Spring-cleaning, the most unwonderful time of the year.
The time for Margaret's bete noir, the dreaded spring cleaning, had now indeed come; had it been longer deferred, its name would hardly have been applicable, for the spring was passing swiftly away.
Margaret had borne in mind Mrs Trent's advice not to begin to clean till fires were done with; but a very cold and late spring indicated that fires would be necessary for some time to come, so that lady advised her no longer to put off the evil day, though, when practicable, fires should be given up first.
Having kept her house as clean as possible, taking every room and passage in turn, so that no part had been neglected, she felt justified in departing from the time-honoured custom of having a thorough upset. It is always necessary, however, even in a house the daily or weekly cleaning of which is rigorously performed, to have a sort of "wash and brush up"; for, in the cleanest house, the summer sun, penetrating into every corner and cranny, will discover a kind of dingy air, the result of long days of fog, and damp, and smoke.
Margaret's first step was to turn out all the cupboards and drawers in the house. Each drawer as it was emptied was carried out into the little yard at the back of the house, and thoroughly brushed out, then relined with large sheets of paper, which Margaret had bought for the purpose, before being brought back into its place.
As the cupboards could not be treated in quite the same way, a dust sheet was spread at the bottom and in front of them, and Betsy, armed with a dusting brush, swept down the walls and every corner, while Margaret was looking over the contents. When both those operations were finished, everything was put back that was not condemned as rubbish, of which a wonderful stock seemed to have accumulated during Margaret's short reign.
The cretonne chair-covers and bedroom hangings were next looked over, two or three dirty ones sent to be cleaned, and a note made of the fact that directly the cleaning was over two new covers must be made for two drawing-room chairs to replace the very shabby ones, which would just do to cover the old chairs in the boys' bedroom.
The window blinds next called for attention. All the upper rooms of the house were fitted with white ones, while the sitting-rooms had venetian blinds. The bright sunshine showed very plainly that the white linen was getting very dirty, and Joanna had told Margaret that washing it did not answer, as it always hangs badly after that process. But, as Margaret was cherishing a scheme for wonderful improvement in the drawing-room, she was loth to spend the money on anything so uninteresting as new blinds. She concluded, however, that it was imperative to get them for the two front rooms; but for the back of the house she simply took the off the rollers and turned them top to bottom; the upper parts, being rolled up all day, were hardly soiled at all, and looked quite nice and fresh.
Another day was devoted to the book-cases, and the labour of that devolved almost entirely upon Margaret. She allowed Betsy to help her at first, but found her simple mind quite incapable of perceiving the advantage of putting a magazine for 1880 next to one for 1879, nor could she understand why volumes of poetry, history and science should not be all put upon the shelves indiscriminately.
"Sure, Miss Margaret," she said, "mine looks the best, if you'll excuse me saying so, for I've put all the green books together, and you've got the colours all mixed up anyhow."
She was very useful, however, in dusting the books. Clapping them together to shake off the dust was an operation which she thoroughly enjoyed, and made such a noise over that Margaret, who was getting a violent headache with the repeated bangs, was compelled to go away and leave her alone to clap in peace, though she knew the books would be in a state of hopeless chaos on her return.
In this way every department of the house was looked over and examined, but Margaret wisely determined to postpone the shaking of carpets, and all the other branches of cleaning which tend most to the discomfort of the household, till they should all be away for their summer holiday.
When all else was done, the winter curtains were taken down, shaken, brushed with a soft curtain brush, and stowed away on the top shelf of the linen press. They were replaced by cream-coloured lace ones in the drawing-room, as that colour keeps clean much longer than white, and in the dining-room by plain book-muslin edged with a frill, and looped back with a broad band of ribbon.
Margaret could not but be amused at Betsy's utter want of thought in sweeping a room. She had never before happened to witness this performance, and was amazed to see her maid begin to sweep just inside the room, and sweep away from the door, leaving the corners till the last, when she would rake out of them all, or as much as she could get, of the dust she had just swept in. As she frequently left the windows shut during the performance, the result of all her labour was simply that the dust flew up from the carpet, and settled on the sheets with which she furniture was covered, till they, in their turn, were hastily taken off, when it was shaken back on to the floor again. By this process the dust was perhaps more evenly distributed over the room than it had been before, but certainly none of it was entirely removed.
The morning's dusting was conducted in much the same way, simply being a flapping of dust from one place to another.
Betsy was astonished at her own stupidity when it was pointed out to her, and saw at once the wisdom of brushing from the corners into the middle of the room first, when a good deal of the dust and flue could be collected in the dust-pan and thrown into the fire. The advantages of the wide open windows were so evident that they hardly needed pointing out. Margaret advised her also, instead of hastily dragging off the dust sheets, to fold them over carefully so that the dust which had been allowed to settle on them should not be shaken off again, and then to carry them straight out into the yard and shake them there. In finishing the room, all possible articles were quickly wiped over with a slightly dampened cloth, that being, as Margaret had often observed, the only way of really removing dust. Those which would not bear this treatment were done in the ordinary way, only that she insisted upon its being performed carefully, so as to, as far as possible, collect the dust into the duster, which was then shaken outside, instead of being slapped about in the usual style.
"Well, miss," said Betsy, "it do seem so simple when you just point it out to me, but then I never can think on these things unless I'm showed."
And Margaret felt thankful for a servant who did not mind being "showed." Another perplexity had lately been about the management of the linen press. This was placed in a small room, the rest of which was used for a box-room. Being against the outside wall of the house, it was somewhat damp, and now and then a few spots of mildew o linen would fill Margaret with dismay, especially as she felt powerless to prevent this evil. A letter from Joanna in answer to one telling of her difficulties contained some suggestions:-
"It is indeed a great trouble to have a damp linen press. Do you remember how capital mine is? Of course ours being a new house we have many nice arrangements that you do not meet with in old houses, and amongst them, our linen press is heated by a hot-water pipe from the kitchen. I cannot tell you what a comfort it is.
"In your case I should recommend you to have everything thoroughly dried and aired before putting away; take the linen straight from the fire to its place in the press. Then on any bright clear day you should open the doors of the cupboard, and also the window and door of the room in which is stands, so as to get a draught of air passing through. But never do this if there is any feeling of moisture in the air, that would cause further harm.
"If the things feel damp now, take them all out and spread them in the sun if possible, or before a good fire, and leave the press doors open wide for a couple of days, then replace the contents and start fresh on my plan of airing everything before putting away; if you do this, I think you will not be troubled with mildew again.
"To ensure using the linen in proper order, you should put the articles as they come from the wash, week by week, at the bottom of the pile, then of course you take from the top, and there can be no using out of turn.
"I should paste the inventory of the house linen inside the press door if I were you, so that it cannot possibly be lost again.
"If any tablecloths are really too far worn for use you might perhaps get a piece out of the middle large enough for a sideboard cloth, or at any rate for fish napkins.
"Apropos of napkins, you know that Arthur is very particular about having his potatoes quite hot, and yet it is impossible to keep the cover on the dish or they become sodden. Well now, I always have them brought to table folded in a napkin in the dish, then when you take one you just raise the napkin with the spoon; it keeps them beautifully hot, and dries them as well.
"I should think none of your white curtains will require mending if you repaired them before putting away last autumn; but if at any future time they need it, let Betsy rinse the starch out, and then mend them before they are sent to be got up. If any are too far gone for repairs they will be useful for many purposes; the large pieces will make short blinds for the back windows, and the small pieces are useful for tying up herbs and spices when making soup – for straining and so on.
"Possibly it may not occur to you when putting away the winter blankets that they are highly attractive to moths; they are more likely to be attacked than almost anything, so do not forget to put plenty of camphor bags between them.
"You asked me in your last how to preserve eggs for winter use. I have never been able to buy them sufficiently cheaply to make it worth while doing it; but if you are more fortunate you can preserve them either by rubbing them over with butter, which closes up the pores, and so prevents evaporation; or a still better way is to put them when quite fresh laid into a tub of lime-water made in the proportion of one pint of unslacked lime, and one pint of coarse salt to a bucketful of water. If too much lime is put in it will eat away at the shells. The eggs should be covered with the solution, and kept in a cold place, and they must be new laid, or they will not keep.
"You say you find a difficulty in getting a sufficient supply of gravy for your various dishes, as the stock made from bones looks such a poor colour that you cannot serve it as gravy. That is easily overcome by simply colouring the stock. The flavour necessary can be added with herbs. You had better make a supply of 'browning' to keep always at hand. A very usual way is to put two ounces of powdered sugar into a stewpan over a slow fire; as soon as it begins to melt commence stirring it till it is of a good dark colour; then add half a pint of cold water. Another way is: on two tablespoonfuls of chicory pour a good half-pint of boiling water, and let it stand. These should be put into bottles well corked, and a few drops of either will be sufficient for a small tureen of gravy. Or, if you do not object to the flavour, the burnt onions which you buy at the grocer's do very well."
The letter then went on to other household topics upon which Margaret had been in perplexity. One weak point in Betsy's cookery was melted butter, so-called, for certainly the solid starch-like mass sent to table under that name was like anything rather than butter. Her way of making it remains a mystery, but after once adopting Joanna's plan she never turned to the former style. The recipe was as follows:-
Take two ounces of butter; cut up small, that it may melt more easily; put it, with a large teaspoonful of flour and two tablespoonfuls of milk, into a stewpan; mix these with a wooden spoon to a smooth paste. Then add about six tablespoonfuls of cold water with a small pinch of salt, and still less of pepper; put it on the fire, and stir one way till it is just about to oil; then leave of stirring, and when it boils it is done. To make the butter thinner add more milk.
One evening soon after this, the boys sallied forth towards the country lanes which lay just outside the town. They had provided themselves with baskets, old gloves, and knives, and told their sister they were going in search of country produce.
What was her surprise when they returned with baskets full and brimming over with young nettletops!
"Oh, boys! What did you get all that rubbish for?"
"Now, Madge, don't call it rubbish till you know what it is used for. You've got to boil them or frizzle them or something, and then they will be just like cabbages," responded Tom, knowingly.
"But what ever made you think of such an absurd idea," asked Margaret, laughing.
"That's always the way with girls. You think nobody makes inventions but yourselves."
"Now, Made, he's telling stories," chimed in Dick excitedly, "we didn't think of it at all. Only to-day at school young Melrose made us guess what he had had for dinner, and I guessed hedgehog, and Tom guessed cat, and all the fellows guessed things, and then he said 'nettles,' and then we didn't believe him, and he said, 'Well, you try,' and his mate never told him what it was till they had eaten it all; and they kept on saying what nice spinach it was, and so we thought we'd have some too, and we only cut the young tops off, so they are sure to be good. Only, Madge, if ever you go gathering them, mind you go alone, for if there's another fellow with you, and he's stooping down getting them, you feel you can't resist tipping him over into them."
"Yes, that's what he did to me, only I went clean head over heels and alighted on my back, so I didn't get stung a bit, so it was a sell for Dick," remarked Tom
"Well, I'll try them to-morrow, certainly, though I don't know how to do them," said Margaret, resignedly.
Accordingly the next day this enterprising family enjoyed a dish of nettles, which were decidedly successful, tender and nicely-flavoured, in fact almost undistinguishable from young spinach. They were cut up small and boiled in exactly the same way as spinach.
Shortly after this, Dick's fourteenth birthday came round, and on this important anniversary he was to have the privilege of inviting a select party of his friends to tea and games. Margaret felt a little anxious concerning the entertainment in both branches. As to the tea, she wished to make it as far as possible agreeable to boy palates and yet substantial withal; and the arrangement of her small menu took her some time. In the end it was very simple; plates of white and brown bread and butter, with various kinds of jam, were a matter of course; then followed Dick's favourite dish, potato-cakes, which he had specially requested might be included in the banquet. They were made from a recipe given Margaret some time before by the mother of Dick's particular friend, Melrose. She was an enterprising lady who was very fond of trying experiments in cookery, as was proved by her dish of nettles, and as she was always ready to give anyone the benefit of her experience, Margaret found her a very useful friend. The recipe was as follows:- "Boil a few potatoes (or use any which have been left from dinner), mash them up with a little butter and a pinch of salt. Empty on to the paste-board, rub in a little flour, and mix to the proper consistency with milk. An egg beaten up and mixed with the milk or half a teaspoonful of baking-powder is an improvement; but is not absolutely necessary. Roll it out, shape it into small cakes, and bake. Then cut them open and butter them, and serve whilst quite hot."
Then followed a heterogeneous collection of buns, toasted scones, and so on; amongst them some gingerbread cakes, which one of the epicures on the occasion pronounced to be "nice enough to make an old man young."
The recipe for them, as Margaret copied it for Joanna's use, was this:- 1 1/2 lbs treacle, 1/2 lb butter, 1 lb raw sugar, 3 eggs, 3 teaspoonfuls of baking powder, 1/2 oz ground ginger, 1 teaspoonful of salt. Mix the butter, melted, into the treacle, beat the eggs and pour them in; add the other ingredients, and [t as much flour as you can possibly mix into it. Make it into small cakes; put them a little distance apart on a tin. Bake in a moderate oven for a quarter of an hour.
And finally, as a delicate finish to the repast, there were two dishes of apples in custard. The apples were the dried chips, bought at a grocer's for sixpence a pound, stewed, sweetened, and flavoured with lemon.
As the family sat chatting round the fire the evening before Dick's birthday, Mr Colville mentioned that he would not be home till late the next night, and hoped Margaret would not find any difficulty in superintending the amusement of her guests.
"But they will not want amusing, I hope; boys generally seem to shake down and enjoy themselves when they get over their shyness. And Mr Trent said he should very much like to drop in after tea, and play at being a schoolboy again, but I thought perhaps Dick might not like it; so, as it is his party, I did not respond very warmly."
"But I should like it very much, he is such a jolly fellow, and I'm sure the other fellows would like him, and we'll make him do those conjuring tricks he knows. I vote we ask him," cried Dick.
"Yes, Madge, I think you had better get him to come in," said Mr Colville. "If he really offered to look after the boys it would save you all the anxiety."
"I say, how awfully often Trent comes here lately!" said Tom, meditatively, from his post on the hearthrug, where he lay sprawling at full length.
He expected to be reproved for saying "awfully," but no one noticed it. Not choosing to have his remarks thus ignored, he went on, "I like him; he's an awfully good sort of fellow – don't you think so, Madge."
"I certainly see nothing 'awful' about him," replied his sister severely.
"I say, father, I don't believe he would come so often if one of us four was away, do you?" he went on, with that knowing air peculiar to budding youths, raising himself on his elbow and staring at Madge. Whereon she fell to blushing, whilst Mr Colville replied, unconcernedly enough –
"I don't perceive that he shows any particular partiality for any one member of the family above the others; but his father was a very old friend of mine, and he naturally feels at home among us. I am glad if you boys think he has taken a fancy to you; for he is a nice, intelligent sensible young fellow. Now, lads, off to bed with you, it is getting late."
"All right, father. Give us a hand up, Dick. Good-night, Madge. Why, how red your face is to be sure, and you're not near the fire either."
And with this parting shot the irrepressible boy departed.