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   Chapter 6 CO-OPERATING.

We Girls: a Home Story By A. D. T. Whitney Characters: 23921

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


When mother first read that article in the Atlantic she had said, right off,-

"I'm sure I wish they would!"

"Would what, mother?" asked Barbara.

"Co-operate."

"O mother! I really do believe you must belong, somehow, to the Micawber family! I shouldn't wonder if one of these days, when they come into their luck, you should hear of something greatly to your advantage, from over the water. You have such faith in 'they'! I don't believe 'they' will ever do much for 'us'!"

"What is it, dear?" asked Mrs. Hobart, rousing from a little arm-chair wink, during which Mrs. Holabird had taken up the magazine.

Mrs. Hobart had come in, with her cable wool and her great ivory knitting-pins, to sit an hour, sociably.

"Co-operative housekeeping, ma'am," said Barbara.

"Oh! Yes. That is what they used to have, in old times, when we lived at home with mother. Only they didn't write articles about it. All the women in a house co-operated-to keep it; and all the neighborhood co-operated-by living exactly in the same way. Nowadays, it's co-operative shirking; isn't it?"

One never could quite tell whether Mrs. Hobart was more simple or sharp.

That was all that was said about co-operative housekeeping at the time. But Ruth remembered the conversation. So did Barbara, for a while, as appeared in something she came out with a few days after.

"I could-almost-write a little poem!" she said, suddenly, over her work. "Only that would be doing just what the rest do. Everything turns into a poem, or an article, nowadays. I wish we'd lived in the times when people did the things!"

"O Barbara! Think of all that is being done in the world!"

"I know. But the little private things. They want to turn everything into a movement. Miss Trixie says they won't have any eggs from their fowls next winter; all their chickens are roosters, and all they'll do will be to sit in a row on the fence and crow! I think the world is running pretty much to roosters."

"Is that the poem?"

"I don't know. It might come in. All I've got is the end of it. It came into my head hind side before. If it could only have a beginning and a middle put to it, it might do. It's just the wind-up, where they have to give an account, you know, and what they'll have to show for it, and the thing that really amounts, after all."

"Well, tell us."

"It's only five lines, and one rhyme. But it might be written up to. They could say all sorts of things,-one and another:-

"I wrote some little books;

I said some little says;

I preached a little preach;

I lit a little blaze;

I made things pleasant in one little place."

There was a shout at Barbara's "poem."

"I thought I might as well relieve my mind," she said, meekly. "I knew it was all there would ever be of it."

But Barbara's rhyme stayed in our heads, and got quoted in the family. She illustrated on a small scale what the "poems and articles" may sometimes do in the great world,

We remembered it that day when Ruth said, "Let's co-operate."

We talked it over,-what we could do without a girl. We had talked it over before. We had had to try it, more or less, during interregnums. But in our little house in Z--, with the dark kitchen, and with Barbara and Ruth going to school, and the washing-days, when we had to hire, it always cost more than it came to, besides making what Barb called a "heave-offering of life."

"They used to have houses built accordingly," Rosamond said, speaking of the "old times." "Grandmother's kitchen was the biggest and pleasantest room in the house."

"Couldn't we make the kitchen the pleasantest room?" suggested Ruth. "Wouldn't it be sure to be, if it was the room we all stayed in mornings, and where we had our morning work? Whatever room we do that in always is, you know. The look grows. Kitchens are horrid when girls have just gone out of them, and left the dish-towels dirty, and the dish-cloth all wabbled up in the sink, and all the tins and irons wanting to be cleaned. But if we once got up a real ladies' kitchen of our own! I can think how it might be lovely!"

"I can think how it might be jolly-nificent!" cried Barbara, relapsing into her dislocations.

"You like kitchens," said Rosamond, in a tone of quiet ill-usedness.

"Yes, I do," said Barbara. "And you like parlors, and prettinesses, and feather dusters, and little general touchings-up, that I can't have patience with. You shall take the high art, and I'll have the low realities. That's the co-operation. Families are put up assorted, and the home character comes of it. It's Bible-truth, you know; the head and the feet and the eye and the hand, and all that. Let's just see what we shall come to! People don't turn out what they're meant, who have Irish kitchens and high-style parlors, all alike. There's a great deal in being Holabirdy,-or whatever-else-you-are-y!"

"If it only weren't for that cellar-kitchen," said Mrs. Holabird.

"Mother," said Ruth, "what if we were to take this?"

We were in the dining-room.

"This nice room!"

"It is to be a ladies' kitchen, you know."

Everybody glanced around. It was nice, ever so nice. The dark stained floor, showing clean, undefaced margins,-the new, pretty drugget,-the freshly clad, broad old sofa,-the high wainscoted walls, painted in oak and walnut colors, and varnished brightly,-the ceiling faintly tinted with buff,-the buff holland shades to the windows,-the dresser-closet built out into the room on one side, with its glass upper-halves to the doors, showing our prettiest china and a gleam of silver and glass,-the two or three pretty engravings in the few spaces for them,-O, it was a great deal too nice to take for a kitchen.

But Ruth began again.

"You know, mother, before Katty came, how nice everything was down stairs. We cooked nearly a fortnight, and washed dishes, and everything; and we only had the floor scrubbed once, and there never was a slop on the stove, or a teaspoonful of anything spilled. It would be so different from a girl! It seems as if we might bring the kitchen up stairs, instead of going down into the kitchen."

"But the stove," said mother.

"I think," said Barbara, boldly, "that a cooking-stove, all polished up, is just as handsome a thing as there is in a house!"

"It is clumsy, one must own," said Mrs. Holabird, "besides being suggestive."

"So is a piano," said the determined Barbara.

"I can imagine a cooking-stove," said Rosamond, slowly.

"Well, do! That's just where your gift will come in!"

"A pretty copper tea-kettle, and a shiny tin boiler, made to order,-like an urn, or something,-with a copper faucet, and nothing else ever about, except it were that minute wanted; and all the tins and irons begun with new again, and kept clean; and little cocoanut dippers with German silver rims; and things generally contrived as they are for other kinds of rooms that ladies use; it might be like that little picnicking dower-house we read about in a novel, or like Marie Antoinette's Trianon."

"That's what it would come to, if it was part of our living, just as we come to have gold thimbles and lovely work-boxes. We should give each other Christmas and birthday presents of things; we should have as much pleasure and pride in it as in the china-closet. Why, the whole trouble is that the kitchen is the only place taste hasn't got into. Let's have an art-kitchen!"

"We might spend a little money in fitting up a few things freshly, if we are to save the waste and expense of a servant," said Mrs. Holabird.

The idea grew and developed.

"But when we have people to tea!" Rosamond said, suddenly demurring afresh.

"There's always the brown room, and the handing round," said Barbara, "for the people you can't be intimate with, and think how crowsy this will be with Aunt Trixie or Mrs. Hobart or the Goldthwaites!"

"We shall just settle down," said Rose, gloomily.

"Well, I believe in finding our place. Every little brook runs till it does that. I don't want to stand on tip-toe all my life."

"We shall always gather to us what belongs. Every little crystal does that," said mother, taking up another simile.

"What will Aunt Roderick say?" said Ruth.

"I shall keep her out of the kitchen, and tell her we couldn't manage with one girl any longer, and so we've taken three that all wanted to get a place together."

And Barbara actually did; and it was three weeks before Mrs. Roderick found out what it really meant.

We were in a hurry to have Katty go, and to begin, after we had made up our minds; and it was with the serenest composure that Mrs. Holabird received her remark that "her week would be up a-Tuesday, an' she hoped agin then we'd be shooted wid a girl."

"Yes, Katty; I am ready at any moment," was the reply; which caused the whites of Katty's eyes to appear for a second between the lids and the irids.

There had been only one applicant for the place, who had come while we had not quite irrevocably fixed our plans.

Mother swerved for a moment; she came in and told us what the girl said.

"She is not experienced; but she looks good-natured; and she is willing to come for a trial."

"They all do that," said Barbara, gravely. "I think-as Protestants-we've hired enough of them."

Mother laughed, and let the "trial" go. That was the end, I think, of our indecisions.

We got Mrs. Dunikin to come and scrub; we pulled out pots and pans, stove-polish and dish-towels, napkins and odd stockings missed from the wash; we cleared every corner, and had every box and bottle washed; then we left everything below spick and span, so that it almost tempted us to stay even there, and sent for the sheet-iron man, and had the stove taken up stairs. We only carried up such lesser movables as we knew we should want; we left all the accumulation behind; we resolved to begin life anew, and feel our way, and furnish as we went along.

Ruth brought home a lovely little spice-box as the first donation to the art-kitchen. Father bought a copper tea-kettle, and the sheet-iron man made the tin boiler. There was a wide, high, open fireplace in the dining-room; we had wondered what we should do with it in the winter. It had a soapstone mantel, with fluted pilasters, and a brown-stone hearth and jambs. Back a little, between these sloping jambs, we had a nice iron fire-board set, with an ornamental collar around the funnel-hole. The stove stood modestly sheltered, as it were, in its new position, its features softened to almost a sitting-room congruity; it did not thrust itself obtrusively forward, and force its homely association upon you; it was low, too, and its broad top looked smooth and enticing.

There was a large, light closet at the back of the room, where was set a broad, deep iron sink, and a pump came up from the cistern. This closet had double sliding doors; it could be thrown all open for busy use, or closed quite away and done with.

There were shelves here, and cupboards. Here we ranged our tins and our saucepans,-the best and newest; Rosamond would have nothing to do with the old battered ones; over them we hung our spoons and our little strainers, our egg-beaters, spatulas, and quart measures,-these last polished to the brightness of silver tankards; in one corner stood the flour-barrel, and over it was the sieve; in the cupboards were our porcelain kettles,-we bought two new ones, a little and a big,-the frying-pans, delicately smooth and nice now, outside and in, the roasting-pans, and the one iron pot, which we never meant to use when we could help it. The worst things we could have to wash were the frying and roasting pans, and these, we soon found, were not bad when you did it all over and at once every time.

Adjoining this closet was what had been the "girl's room," opening into the passage where the kitchen stairs came up, and the passage itself was fair-sized and

square, corresponding to the depth of the other divisions. Here we had a great box placed for wood, and a barrel for coal, and another for kindlings; once a week these could be replenished as required, when the man came who "chored" for us. The "girl's room" would be a spare place that we should find twenty uses for; it was nice to think of it sweet and fresh, empty and available; very nice not to be afraid to remember it was there at all.

We had a Robinson-Crusoe-like pleasure in making all these arrangements; every clean thing that we put in a spotless place upon shelf or nail was a wealth and a comfort to us. Besides, we really did not need half the lumber of a common kitchen closet; a china bowl or plate would no longer be contraband of war, and Barbara said she could stir her blanc-mange with a silver spoon without demoralizing anybody to the extent of having the ashes taken up with it.

By Friday night we had got everything to the exact and perfect starting-point; and Mrs. Dunikin went home enriched with gifts that were to her like a tin-and-wooden wedding; we felt, on our part, that we had celebrated ours by clearing them out.

The bread-box was sweet and empty; the fragments had been all daintily crumbled by Ruth, as she sat, resting and talking, when she had come in from her music-lesson; they lay heaped up like lightly fallen snow, in a broad dish, ready to be browned for chicken dressing or boiled for brewis or a pudding. Mother never has anything between loaves and crumbs when she manages; then all is nice, and keeps nice.

"Clean beginnings are beautiful," said Rosamond, looking around. "It is the middle that's horrid."

"We won't have any middles," said Ruth. "We'll keep making clean beginnings, all the way along. That is the difference between work and muss."

"If you can," said Rose, doubtfully.

I suppose that is what some people will say, after this Holabird story is printed so far. Then we just wish they could have seen mother make a pudding or get a breakfast, that is all. A lady will no more make a jumble or litter in doing such things than she would at her dressing-table. It only needs an accustomed and delicate touch.

I will tell you something of how it was, I will take that Monday morning-and Monday morning is as good, for badness, as you can take-just after we had begun.

The room was nice enough for breakfast when we left it over night. There was nothing straying about; the tea-kettle and the tin boiler were filled,-father did that just before he locked up the house; we had only to draw up the window-shades, and let the sweet light in, in the morning.

Stephen had put a basket of wood and kindlings ready for Mrs. Dunikin in the kitchen below, and the key of the lower door had been left on a beam in the woodshed, by agreement. By the time we came down stairs Mrs. Dunikin had a steaming boiler full of clothes, and had done nearly two of her five hours' work. We should hand her her breakfast on a little tray, when the time came, at the stair-head; and she would bring up her cup and plate again while we were clearing away. We should pay her twelve and a half cents an hour; she would scrub up all below, go home to dinner, and come again to-morrow for five hours' ironing. That was all there would be about Mrs. Dunikin.

Meanwhile, with a pair of gloves on, and a little plain-hemmed three-cornered, dotted-muslin cap tied over her hair with a muslin bow behind, mother had let down the ashes,-it isn't a bad thing to do with a well-contrived stove,-and set the pan, to which we had a duplicate, into the out-room, for Stephen to carry away. Then into the clean grate went a handful of shavings and pitch-pine kindlings, one or two bits of hard wood, and a sprinkle of small, shiny nut-coal. The draughts were put on, and in five minutes the coals were red. In these five minutes the stove and the mantel were dusted, the hearth brushed up, and there was neither chip nor mote to tell the tale. It was not like an Irish fire, that reaches out into the middle of the room with its volcanic margin of cinders and ashes.

Then-that Monday morning-we had brewis to make, a little buttered toast to do, and some eggs to scramble. The bright coffee-pot got its ration of fragrant, beaten paste,-the brown ground kernels mixed with an egg,-and stood waiting for its drink of boiling water. The two frying-pans came forth; one was set on with the milk for the brewis, into which, when it boiled up white and drifting, went the sweet fresh butter, and the salt, each in plentiful proportion;-"one can give one's self carte-blancher," Barbara said, "than it will do to give a girl";-and then the bread-crumbs; and the end of it was, in a white porcelain dish, a light, delicate, savory bread-porridge, to eat daintily with a fork, and be thankful for. The other pan held eggs, broken in upon bits of butter, and sprinkles of pepper and salt; this went on when the coffee-pot-which had got its drink when the milk boiled, and been puffing ever since-was ready to come off; over it stood Barbara with a tin spoon, to toss up and turn until the whole was just curdled with the heat into white and yellow flakes, not one of which was raw, nor one was dry. Then the two pans and the coffee-pot and the little bowl in which the coffee-paste had been beaten and the spoons went off into the pantry-closet, and the breakfast was ready; and only Barbara waited a moment to toast and butter the bread, while mother, in her place at table, was serving the cups. It was Ruth who had set the table, and carried off the cookery things, and folded and slid back the little pembroke, that had held them beside the stove, into its corner.

Rosamond had been busy in the brown room; that was all nice now for the day; and she came in with a little glass vase in her hand, in which was a tea-rose, that she put before mother at the edge of the white waiter-napkin; and it graced and freshened all the place; and the smell of it, and the bright September air that came in at the three cool west windows, overbore all remembrance of the cooking and reminder of the stove, from which we were seated well away, and before which stood now a square, dark green screen that Rosamond had recollected and brought down from the garret on Saturday. Barbara and her toast emerged from its shelter as innocent of behind-the-scenes as any bit of pretty play or pageant.

Barbara looked very nice this morning, in her brown-plaid Scotch gingham trimmed with white braids; she had brown slippers, also, with bows; she would not verify Rosamond's prophecy that she "would be all points," now that there was an apology for them. I think we were all more particular about our outer ladyhood than usual.

After breakfast the little pembroke was wheeled out again, and on it put a steaming pan of hot water. Ruth picked up the dishes; it was something really delicate to see her scrape them clean, with a pliant knife, as a painter might cleanse his palette,-we had, in fact, a palette-knife that we kept for this use when we washed our own dishes,-and then set them in piles and groups before mother, on the pembroke-table. Mother sat in her raised arm-chair, as she might sit making tea for company; she had her little mop, and three long, soft clean towels lay beside her; we had hemmed a new dozen, so as to have plenty from day to day, and a grand Dunikin wash at the end on the Mondays.

After the china and glass were done and put up, came forth the coffee-pot and the two pans, and had their scald, and their little scour,-a teaspoonful of sand must go to the daily cleansing of an iron utensil, in mother's hands; and that was clean work, and the iron thing never got to be "horrid," any more than a china bowl. It was only a little heavy, and it was black; but the black did not come off. It is slopping and burning and putting away with a rinse, that makes kettles and spiders untouchable. Besides, mother keeps a bottle of ammonia in the pantry, to qualify her soap and water with, when she comes to things like these. She calls it her kitchen-maid; it does wonders for any little roughness or greasiness; such soil comes off in that, and chemically disappears.

It was all dining-room work; and we were chatty over it, as if we had sat down to wind worsteds; and there was no kitchen in the house that morning.

We kept our butter and milk in the brick buttery at the foot of the kitchen stairs. These were all we had to go up and down for. Barbara set away the milk, and skimmed the cream, and brought up and scalded the yesterday's pans the first thing; and they were out in a row-flashing up saucily at the sun and giving as good as he sent-on the back platform.

She and Rosamond were up stairs, making beds and setting straight; and in an hour after breakfast the house was in its beautiful forenoon order, and there was a forenoon of three hours to come.

We had chickens for dinner that day, I remember; one always does remember what was for dinner the first day in a new house, or in new housekeeping. William, the chore-man, had killed and picked and drawn them, on Saturday; I do not mean to disguise that we avoided these last processes; we preferred a little foresight of arrangement. They were hanging in the buttery, with their hearts and livers inside them; mother does not believe in gizzards. They only wanted a little salt bath before cooking.

I should like to have had you see Mrs. Holabird tie up those chickens. They were as white and nice as her own hands; and their legs and wings were fastened down to their sides, so that they were as round and comfortable as dumplings before she had done with them; and she laid them out of her two little palms into the pan in a cunning and cosey way that gave them a relish beforehand, and sublimated the vulgar need.

We were tired of sewing and writing and reading in three hours; it was only restful change to come down and put the chickens into the oven, and set the dinner-table.

Then, in the broken hour while they were cooking, we drifted out upon the piazza, and among our plants in the shady east corner by the parlor windows, and Ruth played a little, and mother took up the Atlantic, and we felt we had a good right to the between-times when the fresh dredgings of flour were getting their brown, and after that, while the potatoes were boiling.

Barbara gave us currant-jelly; she was a stingy Barbara about that jelly, and counted her jars; and when father and Stephen came in, there was the little dinner of three covers, and a peach-pie of Saturday's making on the side-board, and the green screen up before the stove again, and the baking-pan safe in the pantry sink, with hot water and ammonia in it.

"Mother," said Barbara, "I feel as if we had got rid of a menagerie!"

"It is the girl that makes the kitchen," said Ruth.

"And then the kitchen that has to have the girl," said Mrs. Holabird.

Ruth got up and took away the dishes, and went round with the crumb-knife, and did not forget to fill the tumblers, nor to put on father's cheese.

Our talk went on, and we forgot there was any "tending."

"We didn't feel all that in the ends of our elbows," said mother in a low tone, smiling upon Ruth as she sat down beside her.

"Nor have to scrinch all up," said Stephen, quite out loud, "for fear she'd touch us!"

I'll tell you-in confidence-another of our ways at Westover; what, we did, mostly, after the last two meals, to save our afternoons and evenings and our nice dresses. We always did it with the tea-things. We just put them, neatly piled and ranged in that deep pantry sink; we poured some dipperfuls of hot water over them, and shut the cover down; and the next morning, in our gingham gowns, we did up all the dish-washing for the day.

* * *

"Who folded all those clothes?" Why, we girls, of course. But you can't be told everything in one chapter.

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