by Pam Sears
Humor in Victorian London
|“OW! Are you even AIMING, Mabel?!”
Mabel stood on the street, reed in hand, grinning madly at Harriet who was half-leaning out a window.
“Well, if ye’d pay at’enshun when I Aye calls ye, Aye wud’na ha’ ta resort ta this.”
Harriet shook her fist, only half jesting. “Jest you wait, Mabel Daire. I’ll be right back to show you how to aim that thing!” That shot had stung right proper, it had.
Pulling her head back in the window she’d been cleaning Harriet went searching for a reed she could use in retaliation. She and Mabel had been going after each other for weeks, now, and it only escalated each time they got the chance. And it had all started with Harriet just accidentally spilling a little water from the mop bucket on Mabel’s shoe. Truly.
Harriet was poking carefully through the leaves of the flower arrangement on a hall table when Mrs. Whitmore, the housekeeper, found her.
“Have you finished washing the windows, Harriet?” She cocked a rather prim eyebrow at Harriet.
“Ah, no mum. I… I were innerupted, like.” Harriet stammered, fighting a blush and shoving her hands behind her back.
“Was, Harriet. If you’re going to move up the ranks to ladies maid someday you must use proper grammar. I *was* interrupted.” She eyed the look on Harriet’s face and that eyebrow went higher. “Well? How were you interrupted?”
“Oh, uhm, jus’… I mean, just one of the other maids caught me… I mean, caught my attention. I’ll get right back and finish the windows, Mrs. Whitmore.”
“I’m sure you will. After you’ve finished whatever… errand… interrupted you in the first place? Mm.” And, with a twinkle in her eyes, although her face remained stern, Mrs. Whitmore went on her way.
Harriet gaped after her a moment, then grinned. Seemed the old gabby had a sense of humor, then. Gathering her skirts in one hand, the reed she’d found carefully grasped in the other, Harriet hurried toward the servant’s stairs.
Peering carefully around the hydrangea bush in the back garden Harriet found Mabel hanging the bedding out to dry, humming quietly in a self-satisfied, if slightly off-key, manner. Grinning, Harriet carefully loaded the gravy-covered pea into the end of her hollowed out reed. Taking aim she blew out a sharp breath and shot the pea across the short distance into the back of Mabel’s neck.
“Ow! What…?” Mabel slapped a hand to her neck and spun around just as another gravy covered pea smacked into her left cheek.
“Harriet Wilson… OW! You rotten… watch out! Oh, not the sheets! Harry, you rat!”
Harriet had been careful to use cooked peas, she didn’t want to *hurt* Mabel after all, but the gravy was to be sure she was marked for everyone to see. She didn’t mean to get the sheets but Mabel dodged that last shot and it hit the wash on the line.
“Well, stop moving and take ye’r medicine, ye’ daft loony!” Harriet laughed. Then she saw Mabel snatch up one of the pillows that had been brought outside to be aired and charge at her.
Laughing, Harriet dodged away from the heavier woman and ran to grab her own weapon. Soon, the back garden was filled with shrieks of laughter as the two batted each other with the pillows.
“Ah’ll have ta wash them sheets all over because of ye!” Mabel accused, gasping for air and still laughing as she circled Harriet, watching for the chance to bat her with the pillow again.
“You started it, this time.” Harriet was grinning hugely even as she stayed out of arms reach. “You just *had* to get me with that pea shooter of your sons!”
“Whal, it were a good job I did. Ye needed wakin’ up afore ye fell outer that winder, ye looked that bored.” Mabel dodged in, swinging, and managed to get two good hits on an unprepared Harriet before backing up again.
Laughing, Harriet had just charged Mabel to get her own hits in when Mrs. Whitmore’s voice rang across the back garden.
“What. Is. This.”
Both women tried to turn, startled, but got tangled up in each other. The pillows went flying, the two women did that strange dance once does when they’ve lost their balance and are trying to keep each other from falling, but ended up running into the hanging sheets.
The pole holding the line for the sheets wasn’t yet firmly planted in the ground and, with the added weight of the two women running into the laundry, it gave up the struggle to remain upright and the sheets fell on the women, wrapping around them as they fell to the ground in an undignified tangle of shrieks, legs and bedding.
When silence once more descended in the little area a firmly pinned Harriet managed to free an arm and pull aside the edge of the bedding covering her face. To her chagrin several of the under maids and Mr. Twill, the butler, stood near Mrs. Whitmore watching all the ruckus.
Mrs. Whitmore had the fingers of one hand gently tapping her lips as she sternly surveyed the mess her two employees had created.
“Uhm, I… can… explain, Mrs. Whitmore, ma’am.” Harriet began tentatively, working hard to make sure her grammar and words were correct and fighting a case of nervous giggles.
“Oh, please, do.” Mrs. Whitmore invited, face somber.
Harriet eyed her, sure that humor lurked behind that stern visage but worried that she was about to, rightly, receive a stern reprimand. Bad enough when deserved, but ten times worse in front of the under maids.
“Well, ma’am, you see,” she began, trying to mitigate the situation somehow without blaming Mabel entirely.
But Mabel suddenly began to messily extract herself. “Oh, give over, ye’ bampot!” She chuckled at Harriet. “Jes’ gi’ the woman the truth.”
Finally free of the worst of the tangle Mabel stood, eyes on Mrs. Whitmore and the small crowd even as she offered a helping hand to Harriet.
“We ‘us jes’ havin’ a bit’o fun an’ got carried away, mum.” Mabel declared, pulling Harriet to her feet. “I does apologize, an’ I’ll have it all clean in a trice wiv’ Harry’s he’p. It’s right sorry we are fer th’ mess.”
“I see.” Mrs. Whitmore replied sternly. She turned, as if just realizing there were other observers, and raised an eyebrow at the under maids.
“I believe you still have duties to see to? Yes. Be off, then. Quickly.” Her voice was kind but stern and brooked no arguments. The three women bobbed quick curtsies of obedience and hurried back into the house. Everyone remained silent until the door was firmly shut.
Mrs. Whitmore then glanced at Mr. Twill who merely raised an eyebrow at her in return. Both dignitaries turned to look at the two women. Mrs. Whitmore’s lips quirked. She raised her hand to once more tap her fingers against her mouth. Mr. Twill coughed into his fist.
To Harriet’s surprise (but not, apparently, Mabel’s) the housekeeper and butler glanced at each other and burst into gales of laughter.
“Oh, my. What *are* you two about?” Mrs. Whitmore gasped. “This is no sort of example to set for the under maids, you know.”
Harriet gaped, Mabel grinned. “Well, Annie, it started wi’ a wet shoe.” Mabel glanced slyly at Harriet.
“And it’s been getting worse ever since.” Mr. Twill chuckled. “You are a devil, Mabel Daire, and so you are. Really.”
“No mor’n you are, Twiller.” She replied saucily. Harriet gasped in shock. Surly Mabel was about to be fired. And take her with her by association.
Mrs. Whitmore noticed Harriet’s look and took pity.
“It’s alright, Harriet. We’re all cousins, you see. We don’t noise it about since most people don’t like too many relatives working in the same household – I never understood that, you work best with those you trust – so we simply keep it to ourselves, for the most part, and go about our jobs.”
Then, a gleam in her merry brown eyes, she slowly reached for one of the discarded pillows. “Now, I believe a lesson in manners is in order. Don’t you, Twiller?”
“Wot!?” Mabel shrieked. “Oh, no yer don’t. Run, Harry! Run!”
Grinning evilly, Mr. Twill retrieved the other pillow and, as the two women shrieked in helpless laughter, aided Mrs. Whitmore in administering a well-deserved lesson in proper decorum for an upper servant.