Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Station Amusements

Chapter XIII. Amateur Servants

page break

Chapter XIII. Amateur Servants.

I flattered myself on a certain occasion that I had made some very artful arrangements to provide the family with something to eat during the servants’ absence. I had been lamenting the week of experiments in food which would be sure to ensue so soon as the dray should leave, in the hearing of a gallant young ex-dragoon, who had come out to New Zealand to try and see if one could gratify tastes, requiring, say a thousand a year to provide for, on an income of £120. He was just finding out that it was quite as difficult to manage this in the Southern as in the Northern Hemisphere, but his hearty cheery manner, and enormous stock of hope, kept him up for some time.

“I’ll come and cook for you,” he cried. “I can cook like a bird. But I can’t wash up. No, no: page 205 it burns too much. If you can get somebody to wash up, I’ll cook. And just look here: it would be very nice if we could have some music after dinner. You’ve got a piano, haven’t you? That’s right. Well, now, don’t you ask that pretty Miss A——, who has just come out from England, to come and stop with you, and then we could have some music?”

“Where did you learn to cook?” I inquired, suspiciously; for F—— had also assured me he could cook, and this had upset my confidence.

“On the west coast; to be sure! Ask Vere, and Williams and Taylor, and everybody, if they ever tasted such pies as I used to make them.” My countenance must have still looked rather doubtful, because I well remember sundry verbal testimonials of capability being produced; and as I was still very ignorant of the rudiments of the science of cookery, I shrank from assuming the whole responsibility of the family meals. So the household was arranged in this way:—Captain George, head cook; Mr. U——, scullery-maid; Miss A——, housemaid; myself, lady-superintendent; Mr. Forsyth (a young naval officer), butler. On the principle of giving honour to whom honour is due, this gallant lieutenant deserves special mention for the way he cleaned glass. He did not pay much attention to his silver, page 206 but his glass would have passed muster at a club. The only drawback was the immense time he took over each glass, and the way he followed either Miss A—— or me all about the house, holding a tumbler in one hand, and a long, clean glass-cloth in the other, calling upon us to admire the polish of the crystal. To clean two tumblers would be a good day’s work for him. From Monday to Saturday (when the dray returned), this state of things went on. Of course I had taken the precaution of having a good supply of bread made beforehand, besides cakes and biscuits, tarts and pies; everything to save trouble. But it was not of much use, for, alleging that they were working so hard, the young men, F—— at their head, though I was always telling him he was married and ought to know better, set to work and ate up everything immediately, as completely as if they had been locusts. And then, they were all so dreadfully wild and unmanageable! Mine was by far the hardest task of all, the keeping them in any sort of order. For instance, Captain George declared one day, that if there was one thing he did better than another, it was to make jam. Consequently a fatigue party was ordered out to gather strawberries, and, after more than half had been eaten on the way to the house, a stewpan was filled. I had to do most of page 207 the skimming, as Captain George wanted to practice a duet with Miss A——. I may as well mention here that we never had any opportunity of seeing how the jam kept, because the smell pervaded the whole house to such an extent, that, declaring they felt like schoolboys again, the gentlemen fell on my half dozen pots of preserves in a body, carried them off, and ate them all up then and there, announcing afterwards, there had just been a pot a-piece.

It was really a dreadful time, although we got well cooked plats, for Captain George wasted quite as much as he used. The pigs fed sumptuously that week on his failures, in sauces, minces; puddings, and what not. He had insisted on our making him a paper cap and a linen apron, or rather a dozen linen aprons, for he was perpetually blackening his apron and casting it aside. Then, he used suddenly to cease to take any interest in his occupation, and, seating himself sideways on the kitchen dresser, begin to whistle through a whole opera, or repeat pages of poetry. I tried the experiment of banishing Miss A—— from the kitchen during cooking hours, but a few bars played on the piano were quite enough to distract my cook from his work. My only quiet time was the afternoon, when about four o’clock, my amateur servants all went out for a ride, and left me in peace for a couple of hours. page 208 I had enough to do during that short time to tidy up; to collect the scattered books and music, and prepare the tea-supper, for which they came back in tearing spirits, and frantically hungry, between seven and eight o’clock. After this meal had been cleared away, and Mr. U—— and I had washed up (the others declaring they were too tired to stir), we all used to adjourn to the verandah. It happened to be an exceptionally still week, no dry, hot nor’-westers, nor cold, wet sou’-westers, and it was perfectly delicious to sit out in the verandah and rest, after the labours of the day, in our cane easy-chairs. The balmy air was so soft and fresh, and the intense silence all around so profound. Unfortunately there was a full moon. I say “unfortunately,” because the flood of pale light suggested to these dreadful young men the feasibility of having what they called a “servant’s ball.” In vain I declared that the housekeeper was never expected to dance. “Oh, yes!” laughed Captain George. “I’ve often danced with a housekeeper, and very jolly it was too. Come along! F——, make her dance.” And I was forced to gallopade up and down that verandah till I felt half dead with fatigue. The boards had a tremendous spring, and the verandah (built by F——, by the way), was very wide and roomy, so it made an excellent ball-room. As for page 209 the trifling difficulty about music, that was supplied by Captain George and Mr. U—— whistling in turn, time being kept by clapping the top and bottom of my silver butter dish together, cymbal-wise. Oh, dear! It takes my breath away now even to think of those evenings! I see Alice A—— flitting about in her white dress and fern-leaf wreath, dancing like the slender sylph she really was, but never can I forget the odd effect of the gentlemen’s feet! No one had their dress boots up at the station, and as Alice and I firmly declined to dance with anybody who wore “Cookham” boots (great heavy things with nails in the soles), they had no other course open to them except to wear their smart slippers. There were slippers of purple velvet, embroidered with gold; others of blue kid, delicately traced in crimson lines; foxes heads stared at us in startling perspective from a scarlet ground; or black jim-crow figures disported themselves on orange tent-stitch. Then these slippers were all more or less of an easy fit, and had a way of flying out on the lawn suddenly, startling my dear dog Nettle out of his first sleep.

Ah, well! that may be an absurd bit of one’s life to look back upon, but its days were bright and innocent enough. Health was so perfect that the mere sensation of being alive became happiness, and all the page 210 noise of the eager, bustling, pushing world, seemed shut away by those steep hills which folded our quiet valley in their green arms. People have often said to me since, “Surely you would not like to have lived there for ever?” Perhaps not. I can only say that three years of that calm, idyllic life, held no weary hour for me, and I am quite sure that quiet time was a great blessing to me in many ways. First of all, in health, for a person must be in a very bad way indeed for New Zealand air not to do them a world of good; next, in teaching me, amid a great deal of fun and laughter, sundry useful accomplishments, not easily learned in our luxurious civilization; and, lastly, those few years of seclusion from the turmoil of life brought leisure to think out one’s own thoughts, and to sift them from other peoples’ ideas. Under such circumstances, it is hard if “the unregarded river of our life,” as Matthew Arnold so finely call it be not perceived, for one then

— Becomes aware of his life’s flow
And bears its winding murmur, and be sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze;
And there arrives a lull in the hot race,
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.

One good effect of my sufferings with a house full of unruly volunteers, was that during the brief stay page 211 (only two months), of my next cook, I set to work assiduously to learn as many kitchen mysteries as she could teach me, and so became independent of Captain George or F——, or any other amateur, good, bad, or indifferent.

Nothing could be more extraordinary than the way in which the two affectionate sisters, mentioned [earlier] and who succeeded Euphemia and Lois, quarrelled. They were very unlike each other in appearance, and one fruitful source of bickering arose from their respective styles of beauty. Not only did they wrangle and rave at each other all the day long, during every moment of their spare time, but after they had gone to bed, we could hear them quite plainly calling out to each other from their different rooms. If I begged them to be quiet, there might be silence for a moment, but it would shortly be broken by Maria, calling out, “I say, Dinah, don’t you go for to wear green, my girl. I only tell you friendly, but you’re a deal too yellow for that. It suits me, ’cause I’m so fresh and rosy, but you never will have my ’plexion, not if you live to be eighty. Good night. I thought I’d just mention it while I remembered.” This used to aggravate Dinah dreadfully, and she would retaliate by repeating some complimentary speech of Old Ben’s, or Long Tom’s, the page 212 stockman, and then there would be no peace for an hour.

Their successors were Clarissa and Eunice. Eunice wept sore for a whole month, over her sweeping and cleaning. To this day I have not the dimmest idea why. She gave me warning, amid floods of tears, directly she arrived, though I could not make out any other tangible complaint than that “the dray had jolted as never was;” and to Clarissa, I gave warning the first day I came into the kitchen.

She received me seated on the kitchen table, swinging her legs, which did not nearly touch the floor. She had carefully arranged her position so as to turn her back towards me, and she went on picking her teeth with a hair-pin. I stood aghast at this specimen of colonial manners, which was the more astonishing as I knew the girl had lived in the service of a gentleman’s family in the North of England for some time before she sailed.

“Dear me, Clarissa,” I cried, “is that the way you behaved at Colonel St. John’s?”

Clarissa looked at me very coolly over her shoulder (I must mention she was a very pretty girl, blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked, but with such a temper!) and, giving her plump shoulders a little shrug, said, “No, in course not: they was gentlefolks, they was.”

page 213

I confess I felt rather nettled at this, and yet it was difficult to be angry with a girl who looked like a grown up and very pretty baby. I restrained my feelings and said, “Well, I should like you to behave here as you did there. Suppose you get off the table and come and look what we can find in the store room.”

“I have looked round,” she declared: “there ’aint much to be seen.” My patience began to run short, and I said very firmly, “You must get off the table directly, Clarissa, and stand and speak properly; or I shall send you down to Christchurch again.” I suppose that was exactly what the damsel wished, for she made no movement; whereat I said in great wrath, “Very well, then you shall leave at the end of a month.” And so she did, having bullied everybody out of their lives during that time.

Whilst we are on the subject of manners, it may not be out of place to relate a little episode of my early days “up country.” I think I have alluded 2 to our book club; but I don’t know that it has been explained that I used to change the books on Sunday afternoon, after our little evening service. It would have been impossible to induce page 214 the men to come from an immense distance twice a week, and it was therefore necessary that they should be able to get a fresh book after service. Nothing could have been better than the behaviour of my little congregation: they made it a point of giving no trouble whatever with their horses or dogs, and they were so afraid of being supposed to come for what they could get, that I had some difficulty in inducing those who travelled from a distance to have a cup of tea in the kitchen before they mounted, to set off on their long solitary ride homewards. They were also exceedingly quiet and well-behaved; for if even a dozen men or more were standing outside in fine weather, or waiting within the kitchen if it were wet or windy, not a sound could be heard. If they spoke to each other, it was in the lowest whisper, and they would no more have thought of lighting their pipes anywhere near the house than they would of flying.

This innate tact and true gentlemanly feeling which struck me so much in the labouring man as he appears in New Zealand, made the lapse of good manners, to which I am coming, all the more remarkable. Of course they never touched their hats to me: they would make me a bow or take their hats off, but they never touched them. I have often seen a hand raised in- page 215 voluntarily to the soft felt hat, which every one wears there, but the mechanical action would be arrested by the recollection of the first article of the old colonial creed, “Jack is as good as his master.” I never minded this in the least, and got so completely out of the habit of expecting any salutations, that it seemed quite odd to me to receive them again on my return. No, what I objected to was, that when I used to go into my kitchen, about ten minutes or so after the service had been concluded, with the list of club books in my hand, not a single man rose from his seat. They seemed to make it a point to sit down somewhere; on a table or window seat if all the chairs were occupied, but at all events not to be found standing. They would bend their heads and blush, and glance shyly at each other for encouragement as I came in, but no one got up, or took his hat off. This went on for a few weeks, until I felt sure that this curious behaviour did not spring from forgetfulness, or inattention. When I mentioned my grievance in the drawing-room to the gentlemen, I only got laughed at for my pains, and I was asked what else I expected? To this question used to be added sundry anecdotes of earlier colonial life, intended to reconcile me to the manners of these later days. I remember particularly a legend of a man cook, who page 216 was said to have walked into the sitting-room of the station where the master was practising tunes on an accordion, and exclaimed, “Now, look here, boss, if you don’t leave off that there noise, which perwents me gettin’ a wink o’ sleep, I’ll clear out o’ this, sharp, to-morrow mornin’. So now yer know,” and with that remark he returned to his bunk.

At last I was goaded to declare I felt sure that the men only behaved in that way from crass ignorance, and that if they knew how much my feelings were hurt, they would alter their manners directly. This opinion was received with such incredulity that I felt roused to declare I should try the experiment next Sunday afternoon. The only warning which at all daunted me was the assurance that I should affront my congregation and scare them away. It was the dread of this which made my heart beat so fast, and my hands turn so cold as I opened the kitchen-door the next Sunday afternoon. There were exactly the same attitudes, every body perfectly civil and respectful, but every body seated. Luckily my courage rose at the right moment, and I came forward as usual with a smile, and said, “Look here, my men, there is one little thing I want to ask you. Do you know that it is not the custom anywhere, in any civilized country, for gentlemen to remain seated page 217 and covered when a lady comes into the room? If I were to go into a room in England, where the Prince of Wales, or any of the finest gentlemen of the land were sitting, just as you are now, they would all get up, the Prince first, most likely, and they would certainly take off their hats! Now why can’t you all do the same, here?”

The effect of my little speech was magical. Pepper glanced at McQuhair, Moffatt crimsoned and nudged McKenzie, Wiry Ben slipped off the window-seat and shyed his hat across the kitchen, whilst Long Tom, the bullock-driver, “thanked me kindly for mentioning of it;” and every body got up directly and took their hats off. I felt immensely proud of my success, and hastened the moment of my return to the drawing room, where I announced my triumph. I repeated my little speech as concisely as possible; but, alas, it was not nearly so well received as it had been in the kitchen! “Have you ever gone to see a London club?” one person inquired. “Ah: I thought not! I don’t know about the Prince, because he always does do the prettiest things at the right moment, but I doubt very much about all the others. I fear you have made a very wild assertion to get your own way.” I need hardly say I sulked at that incredulous individual for many days but he always stuck firmly page 218 to his own opinion. However, my men never required another hint. They came just as regularly as usual to church, and we all lived happily ever after.

I feel that my chapter should end here; but any record of my New Zealand servants would be incomplete without mention of my “bearded cook.” Every body thinks, when I say this, that I am going to tell them about a man, but it is nothing of the sort. Isabella Lyon, in spite of her pronounced beard, was a very fine woman; exceedingly good-humoured looking and fresh-coloured, with most amiable prepossessing manners. She had not long arrived, and had been at once snapped up for an hotel, but she applied for my place, saying she wished for quiet and a country life. Could any thing be more propitious? I thought, like Lois, that my luck, so long in turning, was improving, and that at last I was to have a cook who knew her business. And so she did, thoroughly and delightfully. For one brief fortnight we lived on dainties. Never could I have believed that such a variety of dishes could have been produced out of mutton. In fact we seemed to have everything at table except the staple dish. Unlike the cook who actually sent me in a roast shoulder of mutton for breakfast one morning, Isabella prided herself on eliminating the monotonous animal from her bills of page 219 fare. Certainly she was rather heavy on the sauces, etc., and I was trying to pluck up courage to remonstrate, as it would not be easy or cheap to replace them before a certain time of year. And then she was so clean, so smiling, and so good-tempered. She seemed to treat us all as if we were a parcel of children for whom she was never weary of preparing surprises. As for me, I felt miserable if any shepherd or well-to-do handsome young bachelor cockatoo came near the place, dreading lest the wretch should have designs on my cook’s heart and hand. I rejoiced in her beard, and would not have had her without it for worlds, as I selfishly hoped it might stand in her matrimonial path.

This Arcadian state of kitchen affairs went on for exactly a fortnight. One evening, at the end of that time, we had been out riding, and returned as usual very hungry. “What are we going to have for supper?” inquired F——. I told him what had been ordered; but when that meal made its appearance, lo, there was not a single dish which I had named! The things were not exactly nasty, but they were queer. For instance, pears are not usually stewed in gravy; but they were by no means bad, and we took it for granted it was something quite new. The housemaid, Sarah, looked very nervous page 220 and scared, and glanced at me from time to time with a very wistful look; but I was so delightfully tired and sleepy—one never seemed to get beyond the pleasant stage of those sensations—that I did not ask any questions.

Next morning, when we came out to breakfast, imagine my astonishment at seeing a tureen of half cold soup on the table, and nothing else! I could hardly believe my eyes, and hastened to the kitchen to explain that this was rather too much of a novelty in the gastronomic line. If I live to be a hundred years old, I shall never forget the sight—at once terrible and absurd—which met my eyes. Before the kitchen fire stood Isabella, having evidently slept in her clothes all night. She looked wretched and bloated, and quite curiously dirty, as black as if she had been up the chimney; and even I could see that, early as was the hour, she was hopelessly drunk. Between both of her nerveless, black hands, she held a poker, with which she struck, from time to time, a feeble blow on a piled-up heap of plates, which she persisted in considering a lump of coal. The fire was nearly out, but she hastened to assure me that if she could only break this lump of coal it would soon burn up. Need I say that I rescued my plates at once, and marched the bearded one off to her own apartment.

page 221

Oh, how dimmed its dainty freshness had become since even yesterday! Sarah was summoned, and confessed that she had known last night that “Hisabella” had gone on the “burst,” having bought, for some fabulous sum, a bottle of rum from a passing swagger. It was all very dreadful, and worst of all was the scene of tears and penitence I had to endure when the rum was finished. The dray, however, relieved me of the incubus of her presence; and that was the only instance of drunkenness I came across among my domestic changes and chances.

2 “Station Life in New Zealand” Macmillan and Co.