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Sarah and Ruth
I should perhaps, at this point, return to the question of Lord Darlington’s attitude towards Jewish people. I want, in particular, to discuss the false belief that Lord Darlington banned Jews from working on the staff at Darlington Hall. I am in the perfect position, as head of staff, to deny these accusations absolutely. There were many Jewish people on the staff throughout all my years with his lordship, and they were never treated differently as a result of their race. The only possible reason for these ridiculous accusations is, perhaps, one brief incident in the summer of 1932.
One afternoon, his lordship called me into his study.
‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, Stevens,’ he said. ‘And I’ve decided that we cannot have Jews on the staff here at Darlington Hall.’
‘It is for the good of this house, Stevens. In the interests of the guests we have staying here.’
‘Of course, sir.’
‘Tell me, Stevens, we have a few Jews on the staff at the moment, don’t we?’
‘I believe two of the present staff come into that category, sir.’
‘Ah.’ His lordship paused for a moment, staring out of his window. ‘Of course, you’ll have to dismiss them. It’s regrettable, Stevens, but we have no choice. I’ve thought about this very carefully. It’s in all our best interests.’
The two Jewish members of staff were both housemaids. It was right, therefore, to speak to Miss Kenton first and inform her of the situation. I decided to do this that same evening when I met her for cocoa in her room.
I should perhaps say a few words here about these meetings in her room at the end of the day. Our conversations were completely professional, although some informal topics were discussed from time to time. Our reason for having these meetings was simple: our lives were so busy that we hardly had time to speak to each other during the day. This lack of communication was a serious danger to the continued smooth running of operations in Darlington Hall. Fifteen minutes in private together at the end of the day in Miss Kenton’s room seemed, therefore, the simplest solution to the problem.
I was a little anxious about telling Miss Kenton that I had to dismiss two of her maids. They had both been perfectly satisfactory employees, and I was not personally in favour of dismissing them. Nevertheless, it would have been irresponsible of me to display my true feelings on the matter. It was a difficult task, but it had to be performed with dignity.
When I finally introduced the subject towards the end of our conversation that evening, I was as clear and as businesslike as possible. I finished by saying: ‘I will speak to the two maids in my office tomorrow morning at ten thirty. I would be grateful, Miss Kenton, if you could send them to me.’
At first, Miss Kenton said nothing. So I continued:
‘Well, Miss Kenton, thank you for the cocoa. It is time for me to go to bed. Another busy day tomorrow.’
As I was leaving, Miss Kenton suddenly said:
‘Mr Stevens, I cannot quite believe my ears. Ruth and Sarah have been members of my staff for over six years. They have served this house excellently.’
‘I’m sure that is true, Miss Kenton. However, we must not allow personal feeling to affect our judgement.’
‘Mr Stevens, I’m shocked that you can sit there and speak about this so calmly. You are saying that Ruth and Sarah have to be dismissed because they are Jewish?’
‘Miss Kenton, I have just explained the situation to you. His lordship has made his decision and there is nothing for you or I to debate.’
‘Have you not considered, Mr Stevens, that it would be quite wrong to dismiss Ruth and Sarah because they’re Jewish? I will not work in a house in which such things can occur.’
‘Miss Kenton, please do not excite yourself. Remember your position. This is a very simple matter. If his lordship wishes to end their contracts, there is no more to be said.’
‘I’m warning you, Mr Stevens, I will not continue to work in such a house. If my girls are dismissed, I will leave too.’
‘Miss Kenton, may I suggest that you and I are not in a position to judge what is right and what is not. The world of today is a very complicated and dangerous place. His lordship is in a much better position than we are to judge what is best. Now, Miss Kenton, I really must go to bed. I thank you again for the cocoa. Send the two employees to me at ten thirty tomorrow morning, please.’
As soon as the two maids stepped into my office the following morning, I could see that Miss Kenton had already spoken to them. They both came in crying. I explained the situation to them as briefly as possible, emphasizing the fact that their work had been satisfactory. The whole interview lasted perhaps for three or four minutes, and they were still in tears when they left.
Miss Kenton was extremely cold towards me for some time afterwards. At times she was quite rude to me, even in front of the staff. Although we continued our habit of meeting for cocoa in the evening, our conversation was brief and her tone unfriendly. When there had been no improvement in her behaviour after a fortnight, I started to become a little impatient. I therefore said to her one evening: ‘Miss Kenton, I am surprised that you haven’t left yet.’ I accompanied this with a little laugh to show that I was joking. Miss Kenton, however, was not amused. She frowned at me and said: ‘I still intend to leave, Mr Stevens. I have been too busy to organize it, that’s all.’
This made me think that she was, perhaps, serious about her threat. But then, as the weeks passed, it became clear that she was not going to leave Darlington Hall. The atmosphere between us gradually improved, and I began to joke about her threat to resign. For example, if we were discussing a future large occasion to be held at the house, I sometimes finished the conversation by saying: ‘Of course, Miss Kenton, if you are still with us.’
Even months after the event, such remarks still made Miss Kenton go quiet - although I think that this was due more to embarrassment than anger.
Eventually, of course, we stopped mentioning the subject. But I remember one last reference to it more than a year after the maids had left.
His lordship mentioned it one afternoon when I was serving his tea in the drawing room.
‘Oh, Stevens,’ he said to me. ‘I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that business last year. About the Jewish maids. Do you remember?’
‘I suppose there’s no way of finding out where they are now, is there? It was wrong, what happened. One would like to compensate them for it somehow.’
‘I will certainly investigate, sir. But I am not sure that it will be easy to discover their whereabouts after all this time.’
‘See what you can do, Stevens. That business should never have happened.’
I thought that Miss Kenton would be interested in what his lordship had said, and I decided to mention it to her - even at the risk of getting her angry again. However, when I finally spoke to her about it, my conversation with her produced strange results.
One foggy afternoon, I was crossing the lawn towards the summerhouse in order to clear away some cups and saucers. As I approached the steps where my father had once fallen, I noticed a figure moving about inside the summerhouse. It was Miss Kenton. When I entered, however, she had stopped moving about and was sitting down on a chair, apparently busy with some needlework. When I looked more closely, I noticed that she was repairing a cushion.
As I began to gather up the cups and saucers, Miss Kenton and I talked to each other about unimportant things. It was a pleasant change to be outside in the summerhouse after so many continuous days in the main building. Neither of us was in a hurry to return indoors. As the daylight rapidly faded and the fog began to thicken over the lawn, Miss Kenton and I often stopped working and stared out of the windows in silence. Then, during one of our silences, I finally introduced the topic of the maids’ dismissal.
‘I was just thinking earlier, Miss Kenton,’ I said. ‘It is rather funny to remember now, but only a year ago you were still insisting you were going to resign. It rather amused me to think of it.’ I gave a laugh, but behind me Miss Kenton remained silent. When I finally turned to look at her, she was staring quietly through the windows at the fog.
‘You probably have no idea, Mr Stevens,’ she said eventually, ‘how seriously I thought of leaving this house. I felt so strongly about what happened.’ She paused for a while, and I turned my attention back to the window. Then she continued in a tired, dreamy voice: ‘I was a coward, Mr Stevens. I did not leave because I had nowhere to go. I have no family, only my aunt. I love her dearly, but I can’t live with her for a day without feeling that my life is wasting away. I told myself, of course, that I would soon find another job somewhere. But I was so frightened, Mr Stevens. I feel so ashamed of myself.’
Miss Kenton paused again and seemed to be deep in thought. I thought that this was an appropriate moment for me to inform her of my recent conversation with Lord Darlington. I finished by saying: ‘The past cannot be undone. But it is, at least, comforting to hear his lordship say that it was all a terrible mistake. I just thought you would like to know, Miss Kenton, since I recall that you were as upset by the incident as I was.’
‘I’m sorry, Mr Stevens,’ Miss Kenton said behind me in an entirely new voice. ‘I don’t understand you.’
I turned in surprise and saw that Miss Kenton was no longer looking dreamily out of the window. She was staring directly at me with a look of challenge in her eyes.
‘As I recall, Mr Stevens, you thought that it was right and proper for Ruth and Sarah to leave. You were positively cheerful about it.’
‘Now really, Miss Kenton, that is quite incorrect and unfair. The whole matter upset me terribly. It is hardly the sort of thing I like to see happen in this house.’
‘Then why, Mr Stevens, did you not tell me this at the time?’
I gave a laugh, but for a moment was rather lost for an answer. Before I could think of one, Miss Kenton put down her sewing and said:
‘Do you realize, Mr Stevens, how much it would have meant to me if you had shared your feelings with me last year? You knew how upset I was when my girls were dismissed. Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?’
I gave another laugh. The conversation was, in my opinion, becoming rather ridiculous. ‘Really, Miss Kenton,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure I know what you mean.’
‘I suffered so much over Ruth and Sarah leaving us. And I suffered more because I believed I was alone.’
‘Really, Miss Kenton…’ I picked up the tray of cups and saucers. ‘Naturally, I disapproved of the dismissals. I thought that was obvious.’
She did not say anything and, as I was leaving, I glanced back towards her. She was again looking out at the view, but it had by now grown very dark inside the summerhouse. I could only see the dark shape of her figure against a pale and empty background. I excused myself and walked out into the fog.
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