaction ; yet, in spite of her difficult lot, the girl seemed to
expand and flourish. She looked very neat in her new frock, and
I noticed that her hair was arranged more loosely, so that the
fluffy little curls about her forehead showed to advantage. This
was the result of a chance remark of mine—whether wise or not I
am now uncertain. When, at last, winter left us, and the streets
of London broke into an epidemic of violets and of primroses,
Martha had grown into a positively pretty girl.
reason of her altered looks. Martha had got a ” young man “—a
young man who, she believed, really cared for her, and wished to
marry her. Meantime they intended ” to keep company “
together. All this she confided to me shyly, with many blushes,
and I—whom love and youth seemed alike to have deserted—
I sighed a little as I listened to her.
Perhaps because I envied her somewhat, perhaps because (now
that the girl was comparatively happy) she no longer appealed to
my warmest sympathies, I did not, from this time, take so keen
an interest in her. And for this I have many times, especially
since my own life warmed under a new sunshine, reproached
Martha was much happier than she had been, but Martha
would have been glad of a little sympathy from me all the same.
She had grown accustomed to my interest in her ; but now, I
fear, she looked for it in vain. She used sometimes to linger
beside the door when she came into my bedroom, and once,
looking up quickly, I caught a wistful expression on her face
which it hurts me now to remember. But there was much to
occupy me just then, and Martha had her lover ; I did not consider
that she needed me.
I wonder how far, and how often, we are responsible for the
misfortunes of those who live under the same roof, and yet are
not upon the same level, with ourselves. I wonder how often a
frank word of warning, of sympathy, or of advice would save our
servant girls from the miserable marriages, or the still more cruel
abandonments, which so frequently become their portion. I don’t
know. Perhaps no one of us can stand between another and her
fate ; perhaps a hundred impalpable differences of thought,
custom, and education build a wall between us and our servants,
be sure ; but—be that as it may—I never think of Martha, and
of Martha’s patient service and uncomplaining diligence, without
a pang of self-reproach. I was old enough to be her mother, and,
since her mistress would not dream of doing so, I ought to have
kept an eye upon her. But I grew accustomed to her coming
and going ; to her anxious, flushed little face as she handed the
dishes at meal times ; to the sound of her heavy feet as, when
everyone else had gone to bed, she climbed the carpetless ladder
to her attic under the roof, and I forgot how eagerly, in so
dreary a life, she must welcome a little freedom and a little love.
* * * * *
I was away for some time in the early summer, and, on my
return, I found that Martha’s place was filled by a stranger. I made
instant inquiries. Mrs. Norris answered, with full information.
Amy drew herself up in prim and conscious rectitude. She was
to be married in the autumn, and could afford to look with
severity upon the frailty of a servant maid.
Martha, it appeared, had got herself into trouble. Martha,
like Eliza, had been dismissed at once, without a character. She
and her meagre baggage—the same bonnet-box with which she
had arrived, and a rather larger brown-paper parcel—had been
turned out of the house at an hour’s notice. She had begged for
my address, but that, in order to save me from annoyance, had
been withheld from her.
I said very little—what was the use ?—but I found out the
name of the Surrey village from which she had come to us, and I
went down there in the course of the week. My memory of
the girl, as so often happens, was more pathetic than her actual
presence had been. I felt uneasy until I could get news of
weather which is the essence of an English summer. The lanes
were sweet with dog-roses ; the vines on Martha’s cottage home
were already covered with many small bunches of quaint green
fruit. The air was soft and full of perfume ; the tiny garden was
ablaze with old-fashioned flowers.
Martha’s mother was at home—a tall, frail woman, aged pre-
maturely by poverty and the stress of early motherhood. She
received me, wondering ; but, when I explained my errand, she
burst into sudden tears. I do not know whether grief or anger
held the uppermost place in her heart ; certainly it never occurred
to her that she was to blame for sending her girl, unprepared, into
a world of danger and temptation.
She could give me no news of her daughter—there was no
news to give. Martha had never come home ; her mother evi-
dently did not expect her to do so. She had stepped over the
threshold of 127 Underwood Terrace, and had disappeared into
that outside world which, to such as she, shows little of mercy,
and even less of sympathy and comprehension.
Her mother hardly desires to see her again ; and I—though I
do not forget her—I recall her only as a pathetic memory which,
each year, grows less and less distinct.
Hickson, Mrs. Murray [Mabel Greenhow Kitcat]. “Martha.” The Yellow Book, vol 7, October 1895, pp. 267-79. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020. https://1890s.ca/YBV7_hickson_martha/