Chapter XVI. Into Training for Mary Ellen
 

Bertram told a friend afterwards that he never knew the meaning of the word "chaos" until he had seen the Strata during the weeks immediately following the laying away of his old servant.

"Every stratum was aquiver with apprehension," he declared; "and there was never any telling when the next grand upheaval would rock the whole structure to its foundations."

Nor was Bertram so far from being right. It was, indeed, a chaos, as none knew better than did Bertram's wife.

Poor Billy! Sorry indeed were these days for Billy; and, as if to make her cup of woe full to overflowing, there were Sister Kate's epistolary "I told you so," and Aunt Hannah's ever recurring lament: "If only, Billy, you were a practical housekeeper yourself, they wouldn't impose on you so!"

Aunt Hannah, to be sure, offered Rosa, and Kate, by letter, offered advice--plenty of it. But Billy, stung beyond all endurance, and fairly radiating hurt pride and dogged determination, disdained all assistance, and, with head held high, declared she was getting along very well, very well indeed!

And this was the way she "got along."

First came Nora. Nora was a blue-eyed, black- haired Irish girl, the sixth that the despairing Billy had interviewed on that fateful morning when Bertram had summoned her to his aid. Nora stayed two days. During her reign the entire Strata echoed to banged doors, dropped china, and slammed furniture. At her departure the Henshaws' possessions were less by four cups, two saucers, one plate, one salad bowl, two cut glass tumblers, and a teapot--the latter William's choicest bit of Lowestoft.

Olga came next. Olga was a Treasure. She was low-voiced, gentle-eyed, and a good cook. She stayed a week. By that time the growing frequency of the disappearance of sundry small articles of value and convenience led to Billy's making a reluctant search of Olga's room--and to Olga's departure; for the room was, indeed, a treasure house, the Treasure having gathered unto itself other treasures.

Following Olga came a period of what Bertram called "one night stands," so frequently were the dramatis personae below stairs changed. Gretchen drank. Christine knew only four words of English: salt, good-by, no, and yes; and Billy found need occasionally of using other words. Mary was impertinent and lazy. Jennie could not even boil a potato properly, much less cook a dinner. Sarah (colored) was willing and pleasant, but insufferably untidy. Bridget was neatness itself, but she had no conception of the value of time. Her meals were always from thirty to sixty minutes late, and half-cooked at that. Vera sang--when she wasn't whistling--and as she was generally off the key, and always off the tune, her almost frantic mistress dismissed her before twenty-four hours had passed. Then came Mary Ellen.

Mary Ellen began well. She was neat, capable, and obliging; but it did not take her long to discover just how much--and how little--her mistress really knew of practical housekeeping. Matters and things were very different then. Mary Ellen became argumentative, impertinent, and domineering. She openly shirked her work, when it pleased her so to do, and demanded perquisites and privileges so insolently that even William asked Billy one day whether Mary Ellen or Billy herself were the mistress of the Strata: and Bertram, with mock humility, inquired how soon Mary Ellen would be wanting the house. Billy, in weary despair, submitted to this bullying for almost a week; then, in a sudden accession of outraged dignity that left Mary Ellen gasping with surprise, she told the girl to go.

And thus the days passed. The maids came and the maids went, and, to Billy, each one seemed a little worse than the one before. Nowhere was there comfort, rest, or peacefulness. The nights were a torture of apprehension, and the days an even greater torture of fulfilment. Noise, confusion, meals poorly cooked and worse served, dust, disorder, and uncertainty. And this was home, Billy told herself bitterly. No wonder that Bertram telephoned more and more frequently that he had met a friend, and was dining in town. No wonder that William pushed back his plate almost every meal with his food scarcely touched, and then wandered about the house with that hungry, homesick, homeless look that nearly broke her heart. No wonder, indeed!

And so it had come. It was true. Aunt Hannah and Kate and the "Talk to Young Wives" were right. She had not been fit to marry Bertram. She had not been fit to marry anybody. Her honeymoon was not only waning, but going into a total eclipse. Had not Bertram already declared that if she would tend to her husband and her home a little more--

Billy clenched her small hands and set her round chin squarely.

Very well, she would show them. She would tend to her husband and her home. She fancied she could learn to run that house, and run it well! And forthwith she descended to the kitchen and told the then reigning tormentor that her wages would be paid until the end of the week, but that her services would be immediately dispensed with.

Billy was well aware now that housekeeping was a matter of more than muffins and date puffs. She could gauge, in a measure, the magnitude of the task to which she had set herself. But she did not falter; and very systematically she set about making her plans.

With a good stout woman to come in twice a week for the heavier work, she believed she could manage by herself very well until Eliza could come back. At least she could serve more palatable meals than the most of those that had appeared lately; and at least she could try to make a home that would not drive Bertram to club dinners, and Uncle William to hungry wanderings from room to room. Meanwhile, all the time, she could be learning, and in due course she would reach that shining goal of Housekeeping Efficiency, short of which--according to Aunt Hannah and the "Talk to Young Wives"--no woman need hope for a waneless honeymoon.

So chaotic and erratic had been the household service, and so quietly did Billy slip into her new role, that it was not until the second meal after the maid's departure that the master of the house discovered what had happened. Then, as his wife rose to get some forgotten article, he questioned, with uplifted eyebrows:

"Too good to wait upon us, is my lady now, eh?"

"My lady is waiting on you," smiled Billy.

"Yes, I see this lady is," retorted Bertram, grimly; "but I mean our real lady in the kitchen. Great Scott, Billy, how long are you going to stand this?"

Billy tossed her head airily, though she shook in her shoes. Billy had been dreading this moment.

"I'm not standing it. She's gone," responded Billy, cheerfully, resuming her seat. "Uncle William, sha'n't I give you some more pudding?"

"Gone, so soon?" groaned Bertram, as William passed his plate, with a smiling nod. "Oh, well," went on Bertram, resignedly, "she stayed longer than the last one. When is the next one coming?"

"She's already here."

Bertram frowned.

"Here? But--you served the dessert, and--" At something in Billy's face, a quick suspicion came into his own. "Billy, you don't mean that you--you--"

"Yes," she nodded brightly, "that's just what I mean. I'm the next one."

"Nonsense!" exploded Bertram, wrathfully. "Oh, come, Billy, we've been all over this before. You know I can't have it."

"Yes, you can. You've got to have it," retorted Billy, still with that disarming, airy cheerfulness. "Besides, 'twon't be half so bad as you think. Wasn't that a good pudding to-night?

Didn't you both come back for more? Well, I made it."

"Puddings!" ejaculated Bertram, with an impatient gesture. "Billy, as I've said before, it takes something besides puddings to run this house."

"Yes, I know it does," dimpled Billy, "and I've got Mrs. Durgin for that part. She's coming twice a week, and more, if I need her. Why, dearie, you don't know anything about how comfortable you're going to be! I'll leave it to Uncle William if--"

But Uncle William had gone. Silently he had slipped from his chair and disappeared. Uncle William, it might be mentioned in passing, had never quite forgotten Aunt Hannah's fateful call with its dire revelations concerning a certain unwanted, superfluous, third-party husband's brother. Remembering this, there were times when he thought absence was both safest and best. This was one of the times.

"But, Billy, dear," still argued Bertram, irritably, "how can you? You don't know how. You've had no experience."

Billy threw back her shoulders. An ominous light came to her eyes. She was no longer airily playful.

"That's exactly it, Bertram. I don't know how--but I'm going to learn. I haven't had experience--but I'm going to get it. I can't make a worse mess of it than we've had ever since Eliza went, anyway!"

"But if you'd get a maid--a good maid," persisted Bertram, feebly.

"I had one--Mary Ellen. She was a good maid--until she found out how little her mistress knew; then--well, you know what it was then. Do you think I'd let that thing happen to me again? No, sir! I'm going into training for --my next Mary Ellen!" And with a very majestic air Billy rose from the table and began to clear away the dishes.