'Service, Ma'am'

I

EVERY man likes to feel that he earns his way. When I was thirteen and lived with my family in a suburb of London, I was overjoyed when my father told me that he had a job for me. At eight every Saturday morning I was to go to the greengrocer’s and work until midnight. In this way I could pay for my living at home.

I did not mind the two-mile walk in the morning, for I was filled with pride and self-respect, thinking about myself and my father’s faith in me.

I remember that I was fearful of my master. He was about six feet tall and weighed over two hundred pounds. He had whiskers, black and angrylooking, and a moustache like a pig’s bristles. He seemed to be always watching me. No matter where I was, I knew his little bright eyes were watching. I knew that he would tell my father of any weakness on my part. I did not like the thought. My father believed that I could earn my share of the living and I was proud of that. I decided to give no reason for complaint.

There were times, however, when the master was out, particularly when there was coal to deliver or heavy boxes to handle. Often he went out to buy cabbages, potatoes, and other produce. Whatever took him away made me happy. I decided that if he never returned I should be much happier.

The mistress was much easier for me to understand. She was not friendly, but she was not unkind; nor did she notice me as much as her husband did.

She would stare at me in a far-away manner and then say, slowly and impressively as though she were praying, ‘Boy, come have your tea.’ I would come into the room behind the shop and sit down and take my tea as gratefully as I could. I knew she liked me to be grateful and I wanted to please her.

The tea was made from tea dust mixed with milk and sugar and then hot water. It was very good. For supper, she always gave me a bowl of tomato soup with two slices of bread, and I would try to make it last a long time, for I would be tired.

And at midnight the great blackhaired man would groan and stretch his muscles and say, ‘You may go, now,’ as though it would be the last time.

And I would run! How dark the road had become since morning! I was very afraid, always. No matter how tired I might be, I would run the two miles home.

There was the iron gate. I do not know now why it frightened me, but I can still hear it groan as I passed through. I hated it. There was a high stone wall on the right, with a field and lonely trees upon my left. As I ran I would think, ‘The wall is worse, because who knows what lies in wait behind it!’ And then, ‘No! The field is worse, for anything might be there if one looked!’ And I would try to run faster, fearful that I might look.

But I did not speak of this to anyone, because I was proud of my father’s opinion of me. I knew that he considered me able to carry on my own affairs.

II

One Saturday I arrived at the shop to be greeted with the pleasing information that the master was to be gone for the entire day. I should be free of that black watchfulness and allowed to express myself in terms of service as I would.

For the mistress never watched. She only said, ‘Do this, do that.’ The rest was left to me. I determined that the shop should be run that day in a manner wholly pleasing to my father. He would hear of me and be pleased.

The morning passed. I sold cabbages in an expert manner. I cleaned the front steps. I wrapped packages as if I were an artist. The mistress said only, ‘Do this, do that.’

Just before tea, however, she said, ‘Boy, here is an order of coal. See that it is delivered.’

I took the order to the coal shed behind the shop and looked at it earnestly. One hundred pounds of coal. I considered. I myself weighed eighty-five pounds. The truck with which I had to deliver the coal was three feet high and six feet long. There were handles on each end. One pushed it. Again I considered. If the black-bearded master had been present, he would have delivered the coal.

The mistress came to the door and said again, ‘Boy, deliver that order at once.’

She went back into the shop, and, full of foreboding, I began to fill the truck. The coal had to be in a sack, and that made it difficult. How I ever got the sack on the truck, I do not know. But at last I opened the gate and started forth, trying to balance the truck. Did I say it had only two wheels? Two wheels! I had gone but a short distance when I found myself suspended in mid-air with my feet dangling.

A man saw my distress and pulled me down, and then left me to the task of redistributing the weight. When I started forth again I wras very cautious. There was no pride in my mind now. I was bent upon pure service. I had to deliver that coal or else lose my job and my father’s confidence.

I made sure of the address of the buyer and somehow managed to reach it. A very old lady opened the door and looked at me with a dim smile. She would show me the place for the coal. She led me through the hall and together we climbed a flight of sixteen stairs to a cupboard.

‘You must be neat, my lad,’ said the old lady. ‘I dislike a muss.’

She must have thought me very stupid, for I said nothing in answer. I was thinking of the steps. Out on the street once more, I looked at the truck and its load of coal. Nobody passed. I dared not return to the shop and tell the mistress I could not do the job. She would tell the black-haired husband, and he would tell my father I was too small.

Gradually I got the truck headed about, and, grasping the rack upon which the coal sack rested, I backed up to it and got the sack on my shoulders.

I was amazed to find the perspiration pouring off my body at once. Why, I had hardly started! What would it be like when I reached the stairs — if I ever did?

I found out. I got up them on my knees, pulling at the banisters, and so drawing the coal up on its human sledge.

Once up to the cupboard, I gave a great heave — and went in heels over head, the coal sack remaining on the floor. Fortunately the customer was old and deaf. She did not hear the racket. When I could, I got out and emptied the sack into the box with my hands.

When I came down the stairs the old lady looked at me and smiled dimly again and held out her hand.

‘Here, boy,’ she said, and gave me a coin.

As I felt its size I thought with elation that it must be a farthing.

III

When I got back to the shop the mistress was waiting. She looked moodily at me and said, ‘Wash yourself, boy, and come to tea.’

I do not know that I expected praise, but I felt defeated when she said only that. I felt much worse than when I was afraid at midnight. I could see that what I had done had not been important to anyone but myself. But as I drank my tea I thought of the fact that the coal had weighed fifteen pounds more than I had and yet I had mastered it.

That evening the master came home and gave me my wage of twelve cents. I remember that I looked at him and thought that he resembled the sack of coal somewhat, and at that I was not afraid. He would never tell my father that I was too little for the job.