How She Found the Time: 1856

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

HOW SHE FOUND THE TIME.

“Ah,” said Mr. Nelson, as drawing his chair to the centre table his eye rested on one of the popular novels of the day, “so you have a new book to read, Sarah. Where did you get it?”

“I borrowed it of Mrs. Merton, or rather she lent it to me — insisted upon my taking it, because, she said, she knew it would interest me, fascinate me; indeed, I told her it wasn’t much use to take it, for I should never find time to read it.”

“But she had found time — hadn’t she?” asked her husband, a little roguishly.

“Of course she had. She always finds time to do any thing she wants to; I never saw such a woman in my life.”

“And yet she has four children, and keeps but one girl?”

“And I have only two children, and as many girls, I suppose you would like to add — would you not?” responded the wife, just a very little bit out of humor.

“I must confess you have guessed aright, my dear. But I would not have said it in a fault-finding way, but simply from a desire to find out, if we can, why you have so little time to devote to reading — why you always have so much to do. Does Mrs. Merton do up every thing as neatly as yourself? Her parlors, I know, always seem the perfection of order and comfort, her husband’s and children’s clothes are always tidy, and she herself, in appearance, the personification of neatness and taste. But after all, perhaps there may be some oversight that is kept out of view.”

“You are mistaken,” said Mrs. Nelson, emphatically. “She is one of the most thorough housekeepers I ever knew. I have been sent there when she had been taken suddenly ill, and so violently, too, as to be unable to give a single direction; and yet every thing needed was always found without the least trouble; every drawer and closet was in order, and the whole house would have borne the rigid scrutiny of the most prim member of the Quaker sisterhood. And yet she never is in a hurry, and though always doing something, never complains of being wearied. She does all her own and children’s sewing, even to cutting dresses, and coats and pants; embroiders all her collars, and sleeves, and little girls’ ruffles; writes more letters every year than I have done since my marriage, and reads more than any other woman not purely literary that I ever knew. But how she does it is a mystery.”

“Why don’t you ask her to solve it?”

“I have thought of doing so ; but — but — well, to own the truth, I am ashamed to. It would be a tacit confession that I am in the wrong somehow.”

“But do you think you are?”

“Sometimes I do; and then again I think my failures to do what I would so dearly love to, are the result of the circumstances which I cannot control. For instance, yesterday afternoon I meant to have emptied my mending basket entirely, — I could have done so easily, and then one worry of the week would have been over, — but Mrs. Lawrence and her friend from Boston came in quite early, and, as you know, passed the afternoon. I could not blame them for coming when they did, for I had told them to come any afternoon this week; and I was glad to see them, and enjoyed the visit. Yet it upset my plans about mending entirely, for of course it would never have done to have littered the parlor with that. The afternoon was lost as far as work was concerned.”

“But was there nothing you could do?”

“Yes, if I had only had it. There were the handkerchiefs and cravats you want to take with you next week, which I might have hemmed if I had only had them. But you see, I had designed them for this afternoon, and so did not go out to buy them till to-day. And now I suppose the mending must lie over till next week, and then there- will be two baskets full. And so it goes. I wish sometimes the days were forty-eight, instead of twenty-four hours long.”

“Well, I don’t, I’m sure,” said her husband, good humoredly; “for I get tired enough now, and I doubt, Sarah, if either you or I would find any more time than we do now.”

“Well, one thing is certain — I shall never find time, as the days are now, to do what I want to do.”

“But you say Mrs. Merton does.”

“Yes, but she is an exception to all the rest of my acquaintances.”

“An honorable one.”

“Yes, an honorable one. I wish there were more with her faculty.”

“Perhaps there would be, were her example followed.”

“I understand you, and perhaps some day will heed the hint.” But here her further reply was prevented by a request from his head clerk to see her husband alone on urgent business.

All this time, while Mrs. Nelson had been bewailing the want of time, she had sat with her hands lying idly in her lap. To be sure, she was waiting for Bridget to bring the baby to be undressed; but she might easily have finished hemming the last cravat in those precious moments, and there it lay on her workstand, and her thimble and thread both with it. But she never thought of taking it — not she. She never thought it worth while to attempt doing any thing while waiting to do some other duty that must soon have to be performed. And thus, in losing those moments, she lost the evening chance to finish the hem; for when the baby did come, he was cross and squally, and would not let her lay him in the crib until nine o’clock, and then she was so tired and nervous, she couldn’t, she said, set a stitch to save her life.

It happened one day in the following week, after a morning of rather more flurry and worry than usual, that she went to the centre table to hunt for a misplaced memorandum. In her search for it her glance casually fell upon the borrowed novel, and with that glance the foregoing conversation rushed forcibly over her memory.

“I declare,” said she, “I have half a mind to run over to Mrs. Merton’s this afternoon, and cross-question her, till I learn her secret. Such a life as I am living is unbearable. I can’t stand it any longer. If she can find time, I know I can, if I only knew how.”

And true to her resolution, for though seemingly hasty, it had been for some time maturing in her mind, almost unwittingly she found herself at an early hour at her friend’s parlor, her bonnet and shawl thrown aside, and herself, work-bag in hand, snugly ensconced in a low rocker beside her little work-stand.

“You have not finished your collar, then?” she observed to Mrs. Merton, after a while, by way of leading the conversation in the desired channel.

“O, yes, indeed,” answered the hostess, tossing her head to one side, gayly, with a pretty affectation of pride. “Didn’t you notice how becoming it was?”

“And commencing another so soon?”

“Only basting on the pattern, so as to have it ready for some odd moment.”

“But how do you bear to spend so much time in embroidery? Why not purchase it at once; it is so much cheaper in the end?”

“For the wealthy it is, I grant, and for those not very wealthy, if their eyesight is poor, or if lacking in taste and needle skill. But I find it cheaper to do it myself. My husband’s salary does not allow us many luxuries, and the small sum we can spend for them I prefer should go towards purchasing what my own fingers cannot make. I can embroider collars and sleeves not as perfectly, it is true, as they do in foreign climes, but handsomely enough to suit my own and husband’s eyes; but I cannot write books, magazines, reviews, and newspapers, and they are luxuries more essential to my happiness than these articles of dress; so I do my own needlework, and with the money thus saved we purchase something that will never go out of fashion — an intellectual heritage for our little ones as well as a perpetual feast for us.”

“But how do you find time to do so much work? I cannot conceive how or where.”

“Well I hardly know myself,” said Mrs. Merton laughingly. “My husband sometimes tells me he believes the fairies help me. I seldom sit down to it in earnest, but I catch it up at odd moments, and before I am aware of it myself, it is done.”

“O, dear,” and Mrs. Nelson sighed. “I wish I had your faculty. Do, pray, Mrs. Merton, tell us the secret of your success in every thing. How do you always find time for every thing?”

“Do you question me seriously, or only mockingly, to remind me how much I leave undone?”

“Seriously? Yes, very seriously. To own the truth, it was to learn this I came over here to-day. There are a thousand things I long to do, because they would not only increase my own joys, but those of my husband and household ; but I cannot find the time. Yet you do them, and you have more cares and duties than I. If you tell me your secret, believe me, I shall feel under the deepest obligations to you.”

Her friend hesitated a moment. She was not wont to speak very much of herself, believing that character should reveal itself by actions mostly, and conscious that it will, too, whether it be a perfect or faulty one. Yet there was such an urgency, at length it conquered the scruples of modesty.

“I am afraid I shall remind you of ‘great I,’ if I undertake it,” she said, with a blush; “yet I can hardly give you my experience without subjecting myself to the charge of egotism. Yet, as we are alone, and as you seem to think I have avoided some of the besetting evils of this life, why, I will reveal to you what you call my secret.

“My mother early instilled into my mind and heart, by precept and example, a few rules of action, that I have sedulously endeavored to follow, and which, I believe, almost more than any thing else have contributed to my domestic peace and happiness.

“One of them is, always to have a time for every ordinary duty; to have that time at such a day or hour of the day as is best adapted to its perfect fulfilment, and always, extraordinary cases excepted, to perform the duty at that time.

“For instance, my general sweeping day is on Friday, because to my mind it is the most suitable one of the week. And the best portion of the day to do it in is very early in the morning, for then I can throw open my doors and windows to the freshest, purest breezes we get at all; and I am not disturbed by the din of travel, nor annoyed by the dust; and then, by postponing my bath and breakfast toilet, merely throwing on a wrapper and cap to sweep in till the house is clean, why I am tidy for the rest of the day.

“Whereas, if I wait till after breakfast, I must spend time to take another bath, and make another change of dress. Now, I confess, it is hard sometimes to keep this rule. When my sleep has been broken by the restlessness of baby, or when something has kept me up later than usual the previous evening, I feel strongly inclined to lie in bed and let the sweeping hour go by. But the dreadful consequences always stare me in the face so ruefully, that sleepy and weary though I may be, I struggle out of bed, — for it is verily a struggle, — and tying down my hair, and buttoning on my wrapper, and drawing on my gloves, as my old aunt used to say, I ‘make business fly.’ And I assure you I always find myself enough happier to compensate me for my efforts, hard though they seemed.

“And then, for a second rule, I always have a place for every thing, and always put it in its place, and thus waste no time in looking after things. For example, perhaps you will laugh at it, but I always make it a rule to put my thimble in my sewing-box, when I leave my work, no matter how great the hurry; and you can have no idea, until you have tried it, how much time is thus saved. Why, I have one friend who says she lost so much time by looking up her thimble, that she has bought herself three, so that when one is mislaid, she needn’t wait to hunt it up. Yet this rule, which soon would become a habit, would have saved her time and money.

“The third and last rule necessary to specify is this: to be always busy, or perhaps I ought to say employed, for with housekeepers, generally, to be busy is to be in a worry over too much work.”

“But you don’t mean to say you never rest — that you never get tired?”

“By no means; I both rest and get tired, and many times each day. But rest does not always imply cessation from labor. Sometimes it does, I grant; and when, after any unusual fatigue, I find myself inclined to lie down and sleep, I always indulge the feeling. It is one of Nature’s promptings, which, to insure health and joy, should be heeded. And I do not feel that I ever lose any time that way, for the half or even hour’s sleep so invigorates me, that I can work with twice the ability, afterwards, that I could if I had striven on with weary limbs and fretted nerves. But many times a change of employment or occupation will rest one as much, nay, more, than idleness. You know yourself, after a busy forenoon on your feet, that it rests you to sit down in your rocker, and busy yourself with your sewing. And sometimes, when I have been handling heavy clothes, such as coats and pantaloons for my boys, till my arms and fingers ache, I rest them by taking up some light garment for my little girl. Or when my limbs ache severely, from some arduous duty, and yet I have no inclination to sleep, as is frequently the case after rocking a worrisome child to sleep, I lie down on my old-fashioned lounge, and rest myself in body by that course; while I soothe, and gladden, and improve my mind by reading, always being careful, though, to put by the book just as soon as I feel that I am enough recruited.”

“But suppose you get behindhand with your work from sickness or company, or some other cause; what do you do then?”

“I never allow myself to get behindhand from the latter cause — visitors. I never allow them to interrupt my domestic affairs. I never invite company except on those days of the week that have the lighter duties. And if casual visitors come along, they will not disturb or hinder you, if the rules I have given you are implicitly followed. You are always ready for chance company. And with these rules, even sickness, unless long continued, will not vary the domestic economy. But if I do get behindhand, I make it up as quick as possible. I rise an hour earlier every morning, and deny myself the luxury of visiting till the accumulated work is performed.”

“Excuse me, but I most ask you one more question. What do you mean by odd times? You said you should work your collar at odd moments.”

“I can answer you but by some examples. Yesterday afternoon I was going to cut and baste a dress for myself. But unexpectedly a friend from the country came in to take tea with me. Now, I did not want to litter the parlor with my pieces; so I went to my basket and took out a pretty little sack for Harry, and spent my time on sewing that. I always keep something in my basket suitable for such odd times; and when I have nothing really necessary, I take up my embroidery. And then, you know, we wives are frequently obliged to wait till a considerable time has elapsed for the appearance of our husbands at the table, and these odd moments, usually so irksome to women, are precious to me. I always mean to have the meals ready at the hour: if Mr. Merton is not here then, — and, being head clerk, scarcely a day passes but some meal must wait, — instead of watching the clock or thrumming on the windows, I read the newspapers and magazines. I assure you I never take any other time to read them, and yet I am never behindhand with them.

And when I have none of them on hand, I catch up some story that I want to read, and yet don’t want to give that time which I usually devote to solid reading. The volume I lent you ” — Mrs. Nelson blushed; she had had it a week, and read only the first chapter — “I read in four days in this way. And when I have no reading that I am anxious to do, I spend the moments in writing. Most of my letters are penned while waiting for the tea bell to ring. And hark, there it is now; a pleasant sound for your ears, too, I guess, after the homily I have just given you. Please,” and she rose gracefully, “let ‘great I’ usher ‘dear you’ to the dining room.”

“With pleasure; yet I wish the bell had not rung so early. I have not heard half enough.”

“Have you never observed, my dear friend, that many sermons lose half their effectiveness by undue length? The benediction at such a time is noted as a relief, not a blessing. Some other time I will preach the rest.”

“I pray Heaven I may have resolution enough to practice what you have already taught. Sure I am, if I so do, my life, what is left of it, will be like yours — a perpetual sermon; and my daily benediction like yours also — the blessings of my children and the praise of my husband.”

Sweet Home: Or, Friendship’s Golden Altar, Frances E. Percival, 1856

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Admirable though the lady’s principles of organization may be, Mrs Daffodil, whose chosen profession is bringing order out of chaos, cannot but feel that Mrs Merton is sister to those organised, yet odious persons who follow lofty doctrines  of folding socks, colour-coding tinned goods, and keeping nothing in the house that does not “bring joy.”  We respect, but do not necessarily emulate them. Besides, Mrs Daffodil can think of a great many things that do not bring joy, such as HM Revenue & Customs forms, cod-liver oil, and certain footmen, but she is not at liberty to chuck them out.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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