Issue 5, Spring 1954
After two years as a servant in the family of a leather merchant it was settled that Ludvica was to be dismissed. The decision was already three days old, numb and stiff now from three days of fright having rolled over it. Mrs. Glemby, her mistress, who had often threatened, scolded and relented before, this time had wired two lines to a newspaper where she had an account, two small and insignificant lines which Ludvica could scarcely read. The newspaper had a circulation of a hundred thousand. The bell of the terrace door was ringing all day. This was the winter when people walked the streets looking for work; women were desperate, shivered, had red rims around their eyes and a thin trembling on their lips. One old woman had even walked slowly into the river and had drowned deliberately.
Fully twenty servants applied. The lady of the house had resigned herself to interviews. She brought a small basket of children’s mending into the living room so she would appear occupied as she talked. As each servant appeared she was uncertain about one after another and sat there like a judge, stiff and final. But she made no decisions. A fantastic composite took shape in her mind, the appearance of one, the strength of a second, the amiability or low price of others made a sort of paragon and always at the end she was annoyed to realize that she could not have a creature that she had built for herself, perfect in everything. She ended each interview with the same sentence and there was always a tired hinge in her voice. “I must talk to my husband,” she said coldly. “Tomorrow I shall decide, tomorrow.” And as Ludvica opened the final door for each applicant she made a little scratching sound of impatience on the panel with her forenail, exactly like the sound of the thin claw of a bird or a mole digging in and fashioning the walls of its house.
At dinner time the two little girls ran in. They were boisterous, pettish and indulged in all sorts of extravagances; they ate nuts before meals and picked icing off the cakes. The younger was delicate looking yet inclined to play the comedian; even the light airy way in which she threw her wraps in the corner holding them at arm’s length and winking and whistling was amusing and nonsensical. Ludvica was fond of her, walked after her with great ungainly steps, picking up, smiling and bending over the frail shoulders. Every once in a while she would touch the thin shoulder blades. “Your wings are sticking through,” she would say. But the child with a smile in which there was something of impishness, disgust and shrinking, would curl away and this made a dull rage fume in Vica’s heart, made her look and peer a moment intensely without understanding, then walk back quickly to her stove where the pots were sizzling and sputtering. Everything became upset in a moment, the spoons hid themselves, the silver dishes in their place over the oven grew too hot. She nearly dropped them. Her nails, rounded, horny and thick as strong claws, could not hold on to anything.
Serving at table she was nervous, in a panic because she realized that again and again she had made some mistake. Once she had forgotten the stuffing of the capon and at the last minute when it was half done had put two peeled apples inside so the white meat would not dry out. Her cooking was always the same; she could scarcely get a whole dinner together; either the gravy was missing or the egg sauce was left in the kitchen. When anything like this happened her mistress would say, looking helpless and angry, “I’m through. I give up,” and to cover the slatey silence would begin at once to talk French to the children. At luncheon French was always the language but when anything unpleasant happened at other meals their mother thought she could distract her husband by making him slightly curious about these sharp, crisp sentences in another tongue which anyone could understand. He simply looked over the tops of their heads with his clear blue eyes. The children were only too glad to show off. This would go on for five minutes and then suddenly he would put a stop to it briskly. “Not at dinner, no French,” he would say. “Subside, subside. Don’t be boisterous, girls.” All the time Vica walking around the table was helping and serving and her excitement and anxiety made her pant a little.
“Did you see any applicants today?” asked Mr. Glemby, and his voice sounded as though he were talking into a hollow bowl. “People are walking the streets. There must be many who want work.”
“I’m simply exhausted, done up,” and his wife let her arms sink down stiffly like two sticks of wood. All the paragons she had interviewed melted together. Her husband asked about the price, the cleanliness and whether each one could bake well. He liked rich cake and soufflé.
“If it’s only cleanliness, Vica is clean,” said his wife looking at him with wide-open eyes in which showed her faintheartedness and her dread of a new servant. The changing of maids was like a warped wheel in her mind, a wheel running over and over monotonously.
“Yes, but this pudding—” said Mr. Glemby positively.
“And she’s kind … I see all her kindness now, one after the other…”
“Don’t relent, don’t be soft … it’s too late… You’s always ready to give in.” He was simply a hard man.