Portrait of a Maid

ANNA FELIKSA CHAIKOWSKY had the evil eye; Antonia, the other maid, said so repeatedly, and finally left us because of her superstitious fears. At least, that was the reason she gave for leaving. Actually, I suppose, it was because she could not get along with Anna Feliksa, who in a high degree lacked the cooperative spirit: she was jealous, domineering, and passionately fond of trouble, and she did not need to rely on supernatural gifts to bring it about.

Certainly in the two years she worked for us we had a series of disasters. In the wake of two serious illnesses which occupied most of our time and attention came a parade of minor complaints — colds, influenza, defaulting tenants, financial trouble, and a lawsuit; all of which, except financial trouble, being outside our normal routine. These calamities took place against a background of domestic upheaval, as Anna drove away one chambermaid after another. Every few weeks a new bovine Slavic face, which invariably masked a richly emotional Slavic temperament, appeared to replace its predecessor, until the master complained that his house had become the Polish Corridor. It was very unsettling, very harassing. We were worried, irritable, depressed in health and spirits, and if we had not had funny, strong, kind-hearted Anna to see us through this period of stress, which she may or may not have brought upon us, we should have been in worse case than we were.

Although she was officially the cook, she was quite willing to fill the gap made by the departing second maid, and to render first aid to our current casualty list. She had a quality which good nurses often have, a love of catastrophes, crises, emergencies, and at such times she was invaluable. And one had the not quite comfortable feeling with her, as with a good nurse, that if the patient got even sicker it would be even more interesting, and if the house burned down, that too would be exciting, and if it came to the point where a funeral must take place, no one would get more fun out of it than Anna Feliksa. There was good in everything.

‘’S all right, Anna fix it, Misses no boder’ was her invariable comment when we rushed to the kitchen to tell her someone had fainted, or fallen downstairs, or had to have a pint of orange juice every hour.

She was always predicting trouble, but in such a sunny, good-natured way that we absolved her of malevolent wishes against us. One evening the master did not come home at his usual time, and when dinner was announced an hour later he had still failed to appear. ‘You’ll have to keep things hot, Anna,’ I said. ‘We’ll wait half an hour, and if he is n’t here then, we will have dinner without him.’

‘ Maybe Mister kill,’ Anna suggested helpfully.

‘ Nonsense.’

‘Oh, yes, Misses. Ev’y day, alla time, people kill. Car knock down, car smash, one man kill, two man kill — yes, Misses. Maybe.’

‘Maybe Misses die’ was a matter of routine when I had a cold, or looked pale, or criticized the seasoning. It ceased to be an unpleasantly shocking prediction from sheer weight of repetition, and from the cheerful manner in which the oracle delivered herself. No one was exempt from these macabre prophecies, in which her favorite word, ‘poisim,’ was frequently bandied about. She offered, several times, to tell our fortunes, but we did not avail ourselves of her occult gifts. She was too free with her mortuary predictions.

She sounds very unattractive, but I have put her worst foot forward. Actually, she had a great deal of charm. She was a decent, demure-looking little woman, past middle age. She had straight brown hair screwed back in a knot, and lines made by laughing around her eyes. Her pronunciation and use of the English language were so peculiar that we thought she must have learned it from a Chinaman; she used l for r whenever it was possible. Her plurals, however, were Slavic — money, monoff; baby, baboff. Except in her morose and restless moods, when things were going too smoothly to suit her, she was good-natured, cheerful, and fond of jokes.

A little too fond of jokes. High spirits came on her at the least convenient times. She had a number of noisy and objectionable games which she played with the dog; she would chase him with the vacuum cleaner and they would bark at each other a good deal, which was bad for the nerves of the current invalid. Guests went to her head like wine. She loved to have people come to dinner, but they stimulated her to her worst behavior. I remember waiting in the living room one evening for dinner to be announced. The guests had arrived. I finally went to the kitchen to find the cause of the delay. The turkey was half in, half out of the oven, and Anna, in convulsions of laughter, was strutting up and down the kitchen, saying, ‘Gobble, gobble, gobble.’ It was a very good imitation of a turkey. Antonia was following her back and forth, wringing her hands, saying, ‘Is that nice, Anna, everybody here wanting their dinner? Is that nice?’ I laughed, illadvisedly, which stimulated her to wilder efforts, and I had to work myself into a rage and stamp my foot to quench her levity.

She had a real talent for mimicry, in which the children encouraged her. When a friend called whose name she could not pronounce, she could imitate the caller so surely that I knew at once who it was. These impersonations were fleeting, accurate, and disrespectful.

What I liked most about her was her complete lack of servility. She wras as polite as her limited knowledge of conventional manners permitted her to be, and she had an enviable degree of self-respect. Her manner of acceptmg gifts was cavalier to the point of ingratitude, but it was in such pleasing contrast to Antonia’s meeching manners, her transports and hand kissings, that I rather liked it. She was presented at Christmas with the usual gifts from the family — a small sum of money, some gloves, a muffler, a purse, and so on. Her enthusiasm was temperate for all but the money; and it was rather chilling to be informed a few days later that she had sold the gloves and muffler, and given the purse to her niece. She gave her relatives most of the clothes and other trifles she had from us; she did n’t like her relatives, visited them rarely, and quarreled with them bitterly, but she had a great deal of family feeling, and liked to know that they were provided for. This also was an attitude I could appreciate.

I often thought: ‘I cannot endure Anna another minute. I cannot stand the sight of her dusting the living room with a complicated series of waistcoats over her uniform and a purple felt hat on her head (because the cold made her teeth hurt). I cannot have a maid who springs out of bed and rushes from the house in her bare feet to follow the fire engine. I dislike to be told that it is natural to die when you are “ole like Misses.”’ But each time I decided that our relations must be severed a new calamity would descend on us, and Anna could be relied on to get up at any hour of the night, to lift patients from bed to bed, to make cold and hot compresses, to prepare, unsolicited, disagreeable Polish remedies which had to be privily disposed of.

Inevitably, however, we reached the breaking point; and, whether or no she had the evil eye, disasters ceased shortly after her departure. Antonia came to see us, to congratulate us on getting rid of our domestic menace, and to predict a brighter future. But there was just one thing she thought we ought to know. In the part of Poland from which Anna derived, it was the custom for a discharged servant to play some little trick on her former employer. For instance, putting a little poison in the ice box. (It was outside, on the kitchen porch.) Not much poison, of course; Anna would n’t want to kill us. We ridiculed this suggestion, as it deserved. Nevertheless, it was an uncomfortable idea. We thought of Anna’s high-spirited Polish ways, her sense of the comic; we remembered that the word ‘poisim’ had played a large part in her vocabulary, and we locked the ice box for a few days.

It seemed very strange without her. The doctor stopped coming. We did not rush home after every absence to ask, ‘Is everything all right? Has anything happened?’ or listen anxiously for the telephone when we were out to dinner. We began to sleep at night.

She still comes to see me occasionally, and I am more embarrassed by my lack of cordiality than she. She has really an excellent manner — poise without forwardness, dignity without constraint, and no self-consciousness. We all miss her, but we would not have her back for any consideration. I do not believe in the evil eye, but I am convinced that Anna Feliksa was born to trouble as the sparks fly upward, and that the way of the innocent bystander is hard.