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Live and Let Live/Chapter VIII

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Chapter VIII.
REFORM.


Mrs. Ardley the very next morning set about "reforming altogether" her household. Like that of many fresh converts, her zeal was employed on the faults of others rather than her own. "I am resolved," she said to Sophy, "to speak to Ferris about her drinking—she is getting too bad!"

"I have long thought so, Mrs. Ardley; and really, since she set the bed a-fire, I am afraid she will burn herself up, and poor little Lucy too—her month is up next week."

"She is a capital cook—what nice made-dishes she gets up!"

Without heeding Mrs. Ardley's interjection, Sophy proceeded. "I heard Mary Minturn" (Mary was the seamstress) "say that her health was failing so sitting at the needle, that she would be thankful for the cook's place if she could suit you."

"Oh, she could not, possibly. What does she know about cooking?"

"She has cooked in a gentleman's family. To be sure it was a small one; but she says, if you would be patient with her for the first month, she could learn—she is very handy at learning, you know, Mrs. Ardley—Mary Minturn is—she says she likes cooking, and it agrees with her—and she is dying by inches now."

"She is out of the question, Sophy—I must have a thoroughbred cook, that can do everything without direction—you know Mr. Ardley and I are both particular about the table. There's one good thing, Ferris never get's fuddled till after her work is done; and if you, Sophy, would just look in her room after she goes to bed."

"I can't undertake that, Mrs. Ardley; I have quite enough to do without sitting up to look after Ferris," replied Sophy, who, in the main, was a very good-tempered girl, though now ruffled by the ill success of her proposition in behalf of her friend.

"I think you are very disobliging, Sophy," rejoined Mrs. Ardley, intent on rectifying wrong on the right hand and on the left. "I have been quite too indulgent. You are all getting spoiled, and I really must require you to comply with my wishes."

"It's not my work to look after the cook."

"You all know what is not your work, though you seldom know what is." Sophy flung out of the room without replying, and in the course of the day announced to Mrs. Ardley, that as Mary Minturn had determined to go when her month was up, she should go too! Sophy was too valuable a domestic to lose without an effort. "Really, Sophy," replied Mrs. Ardley, kindly, "it is foolish of you to go on account of the few words we had this morning."

"It is not altogether that, Mrs. Ardley," replied Sophy, softened; but, when Mary Minturn goes, I shall sleep alone; and you know, when there were two of us, we never liked David's having to pass through our room to get to his."

"Oh, I understand now—but indeed, Sophy, it is too absurd and old maidish! Such a respectable man as David!"

"I know that, Mrs. Ardley—and that is why we have submitted to it so long—but I do not think it will be suitable when I am alone. You ladies are fenced and guarded on every side; poor folks must take care of themselves."

"Well, Sophy, I thought you was one that was above changing for every trifle."

"I have borne a good many disagreeable trifles for two years rather than change, Mrs. Ardley; but my mind is made up now."

Had Mrs. Ardley thought it worth while any time within the preceding two years to have had a door cut from David's room to the passage-way (an improvement that would not have been deferred a day, if females of her own grade had occupied Sophy's department), she would have attached Sophy by an attention that expressed respect, and would probably have secured her valuable services.[1] Not warned by her ill success, she proceeded in her work of reform. "Ferris," she said, when Ferris came to take the bill of fare for dinner, "Ferris, I feel it to be my duty to speak to you about your habits."

Ferris was by birth an Englishwoman, and she retained somewhat of the deferential un-American manners of her early years.

"Thank you, madam," she replied; "and in what don't my habits suit, madam?"

"You know, of course, what I mean, Ferris."

"Indeed, Mrs. Ardley, I am as ignorant as the babe unborn."

"Then, candidly, Ferris, I tell you I fear you drink too much."

"Indeed, Mrs. Ardley, there's been a foul tongue between us. I am not in the least fond of drink."

"Do you not drink spirits every day, Ferris?"

"Indeed, madam, I tell you the living truth—I just take the weakest of weakly toddy, to take off the 'fect of the dinner-steam, for medicine like. But as to drinking, there's not the woman soberer than I in the city."

Mrs. Ardley smiled at the hardihood of this assertion; but she thought it most politic not to express in direct terms her incredulity, so she said, good-humouredly, "I hope you will persevere in sober habits, Ferris, for intemperance is very foolish and very wicked. And pray, Ferris, don't burn another bedspread!"

"Did ye think it was me, Mrs. Ardley, and just because I would not tell on that child—you know Lucy is like mad for a book."

"I have observed she is fond of reading."

"That's what I call a habit in a servant; but, poor thing, she's young. And when she went to sleep and left the candle burning, and waked in a fright just as I came in to bed, maybe she did not just know who did it."

"Well, Ferris, we'll see she does not burn a light after she goes to bed—so, if anything happens again, you know you must bear the blame." Ferris learned her own importance by seeing that her mistress was willing to appear duped, and Mrs. Ardley stifled the reproaches of conscience for tolerating drunkenness, and its consequent lying and injustice, by saying, "I have spoken to her — what can I do more?"

Are not the virtues and vices of domestics too often requited, not in proportion to their desert, but according to their effect on the convenience of their employers?

Mrs. Ardley was under a strong impulse, and she proceeded in that most delicate of all operations—reform. "Mary Minturn," she said, "I perceive that you are getting uneasy, like all the girls."

Mary Minturn was suffering from debility and loss of spirits, the almost certain consequence of too close a confinement to a sedentary employment. She burst into tears. "Don't be troubled, Mary; I did not mean to reproach you," resumed Mrs. Ardley; "servants are always fancying they shall like some other work better than that they are doing—it's the old story; each one is eager to lay down his particular burden, and glad enough to take it up again; I was not the least offended; if you had seriously proposed going away, I should, to be sure, have thought you very absurd and ungrateful."

"Indeed, indeed, Mrs. Ardley, I am not ungrateful—but—"

"But what? Surely you do not in earnest mean to leave me?"

"I must, ma'am. The doctor says I am getting a liver complaint, and I can never be cured if I don't take to some stirring work."

"Pshaw, Mary, how absurd! You have been to some goose of a doctor. It is a great deal harder to do 'stirring work,' as you call it, than to sit at your needle. I will speak to Doctor Smith about you. You know I have always told you that you might have our own physician free of expense."

"Thank you, ma'am, but I am sure my own dotor is right. He says he will not impose medicine on me; it will only make the matter worse, and I feel what he says to be true."

"And you really mean to leave me?"

"I must, Mrs. Ardley."

"Well, you must do as you think fit, but I doubt if you find a better place."

Mary was silent; her tears still flowed; there was something like a taunt in Mrs. Ardley's words, and still more in her manner, which repressed the expression of the gratitude Mary deeply felt for all the indulgences and kindness she had received at Mrs. Ardley's hand; and the lady left her with the conviction that, as she soon after said to a friend, "Mary Minturn was just like all other servant-girls; let Sara Hyde say what she will, they are an ungrateful pack. Mr. Ardley and I have made Mary Minturn presents upon presents. I have never counted her lost days, and I have never spoken a harsh word to her, and now she is going away when she knows how important she is to me, just because some absurd doctor had put it into her head that sewing don't agree with her!"

If Mrs. Ardley had understood the first principles of physiology, and she was perfectly capable of comprehending them, and if she had felt the duties of her station, and applied these principles to the persons cast upon her care, Mary Minturn would not have lost her health, and they might have continued to the end of their lives to live together with reciprocal benefit, instead of parting with smothered reproaches on the one side for slighted favours, and smothered gratitude on the other for the exercise of virtues that, after all, were merely virtues of constitution.

After one or two other abortive attempts at reform, Mrs. Ardley reverted to her old mode of sailing with the current, and letting things take their own way, "Convinced", she said, "there was no use in trying to have matters too perfect."

Our conclusion is, that old abuses in families, as in states, are not of sudden or easy reform.

  1. We once heard a gentleman say that he had for the first time received from Mr. Gallatin the idea that good servants might be secured by a due attention to their convenience and happiness. We trust that gentleman will pardon us for availing ourselves of the authority of his name in support of a favourite theory.