In Chapter VI of Bleak House, Esther Summerson, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone are just arrived at Bleak House and introduced to John Jarndyce. A conversation touching on the Jellybys, the east wind, and Mr. Skimpole is all that time allows before Esther is presented with the housekeeping keys:
Our luggage having arrived and being all at hand, I was dressed in a few minutes and engaged in putting my worldly goods away when a maid (not the one in attendance upon Ada, but another, whom I had not seen) brought a basket into my room with two bunches of keys in it, all labelled.
"For you, miss, if you please," said she.
"For me?" said I.
"The housekeeping keys, miss."
I showed my surprise, for she added with some little surprise on her own part, "I was told to bring them as soon as you was alone, miss. Miss Summerson, if I don't deceive myself?"
"Yes," said I. "That is my name."
"The large bunch is the housekeeping, and the little bunch is the cellars, miss. Any time you was pleased to appoint to-morrow morning, I was to show you the presses and things they belong to."
I said I would be ready at half-past six, and after she was gone, stood looking at the basket, quite lost in the magnitude of my trust. Ada found me thus and had such a delightful confidence in me when I showed her the keys and told her about them that it would have been insensibility and ingratitude not to feel encouraged. I knew, to be sure, that it was the dear girl's kindness, but I liked to be so pleasantly cheated.
If this was intended to signify and establish her permanence, as it were, at Bleak House, it would come as a pleasant surprise to Esther, who, thus far but little acquainted with Mr. Jarndyce in person, might doubt a long tenure at the house of a non-relative. But, taken more pessimistically, the charge of housekeeping duties could signal that the accommodation of a dependent was not free, and even highlight a difference in status between Ada Clare and Esther Summerson, the former perhaps more likely to be favoured as a cousin.
It may be difficult to reconcile the latter view with John Jarndyce's character, which is shown to be unambiguously magnanimous in almost every other respect throughout the novel. Furthermore, Esther never expresses displeasure in these duties. (This attitude could, however, be easily attributed to her obliging and good-natured disposition, the disappointment or excess of her initial expectations notwithstanding.)
I am therefore puzzled by Esther's apprehension of betraying an ingratitude and her feeling of being pleasantly cheated — another way of putting the question: what does she perceive herself to be cheated of? Did she expect a situation like Ada's (disappointed hopes; bad surprise), or one worse than a housekeeper's?