Author: Dale, Alan, 1861-1928
Married people — Fiction
Housekeeping — Fiction
Cooks — Fiction
Household employees — Fiction
Wanted: A Cook
WANTED: A COOK
WANTED: A COOK
THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY
The Bobbs-Merrill Company
To JENNIE SHALEK: housewife,
who, in my hour of drab and dreary cooklessness, when my heart fainted, and tragedy impended, sent her four fair daughters to my aid, with an ancient Hibernian curio destined to eke out a livelihood at my expense; who knows the true inwardness of this tragic topic, and who would gladly lend a willing hand and an unwilling cook to any sufferer, I gratefully dedicate these simple, plaintive dialogues.
New York City,
WANTED: A COOK
My Letitia! It was indeed a proud and glowing moment when I slipped the little golden circlet on her fair, slim, girlish finger, and realized that she was assuredly mine. We were so eminently suited to each other—both young, enthusiastic, and unspotted from the world. We had our own pet theories, and long before marriage we had communed on that favorite, misunderstood topic—the sanctity of the home.
Letitia was exceedingly well-read, and the polish upon her education shone. It was no mere thin veneer, to be worn off by a too brutal contact with the rough edges of the world. It was an ingrained polish. She adored the classics. Other girls would sit down and pore over the Sarah-Jane romances of the hour. My Letitia liked Virgil. In French she was fearfully familiar with Molière and Racine. In German she coquetted with Schiller in the most delightful manner. She knew most of the students’ readings of Shakespeare. In fact, she fascinated me by her arch refinement.
We were both great sticklers for refinement. We pitied the poor silly things who knew how to sew and cook. Refinement—we were both certain of it—was the cultivation of the gloriously useless. We despised the abominably useful. It was so sordid. We felt convinced that our “home” could be conducted upon suave and easy lines, without abandoning even one of our theories. Letitia told me that “home” was the Anglo-Saxon ham, and I was so much in love with her, that I didn’t mind in the least. In fact, I hinted that I had suspected as much. How could “home” be anything else but Anglo-Saxon?
My little girl had been “finished” in Paris, at a select, and pleasingly dismal, pension in the Avenue du Roule. I, myself, had taken a B. A. at Oxford. Yet we were triumphantly patriotic Americans. We returned to these shores absolutely convinced that they were beyond criticism. After all, people only go abroad in order that they may realize the inferiority of Europe. They never go for a “good time,” or for mere frivolous amusement. The great armies of Americans in London and Paris are there simply because they prefer America and want that fact brought home to them. If you don’t believe me, ask them. Nail them down to their patriotism.
However, both Letitia and I grudgingly admitted that in England home life did seem a bit more potent than on this side.
“It naturally would,” said Letitia, “because you see ‘home’ is really an Anglo-Saxon idea.”
But we were going to have a home of our own in the very midst of seething New York. The mere notion of a vulgar, degrading “boarding-house” was detestable to us, while as for the “apartment hotel,” where you sat at dinner in your best clothes with a crowd of unsympathetic strangers, we sniffed at the bare suggestion. We wanted a little refuge, tiny yet dainty, where we could be alone to live our lives. “To live our lives” was one of Letitia’s expressions. She abstracted it unconsciously, I believe, from Ibsen. A chaste and cherishable resort, where of an evening my wife could read The Iliad in the original, and I, in a becoming smoking-jacket and velvet slippers, could work at my Lives of Great Men, was what we clamored to possess. And possess it we fully intended to do.
I may add that Letitia also believed in the “new thought.” She was of the opinion that you could will anything you wanted. She doted on sitting still, and sending out telepathic waves from her cunning little brain, and I loved to look at her telepathing. She was at her prettiest.
Aunt Julia Dinsmore, Letitia’s only relative, and a sedate old lady with drab ideas, mentioned something about the “servant question” as she listened to our domestic rhapsodies. She suggested to us that there must be some satisfactory reason to explain the lack of well-appointed homes in New York. Americans liked comfort just as well as other people, said she. Did we suppose that they were uncomfortable because they preferred discomfort? And again she referred to the “servant question.”
The “servant question”! How we laughed! Letitia nudged me under the table and arched her eyebrows. She turned to Aunt Julia and quoted one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful passages:
“How well in thee appears
The constant service of the antique world,
When service sweat for duty, not for meed!”
It is one of the many charming things in As You Like It. Aunt Julia said that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the case. Perhaps it hadn’t. In fact, as I think it over now, I can’t quite see its relevancy. Yet what mattered relevancy? It was a treat to listen to Letitia when she quoted.
“Your Shakespeare will die when your cook comes in,” said Aunt Julia, and she laughed. People are so fond of laughing at their own epigrams. It is most irritating—just as though the utterance of this perverted form of philosophy were a relief.
“You dear silly old thing!” exclaimed Letitia to her aunt, “we shall not worry. We don’t read the comic papers. Americans believe all the wretched jokes, dished up for them, to be founded on fact. Americans believe anything. They have no time to think for themselves. Have they, Archie?”
All I could reply was: “No.” I should like to have been pungent and clever, but somehow or other, I never can follow Letitia. She generally appeals to me with a deft query, destined to color her own delightful train of thought, and I have nothing better to say than “no”—or occasionally “yes.”
After that, Aunt Julia dropped the “servant question,” as she called it. The “servant question”! As though there could be such a question! How could refined and educated people elect to permit the mere matter of domestic drudgery to be a “question”? Art might be a question. Science was certainly a question. But to allude to the handmaiden, who opens your front door, or to the person who Marylands your terrapin, as a “question” was too ludicrous. It was making mountains out of molehills. Ah! Letitia and I were for the glorious mountains, with their sun-kissed peaks and their exultant elevation.
We were neither of us freighted with that detestable thing dubbed a “sense of humor.” Thank goodness for that! A sense of humor is a handicap in the world’s race. People afflicted with it seem to spend their time laughing at their friends, scoffing at serious situations, and extracting spurious merriment from the gravity and dignity of life. We both believed that a sense of humor was unrefined. Comic story-tellers, comic poets, comic critics—how we loathed them! They were parasites on the face of things, giving you stones when you craved bread—furnishing nasty, sickly ridicule in lieu of delicate, intellectual analysis. Thank goodness, that both Letitia and I had been spared the curse of a “sense of humor.” We had been educated beyond it.
Aunt Julia, as I said, was henceforth silent—or comparatively silent—on her banal, squalid “servant question.” But she was rampant and interfering again when we selected the pretty little apartment—in a beautiful neighborhood—that was to be our home—Letitia’s and mine! We took it without a question, there being nothing that we wanted to know. It was not one of those American institutions in which, to get from the drawing-room to the dining-room, you were forced to walk through the bedrooms, no matter who happened to be in them, asleep, or dressing. It had a “private hall,” and each room possessed a window. Why each room shouldn’t possess a window, I can’t explain, but windows in up-to-date apartments are a luxury, and not a necessity. I dare say that they are very old-fashioned, but they are one of the last remnants of old fashion to which I cling.
It was a small apartment with “six rooms and bath”—very cozy, and quite light and cheerful without furniture. After we had seen our dainty “belongings” moved in, we were bound to admit that some people might say that it all looked “stuffy.” Letitia didn’t think so; nor did I. Much we cared!
Still, it was quite remarkable what a difference furniture made. It really seemed to be in the way. The drawing-room was almost blocked up with its chairs and sofas, what-nots, and ottomans. It had seemed quite a spacious apartment when in its natural state. One would have thought that it mutely rebelled at the indignity of furniture. Yet one must furnish!
The only thing to do in our drawing-room was to sit down. It was quite comfortable sitting down. It seemed like refuge to get to a chair—out of harm’s way. When up and doing, you had to dodge and to steer yourself. We often went there before we were married, just to get used to the position of the furniture. In front of the fireplace—where there would never be any fire, as everything was steam-heated—we placed the tiger-rug, with the real tiger-head, that Aunt Julia gave us. It was rather dark by the fireplace, as a bookcase, a what-not, a dear little tête-à-tête chair and a “cosy corner” were in its vicinity and we always fell over the tiger’s head. It was most amusing at first. I laughed when it brought Letitia down. Letitia laughed when she saw me prone. But one tires so quickly of innocent pleasure! The last time we visited the apartment before the gorgeous day when it literally became “ours,” I fell over the tiger-head, and—it palled. For the first time it didn’t seem so funny. I am glad to say that Letitia laughed just the same, her mind being more ingenuous than mine.
In the dining-room, too, there was a wealth of furniture. It was such a cheerful room when we first saw it, but when curtained and upholstered, it was necessary to switch on the electric light in order to see where the table was. Of course, this didn’t matter at all. It was merely a new experience and deliciously odd. Still, we both agreed that if we preferred air and light to material, bodily comfort, our “home” was infinitely brighter unfurnished. As a matter of fact, the simplest necessities of domestic life were encumbrances. We had to ponder over an extra chair. The disposal of a small footstool called for a mathematical mind. As for the table, it had—like most other tables—four legs, but three of them were ridiculously in the way. They seemed like abnormal growths.
We were delighted at all this innovation. We prattled about our “home” by the hour. These—or rather, this—might be the ancestral halls of our great-great-grandchildren, though at present it seemed destined for one generation at a time—and a small generation, too. There was scarcely room for even an ancestor, and I couldn’t help feeling thankful that ancestors were not usual in New York.
The bedrooms surprised us. They were called bedrooms, because nobody had yet thought out any other name for them. We were both loud in praise of their coziness. They were simply full of coziness. There was no room for anything else. Furnished with ledges or bunks as on board ship, they would have been most spacious and agreeable. With beds in them they bulged. Letitia admitted this, when I called her attention to it. She laughed and quoted Ben Jonson’s memorable words: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie a little further to make thee a room.” And, as usual, I kissed her. Her splendid thoughts were independent of mere space. They rose above and superior to close modernity. Thank goodness, again, for the lack of a sense of humor! With it, I might have said things about Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont, at which the groundlings, would, perchance, have smiled. The humorists, so-called, would sell their souls for a laugh.
We never once looked at the kitchen. Not for worlds would we have betrayed so mean and petty a spirit. Undoubtedly there are women who would have peered into this food-resort, and have held forth on such disgusting topics as “tubs” and “hot and cold water.” Ugh! How nauseating! Letitia simply passed it by with a shrug. It had to be there, of course, but it had nothing to do with our case. Cook would probably know if it were properly appointed. This was what cook was for. The agent had told us that a bedroom for a cook was conveniently adjoining. To which Letitia had replied, in evident amusement, “No doubt. Why not?” I thought it clever, and I believe that the agent did, for he turned his face quickly away.
Aunt Julia had supplied the cooking utensils, I am thankful to say. We had no interest in them. We agreed that they were necessary, but we were willing to pay, and to pay well, for a careful custodian of that sort of thing. But as I began to say before, Aunt Julia, after having wisely dropped the “servant question,” became rampant and interfering on the subject of our apartment. She asked distressing questions about “dumb waiters,” and “janitors,” and “washing.”
Letitia was reading Cicero’s De Amicitia at the time, I remember, while I was making notes of some incidents in the life of Goethe that I meant to incorporate in my book. I bore with Aunt Julia most patiently. As I could not answer her questions, I parried them very good-naturedly. After all, she was Letitia’s only relative, and she was old, and rather infirm. One must be polite, even when it would be excruciatingly exquisite to be otherwise.
“I must say,” remarked Aunt Julia, “that you don’t seem to have looked at anything. You have taken an apartment, and you know nothing at all about it. You are a couple of silly children.”
“Pardon me,” I said, “but we have looked at all that it was necessary to look at. I don’t expect Letitia to grovel.”
“Grovel!” cried Aunt Julia, “grovel! I like that. In my time, a housewife knew what she was doing—”
“That’s just it,” I interrupted. “In your time, Aunt Julia, there were housewives. I hate the phrase. Housewife—wife of the house. I want my wife for myself, not for my house. In your time, I dare say, women so far forgot themselves—yes, forgot themselves, Aunt Julia—as to discuss the laundry, or the market, with their husbands. That, I may say, is not our idea. I want your dear little niece to stay in her drawing-room—”
“Stay in her—what?” cried Aunt Julia ferociously.
“I repeat: her drawing-room. Oh, I know that you would prefer that I say ‘parlor.’ I decline to do so. It is a word that grates on my nerves. In England, they have ‘parlors’ in hovels. You enter the ‘parlor’ direct from the street. It is quite unnecessary to cast a stigma on a room. Drawing-room sounds much more refined. With us it will be drawing-room.”
“I think Archie is right, Aunt Julia,” said Letitia, looking up from De Amicitia, and smiling at me—dear little girl! “It is a prettier term, isn’t it? ‘Parlor’ sounds so awfully poor, and—well, dear, we are really not awfully poor. It is the little refinements of life that count. I don’t think I could feel at home in a parlor. I just adore the notion of my drawing-room.”
Aunt Julia laughed. It wasn’t one of those laughs that signify merriment. It was that contemptuous something that we call a laugh for want of a better word. I should classify it as a snortch, or a sniffth. It angered me considerably.
“There are no drawing-rooms,” continued Letitia’s relative, “in One-Hundred-and-Fourth Street, near Columbus Avenue. I should think you would be satisfied to hear them called ‘parlors.’ Cubby-holes would be more appropriate. Of course, I may be all wrong. Of course. Ha! Ha! To talk as though you owned Marlborough House, or Buckingham Palace, or Vanderbilt’s mansion! Ha! Ha! It is too preposterous.”
I saw a flush on my Letitia’s face. She had closed her Cicero with a sigh. All this small-talk was nerve-racking.
“A drawing-room,” persisted Aunt Julia, “is literally the room to which the guests withdraw after dinner. I imagine that your guests will withdraw to it not only after dinner, but after luncheon and breakfast as well. In fact they will be obliged to withdraw there or sit on the fire-escape. By-the-by, have you a fire-escape?”
As though I knew or cared! Fancy selecting a home, and inquiring if there were any means by which you could escape from it. I did not answer. My mind was brooding over the question of withdrawing from the dining-room. Next to our dining-room was the bathroom. It was rather an odd arrangement, especially as bathing is considered dangerous immediately after eating. The man who designed our “home” evidently thought that a bath after a meal was a good thing. Otherwise, why place the bathroom next to the dining-room?
I recovered my equanimity instantly. “You are trying to discourage us, Aunt Julia,” I said, “but it won’t work. You can call the drawing-room a ‘parlor’ if you like. But we shan’t. Nor are we trying to ape Buckingham Palace. We are too American for that. The trouble here is that whenever you try to be nice, refined, and courteous, you are accused of aping something. We ape nothing at all. We prefer a drawing-room because it has a more cultured sound. Just as we intend to call the china-closet a ‘pantry.’ This is a free country.”
“Fiddlesticks!” cried Aunt Julia. “You are very devoted to your drawing-room and your pantry, but I’m grieved to think that a sensible girl like Letitia, and an able-bodied young man, like yourself, haven’t thought it worth while to ask the janitor about the disposition of the garbage.”
That settled it. I had endured a good deal. I had been patient, polite, kindly, and amused. Yes, I had been half-amused. When I heard Aunt Julia sully her lips with a word so coarse as “garbage” in the presence of my innocent little unsophisticated Letitia, I decided that the time for protest had indeed arrived.
“Mrs. Dinsmore,” I said—not even “Aunt Julia”—”I must really ask you to avoid such disgusting words and topics, or, if you must mention them, to do so to me alone. I can stand it—perhaps. But it is not nice for your niece. There may be such a thing as garbage in the world—I believe that there is—but one does not care to allude to it at home.”
I looked at Letitia. A slight expression of disgust manifested itself on her face, although she tried for my sake to conceal it.
“It is a word that has come to us, Archie, from the old French garbe,” she said quickly, with her own admirable tact. “It was once more disgusting than it now seems to be. Americans use it to express kitchen refuse o