Mrs. Winterford and Her Servants

(author unknown)


"Crash! There, I wonder what Bridget has broken now!" exclaimed Mrs. Winterford, as she raised her head, listening, from the bed where she had been lying crumpled miserably up, under one of her attacks of nervous headache. "I think it must be the other large tureen; nothing else would fall so heavily. Oh, dear! we shall not have a dish left in the house at this rate. Why must people be tortured with such servants as Bridget? Such a breakfast as we had this morning! The toast burnt to cinders, and the steak pommelled through with slivers of bone, and garnished with ashes!

I do believe a good breakfast would almost have cured my head. I thought, before we were married, that we would be so happy; and now one could scarcely find a more comfortless home than this. William does all he can, and more than he can afford, to make me happy. To think of hiring two girls for so small a family as ours, and then having nothing done as it ought to be it is too bad. Oh, how that baby screams! it will drive me mad. Catharine, bring him to me, and let me try to quiet him."

And she crept from the bed to her rocking-chair, pressing her hands to her temples as she did so, to repress the pain caused by the effort to rise.

"Where is Willie?" she asked as she took the child, who had screamed until he was almost in convulsions.

"I don't know, ma'am," replied Catharine: "he was playing on the front door-step when I came up."

"In the street, I presume, under the heels of the horses!" said Mrs. Winterford, with a shiver. "Go and see to him immediately; I never allow him to play outside the front door. And bring me some hot vinegar and bandages, when you come up."

Mrs. Winterford had lost her mother at an early age, and had been brought up in a boarding-house, so that, until her marriage, she had known nothing of household cares, or of the management of children. She had now been housekeeping five years, and during that time had tried over forty different girls. Of these some were better than others, but none were good. One was too slovenly to be endured, another was wasteful, some abused the children in her absence, some were dishonest, and others who seemed to do well at first would become very insolent and leave her suddenly without notice; so that, with one to another, the house was kept in constant confusion.

Besides this, her own health was poor, and her babe a nervous fretful child, who gave her little rest day or night; so that, although she loved her husband and appreciated his efforts to make her happy, she was constantly distracted and uncomfortable from the various sources of annoyance that surrounded her.

Catharine was gone a long time, and Mrs. Winterford, after trying in vain to quiet the babe, and feeling too ill to sit up, attempted to call her. She looked for her hand-bell, but it was not in sight, and she then remembered that Willie had broken the breakfast-bell the day before, and that hers had been carried down to supply the place of it. She then tried to call her, but although she could hear her voice distinctly from the kitchen, which was in the basement directly below her room, she could not make herself heard; and, exhausted and disconsolate, she threw herself once more upon the bed, with the crying babe beside her.

Scarcely had she done so, however, when a loud uproar from the kitchen, mingled with Willie's screams, called her once more to her feet. This time she grasped the babe in her arms, and hurrying part way downstairs, called loudly to know what was the matter.

"Willie's pulled his bath-tub over on to him and broken his head!" replied Catharine, screaming from the basement.

"Bring him to me."

"He's dripping with water, mum."

"Bring him to me this instant!" said Mrs. Winterford, decidedly.

Willie was accordingly dragged upstairs, drenched to the skin, and his face covered with blood from a gash over the eye.

"How did this happen?" asked Mrs. Winterford.

"He pulled the bath-tub on him, as I was telling you."

"Where was the bath-tub, that he could pull it on him?"

"It was setting on the corner of the sink."

"And why wasn't it emptied?"

"Because I had everything to do, and no time to do it in. You called me upstairs" the rest of Catharine's explanation was lost in an unintelligible mutter.

"Oh, dear!" sighed Mrs. Winterford; "couldn't Bridget empty the bath-tub?"

"She says it's no concern of hers, whether the bath-tub is emptied or not," said Catharine.

Willie's forehead was bathed and bandaged, his wet clothes taken off, and Catharine sent to the bureau to obtain fresh clothing.

"Where'll I get it, mum?"

"In the middle drawer this side."

"There's nothing here," reported Catharine, after a few moments' tumbling in the drawer.

"Why, yes there is. Don't toss those things about so, and be quick."

"Well, I can't find a stitch of Willie's clothes here," said Catharine, after fumbling over the drawer a few minutes longer.

"It is impossible he has ten full suits, and there must be some of them there. Where are the clothes from this week's wash?"

"They're not ironed yet."

"Not ironed yet, and here it is Thursday! Well, there ought to be enough from last week's wash to last this long while yet."

"Bridget didn't wash them last week; she put away the rest of the washing after that lady came to take dinner with you."

"Put away the rest of the washing!"

"Yes, mum; she said she wasn't going to wait upon company and wash too."

"Wait upon company! What in the world did she do? I was particular that she should not be called upon for a step more than usual."

"That's what she did, mum."

"Was there ever the like? Poor child! not a garment to put on, and there he stands shivering with the cold. Put down the windows, Catharine." And Mrs. Winterford, seizing a ragged pair of stockings from the drawer, which she had approached to assist Catharine's search, attempted to put them on. The baby struggled and screamed, and she was obliged to desist. Catharine closed the windows, and was then directed to bring the soiled clothes that Willie had taken off the day before. As she returned from the closet, they were both startled by a ringing of the door-bell.

"Mercy!" exclaimed Mrs. Winterford. "If it's any callers, say that I am engaged; that I am ill. Don't let anyone in."

Catharine dropped the clothes in the middle of the floor, and went to answer the bell. The last hour's confusion had increased Mrs. Winterford's headache almost to distraction, and she now dizzily dragged herself to the spot where Catharine had thrown Willie's clothes, and attempted to put them on.

Catharine returned presently, saying, as she opened the door, "It's somebody has come to stop a lady with two trunks; I put her in the parlor, and here is what she gave me."

"Aunt Mary Markham!" exclaimed Mrs. Winterford, reading the card; "what could have sent her here now? She of all the world! there never was a thing out of place in her house. Has the parlor been swept?"

"No, mum."

"What shall I do? the candles burnt down in the sockets, and the books and papers on the floor, I dare say," murmured Mrs. Winterford, as she remembered that her husband had been up long after she retired the night before.

"Willie's been in there, playing horse," said Catharine, anxious to assist her mistress in the list of aggravating circumstances on which she seemed disposed to dwell. But she had no further time to arrange her thoughts, for, at this moment, the door opened and Mary Markham entered.

"I was sorry I sent up my name," she said, "after I heard you were ill; so I followed the sound of voices, and came up directly, lest you should think it necessary to make some preparation to receive me."

Mrs. Markham was a woman somewhat past the prime of life, with a mild, calm face, and dark hair mottled with silver combed smoothly away behind her cap. Her figure inclined slightly to plumpness, and there was that in her whole dress and manner that evidenced a wholesome, well-balanced tone of life. It was altogether an Indian-Summer look with the flowers gone and the dry leaves rustling gently on the still air, but with the all-pervading sunshine still warm and genial, and grown more rich and mellow from its dalliance with life's Autumn fruits. She had been the wife and was now the widow of a wealthy and influential farmer, in a distant state, and the mother of a large family who were now settled in life and occupying positions of usefulness. Mrs. Winterford had visited her once or twice during her early girlhood; but she remembered very little of her except that she was considered a model of mothers and housekeepers.

"What is the matter with your babe?" asked Mrs. Markham, after the first salutations and explanations had passed.

"Oh! I do not know," replied Mrs. Winterford, anxiously; "he cries so a good share of the time. I do not think he's well."

"Poor little fellow!" said Mrs. Markham, taking him carefully from the hands of his nurse, who was flourishing him frantically through the air.

"Oh! don't take him, aunt," exclaimed Mrs. Winterford. "It is very hard for anyone to hold him who is not used to it."

Mrs. Markham folded him up in her arms, very much as if she was used to it; and Catharine, finding herself at liberty, began to gather up the wet clothes Willie had thrown off.

"Take them down and dry them by the kitchen fire," said Mrs. Winterford, "so that he may have them again as soon as possible, and bring a floor-cloth to wipe the wet from the carpet."

"What will I do with Willie's clothes?" said Catharine, again entering the room after a short absence; "Bridget says she won't have them by the kitchen fire they're in her way. The fire is all out, too. And she says she doesn't know how to cook them things the master has sent up for dinner."

"What are they?"

"Little birds, mum."

"Pigeons," said Mrs. Winterford, with a look of distress. She remembered that she had expressed a desire for some, a few days before, and now her husband had sent them up with a kind wish to do something to gratify her. "I must go down and see about it," she said, turning sadly from her efforts to arrange the room, with a suspicion that it was very late to cook pigeons even if she were well.

"Sit down, Mary," said Mrs. Markham, as she folded the quilt over the babe, which, somehow or other, had fallen quietly asleep in her arms; "or rather lie down, for I perceive you are quite too ill for anything else, and I will go down and show your girl how to cook the pigeons."

"Oh! Aunt Mary, I could never think of such a thing," exclaimed Mrs. Winterford, earnestly.

"Hush, my dear; there," and she arranged the pillows invitingly; "lie down, and try to quiet yourself. I have had my own way these forty years, and you must do as I tell you."

Mrs. Winterford was glad to sit once more upon the bed, saying, feebly, as she did so, "You never saw the inside of such a kitchen in your life, I am sure."

Aunt Mary had something very curious in her pocket, so that Willie was enticed to follow her softly out of the room, leaving his mother, oh! so quiet she could scarcely remember when it had been so quiet there.

Something like an hour had elapsed when Mrs. Markham returned, with Willie at her side, looking contented and happy, and his clothes, nicely dried and ironed, upon her arm. "I will put these clothes on Willie, now, if you like," she said, seating herself for the task.

"Why, how did you dry them so soon?" said Mrs. Winterford, looking up from the drowse into which she was falling.

"There is a good fire in the kitchen, now, and they dried very soon."

"Did you get Bridget's permission?" asked her niece, with a smile.

"No; I found a towel-frame and spread them out upon it, without troubling myself about her opinion in the matter. I put the pigeons in for a stew, but if you prefer them broiled they can be taken out for it when they are parboiled; there was not time to roast them the girl said one o'clock was your dinner hour."

"You did not do it yourself, I hope?"

"Bridget helped me; but she did not understand it very well. I presume I have done more work of that kind than most people. But how will you have the pigeons?"

"Oh! I prefer them stewed, and I am very much obliged to you, indeed; but I really feel mortified, aunt, that you should have to go into my kitchen to work before you had scarcely untied your bonnet, and you tired with your journey too. Your traveling dress must have suffered."

"I always carry my big apron in the top of my trunk, wherever I travel. Mother's apron is a proverb in the families of my own children, and I spend most of my time with one or other of them. I have now been some weeks with my son in Bridgeport, so that I have only had a few hours' ride in the cars, this morning, and am not at all fatigued. After making you a little visit, I am going on to spend the winter with Helen, who lives in Webster. I am very glad I came just as I did. I don't know what would have become of your headache and the dinner, without me."

"No I, indeed. I think some good spirit must have sent you. But how that baby sleeps. I truly believe you magnetized him; he never sleeps any."

"I presume he is worn out; he looked so. You worry him too much.

"Worry him?"

"Yes; I mean you are too nervous yourself; you allow little things to trouble you more than you should."

"Oh! aunt! but the little things are so very troublesome."

"I have no doubt you find them so, but, for your own good and that of your child, you must endeavor to find them as little so as possible. There, Willie, go and kiss mamma, and tell her that you will keep in prime order until papa comes home to dinner. I told Bridget to make you a nice cup of tea, and you had better not try to get up or care for anything until your headache is over."

"How kind you are! and, now, my guest-chamber is the front one on this floor. Here comes Catharine. She will bring you water and whatever you need."

"I'm after carrying up the water and towels now," said Catharine, who had just finished arranging the parlors and halls. Mrs. Winterford experienced a comfortable sensation of surprise that she should have thought of it herself, and Mrs. Markham departed to her own room, taking Willie with her, and advising her niece to keep Catharine near, in order that she might not be disturbed herself when the babe awoke.

"Bridget says she guesses somebody has come," said Catharine, partly to herself, as she restored the soiled clothes to the closet.

"Am I then so much of nobody in my own house?" murmured Mrs. Winterford, burying her temples in the cool pillow.

But she, too, thought that somebody, or some good influence, had come into the house, when, shortly after, Catharine stood by the bed with the hot vinegar and bandages she had ordered so long ago.

"Will you have these now, mum?" she said.

Mrs. Winterford had almost forgotten them herself, and she could not but wonder how Catharine came to be so thoughtful.

"What do you think is the reason I am so troubled about my servants, aunt?" said Mrs. Winterford, one day during Mrs. Markham's visit. "I have changed until I am tired of it, and would rather put up with almost everything than run the risk of trying again."

"A good servant is a very difficult thing to obtain," said Mrs. Markham, after a few moments' hesitation. "Those who are really efficient find room in other stations, in this country. Besides, I think the relation between mistress and servant is scarcely understood by our ladies, generally."

"How do you mean?"

"There are many who either do not govern their servants at all, or if they attempt it, do so with a sort of arrogance or uppishness that is offensive; and that is usually met on the part of the servant with the same kind of uppishness, only as much worse in degree as she is below her mistress in refinement."

"Then you think we really ought to govern our servants? I am not sure that our American servants would submit at all to that opinion."

"I presume they would submit to it if those they serve would first make sure of it. No one can rule with true dignity unless first convinced of her right to rule. A woman should, of course, be mistress of her own house in every part of it. A part of the agreement between your servant and yourself is, that she shall act under your authority, and this should be observed as much as any other part of the contract. Your immediate comfort depends upon her conduct, more than on that of almost any other person. And the government and proper training of the servants in a household is, in my opinion, a much more difficult study than the training of our own children, of which we read, and hear, and talk so much. Not that we, by any means, take too much pains with these, but that we most woefully neglect the others. Our servants, for the most part, come to us after years of corrupt training; and we have more to do to eradicate their bad habits than to teach them good habits. We must first settle in our own minds distinctly and exactly what we require of them, and then we must be sure that they understand it as distinctly. If, with this understanding, they do not choose to abide by your requirements, there need be no words about it. You must look elsewhere for your servants.

But you must be sure that you require of them no more than is just and right. You should look to their comfort as much as to that of any other member of the family. Providence has placed them under your influence, and it is your duty to see how that influence is used. It is not enough to vote them all a nuisance, and after taxing your powers of endurance with their faults as long as you can, to shove them off and try others. It is in this way that the floating mass of servants have been bandied from house to house all their lives, feeling themselves abused, and considering it their chief business to retaliate for that abuse.

You must not expect them to fulfill every item of their duty towards you, before you have done your whole duty towards them. This would be to acknowledge them your inferiors. And by as much as you consider their position and their tasks less pleasant than your own, by so much should you seek to give them some relaxation some enjoyment. And you should endeavor, as far as possible, that their enjoyment be of a wholesome kind. They come in too close contact with your children for you to be indifferent to this. They may require patience, but it is certainly worth an effort; for there is no more important item of domestic comfort than a good servant, if you employ one at all. Many remain through their lives a trouble and a nuisance in the families where they live, when a few kind words, and a little careful training, might have made them both useful and happy."

"What do you think of Bridget?"

"I think she has capacity enough for a good servant, if she had only a mind to use it."

"But she is so slovenly."

"True, she is; and it is not because she does not know how to be neat. She does not like to take the trouble necessary to keep things in order. She apologized to me, the morning I came, for the dirty kitchen, and really made it quite neat that afternoon, before she went to ironing."

"But, aunt, I don't know how to explain it, but it certainly is true that the girls have both done better since you came here, than I ever knew them before."

"Indeed!"

"Yes, I believe there is a sort of magnetism about it that they feel as if you knew better how things ought to be done than I do. Why should she care so much more for having you see the dirty kitchen, than for me?"

"People usually care more for strangers; and then I told her, when I went to show her about the pigeons, that it was impossible to have dinner by the time she named, without a quick, clear fire; and while she made the fire, I took the stove-brush and shovel, and made all things bright and new about the stove. There is nothing like giving them a model to copy from. Make one part of the kitchen clean for them, and they will endeavor to bring the rest up to your standard, if they have any neatness about them."

"Why, aunt, I never thought it necessary for me to meddle with such things. It seems as if two girls could do my work without my being obliged to clean in the kitchen."

"But if you find it impossible to have things in order without, it is better to make the effort. The comfort you will experience will more than repay you. You always take care of the parlors and your own room, I believe?"

"Yes, when I am well. Catharine does it so badly that I am obliged to do it to keep comfortable; and this, with the plain sewing of the family, which I endeavor to do, is about as much as I can accomplish."

"I think you would do better to change with her occasionally to put up with her careless sweeping, if you cannot teach her to do it well, while you go into the kitchen once or twice a week, or as often as you find necessary, and see that things are arranged to your mind. There is no department of your house that should be trusted entirely to your servants if you wish to be a really good housekeeper, you should keep everything under your own eye."

"But, aunt, it would be impossible; with such health as I have, it would make me a perfect drudge a slave. What would become of the children while I was in the kitchen, cooking steak, etc.?"

"I would not have you cook the steak yourself, but you should know how much is brought into the house, and where it is kept; and whether the grate is clear from ashes, so that it can be properly cooked. Your visits to the kitchen may be brief, but they should be frequent and observing. You would find, if you superintended Bridget's work, and did some of the planning for her, that you would gain time enough to repay you. Catharine would not need to go into the kitchen to assist her nearly as often as she does, and thus time for plain sewing would be gained. I suppose you know very little about cooking yourself."

"Oh, I took lessons of Mrs. Swanson's cook before I was married, but I often made failures, and I dislike to do it before my girls. It seems to encourage them in doing wrong. They really ought to know more about it than I, for they have done it all their lives."

"I think, my dear Mary, that you have had a very hard task with your lesson in housekeeping. Your inexperience and poor health have been serious drawbacks. You have had too much to learn at once. You know nothing about the care of children, and I have no doubt the worry they have caused you, and the trouble of poor servants, with the wish to have everything right, along with the consciousness that it was not so have had much to do with your ill health. I have always felt as if I had a matronly duty to perform to my sister's child, and my own namesake; but my family has been so large, and my cares so many, that I have had little time to think of it until lately."

"Thank you, aunt. I think you are doing it very well now. If you will only put off your visit to Helen until fall, as I have been urging you, I shall be very grateful, and you will have the consciousness of having performed a good deed."

"Here is Aunt Markham, mamma this is the carriage, isn't it?" cried Willie Winterford, as a carriage drew up at the door some years after Mrs. Markham's first visit to the Winterfords.

Aunt Markham looked as young and hale as ever, as she descended from the carriage, and grasped, one after another, the warm hands that were stretched out to welcome her.

"And you too, Bridget!" she said, as the broad Irish face of that functionary gleamed good-naturedly up from the end of the hall, to add her welcome to the rest; "are you here yet?"

"Oh, yes," returned Mrs. Winterford. "Bridget is part and parcel of us. I should about as soon think of leaving the family myself as of having her to leave it. We could not get along at all without her."