English Literature

A Christmas Story by Samuel W. Francis

A Christmas Story by Samuel W. Francis.jpg

PART I.

A WOMAN’S PLAN.

‘My dear Mary,’ said I, one morning, to my widowed sister, as she sank into an arm chair in front of my library fire, and heaved a sigh replete with exhaustion and sadness:

‘What is the matter?’

‘Enough for a woman, William, but of course, nothing for an old bachelor like you, who have only to pay your own bills, eat your meals without the trouble of ordering them; lounge through a clean house with no chasing after servants to sweep and wash and dust; sit in your study, heaping log after log on your devoted andirons, and always meeting me with such a provoking cheerfulness, while I have not a moment to myself; am all the time running to give out stores to one girl; soap and starch to another; candles and linen to the chambermaid, and orders to the coachman; and, even then, I have no peace; for, no sooner do I sit in the nursery, hoping to derive a few minutes comfort from a quiet sew, than my ears are filled with the dissatisfaction of one girl; the complaints of another; the threatenings to leave of another, and the quarrels of all. I declare, William, I think it was too bad in you to insist on our leaving that comfortable boarding house, where we lived so much cheaper, and had no trouble. It was there, with my small family, that I appreciated the freedom from care that you old selfish, unsympathizing bachelors enjoy; and no wonder you laugh at us. The fact is, you don’t know anything about it; you ——’

‘My dear Mary,’ I repeated, ‘you have said enough—I only ask for a few minutes to put this matter in a new light, and, in time, you yourself will be convinced.’

‘That’s all very well, William, but what’s the use of talking to you men. I never convinced one in my life. No sir! man is an animal that never acknowledges either that he is wrong, or that a woman is right. I tell you, servants are the bane of my existence. You cannot make them happy, do what you may. Why, only the other day I gave Jane a nice pair of gaiters that I had but partially worn out. She thanked me, and I felt pleased that I had done one kind action, though it was a self-denial. The very next morning, in coming out of the kitchen, I passed the ash barrel, and looked in it to see if the cinders would ever be sifted. What do you suppose I saw there, mixed up with lemon peel, tea leaves and ashes? My boots, William—the very pair I had given Jane the day before.’

‘Well what did you do?’

‘Do? Why as soon as I could recover I called her to me, and asked why she had[Pg 2] thrown them there.’ She said without any excitement, that was the worst of it, ‘I couldn’t wear them Madam.’

‘Why not?’ I said.

‘They were too large for me.’

‘Too large for her, the jade—think of that’—

‘Don’t say any more, Mary, I understand the case perfectly—and since we cannot argue upon the matter just listen to my views (without any interruption), in the form of a philosophical lecture. It will be very brief but to the point.

‘Though I have never kept house, as I am an old man I must have lived somewhere all my life. Being possessed of a healthy and observing intellect—I have seen and digested much; and it is all easy to my mind. I have heard you through as I have heard others through; I have seen your sufferings and your trials, as I have seen many, very many suffer and endure trials, and I have solved the problem and told it all to my segar!’

‘Well now that is selfish, William!’

‘Not at all my dear sister, what lady would tolerate the slightest interference with her housekeeping? How long would you permit me to stay here, in financial partnership, if I even offered one word of advice.’

‘Oh, how unjust, speak out now and let me hear what you have confided to your segar.’

‘Well, in the first place, there are two kinds of ways to keep house. No. one is to keep your servants; No. two is to be kept by them. Herein is the key note of much trouble. Another difficulty is fear. I have been perfectly amazed to listen to ladies when asking a waiter to do something for them. Just think of it. I heard Mrs. ——, at table the other day, turn round and look towards a red headed, uplifted girl, with a conciliatory smile and say, ‘Betty, would you mind giving me a glass of water?’

‘Zounds madam, I wanted to scream!—and only last night, while paying a visit I heard a lady who rules her elegant husband to within an inch of his life, say to the waiter, ‘John, please put on your things and muffle up well, for it is very cold and do take this note to Mrs. Henry’s’ and, almost with the same breath, she turned on her husband and said, ‘Albert, go down and get that medicine at once for you know I cannot retire till I take it—you can see your friend any time,’ looking at me in a hard manner and then at the clock. ‘Now what do you call that? That woman has courage to meet her equals and put all things straight; but a menial crushes her.’

‘Well, of course you don’t understand those things, William, but I do.’

‘I suppose so, but I don’t want to. It is all wrong—all humbug, all trash!’ I exclaimed as my excitement knocked the ashes of my segar over my clean shirt.

‘What would you have us do?’ exclaimed Mary, a little nettled at my last remark.

‘Do?’ I replied, with emphasis; ‘let the men keep house. Watch them, and learn the true method, which has for its motto,

“Maximum of work,
Minimum of trouble.”‘

By this time I began to feel anxious.—My sister had gone off into a fit of laughter[Pg 3] that at first greatly roused my ire, but ultimately awakened anxiety, for she could not gain her breath. I rang for a servant; of course none came, for she always had to call them. ‘They were having such a good time down stairs, they could not hear the bell,’ so I poured out a glass of water, and, while she drank, seized the poker; stirred up the dying embers; put on a good back log; lit a large and strong Cabana to lend zest to my courage, and prepared to make one more effort for victory.

Gradually subsiding into a few occasional chromatic giggles, Mary looked through her beautiful eyes, glistening with tears of fun, and said, in a smothered whisper,

‘Well, and what would you do?’

‘Do?’ I repeated. ‘Let me have the reins for one month, and I will show you.’

There! it was out, and I felt relieved.

‘But, William,’ she whispered, pointing with anxiety to the door which stood ajar, ‘how long do you suppose they would stay with you?’

‘Until they got married or died!’ I answered with confidence, and, sitting bolt upright, I ran both thumbs under my waistcoat arm-holes and played on my chest with my fingers, while I puffed tremendously to envelope my countenance with smoke, the better to hide my ill-concealed smile.

‘You single men are too amusing, my dear brother,’ said she, looking earnestly into my face and patting my shoulder with an expression of pity. ‘To convince you that woman’s mission is the care of domestic matters; and, as I would like a little rest combined with fun, I will turn over everything to you, and——’

‘Done!’ I yelled with delight, and jumping up, I paced up and down the library like a prisoner freed from chains.—’Done! Oh! I thank you, Mary.’

‘Stop, young man,’ she said, with assumed severity, ‘hear the conditions of the bond.’

‘Write it down,’ I said, in haste, ‘and so long as I am to have the reins I will sign.’

‘Well, sir,’ said she, entering with her old accustomed gaiety into the subject matter. ‘I agree to let you keep house on the following conditions:’ naming a good many, which I listened to with marked interest, and finally condensed into the form of a written contract, though no lawyer; for fear, as I told her, she would violate the premises. As well as I can remember, for it was many years ago—it ran as follows:

‘This agreement made this 24th November, 1853, between Mary Walters of the city, county and state of New York, being party of the first part, and William d’Aubrey of the said city, county and state of New York, party of the second part, witnesseth as follows: Said party of the first part agrees, covenants and binds herself, heirs and assinines—I mean assigns—to surrender, demise and make over all claim, right and title to housekeeping, and all matters pertaining to the welfare of household economy, whether trivial or special, to the party of the second part; moreover delivering up all accounts, keys and inventory of stores now on hand, and all claim, right or title to the management of each and every person living, or about to live in premises known as ‘Villa Felice,’ [Pg 4]situated at the outskirts of the city of —— in the State of ——, for the period of three months. Now, in consideration of this obligation on the party of the first part, the party of the second part covenants, agrees and binds himself, his heirs and assinines—I mean assigns—to act conscientiously for the benefit of all the inhabitants of said ‘Villa Felice,’ whether male or female;—and moreover pledges himself never by word or deed to consult, ask questions of, molest by interrogated words, or lead on by indirect remarks, the party of the first part; to impart, give over or yield up, any information on or concerning the subject or principle of housekeeping—(this last clause my sister insisted on in a most impressive manner—so I added the following,) and it is distinctly understood, comprehended by, and agreed to between both parties, that the party of the first part interferes with, molests, makes the subject of remark, indirectly or directly, impugns or maligns, the party of the second party in the pursuit of lawful proceedings neither by appeal, nor by entreaty, nor by satire, irony, libel, gossip, hinted evidence or such other expressions of mental feeling which are unseemly and tend to weaken man’s power or involve in confusion a settled purpose. Said agreement to take effect at once on the signing of this contract,’ made in duplicate.

Signed, sealed and delivered the afore-written day, month and year, in the presence of

Witness,
MARY WALTERS, [seal.]
WILLIAM D’AUBREY, [seal.]


We both signed, and then remembered a witness was necessary. ‘I will call Thomas,’ said Mary. ‘He won’t know what we have written.’ I bowed with a legal stiffness, and waited. She rang—no response.

She rang again. A loud laughter in the kitchen caused her to say, as usual, ‘Oh! they cannot hear the bell,’ and she tripped off lightly and called ‘Susan! Susan! Susan!‘ ‘and but the booming roars replied and fast the talk rolled on.’ ‘Susan,’ said she, gently, over the bannisters.

‘Susan is out, marm,’ said a granite voice from the second story.

‘Don’t speak so loud, marm. Johnny has just gone to sleep, and I’ve had such trouble with him all the evening; he must have caught cold going to dancing school. You know, marm I begged you not to send him.

‘Mrs. Phillips,’ whispered Mary, in a crushed voice, ‘where has Susan gone?’

‘She went to her sister’s, marm. Her child is very ill with the small pox, and she said she knew, if you knew he might die, that you would let her go and sit up with him this last night, poor, dear soul, bless his heart!’

Oh, how I chuckled!

‘Why, Mrs. Phillips, just come down stairs, please; I want to speak to you.—Come into the library, only Mr. D’Aubrey is here.’

(Humph! Only Mr. D’Aubrey!—’Oh, for to-morrow!’)

Enter Mrs. Phillips, one of those fat, pylygastric nurses, who divide the twenty-four hours into four days, so as to have three meals to each of their diurnal revolutions; whose digestive organs, if they could speak, would strike for wages; whose eyes move but never look; their atmosphere[Pg 5]—what Germans might call expression—being that of massive rest.

She slides into the room and immediately sits down, moving her eyes up to her mistress with a patient and slightly suffering expression, while the process of deglutition is slowly going on.

I seize a book, pamphlet, anything, hold it in front of my face, and bite my segar in two.

‘Did I understand you to say, Mrs. Phillips, that Susan had gone to sit up with a small pox patient?’

‘Her nephew, yes marm.’

‘Oh, how very wrong in her—how—’

‘I don’t think so, marm.’

I ground my teeth.

‘Why Mrs. Phillips?’

‘The boy marm, may not be yours, but it is her kin and she ought to know her duty to a sister’s child.’

‘Yes, but she might bring the disease to my little children! she’—’That’s in the hands of Providence, marm.’

I ram a handkerchief down my mouth and choke—

‘Well, as it is not your fault I need not speak to you—but please be so kind as to call Thomas, I only want him for a moment.’ The celebrated Mrs. Phillips heaved a sigh, pregnant with bread, butter, cold meat and ale; and slid out of the room, crunching her way down stairs. I peeped at my sister—she looked pale and very anxiously perplexed, I pinched myself and kept silent. In a few minutes a voice was heard singing up the back stairs and—enter Sabina spread out with starch and heavily pomaded hair. ‘Mrs. Phillips sent me to tell you marm that she had to make her gruel and the fire was low—and that Thomas had gone home.’

‘Why, what time is it, Sabina?’

Eight o’clock,’ I enunciate distinctly. For one moment Mary’s eyes lit up with something like heroism, but before she could frame a sentence, the playful want of interest exhibited by Sabina, who leaned against the mantel-piece, straightening her cuffs, did the business, and she collapsed.

‘Please tell Thomas, when he comes to-morrow, Sabina, I would rather not have him go home quite as early, because you see,’ (oh how I mentally groaned at this humiliating nonsense,) ‘I might want him. You won’t forget, will you, Sabina?’

‘No, marm. Is there anything else?’ Having now made herself prim, and taken a quiet survey of the library and viewed me carefully, she was now desirous of retiring.

‘One moment, Sabina,’ said Mary, beginning to realize her false position before me, ‘Who is down stairs?’

‘Well, I couldn’t tell you, marm.’

‘Why not?’

‘There are so many.’

‘How, do you mean so many?’

‘Why, marm, it’s the cook’s birthday; and she thought you would’nt mind her having a few friends, so she invited her cousins,’ (looking at me as though she would ask, ‘what have you got to say to that, Mr. Man?’)

‘Well, Sabina,’ said Mary, coloring up in confusion, ‘just sign your name to this—it is only as a witness.’

‘I cannot write, marm,’ answered dandy Amazon, very short at being exposed.[Pg 6]

‘Then send Elizabeth here.’

‘She is out too, marm.’

‘What? Elizabeth has gone out?’

‘Yes marm, you see,’ (becoming confidential,) ‘the cook and her has quarrelled like—she neglected to ask her to her little party till late this evening, and so she got huffy and put on her things and dashed out of the house,’ (at this time I had either an attack of the ague or was laughing so hard internally that it leaked through.)

‘Is Dinah in?’

‘Yes marm.’

‘Ask her, please, to come here.’

Sabina tripped off with a satisfied air, and five—ten—fifteen minutes elapsed and no Ellen. I took out my memorandum and quickly wrote down a few valuable plans on the coming campaign. The clock struck half past eight, and my sister opened the entry door and listened—the kitchen door soon shut and somebody came up stairs slowly, with a waiter full of something.

‘Is that you, Dinah?’

‘Yes marm.’

‘Why didn’t you come before?’

‘I don’t know, mum.’

‘Didn’t Sabina tell you I wanted you?’

‘No, mum. She told me you wanted to know how many were down stairs, and I counted seventeen.’

‘Take care Dinah, you’re spilling that milk!’

‘I can’t help it, this pitcher leaks.’

‘Where’s the children’s bowl?’

‘I don’t know, mum—I think it’s broke.’

‘Broken! Why, I bought a new one yesterday.’

”Tain’t my fault.’

Hopelessly resigned, my sister Mary politely requested her to put down the waiter, and explained the nature of a witness’s duty. We acknowledged our signatures and Dinah wrote out her name in a neat hand, then picked up the waiter and walked out of the room with the air of an injured innocent.

I jumped up, kissed my sister, informed her that for the next three months she was to be a passive observer, asked her to retire, locked up the contract, and gave the bell one pull that brought half the household to the door.

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