Humiliation--Domestic and Literary

THE maid is in the kitchen writing poetry. I have promised to copy it for her on the typewriter, thus completing my humiliation. Only one who has been a moderately successful bungler all her life can appreciate the depth of that humiliation, which began with the scrubbing of the gas stove and will soon have ended with the promised piece of stenography.

Many years ago, when I was entering upon my career as a successful bungler, I attempted the study of medicine. In the midst of a practical examination in physiology, in an effort to connect the apparatus used to register the blood-pressure curve of an unhappy fox-terrier, I turned the stream of salt water into the red and angry countenance of a nervous professor. At his display of exasperation, I turned it into his redder and more angry countenance a second time and thus failed completely in the examination. Always I have considered that the most humiliating period of my career as a bungler. Today I know that there was a certain element of humor, almost of self-respect in that transaction which is wholly lacking in this procedure. I am nothing, so little of nothing that it seems hardly worth speaking about. Nevertheless, while she is writing her poem I can practice my touch and perhaps relieve myself of a little of the pressure of shame which bears me down.

Of course, it was vanity in the first place that led me to have a maid. There was no sense in it at all. And of course it is vanity that is being punished. The reason, as agreed upon between my husband and myself, was the fact that he needed some stenographic work done and that I had literary aspirations, he feeling most the necessity of the former and I leaning to the importance of the latter. There may have been, however, beneath his polite expressions of policy, the secret hope that the house might be dusted every day and the dishes washed every evening. Certainly there was beneath my reluctant acquiescence — which followed a judicious encouragement of the idea — the hope that I might have somebody to wash the coffee percolator, and to clean out the sweeper, and to brush the crumbs off the table — my conception of a truly happy existence.

But this is the way it happened. The maid, an eighteen-year-old girl with fine brown skin and happy eyes, flew into my kitchen as though it were a case of typhoid and she a special nurse. In half an hour the gas stove, which I had considered at least respectably clean, was all in pieces and was being scrubbed and scoured piece by piece until it was in such a state of spotlessness as it had never known before. There my humiliation began; here I hope it will end. After the stove came the woodwork and the refrigerator, — I had always prided myself on that refrigerator, — and then the pantry and the butler’s pantry; then the floor and then the rest of the house. I offered no suggestions, my imagination refusing to go the length of my maid’s ambitions, and certainly never daring to venture beyond them. It was no comfort to me to have my husband rejoice openly in the speckless appearance of the house and assure me that he believed she was more than paying for herself. I knew that. I knew, too, that I had been a bungler at housekeeping, that I had not scrubbed the stove or washed the dishes regularly, or wiped the stairs every day, or cleaned the silver. The things that I had not done left no room at all in the memory for any stray duty I might have fulfilled.

Of course, as my hold on my career as a housekeeper grew feeble, I held more firmly to my hope in a career as an author. Clearly I was not a housekeeper, but I would have the opportunity to show what I could do in the literary line. My truest and deepest humiliation was waiting for me. This morning the maid saw me open my typewriter desk and spread myself before it.

‘Do you write things on that, missis?’ she asked; and when I assured her that I did, although as a matter of fact I am only a bungler, she announced that she wrote poetry herself.

Well, she does write poetry. She is writing some now on the kitchen table. Of course her work is done. It is always done. And nobody has a better right to poetry than she has. A girl who can hold to a philosophy of comfortable cheerfulness when she has had in her experience nothing more cheering than stepmothers, orphan homes, and other folks’ kitchens, and who can express that philosophy in any sort of rhythm, is a poet, and a bungler ought to be very glad to help her by copying her verses on the typewriter, and sending them away to a publisher who should be very glad to get them.

Surely, you must see, no matter how wisely you may sympathize with the maid, that I am in a ridiculous and humiliating position. I acquired her in order that I might proceed upon my literary career, only to have her show me up for what I am worth in the kitchen, and then put me in my proper place of stenographer to her own literary efforts.

Perhaps it is no more than a bungler might expect, however, and at any rate it is a comfort not to have to wipe down the stairs, even though I have no time left to be an author.

P.S. The humiliation is complete. When I copied the maid’s poem I ventured — it was no doubt the remnant of pride in me that led me — I ventured to suggest a change in one verse which seemed to me overgrown and wayward. Kindly, but firmly, I was put back into my place as stenographer.

‘Don’t you see you spoils the singin’ when you reads it that way?’ she inquired. And I went on pounding the keys.