This month, quietly putting up with it when other people ruin your mantelpiece, preserving gooseberries, and when the help want to have their boyfriend over for tea.
"Oh dear me, what a heap of mending!" sighed Margaret, one Monday morning, as she raised the already partially open lid of her stocking basket. "The basket actually will not shut – it's so full! And what big holes! However is it that boys' socks always wear so much worse than anyone else's?"
Taking out the top pair, and unrolling them, Margaret held them at arm's length in dismay. Such yawning chasms of holes, and so many of them, it would be but labour lost to attempt to mend. She remembered that very pair of socks, a week or two previously, as having looked decidedly thin in several places, but having no actual holes in them they had been rolled up and put in Tom's drawer, ready for wear. And this was the result; and as she reluctantly put the mutilated socks aside for kitchen use, remembering experiences, she learned anew the old but invaluable lesson about "a stitch in time." Never again would she leave thin places to come into these awkward, even unmendable holes, but, by taking them betimes, save herself endless labour, expense and time.
The stocking basket, well stocked with needles, yarn, scissors and socks was kept handily in a work cupboard, whence it could be lifted out whenever there was a little time to spare.
Margaret found she could not afford to waste even the odd five minutes which come to the busiest people sometimes. The two brothers would rush home from school, perhaps with some long tale of the morning's exploits to narrate, or Mr Colville, before starting in the morning, liked to read extracts from the paper, commenting thereon; and Margaret, not from want of interest in either, could not help but feeling fidgety at letting the precious moments slip away when there was so much waiting to be done. So she would quietly take some piece of mending from the cupboard and go on with it the while, or, failing mending, she kept always a piece of knitting in hand – a sock for her father, or stocking for herself – which c be readily taken up and laid down again.
Thus she soon got into the way of almost mechanically taking up her work in these odd minutes. But when she felt she could spare time for a real rest, she did rest – no work then, but snugly nestled in the recess of the largest and easiest of easy chairs, she would give herself up to the enjoyment of a favourite author or poet.
For it must be confessed that this young damsel was not by nature fond of work. It is probable that, had her lines fallen in different circumstances, her time and energies would have been chiefly devoted to music, reading, and so on, without a thought anent household affairs or the conservation of leisure moments. So she may be excused for banishing even her knitting, when, on very rare occasions, she gave herself to "luxuriating."
But to return to Margaret as she sits examining her pile of mending. Her thoughts are not solely fixed on the task, for they will wander prosaically to the larder which is at present bare, and, moreover, must speedily be filled, or else dinner will be late. The problem still often proved a puzzling one, particularly on Monday, when it was advisable to have a joint that could be eaten cold next day, because Tuesday was washing day.
Washing day was not a very imposing matter in the Colville household, because nothing was washed at home save the kitchen cloths, dusters, and so on, and Betsy's clothes, excepting her cotton dresses. Monday was sometimes a cold-meat day, and then a nice savoury hash or stew formed the Tuesday's dinner, as it could be gently simmering by the fire whilst the washing was going on. But Betsy would have felt aggrieved at being expected to cook anything more elaborate than a stew on this great day, and hence the problem.
"Let me see! Last time we had hot meat on Monday – it was roast beef; and the time before I think it was roast mutton, and before that I've no doubt beef again. Oh, I have it! We will dine off boiled mutton with the usual trimmings, a la Mr Weller, and that will give an opportunity for telling Betsy the rules for boiling meat, which I've long suspected she is slightly 'mixed' about."
The next few minutes were spent in instilling into the mind of the domestic the fact that if you want to extract the goodness of the meat – for beef-tea, for instance – put it on the fire in cold water, because the act of boiling draws out the juices of the meat. But if it is desired to keep the strength and grave in the meat, let the water boil first and then put it in, as otherwise it cannot but be tasteless and poor, because all the goodness has been drawn out into the water.
"And you must, of course, keep the liquor the mutton was boiled in, Betsy," went on Margaret, "and on Wednesday we will use it for oyster soup. You have the recipe?"
"Yes, miss, but will you be so kind as to read it out to me, I can seem to take in the meaning better when you read it up."
"But you will have forgotten it all by Wednesday. However, if so, you must ask for it again. You require a tin of oysters, the tinned ones will do as well as the fresh for this occasion. Three pints of white stock, not quite half a pint of milk, one and a half ounces of butter, one ounce or rather more of flour, and salt, mace and pepper. First, take the oysters from the tin and put them in your soup tureen; then take a pint of stock and simmer it with the liquor from the oysters for half-an-hour; strain it and add the rest of the stock, with the seasoning. Boil it, add the butter and flour for thickening, let it simmer for a minute or two, stir in the boiling milk, and pour all over the oysters. There, that is very simple, and now I must go out and order the leg of mutton."
" But please, miss, about the upstairs fires, as it's come so warm lately and you generally lets the fires out in the morning, I was thinking whether I need light them any more for the present."
"Well, you need not do so to-morrow, and we will see whether anyone feels chilly. If we decide to leave them off altogether in the drawing-room you must thoroughly clean and blacken the grate, take away those bars and put in the bright ones."
"Yes, miss, and beautifully bright they are; I just give them a bit of a rub with a cloth, and they look just like new, through being put away covered with a thick paste of sweet oil and unslaked lime: there's nothing like it for keeping off rust on brights."
"That is all right. Do not forget to fasten down the register. The dining-room grate can be left as it is, because you know we like a fire occasionally even on a summer's evening, but that register must of course be closed too. Only I hope you will not forget to raise it when we have an occasional fire again."
This idea of keeping the fire laid all the summer through was Mr Colville's, who failed to see why one should sit chilly and comfortless on a cold evening simply because it was the month of July and August.
"Of course, it ought to be warm, I grant you," he would argue, "but it is cold, so by all means let us have a fire."
There was no difficulty about this, as Margaret had worked a pretty pair of curtains in crewels for the fireplace, which effectually concealed all traces of coal and stick. When the fire was to be lighted the curtains were simply looped back by their bands, the register raised, and the grate was ready for the application of the match.
Apropos of grates, Margaret's calmness had been put to a severe test on the night of Dick's birthday party. Wilfrid Trent came to preside in Mr Colville's absence and Margaret retreated from the noisy scene after tea, but returned to be present at the promised conjuring tricks. The room after a time becoming warm, a window was slightly opened, and the draught blew directly on to the mantelpiece, causing the candles to flicker, and presently to begin to drip grease down upon the marble.
The conjuror stood immediately in front of the fireplace, and Margaret did not like to interrupt the performance by getting up to remove the candles, so she had to just sit and watch, with growing anxiety, the likewise growing heaps of wax.
Her precious marble mantel! It was very handsome, fine, and white; the one thing in the house in which she felt a pride. Every day, with her own hands, she rubbed it tenderly, using a soft cloth only, rightly judging the application of soap and water would be prejudicial. And now to have to sit and calmly watch the slow, steady trickle of grease was indeed anguish.
"Never mind," she said to herself, "I must smother my feelings till this is over, then I will rush for Joanna's book and seek a remedy whilst the company is having its lemonade and cake in the dining-room before going home."
This she did, and luckily found there an excellent and simple way of removing grease spots from marble. Carefully detaching with a knife as much as she could without scratching the surface of the mantel, she applied some finely-powdered magnesia, to be left all night, and then, with an easier mind, rejoined the merry party in the next room.
The following morning, on wiping off the magnesia, the grease marks had disappeared, and a 2d application was not necessary.
The Colvilles' house was an old one, and though it consequently could not boast of modern improvements, such as heated linen rooms, yet it possessed one advantage rarely met with in a new house ,namely, a fairly large garden.
It was not a remarkably productive garden, but that was, perhaps, because there was so little attention given to its culture. The lawns were kept closely shaven and the paths neat and trim, but beyond that the old-fashioned rose-bushes still blossomed on (or not, as the case might be), free from the rivalry of standards; the lilacs, all untrimmed, grew into perfect bowers, whilst honeysuckles and clematis climbed and wandered about in a delicious tangle, just as their own sweet wills led them.
One corner of the garden was dignified by the name of orchard, though all that remained to merit the title was one gnarled old apple-tree, hoary with age and long past bearing. But here were a number of fine hardy gooseberry and currant bushes, which some enterprising tenant had planted, and in spite of the neglect of the present very unagricultural family, the bushes were laden with fruit, year after year, with unabating plenty.
Tom and Dick would commence their onslaught on the crop whilst the fruit was still in the condition of small green bullets, and indigestible beyond words to describe, and continued it as long as there was a berry left, but still there was abundance left for pies and puddings and preserving.
This year Margaret resolved to be content with bottling a quantity for winter use, instead of preserving any, for it must be confessed that she felt a little timid of trying her 'prentice hand on preserves. Following what she took to be the traditional family recipe for gooseberries in the miscellany book, she selected the fruit when fully grown but before it was ripe. They were gathered on a dry sunny day, and with the "heads and tails" cut off, they were placed in wide-mouthed bottles, which had to be perfectly dry inside. These, well corked, were put to stand up to the neck in a pan of cold water on the fire, which was allowed to come to a boil very gradually till the fruit looked scalded or "coddled," to use an old-fashioned phrase. The bottles were then taken out and the necks dipped into the following cement for keeping out all air: - Put two pounds of resin, with two ounces of tallow (that from a dip candle will do) into an earthen vessel; melt over a slow fire till well mixed, colour with a little stone blue or yellow ochre, and let it cool till it is only just liquid.
"The currants require rather more care in gathering, so as not to bruise the fruit, and their treatment afterwards is somewhat different. To every pound of fruit, half a pound of sugar is allowed, pulverised and dried by the fire. They are boiled with the sugar for a minute, then when cold put into bottles with a little sweet oil on the top. A piece of bladder and a little sheet lead are good coverings for excluding air, and finally, the bottles are put away in a cool, dry cupboard, and their contents subsequently testify to the excellence of the way of preserving, for they taste like fresh fruit.
It was during the gathering of this fruit that Betsy confided to her mistress a very agitating and interesting piece of news. It seemed that during her sojourn "down home," Betsy's pleasant face and manner, and her devoted attention to her sick mother, had quite won the heart of a rising young baker, in fact, so devoted was he that, not being actually discouraged in his suit, he had left his native village and taken a situation as foreman in a thriving establishment not far off, ostensibly to better himself, but also, as Betsy could not but surmise, with the idea of renewing his proposals.
"And now," continued the damsel, hiding as best she could amongst the friendly gooseberry bushes, her face always rosey, at this agitating moment absolutely carmine, "now the young man was pressing for a decided answer, and a letter had come that very morning urging for it in eloquent terms."
"But you don't mean that – he doesn't want you to marry him directly, surely?" asked Margaret, lost in amazement and perplexity.
"Oh, dear heart, no, miss," replied the damsel, unable to refrain from a smile at her mistress's simplicity, "'tis only to keep company, as the saying is; and I thought as father hasn't no objections, and if you hadn't no objections, and he's a very steady young man and getting on well in his trade too –"
"Your father knows him, then?"
"Oh, yes, miss, from a child, I might say, and me too. We was at school together, and was always friendly like."
"Well, Betsy, it would not be right for me to hinder you in a matter like this, so long as your father is content, and I feel sure he would not allow you to have anything to do with one who was not very steady and good and nice."
"No, miss, certainly not, nor I wouldn't wish to. Should you have any objections to me seeing him now and then, miss?"
It was Margaret's turn to smile now, for the idea of not being allowed to see one's betrothed even now and again struck her as droll. She was on the point of saying he could come as often as he liked, but, on second thoughts, prudently replied, "Of course I wish to do what is best for you, so I will think it over, and let you know what can be arranged."
Margaret's "thinking about it" meant, as usual, "ask Mrs Trent or Joanna about it," for this was indeed a new experience for her. She knew, poor child, that a whole day's thought would bring her no light on such a subject, and though she felt much interested in the affair (as what girl of eighteen would not?) she wished she had not to give an opinion on it.
As soon as possible she set out for Mrs Trent's, timing her visit so that Wilfrid would be certainly safe at his business.
After hearing the state of the case, Mrs Trent congratulated Margaret on Betsy's having made so good a choice, for she had heard the young man spoken of in high terms by his employer.
"As to his coming to see Betsy, it has always seemed hard to me that while Miss Belinda in the parlour may have her beaux, Betsy Jane in the kitchen is not permitted to have a 'follower!' One wishes to be kind and considerate in such cases, but too frequent visits are not satisfactory; it unsettles the girl, as she is in a constant state of expecting him to come, and it may tempt the young man to waste the time when he ought to be at work. Now, I advise you to give him permission to come every other Sunday afternoon, have tea with Betsy, and go to church with her in the evening. On the intervening Sunday she will see him no doubt at church, but he should not come into the house on any other occasion, save by very special permission."
"Oh, Mrs Trent, only once a fortnight! Why, if she is very, very fond of him, she will want to see him every single day! I'm certain I should," Margaret exclaimed, blushing and laughing.
"Ah1 Well, we cannot have everything we want, love; supposing he lived very far away, once a fortnight would seem delightfully often. But you had better propose that to Betsy, and I feel sure she will be well content, and he too. Now, dear, I will give you that recipe for the marking ink with which my linen was marked when I was married thirty years ago, and, see, it is as black and clear as if it were freshly written. Here it is. Take two drachms of powdered gum arabic, one scruple of sap green, and one drachm two scruples of nitrate of silver; dissolve these in an ounce of distilled water. That is the ink; but before using it, it is necessary to prepare the linen with a mordaunt, made by dissolving one ounce of carbonate of soda in half a pint of water. Moisten the place to be marked with this mordaunt, and when dry proceed as with ordinary marking ink, finally holding the newly written letters to the fire for a minute."
"Many thanks, Mrs Trent, dear, I have been so troubled with bad marking inks: some of them wash out directly, and others, still worse, eat away the linen into large holes. If this is a little more trouble to use I'm sure it will be well worth it, for the names on your linen, done so long ago, are far clearer and better coloured than any I can get now."
"Yes, I think you will be pleased. In looking over my old papers, searching for that recipe, I came across this one – it is a delicious conserve, made of rose-leaves – which I have never seen or heard mentioned since I was a child, and used to have a spoonful for dessert on Sundays as a great treat. Yes, you may well open your eyes, but after all it is not a very different thing from drinking the infusion of tea-leaves. This is the recipe:- Take red-rose petals, remove the white part at the bottom of each, sift them through a sieve, to remove seeds and other particles. Weigh them, and allow three times their weight of the best loaf-sugar. Boil the leaves till they are tender, reckoning about a pint of water to the same measure of petals. Then add the sugar and boil, stirring all the time till the syrup is nearly all taken up. Then put away in little jars, covering as for preserves."
"I shall like to try that as soon as our roses are in perfection; it is such a pretty recipe, and it is so poetic actually to eat a conserve of rose-leaves.
"Then I saved two simple custard recipes for you. They are such an improvement with rather sour early fruit, which will be soon coming on now. Here is one of them: - Take a pint of milk, add two large eggs, both whites and yolks, and a little nutmeg. Beat these together for five minutes, and pour into a saucepan. Stir over a clear fire till the mixture thickens. Put into a jug a little drop of almond flavouring, or vanilla (half a teaspoonful is ample), strain the custard into the jug, strain it once more, and serve cold. The other recipe is equally simple and economical. For it you must boil a pint of new milk, with a little lemon-peel, two bay-leaves, and sugar to taste. Meanwhile, rub down smooth a dessert-spoonful of rice-flour into a cup of cold milk, and mix with it the well-beaten yolks of two eggs. Take a basin of the hot milk and mix with the cold, then pour that into the saucepan of boiling milk again, stirring it one way till it thickens and is on the point of boiling. Next pour it out into a jug or other vessel, stir it for some time, adding a tablespoonful of peach-water, and any flavouring you please."
"Those certainly sound very simple. I have never been very successful with custards when I have tried the more complicated recipes, but surely I cannot go wrong with such clear and easy directions as these. How lovely that bouquet of lilac is! Surely they are not the same clusters that I saw here more than a week ago?"
"Yes, indeed, they are the same, and they are as sweet as ever, are they not? It is because there was a little charcoal put in the water in which they stand. There is nothing like it for keeping flowers fresh."
"Well, I hope Betsy will not think me very hard-hearted about her interviews with the young man," said Margaret, as she rose to take leave.
"She will be unreasonable if she does; but you need not fear it. I hope you will meet with no worse treatment from the powers that be when your own time comes."