A Peevish Day and its Consequences
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1853
"It is too bad, Rachael, to put me to all this trouble; and you know I can hardly hold up my head!"
Thus spoke Mrs. Smith, in a peevish voice, to a quiet-looking servant, who had been called up from the kitchen to supply some unimportant omission in the breakfast-table arrangement.
Rachael looked hurt and rebuked, but made no reply.
"How could you speak in that way to Rachael?" said Mr. Smith, as soon as the servant had withdrawn.
"If you felt just as I do, Mr. Smith, you would speak cross too!" Mrs. Smith replied a little warmly. "I feel just like a rag; and my head aches as if it would burst!"
"I know you feel badly, and I am very sorry for you. But still, I suppose it is as easy to speak kindly, as harshly. Rachael is very obliging and attentive, and should be borne with in occasional omissions, which you of course know are not willful."
"It is easy enough to preach," retorted Mrs. Smith, whose temper, from bodily lassitude and pain, was in quite an irritable state. The reader will understand at least one of the reasons of this, when he is told that the scene here presented occurred during the last hot, humid, oppressive week in August.
Mr. Smith said no more. He saw that to do so would only be to provoke, instead of quieting his wife's ill-humor. The morning meal went by in silence, but little food passing the lips of either. How could it, when the thermometer was ninety-four at eight o'clock in the morning, and the leaves upon the trees were as motionless as if suspended in a vacuum? Bodies and minds were tense — and the one turned from food, as the other did from thought, with an instinctive aversion.
After Mr. Smith had left his home for his place of business, Mrs. Smith went up into her chamber, and threw herself upon the bed, her head still continuing to ache with great violence. It so happened that a week before, Betty the chambermaid had gone away, sick, and all the duties of the household had in consequence devolved upon Rachael, herself not very well. Cheerfully, however, had she endeavored to discharge these accumulated duties, and but for the unhappy, peevish state of mind in which Mrs. Smith indulged, would have discharged them without a murmuring thought. But, as she was a faithful, conscientious woman, and, withal, sensitive in her feelings, to be found fault with, worried her exceedingly. Of this Mrs. Smith was well aware, and had, until the latter part of the trying month of August, acted toward Rachael with consideration and forbearance.
But the last week of August was too much for her. The sickness of the chambermaid threw such heavy duties upon Rachael, whose daily headaches and nervous state of body were borne without a complaint, that their perfect performance was almost impossible. Slight omissions, which were next to unavoidable under the circumstances, became so annoying to Mrs. Smith, herself, as it has been seen, laboring under great bodily and mental prostration, that she could not bear them.
"She knows better, and she could do better, if she chose!" was her rather uncharitable comment often inwardly made on the occurrence of some new trouble.
After Mr. Smith had taken his departure on the morning just referred to, Mrs. Smith went up into her chamber, as has been seen, and threw herself languidly upon a bed, pressing her hands to her throbbing temples, as she did so, and murmuring,
"I can't live at this rate!"
At the same time, Rachael set down in the kitchen the large platter upon which she had arranged the dishes from the breakfast-table, and then sinking into a chair, pressed one hand upon her forehead, and sat for more than a minute in troubled silence. It had been three days since she had received a pleasant word from Mrs. Smith; and the last remark, made to her a short time before, had been the unkindest of all. At another time, even all this would not have moved her — she could have perceived that Mrs. Smith was not in a right state — that lassitude of body had produced a temporary infirmity of mind. But, being herself affected by the oppressive season almost as much as her mistress, she could not make these allowances. While still seated, the chamber-bell was rung with a quick, startling jerk.
"What next?" peevishly ejaculated Rachael, and then slowly proceeded to obey the summons.
"How could you leave my chamber in such a condition as this?" was the salutation which met her ear, as she entered the presence of Mrs. Smith, who, half raised upon the bed, and leaning upon her hand, looked the very personification of languor, peevishness, and ill-humor. "You had plenty of time while we were eating breakfast, to have put things right!"
To this Rachael made no reply, but turned away and went back into the kitchen. She had scarcely reached that spot, before the bell rang again, louder and quicker than before; but she did not answer it. In about three minutes it was jerked with an energy that snapped the wire, but Rachael was immovable. Five minutes elapsed, and then Mrs. Smith, fully aroused from the lethargy that had stolen over her, came down with a quick, firm step.
"What's the reason you didn't answer my bell? say!" she asked, in an excited voice.
Rachael did not reply.
"Do you hear me?"
Rachael had never been so treated before; she had lived with Mrs. Smith for three years, and had rarely been found fault with. She had been too strict in regard to the performance of her duty, to leave much room for even a more exacting mistress to find fault; but now, to be over-tasked and sick, and to be scolded, rebuked, and even angrily assailed, was more than she could well bear. She did not allow herself to speak for some moments, and then her voice trembled, and the tears came out upon her cheeks.
"I wish you to get another in my place. I find I don't suit you. My time will be up the day after tomorrow."
"Very well!" was Mrs. Smith's firm reply, as she turned away, and left the kitchen.
Here was trouble in good earnest. Often had Mrs. Smith said, during the past two or three years — "What would I do without Rachael?" And now she had given notice that she was going to leave her, and under circumstances which made pride forbid a request to stay. Determined to act out her part of the business with firmness and decision, she dressed herself and went out, as hot and oppressive as it was, and took her way to an employment office, where she paid the required fee and directed a cook and chambermaid to be sent to her.
On the next morning, about ten o'clock, an Irish girl came and offered herself as a cook, and was, after sundry questions and answers, hired. So soon as this negotiation was settled, Rachael retired from the kitchen, leaving the new-comer in full possession. In half an hour after, she received her wages, and left, in no very happy frame of mind, a home that had been for three years, until within a few days, a pleasant one. As for Mrs. Smith, she was ready to go to bed sick; but this was impracticable. Nancy, the new cook, had expressly stipulated that she was to have no duties unconnected with the kitchen. The consequence was, that notwithstanding the thermometer ranged above ninety, and the atmosphere remained as sultry as air from a heated oven, Mrs. Smith was compelled to arrange her chamber and parlors. By the time this was done, she was in a condition to go to bed, and lie until dinner-time.
The arrival of this important period brought new troubles and vexations. Dinner was late by forty minutes, and then came the meal in a most abominable condition. A fine sirloin was burnt to a crisp. The tomatoes were smoked, and the potatoes watery. As if this was not enough to mar the pleasure of the dinner hour for a hungry husband, Mrs. Smith added thereto a distressed countenance and discouraging complaints. Nancy was grumbled at and scolded every time she had occasion to appear in the room, and her single attempt to excuse herself on account of not understanding the stove, was met by, "Do hush, will you! I'm out of all patience!"
As to the latter part of the sentence, that was a needless waste of words. The condition of mind she described was fully apparent.
About three o'clock in the afternoon, just as Mrs. Smith had found a temporary relief from a troubled mind, and a most intolerable headache, in sleep — a tap on the chamber-door awoke her, and there stood Nancy, all equipped for going out.
"I find I won't suit you, ma'am," said Nancy, "and so you must look out for another girl."
Having said this, she turned away and took her departure, leaving Mrs. Smith in a state of mind, as it is said, "more easily imagined, than described."
"Oh dear! what shall I do?" at length broke from her lips, as she burst into tears, and burying her face in the pillow, sobbed aloud. Already she had repented of her fretfulness and fault-finding temper, as displayed toward Rachael, and could she have made a truce with her pride, or silenced its whispers, would have sent for her well-tried servant, and endeavored to make all good with her again. But, under the circumstances, this was now impossible. While yet undetermined how to act, the street-bell rang, and she was compelled to attend the door, as she was now alone in the house.
She found, on opening it, a rough-looking country girl, who asked if she were the lady who wanted a chambermaid. Any kind of help was better than none at all, and so Mrs. Smith asked the young woman to walk in. In treating with her in regard to her qualifications for the situation she applied for, she discovered that she knew "almost nothing at all about anything." The stipulation that she was to be a doer-of-all-work-in-general, until a cook could be obtained, was readily agreed to, and then she was shown to her room in the attic, where she prepared herself for entering upon her duties.
"Will you please, ma'am, show me what you want me to do?" asked the new help, presenting herself before Mrs. Smith.
"Go into the kitchen, Ellen, and see that the fire is made. I'll be down there presently."
To be compelled to see after a new and ignorant servant, and direct her in everything, just at so trying a season of the year, and while her mind was "all out of sorts," was a severe task for poor Mrs. Smith. She found that Ellen, as she had too good reason for believing, was totally unacquainted with kitchen-work. She did not even know how to kindle a coal fire; nor could she manage the stove after Mrs. Smith had made the fire for her. All this did not in any way tend to make her less unhappy or more patient than before. On retiring for the night she had a high fever, which continued unabated until morning, when her husband found her really ill; so much so as to make the attendance of a doctor necessary.
A change in the air had taken place during the night, and the temperature had fallen many degrees. This aided the efforts of the physician, and enabled him so to adapt his remedies as to speedily break the fever. But the ignorance and awkwardness of Ellen, apparent in her attempts to arrange her bed and chamber, so worried her mind, that she was near relapsing into her former feverish and excited state. The attendance of an elder maiden sister was just in time. All care was taken from her thoughts, and she had a chance of recovering a more healthy tone of mind and body. During the next week, she knew little or nothing of how matters were progressing out of her own chamber. A new cook had been hired, of whom she was pleased to hear good accounts, although she had not seen her; and Ellen, under the mild and judicious instruction of her sister, had learned to make up a bed neatly, to sweep, and dust in true style, and to perform all the little etceteras of chamber-work, greatly to her satisfaction. She was, likewise, good-tempered, willing, and to all appearance strictly trustworthy.
One morning, about a week after she had become too ill to keep up, she found herself so far recovered as to be able to go downstairs to breakfast. Everything upon the table she found arranged in the neatest style. The food was well cooked, especially some tender rice cakes, of which she was very fond.
"Really, these are delicious!" said she, as the finely flavored cakes almost melted in her mouth. "And this coffee is just the thing! How fortunate we have been to obtain so good a cook! I was afraid we should never be able to replace Rachael. But even she is equaled, if not surpassed."
"Still she does not surpass Rachael," said Mr. Smith, a little gravely. "Rachael was a treasure!"
"Indeed she was. And I have been sorry enough I ever let her go," returned Mrs. Smith.
At that moment the new cook entered with a plate of warm cakes.
"Rachael!" ejaculated Mrs. Smith, letting her knife and fork fall.
"How do you do? I am glad to see you! Welcome home again!"
As she spoke quickly and earnestly, she held out her hand, and grasped that of her old servant warmly. Rachael could not speak, but as she left the room she put her apron to her eyes. Hers were not the only one's dim with rising moisture.
For at least a year to come, both Mrs. Smith and her excellent cook will have no cause to complain of each other. How they will get along during next August, we cannot say, but hope the lesson they have both received will teach them to bear and forbear.