Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

This is abomination! Surely this is Cain raised! Young Wesley does what he can. He beats Young Tho­mas soundly, for he that spares the rod hateth his son; but beating is of no avail. He exhorts him, but Young Thomas has a scoffer’s way with the Bible, and can quote more Scripture on behalf of the good and faithful servant’s life than his father can quote against it. His mother weeps, his brother storms, but Young Thomas cares nothing for words or tears. He cares for nothing but a fine coat, and buttons with a gentleman’s crest embossed on them, a hat with a smart cockade, and a face that is shaved every day.

So at last the black day comes when Young Wesley, who is now becoming Grey Wesley, accosts a stout, self-important man in the Trallwm street, and says, “Mr. Fewtrell, sir, may I beg a word with you?”

“Well, what is it, Gilmartin? I’m busy.”

Mr. Jesse Fewtrell is a very important man, for he is the Groom of the Chambers at the Castle, and he has favours to give. Favours, but only for the Earl’s tenants, and Young Wesley is not one of those. Favours for good Church people, and Young Wesley is a field preacher of that nasty group of craw-thumpers who are beginning to call themselves Methodists, as if John Wesley had not been a good C of E man all his life. Mr. Fewtrell’s fat face is sour as he looks at Young Wesley.

“It is my son Thomas, Mr. Fewtrell. He has a great desire to enter service, and I dared to hope that if you had a place you might give him his start, is it?”

Mr. Fewtrell is repelled by such a notion. The idea is preposterous. He has known of Methodists entering service, but only in Methodist households, which were not those of county gentry, to say nothing of the nobility. He wants no praying and psalm-singing among his staff. But when he looks at Young Thomas, who is a well-set-up lad, and whose breeches and stockings show that he has the good calves which are absolutely obligatory in a liveried servant, and a round red face, that looks so respectfully into his, and a great head of deep red hair, that glows like copper, Mr. Fewtrell has an idea. A disagreeable idea, of course, or Mr. Fewtrell would not have it, but an idea, all the same.

“The boy speaks English, I suppose?” he says.

“Oh yes indeed, sir. Very correct English,” says Young Thomas. But his tongue is that of someone who thinks in another language.

“I’ll take him on liking. I need a lad, but I won’t have any nonsense, you hear? Send him to the Castle on Monday next — that’s Lady Day; if he lasts for a quarter I’ll see what I can do. No pay for the first quarter, mind.”

“Oh thank you sir. Certainly not for the first quarter. Thank you, Mr. Fewtrell. You are very kind. And the lad will do everything to please you, I’ll go bail.”

Mr. Fewtrell nods curtly, and gives another hard look at Young Thomas, and goes about his business. Which is to take his morning glass of dark sherry at the Green Man; he will cut a figure in the bar where the superior tradesmen, as opposed to the farmers, are to be found. They are all tenants of the Earl, and Mr. Fewtrell is a great man to them.

I see, with sadness, that Grey Wesley, who speaks so confidently to God, is made humble by an upper servant at the Castle. But that is the way of the world, and when I was alive I saw much deferential smiling and heard much fawning speech in the New World, where such things are imagined by idealists to have no place.

Thus, on Lady Day, March 25, 1838, Thomas Gilmartin becomes a Castle servant. He receives no pay, but canny Mr. Fewtrell puts an item for his service under the record of Sundries he presents every month at the Estate Office, and pockets it himself. Once again the screen splits into four and I know rapidly what service means, for at the beginning there is no livery, and Thomas is what is called below-stairs “the gong boy.” Twice a day he empties the hundred and forty chamber-pots in the Castle, beginning with the elegant por­celain pots de chambre in the boudoirs of the Countess and her lady guests, then moving to the heavier jordans in the gentle­men’s rooms (some of which, unaccountably, and with no intention of disloyalty, have pictures of Royal Palaces printed inside them), and, last of all, the plain pots that are used by the servants. There are two hundred and eighty pots in all, for every day the pots of the day before must be taken down to a yard in the back premises, and there scalded and set out to air. As well as the pots there are commodes, concealed in fine sets of steps, or chairs of innocent appearance; but in each one there is a removable pewter container — called a Welsh Hat, because of its shape, and perhaps as a jeer at the peasantry — in which the dung of the gentry and their servants lurks, to be coaxed forth with a spatula, and put down an outdoor drain.

“The pots and the hats are your perks,” says the head footman, a great joker; “anything you find in them you can keep or sell, as you please.”

The system of “perks” runs through the whole domestic staff of the Castle. Mr. Fewtrell’s perks are very great, for they are gifts of wine and spirits from the merchants that supply the great household, and he does a lively business in these among the tenant farmers who have money to spare, and like to say to their cronies, “This is a pure drop; comes from the Castle.” The chief footman’s perks are the candle-ends from the whole great household, for sometimes fourteen hundred candles are lighted in a single night, and the custom is that no candle is ever lit twice. And so his disposal of “long ends” in the town is very remunerative. Just as remunerative is the trade of the cook — for My Lord is old-fashioned enough to employ a woman to do his cooking, and will hear nothing of a French chef — because she sells dripping to those who bring their bowls to the little green door adjacent to the kitchen; where there are so many to feed and so many roasts on the spit every day, there is much dripping. The ladies’ maids and the valets, of course, have cast-off clothes. Everybody has perks except the gong-boy, and even he has his hopes, because there is a very old tale of a silver spoon having once been found in a Welsh Hat.

So Young Thomas would have toiled long as gong-boy if the Countess had not happened upon him one day as he was stealing a peach in the glasshouse. She ignores the peach; Countesses have upper servants to rebuke under servants. But she likes the looks of the handsome lad, and gives orders that he is to drive her pony-trap when she jaunts through the park to take the air. And so, to the annoyance of Mr. Fewtrell, Young Thomas gets a livery after about six months in Castle service.

Just a single livery, that of a groom. But Young Thomas grows in favour with the Countess, who likes handsome young men, and it is not long before he becomes a footman. Not an important footman, but one of the sixteen lesser footmen who do work about the place that would nowadays be expected of housemaids. And that means an advance to three liveries. One for morning, which is plain and is marked by a sleeve-waistcoat, a coat that has no tails; one for afternoon, which means breeches and stockings, and a coat with tails and pewter buttons; but — this is glorious — a full-dress livery for evening appearances in the corridors and in the dining-room, which means white stockings, plush breeches and a velvet coat with silver buttons, and, most glorious of all, powder for his red hair. It takes a lot of powder and pomatum to make his red hair the required white, and every morning his hair has to be washed before breakfast, for pow­der is not worn during the day. But Young Thomas revels in powder, and his impassivity of face, and his fine bowing — deferential but never personal — carry him far up the ladder of service, and by the time he is thirty years old he is head footman, and Mr. Fewtrell has had his first stroke of the fatal three, and is retired and can tyrannize no more.

Thus Thomas is lost to his home, though there is no cruel break. On Mothering Sunday, when all servants are given leave to visit their mothers, or any credible equivalent, he rides on a borrowed pony to Llanfair, with a present of a Simnel cake, baked in the Castle kitchen, and a gift from the Countess. He regales his parents and his half-brother Samuel with tales of the high life. His welcome is saddened by the fact that he has now embraced the Church of England, because the Castle servants are expected to attend the Angli­can chapel-of-ease in the park every Sunday. This is a neces­sity of his employment, but Thomas does not conceal the fact that he likes it, likes the gentility of it, and the ceremonial of the service. Likes sitting in the servants’ gallery, and sharing a hymnbook with the prettiest housemaid.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson