Fun with oranges and lentils, and exchanging a coarse elephantine maidservant for a charming pretty one.
"Gone is my gladsomeness, and fled the merry party
Which but as yesterday were gathering round the Yule,"
Sang Margaret one morning, early in January, as she tripped about the house, duster in hand, giving a touch here and a vigorous rub there. The pathetic words and air were but ill matched by the brightness of her face, rosy with exercise, whilst the sprightly and somewhat jerky rendering of the song, interrupted as it was with attention to housewifely cares, did not add to its appropriateness. It was true that at any rate a portion of the "merry party" had fled, in the persons of Mr. And Mrs. Hellier, who had returned to their own home, and Margaret had not been without a little feeling of desolateness for a few days after her sister's departure; but being a very resolute young person, with a strong notion of the futility of mourning over the inevitable, she set herself to forget her trouble, saying that there is nothing like hard work for bringing people to their senses.
The visit had been a very pleasant one in many ways, for Joanna's kind advice and encouragement were very grateful to Margaret's unaccustomed ears - unaccustomed, not from want of affection on the part of father and brothers, but what man, still less what boy, can guess half the little worries and anxieties that beset a young housekeeper in her daily round?
So far from condemning Margaret's economies - or, as she called them, her little mean tricks, such as sifting the cinders - Joanna approved of them highly; indeed, recommended her to add to the category. Considering the small sum out of which Margaret had to provide all the food and drink for the family - who, according to Betsy, were all "very 'earty," besides paying for washing, stationery, small travelling expenses, such as omnibus fares, and any incidental expenses, like breakages - Joanna said she thought strict economy in trifles was not only admissible but absolutely necessary.
"How do you portion out the week's money, Madge?" she asked one day. "I am curious to know if you have arrived at about the same result that I did in my time."
Margaret looked blank. "I do not quite see what you mean; I do not portion it out at all; it goes just as I happen to want it."
"Oh, but you ought to have an idea of the proportion you spend in each branch of the outlay. If you will bring the account-book we will compare the bills for the last few weeks, and find the average."
This done, it was found that in Joanna's opinion the butcher' sand grocer's bills swallowed up too large a proportion, which latter she said she had expected, as she had noticed Margaret's taste for all kinds of fancy dishes and sweet puddings. She advised her, therefore, to curtail her expenses in that direction.
"I will put down on paper, as nearly as I can remember, how I divide my money," she went on. "You know Arthur gives me thirty shillings a week, out of which I pay for the same things that you do. I always keep the real food expenditure under a pound, that is to say, when we are alone, though if we have friends, or anything extra like that, I cannot quite manage it. Now here is the list, which shows a fair average, though, of course it varies a little. For instance, I often have fish instead of, or as well as meat:
Grocer - 3s 3d
Bread and Flour - 2s
Greengrocer - 1s 3d
Meat and bacon - 8s
Milk and eggs - 1s 6d
Laundress - 2s
Butter and cheese - 2s
Total - 20s
This leaves me about ten shillings for sundries, under which head come stationery, breakages in the house, cab or omnibus fares, and small charities. To make a fund for kitchen requisites, such as scrubbing-brushes and pails, I put by one shilling at the beginning of each week. If I left it to the end I should be inclined to think I could not spare it, unless anything were really pressingly wanted."
"That is really wonderful, Joanna. I should not like to have to provide for this household on thirty shillings a week."
"You will have to allow more for meat in proportion to the other expenses than I do. Two growing boys, with splendid health and appetites to match, will not be contented with those little dainty-made dishes which satisfy us, and can be made out of a morsel of meat or a few bones; but I still think your meat bills are much too high."
"But, Joanna, though my butcher's portion is to be so low, you find no fault with the large greengrocery average I have been having."
"No, I do not think the greengrocer is high; indeed, I think you should try to have even a little more green food than you generally provide. Two vegetables at dinner, for instance, make much more of a meal than having only one, with very little difference in the expense. But to counterbalance it, if there is any, you might have boiled rice occasionally, instead of potatoes, not too often, you know, but just now and then as a change. Lentils too, and haricot beans are very inexpensive, and make a variety.
"Then you certainly ought to buy a little fruit occasionally. At this time of the year I know fresh fruit is dear but you can get plenty of oranges, and they may be prepared in so many different ways that you need never be at a loss."
"I wish I knew how to preserve them, like those we had at Mrs. Barclay's on Tuesday."
"I think I can gratify you, for she very kindly gave me the receipt. Here it is: 'Cut off a little of the rind, either a diamond-shaped piece here and there or a ring all round; then put the oranges in cold water for three days, changing the water twice. Tie each one separately in thin muslin, and boil in fresh water till quite tender. Weigh the oranges before boiling, and make a syrup in the proportion of two pounds of loaf sugar to a pound of the fruit, and as much water as will be required to completely cover the oranges; boil it till the scum ceases to rise, then put in the fruit, still in the muslin, and boil gently for an hour and a half, which will ensure their keeping well. Put into jars and cover with syrup.' Mrs. Barclay says if you follow this exactly you can make enough to last all the year, it is sure to keep."
"But that would be too troublesome and expensive for everyday use."
"Yes, but there are many less troublesome ways of preparing this fruit. Nothing could be simpler than orange salad, for instance. You have only to peel the oranges, being careful to remove every particle of skin, then either cut them in slices or scoop out all the pulp with a spoon, or leave them whole, and lay them in a glass dish, and sprinkle powdered sugar thickly over them a few hours before they ware wanted; and if you want it to look particularly nice, cover the whole with whipped-up white of egg and sugar. For another variety there is compote of oranges. That requires a syrup, but it is very easy to make. Cut off the yellow outer rind in thin strips till you have about three ounces, which put on one side. Then peel them properly, and divide into quarters (as you persist in miscalling the little divisions), being careful not to break the thin skin which covers them. Then make a syrup by boiling the rind with a pound of sugar in a pint and a half of water, and carefully remove the scum as it rises. When it has boiled about a quarter of an hour, put in the pieces of orange, and let them simmer gently for five minutes; then take them out with a spoon very carefully or they will break, and arrange them on a dish. If the syrup seems too thin, let it boil fast for five minutes longer to thicken it, then pour it over the oranges, and put the dish in a cool place till wanted."
"That sounds very easy I think I shall make a large quantity now oranges are so cheap, and keep it for occasional use."
"If you do, you must make the syrup with two pounds of sugar to a pint and a half of water; one pound is only sufficient for immediate use. But to return to the subject of the butcher: you really spend too much on meat, and I think might easily economise a little in that way. Because though boys require a good quantity, you need not get them the more expensive joints. Keep strictly to the rule of having soup for dinner nearly, if not quite, every day. Have the stock-pot always going, and put all sorts of scraps into it; not only meat cooked or raw, but also scraps of vegetables, paste, and bread; all will add to the strength or flavour of the soup, and should the pot be getting low, you may buy a few pennyworth of bones. Be sure to ask the man to chop them up very small for you; some people even pound them, but chopping is much less trouble, and does well enough for ordinary purposes. When you have a good stock, you can make it sometimes clear and sometimes thickened, and flavour it in endless different ways, according to the directions in the cookery books. One of the nicest soups we have is certainly not an expensive one. WE soak some lentils for nearly twelve hours, and simmer them for twelve more; then we pour the stock on to them, with scraps of anything and everything the larder contains; and if the larder happens to be particularly empty, we make up the flavour with a pinch of celery seed burnt onions, or a small quantity of Liebig's extract, which improves it very much. If you begin the dinner with good substantial soup, the onslaught on subsequent courses will be considerably lessened."
"Oh, poor boys! Fancy measuring their appetites and counting their mouthfuls in this way! How mean and stingy one does become under a course of housekeeping!"
"Then there are one or two other economies in trifles you might practise, dear, with advantage. You will excuse my saying it, I know, but when one asks for a piece of bread at tea, Betsy or one of the boys, rushes at the loaf, and with great zeal cuts about three times as much as is wanted, and I have heard you say you do not know what to do with the pieces that are left, except occasional bread-puddings. You might take care that only as much as is required is cut, you will find a difference in the baker's bills even from such a trifle as that. Then should there be any pieces left, a nice way of using them is to pull them apart, place them on a tin, and bake in a quick oven until crisp and brown, when they are a good substitute for cheese biscuits, which father is sure to like for a change. Crusts can be treated in the same way, only they must be cooked longer than the crumb, then grated, and kept in a bottle for raspings. There is also the vexed question of dripping; this often-despised article is most valuable, and may save you a great deal in butter and lard, if you clarify it carefully. Directly you take the dripping-pan from under the meat, pour the fat through a sieve into a pan of boiling water, and let it stand until cold, when you will find a cake of pure dripping on the surface of the water. Nothing can be better than this for pastry and frying. But besides this dripping, properly so-called, there are other kinds of fat that can be used in the same way. Then what do you do with pieces of fat left from joints of beef? Perhaps you never have any?"
"Oh, yes, we do, very often indeed; neither of the boys like fat, and sometimes a large quantity is wasted. But surely you are not going to tell me to make pies of scraps of cold fat!"
"Certainly I am, I constantly do it myself. I cut off as much fat as I think is likely to be wasted, and put it in a jar into the oven for about an hour, by which time it has subsided into a yellow liquor, which, when strained and left to cool, looks not unlike butter, and answers the same purpose for making all kinds of cakes and pastry."
Besides these economies, at Joanna's suggestion Margaret set up a tool-box, containing nails, screws, hammer, chisel, pincers, and screw-driver, all good and strong of their kind; also an old-fashioned iron glue-pot, and becoming expert in joinery, she saved many a shilling in this way.
At this time also a little change was made in the allowances for dress. Margaret's own allowance of £20 a year she had entirely in her own hands to use as she pleased. Hitherto the boys had had no fixed sum to be spent on their clothes; Mr. Colville bought their suits whenever he thought fit, while Margaret superintended their other garments, and applied to Mr. Colville for funds whenever they required anything new, or to pay for repairs. These frequent small sums spent on tailoring, other repairs, and minor articles of dress rendered it difficult to keep an account of the whole amount spent, besides which Margaret did not at all like so constantly applying to her father about such trifles as a patch on a boot, or a new collar; so after talking it over with her sister, she asked Mr. Colville's permission to make a change; and for the future Margaret had in her care £5 per annum for each boy, out of which she was to pay for everything with the exception of their suits and boots, which Mr. Colville still continued to buy himself. This had a very salutary effect on the boys, for when they were too careless with their clothes Margaret would fetch the account-book and show them how little balance there was, with the warning that if they went on at that rate they would have to go ragged.
From this long digression let us return to our young housekeeper, as she whisks about the house, as bright as the fresh January morning itself. Having finished the round of the bedrooms, still humming her doleful ditty, she trips downstairs to the kitchen, where a damper is awaiting her in the shape of poor Betsy in floods of tears.
"Oh, Betsy!" she cried, "what is the matter?"
Betsy managed to explain amidst her sobs that a letter from home that morning had told her of her mother's dangerous illness, and she must go home without delay. "Though of course, Miss Margaret dear, I won't go till you are suited."
A looker-on at this juncture might have witnessed a melancholy tableau. The maid, in attitude of dejection, sobbing and sighing by the window; the mistress collapsed into a wooden chair, doing likewise, but less noisily. Much ashamed of her weak-mindedness, the latter soon recovered, however, and hoping her maid had not noticed it, she wiped her eyes covertly, and said briskly -
"Poor Betsy I am indeed sorry for you, and very sorry that we hall lose you. But you must not think of waiting till we have a new servant. I will go at once and find a charwoman to come every day, and while I am out you must get forward with the dinner and then pack up so as to go by the two o'clock train; and you must take that soup that is in a jelly in the larder for your poor mother, and I will bring you in a few groceries to take too."
To get an honest and clean charwoman, who would come at seven o'clock in the morning and do the work of a general servant for the sum of two shillings a day, which was all Margaret felt she could afford to give, was no very easy task but by inquiring from the tradesmen, one was found at last.
The next day Margaret went to see her good friend Mrs. Trent, hoping and expecting to have the difficulty about a new servant solved at once, as so many former ones had been, by her kind advice and experience. On entering that lady's sitting-room our housekeeper was a little taken aback to find not only Mrs. Trent, as she had expected, but also her nephew, whose difficulty in rising from the sofa was a better proof of an invalid state than his appearance, which betokened his usual health.
"My nephew is suffering the penalty of neglecting his old aunt's good advice," said Mrs. Trent, smiling at her nephew, for whom she felt almost the affection of a mother, having had charge of him ever since the death of his own parents, when he was little more than a baby. "He sprained his ankle slightly on Monday, but he would persist in keeping his engagement to bring those books to show your father that evening, and, of course, he made it much worse, and now is compelled to give up moving altogether."
"And so tries to play the wounded hero, with as much dignity as possible," laughed Wilfred.
After expressing the deepest sympathy, Margaret explained the object of her visit, but said she would not trouble Mrs. Trent about it now, but would call again when her nephew was better.
"Pray, do not let me stop you, Miss Margaret," said Wilfred. "I take a great interest in that servant of yours who opens the door for me when I have the pleasure of calling upon you. She always smiles all over her face, and looks so thoroughly pleased to see one; it is quite refreshing."
After stating the case, Margaret asked if Mrs. Trent could tell her how to get a new maid.
"Had you not better wait a little on the chance of Betsy's being able to come back?"
"Oh, I think there is no chance of the mother recovering; besides, I do not think I am very sorry to lose her. I was at first; it seemed such a dreadful undertaking to have to get a new servant; but you know, Mrs. Trent, Betsy is really very rough and uncouth. I should so like to have a nice quiet, gentle girl about the house, instead of such an elephantine sort of whirlwind, though she does smile when she opens the door."
Mrs. Trent laughed at the comparison, and said she feared Margaret did not appreciate the rare qualities of honesty and good nature and truthfulness of the said whirlwind. However, as a change was inevitable, and not knowing of any suitable person, she advised her to reply to an advertisement in that day's paper, which sounded very promising. This she did, and, at Mrs. Trent's dictation, dispatched a letter asking for particulars as to the girl's capabilities, character, and the wages she required, the wounded hero meanwhile evincing an interest in domestic affairs which astonished even himself.
A satisfactory answer was soon received, giving the address of a former mistress to whom Margaret could apply as to character. In the course of a few days this too arrived. It was rather vague, and Margaret's inquiries as to honesty, sobriety, and cleanliness were cleverly evaded.
"Oh, dear! I don't know whether this is meant for a bad character or a good one," Margaret sighed. "It might mean either, but I am sure any servant would be better than this voracious charwoman. I should not have thought it possible for any human being to devour as much as that creature does."
Mrs. Trent next advised Margaret to see the young woman before engaging her, and as Margaret looked very much alarmed at the prospect, promised herself to be present at the interview. The result of it was the engagement of Rose Spooner, who informed her future mistress that she preferred being called Spooner. ("What jokes the boys will make!" thought Margaret.)
When Mr. Colville came home that night Margaret met him more cheerfully than she had done since Betsy's departure.
"Oh, father, I have engaged that servant I told you about Mrs. Trent quite approved of her, or else I should have been afraid to take her; and I think she will be a most charming servant, she is so quiet and pretty-looking, and speaks so softly; so different from the bluff Betsy. I am delighted with her."
"I am glad to hear it, my child; I only hope she will not prove too refined; but as Mrs. Trent is satisfied, no doubt it will be all right!"