The Young Housekeeper
Timothy Shay Arthur
"I hope, Emily, that you don't think I expect you to work — to spend the bright morning hours in the kitchen, when we commence keeping house," said George Brenton to his young wife.
This remark was made as he left the room, in reply to something which Emily had been saying relative to their projected plan of housekeeping. Mrs. Anderson, her mother, entered the parlor at one door, as her son-in-law left it by another. "And I hope," said she, "that, for your own sake as well as your husband's, you will not think of fulfilling his expectations — that is, strictly speaking."
"And why not? George is always pleased to have any suggestion of his attended to, however indirectly it may be made."
"He would not be pleased, if on trial it should compromise any of his customary enjoyments. George's income, as yet, is not sufficient to authorize you to keep more than one servant girl, who must be the maid-of-all-work; and even if you should be so fortunate as to procure one who understands the different kinds of household labor, there will be times when it will be necessary for you to perform some part of it yourself — much more to superintend it."
"But, mother, you know how I always hated the kitchen."
"This is a dislike which necessity will, or at least ought to overcome. You have never felt that there was much responsibility attached to the performance of such household tasks as I have always required of you, and in truth there never has been, as I could always have very well dispensed with them. I required them for your own good, rather than my own. Before habits of industry are formed, necessity is the only thing which will overcome our natural propensity to indulge in indolence."
"I am sure that I am not indolent. I always have my music, embroidery, or reading to attend to. As to being chained down to household drudgery, I cannot think of it, and I am certain that it would be as much against George's wishes as mine."
"It would undoubtedly be gratifying to him, whenever he had an hour or two, which he could spend at home, to see you tastefully dressed, and to have you at leisure so as to devote your time wholly to him."
"You make George out to be extremely selfish, which I am sure he is not."
"No, not more so than we all are."
"Why, mother, I am sure that you are not selfish. You are always ready to sacrifice your own enjoyment for the sake of promoting that of others."
"I have been subjected to a longer course of discipline, than either you or George. I have lived long enough to know, that the true secret of making ourselves happy, is to endeavor to make others so. This is, at least, the case with all those whose finer sensibilities have not been blunted, or, more properly speaking, have been rightly cultivated. But it will do no good to enter into a philosophic discussion of the subject. The course proper to be pursued by a woman, whose husband's income is rather limited, appears to me perfectly plain."
"The course proper for me to pursue, is that which will best please George."
"Certainly, and that is precisely what I would advise you to do; but I don't think that literally acting upon this suggestion of his, respecting domestic duties, will please him for any great length of time."
Emily made no reply to this. She had decided in her own mind to obey the wishes of George, more especially as they exactly accorded with her own.
A few weeks from the time of the foregoing conversation, George and Emily Brenton commenced housekeeping. Their house was neatly and handsomely furnished, and through the influence of Emily's mother, Pedy Breck, a girl thirty-five years old, who well understood domestic, labor — undertook to perform the duties of chambermaid, laundress, and cook, for what all concerned considered a reasonable compensation.
Their home, to make use of George's words, the first time he saw Emily's parents after everything was satisfactorily arranged, "was a little paradise." Pedy was the best of cooks and clear-starchers, and never had he tasted such savory soups, and meat roasted so exactly to a turn, or such puddings and such pastry; and never had it been his fortune to wear shirts and collars, which so completely emulated the drifted snow.
"And Emily too — she was the dearest and most cheerful of wives, and so bright an atmosphere always surrounded her, that one might almost imagine that she was a bundle of animated sunbeams. She was always ready to sing and play to him, or to listen while he read to her from some favorite author."
This was followed by an invitation to Mr. and Mrs. Anderson to dine with them the ensuing day, that they might judge for themselves that he did not color the picture of their domestic bliss too highly.
The invitation was accepted; and Emily could not help taking her mother aside to tell her that since they saw each other, she had done nothing but read and play on the beautiful harp her uncle gave her, except that when she grew tired of these, she sewed a little; "and yet," she added, with a bright smile, "George has never given me an unkind look — much more an unkind word."
"And you have been housekeeping four whole days."
"Eight days, mother!"
"It is only four days since everything was arranged, and you commenced talking your meals regularly at home."
"I know, but then if we can live happily four days, we can four years."
"Yes, if Pedy could always live with you."
"She appears to be quite well satisfied with her situation," was
There was one at work, however, though neither he nor they realized it, who was sapping their happiness at its very foundation. This was an honest, intelligent farmer, by the name of Simon Lundley, who one day, when in the city, happened to overhear the praises bestowed on Pedy Breck by George Brenton, concerning her excellence as a cook and clear-starcher.
"If," thought he, "she could do these well, the same good judgment would direct her how to excel in making butter and cheese; and as his mother, who kept his house, was growing old and infirm, it appeared to him that it would be convenient for her to have some person to assist her in the performance of these and other onerous duties belonging to the indoor work of a farm."
He had seen Pedy a few months previous, when on a visit to her sister who resided in the neighborhood of his home, and remembered of having thought it strange that she had never married as well as her sister, as she was remarkably good-looking. Simon Lundley, therefore, the next Sunday, about sunset, arrayed in a suit of substantial blue broadcloth, boldly presented himself at George Brenton's front door, and inquired if Miss Breck was at home. It proved to be a fortunate, as well as a bold step. Pedy recognized him at once, and had a kind of a vague prescience as to the object of his visit, or such might have been the inference drawn from the deep crimson which suddenly suffused her cheeks.
From that time he visited her regularly every Sunday, and soon decided that they would be married in season to enable her to pack the fall butter. This decision she, for sometime, delayed to communicate to Emily, from sheer bashfulness. She could not, she said, when she at last had wrought herself up to what appeared to her the very pinnacle of boldness, make up her mind to tell her before, for the life of her, but then, she did suppose that Simon kind of had her promise that she would be married to him in just three weeks from the next Sunday.
Emily immediately called on her mother to communicate to her the melancholy information. Mrs. Anderson saw that these were what might be termed "minor trials," for her daughter in prospective. She hoped that she would be discreet enough not to allow them to be magnified into what might appropriately be called major trials.
"Don't you think, mother," said Emily, "that you can manage to find me a girl as good as Pedy?"
"I think it will be impossible. Pedy is unique in all that appertains to housekeeping. She excels in everything. You will be obliged now to limit your expectations. If you can obtain a girl who knows how to cook well, it is the best you can hope to do. Even that, I am afraid, will prove very difficult."
"It appears to me that if girls who are obliged to work for a living understood what was for their good, they would be at more pains to inform themselves relative to what is expected of them."
"A great difficulty lies in the lack of competent teachers. Such things are not known by instinct; and experience, though a good, is a slow teacher."
"If I have got to stay in the kitchen all the time to teach a girl,
I may as well do the work myself."
"I will do the best I can for you, but you must not expect me to find you a girl who will fill Pedy's place, and do not, for your own sake — leaving George out of the question — be too afraid of the kitchen."
Mrs. Anderson fulfilled the promise she made her daughter. She did her best, and felt tolerably well satisfied at being able to find a girl who had done the cooking in a large family in the country for more than a year.
Pedy Breck left Mrs. Brenton on Saturday after tea, and Deborah Leach took her place on Monday morning. Emily gave her a few general directions and as usual, seated herself in the parlor with her books, her music, and her embroidery, as resources against boredom. Deborah, also, was abundantly provided with the means to keep her out of idleness. She said to herself, after receiving the directions from Emily, that she "guessed there wouldn't be time for much grass to grow under her feet that day."
Deborah did not possess Pedy's "dexterity" at doing housework, and she felt a little discouraged when she found that, besides washing and preparing the dinner, she would be obliged to wash the dishes and do the chamber-work.
"I should think that she might take care of her own chamber," she said to herself; "and I don't think it would hurt her delicate hands a great deal, even if she should wash the dishes."
In consideration of its being washing-day, George had sent home beefsteak for dinner. Deborah had not been much accustomed to broiling steaks, as the family where she had been living considered it more economical, when butter brought such a high price, to fry them with slices of pork; but knowing the celebrity of her predecessor in everything pertaining to the culinary art, she exerted her skill to the utmost, and succeeded in doing them very well, and in tolerable season, so that George, after he came home, had to wait for dinner only ten minutes, which passed away very quickly, as time always did when he was with Emily.
Deborah's first attempt at pastry was a decided failure. It was plain that she had never been initiated into the mysteries of making puff paste, nor did she, when telling over what she called her grievances to a friend, think it worth while, she said, "to pamper the appetite by making pies sweet as sugar itself, when there were thousands of poor souls in the world that would jump at a piece of pie a good deal sourer than what Mr. Brenton and his idle, delicate wife pretended wasn't fit to eat. She was sure that she put two heaping spoonfuls of sugar into the gooseberry pie, and half as much into the apple pie, and Miss Brenton might make her fruit pies, as she called them, herself the next time, for it was a privilege she didn't covet by any means.
But Mrs. Brenton did not covet the privilege more than she did, and after a great show of firmness on the subject, declaring to herself and her intimate friend that she never would give up, and that there was no use talking about it — she concluded she would try again, if Mrs. Brenton would stand right at her elbow and tell her the exact quantity of ingredients she must put into each pie.
"I suppose that you are planning on doing the ironing?" she said to Emily, on Saturday morning.
"No, I am sure I don't," was Emily's reply. "I thought you had done it."
"Well, I haven't — I expected that you were agoing to do it. Miss Hodges, the woman I lived with before I came here, always did it, and she was the richest and genteelest woman in the place. She used to say there wasn't a servant on the face of the earth, that she would trust to starch and iron her fine linens and muslins, and laces."
Emily merely said that she was not in the habit of doing such things herself, and that she would expect her to do them.
Deborah went about her task very unwillingly. She told Emily that she knew she should spoil the whole lot, and she proved a true prophetess. The shirt-bosoms and collars bore indisputable evidence that she was not stinted for fuel, the hot flat-iron having left its full impress upon some, while burn marks were conspicuous on others. As for the muslins and laces, being of a frailer fabric, they gave way beneath the vigorous treatment to which they were subjected, and exhibited mere wrecks of their former selves. Not a single article was wearable which had passed through the severe ordeal of being starched and ironed by Deborah, and what was still more lamentable, many of them could not even, like an antique painting or statue, be restored.
"This is too bad," said George, as he contemplated his soiled and scorched linen. "It appears to me, Emily, that you might have seen what the girl was doing before she spoiled the whole."
"How could I," said Emily, "when she was in the kitchen and I was in the parlor — hem-stitching your linen handkerchiefs? Pedy never needed any overseeing."
Some linen of a coarser texture which had passed through Pedy's hands, was obliged to be resorted to on the present occasion, while Emily concealed her chagrin from George on account of the destruction of some Brussels lace, the gift of the same generous uncle who gave her the harp. She silently made up her mind that for the future she would not trust such articles to the unskillful Deborah.
Hitherto George, who probably had recalled to mind what he had said to Emily previous to commencing housekeeping, had never, except in a playful manner, alluded to the badly cooked food which daily made its appearance on the table. Today, however, when they returned from church and sat down to dinner, probably owing to being a little sore on the subject of the soiled linen, Emily saw him knit his brows in rather a portentous manner, while, in no very amiable tone of voice, he said —
"It appears to me that this girl doesn't understand how to do anything as it ought to be done — not even to boil a piece of corned beef! This is as salty as the ocean, and as hard as a flint! If the girl has common sense, I am sure she could do better if you would give her a few directions. I confess that I am tired of eating badly-cooked meat, half-done vegetables, and heavy bread, and of drinking a certain muddy concoction, dignified by the name of coffee."
"Such food is, of course, no more palatable to me than to you; but I thought, by what I have heard you stay, that you would not be pleased when you came home to dinner, to see me with a flushed face and in a work-dress, which must be the case if I undertake to do the principal part of the cooking myself, and to superintend the whole."
"We must try and get someone that will do better," said George.
"I don't think that it will be of any use," replied Emily. "We may as well try her another week."
The truth was, she had had, for several days, a dim perception that the indolence she had indulged in since released from her mother's influence, was not half so delightful as she had anticipated. Her physical and mental energies had remained so entirely quiescent, that she began to think it would be rather a luxury to be a little fatigued. She moreover half suspected that Deborah might, and would do better, if not embarrassed with that feeling of hurry and perplexity, which so many of what in colloquial phrase are sometimes termed 'slow people' experience, when obliged to divide their attention among a variety of objects.
Monday morning, Emily determined that she would turn over a new leaf: and a bright leaf it proved to be. She told Deborah, that for the future she would take care of her own room, prepare the dessert, and starch and iron all the nicer articles.
"I am glad to hear you say so, ma'am, I am sure," said Deborah, "for when I have to keep going from one thing to another, my head spins around like a top, and I can't do a single thing as it ought to be done. How Pedy Breck got along so smooth and slick with all the work, I don't know, nor ever shall. I can make as good light bread as ever was — I won't give up to anybody — but when I made the last, my mind was all stirred up with a pudding I was making, that I couldn't remember whether I put any yeast into it or not."
From this time, all went well. Deborah, in her slow way, proved to be a treasure. She told Emily that, "Give her time, nobody could beat her at a boiled dish, apple-dumplings, or a loaf of bread," and the result proved that her words were no vain boast."
"I have concluded to follow your advice," said Emily, the next time she saw her mother, "and look into the kitchen occasionally."
"I am glad to hear it, and I have no doubt that you will enjoy yourself much better for it."
"I am certain that I shall — I do already. You can't imagine what fretful-looking lines were beginning to show themselves on George's brow. He would have looked old enough for a grandfather in a few years, if I had gone on trying to realize the hope he expressed, that I would abstain from the performance of all household tasks. And I would have looked quite as old as he, I suspect, for I believe that the consciousness of neglected duties is one of the heaviest burdens which can be borne."