In the summers, when we went to the country, our usual plan was to hire a temporary cook to go with us, so that Margaret could stay in town. We hated to leave her, but the idea was that somebody must stay to take care of the house. There were no electric burglar alarms in those days, and few special watchmen. Little Margaret made a pretty small watchman, for she was no size at all, but she had an indomitable spirit. So we’d leave her on guard while we went up to our summer home in Harrison with a substitute cook.
But this didn’t work well. No matter how few the substitute’s faults were, Father had no patience with them. One summer, I remember, there was a nice woman, Delia, who got on well with Mother because she was so obliging and pleasant, but who didn’t suit Father at all. “I don’t give a damn how obliging she is,” he kept saying. “If she won’t oblige me by cooking something fit to eat, she can go.”
This didn’t sound unreasonable, but Delia cooked well enough for the rest of us, and Mother hated to risk getting someone else who’d be temperamental. Our dining-room consequently became a battleground morning and night. At breakfast, Father would put down his coffee-cup in disgust and roar: “Slops! Damn it, slops! Does she call this confounded mess coffee? Isn’t there a damned soul in Westchester County who knows how to make coffee but me? I swear to God I can’t even imagine how she concocts such atrocities. I come down to this room hungry every morning, and she tries to fill me with slops! Take it away, I tell you!” he would bellow to the waitress. “Take this accursed mess away!” And while she and Delia were frantically hurrying to make a fresh pot, he would savagely devour his omelet and bacon, and declare that his breakfast was ruined.
The longer Delia stayed with us, the more alarmed Father became. He ate heartily, as Mother kept pointing out to him, but he said he didn’t feel nourished. He said it was no use to argue about it; he felt all gone inside. One night after he had had a four-course dinner, he fretfully got up from the table, went into the library with his cigar, and moaned that he was starved. His moans were, as always, full-throated, and they came from the heart. Every now and then, when his miserable condition seemed to strike him afresh, he laid down his book and shouted “Starved! Starved!” in a grief-stricken roar.
When Mother went in the library to quiet him, he told her he’d be damned if he’d stand it. “I refuse to be sent to my grave, do you hear me, by that infernal bog-trotting imbecile you keep in my kitchen.”
“Now, Clare, a Japanese is coming tomorrow, I told you. This is Delia’s last night. I do hope you’ll like Tobo. He won’t know our ways right at the start, of course, but he is a very good cook.”
Father was appeased for the moment by the dismissal of Delia. But the next night, when he found that the first dish was too Oriental, he said in an annoyed tone to Mother, “Will you kindly explain to your man Tobo that I am not a coolie?” And after eating the rest of his dinner, he pushed his plate away and went up to his bedroom, declaring vehemently that he was poisoned. He undressed, lay down on his sofa, and filled the air with deep groans.
From time to time he stopped and dozed a little, or listened to what he could hear of our talk. His feeling was that we shouldn’t be talking at all. We ought to be sitting with bowed heads in silence until he recovered. “Poisoned!” he suddenly boomed, to remind us. “Oh, God! I am poisoned!”
At this point, Mother, who was down in the library, laughed. Father heard her. He jumped up from his sofa and marched from his bedroom indignantly into the hall. “I’m a sick man!” he thundered robustly. “And nobody in this house gives a damn!”
Mother hurried upstairs to see what he wanted. He insisted on her rubbing his back. Sick or well, that always soothed him, and he would have liked her to do it for hours. He loved to close his eyes, with someone’s hand moving quietly on him, while a feeling of comfort flowed into his thoughts and his nerves.
Mother didn’t think much of rubbing, however. She didn’t like it herself. When anyone rubbed her, she stiffened and resisted at once. Consequently she had no idea of the right way to do it. When she had to rub Father, she always got tired of it in a very few minutes.
She gave him some hasty little rubs and digs as well as she could, but just as he was beginning to relax, she said, “There now, Clare, that’s enough.” Father was so disappointed by this that it reminded him that he was poisoned, and the only cure he could think of was the dismissal of Tobo.
The next day old Margaret was sent for to come at once to the country, and the house in town was locked up and left to take care of itself.
She came in a hack from the Harrison station. She was an odd sight. Her face looked familiar in her little black bonnet, tied under her chin, but she seemed strangely swollen and bulky; she stuck out in queer places; and as she crowded through the back door, she bruised me with her hard, bony hip. Only it wasn’t her hip, it turned out; it was her favourite saucepan, which was tied to her waist under her skirt. Several large spoons, a dipper, a skillet, and two pair of shoes were made fast under it elsewhere. In her arms she had some bundles wrapped in newspapers, which Mother thought at first held her clothes, but when Margaret opened them we found they contained cheeses, melons, fresh coffee, a leg of lamb, some sweet potatoes, and other provisions. Margaret had no faith at all in being able to buy any supplies in the country. She had brought as complete a larder to Harrison as though we were at the North Pole.
“But didn’t you bring any clothes with you, Margaret? Not even an apron?” asked Mother.
Little Margaret pursed her lips closely together and didn’t answer at first. Then, as Mother stood waiting, she said unwillingly, “I have me other clothes on me.”
She had wanted to have her hands free, it seemed, to bring us something good to eat. So under her street dress she was wearing two other dresses on that hot summer day, a collection of stiffly starched petticoats, three aprons, two nightgowns, and pretty much all the rest of her wardrobe.
As she was climbing upstairs to unpeel and unpack herself, Father saw her. “Is that you, Margaret?” he called, suddenly feeling much better. “Thank God!”