Frequently the hall-porter is designated as being too prying and too officious in his character; but it is seldom considered that the orders he receives are of a very imperative and decisive nature; and most persons must be aware that numerous and various artifices are used to defeat his vigilance. Were he not scrupulously particular as to all persons whom he admits, and the letters he receives in charge, he would, in all probability, be considered by his employer unfit for his post.
If his master be a rich man, and a charitable one, that master is being for ever applied to by the distressed, the needy, and the impostor; the last class being more numerous than those of the unfortunate, needy, and meritoriously deserving. Hence is called into exercise the necessity for the porter's searching and discriminative eye, and his scrupulous pause before receiving a letter or answering an inquiry.
He also has much difficulty as to the admission of one visitor and denial of another, which often places him in a position where even the highly-educated would feel embarrassed; and, therefore, how much greater the embarrassment to a servant, he well knowing that dismissal might follow the disobeying his master's command.
Another part of his duty is equally irksome, and that solely arising from his desire to oblige his fellow-servants, but yet in apprehension of disobeying his master. He is known to be watchful of any person visiting a servant, unless he is somewhat acquainted with the visitor; hence it is that an unknown visitor to one of the household is requested to stay for a moment till he, the porter, can get some one to cause the party to be properly shown to the person inquired for.
The men who usually seek this post have previously lived in another capacity of service perhaps that of footman or under-butler; and in most cases being married men prefer this portion of service, as placing them, whilst on duty, in easy intercourse with their families. When this servant is sober, civil, and cleanly, with ability to read and write, and does his duty faithfully, with attachment to his employer, he is well worthy his wages.
The nature of his employment keeps him nearly a close prisoner, consequently his pleasures can be but few. The person properly qualified for this post is not without a well-estimated reputation in the club, the nobleman's mansion, and the palace; and for his thorough usefulness, it is considered, there can be no complete establishment without him.
It is a well-known fact, that notwithstanding all the vigilance used by the porter, he is still subject to be thrown off his guard by the cunning of the experienced thief and of the impostor, insomuch that not even the palace of royalty, nor the house of our late great Warrior Duke, nor of the Russian embassy, though all those places at times are aided by the police, are proof against the entree of the craft; and there all but few in the condition of porter, who have escaped being practised on at some time of their career, and that, too, much to their cost.
There is a fixed hour for all the servants to be in, if not out upon leave, or upon their employer's business; yet it oflen happens that there are more than one or two in the habit of returning after the time fixed, and such have to be reported.
The porter has to make his report in the proper quarter the next morning, or may have to note it in a book kept for that purpose. By this duty, also, his office is necessarily rendered anything but pleasurable; for though he must do his duty to his master, his report may be the cause of the discharge of his fellow-servant.
Often a parcel may be seen addressed to a house, with merely the name of the street and number of the house upon it; it perhaps has been ordered by one of the upper domestics, in the haste of a sudden purchase, he merely saying at the time, ''Send it to such an address, and give it to the porter". When taken, the porter inquires, "For whom is this?", and is answered, "I do not know; it was directed for here." But the family here may be numerous, and thus the porter has to seek amongst the many to ascertain by whom the parcel was ordered, and this is often accompanied with much trouble, annoyance, and pain.
The porter being answerable for everyone on whom he admits, may at times unavoidabley appear rude and inqisitive; but often during the day he is necesitated to answer many frivolous, needless questions and those frequently in no way concerning the family which he serves. In fact, in some houses he has but little rest from the time he rises till he retires to bed, and few porters can tell at what hour that will be.
The porter's duty as to "Not at home," has its dificulties playfully treated by a well-known author, wherein at once will be clearly seen the extreme uncertainty to which the porter is often subject, whether to give denial or admission to persons requesting audience, and the serious risk he is subject to, in the event of an error, in the service of the capricious.
"Every one who possesses a knowledge of the art of living in decent society, will take care not only to guard against the error of suffering herself to be at home when she should not, but also to hire servants whose instinctive tact has been sufficiently refined by long and habitual exercise, to enable them, without specific orders, to determine when their mistress is or is not at home. The want of this talent in domestics leads to a dreadful abuse. When a blockhead of a porter has not the skill to distinguish between the bullion of his employer's drawing-room and the paper currency; when after examining his man from head to foot, he knows no more how to class him than a naturalist how to place the ornithorhynchus he coolly replies to the customary interrogatory of, "Is your lady at home?" with "I'll see, sir;" and away he trots 'to decline' the visitor's name and appearance, and take orders according as these happen to be in the vocative or the ablative. This is perfectly abominable! Much better is it to give a bold "No" at once, at the risk of dismissing the bearer of an offer of marriage, or a rich brother from the East Indies; for how, after this, can a negative answer be taken in any other light than that of a personal affront? Gullibility itself would not credit the statement; and the most egregious vanity must sink under the pleasant truth it develops. Besides, how gauche it is to leave a gentleman waiting in the hall while this errand is doing, and pemitting him to hear the loud whisper of "Oh no, by no means to him"! followed by the loud shutting of the drawing-room door. There are few houses in London large enough to admit of this manoeuvre being decently performed."
The instructions to the porter usually are very trying and numerous, as to what parcels, lettes, and messages should be taken in, and what refused; and if these in some measure were not acted up to, the house would be besieged with stationery, books, and even goods, which persons daily endeavour to leave that they may afterwards call for an answer. All this and the like render the porter's position one most perplexing difficulty, calling for much nicety of humour, do that, whilst faithfully performing his duty to his employers, others may be impressed with the feeling that it is marked by courtesy.