by Mable Forrest (1872-1935) writing as “Reca”
On Wednesday, Stacey Roberts posted an article on “Female Domestic Servants“, in which she mentioned the following story about a young wife of a station owner whose desire to impress as a bush housekeeper is upset by a wayward boundary-rider’s daughter.
When Bob and I settled down to married life on our new station property I had, of course, made up my mind to be a good housekeeper above everything. Intellectual attainments do not count for much where there is no competition in the big lonely bush wastes. Gum trees don’t care for foreign languages or literary tastes; though most of our poets and writers are bush born or have spent a greater part of their lives on stations; but accomplishments, in the ordinary society sense of the word, the bush as a whole takes little account of. Musical ability alone has an exaggerated value in the “back blocks,” and a girl who can strum waltzes or draw wailing eerie versions of well-remembered old home tunes from the station concertina can always amuse and please the long-limbed, bovine-eyed, young selectors, till each blucher-booted foot is beating to the rhythm. In wonderfully correct time, and each right-hand forefinger is tapping softly on the roughened palm of the great left hand. But I was never much of a hand at music, and as Bob couldn’t tell “Auld Lang Syne” from “God Save the Queen” it did not matter much, so I decided to master the art of “housekeeping in the bush,” which is so different from housekeeping in town.
Of course the first thing to do was to get a good general servant, or, failing that, one who was amenable to training. I told Bob we could easily manage with one. Kevington Brush was a big house, even for an old-time station, but then there were only Bob and I in it; and we were off the main road, which makes a great difference in the number of visitors, so we did not expect the usual influx of insurance agents and ordinary wayfarers, who are sure to turn up on washing day, or when there is some domestic calamity afoot, in most station houses that lie along the main roads to the west — or north, south, or east for that matter.
Bob looked doubtful, but said I could let him know how it answered, and that one of the out-station boundary-rider’s daughters was willing to come, if I was quite sure one girl could do the work. This put me on my mettle, and I indignantly remarked, “Wasn’t there Me to help, and to see that the girl did her fair share?”
Bob whistled and went out, making no further remark, and I sat down to draw up a card of rules and regulations for my new domestic, which was to be hung over the pantry dresser where she could not fail to be frequently reminded of her duties. I had marked every hour thus: — Six-thirty — Get up, light fire, sweep kitchen and verandas. Seven o’clock — Prepare break-fast. Eight o’clock — Serve. And so on till nine o’clock at night, at which time, having finished the washing up after our late dinner — for, after the manner of most stations, we dined at night — she could amuse herself with her sewing, or a book, till ten o’clock, when she must go to bed to be ready for the early rising in the morning.
Next day my Frances Floriline — for this, she informed me, was her baptismal name, relating to the dentifrice [tooth powder] of that ilk, I presume arrived. She came slouching into the kitchen in a curiously constructed riding habit, with a man’s leather belt round her waist, and, staring vacantly at me, seated herself in a chair, and remarked that it was “tarble ’ot”. I determined to take her gently at first, and knew, of course, not to expect much “manner” from a boundary rider’s daughter, who all her life had only had the wide plains or sparsely-scattered gum-trees for companionship. But what a field for labour lay in this raw material! What would not my careful and judicious training make of this uncouth girl! My soul rose in pleasure at the thought.
In appearance Frances Floriline was not unprepossessing. She had a rather pretty, stupid little face, much freckled and tanned by exposure. Her figure would have been shapely but for the frightful stoop of her shoulders. Her eyes alone I could not admire, for they looked decidedly silly in expression, and her thick, reddish hair hung in lank ends over her forehead. I thought of the dainty caps I had manufactured for my new servant, and was a little consoled.
“Well, Frances,” I said, trying to blend the dignity of the mistress with the kindly assurance of a well-wisher. “You had better go to your room first and change your habit, and then I shall be able to explain to you your duties.” And I thought of my elaborate card of directions.
Frances smiled foolishly, and, picking up a small canvas sugarbag, which I afterwards discovered contained her complete wardrobe, obediently followed me to the door of her cool little room. It was a better lodging than most bush servants have to put up with, being a tidy, wooden-lined little place, with two large windows, against which a bough of honeysuckle and a straggling passion vine tapped lightly in the warm gusts of summer wind. I had put an old tumbler of water on the white deal dressing table, and placed some bright-red geranium flowers in it.
“Lor,” said Frances, as I opened the door; “I’ll be afraid o’ smashin’ somethin’ in ’ere. It’s like a drorin’-room!”
“There is nothing you can hurt here,” I raid affably, and trailed off in the new tea-gown I had donned for the purpose of over-awing my little maidservant.
I decided to leave Frances to herself for half-an-hour to get used to her new surroundings, while I darned Bob’s socks on the front veranda, and built airy castles of a well-ordered stationhouse — the pride of all the district, with a perfectly-trained general servant, who wore white caps and aprons, and got through all her work unaided. My pleasant reflections were broken in upon by the appearance of Frances, clad in a wincey dress reaching half-way to her knees, and an elaborate lace apron, evidently lately bought of a hawker. She leaned carelessly against the side of the hall door, and surveyed the scene with curious eyes.
“Frances,” I said rather sharply, rising, “if you are sufficiently rested after your ride, come to the pantry with me, and I will show you where everything is.” I finished lamely, for there was not the least doubt about it — Frances was laughing audibly at me!
“Lawks!” she said, bringing her hands together with a bang, “you des just look funny in that ’ere long-tailed thing. I’d think yer’d save sweepin’, yer would.” And she laughed again, holding her sides.
I grew red with indignation, but controlled myself with the thought of how few opportunities the girl had had, and I knew I did look ridiculously girlish.
“Frances!” I repeated sternly, “you must learn to respect your mistress, and must not make personal remarks about me. And when you address me, do so as ‘Ma’am.” And I led the way in stately silence to the pantry. “Here,” I said, pointing to my carefully-got-up card of directions, “is your work for the day.” And I read over the list to make it plainer to her cloudy understanding.
“But ’ow am I to remember all that, missus?”
“Why, of course,” I exclaimed, getting nettled, “there is always the card to read from.”
This seemed to amuse Frances mightily. She leant back against the dresser, thereby nearly upsetting a trayful of glass, and when she found her voice again shrieked, “Why! And I kurnt read a line o’ print, much less letter writin’!”
As Bob would have said, that nearly floored me. But I determined the laugh should not be all on one side, and hid my chagrin by saying, I am afraid in rather a weak voice, “Now, no more of this nonsense. I will have to tell you your various duties, and you must try to remember them, as your education has been so shamefully neglected. But at present you can get lunch ready. Lay the table first, and I will come and help you with the salad.” And I pointed out to her the whereabouts of the knife-box and crockery, and then I went, still holding my head high, to throw myself on my bed and ponder on the best ways of managing servants who cannot read, and who are clearly without respect of persons. I determined not to complain to Bob — yet. I would see what I could do unaided first. My reflections were broken in upon by a bang on the door, which I suppose was meant for a gentle knock.
“I’ve laid ther table, missus, and now yer can show me how ter fix ther salad.”
Outside stood Frances, red-faced and perspiring, but with the look of conscious virtue and success graven on her features. She took kindly to the task of slashing up the lettuce, and, as I made the dressing, that dish at least was a success. Then, as I heard Bob’s footsteps on the gravel, I went to put a few finishing touches to the luncheon table.
Shall I ever forget the sight that met my indignant gaze! Heaped pell-mell in the middle of the table were my silver saltcellars and cruets; the knives were carefully and crookedly laid, with their points towards the edge of the table; the forks lay together near the top, with several tea and dessert spoons; the cups, without saucers, were ranged round at the different places; the chutney jar and jam dishes had been made the receptacles for scarlet geranium, for Frances had evidently been struck with my decoration of her boudoir. Of carvers or dinner napkins there were none, and of plates there were only two large ones laid — evidently her imagination did not range beyond one plate for everything.
“Frances!” I almost shouted, in a terrible voice. But Frances was close behind me, gazing with admiration on her handiwork. “Why did you lay the knives wrong way on?” I said, pitifully, fixing upon the most glaring of her mistakes.
“Lawks! So I did,” giggled the unblushing one. “Well, I was only a-lookin’ for the boss, and I must have put ’em that way without knowing.” And she set to work to turn them round, dragging the tablecloth more awry than it already was as she did so.
As I vainly endeavoured to show her the error of her ways, Bob came in, looking slightly surprised. Frances gave him one of the languishing looks she kept for all men, married or single, in high life or low. Bob whistled softly, and asked after her family in that gentle way of his, and with as much appearance of unconcern as I could muster, I proceeded to relay the table.
After that I had a hard time with Frances, but I could not own myself beaten. When the bread came in, gray and stodgy, I made excuses to Bob, and Frances promised to do better next time, and blamed the hot weather. Next time the batch rose, indeed, but turned sour in a day! That, said Frances, was the cold wind that got up in the night when the bread was rising. Then we had soda bread for three weeks, because somehow the weather was never suitable (according to Frances) for setting yeast bread. I often laugh now to think how I accepted her excuses as gospel in those days. I know better now. But at last the climax to Frances Floriline’s misdemeanours came—the climax to the watery soup, the rice puddings that stuck to the spoon like wax and refused to be removed, the pastry that required a tomahawk to divide, the leathery curries and underdone mutton or burnt-up beef — the zenith of those uproarious evenings in the wide, old kitchen, and the mirth that died a sudden death as my footsteps were heard approaching. I walked loudly on purpose — I confess it now. I did not want to find Frances out in too much! I was always ready to give her another chance. But it was strange that I so often fancied I heard masculine voices, and when entering the kitchen would find Frances Floriline, looking as stupidly pretty as ever, serving busily in the light of the one oil lamp with never a vestige of “man” visible. I seemed to smell tobacco smoke pretty frequently, but I felt delicate about prying, and would content myself with reading Frances a little homily on late hours, and depart again; and, as I ascended the steps to the dining room, the mirth would begin anew. I felt sometimes really inclined to peer under the big kitchen table to see if masculine boots were visible, so rapid were the disappearances and appearances of Frances’s young men. I felt rather hurt that she should always wish to conceal them from me. I did not object to “followers” in reason, as long as the girl did her work well. One day, in fact, when I happened to pass through the kitchen where Frances was ironing, I made some would-be playful remark about her learning to be a good cook “to make, a good wife some day.” She paused with her flatiron in mid-air, and regarded it while she reflectively spat on it.
“Well, I’ll not deny as I have had many a good offer. But they won’t get me. No! that they won’t! Many, indeed, is the blokes I ’as ’ad. Oncet there was a ball in the township — two bob gents, ladies free. I went. I was up with Joe, and Jim he gets jealous. ‘Do yer cotton to Joe?’ ’ee sez. ‘What’s that ter yu?’ sez I. ‘Taint much,’ sez ’ee. ‘Go along,’ sez I — ah!” branching off in another direction, “many’s the time those fellers has follered me along the creek. Not as I’d look at one on ’em.”
From which it will be seen that Frances had no mean idea of her personal attractions. However, I hastily departed, and did not again venture on any familiarity with my general servant. But, as I was saying, an end came to all this.
I was giving my first dinner party. It was only to be a small affair, but select. Several people from the township, and two from neighbouring stations, drove over by my invitation in the afternoon, and I felt rather pleased with Frances, as she made some really respectable scones for after-noon tea, and cut the bread and butter in thin delicious slices, instead of her usual junks of bread-and-scrape, and for once did not forget to put the tea leaves in the teapot — for latterly we had been accustomed to see the spout omit a thin stream of hot water when I prepared to pour out Bob’s tea. That night I superintended the laying of the table; and, indeed, it looked very nice with all my wedding presents in the way of glass and silver, and the handsome epergne Bob’s mother had given me for a centre-piece. Round that I had placed little specimen vases of violets and fern leaves, and my heart swelled with honest pride as I surveyed the prospect. I wanted Bob to be proud of me and my housekeeping, particularly to-night, when an old friend of his bachelor days — who had, I guessed, advised him against marrying at all, especially to a young girl without experience or house or servants — was to be among the guests. I had made one of my celebrated ginger puddings and put it on to boil myself. My custards were cooling in the pantry; my jellies, all ready to turn out, were being kept stiff in the bathroom, and the roast ducks were frizzling away in the oven. Altogether my mind felt easy, and I entertained my guests before dinner by playing and singing any simple little thing I could muster in the drawing-room. Then, as the clock chimed 8, Frances appeared at the door in her white cap and apron, and announced, as I had taught her, “Dinner is served, ma’am,” and smiled sweetly and confidingly on the assembled company. She did whisper as I passed her in my low-necked evening blouse, “Lard ! missus, hadn’t yer better get dressed ?” I hoped no one heard her, and I made allowances for her bush ignorance of the proprieties of social life which made her short wincey skirts improper to my eye and my bare neck and arms the proper thing before company.
As I took my place at the head of the table I noted the shining dishcovers with pride, and as Frances whisked them off I nodded and smiled at Bob beyond the spreading ferns and sweet-smelling violets. But, oh! how short-lived — how horribly short-lived — was my triumph! The stewed ox-tail before me was covered with a watery-looking substance, in which great blobs of uncooked flour floated. And Frances had told me she was sure she could manage to thicken the sauce by her-self; had I not shown her how a hundred times? I craned my neck to see Bob’s dish with a little hope. Oh! that mound of blackened and burnt remnants that once had been wild duck! Little black bones of legs and wings stuck up appealingly, with frizzled skin and flesh sticking to them, and the room was filled with the odour of burnt game.
“I’m afraid this is a little burnt, Kitty,” said Bob loudly and good-humouredly. “I’d advise you to try the stew, Mrs Rawson.” “Oh! Don’t!” I wailed, forgetting myself for the instant, thinking only of the blobs of flour, and feeling sick at heart. Mrs Rawson politely remarked that she was “so fond of duck,” and was sure this would be “delicious, and only a little overdone.” The other guests followed suit, and prepared manfully to dissect the charcoal and bone before them. Oh, the horror of it all! I rang for Frances, and when she slouched in I could not trust myself to look at her. “Bring in the cold round of beef,” I whispered. “That I can’t,” said Frances in a very “stage” whisper. “It’s just crawlin’. The flies must have got into the safe.”
I said no more, but signed for her to go; and we dined frugally on the vegetables, which had somehow escaped the general carnage.
I had some hopes of my ginger pudding until it came in, and I saw before me a brown and sodden mass, which looked horribly like having been sat upon. Bob’s bachelor friend — in whose honour the pudding had been principally made (for I had heard of his weakness for ginger) — looked sorrowfully at it through his pince-nez. Mrs Rawson declined pudding, and thought she would take a custard, from which I presently saw her fish a large drowned blow-fly, which had evidently been there some time. The jellies had been apparently dashed out of their moulds, and lay in squashed masses at the bottom of the glass dishes; but they were preferable to the cheese-cakes, which were crawling with tiny black ants, Frances evidently having placed them on the steps outside while she brought in the first course. The sauce for the pudding was full of lumps, the plates were all cold, and, when I rang for Frances, she was nowhere to be found.
When the miserable meal was over I went to seek her, prepared to give her a day’s notice on the spot, and positively boiling with wrath. But she was not in any of her usual haunts. The oil lamp was smoking dangerously on the kitchen table. The fire was nearly out, and Frances’s bedroom door was ajar. I peeped in. Some tumbled finery lay on the bed — but no Frances. Some instinct led me to the quiet moonlit vegetable garden, and there I found her.
On the edge of an old empty iron tank sat a young man, whom in the indistinct light I recognised as Bill, our head stockman. On his knee sat Frances, with her head sentimentally against his shoulder. I fancied he looked rather wretched, even before he saw me, as if he had been forced into a position against his will. But I approached them all unseen, though unintentionally so, in my soft house-slippers, until I stood in front of them. I looked at Bill’s wretched crimsoning face, at Frances, who, still smug and demure, kept her seat on his knee. Words failed me. I only gasped and then, gathering up my trailing skirts, I fled into the house, and, calling Bob to me, threw myself into his arms and owned myself vanquished.
Next day Frances Floriline and her canvas bag departed, to be seen no more at Kevington Brush. And I hear that Bob’s bachelor friend still advises young men against marrying.
“Reca”, “Frances Floriline“, The Queenslander,12 De 1896: 1137.
Image retrieved from Wikipedia, 25/05/2023: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mabel_Forrest
How wonderful! I could just see the situation unfold; Bob and his rather snobby wife, the dusty outback, Kevington Brush, the housekeeping, the food debacle, the bachelor friend and the overpowering rough and tumble attitude of Miss Frances Floriline. There’s a lot of subtext in this short story and great insights into the era.
So glad you enjoyed it, Gretchen. We can thank Stacey for the recommendation.