Betsy's return was indeed a happy event for the young mistress of the house. The visit home and intercourse with her sick and dying mother had had, as Margaret phrased it, "a chastening effect," and now, with the little brusqueness and angularity rubbed off, the maid was all that could be desired, willing, neat-handed, scrupulously clean, and honest as ever, and it is to be doubted whether Margaret ever again longed for a pretty, refined attendant.
One fault still remained to trouble both mistress and maid, for the latter regretted it almost as much as the former, namely unpunctuality.
"I can't think how it is, Miss Margaret," she said one morning; "only look at last night, I thought as I was sure to be in time with the tea, and yet before I'd done laying the cloth I heard your pa's knock, and when I finished it off as quick as I could, and run downstairs, I give a look at the clock, and there it was gone seven, and my meat not dished up."
"In future, Betsy, you must come up and lay the cloth half an hour, or even longer than that before the meal, then you will not be all in a drive at the last; there is nothing like being beforehand in preparing for everything. You know you take your time early in the morning and afternoon, and then as the meal hour approaches you get quite in a flurry. So try to be quicker early in the day, and get forward with the wash beforehand; that is the only way to be punctual."
"Then you see, miss, perhaps I shall get a bit too punctual, and have things done too soon, and then they're spoilt that way."
"Quite true, Betsy; that is almost as bad as being too late, in cookery. But if at any time you should have to keep roast meat after it is perfectly done, you can prevent its spoiling by putting it in an old dish on the oven, with a dish-cover over it, and over that a cloth. To keep greens hot you should put them into the colander, leaving the water in the saucepan; then cover them and set the colander on the saucepan, and the steam from the boiling water will keep them quite hot without their getting either dry or sodden. Potatoes are the greatest difficulty; it is almost impossible to keep them hot without their getting discoloured. The best plan is to strain off the water till they are quite dry, then lay over the saucepan first a cloth, several times folded, and then the cover; take off the lid of the boiler, ours fortunately being one which you can open, and stand the saucepan over the entrance in place of the lid. But of course there is no reason for adopting these plans unless papa is late home, or the meal delayed from some such reason. Your part is to have all ready to the minute; if you cannot manage it you must always be ready five minutes beforehand.
"But now for to-day's bill of fare. I am expecting two young ladies to dinner, so as we shall be sitting in the drawing-room, you can lay the cloth as early as you like. We will not have soup; but as fresh herrings are just coming into season, I should like you to boil some, and if you do exactly as I tell you they will be as nice as mackerel. When you have cleaned them well, get a saucepan of water, quite hot, but not boiling. Put the fish in with a little salt, and boil them pretty fast for about fifteen minutes. You must be sure to take them out directly they are done, and serve up in a fish napkin as usual. They will not require any butter, they are quite rich enough without."
"There's no meat in the house but the cold beef, miss."
"No, but it is no use attempting a great meal, so we will make that do. I want you to try some potato-chips today. They are perfectly easy, and I will tell you how to do them -
"Peel the potatoes, and cut them. Give me one and I will show you exactly how to do it. There, you see, I have cut it into slices, as thin as possible, the thinner the better. When this is done, take the small frying-pan and half fill it with dripping, and as soon as it boils put in the slices of potato. Boil them for about five minutes, take them out with the egg slice, and serve directly on a nice hot dish, but do not cover them, as that would take away the crispness. The only thing you must take particular care about is that the fat is hot enough before you put in the potatoes, not bubbling up, but perfectly still, which is the sign of it being at boiling point. The dripping, of course, can be used again, so you must save it, and put it away in a jar."
"And what pudding will you have, miss?"
"I shall make a small rhubarb tart."
"Rhubarb! Why miss, it isn't even showing above the ground down home."
"No, of course what we get is forced; the garden rhubarb will not be ready for a long time. But the forced is not at all expensive; and will make a delicious tart with a little lemon-peel and juice under a short crust."
Margaret had taken the opportunity of Betsy's return to make one or two changes in the arrangement which for some time she had thought would be an improvement. First, as to the maid's tea and sugar. Hitherto there had been no special allowance of these items, but now it was arranged that she should have a quarter of a pound of tea and half a pound of sugar per week, to use how and when she chose, which plan proved more satisfactory to both parties. As to beer, she never took anything of the sort, and was still too unsophisticated to ask for money in place of what she never dreamt of requiring; so that Margaret was saved the twopence a day, an extortion to which so many housekeepers feel compelled to grumblingly submit. Even with Spooner she had not paid beer money, as Mrs. Trent had advised her to have a clear understanding on the subject before engaging her.
Then there was the "day out" question. Betsy's father had now come to live in the same town, and Margaret thought it only right that Betsy should have a little time with him occasionally. So it was arranged that once a month, when convenient, Betsy should have a half-day to spend with her father, besides which Margaret arranged as often as she could spare her, to send her out for a walk, frequently giving her permission to spend half an hour with a friend, on condition that she always came back punctually at the time fixed for her return, and as Betsy soon found that the repetition of these short outings depended on her keeping scrupulously within the time, she took care that there should be no complaints about unpunctuality.
A little management was necessary to arrange for the half-days out without inconvenience to the household. Betsy cleared away the dinner with the greatest expedition, and at once laid the cloth for tea. Cold meat was made to suffice at that meal on these occasion, and everything put ready in the kitchen; there was nothing for Margaret to do but make the tea and toast, and bring the eatables up into the dining-room, which, with the assistance of her brothers, was an undertaking she rather enjoyed.
After tea Margaret and her young assistants would carry down to the larder any viands which would spoil by remaining in a warm room; then the family adjourned to the drawing-room, leaving the rest of the clearing away, and the washing up, till Betsy's return; unless, which frequently happened, the young mistress had a burst of kind feeling towards Betsy, on which occasions she would remove the tea things herself, and wash them up too, that her gay handmaid might not find a great quantity of work awaiting her on her return. The only drawback was that callers were sure to choose that very day for coming to the house. Margaret was forced to open the door to them with the best grace she could. If she considered an apology necessary, she at the same time explained how matters really stood, and those whose opinion was worth having thought none the worse of her for her candour.
Amongst other preparations for Betsy's return had been the organisation of a housemaid's cupboard. Hitherto all the requisites for housemaid's work had been kept here and there in the kitchen and pantry; but it occurred to Margaret that a small cupboard under the cistern on the top floor would answer the purpose of a regular housemaid's cupboard, though it hardly deserved so imposing a name. Here were to be kept a pail, dust-pan and brush, hot-water cans, brush for cleaning water bottles, cloths, dusters; in fact, everything that was exclusively for bedroom use. As there was both hot and cold water laid on upstairs, none of these articles had to be taken downstairs, even to be washed, with the exception of the cloths which were to be returned immediately after drying.
It was a little trouble to Betsy at first to keep all the contents of her upstairs cupboard in their place, but she soon came to appreciate the increased convenience and orderliness gained by its arrangement.
It must not be supposed that our young housekeeper's mind was so taken up with domestic matters as to have no interest in pleasure and amusements.
As the Easter holidays drew near she joined with zest in her brothers' excitement, and many were the discussions as to how the week should be spent. Joanna's house boasted but one spare room, so that an exodus thither of the whole family was quite out of the question. Mr. Colville thought that, for himself, two or three days spent quietly at home would be the most refreshing form of holiday, and Margaret declared that under those circumstances she could not possibly go to her sister's, even had it been practicable in other ways.
"For you and Betsy between you would turn the house upside down without me to look after you," she cried, when her father suggested her leaving him.
Thus it was that the two boys set off in high glee, the day after breaking up, to spend a week with Joanna and her husband, whilst Margaret reconciled herself to the prospect of a quiet, very quiet, week.
As she went to her room the night after the boys' departure, she thought to herself, with a little sigh, that now she was indeed settled down into a humdrum old housewife.
"Oh dear! How dull it will be without the boys," she pondered, as she stood brushing out her long rippling hair. "I never have spent such a dull Easter as this is going to be! How different it was last year with Joanna at home, and Arthur Helier staying here, and I, a scatter-brained young ignoramus, without a thought about such horribly prosaic matters as boiling potatoes and balancing accounts. Oh! Who'd be a housekeeper! Fancy a whole week of dullness, when everybody else is merry making."
Then, feeling, repentant, she went on.
"There now, I have grumbled enough for one evening I consider, and I shall have quite enough to do to keep father from being dull when severed from the charms of business, without getting so myself; and he certainly deserves a good holiday," and throwing him am imaginary kiss, she hopped into bed, and was soon asleep.
The dreaded week passed only too quickly; Margaret had never had her father "all to herself" before, nor had she ever before thoroughly appreciated his companionship and bright clever conversation. Mr. Trent, too, must have shared Margaret's fear lest Mr. Colville should find the leisure days dull, for he came in repeatedly, and seemed to have an unfailing supply of new books and pictures for his entertainment, though, as Mr. Colville remarked privately to Margaret after one of his visits, he must have thought him interested in a strange mixture of subjects, for a large number of the books and magazines seemed much more adapted to interest a young lady than an elderly gentleman, but he supposed he bought anything the bookseller recommended without troubling to look into them.
Easter Monday was the day Margaret had most dreaded; for, as usual on Bank Holidays, the town was not agreeable, being full of holiday makers mooning about and wearing anything but a festive air, though certainly as the day wore on they become decidedly noisy.
Mr. Colville spent the day in a long walk out into the country with an old friend. Hearing of his intention, her never-failing friends, the Trents, insisted o Margaret's accompanying them to the house of a relative some miles away, which was reached by a pleasant drive through pretty country lanes along which the trees and hedges were just bursting forth into foliage, and the fields were dotted with early spring flowers.
Here, far from the haunts of men, one could go one's own way without being constantly reminded that it was Bank Holiday. After early dinner, a walk through the woods was unanimously agreed to. Under a blue sky, the air filled with the songs of birds, and the clear April sunlight, it was hard to realise that it was not already summer.
"I really think spring is the jolliest season of all the year, don't you, Miss Colville?" asked Wilfrid.
"I used to once," replied she plaintively, "but now I always associate it with that dreadful spring cleaning; however, I suppose you don't know what that means?"
"Oh, don't I? I assure you I am not so ignorant as you might suppose, for anyone who has once suffered from a spring cleaning will never forget what it means. Every article of furniture put out of its proper place and turned quite upside down wherever such a revolution is anyhow possible; meals eaten in any room but the right one, and all for no earthly reason that I can discover, for I declare when it is all over everything looks precisely the same as it did before, neither better nor worse."
"Ah, that is because gentlemen never do appreciate clean furniture and rooms; but I assure you it is the proper thing, or else why does everybody do it?"
But though Margaret expressed so decided an opinion, she was far from feeling equally sure as to its necessity, in her own mind, and determined to consult Joanna on the earliest opportunity as to the possibility of doing without the disagreeable affair.
It had been arranged that Mr. Colville should terminate his walk at Mrs. Trent's house, and, accordingly, soon after the return of that lady and her party, he arrived at the hospitable mansion, and, as Margaret said after they reached home, "Their delightful day was wound up with a still more delightful evening." Mr. Colville was in his most lively mood, and kept the whole company merry, while Margaret frequently enlivened them by some of her sweetly-sung ballads.
Seizing an opportunity when the gentlemen were deep in talk, Margaret whisperingly asked Mrs. Trent whether this alarming spring-cleaning was really necessary.
"Well, dear, not to the extent to which some people carry it. If you keep your house clean all the year, there is no need for a thorough upset in the spring, though a little extra 'doing up' of the house for the summer is certainly advisable. It is a great mistake, however, to do this until it is warm enough to leave off fires, for the dust and dirt arising from them soon sullies the purity of the most spotlessly 'cleaned' house."
"Oh, thank you; I should never have thought of fires affecting the question at all. There is one other thing I want to ask you about. You promised the other day to tell me of some variety in the way of sweets, and as fruit is still so dear, I thought you would not mind my reminding you of it."
"Have you ever tried a prune tart? No? Well I think your father would like it. You must stew the prunes till quite tender; being dry, they require a good deal of water, about a pint and a half to a pound of fruit. Let them get cold, put them in a pie-dish with the juice and a little sugar, cover with a rather thick crust, and bake it.
"The other receipt I spoke of was simply for a good but most economical plum pudding; not that it can be considered a new dish, but it is such a favourite with young people I think you will find it useful. It is this: Take of flour, suet, sugar and scraped carrots each a quarter of a pound; half a pound of potatoes boiled and mashed, and half a pound of currants. For flavouring add a little spice and essence of lemon, and boil it in a cloth for six hours."
"Why, do you know, Mrs. Trent, there is a similar recipe in Joanna's old miscellany book, but I thought it such a repulsive idea to make a pudding of vegetables."
"It is only in idea that it is repulsive. I can answer for the pudding being well received; but now, dear, try and forget your house and its puzzles. My nephew has been frowning at me for the last ten minutes for monopolising you so. If you are not too tired, give us my favourite 'Mary Morrison,' please, and you shall come and lunch with me on my 'repulsive' plum pudding to-morrow."
Thus the days passed by happily enough. Tom and Dick were heartily welcomed back home, and their first evening was merry with tales of the adventures and fun of the holidays. As the family separated for the night, Margaret said, with an arm round the neck of each sturdy boy; "Well, father, boys are a great trouble in some ways, but I should not like to be without them after all, would you?"