I didn’t answer back, for answering back is a poor sort of business when the other person is able to make you pay for every idle word. Of course, it’s different if you haven’t anything to lose by it. So I just said—
’Never mind, aunt dear. I really haven’t brought much; and what would you like me to do first?’
‘I should think you’d see for yourself,’ says she, thumping her pillows, ’that there’s not a stick in the house been dusted yet—no, nor a stair swep’.’
So I set to to clean the house, which was cleaner than most people’s already, and I got a nice bit of dinner and took it up on a tray. But no, that wasn’t right, for I’d put the best instead of the second-best cloth on the tray.
‘The workhouse is where you’ll end,’ says aunt.
But she ate up all the dinner, and after that she seemed to get a little easier in her temper, and by-and-by fell off to sleep.
I finished the stairs and tidied up the kitchen, and then I went to dust the parlour.
Now, my aunt’s parlour was a perfect moral. I have never seen its like before or since. The mantelpiece and the corner cupboard, and the shelves behind the door, and the top of the chest of drawers and the bureau were all covered up with a perfect litter and lurry of old china. Not sets of anything, but different basins and jugs and cups and plates and china spoons and the bust of John Wesley and Elijah feeding the ravens in a red gown and standing on a green crockery grass plot.
There was every kind of china uselessness that you could think of; and Sarah and I used to think it hard that a girl had no chance of getting on in life without she dusted all this rubbish once a week at the least.
‘Well, the sooner begun the sooner ended,’ says I to myself So I took the silk handkerchief that aunt kep’ a purpose—an old one it was that had belonged to uncle, and hemmed with aunt’s own hair and marked with his name in the corner. (Folks must have had a deal of time in those days, I often think.) And I began to dust the things, beginning with the big bowl on the chest of drawers, for aunt always would have everything done just one way and no other.
You think, perhaps, that I might as well have sat down in the arm-chair and had a quiet nap and told aunt afterwards that I had dusted everything; but you must know she was quite equivalent to asking any of the neighbours who might drop in whether that dratted china of hers was dusted properly.
It was a hot afternoon, and I was tired and a bit cross.
‘Aunts, and uncles, and grandmothers,’ thinks I to myself. ’O what a stupid old lot they must have been to have set such store by all this gimcrackery! Oh, if only a bull or something could get in here for five minutes and smash every precious—oh, my cats alive!’
I don’t know how I did it, but just as I was saying that about the bull, the big bowl slipped from my hands and broke in three pieces on the floor at my feet, and at the same moment I heard aunt thump, thump, thumping with the heel of her boot on the floor for me to go up and tell her what I had broken. I tell you I wished from my heart at that moment that it was me that had had the quinsy instead of Sarah.