What Diantha Did

by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Chapter VI - The Cynosure

It's a singular thing that the commonest place
     Is the hardest to properly fill;
    That the labor imposed on a full half the race
     Is so seldom performed with good will—
     To say nothing of knowledge or skill!

     What we ask of all women, we stare at in one,
     And tribute of wonderment bring;
    If this task of the million is once fitly done
     We all hold our hands up and sing!
     It's really a singular thing!

Isabel Porne was a cautious woman, and made no acclaim over her new acquisition until its value was proven. Her husband also bided his time; and when congratulated on his improved appearance and air of contentment, merely vouchsafed that his wife had a new girl who could cook.

To himself he boasted that he had a new wife who could love—so cheerful and gay grew Mrs. Porne in the changed atmosphere of her home.

“It is remarkable, Edgar,” she said, dilating repeatedly on the peculiar quality of their good fortune. “It's not only good cooking, and good waiting, and a clean house—cleaner than I ever saw one before; and it's not only the quietness, and regularity and economy—why the bills have gone down more than a third!”

“Yes—even I noticed that,” he agreed.

“But what I enjoy the most is the atmosphere,” she continued. “When I have to do the work, the house is a perfect nightmare to me!” She leaned forward from her low stool, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands, and regarded him intently.

“Edgar! You know I love you. And I love my baby—I'm no unfeeling monster! But I can tell you frankly that if I'd had any idea of what housework was like I'd never have given up architecture to try it.”

“Lucky for me you hadn't!” said he fondly. “I know it's been hard for you, little girl. I never meant that you should give up architecture—that's a business a woman could carry on at home I thought, the designing part anyway. There's your 'drawing-room' and all your things—”

“Yes,” she said, with reminiscent bitterness, “there they are—and there they might have stayed, untouched—if Miss Bell hadn't come!”

“Makes you call her “Miss Bell” all the time, does she?”

Mrs. Porne laughed. “Yes. I hated it at first, but she asked if I could give her any real reason why the cook should be called by her first name more than the seamstress or governess. I tried to say that it was shorter, but she smiled and said that in this case it was longer!—Her name is Diantha—I've seen it on letters. And it is one syllable longer. Anyhow I've got used to Miss Bell now.”

“She gets letters often?”

“Yes—very often—from Topolaya where she came from. I'm afraid she's engaged.” Mrs. Porne sighed ruefully.

“I don't doubt it!” said Mr. Porne. “That would account for her six months' arrangement! Well, my dear—make hay while the sun shines!”

“I do!” she boasted. “Whole stacks! I've had a seamstress in, and got all my clothes in order and the baby's. We've had lot of dinner-parties and teas as you know—all my “social obligations” are cleared off! We've had your mother for a visit, and mine's coming now—and I wasn't afraid to have either of them! There's no fault to be found with my housekeeping now! And there are two things better than that—yes, three.”

“The best thing is to see you look so young and handsome and happy again,” said her husband, with a kiss.

“Yes—that's one. Another is that now I feel so easy and lighthearted I can love you and baby—as—as I do! Only when I'm tired and discouraged I can't put my hand on it somehow.”

He nodded sympathetically. “I know, dear,” he said. “I feel that way myself—sometimes. What's the other?”

“Why that's best of all!” she cried triumphantly. “I can Work again! When Baby's asleep I get hours at a time; and even when he's awake I've fixed a place where he can play—and I can draw and plan—just as I used to—better than I used to!”

“And that is even more to you than loving?” he asked in a quiet inquiring voice.

“It's more because it means both!” She leaned to him, glowing, “Don't you see? First I had the work and loved it. Then you came—and I loved you—better! Then Baby came and I loved him—best? I don't know—you and baby are all one somehow.”

There was a brief interim and then she drew back, blushing richly. “Now stop—I want to explain. When the housework got to be such a nightmare—and I looked forward to a whole lifetime of it and no improvement; then I just ached for my work—and couldn't do it! And then—why sometimes dear, I just wanted to run away! Actually! From both of you!—you see, I spent five years studying—I was a real architect—and it did hurt to see it go. And now—O now I've got It and You too, darling! And the Baby!—O I'm so happy!”

“Thanks to the Providential Miss Bell,” said he. “If she'll stay I'll pay her anything!”

The months went by.

Peace, order, comfort, cleanliness and economy reigned in the Porne household, and the lady of the house blossomed into richer beauty and happiness; her contentment marred only by a sense of flying time.

Miss Bell fulfilled her carefully specified engagement to the letter; rested her peaceful hour in the morning; walked and rode in the afternoon; familiarized herself with the length and breadth of the town; and visited continuously among the servants of the neighborhood, establishing a large and friendly acquaintance. If she wore rubber gloves about the rough work, she paid for them herself; and she washed and ironed her simple and pretty costumes herself—with the result that they stayed pretty for surprising periods.

She wrote letters long and loving, to Ross daily; to her mother twice a week; and by the help of her sister's authority succeeded in maintaining a fairly competent servant in her deserted place.

“Father was bound he wouldn't,” her sister wrote her; “but I stood right up to him, I can now I'm married!—and Gerald too—that he'd no right to take it out of mother even if he was mad with you. He made a fuss about your paying for the girl—but that was only showing off—he couldn't pay for her just now—that's certain. And she does very well—a good strong girl, and quite devoted to mother.” And then she scolded furiously about her sister's “working out.”

Diantha knew just how hard it was for her mother. She had faced all sides of the question before deciding.

“Your mother misses you badly, of course,” Ross wrote her. “I go in as often as I can and cheer her up a bit. It's not just the work—she misses you. By the way—so do I.” He expressed his views on her new employment.

Diantha used to cry over her letters quite often. But she would put them away, dry her eyes, and work on at the plans she was maturing, with grim courage. “It's hard on them now,” she would say to herself. “Its hard on me—some. But we'll all be better off because of it, and not only us—but everybody!”

Meanwhile the happy and unhappy households of the fair town buzzed in comment and grew green with envy.

In social circles and church circles and club circles, as also in domestic circles, it was noised abroad that Mrs. Edgar Porne had “solved the servant question.” News of this marvel of efficiency and propriety was discussed in every household, and not only so but in barber-shops and other downtown meeting places mentioned. Servants gathered it at dinner-tables; and Diantha, much amused, regathered it from her new friends among the servants.

“Does she keep on just the same?” asked little Mrs. Ree of Mrs. Porne in an awed whisper.

“Just the same if not better. I don't even order the meals now, unless I want something especial. She keeps a calendar of what we've had to eat, and what belongs to the time of year, prices and things. When I used to ask her to suggest (one does, you know: it is so hard to think up a variety!), she'd always be ready with an idea, or remind me that we had had so and so two days before, till I asked her if she'd like to order, and she said she'd be willing to try, and now I just sit down to the table without knowing what's going to be there.”

“But I should think that would interfere with your sense of freedom,” said Mrs. Ellen A Dankshire, “A woman should be mistress of her own household.”

“Why I am! I order whenever I specially want anything. But she really does it more—more scientifically. She has made a study of it. And the bills are very much lower.”

“Well, I think you are the luckiest woman alive!” sighed Mrs. Ree. “I wish I had her!”

Many a woman wished she had her, and some, calling when they knew Mrs. Porne was out, or descending into their own kitchens of an evening when the strange Miss Bell was visiting “the help,” made flattering propositions to her to come to them. She was perfectly polite and agreeable in manner, but refused all blandishments.

“What are you getting at your present place—if I may ask?” loftily inquired the great Mrs. Thaddler, ponderous and beaded.

“There is surely no objection to your asking, madam,” she replied politely. “Mrs. Porne will not mind telling you, I am sure.”

“Hm!” said the patronizing visitor, regarding her through her lorgnette. “Very good. Whatever it is I'll double it. When can you come?”

“My engagement with Mrs. Porne is for six months,” Diantha answered, “and I do not wish to close with anyone else until that time is up. Thank you for your offer just the same.”

“Peculiarly offensive young person!” said Mrs. Thaddler to her husband. “Looks to me like one of these literary imposters. Mrs. Porne will probably appear in the magazines before long.”

Mr. Thaddler instantly conceived a liking for the young person, “sight unseen.”

Diantha acquired quite a list of offers; places open to her as soon as she was free; at prices from her present seven dollars up to the proposed doubling.

“Fourteen dollars a week and found!—that's not so bad,” she meditated. “That would mean over $650 clear in a year! It's a wonder to me girls don't try it long enough to get a start at something else. With even two or three hundred ahead—and an outfit—it would be easier to make good in a store or any other way. Well—I have other fish to fry!”

So she pursued her way; and, with Mrs. Porne's permission—held a sort of girl's club in her spotless kitchen one evening a week during the last three months of her engagement. It was a “Study and Amusement Club.” She gave them short and interesting lessons in arithmetic, in simple dressmaking, in easy and thorough methods of housework. She gave them lists of books, referred them to articles in magazines, insidiously taught them to use the Public Library.

They played pleasant games in the second hour, and grew well acquainted. To the eye or ear of any casual visitor it was the simplest and most natural affair, calculated to “elevate labor” and to make home happy.

Diantha studied and observed. They brought her their poor confidences, painfully similar. Always poverty—or they would not be there. Always ignorance, or they would not stay there. Then either incompetence in the work, or inability to hold their little earnings—or both; and further the Tale of the Other Side—the exactions and restrictions of the untrained mistresses they served; cases of withheld wages; cases of endless requirements; cases of most arbitrary interference with their receiving friends and “followers,” or going out; and cases, common enough to be horrible, of insult they could only escape by leaving.

“It's no wages, of course—and no recommendation, when you leave like that—but what else can a girl do, if she's honest?”

So Diantha learned, made friends and laid broad foundations.

The excellence of her cocking was known to many, thanks to the weekly “entertainments.” No one refused. No one regretted acceptance. Never had Mrs. Porne enjoyed such a sense of social importance.

All the people she ever knew called on her afresh, and people she never knew called on her even more freshly. Not that she was directly responsible for it. She had not triumphed cruelly over her less happy friends; nor had she cried aloud on the street corners concerning her good fortune. It was not her fault, nor, in truth anyone's. But in a community where the “servant question” is even more vexed than in the country at large, where the local product is quite unequal to the demand, and where distance makes importation an expensive matter, the fact of one woman's having, as it appeared, settled this vexed question, was enough to give her prominence.

Mrs. Ellen A. Dankshire, President of the Orchardina Home and Culture Club, took up the matter seriously.

“Now Mrs. Porne,” said she, settling herself vigorously into a comfortable chair, “I just want to talk the matter over with you, with a view to the club. We do not know how long this will last—”

“Don't speak of it!” said Mrs. Porne.

“—and it behooves us to study the facts while we have them.”

“So much is involved!” said little Mrs. Ree, the Corresponding Secretary, lifting her pale earnest face with the perplexed fine lines in it. “We are all so truly convinced of the sacredness of the home duties!”

“Well, what do you want me to do?” asked their hostess.

“We must have that remarkable young woman address our club!” Mrs. Dankshire announced. “It is one case in a thousand, and must be studied!”

“So noble of her!” said Mrs. Ree. “You say she was really a school-teacher? Mrs. Thaddler has put it about that she is one of these dreadful writing persons—in disguise!”

“O no,” said Mrs. Porne. “She is perfectly straightforward about it, and had the best of recommendations. She was a teacher, but it didn't agree with her health, I believe.”

“Perhaps there is a story to it!” Mrs. Ree advanced; but Mrs. Dankshire disagreed with her flatly.

“The young woman has a theory, I believe, and she is working it out. I respect her for it. Now what we want to ask you, Mrs. Porne, is this: do you think it would make any trouble for you—in the household relations, you know—if we ask her to read a paper to the Club? Of course we do not wish to interfere, but it is a remarkable opportunity—very. You know the fine work Miss Lucy Salmon has done on this subject; and Miss Frances Kellor. You know how little data we have, and how great, how serious, a question it is daily becoming! Now here is a young woman of brains and culture who has apparently grappled with the question; her example and influence must not be lost! We must hear from her. The public must know of this.”

“Such an ennobling example!” murmured Mrs. Ree. “It might lead numbers of other school-teachers to see the higher side of the home duties!”

“Furthermore,” pursued Mrs. Dankshire, “this has occured to me. Would it not be well to have our ladies bring with them to the meeting the more intelligent of their servants; that they might hear and see the—the dignity of household labor—so ably set forth?

“Isn't it—wouldn't that be a—an almost dangerous experiment?” urged Mrs. Ree; her high narrow forehead fairly creped with little wrinkles: “She might—say something, you know, that they might—take advantage of!”

“Nonsense, my dear!” replied Mrs. Dankshire. She was very fond of Mrs. Ree, but had small respect for her judgment. “What could she say? Look at what she does! And how beautifully—how perfectly—she does it! I would wager now—may I try an experiment Mrs. Porne?” and she stood up, taking out her handkerchief.

“Certainly,” said Mrs. Porne, “with pleasure! You won't find any!”

Mrs. Dankshire climbed heavily upon a carefully selected chair and passed her large clean plain-hemmed handkerchief across the top of a picture.

“I knew it!” she proclaimed proudly from her eminence, and showed the cloth still white. “That,” she continued in ponderous descent, “that is Knowledge, Ability and Conscience!”

“I don't see how she gets the time!” breathed Mrs. Ree, shaking her head in awed amazement, and reflecting that she would not dare trust Mrs. Dankshire's handkerchief on her picture tops.

“We must have her address the Club,” the president repeated. “It will do worlds of good. Let me see—a paper on—we might say 'On the True Nature of Domestic Industry.' How does that strike you, Mrs. Ree?”

“Admirable!” said Mrs. Ree. “So strong! so succinct.”

“That certainly covers the subject,” said Mrs. Porne. “Why don't you ask her?”

“We will. We have come for that purpose. But we felt it right to ask you about it first,” said Mrs. Dankshire.

“Why I have no control over Miss Bell's movements, outside of working hours,” answered Mrs. Porne. “And I don't see that it would make any difference to our relations. She is a very self-poised young woman, but extremely easy to get along with. And I'm sure she could write a splendid paper. You'd better ask her, I think.”

“Would you call her in?” asked Mrs. Dankshire, “or shall we go out to the kitchen?”

“Come right out; I'd like you to see how beautifully she keeps everything.”

The kitchen was as clean as the parlor; and as prettily arranged. Miss Bell was making her preparation for lunch, and stopped to receive the visitors with a serenely civil air—as of a country store-keeper.

“I am very glad to meet you, Miss Bell, very glad indeed,” said Mrs. Dankshire, shaking hands with her warmly. “We have at heard so much of your beautiful work here, and we admire your attitude! Now would you be willing to give a paper—or a talk—to our club, the Home and Culture Club, some Wednesday, on The True Nature of Domestic Industry?”

Mrs. Ree took Miss Bell's hand with something of the air of a Boston maiden accosting a saint from Hindoostan. “If you only would!” she said. “I am sure it would shed light on this great subject!”

Miss Bell smiled at them both and looked at Mrs. Porne inquiringly.

“I should be delighted to have you do it,” said her employer. “I know it would be very useful.”

“Is there any date set?” asked Miss Bell.

“Any Wednesday after February,” said Mrs. Dankshire.

“Well—I will come on the first Wednesday in April. If anything should happen to prevent I will let you know in good season, and if you should wish to postpone or alter the program—should think better of the idea—just send me word. I shall not mind in the least.”

They went away quite jubilant, Miss Bell's acceptance was announced officially at the next club-meeting, and the Home and Culture Club felt that it was fulfilling its mission.


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