A VERY DANGEROUS INVENTION—THE PATENT COMBINATION STEP-LADDER—DOMESTIC SERVANTS—ADVERTISING FOR A GIRL—THE PEASANT-GIRL OF FACT AND FICTION—A CONTRAST.
STEP-LADDER is an almost indispensable article to persons who are moving into a new house. Not only do the domestics find it extremely convenient when they undertake to wash the windows, to remove the dust from the door and window-frames, and to perform sundry other household duties, but the lord of the castle will require it when he hangs his pictures, when he fixes the curtains and when he yields to his wife's entreaty for a hanging shelf or two in the cellar. I would, however, warn my fellow-countrymen against the contrivance which is offered to them under the name of the "Patent Combination Step-ladder." I purchased one in the city just before we moved, because the dealer showed me how, by the simple operation of a set of springs, the ladder could be transformed into an ironing-table, and from that into a comfortable settee for the kitchen, and finally back again into a step-ladder, just as the owner desired. It seemed like getting the full worth of the money expended to obtain a trio of such useful articles for a single price, and the temptation to purchase was simply irresistible. But the knowledge gained by a practical experience of the operation of the machine enables me to affirm that there is no genuine economical advantage in the use of this ingenious article.
Upon the day of its arrival, the servant-girl mounted the ladder for the purpose of removing the globes from the chandelier in the parlor, and while she was engaged in the work the weight of her body unexpectedly put the springs in motion, and the machine was suddenly converted into an ironing-table, while the maid-servant was prostrated upon the floor with a sprained ankle and amid the fragments of two shattered globes.
Then we decided that the apparatus should be used exclusively as an ironing-table, and to this purpose it would probably have been devoted permanently if it had suited. On the following Tuesday, however, while half a dozen shirts were lying on it ready to be ironed, someone knocked against it accidentally. It gave two or three ominous preliminary jerks, ground two shirts into rags, hurled the flat-iron out into the yard, and after a few convulsive movements of the springs, settled into repose in the shape of a step-ladder.
It became evident then that it could be used with greatest safety as a settee, and it was placed in the kitchen in that shape. For a few days it gave much satisfaction. But one night when the servant had company the bench was perhaps overloaded, for it had another and most alarming paroxysm; there was a trembling of the legs, a violent agitation of the back, then a tremendous jump, one of the visitors was hurled against the range, while the machine turned several somersaults, jammed itself halfway through the window sash, and appeared once more in the similitude of an ironing-table.
It has now attained to such a degree of sensitiveness that it goes through its entire drill promptly and with celerity if any comes near it or coughs or sneezes close at hand. We have it stored away in the garret, and sometimes in the middle of the night a rat will jar it, or a current of air will pass through the room, and we can hear it dancing over the floor and getting into service as a ladder, a bench and a table fifteen or twenty times in quick succession.
The machine will be disposed of for a small fraction of the original cost. It might be a valuable addition to the collection of some good museum. I am convinced that it will shine with greater lustre as a curiosity than as a household utensil.
Perhaps we may attribute to the fantastic capers of this step-ladder the dissatisfaction expressed by the servant who came with us from the city; at any rate, she gave us notice at the end of the first week that she would not remain. She is the ninth that we have had within four months. Mrs. Adeler said she was not sorry the woman intended to go, for she was absolutely good for nothing; but I think a poor servant is better than none at all. Life is gloomy enough without the misery which comes from rising before daylight to fumble among the fires, and without living upon short rations because one's wife has no time to attend to the cooking.
I am not sure, at any rate, that it would be a very great advantage to have thoroughly good servants, for then women would be deprived of the very evident pleasure they now take in discussing the shortcomings of their domestics. The practice is so common that there must be supreme consolation in the sympathy and in the relief to the overcharged feelings that are permitted by such communion.
Place two women together under any circumstances, and it makes no difference where the conversation starts from, for it will be perfectly certain to work itself around to the hired-girl question before many minutes have elapsed. I have seen an elderly housekeeper, with experience in conducting the talk in the desired direction, break in upon a discussion of Pythagoras and the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, and switch off the entire debate with such expedition that a careless listener would for some moments have an indistinct impression that the conversation related to the inefficiency of Pythagoras as a washer and ironer, and to the tendency of that heathen philosopher to take two Thursdays out every week. And when a woman has an unusually villainous servant, is it not interesting to observe how she glories in the superior intensity of her sufferings as compared with those of her neighbors, and to perceive how she rejoices in her misery? A housewife who possesses a really good girl is always in a condition of wretchedness upon such occasions, and is apt to listen in envious silence while her companions unburden their souls to each other.
Mrs. Adeler intimated that these accusations were slanderous, but she ventured to observe that the practical question which required immediate consideration was, How shall we get another girl?
"There is but one method, Mrs. A.: it is to advertise. Do not patronize the establishments which, in bitter irony, are styled 'intelligence offices.' An intelligence office is always remarkable for the dense stupidity of everybody connected with it. But a single manifestation of intelligence gleams through the intellectual darkness that enshrines the souls of the beings who maintain such places. I refer to the singular ability displayed in extracting two-dollar bills from persons who know that they will get nothing for their money."
Mrs. Adeler admitted that it would perhaps be better to advertise.
"How would it answer to insert in the daily paper an advertisement in which sarcasm is mingled with exaggeration in such a way that it shall secure an unlimited number of applications, while we shall give expression to the feeling of bitterness that is supposed to exist in the bosom of every housekeeper?"
She said she thought she hardly caught the idea precisely.
"Suppose, for instance, we should publish something like this: Wanted: a competent girl for general housework. The most strenuous effort will be made to give such a person complete satisfaction. If she is not pleased with the furniture already in the kitchen, we are willing to have the range silver plated, the floor laid in mosaic and the dresser covered with pink plush. No objection will be made to breakage. The domestic will be permitted at any time to disport in the china closet with the axe. We consider hair in the breakfast-rolls an improvement; and the more silver forks that are dropped into the drain, the more serene is the happiness which reigns in the household. Our girl cannot have Sunday out. She can go out every day but Sunday, and remain out until midnight if she wishes to. If her relations suffer for want of sugar, she can supply them with ours. We rather prefer a girl who habitually blows out the gas, and who is impudent when complaint is made because she soaks the mackerel in the tea-kettle. If she can sprinkle hot coals over the floor now and then, and set the house afire, we will rejoice the more, because it will give the fire-department healthful and necessary exercise. Nobody will interfere if she woos the milkman, and she will confer a favor if she will discuss family matters across the fence with the girl who lives next door. Such a servant as this can have a good home, the second-story front room and the whole of our income with the exception of three dollars a week, which we must insist, reluctantly, upon reserving for our own use.'
"How does that strike you, Mrs. Adeler?"
She said that it struck her as being particularly nonsensical. She hoped I wouldn't put such stuff as that in the paper.
"Certainly not, Mrs. A. If I did, we should cause a general immigration of the domestics of the country to New Castle. We will not precipitate such a disaster."
The insertion of a less extended advertisement, couched in the usual terms, secured a reply from a young woman named Catherine. And when Catherine's objections to the size of the family, to the style of the cooking-range, to the dimensions of the weekly wash and to sundry other things had been overcome, she consented to accept the position.
"I hope she will suit," exclaimed Mrs. Adeler, with a sigh and an intonation which implied doubt. "I do hope she will answer, but I am afraid she won't, for according to her own confession she doesn't know how to make bread or to iron shirts or to do anything."
"That is the reason why she demanded such exorbitant wages. Those servants who are entirely ignorant always want the largest pay. If we ever obtain a girl who understands her business in all its departments, I cherish the conviction that she will work for us for nothing. The wages of domestics are usually in inverse ratio to the merit of the recipients. Did you ever reflect upon the difference between the real and the ideal Irish maiden?"
Mrs. A. admitted that she had not considered the subject with any degree of attention.
"The ideal peasant-girl lives only in fiction and upon the stage. We are largely indebted to Mr. Boucicault for her existence, just as we are under obligations to Mr. Fennimore Cooper for a purely sentimental conception of the North American Indian. Have you ever seen the Colleen Bawn?"
"What is that?" inquired Mrs. Adeler, as she bit off a piece of thread from a spool.
"It is a play, a drama, my dear, by Mr. Dion Boucicault."
"You know I never go to theatres."
"Well, in that and in many other of his dramas Mr. Boucicault has drawn a particularly affecting portrait of the imaginary peasant-girl of Ireland. She is, as depicted by him, a lovely young creature, filled with tenderest sensibility, animated by loftiest impulses and inspired perpetually by poetic enthusiasm. The conversation of this fascinating being sparkles with wit; she overflows with generosity; she has unutterable longings for a higher and nobler life; she loves with intense and overpowering passion; she is capable of supreme self-sacrifice; and she always wears clean clothing. If such charming girls really existed in Ireland in large numbers, it would be the most attractive spot in the world. It would be a particularly profitable place for young bachelors to emigrate to. I think I should even go there myself."
Mrs. Adeler said she would certainly accompany me if I did.
"But these persons have no actual existence. We know, from a painful experience, what the peasant-girl of real life is, do we not? We know that her appearance is not prepossessing; we are aware that her lofty impulses do not lift her high enough to enable her to avoid impertinence and to conquer her unnatural fondness for cooking wine. She will withhold starch from the shirt collars and put it in the underclothing; she will hold the baby by the leg, so that it is in perpetual peril of apoplexy, and she will drink the milk. All of her visitors are her cousins; and when they have spent a festive evening with her in the kitchen, is it not curious to remark with what certainty we find low tide in the sugar-box and an absence of symmetry about the cold beef? The only evidence that I can discover of the existence in her soul of a yearning for a higher life is that she nearly always wants Brussels carpet in the kitchen, and this longing is peculiarly intense if, when at the home of her childhood, she was accustomed to live in a mud-cabin and to sleep with a pig."
But I do not regret that Mr. Boucicault has not placed this person upon the stage. It is, indeed, a matter for rejoicing that she is not there. She plays such a part in the drama of domestic life that in contemplation of the virtues of the fabulous being we find intense relief