Chapter One of a series on housekeeping for the middle-class (only one servant!) homemaker, cunningly (not really) disguised as a family drama told in the epistolary fashion. In this first chapter we meet the Colvilles and our protagonist Margaret. Subjects include accounting, breakfast - apparently there was such a thing as too much bacon in The Olden Days - and how to handle visitors when you're up to your elbows in something.
"No, Joanna, I'm quite sure I never shall manage the housekeeping as well as you have done, if I live to be ninety and practice it all the time; I feel it is not in me," said a young girl to her sister, as they sat together, having a confidential chat.
"I can understand that it seems a great undertaking to you now, Madge dear. I felt quite as helpless at first, when I had to take the reins into my own hands after dear mother's death, but it is wonderful how soon one gets accustomed to having the responsibility."
"I hope I have been a tolerably apt pupil during the last few weeks. Have I?"
"That you have; in fact, I am inclined to think you have a great deal of housewifely skill 'in you,' as you call it. The one thing for you to bear in mind is to be methodical over everything, and never get into a slovenly way of letting things go till a more convenient season. With but one servant, my experience is that the only way to keep domestic affairs from utter confusion is to have a regular time for doing everything, and to do it then in spite of all obstacles. I mention this particularly, because I think your weak point is a habit of procrastination, and perhaps a little tendency to unpunctuality too."
"Yes, I know," said Margaret dolefully. "But, oh dear! What a bad thing it is when elder sisters get married."
"There is one thing I have to suggest, Madge, that might be a help to us both, which is that you should write me a regular housekeeping-letter, say once a month, and tell me how you get on, and about any difficulties you meet with, and how you get over them, and I think by comparing notes of our experiences we may very likely help one another"
"Agreed; it is a splendid idea - it will be the greatest comfort to me. I shall not feel left so entirely to my own resources; whenever I feel despairing I shall write to you for advice; but in the meantime it is getting late, and I have several things to prepare for my personal adornment tomorrow. The toilet of a first bridesmaid is not a matter to be left to the last moment, and you have to finish arranging your presents, you know."
Joanna's wedding had only been deferred till Margaret was old enough to take her place as housekeeper. No very easy post for a girl coming straight home from school; but she had plenty of spirit and determination, and was resolved not to be easily beaten. The household consisted, besides herself and sister, of the father, and two boys, aged respectively 13 and 15. Though not by any means a poor man, Mr. Colville was neither able nor willing to indulge in extravagant expenditure, and the children had been brought up to understand that though they might have all the necessaries and many of the luxuries of life, anything like waste, or needless extravagance, could never be allowed.
Margaret left school six weeks previous to the wedding, in order to have the benefit of a little instruction from her sister, whom some years' experience had formed into a first-rate manager and skilful housekeeper. In fact, it was whispered in strict confidence that the bridegroom elect had first been attracted by the admirable way in which she managed her father's house.
Margaret threw herself heart and soul into the work of learning. She felt that her only chance of filling her sister's post, even fairly well, lay in the good employment of these few weeks.
The time flew by all too quickly for Margaret's peace of mind; as the day approached she redoubled her efforts to imbibe the greatest possible amount of information, till on the eve of the marriage she declared that she felt her brain was as "crammed with observation" as that of the clown in As You Like It.
It was some days before the excitement and upset of the wedding had subsided, and the Colville family had resumed its ordinary quiet; but at the beginning of the week following Mr. Colville gave Margaret the customary sum for the week's expenses.
"My dear," he said, "if you make me as comfortable as your sister did, I shall be more than contented; but, of course, I do not expect that just at first. My only advice is - do not get into debt."
So Margaret began her work; Monday had always been a particularly busy day with Joanna, and Margaret made up her mind to keep to all her sister's arrangements until she had had a little experience.
At half-past eight Mr. Colville and the boys always started, the former to business, not to return till tea-time, at six o'clock; the latter went to a day-school in the neighbourhood, and came home for dinner in the middle of the day. Immediately after their departure, Margaret betook herself to the kitchen to make her arrangements for the day. It had been a strict rule of Joanna's that the weekly supply of groceries should all be bought at once, and no more allowed unless under exceptional circumstances; this plan she had found a great saving of time and trouble. Accordingly, Monday being the day fixed for it, Margaret proceeded to inspect the jars of sugar, rice, and all the other contents of her store cupboard, and having made out the list of things required, she set out on her marketing. Weekly books had been long ago abolished, as being an unsatisfactory arrangement when there is a small and limited income. It is difficult to remember how much one has in hand, and how much must be reserved for those dreadful books, which come in stern and unrelenting, and generally amount to considerably more than one has reckoned upon, and is prepared to pay.
The abolition of books, of course, also does away with the convenience of tradesmen calling for orders, and necessitates the housekeeper herself going to the shops. In some cases this might be an obstacle to the ready-money system, but Joanna being strong and energetic, felt it anything but a grievance to be compelled to go out every day, wet or fine, because, as she said, "If I were not compelled to go out, some days I should think I was really too busy to do so just for pleasure, and so should lose a walk altogether, whilst as it is, I am sure of having at least one every day."
Besides the advantage of getting a regular walk (a very important advantage, by the way), Joanna strongly advised her sister to keep to the arrangement on the ground that it was so much easier to buy economically. Suppose she wanted fish, for instance, it very frequently happened that the particular kind she had ordered happened to be very dear that day, while by going to the shop to see for herself, she would find that some other sort was very plentiful, and consequently cheap; in the same way she would often find the greengrocer's shop crowded with some fruit or vegetable of which there had been a glut in the market, but which she would never have thought of ordering if she had not seen it.
The milkman and baker alone were permitted to call, and keep a weekly account, but as Joanna found that they trusted entirely to memory for the quantities they had left at each house, and she suspected that they were frequently remembered wrong, she had always kept a slate hanging up in the kitchen, on which Betsy put down the amount taken each morning. As they always saw her write it down immediately, the men were willing to accept the authority of her slate in a case of a discrepancy in the accounts.
Directly the family had begun breakfast Betsy went upstairs to the bedrooms, stripped the beds, opened the windows, and so on, after which she had her own breakfast, and was ready to receive Margaret's orders when she came into the kitchen.
While Margaret was out, Betsy was expected to have washed up and put away the breakfast things, and finished the bedrooms, her mistress having helped her to make the beds before starting. This was one of her duties which Margaret strongly objected to, but Joanna had painted in such glaring colours the disastrous effects upon the beds if they were not properly turned and shaken, and the great difficulty of the servant doing it alone, that she could not make any more objections. She soon found that after a little practice had taught her the knack of shaking the beds effectually, without at the same time shaking her whole frame immoderately, it really was not at all unpleasant work, and she began to take a pride in making them look smooth all over, and square at the corners, beauties which she had never before properly appreciated.
It happened rather unfortunately that Betsy was a new and inexperienced servant, her predecessor having had to leave suddenly. Under these circumstances Joanna had thought it prudent to write out a sort of plan of each branch of the household management for her sister's guidance. The order of cleaning rooms for the week, for instance, was arranged as follows:
Monday, the drawing room to be cleaned.
Tuesday, one bed-room to be swept, and the dusters and kitchen towels washed.
Wednesday, two small bed-rooms, and the stairs to be swept.
Thursday, the two remaining bed-rooms.
Friday, the dining-room and hall.
Saturday, the kitchen to be cleaned, silver polished, and general putting straight for Sunday.
In these arrangements, it was understood that the servant was only expected to do the actual cleaning; the dusting and re-arranging of ornaments was left for Margaret, who took this opportunity to look over the antimacassars, toilet mats, and other things in the rooms, to see which required washing and mending.
Monday was a busy day for both mistress and maid, for while Betsy was sweeping the drawing-room, Margaret had to put away, and very often mend, the boys' Sunday clothes.
Then there was the linen to e collected for the wash, and the list made out, so that frequently Betsy came to say she had finished her part of the drawing-room and was going into the kitchen to "peel the petaters" before Margaret was ready. The finishing touches in the drawing-room took a long time, as Mr. Colville had a taste for china, and the room was full of fragile ornaments, which Margaret never allowed anyone but herself to touch, so that she had hardly time to begin the mending of the clean clothes which had come home from the wash on the previous Saturday, and which was considered part of Monday's regular work, before the boys came in from school, and dinner was ready.
The afternoon Margaret intended to spend in paying visits, reading, or sewing, but she often found that so many unexpected things occurred to occupy her attention that by the time she had done and could settle down to read and enjoy herself she was sure to hear her father's well-known and unmistakable knock.
On this particular Monday, she flew to open the door. "Oh, father!" she cried, as she kissed him and relieved him of his hat and coat, "I shall be able to repeat with the greatest sincerity to-night that little poem of our youth -
'How pleasant it is at the close of the day
No follies to have to repent;
But to lie down to sleep, and be able to say,
My time has been properly spent.'"
"That's right, my little daughter, and I assure you I shall be able to take up the strain and say to myself:
'Down I lie content and say
I have been useful all the day.'
For I have been very busy too. Are the boys home?"
"Yes, father; they have gone upstairs to make themselves presentable, and tea will be ready in a moment."
In this household, tea, that most pleasant and sociable of meals, was lingered over and prolonged to a great extent. Mr. Colville wisely considered that in the absence of a mother to guide and counsel them, it was necessary for him to do all in his powers to win his children's confidence, and as breakfast was usually too hurried a meal for much conversation, he always took this opportunity of chatting with them over the day's occupations, and encouraged the boys to tell him of any school escapades or successes.
This day's doings may be taken as a fair sample of Margaret's occupations. As time went on, she found some parts of her duties grow easier with practice, while at the same time little things arose to puzzle and perplex which were not thought of at first. For example, though it sounds but a trifling matter, it was a considerable difficulty to Margaret to procure a variety in the way of breakfast. It had never occurred to her that it was possible to get tired of fried bacon, with the occasional addition of boiled eggs, until one morning, on lifting the cover at breakfast and observing, for the fifth consecutive morning, a row of crisp little rashers, Mr. Colville gently hinted that a change might be agreeable, whilst Dick was heard murmuring,
"Bacon hot and bacon cold, bacon young and bacon old,
Bacon tender and bacon tough, we thank you Madge, we've had enough."
After this a change was quite necessary, but Margaret racked her brains in vain to think of something new.
It happened that Joanna, whilst at home, had kept a small manuscript book, in which she was in the habit of jotting down any favourite new recipe, or any hints or ideas which occurred to her on domestic matters in general. This miscellany book she bequeathed to her sister, with some reluctance, as she had found it a very useful institution; but it stood Margaret in good stead now, as on many subsequent occasions, for here she found the very thing she wanted, an entry in Joanna's neat handwriting, headed, "Varieties for breakfast. Sheep's kidneys, fried. Fish left from previous day's dinner warmed with milk. Ditto, potted. Sausages (do not forget to prick them all over before cooking). Poached eggs on toast. Buttered eggs (break four in a basin and beat well; put 1 oz of butter in another basin and melt; pour both into an enamelled saucepan, hold over a slow fire, keep stirring until hot, but do not let them boil; serve on hot buttered toast). Small pieces of cold meat, potted; different sorts can be used together, and, unless very fat, will be improved by the addition of a little bacon or ham. Omelettes (you must make these yourself; ordinary servants always spoil them). Stewed fruit, when not expensive; watercresses, or radishes, when in season."
With these to select from, Margaret was no longer at a loss for ideas, but unfortunately Betsy was not only an "ordinary" servant, but had even less than ordinary ideas of cookery, so if Margaret departed from the regular routine of bacon and eggs she would have to get up and prepare the dish herself, or at least superintend its preparation; and of all things her greatest difficulty was rising in the morning. She was rarely quite punctual for breakfast, and the idea of coming down in time to cook these little dishes was, she thought at first, impracticable. However, she decided to try it for a week, and she made a firm resolution to get up the moment Betsy knocked at her door (fortunately, Betsy was an early riser). She succeeded better even than she had expected, and her father's commendation more than repaid her for the exertion. He suggested that since she was in the kitchen so early, she might at the same time try if it were possible to improve the quality of the toast, which, as he pointed out to her, was usually tough, and nearly cold when put on the table. Accordingly, the next morning Margaret inquired into the matter, and found that, to save herself trouble, Betsy put the slices of bread into the oven first, by which process they became dried up and hot through, so that the actual toasting took a very short time, but the result was highly unsatisfactory. She showed her how to make it better for the future, to cut the bread about a quarter of an inch thick, hold the slice a minute before a clear fire, to make it thoroughly hot through, then turn it, and when that side is hot, begin to move it gradually backwards and forwards till the whole side is equally browned all over. When the other side is done, instead of laying it down on a plate as Betsy had been accustomed to do, she stood each piece in the toast-rack on the fender before the fire, to keep it light. Betsy appeared to think all this very unnecessary trouble, but Mr. Colville's exclamation at the wonderful improvement in the toast convinced her that it was worth taking a little trouble over.
It was not until some three weeks after Joanna's wedding that Margaret took advantage of a leisure afternoon to begin the promised correspondence with her sister. Though a brisk interchange of letters had been kept up in the meantime, Joanna's were filled with accounts of the beautiful places they were visiting, while Margaret's consisted principally of apologies for their own brevity, the invariable excuse being that she was too busy to write. Let us look over her shoulder this afternoon, as her pen flies rapidly over the paper.
"Dearest Joanna, - Be prepared for a good long letter at last. I am going to take you at your word, and tell you about our domestic affairs. I have come to the conclusion, like you, that housekeeping in all its branches is nothing but a delusion and a snare. I do not know that you ever said so in those very words, but at any rate you tried to show me a little of the dark side of the matter, while I persisted in seeing only the bright side. My eyes are wide open by this time, I can assure you, and the difficulties are extremely visible to me now so I hope you are satisfied.
"First of all, let me thank you again and again for the many kind hints you gave me about different things. It is very true that 'forewarned is forearmed,' and I should have been in despair long ago if I had not laid your wise saws to heart and acted upon them.
"I am getting quite to enjoy the shopping every morning, and it certainly is a very good thing to be able to choose just what one wants instead of being obliged to take whatever they like to send. Thanks to your teaching I can judge tolerably well of the quality of meat and fish by the look of it. I think your formula was that, if the meat be fresh and good, the flesh adheres firmly to the bone; and in beef is of a deep red colour, and the fat is firm and waxy, and not friable. Is that right? And that the best beef will have the lean intermixed with fat, so that it looks mottled. And I really think you would be gratified to see the 'cute' way in which your pupil selects fish that looks very bright and silvery, and the scorn with which she rejects as stale all that are limp and have a dull leaden appearance. In my heart of hearts, Joanna, I really believe the only true way with both fish and meat to find out if they are perfectly fresh or not is to smell them, but it does so offend my delicate nostrils that as often as possible I trust to the look of them.
"I have not forgotten your exhortation to keep accounts, and I do so, though it is rather irksome. Still, I begin to see that it is very necessary if one intends to be at all methodical. Father made me a present of a regular housekeeper's account book, on condition that he might be allowed to 'audit and find correct' whenever he liked. There are columns ruled for each of the ordinary expenses, such as butcher and baker, and a line drawn for each day, so that at the end of the week the total expenditure and also each item can be clearly seen. I was not very successful in my accounts at first, as by the time I reached home I had forgotten how much the various items cost, but I have adopted the brilliant expedient of always carrying a scrap of paper in my purse, on which I put down the price of each article before I leave the shop. When I can afford it I shall buy one of those purses with a washing tablet in it, but at present I have the utmost difficulty to make both ends meet without indulging in any superfluities such as new purses. It really is the greatest comfort to know exactly what I have spent and how much I have still in hand, instead of the dreadful feeling that last week's books will be coming in soon, and I shall have to pay for what was all eaten long ago. The 'sundry' column in my account book is rather a snare - it is so pleasant to put down all unaccounted-for money under that head, but I suppose you would insist on the nature of the sundry being mentioned, would you not?
"I think I can hear you say at this point, 'Well, Madge need not have harrowed up my feelings by beginning in such a doleful tone, for she seems to have a tolerably good opinion of her achievements thus far.' Quite true; and I only wish I could carry on this jubilant strain a little longer, but I am now going to plunge headlong into the valley of humiliation, and tell you about a very painful thing that that happened last week.
"You told me I must not trust to Betsy to make the pastry, as she is so careless in measuring quantities. On Wednesday morning accordingly I put on an old dress (very old indeed), and retired to the kitchen to spend the morning in the exemplary occupation of making puddings. No sooner had I, so to speak, warmed to my work and got myself thoroughly sprinkled with flour and other materials (you know what a mess I always do make of myself) then the bell rang, and Betsy announced Mrs. Symonds. I should like just to say in passing that I think morning calls ought to be made criminal offences and punished with the utmost rigour of the law, don't you? Especially when they know there is only one person in the house. Well, I could not go to see her in that state, for, as Betsy remarked with a cheerful smile, 'Even my 'air was a mask of flour.' So I rushed upstairs, huddled on another dress, pulled out about half of my raven locks in the attempt to make my hair tidy quickly, and walked into the drawing-room, flushed and breathless, having kept the poor lady waiting ten minutes. Was it not shameful? And she seemed rather angry about it, not unnaturally I must confess. When I told father about it in the evening, he was quite severe, and said it was a most unladylike thing to keep a visitor waiting, just because I had an old dress on, and it would have been much better to go in as I was. (I wish he could have seen me.)
"Accordingly, on Saturday morning when Betsy announced old Mrs. Trent, as I was in just the same predicament, I only stayed to wash my hands and shake my dress. When I went into the room, imagine my dismay at seeing that she had brought her nephew with her! That young Mr. Trent whom father thinks so highly of, you remember, and is always talking about. I saw in the pier glass that I had a patch of flour arranged coquettishly over my left eyebrow, so as all hope of disguising the fact that I had been cooking was gone, I thought I might as well tell the candid truth about it, which I did, and Mrs. Trent only laughed, and was very kind. But her nephew looked quite scandalised. I am sure he thought a young person in that state was not fit company for his aunt and himself.
"After that I thought I should have to leave the puddings to fate and Betsy after all. However, this morning I met Mrs. Trent, and she was so very kind that in a burst of confidence I told her my difficulty. She advised me to wear a large apron which would completely cover my dress, and promised to send me one for a pattern. It has just come, and is really splendid. It is made of rather coarse linen; the skirt is large enough to meet behind all the way down, and the bib reaches the neck, where it pins on to the dress. There are sleeves as well, made to slip on over the dress sleeves, and reaching the elbow, but Mrs. Trent says if one's sleeves are wide enough it is better to roll them up, and dispense with the linen ones.
"I am going to set about making myself some aprons at once; then I shall be able to put on a respectable dress without fear of spoiling it - and if a caller should come, I have only to nip off my apron, and hey, presto! I am as neat as if I had never seen a pudding in my life. But, then, there is my hair! Should you advise a nightcap? Or shall I let the people think that it is an idiosyncrasy of female members of the Colville family to wear powder in the morning?
"You will perhaps wonder how I get on in the matter of making both ends meet. Alas! The very first week I had to ask father for another sovereign. My money was all gone by Saturday, and no meat in the house but the carcasse of a sirloin of beef to offer my hungry relatives for their Sunday's dinner, so there was nothing for it but to ask for more money.
"The next week I resolved that nothing should induce me to run short, and accordingly I carefully measured the appetites of the household, and ordered only just as much of everything as was absolutely necessary. In consequence, one evening when a gentleman called, and father told me to order up some supper for him, there was literally nothing in the house, and Betsy had to race round to the nearest shop to buy something. That rather annoyed father and considerably damped my ardour for economy, especially as an attempt in another direction was not more successful. I thought the washing-bills were too large, so made up my mind that one clean table-cloth should last a week, and the very first day that troublesome Dick spilt gravy on it at dinner-time. Thus the second piece of economy was knocked on the head. I felt that a remonstrance to Dick was not only allowable but quite a matter of duty, and perhaps I was rather too angry, but at any rate he did not at all like it and went off sulkily to school, muttering that keeping house did not seem to agree with my temper.
"Now, Joanna, how am I to act to the boys? Am I to never scold them? You know what harum-scarum they are; there is no chance of keeping the house in any sort of order if they are left entirely to their own sweet wills, and yet, as there is so little difference in our ages, they resent my lecturing very strongly.
"And also, how am I to be strictly economical and yet be prepared at any moment for an unexpected run upon the bank, or rather larder?
"Please send me your opinion upon these points as soon as you can, and any other hints you think would be useful. The smallest morsel of advice thankfully received. "
Margaret's letter was here interrupted by a boyish voice calling,
"Madge, Madge, where have you hidden yourself? Do come, it's just upon tea-time!"
This Margaret knew to be a slight exaggeration; but, bringing her letter to a hasty conclusion, she gathered up her writing materials and ran down stairs to join her brothers.