Two Ways with Servants
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1859
"AH, good morning, dear! I'm really glad to see you," said Helen Armitage to her young friend Fanny Milnor, as the latter came in to sit an hour with her. "I just needed a little sunshine."
"There ought to be plenty of sunshine here," returned Fanny smiling. "You always seem happy, and so does your mother and sister Mary, whenever I meet you abroad."
"Abroad, or at home, makes quite a difference, Fanny. Precious little sunshine have we here. Not a day passes over our heads, that we are not thrown into hot water about something or other, with our abominable servants. I declare! I never saw the likes of it, and it grows worse and worse every day."
"Indeed! That is bad, sure enough. But can't you remedy this defect in some way?"
"We try hard enough! I believe we have had no less than six cooks, and as many chambermaids in the last three months. But change only makes the matter worse. Sometimes they are so idle and dirty that we cannot tolerate them for a week. And then again they are so ill-natured, and downright saucy, that no one can venture to speak to them."
As Helen Armitage said this, she arose from her chair, and walking deliberately across the room, rang the parlor bell, and then quietly walked back again and resumed her seat, continuing her remarks as she did so, upon the exhaustless theme she had introduced. In a little while a servant entered.
"That door has been left open by someone," the young lady said, in a half vexed tone of authority, and with a glance of reproof, as she pointed to the door of the back parlor leading into the passage.
The servant turned quickly away, muttering as she did so, and left the parlor, slamming the door after her with a sudden, indignant jerk.
"You see that!" remarked Helen, the color deepening on her cheeks, and her voice indicating a good deal of inward disturbance. "That's just the way we are served by nine out of ten servants. They neglect everything, and then, when reminded of their duty, mutter, and grumble, and fling about just as you saw that girl do this moment. I'll ring for her again, and make her shut that door as she ought to do, the insolent creature!"
Helen was rising, when Fanny laid her hand on her arm, and said, in a quiet persuasive tone,
"No — no — don't, Helen. She is out of temper, and will only retort angrily at further reproof. The better way is to pass over these things as if you did not notice them."
"And let them ride over us rough shod, as they most certainly will! The fact is, with all our efforts to make them know and keep their places — we find it impossible to gain any true subordination in the house."
"We never have any trouble of this kind," Fanny said.
"You must be very fortunate then."
"I don't know as to that. I never recollect an instance in which a servant opposed my mother or failed to obey, cheerfully, any request. And we have had several in our house, within my recollection. At least half a dozen."
"Half a dozen! Oh, dear! We have half a dozen a month sometimes! But come, let us go up to my room; I have some new prints to show you. They are exquisite. My father bought them for me last week."
The two young ladies ascended to Helen's chamber in the third story. But the book of prints was not to be found there. "It is in the parlor, I recollect now," said Helen, ringing the bell as she spoke, with a quick, strong jerk.
In about three or four minutes, and just as the young lady's patience was exhausted and her fingers were beginning to itch for another pull at the bell rope, the tardy waiting women appeared.
"Hannah — Go down into the parlor, and bring me off of the piano a book you will find there. It is a broad flat book, with loose sheets in it."
This was said in a tone of authority. The servant turned away without speaking and went downstairs. In a little while she came back, and handed Helen a book, answering the description given. But it was a portfolio of music.
"O no! Not this!" said she, with a curl of the lip, and an impatient tossing of her head. "How stupid you are, Hannah! The book I want, contains prints, and this is only a music book! There! Take it back, and bring me the book of prints!"
Hannah took the book, and muttering as she went out, returned to the parlor, down two long flights of stairs, and laid it upon the piano.
"If you want the pictures, you may get them yourself, Miss; you've got more time to run up and down stairs than I have!" muttered Hannah to herself.
As she said this, Hannah left the parlor, and the book of prints lying upon the piano, and went back to the chamber she had been engaged in cleaning up when called away by Helen's bell. It was not long after she had resumed her occupation, before the bell sounded loudly through the passages. Hannah smiled bitterly, and with an air of resolution, as she listened to the iron summons.
"Pull away to your heart's content, Miss!" she said, half audibly. "When you call me again, take care and know what you want me for. I've got something else to do besides running up and down stairs to bring you pictures. Why didn't you look at them while you were in the parlor, or, take them up with you, if you wanted them in your chamber?"
"Did you ever see the like!" ejaculated Helen, deeply disturbed at finding both her direction and her subsequent summons unattended to. "That's just the way we are constantly served by these abominable creatures!"
Two or three heavy jerks at the bell rope followed these remarks.
"Pull away! It's good exercise for you!" muttered Hannah to herself. And this was all the notice she took of the incensed young lady, who was finally compelled to go downstairs and get the prints herself. But she was so much disturbed and caused Fanny to feel so unpleasantly, that neither of them had any real enjoyment in examining the beautiful pictures. After these had been turned over and remarked upon for some time, and they had spent an hour in conversation, the bell was again rang. Hannah, who came with her usual reluctance, was directed to prepare some lemonade, and bring it up with cake. This she did, after a good deal of delay, for which she was grumbled at by Helen. After the cake bad been eaten, and the lemonade drank, Hannah was again summoned to remove the tray. This was performed with the same ill grace that every other service had been rendered.
"I declare! these servants bother me almost to death!" Helen again broke forth. "This is just the way I am served whenever I have a visitor. It is always the time Hannah takes to be ill-natured and show off her disobliging, ugly temper."
Fanny made no reply to this. But she had her own thoughts. It was plain enough to her mind, that her friend had only herself to blame, for the annoyance she suffered. After witnessing one or two mote petty contentions with the servant, Fanny went away, her friend promising, at her particular request, to come and spend a day with her early in the ensuing week.
It can do no harm, and may do good, for us to draw aside for an instant, the veil that screened from general observation the domestic economy of the Armitage family. They were well enough off in the world as regards wealth, but rather poorly off in respect to self-government and that domestic wisdom which arranges all parts of a household in just subordination, and thus prevents collisions, or encroachments of one portion upon another. With them, a servant was looked upon as a machine who had nothing to do but to obey all commands. As to the rights of servants in a household, that was something of which they had never dreamed. Of course, constant rebellion, or the most unwillingly performed duties, was the undeviating attendant upon their domestic economy. It was a maxim, with Mrs. Armitage, never to indulge or favor one of her servants in the smallest matter. She had never done so in her life, she said, that she had got any thanks for it. It always made them presumptuous and dissatisfied. The more you did for them — the more they expected, and soon came to demand as a right, what had been at first granted as a favor.
Mrs. Armitage was, in a word, one of those petty domestic tyrants, who rule with the rod of apparent authority. Perfect submission, she deemed the only true order in a household. Of course, true order she never could gain, for such a thing as perfect submission to arbitrary rule over servants in this country, never has and never will be yielded. The law of kindness and consideration is the only true law, and where this is not efficient, none other will or can be.
As for Mrs. Armitage and her daughters, each one of whom bore herself towards the servants with an air of imperiousness and dictation — they never reflected before requiring a service, whether such a service would not be felt as burdensome in the extreme, and therefore, whether it might not be dispensed with at the time. Without regard to what might be going on in the kitchen, the parlor or chamber — bells were rung, and servants required to leave their half finished meals, or to break away in the midst of important duties that had to be done by a certain time, to attend to some trifling matter which, in fact, should never have been assigned to a servant at all.
Under this imperious system, it was no wonder that a constant succession of complaints against servants should be made by the Armitages. How could it be otherwise? Flesh and blood could not patiently bear the trials to which these servants were subjected. Nor was it any wonder that frequent changes took place, or that they were only able to retain the most inferior class of servants, and then only for short periods.
There are few, perhaps, who cannot refer, among their acquaintances, to a family like the Armitages. They may ordinarily be known by their constant complaints about servants, and their dictatorial way of speaking whenever they happen to call upon them for the performance of any duty.
In pleasing contrast to them were the Milnors.
Let us go with Helen in her visit to Fanny. When the day came which she had promised to spend with her young friend, Helen, after getting out of patience with the chambermaid for her tardy attendance upon her, and indulging her daily murmurs against servants, at last emerged into the street, and took her way towards the dwelling of Mr. Milnor. It was a bright day, and her spirits soon rose superior to the little annoyances which had fretted her for the past hour. When she met Fanny, she was in the best possible humor; and so seemed the tidy servant who had admitted her, for she looked very cheerful, and smiled as she opened the door.
"How different from our grumbling, slovenly servants!" Helen could not help remarking to herself, as she passed in. Fanny welcomed her with genuine cordiality, and the two young ladies were soon engaged in pleasant conversation. After exhausting various themes, they turned to music, and played, and sang together for half an hour.
"I believe I have some new prints that you have never seen," said Fanny on their leaving the piano, and she looked around for the portfolio of engravings, but could not find it.
"Oh! now I remember — it is upstairs. Excuse me for a minute and I will run and get it." As Fanny said this, she glided from the room. In a few minutes she returned with the book of prints.
"Pardon me, Fanny — but why didn't you call a servant to get the portfolio for you? You have them in the house to wait upon you."
"Oh, as to that," returned Fanny, "I always prefer to wait upon myself when I can, and so remain independent. And besides, the girls are all busy ironing, and I would not call them off from their work for anything which I could do myself. Ironing day is a pretty hard day for all of them, for our family is large, and mother always likes her work done well."
"But, if you adopt that system, you'll soon have them grumbling at the merest trifle you may be compelled to ask them to do."
"So far from that, Helen, I never make a request of any servant in the house, that is not instantly and cheerfully met. To make you sensible of the good effects of the system I pursue of not asking to be waited on when I can help myself, I will mention that as I came down just now with these engravings in my hand, I met our chambermaid on the stairs, with a basket of clothes in her hands — 'There now, Miss Fanny,' she said half reprovingly, 'why didn't you call me to get that for you, and not leave your company in the parlor?' There is no reluctance about her, you see. She knows that I spare her whenever I can, and she is willing to oblige me, whenever she can do so."
"Truly, she must be the eighth wonder of the world!" said, Helen in laughing surprise. "Who ever heard of a servant that asked to be permitted to serve you? All of which I ever saw, or heard, cared only to get out of doing everything, and strove to be as disobliging as possible."
"It is related of the noble Oberlin," replied Fanny, "that he was asked one day by an old female servant who had been in his house for many years, whether there were servants in Heaven. On his inquiring the reason for so singular a question, he received, in substance, this reply — 'Heaven will be no Heaven to me, unless I have the privilege of ministering to your needs and comfort there as I have the privilege of doing here. I want to be your servant even in Heaven.' Now why, Helen, do you suppose that faithful old servant was so strongly attached to Oberlin?"
"Because, I presume, he had been uniformly kind to her."
"No doubt, that was the principal reason. And that I presume is the reason why there is no servant in our house who will not, at any time, do for me cheerfully, and with pleasure, anything I ask of her. I am sure I never spoke cross to one of them in my life — and I make it a point never to ask them to do for me, what I can readily do for myself."
"Your mother must be very fortunate in her selection of servants. There, I presume, lies the secret. We never had one who would bear the least consideration. Indeed, mother makes it a rule on no account to grant a servant any indulgences whatever, it only spoils them, she says. You must keep them right down to it, or they soon get good for nothing."
"My mother's system is very different," Fanny said — "and we have no trouble at all with the servants."
The young ladies then commenced examining the prints, after which, Fanny asked to be excused a moment. In a little while she returned with a small tray of refreshments. Helen did not remark upon this, and Fanny made no allusion to the fact of not having called a servant from the kitchen, to do what she could so easily do herself. A book next engaged their attention, and occupied them until dinner time. At the table, a tidy servant waited with cheerful alacrity — so different from the sulky, slow attendance, at home.
"May I have some water, Rachael, if you please." Or, "Rachael, please bring up some hot potatoes." Or — "Here, Rachael," with a pleasant smile, "you have forgotten the salt spoons," were forms of addressing a waiter upon the table so different from what Helen had ever heard, that she listened to them with utter amazement. And she was no less surprised to see with what cheerful alacrity every direction, or rather request, was obeyed.
After they all rose from the table, and had retired to the parlor, a pleasant conversation took place, in which no allusions whatever were made to the dreadful annoyances of servants, an almost unvarying subject of discourse at Mr. Armitage's, after the conclusion of nearly every badly cooked, badly served meal. — A discourse too often overheard by some one of the servants and retailed in the kitchen, to breed confirmed ill-will, and a spirit of opposition towards the principal members of the family.
Nearly half an hour had passed from the time they had risen from the table, when a younger sister of Fanny's, who was going out to a little afternoon party, asked if Rachael might not be called up from the kitchen to get something for her.
"No, my dear, not until she has finished her dinner," was the mild reply of Mrs. Milnor.
"But it won't take her over a minute, mother, and I am in a hurry."
"I can't help it, my dear. You will have to wait. Rachael must not be disturbed at her meals. You should have thought of this before dinner. You know I have always tried to impress upon your mind, that there are certain hours in which servants must not be called upon to do anything, unless of serious importance. They have their rights, as well as we have, and it is just as wrong for us to encroach upon their rights — as it is for them to encroach upon ours."
"Never mind, mother, I will wait," the little girl said, cheerfully. "But I thought, it was such a trifle, and would have taken her only a minute."
"It is true, my dear, that is but a trifle. Still, even trifles of this kind, we should form the habit of avoiding; for they may seriously annoy at a time when we dream not that they are thought of for a moment. Think how, just as you had seated yourself at the table, tired and hungry, you would like to be called away, your food scarcely tasted, to perform some task, the urgency of which to you, at least, was very questionable?"
"I was wrong I know, mother," the child replied, "and you are right."
All this was new and strange doctrine to Helen Armitage, but she was enabled to see, from the manner in which Mrs. Milnor represented the subject, that it was true doctrine. As this became clear to her mind, she saw with painful distinctness the error that had thrown disorder into every part of her mother's household; and more than this, she inwardly resolved, that, so far as her action was concerned, a new order of things would take place. In this she was in earnest — so much so, that she made some allusion to the difference of things at home, to what they were at Mrs. Milnor's, and frankly confessed that she had not acted upon the kind and considerate principles which governed in this well-ordered family.
"My dear child!" Mrs. Milnor said to her, with affectionate earnestness, in reply to this allusion — "depend upon it, most of the bad servants are made so by injudicious treatment. They are, for the most part, ignorant of almost everything, and too often, particularly, of their duties in a family. Instead of being borne kindly with, instructed, and treated with consideration — they are scolded, driven, and found fault with. They too rarely receive kind words. No one can well and cheerfully perform all that is required of her as a servant, if she is never spoken to kindly, never considered — never borne with, patiently.
It is in our power to make a great deal of work for our servants that is altogether unnecessary — and of course, in our power to save them many steps, and many moments of time. If we are in the chambers, and wish a servant for anything, and she is down in the kitchen engaged, it is always well to think twice before we ring for her once. It may be, that we do not really need the attendance of anyone, or can just as well wait until some errand has brought her upstairs.
Then, there are various little things which we can do ourselves, and ought to do it. It is unpardonable, I think, for a lady to ring for a servant to come up one or two flights of stairs merely to hand her a drink, when all she has to do is to cross the room, and get it for herself. Or for a young lady to require a servant to attend to all her little wants, when she can and ought to help herself, even if it takes her from the third story to the kitchen, half a dozen times a day.
Above all, servants should never be scolded. If reproof is necessary, let it be administered in a calm mild voice, and the reasons shown why the act complained of, is wrong. This is the only way in which any good is done."
"I wish my mother could only learn that," said Helen, mentally, as Mrs. Milnor ceased speaking. When she returned home, it was with a deeply formed resolution never again to speak reprovingly to any of her mother's servants — never to order them to do anything for her — and never to require them to wait upon her, when she could just as well help herself. In this, she proved firm. The consequence was, an entire change in Hannah's deportment towards her, and a cheerful performance by her of everything she asked her to do. This could not but be observed by her mother, and it induced her to modify, to some extent, her way of treating her servants. The result was beneficial, and now she has far less trouble with them than she ever had in her life. All servants, she finds, are not so worthless as she had deemed them.