A Duet, with an Occasional Chorus/Chapter XI

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Concerning Mrs. Beeton

Frank Crosse had only been married some months when he first had occasion to suspect that his wife had some secret sorrow. There was a sadness and depression about her at times, for which he was unable to account. One Saturday afternoon he happened to come home earlier than he was expected, and entering her bedroom suddenly, he found her seated in the basket-chair in the window, with a large book upon her knees. Her face, as she looked up at him with a mixed expression of joy and of confusion, was stained by recent tears. She put the book hastily down upon the dressing-stand.

‘Maude, you’ve been crying.’

‘No, Frank, no!’

‘O Maude, you fibber! Remove those tears instantly.’ He knelt down beside her and helped. ‘Better now?’

‘Yes, dearest, I am quite happy.’

‘Tears all gone?’

‘Quite gone.’

‘Well, then, explain!’

‘I didn’t mean to tell you, Frank!’ She gave the prettiest, most provocative little wriggles as her secret was drawn from her. ‘I wanted to do it without your knowing. I thought it would be a surprise for you. But I begin to understand now that my ambition was much too high. I am not clever enough for it. But it is disappointing all the same.’

Frank took the bulky book off the table. It was Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. The open page was headed, ‘General Observations on the Common Hog,’ and underneath was a single large tear-drop. It had fallen upon a woodcut of the Common Hog, in spite of which Frank solemnly kissed it, and turned Maude’s trouble into laughter.

‘Now you are all right again. I do hate to see you crying, though you never look more pretty. But tell me, dear, what was your ambition?’

‘To know as much as any woman in England about housekeeping. To know as much as Mrs. Beeton. I wanted to master every page of it, from the first to the last.’

‘There are 1641 of them,’ said Frank, turning them over.

‘I know. I felt that I should be quite old before I had finished. But the last part, you see, is all about wills, and bequests, and homeopathy, and things of that kind. We could do it later. It is the early part that I want to learn now - but it is so hard.’

‘But why do you wish to do it, Maude?’

‘Because I want you to be as happy as Mr. Beeton.’

‘I’ll bet I am.’

‘No, no, you can’t be, Frank. It says somewhere here that the happiness and comfort of the husband depend upon the housekeeping of the wife. Mrs. Beeton must have been the finest housekeeper in the world. Therefore, Mr. Beeton must have been the happiest and most comfortable man. But why should Mr. Beeton be happier and more comfortable than my Frank? From the hour I read that I determined that he shouldn’t be - and he won’t be.’

‘And he isn’t.’

‘Oh, you think so. But then you know nothing about it. You think it right because I do it. But if you were visiting Mrs. Beeton, you would soon see the difference.’

‘What an awkward trick you have of always sitting in a window,’ said Frank, after an interval. ‘I’ll swear that the wise Mrs. Beeton never advocates that - with half a dozen other windows within point-blank range.’

‘Well, then, you shouldn’t do it.’

‘Well, then, you shouldn’t be so nice.’

‘You really still think that I am nice?’

‘Fishing!’

‘After all these months?’

‘Nicer and nicer every day.’

‘Not a bit tired?’

‘You blessing! When I am tired of you, I shall be tired of life.’

‘How wonderful it all seems!’

‘Does it not?’

‘To think of that first day at the tennis-party. “I hope you are not a very good player, Mr. Crosse!” - “No, Miss Selby, but I shall be happy to make one in a set.” That’s how we began. And now!’

‘Yes, it is wonderful.’

‘And at dinner afterwards. “Do you like Irving’s acting?” - “Yes, I think that he is a great genius.” How formal and precise we were! And now I sit curling your hair in a bedroom window.’

‘It does seem funny. But I suppose, if you come to think of it, something of the same kind must have happened to one or two people before.’

‘But never quite like us.’

‘Oh no, never quite like us. But with a kind of family resemblance, you know. Married people do usually end by knowing each other a little better than on the first day they met.’

‘What did you think of me, Frank?’

‘I’ve told you often.’

‘Well, tell me again.’

‘What’s the use when you know?’

‘But I like to hear.’

‘Well, it’s just spoiling you.’

‘I love to be spoiled.’

‘Well, then, I thought to myself - If I can only have that woman for my own, I believe I will do something in life yet. And I also thought - If I don’t get that woman for my own, I will never, never be the same man again.’

‘Really, Frank, the very first day you saw me?’

‘Yes, the very first day.’

‘And then?’

‘And then, day by day, and week by week, that feeling grew deeper and stronger, until at last you swallowed up all my other hopes, and ambitions, and interests. I hardly dare think, Maude, what would have happened to me if you had refused me.’

She laughed aloud with delight.

‘How sweet it is to hear you say so! And the wonderful thing is that you have never seemed disappointed. I always expected that some day after marriage - not immediately, perhaps, but at the end of a week or so - you would suddenly give a start, like those poor people who are hypnotised, and you would say, “Why, I used to think that she was pretty! I used to think that she was sweet! How could I be so infatuated over a little, insignificant, ignorant, selfish, uninteresting - ” O Frank, the neighbours will see you?’

‘Well, then, you mustn’t provoke me.’

‘What will Mrs. Potter think?’

‘You should pull down the blinds before you make speeches of that sort.’

‘Now do sit quiet and be a good boy.’

‘Well, then, tell me what you thought.’

‘I thought you were a very good tennis-player.’

‘Anything else?’

‘And you talked nicely.’

‘Did I? I never felt such a stick in my life. I was as nervous as a cat.’

‘That was so delightful. I do hate people who are very cool and assured. I saw that you were disturbed, and I even thought - ’

‘Yes?’

‘Well, I thought that perhaps it was I who disturbed you.’

‘And you liked me?’

‘I was very interested in you.’

‘Well, that is the blessed miracle which I can never get over. You, with your beauty, and your grace, and your rich father, and every young man at your feet, and I, a fellow with neither good looks, nor learning, nor prospects, nor - ’

‘Be quiet, sir! Yes, you shall! Now?’

‘By Jove, there is old Mrs. Potter at the window! We’ve done it this time. Let us get back to serious conversation again.’

‘How did we leave it?’

‘It was that hog, I believe. And then Mr. Beeton. But where does the hog come in? Why should you weep over him? And what are the Lady’s Observations on the Common Hog?’

‘Read them for yourself.’

Frank read out aloud: ‘“The hog belongs to the order Mammalia, the genus sus scrofa, and the species pachydermata, or thick-skinned. Its generic characters are a long, flexible snout, forty-two teeth, cloven feet, furnished with four toes, and a tail, which is small, short, and twisted, while, in some varieties, this appendage is altogether wanting.” - But what on earth has all this to do with housekeeping?’

‘That’s what I want to know. It is so disheartening to have to remember such things. What does it matter if the hog has forty-two toes. And yet, if Mrs. Beeton knew it, one feels that one ought to know it also. If once I began to skip, there would be no end to it. But it really is such a splendid book in other ways. It doesn’t matter what you want, you will find it here. Take the index anywhere. Cream. If you want cream, it’s all there. Croup. If you want - I mean, if you don’t want croup, it will teach you how not to get it. Crumpets - all about them. Crullers - I’m sure you don’t know what a cruller is, Frank.’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘Neither do I. But I could look it up and learn. Here it is - paragraph 2847. It is a sort of pancake, you see. That’s how you learn things.’

Frank Crosse took the book and dropped it. It fell with a sulky thud upon the floor.

‘Nothing that it can teach you, dear, can ever make up to me if it makes you cry, and bothers you. - You bloated, pedantic thing!’ he cried, in sudden fury, aiming a kick at the squat volume. ‘It is to you I owe all those sad, tired looks which I have seen upon my wife’s face. I know my enemy now. You pompous, fussy old humbug, I’ll kick the red cover off you!’

But Maude snatched it up, and gathered it to her bosom. ‘No, no, Frank, I don’t know what I should do without it. You have no idea what a wise old book it is. Now, sit there on the footstool at my feet, and I will read to you.’

‘Do, dear; it’s delightful.’

‘Sit quiet, then, and be good. Now listen to this pearl of wisdom: “As with the commander of an army, so it is with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment, and, just in proportion as she performs her duties thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path.”’

‘From which it follows,’ said her husband, ‘that Jemima must be a perfect paragon.’

‘On the contrary, it explains all Jemima’s shortcomings. Listen to this: “Early rising is one of the most essential qualities. When a mistress is an early riser, it is almost certain that her house will be orderly and well managed.”’

‘Well, you are down at nine - what more do you want?’

‘At nine! I am sure that Mrs. Beeton was always up at six.’

‘I have my doubts about Mrs. B. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. I should not be very much surprised to learn that she had breakfast in bed every morning.’

‘O Frank! You have no reverence for anything.’

‘Let us have some more wisdom.’

‘“Frugality and Economy are home virtues without which no household can prosper. Dr. Johnson says, ‘Frugality may be termed - ’”

‘Oh, bother Dr. Johnson! Who cares for a man’s opinion. Now, if it had been Mrs. Johnson - !’

‘Johnson kept house for himself for years - and a queer job he made of it.’

‘So I should think.’ Maude tossed her pretty curls. ‘Mrs. Beeton is all right, but I will not be lectured by Dr. Johnson. Where was I? Oh yes - “‘We must always remember that to manage a little well, is a great merit in housekeeping.”’

‘Hurrah! Down with the second vegetable! No pudding on fish days. Vive la bière de Pilsen!’

‘What a noisy boy you are!’

‘This book excites me. Anything more?’

“Friendships should not be hastily formed, nor the heart given at once to every newcomer - ”’

‘Well, I should hope not! Don’t let me catch you at it! You don’t mind my cigarette? Has Mrs. Beeton a paragraph about smoking in bedrooms?’

‘Such an enormity never occurred to her as a remote possibility. If she had known you, dear, she would have had to write an appendix to her book to meet all the new problems which you would suggest. Shall I go on?’

‘Please do!’

‘She next treats conversation. “In conversation, trifling occurrences such as small disappointments, petty annoyances, and other everyday incidents, should never be mentioned to friends. If the mistress be a wife, never let a word in connection with her husband’s failings pass her lips - ”’

‘By Jove, this book has more wisdom to the square inch than any work of man,’ cried Frank, in enthusiasm.

‘I thought that would please you. “Good temper should be cultivated by every mistress, as upon it the welfare of the household may be said to turn.”’

‘Excellent!’

‘“In starting a household, it is always best in the long-run to get the very best articles of their kind.”’

‘That is why I got you, Maude.’

‘Thank you, sir. We have a dissertation then upon dress and fashion, another upon engaging domestics, another about daily duties, another about visiting, another about fresh air and exercise - ’

‘The most essential of any,’ cried Frank, jumping up, and pulling his wife by the arms out of her low wicker-chair. ‘There is just time for nine holes at golf before it is dark, if you wilt come exactly as you are. But listen to this, young lady. If ever again I see you fretting or troubling yourself about your household affairs - ’

‘No, no, Frank, I won’t!’

‘Well, if you do, Mrs. Beeton goes into the kitchen-fire. Now remember?’

‘You are sure you don’t envy Mr. Beeton?’

‘I don’t envy a man upon earth.’

‘Then why should I try to be Mrs. Beeton?’

‘Why indeed?’

‘O Frank, what a load off my mind! Those sixteen hundred pages have just lain upon it for months. Dear old boy! come on!’

And they clattered downstairs for their golf-clubs.