By Alan Dale
There was a ring at the front door-bell. Letitia, wrought-up, nervously clutched my arm. For a moment a sort of paralysis seized me. Then, alertly as a young calf, I bounded toward the door, hope aroused, and expectation keen. It was rather dark in the outside hall, and I could not quite perceive the nature of our visitor. But I soon gladly realized that it was something feminine, and as I held the door open, a thin, small, soiled wisp of a woman glided in and smiled at me.
“Talar ni svensk?” she asked, but I had no idea what she meant. She may have been impertinent, or even rude, or perhaps improper, but she looked as though she might be a domestic, and I led her gently, reverently, to Letitia in the drawing-room. I smiled back at her, in a wild endeavor to be sympathetic. I would have anointed her, or bathed her feet, or plied her with figs and dates, or have done anything that any nationality craves as a welcome. As the front door closed I heaved a sigh of relief. Here was probably the quintessence of five advertisements. Out of the mountain crept a mouse, and quite a little mouse, too!
“Talar ni svensk?” proved to be nothing more outrageous than “Do you speak Swedish?” My astute little wife discovered this intuitively. I left them together, my mental excuse being that women understand each other and that a man is unnecessary, under the circum stances. I had some misgivings on the subject of Letitia and svensk, but the universal language of femininity is not without its uses. I devoutly hoped that Letitia would be able to come to terms, as the mere idea of a cook who couldn’t excoriate us in English was, at that moment, delightful. At the end of a quarter of an hour I strolled back to the drawing-room. Letitia was smiling and the hand-maiden sat grim and uninspired.
“I’ve engaged her, Archie,” said Letitia. “She knows nothing, as she has told me in the few words of English that she has picked up, but—you remember what Aunt Julia said about a clean slate.”
I gazed at the maiden, and reflected that while the term “slate” might be perfectly correct, the adjective seemed a bit over-enthusiastic. She was decidely soiled, this quintessence of a quintette of advertisements. I said nothing, anxious not to dampen Letitia’s elation.
“She has no references,” continued my wife, “as she has never been out before. She is just a simple little Stockholm girl. I like her face immensely, Archie—immensely. She is willing to begin at once, which shows that she is eager, and consequently likely to suit us. Wait for me, Archie, while I take her to the kitchen. Kom, Gerda.”
Exactly why Letitia couldn’t say “Come, Gerda,” seemed strange. She probably thought that Kom must be Swedish, and that it sounded well. She certainly invented Kom on the spur of the Scandinavian moment, and I learned afterward that it was correct. My inspired Letitia! Still, in spite of all, my opinion is that “Come, Gerda,” would have done just as well.
“Isn’t it delightful?” cried Letitia, when she joined me later. “I am really enthusiastic at the idea of a Swedish girl. I adore Scandinavia, Archie. It always makes me think of Ibsen. Perhaps Gerda Lyberg—that’s her name—will be as interesting as Hedda Gabler, and Mrs. Alving, and Nora, and all those lovely complex Ibsen creatures.”
“They were Norwegians, dear,” I said gently, anxious not to shatter illusions; “the Ibsen plays deal with Christiania, not with Stockholm.”
“But they are so near,” declared Letitia, amiable and seraphic once more. “Somehow or other, I invariably mix up Norway and Sweden and Denmark. I know I shall always look upon Gerda as an Ibsen girl, who has come here to ‘live her life,’ or ‘work out her inheritance.’ Perhaps, dear, she has some interesting internal disease, or a maggoty brain. Don’t you think, Archie, that the Ibsen inheritances are always most fascinating? A bit morbid, but surely fascinating.”
“I prefer a healthy cook, Letitia,” I said meditatively, “somebody willing to interest herself in our inheritance, rather than in her own.”
“I don’t mind what you say now,” she pouted, “I am not to be put down by clamor. We really have a cook at last, and I feel more lenient toward you, Archie. Of course I was only joking when I suggested the Ibsen diseases. Gerda Lyberg may have inherited from her ancestors something quite nice and attractive.”
“Then you mustn’t look upon her as Ibsen, Letitia,” I protested. “The Ibsen people never inherit nice things. Their ancestors always bequeath nasty ones. That is where their consistency comes in. They are receptacles for horrors. Personally, if You’ll excuse my flippancy, I prefer Norwegian anchovies to Norwegian heroines. It is a mere matter of opinion.”
“I’m ashamed of you,” retorted Letitia defiantly. “You talk like some of the wretchedly frivolous criticisms, so called, that men like Acton Davies and Alan Dale inflict upon the long-suffering public. They never amuse me. Ibsen may make his heroines the recipients of ugly legacies, but he has never yet cursed them with the odious incubus known as ‘a sense of humor.’ The people with a sense of humor have something in their brains worse than maggots. We’ll drop the subject, Archie. I’m going to learn Swedish. Before Gerda Lyberg has been with us a month I intend to be able to talk fluently. It will be most useful. Next time we go to Europe We’ll take in Sweden, and I’ll do the piloting. I am going to buy some Swedish books, and study. Won’t it be jolly? And just think how melancholy we were this morning, you and I, looking out of that window, and trying to materialize cooks. Wasn’t it funny, Archie? What amusing experiences we shall be able to chronicle, later on!”
Letitia babbled on like half a dozen brooks, and thinking up a gentle parody, in the shape of, “cooks may come, and men may go,” I decided to leave my household gods for the bread-earning contest down-town. I could not feel quite as sanguine as Letitia, who seemed to have forgotten the dismal results of the advertisement—just one little puny Swedish result. I should have preferred to make a choice. Letitia was as pleased with Gerda Lyberg as though she had been a selection instead of a that-or-nothing.
If somebody had dramatized Gerda Lyberg’s initial dinner, it would probably have been considered exceedingly droll. As a serious episode, however, its humor, to my mind, lacked spontaneity. Letitia had asked her to cook us a little Swedish meal, so that we could get some idea of Stockholm life, in which, for some reason or other, we were supposed to be deeply interested. Unfortunately I was extremely hungry, and had carefully avoided luncheon in order to give my appetite a chance. We sat down to a huge bowl of cold, greasy soup, in which enormous lumps of meat swam, as though for their life, awaiting rescue at the prongs of a fork. In addition to this epicurean dish was a teeming plate of water-soaked potatoes, delicately boiled. That was all. Letitia said that it was Swedish, and the most annoying part of the entertainment was that I was alone in my critical disapprobation. Letitia was so engrossed with a little Swedish conversation book that she brought to table that she forgot the mere material question of food—forgot everything but the horrible jargon she was studying, and the soiled, wisp-like maiden, who looked more unlike a clean slate than ever.
“What shall I say to her, Archie?” asked Letitia, turning over the pages of her book, as I tried to rescue a block of meat from the cold fat in which it lurked. “Here is a chapter on dinner. ‘I am very hungry,’ ‘Jag är myckel hungrig.’ Rather pretty, isn’t it? Hark at this: ‘Kypare gif mig matsedeln och vinlistan.’ That means: ‘Waiter, give me the bill of fare, and the list of wines.’”
“Don’t,” I cried; “don’t. This woman doesn’t know what dining means. Look out a chapter on feeding.”
Letitia was perfectly unruffled. She paid no attention to me whatsoever. She was fascinated with the slovenly girl, who stood around and gaped at her Swedish.
“Gerda,” said Letitia, with her eyes on the book, “Gif mir apven senap och nägra potäter.” And then, as Miss Lyberg dived for the drowned potatoes, Letitia exclaimed in an ecstasy of joy, “She understands, Archie, she understands. I feel I am going to be a great success. Jag tackar, Gerda. That means ‘I thank you,’ Jag tackar. See if you can say it, Archie. Just try, dear, to oblige me. Jag tackar. Now, that’s a good boy, jag tackar.”
“I won’t,” I declared spitefully. “No jag tackaring for a parody like this, Letitia. You don’t seem to realize that I’m hungry. Honestly, I prefer a delicatessen dinner to this.”
“‘Pray, give me a piece of venison,’” read Letitia, absolutely disregarding my mood. “‘var god och gif mig ett stycke vildt.’ It is almost intelligible, isn’t it, dear? ‘Ni äter icke’: you do not eat.”
“I can’t,” I asserted mournfully, anxious to gain Letitia’s sympathy.
It was not forthcoming. Letitia’s eyes were fastened on Gerda, and I could not help noting on the woman’s face an expression of scorn. I felt certain of it. She appeared to regard my wife as a sort of irresponsible freak, and I was vexed to think that Letitia should make such an exhibition of herself, and countenance the alleged meal that was set before us.
“‘I have really dined very well,’” she continued joyously. “Jag har verkligen atit mycket bra.’”
“If you are quite sure that she doesn’t understand English, Letitia,” I said viciously, “I’ll say to you that this is a kind of joke I don’t appreciate. I won’t keep such a woman in the house. Let us put on our things and go out and have dinner. Better late than never.”
Letitia was turning over the pages of her book, quite lost to her surroundings. As I concluded my remarks she looked up and exclaimed, “How very funny, Archie. Just as you said ‘Better late than never,’ I came across that very phrase in the list of Swedish proverbs. It must be telepathy, dear. ‘Better late than never,’ ‘Battre sent än aldrig.’ What were you saying on the subject, dear? Will you repeat it? And do try it in Swedish. Say ‘Battre sent än aldrig.’”
“Letitia,” I shot forth in a fury, “I’m not in the humor for this sort of thing. I think this dinner and this woman are rotten. See if you can find the word rotten in Swedish.”
“I am surprised at you,” Letitia declared glacially, roused from her book by my heroic though unparliamentary language. “Your expressions are neither English nor Swedish. Please don’t use such gutter-words before a servant, to say nothing of your own wife.”
“But she doesn’t understand,” I protested, glancing at Miss Lyberg. I could have sworn that I detected a gleam in the woman’s eyes and that the sphinx-like attitude of dull incomprehensibility suggested a strenuous effort. “She doesn’t understand anything. She doesn’t want to understand.”
“In a week from now,” said Letitia, “she will understand everything perfectly, for I shall be able to talk with her. Oh, Archie, do be agreeable. Can’t you see that I am having great fun? Don’t be such a greedy boy. If you could only enter into the spirit of the thing, you wouldn’t be so oppressed by the food question. Oh, dear! How important it does seem to be to men. Gerda, hur gammal är ni?”
The maiden sullenly left the room, and I felt convinced that Letitia had Swedishly asked her to do so. I was wrong. “Hur gammal är ni,” Letitia explained, simply meant, “How old are you?”
“She evidently didn’t want to tell me,” was my wife’s comment, as we went to the drawing-room. “I imagine, dear, that she doesn’t quite like the idea of my ferreting out Swedish so persistently. But I intend to persevere. The worst of conversation books is that one acquires a language in such a parroty way. Now, in my book, the only answer to the question ‘How old are you?’ is, ‘I was born on the tenth of August, 1852.’ For the life of me, I couldn’t vary that, and it would be most embarrassing. It would make me fifty-two. If any one asked me in Swedish how old I was, I should have to be fifty-two!”
“When I think of my five advertisements,” I said lugubriously, as I threw myself into an arm-chair, fatigued at my efforts to discover dinner, “when I remember our expectation, and the pleasant anticipations of to-day, I feel very bitter, Letitia. Just to think that from it all nothing has resulted but that beastly mummy, that atrocious ossified thing.”
“Archie, Archie!” said my wife warningly; “please be calm. Perhaps I was too engrossed with my studies to note the deficiencies of dinner. But do remember that I pleaded with her for a Swedish meal. The poor thing did what I asked her to do. Our dinner was evidently Swedish. It was not her fault that I asked for it. Tomorrow, dear, it shall be different. We had better stick to the American régime. It is more satisfactory to you. At any rate, we have somebody in the house, and if our five advertisements had brought forth five hundred applicants we should only have kept one. So don’t torture yourself, Archie. Try and imagine that we had five hundred applicants, and that we selected Gerda Lyberg.”
“I can’t, Letitia,” I said sulkily, and I heaved a heavy sigh.
“Come,” she said soothingly, “come and study Swedish with me. It will be most useful for your Lives of Great Men. You can read up the Swedes in the original. I’ll entertain you with this book, and You’ll forget all about Mrs. Potz—I mean Gerda Lyberg. By-the-by, Archie, she doesn’t remind me so much of Hedda Gabler. I don’t fancy that she is very subtile.”
“You, Letitia,” I retorted, “remind me of Mrs. Nickleby. You ramble on so.”
Letitia looked offended. She always declared that Dickens “got on her nerves.” She was one of the new-fashioned readers who have learned to despise Dickens. Personally, I regretted only his nauseating sense of humor. Letitia placed a cushion behind my head, smoothed my forehead, kissed me, made her peace, and settled down by my side. Lack of nourishment made me drowsy, and Letitia’s babblings sounded vague and muffled.
“It is a most inclusive little book,” she said, “and if I can succeed in memorizing it all I shall be quite at home with the language. In fact, dear, I think I shall always keep Swedish cooks. Hark at this: ‘If the wind be favorable, we shall be at Gothenburg in forty hours.’ ‘Om vinden är god, sa äro vi pa pyrtio timmar i Goteborg.’ I think it is sweetly pretty. ‘You are seasick.’ ‘steward, bring me a glass of brandy and water.’ ‘We are now entering the harbor.’ ‘We are now anchoring.’ ‘Your passports, gentlemen.’”
A comfortable lethargy was stealing o’er me. Letitia took a pencil and paper, and made notes as she plied the book. “A chapter on ‘seeing a town’ is most interesting, Archie. Of course, it must be a Swedish town. ‘Do you know the two private galleries of Mr. Smith, the merchant, and Mr. Muller, the chancellor?’ ‘tomorrow morning I wish to see all the public buildings and statues.’ ‘statyerna’ is Swedish for statues, Archie. Are you listening, dear? ‘We will visit the Church of the Holy Ghost, at two, then we will make an excursion on Lake Mälan and see the fortress of Vaxholm.’ It is a charming little book. Don’t you think that it is a great improvement on the old Ollendorff system? I don’t find nonsensical sentences like ‘the hat of my aunt’s sister is blue, but the nose of my brother-in-law’s sister-in-law is red.’”
I rose and stretched myself. Letitia was still plunged in the irritating guide to Sweden, where I vowed I would never go. Nothing on earth should ever induce me to visit Sweden. If it came to a choice between Hoboken and Stockholm, I mentally determined to select the former. As I paced the room I heard a curious splashing noise in the kitchen. Letitia’s studies must have dulled her ears. She was evidently too deeply engrossed.
I strolled nonchalantly into the hall, and proceeded deliberately toward the kitchen. The thick carpet deadened my footsteps. The splashing noise grew louder. The kitchen door was closed. I gently opened it. As I did so a wild scream rent the air. There stood Gerda Lyberg in—in—my pen declines to write it—a simple unsophisticated birthday dress, taking an ingenuous reluctant bath in the “stationary tubs,” with the plates, and dishes, and dinner things grouped artistically around her!
The instant she saw me she modestly seized a dish-towel and shouted at the top of her voice. The kitchen was filled with the steam from the hot water. ‘venus arising’ looked nebulous, and mystic. I beat a hasty retreat, aghast at the revelation, and almost fell against Letitia, who, dropping her conversation book, came to see what had happened.
“She’s bathing!” I gasped, “in the kitchen—among the plates—near the soup—”
“Never!” cried Letitia. Then, melodramatically: “Let me pass. Stand aside, Archie. I’ll go and see. Perhaps—perhaps—you had better come with me.”
“Letitia,” I gurgled, “I’m shocked! She has nothing on but a dish-towel.”
Letitia paused irresolutely for a second, and going into the kitchen shut the door. The splashing noise ceased. I heard the sound of voices, or rather of a voice—Letitia’s! Evidently she had forgotten Swedish, and such remarks as “If the wind be favorable, we shall be at Gothenburg in forty hours.” I listened attentively, and could not even hear her say “We will visit the Church of the Holy Ghost at two.” It is strange how the stress of circumstances alters the complexion of a conversation book! All the evening she had studied Swedish, and yet suddenly confronted by a Swedish lady bathing in our kitchen, dish-toweled but unashamed, all she could find to say was “How disgusting!” and “How disgraceful!” in English!
“You see,” said Letitia, when she emerged, “she is just a simple peasant girl, and only needs to be told. It is very horrid, of course.”
“And unappetizing!” I chimed in.
“Of course—certainly unappetizing. I couldn’t think of anything Swedish to say, but I said several things in English. She was dreadfully sorry that you had seen her, and never contemplated such a possibility. After all, Archie, bathing is not a crime.”
“And we were hunting for a clean slate,” I suggested satirically. “Do you think, Letitia, that she also takes a cold bath in the morning, among the bacon and eggs, and things?”
“That is enough,” said Letitia sternly. “The episode need not serve as an excuse for indelicacy.”
It was with the advent of Gerda Lyberg that we became absolutely certain, beyond the peradventure of any doubt, that there was such a thing as the servant question. The knowledge had been gradually wafted in upon us, but it was not until the lady from Stockholm had definitively planted herself in our midst that we admitted to ourselves openly, unblushingly, that the problem existed. Gerda blazoned forth the enigma in all its force and defiance.
The remarkable thing about our latest acquisition was the singularly blank state of her gastronomic mind. There was nothing that she knew. Most women, and a great many men, intuitively recognize the physical fact that water, at a certain temperature, boils. Miss Lyberg, apparently seeking to earn her living in the kitchen, had no certain views as to when the boiling point was reached. Rumors seemed vaguely to have reached her that things called eggs dropped into water would, in the course of time—any time, and generally less than a week—become eatable. Letitia bought a little egg-boiler for her—one of those antique arrangements in which the sands of time play to the soft-boiled egg. The maiden promptly boiled it with the eggs, and undoubtedly thought that the hen, in a moment of perturbation, or aberration, had laid it. I say “thought” because it is the only term I can use. It is, perhaps, inappropriate in connection with Gerda.
Potatoes, subjected to the action of hot water, grow soft. She was certain of that. Whether she tested them with the poker, or with her hands or feet, we never knew. I inclined to the last suggestion. The situation was quite marvelous. Here was an alleged worker, in a particular field, asking the wages of skilled labor, and densely ignorant of every detail connected with her task. It seemed unique. Carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, seamstresses, dressmakers, laundresses—all the sowers and reapers in the little garden of our daily needs, were forced by the inexorable law of competition to possess some inkling of the significance of their undertakings. With the cook it was different. She could step jubilantly into any kitchen without the slightest idea of what she was expected to do there. If she knew that water was wet and that fire was hot, she felt amply primed to demand a salary.
Impelled by her craving for Swedish literature, Letitia struggled with Miss Lyberg. Compared with the Swede, my exquisitely ignorant wife was a culinary queen. She was an epicurean caterer. Letitia’s slate-pencil coffee was ambrosia for the gods, sweetest nectar, by the side of the dishwater that cook prepared. I began to feel quite proud of her. She grew to be an adept in the art of boiling water. If we could have lived on that fluid, everything would have moved clockworkily.
“I’ve discovered one thing,” said Letitia on the evening of the third day. “The girl is just a peasant, probably a worker in the fields. That is why she is so ignorant.”
I thought this reasoning foolish. “Even peasants eat, my dear,” I muttered. “She must have seen somebody cook something. Field-workers have good appetites. If this woman ever ate, what did she eat and why can’t we have the same? We have asked her for no luxuries. We have arrived at the stage, my poor girl, when all we need is, prosaically, to ‘fill up.’ You have given her opportunities to offer us samples of peasant food. The result has been nil.”
“It is odd,” Letitia declared, a wrinkle of perplexity appearing in the smooth surface of her forehead. “Of course, she says she doesn’t understand me. And yet, Archie, I have talked to her in pure Swedish.”
“I suppose you said, ‘Pray give me a piece of venison,’ from the conversation book.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Archie. I know the Swedish for cauliflower, green peas, spinach, a leg of mutton, mustard, roast meat, soup, and—”
“‘If the wind be favorable, we shall be at Gothenburg in forty hours,’” I interrupted. She was silent, and I went on: “It seems a pity to end your studies in Swedish, Letitia, but fascinating though they be, they do not really necessitate our keeping this barbarian. You can always pursue them, and exercise on me. I don’t mind. Even with an American cook, if such a being exist, you could still continue to ask for venison steak in Swedish, and to look forward to arriving at Gothenburg in forty hours.”
Letitia declined to argue. My mood was that known as cranky. We were in the drawing-room, after what we were compelled to call dinner. It had consisted of steak burned to cinders, potatoes soaked to a pulp, and a rice pudding that looked like a poultice the morning after, and possibly tasted like one. Letitia had been shopping, and was therefore unable to supervise. Our delicate repast was capped by “black” coffee of an indefinite straw-color, and with globules of grease on the surface. People who can feel elated with the joy of living, after a dinner of this description, are assuredly both mentally and morally lacking. Men and women there are who will say: “Oh, give me anything. I’m not particular—so long as it is plain and wholesome.” I’ve met many of these people. My experience of them is that they are the greatest gluttons on earth, with veritably voracious appetites, and that the best isn’t good enough for them. To be sure, at a pinch, they will demolish a score of potatoes, if there be nothing else; but offer them caviare, canvas-back duck, quail, and nesselrode pudding, and they will look askance at food that is plain and wholesome. The “plain and wholesome” liver is a snare and a delusion, like the “bluff and genial” visitor whose geniality veils all sorts of satire and merciless comment.
Letitia and I both felt weak and miserable. We had made up our minds not to dine out. We were resolved to keep the home up, even if, in return, the home kept us down. Give in, we wouldn’t. Our fighting blood was up. We firmly determined not to degenerate into that clammy American institution, the boarding-house feeder and the restaurant diner. We knew the type; in the feminine, it sits at table with its bonnet on, and a sullen gnawing expression of animal hunger; in the masculine, it puts its own knife in the butter, and uses a toothpick. No cook—no lack of cook—should drive us to these abysmal depths.
Letitia made no feint at Ovid. I simply declined to breathe the breath of The Lives of Great Men. She read a sweet little classic called “The Table; How to Buy Food, How to Cook It, and How to Serve It,” by Alessandro Filippini—a delightful table-d’hôte-y name. I lay back in my chair and frowned, waiting until Letitia chose to break the silence. As she was a most chattily inclined person on all occasions, I reasoned that I should not have to wait long. I was right.
“Archie,” said she, “according to this book, there is no place in the civilized world that contains so large a number of so-called high-livers as New York City, which was educated by the famous Delmonico and his able lieutenants.”
“Great Heaven!” I exclaimed with a groan, “why rub it in, Letitia? I should also say that no city in the world contained so large a number of low-livers.”
“‘Westward the course of Empire sways,’” she read, “‘and the great glory of the past has departed from those centers where the culinary art at one time defied all rivals. The scepter of supremacy has passed into the hands of the metropolis of the New World.’”
“What sickening cant!” I cried. “What fiendishly exaggerated restaurant talk! There are perhaps fifty fine restaurants in New York. In Paris there are five hundred finer. Here we have places to eat in; there they have artistic resorts to dine in. One can dine anywhere in Paris. In New York, save for those fifty fine restaurants, one feeds. Don’t read any more of your cook-book to me, my girl. It is written to catch the American trade, with the subtile pen of flattery.”
“Try and be patriotic, dear,” she said soothingly. “Of course, I know you wouldn’t allow a Frenchman to say all that, and that you are just talking cussedly with your own wife.”
A ring at the bell caused a diversion. We hailed it. We were in the humor to hail anything. The domestic hearth was most trying. We were bored to death. I sprang up and ran to the door, a little pastime to which I was growing accustomed. Three tittering young women, each wearing a hat in which roses, violets, poppies, cornflowers, forget-me-nots, feathers and ribbons ran riot, confronted me.
“Miss Gerda Lyberg?” said the foremost, who wore a bright red gown, and from whose hat six spiteful poppies lurched forward and almost hit me in the face.
For a moment, dazed from the cook-book, I was nonplussed. All I could say was “No,” meaning that I wasn’t Miss Gerda Lyberg. I felt so sure that I wasn’t that I was about to close the door.
“She lives here, I believe,” asserted the damsel, again shooting forth the poppies.
I came to myself with an effort. “She is the—the cook,” I muttered weakly.
“We are her friends,” quoth the damsel, an indignant inflection in her voice. “Kindly let us in. We’ve come to the Thursday sociable.”
The three bedizened ladies entered without further parley and went toward the kitchen, instinctively recognizing its direction. I was amazed. I heard a noisy greeting, a peal of laughter, a confusion of tongues, and then—I groped my way back to Letitia.
“They’ve come to the Thursday sociable!” I cried.
“Who?” she asked in astonishment, and I imparted to her the full extent of my knowledge. Letitia took it very nicely. She had always heard, she said, in fact Mrs. Archer had told her, that Thursday nights were festival occasions with the Swedes. She thought it rather a pleasant and convivial notion. Servants must enjoy themselves, after all. Better a happy gathering of girls than a rowdy collection of men. Letitia thought the idea felicitous. She had no objections to giving privileges to a cook. Nor had I, for the matter of that. I ventured to remark, however, that Gerda didn’t seem to be a cook.
“Then let us call her a ‘girl,’” said Letitia.
“Gerda is a girl, only because she isn’t a boy,” I remarked tauntingly. “If by ‘girl’ you even mean servant, then Gerda isn’t a girl. Goodness knows what she is. Hello! Another ring!”
This time Miss Lyberg herself went to the door, and we listened. More arrivals for the sociable; four Swedish guests, all equally gaily attired in flower hats. Some of them wore bangles, the noise of which, in the hall, sounded like an infuriation of sleigh-bells. They were Christina and Sophie and Sadie and Alexandra—as we soon learned. It was wonderful how welcome Gerda made them, and how quickly they were “at home.” They rustled through the halls, chatting and laughing and humming. Such merry girls! Such light-hearted little charmers! Letitia stood looking at them through the crack of the drawing-room door. Perhaps it was just as well that somebody should have a good time in our house.
“Just the same, Letitia,” I observed, galled, “I think I should say to-morrow that this invasion is most impertinent—most uncalled for.”
“Yes, Archie,” said Letitia demurely, “you think you should say it. But please don’t think I shall, for I assure you that I shan’t. I suppose that we must discharge her. She can’t do anything and she doesn’t want to learn. I don’t blame her. She can always get the wages she asks by doing nothing. You would pursue a similar policy, Archie, if it were possible. Everybody would. But all other laborers must know how to labor.”
I was glad to hear Letitia echoing my sentiments. She was quite unconsciously plagiarizing. Once again she took up the cook-book. The sound of merrymaking in the kitchen drifted in upon us. From what we could gather, Gerda seemed to be “dressing up” for the delectation of her guests. Shrieks of laughter and clapping of hands made us wince. My nerves were on edge. Had any one at that moment dared to suggest that there was even a suspicion of humor in these proceedings I should have slain him without compunction. Letitia was less irate and tried to comfort me.
Letitia sighed, and shut up the cook-book. Eggs à la reine seemed as difficult as trigonometry, or conic sections, or differential calculus—and much more expensive. Certainly the eight giggling cooks in the kitchen, now at the very height of their exhilaration, worried themselves little about such concoctions. My nerves again began to play pranks. The devilish pandemonium infuriated me. Letitia was tired and wanted to go to bed. I was tired and hungry and disillusioned. It was close upon midnight and the Swedish Thursday was about over. I thought it unwise to allow them even an initial minute of Friday. When the clock struck twelve, I marched majestically to the kitchen, threw open the door, revealed the octette in the enjoyment of a mound of ice-cream and a mountain of cake—that in my famished condition made my mouth water—and announced in a severe, yet subdued tone, that the revel must cease.
“You must go at once,” I said, “I am going to shut up the house.”
Then I withdrew and waited. There was a delay, during which a Babel of tongues was let loose, and then Miss Lyberg’s seven guests were heard noisily leaving the house. Two minutes later, there was a knock at our door and Miss Lyberg appeared, her eyes blazing, her face flushed and the expression of the hunted antelope defiantly asserting that it would never be brought to bay, on her perspiring features.
“You’ve insulted my guests!” she cried, in English as good as my own. “I’ve had to turn them out of the house, and I’ve had about enough of this place.”
Letitia’s face was a psychological study. Amazement, consternation, humiliation—all seemed determined to possess her. Here was the obtuse Swede, for whose dear sake she had dallied with the intricacies of the language of Stockholm, furiously familiar with admirable English! The dense, dumb Scandinavian—the lady of the “me no understand” rejoinder—apparently had the “gift of tongues.” Letitia trembled. Rarely have I seen her so thoroughly perturbed. Yet seemingly she was unwilling to credit the testimony of her own ears, for with sudden energy, she confronted Miss Lyberg, and exclaimed imperiously, in Swedish that was either pure or impure: “Tig. Ga din väg!”
“Ah, come off!” cried the handmaiden insolently. “I understand English. I haven’t been in this country fifteen years for nothing. It’s just on account of folks like you that poor hard-working girls, who ain’t allowed to take no baths or entertain no lady friends, have to protect themselves. Pretend not to understand them, says I. I’ve found it worked before this. If they think you don’t understand ‘em, they’ll let you alone and stop worriting. It’s like your impidence to turn my lady-friends out of this flat. It’s like your impidence. I’ll—”
Letitia’s crestfallen look, following upon her perturbation, completely upset me. A wave of indignation swamped me. I advanced, and in another minute Miss Gerda Lyberg would have found herself in the hall, impelled there by a persuasive hand upon her shoulder. However, it was not to be.
“You just lay a hand on me,” she said with cold deliberation, and a smile, “and I’ll have you arrested for assault. Oh, I know the law. I haven’t been in this country fifteen years for nothing. The law looks after poor weak, Swedish girls. Just push me out. It’s all I ask. Just you push me out.”
She edged up to me defiantly. My blood boiled. I would have mortgaged the prospects of my Lives of Great Men (not that they were worth mortgaging) for the exquisite satisfaction of confounding this abominable woman. Then I saw the peril of the situation. I thought of horrid headliners in the papers: “Author charged with abusing servant girl,” or, “Arrest of Archibald Fairfax on serious charge,” and my mood changed.
“I understood you all the time,” continued Miss Lyberg insultingly. “I listened to you. I knew what you thought of me. Now I’m telling you what I think of you. The idea of turning out my lady-friends, on a Thursday night, too! And me a-slaving for them, and a-bathing for them, and a-treating them to ice cream and cake, and in me own kitchen. You ain’t no lady. As for you “—I seemed to be her particular pet—” when I sees a man around the house all the time, a-molly-coddling and a-fussing, I says to myself, he ain’t much good if he can’t trust the women folk alone.”
We stood there like dummies, listening to the tirade. What could we do? To be sure, there were two of us, and we were in our own house. The antagonist, however, was a servant, not in her own house. The situation, for reasons that it is impossible to define, was hers. She knew it, too. We allowed her full sway, because we couldn’t help it. The sympathy of the public, in case of violent measures, would not have been on our side. The poor domestic, oppressed and enslaved, would have appealed to any jury of married men, living luxuriously in cheap boarding-houses!
When she left us, as she did when she was completely ready to do so, Letitia began to cry. The sight of her tears unnerved me, and I checked a most unfeeling remark that I intended to make to the effect that, “if the wind be favorable, we shall be at Gothenburg in forty hours.”
“It’s not that I mind her insolence,” she sobbed, “we were going to send her off anyway, weren’t we? But it’s so humiliating to be ‘done.’ We’ve been ‘done.’ Here have I been working hard at Swedish—writing exercises, learning verbs, studying proverbs—just to talk to a woman who speaks English as well as I do. It’s—it’s—so—so—mor—mortifying.”
“Never mind, dear,” I said, drying her eyes for her; “the Swedish will come in handy some day.”
“No,” she declared vehemently, “don’t say that You’ll take me to Sweden. I wouldn’t go to the hateful country. It’s a hideous language, anyway, isn’t it, Archie? It is a nasty, laconic, ugly tongue. You heard me say Tig to her just now. Tig means ‘be silent.’ Could anything sound more repulsive? Tig! Tig! Ugh!”
Letitia stamped her foot. She was exceeding wroth.