It was with something of an effort that Margaret rose rather earlier than usual the morning after the concert, so her eyes looked a little drowsy as she entered the kitchen, where she found Betsy engaged in filling the coal-scuttle with wood and paper to light the fire.
"Betsy," she said, "I'm going to lay and light the dining-room fire myself this morning, and I want you to come and watch, so that you can do it in exactly the same way yourself for the future."
"Well, Miss Margaret, I 'ope I knows 'ow to light a fire without being showed," said Betsy, rather huffily.
"Well, how much wood does each fire take?"
"Pretty near a bundle, one with another."
"Why, Betsy, I think it is time somebody showed you, then, for you ought to make one bundle light three fires, including the kitchen. Do you know that you waste, at the very least, fifteen shillings a year by extravagance in firewood alone?"
Betsy was rather staggered at those plain statistics, and followed her young mistress without more ado.
"Now, you see, I first of all put a scanty layer of cinders at the bottom of the grate, next some crumpled paper, and about half a dozen pieces of wood laid crosswise, and lastly some knobs of coal. You must be careful always that the whole is well back in the grate, and leave plenty of air-holes between the pieces. When it has all caught fire you can put a shovelful of cinders on the top, and you will have a hot fire in no time. And that reminds me, Betsy, that I want to talk to you about cinders after breakfast; I am afraid we do not manage them as well as we might; but we must get on with the other work now, or breakfast will be late."
Betsy looked dejected; she did not altogether like Margaret's burst of energy in the morning; it was much less trouble to keep on in the old routine.
Breakfast over, Margaret returned to the kitchen.
"What do you do with the cinders, Betsy, after you have raked out the fire?"
"Oh, I puts a few large bits on the back of the fire, and throws the rest in the dustbin?"
"Well, I have had a letter from my sister about it. I will read to you what she says:- 'You must remember that cinders are as much fuel as coals, and there is no more excuse for wasting the one than the other. They are much better than coal for some purposes; for instance, in a bedroom they are safer, as there is not the danger of sparks flying from them, and a better and hotter fire can always be made with part cinders than with coals alone. The best fire for cooking is made up of lumps of coal in front, and cinders at the back.' So you see, Betsy, we have been very wasteful; but I hope we shall reform now. This wooden box on rockers, which I bought yesterday, is a proper cinder-sifter; and for the future I want you to place all the ashes into this wire tray at the top, put the lid on, and rock it for a minute; then if you leave it for a little while before taking off the lid, you will find that all the small ash has gone through the tray into the box beneath, leaving on the top only large cinders ready for use."
"Humph," said Betsy, "I never was in a place before where they could not afford coals, and had to burn up old rubbish."
Margaret flushed up, and felt inclined to be very angry, the more so as she had a little uncomfortable feeling herself that perhaps it was rather mean to watch every farthing so carefully; but she was determined not to lose her temper, so took no notice of Betsy's rudeness, and went on -
" For the next week or so I want you to save small ash in this large box, instead of throwing it into the dust-bin as usual; with this very cold weather I am afraid all our plants in the garden will be killed; so as soon as you have collected a good quantity, I will get a boy to come in and heap it round the roots of the delicate ones to protect them."
"But won't it spoil the look of the garden, miss?"
"It will not show much, and at any rate it is better than letting our plants be frostbitten, and next spring we will have it dug into the ground, and it will very much improve our heavy clay soil. If the boys begin keeping fowls in the spring, as they talk or doing, they will be glad of all the ash we can spare for the fowls to scratch amongst."
"Please, miss, there ain't no 'mergencies left."
"No *what, Betsy?"
"Why none of them 'mergencies in tins, miss, that you sue when anybody comes in unexpected."
"Oh, ah! Yes, Betsy, I understand," said Margaret, smothering her laughter; "I am glad you reminded me."
The meaning of Betsy's curious statement was that, on Joanna's suggestion, Margaret always kept a few tins of meat, soup and fruit amongst her stores in case of emergencies, such as the unexpected arrival of visitors, when the soup could be warmed in a very few minutes, while the fruits and meats might be eaten as they were if there was no time for preparing them in any of the numerous ways described on the tins. These emergencies, as Betsy called them, were found to answer very well, and prevented any embarrassment at the appearance of an extra guest at the table.
That evening Margaret told her father about the cinders, and asked him if he thought she was getting too parsimonious.
"Decidedly not in this case," he answered, "for if Joanna is correct in what she says, you must waste a good deal of money, and waste can never be justified even in the smallest trifles. Have you forgotten the injunction to 'Take care of the pence, for the pounds will take care of themselves'? But look at it another way. Suppose you find that by careful management you can save threepence a week, that would pay for the schooling of some poor child. If you spent your savings in that way you would not think it stingy, would you?"
Margaret brightened up at that, for it happened there was a poor family she very much wanted to help; but she had found so much difficulty in making her money last that she had not ventured to do anything for them. Now she determined to begin with the New Year to help the poor mother by paying for the schooling of at least one of the children.
It is true that at the close of the week sometimes a small balance would be discovered, but this was only occasionally, and any such surplus was sure to be needed, sooner or later, to replace broken articles, or to pay for new scrubbing brushes, or some such incidental expense. Margaret had a small cash box for these little savings, h was never opened except in the case of real necessity. Just now the box was being watched with particular care, but it was never opened on any pretext whatever, for it had been long ago fixed that Joanna and her husband should spend Christmas at the old home. During this visit the expenses of the house would of course be greater, and the savings of previous weeks would all be needed. Now the happy time was drawing near, and all Margaret's perplexities were being saved up till she could talk them over with her sister. The pleasure with which Joanna anticipated the visit was, it must be confessed, tinged with curiosity. Although conscious of her sister's strong desire to do well, she could not but wonder how the household management, conducted by one so young and inexperienced, would strike a new comer.
Thinking that perhaps Margaret would feel a little nervous about the approaching visit, she determined rigorously to avoid noticing any little delinquencies, or at any rate to appear not to notice them.
During the first day or two, though there were very few mishaps of any kind, still it was amusing to mark her air of utter unconsciousness when anything in the ménage went wrong. Even when Betsy got a little "mixed" over the sauces at dinner one day, and handed Joanna parsley and butter with plum pudding, she appeared quite unaware that it was not an usual accompaniment for sweets.
Betsy related this little episode to her young mistress the next morning with much contrition; Margaret laughed at her sister's delicacy, and at once saw through her schemes to spare her feelings.
"It is very kind of you, Joanna, to pretend not to see things, and of course I am thankful in a way, to see you looking abstractedly in another direction when accidents happen. But I would really rather you would pry about and find fault, and tell me of things you see wrong that perhaps I do not notice myself," said Margaret, as the two sat having a cosy chat before tea.
"There is little or nothing to find fault with, Madge; in fact, so far from disapproving, I am learning myself; but there is just one little thing I thought of at dinner that might be a useful suggestion to you, that is, to avoid getting so many spills on the cloth. You should not have the gravy put on the dish, round the meat, as you do at present; it is almost impossible to carve without splashing it over, and it is altogether much more convenient in a sauce-tureen. Then you should always spread a serviette under the carver's dish and plates to catch anything that may be dropped. I am afraid it would offend the boys, or I should advise you to put one under their plates too! Some people always have them - one to each person, or a long narrow cloth down the whole length of the table at each side. They are afterwards removed with the crumbs in them, which does away with the necessity for a crumb brush; but I do not recommend that to you, as the washing would be as expensive as frequent clean table-cloths."
"Thank you, that was one thing I was going to ask you about. I have a whole list of questions so prepare for a good catechising. Now, stand still like a good little girl, with your hands behind you and your head up, and tell me how to prevent the pipes bursting."
"Have you had any burst already?"
"Yes. Didn't I tell you? In that thaw last week, directly the water began to come into the cistern, Dick came running along to my room to say he thought the end of the world was come, for his room was flooded with water. It was pitch dark, like the dead of night, but it was really six o'clock in the morning. Poor Dick had to dress and rush off for the plumber, and he soon put it right, but the room was in a dreadful state, and the plaster is all broken off the ceiling and you know it might happen in the middle of the night, when we could not get the plumber, and whatever should we do?"
"Well, dear, in this case, as in many others prevention is better than cure, and the best advice I can give you is, in frosty weather keep your taps just dripping, and if there is a gas jet near any pipe likely to freeze, let one burner be always alight; that will generally give enough warmth to prevent it. And also any outside pipes should be covered up with straw or old carpet. They generally burst when the water is coming in; and if that should happen again, in spite of your precautions, till a plumber can be brought you should fasten down the ball in the cistern, tie it down with string or any contrivances of that sort, to stop the flow of water; and if you can get at the part of the pipe that has burst, stuff up the hole as well as you can with anything that comes first to hand."
"Well, I think I will try the prevention first. My ideas are generally a little hazy on first waking in the morning, and I am afraid I should not have presence of mind to tie down the ball. Now I will let you off the rest of my catechizing for a little while, though I have hardly begun my list, but the other questions will keep."
On Christmas Eve the pleasant task of decorating the dining and drawing-rooms was accomplished, and it was a merry party that engaged in the work. Some dust sheets were spread on the carpet, and Joanna and her sister sat dexterously weaving wreaths and festoons, and giving directions to Arthur, Tom, and Dick, who were performing feats of gymnastics on the top of stepladders, in their endeavours to satisfy the demands of their task-mistresses as to the position of the decorations.
In the midst of the work Betsy appeared at the door, with a face of dismay, and beckoned Margaret out of the room, to tell her that the turkey was "froze as hard as a brickbat," and so was the sirloin of beef for Boxing Day.
"Well, put them before the fire till they are melted."
"La! Miss Margaret, that will make them so awful tough; besides they will only freeze again as soon as I put them out, and that turkey won't taste no better than an old goat" (a favourite simile of Betsy's).
"Oh! Dear me! Wait a minute, and I'll ask Mrs. Hellier."
A whispered consultation between the sisters resulted in the turkey and all the other meat in the larder being hung up in the kitchen, not near the fire, and there left all night, which proved quite as effectual a way of thawing and preventing their again freezing as the frequent plan of washing in warm water, with the advantage of not taking out the flavour.
Christmas Day came and went, as happily as it always must do when a family, scattered abroad through the year, are reunited to celebrate the anniversary of our Saviour's birth.
A few days later found Margaret in a bustle of business and excitement, preparing for the entertainment of some friends who had been invited to meet the young bride and bridegroom. This would be the first time that Margaret had had the ordering and management of anything larger than the addition of one or two guests at their usual evening meal; but now friends, to the number of twenty, had been invited, so that considerable preparation was necessary. The guests were invited for tea at seven o'clock, and supper was to be at ten. Happily the contents of Margaret's little savings'-box were not yet exhausted, so that she was able to provide for the party with the addition of only ten shillings extra from her father. The bill of fare for the supper was as follows: hot soup, turkey, ham, tongue, and cold sirloin of beef, hot Christmas pudding, and mince-pies; one dish of trifle, one jelly, one blancmange, and sundry little dishes of tarts, biscuits and fruits.
This list being decided upon, everything necessary for the carrying out of it was bought in and prepared, as far as possible, the day before; the soup was made and the meats cooked; the pastry, too, was made, and the jelly and blancmange - the two latter being kept in moulds; then the dishes of biscuits and preserved fruits were set out and tastefully ornamented with twigs of holly. Even the table-cloths and serviettes were put ready, so that the next morning would be left clear for arranging flowers and giving finishing touches, for Margaret was determined not to be like many anxious hostesses, who are in such a bustle and flurry all the day of their party that when the evening comes they are quite too tired to enjoy it.
Immediately after dinner, Margaret laid the table for supper, and very pretty it looked with its display of spotless linen and glittering glass and silver. Mr. Colville had a great objection to the flowers or plants on the dinner-table being so high as to intercept the view of his opposite neighbour, and sometimes did not scruple to rise in the middle of the meal and lift off such an offending decoration, should his daughter happen to have forgotten his objection. Margaret therefore wisely contented herself with placing several small low glasses here and there about the table, containing a few feathery grasses and bright red leaves (gathered and pressed in the autumn for winter use), and whenever there was likely to be a rather large gap between the dishes she laid a device of coloured leaves and fern fronds laid flat on the cloth, completing the whole by placing in the middle of the table a handsome old china bowl full of glorious many-hued chrysanthemums.
Her tasteful fingers had also prepared some pretty cards, each bearing the name of a guest, and placed on the table to indicate the place he or she was to occupy. Some of them were decorated with little pen and ink sketches, copied from pictures, the selection of which had occupied the boys several evenings; others had a little painted flower, or a group of pressed flowers gummed on them.
This done, she was able to breathe freely and take a little well-earned rest, before proceeding to give a final look round the dining-room and kitchen (the drawing-room was left to Joanna's supervision). She took particular notice that the cold viands were all on the table, and the sideboard well stocked with clean plates, knives and forks and glasses, and then with a last entreaty to Betsy not to get excited and make mistakes, she went to dress for the evening.
When the guests began to arrive, Betsy took the ladies upstairs, and ran down again immediately to be ready for the next arrival. Each party was met at the drawing-room door by Mr. Colville, whilst Margaret stood near a small table in a corner of the room, to dispense tea and coffee after welcoming her friends. The two boys proved capital assistants, and handed round cakes and biscuits as though to the manner born.
When all had arrived, Margaret rang the bell, and Betsy removed the tea things, leaving the table free for the display of Mr. Colville's engravings, and a number of books and pictures, part of which they had borrowed from friends for the occasion. The evening passed pleasantly for guests and hosts alike. Margaret had never permitted even the busiest day to pass without devoting a little time, though sometimes only ten minutes, to practising her music. Her father liked her to play to him in the evenings when he came home sometimes tired and jaded, and she was always ready to do her best, even though that best was not always of the first order. Her voice was neither powerful nor of great compass, but it was clear and sweet, and several times during the evening she sang with so much expression and with so simple a grace that even the critic listened with pleasure. She had provided a number of glees, and part songs, too, in which the musical members of the party joined, while those who did not care for singing, played various games, headed by Mr. Hellier, who proved a great acquisition in the way of originating new entertainments.
In the meantime, Betsy after making sure that her soup and pudding were progressing favourably, had added a soup-plate for each person on the supper table, and a few minutes before ten o'clock she carried up the soup, hot and savoury, in a large jug, from which she filled each plate; then running upstairs she knocked at the drawing-room door and announced that supper was ready. She came down again quickly to dish up the turkey, and directly the soup was finished, she placed it on the table for the carver to begin operations while she removed the empty soup plates. In the same way, all the appliances for the second course being ready on the table, she now went down to prepare the pudding and mince pies, which plan answered so well that there was not a minute's delay between the courses.
After supper the games were begun again with renewed energy, and it was nearly twelve o'clock before the last guest left, being unanimous in their expressions of pleasure at having spent so delightful an evening together.
So passed this happy Christmastide, rendered all the happier for the Colvilles in that they did not forget, in their own rejoicings, the sufferings of their poorer neighbours who had nothing wherewith to make merry.
It had always been a rule during the lifetime of their mother that each of the children should try to give some poor child, if not a merry Christmas, at least a happier one than they could otherwise have had, and the plan was still kept up. For weeks beforehand Margaret had been very busy mending old clothes and making new ones, while the boys had made scrap-books, bought tops and balls, and denied themselves many little indulgences to have the more charity. Mr. Colville, too, had given them some money to spend on meat and materials for Christmas puddings, so that when they started on their rounds, directly after breakfast on Christmas morning, they found their supply of presents much larger than they could carry, that Tom had to waylay a schoolfellow who happened to pass and press him into the service. Dick added to the general merriment by insisting upon fastening up a piece of holly and mistletoe in each poor room they visited, "to make it look Christmassy," as he said. Many cheerless homes were made brighter that morning, and it was with joyous hearts they joined on their return in the grand old song, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to all men."