“I’m never goin’ to be clean any more,” she announced. And you may fancy, if you please, that somewhere in the shadows of the house some one heard those words and chuckled with delighted pleasure.
Mrs. Slater was caretaker at No. 21 March. Square. Old Lady Cathcart lived with her middle-aged daughter at No. 21, and, during half the year, they were down at their place in Essex; during half the year, then, Mrs. Slater lived in the basement of No. 21 with her son Henry, aged six.
Mrs. Slater was a widow; upon a certain afternoon, two and a half years ago, she had paused in her ironing and listened. “Something,” she told her friends afterwards, “gave her a start—she couldn’t say what nor how.” Her ironing stayed, for that afternoon at least, where it was, because her husband, with his head in a pulp and his legs bent underneath him, was brought in on a stretcher, attended by two policemen. He had fallen from a piece of scaffolding into Piccadilly Circus, and was unable to afford any further assistance to the improvements demanded by the Pavilion Music Hall. Mrs. Slater, a stout, amiable woman, who had never been one to worry; Henry Slater, Senior, had been a bad husband, “what with women and the drink”—she had no intention of lamenting him now that he was dead; she had done for ever with men, and devoted the whole of her time and energy to providing bread and butter for herself and her son.
She had been Lady Cathcart’s caretaker for a year and a half, and had given every satisfaction. When the old lady came up to London Mrs. Slater went down to Essex and defended the country place from suffragettes and burglars. “I shouldn’t care for it,” said a lady friend, “all alone in the country with no cheerful noises nor human beings.”
“Doesn’t frighten me, I give you my word, Mrs. East,” said Mrs. Slater; “not that I don’t prefer the town, mind you.”
It was, on the whole, a pleasant life, that carried with it a certain dignity. Nobody who had seen old Lady Cathcart drive in her open carriage, with her black bonnet, her coachman, and her fine, straight back, could deny that she was one of Our Oldest and Best—none of your mushroom families come from Lord knows where—it was a position of trust, and as such Mrs. Slater considered it. For the rest she loved her son Henry with more than a mother’s love; he was as unlike his poor father, bless him, as any child could be. Henry, although you would never think it to look at him, was not quite like other children; he had been, from his birth, a “little queer, bless his heart,” and Mrs. Slater attributed this to the fact that three weeks before the boy’s birth, Horny Slater, Senior, had, in a fine frenzy of inebriation, hit her over the head with a chair. “Dead drunk, ’e was, and never a thought to the child coming, ‘’Enery,’ I said to him, ’it’s the child you’re hitting as well as me’; but ’e was too far gone, poor soul, to take a thought.”