The Treasure by Kathleen Norris
Justine Harrison, graduate servant of the American School of Domestic Science, arrived the next day. If Mrs. Salisbury was half consciously cherishing an expectation of some one as crisp and cheerful as a trained nurse might have been, she was disappointed. Justine was simply a nice, honest-looking American country girl, in a cheap, neat, brown suit and a dreadful hat. She smiled appreciatively when Alexandra showed her her attractive little room, unlocked what Sandy saw to be a very orderly trunk, changed her hot suit at once for the gray gingham uniform, and went to Mrs. Salisbury's room with great composure, for instructions. In passing, Alexandra—feeling the situation to be a little odd, yet bravely, showed her the back stairway and the bathroom, and murmured something about books being in the little room off the drawing-room downstairs. Justine smiled brightly.
"Oh, I brought several books with me," she said, "and I subscribe to two weekly magazines and one monthly. So usually I have enough to read."
"How do you do? You look very cool and comfortable, Justine. Now, you'll have to find your own way about downstairs. You'll see the coffee next to the bread box, and the brooms are in the laundry closet. Just do the best you can. Mr. Salisbury likes dry toast in the morning—eggs in some way. We get eggs from the milkman; they seem fresher. But you have to tell him the day before. And I understood that you'll do most of the washing? Yes. My old Nancy was here day before yesterday, so there's not much this week." It was in some such disconnected strain as this that Mrs. Salisbury welcomed and initiated the new maid.
Justine bowed reassuringly.
"I'll find everything, Madam. And do you wish me to manage and to market for awhile until you are about again?"
The invalid sent a pleading glance to Sandy.
"Oh, I think my daughter will do that," she said.
"Oh, now, why, Mother?" Sandy asked, in affectionate impatience. "I don't begin to know as much about it as Justine probably does. Why not let her?"
"If Madam will simply tell me what sum she usually spends on the table," said Justine, "I will take the matter in hand."
Mrs. Salisbury hesitated. This was the very stronghold of her authority. It seemed terrible to her, indelicate, to admit a stranger.
"Well, it varies a little," she said restlessly. "I am not accustomed to spending a set sum." She addressed her daughter. "You see, I've been paying Nancy every week, dear," said she, "and the other laundry. And little things come up—"
"What sum would be customary, in a family this size?" Alexandra asked briskly of the graduate servant.
Justine was business-like.
"Seven dollars for two persons is the smallest sum we are allowed to handle," she said promptly. "After that each additional person calls for three dollars weekly in our minimum scale. Four or five dollars a week per person, not including the maid, is the usual allowance."
"Mercy! Would that be twenty dollars for table alone?" the mistress asked. "It is never that now, I think. Perhaps twice a week," she said, turning to Alexandra, "your father gives me five dollars at the breakfast table—"
"But, Mother, you telephone and charge at the market, and Lewis & Sons, too, don't you?" Sandy asked.
"Well, yes, that's true. Yes, I suppose it comes to fully twenty-five dollars a week, when you think of it. Yes, it probably comes to more. But it never seems so much, somehow. Well, suppose we say twenty-five—"
"Twenty-five, I'll tell Dad." Alexandra confirmed it briskly.
"I used to keep accounts, years ago," Mrs. Salisbury said plaintively. "Your father—" and again she turned to her daughter, as if to make this revelation of her private affairs less distressing by so excluding the stranger. "Your father has always been the most generous of men," she said; "he always gives me more money if I need it, and I try to do the best I can." And a little annoyed, in her weakness and helplessness by this business talk, she lay back on her pillow, and closed her eyes.
"Twenty-five a week, then!" Alexandra said, closing the talk by jumping up from a seat on her mother's bed, and kissing the invalid's eyes in parting. Justine, who had remained standing, followed her down to the kitchen, where, with cheering promptitude, the new maid fell upon preparations for dinner. Alexandra rather bashfully suggested what she had vaguely planned for dinner; Justine nodded intelligently at each item; presently Alexandra left her, busily making butter-balls, and went upstairs to report.
"Nothing sensational about her," said Sandy to her mother, "but she takes hold! She's got some bleaching preparation of soda or something drying on the sink-board; she took the shelf out of the icebox the instant she opened it, and began to scour it while she talked. She's got a big blue apron on, and she's hung a nice clean white one on the pantry door."
There was nothing sensational about the tray which Justine carried up to the sick room that evening—nothing sensational in the dinner which was served to the diminished family. But the Salisbury family began that night to speak of Justine as the "Treasure."
"Everything hot and well seasoned and nicely served," said the man of the house in high satisfaction, "and the woman looks like a servant, and acts like one. Sandy says she's turning the kitchen upside down, but, I say, give her her head!"
The Treasure, more by accident than design, was indeed given her head in the weeks that followed, for Mrs. Salisbury steadily declined into a real illness, and the worried family was only too glad to delegate all the domestic problems to Justine. The invalid's condition, from "nervous breakdown" became "nervous prostration," and August was made terrible for the loving little group that watched her by the cruel fight with typhoid fever into which Mrs. Salisbury's exhausted little body was drawn. Weak as she was physically, her spirit never failed her; she met the overwhelming charges bravely, rallied, sank, rallied again and lived. Alexandra grew thin, if prettier than ever, and Owen Sargent grew bold and big and protecting to meet her need. The boys were "angels," their sister said, helpful, awed and obedient, but the children's father began to stoop a little and to show gray in the thick black hair at his temples.
Soberly, sympathetically, Justine steered her own craft through all the storm and confusion of the domestic crisis. Trays appeared and disappeared without apparent effort. Hot and delicious meals were ready at the appointed hours, whether the pulse upstairs went up or down. Tradespeople were paid; there was always ice; there was always hot water. The muffled telephone never went unanswered, the doctor never had to ring twice for admittance. If fruit was sent up to the invalid, it was icy cold; if soup was needed, it appeared, smoking hot, and guiltless of even one floating pinpoint of fat.
Alexandra and the trained nurse always found the kitchen the same: orderly, aired, silent, with Justine, a picture of domestic efficiency, sitting by the open window, or on the shady side porch, shelling peas or peeling apples, or perhaps wiping immaculate glasses with an immaculate cloth at the sink. The ticking clock, the shining range, the sunlight lying in clean-cut oblongs upon the bright linoleum, Justine's smoothly braided hair and crisp percales, all helped to form a picture wonderfully restful and reassuring in troubled days.
Alexandra, tired with a long vigil in the sick room, liked to slip down late at night, to find Justine putting the last touches to the day's good work. A clean checked towel would be laid over the rising, snowy mound of dough; the bubbling oatmeal was locked in the fireless cooker, doors were bolted, window shades drawn. There was an admirable precision about every move the girl made.
The two young women liked to chat together, and sometimes, when some important message took her to Justine's door in the evening, Alexandra would linger, pleasantly affected by the trim little apartment, the roses in a glass vase, Justine's book lying open-faced on the bed, or her unfinished letter waiting on the table. For all exterior signs, at these times, she might have been a guest in the house.
Promptly, on every Saturday evening, the Treasure presented her account book to Mr. Salisbury. There was always a small balance, sometimes five dollars, sometimes one, but Justine evidently had well digested Dickens' famous formula for peace of mind.
"You're certainly a wonder, Justine!" said the man of the house more than once. "How do you manage it?"
"Oh, I cut down in dozens of ways," the girl returned, with her grave smile. "You don't notice it, but I know. You have kidney stews, and onion soups, and cherry pies, instead of melons and steaks and ice-cream, that's all!"
"And everyone just as well pleased," he said, in real admiration. "I congratulate you."
"It's only what we are all taught at college," Justine assured him. "I'm just doing what they told me to! It's my business."
"It's pretty big business, and it's been waiting a long while," said Kane Salisbury.
When Mrs. Salisbury began to get well, she began to get very hungry. This was plain sailing for Justine, and she put her whole heart into the dainty trays that went upstairs three times a day. While she was enjoying them, Mrs. Salisbury liked to draw out her clever maid, and the older woman and the young one had many a pleasant talk together. Justine told her mistress that she had been country-born and bred, and had grown up with a country girl's longing for nice surroundings and education of the better sort.
"My name is not Justine at all," she said smilingly, "nor Harrison, either, although I chose it because I have cousins of that name. We are all given names when we go to college and take them with us. Until the work is recognized, as it must be some day, as dignified and even artistic, we are advised to sink our own identities in this way."
"You mean that Harrison isn't your name?" Mrs. Salisbury felt this to be really a little alarming, in some vague way.
"Oh, no! And Justine was given me as a number might have been."
"But what is your name?" The question fell from Mrs. Salisbury as naturally as an "Ouch!" would have fallen had somebody dropped a lighted match on her hand. "I had no idea of that!" she went on artlessly. "But I suppose you told Mr. Salisbury?"
The luncheon was finished, and now Justine stood up, and picked up the tray.
"No. That's the very point. We use our college names," she reiterated simply. "Will you let me bring you up a little more custard, Madam?"
"No, thank you," Mrs. Salisbury said, after a second's pause. She looked a little thoughtful as Justine walked away. There is no real reason why one's maid should not wear an assumed name, of course. Still—
"What a ridiculous thing that college must be!" said Mrs. Salisbury, turning comfortably in her pillows. "But she certainly is a splendid cook!"
About this point, at least, there was no argument. Justine did not need cream or sherry, chopped nuts or mushroom sauces to make simple food delicious. She knew endless ways in which to serve food; potatoes became a nightly surprise, macaroni was never the same, rice had a dozen delightful roles. Because the family enjoyed her maple custard or almond cake, she did not, as is the habit with cooks, abandon every other flavoring for maple or almond. She was following a broader schedule than that supplied by the personal tastes of the Salisburys, and she went her way serenely.
Not so much as a teaspoonful of cold spinach was wasted in these days. Justine's "left-over" dishes were quite as good as anything else she cooked; her artful combinations, her garnishes of pastry, her illusive seasoning, her enveloping and varied sauces disguised and transformed last night's dinner into a real feast to-night.
The Treasure went to market only twice a week, on Saturdays and Tuesdays. She planned her meals long beforehand, with the aid of charts brought from college, and paid cash for everything she bought. She always carried a large market basket on her arm on these trips, and something in her trim, strong figure and clean gray gown, as she started off, appealed to a long-slumbering sense of house-holder's pride in Mr. Salisbury. It seemed good to him that a person who worked so hard for him and for his should be so bright and contented looking, should like her life so well.
Late in September Mrs. Salisbury came downstairs again to a spotless drawing-room and a dining-room gay with flowers. Dinner was a little triumph, and after dinner she was escorted to a deep chair, and called upon to admire new papers and hangings, cleaned rugs and a newly polished floor.
"You are wonderful, wonderful people, every one of you!" said the convalescent, smiling eyes roving about her. "Grass paper, Kane, and such a dear border!" she said. "And everything feeling so clean! And my darling girl writing letters and seeing people all these weeks! And my boys so good! And dear old Daddy carrying the real burden for everyone—what a dreadfully spoiled woman I am! And Justine—come here a minute, Justine—"
The Treasure, who was clearing the dining-room table, came in, and smiled at the pretty group, mother and father, daughter and sons, all rejoicing in being well and together again.
"I don't know how I am ever going to thank you, Justine," said Mrs. Salisbury, with a little emotion. She took the girl's hand in both her transparent white ones. "Do believe that I appreciate it," she said. "It has been a comfort to me, even when I was sickest, even when I apparently didn't know anything, to know that you were here, that everything was running smoothly and comfortably, thanks to you. We could not have managed without you!"
Justine returned the finger pressure warmly, also a little stirred.
"Why, it's been a real pleasure," she said a little huskily. She had to accept a little chorus of thanks from the other members of the family before, blushing very much and smiling, too, she went back to her work.
"She really has managed everything," Kane Salisbury told his wife later. "She handles all the little monthly bills, telephone and gas and so on; seems to take it as a matter of course that she should."
"And what shall I do now, Kane? Go on that way, for a while anyway?" asked his wife.
"Oh, by all means, dear! You must take things easy for a while. By degrees you can take just as much or as little as you want, with the managing."
"You dear old idiot," the lady said tenderly, "don't worry about that! It will all come about quite naturally and pleasantly."
Indeed, it was still a relief to depend heavily upon Justine. Mrs. Salisbury was quite bewildered by the duties that rose up on every side of her; Sandy's frocks for the fall, the boys' school suits, calls that must be made, friends who must be entertained, and the opening festivities of several clubs to which she belonged.
She found things running very smoothly downstairs, there seemed to be not even the tiniest flaw for a critical mistress to detect, and the children had added a bewildering number of new names to their lists of favorite dishes. Justine was asked over and over again for her Manila curry, her beef and kidney pie, her scones and German fruit tarts, and for a brown and crisp and savory dish in which the mistress of the house recognized, under the title of chou farci, an ordinary cabbage as a foundation.
"Oh, let's not have just chickens or beef," Sandy would plead when a company dinner was under discussion. "Let's have one of Justine's fussy dishes. Leave it to Justine!"
For the Treasure obviously enjoyed company dinner parties, and it was fascinating to Sandy to see how methodically, and with what delightful leisure, she prepared for them. Two or three days beforehand her cake-making, silver-polishing, sweeping and cleaning were well under way, and the day of the event itself was no busier than any other day.
Yet it was on one of these occasions that Mrs. Salisbury first had what she felt was good reason to criticize Justine. During a brief absence from home of both boys, their mother planned a rather formal dinner. Four of her closest friends, two couples, were asked, and Owen Sargent was invited by Sandy to make the group an even eight. This was as many as the family table accommodated comfortably, and seemed quite an event. Ordinarily the mistress of the house would have been fussing for some days beforehand, in her anxiety to have everything go well, but now, with Justine's brain and Justine's hands in command of the kitchen end of affairs, she went to the other extreme, and did not give her own and Sandy's share of the preparations a thought until the actual day of the dinner.
For, as was stipulated in her bond, except for a general cleaning once a week, the Treasure did no work downstairs outside of the dining-room and kitchen, and made no beds at any time. This meant that the daughter of the house must spend at least an hour every morning in bed-making, and perhaps another fifteen minutes in that mysteriously absorbing business known as "straightening" the living room. Usually Sandy was very faithful to these duties; more, she whisked through them cheerfully, in her enthusiastic eagerness that the new domestic experiment should prove a success.
But for a morning or two before this particular dinner she had shirked her work. Perhaps the novelty of it was wearing off a little. There was a tennis tournament in progress at the Burning Woods Country Club, two miles away from River Falls, and Sandy, who was rather proud of her membership in this very smart organization, did not want to miss a moment of it. Breakfast was barely over before somebody's car was at the door to pick up Miss Salisbury, who departed in a whirl of laughter and a flutter of bright veils, to be gone, sometimes, for the entire day.
She had gone in just this way on the morning of the dinner, and her mother, who had quite a full program of her own for the morning, had had breakfast in bed. Mrs. Salisbury came downstairs at about ten o'clock to find the dining-room airing after a sweeping; curtains pinned back, small articles covered with a dust cloth, chairs at all angles. She went on to the kitchen, where Justine was beating mayonnaise.
"Don't forget chopped ice for the shaker, the last thing," Mrs. Salisbury said, adding, with a little self-conscious rush, "And, oh, by the way, Justine, I see that Miss Alexandra has gone off again, without touching the living room. Yesterday I straightened it a little bit, but I have two club meetings this morning, and I'm afraid I must fly. If—if she comes in for lunch, will you remind her of it?"
"Will she be back for lunch? I thought she said she would not," Justine said, in honest surprise.
"No; come to think of it, she won't," her mother admitted, a little flatly. "She put her room and her brothers' room in order," she added inconsequently.
Justine did not answer, and Mrs. Salisbury went slowly out of the kitchen, annoyance rising in her heart. It was all very well for Sandy to help out about the house, but this inflexible idea of holding her to it was nonsense!
Ruffled, she went up to her room. Justine had carried away the breakfast tray, but there were towels and bath slippers lying about, a litter of mail on the bed, and Mr. Salisbury's discarded linen strewn here and there. The dressers were in disorder, window curtains were pinned back for more air, and the coverings of the twin beds thrown back and trailing on the floor. Fifteen minutes' brisk work would have straightened the whole, but Mrs. Salisbury could not spare the time just then. The morning was running away with alarming speed; she must be dressed for a meeting at eleven o'clock, and, like most women of her age, she found dressing a slow and troublesome matter; she did not like to be hurried with her brushes and cold creams, her ruffles and veil.
The thought of the unmade beds did not really trouble her when, trim and dainty, she went off in a friend's car to the club at eleven o'clock, but when she came back, nearly two hours later, it was distinctly an annoyance to find her bedroom still untouched. She was tired then, and wanted her lunch; but instead she replaced her street dress with a loose house gown, and went resolutely to work.
Musing over her solitary luncheon, she found the whole thing a little absurd. There was still the drawing-room to be put in order, and no reason in the world why Justine should not do it. The girl was not overworked, and she was being paid thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents every month! Justine was big and strong, she could toss the little extra work off without any effort at all.
She wondered why it is almost a physical impossibility for a nice woman to ask a maid the simplest thing in the world, if she is fairly certain that that maid will be ungracious about it.
"Dear me!" thought Mrs. Salisbury, eating her chop and salad, her hot muffin and tart without much heart to appreciate these delicacies, "How much time I have spent in my life, going through imaginary conversations with maids! Why couldn't I just step to the pantry door and say, in a matter-of-fact tone, 'I'm afraid I must ask you to put the sitting-room in order, Justine. Miss Sandy has apparently forgotten all about it. I'll see that it doesn't occur again.' And I could add—now that I think of it—'I will pay you for your extra time, if you like, and if you will remind me at the end of the month.'"
"Well, she may not like it, but she can't refuse," was her final summing up. She went out to the kitchen with a deceptive air of composure.
Justine's occupation, when Mrs. Salisbury found her, strengthened the older woman's resolutions. The maid, in a silent and spotless kitchen, was writing a letter. Sheets of paper were strewn on the scoured white wood of the kitchen table; the writer, her chin cupped in her hand, was staring dreamily out of the kitchen window. She gave her mistress an absent smile, then laid down her pen and stood up.
"I'm writing here," she explained, "so that I can catch the milkman for the cream."
Mrs. Salisbury knew that it was useless to ask if everything was in readiness for the evening's event. From where she stood she could see piles of plates already neatly ranged in the warming oven, peeled potatoes were soaking in ice water in a yellow bowl, and the parsley that would garnish the big platter was ready, crisp and fresh in a glass of water.
"Well, you look nice and peaceful," smiled the mistress. "I am just going to dress for a little tea, and I may have to look in at the opening of the Athenaeum Club," she went on, fussing with a frill at her wrist, "so I may be as late as five. But I'll bring some flowers when I come. Miss Alexandra will probably be at home by that time, but if she isn't—if she isn't, perhaps you would just go in and straighten the living room, Justine? I put things somewhat in order yesterday, and dusted a little, but, of course, things get scattered about, and it needs a little attention. She may of course be back in time to do it—"
Her voice drifted away into casual silence. She looked at Justine expectantly, confidently. The maid flushed uncomfortably.
"I'm sorry," she said frankly. "But that's against one of our rules, you know. I am not supposed to—"
"Not ordinarily, I understand that," Mrs. Salisbury agreed quickly. "But in an emergency—"
Again she hesitated. And Justine, with the maddening gentleness of the person prepared to carry a point at all costs, answered again:
"It's the rule. I'm sorry; but I am not supposed to."
"I should suppose that you were in my house to make yourself useful to me," Mrs. Salisbury said coldly. She used a tone of quiet dignity; but she knew that she had had the worst of the encounter. She was really a little dazed by the firmness of the rebuff.
"They make a point of our keeping to the letter of the law," Justine explained.
"Not knowing what my particular needs are, nor how I like my house to be run, is that it?" the other woman asked shrewdly.
"Well—" Justine hung upon an embarrassed assent. "But perhaps they won't be so firm about it as soon as the school is really established," she added eagerly.
"No; I think they will not!" Mrs. Salisbury agreed with a short laugh, "inasmuch as they CANNOT, if they ever hope to get any foothold at all!"
And she left the kitchen, feeling that in the last remark at least she had scored, yet very angry at Justine, who made this sort of warfare necessary.
"If this sort of thing keeps up, I shall simply have to let her GO!" she said.
But she was trembling, and she came to a full stop in the front hall. It was maddening; it was unbelievable; but that neglected half hour of work threatened to wreck her entire day. With every fiber of her being in revolt, she went into the sitting-room.
This was Alexandra's responsibility, after all, she said to herself. And, after a moment's indecision, she decided to telephone her daughter at the Burning Woods Club.
"Hello, Mother," said Alexandra, when a page had duly informed her that she was wanted at the telephone. Her voice sounded a little tired, faintly impatient. "What is it, Mother?"
"Why, I ought to go to Mary Bell's tea, dearie, and I wanted just to look in at the Athenaeum—" Mrs. Salisbury began, a little inconsequently. "How soon do you expect to be home?" she broke off to ask.
"I don't know," said Sandy lifelessly.
"Are you coming back with Owen?"
"No," Sandy said, in the same tone. "I'll come back with the Prichards, I guess, or with one of the girls. Owen and the Brice boy are taking Miss Satterlee for a little spin up around Feather Rock."
"Miss WHO?" But Mrs. Salisbury knew very well who Miss Satterlee was. A pretty and pert and rowdyish little dancer, she had managed to captivate one or two of the prominent matrons of the club, and was much in evidence there, to the great discomfort of the more conservative Sandy and her intimates.
Now Sandy's mother ended the conversation with a few very casual remarks, in not too sympathetic or indignant a vein. Then, with heart and mind in anything but a hospitable or joyous state, she set about the task of putting the sitting room in order. She abandoned once and for all any hope of getting to her club or her tea that afternoon, and was therefore possessed of three distinct causes of grievance.
With her mother heart aching for the quiet misery betrayed by Sandy's voice, she could not blame the girl. Nor could she blame herself. So Justine got the full measure of her disapproval, and, while she worked, Mrs. Salisbury refreshed her soul with imaginary conversations in which she kindly but firmly informed Justine that her services were no longer needed—
However, the dinner was perfect. Course smoothly followed course; there was no hesitating, no hitch; the service was swift, noiseless, unobtrusive. The head of the house was obviously delighted, and the guests enthusiastic.
Best of all, Owen arrived early, irreproachably dressed, if a little uncomfortable in his evening clothes, and confided to Sandy that he had had a "rotten time" with Miss Satterlee.
"But she's just the sort of little cat that catches a dear, great big idiot like Owen," said Sandy to her mother, when the older woman had come in to watch the younger slip into her gown for the evening's affair.
"Look out, dear, or I will begin to suspect you of a tendresse in that direction!" the mother said archly.
"For Owen?" Sandy raised surprised brows. "I'm mad about him, I'd marry him to-night!" she went on calmly.
"If you really cared, dear, you couldn't use that tone," her mother said uncomfortably. "Love comes only once, REAL love, that is—"
"Oh, Mother! There's no such thing as real love," Sandy said impatiently. "I know ten good, nice men I would marry, and I'll bet you did, too, years ago, only you weren't brought up to admit it! But I like Owen best, and it makes me sick to see a person like Rose Satterlee annexing him. She'll make him utterly wretched; she's that sort. Whereas I am really decent, don't you know; I'd be the sort of wife he'd go crazier and crazier about. He's one of those unfortunate men who really don't know what they want until they get something they don't want. They—"
"Don't, dear. It distresses me to hear you talk this way," Mrs. Salisbury said, with dignity. "I don't know whether modern girls realize how dreadful they are," she went on, "but at least I needn't have my own daughter show such a lack of—of delicacy and of refinement." And in the dead silence that followed she cast about for some effective way of changing the subject, and finally decided to tell Sandy what she thought of Justine.
But here, too, Sandy was unsympathetic. Scowling as she hooked the filmy pink and silver of her evening gown, Sandy took up Justine's defense.
"All up to me, Mother, every bit of it! And, honestly now, you had no right to ask her to do—"
"No right!" Exasperated beyond all words, Mrs. Salisbury picked up her fan, gathered her dragging skirts together, and made a dignified departure from the room. "No right!" she echoed, more in pity than anger. "Well, really, I wonder sometimes what we are coming to! No right to ask my servant, whom I pay thirty-seven and a half dollars a month, to stop writing letters long enough to clean my sitting room! Well, right or wrong, we'll see!"
But the cryptic threat contained in the last words was never carried out. The dinner was perfect, and Owen was back in his old position as something between a brother and a lover, full of admiring great laughs for Sandy and boyish confidences. There was not a cloud on the evening for Mrs. Salisbury. And the question of Justine's conduct was laid on the shelf.