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   Chapter 16 HOUSE-CLEANING.

Trials and Confessions of a Housekeeper By T. S. Arthur Characters: 22281

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


I LIKE a clean house. So does Mr. Smith, and so do all men, if they would acknowledge it. At any rate, when their dwellings seem a little dingy or dusty-a very thin coat of dinginess or dust over the whole, producing a decidedly bad effect-I say when their dwellings appear to them out of order-though ever so little-we are sure to find it out. The dull look of the house appears to be communicated to the countenance of the master thereof. I confess that I have often been half inclined to wax and cork my husband's visage, or at least to whisk over it with the duster, and see if that experiment would not restore its sunny look.

But though men like clean houses, they do not like house-cleaning. They have certain absurd notions which they would wish to carry out; such, for instance, as that constant-quiet, preventive care, or frequent topical applications, carefully applied, would gradually renovate the whole interior. But who wishes to be cleaning all the time? Who wishes to be always dusting? Indeed, at the best, we are constantly with broom, brush, or besom in hand; but the men will not perceive it, and we receive no credit for our tidiness. What is to be done, then? Evidently there is nothing better than a "demonstration," as the politicians say-a demonstration that may be felt; a mass-meeting of brooms, buckets, brushes, paint-pots, white-wash pails, chairs overturned, tubs, coal-skuttles, dust-pans, char-women, and all other possible disagreeables, all at once summoned, and each as much as possible in others' way. In this there is some satisfaction. It looks like business. It seems as if you were doing something. It raises the value of the operation, and demonstrates its usefulness and necessity; for if there is little difference apparent between the house before cleaning and after, there is a world of odds between a house-cleaning and a house cleaned. There is a perfect delight in seeing what order can be brought out of chaos, even though you are obliged to make the chaos first, to produce the effect.

I had inflicted several of these impressive lessons upon Mr. Smith. He had become so much horrified at their confusion, that I do believe he had fully reconciled himself to dust and dirt, as the better alternative. They were, to be sure, at some little cost of comfort to myself, and reflectively produced discomfort for him; for he traced, with a correctness which I could easier frown at than deny, many a week's indisposition to my house-cleaning phrenzy. And when a man's wife is sick, if, he is a man of feeling, he is unhappy. And if he is a man of selfishness, he is wretched, too; for what becomes of husband's little comforts, when wife is not able to procure or direct them? So Mr. Smith,-for the better reason, I believe-pure compassion-declared, long ago, against wholesale house-cleaning. And he has so often interfered in my proceedings with his provoking prophecy, "Now, you know, my dear, it will make you sick," that I have striven many a time to hide pain under a forced smile, when it seemed as if "my head was like to rend."

Now, a woman can carry her point in the house by stubborn daring, but "the better part of valor is discretion," and I have learned quietly to take my way, and steal a march upon him;-open the flood-gate-set the chimneys smoking-up with the carpets-throw the beds out of the windows-pack the best china in the middle of the floor distributing pokers and fire-shovels among it-unhang the pictures-set all the doors ajar-roll the children in dust-cover my head with a soiled night-cap-put on slip-shod shoes-and streak my ancles with dust and dirty water. Then, if he pops in opportunely, I can say, with Shakspeare-amended:

I am in slops,

Stept in so far, that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

And, then, husband has no choice but to retreat to a chop-house, and leave me to finish.

But the chance for a grand saturnalia is best when Mr. Smith goes from home for a day or two. Then I can deny myself to visitors-take full license-set the hydrant running, and puzzle the water commissioners with an extra consumption of Schuylkill. My last exploit in this way was rather disastrous; and I am patiently waiting for its memory to pass away, before I venture even to think of repeating it. Mr. Smith had business in New York-imperative business, he said,-but I do believe it might have waited, had not Jenny Lind's first appearance taken place just then. This by the way. He went, and I was rejoiced to improve the opportunity, for it occurred precisely as I was devising some method to get myself so fairly committed to soap and brushes, that objection or interdict would be too late.

Never did I pack his carpet-bag with more secret satisfaction than on that morning. He was entirely unsuspicious of my intention-though he might have divined it but for having a secret of his own, for Kitty's water-heating operations spoiled the breakfast. There was more than a taste of "overdone" to the steak, and the whole affair, even to me, was intolerable-me, who had the pleasures of house-cleaning in perspective to console me. The door was scarce shut behind him, when I entered into the business con amore. It was resolved to begin at the very attic and sweep, scrub, and wash down. Old boxes and trunks were dragged out of their places, and piles of forgotten dust swept out. The passengers in the street had a narrow chance for their beavers and fall bonnets, for every front window had an extra plashing. Mr. Smith had several times urged me to permit him to introduce some Yankee fashion which he highly recommends for having "professional window-cleaners," with their whiting and brushes, who could go through the house with half the trouble, and none of the litter. There's nothing like water.

The first day's work sufficed to put the house into thorough confusion, and I retired to bed-but not to rest, for my fatigue was too great to sleep in comfort. My neglected child rested as ill as myself,-and when I rose the next morning, it was with the oppressive weight of a weary day before me. I had the consciousness that the work must be completed before my husband's return; and he had engaged to be with me at dinner. I felt it an imperative duty to welcome him with a cheerful house, and a pleasant repast after his journey; but as the time of his arrival drew near, I was more and more convinced of the impossibility. Like a drove of wild beasts forced into a corner by a hunting party, we forced our unmanageable matters to a crisis. The area for old brooms and brushes, tubs, litter, and slops, was at last narrowed down to the kitchen, and all that remained of our house-cleaning was to put that place into something like the semblance of an apartment devoted to culinary purposes. Dinner, as yet, was unthought of-but the house was clean!

Wearied rather than refreshed by my night of unrest, my arms sore, and my limbs heavy, I labored with double zeal to get up an excitement, which should carry me through the remainder of the day. My head began to feel sensations of giddiness-for I had hardly eaten since my husband left. Of the pleasures of house-cleaning, I had at length a surfeit; when a ring, which I knew among all others, surprised me. I looked at the clock. It was past four, and the kitchen still in confusion, and the hearth cold.

I sank in a chair-in a swoon from sheer exhaustion. When I awoke to consciousness, an overturned pale of water was being absorbed by my clothing, my nose was rejecting with violent aversion the pungency of a bottle of prime Durham mustard, to which Kitty had applied as the best substitute for salts which the kitchen afforded; and my husband, carpet-bag and cane in hand, was pushing his way toward me with more haste than good speed, as the obstacles witnessed, which he encountered and overturned.

I was confined to my room a week-which I could not conceal from Mr. Smith. But he does not even yet know the whole amount of the breakage, and, thank fortune, he is too much of a man to ask. I am only afraid that he will succeed in forcing me to admit, that what he calls his classical proposition is true; that to clean a house does not require the feat of a Hercules, to wit: turning a river through it.

This is my story of house-cleaning, and it is in no very high degree flattering to my housekeeping vanity. Perhaps the thing might be managed differently. But I don't know. Out of chaos, order comes. While on this subject, it will be all in place to introduce another house-cleaning story, which I find floating about in the newspapers. It presents the matter from another point of view, and was written, it will be seen, by a man:

Talk of a washing day! What is that to a whole week of washing-days? No, even this gives no true idea of that worst of domestic afflictions a poor man can suffer-house-cleaning. The washing is confined to the kitchen or wash-house, and the effect visible in the dining-room is in cold or badly cooked meals; with a few other matters not necessary to mention here. But in the house-cleaning-oh, dear! Like the dove from the ark, a man finds no place where he can rest the sole of his foot. Twice a year, regularly, have I to pass through this trying ordeal, willy-nilly, as it is said, in some strange language. To rebel is useless. To grumble of no avail. Up come the carpets, topsyturvy goes the furniture, and swash! goes the water from garret to cellar. I don't know how other men act on these occasions, but I find discretion the better part of valor, and submission the wisest expedient.

Usually it happens that my good wife works herself half to death-loses the even balance of her mind-and, in consequence, makes herself and all around her unhappy. To indulge in an unamiable temper is by no means a common thing for Mrs. Sunderland, and this makes its occurrence on these occasions so much the harder to bear. Our last house-cleaning took place in the fall. I have been going to write a faithful history of what was said, done, and suffered on the occasion ever since, and now put my design into execution, even at the risk of having my head combed with a three-legged stool by my excellent wife, who, when she sees this in print, will be taken, in nautical phrase, all aback. But, when a history of our own shortcomings, mishaps, mistakes, and misadventures will do others good, I am for giving the history and pocketing the odium, if there be such a thing as odium attached to revelations of human weakness and error.

"We must clean house this week," said my good wife one morning as we sat at the breakfast-table-"every thing is in a dreadful condition. I can't look at nor touch any thing without feeling my flesh creep."

I turned my eyes, involuntarily, around the room. I was not, before, aware of the filthy state in which we were living. But not having so good "an eye for dirt" as Mrs. Sunderland, I was not able, even after having my attention called to the fact, to see "the dreadful condition" of things. I said nothing, however, for I never like to interfere in my

wife's department. I assume it as a fact that she knows her own business better than I do.

Our domestic establishment consisted at this time of a cook, chamber maid, and waiter. This was an ample force, my wife considered, for all purposes of house-cleaning, and had so announced to the individuals concerned some days before she mentioned the matter incidentally to me. We had experienced, in common with others, our own troubles with servants, but were now excellently well off in this respect. Things had gone on for months with scarcely a jar. This was a pleasant feature in affairs, and one upon which we often congratulated ourselves.

When I came home at dinner-time, on the day the anticipated house-cleaning had been mentioned to me, I found my wife with a long face.

"Are you not well?" I asked.

"I'm well enough," Mrs. Sunderland answered, "but I'm out of all patience with Ann and Hannah."

"What is the matter with them?" I asked, in surprise.

"They are both going at the end of this week."

"Indeed! How comes that? I thought they were very well satisfied."

"So they were, all along, until the time for house-cleaning approached. It is too bad!"

"That's it-is it?"

"Yes. And I feel out of all patience about it. It shows such a want of principle."

"Is John going too?" I asked.

"Dear knows! I expect so. He's been as sulky as he could be all the morning-in fact, ever since I told him that he must begin taking up the carpets to-morrow and shake them."

"Do you think Ann and Hannah will really go?" I asked.

"Of course they will. I have received formal notice to supply their places by the end of this week, which I must do, somehow or other."

The next day was Thursday, and, notwithstanding both cook and chamber maid had given notice that they were going on Saturday, my wife had the whole house knocked into pi, as the printers say, determined to get all she could out of them.

When I made my appearance at dinner-time, I found all in precious confusion, and my wife heated and worried excessively. Nothing was going on right. She had undertaken to get the dinner, in order that Ann and Hannah might proceed uninterruptedly in the work of house-cleaning; but as Ann and Hannah had given notice to quit in order to escape this very house-cleaning, they were in no humor to put things ahead. In consequence, they had "poked about and done nothing," to use Mrs. Sunderland's own language; at which she was no little incensed.

When evening came, I found things worse. My wife had set her whole force to work upon our chamber, early in the day, in order to have it finished as quickly as possible, that it might be in a sleeping condition by night-dry and well aired. But, instead of this, Ann and Hannah had "dilly-dallied" the whole day over cleaning the paint, and now the floor was not even washed up. My poor wife was a sad way about it; and I am sure that I felt uncomfortable enough. Afraid to sleep in a damp chamber, we put two sofas together in the parlor, and passed the night there.

The morning rose cloudily enough. I understood matters clearly. If Mrs. Sunderland had hired a couple of women for two or three days to do the cleaning, and got a man to shake the carpets, nothing would have been heard about the sulkiness of John, or the notice to quit of cook and chamber maid. Putting upon them the task of house-cleaning was considered an imposition, and they were not disposed to stand it.

"I shall not be home to dinner to-day," I said, as I rose from the breakfast table. "As you are all in so much confusion, and you have to do the cooking, I prefer getting something to eat down town."

"Very well," said Mrs. Sunderland-"so much the better."

I left the house a few minutes afterwards, glad to get away. Every thing was confusion, and every face under a cloud.

"How are you getting along?" I asked, on coming home at night.

"Humph! Not getting along at all!" replied Mrs. Sunderland, in a fretful tone. "In two days, the girls might have thoroughly cleaned the house from top to bottom, and what do you think they have done? Nothing at all!"

"Nothing at all! They must have done something."

"Well, next to nothing, then. They havn't finished the front and back chambers. And what is worse, Ann has gone away sick, and Hannah is in bed with a real or pretended sick-headache."

"Oh, dear!" I ejaculated, involuntarily.

"Now, a'nt things in a pretty way?"

"I think they are," I replied, and then asked, "what are you going to do?"

"I have sent John for old Jane, who helped us to clean house last spring. But, as likely as not, she's at work somewhere."

Such was in fact the case, for John came in a moment after with that consoling report.

"Go and see Nancy, then," my wife said, sharply, to John, as if he were to blame for Jane's being at work.

John turned away slowly and went on his errand, evidently in not the most amiable mood in the world. It was soon ascertained that Nancy couldn't come.

"Why can't she come?" enquired my wife.

"She says she's doing some sewing for herself, and can't go out this week," replied John.

"Go and tell her that she must come. That my house is upside down, and both the girls are sick."

But Nancy was in no mood to comply. John brought back another negative.

"Go and say to her, John, that I will not take no for an answer: that she must come. I will give her a dollar a day."

This liberal offer of a dollar a day was effective. Nancy came and went, to work on the next morning. Of course, Ann did not come back; and as it was Hannah's last day, she felt privileged to have more headache than was consistent with cleaning paint or scrubbing floors. The work went on, therefore, very slowly.

Saturday night found us without cook or chamber-maid, and with only two rooms in order in the whole house, viz. our chambers on the second story. By great persuasion, Nancy was induced to stay during Sunday and cook for us.

An advertisement in the newspaper on Monday morning, brought us a couple of raw Irish girls, who were taken as better than nobody at all. With these new recruits, Mrs. Sunderland set about getting "things to right." Nancy plodded on, so well pleased with her wages, that she continued to get the work of one day lengthened out into two, and so managed to get a week's job.

For the whole of another precious week we were in confusion.

"How do your new girls get along?" I asked of my wife, upon whose face I had not seen a smile for ten days.

"Don't name them, Mr. Sunderland! They're not worth the powder it would take to shoot them. Lazy, ignorant, dirty, good-for-nothing creatures. I wouldn't give them house-room."

"I'm sorry to learn that. What will you do?" I said.

"Dear knows! I was so well suited in Ann and Hannah, and, to think that they should have served me so! I wouldn't have believed it of them. But they are all as destitute of feeling and principle as they can be. And John continues as sulky as a bear. He pretended to shake the carpets but you might get a wheelbarrow-load of dirt out of them. I told him so, and the impudent follow replied that he didn't know any thing about shaking carpets; and that it wasn't the waiter's place, any how."

"He did?"

"Yes, he did. I was on the eve of ordering him to leave the house."

"I'll save you that trouble," I said, a little warmly.

"Don't say any thing to him, if you please, Mr. Sunderland," returned my wife. "There couldn't be a better man about the house than he is, for all ordinary purposes. If we should lose him, we shall never get another half so good. I wish I'd hired a man to shake the carpets at once; they would have been much better done, and I should have had John's cheerful assistance about the house, which would have been a great deal."

That evening I overheard, accidentally, a conversation between John and the new girls, which threw some light upon the whole matter.

"John," said one of them, "what made Mrs. Sunderland's cook and chamber maid go aff and lave her right in the middle of house-clainin'?"

"Because Mrs. Sunderland, instead of hiring a woman, as every lady does, tried to put it all off upon them."

"Indade! and was that it?"

"Yes, it was. They never thought of leaving until they found they were to be imposed upon; and, to save fifty cents or a dollar, she made me shake the carpets. I never did such a thing in my life before. I think I managed to leave about as much dirt in as I shook out. But I'll leave the house before I do it again."

"So would I, John. It was downright mane imposition, so it was. Set a waiter to shaking carpets!"

"I don't think much has been saved," remarked the waiter, "for Nancy has had a dollar a day ever since she has been here."

"Indade!"

"Yes; and besides that, Mrs. Sunderland has had to work like a dog herself. All this might have been saved, if she had hired a couple of women at sixty-two and a half cents a day for two or three days, and paid for having the carpets shaken; that's the way other people do. The house would have been set to rights in three or four days, and every thing going on like clockwork."

"I heard no more. I wanted to hear no more; it was all as clear as day to me. When I related to Mrs. Sunderland what John had said, she was, at first, quite indignant. But the reasonableness of the thing soon became so apparent that she could not but acknowledge that she had acted very unwisely.

"This is another specimen of your saving at the spigot," I said, playfully.

"There, Mr. Sunderland! not a word more, if you please, of that," she returned, her cheek more flushed than usual. "It is my duty, as your wife, to dispense with prudence in your household; and if, in seeking to do so, I have run a little into extremes, I think it ill becomes you to ridicule or censure me. Dear knows! I have not sought my own ease or comfort in the matter."

"My dear, good wife," I quickly said, in a soothing voice, "I have neither meant to ridicule nor censure you-nothing was farther from my thoughts."

"You shall certainly have no cause to complain of me on this score again," she said, still a little warmly. "When next we clean house, I will take care that it shall be done by extra help altogether."

"Do, so by all means, Mrs. Sunderland. Let there be, if possible, two paint-cleaners and scrubbers in every room, that the work may all be done in a day instead of a week. Take my word for it, the cost will be less; or, if double, I will cheerfully pay it for the sake of seeing 'order from chaos rise' more quickly than is wont under the ordinary system of doing things."

My wife did not just like this speech, I could see, but she bit her lips and kept silent.

In a week we were without a cook again; and months passed before we were in any thing like domestic comfort. At last my wife was fortunate enough to get Ann and Hannah back again, and then the old pleasant order of things was restored. I rather think that we shall have a different state of things at next house-cleaning time. I certainly hope so.

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