Sisterly Discourse with John's Wife Concerning John,
The Family Purse,
The Parable of the Rich Woman and the Farmer's Wife,
Little Things that are Trifles,
A Mistake on John's Part,
Must-haves and May-bes,
What Good Will It Do?
Shall I Pass It On?
"Only Her Nerves,"
The Rule of Two,
The Perfect Work of Patience,
According to His Folly,
Is Marriage Reformatory?
And Other Relations-in-Law,
A Timid Word for the Step-mother,
Children as Helpers,
Children as Burden-bearers,
Our Young Person,
Getting Along in Years,
The Gospel of Conventionalities,
Familiar, or Intimate?
Cheerfulness as a Christian Duty,
The Family Invalid,
A Temperance Talk,
A Parting Word for Boy,
Homely, But Important,
SHALL, I PASS IT ON?
"Me refrunce, mum!"
I look up, bewildered, from an essay to which I have just set the caption--"Who is my Neighbor?"
"Me carackter, mum! Me stiffticket! You'll not be sending me away without one, peticklerly as 'twas meself as give warnin'?"
She is ready for departure. Dressed in decent black for the brother "who was drownded las' summer," she stands at the back of my desk, one hand on her hip, and makes her demand. It is not a petition, but a dispassionate statement of a case that has no other side.
She has been in my kitchen for six months as my nominal servitor. She has drawn her wages punctually for that time. She "wants a change;" her month is up; she is going out of my house, out of my employ, out of my life. These things being true, Katy wants to take with her all that pertains to her. One of these belongings is her "refrunce." From her standpoint, I owe it to her as truly as I owed the sixteen dollars I have just paid her.
I engaged Katy last May from a highly responsible intelligence office. For and in consideration of a fee of three dollars, a lady-like agent, with a smooth voice and demeanor, passed over "the girl" to me as she might a brown paper parcel of moist sugar. She supplied, gratis, a personal voucher for the woman I had engaged, having known her well for five years. Katy had, moreover, a model "recommend," which she unwrapped from a bit of newspaper that had kept it clean. The chirography was the fashionable "long English;" the diction was good, and the orthography faultless. Envelope and paper had evidently come from a lady's davenport.
"This is to certify that Katherine Brady has lived in my family for eleven months as cook. I have found her industrious, sober, neat, honest and obliging. She also understands her business thoroughly. She leaves me in consequence of my removal from the city. (Mrs.) ... No ... West 57th St., New York City."
If the certificate had a fault, it was that the fit was too nearly perfect. I had heard of references written to order by venal scribes, and I consulted the city directory. Mr. ...'s office was in Wall street, his residence No ... West 57th street. I called to see him, found him in, and found him a gentleman. He had no doubt that all was right. He believed the name of their latest cook was Katherine. They called her "Katy." He knew that his wife was sorry to part with her, and inferred that she was a worthy woman.
We, too, were leaving town, but only for the summer. Katy "liked the country in hot weather. All the best fam'lies now-a-days had their country-places."
It is not an easy matter to "change help" during a summer sojourn in a cottage distant an hour and a half from town. The act involves one or more railway journeys, much running about in hot streets, and much hopeless ringing at dumb and dusty doors. This is the explanation of Katy's six months' stay in my kitchen. In town, she would have been dismissed at the end of the first week. She was a wretched cook, and a worse laundress. Within an hour after she entered my door, the decent black gown was exchanged for a dingy calico which she wore, without a collar, and minus a majority of the buttons, all day long and every day. She was "a settled girl"--owning to twenty-eight summers, and having weathered forty winters. Her hair, streaked with gray, tumbled down as persistently as Patience Riderhood's, and was uncomfortably easy of identification in ragout and muffins. Her slippers were down at heel; her kitchen was never in order; her tins were black; her pots were greasy; her range was dull; her floors unclean. Like all her compeers, she "found the place harder nor she had been give to onderstand, but was willin' to do her best, seein' she had come."
Her best was sometimes sour bread, sometimes burned biscuits, generally weak, muddy coffee, always under-seasoned vegetables and over-seasoned soup. By July 1, she developed a genius for quarreling with the other servants that got up a domestic hurricane, and I told her she must leave. She promptly burst into tears, and reminded me that I "had engaged her for the sayson, an' what would a pore girl be doin' in the empty city in the middle of the summer?
"An' whativer they may say o' me ways down-stairs, it's the timper of a babby I have, an' would niver throw a harrd wurrd at a dog, let alone a human. Whin they think me cross, it's only that I'm a bit quoiet, an' who can wonder? thinkin' o' me pore brother as was drownded las' summer, an' him niver out o' me moind!"
I weakly allowed her to stay upon promise of good and peaceable behavior, and tried to make the best of her, as she had of the place.
One September day, just when the physician, called in to see a dear young guest, had expressed his fear that she was sickening for a serious illness, Katy gave warning. "Her feelin's would not allow her to stay in a house where there was sickness. It always reminded her of her pore, dear brother what was drownded las' summer, an' a sick pairson made a quare lot o' extra work, even when it was considered in the wages. She'd be lavin' that day week, her month bein' up then."
Happily, the threatening of illness was a false alarm, but Katy is going. The city is filling up, and many "best families" must re-open their town-houses in time for the school terms. She looks as happy at the prospect of a return to area-gossip and Sunday flirtation as I feel at getting rid of her. I have made with her a farewell round of pantries, refrigerator, and cellar. Valuable articles are missing--notably two solid silver tablespoons and a dozen fine napkins. At the back of the barn a pile of brushwood masks a Monte Testaccio of china and cut-glass. Dirt is in every corner; glass-towels have been degraded into dish and floor-cloths; saucepans are burned into holes; tops are lacking to pots and pails.
For all this there is no redress. When I made a stand upon the "case of spoons," as being old family silver, the housemaid declared that Katy had used them often to stir soup and porridge, and Katy retorted with gusts of brine and brogue that she "wouldn't be accountable for things that didn't belong to her business."
Altogether, my amiable willingness that she should take her leave without shaking more dust from her feet upon an already burdened household, had become impatient desire by the time I counted out her wages. Yet, here she stands, grim as the sphinx, fixed as Fate, with the inexorable requisition, "Me refrunce, mum!"
"What could I say of you Katy?" I ask, miserably.
"What any leddy whatsomever, as is a leddy, would say! What lots o' other leddies, as leddylike as enny leddy could wish to be, ridin' in their coaches an' livin' in houses tin times 's big as this, leddies as had none but leddylike ways, has said!" is the tautological response. "I've served yez, fair an' faithful, for six mont's, and it stan's to rayson as I wouldn't 'a' been let to stay that long onder yer ruff if so be I hadn't shuited yez."
She has me there, and she knows it. Inwardly, I retract some of the hard things I have thought and said of Mrs. ... of No ... West Fifty-seventh street. Having let the creature abide under her roof for eleven months, she must justify herself for the act. She meant to leave town, as I mean to go back to town, and, like me, truckled weakly to expediency. Nevertheless, her weakness did me a real wrong.
Shall I pass it on?
This is the moral question I would sift from what my readers may regard as trivial and commonplace details. The fact that my experience is so common as to seem trite, is the most startling feature in the case. Our American domestic service is a loosely woven web, full of snarls and knots. It is time that the great national principle that government must depend upon the consent of the governed, should be studied and applied to the matter in hand. We, the wage-payers, are the governed, and without our consent. The recent attempt to enforce this retroverted law upon a grand scale, in calling a mighty railway corporation to account for the discharge of a dozen or so out of several thousand employes, is no stronger proof of this curious reversal of positions than the demand of my whilom cook that I should set my hand to a lie.
I caught her once in a falsehood so flagrant that I commended the rule of truth-speaking to her moral sense, and asked how she reconciled the sin with her knowledge of what was right.
Her answer was ready: "Oh, there's no sin in a lie that doesn't hurt yer neighbor!"
Judged even by this easygoing principle, I should sin in penning the reference without which Katy intimates that she will not withdraw her foot from my house. She looms before me,--vulgar, determined, irrational and ignorant,--the impersonation of the System under which we cringe and groan.
"What would you do?" I ask a friend, who is a successful housewife.
She shrugs her shoulders.
"Oh, swim with the tide! Not to give the certificate will be equivalent to boycotting yourself. The news of your contumacy will spread like prairie fires. You will be baited and banned beyond endurance."
"But--my duty to my neighbor?"
"Thanks to the prevailing rule in these affairs, your neighbor knows how little a written reference is worth. She will satisfy the proprieties by reading it, and form her own opinion of the girl. When Katy has worn out her saucepans and patience, your successor in misfortune will give her clean papers to the next place. It is a sort of endless chain of suffering. Then, there is the humane side of the question. A recommendation of some sort is a form most housewives insist upon. You may be taking the bread out of a 'girl's' mouth by denying her a scrap of paper."
Nevertheless, I shall not give Katy a reference. I have said to her in plain but temperate terms:
"You are a poor cook. You are wasteful, dirty, ill-tempered and impertinent. You have been a grievous trial and a money loss to me. I am willing to write this down, together with the statement that you are sober, strong and quick to learn, and that you would probably work well under a stricter mistress than I have time to be."
She has informed me in intemperate terms, that "it is aisy to see you are no leddy, an' fer the matter o' that, no Christian, ayther, or you'd not put sech an insult on to an honest, harrd-wurkin' girrl as has her livin' to git."
She pronounces furthermore, that she "was niver so put upon an' put about in all her life afore as since into this house she come;" that she "will have the law o' me for refusing her her rights." Finally, and most intemperately, that "the Lord will dale with me for grindin' the face of a pore, defenceless young cre'tur' as has had such a pile o' throuble already. If her pore, dear brother what was drownded las' summer was alive, I wouldn't dare trate her so cruel."
I stand fast, between breaths, to my resolution. I relate the true history of the transaction to enforce my appeal to my fellow housekeepers, all over the land, to join hands in a measure which would, I am persuaded, go far toward rectifying a crooked system.
Let each housekeeper, in dismissing a servant, write out without prejudice for or against the late employée, her claims to the confidence of the next employer, and her faults,--in short, a veritable "character." Let her pledge herself to her sister-housekeepers and to her conscience, not to receive into her family one who cannot produce satisfactory testimonials of her fitness for the place she seeks.
In England, a mistress who engages a maid without such credentials is regarded as recreant to her order. In England, too, the former mistress is held partly responsible for the mischief done, if she turn loose upon other households a woman like Katherine Brady.
The proposed remedy for a crying and a growing evil is so simple that some may doubt its practical efficacy. Yet the most casual thinker must see the strength as well as the simplicity of a plan which would make skill and fidelity in service the only road to success. Self-interest, if nothing else, would stimulate our Katies and Bridgets, our Dinahs and our Gretchens, to keep a place, if it were not so wickedly easy to "make a change." Our kitchens are overrun and ravaged by Arabs that become, every year, more despotic.
"Who would be free, herself must strike the blow." General liberty from this bondage can only be achieved by determined and united effort. The establishment in every community of a simple organization under the name of The Housekeepers' Protective Union, that should have but one article in its constitution, and that one be the pledge I have indicated, would cover the whole ground, and effect within a year, permanent reform. Shall not this appeal be the Alexander to cut the Gordian knot which has, thus far, defied the dexterity and strength of all who have wrestled with the problem?
Who will send me news of the formation of the first Chapter of the H.P.U.?